Monthly Archives: January 2015

Howard Hughes’ “Flying Lumberyard”–The Spruce Goose

H-4_Hercules_2In 1942, the outlook seemed grim for the Allies. Continental Europe had fallen to the Nazi onslaught, leaving England to stand against the forces of Fascism alone. In the East, Soviet forces buckled under the brutal weight of the largest land invasion in history, Operation Barbarossa. For her part, America was beginning operations against Japan, still reeling from the surprise attack in Pearl Harbor and the less well known Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast.

During these desperate times, Allied planners were willing to consider any scheme that might confer an advantage, no matter how ludicrous it might seem in retrospect. One such plan was dubbed Project Habbakuk, which involved a no less ambitious scheme than building a floating island of ice to act as an aircraft carrier impervious to assault from German U-boats.

Habbakuk barely made it off the drawing board, but one audacious plan meant to circumvent German U-boats made it much further than designer blue prints. U-boats were creating havoc among Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Henry J. Kaiser, a steelmaker who conceived of the Liberty ships, the very ships being torn to shreds by Nazi subs, hit on the idea for an utterly massive transport plane. Weighing in at 400,000 pounds and sporting a titanic 320 foot wingspan, the plane would be larger than anything the world had ever seen fly up to that point. It would be a flying boat, capable of transporting 700 troops, constructed entirely of wood. The last point was a stipulation of the US government, who wanted the planes to be built out of materials deemed non-essential for the war effort.

The task of designing the mammoth machine fell to the brilliant but eccentric aviation designer and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. Working with a small team, Hughes threw himself into designing and building the plane, which was designated the HK-1, even as controversy surrounded the funding of the project. A Senator dubbed the machine a “flying lumberyard,” from which its more common nickname “the Spruce Goose” later arose (it was actually constructed from birch.)

Hughes himself was part of the controversy. He constantly meddled with the design of the craft, obsessed with making it perfect. His perfectionism resulted in delays. By 1944, the monstrous plane was still not finished, and the outcome of the war was almost a foregone conclusion. At the very  least, the original reason for building the HK-1 in the first place was gone, as better tactics and aircraft technology allowed the Allies to beat back the submarine menace. Henry Kaiser backed out of the project at this point, not wanting his name associated with the controversial contraption. Hughes re-dubbed the machine the H-4 and continued work on the project without Kaiser’s backing.  Meanwhile, the myriad delays caused by Hughes’ perfectionism led to a Senate committee to look into the project.

Finally, five years after being commissioned, the Spruce Goose was completed in 1947. The government’s price tag was $22 million, with an additional $18 million coming out of Hughes’ own pockets. On November 2, 1947, Hughes, a small crew of his staff, and journalists from various media outlets climbed aboard the massive plane for a taxi test in Los Angeles Harbor. Hughes took the pilots seat, and fired up the plane’s 8 engines. Whether on purpose or other wise, what was announced as a taxi test became the Spruce Goose’s first and only flight. Hughes gunned the engines and the huge craft lifted off the surface of the harbor, wowing onlookers assembled on the shore. The Spruce Goose lifted some 33 feet off the surface of the water and reached a speed of 80 mph before Hughes set her down a mile from the point of take off. Hughes was coy as to whether the flight was on purpose–some speculated it might have been accidental–but it’s at least possible he did the flight on purpose to see whether all his time, effort, and money had paid off.

The Spruce Goose was returned to its special hangar, where it would remain for decades. Hughes ordered the engines to be fired up every month, indicating that he possibly toyed with the idea of continuing work on the project or perhaps taking the massive plane out for another spin. However, the Spruce Goose never flew again. Hughes died in 1976.

The Spruce Goose itself has long outlived its creator. The massive plane has moved from owner to owner after Hughes’ death. It currently resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, where it continues to wow visitors with its massive size and radical design.

