John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Baby Doll Thompson, The Bridgeport Tenderloin and the origins of Organized Crime in Connecticut

At the turn of the 20th century, Bridgeport was flush with cash. It a major world hub for manufacturing everything from sewing machines to corsets. The advent of the First World War in 1914 made the city even more prosperous. In 1914 alone, the city’s population doubled in one year. Parks and highways and ports and schools were built, and crime prospered as it always does when money is plentiful.

Bridgeport's tenderloin district ran, roughly, State, Middle and Wall Streets and along the area facing the Pequonnock River inlet on Water Street, which was also the area where the state’s dressmaking factories were located.  As red-light districts of the era went, Bridgeport’s sin center, whose population was mostly Black and Italian immigrants, was made up a of a relatively small area.

It primary business in those days was vice, and lots of it. It was filled with prostitution, crooked gambling dens, beer gardens, questionable concert halls and “Dream parlors”, or “Hop joints” dozens and dozens of them, all of them poorly disguised as Chinese laundries where thousands of pounds of high-grade opium was smoked every year. Charley Lee, a native-born American transplant from San Francisco who acted as a Chinese interpreter for the Bridgeport City court, ran the most popular opium den in the district, disguised as a Chinese laundry of course. They say that the cops raided the place whenever the smell of burning opium flooded out onto the sidewalk.  

On Middle Street there was the Otto Stanky’s Saloon a gathering spot for prostitutes, and the Alhambra Music hall, almost every saloon in the tenderloin had a piano player and a fiddler, run by Jimmy McNally, known as the "King of the Green Goods Gang."

In the late 1800s, the Green Goods Swindle was the most successful scam in America. The beauty of the scam was that the victims were trying to commit a criminal act themselves and therefore couldn’t go to the police once the swindle ended.

The basis of the Green Good Swindle was that victim was lured into the trap by greed. The conman lured them in on the premise of buying counterfeit money at a mere fraction of face value. The con man collected the real cash and then delivered a suitcase filled with worthless paper later on.

Jimmy McNally, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was probably the best known and most successful Green Good Dealer of his time. The infamous New York City detective Thomas Byrnes described McNally as being "industrious, educated, self-assured, ingenious, and gifted, with a good knowledge of human nature."

McNally’s was New York City top conman who ran his scams, with at least 35 employees, well into Canada and west to California. McNally didn’t consider his scam to be illegal 

"There is nothing wrong with the green goods trade," McNally said. "It does not hurt anybody. I meet all my men face-to-face, man-to-man, and if he loses his money, he certainly ought to, because he is a bigger crook then I am." He continued “I was born in New York, My daddy was a Mason, and we lived at Thirty-fourth street and Lexington Avenue. Graduated from the public schools, and before I was of age I was earning $10 a week in a wholesale millinery store at No. 607 Broadway.
One night, Johnny Hughes, a school friend, met me in front of Niblo's Garden, as I was on my way home, and suggested that we go to Buckingham Palace, a notorious dance hall. went. That was my big mistake. At the Buckingham, I met Barney McGuire, an old-time green goods man. We became friends. I quit the millinery business and put my savings, $470 into a "'coffee and cakes saloon" in Sixth Avenue. This place was used as a cover for mail sent to McGuire. Some of the envelopes addressed to him came open and the money stuck out. I was tempted by a prospect of such easy money. I sold out my restaurant for $1,100. and in 1880 I went to work for Barney. Within three months I had cleared, as my part, more than $700. Then the police closed in on Barney and put him out of business. I decided to embark in the same line on my own account. Surprise you to know that at one time I was $2,000,000 clear and to the good? I kept my money in the Manhattan Safe Deposit Vaults in Broadway.  No banks for me too risky
 In 1893 I branched out a bit. You see. I had married, and Minnie, she wanted a home. I had a house Seventh Avenue. Minnie wanted a house with land about it, so I put $40,000 Into a house near Bridgeport. One hundred acres of land with the property. You see, I was planning to end my days luxury and ease just as many another had done, and I was going to quit the green goods business and settle down. Why I even laid out a half-mile race track of my own,' and I had coachman, a footman and an open barouche for the wife.
My business was so large by that time. I had branch offices in all the large cities of the country. Forty men were working for me, of which half were letter writers, doing Inside work strictly. Besides I had over twenty stenographers, in my employ. Twenty of the men I hired were street beaters to whom I provided bankrolls of genuine money, bankrolls ranging from $3,600 up to $10,000. I got my money direct from the Sub-Treasury. We always went after rich folks, and I think I can say to my credit that I never delivered a roll of paper salted at the top with a few new- $1 bills to a poor man. That was why I had such great success for sixteen years. We trimmed men who could afford to lose and who seldom squealed."

