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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Author Archives: Steve Silverman

Podcast #135 – The Child Bride

 

While I wasn’t born there, I spent most of my youth in the small town of Thompsonville, NY, which is located in the southern portion of the so-called Catskill Mountains.  I always joke that the town is so small that if you blinked while driving through it, you would miss it in its entirety.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the location of today’s story is probably not much different.  In fact, I am quite certain that it is far more remote than where I grew up.

Nestled in the northeastern portion of Tennessee is the Central Appalachian county of Hancock, just a short distance from the southern border of Kentucky. According to the 2010 census, the population of the entire county was 6,819 in total. The median income there today is $19,760, making it the county with the lowest income in Tennessee and the twenty-seventh lowest in the United States.

On January 12, 1937, in Treadway, a small town in Hancock county, a young couple asked a local minister, 53-year-old Reverend Walter Lamb, to join the two in matrimony. He quickly looked over their marriage license and everything seemed to be in order. Issued six days earlier, that legal document allowed him to marry 18-year-old Eunice Blanche Winstead to 22-year-old Charlie Jess Johns.

Marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.

And that was exactly what he did. 

Standing at a curve in the roadway, the Reverend asked the two to join hands and performed what he later described as a “Baptist ceremony.” “And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” He then pronounced them man and wife and the brief ceremony was over. His fee was $1.00 (about $18.00 today.)

Soon after, the couple arrived at the home of Nick Johns, father of the groom, and Charlie announced, “Well, we’re married.”  Neither family was surprised by their elopement and the parents from both families offered their approval and blessings to the newlyweds.  Mrs. Winstead later stated, “Eunice had claimed Charlie for hers ever since we live here. Of course, we never had any idea they had a serious thought about each other, and they were married before we knew it.”

Back in 1937, Hancock county was in one of the most inaccessible locations in all of Tennessee. And Treadway was a town without telephone or telegraph lines, electric lights, and railway service. As a result, news of their marriage was slow to reach the outside world. And when it finally did ten days later, the marriage of Eunice and Charlie was thrust upon the front page of newspapers across the nation.

Why? Because the couple had lied on their marriage application. While Charlie was, in fact, twenty-two years old, Eunice was a prepubescent nine-year-old.

On the morning of their marriage, Eunice told her dad that she was headed up the road to her married sister’s house to get a doll that Charlie had given to her the previous Christmas. Instead, she met up with her fiancé and the two walked several miles to ask Reverend Lamb to marry them.  After the ceremony was completed, Eunice stopped at her sister’s to pick up the doll and then went home.

Eunice Winstead, Charlie Johns, and Reverend Walter Lamb reenacting the marriage ceremony for the press. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

When questioned by the press, Eunice’s dad, Lewis Winstead, stated, “All right with me – there’s nothing you can do about it now.” 

Mrs. Winstead commented, “Eunice loves Charlie and Charlie loves Eunice, and’ taint nobody’s business but theirs. Never in all my borned days did I see such a commotion and flusteration about two people getting’ hitched. Maybe Eunice is a mite young, but what of it?”

She continued, “I guess I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30, and there ain’t nothing wrong with me. I thank God my little girl’s got a good husband, and I pray they’ll live together and be happy. People shouldn’t orter pester ‘em so.”

When questioned as to why he had married the couple, Reverend Lamb stated, “If I hadn’t married them, someone else would.” Reflecting back on what had happened, he said, “I don’t think I would have, though, if I’d a-known the girl was quite so young. Nine’s a little early, but they had a license and Eunice didn’t seem so young.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 3, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

What is most shocking was that there was nothing that public officials could do about the marriage. It was totally legal. Lewis Rhea, Hancock County Clerk at the time, stated, “When I learned she was just a child, I investigated and found out her parents didn’t object. So far as I know, the present Tennessee law allows marriage at any age if the parents agree.”

He was correct. A Tennessee law enacted in 1927 required that girls under the age of 18 and boys under 21 give five days notice prior to the granting of a marriage license, unless they had their parents’ approval. The effect of this law was that many couples, including those of eligible age who misunderstood the regulation, simply went to another state to marry. This resulted in counties like Hancock losing up to half of their marriage license revenue, so the state legislature repealed that portion of the law in 1935. That made Tennessee the only state in the Union at the time to have no minimum age for marriage. This produced the desired result in that it allowed Hancock County to double its revenue from marriages, many of the couples coming from the nearby state of Virginia, which set its minimum age for marriage at twenty-one.

Basically, Eunice and Charlie were legally married and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. And while both families were in approval of this union, the outside world was not as supportive.  Here is a sampling of what others had to say:

Mrs. Urban Neas, president of the Central Parent-Teacher Council, stated, “I can’t imagine such a thing happening in a Christian nation. If there is anything the P-T A. can do to prevent its recurrence, we certainly hope to do it.”

Mrs. Graeme Canning, president of the Ossoli Circle women’s club expressed support for returning to the five-day marriage rule: “If we had such a law now, that marriage could not have happened. As it is, it’s a poor commentary on our civilization and on East Tennessee.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

The Rev. Walter A. Smith, pastor at the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Knoxville, and then president of the Ministerial Association, offered up the following comment: “I think the preacher who married that couple made a very great mistake. But the people who issued the license for the marriage made just as big a mistake. I don’t know what can be done about the marriage now. It’s a tragedy, a very great tragedy. It should never be allowed to happen again. If there isn’t a law, there should be one.”

Mrs. Louise Bussart, also of Knoxville, stated “I sincerely believe some restriction should be put on the marriage of young girls. Children nine years old certainly do not know their own minds, and they may get married just because the idea sounded glamorous.”

Another resident, Wallace Wright, stated, “The present laws are all right, but there is no use in the people making fools of themselves and the laws to.”

Even Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning was asked for his opinion. “The girl’s parents sanctioned the marriage and that makes it legal.”  He added, “Of course a marriage like that is a shame, but what can I do about it? And besides, I’ve got other more important matters to worry about at the moment.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns receiving mail from postman George M. Williams. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Three days after this story first broke in the news, two bills were introduced to the Tennessee Senate. The first would make marriage involving anyone under the age of fourteen “null and void,” even if the parents approved. The second would make a county court clerk guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she knowingly issued a marriage license to anyone under the age of sixteen. And should someone under sixteen wish to marry, the clerk would be required to call for a hearing before a judge.  Two days later, without a single dissenting vote, the Senate passed a bill preventing any marriage in which either member of the party was under the age of fourteen. It was now up to the Tennessee House to review and approve.

Upon hearing the news of the Senate approval, Charlie told the press, “I ain’t payin’ no mind to what they’re doin’ down to the legislature, nor what folks is saying. Ain’t no new law goin’ to change things now. Me’n Eunice is married for keeps and I reckon I can look after her [with] ‘thout no help from nobody.”

The public uproar over the marriage continued to swell, forcing the young couple to take refuge in the home of Charlie’s parents. With the help of neighbors who blocked the road and stood guard outside, everything seemingly possible was done to insulate nine-year-old Eunice from the prying eyes of the curious press.

Charlie told reporters, “Let Eunice alone, don’t scare her.”

Her dad chimed in, “This thing has got to stop. The girl’ll lose her mind if strangers don’t stop coming to see her.”

Yet, no one was more vocal in supporting the marriage that Eunice’s mom:

 “Let them alone. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone.”  She added, “Eunice can’t sleep, she’s so nervous. She’ll lose her mind if this keeps up.”

