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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Monthly Archives: December 2018

Carole King Can Barely Sing

A November 4, 1970 review of the album titled “Writer: Carole King” just tore into her singing ability.  

“It is notable that the title of this album is not ‘Singer: Carole King.’  Carole King may be an excellent writer, but as a singer, she is barely competent.  Her vocal range is very limited, she can’t sing any high notes, and at times her voice sounds flat and bored.”

Cover art for the album Writer:Carole King.
Cover art for the album Writer:Carole King.

The article continues, “The tunes and the instrumentation help make up for the fact that Carole King can barely sing, making this album enjoyable if somewhat vacuous.”

It concludes that the songs may appear on other artists’ albums in the future, “But this is probably the first and only album Carole King will ever make.”

You probably know the story about her next album titled Tapestry: It was the number 1 best selling album for fifteen consecutive weeks, had the second longest run of any album on the Billboard 200 chart after Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and to date has sold over 25 million copies.

 

No Locks at Denny’s

In December of 1988, the restaurant chain Denny’s decided to close all of its 1,221 stores for the Christmas holiday.  

This was not an easy decision for the company to make.  The chain was well-known for being open 24-hours-a-day, 365-days a year, so closing on Christmas day was predicted to cost the chain $5 million in sales.

They were faced with an even bigger problem: Since the chain never shut its doors, many of their restaurants were either built without locks on the doors or no one could find the keys to the locks that did exist.  The company had to install door locks in more than 700 of its restaurants just so that they close for that one day.

My wife and I stopped at our local Denny’s a few weeks ago and the first thing I did was check the door.  There was a lock there.

Picture taken at the Denny's restaurant on Wolf Road in Colonie, NY on November 30, 2018 confirming that there is a lock installed on the front door.
Picture taken at the Denny’s restaurant on Wolf Road in Colonie, NY on November 30, 2018 confirming that there is a lock installed on the front door.
 

Empty Christmas Envelopes

The post office in Spokane, Washington had an interesting problem.  On December 18, 1955, someone dropped off fifty envelopes to be mailed. All were properly addressed and stamped, but lacked one important piece: All of the envelopes were completely empty.

Apparently the mailer had forgotten to insert the Christmas cards or whatever they had intended to include.  There was no return address on any of the envelopes to help identify the sender and while you are about 63-years too late, should you know what should have gone into those envelopes, please be sure to contact the Spokane post office.

Christmas card given by garbage men from 1954.
Christmas card given by garbage men from 1954. (State Library of Queensland)
 

Santa Breaks Girl’s Heart

When the news broke in early December of 1928 that 7-year-old Tillie Oakley of Paris, Kentucky was seriously ill, readers across the country responded with disbelief.

It seemed as if an older girl at school told Tillie that Santa wasn’t real. Can you imagine that? Doubting Santa’s existence?  Everyone knows that he is real.

Needless to say, Tille ran home crying to her mother, but nothing she could say could convince Tillie that the older girl was wrong.

Tilly stopped eating. With each passing day she became weaker and weaker. She was proof-positive that one really could suffer from a broken heart.  The local doctor was brought in to treat her, but nothing in his black bag could heal her. Nor could her parents, her minister, friends, or neighbors do anything to cure Tillie of what ailed her.

People from all over the country sent scores of telegrams and letters assuring the young girl that there really was a Santa Claus.  More than a dozen packages, some with a return address that simply read “From Santa Claus” were received.

But there was one big problem.  An investigation by the Associated Press determined that there was no Tille Oakley living in or near Paris, Kentucky.  The story was a complete fabrication. So, while there may be a Santa Claus, there certainly certainly was no Tillie Oakley.

Santa visiting children at Grace Brothers department store in Sydney, Australia in November 1946
Santa visiting children at Grace Brothers department store in Sydney, Australia in November 1946. (State Library at New South Wales)
 

Christmas Time in Santa Heim

Years ago while I was a freshman at the University at Buffalo, a few of my friends had a wee bit too much to drink one night and decided to go in search of a Christmas tree for our dorm suite. I awoke the next morning to find what could only be described as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Branches were few and far between, while their tree decorating was exactly what you would expect from a bunch of drunk teenage males. They used toilet paper as a substitute for garland, Playboy pictures hung from the branches, and empty beer cans were used as ornaments. I couldn’t help but laugh every time that I walked by it.

