On This Day in 1926 – Gerald Chapman, America’s first ‘Public Enemy Number One.’

“Death itself isn’t dreadful, but hanging seems an awkward way of ending the adventure…”

– Gerald Chapman to his lawyers after being condemned to hang for murder in 1925.

Gerald Chapman’ was his favorite alias, but his real name was probably George Chartres. Given that records are sketchy and Chapman was always evasive about his youth, posterity will probably never know for certain. What is known is that he was a thief, safecracker, armed robber, bootlegger, burglar, con-man and cop killer. He was also one of the first celebrity gangsters of the 20th century.

   Chapman was born into a poor neighborhood on New York’s Lower East Side in August 1887. From an honest family he began drifting into petty crime while still a boy, little things at first like shoplifting and petty theft. His first foray into the bigger leagues was an armed robbery earning him a 10-to-15 year sentence at Sing Sing.

   He was transferred to Auburn Prison where his criminal career really blossomed. Before the armed robbery Chapman was a typical juvenile delinquent, one of many small-time neighborhood crooks destined to spend their lives going through the revolving door between freedom and prison, doing what some American crooks call ‘life in instalments plan.’ There didn’t seem like anything else in store for Chapman until he arrived at Auburn and met his criminal mentor and frequent accomplice, George “Dutch” Anderson.

   Anderson was unusual in many ways. His real name was Ivan Dahl von Teler, from a prosperous family, born in Denmark in 1880. He’d graduated from the universities of Heidelberg and Uppsala, dropping out of college in Wisconsin to become a professional criminal specializing in burglary, robbery and counterfeiting. He was highly-educated and very intelligent, but chose crime although his prosperous background and education made it unnecessary. When he met Chapman Anderson was serving time for forgery and assault.

   Anderson was several years older than Chapman. Despite their difference in age and criminal experience, saw in Chapman a willing apprentice with the brains and nerve for big-league professional crime. Chapman saw a mentor in Anderson and a criminal partnership was born. Without Anderson’s advice and tutelage Chapman would probably have been a mid-level journeyman crook. With Anderson, Chapman went from being just another small-timer to America’s first “Public Enemy Number One.”

   Anderson took Chapman under his wing, teaching him all he knew. Chapman learned fast. Being outwardly respectable and acting like a gentleman was a good way to divert suspicion. Disguises were useful when committing robberies. During his career Chapman dressed well, lived at better-than-average addresses and even used a stereotypical upper-class British accent. It’s ironic that Chapman (originally the junior partner) would become the celebrity gangster. Anderson (without whom Chapman would probably have amounted to little) faded into obscurity.

   After several years of Anderson’s tutelage Chapman was ready to graduate with honors. With time off for good behavior Chapman was paroled first and Anderson joined him in New York a few months later. They recruited fellow Sing Sing alumnus Charles Loerber to be their wheelman and pose as their chauffeur while they set themselves up as wealthy businessman.

   Chapman posed as “G. Vincent Colwell” supposedly a rich oilman. Anderson (accepting Chapman made a better front-man than he did) became his “business partner.” In 1919 the trio set up in a posh apartment in Gramercy Park (then one of New York’s more exclusive areas) preparing themselves for the big time. The big time wasn’t long in coming.

   1919 marked what many Americans called the “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition. In theory, America would be scourged of its social problems by simply banning the production, sale and distribution of alcohol. In practice it was disastrous. It made American drinkers criminals, handed a business grossing $2 billion a year to gangsters and, perhaps most damaging of all, recast those gangsters from public enemies to public servants.

   Chapman and Anderson were quick to spot its potential, founding bootlegging operations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan to provide a steady income while planning what would be America’s biggest armed robbery at that time. They also arranged lucrative confidence scams, travelling through the Midwest fleecing people as they went. It was Loerber who suggested robbing mail trucks and armored cars. New York being home to all manner of brokerage houses, banks and Wall Street there were plenty of targets to choose from.

   The U.S. Postal Service had delivery trucks running all over New York and they often carried huge amounts of high-value cargo. Gems, jewelry, bearer bonds, negotiable securities and cash were there for the taking. Careful research pinpointed a truck running regularly along Leonard Street and the “Great Post Office Robbery” of 1921 was on. Before Leonard Street the gang robbed a couple of other armored trucks as trial runs. These were lucrative, serving as dress rehearsals for Leonard Street.

