How to Rig an Election

Politics, Pittsburgh-Style

November is election season, and no matter whether it’s a presidential year, a mid-term, or an off-year, with the falling of the leaves always comes the falling of the votes into the ballot box. So, too, come the accusations of voter fraud, of electoral irregularities, claims of rigging and election, and in truly special moments in American history, of hanging chads and of recount after recount after recount.

With recent court decisions striking down gerrymandering and electoral interference in states like North Carolina, the volatile life of the ballot box has been much in the news lately. The outcome of many of these challenges remains to be seen, but what remains true, however, is that those who are in power prefer to stay in power, a lesson illustrated nowhere better than Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

An image of the Allegheny County courthouse.
The Allegheny County Courthouse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

According to author Richard Gazarik, dirty electoral tricks had a home in the Steel City long before the arrival of Jim Crow in the South, or voter intimidation elsewhere. In his book Wicked Pittsburgh, he offers what amounts to a historical primer on just how to rig an election. So, without further ado, some out-of-the-box instructions on how to rig an election from Crime Capsule:

1. Falsify voter records (liberally). Gazarik notes right off the bat that one classic technique for dirty Pittsburgh politicians was to manipulate tax receipts, a piece of paperwork proving the voter paid the right taxes and lived in an eligible county. The issue that this practice constituted a poll tax notwithstanding, the main trick for the aspiring corrupt politician is to purchase as many of them as your local county official will allow: presto, thousands of votes, all with false names, all waiting to support you in November.

2. Invent voters. Gazarik also records the curious fact that in the 1800s and early 1900s, many voters were rather hard to find except on election day, for the simple reason that they didn’t exist. Investigators for area newspapers and federal agencies found ‘phantom voters’ living at addresses that constituted such diverse locations as “vacant houses, apartments, a barbershop, and a church,” not to mention in one case the boiler room of a private club. Four walls and a roof—and at least it had plumbing, right?

3. Rig the ballot ahead of time. One trick Pittsburghers used to see every so often was a pre-voted ballot with preferred candidates already marked, distributed in neighborhoods that were known political strongholds. If everybody already knew how they were going to vote before they even showed up, why not save them the trouble? Straight Democratic or Republican tickets all the way down—it’s a time-saver!

Did somone rig the election?
Former mayor William McNair during his campaign for Congress. Image courtesy of the William McNair Papers, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh.

4. Dupe the electoral staff so you can alter the count. On election night of 1932, when it appeared FDR was winning by a landslide, many of the old-guard Pittsburgh politicians faced being swept out of office. This one from Gazarik’s research needs no context: “Nettie Llewellyn, an election board clerk, was counting ballots when she received a message that her mother was dying and quickly headed home before realizing she had been tricked.”

5. Employ “night-riders” to further tinker with the count at the polling place after it closed. That one also speaks for itself—and if that’s not enough, the worst of the worst used to stage street brawls and gunfights outside precincts during election season, closing entire polling places at a whim and pitting Pittsburgh police offers against local constables against city detectives, faction vs. faction. A house divided, right?

6. If you don’t like the result, just throw the ballot boxes in a river. After all, the Steel City is also called the City of Bridges. As Gazarik helpfully points out, you’ve got three to choose from, folks—so happy voting! Now, that’s how you rig an election.

Wicked Pittsburg Book Cover

The Strange Story of Sam McMillan’s Head


Beware the Headless Miser of Sanford, Florida: Sam McMillan

Florida, late 1800s, right in the middle of Reconstruction. Imagine yourself arriving at the station in your new town, gazing out at the miles of citrus groves, seeing farm workers and field hands handling the fresh, juicy crop. It’s harvest season, and the crates are filling up. Oranges, grapefruit, papayas, you name it: from the windows of your train, all you can see is green, green gold. Such were the conditions in 1882 when Sam McMillan, a native of Ohio who had resettled to Sanford, Florida, met his untimely end. McMillan, a careful spender by some accounts, but a genuine, old-school miser by others — he distrusted banks, and carried thousands of dollars in a fat wallet tied with twine — had been preparing to leave Sanford for some time, trying to sell his citrus grove and turn his back to central Florida.

