Archive for the ‘History’ Category

BESSIE STRINGFIELD (1911 – 1993) First African American Woman to Ride a Motorcycle Solo Across America

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Feminists, History, Motorcycles, U.S. Army, women on June 14, 2017 at 2:42 PM

The only place Bessie Stringfield truly felt at home was on the seat of her motorcycle. At a young age, her life was defined by where she was headed next. Her first trip was when she was five years old. Betsy Leonora Ellis and her parents, a domestic servant and her bessiestringfield4.jpgemployer, left Jamaica for Boston. Shortly after arriving in America, Stringfield’s mom
died. Her father didn’t know how to cope with the responsibilities of a child, so he abandoned her. Stringfield’s next stop was a Catholic orphanage where she stayed for a few years. There weren’t many people willing to adopt a black child, but she didn’t stop praying for a new family. Finally God answered her prayers. When the owner of the orphanage handed Stringfield off to her wealthy Irish Catholic mother, she used a racial slur to describe the little girl. But the new mom didn’t show any prejudice against her daughter’s ethnicity. In her new house, Stringfield had her own room and all the things other children had.

When she became a teenager, Stringfield tried riding the motorcycle of an upstairs neighbor, and she wanted one of her own. Her mother reminded her that nice girls don’t go around riding on motorcycles. Stringfield was persistent and asked for a motorcycle for her 16th birthday. Her mom couldn’t refuse her and gave her a 1928 Indian Scout. Never mind Stringfield had no idea how to ride it. God had answered all her prayers so far, so Stringfield, “…wrote letters to the Man Upstairs, Jesus Christ. I put the letters under my pillow and He taught me. One night in my sleep, I saw myself shifting gears and riding around the block. When I got out on the street, that’s just what I did” (qtd Ferrar 31).

BORN TO BE WILD                        Right after high school graduation, Stringfield took off on her bike to explore all around New England, coming back to Boston only for short visits. It didn’t take long for her to want more adventure. She started what she called her “penny tours.” She spread out a map and tossed a penny onto it. Wherever it landed would be her next destination. In 1930, at age 19 she took six months to ride solo across the country. This was the first of eight cross-country trips, and she eventually rode through all lower 48 states. Later that year she exchanged her Indian for a Harley Davidson, the first of 27 Harleys she owned. The only things she carried with her on the road were her leather jacket, a money belt and extra clothes that fit into the saddlebags.

Stringfield understood how unusual it was for a single, African American woman to travel alone on a motorcycle. “All along the way wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle” (qtd Ferrar 31). She said she was never afraid on the road because the Man Upstairs was always with her. She used The Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to stay and eat in the Jim Crow south. When she couldn’t find black folks to stay with she slept on her motorcycle in gas stations. She rested her head on the handlebars with her jacket as a pillow and her feetBessieStringfield2 on the rear fender. She did encounter racism, but it didn’t stop her from going anywhere. One time at Stone Mountain in Georgia she was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The only way to avoid them was to jump on her bike and escape faster than they could chase her. She was afraid, but afterward she felt invincible. Her bike was like wings carrying her to safety.

FOR LOVE AND MONEY              Just because Stringfield traveled alone didn’t mean she didn’t find romance. She made the effort to do her hair and makeup every day and attracted men everywhere she went. She had six husbands who tried to tame her, and she divorced them all. All except one were about 20 years younger. She and her first husband had three children, but all of them died young. Her third husband, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, asked his wife to always keep his last name because she was going to make it famous. Stringfield obliged.

Stringfield needed a way to pay her expenses, so she turned her hobby into a moneymaker. She was hired at carnivals and fairs as a stunt rider and billed as the Negro Motorcycle Queen. Her stunts included riding side saddle, standing on one foot peg, laying down on the bike, jumping from one side of the bike to the other while riding, and the Wall of Death, where she got up enough speed to ride sideways and upside down in a round cage.

Stringfield ended up in Opa-locka, Florida, a suburb of Miami, and started spending more time there. The local police captain, Robert Jackson, didn’t know what to make of her. He challenged Stringfield to get her bike up to speed, slip off the back and run to catch it and get back on. She did it easily and earned his respect and the right to call him Captain Jack.

