Category Archives: True Crime

‘Dead End’: Reviving a Bogart classic in a space with history of its own

In 1935, the play Dead End by Sidney Kingsley debuted on Broadway, arriving with great anticipation as Kingsley had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the previous year with his play Men In White. Today this is probably the least interesting detail about Dead End.

You probably know Dead End for one of two reasons. The first is its talented Broadway ensemble cast featuring, among others, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsly and Leo Gorcey. The young actors would carry over into a Hollywood film version of the play in 1937, then act as an ensemble in several movies, including their own series.  They were known as the Dead End Kids, then the Little Tough Guys, then the East Side Kids and finally — the Bowery Boys.

There’s another reason you may know the film. It features an early screen appearance by Humphrey Bogart, in a performance transitioning him from his two-dimensional supporting gangster roles to characters of greater prominence. One year later Bogey would join the Dead End Kids (and James Cagney) in the classic Angels With Dirty Faces.

The Axis Theatre Company is mounting an intriguing new production of Dead End this month at their West Village home on Sheridan Square. Its a sleek and even bare-boned production, replaying the tale of life on an economic fault line — the kids of the slum against the residents of a new luxury apartment on the east side. (Reminder: The play was written in the 1930s, not the 2010s.)

Broken dreams, corrupted youth, fallen women, fallen men  — the stuff of Great Depression melodrama!

Another historical tidbit which may enamor you to this production. A year after Dead End opened in movie theaters, the nightclub Cafe Society opened, employing Billie Holiday who eventually debuted the song “Strange Fruit” upon its stage. The Axis Theatre’s home is the former Cafe Society room!

Jake Murphy, Lynn Mancinelli, Regina Betancourt, Emily Kratter, Spencer Aste and Jon McCormick in Dead End (Pavel Antonov photographer)

 

Dead End
Axis Theatre Company
Directed by Randy Sharp
Through May 20, 2017
For more information and tickets, visit their website

A handy guide to the most loathsome saloons on the Bowery in 1903

Many of the bars and taverns found on the Bowery today are unfortunately clean, friendly and even trendy establishments, wonderful safe places to meet with friends and family. Not a ruffian or scoundrel in sight. Where’s the fun in that?!

Of course, for most of its history, the Bowery was one of the most notorious places in America, the location of great vice and debauchery — gambling dens, brothels, dance halls, dime museums, saloons full of soused drinkers hovering around a boxing ring. For many decades, an elevated train line turned the Bowery into a shadowy haven for illicit shenanigans of all sorts.

And so may I turn your attention to an article which ran in the New York Tribune, on April 12, 1903, that touted New York’s reform efforts along the Bowery. This report proudly lists the Bowery’s most “evil resorts” which were successfully wiped away thanks to efforts by Mayor Seth Low.

While these would surely be dangerous places to visit, you can’t deny that these lurid newspaper descriptions make even the most lowly of dives seem rather interesting.

With each address, I’ve put a link to Google Maps, revealing what stands on that spot today. In many cases, the building itself is still standing:

15 Bowery “Known to the criminal ‘under world’ as Spanish Mamie’s. Took its name from the presence of a Spanish girl, the associate of many crooks. This was a dive of the lowest sort.”

19 Bowery “A back room ‘ginmill,’ the headquarters of ‘Boston Charlie,’ a well known character, and his even more notorious woman pal ‘Boston Clara.’ Boston Charlie was known as a ‘first rate cane man’, that is, a beggar who pretended to be a cripple. He served many terms in the workhouse and gave this place a reputation in his now line. It was the resort of ‘panhandlers’.”

Below: An 1880 photograph of the Bowery at Canal Street

MCNY

25 Bowery The New-York Tavern.  Here was  planned a brutal robbery and assault on a Brooklyn jeweler. A low order of ‘crooks’ made this their ‘hang out.’”

101 Bowery “A common backroom resort, a place of assignation and the gathering place of ‘crooks’ of an inferior order.”

Below: The Bowery in 1915. The establishments listed below would have been on this block

Courtesy MCNY

114 Bowery “A resort of cheap pugilists, where obscene pictures were exhibited on a screen, best known as Steve Brodie’s” [Read more about Brodie’s dive bar here]

115 BoweryLittle Jumbo. This was a notorious resort and the scene of a brutal murder. Criminals and ‘panhandlers’ made it their headquarters, and sailors were the victims of all sorts of crime, from robbery to murder. It was run for the proprietor by an Italian who was discharged and replaced by an Irishman; soon after the Irishman and the Italian had a fight and the former was killed.”