 

Sources:

Neely, Mike. “Hughes HK-1 (H-4) ‘Spruce Goose’” TheAviationZone.com. The Aviation Zone. January 31, 2015. http://www.theaviationzone.com/factsheets/hk1.asp

 

Patterson, Thom. “Museum: Iconic Spruce Goose is safe.” CNN.com. January 20, 2014. CNN. January 31, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/travel/spruce-goose-museum/

 

“The Spruce Goose.” Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. January 31, 2015. http://evergreenmuseum.org/the-museum/aircraft-exhibits/the-spruce-goose/

 

 

 

Superman vs. the KKK–How the Man of Steel Took on America’s Most Infamous Hate Group

Christopher Reeves in his most iconic role, Superman. "Sprmnmovie" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Christopher Reeves in his most iconic role, Superman.
“Sprmnmovie” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Mythology has played an integral part in the development of human societies since our ancestors first developed the ability to tell stories. Mythology allowed ancients to make sense of a world that was hostile and random. It also gave people ways to relate ideas about morality and how to live a good life.

These days, traditional mythologies are largely relegated to the pages of textbooks, and the mythologies of the large established modern religions have been largely tamed by familiarity or literal interpretations that leech away their rich metaphorical underpinnings.  However, humans seem to have a need to tell stories about divine beings fighting cosmic battles against evil. The new mythology, that of the super heroes,  largely consists of well-muscled men in brightly colored tights fighting equally garish opponents. From the pages of comic books to the theater to the television, super heroes have become a cultural force to be reckoned with, especially in recent years.

Of these god-like beings, none are as well known as Superman. The champion of truth, justice, and the American way, Superman has been wowing fans with his magnificent feats of strength and courage since Action Comics #1 was released in 1938. Superman has combated a variety of foes in his long career, but perhaps his greatest victory spilled over from the world of fiction into our world when the Man of Steel fought his most dastardly real-life enemy since he battled the Nazis for Uncle Sam: the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Stetson Kennedy’s superhero origin story

"Stetson Kennedy" by Sean Kennedy - Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Stetson Kennedy” by Sean Kennedy – Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The story of how Superman took on the KKK began with a man by the name of Stetson Kennedy. Born in Florida in 1916, Kennedy grew up in the Jim Crow South, where African Americans were treated as second class citizens due to their skin color. Seeing the gross inequality left a deep impression on Stetson, which was deepened when he took a job in 1937 working for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. There he worked with Zora Neale Hurston, who later wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, traveling around Florida to collect folklore and oral histories. Hurston, obviously a talented writer, was unable to use the front door of the office, and couldn’t even legally travel with Kennedy.

Soon after Kennedy’s work with the WPA, the US was plunged into World War II. Kennedy was kept out of the conflict by a back problem, so he instead fought the Nazis at home by using his writing to shed light on the inequalities in the South that were so similar to the horrific racist ideas espoused by the Nazis. Once the war ended and the Nazis were defeated, Kennedy turned his attention to America’s own homegrown racist group: the KKK.

While today the KKK is not much of a force in America, in Kennedy’s day the Klan was a force to be reckoned with, claiming politicians, police officials, and other important figures among its ranks. In the wake of World War II, the Klan hit a period of rapid growth. Kennedy, seeing a chance to make a difference, decided to infiltrate the racist organization and gather its secrets and stories.

Once he gathered his information, Kennedy approached authorities, but no one was really interested in taking on the Klan. They were too powerful, and too entrenched. Kennedy then hit on a brilliant idea–he approached the producers of The Adventures of Superman, a popular radio serial, and pitched them the idea for a serial where the Man of Steel took on the Klu Klux Klan.

 

Clan of the Fiery Cross

Members of the Ku Klux Klan attending a 1922 parade.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan attending a 1922 parade.

To understand why Kennedy approached the producers of a Superman radio show with his information, it is critical to know how much of a phenomenon the Man of Steel was at the time. By 1946, Superman comics circulated in the millions, and the radio show of his exploits reached millions more. Superman was the champion of the little guy, who stood against racism, corruption, and stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.” (A phrase that originated on the the Adventures of Superman.) If Americans, especially children, were going to be swayed by any popular character, it would be Superman.

