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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: 1957

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.

In the Water Too Long…

 

Three members of the Polar Bear Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey participated in a swimming marathon on February 24, 1957. It did not go well.

The rules were simple. First, each man had to swim one mile in the 52° F (11.1 º C) frigid water. Next, each had to stand near shore in water up to their necks. The one who stayed in the water the longest won the contest. The award was $200 (approximately $1800 today), which was kicked in by tavern owner Sol Bogotin.

At the 55-minute mark, the body of 36-year-old Lucious Marcel suddenly stiffened up and he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Six minutes later, 26-year-old Jack Morris did the same. Finally, four minutes after this, 23-year-old Al Black was able to walk water on his own and win the prize. An unnamed dog also wanted into the water to join in and first aid needed to be administered.

The two hospitalized men were treated for exposure and muscle contraction, while Al Black was just fine.

George S. Dougherty, a deputy police commissioner in New York City.
Photo shows George S. Dougherty, a deputy police commissioner in New York City in December, 1912. Image from the Library of Congress.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

 

In 1957, three awning salesmen sat in a bar on the north side of Chicago and the subject of diamonds entered the conversation. Joseph Murano, 39 years of age, and Leslie Cohen, aged 42, listened attentively as the newly hired 39-year-old Joseph Schmitz described his 20-plus years of adventure on the high seas. He captivated his audience of two with endless stories of jungle exploration, covert meetings, and harrowing escapes.

Schmitz said that he was planning to purchase a small schooner and sail for Africa to join in on the illegal trade of diamonds. He felt that a smaller boat would allow him to slip into port under the cover of darkness, obtain the diamonds from Arab and Portuguese dealers, then ferry them north – possibly to Cairo or Casablanca – and sell them at a significant profit. He said, “If a man has the guts, he can make a fortune.” Even better would be if he could hook up with geologists that he was acquainted with, then he could knock out the middleman and become rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Image of Joseph Schmitz
Image of Joseph Schmitz that appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

If this all sounds like a bunch of bull poop, it’s not. A couple of minor white lies were told, but most of what he said was true. Schmitz really had traveled the seas for a couple of decades, had a master mariner’s license, and had escaped from bad situations multiple times.

Needless to say, Murano and Cohen were hooked. Neither had ever sailed in anything more than a rowboat, but the thought of an overseas adventure and being part of the lucrative, even if illegal, diamond trade was far more appealing than their dead-end aluminum awning sales jobs. They wanted in.

Months later, after their adventure had ended, Cohen said, “We suddenly realized that we had been restless for some time and were ready for a little travel and change of scene.”

When the two questioned Schmitz as to when he planned to depart, he replied, “Not until next year. It will take me that long to save the money to buy my schooner.”

To which Cohen replied, “Next year! Let’s go now! We’ll put on with you as partners.”

Schmitz agreed. “It’s a deal. We’ll sail for Africa in August.”

None of these guys had much in the way of savings, so Cohen and Murano sold their most valuable assets to finance the trip: their cars. They then made a visit to their local sporting goods store to purchase everything that they thought would be needed for a trip like this, including the obligatory yachting caps and elephant guns.

Elephant guns?

“It seemed logical to me, Cohen stated. Every movie I’ve seen of Africa, there’s lions and tigers running around loose.”

In early August they packed up everything and headed for the Long Island Sound that lies between New York and Connecticut. Upon arrival, Schmitz telephoned a New York advertising executive named Clayton Jaeger and set up a time to meet and discuss the sale of his 52-foot (15.8 meter) long boat named the Serene. The next day the three men went to meet up with Jaeger. Both Cohen and Murano were surprised by how small the boat appeared to be.

What it was lacking in size was made up for in niceties. In addition to having a full set of sails, each man could take comfort in the so-called “Saloon” below deck. There was also a captain’s cabin, a galley kitchen, the obligatory bathroom, and, should one find themselves adrift, a gas-powered engine.

Image of Joseph Murano
Image of Joseph Murano which appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

As Murano and Cohen began to fully take in the pros and cons of what they were in for, Schmitz went below deck with Jaeger to discuss the terms of the sale. Once back on shore, Schmitz told the other two that a purchase price had been agreed upon and that they would be departing shortly. They spent the next few days gathering up the nautical equipment and food required for the long voyage. While they did purchase some perishables like eggs, potatoes, and tomatoes, Schmitz advised that they stock up on foods that wouldn’t spoil easily. That included cans of beans, sauerkraut, sardines, cheese, peanut butter, dried prunes, and soda crackers. He assured them that once they reached the African coast, they would be dining upon fresh meats and fruits.

Early on the morning of August 14, 1957, the three finally set out from City Island in the Bronx on what was certain to be the adventure of a lifetime.

