When Taylor Pensoneau cast the characters for his novel “The Summer of ’50,” he modeled his fictional hardboiled newspaperman, Jake Brosky, mostly after a reporter Pensoneau remembered from his early days at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Straight out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1962, Pensoneau found himself in the newsroom with Ted Link.
“He was the Hollywood version of what a reporter looked like,” Pensoneau recalled. “He was good looking in a tough rugged way. He wore the role complete with a wide-brimmed hat.” Dark-complexioned and movie-star handsome, Link reminded some people of actor Robert Mitchum.
By 1962, Link had a reputation as a fearless investigator, a wounded ex-Marine and a man who wouldn’t hesitate to use a gun if he thought it was necessary. Reporters–especially the young ones—gave him a wide berth. Editors showed him great deference.
Appearances aside, Link was the genuine article. In the 136 years of the newspaper’s publication, Link likely ranks first among its reporters in terms of investigative production, widespread notoriety and vivid color.
Link’s stories affected national politics, won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, sent people to federal prison and changed the operations of federal agencies. The files he kept stirred action from U.S. Senate investigating committees.
“He was, perhaps, the outstanding investigative reporter in the U.S. in his day,” the late Selwyn Pepper recalled in an email in 1996. “He enjoyed the confidence of law enforcement people and gangsters in every part of the country. He was probably the most interesting reporter I have ever met.”
A colleague, the late Carl Baldwin, once wrote: “Link was probably the closest thing St. Louis ever had to a TV-type private eye. Gangsters had a certain romantic admiration for him, and he was chosen as the receptacle for their information.”
There was a dark side, too. A pistol-packing journalist, Link once was accused of first-degree murder for killing a handyman on his farm west of St. Louis. A jury acquitted Link in a case resembling the “stand your ground” scenarios that occur now.
The acquittal came after an unusual trial during which the prosecutor did not cross-examine Link and a key witness to the shooting – Link’s son – was not called as a witness. Some St. Louis police confided years later that they thought Link had gotten off because of his reputation and connections with law enforcement.
ILLINOIS CORRUPTION; TAX COLLECTORS ON THE TAKE
Link was born in St. Louis on Sept. 22, 1904, the namesake of his famous grandfather, architect Theodore Carl Link, the designer of Union Station. At age 20, he began work as a journalist at the St. Louis Star, where he focused on organized crime, gangland violence and the Ku Klux Klan. Reporting stints followed at the St. Louis Times and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
When Link joined the Post-Dispatch in 1938, he was one of a few reporters who could claim to have worked at all of the St. Louis dailies. Other than a stint in the Marines during World War II, Link remained there until his death.
Among his shadowy news sources, Link counted Carl Shelton and his brothers Bernie and Earl, whose gang controlled gambling and liquor distribution in southern Illinois. A territorial dispute between the Sheltons and Charlie Birger, a former ally, led to one of the bloodiest gang wars in the annals of organized crime. In 1950, the Saturday Evening Post described the Sheltons as “America’s Bloodiest Gang.”
After Bernie and Carl Shelton were assassinated, Earl Shelton and other members of the gang began sharing information with Link that led to an expose of widespread corruption in Illinois: gambling, payoffs and close relationships between politicians and the underworld.
Link’s stories accused Gov. Dwight Green and the state Attorney General George Barrett of benefitting from funds collected from crime figures. Illinois state officials retaliated by indicting Link on charges of kidnapping, intimidation and conspiracy. The trumped-up accusations were connected with Link’s involvement in an incident in which a man was questioned in a Peoria hotel room about two murders.
Link’s disclosures about Illinois government corruption overturned the Green administration with the election of Gov. Adlai Stevenson in 1948. A new state attorney general dismissed the indictments against Link, and he later received the American Newspaper Guild’s special award for distinguished public service.
In 1951, Link began getting tips about illegal payments being made to St. Louis area agents of what was then called the Internal Revenue Bureau, the forerunner of the IRS. For a price, the local agents would let the targets of tax investigations off the hook. Raymond L. Crowley, the newspaper’s managing editor, gave Link the green light to pursue an investigation, with other reporters like Pepper lending a hand. Pepper later said Link did 90 percent of the work on the investigation.
