The company employed 600 men and its main plant – one of seven across the United States and Europe – covered 23 acres. It canned horse meat for dog food and just about drained the west dry of horses, at one stage running its own horse farm across 1.6 million acres of Montana and Wyoming.
CuChullaine O’Reilly recounts the astonishing story of the Ken-L-Ration company – and the man determined to stop the carnage, who came to town with crates of dynamite intent on blowing up its prized plant.
Extracted from “Journey of a Journalist” by Dickon Legh.
“It was 1925, kid. You couldn’t get a drink but you could eat a horse,” Swede Larson said.
He leaned back in his old wooden chair and weighed me with those ice-blue eyes of his. You could hear the clatter of the newsroom through the windows that separated his tiny office from the rest of the Rockford Star. But you didn’t think about things like that when you walked into this sanctum of reporting. The first thing that hit you was the overpowering smell of Camel cigarettes. Swede lit one in bed as soon as he opened his eyes and smoked them till the rest of the world was asleep. He was a fiend about two things, smoking and stories. He loved a good story and if he got hold of one nothing, and no one, could stop him.
Swede wasn’t just my editor at the Rockford Star, in upper state Illinois. When I look back on my life I know he was more than a boss. He’s the one who took a wet-behind-the-ears college journalist and taught him how to be newspaperman.
And he was tough. Fought with Black Jack Pershing in the First World War, then came home and began his reporting career by covering the gang war in Chicago between Al Capone and the Irish North Side mob. Swede didn’t just know every bucket-of-blood speakeasy between Rockford and the Windy City. He had knocked back the juice with guys like Willie the Mark, Tight Lips Gusenberg and Two Gun Jack.
“Yeah, they were all hoods,” Swede said, and a nostalgic smile crossed his battered face. “Good with a gun, I’ll grant you that. But for raw courage, there wasn’t a man in Illinois that could hold a match to Frank Litts.”
It was 1950 and I had recently graduated. Got a degree in journalism from the University of Chicago. First job I landed was at the Rockford Star. It was a slow summer day. Nothing breaking and I was bored. New kid eager for a scoop, I went searching through back issues of the paper for clues about Chicago’s Al Capone and the gang wars that broke out during the 1920s Prohibition. I thought I could hammer out a colourful nostalgia piece about how nearby gangsters made millions selling illegal liquor to a still-thirsty America. Find some old local cops, see what happened to the booze shops once hidden in Rockford’s back alleys. Maybe such a story would help me start making a name for myself at the paper? At least I’d keep myself busy in that hot and airless afternoon newsroom.
When I mentioned the story idea to the news editor, he just smirked, sweated, and told me, “Go talk to the Swede, kid.” It was more of an order than a suggestion, so I knocked on the door to the Editor’s office with a butterfly or two dancing in my stomach.
Larson had never so much as glanced my way and I was glad because frankly he scared me. He walked by my wooden desk like a curtailed menace. In fact, no one talked to him. Larson came out of his office, barked orders, and things got done, stories were written, and a lot of Clever Dicks in City Hall got their political come-uppance in next morning’s Rockford Star. They said Swede Larson wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. Maybe. What I can tell you is that there was one man he respected, a little guy named Frank Litts.
I thought the chatter would be about Capone but Swede instantly brought up Litts instead. When I asked the editor what he was talking about, he replied, “Just the biggest crime story in the history of Rockford, kid.”
“Then why I haven’t I heard of Litts”?
“That’s your job to tell,” he ordered.
And this is the story.
According to Swede you couldn’t understand Litts without knowing about his bitter enemy, Phillip Chappel. Yeah, I know America remembers how Al Capone’s Italians fought Dean O’Banion’s Irish for control of Chicago’s booze rackets. That brawl led to the infamous St. Valentine’s Massacre. But those were mobs. The war between Chappel and Litts was different. It was man to man. Eye to eye. It was two opposing philosophies about horses, fought on the streets of Rockford, with dynamite and shotguns. It was a blood-soaked tale, with blood from the horses, and Litts, running off the pages of the city newspaper onto the streets. But as I learned more, I realized it had been swept under the country’s carpet.
Nineteen twenty-five was a big year, though nobody seems to remember that now. Mussolini made himself dictator and Hitler published Mein Kampf. Calvin Coolidge was president and the New Yorker magazine put out its first issue. More importantly, you could buy a Thompson submachine gun for 175 bucks from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.
It seemed like all the big news was happening up in Chicago when Swede Larson came to Rockford and started reporting for the Star in 1923. In those days the city was proud of its big furniture industry, which employed lots of Scandinavian craftsmen. The town also had an equine story to tell, but no one was talking.
“It was the big War that set it all in motion, kid. That’s what linked me and Chappel to Litts,” Swede remembered.
He went on to explain how more than 24 million American men had registered for the draft. Larson had shipped overseas in August 1918, part of General Black Jack Pershing’s US First Army who left to fight Fritz. Though he wasn’t a warrior, Swede soon learned to battle. He was among the American troops who Pershing threw at the Germans entrenched in the Argonne forest. The Yanks suffered 120,000 casualties in six weeks. Then it got worse. Pershing ordered his men to keep shooting even after the armistice was signed. This resulted in 3500 US casualties on the last day of the war, an act which was regarded as murder by several officers under the general’s command.
“But at least they mustered me out,” he recalled. “Thanks to Chappel and his bunch the horses got it in the neck, or I should say, between the eyes.”
Phillip Chappel was a naturalized Englishman who got his start before the war working as a travelling salesman for a New York-based meat company. His duties were to ride his bicycle to butcher shops in a 50-mile radius of Rochester. Having bought a small farm near Batavia, New York, where he was raising horses, Chappel was ideally placed to furnish mounts to the government when the United States entered the war. Because the nation was still heavily dependent on horse power, civilians were reluctant to part with their animals. Despite this opposition, Chappel sent more than 117,000 American animals off to war.
More than 827,000 horses and mules served the Allied cause. The equine mortality rate in the British army alone was 415,179. When the conflict ended, Chappel was left with horses but no market. The disappearance of Old Dobbin as a equine soldier, and his debut as an article of food, was about to put Rockford on the map.
“After the armistice the surviving equine veterans weren’t put out to pasture like me,” Swede recalled. “They were sent to the butcher’s block.”
Nearly 30,000 horses were sold to Paris butchers, while a further 16,000 were consumed by British families. Chappel joined the rush to feed hungry European civilians by supplying them with pickled American horse meat. When local butchers resumed control of the European market, Chappel needed a new outlet, my editor explained.
With the exception of certain European immigrants, there was no tradition of eating horse meat in 20th century America, so in 1921 Chappel decided to try marketing horse meat to dog owners. Using his New Jersey meat factory as a base, Chappel launched Ken-L-Ration, history’s first commercial canned dog food. Pet owners were so enthusiastic that Chappel was unable to keep up with local demand. That’s when the horse butcher hatched a national plan.
“Up in Chicago Louie Armstrong was singin’ ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ but believe me kid, the whole country was up to no good. You had flappers with short hair, short skirts and no sense. It was the Jazz Age, kid, and it was all about bein’ young. So naturally no one gave a damn about Grandpa’s horses. You gotta remember, I was a Dough Boy, not a fancy cavalry swank,” Larsen said, and looked back in time again. “But my dad farmed with horses near here. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Chappel came to Rockford, because this part of the country used to be thick with ’em.”
According to documents I saw later, Chappel established Ken-L-Ration in Rockford because it had two things he desperately needed, a large vacant cannery and an extensive local supply of Belgian, Clydesdale, German-Coach, Hackney, Trotting, Morgan and Percheron horses.
“Chappel moved his operation to Rockford in ’23. As soon as he got going he went up to Madison Street in Chicago. Carried a basket full of Ken-L-Ration cans which he tried peddling to pet shops. Nobody was buying and history would’ve been different if that pooch, Rin Tin Tin, hadn’t wandered into town.”
“Rin Tin Tin”? I asked incredulously, “the star of the television show”?
“No, you dope. The original mutt, not number four or whatever it is that they’re calling by that name today. Anyway, Chappel had a hunch. When he learned that the original dog and his trainer were at a local hotel, he went there. Tried to convince this guy, Lee Duncan, to let the Big Dog eat Ken-L-Ration. Nothing doing. So you know what Chappel does”?
I admitted I hadn’t a clue.
“He cracks open a can and eats it in front of this Hollywood dog trainer to prove how tasty it is,” Swede said, then laughed at the look of amazement which crossed my young face.
