On the morning of March 31, 1931, TWA Flight 599, en route from Kansas City to Los Angeles, fell out of the sky over the Flint Hills of central Kansas, near the community of Bazaar. Farmers on the ground reported hearing a bang before the right wing snapped off, sending the plane into a dive. All eight people on board were killed in the crash, five of them thrown from the fuselage during the descent, the bodies landing in the pastures in a neat row. Among the dead was Knute Rockne, Notre Dame's football coach, who was headed to Los Angeles to assist with the production of the upcoming film The Spirit of Notre Dame.
Rockne was 43. He was already the caretaker of his own mythology and that of his football program. Jerry Brondfield, in his book Rockne: The Coach, The Man, The Legend, described the impact of Rockne's death on American culture in terms Rockne would've appreciated:
Until Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in April 1945, fourteen years later, there simply wasn't a funeral in American history that produced as much emotional impact as the funeral of Knute Rockne in April 1931.
An exaggeration? So it went with the coach. Even now bullshit and hyperbole seem to hang on every word uttered about Rockne, not least because they hung on every word uttered by Rockne. This was a coach who used his newfound Catholicism to motivate his players just two days after his baptism. He told his team in 1922 to beat Georgia Tech for his "poor sick little boy, Billy, who is critically ill in the hospital." Afterward, a crowd met the team in the station, a player recalled in Sports Illustrated, "and running around in front of everyone was 'sick' little Billy Rockne, looking healthy enough for a Pet Milk ad." And as the historian Garry Wills has pointed out, there is virtually no aspect of the George Gipp "Win one for the Gipper" story that Rockne didn't invent outright.
It was only natural that bullshit and hyperbole would take up their places in the story of Rockne's death, too.
On Jan. 6, 1933, the South Bend News-Times published a harrowing cover story under the headline "U.S. Agents Find Explosion Caused Airplane To Crash." In the story, the News-Times cited information from "unimpeachable sources" claiming that Rockne's plane was brought down by a bomb that had been planted there with the intention of killing a priest, Father John Reynolds. Reynolds had witnessed a mob hit in Chicago in 1930 and was supposed to be flying on Rockne's plane four days after testifying in the murder trial.
The murder that Reynolds witnessed was that of a Chicago Tribune reporter named Jake Lingle. As a crime reporter for the Tribune, Lingle had numerous connections to the Chicago underworld, and he wasn't shy about using those connections for his own benefit. He was a "fixer," a middleman who brokered deals between mobsters, police officers, and judges. It was a good gig. He reportedly had a annual income of $60,000 ($830,000 in today's dollars). When he was killed, he had $1,400 ($20,000 today) in his pocket.
But at some point, Lingle got in too deep, and on the afternoon of June 9, 1930, a man walked up behind Lingle in Chicago's Randolph Street train station, put a gun to the back of his head, and pulled the trigger. Reynolds was there that day, and it was his eyewitness testimony in court that the News-Times article referenced as the impetus behind the alleged bomb plot.
The article reads in part:
A gangster's bomb intended for a witness in the Jake Lingle murder case in Chicago brought death to Knute Rockne of Notre Dame and seven other men, it was learned by the News-Times today from unimpeachable sources. The murder case witness, according to information now available was the Rev. John Reynolds, C.S.C., of Notre Dame
According to the information, government authorities have traced every item of evidence and are satisfied that it was a time bomb planted in a pouch in the Western Airline plane which caused the explosion and disaster above a Kansas ranch on March 31, 1931. Father Reynolds, according to the information, had booked passage to California on the plane, but changed his plans at the last minute.
The article goes on to make claims about government agents being positive about the bomb plot theory and moving to "trap the gangsters" who were responsible. No further details are provided about who the News-Times's "unimpeachable source" might be or where the information came from.
The News-Times report did grab the attention of other papers across the country. The same day that the story was published, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune made inquiries to the FBI regarding the government's supposed investigation into the Rockne plane crash. An FBI memo addressed to J. Edgar Hoover on that day, which Deadspin recently obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, reads:
The New York Times called up and asked if the Bureau's Agents had done any work on the crash of the aeroplane in which Knute Rockne was killed. He was told the Bureau's Agents had not.
