Verdict of Self Destruction

The Request*

My great great grandfather, Wilbur L-, lived in Newport. He supposedly committed suicide (I think by exhaust fumes) I have also heard he was a bookie of the mob. I have always wondered what his involvement in the mob truly was (if any) and whether it related to his death.

A Bit of Backround

Let’s start with some Newport, KY background. In case you are unaware, Newport has a long history of corruption, illegal gambling, illegal alcohol during prohibition, and mafia connections. It’s important that you know that I can’t over-emphasize the level of corruption. As late as the 1970’s, Newport police officers were being arrested for charges like extortion. I know that’s some brief background, but if I went into detail I just wouldn’t know where to stop.

Now for some of Wilbur’s story. Wilbur L- was the son of William, a German immigrant, and Mary, the daughter of a Minnesota barrel maker. According to the Minnesota Marriage Index, the couple married in 1883. They had two sons, Frank born in 1888 and Wilbur born in 1892. A 1905 census from Kansas City, KS showed that the family were living in the city at the time.

By 1910, the family had moved to Dayton, KY, which is where William’s family had settled after immigrating. An 18-year-old Wilbur was working as a cutter at the Shade Factory. “Cutter at the shade factory” sounds like a good descriptor for someone who is very good at roasting people. His father, William worked in Wholesale Liquor for his Uncle August. A profession that lends itself to illicit connections, especially after the start of prohibition in 1920.

Wilbur’s 1917 draft registration card shows that he made a career switch. He is listed with the profession of bookkeeper and employed by August who operated out of 64 Pike Street, Covington, KY.

More details on Wilbur to come, but…

Let’s Talk About William

In the mid-1910’s William served on the Dayton Board of Education. In 1920, he made the papers as the Director of the Gaylord Clothing Company in Cincinnati, which besides having a name that invokes a Ben Stiller movie, has a very interesting story. The Gaylord Company of Cleveland was incorporated in December of 1915 by O.C. Gaylord (News-Journal, 1915). The company, which sold men’s clothes, franchised and grew rapidly. In 1918, the company’s $10,000 value was increased to $50,000 (The Dayton Herald, 1918).

To give an idea of how the store operated, here is a summary of the opening of a new franchise in Dayton in March of 1919. Envelopes dropped from the planes contained coins or slips of papers with coupons for $1 in credit toward a suit of clothing. The company President was Dayton man William Grether, the Vice President was owner of the chain O.C. Gaylord, another Cleveland man C.O. Simmons was treasurer and secretary and Louis Ruthenburg and C.H. Davis were directors. There were nearly 600 Dayton area stakeholders and the company was capitalized at $100,000. So, the majority of the people in charge were from out of town, but people from Dayton financed the store.

Seems Reasonable

The article also provides a brief description of the available clothes at the time. Each line in the store was given a name related to the war. The featured model was “Pershing”, which offered a high waist seam with slash pockets. The “Ace” offered a double-breasted coat. There was a forthcoming design called “Victory Stripe” which was supposed to have a large run in Dayton. The predominate colors were tans and greens, and prices ranged from $20-$40.

At the time the Dayton store opened there were six other locations: Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Youngstown, and Canton. Other stores that were set to open following the Dayton location were Detroit, Springfield, Fort Wayne, and Cincinnati. (The Dayton Herald, 1919)

There was not the same level of coverage of the opening of the Cincinnati Gaylord location. In fact, it didn’t make the papers until the first time it hit trouble. The first article appears in Nov. 1922 and details an injunction which was filed by William to prevent persons associated with the Cleveland company from shipping three large trunks full of merchandise from Cincinnati to Cleveland. The injunction also demanded that a full accounting be made between the Cincinnati company and the parent company in Cleveland and that a receiver be appointed to take charge of the assets. When the injunction was served at the store, the three men there who were presumably packing the trunks claimed that they were in fact unloading the trunks and had no knowledge of plans to ship the merchandise. To summarize, things were not going well.

Two days later, an update on the situation was printed. The receivership hearing was delayed to allow time for lawyers for the Cleveland company to travel from New York. A summary of the charges were given:

“Charged in his suit [were] that the Cleveland company holds control through common stock holdings, and that four of the five directors of the Cincinnati company are officers or employees of the Cleveland company.

He also alleged that the Cleveland company claims to be a creditor of the local company”

The Cincinnati Enquirer 29 Nov 1922

The next appearance of the company came in February 1923 with an article titled “Involuntary Bankruptcy Filed”. Several creditors had set up claims totaling nearly $3,000. A receiver had taken charge of the company assets on February 3rd and the creditors were arguing that the company was insolvent. Articles show that receivers were also set up for other Gaylord locations at this time, including Dayton. Stockholders in Dayton claimed not to be aware that 51 percent of the stock was owned by the Cleveland arm of the company rather than local shareholders. They asked that the company not be allowed to sell their stock as they believed the company was insolvent.

One way this could be summarized is that the Cleveland company was allocating debt to its franchises and then consolidating assets to Cleveland. Despite the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Ohioans would have had to have lost their investments when the franchises went under, there is no article or exposé on what happened. No one involved in the company was questioned or held to account, or if they were, it wasn’t covered in the paper.

O.C. Gaylord, the man who started it all, continued to run the Akron branch of the store until Christmas of 1924. At this time, he decided he was too ill to continue, the stores assets were liquidated and it closed.

