One September afternoon in 1932, when Harold Nicolls was five years old, his mother took him to Arlington avenue to visit his grandfather, Isaiah Engle, who would be arrested a few years later for performing a lewd act in public in Gaston park. Harold was playing outside the house when he chased a ball out into the street and was hit by a car. He was unharmed by the collision—cuts and scrapes—but he fell onto the car’s broad front bumper and was carried some way down the street before the driver stopped. It may have been his first journey by car.
By the time Harold was thirteen, he had developed a habit of driving around town in cars whose owners had left their keys in the ignition. One evening toward the end of winter, he and an eleven-year-old boy were arrested for stealing a delivery truck from behind the Kirk Hutton store and taking it for a joy ride across the Diamond and down East Jefferson street. They were sent to the George Junior Republic, a privately run correctional institution for delinquent boys, where Harold would spend most of his teenage years. He began his twenties in the Allegheny County workhouse, where he had been sent for one to three years after being caught riding as a passenger in a Buick that had been stolen by his friend. He was released on parole after eighteen months, but was soon arrested on two charges of burglary, nine of larceny and one of malicious mischief, and returned to jail in September 1949. He remained there for the next four years.
On his release, at the age of twenty-two, Harold moved in with his mother on Valley street. A year later, he served two months in the county jail for driving while under the influence. The following year, he was caught selling cartons of cigarettes that had been stolen from the East street market and was sentenced to another two months for receiving stolen goods. He was still living with his mother in 1958, when his girlfriend’s fourteen-year-old son, James, was found wandering near the Diamond at three in the morning and told the police that he had left his home after Harold had strap-whipped him. Harold admitted using his belt on James, but said that the boy’s mother had asked him to do it. He was charged with assault and battery and fined $50.
Harold drove a cab in the sixties and by the end of the decade, just after he turned forty, he had become the owner of a small cab company that operated out of White street. During the seventies, Harold’s drivers began to report that they were being held up and robbed by their passengers. Some of the stories were true; some were invented by drivers to cover up their embezzlement. Harold tried to operate as normal for as long as possible but, as the decade wore on, he was forced to reduce services, especially after dark. The robberies continued until the company closed down in 1977.
Harold died in New Castle in 2005, at the age of seventy-eight.Sources: New Castle News (10 Sep 1932, “Three Children In Auto Mishaps”; 1 June 1938, “Charge Is Preferred”; 19 Feb 1941, “Two Small Boys Steal Truck, Auto”; 27 May 1942, “Around City Hall”; 25 July 1946, “Hold Two Youths For Auto Larceny”; 27 July 1946, “News On Court House Hill”; 3 Jan 1953, “Court House”; 5 Aug 1953, “Wave Delores Nicolls Home On Naval Leave”; 26 Feb 1955, “Many Are Up For Sentence”; 5 July 1956, “Two Boys Admit Burglary Attempt, Market Entered”; 9 July 1956, “Two Plead Guilty To Market Burglary”; 30 Aug 1956, “Four Ordered To Pay Money To Railroads”; 31 October 1956, “Dottle, Nicolls Released From Jail”; 9 June 1958, “Mother Of Three Pleads Innocent To Two Charges”; 4 Oct 1958, “Court Imposes 37 Sentences In Long Session”; 9 March 1961, “Court House”; 19 Nov 1968, “Six New Cars”; 20 March 1972, “Holdups Worry Cab Firm”; 8 Oct 1973, “Cab Driver Faces Count Of Robbery”; 10 Feb 1977, “Taxi Driver Claims Theft At Knifepoint”); Lawrence Law Journal, Vol 12, 1953, pp1-4.
By the end of 1921, two years after the start of prohibition, illegal liquor was a major trade in Lawrence County. Jack Dunlap, a thirty-year-old former state policeman and private security officer for US Steel, was appointed county detective in January 1922 and told to shut down the bootleggers’ operations. He began a campaign of raids, uncovering stills in farms outside New Castle and houses around town and arresting hundreds of liquor manufacturers and traffickers, from the Serbian gang who had constructed a huge underground alcohol factory beneath a farm to the west of the city to small-timers like Julius Roth, a Carpathian-German immigrant who ran a domestic still on his farm on the county line road.
Julius arrived in the United States from Transylvania in 1920, a few months after prohibition became law, and bought a small piece of property on which to raise a herd of dairy cows. His land was the last remnant of the farm that had belonged to Charles Whippo, the chief engineer of the Beaver and Erie canal that had first made New Castle an industrial centre in the 1840s. Whippo’s grandchildren had sold most of the land to the Lehigh company, which had torn up the fields to get at the rich limestone below and built a cement factory on the portion adjoining the plot that Julius owned. Consequently, Julius grazed his cows on a high pasture on the Desprink farm a mile away, where, one summer, a quarter of his herd was killed by lightning.