   Leonard Street was pretty simple as armed robberies go. Rather than risk being spotted in a stolen car, the gang bought a Pierce-Arrow and a Packard. Loerber’s mechanical skill made them fast, nimble getaway cars. They followed the mail truck along Leonard Street, pulled over to block its path and assaulted the driver and guard, fleeing with four high-value pouches. It was obvious that the gang knew their job and exactly what pouches to look for. The job ran like clockwork, over in minutes without a shot fired.

   The take was more than they could have expected. Almost $1.2 million of securities, stocks, bonds and cash even after the gang had disposed of anything they thought unsaleable. It was the largest robbery in U.S. history. Known felons with prior robbery convictions, Chapman and Anderson immediately became suspects. That suspicion was confirmed by a private investigator who discovered the gang had visited Europe to try cashing some stolen securities. They didn’t find any buyers, but left enough of a trail to link them to Leonard Street. The hunt was on.

   Robbing mail trucks was certainly highly lucrative, but huge profits brought huge risks. Mail robbery was a Federal crime while bank robbery was still within state jurisdiction. Once the Feds began hunting the gang it was only a matter of time before they were caught and heavy sentences passed. It was no time to begin a spree of robberies in upstate New York when they should have been lying low, but they did exactly that. It was their undoing.

   Over the next few weeks they pulled one job after another. They robbed five banks, several major stores and another armored truck. Their luck lasted until an American Express Company truck yielded $70,000. It ran out when a private investigator tracked them to New York City where Chapman and Anderson were arrested.

   It wasn’t until detectives and Federal agents questioned them about the American Express robbery that they realized they’d accidentally picked up two of the Leonard Street robbers. Chapman started needling them, denying any involvement in Leonard Street. He gazed around the room as though looking for something. It became obvious what he’d been looking for when he simply said “Sorry, gentlemen,” dashed across the room and out through a third-floor window.

   While Anderson glared at the detective who aiming a gun at his head, other officers rushed to the window. They looked down to see if they could spot Chapman’s body on the street below. Instead they saw a witness in a window across the street waving and pointing. Chapman teetered along the ledge and in through another window. It did him no good. Officers went along the corridor searching every room facing the street. In the fourth office along they found Chapman. Within seconds he was handcuffed and jailed to await trial.

   Both men firmly denied Leonard Street and the American Express robbery without success. The evidence was overwhelming and convictions almost a formality. Both drew 25 years at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and were quickly shipped off to serve their time, much to the delight of their victims and law enforcement. The smiles on officialdom’s faces were be wiped off in short order.

   They had no intention of cooling their heels in Atlanta for anything remotely resembling 25 years. They had every intention of serving as little time as possible before escaping. It was only months before Chapman went from being jailed convict to wanted fugitive when he escaped on 27 March 1923. Chapman’s 25-year sentence had lasted precisely seven months and four days.

   With a fellow inmate, forger Frank Gray, Chapman faked illness to get into the less-secure prison hospital. Once there they attacked a guard, forced a window bar and climbed down the wall using a rope of knotted sheets. Now they were in the prison yard faced with a wall covered by bright lights and armed guards. If the guards saw them they’d shoot on sight.

   Chapman knew the wires supplying the lights ran just below the top of the wall. Once on top of the wall he used a rubber-handled knife to strip the wires and carefully draped copper wire short-circuited the power. Chapman and Gray had all the time and concealment needed to climb down their home-made rope and disappear into the night.

   It didn’t last. Less than 48 hours later they were surrounded by a heavily-armed 200-man posse near Atlanta. Gray surrendered after a couple of warning shots. Chapman wasn’t as compliant. Fleeing, he took bullets in his arm, hip and back. One went through his kidney and for a while it looked like he was finished.

   Six days later on 4 April 1923 Chapman escaped again. Now the staff of Atlanta Federal Penitentiary was in the line of fire. Athens General Hospital security wasn’t nearly as tight as the penitentiary’s and he took full advantage. Chapman’s body was seriously damaged. His criminal mind was as sharp as ever.

