An UnCivil War

storyboard

My “trick” for multiple viewpoint novels is to make a storyboard. This one is part one of my novel.

Dear Readers,

As my World War Two novel goes through the final edits and I decide whether to publish traditionally or not, I have been working on the background for my next novel. The research for it was done years ago, so I’m lucky in that regard. So Others May Live did not start out as a National Novel Writing Month project, but I did finish it during November of 2017. Going into NaNoWriMo 2018, I thought it might be nice to start a novel and we’ll see where it leads. I have my character sketches and I have made my storyboards for the novel. I gained enough confidence in writing So Others May Live to attempt another multi-viewpoint novel. It is set in Canada and New York in the summer and fall of 1864. The outline is done. The first chapter written. Character sketches drawn up. And I have my music playlist to go along with my writing, so I’m about as ready as one can be.

I’ll not say too much else about the plot at the moment, but I will say that it is a Civil War novel that does not take place on the battlefield, or at least not on the traditional battlefields. You’ll find no tales of battlefields and brigades, but rather of men and women torn by conflicting ideals, shifting loyalties, and uncertain futures. There are no bands, bugles, and bags of glory. Instead, you get a glimpse of the “dirty war”; a war fought in the shadows by men of questionable repute pursued by lawmen who in another time might have been criminals themselves. You’ll find no Gettysburgs or Shilohs within its pages.

I’m a HUGE fan of the writer John Jakes. He is the Godfather of historical fiction. His North and South trilogy is masterful as is his American Bicentennial series. Not only can he craft a good story, but you can learn quite a bit of history from him too. In the Author’s Note at the end of Love and War, the second book of the North and South trilogy, he said that he kept a sign over his writing desk whilst working on it which said “Not Gettysburg Again!” Though his characters are, of course, involved in the war, the book focuses on little known or little written about aspects of it like the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. I took this to heart myself and strove to do the same.

notes

This is how I organize the research.

The Civil War is my first love, it was only later that I developed my affinity for redheads. I’ve always known that I would write a Civil War novel. It’s as inevitable as sunrise tomorrow. My love of the Civil War comes from one of my great-grandmothers. She was born in 1898, a mere thirty-three years after the end of the War. Incidentally, I was born in 1978, thirty-three years after the end of World War Two. Just as I spent my childhood around World War Two veterans like my grandfathers, she spent hers surrounded by Civil War veterans. Both of her grandfathers, their brothers, and her grandmothers’ brothers all fought in the War. She was very interested in it as a child and they told her their stories, which she then passed on to me. As a teenager, she danced with elderly veterans at reunions. Hearing about the Civil War from a person who talked to veterans herself is an experience I’ll never forget. When you think about it, the 1860s weren’t really all that long ago. We are only a few generations removed from it.

The Civil War was the American Iliad. Perhaps that is why it still captivates so many people. I studied the War in college and graduate school. I spent 16 years as a Civil War reenactor. I even helped edit a published volume of correspondence from Jefferson Davis. I could, if I desired, call myself a Civil War expert. But I do not like terms like “expert” because, though my Civil War knowledge could fill many volumes, there is always more for me to learn. And there is always more for me to write.

As a child, I looked on the Civil War as a time of glory and great feats of heroism. Sure, the war did create many a hero. But there is no glory in seeing a friend decapitated by a cannonball, or listening to the screams of wounded comrades. There is no glory in dying from dysentery or undergoing an amputation. To write or talk about the war, we must tell it as it was, not as we wish it was. That is the obligation of both the historian and the novelist.

So until next time, Dear Readers, double canister and give them hell!

L.H.

 

City of Fire Excerpt

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

Here is an excerpt from my latest: City of Fire. There are four main characters: Patrick, Michael, Molly, and Thomas. This is your introduction to Patrick, a fire laddie in the Five Points during the summer of 1864.

The fire bells rang in the distance as Patrick McMahon hurried down Bayard Street. He smelled faint traces of smoke in the air, but New York City in the summertime presented far more odors for the discriminating nose than mere smoke. Raw sewage, rotting food, decomposing animal corpses, and unwashed bodies all combined to assault the unaccustomed visitor with a gag inducing smell. Patrick turned north up Mott Street past Brigid McCarthy’s brothel. He tipped his hat to three of her employees as they lounged near the front door before ducking down an alley. As he emerged on Elizabeth Street, the doors to the station which housed Hibernia Steam Engine 14 were open.

“Bout time you joined us, lad,” Captain Tommy Flaherty said, “We’d sure hate to start without ya.”

“I doubt that,” Patrick said as he pulled off his coat and grabbed his leather helmet from a rack near the door. Engine 14 was housed in a simple two story wood frame building. The steam engine and house cart occupied the ground floor. Spartan living quarters upstairs provided the firemen with a place to stay. Volunteers still provided the fire protection for the citizens of New York, but many of them found themselves in want of a job as often as not, and the station gave them a warmer place to sleep than the streets. Several other men entered the station and took up their places.

Captain Flaherty hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and sighed.

“Well, boyos, looks like a small crew today. Let’s get to it then.”

