Thursday, February 28, 2013

'The White Death"

The Wellington Avalanche and Railroad Disaster

On this night – February 28 and March 1, 1910 – one of the most horrific railroad disasters in American history occurred in the Cascade Range of Washington State. It was no surprise that such an event could happen, for the mountains had claimed many lives over the years. The explorers and railroad builders who first came to the region knew that death waited here. As they attempted to conquer the Western mountains, they found that the Cascade Range in Washington was among the greatest challenges they would ever face. They were formidable mountains, shrouded in ice and snow for most of the year, and the steep cliffs and treacherous passes made travel nearly impossible. But they refused to be beaten by nature and the Great Northern Railway, headed by famed railroad magnate James J. Hill, began construction through Stevens Pass in the Cascades in 1891. Workers created a series of switchbacks to carry passengers and freight over the mountain route for several years.

In 1897, work began on the Cascade Tunnel, which would eliminate the switchbacks, reduce the avalanche risk and make the grades much easier to ascend and descend. The two-and-a-half-mile tunnel opened in 1900, although snow slides continued to block the entrances. In addition, the threat of avalanches increased after fire destroyed the timber that provided some protection for the track. But these minor problems were only a prelude to disaster.

But then, 10 years later, an avalanche roared down Windy Mountain near Stevens Pass and swept two Great Northern trains into a ravine, sending 96 victims to their deaths. It was the deadliest snow slide in American history – and one that has left a haunting presence in its wake.

The depot and bunkhouses at Wellington before the disaster occurred.
On February 24, 1910, after a snow delay at the east Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth, two Great Northern trains, the Spokane Local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27, traveled west through the mountains toward the coast. There were five or six steam and electric engines, fifteen boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers. The trains had passed through the Cascade Tunnel from the east to the west side of the mountains, when snow and avalanches forced them to stop near Wellington, in King County. Wellington was a small town populated almost entirely with Great Northern railway employees.

The train stopped under the peak of Windy Mountain, above Tye Creek, where they were forced to wait for plows to clear the tracks. Meanwhile, the snow continued, piling up in five- to eight-foot-deep drifts. Four rotary plows – locomotives with rotating blades on the front that cut through snow and blew it aside – that were sent to clear the tracks ran into difficulty. The first hit a stump on February 25, knocking it out of commission. A second plow became stuck and couldn’t refuel on February 27. Snow slides trapped the last two plows. The slides, which were strewn with rocks and timber, had to be cleared by shovel gangs before the plows could go back to work. Unfortunately, Mountain Division supervisor James H. O’Neil had fired the shovelers because of a wage dispute. This left both the rotary crews immobilized while trains No. 25 and No. 27 waited at the siding for six days. When the Wellington telegraph lines went down, cutting off all communication with the outside world, the agitation of the passengers reached its peak.

During the late night of February 28 and early morning hours of March 1, the snow that was falling from the sky turned to rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Thunder shook the mountains, stirring loose walls of snow and sending them hurtling down toward the tracks. 

Shortly after midnight, Charles Andrews, a Great Northern employee, was walking towards the warmth of one of the Wellington’s bunkhouses when he heard a rumble. He turned toward the sound and saw a horrific sight that he would never forget. He later described what he witnessed: "White Death moving down the mountainside above the trains. Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping -- a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of ten thousand freight trains. It descended to the ledge where the side tracks lay, picked up cars and equipment as though they were so many snow-draped toys, and swallowing them up, disappeared like a white, broad monster into the ravine below.”

Photographs of the Wellington Avalanche and the disaster wreaked by the
 “white cascade” of snow.
The wall of snow, which was ten feet high and a quarter of a mile wide, crashed down the mountainside. The avalanche swept the passenger train and the mail train into a gulch that was more than one hundred and fifty feet deep. Everyone – passengers, mail workers, Great Northern crew members – were all trapped inside. Some were killed instantly, while others suffocated, buried in the mounds of snow. A surviving train conductor sleeping in one of the mail train cars was thrown from the roof to the floor of the car several times as the train rolled down the slope before it disintegrated when the train slammed against a large tree.

Wellington residents and crew members rushed to the crushed trains that lay far below and over the course of the next few hours, they dig out 23 survivors, many with injuries. As news slowly made its way out of the mountains, hundreds of volunteers and Great Northern employees converged on the scene to dig out the victims. The injured were sent to Wenatchee. The bodies of the dead were transported on toboggans down the west side of the Cascades to trains that carried them to Everett and Seattle. The death toll from the avalanche reached 96 people, including 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains and three railroad employees who were sleeping in cabins struck by the wall of snow.

Bodies of the dead were taken away on toboggans.
Corpses stored for identification and burial

Rescue and Recovery workers at the Site of the disaster
An inquest that followed the disaster absolved Great Northern of negligence. Eventually, the courts ruled that the deaths had been caused by an act of God. The immediate cause of the avalanche was the rain and thunder, but the conditions had been set by the earlier forest fire (started by locomotive sparks), which destroyed the shelter that had been provided for the tracks.
It took the Great Northern three weeks to repair the tracks before trains started running again over Stevens Pass. Because the name Wellington became associated with the disaster, the little town was renamed Tye. By 1913, to protect the trains from snow slides, the Great Northern had constructed snow-sheds over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye. The railroad also built a huge, double-track concrete snow shed in the area of the slide and, in later years, built a second tunnel through Windy Point at the trouble spot, where the slides had occurred. Still, Stevens Pass continued to pose problems for the line. In 1929, Great Northern rerouted its tracks through this troublesome section by constructing an eight-mile-long tunnel through the mountains – the longest railroad tunnel in America – and adding forty miles of tracks.

