Friday, February 10, 2017

The Murder of Dr. Lovatt - No. 167 West 21st Street

An ugly scar testifies to the stylish cast iron balcony that graced the parlor level of the once-elegant merchant class home.

As the Civil War ended and New York slowly returned to normal, the 21st Street block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was still a respectable residential block.  The house at No. 167 was a commodious 25 feet wide--little different from some of the sumptuous mansions nearer Fifth Avenue.  But this house was built for an upper middle class owner, not a millionaire.

The Italianate-style  residence was three stories tall above the English basement--a significant story shorter than its grander counterparts.  And the eye-catching decorative lintels and cornice were precast and chosen from a catalog rather than custom-designed for the client.

Yet the house boasted features of an upscale residence.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows would have opened onto an ornate cast iron balcony, the entrance was trimmed in delicate rope carving, and the vestibule was fully paneled, for instance.

Hints of the architectural details survive in the entrance. 

And unlike the servants on Fifth Avenue, whose roles were individualized and jealously guarded (a cook and butler, for instance, would have been at the top of the domestic heap); those working at No. 167 did double- or triple-duties.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on October 14, 1867 sought "A First Class Cook, Washer and ironer in a private family."

By the last quarter of the century the neighborhood had changed.   Sixth and Seventh Avenues were now lined with commercial buildings and the high-class residents had moved northward.  By 1886 No. 167 was being operated as a boarding house.  It received a violation from City inspectors that year for an "imperfect chimney flue."

At a time when charlatans touted nostrums and tonics, Indian medicine doctors, sometimes called Indian remedy doctors, were appearing in cities throughout the nation.  Claiming to have learned natural healing from Native Americans in the West, they offered their patients what today would be called homeopathic treatments with a touch of magic.

One of these was Dr. Galen Wade Lovatt. Lovatt was 61 years old and, according to the New-York Tribune, "had gained notice in connection with what is called an 'Indian Vegetable Specific.'"  He and his wife of 23 years and their 18-year old teen-aged son arrived in New York in September 1893, and took rooms at No. 167 West 21st Street.  Lovatt's medical practice was suspect; but the activities of his landlady, Kate Gardner, were far more nefarious.

Although the lease of the boarding house was in the name of her mother, Mary McDowell, called Mother McDowell by the boarders, it was unmistakably run by Kate Gardner, "better known as Blonde Kate," according to the New-York Tribune.  Helping with hands-on operation was Solomon Lezinsky, called by The Evening World a "deformed chore-runner" or, worse, "Sol the Hunchback."  The Indianapolis News said "Solly's chiefest business was to 'work the growler,' [the 19th century term for a beer container] to run to and fro between the house and the corner saloon with a can--now empty, now full, of beer."

Other boarders were two out-of-work music hall actresses, Emma Broderick and Georgie Matthews, and Jack Connolly, who also went by the alias William Connery.  He had a record of arrests for burglary and robbery.  The Indianapolis News later described him as "a tall young man, with black hair and mustache.  He has a deep bass voice.  He was described to Mrs. Lovatt as 'Kate's former lover.'"  The Tribune added that he had "the manner of a typical Sixty-avenue swaggerer."

Georgie described herself as a "singer and dancer" with the Rose Hill Folly Company.  Emma was a singer and according to her, her latest show had recently closed.  The New York Tribune described the women less flatteringly, saying they were "'actresses,' who wear rouge and diamonds,'" and The World brutally wrote "Miss Matthews has what is called occasionally, 'a wealth of golden hair.'  Miss Emma Broderick looks best by gaslight.'"

Most bizarre was Kate's pet, Chico, described as "a mouse-colored monkey of infinitesimal size of body...She shows her affection for him by filling her mouth with beer and placing her lips to his.  Then Chico drinks the beer."  Chico's legs were paralyzed, and the Indianapolis News noted "When he is placed in one position he can not move from it.  Kate generally puts him on the back of a chair.  There he sat, blinking like a shriveled, old gnome in a fur coat." 

