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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1954

Podcast # 139 – The Fight for Hildy McCoy

 

Imagine you are in this situation: It is the early 1950s and you are a young woman in your early twenties. You are unmarried and suddenly you find out that you are pregnant. What would you do?  

Well, this was the exact situation that a young Boston resident named Marjorie McCoy found herself in.   At the time, she was a student at the Children’s Hospital School of Nursing and when she learned that she was pregnant, her mom took her to see the family doctor, Dr. Herman Sands. He suggested that the best solution would be to place the child up for adoption and they agreed.

Dr. Sands referred them to Salem, Massachusetts attorney Philip Strome, who could “handle the whole matter and keep things quiet.” Strome found the perfect couple to adopt the baby: 39-year-old Melvin Ellis and his 31-year-old wife Frances.  Melvin owned Bentley’s Cleansers, a dry-cleaning plant in Boston, and was reported to have had an annual income in excess of $10,000 ($97,000 adjusted for inflation).  The two had married in 1946 but soon learned that they would be unable to have a child of their own. Desperate to adopt, they offered to pay all of Marjorie’s medical costs plus any legal fees incurred. 

Marjorie and her mom agreed to the terms of the deal. To avoid the embarrassment of being pregnant out of wedlock, Marjorie headed out to California to stay with her married sister.  As the birth approached, she returned back east and waited out her time in a rented room located on Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of Boston.

It was on February 23, 1951, in Boston’s Kenmore Hospital, that Marjorie would deliver a healthy six-pound girl. The baby was whisked away without Marjorie ever laying sight on the newborn. Ten days later, in attorney Strome’s office, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis would sign the papers to adopt their new daughter, who was now named Hildy. Next, Dr. Sands took the papers to Marjorie and she added her signature. It was a double-blind signing so that Marjorie would not learn the names of the adoptive parents and vice versa.

And with that, if this were the typical adoption, everyone involved would have gone on to happily live their lives. But that was not to be the case.

A few weeks later, Hildy’s adoption would be thrown into chaos. Marjorie was informed by attorney Philip Strome that there had been a technical glitch in the adoption proceedings because her first signature had not been notarized and dated. So, Marjorie went to Strome’s office on March 27, 1951 to sign a new set of documents. While doing so, Marjorie, who was Catholic, learned that the Ellises were not. In fact, they were Jewish. This greatly disturbed Marjorie. She desired that her daughter be placed in a Catholic home. Marjorie became apprehensive at signing the new documents, but Strome assured her that the adoption would not be finalized for another year and that she would “have time to think it over and change her mind.” So, she signed the papers and left his office.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

At some point in April, Marjorie once again went to see Dr. Sands and informed him that she didn’t approve of Hildy being raised in a Jewish household by parents who had both been previously divorced and wished to have the adoption reversed. What’s interesting here is that Marjorie still had no desire to keep Hildy. She wanted another couple to adopt the child and raise her as a Catholic. As a result, Marjorie requested that the court allow her to withdraw her consent.

Coincidentally, just months before, the Massachusetts legislature had enacted a statute that read, in part: “In making orders for adoption the judge, when practicable, must give custody only to persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.” And, let’s face it, what were the chances of there not being a single Catholic couple in the entire state of Massachusetts who would be willing to adopt a newborn blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl? At the time of Hildy’s birth, neither Marjorie nor the Ellises knew of this new legislation, but the law was clearly on Marjorie’s side.

Marjorie and the Ellises met for the first time in May 1951. What exactly happened during this meeting depends on whose side seemed more plausible. Marjorie’s attorney insisted that they requested the child be returned but the Ellises refused and the meeting ended with both sides angrily in complete disagreement. Yet, Mrs. Ellis told the press, “It was all quite friendly. We discussed the petition, and when we left, Marjorie said to me, ‘I hope you can keep the child. I can’t go on paying for this all my life.’”

In early 1952, the Ellises sought court intervention to resolve the problem, but the judge advised the couple to await the outcome of a similar case involving a Catholic mother and Protestant foster parents that had been winding its way through the Massachusetts courts. In June, this particular case was decided in favor of the adoptive couple. The Ellises took this as a good sign that they would prevail in court. Sidentoe: Hildy’s real father was a Protestant, but Marjorie had no interest in marrying him.

It would not be until June 1953 that the case would be heard by Dedham Probate Judge James F. Reynolds. This would be the first time that Marjorie McCoy would see her daughter Hildy. After a 4-1/2 day hearing, Judge Reynolds ruled against the Ellises. He determined that it would be in Hildy’s best interest if the adoption was nullified and the child returned to Marjorie McCoy so that she could place her with the Catholic Charitable Bureau. 

Needless to say, the Ellises were in deep shock. Hildy was now two years old and the couple was the only parents she had ever known. Regarding Marjorie, Mrs. Ellis stated, “If she has said to me at our first meeting, ‘I will fight for my baby – for myself,’ I would have had to give her back.”

