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From atrocities that occurred before the establishment of New York’s police force in 1845 through the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 to the present day, this visual history is an insider’s look at more than 80 real-life crimes that shocked the nation, from arson to gangland murders, robberies, serial killers, bombings, and kidnappings, including:
- Architect Stanford White’s fatal shooting at Madison Square Garden over his deflowering of a teenage chorus girl.
- The anarchist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, which killed 39 people and injured hundreds more with flying shrapnel.
- The 1928 hit at the Park Sheraton Hotel on mobster Arnold Rothstein, who died refusing to name his shooter.
- Kitty Genovese’s 1964 senseless stabbing, famously witnessed by dozen of bystanders who did not intervene.
- Son of Sam, a serial killer who eluded police for months while terrorizing the city, was finally apprehended through a simple parking ticket.
Perfect for crime buffs, urban historians, and fans of Serial and Making of a Murderer, this riveting collection details New York’s most startling and unsettling crimes through behind-the-scenes analysis of investigations and more than 500 revealing photographs.
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How do you whittle down thousands of crimes that took place in New York City during a span of more than two hundred years into what can fit between the covers of a book?
After much back and forth, we ended up selecting the crimes that were the most interesting, most notorious, most unbelievable, or most disturbing based on Bob's and my many years on the force and Phil's as a crime reporter. They range from the awful to the unbelievable, but no two are the same. Some remain unsolved to this day, such as the disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater. In others, the culprit seemed obvious to everyone but the jury, as was the case of El Sayyid Nosair, who murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane in cold blood in front of dozens of eyewitnesses. Some of the men and women in this book convicted of murder were executed, while others were barely punished for their crimes. One thing is certain: The administration of true justice is a lofty goal that is seldom reached.
As we began our research and reviewing records, we sometimes gained a grudging respect for the perpetrators, who went to great lengths to elude the authorities, muddle the facts, or cover their tracks. Some were so clever that it is amazing how often they were caught, especially in the early days of the force. The first detectives in New York City had few tools and often operated on gut instinct and their own personal powers of observation. There were few, if any, rules governing the collection of evidence or the questioning of suspects. In order to gain confessions, the accused were often tricked, which is still legal today, and sometimes coerced by force, which is not.
As criminals got more sophisticated, so did the police. The crimes covered in this book trace the evolution of crime fighting through the tools police developed over the years—the Bertillon method, the Rogues Gallery, the daily lineup, latent fingerprints, undercover operatives, wiretaps, stool pigeons, informants, crime scene documentation, evidence preservation, the police laboratory, criminal profilers, videotape, CompStat, and DNA. But even now, arrests and convictions are more often brought about by good detectives using their wits rather than the tools at their disposal. Longtime retired NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Borelli put it best when he told me, "To this day I am still in awe when I read of their accomplishments."
Undisclosed Files also takes an unbiased look at individuals on both sides of the law. This includes great cops, such as the first NYPD chief of detectives, Inspector Thomas Byrnes, the originator of the Third Degree, who compiled a massive book of mug shots and bios of a who's who in New York City criminals, which became a surprising best seller. But it also doesn't shy away from crooked cops, the worst being Lieutenant Charles Becker, who went to the electric chair at Sing Sing for his role in the murder of a Manhattan gambler.
We also look at those who tried the cases. The brilliant defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz's claim to fame was that only one of his clients ever went to the electric chair, although many certainly deserved it, including Robert Irwin, aka "the Mad Sculptor," who is covered in this book. Ironically, after the same Liebowitz became a New York City judge, he had absolutely no problem sentencing convicted murderers to the death penalty.
However, the main focus of Undisclosed Files is the criminals, both unknown and infamous. One you've probably heard of is Vietnam veteran John Wojtowicz, who decided a lark to rob a bank in Brooklyn in 1972. He had an altruistic, albeit highly unusual motive—he desperately needed money to pay for his male lover's sex change operation. The robbery became the basis for the acclaimed motion picture Dog Day Afternoon.
