A 1920’s Campus Murder Revisited

Costumes, candy, and carved pumpkins – by tonight Haverford College will have all the makings of another ghostly Halloween. But the one thing this campus needs is a good spook story. As one student named Mike Sisk ‘88 discovered in the late 1980s, there is one such story of burning crosses, mistaken identity and a classic ‘whodunnit’ on a midsummer night that lies somewhere just beneath the falling leaves.

“I used to teach a course called ‘Researching Philadelphia,’” said professor emeritus of History Roger Lane, who taught Sisk. “This one kid couldn’t come up with a topic for a final project and I said, ‘Mike, worse comes to worst, just go through the Philadelphia Inquirer in our library and see if you catch anything of interest.’”

Sure enough, after flipping through the archived pages Sisk found one headline of great interest; “Shooting, Cross-burning on the Haverford College campus!” By reading the old Inquirer editions, Sisk put together the following events…

On the night of July 3rd, 1924, a group of 200 Klu Klux Klansmen burned a cross on the fields which now house the Kim and Tritton dormitories. The fiery icon overlooked the mostly black and Italian neighborhood that still stands around the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society across the stream from the southwest side of campus. While the college was virtually deserted for the summer, one frightened black woman in the neighborhood called the Lower Merion Police Department at 10:15 p.m. to report the cross-burning. Officers Francis Roy and Albert Miller were dispatched to investigate. After hearing gunshots from the direction of the cross the officers left their car on Holland Avenue, climbed over a fence onto college property, and arrived only to find two men out of KKK regalia.

“Hey, wait a minute buddy, I want to talk to you,” said Roy, who in return was met with bullets, one of which lodged near Roy’s spine and another struck Miller in the shin. Miller shot back as the men fled into the nearby marshes before he crawled back to Holland Avenue for help. With the aid of two black men and a police lieutenant named Francis Mullen, the officers were carried into an ambulance and sent to Bryn Mawr Hospital.

In the months of investigation that followed, blame for the shooting fell squarely on the KKK klansmen. Lower Merion Police Chief James Donaghy, a tough 70-year-old Irish Catholic, said the men who shot the officers were locals who could not afford to reveal their identity to the police. Donaghy condemned the Klan, saying “There are to be no more meetings of the Klu Klux Klan in this township. We have declared war on them…when crosses are being burned, I have issued instructions to police to shoot on sight and shoot to kill. Time enough to ask questions later.”

However, the investigation was complicated when a local Klansman released a list of 23 local Klan members, among whom was Lattimore McCoury, a Lower Merion Police officer. Another Klansman claimed that “Thirty members of the police forces of Lower Merion, Haverford, and Radnor Townships are members of the KKK.”

Meanwhile, Officer Roy’s wound had become badly infected, and he had little chance of surviving. Two months before he died on September 15th, Roy told his bedside priest, Father Daniel E. Herron, that he recognized McCoury as one of the men in the field that night due to his unique limp. However, when Herron testified the judge ruled that Roy had not delivered his statement antemortem, 24 hours before dying, and therefore was not admissible in court.

“The hearing was held in a courtroom packed with cops, which may have intimidated the judge,” said Lane.

McCoury was stripped of his badge for being a KKK member, but was found innocent of killing Roy and released.

“And then the story dropped out of the Inquirer and Mike asked me, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my project?’” said Lane. “And I said, ‘interview old guys who lived there, maybe they’ll remember!’”

Sisk spoke with Russell Nelson, a 78-year-old black man who was 14 years old in the summer of 1924, and professor emeritus Howard Comfort, (son of Haverford College president William W. Comfort, the namesake of Comfort Hall) who taught at The Haverford School the night of the incident. Nelson spoke of a black World War I Veteran named Rogers, who climbed the hill to the cross-burning and was shot and killed. Meanwhile, Comfort recalled that a ‘respected and reliable’ janitor named Mose had shot and killed a cop and was arrested a while afterwards.

A confused Sisk turned to The Main Line Times, where he discovered that the truth was somewhere in between Nelson and Comfort’s accounts:

After the three Klan members were acquitted, Lieutenant Francis Mullen, who helped load Roy and Miller into the ambulance the night of the shooting, continued to search for Roy’s murderer. In November 1928, over two years after the incident, Mullen heard a tip from a woman in Ardmore and arrested two men named Harris Pannell and Mose Rogers.

After hours of questioning, the story finally became clear. The janitor and World War I veteran Mose Rogers was coming home from a late night at work at the Haverford School when he encountered the burning cross. Rogers returned with his friend Pannell and a German Lueger pistol from his service days and arrived to stamp out the fire just as the Klan meeting broke up. As Rogers and Pannell kicked the cross down, Roy and Miller arrived to the scene. By all accounts, Roy did not identify himself as a policeman when he called out to the two men, obscured by the dark night. In the dark, Rogers thought the two officers were angry Klansmen. He wheeled around and shot both officers before escaping with Pannell back to Ardmore. There, Rogers changed into a bathrobe and helped the man who would arrest him two years later load the man whom he had just shot into the waiting ambulance.

Rogers confessed to the murder, but since he acted in self-defence and did not intend to kill a police officer, he served a minimum sentence of three years. While Sisk found his story, got an A on his paper, and was published in the Haverford Alumni Magazine in the Fall of 1988, the tragedy of what happened that night in 1924 is perhaps more haunting than any campus ghoul.

“The marvellous irony of this story,” said Lane. “Is that you get an Irish-Catholic and a black man shooting at each other, both under the impression that the other one is a member of the KKK. That’s what happened.”

Mike Sisk’s (Class of 1988) article in the Fall 1988 edition of the Haverford Alumni Magazine

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