The producers of The Adventures of Superman jumped at the chance to pit Superman against the KKK. What resulted was a 16 part radio serial titled “the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Though the Klan was not mentioned by name, it was obvious to everyone that the enemies Superman was taking down were the KKK. The show revealed much about the Klan’s activities and beliefs, although contrary to popular belief it did not contain secret codewords and passwords that had Klan leaders scrambling to change their codes.

Even so, the serial was a body blow to the KKK. A secret organization, the Klu Klux Klan depended on secrecy (and violence) to maintain its aura of mystery and fear. Ripping away that secrecy and exposing the Klan for what it was–a club of racists in white sheets–did much to turn away prospective members. Many current members left when they saw their organization had been outed and was now seen as ridiculous in the public eye. There was one story of a man who decided to quit the Klan when he came home to find his son had found his Klan hood, and was playing the bad guy to the neighbor boy’s Superman. After all, who wants to be in an organization that is on Superman’s bad side?

One radio serial cannot end racism and hatred, of course. The Klan still exists, and although it is not as widespread as it once was, it is still a dangerous and rabidly racist organization. But what can be gleaned from this strange episode is that stories are important. They can have a real and lasting impact on the real world. Iconic characters like Superman can be used to sway opinions on critical issues. That is why it is important that the art of story telling, the craft of building compelling characters and worlds for them to inhabit, does not die. It shows the lasting power of mythology. Sometimes, even in a world of science and reason and order, we need Superman to swoop in and save the day.

 

Sources

Bell, J.L. “Five questions for Rick Bowers.” Hbook.com. February 3, 2012. The Horn Book. January 17, 2015. http://www.hbook.com/2012/02/authors-illustrators/interviews/five-questions-for-rick-bowers/

 

Juddery, Mark. “How Superman Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.” Mentalfloss.com. October 31, 2009. Mental Floss. January 17, 2015. http://mentalfloss.com/article/23157/how-superman-defeated-ku-klux-klan

 

Sims, Chris. “Ask Chris #221: Superman Takes Down the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” ComicsAlliance.com. November 21, 2014. Comics Alliance. Januuary 17, 2015. http://comicsalliance.com/ask-chris-221-superman-takes-down-the-clan-of-the-fiery-cross/

 

The Cardiff Giant

Cardiff_Giant

The Cardiff Giant

The bones of the ancient dead have long fascinated people from every culture and era in history. America is no different. From the mummy of an outlaw that wound up doing time in a sideshow to a tiny enigma some believe is evidence for a new species of dwarfish human, odd remains have a habit of popping up within the vast expanses of the United States.

Mortal remains need not only take human form to arouse curiosity. Bones and fossils of the Earth’s most massive and ancient creatures have spawned not only awe but fearsome legends all their own. For example, the ancient Greek discovery of mammoth skulls, with their large central cavity that looks something like a massive eyes socket, and bones likely influenced the creation of the cyclops myth. The Greeks were not the only people to believe that giants walked the earth at one point in its history; indeed, the idea of giants is common to every culture around the globe, as other cultures likely discovered large remains and came to the same conclusion as the Greeks.

Of course, modern science does not recognize giant humanoids as part of the fossil record. Still, the belief in giants is prevalent even today, due in large part to their being mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis as having existed before Noah’s Flood. In the 19th century, the belief in giants and the fascination with bones and bodies came together to produce an odd phenomena–that of the petrified giant. The most famous and best documented of these hoaxes occurred in 1869, when two laborers digging a well near Cardiff, New York discovered a giant stone man under the ground. The find was dubbed the Cardiff Giant, and it would go on to create a craze for petrified giants that would last for the next forty years before finally dying out in the early 20th century.

 

A giant discovery, and an even bigger fraud

The odd story of the Cardiff Giant begins not in the ancient past, but in 1866 with a man by the name of George Hull. A cigar-maker and a staunch atheist, Hull found himself in Iowa on business when he crossed paths with a Methodist revivalist, Reverend Turk. Hull and the good reverend exchanged heated words. The minister mentioned the scripture from Genesis referring to the antediluvian giants, which birthed an idea in Hull’s mind.