   He carefully watched the three men guarding him 24 hours a day. Soon he found the opening he was looking for. He should have been under permanent guard. Instead he was left alone in his room with a nurse who asked him if he wanted to sleep.. The nurse turned out the light and went to her other duties. Returning to Chapman only 22 minutes later he was gone.

   The alarm went up again. Given Chapman’s injuries officials quickly guessed he couldn’t have gone very far and might be hiding inside the hospital. They were right. The hospital was thoroughly searched and on April 6 Chapman was found in the basement. From the penitentiary’s point of view, their thoroughly vexatious inmate was now back under guard and would remain at the penitentiary for the rest of his 25 years. He wasn’t under guard for very long.

  Chapman had been overheard moving around the basement by a nurse who promptly summoned one of Chapman’s guards. Once Chapman had been identified the nurse promptly panicked at being anywhere near him. While the guard was fully occupied trying to calm her down, Chapman vanished out of the hospital and into the night. This time he managed a clean getaway.

   The public couldn’t get enough of the story or of Chapman. America’s press dined out on the story for weeks. Whether the staff at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary spent weeks cursing the day Chapman ever became their problem. It wouldn’t be the last time they had cause to do so.

   Chapman was now a media darling and public anti-hero, a celebrity gangster long before John Dillinger made it fashionable, Al Capone built his personal legend and John Gotti devastated the Gambino family through his insatiable desire for publicity. When most outlaws gained column inches Chapman gained column yards. One reporter christened him America’s first “Public Enemy Number One.” He couldn’t have been any more famous.

   Unfortunately for Chapman, the more his legend grew the more law enforcement wanted to track him down and make an example of him. Like many other outlaws he had supporters and detractors, many people rooted for him and he made terrific tabloid-fodder. The end result of his career wasn’t really in any doubt. He’d be captured, killed or executed sooner or later, but it would be a wild ride (and vastly boost circulation figures) while it lasted.

   Of course, like all great double acts, Chapman needed his straight man. George Anderson was still serving his own 25 years and wasn’t a candidate for early parole. Anderson, to the delight of the media, their readers and Chapman (though definitely not the staff at Atlanta) conveniently solved that problem.

   If State or Federal authorities were unwilling to arrange early release then he’d simply arrange his own without consulting the parole board. On 23 June 1924, Anderson escaped from Atlanta. Never the media darling that Chapman was, the press used Anderson’s escape as yet another chance to recap Chapman’s exploits for their voraciously readers.

   Chapman laid low for a while, but before long his name made the front pages again. The date was 12 October 1924, the place was New Britain, Connecticut and the charge was capital murder. Two men were spotted breaking into a department store and five police officers went to arrest them. There was a shootout between the burglars and the officers. Patrolman James Skelly was killed while one of the burglars was arrested. It was the beginning of the end.

   The prisoner was one Walter Shean, the black sheep of a wealthy family from Springfield, Massachusetts. Once arrested and offered a choice of identifying his accomplice or hanging for murder, Shean quickly cracked. He told his questioners his partner was “Waldo Miller,” but was certain Waldo Miller was actually Gerald Chapman. It took three months for police to finally capture Chapman in Muncie, Indiana in January 1925.

   Anderson and Chapman had been hiding as paying lodgers with farmer Ben Hance. Hance was later the star witness at Chapman’s trial and had informed police his lodgers were behaving suspiciously. His public-spirited gesture saw Chapman safely under lock and key. It also cost Mr. and Mrs. Hance their lives.

   Chapman was extradited to Atlanta to serve his remaining time while Federal and state authorities haggled over legal jurisdiction. The Federal Government had jurisdiction because Chapman was a Federal inmate. The State of Connecticut wanted him for murdering Patrolman Skelly. Connecticut wanted Chapman and the Federal Government wouldn’t hand him over.

   After a certain amount of horse-trading the Feds agreed that, while Chapman remained a Federal prisoner with no chance of getting or jumping bail. He could still be extradited to Connecticut for Skelly’s murder and handed back if he was acquitted. In March 1925 he was removed from Atlanta to the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield. Aside from trial and appeal hearings, Chapman would never leave Wethersfield alive.

   The trial was another media circus. The evidence was overwhelming and the penalty was death. The press knew they had little time to milk the story so made every effort to do so. Shean identified Waldo Miller and Gerald Chapman as being the same. Hance firmly identified Chapman as one of his suspect lodgers. Burlap sacks from the Hance farm were identified as in Chapman’s possession during the New Britain robbery.