Patrick took up his spot in front of the engine and took up the running line. Unlike other large cities who converted to horse drawn engines, the firemen in New York City still pulled their engines, hose carts, and ladder trucks through the streets by hand. It was both a source of amusement and consternation to the citizens.

“Look lively, now!” Flaherty called out as they slowly pulled the engine through the wooden doors and out onto the street. The hose cart followed behind them. They made their way down Elizabeth Street, past the Bowery Theater. Patrick saw a thin cloud of smoke in the distance. A large crowd clogged the intersection at Bayard Street and the men slowed.

“Move outta da way!” Captain Flaherty shouted through his brass speaking trumpet. “We’ve a fire to get to. Can’t ya see it? Ya think we’re just after a bit of exercise? Move or we’ll run ya down!”

The crowd parted, but with no real sense of urgency. Fires were a frequent occurrence in Lower Manhattan. The locals gave scant notice to the fire laddies as they rushed their engines back and forth.

“If the Red Sea parted this slow, those poor Hebrews would still be prisoners of the Pharaoh,” Patrick said to the fireman ahead of him on the running line. As soon as the crowd gave way, they turned onto Bayard Street and hurried towards Bowery Boulevard.

“Whose district is this?” Patrick asked to no one in particular.

“Don’t know,” one of his companions said, “They rang the bells for the 14th, 6th, and 4th Wards. Could be on the boundary.”

Lookouts posted in bell towers throughout the city had the job of watching for fire, day or night. They rang the bells to alert each district of a fire. Four rings for the 4th Ward. Fourteen rings for the 14th Ward. If the lookouts could not determine the exact location, they rang each possible district. In the past, this led to bitter fights between members of rival fire companies over who had the “right” to put out a fire. Those fights had become a thing of the past. The war depleted the manpower of the volunteer fire companies who all struggled to turn out a full crew in this fourth summer of the conflict.

Sweat trickled down his face and stung his eyes as Patrick studied the men around him. So many new faces now, he thought. The old boys all gone. Fredericksburg. Antietam. Gettysburg. How many have we lost? And me own brother. Dead at Bull Run. And the damn riots last year. Lost more there. At the hands of our own people, by God! The whole damn world is falling apart and all we do is pick up the pieces.

Two blocks up Bowery Boulevard, Patrick caught sight of the building. A shop occupied the first floor, with fire showing from an upstairs window. The second floor no doubt contained living quarters for the shopkeeper. In the dry heat of summer, embers from the fire might catch the roofs of adjacent building on fire.

“Hydrant!”

Patrick looked over and saw one of the young boys who served as a runner for the company waving frantically from the nearest fire hydrant.

“Close enough boyos,” Flaherty said as he appraised the fire scene with his hands on his hips. “We beat the 4th Ward to their own fire, by Jove!”

In less than a minute, the firemen connected the hose to the hydrant and ran it to the coupling of their steam engine, which sported a large green shamrock painted on the side. Patrick grabbed another hose off the cart and attached it to the other side of the engine.

“Pressure’s up!”

Patrick opened the brass nozzle and directed the stream of water at the upstairs window. The fire danced away from the water and retreated into the room, only to reemerge seconds later, a bit larger and angrier. With another man behind him on the house, Patrick shuffled a few steps forward, careful to keep the water aimed in the window. He felt a tug at his arm. He glanced down and saw a small, dark haired man with a soot stained face gesturing towards the building.

“I know it’s on fire,” Patrick said. “Now get away and let me work.”

“My vife!” the man yelled in a thick, German accent. “She’s inside.”

Patrick passed the nozzle to the man behind him and walked over to the engine. He grabbed an ax and yelled over to Captain Flaherty, “There’s someone inside. I’m goin’ in.”

“Wait! You can’t!” Flaherty answered, but Patrick was already making his way through the door. The thick, black smoke left a small gap of around two feet just above the floor. Patrick pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, dipped it in a puddle of water, and tied it around his mouth and nose. The heat drew ever bit of moisture out of his body and soaked his clothing with sweat, which then began to steam.

“Can anyone hear me?” he yelled as he crawled deeper into the shop. The crackling roar of burning wood was the only reply. His ears burned as he crawled along on his stomach, sweeping his ax back and forth in front of him. The dense smoke layer moved closer to the floor. The ax hit something solid. Patrick felt it with his hands. A counter. With his right shoulder tucked against the wood, Patrick moved until it ended and then turned to go down the other side. About midway down, he ran into something human.

By feel, Patrick determined the victim to be female and still alive. He pulled the handkerchief from around his face and tied it around the woman’s. With his right hand, Patrick felt around for his pocket where he kept a rescue rope. He threaded it across the woman’s chest and under her armpits so he could drag her out. Then he heaved with all his might. For fuck’s sake! Why is it only the heavy one’s who get stuck?

The smoke darkened. Patrick lay on his back and pulled with as much strength as he could muster. He felt the body slide a short distance. He moved a few feet and pulled again. Up ahead, a small sliver of light shone through the blackness. Patrick wasn’t sure if it was the door or not, but as it was the only landmark, he made for it. Overhead, the floor creaked with a sound that told him it would buckle soon. If it ain’t the door, we’re both dead, Patrick thought as he dragged the woman. Four feet. Three feet. Two feet.

“There he is!”

