Originally published December 23, 2012
Madelyne Whelton, 23, lived in the home she shared with her widowed father, Florance Whelton in Richmond, Virginia. In early 1934, she dated Herbert Brooks.
On January 15, 1934, Madelyne was shot in the stomach at the hotel room Brooks shared with James Winn. Brooks was gone when police arrived. Sergeant I.G. Cousins recalled, “I asked her who shot her; she told me to carry her to the hospital and then she would tell me the whole thing. I asked Winn who shot her and he said he could not tell me.”
Madelyne died without naming her shooter.
In The Tri-State Gang in Richmond, Selden Richardson speculates that Madelyne may have learned that Brooks was really escaped convict Herbert Myers, a member of to the “Tri-State Gang,” thugs who were given this nickname because they moved between Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia committing hold-ups and truck hijackings. Fear that Madelyne might “squeal” could have put that bullet in her belly.
The Tri-State Gang was made up of a shifting group with its constants Walter Legenza, Robert Mais, William “Big George” Phillips, and Arthur “Dutch” Misunas.
Legenza spoke English with a thick Polish accent. Born in 1897, he grew up in a large family. As a child, he helped the family by picking up coal and wood. He sometimes went hungry. He once was whipped at school for eating an apple and received a second whipping at home. This background led him to rigidly suppress emotional expression. Photographs show a thin man with angular features and cold blue eyes. He became a robber in his teens.
Baby-faced Mais photographed better than Legenza. Born in 1905, he grew up in a financially struggling family. Close to his mother Elizabeth, he had “Mother” tattooed on a forearm. Like Legenza, Mais began his criminal career young. In 1935 he recalled, “I have lied, cheated, stolen and broken almost every Commandment.”
In early 1933, Phillips was in Ottawa, Canada, when he romanced Lenore Fontaine. Arrested for burglary, Phillips served six months in a Canadian jail before being deported to the United States. He met Legenza in a Virginia prison. The pair escaped. They soon met up with other criminals and formed the Tri-State Gang that committed a series of heists before perpetrating a robbery that they believed would garner them a big haul.
The Canceled Checks Caper
On March 8, 1934 a Federal Reserve Bank truck drove down Broad St. in Richmond, Virginia. Ewell Huband drove and Benjamin Meade was in the passenger seat.
Suddenly a Plymouth blocked the truck’s way.
Phillips remained behind the wheel of the Plymouth while Misunas, clutching a submachine gun under his coat, strode to the middle of the road. Mais, brandishing a pistol, walked before the truck. Legenza and Morris Kauffman grabbed door handles.
“Don’t move!” Legenza barked.
Huband and Meade froze but Legenza shot anyway instantly killing Huband. Meade sank to the floor, hiding himself as robbers grabbed full bags, threw them into the Plymouth, and roared off.
When the gangsters opened the sacks, their disappointment and frustration must have been fierce. The “loot” was canceled checks and other paperwork.
A week later, James Taylor was walking down a Richmond street when he noticed a Plymouth inside an abandoned garage. Taking a closer look, he saw a pile of sacks. From newspaper descriptions, he realized this was the getaway car and reported it to police.
On April 11, 1934, cops found an unoccupied car, the license plate of which they identified as that of a vehicle used in a heist. Police disabled the starter and then waited from a distance. Legenza and Phillips entered the car. When police approached, Phillips jumped out and aimed a gun. Sergeant John Canton shot and killed Phillips. Legenza fled on foot.
As Richardson observes, “With Phillips’s death, Lenore Fontaine became both excess baggage and a serious liability for the Tri-State Gang.” Mais and his girlfriend Marie McKeever did not let her out of their sight as they traveled between hotel rooms.
In early May 1934, Mais shot Fontaine in the chest. The wounded Fontaine saw McKeever also holding a pistol.
“Want one in the head to finish?” Mais asked.
“No,” Fontaine answered.
Mais and McKeever ran to the front door. “I should shoot her in the head,” Mais said.
McKeever objected, “She’ll bleed to death. We’ve got to hurry!”
On June 5, 1934, Baltimore cops surrounded a house. Mais and Legenza drove up. Police ordered them to surrender. Mais floored the accelerator.
Cops shot out windows and a tire, stopping the car. Mais and Legenza ran. Bullets felled Mais. Legenza put his hands up and surrendered.
At the hospital, Mais begged, “Somebody please tell my mother.” Mais’s life was saved by transfused blood donated by a cop.
In the meantime, both Legenza and McKeever, who had been found inside the house, were jailed. McKeever claimed Fontaine shot herself.
