Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Forgotten Officer Down of West Hoboken

Hudson County, New Jersey is perhaps one of the most historical areas in America. The Lenape Indians had a history in the area long before the arrival of Henry Hudson (Weehawken). The Dutch settled the land and created Bergen (Present day Hudson and Bergen Counties). The Revolutionary War was fought in Paulus Hook (Jersey City) and at Bull's Ferry (Guttenberg). The Burr and Hamilton Duel took place at the Weehawken Dueling Grounds. The spot along the Underground Railroad (Jersey City). The Guttenberg Racetrack which would later turn into a testing ground for early flying attempts (North Bergen). Millions of immigrants from across the globe have continually made every town in Hudson County home, from the Germans and Irish of the 19th century to the Italians of the early 20th century up to today's Hispanic immigrants that now add a new chapter to the areas history. The towns of West New York and Union City were giants of the embroidering industry. The political powerhouse that was Mayor Frank Hague (Jersey City). The shipping industry that once dominated the Hudson River (Hoboken). Hell the film Rocky is based on Chuck Wepner (Bayonne). There is so much history in this area it is easy to see how some of it can fall into the cracks. Recently, I found myself walking past the Union City Town Hall. Outside there is a small monument to the police officers who lost their lives protecting Union City.One name that stuck out was the first name on the list, Charles Harm. I felt the need to write about Harm and keep his story of service and duty alive. The story of Charles Harm will take us back to 1922. A very interesting time in, not only American History, but Hudson County. A time when Union City wasn't a town, North Bergen and Jersey City were still broken up into neighborhoods and a time in which Hudson County was a cross roads for many.

Just a little background information of the Lieutenant Detective. Charles Harm was born July 17, 1894 in Secaucus, NJ to John Harm, a saloon keeper who was also a former Councilman of West Hoboken and Freeholder of Hudson County, and Louisa, he was one of two children, the other his sister Frieda. They moved to West Hoboken around 1905  Harm joined the West Hoboken Police Department, badge number 41, in 1916 and was assigned to the motorcycle division. By 1920 Harm was promoted to Detective Lieutenant, for having an excellent service record and his physical prowess. In 1919 he married his wife Anna and had two children Louisa, born 1919 and Charles, born 1921.

History of West Hoboken

On Sunday January 29, 1922 Harm was assigned to escort a bank messenger from First National Bank of North Hudson, located at 141 Summit Ave., to the West Hoboken Post Office, at 402 Clinton Ave, present day 20th street and New York Ave. The bank messenger was sending $21,000 from the bank to the Federal Reserve in New York City. The bank messenger was 21 year old Secondo Gallo, a West Hoboken native. The job of escorting the bank messenger was routine, and a job traded between Harm and Captain Angelo Stanton. Harm and Gallo got on a trolley to Highpoint Ave., now 22nd St. and Clinton St., now New York Ave. As they walked towards the Post Office they were approached by 3 men, at Monastery St., now 21st St., not to be confused with Monastery Place. The trip took a total of about 15 minutes.

Clinton Ave, Between Stevens and Monastery 

As three very well dressed men neared, Harm warned Gallo “Look out for these guys,” and “if anything was to happen, run for the post office.” It was 1:30pm and snow had just begun to fall. As Harm readied to reach for his pistol, two of the men drew theirs and opened fire. Harm was first hit in the right elbow, then once in the torso. Harm then took out his .38 caliber Colt and opened fire, firing twice and then his pistol jammed. Now in between 20th and 21st St. with a jammed gun, Harm, with two bullets in him, stood up and started to push the robbers back. By the time they reached 21st St. they realized his gun was jammed. During this time Gallo was making a run for it. The robbers shot at Gallo, even with jitney bus passing by. As Gallo ran he dropped the money between the jitney bus, which was now stopped, and the curb. The robbers then picked up the bag even with the bus full of witnesses and made off with the money. They made off in a Dodge Touring Car, the model was never identified.

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Harm barely made it to Dr. John O'Conner, the town doctor's, home at 434 Clinton Ave, (New York Ave.) The doctor opened the door to find a bloody Harm, “They got me and got away with the money,” “Call up headquarters,” and then he collapsed. The West Hoboken P.D. Had already been alerted by numerous witnesses, since the Post Office was in a residential area. There was even an innocent bystander wounded. Mrs. Magnofio, who lived on the second floor at 401 Monastery St. (401 21st.) was hit in the face by a piece of bullet after if broke through her window and passed through the wall separating the kitchen and dinning room. She was having lunch and did survive. Witnesses included Joseph Arn, a retiree, William Leifer, manager of the Lincoln Theatre, William Baach and Henry Ebel, both Post Office employees.

