BY DAVID J. KRAJICEK
Halfway through the fool’s parade of Prohibition, New York began to stink of Cicero, Ill.
Hard liquor had been the first-line intoxicant glugged in the Big Apple’s speakeasies.
But in 1927, the boys from Chicago arrived, with their Tommy Guns and needle beer, a low-test brew spiked through barrel bunghole corks with ether or ethanol.
Beer joints suddenly thrived in New York. So did casket-makers.
At 3 o’clock on June 17, 1928, a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, an eye-catching young brunette was perched behind the wheel of a Hudson sedan that inched up Broadway, plowing a furrow through the Herald Square masses. A well-dressed man twice her age rode shotgun.
As the Hudson idled near W. 36th St., a man stepped from a trailing Nash, strode to the Hudson and fired three shots through the passenger’s window. He calmly opened the door and delivered three more redundant bullets.
The passenger, a mug from Buffalo via Chicago, was good and dead.
The driver, described neatly by a broadsheet as “about 23, comely and dressed in pink,” stepped from the car and scooted into a nearby restaurant. She dabbed blood from her face, then walked out into the Herald Square human stream and disappeared.
A beat cop commandeered a taxi and raced after the Nash, pinging wild shots as the getaway car hurtled away, last seen heading up Park Ave.
The next day, the murder was on the front pages of the newspapers, on the lips of gabby New Yorkers, and on the agenda of Mayor Jimmy Walker.
New York has always shrugged at the occasional bump-off in certain neighborhoods — but not others.
Herald Square was one of the others.
This was a crossroads of commerce that attracted New York’s beau monde, and all that bang-bang in broad daylight can ruin a shopping trip.
After police sorted through his half-dozen aliases, the victim of the rubout was pegged as Edwin Jerge, who hadn’t lived many honest days in his 45 years. He’d been a pickpocket in Buffalo, a bank robber in Chicago, a forger in Newark, a truck hijacker in Cleveland and a dope peddler in New York.
Jerge’s murder was a mere splatter in the river of bloodshed in this city over the decades, and his bullet-shortened life is long forgotten today. But the shooting spurred an NYPD innovation when it exposed the department’s lack of gangland intelligence.
Police believed Jerge was a fatality of the beer racket, compliments of Al Capone & Co. of Illinois. But lacking a suspect, Inspector John Coughlin and his minions cast about for motives. They linked the murder to a missing-person case, a steamer ship heist and several variations on the old double-cross.
Briefly, the murder drew attention to a New York hoodlum with a nonpareil nickname. Jerge was said to have robbed a Lower East Side drug dealer, Samuel Weissman, who was known in his circle as Kitty the Horse, apparently a mash-up of his equine face and a tendency to emit a quavering meow when he got animated.
Kitty the Horse was corralled by police but released without charge.
Meanwhile, city morgues began filling up with more bodies — Capone frenemy Francesco (Frankie Yale) Ioele, murdered in Brooklyn; beer baron Tony Marlow, taken out in front of the Harding Hotel near Columbus Circle; a Brooklyn mug named Jimmy Abbatamarco, a beer runner named Hickey Senter, and a handful of others.
Police tallied seven murders they believed to be somehow related to Jerge. But how?
The press belittled the cops’ incompetence, tagging detectives as “bewildered” and “floundering.”
“The police are just scratching their heads, looking very wise and very mysterious,” Wilbur Rogers grumbled in the Brooklyn Eagle.
Mayor Walker put the spurs to Inspector Coughlin, who then lashed his men.
“I want this Jerge murder broken,” Coughlin bellowed at 100 detectives, “or some of you fellows are going back to patrol duty in uniform!”
But six months after the Herald Square spectacle, Mayor Walker fired his police brain trust, including Coughlin, Chief Inspector William Lahey and Commissioner Joseph Warren.
Walker replaced Warren with his friend Grover Whalen, a businessman with no police experience. Whalen said the NYPD was being outflanked by “the secret rackets.”
“All these mysteries might not have been mysteries at all if we had known what was going on in the underworld,” Whalen said.
In July 1929, he sought to fix the information deficit by creating the agency’s first spy unit, borrowing an idea from Scotland Yard.
Fifty fresh graduates of the Police Academy were assigned to go undercover as “criminals with their fingers crossed.” They carried no shields, owned no uniforms and were persona non grata at stationhouses.
Their task was to scrape the inside skinny from bad guys, then unload the lowdown in secret sit-downs with bosses.
The fledgling spies functioned as forerunners of today’s vast NYPD Intelligence Division & Counter-Terrorism Bureau.
They helped develop a few more theories on why the beer racket would want to ventilate Jerge. But the Herald Square hit men went unpunished.
And as the memory of the bloody Sunday faded, some reconsidered.
As Alva Johnston put it in The New Yorker, “Why should the city turn ungrateful and resent its good luck? Any community ought to be glad to have its population diminished by a Jerge.”