Sunday, November 30, 2014


The Eerie Side of the Famous Author

On November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens – who became better known as Mark Twain – was born in Missouri. This seemed to be the perfect place to talk about a side of Twain’s life that is all too often ignored by historians and biographers. Just as they do with Abraham Lincoln, most scholars ignore the fact that Twain also had a lifelong interest and fascination with the supernatural. 

For most of us, there is no person who embodied the glory days of the Mississippi River in the way that author and former river man Mark Twain did. Twain was a humorist, curmudgeon and gifted author who created some of the greatest American books of all time, including Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

While most readers are very familiar with Mark Twain’s adventures, books and humor, many don’t realize that the author had a deep interest in mysterious happenings. Throughout his life, he made a career out of debunking pomposity and arrogance. He was willing to accept things that were “outside the norm”, including telepathy, ghosts, prophetic dreams and more. He even became one of the most famous members of the widely acclaimed Society for Psychical Research.

Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens and he was born on November 30, 1835 in what he called the “almost invisible” town of Florida, Missouri. He grew up in the small river town of Hannibal, a place that would be made famous through his books. Twain’s curiosity about things unknown was awakened at about age 15, when a traveling hypnotist came to town to perform. The magician demonstrated a number of “mind reading” acts that Twain quickly figured out. This incident alerted him to fraudulent claims of the supernatural. He knew the man was an obvious fake, but believed that there were real supernatural events occurring in the world. In fact, he believed that he had experienced some of his own in earlier years. Just outside of Hannibal lived a farmer’s wife who had a healing power to cure toothaches. She would place her hand on the victim’s jaw and then shout the word “believe!” The toothache would be instantly cured. Twain was present on two different occasions when such miracles were performed – both of them involved his own mother. 

Twain witnessed another strange event a few years later when a young woman that he knew named Olivia Langdon became an invalid at age 16. She was partially paralyzed after a fall on some ice and was unable to leave her bed for nearly two years. After several doctors tried to help the girl and failed, a relative suggested that the family contact a faith healer known as Dr. Newton. He prayed over Olivia, put his arm behind her shoulders, raised her up and after a few moments, she took several steps. Until that moment, any attempt to raise her up had brought nausea and fainting spells. Newton said that Olivia would never be totally cured, but that she would be able to walk at least several hundred yards at a time. Years later, Twain asked Newton what the secret behind his power was and the doctor told him that he didn’t know. He believed that some subtle sort of electricity emanating from his body might hold the answer. Whatever it was, Twain was always grateful to the man because he married Olivia in 1870.

The death of Twain’s father started his writing career. He had to leave school and he became a printer’s apprentice at the Hannibal Courier newspaper. He moved on from Hannibal to the composing rooms at several newspapers, including two in Philadelphia, and then went to become the city editor for the Virginia City Enterprise in Nevada and a reporter for the San Francisco Morning Cable. In between, he traveled and worked a variety of odd jobs, all of which gave him experiences that he could write about, eventually allowing him to be hailed as one of America’s greatest writers. 

In 1858, Twain became a steersman on the packet Pennsylvania, which traveled the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. He began learning the riverboat trade under the tutelage of Captain Horace Bixby, who worked to teach him more than 1,200 miles of river. It was during this time of his life that Twain had what he considered his most remarkable psychic experience. It was a vivid prophetic dream in which he saw his brother Henry as a corpse, lying in a metal coffin, dressed in one of Twain’s own suits and with a bouquet of flowers on his chest. In the center of the flowers was a single red rose. The casket in which Henry had been placed was balanced between two wooden chairs.

In his dream, he believed that he woke up. He stated in Life on the Mississippi, “I dressed and moved toward that door, thinking that I would go in there and look at it, but I changed my mind. I thought I could not yet bear to meet my mother.... it suddenly flashed upon me that there was nothing real about this - it was only a dream...”

Not long before, Twain had found a job for his brother on the Pennsylvania and the two men were very close. They worked together on as many shifts as possible and often one brother would join the other on his watch when the other’s work had ended for the day. However, at the time of the dream, Twain was in New Orleans and his brother had departed on the Pennsylvania. Before the steamboat had departed without him, Twain had advised Henry that he should not lose his head in case of trouble. “Leave that to the unwisdom of the passengers,” he told him. He urged Henry that, after seeing to the safety of the women and the children, he should swim for shore himself. Twain knew how common accidents were and he wanted to make sure that Henry would not get himself into trouble. 

Two or three days after the boat had departed from the New Orleans dock, the boiler of the Pennsylvania exploded. Twain managed to reach Memphis a short time later and found Henry near death, lying alongside the rest of the wounded. The details of the story are related in Twain’s classic book, Life on the Mississippi, and told of how Henry died from an accidental overdose of morphine that was given to him by an inexperienced doctor. His funeral costs were arranged thanks to the generosity of the ladies of Memphis, who had taken up a collection for the victims of the disaster. All of the deceased were laid out in coffins made from white pine, however Henry’s casket had been made from metal instead. When Twain walked into the room where his brother’s body was placed, he found him in an open coffin, wearing a suit of Twain’s own clothing – it was just like in Twain’s dream. 

Eerily, an elderly woman walked past him into the room and placed a bouquet of roses on Henry’s chest. The flowers were snow-white in color – except for a single red one in the center of the bundle.

And the strange events continued when Twain returned with his brother’s body to St. Louis. As several men took the casket to his brother-in-law’s house and were carrying it upstairs, Twain stopped them from going inside. He didn’t want his mother to see Henry’s face, as it had been badly distorted by the overdose of the drug. When Twain did go upstairs, he discovered that two chairs had been placed as a stand for the casket. Had he arrived a few minutes later, the coffin would have been in the same place as it had been in his dream. When he stopped the men outside, he had changed the prediction of the dream.

As a result of this strange experience, Twain developed an interest in the paranormal. He was constantly intrigued by what he called “thought transference” and claimed to often speak aloud the very thoughts that his wife was having. He was also interested in the fact that he would often receive unplanned letters from friends after merely thinking of them or the subject of the letter they might write.

One example of this occurred between Twain and the Virginia City journalist William H. Wright. The Nevada silver boom was in the news and Twain’s publishers felt that it was a good time for a book on the subject. Twain thought of Wright as the man to write the book and on March 2, drafted a letter to him, urging him to write the book and making several suggestions for an outline. Twain finished the letter and sealed it into an envelope and then had second thoughts. If Wright penned the book and then couldn’t find a publisher for it, Twain would be in an uncomfortable position with his friend. He decided not to send the letter and stuck it away inside of his desk. 

A week later, on March 9, several letters arrived in the mail for Twain and one of them was from William Wright. Twain told a visiting relative that he could tell them the date, signature and the subject and all “without ever breaking the seal”. He explained that it would be from “a Mr. Wright of Virginia City, and it is dated the second of March - seven days ago. Mr. Wright proposes to make a book about the silver mines.. and asks what I, as a friend, think of the idea”.

Twain then opened the letter. He had stated the date and the contents correctly and found that it reflected the contents of his own letter, written on March 2, which had been in his desk since it had been written.

Not long after that, Twain joined the Society for Psychical Research of London in 1885. Soon, his interest in the occult deepened even further with the death of his daughter, Susy, at age 24. She had spent the last two weeks of her life in pain and delirium and eventually went blind and fell into a coma. After her death, Twain relived each terrible memory and constantly blamed himself for her suffering. His biographer, Justin Kaplan, wrote that he “searched for some sign that before she died, she had him in her thoughts, spoke of him in pride or love. ‘I wonder if she left any little message for me’, he wrote his wife, Olivia, imploringly. “I was not deserving of it’. He wanted everything of her last days kept, even the agonizing pages she wrote in her delirium and with the light fading.”

After Susy’s death, Twain’s wife retreated into full invalidism, staying in her room and avoiding her husband’s own black despair. She lost interest in her friends and began to immerse herself in Spiritualism, a faith that believed in communication with the dead. Twain began to share her interests and while he attended a number of sĂ©ances, never became convinced that he personally contacted the dead. His bleakness deepened as the years went by, until his family and friends all avoided his ranting and gloomy moods. Living in mourning and seclusion, he treated his surviving daughters like royalty and each holiday that came around was celebrated as a remembrance of Susy. He often dreamed that she was still alive and in his declining years, questioned the difference between dreams and reality, wondering if perhaps she was returning to him in his dreams. 

The author’s dark days of brooding did not last. His life had always run in cycles of success and despair. He began lecturing again and wrote his book on Joan of Arc. Then, in 1904, Olivia passed away from heart trouble. He once again sank into grief and despair, only to revive again and begin writing and lecturing once more. He wrote a paper on a hypothetical experiment with “Mental Telegraphy” in which a man was to invent a scheme that would synchronize two minds, thousands of miles apart, enabling them to talk to one another. He was unhappy with the article and burned it, along with many other writings on the occult. He would not write such a book on the subject, he said, unless it “would write itself”. He stated that he would ignore such writings but that when he was asleep, new ideas would come to him. However, most of these works were never completed.

In 1907, Twain received a cable from England, informing him that he was to receive an honorary degree from Oxford, which would join his other degrees from Yale and the University of Missouri. He traveled to Europe but by 1909, his health was beginning to fail. He returned to Stormfield, his house in Redding, Connecticut, where he was staying with his youngest daughter, Jean and then traveled to rest in the warm climate of Bermuda. There, many of his friends and acquaintances, including Woodrow Wilson, came to visit him. He returned to America strengthened and with a new interest in astronomy. He remarked to his friend Albert Bigelow Paine that “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It will be coming again next year and I expect to go out with it.”

In 1909, Twain suffered the last of his great losses when his daughter Jean died from heart failure caused by an epileptic seizure. In her biography, My Father, Mark Twain, his daughter Clara noted a strange incident that followed Jean’s death. Her father wrote her that “for one who does not believe in spirits, I have had a most peculiar experience”. He explained that as he entered the room where Jean had died, something very odd happened. “You know how warm it always is in there, and there are no draughts. All at once I felt a cold current of air about me. I thought the door must be open; but it was closed. I said: ‘Jean, is this you trying to let me know that you have found the others?’ Then the cold air was gone.”

A short time later, Twain’s health collapsed and he became gravely ill. He never lost his sense of humor, though, despite trouble breathing and the fact that he was in constant pain. Four months after Jean’s death, on April 1, 1910, he died at the age of 74. His last words to Clara were “Goodbye dear, if we meet....”

And his final prediction had been correct. He came in with Halley’s Comet and he did “go out” with it, just as he planned to.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


The Tragic Case of Charles "Pacer" Smith

No matter how it might seem to us today, when we expect more from our so-called “heroes” than we usually get – the idea of professional athletes getting mixed up with the law is nothing new. In fact, incidents of violent crimes go back almost to the beginning of professional sports. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, four major league baseball players committed murder. Edgar McNabb and Marty Bergen killed themselves before they could be brought to trial, and Charlie Sweeney spent several years in San Quentin Prison. 

And on November 29, 1895, former professional pitcher Charles “Pacer” Smith was hanged for the murder of his daughter and sister-in-law – a bloody act that shocked my hometown of Decatur, Illinois. It was a terrible event that left a black mark on the city’s history – and left behind two separate hauntings in its wake. 

Charles N. Smith was born in Pendleton, Indiana, on August 4, 1853. He was the fourth of ten children of John and Rebecca Smith. John Smith was a shoemaker who joined the Union Army shortly after the start of the Civil War. In late 1864, he was thrown from his horse and reportedly spent six months in a hospital. He never completely recovered from the injury; the Decatur Daily Review described him as "practically a cripple." 

Family members described Charles as a very bright boy with a penchant for sports, although he never played professionally until he was 23. The game of baseball was just beginning to be popular during his early manhood he naturally drifted into that profession. He had earned a good reputation as a pitcher and was offered and accepted a position with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. 

Smith started his professional career in the mid-1870s. Although he was the property of the Cincinnati major league team, he never appeared in a regular season major league contest. His playing time was apparently confined to exhibition games (which were frequent during those seasons) and action with area independent teams. Even so, Smith’s play in Cincinnati was enough to get him noticed and he spent the next few seasons in cities that would later have major league or strong minor league teams. He played for the Baltimore Blues in 1878 and 1879, and Nashville in 1880. He then returned to Indiana, spending 1881 with Terre Haute and the next two seasons with Indianapolis, both of the Northwestern League. Not retained when Indianapolis got major league baseball in 1884, Smith stayed in the area with the Noblesville team that year. In 1885, he played for clubs in Jacksonville, Florida and Greencastle and Evansville, Indiana.

During the early 1880s, John and Rebecca Smith separated, though they apparently remained married. Rebecca Smith and three of her children moved west to Illinois. Settling first in Danville and Mattoon, they eventually moved to the Decatur area. Initially, Charles lived with a married sister in Indianapolis, but in 1886 he moved to Decatur to pitch for the local team.

When Smith was recruited to come to Decatur in the late 1880s, the city’s once-outstanding professional baseball team, the Yellow Hammers, was foundering at the bottom of its division. “Pacer” Smith was known for his infamous fastball and style on the ball field. He was lured to Decatur in hopes that he could revive the ailing team but no one had any idea that his residency in the city would end in horrible tragedy and murder. 

Smith managed to revive the dreadful Yellow Hammers during the 1887 season and became quite popular around town, especially with the ladies. He was a smooth talker, a flashy dresser, widely traveled, and famous for his curling, handlebar mustache. He also became known for his drinking and could often be found, when not on the baseball field, in one of the local taverns.

In 1888, Smith married one of his female fans, a young Decatur woman named Maggie Buchert. Unfortunately, that year brought bad news to Smith when the Yellow Hammers disbanded. He began searching for work and his drinking became worse. Over the next several years, Smith played for baseball clubs in cities all over Illinois, including Champaign, Bloomington, Ottawa, and Shreveport. He made several attempts to get back into the larger leagues, but his once lightning fast pitching had slowed down and rumors began to spread about his heavy drinking.

In 1890, Smith’s wife, Maggie, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl named Louise. Soon after, Smith realized that married life was not to his liking and his drinking became even worse. He spent little time at home, choosing to frequent the saloons when not traveling out of town to play baseball. By 1893, he was considered completely unreliable by the more reputable clubs and he was forced to play baseball in Pana, Illinois, where he also served as a town policeman. After the end of the season, he was fired from both jobs and returned to look for work in Decatur. The once nationally known baseball player was soon working as a cook at the Hoffman House, and other Franklin and Park Streets taverns, setting out free lunches for drinking men. It was a long fall from the fame that he once enjoyed as a professional baseball player.

Smith’s drinking and his increasing bitterness destroyed his marriage. Maggie finally decided to leave him and, with her daughter, moved back into her father’s home at 758 East Lawrence Street. She told Smith that he was welcome to come and see Louise anytime that he liked and, while he never contributed any sort of support for his wife and daughter, he did visit on a fairly regular basis. The rest of his life continued to deteriorate. His drinking grew steadily worse and eventually, it would be alcohol that would ruin him for good. 

On Saturday, September 28, 1895, Smith spent the entire day drinking in a saloon on South Park Street. He was a regular customer, so he had little trouble convincing the bartender to loan him his revolver. He left the tavern and went to the home of his father-in-law, Frank Buchert, where Maggie, Louisa and Maggie’s sister, Edna, also lived. When he arrived there, he asked for his daughter but Louise was not there at the time. Edna offered to go and look for her and she went off down the street, leaving Smith waiting on the front porch. Louise, who was six years old at the time, was playing with friends in a neighbor’s yard, but Edna brought her back home to see her father. Witnesses later testified that Smith never gave any inclination that he was upset about anything – or that he planned to kill anyone. 

The house where the Bucherts lived was a one-story structure with a high basement. When Edna returned with the child, they sat down on the steps together. Smith was standing nearby and Maggie had also come out to visit. She was standing on the steps a few feet away. Then, suddenly and without any warning, Smith removed the borrowed revolver from his coat and fired at his daughter. The shot struck Louise in the neck and she made a loud, choking cry as she pitched forward and rolled down the stairs to land at her father’s feet. Maggie and Edna, utterly terrified, screamed and scrambled up the stairs and away from the gun. Smith fired a second shot at Maggie and it narrowly missed her, lodging in the ceiling of the front porch. She began to scream for help, rushing away from the house and in the direction of Jacobs’ Butcher Shop, where her father worked, a half-block away.

The exact manner of Edna Buchert’s murder will never be known as Smith was the only witness and he never told. The only thing that can be stated for certain is that Smith turned his gun on her and fired one time. She was struck near the back door of the house and she ran around to the east side of the house and fell dead on the front walk. Her father found her there, covered in blood, a short time later. 

Maggie narrowly escaped the violence. She burst through the door of the butcher shop, screaming, “Charlie has shot Louise!” Frank Buchert immediately ran to his house, where he discovered Edna on the sidewalk. Buchert dropped to his knees and pulled Edna to him in a grief-stricken embrace. He called her name several times but it was too late, the young woman was already dead. Buchert looked up and saw Charles Smith standing just a short distance away. He was coldly gazing at the scene, the smoking revolver still in his hand. Buchert pleaded with Smith to tell him why he would have done such a terrible thing. Smith gave him an angry reply, “You be a little careful, or I’ll give you your own dose of lead.”

Buchert laid Edna’s body carefully on the ground and, his hands crimson with his daughter’s blood, he ran to the fallen body of his granddaughter. Louise was unconscious, but still alive, although she was bleeding badly. He picked her up and carried her into the house, gently placing her on a bed. By this time, neighbors had started to gather and one of the men carried Edna’s body into the house and placed her on a lounge in the living room. 

With one last glance at the Buchert house, “Pacer” Smith walked calmly and slowly down the street in the direction of the butcher shop, possibly looking for his wife. Luckily, he never found her.

A telephone call was made to the police headquarters from the Jacobs’ store and details were passed along about the crime, along with the identity of the murderer. Chief Mason and Officer Howard Williams jumped into a buggy and headed down Broadway (present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard) toward the Buchert home. Deputy Sheriff Frank Taylor and Officer Cross went down Webster Street in search of the killer. At Clay Street, they ran into Mr. Jacobs, Frank Buchert’s employer, who had been following the killer. He told the officers that Smith had started walking north. Moments later, they saw Smith heading into a nearby alley and both men jumped from the buggy and ran toward him, just in time to see him disappear into a yard. Both men drew their revolvers, expecting a fight, as they advanced on him.

As the officers rounded the corner of a house, they were surprised to see Smith walking toward them. He held the revolver in his right hand and when Cross grabbed hold of him, he released it. He offered no resistance and when Cross asked him why he had done it, his only reply was “he had had lots of trouble and he had finally put an end to it all.”

Chief Mason and Officer Williams arrived a few moments later and helped take Smith into custody. He was taken to the jail and, within thirty minutes after the murder, the killer was behind bars. Smith was charged with Edna Buchert’s killing. He was charged with a second murder on Monday morning, when Louise died from her wound. 

Word quickly spread through Decatur about the brutal murders – and about the famous killer. The excitement was intense and lynching was freely spoken of on the streets and in the taverns and saloons. Even police officers were upset and angry over the crime. Officer Brockway, who was described as “one of the oldest and most reliable men on the police force,” rushed at Smith when he was first brought to the jail and tried to attack him with his billy-club. Other officers restrained him, but they did so reluctantly. Brockway was the uncle of Maggie and Edna Buchert and only the cooler heads of the other officers kept him from killing Smith with his bare hands.

Shortly after Smith was locked up, he was interrogated by Sheriff I.P. Nicholson. On Saturday night, he refused to talk. His replies to questions that were asked by Nicholson were disjointed and strange. Nicholson asked, “What was the matter with you today, ‘Pacer’?”

“What have I done? I don’t know what you mean,” Smith replied.

Nicholson was incensed. “Don’t attempt that. You haven’t got sense enough to play crazy. You had better ‘fess up and tell the whole story, and it will go better for you,” he said.

But Smith just shook his head and refused to explain the reasons behind what he had done. “I have had lots of trouble but it’s all over now. I’m sick now but will tell you all about it tomorrow,” he said.

The newspapers reported that Smith became sick that night and his “entire faculties seemed to collapse.” The police feared that he was being seized by delirium from alcohol (everyone was aware of his heavy drinking) but the next morning, he seemed to rally and his health improved. In spite of this, he never kept his promise to Sheriff Nicholson and refused to explain why he had shot Louise and Edna. In fact, his only regret over the course of the next few days was that he had been unable to kill his wife.

On Monday, following the death of Louise, a grand jury indicted Smith for both murders. That afternoon, he was taken into court and arraigned for trial. Attorneys Bunn and Park were appointed to defend him, but they asked to be excused and I.A. Buckingham was appointed in their place. On Wednesday, Smith was brought into court, where he entered a guilty plea for the murder of Louise. However, he stated that he was not guilty for Edna’s murder, apparently believing that since he meant to kill his wife, not his sister-in-law, he was less accountable for the brutal crime. 

On Monday, October 8, Smith was brought back into court to have his sentence pronounced. After hearing evidence from a number of witnesses, Judge Vail asked Smith’s attorney if he had a statement that he wanted to make on behalf of his client. Buckingham and Smith held a whispered conversation for a few moments and then Smith stood and asked to speak. He spoke quietly in a calm voice that was almost impossible to hear. His voice faltered several times as he made his statement.

“I borrowed the gun and went down there to kill the lady and the child – my wife. I understood that if I plead guilty that I would be hung and I am willing to do it, but would like to have it put off until the 16th of February. I am willing to face anybody and everybody,” he said.

Smith then took his seat again and wiped the perspiration that had beaded on his forehead with a black silk handkerchief. The judge asked Buckingham if he had anything that he wanted to add and the attorney stated that he didn’t. 

