Day 984: Love For Freedom – The Biddle Boys Break Out

originally published September 10, 2014

Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.

The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.

These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.

Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.

They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald.

Dorman was invited to spend the rest of his life in prison. Despite their pleas of innocence (at least as far as the shootings were concerned), the Biddle brothers were both sentenced to swing from the gallows, after a 60-day respite in the Allegheny County Jail. That’s where the woman enters the scene.

Kate Soffel, wife of warden Peter Soffel, was known to lend comfort and compassion to doomed prisoners. But when the local priest introduced her to Ed Biddle, something clicked. Perhaps it was his unflinching claim of innocence. Maybe the melding of their chemistries simply ignited the air around them. Throughout the month of December, 1901, Kate visited the brothers often, and soon she and Ed began exchanging encrypted notes. Before long, the warden’s wife had decided to help them escape.

She slipped a couple of small saws between the bars, stashed within the contents of care packages. Her father was the head guard of the facility, so it’s not likely she was searched before or after her visits. As an added bonus, Ed Biddle’s cell was visible from Kate Soffel’s bedroom, allowing them another method of communication. As the brothers carefully wore down the structural integrity of the bars that held them, a plan began to take shape.

According to a lengthy letter found later by authorities, Ed Biddle encouraged Kate to leave town, to travel to Toronto or Montreal to avoid getting caught up in the escape, which was planned for the early morning of January 29, 1902. She was to bring a vial of morphine to act as a cyanide capsule for quick suicide in case she was captured. But Kate knew the brothers would have a better chance at escaping if she helped lead them through the door.

After applying a dose of chloroform to her husband, she awaited the brothers’ arrival. At 4:00am on that Wednesday morning, one brother called out to guard James McGeary that the other was ill. When McGeary arrived, the brothers burst through their sawed bars and wrestled with the guard, tossing him over a railing in the struggle. Jack and Ed were armed with a pair of pistols (also supplied by the warden’s wife), and another guard named Reynolds was shot dead before he could call for help.

McGeary was locked up in the prison’s deepest cellar alongside George Costello, the other guard working the overnight shift. Kate met the boys and led them to freedom through the warden’s residence.

The fugitives had a two-hour head start before the 6:00am shift change would reveal their escape. They fled to a house near the railroad tracks in Pittsburgh, where the plan was to lay low for a few days. One imagines that this was the long-awaited opportunity for Kate and Ed to consummate their illicit affair, holed up behind protective walls while the world outside exploded in a frenzy, desperately seeking their capture. As for Jack Biddle, well hopefully he got drunk or something.

By late Thursday, the trio had been recognized by some locals who then offered to stash the crooks in exchange for a heap of money. Not presently equipped with such a heap, the Biddle brothers and Kate Soffel went back on the lam. Jack later said they’d have made it to freedom if it hadn’t been for Kate. He and Ed would have swiped a pair of horses and ridden into the night. But for Kate they stole a sleigh instead – it was slower travel, and it would prove to be their downfall.

Detective Charles “Buck” McGovern, one of the original arresting officers who had taken down the Biddles the previous year, formed a posse. He knew they’d be headed through Butler County, en route to Canada via the back roads. Sure enough, that’s exactly where they met the fugitives, guns at the ready.

There are two tales that describe what went down on January 31. The official story is that the detectives ordered them to stop, and opened fire when they wouldn’t. Jack Biddle’s version – which was supported by autopsy results – is that the three of them opted to take their own lives rather than be captured. Jack shot himself in the mouth, Ed and Kate shot themselves in the chest. The detectives added a few more bullets to the mix as they approached the three bodies writhing in agony on the snowy ground.

Jack Biddle delivered an extensive confession as he lay dying over the course of the next day in a local hospital. He and his brother never shot Thomas Kahney, nor did they plug the hole in Detective Fitzgerald on the day they were arrested. They had specifically avoided gun violence until the day of their escape. He related the entire story of their escape before succumbing to his wounds at 7:35 on February 1. Ed, who had barely regained consciousness all day, expired around 11:00 that night.

As for Kate Soffel, she survived.

Kate was treated for her gunshot wound, and also for a bout of pneumonia she had picked up whilst being totally underdressed for the cold Pennsylvania winter. She was despondent over the entire affair, and heartbroken by its conclusion. Warden Peter Soffel was released from his job. He quickly divorced his wife, then took their four children and moved away to Canton, Ohio where he remarried.

Kate served two years in prison for her part in the escape, then moved away and found a living dressmaking under an assumed name. She never remarried, and died of typhoid fever in 1909 at the age of 42. Kate had sacrificed quite literally everything for her heart, and spent more than seven years living a sentence of regret and shame. If that ain’t the meat of pure history, I don’t know what is.

Day 972: Missed It By That Much…

originally published August 29, 2014

“If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

So sayeth the big book of unspoken laws – the same book that also condemns hack writers who open articles with unattributed clichés, tagged with stupid quotation marks that indicate that the words have been spoken, though in this case only within the writer’s mind. Hey, sometimes I’m lazy. But at least I’m honest about it.

Sometimes – and this pops up most frequently when an occasion forces me to try dancing without a sufficient dosage of alcohol to abuse my bloodstream – I’m downright incompetent. That’s not a crime; we all take a stumbling stroll through the courtyard of fuckuptitude now and then. The key is not to be incompetent when it really counts. Like when you’re meeting your in-laws. Or performing a recital. Or trying to kill somebody.

That’s a big one. Screw up an assassination attempt and you’ll be plopped into history’s laughing bin    , filed under ‘G’ for Gut-Bustingly Idiotic. These five would-be snuffers of life weren’t out for notoriety, and the failure of their mission, though it opened them up for mockery galore, did little to sway whatever kooky inspiration had fuelled them past the checkpoint of legality into the realm of the fiercely wicked. But at that point, who cared?

Get your pointing finger ready and cue up your next laugh. These folks have earned it.

When a white man fatally shot the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, it stuck a searing needle into race relations. But King had been targeted before – in this instance by a black woman in September of 1958 – and the end result was actually more encouraging than divisive. Izola Curry’s beef with the Reverend was not so much issues-based as it was wacko-nutjob-based. She met Dr. King at a Harlem book signing, and proceeded to jab a steel letter opener into his chest.

To say the act of removing the letter opener was a delicate process would be a humungous understatement. The tip of the blade was pressed against Dr. King’s aorta – even a sneeze could have caused a rupture that would have killed him in seconds. A rib-spreader was needed to ensure the weapon was removed with the utmost care.

The happy ending of this tale is that Curry was locked up, Dr. King was able to publicly reassert his commitment to non-violence, and the trauma demonstrated true racial cooperation: both the pair of police officers who responded to the call and the pair of surgeons who operated on Dr. King were split – one black and one white. A horror with an optimistic tint.

