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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 13

ONE DAY IN MAY of 1920, I went down to Police Court to talk with the Chief Justice of the Municipal Court, William H. McGannon, a generally popular and respected jurist whom I liked personally very much. He had attracted notice by introducing a number of court reforms and was being talked of as a candidate for Mayor.

He greeted me with a deep, pleasant voice and the charming manner he displayed toward everyone. He was an imposing and distinguished-looking man, and I reflected that he would make a powerful candidate. It was generally agreed that if he got, and accepted, the nomination, he was almost certain of election.

During the interview he indicated some interest in the candidacy, and I went back to The Press and wrote a story on it.

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That very night, an automobile salesman, Harold C. Kagy, was shot and killed in one of Cleveland's least desirable downtown neighborhoods. It later developed that Chief Justice McGannon, in company with a notorious saloon-keeper, Johnny Joyce, and the slain man, Harold Kagy, had driven together to the spot where Kagy was found dead of bullet wounds. When the police arrived, both McGannon and Joyce were gone, but McGannon's automobile was found at the scene of the murder.

Late that night, the Chief Justice called me at my home, his voice almost unrecognizable from emotion and strain. He asked me if I would hurry out to see him, and I went immediately.

Mrs. McGannon, her eyes noticeably red, let me in and took me to him. Then she left us.

"Louie, what do I do?" The Chief Justice was now a disheveled man, his eyes swollen, his mind ragged. He was obviously overcome by fear.

"What do I do?" he kept repeating over and over.

I sat down to try to analyze the situation.

"First, Judge, what did happen?" I asked. "Did you kill Kagy?"

"No, no, no," he shouted hoarsely, trying to keep his voice down so that Mrs. McGannon would not hear him.

"If you didn't kill Kagy, then isn't it a simple question of telling the truth?" I asked.

"I can't," he said, "I can't."

"If you don't, you will get yourself in all kinds of trouble," I pointed out. "You of all persons should know that. If you admit that you were with Joyce and

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Kagy -- no matter why -- and tell exactly what happened -- it will turn out all right."

"But I can't," he again repeated. "If I say that I was with them, I'm through."

He wouldn't listen. His mind was so stunned that he probably didn't even hear me. Vainly, I tried to persuade him that his obvious course was both logical and simple: he should tell the truth even if it was so embarrassing to him that it might cost him his place on the Bench, and surely any chance of being nominated to the Mayor's office.

"I just wanted you to come out to talk to me, Louie," he said. "I know that you will respect my confidence. But I can't do anything else. I just have to hope."

He didn't elaborate on this. He sat, a frightened, broken, confused man, in sharp contrast to the magnificently calm and judicial Chief Justice with whom, only that day, I had talked so confidently about his chances for being Mayor of Cleveland.

"If I can do anything for you, Judge, I'll be only too glad," I said, leaving his house, as he stood in the doorway in a rumpled bathrobe, his unshaved face and swollen eyes making him a more tragic figure than any I had ever seen. "I only wish, though, that you would do for yourself what you would expect somebody else to do under these circumstances."

I was not to see Judge McGannon again for some weeks. Joyce was tried for murder and acquitted. In his trial McGannon's connection with the whole story came out, because those who were interested in Joyce's ultimate acquittal naturally brought it out.

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It was my assignment both to cover the Joyce trial and to follow through any subsequent developments. The "subsequent developments" were not long in coming. The Grand Jury was called to consider Chief Justice McGannon's part in the Kagy murder, since Joyce had been legally exonerated.

The jury met on the fifth floor of an antiquated building on the Public Square. Its elevators were of the old "lift" type, pulled by cable, and open all around. It took an eternity to get from the ground floor to the fifth.

Eddie Stanton was the Prosecutor. Only he and his assistants were permitted in the Jury Room; reporters were kept waiting in an anteroom throughout the deliberations. Excitement was high. Everybody who went in or out of the Jury Room was instantly approached with a barrage of questions from the newsmen.

It was eleven o'clock of the second day of the trial. Prosecutor Stanton came out of the Jury Room. He was quickly surrounded.

