Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Silent Susan – Podcast #97

Situated high above the Palisades cliffs, right across the Hudson River from New York City, the Palisades Amusement Park opened in 1898 and became one of the most popular family destinations in the United States until it closed on September 12, 1971. Four high-rise luxury apartment buildings stand on the site today.

On October 6, 1946, not far from the former site of the Palisades Amusement Park, on US Route 9W of New Jersey’s Palisades Park, a young woman passing through town made the fateful decision to hitch a ride. Fateful because she made the mistake of thumbing a police car.


Bergen County police officer Leonard Cottrell questioned the woman and was able to ascertain that she was originally from Bozeman, Montana, was 19 or 20 years old, and had just completed a job picking potatoes in Bangor, Maine.  A truck driver had driven the young woman to her current location in New Jersey, allowing her to sleep in the back of the truck along the way.  Her current destination was Jacksonville, Florida, presumably in search of additional harvesting work.

Officer Cottrell searched through her belongings and found nothing out of the ordinary. In addition to clothing and a bedroll, she had $14 (about $170 today), a photograph of a young man, and a letter addressed to one Mr. Radir.  But the one thing he could not find was any kind of identification. When asked for her name, she refused to answer.

The policeman was highly suspect. Not only wouldn’t she reveal her real name, but he felt that she was “dressed in a suspicious manner.” Suspicious as in the fact that she was wearing a man’s shirt, blue jeans rolled up halfway between her ankles and knees, had messy blonde hair, and a dirty face.  As a result, he arrested her for disorderly conduct, even though he would later testify in court that she had not been disorderly in any way.

Upon arrival at the police station, the inspecting matron found a letter in her canvas bag addressed to “Susan Bowers, General Delivery, Jacksonville, Fla.” When asked if that was her name, she replied, “You can call me that if you like.” She later admitted that was not her real name. She was questioned day after day in an effort to determine her identity.  Her answer was always the same: Susan Bower from Bozeman, Montana.  In an attempt to figure out who Susan really was, her fingerprints were forwarded on to the FBI, but there was no match. Police in both Bozeman and Jacksonville were contacted, but again they had no record of her.

Silent Susan Bower in 1946
Silent Susan Bower. Image originally appeared on page 15 of the November 5, 1946 publication of the New York PM Daily.

Twenty days later, on October 25th, she found herself in the Hackensack courtroom of Judge Irving S. Reeve, and once again she refused to divulge who she really was.  Susan was never advised of her rights or offered any type of legal counsel.  She pleaded guilty to the charges of hitchhiking and disorderly conduct.

Prosecutor Walter G. Winne asked the judge to sentence the mystery girl to the maximum sentence allowed under the law because his office had “direct, incriminating evidence” against her.  That evidence was the letter to Mr. Radir found in her possession that included a line that read, “the nature of charges pending against me and my brother.”  Judge Reeve sentenced her to six months in jail.

That lengthy sentence caught the attention of the local Hudson Dispatch newspaper, which commented in an editorial that “even a gambling king doesn’t get six months under ‘Jersey Justice’.”  Soon the American Civil Liberties Union was involved and attorney James E. Major was assigned to her case.  The story quickly spread nationally through the various news services. Reporters referred to her as the “Sphinx,” “Miss Question Mark,” and the “Mystery Girl.”

Silent Susan Bower in 1946
Silent Susan Bower. Image originally appeared on page 11 of the November 7, 1946 publication of the New York PM Daily.

On Thursday, Oct 31, 1946, Major announced that Judge Reeve had agreed to hear why he felt that the case should be reopened.  Major was to appear before him on Monday, November 4th at 9:30 AM in his courtroom. The next day, prosecutor Winne went one step further and announced there was to be a whole new trial to determine Susan’s guilt or innocence.  Winne explained to attorney Major that Susan was kept in jail mainly for her own safety while authorities attempted to identify her, to which Major was quoted as stating, “She just thinks her background is her own business. And maybe it is.”

