Tuesday, May 21, 2013



On this date, May 21, 1924, the sons of two of Chicago's wealthiest and most illustrious families drove to the Harvard School on the city's South Side and kidnapped a young boy named Bobby Franks. Their plan was to carry out the "perfect murder." It was a scheme so devious that only two men of superior intellect, such as their own, could accomplish. These two were Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. They were the privileged heirs of well-known Chicago families who had embarked on a life of crime for fun and for the pure thrill of it. They were also a pair of sexual deviants who considered themselves to be "brilliant" --- a claim that would later lead to their downfall.

Bobby Franks

Nathan Leopold, or "Babe" as his friends knew him, had been born in 1906 and from an early age had a number of sexual encounters, starting with the advances of a governess and culminating in a relationship with Richard Loeb. He was an excellent student with a genius IQ and was only 18 when he graduated from the University of Chicago. He was an expert ornithologist and botanist and spoke nine languages fluently. Like many future killers, his family life was totally empty and devoid of control. His mother had died when he was young and his father gave him little personal attention. He compensated for his lack of fatherly direction with expensive presents and huge sums of money. Leopold was given $3,000 to tour Europe before entering Harvard Law School, a car of his own and a $125-a-week allowance.

Richard Loeb was the son of the Vice President of Sears & Roebuck and while he was as wealthy as his friend was, Loeb was merely a clever young man and far from brilliant. He was, however, quite handsome and charming and what he lacked in intelligence, he more than made up for in arrogance. Both of the young men were obsessed with perfection. To them, perfection meant being above all others, which their station in life endorsed. They felt they were immune to laws and criticism, which meant they were perfect.

     Chicago’s infamous “Thrill Killers”, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold standing on either side of their famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. 

Loeb fancied himself a master criminal detective, but his dream was to commit the perfect crime. With his more docile companion in tow, Loeb began developing what he believed to be the perfect scheme. He also constantly searched for ways to control others. Leopold, who was easily dominated, agreed to join him in a life of crime. Over the course of the next four years, they committed robbery, vandalism, arson and petty theft, but this was not enough for Loeb. He dreamed of something bigger. A murder, he convinced his friend, would be their greatest intellectual challenge.

They worked out a plan during the next seven months. The plan was to kidnap someone and they would make it appear as though that person was being held for ransom. They would write the ransom note on a typewriter that had been stolen from Loeb's old fraternity house at the University of Michigan and make the family of the victim believe that he would be returned to them. Leopold and Loeb had no such plans though ---- they intended to kill their captive.

In May 1924, they rented a car and drove to a hardware store at 43rd and Cottage Avenue, where they purchased some rope, a chisel and a bottle of hydrochloric acid. They would garrote their victim, stab him with the chisel if necessary, and then destroy his identity with the acid.

The next day, they met at Leopold's home and wrapped the handle of the chisel with adhesive tape so that it offered a better grip. They also gathered together a blanket and strips of cloth that could be used to wrap up and bind their victim. Leopold also placed a pair of wading boots in the car because the boys planned to deposit the body in the swamps near Wolf Lake, located south of the city. They packed loaded pistols for each of them and looked over the already typed ransom note that demanded $10,000 in cash. Neither of them needed the money but they felt the note would convince the authorities that the kidnappers were lowly, money-hungry criminals and deflect attention from people like Leopold and Loeb.

They had only overlooked one thing ---- a victim.

They first considered killing Loeb's younger brother, Tommy, but they discarded that idea. It was not because Tommy was a family member but only because it would have been hard for Loeb to collect the ransom money without arousing suspicion. They also considering killing Armand Deutsch, grandson of millionaire philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, but also dismissed this idea because Rosenwald was the president of Sears & Roebuck and Loeb's father's immediate boss. They also came close to agreeing to kill their friend, Richard Rubel, who regularly had lunch with them. Rubel was ruled out, not because he was a good friend to them, but because they knew his father was cheap and would never agree to pay the ransom.

They could not agree on anyone but did feel that their victim should be small, so that he could be easily subdued. With that in mind, they decided to check out the Harvard Preparatory School, which was located across the street from Leopold's home. They climbed into their rental car and began to drive. As they drove, Leopold noticed some boys near Ellis Avenue and Loeb pointed out one of them that he recognized --- 14-year-old Bobby Franks. He was the son of the millionaire Jacob Franks, and a distant cousin of Loeb.

Chosen by chance, he would make the perfect victim for the perfect crime.

Bobby was already acquainted with his killers. He had played tennis with Loeb several times and he happily climbed into the car. Although at their trial, both denied being the actual killer, Leopold was at the wheel and Loeb was in the back, gripping the murder weapon tightly in his hands. They drove Bobby to within a few blocks of the Franks residence in Hyde Park and then Loeb suddenly grabbed the boy, stuffed a gag in his mouth and smashed his skull four times with a chisel. The rope had been forgotten. Bobby collapsed onto the floor of the car, unconscious and bleeding badly.

When Leopold saw the blood spurting from Bobby's head, he cried out, "Oh God, I didn't know it would be like this!"

Loeb ignored him, intent on his horrific task. Even though Bobby was unconscious, he stuffed his mouth with rags and wrapped him up in the heavy blanket. The boy continued to bleed for a time and then died.

With the excitement of the actual murder concluded, Leopold and Loeb casually drove south, stopped for lunch, and then drove for a little while longer. They had supper as they waited for the sun to go down. Eventually, they ended up near a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. It emptied into a swamp along Wolf Lake.

