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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Author Archives: Steve Silverman

Mother Tells Baby That Armed Robber is a TV Repairman

 

It was reported that on July 6, 1955, 24-year-old Mrs. Annette Kotler of Hartford, Connecticut heard someone knocking on the door of a second-floor apartment in her building at 390 Vine Street. The building was your typical two-story flat of that time period. When she heard the knock, Mrs. Kotler had been giving her three-year-old son Lawrence a bath and thought nothing of it. 

But just a short time later she heard someone knocking on her own kitchen door. She opened the door until the safety chain was stretched to its limit. There she saw a tall, thin man who was wearing a rainbow-colored.

He asked, “Can I have a drink of water?”

Suspicious, Mrs. Kotler attempted to close the door, but he stuck his foot out and prevented her from doing so. At that moment, he drew out a long-barreled revolver and told her to “Opened the door.” He threatened to shoot both Mrs. Kotler and her son if she did not.

She felt that she had no choice and opened the door to let him in. As the man walked into their dining room, she took her son into the bedroom and, in an effort to comfort him, told young Lawrence that it was only a “man who was here to fix the television set.” She gave him a toy, laid him down in his crib and he fell asleep.

The robber demanded money to which Mrs. Kotler replied, “I don’t have any.”

He asked, “Where is your pocketbook,” as he proceeded to open every drawer in the house in search of money.

Mrs. Kotler gave the bandit $3 in bills that she had in a kitchen cabinet, but he didn’t take the change that was there. He also demanded that she take off her wedding ring, but she refused. She told him that if he got any closer, she would let out a scream.

She estimated that the robber was in the apartment for about fifteen minutes before leaving. He warned her, “If you call the police, I will return tonight and kill you and your baby.”

Mrs. Kotler ignored his threat and first called her husband and two neighbors before notifying the police.

One month later, Mrs. Kotler claimed that on August 3, 1955, she had been assaulted in the hallway of her home. She claimed that she had gone shopping with her mother, Mrs. Sadie Gypstein, and had parked her car outside while her mother waited in the car. As Mrs. Kotler entered the rear hallway, a young man hit her on her left shoulder. Mrs. Kotler was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and examined, but the doctor observed no bruises or injuries.

That was the fifth complaint that Mrs. Kotler had made to the police over the previous twelve months.

My dad’s oldest brother Marvin was a radio and television repairman. I found his faded business card while cleaning out my grandparents’ summer bungalow.

Early Long-Distance Learning Fails

 

A story on September 2, 1956 tells about the failure of an early long-distance learning experiment. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s educational television station, WQED – which would later be the home of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood – joined with local boards of educations to experiment with teaching French, reading, and arithmetic via television.

Dr. Edith Kern was administering a French examination from WQED’s studio to 650 fifth-grade pupils located in sixteen different schools in western Pennsylvania when she reached question number 38 on the 44 question test. Suddenly, all of the TV screens went blank. It wouldn’t be until Dr. Kern reached question number 41 that she would reappear on the screen.

As you know, teachers are incredibly mean and everything is always the student’s fault. So, she marked those missing questions wrong on every student’s paper. No, that’s not really what happened. Those 3 missing questions were skipped when the exams are graded.

The loss of signal during the exam was blamed on a power company line failure.

1963 photograph of the teaching television studio, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. Library of Congress image.

Dead Man Helps Revive Wife

 

On October 30, 1931, it was reported that 80-year-old (he was really 79) Llewellyn Hall slumped over in a rocking chair inside of his Cleveland, Ohio home. His wife Emma checked for a pulse but could find none. She contacted the police rescue squad who raced to the scene, but they were unable to revive Llewellyn.

On the way to the morgue, the crew stopped at the hospital so that they could obtain an official death certificate. Physicians there confirmed that there was no heartbeat but opted to try a stimulant to see if they could possibly revive Llewellyn. Suddenly, his eyelids began to blink. The doctors then proceeded to apply artificial respiration and Llewellyn sat up.

“I guess I must’ve been out for a while,” he told the doctors. The police were kind enough to drive Llewellyn back home. Upon arrival, he was surprised to find that mourners had already arrived to offer his wife their condolences. As soon as his wife Emma laid eyes on her husband, she fainted. Llewellyn, the supposedly dead man, had to help revive his wife.

Llewelyn Hall’s death certificate. He passed away at January 6, 1933 at 80 years of age. (Click to enlarge.)

Podcast # 139 – The Fight for Hildy McCoy

 

Imagine you are in this situation: It is the early 1950s and you are a young woman in your early twenties. You are unmarried and suddenly you find out that you are pregnant. What would you do?  

Well, this was the exact situation that a young Boston resident named Marjorie McCoy found herself in.   At the time, she was a student at the Children’s Hospital School of Nursing and when she learned that she was pregnant, her mom took her to see the family doctor, Dr. Herman Sands. He suggested that the best solution would be to place the child up for adoption and they agreed.

Dr. Sands referred them to Salem, Massachusetts attorney Philip Strome, who could “handle the whole matter and keep things quiet.” Strome found the perfect couple to adopt the baby: 39-year-old Melvin Ellis and his 31-year-old wife Frances.  Melvin owned Bentley’s Cleansers, a dry-cleaning plant in Boston, and was reported to have had an annual income in excess of $10,000 ($97,000 adjusted for inflation).  The two had married in 1946 but soon learned that they would be unable to have a child of their own. Desperate to adopt, they offered to pay all of Marjorie’s medical costs plus any legal fees incurred. 

Marjorie and her mom agreed to the terms of the deal. To avoid the embarrassment of being pregnant out of wedlock, Marjorie headed out to California to stay with her married sister.  As the birth approached, she returned back east and waited out her time in a rented room located on Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of Boston.

It was on February 23, 1951, in Boston’s Kenmore Hospital, that Marjorie would deliver a healthy six-pound girl. The baby was whisked away without Marjorie ever laying sight on the newborn. Ten days later, in attorney Strome’s office, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis would sign the papers to adopt their new daughter, who was now named Hildy. Next, Dr. Sands took the papers to Marjorie and she added her signature. It was a double-blind signing so that Marjorie would not learn the names of the adoptive parents and vice versa.

And with that, if this were the typical adoption, everyone involved would have gone on to happily live their lives. But that was not to be the case.

A few weeks later, Hildy’s adoption would be thrown into chaos. Marjorie was informed by attorney Philip Strome that there had been a technical glitch in the adoption proceedings because her first signature had not been notarized and dated. So, Marjorie went to Strome’s office on March 27, 1951 to sign a new set of documents. While doing so, Marjorie, who was Catholic, learned that the Ellises were not. In fact, they were Jewish. This greatly disturbed Marjorie. She desired that her daughter be placed in a Catholic home. Marjorie became apprehensive at signing the new documents, but Strome assured her that the adoption would not be finalized for another year and that she would “have time to think it over and change her mind.” So, she signed the papers and left his office.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

At some point in April, Marjorie once again went to see Dr. Sands and informed him that she didn’t approve of Hildy being raised in a Jewish household by parents who had both been previously divorced and wished to have the adoption reversed. What’s interesting here is that Marjorie still had no desire to keep Hildy. She wanted another couple to adopt the child and raise her as a Catholic. As a result, Marjorie requested that the court allow her to withdraw her consent.

Coincidentally, just months before, the Massachusetts legislature had enacted a statute that read, in part: “In making orders for adoption the judge, when practicable, must give custody only to persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.” And, let’s face it, what were the chances of there not being a single Catholic couple in the entire state of Massachusetts who would be willing to adopt a newborn blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl? At the time of Hildy’s birth, neither Marjorie nor the Ellises knew of this new legislation, but the law was clearly on Marjorie’s side.

Marjorie and the Ellises met for the first time in May 1951. What exactly happened during this meeting depends on whose side seemed more plausible. Marjorie’s attorney insisted that they requested the child be returned but the Ellises refused and the meeting ended with both sides angrily in complete disagreement. Yet, Mrs. Ellis told the press, “It was all quite friendly. We discussed the petition, and when we left, Marjorie said to me, ‘I hope you can keep the child. I can’t go on paying for this all my life.’”