An image depicting downtown Sanford, Florida around 1886, where Sam McMillan settled, for a time...
Downtown Sanford, Florida, circa 1886. Where Samuel McMillan made his home. At least for a while…. Image courtesy of Chase Collection, University of Florida.

But he never made the trip: on September 30, 1882, he was seen walking towards the property of his neighbor Archie Newton, an Englishman and prospective buyer of McMillan’s parcel who had arrived in Sanford through family business connections. As author Andrew Fink says in his book Murder on the Florida Frontier: The True Story behind Sanford’s Headless Miser Legend, “It was the last time anyone saw Sam McMillan alive.”

On October 17, McMillan’s body was found submerged and partially dismembered in nearby Crystal Lake. The corpse had been tied down with a rope and weighted with a burlap sack filled with an iron pot full of nails. After nearly three weeks in the water, McMillan was in terrible shape: decomposed, decaying, chewed on by all manner of creatures, most of the organs had been devoured, both hands were missing, and most of the appendages hung only by tendons. And to top it off, the body was missing its head.

Based on a growing amount of evidence, Newton was quickly arrested on suspicion of murder. Because the head was vital to the inquest, the constable ordered another search: a few days later, another sweep of the lake was conducted near the original site and sure enough, there lay McMillan’s unfortunate skull, about twenty-five feet away. Denuded of skin, jaw detached, flesh pooling on the lake floor, it’s hard to imagine anyone recognizing poor Sam McMillan.

An image depicting the Orange County courthouse.
The Orange County Courthouse. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Nevertheless, his remains constituted key evidence, so much that Fink records the searchers actually took the first train back to the preliminary hearing, and plonked the sack with the severed head down on the table for everyone in the room to see. According to later testimony, the medical examiner Dr. F.A. Caldwell was called into inspect the specimen. Caldwell discovered a ragged hole near the base of the skull, consistent with trauma from a blunt object or a gunshot—and after puncturing the lining of the brain, which was softened and decomposed, gave it a good shake. Witnesses present heard something rattling around inside, and sure enough, out dropped a bullet, right there in front of everyone. It wasn’t the smoking gun, but it might have been the next best thing.

It’s hard to imagine any medical examiner acting so brash today, but standards differed in the late nineteenth century (or maybe just in Florida—one does wonder). Later testimony revealed that there was no way to prove that McMillan’s decapitation was part of his death—that there would have been no reason to separate his head from his body, that a gunshot alone would not have sufficed to do the deed, and that there were any number of willing alligators or snapping turtles ready to snack on a fleshy neck in the lake. But more evidence against Newton mounted, from testimony regarding his alleged movements that weekend to character witnesses attacking his morals to articles of Sam McMillan’s found at the Newton homestead, and the Englishman was ultimately convicted of the crime.

An appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, and two more years of investigation and legal wrangling, ultimately resulted in Newton’s acquittal: the vast majority of the evidence against him was circumstantial, the Court found, and key testimony was found as either inadmissible or improper. Most importantly, there was simply no direct evidence tying Newton to the crime. Understandably, not long after the verdict was overturned, Newton and his wife fled Sanford, Florida, never to return—sadly, the same could not be true of McMillan.

For as Fink records, history doesn’t tell us exactly where the Sanford authorities buried the body of Samuel McMillan, where they buried his head, or whether his head was even buried at all. Fink suggests that it may have even been kept as a souvenir by one of the local officials. Ghost stories began to pop up soon afterward, with visitors to the McMillan parcel seeing a horribly decomposed body chasing after a floating head, never quite seeming to catch it. “That means,” Fink writes, “the ghost is still restless.”

So next time you visit central Florida, in the area known as the Mystic Circle, keep a sharp eye outside the window of your carriage. While some of the citrus groves may have given way to subdivisions, you never know just who you might see, still out there, searching after what he misses most.

Murder on the Florida Frontier book cover and the tale of the fate of the head of Samuel McMillan

How Do You Reheat A Cold Case?

Re-investigating Death on the Devil’s Teeth

What do you do when a case goes cold? When you run out of witnesses, when the evidence offers no new answers, when all avenues of investigation have been exhausted, and when neither individuals nor artifacts offer any further nuggets or clues? Moreover, what do you do with a cold case from years ago and you’re coming in decades after the fact to reopen it?

