Friday, January 23, 2015

Chameleon Charm and Serial Killers

In the late nineteenth century, Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso was credited with the theory that some types of people are closer to our primitive ancestors than others. Dr. Lombroso utilized the work of anthropologist Pierre-Paul Broca which relied on facial measurements and anomalies of the skull, face, and body to determine who was--or was not--a criminal type.

Lombroso based his theory of the born criminal--who was a throwback to earlier hedonistic races--on hundreds of post-mortem examinations of criminals. He compiled a list of criminal traits which included receding hairline, forehead wrinkles, bumpy face, broad noses, fleshy lips, sloping shoulders, long arms, and pointed fingers. This condition was named atavism and was strongly associated with Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species--published in 1859. The belief that there was a face of evil was an easy one for society to accept in the Gilded Age of Queen Victoria.

In the twentieth century, this theory was strongly reinforced in the popular culture through cinema, novels, radio mystery shows, and television crime dramas. Of course, some common criminals undoubtedly conform to the stereotype of the dumb hoodlum by virtue of their less than average intelligence and their need to follow a charismatic leader, popularly known as the Boss or the brains of the outfit. This folklore gives rise to the idea that criminals--psychopaths among them--are easily identified because they look different from normal people.

Rather than scientific, these ideas broke along racial and ethnic lines, and in nineteenth century America, religion was also a prejudicial factor in determining guilt. It was believed that Catholics and Jews bore a greater responsibility for crime, in cities like Boston and New York, than the hard working Protestant folk. The Nazis made great use of this type of junk science against European Jews, which they proudly documented for the world to see in the last century.

Serial killers are cut from different cloth than common criminals. Psychologists have done extensive studies on this unique category of murderer. Their studies have discovered that they tend to be above average in intelligence and some are gifted. These are people who often have a belief that their intellect exempts them from the rules and regulations that were devised to keep less intelligent people in line--an attitude of entitlement develops.
Their intelligence allows serial killers to tidy up evidence, dispose of the body, and return to their normal fa├žade of life until the urge falls upon them to strike again.

Understanding the construction of the mind simply by looking at physical traits doesn’t work. Serial killers often look normal and blend into the background, so their behavior often requires sophisticated psychological profiling before they are caught. Regrettably, profiling only becomes more accurate as the body count rises, sometimes not even then.

Everything about serial killers is frightening. But the most disturbing thing of all is that they look just like the rest of us. These people are often superficially described as charming or engaging.

John Norman Collins
Even after the outrages of serial killers have been discovered, many people are dumbstruck despite the evidence that a normal looking person could be responsible for such carnage. It is part of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality of their personality disorder that enables serial killers to deceive people so easily. They are natural actors because deception and manipulation are second nature to them.

The true beginnings of modern crime fighting:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

John Norman Collins--the Wayside Theater--and The Boston Strangler Movie

John Norman Collins in 1969 and 2014

As I edit The Rainy Day Murders manuscript--material which is either too broad or doesn't advance the story of the Washtenaw County, Michigan murders--is being removed. Rather than reject these portions out of hand, I have decided to rework and repurpose some of them in my blog.
Early on in my research, I interviewed someone who rode motorcycles with accused serial killer John Norman Collins. He asked that I refer to him by his biking nickname. Dundee said that he and several others rode with Collins--who always took the lead position--and toured the back country north of Ypsilanti. This was the area where six of seven bodies of young women were deposited over a two year period. "Collins knew the area like the back of his hand," Dundee said.

I asked him if he had ever seen Collins pick up young women while cruising with him. "Yes, Collins liked riding with girls."

"What was his come-on to these girls?

"When he spotted someone who caught his eye, he'd drive up next to her and gun the bike's engine a few times to get her attention. Then he would grin and ask if she wanted a ride. He was a handsome, clean-cut guy who worked out with weights. Sometimes a girl would hop on the back of his bike, and he'd gun his engine and speed off--usually splitting from the pack. Sometimes John would only make a date or get a phone number.

"How often would this happen?'

"Occasionally. John was popular with the ladies," Dundee grinned.

"Did any of these ladies turn up dead?"

His grin disappeared, "Not that I know of."

"Do you think Collins was guilty of killing any of these girls?

