Organizing by themes VIII: True crime

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Having written extensively about film noir and Charlie Chan films and detective fiction—and my maternal grandfather who rose to the rank of Detective on the Philadelphia Police Department in the late 1940s (at the very height of the classic film noir era), it was inevitable that I would eventually turn to true crime–despite it being far less amenable to “data-driven storytelling.”

Actually, that last part is not strictly true…if counting the number of true crime books in my bookcase while counting 100 random facts about me counts as “data-driven storytelling”:

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist….

#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

I address Jack the Ripper in a very specific way here.

Four of the remaining 49 books on my crime fiction shelves relate to the January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, to which I first alluded in this “worlds collided” post.

And I am still waiting for Larry Harnisch to write his book.

Beyond these two classic unsolved murders, I am particularly fascinated by the Chicago and New York City crime sagas of the 1920s—culminating in the exposure of Murder Inc. using the epic testimony of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles (the “canary who could sing but could not fly”). These account for 10 of the 45 remaining true crime books on my shelves.

When I was in Chicago in June 2013 for a conference, I took this photograph at what, on February 14, 1929 was 2122 N. Clark Street, site of the S-M-C Cartage Company:

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Speaking of the 1930s, I also have three volumes (counting this excellent compendium again) related to the “public enemies” (faux Robin Hoods?) of 1933-34: John Dillinger/Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker-Karpis gang, and so forth.

The other crime from the 1920s for which I own two books—and which I first learned about from this television movie—is the murder for which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried in 1927.

That only leaves my two books on the murder of Marie Rogers–and 29 other volumes, including this nearly-forgotten case.

Well, and here are some tangentially-related volumes.

Setting aside my fascination with Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia (and many of the Charlie Chan films), it is a good first pass at a broad generalization to say that I prefer my crimes from the 1920s and 1930s, but I prefer my crime movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Until next time…

Her name was Elizabeth Short…

At 11:47 pm on January 14, 2019, I parked my black Accord on Salem Street, in front of the ironically-named Brookline Bank; behind where I sat was the rotary where one accesses I-93 from MA-60—or continues along MA-60 into Medford Center. The drive from Brookline, including stops at an ATM and my old Star Market in North Cambridge (which, I was heartbroken to learn, is no longer open 24 hours[1]) had taken less time than I had anticipated.

I wanted to perform my modest version of The Poe Toaster’s ritual precisely at midnight, so I sat quietly in the darkened car for about eight minutes. At around 11:55 pm, I grabbed the plastic-wrapped bundle on the seat next to me, braced myself against the cold, and exited the car. After briskly walking to the other side of Salem Street, I stopped at the large black metal trash bin on the sidewalk in front of Nunzio’s Upholstery to strip the plastic wrap and rubber bands off my bundle.

Turning toward the rotary, I crossed a narrow side street and continued walking along the sidewalk past a small parking lot and a two-story red brick apartment building. Just beyond its entrance lay a narrow patch of grass; it separates the sidewalk from the cul-de-sac ending Fountain Street.

Toward the end of this narrow strip of grass stands a piece of rock, less than a yard high. I arrived at this rock with three minutes to spare, so I tried to read the plaque embedded in the side of the rock facing the street. I need not have bothered, since I had read it maybe half a dozen times before.

At the moment my iPhone switched from “11:59” to “12:00,” I knelt down and carefully arranged the bundle of white flowers I had bought at the Star Market along the base of the memorial. I was greatly heartened to see that others had recently left fresh flowers as well.

I then took two photographs with my iPhone. This is the second one; I like the effect of the flash reflecting off the metal and stone.

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And then I stood quietly, remembering why I was dropping off these flowers for the fourth year in a row (as I previously described here).

On the 72nd anniversary of the discovery of her body in an empty, grassy lot in Los Angeles, I wanted to honor Elizabeth Short, whose last home in Medford had stood about where the rotary is now, as a real human being, a naïve and imperfect 22-year-old dreamer who simply wanted to make it in Hollywood.

“The Black Dahlia” was an ingenious nickname, nothing more.

**********

I wrote about this ritual last April in the context of finding a photograph of a key suspect/witness in her slaying, Robert “Red” Manley, on the same page of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer as a story about the Dock Street strikes in Philadelphia; Herman Modell, the lawyer who arranged my adoption, represented some of the strikers.

When I think of the investigation of Elizabeth Short’s murder, one thing that comes to mind is a wide range of lurid headlines from the Los Angeles newspapers, notably the Herald and the Examiner.

Having spent much of the last 18 months immersed in online editions of the Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com, I was curious to see how they covered the murder of Elizabeth Short; it was hardly a local case. This curiosity was greatly inspired by my desire for a reliable compendium of primary-source information about the case analogous to The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion.

Limiting myself to the first month (i.e., through February 15, 1947), I quickly learned two things. First, the Inquirer relied upon the wire service United Press Associations (UP) for their Elizabeth Short stories; presumably, this meant that only the “key” facts were being reported. The one exception was “Special to the Inquirer” coverage of the “confession” of a corporal named Joseph Dumais, stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, just 38 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The other thing I learned is that this was enough of a national story to regularly merit coverage on page 3, and occasionally on page 1.

Here then are those 19 articles, presented in chronological order (with brief commentary). Read in order, they reveal how the case unfolded in real time—and how quickly the lack of genuine clues and likely suspects manifested itself.

The case first appeared on page 3 of the January 16, 1947 edition. And I cannot imagine the UPI (United Press International, following the UP’s 1958 merger with International News Service), Associated Press, Reuters or McClatchy using the word “Fiend” in a headline today.

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This is only the first article, and there is already a mistake in reporting. Elizabeth Short’s body was not discovered by “a motorist,” but by a woman named Bette Bersinger, who was walking along the edge of Leimert Park (on South Norton Street) with her young daughter at about 10:30 am PST.

The next day (January 17) brought only a photograph of the victim on page 3, now identified by her fingerprints as Elizabeth Short. She had in fact been born in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park (July 1924), although she was raised primarily in the suburb of Medford.

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On January 18, 1947 (page 3), we see the slow building of the mythology that still surrounds Elizabeth Short: the “trail of boy friends,” the “sheer black gowns” and, most importantly, the nickname “Black Dahlia.” The presence of this macabre sobriquet in a wire story only three days after her body was discovered confirms that it was given to her while she was still alive, most likely in a Long Beach drugstore (supposedly in a nod to the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia and because of the amount of black clothing she wore and the white flowers she would wear in her hair).

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The story of policewoman McBride (who believes she encountered a frightened Elizabeth Short on the night of January 14—the last of the “missing days” between her last verified sighting on the evening of January 9 and the discovery of her body on the morning of January 15) is an intriguing one—and deeply tragic, if true.

Meanwhile, the UP reporter is apparently confusing Ann Todd with an actress named Ann Toth, who actually was a friend of Elizabeth Short.

This article, finally, gives readers the first hint of a key witness/suspect named “Red,” who sent her a telegram in San Diego (where she had lived since December 1946).

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The first persons to be considered (and rejected) as suspects appear in this page 3 article on page 3 of the second edition of the Sunday morning Inquirer (January 19, 1947). Mrs. Phoebe Short, tricked into giving a reporter information about her daughter through a lie about her winning a beauty pageant, arrives in Los Angeles (where Elizabeth’s married sister Virginia West had recently married). And the hunt for the “handsome red-haired ex-Marine flier” named “Red” continued.

He would be discovered the next day, though he was actually only 25 years old. This story put of the murder of Elizabeth Short on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer for the first time (January 20, 1947).

And here I correct a mistake (as I interrogate my own memory) I made in my April 30, 2018 post: Robert Manley did not turn himself into the police voluntarily. Rather, he “was taken into custody…for questioning,” in that he “was arrested” although “no charges had been filed.”

Manley would later admit that when he first saw Elizabeth Short on a street corner in San Diego (in December 1946, I believe), he had picked her up to test his love for his wife. He would also attempt to sleep with her in the motel (not, as the article says, “hotel”) room they shared on the night of January 8, 1947, but got nowhere. For this intended-if-not-consummated transgression, Robert Manley would be hounded (though not by his forgiving[2] wife Harriette) for the rest of his life: he would be confined to a mental hospital (yes, by his wife) in 1954.

There is a curious slip in this article (and not the mythologizing about her being a “party girl”). Manley and Short were seen “at a drive-in restaurant near San Diego the day before” the latter’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. The waitress who saw them, Jadell Gray, claims to have served the “black-haired, black-clad” girl on the night of January 14—but that makes no sense given the Manley last saw her on the evening of January 9 (as will be established below).

Was it a case of mistaken identity, a misremembering of dates (confusing the night before her disappearance—or some other visit to the restaurant by “Beth”—with the night before the discovery of her body?), or did the UP reporter simply miswrite the date?

Robert Manley’s custody ended after one day, as the full text of the article (back to page 3) accompanying the photograph I first posted in April 2018 reveals. How disappointed must the Los Angeles Police Department have been not to be able to break Manley’s alibi?

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For the first time, we read about (though not by name) the Biltmore Hotel, where Manley dropped Elizabeth Short on the evening of January 9, 1947; this was the last place she was confirmed to have been seen (other than by her killer) alive. We also get the first intimations (whether true or not) of a violently jealous boyfriend.

The humanity of the story, meanwhile, returns with Elizabeth’s mother Phoebe being (understandably) unwilling to view her daughter’s remains unless absolutely necessary.

Four days would pass before the Elizabeth Short murder reappeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—on the front page, with one heck of a headline.

So far as I know, nothing ever came of the arrest of the 21-year-old 6’1” blonde Caral Marshall and her “male companion.” If anything, the UP buried their lede: the interception of the envelope addressed in cutout letters to the “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” containing a wide range of Elizabeth Short’s personal belongings (including an address book stamped with the name Mark Hansen). Incidentally, the note actually read, “Here! is ‘Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow.”

One day later (back to page 3), the UP was no longer burying its lede. The receipt of Elizabeth Short’s belongings—and the extraction of usable fingerprints (despite the sender—almost certainly Ms. Short’s killer—having soaked the envelope and its contents in gasoline) was one of the biggest breaks in the investigation. One of the only big breaks, really.

fbi gets prints

 

Of course, they had to drag poor Robert Manley back in to the story (he did identify the shoe—though it was found in a restaurant dumpster, not in the “city dump”) and make sure the readers knew he had “had a few dates with Miss Short shortly before she was killed, but who was absolved of any implication in the crime.”

