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Friday, March 05, 2010

THE BELLE OF BEDLAM

I wonder what was going through the mind of lawyer M.E. Leliter, on the afternoon of April 27, 1908, when he was told Mrs. Belle Gunness was waiting in the anteroom of his Main Street office. I doubt he was pleased to see her. But you never think the worse, do you? When someone who makes you feel uneasy appears at your door you never think of evil. You always think of normal everyday humanity. Belle was a genial and pleasant church going woman. And if M.E. had always felt uneasy around her, he must have ascribed his nervousness to all the tragedy in her life. M.E. always thought he could detect the aura of hidden pain behind her sharp Nodic blue eyes.
In Chicago, Illinois, Belle had buried two of her children, not an unusual tragedy in the nintinth century. But then in 1900 her husband, Anton Sorenson, had died of heart disease. With the procedes from Anton’s two life insurance policies, Belle, with her three surviving children, had purchesed a farm on the northeast outskirts of La Portte Indiana, out on McClung Road past Pine and Fish Trap lakes. It was there she had married widower Peter Gunness on April 1st, of 1902. And, tragically, that very summer, Peter’s young daughter had died after a short illness, and then in December, Peter himself had been struck on the head by a falling saugase grinder and killed. Her life been so tragic that M.E. forced a smile as he stepped out to greet the lumbering, six foot tall, 280 pound woman. (Community gossips said that Belle could carry 100 pound hogs, one under each arm.) But Belle was not interested in pleasantries. Someone, Belle announced, was trying to kill her.
Her tale had a ting of unrealty to M.E. He was one of the most promiment of the 14,000 citizens of La Porte, just across the Indiana line. Fifteen passanger trains a day passed through town on their way between Philadelphia and Chicago, 60 miles to the northwest. Perched atop the prairie, the town was surrouned by farms, including one owned by M.E.. But it was also home to the Meinaid Rumely Factory, whose 2,000 employees assembled steam powered threashers and were rushing to manufacture one of the world’s first internal combustion farm tractors, the “Kerosene Annie”.
As befitted a prosperous middle class community, just down the street from M.E.’s office stood the new red sandstone Romanesque Court House, with oak paneled court rooms and stained glass windows. The disturbed Belle and her accusations seemed more fitting in the lurid crime ridden alleys of Chicago than small, quiet, proper, Victorian, La Porte.
The potential assassian was Ray Lamphere, who until recently had been Belle’s hired hand. Six weeks ago she had fired Ray, and he had threatened her and her two youngest daughters. “I'm afraid he's going to kill me and burn the house,” Belle told M.E. Thank goodness Belle’s eldest daughter, Jennie, was safely away at a finishing school in Los Angeles. Yes, Belle had spoken with the police. Twice she had charged Ray with trespassing. But they refused to grant her a protection order, and had dismissed her allegation that Ray was insane. Now, out of an excesss of caution, Belle wanted to amend her will. She wanted to be certain that her estate would to go to her children. And, if for some reason, they were deceased, then Belle wanted all her property to go to a Norwegian orphanage back in Chicago. M.E. took down the information, and made an oppointment for Belle to return in a few days to sign the completed document.
Then shocking news came with the morning light. There had been a terrible fire at the Gunness farm in the early morning hours of April 28, 1908. Despite the noble efforts of Belle’s new hired hand, and two passing men, no one had made it out of the house alive. Eventually the beams and the furniture had crashed into the basement. By noon the heat had retreated enough for workers to shift the ashes. There they found the pitiful bodies of Belle’s three children, Myrtle and Lucy Sorensen, and Philip Gunness, aged 5, as well as the blackened, headless corpse of a woman presumed to be Belle. And when the cops arrested Ray Lamphere he blurted out, “Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?” It seemed an open and shut case. Except…
First there was the woman’s body; when doctors examined the corpse they described the woman as weighing no more than 150 pounds. Neighbors who had sewn clothing for Belle were adament that the corpse could not be her’s. So back to the ashes went the searchers. And what they found raised even more questions; they found men’s pocket watches, rings and wallets. And then a man arrived in town looking for his middle aged brother, who was last seen in La Porte, having responded to a notice in a South Dakota lonely hearts column. Finally asked, her mailman informed the sheriff that Belle had mailed and received 8 to 10 letters a day. The searchers spread out across the farm.
