DEATH AT TAMMANY HALL

CHAPTER ONE: Heartbreak

New York City, Thursday, November 8, 1894

            Pamela Thompson closed a case file and glanced up at the clock. Noon. Her stomach grumbled–time for lunch. At that moment Harry Miller, fellow investigator in the law firm, appeared at the open door, glum-faced.

“Pamela, may I take you to the coffee shop on Irving Place for a bite to eat? I need to talk to a friendly ear.”  

            “In a minute, Harry.” She wondered, something serious? Harry rarely brought up personal problems or complained.

            The coffee shop was crowded, but they found a quiet corner, shielded by a tall potted plant. They ordered a cup of clam chowder and a cheese sandwich. When the waiter left, Harry leaned forward, arms resting on the table, and said softly, “Last night, as I walked Theresa home from the music hall, she was strangely quiet. At the door she suddenly said she didn’t want to see me anymore. I asked her why. She just shook her head and ran into the house.” His lips quivered, and his eyes began to tear.

            Pamela gasped, astonished. Harry was a hard-bitten, scarred, veteran detective. He had tender feelings but almost never showed them. Pamela pushed her food aside and listened carefully. She knew his friend, Theresa Sullivan Blake, a young widow about thirty with a nine-year old son, James. Late in August, Harry had met her while on vacation with his friend, Larry White, a New York Police Department detective, and his family. Theresa was White’s sister-in-law.

            “I can’t figure it out,” Harry continued. “We became good friends in the summer and have been dating for a couple of months. She’s the finest woman I’ve ever met, present company excluded. I’m sure she likes me, and so does her son. Recently, we had talked about getting married.”

            “I’m sorry for you, Harry. How well do you know her family?”

            “I’ve been introduced, but I’ve had little contact with them. I sense they may not like me. Since her husband died, a few years ago, Theresa has lived with her parents and an older unmarried brother, Michael, who works in the trust department of the Union Square Bank and Trust Company. Her father, Patrick Sullivan, is a retired bank clerk in poor health.”

             “I have to ask, Harry, do they know that you were once a NYPD detective, wrongly convicted of a felony and put in prison?”

While investigating a murder case, he had suspected that someone at Tammany Hall, the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Manhattan, might have contracted the killing. The police authorities had taken Harry off the case and suppressed the evidence. When Harry protested, he was wrongly convicted of extortion and spent four years in Sing Sing, the notorious prison thirty miles north of New York City. His wife divorced him, taking their two children.

            Harry reflected for a moment before replying, “Once I started dating Theresa, her brother must have become curious and learned my story, then passed it on to their parents. After leaving her last night, I called on Larry White and his wife. They seemed embarrassed and couldn’t explain Theresa’s behavior, or why her family would object to me. Of course, I can guess.”

            Pamela finished her sandwich and rose from the table. “I’ll ask my friend Peter Yates about Theresa’s brother. I’m sure Theresa loves you, Harry. Someone is intimidating her.”

* * *

            An elderly, scholarly man, Yates worked part-time as Prescott’s law librarian and research clerk and knew Harry’s criminal background. He was at his desk that afternoon when Pamela knocked on his door. She explained Harry’s apparent problem with Michael Sullivan and asked about his job at the bank.

Yates replied, “Union Square Bank and Trust is a large, important bank in Lower Manhattan with close ties to Tammany Hall. I haven’t heard of Theresa Blake’s brother. He could be a simple clerk. I’ll enquire.”

            Later that afternoon, Yates came to Pamela’s office. “I can report that Michael Sullivan holds a responsible position in the bank’s trust department and manages a trust belonging to Noah Fawcett.”

            “Fawcett!” exclaimed Pamela. “There’s the problem. He’s the judge who convicted Harry in a mockery of a trial.”

            Yates nodded. “To avoid conflicts of interest Fawcett, like other respectable judges, placed his financial assets–and they are large–in a trust that he couldn’t control while in office. Since he left his judicial post in 1890, his trust is no longer blind, but Michael Sullivan still manages it.”

            “I can imagine,” remarked Pamela, “that the judge gave Theresa’s brother a highly biased account of Harry’s case. The brother would put his job in jeopardy if he were to befriend Harry or become his brother-in-law.”

            Yates added, “And Theresa’s parents would likely share her brother’s concern.”

