Part One of Six
Chief Black had two rules for Mike McGonegal: don’t do business with anyone from out of town, and don’t do business with anyone who worked in a bank. Unusual restraints for most business pursuits, but to the Chief they were a sensible and practical way to control gambling in Wilmington in the early part of the twentieth century. Today Mike McGonegal might be referred to as a lottery commissioner, but in his day his chosen line of work earned him the much more colorful title of “bookie.” McGonegal was part of the fabric of bookmaking operations, illegal bars, and houses of prostitution, or bawdy houses, that flourished in early twentieth century Wilmington with the at least tacit approval of George A. Black, the long-term Chief of Police and Superintendent of Public Safety. In 1936 this understanding between Chief Black and McGonegal, and similar arrangements with a madam named Edna Powell and many others around town, would come spiraling down, all set in motion because Dewey Bartlett wanted one more drink to top off the night.
Wilmington was a far different place in the years between the world wars than it is today. The city was growing and changing with an influx of immigrant workers that pushed its population up 40 percent to over 100,000 between 1900 and 1940. While it was home to 319 manufacturing plants in 1914 that employed over 15,000 workers in shipyards, tanneries, textile mills, and breweries, the number of white-collar jobs grew in the latter part of this period. Manufacturing plants had declined by half by 1933, brought on partly by the Great Depression, and were being replaced by offices and laboratories offering an influx of new managerial and technical jobs supporting DuPont, Hercules, and Atlas Powder Company. Wilmington was a city of stark contrasts. In 1927, the Internal Revenue Service reported that Wilmington was the richest city in America per capita, yet in the early 1930s nearly half of the city’s residences lacked indoor toilets.[i] The city had both strong ethnic enclaves of Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants and upper-class neighborhoods for executives working for the chemical companies. Union Park Gardens was built to provide housing for shipyard workers while Wawaset Park allowed executives to live in a deed-restricted environment.
Into this mix was added the vice trade, with numbers rackets, speakeasies, and houses of prostitution all competing for the illegal dollar. Bill McLaughlin remembered those days. The man who would go on to serve two terms as Wilmington’s mayor in the 1970s and ‘80s grew up on the corner of Fifth and Pine streets, one of twelve children. He came of age in the 1930s when Wilmington, like the rest of the country, was mired in the Great Depression. “My father lost his job so I quit school when I was 16,” McLaughlin said. “It’s amazing the things you did to survive but that’s what you did; you survived.”[ii]
George Black was a fixture in Wilmington by then. Born in Delaware in 1868, Black joined the Wilmington Police Department as a patrol officer in 1891, making chief in 1902. From then on he was the ever-present source of power and influence in the city. Black added the title of Superintendent of Public Safety in 1921 when the City of Wilmington merged police and fire administrations. “You have to remember that Chief Black ran a pretty good city, he really did,” recalled McLaughlin. “They knew they couldn’t stop the corruption, but my god, they wanted to make [Wilmington] decent. This is going to happen anyhow so you might as well have some control over it. And to me it worked pretty well. We didn’t have any gangsters here like Philadelphia or New York City had. Chester, they had gangsters but we didn’t have anything like that.”[iii]
Whether or not Wilmington had gangsters, there was still vice activity during George Black’s tenure on the police force, though the reported scope of activity varied greatly depending on the source. The Wilmington police in those days consisted of a chief, 2 captains, 4 sergeants, and a force of about 160 officers, all reporting to the Board of Police Commissioners. “The Mayor and Council didn’t have administrative authority over day-to-day dealings,” stated O. Francis Biondi, who was city solicitor for Wilmington under Mayor John Babiarz in 1964 and was primarily responsible for writing the new city charter that year that did away with the board and commissioner system of government. “The Council set the tax rates and budgets but the commissioners ran the departments on a daily basis, controlling hiring and administering the personnel system.”[iv]
