Creepy history, Criminals

The life (and death) of John Dillinger’s Red Hamilton. Part I

Red Hamilton 1
John “Red” Hamilton

Original publish date:  May 16, 2019

The Dillinger Gang: Baby Face Nelson, Handsome Harry Pierpont, Red Hamilton and of course, public enemy number one, John Dillinger himself. All wickedly infamous names from the annals of crime. But, only one of them was memorialized by the master of American horror Stephen King. That distinction goes to John “Red” Hamilton, the gang member more remembered for the way he died than the way he lived. And of course, he has Indiana ties that stretch all the way to Irvington.

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From top left, are Harry Pierpont (11014), Charles Makley (12636), John Dillinger (13225), and Russell Clark (12261).

Like most gangsters, little is known about the early life of Red Hamilton. He was born on January 27, 1899 to an Irish-Canadian father from Ontario and a German-American mother from New York. He earned the nickname “Three-Finger Jack” after the loss of two fingers on his right hand in a sledding accident after the budding outlaw came too close to a passing train as a youngster. He really doesn’t appear on the radar screen until, at the age of 28, he lucked into meeting John Dillinger while serving time at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. On March 16, 1927, he had been convicted of robbing a gas station in St. Joseph, Indiana, and sentenced to 25 years. While incarcerated, Hamilton became friends with a bevy of bank robbers, including John Dillinger, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter – the men who would go on to comprise the original Dillinger gang.

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Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

Michigan City might as well have been called “Bank Robber’s University” as these young outlaws studied at the feet of fellow inmates like Herman “Baron” Lamm, the bank robber who came up with the idea of meticulously casing a bank before robbing it. a method that became known as the “Lamm Technique” and inspiration for the term “on the Lamm.” Dillinger was paroled in May 1933 and, using a list that had been compiled by Hamilton and Pierpont, he began robbing banks to finance the escape. In September of that same year, fulfilling a promise to his “cellies”, he managed to get a barrel filled with guns smuggled into the penitentiary and a total of 10 armed men, including z lammHamilton, escaped out the main gate of Indiana State Prison.
Soon afterwards, Dillinger was arrested for bank robbery and was being held at the Allen County jail in Lima, Ohio. Determined to free Dillinger, on October 3, 1933, the gang robbed the First National Bank of St. Mary’s, Ohio, escaping with $14,000 to fund the escape. Nine days later, Hamilton, Makley, Pierpont, Clark, and Ed Shouse walked into the Lima jail to “spring” their pal John Dillinger. Red Hamilton remained outside as lookout and did not enter the building and did not participate in Makley and Pierpont’s murder of Sheriff Jess Sarber.
z The Notorious John Dillinger (2)On December 13, 1933, the Dillinger gang robbed a Chicago bank, netting a reported $50,000. Afterwards, the gang went down to Daytona Beach, Florida for a time and then went west to Tucson. Hamilton, however, decided to go to Chicago instead, where, on December 13, 1933, he took part in the robbery of a local bank. The next day, Hamilton left his car at a Chicago garage for some body work, the garage’s mechanic called police reporting it as a “gangster car”. Hamilton returned to pick up the car and found police detective, William Shanley and two other officers waiting for him. He opened fire, killing Shanley, and escaped from the other two officers. Red’s incident led to the Chicago Police Department forming a special forty man “Dillinger Squad”. A month later, on January 15, 1934, Hamilton and Dillinger robbed the First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, for $20,376. During the heist, police officer William O’Malley was shot dead. Dillinger was officially charged with the murder, but several witnesses ID’d Hamilton as the shooter. By the end of the year, Hamilton found himself ranked third on Indiana’s list of “public enemies”, behind circle-city natives Dillinger and Pierpont.
john-hamilton-2During the robbery, Hamilton was shot twice and left in the care of his girlfriend Pat Cherrington and underworld physician Joseph Moran, while Dillinger and the others headed to Tucson where they were apprehended by the authorities. Afterwards, for a short time, the fugitive Hamilton shot to the top of the public enemies list. There he remained until Dillinger, using a wooden gun, escaped from the Crown Point jail. Afterwards, Dillinger formed a new gang consisting of Hamilton, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, Eddie Green, and Baby Face Nelson.
On March 6, three days after Dillinger’s Crown Point escape, the gang robbed the Security National Bank & Trust Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In the chaotic robbery, motorcycle cop Hale Keith was severely wounded after Nelson maniacally shot him down through a plate glass window.
A week later, on March 13, 1934. the gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, which allegedly had over $240,000 in its vault. During the robbery, Baby Face Nelson stayed with the getaway car while the rest of the gang ran into one problem after another inside the bank. When the bank president saw Van Meter walk in carrying a machine gun, he thought that a “crazy man was on the loose.” He ran into his office and bolted the door. Van Meter fired a number of shots through the door to no avail. He soon turned his attention to helping his cohorts clean out the teller drawers.

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First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa in 1934.

A guard in a special steel cage above the lobby fired a tear gas shell at the bandits which was answered by a machine gun blast of several bullets, a few of which clipped the retreating guard. Meantime, a female customer ran out of the bank and down the alley outside, where she ran directly into lookout Baby Face Nelson, who promptly sent her back into the bank. Red Hamilton was dealing with problems of his own. The bank’s cashier had locked himself in the vault. Hamilton ordered the cashier to start passing money through a slot in the door and the cashier began passing out stacks of one-dollar bills.
An elderly judge spotted the bandits on the street below from his third-floor office and took a shot at John Dillinger, winging him on the arm, Dillinger whirled around and fired a burst from his Tommy gun. The bullets bounced off the front of the building and the old judge ducked away unhurt. Dillinger decided it was time to skedaddle and he sent Van Meter inside to get the others. Hamilton was still dealing with the cashier. Red could see the stacks of larger bills on the shelves inside the vault but the cashier continued to load stacks of one-dollar bills into the bandit’s bag. When Van Meter told him to scram, the enraged Hamilton complained that the take was only about $20,000 and that there was over $200,000 still sitting on the shelves! Later, Hamilton said he should have shot the man just for spite.

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First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa

As Hamilton ran out of the bank, the officer in the gun cage started shooting again, wounding Hamilton in the shoulder. The gang forced 20 hostages to stand on the running boards, fenders and hood of the getaway car, serving as human shields and drove slowly away. The police were unable to shoot, so they followed at a distance. Once out of town, Baby Face Nelson jumped out of the car and fired his Tommy gun towards the cop car, finally forcing them to turn back. Eventually, Dillinger dropped off the hostages unharmed. What should have been a prosperous raid had netted the outlaws a disappointing $52,000.

