cars, Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean. PART II

James Dean Part II

Original publish date:  March 19, 2020

“Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” James Dean was the epitome of that 1949 quote penned by pioneering Chicago African American author Willard Motley. Dean died in a car crash nearly 65 years ago (September 30, 1955) but he remains a fixture on the pop culture landscape as the gold standard of cool. If you need proof of that assessment, go and visit his grave in Fairmount, Indiana. There you will see the lipstick spotted grave marker covered by more kisses than the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
z newspaperJames Dean’s aluminium-bodied Porsche was launched into the air, torn and crushed. But that was not the end of the car’s story. The “curse” of James Dean’s car has become a part of America’s cultural mythology. Some claim that the source of that “curse” was none other than iconic Pop Culture car creator known as the “King of the Kustomizers”, George Barris. It was Barris who created the Batmobile, the Beverly Hillbillies truck, the Munster Koach and Grandpa Munster’s “Drag-U-La” casket car used in the 1960s TV series. It was Barris who painted the number 130 on the doors, front hood and rear trunk of Dean’s Posche Spyder. It was Barris who also stenciled the name “Little Bastard” on the back of the car. And it was Barris who eventually came to own the deathcar.
The wrecked Spyder was declared a total loss by the insurance company, which paid Dean’s father, Winton, the fair market value as a settlement. The insurance company, through a salvage yard in Burbank, sold the Spyder to a Dr. William F. Eschrich, a driver who had competed against Dean in his own sports car at three races in 1955. Dr. Eschrich installed Dean’s Porsche 4-cam engine in his Lotus IX race car chassis. Eschrich then raced the Porsche-powered Lotus, which he called a “Potus”, at seven California Sports Car Club events during 1956. At the Pomona Sports Car Races on October 21, 1956, Eschrich, driving this car, was involved in a minor scrape with another driver. In that same race, a Dr. McHenry was killed when his race car went out of control and struck a tree. Dr. Eschrich had loaned Dr. McHenry the transmission and several other parts from James Dean’s deathcar.
z death car photosAfter Dr. Eschrich striped the car of it’s engine and any other salvageable racing components, he evidently sold the Spyder’s mangled chassis to Barris. It is not known exactly how Barris knew Eschrich, but in late-1956, Barris announced that he would rebuild the Porsche. However, as the wrecked chassis had no remaining integral strength, a rebuild proved to be a Herculean task, even for a wizard like Barris. Barris welded aluminum sheet metal over the caved-in left front fender and cockpit. He then beat on the aluminum panels with a 2×4 to try to mimic collision damage. So, likely to protect his investment and reputation, Barris promoted the “curse” by placing the wreck on public display.
zjames-dean-carFirst, Barris loaned the car out to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a local custom car show in 1956. The gruesome display was promoted as: “James Dean’s Last Sports Car”. From 1957 to 1959, the exhibit toured the country in various custom car shows, movie theatres, bowling alleys, and highway safety displays throughout California. It even made an appearance at Indianapolis Raceway Park during the NHRA Drag Racing Championship track’s grand opening in 1960. According to Barris, during those years 1956 to 1960, a mysterious series of accidents, not all of them car crashes, occurred involving the car resulting in serious injuries to spectators and even a truck driver’s death.
A few of those stories can be corroborated. A March 12, 1959 wire service story reported that the deathcar, temporarily stored in a garage at 3158 Hamilton Avenue in Fresno, caught fire “awaiting display as a safety exhibit in a coming sports and custom automobile show”. The Fresno Bee followed up with a newspaper story exactly two months later, stating that the “fire occurred on the night of March 11 and only slight damage occurred to the Spyder without any damage to other cars or property in the garage. No one was injured. The cause of the fire is unknown. It burned two tires and scorched the paint on the vehicle.” Barris claimed that the deathcar mysteriously disappeared in 1960 while returning from a traffic safety exhibit in Florida in a sealed railroad boxcar. When the train arrived in Los Angeles, Barris said he signed the manifest and verified that the seal was intact—but the boxcar was empty. Barris offered $1,000,000 to anyone who could produce the remains of the deathcar, but no one ever came forward to claim the prize.

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James Dean display at Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois.

Although the legendary car has disappeared, Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois, claims to have an original piece of Dean’s Spyder on display. It is a small chunk of aluminum, a few square inches in size, that was allegedly pried off and stolen from an area near the broken windscreen while the Spyder was being stored in the Cholame Garage after the crash. Also on display in the museum are an assortment of Abraham Lincoln relics (a lock of his hair, the handles from his coffin, various bloodstained cloth and one of the coins purportedly placed on the dead President’s eyes) as well as the Bonnie & Clyde, Flintstones, Back to the Future Movie cars and George Barris’ Batmobile. In 2005, for the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, announced they were displaying what was purported to be the passenger door of the “Little Bastard”.
The 4-Cam Porsche engine (#90059), along with the original California Owner’s Registration (a.k.a. CA Pink Slip) listing the engine number, is still in the possession of the family of the late Dr. Eschrich. The Porsche’s transaxle assembly (#10046), is currently owned by Porsche collector and restorer Jack Styles in Massachusetts. But, to date, neither of Dean’s Porsches have been located. In his 1974 book “Cars of the Stars” George Barris first wrote about the curse and the numerous incidents involving fatal accidents and other serious injuries, but other than the few minor mishaps reported here, researchers have found no evidence to support most of Barris’ claims. Regardless, the story of the curse has certainly failed to diminish the James Dean legend.
z graveLike many a Hoosier youth, I too had my “James Dean phase”. Some twenty years ago, my wife Rhonda and I took a trip up to Fairmount to visit James Dean country. We were toured around the community by a couple of older gentlemen who graciously pointed out spots the young actor frequented including the family farm, Dean’s old high school, a few of the old stores Dean used to frequent, the cemetery and the funeral home where Dean was prepared for burial. One of the men mentioned, “He had a closed-casket funeral to conceal his severe injuries from his hometown friends and family.” These men had been underclassmen at Fairmount high school and relayed stories of encounters with Dean from their school days. They remarked that when the young method actor returned to Fairmount after making a Pepsi commercial and a bit part on TV, Dean attended a high school dance. “We didn’t like him because he had all of the girls in the room fawning all over him and we couldn’t get a dance.” they said. “We didn’t see him as a big shot from Hollywood, we saw him as a guy trying to steal our dates.”

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Google Earth view of the crash site.

During our 10th wedding anniversary trip to California in 1999, Rhonda and I drove from San Francisco to Hollywood. Part of the way on scenic Highway 101 (which I highly recommend should you ever find yourself out that way) and part of the way retracing James Dean’s final drive. The best way you could envision the scene while sitting here in Indiana in the dead of winter would be for you to make a peace sign with the index and middle fingers of your right hand. Hold your arm straight out. The crash happened where your fingers meet, with the Porsche coming toward you on your middle finger and the Ford traveling up your forearm toward your index finger in the opposite direction. Imagine Turnupseed’s car bearing left and swerving onto your index finger precisely at the same time as Dean’s car passes the same spot. Got it?
z dean mapDriving along that long two-lane stretch of Central California highway, it’s easy to imagine what James Dean’s last hour was like even though much of today’s road isn’t the same one James Dean traveled on. The route was upgraded and moved slightly north in the 1960s. However, parts of the original can still be found. As you drive west on the last mile to the crash site and look off to your left and you can still see what’s left of the original two-lane road. If you pull off to the side of the road, it’s still possible to walk on part of the crumbling pavement, with weeds sprouting in the middle, and imagine that little silver Porsche speeding past.

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Donald Turnupseed’s car after the wreck.