Patrick felt hands grab him and pull him out onto the street and away from the building. Men half dragged, half carried him across the street and deposited him on the porch of a small saloon. A loud crash resounded from the building as the second floor collapsed onto the first in a shower of smoke, sparks, and flames. Fresh air filled his lungs and he sucked it in with great gasps. A wave of nausea overcame him and he bent over and vomited most of what he’d eaten the past few days onto the sidewalk. Captain Flaherty wisely stood out of splatter range, and then approached with a flask in his hand.

“Here you go, boyo,” he said. “Drink this. It’ll take the sting outta da smoke.”

Patrick took a long swig and felt the burn all the way into his stomach. As soon as the whiskey hit his stomach, it came back up along with some bile.

“How is she?’ he asked, his voice a mere croak.

“The one you pulled out?” Flaherty asked. “She was dead when you got her outside.”

“But…” Patrick protested. “But…..she was alive inside. That’s why I brung her out.”

“Well,” Flaherty said, “she’s among the departed now, lad. It was a gallant effort, but a damn fool thing to do.”

“So you always say,” Patrick replied. Before the war, Patrick and his older brother Seamus both belonged to the company. They had plenty of scrapes and close calls over the years. There ain’t a fire that can touch us, lad. That’s what Seamus always said. And right he was. It wasn’t a fire that got him, but a load of Confederate canister at Bull Run what done him in.

“Take some water.”

A voice brought Patrick’s mind back from the battlefields of Virginia. His eyes focused on a young woman who stood in front of him. She held a tin cup in her hands and extended it towards him.

“Thank you,” Patrick gapsed. “Maybe I can keep this down.”

He drained it in one gulp and handed it back. He studied the young woman for a moment. Red hair. Green eyes. She had a familiar air about her, like maybe he’d seen her around before, but his mind failed to recall where.

“Is there something you’d like to ask me? Or do you always stare at people like that?”

Patrick blinked, “I’m sorry. It’s only that you look familiar. Have I seen you before?”

She laughed.

“Did I say something amusing, then?” Patrick asked as red crept up his neck.

“Oh sure,” she said, “You’ve probably seen me before. But you won’t admit where.”

“Surely it was at Mass,” Patrick offered.

She laughed again, turned, and began to walk away.

“Wait!” Patrick called out. “Could I ask your name at least?”

“Molly,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared around the corner.

Flaherty sat down next to Patrick and wrapped a meaty arm around Patrick’s shoulders.

“I know where she lives, lad,” Flaherty said. “If ya care to pay her a visit.”

“And where might that be,” Patrick asked.

“At the corner of Bayard and Mott. She’s one o’ Miss McCarthy’s gals. If’n ya pay her a visit, mebbe she’ll give you a fireman’s discount.”

Flaherty erupted in laughter as he pounded Patrick on the back in time with his loud guffaws.

“I’m sure you’ve provided Miss McCarthy with plenty of financial support over the years, Captain,” Patrick said.

“That I have, lad,” Flaherty said. “That I have. Just don’t let the missus find out.”

Flaherty got up and walked away to give directions to the firemen. Patrick remained on the porch and watched as two men sprayed a house back and forth across the top of the debris pile which remained of the shop while another engine, Americus Number 6 wet down the exposures of the wooden building next door. The white tiger on the side of their steam engine was well known to everyone in Manhattan. They were Tweed’s boys, and a good company. A spasm seized his chest as his lungs revolted against his forced ingestion of smoke. Patrick coughed and spit up a great glob of black phlegm onto the wooden sidewalk. I’m useless for this fire now, he thought. May as well go back to the fire house. The men would have to remain on the scene for at least an hour to make sure the fire did not rekindle and that the embers caused no other fires. No one wanted the notoriety associated with companies who had to return to the same fire a second or third time.

Flaherty nodded when Patrick asked to be excused from the scene. The crowd gave way in front of him. A few of the civilians gave him a strong clap on the back as he threaded his way towards Bayard Street. He hoped to get back to the station and have a lie down to ease the smoke headache which pounded at his temples like a mallet. But when he reached Elizabeth Street, Patrick kept walking. He did not stop until he found himself outside the ornate wooden building on the corner of Mott and Bayard. He studied the sign above the door which read McCarthy’s.

City of Fire

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

For those who have been following me for the past year, you no doubt know of my novel which was recently completed. For those of you who are new to the site, you can read an excerpt from it here.  So what is next on the agenda for me? Writing wise, that is. Well, the completed novel will go on a shelf for four to six months, long enough for me to basically forget about it. After enough time passes, I’ll re-visit it and read through it with fresh eyes so that I can correct the myriad of mistakes it no doubt contains, some plot, some continuity, some character development, and far more grammatical ones. This does not mean I will do no writing in between now and then. Nay! Quite the contrary! I’m now at work on another novel, this one set in New York City during the Civil War.

Here is the teaser:

A story ripped from the headlines……….from 1864.

