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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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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

 

Millionaire for a Day

Useless Information Podcast

Back in 1911, Wilkes-Barre, PA resident John Jay “Butch” McDevitt won the Democratic Primary for county treasurer. The only problem was that the Democratic Committee didn’t want McDevitt on the ballot. Find out how the party got rid of him and how he capitalized on this for the rest of his life.

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The Ugliest Thing the President Ever Saw

Useless Information Podcast

An official portrait has been commissioned by every single person who has served as President of the United States. They serve to remind generation after generation of those that have been elected to that office. Some are great, some are so-so, and others are just downright awful. My personal vote for the worst presidential portrait is that of Andrew Jackson, but you are welcome to disagree.

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