The Charlestown Loopers
Presented by Ed Callahan
Car theft has a long history in Charlestown dating back to 1925, when James Sheehan, later nick-named Shiner created a new sport for young men from 9 to 20 year old. They would steal a nice car in Boston come over the bridge, then race down Chelsea Street to Bunker Hill Street to Main Street.
This “loop” around the 1 square mile of Charlestown was at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and they were chased by the Boston Police.
Lifelong resident of Charlestown, Ed Callahan, first heard stories about the Loopers from his grandmother and later from an elevator operator in his office building in Boston. Ed will tell the history of the Charlestown Loopers.
While the Charlestown residents cheered the young boys at first, later the crowds turned against the Loopers after innocent citizens died. Some Loopers became guests of Massachusetts Reform schools.
Pearl Harbor was the beginning of the end of the Loopers as most young men went off to war. Learn about the 25 year history of the Loopers, 16 deaths, and the damage to public utilities, stores, houses, cars, trees, fire hydrants and more. Maybe some of the sons and grandsons of the Loopers, continued the Charlestown tradition of car thefts in the 1960-1990’s?
The presentation will be on Tuesday April 28 , 2015 from 7:00 to 8:00, the talk is free and open to the public.
It will be held in the Education Room of the Bunker Hill Museum.
The following article ran in an edition of the Patriot Ledger back in the 1930′s – original source not available at the time of updating website.
Police Chases `Loopers’ Fault?
By RICHARD KENT Patriot Ledger staff Reporter
BOSTON – The death and injury toll during the past week following “hot pursuit” police chases in Randolph, Waltham, and Revere might be traced to events a half century ago in Charlestown.
In the mid-1920′s the teenage son of a federal alcohol agent who had earned a nickname from fellow Charlestown residents of “Shiner” because of his efforts in curbing clandestine Prohibition era stills, inherited his father’s nickname and became known as “Young Shiner”.
The deep, almost atavistic, drive of young men to participate in a male initiation rite, seemed to take hold of Young Shiner and thus began, perhaps, the origins of the high speed police chase in the metropolitan area.
The “cops and speeders” game began at historic Bunker Hill in Charlestown says a police shift Commander from the perspective of his service at the station and his upbringing in the district. His view also was supported by a retired detective sergeant from the division.
“The Loopers,” as they were called had a single requirement for a member. It was to steal a car and make a mile-long loop of Charlestown streets. All the better for the youth’s credentials was the participation by the police department in the staged event, said the police officer.
“It was like a play,” said the police officer who was a pre-teenage boy when the loopers began in the mid- 1920s and he recalled how word was passed through the “grapevine” to expect a “looping” at an approximate time and day.
The word of mouth announcement served two purposes. It alerted citizens to stay off the route of the loop but close enough to watch the action as a youth tested his driving skill on the narrow, steep and twisting streets studded with abutments and elevated structures. He also had to outperform one or more police cars accompanied by motor cycles.
“It was quite a show,” continued the officer, “The sound of sirens could be heard throughout the town and the look on the face of a looper and his passengers combined both fear and joy.”
In retrospect, the officer said that until the loopers glamorized the chase there had been very little car stealing for joy rides. “If the police had stopped chasing the kids, all the fun would have gone it of it and the gang might have died away,” he commented.
A postscript recall of isolated instances of challenges in small towns made to outrace the local police chief was noted by the officer but he said the publicity generated by the loopers might still survive today as a legacy of the past with youths seeking a contest the police.
Young Shiner headed the gang into the 1930s.
Retired Detective Sergeant John V. Miller, a Dorchester resident, said Young Shiner later “grew up” and if not now retired, is probably still working on Charlestown docks. He did recall however, that the head and founder of the loopers “became a pretty fair mechanic from souping up the hot cars in preparation for the chase.”
He agreed that if police had, stopped chasing the cars; the fad might have died out before it caught on elsewhere and possibly surviving as a direct link with today’s joy riding.
“There’s a lot to the possible psychology of young fellows wanting to be chased by police and defying death at high speeds,” he commented.
The “game,” he added, while drawing upon an old tabloid cliche was “sort of macabre.” He recalled the “slaughter or carnage” that followed on Charlestown streets after the first looping and the instantaneous response from police.