"Nothing yet," he said. "I'll be back in a minute."

Stanton went to the elevator, and we all returned to our waiting places. A sudden hunch struck me. Quietly I slipped out of the room. Instead of going down by elevator, I ran down the five flights of stairs and was at the bottom when Stanton landed by elevator.

"Mind if I walk with you, Eddie?" I asked.

The Prosecutor said nothing. I interpreted that to mean that he had no objection, so I fell into step alongside him, also saying nothing. He went over to an ad-

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joining building, up a flight of steps, and into the Law Library. He picked out a heavy volume, sat down and looked through it. When he found what he wanted, he took a piece of foolscap from a table and placed it in the spot he had found.

Without a word, he started back to the building where the Jury was deliberating. We got into the elevator together. He opened the book, turned so that I could read it, and looked up at me. As I scanned the page, his finger went to a paragraph entitled "Second Degree Murder." I studied his face anxiously, and his eyes looked steadily back into mine.

"Is that it?" I murmured.

He said nothing, but his finger came down hard on the words "Second Degree."

"Thanks," I said softly.

I didn't get off the elevator. I went back with it on its interminable trip downstairs and rushed to a telephone.

"Judge McGannon indicted for second degree murder," I told the City Desk.

The phone at the other end of the line was slammed down. Nobody even took the time to answer me. I went back upstairs.

In a half hour all creation broke loose. Phones buzzed. Reporters scurried. Doors were pounded. The Press had an extra on the street with a bannerline saying that McGannon had been indicted for second degree murder.

The reporters all shouted at once as Prosecutor Stanton poked his head out of the room.

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"I can't say anything to anyone while this Jury is deliberating," he said.

"Can't you even tell us whether it's true?" someone shouted.

The Jury Foreman was at the Prosecutor's elbow. The door went shut.

The reporters streamed to the Judge's office. No indictment had been returned to him, he asserted; and until it was, it was not of record.

I was called to the phone. The Editor was on the line.

"What about this story denying McGannon's indictment?" he shouted at me.

"McGannon has been indicted," I said. Without amplifying my statement, I stood by my interpretation of what had gone on between the Prosecutor and myself.

"You've lost your job, if he hasn't been," my Editor shouted back at me.

In ten minutes the Prosecutor and the Jury Foreman came out, walked to the Judge's office, and handed him a document. The Judge then turned to us.

"Here, gentlemen, is the Jury's action in the McGannon case," he said. "The indictment is for second degree murder."

In my relief I almost keeled over. The one against whom I leaned was the County Prosecutor who, without ever saying a word, had given me the most unorthodox -- and the most precarious -- scoop of my whole newspaper career.

If I had been Editor of the paper at the time, I would have fired the reporter who put over this particular scoop. But fortunately that Editor didn't. He increased

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the reporter's salary $10 a week, and delivered a stern lecture, warning him never again to take such a chance. The reporter heeded his Editor's counsel -- up to a point.

The ten-dollar raise I got the day McGannon was indicted doesn't sound very impressive nowadays, but it was important to our little family. Our daughter had been born in 1919, and now we were living in a crowded house with Marion's parents and her brother-in-law and sister. The rent had been increased twice. Marion's father had no work, and her brother-in-law's job paid very little. What we managed to pool together barely made ends meet.

Marion had handled all our money since the day we married, and she managed well. I didn't realize how well until one night when we sat down to talk about what we would do.

"I talked with a man today who is building some houses up the street right above the New York Central tracks," she said. "Now that you've got a raise, we can take our $300 in Liberty Bonds and make a down payment on our own house. We wouldn't always be paying rent to somebody else. We would have something to show for it."

This represented a staggering obligation, the biggest by far we had considered assuming. We were then twenty-three.

"What about your parents?" I asked.

"We could build a double family place, upstairs and down, and they could live up," Marion said.

We made up our minds to do it.

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The house was only half up when, in 1921, the Editor once more offered me the City Editorship of The Press. I took it eagerly. The almost four years since I had it before had given me enough experience and knowledge about our business to convince me that this time I would stay with it.