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The Downfall of Chief Farrell



This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 25, 1937


The Downfall of Chief Farrell
 by Howard Burba


            Quite a few events deserving to be classed as “sensations” have been recorded in the history of the police department of the city of Dayton. Up to the time the commission form of government was inaugurated along about 1913 and city council with its subsidiary, the police commission, was abolished the department was up to its eyebrows in politics and sensations in the shape of shakeups, usually attended by somewhat unsavory rumors, were not uncommon.

            But of all of the bombshells ever exploded in the ranks of the local police department there has never been anything to equal that which came with the ousting from office just 37 years ago of the most spectacular criminal-chaser, the most colorful police chief, this or any other Ohio city ever boasted. When political enemies of Tom Farrell reached for his scalp, and got it, back at the turn of the century there was such a washing of dirty linen as this old town never beheld.

            Up to the year 1913, or about the time the commission form of government was introduced here, shakeups and sensations in the police department were of common occurrence because politics ruled the department, and rotten politics at that.  Through some miracle no one was able to understand, the fire department escaped this condition. But from that day in 1873 when Dayton’s metropolitan police system was first introduced up to the very hour, the old city council and its subsidiary, the police commission, were kicked out, that branch of municipal government was head over heels in politics.

            It was through a political pull that Thomas J. Farrell, famed as a Pinkerton detective, became head of the Dayton police department, back in 1893. He was known far and wide as the star man in an organization which in those days shared honors with Scotland Yard for publicity, the old Allen Pinkerton detective force. But wiser ones were not deceived when Charlie Freeman walked out and Tom Farrell walked in as head of the local police department. Wiser ones knew that the same “gang” responsible for Freeman’s ousting was likewise responsible for Farrell’s inaugural.

            Farrell came on the job with a wealth of experience as a man-hunter. And that reputation, along with spectacular performance which started from the very day he landed here and which resulted in the solution of many major crimes in this territory, served to shield him for the time being from the wrath of those who continued to smart over Freeman’s dismissal. They lent their endorsement and support to the new chief, to all appearances, and Farrell continued his campaign of sensational police captures, gang-busting and bandit-smashing undisturbed.

            Tom Farrell was a hale fellow well met. He knew every path and footprint in the underworld. He saw the shady side of everything, and understood what caused the shadow. Tall, erect, dignified, perfectly groomed from his mirror-like shoeshine to his smoothly combed auburn hair, a long flowing mustache of the period adding distinction to an always immaculate appearance, he was an outstanding figure in any company in which he might be found. He was a man’s man, and a woman’s dream come true. And it was this latter, coupled with the unsavory brand of politics prevailing at the time, that caused Farrell’s undoing and the sensational washing of dirty linen to which I referred a little farther back.

            Less than a half-dozen years after Farrell had ascended the local police throne rumors of corruption in the conduct of his office became open talk. Whether they originally emanated from within the ranks of those still mindful of Charlie Freeman’s dismissal or not, you will have to do your own surmising. At any rate, Farrell’s conduct soon became the talk of the town, and while he continued to move unmindful of gossip and undaunted by threats of exposure, his standing and reputation was gradually undermined. Then, along about 1899, the storm broke and Tom Farrell, wise enough to read the handwriting on the wall, knew he was on the way out but determined to go out fighting. He realized that powerful political enemies were dragging him down, but he made up his mind that if it was possible to do so he was going to drag a few of them down with him.

            While the town appeared about evenly divided as to whether or not Farrell was guilty of the ugly charges whispered against him, there was no one with sufficient courage to place such charges in black and white and demand his trial on those charges before the board of police commissioners. So things dragged along until January of the new year, 1900, and then things began to happen. In a local morning paper of Jan 10, 1900, there appeared several columns of matter modestly grouped under the old and familiar heading, “Letters to the Editor.” And such letters as they proved to be! They had to all appearances been dumped on the editor’s desk by prearranged agreement. At any rate, they all reached the public at the same time, they all recounted similar charges against the head of the police department, they all demanded his immediate ousting and they all carried the names of citizens widely known and embracing a generous measure of responsibility and esteem.

            The bomb-shell had exploded. The police sensation of all time was on. The dirty linen was ready for the washtub.

