"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mommie Weirdest; or, You Great Big Beautiful Doll

In March 1921, 51-year-old Frank McNally of Hammond, Indiana, got married. The bride was his attractive 26-year-old housekeeper, Hazel Hall. McNally professed to love his wife, but he had an additional, even more urgent reason for marrying: Although he was a divorced man with two children from his previous marriage, he wanted his middle age to be brightened with additional progeny. Precisely nine months after the wedding, his cherished desire was fulfilled when Hazel gave birth to not just one child, but twins--a boy and a girl, whom they named Lauren and Laurene.

Mr. McNally, of course, was ecstatic. And Mrs. McNally was the most devoted and attentive of new mothers. She proudly hovered over her babies, doing everything for them. She was not one of those women who gives birth only to turn the children over to nannies and nurses! In fact, she scarcely ever let her precious infants out of her sight. Mr. McNally happily cooed and cuddled his twins, but all the tasks of feeding, nursing, bathing, and changing the babies all fell to his wife. It was a job she happily accepted: indeed, she insisted on being the sole caregiver.

The McNallys were the ideal early 20th century family.

Well, for a while, at least. A few months after the twins were born, Frank had to admit that Hazel's attitude towards her children was perhaps just a wee bit too attentive. Not to mention "possessive." When friends and neighbors would drop by, naturally eager to fuss over the new little McNallys, Hazel kept them well away from the babies. She always said that they were sleeping and she didn't want to wake them. Unlike most new mothers, she didn't seem to want anyone to even look at her children.

And they certainly did sleep a lot. When Hazel was not tending to them, the twins lay in their darkened nursery, perfectly still and quiet. Their mother claimed they had "weak eyes" and could not bear daylight. Unlike other babies, they never cried or wriggled or fussed when they were left alone.

Odd, that.

Mr. McNally was obviously the most easygoing of men, one of those placid souls who takes life as it comes and never wastes much time brooding over life's many funny little details. The remarkably inert characteristics of his offspring was evidently something he was willing to just shrug off. After all, what did he know about babies? Hazel, who was a trained nurse, saw nothing out-of-the-ordinary about them.

The neighbors, however--particularly the women--began to suspect that there was something not quite right about the McNally twins. Finally, one acquaintance, a Mrs. Agnes Sphirmer, privately persuaded Mr. McNally to let her have a peep at the twins the next time his wife was out of the house.

On the next rare occasion when Hazel was away from her children, Mrs. Sphirmer stole into the McNally house. Like an undercover detective hot on the trail of a mystery, she tiptoed into the twins' bedroom. The babies, as usual, where lying in a deep sleep. When she peered down at the little faces, her heart instantly leaped into her throat. The twins were gazing up at her, with the fixed, unblinking stare of the dead.

When Mrs. Sphirmer examined the babies, only to find that they were not corpses, but two straw-stuffed dolls with china heads, I can't say if she was left more or less horrified than before.

When Agnes informed Mr. McNally that his wife had given birth to a pair of toys, he naturally scrambled for some sort of logical explanation. Understandably reluctant to accept that he had fathered two bundles of straw and painted china, he came to the only other possible alternative. About a month after the, uh, children were, um, born, Hazel had taken the babies for a brief visit to Chicago, ostensibly for medical treatment. Frank decided this meant that his wife had cold-bloodedly slaughtered their newborns and, with diabolical cleverness, secretly substituted them with a pair of dolls. He yelled for the police and had Hazel arrested for murder.

Hazel stood trial for double infanticide in October 1922. It was noted that for someone accused of such a heinous crime, Mrs. McNally appeared to be getting a good deal of amusement from the situation. She had a simple defense, albeit one that raised The Weird to dizzying new heights. When she married Frank, she knew that an operation had left her unable to have children. Realizing how anxious he was for the joys of fatherhood, she fulfilled his wish the only way she could. Hazel nonchalantly explained that she pretended to be pregnant, pretended to give birth, pretended to take care of two flesh-and-blood babies, all to keep her husband happy.

Frank was always nagging her to have children, she shrugged. So, what else was she to do, huh?

