Tag Archives: Whiting

“Herman Billik Must Die”: Whiting’s Own Palm Reader, Hypnotist, and . . . Murderer?

V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883, accessed babel.hathitrust.org
V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883), accessed Hathi Trust Digital Library.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the man who called himself Herman Billik  (also Billick) was “plying his trade as a charmer, palm reader and hypnotist in Whiting,” according to the Hammond Times. He was well-known among Whiting residents for his involvement in strange incidents involving the occult. By 1906 he was well-known to the entire country as the poisoner of six people in Chicago.

Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed www.whiting.lib.in.usl
Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed Whiting Public Library/Flikr.

The establishment of the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting in 1889 brought many recent immigrants to the area in search of employment. According to Archibald McKinley, historian of the Calumet Region, these new arrivals found a “barren, lonely place, devoidof trees, grass, sidewalks, telephone, theaters, streetlights, parks and other amenities of civilization.”  While many immigrants found community in their religious organizations, others formed clubs and founded theaters, such as Goebel’s Opera House.  Others looked for more sinister entertainment.

Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections, http://explore.chicagocollections.org/image/chicagohistory/71/g15tk09/
Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections.

One of these new immigrants to Whiting set up shop in an office building on John Street near this new opera house. His name was Herman Vajicek in his country of origin which was referred to in contemporary newspapers as “Bohemia” (likely the Czech  Republic). Now going by Herman Billik or “the Great Billik,” he was “doing a rushing business” before the turn of the century. His business was in palm reading, hypnotism, charms . . . and curses.

Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billik soon befriended a Standard Oil employee named Joseph Vacha, also described by the Hammond Times as a “bohemian.” Vacha described the story of a curse Billik used when hired to break the engagement of “a young Whiting man and a widow.”  According to the Hammond Times:

The mother of the young man objected to the engagement and all of her efforts to break it up being in vain she went to Billik, clairvoyant. He promised to do the deed for the sum of three dollars. To make his charm effective, however, he said that it was necessary for him to have one of the young man’s socks and his handkerchief, and that furthermore permission be given him to enter the home of the young man while everybody in the family was asleep.  Anything to break up the engagement was consented to by the mother, although without her son’s knowledge, The sock, handkerchief and permission were readily given and whatever Billik may or may not have done, it is known that the young man and the widow broke up their engagement shortly after Billik’s midnight visit.

Before Whiting residents greeted the new century, Billik “pulled stakes one night and was never seen again.”

He didn’t go far.

According to the Chicago Tribune, around 1900, he had set up his shop in the East Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.  The neighborhood was settled by Czech immigrants who worked in the mills, sweatshops, and railroad yards.  According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, these Czech immigrants established their residences along 18th street.  According to the Chicago Tribune, on this same street Billik opened his shop and “made a practice of duping women with money.”  The article continued:

Billick’s Chicago record is dotted with ‘aliases, victims of his love potions and stories of how he spent his easily gained wealth in automobiles, theaters, wine suppers, and rioutous living . . . Billick had headquarters in a richly furnished flat at 645 West Eighteenth street and was known as ‘Prof. Herman.’ To this flat many women went daily. Billick boasted that he made as much as $100 a day.

Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, "A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland," Czech-American Community center, accessed https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/wp-admin/post.php?post=601634&action=edit
Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, “A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland,” accessed Czech-American Community Center.

According to this same article, Billik left Chicago for Cleveland sometime in 1901 after one of these women threatened to expose him as a fraud.  It is not clear when he returned to Chicago and again began selling potions and telling fortunes.

In 1904, Mary Vrzal, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Chicago businessman, found herself in need of a love potion.  She visited “the Great Billik” at his Chicago location and sometime during the exchange must have mentioned her father’s thriving milk business. Billik soon visited Martin Vrzal at work where he spoke in tongues and convinced the businessman that he had a vision of an enemy working actively working to destroy him.  Martin trusted the “fortune-teller” perhaps because he was also a Czech immigrant or perhaps because he was indeed engaged in intense battle with a rival businessman.  Either way, Martin Vrzal invited Herman Billik home to meet his family and cast a spell on his enemy. What followed over the next year was clouded in disparate retelling and testimony.  The details were murky, but what was completely clear was that the Vrzal family members began turning up dead.

