Article submitted for consideration to Spring 3100 written by Lieutenant Bernard Whalen
During periods of great distress, comfort can sometimes be found by remembering those who suffered and persevered before us under similar circumstances. In this regard, I would like to tell you about the family of Detective Joseph J. Lynch, assigned to what was then called the Forgery and Bomb Squad. Detective Lynch and his partner, Detective Ferdinand A. Socha were killed in the line of duty on July 4, 1940, while attempting to diffuse a bomb that had been planted inside the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Their murders were never solved, although many groups were considered suspect, including Nazi sympathizers and IRA supporters.
My name is Bernard Whalen. I am a lieutenant assigned to the Office of Labor Relations. My off-duty employment is that of writer. I collaborated with my father Jon Whalen on a novel titled Justifiable Homicide, which was recently published by Ballantine Books. We are currently researching the early 1940's and the NYPD in particular during that period, for a new novel tentatively called, The World’s Fair War. The book opens on the day that detectives Lynch and Socha lost their lives and follows the police investigation through December 7, 1941, the day the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Much like the tragic events of September 11, 2001, in which dozens of police officers were among the first victims killed, the deaths of detectives Lynch and Socha at the hands of terrorists were a prelude to war.
In an effort to portray the events of that time in the most accurate possible manner, I have sought out people who were directly affected by them. As a result, I was able to locate the oldest daughter of Detective Lynch. Her name is Easter, after her mother, but as a child she was called “Essie” by her family. Although she is well into her seventies now, she has vivid recollection about her parents, and the events surrounding her father’s death. On Sunday, January 6, 2002, she graciously permitted me to interview her in her Connecticut home.
Her story is both sad and inspirational. The sadness is for her loss and those who sought to exploit her family. The inspiration is from her mother’s struggle to raise her five young children ranging in ages from ten to twenty-two months (Easter, John, Robert, Martha and Mary) on her own, the woman’s undying faith in God, and the NYPD’s unflagging efforts to remain in the picture as a department wide surrogate father for her family even to this day.
Joe Lynch’s father was cop, but he had no plans to follow in his father’s footsteps. He met his future wife at a church dance in Greenwich Village where her father owned a grocery store. They were married in 1929 and within a year their first child was born. Eventually the family moved to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx where seven people shared a two bedroom apartment. Although Lynch had a pharmaceutical degree from Fordham University and was an assistant college professor there, he believed the NYPD offered more stability for his family than his teaching position. So he took the test and was appointed in 1936. With his education, it didn’t take long for him to become a detective. By the time he reached his fourth anniversary, he’d already advanced to second grade detective. But $3,200 a year didn’t go very far with all the hungry mouths he had to feed. Lynch realized to reach the top, he’d have to study hard to pass the civil service promotional exam. That’s exactly what he intended to do on July 4, 1940, since he was permitted to stay at home on call for the holiday. But even so, more pressing matters occupied his mind. There was no health insurance back then and Essie was in the hospital suffering from a painful bone condition called osteomylitis. At the time, there was no known cure, although a few years later she became one of the first recipients of an expirimental wonder drug called penicillin. It cured her.
Detective Lynch and his wife planned to visit Essie that evening when he was officially off-duty. Saint Joseph’s Hospital was located in Yonkers. To get there, they’d have to use his sister’s car. But he never made it because that same afternoon he received a phone call that a suspicious satchel had been found inside the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair. Police on the scene had removed it from the building, and now the department wanted him and his partner to respond and investigate. These were the days before bomb sniffing dogs and sophisticated robots. There wasn’t even protective gear or a bomb removal truck. Formal training was minimal. In fact, investigating bombs was considered a sideline that was assigned to the Forgery Squad, whose real business involved detecting and apprehending forgers. Fortunately, most bombs were duds, and the few that weren’t only caused minimal property damage. The plans simply called for immersing the suspected device in lubricating oil if necessary. Such was their mind set when Lynch left that day. He told his wife that he’d be home in time for supper. She barley gave it a second thought and didn’t even bother to turn on her radio to follow the story at a time when anything that happened at the World’s Fair was big news.
Lynch borrowed his sister’s car and drove to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to pick up his partner, Detective Ferdinand “Freddy” Socha. Then together, they headed for the fairgrounds and arrived shortly after three. An area behind the Polish Pavilion had been cordoned off and the satchel was isolated by the Emergency Service Unit. They approached the bag with caution. A ticking sound could be heard coming from inside the satchel. Socha carefully snipped apart a small section of cloth and pulled it apart so that Lynch could peer inside. A detective positioned close by, whose job it was to relay information from Lynch and Socha to the police commanders safely out of harm’s way asked him what he saw. Before Lynch could tell him that there was sticks of dynamite in the bag, the bomb exploded, blowing him and his partner to bits, and leaving a crater in the ground, some thirty feet in circumference. The blast was so great that it blew out windows on the Polish Pavilion and severely injured the cops cordoning off area, including those who believed they were far enough to escape the effects of the bomb. Despite the loud explosion, the fair continued in full swing, with most patrons thinking the noise was some sort of fireworks to mark the fourth of July.