Link disclosed that the Democratic National Chairman William Boyle Jr. had accepted payments from a St. Louis company that in turn received $500,000 in government loans. Link also discovered Boyle’s connections to the local Internal Revenue Bureau, and that the local federal tax collector, James P. Finnegan, was also on the company’s payroll. Finnegan later went to prison along with Matthew Connelly, President Harry Truman’s former appointment secretary.
Link learned that a report concocted at the suggestion of Truman Attorney General J. Howard McGrath falsely claimed there had been no tax-fixing scheme. Eventually, McGrath and the head of the Justice Department’s tax division, T. Lamar Caudle, were fired. Caudle was also convicted of misconduct in a tax-fixing case. The articles on corruption in the Internal Revenue Bureau led to a reorganization of the agency and earned the newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Some of Link’s reporting attracted the attention of a federal investigating committee headed by U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. His panel was probing organized crime, and after Link disclosed the connections between the mob organizations in St. Louis and other cities, Kefauver’s investigators sought Link’s help. Kefauver later wrote, “In numerous instances, the first connections among the underworld, conniving politicians and corrupt law enforcement officers were supplied to the committee…out of Ted Link’s voluminous files.”
Little slipped by Link. His habit was to listen to and record every remark he heard. His intelligence-gathering style was to categorize and index every fact or rumor that came his way in case it might be useful later. His “Link-Memo for filing” entries found their way into envelopes in the Post-Dispatch reference library. “The reigning gang in Detroit is headed by St. Louis Sicilians who headquarter out on Jefferson Street and who saw the opportunity for bringing in whiskey from Canada about seven or eight years ago,” begins one of Link’s undated two-page memos.
“OBVIOUSLY A SPECIAL CASE”
Some of Link’s investigative methods likely were informed by his experiences outside of newspaper work. For the five-year period before joining the Post-Dispatch, he worked as a private investigator for the National Lead Company. He went after crooked lawyers who were filing phony injury claims in behalf of miners. Fifteen lawyers were disbarred as a result of his findings.
When World War II began, Link was 37, but his age didn’t stop him from joining the Marines as a correspondent in the Pacific. When a Japanese bomber demolished a press tent on Bougainville on Nov. 7, 1943, Link was among the five wounded. A reporter who had been filing stories for Newsweek Magazine and for an Australian newspaper was killed when hit in the forehead with a piece of shrapnel. Link was hit in the legs and back.
Years later in the headquarters of the Post-Dispatch, an aura seemed to surround him. After entering the newsroom, many would notice how before Link sat down at his desk he would take a handgun out of his pocket and place it in a desk drawer. He sat at a desk off to the side in his own little area, Pensoneau recalled. “None of the reporters, especially the young reporters, ever went up to talk to him because frankly we were afraid of him. He was never called up to the city desk like everybody else was. If someone on the city desk wanted to talk to Link, they got up and walked over to talk to him. He would not get up. Ted was never summoned. He was obviously a special case.”
Pepper recalled that Crowley, Ben Reese, the city editor, and all the other editors were impressed by Link. “I think they were all also a little afraid of him,” Pepper’s email said. “Reese, a huge part-Indian, was frightened by few people but I think he was a little in awe of Link.” Pepper said Link carried a gun for his own protection. “He told me he would never be killed or attacked by a major gangster but a minor gang figure might kill him to gain status among his gangster associates.”
Pepper wrote: “Link was pretty much a loner. He had little to do with the other staff members, although he was friendly enough. He rarely went to lunch with other reporters. Usually he had lunch with some public official or some hoodlum. He had many friends among the FBI people. They valued his information. A long time ago there was an incident in the office in which Link took offense at something another reporter had said. Ted slugged him, knocked him to the floor. I’m pretty sure that was the end of it—no one attempted to discipline him.”
Link was more reporter than writer. He disgorged his notes to rewrite men who would cast his material into a narrative. Pepper was often on the receiving end. “I was his personal rewrite man for many years and we had a good relationship,” Pepper recalled.
THE KILLING IN ST. ALBANS
In the summer of 1960, the front pages of newspapers across the country were dominated by political news as John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon sought their parties’ presidential nominations. On the morning of July 12, 1960, the front page of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat contained a story out of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles speculating on the possibility of Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington joining the Democratic ticket as Kennedy’s running mate.
Two columns over was a photo of 55-year-old Theodore C. Link with a story that began: “Theodore C. (Ted) Link, a Post-Dispatch crime reporter, shot and killed a laborer Monday in a quarrel at the Link summer home in St. Albans, Mo.” The dead man was Clarence W. Calvin. Link said he had fired five shots at the 35-year-old man using a .38 caliber revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun. He said Calvin had come after him with a knife and a pronged garden hoe.
The fatal shooting took place during an argument near the ruins of Link’s vacation cottage in Franklin County, just west of St. Louis, overlooking the Missouri River. The dwelling had been destroyed by fire a few days earlier, and Link believed it had been deliberately set. Calvin had done farm laborer jobs for Link. Accompanied by his 11-year-old son, Theodore Link, Jr., the elder Link said he gone to St. Albans to question Calvin, and found him rooting in the ashes of the cottage. Link suspected Calvin set the fire, and said he came armed to the meeting because he knew Calvin had a volatile disposition.
Link said Calvin denied setting the fire, and that an argument began. “He came at me with a knife and a hoe, and I ran for my shotgun, which was propped against a tree,” Link said. “I yelled to my son to run.” Link’s account differed from what Ted Jr. told authorities. According to the Globe report: “Ted Jr., however, said his father fired the first shot while Mr. Calvin was sitting at a picnic table and the last three as the laborer lay on the ground. The boy said he never saw a knife.”
On July 28, the Post-Dispatch front page was dominated by a story from Chicago where Nixon had won the Republican presidential nomination. A story two columns over reported that a Franklin County grand jury had indicted Link on first-degree murder charges. Link’s trial the following January was heard in Hermann, Mo., on a change of venue. Franklin County Prosecutor Charles Hansen told the jury that Calvin had been shot twice with a shotgun and three times with a revolver, and that Calvin “was shot at least once while he was seated and at least twice while he was lying on the ground.”
Defending Link was Henry G. Morris who was skillful during his questioning of potential jurors and who managed to help empanel an all male jury that included eight farmers. And as the trial unfolded, Morris erected a case of self-defense, managing to put Calvin on trial, and demonstrating during his cross-examinations that the shooting victim was a troublemaker on parole, a dangerous man who had threatened others in the community. There was testimony that Calvin had torched Link’s house. The second prosecution witness, Sheriff H. Bill Miller, testified that Calvin had twice threatened to kill the sheriff. Miller said he had to go to Calvin’s home three times because his parents said he had threatened them. On one occasion, Calvin pointed a shotgun at the sheriff. Calvin had a record of peace disturbances, especially when drinking.
Among the pieces of evidence introduced was a 28-page transcript of a coroner’s inquest in which Link said he fired on Calvin because “I was in fear of my life. I was in fear that he would shoot me, cut me or murder me and then my boy.” A St. Albans farmer, Marion Thiebes, testified that Calvin had told him the year before that he was going to “get” Theodore Link. Link testified in his own defense at one point stepping down from the witness stand to demonstrate for the jury how he fired from a crouched position. “When he moved to the end of the bench he leaped off and started toward me, raising the three-pronged fork over his head with the prongs aimed in my direction,” Link said. Link said he fired his guns as Calvin came toward him with the forked hoe and a knife he had pulled from his pocket.
“When I fired the third shot, it hit him in the head,” Link testified. “It knocked him back and he fell on his back.” The prosecutor did not cross-examine Link, and his son was never called as a witness.
