AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, July 01, 2011

WARD HEELERS

I think the end of the Good Times began on a Sunday, November 22, 1905. Marshall Fields Jr, was 38 years old at the time, but that was as old as he would ever get. He was the eldest son and heir of one of America’s greatest fortunes when he appeared at Chicago’s Mercy hospital that morning with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He would die there, just after five o’clock in the evening, five days later, and there has never been a good explanation as to how he came to be shot. But its effect, if painfully slow, was also inevitable.

The official story was that while in his bedroom that morning Marshall (above) had been cleaning his gun, dropped it and the gun had gone off. The butler and a nurse said they had immediately rushed to his aide. But a reporter for the Daily News tried to replicate the accident and his weapon refused to discharge. The papers were afraid of losing advertising from the Marshall Fields Department stores, so the public questions  stopped there - for a time.
The Field’s mansions, father’s and son’s were on “Millionaires Row”, Prairie Avenue on Chicago’s south side. It was home to Pullman, Armour, Sears, and Fields, in fact 70 of the most powerful families in the Midwest lived within less than a square mile, and it was not a place usually visited by public scandal. After the funeral, Marshall’s widow and three children moved in with his father. But it stood no chance of being a happy home. The very next year the elder Fields died of pneumonia, and the widow returned to her native England, leaving behind an open wound - caused, many thought, by a section of Chicago called the Levee
Less than a half mile away from the Field’s mansions was the Levee District, home to sin and vice of unsurpassed depravity and popularity, bordered by 18th street on the north, 23rd street on the south, South Clark on the west and South Wabash Avenue on the east. And at its immoral center was the Everleigh Club.
For eight years Ada and Minna Everleigh were “Queens of the Levee”, running one of the most popular brothels in the Chicago. Minna (right) famously greeted each customer with a delightfully wicked, “How’s my boy?”
Their thirty girls catered to an upscale clientele, charging $50 just to get in the front door of 2131-2133 South Dearborn. Once inside the plush parlor, extras were extra. It was common knowledge that Marshall Fields Jr. had been a regular at the Everleigh Club for years, and the rumor was that Marshall had been shot at the club by one of the girls, or had shot himself because he was being blackmailed by one of the "ladies".
To the south of the Club was Ed Weiss’s bawdy house, "The Capital", and to the north was "The Sapphro", run by brother Lou Weiss. In fact, jammed into the Levee were dozens of such houses of prostitution; Dago Franks, French Em’s, Old 92, and in cutthroat competition with the Everleigh sisters was Madam Vic Shaw’s house at Dearborn and Cullerton. In between the houses were opium dens, cocaine factories, gambling joints, peep shows and bars - lots and lots of bars.
Ringmasters of this sin circus, Princes of the Levee, were two men; the big, blustery city alderman, John J. Coughlin (right), and his diminutive doppelganger, Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (left).
The gimlet eyed “Hinky Dink” (above) received his nickname because he stood just 5 feet tall. He was normally “…glum and quietly dressed”, and usually chewing on a cigar. He was a teetotaler, and his wife was temperance worker. He also was an Alderman, as well as owning and operating several bars and gambling houses in the Levee, the most famous of which was The Workingman’s Exchange on Clark Street.
Here barflies, bums, tramps and the homeless could find beer for a nickel, a free lunch and a job as a “repeater”, come Election Day. Given pre-marked ballots by “Ward Heelers” who walked the district, these men spread out to various polling places, where they would trade their pre-marked ballots for blanks. They then returned to the Exchange and handed in their blanks for payment of fifty cents each. While they drank a free beer, their new ballots would be marked and the game would go another round. In twenty years neither "Hinky Dink" nor "Bathhouse" John Coughlin ever lost an election.
“Bathhouse” earned his nickname because he began as an attendant of a bath house, a Levee euphemism for a gambling joint. Coughlin was oversized and overdressed and prone to outbursts of poetry, such as his infamous “She sleeps by the Drainage Canal” and “Why did they build the lovely lake so close to the horrible shore?” His typical “Signs of Spring “concluded, “There are many other signs of spring which come by wireless wire; One of which is Yours Sincerely, who is tuning up his lyre. Just to twang a song to nature 'bout the brooks and fields of green; O, I wonder if I'm understood; I wonder, yes, I ween.”
