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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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.

Salem Trade School Interview

 

About three years ago I recorded the podcast on the Salem Trade School. It’s a fantastic story. If you have never heard about the Salem Trade School before, I strongly encourage you to go back and listen to it. Here is the original episode:

Briefly, in the late 1920’s the Salem Trade School played football against many of the high schools around Salem, Massachusetts. They were awful, losing game-after-game, year-after-year. Then, they surprisingly won one game and it was discovered that the Salem Trade School was completely fictional.

The school really didn’t exist and it was soon learned that the team was basically a money-making scheme that had been put together by a man named Harold Burgess.  

A couple of months after I posted that episode, I received an email from a man named John Murphy, who’s dad had played on the team. John and I have spoken a number of times since the podcast was originally posted and I asked him if I could record our latest conversation and he graciously agreed.

Here is Part 1 of my interview with John Murphy where he discusses the Salem Trade School:

John was also involved in the initial launching of FIRST Robotics, where he worked with famed inventor Dean Kamen (Segway) for two years. In Part 2 of my interview with John, he discusses FIRST and how he became involved with it.

The Monster Crash at Crush

 

Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, people purposely smashed two locomotives head-on at high speed solely for entertainment purposes. At a time with no movies, TV, or radio, tens of thousands of people would show up to these events.

The brainchild behind this crazy idea was a Chicago railroad equipment salesman and former railroad conductor named A.L. Streeter. He attempted to have one of the railroads in his home state smash the two engines together, but none seemed interested.

Streeter approached the financially-strapped Cleveland, Canton and Southern Railroad and they agreed to give his idea a chance. The plan was to put two of their older locomotives back in service, get them in tip-top shape, and then crash them at high speed on the railroad’s Waynesburg track, which was located southeast of Canton, Ohio.

Streeter set the admission price at 75-cents (approximately $22.50 today) and anticipated at least 20,000 people in attendance. A fence was set up along the track to both keep customers safe and to ensure that they paid their way into the venue.

When smash-up day July 20, 1895 finally arrived, everything was set to go. Trainloads of spectators arrived every fifteen minutes and the crowd began to swell. The two engines, now renamed “Protection” and “Free Trade” after the opposing political beliefs of the time, sat on the tracks awaiting word that they should back up to their starting points, open throttle, and barrel toward each other.

That would never happen. It was estimated that only 200 people paid to see the show. The rest opted to either watch from the distance or bypass the fence. Unable to get the crowd back behind the fence, Streeter canceled the planned wreck for safety sake. That also meant that Streeter lacked the funds to pay the railroad the $2,400 (about $72,000 today) fee that they had charged to destroy the trains. Streeter personally lost an estimated $800, which would be about $24,000 today.

In 1896 the Columbus, Hocking Valley, and Toledo Railroad built a brand-new recreational park to entice people to ride its rails on the weekends. They chose a picturesque location approximately 25-miles (40 kilometers) south of Columbus, Ohio and named the new destination spot Buckeye Park. In addition to making use of a natural spring lake for swimming and boating, they built a toboggan slide, a few buildings for entertainment, and a playground for the kiddies. Those all sound like fine bits of entertainment but what they really needed was something big to promote their new pleasure destination. You know, something huge. Something that would instantly grab the public’s attention. Something like smashing two locomotives into each other on opening day.

Today we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, but in 1896 most localities celebrated it on Saturday May 30th. As the traditional kickoff to the summer season, it was also a great date for a railway collision.

The railroad’s PR machine was put into action at full throttle. Newspapers across the nation ran story after story on the planned crash. It was promoted as a scientific experiment, one in which observers armed with their notebooks and Kodak cameras could observe a real train collision under controlled conditions. The fact that the railroad charged the audience to ride on their trains to the event, that they had to pay an admission fee, and buy refreshments from the booths that they set up was supposedly only being done to cover the cost of the experiment.

Yeah. Right. Who were they fooling? Scientific experiment my foot…

Estimates of the crowd in attendance for the big event varied from a low of 18,000 to a high of 25,000 people. Two obsolete 35-ton locomotives were chosen for the impending duel. Formerly known simply as numbers 12 and 21, the locomotives were rechristened the A.L. Streeter and the W.H. Fisher, who was an official with the railroad. Each would pull three cars and a caboose to their demise.

