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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Monthly Archives: July 2019

Girls Stuck in Phone Booth

It was reported on January 12, 1961 that two 15-year-old girls from McKeesport, Pennsylvania got stuck in a telephone booth. They were Christann Duran of 3842 Sarah Street and Peggy Woistman who lived at 941 Franklin Street.

They had squeezed themselves into a pay telephone booth located at the corner of Hartman Street and O’Neil Boulevard to make a call and couldn’t get the door open to get out when they were done.

They frantically hammered on the glass for assistance, but those who saw them just smiled or waved back before walking on by.

Ultimately, one of the girls was able to get her hand into her purse and pull out a dime to call the police. A patrolman arrived and had to remove the door from the phone booth. Which got me thinking: couldn’t they have simply dialed the operator for help?


Four women in telephone booths at the Hurricane Ballroom in 1943.
Phone booths are definitely a thing of the past. This photo shows four women in telephone booths at the Hurricane Ballroom in 1943. (Image from the Library of Congress.)
 

Woman Swallows a Live Mouse

Is was reported on August 11, 1959 that a 67-year-old widow named Florence Hill of Denver, Colorado was awoken by the sound of her dog Boots growling. Here’s how she described what had happened:

“I woke up from a nap the other night and there he was, this little mouse, on the sewing machine right beside my bed.

“I opened my mouth to yell and he jumped right in: I clinched my teeth right away and caught him by the tail. He was crawling and scratching to get away and he was going right down my throat. I just couldn’t keep hold of him.


Florence Hill swallowed a live mouse.
Florence Hill swallowed a live mouse. Image appeared on page 18 of the Semi-Weekly Spokesman-Review.

“I could feel him crawling all the way down.

Yes, you heard it correctly: she swallowed the live mouse.

She continued, “It was the most horrible night I’ve ever spent…

“I went to Denver General Hospital yesterday. They X-rayed me and didn’t find a thing wrong. They kept me there for six hours, then told me to eat and drink plenty and sent me home.

“I feel pretty good now.”

Syndicated sketch of  Florence Hill swallowing a mouse.
This syndicated sketch of Florence Hill swallowing the mouse appeared on page 8 of the December 6, 1959 issue of the Mexia Daily News.
 

Popping Popcorn Wrecks Building

On June 11, 1941 it was reported that a 40’ x 50’ (12.2 m x 15.25 m), five-story brick building owned by the Empire Storage and Ice Company in Kansas City collapsed unexpectedly.

It turns out that the building was filled with 30,000 bushels of popping corn that started to spontaneously combust and expand and expand and expand…

So powerful was the force that 2 railroad boxcars were overturned and nearly covered in corn and bricks.


Popcorn Stand in Globe Arizona in 1940
Popcorn Stand in Globe Arizona in 1940. Image from the Library of Congress.
 

Podcast 125: The Snoring War

As I started to research today’s story, I began to reflect on my life before I owned a home. For more than twenty years I had lived in various apartments. One of my rules for choosing an apartment was that it had to be on the top floor. My rationale for this was noise. The constant thumping of people walking around above my head made it very difficult for me to get any sleep.

Of course, living above others doesn’t always work out. Once I lived above a heavy smoker and the smell would seep through the floor and stink up my apartment. Perhaps the oddest problem, however, occurred in the mid-1990’s with a couple that lived directly under me. Let’s just say that the female half of that relationship was a screamer and leave it at that. After about two months of listening to them, the problem was resolved when the two were evicted for non-payment of their rent.

Well, today’s story is also about apartment living, but it didn’t involve me in the slightest. First, a little background. Way back in 1869, William A. Engelman, who had earned his wealth by selling horses to the Union Army during the Civil War, purchased several hundred acres of beachfront property in Gravesend, Brooklyn. He named it Brighton Beach, supposedly after the resort town in England. In 1871, he built the Ocean Hotel and in 1878 completed Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion and Ocean Pier, which attracted thousands of affluent people seeking to escape the crowded city. One could get to Brighton Beach by several rail lines or via the then newly completed Ocean Parkway, which had no homes along it at the time and allowed families to take a leisurely, scenic path to the oceanfront.

