The Saratoga Trunk Murders

This is a partial draft of a work-in-progress. You really shouldn’t read it.

Chapter the First: The Worst Paper in the World

Good morning, my name is Sarah L. Sweeny, and today I wish to talk about the Saratoga Trunk Murders. It was perhaps the biggest story I ever worked on in 1935-36, when I was social columnist and police-blotter reporter for the Saratoga Springs Sun. Many of you are familiar with this story through the motion picture based on it, which starred Jean Arthur and Chester Morris. However, that film took many liberties with the facts. It left out the dead monkeys, which to mind are the most fascinating details. And of course I look nothing like Jean Arthur.

But first let me tell you how I came to write for the Sun. You’re probably not interested in that, unless you work for a newspaper, but this is my story and I want to talk about it anyway.

Prior to working for the Sun I was at the Utica Bugle-American. The Bugle-American was the worst newspaper in the Whole Wide World. That may be a slight exaggeration, for I do not actually know every newspaper in the W.W.W. In fact, when I first went to work there, the only newspapers I knew were ones in Upstate New York, plus the major dailies in Montreal, where I went to college, and Calgary, Alberta, where my parents lived, and maybe Toronto. But that’s a pretty fair cross-section, I think. So let’s just stop right there and say the Utica Bugle-American was probably the worst daily paper in North America.

The Utica Bugle-American had comic strips, lonely-hearts columns, and serialized stories based on movie scripts. It didn’t have much else. If the managing editors could have gotten away with it, they would’ve filled the whole paper with this stuff. They ran very little hard news at all, local or otherwise. On the first three pages you got a lot of wire-service stories (Hearst’s International News Service, mostly). Shipwrecks, disasters, all sorts of lurid mayhem. Man cuts off own head and feeds it to dog, you know. That kind of thing.  These stories invariably happened out-of-state, though they always had some special detail so they wouldn’t seem totally phony. E.g., “The murder victim had been the town postmaster for thirty years and met his wife at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.” Interspersed with these wire stories were joke-of-the-day column fillers, “helpful hints,” and photographs of boy scouts receiving plaques.

The Bugle-American had been like this since about 1910, when it was called simply the Utica Bugle. Except that sometimes it was a lot bigger, fatter; which means it was actually worse. In the 1920s it had tons more ads, dozens more comic strips, a hundred inches’ worth of lonely-hearts columns. Every day. And as there is a finite supply of good syndicated features, the Bugle reached down deep in the barrel for their filler. No ill-drawn “Mutt and Jeff” imitation was too obscure, no “Beatrice Fairfax” rival too tawdry, to fill out the pages of the Utica Bugle-American.

The 1920s had a lot more newspaper syndicates you see around now. You’ve never heard of most of them. One day while thumbing through the bound volumes of the old Bugles I noticed that both the “Betty-Ann Coed” column (which told adolescent girls how to be pretty and popular) and the “Sammy the Sheik” comic strip (about a slick, fast-talking “Arab” who lives in a Chicago boardinghouse) had been distributed by a St. Louis enterprise called the Muchmore Syndicate. Ever hear of the Muchmore Syndicate? Well, it folded in 1932. So did the National Policy Syndicate (columns on horse-racing, golf, and contract bridge), as well as Pinmore & Reading Novelty Features, Aladdin’s Lamp Distributors and the Elwood Press Syndicate; although the last two actually were swallowed up into the Hearst Empire, which permitted some of the more viable features—”24 Skiddoo,” “Cowboy Duke,” “Ask Doctor Wellburton”—to stagger on a for a few more years under the imprint of King Features, the fine people who brought you “Thimble Theatre” (Popeye) and “Barney Google.”

Ah me! Back in the morgue there, where we kept the old Bugles, I got lost in daydreams. When the Muchmore Syndicate died, whatever happened to Sammy the Sheik, I wondered? Better yet, whatever became to poor Mort Milner, Sammy’s creator? I did not doubt that Sammy’s back-0f-the-stockyards boardinghouse room, with its cracked wash-basin and mouse-hole and broken wall with lath strips showing, was drawn from life in Mort Milner’s very own abode. And where did the author of “Betty-Ann Coed” go? Did she move back in with her mother and take in laundry? Or was “she” actually a 45-year-old male copywriter, with cigar and fedora and a couple of assistants, cranking out three or four different features keyed to the expected interests of the youthful female?

