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JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Friday, May 15, 2009

WILD CARD IN KANSAS CITY




I think if the train had been late, things might have been different. Perhaps the three men waiting would have attracted attention, or grown bored or been out of position. But the overnight Missouri Pacific train from Fort Smith, Arkansas was unfortunately right on schedule, pulling into Kansas City’s Union Station at 7:15 A.M. on Saturday, June 17th., 1933. And because it was punctual, the train efficiently, smoothly delivered an FBI agent, three local cops and one gangster on time to their destination. And then there was the joker in the deck, which turned the aces into eights.
It all started 24 hours before with the capture of Frank “Jellybean” Nash, ““the most successful bank robber in U.S. history,” a 20 year career thief who worked with the Barker gang, the Dillinger mob amongst others, and of whom it was hard, “…to find anyone who didn't have something nice to say (about him)…”, according to Clyde Callahan, co-author of the book “Heritage of an Outlaw”. Even the cops liked Frank. While serving a 25 year term in Leavenworth, Frank walked right out the front gate, carrying a copy of Shakespeare under his arm. No one even thought to stop him. Frank was so well connected and so often employed as a bank robber that in the summer of 1933 he could afford to take his wife and daughter to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a vacation. And it was there, on July 16th, that two FBI agents, Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, and an Oklahoma police chief, Otto Reid, took Frank into custody at gunpoint in a Hot Springs cigar store.Dick Galatas ran gambling in Hot Springs, and he took the arrest of an underworld tourist in his territory, personally. The local cops, paid more by Galatas than by the taxpayers, threw up roadblocks on the highway back to Little Rock calling Frank a kidnap victim. So the FBI took their prisoner the other way, on the long drive west and then north to Fort Smith. There they intended to catch the 8:30 P.M. overnight train to Kansas City. They wired ahead to Special Agent in Charge of the F.B.I..’s KC office, R.E. Vetterli, to meet them at Union Station in the morning. But that train was late in arriving at Fort Smith, and a stringer for the Associated Press spotted the three men and their shackled prisoner in the waiting room. Shortly there after the story broke on the wires: “Frank Nash…was recaptured today at Hot Springs, by three Department of Justice agents…They revealed the identity of the prisoner for the first time here...” Galatas had already asked for help from Johnny Lazia (coatless), who ran the gambling and vice for the Pendegrast machine, which controlled Missouri politics and Kansas City. As a newspaper editor at the time described the level of mob activity, “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris. Go to Kansas City.”
And the man Lazia assigned to this problem was an old buddy of Frank Nash’s, an ex-South Dakota Sheriff turned bank robber, Vernon Miller (above).
Working out of Mulloy’s Tavern and the Monroe Hotel, next door to Pengergast’s office at 1908 Main Street (above), Miller called in two more gunmen to assist him, their identities disputed to this day. And it occurs to me that now might be a good time to address the question of just why crime in America in 1933 was centrally organized but law enforcement was not. When J. Edgar Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 he commanded just 400 agents. He spent the next forty years battling small “r” republicans, who were suspicious of a big federal police agency. Hoover eventually overcame their resistance, sheepherding the growth of the F.B.I in both numbers and budgets. And yet, until 1963, Hoover denied the existence of a centralized crime organization in America, commonly called the mafia, even after the Appalachian Conference of November of 1957, where more than 60 criminal bosses from the U.S., Canada and Italy were detained by local cops in upstate New York. Hoover said, “The F.B.I has much more important functions to accomplish than arresting gamblers all over the country.” Hoover said, “Obviously we have neither the manpower nor the time to waste on such speculative measures.” Author Jeffreys-Jones has compared Hoover’s denial to Holocaust-denial. But whatever his reasoning, there is no justification for the law abiding men and women who paid with their lives for his denial. That July morning the three agents, Frank Smith, Joe Lackey and Oklahoma Chief Otto Reid, left the train heavily armed. According to research done by Pulitzer winner Bob Unger – “The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of the FBI” - agent Lackey inadvertently grabbed a pump action Winchester Model 1897 shot gun, which belonged to Chief Reid, who grabbed Lackey’s twelve gauge, also by mistake.
On the platform they were met by Agent in Charge Vetterli(above) and agent Ray Caffrey(below)......and two K.C. detectives, Bill Grooms and Frank Hermanson (below). As the seven men moved through station, the third largest in the country, they formed a V, with prisoner Frank Nash sheltered in the center.A two door Model T Ford were parked in front of the station. Nash was placed in the front bench seat, while Lackey, Smith and Reed sat in the back. As Agent Caffey was about to enter in the driver’s side door, Joe Lackey noticed three men appear from behind a green Plymouth parked next to their Ford. At least two carried machine guns. And, according to Bob Unger, Lackey now found himself holding the wild cardThe Winchester 1897 was a WWI army surplus shotgun and lacked a safety feature most modern shotguns have – a trigger disconnect. In the slam mode this “trench sweeper” would automatically fire if the trigger is compressed and the action is pumped, forcing a round into the chamber. Unfamiliar with this feature, without even waiting to get his weapon up, Lackey pumped a first round into the chamber; as he did so the weapon went off and blasted load of shot a foot away, into the back of Frank Nash’s head (below), and a stray pellet also went “…right into the side of the head of agent Caffrey”Panicked at the unexpected explosion, Lackey pumped the action on the shotgun a second time, and again the weapon immediately discharged. In an interview Bill Unger described what happened next. “Hermanson is in a direct line between Lackey and the machine gun wielders. Joe Lackey gets off a second shot, which takes of the left side of Frank Hermansons’ head…. So here we are in the first two seconds of shooting, and already Frank Nash – the top of his head is gone and he is dead, and Ray Caffrey is dying of a fatal wound….And Hermanson is dead. So far no one has fired a shot except Joe Lackey…At this point everyone begins to shoot, and there’s massive firings by machine guns, and so forth, and by the time all of this is over, Bill Grooms, the other Kansas City policeman, is also dead. And Reed in back seat….when they finally get to him, he has a fatal wound…”The entire shootout took less than 30 seconds. When one of the gunmen finally reached the target car he glanced inside and shouted, “They’re all dead. Let’s get out of here.”They weren’t all dead. Agent Lackey was wounded three times and barely survived. Agent Smith, having ducked as the shooting started, was uninjured. And that quickly the Kansas City Massacre was over. Of the men who could be proven to have been responsible for the shootout, Vern Miller was found murdered and mutilated, outside of Detroit, Michigan 5 months and two weeks later. And one week short of the first anniversary of the massacre John Lazia was gunned down out side of his hotel. Ballistics tests run years later indicated the gun which fired the bullets which cut down Lazia, had also been used in the massacre. As he lay dying in a Kansas Hospital, John Lazia asked the doctor, “Doc, what I can't understand is why anybody would do this to me? Why to me, to Johnny Lazia, who has been the friend of everybody?”It was a question that Frank "Jellybean" Nash would probably have asked, if he’d had the time.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL, TAKE ONE

