Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Walpurgisnacht -- Halloween's Diabolical Cousin

Halloween’s Diabolical Cousin

According to occult tradition, there was once a single night of the year when evil women gathered on a demon-haunted mountain, with the denizens of Hell, and worshipped Satan, danced naked around a bonfire and engaged in a supernatural orgy – it was Walpurgisnacht, or the Eve of St. Walpurga, which occurs every year on April 30. According to pagan lore, it is the one night of the year when “evil has full sway over the world.”

The dark festival takes its name from Walpurga of Devon, England, a convent leader from the 700s who was canonized as the patron saint of rabies. Though far from as popular as its eerie cousin, Halloween, Walpurgisnacht has cast a shadow over many works of Gothic art, literature and music from the night Bram Stoker chose for Jonathan Harker to meet Dracula to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

An old postcard of Walpurgisnacht 
To understand the significance of Walpurgisnacht, we also have to understand the druidic Samhain, known today as Halloween. Samhain was the solstice festival that celebrated the start of the darkest months of the year: winter. That meant that the days got shorter, food supplies dwindled and sickness and death lay ahead. This meant that the season’s conclusion called for a ritual festival to commemorate and end to that darkness, which the druids called Beltane – a spring ritual that took place six months after Samhain. Beltane spread with the druids across Europe and eventually found a home in Germany. However, around 800 A.D. Christianity also arrived in Germany with Charlemagne and many things that the pagans believed in from Wotan [a.k.a. Odin], the other gods, the burning of the dead and other things became forbidden under penalty of death. However, some of their celebrations survived, named the one held on April 30.

But – as with some many other festivals co-opted by the Church – Beltane was replaced with a day of veneration on the following morning: the Feast of St. Walpurga (an equivalent to All Saints Day). And just like with All Saints Day, the Feast of St. Walpurga proved to be much less interesting than Beltane. For this reason, Walpurgisnacht – the night before the Feast – haunted Germany long after its intended replacement was started and continued to symbolize the end of a long darkness for the people. But how dark was this final night?

A gathering of witches on Walpurgisnacht
 There are many different opinions about what took place on Walpurgisnacht, but most agree that it was some sort of witch’s Sabbath. It’s been said that witches dance naked around a bonfire before copulating with demons. Others stated that it was a Black Sabbath during which witches flew on broomsticks to a secret location where they were joined by the Devil to worship. Most of the folklore in Germany was situated around the tallest mountain in Northern Germany, known as the Brocken – “the father of mountains.” On the summit of the giant, craggy peak are two formations called the Witches’ Altar (Hexenaltar) and Devil’s Pulpit (Teufelskanzel). The region has inspired a number of horrific tales and even the surrounding plateau has stories of its own – so many that it’s known as the Witches’ Dance Floor (Hexentanzplatz). It’s said that the region is named after a fleet of witches on broomsticks scared off a battalion of Frankish soldiers who were occupying the area. Ancient ruins dot the landscape and many of them, like the Pagan Wall (Heidenwall – built between 750 and 450 B.C.) offer proof to many of occult activity in the region’s past.

Occultist Anton LaVey was inspired to found his Church of Satan on Walpurgisnacht
Goethe, who set the first act of his famous play Faust on the Brocken during Walpurgisnacht, wasn’t the only one inspired by it. Famed occultist Anton LaVey was so taken by the celebration that he established his Church of Satan on April 30, citing Walpurgisnacht as one of the most important satanic holidays. On the other side of the coin, the famous “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in Disney’s animated 1940 film Fantasia was based on a phenomenon called the Brocken Specters (Brockengespenster). The Brocken Specters are giant, diffracted shadows created by anyone going above the cloud line of the Brocken. These confusing shades were dangerous to mountain climbers, especially when mist encircled the mountain, sometimes causing men to fall to their deaths. The phenomenon makes it seem as if an enormous figure is stalking you, which gave rise to the belief that ghosts and demons were haunting the Brocken – and not just on Walpurgisnacht.

Today, Walpurgisnacht continues to be celebrated in Germany, in many other European countries and in America among Satanists, pagans and occult practitioners. Many still see it as a sacred holiday and the last night of evil before the months of warmth and light control the world. In many locations, towns are decorated with witch and devil dolls, people dress in costumes, bonfires are lit, a lot of beer is consumed and costumed enthusiast party late into the night. Don’t miss your chance to revel on this last night of darkness – and lift a glass or two for me while you’re at it! Happy Walpurgisnacht!

A modern Walpurgisnacht celebration

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Man who Murdered the Assassin

The Enigmatic Boston Corbett – killer of John Wilkes Booth

On this date, April 26, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was surrounded by federal troops in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia and shot to death. Legends persisted for decades – starting almost from the time the fatal shot was fired and continuing to this day --- that Booth was not the man who died in that barn. Allegedly, he lived on for many years, only to eventually die in Enid, Oklahoma… but that’s a story for another time (see my book INTO THE SHADOWS).

For this anniversary of Booth’s accepted death, we will be taking a closer look at the man who killed him – a very strange gentleman named Boston Corbett, who may have been part of a larger conspiracy himself.

Boston Corbett is largely considered to have been the Jack Ruby of his day – the man who killed the killer of the President of the United States. Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail was witnessed by reporters, police officers and a national television audience. But Boston Corbett’s shooting of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865, at a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia was hardly witnessed by anyone – and it attracted controversy from the beginning. While he was celebrated for a short time as Booth’s killer, his real place in the Lincoln assassination remains in question after all of these years.

Sergeant Boston Corbett had been assigned to Lieutenant Edward Doherty, one of the Federal officers that had been given the task of tracking down Lincoln’s assassin. The soldiers found several witnesses who recognized Booth and eventually discovered sympathizer Willie Jett, who had arranged lodging for Booth at the tobacco farm where he was later discovered.

