Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John Calpin, July 7, 1982

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:04 - Starting as a police reporter in 1925

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Partial Transcript: Okay, um can you give me--start with a brief history of how you became a reporter?

Segment Synopsis: Calpin shares how he began his career as a reporter after graduating from Temple University. He accepted a position at "The Bulletin" in 1925 as a police reporter in South Philadelphia.

Keywords: "The Philadelphia Bulletin"; Police reporters; South Philadelphia; Temple University

Subjects: Journalism.; Newspapers.; Reporters and reporting.

00:01:21 - Prohibition enforcement and police corruption under Smedley Butler

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Partial Transcript: Do you want me to tell them about Smedley Butler at that time?

Segment Synopsis: Calpin discusses Smedley Butler's background and his vision for reforming the city. Calpin talks about the liquor rings and the police raiding squads tasked with shutting them down. At the remaining police stations, they had evidence throughout the room and the stations smelled of fermenting liquor/mash.

Keywords: "The Philadelphia Bulletin"; 20th and Fitzwater Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 24th and Wolf (Philadelphia, Pa.); 4th and Snyder (Philadelphia, Pa.); 7th and Carpenter St (Philadelphia, Pa.); Confiscated liquor; Liquor rings; Phillip Testa; Police and fire station matrons; Prostitution; Raiding squads; Smedley Darlington Butler; Stills

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Police corruption.; Police.; Prohibition

GPS: The former site of the 4th and Snyder police station.
Map Coordinates: 39.922504, -75.153434
00:04:48 - Butler attacks police corruption

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, he did--Smedley Butler did, uh, pull the police department together. There had been many small scandals.

Segment Synopsis: Before Smedley Butler brought reform to the Philadelphia Police, they were involved in protecting crime rings. Any leads relating to the murders of prohibition era gang members were dead ends because none of the other gang members talked. However, Ted DiPtretoro eventually talked and changed everything.

Keywords: Central Philadelphia; Gambling; Gang murders; Grand Jury Investigation of 1928; Liquor rings; Prohibition era gangs; Prostitution rings; Scandals; Smedley Darlington Butler; South Philadelphia; Ted DiPretoro; Ward leaders

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Organized crime.; Police corruption.; Police.; Prohibition

00:08:49 - Commercial vice spreads though the city

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, Bill Meade told what happened. He said, "If you took a ball of mercury and held it in your hand it would just stay there, but if you squeezed it," he said, "it would run out."

Segment Synopsis: Calpin explains how when Smedley Butler cracked down on vice in the Tenderloin it spread out all over the city. He explains that even the police and politicians were in on the illegal vices, because business was business.

Keywords: 13th and Locust (Philadelphia, Pa.); Drug trafficking; Gambling; Gambling rings; Liquor rings; Prostitution; Speakeasies; Vices

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians; Prohibition

00:10:16 - How Philadelphians circumvented Prohibition

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Partial Transcript: Uh, uh, p--the Prohibition Amendment, the Volstead Act, was a thing that, that hurt every city that, that had a police department that could be venal.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin shares how Prohibition hurt every city by corrupting police departments. He shares how people made liquor in bathtubs and little stills. He says that South Philadelphia politician Bill Barrett was the biggest bootlegger downtown. He says that after Lemuel Schofield became Director of Public Safety, “things opened up again.”

Keywords: Bootlegging; Liquor; Stills

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians; Prohibition

00:13:00 - Gang violence leads to the Grand Jury Investigation of 1928

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, the, uh--how the grand jury investigation really started in 1928, that was--there had been an abortive one earlier, but this was the big one.

Segment Synopsis: After a smaller grand jury investigation, a major investigation took place in 1928. Calpin explains how the investigation started after investigators found thousands of dollars in police captains’ homes. After a botched shooting investigation, a grand jury investigation was opened into the police department.

Keywords: 10th and Summer (Philadelphia, Pa.); 11th and Winter (Philadelphia, Pa.); 1728 North Park Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); 2817 North Park Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Arch Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Christ Church ("Old Christ Church," Philadelphia, Pa.); Grand Jury Investigations (1927, 1928); Hughie McLoon; John Boyle; Magistrate Edward Carney; Park Avenue; Roundhouse (Philadelphia Police Headquarters); Samuel Rotan; Temple University; The Roundhouse; Thomas Jefferson Hospital

Subjects: Crime.; Police corruption.; Police.