The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision.
The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

Prior testing had determined that the two engines accelerated at different rates. As a result, the W.H. Fisher was placed 3,600 feet south of the starting point and the A.L. Streeter at a point 3,000 feet north.

Using a newfangled invention called the telephone, the two conductors were given the signal to open throttle at 4:10 PM. As the trains started toward each other, the conductors jumped off to safety. To keep up the illusion of impending doom, Streeter placed two dummies dressed in conductor garb on each train.

And then… Wham!

The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact.
The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

The two trains smashed into each other within 100-feet (30 m) of their calculated point of impact. The locomotives both rose up into the air and came to rest in an almost A-shaped configuration. One could still clearly read the names A.L. Streeter and W.H. Fisher on the coal cars, while the trailing gondolas had all been totally destroyed.

Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision.
Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision. 
Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

One injury did mar the event: T.P. Peck, chief clerk in the general passenger office, was struck by a flying bolt and suffered a compound fracture below his right knee. Yet, Streeter’s staged train crash was, well, a smashing success. It was deemed so successful that officials in attendance from other railroads recruited him to do additional crashes in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York.

The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision.
The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896) 

And, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Soon other promoters were planning their own train crashes.

Buckeye Park Crash 1896
People climbing on the wreck of the two trains after the smoke cleared. (Reddit image.)

One of these was a man named William George Crush. He had been hired in August 1893 by the Missouri – Kansas – Texas Railroad – better known as the Katy – to be their General Passenger Agent for the entire state of Texas. That’s not a job that you hear much about today, but in the heyday of the railroads, this was a position of incredible importance. It was W.G. Crush’s name that appeared on just about every ticket, poster, timetable, or advertisement that the Katy produced during his tenure. Crush was basically the invisible wall between the riders and upper management at the railroad.

Mr. Crush believed that if the Katy could stage a stunt similar to the one that had just been completed by Streeter at Buckeye Park, the Katy line could grab a stronghold on the Texas railroad market.

Image of William George (W. G.) Crush
William George Crush was the General Passenger Agent for the Katy in 1896. Image if from the Find-A-Grave website.

On August 6, 1896, a formal announcement was made in the press that the Katy would be purposely colliding two trains together. Once again, this was all to be done in the name of science. Each train would consist of a locomotive, a tender, and six cars. As the trains smashed into each other at high speed, the data collected could be used to build safer locomotives and cars.

I’ll say it once again: Yeah. Right. Scientific experiment my foot…

Scheduled for 4:00 in the afternoon on September 15th, the railroad chose the perfect spot in West, Texas, which is approximately 18 miles (29 km) north of Waco. The track in this location was perfectly straight and flat, while a small valley formed by three hills created a natural amphitheater.

In an August 13, 1896 interview with the Dallas News, Crush stated, “There will be no harm done save the smashing to pieces of two 40 ton passenger engines, a dozen cars and the tearing up of several hundred yards of track and road bed. The engines will be used for scrap iron if they are damaged beyond repair, and the track will be cleared and mended in a jiffy.”

He continued, “The day before the collision the track over which the engines will run will be timed so that the point of contact maybe definitely ascertained. In this way we will know almost within 10 yards where the meeting will take place. By means of a telegraph wire put up for the occasion the engineers will be given the signal to start, and each throttle will be pulled simultaneously. The engineers will remain on the engines until each has attained the speed of 10 miles an hour, at which point they will pull the throttle wide open and step off.”

Crush went on to further state, “Railroad men from all over the West will be on hand to see and photographic observations will be taken every second for ten seconds before the collision. Engine builders are now deeply interested in furnishing engines with appliance which will lessen the shock of collisions, and consequently make them less dangerous to human life.”

When questioned about the cost of the head-on collision, Crush said “All told, about $20,000. Of course there will be some salvage.”

$20,000. That’s nearly $600,000 adjusted for inflation. That’s a monsterous price to pay for one single collision. How could the railroad cover such an enormous expense?

