Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Heaven's Gate!

Riding the Comet to Insanity

On this date, March 26, 1997, America was stunned with the news that a UFO cult in San Diego had committed mass suicide, convinced by their leader that they were going to join a UFO that was flying in the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet, which was then crossing the sky. Most who read of the bizarre cult were stunned that anyone could believe such things, but strange cults were nothing new – especially in California. It was in California that the infamous Jim Jones got his start, leading to a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. It was also in California that Charles Manson led his bloodthirsty “family” on a murder spree that effectively ended the peace-loving hippie movement of the 1960s – and still haunts us today.

Marshall Applewhite – Insane Heaven’s Gate leader
California – and Southern California area in particular – was filled with sects and churches in the early 1900s, with ministers like “Fighting Bob” Shuler and Aimee Semple McPherson gaining followers and garnering headlines, but they were far from alone. Starting at about the same time that the film industry discovered Hollywood and made its home among the palm trees, scores of “spookeries” and “fairy farms” began showing up, too.

Decades before the hippie movement made “free love” an international phenomenon, love cults flourished all over Southern California. The first word of them spread in the middle 1920s and began making news a few years later, like one “nest of love” on Santee Street where women were forced to “speak in tongues,” perform “devil dances,” and engage in “soul mating” with “spiritual husbands.”

In 1939, the High Priestess Regina Kuhl captured the attention of the authorities when she was caught indoctrinating male students at L.A. City College into her “Temple of Thelma.” The temple was  set up in the basement of one of the dorms and there, she would don robes, chant some suggestive passages from an Aleister Crowley book and “embrace the power of the lifted lance” – or more simply put, engage in sex with multiple partners.

In 1946, Henry “King Daddy” Newson was arrested for running his own sex camp called Ten Oaks. According to newspaper reports, he molested sixteen underage girls over the course of two years. In his defense, he claimed that he was teaching them the “beauty” of sexual intercourse. Several of the girls claimed that he controlled their minds through hypnosis.

The religious group known as the Blackburn Cult, the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or the Great Eleven Club, was started around 1925. The group’s founder, May Otis Blackburn, claimed to receive revelations directly from God and believed that she had been charged by the archangel Gabriel to write books that revealed the mystery of heaven and earth, life and death. Apparently, Gabriel thought the goal of teaching the earth should be accomplished though strange rituals that involved animal sacrifice, copious amounts of sex between followers of the cult, and by stealing thousands of dollars from naïve believers.

The horrible state of Willa Rhoads’ body after it was found beneath her parent’s house in 1929. (LAPD Crime Photo)

The cult began to fall apart in 1929 after police officers made a gruesome discovery at the home of the Rhoads family on Vermont Avenue. Under the floor of one of the bedrooms was a specially built, refrigerated “sleeping chamber” that contained the corpse of their 16-year-old daughter, Willa. The girl’s body was covered in spices and salt and was surrounded by seven dead dogs. The Rhoads later confessed that they had placed the girl in the tomb at the direction of May Otis Blackburn, who convinced them that she would be resurrected when the archangel Gabriel came to earth.
Group leaders were indicted later that year for theft and were also investigated in the disappearance of several members. The indictments made newspaper headlines when the strange rituals of the cult were revealed to the public. May Otis Blackburn was charged with 12 counts of grand theft and the cult collapsed after she was sent to prison for stealing $40,000 from group member Clifford Dabney.

Eerily foreshadowing the modern cult of Scientology (on which a religion is based on the writings of a science-fiction novelist) was the Mankind United sect, which was created by another science-fiction writer, Arthur Bell. During the height of the Great Depression, Bell penned a book called Mankind United, a turgid, repetitive text that was filled with bold type and large blocks of capitalized text. It told the story of a malevolent conspiracy that ran the world (the "Hidden Rulers" and "Money Changers") who were not only responsible for war, poverty and injustice – they were also aliens living on earth.

Opposing them was another group of aliens, the “Sponsors,” who had arrived on earth in 1875. According to Bell, the benevolent Sponsors were shortly going to announce their presence and would put in place a world-wide utopia, based on universal employment and a financial system based on credits. The workday would be four hours a day, four days a week. Needless to say, all of this sounded pretty good to tired, worn-out people who were struggling to put food on their tables.

In order for the Sponsors to put their plan into place, they had to receive massive support from the people. The plan would be promoted by the “Pacific Coast Division of North America, International Registration Bureau” – which was, of course, run by Arthur Bell. He announced that when 200 million people accepted the Mankind United plan, the Sponsors would overthrow their rival alien groups and, within 30 days, the new utopia would begin. 

Of course, there were no Sponsors, no evil aliens, and no “International Bureau.” The whole thing had been concocted by Bell and it never numbered more than a few thousand followers, if that. The only true beneficiary of the group was Bell, who had several luxurious apartments and mansions, including a swanky place on the Sunset Strip that had an indoor pool, a pipe organ, and a cocktail bar. Bell was spotted in all of the most swinging nightclubs and spent cash freely. He received about $50,000 a year in tax-free income, which adjusted for inflation would be the equivalent of nearly $1 million today. His followers, on the other hand, worked in various cult businesses full-time, including hotels and shops. They were paid less than $40 a month, worked up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week – which was quite a bit more than the utopian work week they had been promised in Bell’s book.  

