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Untold Stories: The Boy Wonder

Greenelaf’s arrest appeared in the next morning’s edition of The New York Times.

In August 1919 police reported the disappearance of $178,000 in Wall Street securities — along with the messenger who was carrying them. According to The New York Times the satchel of courier Benjamin H. Binkowitz was found on the sidewalk — sans money and sans Binkowitz. Police suspected an inside job, although they were unsure how Binkowitz figured into it. Not long afterward it was determined that he apparently didn’t figure into it very well. Binkowitz’s mutilated corpse was found dumped in the bushes alongside the turnpike in Milford, Conn. There was a piece of knife blade, broken at the handle, buried deep into Binkowitz’s neck. His head had been lopped off. His face had been slashed beyond recognition. “The theory the police who have been assigned to the case is that the murderers planned to cut off the youth’s head and carry it away to prevent identification,” reported The Times. The cause of death was given as a stab wound to the heart, although the coroner counted 45 knife wounds in all. Twenty officers were assigned to investigate.

Additional details emerged during the next few weeks. A piece of wire fencing was found in the messenger’s hand, indicating he had been killed in the spot where his body was found. Police also found evidence that Binkowitz himself had stolen the bonds, but they concluded that he couldn’t find a way to dispose of them. Police believed he was murdered by gangsters. Binkowtiz’s final hours involved a long, dreadful car trip along a dark highway with several unsavory and threatening characters. They took from him what bonds they could find on his person before stabbing him dead and dumping the body. He was also probably tortured or threatened because the gangsters also uncovered a separate stash of bonds that Binkowitz had hidden away inside a parked truck.

It was some months later that Greenleaf came to Bridgeport, Conn., for an exhibition match. It was about 11 p.m. on the night of Nov. 6. The street lights would already have been lit as Greenleaf and his manager, George Worden, stepped out of the poolroom. Although it was cold, pool fans crowded around Greenleaf on the sidewalk. Many, presumably, would have been eager to buy Greenleaf a drink. Greenleaf, presumably, would have been eager to take them up on the offer. And it was exactly then that the police swooped down and took Greenleaf away.

“Greenleaf, Pocket Billiard Expert, Arrested … in Binkowitz Murder” was the headline that appeared in newspapers all across the country. Also detained was Greenleaf’s manager, Worden. The police had rounded up 11 people already in connection with the sordid case but the arrests of Greenleaf and Worden became the first in some time. “Both Greenleaf and Worden have been in the city the last 24 hours, Greenleaf appearing at a local billiard academy in a match game with another well-known cue expert,” The Times reported.

I haven’t come across the identity of that other “well-known cue expert,” nor have I been able to determine more details about Greenleaf’s and Worden’s mysterious detention. What’s certain, however, is that both spent only one night in jail. Authorities gave contradictory accounts as to why they apprehended the pair, and why they then so quickly set them both free. One state official suggested that Greenleaf and Worden had not been arrested at all — as had been initially reported by The Times — but rather involuntarily detained as “witnesses.” But without a copy of the now nearly 100-year-old police record, it’s impossible to know what exactly Greenleaf and Worden might have witnessed.

It’s also hard to know what exactly to make of this incident. Greenleaf and Worden told the press later that their arrest was a blunder, and that they would have appeared voluntarily had they known that it was necessary. But it also seems at least possible that someone already in custody had named Greenleaf. At the very least, his arrest further hints of the champion’s fast-living ways — and perhaps his association with a criminal element.

As for the Binkowitz case itself — the young man’s murder was later determined to have been part of a far-ranging organized-crime conspiracy. There were more arrests in Connecticut, Chicago and even Montana. “Hartford Jimmy,” also known as Jimmy Ricco, an East Coast underworld figure, was identified as the brains of the operation. Police caught up with him leaning against a building at the corner of 22nd and State in Chicago, then in the heart of the city’s red-light district.


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