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668: The Long Fuse

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

A few years ago Jennifer LeMesurier was watching this PBS cooking show. And this chef, David Chang, started talking about MSG.

David Chang

Monosodium glutamate.

Ira Glass

And of course, lots of people believe MSG is bad for you. It gives you headaches, a food hangover-- that idea's been around for decades. I grew up hearing this. Maybe you did, too. But Jennifer knows this is a myth. In fact, the very next segment on the show is science and food writer Harold McGee saying just that.

Jennifer Lemesurier

And he just had this sort of throwaway line that, yeah, this myth of MSG being harmful can be traced back to one letter in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Harold Mcgee

A letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Jennifer Lemesurier

And I was just sitting there going, huh, one letter. It was like, oh, it's an origin story.

Ira Glass

At the time, Jennifer was PhD student, very interested in the way people talk about race and Asian-Americans. So to hear that there was once this letter that led Americans to freak out about the dangers of an ingredient commonly used in Chinese food, an ingredient that was later proven totally harmless, Jennifer wanted to see that letter. So she went into the stacks, found this old journal from the '60s, and there it was. A letter to the editor from a doctor, titled Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Jennifer Lemesurier

So the letter reads, "For several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I've eaten the first dish, last for about two hours without any hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck"--

Ira Glass

He runs through the symptoms that he's observed. Then he runs through the possible causes for this strange numbness, and eliminates them one by one. Soy sauce? No. Cooking wine? No. And then he gets to the sentence that's going to live on for a half century. Quote, "Others have suggested that it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants."

Jennifer Lemesurier

And that one line is what spawned this entire myth.

Ira Glass

The letter was signed--

Jennifer Lemesurier

Robert Ho Man Kwok, MD.

Ira Glass

So the first thing she did was look up Dr. Kwok to get the whole story from him. What she learned was Dr. Kwok had been a researcher and a pediatrician in Maryland, and he was dead. She found an obituary from 2014. So instead, she traced the history of how this letter blew up, led to all these other things, by reading subsequent issues of the New England Journal of Medicine, and newspapers from the time, and other documents.

She wrote a paper, published it in an academic journal in 2017. And then after that, she gets his voicemail on her work number. This is last year. She's a professor at Colgate University.

Howard Steel

Yes, good afternoon. My name is Dr. Howard Steel. I'm a Colgate alum. In fact, I'm the oldest surviving trustee that's Colgate. And I've been there since God, and love it. At any rate--

Jennifer Lemesurier

And at first, I'm just like, am I in trouble? You know, why is a board member calling me? What's going on?

Howard Steel

I have information perhaps you might like to hear.

Jennifer Lemesurier

And then he sort of pauses and he says--

Howard Steel

I am the author of Ho Man Kwok.

Jennifer Lemesurier

I am the author of Ho Man Kwok. My brain just sort of goes, what?

Howard Steel

And I have a lot to say about it. It just surfaced.

Jennifer Lemesurier

And I'm listening to the voicemail in my living room, and my jaw is just dropping. Because up until then, I had operated under the assumption that Dr. Ho Man Kwok was a Chinese-American researcher. And all of a sudden, I don't know what to believe.

Ira Glass

The confusion makes sense, because remember, there was a Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, the one whose obituary she read. So who is this guy on the phone?

Howard Steel

I have a phone. I answer that phone all the time because I store the little thing that keeps electrified in my left chest.

Ira Glass

Then he makes this little joke about how he keeps his phone in his pocket, right by the thing that electrifies his pacemaker.

Howard Steel

So when the phone rings, my heart stops and I answer immediately. At any rate, it would be a pleasure to hear you. Hanging up now. Have a nice evening. Bye.

Ira Glass

OK. What? Right? This message was just the beginning-- the very odd beginning of a story that we're going to continue in just a minute. You will hear more from the mysterious Dr. Steel. Because this letter to the editor-- I don't know. Is it possible that this is the most impactful letter to the editor in the history of letters to the editor? It launched an entire MSG scare that lasted for decades. Even today, 42% of all Americans think that it's bad for you, and it's not.

Since the '90s, the FDA has listed MSG as perfectly safe for its intended use, like vinegar, salt, pepper. Today on our show, we have three stories like this one, where people throw words out into the world that take on a totally unexpected life of their own. And in all these stories, the words wreak havoc for years. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Humor Is Not The Best Medicine

Ira Glass

Act one, Humor is Not the Best Medicine. OK, so where we left off, it was the voicemail on Jennifer LeMesurier's phone from this retired surgeon, where he says, OK, I'm the guy. I made up a fake name. I wrote a letter. And it set off 50 years of completely needless panic over MSG. Call me. Lilly Sullivan explains what happened next.

Lilly Sullivan

So last year, when Howard Steel left that voicemail for Jennifer LeMesurier, she calls him back right away, gets the whole story from him. She doesn't record it, though. And a few months later, Dr. Howard Steel dies. But before he died, the Colgate alumni magazine-- remember, Jennifer teaches at Colgate; Howard's on their board-- they did a couple of interviews with him though they did record.

Michael Blanding

OK, great. Hi, Howard.

Howard Steel

Hi. How are you today?

Michael Blanding

I'm fine, thanks. How are you?

Lilly Sullivan

That's Michael Blanding, the journalist who did the interviews. He's the one you can hear typing during this call.

Howard Steel

I'm going to take you back to the beginning. It was a dear, dear friend of mine and I were recovering from a Chinese meal we had downtown. We used to about once a week, and were perfectly happy--

Lilly Sullivan

Howard's friend Bill was a doctor, too. They'd eat, drink, and talk shop. And they got to talking about being published in medical journals.

Howard Steel

Yeah, Bill Hanson, he said, you know, you're stupid, Steel, number one. You shouldn't expect to send articles out and get them published in these dumb journals.

Lilly Sullivan

Howard's friend was a doctor of internal medicine, which he was constantly reminding Howard is a much smarter breed of doctor.