For authors Jesse P. Pollack and Mark Moran, the answer is: keep digging. Proprietors and writers at the beloved magazine Weird NJ, Moran and his colleague Mark Sceurman had been unearthing strange and unsolved incidents in Garden State history for years. Whether it was the oft-repeated tale of the Jersey Devil, or more recent accounts of the unexplained and the paranormal, Moran and Sceurman (known as the Marks) had developed a connoisseur’s nose for the obscure.

Then the story of the 1972 murder of Jeannette DePalma came to their ears. DePalma, a young woman from Springfield, NJ, who had been missing from her family for some weeks, was found dead atop a hill overlooking the Houdaille Quarry, in what appeared to be a ritual slaying, possibly by occultists in the area. The positioning of her body along with artefacts nearby shocked the police officers who discovered her. While the case was never solved, it elicited a flurry of anger, terror, and suspicion within the small, Leave-It-To-Beaver kind of town, especially as other equally violent murders began to plague Springfield in the months to come.

These three diagrams illustrate the varying accounts of what was allegedly found near Jeannette DePalma’s body. These images were shown to several occult historians, all of whom agreed that no Satanic symbols or indicators of witchcraft were present.

For the Marks, such a story was impossible to resist, especially given how little had been written or publicly explored about it. Murder has no statute of limitations, and even decades later they felt that any attempt to bring DePalma’s killer to justice was warranted—but they quickly found that investigating this frozen-over case seemed to close just as many doors as it opened. Conflicting accounts of family and friends, the untimely deaths of key witnesses, secrecy of tight-knit communities (some with known connections to local organized crime), the unexplained obstructions of law enforcement, the refusal to release records even with FOI requests: how did Moran, Sceurman, and (later) Pollack do it?

If you’re going through hell, Winston Churchill famously once said, keep going. Which is how these investigators ultimately produced Death on the Devil’s Teeth: The Strange Murder That Shocked Suburban New Jersey. A master class in sleuthing, Moran and Pollack’s book acknowledge up front that there are simply some things we may never know about DePalma’s murder, including whether it was in fact a gruesome accident whose unidentified perpetrators staged in order to look like a murder, and thereby throw police off the case.

But their digging still turned up new leads, as members of the community came forward, and new names and clues came to light. To tie it all together, Moran and Pollack gave every competing account the time of day, presenting the evidence simply as they obtained it—whether it be testimony from the victim’s own sister or from local police as to teenage behavior at the time, accounts that at times stand in stark contrast to one another. Sifting through the community terror, recalcitrance, and misdirection about occultism in the area, the conversations they had with key witnesses appear in many cases as directly transcribed in their book, allowing the reader to form their own judgment, and decide on the most plausible theory of her death.

An image of authors Mark Moran and Jesse P. Pollack trying to gain evidence for reopening a cold case
Authors Mark Moran and Jesse P. Pollack on the Mountview Road side of the base of the Devil’s Teeth cliff. Photo by Doyle Argene.

Cases go cold all the time. Sometimes, law enforcement is just too understaffed to give every case the attention it deserves, or turnover means that a given detective may find themselves reassigned or transferred altogether. Sometimes, investigators don’t even realize that incidents are linked: as recently as 2007, the discovery of a serial killer in south Louisiana was attributed to a local reporter who noticed curious similarities between dormant cases, as the documentary Bayou Blue describes.

Which is exactly where members of the public can help. Good memories, sharp observation, and a passion for justice: all these make up key attributes for investigators both official and unofficial. That, and a nose for the unexplained. Ask Sceurman and Moran, who had a unique way of saying farewell to anyone they meet in New Jersey:

“So long—let us know if you hear about anything weird!”

Death on the Devil's Teeth, a shocking cold case

Butte: Montana’s Capital of Vice


And what on earth is a curbie?

Brothels, bribes, and bagmen—throughout the 1960s, Butte, Montana, had it all. A mining city that in some ways was more suited to the Old West than to the Atomic Age, Butte became known as the ‘Richest Hill on Earth’ for the rich veins of minerals underneath it. Where comes heavy industry, though, comes the need for relief from grueling workdays and dangerous conditions. Such relief, as author and longtime journalist John Kuglin discovered, found some creative maneuverings around the law.

Or, in some cases, flat-out rejections of it.