On a hot day during World War II, Stringfield went into a movie theatre to cool down. She watched a newsreel showing women helping the war effort. Stringfield was inspired to find a way to serve her country with her talent. As a civilian she joined a black motorcycle dispatch unit of the army as the only woman. She had to pass a grueling training which included riding up a sandy, ninety degree hill and then making a hairpin turn on the crest, and learning how to weave a bridge with tree limbs in order to cross over a swamp, a skill she never actually needed to use. Her trainer was Captain Jack. From 1941 to 1945 Stringfield delivered classified documents to military bases across the country. Even with a military crest on the front of her motorcycle, she still encountered racism. One time a man in a pickup truck ran her off the road and knocked her off her bike. She took these incidents in stride as part of the ups and downs of the experience.

SETTLING DOWN              After the war Stringfield spent time in Europe riding around the allied countries before heading back to Florida. In the late 1950s, she finally settled down, buying a house and working. Her first job was as a private cook, but then she went to school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Having steady employment did not keep her from riding. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and used her house a place for riders to hang out together. The local press dubbed her the Motorcycle
Queen of Miami, and she was often seen leading parades with one of her poodles riding on each knee. On Sundays she rode her motorcycle to mass at the Catholic church.

In the late 1980s Stringfield’s favorite bike, a Harley 1978 FLH, was vandalized in an attempted robbery. She didn’t have enough money to repair it, and she considered selling her house to buy a new one. She said, “It’s got to be blue and it’s got to be new. I never bought anything used – except husbands” (qtd Ferrar 32). Instead, she borrowed or rented a Harley when she wanted to ride.

During her lifetime and posthumously, Stringfield received the recognition she deserved for her accomplishments and bravery as a motorcyclist. The Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio opened in 1990 and featured Stringfield in their inaugural exhibit. In 2000 the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) named an award after her, given to women who distinguish themselves as leaders in motorcycling. She was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2002.

Stringfield was 81 years old when she died from complications of an enlarged heart in 1993. She was adamant about not having a service, but people from the community congregated to honor her anyway. There were other bikers in attendance, and one man came all the way from Texas to pay his respects. In reflecting on her untraditional life Springfield said, “I spent most of my life alone, lookin’ for a family. I found my family in motorcycling” (qtd Ferrar 32).

QUESTION: What is the most adventurous thing you can imagine doing? What is keeping you from doing it?

© 2017 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Ferrar, Ann, Hear Me Roar, Women Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road. New Hampshire: Whitehorse Press, 2000.

Gill, Joel Christian, Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2016.

Camacho, Maria A. “Bessie Stringfield.” Miami Herald 20 February, 1993: B4.




HENRY CHRISTOPHE (1767 – 1820) King of Haiti

In Biography, Black Leaders, French History, History, People Who Committed Suicide on January 28, 2011 at 9:46 AM

Henry Christophe (from the New York Public Library)

Henry Christophe learned everything he knew from experience.  A Negro born into a slave family on the island of Grenada, he never went to school and was illiterate his whole life.  His life’s purpose was to eradicate slavery and build Haiti into a strong country, and the slave boy who would be king took seriously the power and perks that came with the job.

Christophe was a rambunctious kid.  At age seven the plantation owner turned his unchanneled energy into profit when he sold the boy to a Negro mason as an apprentice.  Christophe ran away from his master and stowed away on a boat bound for the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti).  At age twelve, Christophe ended up the servant of a French naval officer, hired to oil his boots and serve his meals.  This job took him north to America where Christophe fought with the French in the Siege of Savannah before returning to Haiti where he was again sold to a free Negro who owned a hotel.  The ambitious young man moved up from stable boy to cook, waiter and billiard marker.  He saved enough money to buy his freedom.

When Christophe was 26 years old he married the boss’s daughter, Marie Louise, who was only 15.  They had two sons and two daughters.

FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM             The Spanish, French and English all had interests in the island, and the slaves were rebelling for their freedom.  Black General Toussaint Louverture led the army to claim their emancipation.  Christophe volunteered to fight with Toussaint and showed early leadership skills.  Seven years later, Toussaint, had driven the Spanish back to their side of the island and defeated the British.  He designated himself the Governor-General and appointed a trio of successors: Christophe as general and military governor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines as a provincial governor, and Alexandre Sabès Pétion (a mulatto), who ended up in the south.  Toussaint, seeing an opportunity for independence, set up a government without asking permission of Napoleon Bonaparte, which prompted Napoleon to send an expedition to the island to reestablish French dominion.

The captain of the French expedition was Charles LeClerc, and he insisted on negotiating directly with Toussaint.  While LeClerc waited on the ship, his emissary went ashore and was insulted when he was met by the second in command, Christophe.  Thinking a black, former slave could be easily persuaded, LeClerc offered Christophe many honors if he would turn over the town of Cap François before Toussaint arrived.  Christophe was insulted by the insinuation that he would betray his commander.  And, there was the underlying fear that one objective of the French mission was to reinstate slavery.

