On a farm outside of East Liverpool, Ohio, Pretty Boy Floyd had been gunned down by a squad of federal agents led by the most famous G-man of them all, Melvin Purvis. The dapper desperado had enjoyed dinner at the home of Ellen Conkle, paid her a dollar and left by a rear window in a vain effort to elude the men who would kill him.
The news came over the radio that morning, and the whole town was talking about it. But by the time the old Niagara Falls Gazette came out late that afternoon, the talk had turned to crime of a more local nature.
Harry "The Whiz" White had fought 36 fights during the 1920s, ending his career as a lightweight with a record of 20-10-6 and a quintessential Irish face that hadn't been mauled too badly. He'd had a few money bouts, most notably a lost decision to the Canadian champion Tommy Mitchell in 1923, and managed to save enough to buy a home outside of town in what was then known as Wheatfield Farms, where he lived with his wife and two sons.
Early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1934, he was tending bar at the Museum Grill, a bar, restaurant and gambling den owned by a Jewish gangster named Moe Schwartz, who led a small, mixed mob of Irish and Jewish toughs out of the place.
Harry White fit right in. He was fond of a drink and could turn on the charm like nobody's business. But beneath it all lay a black streak and fearlessness that made him a dangerous man.
His last professional fight had been back in 1926 against heavyweight contender Harry Wine, "The Fighting Blacksmith" of Roundup, Mt. White lost by a knockout in the third round of the scheduled four-rounder, but not before making things very interesting for his much larger opponent.
Things had been quiet for most of the night. As usual, the Museum Grill had stayed open far past closing time, a tip of the hat from graveyard shift Capt. Patrick J. Carmody, Chief of Detectives Martin Considine and beat Det. Robert Fitzsimmons. One thing about the Irish in those days, they stuck together no matter what color suit they happened to wear.
Inside, White stood behind the bar chatting with Roland Shay, another of Schwartz's men, and your usual innocent bystander, a guy from the neighborhood named Karl Fischer. Tommy Krystal, the bouncer, stood just outside the front door, and in the back room, owner Moe Schwartz and bar manager Al Levy sat at a table playing cards.
If you're from anyplace else in the world, you might think it somewhat peculiar to have a notorious after-hours joint located inside a museum, but people in Niagara Falls wouldn't bat an eyelash over such an arrangement.
After all, the Niagara Falls Museum itself was run by Saul Davis, a shady Canadian dealer of antiquities who'd built the fabulous five-story Gothic structure around the turn of the century to house a collection of Egyptian mummies, American Indian artifacts and two-headed farm animals he'd picked up for a song at an auction where other prospective buyers were discouraged both by his dubious reputation and by the size of the goons he brought with him to the sale.
So Saul was pals with Moe, and Moe was a friend of the Irish. Simple as that. Until about 4 o'clock that morning, when about a dozen Italian gentlemen led by Jimmy "The Horse Killer" Cini barged in, looking for trouble. Accompanied by Angelo Giambrone, Joe Ladota, Gerald Critelli, Nick Morrell and Jimmy Picorelli -- among others -- Cini walked in pushing the bouncer Tommy Krystal ahead of him.
Tommy was a tough guy, but nobody was that tough.
All of the men were associates of Falls mob chieftain Stefano Magaddino, whose Charles Distributing -- later to become Power City Beverage -- had a lock on the beer distribution business in Niagara Falls. When Moe Schwartz found he could buy beer cheaper someplace else, he told the Magaddinos they were no longer needed. So Cini and the boys dropped around that morning to have a "friendly discussion" about the matter and show Moe the error of his ways.
Things went bad quickly. According to later court testimony and police reports, Giambrone asked for a bottle of Chianti and was told by White there wasn't any. When White brought out a bottle of something else, one of the men threw it back at the ex-prizefighter, striking him in the head. White picked up a baseball bat and came around the bar. A melee ensued.
