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Podcast #142 – The Runaway Miss America

 

The judging of beauty, both male and female, has probably been going on since the beginning of mankind. Yet, the first truly modern beauty contest here in the United States is said to have begun with perhaps the most famous showman of all time – P. T. Barnum – who, back in the 1850s, began holding contests before paying audiences to select the best chicken, dog, flower, and child in all of America. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to “the handsomest ladies” in the United States. Surprisingly, that was one beauty pageant that he couldn’t pull off. Due to the conservative nature of society at the time, Barnum was unable to find enough women willing to publicly place themselves on display. His solution was to have a picture photo contest. Women would submit photographs of themselves which Barnum intended to display in his museum and then have his patrons vote for the most beautiful woman. The prize for being among the top ten of the winners was a specially commissioned oil painting based on their photos. In addition, a book of portraits titled the “World’s Book of Female Beauty” would be published in France for the whole world to see. Yet, this was never to be. Barnum sold his museum shortly before the judging ever began. Others around the country picked up on Barnum’s idea and soon the exhibition of submitted photographs became a respectable way for young women to have their beauty judged.

By the early part of the 20th century, social norms began to change. Resorts and entertainment venues began to host beauty pageants, although they were strictly localized events. A big change would occur  when businessmen in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey held what they referred to as a “Fall Frolic.” The planners never set out to create a national beauty pageant. What they were trying to do was to get people to visit Atlantic City after Labor Day, which marks the traditional end of summer here in the United States, after which beach resorts like Atlantic City became ghost towns. The first Fall Frolic was held on September 25, 1920. While the event did bring visitors in, it wasn’t the smashing success that they had hoped for.

To increase attendance the following year, changes were made to the program. First, nine East Coast newspapers agreed to hold picture photo contests within their pages to allow their readers to choose the most beautiful women in their city. The finalists from these contests would then go on to compete in a local beauty contest, the winner of which would be awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City to appear in the Fall Frolic. There they would all compete in a beauty contest in which the winner would be crowned the Inter-City Beauty. The next day, these young women would also compete in the Bather’s Revue, the winner then crowned the Golden Mermaid. If you’re imagining young women walking around on a stage in skimpy swimwear, keep in mind that bathing suits were still quite conservative in 1921. Miss Washington, DC, Margaret Gorman was the winner that year, and just prior to the 1922 event her title was changed from the Inter-City Beauty to Miss America.

Fast forward to the 1937 contest, which is the focus of today’s story.  Unlike today where there are fifty-one contestants, one from each state plus Washington, DC, back then there could be multiple representations from one state and none from another. For example, Miss Westchester County, Miss New York City, Miss Troy, Miss Bronx, and Miss Empire State all came from New York that year. Yet, there were no contestants from states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Utah, and so on. Miss Puerto Rico was also present, but she was not allowed to compete due to the contest’s Rule #7, abandoned in 1940, which required contestants to be “of good health and of the white race.”

Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.
Twenty-two of the contestants in the 1937 Miss America competition. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 7, 1937 publication of the Camden Post.

Festivities got underway on Monday, September 6 with all the contestants meeting together for the first time at Philadelphia’s Belview-Stratford Hotel. After the women were photographed, given a tour of the city, they were the guests at an extravagant dinner held in their honor by the Philadelphia Variety Club.

Earl Sweigart, one of those in charge of the Philadelphia arrangements, stated “I never saw a finer looking group of girls in my life. The judges this year will have a very difficult task to determine who is the most beautiful girl and the girl with the most personality. I understand also that some of the girls are really talented.”

The next day, all of the contestants boarded the “American Beauty Special” train, arriving in Atlantic City at 11:20 AM. The pageant opened with a flag-raising and gun salute on the deck of Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier entertainment and amusement complex. This was followed by dignitaries giving their obligatory speeches with music provided by Rudy Vallee and his orchestra. The contestants met with the press at noon, followed by the Variety Club Jubilee Luncheon at the Traymore Hotel. No longer in existence, the hotel was located at the intersection of two of Monopoly’s most expensive properties: Boardwalk and Park Place.

It was at 8:30 that evening that the first round of judging took place in the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier. As a crowd of seven thousand looked on, fifteen of the contestants competed in what was called the Talent Preliminary Contest, which was broken into three segments. First, the girls paraded past the judges in their evening gowns, which was followed by the swimsuit competition, and concluded with the talent portion of the show. Only the top talent winner, Miss Massachusetts, Claire Nevulus, was announced at the end of the evening. The remainder of the rankings were kept secret. This same contest would be repeated Wednesday and Thursday evenings until all forty-six contestants appeared before the judges. Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss New York, Grace Travis, placed first in those two competitions.

On Friday, thousands of spectators looked on as a parade featuring spectacular floats, bands, and the Miss America contestants moved along the Boardwalk. At 9 PM, all of the contestants competed in the American Ball, during which the young ladies walked along the runway in their evening gowns so that the judges could select the “most beautiful girl in an evening gown” and the “girl with the most pleasing personality.” The winner of the evening gown contest was Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper, who “wore a coronation red, transparent velvet gown with a full skirt accentuated by a hoop” with pale pink gardenias around it. Miss Westchester County, Evelyn Raye, was voted to have the best personality. At 11 PM, the fifteen women who ranked highest in the three preliminary contests were announced, allowing them to advance on to the final competition.

Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.
Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 15, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Saturday was the big day. At 8:30 PM, another seven thousand spectators packed the Marine Ballroom to witness the final judging. It wouldn’t be until 11:30 PM that the coronation ceremony would begin. There was a tie for 3rd runner-up between Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss Miami, Irmigard Dietel. 2nd runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Ruth Covington. The 1st runner-up was Miss Texas, Alice Emerick. And, the new Miss America in 1937 was – drumroll, please – 17-year-old Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.

Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937.
Bette Cooper being crowned Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 104 of the September 1971 publication of The Ladies Home Journal.

But just who was Bette Cooper? And where in the world was Bertrand Island? The world would soon find out.

Bette was born on August 11, 1920, to Mabel and Marin Le Brun Cooper in Hackettstown, New Jersey. She was the second of the couple’s three children. The family lived at 504 Moore Street – the same house that she was born in – which was located directly across the street from the campus of Centenary College. At the time of Bette being crowned Miss America, she had just begun her first year of junior college there. Before this, Bette attended Hackettstown High School, where she excelled in her academic studies, participated in theater productions, and was highly active in sports such as basketball, volleyball, and track. In her spare time, she loved to swim, play tennis, cycle, and dance. She stated, “But not those modern dances. I prefer the old-time graceful waltz.”

Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown.
Bette Cooper being kissed by her mother after winning the Miss America 1937 crown. Image appeared on page 4 of September 14, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

The interesting thing is that Bette Cooper never dreamed of becoming Miss America. Her path to the crown began in the summer of 1936 when she entered a beauty pageant at the Bertrand Island amusement park on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. The amusement park is long gone, but it was a moderately sized, family-run entertainment venue. Nothing like the mega amusement parks that exist today. So, entering a beauty contest there was not that big a deal. Being crowned Miss Bertrand Island carried no greater significance than being crowned the queen of a resort hotel or a parade. And Bette did not win that year. She placed third.

Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937.
Colorized photograph of Bette Cooper, Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

Fast forward one more year to 1937 and Bette was back at the amusement park to have some fun with friends. And, wouldn’t you know it, the park was once again holding one of its many beauty contests. Her friends convinced Bette to once again enter. To her surprise, Bette was crowned Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Two weeks later, on August 12, 1937, Bette and ten winners of other local pageants met up in the Bertrand Island ballroom to compete for the title of Miss Lake Hopatcong 1937. Once again, Bette was chosen to be the winner, which automatically advanced her straight on to the Miss America pageant. Since the amusement park paid for Bette’s travel expenses to Atlantic City, she competed as Miss Bertrand Island for publicity purposes.

The reality was that Bette never expected to win the Miss America title. She simply wasn’t the classic long-legged beauty that stereotypically wins beauty contests. As judged by the press back then, Bette was more of an adult version of Shirley Temple. The main reason she agreed to participate in the Miss America contest was that it allowed her entire family to have an all-expense-paid trip to Atlantic City. And, when she did win, Bette was completely unprepared for what came next.

Moments after being crowned, dozens of photographers rushed toward the stage. The constant popping of the flashbulbs seemed blinding as Bette stood there in shock. Reporters began their rapid fire questioning of the new queen and, as she sobbed in apparent happiness, Bette stated “I don’t know what to say – I’m so happy.” Shortly after that, the pageant came to a close and Bette and her family retreated to their hotel rooms to get some much-needed rest.

Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937.
Colorized photograph of Betty Cooper and her family after being crowned Miss America 1937. Original black and white image appears here.

The following morning, cameramen for the newsreel pictures and newspapers arrived to the Steel Pier to set up their equipment for a scheduled 10:30 AM press conference with Miss America and the runners-up. But there was one big problem: Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, was nowhere to be found. Phone calls were made to her room, but she was long gone. Even her parents couldn’t say where she went. Miss America had gone AWOL. As reporters and policemen scuttled off in search of the missing Miss America, pageant officials attempted to make the best of a bad situation. A photograph syndicated in newspapers across the country shows a vacant throne with Miss America’s robe draped over it. Her crown rested on the seat of the throne while her trophy sat on the ground at its base. Miss Texas, the 1st runner-up, stood to one side while Miss North Carolina and Miss Miami stood on the other, all dressed in their swimsuits.

Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937's vacant throne.
Miss Texas, Miss North Carolina, and Miss Miami stand next to Miss America 1937’s vacant throne. Image appeared on page 4 of the September 13, 1937 publication of the New York Daily News.

Atlantic City Mayor C. D. White told the press, “We don’t know where Miss Cooper is. Her parents didn’t mind her entering the pageant, but they didn’t expect her to win. They let her come down because it was a nice vacation for all of them, but now that she’s won the crown they don’t want her running all over the country for stage appearances and screen tests.”

But where was Miss America? Rumors spread like wildfire. Did she forfeit her title? Would Miss Texas now be crowned Miss America? Could Bette have been kidnapped? Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and reported that Bette had eloped in Maryland.