   Walter Shean might not have made the most appealing prosecution witness but the honest, homespun demeanor of Ben Hance completely demolished Chapman’s desperate defense. Chapman claimed he’d never visited New Britain, never met Hance or Shean and simply wasn’t Gerald Chapman.

   It probably didn’t help that bullets and spent cartridges from Chapman’s gun matched those from the crime scene and Patrolman Skelly’s body. The jury took only 11 hours to deliver a verdict. On 4 April Chapman was found guilty of capital murder. The judge passed sentence and Chapman was shipped back to Wethersfield Prison to await execution. It was now that the jurisdiction issues resurfaced.

   Chapman’s lawyers argued that, as a Federal prisoner, he would have to serve his full sentence before he could be handed to Connecticut for execution. The appeals went to the U.S. Supreme Court before no less a figure than President Calvin Coolidge personally intervened.

   After three stays of execution the prosecutor visited the US Attorney General in Washington. He personally requested that Chapman be given a Presidential pardon for his Federal sentence. If pardoned Chapman would no longer be a Federal inmate, making him instantly available for execution and neatly cutting the red tape between Chapman and his date with the hangman.

   What couldn’t be arranged by the prosecution or various judges over the previous few months was settled by the Attorney General in an afternoon. After meeting District Attorney Alcorn he consulted President Coolidge and only two hours later Alcorn had a signed Presidential pardon. The pardon freed Chapman from his Federal prison term. It also freed the State of Connecticut to hang him. But that wasn’t quite the end of the Gerald Chapman saga.

   Chapman’s lawyers returned to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued, somewhat desperately, that as Chapman hadn’t requested or accepted the pardon it had no basis in law. The Supreme Court disagreed, upholding both the pardon and Connecticut’s right to execute Chapman. They ruled that a Presidential pardon is a legal act requiring no discretion on the part of the prisoner concerned. It didn’t matter that Chapman didn’t ask for or want a Presidential pardon, he had one. He also had a death sentence.

   In an unusually terse remark, the Supreme Court ruled that Federal jurisdiction wasn’t a sanctuary from State law. Seeing as almost all of his other arguments had already been dismissed the ruling effectively finished Chapman’s campaign.

   His absolute last resort was a final hearing before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Chapman did himself no favors by mounting personal attacks on District Attorney Alcorn. His being so notorious a criminal who’d caused state and Federal authorities endless trouble meant the outcome was never in doubt. Chapman was denied relief and handed a death warrant instead. On 25 June 1925, he would be taken from Death Row at Wethersfield Prison and hanged by the neck until dead.

   Chapman was quoted as saying that death didn’t bother him, but hanging would be an awkward way for him to end the adventure. He was right, it was. Most of the few states that still employed hanging used a conventional gallows. Connecticut was still using the “upright jerker.” Chapman’s death in 1926 would be no easier than that of Roxalana Druse in 1887.

   Accounts of Chapman’s execution vary. Officially it worked perfectly and Chapman died instantly. Other reports state that his neck wasn’t broken and he spent nine minutes dangling above the witnesses before finally dying. Either way Gerald Chapman, America’s first Public Enemy Number One, walked unaided into the death chamber at Wethersfield Prison on June 25, 1925 and was wheeled out. America’s first celebrity gangster was dead.

   “Dutch” Anderson wasn’t. Anderson had remained a fugitive and swore vengeance on anybody involved in Chapman’s trial and execution especially witnesses, the prosecutor and his family. Alcorn and his family found themselves under 24-hour guard against Anderson’s threats. Walter Shean went into protective custody to give him a better chance of leaving jail alive. Ben Hance and his wife weren’t so lucky.

   Ben Hance had been especially worried about gangland vengeance considering that Anderson was still free. He wasn’t offered any bodyguards and no Witness Protection Program then existed. After the trial he was told simply to go home, pick up his daily routine and try to forget about any threats. Hance did his best to forget Anderson; Anderson still retained a keenly homicidal interest in Hance.

