A murder in Harlem

Here’s something I’ve been investigating and slowly pulling together for a couple months. I’ve written up the start of a possible freelance article. It’s an intro, so it hasn’t filled in a bunch of questions and plot points. However, hopefully those will come in time. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the text:

On Sunday, April 26, 1925, New York City’s Lincoln Giants opened their Eastern Colored League season by sweeping Atlantic City’s Bacharach Giants in a doubleheader, 6-1 and 4-3, as about 7,000 fans watched at New York’s catholic Protectory Oval.

In the first game, Lincoln Giants pitcher Dave Brown out-dueled the Bacharachs’ “Rats” Henderson on the mound in Game 1. While the Atlantic City crew outhit the Big Apple bunch, 7-6, the hits Brown did give up were scattered, while the Lincolns were able to efficiently bunch their blows off Henderson.

Taking the field for the Lincoln Giants in both games was also Oliver Marcell, one of the best third basemen in blackball. But on this day, the Louisiana native couldn’t manage any hits and only scored one run.

The Lincolns roster at the time also included pitcher Frank “Rawhide” Wickware, who, at his prime, was the equal of any hurler in the game, black or white.

About a day and a half later, in the wee hours of April 28, local longshoreman Benjamin Adair — a 29-year-old Harlem resident who had migrated to New York from rural Laurens County, South Carolina, and was living at 61 West 135th Street — was shot once in the chest just a few doors down from his home as he was walking with friends.

The bullet was powerful enough to pierce Adair’s sternum, heart and esophagus. According to early media reports, a total of four shots were fired. Immediately after the blasts rang out and Adair crumpled to the ground, a quartet of mysterious, unknown assailants hopped in a taxi and fled the scene.

NYPD patrolman William XXXXXXXXX, a beat cop, rushed to the scene, and police manhunt was quickly launched in search of the alleged murderers. However, any sort of reason was completely unclear in the immediate wake of the crime. “[Adair’s] three companions said they saw no one,” stated the May 2 Philadelphia Tribune in an April 30 report, “and police could not find the revolver or discover any motive for the killing.”

Adair, meanwhile, was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:45 a.m. the same morning by city medical examiners, who conducted an autopsy and confirmed Adair’s death as a homicide.

Adair left behind a widow, 28-year-old Florida native Claudia Adair, and was buried five days later.

A couple weeks following Adair’s murder, law enforcement authorities were searching for Dave Brown, Oliver Marcell and Frank Wickware in Atlantic City in relation to the crime.

They were not immediately successful in finding the trio of star ballplayers, and the exact circumstances of the killing were still cloudy more than two weeks after Benjamin Adair had a hole blasted in his chest in front of his home. Were the three athletes suspects in the crime, or were they witnesses? One press reported stated simply that the trio “are said to be connected with the killing …”

The details were frustratingly, agonizingly unclear.

At least two of the players, however — Brown and Wickware — were eventually charged with the murder. But on May 16, Wickware was freed by a Manhattan court, the charges against him dropped. “The move came after the district attorney stated,” reported the May 23 Chicago Defender, “that his office held no evidence against the accused to connect him with the murder.” The Defender article stated that at the time, Wickware was living at 508 W. 135th Street, just a few blocks away from Adair.

By the end of that decade, the careers of the three players — Brown, Marcell and Wickware — were all effectively over, the concluding precipitous slides that seemed to either begin or accelerate with the Adair incident.

Even by the 1925 murder, all three men had garnered reputations for rowdiness and a fondness for the bottle.

The same May 1925 Chicago Defender article, for example, that reported Wickware’s release from the murder charges bluntly stated that the pitcher’s “failure to keep in condition” had already cost him several career opportunities. And true enough, 1925 was to prove Wickware’s last season of professional baseball. He subsequently retired to upstate New York, faded into obscurity and died in 1967 at the age of 79.

Marcell suffered an even more ignominious decline and eventual fate. Always known for his hotheadedness, during the winter of 1927-28, while he was playing in a Cuban league, Marcell has his nose bitten off by teammate Frank Warfield after their dice game erupted into a fight. The following season Negro Leagues season, 1928, proved to be Marcell’s last, and he died penniless in Denver in 1949 and was buried in a grave that was unmarked for more than four decades.

Dave Brown, meanwhile, for all intents and purposes, vanished into the ether. His name disappeared from game reports and newspaper sports pages. Some observers — and now, in a new millennium, Negro Leagues historians — believed and still believe that Brown managed to continue his pitching career by competing under one of more aliases, such as “Lefty” Wilson.

Brown didn’t appear on the radar again until July 27, 1938, when he was detained by Greensboro, N.C., police after he allegedly clubbed with a sandbag and robbed another man in an apartment. According to media reports of the day — and dogged modern research by well known baseball historian Gary Ashwill — police in North Carolina and in New York, as well as FBI agents, put two and two together and identified Brown as the man who was still, more than 13 years after Adair’s death, wanted for the South Carolina native’s murder.

After that, no one knows exactly what happened to Dave Brown.

OK, that’s what I have so far. If you want to check out more, here’s Benjamin Adair’s NYC death certificate. While a fair amount has been written about the murder itself, as well as the possible baseball perpetrators, by Gary Ashwill and myself, nothing about the victim’s background has been explored, and to me, that’s a crucial part of the equation that’s being left out.

Also, here’s a 1920 U.S. Census page that documents who I believe is the eventual murder victim, Ben Adair:


And here is what I believe is a U.S. slave schedule from 1860 that reveals Adair’s roots in Laurens County, S.C.:


I will certainly continue to pursue this. I think my fascination with this incident stems partly from my journalistic beginnings as a hard-news and investigative reporter. But it’s also just a compelling historical narrative.

3 thoughts on “A murder in Harlem

  1. Pingback: Ben Adair 1925 murder update — the dreaded FOIA request! | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: Update on 1925 murder | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  3. Pingback: Andy Cooper, the early days? | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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