Seedy characters, corruption populate former Tribune-Review reporter's 'Wicked Pittsburgh'
Once described as “hell with the lid off” due to the smoke the Steel City was belching into the sky, Pittsburgh also gained an early reputation as a welcome wagon for various levels of corruption.
Law enforcement turned a blind eye to Prohibition.
The term “red light” had nothing to do with traffic signals.
Municipal government, from mayors to district attorneys to police officers, along with powerful businessmen, viewed lining their pockets as an acceptable job perk.
All of those allegations, and more, are outlined in retired Tribune-Review journalist Richard Gazarik’s new book, “Wicked Pittsburgh.”
The city was “evil, sinful, immoral,” writes Gazarik, 69, of Greensburg.
Gambling dens, speak-easies and houses of ill repute populated the city, his research shows.
The book’s 143 pages will leave readers surprised at some of the city’s unsavory history, laughing as some characters battle each other for nickname ownership, and recalling more recent examples of public officials’ criminal downfalls.
Before there was a Cultural District, there was a Liberty Avenue that served as a hub of massage parlors, X-rated movie theaters and adult bookstores, Gazarik reminds.
A look at the scandals
Among the scandals he shares, complete with colorful casts of characters, are:
• “Little Canada,” part of what formerly was Allegheny City on what is now known as Pittsburgh’s North Shore, its moniker came from crooks’ perception that they were as safe from law enforcement in that neighborhood as if they were in its Northern namesake.
And they were, Gazarik writes. Safecrackers, thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes and con men were “unmolested by police,” provided they follow the unwritten rule to commit their crimes elsewhere. Men and women developed their own creative methods of committing crimes, from using a cane spring-loaded with tweezers to steal cash from banks to fainting to avoid prosecution or praying while victimizing churchgoers.
• Election fraud. Prior to becoming Pittsburgh’s mayor, Davey Lawrence encounters two political headquarters staffers jumping up and down on pieces of paper. They were, they explain, “aging tax receipts.”
What Lawrence was witnessing was the misuse of tax receipts, 50 cents a piece, required from residents to vote.
“It was a poll tax. You got a vote for every one you had. It gave new meaning to the phrase ‘vote early and vote often.’ … Corruption was embedded in Pittsburgh’s DNA when it came to elections,” Gazarik says.
• Booth & Flinn Ltd., a partnership of James J. Booth and William Flinn, built early Pittsburgh, Gazarik writes, largely thanks to city planning director Edward Manning Bigelow. He wrote construction bids so that contracts were based on the “lowest responsible” — not lowest — bidder, coincidentally landing in Booth & Flinn’s lap.
• Before the lottery there were Gus Greenlee and William “Woogie” Harris, who may or may not have introduced the numbers racket to Pittsburgh. Urban legend or not, the two are credited with originating games of chance in the city, with some of the winnings used to pay protection to police and public officials, according to the book. “The police had found a great source of revenue for themselves,” Gazarik notes.
• Mayor Charles Kline, whom Gazarik describes as “the most corrupt mayor ever in the city of Pittsburgh.” “He turned corruption and bribery into a business plan,” Gazarik says. Kline organized rackets by neighborhood, appointing ward bosses to control their districts’ vice and dictating speak-easy purchases, the book notes.
“Of all the bribery and corruption Kline was involved in, it didn’t lead to his downfall. It was the purchase of a ($1,350) rug,” he writes. That purchase leads Kline to resign from office rather than go to prison after conviction for malfeasance.
• Roxie Long, dubbed Pittsburgh’s most arrested criminal by city newspapers, ran the gamut of crime from burglar to counterfeiter, tax evader and escape artist. “He just couldn’t go straight,” Gazarik says.
One of Gazarik’s most entertaining tales is that of Long jumping bond in Pittsburgh, fleeing to Europe, being caught and returned home, where he promptly pulled another vanishing act.
• Moneymaking madams Billie Scheible and Nettie Gordon, a Republican committeewoman in Allegheny City, felt little fear from law enforcement, the book notes.
The Pittsburgh Morals Efficiency Commission estimated at one point men spent $2 million a year on sex, and sexually transmitted diseases ran rampant among the city’s immigrant population, Gazarik writes.
In a twist of irony, what once was Gordon’s home now houses the Light of Life Rescue Mission, according to the book.
• Perhaps one of the saddest stories is that of Robert Duggan, an Allegheny County district attorney in the early 1970s whose salary would not allow entry to the elite group he aspired to. He was indicted for tax evasion after failing to pay taxes on unreported income of more than $137,000, the book states.
“(Richard) Thornburgh (then U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh and later a Pennsylvania governor) made his bones prosecuting Duggan,” Gazarik says.
In March 1974, fearful he was about to go to prison, Duggan committed suicide on his Ligonier farm, Gazarik writes.
Researching the book was eye-opening, he says.
“People don’t really appreciate the wealth of history in Southwestern Pennsylvania. … It was an interesting time,” Gazarik says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.