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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Podcast #131 – An Inside Job

 

I’ve been to Washington, DC several times over the years and it offers an incredible assortment of great architecture, monuments, and museums, all with free admission. I keep a mental list of places that I would like to visit the next time I am there and one of those is the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be in the place where they print the money? It’s the place where you can theoretically smell the money, although free samples are probably out of the question.

A survey of records by the Bureau revealed that there had been a total $2800 stolen during twelve thefts in the thirty years prior to 1954. That’s nothing when compared to the estimated $3.4 trillion dollars worth of securities that were printed during that same time period.

There are so many checks and counterchecks built into the system that it was once thought that it would be nearly impossible to steal newly printed money in any significant quantity. Only a fool would dare do so and would most certainly be caught before ever exiting the premises.

That line of thinking would all change on January 4, 1954. That’s when Sewell A. Davis, a stockman for the Bureau, was assigned to transfer bricks of currency from a pallet in Vault D-19 to another location. As he lifted two of the bricks, one in each hand, he noticed a discrepancy in one of them.

Davis turned to his coworker Paul Coakley and stated: “One of these bricks feels light.” He handed the brick to Coakley and added, “Does it feel light to you?” As Coakley gave it a heft, he replied, “Yes, it does.” Davis then tore off the brick’s kraft paper wrapping and was shocked by what he saw: a stack of blank, white paper. While the two were alerting supervisors to the fake brick, another employee, Frederick A. Minor, discovered a second one.

Sewell Davis and Paul Coakley  discovered the two dummy packages.
Sewell Davis (left in white T-shirt) and Paul Coakley (right) discovered the two dummy packages. Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Eight-thousand $20 bills – a total of $160,000 (over $1.5 million adjusted for inflation) – had disappeared from the vault. The Secret Service was immediately alerted and an investigation launched. Believing that it would be impossible to get two bricks that measured 14-inches (35.6 cm) x 6-inches (15.2 cm) x 2-½-inches (6.4 cm) and weighed in at around 8-pounds (3.6 kg) out of the heavily guarded facility, a search was begun internally. Nothing was found.

The only clue that investigators had were the date-stamped seals found on each of the packages. They were confirmed as authentic and were dated December 17, 1953 and December 31, 1953. That means that the money had been stolen recently and suggested that the thief or thieves had intentionally timed it so that the theft took advantage of the three-day New Year’s holiday weekend that year.

Believing that the theft could have only been done by a Bureau employee with direct access to the vault, investigators began to question the staff. Unable to interview everyone before their shift had ended, they planned to continue the questioning the next morning.

Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks.
Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick (left) and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks (right). Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

They never got that far. At 5:00 AM the next morning, Virginia State Police received a call from 45-year-old Irving Grant, who worked as a butler and chauffeur on a 340-acre farm located near Middleburg, Virginia, which is about 40 miles (64 km) west of the Capitol. Grant informed them that they could find the missing money there. Troopers raced to the scene and Grant led them to a metal toolbox which contained forty-four bundles of newly printed $20 bills – a total of $88,000 – and an additional $7,000 in smaller bills, which were believed to have been given as change for bills that were cashed in at various retail establishments.

Grant had an interesting story to tell. He said that his daughter, her husband and another man had driven down from DC the night before in a newly purchased Oldsmobile. They said that they had “pulled a smoothie” and needed to hide the money on the farm until “it cools off a little.” Grant initially refused to cooperate but quickly changed his mind when one of the men pulled out a gun. In exchange for his efforts in concealing the money, they gave him a sock filled with $3,000 in cash.

After the three left, Grant’s conscience got the better of him. He stayed awake all night and decided early that morning to notify the police. He later told the press, “It was hard to do. She was my daughter. But I knew what the right thing was. The truth is right. The truth is right.” He added, “I figure my life isn’t worth that. I know my life is in danger. I don’t need anything. I figure I’m working for an honest man and he gives me what I need.”

The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found.
The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Later that morning, at 10:00 AM, Secret Service agents arrested Grant’s son-in-law, twenty-nine-year-old James Rufus Landis, at his place of employment: the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Landis would seem like an unlikely suspect: he had worked at the Bureau since he was sixteen years old, had received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, and Good Conduct Medal for his service in Europe during World War II, and had been twice wounded and granted a medical discharge. At the time of his arrest, Landis was earning $1.42 an hour ($13.69/hour today) to move newly printed money from the packaging machines to the storage vaults.

Landis initially denied that he had removed any cash from the building. He claimed that a man from New York, a Mr. Shapiro, had conceived of the plan to steal the money. When investigators laid out the evidence before him, Landis admitted to pulling the heist. He then led agents to a storage room on the fifth floor of the building. There they found a paper bag filled with an additional $32,000 that he had hidden under a pallet on the day of the theft.

At 2:00 PM, agents arrested his wife, 26-year-old Mamie Landis, at their Addison Chapel apartment in Capitol Heights, Maryland, which is located just over the Washington-Maryland border. The couple had met when she was eleven years old and married three years later – at the age of fourteen – while James was home on furlough during World War II. At the time of the couple’s arrest, the pair had been married for twelve years and were the parents to two young boys.

Under questioning, Mrs. Landis denied any knowledge of the theft of the money. “If he did this thing he did it for the kids and me.” She added, “Times have been hard. He worried about not being able to give us the things he wanted us to have—the things everybody else had.

“He wanted the kids to be doctors or lawyers or something like that…Like every father does. I will do everything I can to help him. He has always been a wonderful husband.” She continued, “He always handled the money. He just left enough here for me to buy small things, like bread. I know there was never much left out of his check after the bills were paid. Once in a while he would come home with some extra money. He said he got lucky gambling. I always figured that if there was anything he wanted me to know he would tell me…I’m not a prying wife.”

Her husband James told the press, “I really messed things up. I got my wife involved.” For the crime, both faced up to ten years imprisonment and a possible $10,000 fine. A judge set bail for James at $50,000 and his wife’s at $10,000. (About $480,000, in total, today.)

James Landis and his wife Mamie.
James Landis and his wife Mamie at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

There was still one man still unaccounted for: the person who accompanied the couple out to farm the previous evening. He was identified as twenty-seven-year-old William Giles, a government flagpole painter who had told his wife that he had made the money gambling. They arrested him in his apartment, which was in the same building that the Landeses lived. He readily admitted to his involvement. “I did it for the future of my family. I can’t give them all the things I want to give them.”

