The Sex Killer of Brooklyn, 1935
Originally published: “Snaring Brooklyn’s Lust Killer,” by Harvey Henderson, Front Page Detective, Dec. 1936.
Want to read this story later on your tablet?
Download PDF File of For No Good Reason
Brooklyn, New York
On the morning of April 1, 1935, at 3:55 o’clock, Patrick Murray, a subway conductor on the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit lines, arrived home from his night’s work. As soon as he entered the hallway of the two-story frame dwelling on Marine Avenue, Brooklyn, he noticed something unusual—the light in the hallway had not been extinguished.
It is customary in most homes to leave a light burning at night when someone is still out. But Murray’s landlady, sixty-eight-year-old Nora Kelly, who lived on the ground floor with her dog Brownie, had to count every penny. She had no source of income other than the thirty dollars a month she received as rent from the Murrays, so she always turned out that hall light when she retired for the night. Murray, long a night worker accustomed to finding his way around in the dark, was surprised.
“The old woman would have ‘a fit if she saw the light burning in the morning,” he remarked to himself as he switched it off. Then he climbed the stairs to his own apartment, which he occupied with his wife, Helen, and their four-year-old daughter, Eleanor.
Murray was undressing for bed when he became conscious of a second unusual circumstance. Mrs. Kelly’s dog, a cross-bred collie, was howling mournfully in the back yard. This puzzled the conductor much more than the light. He knew it was the landlady’s habit, every night, at ten o’clock, to unleash Brownie from his kennel in the yard and take him into the cellar. Murray decided that Mrs. Kelly had gone visiting and failed to come home. That would explain both the light and the fact that the dog had not been taken in for the night. Surely if she were home she would long since have heard Brownie’s barking.
“I never knew her to neglect him like this before,” he muttered. “It’s a strange thing indeed for a woman like Mrs. Kelly.”
Several more howls proved too much for him. He pulled on his trousers and a sweater, procured a pocket flashlight, and then tip-toed downstairs. The dog’s cries thinned out to a whimper as he approached. Murray noticed that the seven-foot length of rope which leashed Brownie to the kennel had become frayed from his incessant leaping efforts to get loose. He was quivering and panting with impatience as Murray untied him. This, too, struck the man as unusual, for the dog showed neither relief nor gratitude but only a desperate urgency, as though he were needed somewhere and must get there.
He pulled Murray around to the front door, his claws digging frantically into the gravel walk.
“Take it easy, Brownie,” Murray whispered soothingly. “There’s no great rush.”
But the dog strained at the rope, and his claws rasped on the stoop. He pulled Murray into the hallway and toward the cellar door. He threw himself at the door, whining. Murray, thinking only that Brownie had become cold out in the yard all night and was yearning for the warmth of the cellar, got the door open and, flashlight in hand, stumbled down the stairs. His intention was to tie Brownie up for the night there.
Reaching the foot of the stairs, the dog immediately headed for the rear of the cellar, pulling Murray along.
“Whoa there, old fellow,” he said. “That’s not where you sleep. Your place is—”
But Murray never finished what he started to say.
The beam of his flashlight had picked out the black-clad figure of Mrs. Kelly hanging limply from a rafter ten feet away!
“My God!” whispered Patrick Murray.
The dog, released, whimpered and leaped at the motionless figure of his mistress. Murray drew nearer. He saw that the woman was hanging by a length of black insulated telephone wire. He remembered seeing this wire in the cellar recently. Nearby, a box lay on its side.
Murray returned to the stairs. Brownie lay flat on his stomach under the body. He would keep vigil.
Without awakening his wife, Murray went out of the house to an all-night lunch room on Fourth Avenue. A few minutes later a message to proceed at once to 360 Marine Avenue was picked up by Detectives Edward Swift and Fred Kuhne, of the 64th Precinct, who were out on patrol. They found Murray waiting for them in front of the house, and he directed them to the basement. Immediately afterward, Detectives Joseph Billott and Dan Sullivan arrived from the precinct station house a half mile from the scene.
