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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1952

Podcast 124: Flying Blind

On March 22, 1952, 25-year-old Lt. (jg) Howard Thayer was flying as part of a bombing mission to destroy enemy rail and truck lines near the strategically important harbor of Wonsan, North Korea. Then, suddenly, he heard a scream come over his radio, “I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me; I’m blind!”

Thayer immediately looked all around for a plane that was trailing smoke, but saw none. Above him he spotted a Douglas AD Skyraider that appeared to be headed nearly straight upward toward the clouds. It was a dark, overcast day and Thayer knew that if this plane was being piloted by the man who made that plea, he would surely lose sight of the aircraft once it entered the clouds. Thayer needed to act quickly.

“Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”

Initially there was no response, but then he observed a repeated back-and-forth rocking motion. Yet, the plane continued its upward climb and was just seconds from disappearing into the cloud canopy.

“Put your nose down – put your nose down.” Thayer continued, “Push over. I’m coming up.”

The Skyraider was still climbing as Thayer pushed full throttle to catch up with the plane. As he approached the aircraft, he realized that this out-of-control bomber was not being flown by just any anonymous pilot. Instead, he was 22-year-old Ensign Kenneth A. Schechter, who just happened to be Howie Thayer’s roommate on the USS Valley Forge, the aircraft carrier from which both had launched. The two had trained together at the Alameda Naval Air Force base and had since become the closest of friends.

“This is Thayer – this is Thayer! Put your nose down quick! Get it over!”

As Thayer pulled in close to the plane, he could see that Schechter was gravely wounded. An enemy anti-aircraft shell had exploded near his head and shattered the cockpit canopy. Ken was barely conscious and was struggling to talk over his radio as the air whipped past him and the loud engine roar drowned out all other sound. Kind of like driving a car at 200 mph (322 km/h) with the top down, but in far, far worse condition.

Yet, somehow Ken was finally starting to make sense of what his friend Thayer was telling him to do.

“You’re doing all right now. Pull back a little; we can level off now.”

Schechter pushed his stick forward and relying solely on his sense of how gravity pulling on his body, he was able to level his plane out.

As Howie Thayer pulled within 100-feet (approximately 30-meters) of Schechter, he could now see how badly injured his face was. Fragments from the blast had caught under Ken’s eye and ripped the skin all the way across to his right cheek. He was bleeding profusely and had lost total vision. Ken Schechter was flying blind.

Thayer thought to himself, “My God, My God! How is he alive?”

Schechter was struggling to figure out what had happened and decided that if he could get some fresh air, maybe he could think more clearly. He reached for the canopy release lever and pulled on it. Nothing happened. He tried again and still nothing. That was when he finally realized that the canopy had been totally blown away. His next move was to reach for his canteen. After removing the top, Ken poured water over his face. This cleared the blood away from his eyes just long enough so that he could see the instrument panel in front of him. And, then, in an instant his vision was gone.

Schechter blurted over the radio, “Get me down Howie. Get me down, Howie.”

Thayer replied, “Roger.” He then spotted a partial bombload under Schechter’s wings. “Drop your ordnance.” Howie understood the request and he released the bombs.

Their next move was to circle back and head over the bomb-line into safe territory. Their initial destination was an island known as Yo-Do, located in Wonsan harbor, which was often used as a station during helicopter rescue missions. Thayer quickly realized that Schechter was so severely injured that there was no way they would make the distance to Yo-Do.

Thayer constantly scanned the shoreline for American ships, knowing that once he sighted them, he could be certain that they were back in friendly territory. He radioed, “We’re approaching Wonsan now. Get ready to bail out.”

Schechter refused to do so. He knew that, even under the best of conditions, jumping into the choppy waters was a risky move. In fact, during his second mission in Korea, he had flown near pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pugh, whose plane had been hit. Pugh landed on the water and signaled to Schechter that he was safe before flying off, but two hours later Pugh was dead. Pugh’s life jacket had failed, his immersion suit had leaked, he never made it to his liferaft, and the helicopter sent to pick him up had failed. Ken Schechter was in far worse shape and knew that he had no chance of surviving in the icy water below. He radioed back to Thayer, “Negative. Negative. Not gonna bail out. Get me down.”

The decision was made to head for an American airbase nicknamed Geronimo that was about 30 miles (48 km) south of the enemy line.

“We’re at the battle line now, Ken. Will head you for Geronimo. Hold on, boy!” Thayer then questioned, “Can you make it, Ken?” To which he replied, “Get me down, you miserable ape, or you’ll have to inventory my gear,” referring to the fact that each had designated the other to handle their affairs should one of them be killed in action.

As Thayer directed Ken to turn his plane right, he could see Schechter’s head fall forward and then as he attempted to straighten it upward, his head flopped over to the left. It was clear that there was no way that he was going to make it Geronimo. Thayer began to search for a place for Schechter to put his plane down, whether that be a rice paddy, a beach, or a flat field.

He spotted a clear spot ahead and as Thayer got closer, he realized that it was an abandoned airstrip that had been nicknamed the Jersey Bounce. While there were no aircraft there, Thayer observed that a few small buildings still remained. Hopefully that also meant that a few men remained behind to care for the facility and that they would be able to get Schechter immediately to a military hospital, should he survive the landing. With a short runway less than 2,000 feet (610 meters) in length and with Schechter severely injured, the odds were clearly stacked against him.

“We’re approaching Jersey Bounce, Ken. Will make a two-seven-zero turn and set you down.”

Schechter replied, “Roger. Let’s go.”

