February 24, 2012
The Colonel always was a mystery. But that was very much the way he liked it.
It was, of course, a tough trick to pull off, because the Colonel’s name was Tom Parker, and Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley. Since Elvis was the biggest name in the entertainment industry, his manager could hardly help appearing in the spotlight, too. For the most part that was not a problem, because Parker had showman’s instincts and enjoyed publicity. But, even so, he was always anxious to ensure that attention never settled for very long on two vexed questions: exactly who he was and where he came from.
So far as the wider world knew, the Colonel was Thomas Andrew Parker, born in Huntingdon, West Virginia, some time shortly after 1900. He had toured with carnivals, worked with elephants and managed a palm-reading booth before finding his feet in the early 1950s as a music promoter. Had anyone taken the trouble to inquire, however, they would have discovered that there was no record of the birth of any Thomas Parker in Huntingdon. They might also have discovered that Tom Parker had never held a U.S. passport—and that while he had served in the U.S. Army, he had done so as a private. Indeed, Parker’s brief military career had ended in ignominy. In 1932, he had gone absent without leave and served several months in military prison for desertion. He was released only after he had suffered what his biographer Alanna Nash terms a “psychotic breakdown.” Diagnosed as a psychopath, he was discharged from the Army. A few years later, when the draft was introduced during the World War II, Parker ate until he weighed more than 300 pounds in a successful bid to have himself declared unfit for further service.
For the most part, these details did not emerge until the 1980s, years after Presley’s death and well into the Colonel’s semi-retirement (he eventually died in 1997). But when they did they seemed to explain why, throughout his life, Parker had taken such enormous care to keep his past hidden—why he had settled a lawsuit with Elvis’ record company when it became clear that he would have to face cross-examination under oath, and why, far from resorting to the sort of tax-avoidance schemes that managers typically offered to their clients, he had always let the IRS calculate his taxes. The lack of a passport might even explain the single greatest mystery of Presley’s career: why the Colonel had turned down dozens of offers, totaling millions of dollars, to have his famous client tour the world. Elvis was just as famous in London, Berlin and Tokyo–yet in a career of almost 30 years, he played a total of only three concerts on foreign soil, in Canada in 1957. Although border-crossing formalities were minimal then, the Colonel did not accompany him.
Although it took years for the story to leak out, the mystery of the Colonel’s origins had actually been solved as early as the spring of 1960, in the unlikely surrounds of a hairdressers’ salon in the Dutch town of Eindhoven. There a woman by the name of Nel Dankers-van Kuijk flicked through a copy of Rosita, a Belgian women’s magazine. It carried a story about Presley’s recent discharge from the U.S. Army, illustrated by a photo of the singer standing in the doorway of a train and waving to his fans. The large figure of Elvis’s manager, standing grinning just behind his charge, made Dankers-van Kuijk jump.
The man had aged and grown grotesquely fat. But she still knew him as her long-lost brother.
February 7, 2012
The plot was conceived over a round of drinks. One afternoon in July 1932, Francis Pasqua, Daniel Kriesberg and Tony Marino sat in Marino’s eponymous speakeasy and raised their glasses, sealing their complicity, figuring the job was already half-finished. How difficult could it be to push Michael Malloy to drink himself to death? Every morning the old man showed up at Marino’s place in the Bronx and requested “Another mornin’s morning, if ya don’t mind” in his muddled brogue; hours later he would pass out on the floor. For a while Marino had let Malloy drink on credit, but he no longer paid his tabs. “Business,” the saloonkeeper confided to Pasqua and Kriesberg, “is bad.”
Pasqua, 24, an undertaker by trade, eyed Malloy’s sloping figure, the glass of whiskey hoisted to his slack mouth. No one knew much about him—not even, it seemed, Malloy himself—other than that he had come from Ireland. He had no friends or family, no definitive date of birth (most guessed him to be about 60), no apparent trade or vocation beyond the occasional odd job sweeping alleys or collecting garbage, happy to be paid in alcohol instead of money. He was, wrote the Daily Mirror, just part of the “flotsam and jetsam in the swift current of underworld speakeasy life, those no-longer-responsible derelicts who stumble through the last days of their lives in a continual haze of ‘Bowery Smoke.’ ”
“Why don’t you take out insurance on Malloy?” Pasqua asked Marino that day, according to another contemporary newspaper report. “I can take care of the rest.”
Marino paused. Pasqua knew he’d pulled off such a scheme once before. The prior year, Marino, 27, had befriended a homeless woman named Mabelle Carson and convinced her to take out a $2,000 life insurance policy, naming him as the beneficiary. One frigid night he force-fed her alcohol, stripped off her clothing, doused the sheets and mattress with ice water, and pushed the bed beneath an open window. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as bronchial pneumonia, and Marino collected the money without incident.
Marino nodded and motioned to Malloy. “He looks all in. He ain’t got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin’ him.” He and Pasqua glanced over at Daniel Kriesberg. The 29-year-old grocer and father of three would later say he participated for the sake of his family. He nodded, and the gang set into motion a macabre chain of events that would earn Michael Malloy cult immortality by proving him nearly immortal. (More…)
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 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?