Research Rabbit Hole – I Remember Prohibition

prohibition4

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.)

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)

radioguides1938

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).

radiotattler

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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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Research Rabbit Hole – Ghosting

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).

driverslicense1938ohio

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:

  1. Find a deceased person of your gender who would be about your age had they lived.
  2. Make sure they died before being issued a SSN.
  3. Make sure there weren’t any close living relatives of that person that would know you aren’t Uncle Joe or Cousin Sally.
  4. Acquire the birth certificate of that dead person.
  5. Use that birth certificate to acquire other means of ID as necessary.
  6. 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…

 

 

Halloween Costumes – 1938 Style

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.

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Vivian’s friend Imogene is dressed as Maid Marion from the 1938 movie version of Robin Hood (played by Olivia de Havilland).

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Imogene’s boyfriend George and Graham (much to George’s chagrin) are both dressed as Robin Hood himself (as played by Errol Flynn).

robin-hood

Head of the radio station, Mr. Hart, is dressed as another famous Errol Flynn role – the pirate, Captain Blood.

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.)

snow-white

Station Engineer, Morty Nickerson, is dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White.

prince-charming-costume

Announcer, Bill Purdy, is The Lone Ranger – a radio hit since 1933 and appearing in movie serials starting in 1938.

lone-ranger

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?

superman

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.)

jester_danny-kaye

 

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.

How would the characters in “The Darkness Knows” have sounded?

hepburn-chicken

 

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 short video from How Stuff Works explains it perfectly.

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.

Research Rabbit Hole – Eloping in Chicago

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.

kenosha_gretnagreen1894

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.

waukegan_gretnagreen_1899

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.

crownpoint_gretnagreen1909

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?

Ah, romance.

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… ?

Sometimes It’s Hard to be a Woman*

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.

Colgate

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.

Lux

Lifebuoy

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Lysol_OneNeglect

(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).

Ironized Yeast

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.

In Case You Missed Them

I’ve recently guested on some lovely blogs and thought I’d share those links here.

I wrote about “Writing a Woman Sleuth” on the History From a Woman’s Perspective blog.

I discussed research and “Writing an Authentic Historical Mystery” for the Recipe for Murder blog.

And finally, I related a favorite anecdote from my travels and The Magic of Coincidence (or Avoiding Jail Time in Rome) on the Dear Reader blog.

And here’s a bonus photo of THE DARKNESS KNOWS awaiting prospective readers on the New Arrivals table at my local Barnes & Noble (just because). Doesn’t it look pretty?

On the Shelf at BandN