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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Life-Size Statue Found on Subway Platform

 

One would expect many things to be left behind by riders on New York City’s subways: cell phones, umbrellas, coats and similar items. Imagine the surprise of transit workers when they found a life-size statue of St. Anthony holding the Christ child in his arms abandoned on the mezzanine level of the East Broadway station of the IND Sixth Avenue Line on Christmas Eve of 1963. There the brown plaster statue sat in its crate, standing 6 feet (1.83 m) tall and weighing in at a whopping 250 pounds (113.4 kg). With no one there to claim it, the statue was hauled off to the Transit Authority’s lost and found department at 370 Jay Street.

Two days later, a Haitian man named Etienne Agnan walked in to claim the statue. Agnan, who had moved to New York City four months prior, explained that he had done some statue work for St. Teresa’s church on the corner of Rutgers and Henry streets. For his efforts, church officials rewarded Agnan with the statue of St. Anthony, which he planned to take to upper Manhattan for some repair work before shipping it off to Haiti.

So, Agnan lugged the massive statue into the subway but soon realized that there was no way that he could easily get it onto the train. He opted to leave the statue on the mezzanine level while he ran upstairs to seek outside transportation. By the time he returned, subway workers had already hauled the statue off to the lost and found.

Personally, I think it would’ve opted for a U-Haul instead.

The plaster statue of St. Anthony that was found on the mezzanine level of the East Broadway station of the IND Sixth Avenue Line on Christmas Eve of 1963.
The plaster statue of St. Anthony that was found on the mezzanine level of the East Broadway station of the IND Sixth Avenue Line on Christmas Eve of 1963. Image originally appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on December 27, 1963.

Elephant Falls from Elevated Trolley

 

In our next story, Frans Althoff, director of the Althoff Circus in Germany, came up with what he thought would be the perfect publicity stunt. On July 21, 1950, he intended to lead a 4-year-old elephant into one of the cars of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, which is an inverted monorail. Basically, the cars hang from a rail that is above them.

The 450-pound (approximately 204 kg) elephant was so upset by the motion of the car that she became agitated and began to move around wildly. Suddenly, she broke through one of the windows and fell an estimated 39 feet (12 m) into the Wuppertal River below. Amazingly, the elephant, who was quickly nicknamed Tuffi – the Italian word for diving – suffered only minor injuries. Several of the car’s human occupants were also bruised in the ruckus.

Tuffi would later be sold to the Cirque Alexis Gruss in 1968 and died there in 1989 at 43 years of age.

Tuffi jumping from the monorail car.
This widely reproduced photograph of Tuffi jumping from the monorail car is a superimposed picture created after the incident occurred.

Suicide Prevented by Cork Leg

 

39-year-old Russell B. Hayward had become despondent as his excessive drug use took control of his life. So, on July 12, 1924, as hundreds of people were standing on the seawall or strolling through New York’s Battery Park, he decided to end it all and took a flying leap into the bay below.

As much as Hayward tried, he was unable to sink below the surface because he had forgotten to remove his artificial leg, which was made from cork.

Brooklyn resident James Weiber, who operated a stand that rented binoculars, spotted the leg bobbing up and down in the water. Without hesitation, Weiber jumped into the water fully clothed and swam out to Hayward in an effort to save his life.

It wouldn’t be easy. Hayward kept poking Weiber with his cork leg in an effort to keep them away. Weiber refused to give up and eventually was able to grab hold of Hayward. After grabbing onto a line tossed from an excursion boat, the two were drawn into safety. Police then escorted Hayward to Bellevue Hospital for care.

A. A. Marks offered this artificial leg with a rubber foot in 1888. Image from archive.org.

17-Year Christmas Card Mystery

 

It was reported on January 11, 1961 that Mr. and Mrs. Leo M. Dooley of 2190 Twenty-Fourth St. SW. in Akron, Ohio had been receiving a Christmas card every year since 1943 and had no clue who was sending them. The Dooley’s received the first greeting card from this unknown family before their then 17-year-old son Larry had been born.

“We have no idea who ‘Jackie, Herman and children’ are, and we’ve never sent a card in return,” Mrs. Dooley told the Akron Beacon Journal. She added that whoever was sending the cards “must be good-natured people. When I send Christmas cards four or five times and get none in return, I stop.”

In the article, the Dooley’s speculated as to who could possibly be sending these cards. They figured that it probably was not a relative but could have been a long-lost friend. Or, since Mr. Dooley had worked at B. F. Goodrich Company for more than 30 years, it could be from someone from work. Then, there was the possibility that it was from an old boyfriend or girlfriend. Whatever the situation, the Dooleys wanted to meet the family and were kind enough to invite them to dinner.