MCNY

119 Bowery Flynn’s ‘Black Hole.’ This notorious resort is mentioned by Josiah Flynt as a resort of all sorts of crooks. It had a wide reputation, and went out of business soon after its proprietor, Flynn, was arrested for illegal registration in the last campaign.”

Also* — “‘Eat ’Em Up Jack’ McManus’s Rapid Transit House. This was a well known dive kept by McManus, who was formerly head bouncer for McGurk [most known for the morbid McGurk’s Suicide Hall, see below]. The assertion that no ‘touch’, that is, robbery, was ever made in McGurk’s and that such business was barred there, is somewhat justified by the fact that this place was started by a former employee of McGurk, and was famous for the ‘touches’ made there. McManus was known to his ‘pals’ as a ‘strong arm’ man, one who garrotes victims he is about to rob with his crooked arm.”

287 BoweryThe Tivoli — A concert hall where women in indecent costumes sang indecent songs on the stage; where assignation was carried on openly, and solders and sailors were dragged in and later taken to disorderly houses.”

The Bowery in 1905

MCNY

291 BoweryThe Volks Garden — The most notorious concert hall in the Bowery, and, like the Tivoli, a resort for prostitutes, a place of indecent stage exhibitions and the largest of its sort on the Bowery. As many as fifty women were attached to this place, and the business was carried on brazenly, numbers of ‘barkers’ and ‘pullers in’ being stationed at the door to drag people in by main force.”

295 BoweryMcGurk’s ‘Suicide Hall’ The most notorious resort in the Bowery, the ‘hangout’ of a large number of young girls. Solders and sailors frequented the place in large numbers. Carbolic acid suicies were the special of the place and gave it its name.” [Read more about it in my piece on Suicide Hall.]

*Address not specifically listed. May have shared the building with Flynn’s Black Hole

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The tale of Newgate, the New York state prison in the West Village

You may not be aware of the Weehawken Historic District, a collection of 14 buildings of unique architectural character in the far West Village.  It lies at the foot of Christopher Street and centers around the one-block-long Weehawken Street. You really should take a stroll down here. It will take you all of one minute; the street is approximately 63 feet long.

But a surprising structure once sat on this very spot two hundred years ago — Newgate Prison, the official state prison of New York from 1796 to 1828.

The city of New York was still very much confined to the area below today’s Canal Street. The new prison lay on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, a hamlet of farms and estates that served as New York’s first suburb of sorts. Just a few feet from Newgate was the Greenwich Market, south of Christopher Street (on the spot of the big red, Federal Archives Building).

The prison was considered a progressive upgrade to New York’s dreadful Bridewell Prison, which sat near the area of today’s City Hall.  Built before the Revolutionary War, Bridewell had no windows and wretched facilities; prolonged incarceration here often met death.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

With Newgate, enlightened reformers moved the prison out of the middle of town — always a good thing — and nearest the water, providing better ventilation and access to ferry transportation. “A more pleasant, airy, and salubrious spot could not have been selected in the vicinity of New York,” said one writer in 1801.*

Newgate was named (or rather nicknamed) for its larger, more infamous counterpart in London which became a favorite setting in Charles Dickens novels. New York’s Newgate was similarly ominous, with high stone walls mirroring the shape of forts along the waterfront.  Indeed Fort Gansevoort, in the area of today’s Meat-Packing District, was built several years after Newgate.

Below: From the original 1796 survey of the spot where Newgate was constructed. Today’s Weehawken Street would have been later laid at the spot of the prison’s western border. Skinner Street would later be known as Christopher Street. Amos Street is now West 10th Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This soon proved an inadequate and ill-placed facility. Overcrowding led to prison riots and jail breaks, hardly the behavior you want to see across the street from a civilized public market. By the 1820s, the area of Greenwich Village became desirable real estate as the boundaries of New York — bolstered by the slow development of the 1811 Grid Plan — moved northward.

The western edge of Greenwich Village would be spared from the installing the grid thanks to tenacious land-owners. But it certainly wouldn’t do to have a wily prison sitting next to a developing neighborhood. In 1824, former New York mayor Stephen Allen (technically the first elected mayor) was put in charge of relocating the state prison to someplace more remote. And so, in 1828, Newgate’s prisoners were transferred to a new facility — in Sing Sing.

Weehawken Street in 1900 looking south….

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Robert Bracklow, Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

… and north.

MNY217957

The hefty walls of Newgate were torn down, and  l’il Weehawken Street — all 63 feet of it —  was then created and paved in 1830.

By the way, Weehawken Street did get its name from the town of Weehawken, as it was the dock of a colonial ferry that connected with the picturesque New Jersey town. Weehawken was the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

They both get their name from the same Lenape Indian source meaning either “place of gulls” or “place of rocks that look like trees.”

