New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Crime & Criminals

Inspector Byrnes, Inventor of the Third Degree

New York’s first great police detective was Thomas F. Byrnes. A largely self-educated Irish immigrant, Byrnes joined the force in 1863. He rose to sergeant by 1869 and captain by 1870. In 1878, the Manhattan Savings Bank, which was in his precinct, was robbed. Byrnes took the robbery as a personal affront and tracked down the criminals through hard, thorough, gritty detective work. Two years later, the newly promoted Inspector Byrnes took command of the Detective Bureau, which he made among the most efficient and absolutely secret in the world. After the state legislature reorganized the Detective Bureau to his specifications in 1882, his power was immense.

A master self-publicist, Byrnes published Professional Criminals of America (1886), a minor classic, still in print, which no student of American history should be without. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son, wrote a series of tales taken “from the Diary of Inspector Byrnes.” He described Byrnes as “handsome…large and powerful in every sense of the word. His head is well shaped, with a compact forehead, strong nose, and resolute mouth and chin, shaded with a heavy moustache. His figure is erect, his step light, his bearing alert and easy. His eyes are his most remarkable feature… They have in moments of earnestness an extraordinary gaze. His voice is melodious and agreeable, but he often seems to speak between his teeth, and when aroused his utterance acquires an impressive energy.”

Other journalists, though less adoring, were also impressed. Lincoln Steffens described Byrnes as “simple, no complications at all—a man who would buy you or beat you, as you might choose, but get you he would.” Jacob A. Riis met Byrnes while working as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In his autobiography, The Making of an American, Riis describes Byrnes as tough, effective, unscrupulous, autocratic, and utterly ruthless. He believed thieves had no rights a police officer was bound to respect. Above all, he was a ferocious and imaginative interrogator. Byrnes coined the phrase “third degree” to describe his methods of eliciting useful information from criminal suspects. He had no scruples about torture and did anything necessary to make suspects confess. Anything.

In February or March of 1891 an interviewer asked Byrnes’s opinion of the London police’s handling of the Whitechapel murders: the savage mutilation of East End streetwalkers attributed to Jack the Ripper. The Chief Inspector commented that the London police had sent him a photograph of the Ripper’s most famous letter, the signature boldly scrawled across the page, with its return address, “From Hell.” According to The New York Times, Byrnes “said it would be impossible for crimes such as Jack the Ripper committed in London to occur in New York and the murderer not be found.”

This was published about six weeks before the night of April 23, 1891.

Water Street, in downtown Manhattan, was then lined with low watering holes and dance halls, catering to what Luc Sante’s Low Life calls “a highly elastic clientele of sailors.” Herbert Asbury noted in The Gangs of New York that practically every house on Water Street contained at least one dive. He wrote “at one time, some tenements had a saloon, dance hall, or house of prostitution on every floor.”

The East River Hotel stood at the southeast corner of Catherine Slip and Water Street. Sante describes the hotel as a crimp joint, used by “operators who specialized in drugging and robbing sailors, sometimes arranging for them to be shanghaied about tramp boats, if they survived.” Asbury also says that sailors were robbed and killed there in their sleep, and their bodies disposed of through trapdoors opening into underground passages that led to the docks.

Between 10:30 and 11 p.m. on April 23, 1891 an aging whore flounced into the hotel with a john in tow. Her name was Carrie Brown, but she was known familiarly as “Old Shakespeare” because she knew (and would recite for a bottle of swan gin) the major female role in Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice. She claimed to have been a celebrated actress yer younger days.

The john signed the hotel register as “C. Knick.” Mary Miniter, an assistant housekeeper, caught a glimpse of him. She later described him as having a foreign appearance, about 32 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, slim build, long sharp nose, heavy mustache of light color, and wearing a dark-brown cutaway, black trousers and a dented black derby. Even so, Miniter claimed she did not get a good look at him: he seemed “anxious to avoid observation.” Old Shakespeare took the key to Room 31.

Around 9 the next morning, Eddie Harrington, the night clerk, saw the key for Room 31 had not been returned. He went upstairs and knocked. Then he took out the master key.

C. Knick was gone, and no one had noticed his departure. Carrie Brown’s remains were on the bed. The coroner determined she had first been strangled. Then the murderer had mutilated her body in a frenzy of stabbing and cutting. Dr. Jenkins, who performed the autopsy, thought the killer had attempted to carve the abdomen out of her body.

Rumors of the killing swept the city. By the next morning, even The New York Times had splashed the story on its front page:

Choked, Then Mutilated

A Murder Like One Of Jack The Ripper’s Deeds

Whitechapel’s Horrors Repeated in an East Side Lodging House

Worse still, the Times repeated Byrnes’s boast that the Ripper murders could not have happened in New York without the criminal’s arrest within thirty-six hours. This was precisely not the take Byrnes wanted on the story. His men fanned out into the Fourth Ward.

By April 25, among the numerous men under arrest was George Frank, formerly known as Ameer Ben Ali, also known as Frenchy, an Algerian Arab who professed to neither speak nor understand English. On the night of the murder, Frenchy, an habitue of the East River Hotel, had occupied Room 33, across the hall from Room 31.

Five days later, Chief Inspector Byrnes triumphantly announced that Frenchy was the killer. He admitted Frenchy had not been C. Knick. However, Byrnes alleged that after C. Knick had left, Frenchy had crept across the hall, robbed and killed Carrie Brown, and crept back into his own room. There were blood drops on the floor of Room 31 and in the hall between Rooms 31 and 33; blood marks on both sides of the door to Room 33, as if the door had been opened and closed by bloody fingers; blood stains on the floor of Room 33, a chair in that room, the bed blanket and the mattress (apparently, the East River Hotel did not provide sheets). Blood had been found on Frenchy’s socks. Scrapings from his fingernails indicated the presence of blood. His explanations of how the blood came to be on him had been found false.

Frenchy was arraigned on April 30 and held in the Tombs until his trial opened on June 24, 1891. As he could not afford an attorney, the court appointed Abraham Levy as his counsel. Abe Levy would conduct some 300 homicide defenses, making him a legend of the criminal bar: this was his first. The court had found an interpreter from his own village in Algeria, so Frenchy could participate in his defense. District Attorney DeLancey Nicoll and a chief assistant, Francis Wellman, prosecuted. Byrnes and four officers testified for the prosecution. According to Edwin Borchard, so did numerous witnesses “from the lowest stratum of New York life, to prove that Frenchy had been living a sordid life, and, particularly, that he was accustomed to staying at the East River Hotel and to wandering from room to room at night.”

Three medical experts testified that a chemical analysis of his fingernail scrapings and of the blood stains on the bed in Room 31, the hallway, the door to Room 33, inside Room 33 and on his socks showed “intestinal contents of food elements, all in the same degree of digestion—all exactly identical.” They inferred from this that the bloodstains resulted from blood flowing from the abdominal injuries of Carrie Brown.

By contrast, the defense, lacking the resources to conduct a thorough investigation, had to rely on the defendant, who was a dreadful witness. Frenchy sometimes seemed to understand English; at other times, he claimed not to understand questions even after they had been translated into his native dialect. He consistently denied killing Old Shakespeare, but the prosecution (Francis Wellman later wrote in The Art of Cross-Examination) “badly tangled” Frenchy “time and time again upon cross-examination.” Frenchy was convicted of second-degree murder and, on July 10, 1891 sentenced to life imprisonment in Sing Sing.

The belief on the street was that Frenchy had been framed. There were two rumors. One was that the murderer, a blond sailor, had sailed for the Far East. The other was that Old Shakespeare really had been murdered by Jack the Ripper. Although most of the Ripper murders were committed during the late summer and autumn of 1888, Frances Coles, also known as “Carrotty Nell,” was butchered in February 1891: only two months before Carrie Brown took C. Knick upstairs. Steamers had reduced the travel time from London to New York to roughly a week. Asbury suggests many investigators believed that Jack the Ripper had accepted Byrnes’s challenge, and that the police had arrested Frenchy to save Byrnes’ professional honor.

Nearly eleven years later, in 1902, Gov. Benjamin B. Odell received a pardon application for Frenchy, based on new evidence. Apparently, a man who matched the description of C. Knick had worked for several weeks in the spring of 1891 at Cranford, New Jersey, about fifteen miles from the city. He had been absent from Cranford on the night of April 23, 1891 and disappeared entirely several days later. Among the objects left in his room were a brass key bearing a tag with the number “31” and a bloody shirt. The key matched the keys to the East River Hotel. After all, the murderer had locked the door to Room 31. No evidence had ever connected Frenchy to the key.

Moreover, Jacob Riis submitted an affidavit based on direct observation. When he had visited the hotel on the morning after the murder, before the coroner’s arrival, he had not found blood on the door of either room or in the hallway. The Governor inferred from the affidavits of Riis and other observers that the bloodstains, which had been found by the police only on the day after the murder, had been made at the time of the visit of the coroner and the crowd of reporters when the body was examined and removed. Even the police had testified that there was no blood on or near the lock or knob of the door to Room 31, which presumably the murderer had unlocked, opened, closed and relocked. Yet Frenchy’s guilt was premised on evidence suggesting he had passed out of Room 31 dripping blood on the floor, wearing bloody socks, and then smeared blood on the door, floor, and bed of Room 33.

Between the weakness of the old evidence and the strength of the new, the Governor’s mind was made up. On April 16, 1902, after an imprisonment of ten years, nine months, and ten days, Frenchy was ordered released. Borchard reports that the French government arranged Frenchy’s return to Algeria.

Thomas F. Byrnes retired from the force in 1895 after three years as chief of police. He died in 1910.

No one really knows who killed Polly Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes or Mary Jane Kelly in the fall of 1888, or Carrotty Nell in February 1891. Nor do we know who killed Carrie Brown.

New York Press, September 4, 2001

February 8, 2015   No Comments

Bill the Butcher

My first “Old Smoke” column recounted the adventures of the Hon. John Morrissey, Congressman and heavyweight boxing champion of the United States, who once, according to the Philadelphia Bulletin, told the House of Representatives that he “had reached the height of my ambition. I have been a wharf rat, chicken thief, prize fighter, gambler, and Member of Congress.” This was some twelve years after his indictment for the murder of William “Bill the Butcher” Poole, the 19th-century anti-Catholic street-fighting man whose memory, until recently, survived only among readers of Herbert Asbury’s masterpiece, The Gangs of New York. Now, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film, freely adapted from Asbury’s book, Bill the Butcher is now far better known than during his own lifetime.