It was shortly after this decision, on July 21, 1953, that Marjorie McCoy married Gerald Doherty, who was not Hildy’s father. They would soon start a family of their own, but Hildy was not to factor into that equation.

The Ellises’ battle to adopt Hildy did not end with Judge Reynolds’ decision. They appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It was on October 6, 1954, when Hildy was 3-1/2 years old, that the story finally broke in the newspapers. Soon, the adoption of Hildy McCoy would become front-page headlines not for days, weeks, or months, but for years. It would become the most controversial and most widely reported adoption story of the 1950s.

Mrs. Ellis stated, “Hildy is our whole life. It will be cruel and inhuman to take her away. This is the only family she has ever known.”

Hildy with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 7, 1954 publication of the Boston Globe.

The full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down their decision on February 14, 1955. They upheld Judge Reynolds’ ruling and ordered that the Ellises return Hildy to her natural mother. Keep in mind that the judges were strictly focused on the law, which did allow the natural mother of the child to withdraw her petition for adoption for a period of one year. All of the justices involved, although deemed heartless by the press, were simply interpreting the regulations as written.

On April 26, Marjorie McCoy Doherty and two social workers arrived at 231 St. Paul Street in Brookline, Massachusetts to remove Hildy from the Ellises’ home. Marjorie told Mrs. Ellis, “I’ve come for the child.” Mrs. Ellis refused their request as Hildy, dressed for bed, held on to her adoptive mother’s skirt. The three women soon left, only to return a short time later with a police officer. He made no attempt to take the child and told Mrs. Ellis that he was only there to inform the Ellises that the court had ordered the return of Hildy to her natural mother. Shortly after the four left, Mrs. Ellis wrapped Hildy in blankets and drove 68 miles (110 km) to her brother’s home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Two weeks later, on May 11, the Ellises’ attorney, James Zisman, requested that the Massachusetts Supreme Court issue a stay of execution on Judge Reynolds decision. Zisman stated, “It would be a sad situation, a tragedy, to uproot this child from its present surroundings and send her to an institution.” He continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Ellis will take this child to the Catholic Church and bring her up in the Catholic faith. Their love for this child is so great that they would bring her up under the supervision of the local Catholic priest, send her to a parochial school, even place her in a convent school where she would come home only on weekends.” The court declined this request.

The Ellises may have lost the case but they were not about to turn over Hildy without a fight. They continued to ignore the court order requiring them to return Hildy to her natural mother, so on Wednesday, June 15th, Judge Reynolds had finally had enough. He set a deadline for that Friday at 2 PM for the Ellises to turn over Hildy McCoy. If they failed to do so, the couple would be placed in jail. He stated, “The mother has been trying to get the child back into her possession since the child was six weeks old. If these people had turned the child over to the mother then they would not have become so attached to her.”

The next day, June 16, 1955, Supreme Court Justice Harold B. Williams issued a stay of execution of Judge Reynolds’ court order and scheduled a hearing for June 22. On June 28, the Supreme Court dismissed the couple’s petition and ordered that Hildy be turned over to her natural mother within 24 hours or they would “go to jail.”

Well, that day came and went. The Ellises were nowhere to be found. They had gone into hiding. In a phone interview with a reporter, Mr. Ellis stated, “I’m scared stiff of jail, but I’m like any other father when they take his child away.” He added, “We’ll fight to the finish, hoping that we can have Hildy, or at least that the mother will take her into her own home instead of a foster home. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

In the meantime, attorney Zisman once again approached the Massachusetts Supreme Court arguing that Judge Reynolds had acted improperly by ordering the arrest of the Ellises without a proper hearing. The couple was granted a two-week delay while the lower court’s ruling was reviewed.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Tampa Bay Times.

This wasn’t about to stop Judge Reynolds. He was growing tired of all of the stalling. While his order to have the Ellises arrested may have been placed on hold for two weeks, that decision had nothing to do with Hildy herself. On July 9, he ordered that sheriffs in all Massachusetts counties find Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and take Hildy into custody. “We command you that the body of female McCoy, also known as Hildy C. Ellis, of Brookline, minor child of Marjorie McCoy Doherty, you take and have before the judge of the Probate Cord at Dedham immediately after receipt of the writ to do and receive what the judge shall then and there consider concerning her in this behalf.”

On July 18, Attorney Zisman filed six new petitions with the Norfolk Probate Court claiming that Marjorie had given false testimony and that she had “deliberately imposed a fraud upon the court.” Basically, two nurses who had spoken with her at the time of Hildy’s birth signed affidavits claiming that Marjorie was aware from the very beginning that the Ellises were Jewish. 

Nurse Jessie C. Santoro said that Marjorie had asked her to go check out the couple and “let me know what they’re like.” When Santoro returned, she reported that they were “a lovely Jewish couple.” She added, “You know the baby is going to a Jewish home. Are you going to have her baptized?” To this Marjorie replied, “My only concern is to get this thing over with and get my own life straightened out.”