            “Then they probably wouldn’t welcome me either,” she mused. “I’d better talk to her sister Patricia, Larry White’s wife. I believe the sisters are close.”

* * *

            The White family lived in an apartment on Fourteenth Street near Union Square. This evening, Larry was away from home on duty at police headquarters. His wife Trish met Pamela with a generous smile, drew her into the tiny hallway, and took her coat. Pamela felt at home here and occasionally looked after the children when the stresses of a policeman’s life overwhelmed her friend.

“I know why you’ve come, Pamela,” said Trish. “It’s about my sister. When Harry stopped by last night, asking why she broke off their relationship, Larry and I were caught off guard and didn’t know what to say. Later, we figured out that my father and my brother had forced her to give up Harry.”

“How could they force her? She’s a grown woman and a widow.”

Trish nodded. “Misfortune has badly bruised my sister. She lacks confidence in her own judgment. This evening, our brother Michael is away. I‘ve lured Theresa out of our parents’s house. She’s in the kitchen now–I’ve told her you’re coming. We’ll have tea together.”

* * *

As Pamela entered the kitchen, she was momentarily at a loss for words. Theresa looked so desperate standing by the table. Her eyes were red from crying; her shoulders sagged under the weight of her problems. Nonetheless, she forced a smile to greet Pamela.

Trish poured the tea.

“Thank you for coming,” Theresa said to Pamela. “I suppose you’ve heard from Harry.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Why should I go on living?” she asked. “All my hopes for a little happiness are gone.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“They made me send Harry away.”

“Who are they?”

“Michael and my father, but mainly Michael.” Her reply had a bitter edge. “Yesterday morning, they confronted me about Harry. Michael had suspected we were thinking of marriage. I told them that we loved each other. If he were to propose, I would accept. Michael exploded. ‘How dare you think of marrying a divorced man? Your church won’t allow it. Miller is also a jailbird and bad from the start. Prison life only made him worse.’ My father chimed in, like Michael’s echo.”

She had argued that they had scarcely met Harry and didn’t know him.

Michael had quoted Inspector Williams of the NYPD that Harry was a bad apple and untrustworthy. She had retorted that Williams was a brutal cop–they called him “Clubber.” She didn’t believe him.

“You have pluck!” said Pamela.

Theresa smiled wanly. “Then Michael insisted that I listen to Judge Noah Fawcett, a respectable gentleman, twice elected a judge. I said that I didn’t trust him. Michael sneered at me and claimed that many prominent men highly regard Fawcett’s grasp of the law and his insight into the criminal mind. He would give me a carefully reasoned opinion.”

Pamela added, “The judge’s critics say that he knows the letter of the law but not its spirit. His decisions are sometimes unfair.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Theresa. “Nonetheless, for peace in the family, I agreed reluctantly to listen to the judge. Yesterday afternoon, Michael brought me to the courthouse. Fawcett has retired but still has an office there.”

“I’ve never met him,” said Pamela. “Describe him for me.”

“He’s a stout, good-looking man with thick, wavy silver hair. His voice is deep and loud, and he uses words I don’t understand. At my arrival, his welcome was gracious. As I spoke about my relationship with Harry, he smiled politely and listened without interrupting. I had the feeling that Michael must have already fixed Fawcett’s mind about me.

“When I finished, he joined his hands, as if in prayer, and appeared to reflect on what I had said. Then he began slowly and distinctly, like speaking to a child.

“‘Theresa,’ he said with lines of concern on his brow, ‘I studied Harry Miller’s case very carefully before convicting him. He is a man of flawed character and certainly guilty of the crime as charged. In violation of an order from his superior, Inspector Williams, he made public, unsubstantiated accusations of murder against Mr. Kelly, and secretly demanded $2,000 to cease the investigation. Miller’s bad behavior came from too much confidence in his own untutored judgment and disrespect for the wise rules of duly constituted authority.’ The judge went on about Harry’s faults for a couple of minutes and concluded, ‘Theresa, you should keep Mr. Miller at a distance.’ I thanked the judge and left the room. Michael stayed behind for a few minutes to talk with him and then joined me.”

“What happened when you returned home?”

