JCHA NEWSLETTER –FALL 2018

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The Birmingham Axe Murders

From Birmingham Wiki


Axe used in Vitellaro assault, pictured in the Birmingham News 1923.

Axe used in Vitellaro assault, pictured in the Birmingham News 1923.

I

eginning in late 1919 through 1924, a series of eighteen brutal, bloody murders with sixteen more victims wounded, terrified Birmingham and its suburbs for four years. A hand axe was used as the murder weapon in most of the murders. The murderer or gang of murderers were never completely or definitively identified. The attacks’ survivors were so traumatized they could not give clear descriptions of their attackers.

Accounts of the number of crimes committed by the gang vary, as do the lists of people killed or wounded in their attacks. The New York Times reported there had been 24 killed in 44 attacks, while the Birmingham papers counted only 15 dead and 13 wounded attributable to the "syndicate". A review of cases by Jeremy Gray for al.com in 2013 found 18 dead and 16 injured.

The murders were publicized nationwide in the newspapers. While suspects were arrested, questioned (some under an experimental "truth serum"), tried, convicted to prison sentences with some hanged; there never was unbiased, definitive proof of guilt. The blatant racism of the police and sheriff’s departments made the departments’ actions suspect.

Though no overall pattern connecting the crimes was established, they appeared to Birmingham Police Chief Fred McDuff to fall into at least two classifications. In many cases small shop owners, often foreign-born, were targeted in robberies, some of which were suspected of resulting from disputes between thieves and their fences. In another group of cases, police suspected retribution on behalf of presumed victims of miscegenation. From the few descriptions given by surviving victims, police considered all African Americans with criminal records to be suspects. The media helped shape the idea that a single killer, dubbed "Henry the Hacker" was to blame for the spate of gruesome murders.

Henry the Hacker as portrayed in the Birmingham News.

Henry the Hacker as portrayed in the Birmingham News.

The saddest parts of the whole story are the victims. For the most part they were poor Italian emigrants who owned and ran little one room grocery stores in the poorer parts of Birmingham and its suburbs. Most of their customers were the black industrial workers laboring in the blast furnaces, rolling mills, coke ovens and mines. The Italian families usually lived in a room behind or above the store. The stores were basically open almost twenty-four hours a day to handle customers at shift change. At least one family member was on duty keeping the store open. The little stores truly did a nickel and dime business. Most purchases were less than a dollar in cost.

Some of the family names are still recognized in Birmingham such as the Baldone, Grafeo and Romeo families. There was newspaper speculation that the Axe Gang was part of Italian "Black Hand" vendetta and robbery when Charles Baldone, wife, Mary, and 14-year-old daughter Virginia, were attacked July 13, 1921, at their shop at 4510 10th Ave. N. The three spent several weeks in a hospital. "Robbery, vendetta, and vengeance of negro tenants were advanced as possible motive," The Birmingham News reported. Other News reports said the Baldones refused to identify their attackers and that police believed the attack was the result of "a family vendetta." The couple’s 3-yearold son, Frank, told police he saw a black man strike his father, the News reported.

A descendant, Birmingham tailor Butch Baldone, believes the attack was the work of "The Black Hand," a ring of extortionists that plagued immigrant communities nationwide.

The first murder was determined to be Mr. G.T. Ary, attacked with an ax November 28, 1919, at the chain store he managed at 801 13th St. S. Mr. Ary died the next day without ever regaining consciousness. The next was John Besler, 65, attacked either on Dec. 23 or Dec. 24, 1919, at the mercantile shop he ran for 25 years at 1801 5th Ave. N. Besler was found bound and gagged and his cash register emptied. Although Besler had been beaten with a shovel, his death was listed as one of the earliest axe slayings. As more people were murdered, another motive seemed to appear.

On October 21, 1922, Telegrapher Julius Silverburg, age 20, and Louise Carter, a black woman, were murdered by blows to the head in an alley behind a home at 1816 6th Avenue North. Police first suspected "a Negro organization” avenging the "intermingling of the races," but later tied the attack to the string of axe murders of the merchants.

