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Terms of law and order change with the times


One of the more reassuring sounds of my youth was that of a hickory night stick tapping the pavement.

Some 40 years ago, the city seemed more quiet. And about once an hour came that sound made by Officer Joe as he tapped the cement sidewalk with his nightstick as he walked his beat. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

Baltimore was then a city of foot patrols, corner police call boxes, gas lamp lighters and neighbors who saw and heard everything.

The sound the walking cop made seemed to bounce all over the neighborhood on a hot and humid July night.

No wonder some tradition-minded city police officers have objected to Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier's decision to replace the wooden espantoon with a new variety of truncheon.

Even the word espantoon is peculiar to these parts. My dictionary skips over espantoon altogether, jumping from espalier (a lattice or trellis on which trees and shrubs are trained) to esparto (long, coarse grass). I can't shed any light on why Baltimore clings to this unusual term. I'm not even sure that most people know how to pronounce it. But it's ours.

Crime and punishment in vintage Baltimore had another curious word usage. Today we call street robberies either holdups or muggings.

In the 1950s, such acts were regularly referred to as yokings, meaning a criminal act wherein a thug grabs a victim around the neck.

This crime is still occasionally reported and this newspaper still uses the term.

Once again, my dictionary does not specifically call this a criminal term.

The closest it gets is "to bring to bondage; enslave."

But in the Eisenhower era, it seemed like the city's daily newspapers weren't complete without a brief story or two about a yoking on South Broadway or North Avenue.

Big-time violent crime seemed to be pretty rare in those more innocent days.

But human nature was the same and there were individuals who broke the law.

I can well recall my childhood introduction to the penal system. Every time we passed a landmark jailhouse, my mother pointed out cell windows. I was instructed in the fine points of Baltimore criminality. I learned the difference between the City Jail (Madison Street) and the State Penitentiary (Forrest Street). I knew which had the gas chamber.

My eyes grew big with the retellings of the exploits of escape artists Tunnel Joe and Jack Hart.

I learned of Clare Stone, the little girl who lived off the Belair Road and whose murder was never solved.

Or we'd be driving through East Baltimore and my mother would recount the scary particulars of the Torso Murder Case, a 1939 chiller involving a victim named Evelyn Rice.

A 1950s terror was the stealthy cat burglar who used nothing more powerful than a screw driver to invade homes in Guilford and Roland Park.

My mother specifically called attention to his conquests in these residential neighborhoods when we crossed through these parts town.

It was in these years that my grandfather, though well into his 70s, remained at a job with the state Division of Correction.

His work took him to the reformatory at Breathedsville in Washington County.

Grandpop was an engineer whose office was protected by guards.

But he always had time for the "boys," as he called them, who were in for some offense, usually stealing a car and usually a first-time offense.

After their paroles, some of these young men occasionally looked up Pop E.J. Monaghan at his Guilford Avenue home.

Maybe some of these men were lonely; maybe they just missed his talks and stories.

Pop never dwelt on their offenses much. He loved people and an audience.

One day the doorbell rang.

It was one of Pop's jailbird visitors.

Pop's wife, who was grandmother Lily Rose, inquired who was there. Pop said, in a matter of fact way, that it was James the arsonist.

Lily Rose leaned over the second-floor hall banister and called down to the first floor:

"Please Ed, try to keep him on the front porch."

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