book reviews, business

Repost: Fascinating look at the Thalhimer family of Virginia…

Here’s another reposted book review, which appears as/is, and was originally written on October 6, 2015. It comes up because last night, I was remembering The Sword and the Kilt, and trying to describe popovers to Bill.

Having grown up mostly in Virginia in the 70s and 80s, I often shopped at the Thalhimers department store at Coliseum Mall in Hampton, Virginia.  Since I was a kid back then, I didn’t know anything about Thalhimers or any of the other venerable department stores that were around back in the day.  I just know my mom would shop there with me when I managed to convince her to take me to the mall, instead of AAFES, for my school clothes.  When I got older, I used to go shopping with my former best friend and her mother and we’d have lunch at Thalhimers very cool medieval themed restaurant, The Sword and the Kilt.  It was the first place I ever had a popover.

Sadly, back in the early 1990s, Thalhimers was lost in a hostile takeover.  The May Company, which bought a number of historic department store brands in those days, pretty much ruined Thalhimers to the point at which it was no longer recognizable.  It finally died a pitiful death after 150 years of business, mostly in Virginia and North Carolina.

An interview with Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, author of Finding Thalhimers.

I don’t know what prompted me to research Thalhimers, but I somehow ended up finding out about Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt’s 2010 book, Finding Thalhimers.  I downloaded the book and just finished it today.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the history of a local retail giant with a fascinating history.  Reading Smartt’s descriptions of the years when the business was booming made me wish I were older so I could have seen more of it for myself.

As you might guess by her name, Smartt is herself a member of the Thalhimer family, and she grew up watching her dad go to work at “The Store”.  Smartt fantasized about one day being president of her family’s business, but unfortunately, it was not to be.  Discount chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and even K-Mart spelled death for many department stores. 

Finding Thalhimers is about more than just a retail department store chain.  It’s also about the fascinating history of the Thalhimer family, which originated in Tairnbach, a tiny town not too far from Heidelberg, Germany.  Since I am currently living near Stuttgart and have visited Heidelberg, this part of the story was especially interesting.  I learned things I never knew.  For instance, Smartt writes that her family is Jewish and back in the 1800s, Jews were not allowed to have last names.  When the law changed, the parents of the man who would found Thalhimers in Richmond, Virginia, decided to give themselves a name that reflected their origin in Germany.

Smartt then takes readers on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  Her ancestors landed in New Orleans and made their way to Richmond, where they would have a profound effect on the local economy and the city’s development.  I enjoyed reading about how Thalhimers had a friendly rivalry with Miller & Rhodes, another venerable Virginia department store institution.  I remember shopping there as a kid, too.  Unfortunately, they also perished just a couple of years before Thalhimers did.

I enjoyed reading about how the name Thalhimer was originally spelled Thalheimer.  Thanks to a sign painter’s sloppy spelling, the brand’s name changed forever.  Smartt’s book touches on so many notable times in history, too.  She writes about an ancestor who spent three months with a friend driving around Europe in his father’s Chevrolet, making sure to avoid the political unrest in Germany that was going on during the 1930s.  The young man visited stores, collected ideas for the business and products to be offered, and had a good time being young. 

Smartt writes about the civil rights era of the early 1960s, when Thalhimers and Miller & Rhodes were targeted for sit ins.  I was impressed by how Thalhimers handled the racial tensions of the times.  And she reminds readers that her family once owned the Golden Skillet fried chicken restaurants that once dotted the land.  I used to love Golden Skillet chicken, though it never ended up being the next KFC as some in the family had predicted.

Smartt also writes about some of the business deals her ancestors made, some of which were very shrewd and kind of fascinating.  As someone who grew up visiting Richmond and the surrounding areas, I was very intrigued by her descriptions of what it was like there as the Thalhimer family built their business.  They made some amazing deals that netted huge profits.  I almost got the sense that things might have been different for the Thalhimer family had they focused on what the Walton family was doing.  But that would have certainly upset many of their loyal fans.

An ad for Thalhimers… I remember when furs were okay to wear.

