Back to Top

Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Kids Keep Santa From Getting a Ticket

 

It was reported on December 12, 1965, that Tip Almond, a 250-pound (113 kg) Santa was pulled over in Athens, Georgia by Officer Bob Weatherford to question him about a missing license plate on his car. I’m guessing that his sleigh was in the repair shop.

Santa explained to the officer that his plate had either been lost or stolen and that he had already reported it to authorities.

That’s when a group of children in a passing car insisted that their father pull over to the side of the road to assist Santa. The kids began screaming and arguing with the officer. He realized it was a losing battle. He turned to Santa and said, “Get out of here before you get me in trouble.”

Sometimes Santa Claus needs to find alternative modes of transportation. 1921 image from the Library of Congress.

Santa Stuck in Chimney

 

Santa is a very busy guy around Christmas time, but on December 18, 1955, he decided to pay a visit to a children’s holiday party being held by the Naubuc Fire Department at the Goodwill Grange Hall in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

To make his grand entrance, a large chimney was constructed on the stage. Apparently, Santa had put on a few too many pounds over the past year and he got stuck as he made his way down the chimney. All the audience could see was a chimney with Santa’s boots dangling down.

Someone blurted out, “Call the fire department!” which couldn’t have been too hard since they were sponsoring the party. Two firemen came to Santa’s rescue and the party continued.

While Santa was handing out gifts to the approximately one-hundred children in attendance, a real alarm came in for the fire department. The firemen rushed off to put out a grass fire located on Buttonball Lane.

On December 18, 1955, Santa got stuck in a chimney. Library of Congress image.

Gift of 4-Tons of Fertilizer

 

Everyone loves getting gifts, particularly very large ones. But sometimes bigger isn’t better. For example, consider the case of Norval H. Milliken, who lived on McAnulty Road in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For Christmas of 1945, someone gave him four tons (3628 kg) of fertilizer. A pink ribbon completed this unusual gift.

For a greeting card, “Merry Christmas and a Prosperous Summer” were crudely painted on some wood and wrapped in tissue paper. Someone was having a good laugh with this gift.

Milliken did do some gardening, but nothing on the scale of needing so much fertilizer. In addition, he asked his friends and members of his garden club if they had gifted him this stinky prize. None seem to know anything about it.

It took a bit of detective work on Milliken’s part, but he ultimately traced the gift back to an Army buddy who had recently been released from the service. His friend confirmed that he sent the manure.

Norval Milliken may have needed a manure spreader for the unusual Christmas gift that he received. Image is from the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth collection.

Podcast #143 – A Grateful Mother

 

This story begins with a letter to the editor that appeared in the December 8, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. It reads:

“I want to write this letter of appreciation to the gentleman who was in Polsky’s basement [a defunct department store] last Monday (Nov. 30). He gave me $20 to buy Christmas presents for the four children I had with me. I am the mother of eight children and every penny or dollar means something to me.

“There are no words to describe my feelings.

“I do not know the gentleman, but wherever he is, I am sure he does not know what a lift he gave me. I was able to pay cash for part of the clothing I was planning to put in layaway.

“Surely the spirit of God and the spirit of Christmas were present when that gentleman dropped that money in my hand and said, ‘Buy them something nice for Christmas.’

“I never was able to thank this gentleman because he disappeared in the crowd while my children and I watched him.

“Thank you, Mister, wherever you are.

“GRATEFUL MOTHER.”

On Monday, December 14, a response to this letter was published in the paper. In part, it reads, “I know. I am also a mother of eight small children who last year received a very unexpected gift of $20. I bought flannel and made pajamas for each of my children and doll pajamas for their dolls.

“Twenty-six yards of material, slightly damaged, cost me only 39¢ a yard. I sewed every night until the wee hours so I could finish them by Christmas. There was also money left over for a toy for each child.

“Words could never express my deep appreciation for that gift, so you see why I too am happy for GRATEFUL MOTHER in her good fortune.

“HAPPY MOM.”

Twenty dollars may note seem like a lot, but, adjusted for inflation, that would be like being handed two $100 bills today.

The very next day, a woman walked into the offices of the Beacon Journal and requested that letters she had penned be forwarded on to GRATEFUL MOTHER and HAPPY MOM. Each included a gift of $10 and she requested that her identity be kept confidential.

Then, on Wednesday, December 16, an unidentified man walked into the lobby of the Akron Beacon Journal building and slipped an envelope into the hand of Maintenance Superintendent John Horrigan. The mystery man then turned and hurried out the door of the building without Horrigan ever getting a good look at him. The envelope was addressed to the editor of the newspaper, so Horrigan made sure that it was delivered.

Inside the envelope was a note that said, “I had no way of knowing the lady had eight children. My! They may have a few earthly dollars but she is the one that’s blessed and with eight little ones to find time to acknowledge the little gift, you are deserving. If the Beacon Journal will see that you get this, please make sure it is a nice Christmas for all the children. I will be amply repaid just visualizing the gleam in their eyes.” The letter was signed “Santa Claus” and was accompanied by five $20 bills.

Just below this message was another: “The above is answering ‘Grateful Mother’ of your editorial page of Dec. 8. Please give her $80 and if you know who ‘Happy Mom’ is, your editorial page of Dec. 14, please give her $20. If you can’t locate, give it please to some little ones in need. A Merry Christmas to you.”

An article detailing this incredibly generous gift was published two days later. Images of the two checks drawn on the Beacon Journal’s bank account accompanied the story. The $80 check was issued to Mrs. Helen something-or-other – her last name had been blacked out – and the $20 check to a Mrs. Karl, with a longer black box obliterating her last name.

The two checks to Grateful Mother and Happy Mom. Image originally appeared on page 33 of the December 18, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

While no further mention was made of Mrs. Karl, a reporter was sent to the 108 Charles Street home of a woman simply identified in the story as Mrs. A. Couple that with the image of the check and we now know that the mother of the eight children was Mrs. Helen A.

It was learned that Mr. A. had been out of work for nearly three months and that Mrs. Helen A. was struggling to make ends meet on her $37 per week (approximately $360 per week today) salary as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Needless to say, Mrs. Helen A. was shocked by this new gift. “You don’t mean the same man, do you?” She showed the reporter the three dresses and two pair of pants that she had purchased with that original $20. “Now the kids can have toys, too.” She continued, “The oldest girl had her heart set on a pair of shoe skates. Now she can have them.”

Mrs. Helen A. said that she never got a good look at her Santa Claus. Roughly, he appeared to be about 50 years of age, short, thin, and having had brown hair streaked with gray. He had approached Mrs. A. and complimented her on both the appearance and the good manners of her four children. It was at that moment that he slipped the money into her hand. She stated, “I was astonished when I saw it was a $20 bill. I could see him walking away so I tried to catch him. But the crowd just seemed to swallow him up.”

One year later, on December 23, 1954, the Beacon Journal would publicly reveal that Mrs. Helen A. was Helen Elizabeth Crandall Arnold. She had been born on August 2, 1924 in Burlington, New Jersey. Her family moved to Akron when she was four years old.

Mrs. Helen Arnold. This photograph, most likely taken in the 1990s, appeared on Facebook.

By this time, things had worsened for the Arnold family. Her husband Roy had only been able to secure a few days’ work as a laborer, while she had lost her job as a dishwasher. The couple was down to their last $16. In addition, the City Health Department ordered the Arnolds to move out of their Charles Street home. “They said we have too many people living in the house,” Mrs. Arnold stated. “We were told to move but we have no money for the rent. I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Luckily, Santa had not forgotten about the Arnolds. Once again, another letter made its way to the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. Inside the envelope was $100 and the following note: “Remember Grateful Mother and the 8 children last Christmas? I just arrived in town. Could you get this to her so the children can have a nice visit from Santa Claus? If not, I’m sure you know some deserving children. Merry Christmas to you. ‘Santa.’”

Santa’s handwritten note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1954 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Needless to say, Mrs. Arnold was shocked when a reporter handed her the money. “Oh, God,” she stated. “I’ve been praying something would happen. But I never expected it. It’s wonderful, just wonderful. God bless him.”

As the reporter turned to leave, Mrs. Arnold questioned, “Do you know the man who’s doing all this for us?” To which the reporter replied, “We wish we did. But I have a hunch we never will. Merry Christmas.”

Mrs. Arnold wished to thank this generous Santa personally, but that was impossible. So, she did the next best thing: she wrote a thank you letter that was published in the editorial section of the Beacon Journal. While several paragraphs long, her last sentence sums it up perfectly: “To our Santa: Your gift truly must have come from your heart and we receive it in gratefulness. Mrs. Helen Arnold.”

