The Crazed Mother

The Crazed Mother

Leo Harp, passing the home of Mrs. Johanna Healey Bacher in 138 Railroad Avenue, Greenwich, Conn., late Sunday night on his way home, found an insurance policy and a sheet of paper on the sidewalk in front of the house. The policy was covered with blood stains and on the back of it had been written with a lead pencil: “I am going to kill myself and the children.” On the sheet of paper was written: “Give this to one of the cops or to Mr. Talbot.”

— New York Herald, March 28, 1922

Johanna Healey was born in Ireland in 1891 and came to America when she was seven years old. Her family settled in New York City, where her father, James, found work as a longshoreman. By 1910 the Healey family — James, his wife, Margaret, and their six surviving children out of eight — lived in a crowded tenement at 39 Bedford Street in the West Village. Johanna and her older sister, Nettie, worked in a factory to supplement that family’s income. The family also took in a female boarder to help pay the bills.

Johanna moved Greenwich, Connecticut, after she was hired to work as a maid for a family there. She met a house carpenter in Greenwich, Henry Jacob Bacher, who was born in 1889 in New York to German immigrant parents. Henry occasionally boxed under the moniker “Kid Onion” and he was fond of playing craps.

Henry was married when he met Johanna, but in November 1915 he got a divorce from his wife so that he and Johanna could get married. Their marriage occurred on December 3, 1915, in Westchester, New York.

The couple moved into an apartment owned by Henry’s mother in Greenwich. Their first child, Margaret, was born in 1917. The following year another daughter, Johanna, was born. Henry Jr. came along in 1921.

Johanna healey bacher photos - Newspapers.com

The Bachers had marital problems. By the time their son was born, Henry was involved with an 18-year-old girl and she was pregnant with his child. Henry told Johanna he wanted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. (Apparently she was the cruel one.)

To get her to agree to the divorce Henry threatened to take the children from Johanna and she couldn’t bear the thought of that. She went out and bought rat poison with the intention of killing the children and possibly herself.

Greenwich wasn’t a big city like New York. Word of people’s problems got around. Andrew Talbot, the chief of the Greenwich police, got wind of the fact that Johanna was distraught over her husband’s divorce suit. He’d also heard rumors that she might try something desperate. He brought her and the children into the station where she admitted she’d bought rat poison to use on the kids rather than letting Henry take them from her. Andrew made her hand over the poison and promise she wouldn’t do anything crazy. He vowed to give her any assistance she needed and asked her to check back with him in a few days. He gave each child a box of candy before they left the station.

On the night of March 27, 1922, Johanna was overcome with grief. She wrote a suicide note on Henry’s life insurance policy and took a butcher knife into the bedroom where the children were sleeping. She cut each child’s throat and stabbed each one a few times to make sure they were dead. She staggered to the window and threw the policy out. Then she went into the kitchen, tore her rosary apart and fatally cut her own throat.

Later that night Leo Harp found the bloody insurance policy on the sidewalk and took it to the police. The police went to the Bacher home where they discovered the bodies of the mother and her children.

Henry J. Bacher may be insane - Newspapers.comHenry was out gambling in Stamford when his children were murdered. Upon being told what had happened he “went violently insane.” He was taken into police custody while the murders were investigated and later he was released. Physicians expressed concern that his insanity might be permanent.

Five months after the murders Police Chief Talbot felt ill at work and went home. He died of a stoke a few hours later. He’d been on the police force for 15 years.

Henry recovered his sanity and married his girlfriend Dorothy. They had five children by the time the federal census was taken in 1940.

Some authors have described Johanna as a serial killer, but she doesn’t fit the definition. She was an unstable, desperate woman who was driven to a heinous act after being abandoned by her husband. She had to live in a society that expected women to stay home with children but gave them no support to do so without a partner.

Featured photo: Johanna Healey Bacher, Daily News (New York) photo, March 28, 1922.