It seemed like a yarn, until I later saw the Chappel company ad that read, “To prove the purity of Ken-L-Ration, Mr Chappel took the can he had been showing Mr Duncan, opened it, and ate some himself.”
Rin Tin Tin was thereafter featured in Chappel’s advertisements and Ken-L-Ration was endorsed every Thursday night on NBC’s Rin Tin Tin’s Thriller radio program. Children across the nation began singing the famous jingle, “My dog’s bigger than your dog, my dog’s faster than yours. My dog’s better ’cause he eats Ken-L-Ration, my dog’s better than yours.”
Thanks to this canine onslaught, one week in August was declared “Ken-L-Ration Week” and more than four million dogs were being fed horse meat via 150,000 stores across the nation. Chappel’s network expanded rapidly into a wide-open market and Ken-L-Ration became an international power in the dog food business. The Rockford plant covered 23 acres, employed 600 men, was posting a profit of $500,000 a year and had soon drained the Midwest of every available horse.
“When Chappel got done around here, it was as dry of horse flesh as a rum bottle on a navy boat. That’s when he turned to mustang meat.”
Unless you’re 150 years old, you probable don’t recall how long America has had a love-hate relationship with mustangs. Cattlemen in particular loathed the sight of feral horses, which consumed range grass and drank precious water. As early as 1824 the problem was so great the government held round-ups to kill unbranded horses. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, cattle increased in value, so thousands of wild horses were driven off the Santa Barbara cliffs into the sea.
Nevertheless by 1910 there were still an estimated 200,000 mustangs in the Southwest and there were more wild horses in Nevada than citizens. Following the First World War wild horse bands increased again, when farm horses replaced by tractors were left to forage for themselves. By 1925 there were an estimated million mustangs.
With the dawning of the Roaring Twenties, Americans were too busy doing the Charleston to bother about what their parents once rode. Yet the notion of a mass-produced dog food that was inexpensive and easy to serve appealed to urban dwellers keen to be modern. The mustang was a natural resource unwanted by anyone, except Chappel.
Wild horses, worth $2, ate as much grass as valuable cattle worth $50, so on the coastal islands off South Carolina the feral herds called marsh tackies were destroyed. Dogs were used to run down wild horses in Arkansas. Farmers killed them in Kansas. Sheep men slew them in Alberta, Canada. The Big Horn Basin witnessed 22,000 horses killed. One man, using a plane, rounded up and killed 10,000 horses on the Oregon range.
“Didn’t anyone know or care what was happening?” I asked Swede naively.
“Don’t be a sap, kid. Chappel was making everybody rich. That’s why when the artist, Charlie Russell, started squawking nobody listened. Out in Wyoming they elected Nellie Ross the first woman governor. Though she wouldn’t let a man have a drink, she looked the other way when it came to saving horses. Even the New York Times said not to worry because Hollywood was sure to rescue a few herds of mustangs for the movie cowboys to ride. No, kid, back in those days politicians and cops got rich by turning a blind eye. Chappel had the country stitched up and he knew it,” Larson remembered with regret.
And the big Swede was right.
Chappel’s Ken-L-Ration company became the world’s biggest packer of horse-meat, branching out to seven plants in the United States and Europe. Though train cars full of horses were running into Rockford, it didn’t matter. He needed more horse flesh. This insatiable need for horsemeat led to an astonishing decision. With the mustang herds hunted to the brink of extinction, Chappel would instead grow and harvest American horses for their meat.
What Larson told me next provided my first lesson in why journalism is necessary to keep government in line. Chappel began by purchasing mustangs for $3 a head but as the wild herds decreased, he decided to shift his emphasis from horse harvesting to horse growing. First he gained control of 1.6 million acres in Montana and Wyoming, described as the heart of America’s healthiest range country.
Because mustangs were tough muscular animals with little fat on them, the butcher determined that broncos didn’t offer his plant enough meat. He decided to produce a perpetual supply of large meat-bearing horses by releasing purebred Percheron, Belgian and Shire stallions into the mustang herds. The result was reflected in Ken-L-Ration ads.
“Chappel Bros. maintain the world’s largest herd of meat horses to provide the best meat for Ken-L-Ration … 1,600,000 acres of America’s richest range country – as large as the state of Delaware – make up this mighty kingdom.”
