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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Milwaukee on the make

November 29, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the second instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

Deputy Sheriff Herman L. Page was elected County Sheriff in 1853, and chose as his deputy sheriff, a former New York City Police Detective named William Beck.

william beck

William Beck, Deputy Sheriff of Milwaukee

Though Beck was quite successful at bagging several thieves, Milwaukee’s rampant lawlessness continued, prompting a public outcry that forced city officials to establish a permanent police force in 1855.

According to Milwaukee Police Historian George Kelling, the Milwaukee Police Department, like Boston, and New York City before it, modeled its police force after London’s Metropolitan Police, who received their authority directly from the British Monarchy.  While Milwaukee adopted London’s habits of maintaining order, preventing crime and patrolling neighborhoods, unlike London, Milwaukee policing was strictly a local matter unaffiliated with government…  This would prove uniquely problematic, according to Kelling, as it kept police close to the concerns of local citizens, but also invited corruption and political manipulation of police departments.

With the unanimous vote of the Common Council, Milwaukee Mayor James B. Cross appointed William Beck as Milwaukee’s first chief of police.  This was a typical procedure in the U.S. at the time. Beck selected six men for his force, all chosen for their formidable size and fighting skills. Arresting a suspect in those days typically meant whipping and beating him first, something that almost always earned the arresting officers black eyes, bruised cheeks, split lips, and contusions too numerous to count.

In 1861, mobs staged two disastrous riots. The first was a bank riot led by Milwaukee laborers enraged that the banks refused to accept the script the laborers were paid in.  Thinking they were being cheated out of their wages, the angry mob sacked and demolished two banks beyond repair.

Barely two months later, another mob attacked the Milwaukee jail, intent on lynching Marshall Clark and James Shelton, two African American men held for the stabbing death of one man, and the wounding of another. While Shelton escaped (and was later acquitted at trial), the mob lynched Clark. Public blame for the fiasco fell on Chief William Beck, who soon after resigned.

Beck would return as chief from 1868-1871, and again from 1880-1882.  The chief of police was an unstable and highly political position.  Every time a chief was removed, all his friends resigned en masse fearing termination if they remained. The police department’s low morale even instigated a suspicion that many of the unsolved robberies were committed by policemen who knew they were about to be fired.

In April, 1882, Police Chief Robert Wasson led the department in one of the largest raids in Milwaukee history, aimed at disrupting some of the most frequented brothels in the city. Earlier that day, a pair of undercover officers had posed as out-of-towners prowling for cheap gash. The undercovers later secured warrants against several brothels in Milwaukee’s extensive riverside red-light district. Chief Wasson had planned the raid as the first in a series that sought to cleanse Milwaukee of its seedier citizens. Wasson had been appointed chief less than a month earlier following the election of John Stowell as mayor.

robert wasson

Robert Wasson, Milwaukee Police Chief

Wasson’s police army carried warrants on 15 different houses that night, just a fraction of the estimated 95 active prostitution houses in the city. Within 90 minutes, the raids netted 83 arrestees, and the central station was packed beyond capacity with prostitutes and their male clients. As was typical in these kinds of raids, most of the arrestees gave false names, paid their bail, and vanished. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, by 2 p.m. the next day, most of the fuck pads scrubbed in the raid were back in operation.

In 1885, Wisconsin State Assembly member Florian J. Ries was appointed chief of police.  Under Ries’ command, the Milwaukee Police Department began using mugshots to identify criminals. Prior to taking photos, identifying suspects was entirely dependent on officers’ memories, a difficult task in a city with over 200,000 citizens spread across 20 square miles.

According to native Wisconsin chronicler Gavin Schmitt, Milwaukee’s Third Ward was one of the Cream City’s most crime-stricken areas…  As far back as the 1850s, this notorious neighborhood was occupied by poverty-stricken Irish. In 1858 alone, more than 40% of the inmates in Milwaukee’s county jail were Third Ward Irish.

The Irish were driven out in 1892 when a devastating fire at the Union Oil Company incinerated 16 square blocks and destroyed more than 400 buildings, including a fire station. Five people perished in the blaze, countless more were injured, and nearly 2000 were made homeless.

Third Ward fire 1892

Devastation Caused by the 1892 Third Ward Fire

After being inhabited and rebuilt by Italians, the famously dirty and cramped Third Ward wasn’t much better…  Each lot contained 2-3 houses, often with multiple basement compartments and all constructed with dilapidated and decaying lumber. Milwaukee Scholar George LaPiana depicts a scene that all but lays the foundations of a criminal undercurrent: “Four times as many people as should be permitted are often crowded into a given space…a population of workmen who often have no conveniences for cleanliness.”

In 1895, several of Milwaukee’s Methodist ministers admonished both Chief John Janssen and Mayor John Koch for what the ministers saw as a severely dismissive attitude towards the city’s numerous gambling parlors. The ministers accused both Janssen and Koch of allowing the Milwaukee Police Department to be infiltrated by gambling influences. One reverend even claimed that certain beat officers were working as intermediaries for gambling dens, directing strangers to surreptitious saloons and halls, who in turn would reward the officers with numerous kickbacks. Chief Janssen was unwilling to execute raids on these dens, which only further enraged the reverends, who felt that Milwaukee was fast becoming a lawless haven for gamblers, thieves, and assorted rogues. As Wisconsin historian Matthew J. Prigge details it, Milwaukee’s glut of cramped and crowded gaming rooms would each often house as much as 75 patrons or more. Accordingly, the potently ugly mixture of gambling and free-flowing alcohol produced countless fights and deaths by both blade and bullet.

In a prepared statement delivered to Chief Janssen and Mayor Koch, the Methodist ministers felt that Milwaukee’s gambling establishment was responsible for “breaking up homes, crushing hearts, impoverishing the innocent, [and] producing embezzlement, robbery, murder, and suicide.”

Janssen and Koch maintained their position that to act too aggressively against these gambling houses would merely inspire the house proprietors to relocate to yet another area of the city. As Koch would tell the Milwaukee Journal, “There is no occasion for the clergymen making all this fuss.”

Inspector Otto H. Reimar was one of the MPD’s early standouts. According to Schmitt, Reimar developed a reputation for honesty and did not approve of lying to criminals to secure a confession, feeling that such a tactic made him no better than the perps he apprehended. As inspector, Reimar supervised all the detectives and was outranked only by the Chief. Reimar tackled the 1897 daytime shooting death of James Soukop, a teamster for commission merchant E.R. Godfrey & Sons. Soukop was shot once in the intestines, and once in the spine, and died later that evening at the hospital.  Investigators would later learn that Soukop’s assailant mistook him for another teamster.

Inspector Reimar told the newspapers that he knew with full confidence the identity of the shooter, but declined to reveal the name. The shooting of James Soukop would be the first mob-related killing in Milwaukee’s history…  It would certainly not be the last.

Despite brutal interrogations of several apprehended Italians, the police quickly learned how unwilling the Italian community was to surrender one of its own. The Italians’ reticence only further motivated the police, who fervently believed the shooter was being harbored by his friends.

By the time James Soukop was laid to rest, all the Italians who had been detained in connection with the case were released, as there was no direct evidence linking any of them to the crime.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…    

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