McNally, who had made a fortune of $2,000,000, a trust fund for his children who were privately educated and whose wife boasted of having a half million in jewels, went down in the anti-Tammany Hall campaign when the Lexow committee pulled the cover from the cozy relationship between the New York police and the crooks. When the government cracked down, they made James McNally particular target. By 1894, McNally was totally and chased out of the city to Bridgeport after first fleeing to Paris. He eventually lost his Fairfield Height s Manson, valued at $30,000, a staggering amount at the time, along with his Butler and staff of four domestics, and moved to Chicago. He got nabbed there on a postal violation scam and was sent to Joliet state prison for four years, discharged in 1899.

By 1905, McNally had made his way back to the East Coast where he was found working as a Coney Island restaurant. In 1907, McNally, the paper reported that he was homeless, living on the street and was said to be appearing at the Tombs Prison, begging to be admitted as an inmate so he could eat. Instead, he was sent to Hart Island for paupers.

A reporter found him in 1910. McNally said ;

I am fifty-two years- old. On my feet now, the first time since I was discharged from Joliet Penitentiary in 1899. My entire right side paralyzed, the consequence of my being hung by my wrists on the "devil's gate" as a punishment for not squealing on my pals. My wife cooks my breakfast every morning now. Got $500 saved up and money coming in from honest employment every Saturday night. Looks like Easy street for me from now on, and my wife she says she doesn't mind at all about her diamonds being gone, so long as we can keep up the home”
Being paralyzed on my right side when I got out of prison, after my term of two years and six months -the first and only stretch I ever did and which I owe to the cleverness of Post Office Inspector Stewart who got me in Chicago.
 I couldn't go back into the green goods business.' Two lawyers in Chicago with whom I left $50,000 besides their fee, had died while I was in prison and their heirs refused to disgorge. I had lost the key to my safety deposit box in New York and when I got to the company the contents, some $100,000, had been attached by some of my smart victims. As for my property in Bridgeport, it is still in litigation. If my children get $5,000 out of it, they will do well. When I was prosperous I started for the New York Life Building to buy an annuity for a large amount. But I was called elsewhere, and that was my second big mistake.
Waiting upon table seemed to be about the only work I could do when I got out of jail. True, I might have got a job in a poolroom, but the man I had started, and who controlled them, refused to hire me. I have waited on tables pretty near all over the city. In summer I would go down to Coney Island. Five years ago, I was in the dining-room on the steamship Horatio Hall, running between New York and Portland, Maine. As a waiter, I earned from $12 to $20 a week. Two years ago, my health broke down and I had to go to Bellevue Hospital, where my right hand was operated upon. Seeing a hard winter ahead, I appealed to the city authorities and I was transferred to Hart's Island. A few weeks ago, my luck changed. I met a man named Mr. Omar Sami. He is an Australian, I believe, but he is a man, first of all. Mr. Sami is in the amusement field, being a concessionaire in Dreamland. My misfortune just fitted into his business. In the fall I am to go on the stage in one of his productions. Well, I no sooner got steady employment of the right sort than I sent for Minnie, my wife. She came, God bless her, and you have no idea how happy we are in our three-room furnished flat. Occasionally I get off a few hours, and Minnie and I go to see our children.  I hope all the young boys will read my story and take warning, for there is only one kind of money worthwhile after all the money you earn honestly”

Five years later, in 1915, The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer reported that “Jimmy McNally, whose connections with the green goods gang will be remembered, was a visitor here Saturday. He put up at one of the local hotels and during the day visited many of his former acquaintances. He was finely dressed, and except for a noticeable absence of that "alluring smile," looked as well as ever.

Then there was the Star café, at 33 Middle Street which was actually a bar room and a gathering place for prostitutes, petty thieves and was usually a scene of drunken violence. For many years the piano player there claimed to be the illegitimate son of John Wilkes Booth.

