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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

The Price of a Kiss – Podcast #145

 

I’ve been piecing this story together for more than a decade in dribs and drabs. Initially, I had no more than half a dozen newspaper clippings that I had gathered up and placed in a manila folder labeled the “Price of a Kiss.” While I’m still left with a few unanswered questions, I’m confident that I have assembled enough of the puzzle pieces to provide a fairly complete telling of the events as they unfolded. It’s one of those stories that started out being focused on one particular woman but soon shifted to that of a man.

His name was Justin Lowell Mitchell. He was born on April 3, 1877, in Napoleon, Ohio, which lies approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Akron. By the turn of the twentieth century, he had relocated 45 miles (72 kilometers) southward to Lima to become a barber. His first, and far from his last, mention in the press came on October 6, 1903, with a brief blurb in the Times-Democrat: “Marriage License. Justice [sic] Mitchell, 26, barber, and Della McElvane, 23, both of Lima.”

1921 passport photo of Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
1921 passport photo of Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

Justin Mitchell had grander dreams. Two years later, he gave up his tonsorial profession and the couple relocated to the windy city, Chicago. There, Della secured a job as a clerk in a retail store where she worked to pay her husband’s way through medical school. It was not enough to make ends meet, so Della’s father generously helped to support the couple.

In 1911, Della intercepted two postcards that had been mailed to her husband. They were from another woman. On May 3, 1911, Della was in court suing her husband for a divorce. “I’m not going to stand for any ‘Morning Glory’ calling my husband ‘Honey Bunch.’” She added, “That wasn’t all, but he used to go to shows with a tall blonde that called him ‘Honey Bunch.’”

The trial quickly evolved into a he-said/she-said accusatorial circus that made headlines in quite a few newspapers. It was quite scandalous for its time. Della accused her husband of numerous affairs with his patients, told of a time that he had thrown her to the floor and broke her eyeglasses, and accused him of using both abusive and profane language when they argued. In turn, Justin called men to the witness stand who supposedly had affairs with Della. Both denied the other’s charges.

Two days later, Judge William Fennimore Cooper, instructed the jury to deliver its verdict. The court found each guilty of infidelity and the divorce request was denied. Both requested new trials, but the press dropped the story like a hot potato. Dr. Mitchell would remarry in 1931, so his first marriage clearly did come to an end at some point. The details, however, are unknown.

As I had mentioned earlier, this story was originally centered around a woman, not Dr. Mitchell. Her name was Mathilde Benkhardt. Born in Germany on December 24, 1892, she arrived in New York and passed through Ellis Island on September 5, 1911. Her 1920 application for naturalization describes her as being “Color White, complexion fair, height 5 feet 1 inches [155 cm], weight 110 pounds [50 kg], color of hair D-Brown, color of eyes D-Brown, other distinctive marks none.” On that same document, she declared, “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein; SO HELP ME GOD.”

Mathilde Benkhardt
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 22 of the March 1, 1923 publication of the Harrisburg Evening News.

Mathilde was determined to improve her position in life. For two years, she worked by day so that she could earn enough to pay her way through high school, which she attended at night. (Sidenote: My late grandfather, Jack Silverman, explained to me many years ago that going to high school in the early 1900s was considered an advanced education. High school was not compulsory nor was it free in many locales.)

Upon graduation from high school, Mathilde spent three years training to be a nurse at the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. Known to the staff as “German,” she was considered to be an excellent nurse. Mathilde was almost certain to be granted her nursing diploma. Yet, they refused to issue it to her and gave her a simple certificate instead.

Why was she denied her diploma? Very simple. At 2 PM on Thursday, April 24, 1919, Mathilde was working in the maternity ward of the hospital when Dr. Mitchell came in and forcibly tried to kiss her.

Mathilde decided to sue. And just what was the price of a kiss? Mathilde Benkhardt was requesting that a jury award her $25,000 (approximately $393,000 today.)

The trial opened in a Chicago courtroom on January 10, 1922, once again placing Dr. Mitchell in the center of a scandalous, he-said/she-said, headline-grabbing story.

Mathilde testified that this was not the first time that Dr. Mitchell had attempted to kiss her. He had done it one other time, back in 1916. “He kissed me in the drug room.”

On the day of that second forced kiss, Mathilde was dressed in her nursing uniform and attending to eighteen newly born babies whose cribs were arranged in a semicircle around the hospital nursery. She testified, “I was standing near the crib of a new born baby. I was bending over the crib. Dr. Mitchell came in. We were alone. He put his hand on my neck.” She continued, “He lifted me up and pushed me into the corner.”

Mathilde was frightened and attempted to push the doctor away but was unable to do so. Just then, the door to the nursery swung open and the superintendent of nurses came in, questioning what had just happened. The doctor whispered to Mathilde, “Don’t mention the incident” before turning to the head nurse and stating, “I think this case was caused by the instruments.”

Within twenty minutes of that attempted kiss, Mathilde reported the attack to the night superintendent, Sister Anna Buschell. In turn, Sister Buschell informed Reverend Frederick Weber, the superintendent of the hospital.

Mathilde described what happened next. “He questioned me privately, also Dr. Mitchell. The same day the board of directors was convened, and I told my story. Dr. Mitchell told the board that he had merely tried to tickle me.”

Mathilde Benkhardt.
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 9 of the January 1, 1921 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Right after the meeting concluded, Mathilde was informed that “Dr. Mitchell must leave within twenty-four hours.” Not long after that, Dr. Mitchell approached Mathilde and told her, “Girl, you’ve made the mistake of your life.”

The next day, Mathilde was subjected to a humiliating examination by a group of six doctors to determine if she was still a virgin or not.

Mathilde was not allowed to return to her nursing position and soon learned that the hospital had decided to dismiss her without her nursing degree. Instead, Reverend Weber handed Mathilde a letter of reference and told her that she could complete her studies at the epileptic school in St. Charles, Missouri. In place of a diploma, on June 6, 1919, six weeks after the incident, the hospital issued Mathilde Benkhardt a certificate that read, in part, “her conduct has been very satisfactory.” Dr. Mitchell, on the other hand, was allowed to stay on as a staff physician without penalty.

When it was Dr. Mitchell’s turn to take the stand, he declared that the charges “are the bunk” and “I am the victim of a plot.”

In his closing argument, Dr. Mitchell’s attorney, Hugh R. Porter, stated, “I believe that the first thing any woman, placed in a position similar to that charged, would do would be to scream. And Miss Benkhardt testified that for twenty minutes she was unable to speak. Can you believe this?”

He added, “While it is true that the examination of the physicians has proved this girl a virgin, it is also true that a girl may be ever so virtuous and still tell a story. She isn’t anybody’s baby. She is 27 years old.”

The jury deliberated the case for nine hours and, on January 14, 1922, notified the court that they had been unable to reach a unanimous decision. The vote was 10 to 2 in favor of Miss Benkhardt. Mathilde’s attorney immediately requested a new trial and the judge agreed.

Miss Benkhardt expressed her displeasure with the press. “If they had only assessed him a penny, I would have been more than satisfied.” She continued, “The money does not mean anything to me, whether they allow me 1 cent or $25,000. It is the principle and my good name I am fighting for.”

A few months prior to the start of the second trial, Dr. Mitchell told reporters, “I’m ready for trial. I have full confidence in my attorney Hugh R. Porter and the average jury. This girl was never wronged either by me or by the hospital. If she wants to go ahead and make more trouble with her suit after juries are allowing such damages as $1 and 6 cents in similar cases, I’m ready.” In fact, there had been a number of similar cases around the same time as this trial. Many were either dismissed or settled out of court, although a few women were awarded small amounts including $3, $25, and $58.50.

On February 21, 1923, Miss Benkhardt once again told her story a packed courtroom and it differed little from that of the first trial. When questioned by attorney Porter as to why she didn’t scream, Mathilde replied, “Because I was too terrified. I couldn’t say anything or tell anybody for twenty minutes. I was so frightened.”

Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court.
Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court. Image appeared on page 32 of the February 22, 1923 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Well aware that the majority of jurists had voted in Miss Benkhardt’s favor, the overall tone of the defense was far more aggressive this time around.

The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Dr. Mitchell took the stand in his own defense. His attitude was more of that of an angry, denying, and at times confused man than that of a well poised man of medicine. He showed none of the cool impersonality displayed by Miss Benkhardt.”

Dr. Mitchell testified, “I did not attempt to kiss Miss Benkhardt. I did not hug her or make any improper advances toward her.”

With World War I still fresh in everyone’s memory, the defense attempted to use Miss Benkhardt’s German heritage against her. Not only was her German accent pointed out to all in the jury, but Dr. Mitchell claimed that in 1917, “I overheard Miss Benkhardt saying, ‘I wish I was in Rockford. Then some of the boys wouldn’t get across. I would put poison in their soup.’ I reprimanded her, and it seems to me that she disliked me after that.” (He appears to be referring to Camp Grant near Rockford, IL, which was one of the largest military training facilities in the United States during WWI.)

