Strange Times is a day-by-day rereading of the weirdest articles printed in the 1921 New York Times. Starring gangsters, killers, bootleggers, madmen and jazz, it is a weekly reminder that the past was stranger than we think.

Strange Times 55: "A Nasty Sex Thing"

Strange Times is a weekly newsletter that explores the weirdest news of 1921, one day at a time. Issues 0-52 are archived here. If you haven’t upgraded to a premium subscription, do so here to get every issue, every week.

Today brings a gun-toting pastor, a reevaluated Zipfel, a heroic Paskert, and a pair of children driven by Hollywood to a life of crime. Please think of the children on…

February 24, 1921

  • Author William Allen White issues a statement that the film version of his novel, In the Heart of the Fool is the worst movie he's ever seen, complaining that the producers changed his story into "a nasty sex thing."

  • The Princeton sophomores caught in the blizzard while hunting for wildcats reach safety after hiking ten miles through waist-deep snow. 

  • Caruso's doctors insist the tenor's larynx has not been affected by his illness, and that they hope he will be recovered in time for the fall opera season.

  • The Weather: Fair, colder today; Friday cloudy, somewhat warmer; strong northwest winds.

This“vivid narrative” doesn’t quite reach the killing itself, but I am awed by the story of Rev. U.O.L. Spracklin, and by god I want to hear more.

SANDWICH, Ontario, Feb. 23.—The Rev. U.O.L. Spracklin, liquor license inspector, on trial for manslaughter in connection with the death of Beverly Trumble, hotel keeper, took the witness stand tonight in his own defense, and for two hours withstood the ordeal of searching cross-examination. The pastor-inspector recited a vivid narrative of the incidents which preceded the killing, bursting into tears when he described how he fired the fatal shot.

The courtroom was packed. The spectators were moved by the pathetic figure of the defendant as he endeavored to justify his act.

Spracklin recounted his original charges against conditions in the town of Sandwich, in which he had declared indecency, intoxication and other violations of the law were tolerated by police officials. He told of watching the roadhouse from a vantage point and had seen intoxicated men and women leaving it.

He described his attempt on a previous occasion to search Trumble’s car after having seen a truckload of beer delivered at the roadhouse, and was subjected to abuse by the man and his wife, both of whom threatened him. 

Mrs. Evelyn Bell, sister of the accused man, testified she met Trumble in the park at Bois Blanc, where she had gone on an excursion, and he advised her to tell her brother to get out of the license inspection business.

"He will be shot if he doesn't get off the job," Mrs. Bell testified Trumble told her. "They will shoot a man quicker for whisky than they will for money. He wants to get off the job before he gets killed."

Mrs. Bell testified she warned the Rev. Spracklin immediately on her return to Windsor, and that she considered Trumble's language a threat against her brother's life.

Similar testimony was given by Seaman Reid of Walkerville, a toolmaker. He said once when Spracklin went to search the Dominion House he was stopped by Trumble, who said:

"I don't care whether you are an officer or preacher or what you are, I'll wallop you. Come outside and I'll lick you in a short time."

Spracklin, the witness said, pushed Trumble out of his way, saying he had no quarrel with him. Trumble followed Spracklin, the witness continued, uttering threats. When Spracklin got into the car to drive off, the witness said Trumble shouted at him: "I'll get you yet."

A promising update to the case of Miss Lena Zipfel, who was hurled into an insane asylum after the school board charged that she mistreated her students. Last week’s issue included Miss Zipfel’s account of her railroading, and is available to all premium subscribers here.

ALBANY, Feb. 23.—Charges by Miss Lena Zipfel that the New York City Board of Education dismissed her as a public school teacher without a fair trial, and had her "railroaded" to an insane asylum when she fought for reinstatement, will be investigated by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, Chairman Louis M. Martin reiterated today.

"We are going to get to the bottom of this thing," declared Chairman Martin. "It does not seem to me that Miss Zipfel was given a fair trial. As far as the question of her sanity is concerned, the fact that she was declared sane by Dr. William Mabon when she was charged by the school authorities with being insane in 1916 will carry some weight with me."

Considerable pressure is being brought to bear on Assemblyman Frederick A. Wells, Kings County Republican, to withdraw the bill introduced by him to reinstate Miss Zipfel, according to Mr. Wells. The bill is now before the Judiciary Committee and is expected to be reported to the House for its consideration.

Three cheers for Dode Paskert, the apparent inspiration for the Simpsons scene when José Canseco gets stuck rescuing a woman’s entire apartment from a fire.

CLEVELAND, Feb. 23.—Heroic efforts of George "Dode" Paskert, outfielder of the Cincinnati National League team saved the lives of five small children and helped save the lives of ten other persons, when fire broke out in the Union Clothing Company store, on Lorain Avenue early today and swept through the second floor where three families were sleeping.

