18 April 2018

Motor City Mayhem

Detroit was suffering a stifling heatwave on September 3, 1927 when William Gilbreath was driving home at ten p.m. Though somewhat late in the evening, the sidewalks were still teeming with pedestrians and the streets were full of cars. During his trip, Gilbreath remembered that he needed to pick something up from the drug store. Seeing one on the corner he pulled his car to the curb and hopped out. As he approached the store he heard a voice from behind, “Get back in that car and don’t make any fuss about it.” He turned to find a younger man brandishing a gun. Two other men turned the corner and closed in. They escorted Gilbreath back to his car and ordered him to get behind the wheel. One of the men climbed in the front seat with him and the other two hopped in the back. Once they were all in the car, the other two guys drew thirty-eights from their pockets. To Gilbreath’s shock, none of the numerous pedestrians who were walking or driving by seemed to notice the kidnapping.
     “Drive around the block.” The gunman up front demanded.
Gilbreath followed the order. After a bit, the gunman jammed his thirty eight into Gilbreath’s side.
     “All right, you, stop this car and climb in the back.”
Gilbreath switched places with one of the gunmen and for the next two hours they drove around searching for a place to rob. The bandits pulled up to a handful of drug stores with the intention of robbing them but, each time, decided that there were too many customers inside. At 11:15 they pulled into a gas station owned and operated by Ted Malm. The driver told Malm to” fill ‘er up” and, when the proprietor came around to collect payment, instead of cash, he found the business end of a thirty-eight.
“Get in.” the driver commanded. Malm climbed into the car as two of the gunmen walked into the station and helped themselves to the cash in the register.

With their new prisoner, the bandits continued to drive around looking for opportunities. After a while they decided to rob a pedestrian. Just then they saw a guy enter the court to an apartment building and two of the gunmen leapt from the car and approached him. One of them called out to the man, Edmund Weiner, a mechanic who worked for the Ford Motor Company, as he was about to enter the building. As Weiner turned to reply the gunman smashed him over the head with the butt of his gun. Weiner let out a scream and the gunmen proceeded to beat him as he tried to fight them off. Weiner’s yells filled the air as one of the bandits continued to beat him over the head with his pistol while dragging him from the courtyard out to the street. Weiner was pulled to the car and tossed in the back.

Inside the auto it was discovered that Weiner only had two nickels in cash. This, and the fact that he wouldn’t stop screaming, led all of the bandits to start wailing on him again. Pleading for his life, Weiner cried that he had a wife and two daughters to support. The hoodlums couldn’t have cared less. They continued to rain blows down upon him as he persisted in his screaming. A few minutes passed and one of the bandits jumped behind the wheel and pulled away while another yelled at the wounded man to be quiet.

After a short drive, the bandits pulled over and told their three captives to get out and lie on the ground. After searching them for anything of value, one of the gunmen warned the trio that if they got up too soon, they would “get their damn heads blown off.” The bandits got back in Gilbreath’s car and drove off. Gilbreath and Malm helped Weiner to a drug store where some citizens offered to drive him to the hospital. Unfortunately, Weiner took to many blows to his head; he died of his wounds the following morning.

With the brutal slaying of Wiener, the case became well publicized. All of the Detroit newspapers demanded police action, which was slow in coming. In an interview, Gilbreath mentioned that during the ride, they drove past a couple of beat cops standing on a corner. One of the gunmen said that they should bump them off, but another stated that he knew one of the cops. Detroiters wondered why a police officer would be friendly with a gun toting thug. Within a few days, six ranking police officers were walking a beat for being in “contact with the criminal element.” Around the same time, the front page of the Detroit Times quoted Weiner’s wife as saying, “May God punish the murderers of my husband. I don’t know what we can do. We are penniless now without his salary. My baby girl keeps asking where Daddy is but I cannot tell her for she is too young to understand.”

Through the Detroit Times, Gilbreath set up a fund for Weiner’s family and over the next few weeks donations came pouring into the Times. In all, Weiner’s widow was presented with over $5,400. Some folks offered their services. A cobbler offered free shoe repair for a year and a bakery pledged a free loaf of bread every day for the same amount of time.

On September 14, Detroit Police got their first break in the case. While searching for clues regarding a string of drug store robberies, detectives were canvassing the establishments that had been held up and walked into the Saylor Drug Store to question the clerks. When two of the detectives entered, (a third remained in the car) they noticed that no clerks were about. Assuming that they were in the back whipping up prescriptions, they waited. After a moment a guy walked out from the rear of the store. As he walked around the counter, he smiled at the detectives and said, “Well, goodnight boys!” before exiting the store. The detectives got a bad vibe from him but assumed that the drug store was doubling as a speakeasy and the guy simply had a drink or two. Moments later another guy walked out but this one had a gun in his hand and caught the detectives off guard. “Stick ‘em up, both of you.” He barked.

The detectives complied but since there was about six feet distance between them, the gunman had to swing his pistol back and forth to cover each man. At one point his eyes fell on one of the detectives’ pocket watch. Seizing the opportunity, the other detective drew his gun and fired. The first bullet hit the bandit under the arm and pierced his chest. The bandit turned and fired a wild shot as three more slugs slammed into his body. The hoodlum staggered, reached out and grabbed the pocket watch he had been eyeing and dropped to the floor. He gave his name as Robert Meyers and died a half hour later at the hospital. Gilbreath and Malm were brought to the morgue where they identified Meyers as both the leader of the desperadoes and the driver of the car, the night of Weiner’s murder.

