By Van Smith
Published in Baltimore magazine, April 2000
“Little Melvin” Williams is shouting through a thick sheet of Plexiglas at the Prince George’s County Detention Center. The burly owner of the recently defunct Scrapp Bail Bonds is awaiting sentencing on a federal conviction for possessing a handgun while on parole for earlier federal crimes related to his career as a major heroin trafficker. Williams has spent 22 of his 58 years in jail; he claims, among other things, to be an accomplished chess player, a martial arts expert, and a speaker of five languages. What he isn’t, he says, is a snitch.
“Mr. Levinson has made a devastating mistake!” he exclaims. “I’m known as ‘Iron Jaws’!”
The source of Little Melvin’s indignation is Liberty Heights, filmmaker Barry Levinson’s latest nostalgic ode to Baltimore. In the film, released last fall, an amiable, soft-spoken racketeer named Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) juggles his family life, his illegal gambling operation, and his burlesque business on the Block in the 1950s. His downfall comes via a gambling payoff owed to a villainous dope peddler named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), who first kidnaps Kurtzman’s son and then rats on a bookie. Kurtzman is targeted for prosecution by the Feds and arrested on Rosh Hashanah at a Cadillac dealership. “You know,” Nate says to his lawyer, “over the years in my business, you watch enough shows, you learn. A good performer knows when to get off the stage.” Nate quits the game and gets eight-to-10 years in the Big House.
The movie is fiction, of course, but the real-life Little Melvin knows that the shuckin’, jivin’, bug-eyed bungler in the movie is supposed to be him. And anyone who remembers the Baltimore of a few generations ago can tell that the doomed gentleman racketeer is drawn from the man Williams says once “called me his godson” – Julius “The Lord” Salsbury.
Salsbury, like Levinson’s Kurtzman, was a Block kingpin who was hunted down by the Feds. Unlike his fictional alter ego, though, Salsbury was never caught. After appealing a gambling conviction, he jumped bail and fled the country in 1970, eluding capture ever since. Legend has it that he went to Israel to enjoy the protections afforded Jewish-American criminals under the 1965 U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty. The grapevine says Salsbury died a few years ago, probably in 1995; if he were still alive, he would be 84 years old.
But the Lord never really left town; in his long absence, Salsbury’s legend took on a life of its own. Novelists and filmmakers have mined his tale for material; journalists have told and retold what is known of his tenure as Lord of the Block and entertained speculative reports of Salsbury sightings. In the process, Julius Salsbury became Mobtown’s outlaw hero.
The Salsbury myth holds the Lord up as the benevolent peacekeeping patriarch of the Block-based numbers rackets, an honorable man in a rogue industry that – like the East Baltimore Street nightclub district itself during its fondly remembered heyday – was tinged with menace but basically harmless. The nostalgia-driven take on Salsbury and the Block during its salad days remains common among Baltimoreans. History – at least the popular version of it – has been good to the Lord.
Little Melvin Williams knows all about that, because right now it is being less kind to him: When he’s sentenced in March, Williams will get almost 22 years without parole. He’s locked up, probably for the rest of his life, and cast as the villain in the latest retelling of his fugitive godfather’s story. And the Lord, as always, has escaped without a scratch.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915, Julius Salsbury was 12 years old when his parents, Isadore and Sarah, moved the family up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and opened a lunch counter on Pratt Street downtown. At 16, Julius dropped out of Edgar Allan Poe school on West Fayette to start earning a living full-time. His first vocation – cab driver – began by the time he was 18. By 21, he already lived on the Block and was getting initiated in the rackets.
Salsbury’s education as a gambler was interrupted by World War II. His draft number was picked soon after Pearl Harbor, and he served as a military policeman in Europe. But before the war ended, he accompanied a prisoner back stateside and went AWOL. Salsbury was caught and did six months of hard labor. When he returned to Baltimore in 1945, he was a 29-year-old veteran with a dishonorable discharge and nothing much to do.