From this vantage point, it’s also easy to understand how Donald Turnupseed didn’t see the tiny silver sports car as it approached from the foot of the Polonio Pass. The road shimmers along this route, making it hard to tell where the road ends and the horizon begins. Cars appear and disappear in vaporous waves of prismic light like an optical illusion as light reflects off the road surface. Today, the intersection has been widened and there’s a left-turn lane to access Highway 41 requiring a stop and a 90-degree turn. A road sign rises from the median between the converging lanes ominously proclaiming it as “James Dean Memorial Junction”. The two lanes have remained virtually unchanged since then, while the population of the southern San Joaquin Valley has grown 120% since the crash. Headlight use is mandatory along the 58-mile route, from Lost Hills off Interstate 5 to past Paso Robles to the west. Today, the spot where James Dean died is known as “Blood Alley” due to the number of fatal crashes, mainly head-on collisions, that still occur there among the high volume of commuters, truck drivers, and tourists today. Highway officials report that 42 deaths occurred on the road during the 45 years after James Dean’s passing. Another 38 were killed from 2000 to 2010.

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Offerings left by fans at the James Dean death site.

Parking and walking over to the spot where James Dean died is a dangerous exercise on this remote, but very busy highway. Cars and trucks speed by in both directions and anything short of a cautious drive by is not recommended. Where Highway 41 merges into Highway 46, on a barbed-wire fence off the westbound lane, is a small memorial signifying the spot where Dean’s Porsche skidded to a stop. There is a small barren patch dotted with tufts of grass. It can easily be missed unless you know it’s there. It sort of blends in to the surrounding nothingness except for the shadows of footprints and mementos left by fans from all over the world. In September 2015, The Hollywood Reporter noted that visitors to the crash site leave an assortment of tributes, including pictures, alcohol and women’s underwear. However, contrary to popular belief, this is not the actual intersection where the accident occurred. The accident scene is approximately 100 feet to the south of the current intersection, where the road used to be. Seems that retrospectively, Dean’s death, like his life, can easily get lost in the legend. One thing is certain though, the crash that killed the rising Hoosier movie star succeeded in cementing his status as a legend.

Macabre Images of James Dean clowning in the Fairmount Funeral Home.

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cars, Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean. PART I

James Dean Part I

Original publish date:  March 12, 2020

Hoosier James Dean died in an automobile accident on a desolate stretch of highway in Cholame, California nearly 65 years ago, yet he remains ever present in the collective memory of fans born well after his death. It is ironic that Cholame sits within a mile of the San Andreas Fault-line because on September 30, 1955, the death of James Dean caused a seismic shift in pop culture history that resonates to this day. Dean became a cultural icon immediately after his death. He remains the symbol of teenage angst to millions of young people whose grandparents were more familiar with him than them. Part of his remaining allure involves his small town genesis, the curse of his death car and an unexpected connection to the Star Wars franchise.
Although tiny Cholame (population 116) makes Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana (population @ 2,600 in 1955) look like a metropolis, it would be hard to find a more typical California town. Like James Dean himself, Cholame is frozen in time. One of the town’s founders was Robert Edgar Jack. During the Civil War, Jack enlisted in the 56th New York Volunteer Infantry. He fought at the Battle of Gettysburg and was part of the unit dispatched to New York City to quell the infamous draft riots there. Near the end of the war, he moved to California and soon became the largest wool grower in Central California. He later switched to cattle and agriculture. Jack’s land was eventually sold to the William Randolph Hearst Corporation in 1966 and is still a working cattle ranch today. Can’t get much more California than that now can you?
24-year-old James Dean was killed when his Porsche 550 Spyder collided when 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Tudor Custom coupe as it made a left turn at the junction of State Highways 41 and 46. Dean was at the wheel of his sleek silver Porsche Spyder was headed to a sports car race (his fourth) at Salinas Municipal Airport. With him in the car was his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. The car’s mirror finish was accented by the number 130 on the front hood, rear trunk and side doors and the name “Little Bastard” (designated as such by Dean himself) on the back. The original plan was to tow the high performance car on a trailer behind Dean’s 1955 Ford “woodie” style station wagon the actor had purchased just three months before.

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Rolf Wütherich & James Dean.

However Dean’s riding mechanic Wütherich, a former Luftwaffe glider pilot, recommended that they “unloose” the car instead by driving it the 300 miles from Hollywood to Salinas so Dean could get “more seat time” behind the wheel before the race. Dean’s first races were run in a Porsche 356 Speedster, which he bought in March 1955. He won a race for novices at Palm Springs, Calif. driving his No. 23F, a 1954 Porsche Speedster. As his star (and income) began to rise, he graduated to the Spyder 550, an ultra-low, rear-engined sports-racer that cost $7000 in the States, the equivalent of two new Cadillacs in 1955. He traded in his Speedster for the Spyder on September 21, and his new buddy Wütherich was part of the deal.

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The Villa Capri Restaurant.

Just after purchase, Dean was driving his new car around Hollywood on September 23, 1955 when he ran into British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant. Guinness, exhausted after a long flight from Copenhagen, was having dinner with Thelma Moss, an actress and screenwriter. Because Moss was wearing trousers, the duo had been turned away from a number of restaurants so they traveled to the less formal Italian restaurant. But there were no available tables at the Villa Capri either. As they left the restaurant, Guinness heard the sound of “running, sneakered feet” behind them. He turned and found himself face to face with James Dean. “I was in that restaurant and you couldn’t get a table. My name is James Dean, would you please come and join me?”
Guinness didn’t know Dean (by this time, of Dean’s three movies, only East of Eden had been released) but Dean sure knew Guinness. Guinness had already received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Lavender Hill Mob in 1951. Sir Alec (1914-2000) won an Oscar portraying Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but he is best remembered by modern fans for portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. Guinness appeared in nine of the British Film Institute’s 100 greatest British films of the 20th century.
z-alec-guinness-Guinness and Moss followed Dean to the restaurant, but before they reached the door, Dean stopped and said, “I’d like to show you something.” Years later, Guinness recalled “There in the courtyard of this little restaurant was this little silver thing, very smart, all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet.” The young method actor told his new British star, “It’s just been delivered,” said Dean “I haven’t even been in it at all.” Guinness thought the car looked “sinister”. “How fast is it?” he asked. “She’ll do a hundred and fifty,” replied Dean.
In a 1977 interview on BBC television, Guinness recounted a prophetic premonition: “Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it.’ Guinness said. “And some strange thing came over me. Some almost different voice and I said, ‘Look, I won’t join your table unless you want me to, but I must say something: Please do not get into that car, because if you do’ — and I looked at my watch — and I said, ‘if you get into that car at all, it’s now Friday, 10 o’clock at night and by 10 o’clock at night next Friday, you’ll be dead if you get into that car.'” “Dean laughed. ‘Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!’” After Dean brushed off the warning, the group proceeded to have a “charming dinner.” Guinness recalled, then closed his story by saying, “It was one of those odd things. It was a very, very odd, spooky experience. I liked him very much, too. I would have loved to have known him more.” Would you expect any less from Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Sir Alec’s prediction came true. A week after that dinner at the Villa Capri, James Dean was dead. Details of James Dean’s last hours on earth have been well documented but are worth revisiting. Dean’s posse that day consisted of Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich, Warner Bros. Studios stuntman and close friend Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford H. Roth who was shooting photos for an upcoming story of Dean at the races for Collier’s magazine. The group gathered for coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street before leaving around 1:15 p.m. They stopped at a nearby Mobil station on Ventura Blvd. at Beverly Glen Blvd. in Sherman Oaks around 2:00 p.m. to gas up for the 300 mile trip up to Salinas. The group then headed north on the Golden State Freeway and then headed out on Interstate 5 (aka the “Grapevine”) toward Bakersfield.
zz dean 5At 3:30 p.m., Dean was stopped by California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Hickman, following the Spyder in Dean’s Ford “woodie” station wagon pulling the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph. After receiving the citations, Dean and Hickman turned left onto SR 166 / 33 to bypass Bakersfield’s congested downtown district. This bypass became known as “the racer’s road”, a popular short-cut for sports car drivers going to Salinas. The racer’s road went directly to Blackwells Corner at U.S. Route 466 (later SR 46). Around 5:00 p.m., Dean stopped at Blackwells Corner for “apples and Coca-Cola” and met up briefly with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to Salinas in Reventlow’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe. As Reventlow and Kessler were leaving, they all agreed to meet for dinner that night in Paso Robles.
At approximately 5:15 p.m., Dean’s party hit the road, driving west on Route 466 toward Paso Robles, approximately 60 miles away. Dean unleashed his Porsche 550 and left Hickman and the Ford station wagon far behind. The Porsche crested Polonio Pass and headed west down Route 466’s long Antelope Grade, passing cars along the way while heading straight toward the junction of Route 41. Around 5:45 p.m., a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor Custom coupe traveling at high speed was headed east on Route 466 just west of the town of Shandon. Allegedly, James Dean’s last words, uttered right after Wütherich warned Dean to slow down as the Ford Tudor rolled into their lane just before the impact were, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us”.