Gilbreath (L) and Malm (R) Identify Meyers

A week after Meyers got his, police received a tip that two questionable men were living in a cottage in nearby Gross Pointe Park. After staking out the joint for the better part of the evening, detectives went in and arrested both men and their girlfriends. One of the guys arrested turned out to be the man who exited the drug store saying, “Well, good night boys!” the other was the getaway driver (Police were unaware that there was a driver that day. During his confession he stated that, when he saw the detectives pull up to the drug store, he honked the horn as a warning and took off.)
Both men admitted to being accomplices of Meyers but denied being in on the Weiner murder. Gilbreath and Malm were brought in and both stated that neither bandit was involved. The gunmen told detectives that Meyers worked with a handful of different bandits but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give any names. It didn’t matter because the next day another one of the hoodlums fell to police bullets.

At three-fifteen the following afternoon, a patrol was standing on the corner when a pedestrian came up and told him that he had been robbed on September 12, and that he just saw the man who did it. The citizen pointed him out and the officer started for the suspect. Seeing the officer approach, the suspect dodged behind a tree and drew a pistol. The officer did likewise and both men started shooting at each other. After a few volleys the desperado let out scream and fell to the ground. His cheek had been pierced by a bullet. Assuming his man was down for good, the officer approached and went to disarm him. The gunman had some fight left in him however, and the two began to grapple for control of the cop’s gun. The bandit wrestled it free and shot the officer in the stomach. As the policeman crumpled to the ground, the gunman ran off. Two citizens rushed the officer to the hospital where he made a full recovery.

Meanwhile, cops began combing the neighborhood looking for the gunman who had ran into a nearby garage. Inside was the homeowner and the hoodlum forced him into the house at gunpoint. The desperado told him to hide him in a closet. The homeowner opened a door, “Get into the closet with me.” The gunman ordered. As the gunman hid himself behind some clothes, a police officer entered the house. The homeowner jumped from the closet doorway and the cop pushed the clothes out of the way and fired into the gunman. With a bullet in his belly, the hoodlum dropped to the floor and began groaning for his mother.

At the hospital the hoodlum identified himself as nineteen- year- old Joe Subko of Akron, Ohio. Gilbreath and Malm were brought in to take a look at him. Without hesitation, Gilbreath identified him as the man who had assaulted Weiner. Although Malm was reasonably certain that Subko was the man, he asked if he could see him dressed in street clothes to make sure. During this time, Subko died of his wounds, so they dressed him in his clothes and let Malm take another look. Once this was done Malm declared him the man.

Subko redressed for identification. Note bullet hole in cheek.

It turned out that Subko was also a mini-crime wave of his own independent of Meyers. Victims of, who the police called, the “Hitch Hike Bandit” an armed man who robbed numerous motorist that picked him up, were also called in and identified Subko as the bandit. Though Gilbreath, Malm and Mrs. Weiner received some satisfaction in the wiping out of Meyers and Subko, unfortunately for Justice, the third man involved in the kidnappings and robberies was never found out.


“Snaring Detroit’s Kidnapping Killers” True Detective Mysteries November 1934
“3 Thugs Kidnap W.S. Gilbreath, Slay Another” Detroit Free Press, September 5, 1927
"Familiarity Of Thugs And Cops Under Inquiry"St. Joseph Herald Press September 6, 1927
“Officer Defies Robber’s Gun, Kills Bandit” Detroit Free Pres, September 15, 1927
“Crook Mental Test Failure Blow To Police” Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1927
“Hat Identifies Leader of Weiner’s Slayers” Detroit Free Press, September 18, 1927
“Man Slain, Second Dying After Battles With Policemen”, Detroit Free Press September 24, 1927
“Second Weiner Slayer Killed By Policeman’s Bullet”, Detroit Free Press September 25, 1927

16 April 2018

F.B.I.'s Doris Lockerman -- 2nd in a Series on 1930s Women in Policing

Doris Lockerman
The blood was still wet on Chicago's sidewalks when a former F.B.I. private secretary sat down to pen her recollections late in 1935 for the Chicago Tribune.  Doris Lockerman had been a member of the team, a participant in the stakeout of Verne Miller, the interrogation of Marie Comforti, and the arrest of James Probasco, among other climatic episodes of the public enemy era.

Her series would be a retrospective on these events, with some pointed criticism for Director J. Edgar Hoover.  She was angry at the director's treatment of her ex-boss, Chicago Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis, who'd been shoved out the door by Hoover for the subjective crime of taking too much credit.  It was a time when F.B.I. agents were supposed to embody the American ideal of the faceless man in the grey flannel suit.  Purvis had made his reputation as the G-Man who had taken down John Dillinger and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd.  He had a face, he had a name that the public recognized and respected.   

