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.
Welcome to what may become a semi-regular feature here. Often I find myself getting hung up on a tiny historical detail that pops up while I’m writing. I go to Google thinking I’ll find a quick answer… then 2 hours later I’ll look up and realize a huge chunk of time has been lost researching something I didn’t really need to research in the first place. The problem then is that I find myself with all of this interesting knowledge that doesn’t really fit in any of my books, and I just have to share it with somebody. So that’s you, lucky reader! For example, I found myself with a burning desire to know about marriage laws and the logistics of how an amorous couple from Chicago would go about eloping in 1939. (This relates to two sentences in book 3, by the way, and it’s taken hours of research to find the answer I was looking for. And no, I don’t think sharing that tidbit with you is a spoiler – in case you’re worried.)
If any of you read Regency romances you’re probably familiar with the oft-used trope of a couple running off to Gretna Green, Scotland to elope. (For those of you not familiar, Scotland had very lax marriage laws in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries and Gretna Green was right over the border. So English couples could dash off and be married quickly – not like in England where there were stricter laws in place.) And I think we’ve all seen the old movies or TV shows where a couple hauls a justice of the peace out off bed in the middle of the night to marry them… I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered if that actually happened. (Amazingly, it could have.)
Apparently, Kenosha, WI (very near where I currently live) was the Gretna Green for Chicago in the late 19th century or at least in 1894, according to this newspaper article below. Then Wisconsin added a residency requirement for a marriage certificate. Good-bye, quickie Wisconsin weddings.
Waukegan, IL seemed to be lobbying to become the Gretna Green for Chicago residents after this. No offense, Waukeganites, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to honeymoon there like this article asserts. But things were different in 1899, I suppose.
During Prohibition many states passed “gin marriage” laws to install a waiting period after obtaining the marriage license before the ceremony itself could go ahead – presumably so the participants had time to sober up and think about whether marriage was really the best idea. A “hygienic marriage law” was also passed in many states, including Illinois in 1937, meaning that couples needed to prove they didn’t have venereal disease (syphilis, in particular) to obtain a marriage license. No surprise that applications for marriage licenses plummeted in Cook County shortly thereafter. That’s because couples were flocking the roughly 40 miles east to Crown Point, IN* to elope since Indiana was one of the few neighboring states that still had very relaxed marriage laws (The only law in force there at the time was that you could not be a minor and obtain a marriage license. I guess everything else was fair game?)
The verdict? After all of this research, I found that the answer to my original question was, sadly, no. A couple from Chicago would not likely have run off to a local Gretna Green to get married on the spur of the moment in 1939. It seems Crown Point had quite a booming business in elopements for most of the first part of the 20th century – until January 1938, that is, when Indiana stopped issuing marriage licenses to women who did not reside in the Indiana county in question. Indiana’s own hygienic marriage law soon went into effect shutting down the “marriage mills” for good. This article from January 1909 is an interesting read about the quickie marriage business there when it was still booming.
There were other places a Chicago couple in love could have gone to get hitched quickly in 1939 – Missouri, for example, but that was quite a drive over bumpy and unreliable roads. Might as well get your blood test and go through the waiting period and not have to travel across the entire state suffering potholes, am I right?
P.S. After I did all of this research I came upon this Post-Tribune article from June of this year that uses almost exactly the same source info. Good thing I didn’t find it first. That would have ruined all my fun. 🙂
*Incidentally, Crown Point, IN is the home of the “escape proof” Lake County Jail that John Dillinger broke out of in 1934 using a hand-carved wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. But to go into that would be a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole, wouldn’t it… ?
I thought I’d share a little about Book 2 in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, since I’ve been asked about it a lot recently. (It’s great to hear that people are excited for #2, by the way!). DISTURB NOT THE DEAD, comes out in October 2017. It’s set about two months after the events of the first book – at Christmastime 1938. Vivian stumbles upon something that flips everything she thought she knew about her beloved (and now deceased) father on its head. Expect more radio station intrigue (especially with Vivian’s star on the rise) and more historic Chicago detail woven throughout. And of course, Charlie is roped in to help Vivian get to the bottom of everything.
I was just told last week that Sourcebooks is working on the cover for #2 as we speak (using the same fabulous artist that created the cover for THE DARKNESS KNOWS, Coco Masuda). I can’t wait to see it! (And as soon as I see it I’ll be sure to share it here with all of you!)
The first chapter of DISTURB NOT THE DEAD actually appears at the end of THE DARKNESS KNOWS and opens on Vivian lackadaisically decorating the Christmas tree with her younger brother, Everett. Check there for a teaser of what’s in store for Vivian (and Charlie and Graham and everyone else)… and here’s the first paragraph of the book’s synopsis. (To share any more of it would give the story away, and I wouldn’t want to do that!)
Rising radio star, VIVIAN WITCHELL, finds an envelope of cash and a threatening note in her dead father’s desk during the family Christmas party. Arthur Witchell, once a prominent Chicago attorney, has been dead for almost eight years. But something tells Vivian there’s something to this discovery and more to her father than she’d thought possible – especially when the money and the note disappear from the locked desk drawer. Someone had been threatening her father’s life shortly before he died, and someone wants to stop Vivian from finding out about that threat now.
You can follow my Pinterest board for DISTURB NOT THE DEAD if you’d like a little peak into the inspiration behind the story including 30s fashions, vintage Chicago photos, and popular music of the period. It was so fun “visiting” Chicago at Christmas in 1938. I also have a relatively new Instagram account where I’ve started sharing ephemera from my (alarming large) collection of vintage magazines.
I had a wonderful time talking Chicago historical mysteries with D.M. Pirrone and J. Bard-Collins at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL last Friday. (Thanks to Anderson’s and thanks to Emily Clark Victorson of Allium Press for moderating!)
If you’re anywhere near Naperville, IL grab yourself a signed copy of The Darkness Knows!
I love the era my books are set in – the fashions, the music, the movies, etc. I love it, but I also think that, though the 1930s are a lovely place to visit, I most definitely wouldn’t want to live there. I’ve been doing research on Book #3 in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, and I found all of the following ads in ONE magazine from June 1939. It was tough to be a woman then (and especially a woman of any color/creed other than generic WASP). Basically, a woman’s sole goal then boiled down to get a man and keep him happy. And keeping him happy was, apparently, the hard part.
If you don’t have a husband it’s probably because you stink.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to have snagged a man… But then why has your husband giving you the bums rush lately? And why are the neighborhood ladies snickering behind their hands when you walk by? Well, it’s because you stink and you’re dirty, of course.
(If you’re having trouble decoding that Lysol ad, here’s what women were expected to do with Lysol back then. Yes, that’s the very same Lysol you spray on your toilet today as a disinfectant.)
Or perhaps your husband is unhappy and is about to leave you because not only are you dirty and you stink, but you are underweight and moody (probably from all that laundry you’ve been doing).
Women are still told through ads that we aren’t good enough, of course. But I’d like to think it’s done today in a subtler and less man-centric way. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself…
*Apologies to Tammy Wynette. And you reader, because now you have that song stuck in your head.