Well, a little publicity goes a long way. The very next day the mystery was solved. The cards were being sent by Mr. and Mrs. Marion H. Watson and their 5 children. It turns out that Mr. Dooley was Marion Watson’s foreman at the B. F. Goodrich plant. In that role, Mr. Dooley signed about 40 company cards every December, which a secretary addressed and mailed to each of the personnel who worked under him.

It’s not as if Mr. Dooley didn’t know Marion Watson personally. He definitely did. The problem was that Mr. Watson used the name Marion at work but went by his middle name of Herman at home. In addition, Mrs. Watson’s first name is Martha but she used the name Jackie instead.

As for the dinner that Mrs. Dooley promised the mystery family, Mrs. Watson took a rain check because she was dieting at the time. Instead, the two families planned for a summer picnic.

One of the mysterious Christmas cards received over a 17-year period by the Dooley family in Akron, Ohio.
One of the mysterious Christmas cards received over a 17-year period by the Dooley family in Akron, Ohio. They had no idea who Jackie, Herman or the children were. Image appeared on page 1 of the Akron Beacon Journal on January 11, 1961.

Parachute Drops Christmas Gifts

 

It was reported on December 19, 1944 that a seven-foot nylon parachute with a package attached to it had fallen to the ground in Detroit, Michigan the previous Sunday. Inside the package was a camera, hand-made locket, two prayer books, and a note. The note read “Hi sweetheart. Honey, I’m sorry, but this will have to do for a part of your Christmas present. I love you, Jim.”

An inscription inside one of the prayer books identified this mysterious package as being the property of Pfc. Wesley De Quinn, who had been overseas for more than a year. At the time that this package dropped from the sky, Jim, as he was commonly referred to as, was in the jungles of New Guinea.

Police were able to locate his wife, Barbara De Quinn, and she was able to positively identify the contents of the package as having been from her husband. The parachute had landed in someone’s yard about 6-miles (9.7 km) from their home.

Army officials stated that they intended to keep the parachute but planned to turn over the gifts to Mrs. De Quinn. They were uncertain as to who had dropped the package and promised to investigate.

Barbara De Quin and daughter Susan are pictured with the parachute that delivered their Christmas gifts.
Barbara De Quin and daughter Susan are pictured with the parachute that delivered their Christmas gifts. Image appeared on page 11 of the December 19, 1944 publication of the New York Daily News.

Sacramental Wine for Jewish Families to Be Doubled

 

It was announced on December 22, 1932 that officials in Washington, D. C. had been approached to raise the maximum quota of sacramental wine permitted to Jewish families. Due to Prohibition, Jewish families were only allowed five gallons of wine for a family of five or more.

Dr. James M. Doran, Industrial Alcohol Commissioner, and Col. Amos W. W. Woodcock, Prohibition Director, were approached with the view that the quota should be doubled. Dr. Doran was thought to be in favor of the proposal, and those close to Woodcock believed that he would also be receptive to the recommendation.

In the end, it didn’t matter one way or the other. By the end of 1933, Prohibition was repealed and all families could consume as much wine as they liked, whether for religious purposes or not.

James M. Doran, Industrial Alcohol Commissioner during Prohibition
Image of James M. Doran, Industrial Alcohol Commissioner during Prohibition. Image appeared on page 29 of the December 23, 1932 issue of the New York Daily News.

Was the Heaviest Man Buried in a Piano Shipping Box?

 

Robert Earl Hughes was the heaviest man on Earth at the time of his death on July 10, 1958. It has been widely reported over the years that he was buried in a piano shipping box because no coffin was large enough to hold him. Was this really true?

The press described Hughes as having been a normal-sized baby at the time of his birth on June 4, 1926, in Monticello, Illinois. Personally, I consider 11-¼ lbs (5.1 kilograms) to be a very large baby. The story goes everything was fine until he suffered an attack of whooping cough at three-months of age. After that, his weight began to skyrocket. By age 6, Hughes weighed 203 lbs (92 kg); at 10 he was 378 lbs (171 kg); at 13 he was 546 lbs (248 kg), and at 25 he weighed in at 896 lbs (406 kg).

In 1953, he signed on with the Gooding Brothers amusement company as a sideshow attraction. He was billed as “The World’s Heaviest Man.”

Image of  Robert Earl Hughes.
Image of Robert Earl Hughes from Wikipedia.

