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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

The Price of a Kiss – Podcast #145

 

I’ve been piecing this story together for more than a decade in dribs and drabs. Initially, I had no more than half a dozen newspaper clippings that I had gathered up and placed in a manila folder labeled the “Price of a Kiss.” While I’m still left with a few unanswered questions, I’m confident that I have assembled enough of the puzzle pieces to provide a fairly complete telling of the events as they unfolded. It’s one of those stories that started out being focused on one particular woman but soon shifted to that of a man.

His name was Justin Lowell Mitchell. He was born on April 3, 1877, in Napoleon, Ohio, which lies approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Akron. By the turn of the twentieth century, he had relocated 45 miles (72 kilometers) southward to Lima to become a barber. His first, and far from his last, mention in the press came on October 6, 1903, with a brief blurb in the Times-Democrat: “Marriage License. Justice [sic] Mitchell, 26, barber, and Della McElvane, 23, both of Lima.”

1921 passport photo of Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
1921 passport photo of Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

Justin Mitchell had grander dreams. Two years later, he gave up his tonsorial profession and the couple relocated to the windy city, Chicago. There, Della secured a job as a clerk in a retail store where she worked to pay her husband’s way through medical school. It was not enough to make ends meet, so Della’s father generously helped to support the couple.

In 1911, Della intercepted two postcards that had been mailed to her husband. They were from another woman. On May 3, 1911, Della was in court suing her husband for a divorce. “I’m not going to stand for any ‘Morning Glory’ calling my husband ‘Honey Bunch.’” She added, “That wasn’t all, but he used to go to shows with a tall blonde that called him ‘Honey Bunch.’”

The trial quickly evolved into a he-said/she-said accusatorial circus that made headlines in quite a few newspapers. It was quite scandalous for its time. Della accused her husband of numerous affairs with his patients, told of a time that he had thrown her to the floor and broke her eyeglasses, and accused him of using both abusive and profane language when they argued. In turn, Justin called men to the witness stand who supposedly had affairs with Della. Both denied the other’s charges.

Two days later, Judge William Fennimore Cooper, instructed the jury to deliver its verdict. The court found each guilty of infidelity and the divorce request was denied. Both requested new trials, but the press dropped the story like a hot potato. Dr. Mitchell would remarry in 1931, so his first marriage clearly did come to an end at some point. The details, however, are unknown.

As I had mentioned earlier, this story was originally centered around a woman, not Dr. Mitchell. Her name was Mathilde Benkhardt. Born in Germany on December 24, 1892, she arrived in New York and passed through Ellis Island on September 5, 1911. Her 1920 application for naturalization describes her as being “Color White, complexion fair, height 5 feet 1 inches [155 cm], weight 110 pounds [50 kg], color of hair D-Brown, color of eyes D-Brown, other distinctive marks none.” On that same document, she declared, “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein; SO HELP ME GOD.”

Mathilde Benkhardt
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 22 of the March 1, 1923 publication of the Harrisburg Evening News.

Mathilde was determined to improve her position in life. For two years, she worked by day so that she could earn enough to pay her way through high school, which she attended at night. (Sidenote: My late grandfather, Jack Silverman, explained to me many years ago that going to high school in the early 1900s was considered an advanced education. High school was not compulsory nor was it free in many locales.)

Upon graduation from high school, Mathilde spent three years training to be a nurse at the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. Known to the staff as “German,” she was considered to be an excellent nurse. Mathilde was almost certain to be granted her nursing diploma. Yet, they refused to issue it to her and gave her a simple certificate instead.

Why was she denied her diploma? Very simple. At 2 PM on Thursday, April 24, 1919, Mathilde was working in the maternity ward of the hospital when Dr. Mitchell came in and forcibly tried to kiss her.

Mathilde decided to sue. And just what was the price of a kiss? Mathilde Benkhardt was requesting that a jury award her $25,000 (approximately $393,000 today.)

The trial opened in a Chicago courtroom on January 10, 1922, once again placing Dr. Mitchell in the center of a scandalous, he-said/she-said, headline-grabbing story.

Mathilde testified that this was not the first time that Dr. Mitchell had attempted to kiss her. He had done it one other time, back in 1916. “He kissed me in the drug room.”

On the day of that second forced kiss, Mathilde was dressed in her nursing uniform and attending to eighteen newly born babies whose cribs were arranged in a semicircle around the hospital nursery. She testified, “I was standing near the crib of a new born baby. I was bending over the crib. Dr. Mitchell came in. We were alone. He put his hand on my neck.” She continued, “He lifted me up and pushed me into the corner.”

Mathilde was frightened and attempted to push the doctor away but was unable to do so. Just then, the door to the nursery swung open and the superintendent of nurses came in, questioning what had just happened. The doctor whispered to Mathilde, “Don’t mention the incident” before turning to the head nurse and stating, “I think this case was caused by the instruments.”

Within twenty minutes of that attempted kiss, Mathilde reported the attack to the night superintendent, Sister Anna Buschell. In turn, Sister Buschell informed Reverend Frederick Weber, the superintendent of the hospital.

Mathilde described what happened next. “He questioned me privately, also Dr. Mitchell. The same day the board of directors was convened, and I told my story. Dr. Mitchell told the board that he had merely tried to tickle me.”

Mathilde Benkhardt.
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 9 of the January 1, 1921 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Right after the meeting concluded, Mathilde was informed that “Dr. Mitchell must leave within twenty-four hours.” Not long after that, Dr. Mitchell approached Mathilde and told her, “Girl, you’ve made the mistake of your life.”

The next day, Mathilde was subjected to a humiliating examination by a group of six doctors to determine if she was still a virgin or not.

Mathilde was not allowed to return to her nursing position and soon learned that the hospital had decided to dismiss her without her nursing degree. Instead, Reverend Weber handed Mathilde a letter of reference and told her that she could complete her studies at the epileptic school in St. Charles, Missouri. In place of a diploma, on June 6, 1919, six weeks after the incident, the hospital issued Mathilde Benkhardt a certificate that read, in part, “her conduct has been very satisfactory.” Dr. Mitchell, on the other hand, was allowed to stay on as a staff physician without penalty.

When it was Dr. Mitchell’s turn to take the stand, he declared that the charges “are the bunk” and “I am the victim of a plot.”

In his closing argument, Dr. Mitchell’s attorney, Hugh R. Porter, stated, “I believe that the first thing any woman, placed in a position similar to that charged, would do would be to scream. And Miss Benkhardt testified that for twenty minutes she was unable to speak. Can you believe this?”

He added, “While it is true that the examination of the physicians has proved this girl a virgin, it is also true that a girl may be ever so virtuous and still tell a story. She isn’t anybody’s baby. She is 27 years old.”

The jury deliberated the case for nine hours and, on January 14, 1922, notified the court that they had been unable to reach a unanimous decision. The vote was 10 to 2 in favor of Miss Benkhardt. Mathilde’s attorney immediately requested a new trial and the judge agreed.

Miss Benkhardt expressed her displeasure with the press. “If they had only assessed him a penny, I would have been more than satisfied.” She continued, “The money does not mean anything to me, whether they allow me 1 cent or $25,000. It is the principle and my good name I am fighting for.”

A few months prior to the start of the second trial, Dr. Mitchell told reporters, “I’m ready for trial. I have full confidence in my attorney Hugh R. Porter and the average jury. This girl was never wronged either by me or by the hospital. If she wants to go ahead and make more trouble with her suit after juries are allowing such damages as $1 and 6 cents in similar cases, I’m ready.” In fact, there had been a number of similar cases around the same time as this trial. Many were either dismissed or settled out of court, although a few women were awarded small amounts including $3, $25, and $58.50.

On February 21, 1923, Miss Benkhardt once again told her story a packed courtroom and it differed little from that of the first trial. When questioned by attorney Porter as to why she didn’t scream, Mathilde replied, “Because I was too terrified. I couldn’t say anything or tell anybody for twenty minutes. I was so frightened.”

Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court.
Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court. Image appeared on page 32 of the February 22, 1923 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Well aware that the majority of jurists had voted in Miss Benkhardt’s favor, the overall tone of the defense was far more aggressive this time around.

The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Dr. Mitchell took the stand in his own defense. His attitude was more of that of an angry, denying, and at times confused man than that of a well poised man of medicine. He showed none of the cool impersonality displayed by Miss Benkhardt.”

Dr. Mitchell testified, “I did not attempt to kiss Miss Benkhardt. I did not hug her or make any improper advances toward her.”

With World War I still fresh in everyone’s memory, the defense attempted to use Miss Benkhardt’s German heritage against her. Not only was her German accent pointed out to all in the jury, but Dr. Mitchell claimed that in 1917, “I overheard Miss Benkhardt saying, ‘I wish I was in Rockford. Then some of the boys wouldn’t get across. I would put poison in their soup.’ I reprimanded her, and it seems to me that she disliked me after that.” (He appears to be referring to Camp Grant near Rockford, IL, which was one of the largest military training facilities in the United States during WWI.)

Reverend Weber, the hospital’s superintendent, was also asked to take the witness stand. While he admitted that Mathilde had never been allowed to present her case at the meeting where they voted to dismiss her, Weber did his best to discredit her. “In the first place, I learned from the sisters and the nurses that her reputation for truth and veracity was bad.” To discredit this testimony, Reverend Alfred Wenzel, was brought in as a surprise witness and stated that he doubted Reverend Weber’s ability to tell the truth.

The jury reached their verdict on February 23, 1923 and then went home. The judge ordered their decision sealed until the next day. Surprisingly, neither Miss Benkhardt nor Dr. Mitchell were present when the verdict was read. The jury had awarded Mathilde Benkhardt $20,000 for the two kisses that Dr. Mitchell had forced upon her. And there is the answer: the price of a kiss in 1923 was $10,000 per kiss, although the real charges against Dr. Mitchell and the hospital were far more serious than this headline-grabbing monetary award would suggest. Shortly after the decision was handed down, the hospital did the right thing and they expelled Dr. Mitchell and issued Miss Benkhardt the diploma that she had worked so hard to receive.

Mathilde Benkhardt.
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 16 of the February 27, 1923 publication of the Detroit Free Press.

Yet, that wasn’t the end of the case. The jury’s decision was immediately appealed. On October 9, 1923, Judge Julius Kearns denied the motion for a new trial but agreed to reduce the monetary award to $10,000. He stated, “Ten thousand dollars should repair the damaged feelings of any girl.” He added, “The jury’s award was excessive, when, after all the evidence was in, the case resolved itself, despite voluminous testimony into Miss Benkhardt’s vehement, ‘Yes, he did,’ and the doctor’s equally vigorous ‘No, I didn’t.’”

The judge ordered Dr. Mitchell to pay $600 ($9,265 today) per month until the entire $10,000 was paid off. On October 20, 1923, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for failing to pay a single penny. He claimed that he was insolvent and could not do so. Mathilde Benkhardt’s lawyer requested that Dr. Mitchell be placed in a debtor’s cell until he could come up with the money. Instead, the judge opted to release him on a $5,000 bond.

Yet, the payments never came. On November 8, Dr. Mitchell filed an insolvent debtor’s petition, but the judge assigned to handle the case suggested that he would dismiss it. Instead, the judge gave Dr. Mitchell two options: either pay Miss Benkhardt the full $10,000 that he owes her or post an appeal bond of $12,500. Failure to do either would get him locked up in a debtor’s cell for six months. With the help of neighbors, Mitchell was able to come up with the cash for the bond.

Dr. Mitchell’s fight to avoid paying the $10,000 continued until July 25, 1924. That’s when the two sides agreed to a settlement. Dr. Mitchell paid $2,000 (about $30,800 today) and Miss Benkhardt agreed to drop all further legal action against him. Five years, three months, and one day after she had filed a complaint against the doctor, the long battle between the two had come to a close.

Mathilde Benkhardt’s name would fall out of the headlines and it appears that she lived a quiet life after that. She passed away on September 24, 1943, at fifty years of age. 

Yet, Dr. Mitchell’s life seemed to spiral out of control. On January 12, 1925, just five months after that financial settlement, he was once again making headlines on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. This time he was arrested for “performing a criminal operation from the effects of which Mrs. Catherine Martos [Marton?], 27 years old, 6026 South Wood street, is said to be gravely ill.”

This article never mentioned it specifically but implies that Dr. Mitchell was caught performing an illegal abortion. The operation had been done at the Michigan Boulevard Sanitarium, now long gone, which was located at 3750 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 

On July 10, 1928, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for the murder of three infants, all the result of “illegal operations.” I will avoid the gruesome details of this, but the charges were dropped because the prosecution was unable to provide any form of physical evidence to prove their case. It was all based on accusations made by a former hospital assistant superintendent.

On December 10, 1931, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested for murder by an “illegal operation.” In this case, thirty-year-old Mrs. Ethel Vaughan had died from surgical complications.

On May 27, 1933, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested after 20-year-old Mrs. Florence Jordan died. She had told police that Dr. Mitchell had performed an abortion on her on May 8.

On May 23, 1934, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested on a charge of “murder by abortion.” This time the victim was 24-year-old Mary Schwartz.

1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

On February 2, 1936, 20-year-old Alice Haggin, the mother of two children, died. Once again, it was due to abortion complications, a crime for which Dr. Mitchell stood accused.

Yet, somehow, Dr. Mitchell avoided jail time for any of these deaths. Well, his luck finally ran out on February 12, 1936. That is when he was convicted of manslaughter in the April 3, 1935 death of 32-year-old Mary Nowakowski, who went by the name of Mary Novak. Dr. Mitchell was sentenced to one to fourteen years in the Illinois State Penitentiary. An appeal was filed, but the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the lower court’s ruling. The US Supreme Court declined to hear his case.

American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

Dr. Justin Mitchell passed away on May 8, 1941. He was sixty-four years old. It is unclear from publicly available records if he died in prison or not, but his card in the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File offers up a big hint: “April 20, 1939 – Rec’d Ill. State Pen., Joliet, Ill., Nov. 16, 1938 – Convicted of Manslaughter and sentenced to an indeterminate period one to fourteen yrs. Will appear before the Division of Pardons and Paroles at the Nov. 1939 meeting. Given a continuance at Nov. 1939 meeting. Case will be heard again at June 1945 meeting.” That implies that he was still imprisoned at the time of his passing. The file is rubber-stamped in big, bold letters: DEAD.