Leopold put on his hip boots and carried Bobby's body to the culvert. They had stripped all of the clothes from the boy's body and then after dunking his head underwater to make sure that he was dead, they poured acid on his face in hopes that he would be harder to identify. Leopold then struggled to shove the naked boy into the pipe and took his coat off to make the work easier. Unknown to the killers, a pair of eyeglasses were in the pocket of Leopold's coat and they fell out into the water when he removed it. This would be the undoing of the "perfect crime."

After pushing the body as far into the pipe as he could, Leopold sloshed out of the mud toward the car, where Loeb waited for him. The killers believed that the body would not be found until long after the ransom money had been received. With darkness falling, though, Leopold failed to notice that Bobby's foot was dangling from the end of the culvert.

They drove back to the city and parked the rental car next to a large apartment building. Bobby's blood had soaked through the blanket that he had been wrapped in and had stained the automobile's upholstery. The blanket was hidden in a nearby yard and the boys burned Bobby's clothing at Leopold's house. They typed out the Franks' address on the already prepared ransom note. After this, they hurried back to the car and drove to Indiana, where they buried the shoes that Bobby had worn and everything that he had on him that was made from metal, including his belt buckle and class pin from the prep school.

Finally, their "perfect crime" carried out, they drove back to Leopold's home and spent the rest of the evening drinking and playing cards. Around midnight, they telephoned the Franks' home and told Mr. Franks that he could soon expect a ransom demand for the return of his son. "Tell the police and he will be killed at once," they told Mr. Franks. "You will receive a ransom note with instructions tomorrow."

The next morning, the ransom note, signed with the name "George Johnson," was delivered to the Franks, demanding $10,000 in old, unmarked $10 and $20 bills. The money was to be placed in a cigar box that should be wrapped in white paper and sealed with wax.  After its arrival, the Franks' lawyer notified the police, who promised no publicity.

Meanwhile, Leopold and Loeb continued with the elaborate game they had concocted. They took the bloody blanket to an empty lot, burned it, and then drove to Jackson Park, where Loeb tore the keys out of his stolen typewriter. He threw the keys into one lagoon in the park and the typewriter into another. Later in the afternoon, Loeb took a train ride to Michigan City, leaving a note addressed to the Franks in the telegram slot of a desk in the train's observation car. He got off the train at 63rd Street, as it returned to the city, and rejoined the waiting Leopold. Andy Russo, a yardman, found the letter and sent it to the Franks.

However, by the time the letter arrived, railroad maintenance men had already stumbled upon the body of Bobby Franks. The police notified Jacob Franks and he sent his brother-in-law to identify the body. He confirmed that it was Bobby and the newspapers went into overdrive, producing "extra" editions that were on the street in a matter of hours.

One of the largest manhunts in the history of Chicago began. Witnesses and suspects were picked up in huge numbers and slowly the "perfect crime" began to unravel. Despite their "mental prowess" and "high intelligence," Leopold and Loeb were quickly caught. Leopold had dropped his eyeglasses near the spot where the body had been hidden and police had traced the prescription to Albert Coe & Co., who stated that only three pair of glasses with such unusual frames had been sold. One pair belonged to an attorney, who was away in Europe, the other to a woman and the third pair had been sold to Nathan Leopold.

Police officers search for clues at Wolf Lake, where Bobby Franks’ body was found
The boys were brought in for questioning and began supplying alibis for the time when Bobby had gone missing. They had been with two girlfriends, they claimed, "May and Edna." The police asked them to produce the girls but the killers could not. Leopold claimed that he had apparently lost the glasses at Wolf Lake during a recent bird-hunting trip. The detectives noted that it had rained a few days before but the glasses were clean. Could Leopold explain this? He couldn't.
Then, two novice reporters, Al Goldstein and Jim Mulroy, obtained letters that Richard Loeb had written with the stolen typewriter --- which had already been found in Jackson Park. The letters matched the type on the ransom note, which was a perfect match for the typewriter that Leopold had "borrowed" from his fraternity house the year before.
Loeb broke first. He said that the murder was a lark, an experiment in crime to see if the "perfect murder" could be carried out. He then denied being the killer and claimed that he had driven the car while Leopold had slashed Bobby Franks to death. Leopold refuted this. Finally, the boys were brought together and admitted the truth. Loeb had been the killer, Leopold had driven the car but both of them had planned the crime together --- they were both guilty of Bobby Franks' murder.

The people of Chicago, and the rest of the nation, were stunned. It was fully expected that the two would receive a death sentence for the callous and cold-blooded crime.

After the confession, Loeb's family disowned him but Leopold's father turned to Clarence Darrow, America's most famous defense attorney, in hopes that he might save his son. For $100,000, Darrow agreed to seek the best possible verdict that he could, which in this case was life in prison. "While the State is trying Loeb and Leopold," Darrow said. "I will try capital punishment."

Darrow would have less trouble with the case than he would with his clients, who constantly clowned around and hammed it up in the courtroom. The newspaper photographers frequently snapped photos of them smirking and laughing in court and the public, already turned against them, became even more hostile toward the "poor little rich boys."

Darrow was fighting an uphill battle, but he brought out every trick in the book and used shameless tactics during the trial. He declared the boys to be insane. Leopold, he said, was a dangerous schizophrenic. They weren't criminals, he railed, they just couldn't help themselves. After this weighty proclamation, Darrow actually began to weep. The trial became a landmark in criminal law. He offered a detailed description of what would happen to the boys as they were hanged, providing a graphic image of bodily functions and physical pain. Darrow even turned to the prosecutor and invited him to personally perform the execution.

