May 27, 2006

Famous Crimefighters by Robert Larranaga

I read a short easy book last night -- Famous Crimefighters by Robert Larranaga (Lerner Publications, 1970). It was 78 pages and profusely illustrated with old photographs. It covered the men responsible for each evolutionary step in crime fighting from the early 1800s to 1970. It began with Francis Eugene Vidocq in France. He was a famous criminal who switched sides and created the first detective agency to help catch criminals. His organization was called the Sûreté (Surete). Next was Sir Robert Peel in England. In the early 1800s England had no police force because the people feared police would abuse their power. The closest thing to policemen were the Bow Street Runners (called "Charleys") who were court assistants. in 1829 Bobby Peel, the Home Secretary, created the first London Metropolitan police department. The men were called "Peelers" after Bobby Peel but later they became known as "Bobbies" also after Bobby Peel. The police force was located at 4 Whitehall Place which is where Kings and Queens of Scotland stayed when they visited London. The police force became known as Scotland Yard.

Next was Alphonse Bertillon, a Frenchmen who recognized the limitations of the "rogues gallery" for identifying criminals. A criminal would simply change his appearance by growing a beard or mustache and no longer be identifiable from his picture. Bertillon developed a system of identifying people by their measurements -- height, arm length, leg length, and skull measurements. Within two years of developing his system he had caught 240 criminals by their measurements. The system was called "bertillonage" and was installed in every French prison. All prisoners were measured. Then crime fighters began experimenting with fingerprints. The man credited with establishing a system for matching fingerprints was Sir Edward Henry, the Commissioner of Scotland Yard, but several men in several countries contributed to the new science.

Next was Allan Pinkerton who started the first detective agency in the US. He and his agency were famous for providing security for President Lincoln, for acting as spies in the south during the Civil War, and for catching or killing many famous robbers. Allan Pinkerton died when he got gangrene after biting his tongue. When Pinkerton died in 1884 bertillonage was still being used in US prisons rather than fingerprints. Then there was an incident at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, when two men were discovered to have the same name and the same measurements. The incident got lots of publicity and bertillonage lost it credibility as a foolproof method of identification. Then a New York detective named Joseph A. Faurot studied fingerprinting at Scotland Yard and established its use in the US in 1906.

Then came a chapter about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Famous criminals mentioned were Bruno Hauptman who kidnapped and murdered the Lindbergh child, Pretty Boy Floyd, "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Mad-Dog" Karpis, John Dillinger, and "Baby Face" Nelson. Although the 18th amendment was passed to eliminate societal evils related to alcohol, it had the opposite effect and created the biggest crime wave the country had ever known. The book says during prohibition there were probably more gangsters in the US than there were soldiers in World War I. In New York alone there were over 22,000 speakeasies. The book covered Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Bugs Moran, and Treasury Agent Eliot Ness.

Next was Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, who pioneered forensic medicine in crime fighting. He worked with Scotland Yard. Dr. Charles Norris followed with the establishment of a forensic medicine laboratory in New York, which he set up with his own money. Next was John F. Tyrrell, the world's greatest handwriting expert. His methods turned up lots of forged documents, especially insurance forms fraudulently filled out by well people on behalf of sick people. Next was George Chenkin, a New York detective who was so good at tracking criminals that there was a $5,000 underworld bounty on his head. The final chapter was about a legendary German shepherd police dog named Dox, nicknamed "Il Gigante" by Italian bandits. Before Dox's crime-fighting career, his owner made $11,000 over a period of a few years by betting men in bars that Dox could track anyone in the bar to his home. Dox's unbelievable ability to track people came to the attention of the police and Dox entered police work. Dox had a long memory for scents too. Once when his owner was walking him, Dox caught a scent and pulled his owner into a restaurant and straight to a man eating at a table. It turned out the man was a criminal Dox had tracked and caught six years before, but who had recently escaped from prison.

May 3, 2006

World War II POW Escape Story: The Wooden Horse

Last night I finished reading The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams, illustrated by Martin Thomas (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958). The book tells the exciting true story of the author's escape from a German prison camp during World War II. The escape was also the subject of a 1950 movie, The Wooden Horse.

