The Argument

The Argument

A quarrel over a woman ended last night in the slaying of an escaped convict by one of his three pals and the wounding and capture of the other three men by the police following a pistol battle.

The St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, Missouri), July 7, 1931

It started out as a congenial evening of drinking among friends on a hot summer night in St. Louis. Winfield (known as “Windy”) Seeman and his pal, Morris Rosen, met up with John Harrington and Harry Casey near the Mississippi riverfront. July in St. Louis is notoriously hot and humid. In order to try to cool off one of the men suggested they head to a speakeasy called “Mack’s Place” for some beers.

The speakeasy was in a house in the southeast part of the city, near the workhouse, in an area called “No Man’s Land,” where mounds of rocks from an old quarry were still scattered around. During the 19th century, workhouse inmates were forced to break rocks from the quarry into gravel as part of their penance for being imprisoned. Streetlights were few in No Man’s Land, so it was dark at night and vehicles traversed the landscape with difficulty. The police disliked the area and avoided it, which meant it was a good place to run an illegal beer tavern.

Harry Casey was a 40-year-old St. Louis man with an extensive criminal history. As a joke he was nicknamed “The Velvet Tongue Kid” thanks to his free use of some of the vilest curse words in the English language. He’d been sent to the workhouse for car theft in his late teens. By the age of 25 he’d been hardened by two prison terms in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) — one of which came after he’d stolen some guns and attempted to kill a police officer who tried to arrest him in Illinois. He’d lived in California for a time but he’d recently returned to his hometown.

Winfield Seeman mugshot

Morris Rosen 2-1

Windy Seeman (top) and Morris Rosen (bottom) in MSP mugshots. Collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Windy Seeman and Morris Rosen had become buddies at the MSP when Windy was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery. Russian-born Morris, the younger of the two, had served a year at the MSP for assault to kill and was in for the second time for burglary and grand larceny. They were both skilled tradesmen and had been put to work on the outside in a supervised prison gang that was at work on a new prison. Windy and Morris walked away from the gang the previous October and had been on the lam ever since.

John was a salesman in his thirties with no criminal record.

The men sat in front of Mack’s Place drinking and as the alcohol flowed, tongues loosened. John casually mentioned that he thought Windy’s wife, Irene, was a very attractive woman. Perhaps it was an innocent comment or he may have been testing the waters to see how married the Seemans really were. Either way, he wasn’t prepared for for the escaped con’s reaction.

Windy accused John of trying to steal his wife. John replied that it was meant as a compliment, nothing more, but Windy became even more incensed and refused to let the matter drop.

John retreated inside the speakeasy but Windy grabbed his pistol and followed him. Harry, never one to avoid a fight, followed them both inside and Morris trailed in last. Gunfire erupted and Windy fell to the floor with a bullet wound to his chest.

Morris insisted that they needed to get his friend to a doctor. The three men laid Windy in the backseat of John’s car and headed to the city hospital. Before they got far the police, who’d been called by someone at the speakeasy, arrived on the scene. They ordered the men out of the car. Instead Harry fired at the policemen, who dropped to their knees, sought cover and returned fire.

By the time the bullets stopped flying, John had been shot in the left arm and Harry had taken a bullet to his right hand and had a deep scalp wound. Morris was seriously injured — he’d been shot in the head. Windy was dead, with bullet wounds to his stomach and heart. None of the officers was injured.

The police weren’t sure whose bullet had killed Windy. However he’d been lying in the backseat of the car during the gun battle, which made it unlikely that the officers, firing from a low angle, had shot him. John told police that Harry fired the fatal shot after the argument moved inside the speakeasy. Morris, once he’d recovered, said the same thing. But velvet-tongued Harry claimed John had fired the fatal shot.

Harry with charged with Windy’s murder. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault to kill and was sent to prison for ten years. He died in 1944 of stomach and liver cancer and was buried in a pauper’s grave in East St. Louis, Illinois.

John, whose father, Patrick Harrington, was a St. Louis policeman, returned to life as a salesman. He was killed in July 1952 when he failed to stop at an intersection near Route 66 in St. Louis County while driving his car at a high rate of speed. John’s car struck another vehicle and he was thrown 30 feet from his wreck. He died at the scene of fractures, shock and blunt force head trauma. Passengers in the other two cars involved in the crash suffered only minor injuries.