Doris Lockerman had left the F.B.I.'s employ before giving her story to the Tribune.  She had just married Alan E. Lockerman, who had been stationed at the Biograph Theater the night Dillinger was killed.  The dismissal of Purvis, her superior, would haunt her throughout her life.

Before she married Alan Lockerman, Doris worked under her prior surname of Rogers.  During her tenure as Purvis's private secretary, the F.B.I. was known as the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation.  The office was on the nineteenth floor of the Bankers' Building in Chicago. 1

What defined her was her role in an attempted arrest of fugitive Verne Miller, when she put him on the spot for the F.B.I.  As part of an attempt to capture the chief suspect in the Kansas City Massacre, she stood for hours in a stakeout of the hallway of the Sherone Apartment Hotel at 4423 Sheridan Road in Chicago on November 1, 1933.  It would go down as a botched arrest attempt.  Yet Lockerman did her job.  She stood upon a stool and looked through a ventilator in a hotel room while waiting for Miller to leave an adjoining room, rented by his moll, Vivian "Vi" Mathis.  As Lockerman manned the peephole with Special Agent Ed Notesteen, both hoped they would be able to accurately identify the gunman.  Both had seen and known of Miller while he was a sheriff in Huron, South Dakota. 

Lockerman's Stakeout Doorway Once Had an Opening (Above)
The stakeout died in the space of a Chicago minute.  Nobody considered the possibility that Miller, a former sheriff, would be fine-tuned to the presence of law enforcement.  When Miller left Mathis's room, Lockerman identified him.  According to her version, Notesteen agreed with her.  Some accounts grant Notesteen a moment of doubt before he agreed that the figure moving down the hall was Miller.  Something scared Miller off, because he ran for the stairway door and escaped. 2

Having worked the Verne Miller stakeout, Lockerman was a G-man at heart.  She had no empathy for the outlaws.  "I talked with the gun molls who were smoothly induced into betraying the gangsters with whom they were living," she wrote.  One such moll was Marie Comforti, who was a "42 Gang" girl and moll of Dillinger gangster Homer Van Meter.  Lockerman brushed Comforti off as "snippy," a mere target who could be shadowed.  Lockerman threw cold water at the fabled faces of the 1930s public enemies.  As she wrote it, nobody had a baby face and nobody was a handsome Harry.   "I saw man killers led in clanking in their shackles." 3
Marie "Mickey" Comforti, Moll of Homer Van Meter

This seminal series has survived in spite of, or maybe because of, its ungainly title.  "A Girl Among Manhunters, Is Told by Self."  A creaking headline that does no justice to the gravitas of its author. 

Within the some of the installments, Lockerman held to the party line.  In others, she showed surprising verve in challenging Hoover's policies. 
Melvin Purvis (L.) and J. Edgar Hoover (R.)--  Library of Congress
Her series started out critical of the director.  "I watched the machinery turn which made a public hero [of Purvis], and saw that hero forced into a partial decline and eventual resignation, because his publicity became so great that it seemed to threaten the job of his boss in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover."

Midway through the series, a plateau flattened things out considerably.  It is possible that Lockerman or her editor got the message to cool it.  Hoover was wary of the Tribune, which had published two investigative articles exposing the controversies which lingered over Dillinger's recent death.  It must have occurred to Hoover that co-author Joseph Ator was going to rehash the conspiracy theories, which had already been dished by the Tribune in the months surrounding Dillinger's death.

The Tribune was the investigative press of the Chicago region and the Dillinger era.  Its reporters tackled the mysteries of Dillinger's connections while alive and the unsung assassins at his death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on the night of July 22, 1934.  The texture of the Tribune's investigative articles was deep with names, places and motivations.  These facts were to be hushed up in later years -- from the guns of the actual agents who fired the fatal shots to the names of the East Chicago, Indiana police officers on the scene that night -- but during 1934 to 1938, the Tribune did not shirk from reporting on all aspects of Dillinger.  The fact that the outlaw was connected to both crime associates and police officials in East Chicago -- an area rife with vice and gambling along with the neighboring towns of Gary and Hammond -- would be hushed in official F.B.I. versions published decades later in the fifties. 4

"A Girl Among Manhunters" held one of the final references to East Chicago before the F.B.I. began its course to rewrite history.  "Melvin Purvis, working at his desk late one Saturday night, had some callers.  They were Sergent Martin Zarkovich and Capt. Timothy O'Neill, his superior on the East Chicago police force.  Bright and early on Sunday morning every available agent was summoned to duty . . . they were going after Dillinger." 