Frances Ellis helping Hildy with her hair. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The other nurse was Dorothy H. Ingersoll. She told of how she took the baby to Marjorie’s bedside the day after Hildy was born. Marjorie quickly turned her head away and would not look at the newborn. Ms. Ingersoll then stated, “Your baby is going to Jewish people,” to which Marjorie replied, “What’s wrong with that?”

Judge Reynolds informed attorney Zisman that he would hear no new motions concerning the case until the Ellises and Hildy appeared before him. “I want the Ellises brought before the court, and the baby before the court. I will hear all matters when everyone is before the court.”

As you can probably guess, the Ellises were no-shows. As a result, on November 3, 1955 Judge Reynolds dismissed all six of those newly filed petitions and noted that “The petitioners have not been deprived of their day in court.” After this, the Ellises filed another appeal with the state Supreme Court.

This game of ricocheting back and forth between Judge Reynolds and the Massachusetts Supreme Court would continue, so I won’t bore you with the details. In total, twenty-two different appeals were filed and then denied by the state Supreme Court. Their last decision was handed down on September 28, 1956. The final legal door had been shut on the Ellises.

The couple now legally had no choice but to turn 5 ½-year-old Hildy over to her natural mother, who would, in turn, put her up for adoption. The only problem was that the Ellises had not been spotted since that day when Marjorie and the two social workers showed up at the Ellis home. Seventeen months had since elapsed.  Were they still in Massachusetts?  Were the Ellises still even within the United States? Just where were they?

A big legal change occurred in March 1957. That was when Massachusetts Associate Justice Edward A. Counihan concluded that the Ellises had committed the crime of kidnapping and an indictment was handed down.

Not long after this, Melvin Ellis made the mistake of trying to purchase a new car in Miami Beach, Florida. Since he was trading in his old vehicle, the dealer made a routine check to confirm that there were no liens on the car. That’s when the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informed the dealer that the couple was wanted on a kidnapping charge.

At approximately 2 PM on Friday, March 15, 1957, Ellis arrived at the dealer to pick up his new car, unaware that a trap had been set. Shortly after walking into the dealership’s showroom, he was approached by two officers and taken into custody. Ellis was escorted to Miami police headquarters where he was fingerprinted, mugshot taken and placed into a cell. A short time later, a detective went to the Ellises’ Normandy Isle apartment and arrested Mrs. Ellis. Neither would have to spend very long in custody. Their Florida attorney, Benjamin Cohen, quickly arranged for their release without bail. A hearing was set for the following Monday.

Attorney Ben Cohen (left) with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 19, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

At the hearing on March 18, 1957, Massachusetts State Police Detective Lieutenant William H. Delay requested that the Ellises be held on a $5,000 bond, but the magistrate opted to once again release the couple into the custody of attorney Cohen.

Mr. Ellis told the press, “Never once during all the courtroom proceedings in Massachusetts did the court ever consider Hildy’s welfare. I don’t care if I go to jail. The main thing is the girl’s happiness and she wouldn’t be happy in a Catholic orphanage and any other kind of orphanage.” He continued, “We are not criminals. We have not done anything wrong. We just want our girl. We are not running any more. This is a last stand – a final battleground for Hildy’s life and her future. We do not want this sword hanging over us.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 18, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

The couple had been in hiding for nearly two years. So, just where were they all this time? First, as previously mentioned, after Marjorie and the two social workers arrived at the Ellises’ home on April 26, 1955, Mrs. Ellis and Hildy went to Newport, Rhode Island, where they stayed for three weeks. After that, they went to stay with friends in Sharon, Massachusetts. The couple did return back to their home in Brookline for a short period, but went back into hiding when the couple was ordered to turn over Hildy or risk going to jail. From there, they proceeded to Tuckahoe, New York and then moved on to a five-week stay with relatives in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Next was White Plains, New York, followed by a six-month stint in Manhattan, and finally a short stay in Scarsdale, New York. Finally, in April 1956, the couple decided that they needed to move out of the northeastern United States. It was at that point that the couple headed to Florida. They moved into their Normandy Isle apartment in May.

As for employment, Melvin Ellis was forced to sell his lucrative dry-cleaning business. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a traveling salesman for a New York clothing firm, selling both sportswear and lingerie. Hildy was enrolled as a first-grader in the private Lear School in Miami Beach.

Hildy (left) and her friend, Susie Ellis, playing with a pair of slacks from Melvin Ellis’ sample bag. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The battle to return Hildy, Frances, and Melvin Ellis back to the state of Massachusetts had begun. In one corner, you had the public opinion which overwhelmingly supported allowing the Ellises to adopt Hildy. In the opposing corner, there was the state of Massachusetts, which sought their immediate return so that the various court decisions could be executed.

It was estimated that the Governor of Florida’s office received 10,000 letters, telegrams, or signed petitions from people opposing the extradition of the Ellises. In comparison, an estimated 100 letters were received expressing their belief that they should be returned to Massachusetts and that Hildy should be returned to her natural mother.

