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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Podcast #137 – The Zambian Space Program

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the deal with the cats?

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

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

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

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

ITN interview with Edward Nkoloso.

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut training at the Zambian Space Academy in November 1964.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The First Jewish Couple Married on National TV

 

Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: April 23, 2019 (Part 1) and May 5, 2019 (Part 2)

Today I have a very special podcast for you. It is an interview that I did the other day with cartoonist Leigh Rubin. His syndicated Rubes cartoon is published in hundreds of newspapers daily. Now, right at this very moment that I am recording this, Leigh is at RIT. That’s the Rochester Institute of Technology where he has been honored with the title of being their cartoonist in residence.

Well, Leigh contacted me about a month ago with a great story about his parents, who just happened to be the first Jewish couple to ever be married on television. The show was Bride and Groom and every couple that was married on the show was sent home with a 16mm Kinescope print of their wedding. Well, the Rubens still had the film and they had it transferred to DVD and I was able to rip the audio from the recording. And while some of it is not perfect, in fact some of it was not usable at all, you’ll be able to attend the October 25, 1951 wedding of Natalie and Stanley Rubin.

Rubes cartoon by Leigh Rubin. (Image courtesy of Leigh Rubin –
https://www.rubescartoons.com)

Steve Silverman: So, Leigh, your dad was Stanley Howard Ruben. What did he do for a living?

Leigh Rubin: My dad was an advertising executive. He was one of those New York City madmen. I mean, for real back in the ‘50s and was actually the president of the Advertising Club of Men and Women of New York and would, you know, get kids in high school into advertising and they would have guests come and speak. Hugh Hefner was one of their guests shilling his new magazine and the guy that started Diners Club and have these different people come to pitch their ideas.

Steve Silverman: So, how did you guys end up in California?

Leigh Rubin: My older brother Paul. He had some health issues and the doctor said better to go towards a drier climate and so they, you know, loaded up the car and moved outside Beverly, but it was more like Buena Park. They moved out to California and… Actually, but my dad came out several months before because my mom had to sell the house. We lived on Long Island in Huntington and so he went through a variety of kind of odd jobs. You know, the candy counter, which was a terrible thing for him since he loved candy, at some at some place and I think another place called Green Dollar Nursery. Another of a kind of a big chain or big store – kind of like Kmart – back in the day, called the Big A where you’d walk into this big giant A. This is all in Southern California.

Steve Silverman: And this was in advertising he was doing?

Leigh Rubin: Yeah, yeah. He and he got into advertising. In around 1965 or 6, he got a job through a mutual friend of his at Max Factor, the cosmetics company, and he stayed there for probably a good, I think, 8 to 10 years before they sold out to Revlon and then he started his own printing company.

Steve Silverman: Did he do the printing until he retired?

Leigh Rubin: He did stay there. We moved actually from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley and he started his own printing company and it was a family business. So, my mom, sister, brother and I all worked there and I worked there for 21 years and my brother kind of came and went and then he did come back for a while and my sister went off to do her thing. But yeah, he did retire in the 90s after selling that. Actually, I retired in the 90s after it was of the act of God, the big Northridge earthquake kind of put an end to the freeways so I couldn’t get to work anymore. Which was fine because I was phasing out of that out anyway.

Steve Silverman: So, like me, your Jewish.

Leigh Rubin: Right.

Steve Silverman: Were your parents religious?

Leigh Rubin: My father became a little more practicing during like the high holy days. You know, we did Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukah were the big three. And Hanukah isn’t technically not even supposed to be all that important, but you know, that’s where all the fun gifts are and you get the play with the dreidel and eat potato pancakes. And my mom was raised much more religiously. She and her family emigrated from Eastern Europe. You know with that I am met my great-grandmother and I was quite young but, you know, from Lithuania, Russia area and emigrated. You know, it was the typical Fiddler on the Roof story. Very similar to that.

Steve Silverman: Yeah. We had spoken a few weeks ago it was amazing how, you know, our histories are so similar. And it is very typical of what the Jewish people did. You know, they were basically forced out of your Russia and Europe and most of them ended up, somehow, in United States.

Leigh Rubin: It’s funny, my grandma, Grandma Rose. She was… She passed away when I was probably 7 or 8, but she spoke with the typical hello dahling, you know that kind of an accent and smoked and drank Schnapps and apparently was the quite the funny person and, apparently, my mom had told me this, that she had one of those amazing memories where she could, I guess, around in the garment district of New York, she could, she would see these nice designer clothes and just duplicate them mentally and then go copy that. So the story, the family legend is people knew she was coming around they would like take the stuff out of the window. So that she wouldn’t be able to copy it.

Steve Silverman: You know what’s interesting is that my grandfather, he just passed away a few years ago. He was 108 years old.

Leigh Rubin: Wow.

Steve Silverman: And, what’s really surprising, is I didn’t know, I mean it never really occurred to me because my great-grandmother died when I was very young, that she never spoke English. They spoke Yiddish and I never knew until my grandfather was probably over 100 years old that he spoke Yiddish. I had never heard him speak a word of it ever.

Leigh Rubin: Wow.

Steve Silverman: He was totally assimilated into the US. You know, he wore American flag on his shirt or lapel or whatever at all times and was just so proud to be an American. I never knew that he spoke Yiddish.

Leigh Rubin: Wow. And did you ever ask him about it afterwards? I mean, did he did you ever speak Yiddish to?

Steve Silverman: Never. I mean I think of both of us are pretty typical of a lot of Jews in this country that we are very assimilated into society. It is just odd. Yesterday at work someone wish me a Happy Passover and I said, “When’s Passover?” and she goes “Oh, it’s tomorrow,” and as was like “Oh, okay.” A lot of times my wife will have to tell me when Hanukkah is. I’m not really, I don’t really keep track of that stuff. It’s just not a part of my life.

Leigh Rubin: My brother tends to keep a little, well he’s not super religious about it and I knew it was Passover because I dug up a very old Passover cartoon of how to do gefilte fish and I posted on Facebook today. And apparently it’s going over quite well, So, it’s pretty, pretty funny cartoon I did 31 years ago.

Gefilte fish cartoon that Leigh Rubin mentioned during our discussion. (Image courtesy of Leigh Rubin –
https://www.rubescartoons.com

Steve Silverman: I have to check that one out. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know what gefilte fish is. To me it’s just looks like white turds. That’s a whole other story.

Leigh Rubin: No, I’ve heard it described the same way lately. Yeah. It’s not bad. Some people find it distasteful. I just have pleasant memories of Passover with my family.

Steve Silverman: My parents, when I was a little kid they celebrated but they moved out of New York City when I was like seven or eight years old and after that I think maybe did it once or twice after and that was about it. I think without the family around there really wasn’t much need to do it. You know.

Leigh Rubin: Sure.

Steve Silverman: So, let’s talk about your parents on the show.

Leigh Rubin: Sure.

Steve Silverman: So, your parents were on the show Bride and Groom and it originally started as a radio show. It started on November 26, 1945 and ran on radio through September 15, 1950. And what I found out is that about a thousand couples were married on that radio show. That’s kind of incredible.

Leigh Rubin: That is.

Steve Silverman: It’s like early reality TV but on radio.

Leigh Rubin: Including Dick Van Dyke was one of those married on radio.

Steve Silverman: Yeah, I found that out. I was quite surprised by that. Well the show then switched to TV during the 1950-51 season with and it was on CBS and then eventually moved to NBC. Looking back, I know that there were a lot of shows like this, but the show was only 15 minutes long, where today you would never find a show less than a half-hour.

Leigh Rubin: That was 15 minutes including commercials.

Steve Silverman: Yeah. I counted up the show that your parents were on 2 minutes and 41 seconds of it. That’s almost 3 minutes of the 15 minutes was just for the advertisement for the napkin sponsor.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah. Hudson Rainbow Napkins. Which I find hilarious and are looking at these beautiful napkins in these colors, yet it’s in black-and-white.

Steve Silverman: Right. And I like to they put like a green fern to imply that it was green. So, it’s pretty funny they couldn’t show the colors so they put something down on the napkins to indicate what the color would be.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah. It’s great. This was wonderful.

Click on the YouTube video above to see the complete Bride and Groom episode of Stanley and Natalie Rubin’s wedding.

Steve Silverman: So normally I have a separate Retrosponsor, but since it was already built into the show here is an ad for Hudson paper napkins.

John Nelson (Bride and Groom Host): Right now I’d like to remind you, however, that if your Halloween is only a few days away and so if you’re planning a Halloween party for yourself or for the kids, why not make your table center a flower piece jack-o’-lantern and serve Halloween rounds: black-and-white sandwiches made with cream cheese and olives, devil’s food cupcakes decorated with gumdrops and, of course, Hudson Rainbow Napkins to make your table a riot of color. You get three gay colors in every box: daffodil yellow, party pink is as fresh and lovely as a rose, and misty green as delicate as any table group. You’ll be amazed at the gaiety and charm these soft, colorful napkins make on your party table. So anytime you want add a colorful note to your table, get economical Hudson Rainbow Napkins in the pink and blue box. They’re at your grocer’s today. Hudson Rainbow Napkins.

Steve Silverman: The interesting thing is that at that point everyone was still using cloth napkins. It was very hard to convince people to use paper napkins and that’s why Hudson took these ads to get people to use their product. I’m not sure if they’re still made or not. I could really find anything around. I think the paper company is still around, but I’m not sure they make napkins anymore.

Leigh Rubin: Right.

Steve Silverman: So, do you know why your parents wrote into the show? Do you have any idea?

Leigh Rubin: You know, I was speaking with my brother about this and I think he said it was at the suggestion of my grandfather. You know, my dad’s side, and he suggested writing in and, if this is accurate, he may have helped them write or craft the letter that got them to get. He was a very good writer. I think he graduated from City College of New York. You know magna cum laude and, whatever. He was a smart guy and he suggested that maybe he saw something, a notice in the paper. They must add a TV.

Steve Silverman: Yeah that’s true. Although my grandfather at that time, the one passed away recently, he did have a TV store for a while. You know, people would stand out on the street and watch the TV’s. They’d all gather around the TVs that were in the window of the store and watch it from there because most people didn’t have TVs in their homes. They were very, very expensive.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah. Yeah. In fact, my grandparents lived in Hicksville, New York, and they had one of those, I think was one of those Levittown type homes and the TV was built into the wall. Because I remembered seeing that. It was kind of neat when I was a little kid.

Steve Silverman: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that. So, your mother wrote into the show and do you know what was their rationale for doing? Were they looking for fame, the gifts, or just kind of for fun?

