Thursday, April 24, 2008

Demon Rum and Murder: A Review by Robert A. Waters

Not long ago I purchased The Postcard Killer just before taking a trip with my wife. We arrived at the motel exhausted. Then I lay across the bed, opened the book, and my tiredness vanished. I couldn’t put it down and spent most of the night reading while my wife slept. The Postcard Killer did what every book should do—-it kept me interested page after page until the very end.

The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D. (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006)

There is nothing new under the sun. It’s my opinion that the first serial murderer was born shortly after Adam and Eve left the Garden. Or, if you prefer, after the first Caveman came out into the open.

Albert Fish. H. H. Holmes. Peter Kudzinowski. The Axe Man of New Orleans. These are but a few serial killers who plied their bloody trade in the decades between 1880 and 1920. Now add J. Frank Hickey to that list.

On October 11, 1911, seven-year-old Joey Joseph disappeared from the streets of Lackawanna, New York. After his father, an immigrant laborer, reported his son missing, police launched a full-scale search. But it seemed the boy had vanished into thin air.

Joey Joseph may have never been found if the killer had not begun sending letters and postcards to police and the parents. Some messages described the heinous crime while others expressed an obviously false remorse. The killer was enjoying his control of the situation. Finally, in one letter, the writer gave police directions to the body. The next day, authorities dug up the skeletal remains from the pit of a communal outhouse near Joey’s home.

As the case was sensationalized by the media, a young psychiatrist named Nelson “Kid” Wilson published a detailed description of what the killer might be like. His “profile” was so close to the truth that the prosecution team later hired him.

With no real leads, police decided to publish copies of the postcards in a local newspaper. Almost immediately, several people contacted authorities to say they recognized the handwriting as that of an eccentric drunkard and prolific correspondent named J. Frank Hickey.

After his arrest, Hickey confessed to three murders and numerous sexual assaults of children. Along with Joey Joseph, ten-year-old newsboy Michael Kruck and 34-year-old Edwin W. Morey were also victims of the killer. Hickey was suspected of at least twelve other murders. During the two decades he roamed New England, dozens of children went missing or were found murdered. (At least two other serial murderers, Albert Fish and Peter Kudzinowski, were also active in the general area at the same time.)

J. Frank Hickey was a hopeless alcoholic. He was something of a dandy while sober, but when drunk he confided to detectives that he harbored a secret sexual attraction for children. Most of his numerous assaults were spontaneous—-when he was tipping the demon rum, he claimed that he couldn’t control himself.

I emailed the author and asked how he came to write The Postcard Killer. Dr. McLaughlin wrote: “As usually happens, I [was] researching some other topic and [stumbled] on to something else. I was collecting a great deal of data on homicides in Buffalo. While looking through old newspapers, I kept stumbling into Hickey. So I decided to write a book.”

I’m glad he did. The Postcard Killer is well-written and brings to life a case that that I’d never heard about. It also presents a view of blue-collar New England that is usually ignored. For instance, among the working class in the Victorian era, children in the Northeast were required to work to help support the family. Many pre-teen boys sold newspapers for money to add to the family coffers. They were constantly harassed by “chicken hawks,” or child molesters, who attempted to entice the children into committing sex acts. These newsboys were Hickey’s favorite victims.

Somehow Hickey escaped the electric chair. He was instead convicted of second-degree murder and sent to Auburn prison. When jurors were interviewed as to their curious verdict, one said, “Would you shoot a dog because he acts this way?” The jury thought he was insane. But Hickey was too dangerous to be placed in a mental institution where he might escape or be released so the second-degree murder conviction effectively kept him locked up until he died.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Death Row Pedo by Robert A. Waters

It looks like Mark Dean Schwab may soon get a date with Old Sharpie. The Supreme Court cleared the way with the recent 7-2 decision that lethal injection is a constitutional form of punishment for certain crimes. In the next few weeks, the same court will rule on Schwab’s latest and last appeal. Florida Governor Charlie Crist has already signed Schwab’s death warrant. [Photo of victim Junny Rios-Martinez, Jr.]