 

After first stopping in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Dillinger gang fled to the Little Bohemia resort near Rhinelander, Wisconsin to nurse their wounds and lay low. It was a remote fishing camp that was not due to open until May and would make the perfect place to hide out for a time. On April 22, Melvin Purvis’ FBI, tipped off by a friend of Little Bohemia’s owner, raided the place. Purvis moved dozens of agents from Chicago and St. Paul to the forests of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, all did not go as planned: the agents mistakenly opened fire on a car containing three innocent CCC workers, thinking they were outlaws. The gang escaped by jumping from a second floor window in the back of the lodge onto a mound of frozen snow, before Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter eventually stole a car and drove away.

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Little Bohemia Lodge Manitowish Wisconsin.

Van Meter was driving, Dillinger in the center and Red Hamilton in the passenger seat. The rumble seat was empty and, using a crafty outlaw tactic, the gang left the seat back open to block the aim of any pursuing lawmen. The car raced down Wisconsin Route 46, across the Mississippi River, and into Minnesota back towards St. Paul. Minnesota law enforcement spotted their Wisconsin license plates on a bridge at Hastings, 15 miles out of St. Paul. One of the deputies leaned out the window with a .30-30 rifle and fired at one of the car’s rear tires. The slug tore through the rear seat, narrowly missed Dillinger, and plowed into Hamilton’s back. Red screamed in agony and slammed against the car’s dashboard.
z carDillinger smashed out the window and returned fire with his .45, shattering the windshield of the police car and nearly killing the pursuing officer. A running gun battle ensued as the two cars traded 40 or 50 rounds for the next 50 miles or so, before the outlaws finally losing the pursuing patrolmen. With Hamilton losing blood from the massive hole in his back, Dillinger told Van Meter to head to Chicago and find a doctor for his friend. But first, they needed a faster, less bullet-riddled car. Van Meter cut off a 1934 Ford V8 Deluxe containing power company manager Roy Francis, his wife, Sybil, and their 19-month-old son, Robert.
The family was ordered out of the car to watch as the bandits tossed their arsenal into the Francis family vehicle. While the bloodied Hamilton limped painfully inside, Dillinger ordered the Francis family to pile in as well. Sybil Francis recognized Public Enemy Number One right away, but Dillinger flashed that famous smile and said, “Don’t worry about the kid. We like kids.” The outlaws even treat the couple to a soda pop when a stop is made to fill up the Ford. The family was dropped off safely a few miles outside of Mendota, Minnesota with one whale of a story to tell. The outlaws continued on toward Chicago in search of a “friendly” doctor to fix Red Hamilton. And here is where the story gets interesting.

Criminals, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours

IRVINGTON’S LINK TO THE FORMATION OF THE F.B.I.

Holmes-Dillinger

Original publish date:  January 19, 2009

Reissue date: June 6, 2019

This article originally ran in the January 19, 2009 edition of the Eastside Voice. I spent this past weekend with the Great-great-grandson of H.H. Holmes, “Bloodstains” author Jeff Mudgett, and the film crew from Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” series. We gathered to tape a show inside the home where Holmes committed one of his most heinous crimes: the murder of 10-year-old Howard Pitezel. For that reason, I thought this might be a perfect time to revisit one of the few positive aspects of that crime and highlight Irvington’s role in the saga of Federal law enforcement in this country. While the society has faded away, the meeting place has closed its doors and the article’s agent provocateur has become a fellow columnist, the subject matter retains its relevance a decade later.

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H.H. Holmes murdering 10-year-old Howard Pitezel in Irvington.

During the inaugural meeting of the “Ichabod Crane Society of things that go bump in the night” at Book Mamas in Irvington held Saturday January 17 2009, I learned something interesting I’d like to share with you. One of the guests, Irvingtonian Steve Nicewanger asked me if I was aware that Irvington had a connection to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Steve informed me that the F.B.I. had been formed to track down one of Irvington’s most infamous figures, America’s first serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes. Holmes was alleged to have killed over 200 people in Chicago in 1893. His story is well documented and his spirit is rumored to still haunt the Irvington bungalow where he murdered and desecrated the body of a 10 year old boy named Howard Pitezel. Holmes came through Irvington in the autumn of 1894 while being chased by a dogged Pinkerton Detective named Frank Geyer. I thought I had researched the Holmes saga pretty thoroughly, but I must admit that I had never heard of this possible connection. I was intrigued by the thought of it.
z john-dillinger-wanted-posteI have always attributed the genesis of the F.B.I. to another infamous Hoosier with Irvington ties, John Dillinger, who robbed an Irvington drug store and soda fountain in the summer of 1933. The building still stands and is home today to DuFours restaurant on the northwest corner of Washington and Audubon (now the Lincoln Square Pancake House). At the time, Dillinger allegedly lived on a property known as “Rickett’s Farm” near the Kile Oak in Irvington. I knew that J. Edgar Hoover, the man most people credit with forming the present day F.B.I., was a little known Washington D.C. bureaucrat until Dillinger came along. Hoover made his reputation by expanding the law enforcement powers of his obscure bureau to track down Dillinger. Dillinger became the bureau’s first “Public Enemy # 1” on June 22,1934, which ironically was John’s 31st birthday. Hoover’s G-men would kill Dillinger barely a month later outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theatre on July 23, 1934. Hoover would display Dillinger’s death mask on the wall outside of his office for the next 40 years.
Intrigued by Mr. Nicewanger’s statement, I immediately began research to see if indeed this connection could be made. Sure enough, it’s true…at least in theory. Quoting the Bureau’s official website; “The FBI originated from a force of Special Agents created in 1908 by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The two men first met when they both spoke at a meeting of the Baltimore Civil Service Reform Association. Roosevelt, then Civil Service Commissioner, boasted of his reforms in federal law enforcement. It was 1892, a time when law enforcement was often political rather than professional…Roosevelt and Bonaparte both were “Progressives.” They shared the conviction that efficiency and expertise, not political connections, should determine who could best serve in government.”

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Benjamin Harrison

A young Teddy Roosevelt campaigned in the Midwest for Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election, including many stump speeches here in the Hoosier state. As a reward, President Harrison appointed Roosevelt to the United States Civil Service Commission, where he served until 1895. It was during this time that H.H.Holmes was fast becoming America’s version of “Jack the Ripper”. As he fled Chicago in 1894, Holmes used the inability of local law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other to evade prosecution. During this period, the Bureau was a branch of the “Secret Service” staffed by former “Pinkertons” from the legendary detective agency founded by Allen Pinkerton. Upon Pinkerton’s death in 1884, the Pinkertons were mostly known as thugs whose job it was to break up early labor union rallies and for their role in the hounding of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Holmes would be captured and hung in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896. The ability of Holmes to evade capture while his heinous crimes were reported on the front pages of newspapers across America would lead to the conversation of a unified national law enforcement reporting and evidence gathering agency by Roosevelt and others.

