ON May 13, 1936, Thomas E. Dewey arose to address the jury. Ten months had elapsed since his appointment by Governor Lehman as Deputy Assistant District Attorney and Special Prosecutor investigating rackets in New York City. The public had been dubious then, and it was skeptical now. Smash the rackets? Citizens of the metropolis laughed mirthlessly over their morning papers. Who was this Dewey, anyway? Remembering other crusading lawyers whose partially successful efforts had soon been buried and forgotten, they could not foresee that they would soon have their answer.
In two years of activity the thirty-five-year-old Special Prosecutor has had seventy-two convictions out of seventy-three cases judicially determined, and the heat, as they say in the underworld, is still turned on. To his task he has brought, first of all, an admirable courage. He has selected men and women lawyers of absolute integrity for his staff, inspired them to great loyalty, and exacted an inestimable amount of toil. Dewey’s ability to prepare airtight cases and organize innumerable details before coming into court has been almost uncanny. Months of quiet, thorough work by picked investigators precede each case before it is presented in court.
On the May day in 1936 began the case of the People versus Charles ’Lucky’ Luciano and twelve other defendants, on trial for compulsory prostitution and conspiracy. Other trials have followed, all of great importance, but the Luciano case, perfectly illustrating the habits and weapons of the racketeer at bay, is perhaps the most remarkable. Certainly it is the most interesting.
Not all the dusty dignity of the law, the studied bleakness of an American courtroom, or the lumbering awkwardness of justice setting itself in motion was sufficient to throttle the dramatic tension which pervaded the room when Dewey first addressed the jury. Except that he lacked the physical characteristics and would have scorned the observation, he might have been billed as the ringmaster of a show such as the metropolis had never seen before. His theme was compulsory prostitution. For star performer, although an unwilling one, he had a peculiarly celebrated gangster, as able an exponent of high-powered racketeering as was still at large. For featured players he could offer a cast of shakedown artists, stick-up men, narcotics peddlers, loan sharks, and procurers, through which ran a sprinkling of wellknown trial lawyers. For chorus he had collected one hundred and twenty-five prostitutes and madams from the hotels, apartments, and sidewalks of New York. And finally there was Supreme Court Justice Philip J. McCook, presiding grimly and honorably from his high bench.
Dewey’s speech to the jurors, which rang up the curtain, was relatively brief and to the point, but before it was over it was apparent that the real defendant was not in court, except by proxy. That defendant was public apathy, verging at one extreme into active collusion with the underworld; and it was clearly the task of the investigators, not only in this trial but in those to follow, to convert that apathy into intelligent coöperation by relentless prosecution of the proxies.
Working from five to six hours a day for more than six months, a special grand jury had heard more than five hundred witnesses give testimony concerning this case and others yet to be tried. A special trial jury had been drawn from a panel composed of two thousand business men known as Special Jurors. From this panel two hundred names had been drawn. Dewey had investigated each of these two hundred before the trial started. The fourteen individuals, twelve regular jurors and two alternates, who now faced him from the jury box as he spoke were the survivors of a stormy period of challenge and selection. In their hands lay a number of decisions — the personal future of the young prosecutor, of course, and that of the ten remaining defendants (three had already pleaded guilty and another would follow suit when the prosecution rested); but also, and more important, the question of whether the racket, that tough and complicated web which had fixed itself upon every type and level of American daily life, could be broken. For the next four weeks, headlines would blaze. Over breakfast tables, in subways, on commuters’ trains, in barrooms, men and women would eagerly, hungrily follow every word of testimony. There were two real reasons.
