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Vampires of the road

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Vampires of the road

The news in Chicago in January 1923 was about vampires. No, not that kind.

The problem was “vampire autos.”

Cars were just beginning to crowd the city then. Traffic laws were primitive, and drivers were usually careless. At the same time, pedestrians were still pretty casual about wandering into the street whenever they felt like it.

A person would be walking along, minding his own business. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an auto would appear, run him down, and speed away while the victim lay bleeding on the pavement. The auto was like a vampire--attacking without warning and sucking the blood out of innocent people.

Michigan Avenue, 1920s (Library of Congress/Chicago Daily News)

Vampire autos killed four people on January 17. The next day they snuffed out three more lives. Hundreds of Chicagoans were being injured. The city council and concerned citizens were looking for ways to combat the growing menace. Would our streets ever again be safe?

Then there was the “auto vamp.” The phrase derived from actress Theda Bara, known as The Vamp. In her films, Bara’s character operated like Dracula. She seduced male admirers through her evil charms, making them slaves to her every whim.

Chicago’s auto vamp was an attractive young woman who’d hitchhike along the city’s boulevards. If a prosperous-looking man picked her up, she’d accept the ride, then threaten to inform his wife that he had made “advances.” More than one man paid the blackmail.

Last August, the police had arrested 21-year-old Jeane Miller as the alleged auto vamp. She had jumped bail. Now, on this evening in January, an insurance adjuster recognized Miller on Oak Street. Deciding to make a citizen’s arrest, he grabbed Miller’s arm and told her to get into his car.

Meanwhile, a second man happened along. This man thought Miller was being kidnapped. He wrestled the woman away from the adjuster, and together they escaped in the rescuer’s car. They headed east on Oak at better than 50 mph.

The adjuster jumped into his car and drove off after them. A motorcycle cop saw the speeding cars and joined the pursuit. Pedestrians and small animals scattered.

The chase ended at Lake Shore Drive. The two men emerged from their cars and began arguing about Miller. A crowd gathered. There was much shouting.

The cop forced his way through the mob. He told everyone that matters would be sorted out back at the police station. There Miller was placed under arrest for bond forfeiture. The two men swore out complaints against each other.

The lessons to be learned here are two. (1) Look both ways when you cross the street. (2) Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Especially if they look like Theda Bara.

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