NOTE: If you don’t wish to read the graphic details of the crime, skip the italicized text in the center of the story.

"Justice delayed is justice denied..." Florida Governor Charlie Crist said, referring to the court’s recent decision. "But in addition, the heinous nature of the crime itself is important to consider."

Here’s heinous.

Junny Rios-Martinez was 11-years-old when convicted child rapist Mark Schwab first spotted him. The handsome child’s picture had been displayed in a local Brevard County newspaper after he won a kite-flying contest. For Schwab, it was lust at first sight. He called the boy’s Cocoa, Florida home and told his parents he was a newspaper reporter and wanted to do a more in-depth article about Junny. After learning that the boy was an avid surfer, Schwab informed the family that he had recently accepted a new job as a writer for a surfing magazine. He produced fake credentials and memorabilia from the surfing magazine to convince them.

He continued to groom Junny and his family for several weeks. Then on April 18, 1991, he called Junny’s school and pretended to be the boy’s father. He asked officials to let Junny meet him on the baseball field after school. Gullible school personnel did so and Junny was never seen alive again.

When police were notified, they immediately suspected Mark Dean Schwab. Only a month earlier, he’d been released from prison after serving just three years of an eight-year sentence for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy.

After learning that police were looking for him, Schwab fled to a relative’s home in Ohio but was captured five days later. After his return to Florida, he led police to a remote section of Brevard County where investigators found a footlocker tied shut with rope and covered with palm fronds. Inside the box, Junny was discovered lying in a fetal position. Wads of duct tape were inside the box. Schwab’s fingerprints were found on the tape.

The following is part of the trial transcript: “The state trial court judge, after hearing all of the evidence at a bench trial and sentence hearing...found that Schwab had acted alone. He found that Schwab had planned things so that the young victim left the baseball field thinking he was with a trusted friend. Once in the motel room, Schwab physically overpowered the slightly built child. He bound with duct tape the little boy's hands, his mouth, and part of his face. He took a knife and violently cut off the child's clothes, leaving him naked, crying, and terrified. He punched him twice in the stomach. He put a bed sheet or mattress cover over the head of the little boy who was so scared that he started to shake. Schwab anally raped him. The victim did not even have the solace of unconsciousness during the ordeal, which lasted a substantial amount of time. He continued to cry throughout, stopping only when Schwab finally strangled or smothered him to death.”

Schwab has been on death row since 1992. Since then, he has filed numerous appeals in both state and federal courts. All have upheld his conviction and death sentence. He also filed two appeals to the Supreme Court. He was denied on his first appeal and justices are expected to rule shortly on his latest appeal. If his appeal is rejected, he will most likely be put to death within a month.

Junny Rios-Martinez was an athletic, creative child. He had designed and built the kite that won the kite-flying contest that ultimately cost him his life. I recently watched a video of Junny on YouTube. It is clear that he was a natural at baseball. Junny was also a good student. He had a loving, hard-working family and would have most likely grown up to become a productive member of society.

Unfortunately, Junny Rios-Martinez never got a chance to realize that potential.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review of The Empty Nursery by Jaclyn Weldon White

Over the years, I’ve read thousands of true crime books, but somehow this one slipped by me. Even though it was published seven years ago, I was so impressed that I had to give it a review. The book also lets me rant about some things I hate in true crime books and give some love to the author for doing some things right. [Thanks to Jaclyn Weldon White for the use of Haley Hardwick’s photograph.]

The Empty Nursery: The Disappearance of Haley Hardwick by Jaclyn Weldon White. (Mercer University Press, 2001)

The day before Independence Day, 1992, a 7-month-old child went missing. The case was suspicious from the start. Kenny Hardwick, the father of Haley, claimed that he stopped to help two men having car trouble on a bridge overlooking the Yellow River in Gwinnett County, Georgia. After he got their car started, he claimed he went back to his truck and found the baby missing. Hardwick assumed the men had taken Haley. He said he tried to pursue them but his old truck was too slow and they disappeared.

