August 30, 2011
“In 1912—and you can write this down—I killed a man in Detroit.”
Al Stump, commissioned in 1960 to ghostwrite Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, would say it was a boozy, pill-induced, off-the-record confession—a secret revealed by the Detroit Tigers great as he spent the last painful year of his life battling cancer. The confession never made its way into the book Stump was writing for Doubleday & Company. With Cobb insisting on editorial control, Stump claimed, his role was to help the ballplayer give his account of his legendary but controversial life and career, even if the effort might be self-serving. It was, after all, Cobb’s book, he said, so the sportswriter filed the murder confession away with the rest of his notes.
Instead, the autobiography offers an account of a comeuppance rather than a killing, an encounter more in line with the “Nobody can pull that stuff on me!” persona that the baseball legend still liked to project at age 73. In that version, Cobb was riding in his car with his wife, Charlie, to the railway station in Detroit to catch a train for a Tigers exhibition game in Syracuse, New York, when three men waved them down. Thinking they might be having some trouble, he stopped to help. Immediately, the men attacked Cobb, who slid out of the car and began to fight back. “One of the mugs I knocked down got up and slashed at me with a knife,” the book says. “I dodged, but he cut me in the back. I couldn’t tell how bad it was. But my arms were still working.”
Cobb says the men retreated as he chased one of them down, “leaving him in worse condition than he’d arrived in.” Another one returned and cornered Cobb in a blind passageway. “I had something in my hand, which I won’t describe [Cobb was known to carry a “big Belgian revolver” at the time], but which often came in handy in Detroit in the days when it was a fairly rough town. I used it on him at some length. If he still lives, he has the scars to show for it. Leaving him unconscious, I drove on to the depot.”
By 1912, Cobb had established himself as one of the baseball’s biggest stars, and he would eventually be recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the game. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1936, he received more votes than any other player, including Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson and Honus Wagner. By all accounts, he was fiery, belligerent, mean-tempered and capable of violence. But did he kill a man?
August 23, 2011
Unlike in Mike Dash’s recent tale of a mysterious cold case, detectives knew right away the identity of a body found in Harlem on a cloudy spring day in June 1917. She was 18-year-old Ruth Cruger, who had been missing since February 13. She’d left her home on Claremont Avenue that morning wearing a blue velvet coat, a black hat adorned with a flowered ribbon, white kid gloves and her new graduation ring from Wadleigh High School. She walked toward 127th Street with a pair of ice skates dangling from her wrist and was never seen again.
The morning after Ruth disappeared, her older sister, Helen, searched for clues in their neighborhood. She recalled Ruth mentioning a motorcycle shop a few blocks away where she could get her skates sharpened. Helen arrived at the store around 9:30 and found it closed. She returned an hour later and this time the front door was padlocked. Finally, at 2:30 p.m., the shop was open. Inside she found several women waiting to have baby carriages repaired and a man hunched over a bicycle.
“Did my sister leave her skates to be sharpened yesterday?” Helen asked.
The man replied that a young woman had left a pair of skates to be sharpened in the morning and returned for them later.
“What kind of skates were they?”
“They were fastened on shoes like you have on,” the man answered.
“Was she a dark and attractive girl?” Helen asked.
Helen rushed home to recount the encounter to her father, Henry. He called the police and spoke with a detective, who reasoned that the shop’s owner, Alfredo Cocchi, had initially been absent from his counter because he had repair jobs in the neighborhood. The detective insisted that the Cocchi was a “respectable businessman” but agreed to pay him a visit, and afterward wrote a report that consisted solely of the line, “I searched the cellar.”
The New York Police Department seemed content to let the case grow cold, but Ruth Cruger quickly became a national fixation. The victim’s profile—young, white, attractive, from a respectable family—revived interest in “white slavery,” the idea that the thousands of girls who vanished every year in New York and other large cities had, one way or another, entered the “sporting life,” or prostitution. After a sensational 1907 case in Chicago, a frenzy over white slavery erupted; Americans lived in a state of fear equivalent to the atomic bomb scares of the 1950s or the early post-9/11 terror alerts. Newspapers printed daily “agony columns” listing the names of missing girls, and Progressive Era reformers crafted lurid narratives to rouse the public’s interest, books with titles like The Black Traffic in White Girls that read like porn for puritans. (More…)
August 18, 2011
Maria Strobel could not believe it of her Führer. Adolf Hitler and his party—a group of senior Nazis that included Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich—had spent more than an hour in her Munich bierkeller. Hitler had delivered a trademark speech, and, while they listened, Himmler and the others had run up a large beer bill. But the whole group had left in a hurry—leaving the tab unpaid and Strobel untippped.
