The Thrill Killer
A son of a Milwaukee plutocrat, George Harsh Jr. made national headlines as a murderer, only to later become a WWII hero who helped pull off the Great Escape.
The headlines dubbed him the “Thrill Slayer” of Milwaukee.
George Rutherford Harsh Jr. shocked the nation in 1928 with two murders he seemed to commit just for fun. Born into a wealthy and influential local family, Harsh had all the money he wanted, yet he was so bored, he went on a robbery spree that led to the killings.
That was noteworthy enough, but Harsh’s life took countless surprising turns. He was sentenced to the electric chair yet managed to avoid this. He served in a Georgia chain gang and got released early from prison for performing an emergency operation on a fellow inmate. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, only to be shot down and incarcerated again, this time in a German prisoner of war camp. The result was yet more fame for his role in the most daring Allied POW escape of World War II.
If anyone ever lived an extraordinary life, it was this shoemaker’s son whose biography sounds like it sprang from the imagination of Sylvester Stallone at its overheated worst. The tale can be pieced together from many sources, including news stories of the day, three books about the Great Escape, and Harsh’s autobiography, Lonesome Road. It begins in Milwaukee, where Harsh’s father had come to seek his fortune.
The life of George R. Harsh Sr. was itself far from run-of-the-mill. Born in Nashville, Tenn., the senior Harsh was orphaned at age 4. As a young man, he applied for work at a large shoe factory in Memphis, Tenn., but there were no openings. “I shall work three months without any salary,” offered Harsh. “If I can prove to you that I am worthy of a position, you can then pay me.”
He became one of the firm’s top salesmen. By 1897, Harsh was superintendent of a national shoe firm in St. Louis, and 10 years later, he moved to Milwaukee and started the Harsh, Smith & Edmonds Shoe Manufacturing Co. (Vice president William A. Edmonds would, in the 1920s, help lay the foundation for the Allen-Edmonds company in Belgium, Wis., still one of the state’s leading shoe manufacturers.)
By 1908, Harsh’s shoe factory and tannery was one of the biggest businesses in town. George, his wife Elizabeth (whose father once ran a newspaper with Mark Twain in Missouri), daughter Estelle and son William lived at 3303 Cedar St. (now West Kilbourn Avenue) when George Jr. was born, probably in 1909. (Perhaps befitting such a notorious character, the year he was born and his age when he died are not known for certain.)
Not long after his birth, the family moved to a more impressive home – and a more well-to-do neighborhood – at 584 (now 2808 East) Kenwood Blvd. George Sr. joined the city’s most exclusive clubs, and the family spent summers at a rambling estate on Pine Lake in Waukesha County, where many of Milwaukee’s social elite also had lake homes.
When the United States entered World War I, Harsh Sr. offered to provide 500 pairs of shoes annually for doughboys at cost because “a man is a mighty poor citizen who would rob his government at any time and especially in a crisis like this.” Harsh also agreed to serve, at $1 a year, as supervisor of federal leather contracts for the war’s duration. When the war ended, Harsh dove back into civic affairs, launching the Wisconsin School Improvement Association to enhance the public school system.
“His standards of life were very high,” says the History of Milwaukee, City and County, Volume 2. “He at all times recognized and met his obligations as a man and as a citizen. … [He] steadily climbed until he reached the plane of affluence, gaining not only material wealth but the highest respect and regard of his fellowmen.”
But the life that the Milwaukee Journal said “reads like a romance of American business” ended on Aug. 31, 1921, when he died on an operating table during treatment for brain cancer. He was only 53.
George Jr. – called “Junie” – was then 12. A tall, thin boy who favored bow ties and poetry recitals, he was a student at the prestigious Country Day School – now University School. Principal A.G. Salter would later recall Junie as strong in English and weak at math, with an alarming tendency “to become enraged when his leadership of the ‘Harsh Clique,’ as it was called, was challenged.” He was also remembered as moody and “delicate.” After his father died, Junie began missing more and more school on account of unspecified illness.
In 1923, young George withdrew from school and spent a year and a half traveling with his mother, “regaining his health and visiting the beautiful and historical places of the world,” as a news story noted. He had inherited a quarter-million dollars (about $3.2 million in today’s dollars) from his father’s estate, plus an annual allowance worth about $151,000 in current dollars.
It was while abroad that Harsh, to quote one of his doctors, “discovered that alcohol makes the world look rosy. … It helped him forget a chronic disposition to feel inferior.”