The cult gained the attention of the authorities during World War II. Bell incorporated as a church (the Church of the Golden Rule) to obtain tax exemption and began making even more bizarre claims, such as the idea that he could be beamed to several different places at once, that the Sponsors had advanced technology that allowed the dead to be resurrected on other planets, and more. None of these turned out to be quite enough to gain popular support and in 1951, Bell’s group folded and the cult faded away completely. As some would later discover, though, he was simply a man ahead of his time. If he had started his church a few decades later, he might be able to count some of the biggest stars in Hollywood as his members.

One of the most famous cults in Southern California was Krishna Venta’s WKFL (for Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love) and it began as a quiet monastery in Canoga Park in 1948.

The Fountain of the World, as the group became known, first got the attention of the press in the 1940s and 1950s for its members’ habit of dressing in robes and going barefoot. Male members were required to grow beards and wear their hair long. The Fountain was marginally controversial because one of the requirements for membership was that one donate all his or her worldly assets to the group prior to joining. For most, this was irrelevant since they had very little to start with. 

The group was responsible for a multitude of positives, including fighting wildfires, offering shelter to those in need, and feeding the homeless. The group gained national exposure in 1949 when the newswires picked up the story that Fountain members had been among the first on the scene to offer aid to the victims of Standard Airlines Flight 897R, which had crashed into the Simi Hills, killing 35 of 48 persons onboard. Krishna Venta also taught his followers to set up free food services for the poor, offer free room and board to the homeless, and help emergency relief groups in times of need.

But things at the commune were stranger than most people knew. In addition to promoting charitable works, Venta also claimed that smoking was healthy, that human beings were evolved from aliens, that he was 244,000 years old and would never die (he did), that he arrived on earth in 1932 on Mount Everest, and led a convoy of rockets here from the extinct planet Neophrates. He also claimed that he was none other than Jesus Christ himself. To prove it, he liked to show his detractors that he had been born without a belly button, proof that he was Jesus, an alien, or something.

Krishna Venta had been born Francis Herman Penovic in 1911. He was married in 1937 and divorced seven years later. He was arrested in 1941 after sending a threatening letter to President Roosevelt.  Later, using the name Frank Jensen, he committed a series of crimes including burglary, larceny and kidnapping. He also spent a few months in a mental hospital. In 1948, he changed his name and founded his religion. He also got involved in the California legal system again when he was ordered to pay child support from 1945 to 1951. He claimed a religious exemption but the court ruled against him in 1955.

Venta died on December 10, 1958 in a suicide bombing instigated by two disgruntled former followers (Peter Kamenoff and Ralph Muller) who, although never offering any proof to support their claims, charged that Venta had both mishandled cult funds and been intimate with their wives. Krishna Venta is buried in Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank.  His grave is unmarked but near that of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame. A monument to Venta still exists in the canyon in Canoga Park where the commune once stood.

A branch of the Fountain of the World cult was also established in Homer, Alaska, in the years prior to Venta's death. Cult members were referred to as the “barefooters” by locals. But Fountain membership at both sites declined rapidly following Venta's death, and the cult ceased to exist entirely by the middle 1970s.

Undoubtedly, the strangest of the modern-day “alien” cults in Southern California was Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religion that was based out of San Diego and led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. At some point in the early 1970s, Applewhite became convinced that he was an alien who was transported to earth and reincarnated into the body of a man – named Marshal Applewhite. From that point on, he believed that it was his mission to teach everyone he came into contact with about the creed of transcendence. With the help of his partner, Bonnie Nettles, he gathered a number of followers and convinced them to give up everything that they owned (including their children) and to prepare themselves for the trip to the “Evolutionary Level Above Human.” Applewhite’s preparation included months of extreme psychological mind control experiments, starvation, and celibacy. Some cult members even went as far as to castrate themselves.

Although mostly unknown to the mainstream media, Heaven’s Gate was known in UFO circles and had been the subject of criticism by respected UFO writer Jacques Vallee. In Messengers of Deception, he described an unusual public meeting organized by the group and expressed concerns about many UFO contactee groups' authoritarian political and religious outlooks, including the views of Heaven’s Gate. 

The group's end coincided with the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide, which he claimed would allow their souls to board a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet. The cult believed that the planet Earth was about to be “recycled,” or wiped clean, and that the only chance they had to survive was to leave it immediately.

The Heaven’s Gate crime scene photos

On March 26, 1997, 38 members of the cult, along with Marshall Applewhite, were found dead in a rented mansion in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe. As the Hale-Bopp comet approached the earth, the group members drank citrus juice to ritually cleanse their bodies of impurities. The suicides were then accomplished by ingesting phenobarbital, mixed with vodka, and by tying plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. The cult members were found lying neatly on their bunk beds, their faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth – and plastic bags secured over their heads. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike athletic shoes, and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team."

Strange Tales of Southern California cults, weird murders and hauntings can be found in Troy Taylor’s book BLOODY HOLLYWOOD. It’s available in an autographed edition from the website or as a Kindle edition.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Triangle Fire!