In early 1952, the Ellises sought court intervention to resolve the problem, but the judge advised the couple to await the outcome of a similar case involving a Catholic mother and Protestant foster parents that had been winding its way through the Massachusetts courts. In June, this particular case was decided in favor of the adoptive couple. The Ellises took this as a good sign that they would prevail in court. Sidentoe: Hildy’s real father was a Protestant, but Marjorie had no interest in marrying him.

It would not be until June 1953 that the case would be heard by Dedham Probate Judge James F. Reynolds. This would be the first time that Marjorie McCoy would see her daughter Hildy. After a 4-1/2 day hearing, Judge Reynolds ruled against the Ellises. He determined that it would be in Hildy’s best interest if the adoption was nullified and the child returned to Marjorie McCoy so that she could place her with the Catholic Charitable Bureau. 

Needless to say, the Ellises were in deep shock. Hildy was now two years old and the couple was the only parents she had ever known. Regarding Marjorie, Mrs. Ellis stated, “If she has said to me at our first meeting, ‘I will fight for my baby – for myself,’ I would have had to give her back.”

It was shortly after this decision, on July 21, 1953, that Marjorie McCoy married Gerald Doherty, who was not Hildy’s father. They would soon start a family of their own, but Hildy was not to factor into that equation.

The Ellises’ battle to adopt Hildy did not end with Judge Reynolds’ decision. They appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It was on October 6, 1954, when Hildy was 3-1/2 years old, that the story finally broke in the newspapers. Soon, the adoption of Hildy McCoy would become front-page headlines not for days, weeks, or months, but for years. It would become the most controversial and most widely reported adoption story of the 1950s.

Mrs. Ellis stated, “Hildy is our whole life. It will be cruel and inhuman to take her away. This is the only family she has ever known.”

Hildy with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 7, 1954 publication of the Boston Globe.

The full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down their decision on February 14, 1955. They upheld Judge Reynolds’ ruling and ordered that the Ellises return Hildy to her natural mother. Keep in mind that the judges were strictly focused on the law, which did allow the natural mother of the child to withdraw her petition for adoption for a period of one year. All of the justices involved, although deemed heartless by the press, were simply interpreting the regulations as written.

On April 26, Marjorie McCoy Doherty and two social workers arrived at 231 St. Paul Street in Brookline, Massachusetts to remove Hildy from the Ellises’ home. Marjorie told Mrs. Ellis, “I’ve come for the child.” Mrs. Ellis refused their request as Hildy, dressed for bed, held on to her adoptive mother’s skirt. The three women soon left, only to return a short time later with a police officer. He made no attempt to take the child and told Mrs. Ellis that he was only there to inform the Ellises that the court had ordered the return of Hildy to her natural mother. Shortly after the four left, Mrs. Ellis wrapped Hildy in blankets and drove 68 miles (110 km) to her brother’s home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Two weeks later, on May 11, the Ellises’ attorney, James Zisman, requested that the Massachusetts Supreme Court issue a stay of execution on Judge Reynolds decision. Zisman stated, “It would be a sad situation, a tragedy, to uproot this child from its present surroundings and send her to an institution.” He continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Ellis will take this child to the Catholic Church and bring her up in the Catholic faith. Their love for this child is so great that they would bring her up under the supervision of the local Catholic priest, send her to a parochial school, even place her in a convent school where she would come home only on weekends.” The court declined this request.

The Ellises may have lost the case but they were not about to turn over Hildy without a fight. They continued to ignore the court order requiring them to return Hildy to her natural mother, so on Wednesday, June 15th, Judge Reynolds had finally had enough. He set a deadline for that Friday at 2 PM for the Ellises to turn over Hildy McCoy. If they failed to do so, the couple would be placed in jail. He stated, “The mother has been trying to get the child back into her possession since the child was six weeks old. If these people had turned the child over to the mother then they would not have become so attached to her.”

The next day, June 16, 1955, Supreme Court Justice Harold B. Williams issued a stay of execution of Judge Reynolds’ court order and scheduled a hearing for June 22. On June 28, the Supreme Court dismissed the couple’s petition and ordered that Hildy be turned over to her natural mother within 24 hours or they would “go to jail.”

Well, that day came and went. The Ellises were nowhere to be found. They had gone into hiding. In a phone interview with a reporter, Mr. Ellis stated, “I’m scared stiff of jail, but I’m like any other father when they take his child away.” He added, “We’ll fight to the finish, hoping that we can have Hildy, or at least that the mother will take her into her own home instead of a foster home. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

In the meantime, attorney Zisman once again approached the Massachusetts Supreme Court arguing that Judge Reynolds had acted improperly by ordering the arrest of the Ellises without a proper hearing. The couple was granted a two-week delay while the lower court’s ruling was reviewed.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Tampa Bay Times.

This wasn’t about to stop Judge Reynolds. He was growing tired of all of the stalling. While his order to have the Ellises arrested may have been placed on hold for two weeks, that decision had nothing to do with Hildy herself. On July 9, he ordered that sheriffs in all Massachusetts counties find Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and take Hildy into custody. “We command you that the body of female McCoy, also known as Hildy C. Ellis, of Brookline, minor child of Marjorie McCoy Doherty, you take and have before the judge of the Probate Cord at Dedham immediately after receipt of the writ to do and receive what the judge shall then and there consider concerning her in this behalf.”

On July 18, Attorney Zisman filed six new petitions with the Norfolk Probate Court claiming that Marjorie had given false testimony and that she had “deliberately imposed a fraud upon the court.” Basically, two nurses who had spoken with her at the time of Hildy’s birth signed affidavits claiming that Marjorie was aware from the very beginning that the Ellises were Jewish. 

Nurse Jessie C. Santoro said that Marjorie had asked her to go check out the couple and “let me know what they’re like.” When Santoro returned, she reported that they were “a lovely Jewish couple.” She added, “You know the baby is going to a Jewish home. Are you going to have her baptized?” To this Marjorie replied, “My only concern is to get this thing over with and get my own life straightened out.”

Frances Ellis helping Hildy with her hair. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The other nurse was Dorothy H. Ingersoll. She told of how she took the baby to Marjorie’s bedside the day after Hildy was born. Marjorie quickly turned her head away and would not look at the newborn. Ms. Ingersoll then stated, “Your baby is going to Jewish people,” to which Marjorie replied, “What’s wrong with that?”

Judge Reynolds informed attorney Zisman that he would hear no new motions concerning the case until the Ellises and Hildy appeared before him. “I want the Ellises brought before the court, and the baby before the court. I will hear all matters when everyone is before the court.”

As you can probably guess, the Ellises were no-shows. As a result, on November 3, 1955 Judge Reynolds dismissed all six of those newly filed petitions and noted that “The petitioners have not been deprived of their day in court.” After this, the Ellises filed another appeal with the state Supreme Court.

This game of ricocheting back and forth between Judge Reynolds and the Massachusetts Supreme Court would continue, so I won’t bore you with the details. In total, twenty-two different appeals were filed and then denied by the state Supreme Court. Their last decision was handed down on September 28, 1956. The final legal door had been shut on the Ellises.

The couple now legally had no choice but to turn 5 ½-year-old Hildy over to her natural mother, who would, in turn, put her up for adoption. The only problem was that the Ellises had not been spotted since that day when Marjorie and the two social workers showed up at the Ellis home. Seventeen months had since elapsed.  Were they still in Massachusetts?  Were the Ellises still even within the United States? Just where were they?

A big legal change occurred in March 1957. That was when Massachusetts Associate Justice Edward A. Counihan concluded that the Ellises had committed the crime of kidnapping and an indictment was handed down.

Not long after this, Melvin Ellis made the mistake of trying to purchase a new car in Miami Beach, Florida. Since he was trading in his old vehicle, the dealer made a routine check to confirm that there were no liens on the car. That’s when the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informed the dealer that the couple was wanted on a kidnapping charge.

At approximately 2 PM on Friday, March 15, 1957, Ellis arrived at the dealer to pick up his new car, unaware that a trap had been set. Shortly after walking into the dealership’s showroom, he was approached by two officers and taken into custody. Ellis was escorted to Miami police headquarters where he was fingerprinted, mugshot taken and placed into a cell. A short time later, a detective went to the Ellises’ Normandy Isle apartment and arrested Mrs. Ellis. Neither would have to spend very long in custody. Their Florida attorney, Benjamin Cohen, quickly arranged for their release without bail. A hearing was set for the following Monday.

Attorney Ben Cohen (left) with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 19, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

At the hearing on March 18, 1957, Massachusetts State Police Detective Lieutenant William H. Delay requested that the Ellises be held on a $5,000 bond, but the magistrate opted to once again release the couple into the custody of attorney Cohen.

Mr. Ellis told the press, “Never once during all the courtroom proceedings in Massachusetts did the court ever consider Hildy’s welfare. I don’t care if I go to jail. The main thing is the girl’s happiness and she wouldn’t be happy in a Catholic orphanage and any other kind of orphanage.” He continued, “We are not criminals. We have not done anything wrong. We just want our girl. We are not running any more. This is a last stand – a final battleground for Hildy’s life and her future. We do not want this sword hanging over us.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 18, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

The couple had been in hiding for nearly two years. So, just where were they all this time? First, as previously mentioned, after Marjorie and the two social workers arrived at the Ellises’ home on April 26, 1955, Mrs. Ellis and Hildy went to Newport, Rhode Island, where they stayed for three weeks. After that, they went to stay with friends in Sharon, Massachusetts. The couple did return back to their home in Brookline for a short period, but went back into hiding when the couple was ordered to turn over Hildy or risk going to jail. From there, they proceeded to Tuckahoe, New York and then moved on to a five-week stay with relatives in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Next was White Plains, New York, followed by a six-month stint in Manhattan, and finally a short stay in Scarsdale, New York. Finally, in April 1956, the couple decided that they needed to move out of the northeastern United States. It was at that point that the couple headed to Florida. They moved into their Normandy Isle apartment in May.

As for employment, Melvin Ellis was forced to sell his lucrative dry-cleaning business. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a traveling salesman for a New York clothing firm, selling both sportswear and lingerie. Hildy was enrolled as a first-grader in the private Lear School in Miami Beach.

Hildy (left) and her friend, Susie Ellis, playing with a pair of slacks from Melvin Ellis’ sample bag. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The battle to return Hildy, Frances, and Melvin Ellis back to the state of Massachusetts had begun. In one corner, you had the public opinion which overwhelmingly supported allowing the Ellises to adopt Hildy. In the opposing corner, there was the state of Massachusetts, which sought their immediate return so that the various court decisions could be executed.

It was estimated that the Governor of Florida’s office received 10,000 letters, telegrams, or signed petitions from people opposing the extradition of the Ellises. In comparison, an estimated 100 letters were received expressing their belief that they should be returned to Massachusetts and that Hildy should be returned to her natural mother.

Many others expressed their opinions by writing to their local newspapers. Here is just a sampling of those letters to editors:

  • April 5, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Evidently you didn’t bother trying to find the facts in this case or you deliberately withheld them in order to create sympathy toward the Ellises.”  “…the Ellises illegally obtained the child from Dr. Herman Sand and also paid him a large sum of money for the favor, in spite of the fact that Dr. Sand promised Marjorie McCoy, the child’s real mother, he would make sure the child will be placed in a Catholic home.” Anthony Cook
  • April 8, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Think of the scars that would be inflicted permanently if Hildy were separated suddenly from all the love and security she has known for years. There is more to motherhood than the act of conceiving.” The letter continues, “We are all talking tolerance: why don’t we practice it? Let this Jewish couple bring up their child as a Catholic. I cannot believe in my heart that any religion would willfully gamble a helpless child’s chance for happiness.” A Mother.
  • May 3, 1957 – Brooklyn Daily – “After the passing of these past years of Hildy’s life, the unwed mother who bore her, now married, decides to have this little one return, – not to her but, instead, – to a home for children and to be adopted, all over again, by a couple of her own Faith. To make of this little one an actual pawn, a chess piece to be moved [hither and yon] on the board-of-living is not a sporting or good game but, it is a crooked and, an absolute STEAL.” L. M. K.

Of course, public opinion does not always predict the outcome of legal matters. Almost immediately after the arrest of the Ellises, the State of Massachusetts had rendition papers drawn up seeking the couple’s return to face kidnapping charges. Under Florida law at the time, Massachusetts had until midnight on April 17 to submit the signed extradition documents. Foster Furcolo, who was the Massachusetts governor at the time, made it clear that he would sign the papers, but that process did not go smoothly. The first set of papers drawn up was rejected on March 27 on technical grounds. The second set was rejected on April 16 due to an incorrect date. Finally, on April 17 Governor Furcolo signed the third revision and it was flown to Florida and submitted just prior to the midnight deadline.

Florida Governor LeRoy Collins set a hearing on the extradition for May 23 in Tallahassee. The million-dollar question was whether Governor Collins would give in to public pressure or, instead, side with the state of Massachusetts and send the Ellises back to face the music.

Just prior to the hearing, Melvin Ellis told the press, “If by serving a couple of years in prison I might settle the thing I would not mind so much. But the thought of giving her up is more than I can bear. We are pinning our faith on the Lord and Governor Collins.”

Mrs. Ellises’ biggest fear wasn’t the kidnapping charge. Instead, she was concerned that the hearing would drag on and she would be unable to return in time to see and hear Hildy perform her part in the Lear’s School presentation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was part of her 1st grade moving up ceremony. “Hildy will feel terrible if we’re both not there, but even if Melvin has to stay in Tallahassee I’ve got to get back for the exercises.”

Mr. & Mrs. Ellis (top of stairs), their attorney Ben Cohen (far right) and others boarding an airplane to attend the extradition hearing in Tallahassee. Image appeared on page 2 of the May 22, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And then the day came. Thursday, May 23, 1957. Governor Collins began the hearing before a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 125 people. Lawyers for both sides presented their case. The session was surprisingly short, clocking in at two hours in length. Governor Collins said that he based his decision on both legal and humanitarian grounds: he granted the Ellises Florida sanctuary and refused to honor the extradition request from Massachusetts.

Reporters questioned Mrs. Ellis shortly after the decision. When asked how she felt, she replied a “little numb.” Mrs. Ellis added, “Now I can sleep tonight.” When asked about attending Hildy’s first-grade graduation, she replied, “I was going to make it if I had to walk back to Miami.”

Frances and Melvin Ellis with Hildy shortly after Governor Collins granted the couple sanctuary in Florida. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And she did make it. And so did the press. Here’s a bit of a story that appeared on May 24, 1957 in the Miami News: “Hildy McCoy Ellis ‘graduated’ today from the first to second grade at the Lear School, Miami Beach, in probably the world’s most widely publicized kiddie baccalaureate.” The article continues, “Some of the children marveled at the presence of newsreel and television cameras and blinked in the strong lights. But most of them thought it was part of the coverage of the Lear School annual event.”

This may have been a great day of celebration, but the Ellises’ legal problems were not over. They may have avoided being extradited to face the kidnapping charges, but the issue of Hildy’s legal adoption had not been settled. The Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese strongly opposed the adoption. On June 11, 1957, the Massachusetts Public Welfare Department submitted to the state of Florida twelve objections to the adoption and recommended that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis not be permitted to adopt Hildy. 

Both sides would get to present their cases before Circuit Judge John W. Prunty on July 8, 1957, as Hildy remained in the judge’s chambers playing with her 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Vicki Miller. Hildy was totally oblivious to what was going on outside in the courtroom. Two days later, Judge Prunty decreed that Hildy “shall hereafter be known as Hildy Ellis.” After more than six years of fighting for and fearing the loss of Hildy, she was now the legal daughter of Frances and Melvin Ellis.

Frances and Melvin Ellis kissing Hildy goodnight. Image appeared on page 109 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

On July 11, 1957, Hildy’s natural mother Marjorie broke her silence for the first time. “I am grateful to Massachusetts justice for upholding my right to provide for my baby in accordance with conscience. She is now a growing girl. I would not wish to see her further hurt by more of the publicity that was threatened to her and to me six years ago. Some day she will learn the facts about her mother’s desire to protect her with the privacy that others were willing to destroy. Meanwhile, with prayers I hope many will share, I entrust her to [the] loving protection of God. The rest is in the hands of my attorneys.”

After this, the press would follow up on Hildy’s story on special occasions like her birthday and the anniversary of her adoption. Yet, there was little to report. Everything seemed to be going well before the story faded into history.

Melvin Ellis told reporters that the fight to adopt Hildy had cost him over $60,000, which would be nearly $600,000 today. He added, “But you can bet it was worth it.”

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

1966 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.
1968 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.

Watch-Sized Radios Possible

 

On November 8, 1948, Dr. Joseph A. Becker, a physicist at Bell Labs, introduce a new invention at a meeting of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

He claimed that this invention would replace those bulky vacuum tubes found in all of the electronics of the day – which included ENIAC, radios, and the newly invented televisions – and would someday make it possible to have a radio so small they could wear it like a wristwatch. The name of this new miniature electronic component was called the transistor.

This Transistor Age comic appeared in an advertisement for the Walter Ashe Radio Co. in St Louis, MO on page 115 of the August 1955 issue of QST magazine.

ENIAC is First Computer

 

On April 14, 1946, Dr. Arthur W. Burks did something that we take for granted today. He walked over to a machine that his school had developed with the assistance of the Army Ordnance Department and asked it to multiply 97,367 by itself 5000 times. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, the machine produced an answer.

This machine was named the “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer” or, as it is more commonly known, ENIAC, and it is considered to be the first electronic computer ever.

You can forget putting this thing in your pocket-it would even fit in most people’s homes. ENIAC filled up nearly all of the 30 x 60’ room that housed it (9.1 x 18.3 m) and consisted of 18,000 vacuum tubes, more than half a million solder joints, and took more than 200,000 man-hours to build. The cost to construct it was estimated to be about $400,000, which is approximately $5.3 million today.

ENIAC was the first electronic computer. Wikipedia image.

Robert Oppenheimer Falls Asleep on His Date

 

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s name has long been synonymous with the development of the atomic bomb, but he wasn’t always good at dating. It was reported on December 8, 1945, that when he was much younger he had taken a girl out on a date and his car ran out of gas. Since it was a chilly night, he insisted that his date where his coat to stay warm.

So, Bob went to get some gas. His date waited an hour and he never returned, so she went to the police to inform them of his disappearance. The search for the missing Oppenheimer was not difficult. The police found him home asleep in his bed. He apparently forgot about his date and his car.

And to think we trusted him with nuclear weapons…

J. Robert Oppenheimer. Image from Wikipedia.

Podcast #138 – Titanic’s Orphans

 

One of the first stories that I recorded for this podcast back in January of 2008 was that of Violet Jessop being the only person to survive the collisions of the three sister ships: the Olympic, Titanic, and the Britannic. (Link below.) Well, twelve years later, it is time for another story about the Titanic. I know that so much has been told and retold about the Titanic over the years that it is my hope that I selected one that you have not heard before.

To begin, I would like to introduce you to two women: 49-year-old Mrs. Lily Potter and her daughter Olive Earnshaw, who was 23 years old when the Titanic disaster occurred.  At the time, Olive’s marriage had failed and she had filed for divorce. Her mom, who had been widowed two years prior, came up with the perfect solution for the two of them to get away from it all: they would embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East beginning in December 1911.  And, to make their trip even more enjoyable, they invited 24-year-old Margaret Bechstein Hays to accompany them.  Olive and Margaret had become good friends while attending the Briarcliff School in New York. 

Titanic passenger Margaret Bechstein Hays.
Margaret Bechstein Hays. Image from Find-A-Grave.

They had already arranged passage home on another ship, but as they were about to leave Turkey, they learned that if they postponed their voyage by one week, they could sail on the maiden voyage of the grand RMS Titanic. It was a decision that would ultimately make the three women footnotes to history.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and made a quick stop that evening in Cherbourg, France to pick up additional passengers. It was there that Lily, Olive, and Margaret first boarded the smaller SS Nomadic tender which transported them out to the Titanic, which had been unable to dock due to its immense size.

The Titanic sailing in ocean.
The Titanic sailing in ocean. Library of Congress image.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 14th, all three women had already retired to their cabins for the evening.  Upon hearing the engines cease operation, the two younger women, who were in cabin C-54, went to check on Olive’s mom in C-50. While they were assured by a steward that there was nothing to worry about, the three got dressed, wrapped Margaret’s Pomeranian named Bebe in a blanket, and headed to the C-deck. All three proceeded to put on lifejackets, boarded lifeboat #7, and, at 12:40 AM, it became the first lifeboat to set sail.

It is very well known that the Titanic only carried enough lifeboats to accommodate about half of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew that were on board. Had the ship carried her full complement of 3,339 people, that fraction drops to about one-third. Even worse, the majority of the lifeboats that were launched were not filled to capacity. For example, the boat containing Lily, Olive, Margaret and Bebe had a capacity of sixty-five, yet it sailed off with only twenty-eight passengers aboard.

The last lifeboat to be successfully lowered into the water was Collapsible D. Just as that boat was about to depart, a man appeared on the Titanic deck clutching two young boys in his arms.  Officers stepped forward to prevent him from boarding the boat, so he shouted down to the crew of the lifeboat to help save his babies. They agreed and he dropped the older boy down into the arms of a sailor.  After observing that he was safely caught, the man then dropped the other youngster. According to survivors, the man was last seen dropping to his knees, his hands clasped in prayer and with tears streaming down his face. 

After receiving the Titanic’s distress call, the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4:00 AM and its crew spent the next five hours rescuing survivors before its captain gave the order to set sail with 705 survivors aboard. More than 1,500 lives were lost. 

Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia.
Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia. Library of Congress image.

It was during the three-day voyage to New York aboard the Carpathia that Margaret Hays would take notice of the two young boys as they played with her dog. Since they were the only two children rescued without a parent or guardian, she took it upon herself to care for them. 

While little was known about the boys, it was clear from their striking resemblance that they were almost certainly brothers. One was roughly four years of age and the other two.  One survivor, Julian Pedro, said that the boys occupied the cabin next to his and that the man who accompanied them was named Hoffman, who he believed was their father. He described the father as being around 40-years of age, of medium height and build, with dark hair, a mustache, and a ruddy complexion.  While Hoffman had little interaction with others on the boat, survivors who did recall that he spoke French and believed that he was a widower. 

Ms. Hays, who also spoke fluent French, tried her best to learn what she could from the older boy but had no luck. To just about every question that she asked the boy, he would simply answer “Oui.”

Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic.
Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic. Lily Potter, Olive Earnshaw, and Margaret Hays are listed as number 8-10. Click on image to enlarge.

Upon arrival in New York, Margaret took the two children to her family’s home, which was located at 304 West 83rd Street in Manhattan. With the shocking sinking of the Titanic being front-page news nearly worldwide, the story of the “Two Waifs of the Sea” quickly spread worldwide. The press speculated that Margaret would probably adopt the two children. When interviewed, Ms. Hays told reporters, “I could not allow them to be sent to a foundling home.” She continued, “Just think of it – two little atoms of humanity, whose lives were been filled with happiness, who would’ve been gently brought up by loving parents, robbed of their names, condemned, through no fault of their own to become nameless things in an institution. I could not do that.”

Margaret, with the financial help of her parents, provided the boys with everything they would need until a relative could be found.  That is, should a relative ever be found. They provided the boys with food, shelter, toys and lots of love. The boys appeared incredibly happy and seemed oblivious to the great tragedy that took the life of their dad and so many others.

With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola.
With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola. Colorized image. Original from the Library of Congress.

Still unable to determine their names, the French consul in New York offered his assistance. He stated, “I’ve read in the papers that the older boy has said his name is Louis, but I can get nothing from him to prove it. It seems to me more likely that he answers oui-oui to everything. He was understood to say that his name was Louis, which might seem to have the same sound to an American. I have cabled to France and will do everything I can to find the relatives of the children, but as yet I have gained nothing from them to aid in the search.” 

The Children’s Aid Society arranged for a native Frenchman to visit the children and he concluded that the boys spoke with a dialect that was unmistakably from the southern portion of France.

And the search continued.

Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

Margaret’s father, Frank B. Hays, remarked, “We have no intention of keeping them beyond the time when their relatives are found or the search for them is given up. A Montréal family who were passengers on the Titanic are anxious to adopt them, and my daughter says they shall have the preference. Of course, many persons here in New York have also offered to take them. The published story that the children were in the same boat with my daughter and clung to her instinctively is a misstatement. My daughter left in the first lifeboat and the two children followed on later boats. The smaller boy was tossed from the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat without a stitch of clothing. The older child wore only a shirt when he was taken aboard the Carpathia. The survivors of the Titanic on board formed a ladies’ committee, and as my daughter was the only one among them who had not suffered some personal loss through the disaster she was asked to care for the two children, and gladly did so. She was told that the two children had been in the second cabin of the Titanic in the care of a man named Hoffman, but we have been unable to get any clue to their whereabouts from the White Star line or anywhere else.”

Margaret Hays received more than 450 offers from all over the nation from people willing to adopt the two boys.  All of the inquiries were then forwarded to the Children’s Aid Society for handling. Offers came in from doctors, lawyers, a stockbroker, a French architect, and many others. Margaret’s personal preference, contradicting her father’s statement about the Montreal family, was that the boys be entrusted to the care of an unnamed friend, should a legitimate relative not be located.

Colorized photos of the two Titanic waifs.
Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

The first claim from a possible relative came within one-day of Carpathia arriving in New York with the survivors.  One year prior to the sinking of the Titanic, Mystic, Iowa resident Franck Lefebvre had emigrated to the United States from France.  He came in search of employment and, upon earning enough to send for his family, his wife and four youngest children secured passage on the Titanic. Upon hearing the news of the two unidentified French children, he headed for New York to determine if they were his or not. They proved not to be Lefebvre’s children. Sadly, the bodies of his wife and children were never recovered. 

There was quite a bit publicity regarding the two orphans in the French newspapers and one week after the Titanic’s sinking, a 21-year-old woman named Marcelle Navratil came forward believing that the two boys could be her missing sons.  She said that she had separated from her husband Michel and he disappeared with the children, telling friends that he was going to take them to the United States.  

Marcelle Caretto Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Mme. Navratil described her two boys as follows: the older is Michel, Jr, nicknamed Lolo, spoke with difficulty, and was a couple of months shy of his fourth birthday. His younger brother was Edmond, or Momo for short, who was two years old. Her physical descriptions of the two children also closely matched that of the two waifs.

Could she be their mother? That was still to be determined.  

The first problem was that there was no one with the name of Navratil registered as a passenger on the Titanic. Survivors clearly recalled that the man in charge of these two boys was named Hoffman, which was confirmed by an L. Hoffman on the passenger list. Mme. Navratil confirmed that her husband had a friend named Louis Hoffman, but that could be pure coincidence.

So, if the children were hers, it was possible that her husband either assumed his friend’s name for the voyage or that Hoffman himself had agreed to escort the children to the United States. 

The first step in resolving this mystery occurred in Monte Carlo.  Mme. Navratil provided a picture of her husband to the British consul there.  A ticket agent confirmed that he had sold tickets to the man in the photograph and the children who accompanied him for a voyage on the Titanic.

Colorized photo of Edmond and Michel Navratil, Jr. taken to aid in their identification after the sinking of the Titanic. Original image from Wikipedia.

The exact count is unknown, but it is estimated that 334 bodies were recovered from the wreck. 125 were buried at sea and the remaining 209 were transported to Halifax, Nova Scotia for burial. It was there that New York City resident Frederick Wenger traveled in hope of positively identifying the body of his brother-in-law, Sante Righini, which he was able to do. As Wenger moved among the many open caskets in search of Righini, another body grabbed his attention. “Why, I know that man,” he stated. “That is Louis Hoffman of Nice, France. His two little boys are in New York now.” Since Wenger was not aboard the Titanic, it is unclear how he was able to know what Hoffman looked like. 

With the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean lying between Mme. Navratil and the two children, she needed to find a sure-fire way to prove that they were hers. She prepared a series of questions that only her children would know the answers to. The questions and corresponding answers were telegraphed to New York and Margaret Hays asked them to the older child in French. 

Q – “Qu’est-ce que maman t’a donne la veille de Paques?” (What did mamma give you for Easter?)

A – “Des chocolats.” (Chocolates.)

Q – “Dans quoi?” (In what?)

A – “Dans des ceufs de Paques.” (In Easter eggs.)

Q – “Qu’y avait-il sur les ceufs?” (What was on the eggs?)

A – “Un lapin.” (A rabbit.)

Q – “Qu’est-ce faisait maman avec le petits carres en bois?” (What did mamma do with the little blocks of wood?)

A – “Le chien qui boit (???) du lait avec le petit garcon.” (She made the dog who drank milk with the little boy. – This is referring to a jigsaw puzzle.)

Grandma’s illness:

Q – “A Nice, a la maison de maman, qui c’est qui etait malade?” (In Nice, in mamma’s home, who was it that was ill?)

A – “Grandmaman.” (Grandma.)

Q – “Ou c’est que tu allais avec Marie?” (Where did you go with Marie?)

A – “A la mer voir les aeroplanes.” (To the seashore to see the aeroplanes.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui dechirait les carres en bois?” (Who broke up the wooden blocks?)

A – “Maman.” (Mamma.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui s’appelle Marcelle?” (Who is called Marcelle?)

A – “C’est maman.” (It’s mamma.)

Nearly any doubt that anyone had about these being her two children was removed when five of the eight questions were answered correctly.

On April 24th, ten days after the Titanic impacted the iceberg, the offices of the White Star Line in New York City received an unsigned cablegram from Liverpool stating that the sender would be coming ASAP to claim the boys.

Frank Hays told reporters, “I heard the woman claiming to be the mother of the boys had sailed from Liverpool, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about her and don’t know whether it is a new woman in the case or Mme. Navratil of Nice, France. The White Star people can’t or won’t give me any information.”

His daughter Margaret, in turn, questioned the newspapermen as to what they may know: “Have you learned anything?” She continued, “Well, I don’t believe that Frenchwoman is the mother of these children at all. Her story is not plausible.”

To which her dad replied, “It certainly seems plausible to me. The children speak French and are of southern France type. They are of the age that Mme. Navratil states her children are. They must have been brought up near the water, as they are crazy over boats. And they are children of manifest refinement and as fond of automobiles as boats.”

After reading of Mdm. Navratil’s story, Rudolph Navratil of 317 East Ninth Street in Manhattan was convinced that the two boys belonged to his uncle, also named Rudolph Navratil, whom he had not seen in quite some time. “My uncle was about 45 years old, and he left Hungary when only 20. Since that time he has resided in several different countries, but most of the time in France.” 

He continued, “I’ve seen the pictures of the two Titanic waifs and can trace a strong family resemblance. There is not a shadow of doubt that the children are my uncle’s. The only doubt is as to whether it was my uncle who had them on board the Titanic or whether it was his friend Hoffman.” This lead seemed promising but was quickly proven wrong. Shortly after reading the claim in the newspaper, the elder Rudolph Navratil contacted his nephew and explained that he had moved to New York City eight years prior and never had any children.

Many of the initial headlines of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg were incorrect. (Click on image to enlarge.)

On May 6th, Mme. Navratil boarded the RMS Oceanic at Cherbourg and began her trip to New York. While the White Star Line provided her with first-class accommodations, she mingled very little with the other passengers. 

While awaiting her arrival, the Children’s Aid Society placed the boys in the care of one of Mme. Navratil’s relatives, whose name was withheld from the press.  She was later identified as Rose Bruno, a cousin who worked as a governess in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Finally, on May 15th – one full month after the Titanic sank to its icy grave, the Oceanic docked and Mme. Navratil was one of the first off of the ship. She was rushed through customs and then met at the pier by Margaret and her father Frank, cousin Rose, and a couple of others. After some brief introductions, they all took a cab to the offices of the Children’s Aid Society. There, she was hurried through a throng of reporters and photographers and led up to the nurses’ parlor on the fifth floor. The rest of the party fell back as Mme. Navratil turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.
Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.

As she entered the room, she first spotted her eldest son, Michel, dressed in a tan sailor suit, seated in the corner of a window with a picture alphabet book in his lap. Edmond was crawling on the floor attempting to put a child’s puzzle together.

She knelt to her knees and called to her children, “Mes enfants – Mes petits.” (My children, my little ones.)

Edmond let out a wail and ran towards his mother. “Oh, maman! Oh, Maman!” Michel quickly followed and they all embraced for quite some time.  

The three were alone in the room for nearly an hour, but she never asked them about the tragedy or their father.  “I do not want them to think about that. They must only be happy from now on – only happy; no more distress.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Michel and Edmond. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

While Mme. Navratil was fluent in French and Italian, she spoke no English. Her statements were all translated into English for the benefit of the reporters and their readers.  

“I’m afraid they will both be frightened when they see the big ship on which I am to take them back home Saturday. As for me, of course, I am not frightened, not at all.”

When asked if she would agree to any of the offers of adoption, she replied “No, indeed! I couldn’t give them up.”

She then went on to describe how this whole mess began.  She had been born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents, but her family soon moved back to Genoa. It was there that she met her future husband, Hungarian Michel Navratil. He was a tailor by trade and the two married in 1907, when she was seventeen.  The couple ultimately settled down in Nice where his business prospered. 

The two were very happy until shortly after the birth of their second son, Edmond. That’s when, according to Mme. Navratil, everything started to turn sour. Her husband had become insanely jealous and their marriage quickly fell apart. She filed for a separation and was granted custody of the children. Dad was only permitted to see his children once a month. 

It was on April 7, 1912 – Easter Day – that Mme. Navratil sent her children to see her husband. 

“On Easter Sunday last, my children were taken to their father, and from that time to this, I have not seen them. I then heard that he had sailed from Cherbourg on the Titanic, and when I heard of the sinking of the steamship I almost lost my reason, for my babies, I thought, must have perished. Later came word that there were two children in New York, and when they told me how they looked like, I knew they must be mine.”

She did express that she believed that her husband had died in the wreck, but she had no proof, other than the positive identification by the ticket agent in Monte Carlo, that both he and Louis Hoffman were, in fact, the same person.

Michel Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

On Saturday, May 18, Mme. Navratil and her two children would board the Oceanic and begin their return trip to Europe. Just before they set sail, she commented, “The people here have been very kind. I have not had many offers of help, but I have felt more than I can tell the sympathy for my babies and myself and the trouble strangers have taken to bring us together. I have had hundreds of letters of sympathy and even offers of marriage.” She continued, “We are simple folk, my children and I, and we need not much. God has been good enough to bring us together after so many terrible things.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Edmond and Michel. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

But things were not well when they got back home. Her deceased husband had sold his business for about $8,000 ($215,000 today) and the money was never found. It was believed that he was carrying the cash with him to America and it went down with the ship. 

One year later, Mme. Navratil was working as a servant and struggling to make ends meet. Word that they were living in poverty somehow got back to New York and the Hays family once again stepped in to help.  Margaret told reporters, “Monday is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the legal limit for filing claims expires then. To enable Mrs. Navratil to begin suit, I sent her the money necessary.” Her dad filed a claim for $30,000, but it is unclear if Mrs. Navratil ever received any compensation for her loss.

Margaret would marry Dr. Charles D. Easton of Newport, Rhode Island on April 24, 1913. In November 1914, she would once again meet up with Mme. Navratil and the two boys. The reunion was reported as being joyous. Sadly, Dr. Easton was 58 when he died after undergoing surgery on October 4, 1934. While vacationing with one of her two daughters and a granddaughter in Buenos Aires, Margaret suffered a heart attack and passed away on August 21, 1956. She was sixty-eight years old.

Grave of Margaret Bechstein Hays Easton. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Not much is known about Marcelle Caretto Navratil other than she worked hard, successfully raised her two sons and died in 1963.

Edmond would work as an interior decorator before becoming an architect and builder. When World War II broke out, he joined the French Army, was captured, and was placed in a German POW camp.  He was able to escape, but his health had greatly suffered during his internment and he died on July 7, 1953, at the age of 43.

Lastly, his brother Michel Navratil, Jr. became a psychology professor. It was while in college that he would meet his future Juliet. The couple married in 1932 and together they raised three children.

In 1987, Michel made his first trip back to the United States to mark the 75th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. He returned once again in 1996 and, along with two other female survivors, they cruised to the location of the wreck while attempts were being made to bring a portion of the ship to the surface. 

Before his return to France, he traveled to Halifax for the first time to visit his father’s grave in the Baron de Hirsh Cemetery.  When the bodies were recovered, the intent was to bury the Jewish victims there.  In an ironic twist, eight of the ten Titanic victims buried there were unidentified and the other two weren’t Jewish. Steward Frederick William Wormald was a member of the Church of England and Michel Navratil was Catholic.  The reason Navratil was buried in a Jewish cemetery was that he was originally identified Louis Hoffman, Hoffman being a Jewish surname. Today, his grave bears the name Michel Navratil.

His son Michel did reveal one family secret during his 1996 trip. The failure of his parents’ marriage was not due to jealousy over the birth of Edmond. “My mother never forgave herself for losing her children as a result of her love affair. In New York, there were many people who wanted to adopt us. The battle my mother had endured to win us back was to her like a divine punishment for what she had done.” 

Michel Marcelle Navratil, Jr. was 92 years old when he passed away on January 30, 2001. He was the last surviving male Titanic passenger. Four women outlived him.

Prior to his death, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure really, of going plop into the lifeboat.”

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

Burglars Stole the Paper, Too

 

It was reported on August 11, 1959 that Fred Ernst, owner of the California Copy Corp. in Los Angeles, California, had three photocopy machine stolen two weeks prior. 

Ernst told police, “They can’t use the machines because no one else in Los Angeles has photocopy paper for those units.” 

He may have thought that he had gotten the last laugh, but in the end, the thieves did. They once again broke into his business and this time they stole $1000 (nearly $9,000 today) worth of that specially sized photocopy paper.

Classified advertisement for the California Copy Corp. that appeared on page 64 of the April 6, 1959 publication of the Los Angeles Times.

She Thought Robber Was Fooled

 

On November 20, 1950, a man with a revolver entered Milt’s Food Market in Chicago just prior to closing for the evening. He demanded all of the money from the cash register. 

That’s when Mrs. Renée Biliack, the proprietor’s wife, slammed the cash register closed and informed the thief that the register was self-locking. She claimed to be unable to access the contents of the register. 

So, the thief opted for the next best thing and ordered her to hand over her purse. And that was exactly what she did. 

After the thief exited the premises, Mrs. Biliack summoned her husband, Milton, and explained how she had outsmarted the thief. 

That’s when her husband gave her the bad news. Just prior to the robbery, he had taken the money from the register and placed it in her purse for safekeeping.

View of the interior of a Washington, DC grocery store in the 1920s. Library of Congress image.

Snitch Gets the Last Laugh

 

It was reported on January 10, 1930 that 45-year-old Claude Record informed the Denver, Colorado police that, as an out of town visitor, he was surprised to see just how many speakeasies there were. He was so sure of himself, that he told them that he could lead them to half a dozen speakeasies in ten minutes. 

So, a deal was made. Record would go in undercover and make a purchase using $2 (approximately $31 today) that they provided him with. As he emerged from each speakeasy, the deal was that he would meet up with Patrolman George Hart who was waiting in a nearby alley. 

Ofc. Hart waited and waited in the freezing cold for his snitch to bring the evidence. Five minutes went by, then ten minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes. After waiting close to an hour, Hart concluded that something had gone wrong and proceeded to the hotel where Record was staying. That’s where he found Hart drunk in his room and the $2 was long gone. He was jailed for questioning.

Woman hiding flask in her Russian boot during Prohibition in Washington, DC, January 21, 1922. Note the swastikas in the tile floor, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Library of Congress image.

Podcast #137 – The Zambian Space Program

 

This past winter, while exercising, I was watching some past TV shows that I had DVR’d and became captivated by the three-part American Experience broadcast of Robert Stone’s movie Chasing the Moon. Not only was it educational, but it was simply amazing to watch.

Yet, it missed one crucial part of the race to the Moon. Most people have been taught that it was a two-way race between the Soviet Union and the United States to get a man to first step on the lunar surface, but there was a third nation that has been largely overlooked in its effort to be first: the country of Zambia.