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Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s career ended with his defeat to Grover Cleveland in 1892. Ironically, one of the first things he did after leaving office was to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in June 1893, an event closely associated with H.H. Holmes. As Harrison’s career waned, Roosevelt’s career was catching fire. From his post on the US Civil Service Commission, Teddy became President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York and Vice-President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1901, five years later, Teddy dedicated Fort Benjamin Harrison in the former president’s honor in 1906.
Shortly before Fort Ben’s dedication, Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte Attorney General.

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Teddy Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte

In 1908, Bonaparte applied their shared philosophy from 1892 to form the Department of Justice by creating a corps of Special Agents. It had neither a name nor an officially designated leader other than the Attorney General. Yet, these former detectives and Secret Service men were the forerunners of the FBI. In the forty years between Holmes in 1893 and Dillinger in 1933, the bureau would slowly expand it’s law enforcement responsibilities. If the 1893 Bureau had encountered the evil Dr. Holmes, the best they could do would have been to gather information to assist in his arrest. In 1933, the Bureau’s powers had been expanded to the point of using deadly force upon first contact with John Dillinger.

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J. Edgar Hoover

So an insightful comment by Irvingtonian Steve Nicewanger provoked research that would once again perfectly illustrate the uniqueness of the Eastside Indianapolis community known as Irvington. Reminding us that three separate personalities with fleeting ties to the Irvington community; a serial killer, a bank robber and a U.S. President would contribute to the founding of the most powerful law enforcement agency the world has ever known. Today’s F.B.I.

Civil War, Creepy history, Medicine

Coughing up Bullets-A Civil War Tale for the Ages.

Bullet in eye

Original publish date:  April 4, 2019

So you say you have a scratchy throat? Runny nose? Nagging cough? Blaming all those hugs, handshakes and office hours for catching a bug? Well here’s a reminder that it could be worse. This reminder reaches all the way back to the Civil War and comes with a twist that extends to the present day.
Private Willis V. Meadors (erroneously identified as W.V. Meadows for decades) was a Confederate Veteran who served alongside his brothers and cousins in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry. The 37th was involved in nearly every campaign of the western theater of the war between the states. Meadors was a sharpshooter with the Rebel army commanded by Lt. General John C. Pemberton posted at Vicksburg, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. General Ulysses S. Grant’s army had besieged the city since May 25.
Z MEADOWSIt was July 1st, 1863, the day before the pivitol battle of Gettysburg commenced. After holding out for more than forty days, with no reinforcements and supplies nearly gone, things were getting desperate. While languishing in the trenches, Pvt. Meadors cobbled together a shield made of pig-iron. His crudely constructed armored bulwark had one hole to see through and another to fire his weapon. The shield worked well at first, allowing the Rebel sharpshooter to fire with impunity and relative security. Then, like a scene from a Hollywood movie, as the sharpshooter lined up his next shot, he was shot in the eye through his very own peephole. Miraculously, he survived.
Meadors was found and brought to a field hospital where Union surgeons probed for the bullet, but were unable to locate it. The bullet was resting perilously close to the soldier’s brain and the doctors didn’t feel it was safe to perform an operation. He was put aboard a POW ship and transported to a Union hospital. Later, he was paroled to a Confederate hospital, where he spent the rest of the war. In time, Meadors recoved well enough to serve as an aide at the Rebel hospital. His official medical records confirm that he’d been “severely wounded” in the head by a minie ball.
After the war, Meadors returned to his farm in Lanett, Ala., just east of the Georgia state line. The bullet cost Meadors his right eye and would remain lodged in his head for the next 57 years. He married, but had no children. He probably would have died in obscurity had it not been for a coughing fit in March of 1920. 78-year-old Willis Meadows had been steadily coughing all day long. His coughs soon turned to violent spasms. To Meadors, it felt like something was caught in his throat. Finally, with one great whoop, that something flew out of Meadors’ mouth and landed with a clatter on the floor a few feet away. It was the one-ounce bullet, trapped in Meadors’ head for over two generations.
Instantly, the “Coughs Up Bullet” story became headline news. It ran in every major newspaper in the U.S. When the story made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Meador’s story got even more unbelievable. Union veteran Peter Jones Knapp, who served at Vicksburg and Shiloh, saw the story and realized he was the one who fired the bullet that lodged near Meadors’ brain. In 1863, 21-year-old Knapp was serving with the 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. On July 1st, Knapp and three other Union soldiers of his Company were approaching from the east with specific orders to kill Confederate snipers. Knapp spotted Meadors, aimed his rifle at the boiler plate peephole and fired. Meadors fell to the side, blood running from his right eye. Knapp was sure his man was dead and the trio moved on.

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Peter Jones Knapp

Knapp was captured a few months later at the Battle of Missionary Ridge and was held in a number of Confederate prisons, including the notorious Andersonville in Southern Georgia, where almost 13,000 Union soldiers died. After the war, he farmed in Michigan, married, and in 1887, moved to Kelso, Washington. Knapp contacted Meadors and when the two old soldiers compared notes, they made the connection. Once mortal enemies sworn to kill each other, now, the aging veterans would spend their last few years as friends, exchanging letters, photographs and wishing each other good health.
Willis V. Meadors died at his home on October 10, 1927. His obituary stated that his health had been exceptionally good until the past few months except for a cancer on his face, which caused his death. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Lanett, Alabama. Peter Knapp, the man who’d made that incredible shot at Vicksburg so many years before, preceded his target in death on April 13, 1924. His obituary states he died peacefully in the arms of his wife on April 13, 1924. His remains were sent to the Old Portland Crematorium. When Knapp’s wife Georgianna died in 1930, her remains also were cremated in Portland and placed next to those of her husband.

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Peter Jones Knapp

You’d think, that was the end of this fascinating story. But it turns out that in 1990, the story takes an even more bizarre turn. A man named Henry Kilburn was doing some genealogy research. Mr. Kilburn has the personal diary of Peter Knapp. Kilburn circulates a photograph of the coughed-up bullet flanked by photographs of Willis Meadows and Peter Knapp, which rekindles interest in the story. Kilburn admits that he is no blood relative of Peter Knapp, which prompts the question, how did Henry Kilburn end up with those items?
Turns out, Peter Knapp and his wife, who were childless, adopted Henry Kilburn’s younger sister, Minnie Mae. Their mother had been divorced and abandoned by her husband. She must have decided that adoption by the Knapps would provide her daughter with a better life. It was Mae who gave the items to Henry. The story fades from the pages of history once again for another generation. In 2012, Alice Knapp, the wife of the 3rd great nephew of Peter Knapp is researching the Knapp family history. In particular, she was searching for the burial site of Peter and Georgianna Knapp. She finds an obituary for Peter stating he had been cremated but it made no ,mention of the final resting place. Fortunately, the Old Portland Crematorium is still in business as Wilhelm’s Funeral Home in Portland, Washington.