In a disappointing plot twist, Lockerman's concluding articles came off as officially-sanctioned F.B.I. stories.  The final installments transformed Kate "Ma" Barker from her true nature of tribal Ozark enabler to a hellion mastermind.  "She planned their crimes.  Hers was the iron hand that ruled that evil brood."  Brood -- a word reminiscent of Hoover's personal glossary. 5

Lockerman seized the opportunity to quash some damaging rhetoric.  There was that old rumor that two F.B.I. suspects had been hung out the nineteenth floor of the Bankers' Building by agents.  "Boss McLaughlin was not dangled out a window" -- nor, apparently,  was James "Jim" Probasco, Dillinger's plastic surgery host.  There had been a lingering belief that Probasco was dangled and accidentally dropped in an aborted attempt to get him to talk.  Lockerman never said they didn't, and treated the issue with an interrogatory:

"Is it likely that the agents, even had they been in the habit of hanging prisoners out windows, which they were not, would have hung a kicking, yelling, 250 pound man out in broad daylight, in full sight of the office workers across the way?" 6

Whether or not she was censored while writing "A Girl Among Manhunters," Lockerman would have her day on the world's stage.  She went on to participate in the late-century renaissance of Dillinger writings.  In her accessible manner, she added to the body of work formed in the post-FOIA years of revisionism.  William "Bill" Helmer, author of Dillinger: The Untold Story, interviewed her.  When Purvis' son, Alston Purvis, released his book on his father, Lockerman voiced her defense of the special agent in her own, independent voice. 7

The elder Doris Lockerman was confident, vocal and articulate.  It was like in 1935, only better, with no censors reading her dailies.  Her quotes and writings called for judgment and reason in looking at the public enemies. 
Indiana State Policeman Eugene Teague, Killed During Arrest of Dillinger Associate Ed Shouse
She was there to remind crime writers just how bad these outlaws were.  The wounds were fresh in 1935.  Time has warped the tragic elements of the public enemy era, with little advocacy remaining for its victims.  Doris Lockerman told it like it was, from the perspective of the F.B.I. agents.  She was, after all, the girl among them.

Sherone Hallway, photo by Tom Smusyn

Ellen Poulsen, seen here in the hallway of Chicago's Sherone Apartments where Verne Miller escaped from the F.B.I.  She is author of Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang, and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial

Her new book, Chasing Dillinger:  Police Captain Matt Leach, J. Edgar Hoover and the Rivalry to Capture Public Enemy No. 1, will be released in 2018 by McFarland Publishing.




End Notes:

1.  Doris Lockerman and Joseph Ator, "A Girl Among Manhunters," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 7-19,            1935.

2.  Lockerman, Oct. 9, 1935; Brad Smith, Lawman to Outlaw:  Verne Miller and the Kansas
          City Massacre, Bedford, Indiana, JoNa Books,  2002, 155-157.

3.  Lockerman, Oct. 7, 1935.

4.  William Shinnick, "A Record of Murder, Robbery, and Indiana Politics," Sunday Tribune, Oct. 9,            1938; "Indiana Police Launch Quiz on Dillinger's Death," Tribune,
            July 30, 1934.

5.  Lockerman, Oct. 18, 1935.

6.  Lockerman, Oct. 16, 1935.

7.  Alston Purvis and Alex Tresniowski, The Vendetta:  FBI Hero Melvin Purvis's 
         War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover's War Against Him, N.Y.:  Public Affairs,
          Perseus Books Group, 2005.



13 April 2018

The Murder of Margaret Blake: Solved at Last?

The murder of Margaret Blake on April 23, 1816 is a case so cold it’s positively freezing. Over 200 years have passed since an unknown party stabbed her in the chest in a decrepit cellar apartment on Anthony Street in New York. The question of who did it remains one of antebellum New York City’s biggest mysteries.

Was it her husband?

Or one of the two women who boarded with the Blakes?

Or was it someone else entirely? Someone who thrust a knife between her ribs when neither her husband nor the female boarders were home and then disappeared, never to have their name associated with the case?

On February 14, 1915, the New York Times referred to the murder in a feature entitled Mysteries That Have Defied Solution.

“Murder we are told, will out. Yet nearly 100 years have passed since Margaret Blake was stabbed to the heart as she lay by her husband’s side in a humble New York tenement...."

After reviewing the suspect list and wondering which one could have wielded the knife, the writer added, “Twelve good men and true could not decide on a certain July day in the year 1816, nor has time solved the mystery.”
The killer’s name remains unknown over two centuries later. But thanks to a recent review of Margaret Blake’s autopsy report by a UK pathologist, the circumstances of her death become much clearer.


Anthony Street was one of the main thoroughfares in the Five Points, a squalid region of Manhattan that was notorious for violence, vice, and poverty. Taking its name from a five-point intersection created by Anthony, Orange, and Cross Streets, it was a breeding ground for disease and crime. People crammed like sardines into filthy apartments and boarding houses, with the respectable poor breathing the same air as gangsters and petty criminals. The area had once been occupied by artisans, but in 1816 the residents were almost exclusively black or Irish.

The Five Points District in 1859 (Library of Congress)

Sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. on April 23, Paterick (as his name is spelled in the official records) Blake came home from his laboring job. He was exhausted, hungry, and in a garrulous mood. When he opened the door to the one-room cellar apartment and found his wife, Margaret, lying in bed and in no condition to cook supper, he assumed she was drunk and frowned. He and Margaret had often argued over her drinking, sometimes violently.

Catherine M’Gee, one of two women who boarded with Paterick and Margaret Blake, later testified at the murder trial:

All that day I had been away, and returned at about five o'clock in the afternoon, and found the deceased in bed.... About eight or nine o'clock in the evening, the prisoner (Blake), who is a laborer, returned from his work, and deceased was still in bed. He went to the bed and said something to her, and she answered, but what I cannot say. I had spoken to deceased in the afternoon, and asked her to get up, to which she answered, “Let me alone,” and I thought she was drunk. After the prisoner returned, I went to getting supper.
Mrs. Blake was huddled on the mattress, blankets around her chin and face pale. She replied when spoken to, but otherwise remained silent when Catherine M’Gee and the other boarder, Jane M’Fall, prepared a simple but hearty meal of fish and potatoes.