Dundee's answer disappointed me.

"No. I don't believe he killed any of them."

"Not even Karen Sue Beineman, the coed Collins was found guilty of murdering?"


When I asked why not, he had nothing of substance to say other than John was a scapegoat for the county sheriff. It was obvious that--even after forty-five years--Dundee felt uncomfortable with the subject matter. I was hoping for more incriminating information about Collins. I asked if he had anything else he could tell me about his friend. Then, he shared this anecdote with me.

Tony Curtis as The Boston Strangler
In October of 1968, he and Collins went to the Wayside Theater located on Washtenaw Boulevard--between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor--to see Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler. The movie had just been released and was being shown in the new state-of-the-art theater which could seat one thousand patrons. The Wayside had the biggest screen in the county at that time--56' wide by 24' tall.

Dundee told me that when the movie was over, John was clearly excited and talkative. "John loved the cool split screen effects where you saw the killer’s view and the victim’s view. We went into the lobby afterwards," Dundee said. "We talked about going someplace to eat when John asked if I would stay and watch the movie again with him.

"I told Collins that Tony Curtis’ performance freaked me out because I liked seeing Curtis in comedies. The role of Albert DeSalvo was too dark and disturbing for me." Dundee took off and left Collins to view the movie a second time alone. What Collins did after the film is anybody’s guess.

Dundee remembered Collins remarking with pride how he thought he resembled Tony Curtis in that role--his looks and mannerisms.

“If you watch The Boston Strangler," Dundee said, "the movie very clearly leaves room for a split personality interpretation. Also, Albert DeSalvo was never taken to trial or convicted of any of the crimes for which he was accused. The movie’s theme was that he got away with all those murders.”

It should be noted for the record that Albert DeSalvo was recently found to be the Strangler when DNA evidence--recovered in 2013 from his exhumed body--proved he killed Mary Sullivan in 1964.
Albert DeSalvo in mental institution with handmade choker chain.
It seems clear that John Norman Collins found inspiration and a kindred spirit in Albert DeSalvo--the Boston Strangler--but not motivation. He had plenty of that already. By the time The Boston Strangler movie was released, two of the Washtenaw County murders had already been committed. Regardless, the movie undeniably resonated with Collins.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

History of The Lone Ranger - The Radio Years - (1/3)

The Lone Ranger! "Hi Yo Silver!"

"A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty 'Hi Yo Silver!' The Lone Ranger--with his faithful Indian companion Tonto--the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early west. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!"


Baby Boomers everywhere  will remember those rousing words recited over Rossini's classical music The William Tell Overture. The television version of the masked man hit the small screen in a big way, but the character was already well-established on a radio show first broadcast from Detroit three times a week from WXYZ radio in 1933.


Fran Striker was the creator of the character, George W. Trendle was the producer of the show, and Earl W. Graser was the first Lone Ranger on the radio. 


Graser had a deep, authoritive, vibrant voice that sounded much older than his thirty-two years. On his way home from rehearsals at the station on April 8, 1941, he fell asleep at the wheel and veered into a parked trailer, silencing one of America's most popular radio voices. He had been on the air as the Lone Ranger for eight years. The show was scheduled to air the next night, but who would take over the role? 


Trendle had to find someone fast. Mike Wallace might work. He would become a journalist on Sixty Minutes decades later, and he was presently the narrator on the popular The Green Hornet program at WXYZ. Mike Wallace was available, but he had questionable acting ability. 


It was decided that Brace Beemer, who narrated The Lone Ranger, was their best choice on short notice. He had already been doing publicity photos for The Lone Ranger, and now he could make public appearances around the Detroit area as well.


Best of all, Beemer's voice was similar to Graser's with a slight headcold. Good enough! To ease the transition for listeners, the masked man would be wounded for the next few episodes and speak with a weak, raspy voice.


Brace Beemer was an excellent front man for the program. He was six feet tall, handsome, and an excellent horseman.  He had no problem booming out "Hi-Yo, Silver"during the program, but he couldn't handle the ending when he had to say "Hi-Yo, Silver, away." 


It didn't sound right to Trendle or the sound engineers, so they inserted a recording of Graser saying the line at the end of the program. In a 1944 radio poll, The Lone Ranger placed number one in popularity. In all, there were 2,956 radio episodes made.


