Topping is the prison term for executing a prisoner by hanging. I learned that from an old friend, Bill Mc Gee. Bill worked for the Sunday Call, a paper that came out on Sunday morning, informing the locals what went on in the past week.
After the war the city fall apart. The tax payers got tired of the high taxes, corrupt government, and the new clientele that raised the crime rate. They got into their cars took their wallets and followed the Garden state Parkway South to look for their dream house with a patch of grass. With the people went the business, now the newspapers.
“Friday’s the last day Bat,” Bill said. Then the wrecking balls takes over. It’ll probably become a parking lot. Nobody wants the building, nobody wants this town. Its seen better days.
“So what ya going to do Bill,” I said, looking for some place to sit.” Got anything planned?”
He stopped throwing papers into a cardboard and looked up. “Oh yeah, I’m outta here. I’m going fishing, if ya know what I mean.”
“You mean your retiring, throwing in the towel?”
“Call it what you want Bat. I’m outta the newspaper game, I've been doing close to fifty years. Started as a copy boy with the Morning Ledger, then the Call, been with the Call close to forty years.”
Bill held the top spot on the Calls reporters list. He really knew how to cover amcover and write a story.
“Do ya remember the first day we met Bill?” I said.
He frowned. “Ya mean when that young girl took a Broody of the twenty fourth floor at 744 Broad. Yeah! do I remember! That was some mess. I hated those assignments,” he winced. “She was just a kid…and what was it…yeah” shaking his head, “her boy friend, broke up with her. Can ya believe it; some one could take their life over something like that.”
“Tell me Bill, what’s the biggest or worse assignment ya ever covered? Ya musta had a few, right?”
He put both hands on the back of his neck, leaned back in his oak swiveled chair and looked up at the ceiling.
“The biggest…that’s gotta be the Lindbergh kidnapping. The worse? Yeah…let me see…the worse, a topping.”
“What ya mean a topping, what’s that?” I frowned.
“Eddie Clark 1927. I’ll never forget it. I had to cover his execution. They sentence him to be hung up at Sing-Sing prison.
I laid my nightstick down and pulled up a chair.
“You mean you witness the actual hanging, no shit…what was it like, I mean ya know. I can’t imagine. You saw the whole thing. Tell me about it.
Before I start,: Bill said. "Do ya have any pulls (duty calls) coming up? This could take a little time”
“No", I said taking off my coat and hat, "I’m good for an hour and a half. I just made one on the corner of Bank and Halsey. Go ahead, so what was it like?”
He picked up the coffee pot, “black right?”
“Yeah.” I said. “Black, no sugar”
Bill poured two cups. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “September 23rd 1927, Jack Dempsey was fighting Gene Tunney at Soldier’s field that night in Chicago. This was suppose to be the fight of fights. Dempsey was trying for a come back. No heavyweight ever made a come back.”
I blew across the top of my cup. “Yeah.” I said. “My father often mentions Dempsey as one of the greatest fighters.”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “Jack was a tough guy. Jack the giant killer they him, after he knocked out Jess Willard, Willard was 6’ 5” 250 lbs, known as the big cowboy from Oaklahoma.”
“So what about Clark,” I said. ya know the hanging?”.
“Oh Clark, yeah. I just got my wings as a reporter and of course being low man on the totem pole, I had to fill in for Jake Metsky. Jake got to cover the fight, lucky stiff. You remember Jake, dontcha?” Bill said, reaching for a cigarette.
“No, he was before my time. What about Clark?”
He leaned again back in his swivel chair blowing smoke through his nose. “Too bad, he was some reporter. Everybody like Jake” Bill took another deep drag from the cigarette. “Too bad.”
“What’s too bad,” I said.
“Jake.” he snapped back. “It’s too bad how soon your forgotten…Jake died two years ago down in Miami.” He looked at his cigarette. “Lung cancer.”
I checked the oak school clock on the wall then with my pocket watch. Bill got the hint.
“Okay, Eddie Clark. Here we go, the paper wanted the preliminaries. Ya know…how he passed the night, what he had for breakfast, ya know Bat,” he smirked, “the morbid public. The execution was set for ten that night. We had to be there early.”
Bill crushed his cigarette “I promised my wife when I retire I’m gonna quit these things. I’d better, or I’m gonna wind up like Jake. Well anyway, did ya ever of Paddy Ryan? He worked out of bunko, hellava cop, worked with Bust O’Neil”
“Yeah stories.” I said. “They was before my time. What about Clark?”
Bills eyes were fixed on a plague hanging from the wall. He took it down and looked at me holding it up. ”Man of the year.” he said…just more bull-shit.” He threw in the box.
“Let me tell ya Bat, Paddy was a tough cookie. They called him camera eye. Never forgot a face. That’s how he nailed Eddie.”
“So he got Clark.”
