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Serial Killer ‘Texas Jim’ Baker, Part Two

Home | Feature Stories | Serial Killer ‘Texas Jim’ Baker, Part Two

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The Investigation

After Baker left, the two men loosened their ropes and discovered Gaw’s body while searching for a telephone to call police. Detectives and lab supervisors were able to piece together that Gaw’s killer must be a former employee because he knew where to find the cash box and where the poison was secured. For some reason, the killer did not take Gaw’s money, nor did he remove the valuable platinum bars the lab stored which were worth thousands of dollars. They were also able to quickly deduce that Gaw was killed with poison, which was odd since Mayhew and McCauley said the killer had a gun. Detectives wondered why did he use poison instead of a gun.

After the two drivers described the man that robbed him, lab supervisors were able to narrow that down to three men, one of whom was Jim Baker. An employee photograph of Baker was used to make a positive identification with the truck drivers.

When police searched Jim Baker’s room that morning, they were horrified to learn what kind of man they were dealing with.

“Convinced by their discoveries in Baker’s room that they are dealing with a psychopathic case—the police began the nationwide distribution of circulars containing Baker’s photograph and description, as well as a warning that he is a dangerous man known to be armed with a dirk and a pistol,” the New York Times reported the day after the murder. Like most newspapers during for that era, the Times maintained a certain decorum for their readers. Some of the more delicate topics of humanity were off-limits, and if they couldn’t be avoided, they used code-words the general public understood. What the Times didn’t tell their readers was that in addition to being a psychopath, Jim Baker was a sexual sadist. A 1937 detective magazine had no such problems reporting on what police found in his apartment.

“Vials of deadly acids stood in rows on a shelf. A large bottle, falsely labeled, contained cyanide of potassium. There were ingredients for manufacturing prussic acid, one of the most virulent of poisons. Several notebooks in Baker’s handwriting gave details about the effects of various toxins. Other jottings dealt with abnormal sex psychology, the emphasis being on sadism and flagellation rather than on homosexuality. Indeed, the youth’s passion for women manifestly was second only to interest in poisons. Prints of nude girls lined the walls, and a sketch book was filled with obscene drawings by himself. He had hoarded scores of letters from women, with many lascivious passages being underlined in red.”

Police claimed they discovered enough potassium cyanide in his room to kill 100,000 people. It was a discovery that seemed to negate Baker’s claim that he had to return to the laboratory to steal more poison—unless he was planning mass murder on a level that would have been history making. It was just the kind of thing a narcissistic psychopath seeking infamy might plan.

After the robbery and murder, Baker was smart enough not to return to his room. Instead, he took the subway to Jersey City where he hid out for one week. To satisfy his ego, he sought out newspaper articles about the Gaw murder and cut them out as a souvenirs. One of the articles featured the photograph police showed to the truck drivers. He was now a hunted man.

In spite of all his prior arrests and confinement, New York City police knew very little about James Baker. To them, their five-foot nine-inch suspect had no criminal history, or any history at all that they could learn. Guggenheim employees said he made remarks that indicated he may have once been a sailor, and he had sailor-like tattoos, but they weren’t positive.

Whoever he was, “Texas Jim” Baker was a mystery to them.

By the middle of January, 1929 he left New Jersey and traveled west. “I wanted a place on some little traveled road, where there was little chance of hearing a radio or seeing a newspaper,” Baker said when he was captured a year later. “A radio or a paper might have kept things fresh in my mind. I wanted a quiet place where I could forget.”

The quiet place he found was the Newton Roy Farm located fifteen miles west of Detroit near Farmington. There, he met Roy’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and the two fell in love. It was her love that tamed the darkness inside him, Baker declared in his autobiography.

“After I met Eleanor, my Eleanor, I never committed another murder. She changed my whole life,” Baker claimed to a reporter. “We were sweethearts, worthy of the name.”

Eleanor-Roy-Baker-Girlfriend

Eleanor Roy

But Baker’s big ego couldn’t keep his big mouth shut and when he started bragging about his strength, ripping up phone books, talking about his crimes and displaying his wanted picture from the newspaper to show people “what a dangerous character he was,”—his days with Eleanor were numbered. And to Eleanor, whom he trusted, he confessed to murdering two men in Detroit just before he came to her father’s farm in March, 1929.[1]

Although the collective accounts of his downfall are confusing or unclear, someone associated with the Roy farm stole the newspaper clipping with the farmhand’s wanted picture and showed it to Detroit police who were impressed enough to have Baker put under light surveillance. To prevent him from becoming suspicious, the clipping was quietly returned to his shack.

