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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Bookies, Bawdy Houses, and Chief Black: Part Four

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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 Four of Six

 

Lieutenant Riley

Chief Black began a very public display of enforcing the board’s order to close all the illegal gambling operations, speakeasies, and bawdy houses.  “67 Seized In Raids As Police Launch City-Wide Cleanup” proclaimed the newspaper headlines on August 7. “Police battered in doors, tore down barred windows and forced their way  into a score of alleged gambling and liquor centers in a general roundup,” as a strike force of nineteen officers struck a dozen addresses simultaneously.[i] Buried in the back of the news story was the following passage: “The successful raids yesterday were only a small part of the actual number made by the police and detectives. In many cases they found the supposed ‘bookie joints’ locked tightly with no sign of life and every indication that the place had been vacated. In other instances they were met by the proprietor who greeted them politely and invited them to step in and look around. In which case they found the place deserted with no sign that a bet had ever been placed there.”[ii]  By August 16 the headline was “Vice, Gambling at Lowest Ebb Here, Police Say,” and then the story disappeared from the public’s view.[iii] Behind the scenes though, the investigation was just getting underway as Lieutenant Riley and Detective Wallace undertook their assignment from the Public Safety Board.

 

As Riley and Wallace began their investigation the reach of Chief Black and his son Captain Black soon became apparent. Within a week Riley reported that two unnamed individuals had approached him and asked that he not “hunt up” any evidence against the Blacks other than what City Solicitor Morford had specifically requested.[iv] Riley told them he had not asked for this assignment but had to follow through with it. “I don’t think my grandfather had any real problems with Chief Black,” said Kevin Quinn. “He had major problems with Capt. Black. He despised him. They kind of tolerated each other and stayed out of each other’s way.”[v]

 

During August Chief Black asked Det. William Hynson of the whereabouts of Riley and Wallace and suggested they should be followed to see where they went and what they were doing. Unsuccessful in getting a fellow police officer to help, Chief Black then reached outside the force to a trusted associate. On September 14, Detective Robert Wallace was visited at home at 1300 N. Scott Street by Dominic Nardo, a barber by profession who told Wallace he was sent by Chief Black, who wanted to know what he and Lieutenant Riley had found, in particular what derogatory information they had on the Chief.[vi]  Detective Wallace would not disclose anything about the investigation.

 

Fifty years after these events Tom Monahan sat down with Dominic Nardo. “He did have a barbershop just off Market Street. He was legitimately a barber but his main business was that of a bookie…and an enforcer. Talking to him [Nardo] you felt like you were in a movie. He had this heavy Italian accent and he wouldn’t let us record the conversation but he agreed to be very candid. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘Chief Black was my friend. That boy [Captain Black] was a son of a bitch, but Chief Black was my friend.’”[vii]

 

Potential witnesses in the case were subjected to threats and intimidation. One, a bookmaker, told the investigating officers that he had been paying Captain Black $20 a month by mailing the money to Captain Black’s home. The witness was later visited by two men who said they had been told the bookmaker was about to “squeal.” Now the witness was afraid to talk. He had been willing to testify against Captain Black if the pending case against him was dropped, but intermediaries for Black were offering to cover the cost of his fine ($400) and arrange for his jail sentence to be dropped. City Solicitor Morford noted that this witness now “will not talk.”[viii]

 

Edna Powell, still out on appeal in October, was coming under increasing pressure from both Chief Black and Attorney General Green. One of the private detectives spoke with a person named Harvey, who ran a speakeasy at 105 W. 8th Street. Harvey had spoken to Edna Powell and she was mad. According to Harvey, she said

 

I have plenty to holler about after the way I paid off and now the cops are trying to ride me. Why don’t they try and find out how some others get their bankroll, and if they think they are scaring me they are badly mistaken because certain people from the [news]paper have been to see me and offered me $5,000 for a copy of the report I turned over, so if I don’t come out on top I sure will give this out so it can be published. They think just because my boyfriend [Witsil] is doing two years for that murder, they have me frightened, but I refuse to be scared.[ix]

 

On October 19, 1936, Edna Powell received a visit from the operator of another disorderly house at 801 Tatnall Street who suggested that she go see Superintendent Black and Bill Warren “the fishman” (Warren ran a fish store on King Street). When they met at 801 Tatnall Street on October 22, Warren told Edna Powell that if she wrote Superintendent Black a letter telling him what Attorney General Green, City Solicitor Morford, Lieutenant Riley, and Officer Wallace were doing in the investigation, Black would get her out of all her trouble. Warren told her that Wallace, Riley, Morford, and Green were no friends of hers, and that they were using her. At Warren’s direction she wrote the letter to Black, signed it E.P., and sent it by taxi to Black’s office in the Public Building on Rodney Square.[x]

 