Instead of calling police, Hardwick called his wife Kathy who was manager of a local Pizza Hut. She rushed to the scene of the alleged abduction while a co-worker called 911. So began an investigation that lasted for nearly a year.

The Empty Nursery focuses on Kathy Hardwick’s gradual realization that her husband is lying and that he murdered their daughter. It also delves deeply into the investigation and follows cops through the eventual conclusion of the case. Unlike most books published by university presses, The Empty Nursery is an easy read.

There are lots of things to like about this book. It doesn’t let back-story intrude—-the book starts at the beginning and goes to the end. This is a simple but effective tool when writing a story or book. Unfortunately, some true crime writers try to complicate things by switching from scene to unrelated scene, then back and forth until the reader becomes confused. Of course, back-story is necessary, but it should be squeezed out in small segments. Ms. White does a fine job of keeping the flow of the story intact without unnecessary distractions.

Unlike some authors, Ms. White also respects her subject. While there are good guys and bad guys and in-betweeners, she tells the story as it is without editorializing. That brings me to a well-reviewed book that I hated. In fact, I closed The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer long before the final page and never re-opened it. The simple fact is that Mailer hated Mormons and kept intruding into the story with asides and obvious references to the supposed vagaries of their religion. Had I wanted to read an expose’ of the Mormons, I would have bought a book on the subject. In his desire to use an ax on the Mormon religion, he attempted to turn a psychopathic killer into an anti-hero. The best thing that ever happened to society was when four bullets plowed into Gary Gilmore’s chest. Ms. White could have slammed Southerners (always a good ploy for a great New York Times review) but she didn’t. She respected her audience enough to simply tell the story.

Ann Rule once stated that she only writes a book after the trial of the suspect has been held. That’s a wise choice, and one that Ms. White followed. We learn at the end of the book that Kenny Hardwick was sentenced to life in prison. So many modern true crime books, written to capitalize on a sensational murder or series of murders, leave out one important element of the case: the final denouement. It’s like reporting on a football game in the third quarter. My respect for an author goes into the toilet after learning that I read three hundred pages for nothing.

The Empty Nursery deserves a place in all true crime libraries. Jaclyn Weldon White is currently working on another true crime book and I can’t wait to read it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Strange Case of Catherine Winters

The Lost Girl
by Robert A. Waters

Nine-year-old Catherine Winters was last seen around noon on March 20, 1913. A family friend named Dan Monroe spoke to her as she walked along the town square toward her Newcastle, Indiana home. On that day, the schools had closed due to an outbreak of measles and Catherine had spent the morning playing with her pal Helen Stretch. As she skipped toward home, she wore a “red sweater coat,” a white straw hat, and a black and white checked gingham dress. She had brown eyes and light brown hair.

When the child didn’t return home that afternoon, Catherine's mother, Byrd Winters, called her husband at his dental office. Dr. W. A. Winters rushed home and began searching for Catherine. He immediately concluded that “gypsies” had snatched his little girl. “That night was the first night of the great floods of 1913,” he later wrote. “Our machines [i.e., automobiles] went in headlong pursuit of that band of gypsy wagons. It was after daylight when we suddenly blundered onto their camp. I thought my quest was over but in all the camp never a sign of my little girl did we find.” Winters later learned that one wagon had already left the camp--this strengthened his belief that the band had stolen Catherine.

The Winters’ did not contact police until the following day.

The case was a media sensation from the start. Abductions just didn't occur in small-town America in 1913. Cars were just beginning to replace the horse and buggy. Electricity was a new phenomenon still scarce in rural areas. The invention of the radio had begun to bring music and news into the homes of those who lived in cities but newspapers were still the most popular way for people to get the news of the day. The Winters case was so strange it held readers captive day after day.

The Newcastle police seemed at a loss. As their efforts foundered, the Mayor and city council hired Robert H. Abel, a private detective who claimed to be a former New York City policeman. He made a splash when he arrived in town wearing a Sherlock Holmes cap and brandishing a spyglass. He also lugged a dictograph around with him, presumably to surreptitiously record conversations of suspects. The mayor told Abel that there was a $3,000 reward for him if he solved the case.