As they approached the runway, Thayer began to calmly provide his friend with exacting instructions. “Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. Little more.” He continued, “Gear down.”

Schechter abruptly replied, “To hell with that!” He had remembered that in an emergency landing such as this, it was far safer to land on the plane’s belly. To use the landing gear could risk ripping off one of the wings or possibly flipping the plane over.

Thayer understood. “Roger. Gear up.” He continued, “We’re headed straight. Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re OK. You’re 30 feet off the ground. You’re OK. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK. OK. OK. Cut.”

As Schechter tensed up while awaiting contact with the ground, the plane landed on its belly and slid along the gravel runway. About forty-five minutes after being hit, his plane came to a stop about halfway down the runway. Thayer radioed, “You’re on the ground,” and then began to circle round and round to make sure that his friend was okay. As Schechter clumsily pulled himself out of his cockpit, Thayer could see a car race down the runway toward the plane. Two men helped Ken into the vehicle and sped off toward one of the buildings near the end of the runway.

Howie Thayer’s job was done and he headed back to the Valley Forge and landed about twenty minutes later. As soon as he climbed out of his cockpit, Thayer was puzzled to have a number of senior pilots and officers come right out to meet him. He quickly learned that nearly everyone aboard the carrier had been listening nervously to the voice transmissions between the two pilots as the whole rescue unfolded. In addition, a transcription machine had recorded everything, providing for a permanent record of exactly what the two had said.

As for Ken Schechter, he was immediately transported by helicopter from Jersey Bounce to Geronimo. Doctors removed some of the larger pieces of shrapnel, but determined that he was in need of a skilled eye surgeon and had him flown to naval hospital ship Consolation, which was anchored in the Pusan harbor in South Korea at the time. From there, it was on to hospitals in Japan, Oakland, and San Diego. In all, he would spend six months in various military hospitals. While he recovered vision in his left eye, he never regained sight in his right, which meant a permanent end to his military career as a pilot.

Two years later, their story became the basis for the Hollywood movie “Men of the Fighting Lady.” Thayer was portrayed by Van Johnson and Dewey Martin played the part of Schechter. As one would expect, the film to great license with the story, which included Schechter’s plane landing back on the carrier in a giant flaming wreck.

Interestingly, the plane that Shechter had crash landed had its propeller replaced, flown back to the Valley Forge for repairs, and was then placed back in service.

Howie Thayer would once again perform a similar rescue on June 27, 1953. This time a plane piloted by Lieutenant John J. Chambers was hit, not only wounding him in the arms and legs, but damaging his radio and flight instruments. Thayer had to use hand signals to guide Chambers to a safe landing on an airstrip some 40-miles (65 km) away.

Sadly, in January of 1961, while on a night mission, Thayer was guiding a fellow pilot whose plane had experienced an electrical system failure. While on landing approach, both pilots crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Their remains were never to be recovered. For all of his heroic actions, Howard Thayer was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2009.

On June 28, 1995, Ken Schechter was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Howie Thayer’s three adult children were present as he received the award aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego. During his acceptance speech, Ken stated to them, “I hope you will see this ceremony as your ceremony, because that’s certainly the way I feel about it.”

Kenneth Allen Schechter was born in Harlem, NY on January 31, 1930, the son of European immigrants. After graduating from Stanford and the Harvard Business School, he spent most of his career as an insurance agent. He died of complications due to prostate cancer on December 11, 2013 at the age of 83.

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

 

The Wrong Man

Here’s an odd one that took place on May 3, 1952 in Ramsgate, England.

21-year-old Mrs. June Rivers was awoken that evening as her husband came in drunk from a wedding reception that he attended with his friend 23-year-old William Roland Williams.

Image of Mrs. June Rivers that appeared on page 89 of the June 10, 1952 issue of the NY Daily News.

The two had the typical marital relations before husband got up and said he would go downstairs and get her some tea. When he returned a short time later, she questioned where the cup of tea was, to which he responded, “What tea?”

He told her that she must have been dreaming, since he never said that he would get her a cup of tea. But she was adamant that he had promised and clearly remember the smell of beer and mustard pickles on his breath.


Image of William Roland Williams that appeared on page 89 of the June 10, 1952 issue of the NY Daily News.

It turns out that she had slept with the wrong man. Her husband’s friend William had come back to their house after the wedding to get his bicycle and drunkenly stumbled upstairs to their bedroom and climbed into the bed with her. Williams admitted, “I started kissing her and she responded.” He added, “I don’t know what made me do such a thing. I am sure that if I had not had so much to drink that I would not have done it.”

Williams was charged with “having carnal knowledge of June Pauline Rivers without her consent by impersonating her husband.”

They were all in court on July 9 when Williams claimed that Mrs. Rivers knew that he was in the bedroom with her and that she was an old flame of his. He added that he had kissed her several times since her marriage and that she had told him multiple times that she hated her husband.

It took the jury 20 minutes to find Mr. Williams innocent of the charges.

 

The Coal Mountain Casanova

Back in 1952, a man named Jesse L. Garrett of Scott Depot, West Virginia, was watching Groucho Marx on television. The comedian was interviewing a woman who had previously appeared on his show and later married one of the men who had seen her on the air at the time. Garrett said, “I thought if a woman could do it, so could a man.” 

So, in June of 1952 he wrote to the editor of the Rockport Democrat in Indiana and expressed his interest in advertising in the newspaper for a wife. He was very particular in what he was looking for: he expressed a preference for a Midwestern woman, and one who would make for “an intellectual wife, companion and mother of my two sons.” He felt that “A woman from a rural community would be more like my way of thinking.”  