In his book Montana’s Dimple Knees Sex Scandal: 1960s Prostitution, Payoffs & Politicians, Kuglin dug up some remarkable figures from his years of reporting on the issue (Kuglin, famously, broke the story of Beverly Snodgrass, the Butte bordello madam who finally ‘told all’). The full story in all its lurid detail is found within his pages, but we at Crime Capsule found these factoids to pull out first. Without any further ado:

7,000 feet—the length of the Berkeley mining pit, now called Lake Berkeley after being abandoned by Anaconda, who owned the pit, in 1982. Over a mile wide, Lake Berkeley is 1780 feet deep, is deadly toxic, and is still a major tourist attraction in the region.

168—the number of lives lost in the granite Mountain and Speculator Mines fire in 1917, the nation’s worst hard-rock mining disaster to date. According to Kuglin, following the fires about 14,500 miners went on strike against Anaconda for safer working conditions.

The first page of the Great Falls Tribune, detailing the events in Butte, Montana.
Page one of The Great Falls Tribune, October 13, 1968, when it began an eight-part series about Butte vice.

$16,583—the amount Beverly Snodgrass paid in the early 1960s for her first house of prostitution at 14 South Wyoming, which would become “regularly mentioned in Butte newspaper columns for murders, stabbings, thefts, assaults, prostitution, robberies, and white slavery.” Oh, and it would also be dynamited in 1964 as an intimidation tactic.

$75,000—the amount Snodgrass estimated she had paid in extortion, bribes, and kickback money to local police and politicians to stay in business, from the moment she bought the property until 1967, when she agreed to spill the beans.

An image of the first bordello in Butte, located on South Wyoming
The smaller brick building to the right at 14 South Wyoming is the first bordello owned by Beverly Snodgrass. A motorcycle policeman is in front of the house. Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, Smithers Collection, 30.149.01.

$5—the average ‘tip’ a policeman could expect to receive for coming by the brothel and handling any ‘disagreements’ among the clientele during Snodgrass’ tenure as a madam.

$20 million—the average yearly amount of the illegal gambling industry in nearby Missoula County in the 1960s, primarily sourced from card games and coin-operated machines. According to reporters of the time, gambling flourished openly despite tough laws against it.

$0.05—the cost of playing a ‘punchboard,’ an illegal gambling game common in saloons and public houses of the time. Paying a nickel would enable the player to punch out a section of a perforated board, in the hopes of revealing a winning number and a prize payout from the venue. One such board, the ‘Lucky Sawbuck,’ featured 1500 punches, for a maximum possible payout of $43.75.

111—the total number of bars in Butte in 1968, whose population at the time was 27,877. According to Kuglin, that meant that Butte had one bar for every 251 residents—far and away the highest per-capita ratio in the state (the next closest competitor, Billings, had one bar for every 695 residents).

$250,000—the amount one source suggested to Kuglin of the total annual payoff to local officials from gambling, prostitution, and liquor law violations in the 1960s.

And what, you may wonder, is a curbie? According to Kuglin, a curbie was “a very informal Butte party that usually began after your favorite bar closed. You sat on the curb, planted your feet in the gutter and passed around a bottle—the local version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” In other words—cheers!

An image of the Montana's Dimple Knees Sex Scandal book cover.

Olympia Beer & The Murder of JoAnn Dewey


Drinking on the Deadly Job: Last Call Leads to Last Words

Despite having taken place nearly seventy years ago, the murder of JoAnn Dewey remains one of the more infamous crimes ever to have taken place in the state of Washington. Dewey, a young woman who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Vancouver, WA, in March 1950, was seemingly selected at random, by two brothers who could just as easily have preyed on night nurses walking home from the nearby hospital, where they accosted her. As author Pat Jollota details, nothing about this case was simple. The two brothers accused and convicted of the crime, Utah and Turman Wilson, had come from a large and complicated family, with numerous run-ins with the law (and years of jail time already under their belts). Yet their alibi initially held up—allegedly fearful of being accused of another crime concurrent at the time, they had fled the Vancouver area to avoid undeserved suspicion, switching cars and traveling under fake names for weeks.

