Research Rabbit Hole – All Aboard the Millionaires’ Special

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I spent the weekend in Lake Geneva, WI, and happened to pass the spot where the original train station stood. The location is the most depressing of suburban bank branches now (the railroad ended service to Lake Geneva in the 1960s), but there’s a historical marker out front that mentioned the “Millionaires’ Special”, and I did a little jig of joy. That train appears in the 3rd book in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series! (Vivian’s grandfather was a titan of the meatpacking industry (on par with Armour and Swift) and took the famous train on summer weekends from Chicago up to his estate on Lake Geneva.)

I found a Chicago Tribune article from July 21, 1907 in which an average man (he says he has 45 cents to his name) takes the Millionaires’ Special and describes what he sees. It’s a strange article – most of spent dropping names and tallying the collective worth of the men on board the train. You can read the PDF version of the full article by clicking this link: Forty Millionaires on One Train. But beware, the Chicago Tribune editorial department of 1907 seemed to have quite a tolerance for run-on sentences.

“The 3:45 train to Lake Geneva is a popular one, even on ordinary days, but on Fridays the crush is so great that the road decided upon a train which has been nicknamed the “millionaires’ special.” The regular train, for “common folks” who are not worth more than $100,000 or so, is made up as usual, but it is run as the second section, while a gorgeously equipped train, with one of the fastest racing engines on the road and six parlor cars, is sent out in the lead.
On ordinary days the 3:45 train stops at half a dozen stations, but on Fridays the millionaires’ special is destined for Lake Geneva, and, from its first rush out of the Wells street train shed until it flashes into Lake Geneva it never even hesitates -but flies through towns and cities and hamlets at sixty miles or more an hour. At Lake Geneva, at the head of the lake, a great part of the millionaires alight, and then the millionaires’ special whirls on around to Williams Bay to unload the remainder of its precious human freight.”

I got curious about where exactly (estate-wise) all of the important millionaire’s name dropped in this article were going, so I got out my trusty Lake Geneva: Newport of the West 1870-1920 book and looked them up.

Four of the men mentioned have estates that are still standing:
1. Edward Swift – He was the son of Gustavus Swift founder of Swift meatpacking of “everything but the squeal” fame. He built Villa Hortensia which looks almost the same as it did when built in 1906.

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2. N. W. Harris – He was a banker and founder of what would become Harris Bank. He owned Wadsworth Hall – which is now the Driehaus Estate and has been restored to look as it did when built in 1906.

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3. A. C. Bartlett – He had House in the Woods built through the winter of 1904/1905 under a 3-ring circus tent so it would be ready as a gift for his wife in the spring. It’s still standing and restored to look as it did when built.

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4. Charles Wacker – He was a Chicago brewer and the director of the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. You may recognize his name from Wacker Drive. He built Fairlawn in 1894. It still exists as a private residence and looks as it did when built.

Fairlawn
Two that are gone, but still interesting:
1. John J. Mitchell – He was the dean of Chicago Bankers. He owned Ceylon Court in 1907. Ceylon Court is also mentioned in Book 3. It was actually the Ceylon Pavilion from the 1893 Colombian Exposition – disassembled and reassembled in Lake Geneva and converted to a private residence. It was torn down in the 1950s.

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2. Harry G. Selfridge – He was a retail magnate and founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. You may know him from the fictionalized portrayal of him in the PBS show, Mr. Selfridge. He built Harrose Hall in mock Tudor style complete with large greenhouses and extensive rose gardens. Unfortunately, it was razed in 1975.

Harrose Hall Lake Geneva

The Millionaires’ Special may be long gone, but lest you think Lake Geneva’s days of pricy estates are long past – I saw listing in the window of a realtor this weekend for a lakefront property going for a cool $18.5 million.

What Do the Characters in The Darkness Knows Look Like? (To Me Anyway)

I thought I’d share with you what I pictured when writing The Darkness Knows. I had actual reference images for the major characters (below). You’ll notice they’re all actors/actresses of the late 1930s. I think because writing the book was like writing a 1930s era movie for me. It’s still difficult for me to imagine present day actors playing these parts.

Viv

Vivian is definitely Priscilla Lane for me (except with strawberry blonde hair). She has a sort of wholesome glamour. You may know Priscilla from Arsenic and Old Lace – her biggest hit co-starring opposite Cary Grant.