Jesse preferred “a farm woman of good standing… A woman with some financial backing so that life would not be uneven and our social standings would be about the same.” 

He added, “I prefer a woman about 135 pounds, a little more or less, and between the ages of 35 and 45.” He also insisted that she be a good cook. “No others need apply.” 

Garrett explained that he picked the Rockport newspaper for the advertisement because he had once lived there. He was a thin, balding, 49-year-old man who stood 6-feet, 2-inches tall (188 cm) and described himself as “not bad to look at, love any kind of fun, have a fair education and am at home in hogpen or in a mansion’s drawing room.” 

He had left Indiana years earlier. “I hitchhiked out of there one winter day with only 49-cents in my pocket, vowing that I might starve to death, but I wasn’t going to freeze. I headed south, and when I got to Belle and saw the DuPont plant there, I went in, told them I was broke, and they gave me a job.” 

He saved up his money and eventually had enough to open a grocery store on US Route 60 near St. Albans, West Virginia. The store was named after his ex-wife Georgie, who he had recently divorced on March 14, 1951 after 14-years of marriage.  Shortly after the divorce, the store was sold and Jesse Garrett officially became a retired man. 

But he was not without an income or assets. Rentals of houses that he owned provided Jesse with a steady income and he claimed to be worth in excess of $28,000, which would be more than a quarter of a million dollars today when adjusted for inflation. 

As he embarked on this journey to find Ms. Right, Jesse was certain to carry his divorce papers with him to prove to his prospective bride that he wasn’t to blame for the breakup of his first marriage. He insisted that his next wife would need the approval of his two sons, 10-year-old Jimmy and 11-year old Jesse, Jr., for whom he had been granted full custody. They were quoted in the press as stating, “We don’t want a fat mama.” 

Jessie Garrett looking at one his many replies with his sons James, Jr. (left) and Jimmie (right). Image appeared on page 7 of the June 18, 1952 publication of the Salisbury Daily Times.

This story of a hometown boy who made it good was soon making headlines from coast-to-coast. Responses began to pour in. “I received between 3,100 and 3,300 letters, phone calls, and telegrams. A few were from men who wanted me to help them find a wife, but all the rest were from women. I got letters from women in London, Mexico, Guadalcanal, Canada, and about every state in this country.”   

Jesse was shocked by how many lonely women there were. “I had no expectation I would get the response I did. I was dumbfounded and mortified to learn that there were so many women who want husbands.”  

The press caught up with the ex-Mrs. Garrett and she made it clear that Jesse was no bargain, even with all the money that he claimed to have. Georgie didn’t elaborate, but her warning message to all of the women out there was perfectly clear. She did state, “I’m not sure about his exact age.” Noting that he lacked a birth certificate, she added, “I know he was 49 for a year or two while he and I were married.” My calculations indicate that he was really a couple of months shy of his 54th birthday at the time. 

Just for the record, the former Georgie Garrett was 32-years-old, weighed 100 pounds (45 kg) and stood 59-1/2” (151 cm) tall. In other words, the boys didn’t have a fat mama.  

With thousands of women expressing interest in a possible marriage, Jesse began the process of selecting the bride-to-be. He did express disappointment that only one woman from Rockport had contacted him, but she was quickly knocked out of the running. 

“About 65 per cent of them are sincere and the rest are mercenary. I found six of them interesting and am arranging to interview them. I would like to be married in the next three or four days, and I see no reason why I won’t.” 

Many women went out of their way to catch Jesse’s interest. Some sent photographs of themselves in bathing suits, of their children, their homes, their cars, and more. He said that he wasn’t interested in women who sexually teased him or those from Canada who wrote in French. Even a woman worth $2,500,000 didn’t make the cut. 

Here is a sampling of some of the correspondence that he received: 

A woman in Indiana wrote, “I’m babbling like a little, old West Virginia Brook at the thought of marrying you.” Jesse’s sarcastic response was, “I bet she is – what does she know about a West Virginia Brook anyway?” 

“How about letting a Texas gal enter the competition? I assure you that I am no unattractive old hag. I weigh 130 but could reduce some, of course.” 

Another from Indianapolis said, “I was reared on a farm but am citified now. I am a good-looker and I don’t pat myself on the back either.” 

A telegram from Lubbock, Texas was short and to the point. “If decision not made, contact 128-pound vision of loveliness.”  

Then there was a 29-year-old Wisconsin woman who penned, “I know you want a woman who would be responsive to you, gentle yet warm and exciting. Someone who would welcome you with warm lips and arms. You sound like quite a man – six foot two – just right for me as I’m five foot eight. If you’re interested, I’ll come see you on my vacation, the first two weeks in July.” 

Clearly unhappy with some of Jesse’s female specifications, a lady from Minnesota wrote, “Don’t forget, you’re not buying a horse or cow. And listen, boy, you’re no spring chicken yourself. 

Dozens of others who were anxious to meet Jesse called a nearby store, one of the few places with a telephone. About one dozen showed up at the local post office, one woman said that she would be there soon. “I will look for you Saturday, June 28, at 8 p.m. at the O. Henry Inn on Triplett Street. I will be wearing a green dress. You wear a brown suit so I’ll know you.” 

Not all were serious inquiries.  For example, here is one from Cleveland that was “writ by hand” on a paper bag. “I love children if you keep them away from me. I just lost four teeth in front and one of my eyes is crossed, but I can hoe taters, man.” 

