Tuesday, May 10, 2016

True Crime: Gang Busters, Luke May … and Research

If you take on a writing project that requires getting the historical facts just right, you better like research ... but.

I already knew that, and just had further proof. My current project is the biography of pioneer criminologist Luke S. May. My draft is complete and I have submitted the book proposal, so I’m busy editing the text and tying up loose ends.
May dictating answers for "Luke May's Department."

One loose end was the belief that some of May’s cases became episodes on Gang Busters, the true crime radio show that ran from 1936 to 1957. Even May’s granddaughter Mindi was not quite sure where that notion came from. It made sense, because from 1935 through 1940, May wrote a monthly column called “Luke May’s Department” for True Detective Mysteries, the most popular of the true crime magazines.

But rather than leaving it at that, I started looking for some verification. That soon led me to Phillips H. Lord, the man who created Gang Busters and, as it happened, many other popular radio programs. For various reasons, Lord occasionally found himself involved in legal disputes. Buried in some fourteen hundred pages of testimony for one case, I discovered a nugget that linked to Luke May.

Lord was always on the lookout for ideas he could turn into a new series. In 1936, when Gang Busters began to look like a success, Lord considered using the work of a crime laboratory as the basis for a program. His staff found that “Luke May was reported … to be one of the outstanding laboratory scientists for the solution of crime.”

So Lord arranged a meeting with Luke, in June of 1936 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. They talked about two hours and, naturally, May was quite enthusiastic about the idea. Lord said he would do a trial run on such a program and get back to Luke if the idea was well received. Soon after the meeting, Lord wrote a script for a test run on Gang Busters. But he also tested a more standard episode with a district attorney as the featured law enforcement person. In the end, the DA episode won out and eventually led to the popular radio (and television) show, Mr. District Attorney.

I now knew that May’s work had instigated one Gang Busters episode, but that it had been a (comparative) flop. That’s when I discovered the book Gang Busters: The Crime Fighters of American Broadcasting, by Martin Grams, Jr., published in 2004. Fortunately, used copies are still available at Amazon.com for a reasonable price. As a matter of fact, Mr. Grams has written quite a number of books about “old time” radio and TV programs, like The Green Hornet and The Twilight Zone, which you can learn about at his web site.

In nearly 700 pages of the Gang Busters book, Grams provides a lot of background on the program and at least some information for each of the 1,008 radio episodes. Sadly, for episodes after about 1954, he could only list the broadcast dates. But for hundreds upon hundreds of episodes, he not only has the titles, but also the story lines.

I found, for sure, that three of May’s cases ended up as Gang Buster episodes. One was the kidnapping of nine-year-old George Weyerhaeuser, son of the lumber baron, in 1935. Another was the 1934 “Bremerton Massacre,” in which a home invasion/robbery turned into the murder of six victims. There are two or three more episodes that probably have some connection to Luke May, but those will require more research.

And now we come to the “dark side” of needing to like research … you can like it too much. Having gone through the longer story lines, I had the answer to my question: Yes, Luke May cases were turned into Gang Buster episodes. My excuse for what happened next: I was afraid I might miss other Luke May cases that were turned into shows.

So … I spent the best part of the past week exploring episodes where the story line was unknown or given in just one cryptic line. Often the title provided a clue, although some seemed hopeless, like “The Case of the Trail to San Antone” or “The Case of the Monstrous Canary.” I struck out on the first, but actually found something for the second. A newspaper radio listing said the “Canary” episode was about a dope peddler who angered a partner and girlfriend who decided to “sing.”

But the title or brief story line might also have the name(s) of one or more of the criminals. That gave me terms to plug into a full newspaper search. For example, “The Case of Hugo Hedin,” broadcast September 9, 1950, outlined the career of a counterfeiter paroled in 1930. He was not caught again for twenty years because he specialized in small bills and moved just enough to stay ahead of the law. Some titles gave me three or more names, which helped a lot.

All told, I found reasonable to excellent newspaper links for over ninety episodes. The bad news: None of those that I expanded had any solid connection to Luke S. May. Worse yet, I found some of these stories so interesting, I spent more time on them, digging deeper than I really needed to. Sigh. At least now I can be fairly sure I found all the Luke May links I could.
References: “Alonzo Deen Cole v. Phillips H. Lord, Inc.,” Case on Appeal, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division – First Department, Corporate Press, Inc., New York City, New York (1942).
Martin Grams, Jr., Gang Busters: The Crime Fighters of American Broadcasting, OTR Publishing, Churchville, Maryland (2004).