New York and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Between April 13 and 14th, 1925, it seems that of the New York metropolitan area just had a bad day. It wasn’t one thing in particular, but whole host of petty annoyances.

Say it Ain't SoProfessor Shaw vented spleen at New York’s men, “Man is becoming effeminate,” he claimed. “There are now flappers in both sexes…the haberdasher sells the man lilac pajamas, embroidered bathrobes, silk slippers and cosmetics. He goes home with them, the women see them and get jealous, so they invent a new style, going the man one better.”

Prof. Charles G. ShawShaw predicted a dismal future. “Women now does man’s work and gets man’s pay….Hence she is easing up on her man’s purse. That makes him ease up on his efforts. Men used to pay the car fare and the restaurant check. But girls now have their own nickels and dollars. Marriage is becoming just a way station where the train stops. It is less like the Grand Central Terminal of the old-fashioned women’s ambition.” Shaw attributed it all to the decline of the stiff collars that had rubbed men’s necks raw for 100 years, “[w]hen man changed his stiff collar and starched shirt for a soft collar and silk shirt, it was too attractive and women copied it.”Van Heusen Collar

Edwin H. Anderson, director of the New York Public Library, felt the NYPL was under siege. Said Anderson “The latest craze to strike libraries is the cross word puzzle. There is much to be said for such puzzles as recreation, in the hospital, on an ocean voyage or a railway journey, or as a cure for insomnia, but when prizes are offered for solutions, and the puzzle fans swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the library’s duty to protect its legitimate readers.” Henceforth, Anderson assured the public, dictionaries and encyclopedias will only be issued to those who would assure the librarians that they “were not wanted for puzzle purposes.”

 

Library Director Raps Puzzle Fans

Up in the Central Park Zoo, “Duke,” a five year old baboon in tore the door from his cage and after tearing the head from a ring tailed monkey, declared his sovereignty over the Monkey House. Crowds fled screaming for the exits, as Duke bombarded them with ring tailed monkey parts. Five hours later, after police surrounded the building, three revolver shots brought Duke to the ground, dead.

Baboon

On Staten Island, residents read in their papers that Governor Al Smith had yet to sign Staten Island Tunnel Bill, which promised to bring passenger rail access directly to the Island. Subscribers complained grumpily that it seemed as if they’d never get rail access to Manhattan and Brooklyn.

At No. 8 Stagg Street, in Brooklyn, little John Wojdag, age 4, went missing. He’d been at the supper table, but as children are want to do, had wandered off. His father, Victor, heard a scream and went dashing outside, only to be told by another small boy that little John had fallen down the sewer on Union Avenue. The elder Woljdag went down the sewer, followed by teams of firemen to search the sewers for the missing boy. The child could not be found, and Victor wrung his hands in despair. Only then did little John appear from behind a nearby house, nonchalantly sucking a lollipop and wondering what the commotion was about.

A mile or so away, near the Manhattan Bridge, cab driver James A. Carroll was having quite a time. The high voltage trolley power wire, which supplied electricity to the trolleys heading over the Manhattan Bridge’s 3 cent streetcar line, had snapped the windshield of his cab, and coiled around the metal radiator. His passengers, two women, screamed and became hysterical. Not hysterical enough, it seems, to jump into another cab, presumably after paying the fare, once the electricity had been shut off. Carroll was treated at the Cumberland Street Hospital.

Frederick Selfort, twenty-five, of No. 124 94th Street in Astoria, was shot in the arm at 45th and Broadway. No one heard the shot fired, and Selfort had no enemies. He hailed a cab (presumably not James A. Carroll’s) and was driven to the hospital, were his condition was not serious.

Theresa McCormack, forty-five, of Portland, Oregon, was sentenced to forty-five days in prison for unlawfully soliciting alms in the guise of a Benedictine nun.  It seems she’d had a habit of doing so, having been the subject of numerous complaints. McCormack made no confession.

Even Babe Ruth could have a bad day. It was Opening Day, and everyone who was anyone was out to see the game.

 

Gate Crasher

The Yankees played the Senators, Wally Pipp played well at first, and Everett Scott held his own at shortstop, playing in his record 1,291 straight game, a streak fans were pretty sure would never be surpassed. Scott had shown up, but the Babe hadn’t. Ruth was in the hospital with a high fever, complaining that they were feeding him broth and hominy when all he wanted was some red meat.

Babe in Bed

Even without the Babe, things weren’t all bad. Urban Shocker, one of the last pitchers who could legally throw a spitball, gave up one run on seven scattered hits as the Yankees won 5-1.

The Headless Hamlet

Over the weekend, we paid a visit to St. Paul’s churchyard. Located between Versey and Fulton Streets, the spire of St. Paul’s Church still rises above the Broadway. George Washington worshiped there while New York was still the Nation’s capital, and for the eight months after September 11, 2001 St. Paul’s served as a place for emergency workers to stop off for a meal or to sleep. The pews inside still proudly bear the gouges from the firemen’s gear.

Lacking a celebrity burial – Trinity Church’s graveyard is home Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton and a whole host of other prominent Americans – St. Paul’s graveyard is comprised of more middle class residents like jockey Samuel Purdy. A famous horseman in his day, Purdy’s prized mount was American Eclipse, undefeated in nearly nine years of racing. In 1823, with sectional tensions rising between North and South in the wake of the Missouri Compromise, the South’s legendary horseman, Colonel William R. Johnson, challenged Purdy and American Eclipse to a best of three races against Sir Henry, his prized four year old. After losing the first race, American Eclipse came back to win the next too, proving the superiority of Northern horseflesh.

photo 1

Purdy’s Grave Marker

Purdy, from what the historical record tells us, was buried complete. Not so George Frederick Cooke.  Cooke was one of the great Shakespearian actors of the English stage, and his acting style influenced later Shakespeareans, including Edmund Keane, widely considered the finest of them all.

After a few London performances received less than stellar reviews, Cooke left England and took to the stage in New York, where he was properly appreciated. One overwrought New Yorker gushed “[t]hrobbing invades the heart, when narrating the career of this extraordinary man, of herculean constitution, so abundant in recuperative energies; of faculties so rare, and so sublime…”  After a long career playing the Bard’s major male characters, ranging from King Lear to Hamlet, Cooke died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1812, and was buried in New York’s strangers’ burial ground.

In 1824, Keane was touring America, and on Cooke’s behalf paid for a new burial and a handsome monument at St. Paul’s. The body was dug up, and placed at the medical offices of Dr. John W. Francis, M.D. pending the reinternment, which took place a few days later. Apparently, Dr. Francis and Edmund Keane kept a few souvenirs, and Cooke’s skull and big toe never quite made it into the casket.

Cooke's New Monument

Cooke’s New Monument

Some short time thereafter, Keane was playing Hamlet at the Park Theater, and was missing the play’s most dramatic prop, the skull of poor Yorick. The call went forth to Dr. Francis, the nearest physician, to find out if the good doctor had a skull that Keane could borrow. Dr. Francis supplied the skull of George Cooke and once more the great Shakespearean was on the boards.

No one, it seems, was particularly bothered that Dr. Francis had neglected to place Cooke’s skull inside his casket. Indeed, during a meeting of the Bread and Cheese Club, Daniel Webster and James Fenimore Cooper subjected the skull to a complete phrenological examination to the amusement of the gathered guests – Francis recalled that “[t]his scientific exploration added to the variety and gratification of that memorable meeting.”

