In the year 1954, the United States was changing rapidly. President Eisenhower, a Republican, was in the midst of his first term. Eisenhower had just announced to the world that the United States had in fact developed and successfully tested the first hydrogen bomb some two years prior. Mamie Eisenhower christened the Nautilus, which was the first submarine to run on nuclear power. The great court decision, "Brown vs. the Board of Education," called for the integration of the country's public schools. Arkansas and Alabama refused to integrate and President Eisenhower was forced to send the 101st Airborne Division to integrate the schools of these states. The phrase "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Eighteen-year olds were shouting, "If we are old enough to fight and die for our country, why can't we vote?" The teens got a bill into the house but it was turned away by the senate.
New fashions were surfacing in both men's and women's fashions. Men were wearing Bermuda pants, baggy pants that were cut off at the knee, while women were wearing capris, tight pants that cut off just below the knee. Men were wearing tailored jackets and making a slight move towards the casual dress of today's workplace. Women were wearing natural shoulders as opposed to the heavily padded ones of the war years. Flat, neck-hugging collars replaced the mannish collars of the late 1940's. Waists were tightly fitted and skirts were long (Melinkoff 46). The jeans of the time were often lined with plaid flanel and dungarees were worn to the most casual occasions. The sandals of the fifties were not much different than the sandals of today.
In the entertainment world, On the Waterfront won the Oscar for the best film while its star Marlon Brando won the Oscar for best actor. Grace Kelly won best actress for her role in The Country Girl. James Dean and Humphrey Bogart were also creating memorable movies. Almost thirty million people owned televisions by this time so it was no surprise that America fell in love with shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show," "I Love Lucy," "Dragnet," and "Lassie." A meeting of the President's cabinet aired on television for the first time. The Miss America Contest was broadcast live on television for the first time. The price of a color television dropped to 1,110 dollars.
Rock "˜N' Roll records topped the charts. Songs like "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight" by The Spaniels, and "Honey Love" by The Drifters. Bill Haley may have recorded the first rock "˜n' roll record by a white person to become popular. His version of "Shake Rattle and Roll" was a huge success. The Midnighters were the most popular group in the R&B section.
In the 50's, America fell in love with the car as well. Popular cars included the '54 Chevy, the Chrysler Imperial, the stationwagon, and the El Dorado Brougham by Cadillac. Prices ranged from $2,500 for a Dodge with automatic transmission to $13,074 for an El Dorado Brougham. The car changed Americans' entire way of life. People no longer were forced to stay in the same town. Teenagers were no longer forced to stay at home with their family. Therefore, drive-in movies and diners grew in popularity. Commercial airlines were taking hold but a survey showed that only twenty-five percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane.
A widespread terror of Red attacks and Red spies enveloped the country. The danger of the situation was exaggerated by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Thousands were accused of being communist with no sufficient evidence to prove that they were. McCarthy did not successfully prove any communists had infiltrated the government. McCarthyism began to decline after 1954 because of the end of the Korean War and the condemnation of McCarthy by the Senate.
In the sports world, Rocky Marciano retained his boxing title. The Cleveland Indians won the A.L. pennant ending the five-year reign of the New York Yankees. Joe DiMaggio wed Marilyn Monroe. The Cleveland Browns defeated the Detroit Lions to win the NFL championship. Also, a new magazine, Sports Illustrated, made its debut in 1954.
In other news, Ernest Hemmingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Scientists first began to link smoking cigarettes with ling cancer. The videotape was invented. Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed by the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Pakistan, and Thailand. Gamel Abdel Nassar took over full power in Egypt. Ho Chi Minh and the communist party came to power in Vietnam. General Motors produced its 50 millionth car. Scientists observed that the universe was created by a Big Bang. William Golding's book "The Lord of the Flies" made its way into stores.
Unlike today, in the "˜50s, teenage violence was not very common. Poverty was looked at as a part of life, not a problem to be fixed. But, just as today, alcohol was a problem. These three factors all come into play in a crime that took place in Brooklyn in 1954.
