November 8, 1965: It’s Way Bigger Than a Breadbox

To most people, Dorothy Kilgallen was known as a long-time panelist on the television game show What’s My Line? (Does ‘Is it bigger than a breadbox?’ ring a bell?) or as a high society New York newspaper columnist. She was also throughout her career a rather enterprising reporter. Her journalism coming out party was a 1936 race around the world against two male colleagues. Her cabled columns and a book Girl Around the World made her a celebrity.

In 1963, she once again took up the role of daring reporter. According to a biographer, Kilgallen was devastated when President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. She was among those who refused to believe that Oswald acted alone. She spent the next two years in her own investigation of the assassination, gathering evidence and conducting interviews. She was the only reporter to interview Jack Ruby, and she somehow got hold of an advance copy of the Warren Commission report even before President Lyndon Johnson had seen it. He was miffed.

So was J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI and CIA both began to follow her and her friends. She was interrogated, and her phone was tapped. In 1965, she told her lawyer that she was going to break the real story and that it would be the scoop of the century. She planned to meet a secret informant in New Orleans.

On November 7, she appeared on What’s My Line? as usual, and afterward wound down with a few drinks along with other members of the show before returning to her apartment. The next day — November 8, 1965 — she was found dead, sitting up in bed in a blue bathrobe and still wearing in her hair a floral accessory from the previous evening. On her nightstand, an empty sleeping pill bottle and a drinking glass. The police playing the bumblers they traditionally play in detective fiction found nothing suspicion. Her death was attributed to an accidental overdose.

Loose ends included the fact that her accumulated evidence had gone missing, that she was found in a bed she never slept in wearing clothes she never wore to bed, that she had recently bought a gun telling her hairdresser she was ‘scared for her life.’ Lawyer and author Mark Shaw suggested in a 2016 book The Reporter Who Knew Too Much that Kilgallen’s death was orchestrated by a mobster who feared her book would name him as the mastermind behind Kennedy’s assassination.


There is something about a home aquarium which sets my teeth on edge the moment I see it. Why anyone would want to live with a small container of stagnant water populated by a half-dead guppy is beyond me. ~ S. J. Perelman




November 6, 1982: Antifreeze and Old Lace

In Arsenic and Old Lace, a delightfully dark stage play adapted into a movie by Frank Capra, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has an eccentric family that includes two brothers – one of whom thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal in the basement, the other a killer who’s had plastic surgery to make him look like Boris Karloff – and two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Generally, poisoners aren’t as sweet as these two old ladies.

Take the case of Shirley Allen, arrested on November 6, 1982, charged with murdering her sixth husband Lloyd. Shirley certainly wasn’t as sweet as the two old ladies, nor nearly as successful. Her first attempt at poisoning was believed to be an early husband, Joe Sinclair, back in 1968. When his coffee began to taste odd, he didn’t buy the idea that it was the newest flavor of the month, reasoning that Juan Valdez Free Trade Almond Praline Decaf should not give him internal injuries.  Joe went to the police, but no charges were filed. He filed for divorce, however.

Another husband, John Gregg, was not so lucky. He died a year after he married Shirley. He must have sensed that something was amiss because he changed the beneficiary of his insurance policy shortly before he died. Shirley got nothing. As you might guess, she was miffed. A pink-haired, large-bosomed barfly was rather happy, however.

Lloyd Allen was Shirley’s sixth husband. He began to complain of a strange taste in his beer. When Shirley said that it was an iron supplement that would put a tiger in his tank, Lloyd believed her and promptly died. This time she was named as beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance, but alas her daughter told police about the doctored beers. Toxicology reports confirmed that Lloyd’s body tissue contained a lethal amount of ethyl glycol – antifreeze. Shirley went to prison for life. She was never allowed to work in the prison cafeteria.


