“The Orth-Daly Case” by Ben Himmelfarb

Part 1

This was supposed to be a simple lookup. A “lookup” was the general name for the work I did. People called or emailed the library almost everyday asking me to do research. Even though I couldn’t always find the answers they wanted, I was duty-bound to try. I was the local history librarian and that didn’t mean I had to know everything about White Plains history—as long as I knew where to find out everything about White Plains history.

I was researching a call about the location of someone’s grandfather’s grocery when I first came across Eugene Orth. He wasn’t the grocer I was looking for, but his listing caught my eye. What kind of a name was Orth? Richmond’s Annual Directory of White Plains from 1925 put him at the corner of Waldo and Central. What’s more, it said he was a “private detective.” It doesn’t get much more intriguing than that for a mystery fan like me.

I didn’t immediately dive into researching Orth after I came across his listing. The way the job is, you have to prioritize, and I had more research queries coming in everyday, not to mention the task of organizing a local history collection that was scattered around the library building. Coworkers were always finding caches of dusty old stuff in long-shut closets or drawers, and I was their first call.

“Hey Ben, you want this for local history?”

“What is it?”

“Don’t know, but it looks old.”

“Alright, I’ll come take a look.”

Usually the things people found were duplicates of items already in the collection. Occasionally, though, there’d be gems that would’ve remained undiscovered. The top one I can think of was the boxes of Kodachrome slides that turned up in an A/V closet filled with 1971’s latest technological offerings. Color images of the library when it was on Grand Street were rare, and these even showed real people using the library! Most images taken with the historical record in mind exclude people as extraneous, focusing instead on architecture or a streetscape. This always puzzled me: why take a picture intended to show people of the future how things were in the past, but without any human presence? With the exception of the Buffalo Wild Wings sign, the Home Savings Bank building looks about the same. What’s interesting about most places is the people, the characters. So if you’re ever creating photographic records with the future in mind, throw a few people in the frame to make it interesting—and don’t forget to write down who they are.

I digress. Like I was saying, priorities are priorities, and following up on an intriguing but otherwise insignificant piece of data (there was once a private detective named Eugene Orth who lived in White Plains) ranked pretty low. Until, that is, I found out about another man who lived in White Plains and might have known Orth.

Months later, an article mentioned on the cover of a 1977 Westchester Illustrated called “The Great Pulps Whodunit: Westchester’s Gory History” came to my attention while I was preparing stacks of the magazine for a binding job. I blew about thirty years’ worth of dust off the cover like an umpire brushing off home plate and opened to the article.

“Yonkers-born Carroll John Daly maintained a similarly hectic schedule during much of his pulp writing career . . . Daly’s detective help launch an entire school of mystery fiction . . . At the height of his popularity, Daly lived a hermitlike existence in White Plains.”

So that’s how it was, eh? The guy credited with inventing the hardboiled detective mystery lived in White Plains! And it was around the same time Eugene Orth, a real private detective, lived in White Plains! Was Orth the inspiration for Daly to start writing hard-boiled detective fiction? I had to know more.

Part 2

First stop: The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Otto Penzler and Chris Steinbrunner. I’d heard of Penzler because of the anthologies he edits. Seemed like a trustworthy source. Westchester Illustrated got their info straight from Penzler and Steinbrunner, because the entry for “Daly, Carroll John” matched the article word-for-word. But where did Penzler and Steinbrunner get their information? Had they consulted obscure, esoteric sources only available to the initiated collector of vintage pulp mags? Perhaps. But I had sources of my own, and they were, like almost every other tidbit in this yarn, freely available in the White Plains Collection.

In order to get a bead on Daly and whether he knew Eugene Orth, I fired up Ancestry.com. Say what you will about the limits of the library subscription, I’ve never had an easier time finding people in the census. And, sure enough, Daly’s name was all over every census between 1900 and 1940 like ants on a puddle of honey.

Here’s the skinny: Daly was born on September 14, 1889 to Joseph and Mary Daly. Joseph was born in Ireland in 1855 and Mary was too, in 1857. They were alive as of 1900, but by 1905 Daly’s parents were dead and he was living with his uncle, Joseph T. Brennan. I learned that from the census easy enough—but what happened to his parents? An English professor named Brooks Hefner cleared up the mystery for me in his introduction to Them That Lives By Their Guns: The Collected Hard-Boiled Stories of Race Williams, a recently published compilation of the earliest of Daly’s hard-boiled inventions.

Apparently Daly’s parents, Joseph and Mary, died on the same day: June 27, 1901. It was a freak thing, no one could have predicted it. While I’m sure it was hard on Daly, he wasn’t shipped off to an orphanage. He went to live with his uncle.

Brennan was a big cheese with a lot of cheddar—chief counsel for the New York Central Railroad. It’s easy to imagine his house at 198 Palisades Avenue in Yonkers wasn’t a bad place for an orphan to land. Daly’s aunt, Margaret, and his cousin, Joseph, were there to keep him company, along with two Irish servants, Nellie Kennedy and Sarah Fagan. While Daly was living there, he was listed as “at college” by a census taker. That squared with reports that Daly attended preparatory schools and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1910 Daly was 20 and still living with his aunt and uncle, now at 190 North Broadway. There’s a giant church and school at that address now, so either the street numbers were different back then or the Brennans were very pious. By way of occupation in the 1910 census, Daly is given a blank. An educated guess is that he was clerking with his uncle or was already into the theater business—his line before he tapped out stories.

In 1917, Daly, like most other lads, had to register for the draft. The government decided his build was “medium,” which conveniently matched his height, also given as “medium.” He had blue eyes and “light” hair. He lived at 260 Valentine Lane in Yonkers with his wife, Margaret, and their child. He still claimed his uncle’s law practice as his place of employment, though Penzler and Steinbrenner say that he took to the stage at some point before his career in pulp fiction. They described him as an actor and a theater operator. Their citation-free assertion that Daly operated the first motion picture theater in Atlantic City is corroborated in other biographical sketches, but all of these mentions just point to each other like siblings caught stealing.

The 1920 Federal Census put Daly in a Manhattan apartment, working as a real estate broker to support himself, his wife, and their son, John. They were living way uptown on West 190th Street and Daly was working for himself—he wasn’t a broker with a real outlet. He must’ve started writing about this time, because his first stories appeared in print in 1922 and authors generally put in a few years of thankless toil in before forcing anyone to read their stuff, let alone people paying for it. Even though Daly’s early stories from ‘22 and ‘23 are regarded as Ur-level accomplishments in the canon of hardboiled detective fiction, in 1925 he still wasn’t a full-time writer. He was popular, but he never earned enough from his writing to have true security. Black Mask, the magazine was founded in 1920 by HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan, was the most popular pulp magazine that regularly published detective fiction. The publishers of Black Mask were always happy to have a Daly story to run. They said his name on the cover increased their sales.

Yet in 1925, Daly was living in White Plains, which was hardly the center of popular literary culture, and still working as a salesman. Even though he was publishing regularly and had become one of the most popular detective fiction writers, Black Mask apparently didn’t pay enough to support a couple with a couple of kids. Young John now had a brother, Jerome. The census has the whole Daly family together in an apartment at 43 1/2 South Lexington Avenue, surrounded by families supported by laborers, cabinet makers, and butchers. An honest-to-goodness editor even kept his cot down the hall from the Daly’s. All that was fine, well, and pretty standard. What’s ironic, weird even, given the fate that befell Daly in 1926, was that a US Marshall made his home in the same building.

Part 3

As reported by regional papers and The New York Times in November 1926, Daly was, out of the blue, arrested by a US Marshall. Months prior, the Daly’s moved from the flat on Lexington to a house at 37 Concord Avenue, perhaps on the profits from Daly’s published prose. Even though it was a move up, it resulted in one of Daly’s lowest episodes.

