Here is an overview of some of the most well-known urban legends to haunt our city—none are true, but they reflect the fears and excitement of bygone times.
Kiddie TV Murder (1957)
Mystery has long swirled around the death of children’s TV personality Samantha Smith, who was found murdered in her home on June 28th, 1957. Smith was the host of the smash hit Dominick and Doofus, which featured two feuding puppets and poorly animated cartoons. After missing that morning’s broadcast, Smith was discovered in her bedroom nude, with marionette strings wrapped around her throat. The lurid details of her death quickly found their way to the front page of every paper in town. The police investigation was soon stymied, and rumors about the identity of her killer ran rampant. One often repeated allegation featured “happily” married Sen. Phinneas DeMink, a state legislator who had been linked romantically to Smith. It was believed that she had been killed because she was about to go public with their affair, thus ruining DeMink’s political career. There was no truth to this rumor, and DeMink was eventually cleared, but the incident did end his career in politics.
Another scenario circulated involving the producers of Dominick and Doofus’ main rival, Admiral Aardvark, the second most popular children’s program in the city. While Aardvark did receive a ratings boost following Smith’s death, and in time became the number one morning program, the producers were in fact crushed by the news. In the insular world of local children’s programming, everyone had known Smith, and she had been well-liked and respected – in fact, no new morning shows were broadcast on any network in the two weeks after her body was discovered, and Admiral Aardvark himself delivered a stirring eulogy at her funeral. The producers were never seriously considered as suspects by the police, who were never able to turn up any other leads in the case. Because of the tabloid nature of the story, it remained in the public conscience for many years, during which time the DeMink scenario in particular continued to circulate. The case is still officially unsolved.
Satanists in the city (1989)
The final and most recent urban legend involves a rash of reports that surfaced during the 1980s of cult activities taking place throughout the city. Although slaughtered animals and strange nocturnal activities in Griffith Cemetery had been periodically reported for years, the story came into the spotlight following a report by Margaret Milveaux, a local homemaker. Milveaux claimed that she had been walking home through Little Belgium on the Lower-North Side when she saw a frightening spectacle taking place under the Hornbeck Bridge. Dozens of blood-streaked, shirtless men were dancing around a blazing pyre, chanting and screaming. According to her account, at the height of the frenzy a man, apparently their leader, tossed a human infant into the flames. The police immediately arrested Clarence Wilson, a self-described Bishop in the Church of Satantology. After a grueling interrogation session lasting almost 48 hours, Wilson provided the police with the details of a bizarre and gruesome plot—according to his confession, Satanists working under his authority had developed a plan to steal infants as they slept for sacrificial purposes, including from the hospital nursery where he claimed two of his accomplices worked as orderlies. As soon as the story reached the news media, the hysteria was predictable and immediate. Although police scanned their reports for missing infants, they could not find any that corresponded to an infant snatching crime wave, and no other witnesses could be found to support Milveaux’s story.
In spite of this, parents began keeping their children home from school, and the hospital posted an armed guard on duty at all times. Detectives began to stake out local cemeteries, and even scanned library records—eventually arresting three individuals who checked out The Satanic Verses before releasing them due to lack of evidence. The graveyard dragnet netted four teenagers who were knocking over tombstones in the Jewish section of Griffith Cemetery, but no Satanists ever materialized. This did nothing to quell the fervor with which the local media covered the story, which continued to dominate the headlines throughout the summer. Milveaux herself became a local celebrity, even authoring a book based on her experiences— The Devil and Mrs. Milveaux. The story continued to be trotted out every few years on local news during sweeps and always provided strong ratings. Milveaux herself admitted in 1999 that she had made up the Hornbeck Bridge incident, but claimed that the Satanists were real, and that she had proof of a massive satanic conspiracy that she wasn’t able to share. Despite of her retraction, the story continued to be repeated, most recently this March on the FOX22 (“Your Tri-State Region Leader for Hard News”) program Satan Stories.
– M. Vermeulen