One of the guests who greatly enjoyed his stay at the Ocean Hotel was robber baron Auston Corbin, who had consolidated all of the rail lines in the area into the Long Island Rail Road, and he decided to purchase his own chunk of beachfront and build his own grand resort. He named it the Manhattan Beach Hotel and, being an anti-semite, he forbid Jews from staying there.

Not to be outdone, William Engelman built the even larger Brighton Beach Hotel in 1878. He soon added the Brighton Beach Racetrack, followed by the Brighton Theater and the Brighton Music Hall. Unfortunately, the hotel was built too close to the ocean and the constant battering of the waves threatened to undermine the very foundation of the hotel. In what would prove to be one of the major engineering feats of its day, the entire hotel, estimated to weigh in excess of 8-million pounds, was placed on to 112 rail cars and pulled along 24 sets of railroad tracks by two-sets of three locomotives and moved 600-feet (approximately 180 meters) inland.

Colorized image of the Brighton Beach Hotel from 1903.
Colorized image of the Brighton Beach Hotel from 1903. (Original black and white image is from the Library of Congress.)

The incredible success of these hotels was not too last. There was no single factor that killed off their popularity. It was partly due to the carnival-like atmosphere of nearby Coney Island spilling over into Brighton Beach, the construction of lower-priced hotels, a 1908 law that forbid betting at racetracks, the Great Depression, the suburbanization of Brooklyn and a host of other reasons.

Those grand Victorian hotels are long gone and the only remianing evidence of this once spectacular vacation area is the boardwalk itself.

Image of Brighton Beach taken between 1915 and 1920.
Image of Brighton Beach taken between 1915 and 1920 that has been colorized. (Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.)

In 1955, the late Brooklyn developer Alexander Muss took a long-term lease on 21-acres of property that faced the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. His grand plan was to construct high-rise housing on much of this land, but a 1961 rezoning law limited them to building just two tall buildings.

Called the Seacoast Towers, the first 16-story building was completed in 1961, followed by a second twenty-story tower in 1962. The complex, which sat directly on the location of the former Brighton Beach Hotel, contained a total of 590 apartments.

An ad in the January 3, 1961 publication of The New York Times describes Seacoast Towers as follows:

“Correction. It is not true that our 4-room (one-bedroom) apartments rent at $250. This misconception is understandable considering the outstanding features of our 16-story luxury apartments… the only apartments in Brooklyn directly on the ocean… just 37 steps from boardwalk, beach and ocean… magnificent lobby designed by Maurice Lapidus… striking canopied entrance… doorman service… men’s and women’s private beach locker rooms… Private 14-foot terraces for every apartment… and more. The truth is that our 4-room apartments rent for only $160. Why not come up today and see for yourself. Mail chute – Oak parquet floors – pre-war room sizes – 12 cu. ft. GE refrigerator-freezer – gallery-foyer – separate dining room – oversized kitchen with brunch tables. Seacoast Towers. Brighton 14th Street at the Boardwalk-Brooklyn.”

Sounds spectacular, doesn’t it? A one-bedoom, spacious apartment that overlooks the ocean for just $160 per month, which would be approximately $1350.00/month today.

Perhaps the details that are most important to the story that you are about to hear appeared on May 10, 1959 on the front page of the real estate section of The New York Times. It reads, “Airspace within the walls was designed to make the building virtually soundproof. Vermiculite ceilings also help to reduce sound transmission between floors.”

Soundproof is not exactly the first word that one thinks of when you start to hear the details of an argument that occurred between two of the residents of Seacoast Towers. It’s the story of two guys named Sam. The first is 55-year-old Sam Scheir, who lived with his wife and daughter in apartment 16-V at 35 Seacoast Terrace – the taller of the two apartment buildings. Scheir was the maître d’ at the Hotel Diplomat in Manhattan and typically arrived home around 2 AM each morning. Exhausted, he would typically fall into a deep sleep and snore loudly. To keep confusion between the two Sams to a minimum, I will refer to Scheir as Snoring Sam for the remainder of the story.

