Well, it’s my debut if you don’t count the kids news show in the 6th grade or the time I was interviewed at the airport for the Philadelphia news (long story). Anyway, I had the pleasure of appearing on Chicago PBS station WYCC‘s Fall Mystery Marathon in November. I had a lot of fun talking about The Darkness Knows, old time radio, Chicago, my writing process, and how my daughter thinks I’m famous. All six parts are below (each are only 2-3 minutes long).
I had a fabulous time talking Old Time Radio with Steve Darnall of Nostalgia Digest (and I’m excited to be part of the Fifth Anniversary Podcast!). We talk about my “gateway drug” into old time radio, historical Chicago, and my inspiration for the characters in The Darkness Knows – among other things. I come in around the 36 minute mark.
I’ve already discussed my love of podcasts on this blog, and I’ve shared some audio drama recommendations with you. I also love a good true crime story, so today I’m sharing a few of my favorite podcasts in that genre. All are available on Stitcher (android) and iTunes (apple) or through the podcast websites – links below.
- Serial – The first season covers Adnan Syed and the murder of Hai Min Lee. This is the mother of all true crime podcasts and the one that got me hooked… (The second season is a disappointing departure – in my opinion – covering the Bowe Bergdahl case.)
- In the Dark – This series is incredibly well done, but so hard to listen to. This is different from the others on this list since the kidnapping and murder of a boy in MN was recently solved, and it’s told from the perspective of already knowing that.
- Accused – Covers the unsolved murder of a young co-ed in the early 1980s in at Miami U in Ohio and police/prosecutor mishandling and/or corruption.
- Someone Knows Something – First season covers the disappearance of a young boy in 1970s Canada. Second season has just started.
- Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? – Covers the murder of a first nations woman in western Canada along what’s known as The Highway of Tears in the late 1980s. Interesting in that in brings in the treatment of First Nations people in Canada and how that affected generations of families.
- Stranglers – Covers the Boston Strangler murders in the early 1960s
- Up and Vanished – Covers the unsolved disappearance of a young former beauty queen and teacher in GA in the early 2000s.
- Criminal – An anthology series that covers a different story every episode – usually. The two episodes about Melinda are fascinating.
- Already Gone – Another anthology series that discusses older (and very cold) missing and murdered cases.
How would you dial long distance in the late 1930s? Ah, trick question. You wouldn’t. You’d have to call the operator and tell her (her because telephone operators were almost always young women then) that you’d like to place a long distance person-to-person* call. Then you’d give her the location and person’s name (and the number if you had it). Your local operator would probably transfer you to another operator in the receiver’s town or general location to complete the call. That operator would dial the receiver directly, wait for them to answer, and then come back on the line to tell you to proceed. If you were calling from a pay phone (like my character) the operator would then tell you to deposit a certain amount of money (in coins) for a certain number of minutes. You’d be warned when time was almost up to deposit extra money. You could, if you were slick, trick the pay phone into releasing the money you’d just put in and keep using the same coins over and over. Long distance telephone calls were extremely expensive at that time, however, and most people opted to send a telegram instead. (I’ll write about that in another post.)
Here’s a 1930s pay phone in action:
And here’s an AT&T Operator training film from 1938 if you have a spare 20 minutes or so.
You could direct dial local calls in the late 1930s. Telephone numbers were only 4 numbers long with a lettered prefix exchange name attached. (Area codes did not exist – or rather, they did, but only operators used them.) For example, Charlie’s office phone number in The Darkness Knows is HAR-7998. (HAR for Harrison corresponding to 427 on the telephone dial). Here’s a list of Chicago area prefixes if you’re curious. Some of these are specific to Chicago locations and some were used as generic prefixes all over the country.
Private home phone lines were very expensive in the 1930s, and so most people opted for party lines. That was when several houses close to each other would share the same phone line and the expense. Usually each house had their own distinct ring to let them know an incoming call was for them. The problem with this, of course, is there was usually that one neighbor that loved to gab and always hogged the line. On the flip side, that meant a lot of opportunities for eavesdropping on your neighbors since all you had to do was pick up the phone to hear their conversation… if that’s your sort of thing.
*Person-to-person didn’t mean direct phone line to direct phone line. It meant the call wasn’t completed until the actual person being called answered the phone. So if you called Mr. Smith at Smith’s Furniture the call wasn’t complete when the receptionist answered – only when Mr. Smith himself came to the phone.
I scored a whole lot of 1938 Radio Guide magazines off of ebay about six years ago – all from the collection of one man, Henry Grimm (or so I assume, since his name is written in pencil on the front cover of most of them and yes, that’s Lucille Ball on the cover of the one in the middle). I’ve spent hours pouring over them, and I thought I’d share a little of the real stories that inspired characters and incidents in my first book, The Darkness Knows.
First of all, there’s a gossip section in every edition centered around Chicago radio called The Radio Tattler. You may recognize this as the gossip section Vivian’s excited about being mentioned in at the beginning of the book. (There were also gossip sections devoted to New York and Los Angeles).
The character of Little Sammy Evans was inspired by this feature story in the March 19, 1938 edition.
