Installment Buying Landed Me In Jail (Mar, 1960)
Installment Buying Landed Me In Jail
She was imprisoned, beaten and twice carted off to a mental hospital—as a result of buying a TV set—that didn’t work!
By SHARY O’HARA
I WAS THROWN INTO JAIL, beaten almost to death, and twice sent to a mental institution as insane—all because I bought a television set on installments.
This sounds fantastic, I know. But my hand trembles as I write this. I want to close my eyes and cry a five-week nightmare from my mind. But I must tell my story to someone—to someone who may have forgotten that a citizen’s rights are the most precious, most wonderful rights in the world.
Most of my life I have been an entertainer, performing with the darling creatures of Nature. I was known as “The Bird Woman” for my talent in training mynah birds and parrots and other pets, training them to talk, laugh, giggle and sing. Thousands of people have been delighted by my novelty act. Though I’m a bit past thirty years old, I still have my “show girl” figure; my natural blonde hair still has a golden hue. My eyes are sky blue and I have been considered more than attractive.
My past, as an entertainer and a citizen, was unblemished up until that day when I bought a secondhand combination radio, record player and television set.
I had gone to Hallandale, Florida, with a dear friend of mine, a school teacher to whom I was about to become engaged. We noticed an eye-catching display of second-hand television sets in Wright’s radio & appliance store. Although I already owned a television set, it played badly and my friend suggested, “Why not look them over?” I agreed.
I picked out a handsome Zenith priced orginally at $1,500 and marked down to $349. I let my friend make the financial arrangements because I have no head for figures. It worked out that I would get $100 trade in for my set and the balance, $256.47 (tax included), would be paid in installments. Mr. Wright said that a finance corporation would take over my account.
Even though that seemed simple enough, it was as though a shadow had passed over my heart, warning me that something terrible was going to happen. But I shrugged the bad feeling away, telling myself I was being childish.
On the third day the set went bad.
I called Mr. Wright and a repair man took the set to the shop. When the set was returned it went bad again. I sent it back again, and when it was returned, in no time at all, it again went bad. The fifth time Mr. Wright himself came for the set. By that time my 90-day guarantee was used up. All I had gotten for my money was misery, inconvenience, and only a few hours of clear television viewing.
Two months passed and Mr. Wright hadn’t returned my set. By that time I was preparing to move to Del-ray Beach to put on a few shows with my birds. I told this to the finance company when I gave them my monthly payment. Then, by pure chance, I happened to meet the repairman at Wright’s and he told me, confidentially, that my set was a lemon.
“It’ll cost you from $60 to $70 to rewire it and then it probably won’t work right. They haven’t even started on it yet- Besides, your record player is also on the bum. They want you to make a deposit before they start work on it.”
Before I moved to Delray Beach I wrote to Mr. Wright asking him to return my television set. His answer finally came to me when I had finished the shows and moved to Wilton Manors. Mr. Wright said: “. . . contact us immediately regarding your TV set.
Unless set is redeemed we will dispose of it.”
Then the finance company began to hound me. They hounded me until life became unbearable!
They telephoned me at all hours of the day and night, demanding their money, slandering me, abusing my reputation, condemning me—day after day—until my nerves were frazzled and every sound made me jump. I kept telling them, “I’ll make the payments, gladly, but first return my television set”—but they never listened. They kept hounding me until my gallstone condition became so aggravated I became terribly sick.
Then the finance company sent a collector to my home.
He was tall and heavy-set and had a coarse voice like a mean tiger. He became abusive and vulgar, calling me vile names and threatening me with bodily harm. He jabbed his thumb at my face and I swear to God, he said exactly this: “I’m warning you, Shary. You’ve heard of people’s bodies floating in the bay, haven’t you. Well, they didn’t jump in, see. They owed finance companies money and that’s how we handle people who give us trouble!”
I was so terrified that I screamed at him to leave or I would call the police. When I said “police” he left— and my terror was so deep that I fainted. I fell to the floor in a dead faint, hitting my head hard.