The next day, January 6th, two additional suspects were arrested. They were two of James Landis’s cousins: 27-year-old Charles Howard Nelson and 24-year-old Edith Irene Chase. Police were also on the hunt for 29-year-old Roger Paterson, who had been flashing bills at a card game on New Year’s Eve. A witness told detectives that Patterson had “a stack of bills about 6-inches high” under the back seat of his car. Their search ended when Patterson came stumbling into the 12th Precinct station on January 9th and said, “Somebody is looking for me and I’m giving myself up.” He was too intoxicated to be questioned at the time, but later told detectives that he knew of Landis’s plan to rob the Bureau thirty days before it occurred.

So how did he pull it off?

First, Landis paid careful attention to every detail involved in the packaging and storage of the money. As the money was stacked into the packaging machines, a wooden block would be placed at either end to prevent damage. Then the stack of money would be compressed and wire bands would be wrapped around to secure the bundle. Finally, the brick would be wrapped in kraft paper, and then labeled and dated before being stacked onto a pallet. What really caught Landis’ attention in this whole process was how lax workers and inspectors were when it came to disposing of unbroken wire bands, extra wooden end blocks, and the kraft paper that had the Treasury seals on them. He began to collect these and took them home in his pockets.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the January 6, 1954 issue of the Owensboro Messenger.

It was while his wife was busy taking care of the children each evening that Landis would attempt to duplicate the bricks of money. It took him close to three months, but he was able to come up with a dummy brick that would pass for the real thing. The only thing he lacked was a machine capable of pressing the paper tightly together, which is the reason why his dummies were lighter than the real thing: he simply couldn’t squeeze the same number of sheets of paper into his stacks.

Surprisingly, this detail was of little concern to him because he knew that if he could successfully replace a couple of the bricks on a pallet, it could be months before the theft would be discovered. That’s because the pallets were typically stored in a Bureau vault for a couple of months before being shipped off to any of the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. Once there, the money could sit untouched for several more months before being distributed to banks. By then, it would be very difficult to determine by who or where in the distribution system the bricks had been stolen.

It was shortly before 7:30 AM on December 31st that Landis entered the Bureau with two of his fake bricks wrapped in a package. It was standard practice not to search anyone with packages coming into the facility, but those who did were supposed to check them at a receiving desk. A guard directed Landis to the desk, but as soon as Landis felt that the guard’s attention had been diverted, he quickly changed course and headed down the hall with the package in hand. Landis then took an elevator to the third floor and hid the dummy bricks under a burlap bag which lined a trashcan in locker room number 327.

From there, Landis headed to his normal locker room, D-101, on the first floor to change into his work clothes. At 7:30 AM, he reported for duty at his scheduled time. His job was to place an enormous stack of bills on to a platform so that they could be sent through the wrapping machine. He knew from previous experience that it would be twenty minutes before he would need to refill the platform. That was twenty minutes to pull off the next step in his plan.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 24 of the January 21, 1954 issue of Jet magazine.

At 7:50, he walked over to one of the pallets and removed two of the bricks. He immediately walked over to a roll of kraft paper and tore off enough to conceal the two bricks of currency. His destination was a prechosen storage room on the fifth floor of the D-Wing. The only way for him to get there from his current first-floor location in the A-Wing was to use the passageway that connected all of the wings in the basement of the facilty. Upon arrival in the storage room, he quickly removed the paper packaging from each of the bricks, being careful not to damage the two ends that carried the official Treasury labels and date stamps. He folded them and placed the labels in his pocket. After breaking the metal bands with a pair of pliers, he placed the bulk of the money into a paper bag. The $32,000 that didn’t fit into the first bag was placed into a second. Both were hidden under one of the pallets in the storage room.

Landis promptly returned to his assigned duty without anyone suspecting anything out of the ordinary.

At 10:40 AM, it was time for a scheduled rest break. Landis rushed to the locker room where he had hidden those two dummy packages under the burlap bag. He then pulled out the packaging labels that he had stuffed in his pocket, soaked them under hot water in the sink and removed the Treasury labels from the paper. To dry them, he placed the labels between the fins of a radiator. Once dry, he pulled the two dummy packages out of the garbage can and affixed the labels to the brick ends using glue that he had concealed in his pocket. They now looked exactly like the real thing. As the end of his break approached, he walked back toward his station, placed the dummy bricks on to the pallet, and continued with his normal work until the end of the day.

When the workday ended at 3:10 PM, Landis went to the locker room to change into his street clothes and then took a detour to that fifth-floor storage room to grab his fortune. Realizing that he would be unable to get two bags filled with money past the guards, he left the smaller one behind, the one that he would later lead investigators to after being caught.

Getting the money through security was easier than anyone could have imagined. Since it was the holiday season and many of the workers had been exchanging gifts, security was somewhat more relaxed than usual. And, since it was common for workers to take laundry home to wash, he placed a pair of trousers in the bag to conceal his stolen loot. below As he passed through security, Landis pulled one leg of the trousers out of the bag to show that it contained dirty clothing and the guard just let him pass through.

And with that final move, James Rufus Landis had just stolen $128,000 from the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Irving Danner and Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills.
Irving Danner (left), manager, and President Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills that had been spent there. Image appeared on page 13 of the January 5, 1954 issue of the Pittsburgh Press.

While he had done it all himself, he knew that he had, at best, six months before the Bureau realized the money was gone. And since the bills all had consecutive serial numbers, they would be easy to trace. Landis concluded that he needed to get rid of the money quickly. His plan was straightforward: make a small purchase with one of the stolen $20 bills and then the change would be in legitimate money. This is simpler said than done because a $20 bill had a lot of buying power in 1954 – nearly $200 today. Not many stores could give change from that and if the same person kept walking in day-after-day to do so, someone was certain to become suspicious.

His solution was to have others assist him in spending the money. That’s where the others who were arrested, excluding his wife, come in. They all would drive around the region, stopping in every liquor store that they passed and purchasing a bottle of spirits. All the change from these purchases was turned over to Landis, who planned to split the profits later on. For the next few days, they were living the high life. In addition to purchasing three automobiles, Landis’ cousin Charles Nelson was observed lighting a cigar with a burning $20 bill.

Everything was great until the holiday weekend ended and everyone, including Landis, returned to work on Monday, January 4th. That was the day that the money was discovered missing. It was later that day that Landis made the decision to drive out to his father-in-law’s place with his neighbor William Giles to hide the money. They probably never imagined that Irving Grant would have a guilty conscience and turn in his own daughter for the crime.

The missing money was found in the metal toolbox and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building.
The missing money was found in the metal toolbox (rear) and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

On February 15th, a grand jury charged James Landis with theft of the money. His four accomplices received a lesser charge of “feloniously and unlawfully” receiving and passing the stolen money. All charges against Mrs. Landis were dropped.

While awaiting trial, Landis, Charles Nelson, and two other men were caught passing even more of the stolen money. This resulted in both Landis and Nelson would receiving stiffer sentences than it was initially thought that they would receive.