Morris survived but his lost his eye. He was returned to the MSP to finish his sentence once he’d recovered. He was released in 1934 and he moved back to his hometown of Kansas City. Eventually he became a part owner of Toffler’s Loan Shop in Leavenworth, Kansas. The store, part pawn shop and part general store, sold rifles, shotguns and pistols, among other things.

In December 1952, while demonstrating a revolver he believed to be unloaded, Morris snapped the trigger and the gun exploded. It wounded him in the hand and wounded a bystander in the arm. He recovered from his second gunshot wound and lived another 33 years, dying in 1995 at the age of 90.

Featured photo: Morris Rosen’s mugshot, taken on November 19, 1931. The Missouri State Penitentiary Database, collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Gambling with Gangsters

Gambling with Gangsters

Large amounts of money have been found cleverly concealed about the persons of J. J. Kellogg and J. MacDonald, held here for questioning. The men were arrested Wednesday as suspicious characters.

— The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), October 12, 1931

Nothing says “crook” quite like cash concealed in your clothing. One man had $1400* ($23,172) in hundred dollar bills sewn in the lining of his coat sleeve. His pal had $560 ($9,269) in hidden compartments in the instep and heel of his shoe.

They were spotted hanging around the downtown streets of Washington, Iowa, on the evening of October 8, 1931. Earlier in the day they’d checked into the Colenso Hotel on the town’s main drag. The coat cash man said his name was J. J. Kellogg and James McDonald was who the shoe cash man claimed to be. After the pair booked into the hotel, they’d inquired about what time the local banks opened their doors.

Naturally the cops wanted to know who they were and what they were up to.

J. J. Kellogg, who looked like he walked out of central casting for the role of a two-bit gangster in an Edward G. Robinson film, stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington where most of the townsfolk were farmers. With the fedora, cigar, lean, hungry face and suspicious eyes — he might as well have had “gangster” tattoed on his forehead.

He was taken into custody for having false license plates on his car. The police then discovered that one of the many names he used was Riley Gaffigan. They suspected that Riley and his buddy James had been part of a gambling con pulled the previous January in Springfield, Illinois.

Abe Lincoln Hotel Springfield

Hotel Abraham Lincoln

The victim of that con was Myrtle Tanner Blacklidge, the tax collector for the second wealthiest district in the United States — the northern part of Illinois, which included Chicago. Myrtle went to the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in Springfield on January 22, 1931. There she played the card game faro with three men in a hotel room. The men told Myrtle she’d won $207,000 ($3,426,258) but they claimed her win was “on paper.” They wanted Myrtle to fork over $50,000 ($827,598) cash to replace a check she’d provided to get into the game. Only then, they said, could they give her the winnings.

Though she had a well-paying job, Myrtle had expensive tastes and was desperate for cash. She’d lost both her adult son and her husband to illness within weeks of each other the previous year. She borrowed the $50,000 in $1000 bills from a friend — defeated Chicago mayoral candidate, Edward Litsinger. Of course Litsinger, like any Chicago pol worth his salt, expected something in return for the loan. Myrtle promised him $10,000 ($165,519) of her winnings.

She rejoined the card players and handed over the $50,000 cash, but she was unable to resist a little more gambling. She lost the whole $50,000 but figured she still had $157,000  ($2,598,659) coming to her. The men told her to wait in the room while they went to get the remainder of her winnings. They never reappeared. “I realized I had been duped,” she later commented.

Litsinger said Myrtle lied to him about why she needed the money, telling him it was to complete a “business deal,” not to gamble. He promised to sue her. Then it was revealed that it was actually Litsinger’s nephew, Fred Litsinger, the tax reviewer for northern Illinois, who’d handed over his uncle’s cash. Fred had done a bit of gambling himself at the time. Hoping to avoid bad publicity for his family, Edward dropped the lawsuit.

Myrtle resigned from her tax revenue job due to the scandal.

George Perry, known in Chicago as “Big George” Parker, was shot to death in his home in South Bend, Indiana, a few months later. Myrtle identified him as one of the three men who’d taken her in the faro game.

