Mobile's Valentine's Night Massacre

First published in February 1991, Mobile Bay

A winter hard as the times had Mobile by the collar and a sliver of moon hung in a brilliant night sky Valentine’s Day 52 years ago, when a brawl spilled out of one of the whorehouses huddled along north Warren Street, attracting patrons and working stiffs from the city’s shabby red light district.

At first impression: just another drunken blowup in Palookaville. But on closer examination, by the U.S. Attorney’s office and, ultimately, the national press, it proved a good deal more. Played out in federal court, in fact, it became one of the more lurid chapters in the city’s history and one that addressed, in the smarmiest of details, one of the loftiest of American principals, freedom of the press.

Six defendants—two underworld chiefs, a madam, her lay about husband, a thug, and an assistant state prosecutor, Bart Chamberlain Jr.—were indicted by U.S. Attorney Francis Harrison Inge: accused of blackmailing Mobile Press Register editor Henry P. Ewald, to get the newspapers to lay off editorializing about Mobile’s illegal gambling rackets.

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The Mobile jury convicted the five underworld characters. Chamberlain was acquitted, though he did not come out unscathed. Days later he resigned his position as assistant state solicitor (equivalent today of assistant district attorney) and was tarred evermore “Black Bart” for his connections with those convicted.

The case itself made headlines in Time magazine, which reported it as a landmark freedom of the press application of a 69-year-old civil rights law. Title 18, Section 51 of the U.S. Code had been adopted in 1870 to protect newly freed slaves against threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The Mobile case was the first time the statute had been employed to protect someone’s First Amendment rights from attack by individuals.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately did not agree with the lower court’s interpretation of that law. The convictions were overturned.

Jurisdiction in the case, said the appeals court judges, was properly in the state, not federal, court. And since a case was never made in state court—where the head prosecutor was District Attorney Bart B. Chamberlain Sr., father of one of the original defendants—everybody walked.

But before they walked, they left behind in the court records of this notorious case a rare, disturbing glimpse into the lower depths of Depression age Mobile. In the words of Judge John McDuffie when he sent the jury to their deliberations: “It is a rather unusual…record of facts, that which every decent citizen will be loath to hear, that every citizen with civic pride will feel sorry to hear, that such a thing might have transpired within the community, or within his State.”

In 1939 Mobile was a Depression-socked small town of about 80, 000. There were loads of drifters (most Florida bound, lured to Dixie on false hopes the TVA would be their meal ticket), but the city’s near 100 percent population explosion that would come with war jobs was still a few years away. Just among Mobile’s whites, over half of them pulled down less than a grand a year and over 10 percent were on relief, scraping by on a little over eight bucks a month dole from the National Relief Administration—symbolized by the shopworn emblem of the NRA blue eagle.

A new pair of Florsheims and a Dobbs Fifth Avenue fedora were the height of fashion. Hitler was only just becoming more than a Chaplin look-alike on Dexedrine, not enough to preoccupy the editorial vigor of the Mobile Press or Register.

The morning and evening papers railed, rather, against the tyrannies of FDR, TVA, and trade unions. And when not taking on the New Deal, they stuck closer to home in their editorial crusades. For several months, on into February of 1939, the dailies were banging out a series of editorials decrying the local gambling operations, particularly the numbers racket.

They called it “the lottery, ” the average Joes who eagerly plunked down their two-bit shots at climbing up above grub stakes. The odds were long, but so were life’s. Hemmed in economically, Mobile was at least wide open as far as the basic vices went. Prostitution and gambling were among the port city’s more stable institutions. In King Cotton days it’s been estimated that Mobile employed more prostitutes than it did teachers—a ratio that probably held up well at the ragged end of the Depression.

Certainly the lottery racket was booming. It was a business as serious as the times were fierce, a steady business in an uncertain time.

Harry P. McDonald, a reliable Press Register workhorse on into the 1970s covering the waterfront beat, penned the editorials damning gamblers. But out front champion for Chandler’s papers in this crusade was Henry Philip Ewald. Ewald, who also carried the Southern honorific “Colonel, ” had been executive editor for the 10 years since Chandler had started his new afternoon paper, the Press, and he became editor of combined publications when Chandler later bought the morning Register. Ewald also proved to be the weak link in the papers’ moral make way, owing to his rapacious sexual appetite.

