Archive for March, 2022
Weird and Weirder Tales
I grew up reading Weird Tales and similar 1920s-40s-era fantasy fiction, because that’s what my brother Rod left lying around our various Philly apartments, either in its then-current pulp-mag form, or as reprints packaged in such anthologies as Famous Fantastic Mysteries. They were my intro to what fantasy meant (and still means) to me.
Which is odd, in a way, because unlike Rod, I grew royally tired of H.P. Lovecraft and his acolytes (fuck Cthulhu!), with their dependance on oozing slime and adjectival mayhem. But the greater sense of… not sure what to call it – the otherworldly divine? – has stayed with me. So many fantastically good writers who could worm written words into new meanings and inclinations.
Recently I’ve downloaded gobs of material from those early decades (on Kindle, it’s often free or $.99 for more than you can read in a year of bathtub reclining) and I’ve uncovered another anomaly, if you will (or won’t) beyond slobbering Cthulhu:
If you compare the ’20s pulps with the prime of English 19th-century fantasy, you see almost exactly the same plot contrivance: a harried, confused, fearful wanderer or executor finds an appalling diary or manuscript describing the writer’s hideous and inexplicable experience with the repulsive occult or a horrifying hidden malignancy (my use of over-the-top adjectives here is to provide a scaled-back example of how these stories were so often cobbled together verbally).
A somewhat alternative outline was for the author to receive such information from a reluctant, blithering friend or an isolated madman working by himself but trying to drag the narrator into his hideosity.
Now, here’s the thing: In 19th century England, the upper and upper-middle classes were both the writers and the readers of these stories – the only ones literate enough and with tine enough to enjoy slow, outre tales while sipping tea and cognac in their drawing room overlooking the esplanade that slithered downhill to the over-bowered and haunted woods.
The narrators were most often loners who lived in aged, isolated houses, with unlimited time to waste “investigating.” Everyone had servants, even when it made no sense.
But by the 1920s-’30s, the audience for the pulps in the U.S. – as well as the writers themselves, receiving a half-cent a word for their outpouring – were nothing of the sort; they were tawdry city schleps with ragged trouser cuffs, trying to earn enough today to feed their families tomorrow.
So… the same approach aimed at an entirely different audience. How did this happen?
I don’t know. Somebody has probably parsed this out, but if so I haven’t read it, like I haven’t read a lot (beyond history, current science and, yes – old, rancid fantasy).
But after plowing through multiple compilations of my old-loved mustiness, I got to thinking (it happens): What made Stephen King such a revelatory fantasy/horror writer in the 1980s? I think it’s because he broke this mold. Hd didn’t write from the perspective of a privileged horror-strewn leftover in his library easy chair, he wrote about – and for – the everyone-in-the-street reader, peopling is work with lower and middle-class characters that tied reader and narrator together.
Not since Poe has anyone accept King, along with his slightly lesser attendants, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker – there is actually an aged church in London called All Hallows Barking by the Tower! – precipitated such a shift in the American public acceptance of horror and fantasy.
No, not even Lovecraft (fuck Cthulhu again!).
Dorothy and the Oz of New Hampshire
[This is a continuation of the last bit of past history.]
Before I moved into Dorothy’s Germantown garret, Dorothy and Tom had bought a chunk of land near Keane, New Hampshire. They were planning to build a house and move there. As they prepared to travel up during my first Germantown summer, they left an open invitation for me to visit.
Thank god! I was falling apart and needed to get away, fast. I didn’t have a car now – the VW was at Julie’s (its rejuvenation following my drunken accident deserves its own sad story) – but I could take a bus.
The bigger trouble was that I was too rattled mentally to plan ahead. On the date I had muddily fixed for departure, I had made no arrangements with Dorothy, and she had no phone. As I waited for Julie to pick up Morgan and Erin, I was a shimmer of jitters and shakes, barely able to hold a conversation. God, what a thing to do to my children.
The bus would drop me off in Brattleboro, VT, about which I knew zilch. How was I to get to Dorothy’s, across whatever river and down whichever highway in NH? I had some vague idea of hitchhiking and walking. I’d hitched only a couple times in my life and was (am) not comfortable dealing with strangers to whom I owe even incidental favors.
Dorothy had hinted at harboring some minor psychic ability – probably more a well-functioning intuition. Without any advance notice from me, when the bus pulled up in Brattleboro, there she was, with her son, Rusty. She just had an idea that I was going to be on that bus, that day. If she hadn’t, I’d probably still be wandering the backwoods of New England, escaping from Stephen King.
Rusty, in his late 20s or early 30s, was a cowfucker, a noble and necessary profession. He carried phials of bull semen, set in a canister of liquid nitrogen, from farm to farm to inseminate cows. Cowfucker was the informal term in the trade. People tended to be leery around him when he rode public transportation. A woman would sit next to him, read “bull semen” on his container and shift to another seat.
Dorothy and Tom’s land held no permanent structure beyond the beginnings of a cinderblock foundation. They (and I) lived in tents. The bathroom facilities consisted of a wooden box with a round cutout, set on a hillside, seated over a pit. It had no roof. On rainy days you crapped wile holding an umbrella.
Tom (Dorothy’s second husband, not the father of Becky or Rusty) was an odd duck. Outwardly jovial, he held a deep-seated cynicism about the human race, both in its wider manifestations and as individuals. That first year, we got along famously, and my stay in NH was the highpoint of that dreary, bedraggled year.
A few months after our return to Germantown, something changed. Earlier, Tom had turned against a former friend; now he seemed to be doing the same with me. Jealousy at my friendship with Dorothy? I had no idea, but I could sense the seeping coldness.
One day I went out and neglected to lock the back door of the house, which led to its large, brick-wall-enclosed yard. Both Tom and Dorothy were more upset than I could quite understand. When I accidentally repeated my transgression – because I was certain they were in the house when I left – they stood on the stairs and lectured me like a schoolboy.
As the second summer approached, Dorothy told me they wanted to “see what it would be like to live alone.” In less euphemistic terms, I was being kicked out.
Dorothy and I held a final, tearful evening upstairs, almost as riotously drunk as the night following our infamous duck dinner. At one point, she recounted a strange story: A woman who had been her close friend told her, without preamble, “I can’t be your friend anymore.”
Dorothy said she never understood, never uncovered the rationale. But I think, consciously or not, she was telling me something about herself and me. A friendship that I had come to accept in a simplistic way just … wasn’t anymore. Like her, I never understood, never identified the “why.”
A few years ago, Erin sent me an email address for Dorothy, still in NH but with a different last name. We corresponded a couple times, very cordial. She was having an eye problem – the usual old-fart stuff.
A year later I tried the address and it was gone. I don’t know what’s become of someone who, for awhile, was the beacon in my life.
The year of ducks and gizzards
Novels, dramas, and (especially) TV scripts lay claim to defining incidents in life that color all that follows. Could be, I suppose, for those whose brains are set with trigger wires, but I’ve had no defining incidents. So, though the particular period I’m outlining here holds an emotional crumbling edifice, to me it’s just something more to be looked at.
By 1975, my marriage to Julie having dissolved into a pudding, I moved from Hamilton St. in Philly’s Powelton Village to the stone colonial rowhouse of my friend Dorothy on Germantown Ave. (the house across the street still bore bullet scars from the Revolutionary War).
Dorothy was the music teacher at Miquon – Morgan and Erin’s fabulous school – a short, stocky, quietly engaging, wholly wonderful woman of Finnish descent who approached music as though invented specifically to instruct kids and make them deliriously happy. For the first couple years that I was doing the maintenance at Miquon, the school also had a drama teacher. When she left, Dorothy merged music and stage using mostly original material.
While at Dorothy’s Germantown house – which also sheltered her husband, Tom, and teenage daughter Becky – I was living on $13 a week in a magnificent garret: two rooms and a large bath, the whole floored with 18″ pine boards cut from trees you’ll never again see flourish in Pennsylvania. The building (the end one of the row), rearing flat-fronted and unapologetic above the sidewalk, was set on a one-third acre lot that stretched back along a side street, behind a high stone wall.
Mice scurried under the sink and I had to reseat the oozing toilet, but in compensation there were sloped true-plaster ceilings, a huge space comprising kitchen and living room, soaring sunlight, and access to the bathroom window from the porch roof (as I found later when I’d looked myself out).
One aural drawback to Germantown Ave.: It had been drawn originally as the only uninterrupted local thoroughfare. In our modern age, that makes it the premier route for emergency vehicles. Those colonial houses, lined cheek by jowl, turn it into a reverberation chamber that drove me half crazy with a constant blitz of fire engine and ambulance sirens at high screech.
Morgan and Erin stayed with me roughly half time in the easygoing shared custody that Julie and I had worked out. (Easygoing for us two, though it must at times have been hell for the kids.)
The highpoint of the days when they weren’t with me was watching the six o’clock local news presented by Jessica Savitch. Savitch was the most absurdly scrumptious woman ever to deliver TV’s urban banalities, and I’d sit there, drooling. (She went on to better things nationally before drowning in a car wreck in the Delaware Canal. It’s sobering to think of this vibrant sensuality in a coffin somewhere, slowly turning to dirt.)
But most important, there were Dorothy and Becky. Dorothy and I had bonded in a straightforward, non-romantic way, sitting and talking for hours, drinking far too much and enjoying every drop. I spent much of the time alone, but Becky would come up on Sunday evenings to listen to Gene Shay’s folk music program, then on WXPN. She was blonde, with a haunting, sharp-planed face chiseled from stone. She was also a funny, straightforward presence. I treasured those evenings.
One year, Dorothy and I hatched a plot for the Miquon teachers and staff to enact a surprise Halloween play for the kids. We chose a repetitive folktale, “Soap, Soap, Soap,” expanding on it to give every staffer a part. We socked the kids good with that one – they didn’t suspect a thing. That established a tradition of staff goofiness that, I sincerely hope, may still flourish.
