The Last Ditch

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A few months ago I read in The Guinness Book of Music Facts and Feats that Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” is the only song known to have been sung in a court of law — specifically, sung to a jury by a defense attorney. I had my doubts about this, but I’ve just gone scrounging around and lo it is true. From the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1935:

An attorney sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ to a jury today in a vain attempt to save his client from prison. After listening to the rendition by John Brett, the lawyer, the jury convicted Lloyd Grable, Oklahoma city motor-car mechanic, of attempted bank robbery and specified life imprisonment.

The story is headlined “Lawyer Sings, Client Gets Life.” The defendant’s thoughts are not recorded.

Jack the Snipper

From the United Press, June 18, 1942:

Pascagoula, Miss. — (U.P.) — Everybody in town is just as mystified over the motive of the ‘phantom barber’ as they are about who he might try to clip next.

Without robbing or otherwise disturbing his victims, he breaks into homes at night and snips the hair of heavy sleepers. He has given haircuts to three persons in the past week and not one of them even woke up during the process.

Police chief A. W. Ezell said he didn’t have the slightest idea why a man would want to do such a thing, but because the complaints have been coming hard and heavy, his department has staked a $300 reward for information leading to his capture. He also gave pistol permits to six volunteer officers and ordered the regular police force to be on the alert.

Bloodhounds, given a man’s footprint to start on, have failed miserably. None of the victims could give a description since they slumbered on oblivious of the tonsorial attention they were getting.

Alone Together

https://books.google.com/books?id=TGAJAAAAQAAJ

Introduced in the early 1800s, the “separate system” of prison architecture kept prisoners isolated from one another, to make them easier to control and to destroy the criminal subculture that could otherwise arise in dense populations. Prisoners were reduced to numbers, without names or histories, and the guards were forbidden to speak to them; in the exercise yard they tramped silently in rows, their faces hidden by brown cloth masks.

At London’s Pentonville prison this separation extended even to the chapel, where the assembled prisoners could see the chaplain but not each other. “Every man, as he enters, knows the precise row and seat that he has to occupy, and though some few pass in together at the same moment, these go to opposite quarters of the gallery,” observed journalist Henry Mayhew. “Each convict is able to get to his seat, and to close the partition-door of his stall after him, before the one following his steps has time to enter the same row.”

After the service, their exit was managed by a curious mechanical device that displayed each stall number in succession. “Thus the chapel is entirely emptied, not only with considerable rapidity, but without any disturbance or confusion.”

Pentonville was considered a model British prison of its time, and some 300 prisons worldwide were eventually built on the separate system. But an official report acknowledged that “for every sixty thousand persons imprisoned in Pentonville there were 220 cases of insanity, 210 cases of delusion, and forty suicides.”

(Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862.)

Podcast Episode 207: The Bluebelle’s Last Voyage

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In 1961, Wisconsin optometrist Arthur Duperrault chartered a yacht to take his family on a sailing holiday in the Bahamas. After two days in the islands, the ship failed to return to the mainland, and the unfolding story of its final voyage made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount the fate of the Bluebelle and its seven passengers and crew.

We’ll also sympathize with some digital misfits and puzzle over some incendiary cigarettes.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

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In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.

See full show notes …

Prepared

https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/topten-history/hires_images/FBI-236-JamesRobertRingrose.jpg/view

Verbatim from the FBI’s “most wanted” website:

Former Ten Most Wanted Fugitive #236: On March 29, 1967, [James Robert] Ringrose was apprehended in Osaka, Japan, by Japanese police while attempting to pass bad checks. He was arrested in Hawaii after his return to the United States from Japan. He told the FBI agents he had been saving an item for several years and now he needed it. He then presented them with the Monopoly game card, ‘Get out of jail free.’

I’m pretty sure they’d have to honor this, wouldn’t they? It’s in the rules.

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die

https://pixabay.com/en/coffin-dracula-black-casket-150647/

In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …

Intellectual Property

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1973 Anthony Burgess lost a book manuscript to a scippatore, a thief on a Vespa.

He was living in Rome and working on Joysprick, his study of the language in Finnegans Wake. “I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xeroxshop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way.”

He was remarkably philosophical about the loss. “The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire. I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time.”

“These scippatori were never caught by the police, who probably shared in their proceeds: their little motorcycles were not legally obliged to be fitted with a targa or numberplate. Petty crime is excused, or even exalted, by the greater crimes of the Quirinale.”

(From Burgess’ memoir You’ve Had Your Time, 1990.)

Nip and Tuck

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In May 1934, desperate to escape the authorities, John Dillinger engaged two underworld plastic surgeons, Wilhelm Loeser and Harold Cassidy, to change his appearance.

[T]he two doctors removed the moles between the eyes — Loeser working on one side, Cassidy on the other. Then they cut the cheek along the ear and the edge of the jaw and transplanted some of the flesh to the dimple on the chin. Finally they tightened up the cheeks with kangaroo tendons.

Five days later the doctors returned to remove Dillinger’s fingerprints, using a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acid. The gangster told them he was unhappy with their facial work — he thought that apart from being “messed up,” his appearance hadn’t changed. Dillinger’s attorney, Louis Piquett, convinced him that the job had been a success, but “secretly he thought his client looked as if he’d been in a dog fight.”

It scarcely mattered — he was gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater two months later.

(From John Toland, The Dillinger Days, 1995.)

Unsolved

On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was discovered near a cornfield in West Alton, Missouri. He’d last been seen alive five days earlier; now he was 15 miles from home though he owned no car. In his pockets were two handwritten notes (click to enlarge):

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_McCormick_note_2.jpg

In the ensuing 18 years both the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit and the American Cryptogram Association have failed to find any meaning in these messages. In 2011 the FBI appealed to the public for their insights: If you have any you can contact them via this page.

“We are really good at what we do,” said CRRU chief Dan Olson, “but we could use some help with this one.”