May 5, 1941 marriage license between 16-year-old Helen Crandall and 19-year-old Roy Arnold. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Things would be even worse for the Arnold family by the Christmas of 1955. Surprisingly, they were still living at 108 Charles Street. Mrs. Arnold had given birth to another child and was now living there with her nine children, Mrs. Arnold’s parents, two of her sisters and their children. Mr. Arnold was living with an uncle at the time, supposedly to help alleviate the crowded situation at home. In addition, the 31-year-old Mrs. Arnold had been diagnosed with cancer the previous August and had undergone radium treatments. Her cancer had gone into remission.

And, sure enough, their secret Santa came through once again. On December 22, 1955 a special delivery letter arrived at the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. The handwritten note read, “Dear Beacon: I’m a little late. Would you mind playing Santa Claus again. Remember grateful mother and the eight children. Would you see that they get this. A merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope, once again, were five $20 bills.

Santa’s note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1955 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Upon hearing of this special gift, Mrs. Arnold stated, “Things like this just don’t happen three times in a row. Never in the world did I ever think that whoever he is would help us out again. Thank the Lord!”

By Christmas of 1956, things appeared to be looking up for the Arnold family. They had moved to a 4-bedroom apartment at 177 E. North Street in the Elizabeth Park housing project. Husband Roy had secured a $70 a week job with the City Sanitation Department, while Helen was studying to become a beautician. “We’ve made a 100% improvement since last Christmas, but we still aren’t completely on our feet.”

Once again, a mysterious letter with money showed up at the offices of the Beacon Journal. “Dear Beacon, Remember grateful mother. Please see that she gets this. If not, any worthy cause will do. Pop and mom should each use $20 for themselves. Had a good year. Merry Xmas… Santa.”

It must have been a really good year for Santa because he far exceeded his previous $100 annual gifts. This year he had enclosed $220. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $2,100 today.

On January 2, the paper published Mrs. Arnold’s thank you. It read, in part, “Into our lives again has stepped our phantom Santa Claus. We call him Santa and we sincerely believe in him, because for several years now he has sent us a sum of money and while we do not know who he is, we all feel that it is truly wonderful that God has designated such a wonderful miracle to take place in our lives.”

Mrs. Helen Arnold with eight of her nine children being fitted for new shoes. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1956 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1957’s entry into the Arnolds’ Christmas diary indicated that their fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. In May, Roy was laid off from his job with the sanitation department. Helen Arnold had completed her studies at the Akron School of Cosmetology and opened her own beauty shop. Unfortunately, the business was not doing well.

For the fifth straight Christmas and a row, Santa Claus made his journey from the North Pole to the editorial offices of the Akron Beacon Journal. His note read, “Dear Beacon, remember grateful mother. Honestly if I didn’t send it I just would not enjoy my Christmas. Thank you again for playing Santa and a Merry Christmas to you all. Santa” He matched his previous year’s gift of $220 in cash.

Mrs. Arnold wrote, “Only a mother understands the worry of wanting so much for her family and having so little to offer, especially at Christmas. To know that God is watching over us and has provided us with a guardian who has such a wonderful heart has filled my heart with gratitude.”

Santa’s 1958 gift would be his largest to date: six $50 bills for a total of $300. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you more about what happened that year because this front-page story was supposedly continued on page 2, which is missing from the scan of the December 21, 1958 issue of the Beacon Journal.

By the Christmas of 1959, Mrs. Arnold was desperate. Her husband Roy, having been unable to find work, turned to a life of crime and was sentenced to one to seven years in the Ohio Penitentiary on three counts of grand larceny. With her earnings as a beautician not being enough to support their family, she was forced to seek public assistance.

In a surprising move, a reporter at the Beacon Journal received a call from a man with a gravelly voice. “This is Santa,” the man at the other end of the line stated. “Did you get it?” The reporter immediately knew who we had on the line and attempted to get someone else at the newspaper to listen in on an extension. But, as soon the reporter replied, “Yes. We got it,” Santa hung up.

Yet, everything else was standard routine by now. Santa’s handwritten note read, “Remember grateful mother. If you can get this to her I’ll appreciate it. If not I’m sure you can find good use for it. I’d like her to have it. My blessings have been many. Merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope were seven $50 bills.

For his generosity, Helen Arnold wrote, “This is the seventh year in which he has brought me from despair to a joyous holiday season. I know for certain that only The Man above has allowed him to enter and reenter our lives as mysteriously as he has for this length of time. The miracle of Christmas time makes me rejoice.”

By the Christmas of 1960, the Arnolds had moved out of the housing project to 67 E. Charles Street, where Helen planned to open a beauty shop in her new home’s front room. Her husband Roy had been paroled after serving a sentence of one year. “Times are hard, and with his record, it’s doubly hard for Roy to find a job. He’s a good worker, but folks won’t give him a chance.” She added, “I’m going into the beauty shop business to better my lot – and to be near the children. I don’t want to stay on relief. I want to be independent.”

For the eighth consecutive year, the mystery Santa offered the Arnolds a bit of much-needed relief, matching his previous year’s gift of $350.

Mrs. Arnold writes, “To you, who chose to be our Anonymous Santa, we all ask and pray for continued blessing upon a man with a lot of heart. God bless you. Perhaps through your help we may be able to get closer to being able to stand on our own two feet. But most important, our children know there is a Santa and one we are proud to know.”

In 1961, the Arnolds divorced, although this fact would be absent in future stories about the family. Helen Arnold continued as a beautician, while her 21-year-old daughter Catherine worked as a laundry folder to help support the family. It was nearly impossible for Mrs. Arnold to obtain a better paying job, since doing so would require costly childcare.

Instead, she began to devote some of her time to helping others. She volunteered as a neighborhood captain for a United Fund drive and became the president of the Bryan Elementary Parent Teacher Association. “I’ve given quite a bit of time doing things for other people because someone has always done something for me. How do you ever pay back the things people have done for you? This is the only way I know.”

Still forced to seek public assistance, Mrs. Arnold was grateful when Santa came through one more time. She wrote, “For the Christmas blessing this unidentified Santa gave, not only raised the spirits of the Arnolds, but helped Akron to see the fulfillment of the Christmas miracle. From the beginning – in our brief encounter many years ago – to the present, Santa’s benevolent kindness has made things possible which might have been impossible for us to attain.”

Helen Arnold and her family shortly after receiving Santa’s gift in 1961. Image appeared on page 2 of the December 20, 1961 issue of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1962 would mark the tenth anniversary of that moment when Mrs. Arnold would have her first and only glimpse of her secret Santa. Her financial situation had not improved, but Santa had not given up on her. He came through one more time with a $300 gift. In thanks, Helen wrote, “Although our Santa is short, he has the stature of the grandest St. Nicholas there is.” She continued, “Ten years have passed. I often wonder who our Santa may be. But then I don’t, because no one person really wants to brush aside the curtain.”

In August 1963, Helen Arnold boarded a bus to Washington DC to participate in the historic march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to witness Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Upon her return, she told the Akron Beacon Journal “This will be something to tell my children and grandchildren. We’re showing that Negroes will stand together.” It would also serve as the moment when Helen Arnold turned from being a poor mother of nine known solely for the annual gift that she received from Santa into a voice for her community, the poor, minorities, and the children of Akron.

There would be no helping hand from the Arnolds’ secret Santa in 1963. Not receiving the gift did not upset Helen. She was far more concerned about his well-being. Could he be ill? Could he have passed on? Could Santa have fallen on hard times? No one knew.

Yet, the Beacon Journal’s city editor, W. D. Schlemmer, was not silent on this lack of a gift. He wrote a lengthy story that was published on December 25, 1963, that included this paragraph: “And you, Mrs. Arnold, have worked hard to help your family – and your community. So many public causes – school interest, Neighborhood Forums, planning groups – have been better off because you have taken an active part.”

Advertisement for Helen E. Arnold that appeared on page 19 of the September 10, 1979 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Not only had Mrs. Arnold become a voice in her community, but her fortunes began to change. In August 1964, she was hired by a consulting firm that was doing preparatory work for urban renewal around Akron’s BFGoodrich manufacturing plant. With a steady income, she was able to move a few doors down from her previous residence to 63 E. Charles Street.

In what must have come as a total surprise to Helen Arnold, since there was no gift the previous year, an envelope from Santa arrived at the editorial desk of the Beacon Journal. Inside were three $100 bills and a request to make sure that Mrs. Arnold received them. Santa claimed that he had not sent a gift the previous year because he had been out of town and sending a letter would have revealed his identity.

