Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Voter Suppression! The Election Booth Murder (1935), by Milton M. Propper

voting can be murder
In 1926 wealthy Republican building contractor and machine politician William Scott Vare, dubbed the "boss of Philadelphia," was elected to the United States Senate, in a contest mired in a murk of accusations of voter fraud and civic corruption.  The losing Democrat charged that there had been "massive corruption" in the contest, with Vare and his supporters having "padded registration lists, misused campaign expenditures, counted votes from persons who were dead or never existed and engaged in intimidation and discouragement of prospective voters."  In one particularly outrageous example of political sneakiness, Philadelphia Sheriff Thomas "Big Tom" Cunningham somehow managed to make a $50,000 donation to the Vare campaign on his annual salary of $8000.

The state's governor, progressive and patrician Republican Gifford Pinchot, who that year had lost to Vare in the GOP senate primary, refused to certify Vare as the winner, leading to a three-year Senate investigation of the contest.  Having barely survived a stroke in 1928, the partially paralyzed Vare was summoned to the Senate the next year and informed that he would not be seated. 

"The fraud pervading the actual count by the division election officers is appalling," the investigating Senate committee concluded.  "The average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day."

Allies: Sheriff "Big Tom" Cunningham with
Boss Vare (right); a railway porter looks on
An enraged Vare the next year supported the Democratic gubernatorial candidate against Governor Pinchot, who was running for reelection, but to no avail.  Three years later, on Election Day, November 7, 1933, Philadelphia Democrats, who had been utterly eclipsed from power in the city for more than eight decades, won the municipal election, following several years of the Depression and the promise of the New Deal of newly-installed US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Vare himself was ousted as head of the Republican Central Campaign Committee of Philadelphia in June 1934, just a couple of months before his death at age 67 on August 7, a day before the 29th birthday of politically engaged mystery writer Milton M. Propper, an devotee of FDR and the New Deal.

These recent events inspired the writing of Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935), about the shooting murder of a reform political candidate on Election Day in Philadelphia.  (This being a Milton Propper novel a plan of the murder scene is included.) 

UPenn student Milton Propper
when he was around 19 years old, a few
years before he published his first novel
The novel's murder victim, Sidney Reade, is running for city District Attorney not as a Democrat but as a member of the "Popular Party," while his opponent, corrupt Sheriff Leon Connell, is of the "Regulars" (not the Republicans); yet despite this obfuscation I imagine the implications were sufficiently clear to mystery readers of 83 years ago--at least if they lived in Pennsylvania!

Certainly when Propper writes that "To Philadelphians, for the last quarter of the century, there was only one boss--Harvey Warren, erstwhile national senator, party leader of the Regulars, and the unchallenged czar of politics in eastern Pennsylvania," state mystery fans reading the book would easily have recognized the allusion to Willam S. Vare.

As I discussed in my previous blog piece, Francis Nevins in a 41-year old article in The Armchair Detective castigated Milton Propper as a snobbish, police-worshiping authoritarian, while Propper's sister insisted to the contrary that her brother was a political idealist full of in admiration, as were so many young people at the time, for the sweeping New Deal reforms proffered by the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  I think Propper's sister had a better grasp in the facts than Nevins, who never knew the man and was writing about him at second-hand fifteen years after his death in 1962.

Milton Propper in later life
(after he lost weight evidently)
In fact correspondence Propper wrote to Time Magazine in the Thirties shows him praising FDR and condemning Philadelphia's corrupt machine politics.  A dislike of political corruption pervades The Election Booth Murder.  Certainly Propper doesn't have the visceral quality of Dashiell Hammett (his formal, deliberate prose is far more redolent of Freeman Wills Crofts), but in its modest way The Election Booth Murder paints a strong picture of urban malfeasance. 

Today of course we would be more likely to see Republicans criticizing urban Democratic "machines," but in the Philadelphia of Propper's day it was the Republicans who were running the show and long had been, though their machine was facing what would prove, seemingly, permanent breakdown.  (The GOP elected its last mayor in Philadelphia in 1947.)

In 1935, the year of Propper's publication of The Election Booth Murder, the GOP faced a strong challenge in the mayoral race this year, the Democratic nominee being popular John B. "Handsome Jack" Kelly, Sr., brother of playwright George Kelly, father of future actress and princess Grace Kelly and himself a wealthy contractor (though one, unlike Vare, of Irish Catholic descent).

Handsome Jack Kelly, father of grace
A Great War veteran and Olympic rowing champion, Kelly lost the election by some 45,000 votes, vastly less than the usual losing margin for Democrats of 300,000.  (Four years earlier the Democratic mayoral candidate in Philadelphia had received only 10% of the total vote.)

