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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

The Ghost Plane

 

On August 30, 1955, a pilotless airplane circled Sydney, Australia and its suburbs for nearly three hours. Today, we live in a time of remote-control planes, but that was not why this airplane was flying around without a pilot.

Thirty-year-old trainee-pilot Anthony Thrower was practicing his takeoff and landings at the Bankstown Aerodrome when suddenly “The motor went dead when I was 10 feet [3 m] over the runway. I got down safely and applied the brakes. I decided to start the Auster by myself.”

That’s when he swung the propeller around to start the engine. As soon the engine turned over, the brakes on the airplane failed and it took to the sky without him aboard.

“I tried to hold it by a strut but I couldn’t make it.” And, “Away she went…”

He began to run toward the control tower in an effort to alert them as the plane flew in the opposite direction. And then, “I looked over my shoulder and got a terrific fright. The plane had turned right around and was chasing me.”

Thrower was unharmed and eventually, the plane climbed to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3 km) before leveling out. Royal Australian Air Force jets were called in to pursue the runaway plane but were unable to bring it down.  Eventually, the wind pushed the plane out toward the sea where two Australian Navy Sea Furies shot it down.

Lieutenants John Bluett, RN, and Peter McNay, RN, reliving their successful action against Anthony Thrower’s pilotless Auster in 1955. Image appears on the Australian Navy website.

Legal to Fly Airplanes on Sunday

 

The first documented blue law within the state of Pennsylvania, which placed restrictions on Sunday activity, was passed in 1779. Further restrictions were put into place in 1794 “for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation.” It strictly forbids “any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly call Sunday, works of necessity and charity only accepted.” This included, “any unlawful game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever.”

Of course, the times change and there were challenges to the law, especially as more modern forms of transportation came about. In particular, a new situation arose in 1919 when members of a Sunday observance association filed charges against Lieut. John C. Howard for carrying passengers in an airplane on the Sabbath.

On October 25, Philadelphia City Solicitor John P. Connelly offered up his opinion on the matter. He stated, “I cannot see how travel in the air on Sunday is calculated to interfere with the rest, quiet and right of citizenship to worship any more than travel by trolley cars, taxicabs, hired carriages or automobiles.” He added, “… travel by streetcars, by steam railways, by hired cabs, and in these later days, by taxicabs and other vehicles, both upon land and water, and for pleasure or necessity, has become universal, and has come to be tacitly if not explicitly regarded as within the exceptions to the Act of 1794.”

A decision was handed down on November 6 by an unnamed police magistrate, who had pondered over this violation for ten days, concluded that flying an airplane on Sunday in no way violates the Pennsylvania blue laws.

“Birds fly on Sunday and I therefore do not see how the law is violated by a birdman who runs an air taxicab on the Sabbath.”

Lillian Boyer was an early “wing-walker.” Photograph from the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive on Flickr.

Man Steals Railway

 

On July 3, 1938, Joseph Gemma, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $500 ($9,200 today) for stealing “a railroad in broad daylight.” He had previously appealed his case to the state Supreme Court, but they upheld the lower court decision and ruled that he must pay the penalty for his crime.

And just how does one steal an entire railroad?

You do it in tiny little pieces. Gemma had created a false sales agreement for the abandoned Harrisville – Woonsocket Railroad two years prior, which supposedly allowed him to have a gang of workers remove 250 tons of rails, piece-by-piece, and sell the iron for scrap.

1943 photograph taken in Camden, Missouri. Looking east on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad where it crosses over the Wabash Railroad tracks. Library of Congress image.

Airplane Golf Match

 

On June 25, 1923, a very unique golf match was held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. It was a round of airplane golf, which pitted a team of nine professional golfers against nine amateur golfers.

So, you are probably wondering how would aerial golf work? Well, not as well as the event planners had hoped. The basic idea was that there were two airplanes from which golf balls would be dropped down as near as possible to the putting greens on the course below. The professional golf balls had white ribbons attached to them and the amateur balls had red ribbons. Wherever these balls landed, the players on the ground would substitute undecorated balls and attempt to drop them into the hole with the fewest number of strokes.

