Guido’s Magic Formula (3-26-1980)

Everybody knows the tale.  An obscure scientist develops a method to provide cheap, unlimited fuel–but greedy Big Business buys him off, to preserve their evil profits.  Part of that story was resolved today in a Chicago courtroom.

Guido Franch was born in 1910 in Livingston, Illinois.  He went to school through 7th grade, then quit to become a coal miner.  Sometime during the 1950s, he made his astounding discovery.  He learned how to turn water into gasoline.

He called his method MOTA, “atom” spelled backwards.  The secret was his special powder.  Franch was happy to demonstrate how it worked.

Guido Franch demonstrates MOTA

Guido Franch and his MOTA

First he dumped the powder into water.  The water turned green.  Next he poured the mixture into the fuel tank of a power lawn mower.  Then he started the lawn mower.  The water had become high-octane gasoline!

Franch was the subject of numerous breathless stories in supermarket tabloids.  He attracted a number of investors.  In 1954 he was brought to trial for fraud, but acquitted.  Then he laid low for twenty years.

By 1974 Franch was back.  Again he demonstrated MOTA, and this time he raised over $50,000 from investors.  Late in 1979 he was brought to trial in the U.S. District Court at Chicago.

At the trial, Franch revealed that the secret formula had actually been developed by a scientist in Livingston.  Franch had worked as the man’s lab assistant, and that’s how he had obtained it.  He also said that the Ford Motor Company had tried to buy the formula for $32 million.

“It’s so big it interferes with the billions of dollars invested by the oil companies,” Franch declared.  “It’s either worth $50 billion or 50 cents.”

The prosecution charged that Franch had used food coloring to make the water turn green.  They produced a witness who testified that Franch had admitted the formula was a hoax.  Franch had used aviation fuel to run the lawn mower.

The jury deliberated for six hours.  Today they convicted Franch on four counts of mail fraud, and one count of interstate transportation of a fraud victim.  He was sentenced to five years probation.

Guido Franch died in 1983.  His secret MOTA formula has never been found.




Chicago’s Auto Show (3-23-1901)

Today it’s known as the Chicago Auto Show.  In 1901 they called it the National Automobile Exhibit.  This is the day it all began.

The automotive industry was in its infancy then–Henry Ford was still two years away from starting his company–and the field was wide open.  New York had recently staged an “auto convention” to display the latest models.  Now Chicago-based Motor Age magazine was staging its own extravaganza.

The show was held in the city’s largest hall, the Coliseum.  Hours were from 10 a.m. through 10:30 p.m.  And on this first day, about 5,000 people came out to see what was going on.


Cars were expensive in 1901–Henry Ford was still seven years away from introducing his low-priced Model T–so most of the crowd at the Coliseum were wealthy.  The Tribune noted the number of rich people wandering among the autos, and predicted this show would soon “rival the horse show as a society event.”

Sixty-five vehicles were on display.  Circling around the exhibit space was a 20-foot-wide wooden track.  This was used for giving rides to anyone who asked.  The exhibitors were anxious to prove that the horseless carriage was both safe and easy to operate.

Visitors could also see a “motor bicycle” in action.  This was the ancestor of the modern motorcycle, and was a big hit.  One reporter wrote that it “sped around the ring with lightning rapidity, gracefully winding its way around the larger vehicles.”

3-23--auto show01.jpg

Opening Day concluded with a race between two cars.  Since there wasn’t room for a real race, the showdown was staged using a “home trainer.”  Each car was placed on rollers that allowed its wheels to spin freely without the car moving.  Each set of rollers was connected to a dial that showed the speed of the spinning wheels.

All activity in the hall stopped.  Everyone gathered round the two dials.  The drivers cranked their engines, and the race was on.  The spectators cheered as the dials climbed higher and higher.

And then it was over.  Charles Jamieson was the winner of the pseudo-race, covering one mile in 58 seconds flat–an average speed of 62 miles-per-hour.

Chicago’s first auto show closed eight days later.  The promoters pronounced it a success, and said they hoped to make it an annual event.




Red Emma’s Hideout

A while back I was researching my book On This Day In Chicago History.  I already knew what the big Chicago news story was on September 11, 2001.  On an impulse, I decided to find out what the big local news story was a hundred years earlier, on September 11, 1901.

Strangely enough, the headlines that day proclaimed that the hunt for America’s most wanted terrorist had ended in a building on Sheffield Avenue.  The alleged terrorist was Emma Goldman. She was accused of conspiring to murder the President of the United States.

2126 N. Sheffield Ave.

2126 N. Sheffield Ave.

On September 6, in Buffalo, President William McKinley had been shot and seriously wounded. The gunman was an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. He told police that he’d been inspired to his deed by Emma Goldman.

At 32, the Russian-born Goldman was already famous—or infamous—as an organizer and promoter of radical-left causes. Czolgosz had heard her speak in Chicago the previous July. The two had talked briefly, then gone their separate ways.

Chicago officials believed that the plot to kill the president had been hatched right here. Six of Goldman’s associates were arrested. Goldman was thought to be in St. Louis. Before police could act on this information, they received a new tip–Red Emma was on her way to Chicago!

Goldman arrived by train, but the cops missed her. Meanwhile, they’d staked out some of her known haunts. On the evening of September 9, a woman fitting Goldman’s description was seen entering the flat at what’s now 2126 North Sheffield Avenue. She remained inside.