A few days later, visiting New York City detective Thomas A. Smith made a special trip to the Detroit detective bureau to secure a prisoner who was being extradited back to New York. That’s when they told him the story about the man in the photograph.

“He lives on a farm outside of town, and he always acts as if he is expecting to be arrested,” Detroit police told Smith. Curious, Smith was taken out to the Roy family farm which seemed deserted when he got there.

“Quietly and secretly he went out to the shack which the mystery man occupied,” the detective magazine shared with its readers. “The occupant was not at home, so Smith made an exhaustive search of the premises. He found nothing incriminating, but in the drawer of a table was the picture cut from a newspaper. The face was unfamiliar to him. He turned over the clipping and read fragments of a news story referring to the Gaw murder.”

With the farmhand under surveillance, Smith took a chance and carried the photograph with him back to New York where the Identification Bureau identified it as James Baker, wanted for the murder of Henry Gaw. New York authorities’ telegraphed back to Detroit that all of their suspicions were right. Baker was wanted for murder and on the afternoon of February 19, 1930 he was arrested.

The anonymous writer of the detective magazine article claimed he was present in Detroit when “Texas Jim” was brought in by detectives and gave readers a description of the murder suspect whose name would soon appear in newspapers across the country.

“Baker’s physical appearance and cool manner were the contrary of what might have been expected. He looked tough, but it was a healthy toughness. The fellow was as swarthy as a Latin, and in addition had been tanned almost a mahogany brown by his outdoor life. He leaned back in a swivel chair talking fluently, while a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. His sleeves were rolled up, displaying the tattoo marks about which we had heard—a coiling blue and green snake with its head at the wrist of one forearm; a dagger with garlands, and the words “Ceylon” and “Bombay” in a flourished script.”

Once in custody, Baker’s big mouth started talking and it didn’t stop. His confession to killing Gaw and seven other men shocked Detroit investigators and newspapermen who printed his revelations in daily papers across the country. His devil-may-care attitude over his capture and confession perplexed them, and when a newspaperman asked him if he was afraid of Sing Sing’s electric chair, Baker responded: “I know I’ll burn in New York but I’m not worrying. It comes to all of us someday.”

“After I had listened to him for a few minutes,” the magazine writer confided to his readers, “I perceived that his poise was a bluff, that mentally he was not normal. His strong, deep voice rang with boastfulness. He had a fiendish, cold-blooded story to tell and it came from his lips eagerly. He was an exhibitionist of the first order.”

Instead of fighting extradition, Baker waived his rights and was taken to the train station where two enormous, grizzled detectives would escort him back to New York City. When arrested at the Roy farm, he asked and was allowed to put on his best clothes which included an expensive suit featuring a silk pocket square, matching cravat and a double-knit white cap. Although they had searched him three times, it wasn’t good enough and Baker had more than one surprise waiting for them up his sleeve, or, down his pants.

Before he left Detroit, Baker was asked if he ever murdered anyone in Michigan. No, he replied, he did not kill anyone in Michigan.

It was a lie.

As the Rainbow Express sped towards Grand Central Station in New York, Detectives George Fitzpatrick and Arthur Horey searched Baker a fourth time as they train neared Pittsburgh. It was a good thing they did for they discovered a revolver in his underwear and a stiletto in his sock. Baker was planning on killing them both, if he had to, in order to escape.

The revolver featured an important clue, nine notches cut into the handle. No matter how many tales he told, or murders he confessed to in order draw more attention to himself, in a private moment when he had no thought of being captured, Baker engraved what is likely the true number of his victims. Now, investigators just had to figure out who they were.

Baker was taken to “Murderers Row” at the infamous Tombs jail[2] where he was interviewed over the next few days by police, doctors, and reporters eager to get the story of a multi-murderer. However, his story was a moving target that was difficult to pin down and the police didn’t know what to believe. Sometimes he claimed he killed twenty-five men, sometimes only nine, or was it twelve?