One less well known was a sexy femme fatale named Madeline Webb, who was charged with murder in 1942. Fearful her swaying hips would sway the jury when she walked into the courtroom, the prosecutor made sure she was seated before the jury was brought in. She was sentenced to life in prison.
What was also fascinating to us is that many of the crimes, both random and premeditated acts, were interconnected in some manner. For example, the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the mastermind behind the 2001 World Trade Center attacks were tied to El Sayyid Nosair, who killed Rabbi Kahane in 1990. Osama bin Laden financed Nosair's successful murder defense by William Kunstler, who also notoriously got drug dealer Larry Davis off the hook after he shot six NYPD cops.
Then there was the story of Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, the infamous hitman turned stoolie, who in 1941 plummeted from a sixth-floor hotel room window while being guarded by six detectives. Reles's untimely death forced Brooklyn District Attorney William O'Dwyer to drop his murder case against underworld figure Albert Anastasia, who had put a price on Reles's head that police were rumored to have accepted. As powerful as Anastasia was, the mobster was assassinated sixteen years later by one of his own, thus accomplishing what the district attorney had unsuccessfully tried to do. Meanwhile, after O'Dwyer became mayor of New York, he became involved in a scandal with notorious gambler Harry Gross that forced him to resign from office. These are but two of the many examples of how one crime seems to lead to another in this book.
Beyond the crimes and the characters, this is a book about New York City. So many of the sites still exist that you can practically do a morbid walking tour. Fraunces Tavern, one of the city's oldest buildings, is the site of the 1975 bombing by the FALN. A few blocks north is the old J. P. Morgan Bank building at 23 Wall Street, which still has pockmarks in the granite wall from a bomb that exploded in 1920. Once you've read this book, you won't be able to walk through Central Park without thinking about Robert Chambers, or Flushing Meadow Park without remembering two detectives blown to bits attempting to defuse a bomb at the 1940 World's Fair. While crime fans would expect that we would write about a robbery at Tiffany's, few would know that an even a bigger heist of precious jewels took place amid the dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History.
As a member of the NYPD for more than thirty-five years, I know how things work in the police department. My background, along with those of my coauthors, provided us with insight and access to the department that few other writers have. In many instances we had firsthand knowledge of the crimes in this book and interviewed actual participants, including victims, to get their side of the story. So not only are you reading about the most notorious atrocities in the world's greatest city, you are getting the stories from insiders who truly know crime.
—Bernard J. Whalen
CRIMINALS AND CRIME IN OLD NEW YORK
Long before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the fictional mastermind English detective Sherlock Holmes, the citizens of old New York relied on the wiles of High Constable Jacob Hays to solve their crimes. Even though others would go on to eclipse his fame, Hays is considered New York's first real detective.
Jacob Hays was born during the Revolutionary War in Bedford, New York. His father, David Hays, was a merchant who served under General George Washington and allowed the future president to use his shop to hold staff meetings. As a seven-year-old, young Jacob joined the cause by helping sneak a herd of cattle through enemy lines. In 1798, David asked Aaron Burr to help his son get a position as a marshal in New York City. Jacob's early success led to his appointment as high constable by the mayor in 1802. He oversaw a small constabulary of twenty-eight part-time watchmen who after their day jobs worked from dusk to dawn under a system that was first established by the Dutch in 1658 and kept in place by the English when they gained control of New York City in 1674.
Although the high constable was supposed to handle administrative chores such as processing writs and court orders, Hays expanded his duties to include peacekeeping and crime solving. He spent up to eighteen hours a day patrolling the wards of Lower Manhattan using little more than a wooden staff and a swift kick to enforce the law. He was the first New York policeman to shadow a criminal. His reputation was such that whenever there was trouble, the city fathers would cry, "Set old Hays at them."
It was said that his mere presence coupled with a stern warning to go home was usually enough to quell a street brawl and disperse the troublemakers, but more than likely a few well-aimed blows were required to get the message across. The high constable was said to reward a suspected liar with a crack on the shin with his staff, shouting, "Good citizens tell the truth!"