One of the reasons was Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, a dark, swarthy Italian with curly black hair. On this first day of the trial both jurors and spectators eyed him with a puzzled, guarded curiosity. When he smiled, and he did smile frequently all through the trial, his face became rather attractive, but in repose it was heavily sinister. The left eyelid drooped. Luciano’s nickname had been given him by the underworld, which had also left him visible and convincing evidence of its truth — three long, thin scars on his chin and throat. In 1929 he had been powerful enough to incur the wrath of rival gangsters, who took him for a ride on Staten Island, put several bullets into his body, and cut his throat three times from car to ear. Surprisingly enough, he had survived to become the head man of an intricate organization of crime, residing and conducting some of his operations from the exclusive Waldorf Towers in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Luciano’s early record had helped to build his sobriquet. At eighteen he was arrested and convicted of peddling dope. Thereafter he was arrested many times, but never served a sentence. Along the White Light district of Broadway and in the gambling joints and night spots of Saratoga Springs and Miami Beach he was known as a spectacular gambler, who not only bet on horses and played at roulette and dice, but also operated gambling establishments of his own. Gradually, as better-known racketeers passed from the picture, he came to power. An ace operator when Dewey took up the trial, Luciano was involved in so many lines that it was difficult to decide on what racket to indict him, but compulsory prostitution was finally selected — a shrewd choice. Although a part of New York’s annual crime tribute of $200,000,000 passed through his hands, he had managed to evade income taxes so astutely that the net which caught Al Capone could not snare Luciano. He kept no books, knew all about the statute of limitations, and was not smoked out on income until after the Dewey investigation began. Then he filed a federal income tax report showing a meagre $20,000 income, but no state report. Cool, mysterious, and menacing, Luciano commanded the spotlight. He was only one of thirteen men indicted on ninety counts, — later reduced to sixty-two because of lack of time to present evidence, — but to the public this was certainly going to be ‘Lucky’s trial,’ and his alone.
The other factor inflaming public curiosity was the charge itself. One hundred and twenty-five prostitutes were assembled in one room to speak their pieces under oath. Yet not prostitution, but the machine controlling and cashing in on the traffic, was on trial. Dewey’s actual knockout punches were not of interest to the crowd, which had its eye cocked for the more lurid and spectacular details. This misplaced emphasis was of inestimable value; it commanded an audience and it ought to magnify the final result throughout the land.
In passing, it is interesting to note that in later actions, such as that completed recently with the conviction of seven restaurant racketeers and the conviction of four bakery racketeers, the daily testimony was exceedingly dull and the significance would have been entirely lost on the public had the latter not still been under the spell of the Luciano trial.
But on this May Day Justice McCook’s courtroom was like many another in the land. Some of the spectators’ benches had been removed to make room for the host of defendants, lawyers, and newspaper men. About the table of the prosecutor, directly in front of the jury box, sat five of Dewey’s assistants, picked for court duty. All of them were under forty. All had made financial sacrifices to enlist in this war against the city’s racketeers. All had been selected for their ability and without regard for creed, color, or even race — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and one colored woman.
At the defense table directly before the bench sat nine middle-aged, experienced criminal lawyers. One of them had been in practice more than thirty years. All of them were over forty, and undoubtedly all of them were highly paid. One was reliably reported to have received a $50,000 retainer, $5000 for each week the trial lasted, and a promise of another $50,000 in case of an acquittal. The contrast between the two camps caused spectators to open their eyes and shake their heads.
Some of the defendants sat at the counsel tables; others were near by with detectives and court attendants. From the defense table to the wall there were seated approximately forty people — a fact that severely taxed the already terrified witnesses during necessary identifications. The defendants and their lawyers were to employ every device to add to the confusion — changing ties, putting glasses on and off, moving from one position to another, sitting in front of each other, refusing to rise. It was early apparent that identity was a commodity they would gladly sell short.
Luciano, the boss, sat unperturbed, tapping a yellow pencil. Near him was ‘Little Abie’ Wahrman, the youngest defendant. A twenty-year-old Jewish boy with a round face and very thick lips, he gave an appearance of alertness, following Dewey’s words with interest. As the trial progressed, he would frequently send his attorney scribbled notes compiled with the aid of a card index. Youthful he may have been, but ruthless he was also, demanding tribute from his underlings and always getting it.
Next in command to Luciano was the Italian, ‘Little Davie’ Betillo, the only one of the unholy group who could possibly be considered good-looking, even though his looks were tinged with a refined cruelty. Tall and slender, with curly blond hair, Betillo had an unstable nature, showing anger and defiance. Later in the trial he was to shout down a witness from his chair.
Treasurer of Luciano’s combination was Tommy Pennochio, nicknamed ‘The Bull.’ A large, heavy Italian, he had smashed his way through obstacles by sheer physical power. In Justice McCook’s courtroom he showed little intelligence, frequently went to sleep.
Five others, four of them of Jewish descent, completed the combination against which Dewey was training his guns. Benny Spiller, tall and slight, had a large, ugly nose and ears that stuck out. He also had a card index. Stocky Ralph Liguori, whose habit was to kick women in the stomach and ribs when they disagreed with him, was to prove defiant and an easy liar. Heavy-jawed and glowering was James Frederico, Luciano’s collector. He had long ago discovered a lead pipe or a crashing fist to be his favorite argument. Jesse Jacobs and his brother-in-law, Meyer Berkman, were the bonders for the combination. The former appeared capable and ruthless, and apparently dominated Berkman, who was weak-natured and drab — one spectator termed him a ‘mouse in rat’s clothing.’
