April 30, 2012
Rufus Choate approached his client just before the bang of the gavel, when Albert J. Tirrell was sitting in the dock, 22 years old and on trial for his life. It was March 24, 1846, three months after his arrest in the gruesome murder of his mistress. The defendant wore an olive coat with gilt buttons and a placid expression, looking indifferent to the gaze of the spectators. Choate leaned over the rail, raked long, skinny fingers through his thicket of black curls, and asked, “Well, sir, are you ready to make a strong push with me today?”
“Yes,” Tirrell replied.
“Very well,” Choate said. “We will make it.”
Within the week, the pair also made legal history.
By then all of Boston knew the facts of the case, reported in breathlessly lurid detail by the penny press. Around 4:30 a.m. on October 27, 1845, the body of Mrs. Mary Ann Bickford (also called Maria Bickford), age 21, was found in a “disreputable” boardinghouse on Cedar Lane in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. She lay on her back in her nightgown, nearly decapitated, her neck wound measuring six inches long and three inches deep. The room was clogged with smoke; someone had set fire to the bed. A bloodstained razor was found at its foot. The victim’s hair was singed, her skin charred. Part of one ear was split open and missing an earring. A man’s vest and a cane were spattered with blood. Albert Tirrell, who had been seen with the victim earlier that night, was nowhere to be found. One witness spotted him bargaining with a livery stable keeper. He was “in a scrape,” he reportedly said, and had to get away.
He drove south to the house of some relatives in the town of Weymouth, who hid him from police and gave him money to flee the state. The following day he headed north into Canada and wrote to his family from Montreal, announcing his plans to sail to Liverpool. Bad weather forced the crew to turn back, and instead he boarded a ship in New York City bound for New Orleans. After receiving a tip that the fugitive was headed their way, authorities in Louisiana arrested Tirrell on December 5, while he was aboard a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Boston newspapers identified the captured man as “Albert J. Tirrell, gentleman, of Weymouth.”
Albert Tirrell and Mary Bickford had scandalized Boston for years, both individually and as a couple, registering, as one observer noted, “a rather high percentage of moral turpitude.” Mary, the story went, married James Bickford at 16 and settled with him in Bangor, Maine. They had one child, who died in infancy. Some family friends came to console her and invited her to travel with them to Boston. Like Theodore Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie Meeber, fifty years hence, Mary found herself seduced by the big city and the sophisticated living it seemed to promise. “While in the city she appeared delighted with everything she saw,” James Bickford said, “and on her return home expressed a desire to reside permanently in Boston.” She became, he added, “dissatisfied with her humble condition” and she fled to the city again, this time for good.
Mary Bickford sent her husband a terse note:
I cannot let you know where I am, for the people where I board do not know that I have got a husband. James, I feel very unsteady, and will consent to live with you and keep house; but you must consent for me to have my liberty.”
James came to Boston at once, found Mary working in a house of ill repute on North Margin Street and returned home without her. She moved from brothel to brothel and eventually met Tirrell, a wealthy and married father of two. He and Mary traveled together as man and wife, changing their names whenever they moved, and conducted a relationship as volatile as it was passionate; Mary once confided to a fellow boarder that she enjoyed quarreling with Tirrell because they had “such a good time making up.”
On September 29, 1845, he was indicted on charges of adultery, an offense the press described as “some indelicacies with a young woman,” and eluded arrest for weeks. After his capture and arraignment, numerous friends and relatives, including his young wife, besieged the prosecutor with letters requesting a stay of proceedings in the hope that he might be reformed. His trial was postponed for six months. Tirrell came to court, posted bond and rushed back to Mary at the boardinghouse on Cedar Lane, where the owners charged exorbitant rents to cohabitating unmarried couples, and where Mary would soon be found dead.
Tirrell retained the services of Rufus Choate, legal wunderkind and erstwhile United States senator from Massachusetts, an antebellum Johnnie Cochran renowned for his velocity of speech. He once spoke “the longest sentence known to man” (1,219 words) and made his mentor, Daniel Webster, weep during a talk titled “The Age of the Pilgrims, the Heroic Period of Our History.” Choate derived much of his courtroom strategy from Webster, drawing particular inspiration from his performance at the criminal trial of a client charged with robbery. Webster’s defense was based on offense; he impugned the character of the alleged victim, suggesting that he’d staged an elaborate sham robbery in order to avoid paying debts. Webster’s alternative narrative persuaded the jurors, who found his client not guilty.
Choate kept that case in mind while plotting his defense of Tirrell, and considered an even more daring tactic: contending that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker. If he killed Mary Bickford, he did so in a somnambulistic trance and could not be held responsible. Choate never divulged the genesis of this strategy, but one anecdote suggests a possibility. Henry Shute, who would later become a judge and well-known writer for The Saturday Evening Post, was a clerk in the law office of Charles Davis and William Whitman, two of Choate’s close friends. Choate stopped by often to play chess, and visited one afternoon shortly after agreeing to defend Tirrell. The famous lawyer noticed Shute reading Sylvester Sound, the Somnambulist, by the British novelist Henry Cockton. He asked to have a look. “Choate became interested, then absorbed,” Shute recalled. “After reading intently a long time he excused himself, saying, ‘Davis, my mind is not on chess today,’ and rising, left the office.” It was an unprecedented approach to a murder defense, but one that Choate believed he could sell.