According to his obituary William also owned a Carriage Painting Company but had retired prior to his passing at the age of 91. Very little was available about this company, but it appears that it was started by William’s father.

Alright, Back to Wilbur

Wilbur served in World War 1. According to a U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger List from September of 1918 Wilbur served as a Band Corporal in the 326th Field Artillery. In trying to determine what type of instrument he may have played, I found a 1909 Kentucky Post article which said that Wilbur had been a member of the string orchestra that performed at the Bellevue Dayton Christian Church. For those interested in what being a member of the army band would have entailed the Journal article The World War I Army Bandsman: A Diary Account by Philip James was published by the University of Illinois Press and is available online.

William’s regiment arrived in the French port of Le Havre on May 17,1918. Their time in France included trench warfare, mustard gas, and participation in the last major offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They returned to the United States in April of 1919. In September of 1919, the city of Dayton, KY commissioned a bronze tablet to be placed in the public square with the names of all those from Dayton who served. Wilbur was included on this plaque according to an article from the Kentucky Post.

A Few Words From Wilbur

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Wilbur wrote several opinion editorials which ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s a unique thing to be able to read the thoughts of long gone relatives and not something most people would be able to do. Diaries and even bibles can be lost over time. Luckily for us, Wilbur’s words were archived. In 1929, he wrote a defense of atheists:

Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, is the spirit of this scientific age, the greatest of all ages, with intolerance relegated back to the bloody Dark Ages of Europe, where it originated.

The greatest thinkers in all ages were those who did not believe in any particular form of religious worship or waste their time speculating as to the nature of God.

Wilbur L- 1929

He also shared his thoughts on prohibition, which would lend one to believe he didn’t feel strongly about following laws that he thought were an infringement on his rights:

Simply because a man opposes the laws made by a group of self-interested politicians Mr. Marten has the bad taste to say that he is an anarchist. A man who opposes bad laws is a champion of human freedom, and a man who defends a law merely because it is a law is a champion of injustice.

As a member of the human race I maintain that I have the right to eat or drink what I wish, and I deny the right of any other member of the human race to deny me that privilege.

Wilbur L- 1930

How He Died

Shortly after midnight on September 22, 1934, Wilbur’s stepson found him dead in his garage. Wilbur was sitting in his car with a rubber hose placed to connect the exhaust pipe in through the window, pumping carbon monoxide into the interior. The coroner, August Helmbold, was told that Wilbur had a nervous ailment and ruled the death a suicide. The death certificate also lists a contributory cause of mental derangement and an external cause of inhaling fumes from an auto.

I found no evidence that Wilbur died from anything but suicide. Being a person with the internet as my main research tool, it would be pretty impossible to do otherwise.

Some Intrigue

For the sake of not being ridiculous, I want to make it very clear that what I’m about to summarize is interesting but is in no way conclusive. Okay, I hope we’re on the same page… The coroner at the time Wilbur died, August Helmbold Jr., was elected in 1931. Here’s a bit about his election:

Dr. August Helmbold ran a remarkable race for Campbell County Coroner against Dr. Palmer Keeney, Bellevue. Without apparent effort on his part, Dr. Helmbold polled more votes than any candidate on the Democratic ticket not excepting Judge Laffoon. He is a son of the late Mayor August Helmbold of Newport.

The Cincinnati Enquirer 09 Nov 1931

Did you catch the important part of that quote? Daddy was the mayor of Newport, which gives one quite the leg up in terms of name recognition. It also means you’re likely well connected, and being well connected in Newport at the time meant interacting with non-law abiding persons.

That said, I found no record of Coroner Helmbold being accused of any sort of impropriety. It was a bit difficult to research because his name comes up in every death investigation article from 1931-1937. His father, Mayor Helmbold was not quite so innocent seeming.

Mayor Helmbold was elected in the early 1900’s as a Democrat. In 1913, he was indicted by a grand jury for misfeasance in office. The charge was that he looked the other way during the committing of crimes. He fought the charges and a Special Judge determined that the Grand Jury that indicted him had been illegally drawn. The Judge also deemed that the Mayor’s constitutional rights were violated. The indictment was thrown out. Several appeals and a second indictment were filed but all ended with the same conclusion and Helmbold was not tried. He did not attempt reelection as mayor but was defeated in a bid for City Commissioner. Mayor Helmbold died in 1918 at the age of 56 having suffered for several months from Bright’s disease. Which was an old timey way of describing kidney disease.

Newport was a corrupt place during the time period we’re talking about and it looks like Mayor Helmbold was right in the thick of it. That doesn’t mean his son, Wilbur’s coroner, was involved in the corruption of the time, or if he was, that it would change the outcome of this particular case. Wilbur’s regiment saw some of the most intense fighting of any American’s in World War 1, for this or many other reasons he could have taken his own life. I do think it is likely that his family was involved, at least tangentially, in some of the illegal activities in Newport. It would have been hard not to be. I am currently researching Uncle August and have decided that he’s too interesting to throw into Wilbur’s post. He’ll be getting his own later this week which will go further into the family liquor business.

Story summarized from posts found in The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Kentucky Post, The Dayton Herald, various census records, military records, and other documents.

*Edited for length and clarity

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