Numerous arrests were made, and some convictions obtained in the attacks. Nevertheless, a public uproar rose in response to the frequent grisly attacks. Commissioner of Public Safety William Cloe made an “appeal to the people of Birmingham not to give way to hysteria over the recent axe murders,” and continued denying the surge of pistol permits flooding his office. He did suggest that small merchants should consider closing earlier in the evenings. Sheriff Thomas Shirley also downplayed the story.

Numerous arrests were made, and some convictions obtained in the attacks. Nevertheless, a public uproar rose in response to the frequent grisly attacks. Commissioner of Public Safety William Cloe made an "appeal to the people of Birmingham not to give way to hysteria over the recent axe murders, " and continued denying the surge of pistol permits flooding his office. He did suggest that small merchants should consider closing earlier in the evenings. Sheriff Thomas Shirley also downplayed the story.

Though the evidence was thin and many victims refused to cooperate with police, investigators came to suspect a close group, or "syndicate" of killers. The Ku Klux Klan marched through Avondale in a show of force that Chief McDuff hoped might stop the killings. An Italian Protection League also formed to defend shop-owners and their families. The attacks on shop owners apparently came to an end after five African Americans were arrested in the winter of 1923–24. At least the brutal armed robberies occurring after the arrests were no longer tied to "Henry the Hacker" or the "axe syndicate".

Jefferson County Sheriff Thomas Shirley and Birmingham Police Chief Fred McDuff.

Jefferson County Sheriff
Thomas Shirley.

Birmingham Police Chief
Fred McDuff.

 

On January 6, 1923, Robert John Turner, a painter, was killed at the home of an African American woman, Lillie Belle, who was knocked senseless, but survived the assault. Mary Francis Sanders testified that she was part of a group which had targeted the mixed-race couple.

According to her account, the group of 10 were drinking "skulls and crossbones" in a downtown shanty when someone suggested they go "skulling" (knocking people over the head to rob them). She identified Peyton "Foots" Johnson and Odell and nineteen year old Pearl Jackson as having later bragged about Turner’s murder. Pearl Jackson reportedly confessed a second time and was to have pleaded guilty, but denied the confession later. The three were convicted and sentenced to hang.

During interrogations, Odell and Pearl Jackson, Peyton "Foots" Johnson and Fred Glover were given doses of the experimental "truth serum" consisting of scopolamine and morphine. While under the influence of the drug mixture, they collectively confessed to eight of the murders. Those confessions were affirmed after the effects of the drug had worn off. Furthermore, Jefferson County Solicitor James Davis said that the suspects’ statements included elements of some of the crimes which had not been made public.

Investigators, which included Jefferson County Sheriff Thomas Shirley and Paul Cole, Chief of Detectives in the Birmingham Police Department, described the three members of the gang as a "syndicate" of murderers who drew straws for the privilege of attacking selected targets. A man named Garfield was alleged to have founded the gang, but died of natural causes during 1922. Several members of the gang were presumed to remain at-large. By February, ten suspects had been identified.

Jackson and the Johnson couple were convicted in Judge William Fort’s courtroom in Jefferson County Circuit Court in February,1924,and sentenced to hang.

Interviewed in jail that November, both Johnsons denied having made confessions. Ed "Bulls Eye" Jackson was also convicted of having participated in the crime and sentenced to life in prison. At re-trial, Jackson was given a 10-year sentence and the death sentences for the Johnsons were confirmed. Their hangings were scheduled for August 7, 1925, but Governor William Brandon commuted the sentences the day before.

Thomas Lee Gardner was convicted of attacking Tony and Rosa Lorino on January 25, 1922 at their store and sentenced to life. Mack and Sylvester Brown were convicted for the October, 1921, murder of Gaspero Lonza and sentenced to 15 and 10 years hard labor, respectively.

Lillie Byrd was convicted for the December 21, 1921, murders of Joseph and Susie Manitone and sentenced to two 99-year prison terms. Frank Owens was sentenced to hang for the separate murder attacks May 24, 1924, on L.M. Watkins and Richard Warner.

