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National Affairs: Society v. Kidnappers

6 minute read

Spectators in a crowded courtroom in Kansas City stirred expectantly one day last week when a trim young woman clad in a grey dress and a white hat climbed onto the witness stand. She was Mary McElroy, daughter of Kansas City’s City Manager. Two months prior she had been abducted for $30,000 ransom (TIME, July


“Who told you to ‘shut up or I’ll shoot through the bathroom door?’ ” cried the prosecutor.

“Walter McGee,” she replied.

”Who said, ‘We’re kidnappers. We’re going to take you away?’ ”

“Walter McGee.”

“Who ordered you to hurry up and get dressed?”

“Walter McGee.”

“Who put the quilt over you?”

“McGee, and he ordered me to make no sound.”

”Who put the handcuffs on?”

“Walter McGee.”

“What happened about three o’clock the day you were released?”

The witness slumped in her chair, began crying. Between sobs she told how Walter McGee, before unshackling her, had demanded that she strip so that the kidnappers could make sure she had concealed no evidence against them.

“What did you say to that?”

“I told them I would rather die than do that, that I never would do it.”

Still sobbing, she explained that McGee had not forced her to it. He gave her a bunch of flowers, she said, and set her free.

The prosecutor wheeled around, faced the jury and shouted: “The nation has been in the grip of a deplorable wave of kidnapping. As soon as the message is sent out from this room that a jury has said a man shall hang for this kidnapping, you will have taken a big step to stop that wave!”

Quietly, soberly the jurors filed out to deliberate. They included a watchman, a switchman, a dry goods store owner, two grocers, mechanics and salesmen, a farmer, a sheet metal worker-an average U. S. jury with a national issue in their hands. Theirs was the chance of being first to condemn a kidnapper to death. From Washington, Attorney General Cummings, spearhead of President Roosevelt’s anti-crime drive, had sent his Special Assistant Joseph Berry Keenan to help speed up Missouri justice. Late into the night the jurors reviewed the facts: how Walter McGee, Oregon ex-convict, with an accomplice had taken the girl from her bath to a filthy cellar once used as a chicken roost, had kept her chained to the wall for 29 hours; how they had negotiated for a $60,000 ransom from her father and had finally collected $30,000; how Walter McGee, arrested in Amarillo, Tex., had confessed.

Next day, while the trial of McGee’s brother for the same crime was beginning, they returned with their verdict. It was Death.

Kidnapper McGee sat motionless. Said he: “I don’t see why anyone should be hanged for a thing like that.”

Out of the courtroom strode Lawyer Keenan to telephone the verdict to his chief in Washington. Attorney General Cummings, elated, cried: “The penalty is an indication as to how the people feel. … If convictions may be obtained and heavy penalties inflicted a sufficient number of times, kidnapping can be stopped!”

A few hours before, Attorney General Cummings had conferred with President Roosevelt on setting up a Federal crime-fighting police staff, similar to the “National Scotland Yard” advocated by Col. Louis McHenry Howe in the Satevepost last week. The Roosevelt-Cummings plan, as announced in the Press last week, called for 1) expansion of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation into a Division, staffed with expert criminologists and lawyers to cooperate with the states in tracking down kidnappers and racketeers. 2) The organization of a mobile detachment under Special Assistant Keenan to concentrate on kidnapping cases. 3) Legislation to stop the sale of firearms to gangsters and criminals. 4) Legislation asking the states to surrender their authority in cases of kidnapping, thus leaving Federal agents free to ignore state lines. 5) The absorption of the Prohibition Bureau by the new Division of Investigation. To direct the new division he selected 39-year-old John Edgar Hoover, chief of the present Bureau of Investigation. Capable, efficient, he succeeded the late great William John Burns as director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. A firm believer in fingerprints, he expanded the U. S. identification and crime statistics systems, which now contain nearly 4,000,000 records of criminals and Federal civil service employes. His assistants must be college graduates and lawyers, must go through a special training course in crime detection. A shrewd and able criminologist, Detective Hoover is gentlemanly, reticent, hardworking.

States, too, were last week joining the anti-kidnap war. California passed a bill fixing the death penalty or life imprisonment for kidnappers who harm their victims.* In Albany, Governor Lehman urged New York’s Legislature to make kidnapping punishable by death unless the victim is returned before trial; to make it a felony to pay ransom or withhold information about a kidnapping case.

The anti-crime drive last week took on an international angle when police officials from Europe and the U. S. created an International World Police. Gathered at Chicago’s Stevens Hotel, they agreed to set up clearing houses for criminal information at Washington and at Vienna, Austria, and to cooperate in preventing international rackets. Also convened in Chicago was the World Association of Detectives whose members agreed upon one thing: “Hang all convicted kidnappers!”

¶In Milwaukee, Roger Touhy and three other members of Chicago’s “Terrible Touhy” gang, were charged with the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr., St. Paul brewer. Arrested at Elkhorn, Wis. fortnight ago, they were first thought to have engineered the snatching of John (“Jake the Barber”) Factor, but Factor refused to identify them.

¶Held captive for 23 days in an apartment bedroom, John J. (“Butch”) O’Connell, nephew of the politically powerful Brothers Edward and Daniel O’Connell of Albany, N. Y., was released unhurt on a street corner in The Bronx after his uncles had paid $40,000 ransom. The kidnappers, apparently unnerved by news of the death sentence of Walter McGee and by the nation-wide anti-crime movement, had speeded up negotiations at the eleventh hour, abandoning their demand for $75,000 when Daniel O’Connell insisted that $40,000 was all they would get. Aware that the money was marked, the extortionists threatened to kill young O’Connell and “dump him on the doorstep” unless they were given opportunity to exchange it at a New York bank. The uncles acquiesced.

¶In Oklahoma City, rich Oilman Charles F. Urschel, whom gunmen snatched from a family card game on his own front porch, turned up after nine days captivity. His family admittedly paid ransom, kept silence for eight hours to let the kidnappers get away.

*Twelve states provide the death penalty for kidnappers: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

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