None of this was true. It turns out that Bette had been hiding in plain sight the entire time. In explaining what had really happened, we must return to that first day when all of the contestants showed up in Atlantic City. Upon arrival, each of the young women was assigned a male chaperone – officially called “a chauffeur” – to escort them around the city and to all of the pageant functions. This had been done out of necessity because the Miss America pageant was operating on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. To save money, pageant organizers came up with the brilliant idea of finding young men who would volunteer their time to entertain the young ladies. On its surface, it seemed like the ideal situation. The young men got to spend time with beautiful women, the contestants would have a handsome escort to show them around the city, and the pageant got free labor. What could go wrong?

They were about to find out…

A few days before the pageant was scheduled to begin, 21-year-old Louis Off and a friend decided to volunteer their services. By the time they arrived at pageant headquarters, only two contestants remained without chauffeurs: Miss New Orleans and Miss Bertrand Island. Lou let his buddy pick first, leaving Lou with the only unselected girl, Bette Cooper. Years later, Lou would recall, “I remember there were all sorts of girls. A lot of them were just cute bathing-suit girls, and there was even one stripper in the contest. In this crowd, Bette Cooper stood out like a beacon in the middle of the ocean.”

The two hit it off right away. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bette was beautiful inside and out, while Lou was good-looking, well-dressed, and polite. His family owned both the nearby Brighton Hotel and a floral nursery, so he was able to send Bette orchids every day. While Bette seemed enamored by her chaperone, Lou saw it as more of an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful young woman.

Colorized image of Bette Cooper and Louis Off walking on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1937. The original black and white image appears here.

On the day of Bette’s coronation, she had some downtime before the evening pageant, so Lou asked her if he could take her to lunch. He picked her up at the Lafayette Hotel and Lou described what happened next: “We took a long drive first. Bette had a cold and didn’t feel well at all. She had even been to see a doctor. I remember we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Somers Point, and when we were sitting there I asked her, ‘Bette, have you really thought what you are going to do if you win this thing tonight?’” He continued, “She just laughed and said the thought was ridiculous.”

Then, after winning the contest that evening, it quickly became clear that Bette was unprepared for all of the demands that being Miss America entailed. After retreating to her hotel room that evening, she panicked. Lou described what happened next. “About 2 AM, the phone rang and it was Bette. She was in tears and she said, ‘I want to see you. I don’t want any part of it.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.’”

That’s when Lou ran into a nearby telephone booth and emerged seconds later as Superman. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic…

Lou fetched his car from the Brighton Hotel garage and raced to the Lafayette where he met up with Bette’s father in the lobby. Mr. Cooper explained that Bette was in over her head and didn’t want the title of Miss America after all. The entire family just wanted to go home. Lou drove off and then asked two of his buddies for assistance.

Lou returned to the Lafayette around 4:30 AM with his friends and they escorted Bette down the fire escape to freedom. They drove about four miles (6.4 km) down the coast to nearby Margate and boarded a fishing boat docked there. They sailed directly back to the Steel Pier and dropped anchor just a short distance away as dawn was breaking. With Bette ill, she slept most of the day below deck as Lou and his buddies relaxed and did some fishing. The entire time they were able to watch all of the commotion taking place up on the pier as the search for Miss America continued. Later that afternoon, they sailed back to Margate, hopped in Lou’s Buick, and drove 3 ½ hours to Hackettstown, arriving at Bette’s home around midnight.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

Once officials determined Bette’s whereabouts, the pageant’s board of governors had an emergency meeting to determine how to handle this unusual situation. Bette was willing to walk away from all of her winnings, which included a six-week vaudeville contract, $400 (approximately $7200 today) for a 5-day stint on the Steel Pier, a $1000 ($18,000 today) fur coat, and a flight to Hollywood for a screen test. But would pageant officials force Bette to forfeit her Miss America title?

George D. Tyson, then director of the Showman’s Variety Jubilee, which operated the Miss America pageant, soon announced, “Miss America has decided against launching her professional career at this time. She is too ill to be on hand today. She is still Miss America. She rightfully won and the pageant officials will not dictate her future course.”

Yet, behind the scenes, there was a lot of negotiation taking place. With Bette being seventeen years of age, she could not be held legally responsible for any contract that she had signed. Her parents demanded that she receive a less vigorous schedule. It was agreed that in exchange for Bette retaining her Miss America title, she would participate in only a fraction of her expected duties. Four days after being crowned Miss America, Bette Cooper announced to the world that her abdication was completely a mistake.

Bette meeting showgirls backstage at New York’s International Casino on March 18, 1938. Image appeared on page 44 of the April 4, 1938 publication of Life.

Needless to say, the press had a field day with this story. It was front-page news across the nation.  In fact, the Associated Press ranked it as the tenth biggest story of 1937, with the Hindenburg disaster being #1.

One article concluded that Bette’s initial decision was the correct one. “According to actuaries, the odds are almost 4-to-1 against any holder of the crown making a successful marriage. The average Miss America can expect no more than 3.9456 years of bliss.” Only the passage of time would determine if Bette could beat those odds.