Julius was arrested by Jack Dunlap on a liquor charge in May 1922 and given a short sentence. The next time Dunlap arrested him, he received a $500 fine and three months in the workhouse. On his third arrest, he was given eighteen months.
By the end of 1922, a year during which Dunlap had presented the court with up to eighty bootleggers a month, the county had earned $10,000 in liquor-related fines. In 1923, the sum doubled as Dunlap and his deputies—known in the press as the three musketeers—made ever more arrests. On 19th June 1924, fifty pounds of dynamite exploded under Dunlap’s home on Epworth street. The kitchen was utterly destroyed and the lower floor of the house was wrecked. Dunlap, his wife and their baby, who had been sleeping upstairs, were unharmed.
That Sunday, more than a thousand people crowded into the First Methodist church to show their support for Dunlap. His character and work were praised by speakers who denounced the bombers as foreign anarchists who were determined to undermine law and order in America. One city official said, “How Lenin must have laughed if he heard of the atrocity.” The editor of the New Castle News said, “Get the dastards who attempted to destroy Mr Dunlap and his young family as they slept. Get these persons who would tear down the very foundations of this country’s freedom, and leave no stone unturned to see that they are brought to the summary justice they so richly deserve.”
Dunlap was not present at the meeting—the audience was told that he was out working on a case—but he later said, “This is not the first time that an attempt has been made on my life by bootleggers and violators of the eighteenth amendment. About a year ago, a foreign-born resident of this county planned to take my life. We have received many intimations in the past few months that the bootleggers were out to at least annoy us, if not take our lives. They have called on the telephone in an effort to frighten my wife. They have rapped mysteriously on the doors and windows and disappeared and many such little things in the effort to frighten me and those associated with me. However, despite their efforts, I expect to continue to do my whole duty.”
The police believed the bombers to have been part of an Italian rum-running gang that was consolidating its control of the liquor trade in western Pennsylvania. No one was ever charged in connection with the crime.
In the year following the bombing, Dunlap made more arrests than ever before. The revenue raised from liquor-related fines rose to $35,000. However, when Dunlap’s four-year term was up at the end of 1925, the new district attorney declined to reappoint him. Dunlap tried to run for sheriff, but failed to win the Republican nomination. In the end, he had the support only of the organised prohibitionists; everyone else favoured a change of approach. There were significantly fewer liquor arrests in subsequent years.
Dunlap celebrated his last day as county detective with a raid on the de Mary farm, which resulted in the confiscation of the biggest still ever found in Lawrence County. A few days later, he became the county probation officer and spent the next forty years operating the city’s juvenile detention home and the industrial schools in Morganza and Oakdale. After his retirement, in the late 1960s, he organised New Castle’s annual old-timers’ day celebrations. He last appeared in the press in 1969, leading the old-timers through Cascade park as the band played, “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Julius Roth continued to work on his farm beside the cement works. His only crime following the repeal of prohibition was driving while intoxicated, for which he was arrested—and had his mug shot taken—in 1941. He died in 1948, at the age of seventy-three.Sources: New Castle News (23 Jan 1907, “Options On More Land”; 11 April 1922, “Another Big Still Raided By Detective”; 1 May 1922, “Charge Bribery Attempt Made”; 29 May 1922, “Cave Men Distillers Operate Huge Still In Mahoning Township”; 1 June 1922, “Gave Bail Of $1,000 in A Liquor Case”; 17 June 1922, “Two Sentenced On Liquor Charge”; 4 Sep 1926, “Grand Jury To Meet Monday”; 29 Sep 1926, “Prisoners Taken To Penitentiary And Workhouse”; 15 November 1922, “Big Clean-Up Is Being Made”; 16 April 1923, “Find Immense Booze Plant Underground”; 19 June 1924, “Bomb County Detective’s Home”, “Cowardly Attempt Will Not Check My Efforts To Do My Whole Duty”; 23 June 1924, “Hundreds At Big Mass meeting”; 27 June 1924, “Seek Detective Dunlap Home Bombers In Erie”; 2 Jan 1925, “500 Cases Tried in 1924”; 11 Feb. 1925, “Officers Penetrate Secret Room; Find Pretentious Plant”; 2 May 1925, “Alleged Bootleggers Taken Friday Night”; 2 Oct 1925, “Dunlap Withdraws As Candidate On Prohibition Ticket”; 14 Nov 1925, “Three Arrested For Operation Of Immense Still”; 31 Dec 1925, “Mammoth Still Is Confiscated Last Night By Officials”; 2 June 1926, “County Detective Makes Arrest On Liquor Charge”; 15 June 1931, “Five Cows Are Killed By Lightning”; 26 May 1941,“Auto Driver Is Under Arrest; ”6 May 1948, “Deaths Of The Day”; 23 June 1966, “Dunlap Honored For 50 Years Service In Correction Field”; 7 Aug 1969, “Oldsters Gather For A Special Day In The Park”).