To put his odd plan in motion, Hull returned to Iowa in 1868 to find a suitable stone for his purposes. Once secured, he hired men to quarry the 11 foot block of gypsum, telling them it was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln to be built in New York. Then, he had the giant block shipped to Chicago, where it was shaped by a German stone cutter, who was sworn to secrecy. The finished giant, measuring about 10 feet long and weighing in at 3000 pounds, was shipped by rail to Cardiff, New York in November 1868, where Hull and his cousin and co-conspirator William Newell buried the bulky sculpture.

A year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a well on his property. On October 16, 1869 the workers hit stone beneath three feet of soil. One man reportedly exclaimed, upon clearing away dirt and seeing a large stone foot: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”

What followed after the excavation of the statue could be described as “giant fever.” Once word got out, people flocked from miles around to see the sight. Hull and Newell erected a tent over the statue and charged $.25 a head to view it. When the crowds swelled and Hull saw he could bilk even more money from the eager sightseers, he doubled the price of admission.

The giant electrified the public. Many believed they’d laid eyes on a petrified giant straight out of the pages of scriptures. A pastor from Syracuse declared as much, and since when was the clergy wrong about anything?

Other experts did not agree. Some believed it was a statue built by missionaries to impress local Indian tribes, while others thought perhaps it was a statue made by some sort of ancient people who predated the coming of the white man, and perhaps the Indians themselves.

Andrew White, first president of Cornell University, visited the site to lay his skeptical eyes on the sensational find. Even the skeptic was impressed by the theatrics of it–a giant being lay in its grave, lit only by the soft light of candles, as quiet onlookers stood in quiet awe of its bulk and age. Of course, upon a closer look White found that the figure was a carved statue, and not a particularly good one at that.

Seeing White’s skeptical reporting, added to the fact that Newell himself had let the cat out of the bag, made Hull nervous. . He sold the giant to David Hannum and a syndicate of businessmen who were interested in the spectacle for a cool $23,000. The businessmen took the giant’s show on the road toward New York City.

Meanwhile, P.T, Barnum heard of the row surrounding the giant. The legendary showman offered Hannum and his cabal  $50,000 as is for the statue. When Hannum declined, Barnum simply sent a man to view the Cardiff Giant. The agent molded a lump of wax into the likeness of the giant, and Barnum paid to have his own version of the giant carved. When Hannum heard that Barnum’s giant was drawing crowds, he uttered famous words often attributed to P.T. Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

 

Giant mania ends

The Cardiff Giant was not the only so-called petrified man found in mid to late 19th century America. The country seemed to be teeming with the stone encased bodies of the ancient dead. Hull himself made another hoax body, this one called the Solid Muldoon, sporting a monkey-like tail no less. Hotels in New York commissioned their own giants, using the stone bodies to draw in crowds of curiosity seekers.

For its part, the Cardiff Giant was falling on hard times. Hannum took Barnum to court over the copying, where a judge told the hoaxer that he could have his injunction if the giant came and swore to his own genuineness. Needless to say, the skeptical judge threw the case out. Meanwhile, Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh denounced the giant as a fraud, writing that the statue was probably of recent origins. George Hull finally confessed the hoax on December 10.

The statue that spawned dozens of imitations was outed as a fake. Still, over time the giant and its many imitations still brought in money for sideshows and scam artists, although the returns never matched those of the early giant craze.

In 1901, the statue made an appearance at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. Few paid it any attention, its moment of glory forty or more years gone. A publisher from Des Moines, Iowa bought the Cardiff Giant. He sold it in 1947 it to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is currently on display.

 

Sources:

“The Cardiff Giant.” Farmersmuseum.org. The Farmer’s Museum. January 1, 2015.  http://www.farmersmuseum.org/node/2482

Rose, Mark. “When Giants Roamed the Earth.” Archaeology. Volume 58, number 6. November/December 2005. Retrieved from:  http://archive.archaeology.org/0511/etc/giants.html

 

 

W.H Ballou’s Flying Stegosaurus

"Stegosaurus ungulatus" by Perry Quan from Oakville, Canada - Pittsburgh-2013-05-18-054Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Stegosaurus ungulatus” by Perry Quan from Oakville, Canada – Pittsburgh-2013-05-18-054Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The history of science is full of ideas that were consigned to the junk drawer. Some were useful, at least until they were finally overturned, but others were just plain wacky. The science of Paleontology in particular has attracted its fair share of junk ideas. And why not? After all, these are scientists who are studying tiny fragments of once living creatures who lived millions and millions of years ago. There’s bound to be some error there. Since most of those creatures are no longer alive, some of their more peculiar features are tough to explain. Take, for example, Stegosaurus‘ most noticeable feature: its armor plating.

Today, scientists believe they might have been used for attracting mates or to regulate body temperatures, but no one is really sure. Scientists of the 19th century were just as baffled by the plates. Early paleontologists believed they might be protective armor and that the plates could be flapped, sort of like mini wings.

W.H Ballou, writer and amateur paleontologist, expanded on this idea. In 1920, he wrote an article in the Ogden Standard-Examiner laying out his hypothesis that Stegosaurus used its flaps as glider wings. The massive beast would, according to Ballou, flatten its flaps as it leaped off high spots, allowing it to glide safely to the ground.

His evidence for this behavior was…well, pretty scant. It was mostly based on the fact that Stegosaurus is classified as a “bird-hipped” dinosaur. To Ballou, this meant that birds descended from Stegosaurus and fellow “bird-hipped” species. The similarity between birds and “bird-hipped” dinosaurs was nothing more than a case of evolutionary convergence, when species of different lineages develop strikingly similar features. A classic example of this would be the evolution of wings in both birds and flying insects.

Needless to say, no scientists took Ballou’s ludicrous idea seriously. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, put the creature in one of his novels. In his world, the creature had a habit of dive bombing its foes, zipping through the air using its spiky tail as a rudder.

 

Sources:

Ballou, W.H. “The Aeroplane Dinosaur of a Million Years Ago.” Ogden Standard-Examiner. August 15, 1920. pg. 8 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058393/1920-08-15/ed-1/seq-32/

 

Switek, Brian. “The Fantastic Gliding Stegosaurus.” Smithsonianmag.com. May 30, 2012. Smithsonian . September 15, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-fantastic-gliding-stegosaurus-107838636/?no-ist

 

When Hell Came to Earth: The Axeman of New Orleans

An illustrated map of the sites of the Axeman's crimes.

An illustrated map of the sites of the Axeman’s crimes.

History is littered with mysterious assailants who appear from the dark shadows and terrorize the community, only to disappear almost as fast as they came. Many of these mystery figures were products of mass hysteria, such as the gas-wielding madman who stalked Mattoon, Illinois during World War II. The origins of other shadow attackers are less clear cut. The London Monster, who allegedly attacked women in 18th century London, was likely not a single individual but rather a collective delusion generated by similar style attacks committed by many individuals. The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula snipped the hair of several women. While this case may well have been a case of collective delusion on the order of the London Monster, the causes remain unclear.

However, a case in New Orleans in 1918 leaves no doubt that a mad man was on the loose. An assailant only known as the Axeman cut a swath through the Italian community of New Orleans, leaving fear and death in his wake. There is no doubt that the Axeman was a real figure and not an artifact created  from common belief. Even so, his identity and motivations remain a mystery until this day.

 

The Killings Begin

The Axeman first materialized on May 23, 1918, leaving death in his wake. Joseph Maggio and his wife were butchered in their apartment, which was above the grocery they owned and managed together. Police found that a panel on the rear door had been chiseled out. An axe, coated with blood, was found in the apartment. Nothing else in the apartment was touched. The only other clue was a message written in chalk near the victim’s home that read: “Mrs. Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just Write Mrs. Toney.” (check)

As the investigation progressed, police discovered more murders of Italian grocers, these from 1911. The killings bore a striking resemblance to the Maggio murders: the killer chiseled out a door panel and killed the victim with an axe he found in their home. Police suspected a mafia connection. For their part, residents barred their doors, held their families close, and prepared for more carnage.