On May 28, 1954, Landis was sentenced to three to nine years in prison and fined $10,000. Federal Judge David A. Pine said that he took into consideration the fact that Landis had been cooperative with the Secret Service. He added that if Landis was able to produce the money that was still missing – an estimated $15,680 – he would consider dropping the fine.

As for the others, Charles Nelson was sentenced to 2 to 8 years in prison with a $3,000 fine, Roger Patterson got 20 months to 5 years and Edith Chase received a suspended sentence of 1 to 3 years.

There would be a larger theft at the Bureau in 1989 by Robert P. Schmitt, who was in charge of the Threaded Currency Paper project. He took advantage of his position and was able to smuggle out $1.6 million in $100 bills that he had concealed in a zippered compartment in his briefcase. That may be more money, but it doesn’t come close to the creativity and ingenuity that Landis used to pull off his daring theft in 1954.

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

17-Year Christmas Card Mystery

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parachute Drops Christmas Gifts

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sacramental Wine for Jewish Families to Be Doubled

 

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

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

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

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

Podcast #130 – A Christmas Eve Kidnapping

 

When the citizens of Centerville, Indiana, a small town located approximately 60 miles (97 km) east of Indianapolis, awoke on Friday, December 24, 1937, they assumed that it would be a fairly typical Christmas Eve. A light rain fell from the sky as the work week was brought to a close and children eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa and the gifts that he would bring.

One of those children was John Bryan, Jr., who had just turned 4 two-weeks earlier on December 13th. His mother, Ova, desired to give her only child the perfect Christmas and needed to run a few errands to complete the planned celebration. This included stopping at the local bank where her husband worked as a cashier. As Mrs. Bryan had done numerous times before, she left young Johnny in the care of their babysitter, 17-year-old high school student Norma Schroy.

John Bryan, who was kidnapped on Christmas Eve of 1937
John Bryan, who was kidnapped on Christmas Eve of 1937. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

Not long after Mrs. Bryan had left for the bank, two men pulled up in a car to the Bryan home around 2:30 P. M. and, upon entering, forced Norma to call Mrs. Bryan. Norma told her that she had taken ill and that Mrs. Bryan needed to come home quickly. Sensing that something was urgently wrong, Mrs. Bryan headed back home immediately.

As Mrs. Bryan made her way home, one of the two men told Johnny that they needed to go for a ride to pick out a Christmas tree. Johnny was too young to be scared, but Norma strongly protested the removal of the child. All three got into the car and drove away.

When Mrs. Bryan finally arrived at the house, the other man informed her that her son had been kidnapped. The only way that she could assure young Johnny’s safe return was for her to call the bank and tell her husband that he had to pay $3,800 (approximately $67,000 today) immediately. This was money that Mrs. Bryan knew that the young couple did not have, so she called the bank and made the wise decision to talk to the president of the bank, Mark Stevens, first. Stevens informed Mr. Bryan who, along with several other men, got in their cars and raced off to his home.

Enter the story Julian Dunbar, a local grocer. He was one of those people who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the kidnapper who stayed behind anxiously awaited the arrival of the ransom money, the grocer stopped at the home to make a delivery and was mistaken by the kidnapper for Mr. Bryan.

e Bryan home on the day of the kidnapping
The Bryan home on the day of the kidnapping. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

Just as the real Mr. Bryan and the other men pulled within one-hundred yards (approximately 90 m) of the home, the kidnapper could be seen forcing the grocer Dunbar and Mrs. Bryan into the front seat of the Bryan family car, which had been parked along the curb. With the bandit standing on the exterior running board of the car, he forced Dunbar behind the steering wheel and demanded that he floor it and get them out of there. Suddenly, bullets began to fly. Mr. Bryan and another man opened fire on the bandit, who returned fire before ducking into the back seat of the car. As the two hostages and their captor sped away, two cars followed in pursuit. Local mechanic “Buzz” Lamberson and Mr. Bryan were in one vehicle and Marshall Charles Daugherty was in the other. At times the cars reached speeds in excess of 90 mph (145 km/h).

Upon reaching Cambridge City, which lies about 10 miles (approximately 16 km) west of Centerville, their captor forced Dunbar to turn into a side street. Through the vehicle’s rear window, the car containing Mr. Bryan and Buzz Lamberson could be seen speeding right on by along the National Road. After giving them the slip, the bandit forced his prisoner to drive to New Lisbon, which lies about seven miles (11 km) to the northwest of Cambridge City. He ordered Dunbar to stop the car while he reloaded his gun. The kidnapper, still believing that the grocer was Mr. Bryan stated that since the “job had been bungled,” his only option was to kill his two hostages before turning the gun upon himself. Dunbar desperately tried to talk him out of it. In part, Dunbar stated, “I am just a citizen who walked into this thing. I am not this woman’s husband.” After a bit of hesitation, he ordered them out of the car and the two ran off as fast as they could. About a half-hour after the gunfight had broken out, Mrs. Bryan called her husband to let him know that she was okay.

Dunbar described his captor as being about 5’ 8” (173 cm) tall, 150 pounds (60 kg) in weight, was swarthy in complexion, and was left-handed. Most distinctively, he had a scar than ran from his left cheekbone down to the tip of his chin.

Mrs. Bryan and the grocer were now safe, but her son and his babysitter were still missing. It was every parent’s worst nightmare. Mrs. Bryan was placed under the care of a physician and ordered to bed.

Around 5:30 that evening, Norma and the boy showed up unharmed on the doorstep of a farmhouse in Greens Forks, approximately 9 miles (14.5 km) northeast of the crime scene. Wilber Thomas and his wife knew nothing of the kidnapping, but after learning the details, he drove the two back to the Bryan home.

Norma told authorities that their kidnapper had panicked after his partner failed to show up at the previously designated meetup point. Assuming that the other bandit had been arrested, he made the decision to release his prisoners prior to speeding off. Miss Schroy stated, “After we were let out of the car, I walked with Johnny, sometimes carrying him, almost a mile to get help. I don’t think that the kidnapper intended to take me but I got in with Johnny anyhow.”

She described her captor as having red hair, thick lips, and bloodshot eyes. He had talked freely with Norma during the entire ride and offered up some of his clothing to protect both Johnny and her from the cold. She also added that the car was a green 1929 or 1930 Ford Model A coach that had red wire wheels and two bare wires hanging from the arm used to raise and lower the windshield. Norma added, “The license number was Ohio TH 423 or 432, I am not sure which.” Unfortunately, a search of all registered vehicles showed that there was no vehicle registered with those plate numbers.