Each work-day morning, about 20 minutes before it was time for me to leave for Miquon, I’d call one or another of the teachers who lived nearby (the Germantown area was a hotbed of Miquonites) to ask for a ride. I never established a begging schedule, never thought to establish a schedule. Instead, I started each day with a separate, individual cup-in-hand humiliation. (Ah, the lacunae in our flourishing mental aptitude.)
After my part-tine work, about 4 pm, with no one else home, I would go down to that expansive yard and whack a whiffle ball back and forth. It gave me something to do to keep blackness at bay. On the days when Morgan and Erin were with me, I would take care of them in some disorganized way. They were saved less by me than by the yard, our St. Bernard, Pearl (the Best of All Possible Dogs), and the good graces of Dorothy.
Why was I living on $13 a week?
Shortly before I moved to Germantown, while my marriage was already slipping into absurdity, I made plans to spend my birthday evening at Dorothy’s. But when I stopped by “home” that day, Julie was cooking me a duck for dinner.
It had never occurred to me that she would want to celebrate anything with me. I felt gut-punched. I told her my tentative plans with Dorothy. Julie opened the oven and insisted that I take the duck with me. There was no decision I could possibly choose that would make this situation even vaguely tolerable. I froze, dillied… and took the duck to Dorothy’s, the blackness deep as a mine.
That’s when Dorothy and I (where was Tom? working? Becky? Studying?) consumed a quart and a half of black Russians (Kahlua and vodka). I could barely see as I started the drive back to Hamilton St. Two blocks along, I whacked the VW bus against somebody’s parked tailfin. I stopped and stood dutifully in the middle of the street, waiting for retribution. With my inexcusable luck, none appeared. Instead, a cop wrote down the details but never tested me for alcohol. Yet, I must have stunk like a skunk.
The VW was a crippled horse de combat, the passenger door folded like a swan’s wing and sticking out in the breeze,. But it took me “home,” good, indulgent beast.
At the threat of having my driver’s license revoked, I agreed to pay $25 a month to cover the car-owner’s damages. That left me, on average, $13 a week for food and all of life’s joyous extravagances.
(The drinking bout also bestowed a two-day hangover, during which, at Miquon, I had to use a chainsaw – for the first time in my life – to dismember a huge willow that had fallen across the main play area. Head throbbing, knees shaking, I wobbled along the trunk, trying to make the torturously loud machine obey my confused commands. That I still have two legs is close to a miracle.)
Across the side alley by Dorothy’s sat a Korean-owned food market that catered to the down-and-out local trade with stuff like chicken gizzards at $.33 a lb. I ate a lot of chicken gizzards those days. I also tried hog maws once. Don’t.
The $13 supplied not just food, but the occasional commuter-train run to Miquon when rides where unavailable, and my one extravagance: lunch every Friday at the Maharaja Indian restaurant near Penn. We each have something too important to release, whatever the cost or circumstances.
At Dorothy’s, I put myself through a disciple I’ve never since matched. I sat at my typewriter each day and forced myself, no matter how black the blackness, to add three pages to the novel I’d started the year before – a meandering bumble with two independent plotlines that would meet, obliquely, only at the final chapter.
The chapter headings were three-letter abbreviations for the amino acids that formed the two chains of pig insulin, the first protein to have its structure accurately described. Those two chains, together, held the exact number of amino acids as my novel had chapters. Sheer, unlikely chance. Again.
Looked at later, all those pages formed one bodacious, absurd piece of shit. Now and then I pull up one of the “better” pieces and check it out, usually while scratching some obscure bodily itch.
And you know, I treasure those bits. Life is bits and pieces. When all seems impossible or evil, we should choose the best bits and cast the rest to internal Hades.
Of things evil
[Slightly different versions of this tale have appeared in the Penn Gazette (the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine), and online at Chiseler.org]
According to its yellowing sticker, a pendulum wall clock formerly in the Laporte Community Hall here in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, began its commercial life in a shop at 41st and Lancaster Sts., Philadelphia, along a stretch I walked most every day to high school. The clock disappeared during a renovation of the Community Hall more than a decade ago. No one claims to know where it scurried off to.
This clock, in its roundabout way, brought me back to a sad, piercing story that’s haunted me for the last two-plus decades.
Seen today, the east edge of Powelton Village in Philadelphia drifts up against an iron fence that keeps you from plummeting down a steep embankment to the Conrail trainyards, which in turn drift up against the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) and the Schuylkill River.
The occasional car tools north along 32nd St., which doglegs right at Powelton Avenue to become 31st St., then dead-ends two blocks later at Spring Garden Street. Take a right turn on Spring Garden, and its bridge spans the tracks and the river before the road swirls past the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Powelton Village – my home through most of 50 years – lies less than a mile north of UPenn. Its impressive, Italianate Victorian houses, most built in the latter decades of the 19th Century, began as the summer homes of the Center City rich in those days when anything west of the Schuylkill was the “suburbs.”
The Village covers no more than ten square blocks. Though I flowed though more than half a dozen Powelton apartments and houses, I never lived on 32nd St. With a desolate, edge-of-the-world quality, it’s probably little different in psychic texture from over 100 years ago. Back then, however, there was no careening drop to the rail tracks at Powelton Ave., just a low fence at the top of a wooded hill. Near the southeast corner stood a cruciform commuter train station, unknown to current residents.
Graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Law School class of 1898 had an almost magical sheen: Owen J. Roberts, first in class, rose to become a Supreme Court justice and, later, dean of the Law School itself. Margaret Center Klingelsmith, a woman of dry wit, mind-numbing determination and unswerving dedication, ruled the school’s law library for 31 years. George Nitzsche, after graduation, became the Law School’s registrar, then served a three-decade span as Recorder of the University, a man of such meticulous habits and lasered exuberance that his assembly of statistics bordered on a magnificent obsession.
But first and foremost stood Roy Wilson White (second in standing behind Roberts), one of those rare souls who, everyone knew without doubt, was destined to make a difference. A scholar, an intellect, a guardian angel to his family, he shimmered, working 15 hours a day at his studies, at editing the student-run American Law Register, at tutoring fellow Law School students and younger students in prep schools around the city. Upstanding, honest, humorous, superbly alive (if sometimes detached), Roy White was the kind of young man you pray your own son will become.
The Law School Dean, William Draper Lewis (only five years White’s senior, and over the years master of an unparalleled career in legal administration), sent him to study Roman law at the University of Paris in the fall of 1899. When White returned in 1900, age 28, Lewis was set to have him implement the school’s nascent graduate program.
Paging through the bound volumes of the Law School minutes while researching a planned history of the school (for which I was paid but which was never published, damn their hides), I delighted in White’s spritely reports from France, expounding on French academic customs – and on the French’s ignorance of everything in American legal instruction outside Harvard.
His wealth of detail was leavened by a lively, self-deprecatory wit: “I hope you will not think me like the German colonial officials, who are said to elaborate such minute reports of what they do that they never have time to do anything.”
Reading the school minutes for May 1900, I received a visceral shock – Roy White was dead. Impossible! A figure like that does not just die. Scrambling ahead, I found a line saying, without explanation, that he “was killed.”
When not poring through the school minutes (probably the only one alive who has read them word-for-word from their 1890s beginnings through 1997), for my research I also spent weeks at the Penn archives, housed under the Franklin Field stadium. There, I asked Mark Lloyd, archivist and shimmering guardian of Penn’s history, what in god’s name had happened to White – some kind of accident?
“Oh, I know exactly. It was murder.”
Mark pulled out several boxes of historical material. Among them were two scrapbooks of newspaper clippings detailing a year of horror and sadness. They reflected the organizational obsession of an unnamed compiler, who – as I later learned from his grandson, was George Nitzsche, that compulsive compiler of minutia.
On May 19, 1900, after dining with Nitzsche at the university commons and teaching a Saturday evening review class at the Law School’s grand new 34th and Chestnut Sts. building, White left, following a rainstorm, to catch the 10:29 p.m. commuter train to his home in Germantown, which he shared with his mother, sisters and brother Tom (a practicing attorney whom Roy had supported through law school).
Nitzsche, at White’s memorial, described Roy in a way that recalls Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit: “White’s watch was a great friend to him. It was worn from continual taking in and out of his pocket. He timed everything to the minute, and when talking to you would nervously finger his watch and, pulling it out suddenly, would bid you good-bye and rush off.”
Remember that watch: Directly or indirectly, it precipitated four violent deaths.
As White walked north that May night, half a block south of the Powelton Ave. train station he was struck a blow from behind. When he dropped to the sidewalk, more blows rained on his head and face, smashing his nose and right orbital and fracturing his skull. The assailant removed his watch and ring and rifled his waistcoat – but missed $16 in his trouser pocket.
Identified by papers he carried, White was discovered by police officer Frank Harrigan and rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, at 39th and Powelton, where he died at 2:15 a.m., May 20.
A 17-year-old messenger boy at the train station, Ralph Hartman, reported seeing two suspicious-looking Negroes a block north of the station. They asked the way to Germantown Junction, a north Philadelphia switching yard, saying they had come from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, set up at the North Philadelphia trainyards, and wanted to hitch a freight to New York.
Hartman, a loyal Pennsylvania Railroad employee who disapproved of the use of freight cars by drifters and hobos, deliberately misdirected them south along 32nd Street, toward the spot where White was later found.
The Philadelphia police responded with what the press reported as commendable zeal. Commissioner Harry Quirk and Chief of Detectives Peter Miller assigned 30 detectives to the case and spread the largest dragnet in the department’s history. As noted in the May 21 Evening Telegraph, “Every colored man in West Philadelphia who was found on the streets and who could not claim a residence or give a clear account of his whereabouts Saturday night was arrested and committed for ten days on the charge of vagrancy.” (This quote appeared verbatim in so many other papers across the country that its parent has become lost in the mists.)
Scores of black males from the local area and from trainyards throughout the city were rounded up, weeded down to the 15 most likely culprits, then paraded before Hartman. He positively identified Henry Ivory, of Wilmington, Delaware, as one of the two he had seen. Ivory had been picked up at the Germantown Junction trainyards.
Next to last in the lineup – two spaces over from Ivory – stood Ward Knight, who had been arrested with Ivory (some reports indicated that they had emerged from the same boxcar). Hartman, unaware that the two had been found together, thought Knight could be the second man, but was uncertain.
The most detailed newspaper report appeared in the May 21st Philadelphia North American – without byline, as was the almost universal custom of the day. Though replete with the usual hyperbole (likely interjected by an overzealous city editor), it included careful interviews and thoughtful descriptions. Others of the 10 daily Philadelphia papers tossed facts and chronology in a reportorial salad – with a blithe disregard for fact and logic that continued in the media reporting over the following months.
White’s murder, picked up as far away as San Jose, CA, galvanized both the press and the nation’s population. Perhaps it ignited that perennial fear that brutes – especially Black brutes – lie in wait behind every shrub. Or perhaps it reflected the then almost total dependence on public transportation: To get from here to there, you took either a commuter train or one of the trolleys that rattled along virtually every city street. Whatever the reason, Roy White’s murder became wrapped in shrieking notoriety.
The following day, Ivory, identified by young Hartman, confessed to being an accomplice to White’s murder but swore that the actual killing was at the hands of “Buck,” a chance acquaintance who traveled with the Wild West show. Buck, said Ivory, had picked White at random for robbery because he looked prosperous. The weapon had by this time been identified as an 18-inch bolt used to cinch boxcars together.
Ivory’s confession had been extracted using the “sweat box,” a method instituted by detective chief Miller that involved depriving the suspect of food and water, then subjecting him to a half-hour of overlapping and contradictory questions fired at him by three or four detectives. If the suspect failed to crack, the process was repeated until he did.
After five trips to the sweat box, Ivory had cracked.
Buck, the police established, was a gigantic Black man named George Johnson – possibly also know as “Charleston” – who worked for the Wild West show. On the basis of Ivory’s confession, Superintendent Quirk maintained with confidence: “There was a man with him. One man only” (The Call).
The hard work of the department had paid off with a rapid, efficient solution of the case. Except… George Johnson turned himself in and established a clear alibi (reported in the Telegraph using a minstrel-show playlet of Johnson greeting “Mistah Quihk” with pickaninny burble that would have made Uncle Remus blush). When Ivory failed to identify him, he was released.
Along the line, “Buck” had metamorphosed to “Brown.” The May 23 Public Ledger introduced an interesting conjecture attributed to detectives assigned to the case: “They say that there is a strong probability that [Ivory] is concealing ‘Brown’s’ actual identify from them for fear that ‘Brown’ might come forward and point him out as the actual murderer, in case Ivory gave the missing man’s right name and description.” The Record took the conjecture a step further: Should Ivory have fingered Ward Knight – the man found with him at Germantown Junction – “the recriminations might have convicted both.”
What appeared to be the final, necessary break in the case came with the May 25th apprehension, at Trenton, NJ, of Amos Stirling, “a worthless, brutal negro” (The Press) – as opposed, presumably, to Ivory, “a good-natured darky” (Evening Bulletin).
A Philadelphia detective contingent – accompanied by messenger-boy Hartman and one John Leary, who stated he had seen Ivory and another crossing the Girard Avenue Bridge a mile and a half from the crime scene – had initially traveled to Trenton with detectives to check out another suspect, whom they exonerated. The squad then decided to look over several vagrants languishing in the Mercer County Workhouse.
One, Stirling, had been picked up the previous Sunday morning, about 36 hours after White’s murder, at the Trenton trainyards. According to some accounts, he ran and was tracked down; in others he was sitting, standing or even sleeping when apprehended.
Both Hartman and Leary immediately identified Stirling as the man they’d seen with Ivory on the night of the murder.
One paper (The Press) reported that Stirling had blood on his hat, vest and coat. A second (Public Ledger) said he was wearing three shirts and two pairs of pants, the outer ones new, presumably to cover the bloody underlayers.
Stirling attributed the blood to a nosebleed. He also claimed to have been released from the Philadelphia House of Correction two days before the murder and to have hitched a freight to Harrisburg, but had not joined the Wild West show there.
(Like an amorphous cloud, the Wild West show continually hovered over the White investigation; it greeted the detectives at Trenton, the show’s next stop after Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and seemed to have employed almost every Black man hauled in by the police.
A circus extravaganza with a western theme, it set up in trainyards for short stands, then packed up again for the next stop down the line. Buffalo Bill Cody, its creator and, at the turn of the century, the most recognized man on earth, hired locals both to help set up the show and to play bit parts in it. Probably the closest thing to the Wild West show these days would be the minor leagues of professional wrestling.
It’s hard to avoid falling into the cadence of the time and stating that I was “numbed by the horror of this fearful story.” Yet that, essentially, is exactly what happened with me. Little that I can recall reading has affected me more deeply than the newspaper reports of White’s death and the ensuing trials.
Yet as I sank deeper into the case, the energizing image of this murdered man – someone of almost angelic purity – gradually faded, to be replaced by a welling of outrage over a monstrosity every bit as brutal as his murder, but more systematic.
It raped the very concept of justice.
Let’s start with the local reporting, fairly average during the reign of yellow journalism.
To put it in the simplest terms: nothing I have said so far is wholly true, because, beyond White’s death, no unequivocal “fact” can be established from the written words. The anonymous reporters traded phrases and whole paragraphs like baseball cards. I suspect that freelancers sold hastily written accounts to several papers which, to appear marginally independent, blendered these original versions into a puree of internal contradictions. Even the few thoughtful, carefully honed accounts are interrupted by racial diatribe and purple prose inserted by overzealous editors.
George Johnson becomes variously William or Richard, Johnson or Johnston.
One report described the spot where White’s body lay as ill-lit and pitch black; another as easily observable from all sides.
The initial accounts of Hartman’s identification of Ivory differ so wildly that they cannot be reconciled. I chose the one from the North American because it included a level of detail and precision that gave it a ring of relative truth.
Did Ivory work for the Wild West show? One day it is stated with confidence that he did, the next that he was only a spectator.
The number of suspects rounded up following the murder is listed variously as 10, 15, 50 and 135.
Most disturbing, in the accounts of Stirling’s capture: A telegram from Superintendent Quirk was reputedly sent to Trenton authorities in advance of the detectives’ journey. Yet, as reprinted, it so exactly describes Stirling as to seem almost clairvoyant. (This despite the fact that the rail detective who picked up Stirling had said that he ignored him as a suspect because the descriptions sent by Philadelphia police did not fit him.) The quoted ”telegram” appears to have been invented whole cloth.
In descriptions of Hartman and Leary’s response on seeing Stirling, both spontaneously shout, “There he is!” and place their hands together on Stirling’s shoulder. Again, the scene smacks of something manufactured by the police – or lifted from some stage drama – and handed out to reporters.
Numerous questions in the reporting called for answers, but few of the writers thought to ask:
Why did the police consistently claim that Ward Knight, the man captured with Ivory, had nothing to do with the killing? As Quirk is quoted in the May 29 Telegraph: “I felt satisfied on Monday that Knight knew nothing about the murder. He told a perfectly straightforward story and would have been released but for the charge of trespassing.” (Yet Knight was jailed as a trial witness for the next five months – though he spoke not a word on the stand.)
How did Knight metamorphose, without explanation, from a neighbor of Ivory’s in Wilmington, Delaware (where local police labelled both as unsavory characters), into a trusted family servant from Marietta, Pennsylvania?
How was it that train messenger Hartman, who said he had spoken only to Ivory, while the second man lingered in the shadows along a street with minimal lighting, could later identify Stirling without hesitation?
But this was only the beginning of the blundering complexity that characterized the investigation and reporting, from beginning to end.
To gauge the extent of the crime’s fascination for the public, when Stirling arrived at the Broad Street train station in Philadelphia, chained between two white detectives, 300 waiting passengers followed the trio out to the street.
Soon after, in a dramatic hallway meeting, Ivory fingered Stirling as the killer. The Inquirer delivered this report of their meeting: “The keen sense of the colored race was forcibly in evidence. Stirling, shifty, rambling in his step, rolling his eyes from Quirk to Miller and then to Ivory, fixed his gaze upon the latter. It was the look of defiance; of composure; of stolid indifference.” The press’s darkies brewed a spicy gumbo of reactions.
The following day, the Record took a more distanced tone (again, I suspect a specific reporter who reappears, wandering from one paper to another, as the lone voice of concern – who was he?): “Amos Stirling … has been subjected to the moral torture of the ‘sweat box’ once every two hours since he was brought to this city from Trenton …. It is doubtful if any alleged murderer in this State has ever been put through such an ordeal [in recent years].” Yet, Stirling steadfastly – ”defiantly,” other reporters would have it – denied his guilt, outlasting his inquisitors.
Whew, coppers, time to relax at last!
The police department now had more than enough evidence to wrap up the case against Stirling and Ivory: three positives IDs (by Ivory himself, Hartman and Leary) and Stirling’s bloody clothes.
But, suddenly, a complication appears – and with it a novel inclination on the part of the press to question the infallibility of Quirk, Miller and their methods.
A man named Charles Smith had attempted to pawn Roy White’s missing watch – which sported identifying numbers – in a shop at Preston St. and Lancaster Ave. (a few blocks from my home, along my daily route to high school, and, yes, within a block of the original home of that Community Hall clock).
Smith said he had been given the watch by his roommate, Charles Perry. Initially, the newspaper reports stated that Perry gave several conflicting accounts of how he acquired the watch – without the papers detailing what these specific accounts might be. Soon the reports agreed that Perry – either alone or accompanied by Smith – bought the watch near 34th and Lancaster, a few blocks from the murder, from a man who might have been Ivory, shadowed by a second figure that Perry could not identify. (In every report, starting with the night of the murder, the second figure has an almost gossamer quality – except when positively identified from a pitch-black-night’s viewing.)
This development, bellowed the papers, threw a monkey wrench into the clean Ivory-Stirling scenario. How so? It’s difficult in retrospect to see how Perry, simply by possessing White’s watch, materially clouded the picture. But police reaction to media pressure pushed the case in a new direction.
