Of Things Evil,
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 citys 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.
assailant removed Whites 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 departments
history. According to the May 21 Evening Telegraph, one of the
citys 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.
Whites 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, brutesespecially black bruteslay in wait.
Roy Whites 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
The following day Ivory confessed to being an
accomplice to Whites murder but swore that the actual killer was
a chance acquaintance of his called "Buck." Ivorys 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 Ivorys 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 todays psychologistsas
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 Ivorys 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 Browns
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
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 scenehad 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 Whites murder. Both Hartman and Leary identified
Stirling as the man theyd 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.