On the first day of the trial, prosecutor Samuel D. Parker called numerous witnesses who helped establish a strong circumstantial case against Tirrell, but certain facets of testimony left room for doubt. The coroner’s physician conceded that Mary Bickford’s neck wound could have been self-inflicted. A woman named Mary Head, who lived near the boardinghouse, testified that on the morning of the murder Tirrell came to her home and rung the bell. When she answered he made a strange noise, a sort of gargle captured in his throat, and asked, “Are there some things here for me?” Mary was frightened by his “strange state, as if asleep or crazy.” The oddest recollection came from Tirrell’s brother-in-law, Nathaniel Bayley, who said that when Tirrell arrived in Weymouth he claimed to be fleeing from the adultery indictment. When Bayley informed him of the murder, Tirrell seemed genuinely shocked.
Rufus Choate allowed one of his junior counsel, Anniss Merrill, to deliver the opening argument for the defense. Merrill began, in homage to Daniel Webster, by maligning Mary’s character, repeating the possibility that she cut her own throat and positing that suicide was “almost the natural death of persons of her character.” Furthermore, Tirrell had been an honorable and upstanding gentleman until he met the deceased. “She had succeeded, in a wonderful manner, in ensnaring the prisoner,” Merrill insisted. “His love for her was passing the love ordinarily borne by men for women. She for a long time had held him spellbound by her depraved and lascivious arts.” It was an argument that resonated with the moralistic culture of early Victorian America, playing into fears about the growing commercialization of urban prostitution. City dwellers who witnessed a proliferation of dance halls and “fallen women” distributing calling cards on street corners could easily be persuaded that Mary was as villainous as the man who had killed her.
Merrill next introduced the issue of somnambulism, what he acknowledged was a “peculiar” and “novel” line of defense. “Alexander the Great penned a battle in his sleep,” he said. “La Fontaine wrote some of his best verses while in the same unconscious state; Condillac made calculations. Even Franklin was known to have arose and finished, in his sleep, a work that he had projected before going to bed.… Evidence will be produced to show that it had pleased Almighty God to afflict the prisoner with this species of mental derangement.”
One by one Tirrell’s family and friends recounted strange ways he’d behaved. He began sleepwalking at the age of six, and the spells had increased in frequency and severity with each passing year. He forcibly grabbed his brother, pulled down curtains and smashed windows, yanked a cousin out of bed and threatened him with a knife. While in this state he always spoke in a shrill, trembling voice. Their testimony was corroborated by Walter Channing, dean of Harvard Medical School, who testified that a person in a somnambulistic state could conceivably rise in the night, dress himself, commit a murder, set a fire and make an impromptu escape.
On the morning of the trial’s fourth day, spectators swarmed the courtroom eager to hear Rufus Choate—that “great galvanic battery of human oratory,” as the Boston Daily Mail called him. He began by ridiculing the prosecution’s case, pausing for dramatic effect after each resounding no:
How far does the testimony lead you? Did any human being see the prisoner strike the blow? No. Did any human being see him in that house after nine o’clock the previous evening? No. Did any human being see him run from the house? No. Did any human being see him with a drop of blood upon his hands? No. Can anyone say that on that night he was not laboring under a disease to which he was subject from his youth? No. Has he ever made a confession of the deed? To friend or thief taker, not one word.”
One stenographer later expressed the difficulty in capturing Choate’s thoughts: “Who can report chain lighting?”
During the last hour of his six-hour speech, Choate focused on the issue of somnambulism, stressing that 12 witnesses had testified to his client’s strange condition without challenge or disproof. “Somnambulism explains… the killing without a motive,” he argued. “Premeditated murder does not.” Here he approached the jury and lowered his voice. The courtroom hushed. “In old Rome,” he concluded, “it was always practice to bestow a civic wreath on him who saved a citizen’s life; a wreath to which all the laurels of Caesar were but weeds. Do your duty today, and you may earn that wreath.”
The jury deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty. Spectators leapt to their feet and applauded while Albert Tirrell began to sob, his first display of emotion throughout the ordeal. Afterward he sent a letter to Rufus Choate asking the lawyer to refund half his legal fees, on the ground that it had been too easy to persuade the jury of his innocence.
Books: Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Silas Estabrook, The Life and Death of Mrs. Maria Bickford. Boston, 1846; Silas Estabrook, Eccentricities and Anecdotes of Albert John Tirrell. Boston, 1846; Edward Griffin Parker, Reminiscences of Rufus Choate: the Great American Advocate. New York: Mason Brothers, 1860; Barbara Meil Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Articles: “Parker’s Reminiscences of Rufus Choate.” The Albany Law Journal, July 2, 1870; “Trial of Albert John Tirrell.” Prisoner’s Friend, April 1, 1846; ‘Somnambulism.” Prisoner’s Friend, September 9, 1846; “Continuation of Tirrell’s Trial.” The New York Herald, March 27, 1846; “Eminent Legal Rights.” Boston Daily Globe, August 27, 1888; “In the Courtroom with Rufus Choate.” Californian, December 1880; Vol. II, No. 12; “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Mary A. Bickford.” Prisoner’s Friend, December 17, 1845; “Arrest of Albert J. Tirrell.” Boston Cultivator, December 27, 1845; “Rufus Choate and His Long Sentences.” New York Times, September 15, 1900.