It’s incredible how far he had fallen in the end.

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

Podcast #145 – Bad Apples #1 – The Best Years of Our Lives

 

Note: The following is an automated transcription of the podcast. As a result, it may contain errors.

Steve Silverman So, on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I watched the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. And honestly, I thought about this movie for days afterward. And since I do a history podcast, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss this old movie as part of the podcast. And since we’re both teachers, at least she’s still a teacher, and I’m a retired teacher. I figured since we have the website Rotten Tomatoes, we should call this Bad Apples. Anyway, welcome to the show, my wife, Mary Jane.

Mary Jane Hi.

Steve Silverman And Mary Jane, had you ever heard of this movie before?

Mary Jane No, I’d never heard of it before.

Steve Silverman Yeah, me either. And considering it was so successful at the time, and it’s such a classic movie, to have never seen it or never heard of, it’s pretty amazing. So, let me do a little background on the movie. It was made in 1946. That’s the same year as It’s a Wonderful Life. That makes it 75 years old right now. It was released one year after World War Two ended, and it was the highest-grossing film in all of the 1940s. In fact, up until this time, no movie had done more business except for Gone with the Wind. In fact, is still the sixth most attended movie of all time in the UK. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 movies chosen by the Library of Congress for the US National Film Registry. And, I should mention this movie was totally free online. If you go to archive.org you can watch it for free. The movie won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture Best Director, Frederick March won Best Actor, Harold Russell, he won Best Supporting Actor. And as you know, in every podcast I ask a Question of the Day. So here’s the question: In fact, by winning the Best Supporting Actor, Harold Russell became the only person in Academy history to have what honor? Do you know what honor that was? I don’t? Well, you’ll hang around to the end of this podcast, the end of this story, and you’ll find out. I should point out this is not an action movie. Do you agree with that?

Mary Jane I absolutely agree that it is not an action movie.

Steve Silverman Yeah. I mean.

Mary Jane It’s a melodrama.

Steve Silverman Yeah. You’d think a war movie would be an action movie, but it’s not. And probably the most noticeable thing about this movie. It’s very long. It runs almost three hours, two hours and 50 minutes. Now, did you feel that it was a long movie? Or is it just seemed okay.

Mary Jane Well, you know, I sensed that it was long, but certainly, I certainly didn’t think it was approaching three hours.

Steve Silverman Yeah. When it ended, I thought it was about two hours. Just starting to get to that point where you get a little fidgety in your seat. But I had no idea it was approaching the three hour mark. It just never dragged for a single moment that we watched it.

The movie took place in Boone City, which is a fictitious town in the Corn Belt. And it’s the story of three men who come back from World War Two. And they had never met before their plane ride back aboard an army airplane. And it’s all about their attempts to pick up their lives afterwards. All three of them arrived home to warm greetings by their families, but they soon realized that life has gone on without them. And not only have they changed, but so their families and the world around them.

The movie does a great job of showing the difficulties that faced soldiers returning back home after World War Two, you know, the lack of jobs, lack of housing, and just the overall problem of readjusting into ordinary life. Now there may have been other movies prior to this that dealt with it, but I think this may be the first mainstream movie to examine the effects of PTSD. I mean, are you aware of any movie prior to this that dealt with that?

Mary Jane No, not not so close to World War Two.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, this movie was, they started making this movie within months of the war ending. So we’ll talk about that as we go through this. So I thought what we do is talk about each of the three stories starting with the oldest man first.

So Frederick March plays Sergeant Al Stephenson. He’s in his 40s and he’s a banker. What did you think about his role? Did it seem believable to you?

Mary Jane Yeah, I thought he did a great job.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And he won the Academy Award for it, so I think others agree.

Mary Jane It makes sense.

Steve Silverman Yeah.

And now I would, I would say the only part I didn’t like about his role was when he played being drunk. A couple of times, particularly is a scene where he’s in a bar, and he’s really, really drunk, and he’s dancing with everyone. And then there’s a car ride home. And he’s a little bit over the top, I thought, but overall, I really did like the scenes and how it played out with him. Now, Myrna Loy plays his wife. Now, she was a big time actress at this time, but she just basically has a sub part in this movie. What did you think about her?

Mary Jane I thought she did a great job. She kind of represents the mature spouse who understands her partner and she doesn’t push too hard when he clearly is over drinking a lot. I mean, yeah, I thought she did a great job.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, the one scene where she, where he’s drunk, and she’s counting, you know, she’s taking her knife and carving how many drinks, you know, he had into the table. That was. I don’t know. That seemed very realistic to me. You can just see the look on her face. Honestly, I thought she was the second best actor in this movie. Every scene that she was in, she just handled really well. And she wasn’t acting over the top or anything. I just thought she was very realistic in what she was doing.

Mary Jane I thought she did a great job. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t put her as the second best, but that’s just my opinion.

Steve Silverman Yeah. So that’s why we’re talking about the movie. Now their family is clearly well off. They have an elegant apartment, nice clothes, and everyone seems happy, at least at first. Now, you want to just talk a little bit about why he starts to become unhappy and why he turns to drinking?

Mary Jane Well, I think when he arrives home, he can’t believe how much his kids have changed. And there’s actually, you know, problems of like, almost a generation gap. When he speaks to his son, and gives him, tries to give him a sword from Japan, the son almost can’t relate to what he’s gone through.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Honestly, I thought the son was the worst actor in the movie. He was so stiff. And they wrote him out. I mean, he was only in the beginning couple of scenes. And then he just disappears from the movie. The daughter, which is Teresa Wright, she’s a big character in the whole movie, but the son never appears again after that, and I think that’s probably because he was he wasn’t that great of an actor. I could be wrong. I couldn’t help but wonder why they even put his part in there. I mean, why couldn’t you have just come home and you know, had one daughter and not a son who was so stiff and such a bad actor, and really was written out of the movie pretty quickly.

Mary Jane Well, I mean, he did even question what was done during the war, right, dropping of the atomic bomb. I think that little piece was important for the storyline.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I guess, but it just, I just didn’t like what he was doing. He, I thought he was the worst part of the movie. I mean, the movie was very good. But that one little, anytime he was on the screen. I just felt like he couldn’t act. So anyway, that’s my opinion.

So, Teresa Wright played his daughter. And had you ever seen Theresa Wright before?

Mary Jane I don’t think so.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I’ve seen her in a few movies. The first time I think I ever saw was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, called Shadow of a Doubt. I probably saw that about 35 years ago, so I was just, you know, going through a phase where I was watching all the old Alfred Hitchcock movies. And I actually really liked that movie. It’s a very good Hitchcock movie. It’s not one of his most famous ones like Psycho or Rear Window or Vertigo, but it’s a really, really good movie that he did. And that’s the first time I ever saw her. Now she plays a key part in this movie. Not only is she Al Stephenson’s daughter, but she becomes a love interest of the next character we’re going to talk about, because that’s Captain Fred Derry who’s played by Dana Andrews. Now, Fred was a crew member on a bomber and is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Yet, he returns home to find his life back home is far worse than it was when he was dropping bombs. Do you want to talk a little bit about what his life was like when he came home?

Mary Jane Well, he can’t seem to find it seems like he’s underemployed. He actually goes back to where he worked before. And he called described himself as a soda jerk. You know, so he’s, he wants to do better, but he can’t seem to find better employment.

Steve Silverman And that was a common problem. After the war, all these men came home and there was no place for them to find jobs, at least good-paying jobs. Now, his character supposedly married 20 days prior to leaving for war. And his wife Marie Derry is played by Virginia Mayo and she plays kind of a ditzy, you know, showgirl, I guess you could say.

Mary Jane Right, almost trashy, I would say.

Steve Silverman Yeah, trashy is probably a good way to describe it.

Mary Jane Yeah.

Steve Silverman What did you think about their interaction?

Mary Jane Well, clearly they were married kind of on the fly. And she wasn’t really so interested in him so much as the soldier that she had met right before he left.

Steve Silverman And there’s a scene in the movie where he comes in and he’s not wearing his uniform. And she is not impressed.

Mary Jane Right. She’s very disappointed just to see him the way he’s dressed. And he is uncomfortable with the fact that she wants him to put back that uniform back on and he kind of wants to start a new life.

Steve Silverman Right. And also, he’s not earning enough money for her. She has very expensive tastes, and he was earning good money in the military. But now that he has a civilian job, he’s not doing well. And she’s just complaining, you know, she’s basically whining and complaining, right?

Mary Jane She’s definitely not as empathetic and nurturing as the other women characters. Yeah.

Steve Silverman You know, you know, pretty early on this marriage is not gonna work out.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, he gets back. You can’t even find her actually, because she’s working in some nightclub. He doesn’t even know where she is.

Steve Silverman Right. And, and it’s kind of clear that, you know, they couldn’t do this in the 1940s. But it’s clear she’s been with other men. I think that’s implied by her character.

Mary Jane Right, right, definitely.

Steve Silverman Of course another love interest comes into his life. That’s Peggy Stephenson, who is played by Teresa Wright. And she’s playing Al Stephenson’s, Sargeant Al Stephenson’s daughter. Did you feel that that relationship as it was building that it was? I don’t know, to me it didn’t seem like a real relationship. It was like almost like they looked at each other and then they’re in love and you know?

Mary Jane Yes. I mean, it may not been as developed as it could have been. Yeah, it did seem like suddenly they really cared about each other out of the blue, sort of, yeah.

Steve Silverman Yeah, it seemed a little thrown together. I would have liked to have seen that developed a little bit better in the movie. I would say there’s one of the few weaknesses in the movie is that that one little story arc, that little portion of the story wasn’t developed. It was almost like they, you know, it was like instant love and it didn’t play as well as I had hoped. I think if they had somehow thrown a little bit more into the movie to develop that it would have been better. Now, one of my favorite scenes in the movie was at an aircraft graveyard in Ontario, California, where he is walking along through all these airplanes that are being dismantled. What did you think about that scene?

Mary Jane I thought it was great. I mean, there was really ominous music and you understood kind of right away that he felt, you know, like he was becoming obsolete kind of like the planes.

Steve Silverman Yeah, it basically, you know, now that the war is over, there’s no use for these planes, and there’s no use for him. And, honestly, I thought it was spectacularly filmed. I mean, just that scene, it was just so grand to look at. Just something that’ll probably stay with me for the rest of my life. I mean, there really wasn’t much dialogue. I can’t play it for anybody. But just you know, you can see him reflecting on his life. And it’s also a turning point in the movie, but I’m not going to give that away.

Mary Jane Right, right.

Steve Silverman Now the third story that’s interwoven with the other two leading men is that of Homer Parrish, played by Harold Russell. And he’s a he’s a Navy man who worked below deck and he claims he never saw combat. That basically he was below deck for the entire war. And of course, what happened to him?

Mary Jane They were bombed apparently, and his his two arms were burned off.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And would you agree with me that you weren’t sure for most of the movie whether he really was an amputee or not?

Mary Jane Oh, absolutely. That’s what it kind of kept me thinking, you know, like, is this guy a real true double amputee? Or are they do they have kind of like, pretend prosthetics on his arms? I couldn’t tell.

Steve Silverman Of course, what is the truth?

Mary Jane The truth is what you actually discover watching the film at the towards the very end is he is truly a double amputee from the war. And it’s the, the scene is pretty startling. Yeah.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I think the scene where he reveals that, you know, I mean, there were other scenes where he was getting dressed. Like there was a scene where his father helped him get ready for bed, but they never showed, you know that he was missing the lower portion of his arms.

Mary Jane Yeah, right below his chest area. They didn’t really show, right.

Steve Silverman I think actually, the best scene in the movie is when he is with his fiance Wilma. And he’s trying to explain to her what life is like living with a double amputee. And, you know, they go up to his bedroom, and he’s getting ready for bed and he’s showing her what he’s going through.

Mary Jane Right. And every night you’re going to have to help me with this because they have to remove the straps and everything. So yeah.

Steve Silverman I think that was the best scene in the movie. I don’t know if you agree with that or not.

Mary Jane As I described it, it’s kind of startling. And yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s memorable. For sure.

Steve Silverman Yeah. So why don’t we play a short clip of that?

Mary Jane Great. Okay.

Steve Silverman So to set the scene up Homer, who’s played by Harold Russell, he’s up in his bedroom in his parents house showing his fiance Wilma, who is played by Cathy O’Donnell, what it’s like when he removes his prosthetic arms for the evening.

Homer Parrish This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. Can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book? That door should most shut icon open get out of this room? Who’s dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything? cry? Fine. Well, now you know. I have an idea of what it is. I guess you don’t know what to say. It’s all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said.

Wilma I know what to say, Homer. I love you. And I’m never going to leave you. Never.

Steve Silverman Let’s talk a little bit about Harold Russell, quickly, because he was not an actor. From what I read the part was originally written to be about a man suffering from shell shock. But it was rewritten after director William Wyler saw him in a military educational film that was called Diary of a Sergeant. And by the way, that’s for free also on archive.org. And I think it’s also on YouTube.

Mary Jane It’s worth watching, also.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Basically, it was footage of him and how he learned to adapt with these, basically these maneuverable hooks that he had for hands and arms. And, honestly, I don’t know about you, but I was amazed what he could do with that.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, actually, if you watch the film, you’ll learn that he has to move his right shoulder blade in order to use his left hand and his left shoulder blade to use his right hand r pincers, you would almost say.

Steve Silverman This is in the documentary and not in the movie we’re talking about.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman Now, you know, from the beginning of the movie, from The Best Years of Our Lives, from the very beginning, and you’re not really sure if he really has prosthetics or not. But you know he’s really good with him because the first thing he does is like, he signs his name. And then another time he

Mary Jane Lights a cigarette for someone else.