Howard Steel

He told me that it was impossible for someone as stupid as an orthopedic surgeon, which I was, to write an article that could be published in something as magnificent as a New England medical journal. That was a threat, and he was willing to make a bet.

Lilly Sullivan

Bill bet Howard $10 that he couldn't get published there. It's one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, which Howard took as a challenge.

Howard Steel

And I decided, well, I'll write a little article and send it over there. So I went home and I just sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Medicine in New England. And I didn't sign it with my name, but I signed it Ho Man Kwok-- H-O, one word, M-A-N, one word, Kwok, K-W-O-K, figuring that someone, when they got this letter, would realize that what that word was was a breakdown of a not nice word we used to use all the time when someone was a jerk. We call him a human crock of you know what.

Lilly Sullivan

Human crock. Ho Man Kwok. I know, cringy. An offensive pun on a Chinese name. A white guy playing an Asian for laughs. Keep in mind, this was the '60s. He said he made up the name of Dr. Kwok's research institute and his title, too. He said that Chinese food wasn't the point of it, except for that they were at a Chinese restaurant, eating and drinking a little too much the night they made the bet. And Howard won that bet. Yes, it wasn't an article, it was a letter. But it was printed in the Journal. Good enough for them.

Here's Michael Blanding, the reporter who interviewed Howard.

Michael Blanding

But once he saw it, once the letter was published, he was sort of mildly horrified.

Lilly Sullivan

So he was horrified at first. He wasn't happy that he won the bet?

Michael Blanding

It's hard to tell, you know. It seemed like he would sort of go back and forth between being proud of the fact that he was able to achieve this, being published in this journal, and sort of being distressed by the fact that it actually made it into print.

Howard Steel

As soon as it came out, I called the Journal editor and told him that it was a bunch of bunk, that it was all fake, it was all made up. And he hung up the phone on me. He wouldn't talk any further. He was a jackass. So I kept calling him, and finally, apparently, he gave a message to the phone girl in the office that if anybody named Howard called, hang up.

So yeah, actually for years, I tried to call him and tell him that the whole thing was a hoax, that it was not true, that I didn't know anything about Chinese, and particularly Chinese-- what's it called? Chinese restaurants. I never saw anybody who had. Didn't know what the hell I'm talking about.

Lilly Sullivan

So that's Howard story. And then this joke of his snowballed. After the letter was published, other doctors wrote in, some of them making jokes about this Chinese restaurant syndrome, but also often recounting their own experiences and symptoms. The New York Times notices 10 letters from doctors, publishes an article. Remember, no scientific studies at this point. Just letters, some of them jokes. The headline was, "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Puzzles Doctors."

The news spread from there, under headlines like, "Kwok's Queeze," and "Chinese Chow Numbs Some." Here's Jennifer, the professor who traced the history.

Jennifer Lemesurier

I mean, the titles were very, very offensive. Oh, let's see. Let me see if I can find the one. From the Chicago Tribune, in broken English, the headline is, "Chinese Food Make You Crazy? MSG is Number One Suspect."

Lilly Sullivan

Wow. "Chinese food Make You Crazy"? I can't believe that was a headline.

Jennifer Lemesurier

Yeah. So I was like, hm. They were all reacting to something that wasn't even real. It was all projection.

Lilly Sullivan

To this day, lots of Chinese restaurants post No MSG signs in their windows and printed on their menus.

Howard Steel

Everybody in the world is talking about the Chinese restaurant syndrome, and it's a lie. It's a big fib. It's the "fit" hit the "shan." It's astounding.

Lilly Sullivan

Howard told lots of people this story over the years. He told groups of other doctors. He told Jennifer, who believed him. She alerted the alumni magazine, who recorded those interviews. They pitched the story to us. And we were like, 96-year-old man confesses to writing a prank letter that drove the nation to a decades-long scare about a toxin that's not actually toxic? He's dead, but you have recordings? We're in.

But as we and Michael the reporter started looking into this more carefully, there were a few things that were puzzling. For one, the name of the research institute Howard said he invented-- the National Biomedical Research Foundation-- Michael discovered it was a real place. And the real Dr. Kwok had worked there. Kind of a coincidence, if Howard made up the name-- like he said he did.

It also seemed weird. If the journal published a fake letter with Dr. Kwok's name and institution on it, and it was quoted in over 100 newspapers, naming him and the letter, it seemed weird that the real Dr. Kwok never set the record straight. Never published a letter complaining in The New England Journal of Medicine, or in any of those newspapers. Also, Howard said he tried to get the Journal to retract it, that he called and the editor wouldn't take his calls.

We reached out to The New England Journal of Medicine. They declined to comment. But it seems strange just on the face of it. Howard became a highly acclaimed surgeon. He invented important medical procedures. It seems like for sure, he could have gotten the attention of someone at the Journal.

It's hard to verify what really happened, because everyone involved in this is dead. Howard is dead. The friend he made the bet with is dead. The real Dr. Kwok is dead. But Dr. Kwok has kids. We called them, and talked to his family. We also spoke to one of his colleagues at the research foundation. And the son of his boss there. They all said, yes, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok did write the letter. His daughter said he was proud of it. That he was a concerned doctor and a curious scientist, who'd often post questions like this. It wasn't a joke at all. The thought that Howard was going around telling this story, for years, it creeped her out a little.

And when you read the original letter, there are details that seem more likely to come from her father than from Howard, like when he says he moved to the US, which the real Dr. Kwok did, and how he's very specific the syndrome happens with the northern Chinese food. In the '60s, how many white guys in Philadelphia would have made that distinction? Also, Ho Man Kwok is an actual Cantonese name. What are the odds that Howard Steel threw together random Chinese-sounding syllables to arrive at that?

I called up Jennifer, the professor that Howard Steel had left the voicemail for.

Lilly Sullivan

I finally reached the Kwok family.

Jennifer Lemesurier

OK.

Lilly Sullivan

And they told me something. They say that their father did write the letter.

Jennifer Lemesurier

What?

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah. They say that he wrote it, and they're certain.

Jennifer Lemesurier

Wow. OK.

Lilly Sullivan

What do you think of that?