An image showing Twelth Street in Vancouver, near where JoAnn Dewey was attacked.
The scene of the crime. St. Joseph’s Hospital looms over Twelfth Street and the Central Court Apartments. JoAnn almost made it to the hospital. The attack began at about where the large tree stands in this photo. Image courtesy of the author.

Moreover, following Dewey’s disappearance, the law enforcement officers assigned to the case had their own share of problems. Many of the sheriffs and deputies involved, having just come into power in a recent election, had little to no experience, and many of the county officials (such as the coroner) were, by quirks of local law, bereft of any practical training for their jobs. Despite their sincerity and determination to crack the case, Pat Jollota writes, they were in many ways simply unprepared for the job.

But one thing was simple, a small detail of the murder scene that ultimately sent the Wilson brothers to the gallows. Either Utah or Turman—likely both—had, while the two waited in the car for their unfortunate victim, been knocking back a couple of beers. When they assaulted and kidnapped Dewey that March night, among the evidence at the crime scene outside St Joseph’s Hospital was a silver hair barrette, a broken purse strap, and a bottle of Olympia brand beer that one of them had cast aside.

The Wilsons had long fled the scene, and Dewey died later that night, but the investigation was only just beginning. For months officers labored to collect evidence and testimony from witnesses, family, and acquaintances. Even after Dewey’s body was found floating in the Wind River weeks later, little additional evidence proved conclusive. In the meantime, however, investigators had managed to recover a set of prints from the discarded Olympia beer bottle. Sent to the FBI lab, eventually the prints came back positive: they were Utah’s.

Eventually the Wilson brothers were found hiding in Sacramento, and returned in custody to Vancouver, WA. Despite weeks of courtroom wrangling, with impassioned testimony from countless witnesses, secret jailhouse audiorecordings, and legal drama from both prosecution and defense alike, they were eventually found guilty of first-degree murder. Among the preponderance of evidence against them was something that Sergeant Carl Forsbeck had keenly observed when he collected the bottle: that the liquid was still cold and the bubbles were still large. Utah’s fingerprint placed the brothers squarely at the scene of the abduction, and in the eyes of the jury, every movement they made afterwards pointed to their guilt.

An image of convict Turman Wilson, who was drinking Olympia beer the night he committed the murder.
Turman Wilson, clad in white prison attire, waits in an office at the courthouse for yet another execution date.

Appeal after appeal failed, and stay of execution after stay of execution ran out too. On the day after New Year’s, 1953, the Wilson brothers approached the gallows. That morning, Pat Jollota notes, they had enjoyed a last meal of “roast chicken with giblet gravy, fried rabbit, cranberry sauce, French-fried potatoes, hot biscuits, cherry pie and a devil’s food cake with ice cream, milk, and coffee.”

Nowhere on the menu was a mention of Olympia beer.

Olympia Beer helped solve the murder of JoAnn Dewey

Salacious Sacramentans


Celebrating California’s Capital City

The state of California has long been known for its independent spirit and the many colorful characters that have called it home. While Los Angeles and San Francisco love to showcase their more flamboyant citizens, other cities in the Golden State also lay claim to remarkable residents. In his book Wicked Sacramento author William Burg has unearthed many of these larger-than-life individuals; Yesterday’s America pays tribute to California’s capital city with this photo gallery of celebrated, if sometimes notorious, salacious Sacramentans.

Go more in depth on these and other salacious Sacramentans in the book, Wicked Sacramento.

An image of the Wicked Sacramento book cover for Salacious Sacramentans

The One and Only “Axis Sally”


How an Ohio girl called Axis Sally became the voice of the Nazis

In the early 1940s in Europe, new battlefields were emerging in ways that far outpaced previous conflicts. Sustained air campaigns such as the London Blitz and submarine warfare throughout the Atlantic opened up pivotal new fronts, as conventional warfare rapidly evolved into a more modern form.

But the conflict was not just formed of bullets, torpedoes, and bombs; in truth, it was a battle of ideas as well. And for American troops fighting on German soil following the D-Day invasion, that battle was frequently fought not just on the ground but over the airwaves as well. As historians have long documented, works of culture—music, plays, stories, and other art forms—broadcast over radio were key weapons in the war to bolster troop morale, and ultimately to win over hearts and minds. Remarkably, however, as author Jane Ann Turzillo records, one of those voices fighting for the Nazi regime belonged to an Ohio girl named Mildred Gillars.

