Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Horrific Near Murder at No. 237 East 18th Street

No. 237, to the right, lost its lovely Gothic eyebrows -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1841 the rectory of the Church of the Ascension was completed at No. 7 West 10th Street.  Designed by Richard Upjohn, the charming residence broke architectural ground—it was faced in brownstone.  Never before used on a Manhattan residence, the material quickly be so commonly used in residences that its name would become synonymous with rowhouses.

For the little building Upjohn turned to what was perhaps his favorite style—Gothic Revival.  The style here was most obvious in the square-headed eyebrows that hugged the tops of the openings.

Later, on the opposite side of town, two mirror-image speculative homes were construction at Nos. 235 and 237 East 18th Street.  The houses owed much to the rectory.

Three stories tall above an English basement, the houses were faced in smooth brownstone blocks.  The Gothic treatment of the windows was nearly identical to Upjohn’s rectory detailing.   But there the similarities stopped.

The architect stepped away from Gothic Revival and trimmed the double brownstone stoop with Italianate ironwork.  The railings wrapped the handsome cast newels which were topped by attractive flame finials.  Also inconsistent with the Gothic window treatments were the elaborate bracketed cornices and the beautiful, lacy cast iron double porch.
Carved, paneled pilasters flank the doorways.  No. 235 received modern replacement entrance doors in the 1890s.  photo by Alice Lum

The block was lined on both sides with brick or brownstone residences, three and four stories tall, built for merchant class families.   But times would change and as the turn of the century approached, No. 237 had been converted to a rooming house.

On June 21, 1893 an advertisement in The Evening World touted “Handsome rooms, single and connected; all conveniences, $2.50 up; first class locality.”  The weekly rent of what would essentially be $60 in today’s money reflected the still-respectable neighborhood, and boarders were expected to provide references.  Another ad, the following week offered “Cosy rooms, singly or en suite; gas, bath; running water; first-class house.”
Close inspection shows that the unusual flame finials survive on the staircase newels -- photo by Alice Lum.

While boarders came at went on East 18th Street, a young man was causing heartbreak for his family in Ogden City, Utah.   The son of Dr. M. N. Graves, the town’s “City Physician” and “one of the best insurance examiners in the West,” according to The Sun, Leon Graves was said to have been “the black sheep of the family for many years.”

The 21-year old Graves had a friend, Clarence Barton, whose brother Charles worked in the Ogden City office of the Utah Loan and Trust Company.  On the day after Christmas in 1896 Clarence walked into his brother’s office in broad daylight and stole $5,200.  Barton and Graves divided the money and fled to Walla-Walla, then to New York City.

Barton traveled under his real name; Leon Graves preferred an alias, going by the names of Leon Johnson and Andrew Johnson.  The pair arrived in New York on April 8, 1897 and exactly four days later were arrested by Central Office detectives.  The crooks hired the legal team of Robert S. Clark and Edward A. Scott to fight the extradition proceedings.  The attorneys got them released on a technicality.

Barton left New York immediately; but Graves stayed on.  He had his mail delivered to Scott & Clark’s office and he audaciously engaged the lawyers again, this time to file suit against the Utah Loan and Trust Company for false imprisonment.

Within a few weeks Leon Graves was living in a furnished room in No. 237 East 18th Street—using money for rent borrowed from Clark & Scott.  Upon Graves’ suggestion, attorney Scott had asked Senator Cannon of Utah and an attorney from Ogden City named Rogers to handle the Utah end of the case.  The men were expected in New York to consult with Scott about the matter.

The Sun described Graves as looking older than his 21 years.  “He is of medium height, slightly built, and has a sallow complexion.  He dresses fairly well, and has a nervous, jerky way of talking.”  As his lawyers already knew, he was a thief and a cad.  Nevertheless, Edward Scott foolishly flashed his wealth.  The newspaper said of him “Scott wears a great many diamonds.”

The dastardly Graves laid a plan.

On July 14, 1897 he was at the law offices and left around noon.  At 3:00 Scott received a note, written on a Western Union Telegraph blank, asking him to come up to the 18th Street house at 8:30 that night.  The note said that Senator Cannon and the attorney would be there to confer about the case.

But Scott had another appointment that night.  He wrote back to have the men come to the office the following morning.  Graves arrived alone the next day, saying that Cannon and Rogers had been delayed by a storm.