Jesse interviewed twenty-six applicants and decided that Mrs. Maxine Berry, a 30-year-old redhead, would make the perfect wife and mother to his children. Unfortunately, she got cold feet and removed her name from his list of possibilities. 

On June 23rd, twelve days after Jesse’s story broke in the national news, date #25 announced that she had accepted Jesse’s proposal of marriage.  She was 33-year-old Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie, who worked in the classified ad department of the Elkhart Truth newspaper.  Mrs. Crosbie said that she had answered Garrett on a dare.   

Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie of Elkhart, Indiana with her daughter Karin on the left and son Quin on the right. Image appeared on page 12 of the June 26, 1952 issue of the Mount Vernon Register News.

Mrs. Crosbie said, “I know how to write a letter. I work on a newspaper and I know you’ve got to sell yourself. I even tore my picture in two. Anything to arouse interest.” She mentioned in the letter that this “is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done.” 

Jesse told the press that prettier women were willing to marry him, “However, she is one of the sweetest and most sincere ladies I’ve ever met. She’ll be a real mother, and that’s what counts.” 

A brunette with hazel eyes, Mrs. Crosbie described herself as “thin, a sort of athletic build, 5 feet 7-½ inches tall, a 27-inch waist, quite good size bust, and small hips.” 

Etta had married her first husband, Rollo M. Crosbie in 1938. Sadly, he passed away on October 6, 1947 at the young age of 33.  She was alone to raise her two children, Quin and Karin, who were aged ten and five, respectively, at the time that she accepted Jesse Garrett’s proposal. 

She said, “The children think it’s fun and trust their mother’s judgment. Those who know me as a serious person cannot understand how I could do a thing like this, but I know it’s right.” 

And, yes, the two Garrett boys had a hand in choosing their soon-to-be stepmother.  “The boys were along when Mr. Garrett visited me a few days ago. I believe they decided I was O.K.”  In other words, Etta wasn’t going to be a fat mama. 

Jesse was quoted as stating, “She’s good looking and smart. She is a good mother, an efficient housewife, and competent in business affairs. She has held a good job as a newspaper ad-taker for eight years. She isn’t mercenary and is not a social climber. She is charming and gracious. She is an all-around good woman, a fine woman for any man to have around the house.” 

Etta R. Crosbie and Jesse L. Garrett with their children: Karin Crosbie (lower Right) and Jimmy Garrett, Quin Crosbie, and Jesse Garrett, Jr. (left to right in the back row). Image from the June 26, 1952 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette on page 30.

The plan was for the two to wed as soon as possible. Garrett said that they had an offer from WFMB, at the time the only television station in Indianapolis, to wed on the air. At first Mrs. Crosbie was game to the televised nuptials, but quickly cooled to the idea. 

The couple arrived at Garrett’s West Virginia home on Wednesday, June 25th. Etta stayed at Jesse’s house that evening while he stayed with friends. 

The issue as to where the couple would ultimately settle popped up quite a bit in the press.  Etta preferred to live in Indiana, stating, “The mountains make me think I’m smothering.” Jesse was initially a bit more open minded, “I could be happy with her no matter where we were,” but seemed to be leaning toward residing in West Virginia. 

On Friday the couple made their way to the Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, West Virginia to get their obligatory blood tests.  After that, they headed to the county courthouse to obtain a marriage license, but several legal difficulties prevented them from doing so. First, Etta was not a resident of the state.  Second, they were told that they would have to wait three days before they could wed. And, finally, they wished to be married by a justice of the peace, which was not permitted under West Virginia law. 

They were thinking of heading to Kentucky to marry, but for some unknown reason that plan fell through.   

Jesse said, “I’m determined to marry that woman if I have to go to the ends of the world.” 

By Tuesday the couple was back in Indiana, attempting to obtain a marriage license in Jeffersonville.  That didn’t work out, so the next day they were back in Rockport, but the county clerk there would not accept their West Virginia blood tests.  

The couple’s next stop was the nearby small town of English. The Justice of the Peace there, George Megenity, was willing to perform the ceremony, mainly because the deputy county clerk had failed to notice that their blood test was from out of state. 

Finally, on Wednesday, July 2, 1952 at 12:45 PM the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Jesse L. Garrett.  The wedding took place at the law office of Henry Mock with Mr. Mock and reporter John M. Flanigan acting as witnesses.  

The bride wore a yellow dress with a floral pattern on it and a white hat, gloves, and shoes. Due to the extreme heat of the day, the groom opted not to wear a jacket, but did put on a tie for the occasion. A five-diamond wedding band sealed the deal as all of the couple’s children looked on. 

From there, the newlyweds and their children left for a short honeymoon in Elkhart. After that, the plan was for them all to head back to the Garrett home in West Virginia.  

Where they were going to live permanently was still undecided.  Mrs. Garrett stated, “I am willing to do what is best for all concerned, but things are too indefinite now. I can’t say where we will live.”  Her new husband said that upon his return back home, “I will either dispose of my property or talk my wife into settling.” 

That was never to happen. One month later, on August 5th, it was revealed in the press that Etta never came back to West Virginia with Jesse. The total length of time that the two were married before they went their separate ways was two days and seven hours. Jesse blamed it on her refusal to move to West Virginia, but, while he never mentioned it, he clearly refused to live in Indiana. 

“I’ll probably divorce Etta. A lawyer friend told me I can go to Florida and get a divorce in six weeks. I might as well. You can’t keep a home going when your wife is 500 miles away.” 

Jesse obtained a lawyer and filed for divorce. Etta, in turn, filed a cross divorce complaint against him. The divorce was granted on March 22, 1953 and Jesse was ordered to pay Etta $40/month alimony.  That would be approximately $380/month today adjusted for inflation. 