Born in Maine, Gillars moved to Ohio as a teenager, and began to pursue studies in theater and the arts. Following her education and several failed relationships, she eventually joined a wave of American expats seeking their fortune in Europe in the mid-1930s, as National Socialism and its leader, Adolf Hitler, were emerging as a new, emboldened political power.

While in Germany, Gillars’ romantic entanglements and career prospects soon overpowered any loyalty she might have had to her home country. One relationship in particular, with the German radio producer Max Koischwitz, blossomed into a position broadcasting pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda, earning her the nickname among American GIs of “Axis Sally,” or “Axis Sal.” By the early 1940s, she was regularly appearing on German radio, blaming Roosevelt and Churchill for the horrors of the war, reserving extra blame for the Jews, and always seeking to demoralize and discourage the Allied troops.

Gilars’ American accent was key to her success as a Nazi propagandist, Turzillo notes, but not everyone fell for her act. Rather, an American officer writing in the Saturday Evening Post had this to say about her performances. Corporal Edward van Dyne: “Sally’s goo is spiced neatly with little dabs of menace though. One of her favorite routines is to paint a warm, glowing picture of a little nest in the United States that might be yours; of the waiting wife, the little ones, the log fire … You’ll get back to all of that when the war’s over,” Sally would say, “If you’re still alive.”

Gearing some of her broadcasts to the women of the war, who (in her view) were needlessly sacrificing their husbands, sons, and brothers to the conflict, Axis Sally also visited American prisoners of war in German camps and hospitals, recording interviews with them in which she sought to cajole them into describing what good treatment they were receiving. But as the Allied forces gained ground on Berlin, her days proved numbered—her last broadcast was a few days before Russian troops entered the German capitol in May 1945.

Gillars went into hiding, but a citywide manhunt quickly rounded her up, and before long she was back home in the United States, on trial for treason. The trial riveted the country, featuring numerous recordings of her broadcasts, and testimony not just from Gillars herself (claiming her love for Koischwitz as well as coercion by the Nazis) but from injured servicemembers and former prisoners of war whom she had sought to influence. Indicted on ten counts, she was convicted on just one, and Axis Sally was sentenced to not less than ten years in prison.

An image of convict Mildred Gillars aka Axis Sal
Mildred Gillars (Axis Sal) leaving Alderson Prison. Courtesy of Washington Evening Star, Washingtoniana Division, D.C. Public Library.

As Turzillo notes, the second half of her life contrasted sharply with the first. Serving her time at a federal penitentiary for women in West Virginia, she eventually converted to Catholicism, and upon her release in 1961 moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she lived privately until her death in 1988. While her true feelings about her deeds went with her to her grave, it’s incredible to think, now, that a small-town Ohio girl could have lived such a sensational life—and a good reminder to get to know your neighbors, because you never know what kind of stories you might hear!

An image of the Wicked Women of Ohio book cover.

Read more stories on Women in Crime.

Criminal Newspaper Headlines


The Creative Titles of Historic Crime Journalism

So much of good crime writing, and good journalism generally, begins at the beginning: the headline. Each day, newspapers have the chance to showcase succinct, smart, even witty summations of the day’s news, with the American Society for Editing (ACES) among other organizations offering awards for the best newspaper headlines of the year. 

Nowadays, it seems that headlines have become much more prosaic, with flat sentences and a just-the-facts-ma’am style. Yet this was not always the case. Perhaps the golden age of headlines was the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century, during which newspaper editors felt free to publish either punchy, one-word staccatos full of fire and fury, or full sentences and even entire paragraphs for their busy readers. 

Our friend and author/historian Ben Welter, who has a passion for true stories of a bygone age, put together a cornucopia of memorable headlines in his book Minnesota Mayhem. In celebration of an art form’s meatier age, Crime Capsule proudly presents to you a handful of some of Welter’s choicest cuts:

In Ashes

“The State Capitol in St. Paul Burned Last Evening. The Structure Totally Destroyed, with Many Valuable Records. Over Eleven Thousand Books of the State Library Burned. The Valuable Collection of the Academy of Sciences Lost. The Building Valued at $80,000—Other Losses Beyond Estimation. Narrow Escape from a Far More Terrible Disaster. Both Bodies in Session When the Fire Broke Out. Scenes of Great Excitement—Members Escaping by Windows. Cause of the Fire Unknown—Hints at Incendarism. An Extra Session Made Necessary—Scenes and Incidents. Arrangements for the Meeting of the Two Houses To-Day.”

