MFDJ 07/14/24: Middle Age Pestilence

Today’s Appalling Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

European expansion produced the ‘Columbian exchange’, a highly unequal disease trade-off in which Columbus may have brought one killer disease back from the Americas: syphilis. This broke out in 1493-4 during a war between Spain and France being waged in Italy. When Naples fell to the French, the conquerors indulged in the usual orgy of rape and pillage, and the troops and their camp-followers then scattered throughout Europe. Soon, a terrible venereal epidemic was raging. It began with genital sores, progressing to a general rash, to ulceration, and to revolting abscesses eating into bones and destroying the nose, lips and genitals, and often proving fatal.

Man suffering from syphilis, 1868

Initially, it was called the ‘disease of Naples’, but rapidly became the ‘French Pox’ and other terms accusing this or that nation: the Spanish disease in Holland, the Polish disease in Russia, the Russian disease in Siberia, the Christian disease in Turkey and the Portuguese disease in India and Japan. For their part, the Portuguese called it the Castilian disease, and a couple of centuries later Captain Cook (1728-79), exploring the Pacific, rued that the Tahitians ‘call the venereal disease Apa no Britannia – the British disease’ (he thought they’d caught it from the French).

That some of the Spaniards at the siege of Naples had accompanied Columbus suggested an American origin for the pox (or ‘great pox’, to distinguish it from smallpox). It certainly behaved in Europe like a new disease, spreading like wildfire for a couple of decades. ‘In recent times’, reflected one sufferer, Joseph Gruenpeck (c. 1473-c.1532):

I have seen scourges, horrible sicknesses and many infirmities affect mankind from all corners of the earth. Amongst them has crept in, from the western shores of Gaul, a disease which is so cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing so horrifying, nothing more terrible or distgusting, has ever been known on this earth.

Syphilis, we now know, is one of several diseases caused by members of the Treponema group of spirochetes, a corkscrew-shaped bacterium. There are four clinically distinct human treponematoses (the others are pinta, yaws and bejel) and their causative organisms are virtually identical, suggesting all are descendants of an ancestral spirochete which adapted to different climates and human behaviors.

What caused this terrible outbreak? Many epidemiological possibilities have been mooted. It is feasible that some American treponemal infection merged with a similar European one to become syphilis, with both initial infections subsequently disappearing. Others maintain that venereal infections had long been present in Europe but never properly distinguished from leprosy; treponemal infections (pinta, yaws, endemic and venereal syphilis) had, it is suggested, initially presented as mild childhood illnesses, spread by casual contact and producing a measure of immunity. With improved European living standards, treponemes dependent on skin contact had become disadvantaged, being replaced by hardier, sexually transmitted strains. Thus an initially mild disorder grew more serious. A related theory holds that the spirochete had long been present in both the Old World and the New; what would explain the sixteenth-century explosion were the social disruptions of the time, especially warfare.

Like the pox itself, the debate raged — and remains unresolved to this day. But whatever the precise epidemiology, syphilis, like typhus, should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density, changed lifestyles and sexual behavior, the migrations of soldiers and traders, and the ebb and flow of refugees and peasants. While Europeans were establishing their empires and exporting death to aboriginal peoples, they were caught in microbial civil wars at home. Bubonic plague bounced from the Balkans to Britain, malaria was on the increase, smallpox grew more virulent, while typhus and the ‘bloody flux’ (dysentery) became camp-followers of every army. Influenza epidemics raged, especially lethal being the ‘English sweat’ (sudor Anglicus) which struck in 1485 (delaying Henry VII’s coronation), 1507, 1528, 1551 and 1578, and was described by Polydore Vergil, an Italian diplomat in London, as ‘a pestilence horrible indeed, and before which no age could endure’. John Caius’s (1510-73) A Boke of Conseill against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweat or Sweating Sickness (1552) noted the copious sweating, shivering, fever, nausea, headache, cramps, back pain, delirium and stupor. It came to crisis within twenty-four hours, with very high mortality. It was thought even worse than the plague, for plague:

commonly giveth three or four, often seven, sometimes nine… sometimes eleven, and sometimes fourteen day’s respect to whom it vexeth. But that [the sweating sickness] immediately killed some in opening their windows, some in playing with children in their street doors, some in one hour, many in two it destroyed, and at the longest, so they that merrily dined, it gave a sorrowful supper.

The ‘English sweat’ remains a riddle. Such calamities form a doleful backdrop to the Renaissance.

The English Sweat – famous ska band!

Culled from: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind


Post-Mortem Portraits Du Jour!

Culled from: Sleeping Beauty I

MFDJ 07/13/24: Our Lady of the Angels Fire

Today’s Badly-Burned Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Fires are not supposed to happen, but when they do and people die, they can affect an entire community, especially if children are involved. Never was this more apparent than on December 1, 1958, when Chicago and the nation experienced one of the most heartbreaking tragedies in history. On that day a fire enveloped the half-century-old Our Lady of the Angels parochial school on Chicago’s west side, leaving 92 students and three nuns dead.

Avers Avenue in front of the north wing of Our Lady of the Angels school where 95 died on December 1, 1958.

To examine the school fire is to revisit a story filled with startling inconsistencies and shattering grief, a tale of ordinary people caught up in a mind-numbing disaster, the effects of which would still be felt decades later. Not only did this fire shock the world and tear apart a close-knit community, it left lingering questions that turned the event into a mystery that has deepened with each passing year.

What is known is that in the fall of 1958, classroom space at Our Lady of the Angels was strained to capacity, a dangerous situation present in hundreds of American elementary schools, public and private. Some 1,400 students, 20 nuns, and nine lay teachers occupied its 24 classrooms where, in some, up to 60 children were jammed together. The 2 1/2-story brick school building on the corner of Avers Avenue and Iowa Street was the hub of a thriving Roman Catholic parish in a well-kept, predominantly Italian neighborhood. The U-shaped school consisted of a north and south wing connected by an annex. The south wing was built in 1903, and the north wing, which had originally been designed as a combination church-school, was built in 1910. In 1939, after a new church was built next door, the school’s north wing was converted entirely into classrooms, and a chapel was built in its basement.

December 1, 1958, promised to be a cold but clear day in Chicago. For pupils at Our Lady of the Angels, it was the first day of class since school had let out the week before for Thanksgiving. The day passed without fanfare and everything seemed normal. At 2 P.M. the students settled down for their final hour of lessons, eagerly awaiting the three o’clock bell that would signal their dismissal. But lurking nearby was a hidden fire burning in the basement stairwell of the school’s north wing. Exactly when it started was never fixed to the precise minute, but the date of its occurrence will never be forgotten. Because the school lacked an adequate fire detection system, several minutes would pass before anyone discovered the blaze.

Two boys returning to their second-floor classroom after emptying wastebaskets thought they smelled something burning. When they reached their room in the building’s annex, they informed their teacher, who stepped into the hallway to find smoke gathering at ceiling level. After conferring with a neighboring teacher, she ran down to the principal’s office in the school’s south wing to seek direction. (A standing rule prohibited anyone from sounding the school’s fire alarm without first notifying the mother superior.) After learning the principal was substituting in another classroom downstairs, the teacher hastened back to her own classroom, where the smoke in the hallway had thickened. Rather than wait for an alarm, she and the neighboring teacher promptly evacuated their children down a stairway to a set of exit doors in the south wing. After marching their pupils into the church next door, the first teacher ran back to the school and pulled the fire alarm while the other teacher took off for the convent across the street to use the telephone. The fire alarm started ringing in the school at 2:42 P.M., the same time the first telephone call reporting the fire was received by the fire department. For the 329 students and teachers in the north wing’s second floor classrooms, the signal came too late. Flames and smoke had already traveled up the rear stairway and entered the long corridor, cutting off escape.