The family patriarch went first. Martin Vrzal died March 27, 1905, leaving a $2000 life insurance policy to his children. Martin was followed in death by his daughter Mary a few months later and her sister Tilly that December. Their insurance policies totaled $1400. Another two daughters were killed in the first few months of 1906, leaving just a few hundred dollars in life insurance behind.  Finally, the police became involved. The only Vrzal family member left were the late Martin’s wife Rosa, their eldest daughter, Emma, and their only son, Jerry.

Image: Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Find-A-Grave.
Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, accessed Find-A-Grave.

The police suspected that Herman and Rosa had been having an affair.  They accused Herman of promising Rosa marriage and a life off of the insurance money if they poisoned both his wife and child and Rosa’s husband and children.  However, Herman neither poisoned nor left his family.  He did somehow end up with the insurance money.

Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The police then suspected Rosa of poisoning her own family under Herman’s influence.  They issued a warrant for the arrest of both suspects. As the law closed in, Rosa committed suicide — by poisoning. Jerry Vrzal accused Herman of her death, claiming that he hypnotized her into taking her own life.

In December 1906, the  police took Emma Vrzal to the residence to view her mother’s body, only they did not tell Emma that she was dead.  According to Steve Shukis’s well-researched book Poisoned, the detective would sometimes use shock tactics to surprise suspects into confessing.  He took emma into the bedroom and an officer yanked the cover off the body.  She puportedly fainted and when she regained consciousness stated: “Now you must get that man . . . Billik . . . I want him hung.” She then wrote on a piece of paper, “Billik gave father medicine  — and gave some to Mary.”  She went on to tell the police that Billik had “special power” over the family.

The police brought Billik into the station and searched his apartment.  They found letters from the late matriarch, one signed “with ten thousand kisses — Rosa.”

The Chicago police questioned Billik for five hours, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Daily News took a bizarre series of photographs of Billick and his family from several of his visits to the Hyde Park Police Department and throughout his trials which available digitally through the Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: Three-quarter length portrait of Herman Billick, Sr., who was suspected of poisoning members of the Martin Vrzal family, sitting in a room in the Hyde Park police station in the Hyde Park community area of Chicago, Illinois.
Herman Billick, Sr., at the Hyde Park police station in Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: [Mrs. Mary Billick, sitting, and Edna Billick, standing, looking at each other.
Mary Billick, wife of Herman Billick, and their daughter Edna Billick, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum.
The coroner opened an inquest and demanded the bodies of the Vrzal family be exhumed and tested for poison.  The inquest continued into 1907 with witnesses bringing forward more an more incriminating stories about Billik.  By February the coroner was through with testing the bodies.  He found arsenic in Martin, Rosa, and Tillie, but also concluded that it had been administered slowly over a period of weeks of months.  This evidence was added to the testimony and the jury indicted Herman Billik on six counts of murder.

The case went to trial in May 1907. The judge sided with the prosecution’s argument that all six charges of murder should have separate hearings.  Billik would have to be found not guilty by six different juries.  The trial for the murder of Mary Vrzal began July 3, 1907.  The jury heard dozens of testimonies but none more damning than that of Jerry Vzral who described Billik’s witching and eventual poisoning his family.  The defense, on the other hand, made a strong case that no one profited more from these deaths than Emma, who inherited the house and business. (Shukis details each day of trial in his book, Poisoned). Hermann admitted to swindling the Vrzal family but not to an affair with Rosa and maintained he was innocent of any of the murders.

On July 18, 1907, Billik was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Plymoth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There were still many questions about the case and much evidence that pointed to Emma as the murderer. His defense attorney began working to appeal.  Several people believed him innocent, including a Catholic nun helping Billik’s family.  She brought his case to the attention of an energetic Catholic priest named Father P.J. O’Callaghan.

Digging for information that would help the appeal, O’Callaghan found more evidence pointing to Emma and a former boyfriend of hers. The priest gathered more information from the immigrant community along with donations that would help Billik.  He visited Jerry where he was in school at Valparaiso University and encouraged him to change his testimony if he had lied. Meanwhile, Emma began a smear campaign against the priest.

Suddenly, in a twist that some though should have cleared Billik entirely, Emma’s husband William Niemann sickened and died in a matter of days (though Emma claimed he had been sick for some time).  Though it didn’t clear him, Billik got his appeal hearing.  More importantly, Jerry returned to Chicago to correct his testimony.  He stated that Billik never gave the family potions or plotted against them. The appeal was read by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1908.  They decided there was no error in the record to reverse the decision.  Billik would hang April 24, 1908.