 

 

*From the official Weehawken historic designation

‘Days of Rage’ and Nights of Terror

Right before noon on March 6, 1970, an explosion tore open a lovely Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street and awoke New York City to a violent new threat.

The remains of three bodies were discovered in the smoking debris but they weren’t residents of this quiet neighborhood. They were members of The Weather Underground, a radical underground unit absorbing the counter-culture spirit of the 1960s and unleashing it — oftentimes randomly and irrationally —  onto a new decade.

Below: Oddly enough, the townhouse explosion occurred next door to the home of Dustin Hoffman and his wife.

Courtesy AP file photo
Courtesy AP file photo

Less than two years later, two New York police officers were brutally assassinated in the East Village, among the most brutal and shocking crimes against the NYPD in its history.  This wasn’t a random crime but a hit placed upon the officers by members of the Black Liberation Army, wielding some of the philosophies of the Black Panthers to dangerous ends.

Almost three years later, a bomb exploded inside the historic Fraunces Tavern during in the middle of a busy weekday lunch. Four men were killed in the sudden attack, made by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (or FALN).

Below: Aftermath of the explosion at Fraunces Tavern (courtesy New York Daily News)

faln

In between these terrible disasters were several other bombings of other significant buildings, here in New York and in other cities through the United States.  All of them indicative of a violent (and ultimately failed) form of protest, as turbulently described by Bryan Burrough in his new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

This is probably one of the most frightening non-fiction books I’ve read in recent memory, a broad and exquisitely told tale that loosely links together a variety of American revolutionary action groups from the 1970s.

Some of the principal players of these groups are recognizable (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn,  Patty Hearst), but the breadths of their actions has been seldom studied. Through interviews with members who’ve never spoken, Burroughs patches together connections among these disparate groups — even if those connections are more philosophical than physical.

Below: The mugshot of Bernadine Dohrn, 1970

Bernardine_Dohrn_published_1970

 

Most shared the belief that violence, disruption and chaos would lead America to a new revolutionary age. As Burrough points out, most were inspired by civil rights movement and the plight of black Americans, taking their anger and frustration into far more radical directions than the mainstream leaders who advocated non-violence and change through the law.

While the vulgar and gut-wrenching violence was often doused with machismo, many of these groups were led or operated by women.

The title comes from a series of demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in the fall of 1969, seen as a sort of kick off to this festering revolutionary movement.  Much of the book details the ‘underground’ hideouts and escape routes of these organization, whether holed up in Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco (as the Weathermen were, often dressed in silly disguises) or running from capture through rural Georgia.

Burrough does not flinch from the horror, graphically describing the aftermath of many of the more loathsome crimes.  The 1972 deaths of two NYPD officers in the East Village is especially grim. (You can read news of the original account here.)

patty

In particular, I found the tale of the Symbionese Liberation Army especially gripping, notable less for their violent actions (although there certainly was some) than for the somewhat random notion to kidnap the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.  Many of these stories will replay in your memory as a reel of black-and-white news footage or a set of iconic photographs (such as the one above of Hearst).  Days of Rage offers a vivid and refreshing new context.

Burrough — a Vanity Fair writer perhaps best known for Barbarians At The Gate — is a thorough story-teller, conjuring fully blown narratives from the sometimes untrustworthy recollections of the surviving participants.  He’s often too thorough, sometimes including superfluous details because they’ve “never before been told.”

Chaos was an organizing principal for these groups which is partially way they were ultimately unsuccessful. As shocking as some of these horrifying attacks seem today, it’s a wonder many of them were successful orchestrated at all, given the tentative organizational structure and often incompetent leadership of these groups.

 

 

 

Top photograph courtesy Marty Lederhandler/AP Images.

Terror on Sunday: The failed plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral

On the afternoon of October 13, 1914, a bomb exploded in the northwest corner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, sending deadly iron shrapnel flying through the room. A stained glass window was shattered and an 18-inch hole (shown in the picture below) was blown into the floor.  While the pews were partially filled with worshipers, there was only a single injury, to a boy whose head was grazed by a piece of flying metal.

That was the second bomb of the day; another explosive, downtown at St. Alphonsus Church on West Broadway, detonated a little after noon.

Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 13, 1914. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

Such a disturbing attack in a public space would cause mayhem in the streets today.  Yet this sort of terrorism was disturbingly frequent one hundred years ago, a tactic used by anarchist groups to sow discontent.

