Jack Graham: Killer for Wealth and Revenge

Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin, who we met last week, was a killer. But he made no bones about it. He even exaggerated the number of men he killed in his autobiography. This week’s subject is Jack Graham. Graham killed 44 people by blowing up an airliner in a scheme to collect his mother’s life insurance.

Jack Graham

Jack Graham (born John Gilbert Graham) was the child of his mother, Daisie’s, second marriage. He was born in 1932, when the Great Depression was at its worst. When his father died of pneumonia, his mother was destitute. Consequently, she sent young Jack to an orphanage.

John Gilbert "Jack" Graham
John Gilbert “Jack” Graham (FBI photo)

Daisie Graham married for a third time to Earl King, who died shortly afterward. Daisie used her inheritance from King to establish herself in business. Despite her new status as a successful businesswoman, though, she did not retrieve Jack from the orphanage. Mother and son remained estranged until 1954, when Graham was 22.

At the time Jack and Daisie reconciled, she owned a successful chain of restaurant. Graham worked for his mother at one of them, the Crown-A Drive-In in Denver. Their relationship remained rocky, however. Witnesses often saw the two arguing.

In 1955, a suspicious gas explosion destroyed the Crown-A Drive-In. Graham had insured the restaurant and collected on the property insurance. He probably caused the explosion, though this was never proven.

Bombing of United Flight 629

On November 1, 1955, Daisie King planned to travel to Alaska to visit her daughter, Graham’s older half-sister. She boarded United Airlines Flight 629 at Stapleton Airport, which was then Denver’s main airport. Unknown to Daisie, Graham had purchased $37,500 wort of life insurance policy from a vending kiosk in the airport ticket lobby. Such machines were common in airports until the 1980s.

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life.. An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian's "America By Air" online exhibit.
An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian’s “America By Air” online exhibit.

Flight 629 originated at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The Douglas DC-6B named “Mainliner Denver” stopped in Chicago before flying on to Stapleton. At Denver, Captain Lee Hall, a World War II veteran, took command for the segments to Portland and Seattle. Hall took off from Stapleton Airport at 6:52 p.m. At 6:56, he made his last radio transmission to report he had passed the Denver omni (a flight navigation signal).

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life. Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Seven minutes later, the airplane was over Longmont, Colorado. It was then that Stapleton air traffic controllers saw two bright lights in the sky, north-northwest of the airport. The lights were visible for 30-45 seconds and both fell to the ground at the same speed. Next, they saw a flash bright enough to light up the base of the clouds (the ceiling was 10,000 feet). Controllers then contacted all aircraft in the area and accounted for all but one: Flight 629.

Investigation

Flight 629 broke apart while it was still in the air. Major parts of the wings, engines, and center ended up in two craters 150 feet apart. The aircraft had refueled at Stapleton and its load of fuel ignited on impact. It burned intensely for three days. Eyewitnesses described a violent mid-air explosion. This led to speculation that something other than pilot error or mechanical failure caused the crash.

The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)
The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)

The Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration) led the investigation. They determined that the plane began to disintegrate near the tail. The explosion fragmented the aft fuselage in a way unlikely to have resulted from any aircraft system. There was also a strong smell of explosives on items from the number 4 baggage compartment in the rear.

Investigators soon discovered chemical byproducts of a dynamite explosion on some of the wreckage. The FBI, convinced that a bomb was responsible, began conducting background checks on the passengers. Investigators also theorized that the bombing may have been the result of a labor dispute between United and a local union. But they quickly discarded that theory.

The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)
The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)

The investigation turned to Denver locals. Daisie King was one of those locals and had also purchased flight insurance. In her purse, they found newspaper clippings about Mrs. King’s son’s 1951 arrest on forgery charges. The focused their attention on Jack Graham and learned that he held a grudge against his mother for placing him in the orphanage. They also found out about the restaurant explosion.

Jack Graham Confesses

A search of Graham’s house and car turned up wire and other bomb components matching those found in the wreckage. They also found an additional $37,500 insurance policy hidden in a small cedar chest. Graham told FBI agents that his mother had packed her own suitcase. However, Graham’s wife, Gloria told agents that he had wrapped a “present” for his mother on the morning of her ill-fated flight.

With evidence mounting and inconsistencies undercutting his story, Jack Graham confessed to placing the bomb in his mother’s suitcase.

November 28, 1955,  an unidentified sheriff's deputy escorts the handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, out of a car for his arraignment on charges of dynamiting a United Airlines DC-6B which exploded and crashed near Longmont, Colorado, November 1st, killing all 44 persons on board, including Graham's mother. He was given a two-week continuance while his attorneys, newly appointed by the court, have time to study the case. (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)
November 28, 1955, An unidentified sheriff’s deputy escorts a handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, to his arraignment (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Authorities were shocked when they discovered that no federal law made it illegal to blow up an airplane. Instead, they charged Graham with a single count, premeditated murder with his mother, Daisie King, as the victim. His defense tried to have his confession excluded but the court denied the motion. Regardless, a mountain of physical evidence left little doubt that Graham was the bomber. He was convicted and, after a few short delays, executed in the Colorado gas chamber on January 11, 1957.

Epilogue

As a result of the Flight 629 bombing, Congress passed a bill making the bombing of a commercial airliner a federal crime. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on July 14, 1956.

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Dan Hogan — New Attack Kills “Irish Godfather”

Last week’s blog met Judge Joseph Force Crater who disappeared without a trace in 1930. This week’s blog introduces “Dapper” Dan Hogan, the so-called “Irish Godfather” of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like the judge, Hogan’s case remains unsolved.

St. Paul the Gangland Haven

St. Paul in the early twentieth century was one of the most corrupt cities in America. When John O’Connor became Chief of Police in 1900, he instituted what became known as the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The system was straightforward. Criminals could hide out in St. Paul if they followed three simple rules. First, they had to check in with O’Connor’s representative when they got into town. Second, they had to pay a small bribe. And third, they were not to commit major crimes within the city during their stay.

St. Paul police chief John O'Connor ca. 1912. Dan Hogan was O'Connor's "ambassador" to visiting criminals
St. Paul police chief John O’Connor ca. 1912

O’Connor’s first contact man was William “Reddy” Griffin. When criminals came to town, they would “check in” with Griffin at the Savoy Hotel and pay the required bribe. Griffin was O’Connor’s “ambassador” until he died suddenly of a stroke in 1913.

The Layover Agreement made St. Paul one of the most crime-free cities in America—for a while. But surrounding cities and towns suffered as crooks committed the crimes the planned in St. Paul there.

Dan Hogan Arrives on the Scene

Dan Hogan arrived in St. Paul around 1908. He began organizing crimes under the auspices of O’Connor’s system and became politically connected. He operated the Green Lantern, a saloon on Wabasha Street. The saloon catered to the underworld element and laundered their stolen money. It also had a casino and, during Prohibition, was a speakeasy.

"Dapper" Dan Hogan
“Dapper” Dan Hogan

Hogan took advantage of William Griffin’s death to become O’Connor’s “ambassador” to the criminals seeking shelter in St. Paul. However, O’Connor retired from the police force in 1920. The O’Connor Layover Agreement persisted for several more years, but it began to change in ominous ways. St. Paul’s crime rate, which had been low while O’Connor was active, began to climb.

A Car Bomb Kills Dan Hogan

On December 4, 1928, Dan Hogan got into his Paige coupe and stepped on the starter. A nitroglycerine bomb wired to the starter circuit exploded. Men both respectable and disreputable lined up at the hospital to donate blood, but Hogan slipped into a coma and died about 9:00 p.m.

A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan's death
A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan’s death

Hogan’s death marked the beginning of the end for the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The repeal of prohibition at the end of 1933 accelerated its decline. With prohibition gone, so were the profits from illegal liquor sales. Bootleggers turned to kidnapping for ransom. Once known for its lack of serious crime, St. Paul became infamous for its criminal activity. Thanks to a recently energized FBI and a crusading newspaper man, the O’Connor Layover Agreement finally ended in 1935.

Epilogue

The murder of Dan Hogan was an early instance of assassination by car bomb, a technique perfected in New York. Police never arrested anyone for the murder, and it remains officially unsolved. However, recently declassified FBI files reveal that the likely killer was Hogan’s underboss, Harry Sawyer.

Police identification card for Harry Sawyer
Police identification card for Harry Sawyer
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Daring and Horrific: Ten Bombings That Actually Happened

Last week, featured the Snyder-Gray case, a story of conspiracy and murder. This week, I present ten bombings on American soil that might shock you. Some will be familiar, others you may not have heard of.

Haymarket Riot – Chicago

Rapid industrialization after the American Civil War made fortunes for some but also led to labor unrest. Labor activists held a mass meeting on May 4, 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. About 10:30 p.m., a large contingent of Chicago police arrived and ordered the speaker to desist and the crowd to leave. Someone threw a bomb in front of the police line, killing one officer immediately and mortally wounding seven others. Sixty other officers had non-fatal injuries. Eight men were convicted and seven of them hanged.

