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.

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!”

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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.

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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.