Locked away in a closet, Philly's historical homicide files tell the story of a young, cruel city | Mike Newall

Detective Norma Seranno looks through the historic H-Files – H for Homicide – locked away in a closet at Police headquarters.

The homicide detective slipped open the padlock on the closet in the bowels of the Roundhouse, Philly’s hulking police headquarters at Eighth and Race. Stacked in double rows on the shelves were binders — some clothbound ledgers, wilting from age, others made of cheap plastic. Inside the binders were records of every single murder in the city since the Roosevelt administration. Teddy, that is.

A century of Philadelphia murder and mayhem. A grim glimpse into a young, growing, cruel city. A time when men and women were killed with knives and guns, yes, but also with bygone instruments of labor: cotton hooks and paint-stirring paddles and gravedigger shovels.

Like the West Oak Lane hod carrier who in 1925 whacked his coworker with a bundle of bricks, knocking him through a hole in a roof, 12 feet to the ground below, and into the hereafter. People were killed in cards and craps games and in Italian Market barbershops and on steamships and by drunken sailors and stalking suitors. Men died over dollar debts and in bootlegging battles. Culprits were sentenced to hard labor for “the rest of the natural life” at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Historic homicide record books that date back to the early 1900s.

I’m still an old crime reporter at heart. I’ve wanted to see this room for a long time, ever since I heard that the police kept the old files around. I never thought to ask: I figured it was too big a request. That was before I learned the room is not much bigger than a utility closet. As a crime reporter, you learn very quickly that the stories you’re telling are the story of your city — stories about ordinary people who can get lost in the sweep of history, but whose life and death tell us about who we were and who we are now.

Homicide Detective Norma Serrano, my guide, pulled down the earliest ledger to be found, Book 3: 1909-1911. The spine creaked. The yellowed, fragile pages were covered in impeccable cursive — and the language of the day.

Take this December 1909 all-points bulletin for murder suspect Genoa Cantalupo, a 25-year-old Italian who worked as a “comedian in Vaudeville and Moving Picture Shows.”

“Make every effort to get this man,” Detective P.J. Brown wrote in careful script. “Watch railroads and steamers.”

Suspects wore whiskers and brown Stetsons and blue serge suits and salt-and-pepper overcoats — and some wicked of heart mimicked, perhaps too precisely, the styles of the stars. Like Cecil Blacksheare, a 27-year-old South Philadelphian wanted for the 1925 shooting of his wife, Marie. Cecil, the detectives noted, wore a “Charlie Chaplin mustache.” (“That’s the flash information?” Serrano asked, referring to the initial description of a suspect that police now put on the radio.)

The H-Records, as detectives call them — H for Homicide — are only an index of murder. The complete case files are far too voluminous to fit in a closet and are stored in the City Archives. (The records begin in 1906, but the first three years have gone missing.) For now, the books serve as a reference for detectives revisiting cold cases, or as a curiosity for younger detectives.

“This is the library to me,” said Homicide Detective Joseph Murray, who joined Serrano and me, to thumb through the pages. “The history of the city is in those murders.”

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
The H-Files. Circa 1920s.

Indeed, Capt. Jack Ryan, commander of homicide, said he hopes to secure grant money to digitize the older files, as a historical record.

“So they are not lost,” he said.

For now, a new binder fills the shelves each year, pushing the tattered ledgers, and the tantalizing bits of stories inside, a bit farther out of reach. They are tales that make a reader long to know the ending.

Like the quarrel at a graveside in Mount Moriah cemetery in 1917, where two men argued. One caved the other’s head with a shovel. Were they mourners? Gravediggers? “Did he predig?” asked Capt. Ryan, listening in now.

There were small justices: Like the sort granted to poor Helen Schultz, 17, who confronted her child’s father, Edward Lister, in his sporty coupé on Allegheny Avenue in 1925. The detective seemed sympathetic: “He refused to marry her, to give name to her baby, or even go to see it,” the report said. So Helen took a revolver from her pocket and “emptied its content into his head and body.” She was acquitted not three months later. (“I wish we could have a trial that went that fast,” Serrano said.)

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
There were small justices. Like the kind granted to poor Helen Schultz, who confronted the father of her child in his sporty coupé.

And there were those for whom justice likely never came: like Ola McCoy, 25, a black woman found strangled in the bedroom of her Montgomery Avenue apartment, hands tied, face covered by a towel. Sometimes, the detectives would update files when they made an arrest or won a conviction. Ola’s never got one: Just the word unsolved, in a different hand.

It was too much reading for one afternoon: the story of a century in a city. I thanked the detectives and I walked down the winding corridor on my way back to the newsroom. On the walls hung clusters of wanted posters and homicide reports, recent ones — the story of our city now.