Paskert was passing the store when the fire was discovered. He made three trips into the burning building, carrying out five children wrapped in rugs and his overcoat and directed the other members of three families to safety.

In the rescues Paskert's hands and arms were badly burned and his face blistered by the flames. The property loss was small.

Kids have been blaming their misdeeds on the movies since the movies were born. I look forward to hearing whether or not young Israel cracks. I doubt he will.

Imitating a method which one of them said they had seen in the movies, two small boys yesterday afternoon locked an east side butcher in his refrigerator, robbed the cash register and left the store without releasing the man. A half hour later Father Philip McGrath of St. Brigid's Church rescued Herman Jablonowitz, the butcher. He collapsed and had to be attended by a physician.

About 6 o'clock the boys entered the shop at 401 East Eighth Street, and one of them, later identified by Jablonowitz as Israel Mendelson, 12 years old, of 405 East Eighth Street, asked for 5 cents' worth of meat for a dog. Jablonowitz went to the rear and opened the iceroom. One of the boys closed the door, locking it. The two then took $22 out of the cash register and left.

As Father McGrath was passing, some children, who had watched the proceedings, told him that they thought Jablonowitz still was in the refrigerator. The priest hastened to the rear of the shop and opened the door. Jablonowitz fell into his arms.

After questioning children in the neighborhood, Detectives Grossman and Murray of the Union Street Station arrested Mendelson. At the station house he admitted that he had participated in the robbery, but refused to name the other boy, who, he said, had the money. Mendelson will be arraigned in the Children's Court today on a charge of juvenile delinquency.

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Strange Times 53: The Romeo of the Ice Box

Strange Times is a tour through the strangest news of 1921. All material is excerpted from the day's New York Times. If you’re searching for a last-minute Christmas present, you can give a one year premium subscription for just $40. And remember to subscribe for yourself to get next week’s issue on New Year’s Day.

Today brings a Joycean fine, a Shakespearean butcher, a Fitzgeraldian ordinance, and a thief-chasing old woman straight out of Lawrence Block. Oh come, all ye faithful, for…

February 22, 1921

  • State Senator Cotillo introduces a bill calling for New York City to become the 49th State, so that the city can take control of its transit system. 

  • Speaking at Chicago's Sinai Temple, Socialist John Spargo denounces the anti-semitic propaganda peddled by Henry Ford. 

  • A man murdered in the park is identified as the bandit who recently attacked a cigar store clerk with a cane. 

  • Although his fever lingers, Caruso sleeps well and awakes in a good mood to continue his diet of soft foods, whiskey, and milk.

  • The Weather: Snow today and probably Wednesday; not much change in temperature; northwest to northeast gales. 

Although I disagree with his efforts at censorship, I respect Justice McInerney for being brave enough to admit that he didn’t understand Ulysses. As near as I can tell, the passage in question concerning a woman’s dress comes in “Nausicaa,” and begins, “Gerty was dressed simply…” The line about the “smart vee opening down to the division” sounds beautifully improper to me.

Margaret C. Anderson and Jane Heap, publisher and editor respectively of The Little Review, at 27 West Eighth Street, each paid a fine of $50 imposed by Justices McInerney, Kernochan and Moss in Special Sessions yesterday, for publishing an improper novel in the July and august, 1920, issues of the magazine. John S. Summer, Secretary of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, was the complainant. The defendants were accompanied to court by several Greenwich Village artists and writers.

John Quinn, counsel for the women, told the court that the alleged objectionable story, entitled "Ulysses," was the product of one Joyce, author, playwright and graduate of Dublin University, whose work had been praised by noted critics. "I think that this novel is unintelligible," said Justice McInerney.

Mr. Quinn admitted that it was cast in a curious style, but contended that it was in a similar vein to the work of an American author with which no fault was found, and he thought it was principally a matter of punctuation marks. Joyce, he said, didn't use punctuation marks in this story, probably on account of his eyesight. "There may be found more impropriety in the displays in some Fifth Avenue show windows or in a theatrical show than is contained in this novel," protested the attorney.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Forrester said that some of the chief objections had to do with a too frank expression concerning a woman's dress when the woman was in the clothes described. The court held that parts of the story seemed to be harmful to the morals of the community. 

The idea of “bizarre entertainment tours” conducted at Quiver Beach is so perfectly 1921, I just can’t handle it. Quiver Beach!

CHICAGO, Feb. 18.—Details of the "ice box romance" which Professor Cyrus E. Palmer of the University of Illinois alleges his wife, Mrs. Sylvia C. Palmer, carried on with a Champaign butcher, were presented in the Superior Court today when the professor filed a cross bill in the divorce action which Mrs. Palmer began several months ago, charging cruelty.

