Exploring one of history’s most baffling murder mysteries.
The Villisca Ax Murders Mystery
This episode starts with a brutal axe murder that scandalized the quiet town of Villisca, about 2,000 souls in the summer of 1912, when a family of six and two young visitors were killed in their beds by an assailant wielding a long-handled axe, the family’s own tool, which was left at the scene.
Clues were scant, and it took years for the twists and subplots to emerge, including a string of similar murders, implications that it was a job for hire by a business rival, and a bizarre confession by an itinerant minister five years later.
And for some reason, there seems to be a lot of fortunetellers and clairvoyants in this narrative.
A reading from America’s historical newspapers in the golden age of yellow journalism
Panic at the Italian Hall
This episode comes from the request of a listener in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who wanted to know more about the panic disaster that took place at the Calumet Italian Hall in 1913.
I actually went through Calumet a couple of years ago on vacation when we wanted to see what the upper peninsula of the upper peninsula of Michigan was like.
We found a lot of good microbreweries and wandered about some of the old copper mines, but we missed the monument dedicated to the victims of this horrible tragedy.
Now that I know about it, the next time I’m in Calumet, I will definitely pay my respects. It’s a sad story, folks, but I think it’s an important one to remember because it’s all about what happens when we lose our civility.
When a friend of mine started pitching Hall-Mills murder to me as a potential episode, I was immediately enthralled by the tale of an Episcopalian rector and his tragic affair with the choir singer, but when he told me the case hinged on the eyewitness testimony of “the pig woman,” I knew this was a story for True Crime Historian.
But it gets even better.
I started looking into it and discovered that the famed sportswriter Damon Runyon covered the trial with the same breezy prose he used in the short stories he wrote that inspired the musical “Guys and Dolls,” with daily dispatches drawing vivid word pictures of the trial and its participants.
I felt it worthy of in depth exploration, so we’ll be doing a six episode series released on consecutive Sundays to hear all about the case and its cast of characters as told by one of America’s premier storytellers, who turns out to also be a pioneer of True Crime.
A special edition of Yesterday’s News exploring the criminal justice system at its most extreme: Inflicting the Death Penalty.
This episode comes at the request of a faithful listener in Cincinnati who wanted to hear more about Anna Marie Hahn, the first woman to be executed in Ohio’s electric chair.
Although ‘Arsenic Annie’ had stoically proclaimed her innocence right up until her dying day, Anna Marie Hahn left a handwritten 20-page confession in her death row cell on December 7, 1938, when they led her to Ohio’s electric chair, literally kicking and screaming.
In the letter, she not only takes responsibility for six murders, she denies other poisoning attempts and goes into details about her life and how she began her series what the governor called cold-blooded and horrifying crimes when he made the final decision to take her to the chair.
The letter is such a remarkable and revealing self-portrait, more entertaining than her pathetic execution, that I gave it to a professional actress, my friend and colleague Emily Simer Braun, to help bring out some of the nuances in this rare insight into the mind of a serial killer.
A reading from America’s historic newspapers in the golden age of yellow journalism.
A True Crime from the Wild West
Until recently, I presumed that Black Bart was a fictional character, like the Lone Ranger or Dudley Do-right, but I was recently set straight on that account and subsequently discovered a story that COULD pass for pretty outlandish romantic Wild West fiction.
Charley Bowles did get the monicker Black Bart from the villain in a dime novel, but I think he used it ironically because it didn’t really fit his gentlemanly style.
He only robbed coaches carrying treasure belonging to the Wells Fargo Company, apparently in revenge for a mining dispute in Nevada.
When he left his doggerel poetry at the scene of the crime, he would sign it “Black Bart PO8” spelling poet with a numeral, text messaging style before the internet, ahead of his time.