He was still traveling with Gooding in July of 1958 when he fell ill at the Mermaid Festival in North Webster, Indiana. He was diagnosed with a case of the measles and rushed to nearby Elkhart General Hospital. Unable to care for him, he was sent to an osteopathic hospital in South Bend, but they also could not treat him. Finally, Hughes arrived at the Bremen Community Hospital and they agreed to care for him.

The biggest problem was that Hughes was so large that none of the hospitals had a gurney strong enough to carry his weight. In addition, it was clear that he could not pass through the doors into any of their hospital rooms nor did they had a bed big enough to hold him. Instead, a makeshift hospital room was set up inside of Hughes’ home, which was built atop a tractor-trailer bed and parked in the hospital’s parking lot.

In addition to the measles, it was determined that Hughes was also suffering from congestion and a heart condition. Initially, he seemed to respond well to treatment, but he passed away on Thursday, July 10, 1958. He was just 32-years-old. The cause of death was given as uremia.

The American Medical Association confirmed that he was the heaviest known man at the time of his death. He weighed 1,041 lbs (472 kilograms), had a 122 inch (3.09 meters) waist and measured 40 inches (1.02 meters) around each upper arm.

After being embalmed in his trailer-home, he was transported to the Brown Funeral Home in Mount Sterling, Illinois. His brother Guy told the press, “I asked Brown’s to arrange for building a special casket.” So, he was not buried, as widely reported, in a piano shipping box. The casket was constructed in Burlington, Iowa and measured 52-inches (132 cm) wide, 34-inches (86 cm) deep, and was of normal length.

Casketmaker Bill Walker is seen  prepping a large casket to hold the body of Robert Earl Hughes.
This image of casketmaker Bill Walker was syndicated in newspapers across the United States. He is seen here prepping a large casket to hold the body of Robert Earl Hughes, who was the heaviest man of Earth at the time of his death in 1958. (Image appeared on page 1 of the July 14, 1959 issue of the Holdenville Daily News.)

More than 1,500 people attended his funeral, which was held on July 12, 1958, in a tent at Bennville Cemetary in Bennville, Illinois. There were no pallbearers and a mechanical hoist was needed to lower the specially built coffin into the ground. His tombstone is engraved with the words “Worlds Heaviest Man, Weight 1,041 Pounds.”

That is a record that he no longer holds. Ten men and one woman have since weighed more. The heaviest man was Jon Brower Minnoch, who weighed in at 1,400 lbs (635 kg). He passed away on September 10, 1983 at 41 years of age. The heaviest woman was Carol Yager who weighed 1,200 lbs (544 kg). She passed away on July 18, 1994. She was just 34-years old.

One thing is clear: carrying that much weight translates into a shorter life. Of the twenty-two 1000-plus pound people listed on Wikipedia, the oldest lived to 63-years of age. The vast majority of those on the list who have passed away died while in their 30s or 40s. Very sad…

Wrote Will on the Back of a Wall Calendar

 

When Walter C. Wyland died on September 3, 1954 at the age of 42, the will that he had written way back in 1936 left nothing to Mrs. Doris M. Vroubel, who was his fiancée at the time of his passing. A widow, she lived right across the street from Mr. Wyland at 965 S. Catalina St. in Los Angeles, California.

One day, she was about to discard a 1953 calendar that had been hanging on the wall of Mr. Wyland’s home at 962 S. Catalina, when she noticed some writing on it. Penciled on the back of the calendar was Mr. Wyland’s will, which he had penned two days prior to his death. In it, he left all of the money that he had saved to Mrs. Vroubel. The catch was that it was not all in one account. Instead he had opened 102 bank accounts all over the world, including such faraway places as Honolulu and Manila in the Philippines. None of the accounts were overflowing with money. The Hawaiian account had $1.57, another in Salt Lake City contain $8.45 while one in Glens Falls, New York held $2.67. In total, the 102 accounts added up to less than $400 (that would be approximately $3775 today.)

Strangely, he had never been to many of these places and opened most accounts by mail. The good news was that while Mr. Wyland didn’t save much, he had set up a number of life insurance policies. His newly penned will, which was viewed by the courts as a codicil or addendum to his previous will, coupled with all that insurance money, provided Mrs. Vroubel with $20,000 (nearly $190,000 today).

He also named her 18-year-old son Maurice Vroubel as beneficiary to policies that yielded another $9500 (nearly $90,000 today).