“Michael and I met Father in the parlor, and they asked what I thought of the judge’s remarks. In fact, I thought he had carried on like a pompous ass, but I kept that opinion to myself. I said politely that my mind hadn’t changed. I knew Harry better than they or the judge. Harry has an upright character and a kindly nature. He loves me and I love him. That’s all that matters.”

She dabbed a tear from her eye and drew a deep breath.                       

“Unfortunately, they grew angry. Michael shouted at me, ‘You would ruin your boy James and yourself and shame our family.’ Prompted by Michael, my father insisted, ‘You must break with Harry immediately. Otherwise the family will disown you, take your son away, and commit you to a lunatic asylum.’ Michael added, ‘I asked Judge Fawcett for his assessment of you. He said that you appeared unstable and advised placing your son in my care.  So there’s your choice: You can have your son or Harry, not both of them.’”

Theresa now appeared drained of energy. “At that point, I gave up fighting.” She fell silent, sipping tea, staring into the cup. Finally, she rose from the table. “Tell Harry not to think badly of me. I love him dearly.”

Pamela nodded and remarked softly, “Your situation is difficult, Theresa. Let me think about it for a few days. Don’t be discouraged. I see grounds for hope. We’ll talk again soon.”

When Theresa left, Pamela turned to Trish. “The threat to her son, together with Judge Fawcett’s negative opinion of her character, temporarily broke her resistance. She has spirit and should recover her nerve.”

“There’s more, unfortunately,” said Trish hesitantly, as if approaching a dark secret.

Pamela prodded her on with a gentle, “Yes?”

Trish sighed. “Michael has tormented Theresa since childhood with all kinds of teasing, bullying, criticizing, and . . .” Trish averted her eyes.

“And, assault?”

“Yes, several times, beginning when Theresa was twelve and unusually pretty. I didn’t learn about it until much later. He silenced her by threatening to tell the world that she had a dirty mind. She married the first man who would have her, just to get away from the family.”

            “How has Michael managed to deceive your parents all these years?”

            “He has always been a sly, talented liar, but also good-looking, smart, and personable, a darling boy to my father. He would never believe anything Theresa or I said against him. It’s worse now that my parents are financially dependent on Michael. My mother is a kind woman, but weak-willed. She defers to her husband and fears Michael.”

            “How did you escape becoming trapped like your sister?”

“Michael tried once to assault me but I kicked his private parts until he screamed for mercy. He has never bothered me again. He’s basically a coward and a bully and afraid of my husband, Larry. Nonetheless, I keep Michael at a safe distance for he would harm me if he could.”

            “And Theresa?”

            “Despite her troubles she still has her sweet disposition and good looks. But she’s much less sure of herself than I–and more easily intimidated.” Trish paused, cocked her head in a skeptical gesture. “Why are you hopeful of a solution?”

            “Michael is bluffing. As of now, he doesn’t have solid grounds for taking the boy away from Theresa. In the eyes of the law she’s a grown woman and a suitable mother with no history of abusing or neglecting her child. Harry would be a suitable stepfather, notwithstanding the social stigma of having been convicted of crime. He is presently employed and could support Theresa and the boy.”

Pamela paused for a sip of the tea, reflecting. “In his twisted mind Michael probably hopes to drive Theresa into helpless dependence on him. Her son would become his ward. Key to his plan must be Judge Fawcett’s support.”

Trish frowned. “Why would the judge help Michael in this personal or family matter? It would appear to have little to do with their mutual financial interests.”

            Pamela shook her head. “The judge’s reputation for integrity and competence is at stake. To support his wrongful verdict in Harry’s case the judge painted a false picture of Harry’s character. Therefore, the judge must guard that picture and seize every opportunity to cast Harry in a bad light and block his path to respectability. We must proceed carefully. Though retired from the bench, the judge remains influential in the inner circles of Tammany Hall and could put Harry and Theresa under great stress.”

“True,” granted Trish. “And that could jeopardize their young and fragile relationship.”

Pamela finished her tea and got up to go. “Theresa must soon leave her parents’ house and escape from Michael’s clutches. Mr. Prescott could perhaps arrange temporary accommodations and defend her from any charges that Michael or his mentors, Inspector Williams and Judge Fawcett, might invent. I’ll talk to Prescott tomorrow. In the meantime, you can assure Theresa that Harry still loves her and we shall help her.”