Judge Vail then spoke. “When a man pleads guilty to murder in the first degree as is charged in this indictment, he places himself at the discretion of the court to be sentenced, to be hanged or to be confined in the penitentiary for life or for a term not less than 14 years. I can see that a man can be so injured, or so abused that his wrongs may so weigh upon him until he imagines that he is in a way justified in murder. But it is not apparent that there was any ill feeling in this family. I cannot imagine how any man could have any ill feeling or hold any hatred that would cause him to willfully take the life of a mere child. In my judgment, this is a case where justice demands the extreme penalty of the law, but it is not an easy task. The law is the highest exponent that teaches the duty of one citizen to another and no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Now, if Mr. Smith has anything to say in extenuating him from this crime, then I want to hear it,” he said.

Smith only shook his head. He would never speak about why he had committed the murders.

The judge then ordered Smith to stand as he passed sentence. “It is the sentence of this court that you be taken back to the Macon County jail, and there be securely confined, until the twenty-ninth day of November, when you shall be taken out and hanged by the neck until dead,” he said.

During the pronouncement of the sentence, Smith stared silently at the judge. He stood completely still, a blank expression on his face. It was not until the judge was finished that color came back into his face. He slumped in what seemed to be relief, bowed his head and whispered, “Thank you.”

The silence of courtroom as shattered, though, by the piercing tones of a woman’s voice. A murmur of approval rippled through the courtroom as Maggie Smith cried out, “Thank God, he has got his just dues. My baby, oh, my baby!” Many of those in attendance that day later stated that they would never forget her words, or the crushing grief that could be heard in her voice. 

Maggie then burst into tears and was comforted by several friends. Frank Buchert, who was next to her, sprang from his seat and turning to the crowd said, “That is all I want; the law will give him what he deserves.”

Smith was hustled out of the courtroom and the crowd parted as he walked out between Sheriff Nicholson and Deputy Holmes. As he passed a group of his friends from the taverns, he made the motion of putting a rope around his neck and pretended to pull it tight. He laughed, “The twenty-ninth of November, boys.”

When he was outside, he told the sheriff that he was perfectly happy with the sentence and only feared that he would be given a life sentence in the penitentiary instead. He never explained why he had asked for the hanging to be delayed until February.

Smith was removed from his common cell at the jail that afternoon and taken to a solitary cell in the upstairs portion of the building. The following afternoon, he was visited by Father Charles Brady, the assistant pastor of St. Patrick’s Church. The young priest spoke to Smith at length about his spiritual welfare. Father Brady returned several times over the course of the next few days and, a week later, Smith was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Smith seemed to feel a great deal better after the service and the newspapers reported, “Despite what may be said to the contrary, Smith ever after his baptism seemed to feel better and bore up under the ordeal of awaiting his last day with remarkable fortitude.”

Smith remained incarcerated in his solitary cell, until, about two weeks before his execution; he was placed on “death watch,” which meant that he was constantly under guard. Deputy Sam Stabler performed the duty during the daytime and Tom Richardson stayed with Smith at night. Smith grew especially fond of Stabler and often spoke of him to reporters. Shortly before his death, he told one newspaper reporter, “The sheriff has been just as kind to me as I could wish. Anything I want, I get. A man could not treat a guest better than Sheriff Nicholson does me. Sam Stabler is all right, too. He is the same old fellow every day and we get along all right.”

Thursday, November 28, was Smith’s last Thanksgiving. He was in good spirits, visited with his priest and his family and ate a hearty dinner of turkey with oyster dressing, gravy, sweet and Irish potatoes, a piece of pie and a large glass of milk. His father, mother, brothers, and several sisters stayed with him in his cell for several hours, but when his mother started to leave, she collapsed with grief and had to be escorted out by the officers on duty.
Around 3:00 p.m., Smith’s brother. J.E. Smith, went to the Buchert home and tried to convince Maggie and Frank Buchert to come to the jail and see Smith one last time. Both of them refused. Father Brady stayed with Smith throughout the remainder of the day and promised to return the next morning with Father Higgins of Taylorville to give Smith communion one last time.

Smith rose early on the morning of November 29. He ate breakfast and then took a short nap in his cell. He told reporters that he did this so that he would feel better about his ordeal at noon. One of the reporters asked him if he had heard about a reprieve that had recently been granted to another prisoner and Smith said that he had, noting that the man’s death sentence had been commuted after he became a Christian and was baptized. Smith had written a letter to the man and he claimed this had been the key to the prisoner’s religious conversion. When Smith was asked what he would say to a reprieve for himself, he snapped his fingers and said, “I don’t care that much. I am all ready to go.”

Just before noon, Sheriff Nicholson came to Smith’s cell and read aloud his death warrant. Father Brady and Father Higgins stood nearby and Smith listened calmly. The sheriff led the procession to the jail yard, where a scaffold stood. Hundreds of people from Decatur came to see the gallows on Thursday afternoon, streaming in and out of the yard to see the “infernal device” that would claim Smith’s life. On the day of the execution, only about 300 ticket-holders were allowed to witness the hanging.

As the procession climbed the stairs, reporters noted that Smith was “pale but determined.” The two priests prayed with him a final time and then the hood and the noose were slipped over his head. Under the platform, three doctors waited to pronounce Smith dead. A few moments later, Smith plunged to his doom. It was the last public hanging in Macon County, Illinois history.

It was obvious to everyone who knew him in his final days that “Pacer” Smith wanted to die for the crimes that he had committed. He would never speak of what led him to commit the brutal crime of shooting his own child and trying to murder his wife and killing his sister-in-law instead. Whatever drove him to it, he seemed to believe that death was the only thing that would ease his conscience and assuage his guilt.

But was death enough? According to the legend of Charles “Pacer” Smith, it was not.

After the body was cut down, and Smith was pronounced dead, he was taken to the Martin Funeral Home and then delivered to his mother’s house for the wake. Services were held at St. Patrick’s Church and Smith was buried in Calvary Cemetery, on West Eldorado Street. The pallbearers for the service were former team members of Smith’s from his days with the Yellow Hammers. 

Ever since his burial, the legend states that Smith’s ghost has been seen walking in Cavalry Cemetery, dressed in an old-time baseball uniform from his days of glory. It has been said that he refuses to rest in peace, still tormented, even in death by the horrible deeds that he committed in life. 

The scene of Smith’s crimes has also been reportedly haunted over the years. According to tenants in the house on East Lawrence Street, the ghostly echoes of a woman’s screams were heard for decades, followed by the pounding of footsteps on the porch, as if Edna Burchert was still running for her life, fleeing from her crazed and murderous brother-in-law.

Friday, November 28, 2014


The Horrors of America's Worst Nightclub Fire

On November 28, 1942, one of the worst nightclub fires in American history took place at the famed Cocoanut Grove in Boston. The most elegant club in the city, started in 1927 and taken over a few years later by wealthy gangsters, was destroyed in less than 15 minutes and the blaze claimed the lives of nearly 500 people – and left an eerie haunting behind. 

The Cocoanut Grove, named after the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, started out as a Boston restaurant turned speakeasy. Musician Mickey Alpert had conceived of an idea for a roaring twenties’-style nightclub for Boston. With hundreds of thousands in financing provided by California mobster and swindler Jack Berman (hiding out in Boston), Mickey turned a vacant building near the Boston Common, located in what is now Bay Village, into a fine eatery with top-notch entertainment. After several owners (all mob-connected), the floor space of the Cocoanut Grove was multiplied several times as adjacent buildings were acquired and added to the Grove’s original footprint. The design of the place was to reflect the tropical setting of Casablanca. The walls were lined with imitation leather and the ceilings were draped with thousands of yards of satin. Six pillars, three on each side of the dance floor, were designed to look like palm trees, with large paper palm fronds extending far out over the floor in a circular pattern. An elevated area called “the terrace” was inside the main dining room just off the foyer. Wrought iron railings had been installed along the edges of the terrace, which created a feeling of separation and maintained prime views of the floorshow for VIPs.

The dark basement was created as the Melody Lounge, an intimate area that was so successful that it had to be enlarged twice, finally ending up in an octagon shape that was roughly 35 by 18 feet, in the center of the lounge. This place was to be a bar, pure and simple. No floor show, no dancing and no fancy food. The only entertainment was a singer, playing the piano on a small revolving stage. The basement was also given an exotic feel. There was one soft light in the center of the room, aimed at the floor, and neon lined the underside of the bar. The only other illumination was from the tiny seven and one-half watt lights that twinkled out from the fronds of the imitation palm trees in the corners. The dingy walls were hidden by flimsy paneling and the ceiling was covered with nearly 2,000 square feet of dark blue satin over wooden slats. This was meant to give the customers a feeling of sitting beneath a star-filled night sky. The draped satin extended up the ceiling of the staircase leading from the Melody Lounge to the main floor. 

As the club was expanded, it was done without any concern about the design. No attention was paid to the original layouts of the different buildings the Grove had consumed; they just kept adding and adding. The result was a confusing maze of coat check rooms, dressing rooms, restrooms, service rooms, kitchens and store rooms connected to each other and the three large public rooms by winding and twisting corridors, and to the basement Melody Lounge by a single narrow stairway. Scant attention was paid to Boston’s fire codes either. Thanks to mob connections in the Building Department, licensing boards and elsewhere, the owners could pretty much do whatever they wanted. 

By 1942, shortly before it was reduced to ashes, the single-story Cocoanut Grove was an amalgam of six interconnected buildings, fronting on the south by Piedmont Street, on the north by Shawmut Street and Broadway Street on the east. The Grove’s original size had nearly tripled. There were three large public rooms with three bars, a dining room, a dance floor and a stage for the band. During fair weather, the roof above the dance floor could be electrically rolled back, revealing the night sky and allowing patrons to dance under the stars. The basement had been converted into the dark, intimate Melody Lounge. The newest expansion, The New Broadway Lounge, had opened only 11 days before the fire.

Saturdays were always packed at the Cocoanut Grove and November 28, 1942 was no exception. Legal occupancy was listed as 460 but on that evening, with extra tables and chairs covering every square foot of floor space, over 1,000 patrons were enjoying a night out at the Grove. Among the merrymakers was Buck Jones, the famed cowboy celebrity, star of more than 200 movies. In town promoting war bonds on a bond tour, he was having dinner with a group of fellow promoters. As a VIP, he was seated with his party on the terrace. 

In the Melody Lounge, people drifted back and forth between the basement and the dining room or the dance floor or the restrooms, but as the night went on, the lounge filled up with nearly 400 guests. In one corner, a sailor and his date were enjoying the privacy created by the dim lighting. As their passions heated up, or because the young woman grew shy, the sailor reached up and unscrewed the tiny light in the artificial palm tree over their heads. Goody Goodelle had just started playing the piano and singing Bing Crosby’s new hit, “White Christmas,” when head bartender John Bradley looked up and noticed that their corner was now pitch black. 

Annoyed with the sailor but too busy serving the customers lined up four deep around the bar, Bradley called out to Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old bar boy, and told him to get the light back on right away. Tomaszewski walked over to the corner and politely explained that it was dangerous having the light out and he had to get it re-lit. Unfortunately, the bulb had fallen completely out and it was far too dark for young Stanley to see the socket inside the tree. Striking a match, he found the socket and got the bulb back on. He blew out the match, dropped it to the floor and stepped on it to make sure it was out. 

