Wormwood’s Sting

For our first look into the supernatural, we’ll investigate a story that involves a peculiar piece of art and a string of disappearances, tragic accidents, and murder.

The story of Wormwood’s Sting begins in 1907 with Spanish-born painter Alonso de Fitella arriving in Paris. De Fitella was an early explorer of the Cubist style of art. He spent his first few years churning out paintings which all failed to gain any attention. His works were overshadowed by those of the now well-known Picasso. Feeling desperate and suicidal, Alonso ceased painting. In 1910, he vanished.

His small number of friends couldn’t find him at his apartment or his usual haunts. Where Alonso had gone was revealed later. He had taken to the streets and spent three weeks sleeping in gutters, fraternizing with prostitutes, getting drunk on absinthe, and reportedly drawing paintings made of fecal matter and his own blood on alley walls.

Later rumors among painters who knew de Fitella said that the man had fallen in with a cult and had taken part in their ritual orgies. De Fitella never confirmed this. If they are true, it may explain what followed. After three weeks, Alonso suddenly reappeared much to his maid’s shock one morning. She came in to find him clean-shaven and sitting at the breakfast table.

While at first relieved, Alonso’s maid—a woman named Chantal—soon became worried by her employer’s new behavior. De Fitella, who now drank absinthe daily, would simply sit in his study in front of a blank canvas for most of the day and night. When this behavior went on for three days and nights, Chantal told Albert Laurence, Alonso’s only real confidant and financial patron. When confronted by Albert, de Fitella replied that he was, “Letting the work speak to him and take full shape in his mind before he put it on the canvas.” The very next night, while sitting alone in his workshop, Alonso de Fitella sat up and began to paint. By all accounts, de Fitella completed the painting in that one night. Around five in the morning, Alonso set down his brush and scrawled his characteristic sigil on the back of the canvas. Then he stepped back to survey his work.

It was a distinct break from his previous work done in a surreal, Neo-Romantic style. It was dark, mysterious, and powerful: de Fitella knew immediately this was his masterpiece. Christening it Wormwood’s Sting, de Fitella set about contacting art galleries and patrons. But after a private viewing was held, the audience greeted the painting with disgust or mocking laughs.

Wormwood’s Sting depicts a young boy in a school uniform standing alone in a forest. He holds a bright red balloon in his hand. In front of him is an absinthe plant and immediately behind him is a bush covered in mistletoe. In the background is a dark and foreboding-looking forest. The truly strange aspects of the painting begin with the boy. Each viewer sees his expression as something different. Some say he is upset, others that he is scowling. A few have said the boy looks down right malevolent and that his expression makes them unsettled.

A purported photograph of Wormwood’s Sting. The date and photographer is unknown

Stranger still, about one in seven viewers claim they see a tall, dark figure standing among the trees in the background. These same people see the boy as being deeply upset, even on the verge of tears. Thew shadowy figure deeply disturbs these viewers, who often feel cold regardless of the ambient temperature when looking at the painting.

The only interested party at the viewing was a man who ran a house of horrors attraction outside Paris. He offered de Fitella well below the asked price and promised to, “Hang that monstrosity where it belonged.”

Branded a lunatic by the entire European high art community, Alonso de Fitella set fire to his apartment a month after the private viewing. Both de Fitella and his maid Chantal died in the fire. Miraculously, a shelf had fallen on Wormwood’s Sting, shielding it from the flames. Though when it was found, the painting was damaged by soot. Because de Fitella had no immediate family, the painting was put in a warehouse for longterm storage.

As it happened, Herbert D. Wade, an American art collector on vacation in England, heard about the bizarre last work of de Fitella and purchased it for a small fee. Wormwood’s Sting was shipped to England, where it was brought onboard the RMS Titanic with Wade.

We all know the fate of the Titanic, so suffice to say Herbert Wade did not survive the accident. His recent purchase, however, did somehow. The painting was found onboard the RMS Carpathia, one of the rescue ships of Titanic passengers. Wormwood’s Sting was left to rot in a Brooklyn warehouse for more than twenty years. There, the painting was left wrapped in sheets of brown paper in a forgotten corner.