Reverend Weber, the hospital’s superintendent, was also asked to take the witness stand. While he admitted that Mathilde had never been allowed to present her case at the meeting where they voted to dismiss her, Weber did his best to discredit her. “In the first place, I learned from the sisters and the nurses that her reputation for truth and veracity was bad.” To discredit this testimony, Reverend Alfred Wenzel, was brought in as a surprise witness and stated that he doubted Reverend Weber’s ability to tell the truth.

The jury reached their verdict on February 23, 1923 and then went home. The judge ordered their decision sealed until the next day. Surprisingly, neither Miss Benkhardt nor Dr. Mitchell were present when the verdict was read. The jury had awarded Mathilde Benkhardt $20,000 for the two kisses that Dr. Mitchell had forced upon her. And there is the answer: the price of a kiss in 1923 was $10,000 per kiss, although the real charges against Dr. Mitchell and the hospital were far more serious than this headline-grabbing monetary award would suggest. Shortly after the decision was handed down, the hospital did the right thing and they expelled Dr. Mitchell and issued Miss Benkhardt the diploma that she had worked so hard to receive.

Mathilde Benkhardt.
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 16 of the February 27, 1923 publication of the Detroit Free Press.

Yet, that wasn’t the end of the case. The jury’s decision was immediately appealed. On October 9, 1923, Judge Julius Kearns denied the motion for a new trial but agreed to reduce the monetary award to $10,000. He stated, “Ten thousand dollars should repair the damaged feelings of any girl.” He added, “The jury’s award was excessive, when, after all the evidence was in, the case resolved itself, despite voluminous testimony into Miss Benkhardt’s vehement, ‘Yes, he did,’ and the doctor’s equally vigorous ‘No, I didn’t.’”

The judge ordered Dr. Mitchell to pay $600 ($9,265 today) per month until the entire $10,000 was paid off. On October 20, 1923, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for failing to pay a single penny. He claimed that he was insolvent and could not do so. Mathilde Benkhardt’s lawyer requested that Dr. Mitchell be placed in a debtor’s cell until he could come up with the money. Instead, the judge opted to release him on a $5,000 bond.

Yet, the payments never came. On November 8, Dr. Mitchell filed an insolvent debtor’s petition, but the judge assigned to handle the case suggested that he would dismiss it. Instead, the judge gave Dr. Mitchell two options: either pay Miss Benkhardt the full $10,000 that he owes her or post an appeal bond of $12,500. Failure to do either would get him locked up in a debtor’s cell for six months. With the help of neighbors, Mitchell was able to come up with the cash for the bond.

Dr. Mitchell’s fight to avoid paying the $10,000 continued until July 25, 1924. That’s when the two sides agreed to a settlement. Dr. Mitchell paid $2,000 (about $30,800 today) and Miss Benkhardt agreed to drop all further legal action against him. Five years, three months, and one day after she had filed a complaint against the doctor, the long battle between the two had come to a close.

Mathilde Benkhardt’s name would fall out of the headlines and it appears that she lived a quiet life after that. She passed away on September 24, 1943, at fifty years of age. 

Yet, Dr. Mitchell’s life seemed to spiral out of control. On January 12, 1925, just five months after that financial settlement, he was once again making headlines on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. This time he was arrested for “performing a criminal operation from the effects of which Mrs. Catherine Martos [Marton?], 27 years old, 6026 South Wood street, is said to be gravely ill.”

This article never mentioned it specifically but implies that Dr. Mitchell was caught performing an illegal abortion. The operation had been done at the Michigan Boulevard Sanitarium, now long gone, which was located at 3750 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 

On July 10, 1928, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for the murder of three infants, all the result of “illegal operations.” I will avoid the gruesome details of this, but the charges were dropped because the prosecution was unable to provide any form of physical evidence to prove their case. It was all based on accusations made by a former hospital assistant superintendent.

On December 10, 1931, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested for murder by an “illegal operation.” In this case, thirty-year-old Mrs. Ethel Vaughan had died from surgical complications.

On May 27, 1933, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested after 20-year-old Mrs. Florence Jordan died. She had told police that Dr. Mitchell had performed an abortion on her on May 8.

On May 23, 1934, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested on a charge of “murder by abortion.” This time the victim was 24-year-old Mary Schwartz.

1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

On February 2, 1936, 20-year-old Alice Haggin, the mother of two children, died. Once again, it was due to abortion complications, a crime for which Dr. Mitchell stood accused.

Yet, somehow, Dr. Mitchell avoided jail time for any of these deaths. Well, his luck finally ran out on February 12, 1936. That is when he was convicted of manslaughter in the April 3, 1935 death of 32-year-old Mary Nowakowski, who went by the name of Mary Novak. Dr. Mitchell was sentenced to one to fourteen years in the Illinois State Penitentiary. An appeal was filed, but the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the lower court’s ruling. The US Supreme Court declined to hear his case.

American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

Dr. Justin Mitchell passed away on May 8, 1941. He was sixty-four years old. It is unclear from publicly available records if he died in prison or not, but his card in the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File offers up a big hint: “April 20, 1939 – Rec’d Ill. State Pen., Joliet, Ill., Nov. 16, 1938 – Convicted of Manslaughter and sentenced to an indeterminate period one to fourteen yrs. Will appear before the Division of Pardons and Paroles at the Nov. 1939 meeting. Given a continuance at Nov. 1939 meeting. Case will be heard again at June 1945 meeting.” That implies that he was still imprisoned at the time of his passing. The file is rubber-stamped in big, bold letters: DEAD.

It’s incredible how far he had fallen in the end.

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

The 34-Year Nightmare – #1 Most Downloaded Podcast Episode

 

The Useless Information Podcast has had millions of downloads since it first launched in January 2008. This particular episode was first released on September 10, 2010, and is the most downloaded story of all those that have been posted. If you have never heard it, take some time and check it out. The story of Stephen Dennison and his 34-year-nightmare is one that my wife and I have talked about quite a bit over the years.

My wife has been bugging me to do this podcast because it takes place in the small town of Salem, NY, which is just a few miles from where she was raised. The story is one of someone getting stuck in the system without any way out.

This is the story of Stephen Heath Dennison, who was born on February 19, 1909. Salem is about four miles east of the Vermont border.

His father was George R. Dennison, and he was left with six children after his first wife died. Unable to care for all of them, five were raised by other relatives. The only child he kept was the youngest – a son named George Jr.

George Sr. then married a woman named Hattie, who gave birth to a son Stephen. Two years later a daughter named Mary Grace was born, but she died at age five from Polio. Tension grew in the household and Steve’s dad started beating Hattie in anger. She grabbed Steve, who was age eight at the time and moved back in with her dad. When Steve was eleven, he learned that his dad George senior had died at age fifty-five.

Steve was not a great student and played hooky all the time. By age sixteen he had only completed the 7th grade and dropped out. That same year, on September 9, 1925, his life was to change in a big way on. He was walking along Route 22 just south of Salem looking for work, possibly by picking corn. Along his way he saw a roadside stand owned by a woman named Nellie Hill. The stand sold things like hotdogs, hamburgers, candy, cigarettes, and so on. Kind of like a primitive version of what a typical convenience store may sell today.

Nellie had closed the stand for lunch, so Steve sat down on a nearby stone to await her return. Steve, like so many others, had a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and became desperate for a smoke. So, with no one around, he pulled out his pocketknife and cut a hole in the canvas surrounding the stand – just big enough for him to step through.

He took three boxes of chocolate, a carton of cigarettes, and some other candies and piled them in a burlap bag he had found there. He was spotted almost immediately and ran as fast as he could. Two men gave chase and he quickly dropped the sack of stolen goods. Steve hid behind a bale of hay in a nearby barn, but the police found him, and he voluntarily surrendered.

He apologized to Nellie Hill, returned everything except the one pack of cigarettes that he had smoked, and was then hauled off to jail. He was charged with third-degree burglary of (2) two-pound and (1) half-pound boxes of Lowney’s Chocolates, (10) packs of Lifesavers, and (6) chocolate marshmallow bars. For some reason they did not charge him with the theft of the cigarettes. Total value: 5 bucks. That doesn’t sound like much, but I checked, and it would about $60.00 today, adjusted for inflation. That must have been some really fine chocolate. He was released on $500.00 bond.

Three weeks later, on October 6th, Steve was brought before a judge. Steve immediately pleaded not guilty, but then the judge asked him if he had consulted a lawyer, which he had not. A lawyer in the courtroom offered his services pro bono but was only given ten minutes to discuss the case with Steve. He then changed his plea to guilty.

The judge gave Steve a one-year probationary sentence, during which he was required to meet with a Methodist Minister named Reverend Claude Winch once each month. Steve immediately got a job but was fired after three months for spending too much time smoking in the boy’s room. He also stopped going to see Reverend Winch because he did not want to admit that he lost his job. On August 12 he was picked up by an officer for violation of his probation. For the second time, cigarettes got him in trouble.

After his re-arrest, the undersherriff asked him several times about what he and other boys did down at the local fishing hole. Steve told him about their sexual experimentation and also of being molested by a man at eleven years of age.

He spent thirty-five days in the Salem jail before being transferred downstate to the New York State Reformatory at Elmira. He was told that, with good behavior, he would be out in thirteen months.

Upon arriving at Elmira, he was given an IQ test and scored a 56, which was estimated to be about nine years of age. Due to his previous interactions with other boys, he was labeled as a “moron – sex pervert.”