On a spring night in 1956, Charles Peak and two of his friends were driving a souped-up car around downtown New Castle, looking for other cars to race. They found none, so they pulled up beside a parked police car on Mercer street, shouted obscenities at the officers and sped off. The patrol car chased them south for several blocks then north on Cochran way. The boys abandoned their car and fled, but were caught shortly afterward. Charles was found to be in possession of an Italian Beretta .32—someone’s world war two souvenir—for which he had no licence. He was fined $100 and given a year’s probation.
The following week, Charles’s father, Harry Peak, was charged with murdering his brother, Erwin. He was released when the autopsy showed the cause of death to be a heart attack brought on by acute alcoholism. There was no answer to the question of how Erwin came to be buried in a ditch off the West Pittsburg road, under several feet of dirt, rock and logs, but similarities were noted to the incident in 1917, when Charles’ grandfather, Ransom Peak, had been arrested for killing his nephew but had been released when it was found that the brain injury that had killed the boy had been sustained in a drunken fall on the rocky banks of the Shenango, rather than in the quarrel that had occurred before he had left Ransom’s house. There were no further proceedings in either case.
Six months after his first arrest, Charles nearly died when his car overturned after it missed a curve on Butler avenue, at Cascade street, and slid on its top for a hundred yards until it hit a utility pole. He had been racing another car on the stretch of route 422 that the local boys used as a drag strip. His car was destroyed but he suffered only minor facial injuries. No charges were brought against him.
Charles got a new car as soon as he could. By the following spring, he had customised and improved it to his satisfaction and was ready to test its performance on the road. On April 10th 1957, Charles had a few beers with John Young and George Ramsey, two hot-rodders a few years older than him. After discussing their cars and arguing about whose was the fastest, they drove a few miles east of town on route 422 to Lipinski’s garage, the traditional start of drag races into New Castle.
They lined up across the three-lane highway and took off toward town, quickly reaching speeds of more than 120 miles an hour. After a short distance, they met a car travelling in the opposite direction, which pulled off the road as far as it could and came to a halt. John Young swerved to avoid it. He sideswiped George Ramsey’s car, clipped Charles’s car and spun across the road, directly into the stationary car. He was thrown through his windshield as his car went over the embankment and overturned. His skull was crushed against a steel guard post.
The other drivers and their passengers suffered lacerations or broken limbs, apart from Charles, who was entirely unharmed.
Charles and George were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and were sentenced to up to two years in the Alleghenny workhouse. Charles was paroled after ten months; George after four. Neither was arrested again for a driving offence, although Charles fractured his rib in a crash two years later. (He was the passenger; his wife was driving.) He died in 1996, aged sixty-one.
The New Castle News published editorials throughout the fifties calling for drivers who caused deaths through drag racing—the “gasoline ghouls”—to be charged with second-degree murder. Others in the city wanted a drag strip to be built so that young men would have somewhere legal to race their cars. Arguments about where one could be situated carried on until 1961, when Mike Pollio laid an asphalt track and erected some bleachers on a site seven miles west of New Castle on the Youngstown road, which he called the Skyline. Weekly competitions were held. Unofficial races were allowed for a fee. Thousands of spectators attended during the summer.
The Skyline closed down after ten years. The structures were abandoned and later removed. All that remains is a patch of discoloured grass, two lanes wide.Sources: New Castle News (9 July 1917, “Ransom Peak Discharged”; 15 Mar 1956, “Police Catch Three Boys After Downtown Chase”; 22 March 1956, “Officials Probe Mystery Death”; 23 March 19562, “Harry peak Released After Hearing, Monday”; 12 Sep 1956, “End Of Harrowing Accident”; 15 Feb 1957, “Judge Powers Hands Down 11 Sentences”; 11 April 1957, “1 Killed, 4 Hurt, In 4 Car Crash”; 13 April 1957, “Peak Is Picked Up For Violation Of Probation”; 23 April 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Held For June Grand Jury”; 24 April 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Arraigned On Police Charge”; 3 May 1957, “Peak Sentenced In Violation Of Parole”; 12 Oct 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Are Sentenced To Workhouse”; 1 Feb 1958 “Parole 4 From Workhouse, County Jail”; 2 Jan 1960, “Hurts Chest”; 24 June 1961, “Skyline Drag Strip Opens Tomorrow”; 23 May 1977, “’Drags’ Race Off Into Memory”).
The police described seventeen-year-old Owen Ransom as a well-acting lad who came from a good family. They were mystified about why he had broken into several houses, garages and cars to steal jewellery and cash, much of which he had thrown into the Neshannock creek. He told them simply that he had robbed the homes for a thrill. The judge placed him on probation for three years.
Owen left school and got a job as a stock clerk before he was drafted in 1942. He spent the war in army camps in New York, Florida and Oklahoma. After he returned to New Castle, he became a foreman at the Shenango Pottery factory and, a few years later, he was married in a candlelit ceremony to Phyllis Dean, a secretary at the Haney Furniture company.
A year and a half after the wedding, on Sunday 21st May, 1950, Owen waited until his wife was asleep then drove to Youngstown, where he found a woman, Helen Bernt, walking alone. He stopped and offered her a ride home. He was well spoken, and he was driving an expensive car. Helen accepted.
When they got to her house, Helen tried to get out but Owen grabbed her and drove four or five blocks to a deserted stretch of the road, where he raped her and then performed what she later referred to as an unnatural act of intercourse upon her. Afterwards, he told her he wished it hadn’t happened like it had. He said, “The least I can do is take you home.” Helen got out of the car, took off her shoes and ran until she came across a taxi. She had the driver take her back to the street where Owen’s car was still parked. She wrote down its license number and reported it to the police.
By the time the police went to check on the car, Owen had gone. They passed the details to the police in New Castle, where the car was registered. For some reason, the New Castle police did nothing about it.
Two nights later, at around ten o’clock, Gisella Morganti was walking home along East Winter avenue when Owen appeared and said something about the weather—there had been showers on and off all day, and thunder was forecast. She was nervous and walked on, calling out to her father as she approached her house. Owen grabbed her from behind and threw her to the ground—“like a sack of potatoes”, she later told police. She screamed for help and a neighbour shouted her name. Owen ran off, taking her pocketbook.
Less than two hours later, just after midnight, Helen Brasile was walking down East Washington street, near Almira avenue, when Owen attacked her. He forced his fingers down her throat and dragged her into an empty driveway. He said, “No use struggling, sister, you’re not getting away.” Helen fainted or was knocked out. Owen raped her.
When Helen regained consciousness, she was bleeding from the mouth and her clothing was torn and covered in mud. One of her shoes was missing, as was her purse, which contained $28. She knocked on the door of an old couple’s house and told them what had happened. They called the police.
Owen was arrested at half past two the following afternoon. The mayor took personal charge of the case after learning that the police had failed to act on the information that the Youngstown police had passed on.
The three women identified Owen as their attacker. Owen said that he had had consensual sex with Helen Bernt in Youngstown and had committed no subsequent unnatural act. He and his wife claimed that, on the night of the New Castle attacks, Owen had been home, listening to a ball game on the radio and had gone to bed at a quarter to eleven.
The jury believed the women. Owen received a four-to-eight year term in the Rockview prison farm at Bellefonte. He was free by 1956. He and Phyllis had a son in 1958 and a daughter in 1960. He died in 1995, in New Castle, at the age of seventy-three.
Helen Brasile married a man called Raymond Wetling the year after Owen was jailed. She and Raymond left town. Gisella Morganti never married. She moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with her sister in 1970. There is no further record of Helen Bernt.
Sources: New Castle News ( 24 March 1939, “Youth Pleads Guilty To Entering Homes”; 25 March 1939, “Police Report Youth Admits More Burglaries”; 3 April 1939, “On Court House Hill”; 18 May 1940, “David Jameson Lodge Initiates”; 13 Jan 1943, “Men In US Service”; 18 March 1943, “Men In US Service”; 19 July 1943, “Men In US Service”; 12 Oct 1944, “Men In US Service”; 28 Aug 1948, “Dean-Ransom Wedding Plans”; 16 Sep 1948, “Evening Wedding Candlelight Event”; 25 May 1950 , “Police Grill Suspect In Attacks Here”; 26 May 1950, “Police Make Charges In Attack Cases”; 29 May 1950, “Deaths Of The Day”; 21 Sep 1950, “Levine Asks First Degree”; 22 Sep 1950, “Ransome [sic] Found Guilty Of Rape”; 26 Feb 1951, “Court Upholds New Trial Plea”; 1 Mar 1951, “Ransom Draws 4 to 8 Years”; 21 Sep 1953, “Ransom Seeks Release”; 18 June 1956, “Hayes Tomlinsons Take Up Residence”; 29 Nov 1958, “Births Reported”; 24 June 1960, “Births Reported”; 21 Aug 1970, “Amity Club”; 28 Mar 1975, “Deaths Of The Day”); Youngstown Vindicator, 15 March 1950, “Jury Fails To Agree: Ransom Case Continued”; The Lawrence Law Journal, Volume 10, (1951).