History, Horror & Hauntings of America’s Worst Factory Fire!

On this date, March 25, 1911, a Manhattan sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, caught fire, claiming the lives of 148 people – mostly young women – in a matter of minutes. With doors locked to prevent theft and insufficient fire escapes, many of the workers jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the building, rather than risk being burned alive. The fire shocked the entire nation, changed safety rules forever – and left a haunting in its wake.

The Asch Building in Manhattan, 1911
The Asch building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, was a rather nondescript ten-story building. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, rented or subcontracted out the lower seven floors of the building to various other similar enterprises. They saved the eighth, ninth and tenth floors for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, which they operated to make ladies blouses, then known as shirtwaists.

Employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were not allowed to leave the building by the main doors. At the end of the work day they were required to go to the rear exit door, which was kept locked during the hours of operation for fear of theft. Here, the employees were routinely searched before leaving, lest they try to steal something. Since the young ladies who worked in the sweatshop only knew this one exit to get out in the event of a fire, terrible things occurred on these rear stairs.

March 25, 1911 was a Saturday and a fine day according to all accounts. Most sweatshop workers in the city were released by lunchtime for their Saturday half day-off, including those who worked on the lower seven floors of the Asch Building. However, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company kept most of their employees hard at work until 5:00 p.m. Most of the factory employees, nearly five hundred women and one hundred or so men, were at work that day. Most of the women were very young, aged sixteen to 23, and very few of them spoke English. They were largely Italian, German, Russian and Hungarian immigrants and many of them were the primary wage earners for their families. The men employed there worked mostly in the capacity of office workers and management.

Around 4:40 p.m., just ten minutes before the end of the workday, cries of “fire!” rang out on the eighth floor.  No one ever learned exactly how the fire started but most speculated that it was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette or match.

The scorched remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the deadly fire
Within a few minutes, flames were pouring from windows of the top three floors of the Asch building. Four fire alarms were sounded immediately but the fire was already so intense that the first five women to jump to their deaths did so before even the first fire truck had arrived.

Of the two elevators in the building, only one was in working order. A few minutes after the fire began, the only stairwell was full of flames and smoke, making it impossible to flee using that route. Thomas Gregory, an elevator operator from another building who was on his way home that day, ran into the building and made three more trips with the elevator before it broke down. He described leaving masses of terrified, panic-stricken people trying to fight their way onto the elevator but was only able to take fifteen or so people on each trip.
Even though the elevator was no longer operating, the shaft doors were forced open and several people attempted to escape by sliding down the elevator cables. At least two people were successful in their attempt. A young woman, later pulled from the shaft alive, said she passed out on her way down the cables and had no memory of what happened next but she believed that she survived because she landed on several of the dead bodies of her fellow workers, which cushioned her fall. Another man reported using the same cables to flee. Unfortunately, as he slid down, the body of a young woman falling from above, knocked him from the cables and he fell the final few floors. After the fire, 25 bodies were pulled from the bottom of the elevator shaft, many of whom had simply jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.

Both Harris and Blanck, the building’s owners, were in the building when the fire started, along with Blanck’s children and their nanny. All escaped by making their way to the roof, a means of escape that was not known to most of the factory workers. The doors to the roof were kept locked on all but the top floor.

There was little hope to rescue anyone from outside the building. The fire hoses were inadequate and the ladders would only reach to the sixth floor
About two hundred workers did eventually make their way to the roof, most of them from the tenth floor. The New York University Law School building was located just across a small courtyard but was one story higher. As the fire raged, several law students led by Charles Kremer and Elias Kanter rushed to the aid of the victims. They tied two short ladders together so that the victims could climb to the roof of their building. Kremer climbed down onto the lower roof to help them up the ladder, and in this way they were able to save one hundred and fifty men, women and girls. Kremer then made his way down into the tenth floor to look for more survivors. He saw only one young girl, her hair ablaze. She ran toward him screaming and then fainted in his arms. He put out her burning hair then carried her to safety, believing there to be no one else surviving left behind on that floor. Meanwhile, at the other end of the roof, about fifty people had gathered and were fighting to scale the five feet to the roof of the adjoining building. Several of the law students reported seeing men kicking and biting the women and girls, knocking them out of the way as they escaped to safety.

After the fire department arrived, many attempts were made to save trapped or falling victims. Unfortunately, their ladders only reached a little above the sixth floor. Several people tried to jump to the ladders but none were able to catch hold and all fell to their deaths. Safety nets were also employed but to little or no avail. The great height was just too much and many of the nets split or were shredded as bodies fell through them, crashing to the pavement. In one case, a young girl was caught in a net but three others who jumped just after, landed on her and all four toppled onto the ground, dead. A few bystanders tried to stretch blankets or tarps but the results were nearly all the same. The number of people saved in this manner could be counted on one hand. One woman fell with such force that she ripped through a safety net and crashed through the thick glass vault in the sidewalk, finally coming to rest in the basement of the building.

Several rescue workers were injured when falling bodies struck them. People were falling faster than the firefighters could get into position to try to catch them. The firefighters' rescue efforts were further hindered by the growing number of corpses strewn about the sidewalks, making it difficult for them to move the safety nets. The bodies were left lying where they fell until later that evening, as the firefighters were busy fighting the fire. It was believed none of those who had fallen could still be alive.