The messenger delivered Christophe’s message to his boss, and Christophe vowed to his commander and his countrymen that if LeClerc came ashore, there would not be any town for him to claim because Christophe would personally see to it that it would be burned.  LeClerc sent Christophe a letter warning that 15,000 soldiers would disembark at dawn if Christophe did not capitulate.  Christophe’s response reiterated his loyalty to the chain of command.  Since he was illiterate, the content of his letter was dictated, but Christophe was able to sign his name.

After one more written attempt to resolve the situation, LeClerc made good on his threat, and Christophe made good on his promise.  Despite the pleas of the townspeople of Cap François not to destroy their homes, while the French soldiers stormed the shore, Christophe torched the city, starting with his own house.

Now Haiti was at war with France, and eventually the Haitians were overwhelmed by the French.  Christophe, on behalf of Toussaint, was willing to negotiate.  The sticking point was slavery, and LeClerc, speaking for Napoleon, agreed to let every person be free.  Finally an agreement was reached with the stipulation that Toussaint retire to his plantation.  He did so, but LeClerc had reason to believe that he was planning another uprising, so Toussaint was arrested and exiled to France with his family.

When LeClerc died of yellow fever, the black and mulatto leaders agreed to submit to the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines who led them to freedom.  On January 1, 1804 they declared independence and Saint Domingue officially became Haiti.

The mulattos in the south did not accept being ruled by blacks.  They rebelled and assassinated Dessalines.  A national assembly was quickly organized to elect the next leader, and it was between Christophe and Pétion.  In a gesture of reconciliation, Christophe, age 40, was elected, if somewhat grudgingly, as President of Haiti for four years, residing in the north.

A RULER WITH LOTS OF RULES            Christophe took his authority seriously and declared Catholicism as the official religion, although other beliefs would be tolerated.  He made divorce illegal, and parents were not allowed to disinherit their children.  He understood the importance of trade, and he courted the United States and Britain as trading partners, giving foreign businesses absolute protection.

Haiti had no currency, so Christophe created one.  Gourds were used for bowls, utensils and bottles, making them indispensible to daily life, but they wore out.  The new president confiscated all the gourd plants.  When the farmers brought dried coffee berries to the capital, Christophe would buy them, paying in gourds.  Then he sold the coffee to other countries for gold, giving Haiti a growing, stable currency.  Even today, the term for Haiti’s money is the gourde.

Pétion didn’t accept Christophe as President, and he set up his own government in Port-au-Prince, instigating a civil war.  Both men stubbornly held on to their respective territories, and it seemed inevitable to tacitly accept that unifying Haiti would not be possible.  In February 1807, Christophe was elected the President of the State of Haiti, giving him jurisdiction over the north and making him the generalissimo of the forces on land and sea for life.  His capital was Cap François.  One month later, Pétion was elected the President of the Republic of Haiti for four years with his capital at Port-au-Prince in the south.  He was later elected to a second four-year term.

Christophe was more ambitious than Pétion, and his efforts built up his infrastructure and defense, and his reputation overseas.  He accumulated a fleet of ships and started a navy which controlled the local waters.  For all his success, the threat of a French invasion never diminished.  Christophe’s advisors thought that having a ruler of equal rank to the emperor Napoleon would be more effective in staving off any aggression.  They respectfully suggested that Christophe be declared king, and it didn’t take much convincing to get him to go along with the idea.  He became Henry I, preferring the English spelling, and changed the name of the capital to Cap Henry.  The coronation was on June 2, 1811 in a cathedral that was built for the occasion in about two months.  He was officially crowned “Henry, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional Law of the State, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonave and other adjacent Islands, Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian Nation, Creator of her Moral, Political and Martial Institutions, First Crowned Monarch of the New World, Defender of the Faith, Founder of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Henry,” just in case there was any doubt about his authority.

The new king created a hereditary nobility and spiritual hierarchy with a Catholic archbishop in the capital and bishops in other cities.  He instituted a strict dress code for the nobility and an Order of Chivalry whose members wore a large cross embedded with jewels.

