by M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
Some say that men believe in ghosts, in haunted houses and unlucky days as devoutly as they do in the Bible. For old New Yorkers, leases would not be signed if the occupancy was to start on a Saturday, which was considered an unlucky day. Also if a house got the reputation for being haunted, it would stand unoccupied for months.
There was one that stood in a very eligible neighborhood. Everything around it sold quickly. The house despite being improved stayed unsold.
Those who could be induced to take it at a low rent, worried about customers not coming there.
The Nathan house was one of the finest mansions on 23rd Street. It was one house away from Fifth Avenue and opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Superbly furnished, it was offered for a song when no one would pay its worth.
One or two families were willing to take it, but no servants would live in the place. After standing empty for two or three years it was "given over to trade", but ladies would not cross the doomed threshold.
"Even this does not seem to have silenced the voice of blood," was written in later years.
The Story of the Nathan House
Dr. Peckham's splendid mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, was separated from the Nathan house by a small yard measuring 25 feet wide. The side window of the Nathan house looked out upon the rear windows of Dr. Peckham's house.
On the night of July 28, 1870, the windows were open and around 2 AM a storm had just passed. Suddenly Mrs. Peckham heard a heavy sound as of a body falling on a floor.
She awoke her husband, and told him she thought there was someone in the house. He listened, and then another heavy sound, more like the crack of a pistol. A third sound followed, and then it became quiet.
Dr. Peckman went to the window, and told his wife the noise was coming from the Nathan house.
Later when the murder was announced the sounds took on a terrible meaning.
The next morning Dr. Peckham visited his neighbor's house, and examined the body of Mr. Nathan. He opined the man had been awoken by the noise of someone tampering with his safe. He came out of bed to see who was there. This was when he received a blow from the "iron dog" which stunned him to where he was unable to call out for help. He was dragged into another room where he was beaten to death.
This would turn out to be the first of several theories offered to explain how the wealthy broker met his end.
Upon better examination of his wounds, it appeared Nathan had been hit from behind possibly while he was at his writing desk. He received fifteen blows to the head.
The Nathan house was a four-story brownstone front mansion. The second floor where the murder was committed was peculiarly arranged. The large front apartment with two windows opened on 23rd Street, with a reception room and a door in the west wall, which opened into a small hall room fitted up as an office. Back of it nearest the main hall, was a long dark passageway with massive black walnut clothes presses, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. At the other end of this hall was a bathroom. These two compartments occupied one half the width of the reception room, and the other half was occupied by two dressing rooms furnished with a marble basin.
Mr. Nathan was discovered by his sons Frederick, 26, and Washington, 22, about 6 a.m. He was full of blood from head to foot, and his face and eyes were bruised. On his head were terrible wounds while both hands were bruised, and some of the fingers were broken. There was evidence of a struggle in the room, but nowhere else. The safe had been forced open. Nathan's gold watch, a stem winder made by Jurgensen numbered 7401, and a set of diamond studs were missing.
The instrument of death was found in the hall below, near the front door. It was known as a ship carpenter's "dog" which was along thick piece of iron, not unlike a car hook. There was blood and hair on it.
The sons had last seen their father shortly after midnight when they went to the third floor, where their rooms were at. Mr. Nathan had his room on the second floor.
It was unknown if the thief entered through the front door which had been left open much of the preceding day, as carpenters were at work in the house, or by false keys, or a window. There were no marks of forced entry, and no one in the house heard any noise during the night.
Officer Mangam who walked the beat on 23rd street said he tried the entrance door at 1:30 and at 4:30, as was his custom, and it was locked. Later he found the basement door unlocked.
Washington Nathan told police, "I believe the man or men who committed the murder were secreted in the house, and I am sure the murder was committed for robbery and not revenge."
Benjamin Nathan and his sons returned to New York from New Jersey, since Mr. Nathan planned to attend their synagogue Sherish Israel to commemorate the anniversary of his mother’s death a year earlier.