Darrow's horrifying description had a marked effect on the courtroom and especially on the defendants. Loeb was observed to shudder and Leopold got so hysterical that he had to be taken out of the courtroom. Darrow then wept for the defendants, wept for Bobby Franks, and then wept for defendants and victims everywhere. He managed to get the best verdict possible out of the case. The defendants were given life in prison for Bobby Frank's murder and an additional 99 years for his kidnapping.

Ironically, after all of that, Darrow only managed to get $40,000 of his fee from Leopold's father. He got this after a seven-month wait and the threat of a lawsuit.

Leopold and Loeb were sent to the Joliet Penitentiary. Even though the warden claimed they were treated just like all of the other prisoners, they each enjoyed a private cell, books, a desk, a filing cabinet and even pet birds. They also showered away from the other prisoners and took their meals, which were prepared to order, in the officers' lounge. Leopold was allowed to keep a flower garden. They were also permitted any number of unsupervised visitors. The doors to their cells were usually left open and they had passes to visit one another at any time.

Richard Loeb was eventually killed by another inmate, against whom he had been reportedly making sexual advances. The inmate, James Day, turned on him in a bathroom and attached him with a razor. Loeb, covered in blood, managed to make it out of the bathroom and he collapsed in the hallway. He was found bleeding by guards and he died a short time later. It was later discovered that Day had slashed him 56 times with the razor. When Clarence Darrow was told of Loeb's death, he slowly shook his head. "He is better off dead," the great attorney said, "For him, death is an easier sentence."

Leopold lived on in prison for many years and was said to have made many adjustments to his character and some would even say rehabilitated completely. Even so, appeals for his parole were turned down three times. Finally, in 1958, the poet Carl Sandburg, who even went as far as to offer Leopold a room in his own home, pleaded his fourth appeal. Finally, in March of that year, he was released.

He was allowed to go to Puerto Rico, where he worked among the poor and married a widow named Trudi Feldman Garcia de Quevedo, who owned a flower shop. He went on to write a book about his experiences called Life Plus 99 Years and continued to be hounded by the press for his role in the "perfect murder" that he had committed decades before. He stated that he would be "haunted" by what he had done for the rest of his life.

Nathan Leopold died of heart failure on August 30, 1971, bringing an end to one of the most harrowing stories in the history of the city.

Sending Leopold and Loeb to prison, according to many people, did not bring about an end to this macabre case, thanks to two restless ghosts that continued to walk for many years afterward. The spirit with the most horrible connection to the case was that of Bobby Franks, who took nearly 50 years to find peace.

During this time, visitors to Rosehill Cemetery on the north side of Chicago often reported seeing the ghost of a young boy standing among the stones and mausoleums in the Jewish section of the graveyard. It is here where the Franks family mausoleum is located, although its location is not listed on any maps of the cemetery and employees are instructed not to point it out to curiosity-seekers. Even so, this tomb can be discovered within the confines of the beautiful burial ground and starting in the 1920s, maintenance workers and visitors alike encountered the ghostly boy. Many came to believe that it was the ghost of Bobby Franks, unable to rest in the wake of his bloody and violent death.

Franks Mausoleum

The boy was often seen wandering here but only from a distance. Whenever he was approached, the apparition would vanish. These sightings continued for years but eventually, they seemed to fade away. It's been noted that the encounters ended at nearly the exact same time that Nathan Leopold died in Puerto Rico. Could there be a connection between these two events? It certainly seems possible and perhaps Bobby Frank can now find peace on the other side.

The other ghost from this case was that of famous attorney Clarence Darrow. When Darrow died in 1936, his ashes were scattered over the lagoon at Jackson Park, just behind the Museum of Science and Industry. While standing on what has been named the Clarence Darrow Bridge, many people have somewhat regularly spotted what is likely Darrow's ghost on a veranda that spans the back of the museum. This wide stone area is at the bottom of the steps leading into the rear entrance of the museum. The ghost is reportedly seen dressed in a suit, hat and overcoat and bears a striking resemblance to the attorney. The figure is reported to stand and stare out across the water before disappearing.

Does the ghost of Clarence Darrow walk at the Museum of Science and Industry?

Is this the ghost of Clarence Darrow, finally making his presence known from a world beyond our own? There are no other ghostly manifestations connected to this site and certainly none that look like Darrow did in his last days, as he strolled through the park admiring the "prettiest view on Earth."

The story of Leopold and Loeb – along with dozens of other sensational Chicago crimes, ghost stories and strange happenings – can be found in the book WEIRD CHICAGO, from the creators of the famous tour. The book is available in print and in a Kindle edition!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The "Disappearance" of Sister Aimee

The “Disappearance” of Sister Aimee
Trouble in L.A.’s Jesus Racket

During the early days of Hollywood, when most American preachers were shouting from their pulpits about the sin and depravity to be found in Tinseltown, another evangelist was presenting a kinder, gentler message. She did so with flamboyant presentations that were right out of a Hollywood musical and, in fact, the regular appearance of movie stars at her services was one of her claims to fame. The evangelist’s name was Aimee Semple McPherson and the Pentecostal church that she founded, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, still exists today.

“Sister Aimee” as she was known to her legion of followers attracted scores of people to her flock with her extravagant services, radio show and personal appearances. But then on May 18, 1926, Aimee mysteriously vanished while visiting a beach in Santa Monica. The press and the public were shocked by her disappearance, which lasted more than a month. When she reappeared, she claimed that she had been kidnapped and held for ransom – but had she really?

