It was pretty startling in the case of someone named John to find something so definitive: it identified him by name, birthplace, and date of birth, as well as including his mother’s name and her home address. And here he was, being received into Sing Sing Prison in New York, far from his Philadelphia home.
For being so definitive, it raised a lot of questions: alias was listed as “Mason.” Was he just called Mason? Was he also known as John Mason? His plea was listed as “confession” and then we see his crime: murder 2nd degree. And that brought me up short, especially in a 19-year-old.
Fortunately, I wasn’t left in suspense: there was a description of the criminal act: “while armed, shot and killed a man [illegible]”. This took place on July 24, 1935, in New York City. He was sentenced on April 15, 1936, and received at the prison on April 16. His sentence? 20 to life. However, he became eligible for parole on March 13, 1949.
Of interest, he had 2 accomplices — Timothy Curran and James Hanks — both of whom are listed as deceased. Well! Were they deceased by the hand of the law, or by other forces? A Timothy Curran was received at Sing Sing on February 6, 1930, for attempted burglary, with a sentence of 5 years (eligible for parole 2/19/34), though there’s no sign of James Hanks in the available records.
John’s only apparently legitimate employment was for a week in 1934, working as a clerk at a wage of $5/week. Other interesting bits and bobs of information are available from this intake: he could read and write, he was Catholic but did not attend church, and he was living at 1 Convent Avenue, New York, when he was arrested (an apartment building that is either in Manhattanville or Harlem, it’s hard to tell on the map, and I’m not well-versed enough in NYC geography to determine).
This rather surprising bit of history made it easier to chase down John’s particular rabbit hole. Interestingly, by 1943, he was apparently back in Philadelphia, because he’d registered for the draft there. Time off for good behavior?
And then, in another Ancestry family tree, I found that John married his sister-in-law’s sister Theresa, who was on her second marriage. I poked a little deeper into her family and she married her first husband, Hugh, in 1945. But then he vanished in 1950 and turned up as skeletal remains in a car in the Delaware River when a dredge picked the car up in 1955. The car went into the river at Vine Street in Philadelphia, which appears to be right where the Ben Franklin Bridge is (I’m from the MidAtlantic and much of my family is from Philly, but I don’t have a good mental map of Philly, so I resort to GoogleMaps).
Bones in River Linked to Bodies Of Autoists Missing Since ’50
Delaware Yields Car At Vine St.
Pieces of human bones found by divers on the riverbed near the point where a 1947 Pontiac sedan was dredged from the Delaware River Wednesday appeared yesterday to have solved the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of two Philadelphia men missing since 1950.
Capt. David Roberts of the Homicide Squad reported that his men, late yesterday afternoon, sent to the morgue several bones and fragments, believed to be those of a human being, which were brought to the surface by divers of the Motor Harbor Police.
BOTH REPORTED MISSING
The divers were sent to the bottom of the river, about 30 feet off Pier 17 at Vie st., after a search of the mud-filled interior of the sedan had disclosed no sign of its occupants.
Patrolmen Norton Stevenson, Bernard Corcoran and Edward Roman, the three divers, brought up two humerus bones (those of the upper arm); one femur, one ulna, one radius, one scapula, and eight rib bones in the course of their search. Sgt. John McBridge of the Homicide Squad said the bones were definitely human. He said the divers would return to the scene this morning to search for skulls, so that positive identification might be made through dental work.
The occupants, at the time the automobile apparently plunged into the river in December, 1950, were believed to have been George Hubbard, 30, then of 2136 S. Lee st., the owner of the car, and Hugh Gillespie, 28, of 2312 N. Colorado st. Sgt. John J. McBride of the Homicide Squad said records showed that Hubbard’s wife, Mary, reported him missing Dec. 15, 1950, and that Gillespie’s wife, Theresa, reported him missing Dec. 20.
The two men, both employed on the loading platform at the Mid-States Freight Lines, Inc., were last seen, police said, leaving a taproom near 5th st. and Columbia ave., a short distance from the freight lines platform.
FIND PIECE OF CLOTH
Detective Edmund Repsch and Samuel Powell of the Homicide Squad, the first ones sent to investigate the wreckage of the machine after a city Department of Commerce dredge brought it up, arranged to have an engine company hose out the interior of the car yesterday. All that they found in it was a rotted piece of khaki cloth, similar to the material of the trousers Hubbard was wearing when he disappeared. Captain Roberts ordered divers sent down upon learning that the top of the car broke loose as it was being hauled to the surface and that some of the contents might have spilled to the bottom.
Hubbard’s widow, now living with her mother and three children at 2143 S. Lee st., became hysterical upon learning of the discovery of her husband’s car, and required sedatives from a physician.
Leaving a taproom, alas, is suggestive of a terribly mundane reason for the car ending up in the river. I do find it interesting, though, that it took Theresa some five days longer than her counterpart to report her husband missing.
So John seems to have done his time and married a grieving widow (seriously, how awful must that have been, 5 years missing and no idea what happened?), and they went on to have 2 more kids together. Happily ever after!
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
I had gotten distracted by John! I proceeded to go hunting down the other sibling in the family who wasn’t amenable to easy location: his older brother Charles. Everything proceeded normally enough until the 1940 census, when where did I find him?
If you’ve seen any ghost hunter shows or shows about Al Capone, you’ve seen Eastern State Penitentiary, the infamous Philadelphia prison built as a showpiece of “modern” correctional thought in 1829, constructed to provide solitary confinement for up to 300 prisoners. The guards and administrators also imposed further tortures on the prisoners for various infractions, and by the early 20th century, overcrowding collapsed the solitary confinement scheme. There were a number of notorious inmates, though Capone was the most famous.
All right then. Some Googling ensued and turned up a doozy of an article on a Find-a-Grave for a police officer who had been killed.
Policeman David H. Wiley
Philadelphia Police Department
End of Watch: Sunday, April 10, 1932
Tour of Duty: Appointed 1924.
Badge Number: 3245
Cause of Death: Gunfire
Date of Incident: Sunday, April 10, 1932
Weapon Used: Gun; Unknown type
Suspect Info: Charles A. […]
Policeman Wiley was shot and killed as he and his partner investigated a suspicious vehicle parked in front of a the Petkov Co. tobacco firm on Market Street near 4th Street that he and other officers suspected contained burglars who had robbed the business. After observing two men exit the building, place bundles in the car, and then return to the building, the officers approached the vehicle. Without warning, the driver, Charles […], 19, fired point blank at Wiley and sped away. One of the four shots he fired punctured the policeman’s lung.
Four males were arrested and confessed to the incident. Angered at [Charles], they implicated him as the shooter and explained they thought the shooting of Wiley was “unneccessary.” Instead of shooting, they said, [Charles] should have given an agreed signal and then driven away. By blaming [Charles], police said, they were hopeful of avoiding trial on a murder charge. Four others were held on charges of receiving goods stolen by the robbers.
All were convicted and two were initially sentenced to die in the electric chair, including [Charles]. The group of burglars was suspected in the murder of Policeman William Henderson one month earlier, but were never charged due to a lack of evidence.
[Charles] and Danny Piccarelli got new trials that spared them death sentences. [Charles], who faced tough times in the old Tenderloin District, pled guilty in his new trial and only got 10 years. After getting out, he was picked up repeatedly – a jewel robbery, an extortion case, an assault and battery case in which he allegedly sat it out on the curb while a woman neighbor got cut 24 times. Twice guns were found. But [Charles] always managed to beat the charge and kept walking about on parole.
In 1936, during one his stays in prison, [Charles] received a letter from his brother John, also a criminal, that a Judge Carroll called “a classic”:
“Why did we do these things we are in prison for? Why did we turn out bad when our three brothers kept honest? What will happen to us after we are dead?”
Charles […] and his brother John were the sons of a crane operator, who, before he was crippled by polio, “never let us go hungry.”
“It wasn’t until after my father died that all we had to eat was potatoes.”
“The first time I got pinched I was only eight years old. A big Irish cop pulled me in and a woman hit him over the head with an umbrella. But everyone got arrested every once in a while in the Tenderloin. It was a tough neighborhood. You saw flashy-dressed men getting out of big cars in front of bum-looking houses. They were gunmen and the houses was where they lived. It didn’t add up. And I should have seen it but didn’t. All the money those men had they pulled a gun for. But I didn’t think about that. I just thought about making money – any way I could. The boys who shot it out with the cops [Patrolman Harry Cooper was shot and killed] in the Olney bank holdup [May 4, 1926] were a couple of years ahead of me. I remember when they brought their bodies home from the penitentiary after they were electrocuted [March 7, 1927]. A bunch of us kids went to the wakes. The whole neighborhood was down in the mouth about it. But I was still making honest money then – hustling newspapers and shining shoes for maybe a buck an afternoon after school. I was a choir boy and my mother took me to church every Sunday.””What happened to the faith our mother learned us? Why did you and me throw it away when our brothers kept it? I don’t know. I wish I knew. It was the biggest mistake either one of us ever made.”
In 1955, the 42-year old Charles […] was arrested for a safe-breaking burglary. [Charles] was held in the 12th and Pine street stationhouse which bore the plaque in memory of Officer Wiley who [Charles] murdered in 1932.
Wiley was a six-year veteran of the force. He had been commended for meritorious service several times. He was the youngest of ten children of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen H. Wiley. At the age of 15 he enlisted in the Naval Reserves for service in the World War. He joined the police in 1924. He was unmarried and lived at 1624 Oregon av. His father, retired at the time of his son’s death, was a city fireman more than 30 years.
1. The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. http://www.odmp.org/officer/14179-policeman-david-h.-wiley
2. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin
3. 1930 U.S. Federal Census
4. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Veterans Burial Cards, 1929-1990; Archive Collection Number: Series 1-13; Folder Number: 534.
Well! Both John and Charles were clearly casualties of poverty and opportunity, only where John managed to find his way out, Charles got stuck in doing what he knew how to do (which seemed to be quite a lot, really). Charles also seemed to be pretty good at getting himself out of prison, despite being a career criminal.
Despite a lot of hunting, I couldn’t find out what had happened to Charles after the information about being picked up for safecracking in 1955. I eventually found one of John’s children on Facebook, and she told me that Charles had been killed in a bar on Christmas Eve, 1975: shot 3 times in the chest at age 63.
We can hope that Charles was as happy in his life as brother John seemed to have been in his. John lived until 1991, dying at age 74. Theresa passed away in 2004, age 79. They seem to have been well-loved by their family.