By Ken Zurski
Thanks to author Jeff Guinn’s biographical book of Charles Manson, titled Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, a few more details emerge about the notorious killer’s time as a boy, his introduction to crime, early run-ins with the law, and in particular, his short but volatile stint in the nation’s heartland, specifically Peoria, Illinois.
Sometime in the late 1940’s, Guinn explains that Manson, or “Charlie” to his friends and family, and another boy named Blackie Nielson broke out of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, stole a car and drove it to Peoria where Nielson’s uncle lived.
Manson was in Boy’s Town after failing to stay at another boy’s school in Terre Haute, Indiana. His mother Kathleen insisted Charlie go to a reform school while she served prison time for a bit role in an attempted robbery masterminded by her brother Luther, Charlie’s uncle.
In Terre Haute, Manson ran away and ended up in Indianapolis where he robbed a few dime stores. He needed the money to rent a room and hide. He pushed his luck though and got caught. The sympathetic judge went easy on young Charlie. “Erroneously assuming that the boy was Catholic,” Guinn writes, “the judge sends him to Boy’s Town, the most famous juvenile facility in America.”
That would straighten him out, the judge conferred. But it didn’t work. Boy’s Town had a reputation for turning wayward boys around, but it was no prison and security was lax. Manson and his new friend, Blackie, left the grounds, hotwired a car and hightailed it to Illinois.
What happens next is fragmentary. It’s probably why Guinn spends only a few paragraphs on it. In fact the word “Peoria” isn’t even listed in the book’s index. But Manson’s time in Peoria may be just as influential on the young boy’s life as his first arrest in Indianapolis. It’s also just as surprising, considering his age. After all he was only thirteen, according to Guinn.
Guinn writes that Charlie and Blackie set out to rob a few businesses in Peoria, including a grocery store. But these “knock offs” were different. Charlie had a gun. Even Guinn’s not sure how he got it, possibly stole it from Blackie’s uncle. But how is not as important as – why? In hindsight, it’s apparent the young boy was headed towards a more complicated life of crime – even murder. But instead of ripping off a few dinky stores just to get by like he did in Indianapolis, this time Manson armed with a weapon appeared to be doing it for fun. When Manson got caught again, a Peoria judge wasn’t so lenient. He sent Charlie to a hard core reform school in Plainfield, Indiana where adult supervisors were more like drill sergeants. The rest of Manson’s youth plays out similarly – bit robberies, run-ins with the law and eventually some prison time – until we get to the 1960’s and the unfortunate reasons why he is famous today.
But that was it for Manson’s time in Peoria.
Throughout the years, a few articles in the Peoria Journal Star bulletin the arrests but offer few details. Did Manson really try to rob the Chevrolet dealership on Main Street and jump into a squad car instead of a getaway car, as the paper claims? Heady stuff, for sure. But true?
Thanks to the efforts of Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano who in 1992 wrote a letter to Manson asking: What brought you to Peoria and what did you do here? Manson wrote back as he often did to reporter’s inquiries. His answers are lucid enough, but not very descriptive or specific. Manson recalls stealing some jewelry, putting it in a safe and dumping the safe over a bridge onto railroad tracks below. “Yeah, I did a lot of growing up in that town (Peoria),” he writes in the letter, “fast growing up.”
Manson’s other recollections of Peoria makes it sound like he was in town for months, if not years (Guinn’s book isn’t clear on this. Likely, it was only for a couple of weeks). Of course, for Manson, this comes nearly 50 years after the fact. A lot more scandalous and disturbing events took place in the man’s life since then, including the murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others on August 8th and 9th, 1969.
Guinn claims that his correspondence letters from Manson were mostly ramblings about how he had been wronged and not much else. “That’s all you need to know,” Manson curtly answered one letter after offering nothing substantial in return. Apparently he didn’t like books written about him.
Manson was sentenced to life for the Tate/LeBlanco murders, incarcerated in a California State Prison, frequently denied parole, and died on November 19, 2017 at the age of 83.
The cover of Guinn’s book shows a picture of a neatly dressed young man. He is smiling and seems content. Although his gaze is slightly off, there’s only a hint of the “crazy eyes” that his cousin’s claim Charlie possessed at times.
The more recognizable image of the convicted killer with tussled hippie-like long hair and a creepy blank stare would come later, when Manson was in his late 20’s and early thirties.
While in Illinois, Charlie was just a teenager.
By Ken Zurski
Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television specials and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.
Today, however, in a more crowded market for Christmas music and numerous more versions of favorite holiday classics (and new ones too) from more contemporary artists in all genres, Como’s versions might get lost in the mix.
