The last time my mother saw her father was the day the police came to take him to jail. It was two weeks before Christmas, December 11, 1956, and a warmer than average day in Chester, Pennsylvania, a city on the northwest bank of the Delaware River, about midway between Philadelphia and Wilmington. The mercury rose to 53 degrees that day, and I like to imagine my mother, Linda, played outside and enjoyed what might have been the last balmy day before winter arrived for good. She was only five years old, so we can’t rely on memory to know for sure.
Her father, my grandfather George, was 40 years old and employed as a gardener. He was an alcoholic, a second generation American descended from Irish immigrants on his father’s side. Whatever my mother and my grandmother, Ruth, might have been doing that day, their peace was shattered when George arrived home that afternoon. The home at 147 West 5th Street isn’t there anymore — today it’s a vacant lot on one side of the street and a parking lot for postal vehicles on the other — but my mom has described the house that once stood there as a “ramshackle shack,” and the neighborhood is not the kind of place you’d want to be caught after dark these days.
It wasn’t even 1 pm and George was drunk, and he came in on a rampage. He wanted money, and knew my grandmother had some. She was a waitress and frequently had tip money stashed away — maybe in a jar on top of the fridge, or under her unmentionables in an underwear drawer — but on this day, he couldn’t find it.
My mom has said she has vivid memories of what happened next. She remembers my grandma holding a purse over her head, trying to shield herself as George rained blows down on her. Grandma Ruth was a beautiful woman who turned the heads of men everywhere she went, and she was a snappy dresser. Maybe it was her love of fashion that drove George to attack one of the things she loved most — her clothing. He piled Ruth’s clothes on the floor and threatened to set them alight as he escalated his terror.
“I’ll burn this goddamn house down with you in it,” he said.
George’s tirade continued, and while he ransacked the house, my grandmother fled with my mother in tow. They looked for a place to hide outside, and ran down an exterior stairwell leading to the lower level of the house where they lived. The stairwell was dark, and they cowered there until they saw George run past. He hadn’t seen them.
Ruth and Linda ran back into the house and summoned the police. When the paddy wagon arrived, they found George at a tap room across the street, on the corner of 5th and Water Street. That afternoon, my grandma Ruth signed a complaint, formalizing the charges against George. He was arrested by Chester patrolmen Alfred DePrisco and Walter Hoyle and transported to the Chester Police Station for processing.
There’s hardly a jail in the country today that would allow a prisoner to keep their street clothes, but it was a different time in 1956. As he was booked into the Chester Police Station cellblock, George was reportedly emotional. He was a habitual abuser of women and alcohol, a reality which didn’t seem to bother him much, but the matter of being arrested and made a prisoner triggered his shame.
“Please, can I keep my shirt and tie?” he pleaded. “For dignity’s sake?”
The jailer relented and allowed George to keep his shirt and tie. Several hours passed until, at 4:55 pm, George spoke with a jailer about making a phone call. Perhaps he wanted to call a buddy with bail money. Maybe he wanted to call my Grandma Ruth and plead for another chance. We’ll never know, because 18 minutes later, at 5:13 pm, Chester Patrolman Michael Bartish found my grandpa George hanging from his necktie in his cell. Bartish raised the alarm, and Sergeant Frank Schofield and Patrolman Joseph Talarico helped cut George off the crossbar from which he had hanged himself. Sergeant Schofield applied artificial respiration until the rescue squad arrived, but the effort was in vain. George was officially pronounced dead at 6:15 pm by the jail doctor, Harry Donahoo, confirming with certainty that my mother would never see her father again.