On Easter morning, 1913, the nation's most notorious red-light district was awakened by an epic gun battle, and a shadowy killer named Gyp the Blood.
Ever since the first flatboat sailor came down the Mississippi, loaded with cash and rotgut whiskey, New Orleans has been wary of outsiders. On Easter Sunday, 1913, a trio of New Yorkers learned that lesson well, when they found themselves in the center of a gunfight that forever altered the nation’s most famous red light district. Driving the chaos was a man named Charles Harrison, better known as Gyp the Blood.
After the shooting, Harrison got his picture in the paper, under the headline “Harrison Bad Man.” The Daily Picayune described him as a cold-blooded killer with a cocaine habit and a sideline in white slavery, but the picture does not match the crimes. About thirty years old at the time, Harrison is shown as soft-featured, with a bulging nose and an awkward smile. In his left hand, this “man of evil days and black surroundings” clutches a small white dog.
“He was spruce,” the Picayune would later write, “even dapper in appearance, as far as clothes went, but his pale, smooth-shaven face, bulging at the eyes, caving into sunken cheeks and squaring into a brutal jaw, bore the cold, steely cast of unregenerate impulse to crime.”
Gyp the Blood was a hardened criminal of the Lower East Side. Or perhaps he was a fake, a coward who killed a man to prove he wasn’t scared. He was a dupe, tricked by his employers into throwing his life away. Or he was a wild man, whose itchy trigger finger caused a bloodbath, and ruined business for hundreds of law-abiding purveyors of vice.
In the photograph, all Harrison seemed to want was to show off his puppy.
* * *
San Francisco had its Barbary Coast. Chicago had the Levee. New York had the Bowery and the Tenderloin. In 1913, every city had its red light district, but only in New Orleans was vice protected by law. From 1898 to 1917, prostitution was legal in a small patch of the city just outside the French Quarter, and every brand of sin—whiskey, cocaine, murder and jazz—followed merrily in its path.
To the newspapers, it was “the Tenderloin,” “the evil district,” or “the scarlet region.” To those who lived and worked there it was simply “the district,” but to history it has been remembered as Storyville: the grandest, gaudiest, filthiest pit of organized vice ever seen in the United States.
“They had everything in the district,” says jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton in Alan Lomax’s biography Mister Jelly Roll. “From the highest class to the lowest — creep joints where they’d put the feelers on a guy’s clothes, cribs that rented for about five dollars a day and had just enough room for a bed, small-time houses where the price was from fifty cents to a dollar and they put on naked dances, circuses and jive. Then, of course, we had the mansions where everything was of the very highest class.”
District life was tawdry, tough and ear splitting. Music blared from every brothel, dance hall and saloon — as fast and as loud as possible, in hopes of convincing a passerby to spend his money there. In Spectacular Wickedness, her excellent history of prostitution in Storyville, Emily Epstein Landau compares the district to Coney Island.
“The whole place radiated the atmosphere of a rollicking amusement park,” writes Landau, who adds that Jelly Roll Morton remembered ‘lights of all colors…glittering and glaring. Music was pouring into the streets from every house.’ It was a carnival atmosphere, a sexual theme park, where men could go to join in the throng, gawk at the magnificent bordellos, enjoy innovative music, and hire a prostitute.”
Although what they sold was illegal in the rest of the city, the people of Storyville were not so different from the businessmen on nearby Canal Street. From the landlords and madams to the prostitutes themselves — who earned more in a night than ordinary working women could in a week — they came to make money, and they did it legally. By the time Charles Harrison arrived in New Orleans, the men and women running Storyville had a firm grip on their rackets, stripping men of their money as efficiently as a modern Las Vegas casino. The sensationalist press depicted the district as lawless and wild, and if the madams did not dispute this, it’s because an image of wildness was good marketing.
But on that Easter morning when Gyp the Blood earned his nickname, true chaos erupted in the district, delivering a blow from which Storyville would never recover.