In 1935, the Umberhill Art Gallery in Boston uncovered receipts of Herbert Wade’s purchase of a then unknown work of art titled Wormwood’s Sting by an unheard of painter. Umberhill began an investigation to find this lost painting. So it was not until 1937 that the painting was found in the New York warehouse. When the sheets of brown paper were cut and pulled away, the Umberhill collectors were divided in reaction. Some were revolted and felt they had wasted their time while the rest were intrigued by this bizarre painting that at once drew them closer and yet made them shiver. It was decided to take the painting and hang it as the centerpiece of a new exhibit celebrating macabre themes that Halloween. Umberhill did not recognize the sigil on the back of the painting and so they did not know the painting’s creator, further adding to the intrigue.

Wormwood’s Sting generated instant interest. Journalists and art critics crowded around it at its first-ever public unveiling. However, like with the Umberhill collectors, the critics were deeply divided in their reactions. Some were so disturbed they had to leave Umberhill immediately, citing nausea and sudden paranoia as the causes for their departure. Others called the painting “trash” and wondered why the gallery ruined their otherwise tastefully macabre exhibit with it. And yet others found the painting off-putting, but not to the point where they had to leave. Instead these people reported that they found the boy’s expression menacing and there was something else—something ethereal—that they found disturbing, yet they could not name exactly what it was.

It was here at Umberhill that three of the painting’s strangest features were first documented. The first was the shadowy figure I mentioned earlier that a small number of people see lurking in the background. Some critics mentioned the strange figure to their colleagues, but these people said they saw only trees and nothing that looked remotely like a human shape. This of course puzzled the crowd. The second was Wormwood’s Sting aversion to being captured on camera. All photographs were found out afterwards to be blurred beyond recognition. Often times the streaks made odd patterns. Some even claimed to have seen ghost images of decaying faces or elongated human figures in the photos. To date, not a single clear photograph or video recording of Wormwood’s Sting exists.

The third trait has to do with the boy. This is one of the painting’s most elusive features and may simply be do to this journalist’s bad memory. When the man came back from using the bathroom he yelped with fright. When asked what was wrong, he claimed that the boy’s expression had changed to one of hate and that he was now staring right at the journalist, who was standing in a different place from before.

After its mixed reception, Wormwood’s Sting was removed from public display to a small private room. In the years following 1937, the painting acquired an infamous reputation as the “bewitched painting of Boston” and drew visitors from all over the American Northeast.

The trouble began almost immediately. Phil Mack, the nightwatchman at Umberhill, gave numerous reports of hearing a boy crying at night when there was no one else there. In addition, he sometimes heard what he described as, “Bone-chilling, malevolent laughter”. Phil, a retired policeman and no coward, grew more and more scared of the building and thought of quitting. Umberhill management did not take his complaints seriously and soon Phil stopped reporting the sounds, though he claimed in his journals that he still heard them. Umberhill told Phil that the crying were stray cats and the other noise might be construction noise or engines backfiring.

The curators at Umberhill started telling similar stories. They were scared to be in the room alone with the painting; the janitor hated cleaning the room and he became very irritable when he did so; one of the curators who had been perfectly healthy up to 1937, was checked into a mental asylum with schizophrenia in 1944. Things remained the same until 1947. One curator, Mary White, complained to her coworkers of troubled sleep and strange dreams. These dreams were apparently so bad she started seeing a therapist. In the dreams, she said she was lost in a dark wood and being chased by an evil presence. These dreams changed over time, to where she was routinely assaulted by a shadowy figure—the same figure some people saw lurking in the background of Wormwood’s Sting.

White’s condition worsened when she started seeing a small boy holding a balloon in different rooms of her house while she was awake. At night, the boy would speak to her, telling her things she never repeated to anyone. Mary stopped being able to sleep at all. She became more and more paranoid that an evil, shadowy figure was stalking her in the waking world. When no therapy or medication helped, Mary took matters into her own hands. She came to Umberhill one morning intent on destroying the painting. Pulling a knife, Mary rushed at it. But according to witnesses, Mary was unable to land a single strike, even though she slashed at Wormwood’s Sting again and again. It was as if an invisible force was preventing her from doing so. Sobbing uncontrollably and nearly mad with lack of sleep, Mary White slit her own throat then and there. She died while being rushed to the nearest hospital.

Mary White’s death was a turning point for both Umberhill and Phil Mack. The art gallery’s sinister reputation hurt its number of visitors over the following years. Phil Mack had been living with the haunting sounds for the past several years; apparently having taken his managers’ advice and summed them up to rational sources. He had, however, started drinking heavily to compensate. But after White’s death, Phil’s personality changed rapidly. He wrote in his journal that he began seeing blood seep out of the painting some nights. Other times, he would see the specter of Mary White, her throat slashed and bloody, wandering the halls of Umberhill. Phil grew very protective of the painting. He would stand guard over it when he felt the spirit of Mary White was around, since he thought she would try to destroy it. Phil kept these developments to himself. Outwardly, he grew more and more distant from his coworkers and his own family. None of Phil’s coworkers noticed anything: Phil had always been a quiet man. However, he treated his family worse and worse. Phil had married a woman named Nancy, who was some twenty years his junior. By 1950, Phil, who was over fifty, had three children between the ages of six and eleven.

Phil kept a closer and closer watch on his children. He only let them leave the house for school or for supervised walks. He never gave a real explanation for this, though it was revealed later from his journals to have been from a deep fear of a shadowy figure that he feared was stalking his children. In mid April, 1951, the local school noticed none of the Mack children had attended school for a whole week. An officer was dispatched to the Mack residence but was shouted at by Phil, who refused to let the officer enter. The next week, two more officers were sent, this time with a warrant to search the home. When they arrived they made a grisly discovery that shocked the entire city of Boston.

Inside the home were all five members of the Mack family, dead. All were seated. The three children on the sofa and Phil and Nancy in chairs. All the children and Phil had been shot. Nancy, who was tied to her chair, had had her throat cut. On the wall facing the family was a mysterious glyph, etched into the drywall with a bloody knife point.

An artist’s rendering of Alonso de Fitella’s personal insignia

After a lengthy investigation, this is what police assumed happened. Phil had sat each of his children down and shot them all in the head. Nancy either came home to find her children dead or else was bound and made to watch. Phil had then beaten her and then cut her throat with such ferocity it nearly removed her head. He then used the knife to carve the glyph into the wall, take a seat, and shoot himself. Red balloons had been tied to the wrists of his two sons.

Phil’s journals lead police to scrutinize Wormwood’s Sting. On the back they found de Fitella’s personal sigil which was the same they’d found on Mack’s wall. Umberhill was shut down and the painting taken as evidence. The “Mack Massacre” as it was called, shocked Boston. The Macks were a respectable, middle-class family. Phil Mack had been a trusted police officer and by all accounts, a kind husband and father.

Umberhill remained closed and the building demolished by popular request a year later. Umberhill management were arrested for withholding evidence for both the Mary White suicide and the Mack deaths. No one was officially charged however and none of them went to prison. After a few years, the city forgot about Umberhill and Phil Mack. Wormwood’s Sting was forgotten. The case was closed in 1957 after being ruled a murder-suicide caused by over-drinking and Phil’s traumatic memories as a young soldier in World War 1.

No one knew where Womrwood’s Sting had gone. Of course, only a handful of people remembered the painting and even fewer cared about its whereabouts. This changed in 2005 with the death of 98-year-old Gerda Ross. Ross died in her Natick, Massachusetts home in her sleep on the night of August 9th. In her home was found Wormwood’s Sting.


A picture of the Ross home taken around 2005

It hung in the old home’s main parlor and was wreathed in dried mistletoe and nettle. Ross had built a kind of altar in front of the painting. On the table were seemingly random objects including several bones—which turned out to be animal—an empty bottle of absinthe, an old shoe from a school uniform, the coat Mary White had worn when she died, and Phil Mack’s key ring from his days as the Umberhill security guard. How Gerda Ross got these last two, and the painting itself, remains a mystery.

Gerda Ross herself was something of a mystery. Living by herself except for a single butler, Ross was very wealthy and lived in her family’s 19th-century manor house. Despite her wealth, Ross had allowed the house and its grounds to fall into shambles. Ross’s bedroom, dining room, and parlor were kept in perfect condition while other rooms were allowed to rot. Neighbors kept away from the house and local children told each other stories of the child-eating witch in the old house. Though none of these rumors have proved true, it is clear Gerda Ross was an unusual woman. The only odd event to be reported in the Ross house is the disappearance of Gerda’s butler in 2002.

With this third finding of Wormwood’s Sting, much of the painting’s past—including its creation in 1910 by Alonso de Fitella—came to light. Attracted no doubt by the painting’s colorful story, a private collector in New York City bought the painting at an auction in 2007. The painting has been in New York ever since.

I haven’t managed to find anything about this New York collector. They value their privacy. So I have no updates about Wormwood’s Sting. Have the same strange occurrences followed it to New York? Who’s to say. But it is obvious that this final work of a tormented, forgotten artist has long outlived its creator and has garnered its own, sordid reputation. Whether all these events are connected to the painting is of course not definitively proven. But there are certainly enough stories to make one think that something—perhaps supernatural—is going on with that disturbing picture of a young boy and his shadowy stalker.

The search so far

Well it’s been a very long and sleepless couple week. It took a whole lotta work, but I think I’m close. Yet I don’t like what I’ve discovered.

I spent the day after my meeting with the Lanky Man chewing over everything we’d discussed. Inside, I was a wreck. Forces of equal strength writhed around as they fought. I had to fish any coherent thought out of the turmoil. I was curious, dead curious, to learn more about the Lanky Man and his “organization”. Doing what he wanted seemed a good way to get close to him. I knew the man was a ghost: only a little digging told me that. I’d have an easier time flying to the moon than figuring out who my mysterious sponsor was.

At the same time, a voice inside me screamed in warning. None of this was right. I knew that of course. None of this was normal. If the Lanky Man was a decent guy, he would’ve told me more. Criminals and the like have things to hide, and he was hiding a lot.

Eventually I’d sat around long enough and simply decided to do something—anything. So I did what the Lanky Man had told me to do.

I went to Ed Slezawski.

Ed was busy tracing neat strokes with his pen on an article draft when I walked in. He looked up; his face fell.

“Ah, Madsen, it’s you. What do you want?”

I sat down opposite from him without being invited.

“I want the Wicker Man story.”

Ed blinked once, twice, then said, “You can’t have it. I’ve already given it to Katie.”

“Well, take it away from her. She can’t be too far in writing it, the theft is too recent.”

Ed set the stack of papers he had been editing on the table. I read the title upside down.

“Ah,” I said, not sure what else I could say. I pushed my brain into full-gear, “Well … Send it back to her and give the story to me.”

Ed leaned back in his chair and looked at me for a long time through his glasses, “No, I’m not going to do that,” he held up a hand to cut of what I was about to say. “She has the story, the draft has been written, and it’s good. There is no plausible reason I’d throw her story out and give it to you instead. Now if that’s what you barged in to say, please leave.”

“I don’t think I will,” I said, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back into the chair.

“Sit there then,” Ed said and went back to his editing.

Several minutes passed. I never took my eyes from Ed. I reached out and began rearranging Ed’s pens. When he told me to stop, I switched to tapping my fingers loudly on the arms of the chair.

Finally Ed slapped the papers on the desk and stared at me with his cold gaze.

I thought of something and blurted it out, “How about I write an article and you see which one you like better. The winner gets published.”

Ed inclined his head so he could look at me over the rims of his glasses, “You really must love missing art pieces. You want the story this badly?”

I nodded my head.

“Even though I’m almost certainly going to publish Katie’s, you still want to write your own article?” He picked up and shook the stack of papers.

I nodded again.

Ed let out a long sigh, “Alright, Ray, go on and do it. It’s a waste of time though: I’ll pick Katie’s. But please, by all means waste your time. See if I care.”

That was all fine by me. I didn’t need my article to get published, I just needed a cover to talk with the police and get inside the museum. After making some calls, I went next to the Gordon and Mariam Chesterfield Museum. The detective working the case met me outside.

He was smoking a cigarette and when he spoke, he had that characteristically coarse South Boston accent.

“You the newspapah guy that cawlled?” He asked.

“I am,” I showed him my journalists’s ID. “Raymond Madsen, Boston Crier. I—”

“Yeah, yeah, Detective Flaherty. Come inside, pal. I’ll show you the place.”

Detective Flaherty flung his cigarette into the bushes and led me inside.Even though the museum was closed to the public, inside it was a-buzz with activity. The museum was installing all new, high-tech security systems after the theft. Flaherty led me up to the third floor. It was quieter up there. We ducked under the yellow tape and came to the spot.

Flaherty pointed unnecessarily at the dark rectangle of wallpaper where the painting clearly had hung, “That’s whe’ it used to be, you know.”

“Thanks,” I said as I snapped some pictures. The Wicker Man‘s plaque was still there.

Detective Flaherty then ran me through everything he knew, which wasn’t much. That shocked me a little. I mean, yeah I know, it’s a caper and all. still, this quickly appeared to be no ordinary theft.

“You haven’t found any fingerprints?” I asked in disbelief.

“None, pal. No prints, no hehs, no bits o’ clothing. Nu’ittn. None of the windows we’ opened, eithe’. All the doors we’ locked too.”

I paused in my note-taking, “You mean the building was locked tight the night of the robbery?”

“Dat’s what I said, pal. No one knows who done it o’ how. You know what I says? Houdini done it,” Flaherty chuckled, then continued. “The’ ain’t much moah we can do. We spent days lookin’ ove’ the place, but found nu’ittn.”

“But there were cameras in here. Surely they saw something?”

Flaherty shook his head, “Naw, cameras crapped out for five seconds,” Flaherty held up as many fingers, “One minute painting the’, then some static, and boom! it’s gawn. Security gawds saw nu’ittn either.”

After exhausting what little information Flaherty knew, I thanked him and asked him to keep me apprised of the investigation. He promised he would and led me back outside.

I have to say, this isn’t what I expected. Either the Wicker Man was stolen by legendary art thieves—in which case, Boston’s finest may be a little outclassed—or there is something very strange going on. And all over a silly painting—I mean, yeah, it’s alright. I’ve seen it before. But it’s not exactly the Mona Lisa we’re talking about.

I spent the last week investigating. But as Flaherty said, there ain’t much. I talked with the museum management, the watchmen the night of the theft, and I spoke with half a dozen experts on the painting and on art thievery. I called Flaherty two times asking for updates. He had none, and was a little more terse each time.

I was going nowhere fast and I knew it. But just last night, after pouring over all my notes and photos for the hundredth time and pouring myself several drinks, I dozed off. It must have only been for a few minutes, but that’s all it took.

I had a dream—or it might have been a flashback. I saw that familiar, dusty corridor. It felt real though, too real to be a dream this time. I was carrying something. Something fragile, delicate. I walked to the end of the corridor and opened the door. That’s when my vision got blurry, but hovering before my eyes was the Wicker Man painting, as I had seen it five years ago.

When I woke up I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t want to do it.

The painting was at the address 341 Newcastle Street. The only problem was that a fear—a nameless, sourceless yet biting fear—told me not to go there.

But what could I do? I had to go and look.