Small-time true crime from New Castle, Pa.

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  • Harry Curry
  • Gerald McCluskey
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  • Ernest Pokersnik
  • Anthony Naples
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“Mugshot”

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News! Small Town Noir is featured in the award-winning documentary “Mugshot”, to be broadcast on TVO on Wednesday September 24 (that’s tomorrow, at time of writing) at 9pm — also on Thursday, September 25 at 9pm and Sunday September 28 at 11pm. As far as I know, you have to be in Canada to watch TVO, but I could be wrong.  I expect it will be on in the US at some point…

I had a great time shooting the interviews on location in New Castle the winter before last, working with the incredibly passionate and dedicated film-makers Dennis Mohr and Andrew Watt. I would have been happy enough if all that it had meant was a free trip to New Castle, but it ended up being much more than that. I got to meet locals with connections to the people in my collection, explore places I couldn’t have got access to on my own and discuss — at length — ideas around mugshot photography, crime and criminality, collecting, history, celebrity and every other issue that somehow clusters around these strange little pictures.

My favourite part of the shoot came very early one morning, in a bar on North Mercer street. I was sitting on a barstool, recording and re-recording the story of Martin Fobes and his role in the death of a young girl one night in 1948. We were supposed to have the place to ourselves but it turned out that the bar is used by homeless men and alcoholics who want somewhere to drink when they wake up, outside legal opening times. Every so often, there would be a knock on the back door and the barman would usher people in and whisper to them to sit quietly behind the camera. We ended up with a bunch of disreputable-looking guys at the far end of the bar, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Towards the end of the interview, they began to chime in with comments every time the director said cut. “Sounds like he did it,” they’d say, or “He killed that girl, you convinced me!”  After we’d finished, I sat with them as they flicked through my box of mug shots, looking for people whose families they knew. They were fascinated. I passed around a bundle of printouts of posts from the website, and they read extracts to each other when they found someone they recognised. We all had a great time.

I’ve never done a proper public reading of anything I’ve written, but I doubt that any audience would match that one.

Anyway. “Mugshot”. On TVO. This week.

I’ll close with this, from the production notes:

“Mugshot” Feature Documentary – Directed by Dennis Mohr

“I recognize in thieves, traitors and murders, in the ruthless and cunning, a deep beauty – a sunken beauty.” Jean Genet

“Mugshot” is a feature documentary investigating the cultural significance of the mugshot. Originally a law enforcement tool, the mugshot has deviated from its fundamental purpose as a source of criminal identification. It has been sensationalized through celebritydom, exploited by the leniency of freedom of information, and has captivated the attention of the art world. Mugshot explores the personal stories of those whose lives have been affected by this iconic photograph.

Mugshot gathers a motley crew of writers, artists and collectors whose lives have been transformed by the strange power of the mug shot. Once disregarded as photographic evidence of a crime, these tiny moments of history are now highly valued by many.

Cultural and legal differences are exposed as we travel between Canada and the United States and see how these precious photos are used in historical archives, art and in tabloid culture.

CREDITS:

Directed by Dennis Mohr
Produced by Charlotte Engel, Marja Perrin and Dennis Mohr
Cinematography by Andrew Watt
Edited by Rob Ruzic
Music by Bob Wiseman

Copyright: 2014

MUGSHOT NEWS:

“Mugshot” will premier on TVO on September 24 at 9 pm ET
Repeating: Sept. 25 at 9 pm ET and Sept. 28 at 11 pm ET

“Mugshot” premiered at Hot Docs International Documentary festival in April 2014

“Mugshot” won Best Arts & Culture Documentary at the Yorkton Film Festival

“Mugshot” is invited to the Hot Springs Festival in Hot Springs, Arkansas in Oct. 2014.

Meyer Shussett, “Suspicion”, 14 January 1933

Meyer Shussett

Meyer Shussett was a fifty-two-year-old salesman from Pittsburgh who had lost a lot of money in the depression. He took a train to New Castle on a January weekend in 1933 and spent Saturday night walking from bar to bar with boxes of counterfeit Pollock cigars, which he sold cheap until he was arrested by a patrolman. The mayor fined him $20.

Later—after the depression, after the war—he managed a variety store in Pittsburgh. One morning in 1951, he had just opened the store when a man walked in and asked for a T-shirt. When Meyer turned to get a box down from the shelf, the man hit him on the head with a brick. After finding only a few dollars in the register, the man hit him with the brick again and left the store.

Meyer went home. His family took him to the hospital, where he was given fourteen stitches to close his wounds.

There is no further record of his life.

