An argument between two men devolved into a shooting near a New Orleans playground a century ago this month. A stray bullet struck a child at play, but the injury to his toe was not serious.
The incident was undoubtedly disturbing to the law-abiding public, but it was otherwise unremarkable during a particularly violent period in the city’s history save for one fact: The accused gunman was an apparent acquaintance of future jazz great Louis Armstrong, having been arrested eight years earlier with him while they were digging through the rubble of a burned building.
The shooting suspect was Willie Telfry, who lived either at 433 S. Franklin St. (according to The Times-Picayune) or 533 S. Rampart St. (according to the Item) in 1918. In the incident at around 9 p.m. on Valentine’s Day of that year, Telfry, whose nickname was Red Cap, got into a fight over money with a man named Tom Mobile, AKA Baltimore Tom, near the old Poydras Market, one of Armstrong’s neighborhood haunts.
Armstrong wrote in his 1952 autobiography of shopping at the market, of busking outside the nearby Maylie’s restaurant as a child and of playing music at a honky tonk –“one of the toughest joints in the world” — at Saratoga and Poydras streets, the intersection where the 1918 shooting took place.
At some point during the argument between Red Cap and Baltimore Tom on Feb. 14, 1918, Telfry pulled out a gun and, according to the Daily States, “began to bombard his companion of the municipal nomenclature.”
Baltimore Tom was not injured, but one bullet ricocheted off the pavement and hit a 12-year-old playing in the park. The child, Anthony Cipriano, was sent to Charity Hospital.
“It felt like the ground had exploded,” Cipriano told a reporter in a bedside interview published in the next day’s Picayune. “I didn’t know at first I had been hit, but I looked down at my toe and saw a hole in it. Then it began to hurt.”
Whether Telfry was booked in the shooting is not immediately clear; press reports at the time said that police knew his identity and where he lived, but that he had escaped in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Telfry is among the many ancillary figures in Armstrong’s childhood about whom little research has been done. Some of them, like the drummer Black Benny and prostitute Mary Jack the Bear, have achieved a degree of infamy, mostly because of Armstrong’s own work in chronicling his upbringing.
Others are less well known. But filling in the details of their lives paints a fuller picture of Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans and offers further evidence that the difficult upbringing he later described was not exaggerated.
Armstrong’s life began to change for the better after he spent time at a New Orleans reformatory known as the Colored Waifs Home. But things turned out different for Telfry, who served time with Armstrong in the same institution after their arrest in 1910. Armstrong became a working musician before the end of the decade, while Telfry continued to have run-ins with the law.
Armstrong and Telfry had been sent to the Waifs Home for a short stay in October and November of 1910. They had landed there after being arrested on Oct. 21, 1910, along with four other boys in New Orleans’ Chinatown while reportedly trying to salvage brass from a burned building. Telfry was 12 years old at the time, according to documents from the Waifs Home (in which he is identified as “Delphery”), and Armstrong was 9. Contemporary press reports indicate they were released from custody around Nov. 7, 1910.
Armstrong was returned to the home after a now-famous incident in which he fired a gun into the air on New Year’s Eve in 1912. He would spend the next year and a half at the institution, first learning the bugle, he wrote in his autobiography, and later playing cornet in the home’s band that marched in parades and played at concert venues around New Orleans.
Telfry is not known to have been a musician, and the exact nature of his relationship with Armstrong is not clear, beyond the fact that they lived close to one another and were arrested as alleged criminal accomplices as children in 1910. Whether white children would have been arrested on similar criminal charges seems unlikely, but during this period black residents, especially those in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, were often victims of racial profiling and police misconduct.
Armstrong is not believed to have ever publicly acknowledged the 1910 arrest or made a direct reference to Telfry.
What is clear, though, is that the fortunes of the two boys who had been arrested together in 1910 had diverged sharply by 1918.