Under Christophe’s leadership, his colony began to thrive.  He introduced Code Henry mandating that every adult was obligated to work in the fields.  Monday through Friday they were required to work from daylight until 8:00am when they took a break for breakfast.  Then they worked from 9:00 until 12:00 when they got a two hour rest.  They resumed working at 2:00 until dusk.  Saturday was a day off from the fields to allow the workers to tend to their own land and take their goods to market.  Sunday was reserved for rest and going to church.  The plantation owners had to give one quarter of their gross profits to their workers and provide room and board and medical treatment.  An owner could not transfer a worker from one activity to another without the worker’s permission.  The military police oversaw the plantation owners to insure compliance.

The king availed himself every Thursday for a public audience when he would listen to petitions.  In the morning he received the commoners, and in the evening he received the aristocracy, who were required to wear their military uniform or formal court dress.  An answer was always given the following Thursday.

Christophe had his hands in everything.  He monopolized the meat supply and all the cattle crazed on state land.  He built seven palaces and 15 chateaux, all surrounded by fertile land which produced, among other things, two-thirds of the kingdom’s sugar export.  He sold everything for gold, incresing his personal wealth and the national treasury.  

Even though he hated the French, he knew the country needed the expertise and knowledge of white men.  He offered full citizenship to any white man who married a Haitian woman and lived in Haiti for one year.  Any white man who married a black woman anywhere in the world would be welcomed to settle in Haiti, and the government would set them up. 

The future of the kingdom was very important to the king, and Christophe created five national schools for boys modeled after Joseph Lancaster’s British and Foreign School Society.  Teachers were quickly trained for two thousand students.  English was required, and advanced students could learn Spanish.  The curriculum also included French, reading, writing, arithmetic and grammar.  During the summer, classes met from 6:00am to 11:00am and then again from 2:00 to 6:00.  The winter hours were shorter, from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00.  Thursday and Sunday were days off with the exception of attending morning prayers and a lecture.  In addition, every boy at least ten years old had to learn a trade.

Upon the recommendation of the monarch’s personal physician, Dr. Duncan Stewart, a Scottish surgeon who visited many of the commoners working on the king’s farms, it was necessary to educate girls in order to prevent voodoo from creeping back into public practice.  In 1818 Christophe issued an edict opening up education for girls but stipulating that they must be taught in schools separate from boys.  Christophe also founded a royal college for secondary education where students studied English, French, Latin, history, geography and math.

Public health was also an issue the king focused on.  He appointed Dr. Stewart as director of the hospital with responsibility for the accommodations for the sick.  In addition to food and clothing, this included a pair of stocks installed at the foot of each bed for the legs of the patient if he was disobedient or didn’t take his medication.

The British didn’t fully recognize Christophe’s authority, but that did not inhibit him from imposing it absolutely on his citizens.  Every marriage had to be a civil contract, and as the king moved around the kingdom, if he even suspected that a couple was living in sin, he forced them to marry on the spot.  The penalty for stealing was death, and those guilty of a misdemeanor were punished by flogging.  Christophe carried a silver-topped cane and used it to beat people he saw on his daily walks who he deemed were being lazy.  No one was immune from the king’s judgment.  One time he went to mass and the priest was not immediately there.  Christophe ordered soldiers to arrest him and take him directly to jail.

THE FALL FROM POWER             Being a dictatorial monarch took its toll on Christophe.  On August 15, 1820 during the mid-day break he went to mass, which was not a part of his normal routine.  Just before he was given communion, Christophe suffered a stroke which left him permanently paralyzed.  His mind was still clear and he tried to carry on business as usual, but his government was threatened by factions who hated his tyrannical ways.  In October the king tried to stand up to the rebels, but he realized he did not have the support he needed.

One Sunday evening, Christophe called his wife and children into his room to discuss the state of the state and sthen ent them off to bed.  After they left he raised a pistol to his chest and shot himself.  As word of the king’s death got out, looters started ransacking the palace.  Two men were able to get the body out of the residence, but they couldn’t find tools to dig a grave, so they buried Christophe in a pile of lime.  In 1847, 27 years after his death, the monarch who did great things for his country, if perhaps not in great ways, was given a proper burial in a concrete tomb at the place d’Armes at the Citadel on the peak of La Ferrière.

QUESTION:  What makes someone a good leader?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Cole, Hubert, Christophe King of Haiti.  New York: Viking Press, 1967.

Vandercook, John W., Black Majesty, The Life of Christophe King of Haiti.  New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1928.

JOHN MONTAGUE (1903 – 1972) Fugitive Golfer

In Biography, California History, Golf, History, Hollywood, Sports on November 30, 2010 at 6:44 PM

John Montague (photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

When John Montague arrived in Hollywood he brought his golf clubs and some secrets.  His personal strength and the way he played golf were so incredible that he made friends easily, and nobody cared where he came from or why he was there. 

