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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Podcast # 139 – The Fight for Hildy McCoy

 

Imagine you are in this situation: It is the early 1950s and you are a young woman in your early twenties. You are unmarried and suddenly you find out that you are pregnant. What would you do?  

Well, this was the exact situation that a young Boston resident named Marjorie McCoy found herself in.   At the time, she was a student at the Children’s Hospital School of Nursing and when she learned that she was pregnant, her mom took her to see the family doctor, Dr. Herman Sands. He suggested that the best solution would be to place the child up for adoption and they agreed.

Dr. Sands referred them to Salem, Massachusetts attorney Philip Strome, who could “handle the whole matter and keep things quiet.” Strome found the perfect couple to adopt the baby: 39-year-old Melvin Ellis and his 31-year-old wife Frances.  Melvin owned Bentley’s Cleansers, a dry-cleaning plant in Boston, and was reported to have had an annual income in excess of $10,000 ($97,000 adjusted for inflation).  The two had married in 1946 but soon learned that they would be unable to have a child of their own. Desperate to adopt, they offered to pay all of Marjorie’s medical costs plus any legal fees incurred. 

Marjorie and her mom agreed to the terms of the deal. To avoid the embarrassment of being pregnant out of wedlock, Marjorie headed out to California to stay with her married sister.  As the birth approached, she returned back east and waited out her time in a rented room located on Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of Boston.

It was on February 23, 1951, in Boston’s Kenmore Hospital, that Marjorie would deliver a healthy six-pound girl. The baby was whisked away without Marjorie ever laying sight on the newborn. Ten days later, in attorney Strome’s office, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis would sign the papers to adopt their new daughter, who was now named Hildy. Next, Dr. Sands took the papers to Marjorie and she added her signature. It was a double-blind signing so that Marjorie would not learn the names of the adoptive parents and vice versa.

And with that, if this were the typical adoption, everyone involved would have gone on to happily live their lives. But that was not to be the case.

A few weeks later, Hildy’s adoption would be thrown into chaos. Marjorie was informed by attorney Philip Strome that there had been a technical glitch in the adoption proceedings because her first signature had not been notarized and dated. So, Marjorie went to Strome’s office on March 27, 1951 to sign a new set of documents. While doing so, Marjorie, who was Catholic, learned that the Ellises were not. In fact, they were Jewish. This greatly disturbed Marjorie. She desired that her daughter be placed in a Catholic home. Marjorie became apprehensive at signing the new documents, but Strome assured her that the adoption would not be finalized for another year and that she would “have time to think it over and change her mind.” So, she signed the papers and left his office.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

At some point in April, Marjorie once again went to see Dr. Sands and informed him that she didn’t approve of Hildy being raised in a Jewish household by parents who had both been previously divorced and wished to have the adoption reversed. What’s interesting here is that Marjorie still had no desire to keep Hildy. She wanted another couple to adopt the child and raise her as a Catholic. As a result, Marjorie requested that the court allow her to withdraw her consent.

Coincidentally, just months before, the Massachusetts legislature had enacted a statute that read, in part: “In making orders for adoption the judge, when practicable, must give custody only to persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.” And, let’s face it, what were the chances of there not being a single Catholic couple in the entire state of Massachusetts who would be willing to adopt a newborn blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl? At the time of Hildy’s birth, neither Marjorie nor the Ellises knew of this new legislation, but the law was clearly on Marjorie’s side.

Marjorie and the Ellises met for the first time in May 1951. What exactly happened during this meeting depends on whose side seemed more plausible. Marjorie’s attorney insisted that they requested the child be returned but the Ellises refused and the meeting ended with both sides angrily in complete disagreement. Yet, Mrs. Ellis told the press, “It was all quite friendly. We discussed the petition, and when we left, Marjorie said to me, ‘I hope you can keep the child. I can’t go on paying for this all my life.’”

In early 1952, the Ellises sought court intervention to resolve the problem, but the judge advised the couple to await the outcome of a similar case involving a Catholic mother and Protestant foster parents that had been winding its way through the Massachusetts courts. In June, this particular case was decided in favor of the adoptive couple. The Ellises took this as a good sign that they would prevail in court. Sidentoe: Hildy’s real father was a Protestant, but Marjorie had no interest in marrying him.

It would not be until June 1953 that the case would be heard by Dedham Probate Judge James F. Reynolds. This would be the first time that Marjorie McCoy would see her daughter Hildy. After a 4-1/2 day hearing, Judge Reynolds ruled against the Ellises. He determined that it would be in Hildy’s best interest if the adoption was nullified and the child returned to Marjorie McCoy so that she could place her with the Catholic Charitable Bureau. 

Needless to say, the Ellises were in deep shock. Hildy was now two years old and the couple was the only parents she had ever known. Regarding Marjorie, Mrs. Ellis stated, “If she has said to me at our first meeting, ‘I will fight for my baby – for myself,’ I would have had to give her back.”

It was shortly after this decision, on July 21, 1953, that Marjorie McCoy married Gerald Doherty, who was not Hildy’s father. They would soon start a family of their own, but Hildy was not to factor into that equation.

The Ellises’ battle to adopt Hildy did not end with Judge Reynolds’ decision. They appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It was on October 6, 1954, when Hildy was 3-1/2 years old, that the story finally broke in the newspapers. Soon, the adoption of Hildy McCoy would become front-page headlines not for days, weeks, or months, but for years. It would become the most controversial and most widely reported adoption story of the 1950s.

Mrs. Ellis stated, “Hildy is our whole life. It will be cruel and inhuman to take her away. This is the only family she has ever known.”

Hildy with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 7, 1954 publication of the Boston Globe.

The full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down their decision on February 14, 1955. They upheld Judge Reynolds’ ruling and ordered that the Ellises return Hildy to her natural mother. Keep in mind that the judges were strictly focused on the law, which did allow the natural mother of the child to withdraw her petition for adoption for a period of one year. All of the justices involved, although deemed heartless by the press, were simply interpreting the regulations as written.

On April 26, Marjorie McCoy Doherty and two social workers arrived at 231 St. Paul Street in Brookline, Massachusetts to remove Hildy from the Ellises’ home. Marjorie told Mrs. Ellis, “I’ve come for the child.” Mrs. Ellis refused their request as Hildy, dressed for bed, held on to her adoptive mother’s skirt. The three women soon left, only to return a short time later with a police officer. He made no attempt to take the child and told Mrs. Ellis that he was only there to inform the Ellises that the court had ordered the return of Hildy to her natural mother. Shortly after the four left, Mrs. Ellis wrapped Hildy in blankets and drove 68 miles (110 km) to her brother’s home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Two weeks later, on May 11, the Ellises’ attorney, James Zisman, requested that the Massachusetts Supreme Court issue a stay of execution on Judge Reynolds decision. Zisman stated, “It would be a sad situation, a tragedy, to uproot this child from its present surroundings and send her to an institution.” He continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Ellis will take this child to the Catholic Church and bring her up in the Catholic faith. Their love for this child is so great that they would bring her up under the supervision of the local Catholic priest, send her to a parochial school, even place her in a convent school where she would come home only on weekends.” The court declined this request.

The Ellises may have lost the case but they were not about to turn over Hildy without a fight. They continued to ignore the court order requiring them to return Hildy to her natural mother, so on Wednesday, June 15th, Judge Reynolds had finally had enough. He set a deadline for that Friday at 2 PM for the Ellises to turn over Hildy McCoy. If they failed to do so, the couple would be placed in jail. He stated, “The mother has been trying to get the child back into her possession since the child was six weeks old. If these people had turned the child over to the mother then they would not have become so attached to her.”

The next day, June 16, 1955, Supreme Court Justice Harold B. Williams issued a stay of execution of Judge Reynolds’ court order and scheduled a hearing for June 22. On June 28, the Supreme Court dismissed the couple’s petition and ordered that Hildy be turned over to her natural mother within 24 hours or they would “go to jail.”

Well, that day came and went. The Ellises were nowhere to be found. They had gone into hiding. In a phone interview with a reporter, Mr. Ellis stated, “I’m scared stiff of jail, but I’m like any other father when they take his child away.” He added, “We’ll fight to the finish, hoping that we can have Hildy, or at least that the mother will take her into her own home instead of a foster home. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

In the meantime, attorney Zisman once again approached the Massachusetts Supreme Court arguing that Judge Reynolds had acted improperly by ordering the arrest of the Ellises without a proper hearing. The couple was granted a two-week delay while the lower court’s ruling was reviewed.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Tampa Bay Times.

This wasn’t about to stop Judge Reynolds. He was growing tired of all of the stalling. While his order to have the Ellises arrested may have been placed on hold for two weeks, that decision had nothing to do with Hildy herself. On July 9, he ordered that sheriffs in all Massachusetts counties find Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and take Hildy into custody. “We command you that the body of female McCoy, also known as Hildy C. Ellis, of Brookline, minor child of Marjorie McCoy Doherty, you take and have before the judge of the Probate Cord at Dedham immediately after receipt of the writ to do and receive what the judge shall then and there consider concerning her in this behalf.”

On July 18, Attorney Zisman filed six new petitions with the Norfolk Probate Court claiming that Marjorie had given false testimony and that she had “deliberately imposed a fraud upon the court.” Basically, two nurses who had spoken with her at the time of Hildy’s birth signed affidavits claiming that Marjorie was aware from the very beginning that the Ellises were Jewish. 

Nurse Jessie C. Santoro said that Marjorie had asked her to go check out the couple and “let me know what they’re like.” When Santoro returned, she reported that they were “a lovely Jewish couple.” She added, “You know the baby is going to a Jewish home. Are you going to have her baptized?” To this Marjorie replied, “My only concern is to get this thing over with and get my own life straightened out.”

Frances Ellis helping Hildy with her hair. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The other nurse was Dorothy H. Ingersoll. She told of how she took the baby to Marjorie’s bedside the day after Hildy was born. Marjorie quickly turned her head away and would not look at the newborn. Ms. Ingersoll then stated, “Your baby is going to Jewish people,” to which Marjorie replied, “What’s wrong with that?”

Judge Reynolds informed attorney Zisman that he would hear no new motions concerning the case until the Ellises and Hildy appeared before him. “I want the Ellises brought before the court, and the baby before the court. I will hear all matters when everyone is before the court.”

As you can probably guess, the Ellises were no-shows. As a result, on November 3, 1955 Judge Reynolds dismissed all six of those newly filed petitions and noted that “The petitioners have not been deprived of their day in court.” After this, the Ellises filed another appeal with the state Supreme Court.

This game of ricocheting back and forth between Judge Reynolds and the Massachusetts Supreme Court would continue, so I won’t bore you with the details. In total, twenty-two different appeals were filed and then denied by the state Supreme Court. Their last decision was handed down on September 28, 1956. The final legal door had been shut on the Ellises.

The couple now legally had no choice but to turn 5 ½-year-old Hildy over to her natural mother, who would, in turn, put her up for adoption. The only problem was that the Ellises had not been spotted since that day when Marjorie and the two social workers showed up at the Ellis home. Seventeen months had since elapsed.  Were they still in Massachusetts?  Were the Ellises still even within the United States? Just where were they?

A big legal change occurred in March 1957. That was when Massachusetts Associate Justice Edward A. Counihan concluded that the Ellises had committed the crime of kidnapping and an indictment was handed down.

Not long after this, Melvin Ellis made the mistake of trying to purchase a new car in Miami Beach, Florida. Since he was trading in his old vehicle, the dealer made a routine check to confirm that there were no liens on the car. That’s when the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informed the dealer that the couple was wanted on a kidnapping charge.

At approximately 2 PM on Friday, March 15, 1957, Ellis arrived at the dealer to pick up his new car, unaware that a trap had been set. Shortly after walking into the dealership’s showroom, he was approached by two officers and taken into custody. Ellis was escorted to Miami police headquarters where he was fingerprinted, mugshot taken and placed into a cell. A short time later, a detective went to the Ellises’ Normandy Isle apartment and arrested Mrs. Ellis. Neither would have to spend very long in custody. Their Florida attorney, Benjamin Cohen, quickly arranged for their release without bail. A hearing was set for the following Monday.

Attorney Ben Cohen (left) with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 19, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

At the hearing on March 18, 1957, Massachusetts State Police Detective Lieutenant William H. Delay requested that the Ellises be held on a $5,000 bond, but the magistrate opted to once again release the couple into the custody of attorney Cohen.

Mr. Ellis told the press, “Never once during all the courtroom proceedings in Massachusetts did the court ever consider Hildy’s welfare. I don’t care if I go to jail. The main thing is the girl’s happiness and she wouldn’t be happy in a Catholic orphanage and any other kind of orphanage.” He continued, “We are not criminals. We have not done anything wrong. We just want our girl. We are not running any more. This is a last stand – a final battleground for Hildy’s life and her future. We do not want this sword hanging over us.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 18, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

The couple had been in hiding for nearly two years. So, just where were they all this time? First, as previously mentioned, after Marjorie and the two social workers arrived at the Ellises’ home on April 26, 1955, Mrs. Ellis and Hildy went to Newport, Rhode Island, where they stayed for three weeks. After that, they went to stay with friends in Sharon, Massachusetts. The couple did return back to their home in Brookline for a short period, but went back into hiding when the couple was ordered to turn over Hildy or risk going to jail. From there, they proceeded to Tuckahoe, New York and then moved on to a five-week stay with relatives in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Next was White Plains, New York, followed by a six-month stint in Manhattan, and finally a short stay in Scarsdale, New York. Finally, in April 1956, the couple decided that they needed to move out of the northeastern United States. It was at that point that the couple headed to Florida. They moved into their Normandy Isle apartment in May.

As for employment, Melvin Ellis was forced to sell his lucrative dry-cleaning business. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a traveling salesman for a New York clothing firm, selling both sportswear and lingerie. Hildy was enrolled as a first-grader in the private Lear School in Miami Beach.

Hildy (left) and her friend, Susie Ellis, playing with a pair of slacks from Melvin Ellis’ sample bag. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The battle to return Hildy, Frances, and Melvin Ellis back to the state of Massachusetts had begun. In one corner, you had the public opinion which overwhelmingly supported allowing the Ellises to adopt Hildy. In the opposing corner, there was the state of Massachusetts, which sought their immediate return so that the various court decisions could be executed.

It was estimated that the Governor of Florida’s office received 10,000 letters, telegrams, or signed petitions from people opposing the extradition of the Ellises. In comparison, an estimated 100 letters were received expressing their belief that they should be returned to Massachusetts and that Hildy should be returned to her natural mother.

Many others expressed their opinions by writing to their local newspapers. Here is just a sampling of those letters to editors:

  • April 5, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Evidently you didn’t bother trying to find the facts in this case or you deliberately withheld them in order to create sympathy toward the Ellises.”  “…the Ellises illegally obtained the child from Dr. Herman Sand and also paid him a large sum of money for the favor, in spite of the fact that Dr. Sand promised Marjorie McCoy, the child’s real mother, he would make sure the child will be placed in a Catholic home.” Anthony Cook
  • April 8, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Think of the scars that would be inflicted permanently if Hildy were separated suddenly from all the love and security she has known for years. There is more to motherhood than the act of conceiving.” The letter continues, “We are all talking tolerance: why don’t we practice it? Let this Jewish couple bring up their child as a Catholic. I cannot believe in my heart that any religion would willfully gamble a helpless child’s chance for happiness.” A Mother.
  • May 3, 1957 – Brooklyn Daily – “After the passing of these past years of Hildy’s life, the unwed mother who bore her, now married, decides to have this little one return, – not to her but, instead, – to a home for children and to be adopted, all over again, by a couple of her own Faith. To make of this little one an actual pawn, a chess piece to be moved [hither and yon] on the board-of-living is not a sporting or good game but, it is a crooked and, an absolute STEAL.” L. M. K.

Of course, public opinion does not always predict the outcome of legal matters. Almost immediately after the arrest of the Ellises, the State of Massachusetts had rendition papers drawn up seeking the couple’s return to face kidnapping charges. Under Florida law at the time, Massachusetts had until midnight on April 17 to submit the signed extradition documents. Foster Furcolo, who was the Massachusetts governor at the time, made it clear that he would sign the papers, but that process did not go smoothly. The first set of papers drawn up was rejected on March 27 on technical grounds. The second set was rejected on April 16 due to an incorrect date. Finally, on April 17 Governor Furcolo signed the third revision and it was flown to Florida and submitted just prior to the midnight deadline.

Florida Governor LeRoy Collins set a hearing on the extradition for May 23 in Tallahassee. The million-dollar question was whether Governor Collins would give in to public pressure or, instead, side with the state of Massachusetts and send the Ellises back to face the music.

Just prior to the hearing, Melvin Ellis told the press, “If by serving a couple of years in prison I might settle the thing I would not mind so much. But the thought of giving her up is more than I can bear. We are pinning our faith on the Lord and Governor Collins.”

Mrs. Ellises’ biggest fear wasn’t the kidnapping charge. Instead, she was concerned that the hearing would drag on and she would be unable to return in time to see and hear Hildy perform her part in the Lear’s School presentation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was part of her 1st grade moving up ceremony. “Hildy will feel terrible if we’re both not there, but even if Melvin has to stay in Tallahassee I’ve got to get back for the exercises.”

Mr. & Mrs. Ellis (top of stairs), their attorney Ben Cohen (far right) and others boarding an airplane to attend the extradition hearing in Tallahassee. Image appeared on page 2 of the May 22, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And then the day came. Thursday, May 23, 1957. Governor Collins began the hearing before a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 125 people. Lawyers for both sides presented their case. The session was surprisingly short, clocking in at two hours in length. Governor Collins said that he based his decision on both legal and humanitarian grounds: he granted the Ellises Florida sanctuary and refused to honor the extradition request from Massachusetts.

Reporters questioned Mrs. Ellis shortly after the decision. When asked how she felt, she replied a “little numb.” Mrs. Ellis added, “Now I can sleep tonight.” When asked about attending Hildy’s first-grade graduation, she replied, “I was going to make it if I had to walk back to Miami.”

Frances and Melvin Ellis with Hildy shortly after Governor Collins granted the couple sanctuary in Florida. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And she did make it. And so did the press. Here’s a bit of a story that appeared on May 24, 1957 in the Miami News: “Hildy McCoy Ellis ‘graduated’ today from the first to second grade at the Lear School, Miami Beach, in probably the world’s most widely publicized kiddie baccalaureate.” The article continues, “Some of the children marveled at the presence of newsreel and television cameras and blinked in the strong lights. But most of them thought it was part of the coverage of the Lear School annual event.”

This may have been a great day of celebration, but the Ellises’ legal problems were not over. They may have avoided being extradited to face the kidnapping charges, but the issue of Hildy’s legal adoption had not been settled. The Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese strongly opposed the adoption. On June 11, 1957, the Massachusetts Public Welfare Department submitted to the state of Florida twelve objections to the adoption and recommended that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis not be permitted to adopt Hildy. 

Both sides would get to present their cases before Circuit Judge John W. Prunty on July 8, 1957, as Hildy remained in the judge’s chambers playing with her 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Vicki Miller. Hildy was totally oblivious to what was going on outside in the courtroom. Two days later, Judge Prunty decreed that Hildy “shall hereafter be known as Hildy Ellis.” After more than six years of fighting for and fearing the loss of Hildy, she was now the legal daughter of Frances and Melvin Ellis.

Frances and Melvin Ellis kissing Hildy goodnight. Image appeared on page 109 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

On July 11, 1957, Hildy’s natural mother Marjorie broke her silence for the first time. “I am grateful to Massachusetts justice for upholding my right to provide for my baby in accordance with conscience. She is now a growing girl. I would not wish to see her further hurt by more of the publicity that was threatened to her and to me six years ago. Some day she will learn the facts about her mother’s desire to protect her with the privacy that others were willing to destroy. Meanwhile, with prayers I hope many will share, I entrust her to [the] loving protection of God. The rest is in the hands of my attorneys.”

After this, the press would follow up on Hildy’s story on special occasions like her birthday and the anniversary of her adoption. Yet, there was little to report. Everything seemed to be going well before the story faded into history.

Melvin Ellis told reporters that the fight to adopt Hildy had cost him over $60,000, which would be nearly $600,000 today. He added, “But you can bet it was worth it.”

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

1966 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.
1968 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.

Podcast #138 – Titanic’s Orphans

 

One of the first stories that I recorded for this podcast back in January of 2008 was that of Violet Jessop being the only person to survive the collisions of the three sister ships: the Olympic, Titanic, and the Britannic. (Link below.) Well, twelve years later, it is time for another story about the Titanic. I know that so much has been told and retold about the Titanic over the years that it is my hope that I selected one that you have not heard before.

To begin, I would like to introduce you to two women: 49-year-old Mrs. Lily Potter and her daughter Olive Earnshaw, who was 23 years old when the Titanic disaster occurred.  At the time, Olive’s marriage had failed and she had filed for divorce. Her mom, who had been widowed two years prior, came up with the perfect solution for the two of them to get away from it all: they would embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East beginning in December 1911.  And, to make their trip even more enjoyable, they invited 24-year-old Margaret Bechstein Hays to accompany them.  Olive and Margaret had become good friends while attending the Briarcliff School in New York. 

Titanic passenger Margaret Bechstein Hays.
Margaret Bechstein Hays. Image from Find-A-Grave.

They had already arranged passage home on another ship, but as they were about to leave Turkey, they learned that if they postponed their voyage by one week, they could sail on the maiden voyage of the grand RMS Titanic. It was a decision that would ultimately make the three women footnotes to history.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and made a quick stop that evening in Cherbourg, France to pick up additional passengers. It was there that Lily, Olive, and Margaret first boarded the smaller SS Nomadic tender which transported them out to the Titanic, which had been unable to dock due to its immense size.

The Titanic sailing in ocean.
The Titanic sailing in ocean. Library of Congress image.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 14th, all three women had already retired to their cabins for the evening.  Upon hearing the engines cease operation, the two younger women, who were in cabin C-54, went to check on Olive’s mom in C-50. While they were assured by a steward that there was nothing to worry about, the three got dressed, wrapped Margaret’s Pomeranian named Bebe in a blanket, and headed to the C-deck. All three proceeded to put on lifejackets, boarded lifeboat #7, and, at 12:40 AM, it became the first lifeboat to set sail.

It is very well known that the Titanic only carried enough lifeboats to accommodate about half of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew that were on board. Had the ship carried her full complement of 3,339 people, that fraction drops to about one-third. Even worse, the majority of the lifeboats that were launched were not filled to capacity. For example, the boat containing Lily, Olive, Margaret and Bebe had a capacity of sixty-five, yet it sailed off with only twenty-eight passengers aboard.