Brownie set up a terrific barking as the officers descended the stairs. Murray had great difficulty dragging him away from the body.
“Has Mrs. Kelly been having any trouble lately?” one of the officers asked.
“Not that I know of,” Murray answered. “Of course she probably had difficulty making ends meet, but other than that, she seemed in good spirits.”
“No reason that you know of for taking her own life, was there?”
Murray said no, he didn’t know of any reason. Her health hadn’t been bad for a woman of her age, and she had seemed cheery enough in recent days. She got thirty dollars a month rent and her granddaughter, who worked as a maid and lived with her employers, probably contributed a little. Mrs. Kelly lived only for her granddaughter, whom she had reared since babyhood, Murray told them.
Meanwhile the detectives were scrutinizing the wire which had been tied around the beam and made into a noose. Murray identified it by the white porcelain insulator fixed in its center. He was positive he had seen this wire in the cellar on several visits.
Flashlights moved about the basement. The officers noticed that the heavy furnace dust from the foot of the stairs to a spot under the body made it appear that the woman had been dragged through it. Either that, or Mrs. Kelly’s skirt had brushed the dust as she came down to take her life.
The flashlights uncovered something else—the woman’s false teeth were lying on the floor about twelve feet from the body. Apparently the force of the plunge had knocked them out of her mouth.
The detectives cut down the body, then proceeded upstairs.
Meanwhile the excitement had awakened Mrs. Murray, the daughter, and their police dog. There was no sound from Mrs. Kelly’s apartment, so the Murrays assumed that Mrs. Kelly’s granddaughter, eighteen-year-old Florence McVey, had returned to her place of employment after spending her Sunday evening off with Mrs. Kelly. Florence worked for Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Armstrong, whose home on Fort Hamilton Parkway was within walking distance of the little house on Marine Avenue.
Two doors led out of the Kelly apartment into the hall —one from the dining room, which was the second room back from the sun porch, and one from the living room, which faced on the porch. The living room door was always locked because furniture blocked it on the inside, but the dining room door opened easily.
The quartet of detectives stepped into the dining room and continued through into the kitchen, which faced the rear yard. They saw on the kitchen table a platter of meat balls and onions, part of a loaf of raisin bread, a half-finished glass of milk and two coffee cups.
Mrs. Kelly’s purse, a much worn, black leather bag, lay on the table, too. It was empty except for a few small house keys and a string of rosary beads. No money was found anywhere in the house in the search that followed.
The officers could find no evidence of disorder in the kitchen, nor in the dining room. They went through to the front parlor. Detective Swift’s light traveled across the papered walls, picked out the worn furniture, and then moved across the faded flowered carpet. Suddenly he cried out:
“Look! Over by the sofa! It’s another body!”
Florence McVey lay on the floor in front of a green cretonne-covered sofa. She was on her back, her head tilted to one side, eyes fixed on the ceiling. She was fully dressed except for her shoes, which were neatly placed under the sofa. The body was clad in a brown skirt, silk stockings, and a gray V-necked sweater. Her clothes were neatly arranged, and examination showed the body free from bruises or marks. It seemed as though she had died while sleeping on the floor.
Hasty medical examination indicated that both deaths had occurred early the previous evening, between eight and nine o’clock. Mrs. Murray, who had been home all evening, said she had heard no sounds whatsoever. Nor had her dog, a very alert animal, raised any alarm.
There had been a party in the Murray home the previous afternoon in honor of Eleanor’s fourth birthday, but the children had departed by six o’clock and the house had quieted down sufficiently for Mrs. Murray to hear sounds from the Kelly apartment. She said the odor of frying meat balls permeated the house at about that time, which was Mrs. Kelly’s usual supper hour. And she had heard Mrs. Kelly and her granddaughter talking together in the kitchen. Neither Mrs. Murray nor the neighbors had heard any unusual sounds.