Interestingly, his original will left just one dollar each to his father, mother, four sisters, and two brothers. The will that he wrote on the calendar confirmed these same meager amounts, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Additional insurance policies bequeathed to them an additional $30,000 ($283,000 today).

Walter C. Wyland's will was found written on the back of a wall calendar. His money had been deposited in 102 bank accounts around the world.
Walter C. Wyland’s will was found written on the back of a wall calendar. His money had been deposited in 102 bank accounts around the world. (1905 Metropolitan Racing Calendar is from the Library of Congress.)

Will Written on Egg Shell

 

It was reported that on November 23, 1926, one of the strangest wills ever was exhibited in the Probate Court in London.

John Barnes, the pilot of a boat on the Manchester Ship Canal, wrote an ordinary will in 1920. He left a portion of his estate to his second wife Margaret and the remainder to the children from his first marriage. Had this been Barnes’s only will, it probably would have gone uncontested. Yet, shortly after Barnes passed away, his wife made an unusual discovery atop a wardrobe in his bedroom: It was an eggshell on which the following words were written: “17-1925. Mag. Everything I possess. J. B.”

There was no doubt that the handwriting on the shell were that of the deceased. In addition, he commonly referred to Margaret as Mag. The real question was whether or not he intended this unusual document to supersede that formally drawn up last will and testament.

It was a case that Lord Maryvale, who presided over the case, took quite seriously. It was established in court that Barnes was in the habit of carrying eggs with him in a small pouch in a bag. Yet, Maryvale ruled against Mrs. Barnes. First, while Barnes was a “seaman at sea,” he was able to spend a portion of his time ashore and was not a soldier engaged in actual military service, which he felt was essential for the validity of the will. In addition, the words “Mag. Everything I possess,” were insufficient to prove that John Barnes wanted all of his possessions to go to his wife.

Frame number 16 from the 1942 filmstrip “Victory in an eggshell” that was prepared by the FSA (Farm Security Administration). From the Library of Congress.

Tells Amazing Tale of Mars

 

On August 13, 1906, Syracuse, New York resident Sackville G. Leyson, who just happened to be the president of the Society for Psychical Research, told of his recent trip to Mars. Although Mars is 140 million miles or 225 million km from Earth, Leyson claimed that his spirit went there and back in 40 minutes while his body lay still.

Here is what he said he saw:

“When I approached Mars it looked like a big globe of fire, and it seemed as if I were about to plunge into a molten mass. It was surrounded by blood-red clouds mixed with others of greenish hue.”

He continued, “There are two tribes of people on Mars – one so large I only came up to their knees and the other so small that they only came up to my knees. None wore clothing. All were covered in hair.

“The larger species had huge ears, a nose like a lion, and only one eye, in the middle of the forehead. Their lungs do not move up and down in breathing, but expand crosswise.

“The little men lived in holes in the ground or rocks. The larger ones had houses made of rocks. The little ones had webbed feet and slipped over a mosslike substance as though skating. They could walk up perpendicular walls like flies.

“The small ones have two eyes, one in each temple. They had no noses, but there was a hole in each cheek.

“The trees looked as if made of rubber. I saw none decayed. There was a substance which looked like snow, but which was not cold and was easy and soft to walk on.

“Down in a deep chasm I saw men working with some sort of machines which were guiding lights across transparent rocks. The rays seem to be reflected clear to the atmosphere of earth.”

Clearly, it is a good thing that Leyson made this trip when he did. Now the man is, in fact, planning trips to Mars, we know exactly what to expect.

Shadow Over Mars was featured in the Fall 1944 issue of Startling Stories.
Shadow Over Mars was featured in the Fall 1944 issue of Startling Stories. The entire issue can be read at archive.org.

Not Dead Yet…

 

On October 16, 1974, a man’s bullet-riddled body was discovered on Rainbow Beach in Chicago where East 78th Street meets Lake Michigan. Mrs. Sarah Edwards identified the body as that of her husband, Charles Edwards. She then paid $353 (about $1,800 today) to the Collins Funeral Home to cover the cost of his cremation and burial.

Police became suspicious when fingerprints identified the man as being that of 33-year-old Jerome Baker Ware. After Ware’s wife Ernestine was shown photographs of the body, she confirmed that was that of her husband James, who she had previously reported missing.

So just what was going on here? It turns out that 22-year-old Karl Jones, who had been previously arrested under the pseudonym of Charles Edwards, wanted to basically disappear and get a fresh start in life.

When the body of Jerome Baker Ware turned up, he had his girlfriend, 22-year-old Patricia Moore pretend to be his widow, Mrs. Sarah Edwards, and arrange for the cremation.