Notable both for her deep immersion in Charles Manson’s fruitcake family in California as well as for having the nickname ‘Squeaky’, Lynette Fromme’s big moment in the spotlight came when she drew a pistol on President Gerald Ford in September, 1975. She was purportedly looking to meet the president and make her case for the preservation of the California redwoods, but for whatever reason she felt her point would be more eloquently stated with a .45 semi-automatic pistol in her hand.

There were four rounds loaded in the handgun, but nothing in the chamber. No bullet was fired, but Squeaky still landed in prison for life for her idiotic attempt at free speech. The real show was during the trial though – Squeaky wouldn’t cooperate with her own defense team, and she even hurled an apple at US Attorney Dwayne Keyes when he lobbied for a severe punishment for the defendant. The apple bounced off his head, knocking his glasses off.

Too bad that trial wasn’t televised.

Only seventeen days after Squeaky Fromme brought a pistol to a presidential outing, Sara Jane Moore did the same thing. Toting a .38 caliber revolver that she’d purchased just that day, Moore opted to take out her rage in a more direct manner. There was a bullet in her chamber.

About 40 feet away from where the president was standing, Moore raised her arm and fired a shot. Fortunately, the sights at that distance were about six inches off the target and her ignorance meant that the bullet did nothing more than ricochet off a nearby hotel entrance, slightly wounding a bystander. She tried to take a second shot but a US Marine named Oliver Sipple, who happened to be in the area, tackled her to the ground.

Sara Jane Moore served 32 years of a life sentence before getting released. She claims she wasn’t nuts – just overwhelmed by her radical political commitment. At least she expressed some modicum of regret.

If ever a handbook is printed on how not to carry out a murder, Samuel Byck’s photo will appear on the front cover. Byck wanted to dispatch Richard Nixon from our planet in February of 1974, and he had the foresight to take a very 9/11 approach to the job. But where the 2001 attackers possessed a heap of ill-conceived religious fervor, Byck only had a big ol’ pile of stinking stupid.

He stormed onto a Delta Airlines DC-9 at Baltimore/Washington International Airport after shooting a police officer to get there. Then he demanded the pilots take off so that he could steer the plane into the White House. When they refused, Byck shot them. He next ordered a random passenger to fly the plane. This didn’t work out, as the pre-flight safety recap doesn’t often include instructions on piloting the aircraft. The situation came to a close with the plane never leaving the gate, as police stormed onto the jet, prompting Byck to give up and shoot himself in the head.

I’d like to propose the phrase “he totally Bycked it” for when someone screws up an assassination so magnificently.

One guy who absolutely Bycked it was Francisco Martin Duran, who really hated President Bill Clinton. Rather than plot out some elaborate scheme to lure Clinton to the middle of Wembley Stadium and blow him up with a stolen drone’s missiles (hooray for this past season of 24!), Francisco’s plan was to wander up to the fence overlooking the White House’s north lawn and open fire with a semi-automatic rifle. A kid nearby had commented that one of the men way in the distance kind of looked like it might be Clinton – that was good enough for Francisco.

Unfortunately for him, he missed. Also, he missed some stranger – Clinton was inside watching football at the time. In court, Francisco claimed he was trying to save the planet from an alien mist, connected via umbilical cord to a secret alien in the Colorado mountains. Alas, 60 witnesses for the prosecution, all claiming that Francisco hated Clinton and the government as a whole, meant that his weird insanity defense didn’t work. Francisco will be serving time in a federal institution until 2029.

Sometimes fame just ain’t worth it.

Day 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

originally published August 19, 2014

What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds.

In 1870, Adam and Charley moved to Liverpool after having robbed the Boylston National Bank back in Boston. Once again, the Pinkerton agency was enlisted to investigate, and Adam and Charley felt an ocean could provide enough of a buffer between themselves and the heat to allow them to continue stealing in peace. They adopted pseudonyms (Adam was financier Henry J. Raymond) and reignited their criminal empire across England.

That’s when she walked in.

Kitty Flynn was a barmaid in London, and she won over both men with her charm. Charley won her hand, though it’s rumored that Adam won her loins, in that the two girls Kitty produced within her marriage to Charley were alleged to be Adam’s doing. The trio became a tight-knit team, moving to Paris and opening a genuine American saloon, complete with an upstairs gambling hall that was rigged to fold into the walls and floors in case of a raid. It was here that Allan Pinkerton, head of the detective agency that had scrambled deep in Adam Worth’s dust back in America, wandered in and recognized the three criminals.

But it was the Paris police’s continuous raids on the joint that prompted the three criminals to return to London and resume their British crime ring. Bad checks, diamond heists, swindles, thefts and all sorts of rackets padded their pockets. Scotland Yard knew who they were, but as much as Inspector John Shore made it his mission to bring this gang to their knees, there was no solid evidence. Even when Adam personally stole a valuable Thomas Gainsborough painting from a London gallery, it was never traced to him – likely because he never tried to sell it. He just wanted it for himself.

In the 1880s, Adam married a woman and had two kids of his own – all under the pseudonym of Henry J. Raymond. It’s not known if his family had any idea of his true identity. In 1892, Adam visited a Belgium jail where Charley Bullard was being held. Charley’s alcoholism had fuelled a violent streak, and he and Kitty had left London a while earlier, following his whim. When Adam got there, he learned that his friend had recently died.

Working with a ridiculously green crew, Adam orchestrated a haphazard robbery of a money delivery cart in Liège, Belgium. The robbery was completely bungled, and Adam found himself on trial. Scotland Yard and the NYPD supplied all the info they could, in hopes that Adam would be locked away for eons. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was contacted, but they kept quiet. Kitty Flynn reached out to Adam and offered to finance his legal defense. The trial was elaborate, but Adam maintained that this robbery was his one dalliance on the grisly side of the law. Ultimately, that was all they could make stick. Adam got seven years behind bars.

When Adam was released for good behavior in 1897, his wife had gone mad with grief and was locked in an asylum, while his kids were off in America being raised by relatives. Adam swiped £4000 from a London diamond shop, then sped to New York to reunite with his kids. He tracked down William Pinkerton, who now ran his father’s agency, and spilled his entire life story. None of it was admissible in court, but the truth was finally out there, off his chest. Adam arranged for the return of his beloved painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in exchange for $25,000, then returned to London with his kids to live out the rest of his life in peace.

Where Adam Worth found eternity was through the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In an effort to kill off Sherlock Holmes, Doyle fashioned the character of Professor Moriarty, whom he described as the “Napoleon of crime” – a title that Scotland Yard had assigned to Adam years earlier. Moriarty only appeared in two Sherlock Holmes stories, though in subsequent cinematic retellings he has been elevated to the status of Holmes’ equal, and his most incendiary arch-nemesis.