The story goes like this: There was a paper hanger by the name of John J Daly who had visited 7 Concord Avenue in the spring of 1926. When a warrant was issued for the arrest of one “John J Daly” for mail fraud committed in California, a US Marshall named Schwartz was dispatched from Manhattan to put him in federal custody. Schwartz tracked the criminal John J Daly to White Plains. Knowing only that he was alleged to have spent time there during the spring of ‘26 and lacking any other leads, Schwartz got lazy. He picked up the city directory and came across a listing for a guy with a similar name. He later testified that he figured the information the feds had must’ve been slightly wrong, the “3” must’ve wandered away from the “7” in the address they had for their perp, who was probably living under the assumed name “Carroll John Daly.” Real deep cover. Schwartz actually called Daly at 37 Concord Avenue to make sure he was home before he went to arrest him. When Daly answered the phone and asked Schwartz what the call was about, Schwartz told him, ominously and ludicrously, “You know, John, it’s about the sandwich machines.” Daly hung up, figuring Schwartz for a crank. He probably went back to working on his latest story, thinking nothing of it.

But Schwartz was determined. In 1926, apparently, the US Marshals had nothing better to do than doggedly track down people who used the postal service to extract ill-gotten gains from vending machines. Schwartz drove to 37 Concord Avenue and knocked on the door. Margaret Daly answered, and told Schwartz she’d go get “John.” When Daly came to the door and realized the phone call was no prank, he began to insist the situation was a case of mistaken identity. Schwartz didn’t buy it, so he took Daly to the White Plains police station and gave him a chance to scare up some character witnesses. Even after the mayor and council members testified to the saintly nature of Daly’s character, that there was no way he was running a scam on automats in the golden state, Schwartz stubbornly refused to let Daly go. He promised Daly that if he came down to the federal building in Manhattan to straighten things out, he’d put Daly up in the Belmont and buy him dinner. By Daly’s telling a few days later, he ended up buying Schwartz dinner and spent $50 for a night in the Tombs when he “checked out” (paid bail) the next day. O’Connor, the judge in front of Daly when Assistant District Attorney Murdock read out the docket, said too many reputable people from White Plains had come forward to clear Daly for the court to move forward with extradition. He turned Daly loose and apologized for the mix up.

Newspapers the next day ran statements from the US Marshall’s office saying they “burned up” the wires to California trying to determine if they had the right Daly. US Marshall Hecht took over the case from Schwartz and pleaded with Daly to come testify at an inquiry that would clear his name and put the case of mistaken identity into the official record. Even though Daly initially told the papers that, “If I can do anything about it, I can assure you that those who put me in this predicament will have cause of regret,” he changed his mind after getting home to 37 Concord. In a statement that, to me, is the only piece of evidence for the “hermitlike existence” Daly’s biographers claim he led, Daly told Hecht: “Why should I waste another day going to Manhattan to the marshall is beyond me. If they want my statement, they can come to White Plains and get it.” Saving face for the marshalls and himself, Hecht replied, “Mr. Daly didn’t want to be too hard on the deputy and was disposed to let the case drop.”

After the arrest episode, Daly went on writing and had his most productive years. He shows up in the public record for contesting his aunt Emma’s will, which supports Daly’s constant refrain about how cheaply he was compensated for his writing. Seems his aunt did pretty well during her life. She was the head of a prestigious school in Yonkers and had a young male protege Daly suspected of malicious intentions. Brady, the protege, made out like a king when Emma died, getting thousands of dollars and a car. Daly got $1000. Even though Daly believed his aunt had been “not of sound mind or memory” when the will was created, he withdrew his objection one hour before the trial to hear his claims was scheduled. No explanation was given in the newspaper for his withdrawal, but it seems clear he either decided to let it go for the sake of his happiness or Brady agreed to give him something beyond the $1000 the will called for. Emma was living on Valentine Avenue when she died, Daly’s former neighborhood. Other Daly and Brennan family members lived on Valentine and were included in Emma’s will. It’s possible some of his other aunts leaned on Daly to get him to drop his challenge.

Daly’s play for more of his dead aunt’s scratch makes more sense when you look at the material conditions of his life by 1930. His stories were still selling, but authors who adopted his formulation were making more money from writing: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner were all doing quite well in the detective fiction business. On top of not earning money like other authors, Daly got no respect. George Sutton, editor of Black Mask, had Daly in his office and said it plain: “It’s like this, Daly, I am the editor of this magazine to see it make money. To see the circulation go up. I don’t like these stories—but the readers do. I have never received so many letters about a single character before. Write them. I won’t like them. But I’ll buy them and print them.”