            Next day a petition was filed with the commissioners requesting the dismissal of Farrell on the grounds that he was morally unfit to longer serve as head of the police department, that he was a frequenter of houses of ill-repute and ally of operators of those houses, and that he had been guilty on one mentioned occasion, of having contributed to the delinquency of a young woman whose conduct at that time was meeting with considerable public criticism. The charges were signed by half-a-hundred local citizens, many of them among the most prominent in local business and professional circles.

            Accompanying the demand for Farrell’s scalp were personal letters from the woman whose daughter was said to have fallen under Farrell’s designs; from such well-known attorneys as Robert M. Nevin, Charles Kumler, George Young, G.W. Leopold, W.D. McKemy, Frank S. Breene, Grafton Kennedy, J.R. King and others; from such fine and outstanding members of the clergy as Rev. Dr. W. A. Hale. Not all of them by far, were motivated by political reasons in making their demand for Farrell’s dismissal and it probably was a realization of this fact, a glimpse of the names of many townsmen who were beyond all shadow of such suspicion that caused the accused to move quickly and decisively. He files his resignation before the hour set by the police commissioners for his formal hearing on the charges.

            Farrell, on the very night the board met to receive the charges, entered St. Elizabeth hospital, suffering a nervous breakdown. But he was a man of great physical stamina and the following morning he “took his pen in hand.”

            Singling out those he believed were most influential in bringing about his downfall, bitter and vindictive and apparently determined to ruin the reputations of those person if vile and sensational charges would do so, Farrell dipped his pen into vitriol instead of ink, and sent his answer to the charges to the commission. Copies of it went to local newspapers, and the town was split wide open from stem to stern and its breath figuratively snatched away when on that same afternoon, The News came forth with that letter. Here was Farrell’s bomb-shell. It was likewise his swan-song and a deadly boomerang since the men he attacked stood too high in the community to be besmirched by his counter-charges:


            “To the Honorable Board of Police Directors: “Having served the city of Dayton faithfully for over seven years as superintendent of police I have naturally made many enemies. Amongst those whose names appear in the various cards in a local newspaper I recognize quite a number –to whom the enforcement of the law has been a grievance. The motive of the chief accuser is well known. An investigation into our private lives would leave him nothing to boast of.

            “The charges made and hinted at in local publications have been in circulation for sometime, and many of them have been examined and found frivolous and false. That no one of the signers had the courage to file the charges required by law is significant. The board, being without specific knowledge, has filed general charges covering my whole career as an officer and has invited everyone who is so disposed to appear as a witness to testify to any matter within his knowledge. Such a method of trial is unknown to our laws. It would be impossible for me to be prepared for specifications of which I have no knowledge, and for other charges in which neither time nor place are given.

            “I wish to place on record as emphatic denial of each and every charge, so far as it has been made, and to assert that at no time have I been guilty of any official misconduct.

            “While I am conscious of innocence, I feel that I owe a duty to the public, as well as to your honorable body, from whom I have always experienced the utmost kindness and consideration.

            “Whatever may be the result of a trial, I and my friends are convinced that the clamor and falsehoods that have been so prevalent have materially impaired my ability to serve the public properly.

            “Should I be acquitted, your members would be denounced as having shirked their duty, and should I be convicted my friends would feel that you had yielded to the pressure of my enemies and had given credit to the testimony of worthless and discredited persons. In either event you would be compelled to bear the burden.

“Under these circumstances I have determined to place in your hands my resignation, for your immediate acceptance. I am almost compelled to this course by the condition of my health, my physician having ordered me to the hospital at once.

            “Believing that time will demonstrate that my administration has been honest and efficient and for the welfare of our beautiful city, I hereby resign the position of superintendent of police of this city of Dayton. In doing so I wish to thank the board for its honorable treatment of me upon all occasions, and the force for its faithfulness to the service and their personal kindness to me.

            “Before concluding this statement it may be well to cover in a general way the alleged charges which have been printed within the last few days, and deal a little with the character of the men who have seen fit to go to the level of the gutter in order that their ends might be accomplished.