Part Two: The Lone Ranger Comes to Television:





Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Detroit Area Salt Mine

Bulk salt waiting to be loaded for shipment

Twelve hundred feet below the surface of the state of Michigan lies the largest salt deposit in the world--over seventy-one trillion cubic tons of salt deposits. Over four hundred million years ago, horizontal salt beds formed as the result of ancient oceans evaporating in what geologists have named The Michigan Basin--a circular pattern of sedimentary strata that began to sink over time.

This depression of Precambrian (46 billion years ago - 541 million years ago) rock is 16,000' deep at its center and tapers to 4,000' at its edges. The basin extends throughout most of Lower Michigan. As the basin sunk lower into the earth over billions of years, salt water repeatedly back-filled the depression and evaporated leaving the salt behind.

This occurred during the Cambrian Period (542 million years ago - 488 million years ago) of the earth's development before the age of the dinosaurs. The only life on the planet were hard-shelled aquatic trilobites. These ancient salt beds were buried by the Niagara Escarpment--a thick layer of basalt rock formed by the rapid cooling of volcanic lava--and glacial activity from four ice ages.


Rock salt was discovered beneath Detroit in 1895. Eleven years later, work began on the first tunnel shaft--which was was completed in 1910--at the cost of many lives and the bankruptcy of the mine's original owners. In the early days of mine operation, mules were lowered in harnesses into the mine to live out their lives as beasts of burden. By 1914--due to the use of electric energy and advancements in mining technology--the mine was producing 8,000 tons of salt a month for the leather and food processing industries.

In 1922, a second, larger mine shaft was begun and finished in three years. The first shaft was now used to haul men and small materials. The new shaft was used to lower machinery used in the mine. Most equipment was massive and had to be disassembled on the surface--piece by piece--and reassembled in the machine shop below.

The mine has changed hands many times in its over 100 years of existence. International Salt closed the mine in 1983 because of falling prices, but its present operator--Detroit Salt Company--reopened the mine in 1998. Today, the only products the Detroit mine produces are deicing rock salt for roadways and bagged rock salt for consumer use. From the 1920s until the 1980s, guided public tours were allowed by the mine's management. Since the new owners took over, only rare private tours are given.

Salt Pillar
The room and pillar method of extraction is used to mine salt. The rooms vary in width from 30' to 60'--with a height of between 17' to 40'. For safety reasons, a minimum of 30% of any cavity must be pillared. During the day and afternoon shifts, miners undercut a solid wall surface at floor level with an industrial-sized chain saw device that bites out a channel ten or more feet deep. This first cut leaves a smooth floor for picking up the salt after blasting. Deep holes are drilled at strategic places along the face of the wall and loaded with explosives that are set off electronically after the work shift.

The next morning, heavy equipment loads the large salt pieces and takes them to massive crushers where they are loaded onto conveyor belts and hauled to the surface in buckets capable of lifting 100 tons. Once above ground, the salt is screened and sorted for size. Some of the salt is conveyed to individual storage bins to await packaging. The rest is loaded into railroad cars, semi-trucks, or river barges and sold as bulk salt.

Here are some factoids about the Detroit salt mine:
  • the tunnel's shafts are deeper than the height of the Empire State Building
  • the mine's temperature is a constant 56-60 degrees
  • the mine covers an area of over 1,500 acres
  • the mine head is in Southwest Detroit and the mine extends beneath the eastern portions of Dearborn, much of Melvindale, and the northern reaches of Allen Park
  • there are one hundred miles of roads cut through the salt beds
  • the underground streets are 60' wide to handle the heavy loading equipment
  • 100,000 cubic feet of fresh air is pumped into the mine per minute
  • no living thing exists in the mine except the miners
  • the mine shaft opening is at 12841 Sanders Street, Detroit, Michigan 48217.
In 1940, Detroit was the first major city in America to use rock salt for snow removal. The increased salt level buildup in the soil along Michigan roadsides has caused native roadside vegetation--like cattails--to be replaced with salt water tolerant plants--like sea grass. Over time, seeds from these invasive aquatic plants were inadvertently spread by transport trucks from ocean coastal areas to the Midwest. Now these plants have a foothold in the Michigan soil.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Rainy Day Murders--2015 New Year's Progress Report

For the last six months, people have been asking me when The Rainy Day Murders--my true crime account of the Washtenaw County Michigan murders--will be available. My short answer is when it is ready. Last month, my editor returned my manuscript and recommended that I read her remarks and comments, then step away from it for awhile and let my subconscious go to work.

