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I mentioned this episode of the popular adventure/fantasy radio program Escapein my last author newsletter, and I thought I’d share it here as well. In fact, I’m going to make sharing my favorite radio episodes a regular feature here on the blog.
“Evening Primrose” (aired November 5, 1947) is the creepy story of a writer who lives among the mannequins at a department store. It was adapted from a John Collier story (and later made into a TV musical by Stephen Sondheim (really?)) If you have a spare half an hour give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that Mrs. Vanderpant just might be the best character name of all time.
I’ve been researching early 1920s Chicago for a new book idea. By chance recently, I picked the date August 17, 1921 to look at the Chicago Tribune archives to check out what was happening that day. I was rewarded with this.
This was not only the front page banner headline and lead story, but there was an ad on page 3 for the KKK. An ad. In the Chicago Tribune. To recruit people into the Ku Klux Klan.
This rally/circus of ignorance was held in Lake Zurich, which was then a country backwater, but is now a booming and well-to-do suburb. It’s also not far from where I currently live.
The KKK started after the Civil War and enjoyed something of a resurgence in the 1910s and early 1920s, not just in the South, but all over the US. It was big in Oregon – which was originally founded to be some sort of white supremacist utopia. Really. (Listen to this Dollop podcast about it. Warning: The Dollop is an American History podcast hosted by two comedians so it can off-color – and hilarious).
The Tribune at this time was owned by Colonel Robert R. McCormick. It was incredibly conservative and called itself “The American Paper for Americans”. You don’t have to read much into that slogan, do you? By the way, this was just your average, everyday racism in 1921. It wasn’t radical. It wasn’t right wing. It just was. Most (white) people at the time probably read that headline and shrugged.
I study history, because it is not the orderly procession of dates and events that we’re led to believe in our history classes. History is messy and complicated and an endlessly fascinating chain of cause and effect. I study it because what happened in the Chicago suburbs in 1921 still matters and affects what’s happening today. This was not an isolated incident relegated to the dusty past – KKK leaflets were distributed anonymously in some Chicago suburbs a few months ago. If you don’t understand what fuels the rise of ignorant idiots like this every so often how can you hope to fight it?
Radio was called “theater of the mind” because the listener had to imagine everything that was happening. That meant, of course, that if was a fight, someone had to make the sound of that fight while the actors performed the dialog.
Take for example, this section from the first chapter of THE DARKNESS KNOWS.
“The well-choreographed struggle began on cue. The organ hummed. The soundman punched a fist into his open palm once, twice while he scuffled his feet through the small tray of gravel in the corner. Graham growled, “Take that!” There was the sound of a single gunshot – a blank fired into the air from a real pistol – then a beat of silence.”
And this is from HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (during a live production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).
“The head soundman opened and closed a metal door on its special stand. It clanged ominously.
Another soundman stood far off in the corner, covering his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound. “Ready!”
The head soundman and his assistant picked the prop muskets off the table and locked them.”
A pause. All was silence in the studio. Vivian looked at Graham, his eyes trained on his script, waiting for the blast. Her eyes flicked to the control room. All were rapt with attention, mouths agape, including the ad man practically on his toes in anticipation.
Then the thunderous sound of rifles firing filled the studio. Vivian flinched, even though they’d been through this scene ad nauseam in the past week.”
Depending on the size and importance of the production there were likely several people at a table off to the side in the studio behind a table full of sound props. They were responsible for anything beyond dialog that was needed for the production: rain, gunshots, doors slamming, footsteps, car engines revving, squealing tires, thunder, wind… use your imagination – the list is endless. Plungers were used to mimic the sound of horse’s hooves slogging through mud. A crackling fire might be made by crinkling cellophane in front of a microphone. Car doors were often the actual doors detached from the car itself and brought into the studio. And believe it or not, real guns were often fired in the studio (as in the excerpt above) to simulate gunshots.
Later on, after recording became popular, they started to use sound effect records for the more unusual or hard to produce sounds.
Here’s a Chevrolet-produced short from 1938 that shows the behind the scenes of how it was done:
You may know that Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named for WWII flying ace Butch O’Hare who was shot down over the Pacific in 1943. What you may not know is that the only reason Butch became a pilot at all was because of his father – lawyer, crook, and known associate of Al Capone.
Edward (Easy Eddie) O’Hare was never the most upstanding of lawyers. He bamboozled a client’s widow out of the patent to those mechanical rabbits that greyhounds chase around the racetrack.
That’s how he made his fortune, and that’s how he met Al Capone. Capone owned a greyhound track outside Chicago. They eventually became associates and business partners (and the greyhound track was turned into Sportsman’s Park for horse racing. Conveniently, Eddie became its president).
Needless to say, the 1920s were a high time for Easy Eddie, that is until the apple of his eye, his eldest son Edward Jr (known as Butch), told Eddie that he wanted to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and become a pilot. Eddie could deny his boy nothing. The problem was that the sitting local congressman needed to nominate Butch to attend the academy, and no congressman in his right mind would nominate the son of a known Capone associate. Not even in Chicago.