That’s very simple. The only way for most people to get to the show was via the Katy railroad. Tickets ranged in price from a low of $2.00 from Austin to $3.50 from Houston. That sounds like a bargain, but translate that into modern values and round trip tickets to the venue were going to cost you somewhere between $60 and $105. Add to that all of the money spent on site for food, drinks, and sideshow entertainment and it becomes very clear that if the predicted number of people attended the event, the Katy stood to earn a lot of money.

Crash at Crush advertisement.
Advertisement for the Great Collision at Crush, Texas from the September 8, 1896 publication of the Houston Post, page 7.

Crush said, “Ever since we decided to give the exhibition public interest in the matter has increased, and in order to let all see it will run excursions from all along our lines at rates, say less than one fare for the round trip. In fact, from all indications, there will be 15,000 or 20,000 people present to see it. The place selected for the exhibition is a natural amphitheater, and nobody will have any trouble in viewing the entire exhibition. We will make it a regular picnic day.”

Preparation of the crash site began immediately. Crews laid down four miles of track, built a grandstand for honored guests, two telegraph offices, three stands for noted speakers, and an observation stand for photographers and members of the press. A large tent was borrowed from the Ringling Brothers Circus to use as a restaurant. For water, two wells were dug on site while arrangements were made to transport 16,000 gallons of artesian water cooled with ice from Waco. Lastly, a large carnival midway, complete with hucksters, drink stands, and game booths, was set up.

A.D. Arbegast, general foreman of the Katy’s Texas bridge and building department, stated, “… we are now at work on 30 privilege stands, to be arraigned in Midway Plaisance Style, like the Chicago plaisance. In these places will be located all the amusement on the ground. There will be freaks there from all over the world, and a better plaisance show has never been seen in Texas. This feature alone will be worth going to Crush to see.”

As of September 3rd, Crush was still confident that an enormous number of people would attend the event: “My estimate of the crowd remains undiminished. We will have at least 25,000, and probably as many as 40,000 people on the ground to witness the collision. We are making arrangements to handle 40,000 comfortably. Nobody will be discommoded. So far as experience can provide for the peace and safety of the passengers it will be done.”

The Katy repair shop crew set to work rebuilding two of the line’s outdated locomotives. Chosen for total destruction were engines 123 and 124, which were now renumbered 999 and 1001, respectively. The 999 was painted bright green with yellow stripes, with other colors of the rainbow highlighting its cowcatcher, gears, and trimmings. The 1001 was painted a contrasting red color. Both had the Katy logo emblazoned on either side of the cab. To further promote the collision, the two locomotives were placed on tour and displayed in towns throughout the state.

Two of the Katy’s finest engineers were chosen to run the engines. The 999 was to be driven by engineer Charlie Stanton with Frank Barnes as his fireman. Charlie Cain would be at the throttle of the 1001 with fireman S.M. Dickerson to assist him.

Ad for the Crash at Crush.
This advertisement for the collision appeared on page 8 of the Houston Post on September 14, 1896.

Then the big day came. On September 15th, train after train pulled alongside a newly constructed platform that measured 2,100 feet in length (0.64 km). The signs at the depot indicated that they had arrived at the town of Crush, Texas, a town that would only exist for a single day.

As anticipation grew, the planned start time of 4 PM came and went as more and more people unloaded from the trains. Estimates in the newspapers at the time placed the attendance at somewhere between a low of 24,000 and a high of 30,000 people. The bean counters for the Katy must have had big smiles on their faces. From a financial point of view, the crash that was about to occur at Crush, Texas was a smashing success. That smile would soon be wiped from their faces.

The Dallas News described the smash-up as follows: “At 5 o’clock the two trains met at the point of the collision and they were photographed. Then one of the trains backed up the hill on the north and the other one up the hill on the south. Everything was now ready. The smoke was pouring from their funnels in a great black streak, and the popping of the steam could be distinctly heard for the distance of a mile. People were standing on tip-toe, from every point of vantage, trying to see every movement of the wheels that were so soon to roll to destruction.

The two locomotives shaking hands.
The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18684893411/in/photolist-uqAdMJ-8bcjz6-a9ef3g-ut7XQF-usuHGJ-tvTLLq-ubk1Mj

“The officials of the road were grouped about the little telegraph office not fifty feet from the place of waiting for the whistle which would tell them that the trains are ready to start on the fatal journey. At 10 minutes after 5 Crush raised his hat and a great cheer went up from the throats of all the people.”

