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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Bookies, Bawdy Houses, and Chief Black: Part Six

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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.

Was the Chief himself in on the take? No one knew or no one would tell. Jerry Herlihy had no doubts concerning his father’s opinion: “Chief Black was corrupt.”[i] In a letter from City Solicitor Morford to the Collector of Internal Revenue for the State of Delaware on December 9, 1936, Morford admitted, “There is no direct evidence concerning the receipt of any money by Supt. Black.” Morford went on to say, though, “frequent rumors came to my attention of bank accounts in other cities,” such as Pennsgrove and Camden, New Jersey, and Baltimore. “Supt. Black volunteered that he had $10,000 in cash at Artisan’s Bank, $20,000 at WSFS…. Throughout the investigation it was repeatedly asserted that both of the above-named persons [Superintendent Black and Captain Black] were independently wealthy.”[ii]


“The jist of my grandfather’s investigation from reading his memoirs was that Chief Black was not a crook, he was not taking money directly,” recalls Kevin Quinn. “His son was totally corrupt. He had his posse in the police department that were doing collections.”[iii]


After two days of testimony by the prosecution neither Black chose to put up a defense. The board refused Captain Black’s resignation and dismissed him instead.Chief Black was allowed to resign but was denied any pension benefits.[iv] For the man acknowledged as the father of Wilmington’s police pension system, this was a demeaning blow.  On his resignation George A. Black made a statement through his attorney, Joseph A.L. Errigo:


I deny each one of the 21 charges as presented by the city solicitor. I know that I am not guilty of the violations with which I have been charged.


I have resigned because I didn’t care to continue the battle. I have no complaint to make against anyone. I have waived my rights to my pension because of the precarious condition of the fund. I realize that if I were to demand my pension, many widows and orphans would be denied their livelihood. In making this decision my thoughts were not for myself, but for my fellow citizens.[v]


The following month Edna Powell and Harold Witsil were back before the trial board testifying about other officers caught up in the scheme. Another captain was charged with taking money for police protection and tipping off Edna Powell about raids, plus other lesser charges. Two sergeants and a patrol officer were charged with similar offenses, including ordering Edna Powell to deliver a few cases of beer to the police station. One officer testified that on several occasions his sergeant gave him lists of places to be raided in connection with the numbers racket, and told him to telephone the operator of the numbers bank. These four officers were also dismissed from the force, and twenty others were disciplined by demotions or fines.[vi]


Curly Pontesoff did not come away empty handed from his cooperation with the investigation. On hotel stationary from Newark, New Jersey, Pontesoff wrote City Solicitor Morford asking for reimbursement for his travel expenses to Wilmington and for a $100 fine he had paid while supposedly getting protection from the Blacks. Morford approved a payment from the city coffers to Pontesoff for $132.50.[vii]


Looking back on this event it is startling to realize that no police officer was arrested or charged with a crime as a result of this investigation. Perhaps an indication of the public attitude was the editorial in the Wilmington Morning News as this scandal came to a conclusion.  Titled “Commendable Service,” the editorial praised the directors of public safety for the “dignified, business-like manner in which they were conducting their inquiry into charges of laxity in the police department…. There will be many persons to regret this outcome, but the justice of it must be apparent….Charges are to be preferred against policemen growing out of the looseness in law enforcement and tolerance of illicit business uncovered.”[viii]  The Journal Every Evening’s editorial proclaimed that “restoration of morale of the police force becomes an imperative need.” The directors were praised for their work, that they “performed well a public service that must have been unpleasant to them to have to handle….The directors have not hesitated to go through to disclose the laxity.”[ix]  Perhaps the Sunday Morning Star’s editorial best summed up public opinion. “We know that whenever a large number of people live in a community there will be gambling, sexual vice, violations of the liquor regulations and similar infractions of the law. But so long as those things are not tolerated in a way to offend the sense of decency of the general public or of citizens not concerned in the offenses we are disposed not to be too critical. There is, of course, a distinct difference between laissez faire within certain limits, and the acceptance of or imposition of graft to permit evil things to be done.”[x]


Monahan gives Chief Black credit for many innovations. “Black did a lot of good things. He was very forward-thinking in a lot of ways. Wilmington started hiring the first black cops in the 1920s. He initiated the first police academy in the State of Delaware. They hired matrons, women as sworn officers, long before anybody else even thought of it, to try to provide more humane treatment for female prisoners.”  But the Chief’s other side was ever present. “They expected a certain level of corruption and it was not unusual for the chief to be skimming prisoner meal money, no big deal,” says Monahan. “But his son was his true, true downfall.”[xi]


On March 9, 1937, a jury found Dominic Nardo guilty of attempting to obstruct public justice in a case called “an outgrowth of allegations made in the recent police investigation and trials.”[xii] The jury recommended mercy.


In April 1937, Edna Powell’s attorney petitioned the attorney general and the board of pardons to give favorable consideration to her application for pardon or commutation of her sentence. She had been sentenced to eighteen months in prison in October 1936 for conspiracy in the Bartlett manslaughter. In separate trials she was given three additional months for selling intoxicating liquor and another  year for keeping a house of prostitution. Trumpeting her role in the police scandal, the petition stated, “It was because of her evidence and testimony that a thorough investigation was completed which resulted in the complete reformation and reorganization of the Police Bureau of the City of Wilmington. The revelation of graft, dishonesty and corruption in the Police Bureau is unquestionably of great value to the City and State for which some consideration should be given to the person responsible for such disclosure.”  The petition also stated that “She is repentant and remorseful for a past which she hopes to completely blot from her life. She intends to enter upon a new life of decency and self-respect.”[xiii]


In July, 1937 former Captain George Black, Jr., died of pneumonia at thirty-three years of age. He left behind a wife and two sons.[xiv]


In December 1937 Andrew J. Kavanaugh was brought in by the directors of Public Safety to make a study of the police and fire departments. A former chief of police for Rochester, New York, Kavanaugh, as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, helped establish the National Police Academy.  He accepted the position of superintendent of Wilmington’s Department of Public Safety in January 1938.[xv]


On January 8, 1938, it was reported that Mayor Walter W. Bacon and the entire city council inspected the Police and Fire Bureaus at the invitation of Public Safety Board President Harold Schutt. The newspaper reported “It was the first inspection of the department’s two divisions – police and fire – by Council as a body in nearly two decades.”[xvi] The introduction of an outsider to the superintendent’s job and the direct involvement of the mayor and council in the operation of the Public Safety Department as a result of the recent scandals began the erosion of the Public Safety Department’s autonomy, culminating years later in the elimination of the commission form of governance.


Mike McGonegal was never called before the Public Safety Board nor was he prosecuted for his illegal activities. He continued coaching baseball and basketball teams for St. Ann’s, with his team winning the City Baseball League championship in 1937, 1938, and 1939. On December 7, 1940, he died at the age of fifty-five, leaving his wife, a daughter, and four sons. Wilmington sports writer Dick Rinard this to say about Mike McGonegal’s passing: “Whether one liked him or not, no one can deny that Mike McGonegal was one of the most dominant figures in Wilmington sports circles. The fiery Irishman will be missed by all. It will be many a year until another Mike McGonegal comes along with all his color and gusto. For all of us who knew him so well there will never be another.”[xvii] His career as a bookmaker received no mention.


Lt. James “Curt” Riley was promoted to captain in early 1937 and went on to become chief of police before his retirement in 1949.[xviii]


In August 1942, former Chief of Police and Superintendent George A. Black died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his sister’s home on Lovering Avenue. The news story of his death said “Mr. Black resigned from the superintendency December 8, 1936 when the Board of Public Safety investigated the police bureau.”[xix] No other mention was made of the corruption scandal.


The bawdy houses? Bill Frank stated the Edna Powell affair sparked a “cry for reform. That reform meant not only the phasing out of the city’s established brothels, but also a major shake-up in the police department.”[xx]


And the numbers business? “The [State] lottery wiped out the bookmakers,” said retired cop Tom Monahan. “You can bet legally now.”[xxi]

[i] Jerome O. Herlihy interview.

[ii] City Solicitor Morford to Willard F. Deputy, Collector of Internal Revenue, Dec. 9, 1936, City Solicitor’s Records, DPA.

[iii] Kevin Quinn interview.

[iv] “Black Resigns Ending Trial,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 9, 1936, p. 1.

[v] “Black’s Statement to People,” Wilmington Journal Every Evening, Dec. 9, 1936, p. 1.

[vi] “Three Police Are Suspended,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 27, 1937, p. 1.

[vii] City Solicitor’s Files, DPA.

[viii] “Commendable Service,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 9. 1936.

[ix] “Restore the Morale,” Wilmington Journal Every Evening, Dec. 10, 1936.

[x] “The Black Trial Suggests a Thought,” Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, Dec. 6, 1936.

[xi] Monahan interview.

[xii] “Jury Finds Nardo Guilty of Charge,” Wilmington Morning News, March 10, 1937, p. 1.

[xiii] Statement to the Board of Pardons of the State of Delaware, Filed by Attorney H. Albert Young on behalf of Edna Powell, April 23, 1937, DPA.

[xiv] “George A. Black, Former Captain of Police, Dies,” Wilmington Morning News, July 23, 1937, p. 1.

[xv] “A.J. Kavanaugh Appointed Head of Public Safety,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 27, 1938, p. 1.

[xvi] “City Officials Laud Police, Fire Bureaus,” Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 8, 1938, p. 1.

[xvii] “Calling the Turn,” Dick Rinard, Wilmington Journal Every Evening, Dec. 10, 1940, p. 29.

[xviii] “Boyd Named Safety Head,” Wilmington Morning News, Dec. 30, 1936, p. 1.

[xix] “George Black, Former Police, Fire Chief, Dies,” Wilmington Morning News, Aug.   1942, p. 1.   Needs exact date

[xx] Bill Frank, Bill Frank’s Delaware, p. 226.

[xxi] Monahan interview.

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Latest News

New photo page, Delaware Community Lens, will celebrate First State

'There's enough places to on social media and the internet that are not positive places. This is meant to be a respite.'

Meet ‘The Wilmington:’ A liquid ode to Delaware’s largest city

The new cocktail uses gin, peach-infused simple syrup, lemon and cinnamon.

Carney activates National Guard to help with inauguration events in Delaware

The Executive Order said protests are planned in Wilmington, Dover and at the Delaware Capitol.
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