* * *
Abraham and Isadore Sapio (or Shapiro, according to alternate sources) moved south from New York around 1902, quickly changing their names to Harry and Charlie Parker in a futile attempt to blend in with the locals. Of the two, Harry was the more ambitious — a sharp-eyed, jug-eared man whose only picture shows him with greased hair and an incongruous tuxedo, looking like a sinister maître d’. In 1910, he opened a dance hall called the 101 Ranch on Franklin Street, just a block from palatial brothels of Basin Street. To a city whose underworld was better known for vice than violence, the Parker brothers brought a flavor of New York’s rough-and-tumble Lower East Side.
“Fearless to a fault,” wrote the Picayune of Harry Parker, “always ready to fight and with a general carelessness regarding the city or state code, he flourished in his business.”
He made money, but something simple kept Harry Parker from becoming rich: Nobody liked him. Taciturn and sullen, he was more likely to sit at the end of his bar and scowl at customers than buy a round for the house. Even after a decade in New Orleans, he and Charlie were still outsiders. Even though they had changed their names, they were still Jews.
This unpopularity did not help when Charlie, taking a rare bit of business initiative, convinced a prostitute to accuse a rival saloonkeeper of white slavery. The rival responded with a pistol, taking a potshot at Charlie, whose brother fired back on his behalf. Nobody hit anyone, but the incident deepened the neighborhood’s distrust of the New Yorkers.
In 1911, Parker sold part of the 101 Ranch to Billy Phillips, a local restaurateur who wanted a stake in the district. Mustachioed, plump, a member of the Elk club — Phillips was as well liked as Parker was unpopular, and the partnership soured fast. Phillips soon bought Parker out, changing the club’s name to the 102 Ranch and quickly becoming, in the words of the Picayune, “king of the dance hall men.”
As part of the sale, Harry Parker agreed not to open a new place in the district, but he could not stand watching Phillips make a success of his old joint. Taking money from a local ward boss, Parker opened a dance hall directly across Franklin Street, spending all he had to make it the most lavish in the city. If he couldn’t win the district’s love, he could at least make it jealous. He called it the Tuxedo.
In front was a saloon, with a long bar that faced Franklin Street and doors opening directly onto the sidewalk. In back was a dance hall where men paid sixty cents per dance, of which the women received ten cents and the right to solicit sex in the curtained booths that lined the room.
“Here a negro band holds forth,” wrote the Picayune, “and from about 8 o’clock at night until 4 o’clock in the morning plays varied rags, conspicuous for being the latest in popular music, interspersed with compositions by the musicians themselves.”
Despite the Tuxedo’s finery, Phillips’s spot remained far more popular. And so, as they had done before, the Parker brothers decided to play dirty. They sent word to New York for a few of their old friends — Bowery toughs looking for a change of scenery. The standard rate for Storyville waiters was a dollar a night plus tips, but the Parkers’ men agreed to work for tips alone. After all, they hadn’t really come to wait tables. Among them was Charles Harrison, a Russian immigrant who had lived in New York since he was a toddler. On Forsyth Street, he was known as Charley Argument. Here, he would be Gyp the Blood.
(Strangely, Charles Harrison was not the first enforcer known as Gyp the Blood. Predating him was the Bowery’s own Harry Horowitz, who in 1912 gunned down a gambler on New York’s 42nd Street. It seems “Gyp the Blood” is too good a nickname to only use once.)
* * *
At three a.m. on March 24, 1913, Billy Phillips lambasted his waiters for brawling with the scabs employed at the Tuxedo, using the sort of language that, in the newspapers of the time, could only be expressed with long dashes.
“You ——,” Phillips told his waiters. “If you don’t stay away from there, you are going to get into trouble.”
He was proven right within the hour, when a waiter staggered out of the Tuxedo with blood streaming from his forehead. “That dirty —— hit me over the head with a bottle,” the waiter said, and Phillips, enraged, announced that he was going to “clean out that whole d— place.”
The Tuxedo’s dance hall was closed for Easter, but Charlie and Harry were serving drinks to a dozen or so customers — including an off-duty Charles Harrison — when Phillips burst in.
“If you have anything against me,” Phillips said, “why don’t you take it out of me and not out of my waiters? I’m tired of having it rubbed in like that, and I would like to know which —— hit [my waiter].”