The authorities thought they’d found the remaining two men when the Iowa police arrested Riley and James. In addition to the cash hidden in their clothes and shoes the men carried a substantial number of used cashier’s checks with the details erased out. Police believed their current racket was to start poker games with local farmers, paying out their losses with the bogus checks.

Not wanting to personally confront the gangsters, Myrtle and Fred were unwilling to go to Iowa to identify the men. Myrtle looked at photos of Riley and James and said she thought they weren’t the ones. The men each paid hefty $500 ($8,275) fines for driving with illegal license plates on their car and were released. They melted into the criminal underworld and weren’t heard from again under the names they’d used in Washington, Iowa.

No one was ever arrested for the faro game con.

Myrtle and pals

Myrtle’s troubles continued when the wife of a policeman sued her for $100,000 ($1,837,537) in 1934, claiming Myrtle had stolen the affections of her husband. Torrid love letters from Myrtle to “Denny, Darling” were produced in court as evidence. The jury awarded $7,500 ($140,815) to the wife, and Myrtle, unable to pay, was sent to jail. Ironically the policeman’s wife was required to pay Myrtle’s jail boarding fees — 50 cents ($9) per day!

In her last years Myrtle lived in a Chicago nursing home, where she wrote for the monthly newspaper, “The Optimist.” She died at the home in 1958, aged 79.

*Note: U.S. dollars were converted to 2018 values using an inflation calculator and are listed in parentheses.

Featured photos: mugshots (?) identified on the reverse as “James J. Kellog, alias Billie Gafney, Laferty.” Collection of the author.

East-West Triangle

East-West Triangle

On the night before Midi was killed, I sat in my hotel room and prayed to God. I had procured a butcher knife from the café in which I worked and, as I sharpened it on a whetstone, I prayed to Him for strength. The next morning I went to the Takaoka home and entered Midi’s bedroom. She was as sleep. I awakened her and held her hand. I said ‘Molly, what has happened? You can’t marry Bachand.’ She said ‘Ray, I guess New York has spoiled me.’ She started to get up and put on her stockings. I couldn’t control myself any longer. I struck her many times on the head with a cold chisel then slashed her across the throat with the butcher knife.

— Raymond E. Johnson, confession for the murder of Midi Takoaka

On the morning of August 11, 1936, Ray Johnson, a 39-year-old Los Angeles cook, murdered his lover, 25-year-old Midi Takaoka. The mortally wounded young woman was able to stagger outside to the lawn of her home at 1211 North Commonwealth Avenue, where she collapsed and died.

Midi Taka better pic

Midi Takaoka, Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1936

Mizuye, known as “Midi,” was a professional dancer and singer. She was born in Ehime, Japan, in 1910 to Imahei and Kazuko Takaoka. Midi and her three siblings immigrated with their parents to California in 1918 when she was five.

Midi’s father, Imahei, described as a “fire-and-brimstone Christian minister,” was a founder of the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. When he died of tuberculosis in 1930, aged 45, Midi’s family was left destitute. To help them survive financially, she and her two younger sisters, Mary and Myrtle, formed a vaudeville trio called the Taka Sisters.

Though the Taka sisters weren’t triplets, they billed themselves as “the only Japanese triplets on stage” and it helped them find an audience. They danced around in a routine similar to the “three little maids” from the Mikado, then threw off their kimono and danced to fast jazz. The show was risqué and, after headlining at Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago in 1935, the beautiful sisters became nationally known, performing in nightclubs across the United States.

Taka Sisters

The Taka Sisters, The Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1936

Midi and Ray had known each other for three years. They met at the famous Palomar Dance Hall in Los Angeles, where Ray worked as a cook. He was in love with Midi but the relationship was complicated because he was 14 years older and had a wife who refused to divorce him. Another problem was the laws against interracial marriages that existed in many states at that time.

Midi was tired of waiting for Ray to get himself free. On a trip home, after performing in New York City, she met a new man named William Bachand. While traveling west on the bus, the pair fell head over heels in love. By the time they reached St. Louis, William had proposed marriage and given Midi a ring. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, he asked Midi’s mother for her hand in marriage and apparently Kazuko agreed to the match. William gave Midi a second ring to seal the deal.

