Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Jackson Township plane crash of 1933 still remains a mystery

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By KEVIN NEVERS

At 7:03 p.m. Nov. 1, 1955, United Airlines Flight 629 disintegrated in mid-air, following a brilliant flash of light witnessed by air-traffic controllers, just 11 minutes after departing Stapleton Airfield in Denver, en route to Portland, Oreg.

Thirty-nine passengers and five crew members died in the crash and wreckage from the DC-6B was strewn across six square miles of farmland in Weld County, Colo.

FBI investigators quickly determined that the Flight 629 began to fragment near the tail and--after detecting the odor of explosives in the No. 4 baggage compartment--located four pieces of sheet metal on which were later found trace amounts of the chemical byproducts associated with a dynamite explosion.

Convinced that they were dealing with an act of sabotage, investigators began conducting background checks on the 39 passengers and found, with a minimum of digging, that one of them, entrepreneur Daisie Eldora King, 53, had a son, John Gilbert Graham, who’d previously collected an insurance payout on an explosion at one of his mother’s restaurants.

Bomb-making components were subsequently recovered in a search of Graham’s home and on Nov. 13, 1955--less than two weeks after the plane went down--Graham confessed to placing a dynamite bomb in his mother’s luggage.

Oddly, at that time there was no federal statute making it a crime to detonate a bomb on an aircraft, so Graham was brought to book locally, charged with a single count of first degree murder, and found guilty. On Jan. 11, 1957, he was executed in Colorado’s gas chamber.

The FBI was proud of this investigation, which featured prominently in the 1959 Jimmy Stewart vehicle The FBI Story, based on the popular book by Don Whitehead and pitting Stewart’s crack agent Chip Hardesty against Nick Adams’ Graham.

Yet the downing of Flight 629 was not the first act of sabotage perpetrated against a commercial airliner. That infamy occurred on Oct. 10, 1933, and it occurred right here in Duneland, in Jackson Township.

And in that case, under nearly identical circumstances, the FBI--or actually its predecessor agency, the U.S. Division of Investigation--failed, and failed notably, to bring the saboteur to justice.

The presumed bombing of United Airlines Flight 247D remains unsolved to this day, in a case characterized more by theory, conjecture, and anecdote than by anything like hard evidence.

Ken Keller Presents to the Duneland Historical Society

To a packed house at November’s meeting of the Duneland Historical Society, Ken Keller recounted the very little which anyone really knows about the events on the night of Oct. 10, 1933, when Flight 247D, carrying four passengers and three crew members, plummeted from the sky in what was then known as Jackson Center: a wooded area on the Joseph Brown farm near C.R. 400E and the Indiana Toll Road.

The flight--a transcontinental bound for San Francisco--had nearly completed the Cleveland-to-Chicago leg, was also nearly out of fuel, and had just radioed Chicago Municipal Airport when there was an explosion on board, near the tail, exactly as in the case 22 years later of Flight 629. Two passengers sitting at the rear of the aircraft simply fell out of the plane and were subsequently found on the ground. The other five on board--including the first stewardess ever to die on a commercial flight--rode the Boeing to their deaths.

As Keller noted, the catastrophe made headlines across the country, as the commercial airline industry was still in its infancy and transcontinental flights were both unusual and expensive. “It was a big deal nationwide,” he said.

It was also a big deal in Duneland.

Crowds thronged to the crash site, rubber-necking and souvenir-collecting. As society member Howard Johnson recalled in an interview recorded in August 1999, a Chesterton firefighter who responded to the scene grabbed one of the plane’s propellors, had his buddies help him lift it onto the fire engine, and then brought it back to town, where for many years it could be seen hanging on a wall of a garage at Broadway and Fourth Street.

Not surprisingly, authorities investigating the crash initially attributed it to propellor failure, Keller said, because they couldn’t find the misappropriated prop.

They probably couldn’t find scads of other evidence either.

Chesterton Tribune publisher Warren Canright, a boy of 7 in 1933, remembered seeing crash souvenirs of all sorts displayed in the front window of Morgan’s Hardware Store on South Calumet Road, including a valise belonging to one of the doomed passengers.

Canright himself, he told the society, grabbed a small piece of aluminum from the site, after being brought to visit the scene the next day.

“They didn’t seal off air crashes in those days,” Canright observed.

They didn’t do one other thing either: attempt to reconstruct the plane. Instead, while the remains of Flight 247D were still on the ground in Jackson Township, authorities sold the Boeing for scrap and had it hauled away, Keller said. Undoubtedly bits and pieces of it still remain, though, long forgotten in trunks and boxes and drawers, in attics and garages and barns throughout Duneland.

Dispatched to the scene by the Division of Investigation was the head of its Chicago office, Melvin Purvis, who later achieved fame as the FBI agent who tracked Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd and who organized the ambush in which John Dillinger was shot to death.

Purvis is decidedly not famous for his investigation of Flight 247D. Agents, consulting with labs at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, got as far as determining that traces of nitroglycerine and other chemicals produced by explosions were present on pieces of wreckage.

But they got no further.

Though not, as local author Heather Augustyn observed at the meeting, for lack of speculation.

There were two theories in particular, Augustyn said. According to one, efforts to unionize United Airlines went awry and a mechanic placed a bomb on board. According to the other, the Mob wanted dead a judge known regularly to take this flight. In the event, the judge wasn’t on board on the night of Oct. 10 but the bomb was.

The feds, however, “shot down” the Mob theory, Keller said, and apparently made no headway with the union one either.

There is one intriguing snippet which Howard Johnson recalled in his 1999 interview. “Some people felt certain that in Cleveland a man was seen getting on the plane with a suitcase but then, after changing his mind, getting off,” Keller said. “But no one had any recollection of his taking the suitcase with him.”

The impression left by Keller’s fine presentation--salted with Johnson’s, Canright’s, and Augustyn’s contributions--is the sheer anecdotalness of what is known about Flight 247D, which in the carnival atmosphere at the crash site and the apparently casual way in which it was investigated has more in common with the train and steamboat disasters of the 19th century than with the sabotage and terrorism to which we’ve grown accustomed in the 20th and 21st.

 

 

Posted 12/4/2013