Another story commented that ordinary women should not fret because Bette’s proportions were not perfect either. “She is five feet, six and one-half inches tall, and weighs 120 pounds. She has a bust measurement of 32 inches; hips, 36 inches, and waist, 26 inches; thigh, 20 inches; calf, 13 inches; ankle, 8 ½ inches. According to the accepted standards in symmetry, Miss Cooper’s hip measurement is too large… Or her bust too small. The rest of her measurements are very nearly perfect and she is an exceptionally pretty girl.”

Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to the radio.
Miss America Bette Cooper at home listening to her Philco radio. Image appeared on page 11 of April 1938 publication of Radio Today.

Reporters waited outside the Cooper home but the family had very little to say. Mrs. Cooper answered the door and stated, “Bette is in bed – sick. And I’m going to bed. I’m sick.” She then pointed to a sign placed near the doorbell that read, “Do not ring the bell owing to sickness.”

Bette’s father said, “Bette is not the type of girl to appear in vaudeville. She isn’t robust enough for the professional grind. She just entered on a lark. Her mother and I want her to finish school first to get polished off, then do something that isn’t strenuous, like modeling for magazine covers.”

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College.
Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in school at Centenary College. Image appeared on page 3 of the January 28, 1938 publication of the Hackensack Record.

As for her relationship with Lou Off, her sister Mabel stated, “Puppy love. Not serious.” Her father added, “Ah, that’s no romance. Lou’s too sensible a boy to think of romance at his age.” When questioned by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Bette said, “Love? Poof! I’m not in love. I’m too young. All I can think of is going back to school. Louis is just a friend of my family.”

Months later, it was clear that Bette had no regrets over her decision. “I want as good an education as I can get. After that I want a try at earning my own living. I hope that I will be able to get into radio. After that I’d like to marry – but not before I’ve finished with a career.”

Throughout the remainder of her year as Miss America, Bette mostly focused on her education and selectively did promotions for the pageant in her spare time. “On Saturday I often go to New York to pose for commercial photographers and several times I’ve endorsed products over the radio.” Her public appearances were quite few, but she did appear in the occasional parade, at a promotion for New Jersey’s dairy industry, and at a few fashion shows. In print advertisements, Bette Cooper could be seen receiving a new Underwood typewriter, endorsing soaps, or promoting the Beautyrest line of mattresses with the quote “It gives me a real beauty rest every night” printed right next to her image. At the end of her reign, she commented “I’ve done what I wanted to do. You might say I’ve eaten my cake and had it too.”

Above: A sampling of advertisements that Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, endorsed. Click on any of the images to see them full-sized.

After dealing with the fiasco of the 1937 pageant, changes were made to the competition. First, all future contestants were required to be between the ages of 18 and 28, the minimum set to ensure that the winner could legally sign a contract detailing all of the responsibilities and duties required of being a Miss America. In addition, they ended the male chaperone program. It was replaced with a hostess program that prohibited the contestants from spending any time alone with a man during the week of the beauty pageant.

Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937 with her new Typemaster typewriter by Underwood. Image appeared on page 15 of the July/August publication of UEF News.

The 1938 pageant went off without a hitch. Marilyn Meseke, of Marion, Ohio, was crowned the new Miss America. It was tradition that the previous Miss America would hand off her sash and crown to the new winner, but that did not happen in 1938. That is because Bette Cooper was not at the pageant, an absence that the press interpreted as a major snub on the part of the pageant organizers.

After Bette completed her two-year college degree at Centenary Collegiate Institute in 1940, she found employment as the public relations director of the Sandy Valley Grocery Company in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1947 – 48, she taught kindergarten at the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut before enrolling in Columbia University in 1949.

Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper with her two children Gregory and Cheryl in Greenwich, CT. Image appeared on page 91 of the September 28, 1959 publication of Life.

On April 27, 1951, Bette married engineer William F. Moore. The couple lived in Greenwich, where they raised their two children Gregory and Cheryl. Sadly, Bette’s husband died in 1968.  Her seventeen-year marriage beat the prediction that a former Miss America would only experience 3.9456 years of wedded bliss.

Bette’s last major public appearance as a former Miss America was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. For the remainder of her life, she would say nothing publicly about her 1937 coronation.  When Elizabeth Cooper Moore passed away on December 10, 2017, at 97 years of age, she was the oldest living Miss America at the time. Bette’s obituary detailed her family, her love of music, her involvement in her church, and that she was an “enthusiastic golfer and tennis player.” The one glaring detail that was missing, however, was that Bette Cooper was once Miss America.

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

Colorized photograph of Miss America 1937 Bette Cooper (left) at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Marilyn Meseke, Miss America 1938, is in the center with Patricia Donnelly, Miss America 1939, on the right. Original black and white image appears here.

Podcast #135 – The Child Bride

 

While I wasn’t born there, I spent most of my youth in the small town of Thompsonville, NY, which is located in the southern portion of the so-called Catskill Mountains.  I always joke that the town is so small that if you blinked while driving through it, you would miss it in its entirety.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the location of today’s story is probably not much different.  In fact, I am quite certain that it is far more remote than where I grew up.