When the parish priest appeared at Mrs. Lynch’s doorstep, she assumed the worst because she had seen that look on a pastor’s face before. Three years earlier, her mother had been murdered in the family grocery store. Her first inclination was that something had happened to her beloved Essie, never dreaming it involved Joe. After the priest broke the news, her first thought was to protect Essie. She called the hospital and instructed the staff to keep the radio away from her daughter. Then she spoke to Essie by phone and told her that her father had gone away on business. Outside their ground floor apartment, trickling in at first, and then steadily increasing, friends began to gather. Soon the courtyard was filled with people and flowers. Two funeral directors approached her offering to provide their services to bury Joe for free, but one was more reputable than the other who was known for padding his bill with expenses that he did not cover. Mrs. Lynch picked the honest funeral director with one stipulation. She wanted to have the wake in her apartment so she could remain at home with her children. Her wish was granted. Over five thousand mourners visited during the next three days, including the legendary Babe Ruth. Police officers lined the funeral route for blocks in either direction of the church during the service waiting to pay final respects. Detective Joseph Lynch was laid to rest at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in the manner befitting a New York hero. He and his partner were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by Mayor La Guardia.
For his brave actions, Detective Lynch’s widow was awarded an annual pension equal to one half his salary. That was $1,600 per year, provided she never marry again. If she did, she’d forfeit the pension. Certain members of her extended family believed she would not be able to provide for her children on such a paltry sum and suggested she parcel out the children. She steadfastly refused. This decision caused strife with some of her in-laws that was never resolved. To supplement her pension income, Mrs. Lynch received a grant from the Police Relief Fund for $5,000, payable over 100 months. In order to receive the money she had to change the bed sheets every week on the 50th Precinct captain’s bunk. (It should be noted this was a common practice at the time for police widows.) As she got older, Essie sometimes performed the chore. Mrs. Lynch used the extra money to pay the mortgage on a Rockaway Point beach cottage that she used for the next ten years as her children’s summer retreat. She figured the sun, sand, and water provided a much healthier environment for her children than the noisy Broadway elevated subway in her Bronx neighborhood. Her investment proved wise, when she sold the place, she was able to turn a small profit.
While they were alive, Detective Lynch’s colleagues never forgot their friend’s family. For the next eighteen years, Detective Bob Miller hand delivered Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey and all the trimmings right to the Lynch doorstep. Mrs. Lynch used to tell her local butcher to keep a turkey on the side believing that one day Bob would not come, but he always did. Every year, shortly before Christmas, while the children were growing up, Detective Dave Salter of the Honor Legion gave Mrs. Lynch a gift certificate worth $100 to go Klein’s Department Store to buy clothes for the kids to be used at the employee’s discount rate so it went even further. And he always reminded her, “Be sure to get an outfit for yourself.” Cops at the 50th Precinct made it their business to take the Lynch children to ball games, circuses, parades, and picnic outings. Essie personally met all the great Yankees of the day, but her favorite was Joe DiMaggio, although her attempts to personally communicate her special relationship with the Bronx Bombers all those years ago to George Steinbrenner have been unsuccessful. Still, she believes that someday, she’ll meet him in person.
Outside the department, lifelong friends also did their part. Lynch’s good friend from Pharmacy School at Fordham, Murray Kasberry had his own drug store and provided the children all their prescription drugs for free. Fordham University erected a bronze plaque in the very classroom where Joe Lynch taught and provided his son John with a full scholarship. In 1988, the final year of her life, Mrs. Lynch was thrilled when Rusty Staub’s widows and orphans organization sent her a check for $500.
But there were bouts of bitterness that the family was forced to overcome also. Lord Halifax, the Queen of England’s emissary presented both deceased detectives’ families with engraved silver plates worth about $35.00 a piece from “a grateful” British Government. Mrs. Lynch wrote the Queen back saying she could have put a kitchen utensil to better use. Lord Halifax replied on behalf of the Queen saying that she could not take care of every farmer who lost an animal or property due to a bombing. Mrs. Lynch was furious with the reply and tore up the letter. How dare anyone compare the murder of her husband to the death of a cow, she raged. But her anger was short lived and did not alter her faith in God. She once said, “God has been very good to us. He has sent us many crosses [to bear], but never closes a door without opening another.”
Over the years, Essie Lynch has done everything she can to keep the flame of her father’s memory alive. That commitment has resulted in the placement of a monument to him and Detective Socha outside the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadow Park, the only building still standing from the original World’s Fair. At the 1964 World’s Fair, a special mass was said for the detectives at the Vatican Pavilion. She also exposed a fraud perpetrated upon her family after $35,000 was collected to construct a park in her father’s honor near the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Myrtle Avenue. After much fanfare, the money disappeared and the park never got to be anything more than a trash strewn lot marked by a sign with Joe Lynch’s name on it. She demanded the sign be removed and refused to allow any organization to use her father’s name for profit again.
In August, 1940, just one month after her husband’s death, Mrs. Lynch penned this poem trying to put the events into perspective. She wrote:
To each of us is given a treasure chest of thought
In which to store our memories,
More precious than anything ever bought.
So let us remember, as each day draws to its close
That the greeting of night
Is the gift of sweet repose.
If we but look for the sweetness
And the goodness that each day can hold
We find the story of life so lived,
More beautiful each time ‘tis told.
Maybe we can find comfort in her words. After all, we know she survived her troubled time. Five children, sixteen grandchildren, and twelve great grandchildren can attest to that.