“Yeah, second time around, he recognized him from a wanted poster.”
“What ya mean second around Bill?”
“Let me finish the story, that’s part of it.”
“And…” I said, leaning forward.
“Yeah, so I meet Paddy at Penn. Station. Paddy was assigned to witness the execution.
We caught the train to Sing-Sing and on the way up, I asked Paddy “What about Clark, what’s he getting stretched for?”
Paddy puts his longs legs out onto the seat across from us and stretches.
" Let me tell ya Bat, Paddy was as big as he was tough, but a nice guy to know.
Bill reaches for a Divino and lights up, then offers me one, I declined it. "Back then" Bill said ya could get Cubans. Anyway here’s the story, oh has your coffee? Need a refill?”
“No, I’m good Bill.”
“Okay, so here what Paddy tells me, Eddie’s charged with killing a sailor on the Bowery in New York, one of them merchant seamen. Gets locked up and gets convicted, murder one. On his way up the river, he escapes outta the train and some how makes it to South Dakota.”
“Hold on.” I say to Paddy. “How did he escape?”
“How’d think.” he says, taking the cigar out of his mouth. “He had to take a shit and once inside the toilet, he’s out the window, got it?’ He sticks the cigar back in his mouth. So Eddie winds up marrying some local dolly, I think a waitress and starts a small painting business. His Dolly doesn’t know about the sailor or his past. He doing alright though, until his mother dies. Oh I didn’t tell ya, Paddy says, Eddie’s originally from Jersey. He makes the trip home to attend the funeral and that’s when I nail em at Penn. Station coming off the train.”
“So I asked Paddy, why did Eddie kill the swabby?"
“It was over some dame. He swears he didn’t do it.. his story is, he happened to be in the bar that night when all hell broke loose, then the lights went out. When they turned them back on they found Eddie laying along side of the sailor. Everybody took off, except for the two guys they found sleeping in the shit house.”
“And Eddie.” I said.
“His stick with his story. He maintains before the lights went out, he was hit from behind. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the precinct cell block that’s Eddie’s story.”
“Paddy tells me, Eddie had a kid back in South Dakota with the second wife. The next thing ya know, he comes home one day and finds his wife in bed with the traveling salesmen, while you know the rest. She left with the kid in the salesmen car. Eddie bought a bottle and road the rails trying to drink away his troubles until he winds up on the new York docks as a checker for loading ships. Paddy say’s, he believes Eddies story…say’s he couldn’t hurt a fly--”
“Ossining, Ossining” the conductor cried out. “Ossining, Sing-Sing prison next stop.”
We arrived about 9:00 that night with a load of other reporters. It’s the first time I saw Winchel, ya know…big gray fedora and all. Winchel was a big deal back then. He had dibs on all the hot stuff in New York. We were lead into a room where all the news guys met, Walter kind of took charge.”
‘Listen up,’ his says. ‘Lets not everybody go nuts on this thing. When it’s over, we’ll share the phones.” We all nodded are amen’s.
“There was a another character I met, I reporter from some rag in South Jersey. His blood shot eye’s told me he was real juicer.”
‘Dam," the juicer blurted out, the time sure drags.’
“Paddy pokes me, it may be for him but I’ll bet it fly’s for Eddie.”
I whispered to Paddy, “ya think they’ll give em a shot of booze or dope before the drop?”
“I don’t know,” Paddy answered from the side of his mouth, clenching his Devino.
The juicer took out his pocket, “It won’t be long now,” he said.
Some of the guys walked away in disgust.
The warden walked into the room. A tall guy, wiry, with glasses and slightly bald. He looked more like a librarian. This was his first execution.
“How do feel,? Some one asked.
“Alright,” he answered, with sarcasm, crushing a cigarette in the tray. “It’s not pleasant to jerk a man into the great beyond.”
Silence fell over the room, nothing more was asked of the warden.
Let’s grab those two chairs over there.” Paddy said.
The juicer was behind us. He leaned over. I could smell the stale booze.
“I heard this jerk,” he whispered, “killed a sailor over a broad?”
Another reporter chimed in. “Who’s was the dame?”
Two others spoke up. “It was in the paper, just a local hustler”
Paddy looked at his watch. “It’s nine thirty” he murmured, getting close.”
The Captain of the guard walked in and raised his hand. “Okay everybody, follow me over to the execution building,” Lets try and stay together and watch your step going up the stairs.
We marched in single file through the prison yard. Across the way we could see guards escorting a lone prisoner.
“There he goes,” some one said. “that’s Eddie Clark.”
Further down the yard we pass the morgue, they called it the butcher shop. The surrounding walls had guards (called herders) with loaded rifles. We reached the end of the yard and stopped at the foot of wooden steps and started climbing the three flights. Fearful of the rickety construction, we walked up a few at a time. A fat guy grumbled on his way up. At the top, I turn to Paddy, “You know, there were thirty five steps we just went up.” He didn’t said anything. Kept a tight lip.