Many others expressed their opinions by writing to their local newspapers. Here is just a sampling of those letters to editors:

  • April 5, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Evidently you didn’t bother trying to find the facts in this case or you deliberately withheld them in order to create sympathy toward the Ellises.”  “…the Ellises illegally obtained the child from Dr. Herman Sand and also paid him a large sum of money for the favor, in spite of the fact that Dr. Sand promised Marjorie McCoy, the child’s real mother, he would make sure the child will be placed in a Catholic home.” Anthony Cook
  • April 8, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Think of the scars that would be inflicted permanently if Hildy were separated suddenly from all the love and security she has known for years. There is more to motherhood than the act of conceiving.” The letter continues, “We are all talking tolerance: why don’t we practice it? Let this Jewish couple bring up their child as a Catholic. I cannot believe in my heart that any religion would willfully gamble a helpless child’s chance for happiness.” A Mother.
  • May 3, 1957 – Brooklyn Daily – “After the passing of these past years of Hildy’s life, the unwed mother who bore her, now married, decides to have this little one return, – not to her but, instead, – to a home for children and to be adopted, all over again, by a couple of her own Faith. To make of this little one an actual pawn, a chess piece to be moved [hither and yon] on the board-of-living is not a sporting or good game but, it is a crooked and, an absolute STEAL.” L. M. K.

Of course, public opinion does not always predict the outcome of legal matters. Almost immediately after the arrest of the Ellises, the State of Massachusetts had rendition papers drawn up seeking the couple’s return to face kidnapping charges. Under Florida law at the time, Massachusetts had until midnight on April 17 to submit the signed extradition documents. Foster Furcolo, who was the Massachusetts governor at the time, made it clear that he would sign the papers, but that process did not go smoothly. The first set of papers drawn up was rejected on March 27 on technical grounds. The second set was rejected on April 16 due to an incorrect date. Finally, on April 17 Governor Furcolo signed the third revision and it was flown to Florida and submitted just prior to the midnight deadline.

Florida Governor LeRoy Collins set a hearing on the extradition for May 23 in Tallahassee. The million-dollar question was whether Governor Collins would give in to public pressure or, instead, side with the state of Massachusetts and send the Ellises back to face the music.

Just prior to the hearing, Melvin Ellis told the press, “If by serving a couple of years in prison I might settle the thing I would not mind so much. But the thought of giving her up is more than I can bear. We are pinning our faith on the Lord and Governor Collins.”

Mrs. Ellises’ biggest fear wasn’t the kidnapping charge. Instead, she was concerned that the hearing would drag on and she would be unable to return in time to see and hear Hildy perform her part in the Lear’s School presentation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was part of her 1st grade moving up ceremony. “Hildy will feel terrible if we’re both not there, but even if Melvin has to stay in Tallahassee I’ve got to get back for the exercises.”

Mr. & Mrs. Ellis (top of stairs), their attorney Ben Cohen (far right) and others boarding an airplane to attend the extradition hearing in Tallahassee. Image appeared on page 2 of the May 22, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And then the day came. Thursday, May 23, 1957. Governor Collins began the hearing before a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 125 people. Lawyers for both sides presented their case. The session was surprisingly short, clocking in at two hours in length. Governor Collins said that he based his decision on both legal and humanitarian grounds: he granted the Ellises Florida sanctuary and refused to honor the extradition request from Massachusetts.

Reporters questioned Mrs. Ellis shortly after the decision. When asked how she felt, she replied a “little numb.” Mrs. Ellis added, “Now I can sleep tonight.” When asked about attending Hildy’s first-grade graduation, she replied, “I was going to make it if I had to walk back to Miami.”

Frances and Melvin Ellis with Hildy shortly after Governor Collins granted the couple sanctuary in Florida. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And she did make it. And so did the press. Here’s a bit of a story that appeared on May 24, 1957 in the Miami News: “Hildy McCoy Ellis ‘graduated’ today from the first to second grade at the Lear School, Miami Beach, in probably the world’s most widely publicized kiddie baccalaureate.” The article continues, “Some of the children marveled at the presence of newsreel and television cameras and blinked in the strong lights. But most of them thought it was part of the coverage of the Lear School annual event.”

This may have been a great day of celebration, but the Ellises’ legal problems were not over. They may have avoided being extradited to face the kidnapping charges, but the issue of Hildy’s legal adoption had not been settled. The Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese strongly opposed the adoption. On June 11, 1957, the Massachusetts Public Welfare Department submitted to the state of Florida twelve objections to the adoption and recommended that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis not be permitted to adopt Hildy. 

Both sides would get to present their cases before Circuit Judge John W. Prunty on July 8, 1957, as Hildy remained in the judge’s chambers playing with her 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Vicki Miller. Hildy was totally oblivious to what was going on outside in the courtroom. Two days later, Judge Prunty decreed that Hildy “shall hereafter be known as Hildy Ellis.” After more than six years of fighting for and fearing the loss of Hildy, she was now the legal daughter of Frances and Melvin Ellis.

