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.
Driving to work today, I saw that W. Valley Green Road was closed due to flooding. That put me in mind of a series of photos showing the Schuylkill flooding the Hamilton Paper Mill in Miquon (Whitemarsh Township).
The photos aren’t dated, but are clearly from the twentieth century. They’re black and white, placing them probably before the 1970s. To narrow it down more, I went to the National Weather Service’s website. It lists 65 times the Schuylkill has flooded since 1769. The visible snow in some of the photos, places the flood in the winter. December 1942, January 1945, December 1948, November, 1950, and December 1952 are the best bets. Of those, only the 1950 flood is described as “moderate” while the others are “minor.”
I checked those dates in the Times-Herald. The 1945 and 1952 floods, didn’t make the paper at all. Of the other three none of the articles mention Hamilton Paper or Miquon specifically. In the case of the 1950 “moderate” flood, that could be because there was so much else going on.
The W. C. Hamilton Paper Company goes back to 1858, when Edwin R. Cope hired William C. Hamilton to manage his Riverside Paper Mill. Of course, papermaking in Pennsylvania goes way back to colonial times, and Miquon had been home to paper mills since 1746. This map from the article “Two Centuries of Papermaking at Miquon, Pennsyvlania” by Rudolf P. Hommel (Historical Society of Montgomery County Bulletin, Vol. 5, no. 4, April, 1947), shows the area. Originally part of Springfield Plantation’s corridor to the Schuylkill, it was ceded to Whitemarsh in 1876.
But getting back to Hamilton, he bought the mill in 1865, making several improvements. The company was bought and sold a few times over the next century, becoming part of different conglomerates. The mill closed in 1995.
Today the land has been redeveloped into the Riverside I and Riverside II office parks. AIM Academy occupies one of the original mill buildings.
There is one corner of Whitemarsh Township known as Spring Mill. Until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century it was the populous village in Whitemarsh and the township’s industrial center. Situated along the Schuylkill, the village was once home to numerous mills and furnaces. Much of its early success can be traced back to the spring that gave the village its name.
The earliest mill in the area was built right next to the bubbling springs around 1690. James K. Helms reported in his “Historical Notes” article of July 4, 1927, that George Washington bought flour and corn from this mill. At the end of the nineteenth century, the first water main was built over the springs, by Charles Hamilton to supply his paper company and some private homes with water.
The springs bubble up from underground streams in two spots in the shallow lagoon they form. Helms writes, “Both of these bubble up in a curious manner, spreading a number of continually forming and dissolving rings over the surface.” Helms estimated that they released 4.5 million gallons a day with enough force to throw up small stones and bits of flint.
The underground waterways appear in some of the stories of Charles Heber Clark, resident of nearly Conshochocken. In one story locals repeatedly try to bury a coffin that falls into the subterranean streams and washes in the river every time.
The old mill was still operating in 1927 when James K. Helms wrote his article about it. He mentions several times how old it looked. It finally burned down in 1967 and the stone foundation as demolished soon after. The miller’s house still stands, however, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The springs are still there, too, according to Philip and Sharon Welsh's book Conshohocken in Vintage Postcards. Located off of Barren Hill Road, the springs are overgrown and no longer visible from the road.