Podcast Episode 258: The First Great Train Robbery

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In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We’ll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

See full show notes …

Poetic Justice

After being caught driving at 91 mph on the 60 mph A361 North Devon Link road in 2011, filmmaker and traffic legislation activist Martin Cassini presented his case at Barnstaple Magistrates Court in a series of rhymed couplets:

Before you today stands a man in the dock
To whom this bleak chapter’s a terrible shock

Kind and aware on the road as a rule
He tripped up that day and transgressed a rule.

The outlandish speed was but a short burst
On a dual lane stretch to get up there first

To the top of the hill to avoid getting stuck
Down the single lane stretch by a slow moving truck.

If you averaged my speed over hillock and dale
You’d find it to be not at all yon the pale

The law’s quick to judge if you’re over the limit
No praise if you’re under — one sided, innit?

The design of the road is dubious at most
It’s the link for Pete’s sake from M5 to coast

Why only three lanes? There was good room for four
The vision was lacking, the carriageway’s poor.

The limit is 60 for one lane downhill
And 60 — the same — for two lanes uphill

Until this dark day my licence was clean
Too late for considering what might have been.

They say that speed kills, but throughout these lands
Inappropriate speed kills, or speed in the wrong hands

I wasn’t lacking due care and attention
Indeed I was using true care and attention

I was watching the road, not checking the speed
Could this be a safer, superior creed.

They fined him £175. “I wanted to challenge one-size-fits-all regulation that ignores the spirit of the law, and at the same time recognise that I had disobeyed the letter,” he told the Daily Mail. But “Now I’m taking greater pains to follow the letter of the law.”

(Thanks, Volodymyr.)

A Broken Promise

The Los Angeles Times called this “the most horrible crime of the 1920s”: On Dec. 18, 1927, a man appeared at the junior high school attended by Marion and Marjorie Parker, 12-year-old twin daughters of banker Perry H. Parker. The man said that he was a bank employee and that Marion was wanted immediately by her father.

Marion departed with him, and no one suspected anything until Marjorie came home alone. Police searched the city but had found nothing when a ransom note arrived the following morning asking Parker to gather $1,500 and await further instructions. The kidnapper sent an appeal from Marion and then called that evening with directions to a dropoff location. Parker obeyed, but police were visible in the area and the kidnapper stayed away.

A new letter was delivered the following afternoon:

I am vexed and disgusted with you … You will never know how you disappointed your daughter … Pray to God for forgiveness for your mistake last night.

Fate — Fox

He included a note from Marion:

Dear Daddy and Mother:

Daddy, please don’t bring any one with you today. I am sorry for what happened last night. We drove right by the house. I cried all the time last night. If you don’t meet us this morning, you will never see me again.

Love to all

Marion Parker

A call came at 7:15 telling Parker where to go. He parked his car and turned off the lights as instructed. A car parked beside him and a man pointed a gun and told him to hand over the money. Parker demanded to see his daughter. The stranger lifted the girl’s head from beside him; she appeared to be asleep. Parker assumed she’d been drugged and handed over the money.

The man drove 200 feet forward, stopped, got out, and lifted the girl’s body onto the sidewalk. Then he got in and drove away. Parker ran to the girl and lifted her head, then screamed. Her legs had been cut off near the hips. She had been dead for hours.

Police tracked down 18-year-old bank messenger William Hickman, who said he’d wanted the money to go to college. He did say that he’d strangled Marion with a towel before he’d amputated her legs. He was hanged the following October.

(From Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, 1974.)

Instructions

In December 1968, kidnappers abducted 20-year-old university student Barbara Jane Mackle from her family’s home in Coral Gables, Fla., drove her to a remote pine stand near Norcross, Ga., and buried her in a box. Inside she found this message:

DO NOT BE ALARMED. YOU ARE SAFE.

YOU ARE PRESENTLY INSIDE A FIBERGLASS REINFORCED PLYWOOD CAPSULE BURIED BENEATH THE GROUND NEAR THE HOUSE IN WHICH YOUR KIDNAPPERS ARE STAYING. YOUR STATUS WILL BE CHECKED APPROXIMATELY EVERY 2 HOURS.

THE CAPSULE IS QUITE STRONG, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO BREAK IT OPEN. BE ADVISED, HOWEVER, THAT YOU ARE BENEATH THE WATER TABLE. IF YOU BREAK OPEN A SEAM YOU WOULD DROWN BEFORE WE COULD DIG YOU OUT. THE CAPSULE INSTRUMENTATION CONTAINS A WATER SENSITIVE SWITCH WHICH WILL WARN US IF THE WATER ENTERS THE CAPSULE TO A DANGEROUS DEGREE.

YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON THE AIR DELIVERED TO YOUR CHAMBER VIA THE VENTILATION FAN. THIS FAN IS POWERED BY A LEAD-ACID STORAGE BATTERY CAPABLE OF SUPPLYING THE FAN MOTOR WITH POWER FOR 270 HOURS. HOWEVER, THE USE OF THE LIGHT AND OTHER SYSTEMS FOR ONLY A FEW HOURS COUPLED WITH THE HIGHER AMPERAGE DRAIN WILL REDUCE THIS FIGURE TO ONLY ONE WEEK OF SAFETY.

SHOULD THE AIR SUPPLIED PROVE TO BE TOO MUCH YOU CAN PARTLY BLOCK THE AIR OUTLET WITH A PIECE OF PAPER. A MUFFLER HAS BEEN PLACED IN THE AIR PASSAGE TO PREVENT ANY NOISE YOU MAKE FROM REACHING THE SURFACE: IF WE DETECT ANY COMMOTION WHICH WE FEEL IS DANGEROUS, WE WILL INTRODUCE ETHER TO THE AIR INTAKE AND PUT YOU TO SLEEP.

THE FAN OPERATES ON 6 VOLTS. IT HAS A SWITCH WITH TWO POSITIONS TO SWITCH BETWEEN THE TWO AVAILABLE CIRCUITS. SHOULD ONE CIRCUIT FAIL TURN TO THE OTHER.

THE BOX HAS A PUMP WHICH WILL EVACUATE ANY ACCIDENTAL LEAKAGE FROM THE BOX WHEN YOU TURN THE PUMP SWITCH ON TO THE “ON” POSITION. THIS PUMP USES 15 TIMES AS MUCH POWER AS YOUR VENTILATION FAN (7.5 AMPS); YOUR LIFE SUPPORT BATTERY WILL NOT ALLOW USE OF THE PUMP EXCEPT FOR EMERGENCY WATER EVACUATION.

THE LIGHT USES 2.5 TIMES THE AMPERAGE OF THE AIR CIRCULATION SYSTEM. USE OF THE LIGHT WHEN NOT NECESSARY WILL CUT YOUR BATTERY SAFETY MARGIN SUBSTANTIALLY. IF YOU USE THE LIGHT CONTINUOUSLY YOUR LIFE EXPECTANCY WILL BE CUT TO ONE THIRD OF THE WEEK WE HAVE ALLOTTED YOU BEFORE YOU ARE RELEASED.

YOUR CAPSULE CONTAINS A WATER JUG WITH THREE GALLONS OF WATER AND A TUBE FROM WHICH TO DRINK IT. BE CAREFUL TO BLOW THE WATER FROM THE TUBE WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED DRINKING TO AVOID SIPHONING THE WATER ONTO THE FLOOR WHEN THE TUBE END DROPS BELOW THE WATER LEVEL.

YOUR CAPSULE CONTAINS A BUCKET FOR REFUSE AND THE PRODUCTS OF YOUR BOWEL MOVEMENTS. THE BUCKET HAS AN ANTIBACTERIAL SOLUTION IN IT: DON’T TIP IT OVER. THE LID SEALS TIGHTLY TO PREVENT THE ESCAPE OF ODORS. A ROLL OF WAX PAPER IS PROVIDED – USE IT TO PREVENT SOLID WASTE FROM CONTAMINATING YOUR BED. KOTEX IS PROVIDED SHOULD YOU NEED IT.

BLANKETS AND A MAT ARE PROVIDED. YOUR WARMTH DEPENDS ON BODY HEAT SO REGULATE THE AIR TO PREVENT LOSS OF HEAT FROM THE CAPSULE.

A CASE OF CANDY IS PROVIDED TO FURNISH ENERGY TO YOUR BODY.

TRANQUILIZERS ARE PROVIDED TO AID YOU IN SLEEPING – THE BEST WAY YOU HAVE TO PASS THE TIME.

THE VENTILATION SYSTEM IS DOUBLY SCREENED TO PREVENT INSECTS OR ANIMALS FROM ENTERING THE CAPSULE AREA. YOU RISK BEING EATEN BY ANTS SHOULD YOU BREAK THESE PROTECTION SCREENS.

THE ELECTRICAL COMPONENTS BEHIND THESE SCREENS ARE DELICATE AND THEY SUPPORT YOUR LIFE. DON’T ATTEMPT TO TOUCH THESE CIRCUITS.

WE’RE SURE YOUR FATHER WILL PAY THE RANSOM WE HAVE ASKED IN LESS THAN ONE WEEK. WHEN YOUR FATHER PAYS THE RANSOM WE WILL TELL HIM WHERE YOU ARE AND HE’LL COME FOR YOU. SHOULD HE FAIL TO PAY WE WILL RELEASE YOU, SO BE CALM AND REST – YOU’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.

The kidnappers demanded $500,000 from Mackle’s father, a wealthy Florida land developer. While he was arranging a ransom drop, the FBI identified the lead kidnapper as Gary Steven Krist of the University of Miami. When he received the money, Krist called the FBI and gave directions to the box, where Mackle had spent 83 hours underground. When agents tore it open she said, “You’re the handsomest men I’ve ever seen.”

