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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Category Archives: Bizarre

Podcast 126: The Transatlantic Taxi Ride

When my wife and I arrived in Paris last summer, we needed transportation to the Airbnb that we had rented just outside the city. Not knowing how to get there by train yet, our only options were a cab or Uber. It was about a 40-minute ride from the airport, so we weren’t shocked by the high fare to get us there. Surprisingly, the cab was slightly lower in cost than the Uber.

But what if one wanted to go a much farther distance? A taxi wouldn’t make much sense. A train or airplane would be far cheaper and take significantly less time. The story I have for you today is a situation just like that.

So, let’s hop in our Delorean and take a trip back in time to April 21, 1966. Our destination is the dispatch center for the Black and White Cab Co. in Toledo, Ohio. An unnamed woman calls in and requests a taxi to take her from Toledo all the way out to San Francisco, California.

Since I know that a lot of my listeners don’t reside within the United States, I will tell you this: That is a very long distance. Depending on the path that you take to get there, it is roughly a distance of 2,400 miles or 3,860 kilometers. The cab company did their own estimate and came up with 2,428 miles.

The cab company clearly had both the drivers and cars needed to make such a trip, but who in their right mind would want to pay for a taxi to travel such a long distance? They figured $0.50 per mile and quoted her a flat-fee price of $1250. That would be about $9,800 today, adjusted for inflation.

In comparison, it was reported that a first-class airplane ticket would cost $141.12 and a 2-day train ride on a sleeper car would run $130.49. $130 to $140 vs $1250 is a huge difference.

Even though the quoted price was outrageous, the woman was insistent on having a taxicab take her to the West Coast. In addition, she had one other request: she wanted the cab to be driven by 43-year-old Paul Mertz because he had driven her to Detroit and Chicago over the previous week. Mertz had gained her trust and was shocked by her request to have him drive her to San Francisco. He stated, “I couldn’t believe my ears.”

In what would be Black and White Cab’s longest trip ever, they required the woman to pay for all other incidental costs, including meals and lodging. And to avoid fatigue, fellow Toledo driver 39-year-old Chester Reneau would accompany Mertz so that the two could take turns driving.

Taxi drivers Paul Mertz (left) and Chet Reneau (right).
Taxi drivers Paul Mertz (left) and Chet Reneau (right). Image appears in the April 25, 1966 issue of the San Francisco Examiner on page 7.

The terms were agreed to and the woman proceeded to write a check for $850 as a down payment. The remainder would be due upon their arrival in California.

Melvin Farrell, dispatcher for the cab company, told the press, “The person just wanted to rent a cab to go, she had the money and so she went.”

At 9:30 PM on that same day – April 21, 1966 – the three of them took off in the taxicab. Their first stop was about four-hours later at the woman’s home in Munster, Indiana. It was there that she picked up her luggage – enough to fill the entire trunk – and her pet Chihuahua, Tiny Mouse. He would ride with her in the backseat for the entire trip.

The woman expressed a fear of heights, so the drivers opted to drive along Route 66 through the Southwest, avoiding the more direct route through the Rocky Mountains.

As a whole, it was a fairly uneventful trip. For most of the ride, the woman slept in the backseat as the two drivers continued to push westward. The three sang songs together – mostly church hymns – and the driver in the passenger seat was asked to read aloud passages from the Bible.

Three motel stops were made: in Joplin, Missouri, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Needles, California so that their passenger could get some rest, but she would only sleep briefly and then ask to get back on the road. Another brief stop was made in Vega, Texas so that a doctor could treat the mystery woman for a minor illness.

By this time, the wire services had spread the story to newspapers nationwide. Just who was this unidentified woman? Where in San Francisco was she headed? Why did she choose such a slow, expensive method to cross the country? While readers pondered over this bizarre mystery, the cab continued along its journey to California.