One of the first witnesses was Mary Griffith, a nurse who had visited the McNally home a couple of days after the twins were born. She testified how remarkably protective the new mother was of her infants. She would not let anyone, even Mrs. Griffith, near the children. Mrs. McNally had, it seems, even given birth on her own. Mrs. Griffith admitted that she did not get a good enough look at the babies to say whether or not they were real or ringers, but she did say that "I frequently saw her nurse them--at least she appeared to nurse them." Mrs. Griffith took Hazel's little hoax as a personal affront, grumbling that "to sit up there nine days with dolls makes me feel foolish."

During the trial, Hazel changed her story. She now said that her husband had been in on the hoax. They bought the dolls with the intention of just keeping them on display until they were able to adopt the real thing. However, "babies are mighty scarce when you want them most."

She soon found that her faux-motherhood was a "terrible bother...I was living in a neighborhood with a lot of old married women and they insisted on advising me as to the care of my children to make them grow. They couldn't understand why they remained the same size.

"Further, Mr. McNally held this thing over my head. And every time a few pieces of the household bric-a-brac would come his way and I would threaten to leave, he'd say, 'Now you'd better be careful--I'll fix you if you leave me.'"

She concluded her testimony on a philosophical note. "Well, it's over. I left Mr. McNally September 22. I didn't know what he was going to do. I didn't care. I only wanted to get away from him and from his dolls.

"So I was arrested for assault when I bashed him over the head with the mop, and later for murder. But now I am free. And the joke is still on Mr. McNally.

"But really, he got all sorts of fun out of it. He rocked the babies, wheeled them around in the baby buggy...What more could a man of his age want than doll babies?"

Frank had an uncomfortable time on the stand, as no one seemed to be able to resist the urge to laugh at him. He admitted that he had never seen the faces of his children. "I've often carried them, and for weeks wheeled them in a perambulator, but my wife always said that they were very weak babies and that I was not to uncover their faces. It was only by accident that I discovered finally that they were dolls."

Mrs. McNally's doctor, Cyrenus Campbell, stated that he had examined Hazel only once during her "pregnancy," and "there was no doubt of her condition at that time."

I'm guessing his professional colleagues never allowed him to live down that expert diagnosis.

Before the trial was even over, the judge, Henry Cleveland, decided it was time to stop the show. While Hazel McNally was definitely one for the record books, there was no proof she was a murderer. Judge Cleveland ruled that even if she had really given birth, there was no evidence to show the children were dead. And while it may be a wee bit eccentric to pass two dolls off as your babies, it wasn't illegal either. The defendant was free to go. It was a very popular verdict among the women of Indiana, most of whom were evidently wondering why they had never thought of Hazel's nifty little gag themselves. Some of the ladies talked of lynching Mr. McNally for bringing charges against their new heroine.  As she left the courtroom, Hazel cheerfully told reporters that she was--roughly in this order--buying two new dolls, divorcing Frank, and entering law school. (The assault charges against her seem to have been nolle prossed.)

Effanbee, the company that manufactured her youngsters dolls, happily used the case as part of an advertising campaign, boasting "When they are produced so close to life that they fool the father and the neighbors, that's going some!"

Hazel's happy new family.

As for Frank McNally, he preferred to think that his wife was a murderer, rather than that he was an idiot. Until his death in 1923, he continued to stubbornly insist that he had indeed fathered living, breathing twins, who were out there...somewhere.

As far as I can tell, neither McNally asked for custody of Lauren and Laurene.

This is all I can find about the story in the old newspapers, leaving me with the same unanswered question that is undoubtedly now plaguing you: For how long did Hazel think she could keep her little secret, and when the inevitable day of reckoning came, what would she do? Was her plan to one day dump the dolls in the trash, and sorrowfully tell the world they had been kidnapped? Or would she keep buying dolls of gradually increasing size--assuring the neighbors all the while that her offspring were just unusually quiet and reclusive sorts?

I find myself resenting that busybody Mrs. Sphirmer for keeping us from learning what would have happened if Hazel had been allowed to play her game to the end.


  1. Truly as bizarre as E.T.A. Hoffman's tale of The Sandman.

  2. I'd fear that Mrs McNally. She strikes me as a psychopath who would be just as happy posing with a couple of children's corpses. And Mr McNally was obviously killed by the ordeal, dying just a year later. I'd wonder if that Dr Campbell had been right about his patient's pregnancy all along...

    1. I do wish I could have learned what became of Hazel. I had the same thought you did--I picture her winding up with a cellar full of bodies.

      She may be the scariest character I've ever written about, which is really saying something.


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