As he faced the jury box on the first day of the trial, Dewey was sharply conscious of the odds against him, despite the early defections on the part of the accused. Since July 29, 1935, when the young prosecutor had been sworn in by Justice McCook, until this day nearly ten months later, he and his assistants had labored to prepare a case against the $12,000,000 prostitution racket in New York City. On February 1, he had raided one hundred and twenty-five houses of prostitution in New York County, but in spite of the fact that the details of the raid were secretly arranged with the commissioner of police, sixty-five houses had been closed when the special squad descended. From the remaining sixty houses he took one hundred and twenty-five women, and held them as material witnesses. On these he had to build his case. It was like building on quicksand. The structure might totally disappear at any moment.
When first questioned, every woman, with one exception, made a false statement. Each was overcome by stark, paralyzing terror, knowing that the first vengeance of the underworld was directed against squealers. In the past five years there had been other girls who talked. They were stripped, tortured with lighted cigar butts, their feet burned, their cheeks slit, and their families threatened with death.
Dewey had guarded his witnesses carefully. After the raid each witness was given a medical examination, and when it was found that any one of them was addicted to drugs a cure was arranged. After a six-day period of treatment, no drugs were permitted. Only about 10 per cent of the witnesses had been users of narcotics at the time they were apprehended, and when the trial opened they had been non-users for four months. They were hidden in various jails, in apartments, and in hotels, always under police protection. Each woman was allowed to shop and go out to dinner at least twice a month, when policemen were available as escorts. Surprised at considerate treatment, won by sympathy, and convinced that the state meant to protect them, the material witnesses began to talk. Even then they might not tell the whole truth. Five — ten — fifteen times they were led over details, and interlocking facts checked. But there was no getting away from the fact that the people’s case was based on prostitutes, brothel keepers, bookers, drug addicts, thieves, and housekeepers. Testifying for the defense there were dope peddlers, gamblers, bartenders, race-horse owners, bookmakers, and a music publisher, among others. The procession began.
Specifically, the problem of the prosecution was to prove that the defendants had conspired to form a combination which received money from prostitutes. If it could be proved that a conspiracy had existed, then the defendants were equally guilty of placing a girl in a house, receiving money from her, and also taking money for placing her in a house. This was a difficult task because, under the law, neither Luciano nor the other defendants had actually to place a girl in a house. Therefore, it had to be shown in court that the money received by underlings ultimately reached Luciano and the other defendants. This, too, was difficult of proof because of the low calibre of the witnesses, and because, under the law, no accomplice’s testimony as a witness can be accepted as evidence in a court unless it is corroborated by another witness.
Luciano probably never physically placed any girl in a house, nor did he know many of the madams or prostitutes. He merely sat in an expensive hotel suite and let assistants run his business for him. But the law provides that if a conspiracy exists, then two or more people can be tried together, and all are held responsible for each other’s acts regardless of when they entered the combination. For the first time in twenty years, racketeers were actually being accused and tried on the specific charge of running a certain racket, instead of on collateral charges under the income tax or other statutes. It was necessary for the jury, even if convinced of the defendants’ guilt, to follow the intricate path of each individual through the mazes of sixty-two counts, and follow that path correctly. It was also important that in the presentation of the case the prosecution should avoid permitting any technical errors to creep into the case which might lead to the reversal on appeal of a verdict of guilty. This was probably one of the most cumbersome trials in history, with confusion and lying weighing the scales heavily for the racketeers.
For four weeks the parade of witnesses wound its way into the courtroom. The longest examination, that of Madam Mildred Harris, was nine and a half hours. An extraordinary woman and a damaging witness, she made but a single and very obvious slip. Runner-up in point of time was another madam, Florence (‘ Cokey Flo ’) Brown, who made no slips at all. Such conduct was the exception rather than the rule, however.
The jury heard twenty-two-year-old Margaret Martino, who had attended business college and worked in an office. In 1932 her fiancé had died, and she was heartbroken. A year later she met a stranger in a restaurant who told her all about the advantages of prostitution. It seemed attractive.