From there, it appears that Jesse Garrett’s life seemed to spiral out of control. His supposed life savings seemed to vanish overnight. “The $28,000 just melted away… A whack here and a whack there.” He explained, “The money went quick. First, I spent what cash I had; then I spent what was set aside for my boys’ education; then I sold some notes I had; and I mortgaged my house. Now they’re foreclosing on me.” The reason his home was being foreclosed upon was that he had borrowed $3,500 from a Charleston loan company and was unable to repay the loan.  

On February 26, 1955, Domestic Relations Judge Herbert Richardson found Jesse to be in contempt of a court order by leaving the state without permission, disposing of personal property, and for refusing to make those mandatory $40/month alimony payments. 

As two process servers emerged from the courthouse, they spotted Jesse standing on a corner. Jesse refused to submit to arrest and snatched the handcuffs right out of the arresting officer’s hands. Next thing you know, a wrestling match broke out between the three men.  Two additional officers raced over from the courthouse and ended the scuffle.  As Jesse was being led off to jail, he blurted out, “Call the newspapers; call the newspapers!” 

It’s amazing what a few years can do.  Instead of boasting about what a great catch he was, he was now pointing out how poor and feeble he had become.  “My sister put me in business at Scott Depot. I get $20 a week and room and board for me and my two boys. That woman has an income of $420 a month. She’s 33 years old and I’m 52 and half blind. They want me to pay her $40 a month. I can’t and I won’t. Not a penny!”  

He added, “I guess I’ll just have to get me a couple of pistols and rob a bank somewhere.”   

Jesse stated, “I’ll stay in this jail until the bars rot off. I’m only making $20 a week and can’t afford to pay her.” 

Five days later, he posted bond and was released. His bondsman, Mark Wisman, must have had second thoughts and dropped his surety. Next thing you know, on Sunday March 13th, Jesse was right back in jail.  He was released the next day on a new surety. 

After that, Jesse vanished.  He was due back in court on March 21, 1955, but was a no show. In a registered letter that Jesse sent to the court from Nashville, he stated, “Please postpone my case for 30 days. There is serious illness here.” The judge wasn’t buying it and ordered Garrett’s arrest. Instead, the court was bombarded with letters and postcards that Jesse penned claiming everything from being framed to kidnapping to outright robbery. On September 25, 1955, Judge Richardson declared his bond forfeited and Jesse’s story was dropped from the headlines. I was unable to locate any further information on how this matter was resolved, so if anybody out there knows, please let me know. 

Birth certificate for Jesse Lee Garrett, Jr.

The next time that Jesse would be in the press again was on September 4, 1974, but it had nothing to do with his marriage to Etta Crosbie. This time, Jesse and his son Jesse, Jr. were arrested as part of a drug sting.  Basically, there were two men in Arizona who smuggled marijuana into the United States in 600-pound (272 kg) lots and once it was shipped to the East Coast, the Garretts and others would distribute it to West Virginia and Virginia. Jesse, Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison with just 270 days served and the remainder a combination of a suspended sentence and probation.  As for his dad, he told Judge K. K. Hall, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ll do whatever the district attorney tells me…”  Jesse, Sr. was sentenced to three years’ probation. 

Henrietta “Etta” Rems Crosbie passed away on January 8, 2008. She was 89-years-old. 

Jesse L. Garrett, Sr. passed away on July 15, 1980 at 81 years of age.  He is buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana, the same city in which he was hoping to find Ms. Right. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “We Miss You Dad, Jesse Jim.” 

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

Image of Jesse L. Garrett’s tombstone in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana. Image from Find-A-Grave.
 

The Walking Murphys

The school district that I teach in recently asked me present a teacher training seminar on the best health and wellness apps that are out there. I spoke to a number of colleagues and installed the best of them on my phone.

So, two weekends ago, my wife and I were up in Warrensburg, NY, which is just a bit north of Lake George, for their annual town-wide garage sale, which they bill as the world’s largest. We go every year, mainly for the exercise, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give these various apps a test. I turned each one of them on as soon as I exited our car and we then proceeded to walk up and down the various side streets for hours.

When we were done for the day, I stopped each of the apps. At least that was what I had thought I had done. When we returned home, I realized that one of the apps kept running and recorded a walk in excess of 50 miles, 46 of which were done while seated in a car…

Well, today I have for you another story about walking that begins with someone riding in a car. During the morning of December 28, 1951, Mr. and Mrs. J. Warren Poley, Jr. and their daughter Donna, who resided at 1525 College Avenue in Trappe, Pennsylvania, decided to hop in the car and drive to nearby Norristown. The total distance is approximately a 12-mile (19.3 km) drive southeast along Route 422. As they left their home, they would first pass through the towns of Collegeville and then Tropper before reaching Norristown. So, basically, they drove from Trappe, through Collegeville, through Trooper and finally ended in Norristown.

It was in Trooper at 9:30 AM that Mrs. Poley first took notice of a family walking in the opposite direction of their travel. The family, which consisted of a father, mother, and two small children, appeared to be down on their luck. Later, as they drove home, the Poleys once again passed the family, who were now walking through Collegeville. A short time later, Mrs. Poley went for a short drive and again passed the plodding family. Seeing these poor people three times in such a short period of time just tore at Mrs. Poley’s heart.

Upon returning to her residence, she told her husband that they needed to do something. “Those people are in trouble. I think they need help and I think we should do something about it.”

