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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Hitchhiking Father and Son Reunited

 

It was reported on February 8, 1962 that Lubbock, Texas salesman J.E. Ferguson stopped to pick up an elderly man who was hitchhiking on the northern outskirts of Seminole, Texas.

“It was a cold day, and I picked him up.” The man told Ferguson that his name was Wilkins, that he grew up in Coleman County, and that he was in his seventies. He dropped him off about forty-miles (65 km) away at a traffic light in Brownfield.

Brownfield is southwest of Lubbock, Texas.
Brownfield is southwest of Lubbock, Texas.

As he approached the last traffic light in Brownfield, he spotted another hitchhiker. “He was in shirt sleeves and shivering, so I picked him up.”

The new rider was about 40-years in age and said that his name was also Wilkins, which caused Ferguson to do a double-take. He then asked the younger man if he was from Coleman County, which he confirmed was true. After Ferguson described the elder man, the younger Wilkins said that sounded like his dad who he hadn’t seen in 14-years.

Ferguson spun the car around and headed back toward where he had dropped the father off. He stated, “I stopped and they had a reunion right there on the street.” He added, “I don’t usually pick up hitch-hikers, but this time I am glad that I did. They were really happy.”

Twins Hitchhiking Around the World

 

Between January and February of 1959, newspapers across the nation ran stories detailing how 21-year-old twins Ben and Glenn Powell were hitchhiking around the world. In just twelve-weeks the two had made it all the way from Chicago to Buenos Aires.

Glenn said, “We’ve always liked to travel even though we never had much money. So we decided to see the world as cheaply as possible by hitch-hiking,”

Ben added, “We traveled with the people and lived with people all through South America.” He continued, “Everywhere we tried to go quietly and give a good impression. We found that Latin Americans seem to think all Americans have a brand-new car and are rich. Now they have met two that aren’t rich and obviously don’t have a car.”

The two first thumbed their way to Dallas before crossing into Mexico. Lacking any knowledge of the Spanish language, they tried their best with the help of a Spanish phrasebook. As they traveled, their command of the language improved greatly. Somehow, they hooked up with a Texan who was transporting buses to Guatemala. Since his drivers couldn’t speak English and he couldn’t speak Spanish, the twins were able to step in and act as interpreters. Even if they didn’t speak perfect Spanish, it did get the two to Guatemala.

Occasionally they did have to pay for transportation, such as the time that they paid $2.15 each to fly from San Jose in Costa Rica to Panama. From Panama they hopped a banana boat that nearly sank as they made their way to Colombia. Then it was on to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.

If you are wondering where they slept and how they obtained food, that was fairly simple. As Methodists, they were able to check in with local pastors wherever they went. In exchange for helping Methodist missionaries, the two were provided with meals and lodging.

Two guys hitchhiking.
Did these two guys ever get where they wanted to go? They should have talked to Ben and Glenn Powell who had great success in their effort to hitchhike around the world. (Wikimedia image.)

Uses Handcuffs to Hitch Rides

 

Everyone knows how dangerous it is to pick up a hitchhiker. Wilson Jennings of Paris, Tennessee may have come up with a possible solution this problem.

An article published by the Associated Press on June 7, 1934 described a unique method that Jennings had conceived of as he hitchhiked from Chicago to California. He stated, “If the idea works, handcuffs will be a big part of every hitchhiker’s equipment.”

That’s not a typo. He really did say handcuffs.

Here’s how it worked:

First, Jennings held up a sign that read, “Don’t be afraid to offer me a ride – you may handcuff me.”

After a motorist stopped to pick him up, the key was given to the driver who had the option of slapping on the cuffs or not. The driver would retain the key for the entire ride.

The aim of this unique approach was to alleviate any fears that a stopping driver would have. Personally, I would be suspect of anyone who held up such a sign. What would stop the hitch-hiker from slapping the handcuffs on me and then driving off with my car and money?

Image of Handcuffs.
Would you pick up a hitchhiker who offered to be handcuffed for the entire ride? (Wikimedia image.)

The Walking Murphys

 

The school district that I teach in recently asked me present a teacher training seminar on the best health and wellness apps that are out there. I spoke to a number of colleagues and installed the best of them on my phone.

So, two weekends ago, my wife and I were up in Warrensburg, NY, which is just a bit north of Lake George, for their annual town-wide garage sale, which they bill as the world’s largest. We go every year, mainly for the exercise, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give these various apps a test. I turned each one of them on as soon as I exited our car and we then proceeded to walk up and down the various side streets for hours.

When we were done for the day, I stopped each of the apps. At least that was what I had thought I had done. When we returned home, I realized that one of the apps kept running and recorded a walk in excess of 50 miles, 46 of which were done while seated in a car…

Well, today I have for you another story about walking that begins with someone riding in a car. During the morning of December 28, 1951, Mr. and Mrs. J. Warren Poley, Jr. and their daughter Donna, who resided at 1525 College Avenue in Trappe, Pennsylvania, decided to hop in the car and drive to nearby Norristown. The total distance is approximately a 12-mile (19.3 km) drive southeast along Route 422. As they left their home, they would first pass through the towns of Collegeville and then Tropper before reaching Norristown. So, basically, they drove from Trappe, through Collegeville, through Trooper and finally ended in Norristown.

It was in Trooper at 9:30 AM that Mrs. Poley first took notice of a family walking in the opposite direction of their travel. The family, which consisted of a father, mother, and two small children, appeared to be down on their luck. Later, as they drove home, the Poleys once again passed the family, who were now walking through Collegeville. A short time later, Mrs. Poley went for a short drive and again passed the plodding family. Seeing these poor people three times in such a short period of time just tore at Mrs. Poley’s heart.

Upon returning to her residence, she told her husband that they needed to do something. “Those people are in trouble. I think they need help and I think we should do something about it.”

Next thing you know, Mr. Poley is driving in his car searching for the family of strangers. He didn’t have to go very far. He found them walking in front of the nearby grade school. Mr. Poley invited the family to dinner and they graciously accepted.

It was during that turkey meal that the sad story of this wandering family – that’s dad Robert Murphy, his wife Jean, three-year old daughter Jean, and two-year old son Robert, Jr. – began to be told.

Mr. Murphy explained that they had lived in Topeka, Kansas for the past six years and that their home had been destroyed by the raging floods that had recently swept through the region. They lost everything including their home and nearly all of their worldly belongings.

With no place to live, they made the decision to make their way to the home of Jean Murphy’s mom in Philadelphia. Without any money or modern mode of transportation, they were forced to make the approximately 1,200-mile (1,930 km) trek on foot. It took them 44 days to make the journey, arriving at her mom’s house on Christmas Eve. Call her Scrooge or whatever choice words you may have, but for some unknown reason she refused to let her daughter’s family stay with her.

Although he was a veteran of World War II and an electrician by trade, Robert Murphy was unable to secure work or find suitable lodging in Philadelphia. As a result, the Murphys became discouraged and began the long walk back to Kansas. It was while they were on this return trip that the Poleys saw the Murphys and invited them to dinner.

For a family that had suffered so much, they were in surprisingly good shape. They certainly had weather-beaten complexions, but they were well-dressed for the weather. Supposedly a wealthy man in Ohio had been very generous and provided each with warm clothes, gloves and boots. After bundling themselves back up, the Murphys said goodbye to the Poleys and continued on their journey back to Kansas.

Clearly, Mrs. Poley was a kind and warm-hearted person who generously opened her home up to strangers in need. But she felt the need to do more. After they left, she contacted the police and then local radio station WPAZ in Pottstown learned of their hardship and broadcast an appeal to the community for assistance. It wasn’t long before furniture, food, clothing, and money began to pour in.

None, however, were more generous than Raymond F. Kulp, an employee of the East Greenville Sanitary Company. Mr. Kulp owned a 72-acre farm nearby on Route 663 between New Hanover and Pennsburg. When he learned of the family’s plight, he immediately called the Pottstown Mercury newspaper and offered Robert Murphy a job on his farm. Not only that, but since his eight room farmhouse only housed his family of four – that’s Mr Kulp, his wife and their two sons – the Murphys were welcome to occupy four of the rooms.

Mr. Kulp stated, “We know what it is to have troubles.” He added, “When they arrive here, there will be a lot of surprises. People have been very good to them. They are donating household furnishings and food. One woman is sending a lot of canned goods. We had some furniture that we were going to leave in their part of the house. But guess they’ll have almost enough now. People have been so kind and offering them furnishings and help of any kind.”

Through the airing of their plight, Mrs. Poley learned that others had previously offered the Murphy family assistance.

Two days earlier – Wednesday night – the Murphys had been provided with a place to sleep by the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. By Thursday night they were staying at another Salvation Army facility in Norristown. They left that shelter right after breakfast.

By Friday morning, shortly before they were to be sighted by the Poleys, the Murphys were treated to breakfast by Ralph K. Harner, who was the chief of police in nearby West Norriton.

Harner told the press, “They weren’t hitch hiking when I saw them. They were just walking pathetically along the pavement. I took them to the state public assistance office in Norristown, and left them there while I went to court. When I returned, they had gone. The girl who interviewed them told me that aid wouldn’t be available for several days until they proved their identity – so they started out again on foot.”

He continued, “Mr. Murphy told the girl that he lost all his identification papers in the flood – including his service records. I wanted to give them $10 on my return from, but they were gone. It’s a strange heart-tuggin’ sight to see them trudging along. I think they’ll get plenty of rides along the way.”

It seemed like everyone was offering some sort of assistance, but there was one big problem. The Walking Murphys, as the press was now referring to them as, were long gone. Police were asked to watch for the family.

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout for:

Robert Murphy – the father. He is described as being a tall, slender man with thick, dark hair highlighted with greying streaks. He is dressed in a faded suit, a dark sports shirt, a blue woolen mackinaw jacket, and black buckle galoshes.

Jean Murphy, the mother. Short in stature, heavyset, with a round face. She is dressed in a cotton dress and plain coat. A vari-colored bandana covers her head.

Their son Robert, Jr. is dressed in a woolen coat and a knit woolen cap, while their daughter Jean is kept warm by a woolen snow suit and a bandana.

Where were the Murphy’s?

Luckily, it didn’t take long to find them. On Sunday, December 30th a passing motorist was listened to radio station WHLM and heard the appeal to help locate the family. He spotted the Murphys walking in Williamsport, which is about 150-miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Mrs. Poley’s home, and he let them know about Mr. Kulp’s generous job/home offer. With everything that they owned being carried in two beat up suitcases and just 30-cents to their name, this news couldn’t have come at a better time.

This was the perfect feel-good story and, as you can imagine, it quickly broke nationwide. In an interview with the United Press, Robert Murphy said, “I’m so happy I can’t talk. We just had another disappointment last night. Someone told me I might get a job here, but it didn’t go through, and it took hours to get shelter for the night.”

Jean Murphy added, “It’s wonderful news. We were beginning to think no one cared what happened to us. Does someone really want us?” She continued, “That’s the way it was on our trip East. Only the people who had a lot of trouble themselves understood and helped us. I guess that’s how it always is.”

Of course, one has to wonder how the Murphys ended up in such dire straits. As the story broke nationally, members of the local press started doing some digging. As the reporters poked around into the Murphys’ past, they were left with far more questions than they had answers.

For example, they learned from Captain Newton McClements at the Salvation Army in Norristown that he had given Robert Murphy $2.50 (approximately $25.00 today) to cover train fare to Philadelphia.

Huh? What? They supposedly had just traveled from Philadelphia so why would they need train fare to go back?

Next, Murphy said that he had applied for Red Cross aid shortly after the flood had destroyed their nine-room home in Kansas. A check with the director of the midwestern office of the Red Cross, Robert Edson, could find no record of a Robert Murphy ever applying for aid either during or after the flood.

Then, during a radio interview on December 31, 1951, Mr. Murphy mentioned that he had studied to be an electrical engineer at the University of Kansas. Under re-questioning he changed his alma mater to Kansas State. Maybe that was just an error on his part, but local reporters were starting to think that the details of his story just didn’t add up.

During an interview with the Murphy’s at the Kulp farmhouse, WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr decided that it was time to ask the Murphys about the inconsistencies in their story and find out what was really true.

It turns out that none of it was. It was all one big lie.

The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.
The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.  That’s daughter Jean on his lap,  dad Robert on the left and mom Jean holding Robert, Jr. on the left.  (Image appeared on page 2 of the Akron Beacon Journal on January 2, 1952,)

They had never lost everything that they had owned in the Kansas floods. In fact, they had never lived there at all. The family started telling the Kansas flood story the previous August, but had received no public attention until Mrs. Poley befriended them. They would simply move from town to town telling their fictitious tale, maybe get a meal, some lodging, and a few bucks before moving on to the next town.

Not only had they not been in Kansas, they weren’t the Murphys. They were the Lillibridges. Dad was Robert Roy Lillibridge, who was born on December 9, 1911 in Baltimore, Maryland. Mom was Philadelphia native Jean McGlinchey. They had been married during the war and it was the second marriage for both. Why the name Murphy? It was Jean’s last name from her first marriage.

Nearly all of what Robert Lillibridge initially told the press proved to be fictitious. He was not a decorated World War II veteran. Instead, he had served in the Merchant Marine assisting with the war effort.

And what about his electrical engineering studies at the University of Kansas or Kansas State? His education ended in the eighth grade.

Once the hoax had been exposed, both Lillibridge and his wife admitted that they had been in prison one time each, but never elaborated on what the charges were.

Lillibridge said, “I am sorry about the whole thing. We intended to settle down here. Pottstown was the only place where people were really concerned about us.” He added, “I’ll tell the kids that we just forgot to take the stuff with us.”

Since there was no crime committed, after questioning, the Lillibridges were released by authorities and were once again back on the road. Behind them they left all of the money, clothing, food, and gifts that the people of Pottstown and the rest of the nation had donated to help them.

Mr. Kulp, whose offer of his home and a job went above and beyond what most people would do, offered up the following words: “We tried to do the right thing.” He added, “We feel awful. We opened our hearts and home to them and we thought they were good people. A lot of other people believed their story too. I don’t know what to say except that I pity their little children who are innocent.”

Letters written by readers to the Pottstown Mercury weren’t as kind:

“That so-called Murphy family should never have been brought back to Pottstown. It is such irresponsibility which weakens public faith in our community leaders.” (Mrs. Anne R.)

“It is hard to believe that residents in and around Pottstown would go so far out of their way to help the “Walking Murphys” when they don’t adequately take care of their own.” (Harold B. P.)

“It is unfortunate that people with so much charity in their hearts should be ‘taken in.’ I would like to say to them: Don’t be disillusioned, for every four deceitful people in this world there are four thousand honest ones. The Misfortune you have suffered should not deter you from lending a helping hand again.” (Mrs. Ruth S. W.)

“I think Fred Selby and the others of The Mercury should be congratulated for the wonderful job they have done with the so-called “Walking Murphys”. The two children are to be pitied. But as for him and her, walking is too good for them.” (Mrs. H. M.)

By the time that these and other letters had been published, the Lillibridge family had disappeared from the scene. Where they came from and to where they went is difficult to piece together, but here is what I learned, particularly regarding Robert Lillibridge:

On Tuesday, July 13, 1937, a then 25-year-old Lillibridge was found by a plant watchman in North Camden, New Jersey after he claimed to have leaped from a bridge into the Delaware River in an attempt to end his life. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and given a suspended sentence. When asked by the prosecutor as to why he jumped, he replied, “I had an argument with my girlfriend.” He added, “As soon as I touched the water I knew I had made a mistake and prayed that I might have the strength to get to shore.”

On November 29th Lillibridge jumped off that same bridge a second time. While no one was witness to the jump, police found his sweater with three notes pinned to it hanging from the bridge railing. One of the notes said that he had “played the game of love twice with the same girl and he lost both times.” Another, addressed to a cousin in Baltimore, stated that when he received “this note he would be at the bottom of the river.” After a thorough search of the water by harbor police, no body was found.

His girlfriend was identified as Dorothy Huntingdon who was living at 2046 Martha Street in Philadelphia at the time. When questioned, she said that the two had a bit of an argument over her seeing another male friend. When Lillibridge left her home he seemed a bit down but never mentioned anything about committing suicide.

Four days later Lillibridge walked into a newspaper office in Philadelphia and surrendered. Once again, he claimed to have changed his mind as fell toward the water surface, swam to shore, and then hitchhiked to New York City.

These two jumps were treated as the real deal when they happened, but the lies that he told many years later as one of the Walking Murphys questions whether he ever really hit the water or was simply making it all up to draw attention to himself.

He may not have been wanted by his girlfriend Dorothy, but the Secret Service certainly did. After reading about his two suicide attempts, they issued a warrant that charged him with stealing and cashing in a WPA check that had been stolen from his roommate Alec Wood the previous February.

On September 17, 1943, he was in trouble with the law again on . This time the now 31-year-old Lillibridge was picked up for impersonating a member of the armed forces. Dressed in the same military garb that he had been arrested in, he testified that he had purchased the uniform so that he could re-enlist in the Army.

Wait! Didn’t he claim years later that he was in the Merchant Marine?

Just what is the truth and what are lies here? It really is hard to know because Lillibridge seemed to blur the lines between the two all of the time.

As for their Kansas flood hoax, it wasn’t the first time that they had attempted this.

The March 11, 1950 issue of the New York Daily News features a photograph of Robert Lillibridge, his wife Jean, 20-month old daughter Jean, and six-week old Robert, Jr. sitting in the Newark, New Jersey police headquarters. They may have used their real names this time, but the rest of their story has a familiar ring to it:

38-year-old Robert Lillibridge was an Air Force veteran who flew fifty-seven missions in the South Pacific which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The text said that on March 4th, the six-family apartment house that they lived in down in Baltimore had burned to the ground. They lost everything including $150 that they had saved up in cash. All their belongings fit into two small bags.

Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children.
Photograph of Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children Jean and Robert, Jr.  Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on March 11, 1950.

Robert Lillibridge said that his brother James invited them to come stay with him at his home in Newark, but supposedly Jim never gave him the address. They walked all the way to New Jersey and had just 5-cents in their pocket when they made their way to the Newark police department for help. Police searched for the missing brother, but – this should come as no surprise – they could not locate him.

Two weeks later they were in the newspaper again. They had somehow found their way approximately 350-miles (560 km) northwest to Bradford, Pennsylvania and told the same hard luck story. The Salvation Army there fed the family, provided them with lodging, and paid for them to take a bus to Union City, Pennsylvania. There they hoped to hook up with an uncle named Lyle Lillibridge.

In November, 1951, the Murphy-Lillibridges walked into a restaurant in Everett, Pennsylvania that was owned by Mrs. Carma Winck. They told the same sad story about how the floods in Kansas had wiped away all that they owned. Mrs. Winck felt sorry for the fairly and provided them with a place to stay for several days. As they departed, the Everett Ministerial Association purchased bus tickets to Raleigh, North Carolina because they had relatives there who could help them.

Once they arrived in Raleigh, they headed about 40-miles (about 65 km) northwest to Efland, North Carolina. In a letter published by the Pottstown Mercury a couple of months after the hoax was revealed, Reverend James Johnson wrote the following:

“A month or two ago my wife and myself picked up four people and brought them to our house and gave them their dinner. They said that they had lost everything that they had in a flood in Topeka, Kansas and was going to Mobile, Alabama to his brother’s home.”

“He said that he was an electrician and his story seemed to be true. So after dinner I carried them in my car to a church 15 miles from here and told the story to the pastor of the church. He made up an offering of $36.00 and I carried them to the bus station and bought them two tickets to Mobile, Alabama.”

“I am almost sure that the people described in the newspaper clipping which I have enclosed are the same ones that we picked up. I now know why he did not want their picture taken. I have a friend in Norfolk, Virginia that picked them up and helped them too.”

Okay. So they had pulled this hoax or something similar to it many times before. But surely they wouldn’t do it again now they had been caught and the story was in the press nationwide.

They clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

On the evening of Monday, December 20, 1954, which is nearly three years after Mrs. Poley invited the so-called Murphys to dinner, it was reported that police in Youngstown, Ohio had picked up the Lillibridge family after they had been caught trying to thumb a ride on the outskirts of town.

The Lillibridges had quite the story to tell. They had been hitchhiking because their home in San Diego, California had burned to the ground. The family had been on the road for the past 105 days and were headed to Van Buren, Maine where wife Jean had an uncle.

The kindly policemen reached in their pockets and provided the Lillibridges with money and arranged for food to be brought into the station for the hungry family. The Salvation Army provided them with a place to stay for the evening. The next morning the police provided them with a road map and the Lillibridges were once again back on the road.

When the story of their generosity hit the local newspapers, the police realized that they had been had. One man said that he had picked up a family of the same description in nearby Hubbard, Ohio three days prior and provided them with assistance. The father, who can be presumed to Robert Lillibridge, told the kind gentleman that their home in Maine had burned and that they were headed to California. Another man said he had provided the family with a place to stay and $100. And finally, a woman said that she had seen the family in Canfield, Ohio two-years earlier. That time the Lillibridges claimed that their home in Florida had burned and that they were making their way to Kansas.

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

That’s My Parking Spot!

 

Everyone knows how difficult it can be to get a good parking spot on city streets. The story of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Oppenheimer of Kansas City serves as the perfect example.

On the evening of January 2nd 1961, the Oppenheimer’s decided to head downtown to go ice skating. They parked their car a long distance from the skating rink and then hoofed their way toward the rink. That is when Mrs. Oppenheimer noticed a parking spot much closer.

While Mrs. Oppenheimer protected the spot, her husband went back to get the car. As she attempted to wave the first car on, it’s driver insisted on taking that spot. Mrs. Oppenheimer firmly stood her ground. Yet, as soon as she turned her back, a woman jumped out of the other car and started pounding her.

When Mr. Oppenheimer arrived with the car, the two women were involved in quite the cat fight and he had to separate them. That is when the other driver pulled his car into the parking spot. Needless to say, the police had to be called and Mr. Oppenheimer never did get that parking spot.

Model of a parking garage.
If only a parking garage could have been available…  This image of a parking garage model is from the Los Angeles Public Library Tessa Collection at  https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/104118/rec/9

That’s a Lot of Ants…

 

On January 7th of 1950, it was reported that Railway Express Clerk Steve Flaherty had a 70 lb (32 kg) box of ants that was sitting on his desk in the basement of Pennsylvania Station in Pittsburgh. 70 pounds of ants. That is a lot of ants! He had brought them in from the warehouse because he was afraid that they would freeze to death if left there.

The package was addressed to the Union Fire Brick Company, but Steve was unable to contact anyone there by phone because the fire brick company was closed for the weekend.

He said, “ I don’t know whether them ants is alive or dead in there. I sure wouldn’t know what to feed them.”

It was later determined that the ants were purchased buy an executive at the fire brick company for his daughter. The ants were in a glass box, which allowed viewers to see them digging tunnels under the surface. They had been shipped by a California company who is marketing them as an “Ant Circus.” If only they had changed the name to an “Ant Farm” and then they could have made millions of dollars.

1966 Ant Farm Ad
Classic advertisement for an Ant Farm that appeared on page 79 of the Famous Monsters of Filmland 1966 Yearbook.

6-Year-Old Goes on a Buying Spree

 

On April 29th 1933, 6-year-old Bertha Deshefy, who resided at 317 Nepperhan Avenue in Yonkers, NY, decided to go on a spending spree. In just four short hours, Bertha managed to purchase $110 (that’s approximately $2,100 today) worth of candy, ice cream, and toys at stores in her neighborhood.

Bertha started her buying spree with the help of her friend Helen Semendie, but pretty soon more and more “friends” were helping her. Some of these friends, if you can call them that, spent her money on slot machines in an effort to win various prizes.

This image of 
Bertha Deshefy appeared on page 5 of the June 4, 1933 publication of the Salt Lake Tribune’s Magazine Section.

David Astor, a store proprietor at 218 Warburton Avenue became suspicious when he saw such a young child with nearly $20 on her. He called police and soon dad was notified.

It turns out that Dad had been saving the money at home and Bertha had found the hidden stash. She blew through $110 of the $130 originally in the money roll.

“You just can’t keep up with this younger generation,” said police Sergeant William Coney. He continued, “They are stepping faster than ever.”

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.

The Sign Said Free TV

 

Do you remember when, years ago, the signs outside most motels advertised free TV, air conditioning, and a swimming pool? Well, someone took that sign seriously on January 6, 1961. That’s when a man reserved ten rooms at the Holiday Inn Motel in Jackson, Michigan under the name of a well-known local company.

With ten keys now in hand, the man went room-to-room and stole all of the 17-inch television sets. After all, the sign did say “Free TV.”

Vintage motel postcard advertising air conditioning, telephones, and TV.  Image appears on the website http://archive.doobybrain.com/2013/03/01/the-american-motel-a-collection-of-vintage-motel-postcards-from-around-the-us/

Kept Alive by Pumping Arms

 

Today we take for granted that we can keep people alive via artificial respiration. But that wasn’t always the case.

Back in April of 1927, newspapers across the country reported on the progress of 18-year old Walter L. Boothe, who was being cared for in a hospital in Roanoke Virginia. Walter had become injured in a car accident on May 29, 1926. He recovered from his injuries and went back to work, only to fall ill months later.

This image is labeled “Artificial respiration by rolling a man prone on a barrel.” It is part of the Wikimedia Commons collection.

Partial paralysis soon set in and doctors determined that a fractured and dislocated vertebrae near the base of his skull was the cause. He failed to improve, so six weeks later it was decided that surgery was his only option. It was during that procedure that his lungs collapsed and he could no longer breathe on his own.

With no machine to keep Walter alive, his friends were called into action. Two-by-two, working in a 30-minute shifts, friends stood on either side of him pumping his arms up and down.

Crazy as this may seem, it did keep him alive. Friends continue this day-after-day, 24 hours a day, with the hope that he would improve. Sadly, he continued to weaken and on May 7th, 378 hours (nearly 16 days) after the up-and-down pumping of his arms had started, Walter took his last breath.

Pennies Hoarded for Gold

 

Long before The Amityville Horror made the village famous, The New York Times reported on February 9, 1903 that its citizens were hoarding pennies. This probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to you since people have been hoarding pennies for many years now. What’s odd about this story is that they were only hoarding shiny 1902 pennies and nothing else.

Why 1902 and why shiny? It was all traced back to a Fulton Fish Market dealer named Alvah W. Haff, who was a resident of Amityville. Since his wholesale fish business required him to give customers lots and lots of change, the Amityville bank will contact him when they had too many small coins on hand. Eleven days prior to the story being published, he obtained 3000 copper pennies from the bank. Since this occurred right after the holiday shopping season, the department stores had just given out tons of shiny new 1902 pennies as change for purchases made. Someone commented to Mr. Haff about the shiny pennies and he jokingly said that he was “going to take the coins and get the gold out of them.”

Could brand new 1902 pennies really contain gold?  Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Next thing you know, a story started to spread to the coins were so shiny because a careless smelter had accidentally dropped a bar of gold into the molten copper. Suddenly, people were checking every penny they were given and keeping the shiny 1902 model to cash in for the gold.

And analysis made by the public schools chemistry class confirmed what you probably knew all along: the pennies contain no gold. Every penny was still worth one penny.

Baby Moses

 

As I’ve mentioned many times over the years, I am a high school science teacher by day. While doing the research for today’s story, I was reminded of a something that happened many years ago at my job. A former superintendent told us that we could no longer have our annual holiday party anywhere within the county limits. The rationale was simple: We are role models for our students and we shouldn’t be seen consuming alcohol. The issue was quickly resolved with an agreement that we could have our celebration anywhere that we wished, but no student could be on staff at the restaurant at the time we were there.

There is no doubt that teaching is one of a number of professions where we are expected to have higher standards than other professions.

I like to joke that teachers don’t get pregnant, since that would imply that something is going on that shouldn’t be. Instead all teachers have their babies delivered the old fashioned way: by a stork.

Well, today’s story doesn’t involve a stork, but the baby was delivered in a more unusual way: By a dog.

So, let’s take a trip back in time to the Great Depression and make a visit to the Pearl River, Louisiana home of 24-year-old Effie Hinton Crawford and her husband 44-year-old Louis Elijah Crawford. The couple was the proud parents of two boys: four-year-old Louis, Jr. and 2-year-old James Edward Crawford.

Together, the four of them lived in a one-room, 25 x 14 foot (7.6 x 4.3 meters), clapboard-sided cabin. Their sole source of income was the $26/month that Louis earned by working for the federal government’s WPA or Works Progress Administration. That would be approximately $468/month today. Hurting badly for money, the couple made the decision to refrain from marital relations, since there was simply no way that they could afford to support a third child.

The home of Effie and Louis Crawford. This image appeared in the November 20, 1936 publication of the Klamath News on page 11.


Neither one could have imagined it, but the Crawford’s world would be turned completely upside-down and inside-out by an incident that occurred on November 11, 1936.

Mrs. Crawford said that she had been sitting on the porch of their home when her eyes caught an animal running through the weeds. Wild animals were nothing unusual when living deep in the piney woods, but there was something very different this time. Effie heard what sounded to be like a whimper and then observed that it was a dog carrying some sort of bundle with its teeth.

“It was just about the fall of the night.” She said, “This big, black dog came trotting through the brush with something white in his mouth. When he saw me, he stopped, and I was so scared all I could do was stand there.” She later stated, “I’d never seen the dog before. Most the dogs around here are hounds and this one looked like a brindle bull.”

“Then while I was looking the white thing moved and I heard a baby’s cry. When I realize it was a baby, I got a cold chill.” She described what happened next: “I ran off the porch. Put that down, you! Put it down! Clap my hands and made like I was going to hit him and that scared him off.”

Effie attempted to restrain the dog, but she was unable to do so. Her attention then turned to what her senses had interpreted could be a baby. As she carefully unwrapped the filthy square of cotton, she discovered a small infant boy who appeared to be just days old facing downward toward the ground.

Her motherly instincts immediately kicked in and she raced the baby into the house. Effie wrapped the newborn in a clean towel and then proceeded to place him between the covers of the couple’s bed. For additional warmth, she lit a fire in their makeshift stove, which was little more than a modified oil drum. She next grabbed a baby bottle and prepared condensed milk to feed the child. Lastly, Mrs. Crawford summoned the help of Mrs. Lizzie Crawford, who was both a midwife and a distant relative. After examination, the 8-pound, rosy-cheeked, blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby was declared to be in relatively good health.

Effie Crawford with midwife/distant relative Lizzie Crawford shortly after the infant was found. This image appeared on the front page of the November 13, 1936 publication of the Wisconsin State Journal.


When her husband Louis arrived home later, she told him of this bizarre incident. At first he was certain that she must be joking around. But Effie wasn’t. Not this time. She led him over to the bed and there he saw the baby for the first time.

Clearly, this baby had to belong to someone. Mr. Crawford contacted Parish officials and told them of his wife’s discovery. It wasn’t long before word spread throughout the community and crowds started to gather around the Crawford home. It seemed like everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the baby.

This deeply religious group felt that the baby was a divine gift intended not only for the Crawfords, but for the community as a whole. Some fifty different people offered to adopt the baby, but Effie and Louis quickly decided that they wanted to become this child’s parents.

“We’re going to call him Moses because it was found by a miracle.” Effie declared. “It’s just like Moses in the bullrushes. I think we were meant to keep him.”

Miracle or not, the Crawfords were now celebrities. Word of her discovery quickly made the national papers and soon reporters were descending upon their small community.

Against the wishes of the Crawfords, the juvenile officer for St. Tammany parish, signed an order removing the baby from their household. Baby Moses was taken by welfare officer Mrs. Emily Hasbro and a WPA nurse to the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, some 40 miles (about 65 kilometers) away. Physicians examined the baby and confirmed that he was in good health, despite his exposure to the elements. He was placed in an incubator and the name Moses was written in large letters across its front.

Baby Moses in his primitive incubator at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.  This image appeared on page 3 of the November 18, 1936 issue of the Pensacola News Journal.


Investigators began their search for the parents of the child. Truck driver Sam Ferguson, a neighbor of the Crawfords, told of seeing a young couple walking on a road about one-mile from the Crawford home. He added that in addition to a small girl who walked alongside them, he observed that they had a large dog and that the woman was holding a small baby.

Word was immediately sent to all nearby police to keep an eye out for the suspected couple.

“We are looking for the couple,” Police Chief P. A. Saxon of nearby Slidell said. He added, “If they have a baby with them they are all right, but if they haven’t, we know we’ve got the right couple.” A statewide search failed to locate the suspected parents.