Jennifer Lemesurier

I honestly have no idea.

[LAUGHTER]

Lilly Sullivan

Me, neither. I just cannot believe that Dr. Steel made this up.

Jennifer Lemesurier

Right. Now I'm like, were there two letters?

Lilly Sullivan

[LAUGHS]

Jennifer Lemesurier

Did they happen to write about MSG at the same time, and like one got printed, and one person thought it was edited? I don't even know. I mean, I can't really-- oh, man. The timing of this-- I wish Dr. Steel was still alive, for many reasons, obviously.

Lilly Sullivan

There were two options, neither of them good. Someone has been telling a story that's not true for 50 years-- one of these two men, both of whom were, by all accounts, brilliant, upstanding pillars of their communities.

Either Howard was fessing up to something he totally did not do, claiming responsibility for the whole MSG mess when actually he had nothing to do with it, or Howard was telling the truth, and Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, beloved pediatrician and researcher, had seen this letter to the editor in the journal with his name on it, that he didn't write, was delighted with his good fortune, and rolled with it for 50 years.

I had one person left to call-- Howard Steel's daughter, Anna. She grew up hearing this story. And I told her everything I just told you.

Anna Steel

OK. That is a shock.

Lilly Sullivan

But actually, not that big a shock. It took her about two seconds to make sense of all this. She believed the Kwoks, not her father.

Anna Steel

No, I don't think anybody who knew him and loved him would be surprised. It's just one more thing in the life of my dad.

Lilly Sullivan

This, she said-- this is exactly the kind of thing he loved to do. He liked to prank people. And he told lots of big stories about himself, many true, and some not. You can never totally believe him and never quite not believe him. In fact, she says, it would help explain this other thing, that even though her father supposedly won the bet, his buddy never paid him.

Anna Steel

The fact the bet was never settled up is of suspect, that maybe it was a wink-wink between them both.

Lilly Sullivan

Well, so now, knowing all this, do you feel convinced that he didn't write the letter?

Anna Steel

It seems to point in that direction, doesn't it? I think if I thought we were dealing with, you know, two straight laced, straight arrow, no nonsense physicians, I might be arguing a stronger position. But knowing these two clowns, there's not much I can say.

Lilly Sullivan

So it seems like Howard didn't write the fake prank letter that caused decades of chaos. His prank was that he said he had written the letter. He was claiming credit for chaos he didn't create. It was complicated to even think about.

Anna Steel

Oh my god. Oh. Eh, that's too funny. All right, well, here we are. [LAUGHS]

Lilly Sullivan

First, the world believed MSG was bad for you, and it wasn't. And now, we nearly believed a second piece of fake news-- that it all started with Howard. Here's where Anna came down, loving her father and his best friend, but also, what the hell?

Anna Steel

I wish I could give them both a piece of my mind. I'm not angry, but I just want to say, you owe everybody a huge apology. What is wrong with you? And he would just start laughing, I'm sure. And he would have a big, mischievous grin, and he'd say something like, I don't owe anybody an apology. You all should have had your heads screwed on straight to figure out this was a joke.

Lilly Sullivan

So many people near the end of their lives are trying to make things right. He was trying to make trouble.

Lilly Sullivan

Like a last act, like a life-long legacy prank?

Anna Steel

Kind of. He got the last laugh.

Howard Steel

I'll do anything you want to with this. No, I'll talk to anybody. They won't believe me, anyway. I'm here and happy to screw things up further. But I can't believe what I did for 50-some years. So I don't know what anybody would want to do with me, except shut my mouth, but it's getting kind of late. God will shut it pretty soon. And you know how she is.

Lilly Sullivan

Howard died just a few months after he laughed his way through those interviews. He was 97.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: Babies Got Bank

Ira Glass

Act Two, Babies Got Bank. OK, I know how unlikely this sounds, but we now have another old guy basically pranking the world right before he dies, but on a scale that gets hundreds of thousands of people involved, and excited, and talking about this guy's plan that he set in motion for years and years. Stephanie Foo explains.

Stephanie Foo

In 1926, in Toronto, Canada, a 72-year-old lawyer named Charles Vance Miller was at lunch at the Queens Hotel with two lawyer friends. They got into an argument over some legal matter. Miller told them they were both wrong, and he'd prove it if they followed him up to his office. He eagerly ran up three flights of stairs, grabbed a law book, plopped it on his desk, and then died. Just put his head down on the desk, and was gone.

A couple days later, rumors started swirling. Charles Vance Miller had done well for himself, gotten rich. He'd avoided scandal his whole life, was an upstanding citizen, though he had no family, never married. He'd hinted that he'd leave his fortune to the University of Toronto. But when his fellow lawyers brought out his will, that's not what they found. As soon as Miller's people started executing his will, they realized that his will was like an elaborate prank, as if he'd thrown a bunch of money out of a window to watch what would happen.

He left stock in a brewery to prohibitionist pastors. He gave his racing stock to people who didn't believe in betting. He said he wanted to leave his vacation home in Jamaica to three other lawyers, a nice thing for them to share, except for the fact that the three lawyers all hated each other. But by far, the clause that unleashed the most mayhem was the last one. It's about all the rest of his money. I'll just read it to you.

"At the expiration of 10 years from my death, give it and its accumulations to the mother who has, since my death, given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children, as shown by the registrations under the Vital Statistics Act," end quote. In other words, the woman who had the most babies in the 10 years after his death would be awarded a whole lot of money-- 9 million Canadian dollars in today's money, or almost $7 million US.

There were immediately a number of theories as to why Miller did this, but none of them were charitable. If he really wanted to support a young woman with a bundle of kids, he could have just willed all the money to her at the time of his death. But setting this up over the next 10 years created a twisted contest. Some said he was an avid supporter of birth control, so maybe setting off a baby-making storm could be a wicked way to force a conversation about it.

Some said he was trying to test the legal system's ability to hold up a crazy will, but that he'd really expected it would be thrown out, that the money would just automatically be donated to the University of Toronto, his Alma mater. People said that Miller had been obsessed with the idea of what people would do for money. He liked to talk about how everybody had their price. Maybe he was testing the women of Toronto to see what theirs was.