It was Monday, August 16, a hot summer night on the corner of South Fourth and New Streets in Brooklyn, New York. William Menter had spent the evening at a local saloon and had went to the George Washington Monument Park to sleep off a drunk when four youths approached him. Koslow, Mittman, Lieberman, and Trachtenberg approached Menter because they "had an abstract hatred and distaste for bums and vagrants" according to Koslow.
Jack Koslow, the leader of the group, was about six feet tall and he only weighed about 150 pounds. He was well-read and thoughtful and restrained in his speech and behavior. It was Koslow, the eldest at 18, who said without emotion that "park bums are no use to society and better off dead." Koslow seemed very convinced that he should have the right to determine who should live and even alluded to Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" justifying the murder of an old woman. Melvin Mittman, 17, was a heavy-set youth with blonde hair and a blonde mustache. He was charged with being the brawn and brute of the four. Mittman and Jerome Lieberman, also 17, were both seniors at the Eastern District High School. Both were attaining good marks in their studies. Robert Trachtenberg, 15, was the tallest of the four although he was the youngest.
Apparently, with no actual motive, the boys approached the man with intentions of severely beating William Menter, appearing to be a park bum sleeping in a deep state of drunkenness. Police said that Koslow, the group's leader, was into historical leaders and the last great leader of his time was Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party in Germany. Supposedly, swastikas and Nazi memorabilia covered the walls in Koslow's room. Koslow had the same view of "bums" as Hitler had of Jews. With the same mentality as Hitler, one who could play God and decide fate, Koslow and the others began to beat Menter while he was passed out on a park bench in George Washington Monument Park. It seemed that they did not choose him because he was a Negro. They proceeded to take off one of Menter's shoes. Mittman held him down while he struggled and the other boys began to singe his foot with lighted cigarettes. The boys then replaced Menter's shoe and forced him to stand up. Five blocks down South Fourth Street they went. Their melancholy walk led them passed New Street, Driggs, Bedford Avenue, Berry Street, Wythe Avenue, and then to Kent avenue which they turned into. Then at South Fifth Street, they turned into the pier. Koslow and Mittman took Menter towards the water while Lieberman and Trachtenberg stayed out on South Fifth Street. It was about midnight when they reached the end of the pier. Koslow and Mittman forced Menter into the river knowing that he was unable to swim in his current state of pain and drunkenness. There was a splash and the boys scattered back to their homes.
It wasn't until Thursday, August 20, 1954, that the body of Menter was dragged out of the East River. The four boys were already being held for the beating of another park vagrant when each was led to the shore of the East River handcuffed to a detective in order to identify the body of Menter. The boys positively identified Menter as the man that they had beaten the prior Monday night. The boys were able to identify him because of his clothing, not because they recognized his face. At the age of 35, Menter was employed by the New York Burlap Bag Company at 101 Grand Street, Brooklyn, just a few blocks from the pier where he suffered a death of submersion. William Menter left behind a wife, Emma, from whom he was separated, a daughter, Shirley Ann, 11, and a son, William Jr., 6.
The four boys were taken to trial for the deaths of William Menter and Rheinhold Ulrickson. They were immediately turned into separate trials. All four boys were charged with 1st degree murder in the case of William Menter. Trachtenberg was allowed a separate trial because he offered to give information. Lieberman was placed about a block away from the murder scene according to statements made by both Mittman and Koslow. The lawyers of the two pleaded that Menter rolled into the river on his own and that the boys were only responsible for his beating. The jury didn't buy it and both Menter and Koslow were sentenced to life imprisonment. Upon hearing the verdict, both youths wept.
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19 Aug. 1954: 1:6
"4 Teen-Agers Seized In Death by Kicking." The New York Times
18 Aug. 1954: 1:3
"Grand Jury Gets Case of 4 Killers, With Indictment Thursday." The New York Times
24 Aug. 1954: 27:3
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Melinkoft, Ellen. What We Wore. New York: William Marrow Co. Inc., 1984.
"Murder Charges Face Teen Killers." The New York Times
20 Aug. 1954: 62:4
"One Youth Clear In Dock Murder." The New York Times
10 Dec. 1954: 21:1
"Teen-Age Killers Guilty, Face Life." The New York Times
15 Dec. 1954: 1:5
"Teen-Age Killers Identify Body Of 2d Victim, Taken From River." The New York Times
21 Aug. 1954: 1:5