Today my wife and I own enough ornaments to decorate half-a-dozen Christmas trees, yet we only have one. My guess is that we are not alone in that respect, yet historically it was not always that way.

Prior to the late 1800’s, most Christmas trees in the United States were decorated with fruits, nuts, and paper ornaments. The introduction of glass ornaments to tree decorating can be traced back to the early 1800’s when glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany developed reflective panoramic balls intended for window and garden display. By the mid-1800’s, they had created smaller versions designed for use on Christmas trees. These early “kugels” were typically made in the shape of grapes, acorns, and mushrooms and were silvered on the inside with lead or zinc.  These evolved into the shiny, thin glass ornaments that we are so familiar with today.

Yet, these new glass ornaments were slow to catch on. In 1880, a man named Frank Winfield Woolworth – better known to the world as F.W. Woolworth – approached a Philadelphia importer in search of cheap Christmas toys for his newly started business. Instead, the importer showed Woolworth a bunch of colored glass Christmas ornaments that were unlike anything he had ever seen before.  Woolworth told the importer that he wasn’t interested because he was certain that they wouldn’t sell. Not only would no one know what they were, but he was concerned about breakage while being shipped to his store.

The importer made Woolworth a deal that he couldn’t refuse. Not only could Woolworth mark these up high enough to make a handsome profit, he guaranteed that if Woolworth didn’t sell $25 worth, he could get a full refund.  What did he have to lose? Woolworth agreed.

Two days after first placing these ornaments on display in his store, Woolworth had sold his initial inventory out. For the following Christmas, Woolworth ordered a large number of the glass ornaments, but, once again, he sold out. Once Woolworth’s business had grown large enough, he was able to knock out the middleman and import the ornaments directly from Germany. It’s hard to believe that Woolworth’s incredible fortune was largely due to that initial success with glass Christmas ornaments.

Customers shopping at a Woolworth's store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941.
Customers shopping at a Woolworth’s store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941. (Image from the Library of Congress.)

Prior to 1939, an estimated 50- to 80-million ornaments were imported annually to the United States.  The bulk of these were made in Germany and a large percentage of them were sold by Woolworths and similar stores. Then the Second World War broke out and the supply of German Christmas ornaments came to an abrupt halt. It was the perfect opportunity for a new American industry.

Perhaps the man who most benefited from this need for domestically manufactured Christmas ornaments Harry Harrison Heim. Born in Baltimore on March 14, 1883, he made his way west prior to World War I to work as a display manager for the Marston department store in San Diego. The Great Depression forced the closure of a dress shop that he operated there and, in 1932, he relocated back to Baltimore so that a family member could receive medical treatment at Johns Hopkins.  

World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.
World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.

Harry, along with his son Harry, Jr., scraped by doing whatever kind of store and nightclub decorating work they could find. Times were certainly tough.  Then, while working on a Christmas decorating job, he made the serendipitous observation that would forever change his life. It was a simple Christmas decoration that had been made from three brightly colored cellophane straws.  He went home and used that inspiration to create a Japanese-themed Christmas ornament, which proved to be a tremendous success. Then sales came to an abrupt halt in 1938 with the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment.

His company, Santa Novelties, Inc., was on the verge of going under, so Heim looked elsewhere to supplement his sales. He began to focus on the manufacture of hand-blown glass balls. Initial attempts to create the glass ornaments were not successful – in fact, Harry, Jr. was nearly blinded in one factory accident – but soon they were able to get it right.

World War II draft card for Harry Heim.
World War II draft card for Harry Heim. Note that he lists his place of employment as Santa Novelties, Inc at 3900 Lombard Street in Baltimore.

Heim lated stated, “I knew nothing about it. I hired a glass blower and he didn’t know anything either. But we worked at it, and in six months offered our first balls. They were rotten.” He continued, “But we got encouragement because we were on the right track and finally hit the secret.”

He claimed to have been down to his last $50 when a company that was a bit down on its luck when its supply of German-made Christmas decorations dried up came a-knockin’.  F.W. Woolworth placed a very large order for his newly designed Christmas balls and saved Santa Novelties from bankruptcy. The company grew exponentially from that point on.  

Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside.
Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside. Image from the December 1949 issue of Popular Science.