Steve’s biggest problem at Elmira was the same problem that got him in trouble the first time – he was desperate for a cigarette, but the rules prohibited it. A fellow inmate suggested that he act insane and get transferred to Naponach – officially the “State Institution for Male Defective Delinquents at Naponach, New York.” He did just that the next time he saw a staff doctor and was transferred on September 15, 1927 to Naponach. As you will soon see, this was a big mistake on Steve’s part. Cigarettes would once again be the cause of it all.

Steve’s mom did try to get him released from Naponach, but her attempts were denied. Judge Rogers, the Salem judge that originally sentenced Steve, wrote to the Naponach warden that he should not be released until he was “cured of his degeneracy”. The arresting officer also wrote to say, “I would not feel justified in consenting his release without some assurance from the authorities in Naponach that he is cured.” He also added that “he was the most disgusting beast that I have ever met up with”. If it is not obvious, they were referring to his sexuality, not his crimes.

At this point Steve’s mom learned that he had been sentenced for “an indeterminate period”, with a maximum of five years. Unfortunately, his only advocate, his mom, died on March 23, 1930 and that was the end of anyone trying to get him out.

His five-years were up on August 13, 1931 and he was all set to leave. Instead, Steve was told that there had been a so-called “clerical error” and that he was recommitted for an additional five years. This time, however, the doctor included a recommendation for parole.

Steve was placed with his mom’s sister on December 16, 1931. Unfortunately, it was the height of the Great Depression and Steve was unable to get a job. His aunt needed the money desperately and demanded that he pay room and board. The friction between them escalated quickly. Without an income, she repeatedly denied Steve the right to date a woman that he had become interested in. The whole situation blew up one day and Steve grabbed a razor and threatened to kill himself. His uncle grabbed the razor away and the situation was diffused. After less than a month of freedom, he was sent back to Naponach on January 14th.

Steve fell into a deep depression and began to show increasing signs of mental instability. On March 3, 1936, he was transferred to Dannemora State Hospital, about twenty miles south of the Canadian border. It is sometimes referred to as “New York’s Siberia” because it is so isolated and cold in the winter. Steve was scheduled to be released in about seven months, but, as you have probably guessed, this did not happen.

Dannemora was very different from Naponach – Dannemora was for the criminally insane and, at the time, offered no treatment, job training, or rehabilitation programs. It was basically a place for prisoners who had become mentally ill to spend out their remaining time on Earth.

Most of the time the prisoners would be placed in a large room where they would stare at each other day-after-day, year-after-year. As one would expect, after years of being deprived of normal stimulation and any chance to lead a normal life, Steve’s condition deteriorated greatly. He was subjected to both drug treatments, one of which placed him in a coma, and electro-shock therapy. Records show that he grew angrier each time he was subjected to these treatments.

Believe it or not, Steve was still in Dannemora in the summer of 1960 (he went in back in 1926) when he received word that a visitor had come to see him. It was his half-brother George, who had last visited Steve twenty-six years earlier. I should point out that this was the last time anyone from the outside had contacted him in any way.

George had drive 125 miles from home in Schuylerville, NY to let Steve know that their Uncle Tom died. Since he had no children of his own, the money was to be split among George, Sr’s seven children from those two different marriages. Each, including Steve, received $1300.

Now if you had been stuck in prison for 34 years for stealing $5.00 worth of chocolate, what would you do with the money? Steve told his brother to keep the cash. He had no use for it in prison. Okay, bad joke. He asked George to use the money to get him out of that place.

George was fairly certain that Steve was sane and hired law firm of George Wein and Arthur Greenburg in Glens Falls, NY. They sought to get Stephen out on Writ of Habeas Corpus, which would ask the court to determine if he was sane and therefore illegally held.

Their first step was to determine if Stephen was sane or not and this move proved to be a big step backward. Since Stephen could not be taken out of Dannemora for examination, they hired a psychologist named Dr. Alan Krakowski to do so. His report of October 4, 1960 diagnosed Steve as being schizophrenic and provided childish and inappropriate responses – the same condition that he had been diagnosed with when he had entered Dannemora.

Enter the picture a guy named William Vincent Canale, who had just graduated from law school and was hired by Wein and Greenburg. One of his first assignments was to research the legal aspects of Stephen Dennison’s case. What he found out was quite interesting.

As you may recall, Steve was originally sentenced to five years, which was then extended to ten years due to that so-called “clerical error”. Just one-day prior to the expiration of his 10-year sentence, Dannemora petitioned the Clinton County court on September 17, 1936, to declare Stephen as insane. Eight days later Judge Thomas F. Croake issued the commitment order to do just that.

At the same time, the court made the decision to commit Steve without telling him what was happening. That means that he was not provided a lawyer, a hearing, a trial nor the chance to produce witnesses to prove that he was sane. He was recommitted after his prison sentence had expired and without any knowledge that it had been done. In other words, he was denied his due process of law provided for by the 14th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Canale realized this was the ticket to get Stephen out. While they could not prove that he was sane, they could prove that he was imprisoned illegally for 24 of the 34 years he had been held by the state. As you know, chocolate thieves are incredibly dangerous. As a result, Steve was transported to the county courthouse handcuffed with a ball-and-chain attached to his leg, which they were nice enough to remove just prior to entering the courtroom.

The presiding judge heard both sides of the case, but the State did not have much of a leg to stand on. On December 16, 1960, after 34 years, 4 months, and 5 days in prison, 51-year-old Stephen Dennison became a free man. The scary part is that he really was not imprisoned this long for the theft of the chocolates; he was really there because of his sexuality.

Steve was immediately taken back to Dannemora, but this time without the shackles. The state provided him with new clothes – a suit, underwear, hat, coat, etc, and a razor. Taped to his discharge paper was all the money that he had saved over his 34 years in the system – two pennies. They even had him sign to confirm that he received them.

He went to live with his half-brother upon his release, but life was exceedingly difficult for Steve. It was like he had time-traveled and was just dropped into a different era. Just think how much the world changed technologically during the time of his imprisonment. Steve did not know how to operate even the simplest of things like electric light switches or dial a telephone number.

Clearly a lawsuit was to follow. Illegally imprisoning someone for all those years comes at a great cost – the inability to work and accumulate a savings, date, get married, the right to vote, and let us not forget the toll that imprisonment in a psychiatric institution has on one’s mental state.

In February of 1961 they sued the state for $500,500 in damages. The trial started in Albany, NY on November 3, 1965 and took a full month, although the actual court proceedings took just four days.

Upon his release he was tested by several psychologists and found to be fairly average in IQ. It was also learned during testimony that the psychologist that they hired – Dr. Alan Krakowski – never examined Steve in any way, shape, or form – he just read through his 34 years of prison records and determined that he was schizophrenic.

But the records had a major flaw – Steve had only been given two psychological examinations during his entire 34 years in the system. The first was when he initially entered Elmira as a teenager and the second a year later when he was transferred to Naponach so he could smoke his cigarettes. For the next thirty-three years, every psychological report was basically a reworking of these two initial reports.

A decision was made on March 24th, 1966 to award Steve $115,000, but he would never see a penny of it. The State of New York filed an appeal and one year later, on May 22, 1967, the Appellate Court in Albany reversed the decision. It seems that it was standard practice at the time to recommit prisoners after their term had expired if deemed mentally ill. You cannot go back and apply modern rules and regulations to practices in the past that were deemed correct at the time.

They appealed to the Supreme Court, but the case was never heard. At that point, his story fell out of the headlines and I could find little more about Stephen Dennison. I do know that he had to go on public assistance and worked as a janitor for a while, but that is about it. I was able to confirm that he died on May 4, 1991 ate the age of 82.

So, kids, stay away from those cigarettes. Just look at what they did for Stephen Dennison. A 34-year nightmare that only ended because Steve was fortunate enough to inherit some money. Just think how many people may have been stuck there because they were not that lucky.

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

The Wrist-Twist Instant Steering System

 

In the days prior to airbags, that round thing jutting out of the dashboard of your car – aka the steering wheel – could be deadly in a head-on crash.  Not only that, but the steering wheel can block out portions of the instrument panel and, at times, obstruct the driver’s vision.

In 1965, aerospace engineer Robert J. Rumpf set out to redesign the steering wheel in an attempt to overcome these problems.  His solution was called the Wrist-Twist Instant Steering system, it consisted of two 5-inch (12.7 cm) plastic rings located to the left and right of where a standard steering wheel would sit.  Think of an elongated airplane yoke with two small rings at either end.  The positioning of these two wheels removed them from both the line of sight and from possible impact with one’s head in an accident.

Installed in four 1965 Mercury Park Lane convertibles, one could use one or both of the wheels, which were tied together by a chain, to steer the vehicle. Driving was supposedly simplified with the Wrist-Twist system, but those who had the opportunity to test drive one found that it was less intuitive to learn than a standard steering wheel. 

There is a video of the Wrist-Twist system in action on YouTube.  It is a bit sexist in its implication that women are inferior drivers, but it clearly shows how it works. I had to laugh when a woman demonstrated how easy it was to parallel park with this new steering system – if you watch carefully, another car is moving backward.  In other words, she was really driving out of the parking space and they ran the film in reverse to make it look like she was parking the car with ease.