Steve Silverman Yeah, he grabs the matches and he lights the matches and lights his cigarettes, and he and he lights it for the other two guys. Pretty amazing. The whole movie I just, you know, at first, I wasn’t sure if they were real or not. But, holy cow, he had incredible skill.

Mary Jane Right. And at one point, of course, it’s a duet, but he actually plays the piano with his uncle in one scene.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And I should mention the uncle is Hoagy Carmichael, who was, you know, very famous as famous in his day.

Mary Jane Okay. I didn’t know Hoagy. But that’s great to know.

Steve Silverman Now, I should tell you, I mean, you actually know this, I think that he lost his limbs, not in combat, but he was in the United States training others. And he went to grab a box of TNT and it had a defective fuse and it blew up. And that’s how he lost his two arms.

Mary Jane Right. Right. But still, you know, it’s just as tragic.

Steve Silverman Yeah. And he was a student at Boston University when they asked him to be in the movie. And in fact, when the movie ended, shortly after all the publicity and all the fame had died down, he went back and he got his degree from there. So he didn’t stop his education become a big movie star.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman It was one of the few roles that he actually did. Now, did you think him being a non-actor was good or bad?

Mary Jane I actually thought it was a real positive. I think they took a bit of a gamble and it really paid off because he injected a bit of realism into that character. That you know, all the other characters you know, they kind of have a Hollywood look to them. They’re actually quite attractive and all that. He’s kind of he looks like your next-door neighbor. He even had a regional accent, which I liked.

Steve Silverman Yeah, except this was in Bostonian.

Mary Jane They’re supposed to be…

Steve Silverman You don’t really notice it in the movie until you think about it.

Mary Jane I kind of noticed. I love accents.

Steve Silverman Yeah, but you’re a language teacher.

Mary Jane Yeah.

Steve Silverman But yeah, so he has a Bostonian accent. He’s supposedly, you know, raised in the Midwest from when he was a baby. So, a little out of place, but I didn’t notice that. But honestly, I thought every scene that he was in was the best part of the movie. I’m not really sure this movie would have been as great if he wasn’t in that movie. I think it would have just been an ordinary, you know, war movie, but because he was in that movie, I thought he made all the difference.

Mary Jane I absolutely agree. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So this leads to the answer of what honor Harold Russell has with the Academy.

Mary Jane Okay.

Steve Silverman With the Oscars. And that is he is the only person to win two Academy Awards for the same exact role. So basically, they didn’t think he win Best Supporting Actor, but they wanted to honor him somehow. So, they gave him an honorary Oscar for “For bringing hope and courage to the fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” So that was his first Academy Award that night. And then, of course, later in the evening, he won Best Supporting Actor. So he’s the only person in history to get two Oscars for the same exact role. Now, do you think he deserved it?

Mary Jane Yeah, I did. I thought he did a great job. As I said, they took a risk in a way but it really paid off.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I think it was well deserved. It has nothing to do with me even being an amputee. He just made the movie. He made it more realistic. Without him in the movie, the movie would just have been an ordinary movie. He is what made this movie exceptional.

Mary Jane Yeah, I mean, the other two, you know, one is, you know, possibly going to have issues with alcoholism. And the other is, you know, dealing with depression, possibly, but his problem is, it’s pretty front and center and you do grow to care about the character.

Steve Silverman So which of these three stories did you like best? Of course, we have the older gentleman play by Frederick March, who, you know is a banker, and he lives in a very nice apartment and everything seems to be going well, although he is on the verge of becoming an alcoholic. And then we have the second part, Captain Fred Derry played by Dana Andrews. You know, and he can’t seem to find his place in the world, but he comes back, he can’t get a good job, his marriage is falling apart. And then, of course, we have Harold Russell is Homer Parrish. His biggest problem, I think is, you know, trying not just having people accept him and not treat him differently. But he can understand why people would want to treat him in the same way, particularly his fiance, why would she want to marry him now that he’s a double amputee? So of those three characters running through the movie, which one did you like the best?

Mary Jane Well, I think I’ve already kind of indicated that, but again, it’s going to be the one with Homer Parrish and his, his sweetheart, you know, or just his circumstance, the sweetheart doesn’t have a very big part herself, but just him accepting what he has and not feeling self-conscious.

Steve Silverman Yeah. Yeah, he definitely is the best part of the movie, as I’ve said this several times already. Without him, I don’t think the movie would have played as well. Now, would you say this is a political movie?

Mary Jane I mean, it I would literally call it an ode to the American GI.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, there’s very little in the way of politics in there. You already mentioned about the son talking a little bit about bombing and nuclear power, and so on. So there is one scene where Homer goes into the pharmacy and he sees a captain Fred Derry, he’s the one who’s playing the soda jerk. And a man walks in. And that’s probably the most political portion of the movie. The guy basically is questioning why we were in the war. And I have to be honest, I was kind of shocked by this. Now, he never really tell you why he disagrees with, you know, the United States being part of the war. You just keep saying, you know, kind of read the facts, look at the facts. But it is the most political part of the movie, but it’s not a political movie. So I thought what I do is play a clip of that.

Mary Jane Okay, that sounds good. So let’s

Steve Silverman So, let’s take a listen.

Unnamed Character You got plenty of guts. Terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself? And for what?

Homer Parrish And for what? I don’t get to Mister.

Unnamed Character Well. We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.

Homer Parrish Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.

Unnamed Character No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight that Limeys and the Reds. And they would have whipped them, too. We didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.

Homer Parrish What are you talking about?

Unnamed Character We fought the wrong people. That’s all. Just read the facts, my friend, find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.

Steve Silverman So what is the title The Best Years of Our Lives mean to you?

Mary Jane Well, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that question. But I possibly what’s ahead of them now that they’re back. They’re back from the war, and you hope that what’s ahead of them is the best years of their lives.

Steve Silverman Now there’s only one time in the movie that they kind of mentioned something like that. Yeah. Marie Derry, played by Virginia Mayo. She plays the showgirl, you know, cocktail waitress, I guess. And she says something to the effect, like, Oh, I gave up the best years of my life. So let’s take a quick listen to that.

Mary Jane All right. Yep.

Steve Silverman So here’s a short clip with Fred Derry, who’s played by Dana Andrews, comes home to find his wife, Marie, who was played by Virginia Mayo, alone in their apartment with another man. She claims he’s just a friend.

Fred Derry Did you know him while I was away?

Marie Derry I know lots of people. What do you think I was doing all those years?

Fred Derry I don’t know, babe. But I can guess.

Marie Derry Go ahead, get your head off. I could do some guessing myself. What were you up to in London, in Paris and all those places? I’ve given you every chance to make something yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life and what have you done? You flop. Couldn’t even hold that job in the drugstore. So I’m going back to work for myself. That means I’m going to live for myself too. And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce. What have you got to say to that?

Steve Silverman So I interpreted the title, when I thought about it afterward, after seeing the movie, the way I interpreted it was that basically, all these people, they were away at war, their family’s back at home, they all gave up the best years of their lives that they missed out on so much. Whereas you’re looking at it from the opposite point of view that they have the best years in front of them. So maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Mary Jane Possibly. That’s the way I saw it, though. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So Mary Jane, I said what my favorite scene is, what was your favorite scene in the movie?

Mary Jane So my favorite scene takes place at the very end of the movie, and I’m going to try not to give too much away but it’s where there’s a family gathering in a home, and it’s very intimate. And at one point, the character of Homer Parrish has to do this very basic task. And it seems like everyone in the room kind of holds their breath. They’re not sure he’s gonna be able to do it, because he’s using his hooks to do it. And he does succeed, I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is, but, and then there’s this kind of a sigh of relief from everyone. And they know, at that moment, that he’s going to have a happy life. He’s going to succeed, even though he has this terrible disability. And I just think the message is very positive. It’s almost, I feel the whole movie is a bit of a love story to the American soldier. And the message is, it’s going to be all right, you know, the ending message. And I just think it’s, it’s a great way to finish it. And I really was very impressed with that actor. And I do call him an actor, even though he was an amateur actor. So that’s my favorite scene. I hope I didn’t give away too much.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I will add to that. I did read that he fumbled his line at that point. And he decided to leave it in because it made it more human, you know, made the ending more realistic.

Mary Jane Yes, I think, as I said earlier, I think they took a bit of a gamble, working with someone who is a non-actor, but he made the film. He made the film.

Steve Silverman I totally agree. So as you know, I always include three additional short stories at the end of each podcast. So I thought it’d be interesting to see what the critics thought of this movie when it was first released. Now, we’re not going to read them in their entirety. We’re just going to read excerpts of each. So Mary Jane, why don’t you start with the first one.

Mary Jane This is from the December 26 1946 publication of the LA Times. “What most differentiates The Best Years of Our Lives from other post-war emprises is the presence of Harold Russell, the ex army paratrooper. He appears as one of the three central male figures whose stories are related. While his is not an acting part of great exactions, he succeeds in bringing enormous impact through the utter simplicity and sincerity of what he does. His work endows The Best Years of Our Lives with factual power. The Russell adjustment to the civilian environment is a deeply wrought thing. The most moving and central development in the plot. What the war brought him, besides an ephemeral glory, is a physical tragedy that has beset many men – loss of hand or foot or other permanent disability.”

Steve Silverman Wow, that was very well written. Let’s do another one. This is from an article written by Marjorie Adams that appeared in the December 26, 1946 publication in the Boston Globe. “The Best Years of Our Lives, which had its Christmas Day opening at the Esquire Theatre is one of the best pictures of all time. There are a few films which have such unqualified appeal to men and women of every walk of life – to the connoisseur of the cinema and to the everyday picture-goer, who is looking for entertainment and doesn’t particularly care how superior is the technique as long as there’s an engrossing story.” The article continues, “The picture runs three hours and they are good hours. There are few films that can stand up against such a test but The Best Years of Our Lives is so heartwarming that everyone who has already seen it in the preview room has already made arrangements to see it again at the Esquire Theater.” The article concludes, “The Best Years of Our Lives” is an eloquent tribute to returning veterans: a magnificent brilliant contribution to motion pictures as an art and a Christmas present handsomely wrapped in silver paper with crimson ribbon and gold stars for audiences who don’t get excited about art but who do love a fine film.” Mary Jane, why don’t you read the last one. This is from the November 22, 1946 publication of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Mary Jane “It is not only the most significant film story yet told about veterans of World War Two seeking their places in the post-war world. It is also one of the few brilliant films of the year, combining a fresh and utterly human drama with beautiful acting, heartwarming writing, gentle, unpretentious directing, and the fine technical touches, photographic scenic and sound that nearly always are to be found in a Goldwyn production.

Steve Silverman Okay, so we’re titling this Bad Apples. So, on a scale of 1 to 10 bad apples, how would you rate it?

Mary Jane You know, before you and I talked, I definitely thought it was an eight. I think it’d be nice to see some more films because we’re just starting this. Maybe I would actually up it a little but right now I’m putting it at an eight.

Steve Silverman Okay, that’s where I put it, as an eight. I think the movies excellent. I really really liked this movie but you have to put yourself in a 1940s frame of mind because it is a black and white movie. Some of the acting is his typical 1940s, not like acting is today. So you know, if you take that little bit out, it’s a great movie. So would you recommend this movie to others?

Mary Jane I would recommend it to someone who really likes history and is willing to watch a black and white film. I thought it was very interesting.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I would definitely recommend it, also. I would just say anyone who wants an action movie, this is not for you. And, you know, I do know, having been a teacher for 30 years, there are some people, particularly, you know, students who will not watch black and white movies. They just, as soon as they see black and white, they just turn it off. So that could be a problem also, but I do recommend the movie. I think people should, if you have even the slightest interest, you should just go to archive.org and pull up The Best Years of Our Lives. I think you’re really going to like it. One thing that really, I was thinking throughout the movie, and it’s kind of spooky, is that not a single person that you’re looking at on the screen there is alive anymore.

Mary Jane Yeah. We talked about that.

Steve Silverman Yeah, I mean, Teresa Wright, who I always remember as a young woman, I mean, she was probably in her, you know, mid to late 20s when this movie was made. I mean, every movie, I’ve seen her and she’s been a young woman, and she’s not alive anymore. I mean, probably the only people who could be alive are the little kids in the movie, and they just have very, very minor roles in the movie. So every single actor is no longer live. And that’s kind of sad to think about.

Mary Jane It’s kind of it’s kind of spooky. Yeah.

Steve Silverman So I’d like to thank my wife, Mary Jane, for being part of this show.

Mary Jane You are very welcome, Steve.

Steve Silverman Occasionally, you’ll hear her doing some French pronunciations, or some Spanish for me in the podcast throughout the years. But overall, this is the biggest role she’s played, other than being forced to listen to every episode before I post it.

Mary Jane Right.

Steve Silverman So let me know what you think about this segment. Should we keep doing these Movie Reviews? And if you saw the movie, what did you think about the movie? Did you like it? Did you dislike it? Just let me know. I’d be curious to know what other people think. You can post your comments on Facebook, you can go to my website, which is uselessinformation.org, and there’s a link there to contact me, or you can email me directly at steve@uselessinformation.org. That’s steve@uselessinformation.org. Again, the movie is The Best Years of Our Lives. And it’s available for free on archive.org. There’s lots of great movies there, TV shows, old-time radio, and so on.

Mary Jane It’s a great source.

Steve Silverman Yeah, you do have to be careful on archive.org because they have no filters. There’s a lot of adult material, so you don’t want your child roaming around there. But anyway, you can also stream it through Amazon and RedBox. I’m not really sure if Netflix had it. But Amazon and RedBox both charge $2.99 to watch the movie. You can also check your local library. I checked our local library and they can pull in DVDs from libraries in the region. And they have three copies available within basically a 20-minute drive of our home. So I suspect that your library will have it in stock also. Anyway, thanks for listening and thanks again to my wife for participating.

Mary Jane You’re welcome, Steve.

Steve Silverman Yes. And take care everyone.

Mary Jane Okay, bye bye.

Podcast #144 – The Sleep-Walking Murderer

 

Years ago, I rented an apartment in the southern portion of Troy, New York, and behind the complex was an old cemetery.  I spent a lot of time there riding my bike on its paved roads and reading books while sitting under its trees for shade.  The vast majority of the tombstones were simple and weather-beaten, while others were grand and indicative of great wealth.  Yet, one thing was clear from wandering around the cemetery for the seven years that I lived there: tombstones say very little about the person buried in that spot. Typically, all one gets for their entire life of living is their name and year of birth and death carved into the stone.  Nothing else.

For example, there is a tombstone in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York that has six members of the De Hall family noted. It is an ordinary granite marker that would give a passerby no cause to stop and take notice. Yet, if one were to stop, they would probably be most curious about the name at the very top: Salvatore De Hall. Chiseled in on the left of his name is his year of birth: 1916.  On the right is the year of his death: 1930. That’s a fourteen-year difference, which is far too young for anyone to die.

The De Hall tombstone. Note that the father’s name is John D. Hall. Philomena was Michael Filosa’s wife. Image appears on the BillionGraves website.

And then you start to wonder. How did young Salvatore die? Was it a bad heart? Disease? A tragic accident? The answer is none of the above.  It was cold-blooded murder. Forgotten today, the trial of his murderer would be front-page news in the New York newspapers for nearly three years. 

The scene of the crime was at 20 Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, which is within walking distance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Today, a non-descript warehouse has replaced the three-story brick building that once stood on that site.  On November 24, 1930, the day of the crime, it was home to Mrs. Anna De Hall and her three children. They were 14-year-old Catherine, Salvatore (who was not 14, but 15-years of age according to court records), and her son from a previous marriage: 26-year-old ex-sailor Michael Filosa. Another son, Edward Filosa, lived in the next building with his wife.

Anna’s husband, Frank D. Hall (it’s unclear how the family name became De Hall), had left her five years earlier for another woman.  Without financial support from her estranged husband, Anna earned what little she could at the Haskin Garment Company, but it was never enough to make ends meet.  After a sighting of her husband in December 1929, Anna had him arrested for failing to help support their children.  “Somebody told me they seen him, so they told me, and I brought him to the court. Why should I support the children all my life and him living with another woman? Many a night we went to bed without a bite to eat.”

Policeman Frank Grego arrived at the scene of the crime at 12:45 AM. He later testified, “I observed Michael Filosa standing on the stoop of 20 Carlton Avenue and talking with three or four other young men. I asked what the trouble was. He said ‘My mother, brother and sister are all cut up.’ I said ‘Who done it?’ He said, ‘I did.’ ‘What did you do it for?’ ‘I don’t know.’”

Patrolman Frank Grego was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime.
Patrolman Frank Grego was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime. Syndicated image appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

Patrolman Jesse Lewis would arrive five minutes later.  The two entered the apartment and found Salvatore lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. The jugular vein on the right side of his body had been severed and it was immediately clear that Salvatore had died. His sister Catherine had slashes across her shoulder, cheek, and nose, while Mrs. De Hall had cuts on her back, right arm, and right hand. 

Officer Grego went into the mother’s bedroom, where she had shared a bed with Catherine. “Bloodstains all over the bed.” He then proceeded to Salvatore’s bedroom and described it to be “Covered with blood, large round circle covered with blood.”

Patrolman Lewis found a broken razor on the floor, which he concluded was the weapon used in the brutal attack. “I found that on the floor right near the door going into the mother’s bedroom.” He added that he had found it on the kitchen floor and that “The razor was about four or five feet (approximately 1.2 – 1.5 m) from the body of Salvatore.” 

Frank Grego questioned the mother, Anna De Hall. “Who cut you, did Mike cut you?” To which she replied, “I don’t know. I had some trouble.” She was clearly in shock and was taken to nearby Cumberland Hospital. 

Patrolman Lewis then asked her son why he did it.  His reply was, “I don’t know. I heard my mother hollering, ‘Mike, Mike,” and I looked down and seen the razor in my hand.” Michael Filosa was then arrested and taken into custody. Later that day, his brother Edward went to the Kings County morgue to identify the deceased body of Salvatore.

20 Carlton Avenue
Syndicated photograph of 20 Carlton Avenue, the scene of the crime, that appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

The questioning of Michael Filosa was handled by Assistant District Attorney Bernard Becker. He determined that Mike was hard-working, respectable, and unable to provide much detail about what had happened.  Becker stated, “Apparently this man has never been in trouble in his life. So far as we can learn he has never quarreled with anyone. He rushed out to get medical attention and help for the victims.”

Becker was able to piece together from Mike’s statements that he had gone to see a violent movie with his friends that evening, after which he returned home and went to bed. The next thing that he remembered was that he began to hear his mother’s agonizing voice, which brought him out of his slumber and to his senses.  It was at that point that he noticed the bloody razor in his hand and began to piece together what he had done.  Michael Filosa had slashed his half-brother, half-sister, and mother while sleep-walking. 

Within hours, the story of the sleep-walking murderer was front-page news across the city. The idea that someone could walk around and attack others while not being aware of what was happening seemed like something that could only occur in works of fiction.  Reporters interviewed leading psychiatrists and psychologists, who were mixed in their opinions.  Some of the experts felt that such an act was theoretically possible, with the attacker being in a “twilight state.” Yet others disagreed.  One prominent Brooklyn doctor stated that this was all “a lot of baloney.”

On April 27, 1931, Michael Filosa went on trial for the murder of his half-brother Salvatore. The defense presented evidence that Mike had been to the movies the prior evening and that he was in a semi-unconscious state when he committed the murder. The prosecution attempted to prove that no person could commit such a heinous crime while asleep.

The trial didn’t last long.  Mike was convicted of second-degree manslaughter the next day.  Yet, County Judge Franklin Taylor wasn’t so sure that Filosa was guilty.  He told the court, “I want the truth and I don’t think it has been told here. If someone is being shielded, I want the guilty party to come forward.”  As you could probably guess, no one came forward. Judge Taylor postponed Filosa’s sentencing, pending further investigation by District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan.  This was quite an unusual case.  Not only was the accused claiming that he slashed his family while sleep-walking, but both the judge and district attorney found fault with the guilty verdict that had been handed down by the jury. Can you think of any other case where the prosecution was unhappy after winning a case?

District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan did not believe that Michael Filosa was telling the truth.
District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan did not believe that Michael Filosa was telling the truth. Syndicated image appeared on page 63 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

An order was issued for Catherine De Hall to report for further questioning, but she failed to do so. As a result, she was removed from her mother’s care and placed with the Children’s Society. Her bail was set at $10,000.  ($173,000 today.)

On May 11, Judge Taylor postponed sentencing once again.  He stated, “If the defendant is guilty he faces the longest sentence. If he is not guilty then his attempted loyalty to the guilty person is misplaced. He is a young man, but his life will be ruined if he is sentenced. If some one else is guilty that person is not entitled to such extreme affection. That person is undeserving and should not allow this situation.”

While awaiting sentencing, Michael was held in the Raymond Street Jail, which was demolished years ago.  Patrolman Grego suggested to Edward Filosa that he should go visit his brother and tell him that he was going to “get the limit,” which was fifteen years at Sing Sing prison.  This wasn’t necessarily true but was intended to get Mike to finally tell what had really happened that night.  The visit was made on May 24 and Mike was shocked to hear how much time he may have to serve.  He suddenly had a very different story to tell.  

Whether true or not, Michael Filosa now claimed that he didn’t kill his brother.  Instead, he now named his mother as the slayer. He now told of arriving home from the movie and finding his mother running around the apartment like a madwoman with the bloody razor in her hand.  He wrestled the blade away from her, cutting his thumb in the process. Believing he would serve only a year or two in prison, Mike opted to shoulder the blame and concocted the sleep-walking story.

Anna De Hall was arrested the next day and taken to the Gates Avenue police station. While being questioned, she was not told that her son had accused her of the murder.

On June 1, Michael Filosa was escorted to the warden’s office at the Raymond Street jail.  As soon as he entered, he saw his half-sister Catherine sitting there.  He blurted out, “Don’t open your mouth, Kitty.” He added, “I have said too much now. They want to frighten you. I’m fed up on this and I’m through.” The district attorney brought the meeting to an abrupt conclusion, telling Filosa, “Very well. If that is the way you feel about it, we are also through. The book is closed.” 

Filosa was escorted back to his cell while Catherine was taken back to Children’s Society. Not long after she arrived, Catherine changed her mind and told of what she knew. “It was about half past ten when I went to bed. I woke up with a sharp pain on my cheek and felt blood. A woman was bending over me. I knew it was a woman because she had long hair. She was a stockily built woman. Then I heard the door open and shut, and I heard Michael’s voice. I saw the form of a man come into the bedroom. He tussled with a woman for something she held. They fell on the bed. The man then went to a chair and put something under a leg of the chair and pulled up. I then turned on the light and I saw my mother and Michael. He was dressed in his Sunday clothes. He took off these clothes and put on khaki pants before he went out to call a doctor and the police. I saw my brother, Salvatore, lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. Michael said to me: ‘Kitty, if ever you did me a favor, don’t say anything about what you saw here tonight.’”

Colorized photo of 20 Carlton Avenue as it looked in 1940.
Colorized photo of 20 Carlton Avenue as it looked in 1940, ten years after the crime was committed. Edward Filosa lived in the building on the left. Original image appears on the NYC Dept of Records website.

Five days later, this new story that their mother had committed the crime quickly came into question when the medical doctors concluded that there was no way that Mrs. De Hall could have inflicted her wounds on herself. Someone else had to have done it.

Could her son Michael have done it after all? Someone wasn’t telling the truth.

At trial, Anna De Hall refuted the testimony of her three surviving children. Yet, on July 1, 1931, it took just one ballot for the jury to unanimously find her guilty of murder in the second degree.  As she was escorted out of the courtroom, Anna exclaimed, “God knows I’m innocent.”

This created an interesting situation.  Two people were found guilty by a jury of their peers for independently committing the same crime.  One would presume that Michael Filosa would have been immediately set free after the conviction of his mother, but Judge Taylor opted to hold off on that decision.  “From the very beginning, I had my own opinion as to who committed this crime. I felt that Michael Filosa was shielding somebody. However, if the Appellate Courts should set aside the conviction of the mother, I will not allow my opinion to stand against that of the twelve men of the jury that convicted Michael Filosa. I would send Michael Filosa away for the limit sentence if the conviction of his mother was set aside.

“The trial of Filosa reeked with perjury. He himself was part of the conspiracy to frustrate justice. He is worthy of no sympathy. There was also perjury in the trial of the mother. I am not going to dispose of the case of the son until there has been a final disposition of the charges against the mother, because I do not intend to let any conspiracy to be successfully carried out that would free everybody of any guilt of this kind.”

Judge Franklin C. Taylor.
Judge Franklin C. Taylor. Syndicated photograph appeared on page 63 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

On September 8, 1931, Anne De Hall was brought into the courtroom for sentencing.  When asked if she had anything to say, she tearfully stated, “I’ve done nothing. I was cut myself. I lost a beautiful boy and they say I murdered him. God was betrayed and for his sake I am satisfied to be betrayed.” She then turned toward her family in the back of the courtroom and added, “I thank you, my children.” Mrs. De Hall was sentenced to serve twenty years to life at Auburn prison in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. 

An appeal was immediately filed arguing that Anna De Hall did not receive a fair trial.  Among her claims were that 1) The medical opinion that she could not have inflicted her own wounds was never introduced. 2) She was required to use the same defense lawyer as her son Michael, 3) Her lawyer did not call witnesses who were willing to testify on her behalf, and, 4) She was not permitted to tell her entire story.  It wouldn’t be until June 17, 1932 that the Appellate Court would order a new trial.

The second trial got underway on March 27, 1933. The transcript of the trial is available online and provides direct quotes from all of those who testified.  It runs nearly one-hundred pages, so here are a few brief excerpts from the principal witnesses:

Anna’s son Edward was the first to be called to the witness stand.  He described his encounter with his mother when he first entered the apartment. “She was in a rage, and she said to me, ‘No, no, no, my boy didn’t do it; I done it.’ I do not know whether she said that in protection of the boy or not, but that is the remark she passed to me.” He recalled her stating, “My boy Mikey didn’t do it.”

Daughter Catherine had been asleep when she was slashed and described the moment that she woke up. “I do not know where I was first cut, but I know that the cut I first felt was the one on my shoulders.” When questioned as to who cut her on the face, she replied, “My mother.” She discussed how her mother had been wildly jealous because her children had spent a lot of time with their father.  Catherine believed that it was Salvatore’s decision to go live with his father permanently that pushed her mother over the edge.

Michael Filosa detailed exactly what happened that night. Around 7 PM, he had attended a movie at the Duffield Theater, which has since been torn down and replaced by a Planet Fitness.  After grabbing a bite to eat, he arrived at the front stoop of his home to meet up with some friends.  From there, he was off to get a cup of coffee before returning to his front stoop. After hanging out there for a bit, he entered the building around midnight.  Shortly after walking into the apartment, Michael found his brother Salvatore dead on the kitchen floor. After that, he spotted his mother on her bed with a straight razor in her hand.  “I tried to snatch the razor from my mother.” In doing so, his mother received some minor wounds and his hand was cut. Once gaining possession of the weapon, he placed the blade under the leg of a chair and “I snapped the razor.”

Colorized photo of the Duffield Theater as it looked in 1940. Original image appears on the NYC Dept of Records website.

Michael then went back to his room and noticed that blood had stained his shirt. He took it off and washed out the blood in the sink.  He changed his clothes and then ruffled up his bed to make it look like he had slept in it. Next, he told his mother to pretend that she was asleep. “Keep quiet, and wake up and say you found me there by the door.”

His family was in urgent need of medical help, so he rushed out to the front stoop and told the boys there that “everybody in the house was cut.” At first, they didn’t believe Mike but he made it clear to them that he wasn’t fooling around. “I told them to hurry up and get an ambulance.”

From there, he went next door to awaken his brother. When asked if had done the slashing, Mike replied, “I don’t know, Edward, whether I did it, I may have done it, but I don’t know.”

