And I have a HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS Pinterest board! If you’d like to peruse what the holidays looked and sounded like in late 1930s Chicago – go have a look. There’s also some gorgeous 1930s fashion, Chicago locations – and some hints about some pop culture mentioned in the book (I’m lookin at you, Rudolph Valentino).
I first heard the original War of the Worlds broadcast in Sister Barbara Jean’s 8th grade reading class. The first ten minutes or so gave me goose bumps and sparked my love of old time radio. It made such an impression on me that I set my first mystery, The Darkness Knows, in October 1938 to coincide with the original Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast on October 30, 1938 (a character is actually listening to the live broadcast near the end of the book).
Do yourself a favor and listen to the original (It’s brilliant and so far ahead of its time.):
One of my current favorite radio shows, Radiolab, did a fascinating episode around the psychology of the broadcast – why it worked so well and what happened when it was repeated (spoiler alert – bad things): Radiolab War of the Worlds Live Episode
There’s also a PBS documentary on the subject: American Experience War of the Worlds
Driving back to Chicago this past week by husband mentioned that Al Capone’s final resting place is just a few hundred feet off of the highway on our route home. Al plays a role in Homicide for the Holidays (and a role in my life just by my living in Chicago), so I agreed to stop and have a look. Actually, Mt. Carmel Cemetery on the west side of the city is the final resting place of several infamous locals. And if you’re wondering if Google really does have everything covered then wonder no more, because this map exists, people…
Al’s grave is actually right inside the entrance (along with his brothers Ralph and Frank). As I stepped out to take a closer look (and snap this photo) a white minivan drove by very slowly toward the exit, and I heard the driver hiss/growl in my direction, “He was a MURDERER.” Chicagoans have strong feelings about the man even after all this time. I assume the driver’s intent was to shame me for treating the grave like a tourist destination, but as you can see… I’m not the first.
Oddly enough, just down the road are two of the men that Capone has been rumored to have had killed during his reign. (Allegedly, because he’s only suspected of being involved with their murders or ordering their hits. He was never convicted of anything like that in his lifetime – not even arrested.) First is Dean O’Banion, the leader of the north side gang, who was gunned down in his flower shop in November 1924 after crossing Capone’s predecessor as head of the south side gang, Johnny Torrio. Gangster funerals in the early 1920s were massive affairs. Thousands attended O’Banion’s funeral. Why is there a quarter on his grave marker? Good question. I looked it up.*
Just a few feet away from O’Banion’s grave is the mausoleum of Hymie Weiss. Hymie (real name Henry Earl J. Wojciechowski) was Dean’s successor as leader of the north side gang. Hymie was a hothead and he didn’t last long. He was gunned down on the street in front of Holy Name Cathedral (and right across from Dean’s murder spot, Schofield’s Flowers) in the fall of 1926. There are supposedly still bullet holes in the stone of the cathedral from the tommy guns. Someone put their artist’s rendering of Hymie’s mugshot in the gate. There are also what look to be dried palm fronds from Palm Sunday.
Another of Dean and Hymie’s associates, Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci, is around the corner, buried in a $10,000 silver casket in his own mausoleum. He was known as a prankster and he made the papers in September 1922 for jumping the gap in the rising Michigan Ave bridge to elude police. But he couldn’t escape the police forever – he was killed in the back of a squad car in April 1927. We drove past the mausoleum and noticed the lovely stained glass window inside, but I didn’t make the connection to him, because the outside bears his real last name, D’Ambrosio. So no picture.
The Bloody Gennas are also buried at Mt. Carmel in elaborate mausoleums located between Capone and O’Banion. (True to their nickname, all met bloody ends related to crime and Capone.) Also interred here is Capone’s hitman “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (who met his early end in a bowling alley).
If any of this interests you, I highly recommend the book Guns and Roses: The Untold Story of Dean O’Banion, Chicago’s Big Shot Before Al Capone by Rose Keefe. It seems to be out of print, but you might be able to find a copy in the library.