Mrs. Kelly’s body was removed to the Fort Hamilton police station, and the girl’s body was taken to the Kings County Morgue. Except for the somewhat puzzling circumstance of the dust trail in the cellar, and the fact that there was no money in the house, the police were fairly satisfied that Florence McVey had died a natural death and that Mrs. Kelly had hanged herself. It was difficult to determine which of the two had died first. If the girl had died first, then it was possible that her devoted grandmother had killed herself in an overwhelming fit of grief. It was also possible that Mrs. Kelly, for some inexplicable reason, had taken her life, and that the girl had died of shock soon after discovering the body.
This latter theory seemed unlikely, however, for if Miss McVey had sufficient strength to return to the first floor, after seeing her grandmother hanging by the neck in the cellar, then she must have had enough strength to scream the news to Mrs. Murray.
Detectives checking on various angles learned that Florence had complained of feeling ill on Sunday afternoon. Her employer, Mrs. Armstrong, reported that the girl had prepared Sunday dinner as usual, and then complained that she had a sore throat and headache. Mrs. Armstrong suggested that she lie down. Florence did so but soon was on her feet again, saying that she felt uncomfortable.
The girl had left the Armstrong home at 2:00 p.m. and had apparently gone directly to her grandmother’s.
Florence had been working for Mrs. Armstrong for six weeks, doing housework and taking care of the two Armstrong children, Virginia, six, and Maureen, two.
“I cannot understand this tragedy at all,” said Mrs. Armstrong. “Florence did not seem seriously ill, and I know of no reason, unless it was grief over the girl’s death, why Mrs. Kelly should have committed suicide. Florence was quiet, shy and reserved. She remained in nights, had no beaux, and was devoted to her grandmother. She was a girl who read a lot. She had gone for two years to Bay Ridge High School but quit school in order to help support Mrs. Kelly.”
So the case remained—a natural death and a suicide—for eight hours. And then came a most sensational development. At noon Dr. Emanuel E. Marten, deputy medical examiner, telephoned the office of District Attorney William F. X. Geoghan and reported that Florence McVey had been criminally assaulted! [In the first half of the century, “criminally assaulted” was code for sexually assaulted or rape].
“She did not die a natural death,” he stated positively. “I believe she was smothered to death!”
This piece of news threw the police into a state of feverish activity. As swarms of detectives poured back into the neighborhood of the crime, the body of Mrs. Kelly was rushed to the morgue, where Dr. George W. Rueger made an examination. Presently he reported that she, too, had been assaulted. Moreover, her chest had been crushed in, and she had been dead before the noose was placed around her neck.
Investigators immediately recalled the recent mysterious murder of Victoria Muspratt, seventy-year-old spinster and recluse, who on December 22, 1934, was beaten to death in her dingy home at Shore Road and Seventy-first Street, only a mile and a half away from the Marine Avenue house. However, there proved to be a great deal of dissimilarity between the two cases. Miss Muspratt had long been suspected of being a miser with hidden riches, and robbery might well have been the motive. Mrs. Kelly, though a bank book in the house showed that she had $1,600 in a Bay Ridge bank, had been supporting herself and various children and grandchildren for thirty years.
Also, Miss Muspratt had been known in the neighborhood as a crotchety old lady while Mrs. Kelly, although keeping to herself for the most part, was liked and admired by the shopkeepers, neighbors and the children of the community, in which she had lived for many years. Several of her children had been married in St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, where she attended mass every Sunday.
Investigating officials had little difficulty rounding up most of Mrs. Kelly’s and Miss McVey’s relatives for questioning during the afternoon. After visiting the scene, Vincent J. Ferreri, assistant district attorney, and Acting Captain Frank C. Bals, in charge of detectives for the Tenth Inspection District, began their interrogations immediately.
Miss McVey, they learned, had been cared for by her grandmother since she was six months old. The girl’s father, William McVey, had disappeared many years before and had not been heard from since. Her mother had re-married and was now Mrs. Helen Steers of 471 Fortieth Street. Neither Mrs. Steers nor her husband could give any information helpful to the investigation. They believed the murderer must have been a chance visitor, but the total absence of any disorder in the Kelly apartment led the police to reason that the victims must have known their assailant.