By 1944, his company was producing 12-million Christmas tree balls each year with 90% of its output going to Woolworth’s.  Heim was suddenly rolling in the dough, but was experiencing growing pains. Basically, his business had outgrown the antiquated factory that he operated in a former brewery at 3900 East Lombard Street in Baltimore. He was in need of a larger facility.

That’s when fate stepped in.

About twenty miles northeast of Washington, D.C., lies the small town of Savage, Maryland. For nearly 200 years, this quaint village was home to the Savage Manufacturing Company.  They produced cotton duck, which is basically a heavy-duty canvas. Nearly all of what the company produced was sold to other manufacturers to turn into a finished product, whether that be as sailcloth for ships, coverings for fire hoses, or canvas for conveyor belts. World War II had been an incredibly prosperous time for the company, but they were unable to operate at a profit once the war had ended. On September 5, 1947, it was announced that the Savage Manufacturing Company was to permanently shut down.

Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant.
Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant that appeared on page 29 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 22, 1947.

This was devastating news for the residents of Savage. Not only did more than 350 of its employees live in Savage, but the company literally owned the town. Half of the homes in the town were owned and operated by the mill.  The company provided the electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection, police and fire protection, and operated both the town’s grocery and dry goods store. Savage was the ultimate company town. Without the company, one wondered what would happen to the town.

This is where Harry Heim entered the picture. He was in need of a larger manufacturing facility and here was the perfect business opportunity. In December 1947, Heim purchased the entire town – that included nearly 500 acres of land, the old cotton duck mill, 175 homes ranging in age of between 15 and 150-years old, and everything else that came along with it. The purchase price was a cool $450,000 (approximately $4.6-million today).

Heim made immediate plans to rehabilitate the town. Not only did this include moving his ever-growing business into the old mill, but he planned to transform Savage to make it look like a quintessential 19th-century town. About sixty of the homes were sold to their occupants at below market prices, while the remainder were to be fitted with modern kitchens and bathrooms, which many still lacked.

Yet, Heim had even grander plans for Savage. With a bit of Walt Disney imagination, he planned to turn the entire town into a permanent Christmas town.  It would be the biggest and best Christmas-themed destination in the entire United States.

“In this tract I’ll build a big Christmas Castle right in the center, cutting down only what trees are necessary.” He added, “I’ll erect scenes depicting nursery rhymes with life-size figures. All around the trees will be trimmed and lighted.”

He had one year to make this all happen. “I’ll cut roads in and out so the people can drive right through and maybe they’ll even be a miniature railroad to carry the children. For about six weeks every year it will be Christmas there.” He continued, “Many of the quaint houses will be freshened up and furnished with Christmas decorations and gardens.”

A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947.
A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947. (Baltimore Evening Sun, December 22, 1947, page 29.)

Six months later all of the old machinery from the mill was gone. Harry, Jr. was in charge of setting up the new manufacturing facility as the firm’s tractor trailers hauled in equipment day-after-day. Three buses drove workers back and forth to Baltimore as construction workers rehabilitated the town. Tourists began to trickle through Savage just to see what was happening. There was a sense of resurgence in the air as this old mill town was brought back to life.

Of course, Savage is not a very good name for a Christmas town, so Harry Heim had a better idea. You’re probably thinking something like Santaland or Christmas Village or something along those lines. Nope.  He renamed it after himself: Santa Heim. Harry explained that it made perfect sense, since Heim means home in German. This would be Santa’s home away from home. For two weeks out of every year, Santa would spend his time away from the North Pole in Santa Heim.  Santa Heim, Maryland. No that’s not good enough. He changed it to Santa Heim, Merryland.

And then the big day came: Santa Heim officially opened to the public on Saturday, December 11, 1948. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people were in attendance when Maryland Governor William Preston Lane officially dedicated the town to Christmas.

It was quite the site to see. An estimated 28,000 colored lights twinkled along the streets as speakers all around town played Christmas carols. All of the homes were decorated for Christmas, while a 20-foot (6-meter) tall illuminated star shined from atop the Christmas Heim ornament factory.

Santa arrived by helicopter and then boarded his sleigh that was pulled by live reindeer. Three trains coined the “Santa Heim Special” brought visitors in from Baltimore and Washington, DC. A replica of the Tom Thumb, the first commercial American locomotive ever, pulled thousands of children around the town on a miniature train. A circus tent was fill with life-size animated animals, while reindeer pens were set up near the town’s Baldwin Memorial Hall.  Inside that building one could find the obligatory gift shop.

Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right.
Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right. Image appeared in the December 20, 1948 issue of the Wilmington Daily News-Journal on page 8.

The 100-year-old post office was decked out in a fresh coat of red-and-white paint. Outside stood 10-foot (3-meter) tall candy canes. Thousands of letters poured in for Santa Claus from all over the country.  Here is a sampling of what the children had to say:

A girl named Judy wrote: “Dear Santa: I think you are a nice man. Will you please come and see me soon and bring me a bride doll with a husband, and anything else you can spare? Thank you.”

A really odd one came from a boy named Joe who wanted “a two-wheeler –  also a bale of hay.”

Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive.
Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive. Image appeared in the December 12, 1948 publication of the Baltimore Sun on page 32.

Then there was a boy from Texas who requested a “pair of pants and a washing machine –  and maybe an electric iron.” I think mom may have been looking over his shoulder as he penned that letter.

Another boy wrote, “My dad is sick and my mother can’t leave to get my ‘presidents [sic].’  All I will get is from the school and the Scouts  and the neibors [sic]. Wish I could get more, but know you are busy.”

A girl named Aletha was a bit demanding when she told Santa to drop his bag of toys “this minute” and come running to help her do her homework. “I don’t want anything else.”

Lastly, a girl wrote, “This is the last letter you will resive [sic] from me if you do not leave me a doll carpet sweeper. This is final. I love you and why don’t you love me?”  With that kind of attitude I am hoping that no one ever got her that doll carpet sweeper.

Overall, the opening of Christmas Heim was a phenomenal success. Even before Santa Heim closed for the season, Harry Heim was making plans for the following year. He envisioned the construction of what he called a ‘Crazy Town’, complete with the crooked roofs that you see illustrated in nursery rhymes.

After that first season, things did not go smoothly for Santa Heim. In April, Harry Heim was indicted for tax evasion. Basically, while filing its 1947 taxes, Heim’s company Santa Novelties requested a refund on taxes paid in 1946. The problem was that no taxes were ever paid.  Even worse, while the State of Maryland was investigating, they determined that Heim himself had paid no taxes on his 1947 income of $31,200. In the end, the judge fined Heim $100 after he paid the back taxes with interest. It was concluded that Santa Novelties had grown so fast – from $61,000 in sales in 1943 to $1,659,000 in 1948 – that the payment of taxes had been overlooked in all of the confusion.

Next, when Santa Heim reopened for the 1949 season, thousands of people showed up on that first Sunday to find the place closed by authorities. Santa Heim was found to be in violation of the county’s 1723 Blue Law preventing shows on Sundays. Oddly, the law had been modified at one point to allow movie theaters to operate on Sunday, but most other forms of entertainment were not permitted.

Shutting Santa down is not a good thing to do and the public clearly was not happy. Here are two letters to the editor that appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun:

The first was penned by James Woods of Baltimore – “ I just read the article ‘Santa’s Blue Laws Thwart Santa.’  Things certainly are in a fine mess. I guess you’re supposed to be ignorant enough to think the movies, bars, sports centers and the Colts and Orioles are necessary work.  Isn’t it just a little more important, especially at this time of the year, that our children have a place like Santa Heim in which to enjoy themselves? I think it’s time for us to see what the political angle is on the Maryland blue laws. The blue laws should be enforced in full or written off the books.”

Next up is a letter written by Gladys Stewart of Glen Burnie –  “These children believe in an old tradition – Santa Claus. They are eager in their youth to learn about this old gentleman with the white whiskers, red nose and jolly face. We can’t deny them their belief. Couldn’t we overlook this law –  just for the Christmas season?”

This Sunday operation ban didn’t last long. On December 8, 1949, the State attorney for Howard county,  Daniel M. Murray, Jr., ruled that Santa Heim could reopen on Sundays as long as all the proceeds were donated to charity. Assuming that most of Santa Heim’s business was done on weekends, this had to have made a huge dent in its overall profitability.

One-year later, December 8, 1950, proved to be another big setback for Santa Heim. The fire marshal shut down its Christmas Carnival – the one with all of the animals and animatronics – after it was determined that one of the tents was a fire hazard. 70% of the material that the tent was made of was considered to be highly flammable, while dangerous wiring was exposed throughout the exhibit.  They quickly resolved this by covering the walls with a fireproof lining and removing the dangerous wiring and the tent was allowed to reopen two days later.

