Podcast Premiere: “Unusual Deaths”

In our first ever episode of “A Short History,” the podcast, our topic is deaths, specifically strange and bizarre ends that newspapers have covered. Here is the episode summary with some added information for a few of the stories. New episodes on Tuesdays!

There is No Such Thing As Bad Publicity

clement-passal-enterre-vivantPhoto from Heritage Normand.

Clement Passal, pictured above, was a career criminal although not a very good one. When he decided to write a book he thought up a truly dramatic publicity stunt to spark interest in it…and then, well, things got out of hand in this bizarre case.


  1. French Police Find Man Buried Alive,” New York Times, 5 October 1929.
  2. Homicide Is Charged In Burial-Alive Case,” New York Times, 7 October 1929.
  3. Says Burial Alive Was Publicity Plan,” New York Times, 6 October 1929.
  4. Solution Of ‘Murder Mystery’ Reveals Publicity Stunt Ended Fatally For Schemer,” Miami Daily News-Record (Miami, Okla), 6 October 1929.

Annie Temple

chester-pa-elevated-railroad-train-tracksA view from the elevated railway tracks in Chester, Pa. a few years after Annie’s murder, source.

ChesterDarbyandPhiladelphiaRailwayCar34A railway car that ran through Chester, Pa., source.

Annie Temple had been on her own since she was a young girl and her mother died. In 1912 she was 17-years old and had grown into a pretty, charming and polite young woman. Her death, reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s victims fates’, gripped the bustling industrial and ship building town of Chester, outside of Philadelphia.

What’s interesting about Annie’s death today is that she was black, when Chester wasn’t predominately so, and yet police and the white city council politicians continually raised the reward to find her killer {$1,000 today would be around $25,000}. It’s intriguing to see a cry for justice for a poor black woman during a time when America was quite racially divided. Was it to ensure that there really was justice for Annie or more selfishly because the white community lived in fear of the killer too? It’s also interesting to note that though the crime was committed in a ward that was principally black, not a single white person was ever held for the crime.


  1. Mystery In Murder Of Young Colored Girl,” Delaware County Daily Times, 5 December 1912.
  2. Arrest May Clear Up Murder Of Chester Girl,” The Morning News (Danville, Pa.), 24 November 1913.
  3. Murder Suspect Released,” Delaware County Daily Times, 10 February 1913.
  4. Police Release Martins,” Delaware County Daily Times, 31 December 1912.
  5. Hunt For Clue In Cesspool,” Delaware County Daily Times, 28 December 1912.
  6. Colored Girl Slain And Body Mutilated,” Delaware County Daily Times, 2 December 1912.
  7. Murdered Girl Is Taken To Old Home,” Delaware County Daily Times, 7 December 1912.
  8. Slain Girl’s Sister Last To See Her,” Delaware County Daily Times, 6 December 1912.
  9. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.


Newspaper Clippings


Cigarette Smoking Caused This Murder

vintage smoking ad 1910s

A vintage smoking ad from the 1910s, source.

A judge sees the early warning signs that cigarette smoking can be dangerous to your health…in a slightly different interpretation.


  1. Cigarette Smoking Caused This Murder,” Altoona Tribune, 15 November 1912.
  2. Freed of Murder Charge,” The Gettysburg Times, 15 November 1912.
  3. Shot in Row Over Woman,” Reading Times (Reading, Pa), 21 August 1912.
  4. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

Poison Lunch

1930s-school-busA school bus similar in style to the one Smiley and Norman would have been eating on in the 1930’s, source.

This case was so baffling that even the newspapers didn’t know what to make of it. One thing that is never mentioned: was Smiley ever questioned or looked at as a suspect? They were friends and weren’t fighting but it’s truly a strange and random act. Also, was Smiley’s lunch really previously tampered with or was it just rotting because he was leaving milk on the bus without refrigeration?

One thing that I forgot to mention in the podcast was what poison Norman ingested; it was battery acid.


  1. Attempt Made to Poison Lunch of High School Boy”, The News-Herald (Franklin, Pa.), 15 April 1936.
  2. Poison in Food Is Fatal To High School Student,” The Gettysburg Times, 28 May 1936.
  3. Probe Lunch Poison Plot Student,” The Bee (Danville, Va.), 17 April 1936.

Hot Air

chloroform-machingA nitrous oxide machine, source.

Maude Branton went into a hospital in Hollywood, California for a quick operation. What followed was truly unusual, though nitrous oxide gasses are still used today, probably at your dentist.


  1. Woman Dies An Unusual Death,” The Circleville Herald (Circleville, Ohio), 22 January 1931.
  2. Deadly Anesthetics” by Robert Kingman, M.D., The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 July 1931.

Killer Heels


Young workers in New York on their lunch break in 1910, source.

A garment factory owner meets his end with clothing in a whodunit that seems almost like it was meant to be a paperback mystery novel.


  1. New Yorker Slain and Mutilated,” Republican-Northwestern (Belvidere, Ill.), 24 September 1907.
  2. Revenge May Be Motive,” Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri), 24 September 1907.
  3. Arrest Girls To Help Solve Killing,” Trenton Evening Times, 23 September 1907.

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