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Thursday, 21 March 2019 20:00

Desperate hours in Whitemarsh

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At 8am on the morning of September 11, 1952, a man knocked on the back door of the Hill family’s home on Joshua Road. Mrs. Elizabeth Hill answered the door. The man there asked if her husband was home. When she said he was not, the man waved to his two companions who appeared from around the corner of the house brandishing shotguns. The men entered the house and told Mrs. Hill and her three sons that they would be safe as long as they were quiet. It was the beginning of a 19 hour ordeal for the Hill family.

Brothers Joseph and Ballard Nolen of Kentucky and Elmer Schuer of Illinois had escaped from Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary two days earlier by sawing through their cell bars and descending a 30 foot wall with towels knotted together. They were all in prison for bank robbery. They stole a car and kidnapped a local man, who later jumped out of the car. The men made their way to West Reading where they smashed the window of a sporting goods shop and stole four shotguns and two rifles.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State Police, with the help of the FBI, set up roadblocks all over southeastern PA. To evade detection, the men decided to lay low in the comfortable home of the Hill family in Whitemarsh..

The Nolens and Schuer listened to the radio, played cards, and ate the family’s food. In the afternoon, the Hills' two teenage daughters returned from their day at Norristown High School, and Mr. James Hill returned from his management job at Dexdale Hosiery in Lansdale. The Times-Herald reported that Mrs. Hill answered the phone several times over the course of the day with one of the convicts listening on an extension.

In press coverage, the Hills insisted that the three men were always polite and didn’t harm anyone in the family. As evening fell, the men told the family to sleep together in one room and helped move mattresses for the kids. They told the Hills that they expected to leave late that night and warned them not to call the police until 8 am. The fugitives threated to return and kill Mr. Hill if they didn’t wait.

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At 3:30 am the Nolens and Schuer left the house, stealing some of Mr. Hill’s suits and the family car, a Pontiac. The Hills waited until 8 am, then contacted the police.  Investigators descended on their house. The convicts meanwhile, drove back west and held up a diner in Hamburg. After that the trail went cold.

The police got calls from local places like Norristown and Conshohocken and as far away as Iowa. A milkman in Wilmington, DE claimed the three convicts had robbed him, but later retracted the story. A week later, they learned that men had meant to head for Scranton but took a wrong turn and found themselves heading to New York City.

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Once in New York, the men robbed a gun store and a bank in the Bronx then rented an apartment on Kelly St. They stayed there until they met a woman named Mayola Jones and moved into her place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That’s where the NYPD found them on September 21st. There was a shoot-out in which both Nolen brothers were killed, and Detective Phillip LaMonica was shot three times in the chest. He later died at the hospital. Elmer Schuer survived and was eventually sentenced to 80 years to life in prison, according to the “FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin” from 1957.

But that’s not the whole story.

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Promotional photo from the play

Parts of this story might seem familiar, especially if you like classic movies. In 1954, Joseph Hayes wrote a novelized version of the events in Whitemarsh called The Desperate Hours. The following year it was turned into a Broadway play (also written by Hayes) starring a young Paul Newman as one of the convicts and Karl Malden as “Mr. Hillard”. The novel and play both took place in suburban Indianapolis, and the convicts are much more violent than the Hills reported. In the play they even murder an unlucky garbage collector who came to the door. The play won the Tonys for Best Play and Best Director (Robert Montgomery). Also in 1955, William Wyler directed a film version of play, which starred Humphrey Bogart in Newman’s role and Fredic March as the father.

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But that’s not whole story either.

In 1955, Life Magazine ran a featured article on the play. The reporters took the cast to the home in Whitemarsh where it had all happened. Hills no longer lived in the house. Soon after the events in 1952, they moved to Connecticut and tried hard to avoid any publicity. The Life article (we have a copy here at the Historical Society) never made the distinction between the fictionalized events of the play and real events that happened to the Hills. Mrs. Hill, according to an article in the New Yorker, was particularly upset by the article and the renewed media attention from the play. The Hills sued Time, Inc., the publisher of Life Magazine, under New York State’s privacy law.

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Image from the Richard Nixon Foundation

The case dragged on for many years, with the Hills winning in the New York Court of Appeals in 1962. Time, Inc. appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1966, former vice-president  Richard Nixon (who had his own problems with the press) argued on behalf of the Hill family. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of Time, Inc. because the reporting had not been proved reckless or willfully inaccurate. It was the only case Nixon ever argued before the Supreme Court.

Special thanks to Kristina Piscitelli whose research through the Times Hearld was instrumental in writing this piece.

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