Frances and Melvin Ellis kissing Hildy goodnight. Image appeared on page 109 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

On July 11, 1957, Hildy’s natural mother Marjorie broke her silence for the first time. “I am grateful to Massachusetts justice for upholding my right to provide for my baby in accordance with conscience. She is now a growing girl. I would not wish to see her further hurt by more of the publicity that was threatened to her and to me six years ago. Some day she will learn the facts about her mother’s desire to protect her with the privacy that others were willing to destroy. Meanwhile, with prayers I hope many will share, I entrust her to [the] loving protection of God. The rest is in the hands of my attorneys.”

After this, the press would follow up on Hildy’s story on special occasions like her birthday and the anniversary of her adoption. Yet, there was little to report. Everything seemed to be going well before the story faded into history.

Melvin Ellis told reporters that the fight to adopt Hildy had cost him over $60,000, which would be nearly $600,000 today. He added, “But you can bet it was worth it.”

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

1966 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.
1968 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.

A Lady’s Age Is Her Own Business

 

Muriel Nicholson, whose husband operated a New York City car dealership, filed applications with the State Motor Vehicle Bureau to register three different automobiles. Each time she used a different birth date. One said that she was born on September 6, 1914, a second listed her birth date as September 26, 1915, and the last indicated a date of September 6, 1918. 

As a result of her deception, she was charged with three counts of falsifying data. If guilty, Mrs. Nicholson could have received a $500 fine ($4,700 today), one year in jail, or both.

On May 12, 1954, Mrs. Nicholson arrived at the Court of Special Sessions dressed in a gray suit with a fur collar, a pearl necklace and earrings, a black ribbon in her blonde hair, and a short black veil.

After considering the facts in the case, the three judges unanimously dismissed the charges against Mrs. Nicholson.

“We are unwilling to believe that such penalties were intended for one who only exaggerated her age between three and four years,” Justice Herman Hoffman stated. He added that “…the age element is only important as requiring proof from an applicant that she is not a minor.”

“It may be observed, in passing, that the courts are not unmindful that age – as far as our sisters are concerned – is singularly relative, and gallantry exacts an appreciation and understanding of our lady’s age as one of the most gracious in men.”

As for her real age, Mrs. Nicholson never revealed this detail in the courtroom. She did state, late on the evening of the decision, that she had been born in 1916.

Eleven days later, Mrs. Nicholson’s fame would bring her misfortune. Shortly after midnight on May 23, 1954, two bandits brandishing pistols entered the lobby of her apartment building at 10 East Eighty-fifth Street and demanded that the doorman take them to her apartment. Upon entering her sixth-floor apartment, the thugs tied up Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson, the doorman, and a maid. The telephone was ripped from the wall and at least $50 in cash and jewelry was stolen. The Nicholsons were able to free themselves and contacted police.

Muriel Nicholson holding her driver’s license. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the May 13, 1954 publication of he Boston Globe.

Podcast #131 – An Inside Job

 

I’ve been to Washington, DC several times over the years and it offers an incredible assortment of great architecture, monuments, and museums, all with free admission. I keep a mental list of places that I would like to visit the next time I am there and one of those is the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be in the place where they print the money? It’s the place where you can theoretically smell the money, although free samples are probably out of the question.

A survey of records by the Bureau revealed that there had been a total $2800 stolen during twelve thefts in the thirty years prior to 1954. That’s nothing when compared to the estimated $3.4 trillion dollars worth of securities that were printed during that same time period.

There are so many checks and counterchecks built into the system that it was once thought that it would be nearly impossible to steal newly printed money in any significant quantity. Only a fool would dare do so and would most certainly be caught before ever exiting the premises.

That line of thinking would all change on January 4, 1954. That’s when Sewell A. Davis, a stockman for the Bureau, was assigned to transfer bricks of currency from a pallet in Vault D-19 to another location. As he lifted two of the bricks, one in each hand, he noticed a discrepancy in one of them.

Davis turned to his coworker Paul Coakley and stated: “One of these bricks feels light.” He handed the brick to Coakley and added, “Does it feel light to you?” As Coakley gave it a heft, he replied, “Yes, it does.” Davis then tore off the brick’s kraft paper wrapping and was shocked by what he saw: a stack of blank, white paper. While the two were alerting supervisors to the fake brick, another employee, Frederick A. Minor, discovered a second one.

Sewell Davis and Paul Coakley  discovered the two dummy packages.
Sewell Davis (left in white T-shirt) and Paul Coakley (right) discovered the two dummy packages. Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Eight-thousand $20 bills – a total of $160,000 (over $1.5 million adjusted for inflation) – had disappeared from the vault. The Secret Service was immediately alerted and an investigation launched. Believing that it would be impossible to get two bricks that measured 14-inches (35.6 cm) x 6-inches (15.2 cm) x 2-½-inches (6.4 cm) and weighed in at around 8-pounds (3.6 kg) out of the heavily guarded facility, a search was begun internally. Nothing was found.

The only clue that investigators had were the date-stamped seals found on each of the packages. They were confirmed as authentic and were dated December 17, 1953 and December 31, 1953. That means that the money had been stolen recently and suggested that the thief or thieves had intentionally timed it so that the theft took advantage of the three-day New Year’s holiday weekend that year.