By the time the cops showed up at 5 a.m., the place was wrecked and eight men lay bleeding in the sawdust on the floor. Blue gunsmoke hung in the air below the white tin ceiling. Harry White was near death, a deep knife wound slashed across the width of his belly. Krystal had been similarly stabbed and wasn't expected to live. Shay also had a stab wound, apparently inflicted by an ice pick found at the scene.
Cini and Critelli had both been shot and were battered about the face and head, while Picorelli had a fractured skull and Ladota had been beaten and cut. The bystander, Karl Fischer, had been knocked cold when someone broke a chair over his head.
Police picked up five empty cartridge cases, flattened bullets that had missed their mark, a big pearl-handled jackknife with a long, open blade that had been sharpened like a razor, an ice pick, a couple of baseball bats and pieces of a .38 caliber revolver that had apparently been used as a bludgeon after its cylinder had been emptied.
All of the injured were rushed by ambulance to Mount St. Mary's Hospital on Sixth Street. The lucky gambler Angelo Giambrone had escaped unscathed. Only Moe Schwartz and Al Levy were left to tell the story, and they weren't saying much.
By noon, Harry White had succumbed to his wounds, and the Irish cops now had the murder of an Irishman on their hands.
Harry's funeral was a grand affair; it was a shame he had to miss it. In Irish fashion, the body was laid out at the 1613 Weston Ave. home of his father, John J. White, and Mass was held the next morning at Sacred Heart. The papers said the funeral procession numbered more than 100 automobiles, including two carrying nothing but the expensive floral arrangements sent by Harry's friends and associates.
For his grieving wife, Dorothy, and the two fatherless boys, Harry Jr. and John, the gaudy display was cold comfort.
A grand jury was convened in Lockport to hear evidence in the case, while the various combatants found at the Museum Grill recovered from their injuries. The powerful and mobbed-up City Court Judge Angelo Scalzo announced that he would lead the defense team in the case after Cini, Ladota, Critelli, Picorelli and Morrell were charged by police with first-degree murder.
The men were members of an 11th Street crew known to police as the Cockroach Gang, reporters learned. The name of Stefano Magaddino was never publicly brought up in connection with the case.
The day after the White killing, Moe Schwartz was picked up and charged with selling booze after hours. The next thing he knew, Lee Beers, the county's liquor control officer, lifted his license. It was an outrage.
Schwartz pulled some strings at City Hall and in Lockport, however, and was back open for business that night.
Niagara County District Attorney Raymond A. Knowles betrayed the weakness of his case a few days later in a press interview. The prosecution had "seven different theories" about what had happened in the Museum Grill that morning, he said, and each was being explored.
Through Judge Scalzo, the Italian faction maintained that they had been set upon by the Irish unprovoked. There was no evidence of any premeditation or conspiracy on the part of the men, he said, and evidence would show that the person who stabbed Harry White and the others could not be identified by any of the witnesses.
The cops got a scare when they received word that a gang from Buffalo was on its way to the Falls with the intention of freeing the hospitalized Italians. Uniformed and plainclothes officers armed with machine guns, rifles and revolvers threw up a line of defense around St. Mary's, guarding every entrance and exit and lining the corridor where the wounded men lay.
Critelli, Cini and Picorelli were loaded into ambulances and whisked away under cover of darkness, accompanied by seven heavily armed officers.
The gang from Buffalo never showed up at the hospital, but the newspaper guys got a good story out of it, in any event.
Jury selection for the trial began on Dec. 3, less than six weeks after the killing of Harry White. Still, the headline in the old Niagara Falls Gazette complained, "Progress Is Slow." None of the jurors selected were from Niagara Falls, and none had an obviously Irish, Jewish or Italian surname. Several came from North Tonawanda, one from Lewiston, one from Royalton, one from Hartland, two from Cambria and one from Newfane. In his opening remarks, District Attorney Knowles tossed a big-league curveball. He told the jurors they would hear of a "mysterious stranger," a man by the name of "Jimmy Sullivan."