There was no Inquirer article about the case on January 27, 1947, but on January 28 (page 3), the “Black Dahlia Avenger” makes her/his first appearance—supposedly he would turn himself in to Los Angeles police on the morning of January 29 (exactly two weeks after the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s body).

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S/he never did, as we will see.

A small story appeared on the front page of the January 29, 1947 Inquirer marking an inevitable turn in the investigation: the first of dozens of false confessors turned himself in to the Los Angeles police.

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Even more fake confessors appear in this January 30 article (back to page 3). The focus on the false confessions is telling—little new evidence was emerging.

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The lack of new evidence is also revealed by the fact that the UP did not put out a new wire story relating to the death of Elizabeth Short until February 11, 1947 (and that was about an entirely different murder victim). Or, at least, the Inquirer did not print any UP story during that period.

In the meantime, however, Inquirer reporters had uncovered a possible lead much closer to home—and they broke the story on the front page on February 6, 1947.

While the latter half of this story provides no hard new information, it does tie a black bow around the emerging (and distorted) portrait of “man crazy” Elizabeth Short, based solely on a collection of photographs of men in her album—and the discreet sentence “She never did have a steady job, and made money by a variety of part-time work, including posing for a Hollywood photographer.” I let the probable implications of “posing” speak for themselves.

One day later (back to page 3 again), the “Corporal Joseph Dumais killed the Black Dahlia in an alcoholic blackout” story was already unraveling—and the single clipping in his wallet had become “clippings.”

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The unraveling continued on February 8, 1947 (page 3), with some confusion as to the accuracy of records (this is a military base, mind you—and Dumais was military police) indicating Corporal Dumais had returned to Fort Dix on January 10 (and not left after that—it is a near-certainty Elizabeth Short was still alive on the night of January 14).

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Meanwhile, the casual aside about Elizabeth Short’s “fondness for sheer black lingerie” (did she exhibit her underwear in the Long Beach drug store where the moniker “Black Dahlia” likely originated?) is telling. It is almost as though Elizabeth Short is becoming only a bit player (ironically) in her own murder investigation.

The saga of Corporal Dumais continued on the front page of the February 9, 1947 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as he had now formally “confessed” to a killing he was supposedly too blackout drunk to remember committing.

And Elizabeth Short is still wearing sheer black undergarments around Long Beach.

Beyond that, however, no new hard evidence is cited in the article…and the story of the “confession” of Corporal Joseph Dumais essentially comes to an end the next day (February 10, 1947), albeit on the front page.

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The UP stories returned to the front page of the Inquirer the next day, but with an entirely new victim: 40-year-old Jeanne (not “Jeane”) T. French, former flight attendant and Army “flying nurse,” whose murder superficially resembled that of Elizabeth Short[3]. The most “tangible” connection were the initials “B.D.” written in lipstick on her body (under an obscene phrase).

Corporal Dumais makes an encore appearance in a three-paragraph article just under the story of Jeanne French. Clearly, the Inquirer was reluctant to let their local connection to the murder of Elizabeth Short go.

A page 3 article on February 12 offers no new evidence in the Elizabeth Short murder investigation.

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And by February 13, 1947, investigators were clearly grasping at straws, as this tale of a 21-year-old Boston parolee named George F. Poleet shows. As in the previous two articles, Elizabeth Short herself barely appears.

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This was the last article about the case—which remains officially unsolved—to appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the month after Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. I will not speculate here on who killed her, for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea.

**********

I offer a brief “mea culpa” postscript to this retelling of the first month of the investigation into the death of Elizabeth Short.

I drive our two daughters to school on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This past Tuesday, January 15, 2019, was the morning after my ritual drive to the Elizabeth Short marker in Medford. Half-asleep, I was telling the girls in the car about my adventure the previous evening (leaving out the meh slice of pepperoni pizza I bought near Tufts University—most of whose campus is in Medford—after leaving the marker). Forgetting how young our precocious daughters actually are, I let slip some of the details about her murder. When I mentioned she had been bisected (I may have said “cut in half”) our eldest daughter responded “Oooh, really?” with a mixture of disgust and fascination; she does like her murder mysteries. Our youngest daughter said nothing.

I had completely forgotten the conversation until just after 9 pm that night, when the younger daughter emerged from her bedroom crying, though she did not know why. My wife Nell took her back into her bedroom to comfort her.

A few minutes later, Nell called out from her bedroom in her “you’re in trouble, mister” tone of voice. Reluctantly leaving the “A” block of The Rachel Maddow Show playing on our television, I walked into the bedroom.

“Do you want to tell Daddy why you were crying?”

It transpired that she had been lying quietly, thinking about the morning, then remembered the conversation she had overheard in the back seat.

Ooops.

At this the eldest daughter sleepily poked her around the corner to find out what was happening. When told, she worried aloud that SHE would now have nightmares.

Double ooops.

Luckily, neither had any nightmares (though I did awaken the younger daughter a few hours later rearranging the pots and pans in a kitchen cabinet) that night, nor so far tonight.

Fingers crossed.

Until next time…

[1] When I lived just over the line in Somerville from September1989 to February 2001, Porter Square had a 24-hour supermarket, a 24-hour CVS (still there, still open 24/7), a 24-hour White Hen convenience store (long since demolished) and a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts (still there, no longer 24/7). Fin de siècle, indeed.

[2] And, if I may be forgiven a personal note, absolutely beautiful. I have never found Elizabeth Short particularly attractive…but Harriette Manley is another story entirely.

[3] Ms. French was one of a number of female murder victims in Los Angeles spuriously linked to the death of Elizabeth Short, most notably a 20-year-old oil heiress named Georgette Bauerdorff.

Was Jack the Ripper Jewish?

In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.” [1].

Sir Robert Anderson wrote this sentence on page 138 of his 1910 memoir The Lighter Side of My Life. Its context may be found in a preceding paragraph:

And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews; for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their own number to Gentile justice. And the result proved that our diagnosis was right on every point. For I may say at once that ‘undiscovered murders’ are rare in London, and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes are not within that category.”[2] (boldface added)

Anderson was named Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of London’s Metropolitan Police on August 31, 1888. At about 3:45 that same morning, the body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (still barely breathing) was discovered lying on the sidewalk of a short narrow thoroughfare called Bucks Row.

Eight days later, on the same day the mutilated body of Annie Chapman had been found in the rear yard of a house at 29 Hanbury Street, Anderson would begin an enforced restorative vacation in Switzerland. He would not return to London until after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on the morning of September 30. Six days later, Anderson would assume full control of the investigation of these four (and counting) murders.[3] In the interim, however, Anderson had named Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson day-to-day director of the investigation into the killer who later that month would be given the name “Jack the Ripper.”

Soon after the publication of his memoir, Anderson presented Swanson with a copy. At some point, Swanson penciled his own commentary in the margins of page 138 (which continued onto the book’s blank back pages). In what would become known as the “Swanson marginalia,” the former Chief Inspector described an unhesitating identification of a Jack the Ripper suspect by “the only person who ever had a good view of the murderer,”[4] before ruefully noting that the witness refused to

“…give evidence against him because the suspect was also a Jew and also because the evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind.”[5]

Swanson goes on to describe (somewhat erroneously, as it turned out) how the identification took place, followed by the suspect’s subsequent internment in, first, Stepney Workhouse, then Colney Hatch, where he soon died.

The final words of the Swanson marginalia are “Kosminski was the suspect.”[6]

This was not the first mention of a Polish Jew named Kosminski as a top Ripper suspect. In 1959, typed memoranda written by Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Scotland Yard during the investigation (which was officially closed in 1892) were unearthed. In the memoranda (three versions of which have been discovered), he lists three possible suspects, one of them being “Kosminski, a Polish Jew.”

Pioneering research in the mid-1980s would lead Martin Fido to uncover a Polish-born 23-year-old Jewish barber named Aaron Kosminski as the likeliest match to the suspect alluded to by Anderson, Swanson and Macnaghten. Interestingly, Fido himself would ultimately assert that Jack the Ripper was really a man named “David Cohen” who had been confused with Aaron Kosminki[7]. Opinions continue to fluctuate about the viability of Kosminski as Jack the Ripper, with Robert House’s 2011 book Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect[8] an excellent summary of what little is known about Aaron Kosminski[9].

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Lost in the dispute about names and evidence, however, is this simple fact: three key on-the-scene investigators and one contemporary investigator believed that Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

**********

Just bear with me as I veer into the personal.

As I have noted previously, I was raised Jewish. More to the point, I am the (adopted) son of a woman and a man raised in the mid-20th-century Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, both of whose fathers were born in the Pale of Settlement, one in what is now Poland and the other in what is now Ukraine.

That I now identify as a “Jewish-raised Atheist” testifies to the conclusion I reached after an adulthood immersed in epistemology: organized religion is not my cup of coffee[10].

Nonetheless, I am proud of my Jewish heritage (even if I no longer practice “Judaism”), even more so as I write my book. Intended initially to trace the genesis of my love of film noir, it will now include opening chapters detailing the immigration of four Jewish families from the Pale of Settlement to Philadelphia between 1893 and 1912. Because I realized I cannot understand my childhood (and attendant immersion in detective fiction, Charlie Chan and “classic” black-and-white films) without understanding how David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger came to be living in Havertown (a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia) in the mid-1960s. And once you start peeling that particular onion…

At the same time, I consider myself an amateur Ripperologist. It is thus not surprising that in what will probably be Chapter 2, I find myself describing late-19th-century Jewish migration to the East End of London:

Ultimately, 100,000 of these Jewish emigrants landed in the crowded slums of the East End of London[11]. At first treated with sympathy, native-born Londoners’ feelings soured as Jewish immigrants soon became the majority in a number of areas, particularly the southwest section (NewTown, Spitalfields) centered on the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Road[12]. The established, assimilated Jewish authorities of London were also wary of this immigrant influx, fearing that these uneducated peasant Jews would cast their own community in a poor light, even though, as I have noted, while they may have been impoverished, they were also literate enough to support a wide range of newspapers and works of literature. The alienation of native British Jews from their own Jewishness (stemming from their recent fight for emancipation from anti-Jewish statutes) has been described as their “Anglicization”[13] and it led the arriving Jewish immigrants of the 1880s to establish dozens of new, traditional synagogues in the East End and elsewhere. Soon, there was at least one synagogue on nearly every street in that area.[14]

Anti-Semitic feeling reached a boiling point in the late summer and early fall of 1888, when a series of brutal murders came to be attributed to the Whitechapel Fiend and, later, Jack the Ripper. One of the first people to be publicly accused of committing the murders was a local Jewish butcher named John Pizer, aka Leather Apron, who was arrested on September 10, 1888. Quickly establishing his innocence, he noted that he had not left his house for days for fear of being torn to pieces by an angry mob[15].