What great timing! The 2014 holiday season gave me the time and space to think about the project without working on the day-to-day subject matter. As I begin 2015, my first priority is to revise my manuscript and seek publication. I am confident that the final product will be all the better for it. Everyone personally involved with or affected by these senseless murders of seven young women--in the late 1960s--deserves nothing less.

The grim details of these tragedies speak for themselves. Now, I need to tighten-up my narrative and increase the manuscript's sense of time and place--both suggestions from my San Diego editor, Jean Jenkins. Any author has only two eyes, and seeing things from the informed perspective of a skilled editor helps bring out areas of weakness that might otherwise be overlooked. As the High Lama in the novel Lost Horizon notes, "The eye sees but doesn't see itself."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Antoine Cadillac--Detroit's First Godfather

Bust of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
An expedition financed by the French monarch--King Louis XIV--and promoted by his Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain--appointed Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as their agent to establish a fur trading post and fort in New France. In return, Cadillac was granted generous riverfront real estate. He envisioned a permanent French colony controlling the fur trade routes through the upper Great Lakes, with him at the helm.

Commander Antoine Cadillac led a fleet of 25 large canoes--with 50 soldiers, 50 empire builders, 2 Roman Catholic priests, and his 11-year-old son--on a 52 day trip westward from French-controlled Montreal to the western bank of a swift running river that connected Lac Erie with Lac St. Clair.

This site was chosen because it was the narrowest point of the strait--de troit--which is how Detroit earned its name. There was an eroded 40' clay bluff leading up from the river bank to a flat clearing. Once a fort was built on the plain, anything moving up or down the river could be seen and was in easy range of their cannons. This was a defensible position to discourage the British and control the fur trade.

The empire builders arrived on July 23, 1701 and began work on a log fort Cadillac named after his benefactor--French Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain. Two days later, a mass was said in honor of Ste. Anne--the patron saint of France and mother of the Virgin Mary. After the service, the foundations for the church were laid. Catholicism had come to the wilderness.

Fort Pontchartrain contained a warehouse which doubled as a store. There were also two guard houses, Ste. Anne's Church, and about 15 houses within the fort. Lots could be no larger than 25 square feet and some were smaller.

In a report about Detroit to his superior officers, Cadillac noted, "Especially attractive was the region that lies south of the pear-like lake to which they gave the name of St. Clair, and the country bordering upon that deep, clear river, a quarter of a league broad, known as Le Detroit.

"On both sides of this strait lie fine, open plains where the deer roam in graceful herds, where bear, by no means fierce and exceedingly good to eat, are to be found, as are also the savory poules d'Indies (wild duck) and other varieties of game. The islands are covered with trees; chestnuts, walnuts, apples, and plums abound; and in season, the wild vines are heavy with grapes.

"Le Detroit is the real center of the lake country--the gateway to the West. It is from there that we can best hold the English in check."

French trade with the local Native American tribes went well for the most part. Cadillac encouraged the Ottawa, Huron, Pottawatomie, Miami, and Wyandotte tribes to cluster together in villages near the fort for protection from their mutual enemies--the Iroquois and the British. In total, Cadillac estimated that there were about 2,000 Indians in and around Fort Pontchartrain allied with the French.

In 1702, the first European baby born in Detroit was the daughter of Alphonse de Tonty--Cadillac's second-in-command--and his wife. Not to be outdone--in 1704--the Cadillac's gave birth to Marie Therese, who became the first recorded baptism christened in Ste. Anne's Church registry.

Cadillac wanted the settlement to grow rapidly, but few if any unattached women were available to single men, so he proposed that christened Indian women be allowed to marry French settlers. The Jesuit priest strongly objected on moral and religious grounds, and the plan was soon rejected. This is likely the first official instance of discrimination in Detroit's long history.