The defense attorney, the priest, and Jerry continued to work for a new hearing… and continued noticing other patterns in the testimony and evidence that pointed to Emma. On April 18, 1908, just days before the scheduled execution, the Illinois Governor and a pardon board granted a hearing. After long hours of arguments, the governor granted a reprieve for the board to further review the evidence.

Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles

O’Callaghan managed to persuade more than 20,000 people from Chicago’s immigrant community to sign a petition  on behalf of Billik’s claim of innocence. O’Callaqghan’s efforts combined with a demonstration of prayer by 400 of Ballik’s fellow prisoners at the Cork County Jail, drew thousands of people to the jail on execution day.

Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The presiding judge granted an appeal based on a flaw in the prosecuter’s case. He was reprieved until January 29, 1909 when as one newspaper put it, “Herman Billik Must Die.”

Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America.

However, he was again spared the gallows.  Just before his execution date, the Governor of Illinois commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Suspicion remained on the newly widowed Emma Vzral Niemann.  Newspapers reported that Billik’s conviction for the murder of William Niemann was based on circumstantial evidence. Father O’Callaghan and others were convinced of Emma’s guilt.  However, at her inquest the “many details of circumstantial evidence which had been collected against her were successfully explained by her testimony.”  The witness that proved Emma’s innocence was somehow Emma herself.

Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.
Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.

Conclusive evidence seemed to be presented showing that Billik had no access to arsenic, the poison found in all of the bodies except William Niemann’s.   However, the assistant coroner may have been pressured into reporting the lack of arsenic in William’s body.  In his book Poisoned, author Steve Shukis writes that political corruption distorted the facts.  He writes, “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated.”  It seems clear that there were people in positions of power that did not want arsenic to be found in the body of Emma’s husband. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction” and suggest that leading Chicago figures from the Police Chief to the State Attorney to the judge “condemned an innocent man,” according to Shukis.

Billik spent the next several years in prison, maintaining his innocence and continuing to lobby for a pardon.  Finally, at the end of 1916,  he received a hearing. The evidence was examined by new eyes and Jerry returned to remake testimony. Herman Billik was pardoned in January 1917 and died soon after.

Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After his pardon, Emma, now remarried, told the Chicago Tribune:

If ever a man deserved hanging, Herman Billik did. I am the one who first suspected that he killed my father and my sisters. I exposed him. I had him arrested. I never ceased in my efforts at vengeance until I saw him sent to the penitentiary. I have nothing in my heart but bitterness for Billik now. I could cheerfully stone him to death. It would be a joy to me to pull on the rope that choked his life out.

Though we focused on Herman here because of his Indiana connection, several key players at the time were convinced of Emma’s guilt and Herman’s innocence.  For more information see Steve Shukis’s book Poisoned: Chicago 1907, A Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him. Shukis’s book gives a much more thorough treatment of what we have only scratched the surface of here. He also presents a myriad of primary sources from the period we had no room to cover here.  The more you dig, the stranger it gets; it’s  a perfect read for the season.  Happy Halloween!

Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, 1, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1917/05/25/page/1/article/herman-billik-dies-protesting-his-innocence
Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

A Short History of Hammond’s Lake County Times

It’s not cold enough in Indiana this year to get your tongue stuck to an icy flagpole.  But every holiday season, we Hoosiers are reminded that the comedy classic A Christmas Story (1983) is set in our fair state.

Though filmed in Cleveland, Ohio — where the original Ralphie Parker residence was sold on eBay in 2004, restored to its 1940 appearance, and turned into a museum — the tale is based on the semi-fictional remembrances of Hoosier writer Jean Shepherd. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Shepherd grew up just over the state line in East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from high school in 1939.  After serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, the future author began his radio broadcast career at WJOB in Hammond before moving to Cincinnati and New York. Many of Shepherd’s stories began as on-the-air reminiscences before they appeared in Playboy.  Some would have been picked up by listeners in the Midwest.

If Ralphie’s dad, played by the late Darren McGavin, read any newspaper by the light of that short-lived leg lamp, it would probably have been the Hammond Times.  Hoosier State Chronicles will soon be uploading a long run of the Lake County Times, renamed the Times in 1933. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of its history. Who knows? It might even turn up some colorful background material on Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story.