I could tell this project was a labor of love for Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, who is just three years younger than I am.  Her writing style is very loving and warm– almost reverent– and she clearly enjoyed talking to many of her relatives and people who were involved in Thalhimers’ success.  I got the sense that she enjoys a close bond with her family, especially her dad.  I was impressed by how she pieced together her family’s history and was able to trace it all the way to their origins in Germany, which she visited with her parents, husband, and sister.

Overall, I really enjoyed Smartt’s book, though I get the sense that she writes the story while wearing rose colored glasses.  I can’t really blame her, since she’s writing about her family.  But naturally, it’s not the most objective look at the Thalhimer family.  I’m sure there are people out there who might have a different take on some of the stories Smartt shares.  I have no horse in that race, though, so I’ll just say I really enjoyed reading this book and am happy to recommend it, especially to Virginia and North Carolina natives who remember Thalhimers.  It’s also a good read for aspiring businesspeople. 

Edited to add: Elizabeth Thalhimer Smart used to have a Facebook page for this book. I wrote a comment and she was kind enough to respond. It turns out that I currently live not too far from where the Thalhimer family originated.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: My review of Fatal Vision…

Here’s a repost of the review I wrote of Fatal Vision by Joe McGinness. I previously reposted this review on June 19, 2014, but the review itself was written on April 14, 2005. It appears here as/is.

From 2014

I wrote this review in the spring of 2005, not knowing that years later, I’d live pretty close to Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Joe McGinness did a great job writing the suspicious story of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton educated Army physician who was accused of murdering his wife, Colette, and their two young daughters, Kimberley and Kristen, on February 17, 1970.  Dr. MacDonald was ultimately not tried by the Army because the investigation of the crime was a fiasco.  In 1979, MacDonald asked McGinness to write a book about the case, as he was being brought up on charges in North Carolina.  In 1979, MacDonald was living in California, making big bucks as an ER doctor.  The murder charges cramped his style.  McGinness wrote the book…  and ultimately, he became very suspicious… 

Original 2005 review

Here’s another review of a book about murder. I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately. Last year at this time, I was writing reviews about books on managed care… Hmmm, now that I think about it, maybe the two are connected! Anyway, I managed to pick up Joe McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision. The original version of Fatal Vision was published in 1983. I just re-read the 1989 version, which includes an afterword that was written in 1985 and an epilogue that was written in 1989. Needless to say, this book has been around for awhile. According to, it has been updated as recently as 1999. Since this book has been reissued so many times, I am left with the impression that it’s still very intriguing to people besides me. The first time I read Fatal Vision was sometime in 1996, when I was overseas in the Republic of Armenia. At the time, I looked at it as just another book in English. I was desperate for ANYTHING written in English, so I didn’t pay much attention to the subject matter. Little did I know that I would be so riveted by this story.

Fatal Vision is the tale of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated physician and former Green Beret soldier who was convicted of murdering his young pregnant wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5 year old Kimberley and 2 year old Kristen, on February 17, 1970. The murders were particularly brutal. While in their beds, all three murder victims were savagely clubbed and stabbed with ice picks. MacDonald himself was also injured. It was he who had summoned the military police early that morning to come to his quarters. MacDonald claimed that the intruders who had murdered his family were acid crazed hippies who were mimicking Charles Manson’s murderous spree. For his part, MacDonald managed to escape the fracas with only a few scratches and a partially collapsed lung. He even told the bystanders what they should do if he went into shock while they were waiting for the ambulance to take him to Womack Hospital on Fort Bragg.

When MacDonald came under suspicion for fabricating the story about the hippie intruders, people began to suspect that he was the one who committed the murders. MacDonald vehemently denied these accusations, but he was still subjected to investigation. The Army investigation was badly botched and the subsequent hearing was a fiasco; as a result, MacDonald ended up not being tried by the military because of a lack of evidence. MacDonald then tried to get on with his life.

Joe McGinniss came into contact with MacDonald when MacDonald asked him to write a book about the case. McGinniss and MacDonald met in June 1979, in Huntington Beach, California. Dr. MacDonald was living the sweet life as head of emergency services for St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach. At the time, MacDonald was thirty-five years old, deeply tanned, and muscular, and lived in a $350,000 condominium (remember, this was the late 1970s!). He drove a rare Citroen-Maserati with the vanity license plate JRM-MD and owned a thirty foot yacht called the Recovery Room.