            “I cannot conceive any motive that Mr. Robert M. Nevin should have in writing a letter condemning me or in questioning my moral fitness for the position of superintendent of police; a man to whom I have never shown anything but kindness, let it be ever so little; a man whose acquaintance I first made in 1891, when I came here on the Keck diamond robbery. Can it be his fear that I might reveal some day the relations which took place between his female client in that case, when the poor woman was looking to him for protection while the penitentiary stared her in the face? It is not necessary for him to fear this as I have never mentioned it or given it a thought until now nor will I go any deeper into the matter out of consideration for his family. This may not be the cause of his enmity; perhaps it is due to my persistency in urging him to settle the claim of the little Russian girl, Brunnie Sobleshl, now in Warsaw, Russia. I would not have urged a settlement of that money, $970 now justly due the poor little crippled girl who lost both hands in a railway accident except that I was urged to do so by the American consul of that city, who supposed that Mr. Nevin was dead as he failed to get any reply or satisfaction concerning this little girl’s money, which amount, I can say was paid by the C.H.&D. railroad to Mr. Nevin, as the guardian. This was merely a matter of duty on my part and in compliance with the request of the Russian authorities. As for his experience in Chicago, when the Shakespearean quotations of his bosom friend, Mr. Charles Kumler, were delivered at Miss Wall’s I will not enter into just now as it would take too much time and space to deal with this honest moral man. As to his getting a pass to New Orleans for me, that is an unmitigated falsehood.

            “It is natural that ministers, especially two of the gentlemen who have written letters in support of my removal, should prefer men of strictly moral character in my position. Perhaps one of these gentlemen will recall that four or five years ago the superintendent of police was not suspect of running after other men’s wives. It is a strange thing that the two particular gentlemen who are in a great measure indebted to me for preventing what might have been a serious scandal, affecting many families, and one of them, at least, forgets that he has been away from home and did not think it immoral to investigate, perhaps officially, the manner of conducting such institutions. I suppose that this could not affect the reverend gentleman’s morals, but such conduct would affect the morals of a police officer who is accustomed to public life, particularly the affairs and the associations of people good and bad. Charity and mercy is a good thing to preach, but I believe it would be better to practice.

            “Another official gentleman, Charles Kumler, has seen fit to express himself by letter, and he forgets the time that the same person he is seeking to ruin and whom he has abused, placed him in the position that brought his reformation, and made him a fairly respectable lawyer. And yet the same gentleman has to my knowledge, visited houses of ill-repute unofficially.

            “But at last they found a fitting subject to write the scurrilous articles, that amorous lunatic, poor, insignificant, half-witted pretentious lawyer. Is he worthy of notice at all?

            “Another so-called gentleman, a so-called lawyer, otherwise known as Leopold, whose brother was charged with one of the most infamous crimes ever committed in Montgomery co., and who was arrested and indicted, and by the aid of Charles Kumler, the then prosecuting attorney, permitted to go free. These moral men seem to stand together.

            “In the general charges I notice a letter signed by Mrs. Jessup, a woman who, to my knowledge, I have never seen, nor do I know except by hearsay and reputation. A letter which charges that I and the police department have been the cause of her daughter’s ruin and her continued life of shame; a girl that I never saw but once in my life to speak to, and that was about four years ago at police headquarters, and then only at the suggestion of one of the ladies of the Women’s Christian Association as to the best means that I might suggest to bring about her reformation. That was the first and last time that I saw or spoke to that girl, and yet I am openly charged, by disreputable people and a disreputable woman of being the cause of the daughter’s ruination. This letter was written upon the letterhead of ‘Young and Young’ and, I believe signed by this woman. The man or woman who conceived the contents of that letter knew in the bottom of their heart that they were lying and committing a crime, but I leave that and the rest for God Almighty, who will deal with them as they deserve.

            “Another conspirator is a man whose thoughts, day and night, are almost not only in the destruction of the homes of his fellowmen—one devoid of every sense of manhood and principle—whose cowardly, treacherous bent is ever moving to bring about the destruction and ruination of man and woman; the anonymous prosecutor of the widow and the orphan—the controlling spirit of a city board.

            “These are some of the people who have seen fit to question my moral fitness for the position I hold. It is for this reason that I take the step I have rather than humiliate myself, or my friends by placing myself in position to be questioned or tried by my inferiors. It is not in the power of such characters as I have described here to rob me of the reputation or character which I have built up and maintained all my life.