The cross-bill, filed in anticipation of the hearing of a divorce bill on March 23, names Carl A. Carlson as the owner of the butcher shop and as the Romeo of the ice box.

Professor Palmer denies his wife's cruelty charges and alleges that she has "an uncontrollable temper and is subject to frequent sallies of wrath."

"It was Mrs. Palmer's habit," according to the cross-bill, "to visit the butcher shop late in the afternoon. When the day's business was over Carlson would lock up the shop, draw the shades and, with the Professor's wife, repair to the camouflaged ice chest. Frequently the two ate supper therein, having obtained food from a near-by restaurant."

Professor Palmer declares the butcher had fitted up the ice chest with the tables, rugs and chairs and, "in fact, it was a miniature drawing room."

The professor tells of parties given in Champaign and of bizarre entertainment tours alleged to have been conducted by his wife and Carlson to Quiver Beach, Ill., and to Chicago. 

A classic specimen of jazz age panic, reported mainly (I suspect) because 1920s reporters really enjoyed printing the funny names of sexy dances.

SYRACUSE, N.Y., Feb. 11.—No more will the toddle, the camel walk, the Chicago flop, the face-to-face or any other of the shivering, shaking, sinuous, distorting convulsions that have passed as terpsichorean interpretation be seen in this city. 

For the Common Council today unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting all forms of the jazz dance in the hotels and public dance halls, ordering that all such places close their doors at midnight and forbidding any person under 16 years of age to attend these places, which hereafter must be brilliantly lighted. 

Some parents had complained that dance halls were not being conducted as they should be and there was too little of the foot and too much of the rest of the body in the dances that have been popular. 

I hereby award Wilhelmina Murphy the Bertha A. Miller award for Extreme Pluck, and condemn whoever wrote this little item for churning out one of the worst ledes we’ve seen in ages. The addresses and ages can wait until the second graf, you goof.

Wilhelmina Murphy, 65 years old, of 479 Ninth Avenue, yesterday captured, after a chase, Orrin Lane, 18 years old, of 306 West Thirty-eighth Street, who forced an entrance into her apartment, led him to the old West Thirty-seventh Street Police Station, only to learn that it had been abolished a month ago, and held him there until a patrolman arrived from the West Thirtieth Street Station and arrested the youth.

Mrs. Murphy returned home yesterday afternoon to find the door of her apartment unlocked, and realized that some one was inside. She entered and found Lane packing up some of her possessions. 

"You don't think you can get away with that, do you?" demanded Mrs. Murphy.

"Don't bother me," the youth is said to have answered, dropping everything and running past the woman, through the door and down the street. Lane ran through Thirty-seventh Street toward Tenth Avenue, where Mrs. Murphy succeeded in catching him. No policeman was in sight, and she led Lane to the West Thirty-seventh Street Station, attended by a crowd.

In Jefferson Market Court Lane admitted entering the apartment, and was held in $1,000 bail for the Grand Jury by Magistrate Rosenblatt. The Court commended Mrs. Murphy. 

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The Return of Strange Times

I am happy to announce that, after six weeks’ feverish work on a couple of massive creative projects, Strange Times will resume regular service next Tuesday—which is, coincidentally, Christmas. Thank you for your patience during the hiatus. I’ve just finished preparing “Strange Times 53,” and I promise it will be worth the wait.

You may notice the newsletter looks slightly different. I’ve switched over from TinyLetter to Substack, which means I will now be able to offer Strange Times as a two-tiered paid subscription service. For $5 per month, or $40 per year, you will get every issue of Strange Times, plus a monthly round-up of the best advertisements the 1921 New York Times has to offer. If you prefer not to pay, you’ll keep getting every other issue for free. If you’d like to upgrade, you can do so here.

I realize no one likes being asked to pay for something that used to be free, but after a year of producing Strange Times I could no longer justify the time it takes to produce unless I was getting a little money in return.

My hope is that those who read every week won’t mind paying for it, while those who read only occasionally will be happy with the twice-monthly free issues. In either case, I’m committed to making this newsletter as good as it can possibly can be, and I welcome any feedback you have.

As thanks, and to tide you over until Christmas, here’s a short item that didn’t quite make the cut from “Strange Times 53.” Thank you, as always, for your support.

I just don’t think this is how laws work.

ATLANTA, Ga., Feb. 21.—Thieves may steal liquor without fear of prosecution. That is what Judge John D. Humphries of the Fulton Superior Court ruled today at the trial of a city detective charged with stealing liquor from a self-confessed bootlegger.

The Judge ruled that liquor has no legal status and cannot be protected by the laws, consequently one cannot be arrested for stealing it. He said that the owner of liquor might prosecute the thieves as violators of the prohibition law, but not for stealing.

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