July 28, 1948: Those Magnificent Men With No Flying Machines

A fog had settled over London on July 28, 1948.  All was quiet and seemingly normal. But of course it wasn’t. Visualize if you will a large shipment of gold bullion awaiting transport at London Airport. A gang of evildoers determined to make off with it.  And an elite throng of intrepid bobbiescrimestoppers known as the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad. You have all the ingredients in place for the adventure known as the “Battle of London Airport.”  Talk about fodder for a summer blockbuster action-adventure movie or at least a page turner to take to the beach.


You’d certainly be forgiven for picturing a major confrontation with flying aces swooping in for a pitched battle with the bad guys.  But this is England. 1948. More likely a bevy of bobbies pedaling in on their bicycles or on foot, with nightsticks drawn, like so many Keystone Cops.

In fact, The Metropolitan Police Flying Squad didn’t have a flying machine to its name. Formed back at a time when the Wright Brothers and other dreamers were still tinkering with air travel, the Squad — known at the time the Mobile Patrol Experiment consisted of a dozen members of Scotland Yard. Their original mission was to chase down pickpockets by hiding in a horse-drawn carriage with peep holes cut in the canvas top.


During the 1920s, the squad expanded to forty officers, under the command of a Detective Superintendent and was authorized to carry out duties anywhere in London without observing the normal policing divisions, thus earning the name “Flying Squad.” It was also given the nickname “the Sweeney” (as in Sweeney Todd) for reasons that remain obscure.


The 1948 Battle of London Airport was the Squad’s crowning achievement, thwarting the attempted theft of £15 million in gold and jewelry.

During the 70s and 80s, however, the Squad came under fire for its close ties with the criminal world (always part of its operating strategy). Bribery and corruption scandals surfaced, and the squad’s commander was jailed for eight years. Twelve other officers were also convicted and many more resigned.

The Flying Squad had lost its wings.

A flying squad without wings is as lost as pirates without a ship.  Speaking of pirates, Terry and the Pirate is available all over the place in both paperback and electronic versions. Check it out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple.

July 8, 1898: Squeaky Clean in Skagway

Soapy Smith, “king of the frontier con men” died in a gunfight celebrated as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf on the evening of July 8, 1898. His last words, while not particularly memorable and certainly not effective, were nevertheless appropriate to the situation: “My God, don’t shoot!”

Soapy’s career began soon after the death of his mother in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a highly disciplined cadre of ne’er-do-wells to work for him, and rose rapidly to criminal super stardom. He built three major evil empires: in Denver, Colorado, from 1886 to 1895); Creede, Colorado in 1892; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1897 to 1898. It was in Skagway that he finally made his dramatic exit.

Starting off with small-time cons such as three-card monte and shell games, he eventually employed the big con that gave him his nickname. On a busy street corner, Smith would go into an ordinary sales pitch extolling the wonders of his soap cakes. But he proceeded to wrap money around the cakes of soap – ones, tens, a hundred dollar bill.   He then wrapped plain paper around them to hide the money.

soapyHe mixed the money-wrapped packages with bars containing no money and began selling the soap for a dollar a cake. Immediately, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear it open, and begin waving around the money he had supposedly won.  People began buying soap, usually several bars. Every few minutes, someone would shout that he had won, always a confederate. Eventually, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill remained unpurchased and began auctioning off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Naturally, the only money was “won” by members of the gang.

Smith used this swindle successfully for twenty years. The proceeds from this scam and others gave him the money to pay graft to police, judges, and politicians, and live as a somewhat shady swell until his comeuppance on the Juneau Wharf at the hand of a man he had cheated.


Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both. ~ Dorothy Parker



May 9, 1671: Stalking the Crown Jewels

In the movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty is out to steal the crown jewels. His  battle of wits with Holmes over England’s great treasure lasts about an hour.  Earlier, an Irishman, Colonel Thomas Blood, attempted the same feat with a much more elaborate plan.