The phantom killer struck again a month later. Louis Bossumer and his common law wife, Annie Lowe,  were found by neighbors, covered in blood and bearing terrible gashes made by an axe, which the assailant left in the bedroom. A panel on the kitchen door had been chiseled out. Again, nothing was stolen.

Annie Lowe later claimed the assailant was a young, dark man. But she changed her story and claimed that Bossumer himself was the culprit. Police dismissed this story as nonsensical, since no person in their right mind would take an axed to their own face. The killer remained at large, with no real clue to his identity.

Lowe and Bossumer both survived their injuries. His next victim, Mrs. Edward Schneider, who described her attacker as tall and phantom-like, also managed to survive. The next victim, who was attacked in August, was not so fortunate. Joseph Romano, another Italian grocer, died of his injuries.

 

A Letter From Hell

The attacks left panic in their wake. People began to see the attacker in every shadow and around every corner. Some said he was a tall, thin man, while others claimed that he was a man dressed in women’s clothes. Still others claimed that the killer was a woman, or that he was a man but a midget. Otherwise, how could he fit through the small hole of a chiseled out door panel? Others whispered even stranger tales, that perhaps the killer was not of this earth. A vengeful spirit perhaps, or even the Devil himself come to Earth to punish New Orleans for her sins.

Whatever the attacker’s identity, he or she went mostly dormant through September. A few residents reported attempted break ins, and others fired shots at lurkers in the dark. After September, there were no more such reports. As suddenly as he had come, the Axeman was gone. The crisis, it seemed, was over.

Or so it seemed. But on March 10, 1919, the Axeman perpetrated the most gruesome crime yet. in the town of Gretna, near New Orleans, an assailant in dark clothes attacked the Cortimiglia family. Charles Cortimiglia struggled with the attacker, but was overcome by his wounds and died. The attacker then turned on Rosie Cortimilgia and her two year old daughter, Mary. despite Rosie’s pleas, the Axeman struck, killing the two year old and severely injuring her mother, who ultimately survived the ordeal.

The bloody attack set the city into a panic, which was only stoked by a letter received by the editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune on Friday, March 14, 1919:

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know who they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am; for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don‘t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people.

Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

That night, the people of New Orleans partied as if their lives depended on it. Clubs and music houses were packed, and neighbors gathered in homes to play music. The city was alive with the strains of Jazz music. Joseph Davilla, a local composer, composed a song called “The Mysterious Axeman Jazz,” which became a hit in the city. That night, no one died at the hands of the Axeman.

Sheet music for the Axeman's Jazz.

Sheet music for the Axeman’s Jazz.

Last Gasp and an Enduring Mystery

The Axeman’s fury seemed to have dissipated with the night of music. Months went by without incident. It seemed the city had appeased whatever dark soul, human or otherwise, that had decided to torment it.

That is, until the night of August 3, 1919, when the madman attacked a girl named Sarah Laumann in her home. Laumann survived, but this new atrocity marked a change in the Axeman’s behavior–Laumann was neither a grocer nor Italian. New Orleans was horrified to realize that no one was safe from the Axeman’s wrath.

He struck again that August, and in September he tried to strike again but was thwarted by a homeowner with a gun. The final attack came in October, when the Axeman slaughtered Mike Pepitone in his bed as his wife and six children slept in the next room. Police found all of the now familiar signatures of the Axeman, but still had gleaned no clues to his identity. To this day, no one can say for certain who the Axeman was.

There is, however, a tantalizing lead in the case. A year after the last killing, a man named Joseph Mumre was shot and killed on the Pacific Coast by Mike Pepitone’s widow, Esther Albano. She claimed Pepitone had killed her husband. There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest Mumre’s involvement in the killings. Mumre had taken part in a group of blackmailers who preyed on the Italian community. He was sent to prison in 1911, just after the first killings attributed to the Axeman. he was paroled in 1918, around the time that the killings began again. Mumre left for the coast around the time that the Axeman killings ended in 1919.

While the timeline syncs up, there was no physical evidence linking Mumre to the crimes. His death erased any chance for police to question him and ferret out his involvement in the case, if any. The only real lead died with him. Since those terrifying two years, the Axeman has passed into legend, and enduring and macabre figure in the folklore of a city steeped in bizarre happenings.

Sources:

Smith, Kalila. “Axe Murder in New Orleans.” CrimeMuseum.org. November 11, 2011. Crime Museum. December 30, 2014. http://www.crimemuseum.org/blog/axe-murder-in-new-orleans

Rumsland, Katherine. “The Axeman of New Orleans.” CrimeLibrary.com. December 30, 2014. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/weird/axeman/index.html

Taylor, Troy. “The Axeman’s Jazz.” Praireghosts.com. 2004. Ghosts of the Prairie. December 30, 2014. http://www.prairieghosts.com/axeman.html

 

 

 

 

The Wrong Turn That Helped Trigger a World War

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Sunday, June 28, 1914 marked a pivotal turning point in history. Europe in the early 20th century was a house of cards teetering on the brink of collapse. The great powers of the day had engaged in a series of alliances and treaties meant to prevent another massive outbreak of war such as the one that wracked the continent in the early 19th century, when Napoleon conquered much of Europe. However, the network of alliances meant that one small misstep could lead to a war of unprecedented proportions.

That misstep occurred on a sunny Sunday in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, causing a row among Serbian nationalists, who wanted their land to be part of the nation of Serbia. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo with his wife, Sophie, to inspect troops in the regional capital. The visit was also meant to show imperial power and prestige. No doubt, the Serbian nationalists saw it as a slight, and in particular the group known as the Black Hand saw it as an opportunity. The radicals formulated a plan to assassinate the Archduke, who was next in line to succeed to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The royal couple were touring the city in an open car, part of a procession totaling six cars, an unprecedented parade in the remote city. Security was, especially by today’s standards, almost criminally light. The first attempt by the Black Hand to kill the Archduke occurred on Appel Quay, when Serbian nationalist Nedjelko Cabrinovic threw a bomb at the royal car. It bounced off the vehicle and exploded in front of the next car, wounding an officer and bystanders.

The failed attack did not deter the Archduke from his schedule. He attended a reception at the city hall, where the mayor praised his royal guest with a scripted speech. After the speech, he was supposed to go to a local museum, but Ferdinand asked instead to visit the hospital where those wounded in the bombing were being treated.

Organizers gave in to the archduke’s request, deciding to take a different route that avoided the site of the first attack. But, for reasons that remain mysterious, no one bothered to tell the drivers. When the motorcade turned onto the previously planned route, along Appel Quay, to the museum, a military aide laid into the driver. Flummoxed, the driver tried to reverse the car, but the engine stalled.

Unknown to the motorcade, another would-be assassin lurked among the milling crowd. Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Serbian nationalist, had lingered among the crowds after his co-conspirator’s botched assassination attempt. Now he found himself not five feet away from his target. The crowd was too numerous for him to successfully throw his grenade, so he drew his pistol and fired two shots. One struck Franz Ferdinand in the jugular, the other struck his wife in the stomach.

Princip was captured after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself with a cyanide pill. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie died soon after. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the killings. Serbia was supported by Russia, who was allied with France, who was allied with Great Britain and Belgium. Austria-Hungary called on Germany to support it against Serbia and her allies. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, plunging the world into a war that would come to be known as The War to End All Wars. All because of one wrong turn.

Sources:

“Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated.” History.com. 1/3/15. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/archduke-franz-ferdinand-assassinated

 

State, Paul F. “Simple mistake changes course of history: Wrong turn triggers assassination, launches First World War.” BuffaloNews.com. June 22, 2014. The Buffalo News. http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/simple-mistake-changes-course-of-history-wrong-turn-triggers-assassination-launches-first-world-war-20140622