[May 23, 2008 note: This post is about a version of The Wooden Horse written by Eric Williams for teenagers at the request of Williams' publisher. In the introduction Williams says he decided to write the book as a fiction to make the story more "vivid". - Jon Maloney]

Eric Williams was an Englishman in the Royal Air Force who was shot down over Germany in his bomber in December 1942. He was taken prisoner and sent to the Stalag-Luft III prison camp. (Stalag-Luft III consisted of several enclosures. The north enclosure of the same prison was famous for the 1944 escape known as The Great Escape.) The camp was built in a cleared area of a pine forest. The eight barracks were in the center surrounded by clear ground, and elevated to discourage tunneling. German soldiers frequently inspected the ground beneath the buildings. There were also a couple of soldiers who wandered around the camp entering buildings without notice and generally snooping on the prisoners. The open area around the buildings was enclosed by a single trip wire. Anyone crossing the tripwire was shot. Several feet beyond the trip wire was a high fence with barbed wire and guard towers. Arc lights illuminated the area between the trip wire and the fence. At night soldiers in the towers scanned the yard with searchlights and guard dogs were released into the compound. If a prisoner was able to leave his hut and avoid the searchlights he would probably be caught by the dogs. The ground's surface was covered with a powdery gray dust. The dirt beneath the surface was yellow sand, which made hiding dirt from a tunnel and hiding the entrance to a tunnel extremely difficult. The buildings were so far from the fence that any tunnel would require hiding large amounts of yellow sand.

The author and another RAF officer had the idea of starting a tunnel from out near the trip wire and concealing the entrance underneath a wooden horse, the type used for vaulting in gymnastics. The plan was approved by the escape committee. It would be a two-man operation, and a two-man escape. Every step of the plan was exceedingly difficult. For example, they had to brave the dogs and searchlights at night just to get nails and wood with which to build the horse. They had to acclimate the guards to men carrying out the wooden horse to near the trip wire, vaulting for a couple of hours, and then carrying the horse back to the canteen every day. After a couple of weeks of assuaging the guards' suspicions and seeing the guards inspect the horse in the canteen at night, the men began the next steps of the plan. The horse was hollow and one of the two RAF officers would be inside the horse when it was carried out every day. He would fill a shoe box with the gray surface dust, start digging, and fill cloth bags made from trouser-leg bottoms obtained by convincing other prisoners to make shorts out of their trousers. The digger would hang the dirt bags from hooks inside the box. He had a wooden trap that was deep and sturdy enough that it would not give way if a guard walked on it. After he filled all the bags that could be carried with him in the box he would place the trap in the hole, fill it with yellow sand, pack it down, and spread the gray dust from the shoe box over the surface. Then the vaulters would carry the horse containing the digger and the dirt back to the canteen. The digger would have to get out, wash, and dress, and the bags of sand would have to be distributed around the camp. It was slow, tedious, and dangerous work. The digger was alone lying in pitch darkness in a narrow tunnel as he dug. The difficulty increased with the length of the tunnel. The air was bad, it took a long time to wriggle to the end, and it was hard to drag the dirt while wriggling backwards. They devised a container and a rope with which larger amounts of dirt could be pulled back to the entrance. At least once there was a cave-in and the digger had to save himself. There were many close calls with guards. Once guards searching a hut were covered with dirt when the hut's ceiling collapsed due to the weight of the dirt hidden there. The guards found a tunnel from the hut and incorrectly believed all the dirt they found was from that tunnel, so the tunnel under the wooden horse escaped discovery.

When the tunnel was almost complete a third man was added to the escape team to help with the work. The train schedule the men had obtained was only good for October, and October was almost over. The three men escaped at dusk on October 29, 1943. The escape committee had been able to provide them with forged papers, German money, a little food, pepper to stop the tracking dogs, and clothing that would help them pose as French workers. The two RAF officers were going to try to escape Germany openly by riding trains and staying in hotels, although neither man spoke much German and only one of them spoke French, badly. The third man was going to pose as a margarine salesman and try a different route alone. Every step of the journey across and out of Germany was hard. The cold weather, rain, language barrier, and lack of knowledge about everything from curfews to shipping practices made whatever they did a challenge. They went north by train, had trouble finding a hotel room, slept outside, frequented cafes, tried to make friends with French workers, found a hotel, forged passes in their room, finally made it to the Baltic Sea where they were chased by a soldier on the docks, and (with help) made it on board a Danish ship to Copenhagen (which was under German occupation). The Danish Resistance hid the two men and managed to get them onto a boat to Sweden. In Sweden the two escapees joined the third escapee who had also made it to Sweden. Eventually the three men made it back to an English base. The author noted that the British officers who interviewed him were less polite than the German officer who had interrogated him when he was captured. Later the three men were each awarded the Military Cross. The author was then sent to work with American forces in the Philippines. He wrote much of The Wooden Horse during his long voyage home.