The Wrist-Twist system never caught on. It’s hard to say why, but my guess is that it made a simple device far more complicated than it needed to be.

Podcast #145 – Bad Apples #1 – The Best Years of Our Lives

 

Note: The following is an automated transcription of the podcast. As a result, it may contain errors.

Steve Silverman So, on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I watched the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. And honestly, I thought about this movie for days afterward. And since I do a history podcast, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss this old movie as part of the podcast. And since we’re both teachers, at least she’s still a teacher, and I’m a retired teacher. I figured since we have the website Rotten Tomatoes, we should call this Bad Apples. Anyway, welcome to the show, my wife, Mary Jane.

Mary Jane Hi.

Steve Silverman And Mary Jane, had you ever heard of this movie before?

Mary Jane No, I’d never heard of it before.

Steve Silverman Yeah, me either. And considering it was so successful at the time, and it’s such a classic movie, to have never seen it or never heard of, it’s pretty amazing. So, let me do a little background on the movie. It was made in 1946. That’s the same year as It’s a Wonderful Life. That makes it 75 years old right now. It was released one year after World War Two ended, and it was the highest-grossing film in all of the 1940s. In fact, up until this time, no movie had done more business except for Gone with the Wind. In fact, is still the sixth most attended movie of all time in the UK. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 movies chosen by the Library of Congress for the US National Film Registry. And, I should mention this movie was totally free online. If you go to archive.org you can watch it for free. The movie won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture Best Director, Frederick March won Best Actor, Harold Russell, he won Best Supporting Actor. And as you know, in every podcast I ask a Question of the Day. So here’s the question: In fact, by winning the Best Supporting Actor, Harold Russell became the only person in Academy history to have what honor? Do you know what honor that was? I don’t? Well, you’ll hang around to the end of this podcast, the end of this story, and you’ll find out. I should point out this is not an action movie. Do you agree with that?

Mary Jane I absolutely agree that it is not an action movie.

Steve Silverman Yeah. I mean.

Mary Jane It’s a melodrama.

Steve Silverman Yeah. You’d think a war movie would be an action movie, but it’s not. And probably the most noticeable thing about this movie. It’s very long. It runs almost three hours, two hours and 50 minutes. Now, did you feel that it was a long movie? Or is it just seemed okay.

Mary Jane Well, you know, I sensed that it was long, but certainly, I certainly didn’t think it was approaching three hours.

Steve Silverman Yeah. When it ended, I thought it was about two hours. Just starting to get to that point where you get a little fidgety in your seat. But I had no idea it was approaching the three hour mark. It just never dragged for a single moment that we watched it.

The movie took place in Boone City, which is a fictitious town in the Corn Belt. And it’s the story of three men who come back from World War Two. And they had never met before their plane ride back aboard an army airplane. And it’s all about their attempts to pick up their lives afterwards. All three of them arrived home to warm greetings by their families, but they soon realized that life has gone on without them. And not only have they changed, but so their families and the world around them.

The movie does a great job of showing the difficulties that faced soldiers returning back home after World War Two, you know, the lack of jobs, lack of housing, and just the overall problem of readjusting into ordinary life. Now there may have been other movies prior to this that dealt with it, but I think this may be the first mainstream movie to examine the effects of PTSD. I mean, are you aware of any movie prior to this that dealt with that?

Mary Jane No, not not so close to World War Two.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, this movie was, they started making this movie within months of the war ending. So we’ll talk about that as we go through this. So I thought what we do is talk about each of the three stories starting with the oldest man first.

So Frederick March plays Sergeant Al Stephenson. He’s in his 40s and he’s a banker. What did you think about his role? Did it seem believable to you?

Mary Jane Yeah, I thought he did a great job.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And he won the Academy Award for it, so I think others agree.

Mary Jane It makes sense.

Steve Silverman Yeah.

And now I would, I would say the only part I didn’t like about his role was when he played being drunk. A couple of times, particularly is a scene where he’s in a bar, and he’s really, really drunk, and he’s dancing with everyone. And then there’s a car ride home. And he’s a little bit over the top, I thought, but overall, I really did like the scenes and how it played out with him. Now, Myrna Loy plays his wife. Now, she was a big time actress at this time, but she just basically has a sub part in this movie. What did you think about her?

Mary Jane I thought she did a great job. She kind of represents the mature spouse who understands her partner and she doesn’t push too hard when he clearly is over drinking a lot. I mean, yeah, I thought she did a great job.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, the one scene where she, where he’s drunk, and she’s counting, you know, she’s taking her knife and carving how many drinks, you know, he had into the table. That was. I don’t know. That seemed very realistic to me. You can just see the look on her face. Honestly, I thought she was the second best actor in this movie. Every scene that she was in, she just handled really well. And she wasn’t acting over the top or anything. I just thought she was very realistic in what she was doing.

Mary Jane I thought she did a great job. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t put her as the second best, but that’s just my opinion.

Steve Silverman Yeah. So that’s why we’re talking about the movie. Now their family is clearly well off. They have an elegant apartment, nice clothes, and everyone seems happy, at least at first. Now, you want to just talk a little bit about why he starts to become unhappy and why he turns to drinking?

Mary Jane Well, I think when he arrives home, he can’t believe how much his kids have changed. And there’s actually, you know, problems of like, almost a generation gap. When he speaks to his son, and gives him, tries to give him a sword from Japan, the son almost can’t relate to what he’s gone through.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Honestly, I thought the son was the worst actor in the movie. He was so stiff. And they wrote him out. I mean, he was only in the beginning couple of scenes. And then he just disappears from the movie. The daughter, which is Teresa Wright, she’s a big character in the whole movie, but the son never appears again after that, and I think that’s probably because he was he wasn’t that great of an actor. I could be wrong. I couldn’t help but wonder why they even put his part in there. I mean, why couldn’t you have just come home and you know, had one daughter and not a son who was so stiff and such a bad actor, and really was written out of the movie pretty quickly.

Mary Jane Well, I mean, he did even question what was done during the war, right, dropping of the atomic bomb. I think that little piece was important for the storyline.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I guess, but it just, I just didn’t like what he was doing. He, I thought he was the worst part of the movie. I mean, the movie was very good. But that one little, anytime he was on the screen. I just felt like he couldn’t act. So anyway, that’s my opinion.

So, Teresa Wright played his daughter. And had you ever seen Theresa Wright before?

Mary Jane I don’t think so.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I’ve seen her in a few movies. The first time I think I ever saw was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, called Shadow of a Doubt. I probably saw that about 35 years ago, so I was just, you know, going through a phase where I was watching all the old Alfred Hitchcock movies. And I actually really liked that movie. It’s a very good Hitchcock movie. It’s not one of his most famous ones like Psycho or Rear Window or Vertigo, but it’s a really, really good movie that he did. And that’s the first time I ever saw her. Now she plays a key part in this movie. Not only is she Al Stephenson’s daughter, but she becomes a love interest of the next character we’re going to talk about, because that’s Captain Fred Derry who’s played by Dana Andrews. Now, Fred was a crew member on a bomber and is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Yet, he returns home to find his life back home is far worse than it was when he was dropping bombs. Do you want to talk a little bit about what his life was like when he came home?

Mary Jane Well, he can’t seem to find it seems like he’s underemployed. He actually goes back to where he worked before. And he called described himself as a soda jerk. You know, so he’s, he wants to do better, but he can’t seem to find better employment.

Steve Silverman And that was a common problem. After the war, all these men came home and there was no place for them to find jobs, at least good-paying jobs. Now, his character supposedly married 20 days prior to leaving for war. And his wife Marie Derry is played by Virginia Mayo and she plays kind of a ditzy, you know, showgirl, I guess you could say.

Mary Jane Right, almost trashy, I would say.

Steve Silverman Yeah, trashy is probably a good way to describe it.

Mary Jane Yeah.

Steve Silverman What did you think about their interaction?

Mary Jane Well, clearly they were married kind of on the fly. And she wasn’t really so interested in him so much as the soldier that she had met right before he left.

Steve Silverman And there’s a scene in the movie where he comes in and he’s not wearing his uniform. And she is not impressed.

Mary Jane Right. She’s very disappointed just to see him the way he’s dressed. And he is uncomfortable with the fact that she wants him to put back that uniform back on and he kind of wants to start a new life.

Steve Silverman Right. And also, he’s not earning enough money for her. She has very expensive tastes, and he was earning good money in the military. But now that he has a civilian job, he’s not doing well. And she’s just complaining, you know, she’s basically whining and complaining, right?

Mary Jane She’s definitely not as empathetic and nurturing as the other women characters. Yeah.

Steve Silverman You know, you know, pretty early on this marriage is not gonna work out.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, he gets back. You can’t even find her actually, because she’s working in some nightclub. He doesn’t even know where she is.

Steve Silverman Right. And, and it’s kind of clear that, you know, they couldn’t do this in the 1940s. But it’s clear she’s been with other men. I think that’s implied by her character.

Mary Jane Right, right, definitely.