Colonel Blood set the plan in motion in April with a visit to the Tower of London. Dressed as a parson and accompanied by a woman pretending to be his wife, Blood made the acquaintance of Talbot Edwards, an aged but trustworthy keeper of the jewels. During this time, the jewels could be viewed by the payment of a fee. After viewing the regalia, Blood’s “wife” pretended to be taken ill, upon which they were conducted to Edward’s lodgings where he gave her a cordial and treated her with great kindness. Blood and his accomplice thanked the Edwardses and left.

Blood returned a few days later with a half dozen gloves as a present to Mrs. Edwards as a gesture of thanks. As Blood became ingratiated with the family, he made an offer for a fictitious nephew of his to marry the Edwardses’ daughter, whom he alleged would be eligible upon their marriage to an income of several hundred pounds. It was agreed that Blood would bring his nephew to meet the young lady on May 9, 1671.  At the appointed time, Blood arrived with his supposed nephew, and two of his friends, and while they waited for the young lady’s appearance, they requested to view the jewels. Edwards accommodated the men but as he was doing so, they threw a cloak over him and struck him with a mallet, knocking him to the floor and rendering him senseless.

Blood and his men went to work. Using the mallet, Blood flattened out the crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another filed the sceptre in two to fit in a bag, while the third stuffed the sovereign’s orb down his trousers.

The three ruffians would probably have succeeded in their theft but for the opportune arrival of Edwards’ son and a companion, Captain Beckman. The elder Edwards regained his senses and raised the alarm shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!” His son and Beckman gave pursuit.

As Blood and his gang fled to their horses waiting at St. Catherine’s Gate, they dropped the sceptre and fired on the guards who attempted to stop them. As they ran along the Tower wharf, they were chased down by Captain Beckman. Although Blood shot at him, he missed and was captured before reaching the Iron Gate.  The crown, having fallen from his cloak, was found while Blood struggled with his captors, declaring, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful, for it was for a crown!” — a rather eloquent comeuppance speech which today would be something more along the lines of “Oh fuck!”

It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. – James Thurber

April 21, 1986: Seems Like We Struck Out

Notorious gangster Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 where he built a career in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets, eventually becoming Chicago’s go-to guy in the world of crime. He oversaw his various enterprises from a suite at the Lexington Hotel until his arrest in 1931.  He died in 1947.

The Lexington Hotel outlasted Capone by a good many years. In the 1980s, a construction Al-Capone-psd53402company undertook a renovation of the historic hotel. While surveying the building, the company made some unusual discoveries, including a shooting range and an elaborate series of hidden tunnels connecting to taverns and brothels and providing escape routes should the Chicago police get frisky and raid Capone’s headquarters. Most intriguing of all was a secret vault beneath the hotel, where rumor had it, Capone hid vast sums of his ill-gotten gains.

These discoveries were just too tempting for “investigative reporter” Geraldo Rivera to let pass by.  So on April 21, 1986, Geraldo planned to open the vault on live TV in a much ballyhooed special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. What would the two-hour media event reveal? Piles of plunder? Bodies of Capone competitors? Jimmy Hoffa? Judge Crater? Among those who stood by Geraldo as the whole world watched were a medical examiner and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, lending the entire undertaking an aura of grim importance.

The vault was opened, and there . . . ? A lot of dirt and a couple of empty bottles. Geraldo did his best to snatch something out of the rubble, suggesting to 30 million disappointed viewers that the bottles were exciting because they had been used for bathtub gin during Prohibition. A nice try, but he summed up the evening by saying: “Seems like we struck out.”


March 2, 1978: Grave Intrigue in Heidiland

graveSwiss auto mechanics turned thieves, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, had a great idea for a heist. They executed their bold plan with daring and cunning in the wee hours of March 2, 1978. Their target: a 300-pound oak coffin in the village of Corsier, Switzerland. Inside the coffin, was the body of the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin, who had died on Christmas day of the previous year. The graverobbers phoned Chaplin’s widow Oona with their demand for £400,000 a few days later.

Oona was having none of it. “Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous,” she said, refusing to pay. A cat and mouse game between police and the robbers ensued as the police set up phony payoff meetings. The robbers got cold feet, however, and contact was never made, although police and robbers continued to communicate in an effort to achieve their disparate goals.