The last lifeboat to be successfully lowered into the water was Collapsible D. Just as that boat was about to depart, a man appeared on the Titanic deck clutching two young boys in his arms.  Officers stepped forward to prevent him from boarding the boat, so he shouted down to the crew of the lifeboat to help save his babies. They agreed and he dropped the older boy down into the arms of a sailor.  After observing that he was safely caught, the man then dropped the other youngster. According to survivors, the man was last seen dropping to his knees, his hands clasped in prayer and with tears streaming down his face. 

After receiving the Titanic’s distress call, the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4:00 AM and its crew spent the next five hours rescuing survivors before its captain gave the order to set sail with 705 survivors aboard. More than 1,500 lives were lost. 

Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia.
Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia. Library of Congress image.

It was during the three-day voyage to New York aboard the Carpathia that Margaret Hays would take notice of the two young boys as they played with her dog. Since they were the only two children rescued without a parent or guardian, she took it upon herself to care for them. 

While little was known about the boys, it was clear from their striking resemblance that they were almost certainly brothers. One was roughly four years of age and the other two.  One survivor, Julian Pedro, said that the boys occupied the cabin next to his and that the man who accompanied them was named Hoffman, who he believed was their father. He described the father as being around 40-years of age, of medium height and build, with dark hair, a mustache, and a ruddy complexion.  While Hoffman had little interaction with others on the boat, survivors who did recall that he spoke French and believed that he was a widower. 

Ms. Hays, who also spoke fluent French, tried her best to learn what she could from the older boy but had no luck. To just about every question that she asked the boy, he would simply answer “Oui.”

Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic.
Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic. Lily Potter, Olive Earnshaw, and Margaret Hays are listed as number 8-10. Click on image to enlarge.

Upon arrival in New York, Margaret took the two children to her family’s home, which was located at 304 West 83rd Street in Manhattan. With the shocking sinking of the Titanic being front-page news nearly worldwide, the story of the “Two Waifs of the Sea” quickly spread worldwide. The press speculated that Margaret would probably adopt the two children. When interviewed, Ms. Hays told reporters, “I could not allow them to be sent to a foundling home.” She continued, “Just think of it – two little atoms of humanity, whose lives were been filled with happiness, who would’ve been gently brought up by loving parents, robbed of their names, condemned, through no fault of their own to become nameless things in an institution. I could not do that.”

Margaret, with the financial help of her parents, provided the boys with everything they would need until a relative could be found.  That is, should a relative ever be found. They provided the boys with food, shelter, toys and lots of love. The boys appeared incredibly happy and seemed oblivious to the great tragedy that took the life of their dad and so many others.

With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola.
With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola. Colorized image. Original from the Library of Congress.

Still unable to determine their names, the French consul in New York offered his assistance. He stated, “I’ve read in the papers that the older boy has said his name is Louis, but I can get nothing from him to prove it. It seems to me more likely that he answers oui-oui to everything. He was understood to say that his name was Louis, which might seem to have the same sound to an American. I have cabled to France and will do everything I can to find the relatives of the children, but as yet I have gained nothing from them to aid in the search.” 

The Children’s Aid Society arranged for a native Frenchman to visit the children and he concluded that the boys spoke with a dialect that was unmistakably from the southern portion of France.

And the search continued.

Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

Margaret’s father, Frank B. Hays, remarked, “We have no intention of keeping them beyond the time when their relatives are found or the search for them is given up. A Montréal family who were passengers on the Titanic are anxious to adopt them, and my daughter says they shall have the preference. Of course, many persons here in New York have also offered to take them. The published story that the children were in the same boat with my daughter and clung to her instinctively is a misstatement. My daughter left in the first lifeboat and the two children followed on later boats. The smaller boy was tossed from the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat without a stitch of clothing. The older child wore only a shirt when he was taken aboard the Carpathia. The survivors of the Titanic on board formed a ladies’ committee, and as my daughter was the only one among them who had not suffered some personal loss through the disaster she was asked to care for the two children, and gladly did so. She was told that the two children had been in the second cabin of the Titanic in the care of a man named Hoffman, but we have been unable to get any clue to their whereabouts from the White Star line or anywhere else.”

Margaret Hays received more than 450 offers from all over the nation from people willing to adopt the two boys.  All of the inquiries were then forwarded to the Children’s Aid Society for handling. Offers came in from doctors, lawyers, a stockbroker, a French architect, and many others. Margaret’s personal preference, contradicting her father’s statement about the Montreal family, was that the boys be entrusted to the care of an unnamed friend, should a legitimate relative not be located.

Colorized photos of the two Titanic waifs.
Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

The first claim from a possible relative came within one-day of Carpathia arriving in New York with the survivors.  One year prior to the sinking of the Titanic, Mystic, Iowa resident Franck Lefebvre had emigrated to the United States from France.  He came in search of employment and, upon earning enough to send for his family, his wife and four youngest children secured passage on the Titanic. Upon hearing the news of the two unidentified French children, he headed for New York to determine if they were his or not. They proved not to be Lefebvre’s children. Sadly, the bodies of his wife and children were never recovered. 

There was quite a bit publicity regarding the two orphans in the French newspapers and one week after the Titanic’s sinking, a 21-year-old woman named Marcelle Navratil came forward believing that the two boys could be her missing sons.  She said that she had separated from her husband Michel and he disappeared with the children, telling friends that he was going to take them to the United States.  

Marcelle Caretto Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Mme. Navratil described her two boys as follows: the older is Michel, Jr, nicknamed Lolo, spoke with difficulty, and was a couple of months shy of his fourth birthday. His younger brother was Edmond, or Momo for short, who was two years old. Her physical descriptions of the two children also closely matched that of the two waifs.

Could she be their mother? That was still to be determined.  

The first problem was that there was no one with the name of Navratil registered as a passenger on the Titanic. Survivors clearly recalled that the man in charge of these two boys was named Hoffman, which was confirmed by an L. Hoffman on the passenger list. Mme. Navratil confirmed that her husband had a friend named Louis Hoffman, but that could be pure coincidence.

So, if the children were hers, it was possible that her husband either assumed his friend’s name for the voyage or that Hoffman himself had agreed to escort the children to the United States. 

The first step in resolving this mystery occurred in Monte Carlo.  Mme. Navratil provided a picture of her husband to the British consul there.  A ticket agent confirmed that he had sold tickets to the man in the photograph and the children who accompanied him for a voyage on the Titanic.

Colorized photo of Edmond and Michel Navratil, Jr. taken to aid in their identification after the sinking of the Titanic. Original image from Wikipedia.

The exact count is unknown, but it is estimated that 334 bodies were recovered from the wreck. 125 were buried at sea and the remaining 209 were transported to Halifax, Nova Scotia for burial. It was there that New York City resident Frederick Wenger traveled in hope of positively identifying the body of his brother-in-law, Sante Righini, which he was able to do. As Wenger moved among the many open caskets in search of Righini, another body grabbed his attention. “Why, I know that man,” he stated. “That is Louis Hoffman of Nice, France. His two little boys are in New York now.” Since Wenger was not aboard the Titanic, it is unclear how he was able to know what Hoffman looked like. 

With the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean lying between Mme. Navratil and the two children, she needed to find a sure-fire way to prove that they were hers. She prepared a series of questions that only her children would know the answers to. The questions and corresponding answers were telegraphed to New York and Margaret Hays asked them to the older child in French. 

Q – “Qu’est-ce que maman t’a donne la veille de Paques?” (What did mamma give you for Easter?)

A – “Des chocolats.” (Chocolates.)

Q – “Dans quoi?” (In what?)

A – “Dans des ceufs de Paques.” (In Easter eggs.)

Q – “Qu’y avait-il sur les ceufs?” (What was on the eggs?)

A – “Un lapin.” (A rabbit.)

Q – “Qu’est-ce faisait maman avec le petits carres en bois?” (What did mamma do with the little blocks of wood?)

A – “Le chien qui boit (???) du lait avec le petit garcon.” (She made the dog who drank milk with the little boy. – This is referring to a jigsaw puzzle.)

Grandma’s illness:

Q – “A Nice, a la maison de maman, qui c’est qui etait malade?” (In Nice, in mamma’s home, who was it that was ill?)

A – “Grandmaman.” (Grandma.)

Q – “Ou c’est que tu allais avec Marie?” (Where did you go with Marie?)

A – “A la mer voir les aeroplanes.” (To the seashore to see the aeroplanes.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui dechirait les carres en bois?” (Who broke up the wooden blocks?)

A – “Maman.” (Mamma.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui s’appelle Marcelle?” (Who is called Marcelle?)

A – “C’est maman.” (It’s mamma.)

Nearly any doubt that anyone had about these being her two children was removed when five of the eight questions were answered correctly.

On April 24th, ten days after the Titanic impacted the iceberg, the offices of the White Star Line in New York City received an unsigned cablegram from Liverpool stating that the sender would be coming ASAP to claim the boys.

Frank Hays told reporters, “I heard the woman claiming to be the mother of the boys had sailed from Liverpool, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about her and don’t know whether it is a new woman in the case or Mme. Navratil of Nice, France. The White Star people can’t or won’t give me any information.”

His daughter Margaret, in turn, questioned the newspapermen as to what they may know: “Have you learned anything?” She continued, “Well, I don’t believe that Frenchwoman is the mother of these children at all. Her story is not plausible.”

To which her dad replied, “It certainly seems plausible to me. The children speak French and are of southern France type. They are of the age that Mme. Navratil states her children are. They must have been brought up near the water, as they are crazy over boats. And they are children of manifest refinement and as fond of automobiles as boats.”

After reading of Mdm. Navratil’s story, Rudolph Navratil of 317 East Ninth Street in Manhattan was convinced that the two boys belonged to his uncle, also named Rudolph Navratil, whom he had not seen in quite some time. “My uncle was about 45 years old, and he left Hungary when only 20. Since that time he has resided in several different countries, but most of the time in France.” 

He continued, “I’ve seen the pictures of the two Titanic waifs and can trace a strong family resemblance. There is not a shadow of doubt that the children are my uncle’s. The only doubt is as to whether it was my uncle who had them on board the Titanic or whether it was his friend Hoffman.” This lead seemed promising but was quickly proven wrong. Shortly after reading the claim in the newspaper, the elder Rudolph Navratil contacted his nephew and explained that he had moved to New York City eight years prior and never had any children.

Many of the initial headlines of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg were incorrect. (Click on image to enlarge.)

On May 6th, Mme. Navratil boarded the RMS Oceanic at Cherbourg and began her trip to New York. While the White Star Line provided her with first-class accommodations, she mingled very little with the other passengers. 

While awaiting her arrival, the Children’s Aid Society placed the boys in the care of one of Mme. Navratil’s relatives, whose name was withheld from the press.  She was later identified as Rose Bruno, a cousin who worked as a governess in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Finally, on May 15th – one full month after the Titanic sank to its icy grave, the Oceanic docked and Mme. Navratil was one of the first off of the ship. She was rushed through customs and then met at the pier by Margaret and her father Frank, cousin Rose, and a couple of others. After some brief introductions, they all took a cab to the offices of the Children’s Aid Society. There, she was hurried through a throng of reporters and photographers and led up to the nurses’ parlor on the fifth floor. The rest of the party fell back as Mme. Navratil turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.
Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.

As she entered the room, she first spotted her eldest son, Michel, dressed in a tan sailor suit, seated in the corner of a window with a picture alphabet book in his lap. Edmond was crawling on the floor attempting to put a child’s puzzle together.

She knelt to her knees and called to her children, “Mes enfants – Mes petits.” (My children, my little ones.)

Edmond let out a wail and ran towards his mother. “Oh, maman! Oh, Maman!” Michel quickly followed and they all embraced for quite some time.  

The three were alone in the room for nearly an hour, but she never asked them about the tragedy or their father.  “I do not want them to think about that. They must only be happy from now on – only happy; no more distress.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Michel and Edmond. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

While Mme. Navratil was fluent in French and Italian, she spoke no English. Her statements were all translated into English for the benefit of the reporters and their readers.  

“I’m afraid they will both be frightened when they see the big ship on which I am to take them back home Saturday. As for me, of course, I am not frightened, not at all.”

When asked if she would agree to any of the offers of adoption, she replied “No, indeed! I couldn’t give them up.”

She then went on to describe how this whole mess began.  She had been born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents, but her family soon moved back to Genoa. It was there that she met her future husband, Hungarian Michel Navratil. He was a tailor by trade and the two married in 1907, when she was seventeen.  The couple ultimately settled down in Nice where his business prospered. 

The two were very happy until shortly after the birth of their second son, Edmond. That’s when, according to Mme. Navratil, everything started to turn sour. Her husband had become insanely jealous and their marriage quickly fell apart. She filed for a separation and was granted custody of the children. Dad was only permitted to see his children once a month. 

It was on April 7, 1912 – Easter Day – that Mme. Navratil sent her children to see her husband. 

“On Easter Sunday last, my children were taken to their father, and from that time to this, I have not seen them. I then heard that he had sailed from Cherbourg on the Titanic, and when I heard of the sinking of the steamship I almost lost my reason, for my babies, I thought, must have perished. Later came word that there were two children in New York, and when they told me how they looked like, I knew they must be mine.”

She did express that she believed that her husband had died in the wreck, but she had no proof, other than the positive identification by the ticket agent in Monte Carlo, that both he and Louis Hoffman were, in fact, the same person.

Michel Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

On Saturday, May 18, Mme. Navratil and her two children would board the Oceanic and begin their return trip to Europe. Just before they set sail, she commented, “The people here have been very kind. I have not had many offers of help, but I have felt more than I can tell the sympathy for my babies and myself and the trouble strangers have taken to bring us together. I have had hundreds of letters of sympathy and even offers of marriage.” She continued, “We are simple folk, my children and I, and we need not much. God has been good enough to bring us together after so many terrible things.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Edmond and Michel. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

But things were not well when they got back home. Her deceased husband had sold his business for about $8,000 ($215,000 today) and the money was never found. It was believed that he was carrying the cash with him to America and it went down with the ship. 

One year later, Mme. Navratil was working as a servant and struggling to make ends meet. Word that they were living in poverty somehow got back to New York and the Hays family once again stepped in to help.  Margaret told reporters, “Monday is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the legal limit for filing claims expires then. To enable Mrs. Navratil to begin suit, I sent her the money necessary.” Her dad filed a claim for $30,000, but it is unclear if Mrs. Navratil ever received any compensation for her loss.

Margaret would marry Dr. Charles D. Easton of Newport, Rhode Island on April 24, 1913. In November 1914, she would once again meet up with Mme. Navratil and the two boys. The reunion was reported as being joyous. Sadly, Dr. Easton was 58 when he died after undergoing surgery on October 4, 1934. While vacationing with one of her two daughters and a granddaughter in Buenos Aires, Margaret suffered a heart attack and passed away on August 21, 1956. She was sixty-eight years old.

Grave of Margaret Bechstein Hays Easton. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Not much is known about Marcelle Caretto Navratil other than she worked hard, successfully raised her two sons and died in 1963.

Edmond would work as an interior decorator before becoming an architect and builder. When World War II broke out, he joined the French Army, was captured, and was placed in a German POW camp.  He was able to escape, but his health had greatly suffered during his internment and he died on July 7, 1953, at the age of 43.

Lastly, his brother Michel Navratil, Jr. became a psychology professor. It was while in college that he would meet his future Juliet. The couple married in 1932 and together they raised three children.

In 1987, Michel made his first trip back to the United States to mark the 75th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. He returned once again in 1996 and, along with two other female survivors, they cruised to the location of the wreck while attempts were being made to bring a portion of the ship to the surface. 

Before his return to France, he traveled to Halifax for the first time to visit his father’s grave in the Baron de Hirsh Cemetery.  When the bodies were recovered, the intent was to bury the Jewish victims there.  In an ironic twist, eight of the ten Titanic victims buried there were unidentified and the other two weren’t Jewish. Steward Frederick William Wormald was a member of the Church of England and Michel Navratil was Catholic.  The reason Navratil was buried in a Jewish cemetery was that he was originally identified Louis Hoffman, Hoffman being a Jewish surname. Today, his grave bears the name Michel Navratil.

His son Michel did reveal one family secret during his 1996 trip. The failure of his parents’ marriage was not due to jealousy over the birth of Edmond. “My mother never forgave herself for losing her children as a result of her love affair. In New York, there were many people who wanted to adopt us. The battle my mother had endured to win us back was to her like a divine punishment for what she had done.” 

Michel Marcelle Navratil, Jr. was 92 years old when he passed away on January 30, 2001. He was the last surviving male Titanic passenger. Four women outlived him.

Prior to his death, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure really, of going plop into the lifeboat.”

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

Podcast #137 – The Zambian Space Program

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the deal with the cats?

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

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

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

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

ITN interview with Edward Nkoloso.

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut training at the Zambian Space Academy in November 1964.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast #135 – The Child Bride

 

While I wasn’t born there, I spent most of my youth in the small town of Thompsonville, NY, which is located in the southern portion of the so-called Catskill Mountains.  I always joke that the town is so small that if you blinked while driving through it, you would miss it in its entirety.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the location of today’s story is probably not much different.  In fact, I am quite certain that it is far more remote than where I grew up.

Nestled in the northeastern portion of Tennessee is the Central Appalachian county of Hancock, just a short distance from the southern border of Kentucky. According to the 2010 census, the population of the entire county was 6,819 in total. The median income there today is $19,760, making it the county with the lowest income in Tennessee and the twenty-seventh lowest in the United States.

On January 12, 1937, in Treadway, a small town in Hancock county, a young couple asked a local minister, 53-year-old Reverend Walter Lamb, to join the two in matrimony. He quickly looked over their marriage license and everything seemed to be in order. Issued six days earlier, that legal document allowed him to marry 18-year-old Eunice Blanche Winstead to 22-year-old Charlie Jess Johns.

Marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.

And that was exactly what he did. 

Standing at a curve in the roadway, the Reverend asked the two to join hands and performed what he later described as a “Baptist ceremony.” “And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” He then pronounced them man and wife and the brief ceremony was over. His fee was $1.00 (about $18.00 today.)

Soon after, the couple arrived at the home of Nick Johns, father of the groom, and Charlie announced, “Well, we’re married.”  Neither family was surprised by their elopement and the parents from both families offered their approval and blessings to the newlyweds.  Mrs. Winstead later stated, “Eunice had claimed Charlie for hers ever since we live here. Of course, we never had any idea they had a serious thought about each other, and they were married before we knew it.”

Back in 1937, Hancock county was in one of the most inaccessible locations in all of Tennessee. And Treadway was a town without telephone or telegraph lines, electric lights, and railway service. As a result, news of their marriage was slow to reach the outside world. And when it finally did ten days later, the marriage of Eunice and Charlie was thrust upon the front page of newspapers across the nation.

Why? Because the couple had lied on their marriage application. While Charlie was, in fact, twenty-two years old, Eunice was a prepubescent nine-year-old.

On the morning of their marriage, Eunice told her dad that she was headed up the road to her married sister’s house to get a doll that Charlie had given to her the previous Christmas. Instead, she met up with her fiancé and the two walked several miles to ask Reverend Lamb to marry them.  After the ceremony was completed, Eunice stopped at her sister’s to pick up the doll and then went home.

Eunice Winstead, Charlie Johns, and Reverend Walter Lamb reenacting the marriage ceremony for the press. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

When questioned by the press, Eunice’s dad, Lewis Winstead, stated, “All right with me – there’s nothing you can do about it now.” 

Mrs. Winstead commented, “Eunice loves Charlie and Charlie loves Eunice, and’ taint nobody’s business but theirs. Never in all my borned days did I see such a commotion and flusteration about two people getting’ hitched. Maybe Eunice is a mite young, but what of it?”

She continued, “I guess I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30, and there ain’t nothing wrong with me. I thank God my little girl’s got a good husband, and I pray they’ll live together and be happy. People shouldn’t orter pester ‘em so.”

When questioned as to why he had married the couple, Reverend Lamb stated, “If I hadn’t married them, someone else would.” Reflecting back on what had happened, he said, “I don’t think I would have, though, if I’d a-known the girl was quite so young. Nine’s a little early, but they had a license and Eunice didn’t seem so young.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 3, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

What is most shocking was that there was nothing that public officials could do about the marriage. It was totally legal. Lewis Rhea, Hancock County Clerk at the time, stated, “When I learned she was just a child, I investigated and found out her parents didn’t object. So far as I know, the present Tennessee law allows marriage at any age if the parents agree.”

He was correct. A Tennessee law enacted in 1927 required that girls under the age of 18 and boys under 21 give five days notice prior to the granting of a marriage license, unless they had their parents’ approval. The effect of this law was that many couples, including those of eligible age who misunderstood the regulation, simply went to another state to marry. This resulted in counties like Hancock losing up to half of their marriage license revenue, so the state legislature repealed that portion of the law in 1935. That made Tennessee the only state in the Union at the time to have no minimum age for marriage. This produced the desired result in that it allowed Hancock County to double its revenue from marriages, many of the couples coming from the nearby state of Virginia, which set its minimum age for marriage at twenty-one.

Basically, Eunice and Charlie were legally married and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. And while both families were in approval of this union, the outside world was not as supportive.  Here is a sampling of what others had to say:

Mrs. Urban Neas, president of the Central Parent-Teacher Council, stated, “I can’t imagine such a thing happening in a Christian nation. If there is anything the P-T A. can do to prevent its recurrence, we certainly hope to do it.”

Mrs. Graeme Canning, president of the Ossoli Circle women’s club expressed support for returning to the five-day marriage rule: “If we had such a law now, that marriage could not have happened. As it is, it’s a poor commentary on our civilization and on East Tennessee.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

The Rev. Walter A. Smith, pastor at the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Knoxville, and then president of the Ministerial Association, offered up the following comment: “I think the preacher who married that couple made a very great mistake. But the people who issued the license for the marriage made just as big a mistake. I don’t know what can be done about the marriage now. It’s a tragedy, a very great tragedy. It should never be allowed to happen again. If there isn’t a law, there should be one.”

Mrs. Louise Bussart, also of Knoxville, stated “I sincerely believe some restriction should be put on the marriage of young girls. Children nine years old certainly do not know their own minds, and they may get married just because the idea sounded glamorous.”

Another resident, Wallace Wright, stated, “The present laws are all right, but there is no use in the people making fools of themselves and the laws to.”