The Tombs physician Dr. Perry Lichtenstein, and Dr. Otto Schultz working for the district attorney’s office, pronounced him sane, but “morally insane” and a bit of a mystery. To the crime beat reporters who were there, well, they just wrote whatever he said because it was always great copy.

Both groups of inquisitors [police and psychiatrists] find plenty to excite their curiosity,” reported one news agency. “He is, of course, made to order for a psychiatrist… He is a somewhat more baffling problem to police. The fact that Baker is a lone wolf makes it all the more puzzling, say the police. If he were an eminent gangster, it would be much easier to explain, as he would be quite apt to make a business organization ready to help in emergencies of this kind. But everything about “Texas Jim Baker” indicates he is just a ham-handed ranch boy who, for some reason of his own, took up killing as a side-line more for sport than business.

So far as the psychiatrists are concerned, it is indicated that he will go down in the books as a ‘hypo-emotionalized’ case. That, as psychiatrists explain, ‘means under-emotionalized, as contrasted to the hyper-emotionalized or over-emotionalized cases. Mentally, he is way off balance. The under emotionalized types commit frightful crimes, seeking an emotion which does not come to them naturally.

Baker’s smiling indifference to what happens to him and his complete obtuseness as to any moral significance in his crimes is one of the unerring proofs of the under-emotionalized types of dementia. His distorted and swollen ego, as he boasts of his crimes, is another sure symptom.

Baker smiled a lot after he was brought to New York. He enjoyed the attention. Deputy Chief Inspector Edward Mulrooney of the New York Detective Bureau invited detectives from all over the Five Boroughs to witness Baker’s interrogation and more than 200 showed up to listen to the maniac killer answer questions. He surprised them all with his matter of fact answers but more so, by his confession to two more murders in Detroit. These murders were later verified by Eleanor and from evidence she helped police obtain.

On the night of January 20, 1929, while walking along the rails near Goulden Avenue at 2:30 a.m., Sergeant Walter Awe, with the Grand Trunk Railroad Police Department, caught Baker trespassing on railroad grounds. The two struggled and Baker shot him with his own pistol. When Detroit detectives discovered the revolver Baker was hiding on the train, it was Awe’s weapon which he had kept as a souvenir. It was a simple story; Baker overpowered Awe and came out the winner. But that’s not what he told reporters in New York. His story was presented like an old western quick draw shoot-out in which he was faster and a better shot.

After he killed Awe, Baker killed Otis South on January 29th. South was a taxi driver who objected too loudly to being robbed. Soon after he arrived at the Roy farm that year, the boastful psychopath told his new girlfriend, Eleanor, about murdering the two men. He gave her the taxi drivers’ knife and told her he pawned South’s watch in a Detroit pawnshop. She later took the knife and pawn ticket with Baker’s handwriting on it to Detroit police who were now fuming over having given up a double murder suspect to New York.

Eleanor had one other story to tell which made her claims even more credible, according to a Michigan Associated Press report. “On January 20 this year, the girl related, Baker saw an anniversary tribute to Awe from his widow in a newspaper In Memoriam column, clipped it and kept it for a time. Ten days later, he looked through the column for a similar reminder on the anniversary of South’s death but finding none, remarked that ‘the guy must have been divorced.’”

Baker knew that if he confessed to killing Awe and South to Detroit detectives, he never would have been extradited back to New York. When faced with being a celebrity criminal in Detroit, or a celebrity criminal in New York City, Baker chose the latter. The muckraking newspapers of New York were sure to make a big deal over his crimes and the trial he would get. Despite leaving Eleanor behind in Michigan, Baker had his sights set on being famous.

Or infamous.

During his questioning by Inspector Mulrooney and others, Baker gave a thorough account of how he murdered Henry Gaw. He also claimed he shot and killed his step-father Cyril Parks in 1923. Although his interrogators were sickened by his smug and cavalier attitude, one of them had the sense to play into it.

“I don’t think much of your story to the Detroit police that you can tear a telephone book in half,” Inspector Donovan, head of the identification bureau remarked to Baker.

“Is that so?” Baker countered. “Well I’ll show you I can make good on that statement. Give me a telephone book.”

Baker gripped the back of the one-inch Manhattan telephone directory and ripped it in half without straining. Then, like he did with Gaw, he scattered the pages all around his chair.