Harry Parker kept silent. Perhaps he made a signal to his waiter, perhaps not, but somewhere around this time, Harrison slipped out the alleyway, and ran towards his boarding house on Rampart Street.
“You Jew ——,” Phillips said. “It’s you and I for it from now on. Every time I catch you in the street, I’m going to lick you.”
If Harry Parker did speak, no one remembered his words. But according to one witness, Phillips delivered a final threat before returning to his own saloon: “Don’t you forget, you red-headed Jew ——, I’m coming back.”
A few minutes before four a.m., as the Picayune put it, Harrison left his boarding house, and “pulled his slouch hat down, just as gangsters of New York do when they are out on a murder job.” In his pocket he clutched a nickel-plated .38.
This would have been a good time for everyone concerned to close up, go home and get some sleep. If Phillips had stayed at the 102 Ranch, the peace would have been unbroken. Though he didn’t know it, Franklin Street had become an asphalt Rubicon. Cross it, and there would be war.
Ten minutes later, Phillips returned to the Tuxedo. Backed up by his bartender, and fellow saloonkeeper Tony Battistina, he approached Harry Parker’s bar and offered to buy a round for the house. Perhaps it was a gesture of peace, perhaps a way of spitting in his rival’s face. Either way, he took a paper dollar from his pocket and raised it in the air.
“It’s all over now boys,” he said. “Give us a drink.”
And that, said the witnesses, was the moment that Gyp the Blood appeared at Phillips’s back, his hammerless pistol clutched in both hands.
“Let’s go,” he said, as he pulled the trigger, the explosion and his shout running so close together, they seemed to be one sound.
“What happened,” Charlie Parker said later, “I am unable to remember. They were all armed, and as I myself had no gun, it stands to reason that I took no part in the shooting.”
* * *
The gun was close enough to leave powder burns, the muzzle flash hot enough to set Phillips’s liquor-soaked clothes ablaze. One bullet grazed him. The other pierced his lung.
“Jesus,” he said. “That was a good one.”
Engulfed in flame, Phillips fled across Franklin, collapsing in the street as a gun battle erupted behind him. His bartender’s blue steel pistol jammed, but Battistina was able to fire wildly, his bullets shredding the saloon that Harry Parker had worked so hard to build. Most of the crowd was armed, and they returned fire indiscriminately. Bullets shattered the mirror behind the bar, split the wood planks that lined the back wall and tore the door to the dance hall off its hinges.
One shot injured a black porter. Another felled Harry Parker. Harrison loosed one or two more rounds before a bullet to the spine knocked him onto the saloon’s concrete floor. He hauled himself to his feet, and escaped down the alleyway, howling, “They’re killing me! They’re killing me!” He hadn’t run a block before he was arrested, along with Charlie Parker and both of Phillips’s men.
By the time the ambulance arrived for Phillips, the Elk was dead, sprawled on the sidewalk in front of his own saloon. Instead, the ambulance took Harry Parker, who did not wait long to follow his rival into death. On the sidewalk, Harrison waited with Charlie Parker.
“The —— tried to get us,” Harrison said, “but we beat ’em to it.”
“Shut up,” Charlie responded. For the next year and a half, Harrison would take the advice.
* * *
Was Charles Harrison scared when he drew his gun? Was he defiant? Acting on impulse? Following orders? As he was held first in the hospital and then in a cell, no one asked. Or if they did, he wasn’t talking. The only quote that appears from him in the aftermath of the shooting is a laughably fake bit of hospital bed prayer, reported by the New Orleans Item:
“Hear my prayer, my God; please take me. I know I won’t live and please don’t let me suffer; the pain is too great.”
Harrison lived, but he didn’t open his mouth, and Storyville went quiet too. Within the week, wrote the Picayune, the mayor moved to “put the kibosh on the ‘bunny hug,’ ‘grizzly bear,’ ‘turkey trot,’ ‘Texas Tommy’ and other fastidious creations” of local dance-crazed night owls. The dance halls of Storyville were closed, and women were banned from singing in the district. Female impersonators, a popular attraction in an era when women were technically barred from saloons, were banned as well.