Charlie (Randolph Scott)

Charlie is a mixture of two actors for me: Randolph Scott (he had a huge career in cowboy movies well into the 1950s. Vivian even tells Charlie he looks like Randolph Scott when they’re dressed up as cowboys for the masquerade.)

Charlie (Douglas Fairbanks Jr)

and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – do I need to elaborate on this one?

Graham (Robert Taylor)

Graham is Robert Taylor to me – dark and suavely handsome – almost pretty. That hair! That cleft!

Imogene (Una Merkel)

Imogene is the sassy movie sidekick Una Merkel. She’s cute as a button and smart as a whip.

MrHart (John Barrymore)2

Mr. Hart is John Barrymore. Still handsome in his late 50s, but on the downward slide– a bit like Mr. Hart.

I do not have an actress in mind for Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell. I really just picture her as an older, more rigid Vivian.

Who did you picture when you read the book? Any present day actors?

Research Rabbit Hole – I Remember Prohibition

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How could a mystery series that takes place in 1930s Chicago not at least make one reference (or ten) to that town’s infamous reputation from Prohibition? Prohibition and you-know-who* do come into play in Book #2 of the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, and as usual, I found myself spending a lot of time trolling the archives of The Chicago Tribune for research.

I ran across a series of retrospective articles that ran in early 1951 written by veteran reporter Jim Doherty**. He was a reporter with The Tribune during Prohibition, and in 1951 was reminiscing about events only about 20 years in the past for him. That’s a veritable gold mine for a historical fiction author (or just a history nerd that enjoys squinting at old newspapers, like myself). I thought I’d share them here, because these articles don’t seem to exist in a collected form (or anywhere else for that matter).

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Booze, Bootleggers, and Bullets (Feb 4, 1951)

The First Dry Law Raids (Feb 11, 1951)

The $100,000 Hi-Jacking (Feb 18, 1951)

The Shooting of Dion O’Banion (Feb 25, 1951)

Texas Guinan Queen of Whoopee (March 4, 1951)

Portrait of a Gangster Ted Newberry (March 11, 1951)

Life for a Pint (March 18, 1951)

“Here’s How!” in the Goats’ Nest! (March 25, 1951)

*Al Capone King of the Hoodlums (April 1, 1951)

*How Capone Ruled Chicago (April 8, 1951)

*Curtains for Capone! (April 15, 1951)

Big Bill Thompson (April 29, 1951)

End of an Era: The Last Days of Big Bill (May 6, 1951)

**About the Author – From the very first article in the series (Feb 4, 1951)
James Doherty became a newspaper reporter in 1919, shortly after he left the army. Following an apprenticeship of six weeks as a reporter for the City News bureau, he joined the staff of The Tribune. He was soon in the midst of a fabulous reportorial career, which he will describe in this series of articles. Before entering the army, “Jim” Doherty had been deputy clerk of the Juvenile court and deputy clerk of the Criminal court and he had been an aldermanic candidate. His father was a police lieutenant and acting captain. Jim has five brothers, all newspapermen. Jim Doherty has specialized on reporting crime and politics for The Tribune. He helped to form the Crime Prevention bureau, a cooperative unit of several law enforcement group. He is a bachelor.
(He died in 1961.)

My TV Debut!

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).

My Interview on the Nostalgia Digest Podcast

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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.

Podcasts – True Crime Edition

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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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Someone Knows Something – First season covers the disappearance of a young boy in 1970s Canada. Second season has just started.
  5. 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.
  6. Stranglers – Covers the Boston Strangler murders in the early 1960s
  7. Up and Vanished – Covers the unsolved disappearance of a young former beauty queen and teacher in GA in the early 2000s.
  8. Criminal – An anthology series that covers a different story every episode – usually. The two episodes about Melinda are fascinating.
  9. Already Gone – Another anthology series that discusses older (and very cold) missing and murdered cases.

Research Rabbit Hole – Using the Telephone

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.

Radio Guide Inspiration (Thanks, Henry Grimm)

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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).

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The character of Little Sammy Evans was inspired by this feature story in the March 19, 1938 edition.

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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.

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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. ;))

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