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Peter Jones Knapp’s ashes

Alice contacted the crematorium and was told no one had ever claimed the cremains of Mr. & Mrs. Knapp. She was told that the couple’s ashes were still on a shelf in the back room where they had been resting for decades. Astonished at the news, she then made contact with the Oregon Military Department of Veteran’s Affairs. She reasoned that because Peter Knapp was a Veteran of the U.S. Army he deserved a military funeral. On April 13, 2012 he got it.
Peter Knapp was laid to rest in Willamette National Cemetery, the first Civil War veteran to be buried in Oregon’s largest military graveyard. Knapp received full military honors from the Oregon National Guard 88 years to the day of his 1924 death. The funeral also fell on the 151st anniversary of the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, S.C., which ignited the Civil War.

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Peter Jones Knapp’s ashes

The burial attracted a mix of veterans, historians, Civil War re-enactors and people who were simply curious. Eras collided as cellphone and digital cameras recorded men and women dressed as Union soldiers and civilians marching alongside Patriot Riders holding 50-star American flags perched on shiny Harley Davidson motorcycles. The hearse carrying the twin gold boxes containing the ashes led the procession. The speakers largely focused on what Peter Knapp endured as a soldier, his incredible reunion with the man he shot and his commitment to his wife of more than 53 years.
The Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War performed a ritual for the dead based on a Grand Army of the Republic ceremony from 1873. The funeral also included a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” a bugler who performed “Taps,” and culminated with the laying of wreaths. Following a musket salute, a folded U.S. flag was presented to Alice Knapp. And, despite his connection to one of the strangest incidents of the Civil War, there was not a Confederate in sight.z knapp stone

Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Pop Culture, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART II

Curse Part two

Original publish date:  March 28, 2019

During a spring training Cactus League exhibition game on March 26, 1961, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tito Francona hit a 350-foot home run against the Boston Red Sox at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona. It’s 349 feet to right field, 366 feet to left field, and 410 feet to “dead” center. Unwittingly, when Tito’s homer flew over the right-field fence of paim-fringed Hi Corbett field and finally stopped rolling, it helped solve a murder case. As John Cota, a city parks employee, chased after it, he pulled up short at the edge of a shallow water trench. The ball rolled to a dead stop beside a body, partly covered with a coat, a .22-caliber revolver clutched in his hand. Police identified the body as that of Fred Victor Burden, 50, a house painter from Toronto. Burden was wanted by Tucson police in connection with the shooting death of former prize fighter James Cocio.
z tito_francona_solves_murderThe front page of the Tucson Daily Citizen on March 27, 1961 ran a story headlined, “Practice Homer Leads To Body”. The story detailed, “An over-the-wall smash by Cleveland Indians’ Tito Francona yesterday led to the discovery that Frederick Victor Burden had carried out his threat to commit suicide after killing a man in the home of his estranged wife. Burden’s body, with a bullet in the head, was found by city parks employee John C. Cota, 52, of 238 E. E. 19th St., while he was looking for a ball that had just been knocked over the west wall during the practice at Hi Corbett Field in Randolph Park. The partially concealed body was found lying in a shallow watering trench under low – hanging palm fronds when discovered about 11:30 a m.”
A few days prior, the same paper covered the story about the fatal shooting of 45-year-old James Contreras Cocio. Burden’s body was found lying face up with a .22 automatic pistol clutched in the right hand, his glasses found hanging on a small palm tree nearby. County Pathologist Louis Hirsth said Burden had been dead at least 48 hours. The killer had shot himself in the roof of the mouth, the bullet lodging in the skull. Before the discovery, Burden had been charged in absentia with the first-degree murder of Cocio, a World War II Marine veteran and former three-time Arizona featherweight boxing champion.
Burden, out of the country since January, had returned home from Canada unexpectedly to find his 46-year-old wife Irene and Cocio together in the couple’s home at 2207 E. 20th St. Mrs. Burden told police the two men had argued over her and investigators said it was obvious that the Tuesday night killing was the result of that quarrel. Police said the woman’s husband fired five quick shots at the victim when Cocio opened the rear door of the home and discovered Burden standing outside in his stocking feet. A sixth shot fired at Cocio’s body nearly two hours later wounded Mrs. Burden in the left leg. Burden drove his wife to the home of her employer after discovering the wound, and told her he was going to kill himself. She was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital for treatment of the leg wound and discharged the same day her husband’s body was found. No record survives as to whether parks department employee John Cota retrieved, much less saved, the baseball.
What many might have viewed as a bad omen didn’t derail Tito’s season however. Francona kicked off the season with a Chief Wahoo Indian “Ki Yi Waugh Woop!” He was batting .293 with eleven home runs and 53 RBIs at the All-Star break of the 1961 season and Tito was named to the American League All-Star squad for the only time in his career. He finished the season batting .301 with sixteen home runs, 85 RBIs and he lead American League left fielders in fielding percentage.
z 58558-5FrDespite having emerged as the best defensive left fielder in the league, Francona was shifted to first base during spring training in 1962 and finished the season leading the American League in double plays turned as a first baseman. He finished with 14 homers, 28 doubles and batted .272. When Birdie Tebbetts took over as Indians manager in 1963, Francona was moved back into left, but his numbers fell drastically. His .228 batting average was a career low, and his ten home runs and 41 RBIs were his fewest over a full season. The Indians acquired All-Star Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner to play left field prior to the 1964 season, so Francona split time between right and first base. After the season, he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later and cash.
Tito had quite a career, spanning 15 seasons and including stops with eight other teams, including the Braves, Cardinals, A’s, Orioles, Phillies, Tigers, Brewers and White Sox. He was originally signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1952 but left the game for two years to serve in the U.S. Army, by the time he returned, the team had relocated and was now the Baltimore Orioles. In 1956 upon returning to the O’s, Tito finished tied with the Cleveland Indians’ Rocky Colavito for second place in American League Rookie of the Year balloting behind Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio. For his career, Francona hit .272 with 125 homers, 656 RBIs and a .746 OPS in 1,719 games. Francona spent six seasons (’59-64) with the Indians.
z ,logo images 1And what about that curse? The curse of Rocky Colavito? Well, in recent years, it has dampened a little with the Indians “rebuilding years” of the past two decades. But. although they’ve played in three World Series Championships since 1995, they still haven’t won one. Here are just a few of the mishaps blamed on that curse since Colavito’s 1960 trade. September 1961: Fireballer “Sudden Sam” McDowell breaks two ribs throwing a fastball. June 1964: Third Baseman Max Alvis suffers an attack of spinal meningitis on a team flight. January 1965: The Indians reacquire Rocky Colavito from the Kansas City A’s in exchange for Rookie of the Year winner Tommie Agee and future 286-game winner Tommy John. July 1970: Reds star Pete Rose plows over catcher Ray Fosse in the All-Star game, effectively ending Fosse’s career in Cleveland. June 1974: Drunken fans pour onto the Cleveland Stadium field during ten-cent beer night, forcing a forfeit while destroying the diamond. March 1977: 20-game winner Wayne Garland hurts his arm in Spring training, effectively ending his career. March 1978: Indians trade Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox. July 1981: Cleveland hosts the All-Star game which is delayed until August by the MLB strike. August 1981: 1980 AL Rookie of the Year “Super Joe” Charboneau is sent down to AAA, never to be heard of again. April 1987: Sports Illustrated picks the Indians to win the pennant but they lose 101 games and finish last. March 1993: three Indians pitchers die in car crashes and a fourth is seriously injured. July 1994: Indians are speeding towards the World Series when the season is cancelled by a player’s strike.
It is believed by some that the curse extends to the Indians’ old spring training home in Tucson as well. Hi Corbett Field served as the spring training home of Cleveland from 1947 through 1992. Hi Corbett has not been used for Spring Training games since, but parts of the movie Major League were filmed there which ironically portrayed the Cleveland Indians as the laughing stock of the league.
z 2 dudesThere is so much about Tito Francona that typifies that which makes baseball so interesting. Aside from one of the greatest nicknames in sports history, he was considered a journeyman for most of his career, but a damned good one. Tito Francona was a baseball player, a great husband and father and an even better teammate. When he died at the age of 84 he left a lasting legacy. Tito was there at the beginning of “The Curse” and although he’s gone, he’s likely to be there when the curse ends because “Little Tito” just might lead the Indians to a World Series Championship this season. After all, it was Francona who broke the Boston Red Sox Curse of Babe Ruth by winning two World’s Series titles in four years. Yep, baseball is a funny game.

Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART I

Curse Part one

Original publish date:  March 21, 2019

Spring training baseball is back. I am one of those legion of fans who wait every year to hear the five most beautiful words in the English language: “Pitchers and Catchers Report.” As a kid growing up, spring training baseball was always synonymous with Florida. In the Mid-1970s, my family took our spring break vacations at the Island Towers resort hotel in Fort Myers. It just so happened that the hotel was the spring training headquarters of the Kansas City Royals. So it was no big thing seeing guys like George Brett, Frank White, Freddie Patek, and Cookie Rojas hanging out at the pool or chasing my older sisters on the beach. Years later, I ran into Jamie Quirk at old 16th Street Bush Stadium and he informed me that the Island Towers were owned by Buck Martinez’s parents.
Ruth Jersey AuctionMy grandparents retired to Cape Coral in the late 1970s and I recall one of their oldster neighbors showing me a photo album from the 1930s with pictures of the New York Yankees at Spring Training down there. Turns out his family lived near the facility, Fort Lauderdale if memory serves, where the Yankees trained. I can remember the photos in there of Lou Gehrig in a bathing suit (MAN that dude was HUGE!) and Babe Ruth in full uniform on the beach, two bats resting on his shoulder with his fielder’s glove and cleats hanging from the back like a hobo pouch. In his pin striped uniform! On the Beach! Everything in that photo would be worth a small fortune today, including the photo itself!
z seaver 1Somehow, I became a Blue Jays fan. Probably because I went to their first spring training game in franchise history in Dunedin. March 11, 1977 they beat the Mets 3-1 at Grant Field, which was built in 1930 and looked like it. I went to a few games that year. I distinctly recall sitting on a wooden bleacher seat right next to Tom Seaver who was talking to me like it was no big deal. And he was pitching that day. Within a few weeks, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine.” Florida meant Spring Training, period. Somewhere along the line that changed.
They had spring training games in Arizona, something called the “Cactus League”, but that didn’t count for much back then. Today, more teams call Arizona home for spring training than ever before. The teams that play in Arizona now are the Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs & White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. More than 100 games are scheduled between Feb. 21 – March 26, 2019. The broadcasters say that the travel in Florida is brutal, sometimes 3-4 hour bus rides, while the travel between stadiums in Arizona is usually less than an hour. When it comes to Arizona baseball, I think of a spring training story from the Cactus League that happened before I was born. The story emanates from Hi Corbett Field in spring training of 1961. But first a little background.
HiCorbett1March of 1961 was a busy time: America’s brand new President John F. Kennedy creates the Peace Corps, The Beatles start performing at the Cavern Club, Nine African-American students from Mississippi’s Tougaloo College made the first peaceful attempt to end segregation by staging a “read-in” at the whites-only main branch of the Jackson municipal public library, NASA launches a Mercury-Redstone BD rocket from Cape Canaveral as one final test flight to certify its safety for human transport. Alan Shepard had volunteered to take the flight and become the first man to travel into outer space, but was stopped by Wernher von Braun from going, Less than three weeks later, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would, on April 12, would reach the milestone, Actor Ronald Reagan bursts onto the political scene with his speech “Encroaching Control” before the Phoenix chamber of commerce and the Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo is captured.
Hi Corbett Field is located in Tucson, Arizona. Opened in 1937, it was originally called Randolph Municipal Baseball Park. In 1951, it was renamed in honor of Hiram Stevens Corbett (1886–1967), a former Arizona state senator who was instrumental in bringing spring training to Tucson, specifically by convincing Bill Veeck to bring the Cleveland Indians there in 1947. Veeck owned a ranch in Tucson, and he and players sometimes rode horses there after games. Veeck claimed that he moved the team’s training camp from Florida to Arizona in order to avoid Florida’s Jim Crow laws.