As you can imagine, Anna De Hall had a very different story to tell the court. She denied having argued with any of her children that day. “I had just come home from benediction, from church, and we took a sandwich and the whole three of us went to bed.” 

Anna De Hall
Syndicated photograph of Anna De Hall that appeared on page 62 of the July 18, 1948 publication of the New York Daily News.

“The next thing I remember, I felt like suffocating, I couldn’t get my breath. I was all wet, because I was completely, all full of blood. I called for my little girl. She was fast asleep. We slept without no lights.” 

“I says to her ‘Katie, wake up, Katie, may be the gas is on. I am suffocating.’ And my little girl, she pulled the light, and the light went up, because the light in the room has got nothing to do with the kitchen. So she pulled the light and the light went on, and I was covered with blood. I was cut.”

She continued, “When I woke up, when the light went up, I was calling Mickey, Mickey, look at me, I am all covered with blood. My boy stood up just this way in between the two doors with his BVD’s and he came and he said ‘Mother, who did that?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ I said ‘I am all covered with blood.’ So he said ‘Wait awhile and I will get somebody to help you.’ So he put on his overalls, khaki pants, and went out to get help. When he moved I seen him a little bit like red as if – this was the bedroom, and in the back of him when he walked out the boy was like red in the back.”

When questioned as to if she had slashed Salvatore, Mrs. De Hall replied, “No. Why should I? He was my best boy. I had given him three years of high school and I am only a poor working woman.”

At 3:35 PM on March 31, 1933, the jury retired to consider its verdict.  They returned at 5:15 with a decision: “We find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree, as charged in the indictment.”

Several days later, a motion was made for Michael Filosa’s release.  Judge Taylor said that he would wait until his mother was sentenced before he would dismiss the charges, but, in the meantime, did allow him to be released on $5,000 bail.

On April 5, 1933, Anna De Hall was sentenced to eight to thirty years in prison.  Probation laws at the time allowed three months credit for each year of good behavior, so she would be required to serve a minimum of six years.  She was released on parole in 1940.

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

Podcast #143 – A Grateful Mother

 

This story begins with a letter to the editor that appeared in the December 8, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. It reads:

“I want to write this letter of appreciation to the gentleman who was in Polsky’s basement [a defunct department store] last Monday (Nov. 30). He gave me $20 to buy Christmas presents for the four children I had with me. I am the mother of eight children and every penny or dollar means something to me.

“There are no words to describe my feelings.

“I do not know the gentleman, but wherever he is, I am sure he does not know what a lift he gave me. I was able to pay cash for part of the clothing I was planning to put in layaway.

“Surely the spirit of God and the spirit of Christmas were present when that gentleman dropped that money in my hand and said, ‘Buy them something nice for Christmas.’

“I never was able to thank this gentleman because he disappeared in the crowd while my children and I watched him.

“Thank you, Mister, wherever you are.

“GRATEFUL MOTHER.”

On Monday, December 14, a response to this letter was published in the paper. In part, it reads, “I know. I am also a mother of eight small children who last year received a very unexpected gift of $20. I bought flannel and made pajamas for each of my children and doll pajamas for their dolls.

“Twenty-six yards of material, slightly damaged, cost me only 39¢ a yard. I sewed every night until the wee hours so I could finish them by Christmas. There was also money left over for a toy for each child.

“Words could never express my deep appreciation for that gift, so you see why I too am happy for GRATEFUL MOTHER in her good fortune.

“HAPPY MOM.”

Twenty dollars may note seem like a lot, but, adjusted for inflation, that would be like being handed two $100 bills today.

The very next day, a woman walked into the offices of the Beacon Journal and requested that letters she had penned be forwarded on to GRATEFUL MOTHER and HAPPY MOM. Each included a gift of $10 and she requested that her identity be kept confidential.

Then, on Wednesday, December 16, an unidentified man walked into the lobby of the Akron Beacon Journal building and slipped an envelope into the hand of Maintenance Superintendent John Horrigan. The mystery man then turned and hurried out the door of the building without Horrigan ever getting a good look at him. The envelope was addressed to the editor of the newspaper, so Horrigan made sure that it was delivered.

Inside the envelope was a note that said, “I had no way of knowing the lady had eight children. My! They may have a few earthly dollars but she is the one that’s blessed and with eight little ones to find time to acknowledge the little gift, you are deserving. If the Beacon Journal will see that you get this, please make sure it is a nice Christmas for all the children. I will be amply repaid just visualizing the gleam in their eyes.” The letter was signed “Santa Claus” and was accompanied by five $20 bills.

Just below this message was another: “The above is answering ‘Grateful Mother’ of your editorial page of Dec. 8. Please give her $80 and if you know who ‘Happy Mom’ is, your editorial page of Dec. 14, please give her $20. If you can’t locate, give it please to some little ones in need. A Merry Christmas to you.”

An article detailing this incredibly generous gift was published two days later. Images of the two checks drawn on the Beacon Journal’s bank account accompanied the story. The $80 check was issued to Mrs. Helen something-or-other – her last name had been blacked out – and the $20 check to a Mrs. Karl, with a longer black box obliterating her last name.

The two checks to Grateful Mother and Happy Mom. Image originally appeared on page 33 of the December 18, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

While no further mention was made of Mrs. Karl, a reporter was sent to the 108 Charles Street home of a woman simply identified in the story as Mrs. A. Couple that with the image of the check and we now know that the mother of the eight children was Mrs. Helen A.

It was learned that Mr. A. had been out of work for nearly three months and that Mrs. Helen A. was struggling to make ends meet on her $37 per week (approximately $360 per week today) salary as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Needless to say, Mrs. Helen A. was shocked by this new gift. “You don’t mean the same man, do you?” She showed the reporter the three dresses and two pair of pants that she had purchased with that original $20. “Now the kids can have toys, too.” She continued, “The oldest girl had her heart set on a pair of shoe skates. Now she can have them.”

Mrs. Helen A. said that she never got a good look at her Santa Claus. Roughly, he appeared to be about 50 years of age, short, thin, and having had brown hair streaked with gray. He had approached Mrs. A. and complimented her on both the appearance and the good manners of her four children. It was at that moment that he slipped the money into her hand. She stated, “I was astonished when I saw it was a $20 bill. I could see him walking away so I tried to catch him. But the crowd just seemed to swallow him up.”

One year later, on December 23, 1954, the Beacon Journal would publicly reveal that Mrs. Helen A. was Helen Elizabeth Crandall Arnold. She had been born on August 2, 1924 in Burlington, New Jersey. Her family moved to Akron when she was four years old.

Mrs. Helen Arnold. This photograph, most likely taken in the 1990s, appeared on Facebook.

By this time, things had worsened for the Arnold family. Her husband Roy had only been able to secure a few days’ work as a laborer, while she had lost her job as a dishwasher. The couple was down to their last $16. In addition, the City Health Department ordered the Arnolds to move out of their Charles Street home. “They said we have too many people living in the house,” Mrs. Arnold stated. “We were told to move but we have no money for the rent. I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Luckily, Santa had not forgotten about the Arnolds. Once again, another letter made its way to the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. Inside the envelope was $100 and the following note: “Remember Grateful Mother and the 8 children last Christmas? I just arrived in town. Could you get this to her so the children can have a nice visit from Santa Claus? If not, I’m sure you know some deserving children. Merry Christmas to you. ‘Santa.’”

Santa’s handwritten note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1954 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Needless to say, Mrs. Arnold was shocked when a reporter handed her the money. “Oh, God,” she stated. “I’ve been praying something would happen. But I never expected it. It’s wonderful, just wonderful. God bless him.”

As the reporter turned to leave, Mrs. Arnold questioned, “Do you know the man who’s doing all this for us?” To which the reporter replied, “We wish we did. But I have a hunch we never will. Merry Christmas.”

Mrs. Arnold wished to thank this generous Santa personally, but that was impossible. So, she did the next best thing: she wrote a thank you letter that was published in the editorial section of the Beacon Journal. While several paragraphs long, her last sentence sums it up perfectly: “To our Santa: Your gift truly must have come from your heart and we receive it in gratefulness. Mrs. Helen Arnold.”

May 5, 1941 marriage license between 16-year-old Helen Crandall and 19-year-old Roy Arnold. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Things would be even worse for the Arnold family by the Christmas of 1955. Surprisingly, they were still living at 108 Charles Street. Mrs. Arnold had given birth to another child and was now living there with her nine children, Mrs. Arnold’s parents, two of her sisters and their children. Mr. Arnold was living with an uncle at the time, supposedly to help alleviate the crowded situation at home. In addition, the 31-year-old Mrs. Arnold had been diagnosed with cancer the previous August and had undergone radium treatments. Her cancer had gone into remission.

And, sure enough, their secret Santa came through once again. On December 22, 1955 a special delivery letter arrived at the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. The handwritten note read, “Dear Beacon: I’m a little late. Would you mind playing Santa Claus again. Remember grateful mother and the eight children. Would you see that they get this. A merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope, once again, were five $20 bills.

Santa’s note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1955 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Upon hearing of this special gift, Mrs. Arnold stated, “Things like this just don’t happen three times in a row. Never in the world did I ever think that whoever he is would help us out again. Thank the Lord!”

By Christmas of 1956, things appeared to be looking up for the Arnold family. They had moved to a 4-bedroom apartment at 177 E. North Street in the Elizabeth Park housing project. Husband Roy had secured a $70 a week job with the City Sanitation Department, while Helen was studying to become a beautician. “We’ve made a 100% improvement since last Christmas, but we still aren’t completely on our feet.”

Once again, a mysterious letter with money showed up at the offices of the Beacon Journal. “Dear Beacon, Remember grateful mother. Please see that she gets this. If not, any worthy cause will do. Pop and mom should each use $20 for themselves. Had a good year. Merry Xmas… Santa.”

It must have been a really good year for Santa because he far exceeded his previous $100 annual gifts. This year he had enclosed $220. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $2,100 today.

On January 2, the paper published Mrs. Arnold’s thank you. It read, in part, “Into our lives again has stepped our phantom Santa Claus. We call him Santa and we sincerely believe in him, because for several years now he has sent us a sum of money and while we do not know who he is, we all feel that it is truly wonderful that God has designated such a wonderful miracle to take place in our lives.”

Mrs. Helen Arnold with eight of her nine children being fitted for new shoes. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1956 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1957’s entry into the Arnolds’ Christmas diary indicated that their fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. In May, Roy was laid off from his job with the sanitation department. Helen Arnold had completed her studies at the Akron School of Cosmetology and opened her own beauty shop. Unfortunately, the business was not doing well.

For the fifth straight Christmas and a row, Santa Claus made his journey from the North Pole to the editorial offices of the Akron Beacon Journal. His note read, “Dear Beacon, remember grateful mother. Honestly if I didn’t send it I just would not enjoy my Christmas. Thank you again for playing Santa and a Merry Christmas to you all. Santa” He matched his previous year’s gift of $220 in cash.

Mrs. Arnold wrote, “Only a mother understands the worry of wanting so much for her family and having so little to offer, especially at Christmas. To know that God is watching over us and has provided us with a guardian who has such a wonderful heart has filled my heart with gratitude.”

Santa’s 1958 gift would be his largest to date: six $50 bills for a total of $300. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you more about what happened that year because this front-page story was supposedly continued on page 2, which is missing from the scan of the December 21, 1958 issue of the Beacon Journal.

By the Christmas of 1959, Mrs. Arnold was desperate. Her husband Roy, having been unable to find work, turned to a life of crime and was sentenced to one to seven years in the Ohio Penitentiary on three counts of grand larceny. With her earnings as a beautician not being enough to support their family, she was forced to seek public assistance.

In a surprising move, a reporter at the Beacon Journal received a call from a man with a gravelly voice. “This is Santa,” the man at the other end of the line stated. “Did you get it?” The reporter immediately knew who we had on the line and attempted to get someone else at the newspaper to listen in on an extension. But, as soon the reporter replied, “Yes. We got it,” Santa hung up.

Yet, everything else was standard routine by now. Santa’s handwritten note read, “Remember grateful mother. If you can get this to her I’ll appreciate it. If not I’m sure you can find good use for it. I’d like her to have it. My blessings have been many. Merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope were seven $50 bills.

For his generosity, Helen Arnold wrote, “This is the seventh year in which he has brought me from despair to a joyous holiday season. I know for certain that only The Man above has allowed him to enter and reenter our lives as mysteriously as he has for this length of time. The miracle of Christmas time makes me rejoice.”

By the Christmas of 1960, the Arnolds had moved out of the housing project to 67 E. Charles Street, where Helen planned to open a beauty shop in her new home’s front room. Her husband Roy had been paroled after serving a sentence of one year. “Times are hard, and with his record, it’s doubly hard for Roy to find a job. He’s a good worker, but folks won’t give him a chance.” She added, “I’m going into the beauty shop business to better my lot – and to be near the children. I don’t want to stay on relief. I want to be independent.”

For the eighth consecutive year, the mystery Santa offered the Arnolds a bit of much-needed relief, matching his previous year’s gift of $350.

Mrs. Arnold writes, “To you, who chose to be our Anonymous Santa, we all ask and pray for continued blessing upon a man with a lot of heart. God bless you. Perhaps through your help we may be able to get closer to being able to stand on our own two feet. But most important, our children know there is a Santa and one we are proud to know.”

In 1961, the Arnolds divorced, although this fact would be absent in future stories about the family. Helen Arnold continued as a beautician, while her 21-year-old daughter Catherine worked as a laundry folder to help support the family. It was nearly impossible for Mrs. Arnold to obtain a better paying job, since doing so would require costly childcare.

Instead, she began to devote some of her time to helping others. She volunteered as a neighborhood captain for a United Fund drive and became the president of the Bryan Elementary Parent Teacher Association. “I’ve given quite a bit of time doing things for other people because someone has always done something for me. How do you ever pay back the things people have done for you? This is the only way I know.”

Still forced to seek public assistance, Mrs. Arnold was grateful when Santa came through one more time. She wrote, “For the Christmas blessing this unidentified Santa gave, not only raised the spirits of the Arnolds, but helped Akron to see the fulfillment of the Christmas miracle. From the beginning – in our brief encounter many years ago – to the present, Santa’s benevolent kindness has made things possible which might have been impossible for us to attain.”

Helen Arnold and her family shortly after receiving Santa’s gift in 1961. Image appeared on page 2 of the December 20, 1961 issue of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1962 would mark the tenth anniversary of that moment when Mrs. Arnold would have her first and only glimpse of her secret Santa. Her financial situation had not improved, but Santa had not given up on her. He came through one more time with a $300 gift. In thanks, Helen wrote, “Although our Santa is short, he has the stature of the grandest St. Nicholas there is.” She continued, “Ten years have passed. I often wonder who our Santa may be. But then I don’t, because no one person really wants to brush aside the curtain.”

In August 1963, Helen Arnold boarded a bus to Washington DC to participate in the historic march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to witness Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Upon her return, she told the Akron Beacon Journal “This will be something to tell my children and grandchildren. We’re showing that Negroes will stand together.” It would also serve as the moment when Helen Arnold turned from being a poor mother of nine known solely for the annual gift that she received from Santa into a voice for her community, the poor, minorities, and the children of Akron.

There would be no helping hand from the Arnolds’ secret Santa in 1963. Not receiving the gift did not upset Helen. She was far more concerned about his well-being. Could he be ill? Could he have passed on? Could Santa have fallen on hard times? No one knew.

Yet, the Beacon Journal’s city editor, W. D. Schlemmer, was not silent on this lack of a gift. He wrote a lengthy story that was published on December 25, 1963, that included this paragraph: “And you, Mrs. Arnold, have worked hard to help your family – and your community. So many public causes – school interest, Neighborhood Forums, planning groups – have been better off because you have taken an active part.”

Advertisement for Helen E. Arnold that appeared on page 19 of the September 10, 1979 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Not only had Mrs. Arnold become a voice in her community, but her fortunes began to change. In August 1964, she was hired by a consulting firm that was doing preparatory work for urban renewal around Akron’s BFGoodrich manufacturing plant. With a steady income, she was able to move a few doors down from her previous residence to 63 E. Charles Street.

In what must have come as a total surprise to Helen Arnold, since there was no gift the previous year, an envelope from Santa arrived at the editorial desk of the Beacon Journal. Inside were three $100 bills and a request to make sure that Mrs. Arnold received them. Santa claimed that he had not sent a gift the previous year because he had been out of town and sending a letter would have revealed his identity.

In a letter of thankfulness, Mrs. Arnold wrote, “To ‘Santa,’ who has reserved a place in our hearts and our home, may I say, you have brought us tidings of great joy, not because of the money but because you have lighted the flame of kindliness in the rebirth of Akron’s Christmas story. I know that you, ‘Santa,’ must feel as I do, that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh from the Father. I can only express my feelings with humility for we owe so much to you. May God bless you.”

In April 1965, Mrs. Arnold was hired by the city of Akron as a consultant. Her job was to operate an office to distribute information to residents in the area designated for urban renewal. The job was to last six months and paid $2,400. (Approximately $19,700 today.) In October, her contract was extended for an additional year.

Life was starting to look up for Helen Arnold, but she commented, “We’re not socially deprived any more but we have a long way to go.”

In what would seem to be a repeat of Christmas past, Santa once again delivered an envelope containing $300 and a note to the Beacon Journal. Yet, it would be last. The Beacon Journal calculated that the Arnolds’ secret Santa had given the family a total of $3,040. To this day, his identity remains unknown.

Yet, life went on for Helen Arnold. As her children grew and she had more time for herself, she became increasingly active in the causes that she believed in most. Between 1970 and 1972, she served as the President of the Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1973, Helen was defeated in her attempt to run for the Akron City Council. In 1976, Helen was named the Vice President of the Ohio Black Political Assembly.

Advertisement that appeared in the November 4, 1977 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal on page D15.

She would find her true calling in 1977 when she was elected to be the first African American woman on the Akron Board of Education, which, at the time, was dominated by board members who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. She was 53 years of age and had campaigned as a fighter for blue-collar workers and the poor. Helen would eventually be appointed Akron Board of Education president and in 1996 was named by the Ohio School Boards Association as one of the top school board members in the state.

When Helen Arnold died on February 16, 2001 at the age of 76, she had served on the Akron Board of Education for twenty-four years. Akron Assistant Superintendent Sylvester Small stated, “I think the whole community has suffered a tremendous loss. Helen Arnold was everyone’s mother, grandmother, aunt. She was everyone’s conscience that says you’ve got to serve these kids and you’ve got to serve your community.” After her passing, on August 29, 2007, the Helen E. Arnold Community Learning Center was opened in her honor.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Helen Arnold: “I have been poor. I have been on welfare. I have had to struggle and yet, always, there was a way for me to get beyond each one of these situations… So I am thankful. Really thankful.”

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

Podcast #142 – The Runaway Miss America

 

The judging of beauty, both male and female, has probably been going on since the beginning of mankind. Yet, the first truly modern beauty contest here in the United States is said to have begun with perhaps the most famous showman of all time – P. T. Barnum – who, back in the 1850s, began holding contests before paying audiences to select the best chicken, dog, flower, and child in all of America. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to “the handsomest ladies” in the United States. Surprisingly, that was one beauty pageant that he couldn’t pull off. Due to the conservative nature of society at the time, Barnum was unable to find enough women willing to publicly place themselves on display. His solution was to have a picture photo contest. Women would submit photographs of themselves which Barnum intended to display in his museum and then have his patrons vote for the most beautiful woman. The prize for being among the top ten of the winners was a specially commissioned oil painting based on their photos. In addition, a book of portraits titled the “World’s Book of Female Beauty” would be published in France for the whole world to see. Yet, this was never to be. Barnum sold his museum shortly before the judging ever began. Others around the country picked up on Barnum’s idea and soon the exhibition of submitted photographs became a respectable way for young women to have their beauty judged.

By the early part of the 20th century, social norms began to change. Resorts and entertainment venues began to host beauty pageants, although they were strictly localized events. A big change would occur  when businessmen in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey held what they referred to as a “Fall Frolic.” The planners never set out to create a national beauty pageant. What they were trying to do was to get people to visit Atlantic City after Labor Day, which marks the traditional end of summer here in the United States, after which beach resorts like Atlantic City became ghost towns. The first Fall Frolic was held on September 25, 1920. While the event did bring visitors in, it wasn’t the smashing success that they had hoped for.

To increase attendance the following year, changes were made to the program. First, nine East Coast newspapers agreed to hold picture photo contests within their pages to allow their readers to choose the most beautiful women in their city. The finalists from these contests would then go on to compete in a local beauty contest, the winner of which would be awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City to appear in the Fall Frolic. There they would all compete in a beauty contest in which the winner would be crowned the Inter-City Beauty. The next day, these young women would also compete in the Bather’s Revue, the winner then crowned the Golden Mermaid. If you’re imagining young women walking around on a stage in skimpy swimwear, keep in mind that bathing suits were still quite conservative in 1921. Miss Washington, DC, Margaret Gorman was the winner that year, and just prior to the 1922 event her title was changed from the Inter-City Beauty to Miss America.

Fast forward to the 1937 contest, which is the focus of today’s story.  Unlike today where there are fifty-one contestants, one from each state plus Washington, DC, back then there could be multiple representations from one state and none from another. For example, Miss Westchester County, Miss New York City, Miss Troy, Miss Bronx, and Miss Empire State all came from New York that year. Yet, there were no contestants from states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Utah, and so on. Miss Puerto Rico was also present, but she was not allowed to compete due to the contest’s Rule #7, abandoned in 1940, which required contestants to be “of good health and of the white race.”

Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.
Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.

Festivities got underway on Monday, September 6 with all the contestants meeting together for the first time at Philadelphia’s Belview-Stratford Hotel. After the women were photographed, given a tour of the city, they were the guests at an extravagant dinner held in their honor by the Philadelphia Variety Club.

Earl Sweigart, one of those in charge of the Philadelphia arrangements, stated “I never saw a finer looking group of girls in my life. The judges this year will have a very difficult task to determine who is the most beautiful girl and the girl with the most personality. I understand also that some of the girls are really talented.”

The next day, all of the contestants boarded the “American Beauty Special” train, arriving in Atlantic City at 11:20 AM. The pageant opened with a flag-raising and gun salute on the deck of Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier entertainment and amusement complex. This was followed by dignitaries giving their obligatory speeches with music provided by Rudy Vallee and his orchestra. The contestants met with the press at noon, followed by the Variety Club Jubilee Luncheon at the Traymore Hotel. No longer in existence, the hotel was located at the intersection of two of Monopoly’s most expensive properties: Boardwalk and Park Place.

It was at 8:30 that evening that the first round of judging took place in the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier. As a crowd of seven thousand looked on, fifteen of the contestants competed in what was called the Talent Preliminary Contest, which was broken into three segments. First, the girls paraded past the judges in their evening gowns, which was followed by the swimsuit competition, and concluded with the talent portion of the show. Only the top talent winner, Miss Massachusetts, Claire Nevulus, was announced at the end of the evening. The remainder of the rankings were kept secret. This same contest would be repeated Wednesday and Thursday evenings until all forty-six contestants appeared before the judges. Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss New York, Grace Travis, placed first in those two competitions.

On Friday, thousands of spectators looked on as a parade featuring spectacular floats, bands, and the Miss America contestants moved along the Boardwalk. At 9 PM, all of the contestants competed in the American Ball, during which the young ladies walked along the runway in their evening gowns so that the judges could select the “most beautiful girl in an evening gown” and the “girl with the most pleasing personality.” The winner of the evening gown contest was Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper, who “wore a coronation red, transparent velvet gown with a full skirt accentuated by a hoop” with pale pink gardenias around it. Miss Westchester County, Evelyn Raye, was voted to have the best personality. At 11 PM, the fifteen women who ranked highest in the three preliminary contests were announced, allowing them to advance on to the final competition.

Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.
Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 15, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Saturday was the big day. At 8:30 PM, another seven thousand spectators packed the Marine Ballroom to witness the final judging. It wouldn’t be until 11:30 PM that the coronation ceremony would begin. There was a tie for 3rd runner-up between Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss Miami, Irmigard Dietel. 2nd runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Ruth Covington. The 1st runner-up was Miss Texas, Alice Emerick. And, the new Miss America in 1937 was – drumroll, please – 17-year-old Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.

Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937.
Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 104 of the September 1971 publication of The Ladies Home Journal.

But just who was Bette Cooper? And where in the world was Bertrand Island? The world would soon find out.

Bette was born on August 11, 1920, to Mabel and Marin Le Brun Cooper in Hackettstown, New Jersey. She was the second of the couple’s three children. The family lived at 504 Moore Street – the same house that she was born in – which was located directly across the street from the campus of Centenary College. At the time of Bette being crowned Miss America, she had just begun her first year of junior college there. Before this, Bette attended Hackettstown High School, where she excelled in her academic studies, participated in theater productions, and was highly active in sports such as basketball, volleyball, and track. In her spare time, she loved to swim, play tennis, cycle, and dance. She stated, “But not those modern dances. I prefer the old-time graceful waltz.”

Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown.
Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown. Image appeared on page 4 of September 14, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

The interesting thing is that Bette Cooper never dreamed of becoming Miss America. Her path to the crown began in the summer of 1936 when she entered a beauty pageant at the Bertrand Island amusement park on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. The amusement park is long gone, but it was a moderately sized, family-run entertainment venue. Nothing like the mega amusement parks that exist today. So, entering a beauty contest there was not that big a deal. Being crowned Miss Bertrand Island carried no greater significance than being crowned the queen of a resort hotel or a parade. And Bette did not win that year. She placed third.

Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937.
Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

Fast forward one more year to 1937 and Bette was back at the amusement park to have some fun with friends. And, wouldn’t you know it, the park was once again holding one of its many beauty contests. Her friends convinced Bette to once again enter. To her surprise, Bette was crowned Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Two weeks later, on August 12, 1937, Bette and ten winners of other local pageants met up in the Bertrand Island ballroom to compete for the title of Miss Lake Hopatcong 1937. Once again, Bette was chosen to be the winner, which automatically advanced her straight on to the Miss America pageant. Since the amusement park paid for Bette’s travel expenses to Atlantic City, she competed as Miss Bertrand Island for publicity purposes.

The reality was that Bette never expected to win the Miss America title. She simply wasn’t the classic long-legged beauty that stereotypically wins beauty contests. As judged by the press back then, Bette was more of an adult version of Shirley Temple. The main reason she agreed to participate in the Miss America contest was that it allowed her entire family to have an all-expense-paid trip to Atlantic City. And, when she did win, Bette was completely unprepared for what came next.

Moments after being crowned, dozens of photographers rushed toward the stage. The constant popping of the flashbulbs seemed blinding as Bette stood there in shock. Reporters began their rapid fire questioning of the new queen and, as she sobbed in apparent happiness, Bette stated “I don’t know what to say – I’m so happy.” Shortly after that, the pageant came to a close and Bette and her family retreated to their hotel rooms to get some much-needed rest.

Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937.
Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

The following morning, cameramen for the newsreel pictures and newspapers arrived to the Steel Pier to set up their equipment for a scheduled 10:30 AM press conference with Miss America and the runners-up. But there was one big problem: Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, was nowhere to be found. Phone calls were made to her room, but she was long gone. Even her parents couldn’t say where she went. Miss America had gone AWOL. As reporters and policemen scuttled off in search of the missing Miss America, pageant officials attempted to make the best of a bad situation. A photograph syndicated in newspapers across the country shows a vacant throne with Miss America’s robe draped over it. Her crown rested on the seat of the throne while her trophy sat on the ground at its base. Miss Texas, the 1st runner-up, stood to one side while Miss North Carolina and Miss Miami stood on the other, all dressed in their swimsuits.

Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937's vacant throne.
Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937’s vacant throne. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 13, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Atlantic City Mayor C. D. White told the press, “We don’t know where Miss Cooper is. Her parents didn’t mind her entering the pageant, but they didn’t expect her to win. They let her come down because it was a nice vacation for all of them, but now that she’s won the crown they don’t want her running all over the country for stage appearances and screen tests.”

But where was Miss America? Rumors spread like wildfire. Did she forfeit her title? Would Miss Texas now be crowned Miss America? Could Bette have been kidnapped? Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and reported that Bette had eloped in Maryland.

None of this was true. It turns out that Bette had been hiding in plain sight the entire time. In explaining what had really happened, we must return to that first day when all of the contestants showed up in Atlantic City. Upon arrival, each of the young women was assigned a male chaperone – officially called “a chauffeur” – to escort them around the city and to all of the pageant functions. This had been done out of necessity because the Miss America pageant was operating on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. To save money, pageant organizers came up with the brilliant idea of finding young men who would volunteer their time to entertain the young ladies. On its surface, it seemed like the ideal situation. The young men got to spend time with beautiful women, the contestants would have a handsome escort to show them around the city, and the pageant got free labor. What could go wrong?

They were about to find out…

A few days before the pageant was scheduled to begin, 21-year-old Louis Off and a friend decided to volunteer their services. By the time they arrived at pageant headquarters, only two contestants remained without chauffeurs: Miss New Orleans and Miss Bertrand Island. Lou let his buddy pick first, leaving Lou with the only unselected girl, Bette Cooper. Years later, Lou would recall, “I remember there were all sorts of girls. A lot of them were just cute bathing-suit girls, and there was even one stripper in the contest. In this crowd, Bette Cooper stood out like a beacon in the middle of the ocean.”

The two hit it off right away. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bette was beautiful inside and out, while Lou was good-looking, well-dressed, and polite. His family owned both the nearby Brighton Hotel and a floral nursery, so he was able to send Bette orchids every day. While Bette seemed enamored by her chaperone, Lou saw it as more of an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful young woman.

Colorized image of Bette Cooper and Louis Off walking on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1937. The original black and white image appears here.

On the day of Bette’s coronation, she had some downtime before the evening pageant, so Lou asked her if he could take her to lunch. He picked her up at the Lafayette Hotel and Lou described what happened next: “We took a long drive first. Bette had a cold and didn’t feel well at all. She had even been to see a doctor. I remember we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Somers Point, and when we were sitting there I asked her, ‘Bette, have you really thought what you are going to do if you win this thing tonight?’” He continued, “She just laughed and said the thought was ridiculous.”

Then, after winning the contest that evening, it quickly became clear that Bette was unprepared for all of the demands that being Miss America entailed. After retreating to her hotel room that evening, she panicked. Lou described what happened next. “About 2 AM, the phone rang and it was Bette. She was in tears and she said, ‘I want to see you. I don’t want any part of it.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.’”

That’s when Lou ran into a nearby telephone booth and emerged seconds later as Superman. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic…

Lou fetched his car from the Brighton Hotel garage and raced to the Lafayette where he met up with Bette’s father in the lobby. Mr. Cooper explained that Bette was in over her head and didn’t want the title of Miss America after all. The entire family just wanted to go home. Lou drove off and then asked two of his buddies for assistance.

Lou returned to the Lafayette around 4:30 AM with his friends and they escorted Bette down the fire escape to freedom. They drove about four miles (6.4 km) down the coast to nearby Margate and boarded a fishing boat docked there. They sailed directly back to the Steel Pier and dropped anchor just a short distance away as dawn was breaking. With Bette ill, she slept most of the day below deck as Lou and his buddies relaxed and did some fishing. The entire time they were able to watch all of the commotion taking place up on the pier as the search for Miss America continued. Later that afternoon, they sailed back to Margate, hopped in Lou’s Buick, and drove 3 ½ hours to Hackettstown, arriving at Bette’s home around midnight.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

Once officials determined Bette’s whereabouts, the pageant’s board of governors had an emergency meeting to determine how to handle this unusual situation. Bette was willing to walk away from all of her winnings, which included a six-week vaudeville contract, $400 (approximately $7200 today) for a 5-day stint on the Steel Pier, a $1000 ($18,000 today) fur coat, and a flight to Hollywood for a screen test. But would pageant officials force Bette to forfeit her Miss America title?

George D. Tyson, then director of the Showman’s Variety Jubilee, which operated the Miss America pageant, soon announced, “Miss America has decided against launching her professional career at this time. She is too ill to be on hand today. She is still Miss America. She rightfully won and the pageant officials will not dictate her future course.”

Yet, behind the scenes, there was a lot of negotiation taking place. With Bette being seventeen years of age, she could not be held legally responsible for any contract that she had signed. Her parents demanded that she receive a less vigorous schedule. It was agreed that in exchange for Bette retaining her Miss America title, she would participate in only a fraction of her expected duties. Four days after being crowned Miss America, Bette Cooper announced to the world that her abdication was completely a mistake.

Bette meeting showgirls backstage at New York’s International Casino on March 18, 1938. Image appeared on page 44 of the April 4, 1938 publication of Life.

Needless to say, the press had a field day with this story. It was front-page news across the nation.  In fact, the Associated Press ranked it as the tenth biggest story of 1937, with the Hindenburg disaster being #1.

One article concluded that Bette’s initial decision was the correct one. “According to actuaries, the odds are almost 4-to-1 against any holder of the crown making a successful marriage. The average Miss America can expect no more than 3.9456 years of bliss.” Only the passage of time would determine if Bette could beat those odds.

Another story commented that ordinary women should not fret because Bette’s proportions were not perfect either. “She is five feet, six and one-half inches tall, and weighs 120 pounds. She has a bust measurement of 32 inches; hips, 36 inches, and waist, 26 inches; thigh, 20 inches; calf, 13 inches; ankle, 8 ½ inches. According to the accepted standards in symmetry, Miss Cooper’s hip measurement is too large… Or her bust too small. The rest of her measurements are very nearly perfect and she is an exceptionally pretty girl.”

Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to the radio.
Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to her Philco radio. Image appeared on page 11 of April 1938 publication of Radio Today.

Reporters waited outside the Cooper home but the family had very little to say. Mrs. Cooper answered the door and stated, “Bette is in bed – sick. And I’m going to bed. I’m sick.” She then pointed to a sign placed near the doorbell that read, “Do not ring the bell owing to sickness.”

Bette’s father said, “Bette is not the type of girl to appear in vaudeville. She isn’t robust enough for the professional grind. She just entered on a lark. Her mother and I want her to finish school first to get polished off, then do something that isn’t strenuous, like modeling for magazine covers.”

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College.
Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College. Image appeared on page 3 of the January 28, 1938 publication of the Hackensack Record.

As for her relationship with Lou Off, her sister Mabel stated, “Puppy love. Not serious.” Her father added, “Ah, that’s no romance. Lou’s too sensible a boy to think of romance at his age.” When questioned by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Bette said, “Love? Poof! I’m not in love. I’m too young. All I can think of is going back to school. Louis is just a friend of my family.”

Months later, it was clear that Bette had no regrets over her decision. “I want as good an education as I can get. After that I want a try at earning my own living. I hope that I will be able to get into radio. After that I’d like to marry – but not before I’ve finished with a career.”

Throughout the remainder of her year as Miss America, Bette mostly focused on her education and selectively did promotions for the pageant in her spare time. “On Saturday I often go to New York to pose for commercial photographers and several times I’ve endorsed products over the radio.” Her public appearances were quite few, but she did appear in the occasional parade, at a promotion for New Jersey’s dairy industry, and at a few fashion shows. In print advertisements, Bette Cooper could be seen receiving a new Underwood typewriter, endorsing soaps, or promoting the Beautyrest line of mattresses with the quote “It gives me a real beauty rest every night” printed right next to her image. At the end of her reign, she commented “I’ve done what I wanted to do. You might say I’ve eaten my cake and had it too.”

Above: A sampling of advertisements that Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, endorsed. Click on any of the images to see them full-sized.

After dealing with the fiasco of the 1937 pageant, changes were made to the competition. First, all future contestants were required to be between the ages of 18 and 28, the minimum set to ensure that the winner could legally sign a contract detailing all of the responsibilities and duties required of being a Miss America. In addition, they ended the male chaperone program. It was replaced with a hostess program that prohibited the contestants from spending any time alone with a man during the week of the beauty pageant.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937 with her new Typemaster typewriter by Underwood. Image appeared on page 15 of the July/August publication of UEF News.

The 1938 pageant went off without a hitch. Marilyn Meseke, of Marion, Ohio, was crowned the new Miss America. It was tradition that the previous Miss America would hand off her sash and crown to the new winner, but that did not happen in 1938. That is because Bette Cooper was not at the pageant, an absence that the press interpreted as a major snub on the part of the pageant organizers.

After Bette completed her two-year college degree at Centenary Collegiate Institute in 1940, she found employment as the public relations director of the Sandy Valley Grocery Company in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1947 – 48, she taught kindergarten at the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut before enrolling in Columbia University in 1949.

Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper with her two children Gregory and Cheryl in Greenwich, CT. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

On April 27, 1951, Bette married engineer William F. Moore. The couple lived in Greenwich, where they raised their two children Gregory and Cheryl. Sadly, Bette’s husband died in 1968.  Her seventeen-year marriage beat the prediction that a former Miss America would only experience 3.9456 years of wedded bliss.

Bette’s last major public appearance as a former Miss America was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. For the remainder of her life, she would say nothing publicly about her 1937 coronation.  When Elizabeth Cooper Moore passed away on December 10, 2017, at 97 years of age, she was the oldest living Miss America at the time. Bette’s obituary detailed her family, her love of music, her involvement in her church, and that she was an “enthusiastic golfer and tennis player.” The one glaring detail that was missing, however, was that Bette Cooper was once Miss America.

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

Colorized photograph of Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper (left) at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Marilyn Meseke, Miss America 1938, is in the center with Patricia Donnelly, Miss America 1939, on the right. Original black and white image appears here.

Podcast #140 – The Flying Housewife

 

Let’s suppose you wanted to take an airplane flight around the globe. And, since you are probably like me and don’t have access to high-speed military jets, you would need to make the flight using commercial airlines. That means they would have to deal with the hassles of delayed flights, waiting in airport terminals for connecting flights, dealing with immigration along the way, and all of the other hassles associated with flying. Just how long do you think it would take you? Could you do it in a day? In two days? Well, one man has set the record for doing so. If you hang around for a bit, I will let you know just how long it took him at the end of this podcast.

Of course, flying around the world today is far easier than it was in the early days of aviation. One of the earlier pioneers in flying was a British woman named Richarda Morrow-Tait, whose efforts to fly around the world are nearly forgotten today.

Born Prudence Richarda Evelyn Routh on November 22, 1923, she wasn’t exactly what her father had hoped for. “As far back as I can remember, it was always said that my father was so angry when I turned out to be a girl that he refused to speak to me on the day I was born. He’d already had two girls and I was to be called Richard – that’s how I was christened Richarda. So I was a third daughter. But no matter how depressing that could very well turn out to be – I did have one terrific consolation. I was born on a Thursday.” We shall see in a short bit how being born on a Thursday would play an important part in her life.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In 1943, Richarda, who went by the nickname of Dikki, was working as a temporary stenographer and assigned to assist a mechanical engineer named Norman Morrow-Tait who worked in the British government’s Ministry of Supply at Cambridge  Norman was more than a decade older than the redheaded Dikki, but the two immediately hit it off and were soon married.

Dikki long had an interest in learning to fly an airplane and in 1945, her husband suggested that she should do so. She first took to the air in January 1946 and continued to take lessons on weekends. Dikki soon became the first woman to obtain a civil flying license in Britain since the war had ended.

Right around the time that she began her flying lessons, Dikki became pregnant. On October 10, 1946, she gave birth to a baby girl who the couple named Anna Victoria Airy Morrow-Tait. Yet, motherhood was not about to stop Dikki from taking to the sky.

On May 31, 1948, 24-year-old Richarda Morrow-Tait announced to the world that she was going to attempt to be the first woman to fly an airplane around the world. To do so, she purchased a surplus Percival Proctor IV, a 210 hp, single-engine plane which had been used as a communications aircraft during the war. For the round-the-world trip, it was outfitted with extra fuel tanks, which gave it an estimated range of 1850 miles (2977 km). Dikki named the plane “Thursday’s Child,” both because she was born a Thursday and for the verse in the folk song Mondays Child:

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go…

And boy did she have far to go…

While Dikki had mastered the flying of the plane, she was in need of a good navigator. While the Morrow-Taits were at a party they bumped into 25-year-old Michael Townsend, who had been a childhood friend of Dikki’s. At the time, Townsend was a geology student at Cambridge and a former member of the Royal Air Force. He agreed to accompany Dikki on the flight and spent four months preparing for it.

Their first setback occurred on August 14, 1948, while Dikki was practicing for the flight. While piloting another plane, Dikki crash-landed at the airport in Cambridge. She was unhurt, but this event seemed to cast a dark shadow on what was to come.

On Wednesday, August 18, 1948, as her husband and daughter Anna watched from the ground, Richarda Morrow-Tait and Michael Townsend lifted off from Cambridge and flew to Croyden Airport in London to officially begin their flight around the globe. They anticipated completing the flight in six weeks. Norman Morrow-Tait told the press “I have given her every encouragement to make this flight.” He continued, “I used to fly myself and know how much flying can mean to anyone. Dikki is a wonderful person full of determination and courage.”

Unfortunately, upon landing in Marseille, France, visibility was poor and the propeller, undercarriage, and one of the wings were damaged during landing. The next day, she announced that she was abandoning her attempted flight and would return to England once repairs to the plane were completed. Well, that decision did not last long. Two days later, on Friday, August 20, Dikki announced that she would continue on with the planned flight.

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the November 27, 1948 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On Saturday, August 28, she finally was able to take off from Marseille and successfully landed later that same day in Malta. From there it was on to Cyprus, Iraq, Bahrain, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Karachi in Pakistan, and Delhi in India.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until September 7. That is when her airplane was damaged during landing at Dum Dum airport in Calcutta. Dikki and Townsend would have to wait seven weeks for parts to arrive and for the plane to be repaired. So much for completing their flight in six weeks.