Things got off to a rocky start when one of the two airplanes involved hit a sprinkler during a practice run. As a result, the other airplane had to drop golf balls for both teams.

At the end of the match, the amateurs won by sinking the golf balls in twenty-five strokes.  The professionals took twenty-six strokes to do the same, although it was pointed out that the white ribbons attached to their balls were wider than the red ribbons, causing their balls to travel a greater distance before striking the green.

J.S. Conroy piloted the airplane for the winning team in the airplane golf match held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. Image appeared on page 13 of the June 30, 1923 issue of the Palladium-Item

Horseless Age Is Not Far Away

 

In 1912, Gleeson Murphy, vice-president of the General Motors Truck Company predicted that the age of the horseless city was not very far away.  He thought that the horse could disappear from city streets within the present generation.

“Today the horse is a municipal luxury. He cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the streets clean and is a menace to health, especially in the crowded city districts. The horse has retarded the proper sanitation of cities more than any other obstacle. We have tolerated the horse all these years because he has been a necessity, but his day of usefulness is past; he is going into decline. For thousands of years he has been a common beast of burden, but the horseless vehicle has been his undoing. His day of supremacy is now a matter of history.”

“Municipalities, corporations and even smaller firms, who have use for only a single job, are changing their horse equipment for the new as speedily as it can be brought about.”

“To make this statement that it is only a question of time before cities will take some legal action to remove the horse from the streets is not stating an improbability.” He continued, “It is simply a matter of education and time; but that time will surely come, and within the next decade or so.”

1914 photograph of the City Bakery horse-drawn delivery wagon. R.W. Scott (?), proprietor, standing beside the horse and Mrs. Scott (?) and a dog are sitting on the carriage seat. Image from the Galt Museum & Archives on Flickr.

Mother Tells Baby That Armed Robber is a TV Repairman

 

It was reported that on July 6, 1955, 24-year-old Mrs. Annette Kotler of Hartford, Connecticut heard someone knocking on the door of a second-floor apartment in her building at 390 Vine Street. The building was your typical two-story flat of that time period. When she heard the knock, Mrs. Kotler had been giving her three-year-old son Lawrence a bath and thought nothing of it. 

But just a short time later she heard someone knocking on her own kitchen door. She opened the door until the safety chain was stretched to its limit. There she saw a tall, thin man who was wearing a rainbow-colored.

He asked, “Can I have a drink of water?”

Suspicious, Mrs. Kotler attempted to close the door, but he stuck his foot out and prevented her from doing so. At that moment, he drew out a long-barreled revolver and told her to “Opened the door.” He threatened to shoot both Mrs. Kotler and her son if she did not.

She felt that she had no choice and opened the door to let him in. As the man walked into their dining room, she took her son into the bedroom and, in an effort to comfort him, told young Lawrence that it was only a “man who was here to fix the television set.” She gave him a toy, laid him down in his crib and he fell asleep.

The robber demanded money to which Mrs. Kotler replied, “I don’t have any.”

He asked, “Where is your pocketbook,” as he proceeded to open every drawer in the house in search of money.

Mrs. Kotler gave the bandit $3 in bills that she had in a kitchen cabinet, but he didn’t take the change that was there. He also demanded that she take off her wedding ring, but she refused. She told him that if he got any closer, she would let out a scream.

She estimated that the robber was in the apartment for about fifteen minutes before leaving. He warned her, “If you call the police, I will return tonight and kill you and your baby.”

Mrs. Kotler ignored his threat and first called her husband and two neighbors before notifying the police.

One month later, Mrs. Kotler claimed that on August 3, 1955, she had been assaulted in the hallway of her home. She claimed that she had gone shopping with her mother, Mrs. Sadie Gypstein, and had parked her car outside while her mother waited in the car. As Mrs. Kotler entered the rear hallway, a young man hit her on her left shoulder. Mrs. Kotler was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and examined, but the doctor observed no bruises or injuries.

