On This Day in 1925: Gerald Chapman, the beginning of the end.

The term ‘Public Enemy Number One’ is often thought to be a 1930’s phenomenon, a product of America’s Crime Wave and applied to the likes of John Dillinger or ‘Baby Face’ Nelson. It isn’t, in fact it was applied to Gerald Chapman in the mid-1920’s making him America’s first felon to wear the label.  

Chapman, an armed robber, burglar, bootlegger, escape artist and cop-killer, had made his name even while Dillinger was cooling his heels in Indiana’s prison system. After a lengthy career of robberies and escapes including the 1921 Leonard Street robbery (then the largest robbery in the country up to that date) and escapes from both police custody and the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Chapman’s downfall finally came in New Britain, Connecticut on this day in 1925.

By the time he murdered Patrolman James Skelly while trying to burgle a New Britain’s Davidson & Leventhal department store Chapman was already a media darling, one of the 20th century’s first celebrity gangsters. Where other crooks gained column inches Chapman had gained column yards, causing considerable embarrassment to state and Federal authorities in the process. Those authorities wouldn’t forget it and, with Connecticut being a death penalty state, Skelly’s murder provided an ideal opportunity to finally rid themselves of this troublesome crook.

Skelly had been a veteran of eighteen years service when he and four other officers arrived at the store. Chapman and Shean had been after the store’s safe, but hadn’t bargained on being spotted breaking in. When challenged by Skelly, Chapman shot him and escaped unharmed. Skelly died during emergency surgery hours later.

As is often the case Chapman was betrayed by his partner-in-crime. After the murder Chapman had escaped the scene, but his partner hadn’t. Walter Shean, the black sheep of an otherwise respectable Maassachusetts family, had been perfectly willing to go on the burglary with the man who called himself ‘Waldo Miller.’ When police reminded him he could still hang for Skelly’s murder without having fired the fatal shot Shean wasn’t prepared to go along with that.

He cracked almost immediately, naming ‘Miller’ as Gerald Chapman and cheating Connecticut’s hangman in the process. Chapman wouldn’t be so lucky or so perfidious. Once Shean identified him as the notorious Gerald Chapman and Chapman himself was arrested in Muncie, Indiana on 24 January 1925, Chapman was doomed.

Convicted of the murder, Chapman would hang at Wethersfield Prison on Connecticut’s gallows, a curious and unreliable contraption known as the ‘upright jerker.’ Shean, rewarded for his betrayal, would receive only a one-to-five-year sentence. The press, naturally, gave their readers (and Chapman’s legion of fans) what they wanted. An endless stream of stories charted Chapman’s admittedly remarkable career in crime, trying to squeeze as much as possible from the Chapman story before Connecticut’s noose squeezed life out of Chapman himself.

It did so on 6 April 1926. After a determined legal battle Chapman faced the inevitable, taking the brief walk from his cell to Wethersfield’s death chamber. The ‘upright jerker’ was supposed to deliver instant death, a huge counterweight dropping and jerking Chapman upwards instead of his plummeting through a trapdoor. It seldom worked as intended and, regardless of his celebrity status, it didn’t for Gerald Chapman. Instead of an instantly-broken neck America’s first Public Enemy Number One took nine minutes to die.

A fuller account of Chapman’s life and crimes is in my forthcoming book due to be released on November 25. The book comes out on November 25 and can be pre-ordered from AmazonBarnes and NobleBook Depository and Dymock’s among others. I’ll keep people posted as the launch date approaches.

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