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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Category Archives: Forgotten

Podcast 226: 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

 

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.

Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date:  November 25, 2016

Let’s suppose that a political party is stuck with a candidate that they simply don’t want on the ballot.  A candidate who doesn’t represent their values.  A candidate who they believe has little chance of winning the election. This may sound like I am referring to President-elect Donald Trump, but I am not.

Instead, let me introduce you to the subject of today’s story. His name is John Jay McDevitt, aka Butch McDevitt, and a little more than a century ago he put the Democratic party in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in a similar position. The best part, as you will soon learn, was that he walked away from the situation with his dignity intact, a smile on his face, and managed to retain the respect of his community for the rest of his life.

Born on June 2, 1875, McDevitt spent many years hopping from one job to another, which included stints as a milkman and as a coal miner. His true-life calling would come at the age of 22 when he claims to have read a story in a newspaper that said that what the city really needed was a bright young man to be elected mayor.  He decided that he was that bright young man, ran for the office, and lost.

A few years later, he was elected to be constable of the city’s Thirteenth Ward.  In 1908 McDevitt sought reelection as constable on the Democratic ticket and also ran to become Wilkes-Barre mayor as a Republican.  Running for office on two competing tickets was just as ludicrous back then as it is today, but Butch didn’t care. By this time, he had become well known around the community for his great sense of humor and no one took him seriously.  Even McDevitt knew perfectly well that he had no chance of becoming mayor, but he figured that he had nothing to lose by trying. He did win reelection as constable, but lost big time in the race for mayor.  Out of 3,936 votes cast in total, he received just 356.

The event that would forever change his life occurred on October 7th of 1911.  After days of counting the ballots, it was announced that John Jay McDevitt had won the Democratic primary for county treasurer.  He secured 1,864 out of 3,464 votes cast. The candidate that the party had been backing, Bolton G. Coon, had lost to McDevitt by 817 votes.

The bigwigs of the county Democratic Committee were in a panic.  They were certain that McDevitt would lose in the general election and there was no way that they wanted an Irishman to be on their ticket. They knew that there was only one way to get McDevitt to quit: they would need to buy him off.

McDevitt demanded $5,000 (approximately $128,000 today) and the right to endorse the opposing Republican candidate. The Democratic leaders balked at this outrageous request, so McDevitt threw it back in their face.  He raised his price to $6,000.

In the end, a deal was reached.  McDevitt was handed $1,500 in cold, hard cash and the promise that he would receive an additional $1,000 if the Democratic candidate won the election.  But wait; there was more to the deal.  Should the Democrats win, they also promised McDevitt a position in the commissioner’s office.  Ever the jokester, he claimed that he arranged it so his brother would work the morning shift and then at noon he would go into work, ensuring that a McDevitt was always on the job. He told the press, “At noon each day the McDevitt brothers will change shifts.”

Rumors started to spread that McDevitt had sold out for $500, to which he responded, “I would ruin myself politically to sell out at that low figure and the fellows who are putting around the story are miscreants of the lowest type whose aim is to bring my downfall in the world of politics.”

Butch offered the following statement to the public: “Allow me to thank all those who voted for me at the recent primaries and also my friends who directly or indirectly assisted me in seeking the nomination for county treasurer. I spent little time and less money than any other aspirant and although I had a walkover and actually little trouble in getting in the ticket, I must say that it was a harder job to get off the ticket.”

McDevitt filed papers that he had received a total of $7.60 from others, but spent none of it on his race for county treasurer. Instead it was used to fight off a candidate who was running for city treasurer instead. In the end, the Democrats swept the election, McDevitt pocketed the $2,500 but was never awarded that position in the commissioner’s office.