Believing that the theft could have only been done by a Bureau employee with direct access to the vault, investigators began to question the staff. Unable to interview everyone before their shift had ended, they planned to continue the questioning the next morning.

Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks.
Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick (left) and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks (right). Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

They never got that far. At 5:00 AM the next morning, Virginia State Police received a call from 45-year-old Irving Grant, who worked as a butler and chauffeur on a 340-acre farm located near Middleburg, Virginia, which is about 40 miles (64 km) west of the Capitol. Grant informed them that they could find the missing money there. Troopers raced to the scene and Grant led them to a metal toolbox which contained forty-four bundles of newly printed $20 bills – a total of $88,000 – and an additional $7,000 in smaller bills, which were believed to have been given as change for bills that were cashed in at various retail establishments.

Grant had an interesting story to tell. He said that his daughter, her husband and another man had driven down from DC the night before in a newly purchased Oldsmobile. They said that they had “pulled a smoothie” and needed to hide the money on the farm until “it cools off a little.” Grant initially refused to cooperate but quickly changed his mind when one of the men pulled out a gun. In exchange for his efforts in concealing the money, they gave him a sock filled with $3,000 in cash.

After the three left, Grant’s conscience got the better of him. He stayed awake all night and decided early that morning to notify the police. He later told the press, “It was hard to do. She was my daughter. But I knew what the right thing was. The truth is right. The truth is right.” He added, “I figure my life isn’t worth that. I know my life is in danger. I don’t need anything. I figure I’m working for an honest man and he gives me what I need.”

The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found.
The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Later that morning, at 10:00 AM, Secret Service agents arrested Grant’s son-in-law, twenty-nine-year-old James Rufus Landis, at his place of employment: the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Landis would seem like an unlikely suspect: he had worked at the Bureau since he was sixteen years old, had received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, and Good Conduct Medal for his service in Europe during World War II, and had been twice wounded and granted a medical discharge. At the time of his arrest, Landis was earning $1.42 an hour ($13.69/hour today) to move newly printed money from the packaging machines to the storage vaults.

Landis initially denied that he had removed any cash from the building. He claimed that a man from New York, a Mr. Shapiro, had conceived of the plan to steal the money. When investigators laid out the evidence before him, Landis admitted to pulling the heist. He then led agents to a storage room on the fifth floor of the building. There they found a paper bag filled with an additional $32,000 that he had hidden under a pallet on the day of the theft.

At 2:00 PM, agents arrested his wife, 26-year-old Mamie Landis, at their Addison Chapel apartment in Capitol Heights, Maryland, which is located just over the Washington-Maryland border. The couple had met when she was eleven years old and married three years later – at the age of fourteen – while James was home on furlough during World War II. At the time of the couple’s arrest, the pair had been married for twelve years and were the parents to two young boys.

Under questioning, Mrs. Landis denied any knowledge of the theft of the money. “If he did this thing he did it for the kids and me.” She added, “Times have been hard. He worried about not being able to give us the things he wanted us to have—the things everybody else had.

“He wanted the kids to be doctors or lawyers or something like that…Like every father does. I will do everything I can to help him. He has always been a wonderful husband.” She continued, “He always handled the money. He just left enough here for me to buy small things, like bread. I know there was never much left out of his check after the bills were paid. Once in a while he would come home with some extra money. He said he got lucky gambling. I always figured that if there was anything he wanted me to know he would tell me…I’m not a prying wife.”

Her husband James told the press, “I really messed things up. I got my wife involved.” For the crime, both faced up to ten years imprisonment and a possible $10,000 fine. A judge set bail for James at $50,000 and his wife’s at $10,000. (About $480,000, in total, today.)

James Landis and his wife Mamie.
James Landis and his wife Mamie at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

There was still one man still unaccounted for: the person who accompanied the couple out to farm the previous evening. He was identified as twenty-seven-year-old William Giles, a government flagpole painter who had told his wife that he had made the money gambling. They arrested him in his apartment, which was in the same building that the Landeses lived. He readily admitted to his involvement. “I did it for the future of my family. I can’t give them all the things I want to give them.”

The next day, January 6th, two additional suspects were arrested. They were two of James Landis’s cousins: 27-year-old Charles Howard Nelson and 24-year-old Edith Irene Chase. Police were also on the hunt for 29-year-old Roger Paterson, who had been flashing bills at a card game on New Year’s Eve. A witness told detectives that Patterson had “a stack of bills about 6-inches high” under the back seat of his car. Their search ended when Patterson came stumbling into the 12th Precinct station on January 9th and said, “Somebody is looking for me and I’m giving myself up.” He was too intoxicated to be questioned at the time, but later told detectives that he knew of Landis’s plan to rob the Bureau thirty days before it occurred.

So how did he pull it off?