The first clue came from a newsboy, John Nies, who came to leave the newspaper about 5 a.m. and found the front door open at 12 West 23rd Street. Thinking the servants were up early and were going to clean the entrance, he went to the next house over, No. 14, and folded his papers there. This was the house where Edith Newbold Jones resided. She would grow up to become the famous writer, Edith Wharton, but on that day she was only 8 years old, and had no idea of the horror that unfolded so close to her home.
While the newsboy finished his task, he saw a man dressed like a laborer approaching with a dinner pail in hand. He stopped in front of the Nathan house, went up the steps and took a white paper at the top.
Once the boy heard of the murder he went to the police with what he had seen.
Due to the notoriety of the crime, Police Chief John Jourdan and Chief Detective James J. Kelso took over the investigation. Jourdan had only been police chief since April.
An $850 reward was offered for the identification of the man who killed Mr. Nathan. It was thought he might be the man seen to pick up something "like a check" that was lying on the top front doorstep of the house.
The reward money increased steadily, until $30,000 were offered for the arrest and conviction of the murderer. Separate rewards were offered; $1000 for the recovery of the three diamond shirt studs, $1,500 for identification and recovery of the watch and $1,000 for information of the instrument of death.
The inquest lasted almost 30 days, and it had more to do with clearing Washington Nathan, than to discover the perpetrator of the crime.
Washington Nathan admitted to drinking at the St. James Hotel, visiting Delmonico's and ending the night at a brothel on East 14th Street with a prostitute named Clara Dale. She corroborated his story.
The inquest concluded that Benjamin Nathan was found to have been murdered by a person or persons unknown.
Eight months later, a story circulated that the mystery of the Nathan murder had been solved.
Superintendent Kelso said the murderer was a thief and desperado named William Forrester (Forester) who was known by half a dozen aliases
Kelso sent a circular throughout the USA, Canada and Europe that read: "$2500 will be paid for the arrest and delivery to the office of the superintendent of Police in the City of New York of Billy Forrester, alias Billy Marshall, Billy or Frank Campbell, Frank Livingstone, Frank Harding and Frank Howard."
He was described as being 35 years old. He stood 5'6", weighed 140 pounds, with a slim build, wiry and tough with broad square shoulders. He had a long face, black eyes with a wild expression, a high forehead, narrow mouth, a straight nose, black hair cut short, a heavy black mustache, sunken cheeks but high cheekbones, small narrow foot, and he usually walked with his hands in his coat pockets. He was missing a tooth out of the upper jaw and a tattoo in India ink of a bracelet encircled his left wrist.
A photograph was attached to the circular, and Kelso complained that detectives in other cities lacked in cooperation.
Forrester had been a thief for most of his life and served several terms in State prison. He was wanted in Joliet, Illinois after escaping while serving a 13 year sentence.
Kelso declined to say how he obtained this information. Many believed his source was George Ellis, a prisoner serving time in Sing Sing for a burglary he committed on January 27, 1870. He had robbed the office of S & M Migel at 23 East 25th St, taking thousands of dollars worth of diamonds.
Benjamin Nathan was killed two months after Ellis was sentenced, and supposedly he confided in one of the prison guards as to who the killer was.
Months before Kelso circulated the story he had discovered the perpetrator of the crime, it was Superintendent John Jourdan who questioned the prisoner. He said that he and Billy Forrester had planned the murder, but it was Forrester who carried it out. Undoubtedly he did not expect Nathan and his sons to be in the house, as it was known the family was spending the summer in the country at Morristown, New Jersey.
Later Ellis said to one of the detectives, "I’m not in this case, but I’ll tell you the man that killed Benjamin Nathan is killing Superintendent Jourdan. The chief knows who the murderer is, and the secret is taking him to the grave.”