Finally, on October 22, they lifted off for Rangoon (today Yangon in Myanmar), followed by successful hops to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and five stops in Japan as she piloted the plane up the Japanese archipelago. 

Her next flight was going to the longest over water: from Hokkaido, Japan to Shemya Island, located at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Due to the great length of the flight, Dikki agreed to be escorted by a US Air Force B-17 bomber. Dikki and Townsend took off from Hokkaido on November 3 and encountered several storms along their flight path. At about 9 hours into their flight, the B-17 lost contact with the single-engine plane. Were Dikki and Townsend okay? Did their plane go down at sea? No one could say for sure until they surprisingly landed the plane on Shemya Island. Total flight time: 13 hours and 20 minutes. It turns out that they had lost contact with their escort plane after their radio was knocked out as they passed through a storm.  Dikki told reporters, “Over the Pacific, we landed with only five gallons of gas, or 20 minutes flying time. I think we ran the last of it entirely Ave Marias.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On November 11, they left Shemya and headed east along the Aleutian chain. They stopped at Adak and Cold Bay as they made their way to Anchorage. As they approached the Elmendorf Air Force Base there, they encountered thick fog, which greatly reduced visibility. To make matters worse, the lights on the field had failed. Two B-17’s and a Civil Aeronautics Authority airplane took off to help Dikki find the field. She made several passes with the plane but was unable to land. To help bring the plane in, cars were sent out to line the runway so that Dikki could use their headlights as a guide. An ambulance and rescue vehicles were put on alert.  Once again, she successfully landed the plane.  “It’s sure good to be down. I only had enough gas left to circle the field twice more.” Dicki added, “They talked us in three times before we made it and I was extremely frightened. I didn’t care how I landed as long as I got down.” 

They were delayed for ten days in Anchorage because their plane was experiencing engine trouble, most likely due to the extreme cold. Once repairs were complete, Dikki took off for Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory. Since there was concern over the engine’s reliability, the decision was made to follow the highways just in case they would need to make an emergency landing. Sadly, on what just happened to be Dikki’s twenty-fifth birthday, that was exactly what happened.  Just prior to noon on November 22, 1948, sub-zero weather caused her plane’s carburetor to ice up and she was forced to crash-land near Tanacross, Alaska. The army plane that accompanied her dropped emergency supplies, while the Alaska Highway Patrol picked up the flyers and drove them into Tanacross.  The two were uninjured, but her plane lay in ruins along the Alaskan Highway. Both the plane’s landing gear and the wings were severely damaged.  Low on funds, they could neither afford to truck the plane to Canada for repairs nor ship the necessary parts to Alaska. Dikki stated, “What I need for a birthday present is a miracle.”

At first, Dikki said she would abandon her plan to complete the flight, but she soon changed her mind. Dikki stated, “Personally I would love to go back home, but I will not abandon the flight under any circumstances. My biggest problem is obtaining finances, not securing the parts for my plane.” She estimated that the cost to repair the plane would be around $2000 (approximately $21,500 today), money that she did not have.

A trucker in Fairbanks offered to crate up the plane and ship it down to Edmonton for repairs, but it would take some time for it to be dismantled and haul it down there. In the meantime, on November 27, Dikki and Townsend were flown aboard an American B-17 bomber to Edmonton. Shortly after that, Townsend decided to return to England to complete his studies at Cambridge University. Dikki told reporters, “When Michael leaves me I will have to get another navigator or go on alone but I definitely will fly home.”

It wouldn’t be until January 24, 1949, that her wrecked plane would arrive in Edmonton. The damage was far worse than she had anticipated. Dikki stated, “I was shocked when I inspected the plane.” A repair shop inspected the place and estimated the cost of repair to be $3800 (which is nearly $41,000 today.) 

Nearly penniless at this point, Dikki could not imagine how she could possibly earn that much money. Since the time of the crash, she had earned small sums working in an Alaskan nightclub, doing some public speaking, and even modeling, something that she had done before she had married. But none of these jobs could earn enough to pay for the repair of her plane. She made the decision to abandon the plane in Edmonton.

This does not mean that Dikki had given up on her dream to fly around the world. “I am scouring the continent in an effort to find a company which will give me a plane to fly back to England for advertising purposes.”

In mid-February, she hitchhiked back up to Alaska to raise some additional funds. Unfortunately, along the way, someone stole all the money she had managed to accumulate up until that point. To make matters worse, US immigration officials there denied her readmission into Alaska. Ultimately, they granted her a two-week stay.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In early March, she headed for Seattle, Washington. On March 21, it was announced that, with the help of a Seattle dentist and others, a replacement airplane had been located. It was a surplus Army BT-13 Vultee Valiant which had been sold off at the end of World War II. While the cost for the plane was $600 (approximately $6500 today), the catch was that, since it formally was a US military plane, it could only be owned by a US citizen and piloted by an American license holder. Those technicalities could be easily overcome, but the real problem for Dikki was raising the $600.

It was in Seattle that she also found her new navigator. He was Jack Ellis, a native Londoner and former RAF navigator. Ellis saw this opportunity as an inexpensive way to go back to England and see his wife. He said, “It’s a flight I want to finish. I want to go back to England for a visit.”

By the end of March, Dikki had raised the money needed to purchase the plane. Surprisingly, two different Vancouver residents offered her $300 each. In addition, a Victoria couple sent in a check for $50 to The Vancouver Sun.  “I am very grateful to Vancouver people. I couldn’t have done it without them.” She added, “I have my American license. I shall start my familiarization flights at Boeing Field Friday.” In mid-April, Dikki paid the $600 for a plane that she could never own. She named it “Next Thursday’s Child.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait's airplane "Next Thursday's Child."
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait’s airplane “Next Thursday’s Child.” Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On April 16, 1949, she returned to Edmonton so that technicians could remove the extra fuel tank from her scrapped plane and install it in her new machine. Two days later, she took off from Edmonton and headed right back to Alaska, circled over the spot where she had crashed, and then began her journey back to England. 

Would everything go smoothly after this? Of course not. Unfortunately, the airplane’s fuel tanks were leaking, so she was forced to make the trip up to Alaska in small hops of two to three hours each. Eight days later she was back in Edmonton to have the fuel tanks repaired. That would ground her there for the next twenty-five days.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 19, 1949, Dikki and her navigator Jack Ellis were cleared for takeoff. After crossing the border and clearing customs in Cut Bank, Montana, they made a short layover in Williston, North Dakota before taking off for Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This time everything seemed to be going smoothly. That was until she landed at Wold-Chamberlain Field (now the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport) in Minneapolis. On Saturday, May 21, customs inspectors there ordered her plane grounded “until further orders.” Stout chains and a padlock were placed on the airplane. Initially, agents there said that they had no idea why that order had been issued. Dikki later learned that the papers that had been filled out back in Cut Bank, Montana were not in order. She said, “There are lots of rules and regulations that have to be complied with. This will be straightened out.” It turns out that federal regulations at the time forbid taking an American airplane outside of the United States for a period longer than six months. After being delayed for two days, Dikki was able to post guarantees that the plane would be returned and it was released into her possession. She resumed her flight on Tuesday, May 24.

Chains being applied to Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait's airplane in Minneapolis.
Chains being applied to Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait’s airplane in Minneapolis. Image appeared on page 2 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Minneapolis Star.

Two days later, on May 26, her plane was impounded once again in Chicago. This time, the Civil Aeronautics Administration claimed that Dikki’s registration for the airplane had been improperly completed. It indicated that she was the owner, which was forbidden because she was not a United States citizen. Also, they refused to issue a certificate of airworthiness because they deemed the extra fuel tank as being unsafe.

This would prove to be quite the predicament because not only was her airplane grounded, but it was low on fuel and Dikki didn’t even have enough money to pay for her meals. Could this be the end of her round-the-world flight? Just what would she do next?

The world will get to know the answer in the early morning hours of May 28, 1949. That was when Dikki and Jack Ellis snuck out to the hangar where their plane was being stored, hopped aboard, basically Dikki stuck her middle finger up at the entire situation, and took off for who knows where… Dikki had previously stated that her next stop would be Buffalo, New York, but many thought that she would hop over the border into Canada to avoid any legal consequences for her actions. Charles Biggs, an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, stated that she “has created an international incident, and is in violation of four rules.”

She soon landed the plane in Toronto, but Canadian authorities ordered her to go back to the United States. She stated, “They weren’t very interested in me. They told me I’d better get back to the United States in my plane.”

Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Star Tribune.

Instead of going back to Chicago, Dikki headed for her original destination of Buffalo. There, she was informed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) that she needed to meet five different requirements before they would allow her to continue with her flight. First, she needed to sell her plane back to the Seattle resident who had sold it to her so that it could be registered in the name of a US citizen. Second, Dikki needed to obtain an export license. Next, she was required to obtain CAA approval for the installation of an additional gas tank and, once that was obtained, a CAA engineer would need to come from New York to inspect the installation, and finally, Dikki needed to obtain a certificate of airworthiness for her airplane. 

As Dikki worked to meet all of these CAA requirements, a new problem arose. Jack Ellis’ wife had arrived in Toronto from England, so he decided that it was time to jump ship, leaving Dikki once again without a navigator. Luckily, her first navigator, Michael Townsend, had recently completed his studies at Cambridge and he was willing to fly to Buffalo and rejoin Dikki on her quest to become the first woman to pilot a plane around the world. “He came out to meet me – which was pretty big of him because he flew by commercial airlines and that cost a lot.”

Flight navigator Michael Townsend.
Flight navigator Michael Townsend. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

An anonymous benefactor provided Dikki with the $300 that she needed to pay off the fines that were levied on her for violation of federal regulations. She was finally able to resume flying on July 9.  Her first stop would be in Montreal, where she was once again grounded because her airplane was considered experimental, which was not permitted to fly over open water in Canada.  She was ordered to return to the United States.  So, she hopped back across the border and landed at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. They refused her admission into the country because her passport was not in order. Dikki had no choice but to fly back to Montréal. It wouldn’t be until August 1, after this latest legal mass was cleared up, that she was able to clear customs in Burlington and fly to Bangor, Maine. After two months of basically going nowhere, it finally seemed like she would be home soon.

From Bangor, she flew to Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada, and encountered more problems. Once again, Canadian authorities refused to allow Dikki to fly her plane over the Atlantic Ocean. She told the press, “The Canadian government refused to let me fly over their territory any longer.” She continued, “Department of transport officials told me to go on home and look after my baby. They said it would cost too much to start a search for me when I got lost.”

On August 12, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent one of its Lancaster bombers from Greenwood, Nova Scotia to escort Dikki’s plane back to Bangor, Maine. At 7:50 AM, Dikki piloted her plane down the runway and once she had gained enough altitude, the escort plane joined up with her. Not long into their flight, Dikki attempted to give the RAF plane the slip. She suddenly swung the plane’s nose around and changed course. Instead of heading for Maine, Dikki was now flying out over the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 6-½ hours, the bomber stayed right with her until she successfully landed her single-engine plane at Bluie West One, a United States airbase located in southern Greenland. She was now outside of Canadian jurisdiction, so the RAF bomber refueled and returned to the Canadian mainland.

Five days later, on August 17, a US Air Force B-17 escorted Dikki on a seven-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland. She landed the plane successfully and was almost home. Her husband Norman, who had been taking care of their daughter Anna for the past year, stated “I shall be very glad to see Dikki. But I shall be doubly glad to let her feed and bathe the baby. I’m tired of playing mother.” He added, “I am very proud of my wife. She is full of pep and very brave and I want her to finish this flight because it means so much to her. I fell in love with Dikki when she was seventeen and even then she was talking about this trip.”

After being held up in Iceland by bad weather, she took off on August 19, 1949, and landed back on European soil for refueling at Prestwick, Scotland. After going through customs and an inspection of the plane, she landed at Croydon Airport in London, making Richarda Morrow-Tait the first woman to ever pilot an airplane around the world, even if it took her one year and one day to complete the flight. As soon as she stepped out of the cockpit, her husband presented her with a bouquet of gladioli and the two embraced lovingly as photographers took pictures. She stated, “No woman had ever flown around the world, and I wanted to show what an ordinary housewife could do.”

Image of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait
Image of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait.

Dikki was uncertain what this flight around the world had cost, but her husband estimated it at $12,000 (nearly $225,000 today). While Dikki was technically required to return her airplane to the United States, she did not do so. Instead, she sold the plane to her Cambridge flying club who never used it and had it scrapped in 1952.

Yet, the story is not quite over. Dikki had acquired two mementos on her trip. The first was a tattoo that she had inked while in the United States. The second was even more surprising: she had not seen her husband in more than a year, yet she was pregnant. The father just happened to be her navigator Michael Townsend. She told the press, “We were to be away for six weeks. We reach Calcutta on the 18th day and we were stuck there for 6 weeks. It was there that Michael started being beastly to me.”

Their baby, Giles, would be born eight months after Dikki’s return to England. On June 10, 1950, Norman Morrow-Tait filed for divorce and soon Dikki was living off of public assistance. “I have an electric sewing machine. I make things for the neighbor’s kids for a few odd shillings. As for domesticity, I’ll meet any housewife with a cooker or a sweeper or down on my knees, even, and show her as good as she can give.”

On February 2, 1951, the divorce was granted, and the court ruled that Dikki would be responsible for the care and control of both her son Giles and daughter Anna. Yet, custody of the children was awarded to Norman Morrow-Tait. This meant that while Dikki would raise the children, her ex-husband had the final say in all decision-making.

Seven weeks later, on March 24, 1951, Dikki would marry Michael Townsend. They would remain married until her death from an incurable blood disease on December 17, 1982.

Dikki received very little acclaim for what she had done and her accomplishment is just a footnote to flying history today. Some have attributed this lack of recognition to her scandalous affair with Michael Townsend that grabbed bigger headlines than her round-the-world trip ever did.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Dikki: “I had more trouble on the ground than I ever had in the air.”

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

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.