By 1896 Black had risen to sergeant. The chief at the time, John F. Dolan, said in his 1897 annual report “Our city has, during the past year, been very free of crime. Very few serious violations of law have occurred.”[v] Arrests listed for gambling offenses or policy [numbers] writing were almost nonexistent. Former sergeant Eugene Massey succeeded Dolan as chief on August 1, 1900, with Black moving up to captain around the same time. By December of 1901, when Chief Massey was brought up on charges by the Board of Police Commissioners, a situation in stark contrast to the former chief’s annual report began to emerge. For several months newspaper articles and editorials regarding gambling activities in Wilmington had been bringing attention to bear on police officers and commissioners alike. Several officers testified before the commissioners on December 1901 and January 1902 that they were aware of gambling operations but claimed they could not get the chief to issue arrest warrants. Former police commissioner William Pyle stated he spoke to Chief Massey on several occasions about the gambling activity but was unable to get any action from him. He then went to Captain Black after he was named a state detective (Black briefly resigned from the Wilmington Police force in 1901 but was reinstated as captain again a few weeks later). Pyle said, “Captain, I cannot get anything done in the policy business. I wish you would take it up…. You are under the control of nobody but the attorney general. I said you can suppress it and I want to see it done.” Later Pyle testified “On the following Saturday afternoon after his appointment, which was one week, he [Black] had warrants out for, I think, 7 or 8 persons, 4 of whom he arrested.”[vi]
State detective Theodore Francis was questioned at length by the commissioners about gambling activities. When asked whether “the town was wide open, was it not?” he answered “Yes sir. There was no trouble for anyone to play [policy/numbers] who wanted to….I suppose when policy is going full blast about 50-60% of the people play policy.” Detective Francis also spoke of meetings with a Samuel Levy of Philadelphia, a policy backer, where Levy offered Detective Francis $100 per month for police protection. At a later meeting Levy told Detective Francis “I am willing to pay for protection and won’t do business in any city unless I pay for the protection.” Francis stated that Levy said the chief [Massey] was a very nice man but “I can’t do anything with this man Black down there. There don’t appear to be any way to reach him.”[vii]
Chief Massey admitted that he met Levy in Philadelphia and at the B & O railway station in Wilmington, but made no effort to arrest him for his gambling activities. The testimony most damaging to Chief Massey came from Captain George Black himself. In addition to testifying about attending meetings between Chief Massey and Samuel Levy, Black stated that he was present when Chief Massey opened letters from Levy containing bank notes, which Massey placed in his pocket. “I said it would make trouble sooner or later and advised him not to have anything to do with Levy,” Black testified. “He [Massey] said it was not contrary to the rules of the department to take a present and he took this bank note as a present.”[viii]
Chief Massey denied taking money from Levy but was dismissed from the police force on January 28, 1902, by the Board of Police Commissioners for neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer. On the same day that Massey’s dismissal made front-page news, another story alongside it trumpeted “Great Police Raid.” “Police Captain George Black and a squad of nearly 50 officers last night, on evidence furnished by the Law and Order Society, made a raid on the disorderly houses of the city.” Over 20 houses were raided and over 100 people were arrested. The Wilmington branch of the Law and Order Society, a militant organization based in New Jersey and Philadelphia that combated the evils of the saloon, prostitution, and gambling, brought in its own detectives to find the bawdy houses and illegal bars operating throughout the city. The Reverend Doctor Hahnnd headed up the investigation and had this to say about the results: “In all my experience…I feel sure I have never seen or heard of a more debased condition of affairs anywhere than have existed in Wilmington, not only in relation to the bawdy houses, but also to the illegal sale of liquor.” He went on to “extend special compliments to captain Black for the most excellent manner in which he planned and executed the raid.”[ix]
Almost immediately a push was on to name George Black the new chief. Under the headline “Talk of New Chief” was the subheading “Friends of Capt. Black Put Him Forward.” The article stated that the friends of Captain Black “claim he is the logical successor as he is the highest Republican officer in the department and should be promoted accordingly.”[x] On February 17, 1902, George Black was named Wilmington’s chief of police at age thirty-four, the youngest officer above the rank of patrolman.
Coming tomorrow in Part Two, George Black was now Chief of Police in Wilmington, but almost immediately became embroiled in a controversial event that garnered the attention of the White House. Also, Mike McGonegal and Edna Powell establish themselves in George Black’s town.
[i] Carol E. Hoffecker, Corporate Capital: Wilmington in the Twentieth Century (Philadephia, 1983), pp. 89, 111.
[ii] William T. McLaughlin, interview by Kevin McGonegal, Dec. 2007.
[iv] O. Francis Biondi, interview by Kevin McGonegal, Dec. 2009.
[v] Report of the Chief of Police of the City of Wilmington, Delaware, 1897, p. 11.
[vi] “Testimony in the Massey Case, Synopsis of the Evidence Presented to the Board of Police Commissioners,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 29, 1902, p. 4.
[vii] Ibid., p. 4.
[viii] Ibid., p. 5.
[ix] “Great Police Raid,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 29, 1902, p. 1.
[x]“Talk of New Chief,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 30, 1902, p. 1