Effie continued her plea to get Baby Moses back. “I found that baby. I saved his life. I’m not going to give him up. I’ll move heaven and earth to get him back.”

Baby Moses being cared for at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans.  This image was syndicated through many newspapers, but this copy is from the premiere issue of Life Magazine on November 23, 1936. The image appeared on page 19.


On November 13th, Thomas Sancton, a reporter from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, entered the story. He wasn’t sure where the couple’s cabin was, so he stopped at the home of Louis’s uncle Fletcher Crawford to ask for directions.

Call it a hunch, a white lie, or whatever, but Sancton convinced Fletcher that Effie’s story was false. Fletcher took Sancton up to the house and upon entering, Effie asked, “What do you want?”

To which Fletcher replied, “Effie, here’s a newspaper reporter. He said you told how you are that mother of the baby you said you found with a dog the other night. Did you?”

Effie broke into tears and stated, “I ain’t told nobody nothing. Not nobody.” Effie then asked the reporter to step outside. She walked barefoot alongside him to the pigsty and admitted what had really happened.

“I don’t want them all to hear,” Effie said. “I told my husband. He knows.”

As she was telling her story, Louis Crawford came outside and the reporter asked how he felt about it, to which he replied, “I love Effie.”

Picture of the Crawford’s cabin in Pearl River, Louisiana. This is another image that was syndicated through newspapers nationwide, but this copy is from the premiere issue of Life Magazine on November 23, 1936. The image appeared on page 19.


The cat was now out of the bag. Effie now claimed that she had given birth to Baby Moses around 11 in the evening on Sunday November 8, 1936. But was she really the mother? Could this all be another lie so that she could convince the authorities to let her keep the baby? The only way to know for sure would be to have a doctor check to see if she had recently given birth.

Mrs. Crawford was taken to be examined by Dr. F. F. Young, Jr. and Dr. H. E. Gautreaux. What’s a bit unusual about these two doctors was that they were the Tammany parish coroner and assistant coroner, respectively. Their report stated that Effie Crawford had given birth to a baby “without the question of a doubt within the past few days.”

“It was about 11 o’clock and I have been laboring for about an hour. I had to take matches and light a little pile of straw to give me enough light. It was awful dark. After the child was born I wrapped it in a cloth and laid it behind a little building there and I went into the house.”

“In the morning Louis went to work with the WPA. I kept the baby in the house all day Monday, and hid him out behind the stove Monday night. Then went to work Tuesday. I was thinking all day of what to do. Then I thought of the dog.

“When Lewis came home Tuesday I pulled back the bed covers and showed him the baby and told him how a big dog came through the woods with the baby in its mouth and how I took it away from him.”

Image of Baby Moses that appeared on page 80 of the New York Daily News on November 13, 1936. The paper gave the baby the more sensational name “Dog Baby.”


District Attorney C. Sidney Frederick told the press that Mrs. Crawford had broken no known criminal statute and would not be charged with a crime. As for the baby, custody would be decided by the parish juvenile authorities.

While the courts tried to hash out this mess and determine who should gain custody of the baby, there was trouble-a-brewing at the Crawford residence. That’s because Effie accused her husband’s younger brother Frank of being the baby daddy, which he vehemently denied.

“She named me because she saw I was smart and I was on to her ways. I never laid an hand on her except once to shove her out of my mother’s house.” Frank continued, “We never liked her. She was a come-here. And if he’s not going to leave her, he’ll vacate too. That ain’t even his house; it’s his sisters. He ain’t got nothing. The chickens even ain’t his.”

Frank added, regarding his brother, “He says the doctor says she’s in no condition to move. She’s sick, he says. Well, I wish she died while she was about it.”

He wasn’t alone. The entire Crawford clan, which included Louis’ seven brothers, two sisters, their wives and husbands, and a 62-year-old widowed mother who all wanted him to leave his two-timing wife. There was talk of tar and feathering her and ultimately running her out of the forest completely. Fearing for her life, Deputy Sheriff Clarence Crawford, a relative by marriage, was ordered to protect Effie from any violence.

This photo of Effie Crawford appeared on page 20 of the November 17, 1936 issue of the New York Daily News.


Louis was torn as to what he should do. At first, he stood by his wife and refused to give in to his family’s demands. He avowed that he would “stick with Effie through hell and high water until the end.” It wasn’t long before he changed his tune, later stating that he “would have to quit her when this thing’s over because it would ruin my character to live with her.”

On November 16, District Court Judge Robert D. Jones ruled that 8-day-old Baby Moses, who was still in the hospital suffering from a slight cold, could be returned to Effie Crawford as soon as physical conditions permitted.

The Judge stated, “This woman, misguided and errant though she was, has violated no prohibitory law of the state. Her actions were those of a woman driven frantic and desperate in fighting alone a battle in which she herself must have foreseen failure in defeat.”

He continued, “Many women would have abandoned their children rather than face the same terrifying circumstances. She is poor, as a thousands of others, but this cannot forfeit her rights.

Effie Crawford with a nurse and Baby Moses at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. This image is from page 5 of the November 28, 1936 publication of the Fort Myers News-Press.


“Her amazing fortitude in giving birth to this child under the horrible circumstances which surround her, and her insistent plea for the right to resume her burden of a child’s care and protection, impel us to believe that here the child will find sanctuary and be under the protection of the one who will gladly sacrifice all, if necessary, in the full discharge of that self-imposed trust.”

“It is certain that only the mother who conceived and bore the child can give it the understanding, love and affection it will so sorely need in its early future to overcome the sombre circumstances of its birth.”