In closing arguments the prosecutor said the defense had dwelt only on the character of the dead man. He said Calvin did get into arguments, but only when he was drunk and usually with members of his own family. “Clarence Calvin was not the number one citizen of Franklin County,” Hansen said. “We know that. We would be fools if we denied it. But did that give a Post-Dispatch reporter from St. Louis the right to come out there and kill a man?” Hansen described Link as the aggressor. He said Calvin wasn’t looking for a fight but that Link was, buying a shotgun during the trip earlier that day from St. Louis to St. Albans. He said Link had concluded from what he heard from neighbors that Calvin had burned down his house. “Link took it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner,” Hansen said.
William Wessel, an attorney from Hermann assisting in the defense, told the jury in the closing argument that Link was on his own property, had shot a trespasser in defense of himself and his son. He said the only evidence in the actual killing pointed clearly to self-defense. “Ted Link has rid Franklin County of an evil nuisance,” Wessel concluded. “Calvin had it coming.”
Among the possibilities for the jury to consider were convictions for first-, or second-degree murder, or manslaughter. However, Link’s defense team managed to get other instructions included. For example, one instruction told the jury “that you will take into consideration the evidence as to threats made by the deceased prior to the killing.” Another instruction advised the jury that it could take into consideration Calvin’s “rash, turbulent and violent disposition” and whether that affected Link’s “apprehension of great personal injury to himself.” Another instruction told the jury a defendant has the right to defend himself or a member of his family to prevent injury to himself or his family.
The Evening Star of Washington, D.C. published a special section on Friday, Jan. 20. It was the newspaper’s inaugural edition and it featured a full-page color portrait of the new president, John F. Kennedy. Inside, on page A-6, was an AP story datelined Hermann, Mo. “Reporter Cleared in Slaying of Man,” the headline read. The jury had acquitted Link after two and one-half hours of deliberation. Raymond Engelbrecht, the foreman, said the jurors thought Link had a right to protect himself and that the state had not brought any evidence to refute his contention of self defense. “It’s a terrible thing for a man to have his home burned down,” Engelbrecht said.
Bill Miller Sr., the editor and publisher of the Washington Missourian, covered the trial as a reporter for his family’s newspaper. Now 85 years old, Miller said he asked the foreman about the reasoning in the deliberations. “He was on his (Link’s) property, wasn’t he?” Engelbrecht said.
“In other words,” Miller said, “Link had told Calvin to stay off his property and when he found him on it, Link shot and killed him. Link’s attorney made Calvin the bad guy, and it worked with the jury. Link had a very good attorney and he really knew the people out there. He knew these farmers. If someone is trespassing on your property, they felt strongly and still do to a great extent, about property rights and gun rights. If they told you to stay off the property, you better stay off.”
Attempts to reach Ted Link Jr., for this story were unsuccessful. He did not return two telephone messages left at his home seeking comment. Pensoneau, 74 years old, said he has attempted to interview Link about his father in the past, but that the son has turned down his requests. “I got one quote from him, ‘my dad was more like a cop than a reporter.’ He didn’t like to talk about his dad.”
Baldwin died in 1994 and Pepper passed away in 2008. Both had been retired for many years. Link died on the job. He was still working in daily journalism at the Post-Dispatch when a heart attack took his life on Feb. 14, 1974. He was 69. Reflecting on his work, the Post-Dispatch called Link “persistent, incorruptible and unintimidated.”
Pensoneau said of all the reporters he has known over the years, he has gotten more questions concerning Link than about any other reporter. In August, Pensoneau was contacted by Dennis Enrietta of Cole City, Ill., who was researching the disappearance of Amelia “Molly” Zelko, a crusading Joliet newspaperwoman. Zelko had written stories about mob activities, and she vanished on Sept. 25, 1957 and was never seen again. Link had written about the case.
Enrietta said as he studied Link’s stories on Zelko’s disappearance he came away believing Link had the best sources. “I couldn’t figure out why a guy from St. Louis had so much information on this disappearance that happened in Joliet,” Enrietta said. “He seemed to be tuned into the right grapevine. I was hoping there was a secret archive where he kept some notes.”