I would call it a dress rehearsal for the O.J. Simpston and Phil Spector cases. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 3, 1903, Mr. Griffith Jenkins Griffith walked into his wife’s bedroom in the Presidential Suit of the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica, California and locked the door behind him. Christina Griffith, who was writing last minute thank-you notes had no reason to feel threatened. The couple had just spent a pleasant sea-side holiday and she was expecting to take a stroll along the boardwalk with her husband of 16 years. She must have been perplexed when he handed her a bible. But when he pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and ordered her to her knees, in that terrifying instant, Christina must have realized that he meant to murder her.

As poor Christina cowered trembling on the floor Griffith(above) calmly asked if she had ever been unfaithful. Christina sobbed in terror, “Oh, Papa, you know I have always been true to you.” Christina tried to reason with her husband but the only sounds she could force from her throat were horrified sobs. She felt the cold steel of the barrel press hard against her temple. She flinched. And as she did, Griffith pulled the trigger. The bullet exploded into her left eye, blowing her eyeball apart. She screamed in terror and agony, and impulsively threw herself out the nearest window.She tumbled helplessly down two stories, landing on the hotel veranda’s sunshade, breaking her leg. Fear drove her to crawl through an open second story window into an empty room. She pressed a towel into the bloody cavity in her head, and only then did she scream for help. Two men responded. By chance the first to arrive was the hotel’s manager, Mr. Wright. The second was her husband, the murderous Mr. Griffith. Christina screamed, “He shot me! He’s crazy!” Griffith calmly assured the manager that Christina had accidently shot herself. But the manager insisted upon calling the sheriff. And in a couple of hours the 100,000 residents of the young metropolis of Los Angeles were electrified to hear newsboys on every street corner shouting that one of the town's most prominent citizens, the man who in 1896 had donated 4,000 acres for a city park, a generous supporter of the temperance league and a well respected and well connected businessman, was so “crazy drunk” that he had tried to murder his wife in broad daylight.
Over night the 51 year old Griffith became the most hated man in Los Angeles. On Tuesday September 8th. Griffith was unanimously removed from the city Parks Commission and the Los Angeles Times suggested that “Griffith Park” was “handicapped so signally by its name” that it should be returned to its donor. The park’s highest peak, Mt. Griffith, became Mt. Hollywood. People now remembered Griffith as “…a roly-poly, pompous little fellow”, a “midget egomaniac” and a “vain little Napoleon” who wore heel length coats and carried a gold headed walking cane.
He was the man who had held the city’s access to the L.A. River hostage for a $50,000 payment. The land he had used in this maneuver was the very same Rancho Los Feliz that he later donated to the city as Griffith Park, for which he was awarded a significant tax deduction.And Griffith’s behavior since the shooting did little to quell the public’s outrage. Released on bail he repeated his allegation that Christina had shot herself, and then assured the public that his social position would protect him. When Christina, now called "the society wife who refused to die", filed for divorce the “Colonel” contested the custody of their son, which made Griffith appear not just crazy but cruel. His lawyers did their best to repair the damage, leaking to the Los Angele Examiner that “Mrs. Griffith…believed her husband was insane and she thought he should be locked up, but she was averse to a swearing of a felony complaint against him....” Christina did not take the hint. By this time her family, as wealthy and powerful as Griffith, had hired a team of lawyers, including Henry Gage, a former governor, and Isadore Dockweiler, a powerful trial lawyer. They immediately went on the offensive. The victim, now blind in one eye and forever disfigured, submitted to a deposition under oath, saying, “…. her husband was sober on the night of the shooting… (and) had not been drinking during the day…” In other words, they were not going to accept a diminished capacity defense.Now beginning to panic, Griffith’s