As for the big toe, Keane took that back to England and put it on display. Guests at the Keane home were regularly advised to go down on bended knee and kiss the precious relic, and not a few did so. Finally, fed up with the toe bone in her front parlor, Mrs. Keane threw it out the window.  

Closeup of Cooke's Monument

All photos ours, except…

[Photo at right: from Findagrave.com]

Tailwind

American Nurse Plane

In the five years since Charles Lindbergh flew Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, he’d attracted imitators, many of whom sought publicity by using some sort of publicity in their trans-Atlantic flights. Amelia Earhart had become the first woman to cross in 1928, although as a passenger, not a pilot. She did it on her own in 1932. One year later, 24 Italian seaplanes crossed in the first mass trans-Atlantic flight. Carrying four members of the Hutchinson family and their dog, the appropriately named flying boat, Flying Family attempted to cross the North Atlantic in 1932, only to be forced down off of Greenland.

Hutchinson Family

The Flying Family

So it was that when a physician, veteran pilot, girl parachute jumper, and a woodchuck took off on a non-stop journey from New York City to Rome in a 1931 Bellanca Skyrocket J-400 Long Distance Special, it generated news. The physician, Dr. Leon M. Pisculli of Yonkers, had a theory that many pilots were dying on long distance flights because of a buildup of carbon monoxide in the plane’s cabin, and he’d planned the flight as an experiment.

The good doctor set about assembling his crew. Finding the pilot was easy, William Ulbrich was a Dane who’d been anxious to try his luck across the Atlantic. Dr. Pisculli also had little difficulty recruiting a woodchuck. While driving through Mineola, the doctor spotted a one with a broken leg and nursed it back to health. Named “Tailwind” the woodchuck’s legendary sensitivity to carbon monoxide would serve as an early indicator of noxious fumes.[1]

Finding a nurse proved a challenge. In addition to helping the doctor with his experiments, the nurse would be expected to serve as a co-pilot. She also would need to be willing to parachute out of the plane over Florence, Italy, as a nursing tribute to Florence Nightingale. Only two women in the entire United States had nurse’s training, a pilot’s license, and a working knowledge of parachutes. Gladys Bramhall Wilner, known as “Peggy,” expressed interest, but on second thought, she declined.

Edna Newcomer

Edna Newcomer

That left Edna Newcomer. A nurse turned parachutist aviatrix, Edna happened to be a showgirl too, adding some some glitz to the flight, as well as numerous comments about her million dollar legs.

Pisculli christened the plane The American Nurse in Edna’s honor, painted it white and stocked it full of everything he thought he could possibly need, up to and including honey to go in the tea that would keep everyone awake for the 32 hour flight. Shortly after midnight on September 13, 1932, The American Nurse was fueled and made ready. At daybreak Pisculli, Ulbricht, Newcomer, and Tailwind the woodchuck clambered aboard, and the plane took off into the rising sun.

Some 22 hours later, the British steamer Ashburton sighted it. “The airplane circled the ship four times at a low altitude,” Ashburton reported by telegraph. “It was burning three green lights. [meaning all was going smoothly] We signaled the pilot by blue flare. The engine was working smoothly. The plane disappeared in an east by southeast direction.”

That was the last confirmed sighting of The American Nurse. Due in Rome at 8 p.m. local time, the plane never arrived. Unconfirmed reports from Lisbon and Sardinia reported hearing the plane’s motor, but an intensive search for wreckage, ordered by Mussolini’s Chief of Aviation turned up nothing. The American Nurse was never found.

Off to rome

From left to right, Pisculli, Newcomer, and Ulbrich. Not pictured (unfortunately), Tailwind the Woodchuck.

[1] We have no personal knowledge of the effects of carbon monoxide on woodchucks, but such was the doctor’s rationale for bringing Tailwind along. In an abundance of caution, we urge the readership to conduct their own research before performing woodchuck related flying experiments.

 

Aha – after posting, courtesy of the Smithsonian, we found a picture of Nurse Newcomer, Dr. Pisculli, and Tailwind the Woodchuck, courtesy of the good folks at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!

XRA-8302h

Al Capone’s Putter

In the 1920s the miniature golf craze hit America, and by 1930 there were some 40,000 courses, known variously as Lilliput Links, Tom Thumb Golf, Rinky-Dink Golf, Garden Golf and Baby Golf. There was money to be made in the “sport” and by 1930 anything that smelled potentially lucrative was sure to draw the attention of the criminal underworld.

Capone Mini-Golf

On October 1, 1930, two men from Chicago checked into a hotel in downtown Manhattan, where they were recognized by Ray Doyle, reporter for the New York Mirror recognized them as two of Al Capone’s torpedoes.  It seemed that Capone was branching out, and his lieutenants weren’t shy about broadcasting the fact. “Al Capone has new ideas and a new fancy. He has gone into the little golf game in a big way. For several months past Al has been purchasing large blocks of stock in miniature golf construction companies.”

Capone-MG

“Our observations showed a huge profit in the operation of the business,” Capone’s lieutenant continued, “It is more profitable than rum running. It was also keep us away from all police and Grand Jury investigations, which are a nuisance to us and waste of time to all concerned.”

It helped too that Capone enjoyed the game. According to Capone’s henchman, “Al has gone nut about this miniature golf. When he and I were traveling between New York, Miami and Chicago in recent months, we went in for twosomes a lot. I beat him at it. But he is fast becoming a star.”

Alas, before he could become a miniature golf impresario, Capone went off to jail, and emerged from Alcatraz nearly a decade later as a broken man.

Back in 1902, when hipsters weren’t Brooklyn’s biggest problem…

In 1902, there were two ways to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan, take the ferry or take the cars over the Brooklyn Bridge.

So, all the burgeoning mass of humanity that lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan crowded onto the streetcars that went across the River. And with the boom in population – New York would increase in population by nearly a third in the first decade of the 20th Century – the cars got crowded. The streetcar managers put more cars on the Bridge, which only slowed the entire ride down, and did little to ease the traffic. It was a nightmare.

 

Crowded Cars

New Yorkers, frustrated by the crowding and the delays, drew helpful suggestions, which we present to you now.

First we present the Brooklyn Air Line Company, complete with its own set of disgruntled passengers complaining about the slow speed.

Airship

 

As a more rapid alternative, we give you the spring loaded solution, sure to leave you with a bounce in your step.

Bouncing Line

For the well balanced, seeking to avoid the cars entirely, and willing to provide their own balancing pole, the tightrope method was good exercise…

Tightrope

Let’s not forget the option to shoot the chute, inexpensive and advantageous for giving a gentleman his own private means of getting across the River.

Shoot the Chute

…and it certainly was nicer than employing cattle chutes.

Cattle Cars

 

Fortunately, the City had dedicated itself to bridge building – the Williamsburg Bridge had been under construction since 1896, but wouldn’t open until 1903, and work began on the Manhattan Bridge in 1901, the crush would ease, but if you’re really zealous about feeling like your New York forbearers, just hop a 6 train at rush hour.

Night of the Flaming Ballerinas

 

The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

In late August, 1861, William Wheatley signed the lease for the Continental Theater in Philadelphia. William Wheately was an old theatrical hand given to tried and true classic performances.  For his first production he announced that the theater would be putting on The Tempest in ballet form. From England, Wheatley imported a special effects expert, as well as four ballet dancing sisters, the beautiful Gales – Ruth, Zela, Hannah, and Adeline. Six other chorus dancers rounded out the ballet troupe. On the night of September 14, 1861, the cast only made it through The Tempest’s first act.