Elizabeth Wilton

I don't think anybody fully knows why he did this.

Stephanie Foo

This is Elizabeth Wilton. She wrote a 200-page dissertation on the contest.

Elizabeth Wilton

I just think he saw it as a big joke.

Stephanie Foo

I feel like the modern day word for it would be that he was basically a troll.

Elizabeth Wilton

That would be a good word for it, yeah.

Stephanie Foo

He pretty much cops to it in his will. He says, "This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious, because I have no dependents or near relations, and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death. And what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime." Apparently, Miller really liked to drop dollar bills on the sidewalk, and hide and watch people pick them up.

When I think about the kind of person who'd plant a wallet in the street and put it on YouTube today as a commentary on human nature, yeah, I feel like I know who that guy is. For the first few years after Miller died, nothing happened. A few newspaper articles were written. Nobody took it very seriously. Some relatives went to court, arguing that the money should go to them.

And then, six years after his death, the attorney general introduced a bill trying to nullify the will and have the money donated to the University of Toronto. This was a mistake-- totally backfired. Before this, not many people knew about the will. But now that the government was trying to invalidate it, the press picked it up, and there was a huge public outcry. But not in the way you might think. The public was like, baby-making race? Hell, yeah, we want a baby-making race.

Women's groups supported the contest because they felt women should have a fair shot at the money, which, what can I say? It was a different time. Others disagreed with the government intervening in people's wills and affairs. Altogether, it caused an uproar. The government backtracked, said, OK, fine. You people have fun. And with that, the race was on. Usually when this story has been told, it's like, ha ha. A man created this zany will that set off a wild baby-making storm in Canada.

It conjures Brady Bunch images of big families happily schtupping their way to fame and fortune, knee deep in Cabbage Patch children. But the way it unfolded was actually much darker, because, of course, the story is about an old man encouraging women to go through the excruciating pain and danger of childbirth as often as possible in a 10-year period-- a 10-year period that was already half over. This contest didn't really get started until six years in. That made it skewed from the start.

It meant suddenly the only contenders were women who had about six babies in the last six years, women who didn't even know there was a contest to be part of. They found out about it quick, when reporters started pounding on their doors.

Karen Nolan

It was madness, really. It was a media feeding frenzy.

Stephanie Foo

This is Karen Nolan. She worked with Elizabeth to develop a screenplay for a movie based on the contest that aired on Canadian television in 2002. As soon as the will was verified, reporters went through the birth registry, found women who had already given birth to about six children since Charles's death, and dashed to their homes to try and get the exclusive.

Karen Nolan

You know they coined the phrase, the Stork Derby, comparing it to like a horse race. So there was a mad dash to track down the women, get their exclusive stories, and to follow them and hound them on the very intimate and personal details of their life.

Stephanie Foo

It must have been a jarring experience to be an automatic front-runner in this bizarre contest. But most of the mothers went along with it because of the 9 million dollars. Many of the contestants were desperately poor. During those first six years, the Great Depression had taken hold. Nearly a quarter of Toronto's families were on welfare. Families were living in shacks or camps. Some even ate groundhogs to keep from starving. Canada's birth rate had actually plummeted at the time.

And so most of the families that suddenly found themselves in the running to receive this Stork Derby money agreed to media scrutiny because they wanted the chance at the prize, and because, in the short term, the newspapers offered them money-- exclusive contracts where reporters could come and photograph and interview the families whenever they wanted to. Sometimes the families even got advertising deals for things like soap.

In many ways, this was sort of like an OG reality show, albeit a really perverse one. The front-runners of the Stork Derby even became household names, like Jon & Kate Plus 8, or maybe more like Octomom. After all, it was billed on the newsreels as freak Canadian race. Papers all over the world, from the New York Daily News to the Marshfield, Wisconsin, News Herald picked up the story.

The press followed a bunch of contenders, but I'm only going to run through three of the long-term favorites to win. One of the first competitors that the newspapers dug up was Mrs. Grace Bagnato. I don't want to give away who won or how many kids Mrs. Bagnato actually had during the race, but over her lifetime, Mrs. Bagnato was pregnant 24 times, though only 12 of those children lived.

She was a working mother. She was a whiz with languages-- picked up Polish, German, Yiddish, and worked as a court interpreter in Italian. All the while, she raised her 12 children and would get up at 4:30 in the morning to make two dozen butter tarts, macaroni, meatballs, sausage, and her famous red sauce for her family. But the public didn't exactly see her as a hero. Here's Karen again.

Karen Nolan

The cultural makeup of Toronto at the time was a very WASPy, WASPy society. And we have this Italian family here who is reproducing children at a rate that outpaced the white, Protestant Anglo-Saxons.

Stephanie Foo

Mrs. Bagnato's husband was an Italian immigrant, and some papers weren't kind about that. These were the years leading up to World War II. Of course, it didn't help that one of the other Italian contestants named one of their Derby babies little Benito Mussolini. But because of their nationality, Italian families in the race received phone calls calling their families fascists and threatening to kidnap their children.

Contestant number two was Mrs. X. She was the scandalous one.

Karen Nolan

She was a social outcast because her children were fathered by different men, which was taboo, and she was shamed for that. She was considered to be a trollop by having children with more than one man.

Stephanie Foo

That's a saucy word.

Karen Nolan

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

I should start using that.

Mrs. X had five children from her husband, but then her marriage fell apart. He moved out, and she entered into a new relationship with a man and had another five kids with him. She wanted to marry him, but didn't have enough money to go through with her divorce. All in all, Mrs. X had 10 children by the time she was 24. She tried to hide her identity because of the circumstances of her situation, but her name was eventually revealed-- Pauline Mae Clark.

Contestant number three was Mrs. Kenny.

Karen Nolan

She's my favorite character in the whole story.

Stephanie Foo

Why is she your favorite?

Karen Nolan

I think her eccentricity, for one thing, her passion, and her undeniable belief that she was the chosen one, if you will.