In other words, it is impossible to separate Jack the Ripper from the increasingly visible Jewish immigrant population of the East End. As of 1888, 45-50,000 Jews (9-10% of the total population) lived in the East End. If you assume, as I do, that Jack the Ripper lived in geographic proximity to his crime scenes, there is (as a sort of baseline estimate) roughly a 1-in-10 chance he was Jewish.

You also cannot separate Jack the Ripper from the appalling conditions prevailing in his killing fields. It is no accident that Paul Begg opens Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History this way:

During the 1880s the East End became the focus of a great many general anxieties about unemployment, overcrowding, slum dwellings, disease and gross immorality. It was feared that the unwashed masses would tumble out of their dark alleys and bleak hovels, sweep beyond their geographical containment and submerge civilized society. A working class uprising and revolution was an imagined reality that waited just around the corner. Jack the Ripper gave those fears substance and form, flesh and bone, because Jack the Ripper was a product of ‘the netherworld’ who could—and in one case fractionally did—move out of the warrens of hovels and alleys into the civilized city. And if Jack the Ripper could do it, so could the diseased savages themselves, espousing socialism, demanding employment and fair wages, education and acceptable housing, and bringing an end to the world as the Victorian middle classes knew it.”[16]

Much of the socialism being preached in the East End resulted from the writing and agitation of recent Jewish immigrants, as I observe in “Chapter 2”:

As I noted above, the Pale of Settlement served as an incubator for a variety of socialist and other pro-worker movements. Morris Winchevsky, born Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch in the Pale of Settlement city of Kovno, in what is now Lithuania, founded the radical socialist Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend) newspaper in London in 1885. The editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint were housed in the rear of the IWEA [International Workingmen’s Educational Association, founded in 1884], also known as the Berner Street Club. The IWEA was a central meeting place for the newly-radicalized Jews of the East End, both native-born and recently-arrived. In fact, on the night before the murder of Liz Stride, a man named Morris Eagle led a discussion entitled “Why Jews Should Be Socialists.”[17]

And here we come to the crux of the matter—the morning of the “double event.”

**********

At 12:45 am on the morning of September 30, a Hungarian Jew named Israel Schwartz turned from Commercial Street into Berner Street. At the gateway to 40 Berner Street, he saw a man stop to speak to a woman standing there. The man was about 30 years old, 5’5” tall and broad-shouldered, with a fair complexion, dark hair, small brown moustache and full face. He wore a dark jacket over dark trousers and a black cap with a peak; he held nothing in his hands. As he was trying to pull the woman into the street, he turned her around and threw her down on the footway of the gate; the woman screamed—though not loudly—three times.

Schwartz, who spoke little English, wanted to avoid this tussle, so he crossed to the opposite side of the street. There he saw a man standing in the shadows, lighting a clay pipe. This second man was about 35 years old, 5’11” with a fresh complexion and light brown hair; he wore a dark overcoat and an old black hard felt hat with a wide brim.

As Schwartz crossed the street, the first man called out “Lipski,” but whether he was addressing Schwartz or the man with the pipe, we do not know. Later that morning, Schwartz would tell police officers he did not know whether the two men were together or even knew each other. He would also identify the body of Elizabeth Stride as the woman he had seen.

Once the first man called out “Lipski,” Schwartz walked away. The second man began to follow him, and Schwartz ran as far as a nearby railway arch; the man did not follow him that far. Schwartz then told his story to the police, which was summarized by Chief Inspector Swanson.[18]

Stepping back a moment…on June 28, 1887, a 22-year-old Polish Jew named Israel Lipski had been arrested for killing a young Jewish woman named Miriam Angel by pouring nitric acid down her throat. Lipski had been found under her bed with traces of the same acid in his mouth. Protesting his innocence (and with no motive offered by the prosecution), he was sentenced to death; he finally confessed on the morning he was hung[19]. At that point, the name “Lipski” became a sort of casual anti-Semitic insult.

Back on Berner Street, the 9-12-foot-wide gateway at number 40 was the entrance to a passageway called Dutfield’s Yard. It was adjacent to the building housing the IWEA (aka Berner Street Club). Only a few hours earlier, Morris Eagle had lectured in that same building on why Jews should be socialists.

For the previous six months, a Jewish trader of cheap jewelry named Louis Diemschutz had served as the club’s Steward. At 1 am, just 15 minutes after Israel Schwartz’s encounter with the two men and a woman, Diemschutz turned his pony-drawn cart into Dutfield’s Yard. Something made the pony shy to the left; when Diemschutz touched what we thought was a pile of mud with the handle of his whip, he had discovered the body of Elizabeth Stride.[20] And after Diemschutz ran into 40 Berner Street for help, it was Morris Eagle who brought the first two police constables to Dutfield’s Yard.

Whether or not the man Schwartz saw grappling with the woman was Jack the Ripper, he was unlikely to have been Jewish. In fact, I have always believed he called out “Lipski” to the second man as a prelude to a form of anti-Semitic bullying; one can see the two men walking away laughing almost immediately[21]. It also does not seem credible to me that the man with (possibly) Elizabeth Stride would then kill her in the same place he had just been seen by Schwartz and the man with the clay pipe. Curiously, there is no record of Israel Schwartz giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Elizabeth Stride, though it may have been given in secret[22].

Elizabeth Stride was not abdominally- and genitally-mutilated the way other canonical victims of Jack the Ripper (Nichols, Chapman, Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the latter on November 9) were, suggesting either that she was not actually a victim of Jack the Ripper or that he was interrupted by Diemschutz before he could do so.

Thirty minutes after the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Stride, Police Constable (PC)

Edward Watkins walked through Mitre Square, in the City of London (and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police), and saw nothing out of the ordinary[23]. Five minutes later, at 1:35 am, three Jewish men—Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy and Harry Harris—left the Imperial Club[24], a short distance away from
Church Passage, the entrance to Mitre Square. Levy had earlier remarked that Mitre Square should be watched, presumably because untoward things happened there.

Walking by the darkened Church Passage, the three friends saw a woman (who they later felt certain was Catherine Eddowes[25]) standing there with a man. Lawende, who was walking a bit in front of Levy and Harris, passed within nine or 10 feet of the couple, and he glanced briefly at them. He later described the man as about 30 years old, 5’9” tall, with a fair complexion and a small light moustache; he looked ‘rather rough and shabby,’ and he wore a cloth cap with a cloth peak. Other than the four-inch difference in height, this description is broadly similar to that given of “Man 1” by Schwartz. That said, the description would have fit many men in the area. Meanwhile, Lawende would repeatedly assert his inability to identify the man again[26].

The other two men paid little attention to the couple, although Levy was quoted as telling Harris, “I don’t like going home by myself when I see these sorts of characters about. I’m off.”[27]

Five minutes later, PC James Harvey saw and heard nothing standing on the edge of Mitre Square at the end of Church Passage, though Mitre Square was not lit. The couple seen by the three Jewish friends was gone (or hiding in the gloom).

But five minutes after THAT, at 1:45 am, PC Watkins walked through Mitre Square again. And that is how he found the viciously mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes.

Jack the Ripper may thus have been seen by as many as four Jewish men between 12:45 and 1:35 am on the morning of September 30, 1888. One of them was called an anti-Semitic epithet a few yards from the rear entrance of a club for Jewish socialists, and another Jewish man would find the body of Elizabeth Stride lying near that same entrance.

And the morning was not yet over.

At 2:55 am, PC Alfred Long walked down Goulston Street on his beat[28]. He had done so 25 minutes earlier, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. This time, however, he saw a piece of bloody apron lying near a stairway leading to 108-119 Wentworth Model Dwellings. The near-universal consensus among Ripperologists is that this was a piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron, which her killer had cut off and used to wipe his bloody hands and knife[29].

PC Long also observed writing in white chalk on the wall where the piece of apron was found. He recorded it as “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.”[30] As Jakubowski and Braund put it, “There has been a great deal of dispute over the meaning of the message, because it is not clear if the Jews should be blamed or excluded from the murders or whether the word ‘Juwes’ actually means ‘Jews.’” Nonetheless, rather than wait for sufficient light to photograph the graffito, a possible clue, fears of resulting anti-Semitic rioting led then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren to order its erasure at about 5:30 am.

Even if Jack the Ripper stood next to that wall while he wiped his hands and/or blade, it is not plausible to me that—knowing members of both the Metropolitan AND City Police were scouring the area—he would then take the time to write an obscure message. Nonetheless, somebody took the time to write that putatively anti-Semitic graffito shortly before 2:55 that morning.

There is one final “Jewish connection” to Jack the Ripper.

At 6 pm on November 12, 1888, three days after the unspeakably savage murder of Mary Jane Kelly in her tiny room at 13 Miller’s Court, 26 Dorset Street,[31] a friend of hers named George Hutchinson (who had not given evidence at the inquest, held earlier that day) walked into Commercial Street Police Station to give a statement. At about 2 am on the morning of Kelly’s death, he had seen her talking to a man near the Dorset Street entrance to Miller’s Court. In his remarkably detailed description, Hutchinson noted the man “…wore a very thick gold chain, white linen collar, black tie with horse shoe pin, respectable appearance, walked very sharp, Jewish appearance. Can be identified.”[32] (boldface added)

Hutchinson, who was himself seen watching the entrance to Miller’s Court at 2:45 am, may have invented the wealthy Jewish-appearing man to cover his own presence near the crime scene. But even if he did see such a man, he was unlikely to have been Jack the

Ripper, as the best estimates put Kelly’s death at between 4:00 and 5:45 am; it is extremely unlikely the “john” would have had sex with Kelly (a prostitute like the preceding four victims) in her room then waited there for two or three hours to kill her.

Mary Jane Kelly is the last of the five canonical victims (though I personally include Martha Tabram [or Turner], killed on a stairwell in George Yard Buildings on the morning of August 7, 1888 as well) of Jack the Ripper, although Alice McKenzie (July 17, 1889) and Frances Coles (February 13, 1891) are sometimes included.