The article continues, “The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly, and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry. Every eye was strained and every nerve on edge. They rolled down at a frightful rate of speed to within a quarter of a mile of each other. Nearer and nearer, as they approach the fatal meeting place the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder, and hundreds who had come miles to see found their hearts growing faint within them, and were compelled to turn away from the awful spectacle.”

The two trains barreled toward each other at estimated speed of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and then…

Wham!

The Crash at crush. The two trains just as they struck.

The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18677821822/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

The noise was deafening. The locomotives crumpled inward as the trailing cattle cars were reduced to splinters. There was a moment of silence and then, when it seemed like it was all over, the boiler of the 999 exploded. Flying missiles of steel and wood, both small and large in size, began to rain down on the crowd. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, male or female, rich or poor. There was simply no way to escape from the locomotive shrapnel.

Emma Frances Overstreet, the wife of a local farmer, was watching the crash from what seemed like a safe distance of 1,000-feet (305 meters) when she was suddenly hit by flying debris. Hitting behind her right ear, she was immediately knocked unconscious and died from her injuries.

Ernest Barnell of Bremond, Texas was perched up in a tree even farther from the crash site and was struck in the head by a flying chain. The chain hit with such a strong force that it became embedded in the tree. Sadly, he also succumbed to his injuries the following morning.

One man who was close to the crash was photographer Jarvis Deane of Waco. Deane was in the photographers’ stand attempting to snap a picture when he was struck in the eye, which doctors were forced to remove. In doing so, they discovered that he had been hit by a bolt that measured 2-inches in length and ⅜-inch in diameter. That would be approximately 5 cm x 9.55 mm. Luckily for Dean, if you can call it that, the nut was still attached to the bolt and it snagged on his eye socket, preventing the bolt from becoming lodged in his brain.

Louis Bergstrom of Waco, another photographer who was on the platform with J.C. Deane, also sustained slight injuries from the shrapnel.

Jarvis Deane shot this photograph just as the two trains exploded. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18494864220/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

Then there was 14-year-old Roy Kendrick, who was also from Waco. He was struck by a flying piece of timber which caused a severe leg wound. His father would later file a lawsuit against the railroad for $500.

There were other injuries reported, but none were fatal. One man lost a piece of his chin, another had a scalp wound, while yet another struck in the chest with incredible force by a piece of timber. A man named John Besey had his arm lacerated by a piece of steel. He opted to take it home as a souvenir. In fact, even as people were suffering, thousands of people ran toward the wreck and grabbed a piece of it to commemorate the event.

Crash at Crush - Before the Crowd Got to the Wreck
The crowd running toward the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18059912424/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

It was all over, but getting home wouldn’t be easy. The trains were slow to arrive and when they did, it was utter chaos. Information was difficult to come by, the train cars were packed nearly to the point of suffocation, and many people ended up in the wrong town. Yet, by 11 PM that evening, the last train pulled out and the town of Crush, Texas ceased to exist.

The next day it was learned that there was one more casualty to add to the list, although the locomotive smash-up could not be blamed for it. John Morris, a livery man from Ferris, was killed after he fell between the coach and caboose of one the outbound trains.

The Katy quickly settled all damage claims brought against the company. Jarvis Deane may have lost an eye, but he was able to resume his photography career. He ran a humorous ad in a Waco paper that read, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business. Deane, Waco’s High-Priced Photographer.”

Crash at Crush - 1896 - Crowd on wreck of the two trains.
The crowd climbing on the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18656262236/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

One would think that this would have been the end of intentional train collisions, but it was not. Just one week later it was announced that the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad planned to do a repeat performance on October 6th. 20,000 people attended that event and not a single person was injured.

Smashing up trains proved to be such a crowd pleaser that Iowa resident Joseph Connelly decided to make it his career. Between 1896 and 1932 “Head-On Joe” staged as many as seventy-three train wrecks at various fairgrounds across the midwestern United States. Amazingly, not a single person was injured during any of these shows.

