Early Newark a Harsh Place for Criminals

History and Landscape
Published March 19, 1998

Early Newark a Harsh Place for Criminals

| Published March 19, 1998

A police 'mug shot' of Dutch Schultz, one of Newark's most famous gangsters of the 20th century. The Newark Public Library

Not all Newark history is a record of sweetness and light. Indeed, our record of crime and criminals is just as much part of our history as the building of great structures, welcoming of heroes into our midst, or accomplishment of great goals.

To regulate and protect society, specific penalties are imposed for infraction of the law. In colonial Newark, the penalties often were brutal. The death penalty was meted out for arson, murder, perjury, repeated stealing and burglary, cursing one's parents, rape and gross or unnatural licentiousness. Enforcement of these regulations depended on the presence of two or more witnesses. Infidelity was punishable by divorce, corporal punishment or banishment. Unchastity was rewarded with fines, marriage or corporal punishment. If a fine was not paid, it resulted in 10 lashes at the public whipping post. Revelers after 9 p.m. were locked up until morning, and liars were assessed 10 shillings. Drunkards were punished by a series of increasing fines, depending upon the number of offenses. There was no debtor's prison in town unless deliberate fraud was intended.

Later, in the colonial period, all sorts of activities were forbidden including stage plays, public games, masques, revels, bull-baiting and cockfighting. All in all, this was a rather strict code, yet not unusual for the time. To enforce these rules a small number of men were appointed as constables. Later, as the city emerged out of the old township and the population began doubling every few decades, a police department came into being, playing an important role in city government. The story of the founding of the Newark Police Department will be detailed in the future.


Newark's first public execution took place at Broad Street near Branford Place. Apparently John Barnes had repeatedly robbed Thomas Bailey's home. For this, he lost his life on the public gallows. While such an offense would have been resolved now by fines or imprisonment, Barnes' threat to life resulted in this harshest of punishments.


On May 6, William Jones was hanged for murdering Samuel Shotwell, a Newark farmer, an event which was reported in great detail in Wood's Newark Gazette: 'On Friday, the 6th, William Jones was executed in this town, pursuant to his sentence for the murder of Samuel Shotwell. The unfortunate culprit was attended in his last moments by the Rev. Dr. McWhorter (Old First) and the Rev. Ogden (Trinity Church).' The execution took place after a sermon titled 'Who so sheddeth man's blood.' Following the sermon, Jones confessed to the assembled crowd and his comments were recorded and embellished by the attending clergy. His story recounts his lifetime, one that ended with murder. Jones pleaded guilty to 'exceeding wickedness in youth, excesses of liquor, and to being passionate and quarrelsome.' He told of following Shotwell and assaulting his victim: 'I knocked him down again with my fist and again kicked him and left him in the road and went home. After sitting by the fire a little while, I went to bed, but was very uneasy lest I had beat Shotwell too much.' The murderer's testimony ends with his apology for committing the crime, and a plea for forgiveness. 'I leave this testimony and confess on that my awful conduct may be a warning to others. My wickedness has brought me to this just and awful doom. May all others hear and fear!'


Between Jones' execution in 1791 and 1906, when death by electrocution was introduced by state law, a period of 115 years, 17 Newarkers died on our public gallows. The next public execution took place in 1805 in Military Park with the hanging of Harry Lawrence, a former slave, for the murder of his wife Polly. A wife-abuser with a violent temper, Lawrence was found guilty following a five-hour trial. His execution in the park on Friday, Oct. 4, 1805, drew the largest crowd ever assembled in Newark until that time. One account said: 'Dragoons withdrawn swords, footmen with glittering muskets and fixed bayonets marched to a slow and solemn drum beat, and in the center was the prisoner dressed in white trousers, jacket, a cap and rope hanging around his neck.' Upon arriving in Military Park, Lawrence mounted a cart that was driven under the gallows where he stood 10 minutes while the clergy addressed the throng. 'The cart was then removed under him and his spirit was launched into boundless eternity.'


Executions have now been moved to the Essex County Prison. It was there that James McMahon, a hard-boiled Mexican War veteran who had shot his wife 'strode to the gallows with a spirit of bravado which left onlookers blinking.' Prior to his execution, McMahon escaped to the west. He was returned to Newark to stand trial after much trouble. His death scene was not the public event that Harry Lawrence's was, but conducted within a closed court yard of the county prison and attended by the sheriff, 50 deputies and freeholders who had distributed 100 passes to their political friends. The end came when the sheriff 'touched a treadle which swung McMahon into eternity.' The corpse was left hanging for 30 minutes before being lowered into a black walnut coffin.