As one of Harsh’s friends recalled, “The whole trouble with Junie is that he attended too many parties where liquor was served.” Harsh, the friend added, “was the type of boy who, when drunk, was mean and nasty instead of foolish or high-spirited.”
After a stint at prep school in Asheville, N.C., Harsh enrolled at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where his sister lived and where he impressed his first-year English instructors with his writing ability.
Back home the summer after freshman year, Harsh drove his roadster – an 18th birthday gift from his mom – up and down Lake Drive, reciting poetry and impressing friend Agnes Kennedy with his concern for his mother. “He loved [her] dearly,” said Ms. Kennedy. “If he had a bit too much to drink, he’d drive around for a while until his head was clearer, saying, ‘I’ll make mother feel badly if she sees me this way.’”
Ms. Kennedy also recalled that, “Once or twice, when he saw a bird or something else that would make a good target,” Harsh would declare, “I wish I had a gun now.”
Sometime in the late summer of 1928, he got one. It was a .45-caliber pistol Harsh used so carelessly at the family’s Pine Lake estate (where he’d crawl through a basement window when he came home drunk so his mother wouldn’t see him) that the family’s concerned caretaker urged him to throw it in the lake because “nothing but trouble could come from owning such a weapon.”
Instead, Harsh took the gun with him back to Oglethorpe in the fall. As at Country Day School, Harsh had a clique of students, including Richard Gray Gallogly, another rich boy whose family owned the Atlanta Journal newspaper. Harsh and Gallogly were well known in area nightclubs and for shenanigans like pulling fire alarms, driving too fast and jumping into the Chattahoochee River with their clothes on.
Harsh’s pistol opened up new entertainment vistas for the two. Streetlights on Peachtree Avenue were plunked out, and the stately clock on the main campus tower took a direct hit. But they soon tired of mere target practice. While drinking at a roadhouse, the bored duo decided to spice things up by going on a crime spree just “for the fun of it,” as Harsh later told police.
Harsh and Gallogly pulled seven stickups around town. Gallogly drove the car and acted as lookout while Harsh went inside the stores, drew his gun and demanded money from the clerks.
The second time out, he shot and killed clerk E.H. Meeks. On the seventh robbery, Harsh killed Willard Smith, a clerk who’d vowed to a colleague a week earlier that nobody would hold up his store and get away with it. Smith drew his weapon and fired at Harsh before he died. Harsh was hit in the hip but escaped. On campus, he explained his limp by saying he’d fallen with a pint bottle in his pocket. But the bloody pants he sent out for dry cleaning were traced to him, and as Harsh was heading to a football game between the University of Georgia and Oglethorpe, he was taken into custody.
“We were just out drinking, stewed to the gills and looking for fun,” explained Harsh, anointed in blaring headlines across the country as the “Thrill Slayer.”
“I am deeply sorry,” added the erudite killer. “I have brought upon myself great calamity, but I have no one to blame but myself. I know that a confession will not do any good to those whose lives have been darkened by the acts of me and my partner [he had ratted out Gallogly]. But I have made a complete confession, and I will stand by it for better or worse.”
Four years earlier, the country had been transfixed by the Chicago trial of wealthy college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who kidnapped and murdered another student just to see if they could get away with it. Harsh and Gallogly were the new Leopold and Loeb – “two wealthy sophomores, super-intellectual youths and students of Tolstoi,” according to the Milwaukee Sentinel. Harsh, the story went on, was a “fairy princeling” and “super-gilded youth blessed with far more of the good things of life than even his wealthy playmates.” Psychologist Abner W. Lamar examined Harsh and said he “shows pride, firmness, self-reliance and interest in the intellectual and literary directions, but is utterly lacking in sympathy and … compassion.”
Famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow had saved Leopold and Loeb from the electric chair (they got life sentences), but he was unavailable. So the Harsh family hired former Georgia U.S. Rep. William Schley Howard, an old-fashioned, southern-fried orator who, because his client had already admitted guilt, set out to prove that poor Junie Harsh was not “mentally normal” and therefore not accountable to the law.
(Responded “one of Milwaukee’s foremost [but anonymous] medical men” in the Milwaukee Journal: “All this bosh in getting experts and proving insanity in rich men’s sons makes communists in this country.”)
While defense and prosecution experts examined him for mental competency, Harsh cheerfully read a murder mystery and “received reporters in his cell with the politeness of a young aristocrat entertaining at home,” a news story recounted. When a very distraught Elizabeth Harsh arrived to visit her son, chief of detectives A. Lamar Poole offered her some half-comforting words: “He may be a murderer, but he is the finest gentleman I ever met.”