Sister Aimee was born Aimee Kennedy and was raised on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Growing up, she was introduced to an inclusive, positive theology, which as practiced by her grandfather, a Salvation Army captain. After a crisis of faith, she was converted to Pentecostalism by evangelist Robert Semple, whom she joined in preaching revivals and married in 1908. Two years later, while they were awaiting their papers to travel into China as missionaries, Semple died in Hong Kong. Aimee, now with an infant daughter, returned to the U.S. and began working for the Salvation Army in New York. She married a second time, in 1912, to a grocery salesman named Harold McPherson, and gave birth to a son. Aimee tried to settle down to the quiet life of a housewife, but she was unable to do it. She felt that she was destined for bigger things and was in her heart, an evangelist.

Sister Aimee Semple McPherson at the height of her popularity.

She divorced McPherson in 1918 and she, her children, and her mother, Minnie, with nothing more than $100 and a tambourine, drove to Los Angeles. It was a trip that Aimee later referred to as a spiritual quest that ended in a revelation. She believed that the “City of Angels” was the doorway to heaven and, for a time, it certainly seemed to be.

She began spreading her message in every way possible, even throwing tracts from an airplane as it flew over neighborhoods populated by recent arrivals to the area. She was soon packing standing-room-only crowds into the Philharmonic Auditorium, the largest venue in L.A. By 1923, she had her own Angelus Temple, which seated 5,300 people and cost more than $1.5 million to build. At her services, she entertained the curious and the faithful alike with bizarre stage sketches that featured a USC football player making a touchdown for Jesus and a LAPD motorcycle cop riding in to arrest sin. Everyone loved the show and soon her popularity would rival that accorded to some movie stars. To thousands, she was “God’s Little Child.” 

Besides entertaining and preaching, Aimee was also an avid organizer. She added some 250 affiliated churches, a rescue mission, a publications division, an orchestra, and a radio station, creating a massive organization that is only rivaled by today’s mega-churches. She also composed 180 hymns and several musical pageants, all of which were very upbeat and offered redemption. In keeping with her Salvation Army background, she also designed uniforms for herself and her female bodyguards.

Not surprisingly, Aimee had a talent for raising money, which supported the church, her mansion near MGM Studios in Culver City, her expensive clothes, and fine automobile. At collection time, she would often tell her supporters from the stage, “Sister has a headache tonight. Only quiet money, please.”

As the money rolled in, stories of miraculous cures began to spread. A “miracle room” in the Angelus Temple was filled with discarded crutches, wheelchairs, and even the leg braces of a 10-year-old polio victim. He was so confident when he came to visit Sister Aimee that he brought another pair of shoes with him to wear home. The stories claimed that he walked out of the Temple.

Then, in 1926, Aimee’s glory days came to an end. A scandal captured the imagination of readers across America and titillated them for weeks afterward.

On the afternoon of May 18, 1926, Aimee was spotted swimming off Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica – and then vanished without a trace. She was presumed to have drowned, but after a massive search effort (during which a church member and a professional diver drowned), no body was recovered. Then, on June 23, three days after an all-day memorial service attended by thousands of weeping, hysterical mourners, she turned up in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, claiming that she had been kidnapped and held in a shack in the Sonoran desert. On her return to Los Angeles, a carpet of roses was spread when she disembarked from the train and more than 100,000 of her followers lined the streets and cheered as she drove by.

But all was not what it seemed to be. It was soon discovered that, despite Aimee’s angry denials, she had actually spent the month at a cottage in Carmel, shacked up with Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer on the staff of her radio station. For nearly six months, L.A. District Attorney Asa Keyes gathered evidence (which included a Carmel grocery store shopping list in her handwriting), planning to charge her with conspiracy to produce false testimony. “Fighting Bob” Shuler, a rival evangelist, took the opportunity to enter the fray, denouncing Aimee, her Temple, and her ministry. Since he and Aimee alternated their broadcasts on the same radio wavelength, he had no trouble reaching her followers. Somehow, he tracked down Harold McPherson and had him on the air for four straight broadcasts, airing all of Aimee’s dirty laundry. For her part, Aimee claimed the entire scandal was the “work of the Devil.”

Aimee’s fame saved her from prosecution. Inexplicably, the District Attorney decided that the case that he had built against her was too weak to bring against a person of her tremendous popularity. On the evening that D.A. Keyes made the announcement, the faithful mobbed Aimee and the newspapers spread the news in glaring headlines. But the damage was already done, for most of America, Aimee had become a dirty joke.

Aimee Semple McPherson carried on for 20 more years, preaching and defending herself against the old scandal. It never seemed to go away and in 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was prescribed Seconal to deal with her anxieties and on September 27, 1944, she died in San Francisco from an accidental overdose. Some of her closest friends attributed the accident to a combination of a broken heart and exhaustion from her endless struggle to restore her name, popularity, and influence. At her funeral, held at the Angelus Temple, more than 40,000 mourners passed by her casket and bid their farewell to “God’s Little Angel.”

Strangely, a weird rumor followed Aimee to the grave. When she was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in a huge tomb with an iron gate, guarded by two kneeling marble angels, it was said that a direct telephone line to the Angelus Temple was buried with her. That way, when she returned (as her followers believed she would), she would be able to alert someone to come to the cemetery and let her out of the tomb.

As author David Wallace said, if the story isn’t true, it should be.

Monday, May 6, 2013

"Oh, the Humanity...."

History and Hauntings of the Hindenburg Disaster

On May 6, 1937, one of the most photographed and familiar disasters of the twentieth century occurred as the German zeppelin airship LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into a massive ball of flames as it descended over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Seven million cubic feet of ignited hydrogen incinerated the dirigible in just 34 seconds, long before it could hit the ground. The disaster shocked the world, dealt a blow to Nazi propaganda, effectively ended the era of lighter-than-air travel and claimed the lives of 35 crew members and passengers and one person on the ground.