After first saying that Perry was an innocent party who had bought, bartered or otherwise received the watch from Ivory, they tossed him into the notorious sweat box, which claimed another victory: Perry confessed that he, too, was a party to White’s murder – though Stirling did the actual dirty work.
“Perry’s confession was secured without the man knowing anything of Ivory’s admission,” the Philadelphia Times declared. “The stories of the two negroes were then compared, and they agreed in every particular.” This is a remarkable claim, since nothing in Ivory’s original confession, as outlined in the papers, pointed to the involvement of anyone besides himself and a single killer.
By now, the press, particularly in the person of that stylistically recognizable writer most often seen in the Telegraph or North American, had come to openly question the efficiency and convenience of the department’s hastily assembled scenario.
At the formal early-June inquest into White’s murder, Stirling cleaved to his story that he had been in Harrisburg on the day of the killing, refusing to back down under heavy cross examination. Said the North American, “The man’s manner, his simple protest of innocence and boldness in turning squarely toward his accusers and charging them with falsehood, made a deep impression upon the spectators who crowded the Court room, and even upon the police who have believed him guilty of the actual murder.”
White’s murder unfolded into a clash of conflicting cultures with vastly different needs and perceptions:
• the white lower middle class – the papers’ target audience – that the press seemed to assume could be forced to identify with Roy White only by turning his murder into a raw racial drama
• the black lower class, whose shanks-mare lives remained a fearful mystery to the public-transportation middle class
• the police, with much to prove and little to lose from a quick conviction of three men without lacked advocates or public sympathy
• the press itself, presenting its strident black-and white simplifications, unhindered by a code of ethics or responsibility
These groups met, most dramatically, during the trials of Ivory, Perry and Stirling.
At Ivory’s October 1900 show trial, members of the public used every subterfuge to gain entrance to the courtroom. The papers noted that Ivory was being represented for the first time by an attorney. Throughout his interrogation and incarceration, no one had taken his part in the matter. The same was true of Perry and Stirling: Legal representation was not mandated in the U.S. until over half a century later.
Waitresses Agnes McNeil and Elizabeth Boyle stated that Ivory, Stirling and Perry had eaten lunch at their restaurant on Market Street near 31st – the only persons ever to claim to have seen the three together at any time outside the killing.
Superintendent Quirk, failing to mention the sweat box procedure, stated that Ivory was taken with a sudden urge to confess and was read his rights against self-incrimination. Ivory’s supposed original confession, as read in court, bears no resemblance to reports of its contents at the time it was given (the differences are too many and too convoluted to detail here).
Most astonishingly, in one version of his confession, he claims that a crowd gathered after White was struck, and that he told them someone else had hit White and run away. This despite the fact that officer Harrigan, who found the body after 10 pm on a rainy night, saw no one in the vicinity, and that detectives interviewing the residents of Spencer Terrace, across 32nd St. from the murder, could find no one who had heard a disturbance.
On October 23, regardless of his claims of limited complicity and a half-hearted defense by an attorney who had not had time to absorb even the basic facts of the case, Ivory was convicted of first-degree murder. The entire trial – selection of jury, presentation of witnesses, cross examination, closing arguments, deliberation and verdict – took under two days.
Three days later, Perry’s trial received, if anything, greater public attention. (Along with Ivory, he was described by reporters as “indifferent” to his fate.) A leading white attorney, David Amram – a lecturer at Penn Law – attempted a vigorous defense but again appeared unfamiliar with the early history of the case and its myriad contradictions.
On the second day of Perry’s trial, when Amram attempted to challenge the sweat box system, judge Arnold admonished him: “What more could have been done than these men [detectives] have done in obtaining the evidence in this case? Could there have been more prudent, discreet and careful conduct shown than these men have exhibited?”
In fact, could there have been less? Furthermore, the detectives’ account of Perry’s confession was an out-and-out lie. They stated that he confessed spontaneously on apprehension, ignoring his early claims that he had bought the watch from Ivory.
Amram’s closing argument walked perhaps the only rhetorical road left to him: “No matter how repulsive the exterior, no matter how dark the skin, Almighty God has implanted a soul in that black frame, and you should be morally and absolutely convinced of your right to kill him before you consign him to the gallows.” The jury listened. It took them three full hours to find Perry guilty of first-degree murder.
On November 17, Ivory and Perry were condemned to hang.
Justice came less swiftly to Stirling. Incarcerated at Moyamensing Prison in South Philadelphia, diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis) and “other diseases,” he had lost 50 pounds and was pronounced mentally and physically unfit to face trial, leading to two postponements.
The trial finally took place April 29, 1901. Perry, as a witness for the prosecution, repeated the basic elements of his purported confession: He met Ivory and Stirling near the Market St. bridge, walked with them to the Wild West show in the north Philadelphia trainyards, back to eat at the Market Street restaurant, back again to the show grounds, then back once more to murder White, some 12 to 15 miles of traipsing. (A bit perplexing, then, that Ivory would have asked Hartman for directions to the trainyards they had twice visited.)
His confession, as reported, does include one detail so unlikely as to be strangely convincing: While standing guard during the robbery, at 10 o’clock in the evening, he heard the distant strains of an Italian organ grinder; independently, the law school minutes mention an organ grinder whose music became an annoyance to students when the windows were open.
