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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1912

Podcast #138 – Titanic’s Orphans

 

One of the first stories that I recorded for this podcast back in January of 2008 was that of Violet Jessop being the only person to survive the collisions of the three sister ships: the Olympic, Titanic, and the Britannic. (Link below.) Well, twelve years later, it is time for another story about the Titanic. I know that so much has been told and retold about the Titanic over the years that it is my hope that I selected one that you have not heard before.

To begin, I would like to introduce you to two women: 49-year-old Mrs. Lily Potter and her daughter Olive Earnshaw, who was 23 years old when the Titanic disaster occurred.  At the time, Olive’s marriage had failed and she had filed for divorce. Her mom, who had been widowed two years prior, came up with the perfect solution for the two of them to get away from it all: they would embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East beginning in December 1911.  And, to make their trip even more enjoyable, they invited 24-year-old Margaret Bechstein Hays to accompany them.  Olive and Margaret had become good friends while attending the Briarcliff School in New York. 

Titanic passenger Margaret Bechstein Hays.
Margaret Bechstein Hays. Image from Find-A-Grave.

They had already arranged passage home on another ship, but as they were about to leave Turkey, they learned that if they postponed their voyage by one week, they could sail on the maiden voyage of the grand RMS Titanic. It was a decision that would ultimately make the three women footnotes to history.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and made a quick stop that evening in Cherbourg, France to pick up additional passengers. It was there that Lily, Olive, and Margaret first boarded the smaller SS Nomadic tender which transported them out to the Titanic, which had been unable to dock due to its immense size.

The Titanic sailing in ocean.
The Titanic sailing in ocean. Library of Congress image.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 14th, all three women had already retired to their cabins for the evening.  Upon hearing the engines cease operation, the two younger women, who were in cabin C-54, went to check on Olive’s mom in C-50. While they were assured by a steward that there was nothing to worry about, the three got dressed, wrapped Margaret’s Pomeranian named Bebe in a blanket, and headed to the C-deck. All three proceeded to put on lifejackets, boarded lifeboat #7, and, at 12:40 AM, it became the first lifeboat to set sail.

It is very well known that the Titanic only carried enough lifeboats to accommodate about half of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew that were on board. Had the ship carried her full complement of 3,339 people, that fraction drops to about one-third. Even worse, the majority of the lifeboats that were launched were not filled to capacity. For example, the boat containing Lily, Olive, Margaret and Bebe had a capacity of sixty-five, yet it sailed off with only twenty-eight passengers aboard.

The last lifeboat to be successfully lowered into the water was Collapsible D. Just as that boat was about to depart, a man appeared on the Titanic deck clutching two young boys in his arms.  Officers stepped forward to prevent him from boarding the boat, so he shouted down to the crew of the lifeboat to help save his babies. They agreed and he dropped the older boy down into the arms of a sailor.  After observing that he was safely caught, the man then dropped the other youngster. According to survivors, the man was last seen dropping to his knees, his hands clasped in prayer and with tears streaming down his face. 

After receiving the Titanic’s distress call, the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4:00 AM and its crew spent the next five hours rescuing survivors before its captain gave the order to set sail with 705 survivors aboard. More than 1,500 lives were lost. 

Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia.
Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia. Library of Congress image.

It was during the three-day voyage to New York aboard the Carpathia that Margaret Hays would take notice of the two young boys as they played with her dog. Since they were the only two children rescued without a parent or guardian, she took it upon herself to care for them. 

While little was known about the boys, it was clear from their striking resemblance that they were almost certainly brothers. One was roughly four years of age and the other two.  One survivor, Julian Pedro, said that the boys occupied the cabin next to his and that the man who accompanied them was named Hoffman, who he believed was their father. He described the father as being around 40-years of age, of medium height and build, with dark hair, a mustache, and a ruddy complexion.  While Hoffman had little interaction with others on the boat, survivors who did recall that he spoke French and believed that he was a widower. 

Ms. Hays, who also spoke fluent French, tried her best to learn what she could from the older boy but had no luck. To just about every question that she asked the boy, he would simply answer “Oui.”

Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic.
Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic. Lily Potter, Olive Earnshaw, and Margaret Hays are listed as number 8-10. Click on image to enlarge.

Upon arrival in New York, Margaret took the two children to her family’s home, which was located at 304 West 83rd Street in Manhattan. With the shocking sinking of the Titanic being front-page news nearly worldwide, the story of the “Two Waifs of the Sea” quickly spread worldwide. The press speculated that Margaret would probably adopt the two children. When interviewed, Ms. Hays told reporters, “I could not allow them to be sent to a foundling home.” She continued, “Just think of it – two little atoms of humanity, whose lives were been filled with happiness, who would’ve been gently brought up by loving parents, robbed of their names, condemned, through no fault of their own to become nameless things in an institution. I could not do that.”

Margaret, with the financial help of her parents, provided the boys with everything they would need until a relative could be found.  That is, should a relative ever be found. They provided the boys with food, shelter, toys and lots of love. The boys appeared incredibly happy and seemed oblivious to the great tragedy that took the life of their dad and so many others.