As Tomaszewskiy returned to work, he heard someone shout that there was a fire in the top of the palm tree. John Bradley ran from behind the bar and together, the two young men pulled and batted at the tree attempting to put the fire out. As other employees ran to help by throwing pitchers of water on the tree, the scene became almost comedic and witnesses chuckled at their hapless attempts. As the burning fronds were finally pulled down, Bradley looked up in time to see the satin fabric above the tree start to smoke and then burn. A ball of fire erupted from the corner, feeding on the fabric-covered ceiling, and rapidly spread across the room heading for the open staircase. 

Don Lauer, a Marine private, jumped onto a chair and tried to use his pocket knife to cut the fabric down to stop the fire from spreading, but he was too late. In mere seconds, the entire ceiling was a sheet of blue and orange flame, dripping fire onto the frantic patrons below. Almost immediately, the crowd panicked as hair and clothing began to burn. The crowd moved toward the only exit they knew -- the narrow staircase -- and the fire did the same. As the fire reached the staircase, it continued on its path, burning away at the fabric ceiling over the stairs. The staircase quickly became jammed, as four hundred people tried to escape the inferno, not knowing that the fire was taking the same route, in search of the fresh oxygen on the main floor. 

Ruth and Hyman Strogoff were Wednesday and Saturday night regulars at the Melody Lounge. They spotted the “little fire” and deciding not to take their chances, headed toward the stairs. Ruth believed that she and Hyman were among the first to reach the foot of the stairs but by that time, the fire had spread and the crowd began a mass rush behind them. In their frenzy to escape, several people grabbed and pulled at Ruth and Hyman to get past them and Hyman went down. Though Ruth pulled hard on his arm, she was unable to get him up. He was held fast to the floor as screaming men and women trampled on him to get past, or by those who simply collapsed on top of him. Within a matter of seconds, there was a growing tangle of bodies at the bottom of the stairs. As Ruth’s hat and jacket caught fire, she was pushed up the stairs by the moving mass, after which she rolled on the floor to put her own fire out. Knowing there was nothing she could do for her husband and that he was likely already dead, she was forced to leave him behind. Before the night was over, hundreds of others would have to face the same terrible choice of having to leave loved ones behind that they might themselves survive.

Gunner’s Mate Matt Lane was farther back in the crowd. When he finally reached the bottom of the stairs, the way was completely blocked with bodies, some dying, some already dead. He jumped onto the railing and used it to pull himself along as he climbed over the others to make his escape. He had come to the Cocoanut Grove with his friend Don Lauer, who had tried to slice the fabric from the ceiling only moments before. He would never see Don alive again. 

The way to safety wasn’t easy. The frightened patrons had to make their way up a narrow flight of 15 steps, past the locked emergency exit at the top, then make a U-turn to the right and down a 10-foot hallway, then another right turn around an office and coat check room for 28 feet, then another right turn and 12 more feet across the foyer to the revolving door opening onto Piedmont Street. All of this with a fire raging over their heads and thick black smoke filling the air around them. 

The owners had ordered all the service and emergency exits to which the public had access to be locked while the club was open. This was intended to keep patrons from sneaking out without paying their check. 

Many terrified, confused people never made it out of the basement Melody Lounge. They were overcome by the thick choking smoke or by the heat resulting from the fire. They weren’t aware that there was an exit door in the back of the lounge, as it was disguised with the same paneling used on the walls. It would have taken them down a hallway, up three steps and to an outside exit. The exit door was partially blocked by a sewer pipe so it only opened about 18 inches. But none of that mattered. No one found the door so no one was able to escape that way. 

Two of the people who survived inside the Melody Lounge were Daniel Weiss, a bartender, and singer-pianist Goody Goodelle. They dowsed napkins with water and held them to their noses and mouths to breathe through and then lay on the floor until the fire had passed out of the room and up the stairs. They then crawled along the floor and into the kitchen, where they escaped through a barred window. The fire had been mainly limited to the ceiling so when firemen made their way down the steps to recover the bodies, they found much of the furniture was hardly damaged. The fire had moved on in little more than a minute or two. 

When Melody Lounge customers finally stumbled to the main entrance off the Piedmont Street foyer, only the first few were able to make their way through the revolving door before it was completely clogged by the crush of people behind them. They were unaware that there was a conventional exit door right next to the revolving door. Welansky had installed a coat check room in front of it, with a large wooden coat rack blocking the door from sight. It is questionable however, whether this door would have saved many lives as it swung inward and would have been forced shut by the crush of the crowd.

In a strange irony, at 10:15 p.m., while Stanley Tomaszeswky and John Bradley were trying to put out the small fire in the palm tree, the fire department was responding to an alarm for a car fire just three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. It only took a few minutes to put out that small fire, and a firefighter noticed what he thought was smoke coming from the area of the Grove. As the firefighters headed toward the club to investigate, people started running toward them to report the fire. When they arrived, they found heavy black smoke pouring out of the building and patrons and employees scrambling out into the street. In short order, the fire chief on site ordered a third alarm to be issued, skipping the second alarm as he realized the scale of the disaster. A fourth alarm was issued at 10:24 p.m. and the fifth alarm went out at 11:02 p.m. By this time, the fire was largely extinguished and the departments responding to the fourth and fifth alarms were called for the rescue and recovery efforts.

While the fire department was assembling outside, the fire continued to rage through the club. 

As the fire arrived at the main floor in search of fresh oxygen and fuel, several hundred unsuspecting revelers were just beyond the foyer, not knowing that many of them would be dead within minutes, and the rest would be frantically searching for any way out of the blaze. Just as the fire entered the main public room, the lights went out, tumbling everyone into near total darkness, except for the firelight.

The dining area, dance floor, bandstand, and the Caricature Bar were all in the main public room. Customers complained that the tables and chairs had been packed in so tightly that they had to twist and turn and walk sideways just to get through the room to the dance floor. Tables were added along the side walls as well, some blocking emergency exits. 

Some heard the screams first, commenting that there must be a fight. Then they smelled the smoke. Then they saw the flames blast through the doorways and charge across the room. The fire was feeding off the fabric on the ceilings and walls. With the flames came extreme heat that seared flesh and lungs as people tried to breathe. The fire gave off carbon monoxide and toxins as the air filled with thick, acrid smoke, making it even harder to breath. The flames moved through the room so rapidly that many were overcome with heat or smoke before they even had a chance to leave their chairs. Some bodies were found burned beyond recognition while others were found next to their tables without any signs of injury. 

Movie star Buck Jones was one such victim. A popular story about Jones circulated after the fire. As the story went, he had escaped the fire but ran back into the building several times, carrying out injured victims until he collapsed on the sidewalk and was rushed to the hospital, where he died a short time later. In reality, Buck Jones was at the club that night having dinner, even though he would have preferred to be resting in his hotel room, nursing a bad head cold. Instead, he found himself sitting at a table on the terrace when the fire advanced across the room. He was rapidly overcome by the heat and smoke and fell to the floor next to his table. Firefighters found him where he had fallen, barely alive. The only accurate part of the story was that he was taken to the hospital where he died. 

It is well known to firefighters that unless directed otherwise, a panicked crowd will attempt to leave a building the same way they came in. The Cocoanut Grove had only two public entrances -- the revolving door in the main foyer on Piedmont Street and the exit leading from the New Broadway Lounge opening onto Broadway Street. This exit entailed a single, inward-swinging door that led into a small vestibule then to double doors opening onto the street. Most of the patrons had entered the club through the Piedmont entrance with only a single revolving door. These two exits were nearly a full city block apart.

Men and women who were able to run did so. They were desperate to find a way out -- any way out. And some of them did get out. All but twenty of the club’s employees survived the fire, largely because they knew where the hidden exits were and where windows would open. Some of the patrons were able to follow employees to safety. The rest were on their own -- lost in the dark.

As the Piedmont foyer continued to fill with people, bodies continued to pile up against the revolving door. Eventually, under the extreme pressure, the door mechanism gave way and collapsed outward. Nathan Greer saw the collapse and jumped forward onto the sidewalk. Sadly, a ferocious wall of fire followed him through the opening as a blast of fresh air rushed in from outside, burning up most of the people in or around the opening. 

A set of emergency doors was located along the Shawmut Street wall behind the terrace. These double doors were covered with wooden slatted doors and were blocked off with tables that were added to accommodate the large crowd. Even so, several people were able to find the doors. Each door was only twenty inches wide and the door on the right was bolted near the top of the frame, where no one could find the bolt in the dark. Joyce Spector witnessed the chaos in the dining room. “The men were the worst. Honest. There were men pushing and shoving to get out.” She was knocked down and started crawling across the floor, lungs burning, eyes stinging, until she felt fresh air on her face. She had found the Shawmut Street exit. As she struggled to get out someone outside pulled her through the door and “threw me across the sidewalk, and grabbed for more people inside. It seemed like an hour I lay there. I couldn’t tell. More people were pulled out and tossed down beside me.” Joyce survived her ordeal but her fiancĂ©, Justin Morgan, did not. 

Charles and Peggy Disbrow found themselves descending the service stairway to the kitchen where they joined a group of people already there. After searching the kitchen in the dark, they found a small window above a counter that had been boarded up. Knocking the boards away, they saw that a pipe was blocking the opening, except for about eighteen inches. Still, most were able to climb through and into a blind alley behind an apartment building. Margaret Foley, sitting in her living room, was unaware of what was going on only a few feet from her home when a woman burst through her back door, ran through her apartment and out the front door. Stunned, Margaret watched as another person, then another, repeated the performance. She later estimated that at least fifty people had escaped through her home. 
Don Jeffers, also having made his way to the kitchen, dropped to the floor as the room filled with smoke. Crawling around trying to find a way out, he heard a voice in the darkness. Following the voice, he joined four other people hiding in the walk-in refrigerator. They waited there until the fire department entered the kitchen and escorted them out. 

Two more exits were located on the main floor but both proved useless. One was a service door located to the left of the stage platform. This door also opened inward but it, too, was locked. The other door was in the New Broadway Lounge, locked and well hidden behind a coat check room. 

The 250 or so customers enjoying themselves in the New Broadway Lounge remained blissfully unaware of the carnage that was taking place on the other side of the adjoining wall for several minutes. 

Meanwhile, the fire in the dining room was getting hotter. When it reached the velour-lined passageway into the Broadway Lounge, extreme heat built up a massive amount of pressure that blasted the flames and hot gasses down the short passage and into the lounge like a torch. That room did not contain the large amounts of flammable decorations that the other rooms had, but the pressure, hot gasses, and scorching temperatures created an environment that caused the fire to burn more completely than in any other area of the club. Twenty-five bodies, burned to blackened cinders, were found where they fell. Dozens of bodies were piled against the only unlocked exit in the room.