Leigh Rubin: I think it was just for fun. I mean they were pretty cool like that. I mean just as an aside, you know a little bit, kind of a fun adventure and TV was a new thing and my dad was into advertising. And, just as a little bit later, one day in the 50s, after they were married, they both got fired the same day or lost their jobs the same day, I don’t recall and you know what they did? They just went on a road trip and drove to Denver. This is before the early days of the highway system. I think it’s pretty fun. That’s kind of adventurous for back in the day.

Steve Silverman: That’s pretty amazing. I’d be freaking out. You know, what are we going to do for money? You know…

Leigh Rubin: They just figure it out. They didn’t have a ton of money, either. I mean I know that.

Steve Silverman: I know that she mom writes into the show, and I assume that initially there chosen for the show but then they receive a call from the producer and what did the producer say?

Leigh Rubin: Apparently they got a call from the producer of the show and there was some issue about them being Jewish and married on television and my mother had called her rabbi at the time and somehow they worked this out so was, so it became this historical moment in American television where they became the first Jewish couple ever to be married on national television.

Steve Silverman: So I want to play a clip of them getting married on TV. It runs about 3-1/2 minutes or so, which is probably one of the shortest marriage ceremonies ever. And let’s take a listen:

Rabbi: Stanley H. Ruben. Do you of your own free will and consent take Natalie R. Leipmann to be your wife? And do you promise to love, honor, cherish her throughout life? If so, answer yes.

Stan Ruben: Yes.

Rabbi: Natalie R. Leipmann. Do you of your own free will and consent take Stanley H. Ruben to be your husband and do you promise to love, honor, and cherish him through life? If so, answer yes.

Natalie Leipmann: Yes.

Rabbi: Stanley, you will place this ring upon her finger and repeat the words after me. Harei at mekudeshet li

Stan Ruben: Harei at mekudeshet li

Rabbi: b’tabaat zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.

Stan Ruben: b’tabaat zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.

Rabbi: Which means, that by means of that symbolic ring, is she consecrated unto you as your lawfully wedding wife according to the law of Moses and the custom in Israel. And you will place this ring upon his finger and repeat the words after me. Behold

Natalie Leipmann: Behold

Rabbi: By this ring

Natalie Leipmann: By this ring

Rabbi: Art thou consecrated unto me

Natalie Leipmann: Art thou consecrated unto me

Rabbi: As my lawfully wedded husband

Natalie Leipmann: As my lawfully wedded husband

Rabbi: According to the law of Moses and the custom in Israel.

Natalie Leipmann: According to the law of Moses and the custom in Israel.

Rabbi: And now that you have spoken the words and performed the rights which unite your lives, I do hereby in conformity with the faith of Israel and the laws of our state declare your marriage to be valid and binding. And I pronounce you Stanley H. Ruben and you Natalie R. Leipmann, to be husband and wife before God and man and may our heavenly father deny unto you and shelter you in all your ways. [Hebrew prayer] May God bless you and may he keep you. May God call the light of his countenance to shine upon you. May he be gracious unto you. May god lift up the light of his favor upon you and may he grant you peace.

Stan and Natalie Rubin on their wedding day on the set of Bride and Groom on their wedding day.
Stan and Natalie Rubin on their wedding day on the set of Bride and Groom on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy of Leigh Rubin.)

Steve Silverman: My wife said that your parents were both very attractive. They were perfect for TV, but she also noticed, and I actually noticed this also, that your father was the less religious person and your father recited his lines in Hebrew and your mom, who was very religious or brought up to be religious, she saying her lines in English. I thought that was kind of unusual.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah, and it was funny because when my mom did go to temple it was like men on one side and women on the other side. My dad hadn’t, so my dad… Really that’s the only time I can recall him ever seeing him speak Hebrew. So, there you go. It’s kinda funny how that how that worked out.

Steve Silverman: Like when I was bar mitzvahed, everything was in Hebrew, but I had no idea what I was saying and looking back, I wish I did.

Leigh Rubin: I feel exactly the same way.

Steve Silverman: Did they really marry on the show or was this just a reenactment?

Leigh Rubin: No, this was their real marriage. That was it. Right on the show. You watched it and you were there, sort of, you know, 60-odd years later.

Steve Silverman: What was interesting, I thought, was that the radio show was done in California, but this was actually filmed in New York. Am I correct?

Leigh Rubin: That was CBS Studios in New York. Yeah, yeah it is. And thank your wife because they really were a gorgeous couple.

Steve Silverman: It’s odd. I look at pictures of my parents when they were young. I am like wow!, they are pretty good looking. But you know, I only really remember them as being much older and you know time has its now takes its effect on you. It takes its toll on people, you know. On the show, your mother mentioned that she was ill and was in the hospital when your parents met. Do you know what she was ill with?

Leigh Rubin: Wow, I sure don’t. I do not know. I would probably have to ask my brother. I don’t even know if he knows.

Steve Silverman: So let’s listen to a clip where they describe how they met and discuss Natalie’s stay in the hospital.

John Nelson: Tell me just how did this romance begin, Natalie?

Natalie Leipmann: Well, my cousin was overseas with the Signal Corp in Europe during the last war. He sent a snapshot home of himself and his buddy. I remarked in my letter to him about his buddy and several weeks later I received a letter from this boy Stan Rubin who lived in the neighborhood. We corresponded for over a year and he came home.

John Nelson: Stan, I imagine that you were pretty anxious to meet this very pretty Natalie.

Stan Rubin: Yes, I was. When I got home, I did call her up and found she had a steady beau, so she didn’t offer me much encouragement. I finally did get to see her when some friend told me she was ill in hospital.

John Nelson: Oh, my.

Natalie Leipmann: Well, he came to see me and brought me a box of candy and a bouquet of red roses.

John Nelson: Very thoughtful, Stan. Did that create the impression you wanted?

Stan Rubin: Well, I’m afraid not John. She was too ill to eat the candy so I ate it and the flowers gave her rose fever.

Steve Silverman: So, your mom mentioned on the show that she had a cousin who was in World War II overseas and she received a picture from him and there was another guy in the picture who happen to be your dad. Am I understanding that correctly? That’s how they met?

Leigh Rubin: I believe that is correct. I think it was her cousin. I don’t recall his name, but so family legend has it.

Steve Silverman: But she does mention on the show that she had another beau with at time. Do you know if it was a serious relationship or just kind of a boyfriend kind of thing?

Leigh Rubin: Well, I know that before my dad she was, she did date a guy that was in the trucking industry and had, I guess was fairly well off but she just didn’t love the guy so she married for love and not money.

Steve Silverman: That’s good to know. So let’s listen to one more clip from Bride and Groom where they discussed their first date.

John Nelson: Stan, what did you think when you finally saw Natalie in person?

Stan Rubin: I was surprised to see that she had grown up to be such a lovely girl.

John Nelson: And, Natalie how did you feel about Stan?

Natalie Leipmann: Well he was exactly what I expected from his letters. He came to see me all the time that I was ill. When I was better, he took me out on our first date.

John Nelson: And what did you do on his first date?

Natalie Leipmann: We went dancing and I remarked that he was a wonderful dancer. He said that this was due to the fact that he had gone to dancing school when he was a little boy. We compared notes and we found out that we both went to the same dancing school.

John Nelson: You mean you and Stan were friends as children and you had forgotten about him?

Natalie Leipmann: Well, I knew him, but he didn’t know me. He was eleven and he was a big man and I was a little girl, only six at the time. He moved out of the neighborhood and out of my life by four and I was heartbroken.

John Nelson: Oh, my. Would you say that your first date was a success?

Natalie Leipmann: Oh, definitely. I liked him right away.

John Nelson: Did you think he was pretty romantic?

Natalie Leipmann: Well, he didn’t rush me. He was very wonderful and…

John Nelson: What did he do the first evening he said good night?

Natalie Leipmann: Well, he shook hands the first evening, but he kissed me on our second date.

John Nelson: Stan, when did you realize that you are beginning to fall in love with Natalie?

Stan Rubin: I guess it was just after that first date, John. We knew that someday I believe that we would be married.

John Nelson: Natalie do you remember, speaking of being married, what Stan said when he proposed?

Natalie Leipmann: Well, Stan’s a man of action but few words. He didn’t actually propose. He asked my mother if he could marry me. She consented. They chose an engagement ring and, together with his parents, they planned a surprise engagement party, which was exactly what I wanted.

John Nelson: A surprise on you.

Natalie and Stan Rubin on their wedding day. (Image courtesy of Leigh Rubin.)

Steve Silverman: On the show your mom said the of father proposed by asking your grandmother and then arranging a surprise with your dad’s parents, but she doesn’t mention your maternal grandfather. Was he still alive at the time or had he passed on?

Leigh Rubin: He had passed on in 1950.

Steve Silverman: Okay, so he was recently deceased at that point then.

Leigh Rubin: He was, right. Yes. I have heard nothing but great things about him. I have some fantastic from him. He served in World War I and then he worked for customs in New York City for quite a few years. I was I never had a chance to meet him. I did meet my maternal grandmother and both my grandparents on my dad side.

John Nelson: Phil, what’s the name of the love song that’s Natalie and Stan have asked you to sing?

Phil Hanna: John, they’ve asked for new song. One that is most appropriate for this occasion, The Promise of Our Wedding Day.
John Nelson: Now as our bride and groom leave for the ceremony Phil Hanna sings their love song. [Song is played in the audio.]

Steve Silverman: So, the song they chose was The Promise of Our Wedding Day. Not exactly a classic, if you ask me. I don’t ever heard it before or since. Did they really choose that song or was a basically chosen for them?

Leigh Rubin: You know, this is one of those things I have no idea. I’d never heard that song either, before. I have no clue where that came from. Maybe this was a standard thing on Bride and Groom. You know, we know the guy that wrote it. Let’s give him, let’s throw some royalties his way. I have no idea.

Steve Silverman: Yeah, that was kind my impression that every episode they had a new song and they are trying to promote one. Maybe their hope was that one of them would become a hit at some point, you know.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah, get some staff writer in there and make little extra money. I don’t know. You know, I don’t know. It is TV it is, to me, this is… This is what. It’s as real as it gets and their marriage lasted until 2015 when they both passed in 15 toward the end. So, I mean that was a lot better than some of these other more modern TV marriages.

Steve Silverman: Certainly. Well, the interesting thing is that a lot of people went on the show because of the prizes. I mean, they gave everybody a free car, they gave them a honeymoon, they gave them things like refrigerators and stoves and TVs which were brand-new and crazy expensive. So, they were given all these things. I mean, you’re starting out in life you don’t have any of these so it’s a good way to just get going in life. You know.