Many of the attacks were primarily aimed at New York’s financiers. For instance, on July 4, 1914, a brownstone exploded on the Upper East Side in the Yorkville neighborhood, killing members of the Anarchist Black Cross.  The explosives had accidentally gone off and were intended for the home of John D. Rockefeller.

The interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)
The interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)

No arrests had been made in the St. Patrick’s attack.  But detectives working with the New York Department of Combustibles were on the case, and, in March of 1915, they managed to thwart a second attack on St. Patrick’s with the help of a young detective named Emilio Polignani.

Polignani was only 25 years old. He had been a patrolman for only a few months when he was chosen in the fall of 1914 for a special assignment — to infiltrate anarchist circles and identify the perpetrators of the attack on St. Patrick’s.  His qualifications, according to the New York Times, were “his nationality, his newness to the force and most especially because Captain Tunney had decided that he had the nerve and the resource to carry him through tight places.”

St Patrick's Cathedral 1923 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral 1923

For four months, Polignani lived under cover (possibly not even allowed to speak to his wife) as Frank Baldo, attending anarchist meetings throughout the city, becoming familiar with several of the more radical members. It was in Yorkville that he became friends with an 18-year-old named Charles Carbone.

From the New York Times: “Carbone and Polignani became intimate and used to take long walks together, in which Carbone, according to the detective, inveighed against the rich and suggested bombs as a means of readjusting social inequalities.”

Polignani was even initiated into an anarchist group by swearing an oath administered “on the cross hilt of a dagger to bind him … to his comrades.”

Carbone confided to Polignani details of the botched July 4th bomb meant for Rockefeller. “I am an expert,” he said. “Nothing like that could happen to me.”

Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

On Christmas the detective met another anarchist named Frank Abarno who later professed the wish to bomb St. Patrick’s. Over the next two months, the three men walked along the East River and plotted a new attack at St Patrick’s, seen as the ultimate representative of both religion and wealth.  What Abarno and Carbone did not know was that Polignani sent pages from their bomb manual down to police headquarters.

Plans were finally hatched in late February to again bomb the cathedral. The men gathered explosive materials at a tenement on Third Avenue then wandering around the church the Saturday before, looking for a more effective spot in which to place an explosive.  Their movements were closely followed by other disguised detectives, clued in by Polignani of the anarchist’s plans.

The new attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was planned for March 2nd.  Abarno and Polignani left the Third Avenue tenement that morning with bombs placed under coats and armed with cigars to be used to light the fuses. (Curiously enough Carbone failed to show up; he was later arrested.) They headed towards the cathedral which was filled with hundreds of worshipers in the middle of morning Mass.

Luckily, Polignani had alerted his department of the details of the bomb attack. Waiting for them at St. Patrick’s were dozens of disguised detectives, so many that a Broadway theatrical costumer was employed to fashion the various false appearances.

“Of the fifty [detectives] stationed in the Cathedral,” said The Evening World, “[s]ome were disguised as women worshipers, two as scrubwomen, others as ushers.”

When Abarno  prepared to light the fuse on the bomb with his cigar, one of the scrubwomen “suddenly straightened up and seized [Abarno ] by the arm.” Another detective calmly strolled over to the lit bomb and pinched out the fuse. The Mass went entirely uninterrupted. (Read the breathtaking details of the capture here.)

Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick's Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Polignani kept up the facade for most of the interrogation, and his would-be conspirators were none the wiser.  He argued with Abarno in jail, eventually getting him to talk openly about his involvement (to the delight of detectives who were listening in).  Abarno and Carbone both eventually broke down and were promptly convicted.  They were both sent to Sing Sing in April where they both served six year terms.

Newspapers the following day declared “the episode was the culmination of one of the most intricate pieces of detective work ever achieved by the New York police.”

However the bombings would continue.  The most dramatic incident would take place on September 16, 1920, with a bomb detonating on Wall Street, killing 30 people.

 

Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department's Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department’s Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

In 1914, a Jersey City fireworks and munitions plant exploded. Was it sabotage by the Germans?

One hundred years ago today, the Detwiller & Street fireworks plant, located in the Greenville section of Jersey City, exploded in a horrible shower of fire and glass.  Four men were killed instantly and dozens of employees were injured.  Several surrounding buildings “fell to pieces like houses of cards.”   The rumble shook buildings throughout the city, up to Weehawken and even into Manhattan and Staten Island. [sources]

This was the sad, weird reality of munitions plants in the New York metropolitan area.  Staten Island was one of America’s largest producers of fireworks and saw its share of disasters, including a 1907 explosion in Graniteville.

But there was one huge difference between the 1907 Graniteville disaster and the 1914 Jersey City explosion — World War I.  Fireworks manufacturers during the war also produced munitions.  As the United States wasn’t yet engaged in the European conflict, some manufacturers were hired directly by the Allied nations.