That was the fifth complaint that Mrs. Kotler had made to the police over the previous twelve months.

My dad’s oldest brother Marvin was a radio and television repairman. I found his faded business card while cleaning out my grandparents’ summer bungalow.

Early Long-Distance Learning Fails

 

A story on September 2, 1956 tells about the failure of an early long-distance learning experiment. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s educational television station, WQED – which would later be the home of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood – joined with local boards of educations to experiment with teaching French, reading, and arithmetic via television.

Dr. Edith Kern was administering a French examination from WQED’s studio to 650 fifth-grade pupils located in sixteen different schools in western Pennsylvania when she reached question number 38 on the 44 question test. Suddenly, all of the TV screens went blank. It wouldn’t be until Dr. Kern reached question number 41 that she would reappear on the screen.

As you know, teachers are incredibly mean and everything is always the student’s fault. So, she marked those missing questions wrong on every student’s paper. No, that’s not really what happened. Those 3 missing questions were skipped when the exams are graded.

The loss of signal during the exam was blamed on a power company line failure.

1963 photograph of the teaching television studio, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. Library of Congress image.

Dead Man Helps Revive Wife

 

On October 30, 1931, it was reported that 80-year-old (he was really 79) Llewellyn Hall slumped over in a rocking chair inside of his Cleveland, Ohio home. His wife Emma checked for a pulse but could find none. She contacted the police rescue squad who raced to the scene, but they were unable to revive Llewellyn.

On the way to the morgue, the crew stopped at the hospital so that they could obtain an official death certificate. Physicians there confirmed that there was no heartbeat but opted to try a stimulant to see if they could possibly revive Llewellyn. Suddenly, his eyelids began to blink. The doctors then proceeded to apply artificial respiration and Llewellyn sat up.

“I guess I must’ve been out for a while,” he told the doctors. The police were kind enough to drive Llewellyn back home. Upon arrival, he was surprised to find that mourners had already arrived to offer his wife their condolences. As soon as his wife Emma laid eyes on her husband, she fainted. Llewellyn, the supposedly dead man, had to help revive his wife.

Llewelyn Hall’s death certificate. He passed away at January 6, 1933 at 80 years of age. (Click to enlarge.)

Watch-Sized Radios Possible

 

On November 8, 1948, Dr. Joseph A. Becker, a physicist at Bell Labs, introduce a new invention at a meeting of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

He claimed that this invention would replace those bulky vacuum tubes found in all of the electronics of the day – which included ENIAC, radios, and the newly invented televisions – and would someday make it possible to have a radio so small they could wear it like a wristwatch. The name of this new miniature electronic component was called the transistor.

This Transistor Age comic appeared in an advertisement for the Walter Ashe Radio Co. in St Louis, MO on page 115 of the August 1955 issue of QST magazine.

ENIAC is First Computer

 

On April 14, 1946, Dr. Arthur W. Burks did something that we take for granted today. He walked over to a machine that his school had developed with the assistance of the Army Ordnance Department and asked it to multiply 97,367 by itself 5000 times. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, the machine produced an answer.

This machine was named the “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer” or, as it is more commonly known, ENIAC, and it is considered to be the first electronic computer ever.

You can forget putting this thing in your pocket-it would even fit in most people’s homes. ENIAC filled up nearly all of the 30 x 60’ room that housed it (9.1 x 18.3 m) and consisted of 18,000 vacuum tubes, more than half a million solder joints, and took more than 200,000 man-hours to build. The cost to construct it was estimated to be about $400,000, which is approximately $5.3 million today.

ENIAC was the first electronic computer. Wikipedia image.

Robert Oppenheimer Falls Asleep on His Date

 

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s name has long been synonymous with the development of the atomic bomb, but he wasn’t always good at dating. It was reported on December 8, 1945, that when he was much younger he had taken a girl out on a date and his car ran out of gas. Since it was a chilly night, he insisted that his date where his coat to stay warm.