The following day, Ivory dropped a bombshell. When asked to “tell the truth” and protect his immortal soul, he replied: “‘I’ll tell the truth so far as I know. What I don’t know I won’t say nothin’ about.’
“‘Well,’ asked the district attorney, ‘what do you know?’
“‘All I know is I wasn’t there, and I don’t think Stirling was there either.'”
Ivory even denied that he had signed the two confessions. God alone knows what was in his mind this late in the game.
Stirling repeated that he had been in Harrisburg at the time of the murder. This claim was supported by Sarah Gray, a Harrisburg restaurant proprietor who recalled him asking for food, which she refused, only to have the meal paid for by a colored regular, Robert Boone. Philadelphia detectives, however, stated that initially she could not clearly recall Stirling. Boone could not clarify the matter – he had died three weeks before the trial.
Stirling’s jury kept up the suspense for a bit, deliberating for a full three hours on the second day, then retiring and handing in their verdict the following 10 a.m., May 1: guilty of first-degree murder. Stirling responded, said the papers, as he had so often during the trial, with a “ghastly,” sardonic smile. He was denied retrial on appeal (as were Ivory and Perry) and sentenced to hang.
On October 8, 1901, Ivory and Perry ascended a scaffold for the first double hanging in Philadelphia in 50 years. It was not a shining example of the gallows art. Neither man broke his neck in the simultaneous drop. Ivory was relatively lucky, noted the Telegraph reporter; he fell immediately unconscious. Perry struggled and strangled in his harness for 17 minutes before suffocating.
Stirling followed them on February 27, 1902. On hanging day, a printed broadside, distributed by the pastor who had attended him on the night before his death, reported that at the eleventh hour Stirling had admitted to being White’s killer and, most amazingly, had added that neither Ivory nor Perry was present. What could have prompted a man of the cloth to manufacture such an absurd and malicious declaration?
At the hanging, most of the press reverted to their terrified-Negro image, stating that Stirling’s knees shook and that he required two men to assist him up the stairs to the gallows – conveniently forgetting the man they had earlier described as so wracked by disease and prison life that he was barely able to walk.
This time the hangman had done his homework. Stirling died of a broken neck.
The elements of this case lie like shards of broken glass. What coherent picture can we make of them? Here is the best I can do, while claiming nothing remotely definitive:
Perry was almost certainly innocent. Neither Hartman, the messenger boy, nor Leary, the bridge wanderer, identified Perry or indicated that a third man was present. Only White’s watch and the two waitresses remotely link Perry to the crime. Until he appeared, no one had suggested a third killer. The dovetailing of Perry’s confession with Ivory’s later statement indicates that Perry was spoon-fed a “confession” that proved marvelously convenient in bolstering the case against Ivory and Stirling just when the press claimed it was threatening to unravel.
Stirling’s case is only slightly less shaky. On the one hand rest three “positive” identifications and his bloody clothes. Nothing beyond those questionable identifications suggest his involvement, and the strong suspicion remains that he was a handy pawn in the police game plan. The man himself had an imposing, unbending presence that captured what little imagination the press harbored.
A more convincing case could be made for Ivory as the murderer, acting alone. White’s watch, which he claimed was taken by Stirling, ended up in the hands of Perry, who said he received it from Ivory. But a major problem remains – who was the second person in the shadows that night?
My own admittedly unsupported explanation:
Roy White was murdered by Ivory and Ward Knight, his boxcar companion and (possible) Wilmington neighbor. Ivory’s identification of Knight could have pulled Ivory in too deeply to claim only a supporting role, as he did by implicating Stirling, whom he likely had never met before their hallway encounter.
If so, why would the police have kept their distance from Knight? That I can’t fathom. I suspect there were considerations here we can never uncover.
Whatever the objective “truth,” Justice kept both thumbs heavy on her scales. The case is tragic from beginning to end, not least in the realization that one enlightened, pacific young instructor became the central figure in the violent deaths of four men, himself included.
There was an incandescence about Roy Wilson White that flows undiminished through over a century of musty headlines and faculty minutes. At a memorial service arranged by White’s students, Dean Lewis delivered this heartfelt eulogy:
“He died just as the struggles of his earliest manhood seemed about to bear rich fruit. And yet I think his life was long enough to some of those who knew him to leave a lasting influence, and to be for us all a lesson. Roy White was … of things evil as simple as a little child.”
Though Lewis and the Law School went on to ever greater heights, a particular spark went out with White’s passing, a sense of lighthearted adventure, optimism and ineffable decency.
[My thanks to Mark Lloyd, then director of the Penn archives, for his patience in pointing me in the right directions, and to George Nitzsche, whose care, consideration and attention to detail assembled the only remaining record of Roy White’s death and its aftermath.
[Over the years, I’ve attempted to construct a novel from this story, with Nitzsche as hero, as I’m convinced he would have been if the conditions had permitted. But of course, the ending has to remain the same: a shame, a sorrow, a blight on the blindered human condition and our reckless pursuit of an easy conclusion.]