Joan Martin, a forty-three-year-old madam, was a Rumanian who had come to America at the age of six. A plain woman, wearing glasses, she told of becoming a prostitute at fourteen, of being convicted and serving three years at Bedford Hills Reformatory, which she liked very much and hated to leave. She married, was separated, waited on tables, lost her job, walked the streets. To support her mother she established a house — and was then visited by representatives of the combination. After twice refusing their overtures, she one night admitted three men who robbed her apartment, even taking $1.08 from a girl’s purse. One hit her over the head with a ten-inch pipe. She paid up. Later, when she tried to move, she was found and the performance repeated, except that on this occasion the pipe was fifteen inches long, and the victim went to the hospital. Joan Martin stepped from the witness stand and showed the jury two scars in her scalp where stitches had been taken. Leader of the stick-up men had been Liguori. Receiver of her money had been Frederico, who, it seemed, — according to her shouted accusations, — sold forged drivers’ licenses to prostitutes and madams as a side line.
One Dave Marcus, a defendant who had pleaded guilty, took the stand to describe himself as the biggest booker in New York. He had paid an income tax for three years preceding the trial. Like the others, he had a curious sensitive spot. He had allowed his wife to collect for him and to run a disorderly house, but objected violently to the insinuation that she was a prostitute.
The only voluntary witness at the trial appeared, according to her testimony, because she wanted to get back some of her self-respect. She had been held forcibly in a house for a week, but later returned to the business voluntarily. For a time she had lived with a man, supporting him while he was sick without his knowing the nature of her source of income. After her came hotel managers, bath maids, waiters.
A sneak thief by his own admission, Joe Bendix told of knowing Luciano for nine years, of having been promised a job in the combination — a promise that was never kept. Typical of the characters who testified, Bendix was a tough customer — shrewd, cocky, a congenital liar. In his time he had painted the murals in a prominent New York night club and been art editor of a New York Central house organ. A fourth offender, he came down from Sing Sing to testify.
The courtroom sat up straighter when small, plump Thelma Jordan, a hotel prostitute, proved to be the daughter of a state official in the Middle West. As a young girl she had worked the carnivals before coming to New York. For two years she had been sending money home.
Most sensational among the prostitutes to testify was blonde and impudent Nancy Presser, a drug addict who had practised the trade of a ‘call girl’ — a prostitute who can be summoned by telephone to an apartment or hotel room. She had been an artist’s model at fifteen, and had begun by inviting her customers to her rooms. The ‘call girl’ was exceedingly distasteful to the combination, because she was out of their control and therefore not readily assessable. But Nancy’s practice was remedied by Liguori, with whom she went to live. He strangled her and broke three ribs with a kick. Then she went into a house.
Dewey’s methods were interesting as witness followed witness. Giving only a brief time to direct examination, he would invariably anticipate the thinking of the defense counsel. By their slow-wittedness some of the latter gentlemen almost qualified as lawyers for the prosecution on many occasions. From the beginning, the defense counsel seemed unable to agree on the method of conducting their trial. At one time they introduced as much disgusting and irrelevant matter as possible, and too late sensed that it would be wiser to stick to facts.
One of the potent threats held over the head of the people’s witnesses was that of publicity. Prostitutes invariably used a different name each week, as they moved from house to house, and the defendants threatened to supply trial stories, with the girls’ true names, to their home-town newspapers. Since they knew more about the witnesses than the prosecutor did, this was always a possibility.
Through the four weeks of the trial Dewey was haunted by the spectre of bribery. So great was the political power of the combination that it was reported in the press that judgeships in any court in New York were freely offered to his assistants. In one case, such an offer was reported to have been backed up with a guarantee of $250,000. But according to the rules of evidence it was impossible to introduce these instances into the course of the trial. One witness never appeared in court, although he was arrested in the general raid on February 1. As he was the only witness who had seen Luciano at a meeting of the combination, his testimony would have been invaluable. Toward the end of the trial he was brought to the courtroom early in the morning, prepared to testify. Before the court was in session he flatly refused to testify, asserting that his previous statements had been false.
Contrary to regulations, this man had been visited in the Tombs at eight o’clock in the morning by his mother and wife, who then went to a reputable lawyer and made affidavits describing the previous statements of the witness as false. The necessity for these affidavits disappeared when the latter failed to testify, and the next day they attempted to have their affidavits returned on the grounds that they also were false. Taken into custody, they admitted that a hireling of the combination had offered them a bribe consisting of a $25,000 gambling establishment in the Adirondacks and $2500 in cash if they would persuade the witness not to testify. Their attorney’s action in reporting an irregularity arising in private practice was a shining example of the assistance which the cause of justice might receive if all lawyers were equally alert and conscientious.