Broke Up Their Game

“An Afternoon Card Party Interrupted by the Police. Blue-Coats Raid an Apartment in Rear of a Cigar Store at 211 Washington Avenue South, and Catch 11 Men Intently Watching the Fate of a Jack-Pot—A Player Who Held an Ace Full at the Time Is Sorely Disappointed at His Ill-Luck—Names Given by the Prisoners.”

Her Story Pathetic

“Lillian Knott, Once a Prominent and Talented Singer, Now at a Wash Tub in the Minneapolis Workhouse. She Recites the Sorrowful Causes and Conditions Which Led to Her Disgrace and Downfall.

This Is Murder; I Am Innocent

“—William Williams Slayer of Johnny Keller Makes Statement Before Being Strangled to Death.

Baby and His Cart Puts Traffic in Maze

“Three-Year-Old Boy in Middle of Street at Seventh and Hennepin. Everybody but the Policeman Sees Him, and There’s a Reason for That. Waif So Small the Traffic Man Almost Stepped on Him Unawares.”

Some stories only unfold over multiple parts:  

Stripper Struts From City Bar to City Jail. “

City Stripper Gets to Wear the Evidence: Morals Chief Left Holding the Et Cetera. “

“Peeler” to Appeal Fine: “Pivots, Twirls” Fail to Sway Judge”

And lastly, in praise of the poetic,

Man Who Swims without Suit Faces One

For more on these stories, and more of these amazing headlines, you’ll just have to read Welter’s book!

Newspaper headlines and stories from the Minneapolis Tribune in Minnesota Mayhem

Crime Scene Analysis: Making Crime Pay


We’re obsessed with True Crime and crime scene analysis to understand the grisly underbelly of what people are capable of — and it’s not a new phenomenon. Just look at how a grisly crime and the ensuing racially-charged turmoil turned the people of Franklin Park, New Jersey and beyond into morbid voyeurs in 1894.

Judging by recent television alone, forensic investigation at crime scenes and crime scene analysis has never been a hotter topic. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order (as well as vanguards like Matlock before them) all explore the process of collecting and handling evidence in fascinating, if fictional, ways.

But what about real-life cases, the cases from which those TV dramas claim their inspiration? How did the science of forensics develop, and what are some of its key moments in American history? In his book The Franklin Park Tragedy: A Forgotten Story of Racial Injustice in New Jersey, author Brian Armstrong uncovers a surprising tale of how evidence became sensationalized.

As Armstrong details, the Franklin Park Tragedy compromised a quadruple murder case in Franklin Park, NJ, a small township located between Princeton and New Brunswick. One night in March 1894, two men entered the home of Moore Baker, a young farmer, and proceed to assault Baker, his wife, and his infant daughter with axes, killing the latter two in gruesome fashion before Moore Baker was able to defend himself, retrieve his shotgun, and ultimately kill the two attackers.

Why Willard Thompson and Henry Pierson, two African-American farmhands well-known in the area, attacked this family remains a cause of debate, and as Armstrong details, the grief and anguish among both the predominantly white farmers and the African-American community resulted in severe racial tensions of the sort that would have been sooner expected in the Jim Crow South.

The drawing by artist Lauren Curtis is a recreation of the crime scene created at the author's request and allows for crime scene analysis.
Drawing by artist Lauren Curtis showing the location of the four dead bodies in the Baker house the morning after the killings.

Memento Mori or Grand Larson?

What was perhaps not expected, however, was how quickly the crime scene became a site of morbid fascination among locals and visitors from miles away. Armstrong notes that within hours of the murder, with Moore Baker still in shock over the loss of his family, residents of the area swarmed his farm to see the sordid scene and, amazingly, take pieces of it home.

“Visitors continued to roam around the house to see the room with the blood of the victims and killers mixed on the walls and floor along with all the furniture and personal items,” Armstrong writes.