Leigh Rubin: You know they didn’t get to keep the car. That was used to go to the Grossinger.

Steve Silverman: Wow. You’d never know that from the… I mean I watched a bunch of these besides your parents. You’d never know that. You think they actually won the car.

John Nelson: And then here come our bride and groom. Congratulations Stan.

Stan Rubin: Thank you.

John Nelson: You’re a lovely, lovely bride, Natalie. We have some things we think you like that will make your home a little nicer. When start right out in the kitchen with a wonderful gift, this gleaming and shiny new Tappan gas range. Stan, you won’t have to pick to see what’s cooking because it has the famous window in the oven door and the tell your set time and temperature guide in many other exclusive Tappan features.

Phil Hanna: And for your table, a complete service of four of Gorham Sterling Silver. The Greenbrier pattern that you chose is just one of the many elegant designs created by Gorham since 1831.

John Nelson: I will always travel in style with this nationally famous Samsonite luggage. You’ll find Samsonite as roomy and durable, as well as ultra-smart in appearance.

Phil Hanna: And there’s at least a hundred uses for this Sew-Gem sewing machine which features Suzie, the right-hand miracle stitcher. When friends admire your wardrobe and home accessories, you’ll say thanks to Suzie at Sew-Gem.

John Nelson: And over here a full year’s supply of our sponsor’s four wonderful Hudson napkins. Hudson rainbow napkins to add for colorful notes or a colorful note to your table settings, Hudson guest napkins for special occasions, Hudson Demask napkins for your dressiest parties and the famous Hudson table napkins to keep your family’s close cleaner every day. All four Hudson paper napkins to dress up your table to cut down on your work Natalie.

Phil Hanna: And here is a handsome Spartan stop 17-inch table model television set. And it will bring you many fine hours of entertainment because Spartan stabilized drift lock control assures the clearest, steadiest picture that you’ve ever seen.

John Nelson: And we’ve also planned an exciting honeymoon for you two. One that I just know that you’re going to enjoy and remember always. You’ll drive in a luxury 4-door Pontiac Chieftain to the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York to the Grossinger Hotel and Country Club where you will be guests of owner Jenny Grossinger. This fabulous 700-acre resort has an 18-hole golf course, as well as a tremendous artificial ice-skating rink and there’s an ice carnival every weekend, too. Their world-famous slogan “Grossinger’s has Everything” becomes a reality there with dancing, fishing, boating, riding, tennis, and many other diversions at your disposal. You enjoy hiking and driving through the surrounding Catskill Mountains was splendid fall colors. I know you’ll have a wonderfully happy honeymoon at Grossingers and, as a matter fact, it will be the perfect spot to celebrate your wedding anniversaries in the years to come.

Steve Silverman: Do you know if any the prizes still exist?

Leigh Rubin: Yes, they do. They had this incredibly durable Samsonite card table with the four chairs that you’d see. That green. That 1950s green kind of top on it and those chairs last forever. And, in fact, I think at one point some of the legs became a little wobbly, but it was the typical square folding table and, I mean, we grew up with it and had it. My sister actually may still have that.

Steve Silverman: They were getting Keepsake wedding rings.

John Nelson: These beautiful Keepsake matched wedding rings set to preserve the memory of this very precious moment. Keepsake are yours to cherish as long as the wedding vows are kept.

Steve Silverman: Did they wear them for the remainder of their lives or did they go out and buy new ones?

Leigh Rubin: No, they did and they were real and I’m actually wearing my dad’s wedding ring that is shown in the video. I have it on my right hand.

Steve Silverman: I was trying to figure out from the later news segment as to whether or not they were still the same rings. Because they focused on their hand, you know, they were holding hands and I could see the rings but I couldn’t see clear enough to find out they were the rings from the show. So I guess they were?

Leigh Rubin: Yeah. Yeah. Just a very simple gold band and I’ve always kind of treasured it. I got it, you know my sister was in charge of that and I said, do you mind if I hang onto that. So, I’ve worn it pretty much ever since he passed.

Image Caption: BRIDE AND GROOM… After taking their vows on the “Bride and Groom” television show on C.B.S.-TV, Stanley Rubin (left) and his pretty bride spent their honeymoon at Grossinger’s. Here, the couple accept congratulations from Paul Grossinger. (From the Grossinger News. Image courtesy of Leigh Rubin.)

Steve Silverman: I did notice that their honeymoon was at Grossinger’s Hotel and Country Club, which, oddly, I grew up not too far from that. Now the interesting thing is that I went through a whole bunch of the shows are posted on YouTube and archive.org and no one else was sent to Grossinger’s. They were all sent to the Poconos and places like that. Now Grossingers happened to have been a kosher Jewish hotel. Did your parents choose that or did the producers of the show choose that.

Leigh Rubin: That’s a good question and I’m just going to guess that it had to do that they were Jewish and that was a Jewish one of those places. They make reference to not maybe not Grossinger or maybe maybe they do do Grossinger’s on the Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. You know, where these were because there was obviously anti-Semitism and there was certainly only exclusionary rules that that barred people of color and religion from even going to some of these places, so they started their own. Or, Grossinger did and I know there were other ones. There’s a wonderful documentary on one of these places. I can’t remember the name of it on Amazon now. The last one.

Steve Silverman: Kutshers you’re talking about.

Leigh Rubin: Yes, yes. It was very, really informative.

Steve Silverman: Yeah, I watch that with my wife. I grew probably about 10 miles from Kutshers and I wouldn’t say I had been there a lot. The hotel I went to the most was the Concord hotel, but none of them exist anymore. I mean Kutshers is now shut down. Grossingers recently, in the last year they basically ripped the whole thing down. It was sitting, probably since the mid-1980s, abandoned, which is kind of sad. It was, when you drove into the town to Liberty, New York it’s sat up on this hill. You could see these buildings from miles away and they just, I mean just rotting away. And, it was very sad. There was always talk about them renovating them and reopening the hotel but it just never happened.

Leigh Rubin: Well, it’s a very expensive proposition. But how cool would it be? And it’s nice that there some of it still documented. My dad collected swizzle sticks. And he still he had those and I think my sister has those now from the Grossinger.

Steve Silverman: My brother collects a lot of the old hotel stuff. He still lives down there, so he has more of a connection than I do.

Leigh Rubin: Sure.

Steve Silverman: Did your parents keep kosher or not?

Leigh Rubin: No. No. That was pretty much my great-grandmother on my mom’s side that did that, but no they didn’t. We were typical children of the late 50s into the 60s. Great food though. My mom was a wonderful cook and we, you know that’s when families pretty much eight dinner together.

Steve Silverman: You’re lucky because, I mean I love my mom, but she was the worst cook. She always joked that she could burn water.

Leigh Rubin: I can’t say that about my mom.

Colorized photograph of Stan and Natalie Rubin at CBS Studios on their wedding day.

Steve Silverman: Well, I mean all those hotels are gone and I saw a comment that it was really the three A’s that shut them down: one was aircraft to fly anywhere, you didn’t need to go to the Catskills. The second was air-conditioned. By having air conditioning, you could now go to places you couldn’t before and those hotels certainly weren’t air-conditioned. And the third was that Jewish people just assimilated into society. So, it was aircraft, air conditioning and assimilation that brought the end of the Catskills.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah, probably all the you know the civil rights laws and all that you know people just go where they want to go.

Steve Silverman: Sure.

Leigh Rubin: I mean my parents did drive down to Florida in the 50s and I won’t repeat what the sign said here, but some of them were not very kind to people of color or Jews.

Steve Silverman: So, a news clip was broadcast sixty-three years after their wedding and they died after that within a short period. Were either them ill when there on that show the time?

Leigh Rubin: My mother had COPD. Probably from the Northridge earthquake. Picked up a lot of dust and both of my parents got Valley fever. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Steve Silverman: I’m not.

Leigh Rubin: Yeah, it sucks. It’s a spore. You might want to look that up to see that I’m get that correct, that gets kicked up. It’s in the ground it’s fine, but when it gets kicked up and people bring it in, it gets into your lungs. And it can be deadly. My mom never smoked a day in her life and then she got COPD and, you know, she had to be on oxygen more and more, and toward the end all the time.

Steve Silverman: And how long did she suffer from that?

Leigh Rubin: For quite a few years, but it got progressively worse.

Steve Silverman: Right. Because on the show, on the interview that she did she sounds perfectly fine.

Click on the YouTube video above to watch the interview that the Stan and Natalie Rubin did with Cody Stark in 2014.

Announcer 1: Well, a local couple is remembering their very special wedding ceremony. They tied the knot on a CBS show back in the 50s.

Announcer 2: Cody Stark with their unique nuptials and why the wedding almost didn’t happen.

Cody Stark: You know that couple is see at the mall and they been together forever, but there still holding hands? Well, this is that couple.


Natalie Leipmann (2014): People stop us all the time. They think it’s so cute.

Cody Stark: They were married on the CBS show sixty-three years ago called Bride and Groom hosted by fellow named John Nelson.

John Nelson: Theirs is a romance that is as delightful as a fairytale. And after we’ve heard them tell their story, will be guests at their wedding. And I want to remind you of the fact that all of this is brought to you by my good friends, the makers of these wonderful Hudson paper napkins.

Stan Rubin (2014): The reason we got on the show is that they asked us to write a love story and how you met.

Cody Stark: And how they met was quite a tale. They were introduced by one of his army buddies, which was one of her relatives, but they actually met years before when they were kids.

Natalie Leipmann (1951): We compared notes and we found out that we both went to the same dancing school.

John Nelson (1951): You mean you and Stan were friends as children and had forgotten about it?

Natalie Leipmann (1951): Well, I knew him, but he didn’t know me.

Cody Stark: The thing is, the perfect couple with the perfect story on the wedding show almost didn’t happen and not because they are cold feet, but because they were Jewish. The producers call them at the last minute to tell them.

Stan Rubin (2014): That’s when they said that Jewish people couldn’t be, wouldn’t be allowed on it.

Natalie Leipmann Rubin (2014): Well, my Rabbi pushed for it and got us on the program.

Cody Stark: After the controversy was cleared up, they had a lovely TV wedding, the rabbi, the chuppa, of course a smooch. And don’t forget those lovely parting gifts like a TV and some luggage. The key to such a long and loving relationship can probably be found between Natalie then and now.

Natalie Leipmann (1951): Whatever Stan wants is what I want most. I want to do anything that he wants always.

Natalie Leipmann Rubin (2014): You just agree, don’t argue, just say yes, and then do what you want anyhow.

Announcer (1951): This is the CBS television network.