That seems like a fair legacy to bestow upon a man who – apart from one lousy slip-up in Belgium – had nearly led the life of the most masterful criminal mastermind. Adam passed away in 1902, his contribution to the lore of lecherousness complete. In a twist that can only be described as literary in nature, his son grew up to find employment on the sunnier side of the law. For the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Day 952: Death And Money

originally published August 9, 2014

One might assume upon skimming this month’s selection of articles that the author has developed an unnatural preoccupation with death. The author would courteously disagree, and would remind you that no preoccupation with death is unnatural, unless it escalates to unreasonably eccentric behavior, like keeping makeup instructions for the undertaker in one’s pocket, just in case.

But it’s true, I have been seasoning this project with a salty array of morbid subject matter lately, and today will be no exception. But fear not – these are still quirky and jaw-slacking narratives of death-related weirdness, not ghoulish kilographs of doom and misery. I’m saving those for my next project, beginning in January: 1000 Words, 1000 Reasons Life Is Meaningless And We Should All Give Up And Embrace our Inevitable Demise. It’ll be a riot.

Our two protagonists today are the guy who wouldn’t die, and the other guy who didn’t actually live his entire documented life. For the former, we find a conspiracy to condemn a man to an early grave. The latter tale tells of a man kept alive on paper for decades after his innards stopped doing their thing. The common threads? Those two nefarious nasties: death and money. It’s always about death and money.

Michael Malloy was a man who knew how to drink. Sure, he was Irish, and that can certainly explain a smidgen of Michael’s alcoholic fortitude, but by the amber ruler of whiskey, this dude was Super-Irish. The year was 1933; Malloy was living in New York City, homeless, jobless and perpetually so deep inside a bottle one could probably have gotten drunk by simply sniffing his hair. Naturally, he was the perfect guy to murder and make it look like an accident. And that’s precisely what five of his “buddies” tried to do.

The five men: Tony Marino, “Red” Murphy, Frances Pasqua, Hershey Green and Daniel Kriesberg, pooled together to take out three life insurance policies on Mike Malloy without the victim knowing. Then they tried to get Mike to drink himself to death, as they stood to net a cool $3500 (that’s just over $60k by today’s standards) if he died accidentally. That’s not a lot of money split five ways – certainly not murder-worthy money – but perhaps they thought getting too greedy would expose the plan.

The problem wasn’t the money, though. The problem was how to kill this guy.

Tony Marino owned a local (illegal – this was the dying days of Prohibition) libation establishment, and his initial contribution was to offer Mike Malloy unlimited credit. This alone would be sufficient impetus to lead to the premature drinking deaths of most hearty Irishmen, but for Mike it wasn’t enough. They swapped out antifreeze in his glass, but Mike kept waking up after his drink-fuelled blackouts. Next came turpentine. Then horse liniment. Then rat poison. When none of those knocked Mike permanently off his stool, oysters soaked in wood alcohol were administered. Then a sandwich packed with old sardines and poison. And also carpet tacks.

Clearly Mike not only had internal organs that were impervious to contamination, but he also possessed an utterly broken palette.

The murderous schemers switched tactics next, hauling Mike’s passed-out carcass outside on an evening that dipped below -25 degrees, dumping him in a park and pouring five gallons of water on his bare chest. He survived. They ran him down with Hershey Green’s speeding taxi, which broke several bones but not Mike’s tether to the mortal plane. Lastly they hauled him up to Red Murphy’s room (unconscious of course), and stuck a hose hooked up to the gas supply into Mike’s mouth. That did the job. Mike Malloy was dead.

Lobar pneumonia. Pumped directly into his lungs, the gas killed Mike within an hour. It was a laborious murder, spread out over months of foiled plots and bungled strategy. But the job was done and the insurance money was collected. Unfortunately, these five maroons not only couldn’t amicably split the money, they couldn’t keep their mouths shut either. It didn’t take long for police to overhear fevered speakeasy tales of ‘Indestructible Mike’ or ‘Iron Mike’ (pre-dating Mike Ditka’s nickname by a half-century). The investigation was brief.

Michael Malloy’s body was exhumed and forensically examined. They determined it was murder, then simply followed the local lore straight to the five inept killers. All five were put on trial; Hershey Green received a lengthy prison sentence, and the other four were zapped in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.

Our next story is a  little less murdery and a little more… creepy.

In July of 2010, Japanese officials attempted to reach out to Sogen Kato. Born in 1899, Kato was the nation’s oldest man, and they wanted to check in with him and maybe honor him for the remarkable achievement of still breathing after 111 years. Kato’s family kept them out. He’s sick, they said. He’s practically a vegetable, they said. Today? Oh, sorry – he’s working at becoming a Sokushinbutsu, a Buddhist monk who fasts and isolates himself from the rest of the world.

The police were becoming suspicious. When they weren’t granted an audience with Sogen Kato on Respect for the Aged Day, they forced their way into his residence. What they found was enough to turn every stomach at every sushi bar in the country: Sogen Kato was dead. But not recently-dead, we’re talking dead-dead. Clad in underwear and pajamas, it was clear that Sogen Kato had died sometime in late 1978. His mummified corpse was lying in bed.

Once again, criminal charges were laid.

Two of Kato’s relatives were arrested and charged with fraud. His daughter and granddaughter had been collecting pension money on Kato’s corpse for over 30 years, amounting to over $117,000 US dollars. You can double that amount, actually. Kato’s wife died in 2004 and roughly the same amount in a survivor’s mutual pension slipped into Kato’s family bank account.

Where this gets elevated from the weird to the supremely goofy is when Japanese officials began looking into other members of the extremely elderly, and found that they couldn’t account for 234,354 centenarians. Over 77,000 of these would be over 120 if they were in fact still kicking, and one would check in at 186 years old. If they could find him. It turns out the record-keeping process in Japan was due for an overhaul.

Death cannot be cheated, but if one plays their cards right, maybe they can use death to scoop some cash. Somehow, that appears to be the macabre lesson these stories are passing onto us.

Day 947: The Vampire Of Sacramento

originally published August 4, 2014

Every so often I like to illuminate the pages of this online repository of phact and phantasy with a story so luminous I can practically hear the creak of my readers’ perfunctory grins as their hearts glow from toasty delight.

This is not one of those days.

Today’s kilograph is a meandering stroll through the most dank and squalid corridors of mental illness and human tragedy. The story herein is so polluted with sadness and horror it could make the Coen Brothers squeamish. The only disclaimer I can offer is that the details of this tale will likely pummel your stomach like pizza dough and send you scrounging for a pick-me-up, be it literary, broadcast or pharmaceutical. This is an ugly one.

This is a story of unchecked insanity, of a man who squirmed through the cracks of a system that never clued in to the demons playing table tennis inside his cranium. This is paranoid schizophrenia, cranked up to ten then breaking off the knob. This is how the world utterly and completely failed Richard Chase and those who were to become his grizzly victims.

