February 23, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #4... The Curious Case of Mr. Kerwineo

On May 2nd 1914, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, two Milwaukee police detectives arrested a well-dressed man at the corner of Tenth Street and St. Paul Avenue (now an area below I43). The man, known to hundreds in the city as Mr. Ralph Kerwineo, was so calm during the arrest that he didn’t even bother to put out the cigarette he’d lit as the cops approached him. He was being hauled in on a complaint made by his wife, Mamie. She charged that her husband of ten years… was actually a woman.
Mr. Kerwineo, resident of Milwaukee for eight years.
Cora Anderson was born April 6th, 1876 to an African American father and a half-blood Cherokee mother. She grew up in Kendallville, Indiana, a town so small, she would later say, you could "walk ten minutes in any direction, and be five miles in the county.” Cora eventually found her way to Chicago, where she enrolled in a nurse’s college. Cora was an exceptionally bright girl, but the ways of the school administration disheartened her. “Two-thirds of the physicians I met,” she remembered, “made a nurse’s virtue the price of their influence in getting her steady work.”
Miss Mamie White, aka Mrs. Kerwineo.

In Chicago, Cora met Mamie White, a young girl from Menasha, Wisconsin. Cora and Mamie quickly became inseparable. While the exact nature of their relationship is anyone’s guess, they were soon living together, commiserating about their “women’s place” in the world. They schemed to do something about it.

A private hobby of Cora’s had been “masquerading,” dressing as a man. Mamie knew of this hobby and, so far is know, had no issues with it. One night, on a joke, they claimed, Mamie suggested that Cora go as a man full-time. With a man’s wages, they two could avoid the advances of doctors and make a living on their own. The joke quickly became anything but. The world in which they lived had little to offer unmarried women, even less for unmarried women of color. They went about purchasing a suit of clothing (a piece at a time, as not to arouse suspicion) and Cora gave herself a short-cropped haircut. Cora, adopting a South-American heritage, became Ralphero Kerwineo, and the two left Chicago in 1904 as man and wife.
Cora Anderson in female attire.

 They bounced around the middle-west for two years, trying to find men’s work for Ralph and women’s work for Mamie. Details of this period are scant, but it appears that Cora was spending her time learning how to become Ralph. She studied men, how they stood and spoke. She practiced rolling cigarettes and smoking them. Smoking constantly, she recalled, to perfect the manly aspects of it. She learned to swear and spit. She even began to shave and worked up the courage to visit local barber shops.

After a brief stay in Cleveland, the two made their way to Milwaukee in 1906. There, Ralph found work at the Plankinton House (609 E. Plankinton) as a bellboy. They rented a downtown flat on Seventh street and presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Kerwineo. Times were good and no one suspected a thing. Ralph became something of sport, a common sight at down taverns. He even developed the reputation as something of a flirt. He took a job at Gimbel’s as a clerk and later moved on to the Cutler Hammer Company, where he worked in the office. Mamie worked as a coat-check girl at a downtown movie theatre.

But the good times did not last. Ralph’s wandering eye had been a constant source of worry for Mamie. He would return late in the evening or sometimes not at all. Mamie began reading psychology books and was worried that Ralph might be suffering from delusions. After so long in drag, Ralph admitted that he “could not quit being a man.” Mamie was worried that he’d met someone else and would reveal his secret. Ralph had his own complaints, mostly involving Mamie’s housekeeping. “I often got up early in the morning and would wash the windows," he later griped, "and would then go and do a man’s work all day long.”

In the fall of 1913, Ralph left Mamie, getting as far as Chicago before a change of heart sent him home. By the next spring, Ralph had left again. This time, Mamie went to the police and filed a complaint accusing Ralph of abandoning her. An officer, completely unaware the couple were both unmarried women, ordered Ralph to appear before on charges of wife abandonment. In early April, 1914, they both appeared before an officer, Mamie accusing Ralph of neglect and Ralph refusing to return home. Mamie, he said, was bigger than him and had become physically abusive. The officer, perplexed and amused by the ordeal, tossed the charges and told them to work it out on their own.
Dororthy Kleinowski, the second Mrs. Kerwineo.