June 12, 1920
Lake County Times, June 12, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Seventy years before Ralphie Parker came onto the scene, the young lumber port of State Line, Indiana, wasn’t producing enough news to keep a local newspaper afloat.  Most of its early settlers came from Germany and spoke and read English poorly.  The town’s success — and eventual name change — was overwhelmingly due to George H. Hammond, a Detroit butcher whose 1868 patent for refrigerated rail cars helped him rival Chicago’s great slaughterhouses. Mammoth stockyards along Lake Michigan attracted both immigrants and tourists to the greater Chicago area.  (When Rudyard Kipling visited the Windy City in 1899, he wrote a horrified description of the “disassembly line” at Philip Armour’s slaughterhouse.)  Abundant local lakes and rivers provided the ice that helped meatpacking thrive.

Yet the Hammond Packing Company’s preference for hiring German butchers and sausage-makers indirectly handicapped the development of an English-language press in northern Lake County. Most German residents of the “Hoosier Coast” got their news from thriving German-language newspapers in Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Hammond’s own Deutsche Volks-Zeitung didn’t start publishing until 1891.  It died out sometime before 1911.

Hammond Harbor
Hammond harbor during its days as a minor lumber port.

Though northwest Indiana soon became an industrial powerhouse, this was one of the last corners of the state to be settled.  In 1900, lumbermen, farmers, and engineers had barely cleared the forests and drained the swamps that defined the landscape of the Calumet region (or simply “Da Region,” in local parlance.)  Gary, whose steel mills made it Lake County’s most important city, was founded only in 1906.

The Hammond Packing Company burned down in 1901 and was never rebuilt.  Steel, railroads, and retail took over.   Ironically, the rapid development of Lake County led to “Da Region” becoming a cradle of American conservation, as nature enthusiasts and city dwellers successfully fought to save the famous Indiana Dunes — a favorite Chicago playground — from destruction.

April 17, 1920
Lake County Times, April 17, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1906, Hammond’s floundering English press got a boost when Sidmon McHie (1863-1944), a wealthy Chicago grain and stock broker, bought the struggling Hammond Times.  The enterprising McHie turned the paper around, using it to promote Lake County’s young industries and businesses.  At that time,  Calumet was fertile ground for venture capitalists like McHie.  As a 1943 tribute to him put it, the energetic owner used the paper to “get Hammond to believe in itself.”

Sidmon and Isabel McHie
Sidmon and Isabel McHie had a marriage even more colorful and tempestuous than Ralphie’s parents. U.S. Passport application, 1921.

Not content with marketing the news only to Hammond, McHie changed the paper’s name to the Lake County Times and pushed sales in Whiting, Gary, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. The daily’s circulation, which stood at just 137 when McHie bought it in 1906, jumped to 5,000 within a year and almost exceeded 10,000 in 1920.  As an investment scheme, McHie circulated many copies for free simply to promote the city.  By the time A Christmas Story was set in the early 1940s, the paper was reaching 130,000 readers — probably including “Old Man Parker” himself.

McHie (whose first name is often misspelled Simon and even Sidney) hired Chicago sportswriter Hugh E. Keough to be the Lake County Times’ first editor.  Best known for his Chicago Tribune sports column (“In the Wake of the News”), Keough served as an official at Midwestern and Southern horse-racing tracks, whose decline led him back into newspaper work by 1906.  Keough and the witty Ring Lardner were two of Chicago’s best writers on baseball.  Keough’s tenure on the Lake County Times was short-lived, however.  He was replaced by Percy A. Parry (who had emigrated to the U.S. from Wales at age nine.)  For decades, Parry and his brothers were part of a “dynasty” of Lake County news editors.

While Gary was becoming known for its mills, Sidmon McHie and his editors on the Lake County Times helped transform Hammond into a shopping mecca for northwest Indiana.  It’s no coincidence that the plot of A Christmas Story revolves around one of Hammond’s great department stores — where the line to see a drunken Santa Claus and some evil elves “stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”

Lake County Times, July 9, 1920
Lake County Times, July 9, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

1937 Hammond Indiana directory
Though Hammond is referred to as “Hohman” in A Christmas Story, this was an avenue named after one of the city’s German founders. 1937 Hammond City Directory.