Shortly before noon the next day, the police moved in. The suspect was in an apartment on the third floor. While one officer knocked at the door, another climbed in through the window. They found a tiny, mild-looking woman sitting peacefully in a rocking chair, smiling at them.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

At first the woman denied she was Emma Goldman. That didn’t last long. Admitting her identity, Goldman went quietly along to the Harrison Street lockup. In less than an hour, newspaper extras were on the street, announcing the capture of the most dangerous woman in America.

Goldman was questioned about the McKinley shooting. She wasn’t troubled by it, and she wouldn’t condemn Czolgosz. But she had only met Czolgosz that one time. She wasn’t part of any conspiracy.

McKinley died on September 14. Six weeks later, Czolgosz was executed. No evidence was found linking Goldman or her associates to the crime, and they were all released.

Emma Goldman was deported from the United States in 1919. She died in Canada in 1940. Her remains were returned to Chicago, and her grave is in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

In 2014 the Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries (aka The Artful Detective) aired an episode about Goldman’s arrest in the wake of the McKinley shooting. For dramatic purposes, they moved the setting to Toronto.

The show is one of my favorites, and it was a great episode. But if you want to see where it really happened, you have to go to Sheffield Avenue.



Then and Now, Madison-Damen

1951--Madison Street @ Damen, view east

1951–Madison Street @ Damen, view east

2015--the same location

2014–the same location

The Chicago Stadium opened along the busy Madison Street commercial strip in 1929.  Most patrons arrived at the stadium on public transit then.  Besides frequent streetcar service on Madison, there was also an ‘L’ station a block from the building.  However, when the 1951 photo was snapped, CTA had just closed the ‘L’ station and rerouted trains into the new Milwaukee Avenue subway.

The United Center replaced the Chicago Stadium–but on the other side on the street–in 1994.  Except for the one-story building on the far-left of both photos, the north side of Madison is now given over to parking lots.  CTA has restored service along the nearby ‘L’ line, and there are proposals to again have a stop at Madison Street.



Gross Cyrano

Cyrano de Bergerac is the most famous work of the French playwright Edmond Rostand.  It tells the story of an adventurer who believes he’s too ugly to win the heart of a lady, so instead he helps his handsome friend court her.  First produced in 1897, the tale has also been filmed many times, notably with Jose Ferrer.

What’s less known is that Rostand may have stolen the play from a Chicago businessman.

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano

During the last years of the 19th Century, Samuel Eberly Gross was a major land-developer in and around Chicago.  He claimed to have built more than 10,000 homes.  Alta Vista Terrace, in Wrigleyville, is one of his smaller projects, but probably the most celebrated.

Gross had a literary streak.  In 1880 he wrote a play titled The Merchant Prince of Cornville.  While on a visit to Paris that year, he submitted the manuscript to a number of actors and theatrical producers, without success.  Then he laid the play aside for sixteen years.

In 1896 Gross finally got around to publishing The Merchant Prince.  The play also had a limited stage run in London.  Shortly afterward, he received a letter from a New York man, pointing out striking similarities between Gross’s play and the new Cyrano play by Rostand.

Gross investigated, and found several parallels.  He also discovered that the actor in the title role of Cyrano was one of the actors who’d read The Merchant Prince manuscript back in 1880.  That was too much of a coincidence for Gross.  When Cyrano opened in Chicago in 1899, he sued for plagiarism.

For three years, the case wound through the courts.  Questions were raised on whether the French actor had shared the plot of Gross’s play with Rostand.  Similarities in character names were noted.  Fully thirty different parallels between The Merchant Prince and Cyrano were enumerated, including a balcony scene where the main character stands in the shadows and whispers instructions to his friend.

Samuel Eberly Gross

Samuel Eberly Gross

“Gross Triumphs in Cyrano Suit” read the Tribune headline on May 22, 1902.  Judge C.C. Kohlstaad ruled that Rostand had indeed plagiarized Gross. American theater companies were banned from staging Cyrano.  Feeling vindicated, Gross settled for a nominal damage award of $1.00.

Rostand himself was not happy being labeled a literary thief.  He issued a sarcastic statement “admitting” to plagiarizing a number of other works, including “purloining from the house of a Louisiana ship owner a great piece on Joan of Arc.”

Samuel Eberly Gross died in 1913.  Over the course of a century, his name has been erased from a few places.  The village of Grossdale, which he founded, is now Brookfield.  Gross Avenue in Chicago is now McDowell Avenue.  Though there is a Gross Park in the city, it’s named for another man.

Then, a few years ago, the Brookfield school district tried to change the name of its S.E. Gross Middle School.  Students and parents protested, and the board dropped the matter.



Then and Now, All Around

Final “Where in Chicago/There in Chicago” quiz pictures previously posted on my WBEZ blog.

1956--89th Street @ Avenue O, view east

1956–89th Street @ Avenue O, view east

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

1948--Sheridan Road @ Foster, view north

1948–Sheridan Road @ Foster, view north

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

1955--Michigan Avenue @ 112th Place, view north

1955–Michigan Avenue @ 112th Place, view north

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

1947--18th Street @ Wood, view east

1947–18th Street @ Wood, view east

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

Then and Now, State-Balbo

1955--State Street @ Balbo, view north

1955–State Street @ Balbo, view north

2014--the same location

2014–the same location

In 1955, as it had been for decades, this stretch of State Street was a slum.  Taverns, pawnshops, and grindhouse theaters were among the most prominent businesses.  The Pacific Garden Mission served the needs of those locals who were down-and-out.

South State Street’s renaissance began with the opening of the Harold Washington Library Center in 1991.  Development followed, slow but steady.  The mission relocated in 2005, the expanded Jones College Prep High School now occupying its former site.  Today the neighborhood has been gentrified, and even has a trendy new name–South Loop.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers