On This Day in 1957 – Robert Eugene ‘Bobby’ Carter, last man executed in Washington D.C.


 

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District Jail, Washington DC was built in 1872. The chair was sited on the fourth floor before this building was replaced in 1976.

 

It’s quite unlikely that many people, even DC residents, remember cop-killer Robert Carter. Arrested for murdering police officer George Cassels on 11 July 1953, Carter was never likely to win clemency from the courts or from the President who had sole pardoning authority within the District of Columbia. On 27 April 1957 Carter would be the District’s last convict to walk the fifteen feet between his third-floor cell at DC Jail and the electric chair. After that, Old Sparky would be permanently retired.

That Carter had just committed armed robbery did not help his case. That Carter had shot Cassels when Cassels was off-duty and unarmed made his execution a virtual formality in spite of the District’s comparatively small number of executions. When Carter squeezed the trigger of his Luger (probably a war souvenir that he later claimed to have found just lying around) he killed himself as surely as George Cassels.

Palatable or not, Carter being an African-American probably didn’t do him any favours either. DC had discarded the gallows in 1925, replacing it the electric chair. Since the chair’s introduction Carter was the 51st person to sit in it. Of the previous fifty, six had been German spies all executed on 8 August 1942 and all of them had been white. The spies executed after Operation Pastorius comprised the largest single execution day on the 1872 jail’s history.

Of the forty-five others (including Carter himself) thirty-nine had been African-American and only six had been white. Of the six executed for rape only one (Earl McFarland) had been white and McFarland was also a murderer. Since DC began executions there had been 118 in total of which eighty-three had been African-American, thirty-six white and two listed as unknown. When Carter arrived at DC Jail in 1953 he had virtually no chance of getting out alive and he knew it. It was Carter’s first criminal act of his life, but would also be his last.

That said, unemployed labourer Carter was undoubtedly guilty. He murdered an unarmed, off-duty police officer who was also a husband (albeit recently separated) and father. Even with no previous criminal record Carter knew the risks when he committed armed robbery, stealing little more than fifty dollars from Gems Cleaners. He knew when he fired his gun that he would likely be executed if he was caught. Desperate for money and with a family he couldn’t support any other way Carter took his chance. DC Jail’s electric chair would be the result.

Cassels had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fellow officer George Berti had asked him to help move a table into his home only doors away from the robbery and Cassels just happened to be there when Carter fled Gems Cleaners with his tiny haul. Both officers chased Carter and Cassels (according to Berti) had his badge in his hand when Carter shot him. Carter probably assumed that the badge would quickly be followed by a gun so shot first. Cassels died soon afterward and DC’s police officers were determined to see him caught or killed.

Caught he very quickly was. DC’s police lost no time and spared no effort or expense bringing him in. Unsurprisingly they wanted him very badly. A native of South Carolina, Cassels had been on the force for only a couple of years and only twenty-seven years old when he died. He had also been a fellow lawman, one of their own. Within eight hours Carter was tracked down and safely under lock and key. Cassels died the next day.

The principal reason for that lay uncomfortably close to home. Carter’s wife had been at home during the robbery and murder looking after their two children and expecting their third. She didn’t know where he was when police came to question her, but did supply a list of places where he might be found and at one of them Carter was arrested. The charge was first-degree murder. The mandatory penalty was death.

His trial was a mere formality, a temporary delay of the inevitable. Carter had confessed, the weapon had been found, there were no other suspects still at large. Robert Carter had nobody to blame but himself. As his own confession reads:

“I run around to Church Street, crossed 16th Street, then I heard him holler at me, I don’t know what he said, I turned around and pulled the gun out of my shirt and I think I just shot him one time… …That’s all. I’m sorry I did it.”

If he had hopes of leniency for confessing they were entirely misplaced. Whether he had shot Cassels once or a dozen times made no difference, Cassels was still dead. Whether he was sorry or not cut no ice whatsoever, it had been his finger on the trigger. When his case went to trial he would almost certainly be convicted. If convicted Carter would definitely be condemned and under the circumstances he would almost certainly die.

Case 1158-53 was tried in February 1954 taking only three days. The jury wasted little time deliberating even though Judge James Morris had made clear that death was the mandatory punishment. Morris had made it clear after they initially rendered their verdict and they took little more than another hour to return their final decision after his warning. With so clear-cut a case the best the jury could offer was to recommend mercy.

In some states, New York for instance, that recommendation might have seen his sentence commuted. In DC it counted for nothing. Carter’s case ran its course for the next several years, his appeals being filed and denied and each denial nudging him closer to the end. On 27 April 1957 the end finally came for Carter and the District’s death penalty. By the time he died the gap between Carter’s execution and the previous one had been the longest in District history.

While in the death cell Carter had developed a solid religious faith. He walked the fifteen steps between his cell and the chair accompanied by Catholic Chaplain Carl Breitfeller, a small religious medal slung around his neck. He smiled nervously as he entered the room and the straps and electrodes were adjusted. William Burden covered the rare event for the Washington Post, later writing:

“Carter walked firmly to his death with a prayer on his lips. He smiled briefly at the Rev. Carl J. Breitfeller, Corrections Department Chaplain, who baptized him as a Catholic on Christmas Day, but showed no other emotion.”

Next to the switch printed instructions told the executioner exactly what to do:

“For the first 6 seconds, give 2000 volts, followed by 50 seconds of 500 volts. Then, 3 seconds of 1000 volts, 50 seconds of 500 volts, and, finally, 6 seconds of 2000 volts. Total elapsed time: slightly less than 2 minutes.”

That was all it took. The executioner was an experienced professional who probably had little need for written reminders of how to do his job. Professionally and without mishap Robert Carter was quickly dead. In time so was DC’s mandatory death penalty, Carter being the last DC convict to die under it. DC had been the last jurisdiction in the country to retain a mandatory death penalty for murder. All the others had already removed it and the Federal Government seldom executed prisoners anyway.

From 1962 DC’s mandatory death penalty was abolished, life imprisonment becoming an option. Life could be imposed either by a unanimous jury recommendation or by the trial judge if the jury couldn’t agree. From then on the chair sat silently gathering dust at DC Jail until it was eventually moved to the state archives and put in storage.

Its dreaded dynamo would hum no longer.

On This Day in 1959; Elmer Brunner, the last execution in West Virginia.


Crime Scribe

elmer-brunner

West Virginia has never been known as a hard-line death penalty State, abolishing capital punishment in 1965. After 1899 there were 104 hangings and, with a change in method, nine electrocutions. Elmer Brunner’s, on April 3, 1959 was the last.

Brunner wasn’t a notable murderer in himself. His crime, murdering homeowner  Ruby Miller, was and remains all-too-typical. Miller had disturbed him while he was burgling her home in Huntington on on May 27, 1957. According to Brunner’s version, she’d disturbed him with a shotgun. Beating her to death with a claw hammer, he said, was an act of self-defence.

Not surprisingly, neither judge or jury bought that defence, especially not from an ex-convict. Arrested on the same day,  Brunner’s trial began in the week of June 28, 1957. Before a packed courtroom he was convicted with no recommendation for mercy. His execution date was set for August 2, only a…

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San Quentin, Doil Miller and Alfred Dusseldorf – Justice? Or just law?


At San Quentin 7 March 1952 dawned grey and cold, not unusual for the area. The prison’s inmates, then nearly two thousand strong, knew that day was unusual. Two of their number, Miller and Dusseldorf, were to die at 10am that morning for a robbery and murder committed in Alameda in 1949.

As they sat in the twin cells nicknamed the ‘ready room’ they pondered their imminent fate. Dusseldorf, a career felon with multiple convictions, had an appeal being considered. He at least had some small shred of hope though, this late on, it was a very small shred indeed, but a shred nonetheless. Miller, with prior record before his arrival on Condemned Row, had none other than the Governor deciding to grant clemency. He too had hope, equally small at best, but still hope. At least until the arrival of Warden Harley Teets, anyway.

Teets, a fair Warden known for his compassionate attitude to the condemned, had had a long night overseeing the preparations for the morning’s execution. When the clock ran out he would supervise the execution itself, a task he almost invariably hated and never looked forward to. What convicts and staff alike called a ‘double event’ meant both the gas chamber’s perforated steel chairs would be prepared. Unless either the Governor or the courts intervened both chairs would be occupied.

It was cheaper to gas two prisoners at the same time and simpler to ready the chamber once instead of twice. Just as Britain’s hangmen could and often did drop two prisoners at once San Quentin’s chamber was a two-seater. In the 1950’s convicts condemned for the crime they committed together frequently died together as well. It made everything easier for all concerned except perhaps the prisoners themselves.

If Teets had though the night before had been difficult the morning after had just become infinitely worse. Veteran convict Dusseldorf knew that once his one mandatory appeal had been denied he either had to hire a lawyer or file his own appeals from his cell. Miller, with no prior criminal history, was a far better candidate for clemency but knew very little about the appeals process once his mandatory appeal had been denied.

By a bitter irony the veteran felon, aided by legendary jailhouse lawyer Caryl Chessman, was far better prepared to avoid the chamber than the previously honest Miller. Teets had just found that out first-hand. He dreaded his next visit to the ready room and for a very simple reason. The ready room’s layout meant that he would have to give good news to one of them and the worst possible news to the other. He would also have to do so within earshot of both men at once.

Teets had just finished a dreadful phone call to the Federal District Court clerk. One of the clerk’s jobs was monitor all death penalty cases nearing their conclusion, informing Wardens around the country whether there were any stays or reprieves issued by Federal courts. Dusseldorf had filed one with the Federal District Court and a stay had been issued. Teets (or so he thought) was making a routine call confirming that neither convict would die that morning. It had just become a very un-routine phone call and Teets had to break the news.

Having waited in his office from 9:15to 9:45 without receiving a call Teets headed for the gas chamber itself. Another line was kept permanently open in the chamber room, saving time (if not always lives) when reprieves or stays arrived at the last minute. Provided the chamber hadn’t been activated already that phone delayed many an execution, often until a commutation or successful appeal. Shortly after Teets arrived and with the ‘double event’ only a few minutes away, it rang. The clerk of the court had called. Alfred Dusseldorf had won a stay of execution.

Teets waited, expecting to hear the same about first-time offender Doil Miller. Nothing was said about him. Hoping he was wrong Teets asked the clerk:

“What about Doil Miller?”

There was nothing. Not having filed an appeal Miller was to die as scheduled. Dusseldorf would be escorted back to Condemned Row on the North Block’s fifth floor. In turn that meant Teets would have to visit Miller and Dusseldorf in the ready room cells and break the news to both of them at the same time. There was no way to deal with them separately. The two cells were simply holding pens, their walls mere rows of bars and the doors likewise.

Teets ordered a delay while the problem was clarified. It was clarified very quickly, very simply and entirely not to his liking. He asked the clerk to check again. Surely career felon Dusseldorf would go and first-timer Miler would be spared if only temporarily. It had to be a mistake. Only it wasn’t.

Dusseldorf and Miller were only a dozen steps from the chamber, Miller sitting silently with his head on his knees. Dusseldorf, still hoping for a last-minute miracle, chatted nervously with the death-watch guards. Neither had especially good chances of either a stay or commutation, but both still had some hope. The tension was as stifling as the gas they both knew was ready and waiting. The chamber room phone rang again, the clerk calling back with confirmation.