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US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed.

The driver, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. The skid marks suggested that, as Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the center line, Dean tried to avoid the impact by steering the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing maneuver, but it was too late and the two cars collided almost head-on. A witness, John Robert White, reportedly saw the Spyder fly into the air and tumble two or three times in cartwheels before landing in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. The impact sent the much-heavier Ford sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the opposite lane. The collision was witnessed by several passersby who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse in his neck, but according to the woman, “death appeared to have been instantaneous”.

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Rolf Wütherich

California Highway Patrol Capt. Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corp. Ronald Nelson were called to the scene. Before the CHP officers arrived, Dean had been pulled from the Spyder’s mangled cockpit, his left foot having been crushed between the clutch and brake pedal. He suffered a broken neck and massive internal and external injuries. Nelson arrived just in time to see an unconscious and dying Dean being placed into an ambulance. Wütherich, who had been in the passenger seat, was thrown from the Spyder, where he lay barely conscious on the shoulder of the road beside the wrecked vehicle. Dean and Wütherich traveled in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. by the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Bossert. The cause of death listed on James Dean’s death certificate is listed as “a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, both right and left arms broken, and internal injuries.”

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James Dean Crash Scene.

Despite reports of Dean’s speed being around 85 mph, Corp. Nelson estimated that the actual speed was around 55 mph, based on the wreckage and position of Dean’s body. It was later determined that Turnupseed was speeding at around 85 mph before impact. Hickman and Roth arrived on scene some ten minutes after the crash. Hickman assisted in extricating Dean from the wreckage while Roth took photographs of the crash. Wütherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery. Turnupseed was only slightly injured with facial bruises and a bloody nose. After being interviewed by the CHP, Turnupseed hitch-hiked in the dark to his home in Tulare. He was not ticketed or ever charged with any wrongdoing and he remained a recluse for the rest of his life. Turnupseed died of cancer in 1995. Wütherich returned to Germany where he became a successful rally co-driver in the 1960s but reportedly never got over the 1955 crash physically or emotionally. In 1981 he too died in a car crash.

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Gig Young and James Dean.

Shortly before the accident, Dean, dressed as his cowboy character from Giant, filmed a road safety television spot with Hollywood star Gig Young. In it, Dean fiddles nervously with a rope lasso and ends the spot by saying, “Take it easy driving – the life you save may be mine”. Four days after the crash, “Rebel Without a Cause” was released. Dean’s performance as Jim Stark, the confused teenager with doting but clueless parents, came to epitomize brooding adolescent behavior. At the time of the crash, Dean had completed one other film, 1956’s “Giant,” which starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Although billed below them, Dean’s Jet Rink character stole the movie by playing a character who over the course of 40 years goes from cowboy to oil tycoon. Ironically, in this film, we see Dean go from a young man to an old man on screen. Something that never materialized in real life.

Next Week-PART II of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean.

Creepy history, Criminals, Ghosts, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Medicine

“Bloody Mary Brown. An Irvington Tale”

 

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Original publish date: 2004 Irvington Haunts. Haunted and Infamous Irvington.  Weekly View publish date: October 24, 2019

Fifteen years ago, Russ Simnick and I published our first book, “Irvington Haunts. Haunted and Infamous Irvington.” That first volume was a collection of fourteen different ghost stories gathered from the pages of Irvington’s haunted history. A few of those stories have fallen off the radar screen over the years. Since it is Halloween time in Irvington, I have decided to revisit a couple of those stories in the spirit of the season.
This story, chapter two from that first volume, is titled “Bloody Mary Brown and the Ghost Horse. South Irvington Farm.” I wish that I could take full credit for this particular tale, but I must admit that this particular story was written by Russ and my role in it’s publication was minimal at best. The imagery of this spooky tale is a feast for the senses. So, tuck the paper under your arm, take it home with you, turn down the lights and pull down the window shades. For tales like this are best read in the dark. Not all the hauntings in Irvington confine themselves to homes. The streets of South Irvington are home to the spirit of a phantom horse and buggy searching for its owner who was brutally murdered.z5f
On the evening of Friday, February 6, 1880, an area farmer named P.H. Fatout found a horse and phaeton buggy plodding along the Brookville Pike with no rider. On that blustery night, Fatout secured the rig and led it to his stable. What he didn’t know was that his find would turn into key evidence in one of the day’s most sensational murder stories. Once inside his barn, Fatout inspected the buggy with a lantern. He discovered its cushions were soaked in blood. The boards of the seats, under the cushions, were broken and the dashboard was heavily scratched, apparent signs of a struggle.
Shortly before daylight, travelers on Michigan Road, near the place it crossed the Belt Railroad, discovered a more gruesome scene– the lifeless body of Irvington Farmer John G.F. Brown. The cause of death for the 52-year-old farmer was first thought to be a bullet wound, but Farmer Brown turned out to be the victim of a brutal ax murder. Indianapolis police Captains Splann and Williamson began investigating the body at 9:30 that morning. They soon concluded that it had been dragged from the buggy and disposed of at the scene of its finding. Buggy tracks led to Irvington butcher Jacob Geis, but he was soon ruled out as a suspect as police correctly surmised that the tracks were a ruse designed to frame Geis.
Brown had just returned from prison to his forty-acre farm, located a half mile south of Brookville Road. As his one-year sentence for receiving stolen goods ended, he returned home to find a man living in his house with Brown’s wife. The man, recent divorcee Joseph Wade, ran a saloon on Virginia Avenue in Indianapolis. He was described as a “fighting man” to Brown by local attorney Nicholas Van Horn.
pic4193-1If he was fearful, Joseph Brown did not show it as he sat down for what would be his last meal. At 5:30 PM, Mary Brown sent her two older children to the Smith’s, neighbors whose home was frequently visited by Wade, the children and Mary Brown. Mary instructed the children that she would come to get them after dinner and that Wade would play fiddle that evening to entertain at the Smith home. During the course of the evening, Wade asked Brown to borrow his buggy. He stated that he wanted to sell a horse to Irvington’s Dr. long. Brown agreed. As dinner ended, Brown went into the front yard to work on an ax handle. Wade was hitching the horse to the buggy.
According to testimony by Mary Brown, as published in “The Indianapolis News” on February 12, 1880, the next events unfolded like this: “I went around the east end of the house to the front to see if Wade was gone. Then is when I heard a noise. I heard no words but a dull sound as if from a gun a long way off or a dull heavy blow. When I heard this I had just passed the southeast corner of the kitchen with my child in my arms. I heard no additional noise. The buggy stood nearby opposite of the gate.”
She soon saw the body of her husband. According to her testimony, she said, “My God, Joe, what have you done?” Wade replied, “I love every hair of your head better than my own life.” He added, “this will be all right. I will prove myself clear.” “It is a horrible picture of depravity and utterly inhumane heartlessness, when it is brought to mind that Mrs. Brown and Wade (who, if they did not both actually commit the murder, contrived it) should have so coolly eaten supper with their victim, and then so soon after dispatched him,” stated a local newspaper of the day.
Panicking, Wade had a body, but no place to dump it. Thinking quickly, he headed to butcher Geis’ home to “throw suspicion under the butcher.” This plan was foiled as Geis’ dogs began barking at the killer. He quickly changed plans. This time, he would make it appear as if Brown was hit by a train and proceeded to take the buggy to the Belt Railroad. “The Indianapolis Journal” (Feb. 11, 1880) reported that Wade intended to “leave the buggy with the body and it up on the railroad track, loosing the traces so the horse could walk out unharmed when the Belt train came along. The locomotive would strike the vehicle and it might be made to appear that Brown had been killed by the cars.” Apparently, there was an unusual amount of travel that night and approaching people did not allow him the privacy to stage the scene. He threw the body out and let the horse go.
46052174_137701834512The investigation by Coroner George Wishard, namesake of today’s Wishard Hospital, was thorough and damning to Wade. During his investigation at the Brown farm, Wishard “found a board, probably a small kneading tray, hidden away under the shed… Which is bespattered with blood.” Signs of a violent struggle and blood were found in the yard. The mountain of evidence was building against Wade. But did he act alone? Or was “Bloody Mary” Brown, as one of the contemporary newspapers dubbed her, more involved than she claimed?
News of the murder was watched with great intensity. The “Indianapolis Journal” declared in February 1880, “Every scrap of gossip, every item of information is readily devoured by eager listeners, all of whom, with varying comment, now look upon the unfaithful wife and her Paramore as the guilty ones.” One enterprising paint dealer, located on Meridian Street in Indianapolis, covered all the roads connected to the murder with signs advertising his business-360 in all-so that the steady stream of travelers and ghoulish thrill seekers from Indianapolis would see his advertisements.
Bloody Mary Brown was shown at trial to have more involvement than she claimed. She and Joseph Wade were both convicted of John Brown’s murder and sentenced to hang. But this was not their last day in court. At a retrial for Bloody Mary in January 1881, a jury once again found her guilty of murder but sentenced her to life in prison at the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls in Indianapolis. Upon the result of this trial, the public grew to believe that Wade should not suffer a harsher punishment than Brown. Dozens of men petitioned the governor to commute Wade sentenced to life in prison. Eventually, his sentence was changed to life.
The tragedy that befell Brown was not the end to this story. Many strange events occurred after the murder. Mary’s mother was placed in an insane asylum, and even though she had no involvement with the murder. Wade’s ex-wife, who he had divorced just prior to moving in with Mary, died days after the murder of an apparent heart attack. One of the oddest twists in this case involved the body of John Brown. While his corpse was taken to Kregelo’s undertaking establishment for examination by Coroner Wishard, his skull was taken to the Medical College of Indiana, located at the corner of Pennsylvania and Market streets.