The World called said Kate 'has no morals."  November 9, 1893 (copyright expired)

The first night the Lovatt family was in the house, Mrs. Lovatt realized they had made a mistake.  She later said that her husband had been "inveigled into a poker game with Mrs. McDowell" that night and that gambling took place every night.

The Indianapolis News commented later "The aged but unvenerable Mrs. McDowell did not increase Mrs. Lovatt's confidence in her surroundings...Her gray hair always was disheveled.  Her shoes were run down at the heels.  She seemed to fear to bathe; her dress was slovenly.  She had an insatiable love for poker and keno; at night she developed an insatiable thirst for beer.  Her jaws were sunken, her nose was hooked, her shoulders were stooped.  She could swear like a trooper, and the stories she listened to would bring a blush to the cheek of a marble statue."

But gambling was by far not the only thing that made Mrs. Lovatt realize the place was "not respectable."  She said "Men would come in at 11 o'clock at night and women would follow, and there would be carousing all night."

The Lovatt's son, Will, was also disturbed by Kate Gardner's behavior.  When his father was cleaning his pistol in the parlor one afternoon, Kate snatched it.  When the doctor pressed her to return it, she became angry and put it in a sideboard drawer.

According to Will, "My father said to me, 'I'm afraid of these people.  Now, we must not let them keep that pistol.  I'll say to you that I am afraid you broke something about it.  You ask her for the pistol."

When Kate returned, she flew into a rage when Lovatt asked for his firearm.  "My father said he thought I had broken it, and she handed it to me and I took it to my room.  Kate shouted, 'Oh, keep the old thing--I don't want it,'" Will said.

The actress described her out-of-work circumstances as being "now at liberty."  November 9, 1893 (copyright expired)
According to Mrs. Lovatt "things grew so uncomfortable," that she found another boarding house and left with Will on October 14.  For some reason, according to The New York Times, "The doctor, however, insisted on staying."  It was a fatal mistake.

Two hours before they left, possibly while giving his wife cash, Lovatt showed her two rolls of bills from his trouser pockets.  The $700 was the equivalent of $19,000 today, and a dangerous stash in a den of unsavory characters.

Almost immediately after leaving, Mrs. Lovatt realized something was treacherously wrong.  A week later the New-York Tribune noted "Every day she tried to get speech with her husband, and each time the Gardner woman, a bleached blonde, with hard, gray eyes, refused her and her son admittance.  They watched and waited, but the doctor never appeared."

On the night of October 20 they tried again, this time with horrifying results.  A new boarder named Arthur Pender, came to the door.  The Tribune described him as "a theatrical agent, who carries his office in his hat."

Will recalled "My mother said, 'I'm looking for my husband.  You know they're keeping him in that house a prisoner.'  Mr. Pender said, 'Why, haven't you heard the news?'  When my mother asked what it was, Pender said, 'The Doctor has shot himself."

The following morning, The Times reported that Dr. Lovatt "attempted to commit suicide last evening at 167 West Twenty-first Street."  It added "When Mrs. Lovatt heard last night that her husband had shot himself she...bitterly denounced the landlady, a Mrs. McDowell."

Galen W. Lovatt died in the New-York Hospital later that day.  And very quickly the circumstances of his death appeared suspect.  According to the other boarders Lovatt had joined them for dinner in the basement dining room, then excused himself saying he would return.

The group then heard gunshots; but Kate told police everyone assumed the doctor "was shooting at mirrors" and "had not thought it worth her while even to go upstairs."  Nearly an hour elapsed before Solly summed Policeman Reagan to the scene.

There the officer found Lovatt "bleeding from the wound in the left temple, with dark, livid bruises on the jaw and eyes, and with only 10 cents out of the $700 which he had pocketed six days before."  There was a suicide note near the body that read:

At No. 167 West Twenty-first-st.--I have lived long enough in misery.  God forgive me for this last act.  I alone was the cause of my death, with the aid of a revolver.  Dr. G. Lovatt.