One of those readers was a real estate agent named George Kehriotis, who resided at 636 35th Street in Richmond, California. Richmond is about 13 miles (21 km) northeast of San Francisco as the crow flies. Imagine his surprise as the Black and White taxicab that he had been reading about in the newspaper stopped right in front of his door at 6:55 AM on Monday, April 25, 1966. While the press reported that the entire trip had taken 80 hours, my calculations come up with a little under 85 hours or 3 days and 13 hours.

Kehriotis immediately recognized the woman, but would not reveal anything specific about her to the press. All he would say was that she was in her mid-50’s, the spouse of his wife’s uncle, had visited the Kehriotis home two years prior, and was involved in a legal battle with her husband’s family. Kehriotis stated, “She is exhausted and sleeping. She’s a very charming woman.”

Driver Mertz commented, “The trip in the cab with Ohio plates created considerable excitement, especially in the small towns. People looked at us as if we were nuts.” He continued, “and cops and highway patrolmen kept stopping us, asking to see our papers. When they found them in order, they said, ‘OK, you can go and good luck.’”

And with that, the remainder of the fare was paid and the two drivers began their long trek back to Toledo. Respecting their passenger’s privacy, they continued to remain silent as to her identity.

By the end of the day of her arrival, the San Francisco Examiner revealed that one of the drivers had registered their passenger at one of the motels along the way as “Mrs. Mary Matz, of Hammond, Indiana.” With her identity now revealed, 48-year-old Mrs. Matz agreed to an interview with the press. She was the fourth wife of 85-year-old Henry W. Matz, a retired Chicago funeral home director who was in poor health.

Photograph of Mrs. Mary Matz and her dog Tiny Mouse
Photograph of Mrs. Mary Matz and her dog Tiny Mouse shortly after her arrival in California. Image appeared on page 6 of the April 27, 1966 issue of the Austin American.

According to Henry’s son Clarence, the couple had separated five or six weeks prior. The elder Matz had recently been hospitalized, but had since been released and was staying with his son in Chicago.

After Mrs. Matz had a huge falling out with her husband’s family, she headed out west to the Kehriotis home because they were “the only relatives who’ve been nice to me.”

When questioned as to why she didn’t travel via a train or airplane, she said that it was for “health” reasons. Mrs. Matz explained that she feared becoming ill along the route. A taxi could stop at any point along the way, while a plane or train could not.

As to when she would be returning home, she couldn’t answer that question. Mrs. Matz indicated that would depend on when her doctor gave her the okay.

After a few days in the spotlight, Mrs. Matz would disappear from the headlines. According to her husband’s death certificate, she was still married to him when he passed away on June 16, 1969, but I was unable to find out what happened to Mary Matz afterward. If anyone knows, please let me know.

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

 

An Incredible Life of Learning

A bonus episode of the Useless Information Podcast in which Chatham High School student Van Oles interviews his grandfather, retired pharmacist Ronald McLean.  It’s the wonderful story of a man who started his career as a soda jerk in a pharmacy and ultimately made his way to be appointed as the Interim Dean at the Albany College of Pharmacy.  

 

The Adventure of a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant guns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never did find those diamonds…

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

 

That’s My Parking Spot!

Everyone knows how difficult it can be to get a good parking spot on city streets. The story of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Oppenheimer of Kansas City serves as the perfect example.

On the evening of January 2nd 1961, the Oppenheimer’s decided to head downtown to go ice skating. They parked their car a long distance from the skating rink and then hoofed their way toward the rink. That is when Mrs. Oppenheimer noticed a parking spot much closer.

While Mrs. Oppenheimer protected the spot, her husband went back to get the car. As she attempted to wave the first car on, it’s driver insisted on taking that spot. Mrs. Oppenheimer firmly stood her ground. Yet, as soon as she turned her back, a woman jumped out of the other car and started pounding her.

When Mr. Oppenheimer arrived with the car, the two women were involved in quite the cat fight and he had to separate them. That is when the other driver pulled his car into the parking spot. Needless to say, the police had to be called and Mr. Oppenheimer never did get that parking spot.