So, what would you do if you had suddenly come into a large amount of money – they had given McDevitt the equivalent of nearly $65,000 in today’s funds?  Maybe put it in the bank, purchase some stock or go bet it on the horses?  Butch McDevitt, ever the comedian, decided to do something more memorable.  Since he had technically won the Democratic nomination for county treasurer, he figured that he was entitled to a banquet in his honor.  Since no one offered to throw one for him, he decided to host one himself at a hotel in Wilkes-Barre a few weeks after he quit the race.

Imagine a banquet where the master of ceremonies, the host, the guest speaker, and the honoree are all the same person.  He introduced himself, bowed to imaginary guests, and gave the obligatory speech:

“It is a rare privilege to have such an honor bestowed upon me by myself, and I appreciate the consideration of the former candidate, so tonight I pay tribute to myself and feel elated in knowing what it all means, and I assure you, Mr. McDevitt, that no one appreciates the honor bestowed upon you more keenly than yourself.”

This stunt brought McDevitt instant fame in the national papers. The Buffalo Evening Times wrote a glowing editorial on his actions. In part, they wrote, “We’d rather see a man like McDevitt not take himself seriously enough but pull off his coat and help the party, than have a man take himself so seriously he won’t help the party at all.” The paper continued, “The spectacle of McDevitt acting as his own entertainment committee and after-dinner speaker is a great deal finer than would be the spectacle of McDevitt sulking because a delegation of obsequious gentlemen didn’t appear and offer him a monogrammed watch or a gold-headed cane.”

But John McDevitt still had money in his pocket and he was determined to spend all that remained of his election payoff.  Butch felt that this money made him rich and he wanted to live just one day as a rich person does.  He announced that he would accomplish this goal by going to New York City and spending all his money in one single day.  From this day forward, John Jay McDevitt would forever be known as the “Millionaire for a Day.”

“You see, I have no particular reason for going to New York, but I feel that as the ‘well-to-do’ take trips to the metropolis, it is up to me to get in the swim.”

Prior to his trip, McDevitt hired a valet, but never bothered to ask for his real name.  Instead,  Butch referred to him as Smoke, since he felt that the main purpose of his valet was to provide him with a lit cigar at all times.  He also hired a physician, Dr. E. A. Sweeney, who was paid $25 per day as long as Butch remained healthy and only $5 per day should he get sick.

Supposedly the rich never get up before noon, so Butch did the same on January 12, 1912. When he arose, Smoke was ready with the first lit cigar. A perfumed bath was drawn and then Smoke gave Butch a rubdown.  He dined in the grill room of the best hotel in Wilkes-Barre and tipped the waiters $2 (about $50 today) each.

As he exited the hotel, Butch was greeted by a large crowd of reporters, photographers, and ordinary citizens.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of nickels that he tossed to the crowd. At 1:15 a large touring car appeared in front of the hotel and Butch was escorted to the limousine by his personal secretary John Lenahan, who was really the hotel’s assistant manager.

And then it was off to the train station in style: a total distance of one city block. Upon arrival at the station, McDevitt stood up and gave a humorous speech, which included the following: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I am about to spend every cent I own on an experiment. I am going to spend it to boom this infernal town. It needs it and I have long recognized that it needed it.  Of course, I have no other ideas.  I am certainly going to try to enjoy myself while I am doing this. I am going to New York, the greatest city in the world, in the palatial special train which I have engaged and which you now see approaching, drawn by yon huge mogul locomotive.”

After his speech concluded, the city of Wilkes-Barre gave him a tremendous sendoff as he boarded the train that he had rented for the trip.  He claimed that the train alone had cost him $516 (nearly $13,000 today). It consisted of three Lehigh Valley cars, including a Pullman car to carry Butch and his newly hired staff plus an empty baggage car to carry his one suitcase. McDevitt was greeted by large crowds at every stop along the way to New York. Each and every time he would step to the rear of the last car and address the crowd.

Upon his arrival in New York, McDevitt hired an expensive taxicab to take him the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During his first meal at the hotel, Butch ordered just about everything on the menu.  That included 18 types of cheese, 11 different cocktails, and many desserts.