Mobile was desperate in 1939, but it was still a small town. People could talk, and a newspaper crusade could queer a good racket.

“Charlie, ain’t there no way you can get Ewald and bring him up here? That paper up there is ruining our business. I ain’t doing any business. Everything is tied up.”

That’s what federal witness, Press Register pressroom foreman Charlie Neigle testified was inquired of him by Pete Crolich, owner of the Central Barbecue and partner in chance of Sam Powe, lead bookey for horse racing, numbers, owner of slots, crap tables, “Negro” gambling spots, and the “Blue Eagle Lottery.”

Apparently there was nothing Neigle could or would do.

Still, something had to give, and the smart money said it wouldn’t be Crolich ‘s and Powe’s gambling rackets.

Rumors circulated about Ewald’s sexual appetite, which was robust and rangy— embracing, according to the testimony, all races and genders.

In that closeted day, the rumors were largely dismissed as the scuttlebutt of drunks. But one degenerate was persistent in his slander of Ewald.

George E. McKenzie regularly visited the Central Barbecue, and as regularly staggered out. Proprietor Crolich couldn’t help but overhear McKenzie’s accounts of Ewald’s indiscriminate rut.

In what must have been a dispiriting decision, Crolich and Powe pinned their hopes on the feckless McKenzie and lined up their henchmen for the trap.

The cast of characters was complete:
• Henry P. Ewald, executive editor of the Press and Register. A “strapping, handsome… tireless crusader” of the old school, as described in Time magazine, who “not only wrote editorials, but poked and pried into the recesses of Mobile’s underworld.” He slunk out of town never to be heard from again. A legacy: “You Ewald” became a common schoolyard insult.
• Sam Powe, professional gambler and apparently something of a crime boss in Mobile in the 1930s and 1940s. Lead villain in the “freedom of the press case, ” as it was styled in the local headlines. A banty rooster, Powe ran a parlor for betting on the horses, as well as a restaurant and bar for blacks called the Blue Eagle Lounge, which fronted for other gambling operations, including slot machines, crap tables, cards and the daily Blue Eagle Lottery.
• Peter Crolich, owner of a popular bar and restaurant called the Central Barbecue. Powe’s partner in villainy.
• Bart B. Chamberlain Jr., a 25 year-old assistant state solicitor. Young man-about town and fledgling big shot. Acquitted, but given fierce tongue clicking by the schoolmarms of the appeals court.
• George E. McKenzie, unemployed drunk who lived primarily off the earnings of his prostitute wife. Also occasionally entertained her less discriminating male customers, including the fellow used to bait Ewald. McKenzie bragged that Powe paid him $500 to set the trap. Only $125 was ever deposited in the new account he opened at First National).
• Mrs. Miriam “Bobbie” McKenzie, wife of George. Prostitute, but no heart of gold. She was the middle woman in the setup of the bisexual Ewald. In her words, she arranged for Ewald to “throw a party with a fifty fifty person.” With her $25 take she opened a Merchant’s Bank account.
• John Powe, muscle man relative of Sam. Presumably on hand to lend authenticity to Sam’s threats. But not an overwhelming match, it would turn out, for the “strapping” Ewald.
• Wilbert Franklin, a music teacher, the bait, described variously in the testimony as “the fiddle man, ” “a queer” and “the fifty fifty man.” Engaged by Miriam in the setup of Ewald, he allowed that “it was about $5 for the transaction.” Miriam was to short him $2. Franklin testified that Ewald had been introduced to him as “Mr. Clark” when he joined “the party” with Clark and Mrs. McKenzie in the bedroom on north Warren Street.

The three each took a pull from a bottle of whiskey, then Ewald asked Mrs. McKenzie to undress, said Franklin. She obliged and then the men stripped to their shirts, he testified.

Meanwhile, hard by the door, huddled the conspirators. Just how many and who became a point of disputed. They bided their time until Ewald and Franklin, as the court record put it, “were mutually engaged in the commission of the crime against nature, each performing that crime on the other at the time when about four or five men burst into the room.”

