Police Battle Maniac on Smith’s Special

KnickerbockerPressManiac.pngIn his Nov. 4, 1950 column in the Knickerbocker News, Charles L. Mooney recounted days of long ago – Oct. 21, 1928, to be exact, and in doing so gave us a peek into the working of political campaigns, railroads, police work and the press, back in the days when the Knick Press was Albany’s only morning newspaper. ¬†Prompted by an assassination attempt on President Truman, Mooney gave the following account of an exciting night in the newsroom that sounds like it came directly from “The Front Page”:

It happened the night of Oct. 21, 1928, while we were covering police headquarters for the old Knickerbocker Press, and we got in on the ground floor of the story quite by chance, for it took place somewhat off our normal beat.

Occasionally in those days we used to hop down for a bowl of chili con carne at the rathskeller the Bernstein brothers operated in a basement in Broadway near Quackenbush St.

We had finished a snack and were headed along Broadway when we recalled the Al Smith special train, bringing home the Governor, who was campaigning that year for the presidency, was due in shortly.

There was a vast crowd on hand to greet the Happy Warrior, who had just campaigned over much of the nation . . . The train’s arrival was still a half-hour off, we recall, when Joe Boyle [captain of the New York Central Railroad Police] was called away to a telephone. To say he was excited upon his return would be putting it mildly. For there was big news in the making.

The Smith special had been speeding through the Mohawk Valley when an attendant in a tower at Hoffmans spotted a fellow riding the head end.

The tower man flashed the word ahead and Captain Boyle detailed the late Patrolman William Keith to meet the special when it slowed down at Van Woert St. crossing and take the fellow off.

In those days it wasn’t unusual for a fellow to hop the front end, even on passenger trains, and the fellows who ordinarily did were hoboes who probably couldn’t dig up the fare anyhow.

Back on the platform we naturally couldn’t know it at the time, but when Patrolman Keith swung aboard, the free rider, a big, powerful fellow, grappled with him.

Keith grappled right back with the 6-foot, 3-inch giant and as the train nosed into the straightaway toward Union Station they were fighting a terrific hand-to-hand battle.

Just as the special slowed for the station Patrolman Keith brought his man under control, and it was only a matter of seconds before Boyle, Dunn and the whole entourage had the fellow in tow and hustling down the stairs to Captain Boyle’s office for questioning.

Meanwhile, from a parlor car farther back on the train stepped Al Smith, Mrs. Smith, their son-in-law, John Adams Warner, at that time superintendent of the New York State Police, and others of his campaign party.

From still another car stepped a corps of legislative correspondents who had made the swing with the Happy Warrior . . .

We followed the police detail to railroad police headquarters, totally unaware of the magnitude of the story.

For it took only a few minutes’ questioning to disclose the man on the front end was a dangerous lunatic who had escaped three weeks earlier from a state hospital at Westboro, Mass.

The fellow had beaten his way to Central New York, he said, and had ridden the train in from the west to Utica. When the train stopped for a few hours to permit Mr. and Mrs. Smith to attend Mass he hid in the railroad yards, then hopped the train again as it pulled out for Albany.

He hadn’t realized it was such an important train, he told the authorities. His only thought had been to get away somewhere, although he wasn’t certain where he’d like to have gone.

We chuckle sometimes when we recall that story. In the first place, there wasn’t the competitive speed that obtains today. In the second place, The Knickerbocker Press was the only morning newspaper, and we had the story alone. In the third place, New York Central officials clamped a publicity embargo on the story, but we already had it in the bag.

We recall we were still a few hours from deadline, so after informing the late Tom (Duke) Ford, our city editor, of the details, we didn’t hurry about getting into the office.

The Duke told a couple of legislative correspondents a little bit about the story and the wires were burning between New York City and Albany by the time we hit the editorial room.

We talked with some legislative correspondents that night that we had never met, and still haven’t met.

It couldn’t happen today, of course, for competition is much keener, but it is interesting to reflect that hardly more than 20 years ago there was that vast difference in news coverage.

We’d like to see some reporter walk around today for a couple of hours, in his pocket a story that produced this big, black headline in The Knickerbocker Press that night:

“Police Battle Maniac on Smith’s Special”

 By the way, our guess is that the Knick went to evening publication when it merged with the Evening News and became the Knickerbocker News in 1937.

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