Monday, July 26, 2021

The Scene of an Infamous Murder--the Lost 782 Eighth Avenue


A teenaged girl poses in the street in front of the infamous building.  To the far left a sliver of Ladder Company No. 4's fire house can be seen.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

In the years just prior to the Civil War, the family of W. Humprey lived in the four-story house at 782 Eighth Avenue.  He was the sexton of the Central Park Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street.  The handsome brick-faced Italianate house belied the neighborhood in which it sat.   Sitting just south of 48th Street, it was squarely within the crime-filled district known as Hell's Kitchen.

By the late 1860's the dwelling was being operated as a boarding house, with tenants seemingly never staying more than a few months at a time.   By the mid-1880's the ground floor had been altered to house Gustave Koopman's "eating house."

Frederick George Penley stopped in the restaurant on the afternoon of December 28, 1886.  Penley lived just over a block away at 355 West 49th Street and was a teacher in the Protestant Episcopal Orphan Home.  No one ever saw Penley  again after he left Koopman's restaurant.  

Around the turn of the century the restaurant was converted to a store where the Tiger Cycle Works Co. sold not only motorcycles, but phonographs.   Sun Leung, a Chinese immigrant, leased the building and ran the Sun Leung Chinese Restaurant from the second floor.  He operated the upper two floors as a rooming house.

Expectedly, the tenants were less than refined.  On June 3, 1903 a very angry Mary Jane Fitzgerald arrived here, "trying to serve a subpoena on her grandson, Edmund Schwartz," said The Standard Union.  The encounter did not go smoothly.  Mary Jane Fitzgerald was arrested, her grandson's "partner" alleging "she was creating a disturbance."

Elise (known as Elsie) Sigel was the granddaughter of Civil War hero General Franz Sigel.  She attended the unveiling of his bronze equestrian statue in Riverside Park at 106th Street in October 1907.  Like many well-bred young women, she was involved in mission work downtown.  She and her mother focused on the Chinatown district.

Elsie and her mother volunteered their services to this mission in Chinatown.  from the collection of the Library of Congress. 

By the early part of 1909 Elsie became romantically involved with a young Chinese man, Leung Lim, whom she met through her mission work.  His English name was William L. Leon.  The Sun said Leon "was well known to missionaries in this city."  She was open regarding the relationship and had a photograph of him in her room.

Elsie left home on July 9, but never returned.  Three days later her parents received a telegram from Washington that read, "Will be home Sunday evening.  Don't worry.  Elsie."

During the search for Elsie, "One or two persons told the detectives that they had seen Miss Siegel with the young Chinaman at a Chinese theatre about a week or two ago," said The Sun on June 19.  

William L. Leon was the nephew of Sun Leung and occupied a room on the top floor of 782 Eighth Avenue.  The Sun reported, "His room adjoined that of Chung Sin on the rear.  Chung Sin is another Chinaman of the religious type, and he apparently was sharing his quarters with Leon."

At the same time that Elsie went missing, so did Chung Sin and William Leon.  Sun Leung tried to enter his nephew's room, but found it locked.  And then, on June 18 "he noticed a little stream of something like blood trickling under the door of Leon's room," according to The Sun.  He went to the West 47th Street police station, telling the lieutenant that he feared Leon had been murdered.

What the two responding policeman found was reported as far away as Australia.  On June 22, The Bunbury Herald ran the headline "Chinatown Horror" and reported "The body of Elsie Sigel, who was engaged in missionary work and Sunday-school teaching in Chinatown, New York, has been found in a trunk in a room over a Chinese restaurant in that quarter of the city.  The occupier was a Chinaman, who is supposed to have murdered her."

The gruesome crime scene photo was released years afterward.  Sunday News, June 10, 1923

The trunk had been tied with several yards of rope.  Elsie's body had been crammed inside, wrapped in a blanket.  "About the woman's neck was a noose made of the same awning rope with which the body was tied.  The noose had been pulled so tightly that it was buried in the flesh and the Coroner thought the neck might also have been broken," reported The Sun.  Elsie was nearly nude.  An autopsy found "considerable poison" in her stomach.

Because of the interracial relationship, Elsie Siegel was considered a coquette by many.   Sunday News, June 10, 1923

Although it was Sun Leung who had alerted police, he was arrested on June 22 under suspicion of involvement.  The same day Chung Sin was apprehended near Amsterdam, New York.  A dragnet for William Leon spread across the nation.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and all the large cities are being watched, and steps have been taken to capture him should he attempt to cross the boundary to Victoria, B.C., and take a ship there for China."

The New-York Tribune was less flattering in describing Leon than The Sun had been.  "He is known to Chinatown as a cheap Chinese gambler and confidence man who seldom had any money and then only in small sums."  Unfortunately for investigators, the arrest of Chung Sin initially brought no leads.  He insisted he knew nothing about the murder and had left town to take a new job.  (He could not provide details about that position.)

Leung Lim, aka William Leon.  Sunday News, June 10, 1923

Under intense questioning, Sin changed his story.  On September 24 the New-York Tribune reported that he, "swore that on the morning of June 10 he saw the body of Elsie Sigel, with a cord tightened about her throat on Ling's [sic] bed, and that he later saw Ling [sic] put it in a trunk."  On the basis of his testimony Leung Lim, aka William Leon, was indicted for Elsie Sigel's murder.  There was still, however, the issue of finding him.

No doubt tens of thousands of people were shocked when they picked up their newspapers on September 10 to find that police were treating Elsie's murder as a cold case.  The Sun reported, "That the authorities have given up hope of capturing Leung Lim, the murderer of Elsie Sigel, was shown yesterday when Chung Sin, Leung's roommate, who has been held in the House of Detention in heavy bail as a material witness, got his liberty."  And, indeed, the accused murderer was never found and the case never solved.

The same year that Elsie Sigel was murdered, the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal reported that the Tiger Cycle Works Co. "will handle the Royal and Reliance motorcycles during 1909."  The space was soon home to The Aero Wheel Co., which supplied even more surprising merchandise, considering the location.  An advertisement in Aeronautics on August 1912 read, "Builds all kinds of wheels for Aeroplanes and Monoplanes.  Standard or special sizes at very low prices."

In 1928 architect A. Catsanoa was hired to renovate the old building.  There was now a restaurant on the first floor, a beauty parlor on the second and third, and one apartment on the top floor.  Exactly ten years later architect J. M. Berlinger remodeled the building.   He gave it a new storefront and installed a large show window at the second floor.  There were now one apartment each on the third and fourth floors.

via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In the mid- to late-1940's the ground floor store was home to the Jazz Record Corner.   The venerable building survived into the 21st century when it and the rest of the block--other than Ladder Company No. 4's station house--were demolished for the 51-story The Biltmore apartment building.

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  1. Speaking of bodies in trunks, have you covered Dorian Corey's building? I'm not sure if it's prewar.

    1. The story of Corey's storing a mummified corpse for 15 years is riveting. But I don't know the address where it happened.

    2. I've read that the apartment was on West 140th St - possibly at St Nicholas Ave. That hardly pins it down

  2. Why is Fred Penley mentioned??

    1. Most people find his uncanny and unsolved disappearance of interest