They found and disinterred the body of daughter Jennie, who was supposed to have been away at school. The found beneath the pig pen the bodies of ten to fourteen men and women, many of whom had been last seen visiting Belle’s farm. Cyanide was found in some of the victims’ bodies. But how many more victims had been fed to Belle’s hogs, or buried in undiscovered graves on the farm? When finally added up the list of known and suspected victims reached forty. Belle Gunness could well have been the most prolific serial killer in American history, certainly the most hard working serial murderess.
The jury at Ray Lamphere’s trail found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of arson. They also issued a statement asserting that Belle’s body had been found in the ashes. But Ray insisted to the day he died that Belle had escaped. And for the next decade sightings of Belle were reported from about Midwest. And most intriguing, there was Esther Carlson, arrested in Los Angeles in 1931, for the murder of a Norwegian immigrant. The motive was alledged to be theft of his money. It was alleged that her weapon of choice had been poison. But nothing was ever proved. Esther died while awaiting trial. But two expatriates from La Porte identified photos of Esther Carlson as Belle Gunness. And if that seems pretty far fetched, a tale for those obsessed with conspiracy theories, remember that it is the nature of most people, especially those in a small town, that when they hear of a tragedy their first thought is never of a conspiracy of evil - even if sometimes that is exactly what it is.
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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

ELEPHANT DIAPHRAGMS

I want to begin by stating the facts. When Joe Frisbie died in 1940, his widow, Marina, inherited the family bakery. She ran the ovens on Kossuth Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut for the next 18 years, baking up to 80,000 pies a day. As was the industry standard at the time, each of the tin pie plates was stamped with the company name, and carried a 5 cent deposit, to be repaid for every pie tin returned to the bakery. In 1958 Marina sold the family business to Table Talk Pies, out of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Frisbie Pies ceased to exist. Table Talk is still in business, and bakes 220,000 pies a day. Those are the facts. Now, somehow the legend has been perpetrated that students at Yale University began throwing the pie tins, and thus invented the Frisbee.
The first problem with this legend is that Yale University is not in Bridgeport. Yale is in New Haven, which is 20 miles further to the north. And that is a very long way to throw a Frisbee. There are other problems with the legend, all of which give me the feeling that the Yale alumni were throwing something around besides pie plates. But despite these facts, an original Frisbie Pie tin still sells on Ebay for about $25 – a 25,000% increase in value, primarily because of its mythical connection to a plastic toy. The non-immaculate conception of the Frisbee is a much more interesting story than the myth.
According to the tale as related by Fred Morrison to writer Ben Van Heuvelen a few years before Fred’ death, back in 1937 the then 17 year old Fred and his fiancĂ© Lucile Nay were in her back yard tossing around the lid from a can of popcorn, because they didn’t have a football. The lid’s flight was horribly erratic, and the teenagers made a game of trying to predict which direction the lid would take on each toss. Over the California winter, the pair began playing the game with various lids and plates, looking for a better “spin”. One spring afternoon, while they were tossing a five cent pie plate around on the beach, a man approached Fred and asked where he could buy the toy. Fred immediately sold him the lid for a quarter – a 500% profit.