Another memo, also obtained by Deadspin, reads:
Chicago Tribune called and said the Chicago papers were carrying a story that the Department of Justice was investigating the possible bombing of the plane on which Knute Rockne was killed. [Redacted] wanted to talk to you. I said you had gone and I did not know where you could be reached; that [Redacted] was the publicity man. He said he would try to get [Redacted] mob.
Even an Indiana congressman sought answers. Samuel Pettingill, representing the state's 3rd congressional district, also contacted the FBI about the bomb-plot theory. In response, Hoover writes to an agent:
I said we were not conducting any investigation of this, insofar as I knew or had been advised but that I understood the investigation was being made by the Commerce Department.
(These documents can be found at the end of the story.)
That seems to have been enough to satisfy everyone's curiosity, and talk of the supposed plot faded quickly. The archives of The New York Times and Chicago Tribune show no mention of the theory in the days and weeks after the News-Times article was published. Today, the standard explanation—that the Fokker F.10's wooden wing succumbed to air turbulence because of interior rot—isn't in doubt.
But what caused the News-Times to publish that article in the first place? It's hard to believe that the paper—which folded in 1938—would invent such a story out of whole cloth.
At this point, it's essentially impossible to answer that question. There was, however, at least one person with intimate knowledge of the Lingle murder trial who also believed Rockne was the victim of a bomb attack. That person was Father John Reynolds himself.
In 1978 a man named James Bacon published a book titled Made in Hollywood. Bacon was a former reporter who had worked in Hollywood his entire career and rubbed elbows with some of the biggest stars of the early 20th century. Made in Hollywood is a collection of tawdry anecdotes that Bacon had witnessed or heard about throughout his career. There is one story of particular interest in the book, which comes from Bacon's days as a student at Notre Dame in the early 1930s. Bacon relates an incident from 1934 in which he and one other student found themselves drinking beer with Father John Reynolds, who was a rector at the university, in Reynolds's office.
From the story:
Just as the South Shore unloaded its passengers, Jake Lingle got his. Father Reynolds, on a trip to Chicago, rushed to the stricken Lingle and gave him the last rites, hearing his confession.
Father Reynolds didn't even know whether Jake was Catholic or not. In fact, he had no idea who he was, just that he had been slain in front of the priest's eyes.
It was all reported in banner headlines in all the papers. The story got wide play because it was one of the few times not counting innocent bystanders, that the hoods had not killed one of their own.
Of course, Lingle was one of their own, but the general public didn't know that. To the public, he was a newspaper reporter for one of the biggest newspapers in the country.
Father Reynolds then told Kitty and me a horrendous tale of his harassment by gangsters, all of whom wanted to know what Lingle had divulged to him during that last confession.
The priest gave all of them the same answer — that the seal of the confessional prevented his revealing what was said.
This only increased the phone calls and the mysterious visits. But Father Reynolds never told. Threats were made on his life and person. Still he never winced.
Then one day he was walking across the campus and bumped into Knute Rockne. The two chatted and the famous coach told the priest that Universal Pictures in Hollywood had just called him to make a fast trip to Hollywood.
The studio was making a movie called The Spirit of Notre Dame, starring Lew Ayres and Andy Devine, and needed Rock's expert advice on some phase of the production.
Rock was moaning that he couldn't get an airline reservation and would have to take the long train trip instead.
Father Reynolds said he had — in his pocket — reservations and tickets for a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles the next day.
The priest was in no hurry to get to Los Angeles and told Rock to take them. Father Reynolds would take the train trip.
Rock and Reynolds were old friends. Both had been track stars at Notre Dame. Rock was to football what Babe Ruth was to baseball in those days, a superhero of the Golden Age of Sports.
So it was not surprising when the banner headline around the world on March 31, told of Rockne's death in a fiery plane crash over the Kansas farmland, near Bazaar.
A farmer, plowing his field, was an eyewitness to the crash, which also killed eight others. He said the plane exploded in midair, as if by a bomb.
Father Reynolds told us:
"My name was on Rock's tickets and reservation. He didn't have time to change them. And then all those threats on my life. Did those people plant a bomb on that plane for me? I don't know. "I know if I hadn't given Rock my tickets, he would have been alive."
Last I heard of Father Reynolds, he was a Trappist monk someplace in Utah.
