Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Dough Boy and the Sailor


Recently plans have been afoot to demolish the old Ward Bakery in Prospect Heights in advance of the Atlantic Yards redevelopment. This historic building, erected in 1911, has had many architectural fans who felt its demise was unnecessary and that it deserved landmark status. But none of the articles I've seen about it have touched on its connection to one of the strangest and most controversial murder trials of the 20th century.

In the course of research into life in New York in the Roaring 20s, I came across an article in an old newspaper that mentioned the killing of a cocky young sailor named Clarence Peters. His last name alone caught my eye, since its my own, but there was also something about the sailor's sad, yet handsome, face staring back at me from the rotogravures in dozens of newspapers trumpeting his violent death that made me stop and read on. It turns out that Clarence Peters, who was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was shot to death at 19 and left on the side of an isolated road near the Kensico reservoir outside Valhalla in Westchester County on March 15, 1922.

Rather than being dumped, his body had been carefully laid out on the ground as if for a funeral. This would prove to be one of the many curious details swirling around his slaying that added to its unique air of mystery and suspense. For if someone is shot to death at close range, the victim doesn't usually drop to the ground and lie down as if he were about to take a nap. The body falls rapidly and splays out in several directions and at various angles.

Peters' bloody, yet perfectly placed corpse was discovered the next morning by two telephone linemen and reported immediately to the police. From the beginning, the case stumped investigators. First of all who was this young man and how did he end up in Rye? Thanks to fingerprints on file with the Marine Corps with whom he had recently applied for admission, the police identified the luckless lad as Clarence Peters, a former sailor and petty criminal. For nearly a week his death remained a mystery. Who had pulled the trigger?



At first it looked like the work of a serial killer or perhaps a mob hitman, but finally on March 22, the true killer came forward: Walter S. Ward, the good-looking millionaire son of George S. Ward, the famous baking magnate. Overnight, the case became a sensation from coast to coast. Front page headlines screamed the details of "the millionaire killer." Walter S. Ward was nicknamed "The Tanned Sphinx" for his cagey reserve. The Ward Baking Company was as well-known in its day as any major corporation is today. It had its own baseball team, the Tip Tops, named after their most successful line of packaged bread. So the story was a natural for the tabloids.



Walter S. Ward, a 32-year-old dashing Yale alum, claimed he killed the sailor in self-defense after being entangled in a blackmail scheme that turned violent. Ward, who was an amateur boxer with a well-developed physique, worked for his family at the Ward Baking Company, but also served as Police Commissioner in New Rochelle, where he lived with his wife and two children. Despite his glitzy pedigree, he had a history of hanging out at race tracks, boasting of losing $20,000 in a single poker game, and associating with some pretty rough characters. He held that Peters was part of a gang of three men he'd met at a race track who were extorting huge sums of cash -- some $75,000 in 1920s dollars -- from him in payment for squashing a scandalous secret. At first, Ward was willing to fork over the large payments of hush money so long as they kept his family out of it. But when they came back for more and threatened to kill Ward and his wife and two young children, he said, he had no choice but to shoot Peters in a scuffle. He then left him dead on the side of the road. The other two men escaped. Ward claimed one of them had been wounded. He named the third as Charlie Ross, a notorious grifter and blackmailer. A nationwide manhunt was instigated to find these two men and bring them to justice. They were never found.



As the case unfolded with daily reports in all the newspapers, Walter's lovely wife Beryl, nee Curtis, a glamorous former society debutante, stood shakily and tearfully by his side and defended his honor. Why did his honor need defending? Hadn't he killed the criminal in self-defense to protect his family? Well, there were unsettling details in the case that were not easily swept under the rug. First of all, what was the secret that was so scandalous and shameful that Ward was willing to cough up enormous amounts of money to Peters and his cohorts in crime? He refused to divulge what that secret was. His brother Ralph also refused to discuss it even though he admitted he knew what it was. Walter's father refused to come back to New York from Pennsylvania, where he was on business, in order to testify. The implications were that Walter's secret was so big that it had the potential to destroy his family, and the Ward Baking Company to boot.



The strain was overwhelming. It soon came out that Walter S. Ward had drunk an entire bottle of iodine a few days before the murder. His wife found him lying on the floor and called the doctor. Was this the desperate act of a man attempting suicide, as some claimed? Or an unfortunate accident, as his wife stated? She and his doctor said Ward was prone to violent headaches and had ingested the poison by mistake thinking it was medicine. And what about the co-conspirators? If there were two others involved in the shooting where were they now? If Ward had in fact been shot at first why were there no shells found at the scene of the crime? Why did neighbors not hear any gunfire or see any car lights the night of the murder? If, as Ward had claimed, he had shot Peters through the glass window of his Peerless Coupe, why was there no broken glass on the road where the body was found? Ward's chauffeur reported that he only noticed a broken mirror on the car's side door. Could the murder have happened somewhere else?

If Ward had shot Peters in the chest, why was the boy's waistcoat buttoned up and no bullet hole or blood stains found on it? If Peters was part of a gang who had been threatening Ward for weeks, and with whom he'd met previously, how could Peters have been stationed in Paris Island, South Carolina, the day before he was killed? A former sailor, he had recently attempted to join the marines and was in training there. His request was denied and he was shipped out on the 13th of March, just two days before his alleged rendezvous with Ward. Ticket stubs and affidavits of other marines confirmed these details. How could he have been part of some premeditated extortion scheme?

What exactly was Ward's relationship to this 19 year old sailor? Speculation was abundant but restrained. Journalists gingerly and delicately danced around the topic. A few isolated reports surfaced that he had been seen with the boy in Boston at a raucous "party for men" at some sleazy hotel. There were "unsubstantiated" rumors that Ward was known to haunt Bryant Park in Manhattan and pick up sailors and treat them to a meal at local cafes and pubs. If Peters was blackmailing Ward for several months, why did he not have any money? Yes, he boasted to his friends at marine training camp that he had easy access to money whenever he needed it, but was this a reference to his skills as a blackmailer, a petty thief, or his ability to soak lonely rich men who fancied his company? When he died he only had a little over a dollar on his person.

No, the more one probed into the actual facts of the case, the more peculiar it became. There was the so-called "bridge party" that Mrs. Beryl Ward hosted at her house in New Rochelle the night of the murder. Witnesses claimed it was actually an all-night poker game. Ward had been expected home but he had not shown up until late the next morning. What was the significance of the deck of cards which had been found after the murder? Instead of 52 cards there were only 47 in the pack; the deck was missing a straight flush of diamonds. Had this been a key element of the case or just a bizarre coincidence? Was Peters a card shark? Did Ward kill him after losing at poker? There were also rumors that Ward's marriage was on the rocks before the tragic events took place.

And what was one to make of the very odd fact that the Smith & Wesson gun which was purported to be the one Peters had attempted to use on Ward to extort cash and which proved his own death weapon had actually been given to Walter S. Ward the year before? And what was one to make of the testimony of James Cunningham, an ex-private eye and racing crony of Ward's, who claimed he saw Ward shoot Peters at his home and that Ward was in on the blackmailers' plot in an effort to extract cash from his rich but stingy father? There were more twists and turns in this bizarre case than on the finely carved banister of the Ward mansion's staircase.



The more one looked into the Ward melodrama, the less likely it seemed that Walter was an innocent victim defending his family and his honor. But Walter's father George S. Ward, (above) who had helped build the famous baking empire that bore his family's name, hired the best lawyers his bread could buy. Raised in Pittsburgh, where the baking business first flourished in the 1890s, George S. Ward had become one of the richest men in America. His was a true Horatio Alger saga. His father Hugh Ward had come from Belfast, Ireland and opened a bakery in New York City in the 1840s, then moved to Pittsburgh to capitalize on its rapid growth. By 1911, Hugh's sons Ralph and George had expanded the business across the country. They were the first to industrialize the making of bread, jettisoning horse-drawn carriages in favor of trucks and thereby eliminating the need for stables which had been a health hazard in the past. In 1911, George Ward built the giant Ward Bakery in Brooklyn that remained in operation until 1995. George's brother Robert founded the Brooklyn Tip Tops baseball franchise, part of the Federal League, named for one of its best-selling lines of bread. Walter Ward had worked with his uncle in managing the team.



Faced with a devastating scandal at home, George S. Ward used all of his political connections in Westchester, where he and his sons now lived, and beyond in the State Senate to squash the court proceedings. What seemed like an open and shut case when first Ward confessed to the murder soon unraveled and became a long-drawn out fiasco of false starts and ingenious legal delays. The trial was postponed several times. A motion was made to dismiss the case due to lack of evidence. Ward may have confessed to the crime but should a man be allowed to write his own death warrant, editorials asked? Where was the evidence? his defense attorneys demanded. The burden of proof was on the state and on Attorney General Carl Sherman who had personally taken on the prosecution. But the government's lawyers only had Ward's word and that was not exactly reliable under the circumstances. Little effort was made to solve the case. Forensics were bungled. The case languished in the courts while interest in it only grew more intense. Eventually, after more than a year of legal wrangling and subterfuge, the distraught parents of the victim, Eldridge and Inez Peters, turned to Governor Al Smith who intervened on their behalf and demanded a grand jury investigation and that Ward stand trial.

In September 1923, some 484 days after Clarence Peters's body was found, the Ward Murder Trail finally began. Isaac N. Wills was hired as the defense attorney. Justice Wagner presided. Attorney General Carl Sherman represented the state. But right off the bat, the prosecution made a strategic blunder by forcing Beryl Ward to testify against her will even though it is highly unusual for a wife to be called as a witness against her husband in a capital case. But they had few reliable witnesses and needed her testimony. Evidence of blackmail was scant and sealed since the defense argued that the reasons why Ward was being blackmailed were irrelevant. As the crafty defense lawyer put it, "We do not want the blackmail secret -- this slander of which you have heard -- given to the public."

So the exact nature of Ward's "scandalous" past was never brought up, and most newspapers referred to vague indiscretions of his youth, to a mysterious woman whom he had once "compromised" in Pittsburgh when he worked for the family baseball team. Others claimed he had a notorious "gay love nest" on West 120th Street in Harlem where he entertained a steady stream of young ladies, in particular a fiery redhead. A few suspicious reporters, however, ferreted out that Ward's "shame" had more to do with "immoral acts, practices and disgrace" that would "impute said son" of the wealthy baking dynasty. What these immoral acts were has never been fully revealed, although the recent book Sexual Blackmail, by Angus McLaren, states categorically that Ward was leading a double life as a homosexual and that he killed the sailor because Peters was blackmailing him. McLaren argues that the defense used the jury's innate distaste for the subject to its advantage, showing the all-male jury members photographs of Walter S. Ward and his lovely wife and two children and asking if it was possible that such a man, who had such a beautiful family, and was a pillar of his community, a former police commissioner and successful businessman, could ever do such a thing.



What Mills actually said, in an impassioned 4-hour summation, was how could such a man as respectable as Ward ever be a "murderer." Perhaps McLaren is reading too much into it. But this is one of those mysterious cases where one has no choice but to interpret between the lines. Was Walter S. Ward secretly homosexual? Or bisexual? Or was he being falsely framed? My own view, based only on reading the old newspaper accounts, is that Ward may have picked up the sailor, or vice versa, then things got out of hand and he shot him without premeditation. Perhaps Peters had hit him up for some money and Ward was offended. Maybe the sex got too rough and Ward felt the need to defend himself. Then Ward dreamed up the blackmail excuse perhaps because in the past he had been blackmailed and it seemed like a logical explanation. Or maybe it happened just as Ward said it did. Only he and Clarence Peters will ever know.



The end result, however, was that Walter S. Ward walked. Despite Attorney General Sherman's pronouncement that "No sane jury could acquit Ward," the jury very quickly exonerated him. When the verdict was announced -- "Not Guilty" -- Walter's handsome "broad-shouldered" brother Ralph, who had been by his side throughout the ordeal, "threw both arms around him and kissed his cheek fervently." Walter Ward hugged his wife, who was "on tiptoe and breathless". He then went out of the courthouse and was greeted with tumultuous applause by onlookers and well-wishers, many of them women who'd come to ogle his good looks. According to a reporter, "Scores of flappers in upper windows across the street called to him. Ward snatched his gray fedora hat and waved vigorous reply." Newspaper editorials were less ecstatic. Many of them complained bitterly of a double standard in the courts of justice. That the rich can get away with murder, while the poor have no recourses. It's a point that writers such as Dominick Dunne continue to harp on today. Justice may be blind, but money talks loud and clear.

The denouement was hardly an anti-climax. Walter S. Ward went back to work for his father, then started his own company called Electrux. He and Beryl tried to make their marriage work. But soon it unraveled. In 1926, in a twist not that dissimilar from the O.J. Simpson case many decades later, Ward was sued in civil court for damages by the family of Clarence Peters. Rather than pay up, he faked his disappearance, leaving a car behind as evidence of what many assumed was suicide, then skipped town. A 9-month dragnet could not turn up his body. He was AWOL, eventually turning up in Havana, Cuba where his family had a large estate. He then by all accounts vanished into obscurity. That's not quite true. I found a record of him in 1940, then nearly 50, sailing with his stepmother Donna Ward on the Oriente from Cuba. He gave his address as the Hampshire Hotel in Manhattan. He was probably returning to attend his father's funeral since old man Ward had died in September of that year. As for the very beautiful Beryl Curtis, she got a Reno divorce in 1926, claiming "infidelity, failure to provide, and desertion." She took custody of their two children, Betty and Willard, and married a wealthy stock broker, W. Lyle Alderson. She later lived on Cape Cod and died in 1975. Walter S. Ward did not survive his father by many years. He died in Cuba on May 22, 1946, leaving a widow and a daughter, according to the Times. Little is known about his self-imposed exile in Havana. But one thing is certain -- he took his secret to the grave.