There were absolutely no clues. (In that day and age, it seemed that no one thought of the possibility that a sexual predator might have snatched the girl.) Dr. Winters’ obsession with gypsies grew as the police investigation lost momentum.

What he didn’t know was that police had begun to turn their focus on him and his wife. Sherlock Abel, upon  learning that Winters’ first wife had died and left $3,000 to Catherine and her brother Frank, decided that might be a motive for murder. Searching the Winters’ home, he found a red ribbon, a red sweater, and a partially-burned undergarment behind a block in the basement. This, he declared, was the smoking gun, particularly since the undergarments appeared to have “blood-colored” stains on them.

At Abel's urging, police arrested Winters and his wife, along with a former boarder in the home. They were, according to a newspaper account, “given a severe cross-examination.” Abel confided to investigators that one of the three would break down under intense questioning. That’s how it happened in New York, he claimed. Mrs. Winters, however, calmly explained that the sweater belonged to a nephew and had been thrown away by Dr. Winters’ former mother-in-law who had also resided in the house. The ribbon was part of the trimming on a hat which had been lost and the undergarment had “outlived its usefulness.”

The Winters’ immediately made bail. Dr. Winters then began a remarkable and ingenious campaign to get his daughter back. In fact, he was so far ahead of his time that some of these techniques are still used today by parents of missing children. First, he wrote letters to every newspaper in the country pleading with them to keep the story alive. Then he made appearances at movie houses all over the country where he and his wife would present a slide show of his daughter between movies. Dr. Winters even wrote President Woodrow Wilson and asked him to intervene in the case. Finally, he sent personal letters to all Knights of Pythias lodges requesting that they help a fellow Knight to find his daughter.

A popular song entitled “What Happened to Catherine Winters?” described the case in music.

A few months after his arrest, charges against Winters, his wife, and his boarder were dropped for lack of evidence. PI Abel, seeing his fee evaporating, fled to Chicago when Dr. Winters threatened to sue him for defamation and false arrest.

The case gradually faded from the headlines. Over the years, dozens of women stepped forward and claimed to be Catherine. In one case, ten years after the disappearance, Mrs. Clyde Taylor of Middleport, Ohio, visited local newspapers and purported to be the long-lost child. She’d visited a fortune-teller, she said, who told her that she had “gone by many names.” This simple statement released a torrent of memories which caused the housewife to think she may have been Catherine. Dr. Winters quickly disabused her of that notion when he saw her photograph.

Dr. Winters continued searching throughout the years. He did, in fact, locate a kidnapped girl, but she wasn’t Catherine. A young girl had been abducted in Louisiana and taken to Ohio by an ex-convict. She was reunited with her parents and the ex-con arrested.

What happened to Catherine Winters? Did her parents murder her, hide her body, and try to throw off investigators by their claims that they thought gypsies had taken her? That was PI Abel’s unlikely theory.

Did wandering gypsies take her? (Gypsies were always suspected in missing persons cases although there are only a handful of documented cases where they actually abducted someone in America.)

Did Catherine wander out of town and die accidentally? If so, why wasn’t she found?

Or was she taken by a sexual deviant? This seems to have never been explored.

Dr. Winters died in 1940, having spent all of his money searching for his daughter. Byrd Winters died in 1953. According to a local newspaper, she had often complained about her husband “touring the vaudeville circuits with enlarged pictures of the girl” while neglecting his business.

On that cold day in 1940, as Dr. Winters gasped out his final breaths, he turned to his wife and said, “Now I’ll find out what happened to Catherine.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Still More Murder Ballads by Robert A. Waters

This will end my current posts about murder ballads and true crime songs. I may tackle the subject again later if I come up with additional information. [To the right is a photograph of B. F. Shelton, a little-known banjoist who in 1927 performed an outstanding version of the old folk song, "Pretty Polly." Photo is published via the courtesy of Dan Kelly at]

In my old songbook, I found a song I’d almost forgotten. It’s entitled “The Wall.” I couldn’t remember who sang it so I googled it and found that both George Hamilton IV and Johnny Cash recorded versions of the song. A fellow-inmate tells the story of a man who was obsessed with breaking out of prison after his fiancĂ© wrote him with the news that she was marrying someone else. Here’s the final verse: “There’s never been a man ever shook this can/But I know a man who tried./The newspapers called it a jailbreak plan/But I know it was suicide, I know it was suicide.”