April 25, 2012
What brought them together in Milwaukee—Theodore Roosevelt and his would-be killer, John Flammang Schrank—on that cool night in October of 1912, was their differing opinions on whether any man should serve three terms in office as president of the United States. And what saved Roosevelt were the things he carried—a steel eyeglass case and a 50-page manuscript of his speech—tucked close to his chest, which absorbed the force of Schrank’s bullet and prevented a lethal wound. Roosevelt would carry the slug from Schrank’s .38-caliber revolver in his chest for the remaining six years of his life, a violent but proud reminder of the strenuous and dangerous life that he lived with such brio.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had become the nation’s youngest president, at age 42, after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He assumed office at a time when militant anarchists were claiming responsibility for a wave of bombings across the globe and the assassination of numerous heads of state. John Schrank was not one of them, however.
Born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1876, Schrank came to the United States with his parents at the age of nine, settling in New York’s Lower East Side. His parents soon died, and Schrank moved in with an aunt and uncle and worked in the family biergarten. Tragedy was never far from his life. He was supposed to accompany his 19-year-old sweetheart, Emily Ziegler, on a St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran German Church outing aboard the General Slocum steamboat in June of 1904, but he’d been unable to get anyone to take his shift at the family tavern. More than 1,000 passengers, mostly Germans from the Lower East Side, were killed when the Slocum caught fire off Manhattan. Schrank later identified the charred remains of Ziegler’s body, and according to newspaper accounts at the time, he “appeared wild-eyed at the Morgue.”
Schrank’s aunt and uncle died within a year of each other, beginning in 1910. Schrank, in his 30s, took the deaths very hard; according to the funeral director, he was more like an adopted son to them, and while he inherited their belongings and business, the soft-spoken nephew “brooded and was abstracted continually” after their deaths. Their bodies cremated, Schrank never claimed their ashes, quickly sold off the properties, and eventually found himself living in a cheap hotel over a saloon on Canal Street.
In his hotel room, Schrank kept pictures of four presidents on his walls—Lincoln, Grant, Garfield and Roosevelt—men whom, Schrank told acquaintances, he admired, despite having no serious political interests. And it was in this room that Schrank was known to drink beer and stare in silence for hours at the faces of the four presidents.
After Theodore Roosevelt had completed his second term in office, in 1908, the former president went off on a tour of Europe and Africa. The Republican Party, Roosevelt believed, was in good hands, with his friend William Howard Taft in office to maintain the progressive policies that Roosevelt had become known for.
When Roosevelt returned from his tour, he’d come under the impression that Taft was betraying his progressive legacy. Alarmed, Roosevelt decided he would challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, referring to his once close friend as “fathead” and “flubdub.” By the summer of 1912, it looked as though Roosevelt might actually win. Roosevelt was livid to learn, however, that parliamentary irregularities in the primary gave the sitting president an advantage in acquiring delegates. Crying thief, Roosevelt decided instead to form a third party—on the “Bull Moose” ticket—to seek a third term as president.
Schrank had known of Roosevelt since the former president had been New York’s police commissioner in 1895. He’d admired Roosevelt’s presidency. “Then I began to think seriously of him as a menace to his country,” Schrank later told police. “I looked upon his plan to start a third party as a danger to the country; my knowledge of history, gained through much reading, convinced me that Colonel Roosevelt was engaged in a dangerous undertaking. I was convinced that if he was defeated at the Fall election he would again cry ‘Thief’ and that his action would plunge the country into a bloody civil war.”
Then John Schrank had the dream that would turn his thoughts into action. “I had a dream in which ex-President McKinley appeared to me,” Schrank told police. “I was told by McKinley in this dream that it was not [Leon] Czolgosz who murdered him, but Roosevelt.” McKinley, in Schrank’s dream, pointed to Roosevelt and said, “This is my murderer. Avenge my death!” The dead president, Schrank said, “told me that his blood was on Roosevelt’s hands, and that Roosevelt had killed him so that he might become President.”
The dream impressed Schrank, more than any words he had read in the newspapers, and he became “more convinced than ever that I should free the country from the menace of Roosevelt’s ambition.”
After moving to the rundown White Hotel on Canal Street, Schrank bought a revolver and set out on an ambitious tour through the South and Midwest, following Roosevelt from city to city, looking for the opportunity to kill him. But Roosevelt made it difficult, altering his arrival plans and slipping in and out of train stations using entrances “other than the one at which I had stationed myself.”