Nestled in the northeastern portion of Tennessee is the Central Appalachian county of Hancock, just a short distance from the southern border of Kentucky. According to the 2010 census, the population of the entire county was 6,819 in total. The median income there today is $19,760, making it the county with the lowest income in Tennessee and the twenty-seventh lowest in the United States.

On January 12, 1937, in Treadway, a small town in Hancock county, a young couple asked a local minister, 53-year-old Reverend Walter Lamb, to join the two in matrimony. He quickly looked over their marriage license and everything seemed to be in order. Issued six days earlier, that legal document allowed him to marry 18-year-old Eunice Blanche Winstead to 22-year-old Charlie Jess Johns.

Marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.

And that was exactly what he did. 

Standing at a curve in the roadway, the Reverend asked the two to join hands and performed what he later described as a “Baptist ceremony.” “And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” He then pronounced them man and wife and the brief ceremony was over. His fee was $1.00 (about $18.00 today.)

Soon after, the couple arrived at the home of Nick Johns, father of the groom, and Charlie announced, “Well, we’re married.”  Neither family was surprised by their elopement and the parents from both families offered their approval and blessings to the newlyweds.  Mrs. Winstead later stated, “Eunice had claimed Charlie for hers ever since we live here. Of course, we never had any idea they had a serious thought about each other, and they were married before we knew it.”

Back in 1937, Hancock county was in one of the most inaccessible locations in all of Tennessee. And Treadway was a town without telephone or telegraph lines, electric lights, and railway service. As a result, news of their marriage was slow to reach the outside world. And when it finally did ten days later, the marriage of Eunice and Charlie was thrust upon the front page of newspapers across the nation.

Why? Because the couple had lied on their marriage application. While Charlie was, in fact, twenty-two years old, Eunice was a prepubescent nine-year-old.

On the morning of their marriage, Eunice told her dad that she was headed up the road to her married sister’s house to get a doll that Charlie had given to her the previous Christmas. Instead, she met up with her fiancé and the two walked several miles to ask Reverend Lamb to marry them.  After the ceremony was completed, Eunice stopped at her sister’s to pick up the doll and then went home.

Eunice Winstead, Charlie Johns, and Reverend Walter Lamb reenacting the marriage ceremony for the press. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

When questioned by the press, Eunice’s dad, Lewis Winstead, stated, “All right with me – there’s nothing you can do about it now.” 

Mrs. Winstead commented, “Eunice loves Charlie and Charlie loves Eunice, and’ taint nobody’s business but theirs. Never in all my borned days did I see such a commotion and flusteration about two people getting’ hitched. Maybe Eunice is a mite young, but what of it?”

She continued, “I guess I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30, and there ain’t nothing wrong with me. I thank God my little girl’s got a good husband, and I pray they’ll live together and be happy. People shouldn’t orter pester ‘em so.”

When questioned as to why he had married the couple, Reverend Lamb stated, “If I hadn’t married them, someone else would.” Reflecting back on what had happened, he said, “I don’t think I would have, though, if I’d a-known the girl was quite so young. Nine’s a little early, but they had a license and Eunice didn’t seem so young.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 3, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

What is most shocking was that there was nothing that public officials could do about the marriage. It was totally legal. Lewis Rhea, Hancock County Clerk at the time, stated, “When I learned she was just a child, I investigated and found out her parents didn’t object. So far as I know, the present Tennessee law allows marriage at any age if the parents agree.”

He was correct. A Tennessee law enacted in 1927 required that girls under the age of 18 and boys under 21 give five days notice prior to the granting of a marriage license, unless they had their parents’ approval. The effect of this law was that many couples, including those of eligible age who misunderstood the regulation, simply went to another state to marry. This resulted in counties like Hancock losing up to half of their marriage license revenue, so the state legislature repealed that portion of the law in 1935. That made Tennessee the only state in the Union at the time to have no minimum age for marriage. This produced the desired result in that it allowed Hancock County to double its revenue from marriages, many of the couples coming from the nearby state of Virginia, which set its minimum age for marriage at twenty-one.

Basically, Eunice and Charlie were legally married and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. And while both families were in approval of this union, the outside world was not as supportive.  Here is a sampling of what others had to say:

Mrs. Urban Neas, president of the Central Parent-Teacher Council, stated, “I can’t imagine such a thing happening in a Christian nation. If there is anything the P-T A. can do to prevent its recurrence, we certainly hope to do it.”

Mrs. Graeme Canning, president of the Ossoli Circle women’s club expressed support for returning to the five-day marriage rule: “If we had such a law now, that marriage could not have happened. As it is, it’s a poor commentary on our civilization and on East Tennessee.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

The Rev. Walter A. Smith, pastor at the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Knoxville, and then president of the Ministerial Association, offered up the following comment: “I think the preacher who married that couple made a very great mistake. But the people who issued the license for the marriage made just as big a mistake. I don’t know what can be done about the marriage now. It’s a tragedy, a very great tragedy. It should never be allowed to happen again. If there isn’t a law, there should be one.”

Mrs. Louise Bussart, also of Knoxville, stated “I sincerely believe some restriction should be put on the marriage of young girls. Children nine years old certainly do not know their own minds, and they may get married just because the idea sounded glamorous.”