“But I want you to come up to my house at 8 o’clock tonight,” he told Scott.  “My landlady wants to get a divorce on the quiet, and as she has four or five thousand in the bank there’ll be a good fee in it for you.”

Scott was beginning to become suspicious and made an excuse.  As Grave left the office, he off-handedly asked law student, Thomas Gibney who worked as a clerk, when his payday was.  When Gibney told him it was Saturday, Graves invited him to come up to his place on Saturday night.

Unrelenting, Graves was back in the office on Friday morning.  He said “Scott, there’s a friend of mine in town that wants to see you.  Now, he’s up at my place and I want you to come up about 9 o’clock and meet him.”

Scott made the excuse that he was going with Clark to look at pianos.   Clark had recently married and was in the market for a piano for his bride.  Since Scott was engaged to the daughter of a piano manufacturer, he was going to introduce Clark to his future father-in-law.

“Piano!” said Graves.  “Are you looking for a bargain, Mr. Clark?”

Clark admitted that he was and Graves said that in his room in the 18th Street house was “a fine Steinway” which his landlady was willing to sell.  He called it “a rare opportunity.”

Clark indeed wanted both a piano and a bargain and he agreed to meet Graves at the 18th Street house at 9:00 that night.  It was a major lapse in judgment on Clark’s part.

Finally, after unrelenting attempts, Graves had succeeded in luring a victim to his room.

Clark left his Brooklyn home at 8:00 and arrived in front of No. 237 East 18th Street around 9:00 or 9:15.  “Graves was at the stoop waiting for me,” he later recalled.  “He told me that his room was on the third floor, and that the piano was there and we’d have to go up to see it.”

Clark led the way up the stairs, going slowly because it was “pitch dark.”  Not until they reached the third floor did it occur to him to ask Graves why the gas lights were not lit.  Graves said he had just come home and hadn’t “had no chance to light up.”  He asked Clark for a match and the attorney put his hand into his pocket, just as they were crossing the threshold into Graves’ room, to retrieve one.  At that moment Clark received a tremendous blow to the head, just behind his right ear.

“The blow was a clumsy one, and I could tell, dazed as I was, that it was a glancing one.  I struggled to keep my sense, but I couldn’t keep my feet, and reeled and fell.  Then I felt two men raining blows on my head and body.”

Although Clark could not see in the dark, he knew one of the men was Graves.  When the lawyer struggled, one of the men jumped on him with both feet.  Clark realized that if he were to survive this attack, he would have to pretend to be dead or unconscious.

“Then I lay very still, for, dazed as I was, I realized the value of keeping my senses.  It was lucky that I did, for a moment later one of the men was feeling in the dark for my mouth.  When he found it, he put a bottle there and began pouring a stinging acid on my face.”

Graves and his cohort were attempting to murder the attorney by making him ingest acid.

“I felt then that they were trying to kill me, but I didn’t dare move, so I shut my teeth tightly and fixed my tongue against them, so as to prevent the acid going down my throat.  The stuff was like fire, it trickled down my cheeks and neck and a quantity of it went down my throat.  I thought I should go crazy with the agony of it.”

When the bottle was finally taken away, Clark heard Graves say “Let’s do him.”

Clark realized that Graves needed him dead, since he knew him.  The other man hesitated, saying “Let’s see what’s he’s got, first.”

As Clark played dead, they rolled him over and searched his pockets.  They removed $145 in bills and a dime, a diamond ring, his watch and chain, and a diamond pin.  Just as Clark was expecting to be shot or stabbed, someone made a noise in the hallway.  The men both jumped up to listen at the door.

Scott grabbed the opportunity.  “The villains then thought I was dead,” he told reporters later.  He jumped to his feet, ran to an open window and, holding an upended lounge as a sort of shield in case of gunfire, he yelled out the window “Murder! Police!”

Clark told the court later “When I saw policemen coming up the street and heard Graves and his companion running away I felt safe and collapsed utterly.” 

While Clark passed out on the floor below the window, the drama continued downstairs.  Policemen Christopher E. Mackney and John Magner ran into the house to find the halls full of people.   The boarders told them that two men had just come down the stairs and run out through the rear door into the yard.   The officers rushed out just in time to see the crooks scaling a fence. 

