Drama on the Front Steps

Nearly a century ago, in the “good old days” of alcohol Prohibition and associated gangsterism, a dramatic movie-script-like news story unfolded in front of our church.

On April 21, 1923, the Inquirer reported that in the small hours of the previous morning, “Miss Mabel Hills, 21 years old, of 421 South Forty-ninth street…was left gagged and dazed on the steps of St. Francis de Sales Church, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

“Miss Hills, with two other women and three men, was returning home from a café at Broad street and Girard avenue. At Forty-ninth and Spruce streets a big, crimson-colored car pushed in front of the taxicab, bringing it to a halt. Four white-masked men jumped out. Throwing open the door of the cab, the bandits thrust revolvers into the faces of the occupants and one of them demanded: ‘Which one of you is named Hills?’”

“‘That is my name,’ Miss Hills answered, according to the story she told police, and the men then proceeded to drag her roughly from the machine and hustle her into their car. ’One of them stuffed a handkerchief into my mouth,’ the girl said, ‘and another wrapped me in a blanket. Then it seemed as if they drove me all over the city at a break-neck pace. I fainted several times. When I finally came to I found myself on the church steps. ‘Where’s the rocks?’ one of the men asked me. ‘We don’t want to commit murder, but we’ll knock you off right here at the church if you don’t tell us where the jewelry is.’ So I told them I carried it in two chamois bags in my stocking. One of them slit open my stocking’ (presumably not at the ankle) ‘and took them.’ Her jewelry consisted of a diamond ring set with a five-karat diamond, two other rings with diamonds set in platinum, a diamond bracelet and a platinum and diamond studded wrist watch. “

“After the bandits had departed with their loot, Miss Hills, dazed and sick, staggered to the parish house and told her story. Meanwhile, her companions drove to the Fifty-fifth and Pine streets police station, where their chauffeur, John Halpin…was arrested…” Two other suspects –Thomas Alexander and Nathan Kessler — were also soon captured.

Inquiring minds might wonder how Miss Hills came to have $5,000 worth of jewelry – a magnificent sum in the 1920s — hidden on her person. The reporter carefully records the whole colorful incident using distancing words: “according to the story she told police…” Bishop Crane’s rectory also quietly stepped back from the odd occurrence on its church property.

One of the men arrested, Thomas Alexander, was already known to police for his connection with “the Columbia avenue gang.” He would go to trial for Miss Hill’s kidnapping, but “despite the strength of the evidence,” would escape a guilty verdict. (The other major suspect, Nathan Kessler, died in Moyamensing Prison due to a mysterious heroin overdose while awaiting trial). The story wasn’t over: soon “after his acquittal,” Alexander “appeared in Atlantic City. There he went to a boardwalk cabaret and seeing Miss Hill among the merrymakers gave her a severe beating. He pulled his revolver, knocked her unconscious and then literally shot his way out. The cabaret proprietor…was hit by one of the flying bullets” and spent some time in hospital.

Two years later, in November 1925, The Inquirer reported that Thomas Alexander was again arrested, along with a man named Samuel Martin and “two well-dressed women,” in a house at Park Avenue and Dauphin Street for a different crime: “the killing of a policeman and another man during the attempted hold-up of the Freihofer Baking Company loading station...” Over 800 postal money orders and many other stolen items were found at the scene of the arrest, along with a “peculiar shaped mask” like that used in the murders, and “enough dynamite and nitro-glycerin to blow up a house.”

In a dramatic finale, the four Park Avenue suspects were captured when “detectives…trailed a weeping woman from a cabaret” near Broad and Columbia, “to the rendezvous of the alleged bandit gang…The identity of the girl whose tears led to the capture was not revealed by detectives, as she is not under arrest. According to police, she is a member of a respectable family who left home to seek adventure and found only disappointment, sordidness and sorrow…   THE END!

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