Almost 100 years ago, African American, Luther Boddy received notoriety for killing two white detectives in Harlem. Over 40,000 police were deployed in a massive three-state manhunt. A look behind the headlines reveals that Boddy faced the same problems that African Americans still face today.
“I cannot understand why some men, immediately on donning a police uniform, become instruments of horror and cruel methods.” Morris Koeing, Luther Boddy’s lawyer, 1922
Luther Boddy, an ex-convict who was known to police in Harlem, for several run-ins with the law, killed two White New York City Detectives, William H. Miller, and Francis J.M. Buckley. The detectives were bringing Boddy in for questioning relating to the shooting of a Black policeman weeks earlier. The Black policeman was shot at four times and hit twice; in the abdomen and shoulder. Since Boddy was known as a frequent criminal, they thought it would be useful to bring him in for questioning.
The detectives apprehended Boddy while he was reporting to his parole officer. The detectives did not put him in handcuffs and did not search him thoroughly. Approximately 50 feet from the police station, Boddy leaped backward, drew his gun, and shot both detectives. He ran away and lost himself in a crowd of “negroes”. Miller was shot in the head and died on his way to the hospital. They tried to save Buckley with a transfusion, but it was not successful. From his death bed in Harlem Hospital, detective Buckley stated to his fellow cops that gathered around his bed, “Get Boddy, he’s a cop fighter.”
Immediately, 11,000 police officers combed the Harlem tenement houses known to police to have criminal hideouts and cellars with secret passageways. Buildings were built flush next to each other for entire blocks sometimes, providing rooftop getaways. The officers searched building by building and block by block. The Black Harlem community was in an uproar because the police “were not always gentle with negroes that answered slyly or stupidly.” But Boddy was no longer in New York. In just a couple of days, 40,000 policemen were part of a massive manhunt that spanned three states.
After the killing of the two detectives, things got a little interesting. Boddy took a bus, a crosstown car, and then the subway and ended up in New Jersey, where he went to a friend’s house, a woman, and borrowed her clothes to disguise himself as a woman. He commandeered a taxicab by pulling a gun on the driver. The taxi took him to Pennsylvania. But after the vehicle ran out of gas and the driver was able to escape. Boddy hid out with some friends and was captured by Philadelphia police because of his friends’ betrayal. Pennsylvania Governor Sproul quickly signed extradition papers for Boddy to go back to New York. He was tried and convicted sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing. When the guilty verdict was read, “a faint smile overspread Boddy’s features.” Boddy was executed on August 31, 1922, two-hundred and thirty-eight days after the killing. His last word to the doctor that was helping to execute him was, “Goodbye, Doc.” Witnesses said he was calm and smiled the whole time.
This big story has been lost in the forgotten attic of history. However, there are still lessons to be learned from it. A look into this event is an emotionally exhausting story of how law enforcement had harassed the Black population from seemingly the beginning when Africans first landed in America. And most disturbing, it is a mirror of what is still going on today.
During this crime in 1921–22, over 100 Blacks had been lynched, the Tulsa Race Massacre had taken place. The Ku Klux Klan was at its apex in membership (4 million) and public activities such as festivals, pageants, and social gatherings. And on top of those woes, America suffered a depression where the unemployment rate was 11.7 percent. There were no data collected on unemployment by race until 1954, but history has consistently taught us the Black unemployment is invariably at least twice the rate of White unemployment. The unemployment rate may have been well over 23 percent in the Black communities during Boddy’s time on earth. Crime is a viable but dangerous way to survive during rough times. And when that is the chosen pathway to survive, law enforcement and Black communities become entangled in a never-ending cycle of mistrust, brutal violence, death, and incarceration.
Luther Boddy, by all accounts, was not a choir boy. He had been arrested several times for burglary and larceny, and other petty crimes, but strangely, he was convicted of only a few of those crimes because of lack of evidence. However, when crimes were committed in Harlem, he was a usual suspect, the go-to man for the police questioning. He was often arrested and taken to the police station. In the police station, his rights were repeatedly violated. He was consistently physically beaten by police officers and detectives. According to Boddy’s testimony, the two detectives that he eventually killed also took part in those beatings. The law officers beat him so bad that he sometimes had to take a week to recover from the injuries and remained bedridden. When they picked him up and questioned him about the shooting of a Black cop named Jasper Rhodes, Boddy said he had nothing to with that shooting. Attaching Boddy to the shooting Rhodes was simply an excuse for detectives to pick him up and torture him.
Luther Boddy’s mother was described in the newspapers as a Southern “mammy” type. She was illiterate and had to have someone read to her the letter about her son’s arrest. Boddy was the youngest of her four children. She stated that he suffered recurring epileptic fits as a child. He suffered so much from the fits, she noted, that she could not chastise him. She said that he would even froth from the mouth. She found room in her grief to appeal to the family of the slain officers,
“My old heart bleeds for the families of the detectives. There will be hard nights for me, and I won’t sleep much. I thank God he wasn’t killed when they caught him. He’s got time to pray for forgiveness and I’ll have time to pray for him.”
As for shooting the White detectives, Boddy said he panicked. He knew even if he was not formally charged, he had a beating coming that may kill him. He had suffered enough beatings. The result can best be described as having a panic attack; he snapped. The detectives did not frisk him thoroughly. But Boddy pulled out a gun that was in a holster under his left arm and shot both his tormentor detectives. Miller was shot in the head and died on his way to the hospital. Buckley died the next afternoon in the hospital. Boddy did not think about the consequences at that moment. He only knew that he did not want to take another beating.