Her Clever Game

Her Clever Game

Emma Johnson was sentenced to the penitentiary this week in the Shawnee county district court, and her pal, E. Johnson, who claimed to be her husband, was sentenced to the Hutchinson Reformatory, the charge against both being forgery of a large number of small checks in Topeka recently. The checks were passed at Topeka stores. The woman is believed to have been the real leader in the enterprise. She is about twice as old as the man claiming to be her husband.

— The Merchants Journal, Topeka, Kansas, January 26, 1918

Part of the reason the game worked so well was its simplicity. Emma’s “husband” and “daughter” had real checks — the pay was honestly earned. But it was a simple proposition to forge the checks, making four or five checks from one, and presto: a week’s work became the wages of a month or more.

Emma went to stores in Topeka and asked the owners if they would mind cashing the checks for her. She looked honest and was well dressed and polite so most were happy to oblige. If they bothered to call at the hotel, where her “daughter” worked, or motor car company, where her “husband” was employed, to make sure everything was on the up and up, they were informed “yes, certainly” Mr. or Miss Johnson worked at the business.

They pulled the scam all over Topeka during the fall of 1917. Towards Christmas they thought they might be pushing their luck and headed out of town.

Hugh Latimer

Hugh Larimer, Kansas Historical Society

The merchants of Topeka weren’t happy about being scammed. It wasn’t right or fair and it made them look like dupes. They refused to sit by and do nothing, so they banded together and hired a private investigator from the Burns Detective Agency to try to track the criminals down. And track them he did, all the way to Oklahoma City, where Emma and the man who claimed to be her husband were arrested. The girl who posed as their daughter got away.

Hugh Larimer, the Shawnee County sheriff, took the couple into custody and charged them with forgery. The Burns detective informed Hugh that Emma and her young partner were also wanted for pulling the same check duplication scam in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The couple pleaded guilty to 3rd degree forgery.

Emma Johnson, alias Kaparis, was sentenced to between one and ten years at a new facility for women, the Kansas State Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. E. Johnson, alias L.S. Burgess, got a similar sentence to the state prison for men.

00464867

Women gardeners in front of the vegetable storage cave at the Women’s Industrial Farm in 1936. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Emma became the farm’s 36th prisoner on February 8, 1918. Her date of release is unknown because many of the records of the farm no longer exist.

Featured photo: glass plate negative of Emma Johnson, prisoner 36, of the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

 

 

Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile

SEATTLE, Dec. 22. — A coast-wise search was being conducted today at the request of Seattle police for miss Clara E. Skarin, former telephone exchange operator here, in the hope that she might be able to throw light on the slaying of Ferdinand Hochbrunn, wealthy retired real estate dealer, whose body has been found in a room of his home here yesterday. He had been shot through the head and had been dead two months, in the opinion of officers.

— Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), December 22, 1921

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

Illustration of Ferdinand Hochbrunn

The smell must have been awful when they finally entered the apartment, given how long the old man had been lying there. It was murder — there was no question about that. He’d been shot with a single bullet to the back of his head. Robbery was assumed to be the motive because his pockets had been slit open, though $1,960 (almost $27,370 in 2018) and some gold certificates were found in a trunk near the body.

Ferdinand Hochbrunn, 72, was a confirmed bachelor who emigrated from Berlin, Germany, to America in 1872. He settled in Seattle where he made a fortune in real estate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was ruthless and, at times, deceitful in his business dealings. One of his clients, Olive Stearns, sued him for cheating her out of part of the proceeds of a land sale. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where Olive won a judgment against him for $14,759 ($441,125 in 2018).

Clara Skarin_Marked

News photo of Clara E. Skarin. Collection of the author.

The police were very anxious to speak with the dead man’s “ward,” a young woman named Clara Elizabeth Skarin. Clara, 27, was the daughter of Ferdinand’s housekeeper, a Swedish-born widow named Emma Ekstrand Skarin. Emma died suddenly in 1918 and Clara moved to Michigan after her mother’s death. She’d recently returned to Seattle and Ferdinand had taken her under his wing. He hired her to work as his secretary and gave her a room in his apartment at 2520 5th Avenue. But lately she’d lodged instead with her married cousin, Anna Datesman Clark.