There was the Lafayette hotel, run by Joe Bounoil, a Frenchman, who was famous for his elaborate dinners, having his employees steal from him and for his near-constant arrests for violation of the liquor laws. In 1900 Bounoil patented the sliding window lock, sold the Lafayette and became the locks manufacturer. He suffered a series paralytic shock in 1916.
Two doors down from the Lafayette Hotel was the Tremont hotel that in the 1890s was owned by Waterburian Jack Rose, the witnesses in the famous Rosey Rosenthal murder case in New York.

Rose was born Jacob Rosenzweig in Poland in 1876. He arrived in the states as a child and grew up around Fairfield and New Haven counties, mostly in Waterbury and Bridgeport. He contracted typhoid when he was four years old, causing alopecia universalis, leaving him permanently bald and devoid of eyebrows.

In his late teens, Rose became a gambler, made a small fortune and began promoting prize fights in southwestern Connecticut and formed The Rosebuds, an early minor league baseball team in the Connecticut League.

By 1915, he had moved to New York City and opened a casino, The Rosebud, on the East Side Manhattan.  In the summer of 1912, the extremely corrupt New York Police Lieutenant Charles Becker raided The Rosebud allowed it to remain open for 25% of the casinos net income, which ran between $5000 to $10,000 a month (Around $250,000 today) Rose would also become Becker's collector for the rest of his victims across Manhattan.

When Herman “Rosy” Rosenthal, a gambler refused to pay off Becker, four members of the Lenox Avenue Gang gunned murdered Rosenthal, and eventually, because of Jack Rose’s testimony, Becker was eventually dragged into the case. Becker and four others were convicted in the case and sent to the electric chair. Rose died in 1947 of natural causes.

Charley Pierce's saloon at Middle and Wall streets was the most popular and the liveliest saloon in the district if not in the entire city.  Across from Pierce's was The Drum, a dive that never seemed to close. It had a saloon on the main floor and a performance stage in the rear. Then there was the Belmont hotel and the Star Garden, a theater that hosted most of the big name acts of the day. Bill Sheridan's saloon in the center of the Tenderloin was an extremely popular and lively "Black and Tan." a meaning it was a place where African-Americans and Caucasians mixed. Sheridan was a boxing fan and the walls around the saloon were filled with famous pugilists of the day.

Aside from its harmless entertainment and illegal vices, the Tenderloin was also a dangerous place where knife welding thugs robbed people at will. Murder was not uncommon there.

And all of this went on, night after night, virtually unmolested by the law because a local colorful Black pimp named Thomas Williams, AKA Baby Doll collected protection money from the gamblers, prostitutes and pimps who worked the Tenderloin and paid off police and most importantly he turned out voters, hundreds of them. If there is a single central point of the origins of organized crime in Connecticut, it starts with Baby Doll Thompson.
 At the height of his power in Bridgeport, Baby Doll was middle-aged, highly organized in all his dealings and was said to have an enormous ego. His origins are unclear. He may have been from Virginia or possibly from New Orleans where he was arrested in 1896 for trying to kill one Henry Brown on the city wharf with a knife but the witness against him disappeared.
From New Orleans, he bounced to the New York’s Hell’s Kitchen area where his arrests included a mugging on 3rd Street in Brooklyn. He fled to Bridgeport after some sort of dust up that was never fully explained.

His arrests in Bridgeport, 16 in five years, varied from cursing out a cop, obstructing justice, gambling and running prostitutes but he was seldom convicted. His political clout allowed him to be set free with a small fine or a warning.  

Baby Doll, they also called him “The King”, was said to be abnormally strong and a deadly shot with a pistol. He worked out of his saloon, the Royal Social Club at 369 Water Street. 
His club “Was almost as well-known” a journalist wrote “as one of the big department stores.” to which, in 1916, the city attorney declared that the Royal Social Club “is a menace to the community -and is the hangout of many men of questionable character and for the good of the community the club should be put out of business.” Further, he noted that “(Baby Doll) is a negro petted and used by white men, until he believes himself superior to the law. He has been saved so many times, he thought he would always be saved. He became bolder and bolder.”

That Baby Doll paid off city hall and the police was an open secret in Bridgeport. In the most blatant example after police arrested him for knocking “a white man downstairs and then kicking him brutally in the face as he lay on the floor” Police commissioner. John T. Stanley appears to have pulled some string to have the baby Doll released and keep his club from being closed.

