Philadelphia and the American Infatuation with Tear Gas

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1922] (PhillyHistory.org)

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1923] (PhillyHistory.org)

“I rob banks,” Willie Sutton famously quipped, “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton didn’t realize that’s also where the tear gas was.

Disguised as postal messengers early one morning in February 1933, Sutton and a partner in crime gained entrance to the Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust at 60th and Ludlow Streets. They tied a guard to a chair, but the guard freed himself, managed to release tear gas—and foiled the robbery.

Tear gas had become an accepted law enforcement tool—one of the more successful technology transfers from the battlefields of World War I to urban America. Months before the Treaty of Versailles, military leaders were gung ho to demonstrate the potential of tear gas in places like Philadelphia.  “More effective than clubs, and less dangerous than bullets,” they boasted.

Brass in Army Chemical Warfare Service promised that tear gas had positive “psychological impacts.” It could offer police “the ability to demoralize and disperse a crowd without firing live ammunition.” Tear gas, according to recent history in The Atlantic “could evaporate from the scene without leaving traces of blood or bruises, making it appear better for police-public relations than crowd control through physical force.”

Getting taxpayers to pay for the deployment of gas-filled bombs on their hometown streets would be a hard sell. After all, as early as 1899, the Hague Conventions prohibited “projectiles filled with poison gas.” And then there was the recent horror of poison gas on the battlefields of France. But military chemists claimed they had reconstituted formulas, making them tame enough for use in peacetime America. At least that’s what Major Stephen Delanoy, fresh back from France “where he had been for more than a year perfecting various gases for the government” promised.

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (PhillyHistory.org)

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (PhillyHistory.org)

To demonstrate “how efficacious gas could be” Delanoy came to Philadelphia where he had a friend in Philadelphia police Superintendent William B. Mills. Together, they choreographed a high-profile experiment where 200 “volunteers” from the Philadelphia police force would be gassed at the city’s Model Farm near Fort Mifflin in South Philadelphia.

On July 19, 1921, according to The New York Times, “Police Supt. Mills took a battalion of his huskiest men into a roped-off enclosure with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs. Three times they charged but each time we’re driven back weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.”

“Before they entered the mimic battle,” Delanoy “assured the men that the substance was ‘absolutely not dangerous.’ It is merely a tear-producing, choking, nauseating gas,” he said. “But be careful you don’t swallow too much.” Philadelphia’s guinea pigs apparently swallowed just the right amount. The “sham attack” sold them on the stuff.

“The effectiveness of teargas as a mop dispeller received the emphatic endorsement of 200 stalwart Philadelphia policemen today,” reported the Times. “Police officials said the test had undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work. Not only is it immediately effective in disbursing a mob, but it might be used to drive a fugitive from a barricaded building.” They imagined how a “container… placed in a bank vault…would also thwart burglaries…”

“Bullets as mob-quellers now belong to the Dark Ages” declared The Literary Digest. Police would get “gutta-percha hand-grenades containing chemical gas” and their victims would choke and copious tears would flow. “One of these bombs or grenades is equal to a hundred police clubs in a riot,” declared the officer in charge, after the Philadelphia test.”

“This method of dealing with offenders against the peace has many obvious advantages,” stated The Inquirer. “It is humane, for one thing. Riding down or shooting into a mob may cause needless injuries or deaths, sometimes of innocent bystanders.”

Within a few months, City Council approved a $2,500 appropriation to supply equipment for a new fifty-man, “gas battalion” with the Philadelphia police. Amos Fries, chief of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, who had been working “to redeploy the technology for everyday uses” provided “chemicals, material and equipment free of cost to the city.” Philadelphia taxpayers only needed to purchase “masks and other paraphernalia for local use.” Within a few years, police departments from New York to San Francisco were stocking up on tear-gas supplies.

Philadelphia police, anxious to make good on their investment, considered ways to put tear gas to work fighting a spate of unsolved robberies. Officials ordered their “bandit-chasing squad” to carry “tear bombs along with sawed-off shotguns…to end the robbers’ activities.” They didn’t have long to wait for the opportunity.

The opportunity came on October 7, 1922, when police learned of the “ransacking” at the “dressmaking establishment” of R.A. and J. A. Brown, 1530 Sansom Street. One officer fired two rounds at the suspects, and missed. They had hidden behind packing cases. No problem. Police “hurled a tear bomb against the wall directly above” their hiding spot. For the first time in an American city, plumes of tear gas filled the air. One suspect crashed through a window and escaped into a side alley.

Police captured the other suspect. According to The Inquirer: “When the air cleared sufficiently, the policemen entered the room and found George Rex, colored, twenty years old, of 18th and Lombard streets, in a stupefied condition, temporarily blinded.”

Trench warfare had come home.

[Sources: Willie Sutton’s Robberies. (PDF); Tear Gas For Mobs, U. S. Colonel’s Plan, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 1919; “New gas with K. O. Wallop May Help Police In Battles,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1921; “200 Philadelphia Policeman Weep in Flight From Tear Gas in Sham Attack,” The New York Times, July 20, 1921; “Knockout Gas for Mobs,” The Literary Digest (Funk & Wagnalls), Vol. 70, August 20, 1921; “City Police to use Gas Bombs Shortly,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1921; “Gas Bombs Prove Nemesis to Bandits,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1922 and Anna Feigenbaum, “100 Years of Tear Gas: a Chemical Weapon Drifts off the Battlefield and into the Streets,” The Atlantic, August 16, 2014.]

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