“The Bible says not to disturb those peacefully getting along, and I don’t believe in going against the Bible. If they love one another, then getting married is the thing to do. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone. Charlie is a good boy. He’s a hard worker. He bought forty acres a few days ago so that they could have a home. Of course, understand I haven’t brought my children up to marry what men has got, but to marry for love.” 

“She married too young but it’s too late to talk about it. After all, every girl has a right to get married, and if Eunice wants to marry Charlie, it’s her own life.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns reading the Bible. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

You may be questioning just how common child marriages were back then. Nationwide,it was estimated that there were 5,000 child brides under the age of fifteen back in 1937. If one includes those who were fifteen, that number skyrockets to 20,000 young girls. About one-quarter of those baby brides were concentrated in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

The press ran stories of similar child brides, but none were as young as Eunice. For example:

  • 12-year-old Leona Elizabeth Roshia had married 18-year-old Stanley F. Backus of Watertown, New York. 
  • Mrs. Ben Jacobs of Port Byron, Illinois gave birth to her first son in 1933, nine days before she had turned twelve.
  • Mrs. Ellen Walker of Panacea, Florida gave birth to a son before she had turned thirteen.
  • Mrs. Russell Frazell of Moline, Illinois already had a son when she was fourteen.
  • And, on January 29th, the day before Eunice and Charlie’s marriage was revealed to the press, 13-year-old Eula Green married 17-year-old Charles Newberry of North Carolina.

There were many more stories just like these, but I was struck by what Mrs. Jean Darnell, another Tennessee child bride, had to say. “When I’m around the hill people I brag that I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30. But that’s just brag. If I had things to go over again, I’d do them differently. 

“My husband’s in the state penitentiary. I have to make a living for myself and my children. I managed to get enough education to do it, but it’s hard to have to pay all your life for a mistake at 13. 

“A girl of 12 or 13 or even 14 has no idea of love or marriage. She ought to be protected. And if this case has stirred up enough excitement to bring about a new marriage law for Tennessee, then it has served its purpose. 

“I feel sorry for little Eunice – but it took something like this to wake people up. She doesn’t realize it, but she has saved other girls from becoming wives and perhaps widows before they are grown up. I think Tennessee owes a vote of thanks to its 9-year-old bride.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 14 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On February 26, 1937, Governor Browning signed into law a measure that set the minimum age to marry at sixteen. Should the girl be under eighteen years of age, the new law required a three day waiting period before a license could be issued. Lastly, should either of the party be under sixteen, a court could annul the marriage should a complaint be filed “by such person or any interested person acting on his or her behalf.”

Yet, this did not bring a halt to child marriages in Tennessee.  Here are three examples:

On March 13th of that year, 14-year-old Dollie Livesay married 23-year-old James Brewer. They simply slipped across the border into Kentucky to get married, which many other young couples also opted to do. A March 23, 1937 Knoxville Journal article stated that, “Unlike Mrs. Eunice Johns, whose marriage at nine precipitated the new state law, Mrs. Brewer has begun to mature towards womanhood and has been versed in the housekeeping arts.” 

13-year-old Mildred and 17-year-old Robert Pack of Knoxville eloped to Marshall, North Carolina on September 1, 1937, where a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Robert stated, “Well, I guess we put one over on the old folks. And on the new state law, too. We sure got around that.”

Finally, on March 29, 1937, 12-year-old Geneva Hamby married 32-year-old Homer Peels in Madisonville, Tennessee. She gave her age as eighteen when they applied for their marriage license. On April 21st, her mother filed to have the marriage annulled, stating “Homer Peels’ too old for her – she is too young to marry anybody.” Shockingly, the court refused to annul the marriage. It turns out that Geneva had been placed in an orphanage two years prior and had little contact with her mother since. Chancellor A. T. Stewart agreed that there had been a violation of the 16-year age minimum, but wrote that an annulment would only serve to put “Geneva out of house and home with no place to go.”

The Clinch Valley school where Eunice and Charlie began their romance. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

In early August, it was time for Eunice to go back to school, which she had stopped attending after her January marriage. When teacher Wade Ferguson gave her a switching for supposed “general mischievousness,” her husband decided to withdraw her from school. When he told Ferguson that he couldn’t whip another man’s wife, Ferguson told Charlie, “Oh, yes, I can whip another man’s wife if another man sends his wife to school to me.” Tennessee law at the time did require anyone under sixteen to attend school, but Education Commissioner W.A. Bass stated, “We will not take any action to compel a married child to attend school.” Eunice would never return. With just a third grade education, she would never learn to read.

Meanwhile, offers for Eunice and Charlie to appear in both Vaudeville and movies poured in. Some were as much as $500 (approximately $9,000 today), but they were nearly all turned down. They did appear on stage for the first time on October 30, 1937 as part of a show in Kingsport, Tennessee. After the couple was introduced by the announcer, they stood there silently on the stage for two minutes. They made a total of six appearances that day. There was talk of making the couple the feature attraction of a traveling show, but that never materialized. 

Charlie and Eunice with their attorney, Taylor Drinnon of nearby Morristown, TN. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Rumors began to circulate in the press that the couple’s marriage was falling apart, but when their first anniversary came around, they were still together and living with Charlie’s parents. When questioned about their marriage, Charlie commented, “Of course, we fuss now and then but it don’t amount to nothing. We’ve managed fine this last year and we’d be a lot happier if folks would just leave us alone.” He added, “I’ve got to where I don’t trust many people anymore. Too many of ‘em are out to slick a feller. I’ve made some money, but it’s not in a bank – I’ve got it hid away.” 

Eunice had little to say, but boastfully stated, “I like to milk.” It was noted by the reporter that she was learning how to cook, to which Charlie added, “She already knows how to make biscuits.”

9-year-old Eunice Johns and her younger sister, Dorothy Winstead, making bread for Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On the eve of their second anniversary, it didn’t seem like much had changed. “She’s pretty good at milking and washing, but she ain’t learned much about cooking yet.” Charlie said that they were planning to build a small house because “we ain’t goin’ to have no young ‘uns.”

As they say, never say never. On December 18, 1942, fourteen-year-old Eunice gave birth to the couple’s first child, Evelyn. And she wouldn’t be their last.

As their twentieth anniversary rolled around, Evelyn was the proud mother of seven children. Charlie had inherited his parents’ 150-acre hillside farm and had become a prosperous farmer. After selling off the mineral rights to a zinc company for $75/acre, the couple was financially set for the remainder of their lives. 

The couple would once again make headlines in September 1960 after their 17-year-old daughter Evelyn eloped with her boyfriend, 20-year-old John Henry Antrican. The couple had been dating for about one-year, but Charlie never approved of the relationship. 

Evelyn and John Henry Antrican shortly after their elopement. Image appeared on page 1 of the September 12, 1960 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

John Henry described how he whisked Evelyn out from under her father’s guard: “Charlie was working in his tobacco patch when I went and got her. He took out after me but he never got close.” He then exchanged cars with a friend. “I went every whichaway I could think of to throw him off the track. I took Evelyn to Morristown where she spent the night with a Negro woman who used to live close by her. Then I come home and spend the night (Thursday) here.”  The next day, Friday, he picked Evelyn up and they drove to Rutledge, Tennessee, where they were married.

Papa Charlie was furious. On the day of the wedding, he had John Henry arrested and charged with abduction. He was released on a $1,000 bond. The next day, both John Henry and his mother Eliza were arrested and charged with falsifying Evelyn’s age at 21 when they obtained the marriage license. 