George Ellis might have been a convict, but there was truth in his words because Superintendent Jourdan died on October 1, 1872, two months after the Nathan murder. He died of pleurisy at the age of 41. Was Ellis also correct when he said that Jourdan knew the identity of the killer? Perhaps it had not been Billy Forrester after all.
Police Captain George Washington Walling, described in his book, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police that "from the day of Nathan's death, Jourdan failed. He never made a step in advance, and died a few months afterwards."
Also disturbing was that the murder weapon disappeared from the police station. A bundle of clothing was taken from the house the afternoon of the murder, but the laundress refused to speak to the police. The carpet drenched in Mr. Nathan's blood was sent to be cleaned the same day.
It was theorized the thief was discovered by Nathan while trying to open the safe, and he was killed by Forrester with the iron dog. The weapon was alleged to have been stolen from the wine cellar of J.F. Church in 5th Avenue which was burglarized some time before.
To lend credence to their suspicions, since the murder Forrester had not been seen at any of his regular haunts in different cities, or in the company of his regular friends. He was well known to the heads of police in various cities, especially for his talent in escaping. It was believed he fled out West or was in some small country town working as a laborer.
By April of 1871, the murder house was said to be haunted by the ghost of Benjamin Nathan. Was it perhaps because he had designed the home and overseen every detail of its construction? Or was it because his killer still roamed free and unpunished?
There were rumors that someone had bought it for a reduced price, and another was that a noted gamester rented it to use as a Faro bank. One fact was undeniable, which was that no one wanted to take the house because of its sinister reputation.
The Nathan family abandoned the house immediately after the patriarch's murder. They left the furniture behind with a servant as a caretaker. They denied ever placing the property up for sale.
Many of the neighbors discarded the sneak thief theory, which left only a crime motivated by revenge or some other personal reason.
By October 1872, Forrester had not been arrested, and now a chemist named George Kelsey was reported to have recognized him as the man who ran from the Nathan house.
The months rolled by and the Nathan murder remained a mystery.
Forrester was captured and sent to Joliet prison to serve out his sentence. He was never indicted for the Nathan murder since he provided an alibi.
Ten thousand dollars worth of bonds that were taken from the safe, were seen in the possession of Dan Kelly who was attempting to negotiate them. Some policemen said that Dan Kelly admitted to killing Benjamin Nathan.
Supposedly the "dog" was given to Dan Kelly, a few nights before the crime, by a caulker who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard at the Oriental Saloon located at Grand East Broadway. The caulker lived in Stanton Street then, however he died on January 27, 1872, and it was believed the murder had much to do with the man's unexpected death.
Now the story changed and it was said the robbery was planned by a German woman who lodged with Billy Johnson and then with John T. Irving, who was a professional thief. This woman was the Nathan's housekeeper.
On August 28, 1873, while serving time in San Francisco, Irving confessed to the murder of Benjamin Nathan. He said the housekeeper's son got him to commit the murder at the suggestion of Washington Nathan.
He was brought to New York and he described the iron dog used in the crime. He said it was stolen from a carpenter's shop. In his New York home he had some of the stock stolen and a memorandum book of Mr. Nathan's, with the name of Albert Cardozo, Samuel Lewis Cummings of 14th street and Dr. Leo. Between $6,000 and $7,000 was the net result of the crime. He said the murder was committed about 9 o'clock in the evening and they left the house about six in the morning. The watch and chain stolen the night of the murder were pawned at Abraham Goodman's store at 31 Centre Street, corner of Reade, the day after the crime and it was redeemed six months after.
Irving implicated Caleb Gunnion, Nick Jones, Daniel Kelly (no relation to the Nathan's housekeeper) and a man known only as McNully. He promised to provide evidence to go along with his written confession if the the charges were dropped for crimes committed in New York.
Irving's wife lived over a grocery story at the corner of Hester and Mott Streets. The police interviewed her several times. She denied that she had the papers.
Born in Irvington, New York, he claimed relation to the writer Washington Irving, which is perhaps why he had such a vivid imagination. It was believed this confession like those before, was probably a hoax.