The dance halls remained closed for a year, forcing groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to go on the road. The shooting at the Tuxedo exploded the city’s music scene, spreading the seeds of jazz across the country—and leaving Storyville to wither.
Charged with killing Billy Phillips, Harrison was derided as a cocaine-addled coward, desperate to impress the local hoods. One newspaper speculated that the Parker brothers had planned a double-cross, backshooting him after Phillips had been brought down, but it gave no evidence for this theory.
Harrison’s brother came south from New York to raise money for a defense. For $1,000, he hired criminal lawyer Joseph E. Generelly, whose strategy was clear from the outset: plead self-defense and do everything possible to undermine the witnesses for the prosecution. But around twenty people claimed to have seen Harrison shoot Billy Phillips in the back, and it would be hard to discredit them all. They had plenty of time. It would be nine months before the trial would begin, and Harrison would learn if he was to live or die.
* * *
On January 13, 1914, enough gangsters descended on the New Orleans criminal courts that the Picayune thought “the Tenderloin seemed to have been depopulated.” Young men wearing sweaters and slouch hats crowded the gallery so tightly that “the stout-built detectives could hardly squeeze through,” and the judge ordered the windows open, lest the crowd suffocate before Gyp the Blood could be put on trial.
As district attorney Chandler C. Luzenberg did his best to establish the convoluted series of events that led to Phillips’s death, Generelly, the defense lawyer, was content to attack the witnesses’ records. If Storyville was a sexual circus, he planned to make this a legal one. As the Picayune reported, it was like shooting hoodlums in a barrel.
“One [witness] had been arrested so often that he could not remember how often, and for burglary, larceny and other crimes…Another was oftentimes arrested for fighting and disturbing the peace or for drunkenness, and one witness admitted that when the shooting took place…he was good and drunk.”
Another witness became angry when his record was questioned, but the judge ordered him to answer, and the man finally admitted that he had done jail time for breaking into a boxcar. When Generelly pressed him for more detail about his crime, the witness said, “That’s just what I told you just now,” repeating it until it became clear that his testimony would go no further, and the crowd howled with laughter at the attorney’s irritation.
On the last day of the trial, Generelly dipped further into his bag of tricks. He asked his client to remove his shirt, and directed the court’s attention to Harrison’s spine, where the bullet that had knocked him to the Tuxedo’s floor remained lodged. If the city coroner could remove the round during the dinner recess, Generelly asked, would the court allow it to be admitted into evidence?
“The operation is a trifling one,” said the doctor, and surgery was performed. Generelly had expected the bullet to prove that Harrison had been wounded by the same gun that killed Harry Parker—clearing Harrison of any suspicion in that murder—but Harrison contradicted his own attorney, testifying that they had been shot by different people, and wasting a magnificent piece of legal theater.
The case went to jury after three days’ trial. Although Harrison had a few prominent Storyville figures in his corner, one saloonkeeper said that most of the district was hoping for a death sentence.
“The disgraceful Tuxedo affair killed all the business down here,” he said. “That’s the reason most of us are against Gyp the Blood. But there’s another reason. The right of fair play is uppermost even down here. We believe there was a hanging case made out against him if ever there was a hanging case made against any one.”
The Picayune expected a swift guilty verdict, but the jury remained out for nine long hours. As the tension built, the Picayune’s unnamed reporter whipped himself into a frenzy of purple prose. Around Harrison’s neck, “the net drew closer and the meshes strengthened,” as the worst men the underworld had to offer waited for a verdict.
“The factions were there, the two factions of the evil district…On each succeeding line of sin-stamped faces was ‘writ’ in black and lowering brows, the intense, the bitter hatred, presagers of other midnight death grapples under the spluttering arcs of the Tenderloin cabarets.”
A few minutes after ten o’clock, after warning the crowd to keep calm, Judge Baker asked the jury if they had reached a verdict.
“We have not, your honor,” answered the foreman. “If we thought it even possible to agree we would be content to remain here a week, but, sir, I see no chance of unanimous opinion as to a verdict.”
It was a mistrial. Justice, wrote the Picayune, had been cheated.