MacDonald was forced to go back to North Carolina to face charges of murder. He was surrounded by friends in California who didn’t believe that he was capable of murder. Before MacDonald left California, they even hosted a charity dinner in his honor to help raise money for his legal fees. McGinniss, who initially believed that MacDonald was innocent, agreed to come live with MacDonald in North Carolina, get to know him, and write a book about the case. I’m sure that MacDonald thought that the book would help clear his name… in fact, it had just the opposite effect. McGinniss ultimately came to the same conclusion that the jury did, that Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and children. Dr. MacDonald was ultimately sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison for murdering his family.

Fatal Vision is meticulously written and researched. McGinniss does a fantastic job of walking readers through the case and laying out all of the details of what happened on February 17, 1970. He includes pictures that were used as evidence in the case, as well as a floor plan of the quarters where MacDonald and his family lived. More tellingly, McGinniss also includes passages that are written in MacDonald’s voice. If MacDonald actually spoke the way he comes across in this manuscript, I think my suspicions would have been aroused, too. The sections in MacDonald’s voice seem to be very telling about the man’s character. They read as if McGinniss transcribed them word for word, right down to his stammers and gratuitous use of “ums and uhs”. McGinniss came to know MacDonald well, and that was why he changed his mind about MacDonald’s innocence.

One potential drawback to Fatal Vision is that it’s a fairly long book. The paperback version of Fatal Vision runs at just under 700 pages. But I found that the book was a fairly fast read because it’s so interesting. I couldn’t put the book down and found that I was able to read it within a few days. I also wish that there had been a few more pictures included. The picture section in my copy of Fatal Vision includes only black and white photographs. I don’t normally need pictures to enjoy a good book, but I do find them helpful in books about true crime. They help me get a better sense of what happened.

True crime fans will almost certainly find Fatal Vision a fascinating read. Fatal Vision is true crime writing at its best and I found it very informative and interesting. In fact, I believe that anyone who is a serious true crime fan is most likely to have already read Fatal Vision because it’s become a classic in the true crime genre. It truly surprises me that there are only two reviews of this book on

And comments from the 2014 repost…

ShelleyJune 19, 2014 at 10:25 PM

Lawfrog here, too lazy to log into my other gmail account. That book has a long history and McGuinness ended up having to pay MacDonald some money after MacDonald sued him over this book. Interesting read about the legal issues surrounding this book:

  1. knottyJune 20, 2014 at 12:25 AM Yeah, I read about how he sued Joe McGinness and won. I have also read about Fatal Justice, which supposedly refuted McGinness’s account. I don’t remember if I’ve read Fatal Justice or not… will have to check.

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funny stories, true crime

Repost: Dumb criminals getting their asses kicked while trying to commit crimes…

This is a REPOST from January 2019. I am reposting it because it’s funny, and I’m in serious need of a good laugh. I need a reminder of when not everyfuckingthing was about COVID-19 and the end of humanity. The links to the stories still work, so I encourage you to read up on these two hilarious cases if you feel so inclined.

Pro tip to all you criminals out there:  If you try to abduct someone and they break free and run into a karate dojo, you should probably just cut your losses.


This morning over breakfast, Bill shared with me a hilarious news story.  It seems that drug influenced 46 year old August Williams decided to try to abduct a woman in north Charlotte, North Carolina.  The woman broke free from his grasp as he tried to force her into a car.  She ran into a karate dojo, where Sensei Randall Ephraim was finishing up classes for the day.  It was just before 9:00pm on Thursday night.  A few kids were there, waiting to be picked up by their parents, and a few adult students were cleaning.

The woman suddenly shouted that a man was trying to kidnap her.  Dumbass Williams had followed the woman into the dojo.  I don’t know if he knew he was running into a karate school, as he was allegedly high on substances.  Clearly he didn’t realize what was about to happen.  