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The Medical College of Indiana.

Ominously, one of the largest fires in the history of Indianapolis ripped through the Medical College on February 9, 1880, just three days after the murder. Not only was Brown’s skull lost, but so were several of the corpses in the college’s dissecting room. “The stiffs were frying and frizzling in there,” said patrolman E. B. Clark to the “Indianapolis Sentinel.”
Even in this day of auto travel, Irvingtonians claim to have heard the clumps of horse hooves plodding and the screech of ancient buggy wheels turning on the southern streets of Irvington, just north of Brookville Road. This testimony can only be assigned to John Brown’s riderless horse, endlessly looking for its owner who was viciously murdered and whose body was left cold and stiff beside the railroad tracks just before Valentine’s Day more than a century before.
After all these years, Russ’s story, appearing here just as he wrote it back in the day, still holds up. Over the last 17 years of ghost tours, I have, more than a few times, encountered guests who have themselves witnessed the spiritual echoes of clip clops from long ago. That is the magic of Irvington at Halloween.

Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, Hollywood, Museums, Pop Culture, Travel

“Bonnie & Clyde” Part IV

z Clyde car part 3

Original publish date: October 17, 2019

There have been some changes to my “Bonnie and Clyde” story series in the years since I first wrote it. Some nationally, others personally. This past September, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For our milestone anniversary we visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is an odd choice since neither of us gamble. Oh sure, we visited many casinos, but mostly just to say we did it. The casinos on the strip are slick and flashy and a must see but our favorites were the old casinos on Fremont Street where the Vegas legend was born. They ooze with historic personality and, in my opinion, are the real attraction for history loving visitors to “sin city”.
original_whiskey-petesOne of those “must see” old timey casinos is located about 30 miles southwest of the Vegas strip in a desert town called Primm, Nevada not far from the California border. Known as “Whiskey Pete’s”, the casino covers 35,000 square feet, has 777 rooms, a large swimming pool, gift shop and four restaurants. The casino is named after gas station owner Pete MacIntyre. “Whiskey Pete” had a difficult time making ends meet selling gas, so he resorted to bootlegging and an idea was born. When Whiskey Pete died in 1933, he was secretly buried standing up with a bottle of whiskey in his hands so he could watch over the area. Decades later, his unmarked grave was accidentally exhumed by workers building a connecting bridge from Whiskey Pete’s to Buffalo Bill’s (on the other side of I-15). According to legend, the body was reburied in one of the caves where Pete once cooked up his moonshine.
z 70184836_2595583403806240_2376225759279710208_nOh, I forgot to mention that Whiskey Pete’s is also home to the Bonnie and Clyde death car. As detailed in part III of this series, the car has had a long strange trip to Primm. The bullet-ridden car toured carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for decades before being permanently parked on the plush carpet between the main cashier cage and a lifesize caged effigy of Whiskey Pete himself. According to the “Roadside America” website, “For a time it was in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts, then in the 1970s it was at a Nevada race track where people could sit in it for a dollar. A decade later it was in a Las Vegas car museum; a decade after that it was in a casino near the California / Nevada state line. It was then moved to a different casino on the other side of the freeway, then it went on tour to other casinos in Iowa, Missouri, and northern Nevada. nfdbw6-b88265181z.120141120184822000g7f6eg40.10Complicating matters was the existence of at least a half-dozen fake Death Cars and the Death Car from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (which was in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, but now is in Tennessee).” Just in case of any remaining confusion, the Primm car is accompanied by a bullet riddled sign reading: “Yes, this is the original, authentic Bonnie and Clyde death car” (in all caps for emphasis).

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One of the facsimile death cars on display in Gibsland, Louisiana.

The car is encased in a glass cage and guarded by reconstituted department store mannequins dressed as the famous outlaw couple. And, after 85 years, the bullet holes, shattered glass and torn interior are just as shocking to our eyes as they were to those of our Great Depression ancestors. The doors are permanently shut (so there’ll be no more sitting), the bloody upholstery is long gone and covered by plastic and the steering wheel’s bakelite outer casing has been torn to pieces by long dead souvenir hunters . The car’s Swiss cheese exterior is still impressive and cringeworthy, even if you can’t stick your fingers in the holes. 20190908_100429The walls surrounding the death car are festooned with authentic newspapers detailing the outlaw lover’s demise and letters vouching to the vehicle’s authenticity. Cases contain other Bonnie and Clyde relics like a belt given by Clyde to his sister and classic candid photos of the star-crossed lovers and their families.

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The car is a must see, but my interest was equaled by the presence of Clyde’s shredded death shirt, peppered by innumerable ragged holes both front and back. A nearby placard proclaims: “Marie Barrow [Clyde’s sister] has personally signed the inside hem of the shirt to attest to the garment’s authenticity,” while another reads: “Bloodstains are evident throughout the shirt,” it continues, although time has faded them considerably. A closer examination of Clyde’s blue shirt (adorned by a repeated pattern of white snowflake flourishes) attests that the diminutive desperado wore a size 14-32. Sadly, try as I might, I was unable to view the object of my search: the Indianapolis H.P. Wasson’s department store tag. Amazingly, the shirt remains mostly intact. Although cut at the shoulders (giving the shirt a rather macabre looking superhero cape appearance) only a few of the buttons are missing and the single pocket that once covered the law breakers heart is unscathed. The exit hole in the back of Clyde’s collar is sure to elicit a gasp when the viewer realizes that this was the death shot, the one that severed Barrow’s spinal cord.
bcend-realcbA movie, obviously created many years ago, recreates the event using newsreel footage, landscape photography and contemporary interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. Here, it is revealed that the shirt was found, decades after the outlaw’s death, secreted away in a sealed metal box along with Clyde’s hat. The film itself has become a piece of Americana and the images of Bonnie’s torn and tattered body left twitching in the car, resting silently mere yards away, are equally breathtaking. Nearby, although not nearly as shocking as the Bonnie and Clyde death car, another bullet-scarred automobile is on display. This one first belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz and later, Al Capone. Signs around the car proclaim that the doors are filled with lead and, judging by the pockmarks of the bullets denting the exterior, it is true. Although, like every casino, Whiskey Pete’s job remains separating gamblers from their money, both cars are on display 24 hours a day for free.

