The gunfire at the movie house was real Violence: The audience was watching 'I, the Jury' at the Town Theater, while a murder suspect in a phone booth upstairs was having a shootout with FBI agents.

Remember When

January 25, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

There was no shortage of real-life drama for moviegoers attending an evening showing of Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury," on Sept. 25, 1953, in the Town Theater on West Fayette Street.

At the very moment gunfire was erupting on the screen the sound of real gunfire was breaking out in the theater's second floor mezzanine as a gunman opened fire on FBI agents.

As John Elgin Johnson, 34, a West Coast bank robber and convict, sat in a phone booth talking on a long-distance line, he heard the sound of feet charging up the stairs.

He immediately opened fire with his P-38 Walther automatic. Shooting through the glass, he wounded FBI agents J. Brady Murphy and Raymond J. Fox.

Hit in the stomach, Murphy fired once before falling and dropping his .357 Magnum, which rolled to a stop under a chair near the phone booth. Fox, hit in the hip, tumbled backward toward the stairs.

The two agents behind the wounded pair opened fire and emptied their weapons into the phone booth.

When the barrage ceased, the booth was riddled with holes. A phone book attached to a string hung in tatters at the side of the booth.

Johnson's body sagged and slowly toppled over, jamming the phone booth door. His hand flopped over a jagged piece of glass, nearly severing a finger.

Scott Alden, agent in charge of the Baltimore FBI office, told The Sun, "He didn't get out of the booth -- not till we pulled him out."

Tin pans

Most of the moviegoers downstairs had not heard or been disturbed by the violent commotion.

"Few persons in the audience at the Town Theater were aware of the gun battle which took place above their heads," reported The Sun. "They were too absorbed in the bang-bang 3-D movie and its make believe gun play."

Downstairs, in the darkened theater, a patron, hearing some noise, stopped and asked an usherette if the roof was caving in.

"No," the woman answered, "they're beating tin pans upstairs," reported The Evening Sun.

"I was there that night," said M. Robert Rappaport, whose family leased and operated not only the Town Theater but also the Hippodrome and Little theaters.

"I was in the box office of the Hippodrome wrapping money when I got a call that there had been a shooting at the Town and immediately ran over there," said Rappaport the other day from his Baltimore residence.

"It happened right outside of my office, and if I'd been there I might have been right in the middle of it," he said.

"We were all shook up, but the notoriety of the shooting probably increased attendance rather than decreased it," said Rappaport.

According to Rappaport, a slug from the gunfight is still embedded in the wall of the theater, which has been closed since 1990.

As Johnson was hauled out of the theater on a stretcher, he groaned once. He was dead on arrival at University Hospital.

Fox and Murphy were rushed to Mercy Hospital, where Murphy, the father of three children, underwent emergency surgery in a desperate attempt to save his life.

As he lay dying, with his wife by his side, Murphy's last words before his death at 3: 50 a.m. were reserved for his attacker.

"May God have mercy on his soul," he said.

Out of Alcatraz

The strange odyssey of John Elgin Johnson, bank robber,

suspected murderer and gunman, that ended in the theater at 311 W. Fayette St., began in March 1953, when he was paroled from Alcatraz after serving a 12-year sentence for bank robbery.

Shortly afterward, he was seen driving the car of a Los Angeles-area man who was found murdered.

"A loss-of-contact" warrant was issued by police, which stated he was wanted for violation of parole, automobile theft, alleged murder and impersonating a police officer.

Sid Hughes, a reporter for the Los Angeles Mirror, had befriended the ex-convict and tried to aid in his rehabilitation.

Johnson, who had drifted to Miami from Los Angeles and then to Baltimore, had been in the city only a few days when he called the reporter, who begged him to throw away his gun and give himself up.

"No, you remember what I told you. Nobody is going to take me. I ain't going back to that place [Alcatraz]. Not for one hour," Johnson told Hughes in a phone conversation.

Johnson agreed to call Hughes back at 7: 30 on the evening of Sept. 25. After getting $15 dollars in change at the Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets, and ignoring a sign that said the theater's mezzanine was closed, Johnson carefully stacked his change in the phone booth and called Hughes.

Hughes had earlier alerted the FBI in Los Angeles to Johnson's whereabouts, and in turn the FBI informed the Baltimore field office that he was somewhere in the city.

The trap had been set with the reporter as bait, and the moment Hughes picked up the receiver in Los Angeles, the FBI began tracing the call.

"Sid, I got a funny feeling," Johnson said to the reporter.

"What do you mean, Johnny?"

"Well, when you live like I do you get these kinds of feelings and you play 'em," he answered.

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