“The question of Baby Doll” a newspaper editorial read “was not a question of politics: it is a question of right and wrong, a problem of decent government and clean citizenship” the piece went on to point out that of the 47 raids made in Tenderloin, “no raids have ever been made against Baby Doll, who is entertaining hundreds of negro men, and white men and women, from midnight until dawn, every night of the week. Let it not be too hastily assumed that his was purely a case of paying protection money. Perhaps he paid protection money to somebody, and perhaps he didn't; his relations with the authorities who grant licenses, or who administer justice went far deeper than the payment of protection money. He is a part of the organization that controls those things in Bridgeport He is consulted because he controls votes”

In 1910, the city attorney wrote to Mayor Buckingham that most of the city police “protect rather than warn the women of the so-called tenderloin.”  However, he did manage to have the cops lock up six notorious pimp who were all released within an hour with a $25 fine.
There were a few largely ineffective drives to close the Tenderloin. In early 1912 there was a city-wide effort, led by the business community, to withhold liquor licenses to virtually every saloon in the district, but that drive eventually failed in the fact of political and police corruption and just plain popularity. A newspaper of the account of the area wrote that “On many of the men who started on Middle street's "Midway" ended up in the Tenderloin. After they got to Water Street they never seemed to be able to get back to the upper strata of the nightlife. Every occasionally, one would cross the street and drop off the Wall street dock and floats out to the Atlantic.”

In another effort to calm down on the district, this one on February 20, 1912, the police raided the tenderloin, rounded up of its best-known denizens, marched them to the train station and ushered them on to the 7:32 train to New York with a notice that if they ever showed their faces in Bridgeport again, they would be arrested on sight.  Most came back the next day.

In August of 1913 Bridgeport’s mayor, Wilson shouted from the rooftops that he would shut down the tenderloin district, but it remained as healthy as ever under his administration.
Although he generally worked for the Republican ticket, he also contributed liberally to the Democrat side as well and although he may have been politically powerful, the baby Doll was almost constantly broke because of his gambling habits.  He owed money to a series of loan sharks, his club was heavily mortgaged and the car he owned was outdated and worthless. The arrest and the following trials took whatever cash he had. 

Whenever needed money, Baby Doll borrowed it from a local hood named Morano who had more or less taken Baby Doll under his wing. In turn, Baby Doll often acted as Morano’s muscle.

On Friday, June the 20th in 1913 Baby Doll was arrested for shooting at Joseph Edmonds, of 439 Water Street. Edmonds was a fence, burglar, police snitch and dope dealer who known in the underworld as "Little Black Joe."

Morano had a wife named Lizzie who was a cocaine-addicted and Morano was trying to wean her off of the drug by locking her n the house. On the night of the shooting he was called away, leaving Lizzie alone in the house She slipped out and made her way to a saloon where she met Little Black Joe who sold her a legitimate prescription for drugs, taken from a gambler who was down on his luck.

When Morono returned home, neighbors told him that Lizzie had slipped out and was seen with Little Black Joe. Morano sent Baby Doll to fetch his wife. At some point, an argument broke out between Baby Doll and Little Black Joe and ended with Joe smashing his gun butt on Baby Dolls head. Baby Doll left the scene and returned with a pistol and fired three shots at Black Joe, missing him each time but bringing in a squad of cops.

 Baby Doll was held under a $3,000 bond, charged with attempted murder, a charge he eventually walked away from, Little Joe was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a $50 fine for assault and breach of the peace.

Baby Dolls control over the Tenderloin collapsed on the night of December 17, 1917.The stories vary on what actually happened. What is known is that on a 2:30 Sunday morning, Morris Pennell had won $1,500 at the crap table and one of the other players started to argue with him. A shot rang out and more shots followed. The police were called, and, for some reason, the Fire Department was called as well.  

The Keystone Club on Water and Gilbert Streets, scene of the Baby Doll Riot

The fight started about 2" o'clock and continued until 5 o'clock, during which time, according to news reports, hundreds of shots were fired. Virtually the entire police force became engaged in the fighting and the siege of the club.

Supt. of Police Redgate and five patrolmen forced their way into the smoke-filled club room and fought those inside in a fierce hand to hand struggle. Baby Doll fled to the cellar of an adjoining building but was captured.

