Friday, February 20, 2015

Dance Halls and Dark Alleys

A number of years ago, I thought I would “tidy up” my maternal genealogical line so I could set about seriously researching those roots from before their time on the American continent. Having been born into a family of people culturally inclined to record their family trees, I thought it would only be a matter of finding appropriate documents to verify the known data for the first 4-6 generations.

It was not long before I found that I had a family secret or two that affected the accuracy of my genealogical record. One such discovery was of my maternal great-grandmother, Blanche. I had heard next to nothing about her. Of course, there was a reason for that. She and her sister Faye, were involved in serious criminal activities in Sacramento, CA.  Blanche was murdered in 1937, when her daughter, Norma (my grandmother) was only 6 years old. After obtaining and reading the inquest, it became clear that there was more to her murder than officially reported. (The Center for Sacramento History found a mugshot of Blanche, check out my very first blog post here-titled "By Way of Introduction" for more on that.)

Faye continued in criminal enterprises throughout California and Hawaii until she returned home a few years before her death in 1968, leaving intricate lies and half-exposed secrets in her angry wake.

I determined to learn as much as I could about the people surrounding Blanche and Faye during their time in Sacramento. I learned about their friend Kleta. I read about a WWI veteran who returned from war, and established a betting hall, but since he defied the established numbers kingpin, he was raided repeatedly by the police in an attempt to bring him down. I am forever searching for Faye's alias(es), hoping make more connections to determine who else was involved.

I am searching for the person who would have wanted Blanche dead. Who did she cross? Faye had told some in the family that Blanche had ‘talked to people she shouldn’t have”. The family narrative held that Faye and Kleta had immediately fled Sacramento in fear after Blanche’s death. I have come to find that this was not true.

The Center for Sacramento History, and the Sacramento Room (within the Central City Library) provided me with a wealth of guidance and resources. Mugbooks, property ownership maps, city directories—these all helped to build a picture of 1930s Sacramento for me.

 Who ordered Blanche’s death? Ruling out Frank Nisetich-the man mentioned above, whose betting hall, The Equipoise, survived the pressure of crooked cops and other syndicates; I sought to find the person most likely to have held the power in Sacramento vice. This brought me to N.N.S. Matcovich-otherwise known as “Big Nick”.

Big Nick was a prominent and enterprising member of Sacramento business. He owned the St. George Hotel, in which he established an "employment service". He provided agricultural laborers to local employers. The laborers lived in this hotel, paying Matcovich both for room and board, and also a commission for finding them work. Big Nick likely collected a fee from the agricultural companies, as well.

Agricultural laborers at this time were primarily single men. A large majority of the men were of Filipino heritage, or other immigrants, and people of color. At this time in California, Filipino people were considered to be a sub-class of society. The men were legally banned from being seen with white women.

In addition to the hotel, Nick owned several liquor stores and dance halls.  Known as Taxi Dance halls, these were places men could come and pay to dance with one of the many girls there. A dancer would have a ticket book, with stubs for each dance. The man could pay a dime for one dance. The dancer kept a nickel, and the other nickel went to “the House”. In addition to dancing, the women were expected to encourage the men to buy drinks for her and him. In some establishments, a commission on alcohol sold was paid to the woman. While full price was charged for each drink, the dancer would generally be given colored sugar water, though I am sure an occasional full-strength drink made its way to a thirsty dancer now and then. 

Several of Matcovitch’s dance halls were known as “Black & Tan” dance halls, because they were intended for people of color who were not allowed to enter the other dance halls (he owned one of these segregated clubs as well). Sacramento citizens fought against the opening of such establishments, but Nick convinced City Hall, and he was in business.

An extension of the dance hall market, was not surprisingly, sex trafficking. While heavily implicated-both in his own time, and in my research-Big Nick managed to escape prosecution for his certain role in the sexual exploitation of women and girls in Sacramento. Having read the file from his first divorce, it was clear that Nick reveled in his power and held no regard for women.

I have not found anything resembling firm documentation of Nick’s involvement in my great grandmother’s death-but he remains my prime suspect.  I continue to search, building biographies of the people webbed together by their places of work or residence, their marriages, and shared encounters with law enforcement. Blanche, Kleta, and Faye, materialize before me, enticing me down alleys and into the pages of books ripe with musty vanilla and secrets exposed.