When state Rep. Walker Burke announced his candidacy for mayor this week, many pundits here in the city were confused. Burke’s in the middle of his fourth term and with the turnover in the recent elections, his seniority position’s been bumped up quite a bit and he’s been made the chairman of a very important finance committee- basically, Burke is in the position to do a lot of good for this city, on the state level. Why on earth would he want this thankless, stressful task?
Perhaps he’s heard about the lost treasure of Old City Hall.
Old City Hall (as it has been called from its beginnings) was completed in 1888, but had a lot of renovation work done in the late 1910s, particularly in the basement and foundation areas. Much of this work, as was the fashion at the time, was done by companies that had, shall we say, certain direct connections to the city’s underworld at the time. The contracting firm which oversaw the renovations and shoring up was a legitimate-seeming arm of the Angelo “Lucius” Moskowitz mob, a very powerful gang in the early 20th century.
The legend has it that Moskowitz and his boys engineered a daring heist on the estate of Anderson Biddlesworth III, chairman of the City Savings Trust Bank, the largest and most successful at the time. They were hitting Biddlesworth’s manse in President Heights, as the banker didn’t fully believe in banks. Sure, the bank was a great source of income for him and provided some semblance of security for the unwashed masses, but a great man of his stature certainly needed to keep his assets close at hand (in the form of gold boullion and jewels) especially with the threat of anarchists overrunning the country at any moment. Besides, according to Keeper of the Keys, a biography of Biddlesworth published in 1978, he was deathly afraid of handling cash.
So- on a cold October night in 1919, while he was out of town, conducting business in Philadelphia, the theives hit, cleaning out three full underground vaults of the Biddlesworth millions. The crooks were never caught, but everyone was sure that the Moskowitz mob were to blame. But nothing could be proven. Angelo had an air-tight alibi and the police hadn’t a single lead. Two months later, Moskowitz and his top lieutenants were among those killed in the zeppelin tragedy at Watson Airfield and the location of the gold and jewels died with them.
Years later, stories began to surface- people who knew someone who worked on the Old City Hall renovations or had heard from a friend- bits and pieces about workers being suddenly dismissed for the night; Moskowitz himself with a pickax; mysterious crates being loaded into the building; guns flashed at those who asked too many questions; stories of vast quantities of gold bullion being poured into concrete or walled up behind brick. There have been half-hearted attempts over the years to see if the stories are true- every so often, a bored local news station will take a stab with a sonar apparatus or psychic on the anniversary of the heist, but authorities claim they’ve been over every possible inch of the building and have never been able to locate the haul, which is believed to be worth almost $150 million today.
A couple of ex-mayors over the years have sheepishly admitted to wandering the endless basement corridors with metal detectors, searching in vain for the lost treasure. As Mayor Terence Williams (1973-1977) once said, “That would have been a hell of a lot easier than balancing the damn budget.”
- R. White