What was a father to do? Well, Eddie decided he needed to change his ways. Through a journalist intermediary, he made it clear to the Feds he would give them info on Capone’s organization if they helped him get his son into the Naval Academy. He did – and they did. Butch went to the academy and eventually became a fighter pilot and hero over the Pacific, but Eddie wouldn’t live long enough to witness that. Eddie was gunned down while driving his Lincoln on Ogden Avenue in November 1939. His murder remains technically unsolved, but it’s pretty safe to assume that his double-crossing of The Outfit finally caught up to him.
I’m telling you all of this, because it’s a fascinating story, but also because Easy Eddie O’Hare was the inspiration for Viv’s father, “Easy Artie” Witchell, in HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
So how many over the counter “medicines” could have killed you in the early 20th Century? A lot. I found this amazing ad for Hook’s Pharmacy in Muncie, Indiana (1921) while researching. Take a gander. Recognize any of the products listed?
Not a lot, right? For the most part, I had no clue what these items were. Bombastically vague product names seemed to be in vogue at the time. I looked them all up (because, of course I did) and found that most of those listed are what we consider patent medicines, and they fall into four major categories (potentially deadly ones have an asterisk after the name):
All Purpose Pep and Vigor Restorers:
Botanic Blood Balm – Promised positive and permanent relief from “blood poison,” and to quickly cure “old ulcers, scrofula, eczema, itching skin and blood humors, cancer, festering sores, boils, carbuncles, pimples or offensive eruptions, pains in bones or joints, rheumatism, catarrh, or any blood or skin trouble,” as well as “female weakness” and “hereditary taint.”
Gude’s Peptomangan – To provide a direct supply of minerals; to help build hemoglobin in the blood and stimulate the appetite so that more iron is absorbed from food
Make Man Tablets* – For those who are “nervous, tired, irritable, don’t sleep good, wake up every morning with a bad taste in your mouth and a dull, hot, tired feeling in your head”. Splendid tonic, blood purifier, and nerve strengthener. (the main ingredients were arsenic and strychnine – yay!).
Morse’s Indian Root Pills – Its manufacturer claimed the pills contained herbal ingredients that would help “cleanse the blood,” as “impurity of the blood” was believed to be the cause of all disease.
Wampole’s Phospho Lecithin* – for Nervous Prostration, Nerve Exhaustion, Nervous Excitement, Hysteria, etc. (with strychnine – yay!)
William’s Pink Pills for Pale People – Claimed to cure chorea, referenced frequently in newspaper headlines as “St. Vitus’ Dance,” as well as “locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female.”
Youth Gland – “Cured” extra strain on the gland tissues brought on by sickness, age, worry or overwork.
Laxatives and Digestives
Carlsbad Sprudel Salts – Mineral salts used for gastric irrigation taken by mouth and through enemas
Cascaroyal Pills – Blackburn’s Casca Royal Pills treat the bowels wisely and well, a rational physic and stomachic relieve constipation
Eatonic – For flatulence and bloating
Edward’s Dandelion Pills – “Purely vegetable tonic and cathartic” “For constipation, liver and kidney diseases, scrofulous affections and all diseases of the stomach and bowels”.
Green’s August Flower – Dyspepsia
Pluto Water – strongly laxative natural water product which was very popular in the United States in the early 20th century.
Sal Hepatica – mineral salt laxative that was produced and marketed by Bristol-Myers from its inception in 1887, becoming its first nationally recognized product in 1903, until 1958. When dissolved in water, it was said to reproduce the taste and effect of the natural mineral waters of Bohemia.
Albolene Solid – Facial Cleanser
Canthrox – a granular shampoo marketed to prevent dandruff, falling hair, and graying.
Charles Flesh Food – Beautifier ointment that “builds firm healthy flesh”
Westphal’s Auxiliator – Hair tonic (with a terrible name)
Wyeth’s Sage and Sulphur – Hair tonic that contained sulphur, lead acetate, glycerine, and cayenne pepper (but not sage).
General Weirdness and Outright Quackery
Alkalithia*-Trade name of an effervescent mixture containing lithium (yay!); employed in the rheumatic and gouty
Death Dust – Insecticide (This wins for best name, imo. Surprisingly, it wasn’t deadly to humans since it likely only contained borax and pyrethrum – made from dried chrysanthemums).
Ozomulsion – “Cure” for consumption (tuberculosis) (Right…)
Schiffman’s Asthmador* –To relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms (with belladonna – yay!)
Philadelphia Bird Bitters – Medicine for sick birds – just like it says (???)
Trypsogen Tablets – Diabetes remedy said to contain “the enzyme of the islands of Langerhans with the tryptic and amylolystic ferments of the pancreas” (???)