At least three other witnesses changed their testimony and one admitted that he had lied on the stand — points which likewise could not be placed in evidence. Grand-jury testimony of two of the witnesses was read after they had testified in the case, revealing many amazing discrepancies. Some, not all, of the hotel employees who had served Luciano were reluctant to identify any of the defendants, although having previously identified their photographs. Of course these individuals did not have the comparative protection of jail as did the others, and may have been intimidated. Even after Luciano had been indicted and was in prison, it was evident that members of the combination were still working for him.
One police officer who testified for the defense was later to receive a departmental trial and be dismissed from the force, and this incident taught Dewey a lesson of which he was quick to take advantage in the later trial of the restaurant racketeers. On the later occasion he became suspicious of a detective assigned to him — one who had performed many outstanding assignments, including the arrest of ‘Dutch’ Schultz.
The detective was deliberately given false information regarding grand jury activities, and within a short time this information was brought out by defense lawyers. Cut their triumph was shortlived. The deceit was described in court, and several members of the police department testified that the detective had been under surveillance, thus springing the trap on a neat bit of treachery and causing the detective’s unmasking before his department.
Before the people rested their case, the picture of Luciano’s infamous combination and its methods assumed definite shape. In New York City the prostitution racket had been organized in a way that was apparently safe and thorough. A girl working in a house averaged a gross earning of $300 per week. Of this sum she paid one half to the madam, who also took between $25 and $35 per week for board, from $3.00 to $5.00 per week for maid service, and $6.00 for a doctor’s fee. Each girl was required to have a booker, who supplied her with the names and addresses of different houses and moved her from place to place each week. For his services he received 10 per cent commission from the girl’s half of the gross earnings. In the end the girl had a net profit of about $85 only.
Out of the board money the madam usually paid $10 per week for a bondsman, to protect the girl in case of arrest. This was in the nature of a retainer, for when an actual arrest occurred she was forced to put up half of the bail anyway. When the cases were dismissed, the money was never returned, but was kept by the combination, on the pretense of bribing and ‘fixing.’ After the booker had collected his commission, if he were on a salary basis, he had to pay protection money to the members of the combination. Some bookers owned their own houses and paid as high as $200 per week for protection. In other cases the combination would send a shakedown artist who took all the money in sight, in one instance demanding $10,000 in cash and a weekly payment of $200. Houses owned by bookers were usually run by their relatives — this was very much a family business — and at times attempts were made to withhold these houses from the combination, but without success.
The chief members of the combination demanded and received tribute from each prostitute, madam, and booker. Minor members of the group chiseled on each other and took money whenever possible. In fact, chiseling was the fashion. The girls frequently did not report the correct number of customers to the madam, and whenever they could they kept the money. The madams, in turn, rarely reported even this number, and in handing over the earnings to a booker kept certain sums for themselves. Following this popular example, the booker would also hold out. One booker conscientiously explained this procedure in court by saying that a weekly salary of $50 was not sufficient to support a family. Although it could not be proven in court, it is a fair assumption that the other members of the combination held out on Luciano.
Key men of the combination were the bondsmen, who worked many courts throughout the city. This was not the city’s first bonding combination for aiding arrested prostitutes, by any means, but none before Luciano’s had become so large and powerful. This combination guaranteed a bonded prostitute that in case of arrest she would never have to serve a jail sentence, and it kept its promise. During 1935, there were arrested one hundred and forty-seven girls who worked for the combination. Of these, one hundred and seventeen were discharged. In nineteen cases the girls jumped bail, and in eleven others they were found guilty. Of these eleven, three received suspended sentences, five received six months’ probation, and three a year’s probation; but in no case did a girl serve a jail sentence.
When arrested, each girl was coached, usually by a disbarred lawyer, and the testimony prepared before she appeared in court. On some occasions even the customer was coached. When the case was difficult to ‘beat,’ the girl was advised not to appear in court and ‘took it on the lam’ — gangsterese for jumping bail.