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Bill Veeck

In the mid-1940s, while Veeck was owner of the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the AAA American Association, during one of his team’s spring games in Ocala, Florida, the owner took a bleacher seat and started talking with the fans around him. Veeck had no idea that he had sat in the part of the stadium that was designated for African American fans. That turned out to be a big deal in the segregated “Jim Crow” South of the 1940s. Veeck had no idea that he was breaking a law that kept black fans from mixing with white spectators. In his book, “Veeck as in Wreck”, he wrote, “Within a few minutes, a sheriff came running over to tell me I couldn’t sit there.” The Brewers owner refused to move, and soon the mayor himself was threatening to force him to sit in another section. Veeck countered that if they wanted him to move from his seat, he would would move his team right along with him; to another city. The mayor finally backed down, but Veeck never forgot it.
In time, Veeck sold his stake in the Brewers and bought the Cleveland Indians. Veeck chose Phoenix, Arizona as the Indians’ spring training home for 1947. Veeck convinced the New York Giants to join his Indians so that the two teams could prepare for the season. The next season, Veeck signed Larry Doby to a contract, making him the American League’s first black player. Doby made his major league debut with the Indians on July 5, 1947, about 11 weeks after Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants followed by signing Hall of Famer Monte Irvin the next year and the Cactus League was born.
z B99629538Z.1_20180214121756_000_GTU1S68FU.1-0Last year, John Patsy Francona, a Cleveland Indians fan favorite better known as “Tito” died on the eve of spring training. It was the day before Valentine’s Day and the Indians’ pitchers & catchers were just trickling in to their spring training park in Goodyear, Arizona. The passing was made all the more bittersweet when you consider that the team was managed by Tito’s son, Terry Francona. Terry grew up in the Indians dugout where players called him “Little Tito.” As a member of the Montreal Expos, Terry played against our Indians here in Indianapolis at the old 16th street stadium. Before that he played college ball for Arizona State and led his team to the 1980 College World Series Championship. Terry Francona’s dad’s nickname of “Tito” was naturally passed down to his son, and although the broadcasters and news media still call him “Terry”, Tito is what the manager’s friends and players call him.
The elder Francona arrived in Cleveland in 1959 with baby Terry (born April 22 of that year) in tow. That season, Tito was at the top of his game and his presence knocked some all-time Indian greats right off the roster. Francona came to Cleveland in a one-for-one trade that sent Hall of Famer Larry Doby to the White Sox. (Ironically, it was the second time Tito had been traded for Larry Doby after the O’s traded him to the White Sox in 1958) Tito arrived at the “Mistake on the Lake” with big shoes to fill, but Francona, who began the 1959 season as a pinch hitter and utility man, quickly earned a regular place in the lineup. After going five-for-nine with a home run in a June 7 doubleheader against the Yankees, Francona replaced Jim Piersall as Cleveland’s starting center fielder. By the end of the season, he displaced Indians regular first baseman Vic Power, who was shifted to second base.
z AR-304189941That season Tito batted .363 with a career high twenty home runs and 79 RBIs to help the Indians to an 89–65 record and second place in the American League. His .363 average would have led the league, however, he fell 34 at-bats short of the 3.1 per game necessary to qualify. The batting championship went to the Detroit Tigers’ Harvey Kuenn, with a .353 batting average, ten points below Tito. Francona finished fifth in balloting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award that season. He compiled 20 home runs, 17 doubles, 79 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 145 hits, a .414 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage in 122 games.
Ironically, the next season, Francona was shifted to left field when the Indians traded home run leader Rocky Colavito for Kuenn, the same player who edged out Tito for the batting title the year before. With former Indianapolis Indians slugger Colavito gone (Indianapolis was Cleveland’s minor league affiliate from 1952-56), Francona was inserted in the clean-up spot in manager Joe Gordon’s batting order. Tito tallied only six home runs through the All-Star break and was dropped to the number six spot in the batting order for August, and then back up to number two by September. Tito hit eleven home runs over the rest of the season to finish with seventeen overall. He batted ,292 and his 36 doubles led the American League for 1960. The trade of Colavito for Kuenn is considered by longtime Indians’ fans the beginning of the “Curse of Rocky Colavito” and as you might imagine, Tito Francona was right in the thick of it.Francona Tito 2053.68WTC_Bat_NBL

Abe Lincoln, Presidents

Did you forget Lincoln’s Birthday? PART II.

