Today I have returned to what was the original mission of this column, detailing Superman vs Bigot story arcs from the Adventures of Superman radio show. Today’s entry aired after both “The Hate-Mongers Organization” and “Clan of the Fiery Cross” making it, as far as I can tell, the third such story.
“Knights of the White Carnation”
The story opens in the home of Vincent Kirby, a successful Metropolis businessman, newspaper owner, and member of one of the city’s oldest aristocratic families. Kirby is having a meeting of five of his associates, each wearing a white flower in the lapel of their business suit. These are the Knights of the White Carnation.
Kirby presents the group with clippings from the Daily Planet which show the Metropolis High School varsity basketball team, who have been on a winning streak. Kirby is offended by four of the names of the five pictured players: Casimir Pulaski, Michael Kelly, Tony Rizzuti, Phil Kaplan, and Jack Wilson. Kirby says, “Doesn’t it seem rather odd to you that in a great American city like Metropolis, four out of the five members of our championship basketball team should be foreigners? Isn’t it a little shocking to discover that names like Pulaski, Kelly, Rizzuti, and Kaplan overbalance a good American name like Wilson four to one? Yes gentlemen, it is shocking. Not only shocking, but disgraceful. Not only disgraceful, but dangerous.”
Kirby calls for his associates to help him remedy this situation and most of the others follow Kirby’s line of reasoning. But one, Charles Canfield, is sickened. More than half of the first episode in this arc is taken up by the ensuing argument between Kirby and Canfield and it makes the message of the piece more than clear, so I’m going to transcribe a good three-minute chunk:
Canfield: “To begin with, I can assure you that the four boys named in this newspaper clipping are not foreigners.”
Kirby: “What would you call them?”
Kirby: “Really? Does Pulaski sound like an American name to you? Casimir Pulaski? I suppose you’ll tell me that his ancestors came over on the Mayflower.”
Canfield: “No, but one of his ancestors, a Polish patriot, General Pulaski was in this country before your people ever dreamed of coming here. He fought in the American revolution. If you study the Metropolis Street Guide you’ll find that Pulaski Street was named after him. And another thing! Wouldn’t you be proud to have your oldest son enrolled at West Point?”
Kirby: “Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with the question at hand, Canfield.”
Canfield: “It has this much to do with it: Another famous Polish patriot, a man named Kościuszko, designed and built the original West Point Military Academy.”
Kirby: “I don’t believe it.”
Canfield: “You’re at liberty to consult either a history book or an encyclopedia on that.”
Kirby: “I’m not interested in consulting anything! My only purpose is to see that–”
Canfield: “I’m beginning to understand what your purpose is, Mr. Kirby. When I consented to join your Knights of the White Carnation I was under the impression it was to be a group of intelligent Metropolis businessmen dedicated to the preservation of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. A group that would actively combat the influences of Communism, Fascism, and all other -isms created to destroy freedom of speech, action, and religion.”
Kirby: “Well that’s exactly what it is!”
Canfield: “I’m afraid not. I see it now as a group of narrow, bigoted men attempting to create intolerance, prejudice, and hatred among different races and creeds. And I see you, Mr. Kirby, as an individual fully as dangerous as Hitler or Mussolini.”
Kirby: “How dare you say a thing like that? How dare you?”
Canfield: “Unfortunately it’s true, Mr. Kirby. You could easily be another Hitler. This meeting could just as easily have taken place in pre-War Germany.”
Kirby: “I demand an immediate apology for those- those slanderous remarks, Mr. Canfield.”
Canfield: “You’ll get no apology, Kirby. But what you will get is this White Carnation, which I’m ashamed to say I wore even for a moment. You picked a white flower as your symbol because white indicates purity. But all the surface purity in the world can’t cover the rotten odour of hatred. And I don’t like the smell of it!”
Kirby: “Canfield, you’ve said enough to make it clear you don’t belong here.”
Canfield: “You’re right I don’t. I’m getting out, Kirby, as fast as I can. But before I go let me warn you. Not only am I withdrawing from this hate-mongering group you call the Knights of the White Carnation, but I’m going to fight you tooth and nail and expose you on the front page of every decent newspaper in America. Goodnight.”
Canfield leaves and Kirby assures the group that he can handle the situation. Kirby works quickly, because as soon as Canfield reaches his home he is met by a stranger who stabs him to death.
The death is reported as a fatal mugging, but Daily Planet editor Perry White suspects otherwise. It turns out that Canfield had stopped at a payphone on his way home to call White to arrange a meeting the next day to reveal a big story. White assigns reporter Clark Kent to investigate.
Clark visits his friend in the police force, Inspector Henderson, who tells him that, though Canfield’s wallet had been taken, the killer missed an expensive fountain pen set and a thousand-dollar watch, which casts doubt that it was really a mugging. Also found in Canfield’s pocket was a newspaper clipping of the basketball team with the four names underlined in red ink.