In a letter of thankfulness, Mrs. Arnold wrote, “To ‘Santa,’ who has reserved a place in our hearts and our home, may I say, you have brought us tidings of great joy, not because of the money but because you have lighted the flame of kindliness in the rebirth of Akron’s Christmas story. I know that you, ‘Santa,’ must feel as I do, that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh from the Father. I can only express my feelings with humility for we owe so much to you. May God bless you.”

In April 1965, Mrs. Arnold was hired by the city of Akron as a consultant. Her job was to operate an office to distribute information to residents in the area designated for urban renewal. The job was to last six months and paid $2,400. (Approximately $19,700 today.) In October, her contract was extended for an additional year.

Life was starting to look up for Helen Arnold, but she commented, “We’re not socially deprived any more but we have a long way to go.”

In what would seem to be a repeat of Christmas past, Santa once again delivered an envelope containing $300 and a note to the Beacon Journal. Yet, it would be last. The Beacon Journal calculated that the Arnolds’ secret Santa had given the family a total of $3,040. To this day, his identity remains unknown.

Yet, life went on for Helen Arnold. As her children grew and she had more time for herself, she became increasingly active in the causes that she believed in most. Between 1970 and 1972, she served as the President of the Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1973, Helen was defeated in her attempt to run for the Akron City Council. In 1976, Helen was named the Vice President of the Ohio Black Political Assembly.

Advertisement that appeared in the November 4, 1977 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal on page D15.

She would find her true calling in 1977 when she was elected to be the first African American woman on the Akron Board of Education, which, at the time, was dominated by board members who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. She was 53 years of age and had campaigned as a fighter for blue-collar workers and the poor. Helen would eventually be appointed Akron Board of Education president and in 1996 was named by the Ohio School Boards Association as one of the top school board members in the state.

When Helen Arnold died on February 16, 2001 at the age of 76, she had served on the Akron Board of Education for twenty-four years. Akron Assistant Superintendent Sylvester Small stated, “I think the whole community has suffered a tremendous loss. Helen Arnold was everyone’s mother, grandmother, aunt. She was everyone’s conscience that says you’ve got to serve these kids and you’ve got to serve your community.” After her passing, on August 29, 2007, the Helen E. Arnold Community Learning Center was opened in her honor.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Helen Arnold: “I have been poor. I have been on welfare. I have had to struggle and yet, always, there was a way for me to get beyond each one of these situations… So I am thankful. Really thankful.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The Most Beautiful Ape in the World Contest

 

Lastly, one of my favorite movies of all time is 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.” The movie proved to be so successful that four sequels were made in quick succession. As a promotional stunt for the fourth film, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” a contest was held to find “The Most Beautiful Ape In The World.”

An advertisement in the June 10, 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Times reads, “Girls… 18 and over! Enter the most Beautiful Ape in the World beauty contest! Sponsored by Gary Owens of radio station KMPC. Monday, June 12, 1972 – Century City Mall, near Broadway Department store – 12 noon. Winner to receive a one-week film role in producer Arthur P. Jacobs’ next Apes film. Music! Stars! Beautiful Apes! Judges, from the newest Apes movie are Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes and Natalie Trundy.”

Each of the contestants was required to wear hotpants or bikinis during the competition. In addition, the young women had to cover their faces with an ape mask and were “judged solely on the basis of their figures and ability to climb trees.”

The winner of the contest, 24-year-old Dominique Green of Malibu, California, was guaranteed a one-week contract to appear in the fifth movie, 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” $350 in cash (approximately $2,150 today), and supposedly all the bananas she could eat.

So, did this make Ms. Green a movie star? According to the Internet Movie Database, the only film that she appeared in was “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Her role is listed as “Female Ape (uncredited).”

Colorized photograph of Gary Owens hosting the Most Beautiful Ape contest. Contestant number 2, Dominique Green was named the winner.
Colorized photograph of Gary Owens hosting the Most Beautiful Ape contest. Contestant number 2, Dominique Green was named the winner. Original black and white image appeared on page 87 of the June 15, 1972 publication of the Los Angeles Times.

World Posture Queen Pageant

 

It was reported on Wednesday, July 1, 1964, that 17-year-old Barbara Gander had been selected from a pool of 20 finalists to be the winner of the World Posture Queen Pageant in Denver, Colorado by judges from the American Chiropractic Association.

The first of these contests was held in Michigan in 1955 by the Michigan Academy of Chiropractic. The following year, the pageant went national and international the next. While poise and personality factored into the judging, the most important of the criteria was to have a perfectly straight spine. And the way they determined this was by giving each of the contestants an x-ray.

As unusual as his contest may seem, it proved to be quite popular. Just as in your typical beauty pageant, winners of local pageants would move on to compete on a state level before advancing to the national level. The search for a World Posture Queen ended in 1969, although local contests did continue for a few more years.

Chiropractors study a spinal column X-ray as Miss Alabama, Miss Utah and Miss Minnesota as part of the World Posture Queen competition.
Chiropractors study a spinal column X-ray as Miss Alabama, Miss Utah and Miss Minnesota as part of the World Posture Queen competition. Image appears on page 13 of June 28, 1956 publication of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs Contest

 

On August 3, 1952 it was announced that the Worth Theater in Fort Worth, Texas would be sponsoring a beautiful legs contest to help promote Rita Hayworth’s latest film, “Affair in Trinidad.” The competition was open to any young woman, whether single or married, who had never acted or modeled professionally. All she had to do was complete the contest entry blank printed in the Fort Worth Star and send it, along with a photograph of herself in either a bathing suit or playsuit, to the theater. From the submissions received, the judges would select the top twelve girls solely on the basis of their legs. Then, on August 15, the dozen selected would compete for the best legs in front of a live audience just prior to the premiere of “Affair in Trinidad.”

Advertisement for one of the many Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs contests. Image appeared on page 16 of the September 19, 1952 publication of the Spokane Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)

At first glance, it seemed as if the winner of the contest would win an all-expenses-paid trip to Trinidad, plus a two-day trip to New York, a bon voyage party, a contract with a New York model agency, and an additional $3,000 worth of assorted prizes.

But the devil was in the details. In reality, the top winners in Fort Worth would receive prizes from a local women’s clothing store. The grand prize winner would have her photograph forwarded to New York for national judging. That is because the same contest was occurring in cities and towns all across the United States.

The winner of the Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs Contest in Fort Worth was 18-year-old Miss Charlyne Campbell, a senior at Polytechnic High School. The following May, Charlyne competed in the Miss Fort Worth Pageant. She was described in the newspaper as, “a blond with blue gray eyes, weighs 125 pounds and is five feet, five inches tall. Miss. Campbell has a 37-inch bust measurement, 23-inch waist and 36-inch hips.”

Needless to say, Charlyne did not win the contest. Miss Bettie Harbin, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, was crowned Miss Fort Worth. That made Miss Harbin eligible to compete in the Miss Texas contest, but she lost out to Paula Marie Lane, of which The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, “The 18-year-old miss is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 128 pounds. She has a 36-inch bust, 34-inch waist and 37-inch hips. She was graduated from Cleburne High School this spring and has ambitions to be an airline stewardess or a model.” Paula Lane went on to compete in the Miss America contest but lost out that year to Evelyn Ay, Miss Pennsylvania.

Fort Worth’s Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs contest winner Miss Charlyne Campbell. Image appeared on page 5 of the August 16, 1952 publication of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Podcast #142 – The Runaway Miss America

 

The judging of beauty, both male and female, has probably been going on since the beginning of mankind. Yet, the first truly modern beauty contest here in the United States is said to have begun with perhaps the most famous showman of all time – P. T. Barnum – who, back in the 1850s, began holding contests before paying audiences to select the best chicken, dog, flower, and child in all of America. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to “the handsomest ladies” in the United States. Surprisingly, that was one beauty pageant that he couldn’t pull off. Due to the conservative nature of society at the time, Barnum was unable to find enough women willing to publicly place themselves on display. His solution was to have a picture photo contest. Women would submit photographs of themselves which Barnum intended to display in his museum and then have his patrons vote for the most beautiful woman. The prize for being among the top ten of the winners was a specially commissioned oil painting based on their photos. In addition, a book of portraits titled the “World’s Book of Female Beauty” would be published in France for the whole world to see. Yet, this was never to be. Barnum sold his museum shortly before the judging ever began. Others around the country picked up on Barnum’s idea and soon the exhibition of submitted photographs became a respectable way for young women to have their beauty judged.