Marriage license for John Henry Antrican and Evelyn Johns. Note that Evelyn’s age is listed as 21.

Evelyn told the press that she couldn’t understand how her father could be upset with the marriage. “After all, Papa married Mama when she was only 9 years old.”  

John Henry told the press that Charlie did not approve of the marriage because he wanted Evelyn to marry “another boy who was better off financially.” He added that Charlie was “just plain hard to get along with.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb in 1937. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

Reverend Lamb, the same minister who had married Eunice and Charlie twenty-three years prior, offered to step in and try to find an amicable solution to the problem. “If I could see him, I would.” He added, “They’d better be proud she married a good boy.” Charlie Johns didn’t take him up on the offer. Luckily, he came to his senses and dropped all of the charges. Evelyn and John Henry would remain married until Evelyn’s death forty-six years later.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this unusual story. When the press interviewed Eunice in 1976, she said that she had no regrets over marrying so young. When asked about the worst part of doing so, she noted that it had brought an end to her education. “I never could learn too easy, and I didn’t learn much when my children were in school.”

1976 photograph of Eunice Winstead Johns with granddaughter Pamela Lynn Newman. Image appeared on page 21 of the July 21, 1976 publication of the Kingsport Times-News.

Charlie Jess Johns died on February 13, 1997 at the age of eighty-four. After all of the criticism from the naysayers had long faded away, the couple had a successful marriage that lasted sixty years. Together they had nine children; three girls and six boys with a nineteen year age gap between the youngest and the oldest. Sadly, their youngest daughter had died from pneumonia at twenty months of age just one-week before their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Eunice Blanche Winstead Johns would live another nine years without her husband. By then a great-grandmother, she passed away on August 29, 2006, less than a month shy of her 79th birthday.

Which leaves me with one last little surprise. After I finished writing this story, I started gathering the documents and images to post on my website. Then it hit me: Every single story ever written about the couple had made the same error and I was about to repeat it. After a little math and double-checking, Charlie Johns was not twenty-two when he married Eunice. He was twenty-four.

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

Here are some additional photographs from various sources:

Eunice holding her doll shortly after her marriage to Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Johnson City Press.
Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice posing with the doll that Charlie Johns had given her prior to their marriage. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice Winstead Johns with her parents and sisters at the family home. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
The Winstead home in Treadway, Tennessee. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Captioned “A dutiful little wife performs a chore,” this image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
Newly married 9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns making the bed. Image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns was the youngest bride in the United States when she married Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 65 of the August 23, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
January 12, 1937 marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
Cover of the marriage license between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
This Application for Confidential Verification of the marriage between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns appears to be in error. It specifies Charlie’s age at 14 years. In reality, he was 24 when he married 9-year-old Eunice. It also indicates that the marriage took place between 1933 and 1936, when, in fact, it occurred in 1937.

Two Homes Built on Wrong Lots

 

In December 1956, builder Frank Troiani purchased two lots in the Arlington Crest subdivisions in Palatine, Illinois. The following summer, he proceeded to build two five-room brick bungalows that cost $19,000 ($171,000 today) each.

On August 17, 1957, Roy and Martha Carlson were driving down the nearby Northwest Highway when they noticed the homes being built. On September 7, they called the real estate office and notified them that Troiani’s homes were being built on lots that the Carlsons owned.

It was quickly determined that Troiani had built the homes on the wrong lots. It was an honest mistake. At the time of purchase, the real estate agent pointed to the lots and said that they were Troiani’s.

Troiani immediately made the Carlsons three different offers. He offered to exchange lots with the Carlsons, purchase their two lots, or sell them the two homes that he had built. They refused all of the offers.

Unable to resolve the situation, Troiani filed suit against the Carlsons on October 30, 1957. He asked the court to decide what should be done with the two homes and to prevent the Carlsons from selling or disposing of the homes before the situation was settled.

In court, Troiani made two additional offers. He offered the couple $4500 for their building lots or that they could take his two lots plus an additional $2000. Again, the Carlsons declined the offer.

Charles Woosters, attorney for the Carlsons, explained to Superior Judge John A. Sbarbaro that “It is their homesite, all they want is the privilege to build their homes on their lots. They want no money.” He added, “My clients want the two buildings removed from their property, and the ground left in its original condition, so they can build their own home there.”

Troiani upped his offer to $6000 for the two lots. Again, the Carlsons refused.

When the judge suggested that the Carlsons accept $8000 for the two lots, attorney Wooster said that he would pull out of the case if they did not accept the offer. The couple finally agreed to the settlement.

Mrs. Carlson said, “Our plans are all gone away. I guess it’s a deal.” 

Frank Troiani (left) shaking hands with Roy Carlson and his wife after agreeing to but two building lots from the Carlsons for $8,000. Image originally appeared on page 3 of the November 7, 1957 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

A Lady’s Age Is Her Own Business

 

Muriel Nicholson, whose husband operated a New York City car dealership, filed applications with the State Motor Vehicle Bureau to register three different automobiles. Each time she used a different birth date. One said that she was born on September 6, 1914, a second listed her birth date as September 26, 1915, and the last indicated a date of September 6, 1918. 

As a result of her deception, she was charged with three counts of falsifying data. If guilty, Mrs. Nicholson could have received a $500 fine ($4,700 today), one year in jail, or both.

On May 12, 1954, Mrs. Nicholson arrived at the Court of Special Sessions dressed in a gray suit with a fur collar, a pearl necklace and earrings, a black ribbon in her blonde hair, and a short black veil.

After considering the facts in the case, the three judges unanimously dismissed the charges against Mrs. Nicholson.

“We are unwilling to believe that such penalties were intended for one who only exaggerated her age between three and four years,” Justice Herman Hoffman stated. He added that “…the age element is only important as requiring proof from an applicant that she is not a minor.”

“It may be observed, in passing, that the courts are not unmindful that age – as far as our sisters are concerned – is singularly relative, and gallantry exacts an appreciation and understanding of our lady’s age as one of the most gracious in men.”

As for her real age, Mrs. Nicholson never revealed this detail in the courtroom. She did state, late on the evening of the decision, that she had been born in 1916.

Eleven days later, Mrs. Nicholson’s fame would bring her misfortune. Shortly after midnight on May 23, 1954, two bandits brandishing pistols entered the lobby of her apartment building at 10 East Eighty-fifth Street and demanded that the doorman take them to her apartment. Upon entering her sixth-floor apartment, the thugs tied up Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson, the doorman, and a maid. The telephone was ripped from the wall and at least $50 in cash and jewelry was stolen. The Nicholsons were able to free themselves and contacted police.

Muriel Nicholson holding her driver’s license. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the May 13, 1954 publication of he Boston Globe.

Mummies Found in Attic

 

On March 7, 1906, workmen remodeling a building that ran between 118 and 122 Elm Street in New York City found two small boxes that were covered with a thick layer of dust, indicating that they had been there undisturbed for quite some time. 

Upon opening the boxes, they discovered the mummified bodies of three infants, an adult’s skull, and the shriveled hand of an adult. 

The date of 1868 was written on both boxes, which means they could have been there for nearly forty years. 

No one knew who placed the human remains there or why they had been stored. The coroner found no indication of foul play.

Mummified cat and rat found in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin during cleaning. Image dated 1890 – 1910. From the National Library of Ireland collection.

Beet Salad Could Be an Influenza Cure

 

On November 29, 1918, it was reported from The Hague in Holland that an unnamed Austrian doctor had discovered that beets, the root vegetable, was both an effective preventative and treatment for influenza. Supposedly, he had given his patients a plateful of beet salad just as a fever began to set in and the fever was reduced. 