At age ten, Richard wholly embodied a phenomenon known as the MacDonald Triad – a trio of symptoms that all but closed the book on a person’s sociopathic bent and/or likelihood of homicidal leanings: he was cruel to animals, he lit stuff on fire and he wet the bed far beyond when a kid should stop. As a teenager, Richard discovered drugs, alcohol and a terrifyingly vivid stew of hypochondria.

Sometimes he felt his heart stop beating. Other times he was convinced someone had stolen his pulmonary artery. Vitamin C might fix him, or so he believed, leading him to hold oranges against his head in order to allow the vitamin to ooze past his skull via diffusion. I’m just guessing, but I doubt Richard scored a lot of high marks in biology class. At one point he became convinced that his cranial bones were shuffling around like drunken salsa dancers, so he shaved his head to keep track of them.

After high school, things started to get ugly. Here is where you’ll want to shoo any kids out of the room, lest they witness the look of quizzical disgust that will surely grace your face over the next few paragraphs.

Believing she was trying to poison him, Richard Chase left his mother’s home and moved in with friends. Before long, his buddies asked him to leave; they were tired of his constant abuse of booze, weed and LSD, as well as the unreasonable amount of casual nudity he displayed, even when company dropped by. Richard didn’t want to move out so his friends left. That’s when things got really weird.

Now free from judging eyeballs, Richard began bringing small animals back to his place, disemboweling them and eating them raw. He felt he needed to absorb the creatures in order to prevent his heart from shrinking. Sometimes, perhaps for a refreshing summertime treat, Richard would toss the animal organs into his blender along with some Coca-Cola and make a smoothie. Or would that be a float?

In 1975, 25-year-old Richard Chase voluntarily admitted himself to a mental institution after having been hospitalized for injecting rabbit blood into himself. Staff once found him with blood around his mouth; Richard had been capturing birds, drinking their blood and tossing the bodies out the window.

This should have been the end of the story. The institution that housed Richard poured psychotropic drugs into Richard’s bloodstream and treated him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Then in 1976 then released him. That was their biggest mistake.

Richard’s mom weaned her son off the drugs – the drugs that could have prevented everything that happened next.

First there was the drive-by shooting in late 1977. The victim was Ambrose Griffin, a father of two who had never even met his killer. A few weeks later, Richard was chased out of a house by a couple who came home to find him sifting through their belongings while urinating and defecating all over the place. On January 23, Richard made his way into the home of Teresa Wallin. What he did to her would crank anyone’s nausea faucet.

Teresa, who was three months pregnant, was shot three times. Richard then had sex with her corpse, drank her blood, then went into the back yard to gather up some dog poop, which he then stuffed down her throat. There is no reasoning why here – Richard believed he was exercising his survival instinct in committing these foul acts. It only took four days for him to strike again.

This time the victim was Evelyn Miroth, a 38-year-old Sacramento woman. Richard shot her, shot her friend, Danny Meredith, then shot Jason, Evelyn’s 6-year-old son. If that wasn’t enough, he next turned the gun on Evelyn’s 22-month-old nephew, David Ferreira. Ankle-deep in blood, Richard once again flexed his penchant for necrophilia and had his way with Evelyn’s body. Just as the cannibalism started to kick in, Richard was startled by a six-year-old girl who rang the doorbell.

She was heading over for a pre-planned playdate with Jason Miroth. While I’m sure Richard contemplated bringing the gun to the door to add her to the body-count, instead he thankfully fled the scene, leaving footprints, handprints, and a crap-ton of evidence behind.

So why did he do it?

In a series of interviews with Robert Ressler, the FBI agent-turned-writer who coined the phrase ‘serial killer’, Richard Chase insisted that he had murdered only because he had to. It was the Nazis, you see. The Nazis aboard their UFOs that had compelled him to do what he did. All he needed was a radar gun and he could pinpoint the Nazis’ location, and they could be brought in to stand trial for the murders they had made him commit. Richard then handed Ressler a heap of macaroni and cheese he’d been concealing in his pants, claiming this would serve as evidence that the prison system was working in tandem with the Nazis, trying to poison him.

Richard’s defense counsel had pushed for a plea of second-degree murder, pointing out the lack of premeditation. The jury rejected the plea for insanity (though how one could deny the presence of insanity in this case is beyond me), and instead convicted Richard on six counts of first-degree murder, for which he was awarded an intimate date with the gas chamber.

Richard never made it to that date. After having hoarded his anti-depressant pills for a few weeks, he gulped them all back in one shot and left this world in a prison-cell suicide on December 26, 1980. In his wake was one of the most gruesome and heinous trails of deviancy and depravity the state of California has ever seen. And the worst part is, there is no lesson, no wisdom we can squeeze from this withered grape of terror, except for this: don’t pull a guy off his meds before it’s time.

Day 939: When Juries Get A Little Bad-Ass

originally published July 27, 2014

When I was asked to serve on a jury back in 2006, my innards were polarized in their response. On the one hand, it would mean experiencing the justice system from the inside out, hearing evidence, steering the waves of someone’s fate, and perhaps getting to reenact the dramatic speech made by Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. On the flip-side, I’d heard too many stories of people desperately seeking an escape from jury duty not to be suspicious of the supposed visceral experience of it all. What the hell, I figured. I had a dull job (though my current job makes computer tech support look like Indiana Jones-level archaeology by comparison), why not serve the system?

It was a three-day trial, resulting in me being sequestered in a hotel for three days, cut off from family, phone, newspapers, internet and television, lest I stumble across an episode of Law & Order that might taint my objectivity. I remember almost nothing else about the trial, except that Henry Fonda’s words failed to fall from my lips, and I missed three nights of The Daily Show. But I did my duty.

Little did I know the potential power of a jury to scrote-kick the law and even change it. Jury nullification is a quirky little corner of legal lore that has quietly but profoundly been a factor in how the judicial system works. Or fails to work, as the case may be.

The Magna Carta, one of those ancient leafs of yellowing paper that you’ll find behind glass so that generations of school kids can wander by and nod disinterestedly at it, established juries as a staple ingredient in the silty justice stew England was trying to put together in the 13th century. Back then, juries tended to side with the crown. This wasn’t a case of not wanting to piss off the king (though on occasion it might have been), but more a question of jury manipulation.

It wasn’t hard to bribe a jury back then. The checks-and-balances and policing of the jerks running the country were concepts that were still centuries away. Outright bribery or hand-picking the schmucks on a jury was easy and uncontestable. Not only that, but judges could write off any jury’s decision if it didn’t go his way, and order a second trial. There were a lot of ways to scoot around the system to get the conviction the crown was after.