Once the food was ready, the table was pulled up to the Blakes’ bed. Paterick Blake ate while sitting on the edge of the mattress and offered a plate to his wife, but she mumbled something about not being hungry.

At around 10:00 p.m., the small household prepared for bed. Still believing that Margaret was drunk, Catherine M’Gee went to bind a handkerchief around her head. (Head-binding was a contemporary remedy for easing the headache pain of a hangover.) As she did so, she noticed a small amount of blood on the back of Margaret’s hand. (She later said that the amount “might have proceeded from a scratch”.)

Blake, who was sitting at the foot of the bed, snapped at her to leave his wife alone. When Mrs. McGee commented on the small blood smear, he growled that it was none of her business. Soon afterward, he got into bed and the two boarders had a short but sentimental conversion about Ireland, with Margaret occasionally commenting. Then all was quiet until 4:00 a.m., when Catherine M’Gee woke up to find an ashen-faced Blake standing at her bedside, holding a candle.

“I am afraid that Peggy (Margaret) is dead,” he said. “She will not speak to me.”

Catherine sat up. “That cannot be. She was well enough last night. Perhaps she is asleep- try to wake her up.”

While she watched, Blake returned to his bed, seized his wife by the shoulders, and shook her, exclaiming her name over and over. But there was no response. He then lifted her slightly, causing the blankets to fall away and revealing blood all over the front of her nightgown.

Margaret Blake was obviously dead. Paterick laid her back down and moaned, “I am a poor man this morning!” Then he left the apartment and hurried through the chilly dawn to a small house occupied by his friends, the Hanleys. Already startled to be roused out of bed at such an early hour, the couple was doubly shocked to hear Paterick exclaim, “Peggy is dead!”

They followed him back to the Anthony Street dwelling, where the sight of the bloody corpse and bedstead filled them with horror. Catherine M’Gee and Jane M’Fall hovered nearby, blinking as if trying to awaken from a terrible nightmare.

The Hanleys stayed for over an hour, during which time Blake went out again and returned with his grown son. Then he left a third time- but not to escape or flee. He went to the office of John Bedient, Coroner for the City of New York, and reported Margaret’s death.

“Did she die in a fit?” Bedient asked after hearing the details. Blake replied that he had no idea, and insisted that the coroner accompany him back to the tenement.

At the scene, Bedient carefully lifted the bedclothes from Margaret’s body and observed a wound under her left breast. The blankets were searched for the presence of a discarded weapon, but nothing was found. Bedient later testified that Blake, who hovered over him, “appeared totally... insensible.”

The coroner sent for surgeons to examine the wound. The medical men found that the weapon had passed between the cartilages of the fifth and sixth vertebrae. Seeing an old scar near the injury, one of the surgeons, Dr. Alexander Stevens, asked Blake what had caused it. He answered that Margaret had once fallen on a knife she was holding.

After the physicians concluded their examination, Bedient asked the coroner’s jury, which had been hastily assembled on site, if they wanted to examine Blake. They did, so the now-widower took off his coat, his movements slow and mechanical. Bedient immediately spotted blood on his right inner arm and under his fingernails.

“How did that (blood) get there?” the coroner asked.

Blake, who still seemed to be in shock, responded that he didn’t know. He also said that the door had been bolted from the inside throughout the night, and was still bolted when he opened it to go for the neighbors.

A policeman named Abner Curtis, who had been searching the apartment, found a bloody jackknife with a four-inch blade. When Blake confirmed that it was his but didn’t know where the blood came from, the dazed widower was taken into custody and held on a charge of murder.

Domestic violence was routine in the Five Points, and rarely came to the attention of the authorities. Unless, of course, it ended in murder. Then the guilty party headed for the gallows, provided that their guilt could be proven. This fate appeared to be in store for Paterick Blake, who’d been covered in his wife’s blood when arrested and was known to have quarreled violently with her in the past.

The death of Margaret Blake appeared to be an open and shut case.

Except that it wasn’t.


Paterick Blake languished in the notorious Bridewell Prison for two months, waiting to be arraigned. It was a large and dismal stone building that had been used by the British during the Revolutionary War to contain American prisoners. After the war ended, the Bridewell resumed its previous function of holding debtors and felons, and continued to do so until 1824.

Finally, Blake was arraigned on June 27, 1816 in the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Learning that the defendant had no counsel, Justice Jonas Platt, who was hearing the case, assigned David B. Ogden and another lawyer named Sampson to represent him and set the trial for July 2.

Justice Jonas Platt (Brooklyn Museum)

When the proceedings finally began, District Attorney John Rodman opened the case by explaining the nature of circumstantial evidence to the jury. He said that when a man was in a situation to commit a particular crime and it appeared that no one else could have done it, his guilt is presumed unless the contrary can be proven. In Blake’s case, the prisoner and his wife had frequently quarreled, which Rodman held up as possible motive for him to kill her.