For those unfamiliar with the niceties of Shakespearean ballet, while the seas rage at the end of the first act, the entire ballet company must quickly change into gauzy costumes so as to be ready to welcome Alonso and the rest of shipwreck victims onto Prospero’s Island. At the Continental Theater the dressing rooms were above the stage itself, necessitating a fifty foot climb up a rickety flight of stairs. The chorus received their own dressing room, complete with lighting by means of gas jets close to the mirror, where their light could be reflected and doubled – if you look at the picture above, you’ll see the gas jets off to the top left.

Above the mirror, Ruth Gale had hung her dress for the second act. While on the stage Miranda was falling instantly and madly in love with Ferdinand, Ruth hadn’t even begun her costume change, and climbed on the back of the settee to pull down her dress. The hem touched the gas jet, and instantly Ruth’s clothes were ablaze. Screaming, Ruth ran through the room, setting her sisters’ clothes ablaze like a firebrand. Insane with terror, Ruth ran against a plate glass mirror, shattering it and lacerating herself horribly.

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Panicking, and on fire themselves, Ruth’s sisters plunged out the window and onto the street below, which was filled with pedestrians now under bombardment from flaming, screaming ballerinas who fell to earth with sickening thuds and the crack of broken bones.

The Gale sisters weren’t the only ones ablaze. A Miss McBride, another member of the chorus, came running across the stage with her dress ablaze, with piercing and unholy screams, and fell into the pit where the stage crew simulated the storm that gave its name to the play. Tearing the cloths which represented the waves, they managed to smother the flames. Wheatley ordered the curtain brought down, and asked the audience to leave the theater peacefully. The remaining flaming ballerinas were extinguished.

Over the next four days, the six ballerinas perished of their burns including all the Gale sisters. With no anesthetic or pain killer but brandy, and with physicians having only a rudimentary understanding of burn treatment and infection, their agony must have been severe. Wheatley was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and erected a monument to the perished ballerinas at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.  The inscription on the stone is barely legible now, but the New York Clipper preserved it. It reads:

 

IN MEMORIAM

Stranger, who through the city of the dead

With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread,

Pause here a moment – those who sleep below

With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe:

Four sisters fair and young together rest

In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast;

Torn out of life in one disastrous hour,

The rose unfolded and the budding flower:

Life did not part them – Death might not divide

They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side.

O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed

The softest tears that mourn the early fled,

For whom – lost children of another land!

This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand

To us, to future time remains to tell

How even in death they loved each other well.

 

 

A Forgotten Stories Field Trip

Headline

The Hanans were minor royalty amongst New York’s upper crust.  Irish immigrant James Hanan laid the foundations of the family fortune back in 1866 when he and his son John started a small shoe making factory on the Brooklyn shores of the East River.  James handled making the shoes, while John sold them – a hard task made easier when John convinced his father to imprint the family name on the soles of their product.  Every Nike, Sketcher, Sperry, and Reebok brand on the bottom of a shoe owes a little something to John Hanan’s marketing skill.  The free publicity – imprinted in dirt from coast to coast – helped the Hanan & Son become one of the dominant footwear companies in the country.  By 1882 they opened a huge factory at 54 Bridge Street and employed some 400 people, among them various Hanan relatives of varying degrees of consanguinity.  By the time control of the company passed to John’s son James D. Hanan, in 1897, the company was worth millions.

James D. Hanan lived larger than his father and grandfather, thrusting the family into the upper echelons of East Coast Society.  He bought a summer place at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, just down the road from Newport, and took up yachting. Nicknamed “Commodore” after he became president of the yacht club, he took his boat “The Surf” across the Atlantic to Monte Carlo, where his sister fell in love with and wed an Italian count.  True, Don Arturo di Majo Durazzo was only 24 and his bride was 50, he’d made a living selling olive oil and spaghetti, and may have had a criminal record in France, but an Italian count was an Italian count.

The Hanan’s proliferated by birth and adoption.  James Hanan and his first wife gave birth to Alfred Partridge Hanan, and after their divorce James adopted the son of his second wife by her first marriage, Talbot.  Talbot and his wife became the leaders of Narragansett Pier’s social scene, and the highlight of each summer’s season was their themed dances – their Checkered Ball in 1915 was typical of the pomp and preparation that went into one of their affairs.  Everything was in black and white checkerboard pattern, from the tablecloths to the cigarette boxes.  They even themed the orchestra – an all black band was hired for the evening and outfitted in spotless white suits.

Mrs. Talbot Hanan

Costumes from the Ball

Rounding out the Hanan field was Mildred Hanan, daughter of Alfred Hanan, and sister to Alfred Hanan Jr. Mildred married a Dr. James Wagner when she was only 17; the marriage didn’t take, and Mildred got a Reno divorce shortly thereafter.  She spent her 20s marinating in the Hanan milieu, and is listed as attending many of the society parties with which lower-upper class New Yorkers busied themselves.

Mildred Hanan

Mildred Hanan

Keeping her company was Grace Lawes, a Hanan hanger-on.  A few years older than Mildred, Lawes was a distant relative of sorts, an aunt of James Hanan’s second wife, and weirdly enough a friend of James’ first wife Edith; so much so that when Edith moved to Europe, Lawes was given power of attorney over Edith’s affairs. Divorced in California shortly before joining the Hanans, she acted the part of an elder sister to Mildred.  Barbara Gottschalk, a frequent Hanan guest, remembered most of all Lawes’ cold beauty;

I have known Grace Lawes for a long time.  I met her here at the Hanan home.  She seemed to be connected there some way.  I never knew just how.  But she was the sort of woman never knows very well.  She was beautiful, tall, with titian hair and remarkable eyes.  But I think her face was the coldest I ever saw.

I could not tell about her age.  She was not young, but she was always beautifully dressed, her hair was always beautifully arranged, and I could never guess at her years.

There was no doubt that Mrs. Lawes was a woman of great culture and refinement.

Grace Lawes

Grace Lawes

*****

The summer of 1919 began in much the same way as previous seasons had at Narragansett Pier, with dinners and dances, and at one of these soirees someone introduced an unwelcome guest; influenza.  The global pandemic, which had originated the trenches of the Great War, had killed some 21.5 million people worldwide before it arrived in the Hanan home.  By the time it left, it took many of the elder Hanans with it, including Mildred’s father Alfred and her uncle Talbot.  Grandfather James caught it too and never fully recovered; he died a few months later leaving the family awash in tragedy and without any cogent paternal leadership.  Hanan & Sons continued operation under the leadership of various minor Hanans family members, up to and including Count Durazzo.  Its leadership position amongst shoe manufacturers began to fade.

That was all in the future, for the moment Mildred’s trust fund left her quite comfortable with a yearly income of $12,000 ($150,000 in today’s money), right at the time that the 1920s began to roar.  Without any father to answer to, and with her mother an ineffectual check on her headstrong daughter, Mildred lived the high life in a rotating whirly-gig of restaurants, speakeasies and parties.  Mildred handled it well, but Grace Lawes struggled to keep up with all the drinking and socializing; lacking her own funds she soon became indebted to Mildred.  More troubling, Lawes became an alcoholic, a problem at all times but certainly egregious when prohibition liquor frequently included ingredients such as turpentine, gasoline, and ether.  In her struggle to balance out the effects of the alcohol, Grace turned to cocaine, and to balance that out, morphine.