In September, 1873, William Howe counsel for John T. Irving said that the whole of Irving's story was false. He denied "Washington Nathan had anything to do with 'putting up the job' to rob the house." By then Superintendent Kelso had followed his associate John Jourdan to the grave.
In 1878, Aaron B. Rollins, the coroner who had presided over the inquest, like many who were involved in the original investigation, died.
In 1875, a sensational crime pamphlet was published by Barclay, supposedly based on actual events, It was titled, A Great Number of Mysterious Murders Revealed: The Life of Anson Bunker, "The Bloody Hand," The Perpetrator of No Less Than Fifteen Cold-Blooded Murders, Amongst Which Were the Great Nathan Murder of New York City, And Those of His Three Wives, and Several Others in Various Parts of the Country. His Horrible Confessions and Terrible Doom.
It's believed it was published as a publicity boost associated with solving a notorious crime. The memoir, authored by the mysterious Bunker who was never proved to have existed, was discovered on his dead body after he was murdered and dumped in a cave in the lava beds of northern California.
On January 18, 1879, Emily Nathan, Benjamin's widow passed away from pneumonia. It was noted she belonged to the Hendricks family one of the oldest Jewish families in New York. She was related by blood or marriage to the most conspicuous Jewish families in the city. Her father Harmon supported the American Revolution. It was noted the Nathans were descendants of an old Portuguese family who fled to escape the Inquisition.
By then the Nathan house was reconstructed and the lower stories used by express companies. The upper floors were let as apartments to bachelors. The house had been without a tenant for years.
It was observed that everything was done to obliterate the memory of the terrible crime, especially the scene, even though it was considered the most perfect building in the city.
Four months after his mother's death Washington Nathan was shot in the neck by an actress. It happened at the Coleman House, a hotel on Broadway. It turned out that Alice Harrison, a singer kept an apartment there.
One day, a well-dressed woman, accompanied by a servant arrived seeking a room. She registered as Miss Ruland from Philadelphia. She insisted on a room on the first floor, which was where Alice Harrison stayed.
Miss Ruland waited in the lobby until she spied Washington Nathan going into Alice's rooms. He was heavily muffled and sped across the entrance but she recognized him. She followed him, burst into the room and fired two shots, both aimed at Washington's head. Alice Harrison ran from the room looking for help.
By the time the proprietor came to the apartment, Miss Ruland had retreated to her room. Washington Nathan had turned up his coat collar and fled from the hotel. He went to the nearest surgeon who dressed a wound behind his ear. A bullet had passed through the fleshly past of his neck, and lodged under his skin.
When the proprietor came to Ruland's apartment he found her in high state of agitation. She admitted to shooting Washington Nathan because of something he had done or said to Mrs. Barrett, which turned out to be one of her aliases. The proprietor didn't call the police and instead ordered her from the hotel. Less than half an hour later she was gone. Alice Harrison also fled, and didn't stop until she reached Boston.
The police tried to trace Miss Ruland, who was thought to be the former Marion Ward, wife of an actor known as "Irish Tim Ward". She was known to keep company with Washington, and it was thought the attack was motivated by jealousy. Once the mistress of a Mr. Barrett, she used the alias of Fannie Barrett, as well as Birdie Bell. Whatever name she used, notoriety followed "Miss Ruland" like a bad stink. A hosier also had to track her down in order to extract payment for a pair of iridescent silk stocking worth $16 a pair.
Washington's discarded mistress fled to Philadelphia, and four months later, Mrs. Barrett, alias, Birdie Bell, alias Marion Ward was reported to be suffering from "a severe attack of brain fever." It was said the police didn't pursue her because they doubted Washington Nathan would press charges. It seemed that when Washington Nathan was short on funds, it was Fannie Barrett who supported him financially. Once he was flush with money again, he would seek other female companionship.