Norma Schroy
This image of Norma Schroy appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1937 issue of the Palladium Item.

At 10:30 on Christmas morning, the sheriff’s department received a call from a nearby farmer who said that he had found an abandoned car sitting in one of his fields. It was the Bryans’ automobile. Investigators dusted for fingerprints, but since the victims had previously stated that the bandits wore gloves, not useful prints were found. Yet, there were four bullet holes in the car. One of the bullets had narrowly missed grocer Julian Dunbar’s head while another struck a piece of metal in the front of the car and fell into Mrs. Bryan’s lap.

Police had Norma and Dunbar look through hundreds of crime photos, but none were a match. Prosecutor John Britten made it clear that when these two thugs were caught they would be facing either life imprisonment or the death penalty for their actions.

Eleven days after the kidnapping, on January 4, 1938, three state policemen were driving from their Rushville barracks toward Muncie when they passed a car. One of the officers said, “Say, look at those wheels.” To which one of the other men replied, “That certainly looks like the kidnap car. Let’s look a little closer.”

They pulled the car over and noticed that the car had a fresh coat of black paint covering its original green color. The vehicle’s driver, thirty-year-old William Chester “Red” Marcum of Newcastle, denied any involvement in the crime, but was clearly nervous. The officers decided to take him in for further questioning. As they pulled up to the curbside in Centerville, Norma Schroy was asked to come out and take a look at the prisoner. “That’s him,” she exclaimed.

Confronted with Miss Schroy’s positive identification, Marcum admitted to his role in the abduction. He also named fifty-two-year-old Harry C. Walter, a father of five children, as his accomplice. Police drove to Walter’s home in Muncie and arrested him there.

The two men were then taken to Indianapolis for formal booking. While posing for their mugshots, Walter turned to Marcum and said, “Give ‘em that big smile of yours, Bill.” To which Marcum replied, “I don’t feel much like smiling.”

Both men were unemployed and came up with the kidnapping scheme to raise some much-needed cash “to live on.” Centerville was chosen because it was considered to be a “prosperous farm town.” The Bryans were specifically targeted because the father was the cashier of a bank.

Image of the accused kidnappers. Harry C. Walter is seated on the left, William Chester Marcum to his right.
Image of the accused kidnappers. Harry C. Walter is seated on the left, William Chester Marcum to his right. In the back row (left to right) is Lieutenant Ray Hinkle, Ernest Richardson, William Pickering, and Fred Fosler, all of the Indiana State Police. If was Officers Richardson, Pickering and Fosler who arrested the two men. Image from the January 5, 1938 issue of the Indianapolis News on page 4.

In his confession, Harry Walter stated, “This was not considered as purely a kidnapping case because we knew Mr. and Mrs. Bryan were not financially able to pay any ransom, using the boy as a weapon we intended forcing Bryan through his wife to make the payment to us at a specified place, we asked for $3,800 cash of the bank’s money.”

He added, “I ordered Mrs. Bryan and Dunbar in the car and started a wild chase. Someone behind a tree shot at me and I shot four times at a truck. Then we began driving with Dunbar at the wheel. We drove through the country and I think into Cambridge City. Someone kept trailing us, but did not get close, anyway I was out of ammunition, just had one shell left, which I intended using on myself. Then I let them get out in the country and abandoned the car. I walked the railroad tracks into New Castle where I stayed at the home of ‘Red’ Marcum all night. The next morning ‘Red’ Marcum took me home to Muncie, the morning of December 25, 1937.”

When questioned by police, Marcum was far more detailed in his explanation as to how the whole thing went down.

Q – Now just start in and tell what happened.
A – I don’t know when it happened, about 2:30 P. M., I guess.
Q – What day was it?
A – About Dec. 24, 1937.
Q – Who was with you?
A – Harry Walter.
Q – Did you go to the house together?
A – Yes.

This type of mundane questioning went on for a while, so here are a few of the highlights:

Q – What kind of car?
A – A green model A Ford coach.
Q – Is that your car?
A – Yes.
Q – What kind of license plate did you have on the car?
A – Ohio, 1937, license number 423 TH.

Keep in mind that Norma had told police that the plates were either Ohio TH 423 or 432, so she simply had the numbers and letters switched. It was learned that these plates had been stolen off of a car in New Castle and Marcum removed them before he returned home the day of the crime.

The questioning continued:

Q – When did you case it?
A – About a week and a half before. We had been there about three times.

In fact, several days prior to the crime the kidnappers had stopped a young boy on his way to school and asked him, “Where does the banker live?” He replied, “Over there” and pointed to the Bryan home.

Marcum told the authorities, “Walter had been there the day before, and knocked on the door and said he was taking a church census and the girl had been alone in the house.”

After snatching the Bryan boy and Norma, Marcum drove about four miles (6.4 km) to a side road to await the arrival of Walter with the ransom. He was totally unaware of the kidnapping of Mrs. Bryan and Dunbar, the shootout and chase that followed, and the eventual release of the two. After about two hours of waiting, he concluded that Walter must have been arrested.

Q – What did you do then?
A – I drove about three or four miles north and let the nurse and kid out.
Q – What did you tell them?
A – I told the nurse there was a paved road about a mile up the road and that she could get a ride.

After the two signed their confessions, they were transported to Richmond around 2:30 A.M. Along the way, Deputy Sheriff Ora Wilson asked Walter what his family thought about the case and he replied, “I’d rather not talk about my family – I’ll never see them again anyway.” During booking at the jail, all of their personal belongings were taken. Marcum had 50-cents on him and Walter $1.39. It was at that moment that Walter stated, “That will buy all of the tobacco I’ll ever need.” Fearing that he was contemplating suicide, police took his belt, suspenders, and shoelaces away prior to locking Walter in his second-floor cell.

Later that morning, Sheriff Arthur Quigley asked turnkey Paul Andrews to bring the kidnappers to Prosecutor John Britten’s office for further questioning. Just as the pair emerged from their cells, Walter charged toward the balcony railing, screamed, “To hell with the sheriff” and threw himself to the cement floor some fifteen feet (4.6 meters) below. As Walter lay bloody and unconscious on the floor below, Marcum stated, “I never thought he’d do that. I’ve known him for a long time – he was a good worker, too. I suppose he done it for his family – thought that might help them – but it won’t do them no good.” With his wife and one of his daughters at his bedside at Reid Memorial Hospital, 52-year-old Harry C. Walter passed away four hours later. He was buried in the Mooreland Cemetary in Mooreland, Indiana.

William Chester Marcum
William Chester Marcum. Image appeared on page 5 of the January 8, 1938 publication of the Palladium Item.