Steve Silverman Of course another love interest comes into his life. That’s Peggy Stephenson, who is played by Teresa Wright. And she’s playing Al Stephenson’s, Sargeant Al Stephenson’s daughter. Did you feel that that relationship as it was building that it was? I don’t know, to me it didn’t seem like a real relationship. It was like almost like they looked at each other and then they’re in love and you know?

Mary Jane Yes. I mean, it may not been as developed as it could have been. Yeah, it did seem like suddenly they really cared about each other out of the blue, sort of, yeah.

Steve Silverman Yeah, it seemed a little thrown together. I would have liked to have seen that developed a little bit better in the movie. I would say there’s one of the few weaknesses in the movie is that that one little story arc, that little portion of the story wasn’t developed. It was almost like they, you know, it was like instant love and it didn’t play as well as I had hoped. I think if they had somehow thrown a little bit more into the movie to develop that it would have been better. Now, one of my favorite scenes in the movie was at an aircraft graveyard in Ontario, California, where he is walking along through all these airplanes that are being dismantled. What did you think about that scene?

Mary Jane I thought it was great. I mean, there was really ominous music and you understood kind of right away that he felt, you know, like he was becoming obsolete kind of like the planes.

Steve Silverman Yeah, it basically, you know, now that the war is over, there’s no use for these planes, and there’s no use for him. And, honestly, I thought it was spectacularly filmed. I mean, just that scene, it was just so grand to look at. Just something that’ll probably stay with me for the rest of my life. I mean, there really wasn’t much dialogue. I can’t play it for anybody. But just you know, you can see him reflecting on his life. And it’s also a turning point in the movie, but I’m not going to give that away.

Mary Jane Right, right.

Steve Silverman Now the third story that’s interwoven with the other two leading men is that of Homer Parrish, played by Harold Russell. And he’s a he’s a Navy man who worked below deck and he claims he never saw combat. That basically he was below deck for the entire war. And of course, what happened to him?

Mary Jane They were bombed apparently, and his his two arms were burned off.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And would you agree with me that you weren’t sure for most of the movie whether he really was an amputee or not?

Mary Jane Oh, absolutely. That’s what it kind of kept me thinking, you know, like, is this guy a real true double amputee? Or are they do they have kind of like, pretend prosthetics on his arms? I couldn’t tell.

Steve Silverman Of course, what is the truth?

Mary Jane The truth is what you actually discover watching the film at the towards the very end is he is truly a double amputee from the war. And it’s the, the scene is pretty startling. Yeah.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I think the scene where he reveals that, you know, I mean, there were other scenes where he was getting dressed. Like there was a scene where his father helped him get ready for bed, but they never showed, you know that he was missing the lower portion of his arms.

Mary Jane Yeah, right below his chest area. They didn’t really show, right.

Steve Silverman I think actually, the best scene in the movie is when he is with his fiance Wilma. And he’s trying to explain to her what life is like living with a double amputee. And, you know, they go up to his bedroom, and he’s getting ready for bed and he’s showing her what he’s going through.

Mary Jane Right. And every night you’re going to have to help me with this because they have to remove the straps and everything. So yeah.

Steve Silverman I think that was the best scene in the movie. I don’t know if you agree with that or not.

Mary Jane As I described it, it’s kind of startling. And yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s memorable. For sure.

Steve Silverman Yeah. So why don’t we play a short clip of that?

Mary Jane Great. Okay.

Steve Silverman So to set the scene up Homer, who’s played by Harold Russell, he’s up in his bedroom in his parents house showing his fiance Wilma, who is played by Cathy O’Donnell, what it’s like when he removes his prosthetic arms for the evening.

Homer Parrish This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. Can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book? That door should most shut icon open get out of this room? Who’s dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything? cry? Fine. Well, now you know. I have an idea of what it is. I guess you don’t know what to say. It’s all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said.

Wilma I know what to say, Homer. I love you. And I’m never going to leave you. Never.

Steve Silverman Let’s talk a little bit about Harold Russell, quickly, because he was not an actor. From what I read the part was originally written to be about a man suffering from shell shock. But it was rewritten after director William Wyler saw him in a military educational film that was called Diary of a Sergeant. And by the way, that’s for free also on archive.org. And I think it’s also on YouTube.

Mary Jane It’s worth watching, also.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Basically, it was footage of him and how he learned to adapt with these, basically these maneuverable hooks that he had for hands and arms. And, honestly, I don’t know about you, but I was amazed what he could do with that.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, actually, if you watch the film, you’ll learn that he has to move his right shoulder blade in order to use his left hand and his left shoulder blade to use his right hand r pincers, you would almost say.

Steve Silverman This is in the documentary and not in the movie we’re talking about.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman Now, you know, from the beginning of the movie, from The Best Years of Our Lives, from the very beginning, and you’re not really sure if he really has prosthetics or not. But you know he’s really good with him because the first thing he does is like, he signs his name. And then another time he

Mary Jane Lights a cigarette for someone else.

Steve Silverman Yeah, he grabs the matches and he lights the matches and lights his cigarettes, and he and he lights it for the other two guys. Pretty amazing. The whole movie I just, you know, at first, I wasn’t sure if they were real or not. But, holy cow, he had incredible skill.

Mary Jane Right. And at one point, of course, it’s a duet, but he actually plays the piano with his uncle in one scene.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And I should mention the uncle is Hoagy Carmichael, who was, you know, very famous as famous in his day.

Mary Jane Okay. I didn’t know Hoagy. But that’s great to know.

Steve Silverman Now, I should tell you, I mean, you actually know this, I think that he lost his limbs, not in combat, but he was in the United States training others. And he went to grab a box of TNT and it had a defective fuse and it blew up. And that’s how he lost his two arms.

Mary Jane Right. Right. But still, you know, it’s just as tragic.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And he was a student at Boston University when they asked him to be in the movie. And in fact, when the movie ended, shortly after all the publicity and all the fame had died down, he went back and he got his degree from there. So he didn’t stop his education become a big movie star.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman It was one of the few roles that he actually did. Now, did you think him being a non-actor was good or bad?

Mary Jane I actually thought it was a real positive. I think they took a bit of a gamble and it really paid off because he injected a bit of realism into that character. That you know, all the other characters you know, they kind of have a Hollywood look to them. They’re actually quite attractive and all that. He’s kind of he looks like your next-door neighbor. He even had a regional accent, which I liked.

Steve Silverman Yeah, except this was in Bostonian.

Mary Jane They’re supposed to be…

Steve Silverman You don’t really notice it in the movie until you think about it.

Mary Jane I kind of noticed. I love accents.

Steve Silverman Yeah, but you’re a language teacher.

Mary Jane Yeah.

Steve Silverman But yeah, so he has a Bostonian accent. He’s supposedly, you know, raised in the Midwest from when he was a baby. So, a little out of place, but I didn’t notice that. But honestly, I thought every scene that he was in was the best part of the movie. I’m not really sure this movie would have been as great if he wasn’t in that movie. I think it would have just been an ordinary, you know, war movie, but because he was in that movie, I thought he made all the difference.

Mary Jane I absolutely agree. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So this leads to the answer of what honor Harold Russell has with the Academy.

Mary Jane Okay.

Steve Silverman With the Oscars. And that is he is the only person to win two Academy Awards for the same exact role. So basically, they didn’t think he win Best Supporting Actor, but they wanted to honor him somehow. So, they gave him an honorary Oscar for “For bringing hope and courage to the fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” So that was his first Academy Award that night. And then, of course, later in the evening, he won Best Supporting Actor. So he’s the only person in history to get two Oscars for the same exact role. Now, do you think he deserved it?

Mary Jane Yeah, I did. I thought he did a great job. As I said, they took a risk in a way but it really paid off.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I think it was well deserved. It has nothing to do with me even being an amputee. He just made the movie. He made it more realistic. Without him in the movie, the movie would just have been an ordinary movie. He is what made this movie exceptional.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, the other two, you know, one is, you know, possibly going to have issues with alcoholism. And the other is, you know, dealing with depression, possibly, but his problem is, it’s pretty front and center and you do grow to care about the character.

Steve Silverman So which of these three stories did you like best? Of course, we have the older gentleman play by Frederick March, who, you know is a banker, and he lives in a very nice apartment and everything seems to be going well, although he is on the verge of becoming an alcoholic. And then we have the second part, Captain Fred Derry played by Dana Andrews. You know, and he can’t seem to find his place in the world, but he comes back, he can’t get a good job, his marriage is falling apart. And then, of course, we have Harold Russell is Homer Parrish. His biggest problem, I think is, you know, trying not just having people accept him and not treat him differently. But he can understand why people would want to treat him in the same way, particularly his fiance, why would she want to marry him now that he’s a double amputee? So of those three characters running through the movie, which one did you like the best?

Mary Jane Well, I think I’ve already kind of indicated that, but again, it’s going to be the one with Homer Parrish and his, his sweetheart, you know, or just his circumstance, the sweetheart doesn’t have a very big part herself, but just him accepting what he has and not feeling self-conscious.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Yeah, he definitely is the best part of the movie, as I’ve said this several times already. Without him, I don’t think the movie would have played as well. Now, would you say this is a political movie?

