Showing posts with label Rose Keefe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rose Keefe. Show all posts

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.