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Charmed Life

The Courtroom Kidnapper

By Charles Cohen | Posted 9/2/1998

A lot of folks today will tell you politicians are criminals. Usually they're referring to supposed indiscretions committed while in office. In the case of one storied Baltimore pol, though, a law-skirting adventure the local media dubbed a "kidnapping," was the spark that ignited a nearly 30-year political career.

The story starts not with the kidnapping, but with a murder. On Aug. 18, 1922, three men attacked William B. Norris, a well-known local contractor, and his bookkeeper as they walked along Madison Avenue, carrying some $7,000 in payroll money from their bank to their office. Norris was shot dead. The robbers held a rapidly forming crowd at bay at gunpoint until a waiting getaway car with three other men inside picked the scofflaws up and sped off.

The brazen daylight slaying gripped the city. Rewards totaling $10,000 were offered for capture of the killers. Three of the five suspects were nabbed in Baltimore within five days; another was caught in Washington, D.C. The fifth, Walter Socolow, fled to New York; he was arrested, reportedly, when he emerged from his hideout to buy an out-of-town paper to catch up on the news back home.

City officials sought to have the 19-year-old Socolow extradited to Baltimore to stand trial. It should have been a routine process; New York's governor had signed the extradition papers and, according to newspaper accounts, Socolow was willing to come back to Baltimore and spill his guts. Herbert R. O'Conor (pictured), a 25-year-old assistant state's attorney, was sent by his boss to retrieve the prisoner.

Arriving in New York, the Maryland attorney instead found himself in the middle of a legal standoff. Socolow had changed his mind about returning voluntarily and was claiming he had been in New York on Aug. 18. His lawyers were filing writs of habeas corpus in an effort to delay the proceedings, and a New York judge was refusing to OK the extradition without evidence linking Socolow to the crime.

On Sept. 21, O'Conor and two Baltimore detectives sat in a New York courtroom as arguments over the defense motion stretched on. Tension was mounting; this was a big story back home in Baltimore, big enough that the young prosecutor's father, prominent hotelier James P.A. O'Conor, had made the trip to New York to see his son at work. In the meantime, an Evening Sun reporter covering the proceedings had heard about defense plans to continue their delaying tactics, and tipped Herbert O'Conor off.

As the judge banged down his gavel, dismissing one of the habeas corpus writs, O'Conor and the detectives rushed forward. They grabbed Socolow and, with the Sun man in tow, sprinted out of the courtroom. As the judge yelled for them to stop, they ran out of the courthouse and into the car the New York Police Department had furnished them as a courtesy, little suspecting how it was to be used. The fugitives drove to the nearest ferry, crossed into New Jersey, and hopped on a train to Baltimore.

The New York judge was miffed and the NYPD embarrassed, but in Baltimore a star was born. The Socolow apprehension made national news, and the hometown papers made a celebrity of the daring prosecutor: "O'Conor Tells How Socolow Returned," ran one headline (which also offered the Baltimorean's caveat: "Didn't Hear Judge Cry Out"). The previously unheralded assistant state's attorney "became the shining hero . . . who had foiled the villain in the very nick of time," historian Harry W. Kirwin wrote in his O'Conor biography, The Inevitable Success.

From there, it was a short step into public life. "Because of the notoriety and the publicity, he went into local politics, and from that [came] his political career," says Jim O'Conor, Herbert O'Conor's son and president of the real-estate firm O'Conor, Piper, and Flynn. Local Democrats began talking Herbert up for office. In 1923, at the tender age of 27, he was elected Baltimore's state's attorney. In 1934 he was elected Maryland's attorney general, and he captured the governorship four years later. After nearly two terms in the State House (he resigned in 1947 to run for the U.S. Senate), O'Conor was voted into the U.S. Senate, serving one term before various problems, including a heart condition, forced him to retire. He died in his native Baltimore on March 4, 1960, at the age of 63.

The political acumen that carried O'Conor to victory in every election he ever entered was duly noted by the commentators of his day, who didn't forget the smashing case that put him on the map. "Usually O'Conor's opportunism has been skillfully timed," Sun columnist E.T Baker III wrote in 1943, "as in his kidnapping of a Baltimore gunman from a New York City courtroom, a melodramatic escapade which first brought him to the attention of the voters." Today, the name of the man who kidnapped his way into the spotlight is emblazoned on a state office building at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Howard Street.

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