The high school sports beat for the Planet is covered by cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, so Clark comes along to that night’s championship game. There they learn that, apart from team captain Jack Wilson, the players has been replaced with substitutes. Pulaski, Kelly, Rizzuti, and Kaplan have been suspended because they are suspected of dealing with professional gamblers.
After a brief interlude in which Superman keeps the grandstand from collapsing, Jim and Clark meet with Wilson, who tells them that Coach Reed had been made to take the others off the team under the orders of Henry Mortimer, the chairman of the school board. Clark tries to question Mortimer, but the chairman refuses to cooperate. Clark makes it clear that if it turns out that the charges against the kids are fraudulent, then Mortimer has essentially made a public statement that they are criminals and that’s tantamount to slander. Clark also warns that he suspects that Mortimer is caught up in the same trouble that Canfield was, and that he might be next to get a knife in the back.
When Clark leaves, Mortimer meets with Vincent Kirby, who forced Mortimer to remove the players (Mortimer is not in the Knights and didn’t even agree that the kids were foreigners but was threatened by Kirby). Kirby tells Mortimer that he can reinstate the suspended team members and he’ll find another way to get his work done.
That other way is Joe McMillan, the man who killed Canfield. Joe tries to bribe Coach Reed to keep the kids off the team, but Reed refuses and fights Joe off. Joe and his partner Fargo then ambush Cas Pulaski and Tony Rizzuti’s. Cas and Tony decide not to report the beating, because if they have to deal with the police they may miss the game. Unfortunately, their injuries are worse than they thought and they can’t play well, so the team loses the game. Not long after the game the two are arrested for throwing the game.
Clark meets with the District Attorney Frank Agnew, who explains that a gambler named Munroe has confessed to giving the boys fifty dollars each to lose. When Clark wonders why Munroe would confess, Agnew says that they got evidence from Henry Mortimer that incriminated Munroe, so Munroe is cooperating with police by giving them more information. The connection to Mortimer just makes Clark more suspicious that the whole thing is a frame-up. Clark gets Perry to pay the bail for Cas and Tony, because their families could not afford it.
The next day there is trouble at Metropolis High, where a crowd of students are angrily trying to get at the basketball team. It turns out that someone has been handing out pamphlets reading: “Students of Metropolis High, The athletes who sold you out last night, and discredited you and your school, are foreigners. These foreign boys and their families have different ideals from than yours. They will do anything for money and unless they are stopped they will ruin our great country. It’s up to you to show them they don’t belong in our schools, don’t delay, act now.”
Superman speaks to the students and calms the near-riot. Clark realizes that the people who were handing out the pamphlets fit the description of Joe and Fargo, so Clark tells Jim to stick around the school in case they turn up again. They do, and Jimmy and basketball captain Jack Wilson follow them. Eventually Joe and Fargo catch on, so Jim tells Joe that they were impressed by the stuff in the pamphlets and want to join the racist cause. Joe agrees, telling the two to wait at a certain food truck that night for a phone call, in which he’ll tell them where to go for a mission. He also gives them white carnations to wear.
Jim updates Clark and it is decided that when they get the information, they’ll call Clark and D.A. Agnew to tell them where Joe and Fargo are. Unfortunately for Jim and Jack, Joe shows up in person instead of calling, meaning Jim and Jack are unable to make their call, leaving Clark and Agnew waiting unaware of what’s going on.
Joe takes the boys to another high school where he wants them to break in and cover the place in posters with racist rhetoric. As soon as Jim gets a chance, he tries to use the principal’s telephone to call Clark, but gets caught. Joe takes the boys to Vincent Kirby, who deduces that Jim is working with Clark Kent. Kirby makes a phone call posing as a store-owner, saying that Jim asked him to call because they payphones were busy, but that everything is alright. Clark is suspicious of the call, but has nothing else to go on.
Kirby has a new plan now. He’s going to make it look like “foreigners” are behind the disappearances of Jim and Jack as retaliation. Threatening to have Joe and Fargo beat Jack to death, Kirby forces Jim to phone in a story to the Planet saying the four basketball players were actually guilty. As Jim complies, he hopes that Clark is in the office to see the story before it goes into print.
But Clark is not at the office. Instead he is meeting with his friend, private investigator Candy Meyers (I had forgotten that Candy Meyers was in this story, however briefly. I literally said “Candy!” aloud when I got to this point). Candy agrees to help and won’t even accept payment because Jim is a friend and because it’s a chance to stick it racists. Clark and Candy decide to check out the one lead they have left, the white carnations. They’ll go to every flower shop in town to see if anyone knows a customer who matches Joe’s description.
Jimmy and Jack make an escape attempt, during which Fargo seriously injures Jimmy, giving us a cliffhanger in which it genuinely seems like Jim is dead.
It isn’t until the next morning that Clark sees Jim’s phony story and finds the coded message therein, which reveals that he and Jack Wilson are in trouble and that the story is a lie. Fortunately one of Candy’s agents has found the florist that Joe uses and a delivery boy there is able to take Clark to Joe’s apartment. Though the place is empty now, the boys left a message in the petals of some white carnations, an attempt to depict a hilly landscape that inspires Superman to search the hills around the city.
Jimmy is still unconscious as Joe and Fargo transport the kids to another location, and the goons are worried that if Jim actually does die and they are found with him, they’ll get in serious trouble while Vincent Kirby will be fine. They decide to forget Kirby’s plan and kill the kids and get out of town. Superman arrives at the last moment and saves the kids.
Joe and Fargo tell the police about Kirby and his racist group, so D.A. Agnew, Clark Kent, and a dozen plainclothes police show up at Kirby’s estate the next night (naturally the cops wait outside while the District Attorney and a reporter go inside, which I assume is standard procedure). It turns out a meeting of the Knights of the White Carnation is in progress and they are able to identify the prominent local businessmen who are part of the group. When the two are captured by another of Kirby’s henchmen, Kirby makes it clear that he thinks he’s too important to the city to be arrested. When Agnew disagrees, there is a brief violent climax and Superman is able to save the day. Kirby and associates are arrested and we jump to the sentencing. The judge says that Vincent Kirby is to die in the electric chair.
# of Episodes: 15
Air Date: 26 February 1947 to 17 March 1947
- I have to assume the show was trying to recreate the success of “Clan of the Fiery Cross” in that the villains in that one were a thinly veiled take on the Ku Klux Klan and the villains in this one are a take on the Knights of the White Camelia, another real-world white supremacist terror group. While the Klan is often made up of people in lower-status positions in society, the Knights of the White Camelia were more of an “upper class” alternative made up of doctors and lawyers and other “respectable” types. It also seems like they preferred a less aggressive, more insidious means of being racist, similar to what would be called “ghost skins” in today’s racist circles.
- General Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish Americans cited by Canfield, are both real. Even I, a Canadian, am familiar with Pulaski due to recent research on their sex and gender that is quite interesting but beyond the scope of this write-up.
- The serial directly preceding this one was “The Monkey Burglar” so when Perry sombrely comes to tell Clark to investigate the death of his friend and Clark replies “But what about this Monkey Burglar story I’m working on?” it is certainly a clash of tones.
- When Coach Reed first shows up in the story, Jimmy points out that he’s also the science teacher and that he had him when he was in high school. It has nothing to do with anything else in the story and I found it a nice moment of verisimilitude.
- The code that Jimmy works into his story is like this: In the first paragraph he uses words with the “four” syllable an unnatural number of times (“foreboding,” “fortune,” “formally,” etc.) to clue in Clark to read every fourth word of the rest of the story, which spell out the message. It’s pretty clever of Jim, really.
- In the first episode Vincent is said to own the Daily Sentinel and the Daily Blade is on the list of “decent” papers he doesn’t own, but for the rest of the story he is the owner of the Daily Blade. I sincerely hope someone got fired for that blunder, and all that. D.A. Agnew’s voice also changes between his first appearance and the last chapters.
A flaw that this story shares with “Fiery Cross” is that the victims of the racism don’t really get to do much in their own story. In “Fiery Cross” Tommy is basically written out and Chuck Riggs gets to have the adventure with Superman. In “White Carnation” there are four basketball players targeted for being “foreign” and the one that gets to hang around with Jimmy the whole time is Jack Wilson, the other one. Cas and Tony ignoring their injuries to go to the game is the only real action the victims get to take in this one.
Also, there is not a single female character in this entire story. Not one is given a speaking role. Not one plays any active part. And except for a mention of Jim and Jack’s mothers, I don’t think any are even mentioned. Even Lois Lane doesn’t show up until the last chapter’s wrap-up, which is actually the setup for the next serial.
And perhaps this one is a nitpick, but any time someone accuses one of the kids of being “foreign” and someone argues back “they’re not foreign” it feels like they’re presupposing that being foreign actually would be a bad thing, but it’s not the case here. I’m sure it isn’t meant that way, but it’s how it feels.
I didn’t remember much about this one before re-listening, but I knew that Perry’s friend was involved in the racist group, so I assumed Perry had a bigger role. Maybe we could do something with that. Have Perry join a social group and realize that it is full of racism. When he speaks out, he’s the one targeted. If we do this in a continuity in which Perry and Alice had adopted Keith (the black child they adopted in 90s books) we could certainly work with that. Keith could be in the school where the riots are being fomented. And to up the sci-fi threat to Superman, maybe we have the rich jerks in the Knights able to afford super-tech devices. Our modern equivalent of Vincent Kirby would probably buy big robots and stuff as “security” for his mansion to protect him from the foreigners. He’d definitely want to arm the groups he wants to start fights. I’m sure someone could make it work thematically. Anyway, if we’re setting it in modern day we would certainly need a darker-skinned batch of “foreigners” than Polish and Irish kids. And I’d have a much larger role for Candy Meyers.
I figure my options are either to continue going chronologically and cover the next Superman vs Bigots radio story, or to get distracted and do another issue from the comics. I can’t be sure where I’ll go with it.