Advertisement for Santa Heim from 1950.
Advertisement for Santa Heim that appeared on page 46 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 1, 1950.

Santa Heim limped through that third season, but it was never to reopen.  Harry Heim had overextended himself and the checks began to bounce. The war was over and the retailers went elsewhere to get cheaper stock for their stores. Soon Harry’s pockets were empty and both Santa Heim and his Santa Novelties business were gone.

The factory closed on March 27, 1951. Everything in the town was sold off including all of the homes, the machinery used to make the ornaments, and the manufacturing plant itself. Today the factory is the home to the historic Savage Mill complex of shops and eateries.

The loss of Santa Heim and his business must have come as quite a blow to the man who had the honor of decorating the Christmas tree on the White House lawn in 1949.  Harry Heim passed away on February 1, 1953 at the age of 69. The papers said that he died of a heart attack, but one can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t from a broken heart.  He had tried so hard to bring the joy of Christmas to so many children.

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

 

The Adventure of a Lifetime

In 1957, three awning salesmen sat in a bar on the north side of Chicago and the subject of diamonds entered the conversation. Joseph Murano, 39 years of age, and Leslie Cohen, aged 42, listened attentively as the newly hired 39-year-old Joseph Schmitz described his 20-plus years of adventure on the high seas. He captivated his audience of two with endless stories of jungle exploration, covert meetings, and harrowing escapes.

Schmitz said that he was planning to purchase a small schooner and sail for Africa to join in on the illegal trade of diamonds. He felt that a smaller boat would allow him to slip into port under the cover of darkness, obtain the diamonds from Arab and Portuguese dealers, then ferry them north – possibly to Cairo or Casablanca – and sell them at a significant profit. He said, “If a man has the guts, he can make a fortune.” Even better would be if he could hook up with geologists that he was acquainted with, then he could knock out the middleman and become rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Image of Joseph Schmitz
Image of Joseph Schmitz that appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

If this all sounds like a bunch of bull poop, it’s not. A couple of minor white lies were told, but most of what he said was true. Schmitz really had traveled the seas for a couple of decades, had a master mariner’s license, and had escaped from bad situations multiple times.

Needless to say, Murano and Cohen were hooked. Neither had ever sailed in anything more than a rowboat, but the thought of an overseas adventure and being part of the lucrative, even if illegal, diamond trade was far more appealing than their dead-end aluminum awning sales jobs. They wanted in.

Months later, after their adventure had ended, Cohen said, “We suddenly realized that we had been restless for some time and were ready for a little travel and change of scene.”

When the two questioned Schmitz as to when he planned to depart, he replied, “Not until next year. It will take me that long to save the money to buy my schooner.”

To which Cohen replied, “Next year! Let’s go now! We’ll put on with you as partners.”

Schmitz agreed. “It’s a deal. We’ll sail for Africa in August.”

None of these guys had much in the way of savings, so Cohen and Murano sold their most valuable assets to finance the trip: their cars. They then made a visit to their local sporting goods store to purchase everything that they thought would be needed for a trip like this, including the obligatory yachting caps and elephant guns.

Elephant guns?

“It seemed logical to me, Cohen stated. Every movie I’ve seen of Africa, there’s lions and tigers running around loose.”

In early August they packed up everything and headed for the Long Island Sound that lies between New York and Connecticut. Upon arrival, Schmitz telephoned a New York advertising executive named Clayton Jaeger and set up a time to meet and discuss the sale of his 52-foot (15.8 meter) long boat named the Serene. The next day the three men went to meet up with Jaeger. Both Cohen and Murano were surprised by how small the boat appeared to be.

What it was lacking in size was made up for in niceties. In addition to having a full set of sails, each man could take comfort in the so-called “Saloon” below deck. There was also a captain’s cabin, a galley kitchen, the obligatory bathroom, and, should one find themselves adrift, a gas-powered engine.

Image of Joseph Murano
Image of Joseph Murano which appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

As Murano and Cohen began to fully take in the pros and cons of what they were in for, Schmitz went below deck with Jaeger to discuss the terms of the sale. Once back on shore, Schmitz told the other two that a purchase price had been agreed upon and that they would be departing shortly. They spent the next few days gathering up the nautical equipment and food required for the long voyage. While they did purchase some perishables like eggs, potatoes, and tomatoes, Schmitz advised that they stock up on foods that wouldn’t spoil easily. That included cans of beans, sauerkraut, sardines, cheese, peanut butter, dried prunes, and soda crackers. He assured them that once they reached the African coast, they would be dining upon fresh meats and fruits.