Boston Corbett

It was Corbett who fired the fatal bullet that killed Booth and it is at this point that many conspiracy theories about him begin. Among the theories is the idea that Corbett was under different orders than the other soldiers. Some believe he was actually told to silence Booth so that Edwin Stanton could not be implicated in a plot against the president. It is unlikely that this was the case, however, as Corbett is not believed to have had contact with Stanton before leaving Washington. He did act on orders to kill Booth, however, if not orders from government officials, then from a higher authority.

He shot Booth on direct orders from God.

He was born Thomas H. Corbett in London in 1832 and immigrated with his parents to Troy, New York seven years later. As a young man in the 1850s, Corbett went into the hat-making industry at a time when the dire occupational hazards of the trade had yet to be discovered. As he worked, he was exposed to large quantities of mercury, which often caused insanity (thus, the expression “mad as a hatter”). The inescapable inhaling of the vapors from the mercury affected the brain and caused hallucinatory episodes, twitches and tics and outright psychoses and his work as a hat-maker was certainly the root of Boston Corbett’s madness.

He worked in the trade in Troy and Albany, in Richmond, Virginia and in Boston and New York City for several years. He is said to have married during this period, losing his wife and a baby during childbirth. After this tragedy, he became homeless and began drinking. He eventually strayed into religion after attending a revival meeting in New York.

In 1857, while working in Boston, Corbett was baptized, apparently into the Methodist Church, and the experience so moved him that he adopted the name of the city where he found his faith as his own. He was by now a local eccentric. He wore his hair long because images of Jesus showed him with long locks and he preached to any passerby who paused in curiosity.

Corbett’s religious fanaticism, loud but harmless, took a violent turn in the summer of 1858. After a revival meeting at a Boston church, he was propositioned on the street by two prostitutes. The experience so disturbed him that he returned to the boarding house where he lived and castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital from the middle of July to the first weeks in August for his self-inflicted wound.

What happened to Boston Corbett over the course of the next two years is unknown, but at some point, he returned to New York and in April 1861, enlisted as a private in Company I, Twelfth New York Militia. Behavioral problems marred his record from the start. They began when he heard Colonel Butterfield, commander of the militia regiment, using profanity toward his new recruits. Corbett reprimanded the Colonel for using the Lord’s name in vain and for this, was marched off to the guardhouse. A few days later, Butterfield offered to release him if he apologized, but Corbett refused.

Corbett later re-enlisted, this time in Company L, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, where he was promoted to corporal and later rose to the rank of sergeant. This was in spite of the numerous disciplinary problems that he had over his demand that officers not use profanity and his condemnation of fellow soldiers who drank. New York cavalrymen remembered their odd comrade for his periodic punishment tours where he carried a knapsack filled with bricks around the guardhouse but his commanders saw him as a fierce and resolute fighting man. He fought bravely in battle, although his odd and erratic behavior often made his superiors wary of using him for some assignments.

 In June 1864, Confederate raiders under John Singleton Mosby cornered a squad of Union troopers, including Corbett, at Culpepper Courthouse in Virginia. Corbett refused to surrender, found cover and opened fire on Mosby and his twenty-six raiders. He only gave up after his ammunition ran out. Mosby was impressed.

Corbett and his comrades were sent to the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia and endured five months of incarceration there, three of them in an outdoor compound. He was released during a prisoner exchange in November 1864 and was sent to an Army hospital in Maryland to recover from exposure, malnutrition and scurvy. By the early spring of 1865, Corbett had returned to his unit and in April was the first man to volunteer for service in the pursuit of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth

Corbett was among the men who cornered Booth and David Herold at the Port Royal tobacco barn and he was stationed at a point on the building’s perimeter when it was set on fire. Through a gap in the barn’s siding, he saw a lone figure inside. He stated at the conspiracy trial one month later that he had never seen Booth before but the man in the barn had a broken leg and made “desperate replies” to the Federal officers who demanded his surrender. He gave a statement on May 1, 1865 that read:

I saw [Booth] in the act of stooping or springing, and concluded he was going to use his weapons. I immediately took steady aim upon him with my revolver and fired – shooting him through the neck and head. He was then carried out of the barn before the fire reached him; was taken to the Piazza of the house… Lt. Doherty, and the detective officers who were in front of the barn, did not seem to know that I had shot him, but supposed he had shot himself, until I informed Lt. Doherty of the fact – showing him my pistol which bore evidence of the truth of my statement, which also confirmed by the man placed at my right-hand who saw it.

 Corbett’s shot was an extraordinary one considering the distance, the weapon, the smoke and fire in the barn and the confusion that was occurring outside of it. The bullet struck the man inside in the back of the head – almost at the same place where Booth’s bullet struck Lincoln – and severed his spinal cord.

The assassin was dragged from the burning barn and placed on a mattress from the nearby Garrett house. He was scarcely recognizable as the handsome actor. The man was filthy, his hair in tangles, and eleven-day growth of beard on his emaciated face. He died a few minutes after being taken from the barn.

After the shooting at the farm, Corbett was placed under arrest by Colonel Conger, Doherty’s superior officer in the search party. The charge against him was a breach of military discipline “in firing without Doherty’s order and in defiance of Gen. Baker’s order” and Corbett was placed under guard along with David Herold and returned to Washington. When they arrived, Corbett was imprisoned, awaiting court martial. However, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, upon hearing the story of the incident, ordered Corbett to be released. He announced theatrically, “The rebel is dead, the patriot lives – the patriot is released!”

Corbett mustered out of the Army on August 17, 1865 and moved to Danbury, Connecticut. There, he found work, again in the hat trade, and supplemented his income with occasional lectures, accompanied by lantern slides, on his exploits as “Lincoln’s Avenger.”