Also, Vivian mentions when talking to Charlie that there are women that specialize in crying like babies for radio programs. That came from this blurb.
And here’s the actual listing for Thursday, October 27, 1938. The Darkness Knows would have been listed in the 8:00 time slot – if it had been real, that is. (I love that Henry Grimm put a check mark next to the programs that he planned to listen to – Rudy Vallee’s Variety Hour at 7:00, Maxwell House Coffee’s Good News of 1939 at 8:00, and the Kraft Music Hall Starring Bing Crosby at 9:00. He must have gone to bed after that. ;))
This post isn’t about the spectral beings that go bump in the night.* No, this post came about because I wondered how easy it was to get a driver’s license in 1939 Illinois. It’s been surprisingly difficult to find that answer, but I did find this example of a standard driver’s license (Ohio 1938/39).
Basically, you got a piece of paper with your name, age, address, and general physical description on it. No picture. Nothing to prove your identity. A driver’s license in the 1930s was just that – a document proving you were permitted to operate a motor vehicle in a specific state and nothing more. Now, of course, a driver’s license is used as a piece of government issued official ID. Not so in the 1930s. Not so until much later in fact. (Texas didn’t even have photos on their licenses until the mid 1970s!) Then, of course, I got to wondering about official IDs and just how easy it would have been to pretend to be someone else at the end of the 1930s. The answer: Pretty darn easy.**
It was incredibly easy prior to 1935, as a matter of fact. Social Security Numbers were introduced as part of FDR’s New Deal in that year. Before that the US government had no real way to track anyone. Think about that… You could have lived a perfectly normal life with no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no passport, no documents of any kind attesting that you were who you said you were. Weird to think about, isn’t it? Even after SSNs came into effect it wasn’t that hard to become someone else. Until 1986 (?!) a person was not required to have a SSN until they received their first paycheck (usually at the earliest around the age of 14). So it was relatively easy even into the 1980s to find a person that had died before adulthood, assume their identity, and be issued a SSN under their name. Crazy.
Government agencies also didn’t communicate much with each other before the computer/internet age. The SS office didn’t automatically share records with the passport office, for example. So if you wanted to dump your real identity and try a new one on for size in 1939 (i.e. Ghosting) all you’d need to do, according to what I’ve dug us so far, was:
- Find a deceased person of your gender who would be about your age had they lived.
- Make sure they died before being issued a SSN.
- Make sure there weren’t any close living relatives of that person that would know you aren’t Uncle Joe or Cousin Sally.
- Acquire the birth certificate of that dead person.
- Use that birth certificate to acquire other means of ID as necessary.
- Live it up with your new identity.
Of course, this is much more difficult today, though still possible. I’m sure you can find ample advice on the interwebs about it if you’re curious.
* I also don’t mean “ghosting” in the 21st century social media sense.
**Realistically though, most people wouldn’t have wanted to. Most people are fairly happy with their lives and have loved ones they want to continue to have contact with on a regular basis. And whether they realized it or not, most people have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people that know exactly who they are on sight. So, unless you were willing to move to the other side of the world, cut off all contact with anyone that knew you in your “previous life”, and/or get drastically change your looks it was probably a no go – even in the late 1930s. Unless you were desperate or on the run from the law…
The action in THE DARKNESS KNOWS takes place October 27 – 31, 1938. That’s prime Halloween time; so of course, I had to include a masquerade scene. It was a lot of fun to write, but it took some thought to find costumes for the characters that wouldn’t be anachronistic to the time.
Charlie and Vivian’s last minute cowboy attire was borrowed from the “costume closet” at WCHI and more specifically from the Country Cavalcade (a fictional country music program based on WLS’s popular Barn Dance). I got the idea from this photo of Jack Benny and a bunch of lovelies from a Radio Stars magazine article.
Vivian’s friend Imogene is dressed as Maid Marion from the 1938 movie version of Robin Hood (played by Olivia de Havilland).
Imogene’s boyfriend George and Graham (much to George’s chagrin) are both dressed as Robin Hood himself (as played by Errol Flynn).
Head of the radio station, Mr. Hart, is dressed as another famous Errol Flynn role – the pirate, Captain Blood.
Speaking of movies, Frances Barrow is dressed as Snow White (the Disney film was a smash hit in 1937-38). (Frances would have also make a fabulous Scarlett O’Hara, but alas, the movie version of that didn’t come out until the end of 1939.)
Station Engineer, Morty Nickerson, is dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White.
Announcer, Bill Purdy, is The Lone Ranger – a radio hit since 1933 and appearing in movie serials starting in 1938.
Fellow actor, Dave Chapman, is Superman. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, so he was a brand new at the time of the masquerade. Weird to think that there was a time Superman didn’t exist, isn’t it?
Another actor, Little Sammy Evans, is a court jester. (The photo below is from the 1955 Danny Kaye movie, but imagine the same sort of costume.)
Other various and sundry characters you’ll find at the WCHI Halloween Masquerade of 1938 are Little Orphan Annie, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, and The Red Baron.