Scores of young women jumped to their deaths. The photo above became the “photo that changed factory safety forever” after it was widely circulated in newspapers across the country.

Below – some of the women struck the sidewalks with such force that they broke through to building basements below.
A few hours later, however, a young woman was pulled from a pile of bodies, still breathing. A great cheer arose as she was loaded into an ambulance. Sadly, though, she died a few minutes later.

As the upper floors of the building burned, a crowd of thousands, gathering in the streets below bore witness to the carnage that was unfolding before them. They screamed in horror as they watched, helpless. Many eyewitness reports of the tragic deaths of the people who fell to their deaths from the windows of the Washington Place and Greene Street sides soon followed. Some jumped, some were thrown or pushed and others were forced out by the panic-stricken crowds shoving their way toward the windows. A majority of those who fell did so with burning clothing and hair. Some continued to burn as they lay on the sidewalk until they were extinguished by the water dripping down from the fire hoses, their blackened bodies left lying there until late in the evening.

Five young women on the Greene Street side of the building climbed out onto the windowsill, wrapped their arms around each other and jumped together. They crashed through the sidewalk cover into the basement, their clothes and hair burning as they fell. Another girl leaped very far out but her dress got tangled up in some wires and she was left suspended high above as the crowd watched, unable to help. Eventually, her dress burned through and she fell to her death. A man on the same side was seen from an adjacent building, running from window to window picking up women and throwing them out the windows. Eventually, when no other women were left, he himself climbed onto the ledge, paused a moment then jumped. It was never known if he believed that there would be nets to catch them or if he was trying to shorten their suffering.

A young girl of about thirteen was seen hanging by her fingertips from a ninth-floor windowsill for a few minutes. Then the fire reached her fingers and she fell into a waiting net, only to be crushed by two other women who fell immediately after her, adding all three to the death list.

Some of the girls who jumped from the Washington Place side crashed through the vault light in the sidewalk.  As women continued to fall or jump from the same window, their bodies eventually created a hole nearly five feet in diameter. Later in the evening, firefighters pulled several partially nude and burned bodies from this hole.

Another pair of girls climbed out of a window on the ninth floor, overlooking Greene Street. The older of the two seemed calm and composed as she tried to subdue the younger girl as she “shrieked and twisted with fright.”  As the crowd called to them not to jump, the older girl wrapped her arms around her and pulled her back toward the building. The younger girl, in her panic, twisted free, took a few steps away and then she jumped. The older girl remained standing on the ledge until the flames came so close that her hair was scorched. She looked skyward, placed her arms to her sides, and jumped straight down, feet first. Her name was Bertha Weintrout and she was the girl who was later found alive, if only for a few minutes, buried amid a pile of corpses on the sidewalk. 

Six girls, after getting to a window on the ninth floor made their way out onto an eight-inch-wide ledge that ran the length of the building. Slowly, they edged their way along this ledge, more than one hundred feet above the ground, toward a swinging electric cable. When all had arrived, they grabbed the cable simultaneously in an attempt to swing to the safety of the adjacent building. The cable snapped as they swung out and all six perished below.

A few windows down, on the same floor, a man and a woman appeared on the sill. The man kissed, then hugged the woman, threw her to the street and jumped himself. Both were killed. Just around the corner, from another window, a young girl, a man and a woman, and two other women with their arms wrapped around each other leaped to the ground together. The young girl was found alive after her fall and was rushed to the hospital where she died upon arrival.

A small group of men tried to make a human bridge between the burning building and the window of another building. They were successful in saving a number of women but eventually the weight of the women became too great and the bridge broke, the center man tumbling to the ground with a broken back.

The fire was extinguished within an hour and by 7:00 p.m., less than two hours after it started, firefighters were able to force their way up the stairs and into the burned floors. They reported that, “50 roasted bodies were found on the ninth floor alone.” The charred bodies of nineteen victims were found piled against locked doors and 25 more were found huddled together in a cloakroom. Each body, as it was found, was carefully lifted from the burned surroundings, wrapped in cloth and hoisted to the ground using a pulley system. They were then taken to one of a hundred wooden coffins lining the street. The bodies were then moved to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital or the Charities Pier morgue.

One unnamed reporter wrote in the New York Times that the “...remains of the dead, it is hardly possible to call them bodies, because that would suggest something human, and there was nothing human about most of these, were being taken in a steady stream to the morgue for identification.” Fire Chief Edward F. Croker, one of the first men to reenter the building following the fire left the building in obvious distress, stating that in all his years, he had never seen anything like what he had seen on those upper floors. 

The police estimated that as many as 200,000 people; devastated family and friends, as well as the morbidly curious public, entered the makeshift morgue at the pier and filed past the over one hundred wooden coffins containing bodies that had been recovered. They walked past the bodies that were at least partially recognizable in the hope of finding a lost loved one. Tens of thousands were turned away by the police in an attempt to keep more of the general public away. Over forty human forms too badly burned to be recognizable, were covered with a white canvas tarp with the hope that they might be identified through trinkets, jewelry or articles of clothing.

Thousands came to view the bodies and to try and identify the dead. Many became hysterical and even attempted suicide on the spot.  

Stories of unbelievable anguish were published in newspapers across the county. A young girl was identified by a family heirloom signet ring found clinging to the charred flesh of a badly burned body. A young woman screamed as she collapsed after identifying her fiancé by his ring, having become engaged only the night before. She asked if a watch had been found with his body. When she was given the watch, she opened it and “gazed upon her own portrait.”  A man, having waited in line for over five hours, identified his daughters by their clothing. After collapsing with grief, he attempted to kill himself on the spot. He was restrained by police until he calmed down enough to continue looking for his wife, also lost in the fire. A man with a fresh burn on his cheek, identified his brother. He told the police that he and his brother had fought the fire, standing side by side, with buckets of water. A man who had barely escaped with his own life identified his fiancée by her engagement ring. In her hand, she still clutched her handbag, her weekly wages of $3 remained inside, intact. A sobbing brother stumbled away from the mangled bodies of his two sisters left propped up in their coffins to search for their mother. The fire took his entire family.

As a growing number of people became hysterical or suicidal, a makeshift hospital was set up at the pier to deal with this unexpected problem. Doctors and nurses from Bellevue Hospital worked for days trying to help keep these grieving family members from being added to the list of lives stolen by the fire.
Thirty-one victims remained unidentified after the last of the survivors claimed their family and friends. The Hebrew Free Burial Association paid for the burial of 23 of these victims in a special section of Mount Richmond Cemetery. The remaining eight bodies were interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.
As the blaze began, the only safety measures within the Asch Building available to those still inside were 27 buckets of water and one fire escape that collapsed almost immediately.  Most of the exits were locked and those that weren’t, opened inward so they remained closed under the crush of people pushing toward the doors.

It was not the 95 charred bodies found inside the building that so outraged the public, but rather the heaps of bodies along the sidewalk and rows of mostly young girls lying dead in the street. By the end, 53 people had jumped, fallen or were pushed from the upper floors and thousands of people were there to witness each one of them fall and strike the pavement. The average age of those killed in the fire was nineteen. The public outrage was carried like a wave across the country as reports and pictures of the tragedy appeared in newspapers everywhere.

The resulting public pressure proved to be too much to overcome and dramatic changes were in store for the existing fire codes and their enforcement in the workplace. The New York State Legislature formed the “Factory Commission” in 1911, which developed many requirements linked directly back to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire such as all exit doors must be left unlocked during operating hours and sprinklers were to be installed if a factory employed more than 25 people. The memories of the young women who perished in that terrible fire resulted in a major change in the way many people thought about protecting workers. Prior to the fire, the government left businesses alone regarding the safety of their workers. Afterwards, the government had little choice but to begin instituting sweeping safety laws that changed history for American workers.

In the end, no one was held accountable for the Triangle deaths. In December of 1911, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Asch Building owners and Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners were charged and tried for manslaughter.  Despite a mob of people outside the courthouse chanting “Murderers! Murderers!” the two were acquitted of all charges by the jury after only two hours of deliberation. Twenty-three individual civil suits for damages against the company were settled for an average of $75 per life lost.

Blanck and Isaac completed their association with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory by filing an insurance claim in excess of their losses, garnering them a profit from the fire of more than $60,000 -- a hefty sum in 1911. Blanck continued on in the clothing manufacturing business. He opened another factory on Fifth Avenue. In 1913, just two years after the Triangle fire, he was arrested for locking the exit door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.

The Asch Building still stands at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, but its name has been changed to the Brown Building. No longer are the floors of that building home to sweatshops employing poor and desperate immigrant women and girls, overworked and underpaid. Today, the Brown Building is full of young university science students as it has become a part of the New York University as a science lab -- the same university that was located next door and provided a means of escape to nearly one hundred and fifty people fleeing the fire with the aid of many of the students.

On the corner of the building a plaque has been placed, commemorating the tragic events that took place on that site on March 25, 1911, and the lives lost that day. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire continues as a turning point in United States history.

There are other reminders of the fire for those who pay close enough attention. Even though the use of the building and the occupants have changed dramatically, bits and pieces of its history still linger, many of these believed to be supernatural.  It is not uncommon for the smell of smoke to waft through the halls of the upper floors and more than once fire warnings have passed through the building. On occasion, people have reported a different kind of odor accompanying the smell of smoke. This odor can only be described as that of burning flesh -- then the odors simply disappear as quickly as they began. 
Often, doors that are supposed to be locked are found unlocked, sometimes within minutes of being locked!  Could it be that the spirit of someone lost in the fire is trying to keep the current occupants from meeting the same tragic fate by being trapped behind a locked door in an emergency?

A few people over the years have described a most peculiar experience. While sitting at a desk or workstation they have seen, out of the corner of their eye, something large flutter downward past their window. Upon going to the window to look down and see what it was, there is nothing there. 