“I don’t say Harrison didn’t kill Phillips; he might have done it,” explained one of the holdout jurors. “But in that fusillade of bullets I don’t think anybody could tell who fired the fatal shot. The state didn’t prove that Harrison fired the first shot. There was a doubt — and I gave it to Harrison.”
Gyp the Blood returned to prison to await another trial, and “the flotsam and jetsam of the sea of vice” slunk out of the courtroom disappointed.
“The human stream filed down Elk Place toward the bright lights of the quarter where sin fattens on misery and hope lies prostrate and dead,” wrote the Picayune. “The throng spread out into lesser lines and finally broke up into individual atoms, to be swallowed in the maelstrom, which ever hisses and seethes in the devil’s grip.
“The very atmosphere seemed heavy with the taint of rotten souls.”
* * *
The Picayune demanded a quick retrial, lest witnesses disappear “or be made away with,” and “before the lurid details of the crime have had a chance to become obscured or partially forgotten.” But in the ten months that passed before Harrison returned to the courtroom, the crime’s details did not diminish. They only grew more lurid.
During the first trial, one of Phillips’s employees testified to seeing Harrison shoot his boss with one gun clutched tight in both hands. In the second, he said that Gyp the Blood entered the saloon with two guns drawn — changing a trembling coward into a stone-cold hitman. In the first trial, Billy Phillips was said to have died on the sidewalk in front of the 102 Ranch. In the second, two witnesses each claimed to have caught him as he fell, clutching the dying man as his clothes burned.
The most colorful quotes given above are drawn from testimony at the second trial, where reality blossomed into melodrama. This includes Harrison shouting, “They’re killing me! They’re killing me!”; Phillips muttering “Jesus, that was a good one” after being shot in the lung; and the warning to Harry Parker, “Don’t you forget, you red-headed Jew ——, I’m coming back.”
“It is impossible for the State to procure witnesses of a better character,” said District Attorney Luzenberg, “to a killing which occurred in the restricted district at four o’clock on a Monday morning.” Anyone in New Orleans who might have told the truth, he suggests, would have been in bed.
Like an overgrown oak taking advantage of the city’s lush, subtropical climate, fact in Storyville grew into legend at an astonishing pace.
* * *
On the morning of November 19, Charles Harrison’s second jury demanded a firsthand look at the scene of the shooting. A crowd of 500 marched on Franklin Street, whose residents, used to sleeping late into the afternoon, greeted them with heckles. When the herd reached Iberville Street, half a block from the 102 Ranch, the police drove them back, allowing the jurors to inspect the now-infamous saloons. Flanked by four deputy sheriffs, Harrison led the tour.
As the twelve men of the jury inspected bullet holes and shattered mirrors, soaking in the forbidden ambiance of a place they could not have admitted visiting, Harrison leaned on the bar where he once served drinks. He asked a waiter for a glass of water, and as he sipped it, silent tears came to his eyes.
The Picayune seemed impressed by the effect of nineteen months in the city’s notorious parish prison, contrasting the “pallid, hollow-eyed ‘Gyp'” of 1913 with the “full-faced, rosy-cheeked young man” who wept before them, “with eyes that he protects with gold-mounted eyeglasses.”
To his attorney, Harrison’s eyes, ruined by his long confinement, were a symbol of unconstitutional imprisonment. Harrison was not full-faced and rosy-cheeked—he was an innocent man who had learned his lesson, and was desperate to return to his aging mother in New York. In his closing argument, Generelly issued a “thundering denial” of all charges.
“This unfortunate man,” he said, “after languishing in jail for twenty months, is on trial the second time in one of the most remarkable cases ever brought before a court in this Union. This case is remarkable because only a part of the transaction has been placed before the jury. Two men were killed and three wounded, and all that the State’s witnesses know is that this man fired a shot.”
In open court, he accused Tony Battistina of killing Harry Parker, a charge that had gone uninvestigated, and cast doubt on Phillips’s bartender, who claimed his gun had jammed.
“How could a creature like that,” he asked, “have a revolver in his hand without using it?”