But, was he really? Even those who did not question the idea that the assassin died at the Garrett farm, they did wonder whether or not Corbett actually fired the fatal shot, or whether Booth committed suicide or escaped. Some believed that Colonel Conger fired the shot from the corner of the barn (he received a suspiciously high $15,000 of the combined $75,000 reward offered for Booth and Herold’s capture). Others believed that Lieutenant Doherty had done the shooting and pointed out that he received $5,250 of the reward money and was never questioned during the conspirator’s trial. Corbett’s shot was almost impossible and many believed that he simply could not have done it. In 1903, an early Lincoln assassination researcher, David M. DeWitt, wrote that Corbett was at least thirty feet from the barn when the shot was fired that killed Booth.

In the end, Corbett received $1,653.85 as part of the reward for bringing Booth to justice. His petition for a federal pension for his service in the Army, specifically for his work as a volunteer in the search for Lincoln’s assassin, came through in 1882. He was granted $7.50 a month in appreciation for his “service” to the United States.

Corbett eventually gave up work as a hat-maker and showed up in the late 1860s, in Camden, New Jersey, where he worked as a minister. He later went west and ended up in Kansas in the 1870s, showing signs of a deteriorating mental state. He lived as a reclusive farmer for years, occasionally working as a “fire and brimstone” evangelist. In November 1885, he was arrested after threatening some boys playing baseball on the Sabbath with a pistol. The case was dismissed by the county attorney.

A year after this incident, through the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic and a state legislator from Cloud County, where Corbett lived, he was hired as an assistant doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. He reported for duty in January 1887, but only lasted a month before his insanity got the better of him.

Corbett, in his madness, believed that the other doorkeepers and the politicians were laughing at him behind his back. This led to him threatening a janitor with a knife and then pointing a revolver at the House sergeant-in-arms. He broke into the House gallery with his weapons, causing the lawmakers, staff and workers to flee for their lives. Corbett was quickly arrested and taken before a judge the next day. A quick verdict was pronounced and he was sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

He failed on his first attempt to escape but on May 26, 1888, he succeeded. Walking around the grounds of the asylum with other inmates that day, Corbett saw a pony that belonged to the young son of the superintendent tied up in front of the hospital office. He hurried over, stole the horse, and rode away.

A week later, with flyers posted about him around the state, Corbett surfaced in Neodesha in the southeastern part of the state. There, he met a local schoolmaster named Richard Thatcher and Irwin Ford, the son of a soldier who had been imprisoned with Corbett at Andersonville. The two men supplied Corbett with a fresh horse, food and money. They said that Corbett told them that he had been “shamefully treated” and intended to flee to Mexico.

He may have done just that, although we’ll never know for sure. He was in good health when he escaped from the hospital and Mexico was the perfect place for him to do just what he did – disappear.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

America's Forgotten Fire

The Rhythm Club Fire of Natchez, Mississippi

Much has been written over the years about the deadly fire at the Coconut Grove Club and other famous nightclubs but there has been little written about another devastating nightspot blaze, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire, which occurred in Natchez, Mississippi, in April 1940. It was a bit of mystery to us as to why no one has taken a closer look at this fire, but based on the time and place – the heavily segregated South – the answer became clear: All of the victims were African Americans.

I have never been of the belief that racism is behind every bad thing in American history, but when looking over the newspaper articles that pertained to the fire, the writing style in them made the situation pretty plain. The Rhythm had been a Negro club, staffed and owned by Negroes, patronized by Negroes (“imitating their white counterparts by dressing in evening clothes,” as one contemporary news report sneered) and the tragedy was not taken as seriously in 1940 as it would have been today. Mississippi was still a segregated state, plagued by the Jim Crow laws, and many white residents had little use for the blacks that lived among them, alive or dead, unless they cleaned their homes, mowed their lawns or proved themselves useful in some other way.

It was a devastating event when 216 African American music lovers lost their lives on the night of April 23, 1940, but far too few people seemed to care about the victims – or their ghosts.

The Rhythm Nightclub after the Fire in April 1940. 

The Rhythm Nightclub Fire occurred on St. Catherine Street in Natchez. It was an area referred to as the “Negro section” of town, on the edge of the downtown business district. The wooden, oblong structure was built in 1925 to serve as a church, which later closed. It was used as a garage for a time before being converted into a nightclub in 1938. The building was ramshackle and run down and had only one entrance, located at the back. A stage had been erected at the front, where the altar of the church had been. In an attempt to decorate the place, the club’s proprietor, Ed Frazier, had draped the walls and rafters with Spanish moss. It hung down above the customers, giving the place a moody, bayou-like atmosphere that must have appealed to the late night revelers. Tragically, it would prove to be the club’s undoing.

The Rhythm Club had numerous windows on both sides of the building, dating back to its construction as a church, but thanks to a problem with what the owners referred to as “gatecrashers,” shutters had been nailed over all of the windows to keep non-paying customers out. The shutters would also serve a more sinister purpose – they would keep everyone inside.

The evening of April 23 was an exciting night for the black community in Natchez. One of the biggest names in Negro entertainment, Walter Barnes, was playing at the Rhythm Club with his 15-piece orchestra. It was bound to be one of the big shows of the year and the club attracted the cream of the local African American society. Present that night were black attorneys, physicians, teachers, social workers and scores of other community leaders. They were packed into the place, elbow-to-elbow, with more than 300 other customers, some having come from as far away as Louisiana to hear the Chicago orchestra.

Walter Barnes and the Royal Creolians
Walter Barnes was a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was born in 1905, and had moved to Chicago in 1923, where he began studying reed instruments with classical teacher Franz Schoepp. He took further studies at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music. He took over as the bandleader from the Detroit Shannon outfit in 1924 and re-named the band the Royal Creolians. He traveled across the country and recorded music with the band in 1928-1929 for the Brunswick label. Barnes made a name for himself by taking dance music to small Southern towns, where most other big name entertainers rarely performed. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his tours and was always popular in Mississippi.

When he arrived in Natchez in April 1940, he was on the last leg of his current tour. He brought with him a 15-piece band, including a female singer. After Natchez, they only had two more stops on the tour, Vicksburg and New Albany, Mississippi, before returning to Chicago.