The 'Green Good Game' was being played out at Newark's Palace Hotel across from the old Pennsylvania Station. Here a well-known swindle took place involving the exchange of $125 legitimate dollars for $100 bogus bills. According to the fleecer, a set of engraved U.S. currency plates had been discovered, making the illegal reproduction of new money a matter of will. To entice a prospective client to take part in the illegal transaction, the crook would send samples of real money to prospective customers telling them to circulate it among friends and associates to see if anybody could detect it as a forgery. When no complaints were received, the transaction of fake bills proceeded with the warning not to open the moneybags until arriving well out of town, supposedly so as not to draw attention to the transactions. Years later, the rendezvous spot acquired the nickname 'Suicide Hall' for a cast of victims too embarrassed to complain to the local authorities.


John Reginald Talbot was recognized on the streets of Newark by a visiting Philadelphia social matron. Talbot was known as 'one of the great scoundrels of the day' and by a string of 18 aliases. In Toronto, he was known as Lord Courtenay, in Detroit as Lieutenant Dennis of Her Majesty's 64th Regiment, in San Francisco as Sir Harry Van Tempest, in Boston as Sir Hugh Courtenay, in Richmond as Pelham Clinton, and in Rochester as Ray Reid. At first a man who had endeared himself to the town's social leaders, Talbot was later branded a rogue by all. In New York he purloined a case of jewels, and in San Francisco he issued bad checks. Eventually, he was apprehended in New York's Astor Place, arraigned in the Jefferson Market Court, and transported back to Liverpool for his London trial. After serving a brief sentence in a West Indies prison, he headed to Boston upon his release to 'take on local society' with his handsome appearance, fine manners and social brashness. In a letter he supposedly wrote to the New York press, he ridiculed Newark's social leaders and demeaned their families. Later it was found that this letter had been written by a New York journalist and published by the New York Journal to their embarrassment. But the damage was done According to one report, 'Never in its history had Newark received such national publicity…It was a day of personal journalism and editors from coast to coast had a field day joshing Newark society and advising their readers that a clique of brewers and leather manufacturers had been 'taken in' by an impostor. Newarkers were furious, and so they should have been!


A murder which attracted national attention occurred in 1892, perpetrated by 16-year-old Robert Alden Fales of 16th Avenue. One contemporary account described it as 'blood-thirsty, one that has never stained the annals of this, or perhaps any other city. Indeed, one may search in vain the records of the Old Bailey, or any other similar institution, and fail to discover the story of a murder more tragic or brutal, sordid and premeditated, committed by a boy in his teens (who was) educated and brought up in a civilized community under religious influences.' The victim was a 48-year-old shipping and payroll clerk Thomas Haydon of the Potter Straw Hat Works at 13 Mulberry St. who was transporting the company payroll when he was struck and chloroformed by Fales. The $500 payroll was to be used to purchase two guns and a mini-submarine that the teenager planned to use in an attack on small craft in Boston Harbor. This bizarre use of a submarine to attack small ships would give today's gutter press a field day. Just imagine the accounts of a teenage murderer pirating ships. People marveled at Fales' composure at his trial. Although he was sentenced to be hanged, the judgment was commuted. He subsequently was sentenced to a mental asylum where he died several years later.


The year 1902 marked the gypsy kidnapping episode when little Abe Lowenstein was taken by a stranger while watching a parade at the Four Corners. While Abe and his brother Herman were supposed to be in temple, they slipped downtown to see the circus parade as it moved into town. Because Abe was so short and unable to see the parade through the sea of adults, he was picked up by a 'beautiful tall lady,' who apparently didn't put him down again. Within a minute, he was nowhere to be found. Abe's younger brother returned home and told of his apparent abduction. For an entire week, the Prince Street neighborhood was searched for him. Ten days later the boy was found. A trolley ride to Paterson, a visit to the poor farm there, and a tearful reconciliation brought the little boy back to town where 'all of Prince Street was cheering and singing' at the return of young Lowenstein to his family's little grocery store.' Little Abe, wide-eyed, could not quite understand what (the celebration) was all about. He knew only that he was glad to be home, so he cried.

20th century

Criminal activities in the present century have been as varied and colorful as the century has been diverse, marked from time to time by illegal land deals, indictments, convictions, nepotism, organized crime, ballot box stuffing and stealing. Early in the century, high city officials were offered $16,576 apiece for land that sold for $264,444. In 1937, the mayor and other officials were caught in a meadowlands scandal. Three years later, a grand jury cited the presence of organized crime in the city. In 1941, sweet-faced, grandmother-like Amelia Mildred Carr was about to be sent to prison for running a confidence ring that swindled hundreds out of more than $1 million. She avoided jail because the judge thought 'she seemed like such a nice lady.' In 1958, irregularities were found in the operation of the Newark pumping station of the Passaic Valley Sewer Commission. The following year there were difficulties in awarding a garbage contract. Most of 20th century Newark crime rode on the shoulders of Prohibition and its two famous and colorful gangsters, Abner 'Longie' Zwillman and Dutch Schultz. If you were going to live outside the law, these two were considered to be among the best in the nation—full of ability, style and class. As Newarkers, they were the best in their respective businesses.