By the early part of the 20th century, social norms began to change. Resorts and entertainment venues began to host beauty pageants, although they were strictly localized events. A big change would occur  when businessmen in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey held what they referred to as a “Fall Frolic.” The planners never set out to create a national beauty pageant. What they were trying to do was to get people to visit Atlantic City after Labor Day, which marks the traditional end of summer here in the United States, after which beach resorts like Atlantic City became ghost towns. The first Fall Frolic was held on September 25, 1920. While the event did bring visitors in, it wasn’t the smashing success that they had hoped for.

To increase attendance the following year, changes were made to the program. First, nine East Coast newspapers agreed to hold picture photo contests within their pages to allow their readers to choose the most beautiful women in their city. The finalists from these contests would then go on to compete in a local beauty contest, the winner of which would be awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City to appear in the Fall Frolic. There they would all compete in a beauty contest in which the winner would be crowned the Inter-City Beauty. The next day, these young women would also compete in the Bather’s Revue, the winner then crowned the Golden Mermaid. If you’re imagining young women walking around on a stage in skimpy swimwear, keep in mind that bathing suits were still quite conservative in 1921. Miss Washington, DC, Margaret Gorman was the winner that year, and just prior to the 1922 event her title was changed from the Inter-City Beauty to Miss America.

Fast forward to the 1937 contest, which is the focus of today’s story.  Unlike today where there are fifty-one contestants, one from each state plus Washington, DC, back then there could be multiple representations from one state and none from another. For example, Miss Westchester County, Miss New York City, Miss Troy, Miss Bronx, and Miss Empire State all came from New York that year. Yet, there were no contestants from states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Utah, and so on. Miss Puerto Rico was also present, but she was not allowed to compete due to the contest’s Rule #7, abandoned in 1940, which required contestants to be “of good health and of the white race.”

Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.
Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.

Festivities got underway on Monday, September 6 with all the contestants meeting together for the first time at Philadelphia’s Belview-Stratford Hotel. After the women were photographed, given a tour of the city, they were the guests at an extravagant dinner held in their honor by the Philadelphia Variety Club.

Earl Sweigart, one of those in charge of the Philadelphia arrangements, stated “I never saw a finer looking group of girls in my life. The judges this year will have a very difficult task to determine who is the most beautiful girl and the girl with the most personality. I understand also that some of the girls are really talented.”

The next day, all of the contestants boarded the “American Beauty Special” train, arriving in Atlantic City at 11:20 AM. The pageant opened with a flag-raising and gun salute on the deck of Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier entertainment and amusement complex. This was followed by dignitaries giving their obligatory speeches with music provided by Rudy Vallee and his orchestra. The contestants met with the press at noon, followed by the Variety Club Jubilee Luncheon at the Traymore Hotel. No longer in existence, the hotel was located at the intersection of two of Monopoly’s most expensive properties: Boardwalk and Park Place.

It was at 8:30 that evening that the first round of judging took place in the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier. As a crowd of seven thousand looked on, fifteen of the contestants competed in what was called the Talent Preliminary Contest, which was broken into three segments. First, the girls paraded past the judges in their evening gowns, which was followed by the swimsuit competition, and concluded with the talent portion of the show. Only the top talent winner, Miss Massachusetts, Claire Nevulus, was announced at the end of the evening. The remainder of the rankings were kept secret. This same contest would be repeated Wednesday and Thursday evenings until all forty-six contestants appeared before the judges. Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss New York, Grace Travis, placed first in those two competitions.

On Friday, thousands of spectators looked on as a parade featuring spectacular floats, bands, and the Miss America contestants moved along the Boardwalk. At 9 PM, all of the contestants competed in the American Ball, during which the young ladies walked along the runway in their evening gowns so that the judges could select the “most beautiful girl in an evening gown” and the “girl with the most pleasing personality.” The winner of the evening gown contest was Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper, who “wore a coronation red, transparent velvet gown with a full skirt accentuated by a hoop” with pale pink gardenias around it. Miss Westchester County, Evelyn Raye, was voted to have the best personality. At 11 PM, the fifteen women who ranked highest in the three preliminary contests were announced, allowing them to advance on to the final competition.

Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.
Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 15, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Saturday was the big day. At 8:30 PM, another seven thousand spectators packed the Marine Ballroom to witness the final judging. It wouldn’t be until 11:30 PM that the coronation ceremony would begin. There was a tie for 3rd runner-up between Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss Miami, Irmigard Dietel. 2nd runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Ruth Covington. The 1st runner-up was Miss Texas, Alice Emerick. And, the new Miss America in 1937 was – drumroll, please – 17-year-old Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.

Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937.
Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 104 of the September 1971 publication of The Ladies Home Journal.

But just who was Bette Cooper? And where in the world was Bertrand Island? The world would soon find out.

Bette was born on August 11, 1920, to Mabel and Marin Le Brun Cooper in Hackettstown, New Jersey. She was the second of the couple’s three children. The family lived at 504 Moore Street – the same house that she was born in – which was located directly across the street from the campus of Centenary College. At the time of Bette being crowned Miss America, she had just begun her first year of junior college there. Before this, Bette attended Hackettstown High School, where she excelled in her academic studies, participated in theater productions, and was highly active in sports such as basketball, volleyball, and track. In her spare time, she loved to swim, play tennis, cycle, and dance. She stated, “But not those modern dances. I prefer the old-time graceful waltz.”

Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown.
Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown. Image appeared on page 4 of September 14, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

The interesting thing is that Bette Cooper never dreamed of becoming Miss America. Her path to the crown began in the summer of 1936 when she entered a beauty pageant at the Bertrand Island amusement park on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. The amusement park is long gone, but it was a moderately sized, family-run entertainment venue. Nothing like the mega amusement parks that exist today. So, entering a beauty contest there was not that big a deal. Being crowned Miss Bertrand Island carried no greater significance than being crowned the queen of a resort hotel or a parade. And Bette did not win that year. She placed third.

Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937.
Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

Fast forward one more year to 1937 and Bette was back at the amusement park to have some fun with friends. And, wouldn’t you know it, the park was once again holding one of its many beauty contests. Her friends convinced Bette to once again enter. To her surprise, Bette was crowned Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Two weeks later, on August 12, 1937, Bette and ten winners of other local pageants met up in the Bertrand Island ballroom to compete for the title of Miss Lake Hopatcong 1937. Once again, Bette was chosen to be the winner, which automatically advanced her straight on to the Miss America pageant. Since the amusement park paid for Bette’s travel expenses to Atlantic City, she competed as Miss Bertrand Island for publicity purposes.

The reality was that Bette never expected to win the Miss America title. She simply wasn’t the classic long-legged beauty that stereotypically wins beauty contests. As judged by the press back then, Bette was more of an adult version of Shirley Temple. The main reason she agreed to participate in the Miss America contest was that it allowed her entire family to have an all-expense-paid trip to Atlantic City. And, when she did win, Bette was completely unprepared for what came next.

Moments after being crowned, dozens of photographers rushed toward the stage. The constant popping of the flashbulbs seemed blinding as Bette stood there in shock. Reporters began their rapid fire questioning of the new queen and, as she sobbed in apparent happiness, Bette stated “I don’t know what to say – I’m so happy.” Shortly after that, the pageant came to a close and Bette and her family retreated to their hotel rooms to get some much-needed rest.

Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937.
Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

The following morning, cameramen for the newsreel pictures and newspapers arrived to the Steel Pier to set up their equipment for a scheduled 10:30 AM press conference with Miss America and the runners-up. But there was one big problem: Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, was nowhere to be found. Phone calls were made to her room, but she was long gone. Even her parents couldn’t say where she went. Miss America had gone AWOL. As reporters and policemen scuttled off in search of the missing Miss America, pageant officials attempted to make the best of a bad situation. A photograph syndicated in newspapers across the country shows a vacant throne with Miss America’s robe draped over it. Her crown rested on the seat of the throne while her trophy sat on the ground at its base. Miss Texas, the 1st runner-up, stood to one side while Miss North Carolina and Miss Miami stood on the other, all dressed in their swimsuits.

Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937's vacant throne.
Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937’s vacant throne. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 13, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Atlantic City Mayor C. D. White told the press, “We don’t know where Miss Cooper is. Her parents didn’t mind her entering the pageant, but they didn’t expect her to win. They let her come down because it was a nice vacation for all of them, but now that she’s won the crown they don’t want her running all over the country for stage appearances and screen tests.”

But where was Miss America? Rumors spread like wildfire. Did she forfeit her title? Would Miss Texas now be crowned Miss America? Could Bette have been kidnapped? Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and reported that Bette had eloped in Maryland.