Stephanie Foo

Mrs. Kenny was in it to win it. She was under 5 feet tall, but over the course of her lifetime, she wound up carrying 19 pregnancies to term. She was French Canadian, married to an Irish man, and she believed that money was hers. She said she had the gift of second sight, and a divine connection with Miller, who told her she was going to win. So of course, it had to be true.

Mrs. Kenny was a talented wood carver, and often sold her carvings in the street. And she carved a large number of statues of Miller, even named one of her children after him. At one point, a bunch of the leading Derby mothers got together and said, screw this whole race. Let's just share the winnings. It was a ton of money. They were all poor. It would still result in plenty for everyone. But Mrs. Kenny was the sole holdout, the only one who insisted no.

I'm the winner, she shouted once, and I won't split with anybody. Why should I? It's my money. And if the judge doesn't give it all to me, I'll walk right up to the bench and punch him in the eye. So yeah, Mrs. Kenny was tough as nails, but she probably was the poorest of the three. Her family lived in a slum, and their home was infested with rats. One night, rats attacked three of her children. Tiny, three-month-old Patrick had the worst of it. Here's Karen.

Karen Nolan

So yes, it had bitten the baby in the face and neck area. And as we all know, throughout history, rats carry diseases. But they couldn't afford the hospital. They couldn't. This is so difficult to even talk-- it's unbelievable that it still chokes me up.

Stephanie Foo

Mrs. Kenny and her neighbors tried desperately to have the public health nurse visit her home, but to no avail. The baby died.

Elizabeth Wilton

And then it was all over the front pages of the newspaper, but always written in terms of what this meant for the chances of Mrs. Kenny or whatever other woman that the coverage was centered on. Every loss, or tragedy, or triumph was always put in terms of their chances in the race, not in terms of what kind of a system do we have where someone's baby can die of rat bites in the first place?

Stephanie Foo

It's hard to say how many women had babies specifically for this race. When they talked to reporters, everyone always said the same thing. I would have had this child anyway. I tend to believe Mrs. Bagnato, and many of the other Catholic families in the race. I don't think Mrs. Bagnato was ever playing the game. She'd been cranking out a baby a year long before she heard a word about the Derby, so the whole contest was just an added bonus to her.

But then there was Mrs. Kenny, who was obviously playing to win, and said outright that she was trying to make babies. And then you have Mrs. Clark. Mrs. Clark's situation was the most unsettling. It came out that Mrs. Clark's lover had drawn up a contract with her where he could get half her winnings if he impregnated her enough. Mrs. Clark's lover was also abusive. He'd given her a black eye, broke her door down, chased her out into the street after a fight.

So maybe she didn't want to be pregnant as many times as she was. Maybe she was forced to. Here's Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Wilton

You sort of wonder, was she basically abused? Was she taken advantage of? Because if you think about also the kind of power dynamic that Miller set up between men and women-- and at that time, if your partner, or if your husband, or your lover thought that if he got you pregnant over and over, that you might win millions of dollars-- and she was a very young woman. And--

Stephanie Foo

So you were sort of insinuating that maybe these women might have been coerced.

Elizabeth Wilton

I mean, I don't know. I think it doesn't take a lot for someone to put together with this young woman, and so many babies, and with this huge prize.

Stephanie Foo

In 1933. It looked like Mrs. Bagnato was going to win. Then in 1934, headlines read that Mrs. Kenny had taken the lead. In 1935, another woman, Mrs. Timleck, quote, "sped to the front." In 1936, Madam X was listed as a late entry, tied for second. All the while, the physical toll for these mothers was enormous. Mrs. Bagnato suffered a hemorrhage near the end of her final pregnancy, and many of the Stork Derby mothers were in and out of the hospital for operations and transfusions.

And all three mothers suffered the emotional toll of having stillborn babies during the race. Most of the women couldn't afford to have their children in hospitals, and so the infant mortality rate of the Derby babies was six times that of the national average. 34% of these babies died. But aside from an article or two, again, the press only saw these deaths in the context of the race.

The headline in a 1936 Montreal paper was, "Stillborn Infant May Assure Prize." Underneath, "A stillborn child may assure Mrs. Matthew Kenny the prize in the Stork Derby under the will of late Charles Vance Miller. Her nearest competitor is believed to be Mrs. Joseph Bagnato."

The race ended on Halloween 1936. But at first, it wasn't clear who had won. Here's how our three competitors stood on that date. Mrs. Kenny claimed to have had 11 children. Mrs. Clark said she had 11, as well. Mrs. Bagnato had nine. But Mrs. Kenny and Mrs. Clark didn't walk away with the prize that easily. With Mrs. Clark, the scandalous one who had tied for the largest number of children, the lawyers in charge of the estate had some questions about her case, and raised the question of whether children born out of wedlock should count.

This is where it was clear that there had been a huge oversight. Nobody had actually set rules for this contest at its beginning. Remember, Miller explained this whole contest in two sentences in his will. So as the court saw it, there were nuances that needed to be figured out, rules to be set. But of course, only after the fact of everything, after the babies had been born and the blood transfusions administered.

A massive, multi-way court battle broke out. All of the contestants had to go to court to prove that they had the most children. Each woman had to lawyer up and go up against the lawyers for the executors of the estate. The fight went on for two years. And of course, now the rules would be determined in front of an audience.

To figure out if her illegitimate children would count, Mrs. Clark and her lover's abusive sexual history was scrutinized on the stand. He recounted his physical violence with her, admitted to giving her a black eye and busting down the door to her house, and to the contract he drew up. When he mentioned the contract, the courtroom burst out into raucous, mocking laughter. And in fact, the lawyers regularly threw in crude jokes during the trial, soliciting giggles from the audience.

In the end, it was decided that illegitimate children could not be counted within the Derby, and so Mrs. Clark's number got knocked down to five. She was out of the running.

Then came Mrs. Kenny, the one who believed she was the winner and had carved statues of Miller. She'd also tied for 11, but apparently two of her children had not been properly registered, probably because Mrs. Kenny was too poor to deliver her children in hospitals. She'd had them at home instead. That brought her count down to nine children, but no big deal. She was still in the running. Then the lawyers pointed out three of her children had been stillborn.

Quick warning-- I'm about to talk about a lot of traumatic births. Until this point, everyone had assumed that stillborn children would count for the Derby. Again, this hadn't been in the rules. And after all, these women had carried these children to term. But now in Mrs. Kenney's trial, lawyers for the executors of the estate started questioning that. And so Mrs. Kennedy had to sit while a pack of lawyers argued around her about how legitimate her dead children were.

They brought up doctors and had them give graphic descriptions of the stillbirths, if each baby breathed, if its heart ever beat. She had to relive the moments all over again. Mrs. Kenny cried throughout this, and eventually ran from the courtroom.

Elizabeth Wilton

It was just all too much for her. And at one point, she left the courtroom just screaming that she was being treated like a dog. And there never was a sensitive portrait of this woman. It was all sort of caricature-style, so I think the coverage just continued in that way, you know?

Stephanie Foo

The newspaper report said she was shrieking, insinuated that she was drunk, and said, quote, "During the scuffle, Mrs. Kenny dealt at least half a dozen hard blows on the arms and bodies of the officers who showed great restraint in their tactics." In the end, it didn't help her case. "A child born dead is not, in truth, a child," the judge wrote. "It was that which might have been a child." Her count was knocked down to six. Mrs. Kenny was out of the running.

Lastly, there was Mrs. Bagnato, who, again, had nine children. But one was stillborn and another was unregistered. Mrs. Bagnato suggested that there was some conspiracy with this. She said she'd registered the child herself at the Parliament Buildings. She was quoted as saying, "If they can't find the record, it'll be just too bad for them up there. I will tear the Parliament Buildings apart before I give up. I'm supposed to be in the hospital now with another baby coming, but I'll stay on my feet until I drop or this is cleared up."

But her protestations didn't sway the judge, and she eventually did give up. After all, she did have a job, and almost a dozen mouths to feed.

At the end of two years, none of the three favorites wound up at the finish line. Four other women, with nine babies each, won. Each of these women walked away with what today would be about 2 million Canadian dollars, or $1 and 1/2 million US dollars. Most were latecomers who really only became candidates when the heavy hitters were eliminated. And these four women had something else in common. Here's Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Wilton

I mean, the families that won were white, Protestant families who were essentially middle class, and who had homes that, when the reporters went into them and described the homes, it was always the clean and tidy home, and the well-kept this. And the forerunners through the whole race were working-class people, and unemployed people, and they had varied ethnic backgrounds.

Stephanie Foo

Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that these women didn't win. Maybe they didn't win because they didn't have the means to navigate the system as elegantly. Or maybe the judge who decided the contest had his finger on the scale. In its last four years, the public's view of the contest had turned, as people saw how it played out. It had encouraged the poorest women to have the most children.

That set alarm bells off for a big group of people in what was a growing and popular movement at the time-- eugenics. Teddy Roosevelt was into eugenics. Alexander Graham Bell, WEB Dubois, even Helen Keller. A refresher-- eugenicists believed that in order to improve the human species, some people shouldn't be allowed to reproduce. And yes, that's just as creepy as it sounds.

At the end of the contest, they came forth in droves to say that the money shouldn't be given to any women. Here's Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Wilton

The social commentary was around, who are these people, and should they be reproducing? They're not Canadian-born. They're poor. They're not the right people.

Stephanie Foo

A minister, Reverend Claire Sillcox, submitted written testimony against the participants as, quote, "unspeakable women," and argued that these poor children would eventually reduce wages and lower the standard of living. An editor for a Canadian newspaper said that the contest attracted, quote, "those whose progeny would be of little use to the state." Elizabeth and Karen believe that this environment influenced the judge, that he eliminated, on technicalities, all the contestants who had not made the right kinds of babies. Here's Karen.

Karen Nolan

Yeah. I do believe that it was intentional, because they went to such lengths to discredit those that were the others-- the French Canadian Catholic, the woman with the illegitimate children, the Italian Catholic with her immigrant husband. It became a platform for them to send the message of, to use of a modern phrase, stay in your lane, like immigrants know their place. They were definitely trying to send a message.

Stephanie Foo

After the lawsuit took place, Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Kenny both filed appeals, and both received settlements for the equivalent of 200,000 Canadian dollars each. Mrs. Bagnato, the immigrant translator, walked away with nothing.

Man

Ladies and gentlemen, the antipasto bar is now open.

Stephanie Foo

Last December, I shuffled around a table piled high with prosciutto and provolone. Santa came into the banquet hall, and little kids ran past me to get their gifts from him. I was at the 89th annual Bagnato holiday party, which, as you can imagine, is bigger than most holiday family gatherings. Mrs. Bagnato, remember, had 12 children, and they had children, who also had children, who by now have had children, too.

One of her great-granddaughters gives me a rough estimate. There are over 150 people now who are direct descendants of Grace. About 110 of the descendants and their families are in a reception hall giving generous air kisses, then turning, screaming, oh my god, Uncle Paulie.

Woman 1

Everybody kissy-kissy everybody.

Among the attendees? Many teachers, an agent for the cast of the Young and the Restless, a few writers, and a former mayor. So take that, eugenicists. But talking to a bunch of the Bagnatos, not that many of them know much about the Derby. And those who do, don't seem to care.

Stephanie Foo

Does it make you mad that Grace didn't get any money?

Woman 2

No. Life's not all about money. But no, I don't think so. From what I hear, she was just that amazing woman with a huge heart. And I don't think she would get angry. Her oldest daughter, Mildred, told me a story that might answer that question. You know, her mother made a huge pot of sauce on the stove for Sunday dinner. And she had asked Mildred and one of the boys to put it out on the back porch to cool off. And when they went out to get it, it was gone. And Mildred was very angry. And her mother said, but just think, Mildred, somebody's having such a wonderful dinner tonight.

