The Liberty Hotel was a solid, 19th-century building at the southern end of the New Castle streetcar line, by the Mahoningtown railroad station. Its upper floors accommodated a selection of permanent and short-stay residents, and its ground floor housed a restaurant, a bar and commercial rooms that were rented, over the years, to various businesses. On May 23, 1932, during the period when the Mahoning Trust Company operated a bank on the premises, it became the scene of the most vicious robbery in New Castle’s history.
Each week, two employees, accompanied by a police officer for security, drove to one of the big banks in downtown New Castle to collect the cash that the bank used to cover local firms’ pay roll transactions. On the day of the robbery, they were carrying $23,000 in a satchel that was chained to the floor of their car.
They arrived at the Liberty Hotel at half past eight in the morning. As usual, the policeman, Officer Clarence Campbell, got out of the car first to see that the way was clear to take the money into the bank. He glanced up and down the street and turned to the car to tell the bank employees that everything seemed to be safe. As he did so, a man who had been sitting outside the door to the bank pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of a box that he’d had on his knees and shot him in the back from a distance of a few feet, blowing a hole through his spine and shredding his liver and lungs. The coroner later assured his family that he wouldn’t have known what hit him.
Two men ran out of the lobby of the hotel, levelling machine guns at the car and demanding the money. The bank employees handed over the satchel and the three men jumped into a maroon sedan that had pulled up alongside the bank’s car, then they sped south to Montgomery Avenue and on out to the Mount Jackson road. As they went, they tossed handfuls of roofing nails behind them to prevent pursuit.
It all took less than a minute.
Police blocked every road out of Lawrence County, and officers from surrounding cities and towns spread out across western Pennsylvania. Border towns were guarded, hundreds of motorists were halted and questioned and, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “all the aids of modern science – the radio, the police teletype, the telegraph and the telephone” were employed, but the robbers somehow slipped through the net.
It was discovered that the man who had shot Officer Campbell had stayed in the Liberty Hotel the previous night, using the name Tom Tenerico. He’d passed the evening in the bar, talking to the staff and other patrons, before going up to bed, and the police were able to get a good idea of what he looked like. A manhunt was launched across neighbouring states and a $2,500 reward was put up for information leading to the arrest of the robbers, but none of them was ever seen again. After three years had passed, the reward fund was shut down, the money reabsorbed into general funds, and life at the Liberty Hotel went on much as before.
Bernard Dickey would have been just out of high school when Officer Campbell was killed. When he went for a drink in the Liberty Hotel bar one night just before Christmas in 1947, he was thirty-four, with a job in the United Engineering and Foundry Co, and it’s possible he had no idea of the history of the hotel. Even if he had, it probably wouldn’t have stopped him doing what he did. Why would it? “Tom Tenerico” was never caught, so there was no reason why Bernard Dickey should be.
Harold Unangst, one of the locals, was in the bar the night Bernard was there. He’d been talking to a young woman and paying for drinks with a fat roll of nearly $300, consisting of two $100 notes wrapped around a bundle of smaller currency. He walked the woman home to her house just before midnight and was on his way back to the hotel when he was set upon by two men, who punched him to the ground and robbed him of his money. Even though it was clear that his attackers must have been in the bar that night and had followed him when he left, Unangst said he didn’t recognise either of the men, whom the New Castle News described in these terms: “Thug No.1, tall, thin scar on face, brown jacket, brown trousers. Thug No.2, short, red checkered shirt.”
The following summer, Bernard Dickey was arrested (we don’t know why; perhaps on a tip-off) and confessed to the robbery. He was Thug No.2, and he said that Thug No.1 had been John Assid, a truck driver who lived on Rabbit Street, right around the corner from Lafayette Street, where Harold Unangst had been attacked. John Assid claimed he was innocent, but was taken to the county jail anyway. There was no more news of the case, and there is no record of any sentence being passed on either of the two men. Bernard appeared in the newspaper a final time later that year, when he was admitted to hospital after an industrial accident in which a 300-pound weight fell on his foot, crushing the bones.
Bernard died in 1974, at the age of sixty-one. The Liberty Hotel, by then a run-down dive, in the news mainly for bar fights and gambling arrests, was closed down by the authorities a few years later, and was destroyed by fire at the end of 1977.Sources: New Castle News (23 May 1932, “Bandits Kill Officer; Seize Fund of $23,000″; 24 May 1932, “Slayers Of Police Officer Temporarily Make Their Escape”; 23 May 1934, “Officers Slayers Still At Liberty”; 17 Jan 1936, “Launch Instruction School For Police Here On Thursday”; 1 June 1948, “Makes Robbery Charges”; 1 Nov 1948, “Man Injures Foot”; 19 April 1974, “Card Of Thanks”)
It came as a surprise to everyone when John Assid killed Ethel Brown and Assunta Monsey on Highland Avenue one February evening in 1945. He’d been sent off to war a couple of years before – very much against his will and only after he’d been captured by police when he tried to skip town rather than go to the army induction center – and he should on that day have been in Europe, fighting alongside the American troops who had breached the Siegfried line and were finally on their way through Germany to Berlin. Instead, he was behind the wheel of an overloaded coal truck that had driven into two middle-aged women who were waiting for a bus on the north hill.
The road was covered by a thin skin of snow, and high ridges of slush and ice were banked up in the gutters on either side. John Assid’s truck, travelling at only 25mph but carrying six tons of coal, swerved to pass a car waiting at an intersection and slid out of control, mounting the ice pack and skidding across the sidewalk, where it hit Ethel Brown and Assunta Monsey, dragging their bodies out onto Winter avenue.