He continues: “The New York Times reported that ‘the axe, the gun, the broken pitcher, the pool and splashes of blood were examined and discussed for hours.’ Relics of all kinds were carried away, even the ‘blood saturated strips of carpet.’”

Chamber of Horrors

Later, word having spread to New York, the famed Eden Musée sent a representative to purchase many of those items from Baker to create a wax display of the murder in its ‘Chamber of Horrors.’ With his wife and daughter’s blood barely having dried on the walls, Baker reluctantly sold nearly every relic of the tragedy for a commanding sum of $500 (many thousands of dollars today). He refused, however, to sell any of the bedding or clothing involved in the murder, drawing a personal line at his family’s personal effects.

While it is not known how much the museum charged its visitors, these artifacts remained on display for two decades until the museum closed in 1915, and ultimately, until its storehouse burnt down in 1928. Similarly, the Baker farm continued to become a tourist destination, until it too burned down years later.

Armstrong notes that no one at the time seriously doubted Baker’s version of the events—the grisly scene that the local medical personnel and law enforcement found in many ways spoke for itself—but it is still remarkable to see how quickly any evidence that could have helped to establish motive, determine facts, or simply detail the chain of events was compromised for cold, hard cash. Just the kind of thing that, were NCIS agents Timothy McGee or Abby Sciuto to encounter it, might cause yet another on-screen fatality as well!

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Dueling to the Death in New Orleans


Over the years, New Orleans has earned the nickname of “The City that Care Forgot,” evoking its laid-back, relaxed attitude on life. Today, its streets are filled with tour carriages, artists, and musicians. But did you know that in the city’s early years, those same streets frequently ran red with blood?

Many readers will be aware of the exploits of the legendary pirate Jean Lafitte, or the rascals and rapscallions that patronized the infamous Storyville red-light district. Gambling, drinking, carousing, and corrupting were grand traditions in New Orleans’ first two centuries.

In his book Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy, author Troy Taylor describes the many layers of sin and vice that plagued the Crescent City since its founding. But what readers may not be aware of is a tradition that existed in the years after New Orleans became an American city (in the Louisiana Purchase) but before the Civil War. During the mid-1800s, the young men of high society were eager to acquire, and defend, their honor as they moved up the social ladder.

According to Taylor, these young men, many of them Creole, were prone to quarreling, whether through an insult actual or perceived, through a lack of proper decorum, or even by a mere accident, such as stepping on another’s toes during a dance. And such quarrels only had one means of resolution.

Drawing their French sword canes, a weapon known as the colchremarde, these young men would step outside whatever dance hall or other venue where the infraction occurred, and head to St. Anthony’s Square behind the main cathedral. “There they fought,” Taylor writes, strictly according to code … Honor was satisfied in most situations with the drawing of first blood, however slight the wound, and the victor returned to the ballroom, while the vanquished duelist hurried home to bandage his cuts.”

Such fights were officially illegal, but in the grand tradition of the city, legality was more a suggestion than a rule—even when the growing number of American duelists began to kill their opponents, not just wound them. Moreover, they occurred all over town: Taylor notes that one of the most cherished spots for dueling was on the then-Louis Allard plantation, north of the French Quarter. Today, the spot of ground lies in none other than New Orleans’ own City Park!

The oaks that were once the part of the Louis Allard plantation still stand in City Park. Numerous duels were fought under these trees in years past

In his book, Taylor chronicles the fighting lives of such prominent citizens as Bernard Marigny, who later became a Congressman from Louisiana, and the nearly seven-foot tall blacksmith James Humble, who preferred to duel with a sledgehammer rather than a sword or pistol. Taylor writes that “Before the Civil War, there was hardly a man in public life in New Orleans who had not fought at least one duel.”

Eventually the practice died out, largely due to the Civil War and the loss of so many young men to conflicts in battlefields across the South. But walking through the streets and parks of New Orleans today, with their lazy atmospheres, their languid airs, and their friendly residents, it’s hard to imagine that so much of the soil in this city was soaked in blood. Next time you visit the Crescent City, make sure you watch your step—you never know where your foot might fall!

For more on New Orleans’ sordid history of dueling, drinking, gambling, and other vices past and present, be sure to check out Troy Taylor’s “Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy,” published by Arcadia/The History Press.