Stephanie Foo

After the Derby, Grace told the whole family that they weren't ever to talk about that dumb contest ever again, but she otherwise seemed unfazed. She continued having more kids, even took in an orphan from off the street. It's true that the chaos of the Stork Derby turned her into a laughingstock, and rocked Toronto for over a decade. But a century later, it's mostly forgotten-- just a funny old tale from a hundred years ago.

Charles Vance Miller didn't have any children, and unless you preface it with, remember that crazy Stork Derby guy, nobody remembers his name. But more than a hundred people get together every year to share stories about Grace Bagnato. There's more than one way to leave a legacy.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo. She used to be one of our producers here at our show. She's now off writing a book that is part memoir, part science about complex PTSD, and looking for a publisher. Coming up, something said in the middle of a race between one racer and another that eats at both of them for years after. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Meatball and Chain

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program--

[FUSE BURNING]

--"The Long Fuse."

[EXPLOSION]

[LAUGHS] We never really use sound effects on our show, and that was totally worth it. Anyway, today's show, "The Long Fuse," is about people saying things that end up having consequences for years after. We have arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Meatball and Chain. This last story is about three little words, uttered at 25 miles an hour during a sporting event, and the years and years of feelings that those words unleashed. Jared Marcelle tells what happened.

Jared Marcelle

Ian Dille was 21 when this whole thing happened. He was competing in a big bike race, a national championship. It was in Gainesville. Ian's from Austin. And when they got there, he saw that the roads were pretty flat, just like home. Plus, it was humid, but not too bad, just like home. So he was like, hey, I have a good shot at this thing. When the race starts, everyone comes out blazing.

Ian Dille

Everybody was racing really aggressively in that race. There was just a lot of attacks. There'd be a lead group of five riders, and then it would become 10, and then 15, and 20. And then a group would come out of that five riders. And it was kind of like this amoeba that kept breaking up and coming back together.

Jared Marcelle

Ian wasn't considered one of the favorites, but on this day in this race, he was better than most. He kept attacking, taking the lead, staying near the front the whole time. And then at one point, he realizes, oh man, I'm first. Now you'd think being in first place is a good thing. But for the majority of a bike race, competitors play hot potato with the top spot. Chances are, if you stay in first early on for too long, you're probably going to lose.

No, you're definitely going to lose, because the person in first takes on all the wind. In cycling, this is a big thing. The front-runner basically works the hardest.

Ian Dille

And that makes the person that's pedaling behind them have to work a lot less hard. I mean scientifically, it's like 30% to 50% less hard.

Jared Marcelle

That's why in bike races, you see bikers lined up behind the lead guy.

Ian Dille

I remember bending my head over as I was pedaling as hard as I could, and looking behind me, and yeah. I just saw this kind of white-and-black checkered jersey coming across to me, and that was Mike.

Jared Marcelle

Mike Friedman. Ian knew who the favorites at this race were, and this Mike Friedman wasn't one of them.

Ian Dille

And so I just sprinted as hard as I could. He would claw his way back to me, and I just couldn't believe it. He seemed so done, but he was just really tenacious. He just kept coming back.

Jared Marcelle

Ian was worried now. If he kept the lead, blocking all of the wind for Mike, he was going to get tired. Mike might burst ahead and win. So Ian was like, let him get in front for a bit.

Ian Dille

I started coasting, and then we were kind of just coasting. And he would look back, and the group would be getting closer to catching us. And he said, you can win.

Jared Marcelle

You can win. Three words.

Ian Dille

I knew instantly what it meant. He means, if I stop attacking him and let him stay with me, and let him sit in my draft, then when we get to the finish line, he won't sprint me. He'll let me win the bike race.

Jared Marcelle

Now in cycling, this type of gentlemen's agreement happens all the time. Competitors will temporarily agree to a truce so they can conserve energy and stay ahead of the pack. It's a strategy. Sometimes this happens at the end, which could end up deciding who wins. Like hey, there's two of us here at the top. I won't sprint on you if you take on the wind resistance for me. We can beat everyone else. Ian went for it.

Ian Dille

I just put my head down and went as hard as I could. I mean, I felt like I was just going so fast, and we had a motorcycle referee that would follow the race. And they come up and give you time splits. They'll either just tell you, or sometimes they'll have a whiteboard that they'll write the gap between you and the chasers. And so they kept coming up, and it would be, you have 20 seconds. And then it was like 30 seconds, and then 40 seconds, and the gap just kept going out, and out, and out.

I remember with one lap to go and just feeling so happy, like I'd already won the race. And then so we go around, and then we're coming towards the finish line. And we're getting ready to take the final left-hand turn to the finish. And I turned to him and I was like, yeah, you remember our deal, right? And then Mike just started sprinting. And I just remember watching him come by on my left, and my legs started cramping as we went up that hill.

And I was just like, I can't believe this is happening. It felt like this dream just all of a sudden kind of turned into a nightmare. And I didn't win the bike race.

Jared Marcelle

Mike did. Mike won.

Ian Dille

Disbelief quickly turned to total rage. I was so upset. Remember riding up next to him, and hitting him on the back, and yelling something like, what the [BLEEP]?

Jared Marcelle

First place takes home a jersey with stars and stripes, like Captain America.

Ian Dille

I watched them put Mike's medal on, and then they gave him a jersey. And then, traditionally, everybody raises their arms on the podium after the national anthem plays. And I was standing right next to Mike, and I didn't-- I wouldn't hold his hand. I didn't raise my arm. And that was like the photo of the race.

Jared Marcelle

Ian was not having it. He immediately told the reporter what happened. He was like, Mike cheated. He cheated.

Ian Dille

His side of the story was that there was no deal, that I was just confused. When he said, you can win this race, he was like, no, no, no, no. What I was saying was if we work together, if you stop attacking me, you can win. Stop attacking me. Stop trying to get rid of me. You can win if you just keep pulling, and don't let this group behind catch us.