Firefighters bring victims down from blazing classrooms in the alley north of the school.

The unsuspecting occupants were first alerted to the fire not by the alarm but by a series of events that began with an ominous rising heat inside the building and the sound of doors rattling. In Room 208, next to the burning stairway, children giggled when someone suggested “it must be ghosts.” But the laughter stopped when a boy got up from his desk and opened the back door. “There’s smoke in the hallway!” he exclaimed. Waiting for the first alarm, Sister Mary St. Canice instructed her 46 seventh graders to stay seated and calm. “We mustn’t panic,” she told them. “Get down on your knees and pray. The firemen will come.” The nun meant well. But he instructions were quickly abandoned by the will to survive. When glass transoms over the doors shattered, smoke and fire spilled into the room across the combustible ceiling tile, plunging it into superheated darkness. Chased by flames, the children rushed to the windows and began screaming “the school’s on fire!” Seconds later the youngsters started jumping out the windows, bouncing off the pavement 25 feet below. Some broke bones and limped or crawled away. Others remained silent and still. Those unable to escape the room fell to the floor where they died. As the fire advanced further through the corridor, the same harrowing scene was repeated in each of the remaining five classrooms.

The body of a young girl is carried down a ladder from Room 212 when the fire is nearly extinguished.

As terror unfolded inside, those outside became aware of the fire. At around 2:30 P.M., janitor Jim Raymond had been walking between the narrow gangway separating the back of the school and parish rectory when he saw smoke and a red glow coming from one of the school’s frosted basement window panes. Raymond ran into the rectory to get help. “The school’s on fire!” he yelled to the housekeeper Nora Maloney. “Call the fire department, quick!” Raymond then disappeared back in the school, inside of which were four of his own children. Maloney’s actions at this point remain unclear because her call, the first report to the fire department, wasn’t received until 2:42 P.M. Meanwhile, after reentering the school basement, Raymond attempted to douse the flames himself. But the fire was too big for him to handle alone, so he ran up a set of stairs to the second floor where he was met by one of the parish priests. Together they helped evacuate a classroom next to the building’s only fire escape. In the next few minutes, the janitor made several more trips before passing out.

Another victim is removed down a ladder.

About the same time Raymond discovered the fire, traveling salesman Elmer Barkhaus was driving south of Avers Avenue when he too saw smoke coming from the school’s northeast doorway that led to the basement and faced the alley directly north of the school. Barkhaus pulled his car over and, after finding no fire alarm box on the corner, ran into a small candy store next door to telephone. The store’s owner, a Polish immigrant named Barbara Glowacki, was leery of strangers, so when the excited Barkhaus barged up to her front counter, she said she had “no public phone.”

“The school next door is on fire,” Barkhaus yelled before running out the door to ring doorbells on neighboring homes. Glowacki went into the alley to investigate the stranger’s report. She saw smoke and  a wisp of flame shooting from the transom above the school’s rear stairwell door. Fear shot through he body; her daughter Helena’s classroom was on the first floor. She hurried back to the store and called the fire department. After being told that “help is on the way,” Glowacki returned to the alley. This time she saw frantic students and nuns leaning out the upper windows. They were shrouded in black smoke that pushed from behind them. “Help us,” they screamed. “We’re trapped.” But before Glowacki could react, the first of dozens of students began jumping the 25 feet to the icy pavement.

Firemen carefully retrieve the body of a young girl from room 212 before the fire is completely extinguished.

Sirens began to fill the neighborhood and harried parents and neighbors ran into the alley carrying painting ladders that fell far short of the window ledges. When Engine 85 pulled up, its crew saw smoke and flames surging in from the school’s upper window ledges and children dropping from the sills, many with their clothing and hair aflame. The fire was soon elevated to five alarms, bringing 60 fire companies and ambulances to the scene. Desperate as the situation was, in the decisive early moments of their arrival, firefighters still managed to save 160 children by pulling them out windows, passing them down ladders, catching them in life nets, or otherwise breaking their falls before they hit the ground. One rescuer who climbed a ladder to Room 211 was Lieutenant Charles Kamin of Hook-and-Ladder 35. When he reached the window, scores of 8th graders were bunched together trying to squeeze out. The fireman reached in and began grabbing the children one at a time, swinging them around his back and dropping them to the ladder. He didn’t have time to worry if they missed. A broken bone from falling was better than dying. Kamin rescued about nine children, mostly boys because he could grab them by their belts. He was stopped when the room exploded in fire and the remaining pupils at the window fell back in the flames beyond his reach.

Joseph Maffiola was ostensibly the first victim removed from the school after the fire was out and it became clear that no more survivors would be found. The ten-year-old was found, along with 25 classmates, in room 212. He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Cook County Hospital. His teacher, Sister Therese Champagne, was among the fatalities in his classroom.

It took fire crews a little more than an hour to put out the fire. But when they entered the second-story classrooms in the north wing, their discoveries were grim. Flames had consumed everything in their path. In Room 212, 27 5th graders and the nun were dead, most asphyxiated by smoke. Next door, in Room 210, the nun and 29 4th graders were burned to death. At the end of the corridor, amid the debris from the partially collapsed roof, the badly-burned bodies of nine 7th graders were discovered huddled next to their nun near the front of Room 208. Across the hallway, in Rooms 209 and 211, another 27 8th graders lay dead.

Firefighters carry a body to an awaiting police squadron for the trip to the county morgue.

For the hundreds of parents and relatives standing in stunned silence outside the school, the huge loss of life became apparent. As weary firefighters emerged from the ruined building carrying cloth-covered stretchers, a long line of ambulances and police squadrons crept slowly past to collect the bodies. For many parents the plight was made worse by not knowing if their child was dead or alive. Although many did locate their youngsters in the streets outside the school or in neighboring homes, others were left to search among the seven hospitals that had received the injured. For some parents, the search would not end until they reached the county morgue. By night’s end, 90 bodies had been counted, 87 students and 3 nuns.

Chicago, a city tempered by past tragedies, was stunned by the appalling loss. In addition to the dead, another 100 people were injured, including students, school staff, firefighters, and civilians. Two families had each lost two children. Among the injured, some had fractured skulls, broken bones, smoke-damaged lungs, and terrible burns. Five more children died in the coming months, bringing the final death toll to 55 girls, 37 boys and 3 nuns.

John Jajkowski, a ten-year-old in Sister Theresa Champagne’s fifth grade class in room 212, was found dead under a window near the back of room 212. Firefighter Richard Scheidt carried the boy’s smudged but unburned body from the school, along with 19 other children. As Scheidt stepped from the side door of the north wing on the alley side of the school with John in his arms, photographer Steve Lasker of the Chicago American newspaper snapped this heartbreaking photograph. It became the defining image of the tragedy and appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. This photo, perhaps more than any other, conveys a sense of the unmeasurable sorrow caused by the OLA fire.

As the destroyed school still smoldered questions arose: How did the fire start? How was it able to spread so fast? Why did it go unnoticed for up to 20 minutes? And why did so many perish?

Accusing fingers pointed in all directions. The church’s pastor received death threats. Angry parents charged the fire department with slow response. Fire officials blamed school personnel for a delay in turning in an alarm. Candy store owner Barbara Glowacki was criticized for not letting Elmer Barkhaus use her telephone. The janitor was accused of poor housekeeping. The Archdiocese of Chicago was blamed for overcrowding. As newswires reported the disaster around the globe, the Pope sent personal condolences to the parish and its families, while the Soviet Union criticized the United States for spending too much money on weapons systems and less on safety devices for schools.