Another daughter of Mrs. Kelly’s, Mrs. Mary Johnson of 4606 Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn, collapsed as she was leaving the police station after questioning. She could shed no light on the crime. Nor could a sister of the slain landlady, Mrs. Bridget Maher, who lived at 411 100th Street, only two blocks beyond Marine Avenue. Mrs. Maher said she had not visited her sister much within the previous few years.
However, questioning of various members of the family caused the investigators to concentrate their attention upon Edward Kelly, forty-five-year-old son of Nora Kelly. He visited the scene of the tragedy after he learned the news from Mrs. Maher, and readily answered a series of questions put to him regarding his movements during the previous evening.
He admitted that he had seldom called on his mother, and had not seen her for a month. He said she did not like him to come around after he stopped bringing home money. Where did he live? He had no home, he said, because he’d had no job for some time. Occasionally he earned a little money doing salvage work on a nearby ash dump. Where had he spent the previous evening? He replied that he had slept in the basement of an apartment house at 8831 Fort Hamilton Parkway.
His listeners exchanged startled glances at this piece of information, for the house in which he said he spent the night was next door to the Armstrong home in which Florence McVey had been employed!
“Can you prove that you slept in that cellar?” Ferreri asked him. “Can you prove where you were during the early hours of the evening?”
The ragged and unkept Kelly replied that he could. He said he had been in the company of a crony named Jimmy White, that he had been with White all evening, and that White had also slept in the cellar. Detectives brought in White, who corroborated Kelly’s story. They were both released, along with others who had been questioned.
Solution of the mystery seemed difficult indeed at this stage of the investigation. The perpetrator of the double murder had left no clues at the scene. Very likely he had remained in the apartment long enough to wipe out any possible evidence he might have left. The police in this case appeared to have no such break as in the more recent Nancy Titterton murder, where the killer left a piece of upholsterers’ twine which led to his undoing.
It is a false theory that murderers invariably make one mistake which defeats them. After all, not every murder case is solved. But it is unquestionably a fact that, more often than not, there is a slip somewhere. Frequently the slip grows out of circumstances which the killer has not foreseen. In the Titterton case, for instance, we can believe that the police would have trapped John Fiorenza eventually, even if he hadn’t left that bit of cord under the body of his victim, because he told his employer he visited the probation officer on the morning of the crime—and the police knew that the probation office was closed that day.
Assistant District Attorney Ferreri and Captain Bals were checking over their meagre information, at what might be described as the darkest hour of the investigation into the Kelly-McVey murders, when a visitor was ushered in to them. This person was Mrs. Eleanor Meyers. She said she was a friend of Mrs. Kelly and might have some information that would help to solve the mystery.
“Let us hear it,” said Ferreri.
“Well, I went to call on Mrs. Kelly last night,” said Mrs. Meyers.
“At what time, Mrs. Meyers?”
“It was just before nine o’clock.” “Did you see her?”
Mrs. Meyers shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I rang the bell but there was no answer. I rang again. I was just about to go away, figuring she wasn’t home, although I expected that she would be, when the door opened.”
Ferreri and Bals stared at the visitor. “The door opened?” repeated Ferreri.
“Yes. It was her son-in-law who opened the door. Tom McFarland. I said I had come to call on Mrs. Kelly, and he said she wasn’t home.”
“You’re positive it was her son-in-law?”
“Oh, yes! He used to live with Mrs. Kelly—he and the three children. His wife died when the twins were born, and Mrs. Kelly raised all the children.”
“What happened after he said Mrs. Kelly wasn’t home?”
“Nothing. I just said I was sorry I had missed her, and went away. I didn’t think anything more about it until I heard about what happened.”