Only Mr. Crush had the misfortune of having it all go so very wrong. A number of recent articles state that the Katy immediately fired Crush, but quickly rehired him after learning that the Crash at Crush was good for the company’s bottom line. I was unable to find any mention of that in the newspaper articles published in the days after the crash took place. William George Crush retired from the Katy in 1940, having worked for the company for 46 years. He passed away three years later on April 12, 1943 at the age of 77 years.

Today, the Crash at Crush is basically forgotten, excluding a couple of historic markers that serve as reminders for those that visit the area.

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

Man Sucked into Jet Engine

 

On May 14, 1956 Airman Third Class Fred E. Higinbotham was working with his fellow Air Force crew to refuel an F-86F Sabre jet on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Their goal was to move quickly and get the jet back in the air as soon as possible.

Higinbotham’s job was to secure a static line cable onto the nose gear of the plane as soon as it stopped. This line prevented the buildup of static electricity which could produce sparks and potentially ignite the fumes produced during the refueling process.

The Air Force had strict rules in place that prohibited anyone from getting too close to the intake duct of the fighter’s jet engine. Since this was their last servicing job for the day, the crew was anxious to get the job done.

As part of the post-flight procedure, the pilot advanced the throttle to 65% power, which he was supposed to do for a period of two minutes before shutting the engine down. Just as this was happening, Higinbotham felt the tug of the jet’s intake on his back, but continued to hold on to the static cable. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had gotten too close to the engine’s intake.

Suddenly, his hat was pulled off of his head and Higginbotham instinctively turned around to grab it. The next thing you know, he was flying through the air and was sucked right into the jet engine. One would have expected Higginbotham to have been torn to shreds by the blades of the engine, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, he was stopped by the engine’s power take-off case cover, which projected outward from the blades in a cone shape. He used all his might to keep away from the whirling blades, which were just 6” (15 cm) from his head.

About thirty seconds after the pilot advanced the throttle, he felt a bump in the engine’s operation. He also spotted a mechanic frantically waving a rag in the air to get his attention. That worked. The pilot immediately cut power to the engine and the rotors began to slow down.

Just as Higginbotham started to back out of the engine, someone grabbed his legs and pulled him out of the engine completely. Amazingly, he still had the static cable in his hands, although it was wrapped twice around both his waist and legs. Later investigation determined that the cable had become fully extended when Higginbotham was sucked into the engine and that most likely saved his life.

Higginbotham’s injuries were minor: he had some cable burns and minor abrasions, but that’s it. He was released from the hospital and was back on the job the very next day.

Fred Higinbotham was sucked into a jet engine and survived.
Image of Fred Higinbotham from the February 3, 1957 publication of the Sunday magazine American Weekly on page 15.

Where There’s a Wilby, There’s a Way

 
Useless Information Podcast

Between 1942 and 1943 Ralph Marshall Wilby appeared to pull off what appeared to be the perfect crime. An incredible story which has many of the elements of an international thriller: deception, false identities, international kidnapping, and the drop dead gorgeous woman who brought his capture.

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A Miracle Birth in Mexico

 
Useless Information Podcast

Today’s podcast is really just a gift for my beautiful wife Mary Jane. She has had to put up with me through all of the researching, writing, and recording of these long-forgotten and sometimes bizarre stories. When we first met back in 2004, she asked me to research the story that I am about to tell further, but I told her that it was both too new and well known to do. Every couple of years Mary Jane would suggest the story once again, but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I decided to take a fresh look at it.

I’m not sure if I have ever mentioned this before, but my wife Mary Jane is fluent in both French and Spanish. French is her true love, having studied in Paris for five years. As a lover of languages, Mary Jane opted to master Spanish a few years before we met and spent her summers south of the U.S. border immersing herself in Central American culture. It was while studying Spanish in Oaxaca, Mexico that she stumbled across a local story in the newspaper. It’s that story that she has been bugging me about it ever since.

The setting for this story is a one-room house high up in the mountains of Rio Talea, which is in the southwestern portion of Mexico. It was in this dirt-floored cabin on March 5, 2000 that a petite 40-year-old Zapotec native named Ines Ramirez Perez started to go into labor. Her husband, who had assisted with the birth of six of their seven children, was unavailable. Most sources claim that he was at the local cantina getting drunk, but the original story that my wife provided indicated that he was out of town with two sons selling grain. No matter what dad was doing, we can be certain that he wasn’t there to assist with the delivery.