Or after a fashion, anyway. A few days ago, my wife pointed out a New York Post article about a recent ceremony held in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: a granite headstone was placed at Poole’s hitherto unmarked grave, inscribed with Poole’s legendary dying words: “Good-bye, boys, I die a true American.” The article even had someone playing “Taps” over the old reprobate—a gesture that Green-Wood’s president, Richard Moylan, seemed anxious to justify to audiences for the film, which sets Bill’s death, at the climax of the movie, in the midst of the Draft Riots of 1863.

“He was a bad guy, really,” Moylan observed in his capacity as an historian. The riots in question comprised a week of unrestrained mob violence—burning, looting and lynching—directed predominantly at the city’s black population. “We did it for all those who lost their lives in the riots,” the Green-Wood president explained.

The trouble with using Bill Poole to commemorate those killed in the 1863 riots is that Poole was murdered in February 1855, some eight years before. Bill the Butcher had as much to do with the Draft Riots as Bob the Builder. As an artist, of course, Scorsese isn’t trying to present history or depict Poole as an historical person. His interest in the figure lies elsewhere, in truths far more profound than one finds in the recitation of mere fact.

But there’s a disingenuous quality to the little incident at Green-Wood. Moylan claimed the Butcher’s gravestone was about history. To me, it seemed all about promoting tourism and making money.

More than six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, William Poole stood out in an age of small men. He began his career in the Bowery Boys, New York’s most important street gang. Unlike today’s gangsters, the Boys were working men—whether laborers or self-employed small businessmen like Poole, who was a butcher by profession as well as avocation. They were also, as Asbury wrote, “the most ferocious rough-and-tumble fighters that ever cracked a skull or gouged out an eyeball.” Here, too, Poole stood out, for he fought like a berserker.

By the mid-1850s, Poole had drifted into freelance political enforcing. His personal gang controlled the Christopher Street waterfront. Militant supporters of the Know-Nothing party (so called because its members answered all questions about the movement from outsiders with the phrase, “I know nothing”), Poole and his men bitterly opposed Irish-Catholic immigration, hating the immigrants as cheap labor competing for their jobs and loathing the politicians who pandered to the immigrant vote.

New York City’s Nativists were not all thugs. The Know-Nothings had elected James Harper—a partner in the Harper Brothers publishing house—mayor for one term. In other states, they elected governors, congressmen, and state legislators. Regaining City Hall through ballot box stuffing and terror seemed entirely possible. Seen in this light, Bill the Butcher was a pioneer in using street fighters to dominate a nominally democratic society. Two generations later, the same idea would occur to Benito Mussolini.

Poole emerged from the shadows after joining forces with political boss Captain Isaiah Rynders. The Captain, a former riverboat gambler and knife fighter, operated his political organization, the Americus Club, from a bar on Park Row across from City Hall. A one-time U.S. Marshal, Rynders was a virulent racist who left the Democratic Party during the 1850s for the Nativists. Among his new friends was Bill Poole.

It was during this time that young John Morrissey charged into the Americus Club and challenged every man in the bar. Asbury states that Poole was among the dozen or so thugs who accepted Morrissey’s challenge with a flurry of mugs, clubs, and bung starters. Rynders was moved by Morrissey’s audacity and courage (Morrissey convalesced in his best bedroom, complete with attending physicians and nurses) and even offered him a job. Morrissey declined, largely because he detested Bill the Butcher.

The Butcher then announced he would seize the ballot boxes at an upcoming election. Some honest and wealthy citizens, knowing the police would not enforce the election law, retained Morrissey. Before the polls opened, Morrissey had stationed some fifty men in and about the building, ordering it held to the death. As Asbury writes, “He also let it be known that there would be no adverse criticism if Bill the Butcher’s bullies were permanently maimed, and that ears and noses would be highly regarded as souvenirs of an interesting occasion.”

Poole and his men rushed the building around noon. On observing Morrissey and his welcoming committee, the Butcher paused, glaring at the Tammanyites. But hatred did not overwhelm Poole’s common sense: the Butcher knew how to count, and so he left with his men. This made Morrissey’s reputation, and Tammany permitted him to open a small gambling house without undue police interference, which soon made him a wealthy man.

Street fighting between Tammanyites and Nativists was usually about power: sometimes it was even about sports. Poole’s death stemmed from a boxing match between Tom Hyer, the Young American and Nativist brawler, and Yankee Sullivan, beloved of Tammanyites and Irish Catholics. One of Sullivan’s fans, an ex-Bowery Boy and ex-cop named Lewis Baker who had, as a judge observed, “a most unaccountable passion for disorderly scenes and associates,” got into a bar fight with Hyer, who had a knack for that kind of groin-kicking, bottle-smashing, eye-gouging, window-breaking work. After a cop refused to intervene in what he considered a dispute among gentlemen, Hyer (bleeding from gunshot and stab wounds) beat and kicked Baker senseless and left him in the street.

Baker’s troubles only began, however, when he ran into Bill Poole in a Canal Street drive called the Gem. Poole had once beaten Yankee Sullivan senseless himself and, feeling that Baker had been disrespectful to Hyer, nearly finished the job the Young American had begun. This time, the cops interfered. Poole left the bar insisting that whatever might remain of Baker after their next meeting would “scarcely be worth the attention of an undertaker.” Thereafter, Baker went out only with a bodyguard, usually one Paudeen McLaughlin, whose disposition, Asbury notes, “had been particularly murderous since his nose was chewed off during an affray at the Five Points.”

Some time later, Poole and Morrissey met in a Broadway watering hole. Morrissey wagered $50 in gold that Poole could not name a place where Morrissey would not meet him in a fight. Poole named the Christopher Street pier—his home turf. Mrs. Morrissey had not raised any fools, and Morrissey handed Poole the money. He then asked for another location. Poole suggested the Amos Street dock (at the end of today’s West 10th Street). They agreed to meet at 7 o’clock the next morning. Morrissey arrived with a dozen men. Poole did not show. Two hundred of his men did, however, beating Morrissey and his men until, as Luc Sante notes in Low Life, “a delegation of Tammany politicians” rescued them.

Poole and Morrissey next met on February 24, 1855 in Stanwix Hall, a newly opened bar on Broadway near Prince Street. Morrissey was playing cards when he heard Poole. Morrissey strode up, spat in Poole’s face, and drew a pistol. It misfired. Poole drew his own pistol. Either Morrissey or Mark Maguire, a friend of Morrissey’s, then asked Poole, “You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would you?” Poole swore and threw his pistol on the floor. He picked up two carving knives from the free lunch counter and, hurling them into the bar, invited either Maguire or Morrissey to fight it out. Both declined. After all, Bill the Butcher knew the use of knives, and he was famous for throwing a butcher knife through an inch of pine at twenty feet. Then the cops arrested them both and released them almost immediately outside the bar.

Morrissey reportedly went home to 55 Hudson Street for the night. Poole, however, soon returned to Stanwix Hall. Baker, McLaughlin, and several other Tammany sluggers were there. McLaughlin jostled Poole. When Poole turned, the noseless Tammanyite spat three times in his face and challenged him. Poole slapped five $10 gold pieces on the bar, offering to fight whoever would cover his bet.

Then one Turner, another Tammanyite, flung open his cloak and drew a Colt revolver. While trying to aim at Poole, he shot himself in the arm, screamed and fired again, hitting Poole’s leg. The Butcher fell, and Baker, placing his own pistol against Poole’s chest, shot him in the heart and abdomen. Poole scrambled to his feet, probably on pure adrenalin, and grabbed a carving knife from the bar. The Tammanyites fled as one. Poole screamed that he would tear Baker’s heart from his living flesh. As Poole’s legs gave out, he flung the knife at Baker, and the blade was quivering in the doorjamb as the Butcher collapsed to the floor.

Everyone surrendered except Baker, who hid in Jersey City until March 10, when he sailed on the brig Isabella Jewett for the Canary Islands. The authorities remained passive (after all, Baker was an ex-cop) until George Law, a wealthy Nativist, lent his clipper yacht Grapeshot to the police; they overhauled Baker about two hours off Tenerife and brought him back in irons. Baker, Turner, Morrissey, and McLaughlin were indicted and repeatedly tried for murder. The prosecution was abandoned only after the third hung jury.

Bill the Butcher lived fourteen days after the shooting. According to Asbury, his doctors found it unnatural that he should live so long after taking a bullet in the heart. Certainly he had time to compose his last words. He died with Hyer and other friends about his bed. They gave him a hero’s funeral, with thousands lining lower Broadway as a half-dozen brass bands and more than 5,000 men marched in his procession from Christopher Street to Whitehall Street, whence his remains were ferried to Brooklyn. Asbury observed that new plays were hurriedly written and current productions revised so that as the curtain fell, the hero could drape himself in an American flag and cry out, “Good-bye, boys, I die a true American,” to thunderous applause.

That, too, was all about money.

New York Press, March 5, 2003

February 7, 2015   No Comments

Conman of the Century

The luxury apartment building at 1155 Park Ave. was brand new in 1915. Among its first tenants was Maude King, a boozy, scatterbrained wealthy widow from Chicago. She rented three neighboring apartments on the tenth floor for $9,000 a year. Mrs. King lived in one, her sister lived in another, and in the third were Mrs. King’s business manager, Gaston B. Means, and his family.

Mrs. King had met Means in the spring of 1914. Within a few weeks, Mrs. King placed all her affairs in Means’ hands. He was six feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and was bald, with a round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin, and beaming eyes. Jolly and good-natured, with a smooth Southern style, he was surprisingly attractive to women. Behind his genial facade was an artist–a scam artist, a swindler for the joy of the perfect swindle, proud of his imaginative, plausible lies.

Born in Concord, North Carolina in 1879, he went to New York in 1902 as a salesman for Cannon mills. He lived in a rooming house on West 58th Street and then an apartment at 105th Street and Columbus Avenue. A natural salesman, Means soon earned more than $5,000 a year in salary and commissions at a time when a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive rented for less than $200 a month and good theater tickets cost less than a dollar. Shortly after meeting Mrs. King, Means quit Cannon mills to work for private detective William J. Burns. Before retiring in 1909 to start his agency, Burns had been chief of the Secret Service. He was tough, skillful, and relentless, and he had no ethics to speak of. He soon realized that Means was just the man for rifling a desk, bribing an informant, or tapping a telephone.

The United States remained neutral at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The British government secretly retained Burns to investigate German activities in New York. The Germans, in ignorance, offered Burns a contract to investigate the British. Burns refused their offer but referred them to Means, who became a nominally independent operative merely to handle the German account. Until America entered the war in 1917, Burns and Means played a mutually profitable game, each feeding the other information about his respective client. Means apparently took the Germans for up to $100,000 a year as Secret Agent E-13.

