On the twenty-seventh of May, 1939, four police officers went to Henry Bell’s home above the meeting hall of the Pentecostal Apostolic Faith church on Moravia street. Henry was later taken to the hospital to have stitches in his head before spending a night in jail on a drunk charge. The next morning, after Henry was released, the mayor was visited by several colored men who complained that Henry had been assaulted. They were sent away.
Those facts were undisputed. There was agreement about little else.
Henry was a WPA worker and former member of the United Mine Workers of America. The local Communist party said the incident was the latest in a wave of police terror instituted against the colored people of the town by the Republican administration. Sak Levine, the secretary of the Communist party in New Castle, set up a committee for the defense of Negro rights, along with Reverend G J Norman, a half-Cherokee Wesleyan minister who had been crippled in world war one. They convinced Henry to have the officers charged with aggravated assault and battery. The trial took place four months later.
Henry testified that he had been lying on his bed when the policemen came into his apartment. He asked them if they had a warrant, and they set about him with blackjacks. They handcuffed him on the bed, threw him on the floor and beat him again. They searched his room and found a gun between the ticks on the bed. He was thrown into a car and taken to police headquarters, where he was transferred to a patrol wagon and taken to the hospital. On the way back, one of the officers pointed a gun at him. When Henry called him a name, he came into the rear of the wagon and beat him again.
Henry admitted that he had been in trouble with the local police before, when he was arrested for drunk driving, after which two butcher knives and a rifle were taken from him; that he had spent a total of eight months in the Alleghenny workhouse on other drunk driving charges; and that he had attended a Communist party meeting in a hall on Washington street.
Henry’s wife, Leola, testified that there had been no trouble in her home on the evening the police had come to the house. She had gone out to get a paper of tobacco and returned to hear her husband yelling as he was beaten by the police. She saw them drag him down the stairs and beat him as he lay handcuffed on the ground. She showed the jury the shirt her husband had worn and the sheet from the bed, both stained with blood.
Men who had been on the street when the police arrived testified that they had heard no disturbance from the apartment until the police arrived. James Hill, a tinworker, said he heard terrible sounds after they entered. He was asked, “Did it sound like someone striking a body?” He replied, “No. It sounded like someone striking a head.”
The officers testified that a woman had called headquarters at 8.36 that evening, saying that a man was drunk and brandishing a gun in her home. Two police cruisers picked up the call and went to the apartment. They knew Henry had a reputation as a fighter, and was known as the Cowboy of Moravia street. They had no search warrant, but Henry invited them in, saying, “No trouble here, and no gun. Come on in and search for it.” He got agitated when they started searching the bed. When they lifted the mattress and saw the gun and some loose shells, Henry began abusing them with “vile language”. There was a scuffle and one of the officers hit Henry with the leather thong end of his mace, another hit his legs with the strap of his nightstick. Henry was handcuffed and refused to walk to the car, so they had to carry him out.
The officers’ attorney said that the case was fomented by radical friends of Henry’s, most of them white, and that the Communist party was at the back of it. He said that one Negro with an interest in the case was Ben Carreathers, a prominent Pittsburgh Communist. He asked the jury if they wanted Communist government in Pennsylvania. The jury were told, “Any time a Communist begins quoting the constitution or civil liberties to you, he is a liar and a cheat.”
The trial lasted three days. The policemen were found not guilty. Henry, Sak Levine and the Reverend G J Norman were ordered to pay the trial costs of $322.25.
There is no further record of Henry’s life, save for an arrest for drunk driving in 1947, the crime for which his mug shot was taken. He died in 1951, at the age of fifty.
Sources: New Castle News (25 September 1939, “Open Trial Of Police Officers”; 26 September 1939, “Policemen Say Bell Abusive”, “Police Officers Present Defense”; 27 September 1939, “Poilce Officers’ Case Concluded”; 28 September 1939, “Three Policemen Are ‘Not Guilty’ Of Charges”; 30 September 1939, “Trio Ordered To Pay Costs”); Afro American, 8 July 1939, “Protest Police Attack On Worker”.