To this day, the anguished cries of radio reporter Herbert Morrison, as he broadcast from the scene, can still send chills down the spine of the most jaded listener. But Morrison’s famous radio report is not all that lingers of this fiery calamity. Some believe the spirits of the Hindenburg dead still linger, as well.

Dirigibles, or airships, first came to the attention of the public as a method of air travel in the late 1700s. They were really considered more of a novelty than for practical use until the latter part of the 1800s, when a few inventors began to attach propulsion motors to their balloons in order to get from one place to another.

However, the “Golden Age of Airships” really began in July 1900 with the launch of the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1. This grand experiment led to the most successful airships of all time: the Zeppelins. They were named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who began working with rigid airship designs in the 1890s. The airships had a framework composed of triangular lattice girders, covered with fabric and containing separate gas cells. Tail fins were added for control and stability and two engine and crew cars hung beneath the hull driving propellers, which were attached to the sides of the frame by means of long drive shafts. Additionally, there was a passenger compartment located halfway between the two cars.

During World War I, airships were briefly used as bombers, but they proved to be a terrifying, yet inaccurate weapon. Navigation and target selection proved to be difficult under the best of conditions. The darkness, high altitudes and clouds that were frequently encountered by Zeppelin missions reduced accuracy even further. Their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at lower altitudes. Several were shot down in flames and others crashed en route. They began to fly higher, above the range of other aircraft, but this made their accuracy even worse. In the end, airships were best suited for scouting during the war and the bombing raids turned out to be disastrous in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service died in what was the first strategic bombing campaign in history.

After the war, a number of nations operated airships, including Britain, the United States, Italy, France, Russia and Japan. Most discontinued their use by the early 1930s and, within a few years, only Germany was still in pursuit of the superior airship. The Zeppelin company was operating a passenger service between Frankfort and Recife in Brazil, which took 68 hours. In the middle 1930s, the company started building an airship that was specifically designed to offer passenger service across the Atlantic to the United States.

The Nazis saw the immense airships as another way of establishing their dominance in the world. 
After Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, around this same time, the Zeppelin lent itself to exploitation by the Nazis. The German public perceived the development of the airships as a national achievement, rather than as a business one. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels employed airships in mass events, as a daunting symbol of Nazi power. With no other country in the world employing the massive airships on a regular basis, Germany flaunted its superiority in this area, starting a regular transatlantic service in March 1936.

On May 3, 1937, the Luftschiff Zeppelin 129 Hindenburg departed from the Rhein-Main Airport in Frankfort, Germany, lifting into the air toward the United States. The airship’s namesake was the recently deceased Paul von Hindenburg, a World War I field marshal, president of the Weimar Republic and a national figure. The Hindenburg was over eight hundred feet long, 135 feet in diameter, and weighed approximately two hundred and fifty tons. To provide the lift that was required to get the monstrous ship off the ground, its sixteen gas cells had to be filled with combustible hydrogen.

The passenger lounge (with grand piano for entertainment) where passengers could rest, eat, sleep and socialize during the flight.  (Below) A two-berth cabin on the Hindenburg.  A wash basin was included in each small cabin, with the toilets and shower on another deck.

Since its maiden flight in 1936, the Hindenburg had completed twenty flights across the Atlantic Ocean and had broken the speed record of previous Zeppelins. Under normal conditions, its engines accelerated the airship to 84 miles per hour, but favorable winds had allowed for top speeds of up to 188 miles per hour. A westward trip from Germany to the United States took an average of 36 hours and 42 minutes. Although the Hindenburg had been built to accommodate between fifty and seventy passengers, it carried only 36 travelers in addition to 61 crew members when it embarked on its fatal final flight. The passengers could rest in twenty heated cabins at the center of the hull’s lower decks. Amenities on board included a dining room, a reading, writing and smoking room, and centrally located restrooms with showers. Panoramic windows embedded in the concave hull provided spectacular views for those on the promenade deck.

From the start of the trip, Captains Max Pruss and Ernest Lehmann had to confront a number of problems, all of them due to bad weather conditions. Storms first kept the airship from crossing the English Channel and then delayed its journey across the Atlantic. Blown off course to Newfoundland, it passed over Manhattan behind schedule at 3:00 p.m. on May 6. It finally reached the Naval Air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, at 6:00 p.m. but heavy rain kept the airship from initiating landing procedures. After an hour, the storm passed and the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast. It was to be a high landing, known as a flying moor, after which the airship would be winched down to ground level. This type of landing maneuver reduced the number of necessary ground crew, but required more time. The landing was initiated at 7:00 p.m.

At 7:09 p.m., however, the airship made a sharp full speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready. Two minutes later, it turned back toward the landing field and began to slow. Three minutes later, Captain Pruss ordered all engines full astern so that the airship could be stopped.  At 7:17 p.m., the wind shifted direction to the southwest and Pruss was forced to make a second, sweeping sharp turn, this time to the starboard. Two minutes later, the airship made another sharp turn and dropped its water ballast because the Hindenburg was stern-heavy. Six men were also sent to the bow to trim the airship, which allowed it to be on an even keel as it stopped. At 7:21 p.m., the mooring lines were dropped from the bow. The starboard line was dropped first, followed by the port line. The port line was connected to the post of the ground winch. The starboard line was left dangling.
At 7:25 p.m., a few witnesses saw the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter as though gas was leaking. Other witnesses also reported seeing blue discharges, possibly static electricity, moments before fire erupted on top of the ship. Several other eyewitness testimonies suggest that the first flame appeared on the port side just ahead of the port fin, and was followed by flames that burned on top. On board, people heard a muffled explosion and those in the front of the ship felt a shock as the port mooring rope jerked on its winch. The officers in the control car initially thought the shock was caused by a broken rope. 
Moments later, the Hindenburg caught fire and became engulfed in flames.