Eight men, including Captain Thomas Fitzgerald, slip across the US border with Canada and make their way to New York City. Their goal? To create a wave of destruction that will interrupt the upcoming presidential election.  Michael, a New York City detective desperately tries to ascertain their identities and their plan while Patrick, a firefighter, stands on the front lines of the city’s defense against an attack. Maggie, a fiery redheaded prostitute, is the link between the attackers and the defenders, but while one man holds the key  to her escape from her life and from the city, another holds the key to her heart. She must chose between them as chaos erupts throughout the city. From the squalor of the Five Points, to opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, New York City is a City of Fire.

I have my character sketches done along with a 10,000 word outline. Plus, I have all of my scene cards mapped out on a storyboard. I’m not sure how long this one will take to write. It might be a while as it is plotted to be roughly 100,000 words, which is 4K longer than the one I just completed. It is nice to revisit the Civil War from a writing standpoint, but I wanted to focus more on the untold stories rather than a traditional military action novel. The Confederate Plot to Burn New York City is known by some, but not many. It does touch on many modern themes, though. The Confederates involved in this plot believed themselves to be soldiers conducting a military operation while the Northern authorities believed them to be terrorists.

This is a tale of heroes, villains, and the line between the two that often blurs in time of conflict. Every man can be a sinner. And every man can be a saint. This is, perhaps, my most ambitious project yet and it is a book I’ve wanted to write since I first got the idea in 2004.  So we’ll see how long it takes, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Hutch

Me

Me as a young firefighter with my son who is now 15. I was much younger and better looking back in those days…….

 

Murder, Utility Knickers, and the Seamy Side of Wartime England

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Friends,

Arson investigators have a difficult job since the crime in their case, fire, can do a number on your crime scene! (as can the firefighters sometimes) That said, it leaves evidence behind also. You just have to know where to look for it. Fires leave patterns, accelerants leave traces, and people leave clues. This makes a tough task a little easier. Imagine returning to the scene of a murder only to find out that it has been bombed into oblivion. That, Dear Readers, was the task faced by the intrepid Inspectors from Scotland Yard during the Second World War.

Though often we look at times of national catastrophe or struggle as a uniting factor that brings people together, that does not negate the fact that under it all a criminal element still lurks in the shadows. In the case of the blacked out cities of Europe, those shadows grew larger and the hiding places more numerous. Even Berlin, the city at the center of Hitler’s Empire was rocked by a series of bizarre sex murders in 1940 though the government kept it secret as the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) quietly worked the case. In fact, as we will see, secrecy was a big issue in dealing with crimes in wartime.

Sir Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829 while serving as Home Secretary. This paved the way for the first large professional police force in the world. And, maybe more important, it led to police officers being called “Bobbies” or “Peelers”. In fact, the Irish (my people!) brought the term “Peeler” with them to the United States and it was the first commonly used slang for police officers in eastern cities in the US. Can’t say it is all that popular anymore. I never got called that during my time in law enforcement. But it would have been cool if I had. By the time England declared war on Germany in September 1939, the British police force and the government intelligence branches (MI 5 and 6) were up to the challenge. Just as they had with the Fire Service, the government hired thousands of auxiliary policemen to help fill the spots left open by those who left to enlist in the military. However, the detective inspectors tended to be long term men who knew their way around a crime scene.

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When I was a “peeler”, I worked weekends, holidays, and night because crime doesn’t take a vacation or sleep. Nor does it disappear just because your country is at war. As soon as war was declared, the British police force helped the government in rounding up enemy aliens and people with suspicious loyalties for internment. Some of those interned were British citizens, but that did not stop them, just as it did not stop us from interning Americans citizens with Japanese ancestry.  One question that we must consider is why did crime rates in England go up during the war years? I suppose there are a variety of factors. First, large numbers of people are thrown together in stressful circumstances. That is a major part of it. Second, we have the fact that for soldiers and civilians alike in England, death could come on any given night. This can give rise to a certain sense of fatalism and an anything goes attitude. And then you add in the increased opportunity for crime with blackouts and the like. Thus wartime England was not as safe as you might think.

To begin with, the fact that London remained blacked out for much of the war and people spent a lot of time in bomb shelters meant that your everyday burglars had a field day. Rings of mostly youth with a few professionals thrown in, would watch houses after dark. When the air raid sirens went off, they would see if the people left to go to a public shelter. If so, they could break into the house with little fear of detection. As an added plus, if the house was hit by a bomb or incendiary, then it would obliterate the evidence! Perfect! The British government took a dim view of this as they also did looting bombed out homes but with their resources already stretched thin, combating it proved to be a very tough task. Fraud and the black market also consumed resources, but more important than that was the “serious” crimes of rape and yes, even murder.

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Time and space dictate that I can only share a few cases with you. First, we have the Dobkin Case. Apparently Mr. Dobkin got tired of his wife Rachel and decided to kill her. Plenty of murders have their origins here it seems. Anyway, he murdered her and buried her body under the rubble of a bombed out church hoping that if she was discovered, the authorities would write it off as a bombing victim. Almost, Mr. Dobkin. Almost! It took over a year for anyone to discover the body and owing to the fact that she had obviously been dead a while, an autopsy was conducted. During said autopsy, the intrepid pathologist Dr. Simpson discovered that the hyroid bone was fractured, thus indicating Rachel died of strangulation. Oops! And as an added oops, Mr. Dobkin covered her body in lime hoping to speed the decomposition but he used the wrong type! (Builder’s lime rather than quicklime) That may have actually preserved the body better than it would have otherwise been! The jury convicted him in less than a half hour and he was promptly hanged. Makes you wonder if other people tried this very thing and got away with it, doesn’t it?