Next to the Broadway Street entrance, two large windows had been replaced by glass block. One man was able to break a small hole through the glass block and attempted to crawl out but became stuck. Firefighters found the man reaching partially through the hole but were unable to get him out. They doused him with water but in the end they had to watch helplessly as the man burned to death. 

A long wall on the Piedmont Street side of the building contained four large plate glass windows. These windows, if broken out would have provided an excellent escape route for those trapped in the dining room area. Unfortunately, they had been covered with wood panels and no one knew they were there. Experts estimate that if these windows had not been covered, hundreds could have been saved. 

Firefighters needed to get hoses into the building quickly to save anyone trapped by the fire. Early on, wherever they tried to break through, they were driven back by the extreme heat and thick black smoke. When they were finally able to enter, they went through the area where the revolving door had collapsed. They had to climb over a six-foot-high stack of bodies to get to the dining room area. By the time they were able to enter the foyer, the fire had nearly burned itself out.

Less than half an hour after it started, the fire was largely extinguished, inside and out. Rescuers now needed to clear the entrances. They pulled body after body from the stack blocking the doorway, piling them on the sidewalk in the cold November night. Police officer Elmer Brooks remembered rescuers lifting bodies and having arms and legs come off in their hands. 

Clearing the entrances had been a terrible job in itself, but nothing could have prepared them for the gruesome task that lay ahead. As they moved through the building, they found bodies everywhere. Some were piled up against locked doors, while others were by themselves. Some were horribly burned, while other were unmarked by flames. Some were found where they had been sitting when the fire started while others were in found in the far reaches of the club. Firefighter Winn Robbins saw a dead woman, propped up in one of the Grove’s phone booths, still holding a telephone receiver in her hand.

Firefighters, police officers and volunteer military men began removing the bodies, piling them on the sidewalks. Some of the victims were still alive but there wasn’t time to separate the living from the dead (except for badly charred bodies) so they were all loaded into ambulances and trucks and taken to area hospitals. Medical professionals triaged the victims as they arrived, sorting out the dead and determining the level of medical care required by the living. 

Everyone who died at the Cocoanut Grove, died as a result of the fire, but there were several causes of death. The most straightforward were those who were physically burned. Some died from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning and still others died from internal burns - burned lungs and nasal passages from breathing the superheated air. Several bodies showed signs of being crushed by a mass of people pushing in on them, or at the bottom of a pile as people collapsed upon them. Even more disturbing was the number of people who had fallen and were trampled to death by the stampeding crowd. 

As they went about their work inside with stunned calm, outside it was rapidly becoming chaotic. The temperature was falling and the water on the cobblestones was making the roads icy. Fire hoses froze to the ground as smoldering bodies, living and dead, were doused with frigid water. Family members, friends and bystanders were pressing in on the building, forcing officials to form a human chain to stop people from entering the building to search for loved ones or to satisfy their curiosity. Unfortunately, some of the bodies piled on the sidewalk suffered the further indignity of being stripped of their money and jewelry as they lay dead or dying by ghouls in the crowds. 

Over the next few hours, nearly 450 fire victims were transported to hospitals. Massachusetts General Hospital received 114 of which 75 were already dead or died soon after. Of the 300 bodies to arrive at Boston City Hospital, 168 were dead on arrival and 36 more died within hours. Some were sent directly to temporary morgues but were found to be alive and transferred to hospitals; a few of those eventually made it home.

For several days, newspapers were filled with stories of those who lived and those who died. Eleanor Chiampa, only fifteen years old, was very excited to be there that evening. This was her first visit to the famous Cocoanut Grove and to top it off, she was sitting on the same terrace as movie star Buck Jones! Her big brother, home on leave from the war, had taken her to the Grove along with his wife and another couple. The two men were the only people from their party to survive. Eleanor lived for a few days in the Mass General Hospital before she became the youngest victim of the fire.

Married earlier that evening, John O’Neil and his bride, Claudia Nadeau O’Neil, had originally planned to celebrate their wedding at the Latin Quarter, another fashionable Boston nightclub. However, at the last minute, they decided to move the celebration to the Cocoanut Grove. Their marriage had lasted only a few hours as neither of them left the Grove alive. Their bodies were found in the dining room, next to those of their best man and maid of honor. 

Harold Thomas was in the main dining room and Thomas Sheehan, Jr. was in the New Broadway Lounge when the fire started. As people dashed madly about, each of them was knocked to the floor and were unable to get up as others fell on top of them. This likely saved their lives. They were shielded from the flames and heat by the layers of bodies above, and from the bottom of the piles, they were able to breathe the cleaner air near the floor. Both men walked away from the fire that night with only a few burns. 
Pvt. Harry T. Fitzgerald of the Army Air Corps, was home on leave from Florida. He had not been home for several months and his three older brothers were anxious to welcome him home and show him a good time. James, John and Wilfred Fitzgerald treated Harry to a night at the Cocoanut Grove. None of the four brothers or their dates survived the night. Their mother, a widow of twenty years, lost her entire family to the fire.

A few found interesting ways to save themselves. One young soldier reportedly urinated into a handful of napkins and placed them over his mouth and nose. Another young man found a container of ice cream to bury his burning face in as he searched for an exit. Both men survived the fire without injury to their lungs or throats. 

A party of ten, members of a family of funeral directors from a nearby town, were enjoying a night out, dining and dancing at the Grove. One of the couples decided not to stay for the second floor show, opting to see a program at a theatre just a few blocks away. When they returned, nearly their entire family had been wiped out. 

Two young couples were at the Grove to celebrate their wedding anniversaries. Helping them celebrate were 11 of their friends and family, including five brothers and sisters and their spouses. One member of their party had risen to walk to the Caricature Bar when he noticed the fire moving rapidly across the ceiling. He shouted for his group to follow him out of the room, but none of them did. He was the only one from the group of fifteen to survive. The others were found later, still at their table.

Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who was at the Grove that night on a blind date, got out safely but went back into the inferno four times looking for his date. He wasn’t aware that she had already gotten out safely. He aided others in their escape until he finally collapsed onto the pavement with third degree burns over fifty percent of his body. No one had ever survived such severe burn injuries but Clifford became a medical miracle. Twenty-one months later, he was discharged from the hospital. In an ironic twist of fate, fourteen years later, back in his home state of Missouri, Clifford was killed when the car he was driving left the road, rolled over and burst into flames.

Francis and Grace Gatturna were waiting for the floorshow to begin when they smelled smoke. Francis grabbed Grace by the hand and attempted to pull her from the room. As they tried to make their way out, they became separated. Francis made it to safety but Grace did not. After Francis was dismissed from the hospital, he became very depressed, telling family members that he should have either saved his wife, or died with her. His family became worried and checked him back into the hospital. He seemed to be improving with the help of therapy when on January 9, 1943, he jumped through a closed hospital window to his death.

The last Cocoanut Grove victim died in the hospital on May 5, 1943.

By the time it was over, the fire had involved 187 firefighters, 26 engine companies, 5 ladder companies, 3 rescue companies, 1 water tower and countless volunteers. The property losses were in the hundreds of thousands. The cost in human suffering was immeasurable.

Just twelve hours after the fire was extinguished, Arthur Reilly, Boston’s Fire Commissioner, convened a series of public hearings to determine the cause of the fire and find who was to blame. More than 100 witnesses gave testimony, including several public officials and over 90 survivors. The results of the inquest revealed that club owner Barney Welansky manipulated local politicians to his advantage and cut corners, putting his customers at risk, to save a buck or make a buck. 

At the same time, the politicians and public officials were busy playing pass the buck. Everyone had a good story that seemed to be designed to leave the teller free of any blame or questionable activities. 
Lieutenant Frank Linney, an inspector for the fire department had inspected the Cocoanut Grove just eight days before the fire. His report gave new meaning to “cursory inspection.” The entire report took only one page. Linney passed every topic and made only two specific notations -- No flammable decorations and a sufficient number of exits. The testimony of the 93 survivors corrected Linney’s erroneous observations.

Perhaps the most bizarre testimony was in the form of an opinion offered by James Mooney, commissioner of the Boston Building Department. “I don’t believe a panicked crowd would get out even if there were no exterior walls. They would get entangled among themselves and not get out anyway.” Mooney’s department had allowed the New Broadway Lounge to open without the fusible fire door, no new fire exit, no final inspection and the only emergency exit blocked by a coat check room.

The only person who came forward and told the truth as he knew it, regardless of the implications, was 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski. He testified to exactly what happened just before the fire started. Tomaszewski had been vilified in the newspapers but he stood tall and told the truth about lighting the match near the paper cocoanut tree in the ill-fated Melody Lounge. He insisted that he had carefully blown out the match and stepped on it. In the end, he admitted that he believed that this was probably how the fire started. 

Fire Commissioner Reilly did everything he could to ease the strain on Tomaszewski and ease his fright. He praised him and described him as an honorable young man. The Boston Globe advanced the idea that the blame should not be placed on the shoulders of this fine young man, but rather on the heads of the corrupt officials. Even with high praise and reassurances supporting the shy young man, his life was threatened. For the next several months he was kept under protective guard in a Boston hotel. 

On New Year’s Eve, a Suffolk County Grand Jury handed down 10 indictments, carrying charges from neglect of duty to twenty counts of manslaughter. Barnett “Barney” Welansky and his brother, Jimmy, received the harshest charges. Indictments were distributed to such officials as Frank Linney and James Mooney. Also charged were interior designer Reuben Bodenhorn, and the construction contractor and construction foreman. Stanley Tomaszewski was officially exonerated of all blame.

Barney Welansky alone was found guilty on 19 counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Nearly three years into his sentence, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Governor Tobin, mayor of Boston at the time of the fire, quietly pardoned Welansky. When he walked out of prison, Barney was a sick, bitter man. While speaking with reporters, he told them “If you were wrongfully convicted, framed, you’d feel you had a perfect right to be free. I only wish I had been at the fire and died with those others.” Welansky got his wish and died just nine weeks after being released from prison. 

Stanley Tomaszewski died in 1994 at the age of 68. He had gone to college, married, and raised three children and led a responsible life as a federal auditor. No matter what he did or how he lived, he was never able to escape the shadow of the tragedy. He had escaped the fire without injury but was terribly scarred just the same. For decades, he had been called “every bad name in the book” and had received threats and phone calls in the night. Shortly before he died, he said he had suffered enough and wished to finally be left alone.

The burned shell of the infamous Cocoanut Grove was finally demolished in September of 1945.

Today, the streets that used to box the Cocoanut Grove nightclub have been reconfigured to allow for the construction of the Boston Radisson Hotel and Theater Complex. The Grove’s original footprint has been swallowed up by the much larger hotel along with a tiny parking lot. The only physical reminder of what happened on the site is a small bronze plaque with the Cocoanut Grove’s floor plan. The plaque was prepared as a memorial by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association and embedded in the brick sidewalk next to the parking lot in 1993.

Though all other physical reminders of the Cocoanut Grove are now gone, there are other reminders that still linger. Hopefully, most of those who lost their lives have moved on in peace. So many lives were snuffed out before they could know what was happening; bodies were found still sitting where they had been sitting or collapsed where they had been standing when the smoke and fumes found them. It is considered by many that these unfortunate victims are still wandering the site, trying to find their way to safety, or maybe discover a friend or loved one. Several employees of the Boston Radisson Hotel might agree that they are. On a few occasions, people have witnessed strange appearances throughout the hotel. Disheveled and confused men or women, seeming to appear out of nowhere, wander past and disappear just as mysteriously. There have been other experiences reported in the hotel bar and in the kitchen, odd noises, flashes, and loud popping sounds, without any discernible cause.

The Stuart Street Playhouse, the Radisson’s theatre, is another location where fire victims make their presence known. On occasion, the quiet, shadowy form of a man can be seen passing a doorway or walking down an empty hall. When approached by employees, he fades away to nothing. Other phenomena include water -- unexplained flooding in different areas within the building and a singular water faucet in a restroom on the second floor that reportedly turns itself on, even when no one is in the room. On one occasion, employees entered the auditorium and found a seat completely soaked, with no explanation. Others have described hearing their names called while working in the theatre at night, with no one else around.

It seems that not all of those who stayed behind after the fire remained at the Cocoanut Grove. Another Boston location believed to be haunted by victims of the fire is Jacques Cabaret, just a few blocks away from where the tragedy occurred. Not everyone at Jacques is willing to discuss the ghostly happenings there, but one former bartender said that, “spooky stuff happened there all the time.” The most significant experience he had while working at the bar happened late one night when he was cleaning up after closing. He had left the bar area for a moment and when he returned, he saw bodies lying in long rows all across the floor. He turned to switch on the overhead lights and when he turned back, everything had returned to normal. 

The night of the fire, as bodies were pulled from the building, some were taken directly to hospitals while others were taken to a temporary morgue or to one of the designated mortuaries. Many who were believed to be still alive and taken to hospitals were already dead, and conversely, some of those taken to the morgue or mortuaries were still alive. A film distribution garage located near the Cocoanut Grove was set up as a temporary morgue on the night of the fire. The bodies were laid out side by side in rows on the tile floor to await identification and transportation. That garage is now known as Jacques Cabaret. 

There is a record of every person who was killed or injured in the Cocoanut Grove fire, but there will never be a complete list of everyone who was inside when it started. Some of the people who escaped the building unharmed, or with only minor injuries, left the scene and went home. In this case, lists didn’t matter. What bound these people together for the rest of their lives was the common experience. They went from joy and celebration to horror in a matter of seconds. Most of those who saved themselves lost someone dear. They had to contend with their own horrifying experience while simultaneously grieving their loss. They wondered at the randomness of who was taken and who was spared. And none of them ever forgot...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The End of "Baby Face" Nelson

On this date in 1934, gangster George “Baby Face Nelson” was gunned down west of Chicago in one of the most terrifying gun battles in mob history. Law enforcement officers managed to corner the feared Dillinger gang member near the city park in and a harrowing car chase ended in a bloodbath that left several dead in what came to be known as the “Battle of Barrington.”

“Baby Face” Nelson was born as Lester Gillis in Chicago on December 6, 1908. He grew up just steps away from the South Side Stockyards and roamed the streets with a gang of young hoodlums during his early teens. He grew up tough but at five feet, four inches tall, his height was always a source of agitation to him. He wanted recognition and fame and later in life, he got it as one of the most bloodthirsty bandits of the Depression era.

By the age of fourteen, Gillis was an accomplished car thief and while he wanted to be known as “Big George Nelson,” fellow members of his gang dubbed him as “Baby Face” because of his juvenile appearance. Nelson’s early career included stealing tires, bootlegging, and armed robbery. In 1922, he was convicted of auto theft and committed to a boy’s home. He was paroled two years later, but within five months he was back in again on another charge. When he was finally released, Nelson graduated from petty theft to sticking up brothels and bookie joints and then selling the same establishments protection against further theft. 

While working the protection rackets in 1928, he met a pretty young salesgirl at a Chicago Woolworth’s store named Helen Wawzynak, and he married her. His wife retained the name Helen Gillis throughout their marriage. She stuck with him no matter what happened and would be with him until the very end of his life.

In 1929, Nelson began working for the Capone operation, specializing in labor relations. He could always be counted on to get labor unions to kick back part of their dues to the organization. He enforced his demands with beatings and strong-arm tactics and eventually, his brutality got him dropped from the roster of reliable gunmen. Nelson went back to robberies and later that year was apprehended for a jewelry store heist.

Nelson was sent to prison in January 1931 and after a year’s confinement, was removed from the state Penitentiary in Joliet to stand trial for a bank robbery charge in Wheaton. On February 17, 1932, he escaped from prison guards while being returned to Joliet and fled the state. He turned up next in Reno, Nevada, and then moved on to Sausalito, California. There, he met John Paul Chase, with whom he would be closely associated for the rest of his life. 

Chase, who was just a few years older than Nelson, had lived most of his life in California. He had worked on ranches and in railroad repair shops and then, in 1930, became associated with a liquor-smuggling operation that was run by bootlegger Joe Parente. When Nelson arrived in California, Chase was still involved with the bootleg gang. Nelson worked with Chase as an armed guard for the liquor trucks and the two of them became close friends. Chase frequently introduced Nelson as his half-brother.

Nelson’s wife joined him and they remained in California until May 1933. Nelson went to Long Beach, Indiana, to recruit a bank-robbing gang. The first member of his crew, after Chase, was expert machine-gunner Tommy Carroll, a light-hearted character who had once been a promising boxer. Eddie Green, an expert at scouting out bank locations, also joined Nelson and they began hitting banks all over the Midwest.

In February 1934, Nelson and the others joined up with the Dillinger gang. By then, most of the members of Dillinger’s original gang, save for Homer Van Meter and John Hamilton, had been killed or incarcerated. They worked together during several chaotic and dangerous robberies and then ended up at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin in April 1934.

When the FBI agents arrived, the gangsters holed up at the lodge managed to slip away, leaving wives and girlfriends, including Helen Gillis, behind. 

Nelson managed to escape in the chaos after the botched FBI raid and made his way back to Chicago. He hired a lawyer to try and spring his wife in Wisconsin while the couple’s children, a five-year-old boy and four-year-old girl, stayed with Nelson’s sister at 5516 Marshfield Avenue in Chicago. The Dillinger girls appeared before a federal magistrate on May 25 and all of them feigned ignorance, offered guilty pleas to harboring fugitives, and were let off with a probationary slap on the wrist. Helen joined back up with her husband about a month later.

After Dillinger was killed (or vanished, depending on what you believe) at the Biograph Theater in July 1934, Nelson, Helen and John Paul Chase left Chicago for California. That summer, Nelson and Chase made several trips back and forth and on one occasion, they were stopped for speeding in a small town. They paid the $5 fine at the local police station and were released. The automobile, which contained machine-guns, rifles, and ammunition, was never searched.

In late August, they returned to Chicago and a month later, Nelson went to Nevada and Chase traveled to New York City. They eventually joined back up again in Chicago and on November 26, they went to Wisconsin.

On November 27, the Feds tracked Nelson, Helen, and Chase to Wisconsin. They intended to hide out at the Lake Como Inn (now the French Country Inn), just north of the Illinois state line. The Lake Como was a no-questions-asked kind of place on the waterfront, owned by Hobart Hermansen, a former bootlegger who was courting the estranged wife of George “Bugs” Moran, who had a summer place a little farther down the same dirt road. FBI agents received a tip from Chase’s girlfriend, Sally Blackman, that the bank robbers intended to winter at the inn. The agents pressured Hermansen into loaning them his place. They were caught off guard when a Ford they mistook for the owner’s pulled up out front. Nelson realized that he had driven into an ambush at the same time the agents recognized the driver of the car. Nelson, with a pistol hidden on his lap, exchanged a few pleasantries with the agents and then drove away unhindered, since one of the agents had driven the only FBI auto into the town of nearby Lake Geneva for groceries.

A frantic telephone call to Chicago sent three carloads of federal agents toward Wisconsin in hopes of intercepting Nelson on the Northwest Highway (then US 12, now US 14). The first team of agents, Thomas McDade and William Ryan, encountered Nelson’s car near the village of Fox River Grove and turned around to chase him, only to discover that Nelson had also turned around. As the two vehicles passed one another a second time, Nelson spun the wheel and, instead of running, started chasing his pursuers. The surprised feds accelerated, but Nelson stayed right behind them. Agent McDade pressed the gas pedal to the floor and his car surged ahead. As he did so, Nelson grabbed Helen’s shoulder, pushed her down to the floor of the car, and screamed at Chase to let them have it. 

Chase opened fire and his bullets punched holes in the right side of the agents’ windshield. Nelson accelerated to keep pace with the FBI men, snatched up his pistol with his left hand, leaned it out the window, and began firing shots at the car ahead. Agent Ryan returned fire, blasting out the back window of Nelson’s car. He fired a full clip at the pursuing sedan. Meanwhile, McDade struggled to keep control of the car, which was now traveling at more than seventy-five miles per hour. They were rapidly overtaking a slow-moving milk truck, lumbering along in the lane ahead of them.

As Ryan’s automatic emptied, he reached for a second pistol and realized that Nelson’s car had backed off. He told McDade, who had not had time to worry about the gangsters behind them. He swerved into the opposite lane to miss the milk truck and was horrified to see a westbound car hurtling towards them. He pushed the car ahead and managed to pass the truck and swerve back into the right lane, narrowly avoiding a fatal collision. 

Ryan continued to watch through the ragged glass of the back window as he saw Nelson maneuver around the milk truck, and then slow down to widen the gap between them. Suddenly, McDade missed a sharp turn in the road and their car bounced into a field and came to a stop. Both agents jumped out, guns in hand, and took cover behind the vehicle. However, Nelson’s sedan never appeared.

Ryan and McDade were not aware that within moments of pulling away from Nelson, two more FBI agents had joined the chase, once again turning Nelson into the one being pursued. At some point between Fox River Grove and Barrington, agents Sam Cowley and Herman Hollis encountered the high-speed gun battle that was taking place. Wondering why it was going in the wrong direction with the wrong car in pursuit, they turned around to try and catch up with Nelson from behind. 

As they came up behind Nelson’s Ford, they saw smoke and steam start to bellow from under the hood. Apparently, a bullet from Ryan’s gun had struck the radiator of Nelson’s car. As the gangster hopelessly punched on the accelerator, the second FBI car came in close behind them. One of the agents leaned out of the window of the car with a machine-gun in his hand. As Chase opened fire, Nelson tried valiantly to get just a little more speed and distance from the faltering car. The guns roared as Helen crouched on the floor, her head between her knees, her left hand clutching her husband’s leg.

Through the smoke that was churning from the damaged engine, Nelson saw that they were entering the northwest side of Barrington. The FBI car continued to gain on them and then pulled alongside. Nelson had to make a desperate move.

Ahead, along the north side of the highway, were three gas stations – a Standard, a Shell and a Sinclair. On the opposite side of the highway, surrounded by a mostly open field, was a gravel road leading to Barrington’s North Side Park. About four hundred yards ahead, houses began to appear on both sides of the road. 

Thinking fast, Nelson suddenly swerved into the park entrance and hit the brakes, causing the Ford to slide to a stop. Hollis slammed on his brakes but the FBI vehicle slid past the entrance in a long, shaking slide. As the car passed by Nelson’s halted automobile, Agent Cowley fired a burst of shots.

Nelson ordered the others out of the vehicle and lunged out of the driver’s side door. He hurried around to the back of the car as Chase and his wife tumbled out of the passenger’s side. He yelled at his wife to run, instructing her to get into the nearby field and lay flat on the ground. Helen sprinted through the tall grass between the road and the park’s football field, dropping to her stomach as gunfire erupted. 

The first shots came from Chase, who was crouched down at the front of the Ford. Steam from the damaged radiator slightly concealed his position and he used the distraction to open up on the FBI agents on the road. Seconds later, Nelson, standing at the rear of the sedan with a machine gun, also opened fire.

The FBI agent’s Hudson had screeched to a halt in the middle of the highway, about one hundred and twenty feet away. Bullets tore into the vehicle as Cowley jumped out of the passenger side and took cover behind the vehicle. Hollis, shotgun in hand, scrambled out of the same door and hid behind the front bumper. For the next three minutes, a furious battle raged as bullets slammed into the two cars, kicked up clouds of dust, and bounced off the pavement of the road.

Hidden in the weeds about twenty yards away from the Ford, Helen raised her head for one quick look as the shooting continued. She later reported, “I saw Les jump and grab his side. I knew then that was the end.”

Less than a minute into the battle, a .45 slug from Cowley’s Thompson machine-gun pierced Nelson’s left side, just above his belt. The bullet tore through his liver and pancreas before punching a hole out of the lower-right portion of his back. Doubled over and clasping his side, he ran to the running board of the car and exchanged weapons with Chase, firing the other bandit’s gun as Chase reloaded his own. No words were spoken, according to Chase, who later swore that he didn’t know his friend had been wounded. 

With a fresh drum in Nelson’s Thompson, he attempted to fire through the Ford’s side window. Between shots, Chase heard him complain about his weapon jamming and he threw it aside. Nelson picked up a rifle from the backseat and moved to the rear of the vehicle. Chase assumed that he was going back to his original position, but soon discovered that Nelson had walked out into the open and was advancing on the FBI agents and their Hudson. 

Nelson charged at them, almost manically, firing at them and sweeping his weapon back and forth. Cowley suddenly abandoned his position and darted left to the south side of the highway, where he stumbled into the ditch. Rising to his knees, he attempted to shoot at Nelson, but his machine-gun refused to fire. Nelson sent several slugs in his direction and Cowley crumpled onto his left side.

A second later, Hollis leaned out and fired his shotgun. The impact from the heavy weapon knocked the legs out from under Nelson. He fell to the ground, but managed get back up and he kept on coming toward the FBI agent. Nelson fired at Hollis, turned to fire several more shots at the downed Cowley, and then hammered the front of the Hudson. 

As Nelson came closer, Hollis turned and tried to run. He ran toward a telephone pole on the north side of the road, located between the Standard and Shell stations. As he ran, he fired backward at Nelson, but then his gun jammed. As he neared the telephone pole, he dropped the shotgun and drew an automatic from inside his coat. Before he could fire, Nelson’s next barrage of bullets hit him. Nelson kept coming at the agent, firing again and again as Hollis slumped against the wooden pole, which was now chewed up by stray bullets. He cried out, and then fell facedown onto the edge of the highway. 

Nelson stood over the agent for a moment, his weapon poised to fire more shots into the man on the ground, but then he lowered it, apparently satisfied that Hollis was dead. He limped across the road toward the Hudson, dragging his left leg behind him and spattering blood on the pavement. He climbed behind the wheel of the Hudson and pulled up behind the disabled Ford. He shouted for Helen and Chase, who gathered their weapons and trotted over to where Nelson was parked in the car. When he saw Chase, Nelson groaned, “Drop everything and get me to a priest.”

Chase told him to wait a minute while he grabbed their cases from the other car, but Nelson told him to forget all of it. He tried to crawl over the passenger side, leaving a trail of gore on the seat. He told Chase, “You’ll have to drive, I’m hit pretty hard.”

Helen came running out of the field and climbed into the car. Chase hit the accelerator, pointing the vehicle back west toward Fox River Grove. Helen sat in back, next to her wounded husband, cradling his head in her arms. Nelson looked up at her, his eyes blurry and filled with pain. “I’m done for,” he gasped.

Chase drove as fast as he could along the unfamiliar road with no idea of where to go. Nelson was slumped against the passenger door, drawing deep breaths, while Helen wept and continued to hold his sagging body. Nelson did the best he could to direct his friend to safety. Three miles west of Barrington, he told him to turn right on Kelsey Road, then right again on Route 22. Heading east again, they passed two miles north of Barrington, heading toward Lake Zurich. When not in town, Chase kept the gas pedal mashed to the floor and within a half hour, they reached Highland Park. Nelson was fading fast, but he instructed Chase to head south on Skokie Road. Entering Wilmette, they drove to 1155 Mohawk Road, a home that belonged to the sister of Father Phillip Coughlan, a Catholic priest who had grown up on Chicago’s West Side and who had close ties to many gangsters and underworld figures. 

Late in the afternoon, the rectory maid notified Father Coughlan that there was a young woman knocking on the back-door window, asking to see him. The priest went to the kitchen and found Helen Gillis in the doorway. She urgently told him that her husband had been shot and needed his help. Coughlan grabbed his coat and hat and followed her. Chase had pulled into the garage and helped Nelson get out, hoping to bring his wounded friend into the house. Nelson muttered a faint greeting when the priest arrived. He was leaning against the back of the car, his face white and bloodless. Helen begged the priest to bring Nelson inside, but Coughlan refused because it was his sister’s house. Instead, he offered to lead them to safe location. Helen asked that they all go in the same car, but again, the priest refused. The bullet-riddled Hudson could not remain in his sister’s garage. Coughlan helped to ease Nelson back into the passenger seat of the Hudson. Once the bandit was situated, the priest noticed a warm stickiness on his right hand. He looked down to see it was covered with blood.

Father Coughlan got into his Ford coupe and backed out into the street. With the Hudson following, he turned north on Ashland Avenue, then west on Skokie Road. Two blocks later, he noticed the Hudson do a quick u-turn and speed off in the opposite direction. He turned around and tried to catch up with them, but he lost the vehicle in traffic near Lake Street. He later confessed that he was relieved, but also saddened. He realized that Nelson must have thought he was leading them into a trap.

Coughlan was right. Even in his weakened state, Nelson was suspicious about the way that the priest was acting, mistaking his confusion about where to safely hide the injured outlaw for possible betrayal. As they drove, he instructed Chase to lose him, and they drove off with an alternate destination in mind. Nelson feebly told Chase where and when to turn, traveling south and keeping mostly to residential streets as they left Wilmette and entered Winnetka, then Niles Center (which is now Skokie.) At one point, Nelson appeared to pass out and Chase turned into an alley to wait for him to wake up. A minute or so later, Nelson regained consciousness and urged his friend to keep driving. 

On Sixteenth Street, Nelson told Chase to slow down. Pointing to a narrow alley that ran behind Walnut Street, he told him to make the turn. Chase drove down the alley to a red two-car garage at the rear of a light gray stucco cottage that faced Walnut Street. The address of the cottage was 1627 Walnut Street. Chase pulled into the garage and asked Nelson who lived there. Nelson mumbled, “Friends.”

Chase went to the front door and knocked and a tall, dark-complexioned man in his late 30’s answered. Chase told him that someone outside needed him and the man accompanied him back to the garage. 
When the man saw Nelson in the car, Chase knew that he instantly recognized him. The two men, with Helen following, carried Nelson into the house. They entered through a side door and passed through the kitchen. Along the way, Chase glimpsed an older man and a young woman who appeared frightened at the sight of the bloody and wounded bandit. They went into a small bedroom, where they placed Nelson on a large iron bed. The other man walked out, leaving Chase and Helen to take care of Nelson. Helen later recounted, “All three of us knew Les was dying, but there was nothing we could do.”

They did their best to make him comfortable and stop the bleeding. Helen was given scissors and other supplies and she cut the bloody clothing from her husband’s body. She stuffed cotton into the bullet hole in his stomach and the gaping exit wound in his back, and then covered both wounds by wrapping him with long strips of cloth that were torn from a bed sheet. Helen cleaned his buckshot-spattered legs, and then covered him with a blanket when he told her that he was cold. 

Nelson sighed. He felt better, he told his wife and friends, the pain was gone and now he just felt numb all over. Helen held onto his hand and waited for the end to come.

About an hour after Nelson, Helen, and Chase had arrived at the house on Walnut Street, the man who had helped carry the bank robber inside came and told Chase that he needed to move the damaged government vehicle. Chase agreed but Nelson begged him not to leave. Minutes later, the man came back again and reiterated that the car had to be moved. Nelson again appealed to his friend to stay and Chase promised to stay, but noticing that Nelson was slipping in and out of consciousness, he made the decision to slip away for a few minutes. Before long, Chase quietly left the bedside, exited through the side door, and drove away. He later insisted that he had planned to return after he ditched the car, but being unfamiliar with the area, he soon became lost. Attempting to head south into Chicago, he ended up going north and found himself back in Winnetka. When the Hudson ran out of gas, he abandoned it near some railroad tracks. This forced him to make another decision. Knowing there was nothing he could do to help his friend, he realized that he needed to try and get away. Chase caught a train to Chicago and disappeared.

Helen was left alone with her dying husband. Shortly after Chase departed, Nelson seemed to realize that he had little time left. He asked her to say goodbye to their family and when he began to talk about their children, he cried a little. Finally, he gasped out his final words, “It’s getting dark, Helen. I can’t see you anymore.”

Nelson’s eyes glazed over and his breathing became shallow and raspy, and then stopped altogether. The infamous “Baby Face” Nelson was dead.

Rain fell on the Walnut Street cottage until the early morning hours. Helen Gillis sat with her husband’s corpse until nearly dawn, and then the man who had helped them came into the room and told her that the body needed to be moved. Helen wanted to take her husband to an undertaker’s, but she knew it was impossible. The man told her that he would find a place where the body could be left. He promised to call an undertaker later on.

After wrapping the body in an imitation Indian blanket, Helen and the man carried it outside and placed it in the backseat of an Oldsmobile that was parked in the driveway. She climbed in next to her husband, cradling him in her arms as the man drove. They drove deeper into Niles Center and at the southwest corner of Niles (now Conrad) and Long Avenues, they reached St. Paul’s Cemetery. The driver pulled over to the curb and they wrestled the body from the car. Nelson’s naked, bloody corpse was placed on the grass. Helen tucked the blanket around him, hoping that he would be comfortable because Lester “always hated the cold.”

