Monthly Archives: February 2015

“The Scientific Wonder of the Age” –Montana’s Petrified Man

Frauds, hoaxes, and curiosities of all sorts have a long history in America. Something about the American character lends us to enjoying a good tall tale, no matter how ridiculous it is. That other, more famous facet of the American character–enterprise–has caused many a showman to fulfill that desire for all things strange. These tendencies have lead to some fairly strange incidents in American history, from the robber whose mummy wound up on the set of a 1970s TV show to a pygmy mummy who some believe could rewrite the history of humanity.

Perhaps the strangest curiosities to grace the American stage were those of the stone giants discovered in the 19th century. The first was the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified man discovered on a farm near Cardiff in New York state. The figure was lauded as proof of the Biblical stories of giants, a fulfillment of the notion that many Americans held that their homeland was the Promised Land. The giant turned out to be a hoax, of course, but even when the Cardiff Giant was outed as a fake the stone giant fad lost little steam. For about 50 years, it seemed every town was home to some sort of ancient remains.

Even among this weirdness, one story of a petrified man stood head and shoulders above the others. Dubbed “The Scientific Wonder of the Age,” a stone figure discovered in Montana purported not to be an ancient corpse, but rather a famous figure who met his unfortunate end in the modern era.

 

The discovery

Montana’s petrified man was allegedly discovered in the Missouri River, downstream from Fort Benton, in 1897. The man who discovered the figure, Tom Dunbar, claimed to have seen the body wedged in the river bed when the water was low. He hooked a rope around it and dragged it free of the sand, only to bury it in the sandy soil of the river bank a little ways away from the water. He returned eighteen months later with a wagon to retrieve his prize. Like any good stone giant discoverer, Dunbar immediately began to exhibit his prize, wowing tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park with his tale.

In September of 1899, Dunbar sold the figure to Arthur Wellington Miles, who promptly displayed it in a pine coffin in an empty building near his lumberyard. The curiosity brought in big crowds, eager to pay to see the wonderful sight. Miles raked in a tidy sum of $60 a day ($1500 in today’s money) from curiosity seekers. The hefty sums made Miles dream bigger. He began to look east, toward New York, where the stone giant craze originally began.

However, neither Dunbar nor Miles had attached any origin story to the figure so far. If Miles was going to make it big in the east, his petrified man would need to have a draw. Conveniently, Miles was struck by a memory of a miner who viewed the curiosity in Butte had said. The miner, whose testimony was recorded in an article published in the New York World on December 31, 1899,  The miner said: “It is the General! God rest his soul! It is the General!”

 

The General

“The General” was none other than General Thomas Francis Meagher. An Irish revolutionary, Civil War General, and Governor of the Montana Territory in 1867, Thomas Meagher died under mysterious circumstances on the Missouri River, not far from where the statue that allegedly bore his likeness was found. The then governor disappeared the night of July 1, 1867, falling over the side of a steamboat into the Missouri River. Some suspected foul play, while others thought the fall might have been an unfortunate accident.

The petrified body seemed to indicate homicide. The statue seemed to have a hole in the head, which was concluded to be from the arrow of an Indian attacker. This same attacker bound the governor’s wrists after having dragged the stunned man out of the river. When the Indian heard Meagher’s friends hew and cry on the steamboat, he threw the governor into the river and slipped into the night. Then, by some mysterious process, the body was petrified on the river bottom for Thomas Dunbar to find 30 years later.

With his backstory in place, Arthur Wellington Miles organized a train tour for the petrified governor. Beginning in December 1899, the tour would hit St. Paul, Chicago, and other cities on the way to the ultimate goal: New York.

Unfortunately for Miles and his associates, the tour was not near as profitable as they had hoped. The initial enthusiasm for petrified men had been dulled by the exposure of the Cardiff Giant and the Solid Muldoon as out and out frauds. Crowds were skeptical of yet another stone giant, even if it was allegedly the body of a war hero. The tour flopped, leaving the businessmen in the red.

 

Where is Montana’s Petrified Man?

Montana’s petrified man enjoyed only a brief career in the spotlight. Arthur Miles held on to the figure for a number of years after the failed eastern tour. He sold the statue not long after World War I, and ever since the figure’s fate is murky at best. It popped up in the occasional fair or in the hands of a showman now and then through the early 20th century, but it has since been lost to history.

Unlike the Cardiff Giant, which was undeniably outed as a hoax, no one came forward to admit to making Montana’s petrified man. Skeptics of the day did not debunk the hoax, content to simply poke fun at people’s gullibility. In the wake of the Cardiff Giant fraud, no one but true believers and curiosity seekers took the idea of petrified men very seriously. While it is true that organic materials can become petrified given enough time, 30 years is hardly the time span needed for that to happen. Meaghers, more likely than not, met the fate of any other person lost to the water. There is no reason to think his fate was anything special. The petrified man was a hoax, an odd bit of flim flam now consigned to the junk drawer of history.

 

Sources:

Kemmick, Ed. “‘Petrified’ man was big attraction in turn-of-the-last-century Montana.” BillingsGazette.com. March 13, 2009. Billings Gazette. February 28, 2015. http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/article_4d6a8de1-67da-5325-8d52-91015cf3d968.html

“The Petrified Man Fake.” The Reading Eagle. December 25, 1899. pg 2. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=18991225&id=G8MhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Yp0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=2184,5390411

Marvin Heemeyer and the Killdozer

"Marvin Heemeyer" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Marvin Heemeyer” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Small town life is often romanticized in movies and books as peaceful and quiet, especially since more and more Americans now live in cities than at any point in the country’s history. People who actually live in small towns know that while often the people are friendly and there is indeed a lot of quiet, often bad blood runs deep.

Grandby, Colorado was just such a town. It would have been little more than another dot on the vast map of the central US if it wasn’t for one day in June of 2004, when one of her sons went on a bizarre rampage that would leave much of the downtown area in ruins.

Marvin Heemeyer was the man behind the rampage. Small town folks often hold grudges, and hold them for a long time, perhaps because the drama relieves the monotony of an otherwise placid existence. Whatever the case, Heemeyer was just such a man. The roots of his odd attack ran back at least four years, to a dispute with the town over the construction of a concrete plant near the muffler shop he owned. Heemeyer believed the plant, situated across the street from his shop, would ruin his business. He fought with the local planning authority to have the plant’s construction blocked, but he lost. These were only the most recent in a long line of disputes with local authorities over various issues. Some, after Heemeyer’s rampage, like to paint him as a martyr, but many who knew him from before claimed that he tended to attract the drama that defined his life. Even so, nobody could see the outburst on that summer day coming.

Soon after the concrete batch plant went up, Heemeyer was forced to sell his muffler shop to pay off debts. And then he set to work. He took an old bullozer and built a concrete and steel shell around the cab, turning the vehicle into a make-shift tank. He equipped it with cameras and monitors to steer with, and cut portholes for guns. He stocked the make-shift tank—later dubbed the Killdozer—with two semiautomatic rifles, a .223 caliber rifle, and two handguns.

On June 5, Heemeyer burst out of the garage where he’d spent months constructing his revenge vehicle and took his vengeance. He began with the concrete batch plant that had strangled his business. Once he smashed the plant, he turned his wrath toward the town’s center. He struck next at the combination City Hall and library, which was only moments before hosting a group of children for story hour. A librarian rushed them out the back door just before Heemeyer’s attack.

Several more buildings fell to Heemeyer’s behemoth vehicle, including a bank, an electric utility ofice, and the home of the former mayor who supported the concrete plant. Meanwhile, police tried in vain to stop the rampage. They fired over two hundred shots at the tank, but they had nothing powerful enough to penetrate the hardened concrete and steel shell. One brave officer jumped on top the contraption to drop a flashbang grenade down the smokestack, but to no effect.

Some point out that no one died during the attack, and claim that Heemeyer was avoidoing doing harm to anyone. A look at witness testimony quickly dismisses that assertion. Heemeyer took shots at large propane tanks, evidently trying to detonate them. He also shot at electric transformers. Worse, he took potshots at police officers. Clearly, luck and the actions of local authorities in getting people out of harms way did more to prevent a tragedy than Heemeyer himself.

However, while the police might have prevented any deaths, they were powerless ot stop the Killdozer. Only the sheer weight of the contraption eventually did it in. The tank fell through the floor of the local hardware store and became stuck in the basement. When Heemeyer found he could not extricate himself from the hole, he chose to end his life, thus bringing an end to the rampage.

Granby is quiet these days, its brief moment of fame long since gone. Millions of dollars of damage was inflicted on the sleepy town by Heemeyer’s rampage, but the scars to the town’s collective psyche run deeper than any physical destruction one of its wayward sons could wreak. Now the people of Granby have to eye their neighbors with suspicion, unsure when a slight or dispute could lead to another day of terror like the one that struck Granby on June 5, 2004.

 

Sources:

Banda, P. Solomon. “Armed man in bulldozer goes on rampage in Colorado town.” tcnj.edu. June 5. 2004. Accessed on August 25, 2014. http://www.tcnj.edu/~hofmann/Granby/Granby.htm

 

Poppen, Julie. “After bulldozer rampage, town strives to rebuild trust.” Boston.com. October 24, 2004. Boston.com. August 25, 2014. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/10/24/after_bulldozer_rampage_town_strives_to_rebuild_trust/

 

Reid, T.R. “Man Behind Rampage Found Dead.” WashingtonPost.com. June 6, 2004. The Washington Post. August 25, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18948-2004Jun5.html

 

 

 

 

Bela Kiss–The Monster of Cinkota

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

Humans have long told stories about monsters. From the fantastic beasts of ancient mythology to the sometimes all too human monsters of modern cinema, lurid tales of death and violence have always entranced some facets of humanity. Why this is may always be a subject for debate, but in large part these stories allow us to play out very real fears in a safe manner, where the hero swoops in to save the day. Or, at the very least, we ourselves aren’t the ones being butchered.

Unfortunately, stories are not reality. The good guy does not always save the day, and the bad guy doesn’t always feel the sting of justice. Some murderous madmen ply their bloody trade and their identity is never discovered, passing into legend and becoming immortalized as a bogeyman of folklore. Some monsters are named, but manage to elude authorities just the same.

Such is the case of Bela Kiss (pronounced Kish). An amiable young bachelor, handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the darling of Cinkota, a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary in the early 1900s. A self taught tinsmith, young Bela Kiss did well for himself, and shared his good fortune with others. He married for a time, but his wife soon cheated on him with a young artist and the two eloped to America, or so Kiss said, leaving him Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be with him, married men in town envied him for the parade of beautiful women from Budapest who could be seen coming and going from his house. But Kiss, like many men of the time, was swept into the conflagration known as the Great War, his neighbors would learn a horrifying truth: Kiss was a killer of women, and a prolific one at that.

 

A ghastly discovery

The horrible truth about Bela Kiss was discovered two years after he marched to war in 1916. Kiss’ landlord, figuring that the reports of the tinsmith’s demise must have been true since it had been two years since anyone had seen or heard from him, decided to clean up the cottage and rent it out to a new occupant.

Starting with the obvious, the landlord began the cleanup operation with seven large metal barrels in the front yard. These barrels had been the subject of rumors for a long time. Neighbors whispered that Kiss was storing alcohol, while Kiss explained them away saying he was stockpiling gasoline for the coming war. The explanation seemed to satisfy everyone concerned, but despite that the landlord couldn’t help but be curious. He poked a small hole in one barrel, and was soon overwhelmed by the stench of death.

The landlord called the police, who descended on the scene and opened the barrels. Inside, they found the naked bodies of seven women, some with the killing ropes still around their neck, still others with puncture wounds in the neck that implied the killer had drained the bodies of blood. They had been pickled in wood alcohol.

A search of the grounds turned up more barrels and more bodies, for a grand total of 24 killed, including one male, later identified as Bikari, the young artist with whom Kiss’s wife had been unfaithful. Mrs. Kiss herself turned up in another barrel.

The ghastly discoveries continued. Police found evidence of how Kiss systematically lured in his victims. He placed adds in a Budapest newspaper, under the name Hoffman, advertising that he was a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” He kept the correspondence in a series of packets, giving police a portrait of a predator.

Kiss, who had been luring lonely women from Budapest since 1903, targeted women with large bank accounts and few friends. He talked them into emptying their bank accounts, promising wedded bliss. Some 175 women had responded to his ads. One, Katherine Varga, sold her dressmaking business and planned to move to Cinkota with her handsome suitor. She was later positively identified as one of Kiss’s victims. Other women brought lawsuits against Kiss when they realized he was manipulating them, but they disappeared before the proceedings could finish. They too were discovered among the pickled and strangled bodies.

 

An elusive killer

The last anyone had heard from Bela Kiss, he had been fighting among the Carpathian Mountains. He was presumed dead. Regardless, police contacted the military ordering the immediate arrest of Bela Kiss. The problem, of course, was that the name Bela Kiss was as common in early 20th century Hungary as John Smith is today. Add to that the chaos of war, and the fact that Hungary’s armies were in disarray, and it is no wonder that the search came up largely fruitless.

There were a few tantalizing leads in the case, however. A Bela Kiss was discovered in a Serbian hospital, either injured or dying of typhoid, but by the time police could arrive to detain him, the killer had lain a dead soldier in his bed and escaped.

Later, in 1920, a member of the French Foreign Legion contacted authorities about a suspicious Legionnaire, who he believed might be the infamous Monster of Cinkota. The suspect had bragged about his proficiency with a garrote, the method used in the Cinkota murders. However, the mysterious soldier disappeared before he could be detained.

In 1932, a New York detective by the name of Henry Oswald sighted a man he thought might be Bela Kiss walking out of the subway at Times Square. The suspect was soon lost in the crowd. Rumors still persisted that Kiss had taken up residence in the New York area, working as a janitor, but no one could be sure.

No doubt, Bela Kiss is long dead now. While the long arm of the law sometimes falls short, death never fails to get its man eventually. Still, there is no way of knowing how many women fell prey to Bela Kiss’s deadly appetites in the years after the horrific discoveries in Cinkota in 1916.

 

Sources:

Bardsley, Marilyn and Noe, Denise. “The Crimes of Bela Kiss.” CrimeLibrary.com. Crime Library. February 7, 2015. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/bela_kiss/1.html

Bovsun, Mara. “Hungarian man murdered 24, pickled each corpse in barrels of alcohol in early 1900s.” NYDailyNews.com. February 9, 2014. Daily News. February 7, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/killer-murdered-24-pickled-corpses-barrels-article-1.1607445