Stranger Than Fiction

May 2021

Murder on Twenty-Third Street

By Dean Jobb

A violent storm swept through New York that July night in 1870. “While the thunder rolled,” recalled Thomas Byrnes, the city’s famous nineteenth-century chief of detectives, “the lightning lit up the heavens with blinding flashes, and the rain fell in torrents.” It was as if nature were an accomplice to murder, trying to drown out the victim’s desperate struggle with his attacker. But several bangs and crashes awakened one couple, the Peckhams, about two in the morning. The sounds appeared to have come from the neighboring mansion at 12 West Twenty-Third Street, the home of wealthy businessman Benjamin Nathan. The noises ceased. The Peckhams went back to sleep.

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An artist’s depiction of a police officer cradling Benjamin Nathan’s body after it was discovered in his home on West Twenty-third Street. Frederick and Washington Nathan are shown at the right, standing in the background. (Buffalo Times, November 15, 1911)

A few hours later, a guest at the Fifth Avenue Hotel looked out his window, which faced Twenty-Third Street. Francis P. Blair, who rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War, had been the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President in 1868, losing to the Republican ticket headed by war hero Ulysses S. Grant. He heard shouts and saw two frantic men on the front steps of No. 12. There were red blotches on one man’s nightdress and he appeared to be wearing red socks. The clothing, Blair soon realized, was soaked with blood.

The men raising the alarm were Frederick Nathan and his younger brother, Washington. They had found their father’s body in a second-floor room, and Frederick had stepped into a pool of blood as he checked for signs of life. Benjamin Nathan’s head was horribly battered. Furniture was overturned and blood was spattered on the walls. A safe had been opened and its contents rifled. But there was no sign of a break-in. The Nathan brothers and the only other occupants of the house—a maid and her son—were adamant that, unlike the couple next door, they had heard nothing during the night.

“NEW YORK’S HORROR,” one headline screamed as the press clamored for an arrest. There were plenty of rumors and theories, and no shortage of suspects. The investigation that followed dragged the sordid lifestyle of a rich playboy into the public spotlight. A couple of career criminals would offer tantalizing confessions. And Tammany Hall’s power brokers, always eager to protect the rich and well-connected, may have been pulling strings in the background.

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Headlines in the July 30, 1870 edition of the New York Times.

Byrnes, who saw his share of homicides during his thirty-year career, considered it New York City’s “most celebrated, and certainly the most mysterious, murder.” Would Benjamin Nathan’s killer be found and brought to justice?

Fifty-six when he died, Benjamin Nathan had made his fortune on Wall Street—the New York Stock Exchange flew a flag at half-mast as a mark of respect—and was a generous supporter of hospitals and other charities. He was eulogized in the New York Times as “one of the most prominent, wealthy, public-spirited and best-loved of our Jewish citizens.” For days, crowds and a procession of carriages jammed the street in front of his house (just steps from Madison Square Park in today’s Flatiron District) as people paid their respects and the curious strained for a glimpse of the murder scene.

The empty safe, plus missing gold watches and other valuables, suggested Nathan had surprised a burglar and died in the resulting struggle. The family was spending the summer on their New Jersey estate, but Nathan had made a last-minute decision to stay in the city overnight and his sons had joined him. The mansion was being renovated and Nathan had camped out on a mattress set up in a reception room next to his study, where the safe was located. His body was found in a doorway that connected the rooms. The murderer might have entered earlier in the day and hidden in the basement until it was dark, expecting the house to be empty.

The murder weapon was found at the door leading to the street. It was a ship-carpenter’s tool known as a “dog,” an eighteen-inch iron bar with sharp ends bent at an angle at each end, like an oversized staple. It bore traces of blood and hair, and its combination of sharp and blunt edges matched the ghastly wounds to Nathan’s head. Police questioned the workmen doing the renovations but none of them had seen or used the tool. Where it came from remained a mystery. “It certainly was not the kind of weapon that a deliberate assassin or professional burglar would have carried,” Byrnes noted.

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A plan of the Nathan mansion. The letter A indicates the location of Nathan’s battered body. (New York Times, July 30, 1870)

An editorial in the New York Herald advanced a shocking theory. Was the murder an inside job? The paper urged the police to investigate “the whereabouts . . . and the doings and outside associations of the inmates of that house.” Coroner Aaron B. Rollins obliged when he opened an inquest to the death, questioning the four people known to have been in the house when Nathan was killed. Maid Ann Kelly swore she had locked every window and door before retiring; she had been awakened by the storm but had heard nothing else. Her son, William Kelly, the Nathans’ handyman and a Civil War veteran, slept in the attic and claimed he, too, had heard no sounds of a struggle. An assistant district attorney subjected him to a grilling, accusing him of being a drunk and a fraudster who consorted with criminals. Much was made of the fact—irrelevant to the murder inquiry—that his parents were not married when he was born.

A double standard soon became obvious. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle contrasted “the brutal inquisition of unsuspected servants” at the inquest with the “tenderness” lawyers displayed “for the feelings of the rich relatives” of the victim. Frederick Nathan seemed to be above suspicion, despite his bloodied clothing. His brother had far more explaining to do. Washington Nathan’s day job was as a commission merchant, but the twenty-two-year-old’s social life was of more interest to the journalists and armchair detectives following the case. He drank. He slept with prostitutes. He spent too much money and stayed out too late at night.

