History of a House
341 East Hector Street
Six Shots Were Fired,
One Man Was Dead
It Started at a Hector Street Candy Store
By Jack Coll
Editor’s Note: (This is one in a series of short articles on random houses throughout the borough of Conshohocken, enjoy)
Houses up-and-down the avenues and streets of Conshohocken are, well, today, just houses, but back in the early part of last century, say a hundred years ago many of these houses provided needed services to the community. Many of them were corner stores or mid-block stores, the living rooms of some of these houses doubled as pool rooms, barber shops, cigar stores, candy stores and doctors’ offices. I thought it might be fun, and interesting to point out of few of these houses, that today are occupied by residents who I’m sure had no idea that their house was at one time something more than just a house.
The following article was taken directly from the book “Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond” written by Jack and Brian Coll. There are about a dozen copies remaining and you can purchase the 450page book at Coll’s Custom Framing located at 324 Fayette Street.
How about this story from 341 East Hector Street! Just a few years ago 341 East Hector Street had some major and beautiful renovations done and is currently one of the most beautiful houses on the block, But there was a time!
It was a typical Conshohocken mid-March spring evening back in 1929. Following a long winter the young and restless were ready to paint the town, and back in 1929, there was a lot to paint in Conshy. Winters were indeed long, with no snow plows to open the roads, stores were sometimes closed for days following a snow storm. (Thinking back to when a lot of us were kids you might remember your parents and grandparents stocking canned goods and powered milk in the basement for just such an occasion.) Because of the un-plowed snow over the course of the winter spring was often delayed with lingering snow drifts.
In 1929 Conshohocken and West Conshohocken were alive with activities both legal and illegal. During the day the Boroughs were abuzz with retail business, working at the mills, and tending to the family. On the weekends there were chores to do around the house, baseball games down at the Meadows, and other playing fields located on numerous vacant lots spread throughout the Boroughs.
The evening hours were this whole other type of business and busyness, mostly shared by the male gender. In 1929 prohibition throughout the country was still in effect, but it was said that in Conshohocken and West Conshohocken that you never had to travel more than three minutes in any direction to get you’re drunk-on. You also never traveled more than eight minutes in any direction to find a gambling hall or house, if you were interested in losing your money, and working women in the evening just like candy stores could be found on a number of corners throughout the borough. (Particularly in the lower end of town in and around the train stations)
The roaring 20’s was a time of gambling, prohibition, prostitution along with other illegal activities and yes the twin boroughs of Conshohocken and West Conshohocken were major players in the lawlessness.
And so it was on the evening of March 27, 1929, a leftover winter chill filled the air, and just like the song lyric Lloyd Price would sing thirty years later in the song “Stagger Lee,” “The night was clear and the moon was yellow,” and that’s when two men pulled up in their car to 341 East Hector Street, looking for a little action.
Frank Gentile ran a candy and cigar store at 341 East Hector Street when Joseph McFetridge and his companion Charles Strauss who lived in Cedar Heights pulled up to the candy and cigar store at 11:00 at night. The time of night gave the impression that the candy store had really late hours on a Wednesday night or perhaps there was an after-hours backroom business going on at the store.
Sure enough when the two men entered the store, the sounds could only be compared to a “Girls gone wild party” going on in the back room of the candy store. It was a Wednesday night special and the backroom candy was the kind of candy that smiled back at you, perhaps it was their lucky night!
However, McFetridge and Gentile had some differences over the years, and bad blood was about to boil over in the midnight hour. Both McFetridge and Charles Strauss had apparently been drinking and Strauss later admitted in court that the pair had only a couple glasses of wine. As the two men entered the store at 341 East Hector Street Gentile denied access to the back room, at which time both McFetridge and Gentile started calling each other vulgar names back and forth.
Gentile denied there were any girls in the back room although later testimony declared there were a number of girls in the backroom. Following a twenty minute argument McFetridge and Strauss decided to leave the store, but on the way out the front door onto a lonely Hector Street, McFetridge looked back at Gentile and said, “Don’t worry about it I’ll have this place raided.”
Strauss denied on the witness stand that the two men called Gentile vile names after they entered the store, he also denied that they bombarded Gentile with milk bottles in front of the store before they jumped into the automobile. Strauss also denied on the stand that Gentile demanded from them a gold watch and $25.00 which he accused them of stealing from him on a previous occasion and Strauss also denied that he had ever been in the store that night.
Strauss noted that he witnessed Gentile put a gun in the bosom of his shirt. The two men went to the sidewalk and after getting in their car with McFetridge at the wheel they began to pull away and had not gotten far when a shot rang out shattering the quiet residential street. The first shot struck some part of the car but the passengers were safe, but when the second shot rang out Strauss noticed McFetridge slumped over the car’s steering wheel while the car was still moving. Strauss later said that he grabbed the wheel and found the brakes. Strauss guided the car into the curb on Hector Street near Cherry Street and brought it to a halt.
Strauss jumped out of the car and rushed off to seek an ambulance to take the wounded man to the hospital. Conshohocken Police Officer Frank Jacquot rushed to the scene and rounded up a witness. James Francis O’Brien, a 23 year old Hector Street resident who had just parked his car in the garage, and was headed for his house at 426 East Hector Street when he heard the shots and stepped out of the shadows to witness the tail end of the shooting.
O’Brian had gone over to McFetridge’s car and looked in a saw a bullet hole in his head with blood gushing out and knew he was dead. He also witnessed that Gentile had run up Hector Street to Cherry Street and made a right on Cherry Street running towards Elm Street where he must have thrown his gun into the woods.
In the end Gentile admitted to firing six shots but claimed he shot them in the air with no intention of hitting or hurting anyone. A Montgomery County jury deliberated less than half an hour on May 27, 1929, and found Gentile guilty of second degree murder. Gentile was immediately sentenced to serve nine and a half years to 19 years in the Eastern State Penitentiary located in Philadelphia.
In the days following the midnight shooting of Joseph McFetridge, Hector Street returned to normal, yes, there was still a lot of whispers in and around Moser’s East End Garage down at 304 Hector Street, but for the most part the excitement was over. The candy store girls had moved on, and eventually 341 Hector Street got back to selling, well, candy and cigars under a new proprietor. The murder of Joseph McFetridge by Frank Gentile back in the spring of 1929 would quickly become a footnote in the borough’s history. But the murder serves as a reminder of the rough and tumble reputation of Conshohocken back in the roaring 20’s, the prohibition era, and the swinging 30’s.
Hector Street businesses like Anthony and Philip’s Barber Shop, Eddie O’Connor’s Jewelers, Campbell’s Furniture, Hastings Grocery Store and the Conshohocken Motor Service run by the John Brothers had all resumed their businesses with the McFetridge murder a topic of conversation for months to come.
Bigger and darker news was on the horizon, Wall Street crashed a few months after the trial, the Spanish murder created rumors throughout the borough of gangs and mob activity and was it possible that local authorities were protecting the illegal gambling houses in the borough. In Conshohocken the federal agents were bearing down on the illegal liquor trade during the final months of prohibition. Then there was he bank scandal where Howard Pedrick filled his pockets with everyone else’s money from the First National Bank of Conshohocken once located on Fayette Street at West Hector Street.
By 1939, a short decade after the McFetridge murder, war clouds were looming over Europe and the storm was coming America’s way.
And there you have it folks! Today 341 East Hector Street is a model house along the Hector Street strip, one of the premier houses located in the lower end, but it comes with a history dating back more than 90 years.
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