“If time would permit I might mention many so-called petitioners, but perhaps they are all known to the citizens of Dayton, and no doubt their pedigree and standing has already been fully discussed by the good citizens. Some honorable men signed the petition. When they found out that they had done so upon misrepresentation and falsehoods, they did not hesitate to express their disapproval and withdrew therefrom.

“The conspirators were not satisfied with writing falsehoods, but they took occasion sneakingly, insinuatingly and cowardly to circulate stories broadcast upon the streets, telling that they had information they were going to publish that I was an ex-convict and that they could prove it. Such malicious falsehoods are perhaps unworthy of notice. My life has been as an open book—nothing in it that the sun at noonday could not shine upon; there is not an hour or a moment that cannot be accounted for honorably.

“As to the other charges of entering houses of prostitution, I will answer them by saying that has occurred time and again, but only in the manner prescribed by the regulations and in company with officers, and for the purpose only of supervision and control. I could hardly expect one of the reverend gentlemen referred to make this round of inspection and report to me the conditions under which they are operated, so that I could be responsible for their existence to the board and the people.

“There are people who have conspired to persecute and to rob me of my name, people whom I have protected and befriended that they and their families might retain their name and good reputation.

“Were I guilty of one-third of the discreditable, disreputable and dishonorable acts of such men I would now deem myself unworthy and unfit to hold the position. Thank God they charge me with poverty, but they cannot charge me with dishonesty or dishonor. They have succeeded only in destroying my health and crushing my ambition, for a time, at least. The great God who rights all wrongs will, I am sure, right my wrongs and punish the enemies who have sought through personal fear of their own crimes to ruin the character and reputation of an honest man. They must not think for a moment that it was fear or cowardice that has influenced me to take this step, but it is the fear that my reason and judgment and forbearance will over-reach its limit and force me to take the punishment of such scoundrels into my own hands, thereby inflicting suffering and sorrow on the innocent and good, who still love and believe in me, who still have faith in my honesty and integrity and who, life myself, firmly believe that time will vindicate me before the people of Dayton and the world. My friends may feel sure that time will vindicate me and justify their continued and appreciated confidence. My enemies, I ask them to turn their faces to God and ask Him to forgive them as I now forgive them for the crime they have committed

                                                THOMAS J. FARRELL”


Tom Farrell had sung his swan song, in a key that screeched with venom; to an air that fairly set the town afire. No serious attention was paid to his efforts to besmirch such fine old families as those bearing the names of Nevin and Kumler and Hale and several others, and it was generally conceded that the crafty Farrell had largely selected such citizens to lodge counter-charges against because he knew they were not the type accustomed to stooping to dignify such charges.

But at the same time Farrell did have a pretty good line on some of the members of the legal fraternity who had, and usually through political reasons, aided and abetted the ugly rumors which were constantly being wafted about the city.

Farrell stepped down off the throne from which he had rules for seven years, and never was there such a sigh of relief from the denizens of Dayton’s underworld. Say what you might about him, and every “old-timer” in Dayton will bear out the statement, Farrell did have the underworld under his thumb and its habitués cringing beneath his glare every moment he was police chief of the city of Dayton. Not all of his success as an unraveler of mysterious crimes was unaccompanied by suspicion. There was more than one instance in which it was whispered that Farrell knew more about the disposal of ill-gained loot than did those who purloined it, and that he was hand in glove with them. Farrell laughed all those whispers off, and went right on cleaning up pick-pockets, three-card monte men, diamond thieves, counterfeiters and like ilk. And but for a little slip of the foot here and there, and a constant barrage laid down by political enemies who never ceased in their efforts to entrap him, he might have been still on the job.

For a time after his retirement Farrell remained on in Dayton, living quietly and modestly at the old Beckel House, where he still entertained the staunch friends who had stuck with him through his storm. But he was still pretty much in the prime of life and had not, as he readily admitted, stored away a sufficient sum to enable him to live in idleness. He had a living to make, and knowing that Dayton no longer offered him an opportunity for making it, he headed east.

For some years after leaving Dayton, Farrell engaged in the contracting business in New York city. It is on record that he succeeded at this, and had up to the time of his death more than 20 years ago, builded a lucrative business.

But the bombshell he unleashed here almost 40 years ago still echoes in the ears of those oldsters who were present at the time and knew what occasioned it. And the dirty linen that was washed on that occasion has since had no equal in the local political laundry.