“You must remember,” he said, “that automobile thefts were infrequent and treated seriously when compared with the attitude today.
“Of course,” he continued,” we only had one-way radios until the two- way radio was introduced later in the 1930s,” said Sgt. Miller in explaining a greater need at the time to stay close to a pursued car,
Loopers also became victims of their own act as they crashed head on into other vehicles and into elevated uprights or bridge abutments.
Sgt. Miller recalled how a young attorney, his wife and young child were hit head on by a looper. “He and his child were killed outright said Sgt. Miller. A police patrolman was also killed, A young girl was struck and killed on a sidewalk when a looper’s car, crashed over a curb. “And it went on and on.” he stated.
Sgt. Miller said police never did put a halt to the fad. He said World War II brought an end to the looping as local youths went into military service or into defense work. The city, he said, “tried everything to put the kibosh on loopers.”
The most effective device said Sgt. Miller, was the “magic carpet. “This, he explained, was a two-foot wide leather carpet laced with spikes. It was because of this device that a motorcycle patrolman was killed.
Sgt. Miller said before the “magic carpet” was developed, Mayor Maurice Tobin ordered traps dug into Bunker Hill Street. The ruts or road grooves were combined with a “roughing out” of the street surface and narrowing the traffic lane of the loop route into a funnel like trap where police would be waiting.
The loop began at Hayes Square near the old Navy Yard at Chelsea Street. Sgt. Miller said the uphill climb on Bunker Hill Street was rewarded with a steep dip on the other side of the hill for a fast dash to Baldwin Street and Fay Square, and then onto Main Street. After ducking the elevated uprights to Alford Street and a run to “home plate” on Everett Street, the kids would get out and be cheered by the unofficial club judges and a reception committee.
“Some ended in the morgue. or the hospital and never made the finish line,” he said,
Sometimes the event was expanded to include two stolen cars in a race between themselves and also the police. It was the two-car race that resulted in the deaths of the lawyer and his daughter. said Sgt. Miller. “One of the loopers was passing the other and they hit the lawyer’s car head on,” he recalled.
The trap and excavated center on Bunker Hill Street failed to work when the youths crossed over to the wider lane against oncoming traffic or switched to streets, he said.
Police, not to be thwarted, then devised the, magic carpet. Sgt. Miller said the police station knew when the loop event was to take place “as did the whole town” and two men were assigned to roll out the carpet.
Patrolman Frank Obert and Motorcycle Patrolman James T, Malloy were assigned to the carpet detail.
“One officer held the end of the carpet and the other crossed the street with it when the roar of the engine and the cheers of onlookers were heard. Otherwise the city would have been liable for a lot of punctured tires,” he stated.
But the carpet, instead of stopping the speeding car with blow-outs, resulted in Patrolman Malloy’s death, “It was incredible,” commented Sgt. Miller. In reconstructing the tragedy, Sgt. Miller said Patrolman Malloy was struck and dragged a long distance by the looper before he had completed stringing the carpet across the street.
“We caught the kids that night and the driver told us he tried to make the opening on the street before the carpet was completely stretched across so he increased speed.
“We couldn’t believe a car could go as fast as this one did because the officers seemed to have plenty of time to unfurl the carpet,” commented Sgt, Miller.
The youths who struck the police patrolman were convicted and sentenced to state prison “which was in Charlestown at the time,” he said.
“Millions of dollars in damage and many lives and serious injuries might be traced to a boyish lark in starting a fad,” observed Sgt. Miller. Now 75 years old, he spent 42 years with the department and retired from the Mattapan division in 1965. He spent more than a quarter of a century, 1932 to 1958, as a detective in the Charlestown station.
Before preparing to leave his home for a series of hospital tests, Sgt. Miller pondered openly the possibility that “it takes two to play the stolen car chase” and “if police didn’t chase the cars, the kids might find a dull thrill in joy riding,” but, he added, “we can’t turn our highways into speedways and a maverick car has to be stopped or slowed down for the protection of other motorists and a speeding car often indicates an attempt to speedily flee a serious crime.
“It’s a toss up decision for the police officer on the street. A moment of truth, and they often submerge their concern for personal safety in doing a duty from which few policemen have shirked,” explained the veteran police officer.