With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola.
With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola. Colorized image. Original from the Library of Congress.

Still unable to determine their names, the French consul in New York offered his assistance. He stated, “I’ve read in the papers that the older boy has said his name is Louis, but I can get nothing from him to prove it. It seems to me more likely that he answers oui-oui to everything. He was understood to say that his name was Louis, which might seem to have the same sound to an American. I have cabled to France and will do everything I can to find the relatives of the children, but as yet I have gained nothing from them to aid in the search.” 

The Children’s Aid Society arranged for a native Frenchman to visit the children and he concluded that the boys spoke with a dialect that was unmistakably from the southern portion of France.

And the search continued.

Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

Margaret’s father, Frank B. Hays, remarked, “We have no intention of keeping them beyond the time when their relatives are found or the search for them is given up. A Montréal family who were passengers on the Titanic are anxious to adopt them, and my daughter says they shall have the preference. Of course, many persons here in New York have also offered to take them. The published story that the children were in the same boat with my daughter and clung to her instinctively is a misstatement. My daughter left in the first lifeboat and the two children followed on later boats. The smaller boy was tossed from the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat without a stitch of clothing. The older child wore only a shirt when he was taken aboard the Carpathia. The survivors of the Titanic on board formed a ladies’ committee, and as my daughter was the only one among them who had not suffered some personal loss through the disaster she was asked to care for the two children, and gladly did so. She was told that the two children had been in the second cabin of the Titanic in the care of a man named Hoffman, but we have been unable to get any clue to their whereabouts from the White Star line or anywhere else.”

Margaret Hays received more than 450 offers from all over the nation from people willing to adopt the two boys.  All of the inquiries were then forwarded to the Children’s Aid Society for handling. Offers came in from doctors, lawyers, a stockbroker, a French architect, and many others. Margaret’s personal preference, contradicting her father’s statement about the Montreal family, was that the boys be entrusted to the care of an unnamed friend, should a legitimate relative not be located.

Colorized photos of the two Titanic waifs.
Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

The first claim from a possible relative came within one-day of Carpathia arriving in New York with the survivors.  One year prior to the sinking of the Titanic, Mystic, Iowa resident Franck Lefebvre had emigrated to the United States from France.  He came in search of employment and, upon earning enough to send for his family, his wife and four youngest children secured passage on the Titanic. Upon hearing the news of the two unidentified French children, he headed for New York to determine if they were his or not. They proved not to be Lefebvre’s children. Sadly, the bodies of his wife and children were never recovered. 

There was quite a bit publicity regarding the two orphans in the French newspapers and one week after the Titanic’s sinking, a 21-year-old woman named Marcelle Navratil came forward believing that the two boys could be her missing sons.  She said that she had separated from her husband Michel and he disappeared with the children, telling friends that he was going to take them to the United States.  

Marcelle Caretto Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Mme. Navratil described her two boys as follows: the older is Michel, Jr, nicknamed Lolo, spoke with difficulty, and was a couple of months shy of his fourth birthday. His younger brother was Edmond, or Momo for short, who was two years old. Her physical descriptions of the two children also closely matched that of the two waifs.

Could she be their mother? That was still to be determined.  

The first problem was that there was no one with the name of Navratil registered as a passenger on the Titanic. Survivors clearly recalled that the man in charge of these two boys was named Hoffman, which was confirmed by an L. Hoffman on the passenger list. Mme. Navratil confirmed that her husband had a friend named Louis Hoffman, but that could be pure coincidence.

So, if the children were hers, it was possible that her husband either assumed his friend’s name for the voyage or that Hoffman himself had agreed to escort the children to the United States. 

The first step in resolving this mystery occurred in Monte Carlo.  Mme. Navratil provided a picture of her husband to the British consul there.  A ticket agent confirmed that he had sold tickets to the man in the photograph and the children who accompanied him for a voyage on the Titanic.

Colorized photo of Edmond and Michel Navratil, Jr. taken to aid in their identification after the sinking of the Titanic. Original image from Wikipedia.

The exact count is unknown, but it is estimated that 334 bodies were recovered from the wreck. 125 were buried at sea and the remaining 209 were transported to Halifax, Nova Scotia for burial. It was there that New York City resident Frederick Wenger traveled in hope of positively identifying the body of his brother-in-law, Sante Righini, which he was able to do. As Wenger moved among the many open caskets in search of Righini, another body grabbed his attention. “Why, I know that man,” he stated. “That is Louis Hoffman of Nice, France. His two little boys are in New York now.” Since Wenger was not aboard the Titanic, it is unclear how he was able to know what Hoffman looked like. 

With the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean lying between Mme. Navratil and the two children, she needed to find a sure-fire way to prove that they were hers. She prepared a series of questions that only her children would know the answers to. The questions and corresponding answers were telegraphed to New York and Margaret Hays asked them to the older child in French. 