Next up we have Sam #2: 46-year-old Samuel Gutwirth, who was a publicist and had to wake up early each morning to make his business rounds. When the Gutwirths rented their apartment in the supposedly soundproof building, they got the surprise of their lifetime when they discovered that a thin wall separated their apartment from the next. He claimed to be able to hear mild whispers from the adjoining apartments. Worse yet, the Gutwirth’s bed was positioned on the other side of the wall from where Snoring Sam’s bed was located. And just like clockwork, every morning around 2:30, the Gutwirths were awoken by the loud sounds being generated from Snoring Sam’s slumber. Sam Gutwirth had no choice but to bang against the wall to wake Snoring Sam up. So, I will refer to Sam #2 as Banging Sam.

Banging Sam Gutwirth removing his earplugs.
Banging Sam Gutwirth removing his earplugs. Image appeared on page 32 of the February 14, 1964 publication of the New York Daily News.

This snoring-and-banging, back-and-forth ritual continued until January 20, 1964. That’s when Snoring Sam dragged Banging Sam into Brooklyn Criminal Court charging him with making unnecessary noise. He claimed that Banging Sam had been knocking on his bedroom wall five or six times each night for the previous six months.

Banging Sam was forced to hire a lawyer to represent him, a man named Joseph Mandell. He told Judge Matthew Fagan, “Mr. Scheir is a snorer of gigantic proportions and gives off an animalistic roar with the quality of a lion’s roar that vibrates the rooms. The very anticipation of their beginning at about 2:30 AM every day has shaken my client and his wife, deprived them of sleep, injured their health, and, in fact, constitute an assault upon their persons.”

The judge questioned Snoring Sam as to whether he did really snore, to which he replied, “I don’t know. I’m asleep.” He added, “How would you like it if every time you settled down for a good snooze, some idiot started pounding?”

In his defense, Banging Sam told the judge that he and his wife Ida, “simply can’t put up with it. I banged on the wall to try and shut him up.”

Snoring Sam finally conceded that he was, in fact, a snorer and had been doing so for many years. However, he felt that snoring was a natural act and one that simply cannot be avoided or controlled, while Banging Sam’s actions were a deliberate and calculated attempt to unnerve Mr. and Mrs. Snoring Sam. He told the court, “He is undermining my health and the health of my family.” He added, “It is his intention to force us out of our apartment.”

It’s not that Banging Sam didn’t try to talk over the problem with Snoring Sam. He suggested that he consult a doctor about his problem, possibly wear a snore-warning device, switch bedrooms with his daughter, or simply move his bed to the opposite side of the room. Snoring Sam refused to do any of these things.

What a mess. If you were Judge Fagan, how would you rule in this unusual case? Well, he did the next best thing: he pushed a decision off into the future and told the two to return back to court on February 13th. He suggested that Banging Sam file a cross-complaint, which he did do, and when they return to court, he asked them to bring their wives. The judge wanted to hear their sides of the story. He also asked that the two consult their landlord, Seacoast Homes, Inc., to see if they could do something to help solve this problem.

It wasn’t long before this absurd story was picked up by the wire services and told in newspapers all across the country. The very next day after the court hearing, the New York Daily News ran a lengthy story featuring comments from both sides of this snoring war.

Banging Sam told reporter Michael Mok, “Let me put it this way. He can’t help his snoring but at least he could move his bed. It’s cheek by jowl with mine and when I said to him that maybe he might move it, he said the best thing I could do would be to get earplugs.” He added, “My problem is that my wife simply can’t put up with it. Now what are we to do? I banged on the wall to try and shut him up, but that only woke him from a deep sleep.”

In response, Snoring Sam stated, “I mean, how on earth would you like it if every time you settle down for a snooze, some idiot started pounding rump-titty-rump-titty-rump-rump-rump – or shave-and-a-hair-cut-two-bits?”