A neighbor who lived below the apartment told the police she heard someone she thought was Clara walking around the apartment in late November. If Clara had been there it would have been impossible for her not to notice the body because it was lying on the floor of an alcove off her bedroom. Other tenants in the building said they’d seen Clara come and go during the months of October and November. She was last seen in late November, when she had Thanksgiving dinner with her aunt, Marie Datesman, and Marie’s family. Clara told them she planned to leave Seattle and meet Ferdinand in Portland, Oregon.

Clara Skarin shielding accomplice. Layout of Hochbrunn home. Pho

News illustration of the Hochbrunn apartment.

Clara Skarin leaves baggage in California after fleeing arrest -

The family snapshot of Clara.

The Seattle police asked Marie for a photo of Clara. She gave them a snapshot, but was so poor it was useless for identification purposes. She claimed it was the only one she had.

A series of letters and telegrams were sent in October and November to Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, signed “Ferdinand Hochbrunn.” The messages asked for rents from his Seattle properties to be collected and forwarded to him in Portland, and in Oakland and San Bernardino, California. The messages detailed news about his daily life along with the addresses of the places he was staying. Edward collected the rents and sent the money to the addresses in the messages.

The police came up with two theories of what had happened. The first was that the murderer posed as Ferdinand, telling Clara by letter or telegram that he’d gone to Portland on business. Clara didn’t know until late November, when she visited the apartment and found the body, that Ferdinand was dead. Shocked by the discovery, she’d fled and was wandering somewhere in a distraught state or possibly she’d even killed herself.

The second theory, which became the working theory, was that Clara killed her benefactor and stole his money. The police weren’t sure if she’d written the letters and telegrams that were sent to the attorney or if she’d worked with an accomplice.

The police search for Clara expanded to include the entire West Coast. In January 1922 the police missed her by a hair after she made a hasty exit from a hotel in California. The long hunt finally ended on September 3, 1922, when a Seattle acquaintance happened to see her in Oakland and informed the police, who arrested her. In Oakland she used the alias “Betty Parrish.”

She admitted to the police that she had shot and killed Ferdinand but refused to say any more. She was charged with first-degree murder.

Clara Skarin puzzles police. Three articles and photo. - Newspap

Clara puzzled the authorities. Described by the Oakland Tribune as having a “Mona Lisa Smile,” she seemed unfazed about being jailed and unconcerned about the charges she faced. She laughed and joked with officials and newspapermen at the Oakland Jail but refused to talk about the crimes she’d been accused of committing.

She claimed to be able to transport herself, using mental powers, to wherever she wanted to go.

Lying here (in jail) at night, I can close my eyes and go wherever I care to. I wander the hills at night. Everything is very real and I don’t feel that I am here at all. I have done that all my life. Sometimes when I have looked forward to a ball I have visualized my being there, and my dancing, so realistically that my feet actually ached.

Her biggest complaint about the jail was that one of the Jack London novels she was reading had had some of its pages torn out. She praised the Oakland Police Department as “wonderful” but also claimed that Oakland was one of the best places in the United States to hide in.

The police didn’t think the enigmatic Clara had worked alone. They searched for her male accomplice, “Phoenix Markham.” Clara wouldn’t say anything about Markham. The police located a telegram she’d sent two days after the murder to a telegraph operator named Raymond Herron in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It seemed to be written in code:

Mark here. Everything practically settled. No more saving a half cake of chocolate for tomorrow’s lunch. This is the first of my very own money to spend. May I send Jigadere some of Ollie’s clothes? Buy Maxine a new top and yourself a drink. Am going to order a car here for drive away in spring. Know agent here and want him to get commission. Wire me immediately. Love. BETTY.

Raymond was a 27-year-old Kalamazoo man who married a local girl three weeks after Clara’s arrest. The couple’s first child was born a month later. He wasn’t related to anyone named “Jigadere,” “Ollie,” or “Maxine.”

The police never found Phoenix Markham and the hunt for an accomplice was dropped. Clara alone stood trial for Ferdinand’s murder.

