Shooting Louis

Shooting Louis

Last night I called on Alice Martin, the girl I am to marry. I stayed at her home, No. 622 East Thirteenth street, until midnight. Then I went to a restaurant at Twelfth street and Third avenue for something to eat. Later I went to Meiser’s saloon, in Thirteenth street, between avenue B and C. Then I started for home.

— Statement of Louis Betsch, The Evening World (New York City), January 18, 1905

NYPD officer Anthony Muldoon was on his beat on the lower east side of Manhattan when he noticed two men loitering suspiciously in front of a house on Sixteenth Street. The time was about 2:45 in the morning. The men noticed Muldoon and ran off. Just moments later he heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the front of a nearby shoe store and a man stepped from the shadows of the doorway of the store.

“I told him to halt,” Muldoon told his captain, “and he ran. I followed, but he was fleeter than I. I drew my pistol and yelled that I would shoot. I fired above his head, but he continued to run. Just at this time I slipped on the ice in the street and fell and my revolver discharged accidently. The man fell in his tracks with a bullet in his back.”

Officers in the NYPD were first issued guns in 1895 by an order from Teddy Roosevelt after he became the New York City Police Commissioner. Prior to that time officers used their personal guns on the job. Standardizing the firearms carried by policemen was part of Roosevelt’s push to clean up the department.

The man Muldoon shot was Louis Betsch, a 23-year-old self-described “boilermaker.” He was taken to nearby Bellevue Hospital. There he made a statement under oath to the New York City Coroner proclaiming his innocence in any wrongdoing. The other men Muldoon saw near the shoe store were never located.

Bellevue_Welcome_1898

Bellevue Hospital circa 1898, collection of the Wellcome Library

Louis lived in a rented room on Ninth Avenue and took his meals with his widowed mother and younger siblings at their apartment on Tenth Avenue. His mother, Lizzie, a German immigrant, told police her son was always “sober and steady.” She admitted that he’d been out of work for some time, but things, she said, were looking up for her oldest child, who told her that he’d recently found a job in an umbrella factory.

Alice Martin, Louis’s fiancé, was a 19-year-old button maker who told police she hadn’t seen Louis that evening. Alice lived with her Austrian immigrant parents and siblings in a tenement on East Thirteenth Street. She told the police that she’d been to a music lesson after dinner and after the lesson ended, around 9 p.m., she’d returned home and gone directly to bed. Her mother backed up her story.

“It’s absolutely untrue that Louis called on me last night,” said Miss Martin. “I have all the confidence in the world in him, but if he tells of having been with me last night he is hiding something.”

One thing Louis was hiding was that he’d been arrested for burglary on July 1, 1902. His arrest card, complete with photos, measurements and his description was in the NYPD’s vast rogues’ gallery collection. (“LB — RB” was tattooed on his left arm. Tattoos were considered to be a sign of inherent criminality, in addition to being a way to identify someone, so the police always took note of them.) Evidently no one figured out that Louis had a criminal record.

Louis Betsch_back_marked

Officer Muldoon was a 35-year-old Irishman who’d been on the force at least eight years. He’d received a medal for bravery the previous year after jumping into the icy East River in January to rescue a man from drowning. With his record it wasn’t a hard call for his boss, Captain Hussey, to declare the shooting accidental on the morning after the event. He told Muldoon to return to his post.

Gunshot wounds were often fatal in the years before reliable anesthesia, universal sterile technique, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Louis died of his injuries at the hospital later that day.

Featured photos: mugshots of Louis Betsch, NYPD Bertillon card, July 1, 1902. Collection of the author.

Mistaken

Mistaken

LOS ANGELES, May 11. — Carl York, 22-year-old police informer who was shot down by detectives through “mistake,” died today in General hospital. He succumbed to five bullet wounds while police sought to link him with a series of recent filling station robberies. They claimed nine attendants identified the youth as one of two bandits who staged a series of recent spectacular raids in which attendants were kidnapped.

York denied any complicity in the robberies.

San Bernardino Sun, May 12, 1935

Carl York, a police informer, and W.L. Lanier, a narcotics squad detective with the LAPD, mounted the rickety stairs to the second floor door of a cheap Los Angeles rooming house during the early hours of the morning on May 8, 1935. Carl and Lanier didn’t know it, but three LAPD robbery squad detectives were staked out in a “bandit trap” near the bottom of the stairs outside the house, waiting for the occupants to return. The detectives had already searched inside the house, where they’d found a handgun and a small amount of narcotics.

“We’re police officers, hands up!” came the command from below as Carl and Lanier moved towards the door. Carl’s hand moved towards his hip pocket and the officers on the ground floor opened fire. Lanier wasn’t hit but Carl slumped over, seriously wounded. Lanier shone his flashlight in the direction of the gunfire. Recognizing one of the shooters as a fellow officer, he identified himself and ordered them to stop firing.

shooting photo

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935.

Carl didn’t have a weapon. He was taken to the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries three days later. He left a wife and small daughter in Denver, Colorado.

Carl York not a mugshot

The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1935

News reports described Carl as both an “undercover agent” and a “police informer” who was engaged in a narcotics investigation when he was shot by mistake. Both the LAPD narcotics and robbery squads were involved in separate investigations that brought them to the rooming house on the morning that Carl was shot. Each squad was unaware of what the other was doing.

