Sunday, June 10, 2012

Posthumous prank

Does this look like a man with a keen sense of humor? Maybe not, but that sly smile may just be his tongue in his cheek. He was a longtime resident of Springfield, Illinois, where I grew up, and here are some of the jokes that John “Jay” Slaven (d. 1976), a newspaper advertising salesman, played during his lifetime:
  • He sold new employees a parking pass to a non-existent parking spot, leaving them to search for a spot that was nowhere to be found.
  • While he was having coffee at Steak ‘N Shake* one morning, he had the car of one of the regulars lifted from the street and placed on the sidewalk.
  • He called St. Agnes Church regularly to ask what time the 7:30am Mass started.
  • He kept a friend on the phone for half an hour masquerading as a railroad employee who had a shipment of hams for him. When the exasperated friend finally asked, “Do you know where these hams came from?” Slaven would reply, "From a pig’s behind!” and hang up, laughing.
  • He sent a friend countless greeting cards over a period of 40 years, all signed “From the County Morgue.”
He may have had the last laugh in 2009, but didn't live to see it. Here's how the prank played out:

Mount Sterling resident Patty Henken bought an antique chair at an Illinois auction and later found a typed note folded up inside the stuffing in the cushion (photo here). “Finders Keepers!” it promised, and enclosed a key that the author - “Chauncey Wolcott” - claimed would unlock a lead chest containing 24 gold coins. The treasure was buried at 1028 N. Fifth Street in Springfield. The address led her to an empty lot, so she showed the note to Dennis Chrans, who lives next door and owns the property. Chrans' research came up empty, but he and his wife allowed Henken to satisfy her curiosity. “I think there’s a date and a story in the box. I think the part about the gold coins was just to get someone to dig it up. I hope he doesn’t leave me baffled the rest of my life. I just decided I wasn’t going to let this sit around my house and have another day to think about it. This has taken up most of my summer,” said Henken. On a Sunday afternoon, as a crowd of  friends and family gathered, hired union operators took to the yard with a backhoe. The 1st hole was dug 12' deep and  revealed a cistern that contained nothing but bricks, bottles, and dirt. A 2nd hole went down 14' and hit a well, but it held only bricks, more bottles, and a big log (photos here). It only got worse from there, with the backhoe breaking down and no box discovered. The mystery began to unravel when Betty Atkinson Ryan of Mason City read the newspaper article about the note and the dig. She recognized the name "Chauncey Wolcott" as the alter ego of the prank-playing, typewriting, coin collecting Jay Slavin she had worked with for 18 years until he retired in 1971. Slavin, as it turns out, had lived in the house the Chrans now owned next to the vacant lot. His wife sold it and the furnishings shortly after he died. When Henken was told, she was far from resigned, exclaiming, “This is unreal. This is just adding another layer to this thing that’s making me crazy. I think we have to dig again.” But before she could mount another attack on the lot, an unidentified man came forward to show proof that the coins were not buried, but with him. He had inherited them in 1987. Henken says of Slavin, "He’s got one on me. And I’ll have to wait until I die to get him back.”

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