North Hudson Hospital

Chief of Police George Rohrbach and Captain Stanton headed the investigation. They theorized that the robbers had inside information coming from the bank, as the escorts varied, in date, time and officer. They believe that the robbers waited outside the bank then made it to Monastery Pl. (21st St.) first and waited to see Harm and Gallo and cut them off in between the trolley and the Post Office. They took statements from witnesses, Gallo, O'Connor and Harm. There was never any suspicion attached to Gallo as “he told a straightforward story, which corroborated with Lieutenant Harm.” Harm was taken into surgery and operated on in North Hudson Hospital. The doctors involved were Dr. O'Connor, Dr. Louis Lang and Dr. H.H. Tyndall. They believed that Harm would make it through the surgery due to his physical stature. However, he'd succumb to his wounds the following afternoon, January 29th, at 5:20pm. His wife and 2 children, his parents, Chief Rohrbach and Captain Stanton were at his bedside. The bullet that killed Harm was the second bullet that struck him, it entered just under his heart, cut through his liver and exited his right side. Harm was laid out in Amsterdam Hall in West Hoboken. He was posthumously promoted to Captain at the urging of Mayor William G. Weller, in order for his wife to receive a an $1,100 dollar pension instead of $800. A relief fund started by Harm's friend also raised over $1,000 dollars for the Harm family. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

West Hoboken

On January 31st two men were arrested in connection to the murder/robbery. 27 year old Carl Rettich and 22 year old Benjamin Alberts, both of Hoboken. They were charged with highway robbery and murder. Alberts was arrested in his home, while Rettich was found at the Hudson Tube Terminal(Hoboken PATH Station) in Hoboken. Both were known criminals, Alberts for car theft and conspiracy to commit car theft, also they were both arrested in 1919 for holding up a drug store in Brooklyn. They bound, gagged and robbed the merchant, but the charges were dropped. Rettich was also tried for the murder of a man in Homestead, NJ (which is now in North Bergen, it would be the area between Schuetzen Park and the Five Points) but was acquitted. Aside from these charges, they've also been arrested several times for disorderly conduct. The arrest was made by Lieutenant Herman Bolte of the WHPD and charges were preferred by Chief Rohrbach. On January 31st, WHPD predicted 3 more arrested would be made shortly, as witness put 5 men in total at the scene of the crime, 3 shooters, a lookout and a driver.

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This is were it gets weird. After interrogating Alberts and Rettich, the WHPD concluded this was the work of professional gunmen, a gang. From the information they were given it showed the gang had some ties to the Baff murder several years early which grew out of problems with lower Manhatten poultry dealers, Carl Alberts' father was Morris Alberts, was Hoboken poultry merchant with ties to the crime. It was also believed that the gang worked for local bootleggers and gambling houses that need help. The police also issued a warrant for the arrest of Lawrence Garavanti aka “Babe Seiger.” He was a prize fighter and local roughneck with connections to multiple crimes, a hold up in Weehawken resulting in the death of a messenger, a Public Service messenger in Secaucus, the murder of Yung Wing Fong in Hoboken, and a hold up in Jersey City, as well as the Baff murder.

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Garavanti was arrested on February 2nd along with John Marthaler aka “Dopey Benny.” Both 22 and residents of Hoboken. A source told the Hoboken Police that they could be found at the Hotel York on 7th Ave and 36th St. in Manhattan. Police from Hoboken and New York City waited for the 2 suspects across the street at the Mills Hotel. The suspects were stopped outside the hotel and when one of the Hoboken officers were recognized, Garavanti swung at the officer and was taken to the ground, as was Marthaler after he struggled to make a run for it. Now with 4 men in custody, the police reviled that Harm, Gallo and several witness pick photos of Alberts, Rettich and Marthaler. Marthaler was the first to draw his pistol at the scene of the crime. Garavanti, however could not be placed at the crime.

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The four men would ultimately be released from custody and Harm's case would remain open for another 10 years. Of those 4, one died and 2 more were arrested and sent to prison on unrelated charges. Rettich was arrested for mail robbery in East Cambridge, Massachusetts and convicted to 25 year sin 1935. Alberts was also arrested in the mid 1930s and Marthaler died in the late 1920s. Garavanti would live the rest of his life out in Hudson County, passing away in 1978.

Harm's wife would remarry, his children would grow up and have families of their own. His son served proudly during WWII with The Big Red One and was awarded a Purple Heart. His daughter went on to become a teacher receiving her Master's from Montclair University. According to his grandson, Craig Harm, the actions of their grandfather on that snowy January day will never be forgotten by the family and the story of his heroism has been and will continue to be passed down from generation to generation. So, I wonder, why is Harm's actions reduced to just a name etched on a stone? Could Jose Marti Freshman Academy or Colin Powell Elementary not have been named for Charles Harm? Especially since both of those schools fall in what used to be the town of West Hoboken. Could the stretch of New York Ave between 21st and 23rd streets not be call Charles Harm Way? Or the intersection of of 21st street and New York Ave be called Charles Harm Plaza? I know a new page of history is written every day, but does that mean we have to forget the past and the sacrifices made by everyday citizens? I know the family and the descendants of Secondo Gallo don't and certainly not the family of Harm. I guess what I am trying to say is, it is important to preserve our areas History, while we continue to write the next chapter of it. History is a reflection of ourselves, so what does it say when we forget someone like Charles Harm.