Traveling under the name of Walter Roos, Schrank decided to head to Milwaukee, where he planned more carefully, settling on ambushing Roosevelt at the entrance of his hotel, the Gilpatrick, as the candidate left to make a speech that evening at the Milwaukee Auditorium, three blocks away. Waiting calmly in the lobby with a crowd that had spilled onto the street, Schrank heard the cheer, then moved toward the candidate’s waiting car just as Roosevelt appeared in the lobby. It was 8 p.m.
Pushing through the crowd, Roosevelt made it to the car alongside his campaign advisers, stood on the floorboard and turned to acknowledge his admirers with a wave of his hat when Schrank pushed forward and raised his revolver. Already seated in the car, Albert H. Martin, Roosevelt’s secretary and a former football player, caught a glimpse of metal in the air and leapt from the vehicle.
“Everything seemed to happen at once,” Martin recalled. “There was a flash, the sound of a shot, and I was on the ground with the man. I threw one arm around his neck and held him fast. At the same time I caught his gun hand with my free hand and wrenched the revolver from him.”
Schrank strugged for a moment, “acting like a madman,” Martin noted, until the crowd set upon the would-be assassin and began to beat him, amid cries of, “Lynch him…kill him!” Martin managed to lift Schrank to his feet and hold him before Roosevelt.
“Don’t hurt the poor creature,” Roosevelt said, on his feet again and not yet aware that he’d been shot.
Someone in the crowd asked if he’d been hurt. “Oh, no,” Roosevelt said, smiling. “Missed me that time. I’m not hurt a bit.”
Martin and some police rescued Schrank from the angry crowd while Roosevelt and his advisers continued on, by automobile, to the auditorium. On the way, an escort observed a bullet hole in Roosevelt’s army overcoat, and Roosevelt touched it, finding blood on his fingertips. Despite efforts to persuade him to seek medical attention, Roosevelt was adamant that he speak to the people of Wisconsin, even if he died while doing so.
He took the podium to great cheering, then spoke softly to the thousands in attendance. “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
Roosevelt went on to speak of the importance of the Progressive movement. He said he did not know the man who shot him, but that he was a coward and that the untruths printed in newspapers, on behalf of his opponents, had incited “weak and vicious minds” to acts of violence.
“Now, friends, I am not speaking for myself at all, I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap…. Friends, every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the ‘Havenots’ arraigned against the creed of the ‘Haves.’ When that day comes then such incidents as this to-night will be commonplace in our history.”
The crowd alternatively roared and pleaded with him to rest. To the side, Roosevelt’s advisers tried to persuade him to cut his speech short. Roosevelt would have none of it.
“My friends are a little more nervous than I am,” he said. “Don’t you waste any sympathy on me. I have had an A-1 time in my life and I am having it now.”
Roosevelt spoke for more than an hour. Then he was rushed to the Johnston Emergency Hospital, where six surgeons prepared him on an operating table. Roosevelt insisted they were taking the wound, between the collar bone and the lower rib, too seriously. After they proved unable to locate the bullet, he was transported to a Chicago hospital, where X-rays helped surgeons see that it had lodged where it couldn’t do further damage. They chose not to remove it.
All of the candidates agreed to suspend their stumping out of respect for the former president’s injury. After he came back, he beat Taft in the popular vote—but both men lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who carried 40 states to victory.
John Flammang Schrank pled guilty, believing that Roosevelt, having survived, might forgive him. But the former barman was sent off to the Central State Mental Hopsital in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he was not permitted to receive any visitors, and he died there in 1943, at age 67.
“I am sorry I have caused all this trouble for the good people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Schrank said shortly after the assassination attempt, “but I am not sorry that I carried out my plan.”
Books: A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in his own Words, Edited by Laura Ross, Sterling Signature, 2012. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, Random House, 2010. It Happened in Wisconsin, by Michael Bie, Morris Book Publishing, 2007. Buckeye Presidents: Ohioans in the White House, Edited by Phillip Weeks, Kent State University Press, 2003.
Articles: “Attempt Made to Kill Roosevelt,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1912. “Crank Tries to Murder Roosevelt: Will Live,” Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1912. “Shrank Brooded, But Seemed Sane,” New York Times, October 16, 1912. “Martin Tells of His Leap,” New York Times, October 15, 1912. “Long on Trail of Roosevelt,” Boston Daily Globe, October 15, 1912. “Bullet in Right Breast, Doctors Say Wound is Not Serious,” New York Times, October 15, 1912. “Oct 14 2012 (sic) TIH Program. John Schrank Transcript,” Campaign History Blog, Ken Davy interview with Adam Green and Ariel Garneau, October 27, 2010. http://usatodayinhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/oct-14-2012-tih-program-john-schrank-transcript/
April 18, 2012
Americans had seen nothing like it before—not in their own living rooms. Three years before the Army-McCarthy hearings and 22 years before Watergate, the Kefauver Committee hearings in the winter of 1951 brought a parade of gamblers, hoodlums, crooked sheriffs and organized-crime figures out from the shadows to sit and testify before the white-hot lights and television cameras. Housewives were glued to their sets day after day, while in barrooms and cafeterias, men gathered on their lunch breaks to witness the proceedings. Stores and offices across the country piped in day-long radio broadcasts. Colorful criminals, sweating and tapping their fingers nervously, seemed to step off the set of Hollywood gangster movies, speaking in broken English, under oath, about their activities. Some just sat in stony silence, refusing, as one witness said, to “criminate” themselves.
All of it came courtesy of a deliberate-speaking, endlessly polite Southern senator in horn-rimmed glasses named Estes T. Kefauver. Chairing the Senate Committee to Investigate Crime and Interstate Commerce, the Tennessee Democrat organized a barnstorming tour across the country, handing down subpoenas from New York to New Orleans to Detroit to Los Angeles and sweeping into local courtrooms to expose thugs, politicians and corrupt law enforcement agents. The tour began quietly in January of 1951, but by February, in a serene postwar America where house and apartment doors were not always locked, “Kefauver Fever” gripped the nation, and the perception of a ubiquitous underground crime wave added to the country’s anxieties over communism and nuclear confrontation during the Cold War.
Born in 1903, Estes Kefauver studied at the University of Tennessee and at Yale University where he received his law degree in 1927. He returned to Tennessee to practice law, taking an interest in finance and taxation, married a Scottish woman, Nancy Pigott, and started a family that would include four children. Kefauver was elected to the House of Representatives in 1939 and re-elected four times; his support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation made him stand out in conservative Tennessee. Kefauver then made a bid for a Senate seat in 1948, running against E. H. Crump, the mayor of Memphis and boss of Tennessee’s Democratic Party. After Crump accused Kefauver of being a raccoon-like communist sympathizer, Kefauver calmly donned a coonskin cap for his next speech and said, “I may be a pet coon, but I’m not Boss Crump’s pet coon.”
With his new cap (which he was later depicted wearing in a portrait on the cover of Time), Kefauver was elected to the U.S. Senate and assumed office at a time when newspapers were beginning to report on extensive political corruption and government ties to organized crime. In 1950, he introduced a Senate resolution to establish a committee to investigate labor racketeering in interstate commerce. In January of the next year, the Kefauver Committee took to the road, crisscrossing the country to ferret out likely targets who could be exposed.
Lawyers for the Committee arrived ahead of the chairman, terrifying local law enforcement as the committee drew up subpoenas and prepared for hearings to be broadcast on both television and radio. Kefauver would then arrive, as he did in the Committee’s first stop in New Orleans, and begin his questioning of, say, corrupt sheriffs, who would admit they did not exactly enforce the law when it came to gambling and prostitution in the parishes of Louisiana. “Diamond Jim” Moran, the owner of La Louisiane Restaurant in New Orleans, took advantage of the free publicity and repeatedly plugged his restaurant, which was teeming with illegal slot machines. “Food for kings,” he said.
When the Committee arrived in Detroit two weeks later, two local stations interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to cover two days of hearings featuring, as the Daily Boston Globe put it, “a parade of hoodlums of every description…[and] the records of their dealings with murderers, dope peddlers, [and] gamblers.” It was estimated that 9 out of 10 televisions had been tuned in. The general manager at WWJ-TV, where the station’s switchboard was jammed with appreciative callers, said the hearings were “the most terrific television show Detroit has ever seen.”
In St. Louis, the city’s squirming police commissioner said he couldn’t recall any details about his net worth before his life as a public official. Then the betting commissioner, James J. Carroll, refused to testify on television, stating that it was an invasion of privacy.
“This is a public hearing and anyone has a right to be here,” Kefauver told him. “Mr. Carroll, I order you to testify!”
“This whole proceeding outrages my sense of propriety,” Carroll shouted back. “I don’t expect to be made an object of ridicule as long as television is on.”
Kefauver warned Carroll that he’d be cited for contempt by the Senate, but Carroll refused to answer any questions, meandering nervously around the courtroom. The argument was captured by television cameras, as Carroll simply picked up his coat and began to walk out.
“Television,” Kefauver said calmly with a smile, “is a recognized medium of public information along with radio and newspapers. We’ve had several witnesses who seemed much less timid and experienced … I refuse to permit the arrangements for this hearing to be dictated by a witness.”
The bars and taverns in St. Louis did more business than they did when the World Series was broadcast three months earlier. But the Kefauver hearings were only beginning to capture the public’s attention. The Committee went west to Los Angeles, taking testimony from a handcuffed Allen Smiley, one of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s former associates. Then Kefauver headed north to San Francisco, uncovering a vast pattern of illegal payouts from lobbyists to state legislators. The hearings on the West Coast drew the largest audiences recorded in daytime television.
By the time the Kefauver Committee arrived in New York, in March of 1951, five of the city’s seven television stations were carrying live proceedings, broadcast to dozens of stations across the country. The entire metropolitan area had become obsessed with the drama. There were “Kefauver block parties,” and attendance on Broadway wilted. For eight straight days, mobsters were dragged before the committee. None of the witnesses made the impact of Frank Costello, who started out by refusing to testify because, he said, the microphones would prohibit him from privately consulting with his attorney, sitting next to him.
Kefauver arranged a compromise. The television cameras would not show his face, but focus only on his hands. Never mind that newsreel cameras captured Costello’s entire face and body as he spoke—the highlights of which were shown on newscasts later that evening. On live television, the cameras zoomed in on the mobster’s meaty hands as he nervously fingered the eyeglasses resting on the table, or moved to dab a handkerchief to his off-screen face as he dodged question after question, making him appear all the more sinister to daytime viewers. When asked by the Committee to name one thing he’d done for his country, Costello snapped, “Paid my tax!” The Los Angeles Times said it was “the greatest TV show television has ever aired,” and Variety estimated that ratings were “among the highest ever achieved” to that time.
Costello was a tough act to follow, but Kefauver found the star of the show in Virginia Hill Hauser—an Alabama-born former waitress and moll to the late Bugsy Siegel. Wearing a mink cape, silk gloves, and a large hat, and with the presence of a movie star, Hauser strutted into the U.S. Courthouse in Foley Square. She wasn’t about to let some stuffy senators from Washington, D.C. rough her up the way they had Costello.
In a defiant tone and her nasal voice, Hauser regaled the Committee with remarkable stories of friendships with “fellas” who gave her gifts and money. But as to how those men came into their money, Hauser said, she didn’t know “anything about anybody.” She and Bugsy had had a fight in a Las Vegas hotel, she said, after “I hit a girl at the Flamingo and he told me I wasn’t a lady.”
When she finished, she had to fight her way past the throng of scribes, slapping one female reporter in the face and cursing the photographers. “I hope the atom bomb falls on every one of you,” she shouted as she left the building. Hauser soon after hopped on a plane and fled the country to evade a tax evasion charge by the Internal Revenue Service.
After seeing Hauser’s appearance at the hearings, the columnist Walter Winchell contemplated the seemingly timeless paradox of reality television when he wrote, “When the chic Virginia Hill unfolded her amazing life story, many a young girl must have wondered: who really knows best? Mother or Virginia Hill? After doing all the things called wrong, there she was on top of the world, with a beautiful home in Miami Beach and a handsome husband and baby!”
The hearings made Estes Kefauver so popular that he decided to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1952. Remarkably, Kefauver beat the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, in the New Hampshire primary, leading Truman to abandon his campaign for renomination. Although Kefauver won the majority of Democratic primaries, he lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who then lost the general election to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. And even though Kefauver ran as Stevenson’s vice presidential candidate in the Democrats’ losing 1956 bid, it was the crime hearings that would cement the Tennessee senator’s legacy.
The Committee ultimately produced an 11,000-page report and exposed millions of Americans to organized crime for the first time. But in fact, the Kefauver hearings had little impact in the cities the Committee visited: He and his men swept in and then just as quickly swept out, leaving behind titillating news coverage and an unforgettable television experience. The Committee’s recommendations on how to clean up organized crime were largely ignored, and the crime syndicates went back to business as usual, often with the same shadowy characters from the hearings still in control.
Articles: “Frank Costello’s Hands: Film, Television and the Kefauver Crime Hearings,” by Thomas Doherty, Film History, Volume 10, No. 3, 1998. “Hearings to Recall Earlier Investigations in Same Setting: McCarthy and Kefauver,” by John Chadwick, The Lewiston Daily Sun, May 13, 1973. “Remembering Estes Kefauver,” by Theodore Brown, Jr. and Robert B. Allen, The Progressive Populist, 1996, http://www.populist.com/96.10.kefauver.html. “’Outraged’ Over Video at Hearing, Carroll, Bet Expert, Defies Senators,” by William M. Blair, New York Times, February 25, 1951. “Sheriff’s Ex-Wife Tells Senators How He Accumulated $150,000,” New York Times, January 27, 1951. “Crime Attracts 1,000,000 TV Fans,” by John Crosby, Daily Boston Globe, March 4, 1951. “Costello Defies Senators, Walks Out of Hearing Here; Faces Arrest on Contempt,” by James A. Hagerty, New York Times, March 16, 1951. “Slain ‘Bugsy’ Siegel’s ‘Girl Friend’ Steals Senate Crime Inquiry Show,” by Emanuel Perlmutter, New York Times, March 16, 1951. “Senator Kefauver Wows ‘Em on TV,” by John Crosby, New York Herald Tribune, March 5, 1951.
April 17, 2012
At midnight on November 12, 1870, two French balloons, inflated with highly flammable coal gas and manned by desperate volunteers, took off from a site in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. The balloons rose from a city besieged—the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris isolated, and the city had been hastily encircled by the Prussian Army—and they did so on an unlikely mission. They carried with them several dozen pigeons, gathered from lofts across the city, that were part of a last-ditch attempt to establish two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government in Tours, 130 miles southwest.
Paris had been encircled since mid-September. By early autumn, with the prospects of relief as distant as ever, and the population looking hungrily at the animals in the zoo, the besieged French had scoured the city and located seven balloons, one of which, the Neptune, was patched up sufficiently to make it out of the city over the heads of the astounded Prussians. It landed safely behind French lines with 275 pounds of official messages and mail, and before long there were other flights, and the capital’s balloon manufacturers were working flat out on new airships.