None of this was true. It turns out that Bette had been hiding in plain sight the entire time. In explaining what had really happened, we must return to that first day when all of the contestants showed up in Atlantic City. Upon arrival, each of the young women was assigned a male chaperone – officially called “a chauffeur” – to escort them around the city and to all of the pageant functions. This had been done out of necessity because the Miss America pageant was operating on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. To save money, pageant organizers came up with the brilliant idea of finding young men who would volunteer their time to entertain the young ladies. On its surface, it seemed like the ideal situation. The young men got to spend time with beautiful women, the contestants would have a handsome escort to show them around the city, and the pageant got free labor. What could go wrong?

They were about to find out…

A few days before the pageant was scheduled to begin, 21-year-old Louis Off and a friend decided to volunteer their services. By the time they arrived at pageant headquarters, only two contestants remained without chauffeurs: Miss New Orleans and Miss Bertrand Island. Lou let his buddy pick first, leaving Lou with the only unselected girl, Bette Cooper. Years later, Lou would recall, “I remember there were all sorts of girls. A lot of them were just cute bathing-suit girls, and there was even one stripper in the contest. In this crowd, Bette Cooper stood out like a beacon in the middle of the ocean.”

The two hit it off right away. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bette was beautiful inside and out, while Lou was good-looking, well-dressed, and polite. His family owned both the nearby Brighton Hotel and a floral nursery, so he was able to send Bette orchids every day. While Bette seemed enamored by her chaperone, Lou saw it as more of an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful young woman.

Colorized image of Bette Cooper and Louis Off walking on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1937. The original black and white image appears here.

On the day of Bette’s coronation, she had some downtime before the evening pageant, so Lou asked her if he could take her to lunch. He picked her up at the Lafayette Hotel and Lou described what happened next: “We took a long drive first. Bette had a cold and didn’t feel well at all. She had even been to see a doctor. I remember we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Somers Point, and when we were sitting there I asked her, ‘Bette, have you really thought what you are going to do if you win this thing tonight?’” He continued, “She just laughed and said the thought was ridiculous.”

Then, after winning the contest that evening, it quickly became clear that Bette was unprepared for all of the demands that being Miss America entailed. After retreating to her hotel room that evening, she panicked. Lou described what happened next. “About 2 AM, the phone rang and it was Bette. She was in tears and she said, ‘I want to see you. I don’t want any part of it.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.’”

That’s when Lou ran into a nearby telephone booth and emerged seconds later as Superman. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic…

Lou fetched his car from the Brighton Hotel garage and raced to the Lafayette where he met up with Bette’s father in the lobby. Mr. Cooper explained that Bette was in over her head and didn’t want the title of Miss America after all. The entire family just wanted to go home. Lou drove off and then asked two of his buddies for assistance.

Lou returned to the Lafayette around 4:30 AM with his friends and they escorted Bette down the fire escape to freedom. They drove about four miles (6.4 km) down the coast to nearby Margate and boarded a fishing boat docked there. They sailed directly back to the Steel Pier and dropped anchor just a short distance away as dawn was breaking. With Bette ill, she slept most of the day below deck as Lou and his buddies relaxed and did some fishing. The entire time they were able to watch all of the commotion taking place up on the pier as the search for Miss America continued. Later that afternoon, they sailed back to Margate, hopped in Lou’s Buick, and drove 3 ½ hours to Hackettstown, arriving at Bette’s home around midnight.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

Once officials determined Bette’s whereabouts, the pageant’s board of governors had an emergency meeting to determine how to handle this unusual situation. Bette was willing to walk away from all of her winnings, which included a six-week vaudeville contract, $400 (approximately $7200 today) for a 5-day stint on the Steel Pier, a $1000 ($18,000 today) fur coat, and a flight to Hollywood for a screen test. But would pageant officials force Bette to forfeit her Miss America title?

George D. Tyson, then director of the Showman’s Variety Jubilee, which operated the Miss America pageant, soon announced, “Miss America has decided against launching her professional career at this time. She is too ill to be on hand today. She is still Miss America. She rightfully won and the pageant officials will not dictate her future course.”

Yet, behind the scenes, there was a lot of negotiation taking place. With Bette being seventeen years of age, she could not be held legally responsible for any contract that she had signed. Her parents demanded that she receive a less vigorous schedule. It was agreed that in exchange for Bette retaining her Miss America title, she would participate in only a fraction of her expected duties. Four days after being crowned Miss America, Bette Cooper announced to the world that her abdication was completely a mistake.

Bette meeting showgirls backstage at New York’s International Casino on March 18, 1938. Image appeared on page 44 of the April 4, 1938 publication of Life.

Needless to say, the press had a field day with this story. It was front-page news across the nation.  In fact, the Associated Press ranked it as the tenth biggest story of 1937, with the Hindenburg disaster being #1.

One article concluded that Bette’s initial decision was the correct one. “According to actuaries, the odds are almost 4-to-1 against any holder of the crown making a successful marriage. The average Miss America can expect no more than 3.9456 years of bliss.” Only the passage of time would determine if Bette could beat those odds.

Another story commented that ordinary women should not fret because Bette’s proportions were not perfect either. “She is five feet, six and one-half inches tall, and weighs 120 pounds. She has a bust measurement of 32 inches; hips, 36 inches, and waist, 26 inches; thigh, 20 inches; calf, 13 inches; ankle, 8 ½ inches. According to the accepted standards in symmetry, Miss Cooper’s hip measurement is too large… Or her bust too small. The rest of her measurements are very nearly perfect and she is an exceptionally pretty girl.”

Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to the radio.
Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to her Philco radio. Image appeared on page 11 of April 1938 publication of Radio Today.

Reporters waited outside the Cooper home but the family had very little to say. Mrs. Cooper answered the door and stated, “Bette is in bed – sick. And I’m going to bed. I’m sick.” She then pointed to a sign placed near the doorbell that read, “Do not ring the bell owing to sickness.”

Bette’s father said, “Bette is not the type of girl to appear in vaudeville. She isn’t robust enough for the professional grind. She just entered on a lark. Her mother and I want her to finish school first to get polished off, then do something that isn’t strenuous, like modeling for magazine covers.”

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College.
Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College. Image appeared on page 3 of the January 28, 1938 publication of the Hackensack Record.

As for her relationship with Lou Off, her sister Mabel stated, “Puppy love. Not serious.” Her father added, “Ah, that’s no romance. Lou’s too sensible a boy to think of romance at his age.” When questioned by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Bette said, “Love? Poof! I’m not in love. I’m too young. All I can think of is going back to school. Louis is just a friend of my family.”

Months later, it was clear that Bette had no regrets over her decision. “I want as good an education as I can get. After that I want a try at earning my own living. I hope that I will be able to get into radio. After that I’d like to marry – but not before I’ve finished with a career.”

Throughout the remainder of her year as Miss America, Bette mostly focused on her education and selectively did promotions for the pageant in her spare time. “On Saturday I often go to New York to pose for commercial photographers and several times I’ve endorsed products over the radio.” Her public appearances were quite few, but she did appear in the occasional parade, at a promotion for New Jersey’s dairy industry, and at a few fashion shows. In print advertisements, Bette Cooper could be seen receiving a new Underwood typewriter, endorsing soaps, or promoting the Beautyrest line of mattresses with the quote “It gives me a real beauty rest every night” printed right next to her image. At the end of her reign, she commented “I’ve done what I wanted to do. You might say I’ve eaten my cake and had it too.”

Above: A sampling of advertisements that Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, endorsed. Click on any of the images to see them full-sized.

After dealing with the fiasco of the 1937 pageant, changes were made to the competition. First, all future contestants were required to be between the ages of 18 and 28, the minimum set to ensure that the winner could legally sign a contract detailing all of the responsibilities and duties required of being a Miss America. In addition, they ended the male chaperone program. It was replaced with a hostess program that prohibited the contestants from spending any time alone with a man during the week of the beauty pageant.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937 with her new Typemaster typewriter by Underwood. Image appeared on page 15 of the July/August publication of UEF News.

The 1938 pageant went off without a hitch. Marilyn Meseke, of Marion, Ohio, was crowned the new Miss America. It was tradition that the previous Miss America would hand off her sash and crown to the new winner, but that did not happen in 1938. That is because Bette Cooper was not at the pageant, an absence that the press interpreted as a major snub on the part of the pageant organizers.

After Bette completed her two-year college degree at Centenary Collegiate Institute in 1940, she found employment as the public relations director of the Sandy Valley Grocery Company in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1947 – 48, she taught kindergarten at the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut before enrolling in Columbia University in 1949.

Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper with her two children Gregory and Cheryl in Greenwich, CT. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

On April 27, 1951, Bette married engineer William F. Moore. The couple lived in Greenwich, where they raised their two children Gregory and Cheryl. Sadly, Bette’s husband died in 1968.  Her seventeen-year marriage beat the prediction that a former Miss America would only experience 3.9456 years of wedded bliss.