For what it’s worth, not one purported victim of Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

**********

For the record, I have absolutely no idea what Jack the Ripper’s real name was, although “a Polish Jew named something like Kosminski” is one of more plausible suspects of the hundreds put forward, if only because of the writings of Anderson, Macnaghten and Swanson[33]. For some perspective, John J. Eddleston’s indispensable Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia lists 113 suspects—including a catch-all “Polish Jew” and “Unknown Male” (rated a “5,” meaning “a strong possibility” that someone not yet named was Jack the Ripper). For context, Aaron Davis Cohen (the real name of Fido’s suspect David Cohen) is listed as a “4” (a very good possibility) as is another East End Jewish man named Nathan Kaminsky (who may or may not have been Aaron Davis Cohen). Aaron Kosminksi is rated lower, at “3” (a reasonable possibility), while “Polish Jew” is rated a “2” (a remote possibility).

Moreover, the perceived certainty about Kosminski is undercut by Macnaghten himself, as he names two other likely suspects (a barrister named Montague John Druitt and a “mad Russian doctor” named Michael Ostrog). And other high-ranking officials had their own preferred suspects. Secret Department[34] Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, in a 1913 letter, would cite an American “doctor” named Francis Tumblety as “to my mind a very likely suspect.”[35] And Inspector Frederick George Abberline, one of the top officers assigned to investigate these murders, ultimately decided a convicted wife poisoner named Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman) was Jack the Ripper.

Other Jewish residents of the East End have been put forward as suspect, meanwhile, including Hyam Hyams.

And the suspects keep coming. In 2007, retired CID homicide detective Trevor Marriott somewhat fancifully named Carl Feigenbaum (who also went by many other names).[36] This video makes a somewhat tortured case for a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann (who gave evidence at the inquest into the death of “Polly” Nichols), while this video makes an intriguing—if highly circumstantial—case that Jack the Ripper was a carman named Charles Alan Cross (aka Charles Alan Lechmere)—the first of two men (along with another carman named Robert Paul) to find the body of “Polly” Nichols![37]

My point was simply to delineate the nexus between Jack the Ripper’s crimes, the increasingly Jewish (and socialist) character of the East End of London in 1888, ensuing anti-Semitic backlash and the roles played by numerous Jewish residents (including, perhaps, Jack the Ripper himself) in the discovery and investigation of the murders.

Until next time…

POSTSCRIPT: In separate books in the 1990s, Paul Harrison and Bruce Paley each argued for the candidacy of Mary Jane Kelly’s former lover and cohabitator Joseph Barnett; the circumstantial evidence is interesting although the ascribed motive is…creative.

In 1937, my great-aunt Rose Goldstein married a man named Joseph Barnett Spungen, who had been born in Leeds, in the north of England, in 1908. (If the name Spungen sounds familiar, it is because this was his brother’s granddaughter). I always do a double-take when I see his first and middle names.

I do not really think there is any connection between Whitechapel’s Joseph Barnett and my mother’s first cousin by marriage…but I will keep interrogating the extant records nonetheless.

[1] Anderson, Sir Robert. 1910. The Lighter Side of My Official Life. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, pg. 138 (Quoted in Begg, Paul. 2003. Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 268.

[2] Ibid, pg. 267.

[3] Much of the information in these paragraphs comes from Eddleston, John J. 2001.Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. as well as my own deep familiarity with the details of the case.

[4] Begg, pg. 267-69.

[5] Ibid, pg. 269.

[6] Ibid, pg. 269.

[7] An excellent summation can be found in Fido, Martin. 1999. “David Cohen and the Polish Jew Theory,” pp. 164-86 in Jakubowski, Maxim and Braund, Nathan, eds. 1999. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.

[8] New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. See especially Chapters 17 and 20-26.

[9] Who, for example died on March 24, 1919, not sometime in the 1890s as Swanson seemed to think.

[10] I am not much of a fan of tea, either.

[11] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[12] http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/life-in-the-jewish-east-end

[13] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/london

[14] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[15] Begg, pg. 157.

[16] Ibid. pg. 1. Carrying this argument to an absurd, pointed extreme, George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter on September 24, 1888 to The Star newspaper which began, “Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer [the name “Jack the Ripper” was still three days away] in calling attention for a moment to the social question? […] Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. While we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling [sic] four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.” Quoted in Begg, pg. 2.

[17] Ibid., pp. 171-74.

[18] Preceding four paragraphs from Begg, pg. 179 and Eddleston, pg. 114.

[19] Begg, pg. 139.

[20] Ibid,, pg. 174.

[21] The counter-argument that he was attempting to distract from his own Jewishness by calling out “Lipski” has always seemed far-fetched to me as well.

[22] Or Schwartz was Swanson’s Jewish witness, who refused to testify against a fellow Jew.

[23] The next few paragraphs from Begg, pp. 193-94.

[24] At 16-17 Duke Street, now Duke’s Place.

[25] This despite the fact Lawende only saw the woman’s back. The identification seems to be have been based upon the black jacket and bonnet she was wearing and, I surmise, the fact she was a few inches shorter.

[26] Which again begs the question whether HE was Swanson’s reluctant Jewish witness.

[27] Begg, pg. 193. Begg goes on to say that he—and contemporary observers—felt that Levy was being evasive.

[28] The ensuing few paragraphs are drawn from Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 41.

[29] It matched a gap in the apron Eddowes was wearing when her body was discovered.

[30] The City of London police believed the graffito read, “The Juwes are not the men That will be Blamed for nothing.”

[31] The crime scene photograph of what was left of the approximately 25-year-old Irish-born Kelly is the ghastliest thing I have ever seen.

[32] Eddleston, pp. 70-71. Eddleston actually believes Hutchinson is the most likely suspect, as he details on pp. 275-84.

[33] According to the invaluable on-line Casebook: Jack the Ripper, “By some counts, more than 500 individuals have been put forward by various experts, historians and theorists – most based on flimsy or non-existent evidence.”

[34] Later known as “Special Branch,” this was the unit devoted to preventing Irish (or Fenian) terrorism. Eddleston, pg. 126.

[35] Quoted in Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 100. An excellent analysis of Tumblety’s not-unreasonable candidacy is Evans, Stewart and Gainey, Paul. 1995.Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer. London, UK: Century Random House UK, Ltd. The edition I own is the 1998 paperback reprint published by Kodansha America, Inc.

[36] Marriott, Trevor. 2005. Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation. London, UK: John Blake Publishing, Ltd. Marriott did not actually name Feigenbaum until the 2007 paperback edition.

[37] The inevitable “well, maybe not” counter-argument may be found here.

And for my 100th post…100 random facts (about me)

This is post #100; thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.”

December 19 is also the two-year anniversary of this site’s launch (so I should gift myself either cotton or china, and it should be red).

To honor this symmetry, and to lighten the mood from my previous three posts (dealing—however obliquely—with the deaths of President George H.W. Bush, Pete Shelley and my maternal grandfather), I present 100 random facts about me. These tidbits of personal trivia are in no particular order.

**********

#1-19. I have seen every episode of…

Barney Miller*

Columbo*

Coupling

Documentary Now!

The Green Hornet (co-starring this guy)

The Honeymooners (classic 39 episodes, 1955-56)

Night Court

Police Squad (all six episodes)

Portlandia

Remember WENN

Sherlock

Soap*

Square Pegs*

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sweet Genius

Taxi*

Twin Peaks (including this movie)

The Untouchables*

WKRP in Cincinnati*

 Shows with an asterisk I own on DVD.

#20. Barney Miller remains my favorite sitcom, followed by Taxi and Remember WENN (in some order), then CouplingWKRP and Soap (in some order) along with Cheers and Get Smart.

Barney Miller DVDs.JPG

#21. I have likely also seen every episode of a truly obscure 1980 late-night soap opera called The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. 

#22. I have seen (and own on videocassette) all 20 adventures of The Mighty Heroes that aired as part of the 1966-67 series Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes.

mighty heroes

Picture from here

#23. I have seen every episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.

#24. I have seen every episode of Dragnet released as part of the 1967-70 color revival. 

#25. I have spent the night in 24 states (25, if you count the District of Columbia [DC]). Roughly in order from most to least: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee (one night each on an April 1990 road trip).

#26. By contrast, I have never woken up in a foreign country.

#27-30. The only foreign country I have visited is Canada, three times in total.

The first time was to attend a Montreal Expos game in Montreal[1] on the afternoon of May 5, 1990 (which is what I told the gentleman at the crossing from Vermont).

The second time was on September 2, 1990. I began an eight-day road trip (1990 was my year for road trips) the previous day, driving west on I-90 through Massachusetts then deep into New York. Once it got dark, my rental car radio was able to pick up 1210 AM, the Philadelphia Phillies radio station, so I heard my Phillies sweep a double-header from the New York Mets (and the debut of a young second baseman named Mickey Morandini).

Believing I could simply find a room at an exit-ramp hotel, I had not booked one in advance. What I had not considered, however, was that it was Labor Day weekend. I remember one hotel clerk telling me there was not a room for “a hundred miles in any direction.” Exhausted, and unwilling to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for a hotel room 20 or miles away, I drove my rental car into the back of a Holiday Inn in Batavia, NY. I had had the foresight to pack a pillow, so I curled up in the backseat, using my robe as a blanket.

rental car September 1990.jpg

After sleeping for four hours, I roused myself at dawn and headed for Niagara Falls (which genuinely impressed me). I also found a pay phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 near Detroit, MI for that night. After touring the Falls, I drove into Canada, heading north to Toronto. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I listened on the radio as the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays had their best starting pitcher, Dave Stieb, on the mound.

As I got closer and closer to Toronto, Stieb had still not allowed a hit. And I was literally in downtown Toronto when Jerry Browne lined out to right for the final out of the only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jays history (by contrast, the Phillies have had six no-hitters since then).

I did not stop in Toronto, but rather drove directly to Windsor, Ontario, where I took the Ambassador Bridge north into Detroit—the only place you go north from Canada into the United States[2].

The third time was far less dramatic. On June 21, 1997, my then-girlfriend and I spent the night in Island Pond, VT (which I had first visited the day of the Expos game; different girlfriend, however). We listened to this painful loss in the motel room as it poured outside.

Since Island Pond is only 16 miles south on Route 114 from the border with Quebec, we drove to the border that night, crossed into Canada, drove a short distance then turned around and drove back into the United States.

#31. On that same September 1990 road trip, I was in the original Comiskey Park the night (September 3, 1990) Bobby Thigpen broke the single-seasons saves record.

