Sunday, April 11, 2010

Introducing Hebrew Hullabaloo

I've been impressed with DovBear's use of the New York Times archives to point out matters of Jewish interest, and, though I haven't used historic newspapers in blogging much previously, it was something I've been contemplating doing for a while. However, rather than completely ripping DB off, I've decided to try to stick with a particular historical theme, sort of like Fred over at On the Main Line. As you may have guessed, I have a thing for eclectic personalities. I'm attracted to stories about rebels, weirdos and iconoclasts, and when it comes to Jewish history, I particularly enjoy learning about Jews that broke the mold. So I'll be focusing on Jewish controversies. I initially thought about naming this Jews Behaving Badly (or Mosaic Machlokes), but I like the ring of Hebrew Hullabaloo, so we'll go with that until I change my mind.

To start things off, we have a murder mystery from my hometown of San Francisco. On April 4 1923, Rabbi Alfred G. (or J.) Lafee, of the Bush Street Synagogue (also known as Ohabei Shalom, presently a Zen Buddhist Temple), was found in a hotel room covered in blood. His skull had been fractured with a water glass and there was evidence that someone had tried to strangle him with a bed sheet. Rabbi Lafee's money, watch and chain, and diamond stickpin were all missing. Lafee was hospitalized and though he briefly regained consciousness, was unable to give any information about what had happened. He died on April 7, the youngest ordained rabbi in California and one of the youngest in the United States.

Here's where things start to get interesting: hotel workers said that Lafee had checked in to the hotel with a man dressed in Naval uniform. Lafee signed in as A. Layne. The sailor used the name H.B. Hickman. Lafee's relatives were baffled and said maybe the sailor had told him a "hard luck story" to gain his confidence. Police started combing the city and nearby areas, focusing on Naval bases at Vallejo and Mare Island. Shortly after Lafee's death, police detained one sailor, C.B. Hicks, after his handwriting was thought to match Hickman's signature, but he was released.

There's no information about what was going on with the case for the next two weeks. But on April 23 a story broke that police in Phoenix, AZ had arrested a 19-year-old Naval deserter named Gladwell Richardson. Richardson had initially denied any connection with Lafee but police wound up finding a diary that had detailed descriptions of the assault. Richardson first claimed he had "invented" everything in there, but eventually confessed.

Ok, so the guy admitted to killing the rabbi and his diary backed him up. Slam-dunk, right? Nope. At the trial in mid-May, Richardson claimed that he had been the victim of "an unnatural attack" and had fought back in self-defense. The grand jury determined that Richardson had acted in self-defense and cleared him of murder charges. Richardson went on to become a famous Western writer.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like Lafee may have been gay or bisexual and that he and Richardson went to the hotel for a sexual encounter. The news report suggests that Richardson's story was that Lafee tried to rape him and he stopped him. Even if this were true, though, it doesn't explain what Richardson was doing in Lafee's room under a fake name, or why it was necessary to try to strangle him AND bash his head in to stop him, much less rob him.

Thinking about it further, I've come up with a few possibilities: Richardson could have been prostituting himself and changed his mind and/or tried to rob Lafee, or Lafee could have met Richardson and "mis-read" his intentions (or vice-versa). The possibility for mutual confusion or aggression increases exponentially if there was alcohol involved.

And of course, it's also possible that Richardson made the whole story up and that his plan was always to rob Lafee. Unfortunately we'll never know, since Lafee couldn't tell his side of the story. Looking at this case, though, I find it very interesting that 90 years ago, the mere suggestion of gay activity was so shocking that it could terminate a murder trial-- and stifle much of the reporting about it. Interestingly, Fred Rosenbaum says that the SF Examiner and Chronicle both covered the story in lurid detail, but theorizes that pressure from bigwigs in the Jewish community, embarrassed by the bad press, convinced the papers to back off and the District Attorney to dismiss the case. Sadly, neither the Examiner nor Chronicle archives are online, so I'm unable to look into this at the moment. I do find it interesting that of available online papers, I was only able to find a single story mentioning the trial and its dismissal. It looks like, for the most part, the congregation got its way in hushing the matter up. Lafee's killer not only went free, living to the ripe age of 76, but generations of San Francisco Jews have never even heard of Lafee-- or his death.

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