The New York Tribune notes the unwillingness of executives to talk about the blast, and eventually the plant’s superintendent was eventually charged with “violations of the Crimes act, which makes it unlawful to store high explosives within 1,000 feet of a  highway unless in a fireproof vault.”

From the Evening World, October 3, 1914:

While the press reports of the day never explicitly mention Detwiller & Street’s munitions productions, it’s clear from later incidents that this was probably at least part of the plant’s output that year.  Another explosion at the very same plant in 1917 killed nine, all women.  A safety report clearly indicates then that “[t]he company is engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Russian government.”  On hand to rescue some of the women was a Russian munitions inspector. [source]

This naturally leads to a more disturbing question — was the 1914 explosion sabotage by the German?

An early postcard from 1873.  The New York based Detwiller & Street specialized in “fireworks, time danger signals, railroad track torpedoes, etc.”  They were also responsible for the spectacular fireworks display at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That’s one suggestion according to a 1918 book The German Secret Service In America 1914-1918, listing a set of suspicious fireworks accidents in New Jersey before Oct. 3, 1914, Jersey City disaster. While these early accidents may have been due to increased munitions contracts in the hands of inexperienced employees, the authors admit ominously, “These explosions were the opening guns.”

German orders from that year make clear the focus on American targets.  From the German Secret Service book: “[A] circular dated November 18, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all naval agents throughout the world, ordered mobilized all ‘agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia.”

This had horrible consequence for the United States and those plants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in particular, leading to the greatest act of sabotage prior to America’s involvement in World War I — the Black Tom Explosion. (Pictured above: Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion, courtesy Liberty State Park)

On July 30, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom pier in Jersey City was set ablaze by German agents.  The resulting explosion killed seven people on neighboring Ellis Island  in Jersey City and ricocheted through the metropolitan area, shattering windows in Times Square and over at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shaking people from their beds in Brooklyn.  The Statue of Liberty also suffered damage from this act of sabotage.

And so it’s hard to read accounts of the Jersey City explosion from one hundred years ago and not imagine the possibility of sinister intention.

 

The Dictaphone Murder Trial of 1914: A Mystery In Pictures

Does this woman look like a murderer to you?

This is Florence Carman, the wife of Dr. Edwin Carman, one of the most respected men in Freeport, on Long Island’s south shore.  Mrs. Carman would be at the center of a murder trial that captivated New Yorkers 100 years ago.

Dr. Carman received a visitor in his office on July 1, 1914, one Louise “Lulu” Bailey.  Her visit was after hours, so we can perhaps surmise the tenor of their engagement.  So, does it seem, did Mrs. Carman.

Here’s Dr. Carman, the subject of his wife’s suspicions and the possible recipient of Mrs. Bailey’s affections:

That evening, claimed Dr. Carman, as he entered his office to meet Mrs. Bailey, somebody shot at her through the window. She fell dead to the floor.  I should add that the office just happened to be on the ground floor of the Carman’s Freeport home, a handsome structure, “one of the show places of the village.”

Below: Investigators case the Carman’s house for clues

The following day revealed a bizarre twist — Florence had purposefully left on a Dictaphone machine on in the office.  After the police left, she removed it from the crime scene and hid it in the attic.

At right: One example of a Dictaphone machine from the 1920s..

Mrs. Carman, it seems, did not trust her husband with any female patients.  With the Dictaphone on, she could listen in on the conversations between the doctor and his patients.  In particular, she could spy upon any possible dalliance between her husband and Mrs. Bailey.

Her guilt seemed assured when witnesses declared seeing a “woman in white” standing on the porch at the time of the murder.

For many days, suspicions actually volleyed between the doctor and his wife.  For instance, some days later, Dr. Carman claimed that he was shot at by a man on a bicycle while entering his house, a tale others contradicted.  Detectives actually re-enacted the murder with the doctor and his wife.

From the New York Sun:  “The detective took the part of the assassin, creeping at dusk among the hemlocks and crawling, pistol in hand, to the window of Dr. Carman’s office through which Mrs. Bailey was shot.”

At left: A map of the murder scene from the New York Sun

Guilt eventually rested on Mrs.Carman, who was arrested exactly one week after the murder.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s murder swept away all other news of the day, filling the New York newspapers for weeks with the possibility of a salacious scandal.

Here’s the Doctor with his daughter Elizabeth Carman, who later took the stand to defend her mother:

Florence was brought up on charges of murdering Bailey, and evidence was brought before the Freeport Justice of the Peace.  In October, the case went to trial in the nearby town of Mineola.

