Philadelphia Stories: Uncle Outlaw

(Artistic representation)

The hard life and times of a favorite family felon

Hardcore drinker, bank robber, mama’s boy, survivor, and generous relative. My great uncle Joseph Carl Casey was all those things and a larger-than-life character in the history of our family. But his life was more than just a collection of colorful stories.

Like many Philadelphians in the early 20th century, Joseph faced considerable challenges, especially during the Great Depression. Yet despite the hardships, he persevered, embodying the grit and determination that defined his generation. Reflecting on his life, I’m still amazed at how tough people were during that time and how they somehow managed to get by amid such adversity. I’m proud to share his story.

Joseph Carl Casey was born on January 1, 1915, in a small apartment above a vaudeville employment agency at 8th and Spring Garden Street. He was the first son for seasonal farm workers William and Mary Kelly Casey, and a new little brother to his 2 year old sister, Susan (my grandmother). A third baby, Billy, would come soon after the family moved to South Jersey, who died suddenly as a toddler of crib death.

Distraught, the Casey family moved back to Callowhill, where another daughter came into the family, then died of pneumonia before her first birthday. Money was tight, so Mary worked a laundry job in the city with the children and then from planting to harvest every year, William lived in New Jersey where he put in long hours in the fields.

One winter, he failed to return home. Mary looked and looked but no one ever knew what happened to him. 🤷‍♀️😬

So Uncle Joseph’s mom moved onto Swampoodle to work in a box factory. Mary took in laundry at night but it wasn’t enough to support them all so she took in a boarder, a former cop. The kids went to Most Precious Blood Parochial School (28th and Diamond) but neither Joseph nor Susan would graduate 8th grade. Both were too badly needed to help support the family, especially after the Depression hit and they experienced long periods of food and housing insecurity.

By the time Joe was 21 years old, he was well on his way to some bad habits that would not serve him well through life. After a night of partying around Roxborough, he flipped his car on Ridge Ave and got arrested for drunk driving. He got off with a fine and a year of probation.

He somehow scored a good job at the Budd Company, only to be laid off in less than a year. I can’t say for sure what was going on in Joe’s head at this time, but these were desperate times – not just for him, but also two buddies who were similarly down and out. One had some experience stealing cars, and the other had served jail time for robbing freight cars. Seems they had one of those “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” moments where they decided to stick up a drugstore (it didn’t hurt that Joe was a big fan of James Cagney‘s gangster movies).

As far as crimes go, it went great: in less than a minute, they had $80 to split (almost $2,000 in today’s money). So they hit another ($30), and then another ($25). All three robberies took about fifteen minutes – the Daily News called them the “Blitzkrieg Bandits” in their breathless coverage while the men laid low, counting their cash. But then they pressed their luck.

At first, things seemed to be working out fine again, their first score netted them $20. Speeding off down Germantown Ave, though, they crashed their stolen getaway car but no biggie – they ditched it, and nabbed another. Three more hold-ups followed, $122, $60, and $348. Jackpot!! The boys celebrated at a taproom at 13th and Arch, where they bought round after round with their ill-gotten gains.

But what they didn’t know was, a witness had seen them stealing that first car, and he’d given the police a thorough description. Every cop in the city was looking for them! Before they knew it, police burst into the bar, sending them running down Juniper Street as shots fired in the air. Ultimately, they were all apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.

After serving his time, Uncle Joe got his old job back at Budd, and started seeing a waitress named Ann, who became his wife. He joined the Army at age 28 and became a mess hall sergeant. While on an overseas tour, his mom caught Ann cheating on him and the couple soon divorced. Joseph returned home to civilian life with his mother, sister, and nephew little Bobby McNulty (my father). He started back at Budd, where he wrote comic stories for the company magazine, “Buddgette.”

It was no coincidence that Uncle Joe was a cook in the Army – he loved food. By the time he was discharged, he was so overweight that people would tease him that he looked like Jackie Gleason. It didn’t hurt that he was also a naturally funny guy with a gift for telling jokes. He wasn’t just big, he was powerful; people who crossed him often didn’t make the same mistake again.

Joseph was very generous with his money, a a regular contributor to Boys Town and St. Joseph’s Indian Mission (his bedroom was full of the swag they sent him). He bought his nephew Bobby a tricycle, and as the boy grew older they would read comic books together. When me and my brother Joe would visit as kids, he always had a shiny 50 cent piece for us each of us, just because.

Life was rough in Swampoodle, though, so the family bounced to East Falls, and then Kensington – all the while, Joseph’s weight ballooned to 400 lbs. As his health declined, he grew less mobile and more withdrawn. He managed to work, but otherwise he’d spend his time lying in bed, chain-smoking and escaping into books or old movies on a tiny black & white tv. At age 60, he retired (two months after paying off their house).

When his mother died soon after, he took to sitting outside for fresh air and watching the world go by. Wouldn’t you know? A young widow named Helen caught his eye, and he soon charmed her to accept his hand in marriage. He promised her that he would get fit for her, so they could get out and explore the city and travel the world, if they wished. While undergoing surgery to unclog his arteries, he went into cardiac arrest and passed away on the operating table. He was buried with his mother at New Cathedral Cemetery in Hunting Park (20 years later, Susan would join them).

READ MORE: Get the full story in Bob McNulty’s original narrative that brings his history to life with names, addresses, backstory (originally published January 1, 2015 and printed in May’s LOCAL newspaper).

For more great history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. And check out Bob’s previous Local column HERE on the true story of young immigrant lives destroyed in the tragic factory panic of 1902.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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