Q – “Qu’est-ce que maman t’a donne la veille de Paques?” (What did mamma give you for Easter?)

A – “Des chocolats.” (Chocolates.)

Q – “Dans quoi?” (In what?)

A – “Dans des ceufs de Paques.” (In Easter eggs.)

Q – “Qu’y avait-il sur les ceufs?” (What was on the eggs?)

A – “Un lapin.” (A rabbit.)

Q – “Qu’est-ce faisait maman avec le petits carres en bois?” (What did mamma do with the little blocks of wood?)

A – “Le chien qui boit (???) du lait avec le petit garcon.” (She made the dog who drank milk with the little boy. – This is referring to a jigsaw puzzle.)

Grandma’s illness:

Q – “A Nice, a la maison de maman, qui c’est qui etait malade?” (In Nice, in mamma’s home, who was it that was ill?)

A – “Grandmaman.” (Grandma.)

Q – “Ou c’est que tu allais avec Marie?” (Where did you go with Marie?)

A – “A la mer voir les aeroplanes.” (To the seashore to see the aeroplanes.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui dechirait les carres en bois?” (Who broke up the wooden blocks?)

A – “Maman.” (Mamma.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui s’appelle Marcelle?” (Who is called Marcelle?)

A – “C’est maman.” (It’s mamma.)

Nearly any doubt that anyone had about these being her two children was removed when five of the eight questions were answered correctly.

On April 24th, ten days after the Titanic impacted the iceberg, the offices of the White Star Line in New York City received an unsigned cablegram from Liverpool stating that the sender would be coming ASAP to claim the boys.

Frank Hays told reporters, “I heard the woman claiming to be the mother of the boys had sailed from Liverpool, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about her and don’t know whether it is a new woman in the case or Mme. Navratil of Nice, France. The White Star people can’t or won’t give me any information.”

His daughter Margaret, in turn, questioned the newspapermen as to what they may know: “Have you learned anything?” She continued, “Well, I don’t believe that Frenchwoman is the mother of these children at all. Her story is not plausible.”

To which her dad replied, “It certainly seems plausible to me. The children speak French and are of southern France type. They are of the age that Mme. Navratil states her children are. They must have been brought up near the water, as they are crazy over boats. And they are children of manifest refinement and as fond of automobiles as boats.”

After reading of Mdm. Navratil’s story, Rudolph Navratil of 317 East Ninth Street in Manhattan was convinced that the two boys belonged to his uncle, also named Rudolph Navratil, whom he had not seen in quite some time. “My uncle was about 45 years old, and he left Hungary when only 20. Since that time he has resided in several different countries, but most of the time in France.” 

He continued, “I’ve seen the pictures of the two Titanic waifs and can trace a strong family resemblance. There is not a shadow of doubt that the children are my uncle’s. The only doubt is as to whether it was my uncle who had them on board the Titanic or whether it was his friend Hoffman.” This lead seemed promising but was quickly proven wrong. Shortly after reading the claim in the newspaper, the elder Rudolph Navratil contacted his nephew and explained that he had moved to New York City eight years prior and never had any children.

Many of the initial headlines of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg were incorrect. (Click on image to enlarge.)

On May 6th, Mme. Navratil boarded the RMS Oceanic at Cherbourg and began her trip to New York. While the White Star Line provided her with first-class accommodations, she mingled very little with the other passengers. 

While awaiting her arrival, the Children’s Aid Society placed the boys in the care of one of Mme. Navratil’s relatives, whose name was withheld from the press.  She was later identified as Rose Bruno, a cousin who worked as a governess in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Finally, on May 15th – one full month after the Titanic sank to its icy grave, the Oceanic docked and Mme. Navratil was one of the first off of the ship. She was rushed through customs and then met at the pier by Margaret and her father Frank, cousin Rose, and a couple of others. After some brief introductions, they all took a cab to the offices of the Children’s Aid Society. There, she was hurried through a throng of reporters and photographers and led up to the nurses’ parlor on the fifth floor. The rest of the party fell back as Mme. Navratil turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.
Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.

As she entered the room, she first spotted her eldest son, Michel, dressed in a tan sailor suit, seated in the corner of a window with a picture alphabet book in his lap. Edmond was crawling on the floor attempting to put a child’s puzzle together.

She knelt to her knees and called to her children, “Mes enfants – Mes petits.” (My children, my little ones.)

Edmond let out a wail and ran towards his mother. “Oh, maman! Oh, Maman!” Michel quickly followed and they all embraced for quite some time.  

The three were alone in the room for nearly an hour, but she never asked them about the tragedy or their father.  “I do not want them to think about that. They must only be happy from now on – only happy; no more distress.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Michel and Edmond. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

While Mme. Navratil was fluent in French and Italian, she spoke no English. Her statements were all translated into English for the benefit of the reporters and their readers.  

“I’m afraid they will both be frightened when they see the big ship on which I am to take them back home Saturday. As for me, of course, I am not frightened, not at all.”

When asked if she would agree to any of the offers of adoption, she replied “No, indeed! I couldn’t give them up.”