This left Marcum to face the kidnapping charges alone. He declined a jury trial and appeared before Judge G. H. Hoelscher on January 8th, four days after his arrest. The Judge stated, “Number 13062 – State of Indiana versus Harry Walter and William Chester Marcum – kidnapping for ransom.” Prosecutor Britten then said, “This is a charge of kidnapping for ransom – I will read it to you.” After reading the lengthy charged, Marcum was asked to enter his plea. He replied, “Guilty.” After some further questioning, the judge handed down his sentence. “William Marcum, I now sentence you to the Indiana State prison for the remainder of your natural life.”

Prior to the trial, Marcum had stated “I’m glad to have it over. Maybe in twenty years I’ll be back home and start over again.” He wouldn’t have to wait that long. On May 26, 1949, Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker commuted Marcum’s sentence from simply life imprisonment to “from time served to life.” The rationale for the change was that Marcum had never harmed anyone. He was released a short time later and placed on parole until 1956.

Sadly, none of the principals of this story are still with us. Willaim Chester Marcum passed away at the age of 67 in April of 1970. Little Johnny Bryan became a Centerville attorney and, just coincidentally, had his law office in the same building that once housed the bank that his father worked in. He passed away on September 11, 1998. He was 64-years of age.

As for Norma Schroy, the babysitter, she would marry Howard E. Bailey and together they raised a son. When interviewed about the kidnapping in 1967, Norma commented that she thought that she had seen her kidnapper on a city bus in Richmond after he had been paroled. “I looked at him and he looked at me but neither one said a word. I don’t know if he knew me or not, but I knew him.” When she passed away on November 3, 2016, at the age of 97, she was a great-great-grandmother.

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

Was the Heaviest Man Buried in a Piano Shipping Box?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrote Will on the Back of a Wall Calendar

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Written on Egg Shell

 

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

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

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

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

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

Tells Amazing Tale of Mars

 

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

Here is what he said he saw:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast #129 – Soul Searching

 

There are some people who go through life virtually unnoticed. They are born onto this Earth, live a quiet and unassuming life, and then, in the end, seem to vanish as if they had never existed.

One such man was James Kidd, who was born to Ellen and William Kidd in Ogdensburg, NY on August 18, 1878. There is very little known about James Kidd and, what is known, was not pieced together until after he passed.

The 1940 U.S. census shows that he had a fourth-grade education, worked as a pump man in the copper mining industry and earned $1,754 ($31,800 today) that year. Yet, he lived the life of a pauper. Jim slept on park benches, went hungry at times, and traveled across the country by sneaking aboard freight trains. He would chew the same piece of gum over and over again, storing it in a small tin aspirin box that he carried in his pocket.

In 1967, miner Mike Pesely recalled, “I knew him when I was a high school boy. I used to walk past the shack on my way to the swimming hole. I always called him ‘Captain Kidd.’ I liked him. You know how kids are always hungry? Well, he would give me peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I think that’s what he ate mostly, too. He did for himself, always; he called himself ‘an old bachelor.’ He read a lot. He was quiet, was sort of jolly, and he liked to talk to kids. He never wore a necktie, always had his shirt buttoned up at the throat. And I remember his hat. Most people put a crease in their hats, but he didn’t. He just wore it standing straight up.”

Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box.
Photograph of James Kidd recovered from his safe deposit box. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

Few ever saw Jim without that old grey Fedora upon his head. On the rare occasion when he did remove it, a balding scalp surrounded by graying hair was revealed. He never married, had no known relatives or close friends, and kept to himself. Jim never obtained a driver’s license and had no military record. It was said that he loved to gamble, but entered each game knowing exactly how much he was prepared to lose.

Beginning in September 1920, James Kidd was employed by the Miami Copper Company in Arizona. His job was to keep the wastewater pumps running smoothly. In November 1941, a rubber belt flew off one of the pumps and Kidd struggled to shut off a critical valve so that the entire building wouldn’t become flooded. He was able to get the stubborn valve closed but, in doing so, the wrench slipped and he was thrust toward the pump. He was stopped from near-certain death by an 8-inch (20 cm) diameter pipe which caused significant bruising to his chest.

Some days later, Kidd was back on the job when he suddenly fell and lost consciousness. It was later, during a workmen’s compensation hearing, that the only record of his actual words was made: “I could feel it then—I had no strength or mental condition. I don’t know which.” He continued, “It seemed impossible to try to do something for myself. I don’t remember where my hands were, but there is a four-inch water line that sticks above the ground, and my shoes are longer than my toes and may have doubled against me. I never looked to see but I do know I was in that position and couldn’t do anything for myself. I had no control over my legs, I couldn’t do a thing. When I became more conscious I realized if I could get on my side, it might do me good. I don’t know how I got there, or which side, I forget, and then after a certain time, which I don’t know for sure, I regained more consciousness and in time, I can’t remember the time, I felt able to get up again.”

Since doctors had diagnosed Jim as having suffered a heart attack, coupled with the fact that he had never filed a report after being whacked in the chest by that pipe, his claim was rejected. The company offered him a job as a watchman but opted, instead, to retire and move to Phoenix. It was there that Jim was able to rent a small apartment at 335 North 9th Avenue for $4.00 per week (about $43/week today). Claiming that he lacked the funds to pay the rent, his landlord allowed him to do small jobs to help offset the cost.

Draft registration card for James Kidd.
Draft registration card for James Kidd.

It was on the evening of November 8, 1949, that Jim borrowed a pickaxe from an acquaintance and indicated that he would be headed toward a couple of claims that he had made in the Globe-Miami area, which lies some 80-miles (130 km) east of Phoenix. At 6:00 the next morning, a car pulled up outside, Jim locked the door to his room, got into the car, and drove off. James Kidd was never to be seen again. To this day, no one knows who picked him up or where he was dropped off.

Clearly, having always been a bit of a loner, it should come as no surprise that no one noticed for quite some time that Kidd had never returned. It wouldn’t be until December 29th that his landlord would inform Phoenix police that he was missing. A search of his apartment by officers revealed nothing unusual. Everything seemed as it should have been, as if he had intended to return within a short period of time.

The search did uncover one interesting fact: James Kidd was not as poor as he had let others believe. A checkbook showed that he had over $3,800 (over $40,000 adjusted for inflation) sitting in an account at the Valley National Bank. In addition, he had received a dividend check for $382.50 a few weeks prior to his disappearance. A man named Pete Oviedo later recalled that Jim had told him, “I never would make any money working; it would have to be through stocks or prospecting.” Apparently, James Kidd was true to his word and dabbled a bit in both.

With no known relatives, there was no pressure to locate his body or disperse of his estate, so the investigation into his death was brought to a close in 1954. James Kidd was officially declared dead.