The following photographs were taken outside the courthouse.

Florence’s defense rested on the testimony of Celia Coleman, the Carman’s maid, who produced a solid alibi for Mrs. Carman, proving she was inside the house the entire time, not on the porch, and thus not the “woman in white.”

However, by October, Coleman claimed that Florence had in fact crept out the back door moments before the fatal murder.  Then she testified….

The reasons for her conflicting stories are muddled, but she may have been covering for her employer then later told the truth.  Or else, she was bought off, as a later conspiracy theorized, brought forth a more tantalizing story to the delight of newspaper men everywhere.

The dashing Dr. William Runcie also took to the stand in regards to the presence of the Dictaphone and whether it was an indication of her mental state.

Runcie had come to the house on the evening of the murder, and Florence had told her then of hiding the machine in the office. But she urged Runcie not to tell her husband this fact.  He tried to brush away this fact.  “While it is out of the ordinary, I cannot see why so much importance is given to it.” [source]

Another witness named George Golder, who had originally testified of Mrs. Carman’s guilt, now “made an affidavit practically repudiating his identification of the doctor’s wife as the woman he saw on the porch.” [source]  His testimony was later used to cast guilt upon Doctor Carman.

Below: A jury of her peers?

The family of the deceased woman made a dramatic entrance.  This is Lulu’s daughter, mother and husband.

A little sex appeal was brought into the courtroom with the appearance of Florence Raynor, specifically there to contradict the testimony of another man who claimed to have seen Mrs. Carman on the porch that night.

In the end, the jury could not come to a consensus regarding Mrs. Carman’s guilt.  Wrote the New York Times, “After deliberating for thirteen and a quarter hours, the jurors in the trial of Mrs. Florence C. Carman for the alleged murder of Mrs. Lulu D. Bailey filed wearily into the Supreme Court room at 10:58 o’clock this morning and the foreman announced that it was impossible for them to come to any agreement.”

She was re-tried in May of 1915 and given a vigorous grilling on the stand. The New York Times makes note of the soft-spoken woman raising her voice for the very first time — evidence, so goes the inference, of the trial taking its toll upon her.  The jury sympathized with her and finally acquitted her of the murder.

By this time, of course, the story was relegated to the back pages, as world events — and other local murder cases — monopolized the attentions of New Yorkers.

To this day, the murder of Lulu Bailey has not been solved.  It’s unclear whether justice was really served that day.  “I do not believe a jury in Nassau County can be brought to convict a woman of murder in the first degree,” said the district attorney.

All the photographs above are courtesy the Library of Congress.

That rascal Daniel Sickles, the beloved politician and veteran who killed the son of Francis Scott Key

We don’t have large, parade-like funeral processions marching up the avenues as they once did during the Gilded Age and in the early years of the 20th century.

These events were times of public mourning and a bit of festivity.  Most often they involved the passing of a well-connected political leader or a popular entertainers.  They were somber and reverent affairs; afterwards the saloons along the side streets benefited graciously, tributes and toasts into all hours of the night.

1914

One hundred years ago today, on May 8, 1914, New Yorkers filled the streets — from Fifth Avenue up to St. Patrick’s Cathedral — to mourn the passing of Daniel E. Sickles, one of the city’s most heralded war veterans.

Having marshaled up volunteers in New York in the early days of the Civil War, Sickles distinguished himself as a bold and commanding general, gathering military promotions through sheer ambition. (He was one of the few commanders in Abraham Lincoln’s army without a West Point education.)

During the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles was severely injured and had his right leg amputated. (At right: Sickles posing for Matthew Brady, clearly before the events of Gettysburg.)

He spent his years after the war polishing his war credentials and maneuvering from one political appointment to another.  Sickles belatedly received the Medal of Honor and, situated from his home at 23 Fifth Avenue, was acclaimed in later life in one of New York’s greatest living veterans.

Sickles’ military career, however, was built as an exercise in reputation rehabilitation.  When the war with the South arrived, he saw an opportunity to change the conversation about himself.  His bravery in service to the Union, never questioned, served a dual purpose for Sickles.  Today we might call this “re-branding.”

For in the years preceding the Civil War, the young politician was also known as a cold-blooded murderer who held a unique distinction in the history of legal proceedings.

1859
In April of 1859, New York Congressman Daniel Sickles became the first person in history to ever be acquitted of a crime due to temporary insanity.

The crime in this case was the February murder of Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.