He had heard the millionaires have bulletins sent out just to tell others how they were doing, so he instructed his doctor to do the same.  Dr. Sweeney constantly took McDevitt’s pulse and prepared bulletins to update the public on his health.

Nighttime brought an outing with composer George M. Cohan.  In a strange and totally unplanned coincidence, he attended a play about a fake millionaire. Upon conclusion of the second act, Butch was led backstage and gave the lead actor a baton supposedly made from anthracite coal and studded with diamonds; all a fake, of course.

At Hammerstein’s Theater, Butch was offered $1000 to appear for one week in vaudeville.  He politely turned the offer down.  “I don’t want to commercialize this thing. I’m having a good time and I just want to go home broke when it’s over.”

By the end of the evening Millionaire for a Day John Jay McDevitt had become broke Butch McDevitt. He had spent nearly every penny that he had.  He boarded the New Haven train and headed for home. Upon arrival back in Wilkes-Barre, his secretary determined that Butch still had $1.58 remaining. McDevitt then handed $1.50 to the porter.  His last 8-cents was given to a newsboy.

McDevitt may have thrown away a fortune in a short period, but his life would forever change. He was now famous across the nation.  He received hundreds of invitations to give speeches coupled with numerous offers for him to appear on the stage. He turned all but one of the offers down, declaring that he would appear “For charity only.”

One month later on February 18th, McDevitt declared his candidacy for Congress.  He had visited President Taft at the White House and released the following statement: “Say for me that the next representative form Luzerne County will be your royal highness.  I need the money, like the place, and have decided to respond to the voice of my people. So prepare ye way for John Jay McDevitt, ‘millionaire for a day.'”  Don’t bother checking the history books to see the election results. Neither the public or McDevitt himself took this seriously. His next stunt would further confirm that the McDevitt was ever the jokester.

On October 1st, Butch announced that he was going to have a statue erected in his memory.  He felt that the people of Wilkes-Barre were not treating a great man like him as well as they should and a monument would assure that he would be remembered forever.  Butch was very generous when it came to having the statue erected.  Not only would he commission it himself, but he would also do the unveiling. His plan was to ask the city to have it erected in the city’s Public Square Park. If they declined, he would ask the county commissioners to consider his application.  And should they refuse, he would purchase a small parcel in the central part of the city and have the statue erected there. As you could probably guess, neither of his applications were approved nor did he buy that tiny parcel of land.

But that wasn’t the end of McDevitt’s statue. In March of 1913 a letter that he penned was published in the newspapers asking the nearby city of Scranton to provide a location for his statue. That failed. A few weeks later, he requested that his statue be placed on the grounds of the State Capitol. They didn’t bite.

On December 6th, Butch announced that he had once again come into a large pile of cash – in this case a $3,000 from a publisher in exchange for a book about his life – and he was going to use it to charter a special train of six cars with Washington, DC as the destination. His plan this time was to request that Congress place his monument in the Statuary Hall in the Capitol.

So, imagine this. On February 3, 1914, thirty uniformed police officers, all paid for by McDevitt, led the way as Butch made his way to the Lehigh Valley train station to embark on his trip. Following right behind him was a fifty-piece band. A crowd of approximately 2,000 gathered at the depot as a six-horse truck carried along the bronze statue. Bronze as in that it was really a plaster of Paris cast finished off with a bronze-colored paint. Upon its arrival, four coal miners hauled the life-size statue of John Jay McDevitt up to the platform.

He offered up the following speech to his fans, “Look here my friend, Congress will accept it. Will a polar bear accept ice? Will the Mexican government take money? In years to come people will read their histories, then say: ‘That Congress which bagged that McDevitt statuary was some national body. It leaped upon the chariot of opportunity and tore the throttle wide open.'”  The train blew its whistle and Mr. McDevitt was on his way to Washington. Along its journey, the statue was stood up on the rear platform of the observation car so that people could wave to it as it went by.