That would seem to be the end of the story, but everything changed in 1956 when Arizona passed the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, which required that all property that has been unclaimed for seven years needed to be turned over to the state of Arizona within ninety days.

Suddenly, a deluge of unclaimed estates landed on the desk of Geraldine C. Swift, Arizona’s Estate Tax Commissioner at the time. That included the estate of James Kidd.

Initially, Mrs. Swift’s office did little other than document Kidd’s estate. The situation changed in 1957 when a safe deposit box that had been rented by him showed up in her office. The box contained things like a few faded photographs, a transcript from his workmen’s comp hearing, and three stock sell orders. Most importantly, there was a bulky envelope on which the words “Buying slips from E. F. Hutton Company, Keep” was written. It suddenly became clear that James Kidd had thousands of shares of stock, some of which were still issuing dividends. In other words, James Kidd was far from a poor retired pumpman – he was very well off.

Surely James Kidd had to have had some relatives, no matter how far distant, and Mrs. Swift set out to locate them. She ran inquiries with the post office, the Social Security Administration, the U. S. Census Bureau, and even hired a private investigation firm to assist in the search. No heir was ever located.

Meanwhile, his estate continued to grow. Mrs. Swift later stated, “In February 1963, the state examiners were in my office making their yearly check and they said, ‘You’ve had this estate for 5 years, why don’t you dispose of it?’” She added, “Well, that seemed sensible to me. But I’d thought I go through everything in the deposit box one more time.”

On the day that Mrs. Swift’s team opted to enter the vault of the First National Bank at 1st Street and Washington Avenues in Phoenix, work crews had turned the power off to the building. Armed with flashlights, they began to inventory everything in Kidd’s box. It occurred to her that no one had ever bothered to look through all of those buying slips in that bulky envelope. As she began to look through the slips, a small piece of paper fell out of the stack. It was a piece of lined notebook paper, marked page 498, that had been torn from a ledger. She stated, “And then, tucked away in an envelope with rolled-up brokers’ receipts I found it—that will. I had mixed emotions. For a minute I could have eaten it.”

That’s right, she had found what may have been James Kidd’s will. It read: “this is my first and only will and is dated the second of January, 1946. I have no heirs and have not been married in my life and after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100. one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospel to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E. F. Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money to go in a research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time there can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd.”

Reflecting on this discovery several years later, Mrs. Swift commented, “My first reaction was I just couldn’t believe it was real, it must be a joke. And then I thought I’d better look at it again. I looked, and I thought, well, it’s dated, January 2, 1946, and it was signed in his handwriting. We had a signature card for his bank account at the Valley National Bank; it was actually in his safe deposit box. I knew his signature so well. It was exactly the same on both documents. I recognized his handwriting, and after reading it three times, and holding this tiny little thing in my hand, I thought: Now here it is. What am I going to do with it? But of course, I knew. I knew, naturally that I was going to keep it. You know, if it had been a normal will, and to think it had been in there all this time… But to read this in this dark room by flashlight! I mean, everything the way it was, it was a very eerie feeling. I just sat there and thought that I just had to be dreaming.

“It was quite a feeling, really. It rocked me—it rocked me. To think it had been in my possession all these years. Then, of course, I was very happy to think that here’s a man who writes a will and I’m so happy that I found it. And I’ll see that his wish is carried out. You know, you have the funny feeling in the beginning, the very eerie feeling… but then you have your true feeling: Well, I’m the administrator of this law, and naturally I want to put it into the proper hands.”

Mrs. Swift turned to the Attorney General’s office for help in trying to figure out how to best execute the highly unusual will. While some of the staff were of the opinion that the will was invalid and should either be ignored or destroyed, while Mrs. Swift insisted that the document should be executed just as James Kidd wished.

Unable to agree on how to proceed, a petition was made to the Arizona Superior Court to rule on the validity of the will. Judge Robert L. Myers was appointed to handle the case. Initially, the question he needed to rule on was straightforward: Was this a valid will and, if so, how should the money, now valued at $174,065.69 (over $1.4 million today), be distributed?

It wasn’t long before the press picked up on the story of a missing man who had left a fortune to be used in the search for the human soul. The Phoenix Gazette was the first to report on the story and soon it had hit newspapers all over the world.

Initially, there were just two challenges to the will: On March 5, 1964, the University of Life Church in Phoenix filed a petition with the court claiming that they, as a religious organization, were best suited to do the scientific soul searching. This was followed by a group that claimed to relatives of James Kidd who sought to have the will invalidated, in which case the funds would be distributed to them.

But it wasn’t long before others would challenge the will, including the Barrow Neurological Institute, the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and the Psychical Research Foundation out of Durham, North Carolina.

“I know of no precedence for the case nationally,” Judge Myers told the press. “Mr. Kidd assumes in his will that man does have a soul. This Court is concerned only with the legal problems of the will, whether anyone can prove the soul scientifically to the Court, or will research the existence of the soul.”

As the case dragged on, Myers ruled that Kidd’s will was legit and set formal hearings for March 6, 1967. The court was suddenly buried in a deluge of mail from all over the world. Unable to answer each letter individually, a form letter was prepared that advised each claimant that they had the right to counsel and, after paying a $15 ($115 today) filing fee, would be able to present their case at the hearings.

Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world.
Judge Robert L. Myers seating behind a stack of letters received from claimants all around the world. Image from the March 3, 1967 issue of Life Magazine.

While there were legitimate claimants, the most unusual ones are far more interesting. Here is a small sampling of some of the correspondence that the court received:

“I believe I am the only logical existing person to fulfill the requirements asked for by Mr. Kidd,” wrote a man from Detroit. “I only need about $36,000 to $50,000 of the money to develop an extra sensatory [sic] perception machine through which Mr. Kidd’s soul may send a message to earth.”

A woman from Long Beach, California wrote, “I have been testing and refining my formula of axiomatic acid-proof revelation against all comers for the last 25 years. But whether I am interested in Mr. Kidd’s prize will depend largely upon the rules of judging.”

This idea that this was some sort of contest appeared to be a common thread in the letters:

“Dear Sir, I wrote you yesterday seeking information as to where I could send in my answer to the Kidd Mystery Contest, and I FORGOT to put a stamp on the return envelope. Here it is again, and thanks.”

“Your Honor: I would like to try for the great prize offered for the person that can prove that life is eternal, etc.”

“The human being has two souls, a white soul and a black soul, a negative and a positive one,” wrote a man from Brazil. “Which one do you want me to prove the existence of?”

One woman was quite blunt: “I wouldn’t be human if I did not wish for some of Mr. Kidd’s loot to buy me a new set of teeth.”