Even Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning was asked for his opinion. “The girl’s parents sanctioned the marriage and that makes it legal.”  He added, “Of course a marriage like that is a shame, but what can I do about it? And besides, I’ve got other more important matters to worry about at the moment.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns receiving mail from postman George M. Williams. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Three days after this story first broke in the news, two bills were introduced to the Tennessee Senate. The first would make marriage involving anyone under the age of fourteen “null and void,” even if the parents approved. The second would make a county court clerk guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she knowingly issued a marriage license to anyone under the age of sixteen. And should someone under sixteen wish to marry, the clerk would be required to call for a hearing before a judge.  Two days later, without a single dissenting vote, the Senate passed a bill preventing any marriage in which either member of the party was under the age of fourteen. It was now up to the Tennessee House to review and approve.

Upon hearing the news of the Senate approval, Charlie told the press, “I ain’t payin’ no mind to what they’re doin’ down to the legislature, nor what folks is saying. Ain’t no new law goin’ to change things now. Me’n Eunice is married for keeps and I reckon I can look after her [with] ‘thout no help from nobody.”

The public uproar over the marriage continued to swell, forcing the young couple to take refuge in the home of Charlie’s parents. With the help of neighbors who blocked the road and stood guard outside, everything seemingly possible was done to insulate nine-year-old Eunice from the prying eyes of the curious press.

Charlie told reporters, “Let Eunice alone, don’t scare her.”

Her dad chimed in, “This thing has got to stop. The girl’ll lose her mind if strangers don’t stop coming to see her.”

Yet, no one was more vocal in supporting the marriage that Eunice’s mom:

 “Let them alone. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone.”  She added, “Eunice can’t sleep, she’s so nervous. She’ll lose her mind if this keeps up.”

“The Bible says not to disturb those peacefully getting along, and I don’t believe in going against the Bible. If they love one another, then getting married is the thing to do. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone. Charlie is a good boy. He’s a hard worker. He bought forty acres a few days ago so that they could have a home. Of course, understand I haven’t brought my children up to marry what men has got, but to marry for love.” 

“She married too young but it’s too late to talk about it. After all, every girl has a right to get married, and if Eunice wants to marry Charlie, it’s her own life.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns reading the Bible. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

You may be questioning just how common child marriages were back then. Nationwide,it was estimated that there were 5,000 child brides under the age of fifteen back in 1937. If one includes those who were fifteen, that number skyrockets to 20,000 young girls. About one-quarter of those baby brides were concentrated in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

The press ran stories of similar child brides, but none were as young as Eunice. For example:

  • 12-year-old Leona Elizabeth Roshia had married 18-year-old Stanley F. Backus of Watertown, New York. 
  • Mrs. Ben Jacobs of Port Byron, Illinois gave birth to her first son in 1933, nine days before she had turned twelve.
  • Mrs. Ellen Walker of Panacea, Florida gave birth to a son before she had turned thirteen.
  • Mrs. Russell Frazell of Moline, Illinois already had a son when she was fourteen.
  • And, on January 29th, the day before Eunice and Charlie’s marriage was revealed to the press, 13-year-old Eula Green married 17-year-old Charles Newberry of North Carolina.

There were many more stories just like these, but I was struck by what Mrs. Jean Darnell, another Tennessee child bride, had to say. “When I’m around the hill people I brag that I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30. But that’s just brag. If I had things to go over again, I’d do them differently. 

“My husband’s in the state penitentiary. I have to make a living for myself and my children. I managed to get enough education to do it, but it’s hard to have to pay all your life for a mistake at 13. 

“A girl of 12 or 13 or even 14 has no idea of love or marriage. She ought to be protected. And if this case has stirred up enough excitement to bring about a new marriage law for Tennessee, then it has served its purpose. 

“I feel sorry for little Eunice – but it took something like this to wake people up. She doesn’t realize it, but she has saved other girls from becoming wives and perhaps widows before they are grown up. I think Tennessee owes a vote of thanks to its 9-year-old bride.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 14 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On February 26, 1937, Governor Browning signed into law a measure that set the minimum age to marry at sixteen. Should the girl be under eighteen years of age, the new law required a three day waiting period before a license could be issued. Lastly, should either of the party be under sixteen, a court could annul the marriage should a complaint be filed “by such person or any interested person acting on his or her behalf.”

Yet, this did not bring a halt to child marriages in Tennessee.  Here are three examples:

On March 13th of that year, 14-year-old Dollie Livesay married 23-year-old James Brewer. They simply slipped across the border into Kentucky to get married, which many other young couples also opted to do. A March 23, 1937 Knoxville Journal article stated that, “Unlike Mrs. Eunice Johns, whose marriage at nine precipitated the new state law, Mrs. Brewer has begun to mature towards womanhood and has been versed in the housekeeping arts.” 

13-year-old Mildred and 17-year-old Robert Pack of Knoxville eloped to Marshall, North Carolina on September 1, 1937, where a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Robert stated, “Well, I guess we put one over on the old folks. And on the new state law, too. We sure got around that.”

Finally, on March 29, 1937, 12-year-old Geneva Hamby married 32-year-old Homer Peels in Madisonville, Tennessee. She gave her age as eighteen when they applied for their marriage license. On April 21st, her mother filed to have the marriage annulled, stating “Homer Peels’ too old for her – she is too young to marry anybody.” Shockingly, the court refused to annul the marriage. It turns out that Geneva had been placed in an orphanage two years prior and had little contact with her mother since. Chancellor A. T. Stewart agreed that there had been a violation of the 16-year age minimum, but wrote that an annulment would only serve to put “Geneva out of house and home with no place to go.”

The Clinch Valley school where Eunice and Charlie began their romance. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

In early August, it was time for Eunice to go back to school, which she had stopped attending after her January marriage. When teacher Wade Ferguson gave her a switching for supposed “general mischievousness,” her husband decided to withdraw her from school. When he told Ferguson that he couldn’t whip another man’s wife, Ferguson told Charlie, “Oh, yes, I can whip another man’s wife if another man sends his wife to school to me.” Tennessee law at the time did require anyone under sixteen to attend school, but Education Commissioner W.A. Bass stated, “We will not take any action to compel a married child to attend school.” Eunice would never return. With just a third grade education, she would never learn to read.

Meanwhile, offers for Eunice and Charlie to appear in both Vaudeville and movies poured in. Some were as much as $500 (approximately $9,000 today), but they were nearly all turned down. They did appear on stage for the first time on October 30, 1937 as part of a show in Kingsport, Tennessee. After the couple was introduced by the announcer, they stood there silently on the stage for two minutes. They made a total of six appearances that day. There was talk of making the couple the feature attraction of a traveling show, but that never materialized. 

Charlie and Eunice with their attorney, Taylor Drinnon of nearby Morristown, TN. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Rumors began to circulate in the press that the couple’s marriage was falling apart, but when their first anniversary came around, they were still together and living with Charlie’s parents. When questioned about their marriage, Charlie commented, “Of course, we fuss now and then but it don’t amount to nothing. We’ve managed fine this last year and we’d be a lot happier if folks would just leave us alone.” He added, “I’ve got to where I don’t trust many people anymore. Too many of ‘em are out to slick a feller. I’ve made some money, but it’s not in a bank – I’ve got it hid away.” 

Eunice had little to say, but boastfully stated, “I like to milk.” It was noted by the reporter that she was learning how to cook, to which Charlie added, “She already knows how to make biscuits.”

9-year-old Eunice Johns and her younger sister, Dorothy Winstead, making bread for Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On the eve of their second anniversary, it didn’t seem like much had changed. “She’s pretty good at milking and washing, but she ain’t learned much about cooking yet.” Charlie said that they were planning to build a small house because “we ain’t goin’ to have no young ‘uns.”

As they say, never say never. On December 18, 1942, fourteen-year-old Eunice gave birth to the couple’s first child, Evelyn. And she wouldn’t be their last.

As their twentieth anniversary rolled around, Evelyn was the proud mother of seven children. Charlie had inherited his parents’ 150-acre hillside farm and had become a prosperous farmer. After selling off the mineral rights to a zinc company for $75/acre, the couple was financially set for the remainder of their lives. 

The couple would once again make headlines in September 1960 after their 17-year-old daughter Evelyn eloped with her boyfriend, 20-year-old John Henry Antrican. The couple had been dating for about one-year, but Charlie never approved of the relationship. 

Evelyn and John Henry Antrican shortly after their elopement. Image appeared on page 1 of the September 12, 1960 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

John Henry described how he whisked Evelyn out from under her father’s guard: “Charlie was working in his tobacco patch when I went and got her. He took out after me but he never got close.” He then exchanged cars with a friend. “I went every whichaway I could think of to throw him off the track. I took Evelyn to Morristown where she spent the night with a Negro woman who used to live close by her. Then I come home and spend the night (Thursday) here.”  The next day, Friday, he picked Evelyn up and they drove to Rutledge, Tennessee, where they were married.

Papa Charlie was furious. On the day of the wedding, he had John Henry arrested and charged with abduction. He was released on a $1,000 bond. The next day, both John Henry and his mother Eliza were arrested and charged with falsifying Evelyn’s age at 21 when they obtained the marriage license. 

Marriage license for John Henry Antrican and Evelyn Johns. Note that Evelyn’s age is listed as 21.

Evelyn told the press that she couldn’t understand how her father could be upset with the marriage. “After all, Papa married Mama when she was only 9 years old.”  

John Henry told the press that Charlie did not approve of the marriage because he wanted Evelyn to marry “another boy who was better off financially.” He added that Charlie was “just plain hard to get along with.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb in 1937. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

Reverend Lamb, the same minister who had married Eunice and Charlie twenty-three years prior, offered to step in and try to find an amicable solution to the problem. “If I could see him, I would.” He added, “They’d better be proud she married a good boy.” Charlie Johns didn’t take him up on the offer. Luckily, he came to his senses and dropped all of the charges. Evelyn and John Henry would remain married until Evelyn’s death forty-six years later.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this unusual story. When the press interviewed Eunice in 1976, she said that she had no regrets over marrying so young. When asked about the worst part of doing so, she noted that it had brought an end to her education. “I never could learn too easy, and I didn’t learn much when my children were in school.”

1976 photograph of Eunice Winstead Johns with granddaughter Pamela Lynn Newman. Image appeared on page 21 of the July 21, 1976 publication of the Kingsport Times-News.

Charlie Jess Johns died on February 13, 1997 at the age of eighty-four. After all of the criticism from the naysayers had long faded away, the couple had a successful marriage that lasted sixty years. Together they had nine children; three girls and six boys with a nineteen year age gap between the youngest and the oldest. Sadly, their youngest daughter had died from pneumonia at twenty months of age just one-week before their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Eunice Blanche Winstead Johns would live another nine years without her husband. By then a great-grandmother, she passed away on August 29, 2006, less than a month shy of her 79th birthday.

Which leaves me with one last little surprise. After I finished writing this story, I started gathering the documents and images to post on my website. Then it hit me: Every single story ever written about the couple had made the same error and I was about to repeat it. After a little math and double-checking, Charlie Johns was not twenty-two when he married Eunice. He was twenty-four.

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

Here are some additional photographs from various sources:

Eunice holding her doll shortly after her marriage to Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Johnson City Press.
Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice posing with the doll that Charlie Johns had given her prior to their marriage. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice Winstead Johns with her parents and sisters at the family home. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
The Winstead home in Treadway, Tennessee. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Captioned “A dutiful little wife performs a chore,” this image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
Newly married 9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns making the bed. Image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns was the youngest bride in the United States when she married Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 65 of the August 23, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
January 12, 1937 marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
Cover of the marriage license between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
This Application for Confidential Verification of the marriage between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns appears to be in error. It specifies Charlie’s age at 14 years. In reality, he was 24 when he married 9-year-old Eunice. It also indicates that the marriage took place between 1933 and 1936, when, in fact, it occurred in 1937.

Podcast #134 – Emperor of the Sahara

 

Shortly after the United States entered World War I, on July 3, 1917, a mysterious craft sailed into the harbor of Oyster Bay, Long Island and cast anchor near the public dock. This 50-foot (15.25 meter) long yawl was odd in that it had two smaller jiggers, yet lacked a mainmast and mainsail. Even stranger was the fact that the boat lacked a crew. Captained by one man, this stranger rowed his canoe to shore and his peculiar actions quickly became the concern of villagers.

He first walked into a tinsmith’s shop and requested that a hole be cut into the iron cockpit of his boat to allow in some ballast. When the tinsmith informed the man that such action would surely cause his boat to sink, the stranger turned around and walked out in disgust.

The next day, this man with a foreign accent attempted to hire a boy to carry his suitcase around, but none could be found. He then went to the local telegraph office to wire a request to New York for a messenger boy to be sent but stormed out in a huff after not being supplied with the type of telegraph form that he desired. He later was able to hire a local boy for 15-cents ($3.00 today).

On July 9th, he lifted anchor and moved his craft to a point not far from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate.

The people of Oyster Bay began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Their country was in the midst of a world war. A mysterious boat arrives carrying a man of foreign origin who engages in unusual activities around town. He then sails close to the home of a former United States President. They knew exactly what they were dealing with: a German spy.

The local constable was summoned and he began to assemble a group of men to board the craft and arrest the stranger. Not long after they had begun their preparations, the man in question stormed into the local courtroom and demanded the immediate arrest of a significant portion of the Oyster Bay populace. When questioned further, he narrowed his request down to several local boys, claiming that one of the young men had pointed a gun at him. It was later learned that some boys had thrown stones at him as he swam toward shore.

When the suspect’s bag was searched, authorities found that it contained approximately $1,000 (nearly $20,000 today), forty keys, about a dozen oranges, and a French passport. When questioned about all that money, he reportedly stated, “That’s nothing. I am the richest man in America.”

A German spy? Definitely not. A little nuts? Maybe. The richest man in America? Quite possibly.

The man in question was Jacques Lebaudy, who was indeed one of the wealthiest men in the world. And how he ended up in Long Island, New York is among the most peculiar stories in history.

Jacques Lebaudy. Image originally appeared on page 385 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Henri Jacques Lebaudy was born in Paris on May 13, 1868, the second of four children to Amicie Piou and Jules Lebaudy. The family fortune was made in the refinery of sugar, plus other investments. When his father Jules died on May 30, 1892, Jacques inherited as much as $20 million (over $560 million today).

Jacques Lebaudy could purchase anything that he wished, excluding the one thing that he truly desired: power. He hated rules, taxes, mandatory military service, and the French government as a whole. With power, he was certain that he could avoid all of the restrictions that France had placed upon him and live a life free of governmental intrusions.

What happened next is poorly documented, but it is said that he had a discussion with a man named Jimmy Langerman in 1902 that would forever change the course of Lebaudy’s life. Langerman had no source of income, yet money never seemed to be in short supply. He was a bon vivant who traveled the world. While seated at a Paris cafe, Langerman told Lebaudy of his travels through the Sahara. While the desert may have seemed like an undeveloped, worthless pile of sand to most, Langerman explained that it was a land of promise, loaded with minerals and gems just waiting for someone to take it.

Jacques Lebaudy was hooked. He envisioned the establishment of a small Saharan country, installing himself as its monarch, and reaping the fortune that its riches would offer him. Best of all, with his own country, he could do as he pleased. Lebaudy would be free of those oppressive French rules and regulations.

The one thing missing from Lebaudy’s future kingdom was the land itself. He learned of a 185-mile (300 km) long strip of no-man’s land on the western coast of Africa, between Cape Juby and Cape Bojador. With no recognized power laying claim to it, Lebaudy decided he would take the land for himself.

Lebaudy’s plan was to sail his yacht, the Frasquita, from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands directly east to the location of his planned empire. He had purchased his yacht through a man named Tordo, so Lebaudy asked him to recruit a team of twenty sailors for his planned voyage. One of these sailors, a man named Cambrai, later stated, “When we left, we were far from suspecting the true object of the voyage. M. Tordo, the agent for M. Lebaudy in Havre, informed us that he was in want of men to complete the crew of two yachts he had bought. He offered 6f. to 15f. per day, according to our capacity. The offer was good and we accepted.”

Jacques Lebaudy’s ship Fresquita. Image originally appeared on page 386 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

The sailors arrived in Las Palmas on June 1, 1903. Lebaudy ordered new uniforms for all of the men and put them up in a hotel as preparations for the voyage were finalized. While the exact date of departure was not recorded, Lebaudy, his assistant, and ten of the sailors boarded the Frasquita and set sail for the African coast.

Upon their arrival, Lebaudy searched for a suitable location to make landfall. He opted for a smooth, sandy beach that was flanked by undulating dunes. Upon dropping anchor, Lebaudy revealed to his crew the true nature of their mission. They had come to establish the Saharan Empire, with Lebaudy self-chosen to be this new nation’s leader. It is unknown what the crew thought of Lebaudy as he read his manifesto to them, but from that moment on, he was to be referred to as Jacques I, Emperor of the Sahara. Jacque Lebaudy was history.

The Emperor envisioned this beach and the area behind it to be the future location of his capital city and his palace. He named it Troja. A small boat was lowered from the Frasquita and a group of men went ashore. They quickly determined that the area lacked a source of drinking water, so the decision was made to weigh anchor and find a more suitable location for Troja.

They sailed southward until a promising bay was spotted. On June 7th, sailors were sent ashore and, upon their return, confirmed to Lebaudy that there was an abundant supply of potable water. The Emperor stepped out of his boat, walked inland a short distance, and proceeded to plant his imperial standard down into the sand. For now, the city of Troja would consist of just one building: a large circus tent that the crew had erected.

Lebaudy wished to further explore his new kingdom. Sailor Cambrai stated, “The night of the 10th he slept with us in the tent, and the following day he informed us he was leaving, with five of our comrades, to establish a post a little further on, but that he would come back the next day.” He continued, “He left us a small boat, two guns, two revolvers, 400 cartridges, and two days’ provisions.”

The next day Lebaudy and half of the crew sailed southward before anchoring along another stretch of sandy beach. He declared this to be the location of the largest town in his empire: Polis.

The approximate location of Troja, the capital of Jacque Lebaudy’s Saharan Empire. Image originally appeared on page 386 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

A few days later, the group headed back to Troja. Upon arrival, they discovered the five men who had been left behind were gone. It was clear that their camp had been raided and that the men had been taken away. Not knowing if they were still alive or not, a search party was sent out to locate the missing sailors. It was soon learned that the men had been kidnapped on June 12th, were then transported to the interior, and were being held by their captors for ransom. On June 20th, it was agreed that Lebaudy would pay 200 francs ($1000 US today) for each of the sailors, but when the men were brought back to make the exchange on June 23rd, Lebaudy and his ship were gone.

When the Frasquita arrived back in Las Palmas, Spanish authorities questioned Lebaudy as to where he had sailed from. He replied, “From my own country. From my own country. I come from my own country. I have no information to give you. I recognize no other flag except that of my yacht.” He then proceeded to point to the triangular flag flying from the mainmast of the Frasquita.

Jacques Lebaudy’s private flags. Image originally appeared on page 385 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Lebaudy wasn’t saying much, but the remaining members of his crew were quite talkative. They told of how the five men had been kidnapped and said that they no longer wished to remain a part of his bizarre plan. They demanded that Lebaudy pay them the wages that they were owed, plus transport back to France. Lebaudy refused, so the men took their complaints to the French council.

When authorities back in France learned that five of their citizens were being held captive, they immediately jumped into action. A request was sent to Moroccan authorities asking that they open a dialog with the captors to negotiate the return of the men. A Paris newspaper sent a reporter in an attempt to purchase their freedom. Lastly, the French cruiser Galilée was dispatched to Cape Juby. The ship dropped anchor on August 24th, not far from where the sailors had last been seen.

An interpreter from the Galilée was sent ashore to negotiate with the captors, but the discussions went nowhere. The ship’s captain was able to get three letters to the prisoners, the last of which was sent with a change of clothing. That final note instructed the men to put on the clothing ASAP, so that they would easily stand out from the others from a distance, and to do their best to separate from their captors.

At 1:30 P. M. on August 31, 1903, the five men pretended to take a nonchalant stroll along the beach. Once they were a good distance away, the Galilée opened fire into the gap between the prisoners and their captors. The sailors made a mad dash into the water and swam toward a small boat that had been lowered down from the ship. The shots continued until the sailors were safe aboard the Galilée.

An article that appeared in the September 6, 1903 issue of the Boston Globe begins, “The French press continues to ask if it shall be ‘menottes ou camisole’ (handcuffs or straitjacket) for Jacques Lebaudy.”

The same story told of an interview that Lebaudy did with Le Journal in Las Palmas, where he stated, “In the first place my men would not have been captured if they had not been cowards. I explained to them that they were engaged for warfare; when menased [sic] they surrendered where I, their emperor, would have died fighting.” He continued, “Employment has its risks; in my mines and in my sugar factories men are injured daily but I pay no damages.”

While Lebaudy’s Saharan empire ceased to exist not long after it began, he refused to give up on his dream. In his mind, the only mistake that he made was not having enough armed men to protect his new nation from marauders. He was determined to go back to Africa with a complete army and claim what he felt was rightfully his.

Facing public anger, lawsuits, and potential criminal charges, Lebaudy was wise enough to not return to France immediately. Instead, he took a steamer to Hamburg, Germany and announced a few days later that he was calling together eleven of his “Ministers of State” in Montreux, Switzerland. Lebaudy also indicated that he would appoint a lieutenant-general to command over a one-hundred-man army that he was forming. On September 21st he appointed a duelist named Larbardescue to be his “Commander in Chief of the Armies of His Majesty Jacques I, Emperor of Sahara.”

By early October, Lebaudy had moved his nation’s operations to a large suite of rooms at the Hotel Savoy in London. While his country only existed on paper, he proceeded to have all of the accoutrements befitting of an emperor made: a dazzling crown, a throne, Imperial flags, banknotes, and postage stamps. Men were appointed as secretaries and ministers of state, while Lebaudy personally chose the beautiful women for his royal court. He selected one woman, Marguerite Augustine Da Loch Delliere, to be his wife. As you will learn shortly, his chosen empress will play a significant part in bringing Lebaudy’s story to a close.

The Emperor of Sahara’s stampage, throne, coinage, and flag. Image originally appeared on page 44 of the February 27, 1904 issue of the Western_Mail.