Before he would come out of the club and be arrested Baby Doll demanded that he be allowed to meet with William E. Seeley, part of a wealthy and established Bridgeport family that was deeply influential to the national and state Republican party.
Later, Seeley admitted under oath that Baby Doll worked for the Republican Party and paid, out of his own pocket, the expenses of registering and getting out the Black vote. But, Seeley added, Baby Doll “was not asked to do this”

The police arrested 105 people.  Twelve were white men and 12 young white women, the rest were black. Maurice Dannlo, a white patron at the club and William Green, a black patron were both shot in the crossfires.

The law-abiding portion of the city was outraged that the riot had dragged on for as long as it did. One editorial wrote of Police Superintendent John T. Redgate 

He emerged from his shell long enough to deny that he knew Thomas was running a gambling den; he did not know that white men and women, danced, sang, drank and participated at orgies in the place which opened at midnight and closed at dawn. Redgate did not know that a cabaret was in progress at the club; that a number of colored women each night entertain the morally perverted habitués by dances which outraged even the waning decency of the spectators. If Redgate did not know that such an establishment existed he should be removed from office. The spectacle of the superintendent of the Bridgeport police force standing 'behind a, telegraph pole and begging a man who headed a band of negroes that were trying to shoot police officers, to please come out of his fortress and surrender, was indeed ridiculous.”

Someone had to pay, and Baby Doll was signaled out. He was charged with the murder of Morris Pannill because it happened in his club. Pennell was found slumped on the sidewalk on Gilbert and Water Streets, a bullet in his back. He was rushed to St. Vincent's hospital but died following day. The police said that the kill shot was more than probably fired by “Texas Jake” Hawkins, Baby Dolls lieutenant.

But according to his deathbed statement, which the police tried time and again to have him change, Pannill said

 “I went there (To Baby’s club) about 1 o'clock, and found colored men and women, and white men and women mingling freely together, dancing, singing and making merry. When the commotion started later, I saw the negroes being lined up together, and I went into the billiard room and sat upon a pool table. I saw Texas go to the rear of the club and fire two shots outdoors, and then saw him go to the front hall and fire two more shots. A lull followed, and then an effort began to get everybody outside. I was one of the first at the door, and Texas grabbed me. " 'You're going to get out of here now," he said to me, and shoved me out into the front hall. He didn't fire at me. I got out into Water street and started up toward the railroad station. On my way I met a policeman, and he said, 'Throw up your hands,' which I did. I had hardly done so, when another policeman from behind gave me the same command, and I was about to turn around to look at him when he fired a shot that hit me in the back. I know he was a policeman because when I looked around I saw him clearly."

Baby Doll hired William H. Lewis, a black lawyer, and one-time All-American Harvard football star.  In 1903 Lewis was the first African American to be appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney; in 1910 he was the first to be appointed as one of the five United States Assistant Attorneys General, ("the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race.") despite opposition by the Southern Democratic block.

Before that Lewis served as a football coach at Harvard University for 12 years, writing one of the first books on football tactics and was considered a nationally known expert on the game. In 1911 he was the among the first African Americans to be admitted to the American Bar Association. Lewis had also been elected to the Cambridge Common Council (1899-1902.) and to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1901 for a single term.

After deliberating for only one hour and 40 minutes in the murder case, the jury brought in a verdict of "not guilty." It was one of the quickest verdicts ever rendered in recent years in Fairfield County.

On his way out of the courtroom, surrounded by fifty well-wishers, baby waved to County Sheriff Simeon Pease who ran the jail and shouted, "Don't save that room up for me no more."

Eventually, it was proven that Sargent James Burns fired the fatal shots that killed Morris Pannill and blinded Thomas Horace. 

His power broken, baby Doll left the Tenderloin the days after leaving the court. The last raid on a Tenderloin brothel appears to have happened in 1920. Although a new neighborhood in its prime during the 1890s, it grew seedier with time and now, virtually all of it was torn down before the 1960s to make room for parking lots and a bus depot. 

In 1921, Baby Doll had fled Bridgeport and was an established gambler and Cat House operator in Binghamton New York. He bought and sold the Roosevelt Hotel, in Binghamton, a notorious and dangerous dive. The following year he was sent to Auburn prison on a gambling charge.

In 1943 he was arrested and convicted for running a brothel outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Two soldiers on leave filed a complaint with the police after the prostitutes at the brothel gave them VD. Baby Doll was sentenced to two years in prison, where he became the prison barber and a $500 fine. After that Baby Doll faded into oblivion.    

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