Model of a parking garage.
If only a parking garage could have been available…  This image of a parking garage model is from the Los Angeles Public Library Tessa Collection at  https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/104118/rec/9
 

The Monster Crash at Crush

Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, people purposely smashed two locomotives head-on at high speed solely for entertainment purposes. At a time with no movies, TV, or radio, tens of thousands of people would show up to these events.

The brainchild behind this crazy idea was a Chicago railroad equipment salesman and former railroad conductor named A.L. Streeter. He attempted to have one of the railroads in his home state smash the two engines together, but none seemed interested.

Streeter approached the financially-strapped Cleveland, Canton and Southern Railroad and they agreed to give his idea a chance. The plan was to put two of their older locomotives back in service, get them in tip-top shape, and then crash them at high speed on the railroad’s Waynesburg track, which was located southeast of Canton, Ohio.

Streeter set the admission price at 75-cents (approximately $22.50 today) and anticipated at least 20,000 people in attendance. A fence was set up along the track to both keep customers safe and to ensure that they paid their way into the venue.

When smash-up day July 20, 1895 finally arrived, everything was set to go. Trainloads of spectators arrived every fifteen minutes and the crowd began to swell. The two engines, now renamed “Protection” and “Free Trade” after the opposing political beliefs of the time, sat on the tracks awaiting word that they should back up to their starting points, open throttle, and barrel toward each other.

That would never happen. It was estimated that only 200 people paid to see the show. The rest opted to either watch from the distance or bypass the fence. Unable to get the crowd back behind the fence, Streeter canceled the planned wreck for safety sake. That also meant that Streeter lacked the funds to pay the railroad the $2,400 (about $72,000 today) fee that they had charged to destroy the trains. Streeter personally lost an estimated $800, which would be about $24,000 today.

In 1896 the Columbus, Hocking Valley, and Toledo Railroad built a brand-new recreational park to entice people to ride its rails on the weekends. They chose a picturesque location approximately 25-miles (40 kilometers) south of Columbus, Ohio and named the new destination spot Buckeye Park. In addition to making use of a natural spring lake for swimming and boating, they built a toboggan slide, a few buildings for entertainment, and a playground for the kiddies. Those all sound like fine bits of entertainment but what they really needed was something big to promote their new pleasure destination. You know, something huge. Something that would instantly grab the public’s attention. Something like smashing two locomotives into each other on opening day.

Today we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, but in 1896 most localities celebrated it on Saturday May 30th. As the traditional kickoff to the summer season, it was also a great date for a railway collision.

The railroad’s PR machine was put into action at full throttle. Newspapers across the nation ran story after story on the planned crash. It was promoted as a scientific experiment, one in which observers armed with their notebooks and Kodak cameras could observe a real train collision under controlled conditions. The fact that the railroad charged the audience to ride on their trains to the event, that they had to pay an admission fee, and buy refreshments from the booths that they set up was supposedly only being done to cover the cost of the experiment.

Yeah. Right. Who were they fooling? Scientific experiment my foot…

Estimates of the crowd in attendance for the big event varied from a low of 18,000 to a high of 25,000 people. Two obsolete 35-ton locomotives were chosen for the impending duel. Formerly known simply as numbers 12 and 21, the locomotives were rechristened the A.L. Streeter and the W.H. Fisher, who was an official with the railroad. Each would pull three cars and a caboose to their demise.

The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision.
The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

Prior testing had determined that the two engines accelerated at different rates. As a result, the W.H. Fisher was placed 3,600 feet south of the starting point and the A.L. Streeter at a point 3,000 feet north.

Using a newfangled invention called the telephone, the two conductors were given the signal to open throttle at 4:10 PM. As the trains started toward each other, the conductors jumped off to safety. To keep up the illusion of impending doom, Streeter placed two dummies dressed in conductor garb on each train.

And then… Wham!