Now the fact that a son-in-law named Thomas McFarland existed was not news to the police. They had planned to question him as soon as he returned home from work, just as they had questioned other relatives. Had he heard of the tragedy? If he had, then why hadn’t he communicated with the police and told about his visit to his mother-in-law’s? It was entirely possible that Mrs. Kelly was out at the time of Mrs. Meyers’ call, and that McFarland himself might have left the house before the crimes were committed.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Thomas McFarland had met Mrs. Kelly’s daughter, Anna, while serving in the army at Fort Hancock. They had been married that same year in St. Patrick’s Church in Bay Ridge. The first child, Marian, had been born in 1921, and three years later the twins, Anna and Edith. Anna Kelly had died when the twins were born, and the family had gone to live with the grandmother. They had lived with her until November, 1934, when McFarland rented a place on Humboldt Street. The police learned that he was employed as a varnish maker by the Paragon Paint and Varnish Company in Long Island City.
Did McFarland hold the solution of the mystery? When he came to the door in answer to Mrs. Meyers’ ring, were the two women already dead, and did his act in coming to the door constitute the slip which grew out of a circumstance he had not foreseen? Surely, if he were the killer, then he should never have answered the bell.
McFarland was taken into custody at 5:00 p.m., thirteen hours after the discovery of Mrs. Kelly’s body, as he was leaving the Paragon plant. A good-looking man of thirty-nine, dressed in a gray suit, soft gray hat, and blue overcoat, he looked quite dapper. When he was taken into the presence of officials who included District Attorney Geoghan and Deputy Chief Inspector John Ryan, it was difficult indeed to believe that he could be the man guilty of such a horrible crime.
BUT—there were blood spots on his suit. And there was fear in his eyes.
After five hours of questioning he began to weaken, and at 10:05 P.M., he broke down. With a stenographer recording every word, he told the following story:
He had left his home at 236 Humboldt Street, Brooklyn, at two o’clock Sunday afternoon, after dining with his daughters. He had a glass of beer and some sherry during dinner, and on the way to the house on Marine Avenue he stopped at a saloon, although he hadn’t intended to do any more drinking. He consumed five more glasses of beer at the saloon and also bought a bottle of sherry. Then he took the Fourth Avenue B.M.T. subway to Ninety-fifth Street and walked the remaining few blocks to Mrs. Kelly’s house.
He insisted, time and again, that he went there with no malice in his heart against his mother-in-law, that it had been nothing more than a friendly visit.
He arrived about dusk. The apartments on both floors of the house were illuminated. He was admitted by Mrs. Kelly, and saw that Florence was there, too. The latter, apparently still indisposed, was lying on the couch in the parlor. He accompanied Mrs. Kelly into the kitchen, where he opened the bottle of sherry and began drinking. He continued taking drinks from the bottle, and finally, about eight o’clock, Mrs. Kelly told him to stop because he was making a pig of himself.
Mrs. Kelly, who had refused to drink with him, said he would have to leave. According to his confession, “She raised a chair as though to frighten me with it and then everything went black before me and I think I choked her.”
Florence, attracted by the commotion, came to the kitchen door and saw her grandmother unconscious on the floor. She exclaimed, “What have you done?”
McFarland, frightened because she knew what had happened, seized her and choked her. According to his story, he was afraid she would grab a knife that was on the kitchen table. He did admit that he had done away with Miss McVey because she had been a witness. When she became insensible, he carried her back into the parlor.
He insisted he did not remember assaulting either of his victims, but he could not deny it. According to him, he just couldn’t remember because “everything was blank.”
“But you remember answering the bell when Mrs. Meyers called?” Geoghan asked.
“Yes. I shouldn’t have gone to the door. That was a mistake.”
“It was indeed,” the D.A., agreed.
Young Marian McFarland tried to save her father at the trial the following January. The defense was that he had been shell-shocked in the war, and the child testified that he often was dizzy and “excited over nothing,” that on many occasions he had got out of bed and gone out in the middle of the night. “When I would tell him about it the next day, he would say that he did not remember,” she said.
The defendant kept his head bowed and stared at the floor all the time his daughter was on the stand. When she was excused, she stepped down and walked to his side.
“Daddy, please, daddy—look at me!” But he did not look up, and the girl was led out.
The jurors wept—but not for Thomas McFarland. They found him guilty of murder in the first degree, and at 11:07 P.M., August 20, 1936, he died in the electric chair at Sing Sing.