In solving murders of his day, Hays relied on his wits, his powerful recall, and his innate ability to outsmart suspects. Sometime in 1820—the exact date is long forgotten, as is the name of the victim—Hays was called to Coenties Alley in the First Ward, near Coenties Slip and just north of Fraunces Tavern. In those days, dozens of boat slips lined the shore of Manhattan's southern tip. A dead shipmaster had been found with a fatal wound to the head. The victim appeared to have been killed during a robbery. Hays rightly assumed the perpetrator was a fellow sailor, since the neighborhood teemed with them and so many were of questionable character. He zeroed in on the captain's bunkmate, a sailor named Johnson. He was a capable liar who convinced everyone but Hays of his innocence. Fortunately, Hays had one last trick up his sleeve to prove his theory. In one of the first mentioned uses of psychology to gain a confession, Hays had Johnson brought to City Hall, where the shipmaster's corpse was being kept until burial. Hays pulled off the shroud covering the captain's remains and bellowed, "Look at the body; have you ever seen that man before?"
Johnson turned pale at the sight and blurted out, "Yes, Mr. Hays, I murdered him."
The admission sent him to the gallows, but as the hangman's noose was placed around his neck, Johnson recanted. Hays climbed the scaffold and glared at him until he admitted his guilt. "Get on with it. I killed him… I can't lie while that man has his eyes on me."
As time went on Hays's legend grew, as did the size of the force under him, but it was Hays's exploits that garnered the headlines.
THE CITY BANK ROBBERY
One of the first recorded bank robberies in New York City occurred during the wee hours of March 20, 1831. Two bandits, James Honeyman and William Murray, gained entrance into the City Bank (Citibank today) on Wall Street by surreptitiously making wax impressions of the locks and forging their own set of keys. After rifling through the vault and safe deposit boxes, the pair escaped into the night with $254,000 in bank notes and coins (the equivalent of $54 million today) concealed under their cloaks. When notified of the robbery, Hays immediately suspected Honeyman, a well-known thief of the day, but could find no evidence to act upon until several days had passed.
Honeyman used a portion of the proceeds to take up residence in a boardinghouse in Lower Manhattan. His mysterious comings and goings roused the curiosity of the maid. One night she peeked through the keyhole and observed him in the company of a stranger counting a pile of money on the bed. The excited maid told the landlord, who in turn notified Constable Hays. The rules pertaining to search warrants were not yet codified, so Hays simply waited for Honeyman to leave the house before examining his room in the presence of the landlord. Hays recovered approximately $185,000 of the stolen money secreted in a pair of sturdy wooden chests. That still left some $70,000 unaccounted for. From the maid's description of the stranger, Hays believed him to be Honeyman's good friend and fellow thief William Murray. The two had made acquaintance many years before in Australia at the Botany Bay Penal Colony.
Hays had little trouble apprehending Honeyman, but Murray fled to parts unknown. Unfortunately, because he did not recover all the stolen money, there were whispers that Hays had pocketed the balance for himself. It turned out that Honeyman had paid $37,000 to his brother-in-law, a fellow named Parkinson, who also happened to be the locksmith who forged the keys for the robbery. Parkinson was caught when he foolishly tried to exchange some of the notes at the very same bank where they were stolen. Hays searched Parkinson's shop and found his share of the loot stashed under the floorboards. Hays agreed to let him go in exchange for information on Murray's whereabouts. Parkinson said that Murray was hiding out in the City of Brotherly Love. Hays contacted his counterpart in Philadelphia to be on the lookout for Murray.
It took over a year before an arrest was made. Murray and Honeyman were sentenced to five years hard labor at Sing Sing prison. In exchange for a shorter sentence, Murray confessed that he had buried what was left of the money under a tree in Philadelphia. Hays sent his son to the location to dig it up. The remaining banknotes were recovered and returned to the bank, thus saving Hays's reputation.
THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT
Early Sunday morning, April 10, 1836. Dorcas Doyen, aka Helen Jewett, an attractive, well-read, twenty-three-year-old prostitute from Maine, was found butchered and burned in her boudoir in Lower Manhattan. A New York Herald reporter on the scene wrote of Jewett's beauty, "The body looked as white—as full—as polished as the pure Parisan marble. The perfect figure—the exquisite limbs—the fine face—the full arms—the beautiful bust—all surpassing in every respect the Venus de Medici's."
Several months before her death, Jewett fell hard for a handsome young store clerk, Richard Robinson (who went by the name Frank Rivers), after he rescued her from the clutches of a drunken hooligan. She rewarded him with a private tryst at her elegant quarters at 41 Thomas Street, a brothel that Jewett shared with nine other ladies of the night. (According to Inspector Thomas Byrnes's account many years later, her bedroom "would have done credit to the palace of Cleopatra.") While Jewett was smitten, Robinson was not of the mind-set to limit himself to one mistress, no matter how pretty she was. When Jewett discovered that he was with another woman, she tailed him to a bawdy house several blocks north on Broome Street and violently confronted her rival. She and Robinson soon reconciled, but before long his wandering eye got the best of him. This time she threatened to kill herself and make it appear that he was the culprit. Robinson, whose father was a prominent politician in Connecticut, was so terrified at the prospect of being framed for murder that he agreed to marry her. But it was only a ruse, because he was already courting yet another woman. This time when Jewett found out, she made the mistake of putting her threat in writing.
Robinson paid her a visit on the night of April 9. He arrived at approximately ten P.M. It was drizzling, so he wore a black cloak to protect himself from the elements. Jewett was overheard greeting him at the door by the bordello madam, Rosina Townsend. "Oh my dear Frank, how glad I am that you have come," she said.
Robinson gave no reply, however, and as he walked past Townsend he took care to conceal his face with his cape. The two then retired to Jewett's room to share a bottle of champagne and a night of lovemaking. At about two A.M., after most of the clients had gone home, Maria Stevens, whose room was directly across the hallway from Jewett's, heard a thud and a moan from inside Helen's chambers. Stevens cracked the door and observed a tall man, obscured by a black cloak and holding an oil-filled lamp, quietly exit Jewett's room and tiptoe down the stairs. Inexplicably, Stevens went back to bed without investigating the noise.
At three A.M. Madam Townsend made a final check of the premise and saw Jewett's oil lamp glowing on a table in the parlor. She also noticed the back door was open and called Jewett's name, thinking perhaps she had ventured outside to use the privy. When there was no answer she went upstairs to return the lamp. As she opened the door to Jewett's room, the rush of air stirred smoldering flames from within and sent dark smoke billowing into the hallway. Her screams of "Fire!" stirred the other female residents. Their shouts in turn alerted three night watchmen in the area. As the watchmen rushed into the dwelling, the remaining patrons beat a hasty retreat into the night.
Fortunately, the watchmen were able to extinguish the fire before it spread to other rooms. When the smoke cleared, they found Jewett's half-burned corpse sprawled out on the mahogany bed clad in the charred remains of a lacy nightgown. There was a deep gash in her right temple. The coroner, an assistant police captain, and a full-time constable who served under Hays were called on to investigate.
That morning the authorities recovered a bloody hatchet in the back alley, presumed to be the murder weapon, along with a long black cloak, which appeared to have been discarded near a high fence that the killer had scaled to escape, as evidenced by scuff marks in the thin whitewash. After questioning Madam Townsend, the officers determined that Robinson was the prime suspect and rushed to his boardinghouse a half mile away to arrest him. They found him asleep with his roommate, James Tew. When asked why his trousers were stained with whitewash, he would only say, "This is a bad business."
After a coroner's inquest, Robinson's trial took place on June 2, 1836. The prosecutor proved that the hatchet came from a store where Robinson clerked. The cloak was positively identified as belonging to him. Even his whitewash-stained trousers were put into evidence. But the witness who saw him leave Jewett's room, Maria Stevens, died under mysterious circumstances before the trial. Another woman who said that she observed Robinson fleeing from the scene vanished before she could offer testimony against him. These were two very fortunate coincidences for the accused.