The fire broke out around 11:35 p.m. According to Ernest Wright, an elevator operator who came to meet his wife at the club after getting off work, the fire was started by a careless cigarette. He told the police that he saw two girls come out of the women’s room near the front of the hall and heard one of them say: “Now you did it. You set the place on fire.”

Wright said that he didn’t see anything for a minute and then he saw blinding sheets of flame. “In a moment,” he said. “The whole place was on fire.”

Fire officials believed that a cigarette had inadvertently touched one of the streamers of Spanish moss, which were hanging from the rafters. The dry moss had been hanging there for nearly two years, and instantly burst into flames. A cry of “fire!” went up from the crowd. Someone managed to slip outside and contact the fire department, which arrived less than five minutes later. Even then, however, it was too late for scores of people trapped inside.
Once the people jammed into the club realized that the place was on fire, they immediately went into a panic. There were shouts, screams, cries and curses, and in moments, the crowd became a clawing, fighting mass as they tried to get out of the single door. Almost 150 people escaped before the thrashing, terrified victims became jammed into the doorway, unable to break loose and blocking all means of escape for everyone still trapped inside.

The fire department arrived at 11:40 p.m. Frightful screams came from the towering flames that now engulfed the building from wall to wall. A few moments later, the tin roof fell in and the crash sent a shower of sparks and flames soaring into the dark sky. The firemen immediately went to work, dousing the fire with water, and working frantically to try and pull the trapped people from the building.

Meanwhile, inside, it was a hellish scene. People fought, punched, kicked and scratched, struggling to get out of the door. There was simply no place for them to go. Many of those who were pushed away cowered near the stage at the front of the club, hoping that they could somehow avoid being burned to death. Unfortunately, an exhaust fan near the front of the club pulled the smoke and fire in the direction of the bandstand. It was there that Walter Barnes, and some of the members of the orchestra, was trapped. Two members of the band, plus Alton Barnes, the bandleader’s brother and the band’s manager, had escaped from the club. Walter was not so lucky, but in the aftermath of the fire, he was hailed as a hero. When the fire first broke out, he tried to calm the crowd while he and the band continued to play the song “Marie.” His body was later found, among dozens of others, at the front of the building.

The inferno was out within 10 minutes. It had reduced the club to a pile of smoldering ashes. Smoke rolled out from beneath the hot tin roof, which had collapsed onto the grisly scene. White men came running to the scene from the nearby business district and aided the blacks and the police in taking the injured to one of the nearby Negro hospitals. Men and women were found wandering in the street, practically naked and in a daze. Their clothing had been either burned off or torn off in the fight at the door. Officials believed that about 150 people escaped from the club and that between 50 and 100 of them were injured. The hospitals were soon filled to overflowing.

The Rhythm Club turned out to be a fiery deathtrap for scores of people who gathered there. This photo shows the burned-out interior of the club.

The bodies of the dead that could be easily reached were taken to the three Negro undertakers in the district, where police officers began counting them and laying them out for identification. The coroner suggested a plan of embalming the bodies and putting them on display so that friends and relatives could identify them later. The grim task continued for weeks after the fire.

The initial estimates of more than 150 dead were quickly upgraded. By the following day, many of the burned victims had died in the hospital, raising the death toll to 212. More would be added before it was all over. Coroner R.E. Smith visited the scene the next morning and blamed most of the deaths on the fact that the building only had one door, as well as the fact that the windows had been boarded over to keep people from sneaking into the shows. He described the horribly gruesome scene to the newspapers:

The bodies were piled up like cordwood. The skin was peeling from faces, blood oozed from mouths and flesh was broken. From my examination, it appeared that most of the people died from suffocation. A majority of the victims were 15 to 16 years old. There were about as many youths as girl victims.
The bodies were piled up in funeral parlors and no identifications have been made yet. The undertakers told me that they would embalm the bodies and line them up and let relatives file by to identify kinsmen.

Coroner Smith, who was also the managing editor of the Natchez Democrat, said that the paper’s janitor, Julius Hawkins, had been at the show that night, and had been standing near the rear. Hawkins had escaped but didn’t know what had started the blaze. Smith quoted him as saying, “All I thought about was getting away from there.”

V.H. Jeffries, a photographer who reached the scene a short time after the disaster, pointed out that the club had been completely gutted. He also spoke to reporters about what he saw:

Great quantities of dry moss had been hung on the walls for decoration. This caught fire in some way and the intense heat and fumes probably suffocated the victims. Men and women were sprawled grotesquely about on the floor like dead chickens, their clothing burned away and their flesh seared. The fire started near the entrance and it seemed that the crowd fled to the rear, where they could not escape.

By the following afternoon, the rest of the city was feeling the shock of what had occurred. It was estimated that very few of the African-American families in Natchez were unaffected by the fire. At that time, the population of the city was nearly 18,000 people – 60 percent of them were black.

Angry white voices began to be heard in city government, incensed that the club had been allowed to operate with only one exit door. They demanded a city ordinance requiring dance venues to have at least two exits, which would effectively put most Negro clubs in the city out of business. This didn’t seem to bother anyone, especially after news spread that the police had arrested several black men who had been recruited to pull bodies out of the ruins of the club. They were allegedly stealing from the dead, or so sheriff’s deputies claimed.

Instead of bringing the city’s residents together, the fire had served to drive whites and blacks even farther apart. It would be decades before Mississippi ended segregation, and it was just as long before safety measures began to be required in what were referred to as “Negro dance halls.” Not surprisingly, with attention fading quickly about the tragedy, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire was soon forgotten by the press, Natchez officials, and by history.

But the families of the victims didn’t forget, nor did the generations of blues singers who told the story of the fire in their songs, or the group of aging women who make up the Watkins Street Cemetery’s preservation society. They care for the mass grave where the fire victims were buried. When the number of bodies overwhelmed city authorities, they buried them in trenches in the Watkins Street Cemetery. There was no way to identify many of them. A few markers have been placed over the years, but mostly, it’s just a large grave where the bodies have been placed side-by-side. Their names have been forgotten, as have their lives.

But the dead still remember.

In 2010, a small museum was erected in honor of the Rhythm Club Fire, and according to the stories, strange occurrences have been happening there “almost daily” ever since. Voices have been heard, as well as music, and the sounds of doors opening and closing. Photographs that are displayed on the walls sometimes fly off and can be found in odd positions across the room. The museum was set up on the concrete slab that once marked the foundation of the Rhythm Club. The rest of the slab serves as the museum’s parking lot.

To this day, stories persist of strange voices, cries for help and the wailing moans of people still heard around the site of the deadly fire. It continues to be considered one of the most haunted places in Natchez – a very haunted city in its own right.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire may be only a footnote in American history, but to the people of Natchez and those directly affected by this horrendous event, its legacy lives on. It is a story worth telling – and remembering – and maybe someday the victims of the fire will finally rest in peace.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire appears in the book, A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse – along with dozens of other stories about disasters, death and hauntings. Printcopies are available from the main website or in Kindle and Nook editions. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

The "27 Club"

Weird Tales of Strange Days

On this date, April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain, singer and guitarist for the groundbreaking grunge band Nirvana, was found dead in Seattle from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Cobain, at the height of his popularity, was 27 years old. For his followers and fan, Cobain’s death was a tragedy, but one that was not totally unexpected. He had battled both depression and drug addiction for years.

Kurt Cobain, who died on April 8, 1994
But was this the only reason why many were not surprised to hear that Kurt Cobain died at 27? Unfortunately, when it comes to rock-n-roll, and the cult of celebrity, there is a “club” that few of them want to join. Entry in this “club” is simple – you only have to die at 27.

In ancient Greek history, it was said that Alexander the Great made a pact with the god Zeus that allowed him to choose between living to old age and never achieving glory or gaining everlasting fame and glory but dying as a young man. Alexander chose a short life and he conquered the entire known world before dying at the age of 33. His body was encased in solid gold and carried through the provinces so that his subjects could pay homage to their fallen leader. The Egyptians worshipped Alexander as a living god in the same manner as they did the ancient pharaohs. He was buried in secret and to this day, his tomb has not been discovered. Did he make the right choice? In the words of James Dean, Alexander planned to “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Sadly, throughout literary history a great number of the most creative writers may as well have entered into Alexander’s pact. The English Romantic poets are a prime example: John Keats died at age 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley died at 29, Lord Byron met his death at 36, each dying at the height of his poetic powers.
In the world of rock-n-roll, there have been a number of musical giants who died in the full bloom of youth and have now become legends. They are considered members of a sort of “club,” to which entry is simple – you only have to die at the age of 27.

The founder of this club was bluesman Robert Johnson. He became the catalyst for the mixing of spirituals, country and blues that would someday become rock-n-roll. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads. Like Alexander, he was granted fame and fortune, but his life ended far too soon. Johnson died at the age of only 27, setting the stage for other musicians to come.

Bluesman Robert Johnson – legend has it that he made a pact with the Devil at the crossroads and achieved fame and glory, only to die at 27
The largest number of premature deaths occurred during the two-year period between July 3, 1969 and July 3, 1971, when a total of five major rock icons died tragically. All of them were 27 years old.

Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones
The first to follow in Johnson’s footsteps was Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. He had recently been replaced in the band, but according to friends was never happier and planned to start a new band. Unfortunately, Jones drowned in the swimming pool at his home after a long night of drinking and drugs. Jones’ death remains mysterious today. Although deemed accidental, rumors have suggested suicide or even murder.

Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson
The next to die was Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson on September 3, 1970. Wilson was said to have suffered severe bouts of depression, and on the night of his death was camping out behind Canned Heat singer Bob Hite’s house. The band was leaving on a European tour the next day. Wilson’s body was found in his sleeping bag the next morning. The official version of his death was an accidental drug overdose, but many of his closest friends believed that his premature death was a suicide.

Jimi Hendrix – one of the great guitarists of all time, also lost at 27
Later that same month, the rock world was stunned to learn that Jimi Hendrix had died in a girlfriend’s apartment in London. Hendrix became known as a legendary guitar player in the late 1960s and some of his friends believed that he may have sensed his impending death. That July, before his death, he told some reporters, “I don’t think I will live to see 28.” The official version of Hendrix’s death states that he was unable to sleep on the night of September 17, 1970 and took nine sleeping pills. His usual dosage was two. While his girlfriend was away from the apartment buying cigarettes, Hendrix vomited in his sleep, inhaled it, and died. Rumors swirled that he may have committed suicide or may have been murdered.

Janis Joplin
Two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood. Joplin escaped a lifetime of pain through music, alcohol and drugs and became one of the greatest blues singers of all time. On October 4, her body was discovered in her hotel room after she failed to show up for a recording session. Her friends had often begged her to stop using drugs, but Joplin had a bitter answer for them, “Let’s face it, I’ll never see 30.”

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, allegedly died at age 27 in a Paris bathtub. 
Then, on July 3, 1971, the body of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, was discovered in a bathtub in his Paris apartment. He had died from a heroin overdose – a drug he supposedly never used – and his death certificate was quickly signed by a French doctor who apparently never existed. A funeral was held five days later and Morrison, like so many other musicians of the day, was inducted into the club of those who died at age 27. Of course, I don’t think he did… but that’s another story for another time.

When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, many believed that the “27 club” was alive and well and still claiming the lives of famous artists. Up and coming singer Amy Winehouse, who perhaps not in the same league as singers like Cobain and Janis Joplin was starting to make a name for herself in the music world, died in 2011 – she was also 27.

Is the curse still going? That remains to be seen, but there certainly will be plenty of opportunities to see as new performers come along every day. How many of them will “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse?”

If you’re interested in Troy’s theories about the death (or actually FAKED death) of Jim Morrison, you can read about it in his book, INTO THE SHADOWS. Available in print, Kindle and Nook editions!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Who Killed Jake Lingle?