The police claimed witnesses identified Carl as one of two men who carried out a series of raids in which parking lot attendants and vehicle owners were carjacked at gunpoint, robbed of small amounts of cash and kidnapped. Over the course of four days in April 1935, the bandits struck 12 times. The culprits drove the stolen cars, sometimes with the victim inside, through the city at high speeds. They’d abandon one car and steal another one. The victims were frightened, but not injured, though one man was thrown from his vehicle while it was moving and another was forced to hand over most of his clothing before being released from his car semi-nude.

Carl York mugshot

News photo mugshot of Carl York, May 9, 1935. Collection of the author.

The L.A. coroner ordered an inquest into Carl’s death. The verdict was “justifiable homicide” — an accidental and unintentional shooting by the officers. The Municipal League demanded an inquiry into Carl’s shooting, but nothing came of that.

After Carl’s death, four men reported to be Carl’s criminal associates were charged with robbery and conspiracy to rob but there’s no evidence that they were ever tried or sentenced to prison.

Then in June 1937, a series of kidnap robberies that were eerily similar to the crimes of April 1935 occurred in Bakersfield, California, 115 miles north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles residents Moran Pierce and Charles W. Taylor, both aged 23, committed the crimes.

Armed with automatic pistols, Pierce and Taylor staged their first holdup at El Tejon garage. They stopped E.W. Stevenson of Burlingame, as he drove into the garage in a big Packard, and subsequently held up Henry Lopez, garage attendant. Both Stevenson and Lopez were taken out on the Edison Highway, obliged to get out of the car and were strapped to the fence with belts.

 

Pierce and Taylor returned to Bakersfield and held up H.R. Thompson, operator of a Richfield service station, at Twenty-first Street and Golden State Highway. They abandoned their stolen automobile after this holdup and returned to their hotel.

The Bakersfield Californian, June 15, 1937

Pierce and Taylor were captured in their flophouse the morning after the crime spree during a search of all the rooming houses in the vicinity. The two men admitted to the Bakersfield kidnap robberies, along with some other burglaries. They also told police they pulled two service station kidnap robberies in Los Angeles a few days before the Bakersfield crimes. Both got life sentences, with Pierce heading to Folsom State Prison and Taylor going to San Quentin.

No photo of Taylor was located, however Pierce and Carl bear a resemblance to each other. It’s plausible that Carl was mistaken for Pierce who, along with Taylor, committed the Los Angeles kidnap robberies in April 1935. Then the pair laid low for a while only to reappear and commit similar crimes in Bakersfield. If so, Carl was telling the truth when he said he had nothing to do with the kidnap robberies. After death he was vilified as a criminal when perhaps all he’d done was help the police with their narcotics investigation.

Featured photo: Moran Pierce (left) in his Folsom prison photo, collection of the California State Archives. Carl York (right) in a news photo mugshot, collection of the author.

Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets

At 11:15 a.m. the prisoner, William Collon of 406 East 142d Street, the Bronx, was being led up a staircase from the detention pen by Patrolman Michael Murphy. The staircase leads into the courtroom, about fifteen feet from the bench. The landing is flanked on all sides by iron-grated doors. As the prisoner reached the landing he pushed open a door, climbed a three-foot-high ledge, opened a window that was eighteen inches wide and leaped, landing on 161st Street, near Third Avenue.

The New York Times, July 2, 1952

After 23-year-old Collon jumped 20 feet to the street below, all hell broke loose at the Bronx Borough Courthouse in New York City. Detective Jeremiah O’Connor heroically jumped on the window ledge in an attempt to grab Collon, but was unable to catch him. He fired his revolver three times, including a warning shot in the air. Detective David Wahl arrived at the window and fired six times. Patrolman Robert E. Lee (no kidding) leaned between the two detectives and fired twice. An unidentified detective in the street fired four shots.

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Bronx Borough Court House in 2008. Courtesy of Jim Henderson via Wikimedia.

Passersby on the street below scattered in fear when the shots rang out and shopkeepers took cover under their store counters. Patrolman Irving Resnick was standing in the street below the window. He seized a man running by him that he thought was the prisoner, but another nearby patrolman, James Coyle, shouted that he had the wrong man—Coyle had spotted Collon crouched behind a parked car a block away.

Fifteen shots were fired in less than a minute on the morning of Tuesday, July 1, 1952. The escaping prisoner was hit three times: in the spine, the elbow and the back. He was carried back to the courthouse and taken to the hospital where he was listed in critical condition. When asked why he jumped, he said he didn’t know.

Pauline_Weidt_injured_by_stray_bullet__Photo

Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Lancaster, Ohio), July 12, 1952.

Collon was awaiting arraignment at police court when he escaped. The previous Sunday night, while still on probation for an earlier burglary, he had been caught attempting to burglarize an apartment at 202 St. Ann’s Avenue.

Two bystanders were shot during Collon’s escape attempt. Anna Marie Alers, a pregnant 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, was visiting friends who lived near the courthouse. After hearing the shots she leaned out a window and was hit in the thigh by a bullet. She was taken to Lincoln Hospital, where she was listed in fair condition.

Pauline Weidt, a 28-year-old bookkeeper for a dental laboratory on 161st Street, was working near an open window that morning, trying to catch the breeze on a hot summer day. One of the wayward bullets lodged her in breastbone. Pauline was also taken to Lincoln Hospital, where the bullet was removed and she was released.

The following day Magistrate Joseph Martinis ordered “each prisoner will be accompanied by a police officer from the pen to the bench.” Two weeks later Collon, whose condition had improved, was indicted on charges of third degree burglary and unlawful escape.

The police court operated at the courthouse until 1977 when the building was closed by the city. Currently on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, the building is under redevelopment by a private developer.

Featured photo: news photo of Pauline Weidt escorted by officers after she was shot. Collection of the author.