00:19:46 - Discontent of citizens lead to investigations

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Partial Transcript: Uh, things were not going so well in the city right at then.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin says that after spending too much money on the Delaware River Bridge (now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the city council had to take the heat off of themselves. Whenever the council needed to draw attention away from themselves, they would open an investigation into the police. He also talks about how policemen paid to move up in the ranks.

Keywords: Alex Leftwich; Art museums; Benjamin Franklin Bridge; Committee of 15; Delaware River Bridge; Germantown; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Philadelphia city council; Vice squads

Subjects: Crime.; Distillation; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians

00:26:06 - Smedley Butler's effectiveness in curtailing corruption

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Partial Transcript: Uh, he was a personal friend of Freeland Kendrick who was the, the mayor then.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin says that part of the reason Philadelphia brought in Smedley Darlington Butler was in preparation for the Sesquicentennial of 1926. Many of the changes Smedley Darlington Butler brought to Philadelphia were done away with after he left. Calpin recalls the arrest of Al Capone and how Philadelphia became a haven for criminals.

Keywords: Al Capone; Marine Corps; Market Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Redistricting; Sesquicentennial of 1926; Tenderloin District (Philadelphia, Pa.); W. Freeland Kendrick (Mayor of Philadelphia, 1924-28)

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians; Prohibition

00:31:50 - Police captains gain control

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Partial Transcript: Tell me, who did, who did Butler then butt heads against? Who was, who was protecting or who was at the top of the rake-off--

Segment Synopsis: Calpin says that as Butler lost effectiveness, the police went into business for themselves, and that many captains collected protection money. He says that the reporters did not ask questions about corruption because they were so in love with their jobs.

Keywords: Director of Public Safety; Muckrakers; Payoff; Police captains; Smedley Butler; Traffic control; Ward leaders

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians; Prohibition

00:35:48 - The 1919 city charter introduces civil service

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Partial Transcript: But uh, uh, I would like to go back to the, uh, Charter of 1919.

Segment Synopsis: The Charter of 1919 put in a new civil service system. According to Calpin, this charter only worked as long as the good people were in. Once the weak mayor, Bernard Samuel, entered into office, Calpin believes the charter was ineffective. Getting power in Philadelphia politics was all about who you knew.

Keywords: 1919 Philadelphia City Charter; Bernard Samuel (Mayor of Philadelphia, 1948-52); Civil service; Common council; Fred Garn; James "Shoey" Malone; Joe Clark; Samuel Rosenberg; Select council; Walter Alzendrone

Subjects: Crime.; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians

GPS: Philadelphia City Hall, where Mayor Bernard Samuel held office.
Map Coordinates: 39.952634, -75.163664
00:42:14 - Changes in politics shape the city

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Partial Transcript: When did you start covering politics in the city?

Segment Synopsis: Prior to 1929, Republicans held control of the northern and southern wards. After Republican allegiances broke, S. Davis Wilson and the Democrats gained some power in the city.

Keywords: 26th Ward (Philadelphia, Pa.); Committee of 70; Democratic Party (Philadelphia, Pa.); Edwin Vare; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; George W. Pepper; Jack Kelly; John R. K. Scott; Mayor S. Davis Wilson; Morty Wickon; Politics; Republican Party (Philadelphia, Pa); Scottie McDonald; Ward leaders; William Scott Vare

Subjects: Political corruption; Politicians; Politics and government

00:52:01 - Media shapes elections

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Partial Transcript: But Boise Penrose with all his other connections, and the st--he was a state senator. He wanted to become Mayor of Philadelphia.

Segment Synopsis: The newspapers in Philadelphia were able to control the elections in the area based off of their political ideologies. Some of the papers began to follow around politicians looking for them to be breaking the law in order to blackmail them. Owners of these papers used their platforms to sound out their views and control the politics of the city.

Keywords: "The North American" (newspaper); "The Philadelphia Bulletin"; "The Philadelphia Inquirer"; 1529 North 15th Street; Boise Penrose; Brothels; J. David Stern; Prostitution; Warren G. Harding

Subjects: Crime.; Journalism.; Newspapers.; Political corruption; Politicians; Reporters and reporting.

00:56:19 - Getting out the vote

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Partial Transcript: How did voting take place in the mayoral election?