The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact.
The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

The two trains smashed into each other within 100-feet (30 m) of their calculated point of impact. The locomotives both rose up into the air and came to rest in an almost A-shaped configuration. One could still clearly read the names A.L. Streeter and W.H. Fisher on the coal cars, while the trailing gondolas had all been totally destroyed.

Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision.
Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision. 
Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

One injury did mar the event: T.P. Peck, chief clerk in the general passenger office, was struck by a flying bolt and suffered a compound fracture below his right knee. Yet, Streeter’s staged train crash was, well, a smashing success. It was deemed so successful that officials in attendance from other railroads recruited him to do additional crashes in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York.

The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision.
The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896) 

And, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Soon other promoters were planning their own train crashes.

Buckeye Park Crash 1896
People climbing on the wreck of the two trains after the smoke cleared. (Reddit image.)

One of these was a man named William George Crush. He had been hired in August 1893 by the Missouri – Kansas – Texas Railroad – better known as the Katy – to be their General Passenger Agent for the entire state of Texas. That’s not a job that you hear much about today, but in the heyday of the railroads, this was a position of incredible importance. It was W.G. Crush’s name that appeared on just about every ticket, poster, timetable, or advertisement that the Katy produced during his tenure. Crush was basically the invisible wall between the riders and upper management at the railroad.

Mr. Crush believed that if the Katy could stage a stunt similar to the one that had just been completed by Streeter at Buckeye Park, the Katy line could grab a stronghold on the Texas railroad market.

Image of William George (W. G.) Crush
William George Crush was the General Passenger Agent for the Katy in 1896. Image if from the Find-A-Grave website.

On August 6, 1896, a formal announcement was made in the press that the Katy would be purposely colliding two trains together. Once again, this was all to be done in the name of science. Each train would consist of a locomotive, a tender, and six cars. As the trains smashed into each other at high speed, the data collected could be used to build safer locomotives and cars.

I’ll say it once again: Yeah. Right. Scientific experiment my foot…

Scheduled for 4:00 in the afternoon on September 15th, the railroad chose the perfect spot in West, Texas, which is approximately 18 miles (29 km) north of Waco. The track in this location was perfectly straight and flat, while a small valley formed by three hills created a natural amphitheater.

In an August 13, 1896 interview with the Dallas News, Crush stated, “There will be no harm done save the smashing to pieces of two 40 ton passenger engines, a dozen cars and the tearing up of several hundred yards of track and road bed. The engines will be used for scrap iron if they are damaged beyond repair, and the track will be cleared and mended in a jiffy.”

He continued, “The day before the collision the track over which the engines will run will be timed so that the point of contact maybe definitely ascertained. In this way we will know almost within 10 yards where the meeting will take place. By means of a telegraph wire put up for the occasion the engineers will be given the signal to start, and each throttle will be pulled simultaneously. The engineers will remain on the engines until each has attained the speed of 10 miles an hour, at which point they will pull the throttle wide open and step off.”

Crush went on to further state, “Railroad men from all over the West will be on hand to see and photographic observations will be taken every second for ten seconds before the collision. Engine builders are now deeply interested in furnishing engines with appliance which will lessen the shock of collisions, and consequently make them less dangerous to human life.”

When questioned about the cost of the head-on collision, Crush said “All told, about $20,000. Of course there will be some salvage.”

$20,000. That’s nearly $600,000 adjusted for inflation. That’s a monsterous price to pay for one single collision. How could the railroad cover such an enormous expense?

That’s very simple. The only way for most people to get to the show was via the Katy railroad. Tickets ranged in price from a low of $2.00 from Austin to $3.50 from Houston. That sounds like a bargain, but translate that into modern values and round trip tickets to the venue were going to cost you somewhere between $60 and $105. Add to that all of the money spent on site for food, drinks, and sideshow entertainment and it becomes very clear that if the predicted number of people attended the event, the Katy stood to earn a lot of money.

Crash at Crush advertisement.
Advertisement for the Great Collision at Crush, Texas from the September 8, 1896 publication of the Houston Post, page 7.