Upon his arrival at Union Station, an estimated 2,000 people greeted him indoors and another 5,000 were outside.  A parade led by a group of policemen on bicycles was followed by a 25-piece section of the Marine Band. Next in line was a truck that read “We Carry Anything”, which, in this case, meant the McDevitt statue.  Upon arrival at the Sterling Hotel, two piano movers carried the statue up to the suite of rooms that Butch had rented for the night.

“The only difference between Napoleon and myself is that Napoleon led an army and I did not.  Some people say I am crazy, but the only difference between eccentricity and insanity is $100,000, and I am darn near broke. I am the most successful failure that ever lived.”

Butch awoke the next day from the bed in his seven-room suite and was told that a line of chorus girls had called to pay their respect. “Tell them to wait until I have my champagne bath and I shall receive them.”

Then it was off to the Capitol to present the statue.  He was informed that each state is only allowed two statues in the Statuary hall and Pennsylvania had already used up their allotment.  In addition, Speaker of the House Champ Clark denied McDevitt a permit to give a speech on the Capitol steps. McDevitt and his bronze-coated likeness then boarded a train and headed home to Wilkes-Barre.

That wasn’t the end of the news about his statue.  In August of 1915 it was announced that the town of Port Chester, NY had agreed to provide a site for the statue.  There was one catch: McDevitt had to pay the town $5,000 for its long-term maintenance (about $118,000 today), an amount of money that he did not possess.  One month later McDevitt was at the Milton fair attempting to present it to elected officials there.  No dice.  By December he was trying to convince Scranton to take it.  This was followed by an attempted giveaway in Atlantic City the following year. Finally, on September 3, 1917 it was announced in the press that the bronze beast would finally find a home in the small town of Highland, PA.  Today the town has a population of 492 people, so this wasn’t the ideal location.

You are probably wondering how McDevitt supported himself and came up with the money to have that statue made and drag it all over the place.  That’s a good question and no one knows for sure.  Two things are certain: First, he was not independently wealthy.  Second, he was an awful businessman.  He operated a cigar store, which went out of business in 1913. He also operated a couple of mildly successful publications, but they offered him no great source of income. After his millionaire for a day stunt, McDevitt became an in-demand speaker which, one must assume, eventually became his main source of income.

McDevitt continued to run for various political offices. In 1913 he ran against 51 other candidates for Wilkes-Barre city commissioner. Realizing the odds were against him winning, he opted to be a candidate for clerk of the courts on the Democratic ticket. He lost.  In 1915 he came in fifth out of five candidates for county treasurer.  He ran as both a Democratic and Republican candidate.  The winner, James H. Evans, secured 12,667 votes while Butch only received 681.

Losing by such a wide margin didn’t stop McDevitt. In 1916 he decided to run for the highest office in the land.  He wanted to be President of the United States.  And, in typical McDevitt fashion, he went all out to announce his candidacy.  Once again, with $3,900 in his pocket, a train was rented and he made his way to New York City to hold a political convention. “Gentlemen, you are called into convention for the purpose of nominating me for President.” After a lengthy speech and lots of drinks all around, McDevitt left and headed for Atlantic City.  According to the New York Tribune, he went there to “await the pleasure of a notification committee appointed by Mister McDevitt to inform Mister McDevitt that Mister McDevitt had been chosen nominee of the Mister McDevitt party.” You may be shocked to hear this, but he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.

In 1917 Butch ran to be clerk of the courts receiving 963 out 9792 votes cast in the primary. In 1918, he dreamed of becoming next Governor of Pennsylvania and received 27,000 votes statewide.  His campaign spent a total of $1.08.  He blamed his loss on the fact that the winning candidates received more votes than he did and that he was listed at the bottom of the ballot. He suggested that he may change his name from McDevitt to AckDevitt so that he will appear at the top of the ballot in future elections.

