Snakes in the Garden
By Howard Elgison
Back in the days when Elvis the Skinny was king and “gay” was synonymous with merry, there lived on the Isle of Palms a couple of big time New York gangsters. The gangsters’ sojourn on the isle of Palms is a tantalizing tale of fact and hearsay sprinkled with the obligatory lineup of colorful outlaw nicknames.
The facts of the story are as follows: In April of 1955 one Thomas Francis “Duke” Connelly Jr. was the getaway driver in a $205,000 robbery of the Woodside branch of the Chase Manhattan bank in Queen’s, New York. Since robbing a bank is a Federal offense even in New York, Duke Connelly made it onto the FBI’s most wanted list, peaking out at No. 13.
So Duke, his wife and their two small children hightailed it out of New York and showed up on the Isle of Palms in early May. No one is quite certain why Connelly chose the South Carolina Lowcountry as his hideout, but rumor has it that he had purchased his first pair of Weejuns with the bank loot and developed a sudden and uncontrollable urge to shag. Connelly rented a beach house using the alias “Mr. Kelly” and, as a reference, he gave the name of “Izzy” Sabel, a Charleston nightclub owner famous for his Manischevitz popsicles.
Connelly was soon joined by an old friend of his, a truly nefarious character named Elmer Francis “Trigger” Burke. As his nickname implies, Burke was a professional hit man – who was wanted in New York for bumping off one Edward “Poochy” Walsh. Burke was also wanted for questioning in both New York and Massachusetts for his possible involvement in six other murders, especially the disappearance of Redmond Cribbins, the suspected mastermind behind the Queens bank robbery.
For the next few months Burke and Connelly did all the usual touristy things like fishing, swimming and boating. The boys were never suspected of any wrongdoing although several South Carolina bridge inspectors disappeared under rather mysterious circumstances. But then that’s a fairly common occurrence.
Burke and Connelly made numerous trips into Charleston and were regular customers at the YMCA Health Club where they mingled with some of the city’s influential and prominent citizens. They also frequented Issy Sabel’s club on Market Street and mentioned to Sabel that they were interested in getting some new clothes – the best in town. So Sabel hooked them up with Henry Berlin who togged them out in his finest attire. When it came time to fit the shoes, Trigger Burke told Berlin what size he wore; whereupon Berlin, outspoken fellow that he was, told Burke that he was crazy and that he needed a much larger shoe size. Some months later, when Berlin related the story to an FBI agent, the agent told Berlin that Burke had been known to make people disappear with far less provocation.
Speaking of people disappearing, it is at this point that the story turns primarily hearsay. On June 27, after hastily moving out of their beach house, Duke Connelly and his wife simply vanished. No one ever saw either one of them again – dead or alive. About a month later their two children were found abandoned, one in Wilmington, Delaware and the other in Baltimore, MD. The official rumor was Burke murdered Connelly and his wife for Connelly’s $90,000 share of the bank hiest. There was also a story going around that Connelly buried the money somewhere on the Isle of Palms or one of the islands accessible by the Intracoastal Waterway and then dropped out of sight. However, no trace of the money was ever found and a great deal of Isle of Palms real estate has been dug up by people searching for Connelly’s loot. And regardless of what became of the money, the statute of limitations on the warrant for Connelly’s arrest ran out almost 24 years ago. Theoretically, he would have no reason to stay in hiding, but he has not resurfaced, no body has been found and Burke stayed quiet as death about his friend.
Trigger Burke was arrested by FBI agents on Folly Beach in August of 1955. Burke’s extradition hearing was presided over by Judge Ashton H. Williams who said he recognized the killer as soon as he walked into court because the judge’s Isle of Palms home was just a few door’s down from the Connelly’s.
Burke was returned to New York to stand trial for murder and to this day Henry Berlin laments the fact that throughout the extradition hearing no one ever mentioned how nice Trigger looked in his fine new suit from Berlin’s menswear.
Burke was executed at Sing Sing prison on Jan. 8, 1958. If he knew anything about the disappearance of the Connelly’s or their money, he went to his grave with the knowledge. Even as he strode to the electric chair and was asked if he wanted to make a final statement, he simply said “no.”