By the spring of 1917, Means had burned through Mrs. King’s ready cash. Mrs. King’s husband had left $10 million in trust to the Northern Trust Company of Chicago to support an old men’s home. Means forged a new will that left the entire estate to Mrs. King and, easily persuading her of its authenticity, submitted it for probate. In late August Mrs. King vacationed with Means and his family in Asheville, North Carolnia. On August 29, Means and Mrs. King went rabbit hunting. He returned carrying her mortally wounded body, claiming that she had accidentally shot herself in the back of the skull.

The local prosecutor, who found this improbable, indicted Means for murder. Unhappily, he then allowed Northern Trust to hire New York lawyers to help prosecute Means. The defense counsel successfully played on local antipathies toward outsiders, winning an acquittal on December 16, 1917. Thereafter, Means boasted of having been accused of every crime in the penal code, from murder on down, and convicted of none. After the phony will was rejected by the courts, Means returned to New York where, having been evicted from 1155 Park Ave., he rented a Staten Island house and worked for Burns.

On March 4, 1921, Warren Gamaliel Harding became president of the United States. Harding’s administration would yield massive scandals: at least two suicides, numerous convictions, three disgraced Cabinet officers, and new revelations and trials for nearly a decade after the president’s sudden death in 1923. Amidst it all, Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton, would publish her memoirs, memorable for the pathetic image of the lovers’ frantic couplings amidst the overshoes in a closet.

Harding’s campaign-manager-turned-attorney-general, Harry M. Daugherty, appointed Burns Director of the Bureau of Investigation. As Francis Russell observes in The Shadow of Blooming Grove, Burns ran the Bureau as he had run his agency. He didn’t care about search and seizure, considered wire-tapping and break-ins all in a day’s work, and freely employed former criminals and men of ill repute.

On November 1, 1921 the Department of Justice hired Gaston B. Means. Now he had a badge, telephone, official stationery, an office, and access to Bureau files. The underworld contacts developed during his years as a detective now became a source of riches. He peddled Justice documents—reports, correspondence, miscellaneous papers—to the persons they concerned. He claimed he could provide protection for bootleggers from enforcement of the Prohibition Act and fix prosecutions and destroy evidence. He said he was the bag man for Burns and Daugherty; sometimes he said the payoffs were going to the Republican National Committee for President Harding’s reelection. Eventually, he claimed to be working directly for the president.

Almost none of this was true. No claim of Gaston Means can be credited without independent evidence. Means met Daugherty once, in a Justice Department hallway. He never met the president or visited the White House. But Means had the sociopath’s genius for intuiting what people wanted to hear. In particular, criminals want to hear that everyone is on the take. Moreover, Burns’s thuggishness and Daugherty’s moral ambiguity—the touch of sleaze that had made him a power in Ohio politics and steered Harding to the presidency—heightened Means’s plausibility.

He also gained the confidence of Daugherty’s closest friend, Jess Smith. One of the Ohio Gang, the coterie of small-time, crooked pols around Daugherty, Smith was a successful retailer, a kindly, slightly absurd, probably homosexual crook. Smith and Daugherty became so intimate that, as most historians of the Harding administration note, Daugherty could not sleep without Smith’s reassuring presence just beyond his bedroom’s open door. Like Means, Smith peddled Daugherty’s influence to bootleggers and other petty criminals. Neither man ever intended to deliver the goods.

For the moment, the cash flow was amazing. Means’s federal salary was seven dollars a day. He and his family lived in a Washington townhouse with three servants and a chauffeured limousine.

Means was suspended in February 1922. He had stolen a huge supply of essential government licenses and permits, many bearing the forged signatures of high-ranking government officials. He sold them even as he continued selling non-existent protection, picking up $50,000 here, $11,500 there, $13,800 somewhere else.

By early 1923, Daugherty was receiving so many private complaints about Means that Burns could no longer protect him. In May 1923, he appointed a special counsel to investigate and prosecute.

Then the president learned of Jess Smith’s remarkably dissolute personal life and informed Daugherty. The attorney general told Smith that he would have to go back to Ohio. On Memorial Day morning, one of Daugherty’s assistants found Smith lying on the floor of the apartment that Smith shared with the attorney general, a revolver in his hand and his brains in a trash can. Now the scandals began to break.

Means was indicted for larceny, conspiracy, and some 100 violations of the Prohibition Act, even as the Senate began investigating Daugherty. One member of the investigating committee, Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana, spent weeks with Means reviewing his testimony. On March 14, 1924 Means appeared in the committee room with two large accordion cases that, he said, contained his diaries of his government service (these had been concocted during the winter of 1923-24 to document his innocence). He testified that he had collected millions in kickbacks on government contracts for aircraft, war claims settlements, and illegal liquor permits as well as protection money. It all went to Jess Smith for distribution to Daugherty and other Cabinet officers. He was completely at ease, marshalling his stories with utter self-confidence, even fishing papers from the bags and reading them to the committee. It was a masterful performance.

And he took Daugherty down. After all, Means had been the Bureau director’s right-hand man. On March 28, 1924, after Daugherty refused to open Justice files to the Senate committee, President Coolidge demanded his resignation.

The committee was concerned that Means’ testimony was verified only by his documents, which they had never seen. Means stalled handing them over. He claimed that his files had been taken by men claiming to be assistant sergeants at arms of the Senate. No one believed this. The Senate then learned the Bureau had staked out Means’s house on the night in question. The agents saw no one entering or leaving except Means and a newspaper reporter, who had each been empty-handed.

On June 17, 1924 Means went on trial. He was convicted and sentenced to two years; subsequent trials added two more years; even the IRS came after him for non-payment of income taxes on the graft he claimed to have handled.

While in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Means met May Dixon Thacker, the sister of novelist Thomas Dixon, whose The Klansman had been transformed by D.W. Griffith into The Birth of a Nation. Mrs. Thacker, whose literary outlet was True Confessions, promised to help Means tell his story. After his release, Means spent day after day dictating to her. Every night, after Mrs. Thacker went home, Means and his wife roared with laughter over the lies he’d invented.

The Strange Death of President Harding was among the best-selling books of 1930. With the same accumulation of detail that had lent plausibility to his cons, Means claimed to have served as Mrs. Harding’s private investigator, breaking into Nan Britton’s apartment to steal her diaries and Harding’s love letters. Mrs. Harding was madly jealous of Britton; moreover, she knew of the Ohio Gang’s machinations. Coming to believe that only death could spare her husband shame and dishonor, Means claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband.

Means raised some interesting points. The president died during a nationwide speaking tour. Supposedly, his illness stemmed from ptomaine poisoning after eating crabmeat. No one else in the presidential party, including the aide who ate the crab with him, became ill. The only person with the president when he died was Mrs. Harding. Finally, the physicians’ verdict of apoplexy was no more than an opinion, as the president was not autopsied.

Despite his literary success, Means still needed more money. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in March 1932, Means persuaded Evalyn Walsh McLean, a wealthy heiress whom he had known back in Harding’s time, that he was in contact with the kidnappers and could recover the child for $100,000 ransom. She gave him the money. He never delivered. Means was arrested in Washington, DC, on May 5, 1932. He claimed that the Lindbergh baby was still alive. This took audacity, especially after Col. Lindbergh had identified the child’s corpse. Means got 15 years, serving most of his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth. Increasingly desperate for attention, he was claiming to have killed the Lindbergh baby by the end. On December 12, 1938, still in prison, he died of a heart attack.

New York Press, July 2, 2003

February 7, 2015   No Comments

The Jesus de Galindez Case

On March 12, 1956, Jesus de Galindez, a lecturer in Spanish and government at Columbia University, conducted a graduate seminar in Hamilton Hall on Latin American government. At 10 p.m., he entered the subway at 57th Street and 8th Avenue. He was never seen or heard from again. As Galindez was a bachelor of irregular habits, his disappearance went unnoticed for several days. The police found his apartment in order. Investigators found neither evidence of violence nor any decisive clues. However, hints and leads abounded. Most pointed toward the Dominican Republic, where Galindez had lived from 1939 to 1946 and which Rafael Trujillo had ruled since 1930. Galindez’s friends knew, and a note among his possessions confirmed, that he had feared violence from Dominican sources.

On December 4, 1956, some nine months later, a Ford belonging to Gerald Murphy, an American citizen from Oregon, was found abandoned by the sea in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dominican capital. Murphy, a pilot for CDA, the Dominican national airline, was never seen again. However, Murphy had confided to his fiancee, a Pan American Airways stewardess, about his experiences in Dominican service. She in turn told his parents, who harassed Murphy’s congressional representatives, Sen. Wayne Morse and Rep. Charles O. Porter. The politicians persistently lobbied the Justice and State Deptartments. to find out what had happened. The bureaucrats, in turn, pestered the Dominican government.

In late December 1956, the Dominican government arrested and charged Octavio de la Maza, another CDA pilot, with Murphy’s murder. Apparently, de la Maza was advised to admit the murder while pleading self-defense. The story suggested to de la Maza was that Murphy had propositioned him during a drive. De la Maza had rejected him with horror and disgust. The men had brawled and Murphy had accidentally fallen from the cliffs where the Ford had been found. The catch was that de la Maza was unwilling to go along with the story.

Then, during the early morning of January 7, 1957, de la Maza was found hanging from the showerhead in his cell. A nearby note, claiming that he had committed suicide in a fit of remorse, conveniently explained everything.

No one believed this. The American pressure became overwhelming. FBI agents were allowed to investigate de la Maza’s death. They found he had been too tall to hang himself from the showerhead. Moreover, the showerhead was too flimsy to have borne his weight long enough to permit his death by strangulation. Last, the handwriting in the note was a forgery.

All these cases were intertwined by the hands of Trujillo.

After Gen. Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, Galindez had exiled himself to Ciudad Trujillo, where he taught and provided legal advice to the departments of National Economy and of Labor. He was pleasant, charming, bookish, scholarly and something of a poet. Nonetheless, he held strong radical and democratic opinions, however politely expressed, and thus found trouble in Ciudad Trujillo.

Christopher Columbus had originally named the city Santo Domingo. However, the Dominican Congress had recently renamed it for the dictator. Rafael Trujillo had begun his career as a petty criminal and hellraiser. In 1916, President Wilson had sent the U.S. Marines to occupy the Dominican Republic after decades of political instability. The next year, the Marines created a Dominican national police force. Trujillo volunteered. Within months, the intelligent, charming recruit had become an officer. The Marines found him useful: aside from being an instinctively good soldier, he proved an amazingly resourceful pimp. By 1924, he was a major.

Then the Marines went home, leaving the newly minted Colonel Trujillo as chief of staff. By 1930, the National Guard had become the Armyand Trujillo its commanding general. Trujillo manipulated a coup d’etat that ended with elections that he won through terror and ballot box stuffing.

Trujillo ruled for the next thirty-one years. He built highways, low-income housing, hospitals and schools, balanced the budget, repaid the entire national debt and put the Dominican peso at par with the American dollar. The price was a totalitarian state. His spies and informers were everywhere. No man and no man’s family was exempt from the regime: the dictator’s arrest orders for political crimes usually named a suspect “and family,” requiring the arrest of him and his relatives up to and including first cousins. Oppositionists were tortured in prison with beatings; they were whipped, stabbed, or shocked in electric chairs; cattle prods were applied to their genitals; some were castrated.

Trujillo demanded abject public adulation. The country’s highest mountain peak would bear his name. Robert D. Crassweller, in Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator, observed, “The anniversaries of Trujillo’s election in 1930, of his inauguration, of his redemption of the national debt, of his birthday, and of his entry into the army, were all days of nationwide demonstrations and celebration.” Provinces, cities and streets throughout the Republic were renamed for him and for members of his family.

His image, in plaques, busts, statues and portraits, was everywhere. His sycophants devised such honorifics as “Generalissmo,” “Doctor,” “Benefactor of the Fatherland,” “Father of the New Fatherland,” “Loyal and Noble Champion of World Peace,” or “Maximum Protector of the Dominican Working Class.” He was declared by law an authority on all subjects. The walls of even the humblest shack bore framed cards reading, “Thanks to God and Trujillo” or “In this house, Trujillo is the Chief.”

Through his family and cronies, he monopolized or dominated the production of salt, peanut oil, shoes, matches, cement, soap, paint, glass, beer, meat, chocolate, cigarettes, and flour. Through his brothers, he controlled gambling and prostitution. His personal life was tangled by compulsive lust: he had three wives, two mistresses and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of one-night stands. He was cunning and ruthless: not so much sadistic as unrestrained by conscience in working out his ideas to their logical conclusions.

In 1946, Galindez left for New York. He taught at Columbia. He also advised clients on matters of Dominican law, wrote articles and became active in various Spanish and Basque exile groups. His obsession with Trujillo’s character and career led him to write his doctoral dissertation on “The Era of Trujillo.” It is a rigorously thorough, unprejudiced study of the dictatorship that discusses Trujillo’s accomplishments as well as his abuse of power and reliance on terror.

Somehow, a Dominican consular officer in New York learned about the dissertation and wrote to Trujillo, suggesting that it would attack Trujillo’s family as well as the Generalissmo himself and that Galindez’s connection with Columbia would lend his work tremendous prestige. The dictator fell for it. By 1956, according to Crassweller, “Vanity and the need for adulation had ascended from obsession into monomania and now hovered on the fine edge of imbalance.”

Dominican agents offered Galindez $25,000 for the dissertation. Galindez refused. Then, Trujillo learned that Galindez would present his dissertation before the faculty committee of Columbia’s history department on February 27, 1956: Dominican Independence Day. The dictator considered this a supreme personal insult. Galindez would have to be killed.

His operatives schemed. They needed a pilot, preferably an American, who might operate in the United States without attracting much attention. Through his agents in America, Gen. Arturo Espaillat, the gracious, engaging and utterly lethal chief of Dominican military intelligence, found Murphy, whose single-minded ambition to fly had so far been thwarted by bad eyesight.

In early 1956, Murphy was offered a contract to fly a charter from the United States to the Dominican Republic. On March 12, 1956, he landed a twin-engine Beech airplane at Amityville, Long Island. Late that night, an ambulance pulled up. A man on a stretcher was carried from the truck to the plane. Only Murphy and the night watchman saw the ambulance arrive. The latter told at least two other people before his sudden death from a convenient heart attack.

The plane flew to West Palm Beach. There, a mechanic entered the cabin to fill extra fuel tanks. He saw a body lying on a stretcher, either dead or unconscious, and smelled a peculiar odor that he thought might have been a drug. (The mechanic died in an airplane crash six days before he was to testify under oath about what he had seen.) The plane then flew to Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic. According to Bernard Diederich’s The Death of the Goat, Galindez was transferred to a CDA plane and flown to Ciudad Trujillo. There, he was brought to Casa de Caoba, Trujillo’s favorite residence. He was carried into the huge barroom that occupies half of the second floor.

The dictator strode in, carrying a riding crop. In his hand was a copy of Galindez’s dissertation. He extended the hand with the document. “Eat it,” Trujillo barked. Still drugged, Galindez took the papers, gazed at Trujillo and then dropped his head to his chest and the papers to the floor. Trujillo cursed at him, shouting, “Pendejo! Pendejo!” as he beat Galindez over the head with the riding crop. Then he stalked out of the room.

According to Diederich, no more than twenty-four hours after Galindez delivered his last lecture, he was taken to an interrogation chamber in Ciudad Trujillo. He was stripped and handcuffed. A rope was tied to his feet and led through an overhead pulley. Then he was lowered inch by inch into a vat of boiling water. The remains were thrown to the sharks.

Murphy carried out several other errands for Trujillo. Then, toward the end of 1956, he arranged to return to the United States. He met his girlfriend at the airport, where she was on a brief stopover. He told her that he had a 5 p.m. appointment at the National Palace. The next day his car was found.

Galindez’s disappearance has never been completely solved. Neither was Murphy’s. De la Maza’s brothers conspired against the dictator. Trujillo was assassinated on the evening of May 30, 1961. Antonio de la Maza was one of the gunmen. He stood over the dictator’s body, took Trujillo’s pistol from his hand, murmured, “This hawk won’t kill any more chickens,” aimed at the face and squeezed the trigger.

— New York Press, August 21, 2001

February 3, 2015   No Comments

The Murder of Joe Petrosino

Giuseppe Petrosino, who Americanized his name to Joseph, was born in Padula, near Salerno, in 1860. His family emigrated to America in 1873. While shining shoes near police headquarters on Mulberry Street, he conceived a desire to be a cop. The cops didn’t want him, however. He was too short, too swarthy, spoke with an accent and wasn’t Irish. So, in 1878, Joe Petrosino became a City street sweeper instead. He worked hard, winning promotion to foreman within a year. He drove his men hard, too.

In 1879, Petrosino got a break when Police Captain Alexander “Clubber” Williams was assigned to command the street cleaning department. Capt. Williams’ nickname encapsulates his philosophy of law enforcement. According to Andy Logan, Williams began his career in the late 1860s by cleaning up Broadway and Houston St. He fought a pair of local toughs, beat them unconscious and threw them through the plate-glass window of the Florence Saloon. A half-dozen of their friends charged out the swinging doors. Williams met them alone, club in hand. He was the last man standing. Captain in 1871, later an inspector, Williams was brave, efficient, brutal and corrupt. Witnesses before an 1894 investigation into police graft claimed the Clubber was receiving $30,000 a year in protection money from one brothel alone. When asked to explain his 17-room Connecticut mansion and 53-foot yacht, Williams claimed he had made his fortune through real estate speculation in Japan.

He liked Petrosino’s intelligence, toughness and industry. In 1883, the Clubber arranged Joe’s appointment to the force, even though Petrosino was four inches below the required height. His knowledge of the Italian language and culture gave him an advantage over non-Italian detectives. In 1890, he became a detective; in 1895, Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant. By the turn of the century, due to careful media management, Petrosino was one of New York’s best-known detectives: he had a way of tipping off reporters whenever he was about to do something newsworthy.

He was as rough as most cops of his time; as one alderman (quoted in Lardner and Reppetto’s NYPD) put it, “he knocked out more teeth than a dentist.” While he could dress and act like a typical detective, banging on doors and throwing suspects up against walls, he was more comfortable in disguise. He posed as a tunnel worker, a blind beggar, a gangster or an Italian peasant just off the boat. This allowed him to investigate freely, and also allowed others to talk to him without attracting suspicion. In this way he was able to infiltrate and expose many of the gangs that preyed on Italian immigrants.

Some Italian immigrants had belonged to criminal organizations back home. The Camorra, from Naples, had been radical guerillas during the early part of the 19th century. The Mafia, from Sicily, claims to have arisen in resistance to the French occupation during the Middle Ages. (The earliest known reference to the honored society, nevertheless, dates from the 1860s.) These secret societies had rituals as richly symbolic as Freemasonry. Lazy police reporters, who had initially labeled all Italian organized crime as the Black Hand (a method of operation rather than an organization), later called it the Mafia.

The first Mafia murder in New York, according to Lardner and Reppetto, may have occurred in 1857 when police officer Eugene Anderson was beaten to death by Mike Cancemi, later described by The New York Times as a “Mafia leader.” During the 1890s, when the Italian government placed Sicily under martial law for two years, many Mafiosi emigrated to the United States. Perhaps New York’s most influential Mafioso at the beginning of the 20th century was Ignazio Saietta, redundantly known as Lupo the Wolf, who had emigrated after murdering a man in his hometown. Lupo and his partner, Giuseppe Morello, were counterfeiters; they also ran a “murder factory” on E. 107th St. Some attribute as many as 60 killings to Lupo’s gang.

One morning in April 1903, Frances Connors saw a dead man stuffed into a barrel at Ave. A and 11th St. The corpse had 18 stab wounds; also the throat had been slit; also the penis and testicles had been shoved into his mouth, suggesting that he had been a police informer. As the murderers could have quietly disposed of the body, its presence was meant as an encouragement to discretion. Petrosino traced the barrel to a firm of confectioners who had shipped it to an Italian cafe on Elizabeth St. believed to be a rendezvous for counterfeiters. Someone told Petrosino that the deceased had known Giuseppe De Priemo, an imprisoned counterfeiter. Petrosino found De Priemo in Sing Sing, where he identified a picture of the murder victim as Benditto Madonia, his brother-in-law. Some sources said De Priemo had sent Madonia to collect money owed him by Joe Morello, who refused to pay. The brother-in-law then unwisely threatened to go to the police. Others said Madonia had tried to establish a competitive counterfeiting ring.

An associate of the Lupo-Morello gang, one Tomas “the Ox” Petto, was suddenly spending a great deal of money. Finding this suspicious, the detectives decided to haul him in. When they grabbed him in the Prince Street Saloon, Tomas the Ox pulled a stiletto. Petrosino and his colleagues performed emergency dental work and, after the Ox hit the floor, found a second knife, a pistol and a pawn ticket in his pockets. The pawn ticket was for Madonia’s watch.

Morello, Petto, Lupo and others, including one Vito Cascio Ferro, then newly arrived from Sicily, went along quietly. It was as if they knew that they would be released on bail. Petto and Cascio Ferro skipped and the witnesses changed their stories. The case faded away. Two years later, Petto was found dead of natural causes. To borrow a phrase from Jimmy Breslin, his heart had stopped beating when someone stuck a knife in it. Petrosino traced Cascio Ferro to New Orleans, where he slipped away.

In January 1905, Police Commissioner William McAdoo put Petrosino in charge of a five-man Italian squad. McAdoo’s successor, General Theodore Bingham, expanded the squad to 25 men, renaming it the Italian Legion and promoting Petrosino to lieutenant.

In Sicily, Vito Cascio Ferro remains legendary as the greatest Mafia chieftain and the first Sicilian to be considered capo di tutti capi. He had been born in 1862 at Bisacquino, near Palermo, the son of illiterate peasants, and, at some point during the 1880s, ritually enrolled among the men of honor. Cascio Ferro entered the United States while concealing his criminal record, which had begun with an assault in 1894 and progressed through extortion, arson and menacing to the kidnapping of the Baroness di Valpetrosa in 1899. On his arrival into the United States in 1900, he moved in with his sister over a shop on 103rd St. His major contribution to American crime was the introduction of “wetting the beak,” a form of extortion whereby protection money is extracted from businesses in small payments so as to provide steady cash flow without crippling the owners.

After returning to Sicily, he organized all crimes, from the largest deals down to chicken thefts. All criminals were more or less indexed in his memory; they were all licensed by him, could do nothing without the consent of the honored society, or incidentally, without giving the Mafia a cut. Even beggars had to contribute a regular percentage of their daily collections, just like other businessmen.

He brought the organization to near-perfection without excessive violence. As Luigi Barzini notes, “The Mafia leader who scatters corpses all over the island to achieve his goal is considered as inept as the statesman who had to wage aggressive wars.” Like all great rulers, he worked hard and studied human nature. He possessed an immense dignity, enhanced by his tall, slender, elegantly tailored good looks. His long white beard gave him the appearance of an elder statesman, which is what he was. Being generous, he dispensed millions in loans, gifts and charity. Moreover, he personally redressed wrongs. His brutality was reserved for the stupid. Those who did not wet the beak found their shops or homes destroyed and farms burned. In his long life, he may have killed only one man, and not for money, but for honor.

In 1907, Congress enacted a law permitting the deportation of any alien found to have concealed a criminal record. Two years later, Gen. Bingham secretly sent Petrosino to Italy with a list of 2000 names. While Petrosino was on the high seas, Bingham leaked news of the mission to the New York Herald, which published it in the Paris edition, whence the Italian press picked it up. Petrosino’s impending visit and its purpose were known to the very Mafiosi he was investigating before his arrival.

His March 12 visit to Palermo would be very brief. Lupo the Wolf had asked Don Vito for a favor.

On the night of March 12, Don Vito excused himself from a dinner party at the home of a government official, a man who seems to have viewed him with the greatest respect, stepped into a carriage (some say that of his host) and was dropped off near Piazza Marina in the Tribunaria/Castellemare district.

A streetcar line ran along Piazza Marina in those days; cars stopped by the Giardini Garibaldi, a small garden with a fountain and an equestrian statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Liberator. Some say Petrosino was sitting on the fence that surrounds the garden. He may have been waiting for an informant or a trolley. Whatever. Don Vito walked up to him and shot him in the face. Later, the American consul reported two hired gunmen fired the shots. Still others say there were three. In any event, Petrosino was dead. The Don returned to the dinner party. When he was arrested four days later, his politician friend insisted Don Vito had been at his home when Petrosino was murdered. The Don was released without having denied involvement in the crime. Apparently, he had said nothing at all. A quarter-million New Yorkers lined the streets to honor Joe Petrosino when his body went to its final home.

By the early 1920s, Don Vito’s power was greater than ever. Then a new prime minister rose to power in Rome. To Benito Mussolini, the Camorra and Mafia represented a power outside the state—outside his control. In 1925, he appointed Cesare Mori, a professional policeman, as Sicily’s prefect of police. Mori waged relentless war on the honored society.

In 1929, Mori arrested Don Vito for murder. He had been arrested some 69 times and always acquitted. This time he had been framed. The old man remained silent during the sham trial. “Gentlemen,” he said when it was over, “since you have been unable to find any evidence for the numerous crimes I did commit, you are reduced to condemning me for one I have not.”

Don Vito easily established his authority over the Ucciardone prison, maintaining order and conducting the affairs of the Mafia as best as he could from his cell. Until a generation or so ago, one could still read a sentence he had carved on a wall inside the jail. “Prison, sickness, and necessity,” it read, “reveal the real heart of a man.” Occupying the cell in which Don Vito lived the last years of his life was always considered a great honor.

Today, Petrosino is memorialized by a litter-strewn, fenced-in plaza at Lafayette and Kenmare Streets, which a Parks Department sign identifies as Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Square.

—New York Press, November 19, 2002

February 3, 2015   1 Comment

Big Bang on Wall Street

Around 11:55 a.m. on Thursday, September 16, 1920, an old single-top wagon, drawn by an elderly dark bay horse, plodded westward on Wall Street. It stopped about seventy-five feet from Broad, near the offices of J.P. Morgan & Co. at 23 Wall Street.

The day was lovely: clear and blue with no humidity and a temperature of sixty-nine degrees. The stock market was up. In NYPD, Jim Lardner and James Repetto note that police presence was thin in the area that day. According to Sidney Sutherland’s “The Mystery of the Wall Street Explosion,” in Liberty magazine for April 26, 1930, much of the police force was on duty at a Brooklyn transit strike; some officers, including the one assigned to the Broad and Wall intersection, had been ordered “a few blocks north to help herd the paraders in a procession of colored folk.”

Trinity Church struck noon. The sidewalks filled with brokers, clerks and receptionists heading for lunch. At 12:01, a bomb of roughly 100 pounds of TNT, resting on the wagon floor above the left rear axle, exploded in “a blinding sheet of saffron-green light.” Five hundred pounds of fragmented sash weights piled about the bomb tore into the passersby like shrapnel. A nearby automobile flipped 20 feet into the air. Thousands of plate-glass windows shattered over a half-mile radius, their fragments tinkling from sill to ledge to pavement. A pillar of brownish-lemon smoke soared heavenward. Awnings twelve stories above street level caught fire.

The explosion blasted the façade of J.P. Morgan & Co. The bank’s windows burst inward in a blizzard of razor-sharp shards. Two metal fragments nicked the statue of George Washington on the Subtreasury steps. Thomas Joyce, the chief clerk, working at a window facing Wall St., died instantly.

Next door, the massive iron bars across the Assay Office’s windows bent. The Stock Exchange’s huge windows fell to the trading floor. Trinity Church trembled. Thirty people were killed instantly, some mere scarlet blots on the pavement. (Ten more would ultimately be added to the casualty list.) A woman’s head, still wearing a hat, stuck to 23 Wall’s façade. A messenger lay decapitated, a package of securities smoldering in his hand. An eyeless clerk, his feet blown off, tried to crawl. Two hundred lay wounded. One of the carthorse’s hooves lay in a pool of blood; a witness recalled how the pool had sparkled in the sunlight.

The terrified crowds now ran toward the shambles, even trampling the dead to see what had happened. On the floor of the Stock Exchange, where running is forbidden, the president strode to the rostrum and rang the gong to close the day’s trading. The Curb Exchange, whose brokers transacted business on the Broad Street sidewalk roughly 200 feet south of Wall, adjourned less formally when the brokers ran off.

Police and firemen then cleared the way for ambulances. Half a dozen officers, guns drawn, stood before the Assay Office and Subtreasury. Forty minutes after the explosion, federal troops from the Governor’s Island garrison  were double-timing into Wall Street, rifles loaded and bayonets fixed.

The horse had been torn to fragments; of the wagon and harness, as reported in Liberty, the cops gathered up “a few spokes, a strap or two, an armful of splinters and canvas, a piece of the shafts, an axle and hub cap, and a handful of bolts and nuts.” The NYPD reconstructed both horse and rig with the help of veterinarians, livestock experts, and wagon builders. Their description reads:

HORSE—Dark bay mare, fifteen and three-quarters hands, fifteen years, about 1,050 pounds, long mane and stubby foretop, clipped a month before, scars on left shoulder and white hairs on forehead.

SHOES—Hind shoes marked JHU and NOA, about half an inch apart. Front shoes had pads, circle in center reading ‘Niagara Hoof Pad Co., BISON, Buffalo, N.Y.’

HARNESS—Single set of heavy wagon harness, old and worn and frequently repaired. Turret rings originally of brass, one broken; the other silver mounted and evidently belonging originally to coach harness.

WAGON—Single top, capacity one and one-half tons, red running gear, striped black with fine white lines. Three-foot wheels on front; four and one-half on back, of Sarvant patent. Body 5 feet 6 inches high, 53 inches wide, about eight feet from ground to top of wagon.

Between the 11:30 and 11:58 mail collections, just before the explosion, someone had deposited crudely printed circulars in the post box at Cedar St. and Broadway. They read:

Remember we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you.

They were signed “American Anarchists Fighters.”

While the Secret Service and the nascent FBI chased Reds, the NYPD went to every sash-weight manufacturer and dealer in America to find the source of the shrapnel; they visited nearly 5000 stables in every town along the Atlantic seaboard to track the horse; they checked hundreds of wagon manufacturers and harness makers to identify the wagon.

According to Sutherland, the letters on the shoes symbolized the Journeymen’s Horseshoers’ Union and National Horseshoers’ Association: in effect, they bore the union label. More importantly, the blacksmith who made the shoes had been trained abroad. The police concentrated on immigrant farriers.

The De Grazia brothers ran a smithy at 205 Elizabeth Street. Dominick De Grazia identified the horseshoes. A detective had him make another pair. They were identical, “a defect in the anvil appearing on the top plates of both the sample shoes and those worn by the dead horse.”

Dominick said a man driving a horse and a wagon matching the police description had asked him to tighten a rear shoe. Noticing a slight crack in the hoof, the farrier suggested new shoes, which Dominick made and nailed to the hooves within 20 minutes. The De Grazias said the driver spoke with a Sicilian accent, was 25 to 30 years old, about 5-feet, 5-inches tall, and weighed about 165 pounds, with broad shoulders, deep chest, black hair and mustache, and soft, well-kept hands.

Dominick examined the hoof when the cops brought it from Bellevue’s pathological laboratories. He found the crack. There the trail ended. The NYPD examined ten tons of broken glass, analyzed steel fragments that might have contained the bomb, and reconstructed some twisted bits of tin into two five-gallon containers from the Atlas Can Company of Brooklyn. After searching the company’s records, the NYPD questioned all of Atlas’s customers. None identified the containers.