First, Landis paid careful attention to every detail involved in the packaging and storage of the money. As the money was stacked into the packaging machines, a wooden block would be placed at either end to prevent damage. Then the stack of money would be compressed and wire bands would be wrapped around to secure the bundle. Finally, the brick would be wrapped in kraft paper, and then labeled and dated before being stacked onto a pallet. What really caught Landis’ attention in this whole process was how lax workers and inspectors were when it came to disposing of unbroken wire bands, extra wooden end blocks, and the kraft paper that had the Treasury seals on them. He began to collect these and took them home in his pockets.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the January 6, 1954 issue of the Owensboro Messenger.

It was while his wife was busy taking care of the children each evening that Landis would attempt to duplicate the bricks of money. It took him close to three months, but he was able to come up with a dummy brick that would pass for the real thing. The only thing he lacked was a machine capable of pressing the paper tightly together, which is the reason why his dummies were lighter than the real thing: he simply couldn’t squeeze the same number of sheets of paper into his stacks.

Surprisingly, this detail was of little concern to him because he knew that if he could successfully replace a couple of the bricks on a pallet, it could be months before the theft would be discovered. That’s because the pallets were typically stored in a Bureau vault for a couple of months before being shipped off to any of the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. Once there, the money could sit untouched for several more months before being distributed to banks. By then, it would be very difficult to determine by who or where in the distribution system the bricks had been stolen.

It was shortly before 7:30 AM on December 31st that Landis entered the Bureau with two of his fake bricks wrapped in a package. It was standard practice not to search anyone with packages coming into the facility, but those who did were supposed to check them at a receiving desk. A guard directed Landis to the desk, but as soon as Landis felt that the guard’s attention had been diverted, he quickly changed course and headed down the hall with the package in hand. Landis then took an elevator to the third floor and hid the dummy bricks under a burlap bag which lined a trashcan in locker room number 327.

From there, Landis headed to his normal locker room, D-101, on the first floor to change into his work clothes. At 7:30 AM, he reported for duty at his scheduled time. His job was to place an enormous stack of bills on to a platform so that they could be sent through the wrapping machine. He knew from previous experience that it would be twenty minutes before he would need to refill the platform. That was twenty minutes to pull off the next step in his plan.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 24 of the January 21, 1954 issue of Jet magazine.

At 7:50, he walked over to one of the pallets and removed two of the bricks. He immediately walked over to a roll of kraft paper and tore off enough to conceal the two bricks of currency. His destination was a prechosen storage room on the fifth floor of the D-Wing. The only way for him to get there from his current first-floor location in the A-Wing was to use the passageway that connected all of the wings in the basement of the facilty. Upon arrival in the storage room, he quickly removed the paper packaging from each of the bricks, being careful not to damage the two ends that carried the official Treasury labels and date stamps. He folded them and placed the labels in his pocket. After breaking the metal bands with a pair of pliers, he placed the bulk of the money into a paper bag. The $32,000 that didn’t fit into the first bag was placed into a second. Both were hidden under one of the pallets in the storage room.

Landis promptly returned to his assigned duty without anyone suspecting anything out of the ordinary.

At 10:40 AM, it was time for a scheduled rest break. Landis rushed to the locker room where he had hidden those two dummy packages under the burlap bag. He then pulled out the packaging labels that he had stuffed in his pocket, soaked them under hot water in the sink and removed the Treasury labels from the paper. To dry them, he placed the labels between the fins of a radiator. Once dry, he pulled the two dummy packages out of the garbage can and affixed the labels to the brick ends using glue that he had concealed in his pocket. They now looked exactly like the real thing. As the end of his break approached, he walked back toward his station, placed the dummy bricks on to the pallet, and continued with his normal work until the end of the day.

When the workday ended at 3:10 PM, Landis went to the locker room to change into his street clothes and then took a detour to that fifth-floor storage room to grab his fortune. Realizing that he would be unable to get two bags filled with money past the guards, he left the smaller one behind, the one that he would later lead investigators to after being caught.

Getting the money through security was easier than anyone could have imagined. Since it was the holiday season and many of the workers had been exchanging gifts, security was somewhat more relaxed than usual. And, since it was common for workers to take laundry home to wash, he placed a pair of trousers in the bag to conceal his stolen loot. below As he passed through security, Landis pulled one leg of the trousers out of the bag to show that it contained dirty clothing and the guard just let him pass through.

And with that final move, James Rufus Landis had just stolen $128,000 from the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Irving Danner and Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills.
Irving Danner (left), manager, and President Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills that had been spent there. Image appeared on page 13 of the January 5, 1954 issue of the Pittsburgh Press.

While he had done it all himself, he knew that he had, at best, six months before the Bureau realized the money was gone. And since the bills all had consecutive serial numbers, they would be easy to trace. Landis concluded that he needed to get rid of the money quickly. His plan was straightforward: make a small purchase with one of the stolen $20 bills and then the change would be in legitimate money. This is simpler said than done because a $20 bill had a lot of buying power in 1954 – nearly $200 today. Not many stores could give change from that and if the same person kept walking in day-after-day to do so, someone was certain to become suspicious.

