Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Mysterious Death of a Civil War Veteran. Final Entry

MARCH 30, 1902
Coincides With Coroner Edmonds' Verdict That Death Was Accidental
Undertaker Hamp's Statements Given A Great Deal of Weight in Chief Deidrich's Investigation
No Bruise On Back of Neck.

  After a thorough investigation the new South Side police force is convinced that John Stark, the aged resident of Hanover street who was found dead in a ditch near his home recently, did not come to his death through foul play, notwithstanding the strong suspicion which prevailed that he was killed with robbery as the motive.

 Chief Deidrich says that information received from undertaker Hamp was of much assistance in the investigation of the case. Before the body was embalmed Mr. Hamp says that the water was pumped from Stark and an analysis of the same showed that Stark had been drinking cider and beer.  

 When rubbed, the mark, which was distinctly visible on Stark's neck when he was taken from the water, disappeared completely. The Chief now believes that what was first taken for a bad bruise was caused by the color soaking from the man's hat while he lay in the ditch. The rim of the hat rested on his neck when the body was discovered. 

 Confirmation was also secured in the district where Stark was last seen alive which Chief Deidrich says lead him to believe beyond a doubt that the aged Tonawandan was under the influence of liquor and while endeavoring to reach home, lost his bearings and, stumbling into the ditch, drowned. The police investigated the ditch and found it full of roots. These roots the police think would make it very difficult for a man in an intoxicated condition to extricate himself.  

Let's keep the facts straight.  Here's what really happened:

   It was a dark and stormy night.  A tottering drunk middle-aged man leaving a bar, who still lived with his 80-year old parents despite being a wealthy landowner and collecting a military pension for surviving a war fought some 30 years previous, slipped in the mud, fell face down into a few inches of muddy water and drowned.  There were no creeping assassins or burglars lurking in the night to bludgeon an unsuspecting man for his money. There was no stolen gold or silver, or beating, or any of that nonsense.  The poor man's bereaved family was in denial, and insisted that an investigation be conducted into his "murder" despite the obvious evidence, or lack of it. This was a scandal that ran for almost a week.

 ...Rather anti climactic, eh?  Welcome to the overblown world of sensationalist journalism that was rampant during the 19th century.  Keep in mind, this was front page headline news!  A drunk man drowning in a puddle was the most exciting thing that happened in this town.  It only leads me to wonder what the professional level of this "Special police investigation team" was, too. The police continued to ignore the medical advice of a man who examines dead people every day of his life, and brought out the dogs for a wild goose chase after an enemy that didn't exist.  While the poor Stark family must have been visited by many journalists, investigators and detectives, and no doubt people were flocking from miles around to pry in on their personal lives or complain about disturbing the peace. Here the terrified residents of a peaceful factory town in New York were scared witless by the thought of an invisible man creeping up on them as they strolled outside at night, hounding their every footstep and darting in the shadows, waiting for the moment to strike! 

But in some small way, it was easier to believe such stories in the days before things like the FBI and DNA testing.  Forensics methods at this time were either primitive or nonexistent. And usually, an undertaker or mortician's word as to how a person died was the final word. But in an age before medical malpractice, health insurance claims and all this liability stuff no one questioned the doctor, because he was a doctor.  Although in this case, we can reasonably assume that what little medical evidence there was painted an accurate picture of how the unfortunate man expired.  A picture that was nonetheless ignored by the local law enforcement, I might add! And the reporting is so full of attention-grabbing headline phrases like 'Still A Mystery,' and 'Foul Play' and my personal favorite: 'Foully Dealt With!'

A very bizarre story and situation, but an underwhelming conclusion.

The moral of today's story, ladies and gentlemen?

Don't believe everything you read! 

1 comment:

  1. Good story. I would think that every instance of untoward behavior reinforced the pervailing sentiment of the time that nothing good can come from an overindulgence in alcohol. But nearly every news story that I read in antique papers dramatized the ennui, which is what makes them so attractive today!