Even in the mid-1930s, every daily paper still ran at least one column like “Betty-Ann Coed,” all dreadfully similar. We had at least two. We ran them in the  paper’s back section, somewhere between the society page and the funnies. I don’t doubt they were profitable, able to attract two or three fair-sized display advertisements (hosiery, hats, cosmetics) to the page.

I sometimes covered “local business” for the Bugle, which basically means I walked up and down the streets and reported on how nice the new Christmas decorations at in the dry-goods store windows looked. When this column ran (once a month or so), I got a rare byline. “Business Boosters, by Sarah L. Sweeny.” They wanted to take the L out to improve the alliteration, but I said no. There already was a women’s page writer in Albany named Sarah Sweeney and she was going to phone us up and raise holy hell if the rumor got around that she’d been rusticated to the back of beyond in Utica.

After writing a couple of these “business” columns I decided we needed to jazz up our business coverage. Our business coverage should be more like Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine, I thought: grand overviews of some commercial topic that was intrinsically interesting. Why not a long feature story, or series of columns, about the death of newspaper syndicates? I could find out what happened to the Muchmore Syndicate, and Mort Milner, and the gal or guy who wrote Betty-Ann Coed. These pieces could be informative and heartwarming. Besides, our readers would remember Betty-Ann Coed and Sammy the Sheik, and wonder what became of them.

The more I thought about it, the more brilliant it seemed. Finally I proposed this to Bart Crowley, our City Editor. He was very indulgent with me, smiling and drumming his fingers on his desk while I explained my idea.

Then  Bart coughed and told me very nicely that my idea was stupid.

“Stupid!” I yelped. I hadn’t expected that.

“Stupid—no. Bad choice of words. Forgive me. I mean it’s depressing. Half our readers are unemployed boilermakers, you know. They don’t read much but they like the funnies. No interest in newspaper syndicates going under.  Maybe when prosperity returns.”

“I’ll bet Henry Luce would like it.”

“Then try Henry Luce, hah. More power to ya. We’re just a local-yokel upstate paper.” His telephone was ringing so I left his office while he went “Halooo?”

1936 and we’re still talking about prosperity returning! So far as I could see everyone was as prosperous as they needed to be.

he saratoga trunk murders (from notes)

  1. The Worst Newspaper in the World   The Roscoe C. Brisket Poetry Festival has been failing for some years now, and even the generous infusions of cash from the R. C. Brisket Foundation and free  food for the locals on Memorial Day weekend have failed to get it back on its feet. Recent name changes (it is now officially the Roscoe C. Brisket Festival of Poetry and Literature, having endured an unfortunate couple of seasons as ‘The Saratoga Brisket Memorial,’ which sounds like a funeral barbecue for deceased racehorse

back in the 20s covering “the Brisket” was initially a treat for the society-page ladies, aging matrons in who wore straw hats with silk flowers and fill out columns called “Tea Time Chat” or “Social Whirlies” but it became something for stringers and summer-jobbers and the publisher’s niece. Something you’d best avoid if you wanted to be taken seriously. When I started on the paper in Utica they were going to do that me (‘getting kicked out to the brisket’) and I avoided by not starting the job till September, by which tim it was over, and then pretending to take a special interest in the county water and conservation boards. “Ooh, ooh, I really love sitting in at the water board meeting. It’s that false enthusiasm you sport when you want your creepy professor to give you an A, or when you need to get a job someplace you don’t want to be.  “Ooh! I just love water-board meetings!”

After a year and a half of the Bugle, however, I had a very good reason for wanting to covering the Brisket.

You musta been a English Literature major in college right?

“No,” I say, “Art History” (which wasn’t true), just to annoy him.  “However, when I was fourteen, fifteen years old I was very fond of a book called Pickwick Papers by a Mister Charles Dickens, and in this comical novel by Mister Charles Dickens, there is a society lady who thinks she writes poetry, and that is a sample of her work. Ode to an expiring frog.”