Ralph, however, had not just met someone else. He’d married someone else. He met Dorothy Kleinowski, a pretty blonde manicurist, at a dance and fell in love. Dorothy was twenty-one years old, one of ten children (six more siblings had died before adolescence) living with her mother in a tiny Oakland Ave cottage. On March 24th, the couple was legally wed by the Justice of the Peace. By the time Mamie had Ralph hauled in to answer for his neglect, he was already settled with Dorothy in a Cedar Street (now Kilbourn Ave) apartment. When Mamie found out about the marriage, she was stunned. “How could he marry another woman,” she would wonder, “Without divorcing me first?”

On May 2nd, she told the police his secret. That afternoon, he was arrested on the ambiguous charge of Disorderly Conduct. For the next week, the Milwaukee “Girl-Man” would be the city’s most famous resident.
Check back next week for part two: Milwaukee's Girl-Man on Trial.

February 15, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #3... Step Right Up!

Let's take a break from death and mayhem for a while... here are a few random adverts from Milwaukee days past.

The Journal was running this contest in 1911. Taken out of context, some of these lines are pretty sinister… “Keep your eye on the Journal… The Journal staff photographer is after you…” I wonder how they asked people to prove they were in a particular photograph. And they even tell you to call in. “Yeah, that’s me, page six, the guy in the hat. Now send me my dollar… and leave me alone!”

OK, first things first… look at this little sketch here. Note the man’s hands. They are already in position to catch his troublesome false teeth, even though they have only fallen a few inches. It would not be possible to react so quickly to suddenly dislodged teeth. Therefore, I can only conclude that this man is not suffering from faulty denture paste. No, he can only be spitting his teeth out on purpose. Probably to scare the grandkids. Anyway… Wernet’s Powder is actually still around, although the boxes don’t seem to mention laughing, singing, coughing, or sneezing.

The Girl Who Did Not Care! The only title card used during this film simply said “Meh…” Hahaha. But really, the original title to this 1916 film was The Sex Lure. It had to be renamed before most cities would allow it to play. The plot involved a rich industrialist who adopts a girl after her father, a worker in the rich man’s factory, is killed on the job. The girl grows up (for some reason) bitter towards the man and gets her revenge by seducing him and busting up his marriage. The message of the film is a clear warning… never, under any circumstance, adopt a girl whose father you’ve killed.

Are you poorly? I like picking up bits of antiquated speech like this. It’s like shopping for retro clothing, only free. The next time I call in sick to work, I’m going to describe my condition as “poorly.” Anyway, this little ad appeared in 1911. Milwaukeeans finally had a cure for clogged bowels and sluggish colons… HOSTETTER’S STOMACH BITTERS. Hostetter’s had been making this little remedy since 1853 and were a well-established national brand by the time this ad ran. Although it is doubtful this potion could actually cure any of the illnesses mentioned in the ad (Malaria… really?!?), it could help out a home bartender in a pinch. The stuff was 94 proof… enough to make you well again, if only for the evening.

February 13, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #2.5 ... Mapping the Jewel Heist

Revisiting our first episode, I went back and checked out a vintage Milwaukee Map on the UWM libraries site to try to get a better idea of where the dramatic jewel heist chase of 1926 actually took place.
Here is an outline of the initial police chase on a modern map. Again, I have used MS Paint to cosmetic it a bit…
1. The two robbers that escaped the gunfire of Detective Mauger jump into the waiting taxi and proceed westward

2. Turning from Wells onto 13th and blasting towards Grand Ave (now Wisconsin) at a high rate of speed, the taxi draws the attention of a motorcycle cop, who attempts to stop the vehicle for speeding.

3. After firing shots at the bike cop, a squad car joins the chase. More shots are fired as the cab nears the then-Muskego Ave bridge. The police hold their fire for fear of wounding passers-by.