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Just in case you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to take a side trip to see the death car, there is another stop along the way that is a must see for history-loving Hoosiers. In between Primm and Vegas lies a mostly abandoned mining town (population 229) known as Good Springs. The town is home to, according to legend, the oldest saloon in the state: The Pioneer Saloon (built in 1913). This is the saloon where Clark Gable spent 3 days slamming beers after receiving word of the plane crash and while awaiting confirmation of the death of his beautiful wife, Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. The 33-year-old actress was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s. She died while returning from a war bond tour in Indianapolis on board TWA Flight 3 when the plane slammed into Mount Potosi, which is easily seen in the distance.
adventure-32301-original-1476134635-57fc06eb943f4The interior of the Pioneer Saloon remains unchanged. It is easy to imagine Gone with the Wind star Gable drowning his sorrows at a rickety table or bracing himself against the cowboy bar and it’s brass boot rail. Ask and the bartender will point out the cigarette burn holes in the bar caused by Gable when he passed out from a mixture of grief and alcohol during his somber vigil. The tin ceiling remains as do the ancient celing fans (it gets HOT in the desert) and the walls are peppered with bullet holes left by cowboys who rode off into the sunset generations ago. The bar’s backroom is a shrine to the Lombard / Gable tragedy but sadly most of the relics on display there are modern photocopies and recreations. Locals claim that Carole Lombard’s ghost haunts the saloon in a desperate attempt to contact her grieving husband. The saloon is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of an old “Miner 49er” who appears drinking alone at the far end of the bar before vanishing into thin air. Millennials flock to the bar as the birthplace of the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which also has a small shrine located there.

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Clyde Barrow’s Bulova wristwatch.

Ironically, in the years since I wrote this series and during the month of our 30th anniversary visit, Bonnie and Clyde have populated the headlines once more. On September 20, 2019 several personal items related to 1930s Texas outlaw were sold by a Boston auction house for nearly $186,000. The Bulova watch that Clyde wore when he and Bonnie Parker were killed sold for $112,500 (it had given to his father, Henry Barrow, after he retrieved his son’s body). A sawed-off shotgun that was used by the Barrow gang in 1933 sold for $68,750. A draft of a Dallas police “wanted” poster for Barrow sold for $4,375, a bullet-proof vest used by the gang sold for $ 30,000 and a bloodied bandage from the Barrow Gang sold for $3,000. 2215
The Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun had been found after a gun battle that left two lawmen dead. On April 13, 1933, five lawmen assembled outside 3347 ½ Oakridge Drive in Joplin, Missouri to confront what they believed were bootleggers operating out of an apartment above the garage. Instead, they quickly discovered that they were up against the Barrow gang. While Bonnie, Clyde, and their associates escaped, they left behind almost everything they owned at the time: Bonnie’s poems, a bevy of weapons, and several rolls of undeveloped film. Those photos, featuring images of the nattily dressed couple clowning for the camera by pointing various weapons at each other, hit the newspapers and firmly established the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers on the run. The couple would be killed a year later.

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The Joplin garage hideout today.

After the shootout, Detective Tom DeGraff found the shotgun in the Joplin garage, and took it home as a souvenir. When he registered it under the National Firearms Act in 1946, he included an affidavit noting its origins. What’s more, the same shotgun can be spotted in images printed from the film rolls left behind at Joplin. In one photograph, it leans against one of the Barrow Gang’s cars. In 2012, the same auctionhouse sold several of Clyde’s guns for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a 1911 Army Colt 45 Pistol for $240,000. This pistol was removed from Clyde’s waistband after the duo was gunned down by lawmen in 1934. Frank Hamer, the leader of the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, kept it as a trophy.

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Bonnie Parker’s Colt .38 Special Revolver.

That September 2012 auction also included Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, carried by her at the time of her death. A notarized letter, dated December 10, 1979, spectacularly identified this gun by stating, “My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped.”

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Frank Hamer’s note.

Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reading “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.” Many of the guns carried by Bonnie and Clyde ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer as an unexpected bonus for his service. Hamer was promised that he could take anything the outlaws had in their possession at the time of their capture.

 

Other auction items included five original items collected off the floor of Bonnie and Clyde’s car: a woman’s silk stocking stained with blood on the foot and leg area, an unused .45 caliber bullet and casing from the Peters Cartridge Company with the date of 1918, a side temple from a pair of eyeglasses, a small wood-handled flathead screwdriver measuring 4 1/2″ long and an empty Bayer Aspirin tin; all of which sold for $11,400. This lot was accompanied by a notarized affidavit from the woman whose grandfather originally acquired these relics directly from the ‘death car’ after receiving permission to take them. Letter reads, in part: “My grandfather, Zell Smith, was a traveling hardware salesman who traveled that area of north Louisiana. He was also a friend of Sheriff Henderson Jordan. My grandfather was in Arcadia in 1934 on the day that the ambushed car was pulled into Arcadia. He, like many others, rushed to see the shot up car, and Sheriff Henderson let him and others that he knew ransack the car for souvenirs. My grandfather grabbed a handful of stuff off of the floor of the car, which the outlaws had been living in. He said the car was full of trash.”

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Bonnie Parker’s poetry book.

Last month’s auction included a little black book of 10 poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery. Five of the poems were original compositions drawn from her life on the run with the Barrow Gang. The titles reflect the female outlaw’s life at that time: “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.” Bidding for Bonnie’s poetry book reached about $25,000 before the lot was withdrawn by the consignor.
9334476db7b58cc57c37051c41acec99During the Great Depression, some viewed the duo as near folk heroes, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And, although Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger reportedly once told a reporter that Bonnie and Clyde were “a couple of punks”, he and his fellow gang member Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to their funeral homes. The Barrow gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers. They finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot some 130 rounds into the car. Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. Truth is, proceeds from auctions of items associated with these outlaws over the past two decades (which number in the millions of dollars) far outdistance the proceeds of all of their robberies combined.
wnl5boo20jpzFor my part, when we told our 25-year-old son about our anniversary trip to Las Vegas, he remained nonplussed by saying, “I would only want to go out there to see a town called Primm.” To which we said “been there, done that.” His reply, “I’d also like to go to a little town called Good Springs.” We answered, “Been there too.” He concluded by saying he’d like to see an old dive bar named the “Pioneer Saloon.” He was shocked when we said we went there too. Of course, the reason he wants to venture out there is video game related, not history related. Nonetheless, he was chagrined by our answers. I guess we old folks aren’t so square after all.

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Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

“Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of the Death Car” Part III

Clyde Car Part III

Original publish date:  May, 2014       Reissue date: October 10, 2019

In parts I & II of this article, we recalled the bloody death of outlaws Bonnie & Clyde and explored their Indiana connection. By now, you know the Barrow gang robbed a bank in the tiny community in North Central Indiana known as Lucerne and that Clyde was wearing a shirt made by the Wasson’s department store in Indianapolis when he shot to pieces by Texas lawmen 80 years ago on May 23, 1934. But what about the death car? That bullet riddled Ford V-8 coffin of Crimedom’s best known romantic duo? Well, long-story-short, the Bonnie & Clyde death car is owned by (and on display at) Whiskey Pete’s Las Vegas Casino which also owns the Clyde Barrow death shirt. But how it got there, well that is an interesting story.
Clyde Barrow loved to drive Ford V-8’s. He didn’t like to pay for them and it is unlikely that he ever owned one outright, but he sure could steal ’em. Those who knew, or chased, Clyde said with unanimity that when he slid behind the wheel of a flathead Ford, Clyde Barrow became a part of that car. He could drive those cars so fast and loose around those dirt lined country backroads that no lawman alive had a chance of ever getting a sniff of him. I guess that’s why those six Texas lawmen decided to wait roadside in the brush for Bonnie and Clyde to coast past before popping up and unloading 167 bullets into them.

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Magazine ad for the 1934 Ford V-8 Fordor.

Clyde once famously wrote a letter to Henry Ford praising his cars. The letter, dated April 10th, 1934, was sent from Tulsa, Oklahoma and reads as written: “Mr. Henry Ford Detroit Mich. Dear Sir: -While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 -Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow” The letter is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Bonnie & Clyde death car, known by crime aficionados as “The Warren Car”, was technically known as a “1934 Ford Model 730 Deluxe sedan Fordor model”. Built in February 1934 at the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, it featured a large 85 horsepower Ford V-8 flathead engine with a manual 3-speed transmission and rode on Firestone tires. It was purchased by Miss. Ruth Warren from the Mosby-Mack Motor Company of Topeka Kansas for $ 835 and was “Cordoba Gray” in color.

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Ruth and Jesse Warren posing with their recovered car.

The death car belonged to Ruth and Jesse Warren, a roofing contractor in Topeka. Ruth bought her new Ford for $782.92 – $200 down, $582.92 to be paid by April 15. It was a beautiful automobile with special seat covers, bumper guards, a metal cover on the extra tire, an Arvin hot water heater, and a leaping greyhound in shiny chrome on the radiator cap. The windows not only rolled up and down, but also slid backward almost two inches for partial ventilation. The running boards were wide, and the doors, both front and back, swung outward toward the rear to open. Ford Dealers of the 1930’s advertised that this new V-8 would get nearly twenty miles to the gallon at forty-five miles an hour. But Clyde Barrow proved it could go much faster then that.
For a month and a half the Warrens ran the car at low speeds to break it in smoothly. By late April they had driven 1,243 miles and had paid the balance owed on it. On Sunday, April 29, 1934, she took the car out for a short trip and returning home, she parked it in the driveway, leaving the keys in the ignition. The new car had been sitting in their driveway for only a short time when Ruth, who had been doing dishes, looked out the window and noticed it was missing. Ruth believed her husband had driven it to a nearby neighbor’s house. But just to be sure, she called him and learned that he hadn’t taken the car.
fordv8She called the police and reported the car as stolen. According to the police report, shortly after one o’clock, neighbors saw a man and a woman circling the block in a Plymouth coupe. Later the mystery couple returned, this time with a man riding on the right running board. He jumped off, climbed into the Warren’s car, started it, backed out of the driveway, and sped away. The Warrens wouldn’t see their new Ford for three months.
Clyde would put 7,500 miles (in only 25 days) on the odometer before it rolled to dead stop on that deserted dusty Louisiana highway barely 3 weeks later. Clyde added Arkansas license plate # 15-368, stolen just a week before the massacre, to the car immediately after boosting the automobile. The plate had originally belonged to a Mr. Merle Cruse of Fayetteville, Ark. Later, when Mr. Cruse was in a theater watching newsreel footage of the death scene and impounded death car, he noticed it bore his stolen plate. He jumped up excitedly exclaiming “THAT’S MY LICENSE PLATE!”
On May 23, 1934, an Associated Press reporter notified the Warrens that their car had been found in Arcadia, Louisiana. But the reporter warned Ruth that before she got too excited, there were a couple of things wrong with the car. The upholstery was blood-soaked, and the vehicle had 167 bullet holes in it’s body. In response to the stunned silence coming from the other end, the reporter told the Warrens to check out that evening’s newspaper. The headline read, “Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow Shot Down In Louisiana” and right there was the Warren’s car with the bodies of America’s most famous outlaws grotesquely twisted in the throes of death inside.

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Newsreel poster from 1934.

In a flash of violence, the Warren’s Ford became the most famous car on the planet. Soon everybody in the area knew the story of the death car and by the time the coroner arrived, a souvenir-mad mob had gathered, everyone trying to get mementos. Bits of window glass were broken off, swatches of blood-soaked upholstery were ripped away and the chrome was a twisted, mangled mess. A wrecker arrived and hooked the gray Ford up (with Bonnie and Clyde still inside) and the makeshift rolling coffin made the fifteen mile trip into Arcadia. The car stopped occasionally to let curious clusters of people along the road peer in at the bodies. Behind the wrecker a long line of cars followed.
After the ambush Mrs. Ruth Warren arrived in Bienville Parish, Louisiana to claim her car. Sheriff Henderson Jordan refused to release it to her, claiming that she would have to pay $15,000 to get it back. Warren quickly hired attorney W.D.Goff from Arcadia to represent her. Goff claimed that by Jordan setting the value of the car over $3,000, the case would surely wind up in Federal Court. Because of Sheriff Jordan’s refusal to comply, Federal Judge Benjamin Dawkins threatened to send the sheriff to jail if he did not return the car to Mrs. Warren. She finally got her car back and amazingly drove it to Shreveport, Louisiana, bullet holes and all. From there the car was taken by truck, back to Topeka, Kansas, where it sat in her driveway at 2107 Gabler Street for several days.
Jesse Warren didn’t want anything to do with it and thought it was horrible thing to have the death car parked in his driveway looking like a mess. What would anybody want with a bloody car full of bullet holes? But Ruth soon took control and leased the car to John Castle of United Shows, who exhibited it at the Topeka Fairgrounds. But in September of 1934, Castle defaulted in paying rent. It took the Warrens, another trip to court to repossess the car. Within a short time, a Kansas man name Duke Mills appeared. Billing himself as a “master showman and display expert”, Duke approached Jesse Warren with a plan to exhibit the car at the “Century of Progress” Worlds Fair in Chicago. He offered to rent the car for $50.00 a week and pay Jesse a commission of the ticket proceeds on top of that. But that deal never materialized.
Banner-BC-Death-Car1Ruth then rented the death car to carnival operator Charles Stanley, who exhibited it on the Hennies Brothers Midways in his 1939 crime show. Stanley displayed the car outside of his tent and charged admission to see the film of the actual ambush on the inside. Eventually, multiple bullet-riddled 1934 Ford Fordor sedans began appearing on the county fair and carnival circuit over the next few years, all claiming to be the actual death car. The various owners sometimes vigorously defended their claims, too, casting doubt on the authenticity of the real death car. Aside from the damage to historical accuracy, the frauds cut into the revenue generated by Ruth Warren as the death car toured the country.
1_000a06adb74b0c437bc04c47ed2a8cc2After Ruth divorced her husband Jesse, she kept the title to the car and sold it to Stanley for $3,500.The car was then exhibited at Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati from 1940-1960. After World War II, memories faded and interest waned in the “Public Enemies” Era, pushing the car further-and-further into obscurity. In a 1960 issue of Billboard magazine, Stanley offered the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car for sale. Ted Toddy purchased the car in 1960 for $14,500. The car then sat in a warehouse for years until the popularity of the 1967 movie “Bonnie & Clyde” brought it out of retirement. 2547195_0 (1)
In 1971 Toddy leased his car to the Royal American Shows. In 1973 the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car was purchased by Peter Simon of the Oasis Casino in Jean Nevada for $175.000. It was eventually put on permanent display at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm Nevada not far from the California Stateline. The display is free and the car rests prominently, yet unceremoniously, behind photo-obscuring reflective glass in the casino lobby flanked by a pair of macabre “Bonnie and Clyde” mannequins. The death car is part of a special display of Bonnie & Clyde personal items including the light blue cowboy shirt that Clyde was wearing when he was nearly shot to pieces. The shirt that Clyde Champion Barrow bought at Wasson’s Department Store in Indianapolis 80 years ago this month.