Mori's Italian Restaurant

A typical night out began at Mori’s, an Italian restaurant located along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.[1]  Barbara Gottschalk, an old school friend of Mildred’s typically joined them.  It was over pasta at some point in 1920 that Barbara introduced a fourth member to the group; John “Jack” Borland.  Dartmouth educated, handsome, and with plenty of available income from a thriving chemical import company, Borland was just shy of 30.  He soon became enamored of Mildred, a match which Grace encouraged, at least at the outset.

Soon however, Grace began to feel marginalized.  With Borland taking up more and more of Mildred’s time, Lawes’ source of funds was in jeopardy and with it her means to purchase clothes, booze, and drugs.  In the summer of 1921, Mildred and Grace engaged in a virulent quarrel at the Hanan’s estate in Shoreham, Long Island.  Lawes showed up late for dinner.  Borland, who overheard the argument from a chair on the front porch, never revealed its substance, claiming only that he had paid little attention to it because he believed it was just a “women’s quarrel.”  Perhaps Lawes showed up to dinner drunk or drug-addled or maybe Mildred had begun to press her over the large sums of money she’d borrowed; regardless, Grace was thrown out of the house.

John Borland

John Borland

“Whatever the cause of the quarrel of the two women may have been,” wrote the New York Tribune, “Mrs. Lawes undoubtedly saw slipping from her the ease and affluence which had been hers since she had ingratiate herself with Miss Hanan and had become almost a member of the family.  Ordered to leave the Hanan summer home at Shoreham, L.I., either because she owed her benefactor large sums of money which she was unable or unwilling to repay, or because she had made her presence obnoxious by overindulgence in alcohol, possibly both, Mrs. Lawes conceived of the plan of killing the woman who’d been her best friend.”

Taking up rooms at the luxurious Hotel Vanderbilt, Lawes quickly began to dissipate whatever remained of her assets.  Her behavior in the last two weeks before the murder was bizarre.  She stalked Mildred, following her around New York City in a taxi-cab or on foot.  Confronted by her pray, Grace threatened her former friend with disfigurement.  Calls came in at odd hours to the apartment at 780 Park Avenue, where Mildred lived with her mother.

To try and talk some sense into the woman, Gottschalk met Grace for dinner at Mori’s on the night of September 21, 1921.  Lawes was hysterical, telling her friend “every time I’ve had anything sweet in my life it has been taken away from me…I have been a fiend – a fiend.  I’ve done things you’d never think me capable of doing.”  What those things were remains lost to history.

What is known is that around lunch time on the 22nd of September, Mildred joined John Borland to help him find a new apartment.  He lived with a college friend on 4th Street in Manhattan, and had decided to find his own place in Brooklyn.  After a day spent searching, the two picked up Barbara from her place at 35 Schermerhorn in Brooklyn Heights, and then drove across the Brooklyn Bridge to Mildred’s apartment for dinner.  Around 10 or so, the phone rang.  The maid answered it.  Grace was on the other end, but Mildred refused to take the call.

Around midnight, Mildred, John and Barbara piled into Mildred’s car to take Barbara back to Brooklyn; Mildred brought along her dog, Puffy.  Grace Lawes waited out front in a cab, and followed them to Brooklyn.  When the three were safely upstairs, Lawes dismissed the cab and paced back and forth in front of 35 Schermerhorn.

Upstairs, John and Barbara discussed Italy, they’d both been and Barbara showed off a table cover she’d brought back as a souvenir.  Perhaps they shared a final drink.  Out front, Grace waited. Katherine Strong, of 30 Schermerhorn, saw Lawes sit down on a doorstop take a teacup out of her purse, pour something into it out of a vial, and drink it, before throwing the cup into the gutter.  Police later found its broken remains and a vial marked “morphine.”

John Williams, who lived in the same building as Gottschalk, noticed the suspicious woman too.  “She had several keys in her hand, and when I walked into the vestibule it struck me that she had seen me coming, and only pretended she was trying to open the door.  She stood aside as I approached the door, but said nothing until the door sprung open, and then thanked me.  She walked ahead of me to the third floor, but as I started to open the door of my apartment, I saw her light a cigarette.”  Grace went back out front, where she now stood in the shadows of a small porch to the building’s left.”

She didn’t have long to wait; John and Mildred intended their visit to be a short one; Mildred hadn’t even removed her hat and gloves.  Bidding farewell to Barbara, the couple walked downstairs and through the vestibule.  John held open the door, and Mildred came out first.  Only a step or two outside, Mildred saw her friend, “Oh, there’s Grace.”  She didn’t notice the revolver in Grace’s hand.  The first shot hit Mildred’s arm, causing her to drop Puffy, who ran barking into the night, never to be seen again.  Mildred turned and attempted to get away.  The second shot entered her back below the eighth rib, tore its way through her stomach and kidney, and exited beneath her right breast.

Grace Lawes wrapped her mouth around the gun and pulled the trigger, dying instantaneously as the bullet blew out the back of her skull and painted the outside of the building in a spray of brains and gore.

It was over before John Borland had much of a chance to do anything.  An off-duty policeman who heard the shots came running.  Unable to get Mildred’s car started, they flagged down a passing motorist and induced him to take the copiously bleeding woman to Long Island College Hospital.  Mildred lingered a few days, slipping in and out of consciousness, and asking after Puffy’s whereabouts.  At 4:04AM on the morning of Monday, September 25, 1921, she died, surrounded by her mother, brother, John Borland, and Barbara Gottschalk.

In Grace’s purse, they found two letters.  One incoherently disposed of her few remaining assets, and the second was addressed to her mother:

Mother Darling:

You can never understand what I have gone through here.  Don’t try to learn.  It is fast.  I am too tired and ill to try and overcome the great obstacles I have placed in my own way.  Too much high life in New York and the pace is too fast.  The liquor here has driven me crazy, mother dear.  Forgive and forget and remember to pray for my soul.  Love to all, and think of me always.  Say to yourself always “A good, sweet daughter”

Lovingly,

 Grace

*****

Yesterday was an absolutely brilliantly beautiful day in Brooklyn, and we here at Forgotten Stories decided to take a field trip to the murder site.  The building is still standing, and we got a few good comparison shots, as you can see:

Murder Scene

35 Schemerhorn

IMG_8862

We also took a long walk (interrupted for a breakfast of corned beef hash, sausage, over easy egg, toast and home fries) down to Greenwood Cemetery to pay our respects to Mildred.  Perhaps she was gently chiding us for not wearing Hanan & Son shoes, for a poor choice of footwear led to two blisters and a particularly nasty cut, but we made it.  Mildred lies today in the Hanan family plot, surrounded by Greenwood’s quiet lawns.

IMG_8881

[1] Sadly, where Mori’s once stood at 144 Bleecker Street is now a Duane Reade.  The building still stands, and the Doric columns have been fortunately preserved.

…and I would walk 500 more

The Second Half of the Saga of Edward Payson Weston. For part one: http://tinyurl.com/lf746yz 

Weston

Edward Payson Weston, the celebrated pedestrian, had not gone comfortably into retirement from the world stage and professional walking competitions.  He emerged in the 1880s on a 5000 mile walking tour of Great Britain under the auspices of the Church of England Temperance Society,  and gave speeches on the evils of demon rum at each stop.  Temperance too played a role in his challenge to his old foe Dan O’Leary; a walking 500 mile battle between the Weston’s philosophy of clean living and O’Leary’s hard drinking.  Weston won when O’Leary collapsed after 400 miles.