So, Bob went to get some gas. His date waited an hour and he never returned, so she went to the police to inform them of his disappearance. The search for the missing Oppenheimer was not difficult. The police found him home asleep in his bed. He apparently forgot about his date and his car.

And to think we trusted him with nuclear weapons…

J. Robert Oppenheimer. Image from Wikipedia.

Burglars Stole the Paper, Too

 

It was reported on August 11, 1959 that Fred Ernst, owner of the California Copy Corp. in Los Angeles, California, had three photocopy machine stolen two weeks prior. 

Ernst told police, “They can’t use the machines because no one else in Los Angeles has photocopy paper for those units.” 

He may have thought that he had gotten the last laugh, but in the end, the thieves did. They once again broke into his business and this time they stole $1000 (nearly $9,000 today) worth of that specially sized photocopy paper.

Classified advertisement for the California Copy Corp. that appeared on page 64 of the April 6, 1959 publication of the Los Angeles Times.

She Thought Robber Was Fooled

 

On November 20, 1950, a man with a revolver entered Milt’s Food Market in Chicago just prior to closing for the evening. He demanded all of the money from the cash register. 

That’s when Mrs. Renée Biliack, the proprietor’s wife, slammed the cash register closed and informed the thief that the register was self-locking. She claimed to be unable to access the contents of the register. 

So, the thief opted for the next best thing and ordered her to hand over her purse. And that was exactly what she did. 

After the thief exited the premises, Mrs. Biliack summoned her husband, Milton, and explained how she had outsmarted the thief. 

That’s when her husband gave her the bad news. Just prior to the robbery, he had taken the money from the register and placed it in her purse for safekeeping.

View of the interior of a Washington, DC grocery store in the 1920s. Library of Congress image.

Snitch Gets the Last Laugh

 

It was reported on January 10, 1930 that 45-year-old Claude Record informed the Denver, Colorado police that, as an out of town visitor, he was surprised to see just how many speakeasies there were. He was so sure of himself, that he told them that he could lead them to half a dozen speakeasies in ten minutes. 

So, a deal was made. Record would go in undercover and make a purchase using $2 (approximately $31 today) that they provided him with. As he emerged from each speakeasy, the deal was that he would meet up with Patrolman George Hart who was waiting in a nearby alley. 

Ofc. Hart waited and waited in the freezing cold for his snitch to bring the evidence. Five minutes went by, then ten minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes. After waiting close to an hour, Hart concluded that something had gone wrong and proceeded to the hotel where Record was staying. That’s where he found Hart drunk in his room and the $2 was long gone. He was jailed for questioning.

Woman hiding flask in her Russian boot during Prohibition in Washington, DC, January 21, 1922. Note the swastikas in the tile floor, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Library of Congress image.

Fails to Win Back Wife After Two Suicide Attempts

 

Tt was reported that Stanley G. Peralta, a 19-year-old draftsman from Pasadena, California was so distraught over his 17-year-old wife Luella leaving him that he attempted suicide twice at 2:30 AM on January 31, 1956. The couple had married on February 10, 1954, when Stanley was 17 and Luella was 16. At the time of this incident, the couple had a 20-month-old son named Roland. 

As Peralta was driving eastbound on Colorado Street (today Colorado Boulevard), he opened the car door and rolled into the path of oncoming traffic, hoping to be struck and killed. When the other car swerved and missed him, Peralta stood up and ran after his car that was still coasting down the street. He then threw himself under the vehicle’s rear wheel. 

The car stopped when it crashed into a storefront at 1706 E. Colorado Street. (Today a Chick-fil-A sits at that location.) When officers arrived on the scene, they found a despondent Peralta sitting in the backseat of his car. He was taken to Huntington Memorial Hospital where he was treated for cuts and bruises and then released. 

His wife Luella, who met reporters at her mother’s home at 126 N. Meredith Ave., insisted that her husband’s dual attempted suicide would have no bearing on her decision to leave her him.

17-year-old Mrs. Luella Peralta and her 20-month-old son Roland Peralta pictured shortly after Stanley Peralta unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide twice. Image from the USC Libraries Special Collections