#32. Speaking of old Comiskey Park (and Olympic Stadium in Montreal), I have been to more major league baseball stadiums that no longer exist (six[3]) than ones that are still in operation (three[4]).

#33. Over four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker (co-running the canteen) and a day camp worker (junior counselor at the same camp as 1978, Indian Springs).

#34. I was a camper at long-since-closed Camp Arthur-Reeta in the summer of 1979. For reasons which eluded me, my bunkmates gave me the nickname “Disneyland.”

#35. That same summer, I was sent home from camp for a week or two with the worst poison ivy I have ever had.

#36-48. I have also worked as a/an…

…part-time assistant (gluing samples into a display binder) for a specialty stationery store in Narberth, PA (summer 1982)

…file clerk in the G.H. Arrow periodical warehouse near 4th and Poplar (Philadelphia, summer 1983)

…delivery driver for Boardwalk Steak and Sub Shoppe (aka Boardwalk Pizza) in Ardmore, PA (spring/summer 1984)—still my favorite-ever job; I combined the Sea Isle and the Margate into my signature sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Boardwalk Sub 1.jpg

Boardwalk Sub 2.jpg

Boardwalk Pizza.jpg

…cashier in a WAWA food store in Belmont Hills, PA (summer 1985)

…cashier in a Washington, DC pizza joint (two weekends, summer 1986), while I was an unpaid intern at the Brookings Institute.

…shelving assistant in the Social Science Library at Yale (junior year, 1986-87)

…cashier at two different B. Dalton booksellers in Philadelphia (summers 1988, 1989)

…teaching assistant (three courses) and three-time senior thesis advisor at Harvard (1991-95)

…research assistant for multiple professors at Yale and Harvard

…data entry assistant at Pegasus Communications in Cambridge, MA (summer 1995)

…Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University (January-May 1996; the less said, the better)

…conductor of telephone survey research in Media, PA (spring 2001; see previous gig)

#49. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City (between Boston and Providence, the beach and Pacific). Back then, before the opening of Resorts in 1978 destroyed Atlantic City, a long string of motels stood along Pacific Avenue between Albany Avenue to the southwest and New Hampshire to the northeast. My favorite pastime was to collect pamphlets from their lobbies; in the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and reminisce.

#50. Another pastime was to charge fellow patrons of the Strand pool 25 cents (or was it 50 cents?) to “bowl.” If memory serves, I had six cheap plastic trophies I stacked in a pyramid, and the goal was to knock them over with a ball of some sort

#51. My mother and I (and my father on weekends) occupied “penthouse” A at the Strand. Penthouse B was occupied by Leland Beloff, whose golden retriever Whiskey I used to walk with our Keeshond Luvey. One day I asked “Lee” (then 31 or 32 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up (had he only known…).

#52. Along the same lines, my orthodonist (on whom my mother had a crush), nicknamed “Dr. Touchy,” was convicted of sexually molesting his female patients.

#53. My mother once told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, because that was when she started smoking marijuana (1970).

#54. I think I was in ninth grade when my mother ruined my adolescence by telling me, “Do what you want, just be careful.” Nice, appealing to my “good doobie” nature.

#55. As this signed napkin (my mother and me) clearly shows, Nancy Spungen was the niece of Joe Spungen, my first cousin, once removed, by marriage. Actually, that should be grand-niece…not sure if the error was in the speaking or the recording.

Nancy Spungen.JPG

#56. Another first cousin, once removed is Lois Lane[5], but she is not THAT Lois Lane. This is one of her paintings.

IMG_3789 (2)

#57. On a field trip to Washington, DC on May 6, 1980, I threw up in a men’s room in the United States Supreme Court building. I had a stomach bug.

#58. I still do not know how to ride a bicycle.

#59. However, according to family lore, I was able to read at the age of two-and-a-half. Supposedly, one day in the spring of 1969 I was driving in our Havertown, PA neighborhood with my maternal grandmother, when I read a street sign: “Watch Children.” (In the retelling, it has become “watch childwenz.”). Upon returning home, she insisted my mother had had me memorize the sign. In response, my mother handed me a copy of Life magazine, opened to a random page. I read it perfectly.

Again…that is the story. My wife Nell, a former elementary school teacher with an MA in early education, does not think that is physiologically possible.

#60. What is true, though, is that I was a voracious reader as a child, and I built an impressive library of books—which I eventually Dewey-Decimalized. I once set up a “lending library” on our front lawn. One kind gentleman actually rented a book.

#61. I used to borrow substantial American history textbooks from my elementary school library to read over the weekend.

#62. In sixth grade, two other male friends and I formed the Bibliophiles and Explorers Club. No records of “BEC” meetings survive.

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist. (Ed. note: see here for more).

Ripperology.JPG

#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

#66. As a boy in the mid-1970s, I loved watching reruns of Batman–especially when the opening credits featured Batgirl. In retrospect, it is clear my first celebrity crush was Yvonne Craig.

#67. Excluding a girl I helped get around our elementary school after she broke her leg, my first crush on a person I knew started on a December weekend in 1978. My seventh-grade class had just read A Christmas Carol. A local second-run theater was showing the 1951 film version. As my buddy and I were settling into our seats towards the darkened rear of the theater, I happened to look over to the right. Settling into her seat maybe 20 seats away was a lovely blond female classmate, who I already liked in a platonic way.

My brain did not literally go “zoing!” but that is as good a description as any.

#68. Five months later (May 1979), after my mother, Luvey the dog and I moved in with her sister (and her two kids and Spanky the dog), I flew on an airplane for the first time (I was 12). My maternal grandmother took my cousins and me to Walt Disney World. I have not been back since then.

#69. That was not my last trip to Florida. In March 1993, on a lark, I flew to Clearwater, FL to watch four Phillies Spring Training games (in another baseball stadium that no longer exists, Jack Russell). The first game I saw was an afternoon game in St. Petersburg against—I believe—the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived about noon for a 1 pm start and took a seat in the bleachers. It was a hot, sunny day, so I took off my t-shirt—and kept it off the entire three-hour game (we lost 9-7). Coming from wintry Somerville, MA, it did not occur to me to apply any sunscreen.

I have never been so sunburned in my life…though that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying the rest of the trip.

#70. In fact, I returned the next March, this time with my then-girlfriend (and an ample supply of sunscreen). We skipped 1995 because of the strike, but returned in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Phillies did win any of the 12 games we watched in 1994, 1996 or 1997—an impressive 12-game losing streak with us in the stands.

#71. During that last trip, we stayed at a Hampton Inn (now a La Quinta Inn) on Route 19 north. One night, I was relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. I was 33 years old at the time. A number of young men were also in the hot tub, and they were discussing to which lower-level Phillies minor league affiliate they had been assigned. One of them then turned to me and asked something to the effect of, “So, where have you been assigned?”

Yeah, I was pretty flattered.

#72-74. I was even more proud of the following accomplishments (the first two of which are sort of repeat facts):

-Unanimous election as president of the Harriton High School Math Team

-Winning Harriton’s first ever Latin and Mathematics subject area awards.

-Unanimous election as chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council

#75. The latter election took place on September 21, 1986. Later that night, I visited the room of a young woman I liked. Very early the next morning, I wandered up Broadway—happy and bedraggled—to my own room. Along the way, I passed the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Traugott Lawler. Taking in the situation instantly, he simply nodded cordially to me, and I to him. To this day, I appreciate his discretion.

#76. I had officially become “a man” seven years earlier, at my Bar Mitzvah. As part of my months-long preparation, I was required to write out the answers to a series of Judaism-related questions in a notebook. I never got that notebook back because Rabbi Maltzman (who I adored) decided to use it as an example for future Bar and Bat Mitzvot. 

#77. I saw Talking Heads live twice, in the summers of 1983 and 1984. While I was at the first concert, someone asked my mother where I was. “Oh, he’s gone to see the Walking Dead.”

#78. The only acts I have seen live as many as four times (excluding my cousin) are Genesis (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992) and Stan Ridgway (2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

#79. The first concert I ever saw was Cheap Trick, on October 5, 1979 at the now-gone Spectrum in Philadelphia. My father—to his great credit—drove and accompanied my buddy (the same buddy with whom I had watched A Christmas Carol) to the concert. While seated near us, someone offered him some grass to smoke. He politely declined.

Cheap Trick.jpg

#80.  The first album I ever bought (Spring 1977?) was Wings Over America—which I still have:

Wings Over America.JPG

#81. The second summer I worked at a B. Dalton Bookseller (1989), an African-American man in a long raincoat came into the store while I was cashiering. He perused the magazines before selecting a Playgirl.

He paid for it with a wrinkled $20 bill. Something about the bill felt…off…but it was almost the end of my shift, so I paid little attention. Shortly after the man left the store, my supervisor (who did not like me at all) saw the bill in the cash drawer—and realized it was a counterfeit.

We had to make a statement in a nearby police station.

A day or so later, I was fired.

C’est la vie.

#82. I left my last full-time position—data guru at Joslin Diabetes Center—on June 30, 2015. Three days later, with Nell and our daughters in our house on Martha’s Vineyard, I drove to the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME for a little R&R.

IMG_1872.JPG

For supper, I drove north on U.S. 1 to King Eiders Pub in Damariscotta, which I cannot recommend enough. With my substantial meal, I had a glass of red wine and a single malt Scotch.

After the meal, I drove north on U.S. 1 to Rockport, where the Denny’s I had visited a few times in the late 1990s with an ex-girlfriend sat. I had something desert-like there, along with decaffeinated coffee.

When I left, it was past midnight…meaning it was the morning of July 4. I began to drive south on U.S. 1, winding my way through the “urban” streets of neighboring Rockland.

Almost immediately, the blue flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and waited (license and registration in hand) as not one, but two, male police officers approached my car.

One officer came to my driver’s-side window to inform me I had been driving 40 miles per hour (MPH) in a 25-MPH zone; this was likely true, I confess. However, he then asked me what I had been drinking earlier that evening. I was honest, though I emphasized how much food I had eaten as well. He clarified that I had not imbibed any alcohol at Denny’s.

I was then asked to step out of the car.

Oh boy.

I was told to lean against the front of the police car, where I went through a battery of tests. The one that stands out is being asked to follow his fingers with my eyes WITHOUT moving my head.

Which I did well enough, apparently, that I was told I was free to go.

Here is the kicker, though.