She then went on to describe how this whole mess began.  She had been born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents, but her family soon moved back to Genoa. It was there that she met her future husband, Hungarian Michel Navratil. He was a tailor by trade and the two married in 1907, when she was seventeen.  The couple ultimately settled down in Nice where his business prospered. 

The two were very happy until shortly after the birth of their second son, Edmond. That’s when, according to Mme. Navratil, everything started to turn sour. Her husband had become insanely jealous and their marriage quickly fell apart. She filed for a separation and was granted custody of the children. Dad was only permitted to see his children once a month. 

It was on April 7, 1912 – Easter Day – that Mme. Navratil sent her children to see her husband. 

“On Easter Sunday last, my children were taken to their father, and from that time to this, I have not seen them. I then heard that he had sailed from Cherbourg on the Titanic, and when I heard of the sinking of the steamship I almost lost my reason, for my babies, I thought, must have perished. Later came word that there were two children in New York, and when they told me how they looked like, I knew they must be mine.”

She did express that she believed that her husband had died in the wreck, but she had no proof, other than the positive identification by the ticket agent in Monte Carlo, that both he and Louis Hoffman were, in fact, the same person.

Michel Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

On Saturday, May 18, Mme. Navratil and her two children would board the Oceanic and begin their return trip to Europe. Just before they set sail, she commented, “The people here have been very kind. I have not had many offers of help, but I have felt more than I can tell the sympathy for my babies and myself and the trouble strangers have taken to bring us together. I have had hundreds of letters of sympathy and even offers of marriage.” She continued, “We are simple folk, my children and I, and we need not much. God has been good enough to bring us together after so many terrible things.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Edmond and Michel. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

But things were not well when they got back home. Her deceased husband had sold his business for about $8,000 ($215,000 today) and the money was never found. It was believed that he was carrying the cash with him to America and it went down with the ship. 

One year later, Mme. Navratil was working as a servant and struggling to make ends meet. Word that they were living in poverty somehow got back to New York and the Hays family once again stepped in to help.  Margaret told reporters, “Monday is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the legal limit for filing claims expires then. To enable Mrs. Navratil to begin suit, I sent her the money necessary.” Her dad filed a claim for $30,000, but it is unclear if Mrs. Navratil ever received any compensation for her loss.

Margaret would marry Dr. Charles D. Easton of Newport, Rhode Island on April 24, 1913. In November 1914, she would once again meet up with Mme. Navratil and the two boys. The reunion was reported as being joyous. Sadly, Dr. Easton was 58 when he died after undergoing surgery on October 4, 1934. While vacationing with one of her two daughters and a granddaughter in Buenos Aires, Margaret suffered a heart attack and passed away on August 21, 1956. She was sixty-eight years old.

Grave of Margaret Bechstein Hays Easton. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Not much is known about Marcelle Caretto Navratil other than she worked hard, successfully raised her two sons and died in 1963.

Edmond would work as an interior decorator before becoming an architect and builder. When World War II broke out, he joined the French Army, was captured, and was placed in a German POW camp.  He was able to escape, but his health had greatly suffered during his internment and he died on July 7, 1953, at the age of 43.

Lastly, his brother Michel Navratil, Jr. became a psychology professor. It was while in college that he would meet his future Juliet. The couple married in 1932 and together they raised three children.

In 1987, Michel made his first trip back to the United States to mark the 75th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. He returned once again in 1996 and, along with two other female survivors, they cruised to the location of the wreck while attempts were being made to bring a portion of the ship to the surface. 

Before his return to France, he traveled to Halifax for the first time to visit his father’s grave in the Baron de Hirsh Cemetery.  When the bodies were recovered, the intent was to bury the Jewish victims there.  In an ironic twist, eight of the ten Titanic victims buried there were unidentified and the other two weren’t Jewish. Steward Frederick William Wormald was a member of the Church of England and Michel Navratil was Catholic.  The reason Navratil was buried in a Jewish cemetery was that he was originally identified Louis Hoffman, Hoffman being a Jewish surname. Today, his grave bears the name Michel Navratil.

His son Michel did reveal one family secret during his 1996 trip. The failure of his parents’ marriage was not due to jealousy over the birth of Edmond. “My mother never forgave herself for losing her children as a result of her love affair. In New York, there were many people who wanted to adopt us. The battle my mother had endured to win us back was to her like a divine punishment for what she had done.” 

Michel Marcelle Navratil, Jr. was 92 years old when he passed away on January 30, 2001. He was the last surviving male Titanic passenger. Four women outlived him.

Prior to his death, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure really, of going plop into the lifeboat.”

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

Kissing Barred on Bavarian Trains

 

It was announced on September 25, 1912 that the Bavarian railroad had placed a ban on kissing on its trains or on railroad property. 

This rule was put in place after a couple boarded 1 of their trains after a strenuous bicycling tour. The wife was exhausted and laid her head on her husband shoulder, as he placed his arm around her. 

This made some of the other riders uncomfortable and they summoned the conductor, claiming that they had witnessed the couple kissing. 

Can you believe that? Kissing in public? What’s this world coming to? 

The husband denied that they been kissing, but that didn’t stop the railroad from banning kissing outright.

Bride and groom kiss in Brisbane in 1946. Image from the State Library of Queensland

Millionaire for a Day

 
Useless Information Podcast

Back in 1911, Wilkes-Barre, PA resident John Jay “Butch” McDevitt won the Democratic Primary for county treasurer. The only problem was that the Democratic Committee didn’t want McDevitt on the ballot. Find out how the party got rid of him and how he capitalized on this for the rest of his life.

Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date:  November 25, 2016

Let’s suppose that a political party is stuck with a candidate that they simply don’t want on the ballot.  A candidate who doesn’t represent their values.  A candidate who they believe has little chance of winning the election. This may sound like I am referring to President-elect Donald Trump, but I am not.

Instead, let me introduce you to the subject of today’s story. His name is John Jay McDevitt, aka Butch McDevitt, and a little more than a century ago he put the Democratic party in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in a similar position. The best part, as you will soon learn, was that he walked away from the situation with his dignity intact, a smile on his face, and managed to retain the respect of his community for the rest of his life.

Born on June 2, 1875, McDevitt spent many years hopping from one job to another, which included stints as a milkman and as a coal miner. His true-life calling would come at the age of 22 when he claims to have read a story in a newspaper that said that what the city really needed was a bright young man to be elected mayor.  He decided that he was that bright young man, ran for the office, and lost.

A few years later, he was elected to be constable of the city’s Thirteenth Ward.  In 1908 McDevitt sought reelection as constable on the Democratic ticket and also ran to become Wilkes-Barre mayor as a Republican.  Running for office on two competing tickets was just as ludicrous back then as it is today, but Butch didn’t care. By this time, he had become well known around the community for his great sense of humor and no one took him seriously.  Even McDevitt knew perfectly well that he had no chance of becoming mayor, but he figured that he had nothing to lose by trying. He did win reelection as constable, but lost big time in the race for mayor.  Out of 3,936 votes cast in total, he received just 356.

The event that would forever change his life occurred on October 7th of 1911.  After days of counting the ballots, it was announced that John Jay McDevitt had won the Democratic primary for county treasurer.  He secured 1,864 out of 3,464 votes cast. The candidate that the party had been backing, Bolton G. Coon, had lost to McDevitt by 817 votes.

The bigwigs of the county Democratic Committee were in a panic.  They were certain that McDevitt would lose in the general election and there was no way that they wanted an Irishman to be on their ticket. They knew that there was only one way to get McDevitt to quit: they would need to buy him off.

McDevitt demanded $5,000 (approximately $128,000 today) and the right to endorse the opposing Republican candidate. The Democratic leaders balked at this outrageous request, so McDevitt threw it back in their face.  He raised his price to $6,000.

In the end, a deal was reached.  McDevitt was handed $1,500 in cold, hard cash and the promise that he would receive an additional $1,000 if the Democratic candidate won the election.  But wait; there was more to the deal.  Should the Democrats win, they also promised McDevitt a position in the commissioner’s office.  Ever the jokester, he claimed that he arranged it so his brother would work the morning shift and then at noon he would go into work, ensuring that a McDevitt was always on the job. He told the press, “At noon each day the McDevitt brothers will change shifts.”

Rumors started to spread that McDevitt had sold out for $500, to which he responded, “I would ruin myself politically to sell out at that low figure and the fellows who are putting around the story are miscreants of the lowest type whose aim is to bring my downfall in the world of politics.”

Butch offered the following statement to the public: “Allow me to thank all those who voted for me at the recent primaries and also my friends who directly or indirectly assisted me in seeking the nomination for county treasurer. I spent little time and less money than any other aspirant and although I had a walkover and actually little trouble in getting in the ticket, I must say that it was a harder job to get off the ticket.”

McDevitt filed papers that he had received a total of $7.60 from others, but spent none of it on his race for county treasurer. Instead it was used to fight off a candidate who was running for city treasurer instead. In the end, the Democrats swept the election, McDevitt pocketed the $2,500 but was never awarded that position in the commissioner’s office.

So, what would you do if you had suddenly come into a large amount of money – they had given McDevitt the equivalent of nearly $65,000 in today’s funds?  Maybe put it in the bank, purchase some stock or go bet it on the horses?  Butch McDevitt, ever the comedian, decided to do something more memorable.  Since he had technically won the Democratic nomination for county treasurer, he figured that he was entitled to a banquet in his honor.  Since no one offered to throw one for him, he decided to host one himself at a hotel in Wilkes-Barre a few weeks after he quit the race.

Imagine a banquet where the master of ceremonies, the host, the guest speaker, and the honoree are all the same person.  He introduced himself, bowed to imaginary guests, and gave the obligatory speech:

“It is a rare privilege to have such an honor bestowed upon me by myself, and I appreciate the consideration of the former candidate, so tonight I pay tribute to myself and feel elated in knowing what it all means, and I assure you, Mr. McDevitt, that no one appreciates the honor bestowed upon you more keenly than yourself.”

This stunt brought McDevitt instant fame in the national papers. The Buffalo Evening Times wrote a glowing editorial on his actions. In part, they wrote, “We’d rather see a man like McDevitt not take himself seriously enough but pull off his coat and help the party, than have a man take himself so seriously he won’t help the party at all.” The paper continued, “The spectacle of McDevitt acting as his own entertainment committee and after-dinner speaker is a great deal finer than would be the spectacle of McDevitt sulking because a delegation of obsequious gentlemen didn’t appear and offer him a monogrammed watch or a gold-headed cane.”

But John McDevitt still had money in his pocket and he was determined to spend all that remained of his election payoff.  Butch felt that this money made him rich and he wanted to live just one day as a rich person does.  He announced that he would accomplish this goal by going to New York City and spending all his money in one single day.  From this day forward, John Jay McDevitt would forever be known as the “Millionaire for a Day.”

“You see, I have no particular reason for going to New York, but I feel that as the ‘well-to-do’ take trips to the metropolis, it is up to me to get in the swim.”

Prior to his trip, McDevitt hired a valet, but never bothered to ask for his real name.  Instead,  Butch referred to him as Smoke, since he felt that the main purpose of his valet was to provide him with a lit cigar at all times.  He also hired a physician, Dr. E. A. Sweeney, who was paid $25 per day as long as Butch remained healthy and only $5 per day should he get sick.

Supposedly the rich never get up before noon, so Butch did the same on January 12, 1912. When he arose, Smoke was ready with the first lit cigar. A perfumed bath was drawn and then Smoke gave Butch a rubdown.  He dined in the grill room of the best hotel in Wilkes-Barre and tipped the waiters $2 (about $50 today) each.

As he exited the hotel, Butch was greeted by a large crowd of reporters, photographers, and ordinary citizens.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of nickels that he tossed to the crowd. At 1:15 a large touring car appeared in front of the hotel and Butch was escorted to the limousine by his personal secretary John Lenahan, who was really the hotel’s assistant manager.

And then it was off to the train station in style: a total distance of one city block. Upon arrival at the station, McDevitt stood up and gave a humorous speech, which included the following: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I am about to spend every cent I own on an experiment. I am going to spend it to boom this infernal town. It needs it and I have long recognized that it needed it.  Of course, I have no other ideas.  I am certainly going to try to enjoy myself while I am doing this. I am going to New York, the greatest city in the world, in the palatial special train which I have engaged and which you now see approaching, drawn by yon huge mogul locomotive.”

After his speech concluded, the city of Wilkes-Barre gave him a tremendous sendoff as he boarded the train that he had rented for the trip.  He claimed that the train alone had cost him $516 (nearly $13,000 today). It consisted of three Lehigh Valley cars, including a Pullman car to carry Butch and his newly hired staff plus an empty baggage car to carry his one suitcase. McDevitt was greeted by large crowds at every stop along the way to New York. Each and every time he would step to the rear of the last car and address the crowd.

Upon his arrival in New York, McDevitt hired an expensive taxicab to take him the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During his first meal at the hotel, Butch ordered just about everything on the menu.  That included 18 types of cheese, 11 different cocktails, and many desserts.

He had heard the millionaires have bulletins sent out just to tell others how they were doing, so he instructed his doctor to do the same.  Dr. Sweeney constantly took McDevitt’s pulse and prepared bulletins to update the public on his health.

Nighttime brought an outing with composer George M. Cohan.  In a strange and totally unplanned coincidence, he attended a play about a fake millionaire. Upon conclusion of the second act, Butch was led backstage and gave the lead actor a baton supposedly made from anthracite coal and studded with diamonds; all a fake, of course.

At Hammerstein’s Theater, Butch was offered $1000 to appear for one week in vaudeville.  He politely turned the offer down.  “I don’t want to commercialize this thing. I’m having a good time and I just want to go home broke when it’s over.”

By the end of the evening Millionaire for a Day John Jay McDevitt had become broke Butch McDevitt. He had spent nearly every penny that he had.  He boarded the New Haven train and headed for home. Upon arrival back in Wilkes-Barre, his secretary determined that Butch still had $1.58 remaining. McDevitt then handed $1.50 to the porter.  His last 8-cents was given to a newsboy.

McDevitt may have thrown away a fortune in a short period, but his life would forever change. He was now famous across the nation.  He received hundreds of invitations to give speeches coupled with numerous offers for him to appear on the stage. He turned all but one of the offers down, declaring that he would appear “For charity only.”

One month later on February 18th, McDevitt declared his candidacy for Congress.  He had visited President Taft at the White House and released the following statement: “Say for me that the next representative form Luzerne County will be your royal highness.  I need the money, like the place, and have decided to respond to the voice of my people. So prepare ye way for John Jay McDevitt, ‘millionaire for a day.'”  Don’t bother checking the history books to see the election results. Neither the public or McDevitt himself took this seriously. His next stunt would further confirm that the McDevitt was ever the jokester.

On October 1st, Butch announced that he was going to have a statue erected in his memory.  He felt that the people of Wilkes-Barre were not treating a great man like him as well as they should and a monument would assure that he would be remembered forever.  Butch was very generous when it came to having the statue erected.  Not only would he commission it himself, but he would also do the unveiling. His plan was to ask the city to have it erected in the city’s Public Square Park. If they declined, he would ask the county commissioners to consider his application.  And should they refuse, he would purchase a small parcel in the central part of the city and have the statue erected there. As you could probably guess, neither of his applications were approved nor did he buy that tiny parcel of land.

But that wasn’t the end of McDevitt’s statue. In March of 1913 a letter that he penned was published in the newspapers asking the nearby city of Scranton to provide a location for his statue. That failed. A few weeks later, he requested that his statue be placed on the grounds of the State Capitol. They didn’t bite.

On December 6th, Butch announced that he had once again come into a large pile of cash – in this case a $3,000 from a publisher in exchange for a book about his life – and he was going to use it to charter a special train of six cars with Washington, DC as the destination. His plan this time was to request that Congress place his monument in the Statuary Hall in the Capitol.

So, imagine this. On February 3, 1914, thirty uniformed police officers, all paid for by McDevitt, led the way as Butch made his way to the Lehigh Valley train station to embark on his trip. Following right behind him was a fifty-piece band. A crowd of approximately 2,000 gathered at the depot as a six-horse truck carried along the bronze statue. Bronze as in that it was really a plaster of Paris cast finished off with a bronze-colored paint. Upon its arrival, four coal miners hauled the life-size statue of John Jay McDevitt up to the platform.

He offered up the following speech to his fans, “Look here my friend, Congress will accept it. Will a polar bear accept ice? Will the Mexican government take money? In years to come people will read their histories, then say: ‘That Congress which bagged that McDevitt statuary was some national body. It leaped upon the chariot of opportunity and tore the throttle wide open.'”  The train blew its whistle and Mr. McDevitt was on his way to Washington. Along its journey, the statue was stood up on the rear platform of the observation car so that people could wave to it as it went by.

Upon his arrival at Union Station, an estimated 2,000 people greeted him indoors and another 5,000 were outside.  A parade led by a group of policemen on bicycles was followed by a 25-piece section of the Marine Band. Next in line was a truck that read “We Carry Anything”, which, in this case, meant the McDevitt statue.  Upon arrival at the Sterling Hotel, two piano movers carried the statue up to the suite of rooms that Butch had rented for the night.

“The only difference between Napoleon and myself is that Napoleon led an army and I did not.  Some people say I am crazy, but the only difference between eccentricity and insanity is $100,000, and I am darn near broke. I am the most successful failure that ever lived.”

Butch awoke the next day from the bed in his seven-room suite and was told that a line of chorus girls had called to pay their respect. “Tell them to wait until I have my champagne bath and I shall receive them.”

Then it was off to the Capitol to present the statue.  He was informed that each state is only allowed two statues in the Statuary hall and Pennsylvania had already used up their allotment.  In addition, Speaker of the House Champ Clark denied McDevitt a permit to give a speech on the Capitol steps. McDevitt and his bronze-coated likeness then boarded a train and headed home to Wilkes-Barre.

That wasn’t the end of the news about his statue.  In August of 1915 it was announced that the town of Port Chester, NY had agreed to provide a site for the statue.  There was one catch: McDevitt had to pay the town $5,000 for its long-term maintenance (about $118,000 today), an amount of money that he did not possess.  One month later McDevitt was at the Milton fair attempting to present it to elected officials there.  No dice.  By December he was trying to convince Scranton to take it.  This was followed by an attempted giveaway in Atlantic City the following year. Finally, on September 3, 1917 it was announced in the press that the bronze beast would finally find a home in the small town of Highland, PA.  Today the town has a population of 492 people, so this wasn’t the ideal location.

You are probably wondering how McDevitt supported himself and came up with the money to have that statue made and drag it all over the place.  That’s a good question and no one knows for sure.  Two things are certain: First, he was not independently wealthy.  Second, he was an awful businessman.  He operated a cigar store, which went out of business in 1913. He also operated a couple of mildly successful publications, but they offered him no great source of income. After his millionaire for a day stunt, McDevitt became an in-demand speaker which, one must assume, eventually became his main source of income.

McDevitt continued to run for various political offices. In 1913 he ran against 51 other candidates for Wilkes-Barre city commissioner. Realizing the odds were against him winning, he opted to be a candidate for clerk of the courts on the Democratic ticket. He lost.  In 1915 he came in fifth out of five candidates for county treasurer.  He ran as both a Democratic and Republican candidate.  The winner, James H. Evans, secured 12,667 votes while Butch only received 681.

Losing by such a wide margin didn’t stop McDevitt. In 1916 he decided to run for the highest office in the land.  He wanted to be President of the United States.  And, in typical McDevitt fashion, he went all out to announce his candidacy.  Once again, with $3,900 in his pocket, a train was rented and he made his way to New York City to hold a political convention. “Gentlemen, you are called into convention for the purpose of nominating me for President.” After a lengthy speech and lots of drinks all around, McDevitt left and headed for Atlantic City.  According to the New York Tribune, he went there to “await the pleasure of a notification committee appointed by Mister McDevitt to inform Mister McDevitt that Mister McDevitt had been chosen nominee of the Mister McDevitt party.” You may be shocked to hear this, but he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.

In 1917 Butch ran to be clerk of the courts receiving 963 out 9792 votes cast in the primary. In 1918, he dreamed of becoming next Governor of Pennsylvania and received 27,000 votes statewide.  His campaign spent a total of $1.08.  He blamed his loss on the fact that the winning candidates received more votes than he did and that he was listed at the bottom of the ballot. He suggested that he may change his name from McDevitt to AckDevitt so that he will appear at the top of the ballot in future elections.

In 1918 McDevitt turned his focus to the war and used his popularity to help sell more Liberty bonds. After the war, he tossed his hat into the ring to become president of the League of Nations, but no one took him up on the offer.

And then he was back to his old ways of getting his name in the papers. In 1919, he ran as a Democrat to become the Register of Wills. He came in 6th out of six candidates, receiving 1,448 votes out of 20,683 cast.

Starting on November 11, 1919, Butch found himself in the middle of a big political mess. City treasurer candidate R.M. Keiser was able to find forty-four voters in the Thirteenth ward who had voted for him, but the official tally sheet indicated that he had received only thirty-five votes in total.  Testimony in court later revealed that the election board opted to file false returns to get their candidate elected. One witness testified that he observed McDevitt burning some of the ballots.  Arrests were made and a couple of men went to jail, but Butch somehow escaped prosecution.

Butch went back to doing what he did best.  He continued to lecture, entertain, and run for political office.  One of his defeats occurred in 1927 while running for Wilkes-Barre mayor.  He received just twelve votes.  In 1931, he opted to run for five offices at the same time: mayor, treasurer, school director, register of wills, and recorder of deeds.  Even age never slowed him down. He was 71 in 1946 when he decided to run on the Democratic ticket to become a representative to the Pennsylvania State House.  Once again, he lost garnering 918 votes out of 3476 cast. The next year he lost to be Wilkes-Barre mayor with 511 out of 2894 votes.

McDevitt never married, but twice publicly set out to find a wife.  On February 13, 1915 an advice column titled Elizabeth’s Letters featured a letter that began, “Dear Elizabeth: This is the first time I have written to you and would like you to answer the following questions: (1) Is Butch McDevitt still in Wilkes Barre? (2) Is he still looking for a wife or did he get one to suit him?  (3) If not, I would like to meet him.”

Next thing you know Butch is in the news in search of a wife in both Boston and Atlantic City.  “A prophet like me is never appreciated in his own country; that’s why the girls in Wilkes-Barre will have nothing to do with me.”  He continued, “What can I offer a girl? Well, nothing – except for a loving heart and amiable disposition, a comfortable living, and the use of two or three automobiles.”

More than one-hundred women wrote to say that they would marry him, but he chose none.  He did come across an advertisement from a Brooklyn, NY woman named Martha Stephens who was in search of “the perfect man.” Butch immediately wrote a long letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explaining why he was that perfect man. A portion if it read, “Some time ago I advertised for a wife and received a large amount of mail, but I must admit that I didn’t happen to come across the girl that summed up to my dream miss. That’s why I write this letter, thinking that the woman in question might hit my fancy.”  She didn’t bite, but he once again received great publicity from his search.

On April 4, 1927, we find Butch attempting to find love once again. How’s this for a bit of déjà vu: He chartered a special train, “McDevitt’s Romance Train”, which was bound for New York City.  His destination: the Waldorf Astoria hotel to find the love of his life. The train did go to New York as planned. The only problem was that it left without him.  Butch missed the train.

John J. McDevitt passed away on February 3, 1951 at 76 years of age. Up until that point, newspaper articles had been written about him every single year since the day that he had pulled the Millionaire for a Day stunt back in 1912. He ran for just about every political office in the land – far more than I have mentioned in this story – and lost time-and-time again, but never lost sight of the humor of it all.

I’ll leave you with one last quotation from McDevitt, this one written in May of 1946: “So, to the fellows who have a political thought, take this tip – it’s an interesting venture and worth any man’s money for a tryout.  It’s really exciting, but always remember that you must hold your head and do not permit yourself to become embittered if you fail to make the grade.  Remember this also, that it’s not the traits or qualities of good fellowship that makes for political success. It’s hitting and getting in at the opportune time; a good sense of humor is a valuable asset and doubly valuable in defeat.”

My only question is: Whatever happened to that bronze statue that he had made of himself?  Someone has got to have it somewhere.

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