The Hindenburg bursts into flames. The series of photos below shows the airship as it slowly descended – on fire – to the ground. 
The fire quickly spread. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull due to the shock of the blast. This shock also caused a crack behind the passenger decks and the rear of the structure imploded. The stern of the ship lost its buoyancy and the bow lurched upwards.  As the Hindenburg's tail crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing nine of the twelve crew members in the bow. As the airship continued to fall with its bow pointing upwards, part of the port side directly behind the passenger deck collapsed inward and the gas cell there exploded. The airship’s gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the burning ship to bounce upwards. At this point, most of the fabric had burned away. Finally, the airship went crashing onto the ground, bow first. The Hindenburg had been completely destroyed.

Various theories have been suggested as to the cause of the fire on board the airship. Contemporaries suspected sabotage or a lightning strike, while more recent experts believe that maneuvering in the storm may have caused a build-up of static electricity in the ship’s envelope. An electric discharge could have ignited the hydrogen. To this day, no one knows for sure.

Unbelievably, despite the violent fire, most of the crew and passengers survived. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew members, thirteen of the passengers and 22 members of the crew perished. As the burning airship had crashed down on the landing field, the American landing crew had fled in a panic, but one linesman, Allen Hagaman, had been killed by falling debris.

The majority of the airship crew who died were up inside the ship’s hull, where they either had no easy escape route or were too close to the bow of the ship, which hung burning in the air, for them to find a way out. Most of the passengers who were killed were trapped in the starboard side of the passenger deck. Not only had the wind blown the fire toward the starboard side, but the ship had also rolled slightly to that side when it hit the ground, sealing off the observation windows and cutting off the escape of any passengers on that side of the ship. To make matters worse, the sliding door leading from the starboard passenger area to the central foyer and gangway stairs (through which rescuers led many passengers to safety) jammed shut in the crash, which also trapped the starboard side passengers. A few of them did escape, but most did not. By contrast, all but a few of the passengers on the port side of the dirigible survived the fire, most escaping virtually unscathed. 

When the control car crashed to the ground, most of the officers jumped out of the windows and became separated. First Officer Albert Sammt found Captain Max Pruss going back into the wreckage to look for survivors. Pruss was badly burned on his face and he required months of hospitalization and surgery, but he survived.  Captain Ernst Lehmann escaped the crash with burns to his head and arms and severe burns across most of his back. Although his injuries did not seem as severe as those of Captain Pruss, he died at a nearby hospital the next day.
Out of the twelve crewmen in the bow of the ship, only three of them survived. Four of these men were standing on the mooring shelf, a platform at the very tip of the bow from which the front landing ropes and mooring cables were released to the ground crew, and which was directly in front of gas cell #16. The rest were standing either along the lower keel walkway ahead of the control car, or were on platforms beside the stairway that led up the curve of the bow to the mooring shelf. During the fire, as the bow hung in the air at a steep angle, flames shot forward and burst through the bow, roasting the unfortunate men alive. The three men from the forward section that survived, elevator operator Kurt Bauer, cook Alfred Grözinger and electrician Josef Leibrecht, were those furthest aft of the bow, and Bauer and Grözinger happened to be standing near two large triangular air vents, through which cool air was being drawn by the fire. They managed to escape with only superficial burns.

The other men either fell into the fire or tried to leap from the Hindenburg when it was still too high in the air. Three of the four men standing on the mooring shelf inside the very tip of the bow were actually taken from the wreck alive, though one of them, a rigger named Erich Spehl, died shortly afterward in the Air Station’s infirmary. The other two, helmsman Alfred Bernhard and apprentice elevator operator Ludwig Felber, initially survived the fire but died at area hospitals later that night.

The four crew members who had been in the tail fin survived the disaster. Although they were closest to the origin of the fire, they were sheltered by the structure of the lower fin. They escaped by climbing out of the fin’s access hatch when the tail hit the ground.

The Hindenburg disaster remains one of the most widely known calamities in American history, thanks largely to the wide press coverage that the airship fire attracted. There was a large amount of newsreel coverage and photographs taken of the crash, as well as Herbert Morrison's recorded, on-the-scene, eyewitness radio report for station WLS in Chicago, which was broadcast the next day. This was the first transatlantic flight by a Zeppelin to the United States that year and it was heavily publicized, bringing many journalists to the scene.

The photographs and film footage of the scene were tragic but Morrison’s radio broadcast remains one of the most famous in history:

It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [indecipherable] its flames... Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can't even talk to people Their friends are out there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it's just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I... I... I'm sorry. Honest: I... I can hardly breathe. I... I'm going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah... I can't. Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because [indecipherable] I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.

The film footage at the scene, as well as Morrison’s passionate recording, shattered public faith in airships and marked the end of the giant passenger-carrying airships. The Hindenburg crash certainly marked the end of an era – closing the story with a scene of horror that still resonates today as an eerie haunting at the Naval Air Station hospital.