Sources: Birmingham Axe Syndicate, Birmingham Wiki, Birmingham “Ax Men” by Jeremy Gray (jgray@ al.com)





Western Supermarket 5 Points West, 1981.

Western Supermarket 5 Points West, 1981.

 
Wester Supermarket ad 1960

Advertisement from The Birmingham News, circa 1960.

seperator
Under the white X in the photo, Private Henry Badham participates in the Alabama National Guard’s march through Birmingham on June 26, 1916. Photo is from the Birmingham Age Herald, Sunday, July 30, 1916.

Under the white X in the photo, Private Henry Badham participates in the Alabama National Guard’s march through Birmingham
on June 26, 1916. Photo is from the Birmingham Age Herald, Sunday, July 30, 1916.


The Jefferson Light Artillery and Pancho Villa

—by: Tom Badham

I

t seemed like a good idea, why not? These fellows get to shoot artillery pieces occasionally and ride horses. That’s fun. They get to camp out in the woods for a couple of weeks in the summertime, that’s like a vacation. They get to wear snazzy uniforms to dances, and they really impress the girls at those dances. They even get paid for all of this! Let’s see if we can join up. We might even get a crack at this Villa fellow.

So, went the slightly tipsy reasoning of several young Alabama men on a soft spring evening in 1916. And they were right. Most National Guard units in the South and the rest of the country were little more than young men’s social clubs. The regular army refused to use them in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The army had nothing but contempt for them.

The young men volunteered, enlisted as privates even though they were college graduates. They signed up just in time to see that cozy, romantic little world start changing to meet the horrible realities of modern European trench warfare.

In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, the Mexican bandit-patriot, Pancho Villa and several hundred of his armed, mounted compatriots swept into the little town of Columbus, New Mexico. According to legend, Villa made a deal with merchants of Columbus to purchase dynamite, rifles and ammo. The merchants kept the money and stiffed Villa. Villa came in loaded for bear looking for his weapons or his money.

Street fighting between Villa’s men and a detachment of the 13th U.S. Cavalry began. Several buildings in the town began to burn, setting other tinder dry wooden buildings ablaze. The battle raged in the burning town until dawn. When the fight ended, eight American soldiers and nine civilians lay dead in the smoldering ruins of the little village.

After a month of indecisive diplomacy, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Army to pursue Pancho Villa as far into Mexico as necessary to bring him to bay. The army high command used this expedition to activate every Militia and National Guard unit they could. This might give the army a small cadre of young men who had some familiarity with military life and training if and when they went to Europe.

On June 19, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson federalized the Alabama National Guard and the other states’ National Guards. The Alabama National Guard consisted of 172 officers and 2,826 enlisted men. They formed two infantry regiments, two field artillery batteries, one quartermaster corps and one company of signal troops. This included Battery C, grandly called the Jefferson Light Artillery by The Birmingham Age Herald.

Henry Lee Badham, Jr., 23 years old, was one of those volunteers as a horseman in the battery. Many years later his young daughter Mary asked about all the fun he must have had riding the horses pulling the caissons. Henry told her that not only was it hard work tending to those beasts, but moving the caissons and cannons was dangerous as hell.

Artillery Signaling Range Party. left to right: Henry Badham, Mark Crookshank, George Whatley

Artillery Signaling Range Party. left to right: Henry Badham,
Mark Crookshank, George Whatley.

Because the cannons and caissons were so heavy and had no brakes, they had to be galloped downhill so that the cannon wouldn’t run over the men and horses pulling it. If they hit a hole or any of the horses stumbled, they could be thrown or crushed by the cannon and caisson.

For two years a vicious blood-bath of a stalemated war raged in Europe–and we were slowly being dragged into it.

Our standing professional army was so tiny and ill-trained that it was a bad joke compared to European military standards. In size, the US army shared seventeenth place with the armies of Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Most enlisted men in this small army could barely read or write. Illiteracy was common. There weren’t even very many young privates. Most of the enlisted personnel were near thirty or past that, and still had but one stripe on their sleeves.