Investigators found it peculiar that the doctor would have been so insistent that no one else was involved in his death.  And both his wife and son pointed out that he always signed his name G. W. Lovatt, and never Dr. G. Lovatt.   Forensics later proved the handwriting was not his.

All parties were called to the Coroner's office on November 8 for an inquest--all except for Jack Connolly who had disappeared "for the country" the morning after the incident.  No one seemed to know exactly where in the country he had headed.  When Sol Lezinsky was asked "Did you know that Jack Connolly was a thief?" he replied "I did not.  He was a nice gentleman."

Furthermore, the house surgeon at New-York Hospital where the doctor died, Dr. Chambers, testified that "the black eyes and the bruises had been caused by a blow, and not by the force of the shot."  He also swore that the evidence proved "that the bullet wound could not have been self-inflicted."

Coroner M. C. Kenna deemed the case "clothed with suspicion," citing the disappearance of the $700, the "inattention of all the inmates after the shooting," and the disappearance of Connolly. 

By November 13 the case was classified as murder and the 21st Street house was under constant surveillance.  District Attorney McIntyre promised reporters "We have suspicions as to who did the deed, and all the machinery of the law is being used to fasten the crime on the person."

But despite the nationwide press coverage and the best efforts of detectives, the case was never solved.  And Kate may have taken her larcenous ways to the West.  On October 25, 1906 the Oklahoma newspaper The Beaver Herald reported on the "Territory vs. Kate Gardner" murder case.

Dr. Lovatt's was not the last violent death involving No. 167 West 21st Street.  Only two years later a boarder names James Pierson was found a block away at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 20th Street with his skull fractured.  His watch and more than $100 had been stolen.  He died in Bellevue Hospital a few days later.  On May 13, 1895 Deputy Coroner Donlin declared his attackers had struck him "with a sandbag."

In June 1920 the building's owners, U. S. Realty & Improvement Co., hired architect Jacob Fisher to convert the house to "store and offices."  The $2,000 worth of renovations included changing walls and floorplans; but did not go so far as to extensively alter the exterior.

Isaac Goldman and his brother Philip, ran their furrier shop on an upper floor here in 1929.  On August 21 three armed men rushed in and demanded money.  As Philip watched horrified, 20-year old Benjamin Tuckel shot his brother.  Fatally wounded, Isaac Goldman continued to wrestle with the gunman.  The robbers escaped down the exterior fire escape as Goldman tried to follow.  He died on the landing just outside his establishment.

In his flight, Tuckel threw his .38-calibre pistol to the ground.  Along with Philip Goldman's eye-witness testimony, it would be the evidence that condemned the murderer.  All three were found and arrested. When they appeared before Judge Nott on February 18, each pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree.  It seemed a slam-dunk for prosecutors.

But then at trial each one "insisted he had not done the shooting and had not even had a pistol," reported The New York Times on February 26.  But Philip Goldman was in court to point the finger at Tuckel.  He was sentenced to 45 yeas to life; accomplice George J. Guerrire, 23 years old, received 40 years to life; and 34-year old Albert Diamond got 35 years to life.

As the 21st Street block changed, No. 167 did not.  In April 1968 the former house became the first headquarters of Off Off Broadway Association.  The Times described it as being "modeled after such other cooperative groups as the League of Off Broadway Theaters and Producers, whose members present shows in intimate theaters, and the League of New York Theaters, representing Broadway producers and theater owners."

In 1974 the basement level was converted to an off-Broadway theater space, with offices in the upper floors.  Those offices, nevertheless, were not necessarily overly respectable.  In 1976 Downstairs Mailers operated here, offering its services to clients who did not want plain brown envelopes arriving at their home addresses.  "Use our Address--Confidential, Private...Highly Recommended," promised an advertisement.

Although the house is sorely abused and wears an indecisive mix of color schemes, little imagination is necessary to imagine scoundrels and actresses coming and going in 1893.

Today the scene of the unsolved 1893 murder still exhibits its faded Civil War period elegance behind a peeling coat of paint and an industrial fire escape.  Perhaps most amazingly, the double-hung eliptical arched windows survive after a century and a half.

photographs by the author

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