Zambia is not exactly the first country that comes to mind when one thinks about space exploration, but in the first part of the 1960s, their space program was grabbing headlines worldwide. Yet, I suspect that many people would be hard-pressed to find Zambia on a map. Located in the south-central portion of Africa, Zambia is completely land-locked. To its north is the Democratic Republic of Congo and, moving clockwise, there is Tanzania and Malawi to the east, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and a sliver of Namibia to the south, and, finally, Angola lies to Zambia’s west.

The first Europeans to set foot in the region were members of an expedition that was led Portuguese explorer Francisco de Lacerda in the late 1700s. Other Europeans would follow in the 19th century, the most famous of whom was Dr. David Livingstone, who is forever immortalized by the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” By the late-1800s, the British South Africa Company, led by Cecil Rhodes, moved in to exploit the mineral resources of the region. By the 1920s, the region would become part of the British Empire and officially known as Northern Rhodesia.

With the outbreak of World War II, the British recruited young African men to fight in the King’s African Rifles unit. Yet, after having fought for the freedom of Europe, these same men returned home after the war to a land where they did not enjoy the same freedoms.

One of these men was Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso, who had been born in the northern portion of Northern Rhodesia. Having served as a sergeant in the Signal Corps, upon his return, he became a language translator for the Northern Rhodesian government and soon turned his focus to the teaching of science. After a falling out with education authorities, he decided to open his own school. The Colonial government quickly shut it down, so Nkoloso became enraged and spent the next decade fighting for his homeland’s independence. He used his knowledge of science to build bombs and other weapons, which did not go over well with authorities. As a result, Nkoloso was arrested and imprisoned between 1956 and 1957.

Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso

On October 24, 1964, colonial rule officially came to an end. The new country was named Zambia after the Zambezi River. Nkoloso secured a job as the Lusaka Rent and Ratepayers Association organizer.

Yet, his true passion was still science and he immediately established the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. His goal was simple: to place a man on the moon before the United States or the Soviet Union did so. Their motto was “Where fate and glory lead, we are always there.”

The news of Zambia’s lunar ambitions would break in the world news just days after the country’s independence. It was now a three-way race to the Moon.

“I see the Zambia of the future as a space-age Zambia, more advanced than Russia or America. In fact, in my Academy of Sciences our thinking is already six or seven years ahead of both powers.”

When questioned as to why he wanted to go to the Moon, Nkoloso stated, “Because it is there. Is that not so?” He continued, “It is not like the clouds. I’ve been on an airplane during the war and one can fly through the clouds. It is a solid body hanging in the sky. And we are solid bodies, so we must be able to reach it. Is that not so?”

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and famously stated that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Nkoloso had even loftier goals. He planned to have the first Zambian astronaut on the Moon by the end of 1965. “Imagine the prestige value this would earn for Zambia. Most Westerners don’t even know whereabouts in Africa we are.”

Just how he was going to place a man on the moon in such a short amount of time was unclear. Details of the Zambian space program were purposely shrouded in mystery. “You cannot trust anyone in a project of this magnitude,” he said. “Some of our ideas are way ahead of the Americans and Russians and these days I will not let anyone see my rocket plans.”

Nkoloso estimated that he needed £700 million ($1.96 billion, over $16 billion, adjusted for inflation) to reach the lunar surface. Having only raised $2,200 from private donors, he submitted a request to the United Nations for $19 million to finance the early phases of his work.

A training facility was set up approximately 7-miles (11.2 km) outside of the new nation’s capital of Lusaka. Lacking the funds for a full-sized rocket, their first test flight involved a spacecraft made from a long copper tube, which looked more like an elongated barrel. Without fuel, the test launch used the Mukwa propulsion system, which was basically a catapult system. That first flight landed far short of the Moon: it struggled to reach an altitude of six-feet (1.83 meters).

ITV reporter with the Zambian spacecraft standing vertically behind him. In the rear, Zambian astronauts train for their future flights.

His initial team consisted of a woman and ten young men. Nkoloso referred to them as his Afronauts.

Afronaut #1 was Godfrey Mwango, who had completed more spaceman training than anyone else. After Mwango mentioned to a reporter, “I’m ready for the Mars flight now,” Nkoloso quickly corrected him. “The girl is going to Mars. Godfrey – You’re going to the moon.”

You heard that correctly. Nkoloso had grander plans than just the moon. He wanted a Zambian to be the first to Mars. “We have been studying the planet through telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained spacegirl Matha Mwamba, two cats and a missionary will be launching in our first rocket.”

So, just who was Matha Mwamba? She was a 17-year-old young woman with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and, under Nkoloso’s guidance, had been studying topics like “astrophysics, cosmography, geometry, chemistry, and astrobiology” as part of her training. Most importantly, she had been caring for ten cats.

What’s the deal with the cats?

Nkoloso explained: “Partly, they are to provide her with companionship on the long journey. But primarily they are technological accessories.” he continued, “When she arrives on Mars she will open the door of the rocket and drop the cats on the ground. If they survive, she will then see that Mars is fit for human habitation.” He then turned to Ms. Mwamba and questioned, “Is that not so?” She replied, “Ah, yes, that is so.”

Astronaut #3 was 22-year-old Ruben Simwinga, but his future destination in our solar system was still to be determined. Nkoloso would figure that out after Ms. Mwamba returned from Mars in their reusable spacecraft.

Nkoloso was bold in his vision of sending humans into space, but he didn’t see himself ever doing so. “Ah, it has been decided that I must not ascend higher than 400 feet. I am needed here to teach.”

In November 1964, a TV crew from the UK’s ITN – Independent Television News – was dispatched to Zambia to interview Nkoloso. Film of him and the astronauts in training can be easily found on YouTube.

ITN interview with Edward Nkoloso.

Around the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle dispatched their veteran reporter Arthur Hoppe to do the same. The series of stories that he wrote on the Zambian space program is perhaps the best documentation that still exists of the entire operation.

Hoppe was warmly greeted by Nkoloso. “You have arrived at a most propitious moment. We have just decided which of our 12 assets will have the place of honor in the space capsule for historic moonshot. It will be Godfrey Mwango, here.” Nkoloso continued, “He has also passed the acid test of any aspiring astronaut – simulated recovery from the space capsule following a landing on water.

Mwango commented, “It was a bit fearsome. I cannot swim.”

Nkoloso continued, “Tomorrow, now that he has been chosen, we will redouble the vigorousness of his training program so that Zambia may be the first to plant her flag on the moon. We would be pleased if you would care to watch.”

Now, if you are imagining a highly sophisticated training facility like the one that NASA has, Zambia’s was the complete opposite.

Astronaut training at the Zambian Space Academy in November 1964.

Here is a bit of Hoppe’s description of Mwango’s first trip in orbit:

“‘A-okay?’ said Director Nkoloso anxiously, thumping on the steel side of the space capsule.

“‘A – okay,’ came back the game, if muffled, reply.

“‘10… 9… 8…’ The final countdown had to be interrupted twice due to technical difficulties– primarily the difficulty that Astronaut Mwango was slightly too large for the barrel and his head kept hanging out dangerously close to the ground.

“At last, Mwango scrunch himself into a suitable position and all details measured up to Director Nkoloso’s standards of perfection.

“‘Blast off!,’ cried Nkoloso, giving the space capsule a shove with his foot. “All systems go!”

Hoppe continued, “The first Zambian astronaut was successfully placed in orbit at 3:14:32 p.m. (Central African Time). Godfrey Mwango, 21, orbited 17 times down a grassy incline in a 40-gallon oil drum before coming to rest against a blue gum tree.”

Emerging from his capsule unscathed, Mwango blurted out, “Man, what a ride!”

Zambian astronaut being pushed downhill in the space capsule. Edward Nkoloso has his back to the camera with his arm raised.

When Hoppe asked what Nkoloso had learned from the test, he replied, “Well, for one thing, we are going to have to get a bigger barrel.”

It should be clear by now that Mwango had never left the ground and training to be a Zambian astronaut was nothing like what a typical Russian or American trainee went through. This was as basic as one could get.