As word of this simple elixir began to spread, the demand for beets in Holland skyrocketed, causing the price per beet to increase tenfold.

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Library of Congress image.

Podcast #134 – Emperor of the Sahara

 

Shortly after the United States entered World War I, on July 3, 1917, a mysterious craft sailed into the harbor of Oyster Bay, Long Island and cast anchor near the public dock. This 50-foot (15.25 meter) long yawl was odd in that it had two smaller jiggers, yet lacked a mainmast and mainsail. Even stranger was the fact that the boat lacked a crew. Captained by one man, this stranger rowed his canoe to shore and his peculiar actions quickly became the concern of villagers.

He first walked into a tinsmith’s shop and requested that a hole be cut into the iron cockpit of his boat to allow in some ballast. When the tinsmith informed the man that such action would surely cause his boat to sink, the stranger turned around and walked out in disgust.

The next day, this man with a foreign accent attempted to hire a boy to carry his suitcase around, but none could be found. He then went to the local telegraph office to wire a request to New York for a messenger boy to be sent but stormed out in a huff after not being supplied with the type of telegraph form that he desired. He later was able to hire a local boy for 15-cents ($3.00 today).

On July 9th, he lifted anchor and moved his craft to a point not far from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate.

The people of Oyster Bay began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Their country was in the midst of a world war. A mysterious boat arrives carrying a man of foreign origin who engages in unusual activities around town. He then sails close to the home of a former United States President. They knew exactly what they were dealing with: a German spy.

The local constable was summoned and he began to assemble a group of men to board the craft and arrest the stranger. Not long after they had begun their preparations, the man in question stormed into the local courtroom and demanded the immediate arrest of a significant portion of the Oyster Bay populace. When questioned further, he narrowed his request down to several local boys, claiming that one of the young men had pointed a gun at him. It was later learned that some boys had thrown stones at him as he swam toward shore.

When the suspect’s bag was searched, authorities found that it contained approximately $1,000 (nearly $20,000 today), forty keys, about a dozen oranges, and a French passport. When questioned about all that money, he reportedly stated, “That’s nothing. I am the richest man in America.”

A German spy? Definitely not. A little nuts? Maybe. The richest man in America? Quite possibly.

The man in question was Jacques Lebaudy, who was indeed one of the wealthiest men in the world. And how he ended up in Long Island, New York is among the most peculiar stories in history.

Jacques Lebaudy. Image originally appeared on page 385 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Henri Jacques Lebaudy was born in Paris on May 13, 1868, the second of four children to Amicie Piou and Jules Lebaudy. The family fortune was made in the refinery of sugar, plus other investments. When his father Jules died on May 30, 1892, Jacques inherited as much as $20 million (over $560 million today).

Jacques Lebaudy could purchase anything that he wished, excluding the one thing that he truly desired: power. He hated rules, taxes, mandatory military service, and the French government as a whole. With power, he was certain that he could avoid all of the restrictions that France had placed upon him and live a life free of governmental intrusions.

What happened next is poorly documented, but it is said that he had a discussion with a man named Jimmy Langerman in 1902 that would forever change the course of Lebaudy’s life. Langerman had no source of income, yet money never seemed to be in short supply. He was a bon vivant who traveled the world. While seated at a Paris cafe, Langerman told Lebaudy of his travels through the Sahara. While the desert may have seemed like an undeveloped, worthless pile of sand to most, Langerman explained that it was a land of promise, loaded with minerals and gems just waiting for someone to take it.

Jacques Lebaudy was hooked. He envisioned the establishment of a small Saharan country, installing himself as its monarch, and reaping the fortune that its riches would offer him. Best of all, with his own country, he could do as he pleased. Lebaudy would be free of those oppressive French rules and regulations.

The one thing missing from Lebaudy’s future kingdom was the land itself. He learned of a 185-mile (300 km) long strip of no-man’s land on the western coast of Africa, between Cape Juby and Cape Bojador. With no recognized power laying claim to it, Lebaudy decided he would take the land for himself.

Lebaudy’s plan was to sail his yacht, the Frasquita, from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands directly east to the location of his planned empire. He had purchased his yacht through a man named Tordo, so Lebaudy asked him to recruit a team of twenty sailors for his planned voyage. One of these sailors, a man named Cambrai, later stated, “When we left, we were far from suspecting the true object of the voyage. M. Tordo, the agent for M. Lebaudy in Havre, informed us that he was in want of men to complete the crew of two yachts he had bought. He offered 6f. to 15f. per day, according to our capacity. The offer was good and we accepted.”

Jacques Lebaudy’s ship Fresquita. Image originally appeared on page 386 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

The sailors arrived in Las Palmas on June 1, 1903. Lebaudy ordered new uniforms for all of the men and put them up in a hotel as preparations for the voyage were finalized. While the exact date of departure was not recorded, Lebaudy, his assistant, and ten of the sailors boarded the Frasquita and set sail for the African coast.

Upon their arrival, Lebaudy searched for a suitable location to make landfall. He opted for a smooth, sandy beach that was flanked by undulating dunes. Upon dropping anchor, Lebaudy revealed to his crew the true nature of their mission. They had come to establish the Saharan Empire, with Lebaudy self-chosen to be this new nation’s leader. It is unknown what the crew thought of Lebaudy as he read his manifesto to them, but from that moment on, he was to be referred to as Jacques I, Emperor of the Sahara. Jacque Lebaudy was history.

The Emperor envisioned this beach and the area behind it to be the future location of his capital city and his palace. He named it Troja. A small boat was lowered from the Frasquita and a group of men went ashore. They quickly determined that the area lacked a source of drinking water, so the decision was made to weigh anchor and find a more suitable location for Troja.

They sailed southward until a promising bay was spotted. On June 7th, sailors were sent ashore and, upon their return, confirmed to Lebaudy that there was an abundant supply of potable water. The Emperor stepped out of his boat, walked inland a short distance, and proceeded to plant his imperial standard down into the sand. For now, the city of Troja would consist of just one building: a large circus tent that the crew had erected.

Lebaudy wished to further explore his new kingdom. Sailor Cambrai stated, “The night of the 10th he slept with us in the tent, and the following day he informed us he was leaving, with five of our comrades, to establish a post a little further on, but that he would come back the next day.” He continued, “He left us a small boat, two guns, two revolvers, 400 cartridges, and two days’ provisions.”

The next day Lebaudy and half of the crew sailed southward before anchoring along another stretch of sandy beach. He declared this to be the location of the largest town in his empire: Polis.

The approximate location of Troja, the capital of Jacque Lebaudy’s Saharan Empire. Image originally appeared on page 386 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

A few days later, the group headed back to Troja. Upon arrival, they discovered the five men who had been left behind were gone. It was clear that their camp had been raided and that the men had been taken away. Not knowing if they were still alive or not, a search party was sent out to locate the missing sailors. It was soon learned that the men had been kidnapped on June 12th, were then transported to the interior, and were being held by their captors for ransom. On June 20th, it was agreed that Lebaudy would pay 200 francs ($1000 US today) for each of the sailors, but when the men were brought back to make the exchange on June 23rd, Lebaudy and his ship were gone.

When the Frasquita arrived back in Las Palmas, Spanish authorities questioned Lebaudy as to where he had sailed from. He replied, “From my own country. From my own country. I come from my own country. I have no information to give you. I recognize no other flag except that of my yacht.” He then proceeded to point to the triangular flag flying from the mainmast of the Frasquita.