For the most part, however, Weston stayed quiet on his farm in upstate New York, taking daily long walks into town to collect the mail, and brooding on his past.  By 1906, most of the racers of the old days had long since passed on; Weston himself was 68, the ripe age in the fin-de-siècle America when one was expected to look fondly back at one’s youthful exploits with a whimsical smile, and stay out of the way.  But not so Weston; he recoiled from the image of strutting youth which confronted him in his memories.  Weston had always felt himself the match of any man when it came to walking, and now he challenged his own youthful self to a competition.

 At the age of 30, in 1868, Weston walked from Philadelphia’s City Hall to that of New York in 23 hours and 40 minutes.  He announced, to anyone who would listen, that he now intended to break his own record by exactly one minute, despite the fact that Philadelphia’s City Hall had been moved four miles further away and he was 38 years older.  Break it he did, by arriving in 23 hours and 31 minutes; cheering throngs met him, and once more Weston found himself basking in the warm glow of popular adulation; regaling reporters and admirers with stories of the old days, when Horace Greeley cautioned him to slow down or by the age of 50 he wouldn’t be able to walk 40 miles in two weeks, and the long ago contests for the Astley Belt.

Despite his triumph, his youthful self suggested a rematch; no mere one day walk, but a repeat of the grueling trip of 1869, from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in thirty days, not counting Sundays.  He left in late October 1907.  “[I]n the era of the motor car, he sticks to his excellent legs as a means of locomotion, and has started in bravely to demonstrate anew the merit of his carefully preserved gait,” wrote one reporter “the age is more rapid in every way, and athletic sports are more common and varied.  Weston’s triumphs however, live in the memory, and he is now walking over his ground like the amiable ghost of a simpler age.”

For an amiable ghost, Weston proved formidable.  He outlasted the car which followed him carrying a doctor, and when a carriage replaced it, wore out the horses.  The roads were little better than in 1869, dusty in dry weather and sticky mud during the rainstorms which plagued his trip.  They were lined, however, with throngs of people, anxious to point out to their children and grandchildren the man they’d watched walk when they were young.  Brass bands welcomed him into town, and his reception upon his arrival in Buffalo rivaled that extended to Teddy Roosevelt a few years before.

The people along the route were enthusiastic with friendly overtures, but their generosity came with consequences.  When a kindly woman outside of Norwich, Ohio, gave him a bowl of clam chowder, he came down with ptomaine poisoning, spent almost a full day in bed, and left the next morning without breakfast; fortunately folks along the way continued to offer snacks, including a Mrs. Tucker who’d given Weston an apple on the side of the road during his trip in 1869, and repeated her gesture this time accompanied by her grandchildren.  By November 24, Weston arrived in South Bend, Indiana and by the 28th; he’d arrived at the front steps of the Chicago Post Office, beating his own record.

Still, this was not enough for the aged pedestrian, he’d only repeated what he’d done before. Now he set out to accomplish what had never been dreamed of before, a walk from New York City to San Francisco in 100 days, as always not including Sundays.  He left New York City on March 14, 1909, the day before 71st birthday.  Through much of the journey’s first leg the weather was awful.  A bitter, freezing wind turned mud filled roads into slick traps for a misplaced foot.  The blizzard which hit upstate New York on March 26 turned out to be a benefit, for Weston found it easier to walk over snow than frozen mud.  The car following him disappeared somewhere in Pennsylvania, unable to keep up with the indefatigable septuagenarian.

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Unfortunately, it carried Weston’s wardrobe, and he wouldn’t have a change of clothes for over a week.  Occasionally, folks along the trail would try and walk with him; at Salem, Ohio, 17-year-old Ralph Stewart attempted to keep pace with Weston, vowing to go all the way to California with him.  He dropped out an exhausted wreck after 20 miles.  There were poignant moments too. While striding through Northern Illinois, a farmer hailed Weston from the front porch of his home.  Hard work had made its mark on the man’s physique, and he bore little resemblance to the young man who’d stopped plowing during one spring morning back in the nineteenth century to offer the young Weston a meal.  40 years later, Weston remembered the meal, and the old man’s eyes gleamed in memory of the young women who’d been his wife and who’d served it.  Weston asked after her, and the farmer told him with eyes brimming with tears that she’d been dead for 20 years.  Weston invited him to walk a ways, shortening his long stride for the slower, shorter steps of the farmer, as they walked and discussed the simple halcyon days of their youth and of the century already fading behind them.  Parting a quarter of a mile from the farm, they said their goodbyes.  It was with a quieter step that Weston marched onward.

Tired of waiting on his car to keep up, in Chicago Weston changed tactics and determined to walk along railroad tracks.  He followed the Chicago and Alton’s line until he reached St. Louis, where a policeman almost arrested him on suspicions of being an escaped lunatic; helpful members of the Missouri Athletic Club came to the rescue.  The weather continued cold as he strode across Missouri along the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad during the first week of May, and the strong wind blew dust directly in his eyes.  As he passed the 2,000 mile mark outside of Manhattan, Kansas, the weather turned lovely, and Weston began to make good time, up to seventy miles per day. Farmers telephoned ahead to their neighbors that Weston was en route, so that they could greet him.

Weston on the Railroad

In sparsely settled Colorado, he walked for hours without seeing any living thing except an occasional rabbit, and the long distances between settlements worsened after he had a triumphal entry into Denver, and continued north to Wyoming.  He suffered from drinking alkali water and food was difficult to come by.  The railroad workers in the area were mostly Japanese and the language barrier prevented Weston from making his needs known.  Weston wrote home that “The lack of proper nourishment and at the time when I need it most, does not help matters.  This can’t be helped, because it cannot be had for love or money.”

As Weston made his way through the Aspen Tunnel underneath the Rocky Mountains and on into Utah, it seemed to him as if he’d entered Paradise.  The route was flat, the weather perfect, and the Southern Pacific Railway, along whose tracks he strolled, had arranged for a special pushcart to follow him, carrying food, water, ice and clothing.  He luxuriated in a red flannel robe in a hotel in Ogden, thankful for the opportunity to take a bath and eat solid food at a real table, and strode across the Great Salt Lake on a railroad trestle, the Southern Pacific holding all trains until he’d made it.

Then, as he crossed into Nevada, Nature herself intervened to stymie him.  The weather grew broiling; so hot that even the inhabitants complained.  He resolved to walk in the chill night air, but because he could get no sleep during daylight when the hotel rooms averaged 95 degrees, his stamina declined precipitously, and his daily toll of miles fell from 60 outside of Tecoma to 10 by the time Weston arrived in Battle Mountain.  Even walking in the evening hours left Weston prey to flying mosquitoes;  “fancy one being on a broad, almost uninhabitable prairie, not a tree to be seen,” wrote Weston,  “nothing but sage brush and black clouds of mosquitoes, whose activities would shame the New Jersey variety.”

 By July 6, Weston was four days behind schedule, and he still wasn’t out of the Nevada wasteland.  By the time he arrived in Reno a few days later, Weston knew he was defeated in his quest to make it to San Francisco in 100 days; he could not make it across all of California in the limited time left.  He rested for two days, and valiantly soldiered on, grateful to be seeing trees, grass, and rivers once more.  Walking on elevated trestles down the Sierra Nevada Mountains proved nerve racking, every step had to be chosen with care to avoid falling to his death.

Finally he made it, arriving on the doorstep of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco at 11:15 p.m. on July 14, 1909.  He’d taken the ferry from Oakland, but had refused to sit down; it was the only portion of the 2,577 mile trip where he’d used something other than his feet to propel him forward.  During the 105-day jaunt, he’d grown white mustachios, which contrasted with skin tanned a butternut brown from his harrowing Nevada experience.