As the girls moved from house to house each week, the first question asked by a madam was, ‘What name will you use in case of arrest?’ Assuming that a girl might use fifty-two names a year, it would be manifestly impossible to trace all of them through the court records. Therefore, doubtful cases were stricken out, and one hundred and forty-seven remained. This tabulation concerned only those working for the Luciano mob, and by no means indicated the total number of arrests on prostitution charges in New York City in 1935. Nevertheless, the combination’s record was 100 per cent perfect.
Prostitution dovetailed neatly with the loan-shark racket. Before the trial began Dewey himself had sent twenty-seven loan sharks to jail, and in the present batch of defendants he found himself facing one more of the breed — known professionally as a ‘shylock.’ The loan racket was an effective means of forcing the girls to remain as prostitutes for the combination. Whenever one of them needed a small temporary loan, she found a ‘shylock’ eager to oblige. And why not? The smallest amount of interest charged for a loan was 269 per cent, and in some instances it ran as high as 2000 per cent. A girl who borrowed as little as $50 might pay $700 back to the combination before she was through. The interest was taken out of her earnings when the booker collected from the madam. The interest rates were so exorbitant that the girls were continually in debt, and they could not have left the racket had they desired to do so.
The loan sharks worked with the bondsmen, and stated in court that they believed they were conducting a legitimate business. They also found customers among the bookers and madams, and paid protection money to the combination for their franchise.
Through the bondsmen the combination resorted to bribery. With a 100 per cent record on immunity from jail sentences, the assumption is that the machinery of the law became corrupted, and events proved that Luciano’s power extended into the political field as well. His henchmen were willing to discuss either dollars or votes.
In the history of organized crime in the United States, there has never been an illicit operation so well organized that it did not depend in the last analysis on violence. But stick-ups and beatings do not oil the machinery. On the contrary, they create friction and weaken the structure until it breaks down at a vital point. Luciano, recognizing this, had long considered dropping prostitution as a racket because it was too ‘hot’ and involved too many people. For four long weeks, as he sat in court, he must have had the opportunity, somewhat belatedly, of seeing the axiom proved once more. But he seemed to take the proceedings very lightly, joked with his lawyers, and tapped his yellow pencil. On the stand he was imperturbable, contradicting himself with ease. To many spectators it seemed as though he lied unnecessarily, about incidents that had little bearing on the case. In a tight corner he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and denied everything. Lucky Charlie. . . .
At 5.30 A.M. on the morning of Sunday, June 7, the jury filed back into the courtroom. Justice McCook was dozing in his chambers, and the gray half-light of dawn coming through the high windows mingled with the still-burning incan descents to produce an unreality dancing with weird shadows. It was a fit setting for Thomas E. Dewey’s final act that greeted the defendants as they were led in. With the exception of Luciano, all of them were nervous and apprehensive.
The cumbersomeness which had characterized every day of the trial so far persisted to the final moments. If any case had ever deserved a dramatic, Hollywood finale, this one had, but it was not in the books. The defendants had been convicted on sixty-two different counts; the court had to read each count for each defendant, and the foreman of the jury had to say ‘Guilty’ five hundred and fifty-eight times.
Luciano slumped in his chair, his face deathly pale. The scars on his chin and throat turned vivid red. Monday’s tabloids would jeeringly dub him Charles ‘Once Lucky.’ His lawyer looked very ill. Betillo began to weep, then grew defiant, as Frederico sat and glowered. The conduct of the defense lawyers brought little credit upon them. One of them read the morning paper while the verdict was being given, occasionally shaking his head and smiling as though the whole thing were an impossibility and a joke. Each defendant was brought before the judge and a date for sentencing arranged. When all had been led away, Justice McCook thanked the jury in behalf of the American people.
Luciano was sentenced to prison for from thirty to fifty years, but even before he reached his cell at Sing Sing his lawyers and emissaries had put the wheels in motion for an appeal and a new trial. The principal witnesses against Luciano had moved away from New York. Nancy Presser went to Europe. Helen Kelley, the only voluntary witness, quietly dropped from sight. Florence (‘Cokey Flo’) Brown and Mildred Harris joined forces; they went to California, and purchased a gas station with the proceeds of articles written for a popular magazine.
After the trial Justice McCook and the Special Prosecutor made an earnest effort to help these women to rehabilitate themselves, but Luciano had other plans. He is apparently the possessor of a considerable fortune which it is impossible to trace. It is conservatively estimated that from the close of the trial to the present time he had spent over $100,000 in preparation for his appeal. Two male operatives were sent to California and became friendly with Mildred Harris and ‘Cokey Flo’ Brown. From some source the women were provided with narcotics and given money. In the spring of this year they were finally persuaded to return to New York, where they entered a sanatorium to take the cure given a dope addict, at the expense of Luciano’s lawyer. When they were ‘cured,’ they made affidavits to the effect that their entire testimony given during the trial was false. On her return from Europe, Nancy Presser also made an affidavit to the same effect. Helen Kelley was finally located and added her recantation to those already accumulated.