We passed through the print shop. Four prisoners sat at a desk editing the prison paper. Tacked on the wall were pictures of actresses of long ago. From the print shop we passed through a small room with three gaunt prisoners standing along side of a pine coffin. They were called the scavengers. It was there job to take the dead man down from the scaffold, place him in the coffin and hurry him to the little cemetery on the hill with the rest of the men with broken necks.
I touched paddy’s arm, I could feel it shake. You wouldn’t believe it Bat, I think this whole thing was getting to Ryan.
The door opened. We entered into the room of death. The room must have been about sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, with a twenty foot ceiling. The brick walls were painted a sickly pale red. On the far wall they constructed the death platform with thirteen steps to the trap door. One rope already knotted hung as the noose from the gallows. Alongside the noose stood a tall man in a black suit with a slouched hat. I checked my watch, ten minutes.
An oppressive silent rolled through the room and then broken by the creak of the hinge opening the far door at the end of the room. The warden entered, followed by Eddie Clark being escorted by two uniform guards. The Chaplain followed, he was mumbling something. Eddie’s neck was bare his eyes were wide open and glassy, his mouth sagged, as if too tired to appeal for help. His knees bent, all power of locomotion had gone from his legs. His arms, strapped to his sides. Under each armpit the heavy hand of the law helped Eddie up the steps of no return. Before they pulled the hood over his head, Eddie turn slightly as if to say something. The chaplain read from his book in a dreadful monotone.
Bill stopped and looked at me.
“How much time ya got before the pull?”
I looked at my watch. “I’m good Bill, go ahead don't stop now, you were saying the chaplain read from the book.”
Bill reached for the coffee pot and refilled his cup, then looked at me. “Refill?”
“No.” I’m good. So…he read from the book, so go ahead.”
“Yeah, right. Just seven words.’ Confide this soul to the mercy of God.’
The warden raised his hand. The trap door sprang with an awful noise. Eddie’s body dropped ten feet. They placed a step ladder underneath the scafold in front of him. The doctor stepped on it, ripped open the dying man’s shirt down to his heart and applied the stethoscope. One of the scavengers held his body firm. Another guy, I guess the doc’s assistance held Eddie’s hand. Every now and then he would feel for a pulse.
Paddy turned and faced the wall, tears in his eyes. Imagine Bat, Paddy Ryan moved to tears. The juicer pulled out his pocket watch and began counting to himself. Some guy next to me, noded at the juicer and murmured ‘The sick son-of-a bitch.’
The seconds ticked by like they had no conscious. It was over in thirteen minutes. They pronounced Eddie dead. The scavengers took him away.
The silence broke with everyone rushing out the door looking for the nearest phone. I followed the crowd with Paddy close behind into the wardens outer office. Everyone took turns waiting for a phone.
“Listen up everybody,” the warden said in a loud voice holding up a piece of paper. “I have a note, Clark wrote to me just before he left his cell a few minutes ago. He handed it to Winchel.
“Here read it Walter.”
Bill reached into his cardboard box and took out an envelope; Eddie Clark’s note.
“Here Bat, I made a copy of it. Go ahead, read.”
Many thanks for the find treatment. I know how you feel sir, and believe me I can sympathize with you-it’s your first and I hope your last. I have only a few minutes and I want to say now, that I had no more to do with that sailor’s death than you did. I don’t blame the jury-how can I when the state’s witness lied-yes, two of them. The rest told the truth. But with a poor lawyer and a record, the verdict would have been the same had I been charged with the death of Abe Lincoln. Yes. I have one prison record and two $50.00 fines against me. The rest is just arrests…vagrancy, not even a jail term. My prison term was for a $14.00 check for which I was pardoned. Thanks again.
I didn’t say anything, I just handed it back to Bill. “So what happen next?” “After Winchel read it, he handed back to the warden.”
‘Did any of you guys ever bother to read the testimony of the state witnesses?’ the warden said.
A few grunted, ‘yeah…some of it… why?’
‘There were two witnesses,” the warden continued. “One says he saw Eddie in the bar holding a knife in his right hand. The other one says he saw Eddie arguing with the sailor.’
A voice from the rear said. “so what’s that’s suppose to mean?”
“I’ll tell you what it means,” the warden said taking off his glasses.
As you could see, it took a long time to pronounce Clark dead. The doctor had a hard finding a pulse in his right wrist, simply because Clark’s right wrist was paralyzed. He suffered an injury during the first war…he’s right hand was useless.”
“And that’s the story of Eddie Clark,” Bill said.
I look at the wall clock. Holy sh--,” I said, “look at the time, I have just a few minutes before my pull.” I grabbed my coat and night-stick running toward the front door, just as I got there, Bill hollered, “By the way, Dempsey lost the fight.”