The Sun reported “The men didn’t stop when ordered to.  The policemen waited for them to show up on the next fence, meaning to shoot, but they were too cautious.  Policeman Mackney then went out in the street, ran two doors below to 233, and through that house to the rear yard.  People shouted from rear windows that the men were in that yard so Magner went up and joined his fellow officer, and with drawn pistols they made a search of the yard.”

The policemen found the two men crouched behind a grape arbor in the corner of the yard.  Faced with drawn pistols, Graves and his accomplice, John F. Ryan, surrendered with their hands up.  All of Clark’s property was found on Graves.

Later detectives searched the room Graves had rented in No. 237 East 18th Street.   They found a two-foot long bar of solder which Ryan had used to knock Clark in the head and a silk handkerchief in the bureau drawer tied with 100 “swanshot” to make a bludgeon.  There was also a letter from his mother telling him of the work of the Ogden City Christian Endeavor Society “and telling him to be a good boy.”

In the grape arbor at No. 233 the police found two loaded 44-calibre English bulldog revolvers.

The following week, on July 17, the evidence was presented to Magistrate Crane of the Yorkville Court.  Also in the courthouse was lawyer Robert S. Clark “with his broken head and with burns caused by some acid on the lower part of his face, on his neck, and inside his mouth,” as described by The Sun.  The New York Times said his face was “considerably bruised and scarred” and “his head was bandaged on account of a scalp wound.”

“Graves,” said the newspaper, “looked very sulky as he gave his name and address…Ryan, who is a low-browed, tough-looking citizen, the direct opposite of his companion, said he was 22 years old and a fireman.  He declined to say where he lived.”

Edward Scott appeared as well, and pleaded with the judge “I am sure that unless the very highest possible bail is placed on these men they will secure it and then skip out.  I beg of the court to make the bonds as heavy as possible.”

Magistrate Crane agreed.  “This is certainly the most daring crime that has taken place in New York in years.  Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard were no more audacious robbers than you two men.  What have you got to say to this charge?”

“Not guilty!” they both responded.  They were held on $5,000 bail each.  To enforce his innocence, Graves revealed that he and Ryan had planned to rob the banking firm of Mecklen Brothers at Warren and Greenwich Streets, but changed their minds.

“He [Ryan] told me it would be an easy thing to rob it, saying that between 12 and 1 or 1 and 2 in the afternoon there would only be one of the firm in, and that all I had to do was to reach over and grab the bills and get away.  I visited the banking place several times.”

Graves felt that the fact that they never went through with the  bank heist enforced his innocence.  “We didn’t rob the bank.  At 8 o’clock last night Clark came to my room.  Ryan was there.  We didn’t use any acid on him, nor did we assault him in any way.”


Nevertheless, before the month was up both men changed their pleas to guilty.  On August 1, 1897 The New York Times reported that “John f. Ryan and Leon Graves, who assaulted and robbed Lawyer Robert S. Clarke of Brooklyn July 16, after luring him into a house at 237 East Eighteenth Street, were sentenced to eighteen years in Sing Sing at hard labor.  Both pleaded guilty, and when Justice Newburger called them up for sentence he told them that their crime was one of the boldest and most outrageous he had ever known.”
photo by alice Lum

The short period of notoriety for the brownstone house at No. 237 East 18th Street came to an end.  In 1905 the boarding house was purchased by Mrs. A. N. Jansen and in 1919 it underwent a remarkable upgrade—the installation of electricity.

On August 31 of that year The Sun remarked that “The use of electricity for illuminating purposes in old tenement buildings is not exactly a novelty, but its introduction into the oldest types and even those of the more modest sort is regarded as an indication of a wholesale attempt on the part of the owners to bring their buildings up to date and to make them attractive to tenants of the better class.”

The article mentioned No. 237 East 18th Street as one of the old houses that was receiving electric lighting in the hallways.  The article said that “It is the usual experience of the lighting company that as soon as electricity is once brought within the building it is only a matter of a few months before wiring is laid into the individual apartments.”
photo by Alice Lum

The electric company was right and, sure enough, today No. 237 indeed has electricity in every room.  The handsome brownstone fa├žade has sadly lost its Gothic eyebrows; but save for replacement windows, remains largely intact.  The quiet appearance of the old Victorian belies the astonishing story of robbery, attempted murder and horrific assault that played out within a top floor room.

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