It took a few hundred years before juries began flexing their muscles to fight the system. When John Lilburne faced high treason charges in 1649 for rallying a revolution against Oliver Cromwell’s royalist faction, his jury acquitted him, despite a cauldron of bubbly evidence that pointed at his guilt. But the people were behind Lilburne’s cause, and an acquittal was a statement of triumph.

In Scotland, jury nullification introduced the concept of ‘not guilty’ to the court system. In the 1728 trial of James Carnegie of Finhaven for accidentally killing the Earl of Strathmore, a ‘proven’ verdict would have sent James to the noose. ‘Not proven’, which was the other common conclusion in Scottish courts, wouldn’t make sense, since it was clear as a wayward kilt upon a field of Scottish thistle that he’d killed the guy. The jury invoked what they believed was their ‘ancient right’ to judge more than just the facts, so they issued a verdict of ‘not guilty’. This option remains commonplace in Scotland to this day.

Canada’s most infamous case of jury nullification went down in the 1980’s. Henry Morgentaler was a Montreal doctor who, aside from being one of the first Canadian docs to perform a vasectomy and then one of the first to hand out birth control pills, operated a private abortion clinic, which was a clear violation of the Criminal Code. Yet every time Morgentaler appeared in court throughout the 70’s and 80’s, he was acquitted by a jury. Eventually one of these jury nullifications was hauled all the way through the system to the Supreme Court.

The highest court in the land elected not to strike down the jury’s decision and enforce the law. Instead, Chief Justice Brian Dickson indicated that yes, juries have a right to do this. Sure, allowing an arbitrary dozen people who couldn’t come up with a legitimate excuse to get out of jury duty the power to change the law could be dangerous, but it’s necessary to allow the collective conscience of the public to have a say. The law that Morgentaler had been accused of breaking was ultimately crumbled by that one jury’s decision not to apply it. This was Canada’s Roe vs. Wade.

In the United States, jury nullification became an effective tool of thwarting a racist government and pushing for civil rights. Yes, there are undoubtedly cabinets full of cases wherein white people were acquitted (by all-white juries of course) for murdering black people – this is part of that danger Justice Dickson was talking about in his 1988 ruling. But it worked the other way when 24 people were accused of helping a slave escape from jail in 1851. The first four trials netted three acquittals, leading the government to give up and drop the rest of the charges.

During Prohibition, it’s estimated that as many as 60% of cases looking to enforce alcohol restriction laws were nullified by juries who believed the law to be garbage. This is believed to be a massive force in bringing about the Twenty-first Amendment that let the liquor flow once more. Lately this has been popping up – albeit with a much lower level of visibility – in drug cases. This could be how drug policy gets reformed: not through a referendum like we saw in Colorado and Washington, but from the courts.

Judges can yank a juror (or several) if they feel there’s a reason the juror is not doing their job properly. And if they feel a jury screwed up and convicted someone they shouldn’t have, the judge can step in or the appeals process can help to right the ship. But an acquittal is an acquittal, especially in regions that employ the double jeopardy rule, in which a person cannot be tried for the same crime twice. Juries can’t be punished for delivering a nullifying verdict that smacks the letter of the law upside its frilly be-wigged head.

So is nullification an act of undermining the law? Is it a violation of the oath jurors must take before they can plant themselves in a courtroom? Or is nullification a genuine protection against tyranny, wrongful imprisonment and stupid legislation? It exists, and so far it’s a legal practice that has had a profound effect on the face of modern justice. It’s something anyone called up for jury duty should be aware of.

I never got the chance to boldly raise the scepter of truth in the face of an unjust statute – I simply sat through hours of testimony and even more hours of deliberation whilst being cut off from my friends, family, hobbies and vices. Next time the invitation to serve shows up in my mailbox, I might look for a way to escape my duty. But then again, it might mean a few days off work. I could use the change of scenery, so long as it doesn’t interfere with my weekends.

Day 927: Justice Joe Pulls A Crater

originally published July 15, 2014

At the sputtering end of the era of utmost corruption within the governance of the city of New York, people had to – in the parlance of today’s aspiring gangstas – get got. Arnold Rothstein met his untimely end in 1928 (spoilers to any Boardwalk Empire fans), and in the wake of his demise the final vestiges of the Tammany Hall fist of political smarminess were poised to become rubble. This wasn’t the end of corruption in New York of course, only the final curtain for this particular brand of centralized evil.

On the filthy payroll were cops, city officials and judges – hell, if the Tammany Hall machine were still around they’d probably be using those Times Square Elmos to peddle fenced goods. Unfortunately for the families of those who were caught up in this web of political malfeasance, when someone was rubbed out, there wasn’t always an accompanying explanation.

This brings us to the mysterious vanishing of Associate Justice Joseph Force Crater of the New York Supreme Court. Here was a man poised in the toasty glow of a biopic-worthy legal career: sitting on the second-highest court in New York at age 41 and allegedly a contender for the next open spot on the US Supreme Court. Then one day, he vanished. Did he flee? Was he dispatched from this planet via a snub-nosed messenger? Was he secretly a ghost the entire time? No, probably not that last one.

In the summer of 1930, Justice Crater was vacationing with Stella, his wife, at their cozy cabin in Belgrade, Maine. Crater had only been appointed three months earlier, but he felt he deserved a little break. He received a call in late July, and announced to Stella that he needed to return to New York “to straighten those fellows out.” Nothing else was said, and the next day he was back in the couple’s swanky Fifth Avenue apartment.

Whatever pressing business had summoned Justice Crater to New York, it would have to wait until after his wild weekend in Atlantic City with his showgirl mistress, Sally Lou Ritzi. This guy couldn’t have been more of a cliché if he wore a tommy gun over his shoulder.

Crater returned to Maine on August 1, then packed up to head back to New York again on August 3. He told his wife he’d be back in time for her birthday on the 9th, and according to his wife he was in good spirits before he left. He’d just spent a weekend in Atlantic City shtupping a showgirl – of course he was in good spirits.

On the morning of August 6, Justice Crater spent two hours going through his files at work, suspiciously destroying some of them, then sending Joseph Mara, his law clerk, out to cash two checks. This gave the judge $5,150 in cash (roughly $72,700 in 2014 bills). A payout for someone trying to shake him down? Maybe. A nest-egg for a quick getaway to some far-off land? Perhaps. Crater dismissed Mara for the remainder of the day and booked himself a ticket to a Broadway show at the Belasco Theatre.

Crater went out for dinner that night with Sally Lou Ritzi and William Klein, a lawyer buddy. Crater was in good spirits when the party broke up around 9:00, and he left on his own to see the show. That was the last time anyone saw the judge alive.

It took his wife ten days to report Crater missing. It wasn’t until the judge missed work on the 25th that the manhunt began.

In the aftermath of Justice Crater’s disappearance, Sally Lou Ritzi scooted out of New York, back to her family in Youngstown, Ohio, ostensibly because her dad was under the weather. For the next seven years she would be subjected to police questioning, but she never let loose any details juicier than the ones I described above.