The hospital, known officially at that time as Naval Dispensary Lakehurst, was in the middle of the disaster on the night the Hindenburg fell burning from the sky. The doctors, nurses and corpsman that were stationed there in 1937 offered their assistance during the tragic event, although little detail is known about how the medical personnel on the site triaged the wounded or cared for the dead. It is known that the dispensary was utilized after the crash, though, and that many of the injured were brought there. The role the hospital played has been commemorated by the state of New Jersey and has been listed on the registry of historical sites.

And many New Jersey ghost buffs have listed the hospital as one of the state’s haunted sites, as well. 

The Naval Air Station in Lakehurst played an important role in transatlantic airship flights. The base commanding officer at the time was Lieutenant Commander C.E. Rosendahl, who eventually rose to the grade of vice admiral, and was a longtime proponent of airship aviation. The base hospital, which is now known as the Branch Medical Clinic of the National Naval Medical Center, became a key player in the events that followed the Hindenburg crash.

Lieutenant Carl Victor Green, Jr., the Naval Air Station base physician, along with his son, Robert, was among those watching the airship as it approached the mooring tower. The Hindenburg was running late and Robert had anxiously looked forward to seeing it arrive at the base. “It was evening, but quite light,” Lt. Green recalled in an interview many years later. “The nose of the silver ship was pointed toward the town of Lakehurst. She was poised for her pulling down and landing tower docking.”

Suddenly, there were three rapid explosions. Green remembered, “The rear half of the vessel was totally enveloped in bright orange flame. A blast of heat blew over us, standing a half-mile away.” He and his son watched in shock and terror as the mighty Zeppelin fell to the ground in a blazing ball of fire.

"I hurried to the base hospital. I watched people walking in, carried into the hospital or ambulance garage, which had become a temporary morgue,” Green said. Fortunately, only one man from the ground crew died at the hospital. The hull of the ship fell on him after he tripped and fell on the railroad tracks used to stabilize the airship after mooring. Many of the injured were treated at the hospital and several of them died.

On the morning after the disaster, smoke was still rising from the black and twisted skeleton that had once been the world’s largest flying vessel. Eyewitnesses on the scene claimed they would never forget the horrible smell of burning flesh that was in the air. A number of bodies were unidentified and they were moved into the crew’s quarters in the hangar. It had been hastily transformed into a temporary morgue. A small group of men and women filed past the charred remains of 26 of the victims in an attempt to identify them. Detachments of sailors were posted as guards around the ruins of the airship and no information was given out to the curiosity-seekers who flocked to the area. Men who served on the base at that time stated that they would never forget those darks days in 1937.

The Branch Medical Clinic of today, once a full-service naval hospital, was built in 1921 when the base first opened as an airship station. Officers and corpsmen stationed at the clinic will say without reservation that it is a great duty station for enjoying the Jersey Shore and nearby cities like Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York but they will often add that strange things happen at the old hospital that cannot easily be explained.

It is not uncommon, they have said, to hear mysterious footsteps, rattling doors, loud crashes, voices, and to see lights flashing off and on. Many who have been stationed here have come to believe that some of those who have died in the building do not rest in peace. The majority of them believe that the spirits of those who died in the Hindenburg disaster have remained behind to haunt the clinic and the surrounding buildings.
Is the naval station haunted? Many who have worked here believe that it is. But whether you believe in ghosts or not, the crash of the Hindenburg remains a tangible part of the history of the Lakehurst Naval Station that will never be forgotten.

For more details about the disaster – and much more about the ghost stories surrounding the crash – see the book AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT, available in print from the website and in Kindle and Nook editions.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Death in the Haymarket

Labor Struggles in Chicago’s Gilded Age

On this date, May 4, 1886, a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned deadly when a bomb exploded, starting a riot that led to the deaths of workers and police officers. It became known as one of the most famous labor incidents in American history and eventually led to the conviction of eight “conspirators” from the labor movement. But Haymarket was certainly not the only violent labor event during Chicago’s Gaslight era.

A period illustration of the events at Haymarket Square

Unfortunately, for most of the workers of the Gaslight Era in Chicago, mere words were unable to change the conditions under which they labored. Long hours and meager pay plagued the majority of the jobs that could be obtained by the lower classes and while the employers never failed to believe that their workers should be thankful for whatever job they could get – and for whatever pay they were offered – it was a sentiment that was not shared by those who actually did the work. By the 1870s, the workers were beginning to stand up for what they believed in and fight for their rights to safe working conditions, fair pay and decent hours. But those rights would not come easily, leading to bloodshed, violence and death across Chicago.

One of the first employers to suffer from labor disputes was Cyrus Hall McCormick, who developed a mechanical reaper that changed the farm industry in America forever. The efficiency of the reaper on the flat farmlands of the Midwest made it possible to grow more, plant more and harvest more than most farmers had ever dreamed of. The new invention made McCormick a millionaire many times over. 

McCormick was a stout man of great temper and perhaps an even greater persistence to succeed. He believed that he truly deserved all of the success that God had given him. He fought his many competitors with constant lawsuits, widespread advertising, and yearly field days when his reapers would be pitted against other models. He offered easy credit, good service and a product that was far superior to anything else on the market. Throughout the 1870s, he sold more than 10,000 reapers and binders a year.

McCormick’s wealth came from his assembly procedures, his sales methods that put thousands of reapers into fields where wheat would have rotted before, and his constant improvements on the machines did make him a pioneer in the industry.