After the affidavits had been filed, the lawyer representing Ralph Liguori filed an affidavit of his own stating that the jurors had been intimidated and had received threats during the course of the trial. As it turned out, both Luciano and Liguori were once more reckoning without Dewey.
As soon as the affidavits were filed, the Special Prosecutor revealed that such a development was far from unexpected. As ammunition against the day he had placed one hundred and twenty-eight other affidavits in the vaults of the Irving Trust Company with which to counterattack. To refute the charges that jurors had been intimidated, Dewey obtained from each of the fourteen jurors affidavits stating that not one of them had been bribed, and that not one was prejudiced.
The hearing of the motion for a new trial took place before Justice McCook, and for two days many bitter words flew back and forth in the courtroom. After considering the evidence presented in the affidavits made by the three women witnesses, the judge swiftly and decisively denied the motion for a retrial.
The case has since been appealed to the Appellate Division on the alleged grounds that errors had been committed at the trial and that a new state statute under which the indictment was framed was unconstitutional. The appeal was unsuccessful. It seems likely that further appeals will be attempted even to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The fact that vice lord Luciano, although convicted and serving a prison sentence, was able through his henchmen to find witnesses and persuade them to recant illustrates his continuing influence and power, and serves warning that the Special Prosecutor must be unceasingly vigilant after every conviction if justice is finally to be enforced.
Perhaps, as has been suggested, the lurid path of the Luciano trial accomplished much for New York and its sister cities by demonstrating before an admiring but cynical audience that the racket could be beaten. Certain it is that the work is only begun. The first extraordinary grand jury, in blazing the trail for action, had declared: —
’We have been shocked by the reluctance of some business men, who were victims of these racketeers, to give testimony. Witness after witness has been brought before this grand jury and has been interrogated repeatedly about matters obviously within his knowledge, nevertheless these witnesses have continually evaded questions and denied knowledge, and others who have repeatedly testified that they had no knowledge of the matters under inquiry have finally had to admit their first testimony to be false and have given truthful testimony in the end.’
Some of these witnesses were taken to jail for refusing to testify, or charges of perjury were brought against them.
They are the ordinarily upright supports — if not quite the pillars — of society to which spiders like Luciano or ‘Dutch’ Schultz or Jules Martin attach their webs. The average citizen does not realize how many businesses pay so-called protection money; clothing manufacturers, bail bondsmen, soft-drink sellers, motion-picture theatres, poultry dealers, restaurateurs, fur dealers, truckers, builders, and electrical contractors are only a few.
Recently a committee of prominent business men, judges, editors, and bankers has been formed to work with the Special Prosecutor and the District Attorney in New York. This committee will try to persuade business men to testify and to assure them that they will be given adequate protection if they do. The committee may become a permanent one — in an attempt to match the seeming permanence of the racketeers. To date, the Special Prosecutor has not Tost’ any witnesses; he has demonstrated that they can and will be protected.
Meanwhile youthful Mr. Dewey is marching into new fields. What these are no one knows specifically at the present time, because Dewey, when he is about to close in, knows the value of secretiveness. But it is safe to prophesy that they will be rackets which affect the daily lives of the majority of city dwellers. The loan-shark and prostitution rackets attracted attention to the campaign. The bakery racket, the poultry racket, the numbers racket, the electricians’ racket, the trucking racket, the restaurant racket, the food racket, — many of which have been tried or are on trial, — are of vital interest to New York’s millions. Now Dewey is showing the public, for perhaps the first time, that the underworld grip on business can be loosed. Throughout the country civic and professional groups have taken heart and inaugurated measures to stamp out rackets in their respective communities.
Dewey’s achievements so far have been phenomenal, but he has many obstacles to overcome. He and his staff have had no time to celebrate their victories, for the forces of apathy, indifference, and collusion are counter-attacking in devious ways, legal and illegal. Today a labor union cries persecution, to-morrow a newspaper will raise the issue of partisan politics — and the day after to-morrow the public may be bored with the whole business. That is the highest hurdle of all.