Though often called a serial killer, our next dealer of death is really more of a spree killer. In serial murders, the killer has a “cooling off” period in between according to the almighty F.B.I. Young Gordon Cummins did not. He went on a six day murder spree earning him the very English name, “The Blackout Ripper”. On February 10, 1942, the body of a 40 year old woman was found in an air raid shelter. She had been strangled and her handbag was stolen. Inspectors and the pathologist surmised that the killer may have been left handed. The next day, a prostitute was found murdered in her apartment. The victim had been strangled, had her throat cut, and had her sexual organs mutilated with a can opener which was left at the scene. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Scotland Yard’s most famous open case, Jack the Ripper, as it looked like one of his crime scenes. Luckily, they were able to get prints off the can opener. The Home Office clamped down on the story as they did not want to spark a panic. However, worse was to come. And quickly.

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Gordon Cummins

The next day, yet another prostitute was discovered murdered in her apartment. The scene was one of the most brutal you could encounter back then. She had been strangled with a stocking. The killer took the time to mutilate her with several objects and to violate her body with a candlestick. The next day, he struck again. This time the victim was not a prostitute but a 32 year old married woman. She too was strangled and mutilated. Word reached the press despite the wishes of the Home Office and they dubbed the killer the “Blackout Ripper”. Unlike Jack, this guy wouldn’t quit. He took a day off after his fourth murder and on Valentine’s Day, he struck again. This time his dastardly deeds were interrupted by the arrival of a delivery boy and his victim survived. She reported he was wearing an RAF uniform and when he made his getaway, he left his gas mask and its case behind! Hours later a prostitute reported she had been approached and then attacked by a man in an RAF uniform too. She fought him off and he left his belt behind during his escape.

His gas mask had a serial number and inspectors tracked it to a Gordon Cummins. Upon searching his apartment, they found items belonging to the victims and matched his prints to the one on the can opener. Naturally, he was promptly convicted and even more promptly hanged, during the middle of an air raid, no less! He may have killed other women and there were some within Scotland Yard who believed he did.

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Evelyn Oatley, the beautiful second victim.

As much as we would think that hard times bring a country together, as you can see, the worst elements of our society are still very much present for duty also. When the Americans arrived in England, our cousins across the pond liked to blame the presence of our soldiers for the increase in crime. They said at the time that the problem with the Americans was that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here!” I doubt that had all that much to do with the increased crime rates though it not doubt added to the rate of unwed pregnancies, after all, some of the English women wore utility knickers. One Yank and they were off! VD rates soared as did prostitution. I’ve seen estimates that one out of every ten American soldiers in Europe during the war contracted some sort of “unwanted guest” but I do not know how accurate those statistics are.

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Hey lady, on a scale of zero to America, how free are you tonight?

As tempting as it is to complain about working conditions, and Lord knows I did enough of that when I was a peeler, at least you don’t have to work whilst bombs fall around you. Air raids tend to make a right cock up of crime scenes. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about bombs. Rookie patrol officers on the other hand……

My name is Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who never met an English girl wearing utility knickers, unfortunately.

P.S.: For more along these lines, check out Murder on the Home Front by Molly LeFebure and the PBS film by the same name.

Murders in Paradise

Postwar Los Angeles, where prostitutes and pimps, perverts and panty sniffers mingled with detectives and derelicts, cowboys and conmen. As the city’s population exploded with a postwar housing boom, organized crime exploded as well. Bugsy Siegel set up the Flamingo Hotel where his buddy Mickey Cohen ran a gambling racket. In 1947, the mob had Siegel bumped off after they grew suspicious that Siegel and his insanely attractive, if a little off in head, girlfriend Virginia Hill were skimming money. Someone popped Siegel with an M-1 Carbine through the window. Was it really money? Or did his own girlfriend set him up? We’ll never know. Virginia was found dead in a park in Austria in 1966, an apparent suicide. After Siegel’s death, Cohen grew more influential along with his top lieutenant, bag man, and enforcer Johnny Stompanato. Handsome Johnny went on to date the gorgeous Lana Turner until her thirteen year old daughter stuck a knife in him. A kid punched the most dangerous man in town’s ticket for him. Officials ruled the death a case of self defense.

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Virginia Hill…..femme fatale. In my mind, I picture her as a redhead. Femme fatales always have red hair.

Gangsters imported reefer and H while Hollywood stars basked in the Golden Age of American films. High ranking officials within the city and the police department were on the take as well. LAPD ran a Red Squad to track known and suspected communists as well as protection rackets. High ranking police commanders looked the other way while gangsters slung dope, preferring to target black teenagers and pachucos for drug offenses without targeting the supply side. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Who knows! Everybody was out to make a quick buck. And there were plenty of opportunities for that in the City of Angels.