In case you haven’t noticed I am a huge history nerd. I also love a good ghost story (and to actually “hunt” ghosts, but that’s another post). So my eyes lit up when I spied this event from the Wisconsin Historical Society: When Angels Carried them Away: Death and Mourning in the Victorian Era.
That’s right. I spent last Saturday evening learning about Victorian funeral customs. The day cooperated by being delightfully dreary. The misty rain stopped long enough for us to disembark from the tour boat at Black Point Estate to hear an interesting presentation on Victorian death and funerals (It’s presented only 3 Saturdays in October. There are 2 left if you’re in the area).
I was surprised about how much I already knew – that’s probably because I read books like “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” and “Wisconsin Death Trip” for fun. Pre-WWI, most wakes and funerals were held in the deceased’s home, and the body was prepared for burial by the family. It’s a bit ghoulish to modern sensibilities, I suppose, to imagine having a dead body in the house for days – even if it was a beloved relative. But death was a common occurrence then. It came at you from all sides – communicable disease being the main culprit. Sanitation wasn’t great, and antibiotics wouldn’t become widely used until the end of WWII. A simple cut could lead to an infection that could then lead to sepsis and death lightening quick. The death rate for infants was almost 20%. It was a rare mother that didn’t lose at least one child to disease before its first birthday, and most women lost more than one.
According to this presentation, embalming came into being with the development of formaldehyde in the 1860s and was first practiced on a large scale during the American Civil War to allow soldiers’ bodies to be sent home from the battlefield to their families for burial. The man presenting was a retired funeral director and he had a vintage collection of fascinating (and pretty morbid) embalming and burial implements. The metal clamp for keeping a body’s mouth closed until rigor mortis could set in was especially shiver inducing – as well as a metal and glass contraption for collecting fluids from a body while it was being transported in pre-embalming days. (Here’s a word for you to ruminate on – “putrefaction”. You’re welcome.)
The presentation also touched on a particular Victorian past-time: post-mortem photography. Yes, people had photos taken of deceased loved ones for keepsakes. There is some evidence, though, that the popularity of that been overblown in today’s popular culture. Maybe Victorians weren’t quite as ghoulish as we’ve been lead to believe. Still, it’s a nice creepy thing to think about – if you’re inclined to think about nice creepy things – as I am. Google it, if you dare.
I half expected the house to have been set up like an actual Victorian wake was in process and the tour group to be lead in as mourners. It wasn’t, but still, it was a very interesting evening.
By the way, I overheard a tour guide assuring someone that they haven’t had any reports of ghostly activity in that particular old house. Too bad… it would be a fantastic place for a ghost hunt.
You may have seen movies from the 30s and 40s and thought that everyone of that time spoke at a rapid clip and either like a gangster (“Why I aughtta…”) or a high society matron caught somewhere between New York and London. Their way of speaking sounds impossibly old fashioned, and that’s because it is. It’s also not an organic American accent and never was.
My maternal grandparents were almost the exact age of Viv and Charlie. They were born and raised in rural Ohio instead of Chicago, but I can tell you that they spoke nothing like any of the characters in old movies. They sounded… well, like normal Midwestern people. They didn’t speak hyper fast or with strange accents halfway between American and British English. What you hear in those old movies is something called the Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent – because it’s halfway between British and Eastern Seaboard American English – i.e. completely made up.
This was a learned accent and was mainly taught in boarding schools on the east coast through WWII. Boarding schools exactly like the one Vivian’s mother attended. In fact, Vivian mimics her mother’s affected mid-Atlantic speech to Charlie in the beginning of the The Darkness Knows. She mimics it because it sounds so silly and posh to Vivian’s Midwestern ears even in 1938. If you don’t think this accent was something strange and exotic to the average person even then, check out this Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1938. The chicken playing Juliet, clasping her hands together and saying “Raaally I do”, is a parody of Hollywood actresses of the time – Katharine Hepburn, in particular.*
Vivian, on the other hand, has not gone to boarding schools on the East Coast. Her accent is the flat Midwestern of wealthy Northside Chicago. She doesn’t pronounce potato as “po-tah-toe” and pronounces double t’s as d’s – “cludder” not “cluh-tuh”, for example.
The Transatlantic accent was highly used in movies, theater, and radio productions of the day though. Why? Likely just because it sounded so posh and high society, and because it was hard to place. It gave a sense of worldliness to a production. This all died out after WWII. The accent stopped being taught in boarding schools and stopped being used in theatrical productions – unless, of course, it’s a production mimicking 1930s and 40s theatrical speech.
So the answer is Julia Witchell sounded a lot like Katherine Hepburn (or the Juliet chicken in that cartoon), but her daughter, Vivian, sounded just like a girl from Chicago – rather like me I suppose. Charlie, sadly, doesn’t sound like Edward G. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney. He grew up in a more working class part of the city, so he’s probably a little rougher on the grammar and diction than Vivian, but their accents and way of speaking would be similar to each other and to the people of Chicago today. (And nothing like the characters they would have watched in the movies).
*Cary Grant’s much parodied accent is probably the paragon of Transatlantic examples. It’s a result of his trying to Americanize his natural lower-class British accent. He wound up with a peculiar mix of both accents quite specific to him, as you can hear.