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.

Checkered Career

Checkered Career

Arraigned in police court yesterday before magistrate P.J. McNamara, George Kelly, 27, of Wilkes-Barre, was held in $500 bail on a charge of larceny, while a woman, who describes herself as Dorothy, his wife, 22, was held under a similar bond as accessory.

 

The woman has had a rather picturesque career, according to her story to Superintendent of Police M.J. McHugh. She says she ran away from home, lured by the glamor of the stage, when only fifteen years of age. She started out as a chorus girl, drifted into the carnival field in the role of fortune teller, then cowgirl with a wild west show, later into vaudeville, and most recently into burlesque. Her mother, she says, is the owner of a store in Wilkes-Barre.

 

The couple were (sic) arrested here for the theft of a dress from the Jordan & Plottle store on Wyoming avenue.

The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), October 26, 1923

Burlesque dancer 1920s

Burlesque dancer, 1920s.

Did Dorothy want a new dress for her burlesque routine or did she need something valuable to pawn or resell? One minute she and her friend George were discussing what to buy at an upscale Scranton ladies clothing shop and the next minute they were gone, taking an expensive dress with them but omitting to pay for it. The shop clerk immediately noticed the dress was missing and called the police.

Police quickly arrested Dorothy and George. Their refusal to tell detectives where they lived made the authorities think they had more stolen loot at their house. Add to that the fact that George had a police record — he’d been arrested a few months earlier on suspicion of burglary. The police decided he was not involved in the burglaries, but he was told to get out of Scranton — an order he’d ignored.

In her mugshots Dorothy looks more amused than worried about the situation she found herself in. Maybe she’d been arrested before and figured it was no big deal.

Dorothy Kelly_back_marked

Whether or not the couple was actually husband and wife or just shoplifting cronies couldn’t be determined. Young Dorothy had a checkered career after running away from home at a tender age. She started out as a chorus girl and things went downhill from there, to the point that she was doing semi-nude “burlesque” dancing for a living by the time she and George were arrested.

George pleaded guilty to larceny and receiving the following month. The case against Dorothy was dropped but there’s no doubt that the judge ordered her to get out of town. If she had any sense she complied.

Featured photos: Front of Dorothy Kelly’s 1923 Bertillon card. Collection of the author.

Puzzled Police

Puzzled Police

On March 4, 1938, Jean Williams was arrested in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for disorderly conduct. Born in New York City, Jean told the police she worked as a “nightclub entertainer.” After conducting a search of her person, police placed Jean, who was dressed in men’s clothing, in the cell room for males. This was apparently her first arrest in Scranton.

Jean_Williams_confuses_police

Headline from The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Saturday, March 5, 1938.

A friend arrived at the police station a short time later, asking why Jean had been arrested. After informing Captain John Lewis that Jean was female, the friend wanted to know why Jean was being held in a cell for male prisoners. Eventually he succeeded in convincing the police captain that Jean was a woman. She was transferred to the women’s cells and later discharged.

Scranton Police arrested Jean again for disorderly conduct on December 12, 1938. Her booking card indicates that she was 27 years old, tall and slender, with black hair and “maroon” colored eyes. In the “mustache” section of the card the police wrote “Hermaphrodite” in parentheses, as if embarrassed and needing to whisper the description. It’s unknown which cells she was placed in on that occasion.

Jean Williams_back_marked

Jean Williams’ police booking card (back). Collection of the author.

Jean identified as a female. Her face, with its delicate features and thin eyebrows, looks feminine, however she has a distinct adam’s apple, no breasts and she’s dressed as a male. The way her hair is tucked under at the back gives the impression that she’d recently been wearing a wig.

The confusion regarding Jean’s gender identity isn’t surprising. America in the 1930s was decades away from acceptance of people who didn’t fit clearly into traditional sex roles and appearances. The word “transgender” wouldn’t come into common use until the 1970s. It would take until almost the end of the 20th century, with advances in understanding of genetics, for the word “hermaphrodite” to be replaced by “intersex.”

Jean appears in only one Scranton city directory — the 1936 edition. Her profession is listed as “waiter” so she may have identified then as male. She worked at a Scranton tavern called the Ritz Café that was raided by police due to violations of the state’s liquor laws.

After December 1938 Jean could not be traced. Perhaps she’d had enough of being arrested by the puzzled police in Scranton, so she moved on.

Featured photo: Jean Williams’ police booking card (front). Collection of the author.