Sources: New Castle News (16 January 1933, “Pittsburgh Man Pays Heavy Fine”; 9 October 1951, “Thug Uses Brick”); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 October 1951, “Thug Beats Up Storekeeper”.

William Jaynes, “Attempted B & E”, 11 September 1939

William Jaynes

There is no record of which property William Jaynes was attempting to break into when he was arrested on the eleventh of September, 1939. He got thirty days in jail.

William worked in Johnson Bronze. His wife died of a heart attack in 1953, at the age of thirty-seven. They had no children. He got a job cutting hair at the Lawrence County home for the aged. After a while, he went to work in the Castle restaurant in Youngstown, Ohio.

In 1968, when he was fifty-five, he went back to New Castle to visit his aunts for Christmas. He got a room in the Fountain Inn, a run-down place that had stood on the Diamond since before the civil war and had been known for a spell in the twenties as the best hotel in west Pennsylvania. On Christmas eve, a fire broke out. There were five residents in the hotel’s two hundred rooms. Three died, including William, whose body was found in the ruins a week later. It was the third major fire on East Washington street that winter, and the second antiquated hotel to go up in flames that year. There was talk of arson, but the inquest ruled the deaths accidental.

Six years after the fire, William’s aunts wrote a poem, which they posted in the memorial column of the New Castle News.

“Quickly and suddenly came the call,
His sudden death surprised us all.
It was a bitter grief, a shock severe,
To part with one we loved so dear.

“They say time heals all sorrows and
Helps one to forget,
But time so far has only proved
How much we miss him yet.”

Sources: New Castle News (3 September 1918, “Two Divorces Are Granted”; 2 May 1934, “Engagement News”; 10 August 1934, “Oliphant-Jaynes”; 18 August 1953, “Deaths Of The Day”; 30 September 1939, “Sentence Three For Robbery Here”; 24 December 1968, “Fire Sweeps Fountain Inn”; 2 January 1969, “Body Is Found At Fire Scene”; 21 January 1969, “Fires Claimed 5 Lives”; 24 December 1974, “In Memoriams”).

Harry Curry, “Intox Driver”, 4 August 1935

Harry Curry

Harry Curry’s father, William, was a boy of fourteen when he left Ireland in 1840. He worked in Wilkinsburg and Greensburg, earning enough money to buy some land outside of New Castle on which he set up a farm and raised a family. Harry was his third son.

In August 1899, when Harry was nineteen, the congregation of the Mountville U P church in Perry township, east of New Castle, were listening to a lecture from a visiting doctor of theology when they were disturbed by the sound of fighting and heard a loud slam as someone was thrown against the side of the building. They went outside and saw Harry Curry and his three brothers brawling with Jesse Burnsides.

Jesse Burnsides’ sister, Ella, a frail, feeble-minded girl, had been sent to work on the Curry farm. She became pregnant shortly after. She claimed that the father of her child was Ross Smiley, a young man who lived with his widowed mother in Perry. He denied any connection with her. In court, she admitted that the child’s father was William Curry—Harry’s father—who had promised her a good home if she would charge Ross Smiley with the crime, saying that he did not want to become a scandal in the area. The fight between William’s sons and Ella’s brother had arisen from the affair.

The Curry brothers were found guilty of riot, affray and disturbing a public meeting. They were released after agreeing to pay the costs of the trial.

When William died in 1911, his illegitimate daughter was twelve years old. There is no further record of her life.

Harry and his brothers sold the farm for around $2,000 each. Harry moved to New Castle and gave his money to the most respectable attorney in town, Edward T Kurtz, to invest on his behalf. Kurtz took the money, along with money he had been entrusted with by dozens of other New Castle families, and invested it in high-risk irrigation and oil projects out west, all of which failed. Kurtz fled the city to avoid arrest and was never heard of again.

Harry’s money was all gone. He signed on at the Shenango tin mill, as if he were just another of the thousands of new immigrants that were arriving in the county to work in the factories. When he appeared in court in 1935 to be fined on a charge of driving while intoxicated—six years after his wife, Lucy, had filed divorce papers at the same court, charging that he had called her vile names and otherwise abused her—he would have passed the impressive wreck of Edward T Kurtz’s mansion, across the road from the court house, which had been taken over by the county for delinquent taxes and ransacked by pillagers who tore out the sinks, baseboards and chandeliers and broke all the windows. It stood on its prominent location, overlooking the city, until it was torn down in 1948.

Harry died of a heart attack in 1950, at the age of seventy-one.