A photograph accompanying the article showed Banging Sam and his wife Ida in bed with a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Type 1551-A sound level meter – which the article claimed cost $460 (about $3,800 today) on the open market – sitting on the nightstand. They claimed to have hired a man to operate this equipment and measure how loud the snoring was, but while waiting for Snoring Sam to arrive home, the operator fell asleep and awoke Banging Sam with his own loud snores.

Sam and Ida Gutwirth in their Seacoast Tower apartment with a sound level meter and tape recorder by their bed.
Sam and Ida Gutwirth in their Seacoast Tower apartment with a sound level meter and tape recorder by their bed. Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on January 21, 1964.

The Daily News reporter borrowed the equipment to try it out at various other locales. He determined that Snoring Sam was producing sounds that were equivalent to those produced by a hungry, growling labrador retriever and a midget tap dancing. He also determined that Snoring Sam was only slightly quieter than a news copy boy cracking Brazil nuts open. No, I am not making this up…

When the court date of February 13, 1964 finally arrived, Judge Fagan was not present. He must have decided to run as far away from this case as possible to avoid having to make a decision. Instead, Judge Arthur Dunaif presided over the proceedings. Snoring Sam was there with his newly hired lawyer, Irving J. Linder, but Banging Sam was a no-show.

Snoring Sam told the court that he wished to withdraw his complaint against Banging Sam and the judge agreed. The whole thing was thrown out.

So, why this sudden change of heart?

Upon exiting the courtroom, Snoring Sam Scheir told newsmen that everything was resolved because someone had built a thick sound barrier between the two apartments. The odd thing is that no one would take credit for building this new wall. Snoring Sam denied having anything to do with it. Banging Sam Gutwirth said that he certainly didn’t do it. And both the management at Seacoast Homes and the builders, Alexander Muss & Sons, also denied having had built it.

Today, Seacoast Towers is a luxury co-op building. I did a quick check on Zillow and current selling prices range between $381,200 for a 1-bedroom, 1-bath to a high of $729,000 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit.

Yet, the only review on Yelp awarded 35 Seacoast Terrace a one-star rating and states, “Very thin walls, stupid neighbor watching TV all day! Cigarette smell in the corridor! Old building.” I guess that they never did soundproof the remaining walls in the building and is the reason why, when my wife and I bought our house, I insisted that there be some space between us and our neighbors.

On that note, I hope that everyone gets some nice, quiet slumber time tonight. Sweet dreams…

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

 

Drivers Use Homeowner’s Yard as Roadway

It was reported on September 6, 1962 that Encino, California resident William Wiegand was having a major problem with his home at 3644 Sapphire Drive, which he had purchased two years prior.

His house was in what would appear to be a great location – on a dead-end street. It should have been quiet with very little traffic. That was not the case…

It seems that when his section of the housing development was built, the construction company built a temporary road connecting his street out to the main road – Sepulveda Boulevard – to allow their big trucks easy access.

When construction was completed, a fence was installed to limit access. Those that lived in the surrounding homes were given a key to the gate so that they could cut through to the main road.

Everyone else had to go the long way – about 5-miles (8 km) – out of their way, which no one wanted to do. As a result, the gate was constantly being wrecked by commuters seeking the shortest drive to work.

It was estimated that between 150 and 200 cars used this road every morning between 7:30 and 8:30 AM. The problem was that to do so, they needed to drive up the Wiegand’s driveway, narrowly pass between the house and a fence, and then drive right through their backyard.

Wiegand was forced to put up a fence in the back of his house to block out the bright headlights from all of those cars returning in the evening.

His insurance company canceled his policy after too many claims were submitted by motorists who had hit the house, but the developers helped to get the policy reinstated.

Unfortunately, access to the road was written into the deeds of 39 homeowners and it would require unanimous approval to get the road removed. Good luck with that one…

Yet, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. The city permit for the access road was set to expire in April 1963, at which point the road needed to be removed. A quick check with Google Maps shows that the road is long gone.