 

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Next Week: Part IV of Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of he Death Car

Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

“Bonnie & Clyde-The Indiana Connection” Part II

Clyde's shirt part II

Original publish date:  May,  2014               Reissue date: October 3, 2019

The ambush of Bonnie and Clyde some 80 years ago this month proved to be the beginning of the end of the “Public Enemy” gangster era of the 1930s. By the time of their bloody, bullet riddled deaths on May 23, 1934, new federal statutes made bank robbery and kidnapping federal offenses; and the growing relationship between local jurisdictions and the FBI, plus two-way radios in police cars, combined to make the outlaw bandit sprees much more difficult to carry out. Two months after the Bonnie and Clyde massacre, Hoosier John Dillinger was ambushed and killed in a Chicago alleyway beside the Biograph theatre; three months later, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was killed by 14 FBI bullets fired into his back in a Clarkson, Ohio cornfield; and one month after that, Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face Nelson”, shot it out, and lost, in Barrington, Illinois.

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Everyone knows of Dillinger’s connection to our state and city. Many know that Pretty Boy Floyd spent time here assisting Dillinger in the robbery of an East Chicago bank on January 15, 1934 where Police Sargent William Patrick O’Malley died at the hands of the gang. Devoted Hoosier crime buffs also recognize that Baby Face Nelson coasted through the state during a robbery of the Merchants National Bank in South Bend on June 30, 1934, during which a police officer was shot and killed. But what about Bonnie & Clyde? Do they have Indiana connections?

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Frank Hamer

Of course! The more your research, the more you find that EVERYTHING has an Indiana connection. For one, the posse that signed on to hunt down the duo to the death, led by the legendary Frank Hamer, had begun tracking the pair on February 12, 1934. Hamer studied the gang’s movements and found they swung in a circle skirting the edges of five Midwestern states, including Indiana, exploiting the “state line” rule that prevented officers in one jurisdiction from pursuing a fugitive into another. Barrow was a master of that pre-FBI rule, but he became quite predictable in his movements, so the experienced Hamer charted his path and easily predicted where he would go next.
On May 12, 1933, during Hamer’s heightened observation, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang robbed the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana. Some say the gang netted $300, other accounts say they left empty-handed. Lucerne, an unincorporated community founded by Swiss immigrants in Cass County, seems to have forgotten their connection to the deadly duo.

 

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Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck

On Thursday May 11, Clyde and Buck cased the place. Later that night, Bonnie dropped the pair off and drove their most recent stolen Ford V-8 out of sight. The duo broke into the building and waited for clerks to arrive to open the bank in the morning. Clyde figured that he could get the drop on the unsuspecting employees before customers arrived to interfere. Great idea, in theory at least. Turns out, it was a fiasco.
Employees Everett Gregg and Lawson Selders arrived at 7:30 Friday morning. As soon as the tellers entered the room, closing the door behind them, the Barrow boys jumped out from their hiding places, ordering the startled workers to put their hands up. But this was 1933 and the rash of bank robberies across the state had made everyone jumpy. The bank managers had hidden a shotgun behind the cashier’s desk. Seems that although the Barrow brothers were alone in the building for hours before the robbery, neither thought to search the place. Cashier Gregg and the Barrow boys exchanged several shots, but no one was hit.

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Bonnie & Clyde.

Charging to the sound of the gunfire, Bonnie and Buck’s wife Blanche roared to the rescue in their Flathead Ford. Bonnie was driving. The girls expected to see the boys running out of the bank, arms full of bank bags stuffed with cold hard cash. Instead, their husbands came sprinting towards them firing wildly over their shoulders apparently empty handed. Clyde jumped into the driver’s seat and, despite his well known prowess as a world class driver, getting out of town proved as difficult as the robbery. Locals were out for their morning stroll as the car roared through the small town.

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Buck and Blanche.

One good citizen deduced that there was a robbery in progress. He quickly picked up a large chunk of wood and threw it in front of the speeding automobile. Clyde swerved into a nearby yard to avoid it. Another man jumped onto the hood of the Ford and Clyde yelled at Bonnie to “shoot him, shoot him!” She grabbed a gun and began to shoot, but failed to hit her prey. The ersatz hitchhiker fled in panic, gunpowder peppered through his thinning white hair. Bonnie later told her family that she deliberately missed because she “didn’t want to hurt an old man.”
By now, the whole town of Lucerne seemed to be descending on the outlaws. Guns were sprouting out of every doorway as nervous townsfolk took potshots at the fleeing robbers. Trouble was, the outlaws were shooting back. Two women, Ethel Jones and Doris Minor, were slightly wounded in the melee. The women were luckier than the livestock though. Clyde plowed his car straight through a pack of hogs, killing two of them, making these the only fatalities of the encounter. By all accounts, the robbery did not go well and Clyde, with Bonnie, his brother Buck and Blanche, had to shoot their way out of town for a paltry reward. According to the official Lucerne report in the FBI files, the gang’s getaway car was recovered in Rushville a couple days later.

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H.P. Wasson’s Department Store-Indianapolis.

Evidently, perhaps hyped by their adrenaline infused escape, Clyde and his crew stopped into Indianapolis to do some shopping before leaving the Hoosier state forever. As promised in part I of this story, the most famous grisly blood relic associated with Bonnie & Clyde came from a well known department store in downtown Indy. Clyde Barrow’s death shirt came from the H.P. Wasson and Company (aka Wasson’s department store) located at the intersection of Washington and Meridian Streets in Indianapolis.
68a2294d0f53206f6cc77a70dba69824Clyde was wearing a size 14-32 western style shirt of light blue cotton print with “one patch pocket and pearl buttons” when he was shot to death near Gibsland, Louisiana. The neck label on the shirt reads: “Wasson V Towne shirt/Indianapolis”. The shirt was removed from Clyde Barrow’s body by the coroner who performed the autopsy. Hit by over twenty rounds (Including buckshot), Clyde’s bullet-riddled body slumped against the shattered steering wheel, his 12-gauge shotgun, damaged by the gun fire, slid to the floorboard beside him. Bonnie, with a half-eaten sandwich and magazine at her side, was also struck over twenty times. Both of the star crossed lovers died instantly.

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The death shot to the back of Clyde’s neck that severed his spinal cord.

The Clyde Barrow death shirt contains over 30 bullet or buckshot holes and the cuts made by the mortician when the shirt was removed. An inked inscription on the shirt tail reads: “This is Clyde Barrow’s shirt worn on May 23, 1934 when be was killed.” and is signed by his youngest sister Marie Barrow as its witness. Traces of bloodstains remain in Parts of fabric. The shirt was given to Clyde’s mother, Connie Barrow, after his death. Marie said her mother kept the shirt in a cedar chest for years before passing it on to her.
The shirt was sold, ironically, on tax day of 1997 by a San Francisco auction house. The bidding was fast and furious and in the end, a Nevada casino known as “Whisky Pete’s ” paid $85,000 for the bloodstained shirt. Much more than Clyde ever stole in his lifetime. That number does not include the $ 10,000 buyer’s premium. The rest of Clyde Barrow’s belongings including a belt and necklace made by Barrow while in prison, a handmade mirror and 17 Barrow family photos, brought $187,809, most of which went to Marie Barrow, Clyde’s sister (She died in 1999).

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Clyde Barrow’s Pocket Watch.

One of the more prized personal relics that hit the auction block that day was Clyde’s 17-jewel, 10-carat gold-filled Elgin pocket watch. Expected to bring in $3,000, it was sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $20,770, including buyers’ fees. All items in the Barrow lot sold for amounts in excess of their estimated value, often doubling and tripling those estimates. The remaining Barrow family was at the auction to take a final look at the items before they changed hands. That Elgin pocket watch had an “Indianapolis movement.” Did I mention that Wasson’s also sold pocket watches?

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The author and Clyde’s shirt at Whiskey Pete’s Casino.