John spent a week in the city jail before the inquest, at which the coroner’s jury found no evidence of reckless driving and recommended that no charges be brought. However, the police had discovered that he had gone AWOL from Fort Dix the previous September, and they handed him over to a couple of military policemen who drove up from Pittsburgh.
The army hung onto John until October 1946 – four years after the first time he ran away from them and almost two years after the second – before releasing him from service with an honourable discharge. He died in 2004, at the age of eighty-one.
(For more on John Assid, see Bernard Dickey’s mug shot.)Sources: New Castle News (23 Nov 1942, “Ask Police To Seek Missing Boys”; 8 Feb 1945, “Coroner’s Jury Hears Evidence In Auto Deaths”; 9 Feb 1945, “Assid Turned Over To Army Police”; 28 Oct 1946, “Discharged From Army”)
On the last Sunday night in 1940, Frank Bullano and his friend, James Perrone, both seventeen years old, were stopped and searched after being seen loitering around the parking meters on North Mercer street. Between them, they were carrying $3.25 in nickels – roughly the daily wage of a factory worker. They were arrested and held for further investigation, but were eventually released, having consistently denied any wrongdoing.
A few days before Christmas, five years later, Frank was almost shot dead on a road outside the little Belgian town of Bastogne, when his armoured division came under attack from German troops.
The American tanks were taken out by the first strikes and they sat in flames, blocking the road, as the German machine guns opened fire on the infantrymen. Some of the Americans returned fire while others tried to save the wounded tank crews. Frank was seen “advancing on foot, under heavy fire, to a burning tank to see if any of his buddies were trapped inside”.
Years later, the unit’s doctor wrote an article for his local medical society’s newsletter in which he recounted his experiences as an army medic and described the attack outside Bastogne. “Many of our enlisted men demonstrated great bravery on the road,” he said, “pulling tankers from their blazing tanks and driving jeeps with the injured men on the hood to our Aid Station. Many of these men were soldiers whose reputation in the unit would have given no clue to the fact that under stress they could meet this challenge.” He concluded, “I have never learned who to predict will be a hero”.
Frank was awarded a bronze star medal in recognition of his actions that day.
The Americans spent the next month under siege in Bastogne, completely surrounded by German tanks that shelled the village day and night. They had little fighting to do; their job was simply to sit tight and hold their ground until developments elsewhere forced the German army to retreat, which finally happened towards the end of January.
More than thirty-five thousand soldiers were killed in that final winter of the war in Europe. Frank wasn’t one of them.
After the war, Frank stayed in the army and served in Korea in the 50s and Vietnam in the 60s. He retired from the army in 1970, at the age of forty-seven.Sources: New Castle News (30 Dec 1940, “Deny Stealing Parking Nickels”; 4 May 1945, “Sgt Frank Bullano Wins Bronze Medal”); John Prior’s article http://bit.ly/johnprior.
Charles was a good boy, but he had done a bad thing. A well turned out, plump young man, with the intellect of a child, who lived with his mother and her husband in a decent house on Randolph street, he had no idea what had come over him to make him raise the false fire alarm. “I don’t know why I did it!” he told the police. He had seen the fire alarm box on Long avenue and playfully pulled the handle, giving no thought to the consequences. What would his mother say when she found out?
When he was placed in front of the police camera, he screwed his eyes tightly shut against the glare of the flash bulb, creating exactly the expression that might appear on the face of someone who has just seen something that they wished they had not and is trying desperately to erase the vision from their minds—perhaps the same expression that crossed his face two years later when he looked into his mother’s bedroom on a Saturday afternoon and saw her lying unconscious on blood-soaked sheets.
It had been some hours since her skull had been bashed in with a hammer, and there must have been quite a mess. Charles, however, acted as if he hadn’t seen anything too bad; his mother was still breathing, after all. He went to his stepfather, William Thompson, and told him that he thought that his mother might be unwell, then went about his day. It was as if he thought that, if he refused to think about what he’d seen—if, rather than making a commotion, he simply closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could on pretending that nothing was wrong—he could blank out the awful scene and everything would return to normal.
William, Charles’s stepfather, didn’t call an ambulance until later that evening, several hours after a doctor could have done any good. The night before, in an argument about money, Charles’s mother had hit William in the face with the blunt end of a butter knife and then gone up to bed. Later, William took a hammer out of the utility door in the stove and followed his wife upstairs. He sat on his bed with the hammer for several hours, while she slept in her bed on the other side of the room. Then he went over to her and hit her over and over again before lying down and waiting for morning.
After calling the ambulance at around 7pm, William barricaded the front door with a divan. Then he removed the locks from all the doors in the house. The police found him in the cellar, working on the locks which, he told them, were in need of repair. The locks were broken, he said. He had to fix the locks.
Charles’s mother died two days later in New Castle hospital, without regaining consciousness. Her obituary recorded that she was born Mary Seamons, worked on the custodial force of the Jameson Memorial hospital and had three children, of whom Charles was the youngest. William was sent to Fairview state hospital for the criminally insane, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Charles moved out of the house on Randolph street and got himself a little apartment in the Belvedere block on North Cochran street, which eventually burned down in one of the many unexplained fires that occurred in downtown New Castle with increasing frequency as the city continued its long decline into the ’70s. He was a railroader at the time of the murder but, like his mother, he ended up working as a custodian at the Jameson Memorial hospital, where he stayed until he retired. He died in 1994, at the age of seventy.Sources: New Castle News (12 May 1958, “Fire Chief Warns About False Alarms”; 11 July 1960, “Local Woman Beaten To Death”; 12 July 1960, “Deaths Of The Day”; 17 Aug 1960, “Mental Exam Is Requested For Thompson”; 18 Jul 1967, “$20 Bill Missing”; 2 April 1977, “Service Award Dinner Honors Jameson Staff”).