Another resident, Wallace Wright, stated, “The present laws are all right, but there is no use in the people making fools of themselves and the laws to.”

Even Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning was asked for his opinion. “The girl’s parents sanctioned the marriage and that makes it legal.”  He added, “Of course a marriage like that is a shame, but what can I do about it? And besides, I’ve got other more important matters to worry about at the moment.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns receiving mail from postman George M. Williams. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Three days after this story first broke in the news, two bills were introduced to the Tennessee Senate. The first would make marriage involving anyone under the age of fourteen “null and void,” even if the parents approved. The second would make a county court clerk guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she knowingly issued a marriage license to anyone under the age of sixteen. And should someone under sixteen wish to marry, the clerk would be required to call for a hearing before a judge.  Two days later, without a single dissenting vote, the Senate passed a bill preventing any marriage in which either member of the party was under the age of fourteen. It was now up to the Tennessee House to review and approve.

Upon hearing the news of the Senate approval, Charlie told the press, “I ain’t payin’ no mind to what they’re doin’ down to the legislature, nor what folks is saying. Ain’t no new law goin’ to change things now. Me’n Eunice is married for keeps and I reckon I can look after her [with] ‘thout no help from nobody.”

The public uproar over the marriage continued to swell, forcing the young couple to take refuge in the home of Charlie’s parents. With the help of neighbors who blocked the road and stood guard outside, everything seemingly possible was done to insulate nine-year-old Eunice from the prying eyes of the curious press.

Charlie told reporters, “Let Eunice alone, don’t scare her.”

Her dad chimed in, “This thing has got to stop. The girl’ll lose her mind if strangers don’t stop coming to see her.”

Yet, no one was more vocal in supporting the marriage that Eunice’s mom:

 “Let them alone. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone.”  She added, “Eunice can’t sleep, she’s so nervous. She’ll lose her mind if this keeps up.”

“The Bible says not to disturb those peacefully getting along, and I don’t believe in going against the Bible. If they love one another, then getting married is the thing to do. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone. Charlie is a good boy. He’s a hard worker. He bought forty acres a few days ago so that they could have a home. Of course, understand I haven’t brought my children up to marry what men has got, but to marry for love.” 

“She married too young but it’s too late to talk about it. After all, every girl has a right to get married, and if Eunice wants to marry Charlie, it’s her own life.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns reading the Bible. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

You may be questioning just how common child marriages were back then. Nationwide,it was estimated that there were 5,000 child brides under the age of fifteen back in 1937. If one includes those who were fifteen, that number skyrockets to 20,000 young girls. About one-quarter of those baby brides were concentrated in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

The press ran stories of similar child brides, but none were as young as Eunice. For example:

  • 12-year-old Leona Elizabeth Roshia had married 18-year-old Stanley F. Backus of Watertown, New York. 
  • Mrs. Ben Jacobs of Port Byron, Illinois gave birth to her first son in 1933, nine days before she had turned twelve.
  • Mrs. Ellen Walker of Panacea, Florida gave birth to a son before she had turned thirteen.
  • Mrs. Russell Frazell of Moline, Illinois already had a son when she was fourteen.
  • And, on January 29th, the day before Eunice and Charlie’s marriage was revealed to the press, 13-year-old Eula Green married 17-year-old Charles Newberry of North Carolina.

There were many more stories just like these, but I was struck by what Mrs. Jean Darnell, another Tennessee child bride, had to say. “When I’m around the hill people I brag that I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30. But that’s just brag. If I had things to go over again, I’d do them differently. 

“My husband’s in the state penitentiary. I have to make a living for myself and my children. I managed to get enough education to do it, but it’s hard to have to pay all your life for a mistake at 13. 

“A girl of 12 or 13 or even 14 has no idea of love or marriage. She ought to be protected. And if this case has stirred up enough excitement to bring about a new marriage law for Tennessee, then it has served its purpose. 

“I feel sorry for little Eunice – but it took something like this to wake people up. She doesn’t realize it, but she has saved other girls from becoming wives and perhaps widows before they are grown up. I think Tennessee owes a vote of thanks to its 9-year-old bride.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 14 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On February 26, 1937, Governor Browning signed into law a measure that set the minimum age to marry at sixteen. Should the girl be under eighteen years of age, the new law required a three day waiting period before a license could be issued. Lastly, should either of the party be under sixteen, a court could annul the marriage should a complaint be filed “by such person or any interested person acting on his or her behalf.”

Yet, this did not bring a halt to child marriages in Tennessee.  Here are three examples:

On March 13th of that year, 14-year-old Dollie Livesay married 23-year-old James Brewer. They simply slipped across the border into Kentucky to get married, which many other young couples also opted to do. A March 23, 1937 Knoxville Journal article stated that, “Unlike Mrs. Eunice Johns, whose marriage at nine precipitated the new state law, Mrs. Brewer has begun to mature towards womanhood and has been versed in the housekeeping arts.” 

13-year-old Mildred and 17-year-old Robert Pack of Knoxville eloped to Marshall, North Carolina on September 1, 1937, where a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Robert stated, “Well, I guess we put one over on the old folks. And on the new state law, too. We sure got around that.”

Finally, on March 29, 1937, 12-year-old Geneva Hamby married 32-year-old Homer Peels in Madisonville, Tennessee. She gave her age as eighteen when they applied for their marriage license. On April 21st, her mother filed to have the marriage annulled, stating “Homer Peels’ too old for her – she is too young to marry anybody.” Shockingly, the court refused to annul the marriage. It turns out that Geneva had been placed in an orphanage two years prior and had little contact with her mother since. Chancellor A. T. Stewart agreed that there had been a violation of the 16-year age minimum, but wrote that an annulment would only serve to put “Geneva out of house and home with no place to go.”

The Clinch Valley school where Eunice and Charlie began their romance. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

In early August, it was time for Eunice to go back to school, which she had stopped attending after her January marriage. When teacher Wade Ferguson gave her a switching for supposed “general mischievousness,” her husband decided to withdraw her from school. When he told Ferguson that he couldn’t whip another man’s wife, Ferguson told Charlie, “Oh, yes, I can whip another man’s wife if another man sends his wife to school to me.” Tennessee law at the time did require anyone under sixteen to attend school, but Education Commissioner W.A. Bass stated, “We will not take any action to compel a married child to attend school.” Eunice would never return. With just a third grade education, she would never learn to read.

Meanwhile, offers for Eunice and Charlie to appear in both Vaudeville and movies poured in. Some were as much as $500 (approximately $9,000 today), but they were nearly all turned down. They did appear on stage for the first time on October 30, 1937 as part of a show in Kingsport, Tennessee. After the couple was introduced by the announcer, they stood there silently on the stage for two minutes. They made a total of six appearances that day. There was talk of making the couple the feature attraction of a traveling show, but that never materialized. 

Charlie and Eunice with their attorney, Taylor Drinnon of nearby Morristown, TN. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

Rumors began to circulate in the press that the couple’s marriage was falling apart, but when their first anniversary came around, they were still together and living with Charlie’s parents. When questioned about their marriage, Charlie commented, “Of course, we fuss now and then but it don’t amount to nothing. We’ve managed fine this last year and we’d be a lot happier if folks would just leave us alone.” He added, “I’ve got to where I don’t trust many people anymore. Too many of ‘em are out to slick a feller. I’ve made some money, but it’s not in a bank – I’ve got it hid away.” 

Eunice had little to say, but boastfully stated, “I like to milk.” It was noted by the reporter that she was learning how to cook, to which Charlie added, “She already knows how to make biscuits.”

9-year-old Eunice Johns and her younger sister, Dorothy Winstead, making bread for Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

On the eve of their second anniversary, it didn’t seem like much had changed. “She’s pretty good at milking and washing, but she ain’t learned much about cooking yet.” Charlie said that they were planning to build a small house because “we ain’t goin’ to have no young ‘uns.”

As they say, never say never. On December 18, 1942, fourteen-year-old Eunice gave birth to the couple’s first child, Evelyn. And she wouldn’t be their last.

As their twentieth anniversary rolled around, Evelyn was the proud mother of seven children. Charlie had inherited his parents’ 150-acre hillside farm and had become a prosperous farmer. After selling off the mineral rights to a zinc company for $75/acre, the couple was financially set for the remainder of their lives. 

The couple would once again make headlines in September 1960 after their 17-year-old daughter Evelyn eloped with her boyfriend, 20-year-old John Henry Antrican. The couple had been dating for about one-year, but Charlie never approved of the relationship. 

Evelyn and John Henry Antrican shortly after their elopement. Image appeared on page 1 of the September 12, 1960 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

John Henry described how he whisked Evelyn out from under her father’s guard: “Charlie was working in his tobacco patch when I went and got her. He took out after me but he never got close.” He then exchanged cars with a friend. “I went every whichaway I could think of to throw him off the track. I took Evelyn to Morristown where she spent the night with a Negro woman who used to live close by her. Then I come home and spend the night (Thursday) here.”  The next day, Friday, he picked Evelyn up and they drove to Rutledge, Tennessee, where they were married.

Papa Charlie was furious. On the day of the wedding, he had John Henry arrested and charged with abduction. He was released on a $1,000 bond. The next day, both John Henry and his mother Eliza were arrested and charged with falsifying Evelyn’s age at 21 when they obtained the marriage license. 

Marriage license for John Henry Antrican and Evelyn Johns. Note that Evelyn’s age is listed as 21.

Evelyn told the press that she couldn’t understand how her father could be upset with the marriage. “After all, Papa married Mama when she was only 9 years old.”  

John Henry told the press that Charlie did not approve of the marriage because he wanted Evelyn to marry “another boy who was better off financially.” He added that Charlie was “just plain hard to get along with.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb in 1937. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

Reverend Lamb, the same minister who had married Eunice and Charlie twenty-three years prior, offered to step in and try to find an amicable solution to the problem. “If I could see him, I would.” He added, “They’d better be proud she married a good boy.” Charlie Johns didn’t take him up on the offer. Luckily, he came to his senses and dropped all of the charges. Evelyn and John Henry would remain married until Evelyn’s death forty-six years later.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this unusual story. When the press interviewed Eunice in 1976, she said that she had no regrets over marrying so young. When asked about the worst part of doing so, she noted that it had brought an end to her education. “I never could learn too easy, and I didn’t learn much when my children were in school.”