His solution was to have others assist him in spending the money. That’s where the others who were arrested, excluding his wife, come in. They all would drive around the region, stopping in every liquor store that they passed and purchasing a bottle of spirits. All the change from these purchases was turned over to Landis, who planned to split the profits later on. For the next few days, they were living the high life. In addition to purchasing three automobiles, Landis’ cousin Charles Nelson was observed lighting a cigar with a burning $20 bill.

Everything was great until the holiday weekend ended and everyone, including Landis, returned to work on Monday, January 4th. That was the day that the money was discovered missing. It was later that day that Landis made the decision to drive out to his father-in-law’s place with his neighbor William Giles to hide the money. They probably never imagined that Irving Grant would have a guilty conscience and turn in his own daughter for the crime.

The missing money was found in the metal toolbox and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building.
The missing money was found in the metal toolbox (rear) and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

On February 15th, a grand jury charged James Landis with theft of the money. His four accomplices received a lesser charge of “feloniously and unlawfully” receiving and passing the stolen money. All charges against Mrs. Landis were dropped.

While awaiting trial, Landis, Charles Nelson, and two other men were caught passing even more of the stolen money. This resulted in both Landis and Nelson would receiving stiffer sentences than it was initially thought that they would receive.

On May 28, 1954, Landis was sentenced to three to nine years in prison and fined $10,000. Federal Judge David A. Pine said that he took into consideration the fact that Landis had been cooperative with the Secret Service. He added that if Landis was able to produce the money that was still missing – an estimated $15,680 – he would consider dropping the fine.

As for the others, Charles Nelson was sentenced to 2 to 8 years in prison with a $3,000 fine, Roger Patterson got 20 months to 5 years and Edith Chase received a suspended sentence of 1 to 3 years.

There would be a larger theft at the Bureau in 1989 by Robert P. Schmitt, who was in charge of the Threaded Currency Paper project. He took advantage of his position and was able to smuggle out $1.6 million in $100 bills that he had concealed in a zippered compartment in his briefcase. That may be more money, but it doesn’t come close to the creativity and ingenuity that Landis used to pull off his daring theft in 1954.

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

Wrote Will on the Back of a Wall Calendar

 

When Walter C. Wyland died on September 3, 1954 at the age of 42, the will that he had written way back in 1936 left nothing to Mrs. Doris M. Vroubel, who was his fiancée at the time of his passing. A widow, she lived right across the street from Mr. Wyland at 965 S. Catalina St. in Los Angeles, California.

One day, she was about to discard a 1953 calendar that had been hanging on the wall of Mr. Wyland’s home at 962 S. Catalina, when she noticed some writing on it. Penciled on the back of the calendar was Mr. Wyland’s will, which he had penned two days prior to his death. In it, he left all of the money that he had saved to Mrs. Vroubel. The catch was that it was not all in one account. Instead he had opened 102 bank accounts all over the world, including such faraway places as Honolulu and Manila in the Philippines. None of the accounts were overflowing with money. The Hawaiian account had $1.57, another in Salt Lake City contain $8.45 while one in Glens Falls, New York held $2.67. In total, the 102 accounts added up to less than $400 (that would be approximately $3775 today.)

Strangely, he had never been to many of these places and opened most accounts by mail. The good news was that while Mr. Wyland didn’t save much, he had set up a number of life insurance policies. His newly penned will, which was viewed by the courts as a codicil or addendum to his previous will, coupled with all that insurance money, provided Mrs. Vroubel with $20,000 (nearly $190,000 today).

He also named her 18-year-old son Maurice Vroubel as beneficiary to policies that yielded another $9500 (nearly $90,000 today).

Interestingly, his original will left just one dollar each to his father, mother, four sisters, and two brothers. The will that he wrote on the calendar confirmed these same meager amounts, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Additional insurance policies bequeathed to them an additional $30,000 ($283,000 today).

Walter C. Wyland's will was found written on the back of a wall calendar. His money had been deposited in 102 bank accounts around the world.
Walter C. Wyland’s will was found written on the back of a wall calendar. His money had been deposited in 102 bank accounts around the world. (1905 Metropolitan Racing Calendar is from the Library of Congress.)

Officer, I am Being Followed…

 

This bizarre story made the national news on December 24, 1954. It was reported that two motorcycle officers in Vernon, California pulled a car driven by 48-year-old Virgil Grover Attebery over to the side of the road.

Attebery looked very concerned and told the officers, “Somebody’s been tailing me clear from Los Angeles.” The officers were attentive as he continued, “I want you guys to look into it.”

The officers didn’t have to search far. There was, in fact, a car that had been following Attebery for miles. What was incredibly unusual about this vehicle was that it was driverless. Apparently Attebery had backed into the car, locked bumpers with it, and then towed it along as he made his way. To make matters worse, the car that he had been dragging was owned by a policeman named Ray Rapier.

The two officers booked Atteberry on suspicion of drunk driving.

Attebery Sketch - 1954_12_25 Philadelphia Inquirer p9
This sketch that appeared on page 9 of the December 25, 1954 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer sums up the story well.