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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Bookies, Bawdy Houses, and Chief Black: Part Two

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Kevin McGonegal
Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.

Part Two of Six


Black came in riding a reputation as an officer above reproach who was willing to crack down on vice. But some questioned his character. Former Chief Massey claimed that Black had been caught riding in a carriage on Kennett Pike with a woman who was not his wife, and that Mrs. Black had been sent an anonymous letter about the incident. Massey said that Black blamed him for the anonymous letter, which was why he lied about Massey receiving money from Samuel Levy. James Walls, one of the men busted by Captain Black in the gambling raid, signed an affidavit claiming Black was operating under instructions from Samuel Levy in the raid. According to Walls, Levy viewed Walls and his partners as competition and wanted them eliminated. Walls later recanted the affidavit in front of the police commissioners investigating the claim, and Black was vindicated.[i]


Within months of becoming chief George Black had his first brush with notoriety, dealing with an event that earned Wilmington a presidential censure.  In 1903 the teenaged daughter of the superintendent of the Ferris School was murdered near Prices Corner. A black farmhand named George White was arrested by Chief Black and sent to the County Workhouse on Greenbank Road. Newspaper headlines like “Fiend Assaults Young Woman” inflamed public opinion. “If a trial is not forthcoming,” Robert Elwood, the minister of Olivet Presbyterian Church, harangued a nighttime crowd of 3,000, “then the citizens of the state should arise in their might and execute the criminal, and thus uphold the majesty of the law.”[ii]


On the night of June 22, 1903, a mob estimated at several thousand people converged on the workhouse armed with clubs, rifles, and, some claim, dynamite, to take the prisoner. As they approached the prison door Chief Black and a squad of patrolmen emerged from the prison, and Chief Black told the crowd that anyone advancing further would be shot. This threat was met with jeers and the crowd, surging forward, forced the officers back inside. “It was decided,” said Chief Black to a newspaper reporter the next day, “after a consultation, not to use firearms on the mob, and it is probable that through that decision a great loss of life was avoided.”[iii] The mob forced its way to the prisoner’s cell and removed him to a large field near the alleged crime scene. There George White was bound hand and foot, thrown on a flaming pyre of straw and fence rails, and burned to death. The lynching made national news and shocked President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt took this incident and an attempted lynching in Indiana that same summer as an opportunity to strongly condemn the practice and particularly the “dreaded torture of fire.”[iv]


In 1911 Chief Black was again in the news, this time over charges leveled by two state representatives that he accepted bribes to allow the opening of a “bawdy house” in Wilmington. These charges, brought at the behest of his former champion, the Law and Order Society, led to a public hearing by a committee set up by the Speaker of the State House of Representatives. During the hearing Black denied there were rules in his administration for bawdy houses, although he acknowledged that under former Chief Dolan there was a rule to prevent women from sitting in windows and soliciting business. He also admitted trying to keep these houses out of the better parts of town, confining them to the slums.  “Although the House investigation proved a tremendous sensation, with various ladies of the underworld parading to the Court House, the charges failed to stick. Chief Black was given a clean bill of health and emerged triumphant, more firmly entrenched than ever.”[v]


With Chief Black strongly established, anyone wishing to open for business had to deal with him. And there were many in Wilmington who saw the vice trade as a way to make a living. One of them was Mike McGonegal. McGonegal’s father, John, had emigrated from Ireland and by 1888 had established his family in Wilmington, where he worked as a quarryman for Brandywine Granite. His death at age thirty-seven left his family without its breadwinner. As the oldest child, Mike McGonegal went to work as a glazer in one of the morocco leather shops around Wilmington as a teenager.


The 1938 St. Ann's team. Mike McGonegal is the man in the suit in the middle of the front row. His son, John R. McGonegal, the author's father, is the first man on the right in the back row. In the back row, fourth from right, is Thomas Conaty, the last Wilmington policeman killed in the line of duty, on Christmas night, 1946.

Mike McGonegal’s first love was always sports. From an early age he coached baseball and basketball teams on Wilmington’s West Side, particularly for WestEnd Neighborhood House and St. Ann’s Parish.  From the early 1900s through the 1930s the sports stars of West Wilmington all played for Mike McGonegal teams. Players such as Buck Lacey, Buzzie Gillen, Elec Kelleher, Paul Hahn, Tommy Conaty, Paul Chadick, Charlie Noonan, and McGonegal’s sons Jimmy, Mike, and Billy came back year after year to play for “The Baron.” Perhaps this led him into the sports betting arena and ultimately to running a numbers bank, but by his early twenties he had left the tanneries and was working on his own. By the 1930s he reportedly had the biggest book on the city’s West Side. Even then, his public persona was still in the sports arena, coaching teams and organizing leagues. At his death a newspaper article called him “one of the most colorful figures in Delaware sports circles. McGonegal was regarded as one of the greatest promoters of amateur athletics Wilmington has ever seen.”[vi]


Joe Jamison grew up in Wilmington in those days and remembered the numbers trade. “Everybody played the numbers and they paid off when your number hit. It was a real business and it never hurt anybody.” Mike McGonegal was a prominent figure on Wilmington’s West Side, doing everything from running his numbers bank to coaching his basketball and baseball teams and bailing those in need out of jail. “Anybody who needed money went to him,” recalled Jamison. “If people had ever paid him back he’d have died a millionaire.”[vii]


In the Wilmington city directories McGonegal was listed variously as the operator of a cigar store or as a salesman. Once, a door-to-door surveyor for the directories commented on the fact that he always seemed to have a new Studebaker.  Mike McGonegal told him that he sold them for a living, and so for the next few years the directories dutifully listed him as a Studebaker salesman. He was not the only one in town, though, to give disingenuous answers to a surveyor. One Edna Powell was listed as the widow of William Powell, at 811 North Tatnall Street with no occupation claimed. However, her husband was far from deceased and the phone number for that address was listed for her “office.”