Despite the landmark size of the Chappel equine estate, headquartered in Miles City, legal claims were made that the massive herds of horses were not properly maintained. While researching the story, I located a court case where one William Hill alleged that a portion of Chappel’s land could only support 3000 head of horses, but was overstocked with about 8000 head. As a result, Hill told the court, the horses were forced to seek sustenance off their proper range on his land. One witness testified that Chappel’s land “looked like fire had been over it.”
Despite the evidence, the case was overturned and Chappel remained lord of the range. But what Rockford, and its butcher boss, couldn’t foresee was that little Frank Litts was coming to town, determined to serve them hell for breakfast.
Swede Larson had witnessed Chappel’s rise and the horse’s demise. According to company records, from 1923 to 1933 the Rockford horse butcher produced 57,889,564 cans of Ken-L-Ration dog food.
But in order to keep Rockford’s meat-eating machine fed, it demanded a uninterrupted stream of equine flesh. Because they were scornfully considered the living dead, these animals were often treated cruelly in transit by railroad employees, before they were ultimately dispatched and canned in the Illinois town. The system, though profitable, had its critics, one of whom launched his first attack against Chappel’s plant in the Autumn of 1925.
“Even though Rockford’s city fathers had shut down Carlyle’s Brewery when Prohibition began, everyone knew you could still get a drink at Gentleman Jacks. It was a high-class joint that you entered by going through the bookshop out front. I was in there late one night in October of ’25, listening to Johnny Dodds play “Messin’ Around” on the clarinet. That’s when word came in that there was a fire at Chappel’s meat packing plant. I can’t say I cared and I sure didn’t hurry to down my drink,” Swede Larson told me that hot afternoon in his office.
“When I got there the fire department boys were battling a blaze that was shooting out the windows. Some train cars full of dog food got roasted too, but there wasn’t enough damage to stop the plant. In fact it was thanks to the railroad companies that there were so many horses pouring into Rockford. They wanted their share of Chappel’s business, so by designating a carload of horses as “chicken feed,” rail officials were under no legal obligations to provide humane treatment to their cargo. I can’t tell you how many horses were cruelly shipped to Rockford for less than a penny a pound, kid.”
That was the first fire. In the weeks that followed there were three more. People started talking about a phantom, maybe an embittered ex-employee. Yet every act of arson inspired Chappel to protect his operation further by erecting a fence, hiring armed guards and offering a reward.
“The first clue came when Doc Gunderson walked into the newsroom and handed me an anonymous letter he had received,” my editor recalled.
Dear Dr. Gunderson,
I saw in the Star that you liked old Dobbin. Have you seen what happens to the horses that are shipped to Chappels? Ten train cars full of horses roll into Rockford every day. Some have been knocked down and the rest of the horses are trampling them. Blood runs out of their necks and heads. There’s nothing in the rail cars for them to eat or drink. They’re so crazy with hunger they chew the tails off one another. There must be enough people in this town to stop this. Please don’t think I’m a crank, only a lover of horses.Signed,
Though no one knew it at the time, Frank Litts had just announced his presence to Phillip Chappel and the Rockford city fathers.
“I stayed alive during the First World War by not doing what my officers, or the Germans, expected,” Swede recalled. “So I should have known not to drop my guard just because Christmas was in the air. But instead of Saint Nick dropping down the chimney, Litts showed up on the night of December 5th, 1925 and damn near blew Ken-L-Ration sky high,” explained Larson.
According to police reports, at 3am one of the guards discovered a figure huddled over a black suitcase placed next to the factory wall. When the intruder failed to put up his hands, the guard fired his shotgun twice. That set off the factory whistle, which in turn brought more guards running to the scene. Though more shots were fired at the fleeing intruder, it wasn’t believed the man had been injured as he was not found within the 10-foot high fence. Upon returning to the suitcase, guards discovered it contained 150 half-pound sticks of dynamite. The fuse was intact and mere seconds had stopped the mysterious assailant from destroying the plant.
The greatest manhunt in Rockford’s history got under way before dawn, but it wasn’t the cops who found the mystery man, it was two little boys walking home from school. Thirteen hours after he had been filled full of lead, Frank Litts was discovered lying in a field two miles away from the packing plant. He was blood-soaked, semi-conscious, and unrepentant. Rockford’s trouble’s had just begun.