Bette’s last major public appearance as a former Miss America was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. For the remainder of her life, she would say nothing publicly about her 1937 coronation.  When Elizabeth Cooper Moore passed away on December 10, 2017, at 97 years of age, she was the oldest living Miss America at the time. Bette’s obituary detailed her family, her love of music, her involvement in her church, and that she was an “enthusiastic golfer and tennis player.” The one glaring detail that was missing, however, was that Bette Cooper was once Miss America.

Useless? Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Colorized photograph of Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper (left) at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Marilyn Meseke, Miss America 1938, is in the center with Patricia Donnelly, Miss America 1939, on the right. Original black and white image appears here.

Submarine Rodeo

 

On July 8, 1961, the Pleasant Lake Lyons Club in Indiana held their annual Submarine Rodeo scuba competition. Each year, this event attracted several thousand enthusiastic fans to watch the various diving events that were scheduled.

Some of the contests included the Weight Carry, the Recovery Dive contest, and a Compass Course event.

But, the highlight of this event was the last contest of the day. It was a diving contest that involved homemade midget submarines. These various crafts had been built from old aircraft parts, boilers, and steam fittings. Contestants in this contest came from great distances to compete. Basically, the divers had to use all of their diving skills to capture one of these elusive submarines.

According to the article, the first Submarine Rodeo was held in 1959 at Pleasant Lake. The contest continued through the mid-1960s, although it is unclear when they held it for the last time. It was reported that one of the big problems with these homemade submarines was that Lloyd’s of London refused to insure any of them.

Advertisement for the 1963 Pleasant Lake Submarine Rodeo that appeared on page 12 of the July 17, 1963 issue of the Steuben Republican. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The Ghost Plane

 

On August 30, 1955, a pilotless airplane circled Sydney, Australia and its suburbs for nearly three hours. Today, we live in a time of remote-control planes, but that was not why this airplane was flying around without a pilot.

Thirty-year-old trainee-pilot Anthony Thrower was practicing his takeoff and landings at the Bankstown Aerodrome when suddenly “The motor went dead when I was 10 feet [3 m] over the runway. I got down safely and applied the brakes. I decided to start the Auster by myself.”

That’s when he swung the propeller around to start the engine. As soon the engine turned over, the brakes on the airplane failed and it took to the sky without him aboard.

“I tried to hold it by a strut but I couldn’t make it.” And, “Away she went…”

He began to run toward the control tower in an effort to alert them as the plane flew in the opposite direction. And then, “I looked over my shoulder and got a terrific fright. The plane had turned right around and was chasing me.”

Thrower was unharmed and eventually, the plane climbed to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3 km) before leveling out. Royal Australian Air Force jets were called in to pursue the runaway plane but were unable to bring it down.  Eventually, the wind pushed the plane out toward the sea where two Australian Navy Sea Furies shot it down.

Lieutenants John Bluett, RN, and Peter McNay, RN, reliving their successful action against Anthony Thrower’s pilotless Auster in 1955. Image appears on the Australian Navy website.

Legal to Fly Airplanes on Sunday

 

The first documented blue law within the state of Pennsylvania, which placed restrictions on Sunday activity, was passed in 1779. Further restrictions were put into place in 1794 “for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation.” It strictly forbids “any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly call Sunday, works of necessity and charity only accepted.” This included, “any unlawful game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever.”

Of course, the times change and there were challenges to the law, especially as more modern forms of transportation came about. In particular, a new situation arose in 1919 when members of a Sunday observance association filed charges against Lieut. John C. Howard for carrying passengers in an airplane on the Sabbath.

On October 25, Philadelphia City Solicitor John P. Connelly offered up his opinion on the matter. He stated, “I cannot see how travel in the air on Sunday is calculated to interfere with the rest, quiet and right of citizenship to worship any more than travel by trolley cars, taxicabs, hired carriages or automobiles.” He added, “… travel by streetcars, by steam railways, by hired cabs, and in these later days, by taxicabs and other vehicles, both upon land and water, and for pleasure or necessity, has become universal, and has come to be tacitly if not explicitly regarded as within the exceptions to the Act of 1794.”

A decision was handed down on November 6 by an unnamed police magistrate, who had pondered over this violation for ten days, concluded that flying an airplane on Sunday in no way violates the Pennsylvania blue laws.

“Birds fly on Sunday and I therefore do not see how the law is violated by a birdman who runs an air taxicab on the Sabbath.”

Lillian Boyer was an early “wing-walker.” Photograph from the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive on Flickr.

Podcast #140 – The Flying Housewife

 

Let’s suppose you wanted to take an airplane flight around the globe. And, since you are probably like me and don’t have access to high-speed military jets, you would need to make the flight using commercial airlines. That means they would have to deal with the hassles of delayed flights, waiting in airport terminals for connecting flights, dealing with immigration along the way, and all of the other hassles associated with flying. Just how long do you think it would take you? Could you do it in a day? In two days? Well, one man has set the record for doing so. If you hang around for a bit, I will let you know just how long it took him at the end of this podcast.

Of course, flying around the world today is far easier than it was in the early days of aviation. One of the earlier pioneers in flying was a British woman named Richarda Morrow-Tait, whose efforts to fly around the world are nearly forgotten today.

Born Prudence Richarda Evelyn Routh on November 22, 1923, she wasn’t exactly what her father had hoped for. “As far back as I can remember, it was always said that my father was so angry when I turned out to be a girl that he refused to speak to me on the day I was born. He’d already had two girls and I was to be called Richard – that’s how I was christened Richarda. So I was a third daughter. But no matter how depressing that could very well turn out to be – I did have one terrific consolation. I was born on a Thursday.” We shall see in a short bit how being born on a Thursday would play an important part in her life.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In 1943, Richarda, who went by the nickname of Dikki, was working as a temporary stenographer and assigned to assist a mechanical engineer named Norman Morrow-Tait who worked in the British government’s Ministry of Supply at Cambridge  Norman was more than a decade older than the redheaded Dikki, but the two immediately hit it off and were soon married.

Dikki long had an interest in learning to fly an airplane and in 1945, her husband suggested that she should do so. She first took to the air in January 1946 and continued to take lessons on weekends. Dikki soon became the first woman to obtain a civil flying license in Britain since the war had ended.

Right around the time that she began her flying lessons, Dikki became pregnant. On October 10, 1946, she gave birth to a baby girl who the couple named Anna Victoria Airy Morrow-Tait. Yet, motherhood was not about to stop Dikki from taking to the sky.

On May 31, 1948, 24-year-old Richarda Morrow-Tait announced to the world that she was going to attempt to be the first woman to fly an airplane around the world. To do so, she purchased a surplus Percival Proctor IV, a 210 hp, single-engine plane which had been used as a communications aircraft during the war. For the round-the-world trip, it was outfitted with extra fuel tanks, which gave it an estimated range of 1850 miles (2977 km). Dikki named the plane “Thursday’s Child,” both because she was born a Thursday and for the verse in the folk song Mondays Child:

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go…

And boy did she have far to go…

While Dikki had mastered the flying of the plane, she was in need of a good navigator. While the Morrow-Taits were at a party they bumped into 25-year-old Michael Townsend, who had been a childhood friend of Dikki’s. At the time, Townsend was a geology student at Cambridge and a former member of the Royal Air Force. He agreed to accompany Dikki on the flight and spent four months preparing for it.

Their first setback occurred on August 14, 1948, while Dikki was practicing for the flight. While piloting another plane, Dikki crash-landed at the airport in Cambridge. She was unhurt, but this event seemed to cast a dark shadow on what was to come.

On Wednesday, August 18, 1948, as her husband and daughter Anna watched from the ground, Richarda Morrow-Tait and Michael Townsend lifted off from Cambridge and flew to Croyden Airport in London to officially begin their flight around the globe. They anticipated completing the flight in six weeks. Norman Morrow-Tait told the press “I have given her every encouragement to make this flight.” He continued, “I used to fly myself and know how much flying can mean to anyone. Dikki is a wonderful person full of determination and courage.”

Unfortunately, upon landing in Marseille, France, visibility was poor and the propeller, undercarriage, and one of the wings were damaged during landing. The next day, she announced that she was abandoning her attempted flight and would return to England once repairs to the plane were completed. Well, that decision did not last long. Two days later, on Friday, August 20, Dikki announced that she would continue on with the planned flight.

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the November 27, 1948 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On Saturday, August 28, she finally was able to take off from Marseille and successfully landed later that same day in Malta. From there it was on to Cyprus, Iraq, Bahrain, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Karachi in Pakistan, and Delhi in India.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until September 7. That is when her airplane was damaged during landing at Dum Dum airport in Calcutta. Dikki and Townsend would have to wait seven weeks for parts to arrive and for the plane to be repaired. So much for completing their flight in six weeks.

