When I started teaching high school back in 1990, I had a student come up to me and ask me if they could borrow a nickel. Even back then, 5-cents did not buy you much. So, I questioned what he needed the nickel for. That’s when he surprised me with the response that he intended to use it to make a call at the payphone outside the school. Back then, almost every payphone in the country charged 25-cents to make a call, but not in Chatham, NY. All of the payphones in the area were operated by a local company named Taconic Telephone and they took pride in the fact that they were the only company still charging a nickel to make calls.
As you could probably guess, Taconic Telephone was eventually sold and that was the end of the nickel phone calls. Of course, in our modern cell phone age, payphones themselves have become nearly obsolete.
But back in the days when pay telephones were ubiquitous, an employee of the telephone company needed to drive around and empty the coins out of each and every payphone. All of these coins were then taken back to an office to be counted, before ultimately being turned over to a bank to enrich Ma Bell’s pockets.
Today’s story began on Saturday, September 23, 1950, when 30-year-old Miami, Florida police detective John Resick and his 22-year-old wife Eleanor Jane got into a wicked fight. John went off to work, while Jane decided to spend the night with her close friend 18-year-old Rita Orr.
While there, Rita told Jane that $150 had been stolen from her cedar chest and even more from her mom. Rita suspected that her 21-year-old sister-in-law Marie Orr had stolen the cash to run off with her boyfriend. Jane told Rita that she needed to call the police to let them know that the money had been stolen. And without any thought as to the consequences, early the next morning that was exactly what Rita did.
When West Miami Safety Director I. Raymond Mills arrived at the Orr home, he found no evidence of a break-in. He suspected that this was some sort of an inside job, but agreed to investigate. He promised to return that afternoon with a fingerprint expert to comb over the supposed crime scene.
That same afternoon, Miami police stopped a car driven by Marine Sergeant William Albert. Inside they found a strongbox that contained thousands of dollars. He explained to the officers that his fiancé Billie Ruth McNabb, who just happened to be Marie Orr’s sister, had asked him to remove the box from the Orr house shortly after Officer Mills had left the premises.
Mills drove over to McNabb’s house on S.W. Seventh Street and questioned her as to where all this money came from. She immediately spilled the beans and placed nearly all of the blame on her sister Marie.
The next morning, as Marie and her friend Betty Corrigan returned from an out-of-town trip, investigators were there to greet them. The women were then escorted to the nearby Coral Gables police station, where all of the women gave complete confessions.
That’s when a gigantic hole in the counting of the coins back at the phone company was uncovered. After the payphone boxes were emptied, the sealed coin boxes were brought to a counting room at Southern Bell, which was located on the ground floor of their main office at 36 NE 2nd Street in Miami. Each morning, the women that worked in the counting room would remove the coin boxes from the safe, break the seals, and then feed the coins into an automated counting machine.
The women who worked in the counting room realized that the money in these boxes had never been counted, so the phone company had no clue as to how much was brought in each day. As the women loaded the coins into the counting machines, they would make some of them magically disappear.
As Betty Corrigan stated to Officer Mills in her confession, “It was so easy. There was no way to get caught so I started taking it too. The girl that was standing up would wait until she got 60 quarters and then she would roll it in memo paper and she would put it in her brassiere.” She continued, “We would carry it out and put it in our pocket books. My husband left the car parked at the company. I would take it down and put it in the glove compartment.”
It’s not as if the women weren’t being watched. The counting room was part of a much larger office, with a large glass panel and glass door separating the women from their supervisors. They would simply stand with their backs to the glass and block the view of the counting machine while one of the women would place a roll of the coins into her brassiere.
Each $15.00 roll of quarters was quite heavy – 12-3/4 ounces (more than 1/3 of a kilogram) – so as their brassieres became weighted down – they could only carry four or five rolls at a time – each would take a restroom break. It was there that many of the rolls of coins were transferred to the “ample” brassiere of Billie Ruth McNabb, who was not a phone company employee, and then carried out of the facility. McNabb was paid $5.00 per day for her assistance.
The women claimed never to have taken more than $150 each day, which may not seem like much, but over the two-year period that they stole the money, they were initially thought by police to have potentially pocketed a total of $100,000 or nearly one-million dollars when adjusted for inflation. The money was mostly used to purchase savings bonds, automobiles, and to make payments on their homes.
The police ended up arresting fourteen people, including eight women, five of whom were counting room employees, their husbands, and boyfriends. Six of those accused were members of the Orr family.
The press had a field day with this story. Reporters came up with clever names such as the “Bra Bandits”, the “Brassiere Girls”, the “Case of the Clinking Brassieres”, the “Case of the Silver Falsies”, and the “Bra Swindle.” But the name that really stuck was the “Brassiere Brigade.”