There were plenty of opportunities for murder as well. The defense industry in Southern California boomed during the war years and with the end of a shooting war and the beginning of the Cold War, it showed no signs of letting up. During the war, single women made their way to the city to work, renting rooms in flophouses, hotels, or private residences. The men came home after 1945 and brought domestic homicide with them. Couples fueled by alcohol battled with fists. Sometimes, the wife ended up dead. Women offed their husbands sometimes too. And, of course, you have the murder suicides. The police had little difficulty solving domestic homicides and sent plenty of men to the gas chamber at San Quentin. But was there something else stalking the city? Some diabolical fiend out to torture, murder, and mutilate women?

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Ora Murray

On the night of July 26, 1943, Ora Murray, 42, went out dancing with her sister at the Zenda Ballroom. She hooked up with a dapper man who called himself Paul. He offered to drive her around a show her the sights in Hollywood. Orra agreed. Several hours later, a dog owned by a the caretaker discovered the partially nude and badly beaten body of a woman on a golf course. It belonged to Ora. Her undergarments had been violently ripped away and the killer removed her dress and then wrapped it around her body. He also placed a white gardenia on her shoulder. Odd, that. Strangulation was the official cause of death. Now this murder took place just outside the city limits and so the Sheriff’s Department handled the investigation, which went nowhere fast. Meanwhile, the bodies continued to stack up.

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Georgette Bauerdorf, a life lost too soon.

She was young, rich, beautiful, and, on Oct. 11, 1944, very, very dead. That night, Georgette finished her shift as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen where she danced with servicemen. When she drove away in a Pontiac Coupe, it was to her own rendezvous with death. At 11:00 am the next morning, a maid found her body floating in the bathtub with the water still running. She wore the top part of a pajama set, indicating that she returned home unmolested and prepared for bed. Her badly bruised knuckles and scratches on her bare thighs told detectives that she did no go gently into that good night. The police believed she returned home, ate a snack, and was attacked by a person whom she may have known. They further postulated said person might have been lying in wait. A neighbor said they heard her yell “Stop! You’re killing me!” around 2:30 am but they ignored her cries as they assumed it was a simple domestic dispute. (Other than the “You’re killing me part, I guess.)  Though the killer beat Georgette and put her face down in the bathtub, the police found a bandage shoved down her throat which caused her to asphyxiate. The killer drove off in her car which was found abandoned later, gas tank empty. The case went cold and investigators never found her killer.

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Elizabeth Short. The Black Dahlia.

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The Crime Scene.

She is perhaps the most famous dead girl in American History, a young woman drawn to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. But like so many would be stars, reality soon set in. Her mutilated and bisected corpse was found in a vacant lot on 49th and Norton in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. Elizabeth Short was only 22 when she died. Journalists dubbed her The Black Dahlia, and her murder has inspired much speculation in the decades which followed. I’m not an expert on her murder, though I’ve read widely about it. There are numerous suspects, though none were ever charged. What the person or persons responsible for her death did almost defies even the most diabolical minds. They kept her alive for at least a short period of time.  Bound, tortured, forced to eat feces, the official cause of death was determined to be bleeding from multiple deep lacerations to the face coupled with shock from repeated blows to the head. It is the most heinous of crimes, and Elizabeth Short never got the justice she deserved.

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Jeanne French.

Not even a month after Elizabeth Short died, another woman, Jeanne French, met her death at the hands of a fiendish killer. She was 45 years old, a nurse, a pilot, and the former wife of a rich Texan in the oil business. A construction worker on the morning of February 10th saw what he thought was a pile of women’s clothes. He walked over to investigate and saw a fur coat. When he lifted it, the man received quite a shock. Underneath the coat was the brutally beaten, nude body of Jeanne French. The killer struck her in the head with a blunt instrument, perhaps a socket wrench, and the proceeded to beat and stomp her to death. The blow to the head didn’t killer her. Internal bleeding from her fractured ribs did. It took her a long time to slowly bleed to death. The coroner believed she was probably unconscious after the blow the head, a small mercy for sure. The killer then removed red lipstick from her purse and wrote “Fuck You, BD” (or maybe PD) on her body. She’d had a fight with her estranged husband the night before her death, but his whereabouts at the time of the murder were attested to. Jeanne was last seen alive at a club in the company of a “swarthy” man. They left together. But this, as the others, went cold. Police rounded up the usual suspects, but came away with nothing.

From the file labeled weird comes the strange case of the murder of 15 year old Lillian Dominguez. On the night of October 2, 1947, young Lillian attended a school dance. When it ended, she set out for home with her sister and a female friend. As they passed the intersection of 17th Street and Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, the trio crossed paths with a man who walked by them in the darkness. They walked a few feet and Lillian told her sister “That man touched me.” A few steps later she yelled “I can’t see!” and promptly collapsed and died on the pavement. The cause of death? Stabbing. The killer stabbed her straight in the heart with either a stiletto knife or maybe an ice pick. Though she had two companions with her, they were unable to give any description to the police other than the fact that the killer had been male.

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Death prowled these streets.

And there were others. Too many to give full attention to, as they deserve. Evelyn Winters, 42, found nude, beaten and strangled to death in March of 1947. Laura Telestad, 37, found nude and strangled with a strip of cloth. Body dumped in a vacant lot. Rosenda Mondragon, 20, found nude, tortured and strangled. Body dumped a mile from where Evelyn Winters’ body was discovered. Gladys Kern, 50, a real estate agent found dead in a house she was scheduled to show in 1948. Beaten and stomped to death. Louise Springer, kidnapped in her car. Found beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and sodomized with a tree branch. Jean Spangler, 27, had been a roommate of Elizabeth Short. Jean disappeared and her body was never found.