105 days, 5 hours, and 41 minutes was not 100 days, and Weston was not satisfied, so he turned around.  Not willing to brave the Nevada desert again, he headed south to Santa Monica, California and began walking back, carrying with him a letter from the mayor of Los Angeles to the Mayor of New York City.  This time, there was little fanfare, he avoided almost all detours, such as those which had taken him to Chicago during his trip West, only allowing himself a 20 mile side trip to the Grand Canyon.

Mile after mile he strode, there were no injuries and no mishaps short of an attack by a vicious canine in Kansas.  For Weston, it was as if God had smiled on him after his wandering in the Nevada wilderness.  He didn’t make it in 100 days; he made it in 77, entering New York City down Broadway to a colossal reception and a ticker tape parade.  Mayor William Gaynor greeted Weston on the steps of City Hall.  Gaynor himself was a passionate walker, often strolling from Brooklyn to his office, and Weston tendered an invitation for a stroll at a time of the Mayor’s choosing; unfortunately, an assassination attempt wounded Gaynor in the throat a few weeks later, and the jaunt never took place.

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Weston once more entered into a quiet life on his farm, stirring occasionally to go on a long-distance walk.  In 1922, at the age of 84, he travelled from Buffalo to New York City on foot, a total of 440 miles.  His walking career came to an end in 1924, when his home was robbed.  His daughter and an adopted young boy, whose parents had died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1919, lived with him.  Coming to their defense, Weston fought back, coming at the robbers with a walking stick.  They shot him in the leg, and another daughter took him to reside in her home in Philadelphia while he convalesced.  He recovered enough by 1924 that he proposed to the Republican National Committee that they hire him to walk across the country once more, making speeches in support of President Coolidge.  The Committee politely declined.

Weston’s mind went before his body.  He disappeared from Philadelphia in 1926, and was found wandering senseless in Brooklyn a few days later; taken to Bellevue Hospital, the police identified him through newspaper clippings he carried telling of his achievements.  When his daughter relocated to New York City, he came with her; poverty stricken, they shared a tiny flat at 238 West 13th Street.  When the newspapers reported that they were about to be evicted, help arrived; one Civil War veteran who’d been present all those years ago when Weston had met Lincoln, paid his rent, and provided $35 besides.  With his 88th birthday approaching, the Press Club got involved, remembering Weston’s services as a newspaperman.  Arranged as a birthday gift by Miss Anna Nichols, a playwright and theater manager who’d never met Weston, $30,000 was set aside by the club for Weston’s upkeep and maintenance.  They threw him a birthday party too.  Mayor Walker attended, and Weston invited him to a game at newly built Yankee Stadium.  Tragically, while walking with his adopted son a week later, Weston stepped off the curb at 14th Street and 8th Avenue and was struck by a car, the machine he’d defeated so many times before.  He still survived for two more years, unable to walk far and bedridden for his last few months, dying shortly after his 90th birthday.

 Weston Dies

And I would walk 500 miles…

We’ve been focusing on some fin de siècle feats of endurance here at Forgotten Stories. Part One of Edward Payson Weston’s story is below:

Weston

Edward Payson Weston walked.  He walked far, and he walked fast, but the walks were merely incidental to peddling his mother’s romance novels door to door in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Over dinner with a friend in a Boston pub, Weston put his skills on the line. When the conversation turned to politics, Weston vociferously argued that Lincoln could never be elected.  His friend disagreed, and a bet was struck.  If Lincoln won, Weston would walk from Boston to Washington D.C. over a period of exactly 10 days in time to witness Lincoln’s inauguration; if Lincoln lost, his friend would do the same.  Until he lost the bet, Weston never realized that walking could, in and of itself, be a paying proposition.

He departed Boston in a snowstorm and began his way to Washington.  He would have made it within the 10 days too, had he not been arrested for debt twice en route.  As it was, he arrived a few hours late, not soon enough to make it to the Inauguration itself, but in time to attend the ball which followed.  The newspaper had covered Weston’s trip, and friends arranged a meeting with Lincoln, who graciously offered to pay his train fare back to Boston.  Weston politely declined, having not made the trip in the required 10 days, he preferred to repeat the walk back, and sure that he could make it in the mandated time.  During the Civil War, Weston served as a part-time spy, with camouflage of a sort specially created for him by the Brooks Brothers.

After a few adventures in Maryland, Weston set aside his unofficial spy duties, and wrote a book of his adventures which sold tolerably well.  There was not much of a market for a man whose claim to fame was walking, but at least a job at a newspaper kept him employed and fed both his gambling habit and his family.  He wrote the crime news, and the New York Sun could beat other papers with a scoop because Weston eschewed public transportation; while other reporters rode the horsecars back from a crime scene, Weston would leg it at a faster rate than any omnibus.  Plopping into his seat at the paper, he’d turn to a companion and remark “By George, we got the Herald sure this morning, ripping murder up in Harlem.”  Putting pen to paper, he wrote nearly as fast as he walked.

Weston lusted for a more extravagant lifestyle – horses, houses in the country, and natty attire suitable for a gentleman.  So he fastened upon an idea.  He convinced sportsman George P. Goodwin to back him in a $10,000 wager; Weston would walk from Portland, Maine, to Chicago, Illinois, some 1200 miles, in 30 days, for which Goodwin would pay Weston the sum of $1,000.  T.F. Wilcox, a noted gambler, took the bet, and upped the stakes, if Weston would cover 100 miles on one of the days, an extra $2,000 would be awarded.  Weston added one further condition; he would not walk on Sundays, out of respect for his mother’s wishes that he not labor on the Sabbath.  In late October, Weston set out for Chicago, accompanied out of Portland by none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Weston succeeded in his 100 mile attempt on the tenth try, and strolled into Chicago on the 30th day with a few hours to spare.  Fortunately, Goodwin had covered the cost of the horses which pulled the judges accompanying him, for Weston wore out four of them.

Justly famous now, Weston toured the country giving indoor walking exhibitions.  In Cleveland, he promised to walk a mile backwards in 20 minutes, and made it in a little over 17 minutes.  In Boston, he walked 100 miles in 23 hours, for the sum of $2500.  Weston’s challenger was himself, if a crowd in Boston saw him walk 100 miles in 23 hours; he could only draw interest in Philadelphia by promising to do it in 22 and a half.   “If the feat were not regarded as difficult, nay impossible, by the public, I should not undertake it,” Weston said to an admirer.  “For where would be the honor or credit for doing what everyone concedes can be done?  It is because the task is generally regarded as impracticable that I am anxious to enter upon it.”

Weston continued to perform, mainly indoors where he could collect a portion of the gate receipts.  Boys all across the country imitated his manner of whipping his calves with a switch, which Weston claimed kept the blood flowing.  Seeing Weston’s financial success, competitors arose, including Daniel O’Leary of Chicago.  O’Leary proved to be a better walker, beating Weston in several head-to-head matches.  Weston fled to England but initially was unsuccessful in gathering much attention.  After declaring bankruptcy in 1878, Weston managed to arrange an introduction to Lord Astley a noted sportsman.  When His Lordship complained of knee troubles, Weston introduced him to a special trick all his own; walk up and down stairs backwards to reduce pressure on the knee.[1]  Knee pain gone, Astley became a firm believer in Weston and  pedestrianism, the name bestowed upon the new sport, so much so that he sponsored a pedestrian challenge named after himself.  The Astley Belt contests were multi-day affairs; the contestants erected tents on the ground, and split their time between walking and sleeping, with the occasional break for food.  The winner was he who could walk the longest distance in six days; the entry fees, the gate receipts, and a cash prize would be awarded to the winner.  Anyone could challenge the holder of the Astley Belt, who had to accept the challenge or forfeit the Belt.  He who won the Belt three times running would hold it forever.

