Wormwood’s Sting

Join with me as we look beyond the veil of the ordinary at a piece of art that has been connected to a string of disappearances, tragic accidents, and murder.

In the summer of 2007, 98-year-old Gerda Ross was found dead in her Massachusetts home. Fully-clothed and lying on top of her bed sheets, she apparently died in her sleep. Of the many items found in her house by estate auditors, by far the strangest was a painting which hung in Ross’s parlor on the ground floor. The work was wreathed in dead nettle and mistletoe. No one could determine the origin or value of thing until an art historian was called in from Boston.

After lengthy investigations, the art historian discovered the painting was an original: the last—and only—work by forgotten painter Alonso de Fitella. The painting’s name was Wormwood’s Sting. And it had quite the story to tell.

The story 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. No trace of these works survive today. His works were overshadowed by those of the now well-known Picasso. Feeling desperate and suicidal, Alonso ceased painting. In 1910, he vanished altogether.

His small number of friends couldn’t find him at his apartment or his usual haunts. Where Alonso had gone, none could guess. As days passed with no sign of Alonso, many feared the worst. Then, three weeks after his disappearance, Alonso was found safe and sound in his apartment.

Alonso lived in a cramped loft apartment above a gentleman’s club. The owner of the club, Madam Marceaux, was kind enough to give the struggling painter a generous discount on the rent. When one of the girls went up one morning to check in on the room, she was shocked to find the Spaniard clean-shaven and sound asleep in his bed.

When awoken, Alonso was his usual self, though now markedly more cheerful and driven. The only real change was his addiction to the bright green muse: absinthe.

Where Alonso had been those three weeks, he never told anyone. Later rumors had it that Alonso had wandered the through the alleys of Paris, hoping to die. He spent his nights sleeping in the gutter and his days scrounging for scraps of food. There, among the homeless and filth, Alonso fell in with an exclusive club of eccentric artists and high-ranking individuals. The name of this club is not known, with some thinking it was called the Order of the Green Lady or the Wormwood Club. Consumption of absinthe was a prominent feature of this society. Some people believe this secret society was more than just a clique of artists and art patrons, but something more sinister. These same people compare the Wormwood Club to the Hellfire Clubs of England or something like the cult depicted in the film Eyes Wide Shut. They propose the club’s members practiced sexual rituals while intoxicated as a means to channel inspiration from a divine realm. None of this can be confirmed of course, but it becomes a compelling argument once you see what happens later.

Madam Marceaux was at first relieved to have Alonso back safe. Not only would he begin paying rent again, but she had grown somewhat fond of the flamboyant, reclusive painter over the years. However, soon she grew very concerned as Alonso started to exhibit strange, new behavior. De Fitella drank absinthe daily—which stretched his already strained finances—and he took to sitting in his studio in front of a blank canvas all day, every day. He rarely ever left his apartment and when he did, it was usually in the dead of night. When this behavior went on for about a week or more, Marceaux reported all this to 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 me and take full shape in my mind before I put it on the canvas.” The very next night, while sitting alone in his studio, Alonso de Fitella sat up and began to paint. By all accounts, de Fitella completed the painting in that one night. Around six 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.

The painting before him was unlike anything he had ever done. Unlike his earlier attempts at Cubism or the erotic figure paintings he had done for Marceaux, this one was 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.

Wormwood’s Sting is a 2’ 3/4” by 3’ 7/9” oil-on-canvas painting. It depicts a young boy in a school uniform standing alone in a forest. He holds a bright red balloon in his hand. Beside and partially obscuring the boy is a wormwood bush. In the background is a dark and foreboding forest. Mistletoe hangs from some of the trees. It is, even to a casual observer, a strange painting. It is not beautiful and its purpose for existing is unclear.

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

At first no gallery would show Wormwood’s Sting. When curators came to preview the work, they had very visceral negative reactions to it. However, de Fitella suddenly landed a spot in Galerie d’Voichonne, a very prominent Parisian gallery, no doubt thanks to his connections in the Wormwood Club. The unveiling drew a considerable amount of attention. Art critics flocked from across Europe and America. However, the reviews quickly showed themselves to be polarized. Despite the interest Wormwood’s Sting generated, hardly any of it was good.

It is from these first impressions, cobbled together from different newspaper and magazine reviews, that the painting’s odd nature emerges. Let’s start with the most obvious—the feature that most viewers notice first—the boy. The figure of the mysterious boy in his school uniform drew most of the interest of the critics. The strange thing about him is that nearly every observer seems to read his expression differently. One account says the boy had a “distraught expression, like one on the verge of tears.” Another art magazine reported that the boy “Had a sly, almost evil look about him. It was as if he had a secret—perhaps a deadly secret—that he was keeping from you.” Yet to some the boy looked frightened, as if he had just seen some unknown terror. To others still the boy was furious, with a face of such unsettling, inhuman fury that many described it as “demonic”.

Due to this fluidity of expression, the painting was compared—unfavorably—to the Mona Lisa. Though a handful of critics did praise Alonso’s apparent skill in capturing the human face. However, most people found the painting ugly beyond words.

The only interested party at the viewing was a man who ran a house of horrors 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. De Fitella, Madam Marceaux, and a number of the working girls were found dead among the wreckage. Miraculously, a shelf had fallen on Wormwood’s Sting, shielding it from the flames. Because de Fitella had no immediate family, the painting was put in a warehouse for longterm storage.