The work was dangerous and the flights no less so—2.5 million letters made it out of Paris during the siege, incalculably raising morale, but six balloons were lost to enemy fire and the ones that survived that gauntlet, historian Alastair Horne observes, “were capable of unpredictable motion in all three dimensions, none of which was controllable.”
Of the two balloons in the pigeon flight, one, the Daugerre, was shot down by ground fire as it drifted south of Paris in the dawn, but the other, the Niepce, survived by hastily jettisoning ballast and soaring out of range. Its precious pigeon cargo would return to the city bearing messages by the thousand, all photographed using the brand-new technique of microfilming and printed on slivers of collodium, each weighing just a hundredth of an ounce. These letters were limited to a maximum of 20 words and they were carried into Paris at a cost of 5 francs each. In this way, Horne notes, a single pigeon could fly in 40,000 dispatches, equivalent to the contents of a substantial book. The messages were then projected by magic lantern onto a wall, transcribed by clerks, and delivered by regular post.
A total of 302 largely untrained pigeons left Paris in the course of the siege, and 57 returned to the city. The remainder fell prey to Prussian rifles, cold, hunger, or the falcons that the besieging Germans hastily introduced to intercept France’s feathered messengers. Still, the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870, and by 1899, Spain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Romania had established their own pigeon services. The British viewed these developments with some alarm. A call to arms published in the influential journal The Nineteenth Century expressed concern at the development of a worrying divergence in military capability. The Empire, it was suggested, was being rapidly outpaced by foreign military technology.
April 12, 2012
Polly Adler, the most celebrated brothel keeper in New York’s (and arguably the country’s) history, proudly proclaimed her goal to become “the best…madam in all America.” For more than 20 years she ran a string of brothels throughout Manhattan, her business card—featuring a parrot on a perch—bearing an East Side exchange: LExington 2-1099. From the dawn of Prohibition through World War II, “going to Polly’s” was the preferred late-night activity for the city’s haut monde: gangsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Dutch Schultz, boxer Jack Dempsey, Mayor Jimmy Walker and members of the Algonquin Round Table, including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, who stacked Adler’s library shelves with classic and contemporary works. “Bob was the kindest, warmest-hearted man in the world,” she said of Benchley. “He lighted up my life like the sun.” She strove to cultivate an atmosphere that was more clubhouse than cathouse, where clients were just as likely to close a business deal or hold a dinner party as retire to an upstairs boudoir. Benchley checked in for an extended stay whenever he was on deadline, always marveling that “Lion,” the house maid, had his underwear laundered and suit impeccably pressed by morning. “The Waldorf,” he told Adler, “just isn’t in it with you when it comes to service.”
Adler, like most madams, entered the profession both accidentally and tragically. She was born Pearl Adler on April 16, 1900, in Yanow, Russia, the eldest of nine children, and her earliest goal was to attend the gymnasium in Pinsk to complete the education begun by her village rabbi. Instead her father, a tailor, decided to transplant the family to America, sending them one at a time. Polly was the first to immigrate, initially living with family friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she did housework and learned English. When the advent of World War I cut her off from her family—and the monthly allowance sent by her father—she moved in with cousins in Brooklyn, attending school and working in a corset factory for $5 a week. At age 17 she was raped by her foreman and became pregnant. She found a doctor who charged $150 to perform abortions, but she had only $35. The doctor took pity, accepting $25 and telling her to “take the rest and buy some shoes and stockings.”
Ostracized by her cousins, she moved to Manhattan and continued working in a factory until 1920, when her roommate introduced her to a bootlegger named Tony. He was having an affair with a prominent married woman, he confided, and needed a discreet arrangement. If Polly would take an apartment and allow him to meet her there, Tony would pay the rent. She agreed, and adopted a pragmatic philosophy about her profession she would hold throughout her life. “I am not apologizing for my decision,” Adler wrote in her memoir, “nor do I think, even if I had been aware of the moral issues involved, I would have made a different one. My feeling is that by the time there are such choices to be made, your life already has made the decision for you.”
She rented a furnished two-room apartment on Riverside Drive and began “finding” women for Tony and other acquaintances, earning $100 a week for her efforts. One evening two police officers appeared the door and escorted her to the patrol wagon on charges of being a procuress, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. After a brief attempt to run a lingerie shop Adler returned to prostitution, determined “not to quit until I was really heeled.” Her first step was to befriend the cops, cupping a $100 bill in her palm whenever she shook their hands; any arrest inevitably resulted in a dismissal of the case.
As her business grew the so-called “Jewish Jezebel” embarked on a series of upgrades, moving to grander apartments and updating the interiors, modeling her house—not a home, she always clarified—after the long-defunct Everleigh Club of Chicago. During the height of Prohibition her house was located inside the Majestic, at 215 West 75th Street, a building whose discreetly elegant façade hid a labyrinth of hidden stairways and secret rooms. Aside from the traditional brothel décor—gilded mirrors and oil nudes, Louis Quinze competing with Louis Seize—Adler had a few signature touches, including a Chinese Room where guests could play mah-jongg, a bar built to resemble the recently excavated King Tut’s tomb and a Gobelin tapestry depicting “Vulcan and Venus having a tender moment,” as she put it. Like her Chicago forebears, Adler treated her employees as investments rather than commodities, teaching the coarser ones table manners and encouraging them to read, reminding them that they couldn’t stay in “the life” forever. She never had to advertise or lure potential “gals,” but instead turned away thirty or forty for every one she hired.