If you still aren’t convinced that Chicago was a crazy place in the 1920s, I present this graphic from the Chicago Tribune (updated daily in 1924) tracking deaths in the city due to Autos, Guns, and Moonshine. This one is from March 14, 1924.
The last “celebrity” I visited is unrelated to crime but she is infamous – in Chicago anyway. Julia Buccola Petta, The Italian Bride, died in childbirth and was buried along with her stillborn son. The legend goes that her mother began having dreams that her daughter was telling her she was still alive. The mother had the body exhumed six years later and Julia’s body appeared to be completely uncorrupted. It was apparently so amazing that they took a picture of it and put on her gravestone after they reburied her and had a statue commissioned of her in her wedding dress. It’s pretty creepy, to be honest.
*By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he was killed, eh? Dean O’Banion was never in the military and anyone that had been with him at the time of his death would be long dead. A little role playing by someone touring the graves perhaps? People get weird about this stuff – excluding yours truly of course.
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 guess I wasn’t the only one shocked by this, because there was a follow-up about this 1921 event in the Chicago Tribune in 2015.
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?
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!)
Western Union was the most popular company and they charged the sender by the word, so writing a telegram was an art unto itself. Here’s a whole Telegram writing guideline from 1928 if you really want to get into the weeds.
And here’s an extra video of a telegram delivery man doing tricks on his route just for fun. Enjoy.
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.
She looks ecstatic, doesn’t she?
Barbara Hutton became known as “The Poor Little Rich Girl” (and “Rich Bitch” to some) and went on to marry 7 times – all unhappily. Among her husbands were a Danish count, a Russian prince, and Cary Grant. Yes, that Cary Grant (and there’s another rabbit hole…)
All of this to say, that Vivian was staunchly against having her own coming out party. I found this Chicago Tribune article from 1974 that articulates Vivian’s feelings on the matter perfectly. Vivian never did have one – and to find out why you’ll have to read Homicide for the Holidays.
One of the things that surprised me when I started researching Chicago in the 1930s was the ubiquity of streetcars They’ve disappeared from the city entirely since – gradually phased out by buses during the 1950s.
That’s a photo of streetcars operating on State Street at Christmastime in the late 1930s/early 1940s. You can see that the passengers waited and boarded from that island-like space in the middle of the north and southbound lanes. Seems awfully dangerous to me and judging from this silent safety film from the early 1930s… it was.
Vivian rides the streetcar several times in the first two books in the series – mostly in book two. A one-way trip cost 7 cents in 1938. Oncoming passengers entered from the back and paid cash to ride – the conductor at the back wore a change belt. The seats inside were rattan and the interior was sparsely heated and I imagine it was terribly drafty in the winter and incredibly stuffy in the summer. The driver often shoved papers between the bell and the clacker above his head to mute the constant dinging on the inside of the car (and save his sanity, I assume). I found a great first-hand account of riding a Chicago streetcar of this period in an old edition of Nostalgia Digest. You can read it here if you like: Streetcar Info.
I just found this home movie that shows Chicago in 1937 and had to share. It starts at a train station (possibly Dearborn Station?) then shows State Street. Roman Navarro was appearing in person at the State Lake Theater? What I wouldn’t give to see that. 🙂 I was especially excited to see the bustling street scene that starts at 1:50 that showcases the marquee of the Chicago Theater and the L rumbling behind it. I have a scene in Homicide for the Holidays that happens in that very spot. After that, it moves on to Michigan Avenue (at the 2:53 mark) and the camera pans down the street to the Art Institute. Charlie and Viv drive this very route in The Darkness Knows!
Here’s some home movie footage of Wrigley Field in 1938 – also mentioned in The Darkness Knows.
Winter scenes from 1937 – those kids are so darn cute.
This is a Pathé Newsreel – so not a home movie, but it’s too fun not to share. It’s the “Windy City” at its literal finest in 1938. This appears to be about the time Homicide for the Holidays is set – December 1938.