Coroner Bedient was the first witness for the prosecution. He recounted Blake’s visit to his office on the morning of April 23,, his arrival at the murder scene, and the discovery of the bloody knife. When Rodman produced a jackknife and asked, “Is this the knife?” the coroner peered closely at it before nodding.

“The very same, though I was somewhat mistaken in the length.”

Dr. Thomas Cock, one of the surgeons who had examined the dead woman, reported his findings next. Describing the fatal wound, he said it was

...under the left pap (nipple) between the 5th and 6th rib. A short time after I came, Dr. Stevens came in with instruments.... An incision was made by him, and I saw the result of the examination. The weapon with which the wound was inflicted, apparently progressed between the cartilages of the 5th and 6th ribs, in the direction of the heart. The wound appeared to have been done with a knife or other sharp pointed instrument. Dr. Stevens put his finger in the wound and said that it went in the direction of the heart. I saw an old scar near the new wound.
District Attorney Rodman called out, “I wish the Court to note that part of the testimony.”

Blake’s lawyer, Sampson, protested. “We do not see what this has to do with the case. We wish the public prosecutor to explain his views in relation to this part of the evidence.”

“I stated in the opening that I intended to show there were frequent quarrels between the prisoner and the deceased, to establish this general malevolence toward her,” said Rodman. “I propose to show, in the progress of this trial, that on a former occasion, the prisoner stabbed the deceased with a deadly weapon, and inflicted a wound, which then failed in its object but occasioned this scar. I contend this will be proper evidence to show the evil intent which actuated his mind.”

Fortunately for Blake, Justice Platt intervened.

“A former quarrel, unconnected with the transaction wherein the death ensued, cannot be given in evidence,” he told Rodman. He proceeded to explain that if proof existed that the fatal injury was inflicted as a result of any quarrel that caused the first wound, or if Blake had argued violently with his wife shortly before her death, such evidence was admissible. Otherwise, it was not.

“Without such restriction, the introduction of such evidence would be extremely dangerous (to the prisoner,” Platt concluded.

Dr. Richard S. Walker was next. He had examined Margaret Blake before her body was removed and agreed with Dr. Cock’s earlier testimony. When Rodman showed him Blake’s knife and asked if it could have inflicted her wound, Dr. Walker hesitated.

“I particularly examined the separation of the ribs,” he said at last, “and from the appearance of that separation, I am inclined to think that the wound could not have been inflicted with this knife.”

When Justice Platt pressed for more details, the surgeon admitted that he did not examine the wound with the intention of ascertaining whether it could have been inflicted with that particular weapon. 

“If it was, I should think it must have been a violent thrust,” he said.

Dr. Alexander Stevens was less uncertain. After telling the court that he had experience dissecting bodies in Europe, he delivered the results of his own examination of the corpse.

Some considerable blood was on her left side, some on her linen, and some on her hair. The wound was in the place described by the other witnesses. Serum ran therefrom. I endeavored to introduce a blunt instrument to ascertain the direction of the wound and found that it went towards the heart. I found a difficulty of penetrating the chest with a director, and, of course, made a dissection, by which I first ascertained that the instrument, with which the wound was inflicted, had passed through and entirely divided the rib, which, in that place, was about two thirds of an inch in breadth. One part of the rib, through which the instrument passed, was fractured. After a way was cleared, I introduced my finger into the chest, and found much coagulated blood in the cavity. I satisfactorily ascertained, and believe that the instrument entered the left ventricle of the heart. I believe that such a wound might have been inflicted with this knife.

Police magistrate James Hopson testified that he supervised as a prison turnkey searched Blake, and observed blood on his shirt and fingernails. He was followed to the stand by Dr. John K. Rogers, who agreed with Dr. Stevens that the bloody jackknife could have been used to inflict the wound. Then Catherine M’Gee testified as to what she saw and heard on April 22 and 23. She added that she had been boarding with the Blakes for around five weeks, needing affordable accommodations while her husband was working out in the country, and concluded with, “I do not know that the prisoner lived more unhappily with his wife than is common. I never had any difference with the deceased.”

Jane M’Fall, the other boarder, told the court that she had lost her right arm in an accident and worked at the House of Industry, where poor New Yorkers learned skills that could translate into employment. At the time of Margaret’s death, she had been living with the Blakes for around four months, and “never knew of any difficulty between the prisoner and the deceased.”

Catherine M’Gee had testified that she’d mentioned the blood on Mrs. Blake’s hand to her fellow roomer, but Jane M’Fall could not recall such a comment. She hastened to add, “Mrs. M’Gee and the deceased were as intimate as sisters.”

She also didn’t remember the bedtime chat with Margaret about Ireland. Nor did Catherine M’Gee, although Blake was sure he had heard it.

Drs. Steven and Walker were recalled. They both stated that Mrs. Blake’s wound had been severe enough to cause almost instantaneous death. Asked if there would have been any noise, they allowed that she might have groaned, although sleep or drunkenness might have prevented her from making any sounds.

Dr. Benjamin Robson, who said that his opinion was “founded on actual observation”, was positive that “a wound in that part of the body would have occasioned instantaneous death without a groan.”