Susan was the model prisoner: very polite, courteous, and caused no trouble. She was quoted in the press as having stated that she “hates cops but likes jail.”  Susan would talk freely about just about anything, just not about herself.  Police detective Ann Terhune talked with Susan a number of times and questioned why she being so stubborn, to which she replied, “I guess I was just born that way.”  She was examined by three county hospital psychologists, all of whom found her to be perfectly sane.

On the 30th day of her imprisonment, she was back in court for her second trial.  The PM newspaper in New York City reported that as she entered the courtroom “her face was pale and showed no trace of makeup. She was wearing a simple lavender dress, silk stockings, and dirty brown and white low-heeled shoes.”

Silent Susan Bower in 1946
Silent Susan Bower. Image originally appeared on page 12 of the November 7, 1946 publication of The World.

Attorney Majors argued that a person traveling on a highway was not required to answer every single question asked by a police officer.   Refusal to answer a question did not imply that one was acting in a disorderly manner.

Officer Cottrell was called to the stand where he explained why he chose to arrest Susan.  When he stated that she was disheveled and wearing blue jeans, the courtroom erupted in laughter when the judge commented that “my daughter wears jeans.”

Major asked the judge to dismiss the charges, to which he replied, “Mr. Major, I assure you that I have no desire to keep this lady in jail any longer than necessary.”

After 81 minutes, the new trial was over. Everyone would have to wait two days for the judge to issue his decision.

The next day, while Susan was still sitting in jail awaiting the judge’s decision, the press reported that a Plattsburgh, NY woman named Bessie Bushey had seen Silent Susan’s picture in the newspaper and was certain that she was her missing daughter.  Mrs. Bushey hadn’t seen her daughter in five years but told investigators that she had a distinguishing pockmark between her eyebrows.  One can only imagine the mom’s disappointment when Susan showed prison attendants that she didn’t have that pockmark.

On Wednesday, November 6th, everyone gathered back in the courtroom, with Susan being escorted in at 9:27.  This time, she was wearing a blue suit, nylon stockings, and a new pair of sports shoes that someone had given to her.

There was a delay in the prosecutor getting to court, so the judge opted to deal with a few other cases during the intervening time.  My favorite was that of a man named John Hughes who had used an offensive slur against a pregnant woman.   Judge Reeve gave him a $100 ($1200 today) fine or 30 days in the slammer.  He opted for jail.

Finally, the judge read his decision – all three pages of it – and once again found Susan guilty. He sentenced her to 40 days on the same charge of disorderly conduct.  That included the 32 days already served plus time off for good behavior, so she could theoretically leave on Friday.

His justification for the verdict was a nearly forgotten law written in 1799 which stated that someone is guilty of disorderly conduct if that person “wanders abroad with no fixed dwelling and cannot make a good account of himself.”

Judge Reeve stated that she met this criterion based on three elements: Susan had loitered, she slept without shelter, and had failed to “give a good account” of herself.

After the judge finished reading his verdict, Mr. Major said, “Your honor, I think this young lady has already suffered plenty. I see no reason why she should suffer more.”  To which he replied, “I admit she has suffered a great deal, but whose fault was that?”

Silent Susan Bower in 1946
Silent Susan Bower. Image originally appeared on page 12 of the November 10. 1946 publication of the New York Daily News.

Major said that the ACLU would appeal the decision because they didn’t want to set a precedent that could possibly deprive a citizen of their constitutional rights.

The next day, while Susan awaited her release, a story ran in the New York Post discussing how heartless she had been through this whole ordeal.  By not telling the court who she really was, coupled with the fact that her pictures were appearing in the press nationwide day after day, she was allowing a number of parents to become convinced that she may be their missing child.

They reported on one woman from Columbus, Ohio who was so certain Susan was her daughter that her family scrounged up the money needed so that the mother could travel to New Jersey the next day. And within seconds of looking at Susan in person, she knew she wasn’t her missing daughter.

In another instance, both the father and husband of a missing woman drove 200 miles (320 km) to find out the same thing. Two other distraught husbands plus one gypsy also came in hope that Susan was their missing daughter.

Also revealed for the first time in the article was that two knives had been found in Susan’s bag when she was picked up. One was a basic utility knife and the other a 5” (25-cm) commando knife.  Neither knife was against the law to own in New Jersey at the time.