Having been slapped in the face by opportunity, the couple bought pie tins in bulk from a local hardware store and every weekend took them to the beach where they tossed the tins back and forth, to attract a crowd. The resultant sales did not make anybody rich, but this was still the depression, and every quarter helped. Then World War Two changed the world. 1946 found the couple living in an Army surplus tent in San Luis Obispo. Fred was pouring concrete slabs for home fuel tanks, and Lucy was working at a Lockheed plant. But Fred couldn’t get the profitable spinning pie plate idea out of his head, and eventually mentioned it to his boss, Warren Franscioni. Warren had been a pilot in the war, like Fred, and he also saw the potential in the product, like Fred. But, it seems that unlike Fred, Warren had been paying attention in ground school, and was familiar with the work of Daniel Bernoulli.
Daniel is one of those little known people who should be more famous, for a number of reasons. I remember Daniel because his father, Johann Bernouli, was the biggest heel in the history of mathematics. Despite Daniel’s love of numbers Johann forced the boy into medical school. But Daniel refused to give up on numbers. At one point, father and son tied for a first prize in physics. Johann was so consumed by jealousy that he kicked Daniel out of the house. Johann then waited until Daniel published the work he had won the prize for, and then Johann rewrote the same material, backdating it, so it looked like the son had stolen from the father. What a heel. Father and son never spoke again.
Of course what most people remember about Daniel Bernouli is that before he was 30 he had laid out the mathematics of flight, two hundred years before they would be put to use; one half the pressure of a fluid, times the velocity of the fluid squared, plus the density of the fluid, equals the Bernouli constant. And that may mean nothing to you, (it confuses the heck out of me) but it keeps airplanes in the air, and, with the spin imparted by a flick of the wrist, keeps a Frisbee floating on the air.
Warren explained the Bernouli laws to Fred, and Fred diagramed the basic pie plate shape, except he added a thick outer edge to mimic an airplane’s wing. He called the angle toward the center of the plate “The Morrison Slope”. The pair then drove down to Glendale, California, and showed their drawings to the Southern California Plastic Company. The manager saw the potential and invested eight cylinders of a new plastic, Tennite, which he handed over to the pair from San Louis for testing. Fred then drew eight variations on his original drawing. But before they handed the plastic over to a machinist to carve the drawings into reality, he changed the title on the plans, to disguise the product. He labeled the schematics “Diaphragms for Elephants”. I guess he figured that title would not arouse any curiosity.
Fred and Warren tested the diaphragms, and delivered the one that flew the best to Glendale. In 1948 the first production run of 3,000 Whirlo-Ways (patent #183626) were squeezed out of the injection molds in just two colors, black and blue. Lucile wrote the copy for the packaging, instructing customers to “Play catch – invent games. Experiment!” In 1951 Warren reenlisted in the Air Force for the Korean War, and Fred and Lucy continued to develop the Whirlo-Ways by themselves.
Marketing now took over. The Whirlo-Ways became Whirloways, Flyin-Saucers, Flying Saucers, and Pluto Platters. But the basics of the device did not change; it was a thing that, when you threw it, it floated and bobbed and weaved with a grace that a ball can only dream of.
In 1955, while Fred and Lucile were displaying their Pluto Platters in Los Angeles, they were spotted by two falcon hunters, who had formed a company to market their plastic sling shot, intended to propel meat into the air for training birds of prey. They named their company “Wham-O” after the shout they made when firing their sling shots. But Arthur "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr were smart enough to realize that most of their slingshots were not being bought by falconers. The problem was they weren’t sure who was buying them.
So they decided to change products, and jumped at the chance to use their meager sling shot profits to buy the North American rights to a Australian bamboo exercise tool which, duplicated in plastic, became the Hula Hoop. Wham-O sold 25 million Hula Hoops in four months, 100 million in two years. In 1956 the pair used their profits from the Hula Hoops to pay Fred and Lucille one million dollars for the patent and the molds of Pluto Platters.
Wham-O’s designers made some improvements on the platters, and in 1958, the year after Frisbie Pies had shut down, they renamed the Pluto Platter as the Frisbee. Why they chose that name I have never been able to discover to my satisfaction. But I suspect somebody in the Wham-O marketing department was a Yale Alumni. The rest is history.
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