“Huh. Little Miss Wiseacre here.”

Honey, that kind of sarcasm mighta gone over big up in Canada-land, but it doesn’t sail too well up in Utica. Okay?

It’s always “up here in Utica.” Everyone else, apparently, is down there. Down there in Montreal. Down there in Calgary. Down south in Boston. Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

Tiny little miniature trunks, about a foot long, the kind furniture salesmen used to tote around with them to show to shopkeepers. Because they obviously couldn’t carry big steamer trunks around with them when they displayed the new models.

Eight of them. Four of them have a dolls wrapped up as mummies. Four have monkey skeletons. Except one looks like a human skeleton, a baby, a very small baby, newborn maybe.

The Clyde Fitch Circus (only it is not the right name) had a fire and folded its tent in 1880. Old people in Saratoga still talk about it.

The Clyde Barrow Circus. Sarah Sweeny always gets the name wrong.

The Clyde Carsey Circus was actually a big deal, not the dog-and-pony traveling show we have been led to believe.

John Shay’s Exceptional Dog & Pony Show … that’s really where the baby came from. The baby was the twin brother? sister? of the adopted child of muck amuck. they had to kill the other kid and lose the body because it the Twin Kidnapping was so famous. You can steal a baby and get away with it, but if you steal twins and pass them off as your own…and they both look the family they were kidnapped from…well the games up. The twin was actually dug up back in the 1880s when they had the fire. Old Lady Trisket had just married her “son” off to the niece of Roscoe Conkling, which is funny because they’d named the kidnapped baby Roscoe Conkling Trisket, back when Roscoe Conkling was just a young congressman. and it was the social event of the season, and it just wouldn’t do to have the baby girl’s body discovered. So while her son was off on his honeymoon and while they were burying all the detritus, she went down to Geyser Lake with her handyman. I suppose they had a map of the place. Can you tell a human baby skeleton from a monkey skeleton? I don’t know, but I suppose you can. Anyway they dug up the monkey coffins and swapped one of them. I guess they just threw the monkey skeleton in a hole, figured if anyone found it again they’d think, oh there weren’t enough coffins to go around. Why didn’t they just throw it into the lake, I used to wonder. Or throw it down the privy? I guess they were just being respectful of the dead. Of course they had nagging second thoughts afterwards. Because…

Later on, when they started drilling a lot of spring wells down there, the Triskets tried to stop it. They got together with the Hawthorne family, who had one of the oldest wells over in Congress Spring Park, but the kids who inherited it weren’t really interested in the business anymore, and concocted a fairy tale about how the spring water was disappearing from too much drilling, and that’s why business was off and Saratoga Springs was in decline. Well, the town was in decline because it was old-fashioned, didn’t have any smart new hotels, it was like a musty old period piece, and the young people didn’t want to do hotel work anymore anyway, they wanted those high-paying jobs over at Edison’s electric works in Schenectady. Young man wants to be an engineer or an electrician, there’s no work for him in Saratoga Springs. They were still lighting with gas. But the Hawthornes and the Triskets said the town was in decline because the Hawthorne wells weren’t working anymore. It was so stupid, but they got a law passed that stopped the drilling. And the state took over the lands and turned them into a park, and people still didn’t come. And then there’s a very funny-sad ending to the story. Young Roscoe Trisket–well I guess he must have been around fifty by now–he has nothing to do with his life, so his mother makes him chairman of the new Saratoga Parks Commission, and he goes around making proclamations about the town would be reborn as a health spa and the spring water was coming back, and the robber barons who had been stealing our mineral water wouldn’t be able to drill anymore, etc etc. And so far anyone knows he has no idea whatsoever that the whole reason for the land-grap is that his dead sister is buried there, and his dotty old adoptive mother–did he know he was adopted? I suppose he did–doesn’t want the dead baby dug up. And he goes off to Europe on vacation, supposedly to promote this as a great spa, and the steamship is still in New York Harbor when there’s some terrible explosion, the boilers or whatever. Nobody gets killed, except three members of the crew … and Roscoe Trisket! Old Lady Trisket is 90 years old, pretty gaga, but the news must have finished her off because she dies almost imiedately afterwards.