Next thing you know, Mr. Poley is driving in his car searching for the family of strangers. He didn’t have to go very far. He found them walking in front of the nearby grade school. Mr. Poley invited the family to dinner and they graciously accepted.

It was during that turkey meal that the sad story of this wandering family – that’s dad Robert Murphy, his wife Jean, three-year old daughter Jean, and two-year old son Robert, Jr. – began to be told.

Mr. Murphy explained that they had lived in Topeka, Kansas for the past six years and that their home had been destroyed by the raging floods that had recently swept through the region. They lost everything including their home and nearly all of their worldly belongings.

With no place to live, they made the decision to make their way to the home of Jean Murphy’s mom in Philadelphia. Without any money or modern mode of transportation, they were forced to make the approximately 1,200-mile (1,930 km) trek on foot. It took them 44 days to make the journey, arriving at her mom’s house on Christmas Eve. Call her Scrooge or whatever choice words you may have, but for some unknown reason she refused to let her daughter’s family stay with her.

Although he was a veteran of World War II and an electrician by trade, Robert Murphy was unable to secure work or find suitable lodging in Philadelphia. As a result, the Murphys became discouraged and began the long walk back to Kansas. It was while they were on this return trip that the Poleys saw the Murphys and invited them to dinner.

For a family that had suffered so much, they were in surprisingly good shape. They certainly had weather-beaten complexions, but they were well-dressed for the weather. Supposedly a wealthy man in Ohio had been very generous and provided each with warm clothes, gloves and boots. After bundling themselves back up, the Murphys said goodbye to the Poleys and continued on their journey back to Kansas.

Clearly, Mrs. Poley was a kind and warm-hearted person who generously opened her home up to strangers in need. But she felt the need to do more. After they left, she contacted the police and then local radio station WPAZ in Pottstown learned of their hardship and broadcast an appeal to the community for assistance. It wasn’t long before furniture, food, clothing, and money began to pour in.

None, however, were more generous than Raymond F. Kulp, an employee of the East Greenville Sanitary Company. Mr. Kulp owned a 72-acre farm nearby on Route 663 between New Hanover and Pennsburg. When he learned of the family’s plight, he immediately called the Pottstown Mercury newspaper and offered Robert Murphy a job on his farm. Not only that, but since his eight room farmhouse only housed his family of four – that’s Mr Kulp, his wife and their two sons – the Murphys were welcome to occupy four of the rooms.

Mr. Kulp stated, “We know what it is to have troubles.” He added, “When they arrive here, there will be a lot of surprises. People have been very good to them. They are donating household furnishings and food. One woman is sending a lot of canned goods. We had some furniture that we were going to leave in their part of the house. But guess they’ll have almost enough now. People have been so kind and offering them furnishings and help of any kind.”

Through the airing of their plight, Mrs. Poley learned that others had previously offered the Murphy family assistance.

Two days earlier – Wednesday night – the Murphys had been provided with a place to sleep by the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. By Thursday night they were staying at another Salvation Army facility in Norristown. They left that shelter right after breakfast.

By Friday morning, shortly before they were to be sighted by the Poleys, the Murphys were treated to breakfast by Ralph K. Harner, who was the chief of police in nearby West Norriton.

Harner told the press, “They weren’t hitch hiking when I saw them. They were just walking pathetically along the pavement. I took them to the state public assistance office in Norristown, and left them there while I went to court. When I returned, they had gone. The girl who interviewed them told me that aid wouldn’t be available for several days until they proved their identity – so they started out again on foot.”

He continued, “Mr. Murphy told the girl that he lost all his identification papers in the flood – including his service records. I wanted to give them $10 on my return from, but they were gone. It’s a strange heart-tuggin’ sight to see them trudging along. I think they’ll get plenty of rides along the way.”

It seemed like everyone was offering some sort of assistance, but there was one big problem. The Walking Murphys, as the press was now referring to them as, were long gone. Police were asked to watch for the family.

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout for:

Robert Murphy – the father. He is described as being a tall, slender man with thick, dark hair highlighted with greying streaks. He is dressed in a faded suit, a dark sports shirt, a blue woolen mackinaw jacket, and black buckle galoshes.

Jean Murphy, the mother. Short in stature, heavyset, with a round face. She is dressed in a cotton dress and plain coat. A vari-colored bandana covers her head.

Their son Robert, Jr. is dressed in a woolen coat and a knit woolen cap, while their daughter Jean is kept warm by a woolen snow suit and a bandana.

Where were the Murphy’s?

Luckily, it didn’t take long to find them. On Sunday, December 30th a passing motorist was listened to radio station WHLM and heard the appeal to help locate the family. He spotted the Murphys walking in Williamsport, which is about 150-miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Mrs. Poley’s home, and he let them know about Mr. Kulp’s generous job/home offer. With everything that they owned being carried in two beat up suitcases and just 30-cents to their name, this news couldn’t have come at a better time.

This was the perfect feel-good story and, as you can imagine, it quickly broke nationwide. In an interview with the United Press, Robert Murphy said, “I’m so happy I can’t talk. We just had another disappointment last night. Someone told me I might get a job here, but it didn’t go through, and it took hours to get shelter for the night.”

Jean Murphy added, “It’s wonderful news. We were beginning to think no one cared what happened to us. Does someone really want us?” She continued, “That’s the way it was on our trip East. Only the people who had a lot of trouble themselves understood and helped us. I guess that’s how it always is.”

Of course, one has to wonder how the Murphys ended up in such dire straits. As the story broke nationally, members of the local press started doing some digging. As the reporters poked around into the Murphys’ past, they were left with far more questions than they had answers.