But it’s still in there.
That said, as a performer, he may have been misunderstood as well.
Como was considered one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced and rehearsed incessantly.
“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.
Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.
In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades. For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week, admittedly a large sum for a Vegas act at the time. Even Perry was surprised. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.
But since it was Vegas and befitting the desert town’s reputation of gambling and prostituition, Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.
Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.
A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.
Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduced his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”
Como’s cool temperament and sleepy manner was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many had to ask if it was real or just an act. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”
Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for 46 consecutive years ending in 1994, seven years before his death from symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 2001. He was 88.
(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)
Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish, pasta. So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie and an ostrich (yes, an ostrich) went head-to-head in an all out, no holds barred, eating contest.
Or did they? That’s left for history to decide.
But it makes for a great story.
As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own merits. ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing, himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.
I can “hemstitch the spheroid,” he boasted, apparently talking about the ball.
Despite being a a bit of a braggart, the player’s loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.
Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat. Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.
Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater preceded him.
While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie and the challenge was on. Whether it actually happened as reported however is up for debate. The accounts are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.
But who was questioning?
Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.
For anyone who believed it that, the rest of the story was easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.
The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.
There was no mention of the dead bird.
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”
But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder admitted having little acquaintance with airplanes. She was however an aspiring model and actress and if the flight helped her career, she exclaimed, so be it.
As expected, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.
Despite this, Elder had no reservations. “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl.
Unlike Lindbergh, who became internationally famous after his successful flight, Elder’s popularity began the moment she announced her plan. Pretty with an infectious smile and a personality to match , Elder’s story and picture plastered the papers. Brightly colored scarfs she wore in her hair were mimicked by young girls who called them “Ruth Ribbons.”
To a hungry press she was also a willing participant. The instant hero Lindbergh was a challenge: shy, a bit aloof, and often irritated by all the attention. Elder relished it. She just hadn’t accomplished anything yet. On that October day at Roosevelt Field, the press was there to watch her give it a go.
“Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself as the “American Girl’s” wheels lifted from the ground.
Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.
Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.
Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown. “Last seen 500 out at sea,” the stories read.
The American Girl was missing.
In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck. “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.
Several minutes later, the plane landed in the water next to the ship.
By Ken Zurski
Carl G. Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast. He built them, he raced them, he even delicately guided one across a tightrope just to prove there versatility. He was nicknamed “Cripple,” or “Crip” for short, because his friends thought he was destined to suffer a permanent injury. As one worrisome acquaintance described: “He frequently, in bursts of speed, took spills and ended up with many bruises and cuts.”
Undeterred, after dusting off, Fisher would try it again.
That was his style.
Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, as a young boy Fisher moved to Indianapolis with his mother after his parents separated. Due to a severe case of astigmatism, he dropped out of school early and worked odd jobs, like a grocery store clerk, to support his family. At age 17, along with his two brothers, Fisher opened a bicycle shop.
With the advent of the automobile, Fisher saw another business opportunity. “I don’t see why an automobile can’t be made to do anything a bicycle can do,” he told a friend. In 1904, Fisher converted his bicycle business into an automobile repair shop. To promote his new venture, he asked a crowd to gather at a downtown Indianapolis building. He then pushed a vehicle off the roof. The vehicle landed on its tires, still upright. The crowd roared its approval. It was showy and effective, similar in style to a more famously known promotional trickster named P.T. Barnum. Fisher later admitted he deflated the tires so the car wouldn’t bounce.
Despite his knack for self-promotion, Fisher had more serious concerns about the newfangled motor vehicle. First was being able to drive it safely in the dark. He invented a headlight that used compressed gas to light the way. It was a revolutionary idea. Soon, the Fisher-patented lights were being manufactured in plants throughout the Midwest. The process however was not safe for workers. The chemical tanks kept blowing up. “Omaha left at four-thirty,” one wire read announcing the unfortunate closing of another plant. The tanks were eventually lined with asbestos and the blasts stopped. The headlights became the standard and Fisher in turn became a very wealthy man.
With money and power in his hands, Fisher took to the automobile like he did the bicycle – with deering-do. He raced a modified Mohawk on small tracks at fairgrounds in Indiana mostly built with wooden boards. But Fisher wanted more. He wanted more speed. more thrills and more excitement. Inspired by European tracks that had long straightaways and sweeping curves, Fisher suggested a proving ground track in Indianapolis would be beneficial to the automobile industry as a whole, testing the limits of engines and body styles. Plus, the racing would be a hoot too.