While Schmitz had earlier implied that sailing a ship of this size was a fairly easy thing to do, Cohen and Murano quickly realized that it was anything but. They were totally unprepared for what was about to come. While still in calm waters, Schmitz attempted to give his two assistants a lesson in handling the lines. It was mass confusion. As Schmitz was blurting out commands that they could barely understand, the two novices were getting tangled up in the unfolding sails and ropes, smashing into the masts, and just plain getting beaten and bruised up by the whole experience.

“To turn one of these schooners around,” Murano later stated, “is a big operation – everybody jerking on the ropes and the captain making with the yacht lingo and all the time a big boom flying around that is liable to whack your head right off.”

Once the drill was over, the two went below deck to grab a beer. They didn’t have long to relax. Seemingly out of nowhere the floor of the saloon rose up and then crashed back down, sending Murano and Cohen flat down on to the carpeted floor.

The storm that they had sailed into seemed to increase in intensity with each passing hour. At one point Schmitz tied himself to the captain’s wheel and ordered his two inexperienced partners below deck until the storm had passed.

In the meantime, each would take turns crawling out on deck to spoon-feed Schmitz from a can of beans. At one point the schooner rolled so sharply that its mast nearly touched the water. Even worse, the cabin started to fill with water. Schmitz told the two men that they needed to start the engine up and pump the water out. But it wouldn’t turn over. It was later determined that the fuel lines had broken and much of the gasoline had leaked into the ship’s bilge. They proceeded to pump by hand, not realizing that they had pumped hundreds of gallons of fuel out of the boat.

When the storm finally passed three days later, the yacht was spotted by a Navy transport ship. It headed over to see if the three were in need of any help, but Schmitz assured them that everything was just fine. Cohen and Murano stood there stunned as they watched him turn down an offer of much needed assistance. Schmitz assured the two that he had been through far worse and that everything would be fine.

This image of Joseph Schmitz/Emanuel K. Bredel appeared on page 6 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the New York Daily News.

But he was wrong. The sails of the ship were in tatters and were getting worse with each passing day. Patches only go so far. Even worse, Schmitz calculated that the storm had blown the Serene way off course and they were near Bermuda. Murano and Cohen felt that anchoring there was the most logical thing to do, yet Schmitz vehemently argued against that idea. Not only did he lack the maps needed to navigate their waters safely, he felt that they could make better use of their time heading straight for the African coast. He also had the big advantage in the fact that he was the only one who knew how to sail the boat.

As they continued on their journey, another life-threatening situation appeared. They had sailed into dead, calm water. Sails need the wind to move and they were going nowhere. Under normal circumstances they would have started up the gas engine, but all of its fuel had been pumped overboard. As a result, day after day the Serene just sat there.

Cohen stated, “You’d go up on deck and see the same bean can bobbing right along with you in the same spot it had been when you tossed it overboard two days ago. I for one found this very dmoralizing.”

Image of Leslie Cohen
Image of Leslie Cohen that appeared in the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine on page 98.

While they didn’t challenge Schmitz on his navigational skills, the two began to suspect that they were simply sailing round and round in a circle. Murano stated “All we knew was we were supposed to be sailing due east and the sun was coming up in a different place every morning. That was fishy.”

Even worse, they were running out of food and drinking water. Murano had shed 50 pounds and Cohen dropped 30 (approximately 23 and 14 kg, respectively), making them far too weak to continually operate the hand pumps to empty the water out of the bilge.

Everything changed one morning. Schmitz pointed to his mariner’s license that he had tacked up on the wall. Everything looked legitimate on the document except for one small detail: it wasn’t Schmitz’s name on the license. Instead, it was for someone named Emanuel K. Bredel. Captain Schmitz was no more. The two underlings were to refer to him as Captain Bredel from that moment on. Not only did Schmitz have a new name, but so did the boat. The Serene was rechristened the V. Marcel.

The newly coined Captain Bredel estimated that they would reach the island of Madeira off the western coast of Africa within a day. This was great news for the starving crew, but they still had one more big problem to deal with.

They had sailed right into the path of Hurricane Carrie, which was the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1957 hurricane season. On September 21st of that year, Carrie was powerful enough to destroy the German barque Pamir. It went down in the Azores, just a few hundred miles away from the Serene’s location, killing 80 of its 86 men aboard. A small boat like the V. Marcel barely stood a chance.

Cohen knew that death was near and began to pen “The Last Days on Earth of Leslie Cohen.” Here are some excerpts from that document:

  • “Another day, another hurricane. This is the worst mistake two men ever made.”
  • “Bad storm again! God has never heard three bums pray as loud as we did last night!”
  • “Constantly wet. Working 18 hours a day. If I ever come out of this alive, I’ll never set foot on a boat again.”
  • “Rolling from side to side. Winds 70-90 miles per hour. Going nowhere. Murano says let the damn ship sink and get it over with. Bredel says no, he will make it or go down with the ship.”
  • “Bredel says we may skip Casablanca and go directly the Egypt. Not me, I’m dead.”