Crush said, “Ever since we decided to give the exhibition public interest in the matter has increased, and in order to let all see it will run excursions from all along our lines at rates, say less than one fare for the round trip. In fact, from all indications, there will be 15,000 or 20,000 people present to see it. The place selected for the exhibition is a natural amphitheater, and nobody will have any trouble in viewing the entire exhibition. We will make it a regular picnic day.”

Preparation of the crash site began immediately. Crews laid down four miles of track, built a grandstand for honored guests, two telegraph offices, three stands for noted speakers, and an observation stand for photographers and members of the press. A large tent was borrowed from the Ringling Brothers Circus to use as a restaurant. For water, two wells were dug on site while arrangements were made to transport 16,000 gallons of artesian water cooled with ice from Waco. Lastly, a large carnival midway, complete with hucksters, drink stands, and game booths, was set up.

A.D. Arbegast, general foreman of the Katy’s Texas bridge and building department, stated, “… we are now at work on 30 privilege stands, to be arraigned in Midway Plaisance Style, like the Chicago plaisance. In these places will be located all the amusement on the ground. There will be freaks there from all over the world, and a better plaisance show has never been seen in Texas. This feature alone will be worth going to Crush to see.”

As of September 3rd, Crush was still confident that an enormous number of people would attend the event: “My estimate of the crowd remains undiminished. We will have at least 25,000, and probably as many as 40,000 people on the ground to witness the collision. We are making arrangements to handle 40,000 comfortably. Nobody will be discommoded. So far as experience can provide for the peace and safety of the passengers it will be done.”

The Katy repair shop crew set to work rebuilding two of the line’s outdated locomotives. Chosen for total destruction were engines 123 and 124, which were now renumbered 999 and 1001, respectively. The 999 was painted bright green with yellow stripes, with other colors of the rainbow highlighting its cowcatcher, gears, and trimmings. The 1001 was painted a contrasting red color. Both had the Katy logo emblazoned on either side of the cab. To further promote the collision, the two locomotives were placed on tour and displayed in towns throughout the state.

Two of the Katy’s finest engineers were chosen to run the engines. The 999 was to be driven by engineer Charlie Stanton with Frank Barnes as his fireman. Charlie Cain would be at the throttle of the 1001 with fireman S.M. Dickerson to assist him.

Ad for the Crash at Crush.
This advertisement for the collision appeared on page 8 of the Houston Post on September 14, 1896.

Then the big day came. On September 15th, train after train pulled alongside a newly constructed platform that measured 2,100 feet in length (0.64 km). The signs at the depot indicated that they had arrived at the town of Crush, Texas, a town that would only exist for a single day.

As anticipation grew, the planned start time of 4 PM came and went as more and more people unloaded from the trains. Estimates in the newspapers at the time placed the attendance at somewhere between a low of 24,000 and a high of 30,000 people. The bean counters for the Katy must have had big smiles on their faces. From a financial point of view, the crash that was about to occur at Crush, Texas was a smashing success. That smile would soon be wiped from their faces.

The Dallas News described the smash-up as follows: “At 5 o’clock the two trains met at the point of the collision and they were photographed. Then one of the trains backed up the hill on the north and the other one up the hill on the south. Everything was now ready. The smoke was pouring from their funnels in a great black streak, and the popping of the steam could be distinctly heard for the distance of a mile. People were standing on tip-toe, from every point of vantage, trying to see every movement of the wheels that were so soon to roll to destruction.

The two locomotives shaking hands.
The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18684893411/in/photolist-uqAdMJ-8bcjz6-a9ef3g-ut7XQF-usuHGJ-tvTLLq-ubk1Mj

“The officials of the road were grouped about the little telegraph office not fifty feet from the place of waiting for the whistle which would tell them that the trains are ready to start on the fatal journey. At 10 minutes after 5 Crush raised his hat and a great cheer went up from the throats of all the people.”

The article continues, “The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly, and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry. Every eye was strained and every nerve on edge. They rolled down at a frightful rate of speed to within a quarter of a mile of each other. Nearer and nearer, as they approach the fatal meeting place the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder, and hundreds who had come miles to see found their hearts growing faint within them, and were compelled to turn away from the awful spectacle.”

The two trains barreled toward each other at estimated speed of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and then…

Wham!

The Crash at crush. The two trains just as they struck.

The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18677821822/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

The noise was deafening. The locomotives crumpled inward as the trailing cattle cars were reduced to splinters. There was a moment of silence and then, when it seemed like it was all over, the boiler of the 999 exploded. Flying missiles of steel and wood, both small and large in size, began to rain down on the crowd. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, male or female, rich or poor. There was simply no way to escape from the locomotive shrapnel.

Emma Frances Overstreet, the wife of a local farmer, was watching the crash from what seemed like a safe distance of 1,000-feet (305 meters) when she was suddenly hit by flying debris. Hitting behind her right ear, she was immediately knocked unconscious and died from her injuries.

Ernest Barnell of Bremond, Texas was perched up in a tree even farther from the crash site and was struck in the head by a flying chain. The chain hit with such a strong force that it became embedded in the tree. Sadly, he also succumbed to his injuries the following morning.

One man who was close to the crash was photographer Jarvis Deane of Waco. Deane was in the photographers’ stand attempting to snap a picture when he was struck in the eye, which doctors were forced to remove. In doing so, they discovered that he had been hit by a bolt that measured 2-inches in length and ⅜-inch in diameter. That would be approximately 5 cm x 9.55 mm. Luckily for Dean, if you can call it that, the nut was still attached to the bolt and it snagged on his eye socket, preventing the bolt from becoming lodged in his brain.

Louis Bergstrom of Waco, another photographer who was on the platform with J.C. Deane, also sustained slight injuries from the shrapnel.

Jarvis Deane shot this photograph just as the two trains exploded. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18494864220/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

Then there was 14-year-old Roy Kendrick, who was also from Waco. He was struck by a flying piece of timber which caused a severe leg wound. His father would later file a lawsuit against the railroad for $500.

There were other injuries reported, but none were fatal. One man lost a piece of his chin, another had a scalp wound, while yet another struck in the chest with incredible force by a piece of timber. A man named John Besey had his arm lacerated by a piece of steel. He opted to take it home as a souvenir. In fact, even as people were suffering, thousands of people ran toward the wreck and grabbed a piece of it to commemorate the event.

Crash at Crush - Before the Crowd Got to the Wreck
The crowd running toward the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18059912424/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

It was all over, but getting home wouldn’t be easy. The trains were slow to arrive and when they did, it was utter chaos. Information was difficult to come by, the train cars were packed nearly to the point of suffocation, and many people ended up in the wrong town. Yet, by 11 PM that evening, the last train pulled out and the town of Crush, Texas ceased to exist.

The next day it was learned that there was one more casualty to add to the list, although the locomotive smash-up could not be blamed for it. John Morris, a livery man from Ferris, was killed after he fell between the coach and caboose of one the outbound trains.

The Katy quickly settled all damage claims brought against the company. Jarvis Deane may have lost an eye, but he was able to resume his photography career. He ran a humorous ad in a Waco paper that read, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business. Deane, Waco’s High-Priced Photographer.”

Crash at Crush - 1896 - Crowd on wreck of the two trains.
The crowd climbing on the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18656262236/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

One would think that this would have been the end of intentional train collisions, but it was not. Just one week later it was announced that the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad planned to do a repeat performance on October 6th. 20,000 people attended that event and not a single person was injured.

Smashing up trains proved to be such a crowd pleaser that Iowa resident Joseph Connelly decided to make it his career. Between 1896 and 1932 “Head-On Joe” staged as many as seventy-three train wrecks at various fairgrounds across the midwestern United States. Amazingly, not a single person was injured during any of these shows.

Only Mr. Crush had the misfortune of having it all go so very wrong. A number of recent articles state that the Katy immediately fired Crush, but quickly rehired him after learning that the Crash at Crush was good for the company’s bottom line. I was unable to find any mention of that in the newspaper articles published in the days after the crash took place. William George Crush retired from the Katy in 1940, having worked for the company for 46 years. He passed away three years later on April 12, 1943 at the age of 77 years.

Today, the Crash at Crush is basically forgotten, excluding a couple of historic markers that serve as reminders for those that visit the area.

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

 

Woman Befriends Rats

May 17, 1929 – A sanitary inspector in London visited the Platts Lane home of 80-year-old Rachel Willard after receiving numerous complaints from her neighbors. They had claimed that Mrs. Willard had not only been harboring rats in her garden, but that she was also providing them with food.

She refused admittance to the inspector and pushed two letters under the door, one of which read, “I refused admission to your officer because I consider as a free citizen I have fulfilled my duty to the little country rats who came into my garden – dear little voles – and also because I object to be considered the scapegoat of Platts Lane.”

Mrs. Willard was ordered to appear before a judge at the Hampstead Police Court in London. After the inspector testified that her home was infested with ordinary household rats, Mrs. Willard began her cross examination of the inspector. The judge had heard more than enough and opted to adjourn the case.

Rat
Sketch of a rat from the 1834 publication "A System of natural history : containing scientific and popular descriptions of man, quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles and insects" on page 238.
 

Placed Tooth in His Ear

8-year-old Pedro Lozado was sitting in a Chicago classroom on September 18, 1957 when he decided to yank a loose tooth out. He then showed his tooth to his classmates before – get this – inserting the tooth into his ear.

And that’s where the real problem began: The tooth was now stuck in Pedro’s ear.

Pedro brought his unusual predicament to the attention of his teacher, Ms. Mary Ford. At first she didn’t believe him, but upon close inspection observed that he was indeed telling the truth.

The Ryatts Comic 1963
The Ryatts by Cal Alley syndicated comic strip from December 7, 1963.

The school nurse was unavailable, so the principal called the police and requested that they take Pedro to the hospital. The police informed the administrator that they needed parental consent to do so. Since they didn’t their permission, the police opted to drive Pedro to his parents’ home.

For whatever the reason, his parents turned down the request for medical treatment and opted to extract the tooth themselves. Pedro’s mom stuck her finger in his ear and eventually the tooth fell out.

Pedro placed the tooth under his pillow that evening. My guess is that the tooth fairy made a very special visit to the Lozado household that evening.

 

Le Mars Trilogy: Part 1 – T.M. Zink’s Library

Useless Information Podcast

The first of a 3-part series on Le Mars, Iowa from the 1930’s. Le Mars was thrust into the national spotlight by the actions of just one man: a successful lawyer named T.M. Zink, who left nearly his entire estate for the establishment of a very unusual library. Was Zink was truly mad or was he simply playing a good practical joke on the world?

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Where There’s a Wilby, There’s a Way

Useless Information Podcast

Between 1942 and 1943 Ralph Marshall Wilby appeared to pull off what appeared to be the perfect crime. An incredible story which has many of the elements of an international thriller: deception, false identities, international kidnapping, and the drop dead gorgeous woman who brought his capture.

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Yonkers Anti-Shorts Law

Useless Information Podcast

Perfect story for the first days of summer: it’s about a ban that the city of Yonkers put in place back in 1935 to prevent women from wearing shorts and halter tops. Even more timely: at one point they proposed building a giant fence around Tibbetts Brook Park to keep the offending people from NYC out.

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The Rescue of Charles Nalle

Useless Information Podcast

When escaped slave Charles Nalle was arrested in Troy, NY on April 27, 1860, no one could have anticipated what would happen next. With the help of Harriet Tubman, Nalle is believed to have been the only person in United States history to have been rescued from slavery four times. 

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