Weston lost the first two races badly and did not participate in the third, unwilling to return to America anything less than a resounding success.  When the fourth contest was announced, Weston began to train, and by the time the contest returned to London in June 1879, Weston was ready.  Fortune favored him.  Charles Rowell, the presumptive favorite, was out with an injured foot, and a few days before the race the speedy John Ennis went down with an injury. He’d pulled his hamstring rescuing a rather large woman who he’d come across drowning in the Thames.  Two other racers dropped out the second day, leaving only Weston and “Blower” Brown.  Weston demolished him, making 550 miles in six days, winning £500 and cleaning up on a side bet with Astley for £2500.  Now he could return to America in triumph.

Challenges followed, and sponsors quickly scheduled a match in Madison Square Garden, which was, at that time, still located in Madison Square and still a garden – an open air sporting arena complete with shrubs and trees.  This time, there were no fortuitous injuries, and there was a larger field of runners, with some twelve racers, including one Hart, who broke pedestrianism’s color barrier.  Each racer had a tent on the grounds, which came complete with running water, a cot, mattress, table and bathtub- all provided by an enterprising local furniture dealer on the condition that he be allowed to emblazon his name on the tents’ side.

MSG Race

Weston finished in sixth place.  He blamed his loss on the thick pall of smoke which hung in the air, wafting upwards from thousands of cigars.  Besides which, the sport had changed from the one which Weston had popularized.  Pedestrians no longer wore the dignified coat, tie, breeches and bowler Weston championed, but appeared attired in a loss fitting shirt and tight boxer’s leggings.  Worse, contestants no longer confined themselves to a stately fast walk, but competed by skipping and even using the uncouth “jog trot.”  Feeling pedestrianism was no longer sporting, and Weston announced his retirement from competition, and became a temperance advocate; giving walking displays in the United States and England as a demonstration of the role avoiding alcohol played in good health.  Meanwhile, the velocipede, soon nicknamed the bicycle, promised faster races and thrilling crashes, eclipsing pedestrianism itself as a spectator sport.

Part Two to Follow


[1] The reader is encouraged to try Weston’s technique; it actually works if one is willing to suffer onlooker’s stares.

The Human Water Spider

We here at Forgotten Stories are always fascinated by those moments when an idea takes root; you know, those moments that cartoons illustrate by showing a light bulb above Wiley E. Coyote’s head. Unfortunately, history doesn’t preserve how Oldrieve came up with his idea, but we do know that sometime during the summer of 1888, while working as a tightrope walker at Revere Beach in Boston, Oldrieve decided to embark on an exciting new career as an aquatic pedestrian.

Now, pedestrianism was quite a popular sport in the 1880s and had been so since the Civil War’s end. Thousands gathered to watch pedestrians such as Charles Rowell and Edward Payson Weston compete in 500 mile walking matches in huge indoor arenas for big cash prizes. Well, if those chaps could make a good living taking a stroll on land, Oldrieve saw no reason he couldn’t figure out a way to take a stroll on the water.  Taking a hint from the rowboats which pleasure-seekers took out into Boston harbor, and building on a previous water-walking attempt by a gentlemen named Ned Hanlen who’d abandoned the pursuit and gone into rowing matches instead, Oldrieve fashioned an ingenious pair of water walking shoes.

Made of cedar and copper plating, the shoes were water tight. “On the bottom of the water shoes,” wrote The Evening World, “are fins so arranged that when the foot is moved forward they lie close to the bottom of the water shoe, but when the foot is pushed back in the motion of walking they drop down and secure a hold on the water.” After a few trial walks on Boston Harbor, Oldrieve realized he had a problem; no one particularly cared whether he could walk on water, and if no one cared he certainly wasn’t going to make any money at it. Scrounging together some $500, Oldrieve became his own publicity agent by laying his funds on the line; if anyone would be willing to match his $500 he’d be willing to stroll down the Hudson River from Albany to New York over the space of seven days.

Somewhere he found a taker, and during the last week of November, 1888 Oldrieve took his stroll down the Hudson. He made it too, coming in with sixteen hours to spare. The next few days were spent demonstrating his shoes by strolling between Brooklyn and New York, and Oldrieve went back to Boston richer by some $500.00.

Once home, he doubled down, and spent the entire next year wagering on water feats. He strolled from Pemberton’s Hotel back to Boston netting a cool $100.00. During one wager he nearly lost his life; while attempting a 20 mile jaunt on the waters of the Atlantic a fog came up and he lost his way. He fortunately spotted Apple Island, struggled onto dry land and passed out under a haystack. When morning came, he built a raft and attempted to make it back to Boston. Currents swept him out to sea however, and had not a chance Coast Guard cutter appeared, Oldrieve would have disappeared. He walked the Niagara River above the Falls; betting his life that he could make it across before going over. During January 1889 he nearly died navigating the rapids of Massachusetts’ Merrimac River.

Safer pursuits were called for, and local entertainers booked him to perform off Revere Beach during the summers. Billed as “The Human Water Spider” Oldrieve strolled out onto the water with a satchel of explosives and a cigar; lighting the fuses with the cigar he dropped the explosives behind him sending forth huge plumes of water and, incidentally, stunning a few fish. He gradually built on this, bringing along fireworks to add to the aquatic display.

For the next decade or so, Oldrieve made his living performing up and down the Atlantic Coast, even going so far as Cuba. There could still be danger; as he described it in lengthy, but thrilling fashion (We trust the reader will excuse the extended quotation):

I went to Havana a few years before the Spanish War, and at the time the Cubans were struggling to thrown off the galling yoke of the mother country. My walking on the water feat proved quite a hit, and after giving several exhibitions in the bay, close to the dock, I was engaged by the Havana Yacht club for a sort of private show…the water was calm as some sylvan brook, no wind to speak of was blowing, and I felt in excellent spirits, so my performance – even if I do say it myself – was first class, and caused those dons and donnas to chorus repeated bravas from their snug resting places on the decks of the yachts.

I walked back and forth, performed a sort of gliding stunt, bent the crab, and did other foolish things, and, becoming exhilarated by my exercise, took a turn a good piece out to see…a cry of alarm sounded from the deck of the yacht nearest me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw, just about five yards behind me, a thin, black strip showing above the water, and as it moved rapidly in my direction I quickly divined what it was, the fin of a shark. I was practically helpless, with no weapon in hand, not even so much as a paddle, and in the sudden terror that claimed me my legs grew week, with the result that I nearly lost my balance, one foot inkling to the right and the other to the left, and I came within an ace of pitching head first into the sea.

The yacht of the mayor was only a few yards from me, and, pushing forward my right foot, I sped toward the haven of refuge. But as I covered an inch my pursuing foe covered many feet, and a scream from one of the white-robed ladies on the deck apprised me that the destroyer was upon me. Instinctively, I described a turn, and facing about, saw six feet of bluish, clammy-looking flesh, a double row of pointed teeth, set well in a cavernous mouth and round, pointed beak to the side of me, as the shark sprang from the water. He missed me by a narrow margin, and his while great length – there must have been twenty feet of him – in a half circle splashed into the water, and the passage of the massive body through the flood whirled me around like a top.