Finally gets to write her lonelyhearts column as Saratoga Sweeny

Ella was related to both the owner and the managing editor. No surprise, as Ella was related to just about everyone else in town, thanks to the fecundity of her sister’s in-law’s family as well as that of her second husband. When she was about forty and had gone back to teaching, she married an ancient one-legged Irishman who was on the Saratoga Springs school board.  As a matter of fact he had been on the school board for forty years. Old Timmy Hartington owned a marble quarry in Dorset, Vermont and several slices of choice Saratoga real estate, and has his name on two stained-glass windows in St. Peter’s Church. Six or seven years after marrying Ella, Timmy finally passed on and Ella was a wealthy woman. She bought herself a new (car) and taught herself to drive, becoming the first woman in New York State to have an actual driver’s license. Every year or two she bought a new car. Sometimes she sold the old one, sometimes she didn’t. There were a couple of teachers in the school district who drove around in Ella’s castoffs.

A LONG HOUR IN THE

Ella Harrington, the knowitall retired teacher, the oldest living graduate of ss hs

I look her up in the alumni records, and she is class of ’79. My, my, I say to the barman at the blahblah lounge, she finished high school when she was fourteen.

“Zat so?” he is dubious.

According to the newspaper, she was born in 1865.

Newspaper said that?

And she was teaching primary school in 1880, when she was fourteen-fifteen.

Ha! No child-labor laws back then. Can’t imagine a fourteen-year-old schoolteacher, no I can’t.

Then she went to Teachers college for two years in Albany and got out when she was seventeen.

Yeah, they sure got old young in the old days, says the barman. Says it’s probably best not to flatter her with the fact. Might embarrass her.

You mean she was a child prodigy who lost it?

Something like that.

I always wanted to skip grades, but they stopped doing it around the time i entered, I say. I could have finished high school when I was fifteen, if they’d let me skip a couple of years.

Makes you maladjusted. My wife’s father is a school principal over in Utica. They’re worried about maladjusted kids. Public schools are all cutting back on their Latin and math, because only smart kids can do well in them, and it makes them stand out. Big thing nowadays is community relations classes. How to get along with people of other backgrounds.

Public school, right? They have lots of money to waste. Back in the 1860s, 70s, they had more important things to worry about. I’d like to ask her what it was like to be fourteen in 1879.

You should go easy on that stuff, he said, patting his hand down in the air like he was patting a pooch. Shouldn’t talk to old ladies about their age.

Only six students in her graduating class.

 I mean as a general rule.

Like a one-to-one student-faculty ratio.

“No, what I’m saying is, you have to bear in mind–

No wonder they could finish high school when they were fourteen.

 –the way old people were. Are.   He said nothing for about ten seconds, stock-still, looking straight at me, like he was having trouble getting it out.

In all likelihood she was not fourteen. All’s I’m saying is.

She wasn’t really class of 79?

She was class of 79 all right, is my guess, but she was probably seventeen or eighteen. How did you come up with fourteen anyway?

I went to the Saratogian and looked up their old bound issues. In nineteen-oh-three she married Timothy Harrington, the old tombstone man. He’s seventy-eight years old, she’s thirty-eight. Figure it out.

Well if that’s what the newspaper says…

Oh I get it. The penny drops. Oh, of course. Idiot. Slapped my forehead.

You have to expect any woman past the age of twenty-five is cutting at least four-five years off her age. It’s traditional, at least around here. They change their age, they change their name. Specially if they’re born in the Olden Days, way back before the Civil War. Nowadays you can pull their records, get their birth certificate, see when they were born, what their name was. Now I only know this because my wife’s related to her, but as a matter of fact Ella’s real Christian isn’t Ella. It’s Ellen. But they didn’t call her Ellen at home because Ellen was her mother’s name. Ellen Geary. Except Ellen Geary’s Christian name wasn’t Ellen, it was Eleanor. Ella has a sister named Mary, but she’s never called that. She’s called Minnie. Or Mamie. Or Moomy, for all I know, anything but Mary. She makes hats, ladies’ hats. She’s a milliner.

Mildred Elley Business School (in Albany?)