Clearly, their plan backfired and Jones was arrested for obstruction of justice. Police stated that Jones had nothing to do with the murder of Ware.

Jailed for Writing Fiction

 

On March 18, 1943, 45-year-old author George G. Gorman was in federal court being tried for writing a work of fiction.

Apparently, Gorman wrote a short story titled “The Red-Headed Widow and Her Borrowed Lovers” under the pseudonym of G. Jackson Gregory and then sold it to one of those “true” detective magazines. In other words, he claimed that his fictitious story was true, so he was charged with using the males to defraud.

During his trial, it was learned that Gorman had been the subject of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not oddity in the 1930s because he had not had a good night’s sleep in thirteen years. His lawyer, Abe Goldman, suggested to the judge that this could partially be responsible for the reason why Gorman wrote the fictitious story.

Judge Merrill E. Otis stated, “I don’t sleep so well myself at times. And I’ve understood that Thomas Edison didn’t sleep much, either.”

The judge sentenced Gorman to one year and a day in an institution or penitentiary, where he would receive medical care. He explained that he didn’t believe the offense to be a serious one and would consider parole of Gorman after one-third of the sentence had been served.

Gorman ended up in the hospital section of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he underwent what was reported to be serious surgery.

George G. Gorman was sentence to prison time for submitting a work of fiction as a true story.
Today it is well known that many of the stories in the various detective magazines were works of fiction. George G. Gorman was sentence to prison time for submitting a work of fiction as a true story. Image from archive.org

Edwin Land’s Invention

 

From February 4, 1936, we have the story of twenty-five-year-old Edwin H Land who took a leave of absence during his senior year at Harvard to set up a laboratory to advance an invention that he had been working on for ten years.

He had developed a piece of glass on which he aligned billions of tiny crystals in the same direction and embedded them in a cellulose matrix. Giant companies like AT&T and Kodak had been testing his invention and were extremely excited by it. He claimed that his invention had more than 800 commercial uses.

He was right. Today it is found in sunglasses, cameras, cell phones, and is used extensively in manufacturing and scientific experiments.

Land, whose name is mostly forgotten today, had invented the first artificial polarizing material. Up through the 1970s, Land was kind of what Steve Jobs became to Apple. Throngs of reporters and consumers eagerly lined up to hear Land announces his company’s latest and greatest inventions every year. His company was named Polaroid.

Polaroid 80B Highlander instant camera made in the USA, circa 1959. Image from Wikimedia.

50,000 Books Given Away

 

If you would have been in Boston in July of 1964, you could have gotten some great deals on used books.

The Brattle Book Shop, which had been around for 139 years at that point had to move at the Sears Crescent building, it’s home since 1825. Due to a fire months earlier, and major renovations being done to the building, the rent was going up tenfold, something that owner George Gloss could not afford.

Instead of closing the business, he opted to move to a new store with lower rent. But to do so, he had to unload an incredibly large number of books quickly.

He initially lowered the price of all those books to $0.50, then $0.25, and finally a dime. But that didn’t get rid of enough books, so decided to give 50,000 books away for free.

The Brattle Book Shop is still in business today and is one of my favorite bookstores of all time. If you are ever in Boston and you love books, make sure you check out the store.

Brattle Book Shop in 1962.
1962 photograph of the Brattle Book Shop shortly before it was forced to move. The store is just to the left of the Coffee Shop in the foreground. The sign that sticks out from the bookstore reads: “Oldest Continuous Antiquarian Book Site in America 1825.” Library of Congress image.

In the Water Too Long…

 

Three members of the Polar Bear Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey participated in a swimming marathon on February 24, 1957. It did not go well.

The rules were simple. First, each man had to swim one mile in the 52° F (11.1 º C) frigid water. Next, each had to stand near shore in water up to their necks. The one who stayed in the water the longest won the contest. The award was $200 (approximately $1800 today), which was kicked in by tavern owner Sol Bogotin.

At the 55-minute mark, the body of 36-year-old Lucious Marcel suddenly stiffened up and he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Six minutes later, 26-year-old Jack Morris did the same. Finally, four minutes after this, 23-year-old Al Black was able to walk water on his own and win the prize. An unnamed dog also wanted into the water to join in and first aid needed to be administered.

The two hospitalized men were treated for exposure and muscle contraction, while Al Black was just fine.

George S. Dougherty, a deputy police commissioner in New York City.
Photo shows George S. Dougherty, a deputy police commissioner in New York City in December, 1912. Image from the Library of Congress.