In 1918 McDevitt turned his focus to the war and used his popularity to help sell more Liberty bonds. After the war, he tossed his hat into the ring to become president of the League of Nations, but no one took him up on the offer.

And then he was back to his old ways of getting his name in the papers. In 1919, he ran as a Democrat to become the Register of Wills. He came in 6th out of six candidates, receiving 1,448 votes out of 20,683 cast.

Starting on November 11, 1919, Butch found himself in the middle of a big political mess. City treasurer candidate R.M. Keiser was able to find forty-four voters in the Thirteenth ward who had voted for him, but the official tally sheet indicated that he had received only thirty-five votes in total.  Testimony in court later revealed that the election board opted to file false returns to get their candidate elected. One witness testified that he observed McDevitt burning some of the ballots.  Arrests were made and a couple of men went to jail, but Butch somehow escaped prosecution.

Butch went back to doing what he did best.  He continued to lecture, entertain, and run for political office.  One of his defeats occurred in 1927 while running for Wilkes-Barre mayor.  He received just twelve votes.  In 1931, he opted to run for five offices at the same time: mayor, treasurer, school director, register of wills, and recorder of deeds.  Even age never slowed him down. He was 71 in 1946 when he decided to run on the Democratic ticket to become a representative to the Pennsylvania State House.  Once again, he lost garnering 918 votes out of 3476 cast. The next year he lost to be Wilkes-Barre mayor with 511 out of 2894 votes.

McDevitt never married, but twice publicly set out to find a wife.  On February 13, 1915 an advice column titled Elizabeth’s Letters featured a letter that began, “Dear Elizabeth: This is the first time I have written to you and would like you to answer the following questions: (1) Is Butch McDevitt still in Wilkes Barre? (2) Is he still looking for a wife or did he get one to suit him?  (3) If not, I would like to meet him.”

Next thing you know Butch is in the news in search of a wife in both Boston and Atlantic City.  “A prophet like me is never appreciated in his own country; that’s why the girls in Wilkes-Barre will have nothing to do with me.”  He continued, “What can I offer a girl? Well, nothing – except for a loving heart and amiable disposition, a comfortable living, and the use of two or three automobiles.”

More than one-hundred women wrote to say that they would marry him, but he chose none.  He did come across an advertisement from a Brooklyn, NY woman named Martha Stephens who was in search of “the perfect man.” Butch immediately wrote a long letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explaining why he was that perfect man. A portion if it read, “Some time ago I advertised for a wife and received a large amount of mail, but I must admit that I didn’t happen to come across the girl that summed up to my dream miss. That’s why I write this letter, thinking that the woman in question might hit my fancy.”  She didn’t bite, but he once again received great publicity from his search.

On April 4, 1927, we find Butch attempting to find love once again. How’s this for a bit of déjà vu: He chartered a special train, “McDevitt’s Romance Train”, which was bound for New York City.  His destination: the Waldorf Astoria hotel to find the love of his life. The train did go to New York as planned. The only problem was that it left without him.  Butch missed the train.

John J. McDevitt passed away on February 3, 1951 at 76 years of age. Up until that point, newspaper articles had been written about him every single year since the day that he had pulled the Millionaire for a Day stunt back in 1912. He ran for just about every political office in the land – far more than I have mentioned in this story – and lost time-and-time again, but never lost sight of the humor of it all.

I’ll leave you with one last quotation from McDevitt, this one written in May of 1946: “So, to the fellows who have a political thought, take this tip – it’s an interesting venture and worth any man’s money for a tryout.  It’s really exciting, but always remember that you must hold your head and do not permit yourself to become embittered if you fail to make the grade.  Remember this also, that it’s not the traits or qualities of good fellowship that makes for political success. It’s hitting and getting in at the opportune time; a good sense of humor is a valuable asset and doubly valuable in defeat.”

My only question is: Whatever happened to that bronze statue that he had made of himself?  Someone has got to have it somewhere.

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

 

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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