The boys hurried to a nearby house and telephoned Sheriff Ross Atkinson, who drove to the scene within minutes. Seeing that the man was in critical condition, the sheriff carried his prisoner to the car and hurried him to Rockford’s hospital.
“I was in the room with the sheriff and Chappel when Doc Gunderson brought Litts out of shock with stimulants. He had lost a lot of blood because the guards hadn’t missed. Litts had bullet holes in his back, hands, thighs and legs. I couldn’t believe the man had escaped, much less climbed a ten foot fence and run two miles through the dark,” Swede said, then shook his head in delayed disbelief.
Though the dynamiter was in critical condition, Chappel was impatient to know why Litts had attacked the plant. Larson was as cynical as they come. He narrowed his eyes and took a long drag on his Camel cigarette, while thinking back on what happened next.
“I’ll never forget it. Though Litts could only whisper, he looked straight at Chappel and said, ‘I did it for the horses.’ That was the moment I knew it was hate at first sight between those two. A bulldog and a terrier. Someone was going to have to die because neither side would surrender,” Larson remembered.
“Later that night, I got a tip from a pal at the hospital. He had heard a doc say they expected Litts to die any minute. I rushed back over but Chappel and Sheriff Atkinson had beat me there. Though Litts was hemorrhaging, and running a fever, he agreed to give what we all thought was his death-bed confession.”
From his cot Litts admitted, “I was in Miles City, Montana, when I first heard about shipping range horses east to be killed for food purposes. I believe that the killing and corralling of wild horses is wrong. I would rather see my mother’s body ground up and used as a fertilizer than to have horses killed like they are here.”
At first he had written a letter to Mrs. Coolidge, wife of the President, asking her to use her influence to save America’s horses from slaughter. When neither the First Lady, nor her horse-loving husband, responded, Litts decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I came to Rockford about six weeks ago with the firm purpose in my mind to destroy the Chappel Company plant by burning it to the ground and thereby freeing all the horses,” Litts said. He confessed that in addition to trying to destroy the place four times by fire, he would have blown the building to pieces had he not been surprised by a guard while he was adjusting the fuse.
“Of course by the next day the story was out on all the wires. They really had fun over in New York making up headlines about the “Cowboy Bomber.” But Litts had worked as a miner in Alaska and Montana, which explained the dynamite. What none of the papers got right was the meaning of the man. I’d met a lot of desperadoes in my day, but Litts had a sense of the aesthetic about him. Simple, pleasant and courteous, he never altered his claim that he didn’t want to harm anyone. But he was a ardent little man when it came to his beliefs,” the editor recalled.
If Litts was a miner, not a cowboy, then why had he risked his life for these horses, I asked?
“There’s two ways of looking at horses, kid. Money or Emotion. Passion or Profits. Remember, Frank had spent years toiling underground. He was a miner and miners dig deep. Maybe the sight of horses running free woke something up inside him? Or perhaps he couldn’t stand seeing someone being bullied and in this case the someone was a horse.”
Though I couldn’t solve that mystery I did learn that not everyone agreed with the captive. It didn’t take but a couple of days for Wayne Dinsmore, manager of the Horse Association of America, to reassure the public that the animals slaughtered at the Rockford plant were “not horses, but in cowboy parlance ‘broomtails’.”
This shill for the horse-meat plant told the Associated Press that it was more humane to slaughter the “small, worthless Cayuses,” than let them starve to death on the range. Besides, he claimed, Chappel only purchased 500 a month of these “valueless horses from Indian reservations.”
Ten days later the town learned Litts may have been wounded but he wasn’t through. In mid-December he made two attempts to escape during his first appearance in court, by bolting through the door.
“It was a million to one shot but the odds never frightened him,” Swede recalled.
Between these twin bouts of turmoil, the prisoner entered a guilty plea and asked for a jury trial. Though his opponent was in jail, Chappel wasn’t gloating. By 1925 crime had increased to unprecedented levels because of Prohibition. In that age of glamorous gangsters the last thing the butcher wanted was for the public to sympathize with the prisoner.
“Chappel realized that if Litts starting singing on the stand about Ken-L-Ration and horse abuse, it would be music to the ears of the national reporters covering the story,” Larson explained. If Chappel was to win, there could be only one outcome. Litts had to be declared insane.
The trial began in late February.