A few blocks away, just south of Howard Avenue, Helen dropped Nelson’s bloodstained clothing out the window. The driver continued south until they reached Chicago’s North Side. The man asked her if this was a suitable spot for her to be let out and she said that it was, even though she had no idea where she was or where she should go. Before she stepped out of the car, she gave the driver the name of a mortician who had handled the funerals of her mother and her sister. He promised to call and notify the undertaker where to find Nelson’s body and then drove away.

Helen wandered the unfamiliar streets for over an hour. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., she hailed a cab and slipped into the warm backseat. The driver asked her where she wanted to go and she just told him to keep driving.

At 6:45 a.m. the bullet-riddled Hudson was discovered by a Winnetka milkman, who notified a local patrolman. Federal agents arrived at the scene within an hour and found bullet holes and plenty of blood.

At 7:30 a.m., Philip Sadowski, the owner of a funeral home on North Hermitage Avenue, received a telephone call from a man with a “rough voice” who informed him that the body of a man named Gillis was lying in a graveyard in Niles Center, a block away from Harms Road. Sadowski told him that he was unable to retrieve the body. He was in the midst of preparing for a funeral and besides, he added, morticians don’t recover bodies, he would have to notify the coroner to do that. The man on the other end of the line told him to notify anyone he wanted to, but that he wanted him to handle the arrangements.

Sadowski reported the anonymous call to the Chicago Coroner’s Office and was advised to contact the Niles Center Police. Acting on the undertaker’s information, Captain Axel Stolberg and a patrolman went out to the area to look around. Sadowski, however, had failed to mention the name of cemetery and the body was not found. The pair returned to the police station, only to hear about a call that had just come in from someone who found bloody clothing near where the officers had just been searching. 

News of the discovery was passed on to federal agents who had spent the morning searching Winnetka. Four agents arrived to help Captain Stolberg search the area again. It was almost noon when FBI agent Sam McKee signaled that he had found the remains of Baby Face Nelson. 

Nelson’s body lay in the grass, with his head resting on the curb. He was naked, except for the cloth strips that had been wrapped about his waist and he was drenched with blood. His right arm was across his chest and his left hand was frozen into a claw just above the wound in his stomach. His feet were crossed and the agents realized that he had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in. The body was picked up, carried to a car, and then driven to the mortuary for an official identification. Fingerprints confirmed that the dead man was Lester Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face” Nelson.

The body was photographed and examined. The press reported that he had been shot 17 times, but the official count was actually nine. By mid-afternoon, news of Nelson’s death was sweeping the city. The body was transported to the Cook County Morgue and placed on a slab for public display. More than two thousand morbid curiosity-seekers filed past the dead bank robber during the hours that followed.

Once Nelson was confirmed dead, the massive manhunt for the killers of FBI agents Cowley and Hollis shifted to his two companions at the “Battle of Barrington” – John Chase and Helen Gillis.

With little cash and no car, Chase had checked into the Garfield Arms, a downtown hotel, and hid out in his room, only venturing out a couple of times to buy newspapers. Chase soon devised a clever way to get out of the city by answering a newspaper ad looking for drivers to deliver automobiles on the west coast. Using the name Elmer Rockwood, Chase applied and was accepted. He received a paycheck for driving a Studebaker to Seattle, and when he arrived there, he disappeared once again.

The search for Helen got the most publicity. When Hoover ordered his agents to “find the woman and give her no quarter,” the press interpreted this to mean that Helen was to be shot on sight. Some stories even suggested that she had replaced her husband as Public Enemy Number One. Even worse, a United Press story labeled Helen as “the Tiger Woman” and portrayed her as a “ruthless gun moll of the Bonnie Parker type, leading her cohorts in bank raids and battles with officers of the law.” She was the brains of the gang, they claimed, pushing her husband into a life of crime. The account also claimed that during the gunfight in Barrington, Helen had been loading guns for Nelson and Chase. 

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but even the FBI started to believe the newspapers. One agent was quoted as saying, “I’d hate to shoot a woman but I’m not following Cowley and Hollis because of ideas over a woman like that.” Assistant Director Clegg echoed the sentiments when reporters asked him what the government’s procedures were in apprehending Helen. He told the newsmen, “From now on, mercy goes by the boards.”

On Thanksgiving morning, November 29, Helen Gillis – America’s most wanted “outlaw” and the so-called “Tiger Woman – resumed wandering around the streets of Chicago. She had spent most of the night sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned building. She eventually ended up in her old neighborhood, where she watched her father, from a safe distance, as he left for work with a small crowd of people around him. The ones that were not reporters were FBI agents, waiting for Helen to show up. Asked if he had a statement for his daughter, Vincent Warwick made a plea that was published the following day: “Come home. Surrender and give up alive or you’ll be mowed down by machine guns. Remember your babies.”

Helen moved on and spent the rest of the day around Humboldt Park. She considered calling her sister-in-law, Julie, but was certain that her telephone was tapped. As evening approached, she dreaded the idea of spending another night on the streets. Near Lafayette School, she stopped a young girl and paid her a dollar to deliver a note to Julie’s apartment. 

At that moment, Julie’s husband, Bob Fitzsimmons was on the phone, as he had been most of the day. This time, he was speaking with Special Agent McKee, who had called to ask about the time and place of Nelson’s funeral. According to Helen’s wishes, the body had been turned over to Sadowski’s funeral home, but no arrangements had been set. McKee urged Fitzsimmons to try and get Helen to turn herself in. Bob agreed to do his best to get the family to contact her. If they were successful, he asked that agents take her into custody in a quiet manner, avoiding publicity if possible.

Just minutes after Fitzsimmons hung up, the girl arrived with Helen’s note. Bob and Julie immediately left the house and when they were certain they were not being followed, they went to the school and found Helen sitting in the dark on the front steps. For the next hour, they drove around as Helen tearfully told them of everything that had taken place. She said that she would have surrendered sooner but she was afraid that she might be shot. She added that she was hopeful that a deal could be arranged with the FBI that would allow her to attend her husband’s funeral.

At 10:25 p.m., Fitzsimmons called the FBI and was put in touch with Special Agent Virgil Peterson. He passed on the wish that Helen wanted to surrender but also asked if she could be allowed to attend her husband’s funeral. Peterson was in no mood to bargain. He told Bob that no promises could be made and demanded that Helen immediately turn herself in. It would be in her best interests, he emphasized, if she surrendered. After Helen agreed, Fitzsimmons told him that they would meet the FBI agents at the southwest corner of Jackson Boulevard and Halsted Street.

A short time later, Helen was taken into custody. The press was not notified of the arrangement. At the Banker’s Building, Helen was surrounded by six agents and hurried into the building through a rear entrance. After checking to be sure that no newsmen were present, she was taken to the nineteenth floor, led along a little-used passage that cut through a storage room, and placed in the main office.

For the next five days, Helen’s presence in the building was kept secret while she was being interrogated by the federal men. Hoover stressed that she must be made to talk and that Earl Connelly, who had stepped into the role of head of the Chicago office after Hoover had moved out Melvin Purvis, should question her constantly so that she would be unable to sleep. But Connelly was not cruel. In fact, Helen later stated that he was very nice and treated her quite well.

Helen did talk, however. She reluctantly shared an abundance of information while carefully avoiding the mention of any crucial names. Many of Nelson’s associates were merely “friends of Les’,” whose names she claimed to not know or could not recall. Their companion at Barrington, Helen said, was “a fellow named George.”

On December 4, word finally leaked to the press that Helen Gillis had been in federal custody since Thanksgiving night. No details were given about her surrender, only that she had been “cooperating” under questioning. The Bureau wanted to hold her longer for further interrogation, but once word got out, they were forced to proceed with the only legal recourse that was available. 

On December 6, Helen was delivered to the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wisconsin, where she had been taken after the raid on Little Bohemia. The next morning she was brought to the judge’s chambers and he asked her why she had violated her probation. She could only tell him, “I knew Les didn’t have long to live, and I wanted to be with him as long as I could.”

More than 150 spectators jammed the courtroom for her hearing. Looking small and frail, Helen admitted that she had violated her probation. Her probation was revoked and she was taken immediately to serve her sentence of a year and a day at the Women’s Correctional Farm at Milan, Michigan. 

Chase was eventually captured and sent to Alcatraz. He was a model prisoner on the “Rock” and well-liked by the staff and other inmates. Over the years, he developed a passion for painting and was regarded by many as an accomplished artist. He also became close friends with the prison chaplain, who obtained painting materials for Chase by selling some of his work in San Francisco.

In 1955, Chase became eligible for parole and the chaplain became his strongest advocate, insisting that Chase was a changed man who could be a useful part of society. J. Edgar Hoover heard of the chaplain’s campaign on Chase’s behalf and immediately started to work against him, ensuring that Chase remained on Alcatraz. At the bottom of a memo, he wrote, “Watch closely and endeavor to thwart efforts of this priest who should be attending to his own business instead of trying to turn loose on society such mad dogs.” Hoover continued to try and ruin Chase’s chances for release for the next 11 years but in October 1966, he finally made parole. He moved to Palo Alto, California, where he lived a quiet life, working as a custodian and performing odd jobs until his death in October 1973 from colon cancer.

Despite being a model prisoner while behind bars, Helen Gillis served almost the entire year of her sentence. On December 6, 1935, federal agents escorted her to San Francisco, where she was arraigned on charges of harboring her late husband, and placed in a cell to await trial. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney R.B. McMillan, who was supposed to prosecute Helen, wrote a letter to the attorney general stating that the 22-year-old widow was clearly no threat to society and appeared so pathetic that further prosecution seemed pointless. Hoover received a copy of the letter and was enraged. He insisted that the wife of “Baby Face” Nelson belonged in prison.

Helen appeared in court on December 13. The young woman who had married Lester Gillis seven years earlier, and who had been the constant companion of “Baby Face” Nelson, quietly pleaded guilty and applied for probation. Her attorney stated that she was only guilty of being a faithful wife to a misguided husband, adding that she had been punished enough. Prosecutor McMillan (likely to Hoover’s chagrin) added his recommendation to her plea for probation, citing her record of excellent behavior over her past year in federal custody. Finally, the judge declared, “I believe you’ve been punished enough. I want you to lead a good life and be a good mother to your children.” Helen was ordered to serve one year’s probation and finally, she was free.

She gave very few interviews in the years that followed, but on one occasion, she summed up her life with Nelson. “I loved Les. When you love a guy, you love him. That’s all there is to it. If I had my life to live over again, I’d do just as I did. I’d stick to my husband any time, any place, no matter what he did.”

Helen grieved, and then she got on with her life. In 1937, she returned to Chicago with her children and spent the next fifty years staying away from publicity. Her children married and moved away, Ronald to LaFox, Illinois, and Darlene to southern Wisconsin. Helen visited them frequently and in her last years, she lived with Ronald.

She never remarried. One week after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she died on July 3, 1987, in a hospital in St. Charles. Her last wish was to be buried next to her husband in the Gillis family plot at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in River Grove. 

On that day, a chapter was closed on a piece of “Public Enemy” history as the final participant in the Battle of Barrington was forever laid to rest.