As the case began to take on a bit of a circus atmosphere, Judge Myers did what he needed to do. He stayed focused on his role. “It is the job of a probate judge to carry out the wishes of a testator, insofar as he can.” He added, “If anyone can fulfill James Kidd’s stipulations, my job is to see that it is done.”

After several delays, Judge Myers opened the hearing on June 6, 1967 with the following statement: “Probate Cause Number 58416 in the matter of the estate of James Kidd. This is the time set for the hearing on the petition of Claimant Number Nine, the American Society for Psychical Research.” His honor had set aside eighteen days for all to present their claims. When a lawyer for the Society informed the judge that he anticipated that their presentation would take two days, it was clear that it was going to take far more time than the judge had anticipated.

John G. Fuller, in his 1969 book “The Great Soul Trial, offers nearly 200-pages of blow-by-blow testimony by some of the bigger players in the case. Yet, once again, it’s the quirkier ones that grabbed headlines in the newspapers. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Mrs. Jean Bright, a mother of five from Encino, claimed that she was in contact with the soul of San Fernando dentist Dr. Earl S. Marshall, who had passed away on April 25, 1965. Six weeks later, she made her first contact with him during a muscular spasm. To prove that she was in contact with him while giving her testimony, she wore earplugs and placed a portable noisy hairdryer over her head so that she would be unable to hear the questions being asked. And, so that she wouldn’t be able to read lips, the questioner stood behind her. By nodding or shaking her head she was able to answer 15 of the 18 questions correctly.

Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head.
Mrs. Jean Bright testified in court with a noisy hairdryer over her head. Rosemary Phillips is behind her asking the questions. Image appeared on page 1 of the San Fernando Valley section of the August 10, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

57-year-old Nora Higgins of Branscomb, California told the court that she had seen the spirit of James Kidd about a week prior to the hearing. She described how it happened: “I had just finished my housework and had walked into my bedroom when I saw a man standing there. I said, ‘Good morning, who are you?’” He just stood there and smiled back at her. She continued, “I was suddenly impressed that this was James Kidd. But in about half a minute he disappeared into a white fluorescent light and went up through the ceiling.” During her testimony, Mrs. Higgins stated that Kidd was in the courtroom “pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, shaking his head at the proceedings.” She also claimed that most of the time he was seated at a table directly in front of Judge Myers, although she was the only person who could see him.

Chicago resident Fred B. Nordstrom sought advice from those that knew the most about the heavens: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, Texas. They politely wrote back, “We regret commitments to the Apollo project do not leave sufficient time to give the necessary depth evaluation. We must leave pedagogical research to others.”

In the end, 133 soul searchers from all walks of life offered up an estimated 800,000 words of testimony. The hearing took thirteen weeks and cost the residents of Maricopa County an estimated $10,000 (over $75,000 today).

On October 20, 1967, Judge Myers handed down his decision. “Considering the language of the last will and testament of the deceased as a whole, it was the intention and desire of the deceased that the residue and remainder of his estate be used for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. It is incumbent on the Court to ensure that the residue and remainder of the estate of the deceased be used in such a manner as to benefit mankind as a whole to the greatest degree possible.”

He continued, “This can be best accomplished by the distribution of the said funds for the purpose of research which may lead to some scientific proof of a soul of the individual human which leaves the body at death…. Such research can be best done in the combined field of medical science, psychiatry, and psychology, and can best be performed and carried on by the Barrow Neurological Institute, Phoenix, Arizona.”

With 132 disappointed petitioners, it was clear that the decision would be appealed. While the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Myers’ decision, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on January 19, 1971 that the Barrow Neurological Institute should not get the funds. Instead, they sent the case back to Judge Myers and directed him to choose from one of four claimants. Finally, on July 17, 1971, Myers awarded Kidd’s estate to the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City. In the 21 years, 8 months, and 8 days since James Kidd had disappeared, his estate had grown in value to $297,000 ($1.86 million today).

So, how was it spent?

Lawyers claimed about one-third of the estate in fees and the society turned over an additional $65,000 to a researcher in North Carolina who never discovered anything worth publishing. As for the society itself, they spent the majority of the money on a study of deathbed experiences in both the United States and India. Approximately 1,000 phone calls were made and nearly 5,000 questionnaires were mailed to doctors and nurses in both countries. In papers filed with Judge Myers in June 1975, they reported that they had been unable to prove the existence of the human soul.

Laura Knipe, an executive with the Society, told the New York Daily News on September 8, 1985: “We’re still working on an answer.” She added, “One day we’ll know. One way or the other.”

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

Not Dead Yet…

 

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

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

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

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

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

Jailed for Writing Fiction

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwin Land’s Invention

 

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast 128: The Prick of Death

 

The Howrah railway station sits just across the Hoogly river from Calcutta and is considered to be the busiest station in India. It was here, on November 26, 1933, that Amarendra Chandra Pande arrived as he began his journey from Calcutta to his family home in Pakur. He was accompanied by several female relatives, most important of which was his aunt, a rich widow named Rani Surjabati. Also, there to see Amar off was his half-brother Benoyendra, which was an unusual act of kindness for him. Benoy was eleven years older than Amar and the two had little in common. While the older Benoy was a free-spending playboy and kind of the black sheep of the family, Amar was the one who was loved and respected by all.

Just as Amar’s party moved through the booking area of the station, a man walking in the opposite direction suddenly brushed up against him. Detecting a sharp sting in his right arm, Amar blurted, “Someone has pricked me.” His aunt would later testify that “A short, black man with an oval face brushed up against him.”

Amar rolled up his sleeve to examine the wound. While the puncture was small, a colorless liquid was oozing out. Nearly all of those in his entourage expressed concern. It was suggested that he should cancel his planned trip and immediately seek medical attention. His brother Benoy was the only one who didn’t seem concerned at all. He made light of the injury as he grabbed Amar’s arm and began to massage the puncture site.

Over the course of the entire train ride to Pakur, his relatives continued to push Amar to change his mind and see a doctor. A few days later he finally agreed and took a train back to Calcutta to do just that. Upon examination, the doctor noted that the pricked spot appeared to be “something like the mark of a hypodermic needle.” A blood sample was taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

Howrah Railway Station circa 1945
The scene of the crime. Howrah Railway Station circa 1945. Image from Wikimedia.

Amar quickly took a turn for the worse. He developed a high fever and his tongue blackened as his face, groin, and armpits began to swell. Amarandra would not recover and passed away on December 4, 1933. The task of cremating Amar’s body fell upon his irresponsible brother Benoy and, having had little respect for his younger brother, he opted to bribe an official to have the body disposed of quickly. As a result, an autopsy was never performed.