Faces of grief – Robert McNeilly (center) carries an unconscious girl from the school, with the assistance of Sister Adrienne Corolan and an unidentified man. Robert was among those who helped with rescue efforts before the fire department arrived. (Photo courtesy of Bob McNeilly and Robert Denstedt)

Investigators sifted the ruins to piece together the fire’s rapid progression: sometime after 2 p.m., the blaze broke out in a ringed, 30-gallon cardboard trash drum located at the bottom of the school’s northeast stairwell. After consuming refuse in the container, the fire at first simmered from a lack of oxygen and smoldered undetected, elevating temperatures in the confined stairwell space. When intense heat shattered a window at the bottom of the stairwell, a fresh supply of oxygen was sucked into the area, causing the fire in the waste drum to flash up. The flames quickly spread to the unprotected wooden and asphalt-tile staircase, feeding off varnished woodwork and walls coasted with 14 layers of paint, the top two layers composed of an extremely flammable rubberized-plastic paint that produced heavy black smoke.

Fire-charred main corridor on the school’s second floor. Note the collapsed roof.

Because the building had no sprinkler system, the stairwell quickly turned into a chimney as flames, smoke, and gases billowed up from the basement. A closed fire door on the first floor stopped the blaze from entering the first-floor corridor. But there was no door on the second floor, allowing the fire to continue up the stairway and sweep into the 85-foot-long corridor leading to the second-floor classrooms. Once inside the corridor the fire fed on combustible wooden flooring, walls, and trim, as well as the ceiling, which was also coated in the flammable rubberized-plastic paint, thus filling the corridor with deadly columns of penetrating black smoke. While the fire made its way up the stairwell, hot air and gases in the basement had entered a shaft in the basement wall and ascended two stories inside the wall. This hot air fanned out into the shallow cockloft above the second-floor ceiling, sparking serious secondary burning in the hidden area directly above the six north-wing classrooms packed with 323 students and 6 teachers. These flames also dropped into the second-floor corridor from two ventilator grilles in the ceiling.

Some survivors reported that after classroom doors had been opened and quickly closed, they heard a loud whoosh, thought to have come from an explosion that accompanied the ignition of volatile fire gases that had built up in the corridor. When intense heat from the fire began breaking large glass transoms over classroom doors, smoke and flames entered the rooms, spread across flammable ceiling tile, and forced the occupants to the windows. This was the situation in the school’s north wing when the first firefighters arrived at 2:44 p.m. As they concentrated fist on rescue, the fire on the upper story of the north wing grew steadily worse and eventually burned off one-third of the roof before being brought under control.

This is looking southeast across room 211, toward the windows overlooking the courtyard. While the roof did not collapse in this room, as it did in rooms 208 and 209, the death toll was nevertheless very high, largely due to the sheer number of students (nearly 60) jammed into the room. (Life Magazine Photo)

Though investigators were able to pinpoint the start of the fire, its cause eluded them. A check of the heating and electrical systems revealed no problems. And no evidence suggested the fire was fed by an accelerant. Several pupils were known to sneak cigarettes in the stairwell, but no solid evidence pointe to a discarded smoke as a possible cause. The only other possibility was arson.

The week after the fire, a blue-ribbon coroner’s jury heard testimony from firefighters, church officials, students, teachers, and parents. The inquest revealed some disturbing facts: Our Lady of the Angels School, like many other school buildings at that time, had no sprinkler system or smoke detectors, and its fire alarm rang only in the building, it did not transmit a signal to the fire department. The nearest street fire alarm box was two blocks away. All but one of the school’s staircases were open, without fire doors, and the building had just one fire escape. Window ledges were 37 inches from the floor—too high, it was learned, for some children to climb onto. Consequently, many of the dead had been found stacked beneath the windowsills. Finally, with an enrollment of approximately 1,400 students, the school was severely overcrowded.

Larry Walter, 13, peers from beneath bandages intended to protect massive open burn wounds and ward off infection. Hospitals that normally handled a few burn patients a week suddenly had dozens in one day. Nearly 100 children were hospitalized with injuries ranging from cuts and sprains to severe burns, broken bones and fractured skulls.

Nevertheless, the school had passed its most recent fire inspection the previous October. Chicago’s municipal code at the time did not apply to pre-ordinance buildings built before 1949. Instead, a 1905 law that lacked such modern safety requirements as sprinkler systems, automatic fire alarms, and enclosed stairways covered Our Lady of the Angels. It was later determined that a sprinkler system for the school would have cost about $8 per parent—the same price as one football helmet used by the school’s 8th grade football team.

Despite all its hoopla, the coroner’s jury failed to find the fire’s cause and did little more than issue 22 non-binding recommendations for providing schools in the city with more extensive fire protection. After fading from the public consciousness, in January 1962, the school fire once again became front-page news when police in suburban Cicero, Illinois, questioned a 13-year-old boy about a series of fires he had set in the western suburb. When the police learned that the boy had been a troubled 5th grader at Our Lady of the Angels at the time of the fire, they pressed him for more information. His mother and stepfather hired an attorney, who recommended that the boy submit to a lie detector test.

In his interview with the boy, Chicago polygraph expert John Reid learned that the youth’s firesetting tendencies stretched back to the age of five, when he first set fire to a garage. Reid learned the youth had set up to 11 fires in apartment buildings in Chicago and Cicero, mostly by tossing matches onto papers placed at the bottom of stairways. At first, the boy denied that he had set the Our Lady of the Angels fire, but the test results suggested he was lying. In a Family Court hearing in February 1962, Reid described how he leaned over to the boy and said to him, “There are 92 children and three nuns sitting in heaven who want the truth.”

Susan Smaldone, a 9-year-old from room 210, lies critically burned in the hospital the day after the fire. Her injuries were very severe and she died in the hospital on December 22, 1958 from kidney failure.

The boy, Reid testified, then “became evasive, turning his eyes from side to side, and then told me how he started the Our Lady of the Angels fire.” The boy admitted to Reid that he started the fire in the hopes that any damage would be just enough to allow for a couple of extra days off from school. The boy also told Reid he had set the fire because he hated his teachers and his principal, who, he said, “always wanted to expel me from school.” The boy’s attendance record at the school was poor, and his behavior was listed as “deplorable.” His teachers, a report shows, said he was a “troublemaker”.

In his eight-page confession, the boy described how he started the fire in the basement after going to the washroom. “I looked around and I didn’t see anybody. I threw three matches in the can and then I ran up the stairs to my room.” The boy also filled in a pencil sketch of the basement, pinpointing exactly where the fire was started. He said he waited at the trash barrel for “a few minutes” after setting the fire and watched the flames “get bigger and bigger.” He then returned to his room on the second floor and was evacuated with his class.

When Reid asked why he had never before told anyone about setting fire to the school, the boy replied, “I was afraid my dad was going to give me a beating and I’d get in trouble with the police and I’d get the electric chair or something.” Reid turned the confession over to authorities, and the boy was placed in the Audy Juvenile Home. Chicago police pursued a juvenile petition charging him in the school fire, but after  series of closed-door  Family Court hearings that ended in March 1962, Judge Alfred Cilella threw out the boy’s confession, ruling that Reid had obtained it improperly. Moreover, because the boy was under 13 at the time of the fire, the judge said he could not be tried for a felony in Illinois. Nevertheless, the judge found the youth delinquent for starting the Cicero fires, and he sent him away to a home for troubled boys in Michigan.

Despite the judge’s ruling, the boy’s description of how, where, and when the fire was started, details that only the fire setter would have known, corroborated much information compiled by investigators that, up to 1962, had been previously unreleased. Also telling are the similarities in the way the fires started in the apartment buildings and school, blazes that began in papers in a stairwell, further supporting the claims of Reid and other investigators who remained convinced that the boy was being truthful in his confession.

The day after: unbelieving crowds flock to view the school.

Culled from: Great Chicago Fires

More photos can be viewed at the wonderful OLAFire website.