Speaking of Johnny Cash, he sang dozens of songs about crime. In fact, Cash had an album called “Murder Songs.” One of my favorite murder ballads is “Delia’s Gone.” It has that irreverent Prohibition-era feel about it. “I went up to Memphis and I met Delia there./Found her in her parlor and I tied her to her chair./Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.” (The singer doesn’t really give a reason for killing the unfortunate Delia, but it may have been due to infidelity.) Later in the song he describes how he murdered her. “First time I shot her, I shot her in the side./Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died.” After the murderer is caught, he’s haunted by the "patter" of Delia’s feet in his cell.

In the recent movie, “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix portrays Johnny Cash singing “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom Prison. This song was originally called “Little Sadie” and was about a prostitute who was murdered by an enamored john. It was probably written in the early 1900s. Country singers later changed it to its current version. “Early one morning while making the rounds,/I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.” The murderer flees to Mexico but is caught and returned to Jericho Hill, South Carolina where he’s tried and convicted. Sentenced to 99 years in prison, he concludes: “Come all you rounders, listen unto me,/lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.”

An under-rated country singer in the 1960s and 1970s was Georgia’s Stonewall Jackson. Two of his murder ballads, “Leona” and “Life to Go,” are among my favorites. In “Leona,” the singer implores his cheating wife to return to him and their child. She laughs and goes to the local bar to meet her new lover. The husband follows her and when he arrives he finds this scene: “The sidewalk was crowded in front of the bar./I heard the siren, the black police car./Two bodies lay crumpled, a woman, a man,/His wife stood there by you, a gun in her hand.”

The following is an old folk song, almost certainly based on a true story. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, who did a version of this song, has the following to say about it on his website: “This is a good example of a song used for spreading the news of the day, way before radio, television, or the Internet. The content of the news is however strikingly similar.”

Pretty Polly (Old folk song)

“O, Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me.
O, Polly, pretty Polly,come go along with me.
Before we get married a strange country to see.”

He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
Until this fair damsel began for to weep.

“O, Willie, sweet Willie, I fear from your ways.
O, Willie, sweet Willie, I fear from your ways.
I fear that you’re leading my body astray.”

“O, Polly, pretty Polly, you’re guessing just right.
O, Polly, pretty Polly, you’re guessing just right.
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.”

"Go on a little farther, see what you can spy.
Go on a little farther, see what you can spy.”
She spied her grave dug and the spade a-lying by.

She threw her arms around him not suffering no fear.
She threw her arms around him not suffering no fear.
“How can you kill a poor girl that loves you so dear?”

“O, Polly, pretty Polly, there's no time to stand.
O, Polly, pretty Polly, there's no time to stand.”
He drew his sharp knife all in his right hand.

He pierced it through her heart and the blood it did flow.
He pierced it through her heart and the blood it did flow
And into the tomb her poor body did go.

He threw a little dirt over and turned to go home.
He threw a little dirt over and turned to go home
With nothing behind him but the birds for to mourn.

Come gentlemen and ladies I'll bid you adieu.
Come gentlemen and ladies I'll bid you adieu.
My song has now ended although it is true.

The best version of "Pretty Polly" I've heard is the rendition B. F. Shelton did in 1927. Shelton was a banjo player who traveled from Kentucky to Bristol, Tennessee to record for Ralph Peer. According to extant records, he recorded ten songs, but only four were saved. After making the recordings, Shelton went back to Kentucky and worked the rest of his life as a coal miner. Ralph Peer was the man who discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and is credited with collecting hundreds of Appalachian folk songs.