“There is nothing before this Court concerning Miller.”

That was it, Dusseldorf had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and Miller had not. Neither did the Governor pick up the phone. He didn’t have to, Teets immediately called the Governor’s office hoping for a reprieve or commutation. There was none. It was almost over, but not before Teets endured what he later called the worst moment of his life. He had to tell the pair that one would live, at least for now. The other was about to die.

Miller was impassive despite the nervous strain and loss of all hope. Teets told him that there was nothing delaying his imminent execution and Miller took it surprisingly well. When Teets told him he had also checked with the governor’s office and no clemency had been granted he remained as outwardly calm as anybody could.

“It’s all right… I guess I should have written one of those letters.”

Dusseldorf was more emotional, at least outwardly. He cried briefly when the stay was announced and he was put in restraints for the short elevator ride back to his cell. Before he left Dussseldorf had little to say to his partner-in-crime. It had all been said already. As he left to go back upstairs he took a long look at Miller before saying simply:

“So long, fella.”

With that Dusseldorf was immediately removed. Miller remained. Everybody involved was as uncomfortable as anyone could be. Whatever their crimes, staff felt, condemned convicts should not have to suffer like this especially not right before dying. It made no sense that Dusseldorf, the veteran felon, should get a stay when first-timer Miller did not. It made even less sense when it Dusseldorf who had fired the shots and Miller had only been the look-out man.

Whether it was sensible or senseless, justice or just the law, it made no difference. Doil Miller was going to die. He did so if not willingly at least quietly. It may have been some relief to him when all was said and done. He was quickly seated, strapped down and the airtight door sealed. All that remained was a silent signal from Warden Teets.

When the signal was given, the lever pulled and cyanide mixed with dilute acid the gas formed steadily, swirling round him in an almost invisible cloud. Much to everybody’s relief (possibly including his own) Miller died relatively quickly. It only took a few minutes for the prison doctor, listening to Miller’s heartbeat on a specially-designed stethoscope, to give a signal of his own. Doil Miller was dead.

By then Alfred Dusseldorf was back in his cell five floors above the chamber where Miller slumped steeping in cyanide gas. If Dusseldorf thought his time would never come he was sorely mistaken. He continued fighting his case with Chessman’s hard-earned experience and advice to guide him, but to no avail. Although he came close to winning Dusseldorf never quite pulled it off. On 9 September 1954 he was escorted back down to the ready room. At 10am the next day he walked into the chamber. He never left alive.

It had all been entirely lawful and legal. Both men had been convicted and condemned. Both men had participated in the crime that sent them there. Both ultimately died for it. But was it justice?

Or just the law?

Martha Place – The first woman in the electric chair.


A free chapter from my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York,’ available now.

Like many countries the US has an at times contradictory attitude to its death penalty, no more so than when a woman faces execution. Women account for fewer than 5% of death sentences in the US and less than 1% of those executed have been female regardless of their crime. That isn’t to say that female killers are less brutal or cruel than their male counterparts although they are far rarer. They’re also far less likely to die even when a male co-defendant does.

Murderer Martha Place caused particular controversy not only for her gender but also the way she died. In 1890 William Kemmler became the first convict ever electrocuted. In 1899, nine years and forty-four male convicts later, Martha Place became New York’s 46th electrocution and the chair’s first female victim.

Born Martha Garretson in New Jersey in 1849 Martha had been widowed and had a son before meeting Brooklyn insurance adjuster William Place. Her son had been left in the care of his uncle while William, also widowed, lived at 598 Hancock Street with daughter Ida. At first engaged as William’s housekeeper she became his wife within a year of meeting him. There were problems from the beginning.

According to Martha, William’s relatives were hostile almost from the start, refusing to have anything to do with her. William also continually refused to allow her son to live with them. Son Ross had been born to Martha’s first husband, a man named Savacool. An unhappy marriage, he couple had separated after only four years.

Her first husband had apparently headed west and never returned. When he’d left Martha in poverty she’d arranged for Ross’s adoption by wealthy harness manufacturer William Aschenbach in Vallsburg, New Jersey. In memory of their deceased son the Aschenbachs had changed his name from Ross Savacool to William Aschenbach, Junior.

Again according to Martha, Ida was a constant problem. In Martha’s view Ida was sly, antagonistic and disrespectful. She didn’t appreciate anything Martha did and in Ida’s view Martha couldn’t do a thing right. The more Martha tried to bring her to heel the more Ida deliberately defied her. According to Martha William continually indulged Ida’s behavior.

This wasn’t entirely accurate. Ida, being a seventeen-year-old still grieving for her mother, might not have been the easiest stepchild to live with. Martha was also known as a martinet with a vicious temper. Things had to go her way and anyone not toeing her line usually suffered for it. Even her own brother (who ascribed her vile temper to a head injury suffered in her early twenties) admitted she had the worst temper he’d ever seen. Ida (as troubled teens often do) made a point of defying her. It was a mistake that would cost Ida her life.

By 1898 the Place family had been living on Hancock Street for some years. No longer the housekeeper, Martha employed maid Hilda Jans to help look after the home and on 7 February 1898 it was Hilda who first noticed something wasn’t quite right. An almost-overpowering stench resembling carbolic acid was wafting through the house and Ida was nowhere in sight. William had already headed off to work in Manhattan and wouldn’t return until around 5:30 that evening.

Hilda, finding the smell so severe her eyes were watering, soon found herself being rudely upbraided by Martha for not working faster. There was nothing unusual about that, Martha was well-known for her temper and sharp tongue. According to Jans, Martha initially denied noticing anything unusual before barely acknowledging it:

“Why. Yes. I do notice something, now that you mention it. But it’s hardly carbolic, Hilda. It’s not an acid smell, more likely a gas leak.”

Martha’s manner immediately became cold although her voice remained neutral. Hilda Jans, knowing Martha’s temper, knew better than to press her further. Increasingly frequent domestic disputes between Martha and William were already a common talking point among local gossips, especially the time William hauled his wife before a magistrate for threatening Ida’s life.

Jans didn’t know that at around 8:30 that morning Martha had carried out her threat. Had she continued pressing Martha about the acidic stench Hilda might very well have been Martha’s second murder of the day. William Place very nearly was. Before then, though, Hilda found herself given her walking papers.

Out of the blue Martha told Hilda the family was leaving Brooklyn to live in New Jersey. It was at short notice, claimed Martha, and along with a month’s salary in lieu of notice Hilda would receive a bonus provided she and her belongings were out of the house by 5pm that day. The bonus for so quick a departure was, according to Martha, husband William’s idea. It also meant that (aside from the deceased Ida) only William and Martha would be there when he returned home.

Before she left Hilda was given an errand to perform. She was to collect Martha’s bankbook from the Brooklyn Savings Bank and arrange for Martha’s trunk to be sent to New Jersey by train. An express man was to pick it up and deliver it to the station. While out fetching the bankbook Hilda Jans also arranged for her own belongings to be collected. With that she left the house, though not Martha’s story.

Having already murdered her step-daughter Martha had the same in mind for her husband. When William returned home at around 5:30 he let himself in as usual and Martha was lying in wait. William Place didn’t get a warm welcome. Unaware Ida was dead and Hilda no longer there he walked through his own front door. He described it from his hospital bed shortly before detectives told him of Ida’s murder:

“She came rushing down the stairs. I saw too late that she carried an axe. I wanted to escape, to warn my daughter not to enter the house. But as I tried to reach the front door, Martha struck me with the axe. Her eyes were cold with hate. She raised the axe again. After that I only knew agony and a kind of delirium.”

William was critically injured. He didn’t manage to get through the front door into the street, but his cries did alert the neighbors. Norris Weldon and his wife heard screams and what sounded like: “Awful cries and moans. Somebody was screaming ‘Murder!’ My wife and sister heard it too.”

Fearing something dreadful had happened and knowing Martha’s temper Norris Weldon was first to summon assistance. Rushing out of his home he went in search of the nearest police officer. Patrolman Harvey McCauley happened to be walking his beat on Hancock Street at the time.

Sending Weldon to a nearby druggist to telephone police, McCauley broke down the door. William Place, unconscious, bleeding heavily and critically injured, lay just inside it. Weldon summoned police from the nearby Ralph Street station and two ambulances were hastily dispatched from St. Mary’s hospital. In the ambulances were Doctors Fitzsimmons and Gormully. From Ralph Street came Captain Ennis and Detectives Becker and Mitchell.

The first thing they noticed apart from William was a strong smell of natural gas. The doctors attended to William, rushing him immediately to St. Mary’s. Ennis, Becker, Mitchell and McCauley rushed upstairs to a front bedroom. Slamming open the windows to prevent an explosion they almost fell over a woman’s body wrapped in a quilt, a pillowcase obscuring her features. It was Martha. It was also Martha who had wrenched two gas taps so severely they couldn’t be completely shut off.

Weldon identified the prone figure immediately. As he did so a police cordon was hastily established to keep out the crowd gathering outside. One of the throng still managed to get inside. Ida’s sweetheart Edward Scheidecker was desperate for news that Ida was safe and well. He was to be horribly disappointed.

Identifying himself to Captain Ennis, Scheidecker asked for news of Ida. The officers had none to give until he took them to Ida’s bedroom. Ominously, the door was locked and had to be broken down. With McCauley guarding the door and keeping Scheidecker back Ennis, Becker and Mitchell burst into the room. What they discovered appalled everybody. The source of the acidic stench was now grimly apparent.

Beneath her own mattress Ida Place lay dead. Her face was horribly disfigured, Martha having thrown concentrated phenol over her. Had she lived Ida would have been both disfigured and totally blind, but she hadn’t. Not content with throwing a highly-corrosive chemical into Ida’s face, Martha had finished the job by suffocating her with a pillow. Bruises on her head and throat completed the awful picture. The smell of that chemical, the scent of which made Hilda Jans’s eyes water on the floor below, was so strong the officers were almost overcome.

Becker and Mitchell began a preliminary search while pathologist Alvin Henderson and Coroner John Delap assessed Ida’s body. It was Henderson who noticed the pillow stained with blood and reeking of phenol, suggesting immediately that Ida’s death had come in two stages,. First the phenol, then the pillow.

By now William and Martha Place were both at St. Mary’s. Martha recovered relatively quickly. William lay in critical condition for days, detectives only able to question him in short bursts. With his initial testimony concluded William was given a twenty-four-hour guard. With Martha’s room only two floors above her husband’s it was feared she might try to finish her handiwork.

Captain Ennis, Detectives Becker and Mitchell and Assistant District Attorney McGuire questioned William gently, pressing him as little as possible. Why had Martha done it? What had caused to her to commit one brutal murder and attempt a second? According to William it was down to the latest (and last) of their seemingly continuous series of altercations.

Martha had run up some extravagant bills. Despite her own considerable savings of nearly $1200 she hadn’t paid them. The previous Saturday the couple had quarreled about both the bills and, yet again, Ida’s attitude. In response he had cut her allowance for that week, reallocating it to pay her bills:

“I told her ‘No more allowance for you this week. Your allowance money is going to help pay those bills. That only made her more furious. The argument began again on Sunday and she resumed it before breakfast on Monday. My wife threatened me. And not for the first time. ”Asked by McGuire, William elaborated further: “She stormed: ‘I want my money! If you don’t give it to me, I’ll make it cost you ten times more!’”

It was during his recovery that they had to inform him of Ida’s murder by her stepmother. Still lying seriously ill on his sickbed William immediately vowed vengeance: “If she has killed Ida, nothing you can do to punish Martha will punish her enough…”

McGuire had other ideas. Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora prisons all had something tailor-made to punish her and State Electrician Edwin Davis would do the punishing, but that was for later. First he had to have Martha charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and attempted suicide (then a crime in New York State).

Martha was still feigning delirium two floors above, an act lasting only as long as it took detectives to gather enough evidence to charge her. For William’s safety she was moved to the Raymond Street jail to await trial. With his story in mind doctors and detectives concurred that she was simply shamming.

Rolling her eyes, writhing and periodically asking where her husband was cut no ice whatsoever. She may even have suspected he was still alive. If so there was only one likely reason for wanting to know where he was, to get to him before he talked. According to Detective Becker: “She has a cruel face, a cruel heart and she is a great actress.”

Beginning on 5 July 1898 Martha’s trial was a popular attraction. Judge Hurd presided, McGuire prosecuted and Martha retained eminent defense counsel. New Jersey lawyer Howard McSherry and New York’s Robert van Iderstine would fight her seemingly-hopeless case. A jury of twelve Brooklyn citizens would assess her guilt or innocence. If needed Judge Hurd would pronounce sentence.

Depending on the jury Martha faced either life imprisonment or death if convicted. Whether the jury gave their recommendation for mercy would decide whether she faced life in a cell or the electric chair. With that in mind Martha’s lawyers chose an unusual strategy, a general denial of guilt. According to them she simply hadn’t done it.

McGuire begged to differ. His case was as solid as it could be and he knew it. Hilda Jans was sent away so she couldn’t interfere. Martha had recovered her bankbook, packed her trunk and ensured Hilda arranged its delivery to New Jersey via train, a state outside New York’s legal jurisdiction.

To make things worse, argued McGuire, she’d done all these things then gone about her daily chores while Ida lay dead on her bedroom floor. As if that wasn’t enough Martha had lain in wait for her husband with the axe, almost hacked him to death and feigned a suicide attempt. To McGuire that was simply a desperate ruse to elicit sympathy and cover her murderous tracks.

Martha’s cold and indifferent attitude did nothing to aid her case. If anything her icy, seemingly unrepentant attitude only made McGuire’s job easier. To the jurors she seemed exactly the sort of person to commit the crime she being tried for. Reporters assigned to the trial were equally unflattering:

“She is rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s, and the bright but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression.”

Despite hiring expensive lawyers she managed to ruin their case within just one hour on the witness stand. Having previously claimed she had the axe in case William attacked her she told the court that she’d used it only after extreme provocation. Her throwing concentrated phenol into Ida’s face before smothering her was, claimed Martha, also the result of extreme provocation. According to Martha her victims were to blame for provoking her and she hadn’t thrown the phenol intending to either disfigure or kill.

When cross-examined by McGuire she also refused to answer questions about where she’d obtained the phenol, which was a concentrated form not usually used undiluted. She also refused to say how long she’d had it, or to explain why its original container had vanished from the house. According to Martha she’d poured it into a cup immediately before the confrontation with her step-daughter, but no container was ever found.

It would have been impossible for Martha to admit owning it for any length of time without it looking like a premeditated purchase. She couldn’t say who or where she obtained it without detectives checking. If they had they would have caught her in another lie or perhaps found out exactly when, where and from whom it came. As it was her refusal to answer looked every bit as damning.

Her nemesis (and star prosecution witness) was husband William. He had no reason to lie nor any reason to say or do anything in her favor. Not surprisingly, he didn’t. Pathologist Alvin Henderson supplied damning medical evidence. Smothering her after throwing the acid obviously looked like a deliberate effort to kill an already-defenseless victim.

Hilda Jans described the events of that fatal morning. Captain Ennis, Patrolman McCauley, Detectives Becker and Mitchell, the Weldons and Ida’s sweetheart Edward Scheidecker had also bolstered McGuire’s case to the point where it became unassailable. Martha, however, remained indifferent. After deliberating less than four hours the jury delivered their verdict; Guilty as charged, without recommending mercy. After Judge Hurd passed sentence on 12 June 1898 Martha remained unmoved:

“Really, this is remarkable.”

Judge Hurd setting her first execution date was purely a formality. New York law guaranteed one mandatory appeal for condemned prisoners but after that they were on their own. No woman had been executed in the state since Roxalana Druse in 1887. After her botched hanging successive Governors and appeals courts had reprieved all women condemned to die. No Governor since David Hill had been willing to risk the electoral backlash of another botched female execution.

Druse’s death had fueled New York’s quest for a replacement for the gallows and also the abolitionist lobby. Shortly before her execution New York had even debated abolishing the death penalty for women while retaining it for men. The result had been a defeat for the so-called ‘Hadley bill,’ Druse’s execution and the arrival of the electric chair. Since the electric chair formally came into force in January 1889 two women had been condemned to electrocution, but neither had suffered it.

Martha Place was the first woman to sit in the chair, but the third condemned to it. Serial poisoner Lizzie Halliday had been condemned on 21 June 1894. Roswell Flowers commuted her sentence, sending her to the Mattawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1906 she murdered psychiatric nurse Nellie Wicks, stabbing her over 200 times with a pair of scissors.

Maria Barbella had been condemned in 1895 for slashing her lover’s throat with a razor. Her first death sentence was overturned on appeal and a retrial began in November 1896. Sympathetic to her claims of having been raped by her abusive lover the second jury acquitted her entirely. She left court a free woman.

In contrast nineteen men had been hanged and forty-five electrocuted between Roxalana Druse’s hanging and Martha Place walking her last mile. Despite the brutality of her crime there was still some public opposition to her being electrocuted. Some even disputed the state’s right to electrocute her at all. Governor Theodore Roosevelt begged to differ, dismissing their position as “Mawkish sentimentality.”

New York’s courts afforded her no relief. Frank Black, 32nd Governor of New York, had had nothing to say on her case. That had included granting her executive clemency. His successor was none other than Theodore Roosevelt. If Martha hoped Roosevelt had changed his mind she was to be sorely disappointed. On 15 March 1899, only five days before her scheduled execution, he turned her down flat, writing:

“The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term as Governor was for wife-murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me after I became convinced that the man really had done the deed and was sane. In that case, a woman was killed by a man, in this case, a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction as to sex in such a crime. This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity.

I decline to interfere with the course of the law.”

Martha’s place in criminal history and the electric chair were now firmly sealed. While passing the months, weeks and days left to her at Sing Sing’s death house Martha’s behavior had been erratic. Her priest had done much to calm her although she still became hysterical on several occasions. With the priest’s ministrations and a course of Bible study he’d managed to calm her down when her time came.

On 20 March 1899, exactly fifty-eight weeks after the murder, she met her fate calmly and without hysterics. Unlike male convicts her hair was elaborately styled rather than trimmed all over, hiding the unsightly patch of bare skin required for the head electrode. Never having electrocuted a woman before, Edwin Davis decided to place the leg electrode on her ankle rather than her calf.

Only twelve witnesses were there to watch her die. She entered the death chamber just before 11am dressed in black and carrying her Bible. She wore a white cord around her neck. This, she said, she’d been planning to wear if she’d been acquitted or eventually paroled. It took only three minutes for Davis and female prison officers to place the electrodes and buckle the heavy leather restraints. She sat calmly as this was done, uttering no sound, saying nothing except a faintly-heard final prayer:

“God help me; God have mercy.”

At 11:01 Davis threw the switch. 1760 volts seared through her body. Both the chair and Davis had come a long way since William Kemmler, this time there was no problem at all. A second jolt was delivered just to be absolutely sure before a female doctor and Sing Sing physician Doctor Irvine made their official checks. According to reporters she died almost immediately, Irvine later remarking that it was: “The best execution that has ever occurred here.”

After the autopsy required by state law she was returned to her native New Jersey and buried at East Millstone.

Wanting to avoid sensational press reports Roosevelt had quietly written to Sing Sing’s Warden Omar Sage, whose grim job it was to supervise her execution. Roosevelt was specific in his requirements on press representation Aside from the other official witnesses only reporters from the Associated Press and New York Sun were to be admitted. All others were to be kept out of Sing Sing’s death chamber. Going further Roosevelt explained why:

“I particularly desire that this solemn and painful act of justice shall not be made an excuse for that species of hideous sensationalism which is more demoralizing than anything else to the public mind.”

According to Denis Brian’s book ‘Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a notorious Prison’ Martha’s was also the first electrocution witnessed by a female reporter. New York Sun reporter Kate Swan was sent by no less than Joseph Pulitzer to cover the story. She was the last female journalist to do so for some time. Not until Nellie Bly witnessed the execution of Gordon Fawcett Hamby on 29 January 1920 would another woman enter Sing Sing’s death chamber except to die in it.

Perhaps the best explanation and kindest epitaph came from Martha’s brother Peter Garretson, then living in New Jersey. When told of his sister’s predicament he was distraught:

“When I reached Jersey City this morning I tried to go over to Brooklyn to see Mattie, but I couldn’t get up the sand. There isn’t the slightest doubt that she was insane. All these stories that she was jealous of Ida must be wrong. Why, she loved that little girl.

Ever since she was forced to let her son Ross go among strangers she has worried and fretted over that. She was wonderfully attached to him. I think brooding over her future to get the boy turned her brain, which was none too strong after a carriage accident.”

Since Martha Place New York executed very few women and not all for murder. Mary Farmer, Ruth Snyder, Anna Antonio, Eva Coo, Frances Creighton, Helen Fowler, Martha Beck and Ethel Rosenberg rounded out the list.

The wheel turned full-circle when Ethel Rosenberg entered the death chamber shortly after 8pm on 19 June 1953. Convicted with husband Julius of passing atom bomb secrets to the Russians, she died minutes after Julius amid world-wide media attention. Her death wasn’t as simple as Martha’s. Where Martha had died after her first jolt (the second had been just to make sure) Ethel required five to end her life.

It also ended the career of New York’s fourth State Electrician Joseph Francel. Francel, dissatisfied with the pay and loathing the publicity, resigned the next year after executing his 140th inmate. His place was taken by New York’s last executioner Dow Hover who officiated at New York’s last-ever execution, that of armed robber and murderer Eddie Lee Mays on 15 August 1963.

Justice denied in Colorado; Joe Arridy visits ‘Roy’s Penthouse.’


“Yes, they are killing me.” – Joe Arridy, when asked by Warden Roy Best if he understood why he was about to step into Colorado’s gas chamber.

It’s rarer than it used to be that a case affects me as much as this one. If you cover true crime for a living then you learn to keep perspective and some distance between yourself and your subject matter. But, every now and then, you find a story that to some degree bridges that distance, a brutal reminder that true crime is about real people with real lives undergoing real suffering.

Joe Arridy’s is one of them. He was as much a victim as anybody

Arridy was born April 15, 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado to non-English-speaking Syrian immigrants, just another boy of immigrant stock or so he seemed at first. Unfortunately (and perhaps fatally, as we shall later see) Joe suffered from substantial mental impairments. He had a mental age of six in the body of a 24-year old man when he was arrested, charged, tried, condemned and ultimately gassed. Today Colorado authorities openly admit he was wrongly convicted and executed for a crime he did not commit.

He was illiterate and possessed an IQ of only 46. He was even removed from the first grade of elementary school after the headmaster decided he was incapable of being educated. In the official language of the time Joe was listed as an ‘imbecile,’ slightly less impaired than an ‘idiot’ but more impaired than a ‘moron.’ Diagnostic definitions at that time really were that insulting, but labels didn’t really matter. Joe Arridy was still a boy in a man’s body. A mental age of six left him far too vulnerable to function adequately by himself.

At age 10, Joe was committed to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. Tests confirmed previous assessments of his intellectual abilities (or lack thereof). He was unable to repeat a simple one-digit number. When shown colour cards Joe claimed that red was black and green was blue. His conversation was no better, being able to communicate in sentences of two or three words and seldom fluently even then.

Missing Joe terribly, his father brought him home again after nine months at Grand Junction. Joe spent the next three years uneducated and seemingly impossible to educate. His days largely consisted of taking long walks around the local area, almost always alone. With a mental age of six he was also highly vulnerable to exploitation, as was proved when he was discovered by a probation officer being sexually abused by a group of other boys. A court order was obtained returning Joe to the State Home.

Joe spent another seven years at the home, being considered incapable of independent living. Staff regarded him as incapable of either work or education. Given that his concentration wandered and he grew tired easily Joe was given ‘day activity’ helping one of the kitchen workers. She described him simply:

“He depends on others for leadership and suggestion.”

What was about to happen would prove her right to an appalling degree. ‘Others’ would ‘suggest’ him into Colorado’s Death Row at Canon City Prison, into a tiny cell near what locals called Woodpecker Hill. They would later lead him up Woodpecker Hill and straight into Colorado’s gas chamber.

In 1936, at age 20 in body and still only six in mind, Joe meandered away from the home with several other boys. They went to Pueblo, riding railroad boxcars. He was last seen in Grand Junction on the evening of August 13, 1936 and not seen again until he staggered into a hut occupied by railroad workers in the East Railroad Yards of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Meanwhile, on August 15 shortly before midnight, Pueblo sisters Dorothy Brain (age 15) and Barbara (age 12) were attacked in their bedroom while sleeping. Barbara survived her near-fatal beating. Dorothy didn’t survive, having been raped as well as bludgeoned. Barbara would later identify Mexican transient Frank Aguilar, but never identified Joe Arridy.

Joe was arrested on August 26 by two railroad detectives and Pueblo Sheriff George Carroll who, like other local lawmen, was busily detaining and questioning potential suspects in the Brain attacks. After only 90 minutes of questioning, Carroll called a local reporter claiming to have successfully captured the Pueblo killer, that Arridy had confessed, had said he was acting alone, and had admitted using a club to attack the Brain sisters.

All of which was news to Pueblo’s Chief of Police, one J. Arthur Grady. He was more than slightly stunned as he had already arrested the actual murderer. Frank Aguilar, a former Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker who had once been supervised by the Brain sisters’ father, was already in Grady’s custody awaiting further questioning. How Sheriff Carroll could have the killer under lock and key was a mystery. It would later be proved no mystery at all. Carroll deliberately railroaded Joe Arridy to the gas chamber.

Police soon found the murder weapon, a hatchet head with nicks on the blade corresponding with the injuries suffered by the Brain girls. It wasn’t a blunt object like the club Carroll claimed Arridy had admitted using. Carroll interrogated Arridy again, calling reporters to say that, this time, Arridy had admitted using a hatchet head and had remembered (conveniently) that he hadn’t been alone and may have committed the crime with what Carroll referred to as ‘others.’

It was easy for Carroll to change his story. Easy because there were no records of Arridy’s alleged confessions. There were no written records, quotes, witnesses, transcripts or audio recordings. Nothing to say that Carroll was lying or that Arridy was telling the truth. Carroll constantly discussed the case with reporters and testified in court entirely from his (highly suspect) memory.

Aguilar went on trial on December 15, exactly four months after the attack on the Brain sisters. He was on trial for a near-identical attack on elderly Pueblo women Sally Crumply and her niece R.O. McMurtree (who survived and testified against him). It lasted a week before Aguilar was convicted and condemned to die. He was transported under armed escort to Canon City Prison and a Death Row cell on Woodpecker Hill. He was already there when Joe Arridy went on trial for attacking the Brain sisters, an attack he had already admitted and that Arridy would ultimately pay for with his life.

Meanwhile, Carroll had taken over the Brain investigation. When Aguilar was brought to witness the re-enactment of the Brain attacks Carroll was present. Aguilar also gave a signed confession that mysteriously never saw a courtroom before Aguilar retracted it. Equally mysterious, it still made the pages of the Pueblo Chieftain (a newspaper still in publication today) and did Carroll no harm whatsoever. It helped kill Joe Arridy.

In pre-trial hearings Carroll took the stand on five separate occasions and was allowed to run riot. He claimed Arridy was a perfectly normal young man (he obviously wasn’t). According to Carroll the defendant was articulate and spoke in normal, clear sentences (he didn’t, and couldn’t). Carroll swore blind that Arridy could accurately distinguish the colours of the bedroom walls where the attack happened and the victims’ nightshirts. The same nightshirts had been forensically examined and matched to fibre samples found under Aguilar’s fingernails, but Carroll neglected to mention that fact.

Psychiatrists could well have saved Arridy from even going to trial, never mind facing execution, if they’d certified him insane. Instead they dodged the question. They admitted he didn’t know right from wrong but refused to agree that he was insane under the law. In their opinion, for a person to have gone insane then they must have been sane at some point in the past. In their opinion Arridy had never been normal in the first place.

At trial his defense was weak, almost non-existent. His lawyers offered no evidence, choosing only to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Given Carroll’s high jinks that should still have been enough, but it wasn’t. Arridy was poor, lacked the intellect to realise what was happening and could do virtually nothing to aid his own defence, pathetic though that defence was. He was convicted on April 17, 1937 and transported to Death Row. With bitter irony he was a few cells away from Frank Aguilar who was still awaiting his evening stroll up Woodpecker Hill.

Four months later, on August 13, Aguilar took his evening stroll, briefly checking into what Colorado convicts called ‘Roy’s Penthouse.’ He died quickly, Colorado having largely mastered the new method since the chamber’s installation in 1936. With him probably went Arridy’s last hope of survival. On the same day as Aguilar entered Colorado’s ‘coughing box’ Carroll and the two railroad detectives received a $1000 reward for Arridy’s capture. They’d shown themselves to be railroad detectives in every sense.

A new lawyer bought Arridy time as he awaited execution. Gail Ireland (later Colorado Attorney General) fought his case for free, winning nine stays and taking his case right to the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, her client became the most popular inmate on Death Row. Quiet and child-like, he passed his days playing with toys like any other six-year-old might do. His playthings included a toy car given him by the Warden’s son. From Warden Roy Best himself came Joe’s favourite toy, a train set. On the eve of his execution he would give it to another inmate.

Warden Best was an old-school prison Warden. He was fair, but ran Canon City with an iron fist. That fist swung hard at staff and inmates alike if they defied him or otherwise didn’t conform to his rules and standards. In In the 1950’s when most prisons had abandoned corporal punishment he faced trial himself for personally flogging inmates who had attempted escape.

Tough enough to be respected by staff, inmates and population of Colorado, Best could be brutal by today’s standards. He was also human enough to see the patent injustice of what was about to happen. In Arridy’s case he was as sympathetic as any Warden could be, but that changed nothing. Regardless of his personal feelings Best still had a job to do and that meant executing Joe Arridy like any other condemned inmate.

Arridy himself seems to have known he was there to die without ever really understanding what death actually was. No surprise considering he was a child in a man’s body, but that didn’t make the prison staff’s job any easier. As time wore on and eventually ran out their lives only became more difficult. To Arridy the gas chamber was simply an object and death was something he simply couldn’t comprehend. When he arrived at Canon City, somewhere most convicts hated and feared, he had little idea why they would. On being told he was there to be executed he responded with “Oh no, Joe won’t die.”

Of course, he would die. After nine stays of execution and with the Governor refusing to intervene, Gail Ireland could do no more. The State of Colorado was determined to have its pound of flesh. Freeing or exonerating Arridy would raise questions about his interrogation, trial and guilt and the closer Arridy’s date became the more questions would be asked. Commuting his sentence would have severely dented the Governor’s electoral prospects. Colorado seemed more interested in playing politics and preserving the ‘infallibility’ of its laws and penal system than in justice or saving Joe Arridy’s life.

On January 6, 1939 Joe was given the last meal of his choice, a simple dish of ice cream. He was escorted by Warden Best and around 50 other people to Colorado’s silver-painted gas chamber, given the Last Rites by a Catholic priest and stripped to only his shorts. On his way to the gas chamber he gave away his toy train. Outside the chamber Warden Best read the death warrant and asked him if he knew what was happening. Joe’s response was both child-like and chilling:

“Yes, they are killing me.”

Almost naked he was seated in the chamber. Guards worked quickly to buckle the restraining straps and connect a special stethoscope leading outside the chamber. It was then that he became scared. He was gently pacified by Warden Best holding his hand and talking soothingly to him. It was a bitter irony that Best, the man who oversaw Arridy’s execution, probably showed him greater kindness than the rest of Colorado’s justice system. With Arridy now calmer a blindfold was placed over his eyes. The airtight steel door was shut and sealed.

Standing near the chamber with tears in his eyes Warden Best gave the signal and the lever was pulled. Dilute sulphuric acid mixed with sodium cyanide, forming almost-invisible vapours that rose from under the chair around Arridy. Best, tearful as the execution began, now sobbed openly as the gas took effect and Arridy died. The end was mercifully brief, Joe being unconscious within two minutes and certified dead within ten.

Attorney Gail Ireland had been blunt before Joe Arridy’s unjust execution, stating:

“Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for Colorado to live down the disgrace.”

It did take a long time but, days before leaving office, 72 years and one day after Joe’s death, outgoing Governor Bill Ritter issued him a pardon on January 7, 2011. As he put it:

“Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interest of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

It would be hard to argue with that. Joe Arridy is one of the few inmates on Woodpecker Hill to have a proper tombstone. It bears his name, dates of birth and death and a haunting message:

‘Pardoned on Jan. 7 2011. Here lies an innocent man.’

On This Day in 1921, George Bailey -Convicted by Britain’s first female jurors in a capital case.


Crime Scribe

In today’s more enlightened times there’s nothing unusual about women serving on juries, but it wasn’t always so. British courts didn’t see female jurors until 1920. They were still a novelty on 13 January 1921 when three women joined a jury at Aylesbury. The defendant was one George Bailey. The charge was capital murder. The penalty, should Bailey be convicted, was death by hanging.