In short order, Salsbury was back in the bookmaking business. In between day jobs lending his father a hand re-treading tires, bottling soda, and running a bar, he began to build up a gambling network. He eloped to Miami with Susan Clara Wellman, a young waitress who had moved to Baltimore from Pennsylvania, because his parents didn’t approve of him marrying a gentile. And he took his lumps in the profession – a bookmaking conviction in 1948 was followed by another in 1950. But the battle scars from his run-ins with the law readied him for bigger and better things.
By the early 1950s, the lowdown on the Block was attracting out-of-town press. In Washington Confidential, the bestselling pulp expose from 1951, Baltimore’s red-light strip was described as “one of the most vicious and lawless areas in the world” by muckraking authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. “At this writing,” they concluded, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything and it’s not much.”
That same year, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime sent its investigators to root out the Baltimore underworld. Long-established racketeers cooled their heels to avoid trouble from the out-of-town heat. And into the vacuum rose the Lord.
The nickname came serendipitously. At a wrestling match at Carlin Park one night, a grappler called “Lord Salsbury” entered the ring; Julius Salsbury and his cohort, who were there to watch the fights, adopted the moniker on the spot.
It fit like a glove. Salsbury’s demeanor was soft-spoken, aristocratic, and confident – a good match with his distinctive, sharp-featured countenance.
His gambling organization, however, suffered its early setbacks. In 1952, Anne Arundel County police raided his Glen Burnie bunker in a case that Salsbury took to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost; he got six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In 1954, he was nabbed for keeping a disorderly house and putting on an indecent show at Kay’s Cabaret, the Block bar he managed at the time. And in 1955, the Feds fined him $2,000 for failing to buy a required $50 gambling stamp.
But once Salsbury gained title to the Oasis Nite Club in 1956, he troubles with the law eased. Located at East Baltimore and Frederick streets, the club provided Salsbury with a way to wash his gambling proceeds. It also served as a home base from which to run a burgeoning empire. He bought a nice house in Cheswolde in Northwest Baltimore for his wife and three daughters. A fancy car and yacht rounded out the life of the late-1950s racketeer.
As a gambling kingpin and a Block bigwig, Salsbury was well-connected not only in the criminal world, but also with politicians and lawmen. The Lord operated in a carefully guarded region of society where criminal, political, and law-enforcement interests interweave – an area where corruption and cover-up put down deep and hidden roots.
People who worked for Salsbury remember politicians partying with Oasis girls on Salsbury’s boat. He was close friends with Baltimore political boss Jack Pollack. Pollack’s son, Morton, a lawyer and erstwhile Block habitué, says that “a lot of politicians, judges, and commissioners would go down to the Oasis at night.”
Retired Baltimore police lieutenant George Andrew, who headed the vice squad on the Block during the 1960s, suspected that Salsbury had high-up friends in the police department. “He really had somebody tied up,” Andrew recalls. “He knew somebody, but I don’t know who. But if I went on the Block, nobody would be there when I hit it. I wish I’d known – I’d have sent somebody to jail.”
Even Salsbury’s staunchest detractors admit that the man was a civilized racketeer. He shunned violence as an inducement for debt repayment; rather, he punished debtors by not allowing them to bet again until the account was settled. He was known as a generous philanthropist. And he didn’t hold grudges. When a drugstore owner on the Block was compelled to testify against Salsbury, the Lord stayed friendly with him and continued to eat at his lunch counter throughout the trial, just as he had done regularly for years.
But the image of the Lord as charitable rogue was marred by the reality of life on the Block during his ostensibly nonviolent rule: Murder, strong-arming, kidnapping, and intimidation were regular tactics of the Baltimore underworld in that era. In 1961, a troubling crime spree spurred a grand-jury probe of Block rackets, and the probe in turn set in motion the forces that would eventually bring down the Lord.
The trouble started in October of 1960, when Block restaurant manager Frank Corbi was shot at outside his house. The following May, his nephew Ed was ambushed by three masked gunmen; his bodyguard, Earl Fifer, was abducted and held for six days. In June, a Miami Club waitress was found murdered in a stream near Bowley’s Lane after being questioned by police investigating rackets on the Block; a car salesman named Edward Castranda was shot dead as he sat in his car outside the Dixie Diner in July. The three men arrested – brothers Orlando and Angelo Perrera and Benjamin “Hittie” Wildstein – were all major players on the Block and, as Morton Pollack recalls today, friends of Salsbury.