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

The Coal Mountain Casanova

 

Back in 1952, a man named Jesse L. Garrett of Scott Depot, West Virginia, was watching Groucho Marx on television. The comedian was interviewing a woman who had previously appeared on his show and later married one of the men who had seen her on the air at the time. Garrett said, “I thought if a woman could do it, so could a man.” 

So, in June of 1952 he wrote to the editor of the Rockport Democrat in Indiana and expressed his interest in advertising in the newspaper for a wife. He was very particular in what he was looking for: he expressed a preference for a Midwestern woman, and one who would make for “an intellectual wife, companion and mother of my two sons.” He felt that “A woman from a rural community would be more like my way of thinking.”  

Jesse preferred “a farm woman of good standing… A woman with some financial backing so that life would not be uneven and our social standings would be about the same.” 

He added, “I prefer a woman about 135 pounds, a little more or less, and between the ages of 35 and 45.” He also insisted that she be a good cook. “No others need apply.” 

Garrett explained that he picked the Rockport newspaper for the advertisement because he had once lived there. He was a thin, balding, 49-year-old man who stood 6-feet, 2-inches tall (188 cm) and described himself as “not bad to look at, love any kind of fun, have a fair education and am at home in hogpen or in a mansion’s drawing room.” 

He had left Indiana years earlier. “I hitchhiked out of there one winter day with only 49-cents in my pocket, vowing that I might starve to death, but I wasn’t going to freeze. I headed south, and when I got to Belle and saw the DuPont plant there, I went in, told them I was broke, and they gave me a job.” 

He saved up his money and eventually had enough to open a grocery store on US Route 60 near St. Albans, West Virginia. The store was named after his ex-wife Georgie, who he had recently divorced on March 14, 1951 after 14-years of marriage.  Shortly after the divorce, the store was sold and Jesse Garrett officially became a retired man. 

But he was not without an income or assets. Rentals of houses that he owned provided Jesse with a steady income and he claimed to be worth in excess of $28,000, which would be more than a quarter of a million dollars today when adjusted for inflation. 

As he embarked on this journey to find Ms. Right, Jesse was certain to carry his divorce papers with him to prove to his prospective bride that he wasn’t to blame for the breakup of his first marriage. He insisted that his next wife would need the approval of his two sons, 10-year-old Jimmy and 11-year old Jesse, Jr., for whom he had been granted full custody. They were quoted in the press as stating, “We don’t want a fat mama.” 

Jessie Garrett looking at one his many replies with his sons James, Jr. (left) and Jimmie (right). Image appeared on page 7 of the June 18, 1952 publication of the Salisbury Daily Times.

This story of a hometown boy who made it good was soon making headlines from coast-to-coast. Responses began to pour in. “I received between 3,100 and 3,300 letters, phone calls, and telegrams. A few were from men who wanted me to help them find a wife, but all the rest were from women. I got letters from women in London, Mexico, Guadalcanal, Canada, and about every state in this country.”   

Jesse was shocked by how many lonely women there were. “I had no expectation I would get the response I did. I was dumbfounded and mortified to learn that there were so many women who want husbands.”  

The press caught up with the ex-Mrs. Garrett and she made it clear that Jesse was no bargain, even with all the money that he claimed to have. Georgie didn’t elaborate, but her warning message to all of the women out there was perfectly clear. She did state, “I’m not sure about his exact age.” Noting that he lacked a birth certificate, she added, “I know he was 49 for a year or two while he and I were married.” My calculations indicate that he was really a couple of months shy of his 54th birthday at the time. 

Just for the record, the former Georgie Garrett was 32-years-old, weighed 100 pounds (45 kg) and stood 59-1/2” (151 cm) tall. In other words, the boys didn’t have a fat mama.  

With thousands of women expressing interest in a possible marriage, Jesse began the process of selecting the bride-to-be. He did express disappointment that only one woman from Rockport had contacted him, but she was quickly knocked out of the running. 

“About 65 per cent of them are sincere and the rest are mercenary. I found six of them interesting and am arranging to interview them. I would like to be married in the next three or four days, and I see no reason why I won’t.” 

Many women went out of their way to catch Jesse’s interest. Some sent photographs of themselves in bathing suits, of their children, their homes, their cars, and more. He said that he wasn’t interested in women who sexually teased him or those from Canada who wrote in French. Even a woman worth $2,500,000 didn’t make the cut. 

Here is a sampling of some of the correspondence that he received: 

A woman in Indiana wrote, “I’m babbling like a little, old West Virginia Brook at the thought of marrying you.” Jesse’s sarcastic response was, “I bet she is – what does she know about a West Virginia Brook anyway?” 

“How about letting a Texas gal enter the competition? I assure you that I am no unattractive old hag. I weigh 130 but could reduce some, of course.” 

Another from Indianapolis said, “I was reared on a farm but am citified now. I am a good-looker and I don’t pat myself on the back either.” 

A telegram from Lubbock, Texas was short and to the point. “If decision not made, contact 128-pound vision of loveliness.”  

Then there was a 29-year-old Wisconsin woman who penned, “I know you want a woman who would be responsive to you, gentle yet warm and exciting. Someone who would welcome you with warm lips and arms. You sound like quite a man – six foot two – just right for me as I’m five foot eight. If you’re interested, I’ll come see you on my vacation, the first two weeks in July.” 

Clearly unhappy with some of Jesse’s female specifications, a lady from Minnesota wrote, “Don’t forget, you’re not buying a horse or cow. And listen, boy, you’re no spring chicken yourself. 

Dozens of others who were anxious to meet Jesse called a nearby store, one of the few places with a telephone. About one dozen showed up at the local post office, one woman said that she would be there soon. “I will look for you Saturday, June 28, at 8 p.m. at the O. Henry Inn on Triplett Street. I will be wearing a green dress. You wear a brown suit so I’ll know you.” 

Not all were serious inquiries.  For example, here is one from Cleveland that was “writ by hand” on a paper bag. “I love children if you keep them away from me. I just lost four teeth in front and one of my eyes is crossed, but I can hoe taters, man.” 

Jesse interviewed twenty-six applicants and decided that Mrs. Maxine Berry, a 30-year-old redhead, would make the perfect wife and mother to his children. Unfortunately, she got cold feet and removed her name from his list of possibilities. 

On June 23rd, twelve days after Jesse’s story broke in the national news, date #25 announced that she had accepted Jesse’s proposal of marriage.  She was 33-year-old Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie, who worked in the classified ad department of the Elkhart Truth newspaper.  Mrs. Crosbie said that she had answered Garrett on a dare.   

Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie of Elkhart, Indiana with her daughter Karin on the left and son Quin on the right. Image appeared on page 12 of the June 26, 1952 issue of the Mount Vernon Register News.

Mrs. Crosbie said, “I know how to write a letter. I work on a newspaper and I know you’ve got to sell yourself. I even tore my picture in two. Anything to arouse interest.” She mentioned in the letter that this “is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done.” 

Jesse told the press that prettier women were willing to marry him, “However, she is one of the sweetest and most sincere ladies I’ve ever met. She’ll be a real mother, and that’s what counts.” 

A brunette with hazel eyes, Mrs. Crosbie described herself as “thin, a sort of athletic build, 5 feet 7-½ inches tall, a 27-inch waist, quite good size bust, and small hips.” 

Etta had married her first husband, Rollo M. Crosbie in 1938. Sadly, he passed away on October 6, 1947 at the young age of 33.  She was alone to raise her two children, Quin and Karin, who were aged ten and five, respectively, at the time that she accepted Jesse Garrett’s proposal. 

She said, “The children think it’s fun and trust their mother’s judgment. Those who know me as a serious person cannot understand how I could do a thing like this, but I know it’s right.” 

And, yes, the two Garrett boys had a hand in choosing their soon-to-be stepmother.  “The boys were along when Mr. Garrett visited me a few days ago. I believe they decided I was O.K.”  In other words, Etta wasn’t going to be a fat mama. 

Jesse was quoted as stating, “She’s good looking and smart. She is a good mother, an efficient housewife, and competent in business affairs. She has held a good job as a newspaper ad-taker for eight years. She isn’t mercenary and is not a social climber. She is charming and gracious. She is an all-around good woman, a fine woman for any man to have around the house.” 

Etta R. Crosbie and Jesse L. Garrett with their children: Karin Crosbie (lower Right) and Jimmy Garrett, Quin Crosbie, and Jesse Garrett, Jr. (left to right in the back row). Image from the June 26, 1952 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette on page 30.

The plan was for the two to wed as soon as possible. Garrett said that they had an offer from WFMB, at the time the only television station in Indianapolis, to wed on the air. At first Mrs. Crosbie was game to the televised nuptials, but quickly cooled to the idea. 

The couple arrived at Garrett’s West Virginia home on Wednesday, June 25th. Etta stayed at Jesse’s house that evening while he stayed with friends. 

The issue as to where the couple would ultimately settle popped up quite a bit in the press.  Etta preferred to live in Indiana, stating, “The mountains make me think I’m smothering.” Jesse was initially a bit more open minded, “I could be happy with her no matter where we were,” but seemed to be leaning toward residing in West Virginia. 

On Friday the couple made their way to the Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, West Virginia to get their obligatory blood tests.  After that, they headed to the county courthouse to obtain a marriage license, but several legal difficulties prevented them from doing so. First, Etta was not a resident of the state.  Second, they were told that they would have to wait three days before they could wed. And, finally, they wished to be married by a justice of the peace, which was not permitted under West Virginia law. 

They were thinking of heading to Kentucky to marry, but for some unknown reason that plan fell through.   

Jesse said, “I’m determined to marry that woman if I have to go to the ends of the world.” 

By Tuesday the couple was back in Indiana, attempting to obtain a marriage license in Jeffersonville.  That didn’t work out, so the next day they were back in Rockport, but the county clerk there would not accept their West Virginia blood tests.  

The couple’s next stop was the nearby small town of English. The Justice of the Peace there, George Megenity, was willing to perform the ceremony, mainly because the deputy county clerk had failed to notice that their blood test was from out of state. 

Finally, on Wednesday, July 2, 1952 at 12:45 PM the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Jesse L. Garrett.  The wedding took place at the law office of Henry Mock with Mr. Mock and reporter John M. Flanigan acting as witnesses.  

The bride wore a yellow dress with a floral pattern on it and a white hat, gloves, and shoes. Due to the extreme heat of the day, the groom opted not to wear a jacket, but did put on a tie for the occasion. A five-diamond wedding band sealed the deal as all of the couple’s children looked on. 

From there, the newlyweds and their children left for a short honeymoon in Elkhart. After that, the plan was for them all to head back to the Garrett home in West Virginia.  

