In October of 1933, a United Airlines flight with seven people aboard was blown up with a bomb over Chesterton, Indiana. A young Federal Agent named Melvin Purvis headed up an exhaustive investigation, involving hundreds of leads. But eighty years later, the crash remains a mystery, the first case of aviation terrorism in America. Phil Rogers reports in the NBC 5 Investigates segment.
In October of 1933, a United Airlines flight with seven people aboard was blown up with a bomb over Chesterton, Indiana. A young Federal Agent named Melvin Purvis headed up an exhaustive investigation, involving hundreds of leads. But eighty years later, the crash remains a mystery, the first case of aviation terrorism in America.
The aircraft, a Boeing 247, was luxurious for its day. Considered the first modern "airliner", the plane offered passengers heat on chilly evenings, comfortable seats, even a restroom. It was near that lavatory that investigators believe a bomb was placed by persons unknown. On the evening of October 10, the aircraft took off from Newark, N.J., made a brief stop in Cleveland, and was minutes from what is now Chicago's Midway Airport. The pilot radioed a position report at 8:39 p.m. But there were no further transmissions.
The files of the nascent FBI, known then as the "U.S. Bureau of Investigation", tell of farmers witnessing the explosion. The tail of the aircraft was blown from the fuselage, and two passengers fell to their deaths. The other five people on board died from the impact, or the ensuing fire.
"You could tell it was a wrecked airplane," says 93 year old Chesterton attorney Malcolm Anderson. Anderson was in the ninth grade the night the plane exploded, and recalls his school bus driver stopping at the site the morning after the crash.
"Four men went out there with a hay rack, pulled by four white horses, and they picked up the tail and drove up the road with it," he recalled. "And the fuselage was, I don't want to say intact, but there was enough there to see that it was an airplane."
The crash represents a sad benchmark in the history of aviation in America.
"It was the first time a passenger plane was blown up," says author Bryan Alaspa, who wrote about the crash in his book "Sabotage". But Alaspa notes modern forensics were hardly what they are today. The investigation involved shoe-leather police work, but yielded few suspects.
"There was no black box, there was no way to know exactly what happened," Alaspa notes. "We'll never know how much evidence got snatched up by local people who wandered around these fields."
Indeed, United Airlines sold the wreckage to a Hobart, Indiana junk dealer for $75. He hauled it away the day after the crash.
Purvis and his men relied on a crime laboratory at Northwestern University to analyze pieces of the wreck, along with Chicago-based Underwriter's Laboratories. Both concluded the plane was brought down by a bomb, most likely containing nitroglycerine.
The FBI reports weave tales of tragedy and intrigue. Alice Scribner of Stevens Point, Wisc. was the 24 year old flight attendant, who had just started an exciting new life in Chicago. A Massachusetts woman named Dorothy Dwyer was en route to Reno for her wedding. Radio man Warren Burris joined the flight in Cleveland.
Early suspicion focused on a passenger named Emil Smith, who lived with his aunt in a two flat on West Argyle Avenue on Chicago's north side. Traveling home to Chicago, Smith purchased a life insurance policy just before departure from Newark. During the layover in Cleveland, he closely guarded a paper-wrapped package which he had held on his lap.
Investigators scoured Smith's past. They visited his hotel in New York, and interviewed everyone they could find who he had met during his stay on the East Coast. But in the end, agents wrote in their reports that they considered Smith a "reputable citizen."
Other theories involved a suspected "gangster" connection. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the FBI was following leads of a mobster who had carried the bomb on an earlier flight, but lost his nerve and hid it in a blanket compartment because he feared being searched when he disembarked.
The FBI reports show repeated correspondence between Purvis and Bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover about the gangster theory, mostly over the fact that Purvis claimed to know nothing about it. In the end, he assures Hoover that the Tribune had made up the story.
Agents were urged to consider the possibility that the aircraft had been struck by a meteorite. They even actively pursued suspicions that labor troubles at United were behind the crime. They could find no one who would have planted the bomb.
"It was the first time a plane had ever been taken out by terrorism, and at the same time, they never solved the case," said local resident Richard Vulpitta. "Who blew up the plane?"
Using a metal detector, Vulpitta has combed the crash site, on an embankment of what is now the Indiana Toll Road. The site looks almost exactly as it did in grainy news photos from 1933. But Vulpitta's searches of the area have yielded only a few pieces of twisted metal, which may or may not have come from the doomed aircraft.
"We did find some parts, in the first 5 minutes of the search," he says, noting that 80 years ago, police did nothing on the morning after the tragedy, to prevent onlookers from grabbing pieces of the wreckage as keepsakes.
"They did contact all the local people to see if they would turn in all the souvenirs they had collected from the crash," he said.
Agents even fanned out across the country, contacting every passenger who had been on the same aircraft on dozens of flights. The leads went nowhere.
The Chicago FBI office had its hands full. Just nine months after the crash, Purvis was standing on Lincoln Avenue as bank robber John Dillinger was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theatre. And eventually, Hoover himself decided it was time to move on. In late 1935, he cabled the Chicago office, ordering them to close the case.
Most local residents know nothing of the historical significance of the disaster. Vulpitta, a lifelong resident, had never heard of it himself until earlier this year, and believes some kind of memorial should be erected on the site.
"It would be nice if there was a plaque or something in the area," he said.
But with every year, the few who are familiar with the crash know that the chances of the case being solved grow more remote.
"Someone's going to have to come forward and say they know something," Alaspa says.