The Reporter, the Tribune and the Mob

On this date, April 2, 1931, a small-time thug named Leo Brothers was sentenced to spend 14 years in prison for one of the most spectacular murders in Chicago gangland history. In this case, it was not an infamous mobster that was gunned down but an ordinary reporter for the Chicago Tribune named Jack Lingle. But was he really an ordinary reporter? In the wake of his death, most didn’t think so...

For Chicagoans who lived through the turbulent days of the “Beer Wars” in the city, crime, murder and violence became commonplace, but on Monday, June 9, a new and apparently different incident became the talk of the town. It was an outrage that was splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the city. This was the murder of Alfred L. “Jake” Lingle, a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who was shot to death while walking, smoking a cigar, and reading the racing news in the crowded underpass at Randolph Street and Michigan Boulevard during the lunch hour.

$65-a week newsman for the Chicago Tribune Jake Lingle, who owned two homes, kept a fancy hotel suite, had a chauffeur-driven car and maintained a luxurious lifestyle. He was also a close friend of Al Capone. 
It would become the most sensational murder of 1930, even though prior to his death, the general public had no idea who Lingle was. In spite of this, his murder created a furor. In those days, newspaper reporters were not well paid, but they had a place in public regard that was generated by glamour, respect and authority. The murder of Lingle immediately assumed the importance of that of a public official – and was publicized by every newspaper in town.

Lingle’s duties on the police beat for the Tribune earned him $65 a week, which was not a princely sum. He had no aptitude for writing and could only transmit the facts. For eighteen years he had been a “leg man” who gathered crime news and phoned it in to the to the city editor’s desk. For writers at the Tribune, he was a great asset. Crime was front page news in the Chicago of the 1920s and every paper relied heavily on its in-house crime expert. In that category, Lingle had no equal. He frequently scooped the competition, for not only did he enjoy easy access to Capone, he was on intimate terms with both Police Commissioner Russell and Deputy Commissioner Stege.

Lingle never had a by-line in the paper and his name was unknown to most readers. To the public, he became much more famous in death than he ever was in life. And soon, he became notorious as details about his lifestyle began to be revealed. The supposedly humble reporter owned a chauffeur-driven Lincoln limousine and had just bought a $16,000 house at Long Beach on Lake Michigan, where his wife and two children were planning to spend the summer months. He also owned a house on the West Side but had recently taken a suite at the Stevens, one of Chicago’s most stylish hotels. He was an avid gambler at the horse and greyhound tracks, but his lavish way of life couldn’t be bought with winnings at the track.

On the day of his death, Lingle was on his way to the races. He had left his wife packing for her departure to the lake house and he planned to spend the afternoon at Washington Park in Homewood. Later that night, he planned to go to the Sheridan Wave Tournament Club, a society gambling parlor on Waveland Avenue, where the champagne, whisky and food were distributed with the management’s compliments during play. It was due to re-open that evening and Lingle wanted to be there.

In retrospect, it seems that Lingle knew he was in trouble. Attorney Louis B. Piquett later volunteered to the police that 24 hours before Lingle’s death, he had met with the reporter in the Loop. They stood on Randolph Street talking about the discovery of a murder victim named Red McLaughlin, whose body had been found in the canal. Lingle was giving Piquett his theory about the crime when a blue sedan with two men in it pulled alongside them and stopped at the curb. Lingle stopped talking in mid-sentence and looked at the men in a startled way. The two men simply stared at him. Lingle never finished what he was saying to Piquett. He simply told the attorney goodbye and walked into a nearby store. Also, on the day of his murder, after lunching at the Sherman Hotel he met Sergeant Thomas Alcock of the detective bureau and told him that he was being tailed.

And apparently, he was. After buying cigars at the Sherman Hotel kiosk, he walked the four blocks to Michigan Avenue to catch the 1:30 p.m. train to the Washington Park racetrack. He descended into the underground walkway that led to the Illinois Central suburban electric railroad in Grant Park. At that time of day, the subway was very crowded, filled with a steady stream of shoppers and office workers.

Oddly, though, even though he knew he was being followed, Lingle acted unconcerned. According to witnesses, he arrived at the entrance to the subway walking between two men. One had blonde hair and wore a straw boater hat and a gray suit. The other was dark-haired and wore a blue suit. At the entrance, Lingle paused and bought a racing edition of the evening newspaper. As he did so, a man in a roadster on the south side of Randolph Street blew his horn to attract Lingle’s attention. There were two men in the automobile and one of them called out, “Play Hy Schneider in the third!” According to a Yellow Cab superintendent who heard the exchange, Lingle grinned, waved at the man and called back, “I’ve got him!”

Lingle walked on into the subway, where he was seen by Dr. Joseph Springer, a former coroner’s physician and a long-time acquaintance. Springer later reported, “Lingle didn’t see me. He was reading the race information. He was holding it before him with both hands and smoking a cigar.”

Lingle had almost reached the end of the subway. He stopped across from the newsstand about 25 feet short of the east exit and the dark man who had been walking next to him moved away as if to buy a paper. As he did, the blonde man stepped behind Lingle, pulled out a snub-nosed .38 colt, and fired a single shot into the back of Lingle’s head. The single bullet drove upward into his brain and exited his forehead. Lingle pitched forward, cigar still clenched in his teeth and newspaper still in his hands.

The blonde killer tossed away the gun and ran forward into the crowds. Then, for some reason, he doubled back past Lingle’s body and ran up the eastern staircase. He jumped a fence, changed his mind again, ran west on Randolph Street, through a passage (where he tossed away a left-hand silk glove, probably used to prevent leaving fingerprints) and, pursued by a policeman, ran onto Wabash Avenue, where he disappeared into the crowd.

Death calls for Jake Lingle
Meanwhile in the subway, a bystander named Patrick Campbell saw the dark-haired man who had been walking with Lingle and the killer hurrying towards the west exit. He moved to try and catch him, but his movement was blocked by a priest, who bumped into him. The priest delayed Campbell just long enough for the accomplice to escape. He told Campbell that he was getting out of the subway because someone had been shot. Later, Lieutenant William Cusack of the detective bureau commented gruffly, “He was no priest. A priest would never do that. He would have gone to the side of the stricken person.”

Slowly, the method of Lingle’s murder became clear. He had walked into a trap that had been formed by perhaps as many as a dozen men. But what was never put forward as a theory, and which seems the most likely explanation, was that during his progress into the subway between the two men, he was eased along at gunpoint, under orders to keep walking naturally and keep reading the paper.

That evening, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, summoned his news staff together and addressed them about the death of a reporter that he had never met and whose name he had likely never heard before. He spoke for 45 minutes and pledged to solve the murder of the martyred journalist. The next morning, the front page of the paper blared with an eight-inch banner headline that announced the dead of Lingle. The story read: “Alfred L. Lingle, better known in the world of newspaper work as Jake Lingle, and for the last eighteen years a reporter on the Tribune, was shot to death yesterday in the Illinois Central subway at the east side of Michigan Avenue, at Randolph Street.

The Tribune offered $25,000 as a reward for information which will lead to the conviction of the slayer or slayers. An additional reward of $5,000 was announced by the Chicago Evening Post, making a total of $30,000.” The next morning, not to be outdone by the Tribune, Hearst’s Chicago Herald & Examiner also offered up a $25,000 reward, bringing the total up to $55,000.

Colonel McCormick, meanwhile, continued to take Lingle’s death as an affront to him personally and an attack on the press. He regarded it as being much more serious than the other hundreds of cases of violence that plagued Chicago. He announced that Lingle’s murder was committed in reprisal and as an attempt to intimidate the newspapers into suppressing stories about the dealings of the underworld. But, he declared, this was now a war and the Tribune and Chicago’s other newspapers would not rest until Lingle’s killers had been brought to justice.

What was especially shocking was that up to that point, gangsters had taken a “hands-off” policy toward harming reporters. Lingle was hailed as a hero who died in the service of the public and over 25,000 people attended his funeral.

Police Commissioner Russell was forced into making a statement. “I have given orders to the five deputy police commissioners to make this town so quiet that you will be able to hear a consumptive canary cough,” he said colorfully, but then added, as a preliminary explanation for the lack of further action, “Of course, most of the underworld has scuttled off to hiding places. It will be hard to find them, but we will never rest until the criminals are caught and Chicago is free of them forever.”

The next day, a newspaper editorial remarked sadly, “These gangs have run the town for many months and have strewn the streets with the lacerated bodies of their victims. Commissioner Russell and Deputy Commissioner John P. Stege have had their opportunity to break up these criminal gangs, who have made the streets hideous with bleeding corpses. They have failed.”

Russell replied to the charges, “My conscience is clear. All I ask is that the city will sit tight and see what is going to happen.”
All that actually happened was that Russell and Stege, in the words of the newspaper, “staged a mock heroic battle with crime by arresting every dirty-necked ragamuffin on the street corners, but carefully abstained from taking into custody any of the men who matter.”
Meanwhile, some of the blanks that had remained in the accounts of Lingle’s character and lifestyle began to be filled in. It is fair to say that the management at the Tribune was unaware of them, or they likely would not have turned Lingle into the martyr that they did. Some of the facts that had remained so far unmentioned were that he had himself hinted that he was the man who fixed the price of beer in Chicago; that he was a close friend of Al Capone and had stayed with him at his Florida estate; that when he died he was wearing a diamond-studded belt buckle that had been a gift from Capone; that he was on improbably friendly terms, for a newspaper reporter of his lowly status, with millionaire businessmen, judges, and county and city officials, and that he spent golfing holidays and shared stock market tips with the police commissioner – a boyhood chum whom Lingle had helped elevate to his current position in 1928.

By the time a week had passed, certain reservations had started to temper the anger about the newspaperman’s slaying that had been displayed on the front page and in the editorial columns of the Tribune. As more details about Lingle’s extracurricular activities began to emerge, McCormick and his editorial executives began to back-pedal away from their earlier statements and demands. Rumors about Lingle’s background and liaisons were racing around Chicago, supported by muckraking stories in other newspapers, and the Tribune began to take a different stance. They admitted that Lingle was apparently involved in some unsavory activities but they noted that the gangsters who killed him were still out there – and they still needed to be brought to justice.

McCormick’s investigators, as well as the police, had learned a lot about the background of Jake Lingle, a semiprofessional baseball player from the slums who had wormed his way into the lowest levels of Chicago journalism. His first job after leaving a West Jackson Boulevard elementary school was as an office boy at a surgical supply house. He was playing semiprofessional baseball at the time and he met William Russell, at that time a police patrolman, with whom he struck up a friendship. Lingle was hired as a Tribune copyboy in 1918. He had no aptitude for writing, but it was his long list of contacts (mostly made through Russell) and timely telephone calls to the city desk that made him indispensable to editors and rewrite men. The brash and cocky reporter cultivated acquaintances in the courts, the jails and in the gin mills of the North and South sides. Relying on the word of informants and friendships, he became one of the city’s least-known but cleverest crime reporters. He also became one of the wealthiest but whether this was from his dealings in the stock market, his investments in gambling clubs on the North Side, or from some other source is unknown.

Some believed that Lingle operated as a liaison between the underworld and the city’s political machine. Many out of town newspapers were referring to the slain reporter as the “unofficial Chief of Police,” who, for a sum, was able to “put the fix” in for gamblers, bootleggers, and anyone else who was having a problem involving law enforcement. Among the city hall insiders with whom he maintained a close relationship wias attorney Samuel A. Ettleson, the corporation counsel for Chicago and an operator in city government.

 Al Capone confirmed that Lingle was “one of the boys” during an interview in Florida in July 1930. He said that Lingle was a friend and that he didn’t have any sort of disagreement with him that led to his death. Capone also stated, “The Chicago police know who killed him.”

The question of who killed Jake Lingle was temporarily forgotten during exposure of his fascinating financial affairs. In addition to the secret bank account that Lingle kept with the Lake Shore Trust and Savings Bank, he was also known for carrying large sums of cash in his pocket. He had $9,000 dollars on him the day that he was killed. Another interesting branch of his activities that came to light were his “loans” from gamblers, politicians, and businessmen. He had “borrowed” $2,000 from Jimmy Mondi, a Capone gambling operator in Cicero and the Loop, -- a loan that had never been paid back. He had also borrowed $5,000 from Alderman Berthold A. Cronson, nephew of Samuel Ettleson, who later stated that the loan was a “pure friendship proposition.” That loan, too, had never been repaid He also had $5,000 from Ettleson himself, who only said that he had never loaned money to Lingle but often gave him some small remembrance at Christmas. He had a loan of $2,500 from Carlos Ames, president of the Civil Service Commission, that Ames stated was a “purely personal affair.” He had $300 from Police Lieutenant Thomas McFarland, who said that he had given Lingle the money because they had been close friends for many years. It was also alleged that Sam Hare, a roadhouse and gambling parlor operator, had “loaned” Lingle $20,000. Hare denied it.

Investigations also revealed that Lingle had been in an investment partnership with his old friend, William Russell. The account, used for stock market speculation, was opened in November 1928 with a $20,000 deposit. On September 20, 1929 – preceding the market crash in October – their joint paper profits were $23,696. Later, a loss of $58,850 was shown. Lingle showed paper profits at a peak of $85,000 that, after the crash, were converted to a loss of $75,000. Russell’s losses were variously reported as $100,000 and $250,000.

As to the source of the money put up by Lingle and deposited by him into his bank account, investigators noted, “We have thus far been able to come to no conclusion.”

But the press and the public had come to conclusions – and they were painfully obvious ones, which again confirmed that they were the residents of a city that was governed by dishonorable leaders and corrupt officials. The newspapers theorized about why Lingle had been murdered, but the fervor, and righteous anger, had waned. The unofficial verdict was that Lingle had “asked for it,” so to speak, by becoming involved with gangsters and dirty politicians.

Most theories of his death identified Lingle as a favor-seller and most placed the blame on Capone’s opposition, the Moran-Aiello merger. One story that made the rounds in gangland was that Lingle had been given $50,000 to secure protection for a West Side dog track, that he had failed to do so and kept the money.
Another story implicated him in the re-opening of the Sheridan Wave Tournament Club, which had been operated by the Weiss-Moran gang, but which, after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, had closed. Moran worked for eighteen months to try and find sympathetic officials to help him re-open the club, giving the job to Joe Josephs and Julian “Potatoes” Kaufman. It was said that Kaufman, an old friend of Lingle, had approached the reporter and asked him to use his influence with the police to get the club open again. Allegedly, Lingle   agreed to do so – but only if he were cut in on the action. He demanded fifty percent of the profits but Kaufman refused. Lingle then allegedly retorted, “If this joint is opened up, you’ll see more squad cars in front ready to raid it than you ever saw in your life before.” In spite of this, the story said, the club was permitted to re-open anyway. It was widely advertised that it would be opening on June 9 – the day on which Lingle set out for the races for the final time.
An equally plausible story stated that he got too deeply involved in the struggle for money and power in the gambling syndicate. For years, there had been a bitter war between the General News Bureau, a racing news wire service that existed entirely for the purposes of betting, and the independent news services. As an appointed intermediary, Lingle brought the two opposed factions together in January 1930 and a two-year truce was agreed upon. The truce, it was said, may not have extended to Lingle.
Perhaps some of these stories were true, or perhaps all or none of them were. Whatever the reason behind his murder, Lingle likely just got mixed up in the violence and bloodshed of gangland, an arena where even the most experienced can sometimes be torn apart.

The biggest question remained – who pulled the trigger that ended the reporter’s life?

Weeks, then months passed before the police produced a suspect. The serial number on the handgun that the killer had dropped had been filed off, but ballistics expert Colonel Calvin Goddard traced the origin of the gun to a sporting goods store owned by Peter Von Frantzius on Diversey Parkway. Records showed that the gun had been sold to Frankie Foster, a member of the North Side Moran gang. Foster fled to Los Angeles after the Lingle shooting, but was indicted in Chicago as an accessory before the fact to murder. Foster, whose real name was Frank Citro, was eventually extradited to Chicago and was held in the county jail for four months before the evidence against him was deemed inconclusive and the charges against him were dropped.
A short time later, a new suspect was named. Leo Vincent Brothers, a labor union slugger from St. Louis, was arrested in New York and indicted for the Lingle murder. Brothers had started out as a member of Egan’s Rats and soon graduated into labor racketeering and contract murder. Dodging a 1929 murder indictment, Brothers fled to Chicago, where he found work with Al Capone. Brothers was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years in prison for killing Lingle on April 2, 1931.

“I can do that standing on my head!” Brothers quipped after the sentence was handed down. Most observers, then and now, believe that Brothers was handed up to the state by Al Capone as a sacrifice, taking the fall for Jack Zuta, a racketeer who ran a string of whorehouses. Zuta was already dead by the time the trial wrapped up.

It seemed that just about everyone had a motive to kill Jake Lingle, but crime historians are in general agreement that Brothers took the rap and served time for a substantial cash payoff – but we’ll never really know for sure.

After his release in 1940, Brothers returned to St. Louis, beat his original murder case, and became hooked up with the local mob. Three months after an abortive attempt on his life, Leo Brothers died of heart disease in St. Louis on December 23, 1950. He took the secrets of the Lingle murder with him to the grave.

The story of Jake Lingle and all of the Chicago gangster murders, violence and ghosts can be found in Troy Taylor’s book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, available from the website in a print edition or as a Kindle edition from Amazon.