“The prosecutor threw everything at the guy but none of it stuck. Said Litts was a labor agitator working with Jack Reed and the Wobblies. Hell, every working man had been in a slugfest about that subject a time or two. Said he had been tossed in an insane asylum out west because he lost his head over a woman. If that makes a man crazy, then half my reporters are nuts.”
Larson paused, then said, “What Litts didn’t reckon on was Chappel pulling strings so as to have him found crazy. That way Ken-L-Ration could deny everything he said.”
Though entrusted to protect his client, the public defender placed a doctor on the stand who swore the prisoner was insane.
“He’s throwing me down!” Litts shouted out in court.
The judge ordered the prisoner to be silent.
When Litts took the stand in his own defense he gave an eloquent oration, denouncing the brutal horse homicide practiced by Ken-L-Ration. He also vehemently defended his sanity. But the fix was in. Judge Reynolds instructed the jury to commit Litts to the state insane asylum if they believed his actions “were prompted by an uncontrollable influence or an insane delusion.”
The jury deliberated the case for almost 12 hours. At 10:30pm a dozen tired men returned to the court. Their ties were awry and their faces showed the effects of the battle of words they had endured.
Jury Foreman Walter Ullmark told the court they found the defendant guilty, but went on to state, “We find he committed the acts as charged but that he was insane and has not recovered.”
The judge ordered the prisoner to be confined in the Illinois Asylum for Insane Criminals “until he be adjudged fit to be discharged.”
Litts had been legally buried alive.
“When they led Litts by me he asked, ‘How could they bring in a verdict like that?'” Swede remembered.
Was he insane, I asked the editor?
“He was a lot of things, kid, but Litts wasn’t crazy,” Larson said, not out of reverence or affection but with a tone of grudging respect.
It was a stillborn debate because a few days later Litts escaped!
He hid in the prison yard while 250 convicts were being exercised. When they were marched back to their cells and counted, Litts was missing. In the ensuing excitement Litts followed a posse of guards out of the prison that had only held him for a week.
The next day headlines screamed “Litts Escapes – Rockford Terrorized.” Articles described how, fearing vengeance, armed guards patrolled the plant and protected Chappel’s house. Though the police threw out a dragnet, the prisoner had disappeared.
Litts waited. The hysteria died down. No one ever discovered where the escapee had spent the last 21 months but on November, 1927 he returned to Rockford – armed with three cases of dynamite. He walked into the Cedar Court Hotel, calmly registered under the name of H.J. Nichols, rented a room, then disappeared until the late afternoon. Police later determined he had been hiding the dynamite close to the Ken-L-Ration plant in preparation for that night’s raid. Later that afternoon he returned, stretched out in a comfortable chair in the lobby and fell asleep.
During his absence Laura Jones had come on duty at the front desk. A former jail matron who was now the hotel’s night manager, she recognized the slumbering guest as the escaped arsonist.
“You ever see Louise Brooks, the It Girl? As cute a piece of cake as ever spiced the screen. Yeah, yummy,” Swede recalled, drawing a long drag on his Camel and looking back in time. Then he snarled, “Well, Laura Jones was no It Girl. She was as big as a train and tough as a boot.” He paused, then added, “And she never let people forget she was the one who snitched on Frank Litts.”
When confronted by the cops Litts insisted they had the wrong man. First they searched his pockets and found a newspaper article about 40,000 wild horses in Oregon dying from lack of water. Then they removed his shirt and saw his body was covered with scars from the previous bullet wounds.
Rockford had its man and it didn’t waste any time tossing him back into prison. For a while there was no news about Chappel’s sworn enemy.
“It was May of ’31,” Larson said. “I remember because I was writing a story about the completion of the Empire State Building. That’s when we got a wire story saying Litts had led a big prison break. There were 175 prisoners milling around in the exercise yard when he and a dozen prisoners made a bid for freedom. They scaled an old building before the guards could react and Frank even made it up onto the wall. That’s when a cop shot him through the left lung.”
There was a pause, then the editor said, “I remember listening to Louie Armstrong playing ‘Lonesome, All Alone and Blue’ later that night.”
At first I was too embarrassed to push for more, but I finally dug up enough nerve to ask what happened to Chappel and Litts?
“They were yesterday’s men, kid. Prohibition ended and Capone’s 10,000 speak-easies disappeared overnight. Then the Great Depression came along and suddenly everyone was talking about Hoover and Okies. Horses were old news,” he said, then added, “Litts died in prison of tuberculosis in 1938.”