For a short time, it looked like they may all have gotten off the hook. There was certainly no crime in having a lot of cash and the phone company wasn’t sure how much, if any, money was taken from the phone coin boxes. As a result, Southern Bell district manager James M. Phillips initially opted not to sign a complaint against the accused. Assistant County Solicitor Michael P. Zarowny said, “The only thing we’ve got is a confession. We can’t introduce that until we establish a crime and we can’t establish a crime because there is no way to tell if the money was taken, nor how much.”
The bra girls’ lawyers – James Rainwater and Harry Prebish – whose services were paid for in quarters – decided to use the inability of Southern Bell to figure out how much, if any, money was stolen to their advantage. They instructed their clients to refuse to sign the now typed-up confession statements that they had made earlier. Now they were claiming their innocence.
All of those arrested were then temporarily released into Rainwater’s custody. And since the phone company couldn’t prove that the money was theirs, it was announced that the girls would file a lawsuit intended to get the estimated $10,000 already recovered back from the police. He said, “That money is the personal property of my clients.”
The next day, Rainwater accompanied the five women as they reported back to work at Southern Bell. Guards outside the building immediately stopped them. Rainwater then spoke with officials at the company and the women were allowed to enter the facility and went right up to James Phillips’s office. The district manager immediately fired the women and they left the premises in tears.
Shortly after that, the phone company filed formal complaints against six women and two men. Southern Bell claimed that $18,880 had been stolen, although there is no way to know how they came up with that amount. The press speculated that far more had been stolen, but that the phone company had no way of proving it. It was also believed that other employees had been stealing the coins for many years, but the statute of limitations prevented probing back beyond two years prior.
After just one day of freedom, all those now accused were ordered to be rearrested. Marie Orr, Rita Orr, Bonnie Hebert, and Betty Corrigan were all charged with grand larceny. Marie’s mom Gladys, and the husbands of Bonnie and Betty were charged with receiving stolen property, while Mrs. Billy Ruth McNabb was named as “a principal in the second degree.” A couple of days later, Miami detective John Resick and his wife Jane were also charged, since they helped to hide some of the money from the police.
Of all those charged, only the three girls who initially confessed to the crime stood trial: two of the girls that stuffed their bras with the rolls of coins and the woman who helped smuggle them out of the phone company’s building. On November 11, 1950, Marie Orr, Billie Ruth McNabb, and Betty Corrigan all stood before Criminal Court Judge Ben C. Willard.
The courtroom was packed as defense attorney Rainwater inserted coins into a payphone that had been brought in for demonstration purposes. As the coins fell into the machine, he inserted a bent wire to trip the coin release. All of the coins were then dropped into the return slot. He had made his point: the phone company had no way to know how much money was really collected from the machines.
An auditor for the phone company presented data showing a shortfall for money collected on five routes between August 22nd and 23rd of 1950. Long-distance receipts totaled $1350.00, but bank deposit slips initialed by Marie Orr and Betty Corrigan, the only two women working in the counting room at the time, were short by $464.75.
And, in a surprising move, the judge allowed the unsigned statements made by the women at the time of their arrest to be admitted as evidence against them. In those confessions, Corrigan admitted to stealing between $6,000 and $7,000 over the previous two years, while Orr said that she had taken $6,500 over three years. Officer Mills added in his testimony that he had recovered $5,786.90 from their cars and homes. These women didn’t stand a chance.
It took the jury of six-men just 24 minutes to return guilty verdicts for all three of the women. Marie Orr and Betty Corrigan both faced a maximum of five years behind bars, while Billie Ruth McNabb was facing lesser time for aiding and abetting.
The three would have to wait six days to find out what their sentence would be. The judge wasted no time and immediately ordered that the three women and eight other relatives and boyfriends reimburse the phone company for $24,116, which would be about $240,000 today. The court-appointed an insurance man named J.S. Turner to locate and collect the assets of those accused, which included all cash, cars, savings bonds, postal certificates, and jewelry, and any other valuable property that they possessed.
On Monday, November 20th, the three women were all sentenced to one year in state prison for their crime. The women remained out of prison on bond while their case was appealed. On August 1, 1951, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed their convictions and it seemed as if they would now be going to prison. Somehow their lawyer managed to convince the governor to give the women not one, not two, but three 60-day reprieves, followed by an additional 30 days until the parole board could hear their case. Their attorneys told the Cabinet Pardon Board that all three women had repaid all of the stolen money and that they were now rehabilitated. They were all given conditional pardons and never spent a single day of their one-year sentences in prison.
As for the others that had been accused, none served any additional time. Mom Gladys Orr was convicted and given a suspended sentence. The judge told her that she had to leave the state. Another bra smuggler, Bonnie Jean Hebert, plead guilty and received a suspended sentence. Several of the other cases, including those against Bonnie’s husband Lawrence and Detective Resick, were dropped.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.