Jared Marcelle

As if to say, hey, man, you're doing well. You keep it up, you might even win this thing. I said you could win, not that I'd let you win. So life goes on. Ian races professionally for a bit, but gets injured and becomes a journalist. Of course, he covers cycling. Mike becomes an Olympian. The whole time, they're sort of circling each other's orbits, but avoiding crossing paths. And annoyingly, everyone in the racing world really likes Mike.

Ian Dille

He had this nickname as like Meatball, and he had a blog, and there was a lot of love for Meatball. And I was a little bit resentful about that. I always thought, they don't know the real Mike. He's a cheater. And he goes back on his word. And I would tell people, or people would ask me about, what happened in that race? And I'd be like, well, Mike's a cheater. And they'd just be like, well, doesn't seem like something he would do. And then I'd be like, no, you don't know.

People would sort of look at me sideways when I was like, I hate Mike Friedman. They'd be like, nobody hates Mike Friedman. What are you talking about?

Jared Marcelle

That's like saying you hate Mr. Rogers, right?

Ian Dille

Yeah. Yeah.

Jared Marcelle

So as time passes, this race stays like a thorn in Ian's side.

Ian Dille

I realize saying that sounds like a high school football player talking about competing in the state title game, or whatever else. And then I totally get how ridiculous and small that sounds as an adult. But it's weird. It's just weird how you cling to those things.

Jared Marcelle

Then one day, about 15 years later, Ian's covering a race in Colorado near where Mike lived. He's on the tour bus hanging out. And then--

Ian Dille

One of the guys on the bus was like, oh, I'm going to give Mike a call and see if he'll come to the start line and hang out with us on the bus before we start. And Mike came onto the bus. We didn't even look at each other, and then he left. And then when he came back, I was standing outside the bus. And he had a tray of coffees, and he handed me one.

And I think he was just like, I just want to talk to you about that day. I think about that race all the time. And I was like, man, me too.

Mike Friedman

And I remember seeing his lower lip shaking, just shaking.

Jared Marcelle

And that is Mike Friedman. That day on the bus, Mike didn't fully fess up and apologize. For Mike, it's complicated. Here's how he remembers those final moments of the race.

Mike Friedman

But I wasn't even thinking. I was just, man, we made this left-hand turn, and the finish line is right within sight, 250 meters. And before I knew it, I was sprinting. Even going up to the line, I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I couldn't stop.

Jared Marcelle

Do you know why you did what you did, or have a better understanding of why you did it?

Mike Friedman

Well, I was 17 years old at the time. So I just-- yeah. I don't know. It just is kind of one of those things that I don't have an answer. You know, I try my best, but I don't always do my best kind of thing. It wasn't preplanned. It wasn't done in a way to be nefarious. It wasn't, I'm going to tell this guy I'm going to do this and then sprint. It wasn't done in that way. It wasn't done that way at all. That's it. You know, that's it.

That's the only time I've ever cheated, ever, at a bicycle race, ever.

Jared Marcelle

He immediately regretted it.

Jared Marcelle

Did it change how you saw yourself as an athlete, as a competitor?

Mike Friedman

It did change how I saw myself. This is just-- I don't have anything else like that, that I can definitively say affected me the way that this had. That was the one thing that I knew that I had done wrong.

Jared Marcelle

It ate at him. He didn't race for two years. Mike didn't even tell anyone for a really long time. Fessing up that he cheated would mean that he was just that-- a cheater, not a kid who lost himself for a minute in a race.

Mike Friedman

Dude, I didn't admit that this happened until I was with someone that I wanted to marry. And then there was one other person that I told while I was drunk, and he's my best friend.

Jared Marcelle

It never met as much to anyone else as it did to him, but he couldn't let it go. He thought about it for years. After his cycling career was done, his life sort of tanked. His marriage ended, hit bottom. He was living in a camper on his friend's land when he realized he wanted to reach out to Ian, that he missed his opportunity on the bus a year back. Here's Ian.

Ian Dille

He was moving back to Colorado, and he was driving back. And he called me, and that's when he said, yeah, you're right. It was a deal. And I'm sorry that I crossed the finish line first, that I didn't hold up my end of the bargain.

Jared Marcelle

Mike also wants to give Ian the jersey, the Captain America one. He'd stuffed it deep in a drawer all these years. So they agreed to meet up.

Ian Dille

He drives this really like revved-up-- I think it's a Jeep, or a pickup truck, or something. And you could hear it rumbling down the street, like rum-rum-rum-rum-rum. You could hear him pull up, and I was kind of nervous. And he came up, and he was holding the jersey, and he gave it to me right away. He looked me in the eyes, and he said, sorry. And I said, thank you.

He had talked about, like I think he had even called the governing body, and asked them if there's any way that the actual results could be changed. And yeah. He was just like, every effort to make it right. I was just like, wow. When does that ever happen in someone's life? I don't even know when I've ever done that, just made something that I did wrong right, decades later.

Jared Marcelle

This event set off by a few words had just ballooned and ballooned in their heads for about 15 years, even though, in the grand scheme of things, this race didn't matter. It's not like it was the reason Mike made it, or the thing that ended Ian's career. And fixing it took something that's so simple-- three words. You were right.

Ira Glass

Jared Marcelle. His reporting can be heard on the podcast Caught from WNYC. Ian Dille, the racer who got cheated out of his victory, wrote about this in Bicycle Magazine. That's how we heard about the story. The other racer, Mike Friedman, now runs a non-profit teaching kids about bikes, called Pedaling Minds.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Diane Wu. The people who put our show together includes Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Neil Drumming, Jarrett Floyd, Damien Graef, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Raimando, Ben Feiglin, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Ship, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editors are Susan Burton and David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks to Dave Ptolemy Slocum, Chuck Long, Chris Bateman, David Goldenberg, Veronica Simmons, Astrid Lange, Brendan Copley, and Michelle Solomon.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I called him earlier today. When I called him, I don't know, he was at the gym in the middle of his sprint intervals.

Jennifer Lemesurier

I mean, I can't really-- like, I mean, man, the timing of this.

Ira Glass

Actually, real-life Torey just had back surgery this week. Feel better, OK? I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.