June Brice, another showgirl, was known to be among Crater’s stable of floozies, and she was spotted talking to the judge the day before he vanished. One of Stella Crater’s lawyers had a theory involving June and a blackmail scheme that had resulted in Crater’s murder. But the day the grand jury was to convene on the case, June went missing. She wasn’t discovered until someone tracked her down in a mental hospital in 1948.

Then there’s the Vivian Gordon angle. Vivian was a high-end hooker, often seen around town with Jack “Legs” Diamond, a gangster who was known to associate with Justice Crater and Arnold Rothstein. In February 1931, Vivian announced herself to the person running the official inquiry into city corruption, and declared that she’d be willing to testify about some of the back-door dealings and shady goings-on among the powerful people she knew. Five days later, Vivian was murdered. One of Crater’s coats was found in her apartment, suggesting a possible link between their fates.

Other suspicious doodads trickled into the case file: Crater’s safe deposit box had been emptied. Two locked briefcases that Crater and Joseph Mara had brought from his office to his Fifth Avenue apartment on August 6 were gone. Some six months after Crater was last seen, his wife discovered envelopes containing cash and an extensive detailing of who owed Crater money in a dresser drawer – one that the police would have searched in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance.

What the hell happened to this guy?

We’ll probably never know. Stella Crater had run out of money and was living on the pitiful $12 a week she earned as a telephone operator in 1939 before Justice Crater was officially declared dead, thus unleashing his hefty life insurance settlement. The case was officially closed by the NYPD in 1979.

In 2005, a lady named Stella Ferrucci-Good passed away at age 91. In her possession were notes that pinpointed a location along the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, where the New York Aquarium now sits as the final resting place for Justice Joseph Crater. The paperwork in her possession (which had been sealed in an envelope marked ‘Do not open until I am dead’) fingered NYPD officer Charles Burns and his brother Frank – both of whom had strong ties to organized crime, as well as names that would be used for characters on TV comedy shows years in the future – as being responsible for the judge’s murder.

The location in question had been excavated in the 1950’s for the aquarium’s construction, and no skeletal remains are known to have been found. But this final clue in Justice Crater’s case will keep amateur sleuths on the hunt for the truth for ages.

The reality is that Joseph Crater was a corrupt bastard, and he may have died the way corrupt bastards are destined to die: via some shadowy act of evil in the black of night. Or maybe he simply liquidated his assets and went on the permanent lam. For decades afterward, the term to “pull a Crater” was colloquial slang for making a sudden disappearance. If nothing else, at least Crater contributed a punchline to the lexicon for a while.

Day 923: The Moderately Bungled Legend Of The Dalton Gang

originally published July 11, 2014

Of course, we all know the stories of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James, but do we really know… wait, I can’t make that assumption anymore. There have been maybe three or four decent western movies released in the 22 years since The Unforgiven, so it’s a safer guess that our collective knowledge of old west outlaws is probably somewhat shallow, apart from basic name recognition.

So maybe most people only know Jesse James as that West Coast Choppers guy, and maybe there are some who believe Billy the Kid was the character Gene Wilder played in Blazing Saddles. A hundred years ago, anywhere from 10-20% of American movies were westerns; now the genre barely shows up as a blip on the map. But alas, I’m digressing off the dusty path.

If the biggest names of America’s frontier days have already drifted into pop-culture obscurity, then I’m sure the tale of the Dalton Gang is utterly recondite. This is a tale of outlawism, of high aspiration and of ludicrous ineptitude. It’s a story that truly deserves a modern re-telling (and perhaps a resurrection of one of film’s most delicious genres).

It all begins here, with Frank Dalton. Frank was the eldest of 15 kids, a Deputy US Marshal and by all accounts, a hero. He was shot dead in the line of duty while trailing a horse thief through the Oklahoma Territory in 1887, and within three years his brothers (Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton) had followed in Frank’s footsteps and joined the noble side of law enforcement. After a monetary dispute left the brothers feeling soured on their distinguished vocation, they hopped across the proverbial tracks and became bad guys.

Let’s do a quick sweep of the Dalton Gang that formed in 1890:

  • There were the brothers: Gratton (Grat), the eldest brother who had idolized Frank; Bob, the wild man who murdered a romantic rival while he was still a deputy; and Emmett, the youngest of the bunch. Another brother, Bill, was also an outlaw, but he spent most of his years out in California on his own.
  • George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, who was too crazy even for Bob to keep in line.
  • Charley Pierce, who was a smooth-talker with the ladies (actually, I have no idea if this is true but at this point I’m looking at casting ideas).
  • Blackfaced Charlie Bryant, who had a permanent black mark on his cheek from a gunpowder incident.
  • Bill Doolin, a great shot and a savvy strategist. Also, he looked enough like Michael Fassbender to get us an A-lister for this movie.
  • The other guys: Dick Broadwell and Bill Power.

After having robbed a gambling house in Silver City, New Mexico, the Dalton Gang was accused of robbing a Southern Pacific Railroad passenger train. Whether or not they did it is irrelevant; Grat was arrested and sentenced to 20 years for the job. While being transferred to prison by train, handcuffed to a guard, Grat made his move. The guard attached to his wrist fell asleep while the other guard on duty had struck up a conversation with some of the other passengers. Grat took the keys from the sleeping guard, unlocked his shackles, then dove head-first through the moving train’s window into the San Joaquin River.

Grat returned to his brothers in the Oklahoma Territory and got back to work. They robbed four trains over the next 14 months. The one in Lilllietta netted the gang about $10,000, but the others only produced chump change and some jewelry. The law was after them though, and they caught up with Blackfaced Charlie in Wichita. After his capture, Charlie grabbed a gun off a railroad worker and shot Marshal Ed Short. Ed fired his weapon at the same time, and both men were killed.

In July of 1892, the gang wandered into the Adair, Oklahoma train station and took what they could find. They then sat down for a smoke, their Winchester rifles laying across their laps. When the train showed up that evening, they backed their wagon up to the express car and unloaded everything inside. The eleven guards on board were all at the back of the train, and though they unloaded 200 bullets at the Dalton Gang, they didn’t score a single hit. Three guards were wounded and a stray bullet killed the town doctor. It was another score for the outlaws.

Bob Dalton, however, wasn’t pleased. His family gang was gaining a reputation, but these guys were close cousins with the Younger Brothers, who – along with Jesse James – had become the most notorious outlaws in the west. Bob wanted to be a legend. He wanted the footsteps of the Dalton Gang to echo through history. So he came up with a plan: they’d rob two banks at the same time, on the same street, in broad daylight. It was to be the heist of the century.

Instead, it was a monumentally stupid miscalculation.