Nicholas C. Everett, one of the Blakes’ neighbors, had been jury foreman at the coroner’s inquest. He said that Paterick Blake had denied all knowledge of his wife’s murder, and added, “(I) understood, by common report, that the prisoner and the deceased lived unhappily together.”

One of Blake’s lawyers asked him about Catherine M’Gee’s conduct on the morning of April 23. Everett answered, “No person on the jury thought that Mrs. M'Gee discovered fear (acted in a guilty manner) — no suspicion fell on her. (I) have known her for a considerable time, and have heard nothing against her character.”

After the prosecution witnesses finished their testimony, District Attorney Rodman read the transcription of Paterick Blake’s interview at the police station. It summarized the circumstances of the case and stressed to the jury that the murder could only have been committed by one of the three people who slept in the same room with the deceased woman the night she died.

The defense team, headed by David Ogden, pointed out that if Paterick Blake was indeed a wife-killer, his conduct on the morning of the murder was highly unusual. He did not try to flee the city, as a guilty man would presumably do: after waking his two boarders, he called on the Hanleys, summoned his son, and went to the coroner’s office to report the incident.

“This case is involved in much doubt and mystery,” Ogden admitted. “There are strong presumptions against the prisoner; stronger in his favor. The benignity of the law requires the jury to give more weight to the former than the latter. That the deceased was murdered is admitted. The only question is, did the prisoner murder her?”

He reminded the jury that Paterick Blake had never deviated from his story, many aspects of which were even confirmed by prosecution testimony.

“Flight, concealment, and fear, the inseparable concomitants of guilt, are expressly negatived by all the testimony. No motive to commit this horrid crime existed. The proof of domestic difficulties between the prisoner and the deceased failed on behalf of the prosecution.”

Ogden called Catherine M’Gee’s testimony “strange and equivocal... It stands contradicted in various particulars. The doctors disagree (in their testimony). All is doubt and uncertainty.”

Mr. Rodman told the jury that one of three people was responsible for Margaret’s death: her husband, Catherine M’Gee, or Jane M’Fall. The door had been bolted from the inside, so no one else could have gotten in. Rodman believed that Jane M’Fall, being one-armed, was physically incapable of stabbing someone to death with the necessary force and Catherine M’Gee had no discernible motive. Therefore, Paterick Blake had to be guilty.

Now it was Justice Platt’s turn.

Gentlemen of the Jury. — The prisoner at the bar is charged with the crime of murder, committed on Margaret Blake, his wife. That a horrid murder, under the most aggravating circumstances, was committed on this woman, is certain; the great difficulty in the case consists in correctly determining this important question, whether Paterick Blake did commit this murder. The law on the subject is well settled. Murder is defined as the killing of a person, in the peace of the people, with malice aforethought; either express or implied in law. Whether such murder was committed by the prisoner, depends on a careful examination of all the facts and circumstances of this case, from which the jury is to deduce the conclusion of his guilt or innocence.He reviewed the events of April 22 and 23, interjecting observations that were strongly in Blake’s favor.

After examining and ascertaining that his wife was dead, the prisoner said that he was a poor man that morning. He called in a neighboring woman, stayed about an hour, went for his son and brought him, and then went immediately for the coroner. There is nothing unnatural in this conduct, nor does it indicate guilt.... In his examination, the prisoner has been consistent. He has uniformly given the same account of this transaction. The usual concomitants of guilt are flight — alarm— concealment. It must be conceded that these indications of guilt cannot be imputed to the prisoner. He never denied the knife was his — he made no effort to conceal it — he did not endeavor to escape.

There are several suppositions which may be framed concerning this murder.

1. She might have murdered herself.

2. She might have been murdered by some person before the prisoner returned in the evening.

3. She might have been murdered after his return, and during the night; and this last supposition is strongly fortified by the various circumstances in the case.

If she was not murdered before the return of the prisoner, then the conclusion is irresistible that she was murdered by one of the three persons who stayed in that apartment during the night, unless she committed suicide. All the facts and circumstances in the case, forbid the conclusion, either that she was murdered by any person before the return of the prisoner in the evening, or, that she murdered herself either before or after his return. The prisoner himself, in his examination, shows that the deceased spoke and conversed after his return; and no instrument was found near the body, by which she (could have) inflicted the wound. It therefore follows, that she was murdered by one of the three persons who stayed in that room during the night; by which of them, it is impossible to say.....

Upon the whole, gentlemen, notwithstanding every effort to fathom this mysterious transaction, and arrive at the truth, we find ourselves embarrassed with difficulties, and a painful doubt rests on the mind. It only remains for me to charge you, that so dark is the whole transaction before us, and so involved in uncertainty is this case, that it would be utterly unsafe, on this testimony, to convict the prisoner: and when I say this, I wish it to be distinctly understood, that I express the unanimous opinion of the Court.

There would soon come a time when trial judges risked an overturned decision by influencing the jury this way. In 1816 Justice Platt and his brethren routinely weighed in with their personal opinions and beliefs, much to the annoyance of the side they did not support, but there was nothing illegal about it. Platt would be remembered for his intelligence and fairness, and he did not want to see Paterick Blake hanged for a crime that could potentially have been committed by someone else.

