Our Rich History: Segregation and how it affected Newport’s underworld

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By Chad Huggins Dunbar
Special to the NKyTribune

Part 59 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

A note from “Our Rich History” editor, Paul A. Tenkotte: Segregation in the United States was, from its start centuries ago, another ugly component of racism and of slavery, the “peculiar institution.” While the story of segregation in housing, employment, education, playgrounds, theaters, and restaurants has been studied widely by regional historians, few have attempted to examine its existence in the underworld of Northern Kentucky’s gambling heyday as Chad Dunbar has. Mr. Dunbar’s vast research into this topic, which he pursued in a seminar class that I taught some years ago at NKU, resurrects that history. It is a “peculiar” segregation story of its own, where white mobsters like Frank “Screw” Andrews slowly wrestled control of African-American clubs and casinos from Black underworld figures such as the Payne Brothers and Melvin Clark. For prior articles about this fascinating topic, see:

• The Payne Brothers and

• Numbers King Melvin Clark

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 3, 1954, a shoot-out between five male patrons of the Copa Club in Newport, Kentucky erupted. It sprang from an argument over “two girls and the payment of drinks” after a group of three men, including Vernon James, approached Joseph Tucker and Henry Coppock, insulting them and their dates. The incident escalated when 27-year-old Joseph Tucker of Dayton, Ohio fired his gun at the floor, accidentally causing the bullet to ricochet off the floor and graze 37-year-old Vernon James of Covington over the left eye. James then fled the club only to return a short while later with a .32 caliber revolver of his own, which he fired into the crowd outside the Copa Club, hitting 28-year-old Henry Coppock of Wyoming, Ohio through the heart. Coppock managed to stumble away, but collapsed and died on the sidewalk down the block (“Ohio Man Slain In Newport Fight,” Kentucky Post, November 3, 1954, Final Cincinnati ed., p. 1; “2 Newport Shooting Suspects in Court,” Kentucky Post, November 4, 1954, Final Cincinnati ed., p. 1; “Two Held In Slaying At Newport,” Kentucky Times-Star, November 3, 1954, Bluegrass Final ed., p. 1; “Shooting Probe To Grand Jury,” Kentucky Times-Star, November 4, 1954, Bluegrass Final ed. p. 1; “Murder Case In Newport After Fatal Club Affray,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 1954, Kentucky ed., p. 3).

Photo 01 William Davis

William Davis, the “right-hand man” of Melvin Clark in Northern Kentucky

James was arrested at the club by the Newport police, while Tucker managed to make it back to Ohio before being arrested, within hours, by the Lincoln Heights and Lockland police at Reading Road and Benson Street. Vernon James was charged with the murder of Henry Coppock in Campbell County Court, while Joseph Tucker was charged with malicious shooting and wounding before a Campbell County grand jury.

To make matters even more chaotic, that very same night, Percy L. Williams, Melvin Clark’s predecessor as “Numbers King” of the policy racket, died unexpectedly in an automobile accident. This tragic incident vividly illustrates the perilous atmosphere of Newport’s casino bars during the 1950s, as the normal level of nightlife violence was amplified by the background tension of competing mob factions in a relatively lawless red-light district. This is the environment that Melvin Clark plunged headfirst into when he reentered Newport’s nightclub racket (“Mel Clark’s Ex-Aide Slain: William Davis Shot To Death in Dice Game at Newport Club,” Kentucky Times-Star, December 27, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 4).

As rival factions continued to compete for control of the numbers racket, coalitions between even longtime allies began to shift chaotically. On June 26, 1955, Melvin Clark was arrested and charged with malicious shooting with intent to kill and flourishing a deadly weapon, after he fired several shots at his longtime ally William Davis. He was released on $3,000 bail a few weeks later, but would be tragically gunned down within days after his release. (Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Melvin Clark, July 1955, Campbell County Circuit Court, Newport, KY; “Numbers Racketeer ‘King’ Slain In Newport Gun Duel: Killing Explodes Gang War,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 19, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 5).

By the summer of 1955, Melvin Clark had separated from his wife, Jessie Carl Clark, and began dating Evelyn Farmer, a Jet magazine “Beauty of the Week” who attended the University of Cincinnati and worked as his bookkeeper (Al Schottelkotte, “UC Co-Ed May Be Lost Key To Mystery In Nightclub Killing Of Newport Racketeer,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 27, 1955, p. 6; Matthew DeMichele and Garry Potter, Sin City Revisted: A Case Study of the Official Sanctioning of Organized Crime in an “Open City”)

On the evening of Monday, July 18, 1955, Melvin Clark and Evelyn Farmer finished dining at the Kitty Kat Café (417 W. 5th Street) around 7:45 p.m., when Clark decided to visit the nearby Alibi Club at 310 Central Avenue, to discuss a business offer floated by associates of Frank “Screw” Andrews during several earlier phone conversations. Clark believed that he and Andrews had finally settled their differences and were going to cooperate more. However, since Clark had opened the Coconut Grove for the specific purpose of competing against Andrews’ Alibi Club and Sportsman’s Club, Andrews decided to eliminate the threat of unwanted competition.
This interpretation is supported by news coverage, which described Clark and Andrews as underworld archrivals (“Clark Ambushed, Says Girl; Names Man Who Fired Shots,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 29, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 3; “Numbers Racketeer ‘King’ Slain In Newport Gun Duel: Killing Explodes Gang War,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 19, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 5; “ ‘Numbers King’ Is Killed In Newport Duel: Death Dealt To Melvin Clark In Alley Battle With ‘Screw’ Andrews,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1).

Clark pulled up to Club Alibi, and left Evelyn in the car while he went to meet Andrews. Dressed in Bermuda shorts, knee-high socks, and a brightly-colored shirt, Clark was supposed to meet Andrews at the rear exit of the Alibi Club. However, he was ambushed in the alley between the Alibi and the Sportsman’s Club. At 8:15 p.m., Clark was shot four times—twice to the chest, once to the upper abdomen, and once across the lip and nose. He died instantly at the scene. The official cause of death was listed as gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen from a .38 caliber revolver. Nevertheless, Andrews claimed self-defense and his version of the story posited that Clark ambushed him outside of his own club, firing immediately from “a few yards away” before he had a chance to say anything (“Clark Was Killed By Two Gunmen, Police Are Told: Shot In Ambush,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 30, 1955, p. 1; “Racket Figure Shot Down: Andrews Held In Slaying Of Melvin Clark,” Kentucky Post, July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1; “Counsel Seeking Bond for Andrews In Clark Killing,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 22, 1955, pp. 1A, 6A; Death Certificate for Melvin Clark, July 18, 1955, File No. 116 55-13059”, Commonwealth of Kentucky Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Frankfort, KY).

However, there are many problems with Andrews’ version of events. Andrews also claimed that he somehow managed to retrieve his gun from his car, despite Clark having the presumed element of surprise in an ambush situation. The gun found in Clark’s hand had fired three shots, all of which missed Andrews, despite Clark being a veteran of the U.S. Marines and having killed Oliver “Bull” Payne three years earlier with his first shot. Moreover, a gunshot wound across the lip and nose, which Clark received, is more consistent with an intimidation technique at close range against an unarmed opponent, or alternatively a shooter firing from on top of the roof, than the type of wound usually inflicted during an alleyway shoot-out. Further, the gun found in Clark’s hand was said to still be hot to the touch when the police arrived on the scene, even though only three shots had been fired from it. To further complicate matters, the gun found in Clark’s hand didn’t even belong to him.

Even more suspicious, according to news reports, Frank Andrews told his version of events not only to Newport Police Chief George Gugel, but also to Campbell County Coroner Dr. Leo Sauter before Sauter conducted an autopsy or issued a coroner’s report. The coroner also publicly commented before the autopsy that he suspected that Clark was a drug addict and that he would specifically check during the post-mortem examination for signs of recent drug use. However, no evidence of drug use was listed as either a contributing cause of death or “other significant condition” on the official death certificate.

After the autopsy, Clark’s body was sent to C. E. Jones Funeral Home on 633 Scott Street in Covington before being transported to Whittaker & Sons Funeral Home, a historic African-American family-owned mortuary in Columbus, Ohio. He was buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.

Photo 02 Melvin Clark Ancestry

Melvin Edward Clark. Source: Ancestry.com

Three days after the killing of Melvin Clark, on July 22nd, Trial Commissioner Thomas Schnorr ordered the arrest and detainment of Franks Andrews until the October grand jury session. In a hearing the next day, Andrews’ defense lawyer, A. J. Jolly, filed a motion for bail to be set and a writ of habeas corpus to challenge the length of detention until trial. Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney George Muehlenkamp cited whispers of a retaliatory gang war and safety for the defendant as his reasons for the long detention. Newport Detective Chief Leroy Fredericks and Detective Pat Ciafardini testified on Andrews’ behalf that they knew nothing about either Andrews or Clark being involved in the numbers racket, and that all they knew about Andrews was that he was operating bars, despite both mobsters’ widespread notoriety.

Fredericks even went so far as to claim that Melvin Clark walked into police headquarters and shouted that he was going to kill Andrews, even though there is no record of anybody in the police station doing anything in response to such an allegation. Nevertheless, Andrews was released on a $10,000 bond until his trial.

A week after Andrews’ bail release, the Kentucky Times-Star published an article revealing that Melvin Clark, Frank Andrews, William Davis, and Alfred L. “White Smitty” Schmidt all held federal gaming stamps for their establishments. Davis had been Clark’s right-hand man until days before Clark’s death, while “White Smitty” was a white mobster known for muscling his way into the numbers racket and nightclub/casino bar scenes in Newport’s African-American community, as well as being an ally of Andrews. In fact, the report also exposed that “White Smitty” owned a gaming stamp assigned to a bar in the close vicinity of Club Alibi, where the shooting had taken place (“Clark, Andrews Held Federal Gaming Stamps,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 29, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 2).

The further importance of this revelation was that Northern Kentucky mobsters had acquired federal tax stamps that legitimized their operations with the federal government, while gambling was still illegal under Kentucky’s state laws. This would simultaneously cause the state government to crack down on Northern Kentucky’s gambling industry, while the federal government would seek to save face by ordering a series of raids against gaming operators in the region.

Twelve days after Melvin Clark was killed, a Black woman from Cincinnati’s West End came forth and said that she and her husband had witnessed the murder and that Clark was ambushed by two gunmen, one of whom was Edward “Polack Eddie” Uhlic. Uhlic was a mobster who worked under Frank “Screw” Andrews as manager of Club Alibi and had been severely wounded two years’ prior in a shoot-out with a Black mobster in back of the same club. The other shooter that the witness saw was Frank Andrews. The witness and her husband were parked in their car, fifteen feet away in the parking lot of Club Alibi, when she witnessed Melvin Clark get shot once before falling, then Uhlic standing over him and firing repeatedly into Clark. She also said that since witnessing the shooting, she had seen an armed man prowling outside her bathroom window.

The witness also said that Melvin Clark had $1,500 in his pocket when the shooting took place, which he had taken from his Coconut Grove Night Club to later pay off winners of numbers drawings and horse bets. Meanwhile, a Newport city official told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he had seen Clark earlier on the day that he was killed, asking to meet with Newport Police Chief George Gugel. According to other mobsters, Clark had been complaining that his recent pay-offs and bribes to the local police were no longer yielding adequate results. Despite these leaks, Chief Gugel denied having met with Clark since the Saturday before the killing. On the same day that the witness came forward, Campbell County Coroner Dr. Leo C. Sauter said that he would exhume Melvin Clark’s body to recover two bullets for ballistics testing.

At the time, the police were still searching for Evelyn Farmer, the 19-year-old girlfriend of Clark, who had also witnessed the shooting from the parking lot. After the shooting, she ran from the parked car and was chased by one of Andrews’ underlings, but managed to evade him. She somehow made it back to the West End of Cincinnati that night and left quickly to an undisclosed location. Her family members in Cincinnati told the Cincinnati Enquirer in late July that, according to her, Melvin wasn’t even armed when he approached Club Alibi and that the gun found in his hand was planted by Andrews and his men.

Furthermore, the family said that the animosity between Clark and Andrews wasn’t about the numbers racket, but was over a new race horse handbook (off-track horse race betting) that Clark had opened in the basement of his new Coconut Grove Night Club. They also pointed out that Andrews’ version of the story involved his being shot at first, somehow running a good distance to his car where he retrieved his gun, then shooting Clark four consecutive times from that distance during dusk lighting, while he was known to have bad eyesight. These claims bolstered the argument of the Campbell County Attorney, who had argued at the preliminary hearing that it was physically impossible for the shoot-out to have gone as “Screw” Andrews had described it (Schottelkotte, p. 6).

By August 1st, the case would take yet another turn as the witness who had previously come forward abruptly renounced her claims, emphatically saying “I don’t want to say anything and I don’t want to hear anything” when police officers and the Campbell Commonwealth Attorney visited her home after she refused to meet with him the previous day. She and her husband suddenly refused to cooperate or talk with the prosecution, except to say that they made everything up, without any further explanation. The police and prosecution responded by considering issuing a subpoena to force her to appear and testify in court (“ ‘Witness’ Refuses to Talk about Melvin Clark’s Death,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 2, 1955, p. 5).

The prosecuting attorney then pivoted to motioning for an exhumation of Melvin Clark’s body, from his grave at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. On August 4, 1955, Clark’s body was exhumed and the bullets were extracted in order to conduct ballistic tests to determine if he had died in the manner described by Frank Andrews, or in the manner described by the uncooperative witness, who had by this point in time been identified as Mrs. Rosemary Bedford.