The kidnappers were quickly captured. Krist was sentenced to life in prison, and his accomplice, Ruth Eisemann-Schier, got seven years.

(From Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, 1974.)

Podcast Episode 254: The Porthole Murder

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1947 actress Gay Gibson disappeared from her cabin on an ocean liner off the coast of West Africa. The deck steward, James Camb, admitted to pushing her body out a porthole, but insisted she had died of natural causes and not in a sexual assault. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the curious case of the porthole murder, which is still raising doubts today.

We’ll also explore another fraudulent utopia and puzzle over a pedestrian’s victory.

See full show notes …

Chutzpah

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Reader David Kastelan just let me know about this — in 2015 someone scammed €80 million from wealthy victims by donning a silicone mask to impersonate French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Ostensibly he was asking for financial help in raising ransoms for journalists held hostage by Islamists.

“Everything about the story is exceptional,” Le Drian’s lawyer told the BBC. “They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!”

Early contacts were made by phone, but eventually “Le Drian” appeared on Skype in a brief call from a poorly lit ministerial office. Many of the targets refused, but the Aga Khan lost €18 million, and an unnamed Turkish businessman lost at least €40 million.

No one knows who’s responsible, but one suspect is French-Israeli con man Gilbert Chikli. He’s currently in jail in Paris, and the calls have stopped, but it’s possible that other gang members are still at large.

Auld Lang Syne

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Image: Wikipedia

The yacht club, which was directly across from the island, would always have a big New Year’s party. If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could actually hear people laughing, you could hear music, you could hear girls laughing. You know, you could hear all the sounds coming from the free world, at the Rock. And New Year’s was always the night we heard it.

There was never a day you didn’t see what the hell you were losing, and what you were missing, you know. It was all there for you to see. There’s life. There’s everything I want in my life, and it’s there. It’s a mile or a mile and half away. And yet I can’t get to it.

— Jim Quillen, Alcatraz Inmate 586, in narration recorded for the self-guiding tour

Free Enterprise

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Image: Flickr

Until the 1990s it was arguably legal to purchase stolen goods in London’s Bermondsey Market without fear of prosecution.

The market operated under the ancient law of marché ouvert, or “open market,” a medieval legal concept that allowed for the open sale of stolen goods between the sunset and sunrise in designated markets in a city.

The idea was that if you were robbed and you didn’t check to see whether your stolen property was being sold in a local market, then you weren’t taking reasonable steps to recover it.

Surprisingly, Bermondsey Market operated under this law until 1995, when a stolen Joshua Reynolds painting was sold there for 100 pounds and the purchaser avoided prosecution for handling stolen goods by arguing that the sale was subject to these rules. The loophole has since been abolished.

(Thanks, Cathy.)

05/01/2019 UPDATE: A better explanation: It was never legal to sell or buy stolen goods knowingly. Ordinarily if a buyer is convicted of handling stolen goods then a court can order the goods returned to the original owner, and even without a criminal prosecution the owner can still seek recovery of their goods by appealing to a principle of the common law known as “nemo dat quod non habet” (“no one may give what he does not have”) — even if a buyer pays a fair price for goods she doesn’t know are stolen, she can’t obtain “good title,” ownership that defeats the claims of others, so the original owner can still recover the goods. “Market overt” is an exception to the nemo dat rule — until 1995, anything bought in good faith at a market overt in England became the legal property of the buyer, including title, even if it turned out to have been stolen — the original owner had no legal redress.

Market overt regulations were regarded as a valuable form of consumer protection when they were instantiated in the 12th century, but by the end of the 20th they had become known as the “thieves’ charter” for the dodgy sales they permitted. “It is a good thing it’s been stopped,” one Bermondsey trader told the Guardian in 1995. “People knew that market overt gave them a licence to bring stolen stock down here once a week.”

(Thanks, David.)

The Finger Pillory

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Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”

In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”

A Cold Case

At 6 p.m. on Sept. 20, 1930, a 12-year-old Ramsgate girl was sent across the street to buy a blancmange powder from the neighborhood sweetshop. When the owner, 82-year-old Margery Wren, came to the door, the girl was shocked to see blood streaming down her face.

Wren was taken to the hospital, where she survived for five days. Her face bore eight wounds and bruises, the top of her head seven more. She said successively that she had fallen over the fire tongs, that a man had attacked her with the tongs, that he had a white bag, that it was another man with a red face, that it had been two men, and that it had been an accident. At one point she said she knew her attacker but that “I don’t wish him to suffer. He must bear his sins.” Just before she died she said, “He tried to borrow 10 pounds.”

Wren had been seen alive and well at 5:30. It seems likely that her attacker had locked the front door and escaped through the back. The case was never solved.