The jurors retired to deliberate. Unsurprisingly, they returned five minutes later with a verdict of Not Guilty.

Paterick Blake walked out of the courtroom a free man. We know nothing of his movements thereafter: presumably, he went back to the Anthony Street cellar and waited for his notoriety to die down so that he could resume his life as an anonymous workman. He may even have married again. We can only say one thing for certain: his legacy includes one of New York’s most puzzling murder mysteries.


Hindsight has solved as many crimes, if not more, than the actual investigating policemen. This is especially true in the case of murders committed when forensic science was in its infancy and there were no detectives on the local police forces.

When the death of Margaret Blake is reviewed 200 years later, using modern investigative approaches, a different story emerges.

First, the facts that are indisputable even now:
  • Margaret Blake was alive when everyone in the household settled down for the night and dead by morning. 
  • She was in bed when her husband came home, so pallid and listless that Catherine M’Gee and Paterick Blake both thought she was drunk. 
  • Mrs. M’Gee noticed blood on the back of her hand, suggesting a recent injury. Neither Paterick Blake nor Jane M’Fall saw it, but her hands were probably concealed under the covers most of the time. 
  • There was no weapon found in the bed, which rules out suicide. 
In 1816, medical science was limited in scope and accuracy. New York City did not even graduate its first medical doctor until 1770. Some anatomical expertise had been gained thanks to a law permitting the dissection of executed criminals, but knowledge of how the body actually worked was far from perfect, leaving postmortem findings seriously flawed.

To obtain a modern medical opinion, the trial testimony of Dr. Alexander Stevens and his colleagues was submitted to UK pathologist Mark Taylor for review and comment.

After reading the doctors’ observations, Dr. Taylor wrote:

The answer to your question is that there might be two modes of death from an injury of this type, and the most relevant testimony is that last one (the testimony of Dr. Alexander Stevens) – the instrument entered the left ventricle of the heart; this is the thickest chamber as it has to push blood around the entire body so to have penetrated it would have required some force, particularly as the implement had to get through the ribs ‘transversely’ as one of the medical statements puts it.

When that happens either the blood literally gushes like a geyser out of the ventricle, under the full force of the ventricular contraction, and death is virtually instantaneous; or, being thick and dense, the muscle closes over (particularly if the wound is made by a pointed or thin instrument) and blood oozes out, gradually filling the pericardial sac and constricting the heart which eventually can’t pump anymore, or oozing out of the pericardial sac if it’s been penetrated (which appears to be the case here).

Either way there would be a lot of blood in the chest cavity – again, suggested by one of the statements.

The death is by the same mechanism essentially – exsanguination – but this can be sudden and devastating, or slightly more protracted (over a few hours, not much longer).

...She may well have been alive but gradually dying during the time (Blake) was assuming she was drunk. What (the evidence) doesn’t tell us is whether he inflicted the wound or someone else did, but I’d say it would probably have been a man (given the force required).
Put more simply, Margaret Blake could have been (and probably was) fatally injured long before her husband came home. If the thick muscle encapsulating her pierced left ventricle closed over and made blood loss a gradual process, her thinking would have been clouded and her speech irregular, just as her husband and boarders observed. The blankets would have concealed both the wound and the red patch that spread slowly across her nightgown, leaving everyone unaware that she was dying.

The surgeons in 1816 believed that the injury she sustained was enough to cause instant death, which is true. But it’s also true that it can make a person die slowly, something that may not have seemed possible to the men who examined Mrs. Blake.

The amount of force required to inflict such a wound makes it likely that a man stabbed her, as Dr. Taylor believes. But her husband was away at work until at least 8:00 p.m. and the blood that everyone observed on his inner arm and hands could have come from touching or laying an arm across his wife during the night. The idea that he stabbed her before waking up Catherine McGee makes no sense: he would have had a lot more blood on his hands, and he almost certainly would have unbolted the door to support the theory that the killer had infiltrated the apartment and escaped. As Justice Platt indicated, Blake’s actions in the wake of the tragedy are not those of a guilty man.

So the only other possibility is a man who came to the cellar apartment while Catherine M’Gee and Jane M’Fall were out. This raises more questions: if a criminal gained access to the apartment while Margaret Blake was alone and assaulted her, why did she not tell her husband and boarders? Why did she not even attempt to have her injury treated?

Because the wound did not kill her immediately, she likely assumed that she would survive. And the only conceivable reason for staying silent about the attack was that naming her assailant would have major consequences. Could she have been seeing someone while her husband and the women were working or otherwise away?

Margaret was wearing a nightgown when the doctors examined her body. She would have had it on when Mrs. McGee came home in the early evening and found her in bed, as she did not undress after supper with the others. None of the witnesses testified that she had been ill earlier in the day, so why was she wearing a nightgown and lying under the covers long before bedtime? The only conceivable reasons are illness- or intimacy.

Viewed from this perspective, the evidence suggests that Margaret Blake had a lover with whom she fatally quarreled on the last day of her life. Did he try to sever the relationship and she refused, or was she the one who tried to break it off, provoking his rage?

The truth can never be known for certain, but if this was indeed what happened, at least Paterick Blake never paid for another man’s act with his life.