Back home in France, matters were worsening for Lebaudy. He was threatened with expulsion from the country and was being asked to reimburse the French government for costs incurred while rescuing his five sailors. All of these men filed suit against Lebaudy, but, sadly, one of them died shortly after his return to France from injuries sustained during the abduction. Lebaudy was also informed that he owed France thirteen days of compulsory military service, to which he responded, “I am now a Saharan. You might as well expect the German Emperor to come and serve as a French soldier.”

The New York Times reported on January 19, 1904 that Lebaudy planned to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to nominate former members of his Rough Riders for positions in the Saharan military. Colonel George Gourard, Governor General of Sahara, told the Times, “The invitation to recommend officers will be submitted to President Roosevelt in a few days. Whether the President will consider it proper to accept the invitation or not, the Emperor wishes to pay him this compliment.” Roosevelt never responded.

“His Majesty Jacques I., domiciled in Troja, in the Empire of the Sahara” filed suit against brokers that owed him money. On April 9th, a French court concluded that Lebaudy’s empire only existed in his mind and, therefore, he had no basis for the lawsuit. This loss in court would be followed by another ten days later. This time, he settled out of court with the five kidnapped sailors for 50,000 francs ($250,000 US today).

Four of the five rescued soldiers. Image originally appeared on page 392 of the February 1904 publication of Wide World Magazine.

Despite these financial setbacks, Lebaudy continued on his quest for legitimate recognition of his Saharan empire. He concluded that if he could somehow obtain an official title from an established government, he would be able to use that to his advantage in establishing his own country.

In mid-1904, he entered into negotiations to loan the Sultan of Morocco $2,000,000 (over $56 million today) at 7% interest. In exchange, Lebaudy would be granted the title of “King of the Oasis of Chahkima.” As negotiations dragged, Lebaudy proceeded to insult the Muslim religion and the deal fell apart.

It wasn’t long before he came up with a better idea. Observing that the Prince of Monaco had worldwide recognition while ruling over a tiny country, Lebaudy wished the same for himself. In July 1904, he approached the United States with a proposal to purchase as many of the Philippine islands as they would be willing to sell, provided that he was granted full sovereignty over them. The United States didn’t take the bait.

In August, he purchased an extravagant home in Brussels to be used as the “European Embassy of the Empire of Sahara in Brussels.” Lebaudy sent instructions to his associates in France to sell his Parisian properties.

A few weeks later he found the ideal location for his country: the Adriatic port city of Dulcigno (now Ulcinj) in Montenegro. He arranged a meeting with Prince Nicholas I to negotiate a purchase price, but the Prince was unwilling to sell. Unable to buy the entire city outright, Lebaudy attempted to do so piecemeal, which caused real estate prices to skyrocket. He was forced to abandon his latest scheme.

While passing southward through Durazzo (Durrës, Albania), police arrested Lebaudy as he sought to hire a steamship to take him to the Greek island of Corfu. Noting that he was loaded with money while attempting to leave the country, officials mistook Lebaudy for a bank clerk who had absconded with a large sum of money. In spite of his protests, Lebaudy was held in prison for three days.

In June 1905, Lebaudy’s threatened to kill his wife, which forced her to file a complaint with authorities in Trieste, Austria-Hungary (today in northern Italy). He was summoned to appear in court but managed to slip away. Leaving nearly all of his possessions behind, he fled 450 miles (725 km) northeast by buggy to Gorlice (in southern Poland today), where he was recaptured. Hauled back to Trieste, Lebaudy was able to convince authorities that he was sane.

Meanwhile, things continued to worsen for Lebaudy back home. On July 24, 1905, a Paris court ruled that he must pay a stockbroker $15,000 ($423,000 today) for unpaid fees. The judge did not buy his lawyer’s claim “that it has no legal jurisdiction in this matter. My client’s legal residences are Troja, in the Empire of Sahara, and Brussels, where the European Embassy of Sahara’s Empire is situated.”

In November, he lost $200,000 ($5.6 million today) in 1904 profits from his sugar empire. Through inheritance, two of his cousins became business partners with him. Both refused to refer to Lebaudy by his official Saharan title, so he refused payment. The cousins dragged him into court, but Lebaudy refused to send a lawyer or appear himself because the summons did not address him as “Emperor of the Sahara.” The judge ruled against him.

Image of Jacques Lebaudy that was printed on page 6 of the September 1, 1903 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

For the next twelve months, there would barely be a mention of Jacques Lebaudy in the press. He seemed to have vanished. In January 1907, newspapers around the world began to speculate as to what had happened to him. He resurfaced on July 18, 1907 after he was spotted by a reporter in an unlikely place: at a hotel in New York City. Lebaudy established a postal box there – number 1655 – the only mailing address that he would use for the remainder of his life.

While in New York, Lebaudy led a fairly quiet life. Having become quite litigious, there would be an occasional mention in the papers about a lawsuit that he filed, but his crazy nation-building antics seemed to have become a thing of the past.

On May 26, 1913, he purchased Phoenix Lodge, a fifty-acre run-down estate in Westbury, Long Island to share with his wife Marguerite and their eight-year-old daughter Jacqueline. Nicknamed “The House of Fifty Rooms,” Lebaudy had done little to maintain it.

Two years later, Lebaudy’s actions would once again make headlines. Lebaudy had blocked off an access road to a neighbor’s property and Nassau County Sheriff Stephen Pettit was contacted. He assigned some of his men to guard the road. On August 17, 1915, the deputies heard horses trampling through the woods. The New York Times described what happened next: “From out of the leafy covert of the underbrush appeared a horse bearing a commanding figure whose Palm Beach suit, topped by a green-ribboned Panama hat, was weighted down with medals of all kinds till he looked like a German General. He carried a tin horn in one hand.” That commanding figure was Lebaudy and he stated, “I am the Emperor of the Saharas. Surrender!”

Suddenly four additional men emerged on horseback from the woods. Each soldier wore a dark green uniform with a facing of pink string. It was later learned that the Emperor’s army consisted of four Western Union messenger boys that Lebaudy had requested be sent to him by taxi from New York City.

The deputies contacted Sheriff Pettit. Upon his arrival, Lebaudy and his miniature army were situated on one side of a high rock wall, while the mounted deputies were on the other. Suddenly, Lebaudy took off with the sheriff in hot pursuit. Lebaudy cleared a small ditch, but the sheriff did not. He was thrown into the muddy water, hopped back on his horse and continued his chase of Lebaudy. The sheriff was able to overtake Lebaudy and bring him to a halt. Lebaudy blurted, “I surrender to the United States Government. I am Jacques Lebaudy, Emperor of Sahara, and I give up to you.”

Mrs. Lebaudy described to Sheriff Petit how her husband had become increasingly irrational, which caused both her and daughter Jacqueline to live in constant fear. Lebaudy was committed to a sanitarium but escaped the next morning. Twenty-five deputies unsuccessfully searched the woods for Lebaudy. The next day, during a lawn party being held in the hamlet of Halesite, guests were shocked to see a man on a horse emerge from the woods. It was Lebaudy, who asked, “Have any of you any long-haired cattle in your stables?” Suffolk County Under Sheriff Biggs was a guest at the party, immediately recognized Lebaudy, and contacted Sheriff Petit. The Emperor was returned to the sanitarium. While doctors continued their mental evaluation, Lebaudy’s lawyer arranged for his release after his initial ten-day commitment expired.

Lebaudy solely blamed one person for his troubles: his wife Marguerite. He proceeded to lock his wife and daughter into one of the rooms at Phoenix Lodge and forbid any servant from bringing them food or water. When Lebaudy learned that a servant had assisted the two, he reportedly carried hundreds of buckets of water up the stairs and proceeded to flood the hallways surrounding the room occupied by his wife and daughter.

On the evening of September 2, 1915, Lebaudy mailed a letter to the New York Times which included this notice: “Mr. Jacques Lebaudy of Paris, France, calls the attention of the public to the following facts: A French woman of no social standing has been for some time attempting to pose as being wedded to him.

“She has the audacity to use the name of a respected family and is deceiving in every way possible tradesmen and other people.

“He is taking legal steps to have her enjoined.”

This advertisement placed by Jacques Lebaudy appeared on page 18 of the September 7, 1915 issue of The New York Times.

That same day, Mrs. Lebaudy received a letter from her husband stating that he and four men would be arriving the next day to remove the contents of Phoenix Lodge. A deputy was dispatched to prevent this from happening.

In a September 5, 1915 interview with The Washington Post, Mrs. Lebaudy stated, “Recently I have been without sufficient food for my little daughter. There have been times when it was necessary for me to smuggle food into her room in order to provide her with sufficient nourishment.”

She added, “Since my little girl was born in Geneva, ten years ago, Mr. Lebaudy has at many times been unkind to me. He wanted a son, that the boy might some day be a French soldier. He was greatly disappointed when our child was a girl. It was our only child.”

Which brings us full circle to July 3, 1917. That was the day that Lebaudy pulled his boat into Oyster Bay Harbor, with its residents thinking that he may have been a German spy. After authorities determined his identity, they contacted Mrs. Lebaudy and asked what she wanted them to do with her husband. She replied, “Heavens! I don’t want him. He was here last night and broke up everything in the house.”

There was to be no peace in the Lebaudy household. With each passing day, Lebaudy’s attacks on his wife seemed to worsen. He was determined to destroy her, both mentally and financially. Every time that he returned to the Lodge, he would erupt in anger and destroy anything within sight. On several occasions, he had become so violent that the sheriff needed to be contacted. Fearing that he would harm or kidnap Jacqueline, Mrs. Lebaudy pulled her out of school. Mother and daughter spent years living in constant terror.

On January 11, 1919, Lebaudy arrived at Phoenix Lodge, assisted by a messenger boy named Mark Rosenfeld. Upon entering the home, Lebaudy exploded in rage and began to spread charcoal across the floor, as if he intended to burn the building down. He violently flipped over furniture and proceeded to toss the sofa cushions and other possessions out the windows. Rosenfeld ran out, fearing for his personal safety.

Mrs. Lebaudy, who had been ill in bed upstairs, heard the commotion and came downstairs with a revolver. She proceeded to shoot her husband five times, killing him instantly. He was fifty years old. Daughter Jacqueline immediately called Mrs. Lebaudy’s attorney and told him, “Come over to the house quick. Mamma just shot Papa.”

Coroner Walter R. Jones charged Mrs. Lebaudy with murder and ordered her arrest. Mrs. Lebaudy readily admitted to District Attorney Charles Weeks that she had murdered her husband. “Yes, I shot him. He had been threatening my life for 15 years and I couldn’t stand it any longer.” She was charged with murder and placed in a county jail cell. On January 21st, the Grand Jury cleared her of the charge and she was released.

South African death certificate for Jacques Lebaudy.

A new battle awaited Mrs. Lebaudy. Her husband left no will, which would typically default his entire fortune to his wife. There was one big problem: The couple had married under the laws of the imaginary Saharan empire and were not recognized by any country. In other words, the couple was never legally married and, therefore, Mrs. Lebaudy was not entitled to the bulk of her husband’s estate. Lebaudy’s sister, Maria Thérèse Jeanne Lebaudy de Fels, opted to take advantage of this technicality and filed papers to have Mrs. Lebaudy removed as executor of her husband’s estate.

The petition argued, “Margaret A. Lebaudy is not the widow and Jacqueline Lebaudy is not the daughter of Jacques Lebaudy; the said Margaret Lebaudy is addicted to the use of drugs and has been for years so addicted, and the use of said drugs has so impaired her health and mind that she is unfit to perform the duties of her office or act as administratrix.”

The United States recognized the Lebaudy’s common-law marriage and on December 16, 1922, Mrs. Lebaudy was awarded $2,455,038.19 ($37 million today) and Jacqueline was to receive $4,955,076.38 ($75 million). It was noted that due to a previous agreement, these awards were to be split equally with Lebaudy’s sister in France, who was continuing her fight to discredit Mrs. Lebaudy in Paris. On March 8, 1927, the French courts disagreed with the U. S. ruling, concluding that neither Mrs. Lebaudy’s marriage or the paternity of her daughter had been proven. As a result, titles to all of Lebaudy’s French properties, the bulk of his estate, were awarded to his sister.

Also, in 1922, mother-and-daughter Lebaudy married the father-and-son detective team of Henri and Roger Sudreau. Henri would pass on a few years later, while Jacqueline divorced Roger in 1930.

In 1950, Mrs. Lebaudy passed away in Paris at seventy-seven years of age. Daughter Jacqueline would remarry and emigrate to the United States during World War II. She died at the American Hospital in Paris on December 21, 1974 at the age of sixty-nine.

As for the family’s Phoenix Lodge, it no longer exists. After falling into disrepair, Jacqueline allowed it to be sold for unpaid taxes in 1926. Located on the eastern side of what is now the Eisenhower Park Red Golf Course, the mansion was torn down and replaced by a typical suburban Long Island housing development.

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

Podcast #133 – A Nose for Fishing

 

The Finger Lakes region is among the most spectacular in all of New York State. The area is a series of eleven elongated glacial valley lakes that are all roughly aligned in a north-south direction.

Keuka Lake is the only one of the Finger Lakes that has a Y-like shape to it. Prior to the arrival of railroads and automobiles, steamboats were the fastest way to move across the lake. At the southern end of the lake lies the village of Hammondsport. At the northern end of its eastern branch sits the village of Penn Yan.

The Finger Lakes of New York State. NASA image.

It was there, in Penn Yan, on July 14, 1866, that one of its most celebrated citizens, Harry C. Morse, was born. His father Myron died on August 25, 1872, leaving his wife (Florence) Ione Morse, to raise their only child alone.

Oscar Morse, a well-respected steamboat captain, would routinely take his young nephew Harry out on the water to teach him every aspect of navigating these large ships. Harry’s earliest jobs were as members of the crew, but as he grew older and gained more experience, he became the captain of his own steamboat, the Urbana.

Described in 1889 as “the youngest, best-looking, and best-dressed pilot on the lake,” Harry was soon given the assignment of a lifetime. When the Mary Bell (later rechristened the Penn Yan) was launched in 1892, 26-year-old Harry was selected to be its captain. He was at the wheel when the ship, described as “the finest boat on any inland waters in New York,” encountered a violent storm. Due to her immense weight, the Mary Bell sat very low in the water and waves began to crash over her lower deck. Morse was able to safely steer the ship to port without a single one of its estimated five hundred passengers being harmed. Harry became a bit of a local hero for his efforts, for which poet Booth Lowery, who was aboard the Mary Bell at the time, penned the poem “Harry’s at the Wheel.”

Yet, that is not the event for which Harry would be best remembered.

When the wheeling craze spread across the United States in the 1890s, Harry was reported to have been the first person in Penn Yan to own a bicycle.

Yet, again, that is not what he is best known for.

On February 8, 1901, The Great Falls Tribune announced that Harry had purchased a one-fourth partnership in a Utica, Montana ranch, to which he relocated. The 16,000-acre farm was home to an estimated herd of 15,000 sheep.

After a number of years of raising sheep, however, Harry returned back home to Penn Yan. So, clearly, sheep farming was not his claim to fame.

After a brief stint back on the steamboats, Harry penned the 1914 book To Lovers and Others. But that is not the thing he is best remembered for either.

Harry then turned his focus to the world of entertainment. For a period of five years, he leased and managed the Sampson Theater in Penn Yan, showing mostly silent movies.

In May of 1920, he purchased the former Shearman House on Elm Street for $10,000 ($127,000 today), tore it down, and began construction on a new movie theater. The 720-seat Elmwood Theatre opened May 27, 1921 and was an immediate success. In the late 1920s, Morse installed new technology that enabled him to project talking movies but competition from nearby theaters open on Sundays began to eat into his profits. Blue laws (laws prohibiting certain activities on Sundays) in Penn Yan forbid him from doing the same. Harry approached the Board of Trustees with a petition signed by 2,072 of the 3,152 registered voters in Penn Yan requesting that his theater also be allowed to stay open. On September 27, 1929, he got his wish: “BE IT ORDAINED, that the Elmwood of Penn Yan Incorporated, under the management of H. C. Morse, hereafter be permitted to exhibit motion pictures in the Village of Penn Yan on the first day of the week after 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This ordinance shall take effect immediately.”

Harry Morse would operate the Elmwood Theater until his death on January 15, 1936, after which it would change hands several times before finally closing in 1970. He was survived by his wife Janet and their daughter Rosemary.

There you have it. A lifetime of hard work and a tremendous amount of success. Yet, the one thing that Harry Morse would forever be remembered for has not yet been mentioned. His most memorable event occurred when he was just seven-years-old.

August 27, 1873 was a beautiful day when Harry and his mom went fishing near Keuka Lake’s Brandy Bay. Mrs. Morse set anchor a short distance from shore and cast her line out from one side of the boat. As she patiently waited for a nibble, Harry peered out over the other side and gazed into the crystal-clear water below.

Then, suddenly, Harry jerked his head back into the boat and let out a painful scream. Mrs. Morse turned around to discover that her son’s face was covered in blood. She then glanced down and saw a large fish flopping around on the floor of the boat. A person on shore suggested that Mrs. Morse take an oar and hit the fish with it. She did exactly that and put the fish out of its misery. Mrs. Morse quickly rowed the boat into shore where, with the help of onlookers, she was able to care for Harry’s wounds.

If it weren’t for the fact that there were eyewitnesses to what had happened, no one would have ever believed what had just taken place. While Harry was leaning over the edge of the boat, an 8-pound (3.6 kilogram) trout leaped up out of the water and grabbed ahold of his nose. Panicking, he quickly pulled his head back and upon doing so, the fish let go and fell to the floor of the boat.

Yes, Harry Morse had done the seemingly impossible: He caught a fish with his nose.

Word quickly spread around town and Dr. J. C. (John Coleman) Mills took two photographs to prove to the world that this event really did happen. The first is a stereogram of Harry and his mother with the fish hanging down between them. The second, and far more popular, was the photograph of Harry alone with the fish hanging to his right. Titled “HARRY C. MORSE, the Little Trout Fisher,” hundreds of copies were sold within the first week alone. The story quickly spread to newspapers around the globe and Harry’s story would soon become a legend. He would carry the scars from that bite to his nose for the remainder of his life.

Harry Morse with his mother Ione and the fish that he caught with his nose. Library of Congress image.

On September 4, 1873, the Yates County Chronicle wrote, “Such a thing as this was never heard of before in this quarter of the world, and we are aware needs to be well vouched for to be believed. Of its truth there is not a shadow of a doubt. Although a wonderful fish story, it is not fishy in any dubious sense.”

Harry Morse was a heroic steamboat captain, a sheep rancher, an author, and a successful theater owner, but he would forever be remembered for those few seconds when a fish took hold of his nose.

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

Podcast #132 – In the Blink of an Eye

 

Did you ever stop to think about how your life could change in the blink of eye? Every morning each of us gets up and assumes that each day will turn out just fine, but then something happens that changes the course of our lives forever. It could be the birth of a child, being diagnosed with a dreadful disease, or simply losing your job.

Take, for example, the story of Sigel Castle. He was born in Albia, Iowa on November 27, 1862. At 24 years of age, he married Ida Chedester, after which the newlyweds moved to South Dakota. Between 1888 and 1900, the couple would have six children. In order, they were Roy, William, Rena, Earl, Eva, and Laura, who was born on April 7, 1900. Just two months later, Mrs. Castle would pass away. While neither her exact dates of birth or death are known, she was approximately 32 years of age. This left Sigel to care for their six children, all under the age of twelve.

Five years later, on January 24, 1905, Sigel would marry his late wife’s younger sister Edith Mary Chedester. He was 42 and she was 27 years old at the time of their union. Together the couple would have three additional children: Bertha Irene, Sylvia Mae, and the youngest, Evelyn Helen, who was born on May 21, 1916. At the time of Evelyn’s birth, all but one of Sigel’s six children from his first marriage were adults.

Nebraska marriage certificate between Mary Edith Chedester and Sigel Wylie Castle.

Many years later, Evelyn would write, “Papa was a kind and loving father to me. I remember him most as a quiet man, who sat by the table at night and read by lamplight. He worked hard.”

She had equally kind words to say regarding her mother: “It is hard to write of my Mama, my whole world revolved around her and no one has ever taken her place. She was a small woman, with dark red hair piled high on her head. She wore long skirts down to her ankles. She walked with a limp as she had been hurt when she was young. She had fallen from a horse and hurt her hip it had not healed right. I remember picking sweet wild strawberries with her, of being caught in a hailstorm and running with her as they came down ‘big as hen eggs.’ The memories are endless.”

On June 2, 1925, Sigel Castle would once again face the loss of a loved one. His second youngest daughter from his first marriage, 28-year-old Eva Amanda Castle Harvey, died of cancer. She was survived by her husband Clarence and their four young children.

Gravestone of Eva Amanda Castle Harvey at New Underwood Cemetery in New Underwood, South Dakota. Image is from Find-A-Grave.

I spoke with Perry Reeder, Jr., Evelyn’s son and Sigel’s grandson, and he told me the following:

Perry Reeder: Well, one of his favorite daughters from that older family died of cancer. And it made him so he didn’t want to be around there anymore and he wanted to kind of get a new life. So he sold everything and they moved.

Evelyn, who is no longer with us, wrote about what happened next: “After her death Papa decided to move out to Oregon. He bought a car and since he didn’t know how to drive and (wasn’t about to learn). He asked Otis Angle (my sister Bertha’s boyfriend) to drive us out. We left South Dakota in late July 1925. We stopped first at my brother Earl Castle in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for a short visit with him and his family. We then went through Wyoming to Yellowstone Park to see Old Faithful. How that model T Ford made it over those high passes is a miracle.”

She continues, “Later, coming down the Columbia River in Oregon we stopped at Multnomah Falls. There was a small store there and Sylvia Mae and I were allowed to buy some cup cakes. This was my first experience with store-bought cup cakes. So I started to take a bite out of mine and Mama said, “Don’t eat the paper Evelyn!

“We went to Portland, Oregon to visit my uncle Emmett Jay Castle and his son Merwyn. Otis Angle stayed in Portland to get work. On August 13, 1925 we started to our new home in Eugene, Oregon.”

It was at this point that 16-year-old Merwyn Castle was recruited to drive the car to their final destination. He was an inexperienced driver who had obtained his license just three weeks earlier.

Perry Reeder: I don’t know in them days if they had to even apply for a license. All they had to do is to be able to drive.

Merwyn was at the wheel as he drove the jalopy southward from Portland. Mrs. Castle sat beside him in the front seat while Sigel and the couple’s three children were in the back. As the sun was setting on Thursday, August 13, 1925, Merwyn came upon a portion of the road just north of Harrisburg that was being paved. This forced him to make a detour across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the road.