At an earlier press conference, Nkoloso told reporters, “I’m getting them acclimated to space travel by placing them in my space capsule every day. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit down and I have been rolling them down the side of a hill. This gives them the feeling of rushing through space. I also make them swing from the end of a long rope. When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope. This produces the feeling of free fall.”

(Sidenote: We had something like this when I was a kid. The only difference was that the rope was never cut and we always let out the Tarzan yell.)

Female Zambian astronaut rolling downhill during training. She is identified in the article as 15-year-old Martha Chingwaugh. Image appeared on page 19 of the November 22, 1964 publication of the Sydney Morning Herald.

By the end of November 1964, it was clear that Nkoloso was not going to meet his goal of placing a man on the moon any time soon. The launch date was indefinitely postponed. Nkoloso blamed this on a shortage of funds. “Technologically we are well ahead of both the Americans and Russians with the development of our turbulent propulsion engine. But due to cosmic rays, we now we find will need an engine of greater thrust and this will require more money.”

And where would this money come from? The United States government, from whom he requested “adequate supplies of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and £7,500,000.” ($21 million; over $175 million today.) He also approached Israeli for financial support. Both countries remained noncommittal on funding the Zambian space program, but Nkoloso remained undaunted. “I have the distinct feeling that our program will not be delayed too long for lack of funds. Yes, please, I think I may say that with the help of our many, many friends, Zambia shall be the first to the moon.”

Nkoloso’s first real rocket was to be named D-Kalu 1, in honor of their first president David Kaunda. Still without rocket fuel, he initially proposed using dynamite as a propellant, but that idea was vetoed by authorities. He turned his focus to the newer Mulolo system. “Mulolo is the word for swinging. We have tied ropes to tall trees and then swing our astronauts slowly out into space. Thus far, we have achieved a distance of ten yards. (9.1 meters) But, of course, by lengthening the rope we could go further.”

When asked by Hoppe if he was planning to use the Mulolo system to go to the moon, Nkoloso replied, “oh, no. That unfortunately has its limits. But the Zambia Flying Club is aspiring to join forces with us. They are thinking of building a glider. Then, too, we are expecting to consolidate our program with the Zambian Air Force.” When questioned as to what propulsion system they were now focused upon, he replied “Turbulent propulsion! But please, I can say no more at the present time. National prestige is involved. We must beat Russia and America to the moon. What they can do, we can do also.”

As Hoppe was preparing to head back home, Nkoloso informed him that he would be headed north to the mining community of Ndola to put Mwango through “stoical training.” He said, “There is a mining shaft up there 400 feet deep filled with water. We will throw him in.”

It wasn’t long after this that each of the Zambian astronauts would leave their space program. Nkoloso explained, “After the worldwide television showing and press publicity of our astronauts in training I received thousands of letters from foreign countries. But my spacemen thought they were film stars. They demanded payment and refused to continue with our program rolling down hills in oil drums and my special tree-swinging method of simulating space weightlessness.”

Female Zambian astronaut using a rope swing for training. She is identified in the article as 15-year-old Martha Chingwaugh. Image appeared on page 19 of the November 22, 1964 publication of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Their star astronaut, Martha Mwamba, got pregnant and her parents talked her out of continuing her space training. Nkoloso added, “Two of my best men went on a drinking spree a month ago and haven’t been seen since. Another of my assets has joined the local tribal song and dance group. He says he makes more money swinging from the top of a 40-foot pole.”

Even after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, Nkoloso refused to give up on his dream. He promised that “a Zambian will walk on the moon sooner than people think.”

Nkoloso would go on to serve as President Kaunda’s special representative to the African Liberation Center, which was the headquarters for all of the freedom movements that were working to overthrow the remaining colonized nations in Africa. He unsuccessfully ran to be elected mayor of Lusaka. Finally, in 1983, 59-year-old Nkoloso was awarded a law degree from the University of Zambia. He passed away on March 4, 1989, and was buried with presidential honors.

The jury is still out as to whether Nkoloso was serious or if it was all one big joke. Some have suggested that the Zambian space program was really a cover for the training of freedom fighters.

In 1970, Phineas Musukwa, who was the acting press officer for the Zambian embassy in Washington, DC at the time, told the press “This was publicized very widely here in America about two years ago, but he has not done anything along that line for some time. Mr. Nkoloso is actually a very well-read person. It was a big joke.”

I have to agree with his assessment. It was an ingenious prank that Nkoloso pulled on the world. It was beautifully executed and very nicely done. If nothing else, he made the world smile for a brief moment, and, quite possibly, a few people may have learned where Zambia is located.

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

Faces Of Africa – Mukuka Nkoloso: The Afronaut – 2019 documentary on Edward Nkoloso’s attempt to be the first to the moon.

Fails to Win Back Wife After Two Suicide Attempts

 

Tt was reported that Stanley G. Peralta, a 19-year-old draftsman from Pasadena, California was so distraught over his 17-year-old wife Luella leaving him that he attempted suicide twice at 2:30 AM on January 31, 1956. The couple had married on February 10, 1954, when Stanley was 17 and Luella was 16. At the time of this incident, the couple had a 20-month-old son named Roland. 

As Peralta was driving eastbound on Colorado Street (today Colorado Boulevard), he opened the car door and rolled into the path of oncoming traffic, hoping to be struck and killed. When the other car swerved and missed him, Peralta stood up and ran after his car that was still coasting down the street. He then threw himself under the vehicle’s rear wheel. 

The car stopped when it crashed into a storefront at 1706 E. Colorado Street. (Today a Chick-fil-A sits at that location.) When officers arrived on the scene, they found a despondent Peralta sitting in the backseat of his car. He was taken to Huntington Memorial Hospital where he was treated for cuts and bruises and then released. 

His wife Luella, who met reporters at her mother’s home at 126 N. Meredith Ave., insisted that her husband’s dual attempted suicide would have no bearing on her decision to leave her him.

17-year-old Mrs. Luella Peralta and her 20-month-old son Roland Peralta pictured shortly after Stanley Peralta unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide twice. Image from the USC Libraries Special Collections

Kissing Barred on Bavarian Trains

 

It was announced on September 25, 1912 that the Bavarian railroad had placed a ban on kissing on its trains or on railroad property. 

This rule was put in place after a couple boarded 1 of their trains after a strenuous bicycling tour. The wife was exhausted and laid her head on her husband shoulder, as he placed his arm around her. 

This made some of the other riders uncomfortable and they summoned the conductor, claiming that they had witnessed the couple kissing. 

Can you believe that? Kissing in public? What’s this world coming to? 

The husband denied that they been kissing, but that didn’t stop the railroad from banning kissing outright.

Bride and groom kiss in Brisbane in 1946. Image from the State Library of Queensland

Married atop a Ferris Wheel

 

The first Ferris wheel was built by George Ferris for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in an attempt to out-Eiffel Gustav Eiffel and his famed Paris tower. It made its premiere to the world on June 21, 1893. When the fair ended, the wheel was dismantled and moved to Chicago’s North Side, where it operated from October 1895 through 1903, when it was moved one last time and reassembled in St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition.

On October 9th of that same year, Estelle Clayton of Wayne County, Missouri and Martin Good of New York City decided to have their wedding on top of one of the cars just as it was reaching the highest point along its circumference. When you take into consideration that each car on the original Ferris wheel was gigantic – each designed to hold 40 people seated or 60 standing – this wasn’t quite as dangerous as it may initially sound. 

Mr. Good was one of the assistant engineers involved in the erection of the wheel, during which he met Ms. Clayton, who was employed as a stenographer at the time.

On the big day, the wedding party – which consisted of the couple, a Reverend, the bridesmaid, the best man and six other people – climbed on top of one of the cars, careful not to take a wrong step backward and fall off. The photographer, R. R. Whiting, was perched atop the car ahead. 

Two complete loops were made: The first so that Whiting could line up the perfect shot in a second during which the ceremony took place. 

Everyone was amazingly calm during the entire event. A band down in the Plaza in front of the wheel played the wedding march, while thousands witnessed the ceremony from the ground. Once everyone was back on terra firma, the couple drove off in a white automobile, a rarity for 1904.

The original Ferris Wheel.
Ferris wheel and the corner of California State Building at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. Image from the Library of Congress.