4. The cab looses the cops after they are slowed by snow and slush. At the time, this was near the intersection of National and Greenbush. Today, Greenbush is known as S. 4th Street.

Checking the map, the apprehension of the men proves that they didn’t have much of a plan once they ditched the taxi cab. The Driver reported that they fled the car when KK met S. Bay (A). Two men where picked up at Stewart Street “Soft Drink Parlor” (B) and the other was found shortly thereafter (C), hiding in a burlap potato sack in the basement of an Allen Street (now E. Becher) home.

That must have been one hell of a big sack of potatoes…

February 9, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #2... Eight Days of Terror in 1935

For eight days in the fall of 1935, Milwaukee was gripped with panic. Five vicious dynamite blasts in five days had turned public buildings into armed camps. Newspaper accounts of the time say the city was nearly put under martial law. Then, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the reign of terror ended in one final, deadly explosion.

It started on the night of October 27th. A dynamite bomb placed in a drainpipe underneath Shorewood’s Village Hall (3930 N. Murray) rocked the building, damaging the foundation and shattering nearby windows. The panic began less than 24 hours later when two braches of the First Wisconsin National Bank were bombed. The first was just past six o’clock, causing structural damage to the 3602 W. Villard location. The second was a half-hour later at Farwell and North (now a US Bank branch).
The police were now certain the crimes were connected with the recent theft of 150 lbs of TNT from a local CCC project site. The next two nights were quiet, but on Halloween evening the panic would reach a pinnacle as two police precincts were targeted. At 6:45 the fifth district station at N 3rd and Hadley was hit, a bomb blowing a hole in the wall and nearly injuring several officers. Fifteen minutes later, the third district station at 12th and Vine suffered minor damage from similar attack.

Armed guards now stood watch over Milwaukee Police stations as detectives worked feverishly to track the stolen dynamite. Hundreds of tips poured in. A southside poolhall was raided but none of the forty-five men brought in were able to provide any clues. Wild rumors flew that the bombers were driving a stolen police cruiser. All the while the city held its breath.

A warning letter from the bomber sent two days before his death

The campaign of terror came to an end in horrific fashion. The bombers, twenty-one-year-old Hugh “Idzy” Rutkowski and 16-year-old Paul “Shrimp” Chevanek were building a massive ‘super bomb’ in a sheet iron shed behind 2121 W Mitchell St. One of pair was attempting to set an alarm clock that had been rigged up as a timing device when it went off. The explosion ignited some of the stolen dynamite stashed in the shed, nearly one hundred pounds worth. The two bombers were killed instantly, reduced to bits of flesh and bone. A nine-year-girl in a neighboring house, Patricia Mylnarek, was also killed. 11 people, including several members of the Mylnarek family suffered serious injuries. The blast tore through the block, damaging 40 buildings and shattering windows for blocks in all directions.

Rutkowski’s motives were never fully explained. Described at the time as the leader of a small gang and a social misfit, he was a petty crook with a rap sheet ranging from car theft to “parking.” He was unable to find work and his family suspected he had lost his mind. Found after the blast were barely-literate letters from Rutkowski to the police, demanding cash to stop his spree. He mocked the cops in broken sentences like “Polis gard sity ha ha ha – poooey on g mans.” The letters led police to believe he had intended the bomb for downtown… possibly targeting a movie theatre.

Journal illustration of the damage

It was four days before the cops could positively identify Rutkowski as the bomber. They finally matched his fingerprints to those of a severed and charred hand found on a garage roof a block away from the blast. It was found the same day little Patricia was laid to rest. 2,400 people attended her funeral service at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Another 25,000 filed past her casket during a two-day wake.

Patricia Mylnarerk, 9-year-old vicitm

The mangled remains of the two bombers were also put on display. They were held at the county morgue and according the Journal, were “visited by thousands.” That Saturday, the two were buried in a single casket at Forest Home Cemetery.

February 1, 2011

Lost Milwaukee Episode 1 - Daylight Jewel Heist! Gun Battle with Cops!

