Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

San_Bernardinos

San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.

Finding Beverly

Finding Beverly

Five members of a ring alleged to have passed at least $200,000 in stolen forged checks in the last two years were in custody Friday while a sixth person was sought.

Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1960

A gang of forgers from the south side of Chicago worked a lucrative check fraud for a couple of years, beginning in 1958. First they stole blank checks from small businesses, mostly gas stations. Next they stole customer information file cards from chain stores, such as Sears and Woolworth’s, made copies of the cards and returned them the same day. Then the blank checks were filled in with the customer information from the stolen cards and cashed at the chain stores and currency exchanges in the suburbs west of the city.

It worked because store managers didn’t necessarily require I.D. to cash checks for regular customers and there were no computers to verify credentials. But it took nerve and some acting skills.

the forgery gang

The gang consisted of a Patrick “Black Pat” Iannino, a chaffeur, and his girlfriend, Salline Carroll, a dancer, along with Frank Simmons, John Sellinger, Robert McAffee and Beverly Drake. All were described in the newspapers as narcotics addicts. In addition to feeding their drug habits they used the money they stole “living it up, wearing silk suits, driving large cars, etc.” according to one news account.

Paul NeweyTheir lavish lifestyle aroused the suspicions of Paul Newey. Paul, the son of Assyrian immigrants to the United States, was born in 1914 in Minneapolis. He earned a law degree and then applied to work for the FBI, but they wouldn’t hire him due to his “ethnic appearance.” Instead Paul went to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney in 1957. “He was the most persistent investigator I’ve ever known,” said former Chicago Daily News criminal courts reporter Ed Baumann. “He was like a bulldog; he didn’t give up. He pursued things even when he didn’t have to.”

As the summer of 1960 waned, Paul and his team kept the gang under surveilance. “It’s unusual for narcotics addicts to have that kind of money,” he said, “so we started watching them on the assumption they were peddling dope. It was only last week when we made the arrests that we discovered the true source of their income.”

The five gang members Paul’s team arrested — Pat, Salline, Frank, John and Robert — signed statements admitting their guilt in the thefts.

Beverly Drake was the one that got away, or at least she was the one Paul couldn’t locate in August 1960. I can’t say for certain that her mugshot is from her arrest for the check forgery scam, because if she was eventually caught it wasn’t reported in the newspapers. There’s no information on the back of the photo other than her name and F/W/. However the photo is from that time frame and it came from a group of mugshots taken in Chicago.

With her short platinum blond hair and pretty features Beverly looks to me like the doppelgänger of actress Shelley Winters. Whereas Shelley usually played an edgy dame whose mouth got her into trouble, Beverly looks clean cut, trustworthy and only mildly annoyed to have her mugshot taken. It seems plausible that honest-looking Beverly was the gang member who did most of check cashing. Was she a “dope addict?” Only the slight circles under her eyes hint at a darker side to her life.

I don’t know if Paul Newey, who died in 2001, ever found Beverly. I found her with the help of John Van Noate. John is a vintage photography collector and dealer and he picked up Beverly’s mugshot for me at a photo show I couldn’t attend. If you’re looking for interesting vintage photos for your collection you might want to get in touch with him.

Featured photo: Beverly Drake, undated mugshot. Collection of the author.

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.

allenscoke

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.