Got you. Just like it was when we found Gaw.

Serial-Killer-Texas-Jim-Baker

James Baker shows off his strength for reporters by tearing in half the Manhattan telephone directory.

After his interrogation, Baker was returned to cell 101 where he was under constant watch.

“He talked freely with the guard and betrayed not the slightest concern over his future welfare,” the New York Sun reported. “He appears to take an obvious pride in his status as a celebrity criminal if substantiated, will gain him a place of doubtful honor beside the world’s most notorious wholesale murderers.”

This was exactly what Texas Jim Baker wanted. However, for a man who desperately wanted to be a famous criminal, he was too stupid to realize that embellishing the details and lying about his body count would only hurt his cause. When he tried to claim credit for murders that never existed, the newspapers recognized that he was trying to manipulate them and refused to play along. Reporters found a weak spot in his family life.

“Baker, or Bakerlein, which seems to be his real name, is touchy on one subject only, that of his family. Yesterday he adopted a sullen attitude when questioned regarding his parentage. He admitted being born in Pittsburgh, but refused to talk of his people,” the Sun reported.

Pittsburgh? Why was he telling everyone else he was born in Warren, Ohio? He never explained why, but a 1940 census report confirmed he was born in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, he was never given up for adoption by his mother, either. He had lied about that too. Mrs. Parks wasn’t his adoptive mother, she was his real mother.

“I don’t owe them nothing,” he said sourly. “All I got from them was a lot of kicks and beatings.”

“How about your mother?” a detective asked.

“The last time I saw her was six years ago in Pittsburgh,” Baker answered. “I don’t owe her nothing either.”

When he was ten, his mother remarried and it was his step-father, Cyrus Parks, who taught him to be a petty criminal. Baker also lied to reporters about his age by saying he was twenty-three when he was actually twenty-four going on twenty-five.

Later on, the New York Sun was able to substantiate part of his criminal record as a young man. “The probation officer’s report diagnosed Baker as a ‘poser’ who spoke of crime with emotional exaltation. The report showed that his father had died at an early age and that his step-father had coached him in a career of petty thievery. At nine years of age, Baker was sent to the Industrial Reformatory in Ohio for petty larceny, and a year later he was returned to that same institution for firing a shot at his step-father. At thirteen he was sentenced to the Ohio State Reformatory.”

The shot he fired at his step-father missed its mark, in spite of what he later wrote in his autobiography. A search of Ohio death records confirms that no man named Cyrus Parks or Cyril Parks died in Trumbull County between 1913 and 1930. The probation officer’s report never said anything about serving a term in the infamous Boonville Training School for Boys. In other versions of his story, Baker never mentioned Boonville. He also claimed that at the age of sixteen, he ran away from home and travelled to Texas where he became a steamfitter’s apprentice on freighters. However, in other stories in which he spoke of his Texas years, he was seventeen or eighteen when he began working there.

When Baker was brought out for his grand jury indictment on February 25 for the murder of Henry Gaw, and his not guilty plea on March 6, 1930, he was his typical, outrageous self in order to impress reporters who were present. First, he demanded the judge send him a manicurist because his fingernails were “getting raggedy.” Then, he requested the best lawyers possible, which the judge granted. When asked about the murders, he was over the top in his callous answers. About Gaw, “he told with lip-smacking gusto how he forced cyanide down the watchman’s throat.” In another statement about his other victims, Baker claimed he murdered “because he wanted to watch them suffer.” He also admitted he was vain and liked to wear dapper clothes, and seldom killed for money, but what money he did get was spent on nice suits.

After these two hearings, Baker was taken back to his cell on “Murderers Row” where he experienced the worst possible thing that could have happened to him: he watched helplessly as the “maniac-killer” Texas Jim Baker story died in the newspapers. Other than the initial reports of his arrest and two brief hearings, he never got the big headlines and stories he was hoping he would get. Instead, there was the unfolding depression, bank closures, prohibition lawbreakers and gangsters to read about. Gaw wasn’t a socialite housewife who was mysteriously murdered in her home, or a prostitute beheaded by some deranged lunatic, or a rich merchant murdered by his business partner. Gaw was just a low level employee who was killed during a burglary. It happened all the time in New York City. Although it was tragic when William Awe and Otis South were shot and killed, the capture of their killer didn’t rate front page headlines either. And besides those three confirmed murders, Baker’s other victims were far away. Distant. They were men without names or faces.