 
Next Week: Part III of Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of he Death Car

Abe Lincoln, Creepy history, Gettysburg, Ghosts

Harry Houdini and Abraham Lincoln.

Houdini & Lincoln

Original publish date:  June 8, 2017

Magician Harry Houdini had a very unlikely boyhood hero. A hero adored by a generation before Houdini’s 1874 birth and a hero worshiped by generations hence. Harry Houdini’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Houdini’s devotion to Lincoln could be found on stage during his shows. He traveled with a pet eagle named ‘Josephus Daniel Abraham Lincoln’ or ‘Abe Lincoln’ for short. Houdini’s eagle would materialize at the end of his Whirlwind of Colors routine culminating in a wild frenzy of scarves and other fabric pulled from a small container.
Houdini & birdIn Kenneth Silverman’s 1996 Biography “Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss : American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker”, the author relays how Houdini referred to Lincoln as “my hero of heroes.” Houdini claimed to have read every book about Lincoln by the time he was a teenager. In William Kalush’s 2006 biography “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero”, there is a story of young Houdini attending a seance where the medium produced a message from our 16th President. Houdini, Lincoln expert that he was, then asked a question to Lincoln via the medium and was puzzled when the answer that came back was not correct. This encounter led to Houdini’s early discovery that most Spiritualists were fake.
amd_houdini_originalAs he grew older and more financially secure, Houdini began to amass a personal collection of Lincoln memorabilia, particularly letters and autographs of the Great Emancipator. He also collected handwritten letters of every member of the assassin John Wilkes Booths family, several in response to letters sent by Houdini himself. Spending much of his adult life on the road, in hotels and traveling for days on ships and trains, Houdini became a prolific man of letters. One such letter survives that illustrates his desire and devotion to add to his Lincoln collection, despite the constraints of his vagabond lifestyle.
The letter is written on the magician’s personal “Lettergram” form that featured two portraits of Harry at the top. It was written in Milwaukee on September 20, 1923. Houdini’s pictorial Lettergram began with a printed message reading, “Please pardon any incivility in this letter. It has been rushed to you under stress of business and written in the dressing room. Therefore all formalities like Dear Sir, Dear Madame. etc. have been omitted, not to be curt or brusque; but that it is deemed better to let you hear from me in a lettergram of a few words than not at all.” The Lettergram was sent to Anton Heitmuller, a Washington businessman who billed himself as “Specializing in Selling Collections of Autographs, Manuscripts, Historical Broadsides and Curios”.

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Houdini lettergram to Anton Heitmuller.

Heitmuller was peddling artifacts related to John Wilkes Booth along with a collection of items of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for treating Booth’s broken leg after the assassination. Heitmuller saw a promotional opportunity for both he and Houdini in showing these materials; Houdini showed some interest but being at the height of his career, found it hard to find time to get to Washington to see the artifacts. Houdini’s typed letter reads, “I am on the road for the next four months, and there is a possibility of my reaching Washington about March or April. It all depends upon booking possibilities. Just rushing this to you to give you an outline of my route.” The note was signed in pencil by Houdini. Whether or not the meeting, let alone a purchase, ever took place is unknown, but the lettergram illustrates Houdini’s desire to acquire Lincolnania and the lengths he would go to find it.
Houdini became a friendly acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. In one instance, a spirit medium claimed to possess authentic spirit photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Houdini sent copies of the photos to Robert Todd Lincoln and debunked them by proving that the images were manipulated from known photos of his father taken while Mr. Lincoln was still very much alive. To further prove his point, Houdini produced photos of himself alongside Mr. Lincoln.
houdini-lincolnOn Feb. 13, 1924, a day after the 115th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Houdini typed out a letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, the grand-daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s sister. The letter, written from the dressing room of the State Lake Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, reads: “My dear Mrs. Brown: Enclosed you will find a Spirit Photograph of your renowned ancestor, and although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect. Mrs. Houdini joins me in sending you kindest regards, Sincerely yours, Houdini.”
M2014.128.703.27_150415-P1Furthermore, Houdini also produced ‘fake spirit messages’ from Lincoln during his lectures to debunk spiritualism. Many spiritualists attempted to back up their fake photos and messages by claiming that Abraham Lincoln himself was a devoted spiritualist who had held seances in the White House. As proof, they cited a piece of British sheet music, published while Lincoln was President, which portrayed Honest Abe holding a candle while violins and tambourines flew about his head. The piece of music was called The Dark Séance Polka and the caption below the illustration of the president read “Abraham Lincoln and the Spiritualists”.
Actually it was Mary Lincoln who consulted a series of mediums in a desperate attempt to contact their dead son Willie, who died in the White House. Houdini naturally pointed out that President Lincoln was in attendance for only one such “call to the dead” and then solely to support his grieving wife. After the seance, Lincoln gently guided Mary over to a window that looked out over Washington and pointed to the lunatic asylum with a warning that if she didn’t stop this foolishness, she would end up there.

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Houdini and Magician Harry Cooke.

Clues to Houdini’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln can also be found in a couple of the magicians he associated with. One was a former Civil War veteran named Harry Cooke who first took up magic as a means to entertain his fellow soldiers in camp. Legend claims that Cooke once showed Lincoln an escape from a piece of rope and the president was so impressed he put him to work as a Spy for the Union Army. Cooke kept a two dollar bill given him by Mr. Lincoln on another occasion when he was performing before the president and his cabinet. Amazingly Cooke was also present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. Harry Cooke and Harry Houdini knew each other well and Houdini considered the elder magician as an early mentor. Many historians credit Cooke as being the first escape artist in America. Houdini, of course, became America’s greatest escape artist.

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Magician Signor Biltz and Harry Houdini.

One final connection between Houdini and Lincoln is magician Signor Blitz. During the Civil War, Blitz performed at hundreds of Union Army Hospitals. His act was made up of several parts, including magic, ventriloquism, plate spinning and the command of trained birds. Blitz was apparently one of the first performers to use a dummy during his ventriloquism thereby setting the stage for future generations. His favorite trick was the Bullet Catching act (snaring a gun fired bullet between his teeth). However, a number of close calls persuaded the magician to remove it from his show. The final straw was when an audience member took out a six shooter and yelled “if you can catch one, you can call all of them!”. Fortunately, Blitz was able to stop the man from shooting.

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Mary Lincoln with her sons Willie (left) and Tad (right).

Blitz once performed at a July 4th function where Lincoln and his son Tad were present. The incident took place near the Summer White House on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home in the Rock Creek section of DC, today it is known as Lincoln’s Cottage. Lincoln often used the cottage during the summer months to escape the brutal foggy bottom heat of the Executive Mansion. In early July of 1863, President Lincoln took a break from his duties to watch a rehearsal of the upcoming July 4th parade. Numerous people stood along the street watching the rehearsal, among them Signor Blitz.
The sly magician reached out and produced a bird from the hair of one of the girls in the parade. The rehearsal parade came to a sudden stop and now all eyes were on Blitz. Thinking fast on his feet, the magician quickly produced an egg from the mouth of a child standing nearby. Blitz had no idea that the child was none other than the President’s son, Tad Lincoln. Blitz was soon formally introduced to the President and one of the most remarkable impromptu conversations of the Civil War ensued. Lincoln surprised the magician by saying,”Why, of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America. How many children have you made happy, Signor Blitz?” The magician answered “Thousands and tens of thousands”. The President then dolefully replied, “While I fear that I have made thousands and tens of thousands unhappy. But it is for each of us to do his duty in this world and I am trying to do mine.”

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Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

This exchange took place just as the Battle of Gettysburg was winding down. Lincoln had not yet heard news about the outcome of the battle. What neither knew was the Union victory at Gettysburg, combined with the siege conclusion at Vicksburg, had just turned the tide of the war for the Union. Of course, Houdini was keenly aware of the connection between Blitz and Lincoln. After Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan, he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in New York City. About a hundred yards away is the grave of Signor Blitz.

 

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Harry Houdini grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.
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Signor Biltz grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.