He and other local financiers put up $250,000 in capital to build the track, a two-and a half mile oval, that became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Aug 9 1909, the first car races took place. It was a disaster. Six drivers were killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but Fisher mercifully stopped it at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines, Fisher explained, were not the issue. The problem was the track, made of crushed stone, was too rough. The frequent tire blow outs led to disastrous and deadly results. Fisher had to make a change.
He recommended they pave the tracks with bricks instead. But it was costly. So he convinced his investors to help pay for it. Over 3-million bricks were laid. On Memorial Day 1911, the first 500-mile race was run. Driver Ray Harroun in a vehicle named “Wasp” won the inaugural contest with an average speed of just over 74 mph. “There were but four tire changes,” the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day. “Three of the original tires finished the race.” The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference.
The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”
Fisher didn’t stop with improvements to racetracks however. He felt everyday drivers were being shortchanged by the lack of public roadways. At the time, most roads were just dirt paths and few went long distances. In 1912, at a dinner party for automobile manufacturers, Fisher unveiled an ambitious plan to build a highway that would span the country, from New York to California. He urged the auto executives to come aboard. Within 30-minutes, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.
Ironically, the one man who refused to contribute was an automobile pioneer from Detroit who thought the automakers should stick to making automobiles, not roads. The government, he explained, should be responsible for that.
His name was Henry Ford.
Thanks to Fisher’s persistence, however, Lincoln Highway (today it’s portions are more formally aligned with the coast-to-coast Interstate 80), became the first transcontinental highway for motor vehicles.
But Fisher’s testament, such as it is, lie in the bricks. Still a fixture at the track’s finish line.
On July 9, 1918, near Nashville, Tennessee, in an area known as Dutchman’s curve, two trains collided head-on creating such a frightful noise that many claimed it could be “heard for miles.”
It was 7:00 on a warm summer morning and both trains on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis line were running late.
The westbound or outbound passenger train to Memphis had just pulled out of Nashville’s Union Station packed with passengers. The eastbound train was heading inbound to the Nashville station from Memphis. Both veteran engineers had orders. The inbound train had the right of way on the curve’s one-way track. The outbound train would have to wait at the double-tracks just outside of the station for the other train to pass. But something went horribly wrong. A green light was given to the outbound train to proceed, meaning someone had seen or heard the incoming train pass. But when the tower operator checked his papers, there was no record of the Nashville-bound train coming through.
In reality, the inbound train was running nearly 35 minutes behind schedule.
The operator frantically telegraphed the dispatcher who immediately sent an urgent message back. “Stop him” was his order. But how? At the time, there was no direct communication with the engineers in either train. Only a warning whistle was used for emergencies. The whistle blared, but the outbound train was too far along for anyone to hear it. By this time, the inbound train was chugging to the curve.
Both trains were moving at top speeds of 60 mph. Then a moment of sheer terror. The engineer of the outbound train caught a glimpse of the other train coming around the bend, directly in his path. He pulled the emergency brake, but there wasn’t enough time. Then that sound that could be heard for miles. “The ground quaked and the waters of nearby Richland Creek trembled,” one writer later described. “The wooden cars crumbled and hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment. One train telescoped the other.”
In all, 101 people were killed, mostly traveling soldiers and African-American laborers from Tennessee and Arkansas. Many were leaving or returning to work at a munitions plant in the Nashville area.
Besides what went wrong, there was more scrutiny.
After only a few days of front page news, the press was accused of being mostly dismissive. Perhaps it was due to the number of war stories that filled the papers at the time. But some believe the wreck itself, while tragic, just wasn’t exploitative enough. Most of the dead were minority migrants and laborers. Many were killed beyond recognition. Basically, it just wasn’t as easily sensationalized as other disasters at the time, like the wrecks involving circus trains…or the fate of a fun-filled chartered steamboat.
Four days before the Nashville train wreck another tragedy hit the papers that shook a nation. On July 5, a wooden steamboat named the Columbia collapsed and sank in middle of the Illinois River near Peoria, Illinois. The 87 dead were mostly women and children enjoying a holiday cruise to a local amusement park. The survivor stories that followed were stark and dramatic. “The only thing that kept me afloat,” one woman passenger reported, “were the bodies beneath me.”
The investigation that followed the train wreck, cited human error, specifically blaming the man who could not defend himself, the engineer of the outbound train, David Kennedy. Only speculation supports the theory that Kennedy mistook a switch engine hauling empty cars for the inbound train. Kennedy was killed instantly in the wreck. A folded “schedule” was reportedly found underneath his body.
The other engineer William Floyd was also killed. He was one day from retirement.
The Nashville wreck to this day is still the deadliest train accident in the history of the U.S.