Their lives almost resemble an episode of House of Cards.  Key had been having a very open affair with Sickles’ wife Teresa. (Pictured at right)

Daniel, however, was something of an epic rake himself.  With no thought to his own or his wife’s reputation, Sickles was once passionately obsessed with the New York prostitute Fanny White, going so far as to take her into the Albany assembly chamber for a tour.  There were even rumors that some of Sickles’ campaign election costs were covered by White.

But Key was hardly a wallflower; the famous son was a charming widower who bewitched the women of Washington DC with his intelligence, elegance and wealth.  He and Teresa met in 1857 and began their affair soon after, meeting often once a day and openly flirting with each other at a society balls.

When Sickles did finally discover the affair, he was distraught and sickened, before turning violently angry.  On February 27, 1859, Sickles approached Key in DC’s Lafayette Squarea short distance from the White House — and shot him in the groin.

“You villain, you have dishonored my house, and you must die!” Sickles reportedly said.

He shot Key again in the chest and would have shot him directly in the head had the gun not misfired.

Said the New York Times the following day, “The vulgar monotony of partisan passions and political squabbles has been terribly broken in upon to-day by an outburst of personal revenge, which has filled the city with horror and consternation.”

Above: An illustration of the Sickles trial, courtesy Library of Congress

The condition of Sickles’ mental state during and following the murder would be closely dissected in court. A colorful swath of testimony described Sickle as everything from disturbingly serene to a raging lunatic.

According to authors Michael Lief and H. Mitchell Caldwell, “These conflicting stories may be exaggerations on the part of creative witnesses, or they may be evidence that Sickles was driven to the edge, past the breaking point, entirely out of his mind.”

One of the lawyers who helped craft the insanity defense was Edward M. Stanton, later to be Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War.  Their defense of temporary insanity — never successfully tried in a U.S. court — was sprung upon the jury, nested within an extravagant bed of prose, classical quotations and moral quandary.

“It is folly to punish a man for what he cannot help doing?” asked associate defense attorney John Graham.  Apparently so, it seems, for in April, a jury acquitted Sickles, taken with the plight of a man wronged by his unfaithful and deceitful wife. (His attorneys did a spectacular job of burying Sickle’s own unfaithfulness and deceit.)

At left: 23 Fifth Avenue, the home of Daniel Sickles and the location of his death on May 5th, 1914

1914
Fifty-five years later, Sickles’ many legitimate accomplishments (and, let’s be honest, his relentless self-promotion) assured that this unusual crime was rendered a footnote when he died on May 5.

His New York Times obituary is an extraordinary bit of word play:  “Philip Barton Key … paid attention to Mrs. Sickles, and Sickles shot and killed Key on the street in Washington D.C. on February 27, 1859.”

The focus then turns on Sickles’ “gracious” forgiveness of his wife: “I am not aware of any statute or code of morals,” said Sickles to his critics, “which makes it infamous to forgive a woman….I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.”

In reality, the two never reconciled.  Teresa died in 1867 at age 31, her reputation destroyed.  A few years later, Sickles became the ambassador to Spain, returned to his legendary womanizing and eventually married a well-connected daughter of a Spanish official.

He spent his final years at his Fifth Avenue home nearly bankrupt, his only means of support coming from his children and his now-estranged second wife.  “[S]everal attempts were made to seize the art treasures  in his Fifth Avenue home because of debt,” noted the Times.

Below: Daniel Sickles at a 1913 Gettysburg reunion, accompanied by his live-in secretary Eleanora Wilmerdirg



PBS’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’: Jazz Age murder mysteries and the beleaguered forensics team who solved them


Charles Norris and the toxicology laboratory at Bellevue Hospital [source]

The Poisoner’s Handbook
PBS: American Experience
Premieres January 7, 2014
8pm EST / 7pm CST

“In 1922 101 New Yorkers hanged themselves.  Four hundred forty-four died in car accidents.  Twenty were crushed in elevators.  There were 237 fatal shootings and 34 stabbings.  And that year, nine hundred and ninety-seven New Yorkers died of poisoning.”

The ominous statistic above — which opens The Poisoner’s Handbook on PBS’s American Experience — reveals one of the ugly side effects of modernity.  Industry often used chemicals without fully understanding their deadly effects.  Children routinely played in areas heavily coated in rodenticides like Cyanogas.  Meanwhile, diabolical individuals, more knowledgable of poison’s profound powers, employed them in criminal ways, confident of the difficulty by early coroners and law enforcement to accurately trace them.

Some deaths by a certain poison could be identified by early forensics, but intent was frequently unclear.  Did a drunken man kill his neighbor or was it death by carbon monoxide?  Did a father kill off his family with thallium, or was it a dreadful accident?  What was causing the gruesome deformities and deaths of women at a local watch factory in New Jersey?