During the sensational four-day trial in mid-January of 1929, a reporter noted that the defendant projected an “air of easy tolerance at the antics of inferior mortals,” while the all-male jury was taken on a “personally conducted tour of his nervous, his alimentary [and] his circulatory systems” by a battery of 10 defense medical experts, all designed to prove the Thrill Slayer was “abnormal in virtually every gland and organ.” They also heard from Mrs. George Prentice, who traveled from Milwaukee to ominously recall that when she lived across from the Harshes on Kenwood Boulevard 19 years earlier, she looked out the window one day and saw infant Junie fall out of his baby carriage and smack his head on the sidewalk.
The prosecution countered with its own experts and introduced into evidence one of Harsh’s college essays (“First impressions are often a conglomeration of polyglot ideas and thoughts…”) to show his intellectualism.
After 15 minutes, the jury approved chief prosecutor John A. Boykin’s request that “George’s head be shaved and enough electricity sent surging through his body to hurl him into eternity.” The judge set March 15 as Harsh’s execution date, and Harsh’s mother cried out as she was led from the courtroom, “God, why do they kill people when they don’t know what they have done?”
In Milwaukee, reaction to the sentence was mixed. “I think he should be punished, although death seems a pretty hard thing on a youth of his age,” said Marie K. Franzen of the Business and Professional Women’s Club. To J.B. Modesett, general secretary of the YMCA, the lesson was that “Boys should have more hard work as they go along and later they would appreciate things more.” Said assistant district attorney John Donnelly: “Harsh must be just plain crazy,” adding, “I am glad that we do not have to face this capital punishment problem in Wisconsin.”
An appeal was filed. Meanwhile, Harsh’s accomplice Gallogly, who had his own high-powered legal team, went on trial. He pleaded not guilty, and after the first jury was hopelessly deadlocked, a retrial produced the same result. On the eve of a third trial, Gallogly changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Whereupon the judge, apparently seeing a need for equal treatment, commuted Harsh’s death sentence to life imprisonment. “You are a boy a thousand miles from your home in Milwaukee,” he said. “We want to give you every chance.”
Harsh released a statement thanking his accomplice: “I realize that the action of Dick Gallogly in pleading guilty and taking a life sentence … was because he wished to save me from the extreme sentence of the law. It was a most magnanimous act for him to come to my rescue this way. Dick is not guilty of any murder.”
Several years later, Harsh would insist he had no idea what that statement said, that he was forced to sign it, and that Gallogly was just as guilty as him.
So how guilty was he? “Guilty as hell,” Harsh wrote in his autobiography, Lonesome Road, published in 1971 by W.W. Norton Co. “Had I received justice, I would have been hanged as high as Haman.”
Still in print and published in several languages, Harsh’s book doesn’t mention Milwaukee, Pine Lake or the fateful world tour on which he discovered everything looked rosier through booze-colored glasses. It opens with Harsh toiling on a Georgia chain gang, a brutal existence overseen by keepers with less humanity than many of the convicts they policed.
In the book, Harsh confessed to a third killing. It happened in prison after another inmate stole his bar of soap. A fight ensued, and Harsh said he killed the other convict with the latter’s own knife. He wasn’t charged because the inmates who witnessed the fight said nothing.
An even more stunning revelation is that in 1940, when Harsh was a hospital attendant at Bellwood Prison Camp outside of Atlanta, he saved the life of another inmate by performing an emergency appendectomy because an ice storm had held up the arrival of the prison doctor. According to Harsh, the doctor later complimented him on his work, but added: “George … that incision. Good God. You weren’t doing a Caesarean on an elephant, you know.”
On Nov. 21, 1940, the Georgia Prison and Parole Commission granted Harsh parole, and on Jan. 13, 1941, he received a full pardon from Gov. E.D. Rivers on the ground that the life he had saved atoned for the ones he took.
Interestingly enough, contemporary newspaper accounts of Harsh’s release do not mention the appendectomy, but do state he was “lauded for heroism six years ago for saving the lives of 70 Negro prisoners during a fire” by smashing down the door of their burning quarters, unchaining them and getting them to safety. Harsh didn’t write about that (or about the time in 1936 that he and inmate “Chicken” Chastain were caught after a hit-and-run accident in downtown Atlanta involving the prison truck they had no authority to be driving in the first place).