The old railroad line through Stevens Pass is now the Iron Goat Trail, a hiking trail through the forest with spectacular views of Cascade Mountains scenery. The trail travels past the old snow sheds, the remains of the original tunnel and the frightening ravine where pieces of the wreckage from the two trains still remain.

And if the stories are to be believed, it’s not just twisted pieces of metal and remnants of railroad archaeology that remain at this place; some say the ghosts of the avalanche victims remain behind, as well.

Those who have the chance to visit the site of the Wellington disaster say that one can feel a very tangible history at the spot, despite the fact that everything that once existed as Wellington has long since vanished from the map. This is not an easy place to get to since the site is usually buried in snow from October to July in most years but there are many who come – hikers, history buffs, park rangers and ghost enthusiasts among them. And it’s not just the ghost hunters who believe this place is haunted. Many of the park rangers won’t go to the disaster site – or even into the nearby parking lot – after dark.

The site of the Wellington Avalanche today is only accessible by the Iron Goat Trail but it is a place that many believe is haunted.
Many speak of uncomfortable and sometimes oppressive feelings as they navigate the hiking trail, walk through the old snow shed or brave the midday darkness of the crumbling railroad tunnel. But it’s not just odd feelings and weird cold spots. Many claim they have heard and seen things here that should not exist – perhaps a little of the disaster victims who have remained behind. Inexplicable voices have sometimes been heard, echoing off the stone walls of the tunnel. On other occasions, these voices have even imprinted themselves on recording devices, offering chills to those who play them back later.

Some claim to have seen the victims of the avalanche. They report glimpses of people walking along the tracks near the site of Wellington where no people were walking before – and they say these mysterious figures vanish without explanation, as if they had never been there at all.

Has the sadness and tragedy of this terrible event left an impression on this place? Many who have visited here say that it has as it begs to be remembered as one of America’s worst railroad disasters.

The story of the Wellington Avalanche appears in the book AND HELL FOLLOW WITH IT by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. It’s available in a print edition from the website and in both Kindle and Nook editions. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Popper the Poltergeist"

America’s First Paranormal Reality Show

In February 1958, strange things were happening on Long Island. A house belonging to a family named Herrmann was being beset by strange and inexplicable incidents that were attributed to a ghost who was dubbed “Popper” (for reasons that will soon become obvious). But what was really happening in the house? Was it an unseen force from beyond -- or was it something else? On this date, February 26, Popper even got the attention of researchers from J.B. Rhine’s famous parapsychology lab at Duke University, but they came no closer to solving the mystery than anyone else.

The “Popper” case remains unique in the annals of the supernatural for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this became the first haunting that was actually shown on television. Wide-eyed audiences all across the country stared at their television screens in amazement as Popper literally performed for the cameras. These films became the ghost’s claim to fame, but were only a small part of the weird happenings!

The Herrmann family became the reluctant stars of America’s first paranormal reality TV show
Popper first made himself known at around 3:30 in the afternoon of February 3, 1958. The James Herrmann family lived in Seaford, New York, a suburb on Long Island, about 30 miles from New York City. Their white and green ranch-style home at 1648 Redwood Path had been built in 1953 and contained three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a small dining room, a living room and a basement that was divided between a utility room and a playroom. In other words, it was a typical 1950s-era home in a quiet, conservative neighborhood with public parks and tree-lined streets. It was the last place that you would expect anything out of the ordinary to occur.

That February 3 was a day like most any other. It was clear and cold outside and Lucille Herrmann, a registered nurse, was there to welcome her children home from school and to prepare dinner. The children were Lucille, 13, and James, 12, two ordinary kids with ordinary interests. Their ordinary world, however, was about to change.

Soon after the children entered the kitchen, chaos erupted in the house. In a matter of moments, various bottles containing liquid in different rooms of the house suddenly began to pop their caps and dance around. No one saw the bottles move or explode, but all of them heard the caps as they popped loose and the bottles’ contents went spewing into the air.

They would later discover an opened bottle of bleach in the basement utility room, a bottle of liquid starch in the kitchen, bottles of shampoo and medicine in the bathroom and a bottle of holy water that had opened in the master bedroom and was lying on its side with the contents spilled. Each of the bottles had been sealed with twist-off metal or plastic caps. There were no corks or crimped caps that might have somehow come loose.

Puzzled, Mrs. Herrmann called her husband, who worked for Air France in New York City, and reported the strange “popping” sounds they had heard. Herrmann was just as confused by the incident as his wife was, but since no one had been hurt, he decided there was no need for him to go home early.

Following his usual schedule, Herrmann took the train to Long Island and arrived home just before 7:00 p.m. During his commute, he pondered his wife’s call and was sure that he had a solution for the mystery. He believed that some sort of chemical reaction in the products had caused the bottle lids to blow and the fact that they did so at the same time was merely a coincidence. Perhaps it had been caused by some sort of excessive humidity in the house? He quickly investigated the bottles when he arrived home and confessed to being baffled when he found that they were screw-top lids. How could they have simply popped off?

The excitement over the event having passed, and since nothing more had happened, the family decided to write the experience off as “just one of those funny things.” Two uneventful days passed and the popping bottles were almost forgotten.

Then, on Thursday, once again at about the same time that the Herrmann children came home from school, another half dozen bottles popped their lids. A bottle of nail polish burst open, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a bottle of bleach, detergent, starch and the bottle that contained holy water on Mrs. Herrmann’s dresser. It was an almost exact repeat performance of February 3.

On Friday night, it happened again. Only this time, when the bottles began to pop open, James Herrmann began to suspect that he knew the culprit responsible for the multiple containers’ strange behavior. He surmised that his science-loving son had somehow rigged the bottles to pop in order to scare his family. He thought that perhaps his son had planted some carbonated capsules inside the bottles and timed it so that he could get home from school in time to see the startled expression on his mother’s face.

As he developed this theory, Herrmann spent the entire weekend secretly observing Jimmy. He was determined to catch him in the act of tampering with a bottle. It’s no wonder that he was surprised on Sunday morning, February 9, when several caps popped off bottles of starch, turpentine and holy water, leaving the containers rocking back and forth on the shelves. Herrmann had kept a close eye on Jimmy, so how could the boy have managed to put something inside the bottles without his father seeing him do it? Feeling baffled and a bit angry, Herrmann burst into the bathroom, where Jimmy was brushing his teeth, and accused him of rigging the bottles to pop. The boy vigorously protested his innocence and as if to prove the point, Herrmann was startled to see a bottle of medicine suddenly move across the top of the sink and fall into the basin. A moment later, a bottle of shampoo also slid across the sink and fell with a thud to the floor.

Jimmy Herrmann, posing with some of the broken items in the house 
Still skeptical, Herrmann immediately examined the bathroom, searching for hidden wires or strings. He found nothing and finally realized that there were things going on in the house that he could not explain. Unsure of what else to do, he called the Nassau County Police Department and spent the next several minutes on the phone trying to get Lieutenant E. Richardson, the desk officer who answered the call, to take him seriously. When he heard the story, Richardson accused Herrmann of either playing a practical joke or drinking too much, but he was soon swayed by the earnest tone of the man’s voice. It helped that Herrmann had a good reputation in the community. Richardson promised to send someone to investigate.

Officer James Hughes went to the house feeling skeptical and perhaps wondering how he managed to wind up with the nutcase calls. Within a few minutes, though, he had changed his mind about the nature of the case when several bottles in the bathroom popped their lids and fired them in his direction. He quickly concluded that the Herrmanns did indeed need help.

Detective Joseph Tozzi was assigned to look into the case. He read Hughes’ report of the incident in the bathroom with interest. While not willing to pass judgment without actually visiting the scene, he was relatively sure the Herrmanns were experiencing some natural phenomenon or were simply imagining things. Or, he noted with the cynicism of a veteran police officer, the popping bottles could be getting some help a human source.

Detective Joseph Tozzi
On February 11, Detective Tozzi began his vigil at the Herrmann house. That same evening, a perfume atomizer overturned and spilled perfume in the daughter’s bedroom. There was no one in the room at the time, according to reports. Over the next few days, the disturbances seemed to center around the bottle of holy water in the parents’ bedroom. On several occasions, the lid of the bottle popped off and once, after hearing the distinctive sound, Mr. Herrmann dashed into the room and found the bottle on the floor. He picked it up and found it strangely warm to the touch.

Later that same day, on February 15, the activity took another turn. As the Herrmann children were watching television in the living room with Marie Murtha, their middle-aged second cousin, a porcelain figurine on an end table next to the couch began to wiggle and then shot two feet through the air, making a loud crashing sound as it landed on the floor. To the amazement of Miss Murtha and the children, the figurine was unbroken.

After this last demonstration, the Herrmanns decided to turn to another source for comfort and to aid the stumped Detective Tozzi in his investigations. They contacted Father William McLeod of the Church of St. William the Abbott for help. As devout Catholics, the Herrmanns believed that the church could help them where ordinary methods had failed. Father McLeod came to the house and sprinkled holy water in each of the rooms. Unfortunately, “Popper,” as the poltergeist came to be called, had decided that he didn’t want to leave.

During the two weeks since Popper had made his first appearance in the Herrmann house, news of the strange happenings had leaked to newspapers, radio and television reports. The story received a great deal of publicity, even meriting articles in Time and Life magazines. If the beleaguered family thought that mopping up spilled liquids and having their possessions broken by an unseen force was bad, then the onslaught of public attention was worse. During the day, the Herrmann home was surrounded by reporters, photographers, curiosity-seekers and an astounding array of television equipment. While the Herrmanns managed to get used to these intrusions into their lives, they weren’t quite prepared for some of the strangeness that came with it.

Detective Joseph Tozzi being interviewed on television
Letters and telephone calls came every day. Many of them proposed logical solutions, while others assured the Herrmanns that Martians had landed nearby or that the problem in the house was the spirit of a long-dead Indian chief or that the Russians were tunneling under Long Island to invade New York. The Herrmanns managed to stay patient with everyone, though. They never turned anyone away and they listened attentively to all the calls and suggestions that came in, even those who shouted “Repent!” into the telephone at midnight or proclaimed that “the Sputniks are here!”

Many of the letters and visitors were less easy to tolerate, however. Letters arrived in barely intelligible scrawl, condemning the Herrmanns for their sins and suggesting that they had invited these “tricks of Satan.” Ministers from all sorts of dubious faiths conducted rituals on the front lawn of the house. One man in a blue serge suit, who claimed to be a “holy man from Center Moriches,” (a nearby town on Long Island) knelt in the yard and prayed for 10 minutes. Then he stood and announced: “Everything is all right. You have been forgiven.” With that, he left -- but “Popper” remained.

But not all of the suggestions and attempts to help were so bizarre. One man who came to the house, Robert Zider, was a physicist from Long Island’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. He brought a set of dowsing rods with him and went over the property with them. When he was finished, he stated that he believed there were underground streams below the house. He thought that the water might be creating a “freak magnetic field.” Detective Tozzi examined this idea at length, but a geological survey suggested that the information was inaccurate.

Tozzi’s case file grew thicker and thicker with added notes, observations, research and facts that he collected. At one point, he had been walking down the basement stairs with Jimmy Herrmann when a bronze statue of a horse weighing nearly 100 pounds flew across the basement and hit the detective in the legs. Jimmy had been nowhere near the statue and no one else was down there. How had it happened? Tozzi had absolutely no idea.

He had checked with the Air Force and after studying their flight plans, they had told him that sonic booms from passing jets could not have caused the disturbances. He also ruled out radio waves by contacting the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The Long Island Lighting Company had set up a delicate oscilloscope in the basement, but they had detected no underground vibrations. Building inspectors from the town of Hempstead pronounced the house structurally sound. The Seaford Fire Department even inspected a well on the property to see if changes in the water level could be causing the disturbances. However, they found that the water level had been stable for at least five years. Although puzzled, Tozzi remained determined and he tried valiantly to discover a source for the happenings.

He finally found hope in a letter from a woman named Helen Connolly of Revere, Massachusetts. She wrote that she had experienced odd events in her living room, where chairs and furniture moved about. She didn’t have a ghost in her house, but rather a heavy downdraft through her fireplace. When capped with a rotary metal turbine, the flying tables and chairs ceased to fly. Mr. Herrmann immediately had one installed on his own chimney, convinced that the strangeness was finally coming to an end.

But that wasn’t meant to be.... No sooner had the workmen completed the installation than a porcelain figurine launched itself from a table and smashed against a desk. The figurine had managed to travel a distance of more than 12 feet. It left a dent on the wood that was broadcast to television audiences all over the New York metropolitan area.

On February 20, events became even more violent. Another figurine was smashed against the desk, a bottle of ink popped its screw cap, then sailed into the air and splashed its contents on the wall and a sugar bowl flew off the table under the watch of Detective Tozzi. It had been close to Jimmy but not within his reach. Needing a break, the Herrmann family spent the night with a relative. Tozzi stayed in the house, but the rest of the night passed without incident. When the family returned the next evening, though, the sugar bowl again flew from the table and this time, it shattered into pieces.

On February 24, Tozzi was startled to his feet by the sound of a loud noise from Jimmy’s room. No one had been in the room or near it, yet a large bookcase had managed to fall facedown onto the floor. The next night, while Jimmy was in the room doing his homework, his record player lifted and moved 15 feet across the room. A small statue of the Virgin Mary flew more than 12 feet and struck a mirror frame in the master bedroom. A bookcase filled with encyclopedias was upended. A heavy glass centerpiece from the dining room table flew up and stuck a cupboard, chipping away a piece of molding before falling to the floor. A world globe shot down the hallway from Jimmy’s room and just missed Detective Tozzi. A newspaper photographer named John Gold from the London Evening News witnessed his flashbulbs lift off a table and fly through the air to strike a wall. In addition, Popper had begun knocking on the walls to get attention, although no attempts to “communicate” with the ghost (if indeed it was a ghost) were ever made.

Tozzi had become concerned about the new violence in the disruptions. Until that point, the activity had been limited to popping bottle tops. He had explored every possible explanation that he could come up with and while he was not prepared to say the house was haunted, he was all out of fresh ideas. About this same time, the staff of scientists at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, North Carolina, became interested in the events reported in the Herrmann home. This group of researchers, under the leadership of Dr. J.B. Rhine, had already compiled a mass of evidence that supported the idea that certain people, under the right circumstances, could influence the behavior of objects without touching them. They called it psychokinesis, or PK.

As the disturbances at the home continued (and in fact, increased) Dr. Rhine’s assistant, Dr. J. Gaither Pratt, traveled to New York and arrived at the Herrmann house on February 26. Pratt believed that someone in the house was unknowingly causing the strange incidents to occur. Meanwhile, other researchers came to believe that the incidents in the house were being caused by an actual ghost, a poltergeist, or “noisy spirit.” These prankster ghosts traditionally targeted religious items, as the disturbances had done with the holy water and the Virgin Mary statue in the Herrmann house.

On the other hand, strong evidence remained for the idea that there was a human component behind the haunting. It had been noted by the Duke researchers that an adolescent child, usually a girl, was almost always among the members of the household being plagued by poltergeist phenomena. They believed it was possible that this young person might be capable of psychokinesis during the height of puberty. In every case, though, the young person might be unaware that she or he was unconsciously causing the events to happen, making them as bewildered as the adults around them. In the case of the Herrmann house, Jimmy (according to Detective Tozzi’s notes) was at or near the scene of the poltergeist disturbances more than 75 percent of the time. For many incidents, he was the sole witness. However, the detective had cleared the boy of deliberately causing any of the disturbances.

Like the others who came before him, Dr. Pratt was welcomed into the Herrmann residence and greeted warmly. He explained that he had come as an observer and he spent most of the time there chatting with Jimmy, playing cards with him, helping him with his homework and generally just being around the young man. There was no sign of strangeness during the visit. Popper was absolutely quiet.

Pratt then summoned another colleague from North Carolina, William G. Roll. Together, they interviewed the family members and were convinced that none of them were perpetrating a hoax. “The family was much too shaken for it to be a colossal hoax,” Pratt told a United Press reporter.

Things were quiet for the next several days, as though the poltergeist did not want to perform for the scientists. Then, on March 2, one month after Popper first arrived, he decided to make himself known again. All of the Herrmanns were in the house to witness what took place. First, a dish vaulted from a kitchen cabinet and shattered on the floor. Then, a night table flipped over in Jimmy’s room. Popper was back and yet there was still no explanation as to who, or what, he was. Two days later, a bowl of flowers slid down the dining room table and jumped into the air. A bookcase turned end over end in the cellar.

But this would not be Popper’s farewell performance. That event would occur on March 10 while Mrs. Herrmann, Jimmy, and Lucille were getting ready for bed (James Herrmann was away on business). Pratt and Roll suddenly heard a loud popping sound in the cellar and they hurried downstairs to see what it was. They found that a bleach bottle, sitting in a cardboard box, had somehow lost its plastic lid.
For reasons unknown, this became the last act of the Herrmann family poltergeist. There had been a record of 67 recorded disturbances between February 3 and March 10. The Herrmanns had been visited by detectives, building inspectors, electricians, plumbers, firemen, parapsychologists and half of the “nutcases” on the East Coast and yet none of them had been able to present a satisfactory explanation for what had occurred in their home.

Weeks after the household returned to normal, “experts” still came to investigate and to theorize about what had taken place. As late as August 1958, the scientists at Duke still had no clue as to what had happened and why. By this time, the Herrmanns had had enough of investigations and just wanted their lives to get back to normal. James Herrmann no longer cared why the disturbances had taken place, he was just happy they were over. Mrs. Herrmann told an Associated Press reporter: “I don’t think there is a definite solution. It was just one of those things with no rhyme or reason to it. But there was a definite physical force behind it.”

What did happen at the Herrmann house on Long Island? No one really knows. “Popper” the Poltergeist, and the strange incidents that followed in his wake, is just as puzzling today as “he” was in 1958.

The story of “Popper” and many of America’s weirdest poltergeist cases can be found in my book INTO THE SHADOWS, which is available in print on the website at and as a Kindle edition!

Monday, February 25, 2013

"The Man Who Got Away"

The Demise of George “Bugs” Moran

Most famously known as the man who narrowly escaped death at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, George Moran had ended up with the North Side mob almost by accident since he managed to outlive all of his friends. But Moran’s power was broken by the massacre and he eventually drifted away from Chicago and died in prison on February 25, 1957. It was a forgettable moment for the man who once challenged the reign of Al Capone.

George “Bugs” Moran
George "Bugs" Moran was born Alelard Cunin in Minnesota in 1891, the son of a French stone mason named Jules Cunin, and his wife, Marie. His father was later recalled as a mean-tempered man and the two never got along, although he and his mother stayed on good terms throughout this life. He ran away in 1910 and adopted the name of George Moran. He became involved with a gang of young toughs who began specializing in stealing horses. In 1912, Moran was arrested for the first time. He spent several stints in jail after that for other crimes, including larceny and burglary.
Moran made friends in Joliet Correctional Center and began hanging around the North Side after his release. One day, Moran was listening to a speech given by an outdoor orator and became annoyed when a man in the crowd started heckling him. Moran confronted the heckler and a fight broke out. As a result, Moran’s chest and neck were badly slashed with a knife and he spent the rest of his life wearing high-neck collars to hide the scars. His nickname of “Bugs” was probably created by newspaper writers (as most gangsters’ more colorful handles were) but it was noted that Moran had a fiery temper, which led to the moniker.

Following the knife attack, and after recuperating for several weeks in the hospital, Moran began hanging around McGovern’s, a cabaret at 666 North Clark Street, where Dean O’Banion worked as a singing waiter. Many criminals who were just starting out hung around the place and Moran became friends with many of them, including O’Banion. The two began working together, robbing warehouses, with other members of what would become the North Side gang. After one fouled-up job, Moran was captured. He kept his silence and served two years in Joliet without implicating O'Banion in the crime. After he was released, he went back to work with his friend. He was soon captured again and, once more, he kept silent about who he worked with. He stayed in jail this time until 1923.

When Moran got out the last time, he joined back up with O’Banion’s now formidable North Side gang. They had become a powerful organization, supplying liquor to Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast. Moran became a valuable asset, hijacking liquor trucks at will. He became known as O'Banion's right hand man, always impeccably dressed, right down to the two guns that he always wore.

Moran fell in love with a showgirl who had recently arrived in America from Turkey. Her name was Lucille Bilezikdijan and she had a child from a previous relationship, which she feared would turn Moran away from her. Instead, he raised the boy as his own and not long after, he fathered his own child with Lucille. Like so many other gangster wives, Lucille averred that her husband was, “one of the best men she had ever known.”

After O’Banion was murdered, Moran served as one of his pallbearers – and then as one of his avengers. He took part – along with Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci – in several assassination attempts on Capone and in January 1925, was the first man to fire a bullet into John Torrio outside his South Side apartment building (see earlier blog post).

Moran was identified in the Torrio hit by the 17-year-old son of the apartment building’s janitor, Peter Veesaert, who had been standing in the doorway of the building at the time of the attack. He was shown some photographs that were taken by the police during Dean O’Banion’s funeral and he pointed out George Moran as the first man who shot Torrio. Bravely, he insisted that his identification was correct when he was brought face-to-face with Moran after he was arrested. “You’re the man,” Peter said. The police wanted to hold Moran until they could establish some evidence in support of the boy’s identification but Judge William Lindsay released him under $5,000 bail. He was never indicted for the crime.

Moran continued to take part in the attempts to kill Capone – and continued burying his friends who were slain in the Chicago violence. In time, by blood and attrition, he became the leader of the North Side gang and was just as relentless against Capone’s business efforts as O’Banion, Weiss and Drucci had been. On the highway between Detroit and Chicago, they hijacked trucks of liquor that had been shipped to Capone by the Purple Gang. They bombed saloons that exclusively sold his beer. They had assisted Joe Aiello when he had reclaimed the liquor stills of Little Italy. The North Side gang had attempted twice to kill Capone’s favorite gunman, Jack McGurn. The second time, the Gusenberg brothers had caught up with him in a telephone booth at the Hotel McCormick and emptied a Tommy gun through the glass. Major surgery and a long recovery in the hospital saved his life. The gang even started their own dog racing tracks. Moran opened a track in Southern Illinois while his business manager, Adam Heyer, opened the Fairview Kennel Club in Cicero, not far from Capone’s Hawthorne Kennel Club – which was set on fire during a terrorist attack. In late 1928, Moran became entrenched with the Master Cleaners’ and Dyers’ Association, a blatant challenge to Capone. He managed to get control of an independent plant, the Central Cleaning Company, and installed two of his men, Willie Marks and Al Weinshank, as vice-presidents. In short, Moran took every opportunity to provoke Capone, both on the streets and in the newspapers, where he often publicly blamed Capone for local violence.

Just days before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Moran was contacted and asked to be at the garage on North Clark Street where the massacre occurred. He arrived a few minutes late and, seeing what he believed were police cars outside, was at a nearby coffee shop when his friends were slaughtered. He narrowly missed being killed and to this day, many historians believe that Al Weinshank was mistaken for Moran by the lookouts for the assassins. The massacre was a simple, cold-bloodedly efficient assassination that was meant to kill George Moran and break the back of the North Side gang, opening up its territories and operations to Al Capone. But they missed Moran and from that point on, he was known as “the man who got away.”

Although the St. Valentine’s Massacre greatly diminished the power of George Moran and the North Side gang, it did not completely destroy it. Moran managed to keep control of most of his territory and what remained of his gang through the end of Prohibition and into the early 1930s. But with the repeal of Prohibition, the North Side gang declined along with almost everyone else and Moran decided to leave Chicago.

Many crime writers believe that Moran's biggest liability as a gang boss was Moran himself ---he was simply not very smart in the ways of long-term survival as a mob leader. While Capone was a master at planning his operations several steps in advance (thanks to his mentoring by Torrio), Moran operated almost like an ordinary street fighter, doing everything by cause and effect. So, having been squeezed out of Chicago at the end of Prohibition, he reverted back to his early life of pulling common crimes like safecracking and robbery. Moran went from being one of the wealthiest gangsters in Chicago to a penniless crook in less than two decades.

Moran toward the end of his life
In July 1946, Moran was arrested in Ohio for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a paltry sum compared to his ill-gotten gains during the Prohibition days. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the Ohio Penitentiary. Shortly after his release, Moran was again arrested for an earlier bank raid, receiving another ten-year sentence, this time in Leavenworth. Only a matter of days after arriving there, most of which were spent in the prison hospital, Moran died of lung cancer on February 25, 1957. He was buried in the prison cemetery.

While at the height of his career in Chicago, Moran was quoted as saying, “I hope when my time comes that I die decently in bed. I don’t want to be murdered and left for dead beside the garbage cans in some Chicago alley.” And he didn’t – he died lonely and mostly forgotten in a prison hospital bed. And one has to wonder, if he’d had the chance, would he have changed his mind about his choice?

The story of George Moran, the North Side Mob, Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is chronicled in my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, which is available in print from the website and as a Kindle edition.

Friday, February 22, 2013

America's "Gentle Giant"

The Story of Robert Wadlow, Tallest Man in the World

The tallest man who ever lived was born on this date, February 22, 1918 in the small Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. During his short, often sad, life, he gained international and lasting fame as the tallest man in history. Robert died tragically in 1940 at the age of only 22 but during those few years, he remained vigilant about being cast in the role of a "freak". He only wanted acceptance and a normal life, but even when he was very young, he and his family realized that this would be nearly impossible.

Robert Wadlow (center, obviously) with his father and brother. 
When Robert was born, he weighed in at just over eight pounds, an average weight for a baby boy, but his height and weight would not stay average for long. He was the first child of a Alton engineer and very soon, his parents began to realize that something out of the ordinary was happening with their son.  By the time that he reached his first birthday, Robert weighed over 44 pounds, which was large, but not alarming. Fear came later, when he was five years old, weighed 105 pounds and was five feet, four inches tall. Needless to say, the Wadlows took the boy to the doctor but he was pronounced to be in good health. By the time he turned eight, he was over six feet tall and weighed 195 pounds. His parents, brothers and sisters were all of normal size.

When he entered school, Robert gained the attention of the entire world. His parents were already well aware of the fact that he was going to be an unusually tall man but they vowed not to accept the many offers made to them by showmen who wanted to put their son on display. They understood that for him to have a career as a human oddity would make it so that he was incapable of a normal life. The Wadlows saw that Robert's friends and relatives, through regular contact with him, were able to forget about his size and to treat him as a regular person. This is what they wanted for him and eventually, what he wanted for himself. For the Wadlows, subjecting the boy to a life in which his height would be his livelihood seemed detrimental to his happiness.

Whether he was exhibited or not (and readers must remember that "freak shows" featuring giants, little people and more were common at this time), Robert often found himself in the limelight. He was often followed by doctors, promoters and fans. He became a regular visitor at the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where his case was studied and frequent measurements taken. After diagnosing his size to be caused by pituitary gigantism, doctors explained to his parents about a dangerous operation that could be attempted on his pituitary gland. They could do it, they explained, but didn't recommend it. It was simply too dangerous and because of this, it was never attempted.
Despite Robert's new celebrity, he attempted to live a normal life. He joined the Boy Scouts, ran a soft drink stand in front of his home and enjoyed most anything that average boys liked. He attended the local elementary schools and graduated from Alton High School. Throughout his short life, he was known for his very quiet, sedate manner and was called the "Gentle Giant".

Robert with two young women from college. 
Although Robert was a good student and from all accounts, a likable and remarkably well-adjusted young man, he began to realize that his dreams of a normal career were impractical. The idea of becoming an attorney appealed to him when he entered college, but on campus, he began to run into problems with his size. In 1936, he was 18 years old and stood eight feet, three-and-a-half inches tall. He found it hard to keep up with the other students when taking notes as even the biggest fountain pen was dwarfed by his massive hand. He also ran into trouble in the biology lab, where the delicate instruments were impossible for him to handle and use. His monumental size dominated his relationships with other students and new people that he met. A chair, an automobile and every object around him that was made for someone of average height posed a barrier to him. He was also plagued by the weather. When the ground was covered with ice, he had to gingerly work his way along, flanked by his friends, holding onto their shoulders as he walked. His weight was enormous and his bones fragile. If he fell, it could mean a long stay in the hospital, or worse.
Realizing that earning a living in a normal career was impossible to him, he turned to the only avenue that was offered, promotion and entertainment. For years, Robert's shoes had been specially made for him by the International Shoe Co. and the company agreed to not only supply Robert with shoes (which cost more than $150 per pair to make), but also to pay him to make appearances that promoted the company. He soon began traveling and appearing in the company's print and film advertising. Obviously, Robert's height was being exploited to draw large crowds, but he refused to think of it that way. He preferred to see the exhibitions as advertising work instead. He also began to think of this "advertising business" as a way into a new career for him.

One of the show company ads used to promote Robert’s appearances
By his next birthday, Robert had shot up another two inches in height and he found himself making quite a bit of money from his shoe promotion work. The idea struck him that he would open a shoe store of his own, or even a whole chain of them, which would serve as a career that did not involve exhibitions and freak shows. To do this however, he would need some seed money.

In 1937, Robert began making appearances for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Boston and New York. Many circus and carnival showman had approached Robert and his parents in the past about appearing in shows but the answer to them had always been an emphatic "no". The salary offer was very enticing, though, and as Robert had recently suffered some problems with his health, he decided to join the circus. One of his conditions was that the Ringling organization would provide a hotel suite for Robert and his father and take care of all of their expenses. He also maintained that he would not be a part of the circus sideshow, but would appear in the center ring of the show, three times each day.

In all of the appearances that Robert made, whether for the circus or promoting shoes, he always dressed in an ordinary business suit. He refused to wear tall shoes, a high hat or any of the other devices used by showmen to exaggerate his already tremendous height. He even objected to attempts by photographers to create the illusion of greater height by shooting at low angles to make him look taller. He attacked overblown press accounts - one widely circulated story stated that he ate four times the amount of a normal person - as "deliberate falsehoods". He turned his back on this but still managed to become a popular icon.

He continued to make more and more appearances, always accompanied by his father. He operated concessions at fairs, to the delight of the general public, where great crowds of people turned out to see him. He also developed an entertaining routine that he and his father used during their public appearances. Dr. Frederic Fadner, a professor at Shurtleff College in Alton, wrote the book The Gentleman Giant in 1944 and reproduced a joke that Robert's father often told at their appearances.

"The greatest trouble that I ever have with Robert," said Mr. Wadlow, "is trying to keep him from walking down the hallways in hotels and peeking over the transoms above the doors".

"Yeah, maybe, I did," Robert would admit, "but the only thing wrong with Dad was he got mad when I quit lifting him up for a peek."

