The Station-House Murder of Riley Bullock

Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (
Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (

A day after riots shook the city and a few hours after the Polyclinic incident, patrolmen Robert Ramsey and John Schneider returned to their station house at 20th and Federal before hitting the streets. Within minutes they encountered Riley Bullock, a 38-year old African-American who lived at 2032 Annin Street.

Bullock would soon be dead.

According to one account, Bullock “was being attacked by a crowd of white men when the two policemen came to his rescue and arrested him.” According to another, Ramsey and Schneider “arrested Bullock while he was going on an errand and committing no crime…” They struggled with Bullock, “who wielded a razor with such telling effect that Ramsey’s coat was cut.”

No one challenged that Ramsey and Schneider severely beat Bullock, who the Inquirer described as “a negro rioter.” According to one witness: they “beat him with all their might and force for about two squares until he reached the station.” Another witness, a Mrs. Williams, “testified that she saw Ramsay and Schneider beating Bullock at the corner of Titan and Point Breeze Avenue; that they held both of Bullock’s arms up as he walked … Schneider was beating him with a black jack and Ramsey was beating him with the butt of a revolver…”

Then, “just as soon as they entered the station house door, she heard a shot.”

At first, police said “the bullet which ended Bullocks life was really intended for one of the white policemen…” They claimed Bullock, who was escorted into the station’s rear door, was “shot by ‘a colored man’ [who] was detected running away from the scene of the murder with a revolver in his hand.”

The story soon changed: “In their haste to open the station house door and escape the threatening mob that followed them,” Officer Ramsey slipped on a step and his “revolver was accidentally discharged and Bullock was struck, receiving injuries that resulted in his death.”

Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)
Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)

Lieutenant Harry Meyers issued the statement: “As they came up the steps of the police station on the Point Breeze Avenue side, Ramsey, who still had his gun in his hand to keep the pressing crowd at bay, suddenly slipped. The revolver was accidentally discharged and the bullet struck Bullock in the back, piercing his lungs.” Then Meyers added: “Ramsey did not shoot the negro because of any malice resulting from the killing of Policeman McVey by Negroes.” And then Meyers “ordered all newspaper men from the station house and forbade them to return.”

In the following days, “delegations of Negro clergymen and business men” attempted to meet with the mayor and police officials to send the message that “Afro-Americans of this city are tired of legalized murder.” They “put responsibility for the rioting squarely up to the police of the 20th and Federal Streets station, whom they charged with showing sympathy for the white residents of the turbulent area.” They and others organized “The Colored Protective Association” which retained attorney G. Edward Dickerson “to prosecute Policeman Ramsey,” held at Moyamensing Prison.

Dickerson anticipated the testimony of two African-American policemen in the station house when Ramsey shot Bullock. One officer had even “helped put out the fire which the pistol shot started in Bullock’s clothes” and both had “heard Policeman Ramsey acknowledge that he shot” Bullock. But in court they weren’t reliable witnesses. One of the officers even “swore he never saw Ramsey before.”

2032 Annin Street. The home of Riley Bullock in 1918. (Google Streetview)
2032 Annin Street, home of Riley Bullock, killed by police July 29, 1918. (Google Streetview)

Testimony from the Coroner’s Physician proved the most damaging: “The ball entered into the small part of Bullock’s back and took a downward course through the pelvis [indicating] …that the bullet could not have been accidentally fired when Ramsey slipped going up the steps.” Judge Henry N. Wessel refused bail for Ramsey, who remained in his cell at Moymensing. Wessel criticized the police for their apparent looseness in the investigation and expanded it to include “every policeman who was in the station house at the time of the shooting.”

A month later, Lieutenant Meyers would be transferred to the Fishtown station at Girard and Montgomery Avenues, and a week after that “the entire force of policemen at the 17th District Station House” was transferred. “May the good Lord have mercy on the neighborhood to which this king of thugs has been assigned,” editorialized The Tribune about Meyers’ move.

Now we have a mixed force of colored and white officers,” they noted. “For the first time in six weeks colored children have been able to play in front of their homes…colored people can walk home and feel safe.”

Ramsey and Schneider lost their jobs and went to trial, but would never serve time for the murder of Riley Bullock. Two years later, they were tried and found “not guilty.” The jury had deliberated for a mere 30 minutes.

[Sources: “Race Riots Grow In Fury As Police Fail To Curb Mobs, Negro Is Slain at Door of Station House,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1918; “Race Riot Area Dry; Detain Policeman In Shooting Probe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1918; “Policeman is Held after Rioter’s Death,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1918; “Meyers Kicked Out 17th District,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, August 31, 1918; “Entire 17th District Police Transferred,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Judge Rebukes Police For Killing Of Negro,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1918; “Coroner Holds Patrolman for Grand Jury,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, September 21, 1918; “Schneider Is In The Jail House Now; Prisoner Held Bullock While Ramsey Shot Him,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 2, 1918; “The Colored Protective Association,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 18, 1918; “Ex-Policemen Freed,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 16, 1920.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 herehere, here and here