Where they were going to live permanently was still undecided.  Mrs. Garrett stated, “I am willing to do what is best for all concerned, but things are too indefinite now. I can’t say where we will live.”  Her new husband said that upon his return back home, “I will either dispose of my property or talk my wife into settling.” 

That was never to happen. One month later, on August 5th, it was revealed in the press that Etta never came back to West Virginia with Jesse. The total length of time that the two were married before they went their separate ways was two days and seven hours. Jesse blamed it on her refusal to move to West Virginia, but, while he never mentioned it, he clearly refused to live in Indiana. 

“I’ll probably divorce Etta. A lawyer friend told me I can go to Florida and get a divorce in six weeks. I might as well. You can’t keep a home going when your wife is 500 miles away.” 

Jesse obtained a lawyer and filed for divorce. Etta, in turn, filed a cross divorce complaint against him. The divorce was granted on March 22, 1953 and Jesse was ordered to pay Etta $40/month alimony.  That would be approximately $380/month today adjusted for inflation. 

From there, it appears that Jesse Garrett’s life seemed to spiral out of control. His supposed life savings seemed to vanish overnight. “The $28,000 just melted away… A whack here and a whack there.” He explained, “The money went quick. First, I spent what cash I had; then I spent what was set aside for my boys’ education; then I sold some notes I had; and I mortgaged my house. Now they’re foreclosing on me.” The reason his home was being foreclosed upon was that he had borrowed $3,500 from a Charleston loan company and was unable to repay the loan.  

On February 26, 1955, Domestic Relations Judge Herbert Richardson found Jesse to be in contempt of a court order by leaving the state without permission, disposing of personal property, and for refusing to make those mandatory $40/month alimony payments. 

As two process servers emerged from the courthouse, they spotted Jesse standing on a corner. Jesse refused to submit to arrest and snatched the handcuffs right out of the arresting officer’s hands. Next thing you know, a wrestling match broke out between the three men.  Two additional officers raced over from the courthouse and ended the scuffle.  As Jesse was being led off to jail, he blurted out, “Call the newspapers; call the newspapers!” 

It’s amazing what a few years can do.  Instead of boasting about what a great catch he was, he was now pointing out how poor and feeble he had become.  “My sister put me in business at Scott Depot. I get $20 a week and room and board for me and my two boys. That woman has an income of $420 a month. She’s 33 years old and I’m 52 and half blind. They want me to pay her $40 a month. I can’t and I won’t. Not a penny!”  

He added, “I guess I’ll just have to get me a couple of pistols and rob a bank somewhere.”   

Jesse stated, “I’ll stay in this jail until the bars rot off. I’m only making $20 a week and can’t afford to pay her.” 

Five days later, he posted bond and was released. His bondsman, Mark Wisman, must have had second thoughts and dropped his surety. Next thing you know, on Sunday March 13th, Jesse was right back in jail.  He was released the next day on a new surety. 

After that, Jesse vanished.  He was due back in court on March 21, 1955, but was a no show. In a registered letter that Jesse sent to the court from Nashville, he stated, “Please postpone my case for 30 days. There is serious illness here.” The judge wasn’t buying it and ordered Garrett’s arrest. Instead, the court was bombarded with letters and postcards that Jesse penned claiming everything from being framed to kidnapping to outright robbery. On September 25, 1955, Judge Richardson declared his bond forfeited and Jesse’s story was dropped from the headlines. I was unable to locate any further information on how this matter was resolved, so if anybody out there knows, please let me know. 

Birth certificate for Jesse Lee Garrett, Jr.

The next time that Jesse would be in the press again was on September 4, 1974, but it had nothing to do with his marriage to Etta Crosbie. This time, Jesse and his son Jesse, Jr. were arrested as part of a drug sting.  Basically, there were two men in Arizona who smuggled marijuana into the United States in 600-pound (272 kg) lots and once it was shipped to the East Coast, the Garretts and others would distribute it to West Virginia and Virginia. Jesse, Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison with just 270 days served and the remainder a combination of a suspended sentence and probation.  As for his dad, he told Judge K. K. Hall, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ll do whatever the district attorney tells me…”  Jesse, Sr. was sentenced to three years’ probation. 

Henrietta “Etta” Rems Crosbie passed away on January 8, 2008. She was 89-years-old. 

Jesse L. Garrett, Sr. passed away on July 15, 1980 at 81 years of age.  He is buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana, the same city in which he was hoping to find Ms. Right. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “We Miss You Dad, Jesse Jim.” 

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

Image of Jesse L. Garrett’s tombstone in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Christmas Time in Santa Heim

 

Years ago while I was a freshman at the University at Buffalo, a few of my friends had a wee bit too much to drink one night and decided to go in search of a Christmas tree for our dorm suite. I awoke the next morning to find what could only be described as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Branches were few and far between, while their tree decorating was exactly what you would expect from a bunch of drunk teenage males. They used toilet paper as a substitute for garland, Playboy pictures hung from the branches, and empty beer cans were used as ornaments. I couldn’t help but laugh every time that I walked by it.

Today my wife and I own enough ornaments to decorate half-a-dozen Christmas trees, yet we only have one. My guess is that we are not alone in that respect, yet historically it was not always that way.

Prior to the late 1800’s, most Christmas trees in the United States were decorated with fruits, nuts, and paper ornaments. The introduction of glass ornaments to tree decorating can be traced back to the early 1800’s when glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany developed reflective panoramic balls intended for window and garden display. By the mid-1800’s, they had created smaller versions designed for use on Christmas trees. These early “kugels” were typically made in the shape of grapes, acorns, and mushrooms and were silvered on the inside with lead or zinc.  These evolved into the shiny, thin glass ornaments that we are so familiar with today.

Yet, these new glass ornaments were slow to catch on. In 1880, a man named Frank Winfield Woolworth – better known to the world as F.W. Woolworth – approached a Philadelphia importer in search of cheap Christmas toys for his newly started business. Instead, the importer showed Woolworth a bunch of colored glass Christmas ornaments that were unlike anything he had ever seen before.  Woolworth told the importer that he wasn’t interested because he was certain that they wouldn’t sell. Not only would no one know what they were, but he was concerned about breakage while being shipped to his store.

The importer made Woolworth a deal that he couldn’t refuse. Not only could Woolworth mark these up high enough to make a handsome profit, he guaranteed that if Woolworth didn’t sell $25 worth, he could get a full refund.  What did he have to lose? Woolworth agreed.

Two days after first placing these ornaments on display in his store, Woolworth had sold his initial inventory out. For the following Christmas, Woolworth ordered a large number of the glass ornaments, but, once again, he sold out. Once Woolworth’s business had grown large enough, he was able to knock out the middleman and import the ornaments directly from Germany. It’s hard to believe that Woolworth’s incredible fortune was largely due to that initial success with glass Christmas ornaments.

Customers shopping at a Woolworth's store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941.
Customers shopping at a Woolworth’s store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941. (Image from the Library of Congress.)

Prior to 1939, an estimated 50- to 80-million ornaments were imported annually to the United States.  The bulk of these were made in Germany and a large percentage of them were sold by Woolworths and similar stores. Then the Second World War broke out and the supply of German Christmas ornaments came to an abrupt halt. It was the perfect opportunity for a new American industry.

Perhaps the man who most benefited from this need for domestically manufactured Christmas ornaments Harry Harrison Heim. Born in Baltimore on March 14, 1883, he made his way west prior to World War I to work as a display manager for the Marston department store in San Diego. The Great Depression forced the closure of a dress shop that he operated there and, in 1932, he relocated back to Baltimore so that a family member could receive medical treatment at Johns Hopkins.  

World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.
World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.

Harry, along with his son Harry, Jr., scraped by doing whatever kind of store and nightclub decorating work they could find. Times were certainly tough.  Then, while working on a Christmas decorating job, he made the serendipitous observation that would forever change his life. It was a simple Christmas decoration that had been made from three brightly colored cellophane straws.  He went home and used that inspiration to create a Japanese-themed Christmas ornament, which proved to be a tremendous success. Then sales came to an abrupt halt in 1938 with the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment.

His company, Santa Novelties, Inc., was on the verge of going under, so Heim looked elsewhere to supplement his sales. He began to focus on the manufacture of hand-blown glass balls. Initial attempts to create the glass ornaments were not successful – in fact, Harry, Jr. was nearly blinded in one factory accident – but soon they were able to get it right.

World War II draft card for Harry Heim.
World War II draft card for Harry Heim. Note that he lists his place of employment as Santa Novelties, Inc at 3900 Lombard Street in Baltimore.

Heim lated stated, “I knew nothing about it. I hired a glass blower and he didn’t know anything either. But we worked at it, and in six months offered our first balls. They were rotten.” He continued, “But we got encouragement because we were on the right track and finally hit the secret.”

He claimed to have been down to his last $50 when a company that was a bit down on its luck when its supply of German-made Christmas decorations dried up came a-knockin’.  F.W. Woolworth placed a very large order for his newly designed Christmas balls and saved Santa Novelties from bankruptcy. The company grew exponentially from that point on.  

Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside.
Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside. Image from the December 1949 issue of Popular Science.

By 1944, his company was producing 12-million Christmas tree balls each year with 90% of its output going to Woolworth’s.  Heim was suddenly rolling in the dough, but was experiencing growing pains. Basically, his business had outgrown the antiquated factory that he operated in a former brewery at 3900 East Lombard Street in Baltimore. He was in need of a larger facility.

That’s when fate stepped in.

About twenty miles northeast of Washington, D.C., lies the small town of Savage, Maryland. For nearly 200 years, this quaint village was home to the Savage Manufacturing Company.  They produced cotton duck, which is basically a heavy-duty canvas. Nearly all of what the company produced was sold to other manufacturers to turn into a finished product, whether that be as sailcloth for ships, coverings for fire hoses, or canvas for conveyor belts. World War II had been an incredibly prosperous time for the company, but they were unable to operate at a profit once the war had ended. On September 5, 1947, it was announced that the Savage Manufacturing Company was to permanently shut down.

Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant.
Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant that appeared on page 29 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 22, 1947.

This was devastating news for the residents of Savage. Not only did more than 350 of its employees live in Savage, but the company literally owned the town. Half of the homes in the town were owned and operated by the mill.  The company provided the electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection, police and fire protection, and operated both the town’s grocery and dry goods store. Savage was the ultimate company town. Without the company, one wondered what would happen to the town.

This is where Harry Heim entered the picture. He was in need of a larger manufacturing facility and here was the perfect business opportunity. In December 1947, Heim purchased the entire town – that included nearly 500 acres of land, the old cotton duck mill, 175 homes ranging in age of between 15 and 150-years old, and everything else that came along with it. The purchase price was a cool $450,000 (approximately $4.6-million today).