The ruins of the school were demolished in 1959 and another school, built to modern safety standards, replaced it.  This is what the site looks like today.

MFDJ 07/10/24: Living Spaces

Today’s Cheap Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

In public affection the landlord’s rating was comparable to that of the kidnapper; and the richer he was, the more likely he was to deserve it. His victim, the tenant, is today protected by the law, but in the 19th century he was vulnerable, ignorant and utterly misused.

New York’s soaring population—augmented by the continuing influx of Europeans—aggravated the housing shortage and inflated real estate values. Keen as foxes to the scent of weaker game, speculators piously came to the rescue by building the cheapest form of tenements.

Cracked walls, sagging floors, and a total absence of fire exits were features of these neglected buildings, whose dingy over-crowded rooms drew extortionate rents. Landlords bullied poor and middle-class families with yearly rent increases and unpardonably brutal evictions. [Everything old is new again, eh? – DeSpair]

For New Yorkers who became casualties of the rent spiral the boarding house offered a solution, though not an ideal one. For $3 to $5 a week the clerk or working girl could find refuge here, along with childless couples, adventurers and ne’er-do-wells. Together they comprised a true cross section of America’s transient population—a culture of the homeless who were bound to a fixed place by neither blood nor tradition.

No invention of the Gilded Age, the boarding house had flourished before the Civil War in frontier cities and towns as a vital element in the nation’s growth. Charles Dickens, among others, missed their significance when he waspishly compared America’s rootless ways with those of the English.

Domestic moralists saw them as a threats to Victorian rectitude that loosened family ties and encouraged sinful liaisons. No doubt these dangers existed, but for legions with meager resources the boarding house was home.

The need for the apartment house existed for many years before its evolution. The boarding house and tenement were too little; the townhouse, too much. The intense frustration of city life literally forced the development of the apartment building, which was to convert millions of Americans into “cliff dwellers.”

The flight from private dwellings began with the well-to-do, whose townhouses had become a financial burden. Richard M. Hunt created the prototype of a new style of housing in his Stuyvesant Apartments on 18th Street in New York. Contrary to dire predictions that New Yorkers would never consent to live “on mere shelves under a common roof,” this building and similar ones that followed it proved very successful. Class privilege was safeguarded by rents up to $3000 for seven rooms.

Reassured by the acceptance of communal living by the wealthy, real estate entrepreneurs built lower-rent apartment houses for the middle class. But these structures, which soon mushroomed in American cities, were little more than glorified tenements; and the style of living that was a pleasure for the rich became, in imitation, a curse to the wage earner. As a contemporary observed, “Reasonable apartments are not good, and good apartments are not reasonable.”

Families were shelved in layers, sharing floors that were subdivided into several apartments, three or four tiny rooms providing no insulation from the neighbors’ cooking smells or babies’ squallings. Garbage removal and sanitary facilities were comparably wretched and overcrowding made the buildings “more difficult to manage that n the tenement houses of the slum districts.”

As the size and number of apartment buildings increased, so too did the danger that a fire would turn them into blazing prisons. Of course, they were not the only firetraps, but they accounted for the heaviest loss of life in the great conflagrations of the period. Between 1870 and 1906 four American cities—Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco—burned to the ground, a record unmatched anywhere else in the world. Boston’s assessment of its yearly fire damage—$1 to $1.5 million—was ten times greater than that of a European city of comparable size.

The frequency and destructiveness of fires in American cities were blamed on shoddy construction and the use of flammable materials in the construction of “fireproof” apartments. Even as late as 1904, after steel had replaced the less heat-resistant cast iron for building, 7000 lives were lost in city fires.

Nowhere is the fireman more celebrated than in the Untied States. And for sound, historical reasons.

Culled from: The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible!


Vintage Illustration Du Jour!

A woman’s face, badly affected with lesions of impetigo on the nose, cheeks and upper lip.

Culled from: The Sick Rose

MFDJ 07/09/24: Slipping Into the Lake

Today’s Waterlogged Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

James Larson, an eighteen-year-old from Forest City, Iowa, spent his second summer in 1954 in charge of motor and rowboats at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park. Perhaps he wanted the job so much that he hid from his employers that he could not swim, or maybe he truly believed that if push ever came to shove he would survive by instinct. When he slipped while closing a window on  a boat and fell into the lake, however, he realized instantly the severity of his error. He yelled for help and got it—people came running to his aid and pulled him out of the water within five minutes—but during his ordeal in the water, he hit his head on the bottom of the boat. The blow knocked him out, and even though a doctor staying at the hotel worked for nearly three hours to revive him, she could not bring him around.

Many Glacier Hotel beside the fatal lake

Culled from: Death in Glacier National Park


Vintage Crime Scene Photo Du Jour!

Tony Moreno, alias Dominick “The Rat” Russo, felt secure enough in his position as gang chief of Cicero, Illinois, to sun himself on his own turf. Moreno, described as a “pupil of Capone,” was not protected by his mentor once Capone was in prison. On August 2, 1933, gunmen fired four bullets into Moreno’s chest. The pool of blood and the gazing crowd are standard fixtures in photos of gangland slayings. The pointed shoes and dangling hand make Moreno a much more elegant corpse than most dead mobsters.

Culled from: Shots in the Dark

MFDJ 07/08/24: The Crimes of Victoriano Corrales

Today’s Unclaimed Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Victoriano Corrales was a miserable excuse for a human being. For over a decade, he mistreated and abused his wife, Angelina, and their six children. In February 1946, he nearly choked Angelina to death in their home in Bryte, in what is now West Sacramento, California. Had it not been for his oldest daughter who stepped in to stop him, he would have murdered her. Shortly after that incident, a terrified Angelina took her children and left Victoriano without telling him where she was going.

Corrales moved to Brighton, which is now the area around the California State University, Sacramento. At the time, the area consisted of light industrial businesses and run down housing with some scattered vegetable gardens. The Southern Pacific Railroad crossed tracks nearby.  It was a busy place, with lots of soot from the constantly passing steam engines. Corrales lived in a shack, described in newspapers as a garage, a few blocks from the American River and a block from Folsom Blvd.

Corrales, who worked as a farm laborer, dishwasher, and a cement pipe worker, missed having a woman in his life to slap around, so he traveled to his hometown, Irapuato, Mexico where he sweet talked a local woman, 28-year-old Alberta Gomez into coming to Sacramento to live with him. In June 1948, he smuggled her over the border near Calexico CA. After living a few days with Corrales in his ramshackle garage, she realized she had made a terrible mistake. When she threatened to leave him on June 12, 1948, Corrales beat her brains out with a hammer. He chopped off her head, arms and legs, and then made two trips to the American River to dump her body parts. He wrapped the dead woman’s torso in an electric blanket, using the cord as a rope. The American and Sacramento Rivers were flowing high at the time and a week later, her torso washed up 25 miles downriver in Steamboat Slough. The other parts of her body were never found.

After a few month, Corrales grew tired of living alone and returned to Irapuato to find another female to smuggle back over the border. He met twenty-something Maria Pulldo and lied to her about being a successful man, and asked her to come with him to Sacramento. He again crossed the border near Calexico. When they first arrived in Sacramento the pair stayed a few days at a West End hotel where he pretended to be a man of means.

He hired a cab to drive them to his shack in Brighton. When Pulldo saw the neighborhood, she recoiled. According to the cab driver, she became very angry at being misled. When she saw the shack, she allegedly said, “This is as dirty and ugly and old as you are. I will not stay here. I am going to find another man.” The two fought in the driveway, with Corrales eventually dragging the terrified woman into the dank hovel. Once inside, Corrales used his hammer and hit Pulldo several times on the head. Grabbing his trusty double-edged axe he hacked off her head, arms, and legs. Like before, it took him two trips to carry what was left o Maria Pulldo, and after tossing her body parts into the American River, he went to sleep. The next day he cleaned the gore-soaked floor and burned all the bloody clothing. A few days later he burned the mattress.