Clara was involved in another gun tragedy in August 1918 when the jealous wife of a friend visited the Seattle apartment she shared with her mother. The woman, Cleo Winborn, confronted Clara with a loaded gun and demanded to know what her relationship was with her husband, Robert Winborn. Unsatisfied with Clara’s answer, Cleo shot at Clara. The bullet hit her in the leg, wounding her slightly. Clara’s mother heard the commotion and ran into the room. Cleo turned the gun on Mrs. Skarin, killing her with a single shot. Then she turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.

It must be pointed out that the person who provided the details of what happened was the only survivor — Clara Skarin.

After she recovered from the leg wound, 24 year-old Clara moved with Cleo’s husband, 50-year-old Robert, to his native state of Michigan. Robert, an African American man who had worked as a barber, was suffering from epilepsy. He was treated at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and then transferred to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental asylum, where he died of epilepsy September 4, 1919. Clara claimed that she and Robert were married while he was on his deathbed.

Ferdinand’s will, if he had one, wasn’t located. His estate, valued at $100,000 (almost $1,500,000 in 2018) was settled on November 15, 1922. Though a business partner sued for half of it, the court awarded the entire estate to his brother, Henry Hochbrunn. Henry died the day before the matter was settled. His children inherited the estate.

Clara Skarin in her own words. photo. - Newspapers.com

Clara’s murder trial began in January 1923. She testified that Ferdinand had molested her from the age of 14, when her mother worked as his housekeeper. She claimed he’d again made “improper overtures” towards her in the weeks leading up to the shooting. She explained that this was why she’d moved out of his apartment and purchased a .32-caliber revolver for protection.

The day of the shooting Clara said she’d gone to the apartment to get some clothes she’d left there. Again he made unwelcome sexual advances so she pulled out her gun. They grappled over the weapon and it went off but no one was hit. Then he forced her against a wall and there was a struggle that ended in Clara managing to rest the muzzle of the gun on the back of Ferdinand’s head and pull the trigger with her thumb. He died about 15 minutes later.

She said she spent several minutes gazing in a mirror, then left the apartment and locked the door. She headed to the office of Ferdinand’s attorney, Edward von Tobel, and told him what had happened. Then she and Edward returned to the apartment, where they removed $30,000 ($419,000 in 2018) worth of gold from Ferdinand’s trunk. They split the gold and Clara left town six weeks later. Subsequently she sent letters and telegrams to Edward, signing Ferdinand’s name to them.

Von Tobel

Edward von Tobel

Edward disputed her story and testified that he’d had nothing to do with robbing Ferdinand and knew nothing about the murder until the body was discovered.

The jury of eight men and four women acquitted Clara of the murder of Ferdinand Hochbrunn on January 13, 1923. “I surely wish the young woman all happiness in the future,” said one of the female jurors, whose tears flowed freely during the defense counsel’s arguments. “She has surely seen enough of the seamy side of life. Now she may find peace and better things.”

Edward wasn’t charged with any crime related to the death of Ferdinand Hochbrunn. Clara stayed in Seattle for a few months after the trial ended, but in April she told a newspaper reporter that she’d left her job as a café hostess and planned to return to Oakland to live with friends. The girl with the Mona Lisa smile then vanished without a trace.

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly Lynched

Nearly Lynched

With the crowd yelling “lynch him; lynch him,” a squad of patrolmen in Scranton last night used their night sticks with telling effect, rescuing Jasper Johnson, a young negro, from a frenzied mob of several thousand men and boys at the carnival grounds on Providence road, in that city, after Johnson had fired five shots, probably fatally wounding one man.

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), July 19, 1916

Jasper Johnson worked in the African Dodger booth at the B. H. Patrick Show Carnival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jasper’s job was to put his head through a hole in a canvas curtain and dodge baseballs thrown at him by patrons, who paid a nickel for three balls and the chance to hit Jasper’s head and win a prize.

The African Dodger game was very popular with white carnival-goers across America, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century. The baseballs were hard and the risk of injury was high. Sometimes people also brought bricks and other objects to throw at the dodger. Dunk tanks featuring African Americans eventually replaced the African Dodger game.