Sensei Ephraim asked Williams to leave, but he refused.  At that point, the karate instructor dealt with the trespasser accordingly.  Apparently, Williams is a very strong and powerful guy and was “difficult” to fight.  Nevertheless, he left the scene in an ambulance and was then taken to jail.

Now… I don’t know why Williams was trying to kidnap the woman.  She claims she didn’t know him at all.  Also, I’m sure when this was happening, it was not a laughing matter.  The woman was probably scared shitless.  I know would have been.  Still, what luck for this to happen near a karate school!  I’m sure it never crossed Williams’ mind that karate would be his undoing when he tried to force the woman into a car.   

Williams also continued fighting with police officers as they wrestled with him.  I’m sure he will be off to the clink before too long.  Whatever he was on must have been some genuine shit.

One thing I noticed in the news story, as well as from watching an old episode of Intervention, is that some people really enjoy using formal words when less formal language will do.  These are the same people who commit what I like to refer to as “reflexive pronoun abuse“.  You know what I mean?  For instance, instead of saying something like “Please get back to John or me if you need help.”, they’ll say something like, “Please contact John or myself if you need assistance.”

I have my theories as to why some people do this.  I think some folks think it makes them sound more educated.  It’s too bad we don’t do a better job teaching English to people in the United States.  While I love a good fifty cent word, particularly when the meaning of the word is perfect for what is being communicated, it’s important to know how to use the word.  And using formal, multi-syllabic words when simpler ones will do is not a good example of better communication.  The main idea is to get your point across quickly and effectively.  If a person has to wade through your high-falutin’ words to figure out what you’re trying to say, you’re not communicating as well.  Or, at least that’s my unimportant opinion.

Anyway, I’m glad Sensei Ephraim was there to save the day.  August Williams needs to cool his heels in jail for awhile and think about what he tried to do… and has already done.  And those of you who are inclined to follow him into his criminal lifestyle, might want to pay attention to where you’re going if your victim breaks free and dashes into a building.  I don’t know if the outcome would have been the same if the lady had run into a 7 Eleven or something.  Or, maybe it would have.  Sounds like a good idea for a short story.

In related news, I also read about the bum in Florida who assaulted a McDonald’s employee over a straw.  Stupid dipfuck Daniel Taylor was in a St. Petersburg, Florida McDonald’s on January 3rd.  He was evidently upset that there weren’t any straws at the drink station, so he complained about it to the cashier.  Yasmin James, the cashier, told Taylor that Florida law does not allow restaurant employees to put straws out for the public.  They must be requested.  

Taylor then reached over, grabbed 20 year old James and tried to yank her over the counter.  James, a former boxer, then proceeded to repeatedly punch the fuck out of the guy.  I don’t generally enjoy violence, but I must admit to cheering James on as she defended herself against this asshole. Check YouTube for a video of said ass kicking.

Then, once the two were split apart, Taylor had the nerve to demand that James get fired!  Fortunately, a woman happened to capture the attack on video, and Taylor was later arrested.  He’s another one who needs to sit in jail for awhile.  Good for Yasmin James for not taking that guy’s abuse.  

I love a good ass kicking story.


Remember John Edwards?

Yesterday, as Bill and I were enjoying our Veteran’s Day celebration at home, I had a random thought about former 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Edwards was also Democratic nominee John Kerry’s running mate for Vice President in 2004. He was also a former senator in North Carolina. I remember thinking he was a very handsome man. He seemed to have a lot going for him besides his looks, too.

John Edwards had four children in his marriage to his wife, Elizabeth. There was Wade, who was born in 1979 and tragically died in a car accident in 1996. Daughter Cate was born in 1982, then came Emma Claire in 1998 and son, Jack, in 2000. Tragically, the children’s mother, the former Elizabeth Anania, had breast cancer and it killed her in 2010, when she was 61 years old. While Elizabeth was dying of cancer, John Edwards was having an affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter. And with Hunter, Edwards fathered another daughter named Frances Quinn Hunter, who was born in 2008.

For years, Edwards denied having an affair with Hunter, a former campaign worker. He denied that he was the father of Frances for two years, before finally admitting it in 2010. Elizabeth Edwards published a book in June of that year entitled Resilience. In the book, she never mentions Rielle Hunter by name, but refers to her as “pathetic” and a “parasitic groupie”. When John Edwards finally admitted that he’d been sleeping around, Elizabeth separated from him. She intended to divorce him after the one year waiting period required in North Carolina, but died before the time was up. She and John were still legally married when she finally passed away of metastatic breast cancer in December 2010.

John Edwards’ political career was left in a shambles after this affair was made public. It wasn’t just that he’d been unfaithful to his seemingly loyal wife. He was also accused of fraud. Edwards supposedly used over $1 million in campaign contributions to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter. A few years later, Edwards was found not guilty on at least one the fraud charges and mistrials were declared against the others, but the damage had already been done. Edwards hasn’t been back on the political scene. Instead, he’s gone back to being a lawyer. His daughter Cate is now the managing attorney of the San Diego office of his Raleigh based law firm, Edwards Kirby, which, I believe, specializes in malpractice suits.

Why am I bringing up John Edwards today? Because, for some reason, his story popped into my head yesterday. For several years, he was a political golden boy who seemed to have everything going for him. He had an affair, which is not uncommon among people who work in very challenging, powerful positions. The affair, along with the alleged fraud, eventually ruined his career in politics.

And yet, here we have an obvious scumbag like Donald Trump, who has a long history of extramarital affairs and fraud attached to him, and half the U.S. population wants to see him continue his destructive presidential reign. Why was John Edwards so quickly tossed out of the political arena, his reputation effectively ruined, but Donald Trump is still a hero to so many?

I think about John Edwards and, while I would not condone his actions, I think he is a lot more decent than Trump has ever been. He’s certainly better looking, anyway. Maybe he doesn’t have Trump’s charisma, although over half of us in the United States and probably many more people beyond have found that his charm has worn off entirely. It’s amazing what was unacceptable in 2010 that is apparently okay in 2020.

Also… I think of all of the ordinary people who have been “canceled” on social media just for being shitty. Ordinary people who get caught on video being bad for a few minutes can wind up getting death threats, losing their jobs, and being publicly shamed to the point of wanting to commit suicide. And yet we tolerate a president who has mocked disabled people, bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, and has a long history of ripping people off and bullying them into letting him steal from them. Why are so many people willing to give Trump a pass for being the bastard he so obviously is, but more ordinary people wind up “ruined”, at least temporarily, for being caught on video being a “Karen” (a term that needs to die quickly)?

The mind boggles. Well… another day has passed, bringing us closer to January 20. Although I don’t look forward to the drama yet to come as the day draws closer, I am relieved that Biden won. And he did win, y’all. There was no fraud on his part. If anyone was acting unfairly, it was Trump. He and his cronies pulled all sorts of devious and illegal shit to ensure that he wouldn’t lose the White House. And, guess what– he lost anyway, didn’t he?

I can’t wait until he’s gone. It’s been four years of non-stop circus show theatrics coupled with soul crushing embarrassment and moral degradation. It made me rather sick to see Trump honoring veterans yesterday, saluting when he’s not a fucking veteran and can’t claim one tenth of the honor any basic servicemember has. He needs to go.

In other news… aside from losing his father a few days ago, Bill also lost a great aunt yesterday. He didn’t know her well. She was in her 90s and had Alzheimer’s Disease. I have heard stories about her. I hope she’s resting in peace, too.

domestic violence

Domestic violence is not a family value…

Meet Mississippi Republican state Representative Douglas McLeod. The 58 year old man apparently enjoys his alcohol. He also enjoys sex. Police were called to his home last Saturday night because he allegedly punched his wife when she failed to undress quickly enough for him when he called for sex. According to a report filed by the George County Sheriff’s Department, McLeod was intoxicated and holding a glass of booze when the cops responded to a call from his home at about 9:00pm.

The deputies who investigated the incident noted that McLeod punched his wife in the nose, bloodying it. There was blood on the couple’s bed and on the floor. When deputies told McLeod that someone had called them for assistance, his response was “Are you kidding me?”

McLeod said “The cops are here.” Then, he stumbled to the front door and walked outside, where he proceeded to stagger about in a zig zag pattern. The deputies then saw two women, both of whom looked frightened. McLeod was slurring his words and said some things that were unintelligible. Meanwhile, his wife was shaking, upset, and obviously terrified of her husband, the good state legislator.

After speaking with McLeod’s wife, deputies learned that he frequently “snaps” when he’s drunk. After McLeod allegedly bashed his wife’s face, she ran upstairs to the other woman’s bedroom. They closed the door and locked it, while McLeod banged on it and demanded the door to be opened, or he’d “kill her (expletive) dog.”

McLeod’s wife chose not to go the emergency department by ambulance, but said her daughter would take her to the hospital so that there would be an official record of her injuries. McLeod was booked on a misdemeanor count of domestic violence and was released from jail on a $1000 signature bond. Other Mississippi legislators are calling for McLeod, who has been a Representative since 2012, to resign his post.

I read this account just before I read about the failure of a bill in North Carolina that would have made it illegal to continue to have sex with someone who told the other person to stop. North Carolina may be the only state where it’s not illegal to continue to have sex with a person who explicitly says “no”. It has origins from a 40 year old precedent. In North Carolina’s defense, a few bills regarding sexual assault did pass, including one that makes it illegal to have sex with an incapacitated person, even if the person caused that condition within themselves, and another that makes it illegal to tamper with someone’s drink (WTF? That wasn’t already illegal?)

As things continue to get scarier and more bizarre for the women of the United States, I can’t help but wonder why we have so many elected officials who don’t care about the health and safety of half of the population. I used to live in North Carolina, and I know there are many smart people there. Why in the world would the people of that state tolerate such misogyny? Mississippi, I’d kind of expect it from, but not so much from North Carolina.

As for McLeod, it sounds like maybe he has a problem with booze and violence. I don’t know which of the women in his home called the police, but I think it took bravery. It sounds like this abuse has been going on for a very long time and it’s beyond unacceptable that someone who gets drunk and beats his wife has the ability to help make state laws.

I’m beginning to think that most elected officials are simply people who have a thirst for power, but not necessarily the brains or compassion to make them good at the job. I’ve read so many egregiously stupid comments, mostly from white, southern, male Republican lawmakers, on the subjects of women’s health, pregnancy, rape, and domestic violence. More than a few of them seem to think they are above the law or are outright hypocrites.

For instance, in 2017, Pennsylvania Representative Tim Murphy was a Republican who claimed to be “pro-life” and sponsored a bill that would deny Pennsylvania women access to abortions beyond 20 weeks gestation. However, Murphy, who at 65 years old was having an affair with a 32 year old woman named Shannon Edwards, asked Edwards to consider having an abortion when she thought she was pregnant. When Edwards confronted Murphy about his hypocrisy, he claimed that his staff posted all of the pro-life messages and that he’d asked them not to post them anymore. Murphy faced intense pressure to resign, and to his credit, he eventually did.

For being such a “family values” party, the Republicans sure behave in a very unfriendly way toward families. They regularly vote against social safety nets that would make starting and maintaining families easier. They pass laws that would force women to give birth, but they have no love for the children that result from those pregnancies. They cut aid to schools and federal programs that provide healthcare and nutritional support to women and children. And some of them, when dealing with their own families, don’t seem to want to follow the law. Doug McLeod probably thinks of himself as being all for family values, but strong family values do not mesh with getting drunk and beating your wife.

Ah well… some people love to be large and in charge, and some people are masters at looking pro-family even if their behavior is anything but. Look at Bill Cosby. When I was growing up, he had a glowing image of being America’s Dad. He could do no wrong. We all loved his shows, his product endorsements, and even his stinky movies, like Ghost Dad. And yet, he’s now sitting in prison after one of the many, many women who have accused him of drugging and raping them, was finally able to pin a conviction on him. I’m not sure how Mr. Cosby votes. My guess is that he’s a conservative.

If you were around in the 1980s and remember New Coke, which lasted just 3 months on the shelves, you might remember this bullshit… Think Cosby is grimacing because of how good it is? Or is this just another illusion to fool the masses?

Yeah… a master of bullshit right here, not unlike a lot of “family values” politicians…