Friday, April 4, 2008

More Murder Ballads and Songs about True Crimes by Robert A. Waters

In the early 1970s, I attended a symposium at Auburn University. One of the courses I took came with an Auburn ring-bound notebook. When I returned home, I took the coursework out and used it for a songbook. Over the years, I typed up the lyrics to songs I liked and kept them stored there. I recently found the songbook and decided to afflict my small audience with information about more murder ballads. [Photo of Doc Watson.]

“Everglades.” Written by Harlan Howard and vocalized by The Kingston Trio, this song tells the story of a man who killed another man in a fight, then fled to the Everglades. He was never captured, but in the end, “His running and hiding didn’t make much sense/Cause the jury had ruled that it was self-defense.”

“Folsom Prison Blues.” I would rate this Johnny Cash classic among the top ten country songs ever written. It tells the story of a prisoner who longs for freedom every time a train passes by. “I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free/But those people keep a-moving and that’s what tortures me.”

There are two songs about Old West outlaws: “John Wesley Hardin” by Bob Dylan and “Jesse James,” a song my grandfather taught me. Of course, both songs present the gunmen in a heroic light, but they’re fun to play and sing.

“Long Black Veil.” I have a CD of the original version by Lefty Frizzell, although the Johnny Cash rendition is more well-known. Gillian Welch also does an outstanding version. This song will creep you out: it describes the after-death thoughts of a man who was falsely accused of murder. Being a chivalrous sort, however, he was unable to mount a defense because “I was in the arms of my best friend’s wife.” The last verse goes like this here (okay, I know the grammar ain't right, but David Allan Coe fans will understand): “The scaffold swung high with eternity near/She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear,/But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil, she cries o’er my bones.”

Merle Haggard spent years in California’s prisons before being pardoned by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Many of his songs are about crime and lost souls. “Mama Tried” is another of my top ten all-time country songs. “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right, but Mama tried./Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleadings I denied,/That leaves only me to blame cause Mama tried.”

Townes Van Zandt wrote some outstanding songs, but his greatest was “Pancho and Lefty.” I like his own version much better than the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard rendition that has become a country classic. “Pancho, he was a bandit, boys, his horse was fast as polished steel./He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel./Pancho met his match, you know, on a desert down in Mexico./Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes...”

I’m only half-way though my songbook, so I’ll end this blog with the story of “Omie Wise.” In real-life, Naomi Wise was an orphan adopted by a kindly farmer in North Carolina. By 1808, she was a pretty teenager and a wealthy planter’s son named Jonathan Lewis began courting her. Soon she became pregnant. Unfortunately for Naomi, he had a “proper” fiancĂ© and his parents dissuaded him from marrying Naomi. So he did the only thing he could think of: he murdered her. This song was composed like a broadside by some unknown local chronicler.

Omie Wise (As sung by Doc Watson)

Come listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies
How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise.

He told her to meet him at Adams’s Springs,
He promised her money and other fine things.

So fool-like she met him at Adams’s Springs,
No money he brought her or other fine things.

“Go with me, Little Omie, away we will go
We’ll go and get married and no one will know.”

She climbed up behind him and away they did go
But off to the river where deep waters flow.

“John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?”

“Little Omie, Little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind.
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life.
I’ll go home a beggar and never be your wife.”

He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around
And pushed her in deep waters where he knew she would drown.

He got on his pony and away he did ride
As the screams of little Omie went down by his side.

Twas on a Thursday morning, the rain was pouring down,
When the people searched for Omie, but she could not be found.

Two boys went a-fishing one fine summer day
And saw little Omie’s body go floating away.

They threw their net around her and drew her to the bank,
Her clothes all wet and muddy, they laid her on a plank.

They sent to John Lewis to come to that place
And brought her out before him so he could see her face.

He made no confession but they carried him to jail.
No friends or relations would go on his bail.

The song ends in mid-stream for a reason. Jonathan Lewis went to trial and, probably due to his father’s influence, was acquitted. He married and moved to Kentucky. A few years later, he became sick and died. It is said that on his death-bed, he confessed to murdering the unfortunate Naomi Wise.