I had ostensibly been pulled over for speeding.

However, I was not even given a warning, let alone a speeding ticket. And while I was being put through my DUI paces, the other officer was carefully inspecting my black Honda Accord (Massachusetts plates).

My suspicion is they were looking for a car matching my description, and they needed a plausible reason to pull me over.

Still…oy.

For the record, that Denny’s closed for good recently.

#83. My favorite question as a child—the one that used to send the adults in my life completely ‘round the bend—was “Howcum?”

#84. One day after school (an early elementary school grade), a family friend named Hank asked me how school had been. I responded that “it was a cinch.” From then on, Hank (later a second father to me before his own untimely death in October 1983), called me “Cinch.”

#85. My father, however, preferred to call me “Pal.”

#86. When I was 13 years old (November or December 1979), I took the est training. While I now view its “teachings” with great skepticism, I enjoyed the experience. My mother spent much of the 1970s exploring all manner of consciousness-raising (or altering—I remember lots of marijuana and green glass jugs of white wine), though when she tried transcendental meditation, she immediately forgot her mantra.

#87. I actually did much the same for a few years in the late 1970s (coinciding, not coincidentally, with the start of adolescence and post-parental-separation moves), becoming fascinated with astrology, card reading and, especially, numerology (Chaldean, not Pythagorean, thank you very much). To this day, despite my capital-s skepticism, I still unconsciously ascertain whether a number (a day of the month, say) is “compatible” with me or not (before dismissing the notion).

But when I met one of my closest friends (his mother later introduced me at his wedding as “my third son”)—literally the first student I met in my SECOND seventh grade—I immediately asked him when his birthday is; all I had with me were a blue three-ring binder and my numerology book.

He told me, and I excitedly responded, “Oh, you’re a 3!” (I am a 3, and 3’s get along with other 3’s, you see.).

#88. Astrology actually led to another lifelong friendship. Just after the end of my freshman year of high school, a friend threw a picnic at nearby Ashbridge Park. I had just had my braces removed, boosting my self-confidence. Spying two girls I recognized from their visit to Harriton High School[6] during the preceding school year sitting in a tree, I climbed up to join them. I do not recall if they were already discussing astrology, or if it emerged organically in the conversation, but it was an immediate ice-breaker.

#89. The first occupation I remember seriously wanting to be “when I grew up” was archaeologist, around 7th grade or so.

#90. I have only been bitten by a dog once. When I was maybe five years old, I climbed over our backyard fence and down a boundary stone wall into the backyard of a house on a parallel street. There, the only truly vicious dog I have even known (all I remember is that it—he?—was black) came out of nowhere and bit my right hand in the fleshy part between the bases of the thumb and forefinger.

That traumatic experience, however, did not dissuade me from wanting a dog. So, one night in early January 1973, my parents and I drove to a pet store near Wilmington, DE (my father knew a guy…), where we acquired a Keeshond. It was my mother’s idea to name him Luvey “because he loves everybody.” This photograph was taken just outside the door of our “penthouse” at the Strand.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

He would have been 46 years old (that’s 322 to you and me!) on December 17.

#91. You can have your air guitar. I far prefer air keyboards, with air drummer a distant second.

#92. I have never been arrested.

#93. In the unlikely event I am ever arrested, however, under “distinguishing marks” would appear “White scar under left eyebrow.”

One Saturday or Sunday in the summer of 1974, my father (who knew another guy…) took me for a speedboat ride on the Absecon Inlet (separating Atlantic City from the mainland). We were two of maybe six or seven people on this guy’s boat. At one point, another speedboat zipped by us traveling way too fast and way too close. The resulting wake tipped our boat enough that I went flying into the side of the boat. My head landed on something sharp (or with enough force to break the skin) just above my left eye. A few millimeters lower…

Now, does my father take his profusely-bleeding son directly to the hospital on Ohio Avenue? Nooo…he brings him to his mother at the Strand. After reading him the riot act, she took me to the hospital, where I believe I needed 16 stitches to close the wound.

#94. That arrest report might also include “Small white scar on chin.” That would be from the time I whacked by chin into the kitchen counter, after I slipped trying to climb up to reach something (a cookie? a box of cereal?) in a cabinet.

#95. However, I did not require stitches—or emergency medical treatment of any kind—the first time I was ever in Island Pond, VT.

After the Expos game, my then-girlfriend and I wandered south through Quebec, somehow finding this blink-and-you-miss-it village. We decided to get some exercise by pitching and hitting; we had baseball bats, balls and gloves with us. Doesn’t everybody?

Things were going well until I threw a pitch that caught a bit too much of the plate—and she sent it screaming right into my face.

Luckily, it did not do any actual damage.

Except to my ability to throw a strike, for longer than I want to admit.

#96. My clear favorite “guilty pleasure” movie is Times Square. You can see why this movie would have appealed to 14-year-old me.

#97. I rediscovered it the year I lived in DC. I was so blown away by the soundtrack, I walked miles from my apartment to a downtown store that sold it (on vinyl, of course).

Times Square.JPG

I recently bought a copy of the film on DVD as well; it is a key part of how I came to love film noir.

#98. The first time I ever bought condoms was that September night in 1986. In those days, they were stored behind the counter, meaning you had to ask for them—with everyone listening. As I did so (“ummm, I’ll take the, uhh, the blue box there.”), a friend was standing in line with me.

The next day, he wrote on a piece of paper attached to the door of my room, “A brave man dwells within.”

#99. Next to dogs, my favorite animal is the horse. This is somewhat ironic in that it was horse racing (and cards) that fueled my father’s gambling addiction.

#100. That is why I never gamble.

Until next time…

[1] The Expos lost to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, with John Burkett outdueling Dennis Martinez. While my then-girlfriend and I sat in the leftfield stands, Kevin Mitchell hit a home run which just bounced off my glove—but into the hands of a youngster sitting just in front of me.  That remains the closest I have ever come to catching a ball. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/def_lineups.asp?Y=1990&T=25

[2] I spent the next five nights just south of Chicago; just outside Iowa City, IA; in Fremont, OH; in Pittsburgh, PA; and in my mother’s apartment in Penn Valley, PA (in the Philadelphia suburbs).

[3] Besides the two listed—and, of course, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—they are Busch (St.Louis), Shea (New York) and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh).

[4] Citizens Bank (Philadelphia), Fenway (Boston), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)

[5] Well, at least until she married Jed Bark.

[6] Harriton allowed students to bring a guest to classes with them for one day. The picnic hostess and another girl had brought these two friends from a nearby high school. The four girls all knew each other from a local church.

Why I chose…Naked City and More Than Night

My matriculation at Yale must have been even more formative than I realized because I have referenced my time there in four consecutive posts—five counting this one.

One reason my college years have been so front-of-mind is that my 30-year reunion was held this past weekend (May 24-27, 2018). I put off deciding whether to go until last Wednesday night (May 23), when I looked at reunion website and realized that it was feasible (if not inexpensive) to attend only one day; New Haven, CT is a relatively easy two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from our home. Our youngest daughter was over the moon at the prospect of joining me, while our older daughter was more ambivalent.

On Thursday, we decided that both girls would skip school on Friday and accompany me.

This proved an excellent decision as, despite the heat and swarms of mosquitos (youngest daughter woke up Saturday morning, looked at her legs and thought she had chicken pox), all three of us had a great time. Both girls quickly made friends with other attendees’ children, while I joyfully caught up with friends I may “talk to” on Facebook, but have not actually seen in 30 years.

Another reason my college years are on my mind is how crucial, I am realizing, they were to my long-time love of film noir, my impetus for writing this book.

One element of this influence was that when I attended Yale in the mid-1980s, there were six film societies showing a total of something like two dozen films every Thursday to Sunday. Naturally, I watched a lot of old movies (particularly ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock) during my four years there.

One film society was housed in my residential college, Ezra Stiles. I still have the wall poster from the first semester of my freshman year (Fall 1984).

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This poster has been living in a battered filing cabinet for years. When I pulled it out for book research four or five months ago, the first thing I noticed was the black-and-white photograph of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, presumably a publicity still from The Big Sleep.

Examining the poster more closely, I saw this written under the October 4 entry for Ruthless:

“The ESFS kicks off its 1984 Film Noir Festival with this lurid saga of a total sleazeball and his ugly struggle to doublecross all of his associates and climb to the top of the dung heap we call life. Bring a date.” (italics added)

Unless I had seen them in the context of films I had previously watched on HBO (e.g., The Postman Always Rings Twice [bad 1981 remake], Body Heat), that could easily have been the first time I ever read the words “film noir.”

I did not actually see Ruthless in October 1984, so I found a copy somewhere on-line and watched it in January 2018. It was mildly entertaining, with the best scenes being part of a flashback to the three main characters as children. A nearly unrecognizable Raymond Burr portrayed the main character’s father: a well-meaning gambling ne’er-do-well alienated from the main character’s imperious mother; Burr’s character reminded me more than a little of my late father.

The two-film “festival” concluded on October 6 with The Big Sleep.

I noted another way Yale impacted my love of film noir in this post, in which I began to explain why I chose the titles I did for the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), describing two detective fiction courses I took there.

One course was a “residential college seminar” (housed in Branford, the central locus for the Class of 1988 this past weekend); the other course, which I took my senior year, was taught within the American Studies department.

Besides the terrific works of fiction, Professor Lowry had us read and discuss two decades-old volumes of black-and-white photographs. More than 30 years later, why we read these works is fuzzy, though I think it had something to do with the movement toward “realism” in the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In many ways, both books are effectively Fodor’s guides to the places (be they in Paris, London, Los Angeles or any other large city) where most of the action in hard-boiled or police procedural fiction takes place.

Pulling out my copy of the first volume—Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30s—I see that it has far more text than I had remembered, making this masterful photographer’s book an illustrated memoir (mem-noir?) of night-time Paris between 1931 and 1934. A sampling of chapter titles tells the story: Lovers, A Night with the Cesspool Cleaners, Ladies of the Evening, In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere, Sodom and Gomorrah, An Opium Den.

As brilliant as Secret Paris was, though, it did not change my life the way this book did:

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Arthur (born “Usher”) Fellig, born in what is now Ukraine in June 1899, emigrated to New York City in 1910. In 1923, he landed his first job as a photographer; 12 years later he became a full-time freelance photographer, selling his dramatic shots of murders, fires…and even teenaged “BobbySoxers” screaming at a Frank Sinatra concert to that city’s tabloid newspapers.

Between 1935 and 1945, Fellig would prowl New York City at night in his sedan, which was equipped with police scanner and portable darkroom (in the capacious trunk), allowing him to take and develop his photographs faster than his competitors. His uncanny ability to anticipate a worthy photographic subject is likely what earned him the name “Weegee,” a variant on the Ouija board used to communicate with…the dead, or something.

In 1945, after years spent collating selected photographs, Naked City was published by Essential Books. Weegee suggests the reason for the title in a two-page introductory chapter called “A Book Is Born”:

“For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off…not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them. […] The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask ‘What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,’ the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”[1]

The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci as The Great Bernzini, is an underrated, albeit highly fictionalized, account of Weegee’s career that faithfully captures his modus operandi.

Still, as compelling as the photographs’ subject matter was, it was their look that riveted me. Working at night with an infrared camera and flash powder, Weegee’s photographs are textbook examples of high-contrast, almost washed-out, chiaroscuro—intensely bright white in a sea of black.

To many film noir aficianados, including me, this look is what makes film noir; it is no coincidence that Naked City was quickly turned into this iconic 1948 film noir. In fact, I could easily define film noir as “black-and-white films whose characters are anything but.” And while valid arguments can be made for the primacy of thematic (world-weary cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity, obsession), character (wise-cracking detectives, femmes fatales, ordinary people buffeted by fate and/or who make poor choices) or plot (crime, pursuit) elements, there is no getting around film being a visual medium, one that did not even require sound for nearly four decades. This is why I zero in on cinematography as central to the definition.

Indeed, another (only partly facetious) definition of film noir is a “Cornell Woolrich story, directed by Robert Siodmak for RKO, and filmed by John Alton to look like a Weegee photograph.”

As to why this look—impossibly-dark blacks punctuated by improbably-light whites—so appeals to me, I say, “I have no idea.”

There is, of course, the sense that black-and-white is artistically sophisticated, with the added advantage of being “classic.” A more prosaic explanation is that it is less garish and distracting, and allows you more easily to focus on the subject matter. Finally, there is the fact that my 20-10 vision for most of my life (that accuresed doctoral thesis) conditioned me to prefer more basic color schemes, which created less visual overlaid.

Any (or none) of these explanations may be true, and it would still be beside the point—which is that after reading Naked City, I never looked at the world in the same way again.

**********

I have already written (and contine to write) thousands of words about my love of film noir, so I will only briefly discuss Naremore’s seminal analysis.

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There are many terrific introductions to film noir, from comprehensive almanacs (Ballinger’s and Graydon’s Rough Guide, Hogan’s Film Noir FAQ) to encyclopedic treaments (Grant, Silver et al., Mayer and McDonnell, Keaney, Selby, Spicer, Lyons) to informal, thematically-grouped overviews (Mueller’s Dark City, Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen) to quasi-academic yet highly-readable analyses (Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Osteen’s Nightmare Alley) to, finally, the Film Noir Reader series.

But Naremore, to me, does the best job of weaving these strands together while also casting a wide thematic net (international films, neo-noir, technology, censorship, inter alia). In fact, of the 373 films discussed as “noir,”more than half (53.6%) were released outside the “classic” period of 1940-59,[2] nearly half (45.8%) were made entirely in color, and 19.0% were primarily produced outside the United States. Overall, Naremore combines the rigor of an academic with the passion of a fan, producing an introduction to film noir that is both erudite and readable.

Honorable mentions:

New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive by William Hannigan

Weegee was not the only tabloid photographer working her/his magic in nocturnal New York, as this well-annotated and gritty collection reveals, though, I actually sought out this book (i.e., asked for it as a birthday gift) a few years back because it included one particular photograph. On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison (along with her lover Judd Grey) for the murder of her husband Albert, making her the first woman to be electrocuted there since 1899; James M. Cain would fictionalize the story in his 1935 novella Double Indemnity. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter named Tom Howard, covering the execution in cooperation with the New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a hand-held toggle attached to a wire running down his pant leg. As the switch was thrown on Snyder, Howard was able to snap a photograph, the first ever of an electrocution; this, along with its infamous one word banner headline (“DEAD!”), was what I sought.

A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton

The term “film noir” most likely orginated with French film critics in the late 1930s, in the context of reviewing “poetic realist” films like La Jour Se Leve (Daybreak) and Pepe Le Moko. However, it was first used in its more familiar context in July 1946, when Parisian film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Paul Chartier (who, thanks to World War II, had not seen any American films since 1941) each wrote an article discussing a new wave of dark American crime films; they were actually piggybacking on  a 1945 New York Times analysis by Lloyd Shearer[3]. But the first truly comprehesive discussion of these films came in 1955, when two French film critics wrote Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 1941-1953. They depicted interlinking cycles of films with a common style, though in their “Chronological index of the main series” they only list 21 as “Film noirs,”with another 58 titles listed as either “Criminal psychology,” “Crime films in period costume,” “Gangsters,” “Police Documentaries” and “Social tendencies.[4]” But while their nomenclature is remarkably confusing, their analysis is incisive and, for many critics, conclusive. As Naremore, who wrote the Introduction to the 2002 City Lights Books edition of Paul Hammond’s English translation, noted in Contexts, “The best way to define film noir, Peter Wollen once remarked to me, is to say that it’s any film listed in…Panorama.”[5] I do not agree with that definition, but Panorama is still the place to start.

To be continued…

[1] Weegee. 1945. Naked City (unabridged republication of original Essential Books edition). New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., pp. 11-12.

[2] Overall, 2.9% were released between 1931 and 1939, 46.4% between 1940 and 1959, 5.1% between 1960 and 1966, and 45.6% between 1967 and 2006.

[3] All three seminal articles may be found in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. pp. 161-63. Overall, Borde and Chaumeton discuss 255 films as “noir.”

[5] Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. pg. 283.

Why I chose…Murder, Inc.

In my last post, I described the Facebook seven-day book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations).

Freed from the challenge rules governing, however, I now explain my choices.

In this post, I explore my fascination with true crime by discussing…

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Fictional crime has fascinated me since I was seven or eight years old, when I first started reading Encyclopedia Brown and his various imitators. At Yale, I took two courses on the subject.

But my interest in real-life crime was slower to develop. As a child, I did watch TV movies/mini-series on the Manson Family, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Lizzie Borden. Shockingly, given its graphic violence, I was allowed to watch the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde on television. In 6th grade, I first read about Jack the Ripper.

The tipping point, as is so often the case, came in college.

My sophomore year, I lived with two other fellows in a converted basement seminar room. The year before, a Saudi prince (or something) had lived in that room. He had bought a large color television, and when he left the room (and, if memory serves, Yale itself), he left the television there.

One of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual lab, and a friend lent us her VCR. As a result, a number of movies were screened in our room (including the first pornography I ever watched, the artistic but deeply weird Café Flesh; its Mitchell-Froom-composed soundtrack is still a favorite)

Another film I first saw that year was the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club, a historically-flawed but highly entertaining and visually arresting film.

I had vaguely been aware of such 1930s underworld figures as Dutch Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano and “Mad Dog” Coll, but knew little about them. Schultz, portrayed with psychotic intensity by the talented James Remar, is the primary “villain” driving the film’s plot, through Luciano, Coll and Owney Madden are key players as well.

Three years later, I was living in Washington, DC, working at the Brookings Institution. Before going to bed weeknights, I would watch syndicated reruns; this is when I fell in love with Taxi. Another show that caught my attention was The Untouchables, the 1959-63 black-and-white crime show based loosely upon Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-enforcing gang of incorruptible Treasury agents in early 1930s Chicago.

This is another example of well-written, highly entertaining drama built upon completely invalid history (for one thing, Ness played a trivial role in the conviction of Al Capone for income tax evasion). Walter Winchell’s staccato voice-over narration was especially compelling[1], as was the rich chiaroscuro of its cinematography.

The fall of 1988 was also the 100th anniversary of the canonical Ripper murders, and so this absorbing, but wildly inaccurate TV movie starring Michael Caine aired, further piquing my interest in the case.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that within a few years, I was prowling the true crime sections of book stores, slowly building a library. Then, in 1997 the History Channel produced this engrossing documentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Whether or not Capone really was responsible for this atrocity (this excellent book makes a good counter-argument), this was my first comprehensive introduction to the “beer wars” of 1920s Chicago and, by extension, the subsequent development of “the syndicate” in New York City.

Over the next 10 or so years, despite immersing myself in excellent books on the Ripper case and some dreck on the murder of Elizabeth Short[2], I still preferred to read crime fiction rather than crime fact.

Most likely what changed was that as I scoured the true crime bookshelves looking for new volumes on the Ripper and Dahlia cases, I began to notice other interesting books.

One was a thick paperback with a garish orange spine on which in large capitals was written “MURDER, INC.,” with “THE STORY OF THE SYNDICATE” below it in smaller letters.

I dismissed it at first because it was a 2003 De Capo Press reissue of a book originally published in 1951. That seemed boring somehow.

But I kept returning to it. It was that title, and that black-and-white cover photo of a bloody hand holding a playing card.

I finally succumbed in 2008 or so.

The book exists because in “the spring of 1950, Burton Turkus, a former [Kings County] assistant District Attorney, asked [journalist Sid Feder] to write a book with him on the fantastic ring of killers and extortionists that is organized crime in the United States.”[3]

The book, which admittedly starts slowly as Turkus settles into his new role as Brooklyn ADA in 1940 and is agog at the number of unsolved murders in the Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn, picks up at the end of Chapter 2 with this passage:

“We had to have a Buggsy or a Happy Maione who would put the finger on the rest and reveal the machinery. We needed, in brief, a canary that could sing good and loud—and on key. A Reles would do. Do? He would be the exact, perfect fit! Of one thing in this mess, though, both the Law and the mob were positive: Kid Twist would never break. It was legend in the police department how the Kid was arrested and worked over time and again—but never a word out of him.

“And then, Mrs. Kid Twist Reles walked into the District Attorney’s office.

“‘My husband,’ she announced, ‘wants an interview with the Law.”[4]

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, so-named for his penchant for using his long arms and abnormally strong hands to strangle transgressors, began talking to Brooklyn District Attorney William O’ Dwyer on March 23, 1940. Twelve days later, he had confessed enough dirt on the contract killing organization Murder, Inc., headquartered in the back of a Brownsville candy store, to fill 25 notebooks (and exhausting countless stenographers). In so doing, Reles had provided solutions to some 70 unsolved murders, and his later court testimony would help to convict six men, including Murder, Inc. head Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, of murder; all six were executed.