Lincoln II

Original publish date:  March 14, 2019

In 1909, to honor the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in issuing the Lincoln head penny. It was a smash hit. But the new coins were not beloved by everyone.
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They were too thick for vending machines and, much to the dismay of the telephone company, could pass for nickels. The highly polished, shiny new pennies gave thieves fits: one train robber in Altoona, Pa., carted off a bagful, worth $50, while leaving another bag, containing $5,000 in gold, behind. The New York Times advocated for the return for the “Indian Head Cent” featuring the Native American which had graced the coin since the Civil War. “The red Indian in his war bonnet, the sole survival of aboriginal North America, was of value as a cultural memorial, if for nothing else.” They called the loss of the Indian Head penny “another ill-considered freak of Mr. Roosevelt’s will.” It suggested that the “foolish” replacements “find oblivion in the tills of the coin collectors.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer compared the new coin to “the cheap little medal that used to be given away with bags of pop-corn.” In The New York Herald, a letter to the editor called it “only useful to adorn a church collection plate or feed a penny slot chewing gum machine or to be given to our ‘kids’ for lollipops.”
By the end of 1909, the Mint had stamped out more than 100 million of the new pennies. Some still viewed the new coin as a novelty. A drugstore in Syracuse offered one to every customer; a store in Galveston, Tex., threw one in if you bought three pairs of women’s hosiery. A jeweler in Fresno, Calif., offered Lincoln penny hat pins and brooches for 25 cents, and Lincoln penny cuff links for 50 cents. The Lincoln penny remained a powerful method of payment all the way through the Great Depression. z lincoln-wheat-cent-steel
During World War II, homefront shortages led to the production of a special silver steel penny. In 1943, the Mint decided to halt production of copper pennies because copper was needed for production of war materials. These new Lincoln Penny coins were made out of steel and plated with zinc to make it look shiny on the outside.
However, they were a problem from the start. New shiny pennies were often mistaken for dimes. Magnets in one cent vending machines placed inside to pick up steel slugs now became jammed on the new legitimate steel pennies. And while the front and back of the new pennies were galvanized, the edges were not and sweat and moisture would quickly rust the metal. After public outcry, the Mint discontinued production of the steel cents and developed pennies made from salvaged brass shell casings augmented with pure copper that was used for 1944–46-dated cents, after which the prewar composition was resumed. Although steel pennies continued to circulate into the 1960s, the mint collected large numbers of the 1943 cents and destroyed them.
The steel cent is the only regular-issue United States coin that can be picked up with a magnet. Even though the history regarding the steel penny is interesting, it is not valuable and remains a very common coin, over a billion coins were issued and most are worth a few cents each. On Lincoln’s 150th birthday in 1959, the penny lost half of its original design, the wheat stalks were removed and replaced by the Lincoln Memorial. When the Lincoln penny made it’s debut in 1909, the Lincoln monument was in its earliest design stages in the nation’s capital.
z 1983-doubled-die-reverse-lincoln-memorial-centIn 1983, the copper was replaced with lighter, cheaper zinc- which explains why penny bending bar bets got easier to win during the Reagan years. And businesses continued to give Lincoln pennies away. Every visitor to the old Lincoln Financial Museum in Fort Wayne received a Lincoln penny in change as did visitors to the House Where Lincoln Died museum in Washington, DC during the fifties and sixties. Today, the few people who still bend over to pick them up are invariably those least able to stoop.
Even if the revelation of the Lincoln penny creation story comes as a surprise to most, the connection of Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln cent is an obvious one. The same thing could be said of another American institution named after the sixteenth president: Lincoln logs. But like the penny, this popular toy has a backstory that you probably weren’t aware of.
z inventors-wright-john-lloyd-lincoln-logs-ad-hb3-656-banner-editLincoln Logs is a U.S. children’s toy consisting of notched miniature logs, used to build small forts and buildings. They were invented by the son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 24-year-old John Lloyd Wright came up with the idea for Lincoln Logs on a visit to Tokyo, Japan, while working as chief assistant for his father in 1916. John was working side-by-side with his father on the design of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. The foundation of the hotel was designed with interlocking log beams, making the structure one of the first “earthquake-proof” buildings in the world. The Imperial Hotel ‘s design that allowed the hotel to sway but not collapse in case of a tremor, would be one of the few buildings that remained standing after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo.
z Imperial_Hotel_Wright_HouseUnlike the hotel, the relationship between father and son crumbled long before the hotel was ever completed. Suddenly out-of-work, John Lloyd Wright decided to construct a miniature model that could be used to teach children the basics of construction and engineering while encouraging imaginative play. Using the blueprint for the Imperial Hotel as a model, he created a toy construction set that consisted of notched pieces of wood that children could stack to build log cabins, forts and other rustic buildings. Unlike standard building blocks before them, the interlocking system of miniature logs could withstand the shockwaves unleashed by children’s playing roughly with the toys. When Wright created the toy, the First World War was well underway, although America had not yet entered the fray.
Fresh off Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909, the name Abraham Lincoln had been re-established as the American standard. And what better name for a well-constructed stacked-beam log cabin toy than Lincoln Logs? Some have attributed the toy’s name choice as an homage to the young inventor’s father, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was born Frank Lincoln Wright (he changed his middle name to Lloyd to honor his mother’s family, the Lloyd Joneses). Still others say the name is simile on ‘linkin’ logs. Regardless, it is likely the imaginative building toy would have been a hit by any name.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJohn Lloyd Wright organized The Red Square Toy Company (named after his father’s famous symbol), and unveiled the toy in 1918. Wright was issued U.S. patent 1,351,086 on August 31, 1920, for a “Toy-Cabin Construction”. Soon after, he changed the name to J. L. Wright Manufacturing. The original Lincoln Log set came with instructions on how to build Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as Abraham Lincoln’s cabin. Lincoln Logs makes a lot more sense than “Uncle Tom’s” logs now doesn’t it? The instruction sheet featured a simple drawing of a log cabin, a small portrait of Lincoln and the slogan “Interesting playthings typifying the spirit of America.”
The toy was a hit, following as it did Tinker Toys and the Erector Set which debuted a few years before. During World War II, Americans were encouraged reign in their spending, buy only American-made goods and conserve precious metal for the war effort. While production of other toys during World War II was curtailed, wooden Lincoln Logs continued to roll off factory lines. Later, sparked by the brand new medium of television, the toys’ popularity peaked during the 1950s. The toy’s frontier charm tied in perfectly with popular children’s shows such as “Davy Crockett” and “Bonanza” that were watched by tens of thousands of young “baby boomers” during the Ike Era. Lincoln Logs and John Lloyd Wright were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999, and more than 100 million sets have been sold worldwide.
z WrightBlocksIn the 1930s, Wright attempted to build on the success of Lincoln Logs with Wright Blocks, a toy construction set with interlocking wooden shapes that allowed budding architects to build castles or other complex designs. Wright Blocks, however, proved too intricate and lacked the same appeal as Lincoln Logs. John Lloyd Wright sold his company to Playskool in 1943 for only $800. The copyright for Lincoln Logs eventually passed to toy companies Milton Bradley and Hasbro and finally, K’NEX. In 1949, a company in Denmark developed “Legos” based in large part on Wright’s original design. In February 2015, Lego replaced Ferrari as the “world’s most powerful brand”. Can you imagine, the Ghostbusters Firehouse Headquarters, Star Wars Millennium Falcon, Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle…all made out of Lincoln Legos? It was just that close.

Abe Lincoln, Pop Culture, Presidents

Did you forget Lincoln’s Birthday? PART I.