Without looking, Merwyn turned the car up a short grade to cross the tracks. What he didn’t see was that the southbound No. 33 Southern Pacific train was coming up from behind at an estimated 50 mph (80.5 km/h).

Perry Reeder: The detour run parallel to the tracks for a couple of hundred feet or maybe more. Merwyn probably was, was not looking behind him, you know, the train would be coming from behind. And he would be turning to his left and going across the tracks. I’ve been to that crossing and that crossing is a raised, you know, like six or seven feet off of the level ground and it raises up for gravel for the train tracks and they were probably on that and, the way I would see it, and he and he probably never even noticed the train coming from behind him.

The occupants of a car waiting to cross from the opposite side of the track yelled out a warning to Merwyn, but he could not hear them over the deafening sound of the approaching train and its whistle. Engineer Harvey Carpenter was at the throttle when he spotted the car just as it was crossing over the tracks. He didn’t see it until the last second because the car did not have its headlights on. There was little that Harvey could do. He immediately jammed on the locomotive’s emergency brakes while blasting its whistle in a last-second attempt to get the car cleared from the tracks.

The Number 33 Southern Pacific locomotive and tender. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

It was too late. The train rammed into the car nearly dead-center. Harvey Carpenter watched in horror as his locomotive pushed the automobile along the tracks for several rail lengths before it was finally pushed off to the left of the train.

As awful as you can imagine that this accident was, it was far worse because the car was open-topped. The scene can only be described as gruesome with body parts scattered along the tracks.

62-year-old Sigel Castle, his 47-year-old wife Edith, and their two daughters, 18-year-old Bertha and 15-year-old Sylvia all lost their lives in the accident. Their bodies were taken to a local undertaker and Uncle Emmett Castle arrived the next morning to arrange for their burial.

Perry Reeder: Yeah, they were all so badly beat up, you know, that they just buried them in one grave that I know.

A quick check on the Find-A-Grave website confirms that the four are buried under one gravestone. It simply reads

CASTLE
BERTHA SYLVIA EDITH SIGEL
AUGUST 14, 1925

Perry Reeder: Well, we’ve been down to the grave. And this is like, you know, 40 years later or even longer, maybe 50 years later, and the track is still in the same place and the graveyard is relatively close. But about five miles from where the accident happened. The graveyard is north of where the accident happened. And the train still goes down through there and when that train comes thundering down through there and you’re standing at the graves… You know how trains are: they make a lot of noise and bump and bang the cars together as they go and you can kind of feel the vibration and if you’re standing there in the evening it kind of was a little bit spooky if it’s a still day. It’s spooky if you know the people who are buried there and the accident happened just a little ways away from there.

Castle gravestone in the Alford Cemetery in Harrisburg, Oregon. The image appears on Find-A-Grave.

At the time of the accident, newspapers were quick to report that the Castles were on their way to the Harrisburg hop yards to help in the harvest before heading off to Eugene where Sigel had accepted a position on a dairy farm, but Perry said that this was not true.

Perry Reeder: We’ve always known that the articles about them being hop-pickers was untrue. That was made up by some reporter. Well, he was a teacher first. Then he did some farming and then he did some logging. You know, part times.

The truth is that Sigel was headed to Eugene to purchase a farm of his own. His descendants believe that Sigel must have had enough money with him to at least make a downpayment. Any money that Sigel may have had on him, which is thought to have been a fairly large sum, disappeared at the time of the wreckage.

So, what happened to the driver of the car, Sigel’s nephew Merwyn Castle? Surprisingly, very little. He was found lying in a daze next to the wrecked car. His only injuries were a few bruises and a cut on his eyebrow.

Perry Reeder: You know he was most likely just flipped right out of the car and he had a bad cut on the eyebrow and that’s about the only injury he had. He walked away from it.

Right after Harvey Carpenter stopped the train, he immediately jumped out to offer any assistance that he could. It’s unclear who made the discovery first, either Harvey Carpenter or the train’s conductor, identified only as Mr. Caffin, but they found an incredible surprise on the cowcatcher; the metal grate on older trains that would push cattle and other objects off of the tracks. There, against all odds, 9-year-old Evelyn Castle was found hanging from the cowcatcher. Badly injured, she had somehow survived the impact with the train.

No one can say with any certainty how she ended up there. Maybe it was due to pure luck, but Evelyn remembered it differently. She had been sitting on her dad’s lap at the moment of impact and as the train was being dragged along, she said that he placed her on the cowcatcher.

Perry Reeder: If you could imagine they were both traveling along side-by-side there for just a second or two and he probably just saw a chance to lay her on it and keep her from the car from; the car was being smashed while he was doing that and then it rolled and flipped.

They say that time slows down during an accident and this may have been no exception. You also need to keep frame of reference in mind: both the car and the train were moving at the same exact speed as basically one unit for several seconds.

Perry Reeder: You can see what he was thinking. He could probably see what was going to happen. And so he just pushed her over there and hoped that she would; all the cars flipping around and things would miss her. But it was his only chance. Because he was probably, I don’t know, but he was probably sitting behind Merwyn. And so he probably just thought, well, here’s her only chance and that was an open-top car so he just lifted her up and pushed her over there.

After Evelyn was removed from the cowcatcher, it was clear that she was in urgent need of medical attention but no physician was available locally. The decision was made to transport both Evelyn and Merwyn to a hospital in Eugene, which lies about twenty miles (32 km) to the south. Both were placed aboard the train – the same train involved in the accident – and Harvey Carpenter opened up the throttle. Upon arrival in Eugene, a waiting ambulance rushed Evelyn to the hospital.

This image of Evelyn Castle was printed in newspapers across the country in 1925. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Years later, Evelyn described her injuries: “I had a broken arm, which they put in a cast from my shoulder to my wrist, some cuts and bruises. I suffered mostly from shock. I was not released from the Hospital until two weeks later. I was unable to walk and had to be in a wheel chair.”

As she recovered, Harvey Carpenter was held blameless for the accident. Unbeknownst to Evelyn at the time, at the end of nearly every run, Harvey Carpenter would go to the hospital and bring her flowers and gifts. But none of those material items could erase his guilt. The thought of Evelyn clinging on to that cowcatcher continued to be a burden on his mind.

Perry Reeder: It bothered Harvey Carpenter because he said when he was driving the train that he would see her constantly. The first time he’d seen her on the front of the train bruised. But, Harvey felt guilty. Even though he was innocent, he felt guilty about it and he was haunted by it.

Upon her release from the hospital, a woman obtained permission from Evelyn’s Uncle Emmett to take her to a local hotel that she owned. The mayor of Harrisburg had presented Evelyn with $10.00 (about $150 today), but when she awoke the next morning, the money was gone. When questioned about it, the proprietor told Evelyn “Someone has to pay for your keep!”

Two days later, Emmett Castle came to get Evelyn and took her back to his Portland home. Since his wife had been previously committed to the Oregon State Mental Hospital, he was unable to care for her. He opted to place Evelyn with another family.

“They took me to church every night. They would put me on a platform and get down on their knees and howl and pray aloud. This frightened me so much, I would cry and beg them not to take me.

“I finally got so bad that they thought I was losing my mind. I had crawled under a stationary table with stationary benches on either side. I wouldn’t come out so they put a blanket in there for me and closed the curtains. They talked in whispers around me. My arm hurt me, the cast was still on it,” Evelyn writes.

Her next memory was that of someone whispering to her, “It is the man who killed your folks!” She described what happened next: “I saw a big, tall man with a look of shocked disbelief on his face. This was the first time to my knowledge that I had ever seen Harvey Carpenter, of course I didn’t know his name at the time.”

It was clear that Evelyn was not adapting well to her new home, so the court stepped in and ordered that she be placed in the care of the Portland Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society. While there, Harvey Carpenter continued to visit with her.

“Harvey Carpenter, who was the engineer on the fateful train and his wife Alta came to visit me at the Orphanage. They got permission to take me out for a visit to their beautiful home. After having me there for a week or two, they decided to legally adopt me.”

Initially, the court ordered that Evelyn be placed in the care of the Carpenters, but her uncle Emmett Castle contested that decision. A jury decided on November 3, 1925 that full custody of Evelyn should be granted to the Carpenters.

Legal challenges continued until January 11, 1926. That’s when Judge Jacob Kanzler ruled in the Carpenters’ favor. He stated, “The court is glad to decree this adoption because the future welfare of the little girl is now provided for.”

Evelyn writes, “Harvey and Alta Carpenter were in their late 40’s. Both of them had been married and divorced before. They had only been married two years before they adopted me. They took me into their home and gave me everything a little girl could want. Harvey Carpenter became the most wonderful Dad a girl ever had. But even with all this it took me months to get well and I didn’t go to school until the next fall, I had missed a year of school.”

Evelyn Castle Carpenter – Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She continued, “After I got well, I took piano lessons, dancing lessons, and learned to roller skate with the kids in the neighborhood.

“In the fall of 1927, we moved from Portland to Dallas, Oregon. In this little town I finished growing up.”

I asked Evelyn’s son Perry what Harvey Carpenter was like:

Perry Reeder: He was real popular person. He was a real nice guy. He became a hero after he adopted my mother and my mother loved him because he just would do anything for her and he was well-liked all his life. My younger brother, Harvey was named after Harvey Carpenter. His name is Harvey Carpenter Reeder. So my mother thought a lot about Harvey Carpenter. She idolized him.

It was on June 30, 1943, after forty-five years of continuous service, that 66-year-old Harvey Carpenter would one last time climb into the cab of the Northbound train headed out of Eugene. In retirement, he took on a number of different jobs. At one point he served as the chief of police in West Salem, Oregon. At the age of seventy, he became the keeper of the Oregon Senate’s north door. He was 83-years-old when he passed away in San Francisco on April 5, 1960. He was survived by his wife Alta, his daughter Annette from his first marriage and, of course, Evelyn.

Colorized image of jockey Willie Shoemaker and Harvey Carpenter. Original image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She writes, “On August 8, 1936, I married Perry Charles Reeder. We have four children. I didn’t know there was a depression until then, but I soon found out. We had quite a struggle raising our family.”

During the Second World War, the couple decided to leave Portland for a more rural way of life. In 1944, they settled in the failed resort town of Bayocean, Oregon. Perry explains:

Perry Reeder: It was like, it was going to be a boardwalk of the West. That’s what they wanted it to be. So they had rich people lived out there, but they all abandoned it and us poor people could, like mom and dad, could rent a nice place for near nothing. And that’s how we lived.

Evelyn would work different jobs to help support her family, which included being Postmaster of the Bayocean post office from 1950 through 1954.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder standing in the doorway of the Bayocean post office. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Perry Reeder: We were lived under poor conditions by today’s standards. We were a poor family but everybody else in the whole countryside was poor, lived the same standard we did. So, we didn’t know any different. We just existed from payday to payday. And we would all go to the movie on Friday nights. We had quite an upbringing.

Today Bayocean no longer exists, having long been washed into the sea by coastal erosion.

As we spoke, it was clear that Perry looked back on both Bayocean and his childhood with great fondness. In fact, he penned the book Bayocean: Memories Beneath the Sand with his daughter Sarah MacDonald, which you can find on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble website

I asked Perry if his mom had suffered any long-term effects from the accident:

Perry Reeder: No. It would just be mental if she had any. But she didn’t manifest anything. She seemed to have left it behind somehow.

Sadly, Evelyn Helen Castle Carpenter Reeder, the proud mother of four children, passed away on June 11, 1985 at the age of sixty-nine.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder gravestone. Image appears on Find-A-Grave.

Perry Reeder: When she died, she died of cancer, of pancreatic cancer. And when I was at her bedside and she was calling out to daddy. And I think that she only called her real father daddy. I think she called the Carpenters, I think they he she called them in a more formal mama and papa. But she was seeing daddy when she was dying. Right at the very last hours. In fact, an hour before she died she was yelling daddy. So she was always thinking about that accident. I mean it never left her. So you might say that it did have an effect on her. Well, it obviously did.

It clearly did. And to think that one single event, which had lasted but a few seconds, completely changed the course of her entire life.

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

Podcast #131 – An Inside Job

 

I’ve been to Washington, DC several times over the years and it offers an incredible assortment of great architecture, monuments, and museums, all with free admission. I keep a mental list of places that I would like to visit the next time I am there and one of those is the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be in the place where they print the money? It’s the place where you can theoretically smell the money, although free samples are probably out of the question.

A survey of records by the Bureau revealed that there had been a total $2800 stolen during twelve thefts in the thirty years prior to 1954. That’s nothing when compared to the estimated $3.4 trillion dollars worth of securities that were printed during that same time period.

There are so many checks and counterchecks built into the system that it was once thought that it would be nearly impossible to steal newly printed money in any significant quantity. Only a fool would dare do so and would most certainly be caught before ever exiting the premises.

That line of thinking would all change on January 4, 1954. That’s when Sewell A. Davis, a stockman for the Bureau, was assigned to transfer bricks of currency from a pallet in Vault D-19 to another location. As he lifted two of the bricks, one in each hand, he noticed a discrepancy in one of them.

Davis turned to his coworker Paul Coakley and stated: “One of these bricks feels light.” He handed the brick to Coakley and added, “Does it feel light to you?” As Coakley gave it a heft, he replied, “Yes, it does.” Davis then tore off the brick’s kraft paper wrapping and was shocked by what he saw: a stack of blank, white paper. While the two were alerting supervisors to the fake brick, another employee, Frederick A. Minor, discovered a second one.

Sewell Davis and Paul Coakley  discovered the two dummy packages.
Sewell Davis (left in white T-shirt) and Paul Coakley (right) discovered the two dummy packages. Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Eight-thousand $20 bills – a total of $160,000 (over $1.5 million adjusted for inflation) – had disappeared from the vault. The Secret Service was immediately alerted and an investigation launched. Believing that it would be impossible to get two bricks that measured 14-inches (35.6 cm) x 6-inches (15.2 cm) x 2-½-inches (6.4 cm) and weighed in at around 8-pounds (3.6 kg) out of the heavily guarded facility, a search was begun internally. Nothing was found.

The only clue that investigators had were the date-stamped seals found on each of the packages. They were confirmed as authentic and were dated December 17, 1953 and December 31, 1953. That means that the money had been stolen recently and suggested that the thief or thieves had intentionally timed it so that the theft took advantage of the three-day New Year’s holiday weekend that year.

Believing that the theft could have only been done by a Bureau employee with direct access to the vault, investigators began to question the staff. Unable to interview everyone before their shift had ended, they planned to continue the questioning the next morning.

Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks.
Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick (left) and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks (right). Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

They never got that far. At 5:00 AM the next morning, Virginia State Police received a call from 45-year-old Irving Grant, who worked as a butler and chauffeur on a 340-acre farm located near Middleburg, Virginia, which is about 40 miles (64 km) west of the Capitol. Grant informed them that they could find the missing money there. Troopers raced to the scene and Grant led them to a metal toolbox which contained forty-four bundles of newly printed $20 bills – a total of $88,000 – and an additional $7,000 in smaller bills, which were believed to have been given as change for bills that were cashed in at various retail establishments.

Grant had an interesting story to tell. He said that his daughter, her husband and another man had driven down from DC the night before in a newly purchased Oldsmobile. They said that they had “pulled a smoothie” and needed to hide the money on the farm until “it cools off a little.” Grant initially refused to cooperate but quickly changed his mind when one of the men pulled out a gun. In exchange for his efforts in concealing the money, they gave him a sock filled with $3,000 in cash.

After the three left, Grant’s conscience got the better of him. He stayed awake all night and decided early that morning to notify the police. He later told the press, “It was hard to do. She was my daughter. But I knew what the right thing was. The truth is right. The truth is right.” He added, “I figure my life isn’t worth that. I know my life is in danger. I don’t need anything. I figure I’m working for an honest man and he gives me what I need.”

The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found.
The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Later that morning, at 10:00 AM, Secret Service agents arrested Grant’s son-in-law, twenty-nine-year-old James Rufus Landis, at his place of employment: the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Landis would seem like an unlikely suspect: he had worked at the Bureau since he was sixteen years old, had received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, and Good Conduct Medal for his service in Europe during World War II, and had been twice wounded and granted a medical discharge. At the time of his arrest, Landis was earning $1.42 an hour ($13.69/hour today) to move newly printed money from the packaging machines to the storage vaults.

Landis initially denied that he had removed any cash from the building. He claimed that a man from New York, a Mr. Shapiro, had conceived of the plan to steal the money. When investigators laid out the evidence before him, Landis admitted to pulling the heist. He then led agents to a storage room on the fifth floor of the building. There they found a paper bag filled with an additional $32,000 that he had hidden under a pallet on the day of the theft.

At 2:00 PM, agents arrested his wife, 26-year-old Mamie Landis, at their Addison Chapel apartment in Capitol Heights, Maryland, which is located just over the Washington-Maryland border. The couple had met when she was eleven years old and married three years later – at the age of fourteen – while James was home on furlough during World War II. At the time of the couple’s arrest, the pair had been married for twelve years and were the parents to two young boys.

Under questioning, Mrs. Landis denied any knowledge of the theft of the money. “If he did this thing he did it for the kids and me.” She added, “Times have been hard. He worried about not being able to give us the things he wanted us to have—the things everybody else had.

“He wanted the kids to be doctors or lawyers or something like that…Like every father does. I will do everything I can to help him. He has always been a wonderful husband.” She continued, “He always handled the money. He just left enough here for me to buy small things, like bread. I know there was never much left out of his check after the bills were paid. Once in a while he would come home with some extra money. He said he got lucky gambling. I always figured that if there was anything he wanted me to know he would tell me…I’m not a prying wife.”

Her husband James told the press, “I really messed things up. I got my wife involved.” For the crime, both faced up to ten years imprisonment and a possible $10,000 fine. A judge set bail for James at $50,000 and his wife’s at $10,000. (About $480,000, in total, today.)

James Landis and his wife Mamie.
James Landis and his wife Mamie at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

There was still one man still unaccounted for: the person who accompanied the couple out to farm the previous evening. He was identified as twenty-seven-year-old William Giles, a government flagpole painter who had told his wife that he had made the money gambling. They arrested him in his apartment, which was in the same building that the Landeses lived. He readily admitted to his involvement. “I did it for the future of my family. I can’t give them all the things I want to give them.”

The next day, January 6th, two additional suspects were arrested. They were two of James Landis’s cousins: 27-year-old Charles Howard Nelson and 24-year-old Edith Irene Chase. Police were also on the hunt for 29-year-old Roger Paterson, who had been flashing bills at a card game on New Year’s Eve. A witness told detectives that Patterson had “a stack of bills about 6-inches high” under the back seat of his car. Their search ended when Patterson came stumbling into the 12th Precinct station on January 9th and said, “Somebody is looking for me and I’m giving myself up.” He was too intoxicated to be questioned at the time, but later told detectives that he knew of Landis’s plan to rob the Bureau thirty days before it occurred.

So how did he pull it off?

First, Landis paid careful attention to every detail involved in the packaging and storage of the money. As the money was stacked into the packaging machines, a wooden block would be placed at either end to prevent damage. Then the stack of money would be compressed and wire bands would be wrapped around to secure the bundle. Finally, the brick would be wrapped in kraft paper, and then labeled and dated before being stacked onto a pallet. What really caught Landis’ attention in this whole process was how lax workers and inspectors were when it came to disposing of unbroken wire bands, extra wooden end blocks, and the kraft paper that had the Treasury seals on them. He began to collect these and took them home in his pockets.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the January 6, 1954 issue of the Owensboro Messenger.

It was while his wife was busy taking care of the children each evening that Landis would attempt to duplicate the bricks of money. It took him close to three months, but he was able to come up with a dummy brick that would pass for the real thing. The only thing he lacked was a machine capable of pressing the paper tightly together, which is the reason why his dummies were lighter than the real thing: he simply couldn’t squeeze the same number of sheets of paper into his stacks.

Surprisingly, this detail was of little concern to him because he knew that if he could successfully replace a couple of the bricks on a pallet, it could be months before the theft would be discovered. That’s because the pallets were typically stored in a Bureau vault for a couple of months before being shipped off to any of the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. Once there, the money could sit untouched for several more months before being distributed to banks. By then, it would be very difficult to determine by who or where in the distribution system the bricks had been stolen.

It was shortly before 7:30 AM on December 31st that Landis entered the Bureau with two of his fake bricks wrapped in a package. It was standard practice not to search anyone with packages coming into the facility, but those who did were supposed to check them at a receiving desk. A guard directed Landis to the desk, but as soon as Landis felt that the guard’s attention had been diverted, he quickly changed course and headed down the hall with the package in hand. Landis then took an elevator to the third floor and hid the dummy bricks under a burlap bag which lined a trashcan in locker room number 327.

From there, Landis headed to his normal locker room, D-101, on the first floor to change into his work clothes. At 7:30 AM, he reported for duty at his scheduled time. His job was to place an enormous stack of bills on to a platform so that they could be sent through the wrapping machine. He knew from previous experience that it would be twenty minutes before he would need to refill the platform. That was twenty minutes to pull off the next step in his plan.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 24 of the January 21, 1954 issue of Jet magazine.

At 7:50, he walked over to one of the pallets and removed two of the bricks. He immediately walked over to a roll of kraft paper and tore off enough to conceal the two bricks of currency. His destination was a prechosen storage room on the fifth floor of the D-Wing. The only way for him to get there from his current first-floor location in the A-Wing was to use the passageway that connected all of the wings in the basement of the facilty. Upon arrival in the storage room, he quickly removed the paper packaging from each of the bricks, being careful not to damage the two ends that carried the official Treasury labels and date stamps. He folded them and placed the labels in his pocket. After breaking the metal bands with a pair of pliers, he placed the bulk of the money into a paper bag. The $32,000 that didn’t fit into the first bag was placed into a second. Both were hidden under one of the pallets in the storage room.

Landis promptly returned to his assigned duty without anyone suspecting anything out of the ordinary.

At 10:40 AM, it was time for a scheduled rest break. Landis rushed to the locker room where he had hidden those two dummy packages under the burlap bag. He then pulled out the packaging labels that he had stuffed in his pocket, soaked them under hot water in the sink and removed the Treasury labels from the paper. To dry them, he placed the labels between the fins of a radiator. Once dry, he pulled the two dummy packages out of the garbage can and affixed the labels to the brick ends using glue that he had concealed in his pocket. They now looked exactly like the real thing. As the end of his break approached, he walked back toward his station, placed the dummy bricks on to the pallet, and continued with his normal work until the end of the day.

When the workday ended at 3:10 PM, Landis went to the locker room to change into his street clothes and then took a detour to that fifth-floor storage room to grab his fortune. Realizing that he would be unable to get two bags filled with money past the guards, he left the smaller one behind, the one that he would later lead investigators to after being caught.

Getting the money through security was easier than anyone could have imagined. Since it was the holiday season and many of the workers had been exchanging gifts, security was somewhat more relaxed than usual. And, since it was common for workers to take laundry home to wash, he placed a pair of trousers in the bag to conceal his stolen loot. below As he passed through security, Landis pulled one leg of the trousers out of the bag to show that it contained dirty clothing and the guard just let him pass through.

And with that final move, James Rufus Landis had just stolen $128,000 from the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Irving Danner and Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills.
Irving Danner (left), manager, and President Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills that had been spent there. Image appeared on page 13 of the January 5, 1954 issue of the Pittsburgh Press.

While he had done it all himself, he knew that he had, at best, six months before the Bureau realized the money was gone. And since the bills all had consecutive serial numbers, they would be easy to trace. Landis concluded that he needed to get rid of the money quickly. His plan was straightforward: make a small purchase with one of the stolen $20 bills and then the change would be in legitimate money. This is simpler said than done because a $20 bill had a lot of buying power in 1954 – nearly $200 today. Not many stores could give change from that and if the same person kept walking in day-after-day to do so, someone was certain to become suspicious.

His solution was to have others assist him in spending the money. That’s where the others who were arrested, excluding his wife, come in. They all would drive around the region, stopping in every liquor store that they passed and purchasing a bottle of spirits. All the change from these purchases was turned over to Landis, who planned to split the profits later on. For the next few days, they were living the high life. In addition to purchasing three automobiles, Landis’ cousin Charles Nelson was observed lighting a cigar with a burning $20 bill.

Everything was great until the holiday weekend ended and everyone, including Landis, returned to work on Monday, January 4th. That was the day that the money was discovered missing. It was later that day that Landis made the decision to drive out to his father-in-law’s place with his neighbor William Giles to hide the money. They probably never imagined that Irving Grant would have a guilty conscience and turn in his own daughter for the crime.

The missing money was found in the metal toolbox and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building.
The missing money was found in the metal toolbox (rear) and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

On February 15th, a grand jury charged James Landis with theft of the money. His four accomplices received a lesser charge of “feloniously and unlawfully” receiving and passing the stolen money. All charges against Mrs. Landis were dropped.

While awaiting trial, Landis, Charles Nelson, and two other men were caught passing even more of the stolen money. This resulted in both Landis and Nelson would receiving stiffer sentences than it was initially thought that they would receive.

On May 28, 1954, Landis was sentenced to three to nine years in prison and fined $10,000. Federal Judge David A. Pine said that he took into consideration the fact that Landis had been cooperative with the Secret Service. He added that if Landis was able to produce the money that was still missing – an estimated $15,680 – he would consider dropping the fine.

As for the others, Charles Nelson was sentenced to 2 to 8 years in prison with a $3,000 fine, Roger Patterson got 20 months to 5 years and Edith Chase received a suspended sentence of 1 to 3 years.

There would be a larger theft at the Bureau in 1989 by Robert P. Schmitt, who was in charge of the Threaded Currency Paper project. He took advantage of his position and was able to smuggle out $1.6 million in $100 bills that he had concealed in a zippered compartment in his briefcase. That may be more money, but it doesn’t come close to the creativity and ingenuity that Landis used to pull off his daring theft in 1954.

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

Podcast #130 – A Christmas Eve Kidnapping

 

When the citizens of Centerville, Indiana, a small town located approximately 60 miles (97 km) east of Indianapolis, awoke on Friday, December 24, 1937, they assumed that it would be a fairly typical Christmas Eve. A light rain fell from the sky as the work week was brought to a close and children eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa and the gifts that he would bring.

One of those children was John Bryan, Jr., who had just turned 4 two-weeks earlier on December 13th. His mother, Ova, desired to give her only child the perfect Christmas and needed to run a few errands to complete the planned celebration. This included stopping at the local bank where her husband worked as a cashier. As Mrs. Bryan had done numerous times before, she left young Johnny in the care of their babysitter, 17-year-old high school student Norma Schroy.

John Bryan, who was kidnapped on Christmas Eve of 1937
John Bryan, who was kidnapped on Christmas Eve of 1937. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

Not long after Mrs. Bryan had left for the bank, two men pulled up in a car to the Bryan home around 2:30 P. M. and, upon entering, forced Norma to call Mrs. Bryan. Norma told her that she had taken ill and that Mrs. Bryan needed to come home quickly. Sensing that something was urgently wrong, Mrs. Bryan headed back home immediately.

As Mrs. Bryan made her way home, one of the two men told Johnny that they needed to go for a ride to pick out a Christmas tree. Johnny was too young to be scared, but Norma strongly protested the removal of the child. All three got into the car and drove away.

When Mrs. Bryan finally arrived at the house, the other man informed her that her son had been kidnapped. The only way that she could assure young Johnny’s safe return was for her to call the bank and tell her husband that he had to pay $3,800 (approximately $67,000 today) immediately. This was money that Mrs. Bryan knew that the young couple did not have, so she called the bank and made the wise decision to talk to the president of the bank, Mark Stevens, first. Stevens informed Mr. Bryan who, along with several other men, got in their cars and raced off to his home.

Enter the story Julian Dunbar, a local grocer. He was one of those people who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the kidnapper who stayed behind anxiously awaited the arrival of the ransom money, the grocer stopped at the home to make a delivery and was mistaken by the kidnapper for Mr. Bryan.

e Bryan home on the day of the kidnapping
The Bryan home on the day of the kidnapping. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

Just as the real Mr. Bryan and the other men pulled within one-hundred yards (approximately 90 m) of the home, the kidnapper could be seen forcing the grocer Dunbar and Mrs. Bryan into the front seat of the Bryan family car, which had been parked along the curb. With the bandit standing on the exterior running board of the car, he forced Dunbar behind the steering wheel and demanded that he floor it and get them out of there. Suddenly, bullets began to fly. Mr. Bryan and another man opened fire on the bandit, who returned fire before ducking into the back seat of the car. As the two hostages and their captor sped away, two cars followed in pursuit. Local mechanic “Buzz” Lamberson and Mr. Bryan were in one vehicle and Marshall Charles Daugherty was in the other. At times the cars reached speeds in excess of 90 mph (145 km/h).

Upon reaching Cambridge City, which lies about 10 miles (approximately 16 km) west of Centerville, their captor forced Dunbar to turn into a side street. Through the vehicle’s rear window, the car containing Mr. Bryan and Buzz Lamberson could be seen speeding right on by along the National Road. After giving them the slip, the bandit forced his prisoner to drive to New Lisbon, which lies about seven miles (11 km) to the northwest of Cambridge City. He ordered Dunbar to stop the car while he reloaded his gun. The kidnapper, still believing that the grocer was Mr. Bryan stated that since the “job had been bungled,” his only option was to kill his two hostages before turning the gun upon himself. Dunbar desperately tried to talk him out of it. In part, Dunbar stated, “I am just a citizen who walked into this thing. I am not this woman’s husband.” After a bit of hesitation, he ordered them out of the car and the two ran off as fast as they could. About a half-hour after the gunfight had broken out, Mrs. Bryan called her husband to let him know that she was okay.

Dunbar described his captor as being about 5’ 8” (173 cm) tall, 150 pounds (60 kg) in weight, was swarthy in complexion, and was left-handed. Most distinctively, he had a scar than ran from his left cheekbone down to the tip of his chin.

Mrs. Bryan and the grocer were now safe, but her son and his babysitter were still missing. It was every parent’s worst nightmare. Mrs. Bryan was placed under the care of a physician and ordered to bed.

Around 5:30 that evening, Norma and the boy showed up unharmed on the doorstep of a farmhouse in Greens Forks, approximately 9 miles (14.5 km) northeast of the crime scene. Wilber Thomas and his wife knew nothing of the kidnapping, but after learning the details, he drove the two back to the Bryan home.

Norma told authorities that their kidnapper had panicked after his partner failed to show up at the previously designated meetup point. Assuming that the other bandit had been arrested, he made the decision to release his prisoners prior to speeding off. Miss Schroy stated, “After we were let out of the car, I walked with Johnny, sometimes carrying him, almost a mile to get help. I don’t think that the kidnapper intended to take me but I got in with Johnny anyhow.”

She described her captor as having red hair, thick lips, and bloodshot eyes. He had talked freely with Norma during the entire ride and offered up some of his clothing to protect both Johnny and her from the cold. She also added that the car was a green 1929 or 1930 Ford Model A coach that had red wire wheels and two bare wires hanging from the arm used to raise and lower the windshield. Norma added, “The license number was Ohio TH 423 or 432, I am not sure which.” Unfortunately, a search of all registered vehicles showed that there was no vehicle registered with those plate numbers.

Norma Schroy
This image of Norma Schroy appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

At 10:30 on Christmas morning, the sheriff’s department received a call from a nearby farmer who said that he had found an abandoned car sitting in one of his fields. It was the Bryans’ automobile. Investigators dusted for fingerprints, but since the victims had previously stated that the bandits wore gloves, not useful prints were found. Yet, there were four bullet holes in the car. One of the bullets had narrowly missed grocer Julian Dunbar’s head while another struck a piece of metal in the front of the car and fell into Mrs. Bryan’s lap.

Police had Norma and Dunbar look through hundreds of crime photos, but none were a match. Prosecutor John Britten made it clear that when these two thugs were caught they would be facing either life imprisonment or the death penalty for their actions.

Eleven days after the kidnapping, on January 4, 1938, three state policemen were driving from their Rushville barracks toward Muncie when they passed a car. One of the officers said, “Say, look at those wheels.” To which one of the other men replied, “That certainly looks like the kidnap car. Let’s look a little closer.”

They pulled the car over and noticed that the car had a fresh coat of black paint covering its original green color. The vehicle’s driver, thirty-year-old William Chester “Red” Marcum of Newcastle, denied any involvement in the crime, but was clearly nervous. The officers decided to take him in for further questioning. As they pulled up to the curbside in Centerville, Norma Schroy was asked to come out and take a look at the prisoner. “That’s him,” she exclaimed.

Confronted with Miss Schroy’s positive identification, Marcum admitted to his role in the abduction. He also named fifty-two-year-old Harry C. Walter, a father of five children, as his accomplice. Police drove to Walter’s home in Muncie and arrested him there.

The two men were then taken to Indianapolis for formal booking. While posing for their mugshots, Walter turned to Marcum and said, “Give ‘em that big smile of yours, Bill.” To which Marcum replied, “I don’t feel much like smiling.”

Both men were unemployed and came up with the kidnapping scheme to raise some much-needed cash “to live on.” Centerville was chosen because it was considered to be a “prosperous farm town.” The Bryans were specifically targeted because the father was the cashier of a bank.

Image of the accused kidnappers. Harry C. Walter is seated on the left, William Chester Marcum to his right.
Image of the accused kidnappers. Harry C. Walter is seated on the left, William Chester Marcum to his right. In the back row (left to right) is Lieutenant Ray Hinkle, Ernest Richardson, William Pickering, and Fred Fosler, all of the Indiana State Police. If was Officers Richardson, Pickering and Fosler who arrested the two men. Image from the January 5, 1938 issue of the Indianapolis News on page 4.

In his confession, Harry Walter stated, “This was not considered as purely a kidnapping case because we knew Mr. and Mrs. Bryan were not financially able to pay any ransom, using the boy as a weapon we intended forcing Bryan through his wife to make the payment to us at a specified place, we asked for $3,800 cash of the bank’s money.”

He added, “I ordered Mrs. Bryan and Dunbar in the car and started a wild chase. Someone behind a tree shot at me and I shot four times at a truck. Then we began driving with Dunbar at the wheel. We drove through the country and I think into Cambridge City. Someone kept trailing us, but did not get close, anyway I was out of ammunition, just had one shell left, which I intended using on myself. Then I let them get out in the country and abandoned the car. I walked the railroad tracks into New Castle where I stayed at the home of ‘Red’ Marcum all night. The next morning ‘Red’ Marcum took me home to Muncie, the morning of December 25, 1937.”

When questioned by police, Marcum was far more detailed in his explanation as to how the whole thing went down.

Q – Now just start in and tell what happened.
A – I don’t know when it happened, about 2:30 P. M., I guess.
Q – What day was it?
A – About Dec. 24, 1937.
Q – Who was with you?
A – Harry Walter.
Q – Did you go to the house together?
A – Yes.

This type of mundane questioning went on for a while, so here are a few of the highlights:

Q – What kind of car?
A – A green model A Ford coach.
Q – Is that your car?
A – Yes.
Q – What kind of license plate did you have on the car?
A – Ohio, 1937, license number 423 TH.

Keep in mind that Norma had told police that the plates were either Ohio TH 423 or 432, so she simply had the numbers and letters switched. It was learned that these plates had been stolen off of a car in New Castle and Marcum removed them before he returned home the day of the crime.

The questioning continued:

Q – When did you case it?
A – About a week and a half before. We had been there about three times.

In fact, several days prior to the crime the kidnappers had stopped a young boy on his way to school and asked him, “Where does the banker live?” He replied, “Over there” and pointed to the Bryan home.

Marcum told the authorities, “Walter had been there the day before, and knocked on the door and said he was taking a church census and the girl had been alone in the house.”

After snatching the Bryan boy and Norma, Marcum drove about four miles (6.4 km) to a side road to await the arrival of Walter with the ransom. He was totally unaware of the kidnapping of Mrs. Bryan and Dunbar, the shootout and chase that followed, and the eventual release of the two. After about two hours of waiting, he concluded that Walter must have been arrested.

Q – What did you do then?
A – I drove about three or four miles north and let the nurse and kid out.
Q – What did you tell them?
A – I told the nurse there was a paved road about a mile up the road and that she could get a ride.

After the two signed their confessions, they were transported to Richmond around 2:30 A.M. Along the way, Deputy Sheriff Ora Wilson asked Walter what his family thought about the case and he replied, “I’d rather not talk about my family – I’ll never see them again anyway.” During booking at the jail, all of their personal belongings were taken. Marcum had 50-cents on him and Walter $1.39. It was at that moment that Walter stated, “That will buy all of the tobacco I’ll ever need.” Fearing that he was contemplating suicide, police took his belt, suspenders, and shoelaces away prior to locking Walter in his second-floor cell.

Later that morning, Sheriff Arthur Quigley asked turnkey Paul Andrews to bring the kidnappers to Prosecutor John Britten’s office for further questioning. Just as the pair emerged from their cells, Walter charged toward the balcony railing, screamed, “To hell with the sheriff” and threw himself to the cement floor some fifteen feet (4.6 meters) below. As Walter lay bloody and unconscious on the floor below, Marcum stated, “I never thought he’d do that. I’ve known him for a long time – he was a good worker, too. I suppose he done it for his family – thought that might help them – but it won’t do them no good.” With his wife and one of his daughters at his bedside at Reid Memorial Hospital, 52-year-old Harry C. Walter passed away four hours later. He was buried in the Mooreland Cemetary in Mooreland, Indiana.

William Chester Marcum
William Chester Marcum. Image appeared on page 5 of the January 8, 1938 publication of the Palladium Item.

This left Marcum to face the kidnapping charges alone. He declined a jury trial and appeared before Judge G. H. Hoelscher on January 8th, four days after his arrest. The Judge stated, “Number 13062 – State of Indiana versus Harry Walter and William Chester Marcum – kidnapping for ransom.” Prosecutor Britten then said, “This is a charge of kidnapping for ransom – I will read it to you.” After reading the lengthy charged, Marcum was asked to enter his plea. He replied, “Guilty.” After some further questioning, the judge handed down his sentence. “William Marcum, I now sentence you to the Indiana State prison for the remainder of your natural life.”

Prior to the trial, Marcum had stated “I’m glad to have it over. Maybe in twenty years I’ll be back home and start over again.” He wouldn’t have to wait that long. On May 26, 1949, Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker commuted Marcum’s sentence from simply life imprisonment to “from time served to life.” The rationale for the change was that Marcum had never harmed anyone. He was released a short time later and placed on parole until 1956.

Sadly, none of the principals of this story are still with us. Willaim Chester Marcum passed away at the age of 67 in April of 1970. Little Johnny Bryan became a Centerville attorney and, just coincidentally, had his law office in the same building that once housed the bank that his father worked in. He passed away on September 11, 1998. He was 64-years of age.

As for Norma Schroy, the babysitter, she would marry Howard E. Bailey and together they raised a son. When interviewed about the kidnapping in 1967, Norma commented that she thought that she had seen her kidnapper on a city bus in Richmond after he had been paroled. “I looked at him and he looked at me but neither one said a word. I don’t know if he knew me or not, but I knew him.” When she passed away on November 3, 2016, at the age of 97, she was a great-great-grandmother.

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

Podcast #129 – Soul Searching

 

There are some people who go through life virtually unnoticed. They are born onto this Earth, live a quiet and unassuming life, and then, in the end, seem to vanish as if they had never existed.

One such man was James Kidd, who was born to Ellen and William Kidd in Ogdensburg, NY on August 18, 1878. There is very little known about James Kidd and, what is known, was not pieced together until after he passed.

The 1940 U.S. census shows that he had a fourth-grade education, worked as a pump man in the copper mining industry and earned $1,754 ($31,800 today) that year. Yet, he lived the life of a pauper. Jim slept on park benches, went hungry at times, and traveled across the country by sneaking aboard freight trains. He would chew the same piece of gum over and over again, storing it in a small tin aspirin box that he carried in his pocket.

In 1967, miner Mike Pesely recalled, “I knew him when I was a high school boy. I used to walk past the shack on my way to the swimming hole. I always called him ‘Captain Kidd.’ I liked him. You know how kids are always hungry? Well, he would give me peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I think that’s what he ate mostly, too. He did for himself, always; he called himself ‘an old bachelor.’ He read a lot. He was quiet, was sort of jolly, and he liked to talk to kids. He never wore a necktie, always had his shirt buttoned up at the throat. And I remember his hat. Most people put a crease in their hats, but he didn’t. He just wore it standing straight up.”

Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box.
Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

Few ever saw Jim without that old grey Fedora upon his head. On the rare occasion when he did remove it, a balding scalp surrounded by graying hair was revealed. He never married, had no known relatives or close friends, and kept to himself. Jim never obtained a driver’s license and had no military record. It was said that he loved to gamble, but entered each game knowing exactly how much he was prepared to lose.

Beginning in September 1920, James Kidd was employed by the Miami Copper Company in Arizona. His job was to keep the wastewater pumps running smoothly. In November 1941, a rubber belt flew off one of the pumps and Kidd struggled to shut off a critical valve so that the entire building wouldn’t become flooded. He was able to get the stubborn valve closed but, in doing so, the wrench slipped and he was thrust toward the pump. He was stopped from near-certain death by an 8-inch (20 cm) diameter pipe which caused significant bruising to his chest.

Some days later, Kidd was back on the job when he suddenly fell and lost consciousness. It was later, during a workmen’s compensation hearing, that the only record of his actual words was made: “I could feel it then—I had no strength or mental condition. I don’t know which.” He continued, “It seemed impossible to try to do something for myself. I don’t remember where my hands were, but there is a four-inch water line that sticks above the ground, and my shoes are longer than my toes and may have doubled against me. I never looked to see but I do know I was in that position and couldn’t do anything for myself. I had no control over my legs, I couldn’t do a thing. When I became more conscious I realized if I could get on my side, it might do me good. I don’t know how I got there, or which side, I forget, and then after a certain time, which I don’t know for sure, I regained more consciousness and in time, I can’t remember the time, I felt able to get up again.”

Since doctors had diagnosed Jim as having suffered a heart attack, coupled with the fact that he had never filed a report after being whacked in the chest by that pipe, his claim was rejected. The company offered him a job as a watchman but opted, instead, to retire and move to Phoenix. It was there that Jim was able to rent a small apartment at 335 North 9th Avenue for $4.00 per week (about $43/week today). Claiming that he lacked the funds to pay the rent, his landlord allowed him to do small jobs to help offset the cost.

Draft registration card for James Kidd.
Draft registration card for James Kidd.

It was on the evening of November 8, 1949, that Jim borrowed a pickaxe from an acquaintance and indicated that he would be headed toward a couple of claims that he had made in the Globe-Miami area, which lies some 80-miles (130 km) east of Phoenix. At 6:00 the next morning, a car pulled up outside, Jim locked the door to his room, got into the car, and drove off. James Kidd was never to be seen again. To this day, no one knows who picked him up or where he was dropped off.

Clearly, having always been a bit of a loner, it should come as no surprise that no one noticed for quite some time that Kidd had never returned. It wouldn’t be until December 29th that his landlord would inform Phoenix police that he was missing. A search of his apartment by officers revealed nothing unusual. Everything seemed as it should have been, as if he had intended to return within a short period of time.

The search did uncover one interesting fact: James Kidd was not as poor as he had let others believe. A checkbook showed that he had over $3,800 (over $40,000 adjusted for inflation) sitting in an account at the Valley National Bank. In addition, he had received a dividend check for $382.50 a few weeks prior to his disappearance. A man named Pete Oviedo later recalled that Jim had told him, “I never would make any money working; it would have to be through stocks or prospecting.” Apparently, James Kidd was true to his word and dabbled a bit in both.

With no known relatives, there was no pressure to locate his body or disperse of his estate, so the investigation into his death was brought to a close in 1954. James Kidd was officially declared dead.

That would seem to be the end of the story, but everything changed in 1956 when Arizona passed the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, which required that all property that has been unclaimed for seven years needed to be turned over to the state of Arizona within ninety days.

Suddenly, a deluge of unclaimed estates landed on the desk of Geraldine C. Swift, Arizona’s Estate Tax Commissioner at the time. That included the estate of James Kidd.

Initially, Mrs. Swift’s office did little other than document Kidd’s estate. The situation changed in 1957 when a safe deposit box that had been rented by him showed up in her office. The box contained things like a few faded photographs, a transcript from his workmen’s comp hearing, and three stock sell orders. Most importantly, there was a bulky envelope on which the words “Buying slips from E. F. Hutton Company, Keep” was written. It suddenly became clear that James Kidd had thousands of shares of stock, some of which were still issuing dividends. In other words, James Kidd was far from a poor retired pumpman – he was very well off.

Surely James Kidd had to have had some relatives, no matter how far distant, and Mrs. Swift set out to locate them. She ran inquiries with the post office, the Social Security Administration, the U. S. Census Bureau, and even hired a private investigation firm to assist in the search. No heir was ever located.