Police found Myers in New York. He resisted arrest and was shot. At the hospital, Myers refused to allow doctors to operate. “Let me die,” he said. He died on July 21, 1934.
Later that July, police arrested Misunas in San Francisco. Apparently making an effort to “go straight,” he worked in a restaurant he operated with his mother. He said, “I was trying to make an honest living when the officers got me. I had made up my mind to have nothing more to do with the gang.” He agreed to testify against Legenza and Mais.
In separate trials, Legenza and Mais were convicted of murder and sentenced to die.
The Bloody Jailbreak
Like many inmates at the Richmond City Jail, Legenza and Mais often enjoyed canned food sent by friends and family. However, a chicken tin actually contained two pistols.
On September 29, 1934, a jailor escorted Legenza and Mais to meet an attorney. The prisoners pulled out their smuggled pistols and shot repeatedly, wounding three men as they escaped. One officer later died.
Outside the desperadoes commandeered vehicles.
Execution dates for both men passed with them at large.
When racketeer William Weiss left his Philadelphia home on October 28, 1934, Mais, Legenza and William Eckart soon hustled him into a car. Legenza shot him to death. They weighted down his body and threw him into Neshaminy Creek. Claiming they held him alive, they demanded a $100,000 ransom from his family. It was paid but Weiss was not returned.
On December 14, 1934 cops acting on a tip tried to halt three men exiting a car. Racing from the police, Legenza jumped off a concrete embankment, breaking a leg and both heels. Mais dragged Legenza into a stolen car and they raced off.
As “Charles Stewart,” Legenza entered New York’s Presbyterian Hospital where casts were put on his legs. McKeever visited him and brought word back to Mais in the apartment they shared.
Early January 17, 1935, a sleeping Mais awakened surrounded by armed federal agents. McKeever was arrested on the sidewalk and Legenza on his hospital bed.
On February 2, 1935, first Mais and then Legenza died in Virginia’s electric chair. Legenza had to be lifted from a cot to a wheelchair to be taken to the death chamber. “Handle that leg easy, it’s sore,” he said as he was transferred.
Mais was buried in a plot his mother purchased.
Legenza’s family did not claim his body. He was buried on property belonging to the undertaker who laid out his corpse. His grave is beside a highway in the yard of that undertaker’s daughter, Jean Perkins. In the early period after the burial, the Perkins family feared Legenza associates might show up. Jean Perkins recalls, “For years, flowers were left on that grave in the middle of the night.” The Perkinses never learned the identity of anyone leaving flowers on Legenza’s grave and Jean said knowing people left them made her feel “creepy.” However, few today notice the old grave under a large oak and surrounded by poison ivy.
Misunas was released from prison in 1951. His ultimate fate is unknown as is that of McKeever, who escaped prosecution by agreeing to testify against several of the Tri-State Gang’s lesser lights. Perhaps both changed their names to lead normal lives.
Legacy in Comics and Film
The War on Crime comic strip by Rex Collier and Kemp Starrett in 1936 and the Crime Does Not Pay comic strip by Charles Biro and Bob Wood in 1948 featured Tri-State Gang inspired characters. In War on Crime, a police officer questions Mais and the gangster, lying wounded in a hospital bed, growls, “You’re wastin’ your time. I ain’t talkative today!” Crime Does Not Pay depicts Legenza as “a sullen, murderous brute, who killed for the idiotic satisfaction he felt when he was spewing out his hatred of men with deadly lead!” Biro and Wood describe Legenza as receiving his ultimate comeuppance in Virginia’s “smoky chair.” A 1930s Batman comic featured the caped crusader battling the Tri-State Gang.
An odd film noir entitled Highway 301, the name of a highway favored by the Tri-State Gang, was released in 1950. Directed by Andrew L. Stone, the film opened with short speeches by three state governors saying they hoped the film would warn against crime. However, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther derided the movie as “an exercise in low sadism.” Modern day critic Glenn Erickson calls it “an unusually violent gangster film.”
The classic TV series The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as Special Agent Eliot Ness, aired a 1959 episode entitled “The Tri-State Gang.” Like Highway 301 it told the story with poetic license but its “Wally Legenza” (William Bendix) was every bit as ruthless as the original. “Bobby Mais” (John Ward) is consigned to a secondary role.
When the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article in 2004 on the 70th anniversary of the Broad St. crime, Huband’s daughter Dorothy revealed that Benjamin Meade had visited her traumatized family for years after her father’s murder and that she was grateful for his concern.
Those caring visits stood in stark contrast to the Tri-State Gang’s murderous destruction.
Sources on following page.