Heim made immediate plans to rehabilitate the town. Not only did this include moving his ever-growing business into the old mill, but he planned to transform Savage to make it look like a quintessential 19th-century town. About sixty of the homes were sold to their occupants at below market prices, while the remainder were to be fitted with modern kitchens and bathrooms, which many still lacked.

Yet, Heim had even grander plans for Savage. With a bit of Walt Disney imagination, he planned to turn the entire town into a permanent Christmas town.  It would be the biggest and best Christmas-themed destination in the entire United States.

“In this tract I’ll build a big Christmas Castle right in the center, cutting down only what trees are necessary.” He added, “I’ll erect scenes depicting nursery rhymes with life-size figures. All around the trees will be trimmed and lighted.”

He had one year to make this all happen. “I’ll cut roads in and out so the people can drive right through and maybe they’ll even be a miniature railroad to carry the children. For about six weeks every year it will be Christmas there.” He continued, “Many of the quaint houses will be freshened up and furnished with Christmas decorations and gardens.”

A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947.
A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947. (Baltimore Evening Sun, December 22, 1947, page 29.)

Six months later all of the old machinery from the mill was gone. Harry, Jr. was in charge of setting up the new manufacturing facility as the firm’s tractor trailers hauled in equipment day-after-day. Three buses drove workers back and forth to Baltimore as construction workers rehabilitated the town. Tourists began to trickle through Savage just to see what was happening. There was a sense of resurgence in the air as this old mill town was brought back to life.

Of course, Savage is not a very good name for a Christmas town, so Harry Heim had a better idea. You’re probably thinking something like Santaland or Christmas Village or something along those lines. Nope.  He renamed it after himself: Santa Heim. Harry explained that it made perfect sense, since Heim means home in German. This would be Santa’s home away from home. For two weeks out of every year, Santa would spend his time away from the North Pole in Santa Heim.  Santa Heim, Maryland. No that’s not good enough. He changed it to Santa Heim, Merryland.

And then the big day came: Santa Heim officially opened to the public on Saturday, December 11, 1948. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people were in attendance when Maryland Governor William Preston Lane officially dedicated the town to Christmas.

It was quite the site to see. An estimated 28,000 colored lights twinkled along the streets as speakers all around town played Christmas carols. All of the homes were decorated for Christmas, while a 20-foot (6-meter) tall illuminated star shined from atop the Christmas Heim ornament factory.

Santa arrived by helicopter and then boarded his sleigh that was pulled by live reindeer. Three trains coined the “Santa Heim Special” brought visitors in from Baltimore and Washington, DC. A replica of the Tom Thumb, the first commercial American locomotive ever, pulled thousands of children around the town on a miniature train. A circus tent was fill with life-size animated animals, while reindeer pens were set up near the town’s Baldwin Memorial Hall.  Inside that building one could find the obligatory gift shop.

Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right.
Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right. Image appeared in the December 20, 1948 issue of the Wilmington Daily News-Journal on page 8.

The 100-year-old post office was decked out in a fresh coat of red-and-white paint. Outside stood 10-foot (3-meter) tall candy canes. Thousands of letters poured in for Santa Claus from all over the country.  Here is a sampling of what the children had to say:

A girl named Judy wrote: “Dear Santa: I think you are a nice man. Will you please come and see me soon and bring me a bride doll with a husband, and anything else you can spare? Thank you.”

A really odd one came from a boy named Joe who wanted “a two-wheeler –  also a bale of hay.”

Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive.
Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive. Image appeared in the December 12, 1948 publication of the Baltimore Sun on page 32.

Then there was a boy from Texas who requested a “pair of pants and a washing machine –  and maybe an electric iron.” I think mom may have been looking over his shoulder as he penned that letter.

Another boy wrote, “My dad is sick and my mother can’t leave to get my ‘presidents [sic].’  All I will get is from the school and the Scouts  and the neibors [sic]. Wish I could get more, but know you are busy.”

A girl named Aletha was a bit demanding when she told Santa to drop his bag of toys “this minute” and come running to help her do her homework. “I don’t want anything else.”

Lastly, a girl wrote, “This is the last letter you will resive [sic] from me if you do not leave me a doll carpet sweeper. This is final. I love you and why don’t you love me?”  With that kind of attitude I am hoping that no one ever got her that doll carpet sweeper.

Overall, the opening of Christmas Heim was a phenomenal success. Even before Santa Heim closed for the season, Harry Heim was making plans for the following year. He envisioned the construction of what he called a ‘Crazy Town’, complete with the crooked roofs that you see illustrated in nursery rhymes.

After that first season, things did not go smoothly for Santa Heim. In April, Harry Heim was indicted for tax evasion. Basically, while filing its 1947 taxes, Heim’s company Santa Novelties requested a refund on taxes paid in 1946. The problem was that no taxes were ever paid.  Even worse, while the State of Maryland was investigating, they determined that Heim himself had paid no taxes on his 1947 income of $31,200. In the end, the judge fined Heim $100 after he paid the back taxes with interest. It was concluded that Santa Novelties had grown so fast – from $61,000 in sales in 1943 to $1,659,000 in 1948 – that the payment of taxes had been overlooked in all of the confusion.

Next, when Santa Heim reopened for the 1949 season, thousands of people showed up on that first Sunday to find the place closed by authorities. Santa Heim was found to be in violation of the county’s 1723 Blue Law preventing shows on Sundays. Oddly, the law had been modified at one point to allow movie theaters to operate on Sunday, but most other forms of entertainment were not permitted.

Shutting Santa down is not a good thing to do and the public clearly was not happy. Here are two letters to the editor that appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun:

The first was penned by James Woods of Baltimore – “ I just read the article ‘Santa’s Blue Laws Thwart Santa.’  Things certainly are in a fine mess. I guess you’re supposed to be ignorant enough to think the movies, bars, sports centers and the Colts and Orioles are necessary work.  Isn’t it just a little more important, especially at this time of the year, that our children have a place like Santa Heim in which to enjoy themselves? I think it’s time for us to see what the political angle is on the Maryland blue laws. The blue laws should be enforced in full or written off the books.”

Next up is a letter written by Gladys Stewart of Glen Burnie –  “These children believe in an old tradition – Santa Claus. They are eager in their youth to learn about this old gentleman with the white whiskers, red nose and jolly face. We can’t deny them their belief. Couldn’t we overlook this law –  just for the Christmas season?”

This Sunday operation ban didn’t last long. On December 8, 1949, the State attorney for Howard county,  Daniel M. Murray, Jr., ruled that Santa Heim could reopen on Sundays as long as all the proceeds were donated to charity. Assuming that most of Santa Heim’s business was done on weekends, this had to have made a huge dent in its overall profitability.

One-year later, December 8, 1950, proved to be another big setback for Santa Heim. The fire marshal shut down its Christmas Carnival – the one with all of the animals and animatronics – after it was determined that one of the tents was a fire hazard. 70% of the material that the tent was made of was considered to be highly flammable, while dangerous wiring was exposed throughout the exhibit.  They quickly resolved this by covering the walls with a fireproof lining and removing the dangerous wiring and the tent was allowed to reopen two days later.

Advertisement for Santa Heim from 1950.
Advertisement for Santa Heim that appeared on page 46 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 1, 1950.

Santa Heim limped through that third season, but it was never to reopen.  Harry Heim had overextended himself and the checks began to bounce. The war was over and the retailers went elsewhere to get cheaper stock for their stores. Soon Harry’s pockets were empty and both Santa Heim and his Santa Novelties business were gone.

The factory closed on March 27, 1951. Everything in the town was sold off including all of the homes, the machinery used to make the ornaments, and the manufacturing plant itself. Today the factory is the home to the historic Savage Mill complex of shops and eateries.

The loss of Santa Heim and his business must have come as quite a blow to the man who had the honor of decorating the Christmas tree on the White House lawn in 1949.  Harry Heim passed away on February 1, 1953 at the age of 69. The papers said that he died of a heart attack, but one can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t from a broken heart.  He had tried so hard to bring the joy of Christmas to so many children.

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

The Walking Murphys

 

The school district that I teach in recently asked me present a teacher training seminar on the best health and wellness apps that are out there. I spoke to a number of colleagues and installed the best of them on my phone.

So, two weekends ago, my wife and I were up in Warrensburg, NY, which is just a bit north of Lake George, for their annual town-wide garage sale, which they bill as the world’s largest. We go every year, mainly for the exercise, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give these various apps a test. I turned each one of them on as soon as I exited our car and we then proceeded to walk up and down the various side streets for hours.

When we were done for the day, I stopped each of the apps. At least that was what I had thought I had done. When we returned home, I realized that one of the apps kept running and recorded a walk in excess of 50 miles, 46 of which were done while seated in a car…

Well, today I have for you another story about walking that begins with someone riding in a car. During the morning of December 28, 1951, Mr. and Mrs. J. Warren Poley, Jr. and their daughter Donna, who resided at 1525 College Avenue in Trappe, Pennsylvania, decided to hop in the car and drive to nearby Norristown. The total distance is approximately a 12-mile (19.3 km) drive southeast along Route 422. As they left their home, they would first pass through the towns of Collegeville and then Tropper before reaching Norristown. So, basically, they drove from Trappe, through Collegeville, through Trooper and finally ended in Norristown.

It was in Trooper at 9:30 AM that Mrs. Poley first took notice of a family walking in the opposite direction of their travel. The family, which consisted of a father, mother, and two small children, appeared to be down on their luck. Later, as they drove home, the Poleys once again passed the family, who were now walking through Collegeville. A short time later, Mrs. Poley went for a short drive and again passed the plodding family. Seeing these poor people three times in such a short period of time just tore at Mrs. Poley’s heart.

Upon returning to her residence, she told her husband that they needed to do something. “Those people are in trouble. I think they need help and I think we should do something about it.”

Next thing you know, Mr. Poley is driving in his car searching for the family of strangers. He didn’t have to go very far. He found them walking in front of the nearby grade school. Mr. Poley invited the family to dinner and they graciously accepted.

It was during that turkey meal that the sad story of this wandering family – that’s dad Robert Murphy, his wife Jean, three-year old daughter Jean, and two-year old son Robert, Jr. – began to be told.

Mr. Murphy explained that they had lived in Topeka, Kansas for the past six years and that their home had been destroyed by the raging floods that had recently swept through the region. They lost everything including their home and nearly all of their worldly belongings.