Montague was born LaVerne Moore in Syracuse, New York to a blue collar family.  He distinguished himself early on from his older brother and younger sisters as an energetic kid with a quick mind.  He spent hours developing his body by using the beams in the attic as his jungle gym.  What he did to develop strength and stamina might seem like torture.  After lifting weights, Montague strapped weights to his wrists and ankles and stood motionless in the dark for an hour.

A natural athlete, Montague excelled at baseball, football, basketball, skiing, pool and golf.  For all his impressive talent on local teams as a kid, it was golf that made him famous.  When he was seven years old, he found a golf ball in the street and fashioned a club out of a discarded elbow from a gas pipe and a broom handle.  He whacked that ball directly into the plate glass window of the cigar store across the street.  

 DEVELOPING A SKILL SET                   His dad’s reaction was to pay for the window and buy Montague a set of clubs.  His brother, Harold, became his first instructor, and as a teenager he developed a powerful drive and some tricks.  One crowd pleaser was to bury three golf balls on top of each other in a sand trap and ask which one he should hit.  Every time he sent the designated ball flying, leaving the other two resting in the sand. 

About 1934 Montague brought his talent, pranks and bag of custom, oversized golf clubs to Hollywood and fell in with the celebrity crowd at Lakeside golf course.  At five foot ten inches tall and 220 pounds, he became the club champion at age 30.  Everything about Montague was bigger, stronger and wilder than anyone had seen before. 

Montague lived with Oliver Hardy for a while, and every time his 300 pound friend walked into the grill room at Lakeside, Montague would singlehandedly pick him up and hoist him onto the bar.  He stuffed character actor George Bancroft upside down in a locker and shut the door. 

But it was his golfing that gave him the most notoriety.  After winning a round against Bing Crosby, Montague proposed a bet to appease his complaining partner.  They would play one more hole, 366 yards par 4, with Crosby using his clubs and Montague using a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake.  Crosby hit a drive about 250 yards, then got to the middle of the green but missed the putt for a birdie by two feet.  Montague tossed his ball into the air and hit it into a greenside sand trap.  With one swipe of the shovel he got onto the middle of the green about 30 feet from the pin.  Then he got down on the ground and used the rake as a pool cue to sink his ball in three.

Montague loved the attention he got, but he let everyone else do the bragging about his exploits.  He refused to talk about himself or disclose his background.  He only admitted to being an amateur golfer and claimed to have some mining interests in the Nevada desert.  Even though he was often encouraged to join the pro tour, he would reply that he played golf for other reasons.  He refused to play in tournaments or to have his picture taken. 

Sportswriter Grantland Rice played a few rounds with Montague and wrote an article that brought him into the public eye.  Time magazine published an article about him in 1937, and they hired a freelance photographer to hide in the bushes and get photos.  Montague was barely recognizable, but they were published anyway.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?                                  In August 1930, a few years before Montague surfaced in California, Hana’s restaurant in the Adirondack Mountains of New York was robbed by four men wearing masks and wielding revolvers.  The dining room was connected to an apartment where the Hana family lived.  One gunman forced Hana and his wife to the floor while another one went into the residence and bound and gagged the children.  Another robber found the grandfather, Matt Cobb, and when he tried to defend himself, he was hit on the head with the butt of a gun.  Elizabeth Hana was forced to empty the safe, and after another brawl with Cobb, knocking him unconscious, the thieves escaped with about $750.

The cops were staked out looking for bootleggers making a run, so when a speeding car shot by, the chase was on.  Two of the thieves were in a Ford, and the passenger turned off the headlights causing the driver to go into a ditch, killing himself.  The cops arrested the passenger.  The other two accomplices were in a Pontiac that was stopped by State Police a little later.  The passenger, who identified himself as Lawrence Ryan, talked the pair out of the situation.  Two days later the driver turned himself in.  After finding a set of golf clubs, letters, a driver’s license and draft notice in the trunk of the Pontiac, the police were convinced that Lawrence Ryan was really LaVerne Moore of Syracuse. 

Five days later the police went to Moore’s house and talked to his mother.  She said her son had left the day after the robbery and had no idea where he was.  In fact, no one did; Moore had just disappeared. 

YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE   When New York State Police inspector John Cosart saw the article about Montague in Time he was excited.  He had been working on the Hana case for seven years, waiting for the fourth robber to surface, and the similarities between Moore and Montague’s athletic prowess could not be coincidental.  He asked the Los Angeles Police Department for help, and John Montague was arrested and charged with armed robbery.  In jail he admitted that his real name was LaVerne Moore from Syracuse, New York.  He was released on $10,000 bail and signed the papers “John Montague,” giving “LaVerne Moore” as an alias.

Since he was no longer on the lam, Montague posed for photographs and answered reporters’ questions. He didn’t reveal anything personal; he just said he had made a mistake when he was a kid and had been trying to make good.  Montague’s celebrity friends were shocked to learn he was a fugitive and expressed their support.

Being wanted was not totally new to Montague.  Back in 1927 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer to a grocery store owner who sold alcohol during Prohibition.  He was trying to extort payments from the shopkeeper to keep mum about the liquor sales.  He agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge and got off with paying a fine.

On August 21, 1937, Montague was extradited to New York.  When he arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles for the three-day trip, he had porters carrying 20 bags with his wardrobe, and there were a hundred people cheering him as he boarded the train. 

When he arrived in New York, Montague spent his 34th birthday in jail while the judge decided on bail.  The next day he was released on a $25,000 bond.  Montague hadn’t communicated with his mom in the seven years he was away, and he had told reporters that when he was released he would go directly to her house.  When the time came, however, he went to a cocktail party instead. 

HAVING HIS DAY IN COURT               People from all over the country were following the trial of the decade.  Additional phone lines had to be installed to accommodate the influx of reporters.  Montague stayed at the Deer’s Head Inn where he rented 17 rooms for himself, his lawyers and out of town friends.  Photos of Montague signing autographs for teenage girls outside the courtroom were published in papers nationwide. 

Witnesses for the prosecution included members of the Hana family, police officers, and Roger Norton, one of the convicted robbers.  The personal items found in the trunk of the Pontiac were entered as evidence.  Mrs. Hana and one daughter incriminated Montague saying they heard one of the robbers call another by the name of “Verne.” 

In his defense, Montague’s lawyer called four character witnesses and then his mom, who gave him an alibi.  She said her son was home sleeping in his bed on the night of the robbery and also the next night.  His two sisters corroborated their mother’s testimony, and a friend testified that he hit balls at the driving range with the defendant the night of the crime.  William Carlton, another one of the convicted accomplices in the robbery testified that Montague wasn’t the fourth partner and explained that his stuff was in the trunk of the car because they had taken a trip together and were planning another one.  And then, to everyone’s surprise, Montague took the stand on his own behalf, recounting the last seven years of his life.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty.  The crowd cheered when it was read.  The judge disagreed with the verdict and told the jury that he was disappointed they didn’t convict Montague.  Nevertheless, Montague’s celebrity status and expensive lawyer paid off, and he was a free man.

TRYING TO GET HIS LIFE BACK      On November 14, 1937 Montague was to play his first public exhibition match in a foursome with Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson.  Unfortunately, it was not a fun match to play.  So many spectators showed up that Montague waited 15 minutes for the crowd to move back far enough so he could take his second shot on the first hole.  By the ninth hole, the players were ready to quit.  They all got their balls on the green and walked away without putting.  

A week later Montague, 34 years old, was back in Hollywood, overweight from too much partying.  He legally changed his name to John Montague and started playing competitively, but his game was not the same.  His friends tried to defend his reputation, but his high scores spoke louder.  He finally got Wilson Sporting Goods as a sponsor for a tour of exhibition games in Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan, but they dropped him when he returned to the States.

Montague secretly married the widow Esther Plunkett who had two kids.  This was one positive thing in his life, especially since she helped out with financial support, but his professional endeavors never lived up to their expectations.  He entered the U.S. Open but then didn’t make the cut.  He joined an investment opportunity with Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne and Fred MacMurray but then sued them when it went bad. 

Montague’s life spiraled downhill after his wife died in 1947.  Within two years he was arrested for drunk driving and had a heart attack.  In 1963 he fell off a ladder and was in the hospital for seven weeks.  He had dozens of ideas to make money, but none of them ever panned out.  In May, 1972 Montague had another heart attack and died.  His body lay unclaimed in the mortuary for a week.  Finally a friend identified Montague and planned a funeral service that only 29 people attended.   

QUESTION:  Have you ever gotten away with something you knew you should have been punished for?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Montville, Leigh, The Mysterious Montague. New York: Doubleday, 2008.,9171,882762-1,00.html,9171,758136,00.html