Early on the morning of August 14, 1957, the three finally set out from City Island in the Bronx on what was certain to be the adventure of a lifetime.

While Schmitz had earlier implied that sailing a ship of this size was a fairly easy thing to do, Cohen and Murano quickly realized that it was anything but. They were totally unprepared for what was about to come. While still in calm waters, Schmitz attempted to give his two assistants a lesson in handling the lines. It was mass confusion. As Schmitz was blurting out commands that they could barely understand, the two novices were getting tangled up in the unfolding sails and ropes, smashing into the masts, and just plain getting beaten and bruised up by the whole experience.

“To turn one of these schooners around,” Murano later stated, “is a big operation – everybody jerking on the ropes and the captain making with the yacht lingo and all the time a big boom flying around that is liable to whack your head right off.”

Once the drill was over, the two went below deck to grab a beer. They didn’t have long to relax. Seemingly out of nowhere the floor of the saloon rose up and then crashed back down, sending Murano and Cohen flat down on to the carpeted floor.

The storm that they had sailed into seemed to increase in intensity with each passing hour. At one point Schmitz tied himself to the captain’s wheel and ordered his two inexperienced partners below deck until the storm had passed.

In the meantime, each would take turns crawling out on deck to spoon-feed Schmitz from a can of beans. At one point the schooner rolled so sharply that its mast nearly touched the water. Even worse, the cabin started to fill with water. Schmitz told the two men that they needed to start the engine up and pump the water out. But it wouldn’t turn over. It was later determined that the fuel lines had broken and much of the gasoline had leaked into the ship’s bilge. They proceeded to pump by hand, not realizing that they had pumped hundreds of gallons of fuel out of the boat.

When the storm finally passed three days later, the yacht was spotted by a Navy transport ship. It headed over to see if the three were in need of any help, but Schmitz assured them that everything was just fine. Cohen and Murano stood there stunned as they watched him turn down an offer of much needed assistance. Schmitz assured the two that he had been through far worse and that everything would be fine.

This image of Joseph Schmitz/Emanuel K. Bredel appeared on page 6 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the New York Daily News.

But he was wrong. The sails of the ship were in tatters and were getting worse with each passing day. Patches only go so far. Even worse, Schmitz calculated that the storm had blown the Serene way off course and they were near Bermuda. Murano and Cohen felt that anchoring there was the most logical thing to do, yet Schmitz vehemently argued against that idea. Not only did he lack the maps needed to navigate their waters safely, he felt that they could make better use of their time heading straight for the African coast. He also had the big advantage in the fact that he was the only one who knew how to sail the boat.

As they continued on their journey, another life-threatening situation appeared. They had sailed into dead, calm water. Sails need the wind to move and they were going nowhere. Under normal circumstances they would have started up the gas engine, but all of its fuel had been pumped overboard. As a result, day after day the Serene just sat there.

Cohen stated, “You’d go up on deck and see the same bean can bobbing right along with you in the same spot it had been when you tossed it overboard two days ago. I for one found this very dmoralizing.”

Image of Leslie Cohen
Image of Leslie Cohen that appeared in the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine on page 98.

While they didn’t challenge Schmitz on his navigational skills, the two began to suspect that they were simply sailing round and round in a circle. Murano stated “All we knew was we were supposed to be sailing due east and the sun was coming up in a different place every morning. That was fishy.”

Even worse, they were running out of food and drinking water. Murano had shed 50 pounds and Cohen dropped 30 (approximately 23 and 14 kg, respectively), making them far too weak to continually operate the hand pumps to empty the water out of the bilge.

Everything changed one morning. Schmitz pointed to his mariner’s license that he had tacked up on the wall. Everything looked legitimate on the document except for one small detail: it wasn’t Schmitz’s name on the license. Instead, it was for someone named Emanuel K. Bredel. Captain Schmitz was no more. The two underlings were to refer to him as Captain Bredel from that moment on. Not only did Schmitz have a new name, but so did the boat. The Serene was rechristened the V. Marcel.

The newly coined Captain Bredel estimated that they would reach the island of Madeira off the western coast of Africa within a day. This was great news for the starving crew, but they still had one more big problem to deal with.