Ten Bombings - Engravings of the Haymarket bombing
Engraving of the Haymarket bombing

Assassination of Frank Steunenberg – Caldwell, Idaho

Frank Steunenberg served as the fourth governor of Idaho from 1897 to 1901. Labor problems plagued Idaho, too, especially in the mining industry. In one violent flare-up in 1899, members of the Western Federation of Miners destroyed a mill belonging to the to the Bunker Hill Mining Company. Although elected with labor support, Steunenberg declared martial law in response. Nearly five years after he left office, a former miner named Harry Orchard (born Albert Horsley) fastened a bomb to the governor’s front gate. On December 30, 1905, the bomb detonated, Killing Steunenberg. Orchard served 46 years in prison and died in 1954.

Frank Steunenberg, fourth Governor of the State of Idaho
Frank Steunenberg, fourth Governor of the State of Idaho

Wall Street Bombing – New York City

On Thursday, September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon plodded through lunchtime crowds in Manhattan. It stopped in front of 23 Wall Street, headquarters of the J.P. Morgan Bank. At 12:02 p.m., the wagon exploded with a furious roar. The cart was laden with 100 pounds of dynamite. Five hundred pounds of cast-iron sashweights acted as deadly shrapnel. Forty people died in the blast and 143 received serious injuries. Investigators believed Italian anarchists were responsible, but police were never able to charge anyone with the crime. Damage to the building is still visible today.

Ten bombings - The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing
The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing

Bath School Disaster – Bath Township, Michigan

Andrew Kehoe was a difficult man and a dedicated accumulator of grudges. Formerly the school board treasurer in Bath Township, he lost a reelection bid on April 5, 1926. Thereafter, he began collecting dynamite and pyrotol, an incendiary explosive. On May 18,1927, Kehoe murdered his wife, then set timed explosives at his farm and the Bath Consolidated School. The blast at the school killed 43 people, most of them elementary school children. Kehoe then drove his truck to the school and detonated explosives he had packed in it, killing himself. Authorities presumed his motive was revenge for his 1926 election defeat and personal financial stress.

North wing of the Bath Consolidated School after Kehoe's bomb exploded
The north wing of the Bath Consolidated School after Kehoe’s bomb exploded. Unexploded dynamite and pyrotol in the south wing indicated Kehoe had intended to destroy the entire school.

Mad Bomber – New York City

We met George Metesky, New York City’s “Mad Bomber” in a previous blog entry. Metesky was a former Consolidated Edison worker that felt the company had improperly denied a disability claim. Between 1940 and 1956, he planted 33 bombs around the city, with a patriotic time out during World War II. The bombs didn’t kill anybody, but they did injure fifteen people. Metesky went to a mental institution instead of prison.

Police arresting "Mad Bomber" George Metesky at his sister's home.
Police arresting “Mad Bomber” George Metesky at his sister’s home.

United Airlines Flight 629 – Longmont, Colorado

Jack Gilbert Graham had a grudge against his mother, Daisie Eldora King. On November 1, 1955, Jack put her on United Airlines Flight 629 from Denver to Seattle. He also packed one of her suitcases with dynamite and bought flight insurance. The plane, a Douglas DC-6B named Mainliner Denver, left Denver’s Stapleton airport at 6:52. p.m. At 7:03, it was over Longmont, Colorado when Stapleton air traffic controllers noticed two bright lights in the sky. After 30-45 seconds, the lights fell to the ground and a very bright flash came from the point of impact. They quickly determined that Flight 629 was missing. All 44 people aboard died. Convicted of murdering his mother, Graham died in the Colorado gas chamber on January 11, 1957.

Pieces of United Flight 629 recovered after it exploded and crashed
Pieces of United Flight 629 recovered after it exploded and crashed

The Unabomber – Various Locations

Ted Kaczynski joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 as an assistant professor of mathematics. But he was an indifferent teacher, uncomfortable in the classroom and disliked by his students. He resigned suddenly in 1969 and, in 1971, moved to a remote cabin near Lincoln, Montana to live primitively. He developed a neo-Luddite philosophy that disdained modern technology. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski mailed or hand-delivered 16 bombs that three people and injured 22 others. In 1995, Kaczynski mailed a 35,000 word “manifesto,” Industrial Society and Its Future, to the FBI, insisting on its publication. When The Washington Post published it on September 19, 1995. Ted’s brother, David, recognized the writing style and eventually contacted the FBI. The FBI arrested Kaczynski at his cabin on April 3, 1996. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty and received eight life sentences without parole.

Ten bombings - Unabomber Ted Kaczynski at U.C. Berkeley in 1967.
Unabomber Ted Kaczynski at U.C. Berkeley in 1967.

Speedway Bombings – Speedway Indiana

Speedway, Indiana is west of downtown Indianapolis and home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Over the five days between September 1 and September 6, 1978, eight bombs exploded in random locations around town. The break in the case came when federal agents arrested Brett Kimberlin for attempting to illegally obtain U.S. Government credentials. A search of Kimberlin’s home turned up bomb-making materials that matched evidence from the bomb sites. Kimberlin was sentenced to over 51 years in federal prison but served only twenty.

