In 1990, I had just moved to a second-story apartment near the corner of 21st and Pine Streets when I opted to take an evening stroll along Market Street, where I was then accosted by a group of four or five youths who stole my (empty) wallet and ripped my jeans so badly I had to cover myself as I scurried home. I’d never been mugged by a group of people before, so I was pretty well shaken. Time passed. I got over it. 

The number of homicides in Philadelphia in 1990 numbered 500, a statistic often compared to 2021’s murder rate (550 and counting). Center City in 1990 wasn’t exactly a hotbed of mass shootings. In fact, on the surface, life there seemed relatively peaceful and calm. Still, 1990 was the year that most city residents became aware of the growing homeless problem in the city. The homeless, who were called “bag people” or panhandlers, generally congregated near 13th and Chestnut Streets, and stories about “bag people” were common in the local press. There was the elderly “Duck Lady,” for instance, who would lift her dress and relieve herself in the middle of Chestnut Street.  Random shootings — the kind we have become accustomed to today — tended to occur in the neighborhoods. Center City, on the other hand, seemed to be a magnet for other sorts of crimes, like the 1995 murder of Center City jogger Kimberly Ernest and the scandal surrounding Eddie Savitz, or “Uncle Ed,” in 1992.

I asked former Philadelphia detective Tom Augustine, noted for his role in the booking of Richard Wise and Herbert Haak in the Ernest case, what he could recall about the city’s homicides in 1990. Augustine told me he couldn’t recall much and confirmed my recollection that most of the homicides then occurred in the neighborhoods rather than downtown.  That year would prove to be a gateway because the years preceding it and the years after would put Philadelphia on the map for a number of sensational crimes and news events. In 1985, for instance, there was the MOVE bombing fiasco. One year later, the Gary M. Heidnik murders shocked the city, while another serial killer, Harrison Graham, was charged with killing seven women. In the five years from 1985 to 1990, the Frankford Slasher, who was never caught, also killed seven women. 

The two most sensational and tragic murders that attracted international attention were the brutal beating death of sixteen-year-old Eddie Polec by six teens in Northeast Philadelphia in 1994 and the murder of gay artist Anthony Milano of Levittown in 1987.

Milano, 26, was on his way home from a Bible study class when he stopped at the Edgley Inn in Tullytown for a beer and a sandwich. There he met Richard Laird and Frank Chester, who had been at the bar for some time and were very drunk. Reports indicate that Laird and Chester got Milano to buy them drinks, while Laird derided Milano behind his back (“I hate faggots”). Sometime after 2 a.m., Laird and Chester forced Milano to drive them home. The three drove for about an hour to a rural area, where Milano was ordered out of the car, beaten, and his throat slit multiple times with a box cutter.

I covered the Milano trial in Doylestown and sat close to the killers in the press section. Throughout the trial, I made it a point to study the expressions on the two men’s faces. The look on Frank Chester’s face suggested some remorse, while Richard Laird maintained a look of arrogance, as if he would gladly kill Milano again if given the chance.  I also had the opportunity to speak to Milano’s parents, Vito and Rose (now deceased), who sat together looking thoroughly broken-hearted during a court recess in an obscure section of the courthouse.  Both Laird and Chester were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, although over the years, the men have argued their case before a number of judges and have had the verdict reversed on technicalities. Both were retried. Laird is still sentenced to death, while Chester was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

The look on Frank Chester’s face suggested some remorse, while Richard Laird maintained a look of arrogance, as if he would gladly kill Milano again if given the chance.

Three years later, 1990 saw the first arrest of “Uncle Ed,” or “Fast Eddie,” who would make international headlines two years later when his Wanamaker House apartment was raided by police. Eddie Savitz was a 1963 University of Penn graduate and an actuary in his family’s firm and was by all accounts a well-liked and talented gentleman despite a suicidal penchant for teenage and underage boys, especially from Roman Catholic and Bishop Neumann high schools. After his initial arrest in 1990 (and eventual not-guilty charge) for purchasing men’s soiled underwear, the high volume of teenage boy traffic in and out of his Center City apartment caused Alan Domb, then president of the homeowners association there, to alert police. With the help of neighbors, police wiretapped and installed a hidden video camera inside Savitz’s apartment, where they observed the goings-on for six months.

I happened to be walking along Walnut Street when police raided Savitz’s apartment, so I joined the crowd of curious pedestrians who watched as innumerable police vans and media trucks pulled up in front of the building. At the time, I assumed there had been a murder inside the building and was surprised when I learned that the bust had to do with sex with underage boys, strange scatological fetishes, and an AIDS scare that added fuel to the raging paranoia about AIDS that was sweeping the city.  

Police wiretaps revealed that “Uncle Ed” received 2,925 calls from teenage boys between December 6 and March 6 of 1992.  News reports at the time revealed that “Uncle Ed” didn’t have sex with all the boys he saw; he employed some to do household chores. For many boys, visiting “Uncle Ed” was a rite of passage. Many of the boys’ fathers had also visited “Uncle Ed” as teens when they needed spare cash.  