Mary Jane I mean, it I would literally call it an ode to the American GI.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, there’s very little in the way of politics in there. You already mentioned about the son talking a little bit about bombing and nuclear power, and so on. So there is one scene where Homer goes into the pharmacy and he sees a captain Fred Derry, he’s the one who’s playing the soda jerk. And a man walks in. And that’s probably the most political portion of the movie. The guy basically is questioning why we were in the war. And I have to be honest, I was kind of shocked by this. Now, he never really tell you why he disagrees with, you know, the United States being part of the war. You just keep saying, you know, kind of read the facts, look at the facts. But it is the most political part of the movie, but it’s not a political movie. So I thought what I do is play a clip of that.

Mary Jane Okay, that sounds good. So let’s

Steve Silverman So, let’s take a listen.

Unnamed Character You got plenty of guts. Terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself? And for what?

Homer Parrish And for what? I don’t get to Mister.

Unnamed Character Well. We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.

Homer Parrish Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.

Unnamed Character No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight that Limeys and the Reds. And they would have whipped them, too. We didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.

Homer Parrish What are you talking about?

Unnamed Character We fought the wrong people. That’s all. Just read the facts, my friend, find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.

Steve Silverman So what is the title The Best Years of Our Lives mean to you?

Mary Jane Well, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that question. But I possibly what’s ahead of them now that they’re back. They’re back from the war, and you hope that what’s ahead of them is the best years of their lives.

Steve Silverman Now there’s only one time in the movie that they kind of mentioned something like that. Yeah. Marie Derry, played by Virginia Mayo. She plays the showgirl, you know, cocktail waitress, I guess. And she says something to the effect, like, Oh, I gave up the best years of my life. So let’s take a quick listen to that.

Mary Jane All right. Yep.

Steve Silverman So here’s a short clip with Fred Derry, who’s played by Dana Andrews, comes home to find his wife, Marie, who was played by Virginia Mayo, alone in their apartment with another man. She claims he’s just a friend.

Fred Derry Did you know him while I was away?

Marie Derry I know lots of people. What do you think I was doing all those years?

Fred Derry I don’t know, babe. But I can guess.

Marie Derry Go ahead, get your head off. I could do some guessing myself. What were you up to in London, in Paris and all those places? I’ve given you every chance to make something yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life and what have you done? You flop. Couldn’t even hold that job in the drugstore. So I’m going back to work for myself. That means I’m going to live for myself too. And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce. What have you got to say to that?

Steve Silverman So I interpreted the title, when I thought about it afterward, after seeing the movie, the way I interpreted it was that basically, all these people, they were away at war, their family’s back at home, they all gave up the best years of their lives that they missed out on so much. Whereas you’re looking at it from the opposite point of view that they have the best years in front of them. So maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Mary Jane Possibly. That’s the way I saw it, though. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So Mary Jane, I said what my favorite scene is, what was your favorite scene in the movie?

Mary Jane So my favorite scene takes place at the very end of the movie, and I’m going to try not to give too much away but it’s where there’s a family gathering in a home, and it’s very intimate. And at one point, the character of Homer Parrish has to do this very basic task. And it seems like everyone in the room kind of holds their breath. They’re not sure he’s gonna be able to do it, because he’s using his hooks to do it. And he does succeed, I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is, but, and then there’s this kind of a sigh of relief from everyone. And they know, at that moment, that he’s going to have a happy life. He’s going to succeed, even though he has this terrible disability. And I just think the message is very positive. It’s almost, I feel the whole movie is a bit of a love story to the American soldier. And the message is, it’s going to be all right, you know, the ending message. And I just think it’s, it’s a great way to finish it. And I really was very impressed with that actor. And I do call him an actor, even though he was an amateur actor. So that’s my favorite scene. I hope I didn’t give away too much.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I will add to that. I did read that he fumbled his line at that point. And he decided to leave it in because it made it more human, you know, made the ending more realistic.

Mary Jane Yes, I think, as I said earlier, I think they took a bit of a gamble, working with someone who is a non-actor, but he made the film. He made the film.

Steve Silverman I totally agree. So as you know, I always include three additional short stories at the end of each podcast. So I thought it’d be interesting to see what the critics thought of this movie when it was first released. Now, we’re not going to read them in their entirety. We’re just going to read excerpts of each. So Mary Jane, why don’t you start with the first one.

Mary Jane This is from the December 26 1946 publication of the LA Times. “What most differentiates The Best Years of Our Lives from other post-war emprises is the presence of Harold Russell, the ex army paratrooper. He appears as one of the three central male figures whose stories are related. While his is not an acting part of great exactions, he succeeds in bringing enormous impact through the utter simplicity and sincerity of what he does. His work endows The Best Years of Our Lives with factual power. The Russell adjustment to the civilian environment is a deeply wrought thing. The most moving and central development in the plot. What the war brought him, besides an ephemeral glory, is a physical tragedy that has beset many men – loss of hand or foot or other permanent disability.”

Steve Silverman Wow, that was very well written. Let’s do another one. This is from an article written by Marjorie Adams that appeared in the December 26, 1946 publication in the Boston Globe. “The Best Years of Our Lives, which had its Christmas Day opening at the Esquire Theatre is one of the best pictures of all time. There are a few films which have such unqualified appeal to men and women of every walk of life – to the connoisseur of the cinema and to the everyday picture-goer, who is looking for entertainment and doesn’t particularly care how superior is the technique as long as there’s an engrossing story.” The article continues, “The picture runs three hours and they are good hours. There are few films that can stand up against such a test but The Best Years of Our Lives is so heartwarming that everyone who has already seen it in the preview room has already made arrangements to see it again at the Esquire Theater.” The article concludes, “The Best Years of Our Lives” is an eloquent tribute to returning veterans: a magnificent brilliant contribution to motion pictures as an art and a Christmas present handsomely wrapped in silver paper with crimson ribbon and gold stars for audiences who don’t get excited about art but who do love a fine film.” Mary Jane, why don’t you read the last one. This is from the November 22, 1946 publication of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Mary Jane “It is not only the most significant film story yet told about veterans of World War Two seeking their places in the post-war world. It is also one of the few brilliant films of the year, combining a fresh and utterly human drama with beautiful acting, heartwarming writing, gentle, unpretentious directing, and the fine technical touches, photographic scenic and sound that nearly always are to be found in a Goldwyn production.

Steve Silverman Okay, so we’re titling this Bad Apples. So, on a scale of 1 to 10 bad apples, how would you rate it?

Mary Jane You know, before you and I talked, I definitely thought it was an eight. I think it’d be nice to see some more films because we’re just starting this. Maybe I would actually up it a little but right now I’m putting it at an eight.

Steve Silverman Okay, that’s where I put it, as an eight. I think the movies excellent. I really really liked this movie but you have to put yourself in a 1940s frame of mind because it is a black and white movie. Some of the acting is his typical 1940s, not like acting is today. So you know, if you take that little bit out, it’s a great movie. So would you recommend this movie to others?

Mary Jane I would recommend it to someone who really likes history and is willing to watch a black and white film. I thought it was very interesting.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I would definitely recommend it, also. I would just say anyone who wants an action movie, this is not for you. And, you know, I do know, having been a teacher for 30 years, there are some people, particularly, you know, students who will not watch black and white movies. They just, as soon as they see black and white, they just turn it off. So that could be a problem also, but I do recommend the movie. I think people should, if you have even the slightest interest, you should just go to archive.org and pull up The Best Years of Our Lives. I think you’re really going to like it. One thing that really, I was thinking throughout the movie, and it’s kind of spooky, is that not a single person that you’re looking at on the screen there is alive anymore.

Mary Jane Yeah. We talked about that.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, Teresa Wright, who I always remember as a young woman, I mean, she was probably in her, you know, mid to late 20s when this movie was made. I mean, every movie, I’ve seen her and she’s been a young woman, and she’s not alive anymore. I mean, probably the only people who could be alive are the little kids in the movie, and they just have very, very minor roles in the movie. So every single actor is no longer live. And that’s kind of sad to think about.

Mary Jane It’s kind of it’s kind of spooky. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So I’d like to thank my wife, Mary Jane, for being part of this show.

Mary Jane You are very welcome, Steve.

Steve Silverman Occasionally, you’ll hear her doing some French pronunciations, or some Spanish for me in the podcast throughout the years. But overall, this is the biggest role she’s played, other than being forced to listen to every episode before I post it.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman So let me know what you think about this segment. Should we keep doing these Movie Reviews? And if you saw the movie, what did you think about the movie? Did you like it? Did you dislike it? Just let me know. I’d be curious to know what other people think. You can post your comments on Facebook, you can go to my website, which is uselessinformation.org, and there’s a link there to contact me, or you can email me directly at steve@uselessinformation.org. That’s steve@uselessinformation.org. Again, the movie is The Best Years of Our Lives. And it’s available for free on archive.org. There’s lots of great movies there, TV shows, old-time radio, and so on.

Mary Jane It’s a great source.

Steve Silverman Yeah, you do have to be careful on archive.org because they have no filters. There’s a lot of adult material, so you don’t want your child roaming around there. But anyway, you can also stream it through Amazon and RedBox. I’m not really sure if Netflix had it. But Amazon and RedBox both charge $2.99 to watch the movie. You can also check your local library. I checked our local library and they can pull in DVDs from libraries in the region. And they have three copies available within basically a 20-minute drive of our home. So I suspect that your library will have it in stock also. Anyway, thanks for listening and thanks again to my wife for participating.

Mary Jane You’re welcome, Steve.

Steve Silverman Yes. And take care everyone.

Mary Jane Okay, bye bye.

Illuminated Tires

 

Next up we have tires that were developed by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company that were first introduced to the public in 1960.  The cool thing about these tires was that they could be lit up in a rainbow of colors.

This was not done by having lightbulbs of varying colors shine down from above.  Instead, the tires were made from a specially compounded synthetic rubber named Neothane that was translucent in nature. The tires were made by pouring the liquid Neothane into molds, a colored dye then added, and then cured in an industrial oven.  Forget about those boring black rubber tires; these Neothane tires could be made in hot pink, green, blue, or whatever color suited the buyer’s taste.

To light up the tires, electrical current was fed through a special wiring device to eighteen small bulbs that were mounted in the rim. 

The tires were most famously installed on the Golden Sahara II, a late-1950s concept car, but these vibrant colorful tires never caught on.  There are pictures of the tires online, so be sure to search them out. My hunch is that if they were reintroduced today, more buyers would purchase them to spruce up their wheels.

Highway Hi-Fi Record Player

 

A new accessory that buyers of Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial vehicles – all manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation – could opt for in 1956 was the Highway Hi-Fi system.  It was a specially developed record player that was mounted in a shock-proof case that was installed just below the central portion of the dashboard. 

Anyone who is old enough to remember records knows that they were notorious for skipping. Not so with the Highway Hi-Fi player. Tests demonstrated that it was nearly impossible to make the needle jump a groove, no matter how bumpy the ride is. 

Six long-play records could be stored in the Highway Hi-Fi’s case, but these were not ordinary records. They were specially designed by CBS Laboratories and were 7 inches (17.8 cm) in diameter). Each side could play up to forty-five minutes of music or one-hour of speech.

Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi system mounted under the dashboard of a car.
Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi system mounted under the dashboard of a car. Image originally appeared on page 16 of the December 1955 issue of Audio magazine.

Podcast #144 – The Sleep-Walking Murderer

 

Years ago, I rented an apartment in the southern portion of Troy, New York, and behind the complex was an old cemetery.  I spent a lot of time there riding my bike on its paved roads and reading books while sitting under its trees for shade.  The vast majority of the tombstones were simple and weather-beaten, while others were grand and indicative of great wealth.  Yet, one thing was clear from wandering around the cemetery for the seven years that I lived there: tombstones say very little about the person buried in that spot. Typically, all one gets for their entire life of living is their name and year of birth and death carved into the stone.  Nothing else.

For example, there is a tombstone in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York that has six members of the De Hall family noted. It is an ordinary granite marker that would give a passerby no cause to stop and take notice. Yet, if one were to stop, they would probably be most curious about the name at the very top: Salvatore De Hall. Chiseled in on the left of his name is his year of birth: 1916.  On the right is the year of his death: 1930. That’s a fourteen-year difference, which is far too young for anyone to die.

The De Hall tombstone. Note that the father’s name is John D. Hall. Philomena was Michael Filosa’s wife. Image appears on the BillionGraves website.

And then you start to wonder. How did young Salvatore die? Was it a bad heart? Disease? A tragic accident? The answer is none of the above.  It was cold-blooded murder. Forgotten today, the trial of his murderer would be front-page news in the New York newspapers for nearly three years. 

The scene of the crime was at 20 Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, which is within walking distance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Today, a non-descript warehouse has replaced the three-story brick building that once stood on that site.  On November 24, 1930, the day of the crime, it was home to Mrs. Anna De Hall and her three children. They were 14-year-old Catherine, Salvatore (who was not 14, but 15-years of age according to court records), and her son from a previous marriage: 26-year-old ex-sailor Michael Filosa. Another son, Edward Filosa, lived in the next building with his wife.

Anna’s husband, Frank D. Hall (it’s unclear how the family name became De Hall), had left her five years earlier for another woman.  Without financial support from her estranged husband, Anna earned what little she could at the Haskin Garment Company, but it was never enough to make ends meet.  After a sighting of her husband in December 1929, Anna had him arrested for failing to help support their children.  “Somebody told me they seen him, so they told me, and I brought him to the court. Why should I support the children all my life and him living with another woman? Many a night we went to bed without a bite to eat.”

Policeman Frank Grego arrived at the scene of the crime at 12:45 AM. He later testified, “I observed Michael Filosa standing on the stoop of 20 Carlton Avenue and talking with three or four other young men. I asked what the trouble was. He said ‘My mother, brother and sister are all cut up.’ I said ‘Who done it?’ He said, ‘I did.’ ‘What did you do it for?’ ‘I don’t know.’”

Patrolman Frank Grego was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime.
Patrolman Frank Grego was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime. Syndicated image appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

Patrolman Jesse Lewis would arrive five minutes later.  The two entered the apartment and found Salvatore lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. The jugular vein on the right side of his body had been severed and it was immediately clear that Salvatore had died. His sister Catherine had slashes across her shoulder, cheek, and nose, while Mrs. De Hall had cuts on her back, right arm, and right hand. 

Officer Grego went into the mother’s bedroom, where she had shared a bed with Catherine. “Bloodstains all over the bed.” He then proceeded to Salvatore’s bedroom and described it to be “Covered with blood, large round circle covered with blood.”

Patrolman Lewis found a broken razor on the floor, which he concluded was the weapon used in the brutal attack. “I found that on the floor right near the door going into the mother’s bedroom.” He added that he had found it on the kitchen floor and that “The razor was about four or five feet (approximately 1.2 – 1.5 m) from the body of Salvatore.” 

Frank Grego questioned the mother, Anna De Hall. “Who cut you, did Mike cut you?” To which she replied, “I don’t know. I had some trouble.” She was clearly in shock and was taken to nearby Cumberland Hospital. 

Patrolman Lewis then asked her son why he did it.  His reply was, “I don’t know. I heard my mother hollering, ‘Mike, Mike,” and I looked down and seen the razor in my hand.” Michael Filosa was then arrested and taken into custody. Later that day, his brother Edward went to the Kings County morgue to identify the deceased body of Salvatore.

20 Carlton Avenue
Syndicated photograph of 20 Carlton Avenue, the scene of the crime, that appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

The questioning of Michael Filosa was handled by Assistant District Attorney Bernard Becker. He determined that Mike was hard-working, respectable, and unable to provide much detail about what had happened.  Becker stated, “Apparently this man has never been in trouble in his life. So far as we can learn he has never quarreled with anyone. He rushed out to get medical attention and help for the victims.”

Becker was able to piece together from Mike’s statements that he had gone to see a violent movie with his friends that evening, after which he returned home and went to bed. The next thing that he remembered was that he began to hear his mother’s agonizing voice, which brought him out of his slumber and to his senses.  It was at that point that he noticed the bloody razor in his hand and began to piece together what he had done.  Michael Filosa had slashed his half-brother, half-sister, and mother while sleep-walking. 

Within hours, the story of the sleep-walking murderer was front-page news across the city. The idea that someone could walk around and attack others while not being aware of what was happening seemed like something that could only occur in works of fiction.  Reporters interviewed leading psychiatrists and psychologists, who were mixed in their opinions.  Some of the experts felt that such an act was theoretically possible, with the attacker being in a “twilight state.” Yet others disagreed.  One prominent Brooklyn doctor stated that this was all “a lot of baloney.”

On April 27, 1931, Michael Filosa went on trial for the murder of his half-brother Salvatore. The defense presented evidence that Mike had been to the movies the prior evening and that he was in a semi-unconscious state when he committed the murder. The prosecution attempted to prove that no person could commit such a heinous crime while asleep.

The trial didn’t last long.  Mike was convicted of second-degree manslaughter the next day.  Yet, County Judge Franklin Taylor wasn’t so sure that Filosa was guilty.  He told the court, “I want the truth and I don’t think it has been told here. If someone is being shielded, I want the guilty party to come forward.”  As you could probably guess, no one came forward. Judge Taylor postponed Filosa’s sentencing, pending further investigation by District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan.  This was quite an unusual case.  Not only was the accused claiming that he slashed his family while sleep-walking, but both the judge and district attorney found fault with the guilty verdict that had been handed down by the jury. Can you think of any other case where the prosecution was unhappy after winning a case?

District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan did not believe that Michael Filosa was telling the truth.
District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan did not believe that Michael Filosa was telling the truth. Syndicated image appeared on page 63 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

An order was issued for Catherine De Hall to report for further questioning, but she failed to do so. As a result, she was removed from her mother’s care and placed with the Children’s Society. Her bail was set at $10,000.  ($173,000 today.)

On May 11, Judge Taylor postponed sentencing once again.  He stated, “If the defendant is guilty he faces the longest sentence. If he is not guilty then his attempted loyalty to the guilty person is misplaced. He is a young man, but his life will be ruined if he is sentenced. If some one else is guilty that person is not entitled to such extreme affection. That person is undeserving and should not allow this situation.”