This town was so remote that it lacked modern medical care. There were no doctors or nurses to contact for assistance. The nearest medical clinic was fifty miles (80 kilometers) away over mountainous terrain. Rio Talea did have one telephone, but it was too far away to be of any benefit.

Home of Ines Ramirez Perez
Ines Ramirez Perez standing outside the house where she gave birth.

Over the next twelve hours, the pain became more and more intense. Ines was in a panic. Her mind kept flashing back to her pregnancy of three years prior. That time, after her water broke, a midwife determined that she needed a cesarean section, but there was no practical way to get her quickly to a hospital. Sadly, Ines lost the baby. She was determined not to let that happen again.

Ines started pacing the floor. She didn’t know what to do. Ines grabbed a bottle of alcohol, downed a few to help kill the pain, and decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” Ines continued, “And if my baby was going to die, then I decided I would have to die, too. But if he was to grow up, I was going to see him grow up, and I was going to be with my child. I thought that God would save both our lives.”

Shortly after midnight, Ines asked her 8-year-old son Benito to “Go and bring the new knife.” He returned with a wooden-handled kitchen knife that had a 6-inch (15-cm) long blade.

You can probably guess where this story is headed. I’ll warn you in advance: The next few paragraphs are a bit cringe-worthy, so you may want to fast forward through them.

Holding the knife by the blade instead of the handle, she applied pressure and attempted to make an incision into her belly to remove the baby. Ines was later quoted as saying, “Once wasn’t enough. I did it again. I was crying and screaming, in terrible pain.” She continued, “Then I cut open my wound and pulled the baby out by his feet. He cried straight away.” She later estimated the entire self-surgery took about an hour. The vertical incision was made just to the right of her navel and measured approximately 6-¾” (17-cm) in length.

Yes, Ines Ramirez Perez had just performed a C-section on herself. The baby appeared to be fine, but she wasn’t. “A lot of blood. It’s going up like a hose.” Ines proceeded to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, quickly wrapped the baby to keep it warm, put logs on the fire, and passed out. Upon regaining consciousness, Ines told Benito to run and get help.

Ines Ramirez Perez holding knife.
Ines Ramirez Perez holding the knife that she used to perform a cesarean on herself.

Around 4 AM a village health assistant named Leon Cruz arrived and found Ines awake, alert, and caring for her newborn baby Orlando. Cruz had basic first aid training and used his minimal skills to close the wound with an ordinary needle and cotton thread.

Next, Ines was placed in a rural mini-passenger bus and driven along unpaved roads to a health clinic in the village of San Lorenzo Texmelucan. It was immediately clear to the attending physician that the facility was ill-equipped to help her, so they placed Ines and the baby into the back of a pickup truck. But her pain had become too intense and she had to be transferred to an ambulance. She was taken to the state hospital at San Pedro Huixtepec.

Doctors in San Pedro were shocked by how well both Ines and the baby were doing. The wound showed no sign of infection and there was minimal bleeding. Her uterus had returned to its normal size and there appeared to be no damage to the intestines. Surgery was performed to repair the crude incision. While they were at it, the doctors opted to tie her tubes to prevent additional pregnancies. Triple antibiotics were prescribed and it initially appeared that Ines was on the road to recovery.

But things didn’t go as smoothly as articles in the press made it sound. Three days after the surgery, Ines was showing signs of a blockage of her bowels. Attempts at relief without surgery were unsuccessful; so on the seventh postoperative day a surgeon was called in. It was determined that an adhesion had caused her descending colon to become twisted. A little snip-snip and that problem was resolved. If you do a search on the Internet, you can easily find images of the surgery and the suture. They are not fun to look at.

Ines Ramirez Perez taken four weeks after her surgery.
Image of healed scar on Ines Ramirez Perez taken four weeks after her surgery.

Ines was released from the hospital on the 10th postoperative day. She was placed aboard a bus, but its roundabout path meant a 12-hour ride to get home. At one point along the journey, she made the decision to disembark from the bus. Ines walked for 1-½ hours along rocky footpaths with Orlando strapped to her back to get home. That’s one tough woman.