With no place to live, they made the decision to make their way to the home of Jean Murphy’s mom in Philadelphia. Without any money or modern mode of transportation, they were forced to make the approximately 1,200-mile (1,930 km) trek on foot. It took them 44 days to make the journey, arriving at her mom’s house on Christmas Eve. Call her Scrooge or whatever choice words you may have, but for some unknown reason she refused to let her daughter’s family stay with her.

Although he was a veteran of World War II and an electrician by trade, Robert Murphy was unable to secure work or find suitable lodging in Philadelphia. As a result, the Murphys became discouraged and began the long walk back to Kansas. It was while they were on this return trip that the Poleys saw the Murphys and invited them to dinner.

For a family that had suffered so much, they were in surprisingly good shape. They certainly had weather-beaten complexions, but they were well-dressed for the weather. Supposedly a wealthy man in Ohio had been very generous and provided each with warm clothes, gloves and boots. After bundling themselves back up, the Murphys said goodbye to the Poleys and continued on their journey back to Kansas.

Clearly, Mrs. Poley was a kind and warm-hearted person who generously opened her home up to strangers in need. But she felt the need to do more. After they left, she contacted the police and then local radio station WPAZ in Pottstown learned of their hardship and broadcast an appeal to the community for assistance. It wasn’t long before furniture, food, clothing, and money began to pour in.

None, however, were more generous than Raymond F. Kulp, an employee of the East Greenville Sanitary Company. Mr. Kulp owned a 72-acre farm nearby on Route 663 between New Hanover and Pennsburg. When he learned of the family’s plight, he immediately called the Pottstown Mercury newspaper and offered Robert Murphy a job on his farm. Not only that, but since his eight room farmhouse only housed his family of four – that’s Mr Kulp, his wife and their two sons – the Murphys were welcome to occupy four of the rooms.

Mr. Kulp stated, “We know what it is to have troubles.” He added, “When they arrive here, there will be a lot of surprises. People have been very good to them. They are donating household furnishings and food. One woman is sending a lot of canned goods. We had some furniture that we were going to leave in their part of the house. But guess they’ll have almost enough now. People have been so kind and offering them furnishings and help of any kind.”

Through the airing of their plight, Mrs. Poley learned that others had previously offered the Murphy family assistance.

Two days earlier – Wednesday night – the Murphys had been provided with a place to sleep by the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. By Thursday night they were staying at another Salvation Army facility in Norristown. They left that shelter right after breakfast.

By Friday morning, shortly before they were to be sighted by the Poleys, the Murphys were treated to breakfast by Ralph K. Harner, who was the chief of police in nearby West Norriton.

Harner told the press, “They weren’t hitch hiking when I saw them. They were just walking pathetically along the pavement. I took them to the state public assistance office in Norristown, and left them there while I went to court. When I returned, they had gone. The girl who interviewed them told me that aid wouldn’t be available for several days until they proved their identity – so they started out again on foot.”

He continued, “Mr. Murphy told the girl that he lost all his identification papers in the flood – including his service records. I wanted to give them $10 on my return from, but they were gone. It’s a strange heart-tuggin’ sight to see them trudging along. I think they’ll get plenty of rides along the way.”

It seemed like everyone was offering some sort of assistance, but there was one big problem. The Walking Murphys, as the press was now referring to them as, were long gone. Police were asked to watch for the family.

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout for:

Robert Murphy – the father. He is described as being a tall, slender man with thick, dark hair highlighted with greying streaks. He is dressed in a faded suit, a dark sports shirt, a blue woolen mackinaw jacket, and black buckle galoshes.

Jean Murphy, the mother. Short in stature, heavyset, with a round face. She is dressed in a cotton dress and plain coat. A vari-colored bandana covers her head.

Their son Robert, Jr. is dressed in a woolen coat and a knit woolen cap, while their daughter Jean is kept warm by a woolen snow suit and a bandana.

Where were the Murphy’s?

Luckily, it didn’t take long to find them. On Sunday, December 30th a passing motorist was listened to radio station WHLM and heard the appeal to help locate the family. He spotted the Murphys walking in Williamsport, which is about 150-miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Mrs. Poley’s home, and he let them know about Mr. Kulp’s generous job/home offer. With everything that they owned being carried in two beat up suitcases and just 30-cents to their name, this news couldn’t have come at a better time.

This was the perfect feel-good story and, as you can imagine, it quickly broke nationwide. In an interview with the United Press, Robert Murphy said, “I’m so happy I can’t talk. We just had another disappointment last night. Someone told me I might get a job here, but it didn’t go through, and it took hours to get shelter for the night.”

Jean Murphy added, “It’s wonderful news. We were beginning to think no one cared what happened to us. Does someone really want us?” She continued, “That’s the way it was on our trip East. Only the people who had a lot of trouble themselves understood and helped us. I guess that’s how it always is.”

Of course, one has to wonder how the Murphys ended up in such dire straits. As the story broke nationally, members of the local press started doing some digging. As the reporters poked around into the Murphys’ past, they were left with far more questions than they had answers.

For example, they learned from Captain Newton McClements at the Salvation Army in Norristown that he had given Robert Murphy $2.50 (approximately $25.00 today) to cover train fare to Philadelphia.

Huh? What? They supposedly had just traveled from Philadelphia so why would they need train fare to go back?

Next, Murphy said that he had applied for Red Cross aid shortly after the flood had destroyed their nine-room home in Kansas. A check with the director of the midwestern office of the Red Cross, Robert Edson, could find no record of a Robert Murphy ever applying for aid either during or after the flood.

Then, during a radio interview on December 31, 1951, Mr. Murphy mentioned that he had studied to be an electrical engineer at the University of Kansas. Under re-questioning he changed his alma mater to Kansas State. Maybe that was just an error on his part, but local reporters were starting to think that the details of his story just didn’t add up.

During an interview with the Murphy’s at the Kulp farmhouse, WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr decided that it was time to ask the Murphys about the inconsistencies in their story and find out what was really true.

It turns out that none of it was. It was all one big lie.

The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.
The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.  That’s daughter Jean on his lap,  dad Robert on the left and mom Jean holding Robert, Jr. on the left.  (Image appeared on page 2 of the Akron Beacon Journal on January 2, 1952,)

They had never lost everything that they had owned in the Kansas floods. In fact, they had never lived there at all. The family started telling the Kansas flood story the previous August, but had received no public attention until Mrs. Poley befriended them. They would simply move from town to town telling their fictitious tale, maybe get a meal, some lodging, and a few bucks before moving on to the next town.

Not only had they not been in Kansas, they weren’t the Murphys. They were the Lillibridges. Dad was Robert Roy Lillibridge, who was born on December 9, 1911 in Baltimore, Maryland. Mom was Philadelphia native Jean McGlinchey. They had been married during the war and it was the second marriage for both. Why the name Murphy? It was Jean’s last name from her first marriage.

Nearly all of what Robert Lillibridge initially told the press proved to be fictitious. He was not a decorated World War II veteran. Instead, he had served in the Merchant Marine assisting with the war effort.

And what about his electrical engineering studies at the University of Kansas or Kansas State? His education ended in the eighth grade.

Once the hoax had been exposed, both Lillibridge and his wife admitted that they had been in prison one time each, but never elaborated on what the charges were.

Lillibridge said, “I am sorry about the whole thing. We intended to settle down here. Pottstown was the only place where people were really concerned about us.” He added, “I’ll tell the kids that we just forgot to take the stuff with us.”

Since there was no crime committed, after questioning, the Lillibridges were released by authorities and were once again back on the road. Behind them they left all of the money, clothing, food, and gifts that the people of Pottstown and the rest of the nation had donated to help them.

Mr. Kulp, whose offer of his home and a job went above and beyond what most people would do, offered up the following words: “We tried to do the right thing.” He added, “We feel awful. We opened our hearts and home to them and we thought they were good people. A lot of other people believed their story too. I don’t know what to say except that I pity their little children who are innocent.”

Letters written by readers to the Pottstown Mercury weren’t as kind:

“That so-called Murphy family should never have been brought back to Pottstown. It is such irresponsibility which weakens public faith in our community leaders.” (Mrs. Anne R.)

“It is hard to believe that residents in and around Pottstown would go so far out of their way to help the “Walking Murphys” when they don’t adequately take care of their own.” (Harold B. P.)

“It is unfortunate that people with so much charity in their hearts should be ‘taken in.’ I would like to say to them: Don’t be disillusioned, for every four deceitful people in this world there are four thousand honest ones. The Misfortune you have suffered should not deter you from lending a helping hand again.” (Mrs. Ruth S. W.)

“I think Fred Selby and the others of The Mercury should be congratulated for the wonderful job they have done with the so-called “Walking Murphys”. The two children are to be pitied. But as for him and her, walking is too good for them.” (Mrs. H. M.)

By the time that these and other letters had been published, the Lillibridge family had disappeared from the scene. Where they came from and to where they went is difficult to piece together, but here is what I learned, particularly regarding Robert Lillibridge:

On Tuesday, July 13, 1937, a then 25-year-old Lillibridge was found by a plant watchman in North Camden, New Jersey after he claimed to have leaped from a bridge into the Delaware River in an attempt to end his life. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and given a suspended sentence. When asked by the prosecutor as to why he jumped, he replied, “I had an argument with my girlfriend.” He added, “As soon as I touched the water I knew I had made a mistake and prayed that I might have the strength to get to shore.”

On November 29th Lillibridge jumped off that same bridge a second time. While no one was witness to the jump, police found his sweater with three notes pinned to it hanging from the bridge railing. One of the notes said that he had “played the game of love twice with the same girl and he lost both times.” Another, addressed to a cousin in Baltimore, stated that when he received “this note he would be at the bottom of the river.” After a thorough search of the water by harbor police, no body was found.

His girlfriend was identified as Dorothy Huntingdon who was living at 2046 Martha Street in Philadelphia at the time. When questioned, she said that the two had a bit of an argument over her seeing another male friend. When Lillibridge left her home he seemed a bit down but never mentioned anything about committing suicide.

Four days later Lillibridge walked into a newspaper office in Philadelphia and surrendered. Once again, he claimed to have changed his mind as fell toward the water surface, swam to shore, and then hitchhiked to New York City.

These two jumps were treated as the real deal when they happened, but the lies that he told many years later as one of the Walking Murphys questions whether he ever really hit the water or was simply making it all up to draw attention to himself.

He may not have been wanted by his girlfriend Dorothy, but the Secret Service certainly did. After reading about his two suicide attempts, they issued a warrant that charged him with stealing and cashing in a WPA check that had been stolen from his roommate Alec Wood the previous February.

On September 17, 1943, he was in trouble with the law again on . This time the now 31-year-old Lillibridge was picked up for impersonating a member of the armed forces. Dressed in the same military garb that he had been arrested in, he testified that he had purchased the uniform so that he could re-enlist in the Army.