As soon as I recovered myself I started again for the yacht, and had almost reached the boat’s side when the cry of alarm once more came from the deck. I could hear the swirl of the water behind me, and, looking over my shoulder again saw the same murderous fin parting the green wavelets. The shark, profiting by his first miss, did not spring from the sea until he had clearly overtaken me. His hard beak grazed the rear end of my right shoe, and caused my leg to shoot forward from under me, and as I fell backward into the sea the monster fish turned over on his side, and snap went his dreadful jaws. The bite tore away all of one portion of my left water shoe, and the calf of my leg was mangled and torn by the center teeth. As I fell into the water I felt the stinging pain in my leg and knew the shark had me in his jaws, but with a resourcefulness born of despair, I jerked my foot violently forward. My lacerated, bleeding leg was freed, as the teeth had only sunk into the loose flesh, and besides the long strips of skin I left all my left water shoe in the shark’s mouth.

I struggled about under the water for a few moments, expecting every minute to feel the shark’s teeth closing about my body, and for a time my overturned right shoe prevented me from rising to the surface. I was a good swimmer though, and when the brine had nearly choked me, by bending my right knee to the utmost, and so relieving the depressing weigh of the shoe, I thrust my head above water.

My first impression was an awful splashing all about me, and for a moment I fancied the shark and some of his family had come back to finish lunch. Spray was dashed in a deluge into my face and for a moment the water, descending in a cloud, blinded me. But then I saw it all. Several boats were floating near me, ordinary skiffs I mean, and the men in them were beating the water with the flats of oars. That’s a good ruse to frighten sharks you know and it must have worked with my hungry friend…The beating of the water was all right and no doubt saved my life, but the excitable Spaniards kept up the practice with such persistency, shouting loudly all the while that for a time I was in danger of having my brains knocked out…A boat was quickly pulled to where I fought to keep my head above water, and, more dead than alive, I was drawn over the gunwale, water shoes and all, and carried to the yacht.

I had lost much blood and a large strip of flesh was missing from my limb, and to add to my pain and misery the doctor insisted on burning the wound out with a solution of nitric acid, declaring that the shark’s teeth might have been infected from eating some dead carcass thrown into the sea.

After some time on crutches Oldrieve recovered, and in the winter of 1897 announced that he’d be walking across the Atlantic from Boston to Havre, then up the Seine to Paris. The trip would begin on July 4, 1898, and a friend, C.A. Andrews would accompany him in a small canvas boat that could be folded into a 3 foot by 3 foot square and carried under the arm. According to Oldrieve, the going would be easy, since he could glide down the sides of steep ocean swells, and he could sleep and eat aboard Andrews’ tiny skiff. By July however, the Spanish-American War had broken out and the newspapers were trumpeting the dangers posed by the Spanish Navy; the trip never took place.

For the next eight years or so Oldrieve stayed quiet. There are a few accounts of performances in Boston and at various beaches around the country; some had to be cancelled when Oldrieve got too intoxicated to perform. Somewhere along the way Oldrieve also acquired a wife; a small, slight man barely 130 pounds, Oldrieve’s bride his Caroline dominated him both personally and physically, she tipped the scale at nearly 200 pounds and had a huge pair of shoulders she’d earned rowing in the waters off her native Nova Scotia.

Cupid’s arrows are often wisely dispatched, and however divergent their physical natures, they got along famously. She took charge of his career, and soon she came up with a new venture. On a wager of $5000 put up by E.J. Weatherton of Dallas, Texas against the noted sporting man Alfred Woods of Boston, Massachusetts, Oldrieve announced he would walk along the river from Cincinnati to New Orleans in 40 days; taking the Ohio River until he reached Cairo, Illinois and then continuing the rest of the way on the Mississippi.

He left Cincinnati at noon January 1st, 1907. Midwest weather in early January can be particularly awful, and January of 1907 proved no exception to the rule. Although Oldrieve made around 22 miles per day along the Ohio’s waters, he was already a day behind schedule by the time he reached Paducah, Kentucky on the aftern

oon of the 14th. The wind had been particularly troubling, if it blew at his back it had a tendency to upset the water shoes, and if it blew at his front it made it particularly hard water walking. That January, the wind sometimes seemed to come at him from both directions at once.

His wife rowed alongside him as he walked, shouting encouragement, providing meals, struggling to stay next to him in the strong current, and rescuing him when he occasionally fell into the ice cold water.  Weatherton and Wood’s representative Edward Williams accompanied them in a gasoline launch, to verify that the Professor did indeed walk the entire way. Oldrieve assured the world that the affair would be on the level; telling the The Washington Herald, “If I win, I will win on the square.” Some good fortune hit too, he got a day’s rest when the gasoline launch failed, and was given until February 10 to finish the task.

He hit Cairo, Illinois on January 17, and a large crowd greeted him, accompanied by the whistles from passing steamboats. From here he hoped that the rapid current of the Mississippi would help him move quicker and make up for lost time. The current did help; he picked up four hours between Cairo and Memphis, arriving there on the morning of the 22nd and then continuing on towards Vicksburg which he reached on the 30th, enjoying the hospitality of Mississippi plantation owners who provided a soft bed and decent meal, gratis.

With mere hours left until noon on February 10, 1907 Oldrieve began striding past the suburbs of New Orleans, with his wife cheering him on. At an hour left, he hit the city limits, and with 45 minutes left he passed the Canal Street Bridge. Then trouble struck; Oldrieve got caught in an eddy created by a passing steamboat spinning around and around. Caroline was too far away to reach him, and as the Professor lost balance he was only just able to grab the outstretched hand of a black stevedore who’d spotted his peril and reached over the gunwale of a coal barge.

After a few minutes to recover, Oldrieve set off once more, making it to the finish line with only a few minutes to spare.

With $5000 in his pocket, some good Creole cooking, and a stay in one of New Orleans’ best hotels, Oldrieve soon recovered from his trip, and regained the 25 pounds he’d lost. He started focusing on future plans; walking across the English Channel, and even re-floating the idea of walking across the Atlantic. Meanwhile however, he and his wife gave performances up and down the Mississippi, and his water-dynamite act was to be the star attraction at Greenwood, Mississippi’s Fourth of July celebration.  The Professor planned an extravaganza to cap off the event; in the foreground he would drop dynamite into the Mississippi creating giant jets of water, while Caroline set off a barrage of fireworks in the background.

Disaster struck. One of the fireworks set Caroline’s dress on fire, and instead of making for the water she jumped off the barge’s landward side in a panic. Badly burned, Oldrieve rushed her to King’s Daughters Hospital. She soon regained consciousness, and urged the worried Professor that she would be on her feet again soon. As he was unwilling to leave her side, she had to order him to take the train to Paducah to book their next engagement. He went.

Ever the trooper, Caroline’s conditions were far more serious than she let on, and in the humid Mississippi weather her wounds gave way to a rapid infection. On July 7th she died suddenly; unable to be reached by telegram, Oldrieve read about it in the paper. The hospital forwarded her body to Oldrieve, who met the casket in Memphis.

Unable to cope with his loss, Oldrieve spent the next four days after the funeral drunk, only sobering up enough to procure three bottles of chloroform from the corner drug store. Alone, in a tiny hotel room in a city where he had no friends, Oldrieve drank all three bottles. He was dead when the chambermaid found him the next morning.                      

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