The wound while non-threatening didn't help Washington Nathan's reputation, and stirred up suspicion against him regarding his father's murder. It turned out that Mrs. Ward had attempted to stab him two years before.
Prior to this shooting Washington Nathan was arrested for involvement in a "midnight disturbance". The publicity of these events stemmed from his involvement in the fiascos.
Washington Nathan was the eldest son of Benjamin Nathan, and it was said he had incurred his father displeasure and was about to be cut off. He had a temper and often argued with his father over his drinking, whoring and irresponsibility with money. The press wrote how he did not seem as heartbroken over his father's death like Frederick.
But a difficult relationship between a father and son did not mean it would be a motive for murder. Benjamin had just lent Washington $5,000 to invest in the business. That he had qualms about his son's judgment was undeniable since he left each of his eight children $75,000, but Washington's money was to be held in trust until he married a Jewish woman or attained the age of 25. Even then his mother would have to sign a declaration that he was living an acceptable lifestyle.
A month later Washington Nathan was a passenger aboard The Britannic bound for Europe. By October, 1879, he found himself back in New York on a summons issued by the courts. The affair of the shooting was far from over.
It seemed that Birdie Bell's real name was Mrs. T. B. Black and she had hidden her identity behind another alias, that of Mrs. Wood. She lived in a fashionable flat at 300 W. 57 Street. The judge handled the case behind closed doors, and the newspapermen never knew what the outcome had been. The Nathan family certainly pulled strings to keep the story out of the papers.
In 1880, "Wash" Nathan sailed on the steamship Germanic for Liverpool. While visiting Brighton he met Mrs. Armit. She was divorced from Captain Jack Armit of the navy marines. She had four children by the marriage, only two which were alive. On April 7, 1881, the couple returned to the United States and in a private ceremony at a small town on the Hudson they exchanged vows.
She was the daughter of Colonel J. H. Mapleson, who managed Her Majesty's Opera in London. She was 26 years old, and was described as "rather small and stout and bears a striking resemblance to the other members of the Mapleson family". Not pretty, but attractive and expensive in her tastes.
In 1883, Washington Nathan was back in the courts in order to decide a suit over his inheritance, in which he had broken a proviso which forbade him to marry a Christian. He had been ostracized by his New York relatives for marrying outside his faith.
Washington Nathan died in 1892, and Elizabeth in 1894. Their daughters were left in the care of their older half-sister, Mrs. von Metz. Unlike the rest of the family which was interred in Beth Olom Cemetery in New York, Nathan and his wife were buried in Dover Jewish Cemetery in Kent, England.
The public believed that Billy Forrester, despite his reputation as a "thorough scoundrel" was not involved in the murder, and that he was not even in New York City when it took place.
By 1900, thirty years had passed and even with a reward that amounted to $47,500 none came forward to claim it, and no arrests were made. Public opinion was that it was done by one of the family. There were always doubts of how four other occupants in the house claimed they hadn't heard the struggle of Mr. Nathan with his attacker.
Many asked themselves how the patriarch of a prominent Sephardic Jewish family, and a respected member of the New York Stock Exchange could have been killed in his own home, and none could be brought to trial for it.
A businessman who lived across the street from the Nathan's home argued that the superintendent of police who entered the office poor "during the Nathan investigation" was soon worth $200,000. All the old suspicions were revisited. The meaning was clear; he'd been bought off.
Mrs. Kelly, the housekeeper was never suspected since physically she could not have delivered the blows, however her adult son William was a suspect. He was a handyman who received a small army pension. During the inquest he was accused of deserting from the military, jumping bail and consorting with a rough, criminal crowd.
The police stuck with their theory that the crime had been committed by professional burglars. But why would they attempt a robbery when Mr. Nathan and his sons were in the home, and use such an uncommon tool to beat the old man?
Despite false confessions, suspicions and innuendos, after 150 years the murderer of Benjamin Nathan remains unnamed.
A HAUNTING ON MADISON AVENUE
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer