In the early morning of March 29, 1936, Dewey Bartlett and his friend Joseph Coombs were drinking at another speakeasy and decided to get a nightcap at Edna Powell’s establishment on Tatnall Street. Entering by the alley passage to the rear bar room, Coombs ordered whiskey for himself, Barlett, and two other friends in the bar. Working at the bar was Edna Powell’s supposedly deceased ex-husband, William, along with their son Charles and her current boyfriend, Harold Witsil. Bartlett suggested that Coombs set up the house, but when it came time to pay, Coombs said he would only pay for four drinks instead of eight. “Coombs and father started arguing over drinks,” twenty-six-year-old Charles Powell would later testify. “I asked father to cut it out, but he said ‘I know this fellow and he’s no good’. As I started back of the bar again, Bartlett swung at me and I swung at him. I saw my father strike Coombs twice in the face with his fist, he knocked Coombs back a little distance.” Harold Witsil then struck Bartlett. “I saw Witsil hit Dewey Bartlett with his right fist, then Witsil turned away and I saw Bartlett sink downward and fall face down on the floor.” Edna Powell hit Coombs with a smoking stand on his way out the door.[i]
The ruckus lasted only moments, but at the end Bartlett lay still, in a heap on the floor. Witsil threw cold water on his face but that failed to revive him. Earl “Kid” Johnson, a former prize fighter who worked as a bouncer at Powell’s, was in the other room asleep when the fight broke out. He came into the barroom, looked down at Bartlett and said “that man is dead.” Bartlett was left on the floor while a doctor was called, who pronounced him dead on the scene. “I didn’t know I hit him as hard as I did,” exclaimed Witsil later under police interrogation.[ii] Dewey Bartlett, a thirty-eight year old father of six, died of a broken neck and a fractured skull over a $2 bar bill.
The police rounded up nine people and questioned them about the crime for over forty hours straight, with the Police Superintendent Black personally supervising the interrogations. At first Charles and William Powell and Witsil concocted a story about the two friends, Coombs and Bartlett, having the argument and blaming Coombs for the assault.
On April 2, while they were all still in custody, Edna Powell visited her ex-husband with a proposition. “She said, ‘Bill, why don’t you take the rap?’” according to William Powell. “I said, who me?” and she said, “wait, let me tell you. You know Harold [Witsil] is a high degree Mason and his people is worth a lot of money…he will get out of it.” “I said, I am not going to take no rap for something I didn’t do. She said, if you don’t [their son] Charles is.”[iii] Instead, William Powell turned state’s evidence and fingered Witsil as the assailant.
A New Castle County Grand Jury indicted Witsil for manslaughter in May, while charging Edna Powell, her son Charles, her former husband, William, and two other employees of Powell’s with conspiracy to obstruct justice. The prosecuting attorney at the trial, Attorney General P. Warren Green, said Powell’s establishment was “a joint where no decent, respectable person would be seen,” describing the barred windows, the signal system, and strong-arm methods used to beat the price of drinks out of the customers.[iv] On May 20, 1936, Harold Witsil was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison. The next day the State Liquor Commission banned the sale of liquor to all those involved in the case.
Attorney General Green, though, was much more interested in what Edna Powell and her associates knew about the activities of Chief Black and Young George than in the Bartlett case. According to Edna Powell, when she was arrested at the time of the murder, “they [Attorney General Green and Lt. James C. Riley] kept me for a couple of days without anything to eat and tried to get me to say that I paid Supt. Black and Capt. Black and other members of the Department [for protection].”[v] Public Safety Board members had had suspicions about the activities of the Blacks before, including alleged payments from bookies, but no action had been taken.[vi] Tom Monahan was familiar with the allegations about Chief Black. “One of the things I’m pretty sure [Chief] Black was into was the restaurant at 11th and Market Street,” Monahan said. “They supplied the prisoner meals and Black got a kickback on that. That was called ‘clean’ corruption in those days. There was clean money and dirty money, but it’s a slippery slope.”[vii]
These suspicions arose despite recent praise for Chief Black from none other than J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On April 30, 1936, at Wilmington’s first annual police dinner, held at the Hotel du Pont, a letter from Hoover was read, claiming that “Mr. Black possesses not only a national but an international reputation for integrity and efficiency. He combines the best qualities and characteristics of the old and new law enforcement executives.” Complimenting Black on his “unblemished integrity,” Hoover went on to say, “I have availed myself of the opportunity of often calling upon him for advice and assistance.”[viii] Within a few months J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI would play a far different role in Chief Black’s career.