And little Billy Rockne was laid up sick in the hospital. Bacon stood by his account, however. In 2003, a writer from Notre Dame named Dorothy Corson (whose own research was of enormous importance to the writing of this piece), got in touch with Bacon while she was trying to unravel the mystery of Rockne's death herself. Corson wrote about her conversation with Bacon, then 86 years old, on her personal website:
[Bacon] was surprised to learn how I had happened upon his Rockne story and verified that the story about Fr. Reynolds' hair-raising experience with the Chicago mob was factual—he never doubted the story—but that as to proving it beyond a shadow of a doubt all these years later might be difficult with most of the principal players being deceased. He wished me luck with my research and thanked me for my call.
(Attempts to contact Corson directly were unsuccessful.)
Despite Bacon's assurances, much of the story would eventually be refuted by Reynolds himself. In 1986, the 92-year-old priest gave a lengthy interview about his life that was recorded by a man named Dan Karton. It's unclear where the interview took place, but it appears to have been recorded sometime after Reynolds left the Trappist monastery in Utah. Reynolds's words in that interview directly conflict with much of what Bacon claims to have been told.
The entire interview is over 40 minutes long, and Reynolds makes some radical claims throughout. He believed that the man who was convicted of murdering Jake Lingle, Leo Brothers, wasn't the real killer but was in fact a fall guy chosen by the mob and the police department. He claims to have been pressured by the police to testify against Brothers and to have been threatened by various mobsters in an effort to get him to identify Brothers as the killer.
According to Reynolds, he did testify that Brothers looked like the man he saw shoot Lingle, but refused to say outright that he was the killer. Reynolds also does not mention issuing Lingle his last rites.
Things get interesting, though, when talk turns to Rockne's plane crash:
Father John Reynolds: Later on, some reporter got the idea that I was supposed to be on that plane.
Dan Karton: Now, what happened with the plane?
Reynolds: To the plane? They bombed it.
Karton: That Rockne was on?
Karton: Were you supposed to be on the plane?
Reynolds: No, no. It was going out to make a picture, see? They made another picture later on and the president represented Gip in that picture, see? But all of the newspaper headquarters were phoning me wanting to know if I was on the plane, see, and I told them I wasn't. But, that is the way they [the mob] got even with Notre Dame.
This contradicts much of Bacon's version of the story, then seems to go charging into a new fiction altogether. Why would the mob choose Rockne as the target of revenge rather than just kill Reynolds? Karton puts the same question to Reynolds, who claims that the mob was too afraid to kill him because murdering an Irish-Catholic priest would have reflected poorly on them (as opposed to murdering the most famous college football coach in America).
The bomb theory, to the extent that it makes sense at all, only holds water if Reynolds was supposed to be on the plane. He testified in the Lingle murder trial on March 27, 1931, and Rockne's plane went down on March 31. There's a giddy B-movie logic to the mob using the plane ride as an opportunity to kill Reynolds, but choosing to kill Knute Rockne as a way of punishing Reynolds by proxy is an entirely different story.
What's more, the mob wouldn't have had much reason to punish Reynolds following his testimony. A March 28, 1931, article in the Chicago Daily Tribune describes Reynolds's testimony thus:
Again the courtroom stilled to silence as Mr. Brooks [the prosecutor] asked the question which had been asked of each identifying witness:
"Do you see anyone on the courtroom today who resembles that man you saw running?"
"Well," said the witness [Reynolds] choosing his words with care, "Mr. Brothers answers the description."
"Will you point him out?" asked the prosecutor.
The witness descended from the stand and with quick steps went over to where the defendant sat and laid his hand on the defendant's shoulder
Reynolds may not have given the most vehement testimony against Brothers, but he certainly didn't go out of his way to try and get him acquitted, either.
Reynolds was a 92-year-old man when the interview was recorded, but on the tape—which I accessed through the Notre Dame library—you can hear his voice still cracking with excitement when he talks about the Lingle case and the Rockne plane crash. He is giddy. He is wrong, too, of course, but you start to understand why Reynolds continued to believe his story well into his emeritus years. He believed it for the same reason that Grantland Rice believed Rockne's horsepucky about George Gipp. He believed it for the same reason Rockne's team believed in poor sick little Billy Rockne, laid up in the hospital. It was a great story.
Karton: Is it true that the mob rubbed out Rockne because they let you testify?
Reynolds: Yeah, yup, absolutely, oh I am sure of that. Oh, yeah. Isn't that some story? You like that story? I have plenty more.