Not helping matters was the corrupt nature of New York’s early investigative teams, a carnival of unqualified men often placed into office by Tammany Hall and paid by the number of bodies they processed.  Deaths by poison were frequently overlooked and misidentified, thus turning it into an attractive weapon of murder.

Into this chaotic, frightening world steps the innovator Charles Norris (above), New York’s first chief medical examiner, and his leading toxicologist Alexander Gettler, who set up their laboratories at the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital.  From here, their team delved into a completely new world of crime detection, attempting to locate killer toxins within the body tissue of the dead.  Unbelievably, their jobs are made more difficult by New York mayors, from John Hylan, who objected to Norris’ use of autopsies in solving crimes, to even Fiorello LaGuardia, who accused Norris of embezzlement.  (Quite the opposite; Norris paid his toxicologists out of his own pocket. )

One event brought poison into a more sinister spotlight — Prohibition.  With the elimination of liquor sales, people ran to the speakeasies, where a lesser quality, more toxic brew was being served. In some cases, it was the government itself who was selling poisonous potions, as with the failed experiment called the Bridge Whist Club.  “Realizing that many bootleggers stole industrial alcohol to make their product, enforcers directed that the industrial stuff be polluted with Methanol, hoping the foul taste and physical illnesses would deter consumption.” [source]

Norris, Gettler and their team at Bellevue, innovating forensics techniques that identified the effects of poisons upon the human body, were responsible for greatly decreasing crimes by poison and for improving worker’s safety in plants which used chemicals and fuels in their daily routine.

At right: Radium made watches glow in the dark and became a devastating killer at a New Jersey factory

This truly dark PBS documentary, a terrific realization of the book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age by Deborah Blum, plays out like a condensed anthology of Jazz Age mysteries, arranged by poison type within a macabre medicine cabinet.  Illustrating the narrative are a collection of dazzling photographs (many from New York’s Department of Records) and better-than-normal live action set pieces.

This is a nail-biting film, shamefully fun actually — a blueprint for the modern television procedural, so much so that I’m rather surprised that somebody hasn’t developed The Poisoner’s Handbook into a regular television series.  Some of the poison deaths here seem so outlandish that they make a typical episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation seem rather pallid in comparison.

There’s even a recurring villain of sorts, a woman named Fanny Creighton who the media grimly nicknamed Borgia (for Lucrezia Borgia).  I won’t tell you what various crimes she’s guilty of, but I will say, do not ever go out and have a cocktail with her.

Podcast Rewind: The Murder of Mary Rogers Revisited

Our new podcast which was planned for this week had to be delayed for one week. It’ll be ready to listen to next Friday. In the meantime….

A special illustrated version of the podcast on the Murder of Mary Rogers (Episode #66) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. And who doesn’t want to revisit a rousing summertime mystery?

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #3-#50, subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

Here’s some unusual facts on the Mary Rogers murder I dug up this week while preparing this episode:

1. The oft-used image of Mary Rogers (pictured at top) is from Joseph Holt Ingraham‘s ‘The Beautiful Cigar Girl’, an early morality novel based upon the crime.  Ingraham cranked out novels in his lifetime, over a hundred.  In 1860, after penning a series of Biblical novels, Ingraham killed himself in his church in Mississippi.

2. Edgar Allen Poe’s take on the Mary Rogers murder became his short tale ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget‘.  Poe’s story was loosely adapted for the screen in 1942 (see movie poster above), starring Maria Montez as a young actress named Marie Roget. Something tells me they’ve gone way off script; one of the tag lines was ‘Beautiful beast! Maddening … with her soft caress! Murdering .. with steel-clawed terror”

3. Mary Rogers is more than just a famous murder victim. Mary Rogers is also the name of the last woman executed for murder in Vermont.  She was hanged in 1902 for murdering her husband.  She had tricked him into performing a rope trick he could not free himself from. She then chloroformed him and drowned him in the river.

4. The notorious abortionist Madame Restell is often implicated in the murder of Mary Rogers, although no real connection between the two was ever made.  Restell’s lavish Fifth Avenue mansion was located on the spot where one of New York’s finest restaurants, La Grenouille, sits today.

5. In 1909, the New York Times announced that they had unearthed a new clue, linking Roger’s murder to that of an unknown “tall, swarthy man,” found dead wearing a “white shirt, silk vest, dark pantaloons, morocco shoes and worsted hose.”  This, too, seems like speculation, however the article (an intriguing read) comes with this startling illustration:

6. In 2001, somebody did a comic book about the murder of Mary Rogers. Check it out here.