But Edna Powell’s “office” was not a legitimate place of business. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Wilmington, like other cities, had its share of speakeasies, houses where illegal liquor sales took place on a regular basis.  In 1924 Edna Powell opened such an establishment one block west of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League headquarters, on the second and third floors of 211 West Eighth Street. By 1928 she had a disorderly house, or house of prostitution, at the same address, and by 1930 she had moved operations around the corner to 811 Tatnall Street. “Tatnall Street was known as the ‘tenderloin district,’” related Tom Monahan, a twenty-year veteran of the Wilmington Police force and its unofficial historian. “That was the same name they had for it in every city.”[viii]


Bill McLaughlin remembered Edna Powell’s establishment from his teenage years. “I remember we were 18 years old, and for after-hours drinking you knew where to go. We finally got a group of us together and walked into Edna Powell’s and they served us. God, that was great.  It was just a house with a big parlor and you’d sit around and drink, just like you were visiting.  They’d sell you a bottle of beer for a quarter.”[ix]


Longtime Wilmington newspaper reporter and columnist Bill Frank wrote a column for the News-Journal in 1973 entitled “Bawds and Police” in which he described with a great degree of familiarity the “notorious fancy houses that once operated with varying degrees of finesse and decorum.” Frank listed a half dozen addresses in downtown Wilmington as the best known “sporting houses” where the going rate for female companionship was $2. Extras called for a $5 tab.  According to Frank, “The average bawdyhouse – at least in Wilmington – was not a boisterous place. With few exceptions, decorum was always maintained. And the madam always sought to protect their gentlemen friends from the police and, if need be, those friends’ identities.”  He had this to say about Edna Powell’s establishment:

The most interesting house was Edna Powell’s…. It was a good example of a combination drinking and sex operation.

Edna herself was picturesque, an excellent conversationalist, and attractive in a Mae West sort of way when she bothered to doll up….

On a Saturday night, customers included many prominent men about town, seeking booze rather than broads.

At times, a client would find himself in the parlor more than an hour without catching a glimpse of a woman.  If he’d like companionship, he’d give Edna a strong hint and she’d walk over to the stairway leading to the second floor to sing out “Customers, girls.” Several girls in lounging pajamas would appear. This meant the customer bought rounds of drinks before disappearing upstairs with one of the service staff.[x]


One year after Edna Powell opened her first speakeasy, Chief Black’s son George Black, Jr., was sworn in as a Wilmington police officer on his twenty-first birthday.


By 1928 he had made sergeant and quickly rose to lieutenant and captain.  Though he physically resembled his father the Chief, Young George, as he was called, was a very different person. “He was just a no-gooder, that’s what he was,” recalled Bill McLaughlin.  “We’d be shooting craps at 5th and Spruce by Allied Kid. We were just kids, about 14-15 years old. He’d let us get started and then chase us away with the money laying on the ground.  He’d just pick up the money and walk away.”[xi]


Jane Riley Jones also remembered Young George Black. “He was sarcastic and surly. It was like he was running the place.”[xii] When she was a child, her home on Linden Street near St. Hedwig’s Church in the Hedgeville section of Wilmington was used by Mike McGonegal to collect and record bets on horse races and the numbers. One of McGonegal’s men was Tim Quill, who sometimes worked out of the Linden Street house to take bets on the horses. His son Leonard recalled how his father would collect the bets. “He’d get a loaf of bread and hollow it out, then when he’d collect the bets he’d stick the slips in the loaf of bread. If he was stopped by the cops all they’d see was the bread.”[xiii]



In Part Three, George Black, Jr. is now on the police force with his father, bringing a new attitude towards the vice trade. A fight in a speakeasy has unexpected consequences for Chief Black and his son as things start to unravel.


[i] “Testimony in the Massey Case;” “Great Police Raid.”

[ii] Dennis B. Downey, “’Mercy, Master, Mercy’: Racial Politics and the Lynching of George White,” Delaware History 30(2003-2004): 194.

[iii] “The Negro Murderer of Miss Bishop Burned,” Wilmington Evening Journal, June 23, 1903.

[iv] Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (New York, 2001), pp. 250, 262.

[v] “Black’s Turbulent Career Fraught With Strife,” Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Dec. 6, 1936, p. 15.

[vi] “Noted City Sports Leader Dies,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 7, 1940.

[vii] Joseph Jamison, interview by Kevin McGonegal, Aug. 2008.  Jamison worked in the Wilmington Parks Department before founding Brandywine Nurseries with his wife, Margaret.

[viii] Thomas Monahan, interview by Kevin McGonegal, May 2009.

[ix] McLaughlin interview.

[x] All quotations in this paragraph are from Bill Frank, “Bawds and Police,” in Bill Frank’s Delaware (Wilmington, 1987), pp. 223-26.

[xi] McLaughlin interview.

[xii] Jane Riley Jones, interview by Kevin McGonegal, July 2008.  Jane Riley married Wilmington policeman Bayard Jones and worked for the DuPont Company as supervisor of the steno pool.

[xiii] Leonard Quill, interview by Kevin McGonegal, July 2008.  Tim Quill went on to work for the DuPont Company as a security guard.  Leonard Quill retired from the Wilmington Trust Company as CEO in 1996.

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