From the start, Battery C got a reputation as a "silk stocking outfit." According to the Age Herald, "Battery C, of the Artillery, is composed of many of the most prominent young men of the city. Its members are all college graduates and men known in the professions." Later on, a reporter asked one of Battery C’s men about its "silk stockings". He pulled up his pants leg and told the reporter, "I don’t know anything about any silk stockings. These here are good Woodlawn socks!"

Army engineers laid out an improvised mustering-in camp in Montgomery, Alabama’s Vandiver Park.

On Monday, June 26th, Private Henry Badham, performing his military job of Horseman for Battery C, rode one of the mules drawing the caisson of one of the Battery’s obsolete French-made 75mm. artillery pieces through Birmingham to the train station to entrain for Montgomery. He then participated in the Birmingham area units’ march through downtown Birmingham to the Union train station.

The National Guard units officially mustered into Federal Service on June 30, 1916. Battery C and all the other Alabama Guard units encamped in Montgomery’s Vandiver Park, which was re-named “Camp Vandiver”. The army had two massive jobs to accomplish with these units. They first had to be turned from rag-tag social clubs into trained and disciplined army units.

These units also had to be properly equipped to go into the field. What little equipment the units had dated from the Spanish-American War. Most of the men didn’t even have one complete army uniform and very few had a pair of army brogans. When the units got to Camp Vandiver, it was almost impossible to tell the soldiers from the sightseers.

The men stayed at Camp Vandiver throughout that long summer while the army tried to train and equip them. Due to Presidential inclination and Congressional under funding, the army’s quartermasters had very little equipment and uniforms on hand to give them.

Until some army discipline toughened these green-as-grass units, Selma was as close to Mexico as these National Guard units would march. In the past, poorly trained, led and disciplined militia units turned into leaderless mobs in the field.

On July 6, a hurricane roared inland from the Gulf coast with high winds and continuous thunderstorms flattening and almost flooding out the camp. Downed telegraph lines and washed out railroad embankments cut off Pensacola and Mobile for three days.

Written on back of Kennedy Plunkett photo: Mark Crankton and John. Three jackasses and a couple of horses. The horses are much more intelligent as they never joined the army.

Written on back of Kennedy Plunkett photo: Mark Crankton and John. Three jackasses and a couple of horses. The horses are much more intelligent as they never joined the army.

When mustered into Federal Service, the troops were supposed to be paid a month’s pay. Most of the men had been fully occupied with unit duties since the middle of June. They were running out of money for small personal needs. Every Friday of July would depart without any pay arriving.

While waiting for the Battery’s promised, but overdue, pay Henry and a Birmingham friend, Pat Gresham started their own loan company "The Bank of Battery C" for the troops. They loaned sums of usually a dollar or less to soldiers who had a bad case of the "shorts". A bag of Bull Durham tobacco cost a nickel, tooth powder, a dime.

On August 3rd, The Birmingham Age Herald noted the developing pay crisis was causing problems for the volunteers. "...In the meantime, the "Bank of Battery C" is doing a thriving business. The boys are borrowing a quarter or a half dollar whenever possible." Kennedy Plunkett, whose daughter Margaret ("Peggy" married Henry Badham III), often told the story of how he was one of Henry’s best customers.

On Wednesday, August 8th, Pay Call finally sounded in Camp Vandiver with all troops being paid by Thursday. It must have been a cause for great celebration. In the evening of the 9th, a brawl broke out between the two regiments.

Back in June the Guardsmen read of a crazy cavalry lieutenant named George S. Patton. He bragged that he shot it out with a band of Mexican bandits just using his silver-plated Colt Peacemaker revolver. He even claimed to have killed two or three!

The troops probably had a good laugh over that. By this time, they’d found out for themselves what a crazed bunch of lunatics the army had for regular officers. And, if anything, the sergeants and enlisted men were worse. Men who could barely write their names were now sergeants after spending nine or ten years as lowly privates. These new sergeants had a lot to pass on to the men of Battery C–those new, city slicker, pampered, college boy privates.