Bailey was charged with poisoning his wife Kate at their home in late-September, 1920. An accompanying charge of trying to rape female lodge Lillian Marks on the night of September 29 was dropped. It was then standard practice that defendants facing multiple charges including murder would face only a single murder charge. The crime was so serious (and the penalty so severe) that it was considered unfair to inflict multiple charges on the same defendant. Besides, with a mandatory death sentence for murder lesser sentences were…

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On This Day in 1932, Michael Malloy – The Man Who Would Not Die


One of the cases in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is that of New York legend ‘Iron’ Mike Malloy. Malloy’s story is part of the city and state’s history and his death led to the destruction of the so-called ‘Murder Trust’ that had killed already and would no doubt have continued doing so. To help promote the book here’s the chapter on Malloy free, gratis and for nothing. If you like it, buy the book. I do have thre hungry cats to feed, after all.

Walk through Ferncliff Cemetery around 25 miles from Manhattan and you will see a host of notable name, people remarkable for their accomplishments. Jazz musicians Cab Calloway and Thelonious Monk, singer Paul Robeson, scientist Nikola Tesla, actor Basil Rathbone, and many others. There is one you will not see, but whose story has become a New York legend. His name was Mike Malloy. Also known as “Durable Mike Malloy” and “Iron Mike,” he was a former firefighter and machine engineer who had certainly fallen on hard times. An alcoholic, by 1932, he was also homeless and destitute, doing odd jobs in return for cash and free drinks. Homeless and friendless, Malloy was seemingly destined to die without anyone to mourn, care, or even notice.

Fate, though, had other plans for him. So, unfortunately, did a group of bungling amateur criminals later known as the “Murder Trust.” Granted, the phrase “criminally incompetent” might have been coined for this little band, but they did have at least one successful murder under their belt already. Had Iron Mike been a little less durable, they would doubtless have racked up many more.

Led by speakeasy owner Tony Marino, the Trust were rounded out by undertaker Francis Pasqua, bartender Joseph “Red” Murphy, cab driver Harry “Hershey” Green, and a fruit-peddler named Daniel Kreisberg. Pasqua also roped in Frank Manzella, a doctor and former city Alderman prepared to certify illegitimate deaths using legitimate paperwork for a bargain price of $100. When they needed to hide murder as death by natural causes, Manzella’s signature had worked once already.

The Murder Trust was a complete package. Everybody involved knew their particular role, albeit not playing them particularly well. From the Trust’s perspective, Malloy played his role in maddeningly unhelpful fashion, but Malloy would come later.

First would be destitute streetwalker Maybelle Carson. Carson, too, had fallen on hard times and Marino, always in need of extra cash, figured she was an easy target for murder and insurance fraud. It is a fact of life that street people are often especially vulnerable to anyone purporting to offer a helping hand. Marino knew that they are seldom missed and he was right—Maybelle Carson was not. In 1931, he befriended her, letting her sleep at his apartment and drink for free at his speakeasy, the Mermaid at 3804 Third Avenue in the Bronx. He also persuaded her to take out an insurance policy naming him as her sole beneficiary. When she died, officially of bronchial pneumonia, Marino quickly pocketed the payout.

However, Carson had not died of pneumonia; she had died because Marino plied her with a staggering amount of alcohol, stripped her naked, put her in a bed that had been doused with iced water, and left her comatose next to an open window. With Carson helpless and unable to rouse herself, a New York winter had done the rest. Having quickly spent his ill-gotten gains and so far got away with murder, Marino was looking for a similarly destitute second victim. Knowing Malloy was homeless, friendless, and likely to succumb to alcoholism relatively quickly, Marino had found one; it turned out to be the death of Malloy and the Murder Trust, but also the birth of a New York legend.

Malloy fit the bill perfectly. No one was even likely to notice his death, let alone start investigating it for anything suspicious. With Prohibition in its dying days, New York City was averaging some 780 deaths a year from alcoholism and the consumption of bathtub booze. Malloy would be one of hundreds every year who drank too much for too long or drank something that was more poisonous than potable.

Bathtub booze was well-named as much of it was literally made in bathtubs. When Prohibition began in 1920 and outlawed traditional drinking, homemade drinks were often supplied as a substitute. Ingredients like turpentine, anti-freeze, sulfuric acid, iodine, surgical spirits, and denatured alcohol were often deadly. To hide the taste, speakeasy bartenders often used colors and flavors to make them drinkable although still deadly, calling their deadly brews “cocktails.” Speakeasy owners and bootleggers grew rich quickly, though thousands of speakeasy customers often grew very ill and frequently died. Malloy would show an almost-superhuman reluctance to do the same.

By 1932, Malloy was probably in his fifties, although looking a lot older. No records can be identified as his among the thousands of Malloys that passed through Ellis Island and doubtless destitution and drink had taken their toll. Malloy, though, was very far from finished—just how far, the Trust were about to discover. New York’s Irish community had apparently shunned him since he succumbed to the demon drink. Negative, racist stereotypes of drunken Irish folk still abounded, and respectable Irish immigrants looked down on any of their countrymen conforming to them; while there were many who loathed the stereotypical work-shy Irish drunkard, few loathed them more than other Irish folk.

Malloy’s lifestyle might explain why few Irish New Yorkers wanted him around. It could also explain why he was welcome in a speakeasy run by an Italian when relations between the two groups were often competitive and hostile. The Mermaid was considered a dive, even for a Prohibition speakeasy, the kind of down-at-heel place visited only by the lowest people. Whatever the reason for his being a regular at Marino’s bar, Marino viewed Malloy as the perfect prey. With Maybelle Carson dead, her murder unnoticed, and her insurance money now spent, the Trust needed a fresh victim.

‘Red’ Murphy tended bar at the Mermaid. With typical Irish warmth and friendly chatter, he was just the man to lure Malloy into the Trust’s clutches. Marino also dangled another carrot before his hapless victim—having previously cut Malloy’s line of credit at the Mermaid, Marino allowed him to run up a big a tab as he liked. Once permanently drunk, it was simple for Murphy to have Malloy agree to an insurance policy. With insurance fraudulently obtained, Malloy would be left to drink himself to death. In Marino’s opinion, that would not take too long. With Malloy’s drinking, Marino reasoned, the insurance would pay out sooner rather than later. The trap was now set; all Malloy had to do was stumble into it.

Murphy took out three policies totaling $1,788—one with Metropolitan Life and two more with Prudential. They were signed by a Nicholas Mellory, Red Murphy posing as his equally non-existent brother Joseph Mellory for the occasion. The policies also had a double indemnity clause, doubling the pay-outs if the holder died in an accident. Fake though they were, the pay-outs would be real enough; so would the body of Nicholas Mellory, if not his identity. Using Manzella’s doctored death certificate and undertaker Pasqua’s ability to legitimately dispose of the body, the Trust could set their plan in motion, which they had by November 1932. What followed would enter New York legend as a landmark of criminal incompetence. Profits and Malloy himself scuppered the Trust’s original plan right from the beginning. Malloy simply refused to die.

No matter how much free booze passed his lips at Marino’s expense, he survived. Malloy’s body did not give up, nor did he stumble under a truck, freeze to death in a gutter, fall into the Hudson River, or die of alcohol poisoning. No matter how bad a state he was in, at the end of each night, he would come staggering in at opening time the next day, still frustratingly alive. Marino’s speakeasy profits were poor to start with. Malloy was draining them still further with every new day and fresh glass, so it was not long before the Trust began taking more proactively homicidal measures to speed his departure. Their increasingly desperate and constantly clumsy efforts to see him into the next world would result in their own departure from this one.

They had started with the obvious: alcohol. That should have been a simple, effective means of their victim destroying himself rather than the Trust taking the additional risk of actually murdering him. Insurance fraud was not a capital offence then or now; first-degree murder no longer is in New York State, but in 1932, it certainly was. The 1920s and 1930s was the busiest period for New York’s electric chair, averaging around twenty executions every year. If choosing Malloy was a bad idea, then actually murdering him was even worse.

Bartender Red Murphy had not always been a down-at-heel bartender in a sleazy speakeasy. He had once been a chemist, although, as things turned out, not a very good one. His rather limited knowledge extended to concoctions far more deadly than the average cocktail. Firstly, he took to lacing Malloy’s drinks with methanol; also known as wood alcohol, methanol can be deadly even in relatively small amounts.

The Trust was severely disappointed by its effect on Malloy, specifically the lack thereof. Night after night, he swallowed glass after glass, drinking his way through the Mermaid’s inventory at Marino’s expense. Morning after morning, he returned, showing little of any signs of ill-health. The Trust began wondering what it would take for Malloy to show a profit rather than depleting Marino’s. Now looking for Plan “C,” they soon found one—denatured alcohol.

Denatured alcohol, more commonly known as methylated spirits, was used by bootleggers to give their poisoned products a little extra kick. It is more widely used today in camping stoves and alcohol burners as well as having a variety of industrial uses; it is not and never should be used for drinking. Sold today with purple coloring as a warning, it also contains a variety of chemicals intended specifically to make it undrinkable. Pyridine and methanol make it poisonous. Denatonium gives it its bitter flavor. Methyl violet makes it purple, although undyed versions are available. Over the Christmas period of 1926, thirty-one New Yorkers died from drinking it. With that in mind, the Trust thought it likely to succeed where methanol alone had already failed. It did not.

Now consuming more methanol, ethanol, booze, and meths than he was food, Malloy remained inexplicably alive. The Trust was staggered not only by his incredible resilience. Every drink that did not kill him was coming out of Marino’s pocket and, by extension, out of theirs. If he continued as he was going, the insurance money might not even cover the cost of murdering him in the first place. Another plan was obviously called for—food poisoning, though not the more conventional poisoning involving arsenic, cyanide, or some other actual poison, but rotten fish.

The Mermaid had always kept a few cans of sardines for sale to hungry customers. Their clientele having more interest in drinking than eating, the cans had remained on the shelf until somebody actually wanted them. If toxic drink had not worked, toxic food might. A can was opened and left for a week until it had bred enough bacteria to be lethal. Thoughtfully making his sandwich out of his favorite rye bread, the Trust mixed in some ground glass, a large sprinkling of rat poison, and even metal shavings. The shavings, formerly the can itself, were a handy means of destroying the evidence of what should have been Malloy’s last meal.

Washed down with glass after glass of anti-freeze, Malloy would surely die. After seeing him out at closing time, the Trust were convinced it could not fail. That Malloy’s drinks were also being laced with turpentine and even horse liniment should have made his demise a mere formality. Malloy stumbled into the Mermaid the next night. He had thoroughly enjoyed his evening’s drinking and especially the free sandwich. Not only had it not killed him as expected, he walked into the Mermaid and asked if they could make him some more.

While the rest of the Trust gazed at Malloy in disbelief, Marino went into the back room utterly dumbfounded. The resourceful-if-bungling Murphy was on hand with yet another bright idea—a dozen oysters marinated overnight in neat anti-freeze, accompanied by as many methanol, anti-freeze, turpentine, horse liniment, and denatured alcohol shots as Malloy could swallow. Even after that, he turned up at the Mermaid the next night wanting some more. The Trust was by now reaching the end of their rather limited wits and patience. Marino turned in desperation to an old favorite.

Having successfully frozen Maybelle Carson to death, he opted to do the same with Malloy. One night, the Trust poured a quite staggering quantity of anti-freeze into Malloy. They also stripped him naked, carried him over to Clermont Park, and left him facing the full fury of a New York winter. They were convinced, yet again, that they had succeeded. They were less convinced when Pasqua arrived the next day with a severe cold caught during the night’s exertions.

As he sat down in the Mermaid, Pasqua remarked bitterly that while the Trust would get over Malloy’s refusing to die, Malloy certainly would not. As if on cue Malloy walked through the door. Telling the Trust he had only caught “a bit of a chill,” he settled himself at the bar and began yet another night’s extremely heavy drinking.

Morally speaking, Marino’s Murder Trust were reprehensible criminals, predators of the poor and dispossessed. Intellectually speaking, they should have given up their increasingly desperate efforts, especially as local gossip had already begun circulating about the Mermaid’s best non-paying customer. They did not stop trying the apparently impossible.

Instead, they dug themselves even deeper, hiring local thug and suspected hitman “Tough Tony” Bastone. Bastone was neither particularly skilled nor especially smart—certainly not Murder Incorporated material. His suggestion was that Malloy die accidentally in a hit-and-run car accident, thus doubling the insurance pay-out.

Enter cab driver Harry “Hershey” Green who later served a life sentence for his involvement. Their first attempt failed. Surprisingly, its failure could not be blamed on Malloy’s constitution but on blind luck. As Green sped down Gun Hill Road where an inebriated Malloy would not have felt a thing, a woman happened to lean out of her bedroom window. Not wanting to add a witness to the Trust’s already lengthy list of problems, Green swerved away from Malloy. On Baychester Avenue, a few nights later, they tried the cab trick again.

This time, Malloy never knew what hit him. However, he did know that it had not killed him. Thinking Malloy would never die, the Trust chose another derelict to take his place as Nicholas Mellory. Joseph Murphy was promptly run down by Green’s car, a card identifying him as Michael Malloy left in his pocket. According to Pasqua (who, being an undertaker, should have known), Murphy was definitely dead.

Still unsure if Malloy himself actually was dead, worse news for the Trust quickly arrived—neither was Murphy. A Michael Malloy, however, had been admitted to Fordham Hospital with serious injuries. It seemed as though things could not get any worse until three weeks had passed. Then a familiar face appeared at the Mermaid: “Evening, lads! I’m dying for a drink! Make it snappy!”

The Trust had checked most of New York’s hospitals, but not all. The indestructible Malloy had survived his encounter with Green’s cab and was in fact the healthiest he had been since the Trust had started trying to kill him. In much improved condition, he seated himself at the bar, complained that the hospital had only given him food, milk, and cocoa instead of hard liquor, and proceeded to rectify that problem at the Trust’s expense.

Bizarrely, the Trust decided to leave Malloy alone, at least temporarily. If Murphy died in Fordham Hospital, they might still be able to pass him off as Nicholas Mellory. Malloy, meanwhile, had not tumbled to their increasingly desperate efforts to kill him. They soon discovered yet another stumbling block—Murphy did not die, eventually making a full recovery. The real Malloy was now back on the agenda.

Desperate beyond belief, the Trust simply threw caution to the wind, abandoning any pretense of subtlety. Red Murphy rented a room and 1402 Fulton Avenue and Daniel Kreisberg lured Malloy, promising him a long session with a new kind of alcohol. Malloy certainly was plied with alcohol. He was also held down while the pair stuffed a gas pipe into his mouth and let him die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Michael Malloy was finally dead.

Manzella was quick to sign a death certificate listing lobar pneumonia as the cause of death. Now recovered from his cold, Pasqua was equally quick to bury Malloy. If he had embalmed or cremated Malloy, it would have removed any evidence as to the real cause of death; a cardinal sign of carbon monoxide poisoning is the victim’s body turning a cherry red color.

Instead, Pasqua’s haste involved spending only $22 on Malloy’s interment. Pasqua did so bad a job that he had not even emptied Malloy’s pockets before placing him in his coffin. When Malloy was exhumed, his wad of chewing tobacco lay undisturbed in his pocket. Pasqua’s unseemly haste and criminal incompetence would cost the Trust their lives. With Malloy safely interred at Ferncliff in a pauper’s grave, Marino collected the insurance—less than $2,000. Most of it he kept for himself, splitting only small shares with the rest of the Trust.

Just as Pasqua’s haste and meanness would come back to haunt the Trust, so would that of their leader Marino. It was not long before some, especially Green and Bastone, began to grumble about their shares being so small. They were less than discreet about it, especially Green. Local gossip began building, and sooner or later, it would reach the wrong ears. In fact, the take had been so small that the Trust actually made a loss. Marino had kept the lion’s share and it still had not covered his expenses.

Two months after Malloy’s untimely (if merciful) demise, Bastone was also killed. A bully and two-bit thug, he was murdered at the Mermaid by John Maggione. Maggione was a Mermaid regular who probably knew more than he should about Marino and his Trust. Tiring of Bastone’s bluster and bullying, Maggione had simply walked into the Mermaid and shot him in the chest. Bastone, shot on Marino’s premises, had also died there.

Unbeknown to the Trust, Bastone and Green’s grumbling had finally reached the wrong set of ears. The ears in question were those of the District Attorney. Just as Malloy had not been as compliant as the Trust had hoped, Bastone and Green had been far too talkative. District Attorney Edward Foley had heard disquieting rumors about an alleged insurance murder in the Bronx.

Further rumors told of an organized gang engaging in murder for profit. To Foley, this was extremely disturbing as gangs of that kind were prepared to keep killing until they were stopped. Thinking the rumors worth following up, Foley assigned Assistant District Attorney Edward Breslin to investigate.

According to local gossip, the victim was an unnamed Irishman, and an unnamed Italian undertaker was also involved. Together with Detective Edward Byrness, Breslin checked every death certificate issued in the Bronx within the previous six months. Only one fit that particular bill—Michael Malloy. The death certificate signed by Frank Manzella listed Francis Pasqua as the undertaker. The possible victim was Irish and the undertaker Italian just as the rumors had said.

With that in mind, Breslin and Byrness decided to look more closely at Francis Pasqua. They did not have enough evidence to request an autopsy, and Manzella being a former alderman still with political connections, they knew they had to tread carefully until a solid case could be assembled. Breslin and Byrness soon found that Pasqua had done virtually no undertaking business of late. He was also known to be a shady character with alleged underworld ties.

Worse was Manzella’s death certificate listing 1402 Fulton Avenue as a private residence instead of the rooming house it actually was. For so glaring a mistake to appear on a death certificate of a possible murder victim simply had to be investigated. The insurance companies had no address on file for Malloy. His policy stated “Nicholas Mellory” was homeless, not renting a room on Fulton Avenue. It also listed Tony Marino as his beneficiary, when Malloy was a well-known regular at Marino’s speakeasy.

Marino and Pasqua were put under surveillance around the clock. Further discrepancies followed thick and fast. Breslin and Byrness visited the address on Fulton Avenue. The landlady told them it had been rented for Nicholas Mellory by his brother Joseph, whose description was a dead ringer for the Mermaid’s bartender Red Murphy.

With enough evidence to request an autopsy, Breslin and Byrness did so. Michael Malloy would return to haunt his murderers one last time. Due to his long-term alcohol consumption, Malloy’s body incredibly well-preserved enough that there could be no doubt as to its findings; he had died of gas poisoning, not from any form of pneumonia. With so well-preserved a victim, the autopsy’s findings would prove unbeatable in court.

The final nail in the Murder Trust’s coffin came unexpectedly for Breslin and Byrness. It also came from close to home. A clerk in the District Attorney’s office had been a reporter for the New York World when Maybelle Carson had died. Having covered the case personally, he remembered she had been insured and that her sole beneficiary was a certain Tony Marino. He also remembered that when Carson died, she had done so at Marino’s apartment at 3806 Third Avenue, right next-door to the Mermaid.

On May 12, 1933, the entire Trust were arrested. Green and Kreisberg were easily found. They were already in jail—Green on a firearms charge and Kreisberg for robbery and assault. Manzella was charged with being an accessory after the fact and later convicted. John Maggione had pled his killing of Tony Bastone down to manslaughter. In return for the District Attorney sparing him the electric chair, Maggione had agreed to testify against the Trust’s members when they were tried for first-degree murder.

Honoring his word Maggione, a Mermaid regular himself, did so. The Trust’s principal members—Tony Marino, Daniel Kreisberg, Red Murphy, and Francis Pasqua—were all convicted of first-degree murder with no recommendations for mercy. Once caught, each Trust member had blamed the others in the hope of avoiding a death sentence. Their hopes proved forlorn as they were not any better at lying than they had been at killing, or, for that matter, keeping quiet about it. Lies and mutual recriminations did them no good against solid forensic evidence and Maggione’s testimony.

Green and Maggione would go to Sing Sing’s general population, Green serving thirteen years before his release. The other Trust members were destined for Sing Sing’s death house, where their appeals were swiftly heard and rejected. Their only hope, therefore, was Governor Herbert Lehman, widely known for his reasoned attitude to clemency. The state’s appeals court had a panel of seven judges. Whenever a condemned inmate’s appeal was denied by a vote of four to three, Lehman routinely granted clemency. The appeals court had not voted that closely and Lehman was not interested.

For the Murder Trust, all was now lost. On June 8, 1934, Pasqua, Kreisberg, and Marino walked their last mile to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Winning a temporary stay of execution, Murphy did not go with them. Instead, he watched from his cell as they were led silently away, never to return. When his stay ran out, he followed in their footsteps, dying alone on July 5.

Unlike the Trust, State Electrician Robert Elliott did his job properly and at a profit. A reporter for the New York Daily Mirror watched Marino, Kreisberg, and Pasqua die, later writing: “The k-w-e-e of the dynamo. Two thousand volts and ten amperes. The rip-saw current that tears one apart. Three shocks. It was the State’s toast to Mike the Durable.”

The Murder Trust was now dead and buried. Their own greed and incompetence had seen State Electrician Robert Elliott kill far more professionally than they ever had. Had they chosen someone other than Mike Malloy, they would probably have gone on to kill and kill again. Given enough practice, they might even have become good at it. In dying, Mike Malloy might well have saved many lives. He rests in an unmarked grave somewhere in Ferncliff Cemetery surrounded by many great, good, and notable people. Few, though, are quite as remarkable as him.

On This Day in 1927 – Paul Hilton, Antonio Paretti and the finale of the Mafia-Camorra War.


Double executions were no rarity at Sing Sing, especially in the 1920’s. The Jazz Age saw an unprecedented number of men (and a few women), 125, walk their last mile in the Empire State. That trend would peak in the 1930’s (153) before decreasing in the 1940’s (114), continuing to drop in the 1950’s (55). Between 1960 and 1963 only nine men saw the inside of Sing Sing’s death chamber. In contrast with the chair’s halcyon days the 1960’s were its swan song. In August 1912 New York had set a record for twentieth-century America equalled only by Kentucky over a decade later; seven executions in one day.

1927’s ‘double event’ involving Hilton and Paretti was anything but unusual. It was the long-delayed final act in New York’s Mafia-Camorra War of 1915-1917. By 1927 the war was long over and the New York faction of the Camorra was effectively destroyed. Nature abhorring a vacuum, the Camorra was replaced by an organisation that would rule not only New York’s underworld but the nation’s; The American Mafia.

Contrary to what many might think the Mob is far from the only organised crime group of Italian extraction. The Mafia originally hails from Sicily. The Camorra and N’hangdreta hail from mainland Italy and in the 1910’s the Mafia and Camorra were battling for a stronger foothold in New York’s rackets. The Mafia (today’s members prefer ‘La Cosa Nostra’ meaning ‘Our Thing’) won the war. Paretti’s execution marked the end of it.

Paul Hilton was a criminal of far lower stature. Known as the ‘Radio Bandit’ and ‘Radio Burglar’ the music-loving Hilton had a compulsive desire to collect radios, usually other people’s. When pursued by NYPD Patrick Kenney after a robbery in Queens, the burglar became a murderer. Hilton had no illusions about the Empire State’s attitude to cop killers. He was quickly tried and condemned and didn’t expect the Governor’s mercy. New York’s courts also had an unwritten rule not to interfere in cop killings. Unless it was legally impossible condemned cop killers would die. Hilton himself was indifferent to his impending execution. Hours beforehand he remarked:

“It looks as if it’s all off with me.”

Hilton was right, but Paretti might have had other options. His lawyers were pressing the courts and Governor for mercy and, being a gangster, Paretti’s jailers had increased the already formidable security around the prison and especially the death house. They hadn’t forgotten the 1916 escape of gangster Oreste Shillitoni.

Already condemned for triple murder including two NYPD officers, Shillitoni used a smuggled pistol to kill one death house guard and seriously wound two more before escaping both the death house and the prison. He was only out for a few hours and didn’t get far, but such an incident would never be allowed again. Shillitoni was executed only days after being recaptured.

As a result Sing Sing’s first death house was scrapped and its brand-new, custom-designed successor was far more secure. Some might argue its lay-out (if not its grim purpose) also made it more humane for those sent to die in it. The first death house had the execution chamber and autopsy room right next to the cells. Only a stone wall and single door separated prisoners from the sounds of one of their peers dying and being autopsied soon afterward.

Staff and condemned alike hated it. It was a grim enough ritual for staff and even worse for prisoners who could hear everything going in the room next to them. Worse still was the prison doctor’s bone saw afterward. The record set in August 1912 had seen chaos and mayhem with cells wrecked by maddened convicts. Even those whose day hadn’t yet arrived had taken part in the madness.

The new building saw the chair and autopsy room sited away from the main cell-block, between the condemned cells and he chair lay a long corridor. At its centre were six special cells for prisoners wose day had come. They were legendary in themselves, a part of New York folklore given a surprisingly cheerful nickname; The Dance Hall.

The Mafia-Camorra War had officially ended a decade earlier. It had started over rival gambling interests and nobody at the time realised the full consequences of the Mafia’s victory. Lasting only two years it also cost many lives. Nicolo de Gaudio, Joseph DeMarco, Charles Lombardi, Ncholas Morello, Charles Ubriaco, Guiseppe Verrazano, George Esposito and Joseph Nazzaro had died in a little under two years.

Mobsters Alessandro Vollero and Frank Fevrola had also gone to the death house, but been reprieved and their sentences commuted. Paretti had fled to Sicily only to return years later. By then, he thought, the witnesses against him would have died or disappeared. Paretti was wrong and his return to the US cost him his life.

Other mobsters had flipped, turned informant and testified to cheat the chair. Ralph Daniello escaped legal justice, but not the criminal code. He was found shot dead at his saloon near Metuchen, New Jersey in 1925. By then Paretti was already in the death house. Another former ally, Alphonso ‘ The Butcher’ Sgroia, hadn’t liked prison life. He wanted out and testifying against old friend ‘Tony the Shoemaker’ was his ticket out. Paretti would be the last casualty of the Mafia-Camorra War.

The additional 24-hour-a-day security weren’t the only additional visitors as Paretti’s time drew near. Moved from their regular death house cells twelve hours before 11pm on Thursday February 17 1927, Hilton and Paretti spent their final hours in the legendary ‘Dance Hall,’ the six pre-execution cells only twenty steps from the chair itself.

Both ordered the same last meal choosing chops, ice cream, cake, coffee and cigars. Hilton willed two watches and some other jewellery to a distant relative in Brooklyn. Paretti, meanwhile, was receiving his final visitors. They were unusual guests. In later years a rule demanding all visitors pass an FBI background check was enforced. Had it been in 1927 they would never have been admitted at all except as inmates. In fact one of them already had been.

Paretti’s brother Aniello didn’t need directions around the death house, he already knew it all too well. Himself condemned for murder in 1921 Aniello had won first an appeal and then been discharged entirely. He needed no explanation of death house lay-out, routine or rules. The other visitor was one of Paretti’s professional acquaintances, La Cosa Nostra’s future boss of bosses Vito Genovese.

Despite being a Mafioso while Paretti was with the Camorra, Genovese still came to pay his last respects to his old rival. They didn’t have long to say their farewells or discuss business. Death house routine and rules were as rigid as the building itself and State Electrician Robert Elliott was already at the prison testing his equipment. Warden Lawes was already meeting and greeting the witnesses and reporters gathering to watch his inmates die.

Principal Keeper John Sheehy (known to inmates as ‘the big boy’) was in charge of the execution team. Appointed ‘PK’ in 1925, he was running through the final details with his hand-picked men. All of them were volunteers. Although Lawes would give the signal and Elliott (‘the burner’ to inmates) would do the deed, Sheehy would ensure the event ran smoothly. By Sheehy’s retirement he would have done so at over 300 executions.

It did run smoothly. Neither Hilton or Paretti made any kind of scene or put up a fight, it’s far rarer a thing than Hollywood might have people believe. So too is the phone ringing, staying the executioner’s hand as it grasps the switch. That isn’t particularly common, either. It certainly didn’t happen for Hilton, Paretti or 613 of Sing Sing’s other condemned. With his work done Elliott collected his usual fee ($150 for the first and an additional $50 for the second plus travel expenses).Elliott then returned home to Queens where Hilton had earned his death sentence.

By the time Lawes had finished his paperwork and Elliott had returned home Paul Hilton and Antonio Paretti lay in the refrigerated autopsy room adjoining the execution chamber. State law, unchanged since the chair’s installation, still mandated an autopsy after any un-natural death and executions were no exception. Now empty and with their few personal possessions cleared away, their cells would be made ready for whoever was next in line. They wouldn’t remain empty for long.

Nor would the space once occupied by New York’s Camorra. Local Mafiosi moved quickly to take and consolidate the Camorra’s lost ground. There would be competition from rivals and still more bloodshed, but the Mob would take and hold what the Camorra had lost. By the time Paretti had walked his last mile his gang had been wrecked, their territory taken by what would become the powerhouse of American crime. Not that it made any difference to him. In time Paretti, his gang and ‘Radio Bandit’ Paul Hilton would be virtually forgotten. Their time had passed.

‘Don Vito,’ on the other hand, was only getting started…

On This Day in 1932, Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll is finally put to sleep.


Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll was the archetypal wild, reckless, violent young gangster of the Prohibition era. Even at a time when crooks like Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone inflicted violence and death on a regular basis, Coll managed to stand out as being especially vicious. An aura of complete recklessness, seeming unconcern with personal risk and utter indifference to violence hung around him like a bad smell.

Coll lost no time becoming the kind of gangster that people didn’t need to cross for him to hurt them. With so many powerful enemies, simply being in the same room was to risk taking a stray bullet. Not that Coll cared, it would have been their fault for being in the way.

Born in Gweedore, Ireland on July 20, 1908, Coll emigrated to the US a a year later. He later returned there believing the locals would offer their hometown boy made bad the traditional warm Irish welcome. They didn’t, knowing his brutal reputation even in rural Ireland they gave him the cold shoulder instead. As far as his fellow-countrymen were concerned he could take himself and his troubles back to Neew York where they belonged.

Whether Coll was born a sadistic psychopath is unknown, but it’s unlikely growing up in Hell’s Kitchen would have ironed out any psychological defects. Instead, Coll’s winning personality formed amid constant violence, crime and sudden death. By the time he was 12 Coll earned his first stint at reform school, rotating between reform schools and the streets for the next few years. Once the reform schools decided they couldn’t handle him Coll roamed the streets full-time, joining the notorious ‘Gophers’ street gang. Then as now, today’s street punks were tomorrow’s gangsters. Coll was no exception to the rule.

During the 1920’s Coll became one of many enforcers for beer baron Arthur ‘Dutch Schultz’ Flegenheimer, starting in his late teens. It wasn’t long before he committed his first murders. Anthony Borello owned a speakeasy and one of his hostesses was Mary Smith. Like most bootleggers Schultz had an aggressive sales policy, his ‘salesmen’ forced customers to buy his booze and nobody else’s.

Anybody refusing to buy or buying elsewhere could expect swift, brutal retaliation. Borello wouldn’t buy Schultz’s booze and Mary Smith just happened to be there at the time Coll arrived to deal with Borello. Naturally, Smith became a witness to the murder. Equally naturally (to him anyway) Coll murdered her as well. Allegedly through Schultz bribing and intimidating the jury, Coll was acquitted.

The relationship between Coll and Schultz was always contentious and often sour. Coll resented being Schultz’s employee, taking a junior position and an equally junior cut of the profits. Schultz viewed him as just another hired gun and Coll constantly groused about his meanness. When Coll performed an armed robbery at a New York dairy and taking $17,000 in cash Schultz was outraged.

With the law constantly on his trail the last thing Schultz needed was unnecessary police attention on him and his gang. To Schultz’s immense surprise (and equal fury) the worm had turned. Coll laughed at Schultz’s attempts to discipline him. Instead of humbly backing down Coll demanded an equal partnership. If he didn’t get it, he told his boss, Schultz himself wuld be abducted, ransomed and likely murdered

Schultz, himself notoriously temperamental, laughed at Coll’s demand to be made a full partner. He was enraged when Coll threatened his life as well. One of Coll’s other sidelines was kidnapping  other gangsters for ransom knowing they they wouldn’t go to the police. They couldn’t, bound both by the underworld code of silence and that the taxman might ask where they’d obtained the ransom money. This caused fury among kidnapped gangsters and their friends and, while lucrative for Coll, created regular problems for Schultz. Coll was known to be one of Schultz’s gunmen and his actions reflected on his boss. Hence, the Schultz-Coll partnership never happened. The Schultz-Coll war certainly did.

It was during his war with Schultz that Coll reached his worst. It’s estimated that Coll and his (very few) recruits killed over 20 Schultz gangsters. Schultz’s men, in return, rubbed out several of Coll’s allies including his brother Peter Coll. One hit that went terribly wrong involved one of Schultz’s senior men, Joseph Rao. Rao was lazing outside a gangster hang-out on July 28, 1931 when a car pulled up on the sidewalk.

The car contained several men with Thompson sub-machine guns and shotguns unleashing a fusillade of lead and buckshot. They didn’t kill Joey Rao who escaped largely unhurt. They did shoot five children who were close to Rao when the shooting started. Four were seriously wounded, but survived. One, 5-year old Michael Vengalli, died soon after. Vincent Coll had now become ‘Mad Dog,’ also known as the ‘Baby Killer.’

All of New York, the straight world and underworld alike, was appalled. Honest citizens were appalled on general principle. They had to put up with enough gangland violence as it was without needless deaths of innocent bystanders especially children. The underworld were appalled too, not so much over collateral damage, but because they knew the slaughter would undoubtedly force a major police crackdown until Coll was either caught or killed. What they called the ‘big heat’ would be on with a vengeance. Only Coll’s capture or death would turn it off. While he still lived Coll was bad for business.

Whether Coll was caught by the police or underworld made no difference. With electrocution mandatory for murder in New York State at the time, Coll’s only choice was between a bullet from his underworld colleagues or a train ride to Sing Sing Prison’s dreaded ‘Death House’ quickly followed by a seat in ‘Old Sparky.’ One way or another he was doomed and Coll knew it. He didn’t seem to care.

He surrendered to police and was arrested to await trial. Fortunately for Coll he’d retained legendary defence lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (defender of Alabama’s Scottsboro Boys). First Joey Rao refused to testify, handing Coll a advantage. Sealing Coll’s seemingly-remarkable escape was the sole prosecution witness, George Brecht. Brecht was soon exposed by Liebowitz as having a criminal record, a history of mental health problems and of having made similarly inconsistent testimony in a different murder case in Missouri. With the star prosecution witness’s credibility destroyed the trial judge had no other option. He directed the jury to acquit and Coll walked free.

This wasn’t as good for Coll as it seemed. Granted, he’d evaded lawful justice, but gangland justice could be far swifter and equally deadly. While Coll remained alive, free and causing endless police attention wherever he went no gangster found it easy to do business. The anticipated police crackdown began and the only way to stop it was to deal with Coll themselves. Coll had few friends left in gangland. If the law couldn’t fix him then the underworld could, had to and did.

By now Coll was so complete an outcast that Prohibition bigshots ‘Dutch’ Schultz and Owney ‘ The Killer’ Madden both placed $50,000 bounties on his head. These were open contracts where any gunman could try his luck. Whoever killed Coll stood to collect a big bounty, gangland’s gratitude and the relief of respectable, honest New Yorkers. It wasn’t long before somebody collected.

On February 8, 1932 Coll was in a drugstore using a public payphone. He was on the phone to none other than Owney Madden himself and the conversation wasn’t friendly. To raise extra money Coll was openly threatening to kidnap Madden’s brother-in-law for a hefty ransom. Madden simply kept Coll talking. While they argued two triggermen raced to the drugstore hoping to find Coll still on the phone. He was and Madden’s gunmen abruptly terminated Coll and his conversation.

A car arrived outside the store. The driver stayed at the wheel while triggermen Anthony Fabrizzo and Leonard Scarnici entered the store, quietly urging the storekeeper to keep quiet. A long burst of machine-gun fire shredded the phone booth and Coll himself, leaving 15 bullets in his body. Unlike much of Coll’s handiwork, only the phone booth and Coll himself were hit by the bullets and nobody else was killed or wounded. It was a clean, precise professional job.The ‘Mad Dog’ had finally been put to sleep aged only 23.

Nobody involved seems to have done well out of Coll’s murder. Coll himself was buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery beside brother Peter, himself a casualty of the Schultz-Coll war. The two brothers probably knew more peace in death than they ever found in life. Fabrizzo, one of three brothers to join the underworld, was murdered in November 1933. One brother had already been murdered in 1929. The other followed only weeks after Coll’s demise.

Scarnici continued carving a bloody trail through gangland until 1933, by which time he was suspected of at least a dozen murders. Convicted of murdering Detective James Stevens during a bank robbery in May 1933, Scarnici was sent to Sing Sing’s death house. On 27 July 1935 he was executed immediately after ‘Mallet Murderer’ Eva Coo, one of few women to face New York’s ultimate penalty.

Coo’s last words had been simple ones. Turning to the female matrons escorting her she said simply “Goodbye, Darlings.” Then she sat down and died. Scarnici arrived smiling and puffing on his last cigarette, casually greeting Warden Lewis Lawes as he walked in. With a tinge of smoke and burned flesh still hanging in the air, his final speech referred to people he believed had betrayed him:

“All I want to say is I want to send a message to the people in Albany, people who double-crossed me up there. I still say I’m a better man than they are. I thank you, Warden.”

The current flowed and Scarnici died. Coll’s old nemesis Schultz didn’t have long before following him. On 24 October 1935 he was having dinner with several of his top lieutenants at the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey when Murder Incorporated gunman Charlie ‘The Bug’ Workman decided to join him. His henchmen died in a hail of gunfire and the mortally-wounded Schultz died days later. Worrkman later served a 23-year sentence for the murders.

On This Day in 1920 – Gordon Hamby’s Last Goodbye and Nellie Bly’s First Execution.


Bandit  and burglar Gordon Fawcett Hamby was a strange bird by any standards. His death was a rarity at Sing Sing, the first time a female reporter had witnessed an execution there since 1899. That reporter had been Kate Starr working for one of the Hearst newspapers. Since then female reporters had never been allowed inside the death chamber though executed women were escorted by matrons and occasionally certified dead by female doctors.

That reporter was Nellie Bly, at least as fascinating a person as Hamby (with whom she corresponded for months before his execution). Born Elizabeth Cochran in Pennsylvania on 5 May 1864, Bly had already been a pioneer female journalist, blazing a trail that sets her apart even today.

Hamby, on the other hand, was a ruthless killer with an eccentric streak and an almost complete lack of normal human feeling. He would shoot at the drop of a hat but felt remorse when someone else was at risk of execution for his crimes. Even so Hamby, once caught and condemned anyway, did nothing to stop or even delay his own death at the hands of State Electrician John Hurlburt. It seems Hamby had as cold an attitude to his own death as to those of his victims. He refused to allow his lawyers to appeal and even asked the judge to condemn him. As quickly as possible. For a man who had fought his extradition to New York from Washington State this was a strange choice to make. To quote him exactly:

“I committed the crimes. It is right that I should pay the penalty.”

Pay he would, and far more quickly than today. Sentenced to die for a double murder committed during a Brooklyn robbery in December 1918, Hamby was extradited to New York in June 1919. He would die on 29 January 1920 after only a few months in Sing Sing’s purpose-built ‘death house.’ From robbing the East Brooklyn Savings Bank of $13000 on 23 December 1918 to his arrest in Tacoma, Washington in June 1919 he had been a fugitive for six months. Only another year lay between Hamby and the electric chair.

The Brooklyn robbery had been a disappointment to him:

“I expected to get $50000 out of the Brooklyn job and I was greatly disappointed with the little we did get. This was because my partner did not carry out my instructions. I had ordered him to jump over the rail the minute we entered the place, but he was an amateur and wasted too much time.”

True to the criminal code right to the last, Hamby refused to identify his partner-in-crime. It probably wouldn’t have changed his own sentence, but might have been grounds for a clemency plea if Hamby had wanted one. He didn’t and perhaps didn’t want anyone else succeeding on his behalf. A contradictory man, Hamby was as much at ease with the punishment as he’d been with the crime.

When he walked his last mile (actually only a few steps), Nellie Bly would be there to see it. A confirmed opponent of the death penalty, Bly was as revolted by Hamby’s execution as many were by his crimes. With a lengthy record including thirteen armed robberies, a train robbery and three known murders, Hamby wasn’t anybody’s idea of a good citizen, but a ruthless killer:

“I’m not a burglar, don’t insult me. I’m a regular, honest-to-God five-fingered worker. When I rob, I rob. When I kill, they stay dead.”

Even while waiting to die and seeing a half-dozen men walk through the ‘little green door’ ahead of him Hamby remained composed and impassive, even joking with death house guards right up until the switch was thrown. The Warden at Sing Sing, a newly-appointed death penalty opponent named Lewis Lawes, wasn’t joking. Hamby’s would be the second of Lawes’ two hundred or so executions, the first having been that of Vincenzo Esposito only eleven days earlier. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

After refusing to let his lawyers appeal Hamby didn’t mind at all. He even expressed his relief when a last-minute request for mercy (made without his approval) failed. During his brief time in the death house Hamby seemed so indifferent to his own death that a formal inquiry was made into his sanity. To his relief they lunacy commission found him legally sane and fit to die. He seemed far happier with his own imminent death than most of those involved in it. As Hamby himself remarked:

“The only interest I have is to see that I spend the time from now until I go to the electric chair in smoking, reading and making myself comfortable. I know there is no possible chance of acquittal. I am guilty and that is all there is to it.”

His seeming disinterest might have lain in his belief in reincarnation. Hamby kept a Ouija board in his cell, using it right up until he was escorted to the chair. Whether his lack of fear resided in believing he was only departing temporarily will never be known for certain, but he certainly seemed convinced of it:

“It is nothing for me to die because I am coming back. It may take a few years or it may take several thousand years, of course, but time does not count.”

Time might not have counted to Hamby, but it certainly counted to New York State. The authorities wanted an example made of this strange and ruthless criminal and wanted it made quickly. As curious a man as he was Hamby would be treated as any other condemned killer of the time. He would be condemned, warehoused and killed in short order. 29 January 1920 would see him sent off into the unknown, a journey that seemed not to bother him in the slightest.

Hamby’s personality had attracted Nellie Bly’s attention well before he made his final walk. She corresponded frequently with him in the months before his execution and, with better connections than most, was finally able to secure her own seat in the death chamber. For over two decades Sing Sing’s death chamber had been out-of-bounds to female reporters and in her usual fashion Bly would blaze yet another trail. It would not be to her liking.

Hamby’s execution was far from Bly’s first scoop. Her time as a foreign correspondent in Mexico had infuriated then-dictator Porfirio Diaz who had threatened to arrest her. Her undercover reporting from the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island (‘Ten Days in a Mad-House’) had been a sensation, forcing reforms and making her name as an investigative reporter. In 1888 she’d managed to travel around the world in 72 days, beating the fictional Phileas Fogg by just over a week. Watching Hamby die would be the last big story of a glittering career before her death in 1922.

When the time came Hamby remained as coolly impassive as he’d always been. He declined to walk with a priest, remarking that to do so would be a mockery. When he took the few final steps between his cell and the chair he did so with a firm step. As he reached the chair he asked to make a final statement:

“I just want to say that any man who stood in front of Jay B. Allen’s gun had a chance. That’s all. Go ahead, boys.”

Seconds before the current flowed he made one final remark, a joke he’d been having with the prison doctor who he knew would signal the executioner:

“Where’s the red handkerchief, Doc?”

Doctor Amos Squire immediately gave the signal, a task he came to hate so much that he lobbied to make it the Warden’s job instead. That was it for Gordon Fawcett Hamby alias ‘Jay B. Allen.’ Hurlburt jerked the switch, worked his controls and in only two minutes Hamby was dead. After the attention his case had received it seemed almost anti-climactic, but without any problems. At least not technically, anyway. Bly, on the other hand, was absolutely revolted by the whole spectacle.

Just as Hamby had made his final statement on Earth, Bly made her final remark in her report of his execution:

“’Thou shalt not kill.’ Was that Commandment meant alone for Hamby? Or did it mean all of us..?”

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