While awaiting sentencing, Michael was held in the Raymond Street Jail, which was demolished years ago.  Patrolman Grego suggested to Edward Filosa that he should go visit his brother and tell him that he was going to “get the limit,” which was fifteen years at Sing Sing prison.  This wasn’t necessarily true but was intended to get Mike to finally tell what had really happened that night.  The visit was made on May 24 and Mike was shocked to hear how much time he may have to serve.  He suddenly had a very different story to tell.  

Whether true or not, Michael Filosa now claimed that he didn’t kill his brother.  Instead, he now named his mother as the slayer. He now told of arriving home from the movie and finding his mother running around the apartment like a madwoman with the bloody razor in her hand.  He wrestled the blade away from her, cutting his thumb in the process. Believing he would serve only a year or two in prison, Mike opted to shoulder the blame and concocted the sleep-walking story.

Anna De Hall was arrested the next day and taken to the Gates Avenue police station. While being questioned, she was not told that her son had accused her of the murder.

On June 1, Michael Filosa was escorted to the warden’s office at the Raymond Street jail.  As soon as he entered, he saw his half-sister Catherine sitting there.  He blurted out, “Don’t open your mouth, Kitty.” He added, “I have said too much now. They want to frighten you. I’m fed up on this and I’m through.” The district attorney brought the meeting to an abrupt conclusion, telling Filosa, “Very well. If that is the way you feel about it, we are also through. The book is closed.” 

Filosa was escorted back to his cell while Catherine was taken back to Children’s Society. Not long after she arrived, Catherine changed her mind and told of what she knew. “It was about half past ten when I went to bed. I woke up with a sharp pain on my cheek and felt blood. A woman was bending over me. I knew it was a woman because she had long hair. She was a stockily built woman. Then I heard the door open and shut, and I heard Michael’s voice. I saw the form of a man come into the bedroom. He tussled with a woman for something she held. They fell on the bed. The man then went to a chair and put something under a leg of the chair and pulled up. I then turned on the light and I saw my mother and Michael. He was dressed in his Sunday clothes. He took off these clothes and put on khaki pants before he went out to call a doctor and the police. I saw my brother, Salvatore, lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. Michael said to me: ‘Kitty, if ever you did me a favor, don’t say anything about what you saw here tonight.’”

Colorized photo of 20 Carlton Avenue as it looked in 1940.
Colorized photo of 20 Carlton Avenue as it looked in 1940, ten years after the crime was committed. Edward Filosa lived in the building on the left. Original image appears on the NYC Dept of Records website.

Five days later, this new story that their mother had committed the crime quickly came into question when the medical doctors concluded that there was no way that Mrs. De Hall could have inflicted her wounds on herself. Someone else had to have done it.

Could her son Michael have done it after all? Someone wasn’t telling the truth.

At trial, Anna De Hall refuted the testimony of her three surviving children. Yet, on July 1, 1931, it took just one ballot for the jury to unanimously find her guilty of murder in the second degree.  As she was escorted out of the courtroom, Anna exclaimed, “God knows I’m innocent.”

This created an interesting situation.  Two people were found guilty by a jury of their peers for independently committing the same crime.  One would presume that Michael Filosa would have been immediately set free after the conviction of his mother, but Judge Taylor opted to hold off on that decision.  “From the very beginning, I had my own opinion as to who committed this crime. I felt that Michael Filosa was shielding somebody. However, if the Appellate Courts should set aside the conviction of the mother, I will not allow my opinion to stand against that of the twelve men of the jury that convicted Michael Filosa. I would send Michael Filosa away for the limit sentence if the conviction of his mother was set aside.

“The trial of Filosa reeked with perjury. He himself was part of the conspiracy to frustrate justice. He is worthy of no sympathy. There was also perjury in the trial of the mother. I am not going to dispose of the case of the son until there has been a final disposition of the charges against the mother, because I do not intend to let any conspiracy to be successfully carried out that would free everybody of any guilt of this kind.”

Judge Franklin C. Taylor.
Judge Franklin C. Taylor. Syndicated photograph appeared on page 63 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

On September 8, 1931, Anne De Hall was brought into the courtroom for sentencing.  When asked if she had anything to say, she tearfully stated, “I’ve done nothing. I was cut myself. I lost a beautiful boy and they say I murdered him. God was betrayed and for his sake I am satisfied to be betrayed.” She then turned toward her family in the back of the courtroom and added, “I thank you, my children.” Mrs. De Hall was sentenced to serve twenty years to life at Auburn prison in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. 

An appeal was immediately filed arguing that Anna De Hall did not receive a fair trial.  Among her claims were that 1) The medical opinion that she could not have inflicted her own wounds was never introduced. 2) She was required to use the same defense lawyer as her son Michael, 3) Her lawyer did not call witnesses who were willing to testify on her behalf, and, 4) She was not permitted to tell her entire story.  It wouldn’t be until June 17, 1932 that the Appellate Court would order a new trial.

The second trial got underway on March 27, 1933. The transcript of the trial is available online and provides direct quotes from all of those who testified.  It runs nearly one-hundred pages, so here are a few brief excerpts from the principal witnesses:

Anna’s son Edward was the first to be called to the witness stand.  He described his encounter with his mother when he first entered the apartment. “She was in a rage, and she said to me, ‘No, no, no, my boy didn’t do it; I done it.’ I do not know whether she said that in protection of the boy or not, but that is the remark she passed to me.” He recalled her stating, “My boy Mikey didn’t do it.”

Daughter Catherine had been asleep when she was slashed and described the moment that she woke up. “I do not know where I was first cut, but I know that the cut I first felt was the one on my shoulders.” When questioned as to who cut her on the face, she replied, “My mother.” She discussed how her mother had been wildly jealous because her children had spent a lot of time with their father.  Catherine believed that it was Salvatore’s decision to go live with his father permanently that pushed her mother over the edge.

Michael Filosa detailed exactly what happened that night. Around 7 PM, he had attended a movie at the Duffield Theater, which has since been torn down and replaced by a Planet Fitness.  After grabbing a bite to eat, he arrived at the front stoop of his home to meet up with some friends.  From there, he was off to get a cup of coffee before returning to his front stoop. After hanging out there for a bit, he entered the building around midnight.  Shortly after walking into the apartment, Michael found his brother Salvatore dead on the kitchen floor. After that, he spotted his mother on her bed with a straight razor in her hand.  “I tried to snatch the razor from my mother.” In doing so, his mother received some minor wounds and his hand was cut. Once gaining possession of the weapon, he placed the blade under the leg of a chair and “I snapped the razor.”

Colorized photo of the Duffield Theater as it looked in 1940. Original image appears on the NYC Dept of Records website.

Michael then went back to his room and noticed that blood had stained his shirt. He took it off and washed out the blood in the sink.  He changed his clothes and then ruffled up his bed to make it look like he had slept in it. Next, he told his mother to pretend that she was asleep. “Keep quiet, and wake up and say you found me there by the door.”

His family was in urgent need of medical help, so he rushed out to the front stoop and told the boys there that “everybody in the house was cut.” At first, they didn’t believe Mike but he made it clear to them that he wasn’t fooling around. “I told them to hurry up and get an ambulance.”

From there, he went next door to awaken his brother. When asked if had done the slashing, Mike replied, “I don’t know, Edward, whether I did it, I may have done it, but I don’t know.”

As you can imagine, Anna De Hall had a very different story to tell the court. She denied having argued with any of her children that day. “I had just come home from benediction, from church, and we took a sandwich and the whole three of us went to bed.” 

Anna De Hall
Syndicated photograph of Anna De Hall that appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

“The next thing I remember, I felt like suffocating, I couldn’t get my breath. I was all wet, because I was completely, all full of blood. I called for my little girl. She was fast asleep. We slept without no lights.” 

“I says to her ‘Katie, wake up, Katie, may be the gas is on. I am suffocating.’ And my little girl, she pulled the light, and the light went up, because the light in the room has got nothing to do with the kitchen. So she pulled the light and the light went on, and I was covered with blood. I was cut.”

She continued, “When I woke up, when the light went up, I was calling Mickey, Mickey, look at me, I am all covered with blood. My boy stood up just this way in between the two doors with his BVD’s and he came and he said ‘Mother, who did that?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ I said ‘I am all covered with blood.’ So he said ‘Wait awhile and I will get somebody to help you.’ So he put on his overalls, khaki pants, and went out to get help. When he moved I seen him a little bit like red as if – this was the bedroom, and in the back of him when he walked out the boy was like red in the back.”

When questioned as to if she had slashed Salvatore, Mrs. De Hall replied, “No. Why should I? He was my best boy. I had given him three years of high school and I am only a poor working woman.”

At 3:35 PM on March 31, 1933, the jury retired to consider its verdict.  They returned at 5:15 with a decision: “We find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree, as charged in the indictment.”

Several days later, a motion was made for Michael Filosa’s release.  Judge Taylor said that he would wait until his mother was sentenced before he would dismiss the charges, but, in the meantime, did allow him to be released on $5,000 bail.

On April 5, 1933, Anna De Hall was sentenced to eight to thirty years in prison.  Probation laws at the time allowed three months credit for each year of good behavior, so she would be required to serve a minimum of six years.  She was released on parole in 1940.

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

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.