Jasper didn’t wear a pad to protect his head, but the 21-year-old was adept at avoiding the balls. Of course sometimes he got hit, but he tried hard to never to show how painful the blows to his head and face were.

Carnival hammer machine

On the evening of July 18, 1916, Joseph Alesko was at the hammer machine booth next to the African Dodger booth. The goal of the hammer machine, sometimes called a high striker or strength tester, was to ring a bell at the top of a tower by hitting a puck at the bottom with a hammer or mallet. Joseph, a powerfully built man, was very successful at ringing the bell that evening. Every time he rang it he demanded a cigar from the man who ran the machine. The attendant finally told him it was time for him to let someone else have a try, but Joseph refused to move. A quarrel ensued between the two men that led to blows.

Jasper heard the commotion and left his booth to assist the man who ran the hammer machine. He asked Joseph to move along. At just under 5’10” and 171 lbs., Jasper was a sturdy man but Joseph was a larger and stronger. He threw Jasper to the ground and began to beat him. Jasper pulled a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket and fired at Joseph. The shot went wide and hit a bystander, Dominick Puhofsky, in his side. The bullet arced up and forward, coming to rest near Dominick’s eighth rib.

Then all hell broke loose.

A crowd gathered around Jasper, punching and kicking him. He broke free and fired four more warning shots into the crowd. No one was hit by those shots.

He ran towards a nearby car barn with the mob chasing him and screaming for blood. He was brought to the ground with a flying tackle by one of the men and another man grabbed his gun from him. Some of the mob continued to beat Jasper. Soon the crowd began to chant, “lynch him.”

Two policeman arrived and tried to intervene but mob beat them too. Finally a large contingent of officers showed up. They managed to put down the riot without further injuries and the crowd dispersed.

Joseph was arrested and taken to jail. Dominick was taken to the state hospital for surgical treatment to remove the bullet. Jasper was also taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries from the beating he suffered at the hands of the mob. Despite wounds that can be clearly seen in his mugshots, doctors at the hospital claimed he had faked his injuries. 

Joseph was charged with fighting, fined $10 and released from custody. Jasper was taken from the hospital to jail. He charged with assault with intent to murder, but if Dominick died, he would be charged with murder. Fortunately Dominick eventually recovered from his injuries and Jasper was released from jail.

Camp Dix, West Jersey History Project

America entered World War I eight months later, on April 2, 1917. Jasper joined the 15th New York Infantry (renamed the 369thInfantry). The military was still segregated and the 15th Infantry was an all black regiment. Jasper began his training at Camp Whitman in New York on July 24, 1917.

In September 1917 Jasper was shot and killed by a fellow soldier named George Westerfield during an argument over a blanket at Camp Dix in New Jersey. Jasper was described in a news article about the killing as “very popular among the colored soldiers. He was of a jolly disposition and had made many friends since coming to Camp Dix thru his fun-making during baseball games, he having been a member of the regiment’s team.”

Jasper’s WWI Service Card, Ancestry.com

Private Westerfield was tried by court-martial for killing Jasper. Because America was at war, a guilty verdict (which seems likely, though no proof of that was found) was punishable with execution by firing squad.

In January 1921, Dominick Puhofsky, the man Jasper shot by accident, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound “while temporarily deranged.”

Featured photo: Mugshots of Jasper Johnson made by the Detective Service of the Scranton Police Department on July 18, 1916. Collection of the author.

“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Her Sinful Slacks

Her Sinful Slacks

Evelyn Bross, 19 years old, 2754 Jackson Boulevard, charged with violating a city ordinance by appearing publically in men’s clothing, was placed under psychiatric supervision until July 15 at a hearing before J. M. Braude in Women’s court yesterday. Judge Braude explained that there could be no objection to women wearing slacks as long as the garb wasn’t used for impersonation purposes.

Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1943

Nineteen-year-old Evelyn “Jackie” Bross was part of the war effort on the home front — she worked as a machinist at a defense plant in Chicago. In her line of work it was practical to wear pants — blue flannel trousers were what she preferred — along with sturdy oxford-style shoes. In fact Jackie hadn’t worn a dress or even a skirt since 1937 when she was 13 years old. As for her short hair, well, it was comfortable and she thought it looked good combed back with a little hair oil. She’d never worn make-up and she wasn’t about to start now.

Bross goes to court in pants. Amendment offered. Pic. - NewspapeWhy should other people get to tell a girl what to put on in the morning and how to style her hair? Wasn’t the war effort all about keeping America a free country and helping other countries become free too? Questions like these burned in Jackie’s mind when the police hauled her in to the Women’s court for violating the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance, a municipal code that “prohibited persons from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex in public.”

Jackie, who lived with her parents, Walter and Helen Bross, and  ten siblings in an apartment on Jackson Boulevard, vehemently denied the accusation that she was trying to impersonate a male. “If I dress like a girl I’ll look like a boy and I’ll be picked up more often for impersonating a girl,” she commented matter-of-factly.

Judge Braude was not unsympathetic to Jackie’s plight. “I think the fact that girls wear slacks should not be held against them when they are not deliberately impersonating men,” he said. “Styles are changing.”

Change was afoot in more than just fashion. With the majority of men fighting in World War II, women were indispensable workers in munitions factories.

RosieTheRiveter_RosieJust three months after Jackie was arrested, on May 23, 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s iconic illustration “Rosie the Riveter.” Rockwell depicted a muscular, Michelangelo-inspired woman taking a quick break from her factory work to munch on a sandwich. She has massive arms, a huge neck and sits gloriously atop a wooden post, dressed in (pause for sudden intake of breath) a pair of overalls! She looks entirely comfortable in her body and not the least bit feminine, though no one would mistake her for a man. But there was no outcry of protest about the fact that Rosie was depicted in pants when the illustration appeared. In fact the image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the Treasury Department for use in war bond drives.

Judge Braude pointed out that another young woman, who was arrested for wearing pants at the same time as Jackie, looked “feminine” thanks to the cut of her pants and the styling of her hair. He let her go without a penalty. Jackie, however, was released on $25 bond and ordered be placed under the “psychiatric supervision” of Dr. David B. Rotman for six months. The judge also instructed her to cover up her short hair with a headscarf.

Americans from coast to coast supported Jackie’s cause. In her hometown, Alderman William J. Cowhey agreed that she shouldn’t be penalized for wearing pants. He offered an amendment to the municipal code, stipulating that wearing clothing of the opposite sex was illegal only if the person did so “with the intent to conceal his or her sex.” The city council immediately approved it.

In July 1943, Judge Braude put Jackie and a friend, Catherine Barcz, who lived in the Bross home, on probation on a “morals” charge. The women had met each other at the defense factory where they both worked as drill press operators. At the court hearing their boss testified that both were exceptionally fine workers. Regardless of their work ethic, Catherine was married and Judge Braude ordered her to move out of the Bross abode and return to her husband.

The morals charge was likely the result of Dr. Rotman’s “psychiatric supervision.” The implication was that the two women were lovers, so the court stepped in to separate and penalize them. The court’s interest in controlling what Jackie wore had evolved into exerting control over her sex life. Perhaps this was the purpose of the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance from its inception.

Bross tells of her favorite film - Newspapers.comFast-forward 33 years to 1976. By then Jackie had moved to Elgin, a northwest suburb of Chicago. A news reporter interviewed her for a light piece about favorite films. Jackie said she liked Ingmar Bergman movies, with her favorite being the Swedish director’s latest film, “Face to Face.” The film, about a psychiatrist driven to the brink of insanity by unpleasant memories from her childhood, was an interesting choice given the court-imposed psychiatric supervision and penalty that Jackie endured in 1943.

By 1976 no one in America looked twice at a woman wearing slacks or pants of any type. Headscarves had become popular too. Decriminalization of homosexuality was still a ways off in the future.

Jackie Bross died in 2004 in Manteno, Illinois.