   While at the Hance farm Chapman had installed a telephone. The Hances found the phone very useful, especially when selling sacks of dried vegetables to earn a little extra money. On 15 August 1925 Ben Hance answered the phone and took an order for peas and beans. The customer also asked him to deliver somewhere along the Middletown Turnpike only a short drive from the farm. Hance asked his wife if she fancied coming along for the ride. It would be the last time either of them was seen alive.

   The Hances loaded their Model T Ford and set off to make a little extra money. Along the Middletown Pike they saw a shiny, expensive-looking saloon car. Realizing these were their customers they slowed, stopped and realized they’d just been reacquainted with George Anderson and a minor member of his gang, Charlie “One Arm” Wolfe.

   A car chase ensued with the Hances trying desperately to escape. Wolfe cut across and forced them to stop. Anderson fired a barrage of bullets through the windshield. Mrs. Hance died in the car. Her husband was found lying beside the wreck riddled with bullets. Anderson and Wolfe went their separate ways leaving their victims behind them.

   Anderson’s luck ran out only a few weeks later. He drifted round the Midwest passing forged currency. He turned up in Muskegon, Michigan on 31 October and began buying small items with fake $20 bills, pocketing genuine money in exchange. Unfortunately they were very bad fakes. It wasn’t long before a storekeeper handed one to a police officer and described the customer who’d just passed it. Patrolman Charles Hammond went looking for anybody matching the description. Sadly for both of them he found Anderson.

   Anderson tried to bluff his way out but Hammond became increasingly suspicious. Anderson also knew that if Hammond took him to the nearest police station he’d be unmasked and very likely extradited to Indiana for the Hance murders. Extradition to Indiana meant, equally likely, a seat in the electric chair. Bluffing having failed Anderson could only run, fight, or both.

   Anderson ran. Unfortunately he ran into a blind alley leaving himself trapped with Patrolman Hammond in hot pursuit. Bluffing hadn’t worked. Running hadn’t worked. All he could do was shoot his way out. As Hammond cornered him Anderson drew his gun and the two men traded bullets. Hammond missed, Anderson shot him in the groin and Anderson went to step over his body and flee. Despite his mortal wound Hammond grappled with Anderson, disarmed him and during the struggle Anderson was shot through the heart. He died minutes later. Hammond died shortly afterward.

   That was almost the end of Chapman’s story. Chapman and Anderson were dead and some doubtless hoped his name and career would fade into obscurity. Chapman, always the “celebrity gangster,” did rise from the dead to grace one final set of newspaper headlines. In 1941, notorious mobster Louis “Lepke” Bachler was serving time as a Federal inmate on narcotics and racketeering charges.

   Buchalter had willingly taken a 14-year sentence under Federal law believing it would keep him from any capital murder trials in New York State. It would also give him the length of his sentence to bribe, intimidate or murder witnesses. One of Lepke’s golden rules was “No witnesses, no indictments.” He was fatally mistaken. Buchalter, to his surprise, was shipped from Leavenworth to New York. Things went from bad to worse when he was convicted in a New York court on racketeering charges adding another 30 years to his existing sentence but, in 1941, he was appalled by something far worse.

   One of his underlings facing a potential death sentence was Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Reles made a deal with prosecutors that he would testify against former accomplices in many unsolved crimes and against those who’d ordered them. The arrests came thick and fast and one of those arrested was professional hit man Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum too had much information to trade for leniency and he was perfectly willing to do so.

   Lepke was tried for ordering the contract killing of Joseph Rosen in 1936 after Rosen threatened to testify about Lepke’s racketeering. Tannenbaum wasn’t involved in Rosen’s murder but had heard Lepke order it. Under New York law he could corroborate the testimony of Reles and other Murder Inc. turncoats. Tannenbaum’s corroboration, as someone who knew the details but wasn’t personally involved, was absolutely essential and Buchalter and two accomplices were executed as a result. After considerable legal battles between his defense lawyers (who used a similar strategy to Chapman’s lawyers), the Federal Government and New York State, President Franklin Roosevelt cut the red tape in the same way as President Coolidge had done.

   The Gerald Chapman bandwagon rolled one last time as Lepke’s case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court before Lepke was finally handed over to New York, tried, convicted and condemned to the electric chair. He was eventually executed on 4 March 1944 at Sing Sing with Mendy” Weiss and Louis Capone (no relation). Now, finally, the Gerald Chapman story was over.

Chapman’s life and crimes feature in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ available can be 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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