Pulldo’s body was discovered a few days later on December 21, 1948, floating near the H Street Bridge. The autopsy revealed that Pulldo was alive when decapitated. Police speculated a connection or correlation between the Steamboat Slough torso and the H Street Bridge torso.

Mrs. Ira Anderson, a neighbor of Corrales, called police on January 17, 1949 after hearing about the body found in the nearby American River. On December 14, the Andersons and several local witnesses Saw Corrales arguing in the cab with a Hispanic woman and watched as Corrales dragged the struggling woman into his shack. Mrs. Anderson described seeing Corrales burning his mattress a few days later and even recalled Corrales saying to them back in December that his female friend would not be with him for long.

Mrs. Anderson told the police, “I told my friends how I never had seen those women come out of the cabin, but we did not think too seriously about it at first because he was always quiet.” Anderson also feared that if the police did not find evidence, it would be very uncomfortable living next door to Corrales.

Upon investigation, police did in fact find evidence, lots of bloody evidence. They discovered a double-blade axes leaning against the refrigerator, a six-inch knife on the table, a hammer, and blood residue on the floor of the shack. They took Corrales downtown for questioning.

This was during pre-Miranda Rights era and it was likely Corrales was slapped around until he confessed. He took the police to the American River and showed them where he had tossed Pulldo’s body parts.

Victoriano Corrales at the river.

Police dragged the river and found her head and right leg. A brown ribbon was still tied in her black hair and a silk stocking was on her leg. On March 20th, Pulldo’s other leg turned up floating underneath the bridge at Rio Vista.

Corrales pleaded not guilty and was assigned Public Defender Elvin Sheehy. Since Corrales had admitted his crimes, the best Sheehy could hope for this client was Second Degree Murder or an insanity plea. The District Attorney was John Quincy Brown and the Honorable Judge Coughlin presided. Examining psychiatrists deemed Corrales sane. Jury selection took longer than the actual trial.

Brown told the jury in his closing statement, “Corrales is a savage type of individual with stone age moral concepts. He has no conception of the enormity of his offense. He is a stolid kind of savage who killed these women and cut up their bodies with as little concern or less as you and I would have in killing a chicken and cutting its head off.” (Personally, I’d find killing a chicken harder than a person…  oh, did I say that out loud??? – DeSpair]

The jury agreed and on March 17, 1949, found Corrales guilty of the two murders and was sentenced to death on March 21, 1949. On February 24, 1950, Corrales calmly walked into San Quentin’s gas chamber. Nobody claimed his body.

Culled from: Forgotten Sacramento Murders: 1940-1976 by my friend, David Kulczyk


Civil War Injury Du Jour!

Charles Fox, Pvt. Co. 1 111 N.Y. Vols. “Aged 18, admitted April 5th, 1865 to Harewood Hospital, suffering from GSW right foot fracturing metatarsal bone of big toe and severely injuring  OS Calcis. Wounded March 31st, at the Battle of Petersburgh, VA. On admission, the condition of injured parts, however was tolerable good. Parts became subsequently gangrenous, with disorganization of the ankle joint, bones necrosed and sloughing of soft parts,. Sinuses had formed, extended upwards the leg. The limb was amputated at the lower third by circular method. Patient did well after the operation under simple dressing… Parts nearly healed when transferred to Lincoln USA Hospital, July 20th, 1865.”

Photograph from Bontecou’s 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 inch two volume set of body wounds.

Culled from: Shooting Soldiers

MFDJ 07/07/24: Martyrs into the Kiln

Today’s Brave Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Let’s have another jolly story of Christian Martyrdom from the classic of the genre, Fox’s Book of Martyrs (1848).  This incident allegedly occurred during the Eighth Persecution, under Valerian, A. D. 257.

At Utica, a most terrible tragedy was exhibited: 300 Christians were, by the orders of the proconsul, placed round a burning limekiln. A pan of coals and incense being prepared, they were commanded either to sacrifice to Jupiter, or to be thrown into the kiln. Unanimously refusing, they bravely jumped into the pit, and were immediately suffocated.

Culled from: Fox’s Book of Martyrs


Sexual Deviant Du Jour!

The Sexual Criminal is a 1949 criminology textbook written by infamous Los Angeles County criminal psychiatrist J. Paul De River that is jam-packed with all the sexism and homophobia common to its era.  I thought I’d share some of the case studies with you.

Case H. R.

The following case will illustrate a homosexual homicide. This subject brutally killed his victim at the culmination of wild sexual orgy. The victim had befriended the subject.

Case Study 109. H.R., age twenty, white male; he has completed the ninth grade of school; occupation: rancher and farm hand.

Family History: His mother died when he was two years old. Cause of death is unknown. His father was killed in an automobile accident ten years ago. He has one brother, twenty-seven years of age, whom he has not seen for some time. There is a negative history of insanity, epilepsy, and all constitutional diseases.

Past History: He has had the usual childhood diseases. He states his health has always been good. H. R. was raised by various relatives, and he left home at an early age and worked on farms. He states he started to masturbate about the age of nine. About this time, an older man committed the act of pederasty on him. Since that time he has had homosexual affairs, most of which were in the nature of passive pederasty. He also occasionally indulged in acts of fellatio. H.R. states he had his first act of sexual intercourse with a girl when he was sixteen. He has had four hetero love affairs.

At seventeen he had a serious love affair with a man forty, and when he was twenty, he had another love affair with a man about his own age. He states that he enjoys sexual acts with men more than he does with women, and that acts of sodomy give him the greatest pleasure. He still indulges in the act of masturbation. He states that he has noticed in the past few years that he has difficulty in reaching the acme of sexual satisfaction. Sometimes it takes him forty-five minutes to one hour. He states that he only likes girls now as friends. He prefers men as his sexual companions. He states, “I like muscular, virile type of men with well-developed sex organs.” During his life on the farm he indulged in acts with other men and boys and he admits acts of bestiality with horses and cows.

He denies ever having syphilis or gonorrhea. He uses tobacco and alcohol, but denies the use of narcotics.

Somatic Examination: He is a well-developed and well-nourished white male, athletic schizothymic physique, sandy brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion. His face is of the steep egg-shaped variety, short chin; there is la lack of hair growth over the face. His skin is in good condition. He has a tattoo mark on his left forearm — heart and arrow. He had much dried blood coagulated over the right and left chest. His hands are large, long, and thick. There is a recent wound, about a quarter of an inch long — proximal joint of the right little finger. Heart and lungs are negative. The bony, muscular, and glandular systems are negative. There is a tendency towards a barrel chest. The right side of the chest is larger than his left. There is a lack of hair distributed over his body and under his arm pits. The genitalia are well-developed, the testicles are large. In the examination of the central nervous system, the pupils are equal and react to light and acommodation. The deep and superficial reflexes are present and within the norm. There are no disturbances of sensibility noted.

Psychic Examination: He is well orientated as to time, places, dates and person. His reaction time is prompt. His general knowledge is fair; his wealth of knowledge is good for one of his education. He performed the backward and forward test and the test for the opposites correctly. There is no disassociation noted. He states he gets along well with people. He knows the difference between right and wrong and is able to define such. He is affectively cold and lacks outward feeling. There are no delusions, illusions, or hallucinations.

Statements Relative to His Present Offense: The following questions were asked of the subject and the following answers received:

Q: Are you sorry for what you have done?

A: I am very worried over what happened and I feel very badly. I realize it wasn’t right to kill a man, but I was angry and I couldn’t control myself, once I started I just kept going.

Q: What did you do with the weapon you used?

A: I threw the knife over the bridge.

Q: Were you able to eat and sleep all right after the murder?