A year and a half later in 1912, Wormwood’s Sting was packaged up and removed from its dark and dusty home. Herbert D. Wade, an American art collector on vacation in England, had 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 it is no surprise Herbert Wade did not survive the accident. His recent purchase however did. When lifeboats containing the survivors of the Titanic were taken aboard the ocean liner Carpathia, one Joshua McKinnon was found in one of the boats. He clung to Wormwood’s Sting, which was in its protective leather sleeve. When asked by the Carpathia crew why he was holding the painting, Joshua looked down at his arms, surprised. He replied he didn’t know: the thing had seemed important, so he’d snatched it up as he fled the ship. The painting was tucked away in the cargo hold. It eventually ended up in a Brooklyn warehouse, where it was left to rot in a distant corner.

Twenty-three years after the Titanic disaster, the Umberhill Art Gallery in Boston uncovered a receipt of Herbert Wade’s purchase in Paris. By that time, in 1935, Alonso de Fitella was all but forgotten, even in the art world. All interest in him or his “masterpiece” had burned with him in the flames. Umberhill began an investigation to find this lost painting. 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 had to step back. The painting was unlike anything they had seen. Some were revolted and felt they had wasted their time while a few were intrigued. They were at once drawn closer and yet repulsed by the look on the little boy’s face. The unknown sigil on the back of the painting further intrigued the group. It was decided to take the painting and hang it as the centerpiece of a new exhibit celebrating macabre themes that Halloween.

Wormwood’s Sting generated instant attention. Journalists and art critics crowded around it at its first-ever public unveiling. However, like the event in Paris a quarter of a century before, the critics were deeply divided in their reactions. Some were so disturbed they had to leave Umberhill immediately, citing nausea and sudden “pressing” matters. Others called the painting “trash” and wondered why the gallery ruined their otherwise tasteful exhibit with it. And yet others found they could hardly take their eyes off it. The painting, and the look on the boy’s face, was so morbidly fascinating. They said there was something unseen—something ethereal—about the painting that transcended mere oil paint on canvas.

It was here at Umberhill that two more strange features of the painting came to light. The first was the sudden appearance of a tall, shadowy figure in the background of the painting. Only about one in seven people can see the eerie figure however. It’s written how some critics mentioned the strange figure to their colleagues, who themselves saw only trees and nothing that looked remotely like a human shape. I can’t figure out why this little-known addition was not mentioned in any of the 1910 reviews. Perhaps the Parisian viewership was too low. Or something about the painting had changed in the decades since.

To those unlucky few who have seen the shadowy figure, the painting has a strong impact on them. They find the mere sight of the painting deeply distressing, to the point of nausea in some case. These people also report feeling extremely cold when near the painting. Others claim to have heard voices or echoing laughter.

The second strange behavior was Wormwood’s Sting’s aversion to being captured on camera. All photographs were found out afterwards to be blurred beyond recognition. 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.

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 curious visitors from all over the American Northeast.

The troubles 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 war veteran, 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.

Other members of the staff made similar complaints. The janitor became so afraid of the painting, he refused to go into the room where it was kept after dark. 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 and taking prescription drugs. 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 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. Whether due to Mary’s deteriorated mental state or an invisible force, the painting was spared any damage. Sobbing uncontrollably, Mary White turned the knife on herself, the blade slashing open her throat. She died while being rushed to Boston General. This was in 1940.

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 seemed to have noticed anything: Phil had always been a quiet man. However, he treated his family worse and worse.

Phil kept a close, almost tyrannical watch over his three children—two boys and one girl. 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 thought was stalking his children. In mid April, 1951, the local school noticed none of the Mack children had attended school for a whole week. A truancy officer was dispatched to the Mack residence. But when he arrived, an enraged Phil blocked the door to his home and refused to let the man in. Just a few days later, 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, his wife, in chairs. All the children and Phil had been shot. Nancy, who was tied to her chair, had had her throat slashed. 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, took a seat, and then shot himself. Red balloons had been tied to the wrists of his two sons.

Phil’s journals led 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 for months afterwards.

Umberhill remained closed and the building demolished 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.

This brings us back to the Ross home fifty years later. The above story has been pieced together by the determined investigation of a small handful of people. Gerda Ross’s diaries helped, though the woman was clearly not all there. Whether by her years of seclusion or proximity to the cursed painting, Gerda’s diary entries betray possible schizophrenia. Adjacent entries are as far as twenty years apart. One begins with “I woke up again feeling like I was lying on a knife’s edge”. Other times she describes the parlor as “being once more engulfed in impenetrable darkness when I went in there.” In between perplexing sentences like these are mundane retellings of what she had for breakfast or complaints about growing aches and pains.

Gerda’s life itself is something of a mystery. Hardly anything is known about her early years, only that her family was wealthy, possibly with Old World money. The house sits by itself in the town of Natick on a large plot of land. The neighbors always avoided the place. By the time of Gerda’s death, however, the grounds and most of the house had fallen into disrepair. The lawn was thick with weeds and grass several feet high. Most of the rooms inside the house were dusty, cobweb-filled dumps where old clothes and furniture were allowed to rot and pests run free. Only Gerda’s bedroom and the downstairs parlor were kept in any kind of livable condition.

Wormwood’s Sting hung in the 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 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 working at Umberhill. How Gerda Ross got these last two, and the painting itself, remains a total mystery.

Since 2002, it appears Gerda Ross had lived completely on her own. In that year, her butler of several decades, Roger Trout, went missing. Gerda makes several mentions of this in her diary, simply asking “I wonder where Roger has gotten off too?” Gerda lost her son and only child, Gerald, when he too went missing back in the 1930s or 40s. Gerald was 12 at the time of his disappearance. It seems Gerda believed the painting showed her son, which would explain her almost religious treatment of it.

How this mad, old woman clothed and fed herself is as much an enigma as is most of her life.

With this third finding of Wormwood’s Sting, much of the painting’s past starting with its creation in 1910 by Alonso de Fitella, came to public attention. Attracted no doubt by the painting’s colorful story, a private collector in New York City bought the painting at an auction of Ross’s estate in 2009. 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 end… for now.

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