Vapo Cresoline – Vaporizing lamp supposed to cure “Whooping Cough, Spasmodic Croup, Nasal Catarrh, Colds, Bronchitis, Coughs, Sore Throat, Broncho [sic] Pneumonia, The Paroxysms of Asthma and Hay Fever, The Bronchial Complications of Scarlet Fever and Measles and as an aid in the treatment of Diphtheria and Certain Inflammatory Throat Diseases.” (Of course, it did none of those things.)
If you’re tempted to think of the past as some sort of glorious “simpler” time, chew on this – the first two categories of patent drugs above had flourishing sales due to the poor diet of the time – lots of iron deficiency, anemia, and constipation among the general population. Fun! And several of those “medicines” could outright kill you while they claimed to solve such problems. One in the ad just might kill a character in the 3rd book in my Viv and Charlie Mystery Series. (Of course, I’m not going to tell you which medicine. Where’s the fun in that?)
Patent medicines went the way of the dodo in the late 1930s due to more stringent food and drug acts passed by the US government. It’s for the best, but I still think it’s fascinating all the potentially deadly stuff you could’ve purchased at the local drugstore in 1921. And if you’re like me, it certainly makes knocking off that troublesome character in your latest book a lot easier…
In Book #3 in the Viv & Charlie Mystery Series, I had to have a way for a person to be able to contact another person while that second person is on a train traveling cross country. Was that even possible in 1939? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Telegraphy was a completely wire-dependent method of communication (just like telephones were once upon a time). Wires were strung from telegraph office to telegraph office. Those wires carried the signals that were then translated into words on telegrams. No wire, no office/telegraph operator = no telegram. Ah, but train stations did have telegraph offices. In 1939, you could send a telegram to a train station and have that telegram delivered to a person on a train that stopped at that station as it was making its way cross country. But in order to do that, you not only needed the name and number of the train, the direction of travel, the stop, the time the train stopped at that station, but also the name, and car number of the person traveling that you wanted to reach. Logistically sticky, but possible, yes, and possible is all I need to include in the story.
This a still of a telegram being delivered to a passenger on the famous Santa Fe Super Chief from the 1954 movie, 3 for Bedroom C. (The Super Chief is in my Book #3!)
Most people these days associate telegrams with tragedy – since the only way we’ve seen them represented is in war movies where they have the scene of the mother receiving news of her son’s death by special delivery telegram.
But before WWII, telegrams were commonly used for any cheap long distance communication (good, bad, and neutral news included). Long distance telephone service existed then, but it was crazy expensive. In 1950, a 5-minute call between New York and LA cost $3.70 (That’s $38.07 in 2017 dollars!)
If you’ve read The Darkness Knows you’ll know that Vivian is a daughter of privilege. You’ll see even more evidence of that in the second book in the series, Homicide for the Holidays. You’ll also learn that Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell, is the youngest daughter of a Chicago meatpacking scion (and what could be more late 19th/early 20th century Chicago than a meatpacking dynasty? (But that’s another rabbit hole topic).
Vivian’s mother had wanted her to “come out” on her 18th birthday just as she had. However, times had changed since Julia’s 18th birthday in 1907 and Vivian’s in 1932. Times had changed drastically.
WWI (or The Great War as they called it at the time) happened ushering in the flapper era of the 1920s. Women coming of age in the 1920s (like Vivian) experienced a good deal more freedom than their mothers had. It became acceptable for women to smoke and drink in public, for example, and for single women to have jobs outside the home. Then the stock market crashed in October 1929 throwing the country and world into The Great Depression. There were still wealthy families in the US (the Witchells remained well off during this period), but the vast majority were struggling. Overt expressions of wealth displayed in lavish coming out parties were viewed as more than a little tone deaf – as young Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, found out when she came out in November of 1930.
Her party was held at the Ritz Carlton, and she was skewered in the press for spending $50,000 on flowers alone. Invitees included stars Maurice Chevalier and Rudy Vallee. Other guests included society bigshots with names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Rockefeller.
Clockwise from the upper left: Groucho Marx and Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Dorothy Lamour
I’ve been asked where my interest in the 1930s comes from, and I’ve always been pressed for a concrete answer – until today when it came to me as I was browsing antiques (and agonizing over whether I really had room for that gorgeous floor model Philco radio I found). I can trace almost everything back to the Merrie Melodies cartoon called “Hollywood Steps Out”. I watched hour upon hour of Looney Tunes cartoons as a kid, and I’d probably seen this particular cartoon a dozen times by the time I was ten. I loved it even then. I don’t know why exactly… I didn’t know any of the people being spoofed yet (especially not Sally Rand). But there was something about it that led me to wanting to know who every person in this cartoon was (and if you want to know they’re all listed in this Wikipedia entry). That lead to an interest in 1930s/40s movies and then to 1930s/40s culture, radio, and on and on… ad finitum.
I also loved the cartoon starring Jack Benny, his wife Mary Livingstone, and his sidekick Rochester as mice. It’s not on Youtube, but you can watch “The Mouse that Jack Built” here.