The most striking ghostly experience was related by “Susan” (not her real name), a secretary who worked in the building for many years. She explained that she had been working later than usual one evening and by the time she left to go home, most of the other employees and students had already left. As she walked out of the building, she noticed a young woman walk past her with a slight stagger and a dazed look on her face. She was very dirty and her hair and clothes appeared to be singed or burned. Susan called to her to see if she needed help but the young woman didn’t respond; she just kept walking and turned the corner. Susan, thinking that the woman might be injured or in trouble, ran after her but upon turning the corner, she was met by an empty sidewalk. The young woman had simply vanished.

We will never know for sure if these occurrences are directly related to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. However, it does appear that the most important thing is that we never forget what happened there, nor the lessons learned.  We may even get a little reminder now and then --- just to make sure.

This is an excerpt by Rene Kruse from a story that appears in the book AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse. It’s available as a print edition from the website and it’s also available in Kindle and Nook editions.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Down to the Banana Republics

Occupations by the U.S. Military are Nothing New

On this date, March 21, 1907, the United States Marines invaded the country of Honduras – yes, you read that correctly, Honduras. It was just one of the many countries in which we found ourselves during what came to be called “The Banana Wars,” a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions involving the United States in Central America and the Caribbean. It was during the Honduras occupation that journalist O. Henry dubbed the region the “Banana Republics,” a moniker that stuck.

The Banana Wars began with our invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War and lasted until 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally pulled us out of Haiti with his “Good Neighbor Policy.” Up until that time, we’d been anything but good neighbors, using military might to enforce America’s business interests in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

Of course, the U.S. would never do anything like that today….. Right? So, for anyone who thinks playing policeman to the world is something new, take a look at the history of the early twentieth century.

US Marines with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua in 1932
The Banana Wars of the early twentieth century were fought almost entirely because of money, which explained the name that were given to the various conflicts. The military was preserving the American commercial interests in the region. The United Fruit Company, one of the largest companies in the U.S. at the time, had significant financial stakes in production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and various other products throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Northern South America. The U.S. was also advancing its political interests, maintaining a sphere of influence and controlling the Panama Canal which it had recently built, which was critically important to global trade and naval power.

The conflicts that made up the Banana Wars included:

·        *  The Spanish-American War, which saw our invasions of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898.

·         * Panama: U.S. intervention in Panama dated back to the Watermelon War of 1856 but in 1903, Panama seceded from the Republic of Colombia, backed by the U.S. government, during what was called the Thousand Days War. The Panama Canal was under construction by then, and the Panama Canal Zone, under United States sovereignty, was then created.

·         * Nicaragua: After intermittent landings and naval bombardments in the previous decades, was occupied by the U.S. almost continuously from 1912 through 1933.

·         * Haiti: Occupied by the U.S. from 1915 to 1934. This period led to the creation of a new Haitian constitution in 1917. It instituted some interesting changes for the country, including an end to the ban that prohibited land ownership by non-Haitians – which was, of course, important to the fruit companies who wanted to snatch up prime real estate.

·         * Dominican Republic: Action began in this country in 1903 and 1904 and resulted in a U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1924.

·         * Mexico: In this country, military operations were of a different nature. While some of them were commercial incursions, we conducted the Border War with Mexico from 1910-1919 for additional reasons: to control the flow of immigrants and refugees from revolutionary Mexico, and to counter rebel raids into U.S. territory. The 1914 U.S. occupation of Veracruz, however, was aimed at cutting off the supplies of German munitions to the government of Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta, whom US President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize. In the years prior to World War I, the U.S. discovered that the Germans were actively arming and advising the Mexicans. Only twice during the Mexican Revolution did the U.S. military occupy Mexico; during the temporary occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and between the years 1916 and 1917, when General John Pershing and his army came to Mexico to lead a nationwide search for Pancho Villa.

While Mexico was a different situation, Honduras was another situation altogether. The first decades of Honduras history were marked by instability in terms of politics and economy. In fact, there were 210 armed conflicts between independence and the rise of a stable government – conflicts all attributed to American involvement in the country.

The conflicts began after the Standard Fruit Company signed an agreement with the Honduran government. The Cuyamel Fruit Company followed their lead, followed by the United Fruit Company, which also owned the two major railroads in the country. This was a standard way of doing business in a “Banana Republic.” It meant grabbing a piece of land in exchange for the operation of the railroads – in other words, extorting them into a business exchange. The goal of a contract was to control the process from production to distribution of the bananas. Therefore, the companies would finance war guerrillas, presidential campaigns and governments. When the American companies got into trouble, the U.S. Marines were called, which made the country’s armed conflicts even worse.

All of the Banana War military interventions were carried out by the United States Marine Corps. The Marines were called in so often that they developed a Small Wars Manual, The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars in 1921.

Perhaps the single most active military officer in the Banana Wars was U.S. Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, who saw action in Honduras in 1903, served in Nicaragua enforcing American policy from 1909–1912, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in Veracruz in 1914, and a second Medal of Honor for bravery in Haiti in 1915. In 1935, Butler wrote in his famous book War Is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Frank Nitti's Last Walk

The Death of the Man Dubbed “Capone’s Enforcer”

On the evening of March 19, 1943, a lone figure walked out of his home in Riverside, Illinois, and began strolling along the streets of the quiet neighborhood. It was a cool, early spring night and the man seemed to have not a care in the world as he walked along, his hands tucked into his pockets and a soft whistle on his lips. His casual manner gave no hint to the turmoil he felt inside. Or that he had a loaded handgun weighting down the pocket of his coat.