Several days later the results of that blood sample were finally reported. Amar had died from bubonic plague and it was thought that he had been infected when that unidentified man pricked him in the arm at Howrah station. His death was now believed to be a murder.

The Black Death had all been thought eradicated in 1933. The last person thought infected in the region had passed away several years prior. And, if Amar was, in fact, injected with the plague, one had to question where one could obtain such a deadly bacterium.

It turns out that there was only one place: Since 1896, all research related to the plague in India was strictly controlled by the Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai today). Under absolutely no circumstance would the Institute supply plague cultures to private companies or individuals.

As investigators scoured through the Institute’s records, one name stood out among the rest. His name was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharjee and he had tried on multiple occasions to obtain a viable culture of the plague to test a theory that he had. Further digging uncovered the fact that Taranath’s closest friend was none other than Benoyendra Pande, Amar’s half-brother.

Suddenly, all of the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together…

Benoy was twenty-seven and Amar sixteen years of age when their wealthy father died in 1929. The estate was split somewhat equally between the two brothers and included a significant annual income from the rental of real estate. Benoy was a known partier who generously shared his lifestyle with his close friends, of which Taranath, the doctor, was a recipient. Of course, to call any of them close friends was a bit of an exaggeration. They were more like parasites who always lived in fear that their source of easy money was about to be cut off.

When Amar turned eighteen in 1931, he began to take steps to regain control of his portion of his estate, which had been handled by the irresponsible Benoy until then. Benoy fought him at every step along the way. At some point, Benoy had become so determined to gain possession of his brother’s money that his close friends began to suggest ways to bump off Amar. It was suggested that Amar be pushed in front of a moving train or that Benoy hire some thug to strangle Amar, but it would be Taranath who offered up what he felt would be the perfect crime. To avoid arousing suspicion, Taranath stated that Amar needed to die of natural causes. The plague was the perfect choice.

The doctor knew of about a dozen laboratories in India where the bacilli were being cultured. He wrote to each one stating his qualifications, sometimes greatly exaggerated them, and explaining the testing that he wished to do. While a few were willing to allow him to do his tests at their facilities, none were willing to allow the cultures or the infected rats out of the laboratory.

Having been unable to obtain a plague culture, it was alleged that Taranath set his sights on the next best thing: tetanus. Since it was unlikely to cause an epidemic, he concluded that it would be less closely guarded and far easier to obtain.

Their plan was simple: Benoy obtained a pair of glasses and proceeded to smear the tetanus germs across its nosepiece. While on a family vacation in the fall of 1932, he asked Amar to go for a short walk. The conversation turned to that of eyeglasses and Amar agreed to try them on. Just at the eyeglasses were settling into place, Benoy jammed them down on Amar’s nose and pierced the skin.

The next day, Amar was taken to a local doctor and diagnosed with tetanus. His aunt wired Benoy and requested that he bring the family physician. Yet, when Benoy arrived, he had brought Taranath instead. Taranath insisted that the administration of the tetanus antitoxin be stopped and injections of morphine be used instead. The local doctor held his ground and refused to give in.

Frustrated, Benoy soon showed up with another doctor, Dr. Dhar, who injected Amar with a serum that he had obtained in Calcutta. He would soon develop an abscess at this site of this injection. Later, Benoy arrived with both Dr. Dhar and Taranath in tow to administer additional selected medicines. By this time, Amar’s aunt and sisters had grown suspicious of Benoy’s actions and would not allow his personal doctors to treat Amar. Amar would slowly regain his health over the next few months, but in the end, it is said that he was left with a permanently damaged heart.

With the tetanus infection having failed, Benoy and Taranath returned to their original plan. They would once again attempt to obtain a plague culture.

On April 30, 1933, Benoy traveled to Bombay to meet with a doctor at the Haffkine Institute. He said that he had been sent in advance to find out whether the institute would allow a fellow doctor, as if he were one, to use their facilities to test a curative drug for the plague. He was informed that approval of the Institute’s director would be required.

In May, Taranth finally found a doctor who was willing to work with him, but under no circumstance was Taranth allowed to handle the plague culture. When his experiment failed, the doctor that he had been working under refused to secure a second culture for testing.

On July 1st, Benoy was once again in Bombay waving wads of cash in an effort to convince two veterinarians to obtain a plague culture from the Haffkine Institute. They also refused.

Shortly after this rejection, Benoy found a doctor at the Arthur Road (now Kasturba) Hospital who took interest in Taranath’s research. He assigned an assistant to work with Taranath and a live plague culture was obtained from the Haffkine Institute. Benoy and Taranath purchased some white rats from a bird dealer and the supposed testing began, although the assistant later testified that he never observed any type of medicine ever being applied. On July 12th, Taranath told the assistant that he had urgent work that he needed to attend to back in Calcutta and needed to leave right away. He would not return. That night, both Taranath and Benoy skipped town.

It was around this time that Benoy attempted to obtain a life insurance policy worth 51,000 rupees on his brother with the stipulation that the policy not be contested after Amar’s death. He was denied coverage.

With the plague culture now in their possession, Benoy needed to lure Amar back to Calcutta. He tried to persuade his aunt to send a telegram, but she outright refused. So, he sent a bogus message using her name instead. Amar arrived in Calcutta on November 19, 1933.

While he was there, Amar went to the theater with five female relatives. Benoy was spotted hovering around the premises with a man whose description was nearly identical to that of the man who fatally pricked Amar. It was thought that the man had been hired by Benoy to administer that shot-in-the-arm that evening but it was not done because Amar was too closely surrounded by his relatives when they emerged from the theater. Instead, Benoy and that unknown assailant would complete their dastardly deed a few days later at the railroad station.

It took investigators about ten weeks to piece this entire sequence of events together. Benoy was arrested on February 16, 1934, followed by Taranath two days later. Also charged with the murder were Dr. Dhar, who had administered that fake dose of tetanus antiserum and Dr. Sivapada Bhattacharjee, who wrote out the death certificate claiming that Amar had died from sepsis pneumonia.

During the trial, eighty-five witnesses were called to testify and more than three-hundred exhibits were introduced. The prosecutor stated that the case was “unparalleled in the annals of crime of India in its enormity and well-planned scientific design.”

It took the jury just four hours to unanimously find Benoy and Taranath guilty of murder and recommended mercy, while the other two doctors were acquitted of the charges. The judge stated, “This is the coldest-blooded crime I have ever come across” and, on February 16, 1935 – one year to the day after Benoy’s arrest – the two men were sentenced to death.

An appeal was immediately filed. On January 9, 1936, the lower court’s decision was affirmed, but the decision was made to set aside the death sentences. Instead, Benoy and Taranath were sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

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

50,000 Books Given Away

 

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

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

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

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

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

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