1976 photograph of Eunice Winstead Johns with granddaughter Pamela Lynn Newman. Image appeared on page 21 of the July 21, 1976 publication of the Kingsport Times-News.

Charlie Jess Johns died on February 13, 1997 at the age of eighty-four. After all of the criticism from the naysayers had long faded away, the couple had a successful marriage that lasted sixty years. Together they had nine children; three girls and six boys with a nineteen year age gap between the youngest and the oldest. Sadly, their youngest daughter had died from pneumonia at twenty months of age just one-week before their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Eunice Blanche Winstead Johns would live another nine years without her husband. By then a great-grandmother, she passed away on August 29, 2006, less than a month shy of her 79th birthday.

Which leaves me with one last little surprise. After I finished writing this story, I started gathering the documents and images to post on my website. Then it hit me: Every single story ever written about the couple had made the same error and I was about to repeat it. After a little math and double-checking, Charlie Johns was not twenty-two when he married Eunice. He was twenty-four.

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

Here are some additional photographs from various sources:

Eunice holding her doll shortly after her marriage to Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Johnson City Press.
Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice posing with the doll that Charlie Johns had given her prior to their marriage. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice Winstead Johns with her parents and sisters at the family home. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
The Winstead home in Treadway, Tennessee. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Captioned “A dutiful little wife performs a chore,” this image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
Newly married 9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns making the bed. Image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns was the youngest bride in the United States when she married Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 65 of the August 23, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
January 12, 1937 marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
Cover of the marriage license between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
This Application for Confidential Verification of the marriage between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns appears to be in error. It specifies Charlie’s age at 14 years. In reality, he was 24 when he married 9-year-old Eunice. It also indicates that the marriage took place between 1933 and 1936, when, in fact, it occurred in 1937.

Podcast #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.

Elixir of Death

 
Useless Information Podcast

 

Sulfanilamide was considered a miracle drug when it was introduced in the mid-1930’s.  The S.E. Massengill Co. was the first to introduce sulfanilamide in a liquid form, but in their race to get it to market they never bothered to test the safety of the drug.  Within a few weeks, the AMA was notified of the deaths of six children within a ten day period, all of whom had consumed the elixir.  The FDA was contacted, but was basically powerless to do anything about it. Continue Reading

Tried to Hide Her Report Card

 

So, did you ever receive a poor grade in school and were too afraid to let your parents know? This happened to 11-year-old Nellie Stevens of Indianapolis, Indiana.

She had been missing from her home for six days and a statewide search failed to find her. Luckily, on October 25, 1937, 15-year-old Frank Carleton followed a barking dog to a spot behind a vacant house and found Nellie lying on a blanket beneath some shrubs.

Nellie was rushed to City Hospital suffering from hunger, exposure, and shock. Her feet were frozen, but a full recovery was expected.

The cause of this whole mess? Nellie was too afraid to show her report card to her foster parents.

My 4th Grade Report Card
This is my real 4th grade report card. My teacher was Mrs. Goldsmith during the 1972-73 school year at the Kenneth L. Rutherford elementary school in Monticello, NY.

Wife Serves Husband Dog Food

 

On October 27, 1937, Stanley Ditzel, a switchboard operator at the West Orange, New Jersey Town Hall received a call from a woman asking to be connected to the Board of Health.

The line was busy, so she explained her situation to the operator. It seems that shortly after her husband left for work, she went to feed the dog and realized that it was the chopped meat she had intended to use to make breakfast patties for her husband.

Yes, she made her husband’s breakfast from the meat inside of a can of dog food…

Both the husband and the dog were unharmed. The operator assured the wife that it was perfectly safe. I’m guessing that he didn’t mention to her that most dog food back then was made from horse meat…

1958 ad for Friskies Dog Food with Horse Meat
Note the line in this ad that states "Bulldogs and all dogs love the lean red horse meat in canned Friskies!" From the February 24, 1958 issue of Life Magazine.

$20,000 in Ice Cream in Will

 

When Mrs. Clementine Farr Duff died on February 6, 1937, her estate was valued in excess of one-million dollars (nearly $17 million today). She left a sizeable chunk of the money to thirteen individuals, which included her chauffeur, maid, butler, laundress, and others. Continue Reading

The Honest Man with an Evil Eye

 
Useless Information Podcast

Back in 1935 a man carrying a sandwich-board sign stumbles across the find of a lifetime: A wallet containing the stocks certificates from Philips Petroleum, GE, and DuPont.  Find out what the press said that he did with the certificates, what really happened, and how he killed a man simply by staring at him.

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Ivory Soap Murders

 
Useless Information Podcast

The Easter Sunday 1937 murders of Veronica Gedeon, her mom Mary, and Frank Byrnes in NYC launched an intense nationwide hunt for the killer.  There were few clues to go on, but two bars of soap provided police with the conclusive evidence that they needed.

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