Jacques Lebaudy’s private flags. Image originally appeared on page 385 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Lebaudy wasn’t saying much, but the remaining members of his crew were quite talkative. They told of how the five men had been kidnapped and said that they no longer wished to remain a part of his bizarre plan. They demanded that Lebaudy pay them the wages that they were owed, plus transport back to France. Lebaudy refused, so the men took their complaints to the French council.

When authorities back in France learned that five of their citizens were being held captive, they immediately jumped into action. A request was sent to Moroccan authorities asking that they open a dialog with the captors to negotiate the return of the men. A Paris newspaper sent a reporter in an attempt to purchase their freedom. Lastly, the French cruiser Galilée was dispatched to Cape Juby. The ship dropped anchor on August 24th, not far from where the sailors had last been seen.

An interpreter from the Galilée was sent ashore to negotiate with the captors, but the discussions went nowhere. The ship’s captain was able to get three letters to the prisoners, the last of which was sent with a change of clothing. That final note instructed the men to put on the clothing ASAP, so that they would easily stand out from the others from a distance, and to do their best to separate from their captors.

At 1:30 P. M. on August 31, 1903, the five men pretended to take a nonchalant stroll along the beach. Once they were a good distance away, the Galilée opened fire into the gap between the prisoners and their captors. The sailors made a mad dash into the water and swam toward a small boat that had been lowered down from the ship. The shots continued until the sailors were safe aboard the Galilée.

An article that appeared in the September 6, 1903 issue of the Boston Globe begins, “The French press continues to ask if it shall be ‘menottes ou camisole’ (handcuffs or straitjacket) for Jacques Lebaudy.”

The same story told of an interview that Lebaudy did with Le Journal in Las Palmas, where he stated, “In the first place my men would not have been captured if they had not been cowards. I explained to them that they were engaged for warfare; when menased [sic] they surrendered where I, their emperor, would have died fighting.” He continued, “Employment has its risks; in my mines and in my sugar factories men are injured daily but I pay no damages.”

While Lebaudy’s Saharan empire ceased to exist not long after it began, he refused to give up on his dream. In his mind, the only mistake that he made was not having enough armed men to protect his new nation from marauders. He was determined to go back to Africa with a complete army and claim what he felt was rightfully his.

Facing public anger, lawsuits, and potential criminal charges, Lebaudy was wise enough to not return to France immediately. Instead, he took a steamer to Hamburg, Germany and announced a few days later that he was calling together eleven of his “Ministers of State” in Montreux, Switzerland. Lebaudy also indicated that he would appoint a lieutenant-general to command over a one-hundred-man army that he was forming. On September 21st he appointed a duelist named Larbardescue to be his “Commander in Chief of the Armies of His Majesty Jacques I, Emperor of Sahara.”

By early October, Lebaudy had moved his nation’s operations to a large suite of rooms at the Hotel Savoy in London. While his country only existed on paper, he proceeded to have all of the accoutrements befitting of an emperor made: a dazzling crown, a throne, Imperial flags, banknotes, and postage stamps. Men were appointed as secretaries and ministers of state, while Lebaudy personally chose the beautiful women for his royal court. He selected one woman, Marguerite Augustine Da Loch Delliere, to be his wife. As you will learn shortly, his chosen empress will play a significant part in bringing Lebaudy’s story to a close.

The Emperor of Sahara’s stampage, throne, coinage, and flag. Image originally appeared on page 44 of the February 27, 1904 issue of the Western_Mail.

Back home in France, matters were worsening for Lebaudy. He was threatened with expulsion from the country and was being asked to reimburse the French government for costs incurred while rescuing his five sailors. All of these men filed suit against Lebaudy, but, sadly, one of them died shortly after his return to France from injuries sustained during the abduction. Lebaudy was also informed that he owed France thirteen days of compulsory military service, to which he responded, “I am now a Saharan. You might as well expect the German Emperor to come and serve as a French soldier.”

The New York Times reported on January 19, 1904 that Lebaudy planned to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to nominate former members of his Rough Riders for positions in the Saharan military. Colonel George Gourard, Governor General of Sahara, told the Times, “The invitation to recommend officers will be submitted to President Roosevelt in a few days. Whether the President will consider it proper to accept the invitation or not, the Emperor wishes to pay him this compliment.” Roosevelt never responded.

“His Majesty Jacques I., domiciled in Troja, in the Empire of the Sahara” filed suit against brokers that owed him money. On April 9th, a French court concluded that Lebaudy’s empire only existed in his mind and, therefore, he had no basis for the lawsuit. This loss in court would be followed by another ten days later. This time, he settled out of court with the five kidnapped sailors for 50,000 francs ($250,000 US today).

Four of the five rescued soldiers. Image originally appeared on page 392 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Despite these financial setbacks, Lebaudy continued on his quest for legitimate recognition of his Saharan empire. He concluded that if he could somehow obtain an official title from an established government, he would be able to use that to his advantage in establishing his own country.

In mid-1904, he entered into negotiations to loan the Sultan of Morocco $2,000,000 (over $56 million today) at 7% interest. In exchange, Lebaudy would be granted the title of “King of the Oasis of Chahkima.” As negotiations dragged, Lebaudy proceeded to insult the Muslim religion and the deal fell apart.

It wasn’t long before he came up with a better idea. Observing that the Prince of Monaco had worldwide recognition while ruling over a tiny country, Lebaudy wished the same for himself. In July 1904, he approached the United States with a proposal to purchase as many of the Philippine islands as they would be willing to sell, provided that he was granted full sovereignty over them. The United States didn’t take the bait.

In August, he purchased an extravagant home in Brussels to be used as the “European Embassy of the Empire of Sahara in Brussels.” Lebaudy sent instructions to his associates in France to sell his Parisian properties.

A few weeks later he found the ideal location for his country: the Adriatic port city of Dulcigno (now Ulcinj) in Montenegro. He arranged a meeting with Prince Nicholas I to negotiate a purchase price, but the Prince was unwilling to sell. Unable to buy the entire city outright, Lebaudy attempted to do so piecemeal, which caused real estate prices to skyrocket. He was forced to abandon his latest scheme.

While passing southward through Durazzo (Durrës, Albania), police arrested Lebaudy as he sought to hire a steamship to take him to the Greek island of Corfu. Noting that he was loaded with money while attempting to leave the country, officials mistook Lebaudy for a bank clerk who had absconded with a large sum of money. In spite of his protests, Lebaudy was held in prison for three days.

In June 1905, Lebaudy’s threatened to kill his wife, which forced her to file a complaint with authorities in Trieste, Austria-Hungary (today in northern Italy). He was summoned to appear in court but managed to slip away. Leaving nearly all of his possessions behind, he fled 450 miles (725 km) northeast by buggy to Gorlice (in southern Poland today), where he was recaptured. Hauled back to Trieste, Lebaudy was able to convince authorities that he was sane.

Meanwhile, things continued to worsen for Lebaudy back home. On July 24, 1905, a Paris court ruled that he must pay a stockbroker $15,000 ($423,000 today) for unpaid fees. The judge did not buy his lawyer’s claim “that it has no legal jurisdiction in this matter. My client’s legal residences are Troja, in the Empire of Sahara, and Brussels, where the European Embassy of Sahara’s Empire is situated.”

In November, he lost $200,000 ($5.6 million today) in 1904 profits from his sugar empire. Through inheritance, two of his cousins became business partners with him. Both refused to refer to Lebaudy by his official Saharan title, so he refused payment. The cousins dragged him into court, but Lebaudy refused to send a lawyer or appear himself because the summons did not address him as “Emperor of the Sahara.” The judge ruled against him.