The Kellys, incidentally, resided in a handsome colonial house built by Handsome Jack in 1929, the same year his daughter Grace was born, located about a mile from the colonial house where the Proppers lived in Roxborough.  It was recently purchased by Princess Grace's son, Prince Albert II, with the plan of turning it into a house museum. (The Propper home is now a children's daycare center.)

To me this historical background detail adds a lot of resonance to Milton Propper's mystery.  Like his model Crofts, Propper may not have been strong on characters, but he was always pleasingly precise with his Philadelphia settings. 

When Detective Tommy Rankin of the Philadelphia police force is sent to help monitor voting at the 52nd Ward station in South Philly (trouble is expected from gangs of toughs at the polls), this is how Propper describes the scene:

Like many houses in that vicinity, [the voting station] was untenanted and dilapidated, in temporary use only, for the elections.  On the corner, it fronted Mifflin Street, with a weathered porch of sagging boards, unpainted for years.  It was two stories high, of faded red brick; the windows were dirty and many panes were missing.  A thin line of patiently good-natured people trickled into its murky interior.  Outside, the walls and convenient posts held their usual placards, pictures of respective candidates, instructions for balloting, and assessors' lists.  Little groups gathered on the pavement: neighbors passing the time of day; loungers inevitable attracted to the polls; and politicians, embryo or otherwise, pressing their special interests on bewildered voters.  

Shortly the Popular DA candidate is shot through a window as he votes, however, and all hell breaks loose!  Is Detective Rankin up to solving this seeming political hit job?

South Philly rowhouses

Is this as good a mystery as Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead, which I reviewed here four years ago?  I think not, as I was able to put my finger on the culprit as soon as s/he appeared, on what you might call general mystery principles.

scene of the crime
the similarity to the rowhouses pictured above is evident
However,  I still found The Election Booth Murder an enjoyable example of the formal investigative detective novel, written along severely Croftsian lines. 

To be sure, Robert Van Gelder complained in the New York Times that in the novel Milton Propper had placed too much emphasis on "reportorial exactness," but then this is a proto-police procedural sort of detective novel; and you will either like that or you won't.

For me The Election Booth Murder made for a pleasant brief diversion and provided an interesting faded snapshot of a place in time.  Sure, I could have done without the heavy dialect speech which Propper, following Crofts, felt compelled to convey; but then I feel the same way about Dorothy L. Sayers' scrupulously but rather tediously rendered Scottish accents in The Five Red Herrings. To which I can but say och!


  1. Replies
    1. So does haggis, but we don't really want to eat it. ;)

      Truthfully, I love to hear the Scottish accent spoken, with subtitles preferably (lol), but, rendered too exactly in books, it does make for slower reading, at least for this American.

  2. The cover is gorgeous. Your discussion of politics in the 1920s Philadelphia as Propper's inspiration put me in mind of All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren. As a history geek, I appreciate the care you take in finding photographic illustrations for your essays.

    1. Thank you, Laurie, I do think it adds dimension, I know we are both lovers of history in mystery!

  3. Good stuff. It could be noted that William McGivern was a fictional chronicler of the police (and further) corruption in Philadelphia in the latter 1940s in his novels set in and around the city (THE BIG HEAT, SHIELD FOR MURDER, ROGUE COP, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW), a by-product of his service as police reporter for one of the city's daily papers in the post-WW2 years. And while the Republican machine might've been permanently (or at least so far) broken in Philadelphia, and replaced there and across the river in Camden NJ by a Democratic one, down the road in Chester, PA, the next largest city in the Philly area, the Republican machine has been just as unassailable and self-serving over the recent decades.

    1. Machines work both ways (and both parties)! Propper generally is so imitative of Crofts, but Election Booth Murder definitely takes more of an American view at corrupt politics. British mystery writers tended to take the view that such things, like "Third Degree," "only happened in America."

  4. I think you meant to write "last mayor in Philadelphia" above...I note that Thacher Longstreth, with a slightly improbable (in current times) coalition of liberals, African-Americans and Republicans, came reasonably close to defeating the most famously corrupt and brutal Democratic machine mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, in 1971. Longstreth being among other things the head of the Chamber of Commerce who was the primary mover in having the first Earth Day celebration sited in Philadelphia.

    1. Yeah, I made at least a couple of typos, with all those races! I remember Frank Rizzo. I used to visit my relatives in Harrisburg and northward of there back in the Seventies, when he was a big name in Philly.