A rash of city worker suicides 65 years ago

Posted: June 14, 2013

TO A FEW Philadelphians with a long memory or a love of civic history, the shocking news that a city Licenses and Inspections employee had died in an apparent suicide instantly called up memories of one of the most notorious eras in city history: a time when six city workers or cops committed suicide in fewer than three years.

But friends and co-workers say the death Wednesday night of L&I inspector Ronald Wagenhoffer, who monitored the Market Street demolition that collapsed and killed six people last week, is a case of a good and honest man, wracked by guilt over the episode.

That would make it very different than the city worker suicides that roiled Philadelphia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the victims were tied to a wide-ranging civic corruption scandal.

It started on May 23, 1948, when a mid-level city employee named William Foss hanged himself from a water pipe in the basement of his home.

The death of Foss - who worked in the city Revenue Department collecting an amusement tax - was not a big deal at first. It was only later that authorities revealed the stunning reason that he had committed suicide - he'd left a note implicating municipal co-workers in the theft of $200,000.

Foss' suicide triggered a municipal scandal so extensive that it helped end nearly a century of Republican rule in Philadelphia. In 1948, within days of the discovery of Foss' note, the state attorney general and other authorities began looking into allegations of graft and embezzlement across City Hall.

In June 1949, the key figure in that part of the probe, a supervisor named Ernest Wrigley, was found dead in Fairmount Park, his wrists slashed, in a death that officials also determined to be a suicide. Not long after that, a city plumbing inspector named Willard Severin took his life by jumping from a bridge into the Schuylkill near East Falls.

Ultimately three police officers also committed suicide, including the well-known head of the vice unit, Inspector Craig Ellis.

"I have failed as a leader," he wrote in a suicide note. "My wife did not know of my laxity. I suppose my pain has made me mad. I pray God will help any I may have caused regrets."

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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