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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1937

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.

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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