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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bookies, Bawdy Houses, and Chief Black: Part Five

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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.

When the FBI report finally reached the detectives and city solicitor, they saw that it confirmed the opinions of two handwriting experts hired by the attorney general: all the anonymous letters had in fact been written by Captain Black.[i] With the confidentiality of the investigation blown by the FBI director the detectives and attorney general needed to bring the case forward. Thirty-eight subpoenas were immediately issued to cops and underworld figures alike to compel testimony about police corruption.


On December 1, 1936, fifteen charges against Superintendent George Black and sixteen against his son Capt. George A. Black were filed by City Solicitor James R. Morford at an executive meeting of the directors of the Department of Public Safety, with a trial board scheduled three days hence. The charges painted a picture of a police department on the take and out of the control of the superintendent. Captain Black was portrayed as a venal and bullying figure, shaking down the bookies and bootleggers for cash, selling police protection to bawdy houses. Among the charges against Capt. Black was conduct unbecoming a police officer for meeting with certain people “not in the line of duty”, including Mike McGonegal. The Blacks were not alone, as thirty officers were named by Edna Powell and her associates in their affidavits. As for Chief Black, charges were mainly of incompetence, willful neglect, and conduct subversive of good order and discipline. He was also charged with willful disobedience to orders and neglect of duty regarding his failure to close gambling houses and houses of prostitution.[ii]


“All of us knew that [police taking payoffs] was going on,” recalled Bill McLaughlin. “We could see sometimes policemen taking these envelopes. Somebody’d walk out and hand them something. It was just taken for granted that was the price of doing business.”[iii]


Edna Powell was the star witness at the trial board on December 4, 1936. By this time she was serving her sentence at the women’s prison on Greenbank Road near the County Workhouse. Her story detailed not just payoffs, but how elements of the police department controlled the illegal trade in Wilmington, from who could open up shop to who got tipped off about pending raids. “I got pinched on March 22, 1930 at 811 Tatnall St.,” stated Edna Powell in her deposition, “and it was after that I started to pay for protection.”[iv]       The infrequent raids on her establishment were always preceded by a telephone call from a police source tipping her off (the signal was three phone calls in a row with no answer).  “The phone call would come in to the Powell’s that the police were on their way to raid,” according to Monahan. “All the girls would go up to the Barn Door [restaurant up the street] except for one. Everyone had to have their turn once a month getting arrested.”[v]


The payments for police protection had their own set of standards and practices.


“The rule was that we would have to take care of the officers Easter,  vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the sergeants and detectives all in between,” said Edna Powell in her deposition. “In my judgment I have paid between $3,000 and $4,000 over six years of time. I paid out about $700 last Christmas to the police officers. It kept me broke paying the officers. I had to stay open all night in order to get enough money to pay them.”   Those officers on the take knew better than to bite the hand feeding them. “About 4 or 5 years ago I was supposed to be raided one night,” testified Edna Powell. “The detective called and told me I was going to get raided, and I told him that this was soldiers pay day. He told me he would postpone it until tomorrow which was done. The next day I was raided.”[vi]


Edna Powell also testified that another prostitution house operator received a letter from the superintendant (George Black, Sr.) telling her that she must vacate the premises immediately. Powell made arrangements for her to pay protection and she had been making payments ever since. She named names of patrolmen, sergeants, and officers all the way to Captain Black himself taking cash payments. She also named other establishments throughout downtown, and how the operators shared complaints about cops demanding payments. “It got so bad in the summer of 1934 that [another prostitution house operator] and I decided to go to Atlantic City to stay for 3 weeks to get away from the cops.”[vii]


After the Bartlett murder Lieutenant Riley had ordered Powell to close her disorderly house at 811 Tatnall Street. A few weeks later, she approached Captain Black about permission to reopen. “I told him I didn’t intend to open up wide but enough to make expenses,” stated Edna Powell. “Black told me to go ahead on his say so, and if he heard anything that it was not alright he would call me and let me know.”[viii]


Harold Witsil also testified about the payoffs, detailing the schedule for the Christmas payoffs to as many as thirty officers. Patrolmen got $5, sergeants $10, captains $20, and Captain Black his usual $25. No mention was made of a payoff to Chief Black. Other testimony told of payments to Captain Black from $10-15 a month for protection of a bootlegging operation to $15 a week to protect operations of a disorderly house. Several operators of bawdy houses thought Attorney General Green was in on the rackets and would shut the investigation down.[ix]


A succession of police officers and private citizens testified about seeing Captain Black meeting with bookies and bootleggers over the last several years, in some cases taking payments of money and liquor. One person testified she saw a bootlegger drive slowly by Captain Black’s car, reach out an arm with a paper in it, hand it to him, and drive away. A Detective Cook testified he had arrested a local bootlegger, who was then ordered released by superior officers, only to be rearrested on direct orders of the public safety directors. Chief Black later came to the detective bureau and told Detective Cook that he had put him in the detective bureau and that he’d put him out.[x]


Captain Black was hardly subtle. One person testified that Captain Black stopped his auto outside a known horse race betting parlor at Eighth and Thornton streets and blew the horn repeatedly for ten to fifteen minutes, attracting considerable attention from the neighborhood. “No one appeared, he said, and Black drove off ‘as though he would rip the gears off his car.’”[xi] A short time later, the betting parlor was raided by police led by Captain Black.


Sergeant Wadman testified that the previous June he and his partner saw Captain Black’s car stopped across Linden Street from an automobile. Black was standing next to the vehicle, talking to the driver. When Captain Black saw Sergeant Wadman’s patrol car he got back in his car and hurried away. They pursued the other car and caught up to it at S. Clayton and Chestnut streets, where they identified the driver of the other car as Mike McGonigle (sic), a bookmaker. According to the officers, McGonigle looked at them and laughed.[xii] This clearly was not someone who was going to cooperate in the investigation.


No evidence was presented that alleged any payoffs from McGonegal to Captain Black. Even so, it’s likely that Mike McGonegal was paying for protection. Patrolman James Wilson reported that “Every other Monday Capt. Black would meet Mike McGonegil [sic], well known bookmaker, in front of Bayard Junior High School on S. Clayton Street.”[xiii] “Oh yeah, he was collecting from everybody,” Jane Riley Jones remembers of Captain Black.[xiv]


The detective agency hired by the attorney general provided more detail about the criminal activity. One private detective said he kept watch on a dozen disorderly houses in Wilmington and found they were still in operation after the general order to close all of them had been issued. In Harvey’s at 105 West Eighth Street, private detective Albert Hart observed “young high school couples retiring to the back room while other couples waited in the combination kitchen barroom. They chatted freely, Hart said, of school affairs while frequenting the sordid resort. Hart, a typical detective, said the high school students patronized the place particularly on Saturday nights. Their school lessons usually were the topic of conversations between drinks and trips to the bedroom with their partners, Hart stated.”[xv] Another private detective said he was assured by a disorderly house proprietor that he didn’t need to worry, because he was “taking care of the cops.”[xvi] The houses were scattered throughout downtown, from Second and Adams, 502 Orange and 802 Orange to 602 French and 302 East Second Street. Some of the houses were “chain houses” owned by the same operator, where the girls would stay only a week before moving on to the next house.


The testimony of Herman Pontesoff demonstrated the control exerted by the Blacks and the lengths to which they would go to protect their operation. Pontesoff, better known as Curly, ran a numbers bank in Newark, New Jersey, and wanted to expand to Wilmington. He approached Chief Black through an intermediary, a city employee in the Health Department and bridge tender for the Washington Street Bridge. The intermediary told the Chief that a man from New Jersey (Pontesoff) wanted to open a numbers game in Wilmington and asked the Chief’s opinion. Chief Black said he didn’t have any objections. The intermediary later arranged a meeting between Pontesoff and Captain Black, who was paid $100 and said everything would be all right.[xvii]


Pontesoff was supposed to testify before the trial board on Friday, December 4, 1936, but was waylaid. Around 1:00 a.m. the night before his testimony, several armed men, possibly including Nardo, approached him leaving a restaurant near the Hotel du Pont. “As he left a man walked behind him and ‘shoved a pistol into his back’ the investigator stated. Pontesoff was ordered into a machine parked at the curb and was threatened with death if he didn’t leave the city.”[xviii] The gunmen drove him to the bus station, where he was put on a bus to Philadelphia. It wasn’t until several hours later that the city solicitor was able to reach Pontesoff and persuade him to return to Wilmington with a promise of police protection, provided by Lieutenant Riley.


Taken as a whole, the testimony against Captain Black was damning, with direct evidence of demanding and taking payoffs. There was much less direct evidence against his father’s actions, but it was clear what Chief Black permitted on his watch. Vice, in the form of gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution was allowed to operate freely as long as the permission of the Chief was obtained. Perhaps the Chief was just trying to control what he couldn’t eliminate, but his son had taken it to a new level. Now police protection was for sale and everyone had to pay to play.


Tomorrow, in the sixth and final segment, the case against Chief Black and his son is resolved. Was Chief Black a crook? The City of Wilmington and the vice trade deal with the outcome.

[i] City Solicitor’s Files, DPA.

[ii] “Charges Filed Against Black and Son,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 2, 1936, p. 1.

[iii] McLaughlin interview.

[iv] Deposition of Edna Powell July 24, 1936, Attorney General P.W. Green Administrative Files, DPA.

[v] Monahan interview.

[vi] Deposition of Edna Powell.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Deposition of Harold Witsil, Aug. 7, 1936, Attorney General P.W. Green Administrative Files, DPA; “Edna Powell Tells of Graft Paid to Black’s Son, Others,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 5, 1936, p. 1.


[x] “Edna Powell Tells of Graft,” p. 11.

[xi] “Prosecution in City Police Probe Brings Black Case,” Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Dec. 6, 1936, p. 14.

[xii] Report of Det. Wallace to City Solicitor Morford, Sept. 11, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xiii] Statement of Patrolman James Wilson to City Solicitor Morford, Aug. 24, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[xiv] There was a raid on the Rileys’ house on Linden Street by the police.  “I don’t think we had protection then.  The next door neighbor also wrote numbers for Uncle Mike and one day they [the police] went to raid his place but came to our house be mistake.”  The numbers slips for the day were spread out over the dining room table.  “We had a round table and the center of it was hollow.  My mother just took the numbers and threw them in there and closed it up.”  Jane Riley Jones interview.

[xv] “Attorney General Attaches Relate of Vice Survies [sic],”Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Dec. 6, 1936, p. 1.

[xvi] “3 Men Held in Probe of Police Graft,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 7, 1936, p. 3.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] “Board Orders Principals Turn Over Uniforms,” Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Dec. 6, 1936, p. 14.

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