Image of Jacques Lebaudy that was printed on page 6 of the September 1, 1903 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

For the next twelve months, there would barely be a mention of Jacques Lebaudy in the press. He seemed to have vanished. In January 1907, newspapers around the world began to speculate as to what had happened to him. He resurfaced on July 18, 1907 after he was spotted by a reporter in an unlikely place: at a hotel in New York City. Lebaudy established a postal box there – number 1655 – the only mailing address that he would use for the remainder of his life.

While in New York, Lebaudy led a fairly quiet life. Having become quite litigious, there would be an occasional mention in the papers about a lawsuit that he filed, but his crazy nation-building antics seemed to have become a thing of the past.

On May 26, 1913, he purchased Phoenix Lodge, a fifty-acre run-down estate in Westbury, Long Island to share with his wife Marguerite and their eight-year-old daughter Jacqueline. Nicknamed “The House of Fifty Rooms,” Lebaudy had done little to maintain it.

Two years later, Lebaudy’s actions would once again make headlines. Lebaudy had blocked off an access road to a neighbor’s property and Nassau County Sheriff Stephen Pettit was contacted. He assigned some of his men to guard the road. On August 17, 1915, the deputies heard horses trampling through the woods. The New York Times described what happened next: “From out of the leafy covert of the underbrush appeared a horse bearing a commanding figure whose Palm Beach suit, topped by a green-ribboned Panama hat, was weighted down with medals of all kinds till he looked like a German General. He carried a tin horn in one hand.” That commanding figure was Lebaudy and he stated, “I am the Emperor of the Saharas. Surrender!”

Suddenly four additional men emerged on horseback from the woods. Each soldier wore a dark green uniform with a facing of pink string. It was later learned that the Emperor’s army consisted of four Western Union messenger boys that Lebaudy had requested be sent to him by taxi from New York City.

The deputies contacted Sheriff Pettit. Upon his arrival, Lebaudy and his miniature army were situated on one side of a high rock wall, while the mounted deputies were on the other. Suddenly, Lebaudy took off with the sheriff in hot pursuit. Lebaudy cleared a small ditch, but the sheriff did not. He was thrown into the muddy water, hopped back on his horse and continued his chase of Lebaudy. The sheriff was able to overtake Lebaudy and bring him to a halt. Lebaudy blurted, “I surrender to the United States Government. I am Jacques Lebaudy, Emperor of Sahara, and I give up to you.”

Mrs. Lebaudy described to Sheriff Petit how her husband had become increasingly irrational, which caused both her and daughter Jacqueline to live in constant fear. Lebaudy was committed to a sanitarium but escaped the next morning. Twenty-five deputies unsuccessfully searched the woods for Lebaudy. The next day, during a lawn party being held in the hamlet of Halesite, guests were shocked to see a man on a horse emerge from the woods. It was Lebaudy, who asked, “Have any of you any long-haired cattle in your stables?” Suffolk County Under Sheriff Biggs was a guest at the party, immediately recognized Lebaudy, and contacted Sheriff Petit. The Emperor was returned to the sanitarium. While doctors continued their mental evaluation, Lebaudy’s lawyer arranged for his release after his initial ten-day commitment expired.

Lebaudy solely blamed one person for his troubles: his wife Marguerite. He proceeded to lock his wife and daughter into one of the rooms at Phoenix Lodge and forbid any servant from bringing them food or water. When Lebaudy learned that a servant had assisted the two, he reportedly carried hundreds of buckets of water up the stairs and proceeded to flood the hallways surrounding the room occupied by his wife and daughter.

On the evening of September 2, 1915, Lebaudy mailed a letter to the New York Times which included this notice: “Mr. Jacques Lebaudy of Paris, France, calls the attention of the public to the following facts: A French woman of no social standing has been for some time attempting to pose as being wedded to him.

“She has the audacity to use the name of a respected family and is deceiving in every way possible tradesmen and other people.

“He is taking legal steps to have her enjoined.”

This advertisement placed by Jacques Lebaudy appeared on page 18 of the September 7, 1915 issue of The New York Times.

That same day, Mrs. Lebaudy received a letter from her husband stating that he and four men would be arriving the next day to remove the contents of Phoenix Lodge. A deputy was dispatched to prevent this from happening.

In a September 5, 1915 interview with The Washington Post, Mrs. Lebaudy stated, “Recently I have been without sufficient food for my little daughter. There have been times when it was necessary for me to smuggle food into her room in order to provide her with sufficient nourishment.”

She added, “Since my little girl was born in Geneva, ten years ago, Mr. Lebaudy has at many times been unkind to me. He wanted a son, that the boy might some day be a French soldier. He was greatly disappointed when our child was a girl. It was our only child.”

Which brings us full circle to July 3, 1917. That was the day that Lebaudy pulled his boat into Oyster Bay Harbor, with its residents thinking that he may have been a German spy. After authorities determined his identity, they contacted Mrs. Lebaudy and asked what she wanted them to do with her husband. She replied, “Heavens! I don’t want him. He was here last night and broke up everything in the house.”

There was to be no peace in the Lebaudy household. With each passing day, Lebaudy’s attacks on his wife seemed to worsen. He was determined to destroy her, both mentally and financially. Every time that he returned to the Lodge, he would erupt in anger and destroy anything within sight. On several occasions, he had become so violent that the sheriff needed to be contacted. Fearing that he would harm or kidnap Jacqueline, Mrs. Lebaudy pulled her out of school. Mother and daughter spent years living in constant terror.

On January 11, 1919, Lebaudy arrived at Phoenix Lodge, assisted by a messenger boy named Mark Rosenfeld. Upon entering the home, Lebaudy exploded in rage and began to spread charcoal across the floor, as if he intended to burn the building down. He violently flipped over furniture and proceeded to toss the sofa cushions and other possessions out the windows. Rosenfeld ran out, fearing for his personal safety.

Mrs. Lebaudy, who had been ill in bed upstairs, heard the commotion and came downstairs with a revolver. She proceeded to shoot her husband five times, killing him instantly. He was fifty years old. Daughter Jacqueline immediately called Mrs. Lebaudy’s attorney and told him, “Come over to the house quick. Mamma just shot Papa.”

Coroner Walter R. Jones charged Mrs. Lebaudy with murder and ordered her arrest. Mrs. Lebaudy readily admitted to District Attorney Charles Weeks that she had murdered her husband. “Yes, I shot him. He had been threatening my life for 15 years and I couldn’t stand it any longer.” She was charged with murder and placed in a county jail cell. On January 21st, the Grand Jury cleared her of the charge and she was released.

South African death certificate for Jacques Lebaudy.

A new battle awaited Mrs. Lebaudy. Her husband left no will, which would typically default his entire fortune to his wife. There was one big problem: The couple had married under the laws of the imaginary Saharan empire and were not recognized by any country. In other words, the couple was never legally married and, therefore, Mrs. Lebaudy was not entitled to the bulk of her husband’s estate. Lebaudy’s sister, Maria Thérèse Jeanne Lebaudy de Fels, opted to take advantage of this technicality and filed papers to have Mrs. Lebaudy removed as executor of her husband’s estate.

The petition argued, “Margaret A. Lebaudy is not the widow and Jacqueline Lebaudy is not the daughter of Jacques Lebaudy; the said Margaret Lebaudy is addicted to the use of drugs and has been for years so addicted, and the use of said drugs has so impaired her health and mind that she is unfit to perform the duties of her office or act as administratrix.”

The United States recognized the Lebaudy’s common-law marriage and on December 16, 1922, Mrs. Lebaudy was awarded $2,455,038.19 ($37 million today) and Jacqueline was to receive $4,955,076.38 ($75 million). It was noted that due to a previous agreement, these awards were to be split equally with Lebaudy’s sister in France, who was continuing her fight to discredit Mrs. Lebaudy in Paris. On March 8, 1927, the French courts disagreed with the U. S. ruling, concluding that neither Mrs. Lebaudy’s marriage or the paternity of her daughter had been proven. As a result, titles to all of Lebaudy’s French properties, the bulk of his estate, were awarded to his sister.

Also, in 1922, mother-and-daughter Lebaudy married the father-and-son detective team of Henri and Roger Sudreau. Henri would pass on a few years later, while Jacqueline divorced Roger in 1930.

In 1950, Mrs. Lebaudy passed away in Paris at seventy-seven years of age. Daughter Jacqueline would remarry and emigrate to the United States during World War II. She died at the American Hospital in Paris on December 21, 1974 at the age of sixty-nine.

As for the family’s Phoenix Lodge, it no longer exists. After falling into disrepair, Jacqueline allowed it to be sold for unpaid taxes in 1926. Located on the eastern side of what is now the Eisenhower Park Red Golf Course, the mansion was torn down and replaced by a typical suburban Long Island housing development.

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

Pimientos Could Be an Influenza Cure

 

It was reported on October 29, 1918 that employees of the Curtis Corporation, a tuna cannery in Long Beach, California, had been rendered immune to the influenza. Why? Simply because they had been exposed to the odor of pimientos, a sweet flavored pepper with a very mild heat. 

It was said that scientists had begun experiments to produce an effective anti-toxin from the pimientos. The article indicated that studies were underway to determine whether the eating of pimiento peppers could prevent the influenza.

The Red Cross Emergency Ambulance station of the District of Columbia Chapter is usually a busy place. But during the influenza epidemic of the autumn of 1918 it was worked over time. Library of Congress image.

Iodine and Creosote Influenza Cure

 

On October 11, 1918, it was reported that Dr. George F. Baer of the Homeopathic hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had discovered the perfect influenza cure.

Dr. Baer claimed that he had successfully administered his concoction on patients suffering from the disease and having a fever of 103°F (39.4°C) and that they had all recovered. The number of patients that underwent his treatment was not detailed.

Dr. Baer insisted that the exact formulation of his cure was to remain a scientific secret, but he was willing to reveal that it was a combination of iodine and creosote. (Creosote essentially being the tar given off in the process of burning wood.)

St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 Influenza epidemic. Image from the Library of Congress.

Send-A-Dame Chain Letter

 

Students at the University of California at Berkeley came up with a unique approach to dating in May 1935. It was all the idea of senior Eldon Grimm and it became known as the “send-a-dame chain letter.”

Basically, it worked like this: A male student would receive a list of five female students. After he made a date with the first girl on the list, he would cross her name off and add that of another girl. He would then send his updated list of five of his male friends who would do the same thing.

Grimm calculated that with 6,000 young women enrolled, each would get 26,000 dates from the 10,000 men on campus, assuming the chain remained unbroken.

Miss June Sears said, “I think it should be adopted at all universities.” She continued, “It would certainly bring the students together.”

Sorority member Miss Mary Kirk commented that “It looks as though we might be chained for life.” She figured that she could probably handle 26,000 dates, but at the rate of one date each day, it may take her seventy years to do so.

February 1943 image of Jerry Senise and his friend Mary Lou Grubles of Blue Island, Illinois as they dance to music on the radio before going out on a date. (Library of Congress image.)

Wife’s First Husband Found Alive

 

Vincent P. Smith, a fifty-one-year-old Pennsylvania railroad car inspector, filed suit for annulment of his marriage to fifty-four-year-old Nettie A. Smith after he learned that her first husband, Harry C. Smith, was still alive.

Mrs. Smith said that she hadn’t seen her first husband in thirty-five years. The two had lived in Frederick, Maryland until they separated, after which she returned to her former home in Derry, Pennsylvania.

Believing that her first husband was dead, she married William Scully. She was to meet up with Scully after he went to California, but he was killed in an earthquake.

“Seem like I was destined to be a widow twice,” Mrs. Smith stated. She then moved to Wall, Pennsylvania where she operated a boarding house and met her third husband, Vincent Smith. They were married on September 11, 1907.

Her current husband heard reports that his wife’s first husband was still alive. He traveled from their home in Swissvale, Pennsylvania to Frederick where he met a man who provided him information confirming that this was true. Realizing that his wife was still married to her first husband, Vincent Smith filed for the annulment shortly after their silver wedding anniversary.

“I’d never feel right making up with Nettie now,” Smith told the press. “Even if she should get a divorce after the annulment and be free to marry me again, I couldn’t go through with it.”

The annulment was granted by the court on February 20, 1935.

Woke Up Beside a Dead Man

 

Forty-five-year-old German grocer Henry J. Steinberg operated a store at the corner of Glenmore and Georgia Avenues in Brooklyn, New York. On New Year’s Eve of 1899, he told his wife of seven weeks that he needed to go out and make a call. It was late so she went to sleep in their apartment over the store.

Located in the back of the store was a small room where Steinberg’s 19-year-old employee Henry Meyer slept. Early on the morning of the New Year, Meyer found his employer asleep in his bed. He decided not to wake him up and got into the bed beside him.

Meyer awoke and opened the store as scheduled. He then went to wake up Steinberg but was unable to do so. He soon realized that he was dead and ran upstairs to let his wife know.  When the police arrived, they found a bullet had passed through his left breast and discovered a revolver by his side. On a nearby table was a letter to Steinberg’s wife complaining about how poorly his business had been doing.

There are no stores at the corner of Glenmore and Georgia Avenues in Brooklyn today. The area is now a mixture of light industrial buildings and school bus parking.

Podcast #133 – A Nose for Fishing

 

The Finger Lakes region is among the most spectacular in all of New York State. The area is a series of eleven elongated glacial valley lakes that are all roughly aligned in a north-south direction.

Keuka Lake is the only one of the Finger Lakes that has a Y-like shape to it. Prior to the arrival of railroads and automobiles, steamboats were the fastest way to move across the lake. At the southern end of the lake lies the village of Hammondsport. At the northern end of its eastern branch sits the village of Penn Yan.

The Finger Lakes of New York State. NASA image.

It was there, in Penn Yan, on July 14, 1866, that one of its most celebrated citizens, Harry C. Morse, was born. His father Myron died on August 25, 1872, leaving his wife (Florence) Ione Morse, to raise their only child alone.

Oscar Morse, a well-respected steamboat captain, would routinely take his young nephew Harry out on the water to teach him every aspect of navigating these large ships. Harry’s earliest jobs were as members of the crew, but as he grew older and gained more experience, he became the captain of his own steamboat, the Urbana.

Described in 1889 as “the youngest, best-looking, and best-dressed pilot on the lake,” Harry was soon given the assignment of a lifetime. When the Mary Bell (later rechristened the Penn Yan) was launched in 1892, 26-year-old Harry was selected to be its captain. He was at the wheel when the ship, described as “the finest boat on any inland waters in New York,” encountered a violent storm. Due to her immense weight, the Mary Bell sat very low in the water and waves began to crash over her lower deck. Morse was able to safely steer the ship to port without a single one of its estimated five hundred passengers being harmed. Harry became a bit of a local hero for his efforts, for which poet Booth Lowery, who was aboard the Mary Bell at the time, penned the poem “Harry’s at the Wheel.”

