Dark Passage

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On September 27, 1947, Warner Bros. studios released the movie Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  This was the real-life couples’ third movie together; their last would be in 1948 in John Huston’s Key Largo.  The use of the “subjective camera” technique (which I personally find annoying) in the beginning of the film is more than compensated for by the many location shots of San Francisco, looking its post-war best.

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Dark Passage was adapted from a novel, originally published as Convicted, by the lesser-known writer of noir, David Goodis.  It was his first successful novel, after years of writing advertising copy for PR firms and publishing short stories in pulp magazines.  Goodis had arrived in Hollywood to work as a screenwriter in 1942 and would continue to live and work there until 1950.  Dark Passage alone netted Goodis $25,000 in serial rights from the Saturday Evening Post, as well as a new, more remunerative contract with Warner Bros., and film deals for two more of his novels.  Goodis could not sustain this level of success, however.  He eventually returned home to Philadelphia to look after family, and wrote original paperbacks for Fawcett.  His spent his later years as a near recluse, and died in 1967 at the age of 49.  Dark Passage remains his best-known work.

 

Death in Kentucky

The Dastardly Past:  Death in Kentucky.

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September 20, 1937 saw the close of a nearly year-long melodrama that had gripped the state of Kentucky.  Brigadier-General Henry H. Denhardt, age 61 and the state’s former Lieutenant Governor and Adjutant General, lay dead from several gunshot wounds.  The three Garr brothers, accused of attacking him in front of the Armstrong Hotel in Shelbyville, Kentucky, sat in jail.  And not a single member of the public questioned how this had happened.  They knew.

A year earlier, on November 6, 1936, the general’s fiancé, Verna Garr Taylor, had been found shot to death in a wet ditch along a lonely road outside of Louisville.  The beautiful forty-one-year-old widow had spent the day in the city with the general and they were returning to her home that night when the car stalled.  After that the sequence of events grew murky.  The general testified that Mrs. Taylor walked ahead for help at a nearby gas station.  A passing motorist stopped and spoke to the general, offering help.  Later another car passed and its driver reported seeing the general standing by his car.  According a nearby farmer, he heard a shot fired.  Then another.  He went to investigate.  The exact positions of Denhardt and Taylor during this time isn’t clear from reports.  Eventually the investigating farmer encountered the general near the road and they discovered Taylor’s body several hundred yards from the car.  Denhardt’s service revolver rested beside it.

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Police arrested Denhardt for Mrs. Taylor’s murder.  He was known to have an “overbearing” personality, and several members of her family, including her two daughters and her three brothers, had opposed their engagement.  Denhardt could not consistently explain the minute traces of blood on his overcoat.  As a defense, he asserted that Mrs. Taylor had been threatening suicide, despite testimony to the contrary as well as their recent engagement.  Authorities ruled out robbery, since the victim still wore her $1500 engagement ring when discovered.  A two-week trial ensued in the late spring of 1937, but it resulted in a hung jury.  The judge ordered a new trial set for September.

Many people believed that Denhardt, given his influential connections, would escape justice a second time.  Certainly Mrs. Taylor’s three brothers believed it, despite the fact that several more witnesses for the prosecution had come forward.  The day before the new trial began, somebody telephoned the hotel to ask if Denhardt was registered there.  The desk clerk said they were expecting him.  That evening Mrs. Taylor’s brothers, Jack, Roy, and Dr. E. S. Garr, encountered Denhardt on Main Street and shots rang out, killing the general.  In a nod toward public opinion, state officials declined to lower the flag over the capitol building in deference to the passing of the former lieutenant governor.  And, as a postscript, a jury acquitted the Garrs of all charges two months later.

The Front Page

The Dastardly Past:  The Front Page.

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On August 14, 1928, a new kind of play debuted at the Time Square Theatre in Manhattan.  Called The Front Page, it was a raucous comedy about unscrupulous pressmen and crooked politicians, set against the impending execution of a wrongly convicted criminal.  The playwrights, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, drew from their own days as journalists in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s.  While some critics complained of the play’s coarseness and cynicism, it was nevertheless a smash hit.  It has been revived successfully on Broadway numerous times and made into successful films, including Howard Hawks’ deft adaptation entitled His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the lead roles.

The Tangled Web of “Keggy” Jones

The Dastardly Past:  the Tangled Web of “Keggy” Jones.

On Monday, August 31, 1931, in Houston, shots rang out in an upscale apartment building in Montrose, one of the prosperous new developments southwest of downtown.  An alarmed tenant reported the noise to C. C. Bell, the building’s owner.  He called the police.  When Bell let the officers into the apartment, they found the “Anvil Chorus” blaring on the radio and the apartment’s occupants dead from multiple bullet wounds.

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The victims were Mr. and Mrs. A. C. Jones, a young couple who had been married about five years.  Chester Jones, 35, was a rising oil executive with the firm of Martin, Drake, & Jones.  Jane Stackhouse Martin Jones, 25, was the daughter of Chester’s business partner, a respected oil and cattleman named W. F. Martin.  Chester was slumped in a chair in his pajamas, with a shot to the head, four to the chest, and one in the hip.  Jane, daringly dressed in pajamas as well, had been shot four times and had also been beaten.  Under her sprawled body they found a floor scarred by several more bullet holes.

