Little Black Books

Little Black Books

Eighteen-year-old Sherrie Lee Smith had made some bad life decisions and was in a bind. The guy she’d come to Oregon with had been convicted of robbery and sentenced to prison. Back in California, her husband had custody of their three kids and he’d filed for divorce.

She found work in Portland as a call girl, but bad luck dogged her. She got caught in a vice raid. She was charged with prostitution and released on bail.

The Portland vice squad had been investigating what the press described as “a large call girl ring” operating in the city. Girls as young as 15 had been arrested in the raids. Oscar Howlett, the deputy district attorney, needed evidence to arrest the ringleaders, but he was finding it hard to get any.

Sherrie called Howlett on the last day of December 1958. She told him she had important information that could help him and she wanted to trade it in exchange for dropping the prostitution charge. They arranged to meet the following day.

Sherrie Smith back_marked_flipped

Sherrie failed to show for the meeting. A couple weeks later her mugshots were copied and given to the press. Evidently a newspaper printed her front photo (that’s why the side view is crossed out) after she went missing — a dangerous “outing” of an important potential witness. Attorney Howlett announced to the press that he was concerned because he’d heard through the grapevine that the thugs who operated the call-girl ring had beaten her up to scare her into silence.

Several months later, during a vice crackdown in which 200 women were arrested, the police located several little black address books that were “penned in feminine script.” The books contained names of hundreds of clients and many of them were prominent men in Portland. The amounts paid for call girl services —between $10 and $3,000 — were noted in the books. Information about each client’s income had been carefully recorded, along with comments such as “has paid as high as $3,00 for a two-girl party” and “always get money first.”

An unnamed young woman gave testimony to a secret Multnomah County grand jury in May 1959. In her testimony she stated that another woman made the arrangements with the customers and they split the proceeds. She said that even at fees ranging from between $20 to $300, she was earning no more than if she worked at a legitimate job and intended to quit hooking. According to a press report, she claimed she “had been a call girl here in the six weeks since she’d come from California.”

Possibly this witness was Sherrie Lee Smith, but the facts don’t quite fit, because Smith had been in Portland since October 1958 and she was arrested in December 1958.

As a result of the grand jury hearing, two Portland women in their 30s and a 26-year-old woman from Vancouver, Washington, were indicted on three charges: soliciting for a prostitute, bringing together two persons for immoral purposes and being an immoral woman. Attorney Howlettt said he didn’t think he’d need to subpoena any of the clients, who “would suffer from the publicity,” to get a conviction. This proved to be accurate; there was no trial because the three women pleaded guilty.

Prostitution is usually controlled by organized crime. But in Portland in 1959, only the three women ended up serving time. Howlett admitted during the hearings that the call girl business “is operating full blast” in Portland.

Sherrie, despite her youth, looks like a woman who was able to handle herself. I hope she survived her time in Portland.

 

 

 

Nearly Lynched

Nearly Lynched

With the crowd yelling “lynch him; lynch him,” a squad of patrolmen in Scranton last night used their night sticks with telling effect, rescuing Jasper Johnson, a young negro, from a frenzied mob of several thousand men and boys at the carnival grounds on Providence road, in that city, after Johnson had fired five shots, probably fatally wounding one man.

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), July 19, 1916

Jasper Johnson worked in the African Dodger booth at the B. H. Patrick Show Carnival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jasper’s job was to put his head through a hole in a canvas curtain and dodge baseballs thrown at him by patrons, who paid a nickel for three balls and the chance to hit Jasper’s head and win a prize.

The African Dodger game was very popular with white carnival-goers across America, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century. The baseballs were hard and the risk of injury was high. Sometimes people also brought bricks and other objects to throw at the dodger. Dunk tanks featuring African Americans eventually replaced the African Dodger game.

Jasper didn’t wear a pad to protect his head, but the 21-year-old was adept at avoiding the balls. Of course sometimes he got hit, but he tried hard to never to show how painful the blows to his head and face were.

Carnival hammer machine

On the evening of July 18, 1916, Joseph Alesko was at the hammer machine booth next to the African Dodger booth. The goal of the hammer machine, sometimes called a high striker or strength tester, was to ring a bell at the top of a tower by hitting a puck at the bottom with a hammer or mallet. Joseph, a powerfully built man, was very successful at ringing the bell that evening. Every time he rang it he demanded a cigar from the man who ran the machine. The attendant finally told him it was time for him to let someone else have a try, but Joseph refused to move. A quarrel ensued between the two men that led to blows.

Jasper heard the commotion and left his booth to assist the man who ran the hammer machine. He asked Joseph to move along. At just under 5’10” and 171 lbs., Jasper was a sturdy man but Joseph was a larger and stronger. He threw Jasper to the ground and began to beat him. Jasper pulled a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket and fired at Joseph. The shot went wide and hit a bystander, Dominick Puhofsky, in his side. The bullet arced up and forward, coming to rest near Dominick’s eighth rib.

Then all hell broke loose.

A crowd gathered around Jasper, punching and kicking him. He broke free and fired four more warning shots into the crowd. No one was hit by those shots.

He ran towards a nearby car barn with the mob chasing him and screaming for blood. He was brought to the ground with a flying tackle by one of the men and another man grabbed his gun from him. Some of the mob continued to beat Jasper. Soon the crowd began to chant, “lynch him.”

Two policeman arrived and tried to intervene but mob beat them too. Finally a large contingent of officers showed up. They managed to put down the riot without further injuries and the crowd dispersed.

Joseph was arrested and taken to jail. Dominick was taken to the state hospital for surgical treatment to remove the bullet. Jasper was also taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries from the beating he suffered at the hands of the mob. Despite wounds that can be clearly seen in his mugshots, doctors at the hospital claimed he had faked his injuries. 

Joseph was charged with fighting, fined $10 and released from custody. Jasper was taken from the hospital to jail. He charged with assault with intent to murder, but if Dominick died, he would be charged with murder. Fortunately Dominick eventually recovered from his injuries and Jasper was released from jail.

Camp Dix, West Jersey History Project

America entered World War I eight months later, on April 2, 1917. Jasper joined the 15th New York Infantry (renamed the 369thInfantry). The military was still segregated and the 15th Infantry was an all black regiment. Jasper began his training at Camp Whitman in New York on July 24, 1917.

In September 1917 Jasper was shot and killed by a fellow soldier named George Westerfield during an argument over a blanket at Camp Dix in New Jersey. Jasper was described in a news article about the killing as “very popular among the colored soldiers. He was of a jolly disposition and had made many friends since coming to Camp Dix thru his fun-making during baseball games, he having been a member of the regiment’s team.”

Jasper’s WWI Service Card, Ancestry.com

Private Westerfield was tried by court-martial for killing Jasper. Because America was at war, a guilty verdict (which seems likely, though no proof of that was found) was punishable with execution by firing squad.

In January 1921, Dominick Puhofsky, the man Jasper shot by accident, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound “while temporarily deranged.”

Featured photo: Mugshots of Jasper Johnson made by the Detective Service of the Scranton Police Department on July 18, 1916. Collection of the author.