Perhaps the attorney general’s office and the Public Safety Board were reflecting a lower tolerance for this type of activity by a changing Wilmington demographic, with white-collar executives replacing the predominantly blue-collar working population. Or perhaps Captain Black’s transgressions had become so blatant they could no longer be ignored. In either case Attorney General Green saw an opportunity to crack down on corrupt practices in Wilmington.[ix]
A crackdown on corruption in Wilmington would need a break, though, and the newly convicted Edna Powell was a logical place to start applying pressure for information. Powell was not going to be a pushover for law enforcement, however. She let it be known she had ammunition to use. As she told her associate Shelley Fisher, if Green and Chief Black did not leave her alone, she was going to tell former Public Safety Board member and New Castle County Republican Party Chair V. Wirt Willis a story that would blow the lid off.[x]
Attorney General Green kept the pressure on Edna Powell with prosecutions for numerous crimes. She was subsequently convicted of conspiracy to falsely accuse an innocent man, assault and battery on Joseph Coombs, selling intoxicating liquor without a license, and keeping a house of prostitution. At mid-summer she was still out of prison appealing her sentences, but after many weeks she yielded to the pressure and decided to talk. On July 24, 1936, she made the first of two affidavits to the attorney general. By August 7, her ex-husband, William, her son Charles, and her boyfriend, Harold Witsil, had also filed affidavits, giving the attorney general and the Public Safety Board what they needed in order to act. The board of directors of the Public Safety Department quietly assigned two officers, Lt. James C. Riley and Detective Robert Wallace, to investigate alleged misconduct by police officials.
Chief Black was informed that officers Riley and Wallace were being removed from his supervision and instructed to report only to the city solicitor and the directors of public safety. Also, on August 4, 1936, the board specifically ordered Superintendent Black to immediately close all houses of prostitution, gambling houses, illegal bars, and numbers banks in Wilmington. State Attorney General P. Warren Green hired the William J. Burns detective agency to make its own investigation of operations in Wilmington. The private detectives would report to Green and City Solicitor James Morford.[xi]
Things did not remain quiet for long. Within a week of giving her first affidavit, Edna Powell was front-page news. Word leaked to the press that she had made a statement to the attorney general about how she was able to operate her illegal establishment, and that the attorney general had turned the statement over to the Public Safety Board. No details of the charges were made public, but rumors about police payoffs were given play. Superintendent Black said this was the first he had heard about the Powell accusations, and refused other comment. “The rumors going around at present put every member of the force under suspicion,” one policeman was quoted as saying.[xii] Edna Powell was sought out by reporters but refused to discuss the case. “Puffing a cigarette nervously she gave the same answer, ‘I have no comment to make’ to every question.”[xiii]
“They didn’t have Internal Affairs back then,” recalls twenty-six year Wilmington police veteran Kevin Quinn. Quinn’s mother, Kitty Riley Quinn, was the oldest of six children of Lt. James C. Riley, better known as Curt. Kevin Quinn remembers the stories of his grandfather when he was growing up in Wilmington, and had a chance to read Curt Riley’s memoirs before they were destroyed in a flood. “My grandfather in his younger days was a bare knuckle prize fighter. He could fight. He wasn’t the biggest man in the world but he had huge hands and could really box.”[xiv] Curt Riley joined the force in 1910 and by 1936 was a detective lieutenant.