By September, eight Block club owners – including Salsbury – were indicted for various offenses involving the operation of their establishments. A fearful suspect in a numbers-writing case told the judge, “I can’t help you catch the big wheels. These syndicate people would do away with you.” Maryland’s U.S. Attorney, Joseph Tydings, announced that gambling profits were so great that racketeers nationwide spent an estimated $4 billion annually to bribe law-enforcement officers and sports figures. “Organized rackets are disciplined and able to rid themselves of people they no longer want in very efficient ways,” Tydings said.
In November 1961, Salsbury’s case came up for trial: He was charged in city court for pandering and maintaining a disorderly house. The judge and a state witness both reported receiving threats and received police protection. The witness, an Oasis dancer, testified that Salsbury once beat her up when she asked for a loan and that she and her children were told their lives wouldn’t be worth a “plugged nickel” if she took the stand. Still other witnesses were roughed up, left town, or changed their testimony. During a trial recess, a state’s witness in the custody of police was taken out drinking at the Oasis. Three police officers who patrolled the Block testified at trial that they’d never seen any problems at Salsbury’s club. Ultimately, after a retrial, Salsbury won acquittal. The Lord had slipped off the hook again.
In June 1962, the U.S. Senate had taken testimony about organized crime based on the Block as part of its investigation into corruption in the showgirls’ union. Salsbury – already fingered by the U.S. Attorney General as one of the nation’s top racketeers – was called to testify before the Senate committee, but under questioning asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Based on the information about the Block gathered during the hearings, Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota dubbed Baltimore one of the nation’s “great metropolitan fleshpots” and said its citizens have “the kind of city they want … the kind of city they deserve.”
After Salsbury’s photo was on the front page of the newspapers during the 1962 Senate hearings, he was fixed in the public imagination – and in the sights of federal law-enforcement – as an organized criminal of national proportions. From that point on, his fortunes started to change. The year 1963 brought Salsbury a federal conviction for tax evasion, for which he served eight months in federal prison. In 1965, $745,000 in tax liens were filed against him by the IRS. And from 1963 to 1965, the FBI bugged the Oasis (illegally, it was later revealed) and picked up all sorts of nefarious activities: graft among city police and vice detectives and bribes to IRS agents, according to Paul Kramer, who as an assistant U.S. attorney later prosecuted Salsbury.
“There were people coming in and out of his office and getting picked up on the wiretap – payoffs taking place in his office, exchanges of information, and the women back there with them,” Kramer recalls today as he sits in his memento-crammed office. He now runs a criminal-defense practice. “It did show the corruption that was associated with this kind of behavior. I assume it’s probably worse today, with all the narcotics money involved, than we had with gambling.”
Kramer was in zealous pursuit of Salsbury for much of the 1960s. As one of Salsbury’s defense attorneys, Arnold Weiner – himself a former federal prosecutor – recalls, Kramer “was Captain Ahab and Julius was his white whale.”
Success didn’t come easily. After a 1968 raid on the Oasis, Kramer charged Salsbury with failing to purchase a required $50 wagering-tax stamp; hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law on which the case was based. Kramer came back at him in 1969 with a new harpoon – the Travel Act, which prohibits interstate transport of ill-gotten gains. That one connected: Salsbury was convicted and slapped with a 15-year sentence.
“For a guy who got convicted as a nonviolent gambler,” Kramer asserts, “the judge really threw the book at him.” The main rationale for the severity of the sentence Salsbury received, Kramer explains, was the public corruption bred by the Lord’s activities. “What made it was the amount of corruption that was associated with him: law-enforcement corruption, whether it’s the liquor board or federal agents or police officers. He even asked me if I could be corrupted, which I took as flattery.”
