1930 mob shakedown, murder still vivid

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When Virginia Tucker was not quite 4 years old, gangsters beat her father unconscious and left him in a Wilmerding street to die.

Virginia is 87 now. Her daughter, Jill Henkel, told me her story. Ms. Henkel, 53, is a Turtle Creek councilwoman, but when she read "Pittsburgh: The Dark Years" on post-gazette.com last week, she was again a little girl at her mother's side.

Her mother shared memories of her father's death at 33 so many times, "it's like it was happening to me personally."

She was gripped by the PG story by Steve Mellon that focused on the midday gangland slaying of three Volpe brothers in a Hill District coffee shop on July 29, 1932. During the waning days of Prohibition, that crime family was notorious enough that The Pittsburgh Press could run the banner headline "THREE VOLPES SLAIN" and nobody had to ask who they were.

Nor did Ms. Henkel. The Volpes -- "or one of their goons" -- killed John Tucker on Oct. 21, 1930, she said. As Ms. Henkel explained in an email, her grandparents ran a little speakeasy in Wilmerding, and one night the gangsters came in to shake down John and Kathryn Tucker. Mr. Tucker, a Navy veteran and a pretty big guy, refused to pay protection money.

"So they waited until he closed for the evening, and beat him senseless and left him in the street unconscious," she wrote.

Mr. Tucker left a widow with four children, the oldest only around 10. Ms. Henkel's mom, Virginia, was second youngest and she has a nightmarish memory of neighbors coming to their home for the wake.

"My mom told me many times about being in the dining room at their home, sitting near her father's casket," Ms. Henkel said. "A woman came in, holding hands with her own little girl."

The woman pointed at Virginia, a month shy of her fourth birthday, sitting by the casket and said, "Now Virginia has no daddy."

"Even though Mom is now in a nursing home with dementia," Ms. Henkel said, "she still remembers it vividly."

If you've ever been entertained by a mobster story -- and nearly every American has -- take a moment to think about the impact felt after a bloody scene ends.

"My grandmother ended up running an illegal moonshine still in the woods on the fringe of a neighbor's farm," Ms. Henkel said, "and worked as a cook in a boarding house. ... She was remarried a few years later to a man who had a vicious temper when he drank, and who begrudged her children the barest necessities. The child they had [together], however, was treated as a princess by his family.

"They would bring many presents on holidays and birthdays for her, while my mom and her siblings sat by and could only watch."

Her mother never had a baby doll. Her stepfather would refer to his four stepchildren as "John Tucker's kids." When grandkids came, he'd give chewing gum only to those of his blood, Ms. Henkel remembered. He put the gum back in his pocket before she or any of her blood cousins got any.

So the killing in Wilmerding -- the official cause of death was pneumonia -- not only robbed her mother of a father who adored her, the repercussions trickled down to the next generation.

Her mother always gave her everything she needed, Ms. Henkel said, but "I wonder sometimes how my mom's disposition might have been different if the Volpe brothers had not robbed her and her brothers and sister of a father who truly loved them."

Mr. Tucker is buried in St. John the Baptist Cemetery in North Versailles. His granddaughter, who knows him only through the few stories that her mother and kin were able to share, texted a photo of his gravestone, but I couldn't make out much.

Microfilm of contemporary Press and Post-Gazette newspapers didn't turn up any mention of his death either. The family couldn't afford to buy a death notice. It's possible there was a brief news item somewhere I missed, but the Press led that week with headlines of the "Season's First Snow" and the police cracking down on scalpers for the big Pitt-Notre Dame football game that weekend.

Ms. Henkel said her mother still remembers that day of her father's death as being very cold.

Prohibition would end three years after Mr. Tucker's death, but today's illegal drug trade has yielded the same kind of casual violence. Who knows what the descendants of its victims will be feeling tomorrow or 80 years on?


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