lawyers sought a change of venue. That was quickly denied. Just five days before the trial was scheduled to begin Griffith hired a young new lawyer named Earl Rogers (above). He immediately filed for a delay, and the prosecution prepared arguments to smack Rogers down. But on the first day of the trial, Monday, February 15th., 1904, Rogers caught the prosecutors off stride by withdrawing his motion. The trial games had begun. The L.A. Times described the jockeying in the court room amongst the mob of lawyers. “Rogers would ask a question; the District Attorney would object; retort to the D. A. would follow from (defense lawyer) Maj. Jones; slap back at Jones from Dockweiler; dig at Dockweiler from (defense lawyer) McKinley; swat at McKinley from Mr. Gage; crack at Gage from Luther Brown (yet another defense lawyer) .” On the witness stand there were battling psychiatrists and battling bartenders. Griffith’s doctors said he was insane and his bartenders swore that he drank two quarts of whiskey a day. Griffith, it seemed, was a man of many paranoia. A devout Methodist, Griffin had often lectured his club on the conspiracies of the Catholic Church. Combined with his ego, these beliefs convinced the “Colonel” that through his devoutly Catholic wife, the Pope was seeking to assassinate him. Restaurant waitresses testified of his habit of suddenly exchanging dinner plates with his wife. When asked, he explained "...you never knew when a meal might be poisoned". A local doctor testified that many years before Griffith had come to him with a bottle of wine and said he thought it was poisoned. Asked what he did with the wine the doctor blandly replied, “I drank it.”There were so many lawyers in the courtroom that it was barely noticed when the defense called another as a witness. A member of the county Republican Committee, Oscar Lawler, described a lunch at which Griffith promised not to run for mayor, because, he said, no one else would stand a chance. Griffin even expected the Democrats to stand aside for him. Lawler thought Griffith was joking and suggested that Griffith should run for President. Griffith replied seriously, “I think so myself.” Lawler testified that from that moment on, he believed Griffith to be insane.It turned out, so did the jury. After two days of deliberations, on March 3rd., 1904, they rejected the charge of attempted murder, and instead found Griffith guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, a misdemeanor. The frustrated judge then sentenced Griffith to the maximum allowed, just two years in prison. The public was outraged all over again.Earl Rogers became famous, and was the inspiration for Erle Stanley Gardner’s character, Perry Mason. Such talent in the courtroom did require some compromises. After hearing himself declared not guilty one client rushed to shake Roger’s hand, but the lawyer responded, “Get away from me, you slimy pimp. You know you’re guilty as hell!” And perhaps Rogers understood Griffith’s alcoholic paranoia so well because he himself was an alcoholic. Rogers died in 1922 “broke and alone in a Los Angeles boarding house" of liver failure at the age of 52. His daughter, famous L.A. newswoman in her own right, Adela Rogers St. John, wrote his biography, “Final Verdict”, which was published in 1962.Griffith served his time in San Quentin State Prison. Once denied access to alcohol, the insanity evaporated. He turned down a job in the prison library, and instead made burlap sacks. Released in late 1906 he returned to Los Angles, living quietly. The only subject he lectured on now was prison reform. In 1912 he offered the city $100,000 to build an observatory, saying, “Ambition must have broad spaces and mighty distances.” A prominent citizen responded that, “This community is neither so poor nor so lost to a sense of public decency that it can afford to accept this money.” The next year Griffith sweetened the offer with $50,000 to build an outdoor Greek theatre. The city even protested his planning for the project. So Griffith put the bequest in his will.
Griffith J. Griffith died of liver disease on July 6, 1919. The bequest was carried through and overseen by his son, Van, - as was the erecting of a statue of his father near the park’s main entrance. The observatory and the Greek theatre are highlights of Griffith Park, the jewel of Los Angeles.
It is impossible to imagine that city without a Griffith Park.

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