Even fellow writers were blunt about what they thought of Daly. Erle Stanley Gardner, another prodigious producer of prose, sought to explain Daly’s failure to move beyond pulp. “I always felt that he used Race Williams as a means of satisfying subconscious impulses which he knew could never be gratified in real life. Daly had never had the slightest experience with actual crime or criminals, much less with bullet wounds . . . Daly himself wanted no part of the rough and tumble.” Lee Server, a historian of pulp fiction, said Daly’s “Hyperactive, semi-literate narratives” have aged to sound “shrill” and “phony.” The tragedy, wrote Server, of languishing in the “pulp ghetto” was that Daly ended up “a suburbanite, family man, forgotten hack.”

My two cents: Daly was a family man, homebody, and stubborn writer who hacked his way through the Depression on the meager paydays that came from exploitative pulp publishers. And he did it all in the shadow of other writers who grew rich and famous on the style he helped create. Critics struggle to explain the popularity of artists whose work they dislike. Readers liked Daly and they bought magazines because they got to read his thrilling work. Daly the man may have resembled his greatest character, the detective Race Williams, more than Garnder knew. In Daly’s first Race Williams’ story (also one of the first hard-boiled stories published), “Knights of the Open Palm,” Williams states his skepticism of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, who he is hired to investigate. “No, I like to play the game alone,” Daly wrote. “And that’s why I ain’t never fallen for the lure of being a joiner.”

The Daly’s continued to lead a modest life in White Plains during the height of Daly’s literary and commercial success, moving from 37 to 91 Concord Avenue. After working hard to make a living from his writing through the rest of the 1930s, the Daly’s moved to California in 1939 and sought an increase in their fortunes. Even though he worked over 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year on his writing, Daly’s popularity continued to decrease and forced him into anonymous piece work in Hollywood. His son, John, worked as an actor. The 1940 census taker must’ve had a hard time keeping a straight face when John reported he’d been unemployed the past 70 weeks while simultaneously asserting his occupation as an “actor” for “studios.”

Daly never regained the modicum of fame he had in the 1920s and 1930s. His legacy as the inventor of the hardboiled detective story was forgotten for a long time, eclipsed by the fame of Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane. Of the last, he said, “I’m broke and this guy gets rich writing about my detective.” His stories remain must-reads for devotees of the pulpy arts, but might seem dated or overly stylized to the casual reader. He passed away in 1958, three years after his wife, and is buried in Los Angeles—about as far from White Plains as you can get.

Part 4

All that biographical information about Daly, all those snippets, and still nothing about Orth. They lived around the corner from each other, and Daly was such a homebody I figured he must’ve been known around the neighborhood. I had to look into Orth, and see if I could find a connection there.

Eugene Charles Orth: another man whose real-life work was over-shadowed by hard-boiled fictional detectives, another man who raised a family in White Plains, another man who died before his time. He was the character who put me on to the connection between White Plains and detectives, ever since I saw his listing in the 1926 city directory. My experience told me city directories could be about as dependable as a Fiat in Fargo in February, so I knew I’d need other sources to confirm or disprove my suspicions about Orth.

Orth was born July 27, 1875 to William and Madeline Orth, who were immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine. In 1880, Orth had five older brothers and, presumably, an exhausted mother. His father was a wine-bottler for decades, but it may not have provided the family with enough income to survive. At 15, Orth went to work for Stern Brothers, who moved their dry goods business to New York City in 1867 and owned one of the most successful department stores in the city by 1890.

By 1900, one of Orth’s brothers had died. Orth married Elinor C Tawhy in 1903 and moved to upper Manhattan, where they began raising their first son. Orth worked his way up the ranks at Stern Brothers, and by 1914 he was a store detective, which is not quite the same as the private detectives Daly wrote about. It was, however, a significant and colorful job.

Orth made one of his first newspaper appearances in the 1914 Brooklyn Eagle. When Elizabeth Dutcher, a social worker who “was well known in Brooklyn society,” spoke to demonstrators assembled outside Stern Brothers, Orth was one of the store detectives called in to break things up. Dutcher was addressing female retail workers who were attempting to organize a union, possibly under the International Workers of the World (IWW). While there’s nothing funny about corporate-backed union busters, the journalist covering the trial described Orth as “a little round bowling ball of a fellow” who “bounced himself into the witness stand,” which is pretty funny.

Orth continued to demonstrate loyalty to Stern Brothers, organizing their “annual old-fashioned beef steak party” in 1916. The Stern Brothers themselves attended the party and one wonders if Orth was one of the “entertainers among the men.” In 1918, he registered for the draft and the Brooklyn Eagle’s physical description of Orth was gently corroborated. The government judged him of medium height and build with brown eyes and dark hair. His registration card notes that his left arm was significantly shorter than his right due to the way multiple fractures healed.

Though he escaped service in the Great War, Orth managed to get held at gunpoint at least once in his life. When shoplifter George S. Shay was brought into custody by fellow store detective Lucy Hurckhart, he was interrogated and held in Orth’s office. He pulled a gun on Orth and two other store dicks but couldn’t close the deal. The newspaper item describing the incident was worthy of inclusion in Black Mask: “Tearing loose an electric wire and throwing the room into partial darkness, Shay is said to have made a leap for the door. Orth jumped toward him and after a short struggle Shay was overcome.”

In 1921, while he was still living in the Bronx, Orth’s wife Elinor died. He was now a widower with two young children. According to the Mount Vernon Daily Argus’ society pages, Orth was remarried by 1922 and visited a Mr. and Mrs. Anderson with his new wife. Also in attendance was a man named Captain Vickery. Vickery was an industrialist who the paper said was “handling the coal strike situation in Pennsylvania.” The “situation” was the country’s largest coal strike to that point and a pivotal event for the United Mine Workers of America. If Orth’s past breaking up strikes by women trying to form a retail workers’ union is any indication of his politics, he and Captain Vickery possibly commiserated over the best way to break a strike.

Orth’s work as a store detective for Stern Brothers was not as benign as one might expect. Truth was, he put people down for years over shoplifting and fraud. In 1923, Orth took the stand against Grace Donaldson Baker, a 19 year old mother of two who was caught impersonating a wealthy New Yorker at the store. Baker was friends with a well-to-do young man whose mother was out of town at the time of the crime. Baker saw a chance to satisfy her “love of finery and the delight she experienced in associating with people of wealth and education.” As an orphan who was allegedly married at age 10, Baker had very little support in the world. Partly on the strength of Orth’s testimony, the judge sentenced Baker to an “indefinite” term in the Bedford Reformatory for Women in Westchester. The judge hoped “reformative influences” would get her “on the right path.” Orth’s take on the profile of shoplifters was similarly harsh and, to my mind, anachronistic.

In 1926, Orth was quoted in a widely syndicated AP column on the evolution of shoplifting. As well-policed stores in big cities became too dangerous to shoplift from, thieves looking for easier marks moved upstate. Hoping a seasoned dick from the city could give some insight to besieged store owners, the Associated Press reported Orth’s profile of shoplifters. “Four out of the five shoplifters we get today are young working girls who crowd the stores at noon and on Saturday afternoon and steal little trinkets that tempt their vanity—perfume, beads, silk stockings, lingerie,” Orth told the reporter. Lest anyone think shoplifters were driven to stealing out of poverty or true need, other store detectives assured readers that the women who steal were “tempted” or “lunch hour shoplifters.” One hopes Baker, the woman Orth helped convict, was evaluated so benignly up at Bedford.

From the mid-1920s on, Orth lived on Central Avenue in White Plains with his wife, Agnes, and their two sons. Eugene Jr. went to West Point. Theodore, the younger son, became the deputy superintendent of streets in White Plains. Orth’s end was rather tragic. He developed heart disease and retired from Stern Brothers after 40 years in April 1933. Just over six months later, Orth had a heart attack and died in the stands of Franklin Field in Philadelphia, where he was with Eugene Jr for the annual Army-Navy football game. He was 57. His body was brought back to White Plains, services were held at St. John’s, and he was buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery, about as far from Los Angeles as you can get.

Ben Himmelfarb is a Librarian at White Plains Public Library who specializes in local history programming and adult services. In addition to his work in libraries and public history, Ben writes, plays music, campaigns for universal healthcare, and hikes in the woods.

Image courtesy of Goodreads, altered by Cartoonize.

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