But just as Reles was set to testify against Albert Anastasia on November 12, 1941, he earned the gruesome sobriquet of the “canary who could sing—but couldn’t fly.” Despite being heavily guarded by 18 police officers on the top floor of the Half Moon Hotel, Reles somehow fell out a window to his death. Some tied-together sheets suggested a botched escape attempt, though that does not quite align with Reles’ obvious relish in telling his stories.

Still, Reles had exposed not only Murder, Inc., but the existence of a vast, highly-organized criminal syndicate, organized by Luciano and Meyer Lansky in the early 1930s.

This, then, was the book that fully introduced me, in riveting detail, to the early history of the American mob, in particular the Schultz-Dewey affair and the consolidation of power by Luciano through the murders of two rival mobsters: his boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria (he of the cover photograph; April 15, 1931) and Salvatore Maranzano (September 10, 1931).

This book is also the single best true crime book I have ever read, chock full of detail and written by an experienced crime journalist. At nearly 500 pages, it is a bit sluggish in place, but it is worth the effort.

Honorable mentions:

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund

This is not the best book on the Ripper murders, but it is the first one I ever read, back in 2000. It is a highly-readable compendium of factual overview, essays and commentary that provides a comprehensive introduction (and a wide range of more-and-less plausible solutions) to the case.

Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs

Forget the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. If you want to learn about the Depression-era bank-robbing gangs (Barker-Karpis, Dillinger-Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd [and the Kansas City Massacre], etc.) and their battles with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the newly-reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is the book to read.

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

As I noted above, Eliot Ness, for all his legitimate crime-fighting heroism, both in Chicago and in Cleveland, had very little to do with Capone’s 1931 conviction for income tax evasion. This terrific book tells the story of the true hero of the story, Internal Revenue Service agent Frank J. Wilson, who painstakingly compiled the required forensic accounting evidence. Incidentally, the book’s title stems from President Herbert Hoover’s direct order following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbitt, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

This story has almost been forgotten today. The “crime” of the title is the murder, atop the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, of renowned architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, violent and paranoid husband of beautiful young model Evelyn Nesbitt (later known as “the girl on the red velvet swing”). But it is Nesbitt’s bittersweet life—and its female authorship—that makes this book so interesting.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

As compelling as the story of serial killer H. H. Holmes is, what I loved most about this book was the way Larson contextualized the killings in the context of the 1893 Chicago Exposition. For example, among other things, it introduced a giant slowly-revolving wheel created by a man from Pittsburgh named George Ferris; it seems everyone wanted to ride “Ferris’ wheel.”

In short, I think the best true crime books do what all of these books do, place crimes within a larger context, so that by learning about the crimes, we learn a good bit of history as well.

To be continued…

[1] This is the second time the late great Elizabeth Montgomery appears in this post. This clip is from the 2nd –season episode “The Rusty Heller Story,” featuring Montgomery as Heller, and she portrayed Lizzie Borden in the TV movie listed earlier.

[2] I freely admit that this characterization is informed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Harnsich, who once live-blogged his reading of a book about the case. Yes, I read both the book and every word of Harnisch’s in-real-time critique. I recommend the latter, at least until Harnisch finishes his own long-awaited book on the case.

[3] Turkus, Burton B. and Feder, Sid, 1951, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (second De Capo Press edition, 2003). Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, pg. xi.

[4] Ibid., pg. 50.

Two worlds collided…

(with apologies to INXS).

One of the unanticipated pleasures of writing my book is that I get to spend hours reading old newspapers.  This is an amateur historian’s idea of heaven.

Last August, I introduced a key character in my book: a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman M. Modell. Modell, who knew my father and his uncle through their membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons (of course the Freemasons are part of my saga), privately arranged my adoption by David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger in 1966.

In a recent post, I described the ups and downs of learning more about the circumstances of my adoption, observing that a “packet” from investigators appointed by the Orphans’ Court of Delaware County had been mailed to me.

That slender, typed, two-page packet arrived on April 21, 2018.

Given the twists and turns my search had already taken, I should not have been surprised that it contained very little information. Basically, because my adoption was private, the only information the Court had was testimony Modell had provided in a follow-up hearing in April 1967. My genetic mother did not attend that hearing, so she is not named, and my genetic father’s name did not even appear on the official birth certificate filed upon my birth. This would have been before October 5, when Lou and Elaine took five-day-old me home from Metropolitan Hospital and filed a superseding birth certificate.

Wait…what?

The story I had always heard (or told myself—this is why I “interrogate” memory) was that I was born in Pennsylvania Hospital. In fact, I was born in Metropolitan Hospital at 10:29 am on September 30, 1966 (with my adoptive parents paying my genetic mother’s hospital bills).

Oh. OK.

Off to Google and Newspapers.com I went. The first thing I learned was that Metropolitan Hospital had closed in 1992. The building was sold in 1997 and turned into condominiums in 2004. So who knows where their 1966 birth records are now (note: when I called Pennsylvania Hospital last year, a less-than-helpful informed me they had destroyed all the analogous records. Good, great, thank you.)

Seriously, this search has had more dead ends than the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

A little more digging turned up this curious tidbit.

One Herman M. Modell served as Metropolitan Hospital’s chief counsel (and occasionally as either President or Secretary of the hospital’s board of directors) from 1944, when it was converted into an “osteopathic hospital,” until his death in 1973.

Modell Metropolitan 1947

Check out the bowtie. As the 11th Doctor says, bowties are cool.

I thought that fact was significant until I checked three other adoptions he had arranged between 1960 and 1970[1]: the three other mothers gave birth at three different hospitals, none of which was Metropolitan. Most likely, it was simply the hospital nearest where my 19-year-old, unmarried, white Catholic genetic mother lived with her parents (and possibly the sister with my genetic mother and their mother when she handed me to Modell outside the hospital. I suspect my adoptive parents were watching from a discrete distance away on Spruce Street; Elaine Berger would have been that curious).

What this association with Metropolitan Hospital did do, however, was send me back onto Newspapers.com to learn more about the hospital and Modell’s association with it.

As a result, I found many more mentions of Modell than in my first search last summer; Newspapers.com continually adds to its collection (or its search algorithm improved). Once I read through all of the Metropolitan stories, I started working my way through other stories (after all, I am devoting most of a book chapter to the man…well, him AND the Freemasons).

One story I was able to flesh out concerned Modell’s representation of 125 (or 150, or 200, depending on the article) women clerks who worked for the Dock Street produce markets in 1947.

These women were the proximate cause of a 90% shutdown of these markets in January and February 1947. Teamsters Local 929, Produce, Poultry, Fish and Oystermen’s Drivers and Helpers had negotiated a new contract with the management associations on January 2. They also wanted the clerks, already members of the independent Wholesale Fruit and Produce Employees’ Association (sometimes called the Wholesale Produce Office Employees Association), to join Teamsters Local 929.

The women refused and staged a seven-hour walkout. This led Teamsters Local 929 to issue their bosses, 57 carlot receivers, an ultimatum: get their clerks into the union by January 4, or they would shut down the markets on January 6.

Guess what happened on January 6.

Modell ultimately got a Circuit Court judge to issue an injunction against Teamsters Local 929, preventing them from coercing the clerks into joining the union (the dispute then moved into other areas, ending Modell’s role here).

By the way, if you think this sounds like racketeering (say, violation of the Wagner and Hobbs Acts), give yourself a gold star. Three men and Teamsters Local 929 were convicted in federal court in October 1948 of violation of the Hobbs Act.

But let me return to January 1947, as I found myself reading the unfolding sage of the “Dock St. rackets,” while thinking about the excellent 1949 film noir Thieves’ Highway.

I found this story in the upper right-hand corner of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dock Street 1-21-1947

As I was reading it, my eye was drawn to a captioned photograph immediately to the right.

I recognized it immediately.  “Oh, right,” I thought…or said (to no one there), “January 1947!”

**********

Just bear with me as I take us 2,721 miles west and six days into the past.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, at approximately 10:30 am PST, a woman named Bette Bersinger was pushing a stroller along a sidewalk bordering an empty grass-and-weed-covered lot on Norton Street, between 39th and Coliseum. She saw what she thought was a broken doll lying a few feet off the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, she discovered…well, I spare you the fairly gruesome details. If you want to know more, I recommend starting here; this video is also excellent.

The body was soon identified as a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, who grew up in Medford, MA (a 20 minute drive northeast of our Brookline apartment).

IMG_3314

History, as you can see, knows Ms. Short better as “The Black Dahlia.” The flowers are mine. I place them there every year because I want to remember “Betty” Short as an actual human being, not a true-crime caricature with a macabre sobriquet.

I have been fascinated by the still-unsolved death of Ms. Short for nearly 20 years. So much so that I write the following from memory (interrogate it, by all means):

Elizabeth Short was last seen alive leaving the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles around 9 pm PST on the night of January 9. She had been dropped off there by a name named Robert “Red” Manley. Manley, who was married, had just driven Ms. Short north from San Diego, where the peripatetic young woman had been living for a month or so. They had spent the night at a motel, where nothing exciting happened according to Manley; Manley was sorely disappointed, if memory serves. We know all of this because shortly after the identification of Ms. Short, Manley came forward to tell his story to the police, insisting that the last time he ever saw Ms. Short was at the Biltmore Hotel.

The police, lacking substantive leads, grilled Manley mercilessly, eventually submitting him to a polygraph test. I do not recall how many times I saw the newspaper photograph of the exhausted Manley strapped into the machine, police detectives hovering over him.

**********

You guessed it.

This was the photograph that caught my eye at the top of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Red Manley

The full caption reads:

(AP Wirephoto)

‘PASSING’ THE LIE DETECTOR TEST

Robert Manley, 25, submitting to a lie detector test in Los Angeles yesterday as police questioned him in connection with the mutilation-slaying of Elizabeth Short, 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful. The tests proved, detectives said, Manley had nothing to do with the slaying. He has been released. Checking results of the test are Detective F. A. Brown (left) and Ray Pinker, police chemist.

Here is the full newspaper page:

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Tue__Jan_21__1947.

Just to make this serendipitous juxtaposition of interests even better, the actress Laraine Day (see divorce story) is the female lead in one of my five favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Foreign Correspondent.

Until next time…

[1] These are only the ones I currently know about.