Inside a Manhattan Coroner’s Grisly, Salacious Case Files
At the turn of the last century, New Yorkers found myriad unusual ways to meet a premature demise.
In 1905, a prominent Manhattan physician was reading his morning mail when he opened a disturbing letter. Written in spidery handwriting and signed cryptically from someone calling themselves “Justice,” it read, “Mrs. Margaretta Todd was murdered—she did not meet her death by accident. The crime was plotted in New York and carried out in Philadelphia, to which city she was lured.”
The physician reading this mysterious letter was no ordinary doctor. He was the Honorable Gustav Scholer, head Coroner for the city of New York, and one of the era’s leading alienists—an arcane term for specialists who studied the mental pathology of those deemed “alienated” from society.
In 1905, Scholer, an immigrant from Baden in Germany, was 54 years old, and had been head Coroner for the city for three years. The role of the Coroner was an extremely powerful one. Where deaths were deemed to be suspicious and unattended (that is to say, no doctor was present at the moment of death) they were investigated by the Coroner. They had the power to arrest people, halt burials, order autopsies and exhumations, all in order to determine the cause of death. Evidence would be presented at an inquest with a Coroner’s Jury and if foul play was unearthed, the case would be handed back to law enforcement.
At the turn of the last century, New Yorkers found myriad unusual ways to meet a premature demise. Dr. Scholer’s annual report to the mayor in 1902 recorded that there were 5,846 new cases, broken down into “sudden deaths from natural causes (3,586), accidental violence (1,965), suicide (470), homicides (231).”
The causes of the deaths Scholer investigated included “illuminating gas, both accidental and suicide, opium poisonings, deaths from cutting throat, setting fire to clothing, overdoses of morphia and laudanum, pistol shots, stabbings, and deaths following illicit abortions.” His investigations took him from the tenements of the Lower East Side to the glittering world of the upper classes; one such case tells of Bertha Dolbeer, a socialite and heiress to millions who threw herself from the ninth floor of the old Waldorf-Astoria.
Responsible for investigating the city’s suspicious deaths, and examining the mental pathologies of accused criminals who claimed insanity, Scholer meticulously kept and filed away his murder case notes, autopsies, newspaper clippings, psychiatric profiles, unclaimed personal effects of the deceased and anonymous tip-off letters such as the one he received concerning Mrs. Todd. After he died, his wife donated his papers to the New York Public Library, where it remains in their archives. The largely unknown collection offers a fascinating glimpse of Edwardian forensic pathology, written by the investigating physician himself.
One of the files in the Scholer papers tells the story of the murder of Genio Potenza, a 52-year-old widower who was celebrating his birthday and “made free with another Italian’s wife to make him jealous. De Masso stabbed him in the abdomen.” Included in Scholer’s files is a newspaper report from the Mail and Express under the headline “An Example to Murderous Italians,” noting the “ready use of the knife by Italians.” De Masso was sentenced to 10 years in New York State’s Sing Sing prison.
Other files document one of the darkest days in New York history, when the pleasure steamship the General Slocumb burned and sank in the East River on June 15th, 1904. The worst loss of life in the city until the 9/11 attacks saw 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers killed—mostly women and children from the German East Village neighborhood.
Scholer’s papers include heartbreaking photographs of the stricken vessel, bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island, the temporary morgue set up on the docks at East 26th Street, and Scholer himself, writing death certificates.
One of Scholer’s most famous cases was as the attending alienist for the trial of Hans Schmidt, a German Catholic priest suspected in the slaying of Anna Aumuller, the attractive housekeeper at his rectory. Having conducted an illicit affair with Aumuller, and discovered she was pregnant, Schmidt was accused of slashing her throat on September 2, 1913, dismembering her body and throwing the pieces into the East River.When Schmidt pleaded insanity, Dr. Scholer was called to evaluate him. Scholer ruled that he wasn’t insane and Schmidt was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing. Today he remains the only Catholic priest in the US to be executed.
Among the many fascinating cases in Scholer’s archives, two in particular warrant a deeper look. Here, we delve into the files of the Dead Houses affair and the mystery of the murderous Madame.
The Case of the Deathly Dead Houses, October 1904
In the beginning of October, 1904, Dr. Scholer received a peculiar pre-paid one-cent postcard. Written in pencil, it simply said,
Try Kruwveede, 49th st and 10 ave for bad whiskey
It was signed “a Friend.”
On October 11th, he received three more startling, anonymous letters to his home, each speaking of dangerous whiskey-producing “Dead Houses” operating in Manhattan.These establishments were aptly named, as throughout the summer and autumn of 1904, New York’s newspapers began to be filled with grisly stories of men and women being poisoned to their deaths by bad whiskey. First going blind, and then being wracked with terrible stomach pains, by the middle of October somewhere between 20 and 30 people had died. Gustav Scholer at once ordered that the funerals be delayed so the corpses could be autopsied, with earlier victims exhumed.
Dr. Scholer’s investigations found deadly amounts of wood alcohol present in the victims. Wood alcohol was used extensively as a liquid fuel, and as a domestic cleaning agent. It was also used as a solvent for varnishes, lacquers and shellacs. Taken as a drink, it was lethal. Furthermore, the coroner noticed that the deaths seemed to be centered around the West Side saloons.