Salsbury appealed the conviction and – despite strident warnings by Kramer that the Lord would slip away – was allowed to remain free on bail pending the outcome. Days before the appellate court upheld the conviction, Salsbury fled. Given the high level of corruption surrounding the Lord, suspicions abounded that he had some high-powered help in making his escape.
“Where was the leak in the U.S. Court of Appeals when the decision came down?” asks E. Thomas Maxwell, a former assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore who prosecuted Salsbury in 1961. His raised eyebrows concerning the circumstances of Salsbury’s disappearance are common among afficionados of the Lord. Maxwell speculates that, if Salsbury had not fled and instead been imprisoned, information the racketeer had about public corruption could have erupted in scandal.
Kramer, however, says the question of whether someone leaked word of the appellate court’s decision in order to give Salsbury the opportunity to run is settled. “A lot of people thought that,” Kramer recalls. “There was an investigation and we determined that we do not believe that there is any evidence showing that there was any kind of leak out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Instead, Kramer believes Salsbury “was just playing the odds” on when and how the appeal would come down and fled town just in time.
The Lord took with him everything he knew about criminally culpable public officials, and in his wake he left a red-faced federal law-enforcement community. “The government was just embarrassed for many, many years” after the escape, says Maxwell. George Beall, who was U.S. Attorney for Maryland when Salsbury escaped, agrees. “It was an embarrassment to the FBI, to the government, that he was gone,” he explains. “They turned themselves inside out to try to solve the mystery.”
According to Kramer, Salsbury left his Horizon House apartment on Calvert Street and “went directly to Canada. We later determined that there was a safe deposit box in Canada. We finally got the search warrant for it and found it empty. The best we could determine was that he took a gambling junket to England, probably under an assumed name, and later we could prove he was in South Africa. Money was being funneled [to Salsbury] through Germany, we believe, from businesses being sold in Maryland.”
Besides the government, the other big loser when Salsbury fled was his friend and gambling colleague, the bail bondsman Robert “Fifi” London, who had posted a total of $80,000 bail that had to be forfeited, according to Morton Pollack. “I know for a fact that he was paid back” on Salsbury’s behalf by a third party, Pollack says. Fifi London died in the 1970s after a lengthy prison term for tax evasion, but his bailbonds firm lives on. In fact, Melvin Williams’ Scrapp Bail Bonds was (until it tanked due to Williams’ recent legal troubles) a subagency of London Bonding Agency.
Homicide author David Simon investigated the Salsbury case as a Sun reporter in the 1980s and early 1990s and concluded that the Lord ended up in Israel, living in a townhouse in Tel Aviv. Melvin Williams is full of insinuations that he had been in communication with Salsbury since his flight, has information about the Lord’s whereabouts over the years, and knows the truth about the man’s mysterious fugitive years. But, like any good gambler, Little Melvin plays that card close to his vest.
Back in 1969, as the net closed in around Salsbury, Fred Motz served as co-counsel to lead prosecutor Kramer. Now the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Maryland, Motz was one of the men who helped hunt Salsbury down, and he understands well why the Lord still haunts the Block. “As you get older, you can romanticize,” he says. “It is an overstatement to say that the Salsbury people were sort of like Damon Runyon characters. [But] there’s a certain poignancy to the fact that that is now gone.”
Never mind that the real-life Salsbury helped cement Mobtown’s still-thriving reputation as a hopelessly corrupt and dangerous town. Forget that, during his reign, the Block was wracked with shocking violence, and the widespread public corruption Salsbury instigated to protect his rackets undermined the public trust in honest government. From the perspective of modern Baltimore, the Salsbury era still inspires a certain nostalgia for the days of honorable outlaws and crime that seemed at least to be organized. Maybe, Motz guesses, it’s only because corruption and violence grew so much worse after he left.
“[Salsbury] was really in quite strong control of the Block, and … after he was taken out, rough people came in and there were a lot more murders,” Motz says. “Nobody’s saying that crime is appropriate, but you are going to have crime. There’s almost a sense of longing for [Salsbury’s brand of crime], as opposed to what you see out on the streets today. I think that’s one of the appeals of the Salsbury story. It is something from a different era. And one senses that things are different now than they were then.”