Featured photo: Acme Newspictures photo of Jackie Bross at the Women’s Court in Chicago, taken January 8, 1943. Collection of the author.

Granite Man Walks

Granite Man Walks

After a pathetic Christmas day spent along the banks of the drainage canal in the vain hope of clearing up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her mother, Mrs. Kate Mitchell Trostell, 11 year old Eleanor Trostell was taken to the detective bureau last night to confront Arthur Foster, charged with the murder of her mother.

 

All through the night and into the early hours of the morning, the child alternately sobbed and pleaded with him to reveal her mother’s fate.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1922

The days when a detective could bring a kid into an interrogation room and keep her there for hours in order to wring a confession out of a murder suspect are long gone. Also gone are the days when a newspaper photographer was allowed to take posed photos of the interrogation, including the chief of detectives (in this case Michael Hughes) smack in the middle of the photo.

Evidently finding an unbiased jury was not a major concern in Chicago during the 1920s.

Kate Trostell, a widow, hadn’t been seen since December 2, 1922, when she failed to come home after her evening shift at the Chicago Western Union office. Her family — two sisters and a brother — was convinced that Arthur Foster had murdered her.

The police grilled Arthur for days on end. Twice they brought in Kate’s 13-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to confront him in jail. When her sobs and pleas didn’t crack him she ran over to him, flung herself into his lap, twined her arms around his neck and begged him to bring her mother back for Christmas. “I’d like to honey, but I don’t know anything about her,” he said.

Foster and Kate photo - Newspapers.comArthur was a truck driver who’d dated Kate and asked her to marry him. He continued to pursue her even after she cooled on him and tried to end the relationship. Kate’s family and coworkers claimed Arthur was a violent man who’d chased her, shot at her and thrown rocks at the window of her office.

The police found blood on the running board of Arthur’s car and on a blanket in his vehicle. At the time it was impossible to determine whether or not the blood was Kate’s. They also found a yellow pencil — the sort she used at the telegraph office — with her teeth marks on it in the car. Arthur said that Kate often rode in his car and the pencil proved nothing.

Arthur insisted he had no idea if Kate was alive or dead but he loved her and wouldn’t have harmed her. He said he hadn’t seen her the night she went missing but he knew she’d been depressed and talked about killing herself. He believed she might have done what she often threatened to do — throw herself into the Chicago Drainage Canal. Beyond that Arthur had nothing to say. In fact he was a man of so few words the newspapers dubbed him the “granite man.”

In late December the police dragged the canal, where they found Kate’s coat and purse. It didn’t bode well for her making it home for the New Year.

Kate's body found in drainage canal - Newspapers.com

Kate’s body surfaced at the dam where the canal ended, in Lockport, Illinois, on January 23, 1923. The deputy coroner said she was alive when she went into the water, but there was a bruise on her forehead and several more on her knees and hands. Her injuries might have resulted from a violent struggle before she went in, but they also could have occurred during the fall. The police theory of her death, which had been that Arthur killed Kate and threw the body into the canal, changed to Arthur hitting her on the head, throwing her into the water alive and watching her drown. It would have taken a granite man full of hate to commit that crime.

A witness claimed to have heard a woman scream near the canal the night Kate went missing. That, along with the blood and pencil in Arthur’s car and that he’d phoned her the evening she vanished was the sum total of evidence against him.

Arthur was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. His attorney appealed on the basis that the evidence was circumstantial and that the state hadn’t proven that Kate had been murdered. A judge agreed and ordered a new trial.

The second trial never happened. In October 1926 the state dropped the case and Arthur walked out of jail a free man. The following year he married a widow whose name, as fate would have it, was Katherine.

Kate’s daughter, Eleanor, grew up, got married and raised a family.

“Go get ‘em Mike” Hughes became the head of the Chicago Police Department in 1927. He resigned after only a year in office but remained with the department until 1935, when he retired.

Whether Kate’s death was the result of murder or suicide remains an open question.

Featured photo: news photograph taken for the International Newsreel Corporation of the police interrogation of Arthur Foster, December 14, 1922. Collection of the author.