Using the same equal justice yardstick that had saved Harsh from the electric chair when Gallogly pleaded guilty in 1929, Gallogly was pardoned with Harsh.
The Charlotte News condemned the pardons as “a body blow to justice.” But defense attorney William Schley Howard – who’d argued at Harsh’s trial that he had a “diseased mind” – now lauded him as “probably the best-read man in Georgia,” including “every medical book he could get his hands on,” and “a fine and earnest man.”
“I’m going to study hard and begin practicing medicine as soon as I can,” said a statement issued in Harsh’s name. “I expect to spend the rest of my life in efforts to relieve human suffering.”
But once released, Harsh found it hard to support himself. The best job offer came from an Atlanta crime syndicate that thought Harsh would be a good enforcer. When he found himself actually considering this, the now-broke Harsh decided he’d better leave Atlanta. He ended up in Montreal, where he drank and brooded, he later wrote, on how to “prove to my own satisfaction that I really belonged in this world as a full member of a society that had once expelled me.” Ten months later, after finishing first in his gunnery class, he became Lt. George Harsh of the Royal Canadian Air Force and deployed to England to participate in bombing raids over Nazi Germany.
After two years of service, his plane was shot down over Cologne, Germany, and he was back in captivity. In 1944, Harsh was transferred to the prison camp called Stalag Luft III, where fellow POWs informed him of a plan to dig their way to freedom by constructing a series of underground tunnels leading away from the camp. Although the scheme seemed to Harsh “as stupid as a lion tamer sticking his head in a lion’s mouth,” he went along with it, joining the group’s executive committee and agreeing to take charge of security. He created an elaborate system that kept painstaking tabs on every German in the compound while the digging was underway.
Harsh was a key contributor to the effort that would go down in history as “The Great Escape,” in which 76 POWs actually made it out of the camp. But only three made it back to Allied lines; 50 were executed upon capture, the rest returned to captivity. Harsh himself was not among the escapees, having been transferred to another camp with other inmates who had come under suspicion just before the escape. He was released when the war ended.
The best-selling book by Paul Brickhall titled The Great Escape was published in 1950 with an introduction by George Harsh. Contradicting his initial view that the effort was crazy, he wrote: “It proves something that I believed then and know now – there is nothing that can stop a group of men … from achieving a goal once they agree as to what that goal is. The aftermath may be sheer, stark tragedy – that lies with the gods – but the point is, men working together can accomplish anything.”
In 1963, film director John Sturgis brought The Great Escape to the big screen with a star-studded cast headed by Steve McQueen. In the movie, the character Sandy MacDonald (played by Gordon Jackson) is based on George Harsh. Charles Bronson played “the Tunnel King,” based on Canadian POW Wally Floody, who later became Harsh’s friend.
After the war, Harsh worked as a book salesman and operated a tree nursery. When Lonesome Road was published, he made his first known visit to Milwaukee since his 1928 arrest in Atlanta and was booked on two local TV interview shows.
In January 1972, Harsh penned a widely syndicated piece for The New York Times arguing against capital punishment. “I am a convicted murderer,” he wrote. “While still in my teens, I was convicted of a senseless crime and sentenced to die. ... This sentence would have been carried out had I not come from a white, wealthy and influential family.
“With sufficient money, a capital case can be kept in the courts until the defendant dies of old age,” he continued, then noted the saying, “You can’t hang a million dollars. ...This is not cynicism: It is truth. And I am living proof.”
According to an unconfirmed report on the Internet Movie Database website, Harsh tried to commit suicide by shooting himself on Christmas Eve 1974. He lived, but after suffering a stroke, he went to live in Toronto with Wally Floody.
When he died in his early 70s on Jan. 25, 1980, The New York Times called him “a pardoned slayer who became a hero and author.” Franklin H. Williams, icon of the civil rights movement and onetime U.S. ambassador to Ghana, wrote that “the world lost a hero” when Harsh died.
But Harsh’s autobiography makes you wonder just how happy he ever was. His unsmiling cover photo and the prose inside do not project warmth. The overall tone is that of a guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else – even when debunking the public’s view of his heroism. The true hero, Harsh declares, is “the quiet man who goes about the daily task of just living … who just carries out the routine, often boring, processes of his daily life without fanfare and yet, through it all, stays reasonably cheerful and brings a share of happiness to those who love and depend on him.
“To me this quiet man is the real unsung hero of the human epic,” wrote Milwaukee’s Thrill Slayer. “And his is the type of courage I lack.”
Pete Ehrmann is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.