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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week I was working on the diaries of Judge Harold G. Knight, who sat on the bench here in Montgomery County and for two decades was president of the Montgomery County courts. Knight kept diaries for most of his life. Our collection covers the years 1893 to 1962. The diaries have many enclosures, items such as programs, letters, and newspaper clippings, that have been paperclipped to the relevant dates in the diaries.
One of the enclosures I came across concerned a murder trial that Judge Knight presided over in 1930. On July 4, 1930, Antoinette McCarris shot Joseph Lee in the back with a shot gun killing him. The earliest report in the Norristown Times-Herald (July 5, 1930) described Mrs. McCarris as a “pretty brunette.” It also described her as married to Joseph Lee, but that turned out not to be the case.
Three years earlier, McCarris had left her husband in Virginia and run off with Lee, a former sailor, bringing her two children with her. They eventually settled on a small farm in Worcester, and both were 26 at the time of the killing. The police believed she murdered Lee out of jealously. Lee had shown interest in a younger woman, Bernice Doyle of Kensington. McCarris claimed the shooting was an accident that occurred when she fired off the shot gun to celebrate the 4th.
Given that several people had heard McCarris threaten to kill Lee on several occasions, the District Attorney, Frank X. Renninger, brought her up on charges of first degree murder and sought the death penalty.
The trial started on November 17th. It was Judge Knight’s first murder case. He wrote in his diary that day, “I confess it worries me considerably.” The first day was jury selection. The judge writes that one man declared he had a conscientious objection to capital punishment. “In about one case in twenty these were sincere in the other cases they were pure exhibitors of moral cowardice,” the judge writes.
The next day, two boys, Thomas Hicks, 14, and his brother James, 12, testified for the prosecution. Their father owned the farm Lee and McCarris were renting. Both boys reported that the couple had been fighting over Lee’s interest in Doyle. James claimed to have seen the shooting and demonstrated how McCarris pointed the shotgun at the kitchen door. The Commonwealth called a total of 25 witnesses before resting its case. Then Antoinette McCarris took the stand in her own defense.
“It was the most dramatic and tense hours I have ever seen in a court room,” Judge Knight wrote. He described McCarris as “young [and] frail.” He points out that she was married and a mother at only 15. “She made a deep impression on the just and I am beginning to have some doubts myself as to whether she actually intended to kill the man for whom she left her husband and family three years ago.”
According to the newspaper reports, McCarris denied both threatening to kill Lee and that the couple ever argued about Doyle. Under cross examination, however, she admitted to being jealous of the younger, blond Doyle. McCarris always stuck to her defense that the shooting was an accident. She said she loaded and cocked the gun in the house with the intention of firing it off in the yard.
The jurors, six men and six women, deliberated the case for two hours before returning to the courtroom. The Times-Herald described McCarris as being in a daze when the foreman announced the verdict “not guilty.”
Having no place to go after the trial, she returned to jail, while her lawyer, Edward F. Kane, made arrangements for her to return to Virginia to stay with relatives.
Judge Knight noted in his diary that the verdict was popular. He also wrote that she was acquitted “despite the powerful evidence produced by the Commonwealth and the inherent weakness of her own story.” He goes on, “It was just one of those cases where a pitiful and appealing woman was the defendant, accused of shooting the man she had left her home for and whom she feared had grown tired of her. The just looked upon her deed as justified and decided the case on their view of its moralities and not the law.”
Every week, we put out a little article about something in our collection, and how it tells a story from Montgomery County’s past. And then – well, generally, then nothing. Maybe a few likes on Facebook. Then another Thursday comes around, and another article goes up on the blog.
Every once in a while, we get a response. This is always a little shocking because it means someone actually read our blog. Last summer, I received two (!) responses to a blog post I wrote about a libel case against Moses Auge.
To recap, Henry L. Acker sued Auge and John L. Williams for libel after an article appeared in the newspaper, the Norristown Republican. Auge and Williams were co-editors of the paper. The article accused Acker of embezzling public money while he was postmaster. Our collection holds the original indictment, but it doesn’t tell us the verdict. There was a curious detail in the indictment, however. A document filed with the indictments, tells us that a bond of $500 was set for both Auge and Williams, as well as an addition man named Jacob Cowden, but Cowden was not mentioned in the indictment.
Earlene O’Hare sent me an email a few weeks later explaining that Cowden was a relative of Auge’s by marriage. Moses Auge married Mary Cowden, and it looks like Jacob was her nephew. It doesn’t tell us how in was involved with the libel suit.
Then I received a letter from another member, Ben Curtis, who was familiar with Jacob Cowden’s name from some family lore. It seems Jacob was involved in some dishonest real estate deals. Auge describes him in his Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, Pa.:
“He owns considerable real estate in the borough, generally investing in such properties as yield a good income. Jacob M. Cowden had but a moderate school education, but has risen in fortune by shrewd judgment and close attention to business.”
Cowden died suddenly on April 16, 1887. According to his lengthy obituary in the Herald and Free Press, “He possessed push, capital, and shrewdness.”
After Cowden’s death, however, it all fell apart. Ben sent along a newspaper clipping that says “he invested enormous amounts of money for other people, invariably taking securities in his own name and assigning them to his clients, with the injunction not the record the assignment.” He also borrowed large amounts of money using promissory notes and used that money to purchase real estate, which he transferred to his three single daughters.
This doesn’t explain his $500 bond, but it raises some intriguing questions.
Among our various collections at the Historical Society are papers from various societies for the recovery of stolen horses.
They started as mutual aid societies in different parts of the county. According to the constitution of the Montgomery Union Horse Company for the Recovery of Stolen Horses and Other Property and Detection of the Thieves (19th century people weren’t concerned with coming up with catchy names), members paid one dollar upon joining and twenty-five cents annually in dues. In return, when anything over five dollars in value was stolen from a member, the society would try to recover it.
These societies date back to a time before the county or townships had anything resembling a police force. The Mount Joy Society for the Recovery of Stolen Horses and Detection of Thieves was founded at the King of Prussia Inn in 1774. The first time a member’s horse was stolen was in 1787, when Alexander Henderson’s horse was stolen and recovered at a cost of five pounds. In 1853, Mordicai M. Stephen’s horse was stolen and not recovered, costing the society $249.54. Like the Montgomery Union Horse Company, the original constitution of the Mount Joy Society said that a company of men would ride out in search of the stolen horse. In the 1883 constitution, however, that company had been replaced by a two man committee whose job it was to telegraph local police a description of the horse.
Some of the societies even lasted into the motor age, though more as social clubs than serious crime detecting rings. The Blue Bell Horse Company discussed adding the protection of automobiles in its annual meetings in 1914 and 1920, but no decision was made. The group still existed as late as 1951.
I’d like to close with an interesting story I came across in an old scrapbook about a horse thief in Eagleville in 1893. The story first appeared in the Norristown Register. John Adam Fisher had been working as a hired man for Daniel W. Longaker for a few weeks when he took off with one of his employer’s horses. Longaker’s neighbor, Taylor Pugh, pursued the thief to Collegeville where he discovered that Fisher had tried to sell the horse for $150 but had been talked down to $50. The buyer, however, perhaps grew suspicious and asked where Fisher lived and wanted to go to his house. Fisher took off on the horse again heading toward Trappe, but he was stopped at a toll gate and not allowed to pass. Taylor caught up with him and ordered a magistrate to arrest Fisher. Fisher offered to give the magistrate the “finest stockings he ever saw” once he got to jail. On the way to the jail, he told the constable that he hoped to get twenty-one years. The article concludes that people who had spoken to Fisher believed him “not quite right.”