“What about Chappel,” I asked half-heartedly, expecting to hear some tale of fabulous wealth which put his bouffant children through an Ivy League college.
“Chappel died a few months later but he didn’t have the last laugh,” Larson grimly recalled.
Though he had mastered the mechanics of horse homicide, a shadow had touched the butcher’s life. In an ironic twist of fate, his golden-equine-goose started losing money. By 1938, with Ken-L-Ration half a million in debt, family members forced him out. Chappel, who had begun his life as a bicycle-riding salesman, ended up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he spent the remainder of his life trying to recreate his North American success. His efforts were undermined by the emergence of Argentine political strong-man Juan Peron, who thwarted the North American’s equine ambitions.
Ken-L-Ration also took an unexpected turn.
With the dawning of the Great Depression traditional meat factories felt the pinch. This inspired corporate beef butchers to enter the dog food arena, which in turn drove Ken-L-Ration to the edge of bankruptcy. In 1942 the company which invented canned dog food was sold to the Quaker Oats Company. During wartime the company, famed for its breakfast cereal, sold “six carloads of US government-inspected horsemeat to eastern cities every week.” According to company records the meat was purchased by “immigrants and their children to whom this protein was a familiar item of diet.”
“That’s right, kid,” Swede said, “the old Quaker gentleman was peddlin’ pickled ponies just like Chappel had done. They made money all through the second war that way.”
It seemed like that’s all there was, when Swede surprised me by asking me a question.
“You ever listen to Louie Armstrong, kid”?
I thought he was going to spit when I said I wasn’t much of a music fan but did like “April Love” by Pat Boone. I had never heard some of the army words Swede used to describe that clean-cut crooner.
“No one to talk to, all by myself. No one to walk with, I’m happy on the shelf. Ain’t misbehaving, savin’ all my love for you,” Swede chanted quietly. “That’s what Louie sang, kid. But I bet Satchmo didn’t know he was describing Litts sitting there in prison, cause that’s what the man did. Sat there thinking about them horses.”
He paused, looked me over hard, made a silent decision, then Swede told me a secret. Litts had died in prison, his mind clear, his soul at peace, ready to be claimed by an everlasting sleep. He only had one discontent, he confessed to the reporter who had covered his story.
“You know what Frank told me the last time I saw him? He was in the prison hospital. Knew he was dying, when he whispered, ‘Wish I’d busted loose, Swede, cause I was comin’ straight back to Rockford.”
And with that the editor dismissed me.
When I glanced back I saw Swede had swung his chair round and started typing again. His clothes still hung on him like an insult. But he didn’t care. In the newsroom they said the only thing Larson ever loved was his old Royal typewriter. Armed with that little black weapon he slew giants, exposed graft, savaged corrupt politicians and covered the biggest equestrian crime story in America’s Jazz Age.
CuChullaine O’Reilly has spent more than thirty years studying equestrian travel techniques on four continents. After leading the Karakorum Equestrian Expedition, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. CuChullaine is one of the Founding Members of the Long Riders’ Guild, the publisher of the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel wisdom, the director of the equestrian academic research organization LRGAF, and the author of Khyber Knights and The Horse Travel Handbook. He is currently preparing to depart with his wife, the Swiss equestrian explorer, Basha, on the first equestrian journey around the world. www.theworldride.org
Author’s Note: The use of the narrative voices provided by Swede Larson and Dickon Legh are fictional devices designed to provide a structural narrative wherein to set the extraordinary story of Frank Litts in historical context. However the actual events, arrests, court trial, prison escapes, etc. did in fact occur as noted. Two primary literary works, “Rockford – The Pet Food Story” and “The Wild Horse of the West” by Walker Wyman, provided the information regarding Phillip Chappel, Rin Tin Tin, Quaker Oats and the destruction of the American wild horses. An immense number of newspaper accounts, court documents, interviews, emails and other books were edited for the sake of brevity. Additionally, geneaological work done by Julie Litts Robst revealed tremendously valuable clues regarding her great-uncle’s crusade to save American horses from destruction. All of this accumulated documentation is available to equestrian scholars via the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation. www.lrgaf.org
Originally published on Horsetalk.co.nz in September, 2009.