The real facts of army life were quickly and brutally impressed upon the new volunteers. They learned the mindless marching drill so well that they could do it in their sleep and probably did do it asleep, sometimes. They learned how to obey any order without hesitation or thinking.

Pancho Villa would be a snap to handle after trying to keep their sergeants happy. Their own National Guard officers, who were their friends and business associates, were only glimpsed occasionally. Any National Guard officer who didn’t measure up was sent back home, if possible. This was serious work. These men were too valuable for a bad officer to ruin.

Battery C entrained for the border on October 4, 1916. They arrived in Douglas, Arizona, on October 10th. Ostensibly, the National Guard’s job was to guard the border from further Mexican attack, but its real job was to train its men into some semblance of soldiers. The few real military men in the army saw the black clouds of war boiling half a world away and knew how horribly unprepared our men were. Those few happy-go-lucky volunteers were all they had. These men had to be trained to lead other young, innocent men into a terrible Hell that none could adequately conceive.

Kennedy Plunkett standing beside the United States - Mexican Border Boundary Post at Douglas, Arizona, looking towards Agua Prieta, Mexico. Written on the back of the photo: Boundary Post. Railroad into Mexico. Agua Prieta in background. "X" marks Mexican Custom house.

Kennedy Plunkett standing beside the United States - Mexican Border Boundary Post at Douglas, Arizona, looking towards Agua Prieta, Mexico. Written on the back of the photo: Boundary Post. Railroad into Mexico. Agua Prieta in background. "X" marks Mexican Custom house.

The Fall days were long, dusty, and dry in the desert near the tiny Arizona border town. Pancho Villa and his men had disappeared into the high, empty, 94,000 square mile Chihuahuan desert on their tough little Mexican ponies. Now the large, proud, grain-fed horses and mules of the U.S. Cavalry foundered and died trying to chase Villa’s cold trail.

But even the army couldn’t foul up every day. One soldier remembered that they played a lot of baseball. The men did have time to visit the settlement of Douglas. They made friends, even got to meet the few girls in town.

The obsolete artillery pieces they practiced with were ideal for pulling behind a column of troops chasing Indians. In modern warfare each side tries to situate its artillery so that the big guns can bombard the other side’s troops, support with artillery fire its own troops, and knock out the other side’s artillery.

Our French 75’s were tiny and short ranged compared to what was being used in Europe. But, as one old National Guard veteran later recounted, our boys could bring those guns right down into the trenches and fire them like pistols. They were real handy against machine gun nests and other fortified positions.

Most of the young college men of Battery C became officers in World War I. In their various capacities they served with honor and distinction. The first six U.S. army divisions to go to France were loaded with "Border Men". One, the Rainbow Division, was made up almost exclusively of them. When things would get really rough in the trenches, the Guardsmen would growl, "If you think this is bad, you should have been with us down on the Border."

Kennedy Plunkett was one of those men. A German poison gas attack seriously injured his lungs. He survived for less than ten years after the war. Pancho Villa never again attacked a U.S. town. His group of horsemen suffered over a hundred wounded in the Columbus raid. With his hands full on his side of the border, Villa left the crazy gringos alone.

When the National Guard units were folded into the US Army with the declaration of war against Germany, Henry marched down a different path. He volunteered for the aeronautical section of the US Army’s Signal Corps. He was going to train as a pilot! A job the army’s senior officers thought was so dangerous as to be almost suicidal. But, that’s another story.

Sources:
Berry, Henry; Make the Kaiser Dance, The American Experience in World War I.,
Badham, Thomas; Eyes of the Eagle, The Exploits of Henry Lee Badham, Jr. and William Terry Badham in the AEF.
Various Birmingham Age-Herald news stories of 1916.

 
Jefferson Artillery firing explosive shells at Douglas, Arizona for the first time.        

Jefferson Artillery firing explosive shells at Douglas, Arizona for the first time.

 
 

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