Nobody cared anymore and they wouldn’t care again until his trial. His headline disappeared into a sea of other headlines, and the more pressing matter of trying to cope with a sharp economic downturn.

Baker’s Trial

A week before his trial was scheduled to begin on Monday, May 19, 1930, in Judge Charles Cooper Nott’s courtroom, a series of events, independent of each other, began to occur which altered the course of Jim Baker’s life forever.

Baker’s defense attorney, James Murray, successfully petitioned Judge Nott for his client to undergo a second round of “sanity observation” at Bellevue Hospital. The forty-seven-year-old attorney truly believed his client was insane. Unfortunately, Dr. Menus Gregory, chief of the psychopathic ward at Bellevue, disagreed and declared him medically sane but stated Baker was definitely “not normal.” However, there was one item in his report that Murray found interesting—brain damage. Dr. Gregory’s diagnosis nearly concurred with Dr. Lichtenstein and Dr. Schultz who in February found Baker to be medically sane, but “morally insane.”[3] It was a term once used to describe psychopaths and anti-social personality disorder types before those terms had recently entered the medical dictionary. Morally insane was also a term still used by doctors from the old school and had not yet disappeared from usage.

The “morally insane” diagnosis was a break for defense attorney Murray who could use it to confuse a jury. With a little luck in the courtroom, Baker just might squeak by on the insanity defense he planned. On the first day of the trial, Murray’s questions for potential jurors revealed to Assistant District Attorney James McDonald what the defense was planning. If anybody could sell the jury on the idea that Jim Baker was morally insane, it was Jim Baker. If Murray put Baker on the stand, his outrageous descriptions of the pleasure he took in killing could be enough to get him a not guilty by insanity verdict.

That wasn’t the only problem McDonald had. Henry Gaw’s mother, Clara Gaw, was in town for the trial and pressuring him to back away from the death penalty. She was in his office that first morning and “between sobs she announced that she was not in favor of having Baker put to death if he was convicted,” the New York Times reported. “She told McDonald that after reading newspaper articles about Baker at her home in Denver, she believed her son’s killer was mentally unbalanced and should spend the rest of his life in an insane asylum. She added that she felt if Baker were freed, he would probably kill again.”

Sensing which way the wind was blowing, prosecutor McDonald reconsidered a defense offer to plead guilty to second degree murder. A verdict of murder in the first degree would have meant an automatic death sentence in Sing-Sing’s electric chair.

“I have no doubt that the jury would convict this defendant of first degree murder,” prosecutor McDonald told the court, “but on the basis of statements made by Dr. Schultz and Dr. Lichtenstein, his death sentence would no doubt be commuted by the governor.”

In his report to the judge, Dr. Lichtenstein described Baker as one of the most “peculiar persons” he’d ever encountered in his time as the lead physician for The Tombs. During his examination, Baker “spoke of his crimes with emotional exaltation and seemed to be swayed by violent hatreds, rage and pride, with a predominating idea of persecution.”

The persecution aspect was ambiguous. If he meant Baker felt persecuted, he was accurate because that was a central theme Baker used to describe his time with both his parents and in reform school in his “autobiography.” But if he meant Baker enjoyed the idea of persecuting others, then that was true too. He had said as much during his many interviews and the self-drawn sadomasochistic pornography found in his room, with its emphasis on flagellation, further supported that claim.

In accepting the guilty plea, Judge Nott said he was of the opinion that justice would best be served with the compromise and although Baker was accountable for his crimes, there was little doubt he was not a normal person.

When Baker was brought into court the morning of May 23 for sentencing, he was shackled to two guards and six others surrounded him. With all of his boasting of what a bad man he was, and how he looked forward to the electric chair, the assignment of eight guards showed reporters that authorities were taking no chances. If he was going to try to and go out like a true desperado, they were there to make sure it wasn’t going to happen in the courtroom. It was, in all likelihood, an unnecessary precaution since a narcissistic psychopath like Baker loved himself too much to ever seriously consider the 1930 version of suicide by cop. His agreement to second-degree murder proved he had no intention of dying young, despite his death-wish claims.