Much annoyed, the Bavarian waitress set about clearing up the mess. She had made only a small dent in the pile of steins when, at 9:20 p.m. precisely, there was a huge explosion only a few feet behind her. A stone pillar disintegrated in the blast, bringing part of the ceiling crashing down in a rain of wood and masonry. The explosion hurled Strobel the length of the hall and out through the bierkeller’s doors. Though stunned, she survived—the person closest to the blast to do so. Eight others were not so fortunate, and a further 63 were so badly injured that they had to be helped out into the open air. As they staggered toward safety, the dais where Hitler had been standing eight minutes earlier lay crushed beneath six feet of heavy timber, bricks and rubble.
Hitler always said he had “the luck of the devil,” and during his years in power he survived more than 40 plots to kill him. The most famous of these culminated in July 1944, when Claus von Stauffenberg managed to place a bomb inside the conference room in Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair. On that occasion, a table support absorbed most of the blast and the Führer survived to hobble out, his eardrums shattered and his trousers torn to ribbons.
That attempt on Hitler’s life is famous—it was the basis for Valkyrie, the 2008 Tom Cruise film—but it can be argued that it was considerably less astounding, and less courageous, than the bierkeller bombing five years earlier. For one thing, Stauffenberg was well-equipped; he really should have done better with the resources at his disposal. For another, he and his fellow plotters were not convinced anti-Nazis; they may have had an aristocratic disdain for their plebian leader, but their primary reason for wanting Hitler dead was not horror at the barbarism of his regime, but simple conviction that he was leading Germany into the abyss.
The Munich bomb, on the other hand, exploded on November 8, 1939, at the height of the Führer’s popularity and less than three months after the outbreak of World War II—before the final order was given for the invasion of France, and when Russia remained a German ally and the United States remained at peace. Not only that; this bomb was the work of just one man, an unassuming carpenter who was far more principled than Stauffenberg and whose skill, patience and determination make him altogether much more interesting. Yet the Munich incident has been almost forgotten; as late as 1998 there was no memorial, in Germany or anywhere else, to the attempt or to the man who made it.
His name was Georg Elser, and this is his story. (More…)
August 16, 2011
He stood just four feet tall, his body contorted by a hump in his back and a crooked gait, and his stunted torso gave the illusion that his head, hands and feet were too big. But he was a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends, and his contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.
In the early 20th century, Charles Steinmetz could be seen peddling pedaling his bicycle down the streets of Schenectady, New York, in a suit and top hat, or floating down the Mohawk River in a canoe, kneeling over a makeshift desktop, where he passed hours scribbling notes and equations on papers that sometimes blew into the water. With a Blackstone panatela cigar seemingly glued to his lips, Steinmetz cringed as children scurried away upon seeing him—frightened, he believed, by the “queer, gnome-like figure” with the German accent. Such occurrences were all the more painful for Steinmetz, as it was a family and children that he longed for most in his life. But knowing that his deformity was congenital (both his father and grandfather were afflicted with kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the upper spine), Steinmetz chose not to marry, fearful of passing on his deformity.
Born in 1865 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz became a brilliant student of mathematics and chemistry at the University of Breslau, but he was forced to flee the country after the authorities became interested in his involvement with the Socialist Party. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1888 and was nearly turned away because he was a dwarf, but an American friend whom Steinmetz was traveling with convinced immigration officials that the young German Ph.D. was a genius whose presence would someday benefit all of America. In just a few years, Steinmetz would prove his American friend right.
Soon after his arrival, he went to work for Eickemeyer and Osterheld, a company in Yonkers, New York, and he identified and explained, through a mathematical equation that later became known as the Law of Hysterisis, or Steinmetz’s Law, phenomena governing power losses, leading to breakthroughs in both alternating- and direct-current electrical systems. America was entering a golden age of electrical engineering, and when Thomas Edison and General Electric learned what Steinmetz was doing with electric motors in Yonkers, the company bought out Eickemeyer and Osterheld in 1892, acquiring all of Steinmetz’s patents as well as his services.
Steinmetz Americanized his name to Charles Steinmetz. He chose Proteus as his middle name—the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form—that of a hunchback. Steinmetz thoroughly enjoyed the comparison.
In 1894 he arrived in Schenectady, the place he would call home for the next thirty years, and his impact at General Electric was immediate. Using complex mathematical equations, Steinmetz developed ways to analyze values in alternating current circuits. His discoveries changed the way engineers thought about circuits and machines and made him the most recognized name in electricity for decades.
Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
August 12, 2011
Most murders aren’t that difficult to solve. The husband did it. The wife did it. The boyfriend did it, or the ex-boyfriend did. The crimes fit a pattern, the motives are generally clear.
Of course, there are always a handful of cases that don’t fit the template, where the killer is a stranger or the reason for the killing is bizarre. It’s fair to say, however, that nowadays the authorities usually have something to go on. Thanks in part to advances such as DNA technology, the police are seldom baffled anymore.
They certainly were baffled, though, in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, in December 1948. And the only thing that seems to have changed since then is that a story that began simply—with the discovery of a body on the beach on the first day of that southern summer—has bec0me ever more mysterious. In fact, this case (which remains, theoretically at least, an active investigation) is so opaque that we still do not know the victim’s identity, have no real idea what killed him, and cannot even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide.
What we can say is that the clues in the Somerton Beach mystery (or the enigma of the “Unknown Man,” as it is known Down Under) add up to one of the world’s most perplexing cold cases. It may be the most mysterious of them all.
Let’s start by sketching out the little that is known for certain. At 7 o’clock on the warm evening of Tuesday, November 30, 1948, jeweler John Bain Lyons and his wife went for a stroll on Somerton Beach, a seaside resort a few miles south of Adelaide. As they walked toward Glenelg, they noticed a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, his head propped against a sea wall. He was lolling about 20 yards from them, legs outstretched, feet crossed. As the couple watched, the man extended his right arm upward, then let it fall back to the ground. Lyons thought he might be making a drunken attempt to smoke a cigarette.
Half an hour later, another couple noticed the same man lying in the same position. Looking on him from above, the woman could see that he was immaculately dressed in a suit, with smart new shoes polished to a mirror shine—odd clothing for the beach. He was motionless, his left arm splayed out on the sand. The couple decided that he was simply asleep, his face surrounded by mosquitoes. “He must be dead to the world not to notice them,” the boyfriend joked.
It was not until next morning that it became obvious that the man was not so much dead to the world as actually dead. John Lyons returned from a morning swim to find some people clustered at the seawall where he had seen his “drunk” the previous evening. Walking over, he saw a figure slumped in much the same position, head resting on the seawall, feet crossed. Now, though, the body was cold. There were no marks of any sort of violence. A half-smoked cigarette was lying on the man’s collar, as though it had fallen from his mouth.
The body reached the Royal Adelaide Hospital three hours later. There Dr. John Barkley Bennett put the time of death at no earlier than 2 a.m., noted the likely cause of death as heart failure, and added that he suspected poisoning. The contents of the man’s pockets were spread out on a table: tickets from Adelaide to the beach, a pack of chewing gum, some matches, two combs and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of another, more expensive brand called Kensitas. There was no wallet and no cash, and no ID. None of the man’s clothes bore any name tags—indeed, in all but one case the maker’s label had been carefully snipped away. One trouser pocket had been neatly repaired with an unusual variety of orange thread.
By the time a full autopsy was carried out a day later, the police had already exhausted their best leads as to the dead man’s identity, and the results of the postmortem did little to enlighten them. It revealed that the corpse’s pupils were “smaller” than normal and “unusual,” that a dribble of spittle had run down the side of the man’s mouth as he lay, and that “he was probably unable to swallow it.” His spleen, meanwhile, “was strikingly large and firm, about three times normal size,” and the liver was distended with congested blood.
In the man’s stomach, pathologist John Dwyer found the remains of his last meal—a pasty—and a further quantity of blood. That too suggested poisoning, though there was nothing to show that the poison had been in the food. Now the dead man’s peculiar behavior on the beach—slumping in a suit, raising and dropping his right arm—seemed less like drunkenness than it did a lethal dose of something taking slow effect. But repeated tests on both blood and organs by an expert chemist failed to reveal the faintest trace of a poison. “I was astounded that he found nothing,” Dwyer admitted at the inquest. In fact, no cause of death was found.
The body displayed other peculiarities. The dead man’s calf muscles were high and very well developed; although in his late 40s, he had the legs of an athlete. His toes, meanwhile, were oddly wedge-shaped. One expert who gave evidence at the inquest noted:
I have not seen the tendency of calf muscle so pronounced as in this case…. His feet were rather striking, suggesting—this is my own assumption—that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.
Perhaps, another expert witness hazarded, the dead man had been a ballet dancer?