The story that I am about to tell you is one that you probably remember for the rest of your life. It is a true story from 1934 that had a lifesaving turn of events at the very last minute. It is really two seemingly unrelated stories in which the outcome of one determined the life-or-death fate of another.
The first character in this story is a guy named Clement Molway, who was a 22-year-old cab driver in Boston. One night, in the latter part of 1933, he picked up a bunch of drunken partiers. He dropped them all off at a bar, but one man remained behind. Drunk as a skunk, he passed out and rolled over onto the floor of the cab. Molway immediately jumped in the back to help him.
You and I would probably do the same thing, but within minutes Molway was on his way to jail. A police officer saw him over the body of the drunken man and was convinced that Molway was trying to rob him. He was photographed, fingerprinted, and thrown in the slammer overnight. The next day the partiers were nice enough to come by a vouch for his innocence.
Molway was a free man, at least temporarily.
Months later there is a knock on the door of Molway’s apartment. He was not home at the time, but his roommate – another cab driver named Louis Berrett – was. Berrett opened the door to the sight of policemen asking for Molway. Assuming that Molway had been in some sort of traffic accident, Berrett tried to cover for his roommate by saying Molway was out of town for a few days.
It didn’t work. While Berrett was being questioned, Molway walked into the apartment. Uh oh! Caught in a little white lie. Now both Molway and Berrett were off to jail, but this time it was not for trying to roll a drunk or for telling a lie. This time it was for cold-blooded murder.
You see, on January 2, 1934, there was a robbery at the Paramount Theater in Lynn, Massachusetts. Three men came in just before the theater opened and demanded all the money from the theater’s safe. Without going into all of the details, 12 people were held hostage for more than a half-hour. An elderly billposter named C. Fred Sumner was shot dead.
The witnesses all came down to police headquarters and looked through piles and piles of mug shots. Molway’s photograph, the one taken months earlier for the taxicab incident, was among the few that the witnesses identified as possible suspects.
And here is where they are nailed against the wall. Molway was placed in a police lineup and eight of the eleven witnesses positively identified him as one of the three holdup men. Then his roommate Berrett was also placed in a lineup and the same 8 witnesses identified him as the second gunman.
It was clear to the police that they had the right criminals but were unable to get a confession from either man. They both insisted that they were innocent.
Being penniless, each man had a public defender assigned to their case. They were placed on trial together in the Spring of 1934. At the time, if found guilty, the punishment was death under Massachusetts law.
They did not stand a chance in court. If things were not bad enough for these two men, they were shackled together and placed in a green wire cage in front of the jury. Talk about prejudicing the jury.
To prove their innocence, they needed to account for their whereabouts at the time of the crime. Berrett could not recall what he was doing. Molway said he had visited a small diner each day for a mid-morning snack. A customer that remembered Molway being at the diner that day was discredited because he admitted he was drunk at the time.
An elderly lady testified that Molway had picked her up at work and drove her home. On cross-examination, she was discredited because she turned out to be a friend of Molway’s older brother.
The prosecution presented witness after witness that positively identified Molway and Barrett as the robbers and murderers. One witness named Leo Donahue pounded on the rail of the witness box and yelled out “I absolutely identify them as the men who held up the Paramount Theater.
The trial had started on Monday, February 12, 1934, and closing arguments were scheduled two weeks later on Monday, February 26, 1934. These guys were clearly headed for the electric chair.
Before I tell you about the outcome of the case, let me tell you the other story that I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast.
On February 2, 1934, during the time that Molway and Barrett were awaiting their trial, there was a robbery at the Needham Bank and Trust company in Needham, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston.
Three men entered the bank and lined the employees up against the wall. They shot a 77-year-old employee for refusing to unlock the bank cage for them. A Needham Police officer named Forbes McLeod was walking his usual beat and heard the bank’s alarm. The alarm had gone off many times in the past, so he started walking toward the bank. One of the gunmen spotted McLeod and fired his Tommy Gun through the bank’s window. Officer McLeod was shot in the stomach and fell in the middle of the street. He died shortly afterward at the hospital.
They grabbed two hostages, forcing them onto the car’s running boards. Once jumped off as the car sped away. The other was thrown off the car about three miles away.
During their getaway, the crooks passed a firehouse and saw Patrolman Frank Haddock casually talking with firefighter Timothy Coughlin. They opened fire with the machinegun at the two uniformed men. Officer Haddock was killed, but Coughlin survived. They fled off with $14,000 in cash.
Police had little to go on. They did find a burned-out Packard automobile five days later that was believed to be the getaway vehicle. The license plates were gone and there had been a clear attempt to destroy any identifying features on the car.
A Packard factory expert was brought in to examine what was left of the car. He was able to determine that the battery was not original to the car and had recently been replaced. A canvassing of local garages revealed a suspect in the case – a guy named Murton Millen. Further detective work determined that the other two men involved were Abraham Faber and Murton’s brother Irving.
Abraham Faber was the first to be apprehended in Boston. While he did not know the exact whereabouts of the two brothers, detectives ultimately found that they were staying in the Hotel Lincoln in NYC.
Police staked out the hotel and when Irving Millen entered the hotel lobby, a struggle ensued before police were able to arrest him.
A half-hour later Murton Millen entered the lobby with his wife Norma by his side. Murton was wrestled to the ground by Detective John Fitzsimmons, at which point Murton grabbed Fitzsimmons’ gun. Another officer ran up and clobbered Murton with his blackjack right at the moment the trigger was pulled. The scuffle caused the gun to turn and the bullet passed down the right pants leg of the detective. He suffered some burns from the bullet but was fine.
The next day, closing arguments were set to begin in the trial of Clement Molway and Louis Berrett. Instead, the prosecutor asked the judge to reopen the presentation of evidence, which occurred on Tuesday. Two of the eyewitnesses were brought back to the stand and testified that they were now certain that Molway and Berrett did not commit the crimes. They, along with the other six witnesses, had been taken to Dedham (dead-umm) to see photographs and statements from those arrested the day before.
The judge instructed the jury to return verdicts of non-guilty. One by one, they all did. Molway and Berrett were released from their cages and became free men. It is simply amazing how close these guys came to certain death.
While the Millen brothers initially claimed to be innocent, their partner in crime Abraham Faber had spilled the beans. By the end of their crime spree, they had killed four men, robbed three banks, and two theatres. They had stolen their weapons from a – get this – from a State Police exhibit of weapons at an auto show.
All three men faced trial and were found guilty. They appealed the verdict, during which time the two Millen brothers tried to escape jail, but they all went to the electric chair in Boston on June 7, 1935. Murton’s wife Norma served a year in jail as an accessory to the crime.
The state awarded the two men falsely accused of the theatre murder – Clement Molway and Louis Berrett – $2500 each for their mental anguish, only to be ripped off by their lawyer – Charles McGlue – who demanded half of the payment. They were able to talk him down to $2000. Public outcry and facing possible punishment by the statehouse, McGlue was forced to return all of the funds to the two men.
The Tommy gun used during the robbery of the Needham Bank has the distinction of being the first machinegun ever used during a crime in Massachusetts. It recently sold in 2006 for $48,875.00.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.