Robert's refusal to cooperate with showmen often extended to doctors, many of which hounded the young man continuously. His father even stated that Robert was usually more concerned with how physicians would present him than how circus showmen would. In June 1936, Dr. Charles D. Humberd made an unannounced visit to the Wadlow home, requesting to see Robert. The young man, disheveled by a rain storm, was surprised to find Humberd sitting in his living room when he got home. The doctor became disgruntled when the family refused to cooperate fully with his requests for perform a physical examination and stormed out of the house.

The next February, an article by Dr. Humberd appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association that greatly upset and embarrassed the Wadlows and produced a deluge of telephone calls, letters and unwanted attention. The article, entitled "Giantism: Report of a Case", did not mention Robert by name but it did state that the subject was from Alton, Illinois, with the initials "R.W.". He was referred to as a specimen of "preacromegalic giant". The Wadlows understandably felt violated because, as they put it, they had not realized that any person in the name "of science had a right to come into a home, make whatever cursory observations he could, and then broadcast these observations to the world." Robert had always resisted being cast as a "freak" and he was also adamant about not being labeled as "sick" either. He wanted to be seen as a normal person, albeit a larger than ordinary one.

Robert was also extremely embarrassed by the way that he was described in the article, which noted that "his expression is surly and indifferent and he is definitely inattentive, apathetic and disinterested, unfriendly and antagonistic… his defective attention and slow responses hold for all sensory stimuli, both familiar and unexpected but he does manifest a rapid interest in seeing any memoranda made by the questioner. All functions that we attribute to the highest centers in the frontal lobes are languid and blurred."

Not only were these remarks insulting and humiliating, but from the descriptions of Robert's personality and intellectual talents given by his teachers, friends and those who knew him best, they were also grossly inaccurate. The comments were nothing more than a vindictive assault by an egotistical doctor who had been angry over Wadlows’ refusal to cooperate with him.

The Wadlows filed suit against Humberd and the American Medical Association, seeking damages for the article's libelous inaccuracies. Robert did not seek a large financial settlement but rather merely wanted to be vindicated from the published presentation. In the first legal hearing, the case was presented against Humberd in his home state of Missouri. The American Medical Association defended Humberd by providing him with two of their attorneys. Witnesses verified that the description that had been published of Robert was a blatant distortion of his condition but the case was lost on a technicality. The judge ruled that the doctor's observations might have been accurate on the day the young man was examined. The action against the American Medical Association never went to trial. After three years of legal maneuvering, it was dismissed after Robert passed away.

Unfortunately, even though he was never dressed in a giant suit or had to endure the barbs of the crowd who came to the see him at the freak show, the article served as a realization of Robert's worst fear -- he had been exhibited like a sideshow attraction.

Robert and his father continued to make personal appearances and to work with the Ringling operation. They traveled extensively, visiting 41 of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. They logged more than 300,000 miles and visited over 800 cities. Door frames, elevators, awnings and hanging lights still bedeviled the young man and to ride in an automobile, he almost had to fold himself in two. Three beds, turned crossways, provided him the only sleeping arrangements suitable in a hotel room.

Robert greeting the crowds during one of his appearances. 
In 1940, Robert reached his greatest height at eight feet, eleven-point-one inches. His weight was at a massive 490 pounds and he was forced to walk with a cane. He was traveling and making personal appearances throughout the year and on July 4 was in Manistee, Michigan at a lumbermen's festival. He and his father were scheduled to ride in a parade but at lunch, Mr. Wadlow noticed that Robert was not eating. Later, he complained that he didn't feel well but as their car was trapped in the parade route, it would be several hours before they could get to a doctor.

By the time the parade was over, Robert's condition had worsened and his father rushed him to the hospital. When they arrived, the doctors found that Robert was running a very high fever. He was wearing a new brace on his ankle and it had scraped through the flesh and had become infected. Robert never noticed because one of the consequences of his enormous size was that the sensation in his legs was defective. He would often be unaware of an object in his shoe or a wrinkle in his sock until a blister had formed and began causing him problems. In this case, the ankle had become seriously infected and the doctors insisted that Robert be admitted to the hospital. He refused but a nurse was stationed at his bed side, where he lay in great pain. The fevers and bouts of agony continued for the next several days and his mother was called. Finally, after 10 fever-wracked days, doctors performed an emergency surgery on his foot but it was too late. His temperature continued to rise, hovering near 106 degrees.

In the early morning hours of July 15, 1940, Robert Wadlow passed away in his sleep.

Robert's remains were returned to Alton and huge crowds came to the Streeper Funeral Home and lined the streets in his honor. A special casket was constructed for his body that was 10 feet long and 32 inches wide. The casket was too big to fit through the doors of the church, so the services were held at the funeral home. Robert was a Freemason and he was buried with full honors in a local cemetery. It required 12 pallbearers and an additional eight men to manage his casket.

Strangely, at Robert's request, special measures were taken to protect the coffin. At some point, Robert had read the story of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, and John Hunter, the anatomist who coveted his bones and had stolen his body to get them. He was not taking any chances with his own remains and so a thick shell of reinforced concrete was used to encase the coffin for eternity.

Over time, the city of Alton, Illinois has embraced Robert as a native son and local folk hero. Have a passing thought about this kind young man on his birthday and remember that no matter how much fame he achieved during his lifetime, it was a life that he considered only half-fulfilled. He would gladly have exchanged all of the money and attention for a single day of what he really wanted – an ordinary life.