The couple reconciled and picked their baby up at the hospital on Wednesday November 25th 1936.

The Crawford family picking up their baby at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.  Dad Louis is carrying son James, mom Effie carries the newly named Bert J., and son Louis, Jr. is walking out front.  Image source:Page 5 of the November 28, 1936 issue of the Fort Myers News Press.


Effie said, “We are going to name him Bert J. Moses Crawford. The Bert J. don’t mean anything, but we don’t want people calling him Moses.” Louis added, “It’s our’n baby and I don’t care which one of Effie’s stories was true – whether the dog brought the baby or whether Effie had him out behind the woodshed.”

The Christmas of 1936 proved to be a great one for the Crawford family. Not only did they celebrate having their new child home for the first time, but gifts of food, money, and clothing poured in from all over the country. Not just for the baby, but for Effie, Louis, and their two older children also.

The press did a follow-up story on Bert’s 1st birthday and everything was still going well. Bert was learning how to walk and talk, while everyone seemed to have put it all behind them. Effie was now back in the good graces of her husband’s family and the community seemed to act as if nothing had ever happened at all.

As time marched on, all of the people mentioned in this story passed on. 51-year-old father Louis Elijah Crawford left us on June 25, 1944. After remarrying, Effie Crawford Schultz died at age 85 on November 12, 1997. And Burt J. Moses Crawford was 73-years-old when he passed away on February 10, 2010.

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

This photograph of Louis and Effie Crawford with Baby Moses appeared in papers nationwide just as the story broke. This particular copy was printed on page 19 of the November 23, 1936 issue of Life Magazine. 

Officer, I am Being Followed…

 

This bizarre story made the national news on December 24, 1954. It was reported that two motorcycle officers in Vernon, California pulled a car driven by 48-year-old Virgil Grover Attebery over to the side of the road.

Attebery looked very concerned and told the officers, “Somebody’s been tailing me clear from Los Angeles.” The officers were attentive as he continued, “I want you guys to look into it.”

The officers didn’t have to search far. There was, in fact, a car that had been following Attebery for miles. What was incredibly unusual about this vehicle was that it was driverless. Apparently Attebery had backed into the car, locked bumpers with it, and then towed it along as he made his way. To make matters worse, the car that he had been dragging was owned by a policeman named Ray Rapier.

The two officers booked Atteberry on suspicion of drunk driving.

Attebery Sketch - 1954_12_25 Philadelphia Inquirer p9
This sketch that appeared on page 9 of the December 25, 1954 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer sums up the story well.

Self-Service Gasoline

 

When Frank Ulrich opened the first successful self-service gasoline station in Los Angeles back in 1947, he probably couldn’t imagine the uproar that it would cause. By eliminating the high cost of paying attendants to fill your tank, he was able to pass the savings on to his customers. His slogan was “Save five cents, serve yourself. Why pay more?” With a gallon of gas costing less than 20-cents in 1947, saving a nickel was a big deal.

Word of his success began to spread across the country and soon others began to copy Ulrich’s model. One of these men was Irving Reingold. He opened a 24-pump self-service station on Route 17 in Hackensack, New Jersey. Everyone else was selling gas at an agreed upon 21.8-cents per gallon, while Reingold was able to undercut them at 18.9-cents.

Soon cars were lining up for cheaper gas, but the other dealers were very unhappy with the competition. Using the pretext of fire safety, the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association convinced the state legislature to ban self-service gasoline stations, a law that is still on the books today.

Ad for Ray's Self Service Gasoline
Ad for Ray's Self Service Gasoline in Rapid City, SD that appeared on page 11 of the May 5, 1950 issue of the Rapid City Journal.

John Dressler, president of the association at the time stated, “The only motive behind the bill was the safety of the public, because from experience we learned that the handling of gasoline is a potential hazard.”

A July 3, 1948 story in Connecticut’s Sunday Herald interviewed Bridgeport gasoline dealers and all were in agreement that self-service gasoline was probably never going to happen in their state.

Larry Keller, proprietor of Pop’s Gulf Station said. “Our business would suffer from 30 to 60 days, but after that time the novelty would wear off and people would come back for service.”

James Duva, owner of Duva’s Service Station added, “the whole city would be endangered if every Tom, Dick, and Harry operated the pumps.”

Red Dial, of Dial’s Sunoco station, was in total agreement. “Customers don’t save money anyway with the self-service idea. They save a few cents on the gas and spend dollars on cleaning their clothes which they dirtied while checking their own oil, or on repairs of the cars which the service attendant could have pointed out and fixed earlier.”

I did a quick check on Google Maps for the locations of these three dealers. Today only one is still a gas station and it is – you guessed it – self service.

Self Service Gasoline - 1950_08_27 - Long Beach Independent p15
Advertisement for Self-Service Gasoline that appeared on page 15 of the August 27, 1950 publication of the Long Beach Independent.

Both Children Born in a Yellow Cab

 

On October 18, 1922 Mrs. Rose Simon, who lived at 354 East 53rd Street in Chicago gave was a passenger in the backseat of a Yellow cab when she gave birth to a daughter. Both were taken to University Hospital and were reported to be in excellent health.

Giving birth to a baby in the back of a cab has certainly happened before, so just what makes this story unique?

Very simple: Eight years earlier, on October 3, 1914, Rose was a passenger in another cab while on her way to St. Luke’s Hospital when she suddenly went into labor. That time she gave birth to a baby boy.

Yellow Cab Photo
Photo of Yellow Cab drivers that appeared on page 12 of the February 17, 1964 publication of the Press Sun and Bulletin in Binghamton, NY.