Scholer received another anonymous tip, this time sent from “An Experienced Citizen”:
the west side Dead House owned by Knickman’s also owns 723 10th ave and kills thousands every year with his rotten whiskey
As the latest victim, one Herbert Sachs, died in Roosevelt Hospital in awful agony, tensions throughout Hell’s Kitchen, the west-side slum stretching from roughly 30th Street to 59th, began to mount. Following the tip, Scholer arrived with his men at Rudolph Fritsche’s saloon at 723, 10th Avenue, and had him arrested. In the basement he found a can of deadly wood alcohol.
The New York Herald reported that, “led by Gustav Scholer, one saloon keeper has been arrested, the saloon closed with $2,500 bail set … when will this wicked folly come to an end?” A mob of residents from the Hell’s Kitchen tenements descended upon the saloon, armed with picks and stones, and proceeded to smash Fritsche’s premises, where he had been selling the doctored whiskey in a lethal cocktail he called “the Pink Elephant” for 10 cents.
While the fate of the villain Fritsche isn’t known, the widespread poisoning in the so-called Dead Houses of the Hell’s Kitchen led to a Senate investigation into whiskey sales and to the rise of “bottled in bond” whiskey, which was sealed with a government stamp over the cork.
The Bottled-in-Bond Act would give a Federal government’s guarantee that the whiskey was authentic and safe, helping to protect New Yorkers from the deadly drinks being served in the Dead Houses of Hell’s Kitchen.
The Mystery of the Murdered Madame, October 1905
Here we return to Mrs. Todd, whose death was mentioned in the anonymous tip-off letter at the beginning of our story. Margaretta Todd came from the moneyed Von Hoffman family. In her youth, she was said to be well acquainted with Parisian society, and known for her vibrant red hair and vivaciousness. With her wealth, estimated to be worth around $1,000,000 in real estate and jewels, she built a lavish seven-story building in the heart of the old Tenderloin district on West 26th Street and rented out its apartments.
At the time of her suspicious death, Margaretta was 76 years old, according to the Pennsylvania coroner’s office. Who would want to murder his elderly woman, and how? The tip continued:
“Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Mrs Todd was met and put into a carriage … she was a drinking woman. In the carriage she was given several drinks, dosed with knock-out drops. She was driven to Fairmount Park. When the drug had taken effect she was taken from the carriage led along the side of the railroad track and in the darkness hurled down a steep embankment right in front of an oncoming train.”
Scholer immediately wired his counterpart in Philadelphia, Coroner Thomas Dugan, who told him that two employees of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had indeed found a body on the tracks who, from items in her possession, had been identified as Mrs. Margaretta Todd, a widow “residing at 29 West 26th St., your City.”
Her head had been crushed and both legs severed below the knees. Remarkably, it was noted that Mrs. Margaretta Todd’s fingers, wrists, ears, and neck were still covered in jewels. Within days of this gruesome discovery, Gustav Scholer had the viscera taken from her body and brought back to New York for investigation. Chemical analysis showed evidence of chloral hydrate, the “knock-out drops” the tip-off letter had mentioned. Scholer began investigating the life of Mrs. Todd to see why a seemingly harmless widow would suffer what he was by now treating as a cold-blooded murder.
Dr. Scholer subpoenaed Margaretta’s Todd recent correspondence, and quickly discovered that the old lady had a darker side. Mrs. Todd had been summering in Atlantic City, from where she wrote to George Armory, the building manager of the Von Hoffman. One of Todd’s letters, filed in the Scholer archives, contains this chilling passage:
That dirty dog wrote me a saucy letter, but by the Gods I gave him a dose he will carry to his grave … tear this up after reading.
But who was this “dirty dog” she wrote of? One of the building’s tenants was her lawyer, Ingersoll Lockwood. Scholer’s investigation began to unearth troubling evidence concerning the nature of the relationship between Mrs. Todd and Lockwood, who was apparently living rent-free in the Von Hoffman building.
It emerged that a will, written in 1902, virtually disinherited her kin, leaving the proprietorship of the building and the bulk of her vast wealth to Lockwood.
By 1905, however, Mrs. Todd seemed to be losing faith in her lawyer. Writing again to Armory from Atlantic City, she ordered him to tell Lockwood that she was re-writing her will. Desperately worried that he was on the verge of being cut him out of her fortune, Lockwood, together with Jeannie Paine, a companion of Todd’s, paid a visit to the widow’s physician, where the pair claimed “their dear old friend was acting strangely and that she certainly must be out of her head. Wouldn’t it be better if she were put in an asylum.”
Beset with rage, Todd ordered Armory to throw Lockwood out of the Von Hoffman:
On Thursday night, October 26, 1905, Margaretta informed her new lawyer, George Gordon Hastings, that she had written her new will. The two made arrangements to meet the following day to sign it.
At Scholer’s inquest, a Mrs G.W. Moe was called as a witness. Her testimony stated that:
Mr Armory called at our house on Friday October 27th at 5pm in an excited state and asked where Mrs. Todd was. My husband replied that we had not seen her. He said ‘she has gone without signing her will’. When he left he said he would send out a police arm for her.”
Within a few hours Margaretta Todd’s mutilated body was found on the railroad tracks.
The court case over the will would stretch into 1906, with the fortune eventually passing to Margaretta’s daughter. But despite Scholer’s efforts, and the circumstantial evidence pointing at Lockwood and Paine, the murder would never be solved. The Von Hoffman building still exists today, with a Dominican restaurant on the ground floor and apartments above, but the brutal murder of its one-time owner is all but forgotten.
All primary sources courtesy of the Dr. Gustav Scholer collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
This article was updated, with minor edits, on October 12, 2020.
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