Friday finally rolled around and Susan went nowhere.  She had expressed concern to the judge that she wasn’t quite ready to face all of the reporters and photographers who were certain to be outside the jail when she was released.

Silent Susan Bower in 1946
Silent Susan. Image originally appeared on page 16 of the December 1, 1946 publication of Everybody’s Weekly.

That’s when Attorney Major stepped in and made arrangements for her to secretly leave jail.  At 11:15 AM on Saturday, November 9th, which would have been her 36th day in custody, the woman known to the world only as Susan Bower became a free woman.  By being released a few hours earlier than scheduled, she was able to avoid the press entirely.

Susan told everyone that she intended to resume her journey to Florida.  The ACLU offered to pay her fare south. A bandleader also offered to do the same in exchange for her appearing in his stage show.  In addition, she had offers from big-city newspapers and the major wire services for her story.  Susan also received more than twenty marriage proposals.  She declined every single one of the offers.

Her lawyer first drove her to his home in Ridgewood where Susan changed clothes.  With Mrs. Major now in the car, they drove to New York side of George Washington Bridge and dropped her off.  He offered her $5, but once again she politely said no.

Within forty-five minutes of her release, Bergen County officials received a telephone call from Maryland State Police to hold her. They believed that she could be a possible escapee.

Sorry guys.  She’s already gone…

Six days later, a guy named Brooks Atkinson of Houlton, Maine was in his local sheriff’s office examining various pictures of Susan.  He immediately identified her as his sister, 20-year-old Betty Jean Atkinson.  He said she had left home in September to seek work in Florida. Brooks claimed that he knew what that mysterious letter to Mr. Radir was all about, but wouldn’t discuss it.  After a couple of days, the name Betty Jean Atkinson was never mentioned in the press again, so, just like all those parents of missing children, this may have proven to have been a false identification.

Susan may have been long gone, but the ACLU decided that they needed to press on with their case to avoid setting any type of precedent.  Attorney Major appeared before Judge A. Demorest Del Mar and obtained an order for a review of the decision. On February 5, 1947, he issued a statement and refused to rule on the constitutionality of the arrest and conviction.  He wrote, “At best she can be called a migrant worker begging rides from passing motorists.”  He continued, “Certainly a woman who, as this one did, accepts the hospitality of any truck driver and sleeps in his truck is not so careful of her reputation as to require protection of this court.”

On Sunday, March 30, 1947, a young, slender, blonde-haired woman who was wearing blue-denim trousers was picked up for hitchhiking right outside of Tombstone, Arizona.  She was brought into the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Gordon S. Farley in Nogales, Arizona for a sanity hearing.  The woman refused to answer any of the judge’s questions, which included basic details like her name and address.

The judge quickly realized that this could be Susan Bower who had been set free just 143 days earlier. She was clearly in need of help, so he committed her to the Arizona state hospital for the insane under the name Jane Doe for evaluation.

A few days later fingerprint results came back from the FBI and confirmed that the woman they had in their care was, in fact, the same Susan Bower.  She finally admitted, “That’s me.”

The hospital superintendent, Dr. John A. Larson, said that she “was suffering from a psychosis,” but was soon able to win her confidence and find out who she really was.  Her family was contacted and she was sent home a couple of weeks later.  The doctor promised her that he would not release her name and never did. It remains a mystery to this day.

But that’s not the end of the story. While Susan had returned home and we can only hope went on to live a wonderful life, the ACLU continued to fight her case. On June 3, 1947, the New Jersey State Supreme Court unanimously reversed her conviction.  Chief Justice Clarence E. Case wrote, “We discover no sound reason why the officer should have pressed the accused to give a minute account of herself.”  He continued, “It is not an offense to have a dirty face, or wear blue overalls, or to travel by gratuitous rides from Bangor, Maine, to Florida, or sleep in a truck, or to pick potatoes in one or another part of the country or, with $14 in pocket, to be temporarily out of employment while on the way from the completion of one job to the search for another one.”

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

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