Clarks’ body was taken to University Hospital in Columbus, where the bullets were removed. The forensic investigation was conducted by Franklin County (Ohio) Coroner Dr. Robert A. Evans, Campbell County Coroner Dr. Leo C. Sauter, Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney William J. Wise, and Detective Kenneth Collins. It is also worth noting that the reporting by the Cincinnati Enquirer went from claiming that the witness, Bedford, had seen the shooting from her car in their July 30th article, to claiming that she saw the shooting from a hole in a fence that Newport police claimed was 7 feet off the ground. Despite this significant inconsistency in accounts, there is no acknowledgement of the former article by the latter, nor any mention of the witness’s story changing in any way other than an unexplained denial (“Clark’s Body To Be Exhumed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 4, 1955, p. 6).

While all known associates of “Screw” Andrews insisted that he hadn’t been involved in the numbers racket since his release from prison in 1947, the pattern of his interests in taking over the Sportsman’s Club and shutting down Steve Payne’s fledgling numbers operation suggest a different reality. Other underworld sources cited by the Kentucky Post suggested that the increased animosity between Andrews and Clark was the result of a power struggle between the two, who were both part of an underworld cabal known as the “Big Five,” which orchestrated the numbers racket and horse racing in both Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (“Racket Figure Shot Down: Andrews Held In Slaying Of Melvin Clark,” Kentucky Post, July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1).

Clark allegedly headed another faction, called the “Secret Three,” which was attempting to strong-arm a larger cut of the proceeds from the numbers rackets from the rest of the Big Five. Meanwhile, Frank Andrews had recently been alleged to have been working under his once-rival Albert “White Smitty” Schmidt, who controlled several casino bars and a sizeable share of the numbers racket in Newport’s white community, and whose Cadillac had been spotted outside the Sportsman’s Club earlier that day. According to these same sources, there had been whispers about an all-out gang war between the numbers racketeers for at least two weeks before the death of Clark.

Andrews was eventually charged with murder in Campbell County Circuit Court and released on a $10,000 bond. The grand jury heard evidence and testimonies during the first two weeks of October 1955. The witnesses included Clark’s girlfriend, an 8-year-old boy who saw the shooting, Newport police officers who had responded on the scene, and Rosemary Bedford, who used to work for Clark at the Coconut Grove Night Club around the time of the shooting.

Andrews’ defense team called many Newport police officers as witnesses, despite none of them being present at the time of the shooting. During the trial, Frank Andrews’ lawyers repeatedly attempted to summon Evelyn Farmer, Clark’s girlfriend, to Newport as a witness in the trial, but she had since fled back to Toledo and attempted to fight the summons in Lucas County’s Court of Common Pleas. She eventually testified to the grand jury during the first week of October, before fleeing once again to Cincinnati, where she was eventually apprehended and brought to Newport in order to testify during the trial on November 18, 1955. The trial concluded five days later with the jury finding Frank “Screw” Andrews not guilty of the murder of Melvin Clark (“Grand Jury Hears Police In Melvin Clark Slaying,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 12, 1955, p. 38; Schottelkotte, p. 6; Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Frank Andrews, 1955, pp. 482-484).

Melvin Clark was a well-known public figure, and had been featured in Jet magazine (the most popular African-American weekly magazine of its day) six times during the early 1950s. When he was killed, his death was so newsworthy that newspapers as far away as the Long Beach Independent in California ran articles about his passing the very next day. The story traveled nationally through the Associated Press, eventually being picked up as a front-page story in major city publications such as The Chicago Defender (“Kentucky-Ohio Policy King Slain In Gun Duel,” The Chicago Defender, July 30, 1955, National ed., pp. 1-2).

William “Bill” Davis

William “Bill” Davis was born December 6, 1917 in Covington to John Henry Davis and Addie Dyson. He began as a small-time petty criminal, but eventually rose up the ranks of Northern Kentucky’s underworld. Sometime in the late 1940s to 1950’s, Davis became the longtime right-hand man of Melvin Clark. The duo was suspected of operating a Newport-based numbers clearinghouse in April 1950, which led to an unsuccessful raid by the Newport Police. Davis and Clark had been business partners in both the numbers racket and the Coconut Grove Café casino located at 502 Patterson Street in Newport, which Davis managed from 1954 to 1955. The duo had a falling out on June 26, 1955, when Clark fired five shots at Williams as he drove away from the casino in his car. Two days after Clark posted bail on July 16th, he was gunned down in back of Frank Andrews’ Alibi Club on Central Avenue. Davis later testified in Frank Andrews’ murder trial as a character witness for the defense, and depicted Melvin Clark as violent and unstable (“Evidence Lacking In Newport Raid,” Kentucky Times-Star, April 19, 1950, p. 3; “Mel Clark’s Ex-Aide Slain: William Davis Shot To Death in Dice Game at Newport Club.” Kentucky Times-Star, December 27, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 4; “Gambling Figure Is Slain In West End of Newport; Was Aide To Melvin Clark,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 28, 1955, Kentucky Morning ed., p. 1; “Girl Contends Club Slaying Cold Blooded: Daughter of William Davis Says Father Was Not Armed When Shot Down in Newport,” Kentucky Post, December 28, 1955, Final ed., p. 1).