In 1707, Cadillac began issuing farm grants--known as ribbon farms--to attract new settlers. These farms ranged from 200' to 1,000' wide and extended from the shoreline for 2 or 3 miles. Each farm had waterfront access. Many of Detroit's current street names derive from the original ribbon farm grant holders--for instance--Beaubien, Campau, Livernois, Riopell, Dequindre, and others. Cadillac plotted out 68 parcels. 

Cadillac acted like a feudal landlord requiring farmers to pay him an annual rent and a percentage of their grain to use the windmill he had built on the waterfront north of the fort. He was the mill's sole proprietor and could charge whatever he wanted. Renters were also required to work on Cadillac's farm for a specified number of days each year.

To engage in any kind of trade, settlers had to pay a licensing fee and annual taxes. Cadillac grew rich by padding the fees and taxes and skimming off the top. When he withheld the allotment of imported brandy behind padlocked warehouse doors, it was discovered--and reported--that he was trading it to the Indians for beaver pelts. He had defied a Royal decree not to provide liquor to the native population.

When complaints about Cadillac reached Montreal and Paris, King's Deputy Francois Clarembault went to survey Detroit area holdings in 1708 and found they did not match Cadillac's reports. After nineteen days in Detroit, Clarembault returned to Canada and sent his findings off to France. In 1709, Count Pontchartrain wrote to Cadillac complaining that he showed "too much greed and little moderation in his dealings with the settlers."

In 1710, Cadillac was called to Quebec to answer charges against him brought by his detractors. He was acquitted of extortion and abuse of power charges but was removed from his post--never to return to Detroit. The following year, Cadillac was promoted to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Detroit's Saint Anne Roman Catholic Church--the Second Oldest Continuous Operating Parish in America

Stained-glass Windows in Saint Anne's Catholic Church in Detroit
As history records--on July 24, 1701--Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his troop of 105 soldiers and settlers arrived in what became known as Detroit. It took the expedition's 25 canoes 55 days to paddle upstream from Montreal to a clearing on the western bank of the strait that gives Detroit its name. This site was chosen because Cadillac felt it was defensible with plenty of game to help sustain them.

Two days later, the first mass was said in Detroit--on the feast day of Saint Anne's--and the foundations for a small chapel were laid. Catholicism had come to the wilderness. It was the first building constructed in Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit and named after the patron saint of France.

Saint Anne was the grandmother of Jesus Christ and the mother of the Virgin Mary in biblical heredity. Though long considered the patron saint of Detroit, Ste. Anne was installed officially as the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Detroit in a September 2009 decree issued by Pope Benedict XVI.

Saint Anne Conceiving the Virgin Mary by Flemish Painter Jean Bellegambe
Over the years, there have been as many as eight different church buildings--though archaeologists and historians can't agree on an exact number. The original Ste. Anne's was made of logs and planks and was burned down by Native Americans in 1703--including the chapel, the rectory, part of the fort, and the parish's baptismal records. The church was rebuilt in 1704.

Ste. Anne's has succumbed to flames on two other occasions during its 314 years of existence. A larger church was built in 1708 outside the palisade of Fort Pontchartrain. The settlers burned it down themselves in 1714 during a Native American uprising. They feared that it would offer cover to the Indians, so they sacrificed it. 

And in 1805, most of Detroit was destroyed by an accidental fire--all but one of 300 buildings were burned to the ground--including Ste. Anne's. A new church building was begun in 1818 and completed in 1828.

Locally revered, Father Gabriel Richard arrived at Ste. Anne's in 1796. He was not only a theologian but also a politician. He was a co-founder of Catholepistemaid du Michigania--which evolved into the University of Michigan--and as territorial representative to the United States Congress from the Michigan Territory, he helped establish a road-building project that connected Detroit with Chicago--now known as Michigan Avenue.

In 1832, after caring tirelessly for Detroit's cholera victims, Father Richard succumbed to the disease on September 13th. Legend notes that he was the last person to die from the outbreak. His body is interred under the altar of Ste. Anne's side chapel

The current Gothic Revival Cathedral--designed by architects Leon Conquard and Alert E. French in 1886--has flying buttresses, four gargoyles, and the oldest stained glass in the city of Detroit. They all reflect European French influence. Ste. Anne's Cathedral was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

More interesting background information on Saint Anne: