That Time My Great-Uncle Helped Send a Man To Prison

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded. I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is the story of John Rhoads Company, a successful West Philadelphia business founded by the Harrisburg-born Rhoads in 1886. On July 15, 1926, a 32-year-old Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland named Morris (Moshe bar Dahvid Layb) Berger bought the company, joined by his younger brother Jules. “Julius” had been born in a two-story Philadelphia row house in February 1904. Less than seven years earlier, the two brothers and their three sisters had lost their father under mysterious circumstances that made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But you must await publication for that story…and the shenanigans that transpired in the Spruce Hotel in 1937.

Instead, today I reprint this short passage from Chapter 1 (From Triumph to Tragedy…and the Tailor’s Daughter). It is the second half of the section titled “John Rhoads Company.”

Please enjoy.

It was on this land in 1886 that the former confectioner opened John Rhoads Company, a carpet cleaning, moving and storage firm whose original address was 736-42—later just 738—N. Holly Street. In 1894, this “popular” two-floor firm was the “largest in West Philadelphia.”[i] Less than two years later, on July 27, 1896, 57-year-old John Rhoads died at his home at 4003 Spring Garden Street, a few blocks southeast from his company. It passed through the hands of sons Daniel and John F., their wives and his daughter Mary A. before ultimately passing to John F.’s wife Annie L. G. Rhoads.

In the meantime, John Rhoads Company thrived, advertising “Carpet Beating, 3c Yard. Called for and returned free, also Six Months’ Storage Free”[ii] in May 1914, then “Storage, packing, shipping. Local and distant moving” and carpet cleaning in January 1919.[iii] By February 15, 1919, John Rhoads Company had changed its official address to 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue.[iv]

I do not know why Morris Berger decided to purchase John Rhoads Company, or why Annie Rhoads sold it to him. The likeliest explanation is that Annie did not want to run the family business herself and accepted a generous offer from a man who had started working at the business with his younger brother the previous year, bringing with them an excellent reputation in the used furniture business.

Five years later, on April 2, 1931, Morris Berger officially ceded ownership of the company and the land it occupied to “John Rhoads Co.” This way, according to a paternal cousin, Morris and Jules split their stake in the company 50-50, with an arrangement that if one brother died, the surviving brother would receive an additional 1% of the company, making him bare-majority owner; it is not clear how the remaining 49% control would be allocated.[v]

Jules Berger, now in his mid-20s, took the opportunity afforded by this success to travel in style, Great Depression notwithstanding. On February 1, 1931, he departed Havana, Cuba for Key West, Florida on the S.S. Northland. That summer, he spent two weeks at the Ford Hotel in Montreal, Canada, carrying $100 in cash (almost $1,700 in 2019), arriving August 6 on the S.S. Silvia after a six-day voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia; the ship’s manifest lists his profession as “rug cleaner.” And on March 4, 1933—the same day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated 32nd president of the United States—he departed from New York City for a cruise through the West Indies on the R.M.S. Mauretania, then nearing the end of its run as the premiere luxury liner of the Cunard line.[vi] Twelve days later, the ship returned to New York City, having sailed as far south as La Guaira, Venezuela.[vii]

Six years later, 35-year-old Jules married 30-year-old Roslyn K. Blatt, who had graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Temple University in 1931. While I cannot recall meeting my late great-aunt, the name “Aunt Roz” rang a loud bell when I re-discovered it researching my family history. The newlyweds settled into the house at 444 S. 49th Street, connected by a small concrete walkway to Jules’ brother’s house.

In July 1946, Jules inadvertently launched the noir “fugitive on the run” story of Harry Merrick III. The previous February, Jules had been called to Merion Gardens Apartments, on the suburban side of City Avenue, where it intersects Wynnewood Avenue. There 23-year-old Harry sold my great-uncle rugs belonging to his father, H. M. Merrick, for $200 (around $2,850 in 2019). However, since the rugs did not belong to Harry, his father and my great-uncle jointly swore out a complaint for his arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. Sentenced by Judge Harold G. Knight in Montgomery County Court in Norristown to 11-22 months in the county jail, he was transferred in November to the Montgomery County Prison Farm. There he roomed on the honor system with 20 other inmates and a single guard. On Christmas Eve 1945, Harry escaped in a prison truck, which was found in Philadelphia a week later, its identifying panels removed and its gas tank empty. Harry spent the next six months roaming the country, working whatever jobs he could, until he could no longer bear not seeing his 23-year-old wife Dorothy; the latter now lived with her mother in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Arranging to meet at the city’s massive railway terminus, 30th Street Station, they spent nearly three days together, during which Dorothy convinced her husband to “face the music,” vowing to wait for him while he finished his sentence. “I’m so tired of being hunted,” he replied, and on the morning of July 26, 1946, accompanied by his wife and a lawyer named Thomas E. Waters, he turned himself in at the same courthouse where had had been sentenced the previous spring.[viii]

By the early 1940s, John Rhoads Company had expanded from a small carpet cleaning firm into a successful reseller of high-quality household furniture and goods, open every day. Advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted “ANTIQUES, BRIC-A-BRIC, RUGS. Household & office furniture. Baby grand pianos, china. Best prices paid.”[ix] Similar ads over the next five years also highlighted “ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS” and “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites.[x]

In August 2019 I spoke to some current residents of N. Holly Street, who were exceedingly generous with their time and memory, and learned the giant door through which the trucks would drive in and out of the building was located on the right-hand side of the N. Holly Street end of the building, as you faced it from the sidewalk. This was also where the giant rolls of carpet were cleaned.

This is what that section of N. Holly Street looks like now.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[i] “BUSINESS HOUSES AND THEIR PROGRESS.” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 16, 1894, pp. 26-28. The listing of West Philadelphia businesses is on page 28.

[ii] PI, May 25, 1914, pg. 12

[iii] PI, January 14, 1919, pg. 19

[iv] Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), February 15, 1919, pg. 17

[v] Letter from Source 1 to author, September 15, 2017

[vi] Accessed October 19, 2019

[vii] “Steamship Movements,” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), March 8, 1933, pg. 1

[viii] “Fugitive Returns On Wife’s Plea; Felon Persuaded to Give Up After 6 Months of Freedom,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 27, 1946, pg 11

[ix] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 2, 1941, pg. 58.

[x] Per a small 1942 “For Sale” advertisement: “WANTED ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS Household and office fur., grand pianos” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 8, 1942, pg. 52. They were open every day from 9 am to 5 pm (Mondays until 10 pm). Another ad on the same page announced an “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites. Similar ads had appeared in the Inquirer in 1941 (February 2, pg. 58; May 4, pg. 14) and earlier in 1942 (February 1, pg. 10), and would appear again later in 1942 (July 21, pg. 30) and in 1943 (January 4, pg. 26), 1946 (January 2, pg. 41).

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