They had sailed right into the path of Hurricane Carrie, which was the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1957 hurricane season. On September 21st of that year, Carrie was powerful enough to destroy the German barque Pamir. It went down in the Azores, just a few hundred miles away from the Serene’s location, killing 80 of its 86 men aboard. A small boat like the V. Marcel barely stood a chance.

Cohen knew that death was near and began to pen “The Last Days on Earth of Leslie Cohen.” Here are some excerpts from that document:

  • “Another day, another hurricane. This is the worst mistake two men ever made.”
  • “Bad storm again! God has never heard three bums pray as loud as we did last night!”
  • “Constantly wet. Working 18 hours a day. If I ever come out of this alive, I’ll never set foot on a boat again.”
  • “Rolling from side to side. Winds 70-90 miles per hour. Going nowhere. Murano says let the damn ship sink and get it over with. Bredel says no, he will make it or go down with the ship.”
  • “Bredel says we may skip Casablanca and go directly the Egypt. Not me, I’m dead.”

Yet, the V. Marcel somehow weathered the storm. On October 2nd, Murano was down in his bunk in one of those still half-asleep dazes when his brain latched on to an argument up on deck between Cohen and Bredel. “I tell you they’re right here,” Bredel shouted. “My calculations show we ought to see them any minute.”

This time Bredel was correct. The Canary Islands were spotted out in the distance. The storm had blown the V. Marcel approximately 300 miles (480 km) south of Madeira. Cohen and Murano’s 50-day nightmare seemed to be finally over.

But it wasn’t.

Bredel was in a fantastic mood and began planning for the completion of their voyage. Murano later commented, “Five minutes after we dropped anchor, he was over on somebody else’s boat yapping about yachts as if he’d just come back from a Sunday afternoon spin around the bay.”

Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.  Image appeared on page 3 of the November 3, 1957 publication of the New York Daily News.

Cohen and Murano had no desire to travel any farther with Bredel, but they lacked the resources needed to go their own way. They really had no choice but to get the ship back in working order. That included repairing the shredded sails, fixing the broken engine, and waterproofing the rigging using fat obtained from a local slaughterhouse.

Growing ever frustrated with Bredel, the two finally decided that they had had enough and quit. Being stranded in the Canaries in 1957 wasn’t the ideal situation, but it turns out that they weren’t alone. Two American men were sailing from Copenhagen to California, but thieves in Casablanca had robbed them blind. They agreed to provide Murano and Cohen with passage to the West Indies in exchange for stocking the boat with the necessary provisions. The two sold just about every possession that they had and soon set sail.

Their awful experience of sailing across the ocean with Bredel was now just a memory. At least that is what they thought. Their forty-four day trip to the West Indies was anything but pleasant, but when they finally arrived in Barbados, Cohen and Murano were greeted with the shock of a lifetime. While still in the Canaries, Murano had written to relatives back in Chicago requesting that they send money. The replies that he received were not what he had wanted to hear. Instead of sending money, he learned that all three of them were wanted by the FBI for the theft of the Serene.

It turns out that the Serene had never been for sale in the first place. When Bredel – his name truly was Emanuel K. Bredel – met with the boat’s owner, 35-year-old Clayton T.M. Jaeger, it was only to lease the boat. In exchange for a $571 fee, the two agreed upon a 10-day excursion, which was later extended to 17 days, that was to be strictly confined within the Long Island Sound.  Jaeger made it perfectly clear to Bredel that under no circumstances was he to sail the boat out into the open ocean. Its sails were simply not up to the task.

When the boat didn’t arrive back after its charter expired, Jaeger became concerned and contacted the Coast Guard. It wasn’t long before airplanes and cutters were searching every inlet along the Atlantic coast looking for the Serene. When they failed to spot her, thoughts of more sinister plans came to light. Could they have stolen the boat to smuggle drugs? Were they using it for gun running? How about Russian espionage? That’s when the FBI was called in to investigate.

When the boat was initially rented, Schmitz/Bredel gave his address as 3435 N. Bell Avenue in Chicago, but upon investigation it was learned that this was a former address of Bredel’s cousin Robert Schmitz and his family.

Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest.
Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest. Image appeared on page 6 of the New York Daily News on July 3, 1958.