In his own defense, Robinson's lawyer offered an alibi of sorts. A fellow grocer, whose store was several blocks away from Thomas Street, had sworn to the constable that he was with Robinson at the exact time that Mrs. Townsend said she heard Jewett greet him, and therefore could not have been the killer. Although the grocer committed suicide before the trial, the judge allowed his statements put into evidence but gave little credence to any of the testimony provided by the women of the brothel.
After a short deliberation, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict. Many people thought a juror had been paid off. In either case, Robinson realized he had gotten the break of a lifetime and set off for the Texas frontier, where it was reported that he died several years later.
A PROPER POLICE FORCE
Hays retired from active duty during 1844, but retained the honorary title of high constable until his death in 1850. The constabulary, which had grown to 1,000 watchmen (with 500 working and 500 off each night), by then was disbanded in favor of a new Municipal Police Department created specifically to meet the needs of the growing metropolis. The force was staffed by 889 men assigned to wards (precincts today) who now worked day and night shifts and were directly supervised by captains.
George W. Matsell, a thirty-eight-year-old Englishman who came to America as a boy, spearheaded the reform effort when he was a police magistrate. For his efforts he was named the first chief of police for New York City by Mayor William Havemeyer in 1845.
Upon taking charge he declared that the force would be an efficient organization for the prevention and detection of crime. With that in mind, he set about making changes that many of the watchmen who stayed on did not like. He issued the department's first rule book, a ninety-page tome. According to one officer, "A policeman would not live one year if he acted up to these regulations."
When Matsell decreed each officer wear an eight-pointed brass star over his left breast as a means of identification, most officers ignored his directive because they regarded the badge more as a symbol of servitude than as a symbol of authority. He ordered his men to wear a rudimentary uniform consisting of a blue frock with black buttons starting in 1853. This was contentious, because patrolmen tended to wear their shabbiest clothes to work rather than chance having whatever good clothes they owned ruined in the performance of duty. Detectives and the men who aspired to become detectives had their own reasons for resisting a uniform. They were referred to as shadows, and they believed that they needed to remain anonymous in order to sneak up on thieves. Matsell insisted, wanting the public to be able to distinguish his patrolmen from the bums that roamed the streets of Manhattan.
One of the young officers aspiring to become a shadow one day was George W. Walling. He was born in New Jersey in 1823 and moved to New York City in 1845 after spending several years at sea working on a freighter. He never gave much thought about becoming a policeman until a friend who was leaving the municipal force offered him an opportunity to take his place. At the time, the recommendation of an alderman and the consent of the mayor was all that was needed. His friend made the arrangements, and in 1847 Walling became a patrolman at an annual salary of $600.
- "An extensive buffet of New York City's real crime history, served up in spicy bite-sized portions."—Raymond W. Kelly, Former NYC Police Commissioner
- "Fact rivals fiction in this gritty, well-researched collection, an insiders' look at more than 175 years of New York's most infamous crimes. The authors - NYPD Lieutenant Bernand Whalen, crime reporter Philip Messing and retired Detective, Robert Mladinich -- have detailed a history of many of the city's most notorious and zaniest capers."—Nicholas Pileggi, author of the bestsellers Casino and Wiseguy
- New York characters galore, both good guys and gangsters, leap from the pages of Undisclosed Files of the Police.—Sam Roberts, The New York Times
- Undisclosed Files of the Police has something for every crime aficionado, from Mafia buffs to those who are captivated by headline grabbing trials.—Anthony M. DeStefano, Newsday
- True-crime buffs should be sated by this morbid peek into the past.—The Village Voice
- Complete with incredible photographs, the book is a perfect gift for anyone with a love of true crime or New York history.—Noah Cruickshank, Shelf Awareness
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- Sep 27, 2016
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