Yet, the V. Marcel somehow weathered the storm. On October 2nd, Murano was down in his bunk in one of those still half-asleep dazes when his brain latched on to an argument up on deck between Cohen and Bredel. “I tell you they’re right here,” Bredel shouted. “My calculations show we ought to see them any minute.”

This time Bredel was correct. The Canary Islands were spotted out in the distance. The storm had blown the V. Marcel approximately 300 miles (480 km) south of Madeira. Cohen and Murano’s 50-day nightmare seemed to be finally over.

But it wasn’t.

Bredel was in a fantastic mood and began planning for the completion of their voyage. Murano later commented, “Five minutes after we dropped anchor, he was over on somebody else’s boat yapping about yachts as if he’d just come back from a Sunday afternoon spin around the bay.”

Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.  Image appeared on page 3 of the November 3, 1957 publication of the New York Daily News.

Cohen and Murano had no desire to travel any farther with Bredel, but they lacked the resources needed to go their own way. They really had no choice but to get the ship back in working order. That included repairing the shredded sails, fixing the broken engine, and waterproofing the rigging using fat obtained from a local slaughterhouse.

Growing ever frustrated with Bredel, the two finally decided that they had had enough and quit. Being stranded in the Canaries in 1957 wasn’t the ideal situation, but it turns out that they weren’t alone. Two American men were sailing from Copenhagen to California, but thieves in Casablanca had robbed them blind. They agreed to provide Murano and Cohen with passage to the West Indies in exchange for stocking the boat with the necessary provisions. The two sold just about every possession that they had and soon set sail.

Their awful experience of sailing across the ocean with Bredel was now just a memory. At least that is what they thought. Their forty-four day trip to the West Indies was anything but pleasant, but when they finally arrived in Barbados, Cohen and Murano were greeted with the shock of a lifetime. While still in the Canaries, Murano had written to relatives back in Chicago requesting that they send money. The replies that he received were not what he had wanted to hear. Instead of sending money, he learned that all three of them were wanted by the FBI for the theft of the Serene.

It turns out that the Serene had never been for sale in the first place. When Bredel – his name truly was Emanuel K. Bredel – met with the boat’s owner, 35-year-old Clayton T.M. Jaeger, it was only to lease the boat. In exchange for a $571 fee, the two agreed upon a 10-day excursion, which was later extended to 17 days, that was to be strictly confined within the Long Island Sound.  Jaeger made it perfectly clear to Bredel that under no circumstances was he to sail the boat out into the open ocean. Its sails were simply not up to the task.

When the boat didn’t arrive back after its charter expired, Jaeger became concerned and contacted the Coast Guard. It wasn’t long before airplanes and cutters were searching every inlet along the Atlantic coast looking for the Serene. When they failed to spot her, thoughts of more sinister plans came to light. Could they have stolen the boat to smuggle drugs? Were they using it for gun running? How about Russian espionage? That’s when the FBI was called in to investigate.

When the boat was initially rented, Schmitz/Bredel gave his address as 3435 N. Bell Avenue in Chicago, but upon investigation it was learned that this was a former address of Bredel’s cousin Robert Schmitz and his family.

Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest.
Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest. Image appeared on page 6 of the New York Daily News on July 3, 1958.

Cohen and Murano used the last of their money to fly back to the States. Originally informed that they faced a maximum penalty of $10,000 ($88,000 adjusted for inflation) and 10 years in prison, the two must have been greatly relieved to find out that no charges were to be pressed against them. The FBI was only interested in locating Bredel, who just happened to be on probation from a twenty-year suspended sentence for forging checks.

Locating Bredel proved difficult because he had already left port. This time he took on an English teacher as his mate and was sighted in various locations throughout the Canary Islands. Authorities finally caught up with him on November 27th and, pending clarification of the true ownership of the Serene, the boat was confined to the naval yards in Las Palmas and placed under constant guard. Two Spanish crewmen and two Swedish women who were aboard at the time were released after it was determined that they had no involvement whatsoever in the theft of the boat.

Bredel was ordered to stay aboard the boat, but on Tuesday January 28, 1958 he gave them the slip by swimming underwater past the Spanish guards. He left everything behind including his personal belongings and the Serene itself.  A Spanish electrician named Severiano Goday Rodriguez, who in exchange for a promise of obtaining a job in New York, helped Bredel to stow away aboard a fishing boat which was headed about 300-miles (480 km) northward to the island of Madeira.

Upon arrival in Madeira, Spanish authorities turned Bredel away and he was forced to sail back to the Gran Canary island. He was arrested on February 23rd while socializing in a Las Palmas waterfront cafe. Spanish police were taking no chances this time: they locked him up in a real jail cell.

Once extradition proceedings were completed, U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney and Assistant U.S. Attorney Herbert F. Roth traveled to the Canary Islands to bring the suspect back. After taking Bredel into their custody, the three boarded the SS Independence on June 26th and arrived back in the United States on July 2nd.

Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney.
Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney shortly after their arrival back in the United States aboard the Independence. Image appeared on page 3 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the Marion Star.

As the press dug into this bizarre story, it was learned that Bredel was a married man who had a wife named Mavis and two daughters in Johannesburg, South Africa. He told reporters that he had not heard from Mrs. Bredel since this whole diamond-hunting escapade began to unfold. He said, “She has no sense of humor, I suppose.”

His former boss at Trans-Lite, Milton Rifkin, stated: “It sounded like a television comedy to me. We discharged Cohen and Murano early last summer, and Schmidt left later. He sure had a winning personality.” He continued, “Next thing we knew, federal agents were here asking about the men, and we heard about the stolen yacht. Newspapers called us from all over the world. I don’t know what got into those fellows.”

Four charges were filed against Bredel: theft of the Serene, theft of Clayton Jaeger’s personal property, transporting stolen goods, and altering a Coast Guard certificate. He was held on $20,000 (about $172,000 today) bond and was facing a prison term of 30 years and/or a $30,000 fine. Being totally broke at this point, a Legal Aid Society attorney was assigned to defend him.

At all times, Bredel was the model prisoner. He made no attempts to escape, was polite, cooperative, and impressed just about everyone, particularly the judge assigned to his case.

Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.
Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges. On October 1st, a jury of two women and ten men deliberated for two hours before returning a guilty verdict.

When sentencing took place on November 5, 1958, Federal Judge Archie O. Dawson stated, “I told the jury that this case was similar to the one involving Capt. Kidd, who was tried here 150 years ago and, I think, was hanged on Governors Island for his crime.” He added, “I think he is a very brave man. If he had fought in the Navy, he might have got a medal.” Dawson sentenced Bredel to one year and one-day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA. “However, a fine is out of the question as this man is broke.”

As for the Serene itself, the boat never returned to the United States. The insurance company concluded that it would be too costly to do so and opted to sell it to a Texan visiting the Canary Islands. They paid its former owner Jaeger $12,000 (about $103,000 today) for his loss.

It probably shouldn’t come as much of surprise that Captain Bredel would make the national news one more time. This time it was not for stealing boats, but for stealing cars instead. On December 15, 1960, he was arrested for the theft of a Cadillac from a dealer in Westminster, Maryland and transporting the vehicle to New York.

Two months later, Bredel and two other men were indicted for operating a lucrative car theft ring. Their modus operandi was to steal late model Cadillacs, transport them to New York, and then sell the automobiles to unsuspecting used car dealers. All three were found guilty. One of his co-conspirators was given a four year sentence, the other two and one-half years. The judge recommended that both serve no more than six months in prison with the remainder of their sentences being suspended.

Bredel, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

He never did find those diamonds…

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

Won Nose Job on TV

 

In March of 1957, 40-year-old Terry Phillips appeared on the British television show “State Your Case.” She competed against two other contestants as to who was most in need of the 100-pound (approximately $2,400 today) prize.

After the show, viewers mailed in their selection and Mrs. Phillips had won. She convinced the viewing audience that her nose was far too oversized and needed to be reduced. “I get chilblains in winter,” she said. “I scald it when I take a hot drink.”

After winning the prize, her 8-year-old daughter Shirley was upset and said, “Mummy, don’t have your nose cut off.” Her husband Bill agreed, so Terry decided to skip the surgery and donate the money to four different charities.

Bill said, “We’re all pleased she changed her mind. We’ve got sort of used to her nose over the years.”

Placed Tooth in His Ear

 

8-year-old Pedro Lozado was sitting in a Chicago classroom on September 18, 1957 when he decided to yank a loose tooth out. He then showed his tooth to his classmates before – get this – inserting the tooth into his ear.

And that’s where the real problem began: The tooth was now stuck in Pedro’s ear.

Pedro brought his unusual predicament to the attention of his teacher, Ms. Mary Ford. At first she didn’t believe him, but upon close inspection observed that he was indeed telling the truth.

The Ryatts Comic 1963
The Ryatts by Cal Alley syndicated comic strip from December 7, 1963.

The school nurse was unavailable, so the principal called the police and requested that they take Pedro to the hospital. The police informed the administrator that they needed parental consent to do so. Since they didn’t their permission, the police opted to drive Pedro to his parents’ home.

For whatever the reason, his parents turned down the request for medical treatment and opted to extract the tooth themselves. Pedro’s mom stuck her finger in his ear and eventually the tooth fell out.

Pedro placed the tooth under his pillow that evening. My guess is that the tooth fairy made a very special visit to the Lozado household that evening.