The couple went to Yuma, Arizona, on August 9th, to try to get married, but authorities turned them away because Midi was Asian and William was white. Dejected, they returned to Los Angeles.

Johnson and Bachand pics

Rivals: Johnson and Bachand, The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1936

Hearing about Midi’s new love, Ray became enraged. Shortly after the couple got back from Arizona, Ray attacked William, stabbing him five times with an ice pick at the Takaoka home on the night of August 10th. Midi’s younger brother, Hallelujah, pulled Ray off and ordered him to get out. William, not seriously injured, was treated at a local hospital and released. Ray’s jealousy went unquenched, so the following morning he returned to the home, where he murdered Midi and then fled.

A guilt-stricken Ray turned himself in to the sheriff of Corona, California, three days later. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in November 1936. He received a life sentence for the murder, plus 10 years for the ice pick attack. He served his sentence at San Quentin prison. Despite the life sentence, he was paroled after 12 years, in 1948.

William Bachand returned to his home in Massachusetts and promptly got into trouble with the police. In March 1937 he was arrested in Leominster for stealing a bicycle and passing a bad check, all while wearing a stolen army uniform. Police uncovered his romance with the murdered woman and he admitted he lied to Midi about his background, telling her he was born in France and worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He also lied about his age — he was only 18 years old when he met Midi. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to four months in the house of correction. In 1944 he was again in police trouble for larceny and check fraud. Rather than return to prison he skipped town and was also charged as a fugitive from justice.

Midi’s sisters disbanded their act after her murder and never performed again. Due to their Japanese ethnicity, the Takaoka family was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, during Word War II.

California finally repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1948. Arizona’s ban was not repealed until 1962.

Featured image: Raymond E. Johnson’s San Quentin mugshot, California State Archives

Rival Burning

Rival Burning

Jacob Kowalsky was in the grips of the green-eyed monster in July 1908. An Austrian immigrant who worked as a carpenter, Jacob was upset with John Smith, a young man who once boarded in his Bayside home. When John lived with the Kowalskys, he made the mistake of flirting with Jacob’s wife.

Bayside, a community in Queens, is now a crowded, heavily residential borough of New York City, but back in the early 1900s it was still semi-rural. Farms were scattered here and there, along with large summer residences owned by the wealthy wanting to escape the heat, smell and clamor of nearby Manhattan.

It was a scalding hot day when John, carrying a load of freshly harvested hay, came riding along in his wagon, pulled by a team of horses. He was bound for his barn and it was so hot that he didn’t notice at first that his hay was on fire. Suddenly he realized the heat was increasing and it was on the side of the wagon away from the sun, which made no sense. By the time he turned around to check, his load was entirely ablaze.

He jumped down from the wagon and began to unharness the horses in an effort to and keep them from being burned alive. He managed to get the animals unhitched, however in the process his hands and arms were seriously burned and the horses were badly burned in their hindquarters. John recognized Jacob, who was running away from the blazing wagon. No one else was in sight except for a farmer coming along behind with another wagonload of hay.

The Bayside and Little Neck fire brigades managed to put out the blaze before it spread beyond the wagon. Jacob was arrested and charged with arson.

Jacob, who spoke no English, had to testify through an interpreter at his trial. He admitted he was present when the fire broke out, but claimed he saw two boys set the fire and then run off. The boys were never located. The farmer driving behind John testified, damningly, that Jacob appeared on the roadway and asked him for a ride home! He declined, fearing the man might set his wagon on fire too.

Jacob complained that when John was his boarder he tried to “boss everybody around, including my wife.” John’s attentions to his “young and buxom” wife were apparently the real crux of the problem. He accused John (unjustly, according to John) of trying to steal her affections. He didn’t ask John to leave but literally threw him out of the house.

The jury believed John Smith’s version of events. The prosecution argued for a conviction on first or second degree arson since John had been on the wagon at the time the fire was set. However Jacob got a lesser sentence of third degree arson for “setting fire to an uninhabited place.”

According to newspaper headlines, Jacob Kowalsky “smoked out a rival for his wife’s affections.” More accurately he tried to set the rival on fire. It earned him four years in Sing Sing Prison.

Featured image: Jacob Kowalsky’s Sing Sing Prison Bertillon card (front). Collection of the author.