A: I slept very well, and there’s nothing wrong with my appetite.

Q: How long before you realized what you had done was wrong?

A: Right after I killed the fellow I realized what I had done was wrong.

Q: How did you come to kill this man — what caused you to get angry at him, as you put it?

A: I knew the fellow about two days. He gave me a lift in his automobile along the highway en route down here. We stopped and bought two quarts of wine. We then went to a hotel in a nearby town and arrived there about dusk. We got a room and got undressed and went to bed. We indulged in the act of mutual masturbation and an attempt of sodomy was made after fooling around for some time and drinking and quarreling. Then everything seemed to go blank on me. I can remember standing over him —he was bleeding. Somebody came to the door and got in, and said, “My God!” and they ran downstairs for help. I left for I thought I’d better get out. After I left the place I hitch-hiked. A fellow gave me a ride in his car, and I fell asleep in the car, and I guess he got suspicious of me and the way I looked, for while I was asleep he drove me to the jail. I guess it was about daylight.

Q: Can you tell me anything more about what happened?

A: We had been drinking about two quarts of wine, and the knife had been lying on the table. I do remember hitting him on the chest. Then I stabbed him and he hollered, “My God, you’ve stabbed me.” Then he began yelling for help, and I kept beating him. Then I realized that I’d better get going when someone came to the door. I went out the window by the fire escape.

Q: Did you intend to kill him?

A: Not in the beginning, but when I got started, I couldn’t stop.

Q: Do you feel sorry that you’ve killed him?

A: I feel sorry because I don’t know what’s going to happen, otherwise I don’t worry.

Analysis and Conclusion: This subject is medically and legally sane. This subject is the product of a poor home and early seduction is the cause of his homosexual practices. He is temperamentally cold, perverted, and hyper-sexual. He brutally murdered his victim during a homosexual sex orgy, by beating him on the head with a wine bottle, and stabbing him with a knife.

He showed little remorse during questioning for what he had done, which is characteristic of the sadist, who pumps up affectivity for the purpose of murdering his victim, as a means of satisfaction for his pent-up sexual impulse.

(This man was tried, found guilty, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.)

MFDJ 07/06/24: American Horror Story

Today’s Hypocritical Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

When Western countries condemned the Japanese for their attack on Nanking, China, the Japanese couldn’t believe the hypocrisy.  Here’s one of many examples where they had a point. 

As vice president under William McKinley, then as president in his own right, Teddy Roosevelt had relished the chance to bring Christian civilization to America’s first major colonial possession in the Pacific, the Philippines. “Not one competent witness who has actually known the facts believes the Filipinos capable of self-government at the present,” Roosevelt said. He found it unthinkable to “abandon the Philippines to their own tribes.” To him, the Filipino freedom fighters were “a syndicate of Chinese half-breeds,” and to grant them self-government “would be like granting self-government to an Apache reservation under some local chief.”

Christian intellectuals saw nothing wrong with “helping” Filipinos by denying them freedom. The Literary Digest polled 192 editors of Christian publications and found only three who recommended independence for the Philippines. “Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of the imperialists?” asked the Missionary Record.

Just three decades before the Japanese soldiers were taught that the Chinese were beasts, American veterans of the Indian wars sailed off to the Philippines. “We had been taught… that the Filipinos were savages no better than our Indians,” an American officer said. When Senator Joseph Burton of Kansas defended the slaughter of Filipinos on the Senate floor as “entirely within the regulations of civilized warfare” by citing earlier massacres of Indians as a precedent, “no one even bothered to respond.”

America would cause the deaths of more than 250,000 Filipinos—men, women and children—from the beginning of the hostilities on February 4, 1899, to July 4, 1902, when President Roosevelt declared the Philippines “pacified.” That is pretty serious killing. America fought WWII over a period of fifty-six months with approximately 400,000 casualties on all fronts. So Hitler and Tojo combined, with all their mechanized weaponry, killed about the same per month—7,000—as the American “civilizers” did in the Philippines.

The Filipino uprising against their former Spanish masters had been a guerrilla operation, a popular insurgency supported by the civilian population. The brutality of the Spanish response had been one of the American rationales for kicking Spain out in the first place. Now America replaced the oppressor and adopted the same methods—widespread torture, concentration camps, the killing of disarmed prisoners and helpless civilians—but with a ruthlessness that surpassed even that of the Spanish. The majority of Filipinos killed by the American soldiers were civilians. An army circular attempted to assuage any guilt by rationalizing that “it is an inevitable consequence of war that the innocent must generally suffer with the guilty’ and since all natives were treacherous, it was impossible to recognize “the actively bad from only the passively so.”

American soldiers firing on “insurgents,” 1899

One American army captain wrote of “one of the prettiest little towns we have passed through”—the people there “desire peace and are friendly to Los Americanos. When we came along this road, the natives that had remained stood along the side of the road, took off their hats, touched their foreheads with their hands. ‘Buenos Dias, Senors’.” The good American boys then proceeded to slaughter the residents and ransack the town.

Anthony Michea of the Third Artillery wrote, “We bombarded a place called Malabon, and then we went in and killed every native we met, men, women and children.” Another soldier described the fun of killing innocent civilians: “This shooting human beings is a ‘hot game,’ and beats rabbit hunting all to pieces. We charged them and such a slaughter you never saw. We killed them like rabbits; hundreds, yes thousand of them. Everyone was crazy.”

“I want no prisoner,” one American general ordered. “I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” An officer asked for clarification, “to know the limit of age to respect.” The general replied in writing to kill all those above “ten years of age.”

Corporal Richard O’Brien wrote home about “The Beast of La Nog,” a Captain Fred McDonald who ravished a village by that name. “O’Brien described how his company had gunned down civilians waving white flags because McDonald had ordered ‘take no prisoners.’ Only a beautiful mestizo mother was spared to be repeatedly raped by McDonald and several officers and then turned over to the men for their pleasure.”

Post-massacre, March 8, 1906, Bud Dajo

Culled from: Flyboys


Crime Scene Photo Du Jour!

Photographer: R.A. 10-30-58. Assault victim, Case information unavailable.

Culled from: Scene of the Crime

MFDJ 07/05/24: Conquering Cholera

Today’s Dramatic Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

In August 1854, cholera roared into London’s Soho district, killing ninety-three people. John Snow, a British doctor, who was London’s leading anesthetist, decided to investigate, conducting a famous experiment that finally broke the back of the disease. He graphed the deaths from cholera and noticed that they seemed to occur to people who drank from one of several public wells. The water in that well, he proposed, must be the culprit. To test his hypothesis, Snow removed the pump handle from the suspect well and the cholera epidemic came to an abrupt end. [This story is told in compelling fashion in the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. – DeSpair]

In 1883, Robert Koch, one of the founders of the germ theory of disease, went to Egypt to uncover the cause of a cholera epidemic that seemed to be moving toward Europe. He arrived just after a colleague of the great Louis Pasteur, Pierre Emil Roux, who was trying but failing to isolate the cholera-causing microorganism. He was trying to grow the bacteria the way the master had taught him—in broth, which tended to be contaminated with other microorganisms. Koch had a better laboratory method, growing the bacteria on the springy surface of agar, where he could see and discard contaminants. Not only did he find the microorganism, the comma-shaped Vibrio cholerae, in Egyptian patients, the next year he showed that the bacteria lived in human intestines and that they were transmitted in water. He repeated the work in Calcutta and reported his victory to the German government, which hailed him a hero.