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Was Los Angeles in the grips of a fiendish serial killer? The short answer is maybe. I’m not an expert in homicide. When I was a detective, arson was my specialty, but I’ve received training in homicide investigations and have been around them, so I know a bit. The manner and method of some of these cases would indicate that the police may have had one assailant on some of them. But others don’t really fit given the age or manner of death of the victim. I do think we can say with some certainty that some of these cases were the work of one person. Murders are not new. Crime is not new.

If anything, the study of history teaches us that f—-d up people have been around forever. Serial murder is not a recent phenomenon, nor are sexual homicides. Though we look back with a bit of nostalgia, the truth is Los Angeles was trapped in its own true life noir tale in the 1940s. With the police and city administration on the take, evidence could be made to disappear (as happened with the evidence associated with the Dahlia case). Cases could be penned on a minority to protect a well connected individual. Though the police were able to do more forensically at the time than you might think, it wasn’t enough. Given the time that has passed, these women will never get justice. Their killers got away with it. And that, Dear Readers, is a tragedy.

Hutch

 

 

Beware the Axeman! A Diabolical Fiend Ushers in Jazz Age New Orleans

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Friends,

Americans are drawn to crime like moths to a flame. Whole societies obsess over serial killers and unsolved murders. We even have serial killer “groupies”. (Yes, I’ve met a few.) As much as we are repulsed by seemingly random acts of violence, we are fascinated by it as well. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps humans all have voyeuristic tendencies? Crime interests people. I learned early on in my public safety career to never tell strangers what I did for a living. They would immediately ask “What is the worst thing you’ve ever seen.” This is akin to making me relive your worst nightmare. So never ask that question!

If you look through newspapers and other means of popular culture from yesteryear, one thing you will notice is that crimes fascinated people 100 years ago just as they do today. Just as crimes like the O.J. Simpson case and little ole Casey Anthony draw huge media attention and consequently captivate American audiences, so too did the Mary Rodgers case from the 1840s, the Lindbergh Case from the 1930s, and the list goes on and on. We have a mistaken belief, it seems, that back in “the good old days” one needn’t fear being murdered or assaulted. Everyone went to church all the time and did nothing but good deeds. That, my Dear Readers, is a load of bullsh!t. People were just as…….fudged…….up back in the day as they are now. Human nature hasn’t changed.

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So let us now turn our attention to New Orleans, Louisiana. The year is 1918. The month is May. In France, thousands of US soldiers are pouring into the country every day to bolster British and French troops. Soon they will help thwart Germany’s last attempt to win the war. Congress passes the Sedition Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to criticize the war effort. New influenza cases continue to pop up, the first of a deadly pandemic that will eventually kill millions. New Orleans is a city in transition. Once the home of Storyville, a thriving redlight district among the most notorious (and profitable) in the world, the city is now dealing with the after effects of its closure. The US Military considered it a bad influence on soldiers and thus pressured the city into shutting down what residents called “The District”. The mayor of New Orleans, Martin Berhman, said “You can make it [prostitution] illegal. You can’t make it unpopular.” True enough. Now The District is home to restaurants and jazz clubs, more music than sex. And of course, it being Louisiana and all, The District was also home to numerous low gambling dives.

On the night of May 22nd, 1918, a foul villain entered the home of a married couple, both Italian immigrants, named Joseph and Catherine Maggio. The two were attacked in their beds in the most horrendous of ways. The assailant slit their throats with a straight razor. The damage done to Mrs. Maggio was so severe that her head was almost completely severed. When finished with his heinous task, our killer then bashed them repeatedly in the head with an ax. Mercifully, Catherine expired quickly, as far as the police could tell but Joseph was still among the living when he was discovered by his brothers. One of the brothers, Andrew, quickly became the prime suspect as the razor blade was found to belong to him. He owned a nearby barber shop and an employee reported seeing him remove the blade. Plus, despite the killer smashing down a door, Andrew claimed to hear nothing of the attack itself and was only awakened by strange gurgling noises coming from the bedroom of our victims. Not a thing was found missing from the home, thus the motive had to be murder. Murder most foul! Young Andrew said he arrived home in a highly intoxicated state due to his imminent departure to join the Navy. Having once been a young college student myself, I can sympathize with his “state” on the night of the attacks!