Cohen and Murano used the last of their money to fly back to the States. Originally informed that they faced a maximum penalty of $10,000 ($88,000 adjusted for inflation) and 10 years in prison, the two must have been greatly relieved to find out that no charges were to be pressed against them. The FBI was only interested in locating Bredel, who just happened to be on probation from a twenty-year suspended sentence for forging checks.

Locating Bredel proved difficult because he had already left port. This time he took on an English teacher as his mate and was sighted in various locations throughout the Canary Islands. Authorities finally caught up with him on November 27th and, pending clarification of the true ownership of the Serene, the boat was confined to the naval yards in Las Palmas and placed under constant guard. Two Spanish crewmen and two Swedish women who were aboard at the time were released after it was determined that they had no involvement whatsoever in the theft of the boat.

Bredel was ordered to stay aboard the boat, but on Tuesday January 28, 1958 he gave them the slip by swimming underwater past the Spanish guards. He left everything behind including his personal belongings and the Serene itself.  A Spanish electrician named Severiano Goday Rodriguez, who in exchange for a promise of obtaining a job in New York, helped Bredel to stow away aboard a fishing boat which was headed about 300-miles (480 km) northward to the island of Madeira.

Upon arrival in Madeira, Spanish authorities turned Bredel away and he was forced to sail back to the Gran Canary island. He was arrested on February 23rd while socializing in a Las Palmas waterfront cafe. Spanish police were taking no chances this time: they locked him up in a real jail cell.

Once extradition proceedings were completed, U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney and Assistant U.S. Attorney Herbert F. Roth traveled to the Canary Islands to bring the suspect back. After taking Bredel into their custody, the three boarded the SS Independence on June 26th and arrived back in the United States on July 2nd.

Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney.
Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney shortly after their arrival back in the United States aboard the Independence. Image appeared on page 3 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the Marion Star.

As the press dug into this bizarre story, it was learned that Bredel was a married man who had a wife named Mavis and two daughters in Johannesburg, South Africa. He told reporters that he had not heard from Mrs. Bredel since this whole diamond-hunting escapade began to unfold. He said, “She has no sense of humor, I suppose.”

His former boss at Trans-Lite, Milton Rifkin, stated: “It sounded like a television comedy to me. We discharged Cohen and Murano early last summer, and Schmidt left later. He sure had a winning personality.” He continued, “Next thing we knew, federal agents were here asking about the men, and we heard about the stolen yacht. Newspapers called us from all over the world. I don’t know what got into those fellows.”

Four charges were filed against Bredel: theft of the Serene, theft of Clayton Jaeger’s personal property, transporting stolen goods, and altering a Coast Guard certificate. He was held on $20,000 (about $172,000 today) bond and was facing a prison term of 30 years and/or a $30,000 fine. Being totally broke at this point, a Legal Aid Society attorney was assigned to defend him.

At all times, Bredel was the model prisoner. He made no attempts to escape, was polite, cooperative, and impressed just about everyone, particularly the judge assigned to his case.

Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.
Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges. On October 1st, a jury of two women and ten men deliberated for two hours before returning a guilty verdict.

When sentencing took place on November 5, 1958, Federal Judge Archie O. Dawson stated, “I told the jury that this case was similar to the one involving Capt. Kidd, who was tried here 150 years ago and, I think, was hanged on Governors Island for his crime.” He added, “I think he is a very brave man. If he had fought in the Navy, he might have got a medal.” Dawson sentenced Bredel to one year and one-day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA. “However, a fine is out of the question as this man is broke.”

As for the Serene itself, the boat never returned to the United States. The insurance company concluded that it would be too costly to do so and opted to sell it to a Texan visiting the Canary Islands. They paid its former owner Jaeger $12,000 (about $103,000 today) for his loss.

It probably shouldn’t come as much of surprise that Captain Bredel would make the national news one more time. This time it was not for stealing boats, but for stealing cars instead. On December 15, 1960, he was arrested for the theft of a Cadillac from a dealer in Westminster, Maryland and transporting the vehicle to New York.

Two months later, Bredel and two other men were indicted for operating a lucrative car theft ring. Their modus operandi was to steal late model Cadillacs, transport them to New York, and then sell the automobiles to unsuspecting used car dealers. All three were found guilty. One of his co-conspirators was given a four year sentence, the other two and one-half years. The judge recommended that both serve no more than six months in prison with the remainder of their sentences being suspended.

Bredel, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

He never did find those diamonds…

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