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.

Cupid Pleaded

Cupid Pleaded

Joseph Kanefsky_back_markedPauline Wernovsky had been waiting a long time to marry her sweetheart. In fact she’d been waiting two and a half years for her fiancée, Joseph Kanefsky, to get out of Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia and he’d finally been released after serving time for burglary. But on January 20, 1937, he and two prisoners and their girlfriends were charged with smuggling narcotics into the prison. Instead of marrying Pauline it looked like Kanefsky was headed back to the slammer.

Judge Parry, however, was sympathetic to Pauline plight. The persuasive young woman told him she would personally make sure her fiancée stayed straight, so he allowed Kanefsky to sign a $2000 bond, gave him two years probation and the couple were married before a magistrate then and there. As one newspaper put it, “Cupid pleaded successfully in Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court for Joseph Kanefsky.”

The other four people arrested for dope smuggling were convicted of the charge.

Kanefsky, alias Joe Neff, has a self-assured look in his mugshot. His stylish hat is tipped at a rakish angle and his yellow-blue eyes have an intense gaze. He has just a hint of a smile playing on his lips. It’s as though he already knows that his pretty, dark-haired girlfriend is going to play the judge for a chump — his freedom to follow.

Two and a half years later, in September 1939, Pauline and Joe were in front of a different judge, charged with illegal possession and use of narcotics. They were arrested while sitting in an automobile parked on a Philadelphia street and detectives testified they found a hypodermic needle and morphine in the car. Having previously played Joe’s “get out of jail free” card, both were sentenced to the Philadelphia House of Correction.

In May 1944 Kanefsky was in trouble again when he was caught trying to use prescription blanks stolen from a South Philadelphia physician’s office to obtain narcotics. He was charged with forgery and drug addiction.

Joe’s final reported arrest came on September 21, 1951 in New York City.

The detectives said they had spent some time watching him stroll along Broadway looking for customers. They said that when he was arrested a man who was walking along with him escaped.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 22, 1951

Detectives found $329, a capsule of opium and 15 envelopes of heroin in Joseph Kanefsky’s pockets. He was charged him with possession and suspicion of selling illegal drugs.

Featured photo: Philadelphia Bureau of Police mugshot of Joseph Kanefsky taken on January 20, 1937. Collection of the author.