Segment Synopsis: Philadelphia’s elections, up until 1951, were stacked in favor of the majority party. Calpin discusses how elected officials would get the votes in "colored districts" and receive support from immigrants groups. The voting tendencies of the immigrant populations are discussed by Calpin.

Keywords: 1421 Sussex St.; 39th Ward; 40th Ward; Bernard Samuel (Mayor of Philadelphia, 1948-52); Charlie Palmer; Edward Cox; Edward Hopkins; John Diamond; Judge Edwin O. Lewis; Mayoral elections; Republican Party (Philadelphia); Roth Davis; South Philadelphia; W.W. "Bill" Roper; Ward leaders

Subjects: African Americans--Political party affiliation; African Americans--Politics and government; Political corruption; Politicians; Politics and government

01:05:40 - The Tenderloin District

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Partial Transcript: Can you describe for me the Tenderloin District?

Segment Synopsis: Calpin says that the Tenderloin District was filled with vices. Prostitution, gang violence, and gambling ran rampant on the streets. There were notorious "gangsters" there. There were also several notorious brothels on these streets.

Keywords: 11th and Winter St.; 13th and Spruce; 15th Street; 20th and Chestnut; 20th and Market St.; 4th and Ray Street; 68th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Arch Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Atlantic City (N.J.); Atlantic City, New Jersey; Benjamin Franklin Bridge; Benny "The Bum" Fogleman; Boise Penrose; Broad Street; Delaware River Bridge; Gambling; Hahneman Hospital; Lenox Hotel; Max "Boo Boo" Hoff; Mickey Duffey; Prostitution; South Broad Street; Spruce Street; Sylvania Hotel; Tenderloin District (Philadelphia, Pa.); Vine St.; William Meade

Subjects: Crime.

GPS: The site of Hahneman University Hospital.
Map Coordinates: 39.957539, -75.162956
01:13:37 - The end of the Tenderloin District

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Partial Transcript: By 1927,1928 at the end of Butler's regime, the Tenderloin as such was no longer the vice district.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin talks about how the Tenderloin began changing in the late 1920s. He says that it began to disappear at that time. He talks about the prevalence of gambling. He talks about how the area was affected by the sesquicentennial in 1926.

Keywords: "English" Tommy Gilchrist; American Legion; Charles Morris Price School; City Hall Courtyard; Gambling houses; Girard Avenue; Mumia Abu Jamal; National Shriners Organization; Prostitution; Sesquicentennial of 1926; South Philadelphia; South Street; Spruce Street; West Philadelphia

Subjects: Crime.

01:18:04 - Shootings in 1926

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Partial Transcript: When the, when the American Legion parade was going by, one of the gangsters was shot and killed at Broad and Spruce.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin says that shootings in the summer of 1926 were commonplace. Gangsters were often shot and killed in broad daylight. One of the shootings even occurred right next to a police station, and another during a parade.

Keywords: 7th Street; 7th and Carpenter St. Police Station; 8th Street; American Legion; Brothels; Carpenter Street; Christian Street; John "Big Nose" Avena; Passyunk Ave (Philadelphia, Pa.); Shootings

Subjects: Crime.; Police.

01:21:17 - Recollections of South Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: What was it like for, for a young man to, to go into a Italian South Philadelphia or Irish South Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Calpin talks about his experiences as a young reporter in South Philadelphia. Most of his interesting stories during his time in South Philadelphia come from the magistrates.

Keywords: 11th and Winter St; 4th and Snyder Ave (Philadelphia, Pa.); 7th and Carpenter St (Philadelphia, Pa.); Alexander Leftwhich; Carpenter Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Christian Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Germantown High School; Magistrate Fitzgerald; Magistrate O'Brien; Magistrate O'Connor; South Philadelphia

Subjects: Journalism.; Newspapers.; Politics and government; Reporters and reporting.

01:26:26 - Illegal possession of liquor

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Partial Transcript: The society matron had a bottle in her muff, and dropped it on the floor.

Segment Synopsis: Calpin talks about sitting in on several cases with Magistrate Fitzgerald, a colorful judge, and how he received a bribe in order to sway his (and Fitzgerald's) opinion on the case. This case was one in which a major manufacturer was arrested for illegal possession of alcohol.

Keywords: 10th Ward; Illegal liquor; Illegal possession of firearms; Magistrate Fitzgerald; Social registers

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Journalism.; Newspapers.; Police corruption.; Police.; Political corruption; Politicians; Prohibition; Reporters and reporting.