The man left the street and began walking along the Illinois Central Railroad tracks that ran west of Harlem Avenue and around Cermak Avenue. He carefully picked his way over the railroad ties and walked along until the shadows seemed to envelope him. Darkness was just beginning to fall and this seemed as good a time as any for one last look at the world. The man took the gun from his pocket and raised it to his head. His hand began to tremble as he squeezed the trigger and then a deafening roar filled his ears and echoed in the stillness of the city around him.

When the first shot was fired, railroad workers who were doing routine maintenance a little father up the line, looked up to see the walking man. His hands shook as he held the pistol and a thin ribbon of smoke curled from its barrel. The gun had been aimed at his head but the first shot had somehow missed. One of the railroad men started to call out to the man as he saw him calmly lift the gun again. Before the words could leave the railroader's lips, the man pulled the trigger again. This time, when the gun went off, the bullet did not miss. It blew apart the top of the man's head and he stumbled over the railroad ties and collapsed against the fence that ran next to the tracks. Blood began to seep into the grass, looking black in the fading light.

Frank Nitti, once thought of as one of the most powerful men in Chicago and an enforcer for Al Capone, lay dead on the ground, slain by his own hand.

Frank Nitti
Frank Nitti (or Nitto, which was the preferred family spelling) was a man of mystery. Intensely private and quiet, he is only scarcely remembered today as being part of the legendary Capone gang. If not for the television series based on the exploits of Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables," it's possible that he would only be known to the most dedicated gangster buffs and researchers and not to the general public at all. Nitti was a small man but one with incredible will. He maintained discipline in the ranks and acted as Capone's enforcer and troubleshooter. He was also one of the only gangsters in the organization who never used an assumed name, which got him into trouble when investigators discovered a check he had endorsed. This put him into prison for eighteen months in the early 1930s, an experience that had a lasting effect on him.

Nitti was born on January 27, 1881 in the small town of Angri, in the province of Salerno, Campania, Italy. He was the second child of Luigi and Rosina Nitto. His father died when Frank was very young and a year later his mother married Francesco Dolendo. In July 1890, Dolendo emigrated to American and the rest of the family followed in June 1893 when Nitti was 12. They settled at 113 Navy Street in Brooklyn and Frank worked numerous odd jobs to help support the family. He left school in the seventh grade and worked as a bowling alley pinsetter, a factory worker and a barber. Al Capone’s family lived nearby but the Capone brothers were much too young to be known to Nitti.

Frank left home at age 19, unhappy with his stepfather, and wanting to make it on his own. Starting in 1900, he worked in a number of factories and finally, in 1910, he left Brooklyn. Little is known about his life over the course of the next few years but he probably moved to Chicago around 1913, working as a barber and making the acquaintance of gangsters Alex Louis Greenberg and Dion O'Banion.

He married a woman from Chicago, Rosa Levitt, in Dallas, Texas, on October 18, 1917. The couple's movements after their marriage remain uncertain. He is known to have become a partner in the Galveston crime syndicate run by "Johnny" Jack Nounes and is reported to have stolen a large sum of money from Nounes and mobster Dutch Voight, after which Nitti returned to Chicago. By 1918, he had moved into an apartment at 914 South Halsted Street. He soon renewed his contact with Greenberg and O'Banion, becoming a jewel thief, liquor smuggler, and fence. Through his liquor smuggling activities, Nitti came to the attention of Chicago crime boss John Torrio and, later, to his successor, Al Capone. 

Under Capone, Nitti gained a fearsome reputation as an enforcer. Originally working as a bodyguard, Capone began tasking Nitti with the planning and execution of some of the gang’s most notable assassinations, like that of Hymie Weiss in 1926. He also ran Capone's liquor smuggling and distribution operation, importing whisky from Canada and selling it through a network of speakeasies around Chicago. Known as one of Capone’s top captains, he was trusted for his leadership and business skills but he never wanted leadership of the gang.

However, after Capone went to prison, newspaper reporters began looking for a new face for the head of the organization and somehow, Nitti ended up as that man. While an efficient organizer under Capone, it had been his job to make sure that Capone's orders had been carried out, not to give them himself. Nitti was only supposed to be a member of the board of directors of the new Outfit, not the man in charge. When Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky established their national crime syndicate, they dealt with Paul "The Waiter" Ricca as the leader of the Chicago mob and not with Nitti.

However, Ricca and the others used Nitti's high profile with the press to keep the heat off the real inner workings of the Outfit. He became a valuable man to take the heat. Chicago mayor Anton Cermak even dispatched his own police "hit men" to try and take out Nitti so that he could replace him with other gangsters who kept him on the payroll.