“Reports that he would insist on pleading guilty of first degree murder so that he might be sentenced to the electric chair failed to materialize and in all, he presented a docile figure as he stood before the bar,” the New York Sun revealed.

Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, Baker was more elated with the fact that with eight guards around him, it reinforced his own beliefs about himself as a super killer.

“The youth preened himself before the crowd in the room as he was marched from the detention pen to the bench,” the New York Evening-Post reported. “Apparently, he relished being the center of attention. He grinned cheerfully…and the smile did not fade as he was escorted back to the Tombs to await transportation to the penitentiary.”

Whether he knew it or not, Baker needed to revel in the moment as long as possible because it was the last time he would ever appear in public. Even with all those guards around him, Baker’s mere presence was enough to victimize one more person—the victim’s mother. A special correspondent for the Buffalo Courier-Express described the heart-wrenching scene: “While the mother of the man he just had been convicted of having murdered collapsed in hysterics before him, Texas Jim Baker, the strange ‘bad man’ who said he wanted to die in the electric chair, did not alter his frosty smile as he was sentenced here today.”

While Baker was preoccupied over Mrs. Gaw’s suffering, and with all the attention focused on him, he was unable to catch the significance of what his attorney did next. Before the sentence could be read, Murray “told the court that physicians had found evidence of an old depressed skull fracture, indicating that there might be some bone pressure on the brain, and asked that Baker’s head be X-rayed as soon as he was safely within Sing Sing.”

His request was granted. “As attendants carried from the courtroom Mrs. Clara Gaw, Judge Charles C. Nott, obviously regarding Baker’s swashbuckling attitude with distaste, sharply sentenced him to forty-years to life,” the Courier-Express reported. When he was hustled out of the courtroom, “the young man who still wants to be bad so badly,” never lost his arrogant sneer.

If he had understood what his lawyer had just done, it could have wiped that smirk off his face. Baker’s stay in Sing-Sing would only last five weeks. Acting on the judge’s orders, doctors there took an X-ray of Jim Baker’s brain and changed their mind about him; he was insane after all they decided. Forty years in prison, with a possible early parole, may have been tolerable to him, but a declaration by the court he was insane meant his transfer to Dannemora State Mental Hospital would require him to stay there for an indefinite period. Most psychiatrists understood then there was no cure for a psychopath, especially one with neurological damage. His forty year term had just turned into a life sentence.

But Baker’s luck was indomitable and more than one month later he was offered money by International Features Syndicate, a William Randolph Hearst news agency, for his life story, to be written by him. It was a bad idea if IFS wanted a true account because Baker was incapable of giving them that. However, that didn’t seem to matter to them so long as Baker wrote it and the more outrageous it was, the better.

Epilogue

After Baker’s two-part, semi-fictional autobiography ran in the Sunday magazine section of major newspapers in August, the narcissistic killer who desperately wanted to be famous lived out the rest of his life in obscurity. In an ironic twist, his lies and embellishments damaged his credibility and hurt his story which quickly became forgotten.

Seven years later, an August 1937 issue of Official Detective Stories published a short story about his case. In that article, the anonymous writer, who was likely a reporter for one of New York City’s daily newspapers, reported that six of his eight poisoning victims were confirmed: Gaw, Honeycutt, the German citizen, and the three sailors aboard the Gulfport.

“Baker’s crimes in Bombay and Ilio remained doubtful,” the magazine reported. His murders of William Awe and Otis South by gunshot were also confirmed, which brought his death total to eight—one less than the notch on his gun. With ‘Texas Jim’ Baker, it is impossible to know if he killed nine men, or eight. The ninth victim could have been anybody, or simply represented his deep desire to have killed his step-father, a man he truly loathed.

According to the 1940 US Census, thirty-five-year-old James Baker was still housed at Dannemora State Mental Hospital where he was patient number 22830. The author was unable to determine Baker’s fate after 1940. The New York State Archives is extremely sensitive when it comes to the mental health records of its citizens, and the process for obtaining that information is restricted to family members only.

 

 

[1] In his newspaper autobiography, Baker wrote that he killed three men after leaving New Jersey and before he found the Roy farm, but only two of these were confirmed.

[2] The colloquial name for New York City’s jail.

[3] Some newspapers falsely reported Lichtenstein and Schultz declared him both medically and morally insane.

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