Sources: New Castle News (7 December 1898, “In Court”; 13 September 1899, “Joseph Beard is Cleared”; 20 September 1899, “Possum Hollow Case In Court”; 13 December 1899, “Ross Smiley Was Acquitted”; 27 April 1911, “Deaths Of The Day”; 23 March 1914, “Portersville”; 11 February 1916, “Supreme Court Opinion Received”; 8 March 1916, “E T Kurtz Indicted By Grand Jury”; 17 October 1929; “Cruelty Charged In Divorce Case”; 16 June 1945, “Deaths Of The Day”; 22 May 1948, “County To Raze Old Early Home”; 25 October 1950, “Deaths Of The Day”).

Gerald McCluskey, “Carrying Concealed Weapons”, 10 February 1949

Gerald McCluskey

When he was twelve years old, Gerald McCluskey won an award for excellence in the YMCA cadet Bible club. His father died of a heart attack the following year. A few months later, he and an eighteen-year-old boy from his street, Donald Pontius, were walking through their neighborhood when they noticed a young girl, around Gerald’s age, walking alone on the road ahead of them.

It was a dark winter’s evening. A light snow was beginning to fall, and there was no one around. The boys crossed over and started walking close behind the girl. She got scared and started running. They ran after her, down the hill into town. When she got to Hemlock street—where, five years before, Paul Leroy Gold had raped a nine-year-old girl—she ran across the road into a gasoline station. She was too frightened to speak to the attendant. When she thought the boys had gone, she went next door to her grandmother’s house. Her uncle, Joseph Armond, was there. He had been a sergeant in the war. He went out and found Gerald and Donald in a nearby street and held them until the police arrived. Gerald was carrying a metal blackjack; Donald had a foot-long billy club hidden in his coat. They said they had chased the girl in order to frighten her. They denied any other motive.

The boys spent a night in custody: Gerald in the juvenile detention home; Donald in the county jail. The charges were dropped the next morning.

Gerald joined the air force when he left school, in the middle of the Korean war. When he came home, he moved to Pittsburgh. There is no further record of his life.

Sources: New Castle News (10 June 1947, “Awards Presented 76 YMCA Boys”; 7 August 1948, “Deaths Of The Day”; 11 February 1949, “Two Are Held By Police On Charge Of Pursuing Girl”; 13 MRCH 1952, “Enlist Three From Here Into Air Force”; 22 September 1966, “Deaths Of The Day”; 22 January 1977, “Deaths Of The Day”).

How Small Town Noir came to be

mugs

People often ask how I found these mug shots and why I chose to write about them, and I’ve usually given what I feel are rather inadequate answers (I suppose because I’m more interested in the stories behind the mug shots than the story behind the blog).  However, when the editors of the history journal, The Appendix, asked me to write an article for them about my research, I took the opportunity to set out my thoughts on the whole business for the first time. If you’d like to know more, go here: “Mug Shots: A Small Town Noir“.

Ernest Pokersnik, “B E Larceny”, 7 May 1946

Ernest Pokersnik

Ernest Pokersnik’s father left Slovenia at the turn of the century and worked for forty years in Bessemer’s brick and cement factories. Ernest’s mother died when he was young, and he spent some time in Morganza reform school for larceny. His sentence was lengthened when he broke into the Croatian club to steal two bottles of beer while on parole.

He became a mechanic. During the war, he repaired fighters and bombers in an air field in the south of England. Just after he returned home, in 1946, he was arrested for stealing scrap from the Pennsylvania railroad yard. He was caught by Charles L Reese, who had been appointed constable of the third ward when the previous incumbent had been elected to the city council. Reese had been trying to become a councilman since the thirties. His campaign advertisements, printed in the New Castle News every election, listed his virtues. He was always the youngest candidate. He understood the needs of returning soldiers. He had fought in the first world war. He had been posted in Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, China and Russia. He had wide experience of tree surgery and landscaping. His slogan: “If you live in a city, live for it. If you work in a city, work for it.”

Reese told Ernest that, if he gave him $200 and pled guilty, he would use his influence to make sure the judge kept him out of jail. Reese paid him what he asked and did what he said. He got an $85 fine and was sent to the county jail for four to eight months.

At the end of summer, when Ernest got out, he told the district attorney what Reese had done. Reese confessed and was fined $200 and given six months in the workhouse. He never achieved elected office.

Ernest died in 1988, at the age of seventy.

Sources: New Castle News (20 August 1938, “On Court House Hill”; 9 August 1941, “Charles L Reese Council Candidate”; 13 September 1944, “In U S Armed Service”; 16 June 1945, Charles L Reese For Council”; 16 October 1946, “Constable Is Given Sentence”; 24 December 1956, “Deaths Of The Day”).
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