So dogged were the Swiss police that they put 200 phone booths under surveillance. The robbers again called Oona, whose phone had been tapped. The call was traced, and the hapless thieves were arrested. The men led police to a cornfield where they had buried the body. Chaplin was buried once again in the same burial plot, surrounded by a thick layer of concrete where he has since rested in peace.

Other robbers have made attempts to steal notable remains, Elvis Presley for a supposed ransom of $10 million and Abraham Lincoln for a mere $200,000. Neither attempt got very far, but as a result the bodies of Presley and his mother were moved from a Memphis cemetery to Graceland and 24-hour security monitoring. The 16th President now rests in a steel cage ten feet below ground, covered by concrete.

Captain Courageous

Captain America was the beefier alter ego of Steve Rogers, a typical captain90-pound weakling who realized every 90-pound weakling’s dream of being enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental magic potion, so that he could employ his super abilities in the American war effort. He wore a rather gaudy American flag costume, a lot like those seen at Republican national conventions today.

In the first issue of Captain America Comics (March 1941), Captain America faced the Red Skull, a bellhop recruited by the Fuhrer himself to become a super villain for the Third Reich (and someone you wouldn’t want to forget to tip).

The incredibly patriotic Captain America fought the Nazis throughout World War II, and was one of the most popular comic characters during the war. After the war ended, his popularity waned and he was whisked off to the superheros’ retirement home in the 1950s, but made a super comeback during the 60s.


Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them. ~ P. G. Wodehouse

February 8, 1983: My Kingdom for a Horse

As a horse, Shergar had it pretty good.  He’d earned his place in the sun.  The Irish racehorse, a bay colt with a distinctive white blaze, won the Epsom Derby in 1981 by ten lengths— the longest winning margin in the race’s history. He was named European Horse of the Year that Shergaryear and was retired from racing in September after winning £436,000 in prize money for his owners.

A month later, Shergar arrived in Newbridge, greeted by the town band and cheering, flag-waving throngs as he paraded up main street on his way to begin his stud career. It was another successful career for Shergar who produced 35 foals that season. His second season was looking good as well, with 55 mares on hand.


“A clue… that is what we haven’t got,” Chief Superintendent “Spud” Murphy told reporters shortly after the evening of February 8, 1983, when Shergar disappeared. Sherlock Holmes fans might by forgiven if they start claiming this scenario is right out of the great detective’s adventure, Silver Blaze.   Perhaps the perpetrators read Arthur Conan Doyle.

In any event, at 8.30 pm, Shergar’s groom,  James Fitzgerald thought he heard a car in the yard. He listened, heard nothing more, and forgot about it. Ten minutes later, there was a knock at the door and his son answered it. The uniformed caller asked the boy to fetch his father, but when he turned his back, the visitor hit him from behind, knocking him to the floor. Fitzgerald entered the room to see a pistol pointed at him. Three more armed men, one carrying a sub-machine gun, pushed their way into the house. They held the family at gunpoint while Fitzgerald led two more thieves to Shergar’s stall. Fitzgerald was forced to help the thieves load Shergar into a horse trailer, and the horse was towed away. Fitzgerald was driven around in another vehicle for several hours before being thrown out of the car having been given a password the thieves would use in ransom negotiations.

The investigation and the negotiations were a lesson in ineptitude on all sides, featuring detection by psychics and diviners, demands, counter demands, botched meetings, all amid rumors that the horse was already dead and that the owners were only negotiating to buy time with no intention of paying ransom.

Whatever the truth, after four days the thieves called no more.  Officials blamed the Irish Republican Army for the crime.  Shergar has never been found.  Sherlock Holmes fared better with Silver Blaze.  Unfortunately, he was no longer available.


In 1735, the first opera to be staged in America premiered.  Flora or Hob in the Well was a rather dubious choice, but Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi hadn’t been born yet.


” . . . the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”  “The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”  “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.  — Silver Blaze