Fact-Checking Vera’s Reference to a Case of Canine-Related Murder

I haven’t mentioned it, but this case continually reminds me of one I read about last year. In California, a woman was taken to jail on suspicion of having murdered a neighboring rancher. The sheriff believed that she let loose her dogs — almost twenty of them, I recall — upon the victim. Of course, she claimed the rancher had attacked her and the devoted dogs came to her rescue.

Vera Van Slyke says this in The Hound of the Seven Mounds. She goes on to explain that the suspect’s story might have been convincing but for the coroner discovering a head wound on the deceased, one inflicted prior to the canine attack. The woman “loved those dogs more than anything, and she feared they would be exterminated as man-killers,” Vera continues. The sheriff assumed that threatening to do exactly that — to execute her beloved dogs — might prompt the suspect to crack and confess. Vera ends the anecdote with these words: “But his plan failed. She remained devoid of emotion.” The great ghost hunter mentions this case for two reasons: it bares similarities to the one she’s investigating, and it provides a chilling example of a woman being capable of much more than some men believe.

As often happens when I edit my great-grandaunt’s chronicles about her ghostly adventures with Vera, I wondered how historically true this reference is. I did some Internet digging. Well, I found that it is yet another instance of real history woven into my ancestor’s narrative. While not all of the pieces of this event fit nicely together, here’s what I found in the newspapers:

On August 8, 1922, the front page of the Santa Cruz Evening News carried this headline:Headline

The body belonged to Anton Biese, a California rancher, and it is described as “torn from head to foot,” the result of a canine attack. But the mauling had occurred outside, and the body was found inside Biese’s house. This was explained by Louis Belardi, a neighbor who had reported finding the body. He said he and his wife had moved the body inside in an attempt to save Biese. But the Belardis owned eighteen or twenty dogs (the newspapers disagree on the exact number), and one of them was found to have blood on its fur. The Belardis were arrested as suspects.

The very next day, Mabel Belardi made a confession. She said that Biese had initiated the attack, and the pack retaliated. Meanwhile, the Red Bluff Daily News reported that Biese had previously made it known that he had been supplying the Belardis with food. His threat to stop doing so suggested his gruesome death might have resulted from the couple’s revenge. Indeed, evidence was then found suggesting that Biese had been struck first — the dog attack happening afterward (to disguise the wound?) — and a blood trail revealed the body had been dragged from the Belardi property to Biese’s house. One report even says that, after Coroner John T. Skelton found wounds much deeper than dog teeth would inflict, and the weapon used on Biese might have been something like a nail-studded club or a pitchfork.

On the 10th, the dogs were executed. I wasn’t able to find out what then happened to either of the Belardis, but Mabel became the focus of suspicion.

Now, so far, I’ve been looking at California newspapers. Vera, I knew, was in New York in 1922, so I checked to see if the news traveled that far east. Given the grisly and bizarre nature of the crime, it’s not surprising that I found two New York newspapers carrying the story. The first appeared in the August 11, 1922, issue of the New York Herald, and this seems to be where Vera got her information. Here are the last few paragraphs, the quotation on top coming from Mabel Belardi:

The Tale

The second article I found in a New York paper wasn’t published until about a month-and-a-half after the story had broken. It appears in the September 28, 1922, issue of the Evening World, and it includes photos of Mabel Belardi with her dogs (along with the houses of Biece and the Belardis). Overall, it feels a bit dramatized, but it helps put some of the pieces together.

Probably the strangest thing about this second article, though, is it compares the mauling/murder in California to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. As fate would have it, the author was lecturing on Spiritualism in Kansas City in May of 1923, right when Vera was not terribly far away in an area called the Seven Mounds, Oklahoma. The two even met on a train. It’s the kind of crazy coincidence that’s better suited to reality than fiction, and it leaves me wondering how much of my great-grandaunt’s chronicle is true. That’s something I often find myself wondering.

You can find out why Vera saw parallels between the Belardi case and sightings of a not-entirely-human creature shepherding a pack of fierce dogs across Oklahoman pasture lands in The Hound of the Seven Mounds: A Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery.

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— Tim

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