The pressure on the investigating officers in this case was reaching a new level. Starting in October 1936, anonymous letters “of a threatening and defamatory nature” were sent to two current and one former director of public safety, plus four anonymous letters to the two investigating officers. The threats centered particularly on Lieutenant Riley, whose family received three letters over four weeks that were later described as “obscene, lewd, scurrilous, defamatory and threatening, and containing indecent and profane language.”[xi]  Kevin Quinn recalls that as Curt Riley’s children walked from school to their home just off Washington Street and Concord Avenue, “a guy gave them a letter, telling them to give it to their mother. People didn’t mess with Curt Riley, not physically. So the thing to do was to get to his children. The letter had threats against his wife and children, not him.”  Quinn confirmed the problems that his grandfather Lieutenant Riley encountered in his investigation of his fellow officers. “Capt. Black was a powerful figure in the department. My grandfather got the cold shoulder from his fellow officers. He got pretty bad treatment until this thing finally went down.”[xii]

 

On November 14, 1936, Detective Wallace travelled to Washington, D.C., with copies of seven of the anonymous letters, headed for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There he conferred with J. Edgar Hoover and submitted the letters along with handwriting samples of several suspects, including Captain Black, to the FBI’s technical lab for examination.[xiii] By November 17 the FBI was ready to send its report on the handwriting analysis back to Wilmington. Instead of forwarding it to the city solicitor or investigating officers, though, Hoover decided to direct the report to Chief Black. Chief Black held on to the report and began a correspondence with his old friend the FBI director, telling Hoover that

 

You are no doubt aware of the fact that there has been a very secret investigation conducted during the past three or four months by City Solicitor James R. Morford…. This has placed all members of our department on what we may justly term ‘The Spot’ and has caused considerable feeling among the members towards certain ones, especially the Detectives making the investigation, which was to be expected. The result no doubt has been that certain members have written letters which evidently have been submitted to your department for investigation….I am very much surprised and shocked to know that they have suspected my son, Captain George A. Black, who has positively denied to me that he has any knowledge whatever concerning these letters, and I will certainly consider it a very personal favor if you can advise me just what it is all about and what they are trying to accuse my son of doing.[xiv]

 

On November 23, 1936, Hoover replied, “My dear Superintendent, I certainly am exceedingly concerned that you should be worried in any manner, directly or indirectly, by any development involving your son. So far as this bureau is concerned, I want to assure you that we have no information or interest in this investigation.” Hoover went on to relate the visit from Officer Robert Wallace and the steps the bureau had taken regarding the anonymous letters.[xv]

 

City Solicitor Morford was livid when he discovered Hoover’s actions. As he wrote to Public Safety Board President Schutt on November 30, “The Department of Justice [FBI], either through a very stupid mistake or deliverately [sic] sent their preliminary report to Supt. Black instead of me. Chief Black has never turned the copy over to me or so far as I know taken any steps to supply the Department of Investigation with the additional information requested. As soon as I found out what had been done I demanded a copy of the letter from Hoover to Black.”[xvi]    Thomas Herlihy’s son Jerry recalled his father’s opinion of J. Edgar Hoover’s actions: “He blew the investigation.” That the target of the investigation was contacted by the FBI director with evidence was “outside of protocol.”[xvii]

Coming Monday in Part Five, the City Solicitor and investigating officers go public with their case against the Blacks. Edna Powell and others testify about the extent of corruption in the police department.



[i] “67 Seized In Raids As Police Launch City-Wide Cleanup,” Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 7, 1936, p. 1.

[ii] Ibid., p. 16.

[iii] Source needed.

[iv] Report by Lt. James C. Riley to City Solicitor, Aug. 17, 1936, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[v] Quinn interview.

[vi] “Public Safety Head, Police Captain To Go On Trial Friday,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 2, 1936.

[vii] Monahan interview.

[viii] Report of Det. Wallace and Riley to City Solicitor Morford, Aug. 14, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[ix] Report of Private Investigators to City Solicitor Morford, Aug. 14, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[x] Statement of Edna Powell, Dec. 9, 1936, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xi] “Text of Charges, Specifications of Charges Against Captain George A. Black,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 2, 1936, p. 4.

[xii] Quinn interview.

[xiii] “6 New Charges Filed Against Supt. Black As Son Is Dismissed,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 8, 1936, p. 8.

[xiv] Superintendent George Black to J. Edgar Hoover, Nov. 19, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xv] J. Edgar Hoover to George Black, Nov. 23, 1936, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xvi] City Solicitor Morford to Harold S. Schutt, president of the Directors of Public Safety, Nov. 30, 1936, Wilmington City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xvii] Jerome O. Herlihy, interview by Kevin McGonegal, Dec. 2008.  Jerome Herlihy is now a Delaware Superior Court judge.


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State pleads for patience as it tries to get vaccine into as many arms as possible

  With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decreasing and vaccinations increasing, Delaware now faces the crisis of not having enough vaccinations...

Republican react to Carney’s State of the State: Where’s the beef, John?

The lawmakers said they wanted Carney to issue an action plan for coping with state woes, and they didn't hear it.

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Among other things, the governor said he wants governments to keep livestream meetings to give the public greater access.
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