One of Chicago’s mayors asked Hinky Dink if Bathhouse was just crazy or a drug addict. Hinky Dink replied, “To tell you the god’s truth, Mayor, they ain’t found a name for it yet.” These two men had a genius for skimming protection money from the Levee. Their enforcement arm was the Chicago Police, and in addition to their weekly take of up to a thousand dollars per establishment, they sold tickets to the annual First Ward Ball. In the words of one web site, “Every employee of a house of ill-repute or gambling den, every robber, pickpocket, safe-cracker, and streetwalker, and every bartender, bawdy house entertainer, and low groggery proprietor, all were required to buy tickets…”
The Ball was held each December, and Ike Bloom, owner of “Freiberg’s Dance Hall”, was responsible for selling the tickets. Ike was half clown and half cold blooded killer, whose club was “the most notorious place in Chicago”, which was quite a charge, considering. The ball was billed as a charity, and in 1906, as the press began to unearth the Levee on their front pages, a reporter from the Tribune asked Hinky Dink where all money went. Hinky Dink replied, “Charity, education, burying the dead, and general ward benefits for the people” Asked what he meant by ‘education’, Hinky got a little testy. “It consists of hiring good halls and good speakers to teach the people of the First ward to vote the straight Democratic ticket.” And that was the end of that interview.
Each year the First Ward Ball grew in size and sank in reputation. The 1908 festivity attracted “20,000 drunken, yelling, brawling revelers” who filled the Chicago Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue and clogged the streets outside. When the Law And Order League tried to stop the orgy, they inspired Bathhouse to write, “Strike up the march, professor, and I will lead the way; We'll trip the light fantastic too, until the break of day. Who knows that ere another ball, we'll be outside the city hall; Be gay, but not too gay.” And Hinky Dink groused, “But whenever you hear one of them fellows shouting that Hinky Dink is a menace to society and that he has horns, just keep your hand on your watch. Savvy?”
One newspaper  attempted to describe the scene inside the Coliseum. “The crowd was so enormous that when women fainted – a common occurrence – they had to be passed overhead from hand to hand towards the exits. Cigar smoke settled on the floor in such thick fogs that visibility was no greater than 30 feet in any direction. The noise of shuffling feet and murmuring overpowered the sound of the dance band, and fist-fights and shoving erupted in all quarters. When Lyman Atwell, photographer for the Tribune…began setting up his flash and tripod, security notified (Bathhouse) who…personally jumped on Atwell, breaking his camera and knocking him to the ground…
"As usual, things started to get interesting at midnight, when the regiments of madams and their inmates showed up, led by the Everleigh Sisters. This caused another influx of thousands of men to attempt to enter the building…”  Hinky Dink lorded over the affair from a table off the main floor. Then, at midnight, Bathhouse, wearing a green jacket, a mauve vest, lavender pants and a stove pipe silk hat led a winding Conga Line called The Grand March. Said the newspsper, “The most infamous party in Chicago history lasted until 5 a.m., when the last drunken revelers staggered out…”
But, since the death of the Fields, the millionaires were speaking with their feet, abandoning their mansions, and moving to the safer Gold Coast and later to the northern suburbs. One newspaper observed that Prairie  Avenue had become undesirable to those who found it affordable, and unaffordable to those for whom it was desirable. At the same time it seemed the reformers were gaining power. The establishments in the Levee began to scatter. The 1908 First Ward Ball would prove to be the last.
The mayor finally ordered the Everleigh club (above) closed in October of 1911. The sisters walked away with $1,000,000 in cash. Minna took the change philosophically. “If it weren't for married men”, she admitted, “we couldn't have carried on at all, and if it weren't for cheating married women we could have made another million.” Minna died in 1948, Ada died in 1960. She was 93.
Bathhouse John Coughlin served 46 years as a Chicago Alderman. He died in 1938, $50,000 in debt. “Hinky Dink” Kenna spent the last years of his life alienated from his family, living in a suite in the Blackstone hotel, cared for only by a male nurse. He died in 1946. He left behind a million dollars…in cash. His will stipulated that $33,000 of it should be set aside to construct a mausoleum for his grave. His survivors had Hinky’s the will set aside. Instead they marked his passing with an $85 wooden tombstone.
At Hinky’s funeral, half the pews were empty, and few sent flowers. As one old First Ward lobbygog (Ward Heeler) put it, “If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't go to yours.”