Finally, on October 22, they lifted off for Rangoon (today Yangon in Myanmar), followed by successful hops to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and five stops in Japan as she piloted the plane up the Japanese archipelago. 

Her next flight was going to the longest over water: from Hokkaido, Japan to Shemya Island, located at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Due to the great length of the flight, Dikki agreed to be escorted by a US Air Force B-17 bomber. Dikki and Townsend took off from Hokkaido on November 3 and encountered several storms along their flight path. At about 9 hours into their flight, the B-17 lost contact with the single-engine plane. Were Dikki and Townsend okay? Did their plane go down at sea? No one could say for sure until they surprisingly landed the plane on Shemya Island. Total flight time: 13 hours and 20 minutes. It turns out that they had lost contact with their escort plane after their radio was knocked out as they passed through a storm.  Dikki told reporters, “Over the Pacific, we landed with only five gallons of gas, or 20 minutes flying time. I think we ran the last of it entirely Ave Marias.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On November 11, they left Shemya and headed east along the Aleutian chain. They stopped at Adak and Cold Bay as they made their way to Anchorage. As they approached the Elmendorf Air Force Base there, they encountered thick fog, which greatly reduced visibility. To make matters worse, the lights on the field had failed. Two B-17’s and a Civil Aeronautics Authority airplane took off to help Dikki find the field. She made several passes with the plane but was unable to land. To help bring the plane in, cars were sent out to line the runway so that Dikki could use their headlights as a guide. An ambulance and rescue vehicles were put on alert.  Once again, she successfully landed the plane.  “It’s sure good to be down. I only had enough gas left to circle the field twice more.” Dicki added, “They talked us in three times before we made it and I was extremely frightened. I didn’t care how I landed as long as I got down.” 

They were delayed for ten days in Anchorage because their plane was experiencing engine trouble, most likely due to the extreme cold. Once repairs were complete, Dikki took off for Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory. Since there was concern over the engine’s reliability, the decision was made to follow the highways just in case they would need to make an emergency landing. Sadly, on what just happened to be Dikki’s twenty-fifth birthday, that was exactly what happened.  Just prior to noon on November 22, 1948, sub-zero weather caused her plane’s carburetor to ice up and she was forced to crash-land near Tanacross, Alaska. The army plane that accompanied her dropped emergency supplies, while the Alaska Highway Patrol picked up the flyers and drove them into Tanacross.  The two were uninjured, but her plane lay in ruins along the Alaskan Highway. Both the plane’s landing gear and the wings were severely damaged.  Low on funds, they could neither afford to truck the plane to Canada for repairs nor ship the necessary parts to Alaska. Dikki stated, “What I need for a birthday present is a miracle.”

At first, Dikki said she would abandon her plan to complete the flight, but she soon changed her mind. Dikki stated, “Personally I would love to go back home, but I will not abandon the flight under any circumstances. My biggest problem is obtaining finances, not securing the parts for my plane.” She estimated that the cost to repair the plane would be around $2000 (approximately $21,500 today), money that she did not have.

A trucker in Fairbanks offered to crate up the plane and ship it down to Edmonton for repairs, but it would take some time for it to be dismantled and haul it down there. In the meantime, on November 27, Dikki and Townsend were flown aboard an American B-17 bomber to Edmonton. Shortly after that, Townsend decided to return to England to complete his studies at Cambridge University. Dikki told reporters, “When Michael leaves me I will have to get another navigator or go on alone but I definitely will fly home.”

It wouldn’t be until January 24, 1949, that her wrecked plane would arrive in Edmonton. The damage was far worse than she had anticipated. Dikki stated, “I was shocked when I inspected the plane.” A repair shop inspected the place and estimated the cost of repair to be $3800 (which is nearly $41,000 today.) 

Nearly penniless at this point, Dikki could not imagine how she could possibly earn that much money. Since the time of the crash, she had earned small sums working in an Alaskan nightclub, doing some public speaking, and even modeling, something that she had done before she had married. But none of these jobs could earn enough to pay for the repair of her plane. She made the decision to abandon the plane in Edmonton.

This does not mean that Dikki had given up on her dream to fly around the world. “I am scouring the continent in an effort to find a company which will give me a plane to fly back to England for advertising purposes.”

In mid-February, she hitchhiked back up to Alaska to raise some additional funds. Unfortunately, along the way, someone stole all the money she had managed to accumulate up until that point. To make matters worse, US immigration officials there denied her readmission into Alaska. Ultimately, they granted her a two-week stay.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In early March, she headed for Seattle, Washington. On March 21, it was announced that, with the help of a Seattle dentist and others, a replacement airplane had been located. It was a surplus Army BT-13 Vultee Valiant which had been sold off at the end of World War II. While the cost for the plane was $600 (approximately $6500 today), the catch was that, since it formally was a US military plane, it could only be owned by a US citizen and piloted by an American license holder. Those technicalities could be easily overcome, but the real problem for Dikki was raising the $600.

It was in Seattle that she also found her new navigator. He was Jack Ellis, a native Londoner and former RAF navigator. Ellis saw this opportunity as an inexpensive way to go back to England and see his wife. He said, “It’s a flight I want to finish. I want to go back to England for a visit.”

By the end of March, Dikki had raised the money needed to purchase the plane. Surprisingly, two different Vancouver residents offered her $300 each. In addition, a Victoria couple sent in a check for $50 to The Vancouver Sun.  “I am very grateful to Vancouver people. I couldn’t have done it without them.” She added, “I have my American license. I shall start my familiarization flights at Boeing Field Friday.” In mid-April, Dikki paid the $600 for a plane that she could never own. She named it “Next Thursday’s Child.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait's airplane "Next Thursday's Child."
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait’s airplane “Next Thursday’s Child.” Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On April 16, 1949, she returned to Edmonton so that technicians could remove the extra fuel tank from her scrapped plane and install it in her new machine. Two days later, she took off from Edmonton and headed right back to Alaska, circled over the spot where she had crashed, and then began her journey back to England. 

Would everything go smoothly after this? Of course not. Unfortunately, the airplane’s fuel tanks were leaking, so she was forced to make the trip up to Alaska in small hops of two to three hours each. Eight days later she was back in Edmonton to have the fuel tanks repaired. That would ground her there for the next twenty-five days.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 19, 1949, Dikki and her navigator Jack Ellis were cleared for takeoff. After crossing the border and clearing customs in Cut Bank, Montana, they made a short layover in Williston, North Dakota before taking off for Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This time everything seemed to be going smoothly. That was until she landed at Wold-Chamberlain Field (now the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport) in Minneapolis. On Saturday, May 21, customs inspectors there ordered her plane grounded “until further orders.” Stout chains and a padlock were placed on the airplane. Initially, agents there said that they had no idea why that order had been issued. Dikki later learned that the papers that had been filled out back in Cut Bank, Montana were not in order. She said, “There are lots of rules and regulations that have to be complied with. This will be straightened out.” It turns out that federal regulations at the time forbid taking an American airplane outside of the United States for a period longer than six months. After being delayed for two days, Dikki was able to post guarantees that the plane would be returned and it was released into her possession. She resumed her flight on Tuesday, May 24.

Chains being applied to Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait's airplane in Minneapolis.
Chains being applied to Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait’s airplane in Minneapolis. Image appeared on page 2 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Minneapolis Star.

Two days later, on May 26, her plane was impounded once again in Chicago. This time, the Civil Aeronautics Administration claimed that Dikki’s registration for the airplane had been improperly completed. It indicated that she was the owner, which was forbidden because she was not a United States citizen. Also, they refused to issue a certificate of airworthiness because they deemed the extra fuel tank as being unsafe.

This would prove to be quite the predicament because not only was her airplane grounded, but it was low on fuel and Dikki didn’t even have enough money to pay for her meals. Could this be the end of her round-the-world flight? Just what would she do next?

The world will get to know the answer in the early morning hours of May 28, 1949. That was when Dikki and Jack Ellis snuck out to the hangar where their plane was being stored, hopped aboard, basically Dikki stuck her middle finger up at the entire situation, and took off for who knows where… Dikki had previously stated that her next stop would be Buffalo, New York, but many thought that she would hop over the border into Canada to avoid any legal consequences for her actions. Charles Biggs, an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, stated that she “has created an international incident, and is in violation of four rules.”

She soon landed the plane in Toronto, but Canadian authorities ordered her to go back to the United States. She stated, “They weren’t very interested in me. They told me I’d better get back to the United States in my plane.”

Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Star Tribune.

Instead of going back to Chicago, Dikki headed for her original destination of Buffalo. There, she was informed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) that she needed to meet five different requirements before they would allow her to continue with her flight. First, she needed to sell her plane back to the Seattle resident who had sold it to her so that it could be registered in the name of a US citizen. Second, Dikki needed to obtain an export license. Next, she was required to obtain CAA approval for the installation of an additional gas tank and, once that was obtained, a CAA engineer would need to come from New York to inspect the installation, and finally, Dikki needed to obtain a certificate of airworthiness for her airplane. 

As Dikki worked to meet all of these CAA requirements, a new problem arose. Jack Ellis’ wife had arrived in Toronto from England, so he decided that it was time to jump ship, leaving Dikki once again without a navigator. Luckily, her first navigator, Michael Townsend, had recently completed his studies at Cambridge and he was willing to fly to Buffalo and rejoin Dikki on her quest to become the first woman to pilot a plane around the world. “He came out to meet me – which was pretty big of him because he flew by commercial airlines and that cost a lot.”

Flight navigator Michael Townsend.
Flight navigator Michael Townsend. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

An anonymous benefactor provided Dikki with the $300 that she needed to pay off the fines that were levied on her for violation of federal regulations. She was finally able to resume flying on July 9.  Her first stop would be in Montreal, where she was once again grounded because her airplane was considered experimental, which was not permitted to fly over open water in Canada.  She was ordered to return to the United States.  So, she hopped back across the border and landed at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. They refused her admission into the country because her passport was not in order. Dikki had no choice but to fly back to Montréal. It wouldn’t be until August 1, after this latest legal mass was cleared up, that she was able to clear customs in Burlington and fly to Bangor, Maine. After two months of basically going nowhere, it finally seemed like she would be home soon.

From Bangor, she flew to Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada, and encountered more problems. Once again, Canadian authorities refused to allow Dikki to fly her plane over the Atlantic Ocean. She told the press, “The Canadian government refused to let me fly over their territory any longer.” She continued, “Department of transport officials told me to go on home and look after my baby. They said it would cost too much to start a search for me when I got lost.”

On August 12, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent one of its Lancaster bombers from Greenwood, Nova Scotia to escort Dikki’s plane back to Bangor, Maine. At 7:50 AM, Dikki piloted her plane down the runway and once she had gained enough altitude, the escort plane joined up with her. Not long into their flight, Dikki attempted to give the RAF plane the slip. She suddenly swung the plane’s nose around and changed course. Instead of heading for Maine, Dikki was now flying out over the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 6-½ hours, the bomber stayed right with her until she successfully landed her single-engine plane at Bluie West One, a United States airbase located in southern Greenland. She was now outside of Canadian jurisdiction, so the RAF bomber refueled and returned to the Canadian mainland.

Five days later, on August 17, a US Air Force B-17 escorted Dikki on a seven-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland. She landed the plane successfully and was almost home. Her husband Norman, who had been taking care of their daughter Anna for the past year, stated “I shall be very glad to see Dikki. But I shall be doubly glad to let her feed and bathe the baby. I’m tired of playing mother.” He added, “I am very proud of my wife. She is full of pep and very brave and I want her to finish this flight because it means so much to her. I fell in love with Dikki when she was seventeen and even then she was talking about this trip.”

After being held up in Iceland by bad weather, she took off on August 19, 1949, and landed back on European soil for refueling at Prestwick, Scotland. After going through customs and an inspection of the plane, she landed at Croydon Airport in London, making Richarda Morrow-Tait the first woman to ever pilot an airplane around the world, even if it took her one year and one day to complete the flight. As soon as she stepped out of the cockpit, her husband presented her with a bouquet of gladioli and the two embraced lovingly as photographers took pictures. She stated, “No woman had ever flown around the world, and I wanted to show what an ordinary housewife could do.”

Image of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait
Image of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait.

Dikki was uncertain what this flight around the world had cost, but her husband estimated it at $12,000 (nearly $225,000 today). While Dikki was technically required to return her airplane to the United States, she did not do so. Instead, she sold the plane to her Cambridge flying club who never used it and had it scrapped in 1952.

Yet, the story is not quite over. Dikki had acquired two mementos on her trip. The first was a tattoo that she had inked while in the United States. The second was even more surprising: she had not seen her husband in more than a year, yet she was pregnant. The father just happened to be her navigator Michael Townsend. She told the press, “We were to be away for six weeks. We reach Calcutta on the 18th day and we were stuck there for 6 weeks. It was there that Michael started being beastly to me.”

Their baby, Giles, would be born eight months after Dikki’s return to England. On June 10, 1950, Norman Morrow-Tait filed for divorce and soon Dikki was living off of public assistance. “I have an electric sewing machine. I make things for the neighbor’s kids for a few odd shillings. As for domesticity, I’ll meet any housewife with a cooker or a sweeper or down on my knees, even, and show her as good as she can give.”

On February 2, 1951, the divorce was granted, and the court ruled that Dikki would be responsible for the care and control of both her son Giles and daughter Anna. Yet, custody of the children was awarded to Norman Morrow-Tait. This meant that while Dikki would raise the children, her ex-husband had the final say in all decision-making.

Seven weeks later, on March 24, 1951, Dikki would marry Michael Townsend. They would remain married until her death from an incurable blood disease on December 17, 1982.

Dikki received very little acclaim for what she had done and her accomplishment is just a footnote to flying history today. Some have attributed this lack of recognition to her scandalous affair with Michael Townsend that grabbed bigger headlines than her round-the-world trip ever did.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Dikki: “I had more trouble on the ground than I ever had in the air.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Man Steals Railway

 

On July 3, 1938, Joseph Gemma, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $500 ($9,200 today) for stealing “a railroad in broad daylight.” He had previously appealed his case to the state Supreme Court, but they upheld the lower court decision and ruled that he must pay the penalty for his crime.

And just how does one steal an entire railroad?

You do it in tiny little pieces. Gemma had created a false sales agreement for the abandoned Harrisville – Woonsocket Railroad two years prior, which supposedly allowed him to have a gang of workers remove 250 tons of rails, piece-by-piece, and sell the iron for scrap.

1943 photograph taken in Camden, Missouri. Looking east on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad where it crosses over the Wabash Railroad tracks. Library of Congress image.

Airplane Golf Match

 

On June 25, 1923, a very unique golf match was held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. It was a round of airplane golf, which pitted a team of nine professional golfers against nine amateur golfers.

So, you are probably wondering how would aerial golf work? Well, not as well as the event planners had hoped. The basic idea was that there were two airplanes from which golf balls would be dropped down as near as possible to the putting greens on the course below. The professional golf balls had white ribbons attached to them and the amateur balls had red ribbons. Wherever these balls landed, the players on the ground would substitute undecorated balls and attempt to drop them into the hole with the fewest number of strokes.

Things got off to a rocky start when one of the two airplanes involved hit a sprinkler during a practice run. As a result, the other airplane had to drop golf balls for both teams.

At the end of the match, the amateurs won by sinking the golf balls in twenty-five strokes.  The professionals took twenty-six strokes to do the same, although it was pointed out that the white ribbons attached to their balls were wider than the red ribbons, causing their balls to travel a greater distance before striking the green.

J.S. Conroy piloted the airplane for the winning team in the airplane golf match held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. Image appeared on page 13 of the June 30, 1923 issue of the Palladium-Item

Horseless Age Is Not Far Away

 

In 1912, Gleeson Murphy, vice-president of the General Motors Truck Company predicted that the age of the horseless city was not very far away.  He thought that the horse could disappear from city streets within the present generation.

“Today the horse is a municipal luxury. He cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the streets clean and is a menace to health, especially in the crowded city districts. The horse has retarded the proper sanitation of cities more than any other obstacle. We have tolerated the horse all these years because he has been a necessity, but his day of usefulness is past; he is going into decline. For thousands of years he has been a common beast of burden, but the horseless vehicle has been his undoing. His day of supremacy is now a matter of history.”

“Municipalities, corporations and even smaller firms, who have use for only a single job, are changing their horse equipment for the new as speedily as it can be brought about.”

“To make this statement that it is only a question of time before cities will take some legal action to remove the horse from the streets is not stating an improbability.” He continued, “It is simply a matter of education and time; but that time will surely come, and within the next decade or so.”

1914 photograph of the City Bakery horse-drawn delivery wagon. R.W. Scott (?), proprietor, standing beside the horse and Mrs. Scott (?) and a dog are sitting on the carriage seat. Image from the Galt Museum & Archives on Flickr.