Mugshot of Speedway bomber Brett Kimberlin
Mugshot of Speedway bomber Brett Kimberlin

Centennial Olympic Park – Atlanta, Georgia

On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia while the city was hosting the Summer Olympics. Security guard Richard Jewell discovered the bomb before it detonated and started clearing spectators out of the area. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell came under suspicion of setting the bomb himself. Police eventually cleared him but not before a media frenzy descended on him and his home. Not until May 31, 2003 did police in North Carolina arrest the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, a member of the Christian terrorist group Army of God. Rudolph is serving life without parole in a federal prison. Richard Jewell died in 2007 from complications of diabetes.

Ten bombings -Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph being led to court and in prison orange
Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph being led to court and in prison orange

Murrah Federal Building – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

A bomb blast destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19, 1995 and kills 168 people. The collapse of the building rather than the blast itself caused most of the deaths. The bombing was the work of two Army veterans, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The pair were self-proclaimed “survivalists,” angry at the federal government over the FBI’s handling of standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. They built their bomb using Torvex, nitromethane, and ammonium nitrate, secreting it in a rented Ryder truck. Nichols is serving 161 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.

Ten bombings - The bombed remains of automobiles with the bombed Federal Building in the background.  The military is providing around the clock support since a car bomb exploded inside the building on Wednesday, April 19, 1995.
The bombed remains of automobiles with the bombed Federal Building in the background. The military is providing around the clock support since a car bomb exploded inside the building on Wednesday, April 19, 1995.
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A Townhouse Bomb Factory Explodes in New York

Last week I featured the work of New York’s Mad Bomber. This week we look at another case where radical students turned a New York townhouse into a bomb factory. But this time, the bombers themselves were the victims.

Explosions in Greenwich Village

West 11th Street at the edge of New York City’s Greenwich Village is normally quiet. Expensive townhouses crowd the picturesque, tree-lined street. But shortly before noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, West 11th Street shuddered with a violent explosion. The blast came from the quaint townhouse at number 18, which began to burn furiously.

FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th
FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th

Authorities first suspected that natural gas leak had caused the explosion. But they quickly determined that the ruptured gas mains were a result of the explosion, not its cause. Besides, the blaze didn’t look like a natural gas fire. As Chief of Detectives Al Seedman later remarked, the townhouse burned “like an ammo dump.”

Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th
Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th

Sorting Through the Rubble

After the firefighters finally extinguished the fire, investigators began to sift through the ruins. They discovered an improvised bomb factory in the basement of the townhouse. Cathy Wilkerson, the daughter of the building’s owner, belonged to the radical-left Weather Underground. Unhappy with the limited success of Molotov cocktails, Wilkerson and some of her colleagues decided to use dynamite bombs instead. To make them especially lethal, the bombmakers packed the dynamite with roofing nails so that deadly shrapnel would accompany an explosion.

A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion
A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion

There was some disagreement later as to precisely what the bombers planned to target. One candidate was a scheduled dance for non-commissioned officers at nearby Fort Dix in New Jersey. Another was the main library of Columbia University. The dispute was largely academic since the “factory” blew up before the Weathermen could plant any bombs.

The investigation revealed that on March 2, someone using stolen identification bought two 50-pound cases of dynamite in rural Keene, New Hampshire. The dynamite ended up at 18 West 11th along with blasting caps and a 1916 37-mm antitank shell.

The Bombmakers

Two young people, 28-year-old Diana Oughton and 22-year-old Terry Robbins were assembling crude bombs in the basement. Neither Robbins nor Oughton had any experience handling explosives. Nor did they have even a rudimentary knowledge of electricity. Consequently, they failed to incorporate any safety features in their bomb circuitry. As they taped nails to sticks of dynamite something went wrong.

Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th
Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th

Perhaps the inexperienced Robbins had crossed wires but for whatever reason, a bomb prematurely detonated, killing the pair instantly. A third person, Theodore “Ted” Gold died when the building’s exterior collapsed onto him. Wilkerson and a fifth person, Kathy Boudin, escaped with cuts and bruises and went into hiding.

Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion
Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion

Wilkerson remained underground for a decade before she surrendered to authorities in 1980. Boudin also remained underground and continued her radical activities. Police arrested her in the aftermath of a botched armed robbery in Nanuet, New York.

Epilogue

The lot at 18 West 11th remained vacant for a few years but a new townhouse was built on the site in 1978. Although it blends well into the tony neighborhood, it has a distinctly different appearance from the 1840s Greek Revival architecture of the neighboring buildings. In 2012, it sold for $9.2 million.

The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)
The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)
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