For example, they learned from Captain Newton McClements at the Salvation Army in Norristown that he had given Robert Murphy $2.50 (approximately $25.00 today) to cover train fare to Philadelphia.

Huh? What? They supposedly had just traveled from Philadelphia so why would they need train fare to go back?

Next, Murphy said that he had applied for Red Cross aid shortly after the flood had destroyed their nine-room home in Kansas. A check with the director of the midwestern office of the Red Cross, Robert Edson, could find no record of a Robert Murphy ever applying for aid either during or after the flood.

Then, during a radio interview on December 31, 1951, Mr. Murphy mentioned that he had studied to be an electrical engineer at the University of Kansas. Under re-questioning he changed his alma mater to Kansas State. Maybe that was just an error on his part, but local reporters were starting to think that the details of his story just didn’t add up.

During an interview with the Murphy’s at the Kulp farmhouse, WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr decided that it was time to ask the Murphys about the inconsistencies in their story and find out what was really true.

It turns out that none of it was. It was all one big lie.

The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.
The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.  That’s daughter Jean on his lap,  dad Robert on the left and mom Jean holding Robert, Jr. on the left.  (Image appeared on page 2 of the Akron Beacon Journal on January 2, 1952,)

They had never lost everything that they had owned in the Kansas floods. In fact, they had never lived there at all. The family started telling the Kansas flood story the previous August, but had received no public attention until Mrs. Poley befriended them. They would simply move from town to town telling their fictitious tale, maybe get a meal, some lodging, and a few bucks before moving on to the next town.

Not only had they not been in Kansas, they weren’t the Murphys. They were the Lillibridges. Dad was Robert Roy Lillibridge, who was born on December 9, 1911 in Baltimore, Maryland. Mom was Philadelphia native Jean McGlinchey. They had been married during the war and it was the second marriage for both. Why the name Murphy? It was Jean’s last name from her first marriage.

Nearly all of what Robert Lillibridge initially told the press proved to be fictitious. He was not a decorated World War II veteran. Instead, he had served in the Merchant Marine assisting with the war effort.

And what about his electrical engineering studies at the University of Kansas or Kansas State? His education ended in the eighth grade.

Once the hoax had been exposed, both Lillibridge and his wife admitted that they had been in prison one time each, but never elaborated on what the charges were.

Lillibridge said, “I am sorry about the whole thing. We intended to settle down here. Pottstown was the only place where people were really concerned about us.” He added, “I’ll tell the kids that we just forgot to take the stuff with us.”

Since there was no crime committed, after questioning, the Lillibridges were released by authorities and were once again back on the road. Behind them they left all of the money, clothing, food, and gifts that the people of Pottstown and the rest of the nation had donated to help them.

Mr. Kulp, whose offer of his home and a job went above and beyond what most people would do, offered up the following words: “We tried to do the right thing.” He added, “We feel awful. We opened our hearts and home to them and we thought they were good people. A lot of other people believed their story too. I don’t know what to say except that I pity their little children who are innocent.”

Letters written by readers to the Pottstown Mercury weren’t as kind:

“That so-called Murphy family should never have been brought back to Pottstown. It is such irresponsibility which weakens public faith in our community leaders.” (Mrs. Anne R.)

“It is hard to believe that residents in and around Pottstown would go so far out of their way to help the “Walking Murphys” when they don’t adequately take care of their own.” (Harold B. P.)

“It is unfortunate that people with so much charity in their hearts should be ‘taken in.’ I would like to say to them: Don’t be disillusioned, for every four deceitful people in this world there are four thousand honest ones. The Misfortune you have suffered should not deter you from lending a helping hand again.” (Mrs. Ruth S. W.)

“I think Fred Selby and the others of The Mercury should be congratulated for the wonderful job they have done with the so-called “Walking Murphys”. The two children are to be pitied. But as for him and her, walking is too good for them.” (Mrs. H. M.)

By the time that these and other letters had been published, the Lillibridge family had disappeared from the scene. Where they came from and to where they went is difficult to piece together, but here is what I learned, particularly regarding Robert Lillibridge:

On Tuesday, July 13, 1937, a then 25-year-old Lillibridge was found by a plant watchman in North Camden, New Jersey after he claimed to have leaped from a bridge into the Delaware River in an attempt to end his life. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and given a suspended sentence. When asked by the prosecutor as to why he jumped, he replied, “I had an argument with my girlfriend.” He added, “As soon as I touched the water I knew I had made a mistake and prayed that I might have the strength to get to shore.”

On November 29th Lillibridge jumped off that same bridge a second time. While no one was witness to the jump, police found his sweater with three notes pinned to it hanging from the bridge railing. One of the notes said that he had “played the game of love twice with the same girl and he lost both times.” Another, addressed to a cousin in Baltimore, stated that when he received “this note he would be at the bottom of the river.” After a thorough search of the water by harbor police, no body was found.

His girlfriend was identified as Dorothy Huntingdon who was living at 2046 Martha Street in Philadelphia at the time. When questioned, she said that the two had a bit of an argument over her seeing another male friend. When Lillibridge left her home he seemed a bit down but never mentioned anything about committing suicide.

Four days later Lillibridge walked into a newspaper office in Philadelphia and surrendered. Once again, he claimed to have changed his mind as fell toward the water surface, swam to shore, and then hitchhiked to New York City.

These two jumps were treated as the real deal when they happened, but the lies that he told many years later as one of the Walking Murphys questions whether he ever really hit the water or was simply making it all up to draw attention to himself.