Ewald, the record continues, “recognized none of them but saw a flash and knew that a flashlight picture was taken while the three were in bed.”

Outnumbered as he was, the bushwhacked Ewald launched a fierce counter-attack, in a melee that lurched from room to room and out into the street, according to Franklin. Time reported that Ewald threw one of the conspirators out a window, though the court record doesn’t confirm this.

Franklin said Ewald’s “shirt was all bloody and he was bloody all over.” He couldn’t tell who hit Ewald, but one of the men had a pistol, said Franklin. “He turned and got the pistol out, and I stopped my ears, as I thought maybe there was going to be some shooting there.” Franklin said he couldn’t say he saw McKenzie during the fracas but remembered someone shouting with improbable outrage at the discovery of “two men being with my wife!”

Drawn by what sounded like “stamping of horses, ” Harold Eby raced out of his house at 59 N. Warren St. to view the commotion. Eby said he saw “a bunch of men come out of the house and fall down the steps.” He testified he saw Powe, Crolich and Eddie Cameron. He said Powe had a camera and Cameron had a pistol and Powe ordered Cameron back into the still roaring battle inside, to help McKenzie, who was “no match for Ewald.”

The next day Eby met with McKenzie at the Central, Eby testified, and McKenzie explained that they had photographed Ewald and the fiddle man and they were “going to let Mr. Ewald see them the photographs, and if he did not shut up about the lottery business they were going to let everybody see them.”

Eby said McKenzie promised him a part of his cut from the scheme, if he kept his mouth shut. Eby hadn’t told the whole truth until he took the witness stand because he was afraid of Crolich and Powe, he testified.

Mrs. McKenzie testified she had known Ewald for about five years and guessed that she “had been with him about 100 times.” At first their relations were “natural, ” later becoming “unnatural, ” she said. Although she had clients with unusual preferences, even some who like to be whipped, she allowed as how she “never knew anybody like Mr. Ewald.”

In late January Ewald had asked Mrs. McKenzie to arrange for a 15 year old boy to meet with him, but she told Ewald that she didn’t allow minors in her house, she testified. Ewald then asked about another man and, with her husband’s connections, a deal was struck with Franklin, Mrs. McKenzie testified.

Her husband pressured her to let Crolich and Powe watch Ewald, she said. McKenzie told his wife that Crolich and Powe did not believe that Ewald “was a man of that type, ” she maintained. Reluctant at first, Mrs. McKenzie said she finally relented and agreed to call Powe whenever Ewald came around. A scrap of paper with Powe’s three telephone numbers scribbled on it was taken from 53 N. Warren and entered into evidence at the trial.

According to Mrs. McKenzie, there were two misfires before pay dirt was struck. On one occasion the camera malfunctioned and on another Ewald got skittish, because “He felt somebody was watching him, ” she said.

On Valentine’s night, Feb. 14, when everything clicked, Mrs. McKenzie also attested to Ewald’s undaunted prowess. Ewald jumped from the bed and “hit John Powe some place on the chin and knocked him out, ” she said.

Slipping on her dress, Mrs. McKenzie escaped to a nearby whorehouse. After the dust settled, she went back to her house, where only Franklin remained. But, she said, Ewald soon returned and told her if she wanted to live to keep her mouth shut.

Later that night, Ewald went to his house on Michigan Avenue, to which he summoned a dentist, Turner Granade, a doctor, Leslie Taylor, and his boss, publisher Chandler.

Seeing Ewald upon arriving, an unwitting Granade joked, “Well, you look like Sam Powe got a hold of you.”

Ewald told Chandler he’d gotten a tip on some evidence against the lottery operation, went to check it out, and was ambushed, photographed and framed.

Meanwhile, Powe and Crolich were busy putting the finishing touches on their frame, and the man they ran to soon became the most high profile of the defendants. Far from chastened by the recent mayhem, the two rushed straightaway to the Policeman’s Ball, where they searched out Assistant Solicitor Chamberlain and reported their evidence of Ewald’s felonious foray into the “unnatural.”

