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Of Things Evil, continued

On May 19, 1900, after dining with Nitzsche and teaching a Saturday- evening review class at the Law School, Roy White left to catch the 10:29 p.m. train to his home in Germantown, which he shared with his mother, a sister and his brother, Tom, a practicing attorney just out of Penn Law. At that time there was a commuter train station at 32nd Street and Powelton Avenue in Powelton Village, a neighborhood of impressive Victorian houses just north of the Penn campus. In 1900, Powelton Village was a summer haunt of the city’s rich at a time when anything west of the Schuylkill River was the "suburbs." The snug row houses of their Irish servants lay to the north and east.
   
Then as now, 32nd Street was a quiet, slightly unsettling street above a massive trainyard that borders the Schuylkill River. The commuter station, a round, medieval-looking stone structure strangely out of place among the Victorian rowhouses, was on the southeast corner of Powelton Avenue. Half a block south of the station, opposite the end of Spencer Terrace (now Winter Street), White was struck from behind with an 18-inch bolt. He dropped to the sidewalk, and someone rained heavy blows on his head and face, smashing his nose and right orbital and fracturing his skull.
   
The assailant removed White’s watch and ring and rifled his waistcoat pockets but missed $16 in cash and some checks in his trouser pockets. Discovered by police officer Frank Harrigan, White was rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, at 39th and Powelton, where he died at 2:15 p.m. the next day.
   
A 17-year-old railroad messenger, Ralph Hartman, reported seeing "two Negroes" a block north of the station just a few minutes before the murder. They asked him the way to Germantown Junction, saying they wanted to hitch a freight to New York. Hartman, a loyal Pennsylvania Railroad employee, deliberately misdirected them southward on 32nd Street, toward the spot where White was later found.
   
Philadelphia police responded with zeal. Superintendent Harry Quirk and Chief of Detectives Peter Miller assigned 30 detectives to the case and spread what was then the largest dragnet in the department’s history. According to the May 21 Evening Telegraph, one of the city’s 10 daily newspapers, "Every colored man in West Philadelphia who was found on the streets and who could not claim a residence or give a clear account of his whereabouts Saturday night was arrested and committed for ten days on the charge of vagrancy." Black males from train yards throughout the city were rounded up, and the 15 deemed most likely to be the culprits were paraded before Hartman. He positively identified Henry Ivory, of Wilmington, Del., who had been picked up at the Germantown Junction yards. Next to last in the lineup, two spaces over from Ivory, stood Ward Knight, who had been arrested along with Ivory. Hartman, unaware that the two had been found together, thought Knight could be the second man but was not certain.
   
White’s murder was reported as far away as San Jose, Calif.; its brutality and anonymity galvanized both the press and the populace, igniting the perennial racist fear that, in the unlit byways of the city, brutes–especially black brutes–lay in wait. Roy White’s murder took on a notoriety that quickly eclipsed the understated sorrow expressed by his Law School colleagues. White the man became the faceless victim on which every citizen could paste his own visage.
   
The following day Ivory confessed to being an accomplice to White’s murder but swore that the actual killer was a chance acquaintance of his called "Buck." Ivory’s confession had been extracted through the "sweat box," a technique instituted by detective-chief Miller that involved depriving the suspect of food and water, then subjecting him to a half-hour or more of overlapping and contradictory questions fired by three or four detectives. If the suspect failed to crack, the process was repeated until he did. After five trips to the sweat box, Ivory cracked.
   
Following Ivory’s confession, the sweat box was lauded by a jubilant and fawning press as the most marvelous interrogative advance of its day, one which could "confuse the wits of even an expert accountant" (Evening Bulletin). The procedure was later condemned by "alienists"–forerunners to today’s psychologists–as the equivalent of the Inquisition in both method and reliability.
   
Buck, the police established, was a gigantic black man named George Johnson, also known as "Charleston" or possibly "Brown." On the basis of Ivory’s confession, Superintendent Quirk maintained with confidence: "There was a man with him. One man only." The hard work of the department had paid off with the rapid, efficient solution of the case. Except ...
   
George Johnson turned himself in and established a clear alibi (reported in the Telegraph through a virulently racist playlet that depicts Johnson greeting "Mistah Quihk" in dialect that would have made Uncle Remus blush). When Ivory failed to identify him as the mysterious Buck/Charleston, Johnson was released.
   
The May 23 Public Ledger introduced an interesting conjecture at this point: "[Detectives] say that there is a strong probability that [Ivory] is concealing ‘Brown’s’ actual identity from them for fear that ‘Brown’ might come forward and point him out as the actual murderer ... " The Record took the conjecture a step further: Had Ivory fingered Ward Knight, the man with him at Germantown Junction, "the recriminations might have convicted both."
   
What seemed the final, necessary break in the case came with the May 25 apprehension at Trenton, N.J., of Amos Stirling, "a worthless, brutal negro" (Press)–as opposed, presumably, to Ivory, "a good-natured darky" (Evening Bulletin).
   
A Philadelphia detective contingent –accompanied by Hartman, the messenger boy, and John Leary, a fireman at the Spring Garden pumping station who had seen the pair crossing the Girard Avenue Bridge about a mile and a half from the crime scene–had gone to Trenton to check out another suspect, whom Hartman and Leary exonerated. The squad then decided to look over several vagrants at the Mercer County Workhouse. One of them was Stirling, who had been picked up at the Trenton trainyards about 36 hours after White’s murder. Both Hartman and Leary identified Stirling as the man they’d seen with Ivory.
   
One report (Press) said that Stirling had blood on his hat, vest and coat. A second (Public Ledger) said he was wearing three shirts and two pairs of pants, the outer ones new, presumably to cover the bloody underlayers. For his part, Stirling attributed the blood to a nose bleed. He also claimed that he had been released from the Philadelphia House of Correction two days before the murder and had hitched a freight to Harrisburg.

 

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