With a stock broker and capitalist at the helm, the Lake County Times became a colorful, flamboyant paper and enjoyed strong sales. While not known for deep investigative journalism at the time, the paper does provide a window into the social issues of the 1910s and ’20s – from the scandalous rise in American divorce rates to labor struggles at Indiana’s burgeoning steel mills.  Much of its “reporting,” however, was syndicated — and wasn’t serious news, anyway.

Lake County Times, December 6, 1922
Lake County Times, December 6, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Dick -- Lake County Times, March 25, 1920
Lake County Times, March 25, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Lake County Times wasn’t especially friendly to labor movements or to socialism.  During the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917, it also joined in the vilification of Germany.  The Hammond paper helped stoke up public fears during the 1919 “Red Scare,” which involved a crackdown by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on anarchists, Communists, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose politics were suspect in the wake of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bomb plots.  Gary, which participated in the great steel strike of 1919 and was home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, was deeply involved in the “Red Scare.”

January 3, 1920
Lake County Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Lake County Times, January 16, 1920 (1)
The “Red Raids” took place just a few weeks before Prohibition came into effect nationally. Though still too early for a Red Ryder BB gun, “Red Rye” and its dangerous bootleg derivatives drove liquor underground until the law’s repeal in 1933. Lake County Times, January 16, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

November 22, 1919
Lake County Times, November 22, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

That last clip reminds us that women were at the forefront of Prohibition.  Yet even during the days of “Saharization,” the Lake County Times published colorful stories about the Jazz Age’s rejection of Victorian norms.  Divorcées, flappers, fast cars, and heartbreaks worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel were often sprawled across the front page.

Publisher Sidmon McHie made national news in 1923 and again in 1935, when aspects of his own tempestuous marriage came to light. Daughter of a St. Louis multimillionaire and reportedly also a beauty queen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Isabel Mulhall had briefly been a theater actress, got divorced, and “hastily” married Sidmon McHie in New York in 1906, when he was living at the Waldorf Astoria.  By the 1930s, however, the wealthy couple, who lived in New York and Illinois, ended up estranged.

Part of their divorce proceedings centered on a generous winter-time gift that Isabel had made to farmers near Battle Creek, Michigan, in March 1935.  But long before her flamboyant Depression-era “giveaway,” she had been generous to dogs.

In 1923, Isabel announced that she was willing her vast fortune to create a hospital for abused animals. While an earlier free animal hospital in New York City actually predated the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children by a good eight years, the American public and press unfairly lampooned Mrs. McHie as a sour old eccentric who hated human beings.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923

(The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.)

The Ogden Standard-Examiner was one of the few papers to treat her with any kind of fairness.  Speaking to a reporter, she told about a cruel child that had mercilessly tortured a puppy, a scene that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.    As she began to think about her own mortality and draw up a will, Isabel McHie considered leaving a large bequest to a “home for incurable children.”  But if the newspapers are correct, the hideous “screechings” of an Episcopal boy’s choir in New York put an end to that — or was it the child that broke a puppy’s leg on purpose?  (The McHies had no children of their own.)

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), May 1, 1923
Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, May 1, 1923.

Though it never came into being, rumors had it that this would have been the largest animal hospital in the world.  A provision in the will specified that McHie’s own ashes be placed next to a marble bust of herself, carved by an Italian sculptor, and that the honored bust and ashes would sit in the entrance to the animal hospital.

In return for her generosity, she got hate mail.  Letters accused Isabel McHie of being “wicked” and that the money could have done more good for humans.   Why give money to “dumb animals”?  Some critics speculated that her motives came from a desire to have “revenge on mankind.”  McHie’s response?  Animals taught humans to be more humane.  (It’s ironic, however, that some of her fortune probably derived from the prosperity of Hammond, named for a butcher.)

Lenoir News-Topic (Lenoir, NC), February 27, 1923
Lenoir News-Topic, Lenoir, North Carolina, February 27, 1923.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), January 16, 1923
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, January 16, 1923.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (5)
The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (6) The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.

Maybe the sneering news stories had an effect on her.  Maybe it was her pending divorce suit or ill health.  Or maybe she was just tired of being rich.  In any case, in March 1935, the 60-year-old Isabel McHie decided to dispose of a large amount of her wealth — before anybody else criticized her will.

On March 20, she withdrew $175,000 of her own or her husband’s money and boarded a passenger train from Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station to Montreal.  She was also carrying about $500,000 worth of jewels with her in a bag.

Somewhere outside Battle Creek, Michigan, a conductor noticed Mrs. McHie feeding unbelievably large bills through a ventilator — in currency denominations “as high as $10,000.”  This, after all, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the wealthy philanthropist was literally throwing a fortune out the window. Reporters wrote that she also tossed $100 bills into the aisle of a Pullman car.  Most of the money seems to have been recovered, but farmers along the railroad tracks in southern Michigan eagerly joined the search for anything left of the money-throwing spree.

Marshall Evening Chronicle (Marshall, Michigan), March 21, 1935
Marshall Evening Chronicle, Marshall, Michigan, March 21, 1935.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), March 21, 1935
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, March 21, 1935.

Arrested as “hysterical,” Isabel McHie was taken to a hotel in Hammond, where police wanted to investigate hospital records that she tried to withhold.  She later sued the Grand Trunk Western Railway for physical assault and false imprisonment — for a million dollars. Sidmon McHie was vacationing at the mineral springs in French Lick, Indiana, when his wife started throwing money away.  Their divorce was soon finalized.  Isabel McHie died in New York City on April 25, 1939. Contrary to the belief that she hated human beings, most of her estate went to Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trained guide dogs for the blind.

The Hammond Times’ owner didn’t survive his ex-wife by long. Sidmon McHie owned a vast stock farm and golf course on the Kankakee River near Momence, Illinois.  His obituary notes that “McHie, despite his advanced age, insisted on driving his own automobile because he said that to employ a private chauffeur would remove a man from an essential occupation.”  (World War II was still on.)  On August 25, 1944, the 81-year-old McHie was hit by a train while driving his car.  He died five days later.  McHie’s nephew, James S. DeLaurier, took control of the Hammond Times.

The Times dropped Hammond from its name in 1967 and began representing all of northwestern Indiana.  It moved its offices to Munster in 1989. Today, the Times of Northwest Indiana is the second-largest newspaper in the state, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Star. Local editions cover Munster, Crown Point, and Valparaiso.

Hoosier State Chronicles expects to have almost two decades of the Lake County Times uploaded and searchable on our website by mid-January 2016.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Mike Inik the Monomaniac

Mike Inik -- Winnipeg Tribune, December 21, 1916In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”

Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote.  Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants.  What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.

On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana.  His grievance?  The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.

Inik’s origins are obscure.  A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey.  The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.  Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery.  Another account said he fell off a scaffold.  At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States.  Today it’s owned by BP.

Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.”  No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind.  On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness.  Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.

Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (12)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.

Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, Michigan), February 13, 1913
Escanaba Morning Press, Escanaba, Michigan, February 13, 1913.

The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?

Lake County Superior Court
Lake County Superior Court, Hammond, Indiana.

When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal.  Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons.  He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes.  The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition.  Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.

As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire.  He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.

Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (8)
Did he pose for the press photographer? Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (4)

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (6 crop)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health.  This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

What became of him after 1916 is a mystery.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (14)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (1)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Swearing o’ the Green?

Lake County Times, March 8, 1920

Hoosier State Chronicles is about to fix one big gap in our online newspaper archives — the absence of northwestern Indiana, that colorful region of steel mills and dunes beaches and the pulse of Chicago throbbing out there in the distance.  In the next few months, we’ll bring you a long run of Hammond’s Lake County Times from 1906 into the early days of Prohibition.

Hammond’s proximity to the Windy City means that its reporters covered plenty of stories from America’s Jazz Age — the heady days of flappers, gangsters, speakeasies, marriage mills, divorce courts, and the rise and fall of Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan. You’ll see how the Roaring Twenties played out in towns like Hammond, Gary, Crown Point, East Chicago, Hobart and Munster.  But until we’re done digitizing, we’ll just tantalize you with a story here and there.

Here’s a funny clip about the history of impatience… on both ends of the line.  Published in the Lake County Times on February 10, 1923, this story is from Whiting, a Lake Michigan town right on the Illinois state line.

Irish eyes might be smiling.  But you’ve been forewarned: never swear at an Irish “hello girl.”

telephone 1920s 2

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (1)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (2)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (3)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (4)

telephone 1920s 4

telephone 1920s 5