Wait! Didn’t he claim years later that he was in the Merchant Marine?

Just what is the truth and what are lies here? It really is hard to know because Lillibridge seemed to blur the lines between the two all of the time.

As for their Kansas flood hoax, it wasn’t the first time that they had attempted this.

The March 11, 1950 issue of the New York Daily News features a photograph of Robert Lillibridge, his wife Jean, 20-month old daughter Jean, and six-week old Robert, Jr. sitting in the Newark, New Jersey police headquarters. They may have used their real names this time, but the rest of their story has a familiar ring to it:

38-year-old Robert Lillibridge was an Air Force veteran who flew fifty-seven missions in the South Pacific which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The text said that on March 4th, the six-family apartment house that they lived in down in Baltimore had burned to the ground. They lost everything including $150 that they had saved up in cash. All their belongings fit into two small bags.

Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children.
Photograph of Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children Jean and Robert, Jr.  Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on March 11, 1950.

Robert Lillibridge said that his brother James invited them to come stay with him at his home in Newark, but supposedly Jim never gave him the address. They walked all the way to New Jersey and had just 5-cents in their pocket when they made their way to the Newark police department for help. Police searched for the missing brother, but – this should come as no surprise – they could not locate him.

Two weeks later they were in the newspaper again. They had somehow found their way approximately 350-miles (560 km) northwest to Bradford, Pennsylvania and told the same hard luck story. The Salvation Army there fed the family, provided them with lodging, and paid for them to take a bus to Union City, Pennsylvania. There they hoped to hook up with an uncle named Lyle Lillibridge.

In November, 1951, the Murphy-Lillibridges walked into a restaurant in Everett, Pennsylvania that was owned by Mrs. Carma Winck. They told the same sad story about how the floods in Kansas had wiped away all that they owned. Mrs. Winck felt sorry for the fairly and provided them with a place to stay for several days. As they departed, the Everett Ministerial Association purchased bus tickets to Raleigh, North Carolina because they had relatives there who could help them.

Once they arrived in Raleigh, they headed about 40-miles (about 65 km) northwest to Efland, North Carolina. In a letter published by the Pottstown Mercury a couple of months after the hoax was revealed, Reverend James Johnson wrote the following:

“A month or two ago my wife and myself picked up four people and brought them to our house and gave them their dinner. They said that they had lost everything that they had in a flood in Topeka, Kansas and was going to Mobile, Alabama to his brother’s home.”

“He said that he was an electrician and his story seemed to be true. So after dinner I carried them in my car to a church 15 miles from here and told the story to the pastor of the church. He made up an offering of $36.00 and I carried them to the bus station and bought them two tickets to Mobile, Alabama.”

“I am almost sure that the people described in the newspaper clipping which I have enclosed are the same ones that we picked up. I now know why he did not want their picture taken. I have a friend in Norfolk, Virginia that picked them up and helped them too.”

Okay. So they had pulled this hoax or something similar to it many times before. But surely they wouldn’t do it again now they had been caught and the story was in the press nationwide.

They clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

On the evening of Monday, December 20, 1954, which is nearly three years after Mrs. Poley invited the so-called Murphys to dinner, it was reported that police in Youngstown, Ohio had picked up the Lillibridge family after they had been caught trying to thumb a ride on the outskirts of town.

The Lillibridges had quite the story to tell. They had been hitchhiking because their home in San Diego, California had burned to the ground. The family had been on the road for the past 105 days and were headed to Van Buren, Maine where wife Jean had an uncle.

The kindly policemen reached in their pockets and provided the Lillibridges with money and arranged for food to be brought into the station for the hungry family. The Salvation Army provided them with a place to stay for the evening. The next morning the police provided them with a road map and the Lillibridges were once again back on the road.

When the story of their generosity hit the local newspapers, the police realized that they had been had. One man said that he had picked up a family of the same description in nearby Hubbard, Ohio three days prior and provided them with assistance. The father, who can be presumed to Robert Lillibridge, told the kind gentleman that their home in Maine had burned and that they were headed to California. Another man said he had provided the family with a place to stay and $100. And finally, a woman said that she had seen the family in Canfield, Ohio two-years earlier. That time the Lillibridges claimed that their home in Florida had burned and that they were making their way to Kansas.

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

Mile-A-Minute Murphy

 
Useless Information Podcast

In the 1890’s, Charles M. Murphy was determined to ride a bicycle at 60 miles-per-hour by riding in the slipstream of the fastest locomotives of his day. It took him years to find a railroad willing to let him give it a try, and once he did, he was in for a painful ride that burned holes right through his clothing.

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The Man Who Gave Away His Birthday

 
Useless Information Podcast

When author Robert Louis Stevenson learned that young Vermont native Annie Ide hated her Christmas birthday, he decided to deed his own birthday to her. Listen to this episode to learn how she celebrated her new birthday and what happened after she died.

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World’s First Commercial Airline

 

The idea for the first heavier-than-air commercial airline came from the mind of Percival Elliott Fansler. Fansler was the sales manager for the Jacksonville branch of a tractor company when he came across an article describing a 1912 long-distance flight from Omaha to New Orleans. In the story, the airplane’s designer, Thomas W. Benoist, discussed the potential costs of carrying packages, mail, and passengers.

Thomas W. Benoist
This image of Thomas Wesley Benoist appears on the website airandspacemuseum.org.

Fansler noted that the numbers that Benoist was quoting were very competitive with the rates that railroads were charging and decided to contact Benoist to discuss the possibility of setting up a scheduled airline service. The two men got together and decided that there needed to be “a real commercial line from somewhere to somewhere else.”

And just where would that somewhere and somewhere else be? Well, Fansler had the answer. St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The two cities are fairly close to one another, but since St. Petersburg sits on a peninsula located between Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico, travel between the two locales in the early part of the twentieth century took quite some time. Your best bet would have been a 2-hour steamboat ride across the bay or a 5-hour trip by train. With automobiles still in their infancy, a trip by car on primitive roads was estimated to take nearly an entire day. But what if you could fly across the channel in far less time?

Together, these two aviation pioneers started the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The City of St. Petersburg agreed to contribute $40 per day for a period of three months as long as the airline flew two flights every weekday, whether they had a paid passenger or not. The contract with the city was signed on December 17, 1913, which just happened to be the 10th anniversary of the Wright brothers historic flight.

St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Ad
This advertisement for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Benoist hired flight pioneer Tony Jannus to pilot the plane across the bay. An auction was then held for the first round-trip ticket and the winner was former St. Petersburg mayor Abram C. Pheil. He paid $400 (approximately $9,700 adjusted for inflation) for the privilege of becoming the first paid commercial flight passenger.

Word quickly spread of the planned flight and on the morning of January 1, 1914 a crowd of more than 3,000 people gathered on the beach in St. Petersburg – near the present location of the St. Petersburg Museum of History – and watched the inaugural flight of the newly formed airline.

The 21-mile (34-kilometer) flight took 23-minutes, but was not without its hiccups. First, the plane never lifted more than 50-feet (15.2 meters) above the water surface. More significantly, the engine chain slipped off of the propeller shaft and Tony Jannus had to set the plane down on the water. Both pilot and passenger rolled up their sleeves and fixed the engine so that they could complete the flight.

Tony Jannus and Albert Perry
Tony Jannus (left) made history on March 1, 1912 when he piloted Albert Berry to make the first parachute jump from an airplane ever. The parachute is in the conical shaped container under the plane.

The next day, Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa, became the first woman to take a commercial flight. The cost for a one-way ticket was $5.00 ($122 today) and they sold out 16-weeks of flights almost immediately. It was so successful that a second plane was added, piloted by Tony Jannus’ brother Roger, and they extended some of the flights to Sarasota.

Mae Peabody and Tony Jannus
The first woman to buy a ticket on an airplane was Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa. She can be seen here with pilot Tony Jannus.

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line continued operation until May 5th. During the four months that the airline was in business, they made 172 flights carrying a total of 1,205 passengers. 86% of its scheduled flights were completed with an estimated 90% of the flights paid for. Service ended due to two factors: First, all of the snow bunnies headed back north for the summer and demand for flights dropped off significantly. And, since the city’s funding had expired, running the airline was no longer profitable. While the airline was dissolved, it did prove for the first time that airline service could be practical, reliable, and, most importantly, safe.

Nearly all of those involved met untimely deaths within a short period after this historic flight:

• Pilot Tony Jannus was killed on October 12, 1916 while training two Russian pilots and crashing into the Black Sea.

• His brother Roger was killed while flying an air patrol over France on September 4, 1918.

• Airplane designer Benoist died on June 14, 1917 when he stepped off of a streetcar in Sandusky, Ohio and struck his head against a utility pole.

• As for the historic plane that he designed, it didn’t last much longer. It was sold off and was destroyed after crashing into Pennsylvania’s Conneaut Lake.

• Passenger Pheil succumbed to cancer at age 55 on November 1, 1922.

• The man who thought up the idea of a commercial airline – Percival Fansler – practiced as an engineer for multiple companies before becoming the editor of a technical journal in New York City. He died in 1937 at 56-years of age.

Tony Jannus with Percy E. Fansler
Tony Jannus (left) with Percy E. Fansler just before their historic flight. Image from floridamemory.com

The First Transatlantic Airplane Race

 
Useless Information Podcast

 In May of 1929, Old Orchard Beach in Maine was the site for an airplane race that pitted the smaller, more nimble American Green Flash against larger, more powerful French Yellow Bird. Anticipation mounted for weeks as the two planes attempted to get off the ground. 

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Elixir of Death

 
Useless Information Podcast

 

Sulfanilamide was considered a miracle drug when it was introduced in the mid-1930’s.  The S.E. Massengill Co. was the first to introduce sulfanilamide in a liquid form, but in their race to get it to market they never bothered to test the safety of the drug.  Within a few weeks, the AMA was notified of the deaths of six children within a ten day period, all of whom had consumed the elixir.  The FDA was contacted, but was basically powerless to do anything about it. Continue Reading

Le Mars Trilogy: Part 2 – Farmers in Revolt

 
Useless Information Podcast
The Great Depression was an awful time for farmers in Iowa. It culminated with the near hanging of a judge in Le Mars. It just happens that the farm involved was owned by the T.M. Zink estate, the same man who left his savings for the establishment of a womanless library. Continue Reading

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

 
Useless Information Podcast

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman in United States history to have been awarded the Medal of Honor, only to have it rescinded later in her life. Some would argue that she was way ahead of her time, while others see her as a crackpot. Continue Reading