On December 19, 1932, a team of Chicago police, headed by Detective Sergeants Harry Lang and Harry Miller, raided Nitti's office in Room 554 of the LaSalle Building. Lang shot Nitti three times in the back and neck. He then shot himself in the finger to make the shooting look like self-defense, claiming that Nitti had shot him first. Nitti was badly wounded during the attempt on his life. He lingered near death for a time, but recovered only to end up standing trial for the shooting of one of the cops during the gun battle. Court testimony claimed that the murder attempt was personally ordered by newly elected Mayor Anton Cermak, who supposedly wanted to eliminate the Outfit in favor of Ted Newberry, who had taken over the remnants of the O’Banion/Moran mob, and redistribute the Capone territories. During the trial, Miller testified that Lang received $15,000 to kill Nitti. Another uniformed officer who was present at the shooting testified that Nitti was shot while unarmed. Nitti’s trial ended with a hung jury. Harry Lang and Harry Miller were both fired from the police force and each fined $100 for assault. This was not the end of story, though. Most believe that Nitti managed to get his revenge on Cermak a few months later.

On February 15, 1932, Cermak was shot in Bayfront Park in Miami. Cermak was on the reviewing stand and, after President-elect Franklin Roosevelt made a short speech from an open car, he waved over Cermak to join him. As Roosevelt's car was about to start, shots rang out and Cermak and four others were hit. They were shot by a man named Giuseppe Zangara, whose intention had been to kill the president.

Cermak was rushed to the hospital, where he died a short time later. As he was taken away by ambulance, Cermak was supposed to have said to the president, "I am glad that it was me instead of you." They became the most famous words that Cermak ever uttered -- or they would have been, if he had really said them. A reporter who was there that day, Ed Gilbreth, stated that the phrase was created by William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald-American to make a good headline and sell papers. Cermak never said anything before he died.

Although some words uttered by another reporter who was standing nearby might have provided more of a clue in the shooting than officials would admit. Just as the shots rang out, a reporter who was nearby allegedly joked to Cermak, "Just like Chicago, eh Mayor?" Rumors have persisted ever since the shooting that Cermak had not been an accidental target that day.

As the IRS began cracking down on the mob, Nitti served prison time for an income tax charge related to a check that was discovered bearing his name. In spite of this, he stayed out of the newspapers until November 1940, when he was indicted for influencing the Chicago Bartenders and Beverage Dispensers’ Local of the AFL. Nitti was accused of putting mob members into positions of power in the union and then forcing the sale of beer from mob-owned breweries. The trial rested on the testimony of one man, George McLane, the president of the union. He allegedly was forced to follow Nitti's orders but the pressure got to him and he went to the authorities and explained what the mob was doing. McLane was all set to testify until two mob soldiers showed up at his door and told him that if he talked in court, his wife would be mailed to him in small pieces. When the day came, McLane pleaded for his right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and the case was dropped.

The heat was on Nitti again in 1943 during what came to be called the "Hollywood Extortion case." After Bioff and Browne decided to talk, indictments were brought against Nitti, Paul Ricca and several others. A meeting was called at Nitti's home in Riverside and Ricca decided that it was the perfect time to take advantage of Nitti's perceived top position in the mob. He ordered Nitti to plead guilty in the extortion case and to take the rap for everyone. He would be taken care of when he got out, as long as he kept his mouth shut while he was inside.

But there was no "inside" for Nitti. He refused to go back to prison. His earlier jail time had so traumatized the gangster that he now had a terrible fear of small, confined spaces. He urged Ricca to come up with another plan or to allow some of the others to share the responsibility with him. Ricca was enraged and demanded that Nitti be a "stand-up guy." When Nitti still refused, Ricca told him that, "he was asking for it." Nitti took these words to mean his death sentence but he simply couldn't face another stretch in prison. He made a last-ditch effort to try and bribe the prosecutor in the case, M.F. Correa, but his attempt was coldly rebuffed.

Frank Nitti’s last photo – dead along the railroad tracks, slain by his own hand. 

So, on March 19, the day after the meeting, Frank Nitti placed a gun in his pocket and went for one last stroll through his neighborhood. When he made it as far as the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, his journey came to an end -- or did it?

Nitti was laid to rest in Mount Carmel Cemetery, not far from the grave of Al Capone. The stone is marked with his family name of “Nitto” and bears a direct and ominous inscription: "There is no life except by death." Many believe that Nitti does not rest there in peace.

For years, it has been a local legend in the North Riverside and Forest Park areas that the ghost of Frank Nitti still walks along the railroad tracks where he committed suicide back in 1943. There are many who claim to have not only sensed his last anguished moments but who also state that they have seen the eerie figure of a man here, as well. The figure often appears along the railroad tracks at Cermak Avenue and begins walking west, plainly visible under the harsh lights of a nearby shopping center.

The lonely tracks, isolated from the nearby toy store, restaurants and shopping centers, remain as mute testament to the place where a once powerful man’s life was finally broken. There is no question that Frank Nitti deserved to be brought to justice for the lives that he ruined and ended before their time – but we also have to wonder what demons could drive a man to take his own life when his religious beliefs would surely condemn him to hell. If such demons could push a man to suicide, then perhaps they might also keep him on this earth, doomed to relive his final moments over and over again.

The story of Frank Nitti – and other Chicago mobsters and ghost stories – can be found in my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, which is available in print from the website or as a Kindle edition.