The news of Ines’ self-cesarean made the local papers back in 2000, but it wasn’t until the story was published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics four years later that it became known to the rest of the world. Numerous press photos were shot of Ines, Orlando, and that infamous knife. She was quoted as saying, “I use it to cut fruit and vegetables now.”

Reflecting on that day, Dr. Ornorio Galvan, the head of obstetrics at the San Pedro hospital stated, “I couldn’t believe it. There was no sepsis in the wound, no internal bleeding. She was back on her feet in a couple of days.”

Almost every story in print and on the Internet claims this to be the only documented case of a successful self-cesarean in history. Even Wikipedia states, “Ramirez is believed to be the only person known to have performed a successful caesarean section on herself.” Of course, that got me thinking. Was this really the only case? It turns out that it was not. Not even close.

I was able to find information on a total of 24 DIY cesareans. I must admit that I cheated by reading a 2014 article titled “Auto-Caesarean section: a review of 22 cases” that appeared in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health. That added 21 more cases to the one that my wife had already brought to my attention.

The authors of this article, Szabo and Brockington, classify self-cesareans into three broad categories: mothers who wished to abort the child, women who were clearly mentally ill, and those that perform a cesarean on themselves as an act of desperation. They included Ines Ramirez Perez in this last category.  The authors added, “We think the third group would be more numerous if there were more publications from Africa and South Asia, where many women give birth without the aid of modern obstetrics.”

To avoid boring you to death by going through each of the individual stories, I will just present you with a short summary of a few of the most interesting.

The earliest documented case occurred back in 1769 on a plantation in Jamaica. A black slave, who had previously borne three children naturally, became desperate and operated upon herself. Unfortunately, she accidentally cut the baby’s right thigh and it died six days later. The mother did survive and she became pregnant again. She attempted to do the same self-surgery once again, but others intervened and stopped her from doing so. This time, her baby was delivered properly and survived.

In 1843, fourteen days after a couple was married, the husband was transferred to a different locality. His 28-year-old wife became pregnant, but was convinced that this was an impossibility because she believed his sperm to be immature. Instead, she said that her belly contained a snake. The baby was born in the usual way, but the mother would not accept it as her own. Two days later she took a knife, cut open her abdomen and attempted to remove her snake-like intestines. She did recover from both the self-surgery and the mental illness.

On August 16, 1981, police officers in Ithaca, New York noticed 29-year-old Deborah Stagg walking down the street in bloodstained pants with a baby carrier strapped around her neck. Inside the carrier was a naked 2-pound (0.9-kg) newly-born baby girl. It was determined that she performed a C-section on herself using a pocketknife and then stitched her wound closed. It was only a few minutes later that the officers discovered her, which most likely prevented her from bleeding to death.

The most recent case that I could locate was that of a 28-year-old woman from the Philippines who did the same thing using an ordinary kitchen knife, needle, and thread. The child did not survive and the mother was brought up on an abortion charge.

Personally, I can’t imagine ever cutting myself on purpose. Just the thought of doing so makes me cringe. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

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

Spanish language news segment on Ines Ramirez Perez.

That’s the Ticket

 
Useless Information Podcast

Back in 1955, Evert Stenmark was out hunting alone for ptarmigan when he became buried by an avalanche.  Day after day he remained trapped under the snow.  Learn how he survived and the one thing that he had in his wallet that probably saved his life.

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The Great Venus Swindle

 
Useless Information Podcast

In 1953 Harold Jesse Berney, head of a Washington, DC television antenna manufacturing operation, was chosen by the US government to be its main contact with Uccelles, a prince visiting our planet from Venus.  If that sounds a bit bizarre, check out this story to learn about one of the most fantastic swindles ever conceived.

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William Cimillo – Busman’s Holiday

 
Useless Information Podcast

Every day for sixteen years, bus driver William Cimillo drove his passenger bus out of its garage in the Bronx.  One morning he decided to make a left turn off of his usual route and ended up taking a ride that he would never forget.

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Operation Bodysnatch

 
Useless Information Podcast

At the end of World War II, the United States was faced with the task of reburying four bodies of former German nobility. Three members of the Monuments Men were assigned this task and ran into obstacle after obstacle.

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