After the stock market crash of 1929, Adler feared her business would taper off, but the opposite proved true; men lined up at her door, hoping to forget their troubles, even for an hour or two. “There was an in-between period,” she recalled, “when people were trying to figure out what had hit them and estimating the extent of the damage.” But the boon was fleeting. In August 1930, the New York State Supreme Court appointed Judge Samuel Seabury to head what was—and remains—the largest investigation of municipal corruption in American history.
Adler soon received an anonymous phone call warning, “Hurry, Polly, get out of your house. They’re on their way to serve you with a subpoena.” The Seabury Commission wanted to know why Adler had never once been prosecuted for prostitution despite numerous arrests. (Under questioning, a former assistant district attorney named John C. Weston offered some insight, admitting he was “afraid of her influence” and had “laid down.”) She fled to Miami and checked into a hotel under an assumed name, following the case in the New York papers. After six months on the lam, she returned in May 1931. Two Seabury men appeared at her door the following morning, when a friend from the vice squad, Irwin O’Brien, happened to be visiting.
Judge Seabury himself questioned Adler. Was it not true, he began, that Mayor Walker and other Tammany Hall politicians celebrated important events at her house? Adler responded with a series of no’s and I-don’t-recalls until the judge produced a check, holding it up for all to see. She recognized it right away as one from O’Brien; he’d given it to her as payment for some stock.
“It’s a policeman’s paycheck, is it not, Miss Adler?” Seabury asked. “And you will notice that it is endorsed with a capital ‘P.’”
“It’s not my handwriting,” Adler insisted.
“Think it over, Miss Adler. Refresh your memory, and give me your answer tomorrow.”
Several of Adler’s police contacts were convicted, although none as a result of her testimony, but she believed the investigation ultimately helped her business. “I found when I got back in business that the Seabury investigation had…made my life easier,” she wrote. “The police no longer were a headache; there was no more kowtowing to double-crossing Vice Squad men, no more hundred-dollar handshakes, no more phony raids to up the month’s quota. In fact, thanks to Judge Seabury and his not-very-merry men, I was able to operate for three years without breaking a lease.”
Adler wasn’t so fortunate during the next vice crackdown, under Walker’s successor, the reform-minded Fiorello LaGuardia. Within one minute of his swearing-in LaGuardia ordered the arrest of Lucky Luciano and followed up with a threat to the entire police department to “Drive out the racketeers or get out yourselves” and the sledgehammering of hundreds of confiscated slot machines. The new mayor was determined to scour the city free of “incorporated filth,” and in July 1936, Adler was arrested for the 16th time. She pleaded guilty to a charge of maintaining a disreputable apartment and served 24 days of a 30-day sentence at the House of Detention for Women, pitying the aging prostitutes occupying nearby cells. “The only ‘reform’ offered these women,” she wrote, “is a term in jail with bad food and harsh treatment.”
Upon her release she sought legitimate work. A friend with a factory in New Jersey worried that associating with Madam Polly would hurt his credit. A nightclub owner said she’d be the perfect business partner if only the police would leave her alone. A restaurateur was similarly apologetic when she asked to work the hat-check and cigarette concession. Resigned, Adler returned to her old profession, reasoning that “once you’re tagged as a madam it’s for keeps.” New York society frequented her house until 1943, when she moved to Burbank, California, and retired from the sex business for good. Before dying of cancer in 1962, she realized her lifelong goal of completing high school. She had taken to calling herself “madam emeritus.”
Books: Polly Adler, A House Is Not A Home. New York: Reinhart, 1953; Alyn Brodsky, The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003; Herbert Mitgang, The Man Who Rode the Tiger. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963.
Articles: “Ex-senator John Edwards denies report he patronized hooked linked to accused Soccer Mom Madam Anna Gristina.” New York Daily News, March 23, 2012; “Charged as Madam, and Defended as Entrepreneur and Pig Rescuer.” New York Times, March 6, 2012; “Inside Madam Anna Gristina’s Upper East Side Love Lair Brothel.” New York Post, March 9, 2012; “Vice Squad Man Got Polly Adler’s Cash.” New York Times, July 23, 1931; “Polly Adler Quits Jail.” New York Times, June 3, 1935; “Find ‘Key Witness’ On Vice Graft Ring.” New York Times, May 7, 1931; “Eleven Judges Heard In Bonding Inquiry.” New York Times, March 14, 1935; “Vice Policeman Balks On Polly Adler Deals.” New York Times, August 8, 1931. “Polly Adler, 62, Dies in California.” Harford Courant, June 11, 1962; “Polly Adler Dead; Wrote A House Is Not A Home. Washington Post, June 11, 1962; “Feared ‘Influence,’ Weston Declares.” New York Times, July 14, 1931.