Meanwhile, his estate continued to grow. Mrs. Swift later stated, “In February 1963, the state examiners were in my office making their yearly check and they said, ‘You’ve had this estate for 5 years, why don’t you dispose of it?’” She added, “Well, that seemed sensible to me. But I’d thought I go through everything in the deposit box one more time.”

On the day that Mrs. Swift’s team opted to enter the vault of the First National Bank at 1st Street and Washington Avenues in Phoenix, work crews had turned the power off to the building. Armed with flashlights, they began to inventory everything in Kidd’s box. It occurred to her that no one had ever bothered to look through all of those buying slips in that bulky envelope. As she began to look through the slips, a small piece of paper fell out of the stack. It was a piece of lined notebook paper, marked page 498, that had been torn from a ledger. She stated, “And then, tucked away in an envelope with rolled-up brokers’ receipts I found it—that will. I had mixed emotions. For a minute I could have eaten it.”

That’s right, she had found what may have been James Kidd’s will. It read: “this is my first and only will and is dated the second of January, 1946. I have no heirs and have not been married in my life and after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100. one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospel to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E. F. Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money to go in a research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time there can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd.”

Reflecting on this discovery several years later, Mrs. Swift commented, “My first reaction was I just couldn’t believe it was real, it must be a joke. And then I thought I’d better look at it again. I looked, and I thought, well, it’s dated, January 2, 1946, and it was signed in his handwriting. We had a signature card for his bank account at the Valley National Bank; it was actually in his safe deposit box. I knew his signature so well. It was exactly the same on both documents. I recognized his handwriting, and after reading it three times, and holding this tiny little thing in my hand, I thought: Now here it is. What am I going to do with it? But of course, I knew. I knew, naturally that I was going to keep it. You know, if it had been a normal will, and to think it had been in there all this time… But to read this in this dark room by flashlight! I mean, everything the way it was, it was a very eerie feeling. I just sat there and thought that I just had to be dreaming.

“It was quite a feeling, really. It rocked me—it rocked me. To think it had been in my possession all these years. Then, of course, I was very happy to think that here’s a man who writes a will and I’m so happy that I found it. And I’ll see that his wish is carried out. You know, you have the funny feeling in the beginning, the very eerie feeling… but then you have your true feeling: Well, I’m the administrator of this law, and naturally I want to put it into the proper hands.”

Mrs. Swift turned to the Attorney General’s office for help in trying to figure out how to best execute the highly unusual will. While some of the staff were of the opinion that the will was invalid and should either be ignored or destroyed, while Mrs. Swift insisted that the document should be executed just as James Kidd wished.

Unable to agree on how to proceed, a petition was made to the Arizona Superior Court to rule on the validity of the will. Judge Robert L. Myers was appointed to handle the case. Initially, the question he needed to rule on was straightforward: Was this a valid will and, if so, how should the money, now valued at $174,065.69 (over $1.4 million today), be distributed?

It wasn’t long before the press picked up on the story of a missing man who had left a fortune to be used in the search for the human soul. The Phoenix Gazette was the first to report on the story and soon it had hit newspapers all over the world.

Initially, there were just two challenges to the will: On March 5, 1964, the University of Life Church in Phoenix filed a petition with the court claiming that they, as a religious organization, were best suited to do the scientific soul searching. This was followed by a group that claimed to relatives of James Kidd who sought to have the will invalidated, in which case the funds would be distributed to them.

But it wasn’t long before others would challenge the will, including the Barrow Neurological Institute, the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and the Psychical Research Foundation out of Durham, North Carolina.

“I know of no precedence for the case nationally,” Judge Myers told the press. “Mr. Kidd assumes in his will that man does have a soul. This Court is concerned only with the legal problems of the will, whether anyone can prove the soul scientifically to the Court, or will research the existence of the soul.”

As the case dragged on, Myers ruled that Kidd’s will was legit and set formal hearings for March 6, 1967. The court was suddenly buried in a deluge of mail from all over the world. Unable to answer each letter individually, a form letter was prepared that advised each claimant that they had the right to counsel and, after paying a $15 ($115 today) filing fee, would be able to present their case at the hearings.

Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world.
Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

While there were legitimate claimants, the most unusual ones are far more interesting. Here is a small sampling of some of the correspondence that the court received:

“I believe I am the only logical existing person to fulfill the requirements asked for by Mr. Kidd,” wrote a man from Detroit. “I only need about $36,000 to $50,000 of the money to develop an extra sensatory [sic] perception machine through which Mr. Kidd’s soul may send a message to earth.”

A woman from Long Beach, California wrote, “I have been testing and refining my formula of axiomatic acid-proof revelation against all comers for the last 25 years. But whether I am interested in Mr. Kidd’s prize will depend largely upon the rules of judging.”

This idea that this was some sort of contest appeared to be a common thread in the letters:

“Dear Sir, I wrote you yesterday seeking information as to where I could send in my answer to the Kidd Mystery Contest, and I FORGOT to put a stamp on the return envelope. Here it is again, and thanks.”

“Your Honor: I would like to try for the great prize offered for the person that can prove that life is eternal, etc.”

“The human being has two souls, a white soul and a black soul, a negative and a positive one,” wrote a man from Brazil. “Which one do you want me to prove the existence of?”

One woman was quite blunt: “I wouldn’t be human if I did not wish for some of Mr. Kidd’s loot to buy me a new set of teeth.”

As the case began to take on a bit of a circus atmosphere, Judge Myers did what he needed to do. He stayed focused on his role. “It is the job of a probate judge to carry out the wishes of a testator, insofar as he can.” He added, “If anyone can fulfill James Kidd’s stipulations, my job is to see that it is done.”

After several delays, Judge Myers opened the hearing on June 6, 1967 with the following statement: “Probate Cause Number 58416 in the matter of the estate of James Kidd. This is the time set for the hearing on the petition of Claimant Number Nine, the American Society for Psychical Research.” His honor had set aside eighteen days for all to present their claims. When a lawyer for the Society informed the judge that he anticipated that their presentation would take two days, it was clear that it was going to take far more time than the judge had anticipated.

John G. Fuller, in his 1969 book “The Great Soul Trial, offers nearly 200-pages of blow-by-blow testimony by some of the bigger players in the case. Yet, once again, it’s the quirkier ones that grabbed headlines in the newspapers. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Mrs. Jean Bright, a mother of five from Encino, claimed that she was in contact with the soul of San Fernando dentist Dr. Earl S. Marshall, who had passed away on April 25, 1965. Six weeks later, she made her first contact with him during a muscular spasm. To prove that she was in contact with him while giving her testimony, she wore earplugs and placed a portable noisy hairdryer over her head so that she would be unable to hear the questions being asked. And, so that she wouldn’t be able to read lips, the questioner stood behind her. By nodding or shaking her head she was able to answer 15 of the 18 questions correctly.

Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head.
Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head. Rosemary Phillips is behind her asking the questions. Image appeared on page 1 of the San Fernando Valley section of the August 10, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

57-year-old Nora Higgins of Branscomb, California told the court that she had seen the spirit of James Kidd about a week prior to the hearing. She described how it happened: “I had just finished my housework and had walked into my bedroom when I saw a man standing there. I said, ‘Good morning, who are you?’” He just stood there and smiled back at her. She continued, “I was suddenly impressed that this was James Kidd. But in about half a minute he disappeared into a white fluorescent light and went up through the ceiling.” During her testimony, Mrs. Higgins stated that Kidd was in the courtroom “pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, shaking his head at the proceedings.” She also claimed that most of the time he was seated at a table directly in front of Judge Myers, although she was the only person who could see him.

Chicago resident Fred B. Nordstrom sought advice from those that knew the most about the heavens: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, Texas. They politely wrote back, “We regret commitments to the Apollo project do not leave sufficient time to give the necessary depth evaluation. We must leave pedagogical research to others.”

In the end, 133 soul searchers from all walks of life offered up an estimated 800,000 words of testimony. The hearing took thirteen weeks and cost the residents of Maricopa County an estimated $10,000 (over $75,000 today).

On October 20, 1967, Judge Myers handed down his decision. “Considering the language of the last will and testament of the deceased as a whole, it was the intention and desire of the deceased that the residue and remainder of his estate be used for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. It is incumbent on the Court to ensure that the residue and remainder of the estate of the deceased be used in such a manner as to benefit mankind as a whole to the greatest degree possible.”

He continued, “This can be best accomplished by the distribution of the said funds for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. Such research can be best done in the combined field of medical science, psychiatry, and psychology, and can best be performed and carried on by the Barrow Neurological Institute, Phoenix, Arizona.”

With 132 disappointed petitioners, it was clear that the decision would be appealed. While the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Myers’ decision, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on January 19, 1971 that the Barrow Neurological Institute should not get the funds. Instead, they sent the case back to Judge Myers and directed him to choose from one of four claimants. Finally, on July 17, 1971, Myers awarded Kidd’s estate to the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City. In the 21 years, 8 months, and 8 days since James Kidd had disappeared, his estate had grown in value to $297,000 ($1.86 million today).

So, how was it spent?

Lawyers claimed about one-third of the estate in fees and the society turned over an additional $65,000 to a researcher in North Carolina who never discovered anything worth publishing. As for the society itself, they spent the majority of the money on a study of deathbed experiences in both the United States and India. Approximately 1,000 phone calls were made and nearly 5,000 questionnaires were mailed to doctors and nurses in both countries. In papers filed with Judge Myers in June 1975, they reported that they had been unable to prove the existence of the human soul.

Laura Knipe, an executive with the Society, told the New York Daily News on September 8, 1985: “We’re still working on an answer.” She added, “One day we’ll know. One way or the other.”

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

Podcast 128: The Prick of Death

 

The Howrah railway station sits just across the Hoogly river from Calcutta and is considered to be the busiest station in India. It was here, on November 26, 1933, that Amarendra Chandra Pande arrived as he began his journey from Calcutta to his family home in Pakur. He was accompanied by several female relatives, most important of which was his aunt, a rich widow named Rani Surjabati. Also, there to see Amar off was his half-brother Benoyendra, which was an unusual act of kindness for him. Benoy was eleven years older than Amar and the two had little in common. While the older Benoy was a free-spending playboy and kind of the black sheep of the family, Amar was the one who was loved and respected by all.

Just as Amar’s party moved through the booking area of the station, a man walking in the opposite direction suddenly brushed up against him. Detecting a sharp sting in his right arm, Amar blurted, “Someone has pricked me.” His aunt would later testify that “A short, black man with an oval face brushed up against him.”

Amar rolled up his sleeve to examine the wound. While the puncture was small, a colorless liquid was oozing out. Nearly all of those in his entourage expressed concern. It was suggested that he should cancel his planned trip and immediately seek medical attention. His brother Benoy was the only one who didn’t seem concerned at all. He made light of the injury as he grabbed Amar’s arm and began to massage the puncture site.

Over the course of the entire train ride to Pakur, his relatives continued to push Amar to change his mind and see a doctor. A few days later he finally agreed and took a train back to Calcutta to do just that. Upon examination, the doctor noted that the pricked spot appeared to be “something like the mark of a hypodermic needle.” A blood sample was taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

Howrah Railway Station circa 1945
The scene of the crime. Howrah Railway Station circa 1945. Image from Wikimedia.

Amar quickly took a turn for the worse. He developed a high fever and his tongue blackened as his face, groin, and armpits began to swell. Amarandra would not recover and passed away on December 4, 1933. The task of cremating Amar’s body fell upon his irresponsible brother Benoy and, having had little respect for his younger brother, he opted to bribe an official to have the body disposed of quickly. As a result, an autopsy was never performed.

Several days later the results of that blood sample were finally reported. Amar had died from bubonic plague and it was thought that he had been infected when that unidentified man pricked him in the arm at Howrah station. His death was now believed to be a murder.

The Black Death had all been thought eradicated in 1933. The last person thought infected in the region had passed away several years prior. And, if Amar was, in fact, injected with the plague, one had to question where one could obtain such a deadly bacterium.

It turns out that there was only one place: Since 1896, all research related to the plague in India was strictly controlled by the Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai today). Under absolutely no circumstance would the Institute supply plague cultures to private companies or individuals.

As investigators scoured through the Institute’s records, one name stood out among the rest. His name was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharjee and he had tried on multiple occasions to obtain a viable culture of the plague to test a theory that he had. Further digging uncovered the fact that Taranath’s closest friend was none other than Benoyendra Pande, Amar’s half-brother.

Suddenly, all of the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together…

Benoy was twenty-seven and Amar sixteen years of age when their wealthy father died in 1929. The estate was split somewhat equally between the two brothers and included a significant annual income from the rental of real estate. Benoy was a known partier who generously shared his lifestyle with his close friends, of which Taranath, the doctor, was a recipient. Of course, to call any of them close friends was a bit of an exaggeration. They were more like parasites who always lived in fear that their source of easy money was about to be cut off.

When Amar turned eighteen in 1931, he began to take steps to regain control of his portion of his estate, which had been handled by the irresponsible Benoy until then. Benoy fought him at every step along the way. At some point, Benoy had become so determined to gain possession of his brother’s money that his close friends began to suggest ways to bump off Amar. It was suggested that Amar be pushed in front of a moving train or that Benoy hire some thug to strangle Amar, but it would be Taranath who offered up what he felt would be the perfect crime. To avoid arousing suspicion, Taranath stated that Amar needed to die of natural causes. The plague was the perfect choice.

The doctor knew of about a dozen laboratories in India where the bacilli were being cultured. He wrote to each one stating his qualifications, sometimes greatly exaggerated them, and explaining the testing that he wished to do. While a few were willing to allow him to do his tests at their facilities, none were willing to allow the cultures or the infected rats out of the laboratory.

Having been unable to obtain a plague culture, it was alleged that Taranath set his sights on the next best thing: tetanus. Since it was unlikely to cause an epidemic, he concluded that it would be less closely guarded and far easier to obtain.

Their plan was simple: Benoy obtained a pair of glasses and proceeded to smear the tetanus germs across its nosepiece. While on a family vacation in the fall of 1932, he asked Amar to go for a short walk. The conversation turned to that of eyeglasses and Amar agreed to try them on. Just at the eyeglasses were settling into place, Benoy jammed them down on Amar’s nose and pierced the skin.

The next day, Amar was taken to a local doctor and diagnosed with tetanus. His aunt wired Benoy and requested that he bring the family physician. Yet, when Benoy arrived, he had brought Taranath instead. Taranath insisted that the administration of the tetanus antitoxin be stopped and injections of morphine be used instead. The local doctor held his ground and refused to give in.

Frustrated, Benoy soon showed up with another doctor, Dr. Dhar, who injected Amar with a serum that he had obtained in Calcutta. He would soon develop an abscess at this site of this injection. Later, Benoy arrived with both Dr. Dhar and Taranath in tow to administer additional selected medicines. By this time, Amar’s aunt and sisters had grown suspicious of Benoy’s actions and would not allow his personal doctors to treat Amar. Amar would slowly regain his health over the next few months, but in the end, it is said that he was left with a permanently damaged heart.

With the tetanus infection having failed, Benoy and Taranath returned to their original plan. They would once again attempt to obtain a plague culture.

On April 30, 1933, Benoy traveled to Bombay to meet with a doctor at the Haffkine Institute. He said that he had been sent in advance to find out whether the institute would allow a fellow doctor, as if he were one, to use their facilities to test a curative drug for the plague. He was informed that approval of the Institute’s director would be required.

In May, Taranth finally found a doctor who was willing to work with him, but under no circumstance was Taranth allowed to handle the plague culture. When his experiment failed, the doctor that he had been working under refused to secure a second culture for testing.

On July 1st, Benoy was once again in Bombay waving wads of cash in an effort to convince two veterinarians to obtain a plague culture from the Haffkine Institute. They also refused.

Shortly after this rejection, Benoy found a doctor at the Arthur Road (now Kasturba) Hospital who took interest in Taranath’s research. He assigned an assistant to work with Taranath and a live plague culture was obtained from the Haffkine Institute. Benoy and Taranath purchased some white rats from a bird dealer and the supposed testing began, although the assistant later testified that he never observed any type of medicine ever being applied. On July 12th, Taranath told the assistant that he had urgent work that he needed to attend to back in Calcutta and needed to leave right away. He would not return. That night, both Taranath and Benoy skipped town.

It was around this time that Benoy attempted to obtain a life insurance policy worth 51,000 rupees on his brother with the stipulation that the policy not be contested after Amar’s death. He was denied coverage.

With the plague culture now in their possession, Benoy needed to lure Amar back to Calcutta. He tried to persuade his aunt to send a telegram, but she outright refused. So, he sent a bogus message using her name instead. Amar arrived in Calcutta on November 19, 1933.

While he was there, Amar went to the theater with five female relatives. Benoy was spotted hovering around the premises with a man whose description was nearly identical to that of the man who fatally pricked Amar. It was thought that the man had been hired by Benoy to administer that shot-in-the-arm that evening but it was not done because Amar was too closely surrounded by his relatives when they emerged from the theater. Instead, Benoy and that unknown assailant would complete their dastardly deed a few days later at the railroad station.

It took investigators about ten weeks to piece this entire sequence of events together. Benoy was arrested on February 16, 1934, followed by Taranath two days later. Also charged with the murder were Dr. Dhar, who had administered that fake dose of tetanus antiserum and Dr. Sivapada Bhattacharjee, who wrote out the death certificate claiming that Amar had died from sepsis pneumonia.

During the trial, eighty-five witnesses were called to testify and more than three-hundred exhibits were introduced. The prosecutor stated that the case was “unparalleled in the annals of crime of India in its enormity and well-planned scientific design.”

It took the jury just four hours to unanimously find Benoy and Taranath guilty of murder and recommended mercy, while the other two doctors were acquitted of the charges. The judge stated, “This is the coldest-blooded crime I have ever come across” and, on February 16, 1935 – one year to the day after Benoy’s arrest – the two men were sentenced to death.

An appeal was immediately filed. On January 9, 1936, the lower court’s decision was affirmed, but the decision was made to set aside the death sentences. Instead, Benoy and Taranath were sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

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

Podcast 127: The Case of the Doctor-Doctor Kidnapping

 

During the early morning hours of July 12, 1933, a Northern Pacific passenger train that was headed for Duluth, Minnesota sideswiped a car that had been on the track approximately 4-miles (6.4 km) north of St. Paul. The train was brought to an immediate halt and the train crew ran over to offer assistance.

The sedan itself suffered minimal damage: As the train pushed the car into a ditch, its front fender and headlight were smashed in.

Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found.
Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found. From the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The driver, on the other hand, was in far worse condition. Later identified as 45-year-old Dr. (Edward John) E. J. Engberg, the Secretary of the State Board of Medical Examiners, he was unconscious and bleeding from his mouth. A rusty .32 caliber revolver with its handle taped was found lying on the floor of the car between his feet. Two shots had been fired through the window and side of the sedan. In the back seat, police found a pair of surgeon’s rubber gloves, an ether mask, and a bloody towel. Extra bullets and a black mask were found in the pockets of his coat.

Dr.  E. J. Engberg
Image of Dr. E. J. Engberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

The car that Dr. Engberg was found was owned by 34-year-old Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg, a local chiropractor. Police found the chiropractor lying unconscious in a ditch about 0.25 miles (0.4 km) away with a bullet wound in his ear.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that the two men had never met each other before. Yet, their lives would cross paths in such an unusual way that the story would be told on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

After regaining consciousness, Engberg – the doctor – told police that he had received a call at his home the previous Friday night to come to the aid of a patient. This was not unusual at a time when doctors still made housecalls, but the doctor later came home and told his wife that he had been unable to locate the patient. A call received the next day said that another doctor had treated the patient, but that Engberg’s services would still be needed in the future.

Map of the crime.
This map showing the location of the crime is from the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The doctor received another call at 8:30 P. M. on Tuesday, July 11th, the evening before he was knocked unconscious by the train. He drove in his automobile to the specified location where “The man leaped into my car. He stuck a gun against my side and warned me that I would not be harmed if I did as he directed. We drove a while and then met a car with other men.” Dr. Engberg told the police, “I asked what they wanted me to do and was told I was expected to perform a surgical operation on a man being held captive. Of course, I refused. I did not even see the man they wanted to be the victim of that mutilation.”

After his refusal, what was believed to have been an ether-soaked towel was wrapped around Dr. Engberg’s head and he lost consciousness. Physicians who later treated Dr. Engberg at the hospital stated that he had been forcibly injected by a hypodermic needle.

Of course, the intended target of the surgical mutilation chiropractor Dr. Hedberg. He told a similar story of being lured from his home by a telephone call seeking medical help. After arriving at the specified location, he was seized by three men. One wrapped a towel around his head as two others pressed their guns against him. Just as with Dr. Engberg, chiropractor Hedberg was injected with anesthesia and fell unconscious.

Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg
Image of Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

When the effects of the anesthesia began to wear off, the chiropractor reached up, turned off the car’s ignition, and tossed the keys outside of the automobile. This did not go over well with his captors and he ended up in a fight with one of them. As the tussle continued, chiropractor Hedberg reached for the door latch and the two fell out on to the road where he was briefly knocked unconscious. As he came to, he again struggled with his captors, at which point they fired two shots, one striking him in the earlobe. Believing that Hedberg’s wound had been fatal, they left his body lying in a ditch and drove off. Their next stop was to place Dr. Engberg in the car, set him up so that it looked like he had committed the attack on the chiropractor, and they then left him in the car awaiting the collision with the train.

As police continued their investigation, they learned that chiropractor Hedberg had been visited in his office on July 5th by a woman who identified herself as Miss Irene Plazo. She requested that he perform an illegal operation and offered Hedberg $15 (nearly $300 today). She commented, “and there’s a lot more where this came from.” Hedberg soon learned that Miss Plazo had given him both a fictitious name and address and he refused to take part in whatever she had planned.

Mrs. Hedberg told police that, in addition to Miss Plazo showing up at her husband’s office, he had been receiving threatening phone calls and began to fear for his life. Just in case something should happen, he opted to take out a $30,000 (approximately $590,000 today) life insurance policy. Mrs. Hedberg commented, “I knew Dr. Hedberg was worried about something. There’s something crooked. I knew it would happen.”

Dr. Hedberg's home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul
Image of Dr. Hedberg’s home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune

The St. Paul police thought that this whole series of events could be the work of one of the chiropractor’s disgruntled patients. They began to scour his patient records to see if they could find any clues as to who may have engineered this bizarre plot.