The targets were the First National Bank and the C.M. Condon & Company Bank across the street in Coffeyville, Kansas. The street in front of the bank was being repaired on October 5, 1892, the day of the planned heists, which meant the getaway horses would be tied up a block away. That was the first problem. The next was the Gang’s choice of towns – they were well-known in Coffeyville and their crappy fake beards and mustaches weren’t fooling the townspeople. Then an employee at one bank lied to the robbers and told them their safe was on a 45-minute time-delay. This allowed the citizens outside to get good and armed.

When the Dalton Gang stepped out of the banks to flee, an epic shootout unraveled. Town Marshal Charles Connelly was killed, and three citizens were hit. Grat Dalton, Bob Dalton, Dick Broadwell and Bill Power were all killed, and though he somehow survived, Emmett Dalton was shot 23 times. One of the other gang members – Bill Doolan, Bitter Creek Newcomb or Charley Pierce – had been holding the getaway horses, but whoever it was took off before the angry mob found him. It was a massacre.

The epilogue of the Dalton Gang was brief for most of its members. Bill Doolin formed his own gang, the Wild Bunch, which rose to become the toughest gang of nefarious thieves in the west for a while. He was taken down by a Marshal’s shotgun blast in the summer of 1896. George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, who was also a member of the Wild Bunch, started a relationship with a 14-year-old girl named Rose. When he and Charley Pierce went to visit Rose on May 2, 1895, her brothers popped out and gunned both outlaws down.

Even Bill Dalton, the brother who never officially joined the Dalton Gang, found his way into Doolin’s crew. He branched out on his own in early 1894, robbed one Texas bank, then found himself tracked down by a posse. Rather than face prison, Bill ran at the posse full-tilt, taking a hail-storm of bullets as a result.

Only young Emmett Dalton lived to tell his side of the tale. After recuperating from his 23 gunshot wounds, Emmett served 14 years of a life sentence before being pardoned. He moved to California and became a successful author and real estate agent, and an occasional actor. He even portrayed himself in the movie adaptation of his book, Beyond The Law.

So while the Dalton Gang rode off into the sunset more as buffoons than criminal masterminds, at least one happy ending came of it. Now tell me that wouldn’t make for a fantastic summer blockbuster.

Day 919: Meet The Watergate-Stained Mitchells

originally published July 7, 2014

The spyglass of history has not been kind to the Nixon administration. I was born exactly seven weeks after Richard Nixon handed in his resignation and took that long lonely walk into his murky legacy. My generation, who grew up in the Reagan/Bush era, found only one defender of the Nixon presidency in pop culture, and the passion written into Alex P. Keaton’s dialogue was clearly meant to be satirical.

Those of us who cared to look into it – and given that we were a generation late and a country north, there weren’t many of us – saw an unsympathetic troupe of tie-wearing bastards, farting in the face of the law and crapping all over the seat of absolute American power. It’s a tale of ancient American history to us, as intangible and ethereal as the Kennedy conspiracy, Dewey defeating Truman or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff.

But it makes for fascinating drama. Anyone who has avoided the Dustin Hoffman / Robert Redford movie All The Presidents’ Men because it looks like a laggy political drama and hey, there’s a new Transformers movie out and explosions are more fun – just stop already. Yes, explosions are fun but this shit actually happened. Scoundrel, Montgomery-Burns-type dickheads really held that much power and abused it to a pulp. Rather than re-tell the whole affair here (a thousand words would scarcely get us through the DNC headquarters’ flimsily-locked door), I’m going to spotlight one scoundrel in particular: John N. Mitchell. And his wife. I’ve got to talk about his wife.

For thirty years John Mitchell was a municipal bond lawyer, and from what I’ve read he seems to have embraced every lawyer stereotype. He was shady and just enough on the smarmy side to gather some powerful friends. One of those friends was Dick Nixon, who tapped Mitchell to be his campaign manager in 1968. During the campaign, there arose allegations that the Nixon camp somehow sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks, which could have brought about an end to the Vietnam War.

That’s a scathing accusation, and given that I’m about three leagues out of my depth of knowledge on this topic, I don’t want to speculate on this. But it makes sense that allowing an unpopular war to carry on until election day would benefit those who wanted a change of regime. And given the rather unscrupulous goings-on this administration would later exhibit, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and go with my hunch that the campaign – and as its leader, John Mitchell – might have had something to do with keeping peace at bay.

Once Nixon scored his ’68 win, John Mitchell was appointed Attorney General. According to J. Edgar Hoover biographer Curt Gentry, Nixon made a direct appeal to Hoover, asking that the traditional background check be skipped in Mitchell’s case. In retrospect I think Dick wanted some dirty players in his lineup. Will Wilson (pictured above), who served as Mitchell’s Assistant Attorney General, had plenty to say about Mitchell’s policies, which included illegal wiretaps, preventative detention of suspects and hurling conspiracy charges at Vietnam War critics.

This all rubs me with the coarse sting of familiarity. I’d heard eerie first-hand accounts of people who were ‘preventatively detained’ around the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, and the notion of war critics as non-patriots is a phenomenon we just lived through again. But of course George “Good Times” Bush Jr. and his Attorney General never authorized a break-in. In Mitchell’s case, this is the juicy stuff.

John Mitchell stepped down from abusing the US justice system from the top, taking the reins as Nixon’s campaign manager once again in 1972. Because Nixon was kind enough to record every conversation, thus supplying investigators with incredibly easy evidence, it was quite clear how Mitchell played into the Watergate scandal. He was in it from the start, sitting in on numerous meetings to plan the break-in at the hotel. Once the burglars were picked up and locked away, Mitchell met up with the president on at least three separate occasions to discuss how to cover everything up.

It always amazed me how Nixon kept those recordings. I understand that a president would want documentation on their discussions – it keeps everyone honest about what was said. But when the core of your conversations involve explicitly illegal activities… just erase the tapes. Don’t hit ‘Record’ to begin with. For having achieved the highest political office in the land, Dick Nixon was a really shitty criminal. We know that now, and some folks were privy enough to know it back then.

One of those people was Martha Mitchell, John’s wife.

Before the events of Watergate came along and kicked the Nixon administration in the presidential nut-sack, and before John Mitchell was indicted in May 1973 on federal charges for obstructing a federal investigation of international financier (and big-time Nixon supporter) Robert L. Vesco, Martha Mitchell was a friend of the press. Reporters loved her; she was always well-coifed and brightly-attired, and quick to turn on that Arkansas charm.

But when the nefarious activities began to poke up like noxious weeds in the stolid routine of her day, she began to offer other stories to reporters. Once Watergate had become an omnipresent headline in every daily in this hemisphere, Martha began alleging to her friends in the press some of the strange goings-on involving her husband’s associates. Her apparent paranoia tweaked a few brows into full-on furrow. For Nixon’s people, the answer was clear: Martha was a drunk. She was insane. It was time for the press to know.

Martha claimed she was held against her will and pumped full of sedatives in a California hotel room in order to keep her from talking to the press. Her friends, her daughter, even John himself disavowed and discredited her. The two separated after John’s indictment. The 70’s were somewhat of a dark time in the Mitchell household.

Of course the truth won out in the end. John was acquitted in the Robert L. Vesco case, but he served 19 months in a minimum-security facility for his involvement in the Watergate fiasco. As for Martha’s delusions and outright paranoia, well they were all revealed to be justified. The mental health world has actually coined a term in her honor: the Martha Mitchell Effect. This occurs when a patient is incorrectly diagnosed as being paranoid or delusional, when it turns out that they were in fact telling the truth all along. Martha passed away in 1976 from myeloma, but she proved pivotal in the public unveiling of a truly heinous political faction.

As for John Mitchell, well if such a thing as a John Mitchell Effect exists, it can only be defined as someone who’s a power-hungry and deeply evil ass. I suspect in Washington there’s an epidemic.

Day 912: Alferd Packer – He Ate People!

originally published June 30, 2014

Like many who don’t seek to occupy their thoughts with world-shifting brilliance or cunning inventorism, I spend an inordinate amount of time in day-dreamy contemplation. I’ve written about a host of historic criminals, and sometimes it strikes me that the prose we are left with, which documents their foulest of deeds and paints the page red with the nefarious blood-spritz of their infamous acts, is somewhat lacking. These men were not evil masterminds who plotted their wickedness from the dimly-lit murk of a dastardly lair.

Well, maybe that was the case for someone like William “Boss” Tweed, but for the most part I think history’s monsters could be better understood – I say ‘understood’, not ‘forgiven’ – with a tiny relevé in perspective. Sometimes their heinous horrors were simply the path of least resistance to a sought-after goal.

Like survival. In the dazzling pantheon of American cannibalism stories, there’s a sparkling room reserved for Alferd Packer, the man who ascended into Colorado legend for having feasted upon an intrepid troupe of gold-hungry explorers one winter eve in 1874. What tipped him into infamy was little more than desperation, panic, and a sprinkling of unmanaged greed. Would any of us have done things differently?

Okay, probably. Almost definitely. What the hell, I guess I had to ask.

Alferd Packer – and his name was transcribed as both ‘Alfred’ and ‘Alferd’, though he preferred Alferd, allegedly because of a misspelled tattoo on his arm – served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was discharged for epilepsy then drifted west, earning a scant income as a small-time con man. Whether he was legitimately on the hunt for gold or whether he’d simply duped a team of money-hungry would-be prospectors into trusting his abilities as a gold-sniffing mountain man, we’ll never know.

Packer led a team of twenty from Provo, Utah en route to the headwaters of the Gunnison River in Colorado. “There be gold in them thar headwaters,” he may have said. I don’t know, I’m just trying to sprinkle a little more drama into the story. Anyhow, they pushed into the San Juan Mountains, stumbling into the land of the Ute tribe near Montrose in the Colorado Territory and encountering Chief Ouray. Chief Ouray and his followers got along well with the local white folk, and were happy to help nurse the team of 21 back to health – it seems that “mountain man” Alferd Packer had guided them to the brink of starvation along the route.

It was January of 1874, in the chalky thick of a wretched winter. Chief Ouray laid it out for everyone: turn back and make this journey when the weather is not actively trying to murder you. This makes sense in retrospect: who ventures on a gold hunt in the freezing mountains of Colorado in the heart of winter? Ten of the team turned back. But Alferd was adamant that they’d be successful. He and his ten faithful bid adieu to the kind Chief and set on their way toward Gunnison.

They’d been given supplies and some sage advice to follow the river upstream, but Alferd insisted that he knew better. He pointed his nose into the deep, thick trees and led everyone on a clamber. Right away they hit a vicious blizzard. They didn’t get too far before five of the party broke away and headed for the Los Pinos Indian Agency. That left only six explorers (including Alferd), who were no doubt fired up at the prospect of fewer people with whom they’d have to share their bounty.

The weather was relentless, and the group took shelter in a tiny cabin. The five others – Shannon Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George Noon and Israel Swan – went out in search of food and never returned. This is the shoulder-shrugging story Alferd gave when he showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency on April 16. After a period of recovery, Alferd moved on to Saguache, Colorado, where he was spotted spending money rather liberally for someone who had just endured a failed expedition for gold. Some of his original 20 companions ran into Alferd and became suspicious of his version of the story.

Alferd was brought back to Los Pinos for questioning, and his story suddenly changed. Now Israel Swan had died and the others had eaten him. Then three of the others died from starvation and exposure, before Alferd had to kill Shannon Bell in an act of self-defense. He was locked up while the investigation continued; members of Chief Ouray’s tribe came across the remains of the other five men, and once again Alferd’s story scooted around. Maybe they were attacked by natives. No? Okay, maybe some of the party went crazy and turned on him and he killed them out of self-preservation. No? Okay, screw it – maybe he should just escape from jail.

Alferd fled from the law and lived for nearly ten years under the assumed name of ‘John Schwartze’ in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before someone from the gold-hunting party recognized him. Once again in custody, Alferd signed a confession in March of 1883. The truth came out: Alferd was torn between the imminent danger of the persistent winter and the unfathomable shame of returning to Utah as a failure. He shot four of the men in their sleep, but when Shannon Bell awoke and tried to defend himself, Alferd smoked him with the butt-end of his rifle. Then he ate them.

As the trial went on, Alferd began to enjoy the national attention. He spoke at length about the benefits of human jerky, pinpointing the chest-meat near the ribs as the best source for quality jerky meat. Alferd was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Colorado lore has the judge saying stuff like, “When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was seven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ‘em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’be hanged th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead.” and “I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.” The truth is, judge M.B. Gerry was more eloquent: “Close your ears to the blandishments of hope. Listen not to its fluttering promises of life. But prepare to meet the spirits of thy murdered victims. Prepare for the dread certainty of death.”

But there was a catch. A legal loophole that saved Alferd from a dangly fate. Alferd’s crimes had taken place in the Territory of Colorado. The trial was happening in the State of Colorado. The state’s constitution didn’t account for such a weirdly heinous crime, so Alferd was instead sentenced to 40 years for manslaughter – a sentence of which he only served 16 years before being paroled.

Alferd spent his final years as a security guard for the Denver Post. Rumor has it he became a vegetarian before dying in his sleep in 1907 at age 65. Alferd was not a sociopathic flesh-fancier, nor was he a deranged serial killer. He had launched a drawn-out con that was about to end badly, and somehow he found the most awful possible conclusion to his situation and made it worse.

As a weird postscript to this story, the cafeteria at the University Memorial Center in the University of Colorado in Boulder has since 1977 been known as the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill. They “serve all mankind.” Sounds delicious!