Lincolan part I

Original publish date:  March 7, 2019

So, what did you do for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday? Go out to dinner? Go to church? Get together with friends and family? Wait, you knew February 12th was Honest Abe’s birthday didn’t you? Well, don’t feel bad, nobody else did either. But once upon a time, everyone celebrated Lincoln’s birthday.
The move to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday began after his 1865 assassination. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee agreed that Feb. 12, 1866 should be set aside for ceremonies in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was asked to give a eulogy for Lincoln at the event. When the day arrived, the Capitol was closed to the public and guests filed into the House chamber for the commemoration, which began at noon. The president’s birthday was commemorated by both houses of Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy, and many foreign representatives.
z Lincoln-PostcardInside the House chamber guests listened to historian George Bancroft (former Secretary of the Navy and the man who established the Naval Academy at Annapolis) talk about “the life, character, and services of Lincoln…forming one of the most imposing scenes ever witnessed in the land.” The address took nearly two hours. The push for a formal celebration quickly spread to state capitals, legislatures and city councils. Most northern states quickly warmed to the idea but bitterness over Reconstruction and the cult of the “Lost Cause” among southerners scuttled attempts to make Lincoln’s birthday a Federal holiday.
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and to the first few generations after his assassination, that date on the calendar had meaning. Of the 48 states that made up the United States in 1940, exactly half celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday. Most celebrations took place in schools, churches, veteran’s halls and political functions. Unlike other traditional American celebrations, Lincoln was not honored with parades but rather with ceremonial dinners and speeches. The states continued to recognize the holiday, which was in close proximity of Washington’s Birthday holiday less than two weeks later, for another 30 years until Congress stepped in and changed all that.
z 51rOas9eAmLIn 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The law shifted several holidays (Veteran’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Lincoln’s Birthday and Columbus Day to name a few) from specific days to a Monday. The reason behind the change was seen as a way to create more three-day weekends and reduce employee absenteeism. The birthdays of George Washington and Lincoln were only 10 days apart, so they were blended into Presidents’ Day.
z pc 1Eventually, individual states created their own Presidents’ Day holidays to be observed on the third Monday in February. This celebration has been enacted in some fashion by 38 states, though never federally, and each varies by state. Some mark the day as a specific remembrance of Washington and Lincoln while others view it as a day to recognize all U.S. presidents. Alabama celebrates Washington and Jefferson. A few states still recognize Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 as its own official holiday. Most notably, Kentucky, his birth state and Illinois,his adopted home state, both celebrate Lincoln’s birthday as an official state holiday, along with a few other states including New York, Connecticut, and Missouri. However, this number has declined in recent years, when California, Ohio and New Jersey ended the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday as paid holidays to cut budgetary costs. Unfortunately, more states now celebrate Black Friday as a holiday than celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. Indiana and Georgia are a couple states that recognize Lincoln’s Birthday on the day after Thanksgiving aka Black Friday.
z pc 2In most states, Lincoln’s birthday is not celebrated separately, as a stand-alone holiday. Instead Lincoln’s Birthday is combined with a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday (also in February) and celebrated either as Washington’s Birthday or as Presidents’ Day on the third Monday in February, concurrent with the federal holiday. Good for George Washington. Sad for Abraham Lincoln. Once upon a time, Lincoln’s birthday was a milestone for Americans to pause and honor greatness.
The centennial of Lincoln’s birth was the largest commemoration of any one person in American history. On the morning of February 12, 1909, the forts around New York Harbor, the National Guard field batteries, and the battleships in port all fired at once to honor Abraham Lincoln. At noon the Gettysburg Address was read in the public schools across America. The culmination of the 100th anniversary was the minting of the first coin bearing the image of an American president, the Lincoln penny. Lately, it seems like the only talk we hear about the penny come from those who want to abolish it. But there may be more to that little copper coin than meets the eye. Well, copper depending on what year you’re talking about. If your Lincoln penny has a date before 1982, it is made of 95% copper. If it is dated 1983 or later, it is made of 97.5% zinc and plated with a thin copper coating.
Since that auspicious debut in 1909, probably no other object in human history has been reproduced more often: to date 1.65 trillion times and counting my friends. That is 1,650,000,000,000 in case you wonder what it looks like. The US Mint estimates 200,035,318,672 are currently in circulation. So what happened to the other 1.4 trillion pennies? Lost in couches? Under car seats? Buried in back yards? My father-in-law Keith Hudson once told me that if you have a stubborn tree stump in the backyard that you want gone just stick a copper penny in it. Well, I don’t know about that but it sure does get you thinking. Maybe that explains where all those pennies went.
z256154_1Regardless, the U.S. Mint still produces more than 13 billion pennies annually. That’s approximately 30 million pennies per day; 1,040 pennies every second. More than two-thirds of all coins produced by the U.S. Mint are pennies and the U.S. Government estimates that $62 million in circulated pennies are lost every year (according to Bloomberg). In fact, the penny is the most widely used denomination in circulation and it remains profitable to make. Each penny costs .93 of a cent to make, but the Mint collects one cent for it. The profit goes to help fund the operation of the Mint and to help pay the public debt. The average penny lasts 25 years.
The penny was the very first coin minted in the United States. In March 1793, the mint distributed 11,178 copper cents. During its early penny-making years, the U.S. Mint was so short on copper that it accepted copper utensils, nails and scrap from the public to melt down for the coins. That 1909 Lincoln centennial penny was the first U.S. coin to feature a historic figure and the first to have the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”. Lincoln faces to the right, while all other portraits on coins face to the left. To date, there have been 11 different designs featured on the penny.
Legend claims that we owe that Lincoln penny to Teddy Roosevelt. Privately, President Theodore Roosevelt told intimates that American coins were “pedestrian and uninspiring”. In July 1908, he sat several times for Victor David Brenner, a Lithuanian-born Jew who, since coming to the United States 19 years earlier, had become one of the nation’s premier medalists. Lincoln, like most immigrants, was Brenner’s personal hero. He was the first American he learned about from his tenement house on New York’s Lower East Side. During those White House sittings, Brenner showed Roosevelt a bas-relief sculpture of Lincoln based on a Mathew Brady photograph. Roosevelt, a great admirer of Lincoln himself, allegedly decreed that Brenner’s Lincoln must go on a new penny to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909.
Putting Lincoln on the most widely circulated coin made perfect sense, after all, it was Lincoln who’d said “Common-looking people are the best in the world; that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” Brenner received $1,000 for the commission. Production of the Lincoln penny began at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia on July 10, 1909. The sculptor asked that he receive the first 100 of the new Lincoln pennies, but his request was deinied, so great was the anticipation. Fearing regional jealousies, the Mint ordered the coin be released across the country simultaneously. That May, the Boston Globe reported, “The new Lincoln cents, it seems, will be distributed the first week in August…It is so hard to wait!”

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The public lines up to buy Lincoln cents outside the sub Treasury Building, New York City, August 2, 1909.

On Monday, Aug. 2, 1909 the New York Sun reported on the first of the new Lincoln pennies issued by the Federal Sub-treasury (today’s Federal Reserve Bank) to long lines of budding numismatists waiting anxiously in the financial district. “The big man down in Wall Street yesterday was the man who had a few of the new Lincoln cents. He could have had a fairly good time on 10 of them; he could start a celebration on a quarter’s worth, and for 50 of them there was no reason why he couldn’t purchase a regular jubilee.” The lines continued all week long and by Friday, even the rain couldn’t dampen the money rush in Lower Manhattan.
Some people near the front of the lines sold their spots for a dollar. Other more ambitious entrepreneurs hired women, who in a still chivalrous era, were ushered to the head of the line. “Within 15 minutes there were enough girls at the door to make it look like a bargain counter sale on a busy Monday,” The Sun reported. Many in what The Tribune called “the penny-mad crowd” were poor raged looking little children, some carrying a single battered Indian Head penny to trade in. The resale rate hovered around three new pennies for a nickel, but shot up slightly when supplies ran low. It was pretty much the same all around the country.
The Washington Star compared the “penny-chasers” to the crowds watching the Wright brothers test their new “aeroplanes.” The Boston Globe said, “you could get the new Lincoln coins for a cent apiece by spending, say, a dollar’s worth of time.” The Illinois State Register in Lincoln’s Springfield hometown reported that the Lincoln Bank ordered 5,000, but received only 50. Even in the old Confederacy, The Constitution newspaper reported that “demand was so high outside one Atlanta bank the crowd would have made a Chicago bread line look small.”

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Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg wrote, “If it were possible to talk with that great, good man, he would probably say that he is perfectly willing that his face is to be placed on the cheapest and most common coin in the country. Follow the travels of the penny and you find it stops at many cottages and few mansions. … The common, homely face of ‘Honest Abe’ will look good on the penny, the coin of the common folk from whom he came and to whom he belongs.”