Fast forward a little more than five weeks to Saturday, August 19, 1933. Chiropractor Hedberg called to his wife stating that he would be home in a half-hour but never arrived. A brakeman in the yards of the Chicago Great Western Railway spotted him early Sunday morning wandering between boxcars and warned Hedberg to stay off the tracks.

Early Monday morning, the police received an anonymous call that there was an injured man lying on the ground in the railroad yards. When they arrived, they discovered Hedberg in a semi-conscious state with five needle marks in his right arm. He had been injected with the barbiturate sodium amytal, the same drug believed to have been used on Dr. Engberg in that earlier attack.

While chiropractor Hedberg was in the hospital recovering, police announced that they had identified him as the sole assailant who had drugged Dr. Engberg. Officials initially considered a sanity hearing, but ultimately decided to file charges of kidnapping and intent to kill against the chiropractor.

The big question is why would chiropractor Hedberg want to kill Dr. Engberg? The two had clearly never met before. It turns out that Hedberg had been ordered by an attorney representing the State Board of Medical Examiners to remove a sign that read “physician” from a window in his chiropractic office. Hedberg became enraged and refused to remove the sign. Instead, he painted the word “chiropractor” above it in small letters above the word physician. Since Dr. Engberg was the secretary for the medical examiners’ board, Hedberg held him personally responsible.

Location of the original crime.
Location of the original crime. The dashed arrow points to the location where Dr. Engberg was found after the train hit the car. Image appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Hedberg pleaded not guilty to the charges and the trial was scheduled for October 24, 1933. When Dr. Engberg was asked if Hedberg was the man who had attacked him, he replied, “Not a shadow of a doubt.” The chiropractor took the stand and stuck to his story of being attacked by several men. His wife told the court of the mysterious phone calls and that her husband had told her at one point that “lots of funny things have happened lately.”

As testimony neared its conclusion, one of the jurors was declared insane and dismissed. The decision was made to continue with just eleven jurors. On November 8th, two weeks after the trial had begun, the jury needed just three hours to issue their verdict: Hedberg was acquitted and sent home a free man.

Did he do it? I guess we will never know. The evidence seemed highly stacked against Hedberg, yet a jury of his peers concluded that he was innocent of the charges. In addition to having served as president of the Minnesota Chiropractic Association, he served twenty years on the board of directors for the Logan College of Chiropractic. He passed away on August 29, 1968 at 79 years of age.

As for Dr. Engberg, he would spend 31 years as the superintendent of the Faribault State School and Hospital before retiring in 1968. He was 83-years-old when he died on July 18, 1971.

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

Podcast 126: The Transatlantic Taxi Ride

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast 125: The Snoring War

 

As I started to research today’s story, I began to reflect on my life before I owned a home. For more than twenty years I had lived in various apartments. One of my rules for choosing an apartment was that it had to be on the top floor. My rationale for this was noise. The constant thumping of people walking around above my head made it very difficult for me to get any sleep.

Of course, living above others doesn’t always work out. Once I lived above a heavy smoker and the smell would seep through the floor and stink up my apartment. Perhaps the oddest problem, however, occurred in the mid-1990’s with a couple that lived directly under me. Let’s just say that the female half of that relationship was a screamer and leave it at that. After about two months of listening to them, the problem was resolved when the two were evicted for non-payment of their rent.

Well, today’s story is also about apartment living, but it didn’t involve me in the slightest. First, a little background. Way back in 1869, William A. Engelman, who had earned his wealth by selling horses to the Union Army during the Civil War, purchased several hundred acres of beachfront property in Gravesend, Brooklyn. He named it Brighton Beach, supposedly after the resort town in England. In 1871, he built the Ocean Hotel and in 1878 completed Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion and Ocean Pier, which attracted thousands of affluent people seeking to escape the crowded city. One could get to Brighton Beach by several rail lines or via the then newly completed Ocean Parkway, which had no homes along it at the time and allowed families to take a leisurely, scenic path to the oceanfront.

One of the guests who greatly enjoyed his stay at the Ocean Hotel was robber baron Auston Corbin, who had consolidated all of the rail lines in the area into the Long Island Rail Road, and he decided to purchase his own chunk of beachfront and build his own grand resort. He named it the Manhattan Beach Hotel and, being an anti-semite, he forbid Jews from staying there.

Not to be outdone, William Engelman built the even larger Brighton Beach Hotel in 1878. He soon added the Brighton Beach Racetrack, followed by the Brighton Theater and the Brighton Music Hall. Unfortunately, the hotel was built too close to the ocean and the constant battering of the waves threatened to undermine the very foundation of the hotel. In what would prove to be one of the major engineering feats of its day, the entire hotel, estimated to weigh in excess of 8-million pounds, was placed on to 112 rail cars and pulled along 24 sets of railroad tracks by two-sets of three locomotives and moved 600-feet (approximately 180 meters) inland.

Colorized image of the Brighton Beach Hotel from 1903.
Colorized image of the Brighton Beach Hotel from 1903. (Original black and white image is from the Library of Congress.)

The incredible success of these hotels was not too last. There was no single factor that killed off their popularity. It was partly due to the carnival-like atmosphere of nearby Coney Island spilling over into Brighton Beach, the construction of lower-priced hotels, a 1908 law that forbid betting at racetracks, the Great Depression, the suburbanization of Brooklyn and a host of other reasons.

Those grand Victorian hotels are long gone and the only remianing evidence of this once spectacular vacation area is the boardwalk itself.

Image of Brighton Beach taken between 1915 and 1920.
Image of Brighton Beach taken between 1915 and 1920 that has been colorized. (Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.)

In 1955, the late Brooklyn developer Alexander Muss took a long-term lease on 21-acres of property that faced the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. His grand plan was to construct high-rise housing on much of this land, but a 1961 rezoning law limited them to building just two tall buildings.

Called the Seacoast Towers, the first 16-story building was completed in 1961, followed by a second twenty-story tower in 1962. The complex, which sat directly on the location of the former Brighton Beach Hotel, contained a total of 590 apartments.

An ad in the January 3, 1961 publication of The New York Times describes Seacoast Towers as follows:

“Correction. It is not true that our 4-room (one-bedroom) apartments rent at $250. This misconception is understandable considering the outstanding features of our 16-story luxury apartments… the only apartments in Brooklyn directly on the ocean… just 37 steps from boardwalk, beach and ocean… magnificent lobby designed by Maurice Lapidus… striking canopied entrance… doorman service… men’s and women’s private beach locker rooms… Private 14-foot terraces for every apartment… and more. The truth is that our 4-room apartments rent for only $160. Why not come up today and see for yourself. Mail chute – Oak parquet floors – pre-war room sizes – 12 cu. ft. GE refrigerator-freezer – gallery-foyer – separate dining room – oversized kitchen with brunch tables. Seacoast Towers. Brighton 14th Street at the Boardwalk-Brooklyn.”

Sounds spectacular, doesn’t it? A one-bedoom, spacious apartment that overlooks the ocean for just $160 per month, which would be approximately $1350.00/month today.

Perhaps the details that are most important to the story that you are about to hear appeared on May 10, 1959 on the front page of the real estate section of The New York Times. It reads, “Airspace within the walls was designed to make the building virtually soundproof. Vermiculite ceilings also help to reduce sound transmission between floors.”

Soundproof is not exactly the first word that one thinks of when you start to hear the details of an argument that occurred between two of the residents of Seacoast Towers. It’s the story of two guys named Sam. The first is 55-year-old Sam Scheir, who lived with his wife and daughter in apartment 16-V at 35 Seacoast Terrace – the taller of the two apartment buildings. Scheir was the maître d’ at the Hotel Diplomat in Manhattan and typically arrived home around 2 AM each morning. Exhausted, he would typically fall into a deep sleep and snore loudly. To keep confusion between the two Sams to a minimum, I will refer to Scheir as Snoring Sam for the remainder of the story.

Next up we have Sam #2: 46-year-old Samuel Gutwirth, who was a publicist and had to wake up early each morning to make his business rounds. When the Gutwirths rented their apartment in the supposedly soundproof building, they got the surprise of their lifetime when they discovered that a thin wall separated their apartment from the next. He claimed to be able to hear mild whispers from the adjoining apartments. Worse yet, the Gutwirth’s bed was positioned on the other side of the wall from where Snoring Sam’s bed was located. And just like clockwork, every morning around 2:30, the Gutwirths were awoken by the loud sounds being generated from Snoring Sam’s slumber. Sam Gutwirth had no choice but to bang against the wall to wake Snoring Sam up. So, I will refer to Sam #2 as Banging Sam.

Banging Sam Gutwirth removing his earplugs.
Banging Sam Gutwirth removing his earplugs. Image appeared on page 32 of the February 14, 1964 publication of the New York Daily News.

This snoring-and-banging, back-and-forth ritual continued until January 20, 1964. That’s when Snoring Sam dragged Banging Sam into Brooklyn Criminal Court charging him with making unnecessary noise. He claimed that Banging Sam had been knocking on his bedroom wall five or six times each night for the previous six months.

Banging Sam was forced to hire a lawyer to represent him, a man named Joseph Mandell. He told Judge Matthew Fagan, “Mr. Scheir is a snorer of gigantic proportions and gives off an animalistic roar with the quality of a lion’s roar that vibrates the rooms. The very anticipation of their beginning at about 2:30 AM every day has shaken my client and his wife, deprived them of sleep, injured their health, and, in fact, constitute an assault upon their persons.”

The judge questioned Snoring Sam as to whether he did really snore, to which he replied, “I don’t know. I’m asleep.” He added, “How would you like it if every time you settled down for a good snooze, some idiot started pounding?”

In his defense, Banging Sam told the judge that he and his wife Ida, “simply can’t put up with it. I banged on the wall to try and shut him up.”

Snoring Sam finally conceded that he was, in fact, a snorer and had been doing so for many years. However, he felt that snoring was a natural act and one that simply cannot be avoided or controlled, while Banging Sam’s actions were a deliberate and calculated attempt to unnerve Mr. and Mrs. Snoring Sam. He told the court, “He is undermining my health and the health of my family.” He added, “It is his intention to force us out of our apartment.”

It’s not that Banging Sam didn’t try to talk over the problem with Snoring Sam. He suggested that he consult a doctor about his problem, possibly wear a snore-warning device, switch bedrooms with his daughter, or simply move his bed to the opposite side of the room. Snoring Sam refused to do any of these things.

What a mess. If you were Judge Fagan, how would you rule in this unusual case? Well, he did the next best thing: he pushed a decision off into the future and told the two to return back to court on February 13th. He suggested that Banging Sam file a cross-complaint, which he did do, and when they return to court, he asked them to bring their wives. The judge wanted to hear their sides of the story. He also asked that the two consult their landlord, Seacoast Homes, Inc., to see if they could do something to help solve this problem.

It wasn’t long before this absurd story was picked up by the wire services and told in newspapers all across the country. The very next day after the court hearing, the New York Daily News ran a lengthy story featuring comments from both sides of this snoring war.

Banging Sam told reporter Michael Mok, “Let me put it this way. He can’t help his snoring but at least he could move his bed. It’s cheek by jowl with mine and when I said to him that maybe he might move it, he said the best thing I could do would be to get earplugs.” He added, “My problem is that my wife simply can’t put up with it. Now what are we to do? I banged on the wall to try and shut him up, but that only woke him from a deep sleep.”

In response, Snoring Sam stated, “I mean, how on earth would you like it if every time you settle down for a snooze, some idiot started pounding rump-titty-rump-titty-rump-rump-rump – or shave-and-a-hair-cut-two-bits?”

A photograph accompanying the article showed Banging Sam and his wife Ida in bed with a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Type 1551-A sound level meter – which the article claimed cost $460 (about $3,800 today) on the open market – sitting on the nightstand. They claimed to have hired a man to operate this equipment and measure how loud the snoring was, but while waiting for Snoring Sam to arrive home, the operator fell asleep and awoke Banging Sam with his own loud snores.

Sam and Ida Gutwirth in their Seacoast Tower apartment with a sound level meter and tape recorder by their bed.
Sam and Ida Gutwirth in their Seacoast Tower apartment with a sound level meter and tape recorder by their bed. Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on January 21, 1964.

The Daily News reporter borrowed the equipment to try it out at various other locales. He determined that Snoring Sam was producing sounds that were equivalent to those produced by a hungry, growling labrador retriever and a midget tap dancing. He also determined that Snoring Sam was only slightly quieter than a news copy boy cracking Brazil nuts open. No, I am not making this up…

When the court date of February 13, 1964 finally arrived, Judge Fagan was not present. He must have decided to run as far away from this case as possible to avoid having to make a decision. Instead, Judge Arthur Dunaif presided over the proceedings. Snoring Sam was there with his newly hired lawyer, Irving J. Linder, but Banging Sam was a no-show.

Snoring Sam told the court that he wished to withdraw his complaint against Banging Sam and the judge agreed. The whole thing was thrown out.

So, why this sudden change of heart?

Upon exiting the courtroom, Snoring Sam Scheir told newsmen that everything was resolved because someone had built a thick sound barrier between the two apartments. The odd thing is that no one would take credit for building this new wall. Snoring Sam denied having anything to do with it. Banging Sam Gutwirth said that he certainly didn’t do it. And both the management at Seacoast Homes and the builders, Alexander Muss & Sons, also denied having had built it.

Today, Seacoast Towers is a luxury co-op building. I did a quick check on Zillow and current selling prices range between $381,200 for a 1-bedroom, 1-bath to a high of $729,000 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit.

Yet, the only review on Yelp awarded 35 Seacoast Terrace a one-star rating and states, “Very thin walls, stupid neighbor watching TV all day! Cigarette smell in the corridor! Old building.” I guess that they never did soundproof the remaining walls in the building and is the reason why, when my wife and I bought our house, I insisted that there be some space between us and our neighbors.

On that note, I hope that everyone gets some nice, quiet slumber time tonight. Sweet dreams…

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

Podcast 124: Flying Blind

 

On March 22, 1952, 25-year-old Lt. (jg) Howard Thayer was flying as part of a bombing mission to destroy enemy rail and truck lines near the strategically important harbor of Wonsan, North Korea. Then, suddenly, he heard a scream come over his radio, “I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me; I’m blind!”

Thayer immediately looked all around for a plane that was trailing smoke, but saw none. Above him he spotted a Douglas AD Skyraider that appeared to be headed nearly straight upward toward the clouds. It was a dark, overcast day and Thayer knew that if this plane was being piloted by the man who made that plea, he would surely lose sight of the aircraft once it entered the clouds. Thayer needed to act quickly.

“Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”

Initially there was no response, but then he observed a repeated back-and-forth rocking motion. Yet, the plane continued its upward climb and was just seconds from disappearing into the cloud canopy.

“Put your nose down – put your nose down.” Thayer continued, “Push over. I’m coming up.”

The Skyraider was still climbing as Thayer pushed full throttle to catch up with the plane. As he approached the aircraft, he realized that this out-of-control bomber was not being flown by just any anonymous pilot. Instead, he was 22-year-old Ensign Kenneth A. Schechter, who just happened to be Howie Thayer’s roommate on the USS Valley Forge, the aircraft carrier from which both had launched. The two had trained together at the Alameda Naval Air Force base and had since become the closest of friends.

“This is Thayer – this is Thayer! Put your nose down quick! Get it over!”

As Thayer pulled in close to the plane, he could see that Schechter was gravely wounded. An enemy anti-aircraft shell had exploded near his head and shattered the cockpit canopy. Ken was barely conscious and was struggling to talk over his radio as the air whipped past him and the loud engine roar drowned out all other sound. Kind of like driving a car at 200 mph (322 km/h) with the top down, but in far, far worse condition.

Yet, somehow Ken was finally starting to make sense of what his friend Thayer was telling him to do.

“You’re doing all right now. Pull back a little; we can level off now.”

Schechter pushed his stick forward and relying solely on his sense of how gravity pulling on his body, he was able to level his plane out.

As Howie Thayer pulled within 100-feet (approximately 30-meters) of Schechter, he could now see how badly injured his face was. Fragments from the blast had caught under Ken’s eye and ripped the skin all the way across to his right cheek. He was bleeding profusely and had lost total vision. Ken Schechter was flying blind.

Thayer thought to himself, “My God, My God! How is he alive?”

Schechter was struggling to figure out what had happened and decided that if he could get some fresh air, maybe he could think more clearly. He reached for the canopy release lever and pulled on it. Nothing happened. He tried again and still nothing. That was when he finally realized that the canopy had been totally blown away. His next move was to reach for his canteen. After removing the top, Ken poured water over his face. This cleared the blood away from his eyes just long enough so that he could see the instrument panel in front of him. And, then, in an instant his vision was gone.

Schechter blurted over the radio, “Get me down Howie. Get me down, Howie.”

Thayer replied, “Roger.” He then spotted a partial bombload under Schechter’s wings. “Drop your ordnance.” Howie understood the request and he released the bombs.

Their next move was to circle back and head over the bomb-line into safe territory. Their initial destination was an island known as Yo-Do, located in Wonsan harbor, which was often used as a station during helicopter rescue missions. Thayer quickly realized that Schechter was so severely injured that there was no way they would make the distance to Yo-Do.

Thayer constantly scanned the shoreline for American ships, knowing that once he sighted them, he could be certain that they were back in friendly territory. He radioed, “We’re approaching Wonsan now. Get ready to bail out.”

Schechter refused to do so. He knew that, even under the best of conditions, jumping into the choppy waters was a risky move. In fact, during his second mission in Korea, he had flown near pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pugh, whose plane had been hit. Pugh landed on the water and signaled to Schechter that he was safe before flying off, but two hours later Pugh was dead. Pugh’s life jacket had failed, his immersion suit had leaked, he never made it to his liferaft, and the helicopter sent to pick him up had failed. Ken Schechter was in far worse shape and knew that he had no chance of surviving in the icy water below. He radioed back to Thayer, “Negative. Negative. Not gonna bail out. Get me down.”

The decision was made to head for an American airbase nicknamed Geronimo that was about 30 miles (48 km) south of the enemy line.

“We’re at the battle line now, Ken. Will head you for Geronimo. Hold on, boy!” Thayer then questioned, “Can you make it, Ken?” To which he replied, “Get me down, you miserable ape, or you’ll have to inventory my gear,” referring to the fact that each had designated the other to handle their affairs should one of them be killed in action.

As Thayer directed Ken to turn his plane right, he could see Schechter’s head fall forward and then as he attempted to straighten it upward, his head flopped over to the left. It was clear that there was no way that he was going to make it Geronimo. Thayer began to search for a place for Schechter to put his plane down, whether that be a rice paddy, a beach, or a flat field.

He spotted a clear spot ahead and as Thayer got closer, he realized that it was an abandoned airstrip that had been nicknamed the Jersey Bounce. While there were no aircraft there, Thayer observed that a few small buildings still remained. Hopefully that also meant that a few men remained behind to care for the facility and that they would be able to get Schechter immediately to a military hospital, should he survive the landing. With a short runway less than 2,000 feet (610 meters) in length and with Schechter severely injured, the odds were clearly stacked against him.

“We’re approaching Jersey Bounce, Ken. Will make a two-seven-zero turn and set you down.”

Schechter replied, “Roger. Let’s go.”

As they approached the runway, Thayer began to calmly provide his friend with exacting instructions. “Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. Little more.” He continued, “Gear down.”

Schechter abruptly replied, “To hell with that!” He had remembered that in an emergency landing such as this, it was far safer to land on the plane’s belly. To use the landing gear could risk ripping off one of the wings or possibly flipping the plane over.

Thayer understood. “Roger. Gear up.” He continued, “We’re headed straight. Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re OK. You’re 30 feet off the ground. You’re OK. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK. OK. OK. Cut.”

As Schechter tensed up while awaiting contact with the ground, the plane landed on its belly and slid along the gravel runway. About forty-five minutes after being hit, his plane came to a stop about halfway down the runway. Thayer radioed, “You’re on the ground,” and then began to circle round and round to make sure that his friend was okay. As Schechter clumsily pulled himself out of his cockpit, Thayer could see a car race down the runway toward the plane. Two men helped Ken into the vehicle and sped off toward one of the buildings near the end of the runway.

Howie Thayer’s job was done and he headed back to the Valley Forge and landed about twenty minutes later. As soon as he climbed out of his cockpit, Thayer was puzzled to have a number of senior pilots and officers come right out to meet him. He quickly learned that nearly everyone aboard the carrier had been listening nervously to the voice transmissions between the two pilots as the whole rescue unfolded. In addition, a transcription machine had recorded everything, providing for a permanent record of exactly what the two had said.

As for Ken Schechter, he was immediately transported by helicopter from Jersey Bounce to Geronimo. Doctors removed some of the larger pieces of shrapnel, but determined that he was in need of a skilled eye surgeon and had him flown to naval hospital ship Consolation, which was anchored in the Pusan harbor in South Korea at the time. From there, it was on to hospitals in Japan, Oakland, and San Diego. In all, he would spend six months in various military hospitals. While he recovered vision in his left eye, he never regained sight in his right, which meant a permanent end to his military career as a pilot.

Two years later, their story became the basis for the Hollywood movie “Men of the Fighting Lady.” Thayer was portrayed by Van Johnson and Dewey Martin played the part of Schechter. As one would expect, the film to great license with the story, which included Schechter’s plane landing back on the carrier in a giant flaming wreck.

Interestingly, the plane that Shechter had crash landed had its propeller replaced, flown back to the Valley Forge for repairs, and was then placed back in service.

Howie Thayer would once again perform a similar rescue on June 27, 1953. This time a plane piloted by Lieutenant John J. Chambers was hit, not only wounding him in the arms and legs, but damaging his radio and flight instruments. Thayer had to use hand signals to guide Chambers to a safe landing on an airstrip some 40-miles (65 km) away.

Sadly, in January of 1961, while on a night mission, Thayer was guiding a fellow pilot whose plane had experienced an electrical system failure. While on landing approach, both pilots crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Their remains were never to be recovered. For all of his heroic actions, Howard Thayer was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2009.

On June 28, 1995, Ken Schechter was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Howie Thayer’s three adult children were present as he received the award aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego. During his acceptance speech, Ken stated to them, “I hope you will see this ceremony as your ceremony, because that’s certainly the way I feel about it.”

Kenneth Allen Schechter was born in Harlem, NY on January 31, 1930, the son of European immigrants. After graduating from Stanford and the Harvard Business School, he spent most of his career as an insurance agent. He died of complications due to prostate cancer on December 11, 2013 at the age of 83.

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