Sullivan, he said, was the man who prevented the Italian gangsters from carrying out their intended wholesale slaughter that night in the Museum Grill.
"If it had not been for a mysterious individual named Jimmy Sullivan, who was in the grill on the morning of the murder, the five men under trial and seven others -- indicted but unnamed -- would have escaped and there would have been no witness left to tell what happened in the grill," Knowles said.
Fortunately, he added, Sullivan prevented this by shooting two of the men and driving the others out of the place after they had murdered White and left Krystal, Shay and the bystander Fischer down and wounded.
There was only one problem with the story Knowles told the jurors. Nobody knew who Sullivan was or where he might be found. He'd disappeared into the night like a comic book hero, leaving others to tell of his bold exploit.
It seemed a pretty slim reed on which to ask a jury of 12 grown men to condemn five other men to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing, but it was all Knowles had.
The prosecution's case was dealt another serious blow when several of its star witnesses, including Krystal -- who testified from a stretcher -- the bar manager Al Levy and the bystander Karl Fischer gave testimony that was significantly different from testimony they'd given to the grand jury just a couple of weeks earlier.
Under cross-examination, Krystal admitted he'd told the grand jury that Morrell had left the grill at least 10 minutes prior to the melee.
And Fischer now claimed that, at the first hint of trouble, he'd sought refuge in the men's room and didn't come out again until after it was all over. He testified further that he'd been so drunk that night to begin with, he didn't even remember entering the grill.
Scalzo demanded that the charges be dropped and his clients freed at once, which is probably exactly what would happen were the trial being held today. But it was 1934, the era of the Public Enemy. John Dillinger had been cut down unarmed in Chicago, and Pretty Boy Floyd died in a hail of bullets fired from behind as he ran through a plowed field in Ohio.
Niagara County Court Judge Alonzo G. Hinkley told Scalzo to sit down and shut up.
The prosecution rested its case, and the defense rested without calling a single witness. Scalzo told the jurors that the state had failed to prove any of the men on trial did anything wrong, much less planned and carried out the murder of Harry White.
Judge Hinkley took the unusual step of telling the jurors to forget about the first-degree murder charge and to consider a charge of manslaughter instead. The implication was clear: Clearly White was dead, and in all likelihood one of the defendants had killed him.
Thus the jurors were relieved of having to think about complicated issues like conspiracy and premeditation. District Attorney Knowles was ecstatic.
Four of the defendants -- Cini, Picorelli, Critelli and Ladota -- were convicted on the manslaughter charge and sentenced to terms ranging from four to 12 years in Attica State Penitentiary. Charges against Morrell were dropped. Harry White's widow said she feared retaliation from the Magaddino mob and fled with her sons to Pennsylvania.
Following his service in World War II, Harry White Jr. returned to Niagara Falls to avenge his father's killing, but police got wind of his plans and he was picked up. After taking away the gun he had on him, the cops let him go with a warning never to come to Niagara Falls again.
Interestingly, Harry Jr. wound up in Albuquerque, N.M., where he raised a family. His son, Darren White, now serves as sheriff of Bernalillo County there.
"I realize my whole life has been shaped around a crime scene," he recently told the Albuquerque Journal. "I think about it every day I go to one."
Angelo Giambrone, who was present but never prosecuted in the White killing, continued on his merry way as a mobbed-up gambler here for the next 17 years. His luck ran out when he was unable to cover a series of bad bets he'd placed, and he was declared MIA by the police in 1951.
As for the Museum Grill, it continued to operate in the bowels of the Niagara Falls Museum, that imposing Gothic structure built by Saul Davis on a street known as Riverway, a picturesque strip overlooking the falls that was popular with the tourists.
That was right up until the state Parks Commission decided it could rake in millions of dollars each year by having its own parking lot. The entire street was taken, the museum and other buildings torn down, and an important part of Niagara Falls history was lost forever.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 3 2009|