He may not have been wanted by his girlfriend Dorothy, but the Secret Service certainly did. After reading about his two suicide attempts, they issued a warrant that charged him with stealing and cashing in a WPA check that had been stolen from his roommate Alec Wood the previous February.

On September 17, 1943, he was in trouble with the law again on . This time the now 31-year-old Lillibridge was picked up for impersonating a member of the armed forces. Dressed in the same military garb that he had been arrested in, he testified that he had purchased the uniform so that he could re-enlist in the Army.

Wait! Didn’t he claim years later that he was in the Merchant Marine?

Just what is the truth and what are lies here? It really is hard to know because Lillibridge seemed to blur the lines between the two all of the time.

As for their Kansas flood hoax, it wasn’t the first time that they had attempted this.

The March 11, 1950 issue of the New York Daily News features a photograph of Robert Lillibridge, his wife Jean, 20-month old daughter Jean, and six-week old Robert, Jr. sitting in the Newark, New Jersey police headquarters. They may have used their real names this time, but the rest of their story has a familiar ring to it:

38-year-old Robert Lillibridge was an Air Force veteran who flew fifty-seven missions in the South Pacific which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The text said that on March 4th, the six-family apartment house that they lived in down in Baltimore had burned to the ground. They lost everything including $150 that they had saved up in cash. All their belongings fit into two small bags.

Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children.
Photograph of Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children Jean and Robert, Jr.  Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on March 11, 1950.

Robert Lillibridge said that his brother James invited them to come stay with him at his home in Newark, but supposedly Jim never gave him the address. They walked all the way to New Jersey and had just 5-cents in their pocket when they made their way to the Newark police department for help. Police searched for the missing brother, but – this should come as no surprise – they could not locate him.

Two weeks later they were in the newspaper again. They had somehow found their way approximately 350-miles (560 km) northwest to Bradford, Pennsylvania and told the same hard luck story. The Salvation Army there fed the family, provided them with lodging, and paid for them to take a bus to Union City, Pennsylvania. There they hoped to hook up with an uncle named Lyle Lillibridge.

In November, 1951, the Murphy-Lillibridges walked into a restaurant in Everett, Pennsylvania that was owned by Mrs. Carma Winck. They told the same sad story about how the floods in Kansas had wiped away all that they owned. Mrs. Winck felt sorry for the fairly and provided them with a place to stay for several days. As they departed, the Everett Ministerial Association purchased bus tickets to Raleigh, North Carolina because they had relatives there who could help them.

Once they arrived in Raleigh, they headed about 40-miles (about 65 km) northwest to Efland, North Carolina. In a letter published by the Pottstown Mercury a couple of months after the hoax was revealed, Reverend James Johnson wrote the following:

“A month or two ago my wife and myself picked up four people and brought them to our house and gave them their dinner. They said that they had lost everything that they had in a flood in Topeka, Kansas and was going to Mobile, Alabama to his brother’s home.”

“He said that he was an electrician and his story seemed to be true. So after dinner I carried them in my car to a church 15 miles from here and told the story to the pastor of the church. He made up an offering of $36.00 and I carried them to the bus station and bought them two tickets to Mobile, Alabama.”

“I am almost sure that the people described in the newspaper clipping which I have enclosed are the same ones that we picked up. I now know why he did not want their picture taken. I have a friend in Norfolk, Virginia that picked them up and helped them too.”

Okay. So they had pulled this hoax or something similar to it many times before. But surely they wouldn’t do it again now they had been caught and the story was in the press nationwide.

They clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

On the evening of Monday, December 20, 1954, which is nearly three years after Mrs. Poley invited the so-called Murphys to dinner, it was reported that police in Youngstown, Ohio had picked up the Lillibridge family after they had been caught trying to thumb a ride on the outskirts of town.

The Lillibridges had quite the story to tell. They had been hitchhiking because their home in San Diego, California had burned to the ground. The family had been on the road for the past 105 days and were headed to Van Buren, Maine where wife Jean had an uncle.

The kindly policemen reached in their pockets and provided the Lillibridges with money and arranged for food to be brought into the station for the hungry family. The Salvation Army provided them with a place to stay for the evening. The next morning the police provided them with a road map and the Lillibridges were once again back on the road.

When the story of their generosity hit the local newspapers, the police realized that they had been had. One man said that he had picked up a family of the same description in nearby Hubbard, Ohio three days prior and provided them with assistance. The father, who can be presumed to Robert Lillibridge, told the kind gentleman that their home in Maine had burned and that they were headed to California. Another man said he had provided the family with a place to stay and $100. And finally, a woman said that she had seen the family in Canfield, Ohio two-years earlier. That time the Lillibridges claimed that their home in Florida had burned and that they were making their way to Kansas.

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

 

Needed a Husband to Pay Off Debt

In January of 1952, 39-year-old Jane Gorden was visiting friends in Shalimar, Florida when she decided to place an ad in the Montgomery, Alabama Advertiser for a husband to help pay off her $6,000 in debt (approximately $56,000 adjusted for inflation).  

During her one week search, she had rejected about fifteen men from Alabama and Florida, but was interested in another from Texas.

As to how she accumulated so much debt, $4,000 of it came from an apartment fire in 1949 that caused her to lose everything including all of her furniture and clothing.  The remaining $2,000 was from her identical twin’s medical bills, who had since passed on.

Couple Kissing
Jane Gorden (not in this image) placed an ad in the Montgomery, Alabama Advertiser seeking a husband to help pay off her debt.