A Little Coke Please

A Little Coke Please

Two youths, victims of the cocaine habit, were brought before Magistrate Kernochan, in the West Side Court, yesterday morning. One was a mere boy of 16, anxious to have his mother send him away where he couldn’t get the drug. The other was a confirmed user of cocaine, and when sentenced to six months on the Island, begged for “just a little ‘coke,’ please.”

The New York Times, September 3, 1907

Bernard Mulroy, age 23, the older of the two young men in court that day, “writhed as he begged the court to give him some of the drug before sending him away” to the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. The prison, now gone, was located on what is currently called Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The Jersey City-born son of Irish immigrants told the magistrate that he’d been a cocaine user since the age of 18.

He’d been arrested the previous Sunday near the Hudson River and 59th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough neighborhood known for violence and disorder. He was warming his hands at a small fire he’d built when he was taken into custody. It’s possible that building a fire outdoors was illegal by then in New York City and that was why Bernard was hauled in to court. Or maybe the cops figured he was a vagrant and they wanted him off the streets.

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It couldn’t have been his cocaine habit that brought him into court. Cocaine was legal then in America, though by the time Bernard was arrested in 1907 there was increasing recognition of cocaine’s tendency to turn its users into desperate addicts. If he had the money Bernard could have purchased coke at the corner drug store without a prescription. It was getting the money that was the crux of his problem.

Bernard’s Bertillon photos, measurements and personal details were recorded six months before his September arrest, after he was hauled in for burglarizing an apartment in the city.

Bernard Mulroy_back_marked

A year later, on November 21, 1908, with winter about to descend on New York City, Bernard again found himself on a boat headed to the prison on Blackwell’s Island. This time he’d been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six months incarceration. It must have been comforting to know he’d be warmer in prison than he would have been on the streets. However there was a downside — Bernard got addicted to heroin during his second stay in the island’s prison.

Blackwell Island Penit.1910.NYCMA

The penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, c. 1910, New York City Municipal Archives

heroinThe German drug company, Bayer, developed diacetylmorphine in the late nineteenth century. Between 1898 and 1910 diacetylmorphine was marketed under the trade name “Heroin” as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant, supposedly without morphine’s addictive side effects. Its sale wasn’t regulated in the United States until 1914, when it became available only by prescription. In 1924, with better understanding of its addictive properties and the tolerance that develops in users, Congress banned the sale, importation and manufacture of heroin. These laws came too late to help Bernard.

After he was arrested in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 1915 for trying to sell heroin to passersby, Bernard was quoted in an article for The Evening World newspaper titled “Sing Sing is Popular Summer Resort Now.” He claimed he wanted to be convicted and sent to Sing Sing Penitentiary.

“Movies and baseball for mine,” said Bernard Mulroy at Police Headquarters to-day. “I’m a sick bum in New York, but in Sing Sing I’ll be a person of some consequence, get my meals and recreation regularly and regain my health…New York is no place for a drug fiend these days. I want to get cured and go to Sing Sing and learn to be a telegraph operator.” Bernard was not alone — the news report noted that ten young men who’d been arrested within the previous three days had also asked to be sent to Sing Sing, supposedly because they wanted to play baseball in the prison yard.

Bernard’s wish to sojourn in the notorious prison in Ossining, New York wasn’t granted. Instead he was sent to a prison on Hart’s Island in the Bronx that was used to house overflow prisoners from the city jails.

On August 24, 1916, Bernard died in Manhattan at the age 29. Details of his death are not known, but his final resting place may be on Hart’s Island, where he spent time as a prisoner. The island is now uninhabited and it’s the site of a massive potter’s field cemetery. More than a million people who died penniless in New York have been buried there over the years. Bernard might easily be one of them.

Featured photos: Bertillon photos of Bernard Mulroy taken March 5, 1907, collection of the author.

The Prizefighter’s Wife

The Prizefighter’s Wife

A number of fur dealers who were robbed during the winter appeared at Central Station today in an effort to identify Mrs. Ethel Goodwin, divorced wife of Abe Attell, the former boxer, and five men who are under arrest on suspicion of having been concerned in thefts of furs worth $3,000,000.

The Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 21, 1922

Police Lieutenant Carlin pounded on the door of a room at Philadelphia’s swanky Majestic Hotel. Ethel Attell, the room’s occupant, refused to open it. She claimed she was only wearing a negligee and that she needed to speak to her lawyer first. The lieutenant prevailed and the door swung open. Inside he found Ethel with a man named Frank Lewis. Both were suspected of being involved in a recent spate of fur robberies from wholesale fur dealers in the city. Frank put up a fight and was knocked out by the lieutenant.

Hotel-Majestic.5-Lobby

Ethel Goodwin_back_marked

In order to protect her identity she gave the police an alias, Ethel Goodwin. She was immediately unmasked and her real name, Ethel Attell, was published in news reports of her arrest. Reporters realized she was the ex-wife of “The Little Hebrew” Abe Attell, the retired prizefighter who’d recently been accused of fixing the 1919 World Series. Sporting a pearl necklace, fur coat and a hat covered in fake grapes, Ethel’s mugshots were snapped by the police.

She was suspected of providing stolen burglar alarm wiring diagrams for several wholesale fur companies to a gang of thieves. The police foiled the gang’s recent plans to rob an Arch Street fur warehouse. After their arrests they gave up Ethel’s name and address.

This was the second time in three months that Ethel had been in legal hot water. In December 1921 she and two male accomplices — small-time thugs with multiple aliases — were arrested on suspicion of stealing 1.5 million dollars worth of cancelled Liberty Bonds, chemically altering them to remove the cancellation marks and trying to resell them. Ethel was caught trying to pass one of the bonds at a Seventh Avenue deli in New York City. She claimed she’d paid $300 for the $500 bond, having bought it innocently from an actor friend who’d fallen on hard times. She also told police she was 27 years old when she was actually 37. A full opium kit was found in Ethel’s upper west side apartment after her arrest.

Elizabeth Egan and Abe Attell were childhood sweethearts. They were married in 1907, at the height of his boxing career, in Santa Ana, California. At some point shortly after her marriage, Elizabeth decided she preferred the rhyming cadence of “Ethel Attell,” so she changed her first name.

Abe and EthelAbe lost his featherweight title in 1912 and the marriage spiraled into quarrels over Ethel’s spending on clothes and jewelry and Abe’s losses at gambling. Fortunately the couple had no children, but the quarter million dollars Abe had made in the ring had all been squandered. A few days before Christmas in 1914, Ethel was forced to flee from her husband’s wrath. She left their Chicago hotel room half naked and all her jewelry remained behind. With the marriage in tatters, Ethel filed for divorce, charging cruelty. She demanded $200 monthly alimony from Abe’s earnings in vaudeville, a career path he’d switched to after his days as a pugilist ended. She also wanted her jewelry back. The divorce was finalized in 1915.

By 1922 Abe had emerged from a cloud of suspicion after charges against him related to the series fix — the Black Sox Scandal — were dropped due to insufficient evidence, though he almost certainly was involved. By the time Ethel was in legal trouble Abe was the co-owner of a shoe store, The Ming Toy Bootery, which specialized in novelty footwear for celebrities, located in Manhattan’s theater district.

Ethel either got lucky or she hired one of her ex-husband’s mobster lawyers. At any rate she wasn’t charged with wrongdoing in the Liberty Bond or the fur theft cases. She wisely kept a low profile after that. She died in 1966. True to form, her tombstone lopped eight years off her age.

Featured photos: Ethell Attell, 1922 mugshots. Collection of the author.