Saturday, April 18, 2009

Harry Cullett Bribes Morals Squad Inspector Dannenberg

In early 1914, Second Deputy Superintendent Funkhouser and his Morals Inspection Bureau squad leader, William Dannenberg, were finally cleaning up Chicago's famed segregated vice district, the Levee. Between December of 1913 and February, 1914, Dannenberg's squad had made over 1,000 arrests and shut down scores of brothels, saloons, and call flats in the area surrounding 22nd and Dearborn. The leaders of the vice gangs who ran the Levee knew something had to be done. Their first approach was to bribe Dannenberg into keeping the heat off, and on February 26, 1914, their man, "Chicken" Harry Cullett, met Dannenberg in front of MacLean's Central Drug Store at 1000 W. Wilson (site pictured above), to hand over the money.

The Morals squad was created in 1913 during a reorganization of the Chicago Police Department ordered by Mayor Carter Harrison, on the recommendation of the Civil Service Commission, which had led a major investigation of vice conditions in 1911 and 1912. The Commission's report detailed what almost everyone knew -- that the 22nd street police station, which held jurisdiction over the Levee district, was completely corrupt. The captain and all of the officers of the station were under direct orders from First Ward aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin to turn a blind eye to disorderly conditions in the district, in return for political patronage. So long as the 22nd street cops were in charge, the Levee would never close.

In order to break the hold of Kenna and Coughlin, Mayor Harrison created the special position of Second Deputy Superintendent, and appointed the thoroughly uncorruptible Maj. Metellium Funkhouser to the post. Funkhouser, in turn, created a citywide agency, the Morals Inspection Bureau, which would have authority to raid vice resorts when the 22nd street station police would not. Funkhouser appointed Inspector William Dannenberg to lead the Morals squad; Dannenberg was a vice veteran, having played a prominent role in the Maurice van Bever white slavery case in which van Bever was sent to prison, opening up a role in the Colosimo organization for Johnny Torrio.

(pictured: Inspector William C. Dannenberg)

Despite antagonism from the 22nd street station police, Dannenberg's men began closing the Levee district, ending the era of tolerated segregated vice in Chicago. Their raids put hundreds of prostitutes and their handlers in jail, and profits for the major vice rings plummeted. On January 8, 1914, the Morals squad shut down the Rhinegold Cafe, a saloon and house of ill-repute operated by the King of vice, "Big Jim" Colosimo.

Soon after, Colosimo called a meeting of major underworld figures at his Cafe to discuss strategy. Besides Colosimo, those present included Johnny Torrio, "Polak Ben" Zellen, owner of the Vestibule, an infamous resort that later was the site of an organized labor hit by "Mossy" Enright, "Beck" Moriarty, who owned a saloon at Harrison and State Streets, and the Marshall Brothers -- Joe and Bill -- who ran a call hotel at 21st and State. It was decided that a bribery attempt would be the first option, and if that failed, then violence. Even the possibility of murdering Inspector Dannenberg came up.

The man selected to approach Dannenberg with the money was a crooked cop from the 22nd street station named Harry Cullett. Cullett had been on the force for over a decade and had consistently been involved in high-profile cases, including a white slavery/murder case in 1910 and another case involving an international ring of thieves operating through the U.S. Navy. It was his fellow officers who gave him the playful nickname "Chicken Harry". In September 1913, Cullett left the police force after accusations of corruption surfaced, but he was still well-known and liked in the Department.

After leaving the police force, Cullett joined a private detective agency, the American Secret Service Bureau. From his days in the 22nd street station, he would have been familiar with the major characters of the Levee, and he apparently was willing to help them in their time of need.

(pictured: "Chicken" Harry Cullett)

On January 31, 1914, Cullett left a telephone message at the home of Dannenberg's second-in-command, Assistant Inspector for Moral Conditions Edward Altz, asking to meet that evening. At 7:00, Cullett and Altz met face-to-face at Perkins' Saloon at Monroe and Clark Streets. Cullett informed Altz that 11 Levee saloon-keepers were willing to put up $200 each in order to stop the raids on their establishments. As Dannenberg later described the deal,
To lull the public mind I was to raid a list of "fall houses," with which they provided me. Each night the divekeepers agreed to give me the name of a house to raid. From it I was to take two girls. The other places were to be immune.
Cullett asked Altz to liaise with Dannenberg to find out his attitude toward the possible deal.