Five months after the death of Melvin Clark, Davis was fatally shot at 2:20 a.m. on December 27, 1955 during an argument over a dice game with 46-year-old Frank Mitchell in the back room of the Sportsman’s Club in Newport, still operated by “Screw” Andrews. He was killed instantly from a gunshot to the chest delivered by a .38 revolver, at point blank range, after Mitchell drew and fired his gun first. The other dice gamblers grabbed the gun from Mitchell’s hand and forced him to flee the Sportsman’s Club, firing three shots at him with his own gun as he drove away in his car. Mitchell insisted that he was forced to kill William Davis in self-defense after Davis began drawing his handgun during an argument over whether Davis was cheating by using fixed or weighted dice in the craps game. Others claimed that it was a planned assassination on behalf of Clark’s old loyalists.

William Davis was 38 years old at the time of his death. One of his daughters, 19-year-old Naomi, was an eyewitness to his murder. She disputed initial accounts about her father’s murder, arguing that her father did not have a gun with him that night, and thus couldn’t have been the first person to draw a weapon. She also contended that her father wasn’t even the operator of the dice game, and therefore couldn’t have “fixed” it. He was laid to rest four days later, in McGowan Cemetery in Mount Sterling, after his funeral at C.E. Jones Funeral Home in Covington.

Frank Mitchell

Frank Mitchell was a petty-criminal-turned-hitman. He had a long criminal record in Cincinnati stretching back to 1934, including a 20-year prison sentence for attempted murder in 1943—however he was somehow freed the following year on parole, having only served 5% of his prison term.

In December 1955, Mitchell murdered William Davis, the long-time ally of Melvin Clark, during a dice game in the Sportsman’s Club in Newport. Having fled Newport after the killing, Mitchell was arrested at his home in Espanola Alley by the Cincinnati police and charged with willful murder and a concealed carry of a deadly weapon charge in February of the following year. The same month, Mitchell was released on bond, bail being set at $10,000 for the murder charge and $1,500 for the concealed carry charge. Despite having killed Davis in a crowded venue, the murder weapon being recovered at the scene of the crime, and his character publicly tarnished in the local newspapers by his ex-wife, Mitchell managed to be found not guilty by the circuit court jury in March 1956 (Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Frank Mitchell, 1955-1956, Campbell County Circuit Court, Newport, KY).

Killis Moxley

Killis Moxley, born in 1919, was a numbers runner for Melvin Clark and lived at 8971 Chester Road in the Lincoln Heights suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. On October 7, 1955, almost three months after the death of Melvin Clark, Judge John H. Druffel of Hamilton County District Court fined Moxley $500 for failure to purchase a $50 federal wagering stamp, after he was arrested selling and running number slips in Cincinnati. After pleading guilty to the charge, Moxley was asked by Judge Druffel whether he worked for “White Smitty,” a Newport-based white mobster known for muscling his way into the Black casino bars and numbers racket. Two weeks prior, ten number runners who worked for “White Smitty” were brought before Judge Druffel and convicted of the same charge as Moxley. Hence, the judge demanded to know why “White Smitty” hadn’t been arrested along with his underlings by this point. The court advised the judge that Moxley had worked for Melvin Clark and continued to work for his faction, instead of “White Smitty” or “Screw” Andrews (“Court Levies $500 Fine On Melvin Clark Aid,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 8, 1955, p. 8).

Conclusion

The segregated clubs and casinos of Newport were prosperous enterprises owned and operated by Black, Italian-American, and Jewish mobsters. Intense gang rivalries added to the segregation of the times. Whether white or African-American, however, the mobsters claimed ultimate equality in one ironic aspect—the underworld was a violent enterprise where success was often interrupted by the premature retirement of death.

Chad Huggins Dunbar is a graduate of the MA in Public History Program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He resides in Louisville, Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at [email protected] Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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