What largely propelled “Uncle Ed’s” arrest was the AIDS crisis, which in 1990 still inspired a lot of fear.  Although Savitz would in fact die of AIDS-related complications, ironically not one of the thousands of his contacts did.  Misconceptions about how AIDS was transmitted were very common then.  Medical literature blithely stated that “sex between men” was a risk factor (as well as sharing needles in the case of addicts) without the mention of any specificity at all. But as Philadelphia playwright Samuel R. Delany noted in his book Solids and Surds: “Thus, sexual acts from French kissing to fellatio do not transmit the virus, with or without ejaculation. Tales that include ‘sex’ must be told with a specificity at such a level, or, by definition, they are encouraging the ignorance that spreads AIDS.” 

The Savitz case had a profound effect on the fear of AIDS and on “AIDS carriers” (homosexuals) in the city. After Savitz’s arrest, I had many experiences of being called an “AIDS carrier” as I walked with my partner along Walnut or Chestnut Street. DA Lynne Abraham was criticized at the time for tapping into this fear. AIDS panic was so bad in Philadelphia, it caused the New York Times to report: 

“Not since 1985, when a police confrontation with the armed cult Move left 61 houses in flames and killed 11 people, has Philadelphia been so shaken. More than a thousand people have called the District Attorney’s office and AIDS counselors about the Savitz case to report their own and other people’s contacts with Mr. Savitz. There have been scattered threats of violence against homosexuals and organizations that assist people with AIDS, and these organizations have sharply criticized the authorities’ handling of the situation, saying they had exaggerated the threat of infection from contact with Mr. Savitz.”

In the late 1970s, while working on a feature on male hustlers in Suburban Station for Philadelphia’s The Distant Drummer, I spotted Eddie Savitz on a number of occasions— a tall man in thick black, horn-rimmed glasses in a long overcoat and in what looked to be a bad hairpiece—standing in the back of the station near the men’s room, watching and waiting.  

Nineteen-ninety was also the year that Frank Rizzo ran for mayor as a Republican against Democratic Party nominee Ed Rendell. Rizzo at that time had a radio show on WCAU (AM), where he came down hard on the outgoing Wilson Goode administration. I was able to obtain an interview with Rizzo at the station despite the fact that I had vilified him for years in Philadelphia Gay News, the South Street Star, and in the Welcomat. I was quite nervous meeting him, but he thoroughly disarmed me with his charm. He spent a lot of time talking about a police officer friend of his in the hospital with AIDS. Once again, AIDS and the fear of AIDS seemed to dominate the conversation.

When Ed Rendell became Philadelphia’s new mayor in 1991, one of the first things he did was roll up his sleeves, grab a wash bucket, and head to the men’s rooms in City Hall. Local news channels showed clips of the mayor scrubbing the bathroom walls and stall doors clean of graffiti and obscene messages.  For a new mayor, this was the perfect photo op, as a clean-up of City Hall bathrooms was a long time coming.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, dirt, graffiti, and obscene drawings of all kinds covered the walls and stall doors in the City Hall men’s rooms. 

There was minimal security in City Hall at the time, and anyone could walk in and use the restrooms for whatever purpose they had in mind. One could also tour the building’s foreboding looking but fascinating basement, which I did a number of times (thanks to a friend who worked for the city).  What impressed me most about the massive dungeon- basement was its catacomb-like nature and its stockpile of old desks, chairs, cabinets, and who knows what else stuffed behind this-and-that.  

 The city has come a long way since 1990. While City Hall may have sparkling clean restrooms and exemplary security, the politicians that inhabit it have made Philadelphia a far worse place than it was thirty-one years ago. Today, the city finds itself lost in a gun violence- epidemic due mainly to the tyranny of one party (Democrat) rule. What will it take to correct this? Perhaps a visionary leader–hopefully a Republican–who will roll up his or her sleeves Ed Rendell-style, and begin a thorough clean out that goes way beyond graffiti and surface grime. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist, who has written fifteen books, including: Out in HistoryPhiladelphia MansionsLiterary Philadelphia, From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Nickels has written extensively and is currently a regular columnist for City Journal New York, the Philadelphia Irish Edition and the Philadelphia Free Press.

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: What Philadelphia was like the last time it had a 500 murder year”

  1. I lived off of 15th&Spruce (Hicks St)from ‘68 to ‘76.
    It was a marvelous time. Businesses in town were still mostly closed on Sundays, and not many people were out walking as well. There were plenty of Mom and Pop ships all over town, prices for things were cheap to reasonable. I had no fear of being mugged, robbed, or whatever. I loved Philly back then. I now live 28 miles east of the city in NJ, and have little to no desire to visit there. Today’s Philly is but a shadow of its former glory.

  2. There’s no comparing 1990 to now.

    Center City has continued to improve while “the neighborhoods” have all either gotten worse or been gentrified, with sadly no exceptions. Those gentrifiers now run not just the city but also the media that’s supposed to cover it honestly, and many of the actual city natives who partner with them sadly probably don’t even know what it’s like to grow up in a functioning community since deindustrialization started in the ’70s. They don’t understand how things used to be and could be again if tough decisions were made.

    Who is there to even say what needs to be said?

  3. we are a country currently drowning in a tsunami of violence and senseless murder….a nation of short fuses, and quick and violent actions and reactions. we have been glorifying violence since the mid 60’s in our popular culture…..our movies and television shows, and it is crossing over in real life. it has NOTHING to do with covid, and everything to do with our love of violence to settle scores, claim revenge on those who ”wronged us”, romances turned sour.

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