The police concluded that there was more than one intruder:  they found two sets of footprints outside the apartment’s back door and two different kinds of bullets in the apartment.  As to suspects, they were baffled.  But not for long.  As detectives dug deeper into the case, they latched onto the end of a thread that at their touch, began to unravel a convoluted web of criminal activity.

Chester Jones, nicknamed “Keggy,” was not the promising businessman he appeared to be—news that stunned his senior partners W. F. Martin and Ed J. Drake.  Whether Jane Jones knew of her husband’s hidden life is a matter of conjecture; she certainly found out about it.  Through his fingerprints, police determined that Jones was actually a career felon with a number of aliases, who had served three terms in the state penitentiary and still moved in a wide circle of unsavory characters.  As the police rounded up some of Jones’ associates and persuaded them to talk, more of the story of the “Bayou Gangsters” as one journalist called them came out.

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Chester “Keggy” Jones, along with his brother, Jack, had been involved in the armed robbery of the Union Planters National Bank in Memphis in May.  Those actually arrested for the crime were Herbert Scales, “a socially prominent young Dallas sportsman and clubman,” Ralph Arnold, and John “The Greek” Cherris.  Cherris was released from jail on a $7500 bail posted by Keggy, but Keggy and Cherris argued over the division of the Memphis loot.  Violently as it turned out, because Keggy, Jack Jones, and another crook named Barney McGanagel killed Cherris and dumped him in the Brazos River near East Columbia, Texas.

Within hours of the murder of her husband, Lola Cherris enlisted the aid of seasoned gangsters Del McCabe and Shiloh Scrivnor to do away with Keggy Jones.  At the end of September McCabe’s wife in St. Louis gave police the whole story from a hospital bed.  She was laid up with a broken leg that she sustained in a car accident that had killed Lola Cherris.  McCabe and Scrivnor entered the apartment to kill Jones, making him sit in a chair and firing point blank, as the powder burns on his clothing proved.  Jane had tried to fight off the killers but they beat her back, shot her, and fled.  Lola Cherris drove the getaway car.  McCabe and Scrivnor were now on the run.

By October 10th, authorities caught up with McCabe and Scrivnor in Des Moines, Iowa.  They had booked into a downtown hotel posing as machine-gun salesmen (seriously?).  As police approached his hotel room McCabe engaged them in a gun fight and was killed.  Scrivnor turned up at the hotel a few hours later, was arrested, and brought back to Texas to stand trial along with Jack Jones and Barry McGanegal.  And so the mystery of who killed the affluent young oilman and his wife was resolved.

Keggy Jones grave

As a postscript to the story, the apartment building where the bloodbath occurred was torn down.  According to the city of Houston web site, Mr. C. C. Bell eventually donated the land on which it stood to the city to be made into a park.  Bell Park, with its statue of Christopher Columbus, still exists on Montrose Blvd., just a few blocks away from Houston’s Museum District.

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Robert Shaw

The Dastardly Past:  Robert Shaw.

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On August 9 in 1927, actor and writer Robert Shaw was born in Lancashire, England.  Known for playing tough guys, Shaw was a Bond villain opposite Sean Connery in From Russia with Love (1963).  My favorite of his roles, however, is Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster who menaces Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting (1973).  His character’s distinctive limp was an actual injury Shaw sustained a week before filming began.  He wore a leg brace throughout the movie’s production, which somehow made his character even more threatening.  Shaw went on to play several more distinctive parts until 1978 when his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 51.

 

HM Holloway Prison

The Dastardly Past:  HM Holloway Prison.

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In London in 1903, HM Holloway Prison became a single-sex prison for women.  For the previous fifty years it housed both men and women, but the growing number of female felons demanded a larger facility for housing them.  At one point, Holloway was the largest institution for the incarceration of women in Europe.  In the twentieth century it housed many of Britain’s notable suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and, during the second world war, several English fascists, including Diana Mitford (wife of Sir Oswald Mosley).  Holloway was rebuilt during the 1970s and 1980s and closed in 2016.

Anatomy Act of 1832

The Dastardly Past:  the Anatomy Act of 1832.

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A mortsafe, installed by loved ones for the protection of graves

On July 19, 1832, the House of Lords passed the Anatomy Act in Great Britain.  Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century had resulted in an increase in the number of students enrolling in medical schools and, at the same time, higher expectations among the public for quality medical care.  This included surgery, which required close familiarity with human anatomy.  As a result, the demand for bodies in this era far outstripped what executioners and body-snatchers (called resurrectionists) could supply.  The provisions of the Anatomy Act outlined a procedure where licensed practitioners could claim bodies from among the dead of the workhouses.  Parliament hoped to fulfill scientific demand while also putting an end to the distressing practice of robbing graves.  The Act, however, only enjoyed partial success.