Yet, that is not the event for which Harry would be best remembered.

When the wheeling craze spread across the United States in the 1890s, Harry was reported to have been the first person in Penn Yan to own a bicycle.

Yet, again, that is not what he is best known for.

On February 8, 1901, The Great Falls Tribune announced that Harry had purchased a one-fourth partnership in a Utica, Montana ranch, to which he relocated. The 16,000-acre farm was home to an estimated herd of 15,000 sheep.

After a number of years of raising sheep, however, Harry returned back home to Penn Yan. So, clearly, sheep farming was not his claim to fame.

After a brief stint back on the steamboats, Harry penned the 1914 book To Lovers and Others. But that is not the thing he is best remembered for either.

Harry then turned his focus to the world of entertainment. For a period of five years, he leased and managed the Sampson Theater in Penn Yan, showing mostly silent movies.

In May of 1920, he purchased the former Shearman House on Elm Street for $10,000 ($127,000 today), tore it down, and began construction on a new movie theater. The 720-seat Elmwood Theatre opened May 27, 1921 and was an immediate success. In the late 1920s, Morse installed new technology that enabled him to project talking movies but competition from nearby theaters open on Sundays began to eat into his profits. Blue laws (laws prohibiting certain activities on Sundays) in Penn Yan forbid him from doing the same. Harry approached the Board of Trustees with a petition signed by 2,072 of the 3,152 registered voters in Penn Yan requesting that his theater also be allowed to stay open. On September 27, 1929, he got his wish: “BE IT ORDAINED, that the Elmwood of Penn Yan Incorporated, under the management of H. C. Morse, hereafter be permitted to exhibit motion pictures in the Village of Penn Yan on the first day of the week after 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This ordinance shall take effect immediately.”

Harry Morse would operate the Elmwood Theater until his death on January 15, 1936, after which it would change hands several times before finally closing in 1970. He was survived by his wife Janet and their daughter Rosemary.

There you have it. A lifetime of hard work and a tremendous amount of success. Yet, the one thing that Harry Morse would forever be remembered for has not yet been mentioned. His most memorable event occurred when he was just seven-years-old.

August 27, 1873 was a beautiful day when Harry and his mom went fishing near Keuka Lake’s Brandy Bay. Mrs. Morse set anchor a short distance from shore and cast her line out from one side of the boat. As she patiently waited for a nibble, Harry peered out over the other side and gazed into the crystal-clear water below.

Then, suddenly, Harry jerked his head back into the boat and let out a painful scream. Mrs. Morse turned around to discover that her son’s face was covered in blood. She then glanced down and saw a large fish flopping around on the floor of the boat. A person on shore suggested that Mrs. Morse take an oar and hit the fish with it. She did exactly that and put the fish out of its misery. Mrs. Morse quickly rowed the boat into shore where, with the help of onlookers, she was able to care for Harry’s wounds.

If it weren’t for the fact that there were eyewitnesses to what had happened, no one would have ever believed what had just taken place. While Harry was leaning over the edge of the boat, an 8-pound (3.6 kilogram) trout leaped up out of the water and grabbed ahold of his nose. Panicking, he quickly pulled his head back and upon doing so, the fish let go and fell to the floor of the boat.

Yes, Harry Morse had done the seemingly impossible: He caught a fish with his nose.

Word quickly spread around town and Dr. J. C. (John Coleman) Mills took two photographs to prove to the world that this event really did happen. The first is a stereogram of Harry and his mother with the fish hanging down between them. The second, and far more popular, was the photograph of Harry alone with the fish hanging to his right. Titled “HARRY C. MORSE, the Little Trout Fisher,” hundreds of copies were sold within the first week alone. The story quickly spread to newspapers around the globe and Harry’s story would soon become a legend. He would carry the scars from that bite to his nose for the remainder of his life.

Harry Morse with his mother Ione and the fish that he caught with his nose. Library of Congress image.

On September 4, 1873, the Yates County Chronicle wrote, “Such a thing as this was never heard of before in this quarter of the world, and we are aware needs to be well vouched for to be believed. Of its truth there is not a shadow of a doubt. Although a wonderful fish story, it is not fishy in any dubious sense.”

Harry Morse was a heroic steamboat captain, a sheep rancher, an author, and a successful theater owner, but he would forever be remembered for those few seconds when a fish took hold of his nose.

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

One-Week with the Beatles?

 

On Sunday, August 1, 1965, 17-year-old Cheryl Bedrock of 636 Floral Ave. in Elizabeth, New Jersey received the call of a lifetime. The caller identified himself as Beatle Paul McCartney and told Cheryl that she had won first prize in “The Golden Rolls-Royce Contest.”

She was about to spend an entire week with the Beatles.

Cheryl’s mother got on the phone and spoke to a second man. He said that he was the Beatles manager Brian Epstein and told Cheryl that she be flying aboard BOAC out of Kennedy airport the next Saturday. Upon hanging up, a call was made to BOAC and they confirmed that they had a New York-to-London reservation for Cheryl.

After hanging up, one of Cheryl’s uncles decided to do some further checking. While there had been, in fact, a plane reservation made in Cheryl’s name, records showed that it had been made by her mother, which they knew was untrue. A call to Brian Epstein’s New York office told the uncle that they had never heard of the contest.

Cheryl’s brother Lewis told the press, “If it is a hoax, it’s really amazing. My mother is skeptical about anything like this, and if they convinced her over the phone they must have been good.”

Well, it really was a hoax, but when the promoters of the Beatles legendary August 15, 1965 Shea Stadium concert caught wind of what had happened, they provided Cheryl with two free tickets and limousine service to the show.

Merged photograph showing The Beatles on stage at the King’s Hall, Belfast in 1964. Image from Flickr.

She Won’t Get Fooled Again

 

While Jane Waters was working in a Chicago auto agency in 1952, an elderly man walked in with a “package for the boss.” He said that $6.75 (approximately $65.00 today) was due, which she gladly paid. It turns out that the package contained an old oil can that was filled with water. Her boss refused to reimburse her for the costly mistake. 

Fast forward to November 17, 1955. Ms. Waters was now employed at the Sugar–McMahon Ford Dealership at 4868 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. Once again, a man walked into the dealership with “a package for the boss.” This time he said that $6.00 was due. 

Ms. Waters was not about to be fooled again. She politely asked the man to wait as she stepped into the dealership’s office and telephoned the police.

As officers arrested the phony deliveryman, identified as Oscar Tilden, he stated, “Almost four million people in Chicago and I bump into her again.”

1951 Ford Ranch Wagon. Image from Flickr.

Stole 55 Right-Footed Shoes

 

On April 11, 1935, William Lipson, a shoe salesman from Providence, Rhode Island parked his car outside of a Waterbury, Connecticut hotel.

He later discovered that someone had stolen 55 shoes from the vehicle. Lipson reported the theft to the police.

Upon hearing of the crime, Detective John Galvin stated, “Maybe we had better look for a man with a pair of new shoes.” To which Lipson replied, “O, no, that is, unless the thief is a one-legged man, for you see, they were sample shoes and no two are alike.”

In fact, as samples, all 55 shoes were for the right foot.

Advertisement for the Moc-A-Wauk shoe that appeared on page 867 of the July 1921 issue of the St Nicholas magazine.