In truth it was not the reformers or the Law and Order League that put the Levee out of business. Few were foolish enough to believe that all those sinners had repented. What killed the sin of the Levee was the coming of Prohibition, which freed the Levee from its confinement, and let it spread out and multiply. The new Prince of Chicago sin was “Big Jim” Colosimo, the man who brought Al Capone to Chicago and who married Victoria Shaw. As Hinky Dink explained, “Chicago ain't no sissy town.”
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CRIMMINAL MASTERMINDS

I hasten to point out that the men who sought shelter at the Inn were not a harmonious quartet of criminal masterminds. It turns out they were not masterminds of any kind. But then, how many people are masters in any line of work? The lead voice in this group was Charles Gibbs, a diminutive thirty-six year old fire plug - and the last pirate in New York City who did not work on Wall Street. His Achilles in crime was the baritone Thomas Wansely, a tall and powerfully built black man too curious by half. The bass was voiced by Robert Dawes, cook and nonentity, a plump man with no criminal record, as of yet. But tenor and ringer was John Brownrigg, who possessed a fatal combination of a conscious and stupidity, which caused him to first commit a crime and then to confess it unbidden to a complete stranger.
Perhaps it was the warm food, or the hot rum or perhaps it was the flames of purgatory which drove John Brownrigg to draw innkeeper Samuel Leonard aside and spill his tale on that stormy afternoon of November 24, 1830. The four men, explained John, had been crewmen of the small brig Vineland, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, loaded with a cargo of cotton bales, and casks of molasses and rum.
Late in the day Thomas Wansely had been ordered by Captain William Thornby to stack a half dozen heavy barrels in the Captain’s quarters. The strain and curiosity drove Wansely to pry open one of the leaden barrels for a peek. Inside he found newly minted Republican silver coins – Mexican pieces of eight. And as the tide pulled the Vineland into the Gulf of Mexico, Wansely shared his discovery with first mate Charles Gibbs.
By Gibb’s figuring the barrels together held today’s equivalent of over one million dollars in untraceable cash. It was untraceable because, without a standardized national currency of their own, Spanish and Mexican coins circulated so commonly in America, that prices were figured as the equivalent in Spanish (and Mexican) currency, to the point that today’s ubiquitous American “$” sign was borrowed from its Spanish inventors.
In the morning, Gibbs and Wansely opened one of the barrels of rum and shared it with Dawes, Brownrigg and the other crewmen. And once they were all well intoxicated, Gibbs told them of the cargo of silver, and confessed that last night he had thrown Captain Thornby overboard. With that much money at stake, explained Gibbs, they were now all under suspicion for murder. So, Gibbs suggested, why not share the crime and the silver between them. One crewman balked and joined the captain in the briny deep. The others quickly agreed to become pirates. As the vessel crossed the gulf bound for New York, a second man sobered up and expressed regret. He joined the other two in the sea.
Their doubts thus drowned, on November 23, 1830 the Vineland reached the westernmost barrier island off New York. Its name derives from the Dutch ‘Conyne Eylandt’, meaning Rabbit Island. They anchored in an isolated corner of Jamaica Bay. There, with a nor’easter brewing in the gathering darkness, the four men struggled to lower a skiff and fill it with their burdensome barrels of silver. They then scuttled the Vineland and set her afire. As she sank into the muddy waters of the bay the four men in the low riding skiff set off for shore, at what is today Rockaway Beach.
It was not beach weather. The surf was pounding. A gale was approaching. The landing was a disaster. In the crashing waves the four seamen lost most of their booty, and were able to save just 10% of the coins. Wet and cold and exhausted, soaked by a pounding downpour, the gang of four came to the realization they had not thought things through as well as they thought they had. While Wanesly and Brownrigg stood guard over what was left of their loot, Gibbs and Dawes walked to a tavern Gibbs recalled in the isolated village of Carnarsie.
The tavern was run by the Johnson brothers, John and William. The youngest, William, who answered the door that night, recognized Gibbs and was willing to loan him a horse and wagon for an hour or so. Gibbs explained he had a heavy load to transfer from a boat.
Having thus obtained the tools required, Gibbs and Dawes returned to the beach, and, according to Brownrigg, the four men buried the remaining $5,000 in Mexican silver, marking the spot with a strand of ribbon tied to the saw grass. They then returned to Johnson’s house and Gibbs paid for the rental with a generous bag of new Mexican coins.