The following Monday, February 2, Altz informed Dannenberg about the meeting, and Dannenberg immediately contacted his superior, Maj. Funkhouser. Dannenberg asked Funkhouser for permission to play along with the bribery scheme in order to find out who was behind it, and Maj. Funkhouser assented.

It is impressive that Dannenberg was able to so quickly pass up Cullett's offer. $2,200 in 1914 would be roughly the equivalent of $48,900 worth of purchasing power in 2008. Essentially, Dannenberg gave up a $586,000 per year salary in order to enforce the law. The bribe was probably five or ten times Dannenberg's official salary at the time.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1914, Cullett and Dannenberg met face-to-face for the first time, in the corridor outside the Morals squad leader's office at City Hall. The two ducked into a quiet room nearby, where Cullett laid out his plan directly to Inspector Dannenberg. The $2,200 was only a start: brothel owners who opened resorts in the future would also add to the payoffs. The revenue potential was endless. Dannenberg agreed to the plan, and Cullett said he would get in touch when the financial arrangements were in order.

It seems the vice kings of the Levee might have gotten cold feet, for during several subsequent meetings in the mezzanine of the Hotel Sherman, Cullett had to admit he had been unable to procure the agreed-upon sums. However, finally, on February 26, everyone was convinced that Dannenberg was ready to go on the take, and a meeting at Sheridan and Wilson was planned where Cullett would hand over a $500 down payment on the first month's payoff.

Before the designated meeting time, Inspector Dannenberg was thoroughly searched by four of his men to insure he had no money on his person before leaving, and two Chicago Tribune reporters were tipped off to the story. At 8:40 p.m. on Feb. 26, Dannenberg arrived at MacLean's Central Drug Store at 1000 W. Wilson Ave. to await the arrival of Cullett. His fellow officers and the reporters hid nearby in doors and entryways.

Five minutes later, a taxicab dropped off Harry Cullett on the opposite corner. Cullett told the driver to run the meter and wait for him, while he walked briskly across the street to where Dannenberg was standing in front of the drug store window. He touched the Inspector on the shoulder, and the two began walking north on Sheridan Rd. up to Leland Ave. Then they walked back towards Wilson. Four times, Cullett led Dannenberg back and forth on the block, checking to be sure no one was following or watching. Finally, Cullett and Dannenberg darted across Sheridan to an alley behind the Grasmere hotel across the street from the drug store.

Cullett handed the money over to Dannenberg, and the two reappeared and walked back toward the corner of Sheridan and Wilson. When they reached the corner, Dannenberg removed his hat, a predetermined signal, which brought the four Morals squad officers out into the street, surrounding the pair.

"What the hell?" gasped Cullett. "I don't know what this means."

What it meant was that Cullett was under arrest for bribery. A phone call was immediately put in to Maj. Funkhouser, informing him of the successful operation, and a press conference revealed the details of the scheme to the public.

Cullett posted $2,000 bail, and a trial date was set, but never came. With the support of his detective agency, as well as Aldermen Kenna and Coughlin, Cullett's attorneys successfully made the argument that since the ordinance that created Dannenberg's office did not fully specify the duties of the Morals Inspection Bureau, he was not amenable to bribery under the statute.

Cullett never served a jail term for his role in the scheme, nor were his financial backers prosecuted. Nevertheless, Dannenberg kept up the heat on the Levee, and kept it closed tight throughout 1914.

It appears that Harry Cullett continued in private detective work, and in that, he was joined in 1915 by Inspector Dannenberg himself. The latter became one of the nation's most famous "private dicks", making his name in divorce and election fraud cases until his death in 1955.

The Central Drug store at Sheridan and Wilson changed hands several times, becoming a Liggett's, then a Ford Hopkins, then a Rex-All Drug, until it was demolished in the 1960s. The location is now a McDonald's restaurant.


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