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Dear Readers, if I may impart a bit of wisdom to you, it is generally not a good idea for married people to have affairs. If you have ever watched a Lifetime Movie, you will know what I speak is true. One month after the murder of the Maggios, our fiend struck again. A “gentleman” named Louis Besumer was attacked whilst in bed with his mistress, a woman named Harriet Lowe. They were discovered the following morning when a grocer arrived with a delivery. Both were unconscious but still alive, bleeding from wounds to the head. The police managed to revive them long enough to get statements. According to Besumer, they were “asleep” when they were attacked. Perhaps. Or perhaps they were caught in, shall we say, the act. Lowe stated that a mulatto man attacked them but given the injuries that she had suffered and the fact that the attack took place in the dark, her statement is questionable. However, our esteemed NOPD considered it good enough to arrest the first available black man, who happened to have been previously in the employ of Besumer. And now things take a turn for the strange. Ms. Lowe at first claimed to be the wife of Mr. Besumer but this fact did not stand up to careful scrutiny. Though she slipped in and out of consciousness over the next few months, the police were able to speak with her numerous times. Before she died, she declared that Besumer himself was the killer! Given the fact that the murder weapon did belong to him, the police charged him with the deed. He was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for ten minutes! Her veracity was no doubt challenged due to the fact that she also accused Besumer of being a German spy. This was also not proven, of course. Chiefly because it probably wasn’t true. Hopefully none of you have ever had a jealous partner accuse you of being a serial killer!

Our fiend then took a break. But only for a short while. On August 5th, Mrs. Schneider opened her eyes and found a man hovering over her in the dark. As she no doubt adjusted to the shock, he began to smash her in the face. The victim was discovered when her husband arrived home from work after midnight. The police surmised that a lamp was the weapon here, not an axe, which may be the reason why Mrs. Schneider survived. In a shocking twist, our victim was eight months pregnant at the time! She gave birth two days later to a healthy child. Mrs. Schneider was not able to tell the police anything of use regarding the attack. So the police arrested another handy subject only to have to release him a short time later!

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Naturally by this point the media was having a field day with their coverage of the series of baffling and seemingly random attacks. And our villain was about to escalate his behavior. Five days after Mrs. Schneider met the Axeman, he struck again. This time his victim was an elderly man named Joseph Romano. Hearing a commotion, his two nieces entered the room and saw our fiend as he made his escape. They described him as a dark-skinned, heavy man, wearing a dark suit and a slouch hat. (At least he had style!) Sadly, Mr. Romano left this world a few days later due to the severe head trauma he sustained in this latest bloodbath. And now, Dear Readers, panic gripped the city. People called the police to report shadowy men hiding behind every lamppost. Some reported finding axes left in their backyards! A retired detective stated that he felt these murders were connected to others which had happened in 1911. That did nothing to quell public fears. He hypothesized that our fiendish killer may have be a Jeckyl and Hyde wherein he would appear outwardly normal until moved to kill. This, of course, caused people to look very carefully at their neighbors. Is your neighbor just odd or are they a killer?

After the murder of Mr. Romano, the Axeman took a break. Or did he? It is possible that he moved on to other areas for a while to help avoid detection. Perhaps Baton Rouge or Mobile appealed to him and he visited for a while. With his axe. The city breathed a sigh of relief as it looked as though our fiend was finished with the Big Easy. But no. He had other plans for New Orleans. On the night of March 10th, Across the river from New Orleans lies the town of Gretna. That dark night neighbors awoke to screams coming from a house. They ran over to investigate and found a tragic scene. A husband and wife had been attacked while in their beds. The mother held a two year old girl in her arms who was sadly deceased, killed by a blow to the neck. The parents would survive. Mrs. Cortmiglia accused a local man and his son of attacking her family. Her husband denied this most strongly. The accused man was in too poor a physical condition to have done it. His son was too big to have crawled through the missing door panel whereby the killer gained access. None of this concerned the police. Both were arrested and convicted. The 18 year old son was sentenced to swing from the gallows while his father received a life term. After the trial, Mr. Cortmiglia divorced his wife, no doubt angry that she falsely accused two men of murder. A year later, she recounted her story and the two men were released. But an innocent man very nearly went to the gallows for a crime he did not commit.

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Our Axeman had a sense of humor. Three nights after the attack on the Cortmiglia family, he sent a letter to the newspapers. “From Hell” it said, no doubt a tip of the slouch hat to Jack the Ripper! I will now give you a brief quote:

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

Needless to say, Dear Readers, the citizens of New Orleans certainly did jazz it up that night. The Axeman was true to his word. Nary a murder was committed. No one got the ax. He took another break from axing the citizens of New Orleans, only to strike again on August 10th. Our victim survived, but was unable to give any information about the attacker. Six weeks later, a 19 year old woman who lived alone was brutally attacked whilst in her bed. Neighbors found her in a pool of her own blood, sans several teeth, with a nasty head wound. Alas, an ax was found in her front yard. Thankfully young Miss Laumann did not succumb to her wounds, but the police received no additional information as she was unable to recall the details of the dastardly attack. After another long pause, the killer struck for the last time (that we know of) on October 27th when he murdered Mr. Pepitone in the usual brutal fashion. Sadly, the victims wife who interrupted the killer in the midst of his foul deed could not give a good description to the police.

And so the Axeman faded into history and memory, though he is not well known outside of New Orleans, at least until he showed up as a character in a season of American Horror Story. The police never had much to go on. But the larger lesson here is that the good people of New Orleans refused to bow down to him, even when he was in the midst of his brutal spree. Indeed, a musician even penned a special song for him called “The Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Poppa). It was published in the months when the Dastardly Villian held sway over the birthplace of jazz. You can listen to one version of it here. Did the Axeman die? Was he arrested for another crime? Or did he simply take his horror show on the road? We’ll never know.

Hutch