A small iron ball lightly struck a city street sweeper, standing four blocks from the explosion. The NYPD, finding a number engraved on the ball, identified it as the knob to a Victor military field safe manufactured in Cincinnati. The manufacturer’s records showed the safe’s initial delivery to the U.S. Army barracks at Jeffersonville, Indiana. An NYPD detective tracked the safe to Omaha, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., France, and Hoboken. There the trail ran out. The Army had not recorded the safe’s disposition, whether sold to a junk dealer or dumped in a vacant field.

Eyewitness descriptions of the driver conflicted. Most resemble the man seen by the De Grazias. He was also Jewish or Italian, an “East Side peddler” type, or a “greasy fellow.” One noted a broad Scots accent. He had as many ethnicities, religions, and modes of escape as eyewitnesses. Some saw two or three drivers.

NYPD detectives visited every garage in the metropolitan area to check the hours of departure and return and the errands of all vehicles, motor-driven or horse-drawn, on Sept. 16. Some eyewitnesses said the wagon was lettered EXPLOSIVES, DYNAMITE, or DU POWDER WORKS. Hercules Powder and Aetna Explosives had no vehicles carrying explosives that day in the city. Dittmar Powder’s wagon had not gone below 45th Street. Du Pont had sold its last horse-drawn powder wagon in 1918.

Edwin P. Fischer, a graduate of City College and New York Law School and a championship tennis player, was an occasional inpatient at mental hospitals. Two weeks before the explosion, he had told his tennis club’s caretaker that either “We” or “They” were blowing up Wall Street Fischer, then predicted a Wall Street explosion on September 16 to a stranger on a Hudson Tube train.

Between September 11 and 13, he mailed postcards from Toronto to friends and acquaintances advising them to get out of Wall Street as soon as the gong struck at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. On the morning of the 16th, Robert Pope, his brother-in-law, having heard of the postcards and concluded Fischer was having a breakdown, caught up with him in Niagara Falls. On learning of the explosion, Pope persuaded Fischer to see the police.

Fischer arrived at Grand Central wearing two business suits for warmth and tennis whites underneath in case he had a chance for a game. The police questioned him at Bellevue. He said he had received the messages “through the air.” Realizing Fischer was merely demented, the cops soon released him to the Amityville Asylum, from which he emerged after two months. The warnings are otherwise unexplained.

The feds and the NYPD arrested or interrogated thousands of suspects, such as Florean Zelenska, a Romanian who possessed radical literature and had worked for a gunpowder company. They questioned Alexander Brailovsky because he was of Russian extraction and “said to be a Trotsky-Lenin agent.” Wolfe Linde, a radical turned stool pigeon, was reported near Wall and Broad on the morning of September 16. He disappeared to Warsaw. Several detectives brought him back. His alibi was perfect.

The NYPD had linked Pietro Angelo to the Gimbel Brothers bomb plot of April 1919. Mail bombs addressed to national figures in packages with Gimbel’s return address were detected when held for insufficient postage. Angelo’s alibi for September 16, 1920, was perfect. Nonetheless, the United States deported him to Italy, where he tossed a bomb into the crowd at an opera, killing thirty-nine.

The NYPD gave up around 1940. The north façade of 23 Wall Street, with its scars up to an inch deep, is unrepaired. John Brooks quoted an old Morgan partner: “There’s no particular feeling of martyrdom in leaving them there. It’s the practical thing to do. After all, replacing those great blocks would be inordinately and unnecessarily expensive. And besides, it’s right and proper that they should stay there.”

New York Press, March 6, 2001

January 30, 2015   No Comments

The Missingest Man in New York

Every August 6 for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are,” drank it slowly, rose, and walked out leaving the other drink untouched.

Thus Stella Crater mourned her vanished husband, Justice Joseph Force Crater, who had become famous on August 6, 1930 by disappearing, as the Daily News later said, “efficiently, completely, and forever.”

Born to Irish immigrants in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1889, Joe Crater worked his way through Lafayette College and Columbia Law School. He opened his office at 120 Broadway (The Equitable Building, a huge white marble pile that was once the largest office building in the world) and joined the Cayuga Democratic Club, the power base of Tammany district leader Martin Healy, where Crater spent thousands of hours organizing election workers and representing the club in election law cases. He also married Stella Wheeler, whom he had represented in her 1912 divorce.

In 1920, State Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner Sr., who would become a United States senator in 1926, appointed Crater his secretary. Joe was also an adjunct professor at Fordham and New York University law schools. But most of his income came through his law practice, which was enriched by his political connections.

At first, he received the usual minor appointments from the courts: receiverships, refereeships, guardianships. Over time, Crater’s pieces of pie were cut large. In February 1929, he was appointed receiver in foreclosure of the Libby Hotel. Four months later, the hotel was auctioned for $75,000 to the American Mortgage Loan Co. Two months after that, the City of New York condemned the hotel, paying American Mortgage Loan $2,850,000—a profit of $2,775,000 on its two months’ investment of $75,000. Cynics suggested that American Mortgage Loan’s managers knew about the city’s plans before buying the building.equitable-building1

Crater could afford a new apartment: a two-bedroom cooperative at 40 5th Avenue. He became president of the Cayuga Club and Martin Healy’s right-hand man. And on April 8, 1930, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court (actually the lowest among New York state courts, comparable to superior courts in other states).

Politics had everything to do with it. That and ability: even the respectables at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York supported Joe’s appointment. He was forty-one—young for a Supreme Court justice in New York—a well-tailored 185-pound six-footer, with fleshy features and slicked-down iron-gray hair that made him seem older than he was. He was also a fine pianist, a good dancer, and he liked theater.

When the courts recessed in June 1930, the Craters went to their summer home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine—six miles from the nearest telephone. In July, they read that New York County District Attorney Thomas C.T. Crain was charging Healy with selling judgeships. Crater seemed undisturbed then, although he went away for two days in late July to confer about Healy’s legal problems.

On Sunday, August 3, one of the locals dropped in with a message that the judge had received a long-distance telephone call at the town’s drugstore. Crater went into town to return the call. When he returned, he told Stella he had to go to New York for a few days. “I’ve got to straighten out a few people,” he reportedly said. Then, promising to return for her birthday on Saturday, August 9, he left for the city.

Crater arrived at their apartment on Monday. He gave the maid a few days off and saw his doctor about an index finger that had been crushed in a car door some weeks before. On Tuesday, he worked in his chambers at the New York courthouse at 60 Centre Street.

On the morning of August 6, he spent two hours going through the files in his chambers. He had his personal assistant, Joseph Mara, cash two checks for him amounting to $5150, worth roughly $50,000 in today’s money. He and Mara went by cab to the Crater apartment with locked briefcases containing five large portfolios, which Mara left on a chair. The judge then dismissed Mara for the day.

He bought a ticket for that night’s performance of a new hit comedy, Dancing Partners, at the Belasco Theater on W. 44th Street. He had dinner nearby at Billy Haas’s chophouse, with two friends—William Klein, a lawyer specializing in entertainment law, and Klein’s girlfriend, Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl generally considered to be one fine-looking babe.

panama-hatAfterward, the trio stood on the sidewalk chatting and laughing. Although the curtain had gone up on Dancing Partners, Crater seemed unhurried. Between 9 and 9:15, he hailed a passing cab. Klein later recalled it was tan. Crater waved his Panama out the window to his friends. On the record, no one saw Joe Crater again. Someone called for the ticket at the Belasco’s box office. No one knows if that person was Crater.

At first Stella had been miffed about Joe missing her birthday but assumed he had been detained on political or legal business. His friends and colleagues thought he was in Maine. After a week Stella began telephoning friends of Joe’s in New York. Simon Rifkind, who had succeeded him as Wagner’s secretary, reassured her that everything was all right. Eventually the judge would turn up.

The Supreme Court opened on August 25. Justice Louis Valente telephoned from New York to ask whether Joe was still in Maine. His fellow justices arranged a discreet inquiry. On September 3, when the inquiry proved fruitless and the court remained one justice short, the police were notified. Joe Crater became front page news, with the tabloids suggesting he had been murdered, vanished with a showgirl mistress, or disappeared to avoid the Healy scandal.

In October 1930, District Attorney Crain empaneled a grand jury to dig into bankbooks, telephone records, and safety deposit boxes. None of those inquiries led anywhere. Mrs. Crater, bewildered by her husband’s disappearance, revolted by the sensational press coverage, and enraged by Crain’s suggestions that she knew her husband’s whereabouts, refused to go before the grand jury and remained in Maine, outside of his jurisdiction.

The grand jury was dismissed on January 9 1931, after hearing hundreds of witnesses and taking 2000 pages of testimony, concluding: “The evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead, or as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily, or is a sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of a crime.”

Mrs. Crater returned to 40 5th Avenue on January 18. Three days later, while going through her dresser, she found four manila envelopes in a hidden drawer containing Crater’s will, which left everything to her, plus $6619 in cash, several checks, life insurance policies worth $30,000 and a three-page note, listing twenty companies or persons who supposedly owed the judge money. On the bottom of the list was penned a note: “Am very weary. Love, Joe.”

The police had already searched the apartment several times, and although Mrs. Crater insisted that they could not have searched the hidden drawer that held the newly discovered documents, this incident merely deepened the mystery.

The investigation lasted for years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some said he was the victim of amnesia, some that he had simply run away with a secret lover. Other theories linked the judge’s fate to organized crime. Crater had known Arnold Rothstein, the man believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series, as well as other criminals. Perhaps he had known too much about something-or-other and had to be silenced. There were whispers that Jack “Legs” Diamond had done the job and buried the body in the sub-basement of the Diamond-controlled Peter Barmann Brewery in Kingston, New York.

No one ever found anything illegal in Crater’s role as receiver of the Libby Hotel. Yet there were those who persisted in believing some party to the transaction had not received his share of the profits and had taken it out on Joe. Others thought he had been abducted and slain by a criminal gang disappointed with one of his rulings. A few thought he had been murdered by some stickup man who had successfully disposed of the remains.

Emil K. Ellis, who represented Stella Crater in litigation against her husband’s insurance company, argued that Crater had been murdered in a blackmail scheme engineered through June Brice, a showgirl. Ellis said the large sum of money her husband had withdrawn the day before he disappeared was probably a payoff. He believed a gangster friend of the showgirl then killed the judge when he refused to give her more money. One incident lent this plausibility: on the evening of his disappearance, Judge Crater had been seen talking to Brice, who vanished the day before the grand jury had convened. (In 1948, investigators working for Ellis tracked her to a Long Island mental hospital: she was hopelessly demented.)crater-article

Others tied Crater to Vivian Gordon, a prostitute and blackmailer found garroted in Van Cortlandt Park, up in the Bronx, on February 26, 1931. The tabloids, ever true to form, suggested that “a red hot diary” found in her apartment listed her wealthy politician and businessmen friends, including Joe Crater. Gordon had been due to testify before a special state commission investigating the Healy scandal. Even that came to nothing: Healy was acquitted three times.

Yet Crater’s actions from August 3-6 seem to foreshadow his disappearance. He purged his personal files, obtained a large amount of money and wrote the letter describing the debts owed to him found five months after his disappearance. Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney simply expressed common sense when he said, “Crater’s disappearance was premeditated.”

Herbert Mitgang, in The Man Who Rode the Tiger: The Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury, notes that Seabury’s investigation of the Healy scandal (which led to other investigations, ultimately forcing the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker) found Crater had raised more than $20,000 shortly before his disappearance. This was equal to a Supreme Court justice’s annual salary. There was, as many noted, a Tammany tradition that anyone granted a judgeship paid a year’s salary to the party leadership. Roosevelt-haters whispered that Franklin Roosevelt’s friends had killed Crater, because his possible grand jury testimony about the sale of judgeships to swell party funds would hurt FDR’s presidential hopes: “Mr. Roosevelt hoisted himself into the presidency on the body of his friend,” as long-time Crater researcher Alice Amelar once told The New York Times.

Sightings of Judge Crater were reported all over the country, and for a while the police followed up every lead. He was seen on trains and on ships, driving a taxi in a dozen towns, panning for gold in California and Alaska. He was sighted in the South Seas and in the French Foreign Legion. In the 1950s, a Dutch clairvoyant “sensed” Crater’s body buried near Yonkers, and in 1959, Westchester authorities dug up a Yonkers backyard in search of Crater’s bones.

Eventually, detectives would interview more than 300 people and review thousands of letters, telegrams, and depositions. They never found a trace of Crater or the papers that he had taken from his files.The state of New York declared Joe Crater legally dead on June 6, 1939, nine years after he went missing. Stella Crater sued three insurance companies to collect her husband’s death benefits. Eventually, the insurance companies settled.

And Crater became a cultural figure, “the Missingest Man in New York,” the butt of nightclub jokes (“paging Judge Crater…”). As late as the 1960s, the name of Judge Crater was invoked as a symbol of the missing. His name even became popular slang: to “pull a Crater” is to vanish.

Stella Crater remarried, divorced, and never stopped looking for her husband. The police closed the case in 1979. On the record, no one knows what happened to him. In this life, no one will.

New York Press, June 25, 2002

January 29, 2015   No Comments

Mr. Wood Is Mayor

December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. “Poor South Carolina,” exclaimed James L. Petigru, one of the Palmetto state’s few Unionists. “Too small for a republic, too large for a lunatic asylum.”

On January 6, 1861, as other Southern states followed suit, Fernando Wood, mayor of the City of New York, issued an official message to the Common Council, a body sometimes called “The Forty Thieves.” Calling secession “a fixed and certain fact,” the Mayor proposed the City secede too, becoming an independent city-state. This, as Abraham Lincoln commented, was like the front doorstep setting up housekeeping on its own.

Wood was born in Philadelphia on June 14, 1812. His mother named her son after the swashbuckling hero of The Three Spaniards, a novel she read during her pregnancy. [In Tweed’s New York, Leo Hershkowitz cites a story that Wood was “reported to have entered New York as the leg of an artificial elephant in a travelling show,” [if this is still Hershk. then either quote it straight or find a way to recast it; this is too termpapery…]and became the manager of a “low groggery” on the waterfront, dealing in liquor and “segars.” In 1839, his business partner, Edward E. Marvine, sued him for fraud, but Wood successfully pled the statute of limitations, which Marvine had missed by a day.

Wood was slender, erect, about six feet tall, and strikingly good-looking, with dark blue eyes and coal black hair. (In later years, he dyed it.) He was dignified, eloquent, and self-possessed: he seems never to have lost his temper. At the age of twenty-eight, he was elected to Congress for one term. Defeated for reelection, Wood went back into business. M.R. Werner, in Tammany Hall, reports that his merchant barque, the John W. Cater, was the first supply ship into San Francisco after the discovery of gold on Sutter’s farm. When its cargo sold at an immense profit, Wood kept it all by cheating a new partner of his fair share. Wood then retired from business and became a statesman.

In 1850, he narrowly lost his first campaign for mayor. Four years later, he ran again. This time, Wood was supported by old toughs from Tammany Hall and young toughs like the Dead Rabbits. These last, a band of thugs who loved fighting for its own sake, had been part of an informal militia, the Roach Guards, named after a prominent liquor dealer. Someone had enlivened a meeting by throwing a dead rabbit into their midst. “Dead rabbit” was then slang for “really tough guy.” [was the term current before? or did the incident create the slant? not clear]The incident was an inspiration.

Today, a politician might reflect for some time before openly accepting support from the Crips or Bloods. [or you could point out that NY pols were following in a noble tradition; Roman elections couldnt’ ahve existed without similar gangs of thugs] Wood had no qualms. After all, the campaign proved violent, and their support was useful. Wood was sanguine: he claimed the people “will elect me Mayor though I should commit a murder in my family between this and the Election.” He was elected by 1,456 votes, receiving 400 more votes in the “Bloody Sixth” ward than there were voters. Some argued this was merely a clerical error.

When Wood was elected[if all his misdeeds had been of a private and eprsonal nature, how did they know he was a baddun? why were they vilifying him?], the Morning Courier and Enquirer wrote:

Well, it now appears that Mr. Wood is Mayor… Supported by none but ignorant foreigners and the most degraded class of Americans, Mr. Wood is Mayor. In spite of the most overwhelming proofs that he is a base defrauder, Mr. Wood is Mayor. Contrary to every precedent in the allotment of honor through a municipal history of nearly two hundred years, Mr. Wood is Mayor. His assertion to us that a murder by his own hands could not prevent his election had reason in it; Mr. Wood is Mayor.

Yet, during his first term of office, Wood proved efficient and hardworking, often personally leading the police in breaking up riots and closing down illegal bars. He maintained a complaint book at City Hall, and often personally investigated entries.

His second term was different. He won by 10,000 votes in 1856, and probably his entire margin of victory was fraudulent. Election Day riots broke out in the First, Sixth, and Seventeenth wards, with the Dead Rabbits battling the Bowery Boys, smashing ballot boxes and terrifying opposition voters. Wood apparently foresaw the advantages of chaos: he had furloughed the police for the day.

Wood now realized his opportunities and he took them. [Isn’t that “Plunkett?”] He sold appointment as corporation counsel, the city’s lawyer, to two different men at the same time, for cash. He sold the police commissionership for $50,000. He sold the street cleaning contract to a high bidder after arranging a $40,000 bribe to the Common Council and a twenty-five percent interest in the profits for his beloved brother Ben. Most memorably, Wood allowed City Hall to be sold at auction to satisfy a judgment against the City. [what does that mean?]

The Legislature in Albany now shortened Wood’s term to one year. They created a state-controlled Metropolitan Police Force and ordered the Municipal Police dissolved. Wood had none of it. Do you mean he “was having none of it?” On June 16, 1857 when the state tried taking over the Street Cleaning Department, Wood ordered the Municipal Police to physically remove the state appointees from their offices, and this was done. The state authorities obtained an order to arrest Wood for inciting a riot. Capt. George Walling, a redoubtable ex-Municipal turned Metropolitan, went into City Hall alone to arrest Wood. The Mayor greeted him cordially, learned of his mission, turned to his Municipals and said, “Men, put that man out.” Walling seized Wood, according to Luc Sante, and began dragging him toward the door. Then the Municipals laid hands upon Walling, freed the Mayor and tossed Walling down the front steps.

Some say they merely escorted him out, for old-time’s sake. [Don’t get it]

The Metropolitans now marched fifty strong from their White Street headquarters to find City Hall held in force by the Municipals. They charged up the front steps as the Municipals issued forth with a cheer to meet them, and the air was filled with the sound of locustwood clubs, which “emitted a sound like a bell”[???source???] on hitting human skulls. The Municipals outnumbered the Metropolitans, and drove them back. The state forces rallied, however, and charged City Hall once more. At this moment, the Dead Rabbits and “a miscellaneous assortment of suckers, soaplocks, Irishmen, and plug-uglies, officiating in a guerrilla capacity,” [???source???] rushed the Metropolitans from the rear.

“The scene was a terrible one,” wrote The New York Times. “Blows upon naked heads fell thick and fast, and men rolled helpless down the steps, to be leaped upon and beaten until life seemed extinct.”

The day was saved by the 7th Regiment, then marching down Broadway to embark for Boston. The Metropolitans requested help. The gallant 7th, drums rolling, flags flying, turned toward City Hall. The Mayor capitulated.

For several weeks the city was patrolled by two police forces working at cross purposes. A Municipal might arrest some thug only to have a Metropolitan set him free. Each side freely raided the other’s precinct houses to liberate prisoners en masse. The gangs found this stimulating: on July 4, 1857 the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys started a two-day battle in the area around Mott, Mulberry, Bayard and Elizabeth Streets, leaving eight dead and 100 wounded in a whirl of stones, brickbats, clubs, and gunfire. In the fall, the courts determined that the City’s ancient royal charters were meaningless and the City was no more than a creature of the State. The Municipals hung up their clubs and badges.

Tammany’s 1857 convention nominated Wood by a vote of 100 to five for his only opponent, William M. Tweed, who would be heard from again. Nonetheless, in the fall elections, Wood proved that not even Wood could survive financial panics, police riots, and the foreclosure sale of City Hall. Within a year, however, the Model Mayor defeated his successor for reelection and returned to power. In common with most Democrats, Wood opposed the abolition of slavery out of both personal racism and belief in the City’s dependence on the cotton trade. [the logic of this paragraph is giving me whiplash]

To be sure, he did not publicly dwell upon the lottery concession that his brother Ben and he held in Louisiana, which someone once described as akin to being given a color offset lithographic machine by the Federal Reserve with the injunction: “Now go ahead and print all the one hundred dollar bills you need.” [again, I don’t get this, or how what comes next follows from it] In a speech at New Rochelle in 1859, Wood argued that the city’s prosperity depended on Southern trade, “the wealth which is now annually accumulated by the people…of New York, out of the labor of slavery—the profit, the luxury, the comforts, the necessity, nay, even the very physical existence depending upon products only to be obtained by the continuance of slave labor and the prosperity of the slave master.”

This was not oratory. By 1860, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the city’s largest industry was garment production, with 398 factories employing 26,857 workers to create clothing worth $22,420,769—largely from Southern cotton. Sugar-refining, the second largest, also depended on Southern cane to refine sugar products worth $19,312,500. These two industries created more than a quarter of the city’s gross industrial product.

Losing Southern raw materials might devastate the city’s economy. As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace note in Gotham, “the city’s key economic actors—the shipowners who hauled cotton, the bankers who accepted slave property as collateral for loans, the brokers of southern railroad and state bonds, the wholesalers who sent goods south, the editors with large southern subscription bases, the dealers in tobacco, rice and cotton—all had come to profitable terms with its slave economy.” They feared that secession would mean massive Southern defaults: the nonpayment of bills due and owing to New York merchants. Thus, they pressed for conciliation with the South at all costs.

Even in 1860, decades after the United States had abolished the slave trade, ships launched from New York shipyards and financed by New York investors, though flying foreign flags and manned by foreign crews, carried slaves from Africa to Cuba, where the slave trade was still legal, yielding profits as high as $175,000 for a single voyage. Moreover, although New York State abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, the Tammany city government tolerated “blackbirders,” illegal slave importers who operated out of New York. Apparently, District Attorney James Roosevelt refused to prosecute them, believing their activities did not constitute piracy, although federal law defined it as such. Some blackbirders were professional bounty hunters searching for runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. A few even kidnapped free blacks for sale in the South. It is no wonder that Dan Emmett, a minstrel show composer, premiered “Dixie,” the Southern national anthem, in New York City on April 4, 1859.

The Mayor’s 1861 message argued, based on the effect of the secession crisis on New York City’s trade, the city fathers should anticipate the Union’s collapse with a policy of neutrality among the Northern and Southern states, noting that “With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States we have friendly relations and a common sympathy.” He said New York City should strike for independence, “peaceably if we can, forcefully if we must.”

Wood was probably the first politician to show New York City provided far more tax revenue to the federal government than it received in public expenditure.

Finally, the Mayor suggested that New York, as a free city, financed through a nominal tariff on imported goods, could abolish all direct taxation on its citizens. Theodore Roosevelt noted in his History of the City of New York that the Common Council “received the message enthusiastically, and had it printed and circulated wholesale.”

While Wood may have contemplated the common good, he surely considered the vast possibilities inherent in running one’s own country. According to Luc Sante, the Common Council approved a plan for merging the three islands of Long, Manhattan and Staten into a new nation, to be called Tri-Insula. Three months later, after the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, the plan was quietly rescinded. The city survived despite more than $300 million in defaulted Southern trade debts and more than 30,000 suddenly unemployed workers. Within months, the Union’s demands for uniforms, rifles, artillery, and warships restored full employment.

Fernando Wood lost the mayoralty in 1861. Realizing the rise of William M. Tweed and his Ring to power was irresistible, he made peace. Wood was nominated to a safe congressional seat and other persons who had paid him approximately $100,000 to $200,000 for various appointments and nominations received them. Wood, aging gracefully, remained in Congress for the rest of his life. Although censured by the 40th Congress for “use of unparliamentary language” and defeated for the speakership in 1875, Wood became chairman of House Ways and Means in 1877. He died in 1881. Wood is buried in Trinity churchyard, at the head of Wall Street. As always, he is near the money.

New York Press, January 9, 2001

January 29, 2015   No Comments

Family Fare

Arecent encounter with the first half-hour or so of Jane Eyre, The Musical put me in mind of the 1857 murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. (The connection won’t immediately be apparent.) A friend with a professional interest in seeing the show had asked me along, and since she’d paid for the tickets and wanted to leave, we did—well before the act break—driven out by the inexorable staccato of the leading lady’s enunciation.
The show had not been exceptionally or unexpectedly appalling, but it made you realize that it’s possible to get anything produced on Broadway these days, provided it has a child in it. Absolutely anything. People are desperate to get their offspring out of the house, and anything with a kid in it is considered family fare.

This re-emergence of the child as live attraction may be a by-product of the current baby boom. But it has its roots, I think, in the Burdell affair and its aftermath. That’s really where the great show-business tradition of exploiting children for profit begins. The Burdell case is one of my very favorite New York murder stories—about a woman who, having killed a man in cold blood, had the audacity to lay claim to his estate as his wife. She was not his wife. But having been arrested, imprisoned, and charged with his murder, she purported to be pregnant with his child. She was not pregnant with his child—or anyone’s. But having been tried and acquitted, she carried on with the charade, trying to persuade even her own doctor that she was soon to give birth to the murdered man’s heir.

The best account of the Burdell affair is to be found in Murder Won’t Out, Russel Crouse’s wonderful 1932 anthology of unsolved New York homicides, but I first stumbled on it in a book by Jack Finney (of Time and Again) called Forgotten News, which said that on a cold winter’s morning in 1857 a rather unlikable dentist named Burdell had been found murdered in his home at 31 Bond Street. It was not possible to determine the precise cause of death (Burdell had been strangled first and then stabbed fifteen times, apparently in places where it counted) but suspicion fell on Emma Cunningham, a young widow who had been residing in his house for more than a year.

Mrs. Cunningham, to whom Dr. Burdell actually leased the premises at 31 Bond, had for some time been carrying on a not-very-clandestine affair with the doctor. It was a volatile romp, now on, now off. She had marital designs. The two had met at a resort and formed an acquaintance that, back in New York, Mrs. Cunningham had strengthened along with her teeth by going to see him in a professional capacity. She had five children, two boys around eight and nine, and three teenage girls. The whole passel of them wound up moving in with Dr. Burdell, with Mrs. Cunningham eventually taking over the lease from a previous landlady.

The Cunninghams and Dr. Burdell never lived as a family, exactly, though now and then he seems to have shared the widow’s board as well as her bed. At a certain point, though, relations seem to have gone awry. There was an incident with a fetus that either miscarried or, as Cunningham later claimed, was aborted (a procedure she said Burdell had both demanded and performed) and a couple of lawsuits. Burdell began to be heard vilifying Mrs. Cunningham, saying he wished she didn’t live at 31 Bond Street and that he feared for his life.

She seems to have been a piece of work, a creature in whom a seemingly endless capacity for guile was mingled with chronic ineptitude. In various unsubtle ways she set about alienating Burdell from his friends and acquaintances, particularly other women, moved a number of longtime boarders out and a couple of her own associates in, had him arrested for breach of promise and—when he countersued, claiming she had stolen back her promissory note for the year’s rent—for slander; all of which led to a settlement and an uneasy truce, broken only by the murder. Now Mrs. Cunningham came forward with the announcement that she and the doctor had been secretly wed some months before.

She had, in fact, been secretly married to someone. In late October of the previous year a man with a beard and a tendency not to meet one’s eye had shown up at 623 Greenwich Street, home of the Rev. Uriah Marvin, and arranged a wedding for the following day. The ceremony had been performed, Dr. Marvin officiating and one of the daughters bearing witness, but whether Mrs. Cunningham had married Dr. Burdell or another occupant of 31 Bond posing as Dr. Burdell was a matter that the minister would later keep changing his mind about. Mrs. Cunningham’s claim on Dr. Burdell’s $100,000 estate was turned over to the Surrogate. Meanwhile, she was arrested and tried for murder. She got off, owing largely to the fact that the coroner had gathered too much (i.e., conflicting) information.

The likelihood that Mrs. Cunningham was Burdell’s widow had been somewhat undercut by the groom’s failure to point out the misspelling of his name on the marriage license. (It appeared as “Berdell.”) Possibly it was with a view to improving the Surrogate’s opinion of her that Mrs. Cunningham embarked on the pregnancy ploy. But Mrs. Cunningham’s doctor ratted her out to the district attorney, a man named A. Oakey Hall, who was to become a member of the infamous Tweed ring and mayor of New York.

He was, it appears, no ordinary prosecutor but something of an impresario manqué, a man who today might have made a name for himself as a minor auteur, producing straight-to-video movies, say, or reality television. “A lifelong lover of the arts,” according to American National Biography, Hall had moved to New York in 1848 “to take advantage of Gotham’s cultural opportunities.” By 1851, he was contributing whimsical little pieces to something called The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science. One of these, a work of dramatic criticism, is entirely written in the voice of a lorgnette.

Hall proposed to Mrs. Cunningham’s physician, one Dr. David Uhl, that they collaborate on a complicated sting operation. He suggested that the doctor play along with Mrs. Cunningham, pretending to be in league with her, all the while reporting back to him. Mrs. Cunningham had asked Uhl to help her procure an infant that she might pass off as her own. She had, she said, $2000 to spend—half for him and half for the baby’s family. Hall told the doctor to go ahead and locate a suitable baby. In the charity wards at Bellevue a woman was found who was willing to be separated from her newborn child for a single night in exchange for a thousand dollars.

Hall’s plan involved stringing along Mrs. Cunningham—who at that point was claiming the birth to be almost imminent—for several weeks. While she strove to build up an illusion of gravidity (simulating cravings and nausea, expressing anxiety about whether she would go to term) Hall invented an elaborate cover story to explain how a complaisant mother had been found so easily: she could be a “California widow”—a woman anxious to remove the evidence of an ill-timed pregnancy achieved while her husband had been off panning for gold.

Hall also hired his brother-in-law from upstate, another doctor, whose role in the masquerade would be to transport the baby to 31 Bond. At Hall’s instigation, the two physicians scoured the Lower East Side for an apartment in which they might pretend this fictional mother was about to give birth. On Elm Street (now Elk Street) they found a wine-and-beer merchant with a set of rooms to let. Hall not only rented the rooms on Elm Street, he had them furnished and filled with props. He even brought in a Spring Street pharmacist to play the mother, when Mrs. Cunningham came by Elm Street at one point,  and the fellow put on a frilly cap and simulated birth pangs heroically from the bed.

To make a long story short, the police totally nailed it, and everything went off like clockwork. They let the baby arrive and be admitted to the house. Then before you could say “fallopian tube” they were up the front steps of No. 31 and in the door. Hall’s brother-in-law later claimed that on confronting Mrs. Cunningham he even remembered to say, “Do you claim this child as the child of Harvey Burdell?” to which he said she replied, “Of course—whose else should it be?” And that was it—busted.

Mrs. Cunningham, though arrested that night, was apparently never prosecuted for the Bogus Baby escapade. So it seems as if all that Hall had wanted was to put on a big show. In later years Hall himself would  be accused of fraud, but like Mrs. Cunningham would be acquitted. And though he would end his career in disgrace, he shares a biographer with Eugene O’Neill, which would no doubt have pleased him.

The baby in the case (and here is my point) wound up in Barnum’s American Museum, where it had a nice little run earning its mother $25 a week—Broadway’s first child star.

Incidentally, a No. 31 Bond Street still exists. Inside is a pretty little auditorium.

New York Press, March 20, 2001

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Family Fare