Even though he was generous to a number of charities and causes in Chicago, including the Presbyterian Theological Seminary (later named in McCormick's honor), he was mostly known for being tight-fisted with a dollar. His tight handling of a dollar did not endear McCormick to his employees. He worked them hard, including his own brother, and for low wages. Like all of the other Chicago titans during the Gilded Age, he was puzzled when the employees were not grateful for what they were given and was enraged when they dared to ask, and organize, for more. By the 1870s, all of the major employers in the region, including McCormick, saw constant unrest among their workers over job conditions, wages and shorter workdays. There was no question that conditions in many plants were poor and men worked ten to twelve hours, six days a week, for very little pay. Strikes and protests soon became commonplace.

Members of the Knights of Labor during the early 1880s 
During the tense summer of 1877, when there were riots in the city that were part of a nationwide strike effort by railroad workers protesting wage cuts, Marshall Field volunteered the use of his delivery wagons to transport policemen from one problem area to another. Three men were killed and eight wounded during a demonstration at a Burlington Railroad roundhouse and the next day, ten more strike sympathizers were killed at the Halsted Street viaduct. Federal troops who came directly from fighting Indians out west were sent in to restore order. The following year, Field, McCormick and others secretly subscribed to a fund that would furnish Gatling guns and uniforms for the Illinois National Guard. This was done, according to McCormick's assistant, to prepare for "what danger if any was to be anticipated from the communistic element in the city."

Strikes and protests continued but the Haymarket Square Riot in 1886 would change the face of the labor movement forever.

A poster advertising the gathering of workingmen at Haymarket Square

The events that culminated in blood at Haymarket Square had been brewing since the start of Chicago’s Gilded Age. The years after the Civil War saw a rise in the power of the labor unions. Many prominent capitalists had preached the moral correctness of the war --- often more interested in the profits that could be made from it than because of any just cause --- but they failed to predict what would happen afterward. Many of the veterans who came home after the war had a different mindset than when they had left. As soldiers, they had worked together amid danger, death and destruction, fighting a war that became about ending slavery. To equate the over-demanding expectations of their employers (for next-to-nothing wages) with slavery was a simple one. Warring with the "slave-drivers" was seen as necessary but the trouble was that there were a lot of "soldiers," but no real army.

Without a union, laborers were at a great disadvantage when compared with their employers. Workers were able to come together, strike and raise hell but only for limited periods of time. Unions of the day, many of which were newly organized, were long on principles but short on any real sense of power, save for disruption of work. Once they began working through the political process, though, things began to change. They scored their first victory in March 1867 with the passage of a state eight-hour workday statute, but their sense of accomplishment was short-lived. The law was easily circumvented by employers who reduced pay, discharged employees or found loopholes to continue working their men for ten hours or more a day. Such manipulation of the law angered workers and unrest and violence occurred throughout the city. Many of the workers, and union leaders, were not content to let strikes and walkouts speak for them. Many of them endorsed a more violent form of action. That action reached its peak in Haymarket Square, where rural farmers came into Chicago to exchange produce for cash, in May 1886.

The Haymarket Square Riot began as a mass meeting of workers to protest police actions against strikers at the McCormick factory. Six workers demonstrating for an eight-hour workday had been killed by factory guards and tensions were running high. The rally at Haymarket Square involved about 2,500 workers who turned out in the rain to listen to speeches by local labor leaders Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden and August Spies. Despite the fact that all three men were considered "dangerous agitators" and "anarchists" by city business leaders, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison issued a parade permit for the gathering, believing there was no cause for concern.

However, police officials sent nearly seven hundred officers to the scene. Police Inspector John Bonfield led his superiors to believe that a citywide riot might take place. Mayor Harrison visited the scene and finding it peaceful, ordered all reserve officers to be sent home. Bonfield refused and two hours later, ordered his men to disperse the crowd.

As the policemen moved into formation, a crudely made pipe bomb was thrown into the midst of a column of two hundred police officers. The bomb exploded and one officer was killed and six others were mortally wounded. In retaliation, the policemen opened fire on the crowd and then began shooting at the fleeing protestors. They continued to fire for more than five minutes.

Mayor Harrison pleaded for calm in the wake of the attack, but there was little interest in listening to him. Police officials were determined to not only find the man who threw the bomb, but also to track down those who caused it to be thrown in the first place – namely, the leaders of the labor union who organized the event. The policemen of Chicago began a reign of terror among the city's working class citizens. All rights were suspended and hundreds of suspects were arrested, beaten and interrogated at all hours of the night. False confessions were violently extracted from those who were thought to be "anarchists" or sympathizers of the labor unions. Whoever the bomb thrower actually was, he faded away into history.

A Leslie’s Illustrated drawing of the police officers killed during the riot

Eventually, though, eight so-called “conspirators” were brought to trial and it was widely believed that the defendants had the deck stacked against them. Rumor had it that the jurors in the trial had been given $100,000 by Chicago business leaders and that prior to the verdict being read, Marshall Field was already lobbying that the men be hanged. He also reportedly went to City Hall and demanded that the mayor repress free speech in the city, in the interest of public safety. The mayor refused, even after Field informed him that he "represented great interests in Chicago."

In the end, seven of the defendants received a death sentence. The eighth was given a sentence of fifteen years in prison. All of them were tried and sentenced on conspiracy charges to incite violence that led to the deaths of the police officers. On November 11, 1887, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged at the Criminal Courts Building on Hubbard Street. Another of the conspirators died in an explosion and the death sentences of the others were commuted to prison terms.

For many years, the police officers who died at Haymarket Square were seen as martyrs, but slowly, thanks to the rising power of the labor unions, that perception changed. Even after all of these years, debate still rages about the cause and effect of the riot at Haymarket Square, but it cannot be denied that it was one of the many bloody events that solidly shaped the city.