When the trial was beginning, Boddy’s wife, Cora Brown Boddy, requested that she have a say in selecting the jurors. The court ruled that she had to remain a spectator. During the trial, his lawyer stated that his client was not insane. Pleading insanity was an argument that would not have worked because Boddy seemed to be cool, calm, collected, and lucid during the entire trial. He smiled most of the time and blew kisses at his family. According to a newspaper report, “Boddy testified coolly and showed intelligence and avoided unnecessary work in answering questions…”
But his lawyer, probably trying to make up for not being able to use an insanity plea because of the client’s intelligent behavior, declared that Boddy’s brain was underdeveloped. And since his mind was underdeveloped, as his lawyer stated, he did not know right from wrong. Even the prosecutor celebrated Boddy’s intelligence for obvious malevolent reasons, “In all of my experience, I have never met a keener intellect,” The prosecutor stated and effectively destroyed any chance of an insanity plea.
This gives birth to a philosophical question; A binary choice was his only option. If killing the detectives was the wrong thing to do, then the right thing for him to do was go willingly to the police station and get the shit beat out of him yet again. Even if he physically resisted without shooting the detectives, he would have been killed on the spot or faced another brutal beating. Just like even prominent Blacks in Harlem, he did not have the resources or the social status or clout to do anything about the torture the cops were inflicting on him.
The police had all of the judicial system’s power and the backing of the entire political machine. Beating Black men without cause was part of the job, and no one was going to persecute a White cop for beating a Black man, especially a Black man who is considered a criminal. The fact that the law could use a black body any way they wanted without paying any price has remained entrenched in America. That way of thinking is still alive today. Trayvon Martin, only a 16-year-old, did not have the right to protect himself from the armed White man that stalked and killed him for no reason. That is why his killer was set free. And more recently, the death of George Floyd, who had his life snuffed out rather casually in broad daylight, in front of dozens of witnesses and cameras recording the incident.
In his trial, Boddy testified on his own behalf and emphasized that once, seven detectives beat him with a broomstick encased in a rubber hose. He stated he had been picked up several times as a “suspect” but was hardly ever held as a prisoner. Boddy named his tormentors, which included the two detectives he killed. He also claimed that they came to his home once and beat him, but they did not arrest him. He was their personal punching bag. A witness stated that when Boddy was arrested, Miller and Buckley “used vile epithets” and warned Boddy that they were going to beat him when they got to the station. But this meant nothing to the jury.
The prosecutor responded, “Many rats who are tried in the criminal courts seek the excuse of mistreatment by policemen.”
At the time of Boddy’s execution, The Freeman newspaper wrote that Luther Boddy was “…returning evil for evil. As the police themselves had taught him to do.”
The court made the detectives out to be Saints. This is despite the fact that detective Miller was known as a “framer” in the underworld. He once convicted a man on a larceny charge, but the charge was dropped because of Miller’s perjured testimony. This information was not allowed to be presented in court.
And as an indictment on racism and its effect on capital punishment, The Freeman Newspaper wrote this assessment, which could have been written yesterday, instead of almost 100 years ago: “…as long as thousands of men want work and cannot find it; as long as politicians play fast and loose with legislation, and judges gamble with the principles of justice; as long as the police administer brutal punishment before the trial; we shall find it hard to swallow the notion that the extension of capital punishment will help very much to clear this country of crime.” In other words, the fear of death (as punishment) is not as intense as the need to survive in an imbalanced world.
After the Great War, Harlem’s Black residents condemned the use of the “Third Degree.” The Third Degree was the practice of police beating Black people while they were arrested or in custody. Though most Blacks did not want to publicly defend Boddy’s actions, they did point out that Black citizens’ treatment could lead to such an outcome and retaliation is not surprising. The Chicago Defender explained, “the death of the police officers, as unfortunate as it was, had, however, brought forcibly to attention the growing practice of New York Policemen and detectives of unmercifully beating people placed under arrest or taken into the station for questioning.” W.E.B. Du Boise, the great sociologist and civil rights activist, weighed in on the case, “What more pathetic, baffling and heart-rendering case can one conceive?” Du Boise admitted Boddy’s guilt but also pointed out that society was also guilty. He pointed out that society laughed at and ridiculed and hated Boddy. What good can come from that?
After Boddy’s execution, a solemn mass was held for detectives Miller and Buckley at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem. Miller was married and the father of 9 children. Buckley was also married with 3 children. A few months after the mass, they were honored posthumously with an award for bravery. The detectives were well known in Harlem and hated by the Black citizens for their treatment of the Black population. Perhaps to help keep the peace, Black Harlem residents arranged a benefit theater performance at the New Douglass Theater. They raised over $3500.00 for the families of the slain detectives. The mayor of New York, John Francis Hylan, prayed at their funeral.
Boddy became a folk hero in Harlem. Many men were beaten by police, but few retaliated in the way that Boddy did. He just did not want to get beat again. More than thirty thousand people attended his funeral, and thousands more lined the streets to watch the hearse carrying his body move slowly down Seventh Avenue. It cannot be said that the killing of these two detectives ushered in reform for the better. As a matter of fact, things probably became worse as some cops were out for retaliation in any form that they could. Only twenty-five days passed from the murder taking place to the jury finding Boddy guilty. It did not help that another cop was killed by an African American named Frank Whaley in the middle of his trial.
The past is relevant. Everything that we have been doing so far did not fix this problem between cops and African Americans. Our experience is the empiric knowledge we need to move towards a better tomorrow. The contumacious relationship between police and Black citizens does not have to last an eternity. Indirect problems have to be solved first by addressing poverty, employment, health, and education. That’s where our energy should be. These are the same unsolved issues we had in 1920 and the same we have in 2021. If we don’t address and solve those problems first, we will forever continue in this loop.