Later that night, about midnight, Chamberlain went to Crolich’s bar at Washington and Springhill avenues, where he met with Crolich, Powe and attorney Carl Booth, who later succeeded Chamberlain’s father as district attorney for Mobile County. Young Chamberlain and Booth had been in Montgomery on a case and had driven back together that afternoon. They had also bumped into one another at the ball earlier in the evening, where Booth, according to testimony, had volunteered his services “as a scrivener, ” taking affidavits from Powe and Crolich.

According to one witness in the trial, Chamberlain was more than just an incidental party to the underworld’s vigilance against sexual perversion. According to the testimony of P. D. Beville, in a room at the Battle House Hotel Feb. 21, just prior to the Infant Mystics parade, Chamberlain assured a disbelieving Beville, George E. Stone Jr. and Bay Haas that the rumors about Ewald were indeed true. Chamberlain insisted, according to Beville, claiming, “We laid out at 53 N. Warren Street for four straight nights, and we finally got him.”
All four men were sober, said Beville.

“I was drunk, ” Chamberlain testified. “There was no question about that. I didn’t know what went on in my room until the matter was told to me several days afterward. The next night I went down to the OOM’s ball that was held at Whiting Armory, and Mr. Stone told me something to the effect that I had certainly made some wild statements about the Ewald matter… and said it must have been the liquor talking, and I said, ‘Yes, it must have been.'”

Chamberlain further testified that when he encountered Powe and Crolich at the Policeman’s Ball that was the first time he had seen them that day. They told him of “a little trouble” but didn’t go into details, said Chamberlain. After that he took his date home and returned to his house to find a message from Crolich. Without returning the call, Chamberlain drove over to Crolich’s bar, where, he testified, he learned for the first time the details of the Warren Street incident. “I stayed there just long enough for them to tell me what had happened, ” said Chamberlain. “They asked me to prosecute Ewald. I told them that I thought that it was a matter about which I should consult my superior officer, my father, with whom I lived.”

Chamberlain’s testimony contrasts sharply with statements he had made earlier, not only to his friends, but also to federal investigators.

According to R.W. Finley, a federal agent who dropped by Chamberlain’s office less than a week after the Warren St. fracas, Chamberlain said he knew all about the details of the case, that in fact he had a photograph in his desk drawer. Chamberlain, however, wanted all the names kept confidential, Finley testified.

The next day Finley returned and Chamberlain said he was just kidding about possessing the photograph, that he was merely trying to find out what Finley knew, the federal agent testified.

A week after Finley’s interview with Chamberlain, FBI agent Robert E. Joseph dropped in on Chamberlain, who gave him “quite a statement about what he knew of the case, ” Joseph testified. According to Joseph, Chamberlain agreed to put his statement in writing, dictating it to the agent, who dutifully typed it in duplicate. Asked to sign it, Chamberlain declined and managed to retain both copies, saying he wanted to go over the statement with his father. The feds never got them back.

At the conclusion of the banner headline, “freedom of the press” trial, the jury acquitted Chamberlain but found his five co defendants guilty. Powe got a seven-year sentence and a $500 fine. Crolich got 3 1/2 years and was fined $200. The McKenzie’s and John Powe got lesser sentences.

But no one did any time. After the March 1940 review by the appeals court, everybody walked. Everybody except Ewald, that is. He fled.

Publisher Chandler hired a Pinkerton detective to look into the Warren Street incident, and, when he got the report, he summarized it for his friend Dr. Granade by saying, “Whatever you might have heard is not half as bad as it actually was.”

With evidence of Ewald’s cupidity in hand, Chandler called his executive editor and “obtained an admission from Ewald that he was a moral pervert.” Ewald resigned and, with three months’ severance pay in his pocket, vanished.

Note from Chris McFadyen: This was the second of two pieces in Mobile Bay that featured “Black” Bart Chamberlain. The late Jay P. Altmayer tipped me to this tale and the account in Time magazine. For the trial testimony, we did not rely on Press Register reports from the day. Circuit Court Clerk Maurice Castle, a former city editor of the Press Register, helped me dig through cardboard boxes of old records that were then being stored in an old storefront on Dauphin Street, across from the Wintzell’s—refugees from the ravages of Hurricane Frederick. Quotes are from the court transcript.

Chip Drago and Chris McFadyen

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