Podcast Episode 97: The Villisca Ax Murders

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Image: Flickr

Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years.

We’ll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards.

See full show notes …

In a Word

instauration
n. the act of restoring or repairing

furacious
adj. given to thieving, thievish

In 1996, workers demolishing the old Apollo Theater on West 42nd Street in New York City discovered a hidden cache of discarded wallets. Apparently a thief had preyed on theatergoers there 40 years earlier, stealing wallets and pocketbooks, removing the cash and valuables, and dropping the rest into an airshaft.

“The farther back I crawled, the older they got, from the 1960s to the 1950s,” foreman Bill Barron told the New York Times.

The finds included a weekly paycheck stub for $226.30, a telephone bill for $7.24, faded photographs, and identification papers of the victims, few of whom were still living.

“The Times Square of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the capital of pickpocketing,” said social historian Luc Sante. “It was simply a more trusting era.”

Electrical Fault

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

In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

Grist

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

A few adventures of Dashiell Hammett, who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before turning to fiction:

  • “I know a man who once stole a Ferris-wheel.”
  • “I was once engaged to discharge a woman’s housekeeper.”
  • “I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.”
  • “A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.”
  • “Three times I have been mistaken for a Prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.”
  • “I know an operative who while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.”
  • “I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.”
  • “In 1917, in Washington, D.C., I met a young woman who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.”
  • “The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to a mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.”

Interestingly, he notes that “the chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem confronting the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.”

(“From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” The Smart Set, March 1923.)

A Pitched Battle

https://pixabay.com/en/music-notes-musical-sheet-music-1007700/

In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”

Short-Timer

http://blogs.sos.wa.gov/library/index.php/2013/10/the-one-minute-jail-sentence/

The shortest jail sentence ever served in Washington state is one minute. From the Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 20, 1906:

[Joe] Munch is a soldier, on leave of absence. On the thirteenth day of August he found garrison life dull and proceeded to get drunk. A policeman found him in this condition and he was hustled off to the police station. In Judge Gordon’s court he was sentenced to thirty days for being drunk and disorderly, but his case was taken to the higher court.

Judge Frater decided that while the soldier’s crime was not enough to merit punishment, for the looks of things he ought to be sent to jail, and have a lesson taught him. Consequently Munch was sentenced to an imprisonment of one minute, something which the clerk who makes out the sentence documents never heard of before and which caused much merriment in court house circles.

“Those who heard the decision were inclined to take it as a joke of the judge’s, until Munch was hustled off to jail and kept there until the second hand of the jailer’s watch had completed the circle of sixty seconds. Munch was so surprised that he hardly knew what was going on and when released decided that the best thing for him to do was to get away for fear the sight of him should cause the judge to inflict a heavier penalty.”

(From the Washington State Library blog.)

Podcast Episode 82: Stealing Abe Lincoln

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In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln’s corpse.

We’ll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 73: The Tichborne Claimant

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

In 1854, English aristocrat Roger Tichborne disappeared at sea. Twelve years later, a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, claimed he was the long-lost heir. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the sensational story of the Tichborne claimant, which Mark Twain called “the most intricate and fascinating and marvelous real-life romance that has ever been played upon the world’s stage.”

We’ll also puzzle over why family businesses are often more successful in Japan than in other countries.

See full show notes …

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen._Andrew_A._Humphreys_-_NARA_-_528076.jpg

thersitical
adj. abusive, foul-mouthed, reviling

In his Recollections of the Civil War, Charles Anderson Dana called Union general Andrew Atkinson Humphreys “one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.” “The men of distinguished and brilliant profanity in the war were General Sherman and General Humphreys — I could not mention any others that could be classed with them. General Logan also was a strong swearer, but he was not a West Pointer: he was a civilian. Sherman and Humphreys would swear to make everything blue when some dispatch had not been delivered correctly or they were provoked.”

In Rex v. Sparling (1722), a leather dresser named James Sparling was alleged in the course of 10 days to “profanely swear fifty-four oaths, and profanely curse one hundred and sixty curses, contra formam statuti.” His conviction was overturned because the charge sheet had failed to list them. “For what is a profane oath or curse is a matter of law, and ought not to be left to the judgment of the witness … it is a matter of great dispute among the learned, what are oaths and what curses.”

When in 1985 a man named Callahan called a California highway patrolman a “fucking asshole,” California Court of Appeal Justice Gerald Brown referred to this phrase as the “Callahan epithet” to avoid having to repeat it continuously, “which arguably would assist its passage into parlor parlance.” And he reversed Callahan’s conviction:

A land as diverse as ours must expect and tolerate an infinite variety of expression. What is vulgar to one may be lyric to another. Some people spew four-letter words as their common speech such as to devalue its currency; their repetition dulls the senses; Billingsgate thus becomes commonplace. Not everyone can be a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan or a Joseph A. Ball. …

Fifty years ago the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ were as shocking to the sensibilities of some people as the Callahan epithet is to others today. The first word in Callahan’s epithet has many meanings. When speaking about coitus, not everyone can be an F.E. Smith (later Earl of Birkenhead) who, in his speech in 1920 in the House of Commons on the Matrimonial Causes Act, referred to ‘that bond by which nature in its ingenious telepathy has contrived to secure and render agreeable the perpetuation of the species.’

Spirit Reading

https://www.google.com/patents/US1767820

During Prohibition, an enforcement agent had a tough job: If he infiltrated a speakeasy and ordered a drink to confirm that it was alcoholic, his oral testimony could easily be attacked in court, and, ironically, once he admitted that he drank alcohol regularly then defense attorneys could question his reliability.

Robert Tetro patented this solution in 1930. Instead of drinking your drink, you’d discreetly clip a tube over the rim of the glass, reach into your pocket and squeeze a bulb, drawing off a sample. Then you’d pay your tab and leave. If the sample proved alcoholic then the feds could raid the place, which had no warning that it was under surveillance. And now the authorities had physical proof that alcohol was being served.

In the patent application, Tetro says his invention “has been used to a considerable extent, proving its value.” He was based in Michigan; I don’t know how widely it was used.