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The Murder of Nicholas Skerritt by Attorney Wright Le Roy

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part I: San Francisco Cases

Nicholas Skerritt arrived in San Francisco in March, 1849, and almost immediately afterward engaged in the dry goods business on Montgomery Street near Bush.

Skerritt could never have been traced through life by the money he threw away, and after conducting his dry goods store for fifteen years he retired with a fortune of $120,000, which he invested in real estate.

He was an eccentric old bachelor, and resided at 503 Bush Street with a Mr. Sam Dixon, a stock broker, who was one of the few people in whom Skerritt confided his business affairs.

On August 5, 1883, Skerritt came home and informed Mr. and Mrs. Dixon that he had met a man named La Rue, who had just made considerable money in the Colorado mines. He stated that La Rue had a prepossessing appearance and that he (Skerritt) had that day consummated a deal whereby La Rue was to rent all of his property, with the right to sublet it.

On Sunday afternoon, August 12, La Rue called at Dixon’s home and had a conversation with Skerritt. On Monday, Skerritt left home and never returned. On Wednesday, Dixon received the following dispatch from Sacramento:

“Have made a clean sweep of my real and personal property to parties from Colorado. Going there to complete sale. Have one-half in hand. La Rue will take charge; favor him; he is solid and reliable.

“N. SKERRITT.”

This telegram aroused suspicion in the mind of Dixon, as it was not worded in the language ordinarily used by Skerritt. He took the telegram to Donald McLea, another friend of Skerritt, and McLea stated that he had received a similar dispatch.

Knowing that the Donohoe-Kelly Bank transacted considerable business for the missing man, these two men repaired to that institution and learned that they also had received a similar message.

On that same day La Rue called at the home of the Dixons and stated that he came to take charge of Skerritt’s effects, and took away all that he could carry conveniently.

By this time Dixon’s suspicions were fully aroused and he notified the police authorities. The case was assigned to Detective Robert Hogan, who ascertained that deeds had been filed with the Recorder showing the alleged transfer of nearly all of Skerritt’s property to La Rue.

On August 27, 1878, a lawyer named Wright Le Roy was sent to State Prison for a forgery committed in Alameda County, and, although he committed no physical violence, the circumstances in connection with the forgery were very similar to this case. Le Roy was liberated on May 27, 1883. These circumstances, and the similarity of names, caused Hogan to suspect that La Rue was in reality Le Roy, and that he could explain Skerritt’s disappearance.

It was learned that La Rue had made an appointment to call at Mr. McLea’s home, and Chief Crowley, Captain Lees and Detective Byram were there to receive him. When he appeared, the officers covered him with revolvers and ordered him to throw up his hands. It was then seen that the man who assumed the name of La Rue was the ex-convict, Le Roy.

Captain Lees asked him why he sent the three telegrams from Sacramento, but he denied all knowledge of them, and he also denied removing Skerritt’s personal property from his home. Le Roy was taken into custody pending further investigation.

Captain Lees sent to the telegraph office at Sacramento and had the original messages forwarded to him, and it was apparent that they were in Le Roy’s handwriting. It was also proven by experts that it was Le Roy who forged the deeds filed with the Recorder.

When interrogated as to Skerritt’s whereabouts, Le Roy stated that Skerritt went to Sacramento on the Monday previous with two men named Townsend and Miller and that the three intended to go to Denver, where Skerritt was to be paid for the property which he had sold to these two men.

He was then sent back to his cell and, after realizing that his statement must have sounded ridiculous in view of the evidence already obtained, he entangled himself still more hopelessly by sending for Captain Lees and admitting that his statement regarding Skerritt was false, but that he was prepared to tell the facts. He then said:

“I met Townsend three weeks ago at Geary and Dupont Streets, and he told me he was going to make a raise in some manner. At this time Miller joined us and shortly after Sker-ritt passed, and I remarked that if Townsend had his (Sker-ritt’s) money he would not have to make a raise. I then introduced Townsend to Skerritt, and afterwards Townsend told me that he would capture Skerritt’s person and then his money. The next time I saw Townsend and Miller, they told me that they had accomplished their object. I told them that Skerritt’s friends would institute a search for him, so at my suggestion they wrote the three telegrams which I sent from Sacramento. When I asked where Skerritt was, they laughed and said that he was 0. K. in Contra Costa County.”

When a thorough search was made of Skerritt’s room, fifty dollars, two diamond studs and other jewelry were found which had been overlooked by Le Roy, but which proved conclusively to those who knew Skerritt that he would never willingly depart and leave such valuables behind.

It was then ascertained that Le Roy had been seen in Union Square with two ex-convicts named Jas. Dollar and Thomas McDonald and it was furthermore learned that Dollar went with Le Roy to a second-hand store on Fourth near Market Street and purchased a mattress and blankets. But it was not clear what use these persons would make of them or where they would be taken.

Feeling confident that a murder had been committed, Detective Hogan requested Mr. Chichester, a handy-man in Skerritt’s employ, to accompany him to the different vacant buildings owned by the missing man.

The first place they went to was 1129 Ellis Street, and upon opening the door both men were sickened by the odor of decomposed flesh which confronted them. They found Skerritt’s body, black, swollen and decomposed, in a sitting position against the wall in a closet, with a blanket thrown over it.

When Le Roy was arrested he had several keys in his possession, all of which were accounted for, except a key for a Yale lock. He roomed at a lodging-house conducted by a Mr. Perkins at California and Powell Streets, and underneath the mattress several of Skerritt’s papers were found, but, as other articles were still missing which Le Roy took from Skerritt’s home, it was decided that the suspect must have another room and that the mysterious key for the Yale lock was the pass-key to the house where that room was located. A great number of duplicates were made and officers were looking all over the city for a lock to fit this key, when one evening Captain Lees asked Detective Hogan to accompany him to the Grand Hotel. After remaining there a short time they left, but when they had crossed Market Street, Lees excused himself for a few moments and returned to the hotel.

Having nothing to do in the meantime, Hogan got out his duplicate key, and he can attribute his movements immediately afterward to nothing except his intuitive powers, for he went to the door of a lodging-house a few feet away, No. 620 Market Street, and there found that his key opened the lock of the street door. When Lees returned, Hogan reported his discovery, but owing to the late hour they decided to investigate further on the following morning. When they returned they located Le Roy’s room, and in it they found the remainder of the property stolen from Skerritt’s room, which Le Roy denied having taken. They also found twelve large cans of chloride of lime, in which he probably intended to consume Skerritt’s body at the first opportunity.

It will be recalled that Le Roy purchased a mattress and blankets on Fourth Street and in addition to that he purchased carpets at another place.

A lady living next door to 1129 Ellis Street identified Le Roy as the man who called on her shortly after Skerritt disappeared and inquired if she had seen a wagon call with any furniture for the next flat.

When the officers arrived at 1129 Ellis Street, they found the articles purchased on Fourth Street, and afterward Dollar and McDonald testified that they assisted in bringing them there for Le Roy. This house was one of the buildings for which Le Roy filed a forged deed with the Recorder.

On August 27, 1883, the Coroner’s jury returned a verdict, in which they found that Skerritt was strangled to death by Le Roy.

He was tried in Judge Ferral’s court and convicted of murder in the first degree. He endeavored to persuade Governor Stoneman to interfere but failed,, and on January 18, 1885, he was hanged by Sheriff Hopkins.

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