The next door neighbor called the police and they took me to a hospital, then to a private doctor. When I told him what had happened, he was shocked. When I was well enough to leave for home, I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid the collector would come back, that he would disfigure me, that he would hurt my birds and pets out of revenge. It was the beginning of a nightmare I thought never would end.
When I told my school teacher friend of the horrible incident, he assured me that I had no reason to be frightened. I couldn’t be jailed for non-payment of .a bill. Especially since I hadn’t ever gotten the TV set back and when I did have it—it was just a pile of junk.
I felt easier then—but not much.
And then the two other men from the finance company came to my new home in Wilton Manors. The two burly men pounded and kicked the front door, demanding that I step outside, demanding their money, shouting vile names at me, using profanity that drunken sailors wouldn’t use—promising me the most horrible physical harm if I didn’t let them in. In desperation I pleaded with them.
“I haven’t got your television set. Mr. Wright has it. But you can take everything else, the stove, the refrigerator, all my furniture, only leave me in peace.”
But they kept pounding the door and cursing me, claiming they weren’t in the second-hand furniture business. “We want our money!”
People from all over gathered. Traffic stopped to watch what these two men were doing to me, how they were humiliating me, shaming me before everyone who knew me as a respectable woman. The disgrace was terrible. I finally screamed.
“If you don’t go away, I’ll call the police.”
They pounded the door a bit more, and cursed me, then shouted up.
“If you don’t have a payment by Friday, we’re going to dump you in jail!”
On Friday, at 3:30 in the morning, two sheriff’s deputies from Hollywood, Florida, and one policeman from the Wilton Manors police force started beating on my door, demanding that I come out. Police car sirens began screaming all around me and the men started taking out the windows to get in. My heart was pounding like a hammer and I was frantic with fear.
The Wilton Manors policeman finally opened the door with a skeleton key and they charged up stairs into my bed room. I was in my pajamas. My knees buckled and I fell to the floor in terror. No one moved to help me.
They claimed to have a warrant for my arrest for hiding and concealing the property of the finance company. I tried to explain the situation but they demanded that I dress and be escorted to the police station.
They wouldn’t let me dress in private, saying I might run away. They made me feel cheap and disgusting as they watched me dress.
I was taken to the Broward County Jail, but wasn’t booked as should have been done if I was to be arrested. They allowed me to call my friend and when he tried to bail me out, they wouldn’t let him.
“You can’t bail her out,” they claimed. “She’s insane. The doctor said so. She’s going to be sent away for treatments.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was taught to obey and revere the law—to honor the ideals of the law—and now the law was committing a terrible crime against me. If someone had smashed me with a rock, I couldn’t have been more frightened, and dazed.
I spent three days in a jail that was like a ghastly dungeon. The mattress was like tissue paper and crawling with all kinds of vermin. When I managed to doze off I was awakened by a terrible squealing. It was a rat caught in a trap that was gradually crushing its head and neck. That went on all night. I couldn’t bathe or even read the newspaper. What little money I had I gave to the other prisoners for candy and cigarettes. I felt so sorry for them. The only moment of relief I had was when a doctor examined me for my mental condition—but that relief turned out to be just another form of torture. He asked me questions about sex and perversion and immorality and then he judged me “insane!”
I was taken back to my cell, my heart leaden with despair and hopelessness. They kept opening the door to my cell at all hours of the day and night and tossing in women of the worst kind. Drunks, whores, fanatics, drug addicts, women who were banged up and bloody from beatings and street fights, women with sores and rashes all over their faces and bodies. “Dear God,” I prayed. “Please get me out of here. I committed no crime. All I did was buy a television set on installments. Please, dear God, get me out of this torture chamber!”
After three days my case came up and I stood before the bar of justice. I was asked, “Guilty, or not guilty?” I pleaded, “Not guilty!” and explained my story. I told how I begged the finance company to take back their property. I wasn’t hiding or concealing it. I told how they hounded me, shamed me, violated my person, disgraced me before my friends and neighbors. I expressed my anxiety to get home because my animals and birds needed attending or they would die, and said that I wasn’t a healthy woman and was under a doctor’s care.
Judge Devoe said, “I’m dismissing the case against this woman.”
The bailiff stepped to me. I cried with joy. Tears of happiness ran down my face. I could go home to my pets and beautiful birds and carry on my •work and once again live like a respectable woman, trying to forget this dreadful experience.
Outside the courtroom I asked the bailiff if he would be good enough to loan me the bus fare to get to Wilton Manors as I had given all my money to the other prisoners. He said that first we had to go upstairs, and then I would be given the carfare. I told him: “No, thank you. I would rather die first. I’ll hitch a ride back to Wilton Manors.”
The bailiff grabbed me savagely, and. dragged me to the elevators. I was too stunned to resist. This was unbelievable. Judge Devoe had freed me.
At the elevators I tried to pull away but the bailiff nearly tore me in half to drag me back. While I was struggling another policeman came in, hauling a woman who claimed she wasn’t drunk and wanted to be with her husband. The policeman smashed the woman’s face, knocking her down and breaking her arm. (I heard later that the woman died.) I went with the bailiff because I was terrified that I would be smashed in the face. I was shoved into a cell that was like a huge pail—it was a solitary confinement cell. But they didn’t shut the door.
“Why, dear God, why?” I prayed. “Why am I being persecuted and hounded, abused and violated? Why? Doesn’t the law protect innocent people? Why am I being sinned against by the law? Why?”
But now I was treated with even greater abuse. I was considered a trouble maker—merely because I had asked for my rights as a citizen. My health was getting worse and I was subject to terrible pains. Though I was supposedly in solitary confinement, they kept shoving other prisoners into my cell. Drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes.
Later on I was taken to another psychiatrist who asked the same questions asked of me by the other doctor. All about sex with men and sex with women, sex, sex, sex, as if the only way to tell whether a person was sane or insane was by asking questions about sex. This psychiatrist said that I was going to be sent to the Jackson Memorial, but when I was finally taken from the jail, I was sent to the Miami Retreat, a sanatarium for mentally disturbed people.
I, Shary O’Hara, who had been a good woman, a fine entertainer, a respectable citizen who had never committed one infraction against the law, was sent to a place where they treat the insane—and they hadn’t even issued a “sanity warrant” that entitled them to commit me.
I stayed at the Miami Retreat for three days. I demanded that I be examined for my sanity but the doctors said they couldn’t examine me because they hadn’t a “commitment order.” I raised such a fuss, insisting that they examine me, that they finally did and found me to be absolutely sane. They gave me a paper stating that I was sane and competent.
I was taken from the Miami Retreat and escorted back to the Broward County Jail to wait for my trial. That same night while I was standing on a chair by the window, looking up at the sky and praying to God for help, the chair was suddenly kicked from under me and I fell to the floor, bruising my arms and injuring my back. They had thrown a crazy woman into the cell and she was taken with a fit and I was the one who suffered the brunt of her insanity.
While waiting for my trial, not one day passed without something dreadful happening to me. I was kicked and pinched and solicited by perverts, struck by drug addicts who used me to vent their anger. In order to get some help before my entire state of mind collapsed, I began writing letters and tossing them out the window of my cell, hoping some passerby would find one and read it and try to help me. I even tried to smuggle some letters to the newspapers to tell them of the horrors that were happening to. me. One of those letters nearly caused my death.
I was with some prisoners watching morning television when a matron, charged over to me. She was a thin woman with a mean face and gimlet eyes. She shouted at me and pointed toward the cell block.
“You get into that cell!”
I was startled and didn’t know what to do.
“What happened? What did I do?” I asked her. She sneered at me, and I’ll never forget her yellow, ugly teeth.
“You get in there and you’re not getting out any more. You’re going to be sent away for good!”
I shook my head, deathly afraid. “I’m not going in there. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
She suddenly grabbed hold of me, cursing, “I’ll teach you to write letters!” Then she grabbed me by the hair and I screamed with pain while she dragged me back to my cell and flung me onto the floor. I felt a snap in my neck and I started to faint but she heaved me onto a bed and began whacking my face until I thought my head would come off. She finally let me alone and I spent all night in pain.
I was sent to a third psychiatrist who began asking me questions about sex. Have I ever done this or that? With this kind of a person or that kind of a person? Did I enjoy it or hate it or not care one way or another? Sex, sex, sex—as if all the people in the world lived in one big, dirty bedroom. I answered as best I could and was sent back to my cell. A while later I learned that he had sent in a report saying that I was incurably insane, a paranoid.
I was not allowed to see anyone after that. But I kept writing letters and tossing them out of the cell window, vainly hoping someone would come to my help. I was being driven out of my mind by the roaches and other bugs, by the rats in my cell. One day, for no reason at all, I was beaten up by two prisoners. When I recovered I asked why they had beaten me up and another prisoner answered: “That’s how they are. They’re crazy.”
It was only through the help of the Assembly of God church people— the people who visit the prisons to pray for the unfortunate inmates— that the first ray of hope shone for me. While they prayed for me, I told them my story and begged them to help me before an innocent soul was cast into hell for no reason at all. They said they would try to help me, and soon trickles of newspaper items began to appeal-.
I was never given what I call a trial, but I was permitted to have a hearing—a hearing that was e,ven more unbelievable than what had already happened. .
At the hearing a letter was read— a letter from the finance company written to the State’s Attorney—asking for my release. They said they wanted to drop the charges because they couldn’t stand the adverse publicity that my case was causing them. But the State refused to release me. They brought two psychiatrists to testify against me. They said that I was criminally insane and if I were to be released, I would probably commit a terrible act of violence— even murder.
I had them bring out the certificates of competence and sanity given to me by the doctors at the Miami Retreat, proving that I was not only normal, but of a superior emotional stability and mentality—but the certificates on my behalf were ignored.
When the one-sided hearing was over, I was soon shipped to the Miami Retreat and I was honestly glad to go there instead of having to stay in the prison cell. Even if the Retreat was for the mentally disturbed, the cells were clean and the food was digestible. Then the news- papers started to hammer at the State’s Attorney and the public. I was returned to the Broward County Jail. The Fort Lauderdale Daily News ran a front page story about my suffering and even sent a photographer to the jail to take my picture—to show the public what was happening to an innocent person.
Then, by a strange miracle of circumstance, one of the prisoners in Broward showed me a newspaper which said that the “O’Hara woman was released today.” I READ THIS WHILE I WAS STILL IN JAIL!
The State’s Attorney had released a notice to the newspapers saying that “the O’Hara woman” was being released because she had served the maximum sentence she would have served had she been found guilty. I thought I was dreaming. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
In a little while my cell was opened and I was allowed to go free. The nightmare was over and my heart was racing so fast I thought it would burst from my body. The nightmare was over—yes—but the waking up from a nightmare can be just as terrible.
When I returned home it was like stepping into a funeral parlor. Most of my birds and animals had died. When I saw their tiny, dead bodies, my heart broke and I cried for hours. My only friends had starved to death. The loveliest, gentlest, most loyal of God’s creatures had died while waiting for me to return. Oh, how I prayed that their sweet souls were resting in peace.
Later on, the finance company sent the sheriff’s men and they foreclosed on my mortgaged belongings—refrigerator, a stove, chairs, a chaise longue—as payment for the remainder of my debt.
I was left destitute and had to quit show business to find work as a waitress in order to survive.
I had to tell this story.
And there are so many other gruesome details that I’ve had to leave out because, to this day, I still can’t bring myself to remember the full horror of what happened to me.
But I had to tell this story to let it serve as a warning to the people who fool themselves into believing that they have rights that will always be protected when they come face to face with the law—or have to deal with a finance company they know nothing about.
Take warning from me. Be sure you know what you’re doing.
I’m free now, yes. But there are scars on my heart and soul that I know twenty lifetimes could not heal —there are brutal memories that I will take with me to my grave. And why? Why was I put through weeks of nightmares? I’m not sure I really know—unless I was made to suffer only so I could write my story to warn others to be on guard.
But this much I do know: Before I buy another bit of merchandise on installments, I’ll commit myself as crazy, because—after what I’ve gone through—only a truly crazy person would risk going through those horrors again. • • •