At the end of 1936, a series of late-night armed robberies took place in northeastern Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In early September of that year, John Canham was shot during one such armed robbery, as he and his wife returned home from a night out. Canham told police what the gunman said and how he sounded, but he died three months later from his injuries. Neither he nor his wife saw the man’s face. Also in September, a woman was shot in the arm after being knocked down during a robbery in this neighborhood.
Philadelphia police were on alert to find the person responsible for these robberies and shootings, and additional officers were assigned to the area. Among those patrolling the neighborhood was Philadelphia police officer James T. Morrow. On November 23, 1936, Morrow was shot and killed near the parking lot of the Enderlein Iron Company building on Keystone and Benner streets. According to Mansfield Carter, the Enderlein night watchman, Morrow was shot shortly after leaving the watchman’s hut in the Enderlein parking lot.
Carter said he heard a shot, then found Morrow on the ground bleeding in a nearby field. Carter said he ran for help, but Morrow was dead on arrival at the hospital. Morrow’s fellow patrolmen, Alfred Gebhardt, also witnessed the shooting.
Carter said that he had previously told Morrow that his .32-caliber gun was recently stolen. Carter said Morrow had been investigating the theft, and that Carter had pointed him toward 19-year-old George Bilger.
After Morrow’s murder, the Philadelphia police intensified their search for the person behind these crimes. Philadelphia Mayor S. Davis Wilson announced an immediate promotion for the officer who arrested Morrow’s killer. The bullets removed from Morrow’s body were found to be consistent with those removed from John Canham’s body, as well as the slug removed from the arm of the female robbery victim, according to ballistics expert Detective Sergeant George Spangler. All the bullets came from a .32-caliber revolver.
Shortly after Morrow’s murder, police arrested Joseph Broderick and questioned him for 18 days, at which point Broderick reportedly signed a confession. However, Broderick hired an attorney, and was released and never charged. Available records do not provide additional details about his confession.
On May 17, 1937, Detective Captain John T. Murphy – who was acting as a confidential investigator for Mayor Wilson – arrested Bilger for Morrow’s murder. Bilger was described as a former “inmate” at Elwyn Training School, a school for people with mental disabilities.
Bilger confessed that he accidentally fired three shots at Morrow. Law enforcement unsuccessfully dragged the Delaware River in an effort to locate the murder weapon, which Bilger said he tossed into the water.
Bilger’s trial for the murder of Morrow began in late June 1938 before Judge Harry S. McDevitt in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Assistant District Attorney Vincent A. Carroll prosecuted the case, and attorney Henry O’Connor represented Bilger. Bilger testified that he killed Morrow because he thought Morrow was going to arrest him for the recent string of robberies. Several of the robbery victims testified, with two identifying Bilger as the man who robbed them, while others testified that they were uncertain whether Bilger was the perpetrator.
The jury found Bilger guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. After the verdict, Judge McDevitt called Carroll back to the courtroom and said he could not sentence Bilger to death without being convinced of his guilt, which he was not. According to an article on the case written a year later by McDevitt, Carroll concurred in his hesitation. McDevitt quoted Carroll as saying, “For the first time in all the years I’ve been a prosecutor, I was dissatisfied with a first-degree verdict.” Several days later, McDevitt granted Bilger a new trial. Bilger agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in Morrow’s death, and McDevitt sentenced him to life in prison on July 1, 1938. On November 3, 1938, Bilger also pled guilty to the unsolved killing of Canham and received a second life sentence.
Officer Gebhardt was tried as an accessory to murder for failing to immediately report that Morrow had been shot. On July 2, 1938, the jury found Gebhardt not guilty.
On September 12, 1938, 25-year-old Edward Tamkin was shot three times during a robbery just blocks away from the location of Morrow’s murder. Tamkin, a teacher at a junior high school, died three days later, although he was able to give police a physical description of the shooter.
Several months later, police received a tip that a notorious Philadelphia criminal named Jack Howard had a robbery planned for February 6, 1939. Howard was a suspect in several murders. Police staked out the potential target of the robbery. Howard arrived and a confrontation ensued that ended in a shootout as the police tried to arrest Howard. Howard was shot and killed by Detective Captain James P. Ryan. Police recovered four guns that had been in Howard’s possession. According to Detective Spangler, a bullet from one of Howard’s guns was a perfect match with the .32-caliber bullets removed from Edward Tamkin’s body.
On February 24, 1939, Philadelphia police announced that the murders of Morrow and Canham – as well as the death of Tamkin and several other murders – had all been linked to Howard, following a police interview with Rudolph Sheeler, the brother of Howard’s girlfriend. During his interviews with police, 23-year-old Sheeler had confessed to being Howard’s accomplice in these crimes. On March 3, 1939, the state charged Sheeler with Morrow’s murder.
Sheeler pled guilty to Morrow’s murder. At his sentencing hearing, Sheeler told Judge McDevitt about how he had been forced into a life of crime at age 15 by Howard, who was 14 years older than him. McDevitt sentenced Sheeler to life in prison on March 31, 1939.
McDevitt wrote to the Pardon Board, stating that Sheeler and Howard – not Bilger – killed Morrow and Canham. Bilger testified before the pardon board that he had confessed under duress. According to Bilger’s attorney, police had provided Bilger ice cream and candy to coerce him into confessing. Assistant District Attorney James W. Tracey said that the prosecution did not object to Bilger receiving a pardon but that his “mental condition presents a problem.”
On December 10, 1940, Governor Arthur James pardoned Bilger for the murders of both Morrow and Canham. Following Bilger’s pardon, he was admitted to Pennhurst State School, a state mental institution.
In late August 1941, newspapers reported that Bilger had escaped from Pennhurst. Available records do not provide any additional information about Bilger’s life following his escape.
By 1951, two University of Pennsylvania law professors and attorney Herbert L. Maris had become involved in Sheeler’s case. They located documents that said Sheeler was at work in New York at the time of Morrow’s murder. Sheeler testified that officers used physical force and other forms of abuse to obtain his false confession. Sheeler’s conviction was reversed, and he was granted a directed verdict of acquittal on May 1, 1951. The six officers involved in Sheeler’s interrogation received suspensions. In discussing the conduct of these police officers during Sheeler’s interrogation, Judge James Gay Gordon, Jr. said, “this is a dark and shameful page in the history of the Philadelphia police department.”
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.