Also working the case with the attorney general and City Solicitor James Morford was a young assistant city solicitor named Thomas Herlihy, Jr., a fellow member with Chief Black of DuPont Lodge No.29, Free and Accepted Masons. His son Tom III, born the same year as the investigation, knows from his father’s recollections that this was an exceptionally tense time, for his father was concerned about possible reprisals against himself and his family.[xv]
By August 1 the rumors were becoming even more lurid. “Federal agents are reported to have been investigating the Powell place since her last arrest in an effort to discover if it had any connection with an eastern white slave circle,” the Wilmington Morning News breathlessly reported. “She is said to have made her statement after being pressed by them [federal agents].”[xvi] In fact, on August 7 Attorney General Green did contact the FBI Philadelphia office, which replied that it was investigating neither Edna Powell’s allegations nor irregularities in the Wilmington police department.[xvii]
Members of the police department began a counteroffensive even though no one had yet been publicly accused of anything. The newspapers began to report unnamed officers questioning the veracity of the supposed charges by Edna Powell. “Considering the fact that her place has been raided from time to time…some of the police, they said, naturally must have incurred her antagonism with the result that innocent men may be among those she accused,” said one news story.[xviii] Other police were reported to have consulted an attorney and were prepared to take legal action in the event of unsubstantiated charges. Comparisons were made to the 1911 case against then-Chief Black, who was said to have been the victim of a frame-up at the time and was exonerated of all charges.[xix] The investigation “Won’t amount to a row of pins,” according to a high official who was involved in the case. The entire probe will “collapse when accused members of the force refute Mrs. Powell’s condemnations.”[xx]
Tomorrow, in Part Four, Chief Black and his son try to control the damage to their operations while the internal investigation proceeds. Anonymous threats bring the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover into the case.
[i] Charles Powell Testimony to Grand Jury, April 1936, Attorney General P.W. Green Administrative Files, Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Del. (hereafter DPA).
[ii] “Three Charged With Murder In Bartlett Death,” Wilmington Morning News, April 1, 1936, p. 1.
[iii] William Powell Testimony to Grand Jury, May 13, 1936, Attorney General P.W. Green Administrative Files, DPA.
[iv] “Harold G. Witsil Is Found Guilty of Manslaughter,” Wilmington Morning News, May 20, 1936.
[v] Statement From Officer Palmer Walls, Jan. 27, 1937, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.
[vi] At the time of these events, the Public Safety Board consisted of three people, Harold S. Schutt, president, Benjamin N. Brown, and George L. Coppage, with the Superintendent of Public Safety acting as secretary to the board.
[vii] Monahan interview.
[viii] “First Police Dinner,” Wilmington Morning News, May 1, 1936.
[ix] Percy Warren Green was a forty-six-year-old native of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, who moved to Wilmington as a child. He was admitted to the state bar in 1916 and went on to serve as Wilmington’s assistant city solicitor and deputy state attorney general before being appointed state attorney general in 1933 and then elected to the post in 1934. In 1943 he was appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
[x] George “Shelley” Fisher Affidavit, Aug. 10, 1936, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.
[xi] James Morford to George Black, Aug. 12, 1936, City Solicitor’s Files, DPA; Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 2, 1936, p. 2; Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 7, 1936, p. 3.
[xii] “Powell Woman Sends Green Her Statement,” Wilmington Morning News, July 31, 1936, p. 1.
[xiii] Ibid, p. 1.
[xiv] Kevin Quinn, interview by Kevin McGonegal, July 2009.
[xv] Thomas Herlihy III, interview by Kevin McGonegal, Dec. 2008. Thomas Herlihy, Jr., was appointed deputy attorney general in 1939 and went on to become mayor of Wilmington in 1945 before resigning to accept an appointment as municipal court judge. Thomas Herlihy III is an attorney in Wilmington with Ferry Joseph and Pearce.
[xvi] “Action on Powell Statement Held up Until Tuesday,” Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 1, 1936, pp. 1, 3.
[xvii] R.E. Vetterlie, Special Agent in Charge, FBI, to P. Warren Green, Aug. 19, 1936, Attorney General P. Warren Green Administrative Files, DPA.
[xviii] “Action on Powell Statement Held Up Until Tuesday,” p. 3.
[xix] “Police Reported Seeking Legal Aid In Powell Case,” Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 4, 1936, p. 1.
[xx] “Powell Charges May Depend on Corroboration,” Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Aug. 2, 1936, p. 6.