Welcome to the first installment of Lost Milwaukee, a new feature of the Historic Milwaukee, Inc blog. Each week, we will be taking a look at an unusual or amazing news item from Milwaukee's past.

Today’s entry involves a daring daylight robbery, a high-speed gun battle, and a case of very swift justice. Our story begins on April 1st, 1926. Four Michigan ferryboat hands, absent of cash, have schemed to knock off a local pawn dealer. The target of the heist is the Milwaukee Loan Office, 406 West Wells (a location now underneath the Frontier Airlines Center). At 10 am, three armed men burst into the office, shoving the proprietor, Siman Rueben, to the floor and emptying his cash register and safe. The plan was for the three to pack the loot into suitcases and dash up the block to North 5th and Wells, where 42-year-old John Malloy, the architect of the crime, would be waiting in a running taxi cab.

However, unbeknownst to any of the participants, a police detective, Henry Mauger, was transacting some business next door to the pawn shop. In a case of outrageously bad fortune for the gang, Detective Mauger stepped out onto Wells Street just moments after the robbers fled the shop. Seeing the men running with heavy cases, and hearing the shouts of Mr. Rueben, Mauger quickly surmised what was happening and drew his pistol. Just as the men had rounded the corner, he opened fire. 38-year-old William Knight, the slowest of the gang, was hit twice, one shot blowing off the tip of his right ear and the other striking and crippling his leg.

Milwaukee Sentinel Illustrations

 The plan now in shambles, the remaining two jumped into the waiting taxi with $500 cash and over $15,000 worth of watches and jewels. With a pistol to his neck, the driver was ordered to “drive like hell.” He tore up Wells, executing such a violent turn onto 13th Street that a motorcycle cop gave chase. Unaware why the taxi was driving so recklessly, or who the passengers were, the officer attempted to force the car to the side of the road. Malloy fired several shots from the vehicle as it sped southward. At 13th and Clybourn, a squad car joined the chase, with Malloy peppering lead at his pursuers. As the bandits zipped across the Muskego Avenue Bridge (now the N Emmber Ln Bridge), the police remained close behind, but with the roads still slick and snowy from a recent storm, they were unable to keep up and by National Avenue, the gang was lost.

A city-wide hunt was stymied for 30 minutes until a frantic call from Harry Ulirch, the hostage taxi driver, told police that they men had fled his cab at Bay and KK. Starting from that point, police and detectives blanketed the area, quickly finding and arresting 32-year-old John Vitalis and 20-year-old Clarence Fitz, the two who had escaped from Detective Mauger less than an hour earlier. Bafflingly, the two were apprehended at a Stewart Street “soft drink parlor”, less than four blocks from where they had ditched the taxi. Malloy had been a bit craftier, but not much. He was found a short time later, hiding in a potato sack in the basement of an Allen Street (now Becher St) house, just as close to the spot where they’d left the cab as his two thirsty accomplices.
Surprisingly, the most shocking part of this story is not the two salts who decided to have a quick drink while they held fifteen grand in hot loot and every cop in town was giving chase. The real shock comes when the men were convicted and sentenced… the following day. Just twenty-four hours after the crime, arrest, and confession of the gang, a judge hit the three bagmen, Knight still in bandages and likely crippled for life, with 3-20 years each in state prison. Malloy, being the ringleader, was hit with 3-30 years. That afternoon, the men were shackled and loaded on a train bound for Waupun. 

This is a far longer post than we will usually be making, but this story proved just too interesting to skip. Especially fun was the Sentinel’s special artwork for the story. The Journal tried too, but they don’t really capture the moment as well…
 Of course, the Journal did add some ‘pain lines’ to the wounded man, so that’s something. But they seem to show Knight being shot from behind (which he was), whereas the Sentinel shows his falling backwards, arms akimbo...
In fact… with a little MS Paint treatment… now he's ready for Super Sunday...

"Touchdown Jordy Nelson!"
Sources: Milwaukee Journal, April 1 & 2, 1926; Milwaukee Sentinel, April 2, 1926.