This time, the jury was out for thirteen hours, returning to a courtroom at 11:15 on a Friday night. In the district, the weekend was just getting started, but the judge, the jury, and the people in the courtroom were ready for the trial to finish. They wanted a verdict. They wouldn’t get one. Harrison got a second mistrial, with only two men voting for death, and the District Attorney made clear he would not seek a third trial. Gyp the Blood would go free. For the first time, he could speak.
“It’s New York and my mother for me,” Harrison said. “As soon as I get my release it will be good-bye to New Orleans. I’ve learned a lesson here that I’ll never forget. I was not guilty of the murder of William Phillips, but since my arrival here I have been hitting the high spots and I have suffered.”
Although the newspapers remained convinced of his guilt, this second mistrial produced none of the indignation of the first. The Picayune and the Item were weary of New York gunmen, showboating attorneys and the unreliable witnesses that Storyville provided.
“If the jurors,” announced Luzenberg, the frustrated D.A., “expect the state to provide witnesses of good character for these homicides in the district they expect an impossibility.”
Harrison left town as quickly as possible, requesting a police escort to the train station, in case some vengeful citizen decided to take the law into his own hands.
“I have done nothing to warrant such an act,” he said. “However, you can rest assured I’ll never return to the ‘district.’ There is nothing in that life.”
* * *
Harrison made good on his promise to avoid the public eye, never surfacing in New Orleans again. Charlie Parker, once known as Isadore Sapio, vanished from the city after the first trial and never reappeared. Harrison’s attorney, Joseph E. Generelly, dropped dead of “acute indigestion” just two weeks after winning freedom for Gyp the Blood.
The Tuxedo was renamed and reopened along with the district’s other dance halls, but Storyville was already in decline. In 1917, the Navy, which wanted a more wholesome environment for young men shipping out to fight World War I, compelled the city to shut down the brothels of Storyville, and most of the saloons, cabarets and dance halls soon followed them out of business. By then, the glory days were already long gone.
“By 1917,” writes historian Al Rose in his invaluable Storyville, New Orleans, “precious few tarnished ladies remained to evacuate Storyville. … The total number of women involved was about four hundred [down from 2,200 in 1898], about half of whom were working only on a part-time basis.”
No longer contained to the few square blocks lakeside of Basin Street, vice spread once more throughout the city, and prostitution shifted from a business dominated by madams and landladies to one controlled by pimps. Just as the legend of Gyp the Blood took root and sprouted in record time, it was only a few years before Storyville itself had grown into the fabled “place where my friends all meet” of the “Basin Street Blues.” The real-life sexual carnival was forgotten, as Storyville transformed into a mythical cradle of jazz, as innocent as the cardboard Times Square of “Guys and Dolls.” Even as it faded from memory, Storyville’s most infamous murder grew gaudier all the time.
In a 1967 interview with jazz historian William Russell, Storyville piano player Manuel Manetta recalled the shooting, which he said he witnessed from the bandstand in the Tuxedo.
“We could stand and look into the bar,” he said, playing piano as he spoke. “We saw Billy [Phillips] there, early one morning when we started. … And Harry Parker, he had all his own waiters from New York. Gyp the Blood, they was bad characters. So we played and played and played, and … round about three o’clock, we heard the guns going off.”
When the shooting started, Manetta said, he tied a rope to his piano, allowing his band to shimmy off the bandstand and out to another dance hall. “And there,” said Manetta, “there was Gyp the Blood. He had ran, shot, and he went and fell in that place. Well now! He was laying on the floor. I pick him up. He got over it. He wasn’t killed. … Charlie Parker, he was shot, but he got over it. Harry and Billy, they got killed. No musicians got hurt.”
It’s a wonderful anecdote, but there were no musicians on the bandstand the night Billy Phillips got shot. It was Easter, after all.
“If all the musicians who claimed to be on the bandstand on that fateful morning had actually been present,” writes Rose, “the place would have required a dozen additional bandstands.”
But that’s reality. One hundred years later, fifty years later, even one year after the massacre, it’s the story that counts.
* * *
Brendan Leach is a Brooklyn based cartoonist and illustrator. He used to drive a Zamboni in New Jersey, but now he writes and draws comics. His graphic novel “Iron Bound” was recently published by Secret Acres Books.