Washington was the star witness at the inquest. He was the last to see his father alive—he had still been awake in his makeshift bedroom when Washington returned to the house after midnight—and the first to find his body. Benjamin Nathan had not approved of his “habits of life,” he admitted, and had structured his will to deny his wayward son his inheritance unless he was living “a life of regularity and sobriety.”

Washington’s movements on the night of the murder were scrutinized. He had wandered around the neighborhood and had drinks at hotel bars, then spent three hours at a brothel with a young woman named Clara Dale. She was called as a witness to corroborate his story—news reports carefully recorded her “costly dress of green striped silk,” her blue eyes, and her “full and fair” face—but she did not give him an alibi. By his own admission, Washington had been in the house when his father was murdered.

The press grew frustrated with the failure to identify the culprit. “Another day of speculation and fruitless search,” the Herald grumbled during the inquest, “of bogus surmises and uncertain theories.” Coroner Rollins was criticized for adjourning his hearings for days at a time—delays that might have given key witnesses such as Washington Nathan a chance to concoct plausible stories “at their leisure.” Despite an intensive police investigation and the testimony of more than thirty witnesses at the inquest, the coroner conceded he did not have enough evidence to detain “a single person, even on suspicion, to answer for the murder.” Rollins’s investigation ended in mid September, with the jury ruling that Nathan had been slain by “some person or persons unknown.” Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle angrily dismissed the proceeding as “imbecile . . . corrupt” and “a screaming farce.”

 

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Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrnes considered the Nathan murder “the most celebrated, and certainly the most mysterious” in nineteenth-century New York. (Byrnes, Professional Criminals of America, 1886)

Washington Nathan’s reputation—such as it was—never recovered. His life spiraled out of control. A drunken confrontation at a police station in 1877 earned him a night in jail. Two years later, a jilted lover tried to kill him, but he escaped with a minor gunshot wound to his neck.

One of his relatives, journalist Josh Nathan-Kazis, described his cousin as “the blackest sheep of my family” in a 2010 article that explored the murder and its legacy. But Nathan-Kazis doubted Washington was the killer—he seemed to have nothing to gain by killing his father and wound up inheriting the income from a trust fund of $2.6 million, in today’s terms, when his mother died a decade later. He moved to London and on to Paris, gambling and drinking away his inheritance. He was mired in debt when he died in France at age forty-four.

The Nathan murder remained unsolved. New York police were inundated with letters offering tips and clues; none panned out. Rewards totalling more than forty thousand dollars were offered, without success. A man named Rudolph Duter walked into police headquarters in November 1870 and claimed to be the murderer, but detectives dismissed him as delusional. A convicted robber named Billy Forrester was arrested for the murder but cleared when his alibi checked out. In 1873, a man facing trial on burglary charges, John Irving, claimed he had been part of a gang that robbed the Nathan home. Irving named the killer, but police concluded he had made up the story in hopes of striking a deal to avoid prosecution.

Nathan-Kazis offered a tantalizing theory of why no one was ever charged with killing Benjamin Nathan: “It seems likely,” he argued, that “the inquest and the investigation were rigged.” Nathan’s brother-in-law, Albert Cardozo, was an ambitious lawyer and judge allied with Tammany Hall, the corrupt machine that dominated New York politics. He was facing reelection soon after the murder, Nathan-Kazis notes, and if his nephew Washington had been charged with the crime, the scandal could have ruined his career. Cardozo had the connections needed to influence or impede the investigation, and Coroner Rollins, who presided at the inquest, would have been a willing ally. “He was a firm adherent of Tammany Hall,” the New York Times said of Rollins, “and never swerved from his allegiance to that party.”

“Is the Nathan Inquest an Intentional or Unintentional Farce?” a headline in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle asked two weeks after the murder. The answer to that question—like the identity of Benjamin Nathan’s killer—will never be known.

 

Sources: Thomas Byrnes, Professional Criminals of America: From Gilded Age New York (Lyons Press 2019 – originally published 1886), pp. 147-48, 158-59, 350-56; Edmund Pearson, “The Twenty-Third Street Murder,” in Studies in Murder (Random House 1938), pp. 123-65; Josh Nathan-Kazis, “A Death in the Family,” Tablet (www.tabletmag.com), January 13, 2010; “Horrible Murder,” New York Times, July 30, 1870; “The Twenty-third Street Horror,” New York Herald, August 1, 1870; “The Police Investigation,” New York Herald, August 2, 1870; “Is the Nathan Inquest an Intentional or Unintentional Farce?” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 12, 1870; “The Terrible Tragedy Ended in a Screaming Farce,” ibid, August 13, 1870; “The Nathan Murder,” New York Herald, November 9, 1870; “Death of Ex-Coroner Rollins,” New York Times, December 5, 1878.

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Dean Jobb’s new book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, coming in July 2021 from Algonquin Books, recreates the hunt for a Victorian Era serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in the U.S., Canada and England. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.

 

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