Robert Koch

Not everyone was won over, however. One Munich hygienist, Max von Pettenkofer, insisted that the miasma (foul air) theory was correct and, to prove it, he asked Koch for a flask of broth brimming with cholera bacteria. He drank it down. He wrote back to Koch jubilantly: “Herr Doctor Pettenkofer has now drunk the entire contents and is happy to be able to inform Herr Doctor Professor Koch that he remains in his usual good health.” to which one modern commentator, Roy Porter, a historian of medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Science in London, wryly notes, “Pettenkofer must have been fortunate enough to possess the high stomach acidity which sometimes neutralizes the vibrios.” But while Pettenkofer is a curious footnote in history, Koch triumphed. Soon, Porter writes, Koch was “burdened with success.” As a consequence, “his research declined, and so to offset that he turned oracle.”

Cholera: another cutie!

The victory over cholera was only a beginning. With the growing and profound knowledge that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms and that the spread of disease can be prevented, the Western world was transformed. It took years for the change to be complete, but the result was a vigorous public health movement that emphasized simple but powerful measures like cleaning up water supplies and teaching people what now seem to be basic lessons of health and hygiene—keep flies away from food, wash your hands before handling food, give your babies milk, not beer, quarantine the sick. The results were dramatic. In large areas of the world, many of the killer diseases seemed tamed, or even vanquished, and deadly epidemics seemed to be relics of the past.

Culled from: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It


Prisoner Du Jour!


After lying for 24 hours in an unconscious state at the county hospital, E.C. Robertson, who was assaulted by Andrew Malidone and Hector Black, two Greek waiters, died last evening at 10:15 o’clock.

The injured man had a severe concussion of the brain from the effects of the fall which he received and never recovered consciousness in order to give his version of the affair.

When brought to the city prison on Friday night, none of the officers recognized Robertson on account of the battered and bleeding condition of his face, but yesterday morning Officer Single succeeded in establishing the dead man’s identity and notified his daughter Lulu at Sutter City.

The girl came to this city and went immediately to the county hospital, where she remained with her father until his death.

It was an affecting scene that transpired at the hospital when the little girl was led into the room where her father lay with his battered and broken features. Although she was on the verge of breaking down, she bore up under the stain wonderfully and proceeded to write to her five brothers informing them of their father’s condition.

The dead man has been employed as a blacksmith at Hammonton and came to this city to make some purchases. There are several versions of the manner in which the deceased was hurt, but the police have two eye witnesses to the affair and both of them state that Robertson was struck from behind by one of the Greeks and fell on his face against the trolley track that is laid on the sidewalk into the car barn. There is a large blood stain on the sidewalk close to the track, and the police are of the opinion that the man struck the rail, causing the concussion. When found the deceased was lying on his face in the exact position in which he fell.

One of the witnesses of the affair stated that he thought the Greek who struck Robertson had something in his hand, and this blow may have caused the wound behind the dead man’s right eye, although the wound could have been received in falling.

Witnesses state that Robertson was arguing with Mrs. Gabriel in front of the restaurant when the two waiters attacked him and he ran. Both of the Greeks gave pursuit and when they reached the front of the car barn one of them struck him, causing him to fall.

Coroner Kelly will hold an autopsy this morning and District Attorney Greely will prepare charges against the prisoners.

The dead man was very quiet in his habits and his friends cannot imagine how he became involved in the brawl with the woman.

He has many friends in the vicinity of Sutter City who will be shocked to hear of his untimely end.

Mrs. Gabriel could not be found yesterday and the restaurant was closed up. Marshal Mahen would allow no one to talk with the prisoners yesterday and their version of the affair could not be obtained.

Robertson was a native of this State and aged 42 years. Undertaker Bevan has charge of the remains. [September 8, 1907]


The following verdict was rendered by the coroner’s jury last evening in the case of William C. Robertson, who died as a result of injuries sustained from a fall caused by being struck by Hector Black, a Greek waiter.

“Well, the jury, find that the deceased, William C. Robertson, a native of California, aged 48 years, 5 months and 21 days, came to his death on the 7th day of September, 1907, in the Yuba county hospital, from injuries received by the hand of one Hector Black. Signed, Joseph E. Coombs, foreman; Halsey C. Dunning, Floyd S. Seawell, C. R. Schinkel, John Gavin and H.P. Galligan.”

The district attorney will probably prefer a charge of manslaughter against the prisoner today. It is not known as to what action will be taken against Andrew Malidone, who was with Black at the time the crime is alleged to have been committed.

The autopsy performed Sunday morning revealed the fact that the skull of the deceased was severely cracked in addition to the concussion of the brain. [September 11, 1907]



At the preliminary examination of Hector Black, charged with the murder of William C. Robertson, yesterday afternoon the murder charge was reduced to manslaughter and the prisoner held to answer before the Superior court with bail set at $3000 or $2000 cash.

Andrew Malidone, who was arrested with Black, was discharged as there was no testimony offered to which he could be connected with the case. [September 17, 1907]



The case of the People vs. Hector Black, a Greek charged with the crime of manslaughter, commended in the Superior court in this city yesterday and arguments were completed. The jury will take the case this morning.

Attorney Greely represented the People and Attorneys W.H. Carline and Waldo S. Johnson the defendant.

The alleged crime was committed on September 6, 1907, on C street in this city, when Black is alleged to have pushed a man named Robertson to the sidewalk and he died from his injuries.

The following witnesses were examined on behalf of the prosecution: Dr. J. H. Barr, John Peffer, Clyde Kelly and Charles Stevenson.

They had seen the defendant push a man on C Street named Robertson which resulted in his skull being fractured, causing death.

After the prosecution had rested the defense took up the examination of witnesses and concluded at 4:30, when the case went over until today at 10 o’clock.

Black, the defendant, a good looking Greek, testified that he is but 18 years of age. He heard Robertson call Mrs. Gabriel, who conducts a restaurant on C. street, bad names, so he pushed him away and he fell down. [December 6, 1907]



The trial of Hector Black, charged with manslaughter for the killing of W. C. Robertson, came to an end in the Superior court last night at 9 o’clock, when the jury was discharged after the foreman declaring that it would be impossible to arrive at a verdict.

The case was given to the jury at 11 o’clock yesterday morning and from the first ballot to the last the jurors stood eight for acquittal to four for conviction.

At 4:30 o’clock the jury was brought into court and Judge McDaniel asked if there was a possibility of arriving at a verdict. The foreman declared that he believed it impossible, but, after reading the instructions on excusable and justifiable homicide, Judge McDaniel sent the jury back for further deliberation. At 9 o’clock the jury reported that it stood the same and the jurors were discharged.

The trial proceeded without an objection from either side and was without an exception the most peaceable criminal trial every conducted in the Yuba County court.

In all probability the case will be dismissed and Black given his freedom. [December 7, 1907]

[Superior Court records show the case was dismissed December 11, 1907, at the request of the District Attorney.]

Culled from: Prisoners

MFDJ 07/04/24: Unbearable Conditions at Oneglag

Today’s Unbearable Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Here’s a description of a Soviet prison camp circa 1980 from the book The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union:

The greater part of the Arkhangel’sk Region, a territory lying astride the Arctic Circle, is an icy, mountainous wasteland. In the south, however, there are large tracts of forest as well as significant deposits of metal ores, especially aluminum bauxite.

Life in these difficult climatic conditions is so hard that volunteers refuse to work here. For this reason, the Soviet state sends thousands of prisoners to the labor camps of Arkhangel’sk Region instead. As of 1980, there were no less than 100,000 prisoners in the three major forced-labor camp complexes, one of which was Oneglag.

Oneglag, whose administrative headquarters designed as no. 350 may be found in Plesetsk, included 50 strict-regime and seven special strict-regime camps and a total prisoner population of approximately 60,000. The camp complex services the Bauxite Construction Trust and the Onega Special Lumber Company which provided lumber for use in the Soviet Union or for export to the West.

The following is an eyewitness account from M.K., an electronics engineer released from Oneglag in 1976:

“I was in a privileged group of specialists assigned to build tracks for the bauxite dredges and to plan the relocation of the logging camps. This gave me the opportunity to observe the conditions under which the prisoners in several ‘Oneglag’ camps lived. To begin with, the prisoners were kept hungry and were denied fresh vegetables, which, under sub-polar conditions, can cause scurvy. The ‘struggle’ against scurvy was carried out at our camp with the use of local remedies. Barrels of spruce-needle extract, which the prisoners drank as a source of ‘vitamins’, were available in the living areas of the camps. This measure, however, did not prevent the prisoners from losing their teeth.

“At winter temperatures of -40º or -50º C., the work in the logging areas was unbearable, and the production quotas were high. Failure to fulfill these quotas was punishable by incarceration in the isolation cell on reduced rations. A prisoner so punished, however, was at least withdrawn from his work duties.

“In the camps, I often saw desperate prisoners who had resorted to self-mutilation in order to escape the work that was sending them to their graves. Some placed a leg under a falling log, others chopped off a finger. Some even deliberately allowed a hand to become frostbitten so that it would have to be amputated. An atmosphere of hopelessness and despair reigned in the camps. Only the religious prisoners were able to stand above the human degradation. They believed that they were being tested by God and that they had to endure their sufferings. The others, however, fought each other over food or reduced themselves to acts of homosexuality or even sodomy. There were no women at the camps. The barracks at the camps were built of damp wood, which the prisoners had to dry with their own bodies. Not even the heating ovens were of any help against the dank winter cold.

“Even though we lived in the forest, we did not always have firewood for the ovens. The supervisors were more interested in fulfilling their work plans than in sending the prisoners out to gather firewood for the camps. This was left to the disabled prisoners. The camp rations condemned us, moreover, to permanent hunger. Because of the impassability of the roads in the winter, it was not always possible for the authorities to deliver provisions to the camps, which made matters much worse. In such cases, helicopters sometimes dropped packages of zwiebach from the sky. In the summer, swarms of midges, tiny gnat-like insects, plagued and literally devoured the prisoners. Even the protective nets on our headgear were of no help. The netting was coarse enough for the insects to penetrate. Yet the quotas had to be met and the prisoners had to continue working —swollen from illness, bloodstained, and hungry.

“When I was released from this horror after three years (I was unexpectedly rehabilitated), I could not for a long time believe that I had come out alive. And now, I can hardly believe that this horror continues to exist today. But it does exist. I still correspond with friends I left behind in the camp.”

Prisoners working along the Gulag railroad

Culled from: The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union


Civil War Portrait Du Jour!

By comparison with the ragtag forces of the South, the Union Army was magnificently equipped, as exemplified by the cornetist of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry pictured here. Yet Northerners were repeatedly chagrined by the frequency with which the ill-equipped Rebels bested them in battle. A Unionist lady wrote of Lee’s army marching through Frederick, Maryland:

I wish, my dearest Minnie, you could have witnessed the transit of the Rebel army through our streets… Their coming was unheralded by any pomp and pageant whatever… Instead came three long dirty columns that kept on in an unceasing flow. I could scarcely believe my eyes.

Was this body of men, moving… along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates—were these, I asked myself in amazement, were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity, with shocks of hair sticking through the holes in their hats, and the dust thick on their dirty faces, the men that had coped and encountered successfully and driven back again and again our splendid legions…?

I must confess, Minnie, that I felt humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance. Why, it seemed as if a single regiment of our gallant boys in blue could drive that dirty crew into the river without any trouble!

Culled from: Portraits of the Civil War

MFDJ 07/03/2024: Typhus Fever

Today’s Filthy Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Typhus fever is entirely different from typhoid fever. The latter is a water-borne disease caused by a bacillus. Typhus fever is a disease of dirt. The causative organism, Rickettsia prowazekii, belongs to a class of organisms which lies midway between the relatively large bacteria, easily seen under a high-powered microscope and which produced diseases such as typhoid, syphilis, and tuberculosis, and the viruses, which produce such diseases as smallpox and measles and which are so minute that they can be identified only with an electronic microscope. The organism is carried by lice. Lice is often found on animals or in the cracks and crannies of old buildings, but they can also infest unwashed bodies and the seams of dirty clothing.

Rickettsia prowazekii – ain’t it cute?

This is why typhus acquired the name of gaol fever and, since fevers were supposed to be caused by bad smells, this is the reason why English judges customarily would bear small nosegays of sweet-smelling flowers. The disease originated in the filthy prisons and spread from the felon in the dock to the judge upon the bench. Three such ‘assize epidemics’ occurred in the sixteenth century. These epidemics were late incidents in the history of typhus. The origin of the disease remains obscure. One theory holds that it originated in the East as an infection of lice and rats but subsequently became an infection of lice and men. (Of Lice and Men – I think I read that in 10th grade. – DeSpair)  Cyprus and the Levant were probably the first focus of spread to Europe, the earliest known severe outbreak being in the Spanish armies of Ferdinand and Isabella during 1489-90.

Since typhus is a campaign and dirt disease, particularly liable to occur in conditions where a number of people are herded closely together, wearing the same clothes for prolonged periods, and lacking means of ensuring bodily cleanliness, it sometimes had profound effects upon the fortunes of war. A remarkable example is the relatively small and localized epidemic which destroyed a French army besieging Naples in July 1528, thus making a decisive contribution to the final submission of Pope Clement VII to Charles V of Spain. Typhus also forced the Imperial armies of Maximilian II to break off the campaign against the Turks in 1566. Soldiers carried typhus fever across Europe during the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 and it was during this period that the disease became firmly established.

Typhus remained endemic in the whole of Europe from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, but it was only in conditions of warfare, extreme poverty or famine that major outbreaks occurred. The United States was not infected until early in the nineteenth century; a great epidemic occurred at Philadelphia in 1837. But the history of typhus is complicated by the existence of more than one form of the disease. ‘True’ typus fever, characterized by high fever, delirium, a crisis, and a blotchy rash, is very dangerous. Other less dangerous variants are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Brill’s Disease—a mild type which occurred among New York Jews and was described by Nathan Edwin Brill in 1898—and the Trench Fever of the First World War. This last variant, which was very prevalent among German and Allied troops, apparently replaced ‘true’ typhus in the armies it infected, for ‘true’ typhus did not occur among them, though it wrought havoc among the Servs and Russians. After the Russian revolution and the civil war which followed, famine and disease devastated almost the whole country. Approximately 20 million cases of true typhus occurred in European Russia alone between 1917 and 1921, with from 2.5 million to 3 million deaths.


True Typhus rash

The mode of transmission of typhus by the bite of the infected body louse was first described in 1911. H. da Roche Lima isolated the causative organism in 1916 and named it after an American, Howard Taylor Ricketts, and an Austrian, Stanislaus Joseph von Prowazek, both of whom died while investigating the disease. Since then improvements in hygiene and the use of DDT to kill lice have brought typhus under control, but mystery still surrounds this disease, for it seems that very special conditions are necessary before it will flourish in a virulent form, even when there is gross infestation with lice. Typhus seems to require concomitant malnutrition and sordid living conditions before it will produce a lethal epidemic.

Clipping hair of a boy infested with lice at a bathing station in Warsaw, 1917.

Culled from: Disease in History


Crime Scene Du Jour!

Scene of Dutch Schultz Shooting at the Palace Bar and Grill, Newark New Jersey, 1935

In 1935 Lucky Luciano ordered a hit on fellow gangster Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer and his “aides” after Schultz announced his intention to kill the anti-mob prosecutor Thomas L. Dewey. Luciano feared this murder would draw unwanted attention to the racketeers, so he put out an order to silence Schultz. Along with three other gangsters, Schultz was gunned down in a Newark, New Jersey, restaurant.

Culled from: Police Pictures