The four men were headed for lower Manhattan, where they would claim the ship had been lost in the storm. But their convenient alibi was by now pounding the coast, and after having crossed Coney Creek, the quartet was forced to seek refuge in John Leonard’s Sheepshead Bay Inn, where John Brownrigg spilled his guts.
Leonard was nothing if not decisive. Quietly he gathered his staff and they fell upon the three villains. Well, two of the villains. Gibbs and Dawes were quickly tied to their chairs, but Wanesly broke for the woods, followed by the courageous waiter Robert Greenwood who was armed with an unloaded flintlock pistol. An hour later Greenwood returned with Wanesly in tow.
The justice of the peace, John Van Dyck, was summoned, and next morning Brownrigg lead the authorities to the buried treasure. Only the treasure was not there.  Under questioning Dawes decided to cooperate, and related the tale of the visit to the Johnson brothers tavern. Under questioning the brothers confirmed the details but, no, they insisted, they knew nothing else. Van Dyck was certain that they did. And Van Dyck was correct.
The instant Gibbs had crossed William Johnson’s palm with the silver, the mastermind William knew that something serious afoot. Perhaps if the payment had been less generous, or if Gibbs had paid in any other currency, his secret might have remained secret. As it was, 19 year old William immediately woke up his older brother John, and after examining the weary horse’s hooves, the brothers searched the beach. They quickly found the cache of stolen silver and re-stole it. They dragged it inland a few hundred yards, divided and re-buried it in two new caches, one of $40,000 and the second of $16,000. And then they returned home for a hearty breakfast.
JP Van Dyke suspected this, or most of it. But he could prove nothing. And once a beachcomber had discovered Mexican eights rolling in the surf, and was joined by hundreds of others combing the sand, there was no way of proving where the crazy eights had come from, the cache or the surf. Van Dyke could only choke the four birds he still had in his hand, held for now in the Flatbush Jail.
And then something curious happened. William Johnson began to have second thoughts. He approached the insurance company (yes, even in 1830 there were insurance companies), and inquired what they might pay as a reward for the return of some of the silver. The insurance company replied that they would be willing to make a generous settlement which might not leave the brothers filthy rich, but at least they would be free from worry of future legal entanglements. Encouraged, William returned to the Coney Island Beach to confirm the security of the cache, whereupon he made a most distressing discovery.
The larger cache was gone, as was older brother John. Had he stolen the silver from his own brother? Well, John was married, so there was John's wife’s incipient criminal mastermindy-ness to consider as well. Clearly John or his wife had reached the conclusion that even though John had not heard opportunity knock, but had to be awakened to it, he was deserving of the larger share of the stolen silver. So he took it. And the 21 year old Willaim Johnson returned the $16,000 in pieces of eight left behind in exchange for a very small reward.
On April 22, 1831, on the site that would one day support the Statue of Liberty, criminal masterminds Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley climbed the thirteen steps of a scaffold, where they were both hanged by the neck until they were dead. Gibbs had been convicted of piracy, and was the last man hanged for that crime in America - so his death was not entirely without meaning. Wansley died for the crime of murder. Dawes and Brownrigg served short jail terms, and disappeared from history. William Johnson lived in Brooklyn until 1906. He married and produced at least one son and a daughter.
But of the two remaining masterminds, John and Mrs Johnson, who were heard of escaping with today’s equivalent of $800,000 in cash, nothing more was ever heard. But I would very much like to know what became of them, because if, as I suspect, he or she later turned up dead, then we would know if the percentage of criminal masterminds in this affair was 20% or less - less being the historical average.
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Sunday, June 26, 2011

WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER...MAYBE


I can not prove what happened to Judge Joe Crater on the night of August 6, 1930. I know he had enjoyed a dinner at The Chop House with a chorus girl and a male friend. Afterward he climbed into a taxi and seems to have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. But I have a pretty good theory about what became of him.
This story comes together from three separate sources; first from Stephen Ellis, the son of Emil Ellis, one of the lawyers who represented Mrs. Stella Crater in her lawsuits against the insurance companies; the second source is from a letter marked “Not to be opened until after my death”, left behind in the first decade of the 21st century by a 91 year old widow; and the third source is news stories published in the 1950’s. Each source is independent of the others, and although they would not pass muster in a court of law, in history research they are about as close as we are ever going to get to the truth. And at the center of all three is the infamous prohibition gangster, Legs Diamond.
The original Jack “Legs” Diamond was a thug, a sociopath and a killer and almost as famous for whom he betrayed as how he died. He got into big time crime working for “the Brain”, Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. By 1930, the year that Judge Crater disappeared, Jack’s web of speakeasies in lower Manhattan was under siege from the rapacious Dutch Schultz mob, based in Harlem. There had already been three attempts on Diamond’s life by the Schultz mob. In fact he earned his nickname "Legs" by avoiding these murder attempts.
Jack needed to reestablish control, and that included his control of the courts. And the usual method of controlling judges was to use women, in this case a showgirl named Connie Markus.
Connie Markus was one of a "chorus" of girls who worked for Jack Diamond. And she was also an occasional mistress of “Good Time Joe Crater”. Under instructions from Jack Diamond, it is alleged, Connie asked Judge Crater to reverse on appeal some lower court decisions which had hurt Jack Diamond.
According to the account by Stephen Ellis, it was papers related to those cases that Judge Crater went through in his office on August 6, 1930. Those papers had gone into the two locked brief cases he had left the office with that afternoon. And the $5,100 in cash he left with was meant as a payoff to Diamond. With the feds and reformers sniffing around, Judge Crater felt he could not decide the cases the way Diamond wanted them decided, not without drawing attention and raising suspicions.That evening, when Connie told Diamond of Judge Crater’s attempt at a payoff, Jack could not afford to let the cases drop, not with the Schultz mob sniffing at his heels. At some point in the conversation Connie must have told Diamond about Crater’s plans to have dinner at the Chop House that night. And Jack decided to increase the pressure on the judge.
According to the letter and other documents left behind after her death, by Stella Ferrucci-Good of Queens, New York, when Judge Crater stepped into the cab on West forty-fifth street that night, the driver was a Murder Incorporated "button man" employed by Jack Diamond named Frank Burn.
Just up the street the cab unexpectedly pulled over and two more men quickly climbed in. One was Charles Burn, a police officer and Frank’s brother. The other was Robert Good, Stella Ferrucci’s husband. Their intent was to scare the judge, maybe even rough him up a little and let him know what would happen to him if he did not play ball with Diamond. But things did not work out that way. Crater thought it was a mugging and he fought to get out of the cab.
The two mobsters fought back, trying to keep Crater in the cab, and at some point in the struggle, Judge Joe Crater was killed. It is after Joe Crater died that the stories separate again. Stephen Ellis, relating the story he heard from his father, claims that the thugs drove Crater’s body to a crematorium in New Jersey, where it was disposed of, and that may be the truth. But I tend to believe the version recounted in Stella Frrucci’s letter, which says that Crater’s body was buried that night at the end of West Eighth Street, under the Coney Island boardwalk.
I believe that version because in 1956, while digging the foundation for the new New York City Aquarium, several human remains where uncovered under the Boardwalk near eighth street. Without DNA technology the remains were unidentifiable.
Slipped into pine coffins the remains were buried by inmates from Riker’s Island, just a few more of the 2,000 dead buried each year in unmarked mass graves of Potters Field on Hart Island. They were stacked three high and then two across, in rows of 25. To find Judge Crater’s bones and identify them now, if they are there, would be effectively impossible.
Jack “Legs” Diamond would die just a year later, on December 18, 1931. And this time the assassins were taking no chances Jack would leg out an escape. Jack was shot three times just behind his left ear. The gun barrel was pressed so close the blasts scorched his scalp. Connie Markus, the connection between Diamond and Judge Crater, would end her days in the mental ward of Bellvue Hospital, catatonic from a drug overdose.
That same year, 1931, the homocidal cop, Charles Burn, found a new job, as the body guard for a thug nicknamed “Kid Twist”. His real name was Abe Reles (above).
Ten years later, in 1941, Reles would become famous as “The canary who could sing but could not fly.” After testifying against another member of "Murder Incorporated", Kid Twist took a flyer out of a sixth floor window of the "Half Moon Hotel" on Coney Island, where police were supposedly guarding him. And one of the cops on duty at the Half Moon that night was Officer Charles Burn.
In 1939 Stella Crater remarried, to Mr.Karl Kunz. They took their honeymoon cruise on the French cruiser “Normandie”. Just two years later the ship burned at the New York docks as it was being refitted for war duty. And Stella’s marriage did not last much longer than the ship. In 1961 the still single Stella Crater finally wrote a book about Joe’s disappearance, and about the man she now realized she had never really known. She called it “The Empty Robe”.

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