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! 

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Mysterious Death of a Civil War Veteran, Part 3

Tonawanda Evening News
March 29, 1902

Police Investigation Fails to Reveal Cause of Stark's Death.
Says It Was Accidental
But do Not Account For Dead Man's Presence In Such an Out of the Way Place
Bruise at Base of Skull
Relatives May Continue Investigation.

 The police department of the South Side has given out that after investigating the case thoroughly, the conclusion has been reached that John Stark, whose remains were found in a ditch Thursday morning, met death as the result of the accident. Chief O'Day as well as Coroner Edwards say they have found no marks of violence upon the body. Several persons who saw the remains when they were first taken from the ditch say that there was an ugly looking bruise on the back of the neck at the base of the skull. 
A sum of money, which the dead man was supposed to have had on his person cannot be accounted for. This fact with other mysterious features lead to the belief that Stark was followed from the saloon where he was last known to have been seen alive and foully murdered with robbery as the motive. 
It is said that the dead man's surviving relatives will continue in efforts to unravel the mystery of Stark's movements after he left the saloon and if there was foul play, the guilty parties will be apprehended.  

Remember this picture? It's actually of Charles Sumner being beaten by an angry man from South Carolina for his statements opposing slavery or secession. Or something like that.  
I just think it looks a lot like the crime described in the news story.

Don't you just love a scandal? The townfolk were just eating this stuff up. His family seemed to be in denial of the evidence, or lack of it, and still insisted he was murdered and robbed. So what really happened? Stay tuned for the conclusion to this case tomorrow!  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Mysterious Death of a Civil War Veteran, Part 2

March 28, 1902

Has Been Detailed to Investigate the Stark Case.
No Inquest To Be Held.
Coroner Edmonds has Decided That in His Opinion the Dead Man Met His Death as the Result of an Accident
Other Theories.

Chief of Police O'Day this morning detailed a special officer to try to solve the mystery of the death of John Stark who was found dead in a ditch in a field near the Eastern Lumber Company's mill yesterday morning.  The whole police force received instructions to be on the alert for evidence which might prove whether the unfortunate man met his death by foul or accidental means.  The case is considered by all to be one of the most mysterious that has ever come to the notice of the local authorities. If the dead man died accidentally, the circumstances were most peculiar.  The whole case is baffling the authorities and others and the most intense interest is being taken in developments. Residents of the neighborhood where the body was found are intensely perked up over the circumstances of the fatality and the general opinion among them is that Stark was foully dealt with.

The spot where Stark was found is some distance from the course usually taken by persons passing that way.  Whether the man was murdered for money which he was supposed to have carried, or whether he wandered from his direction, got caught in underbrush and falling, drowned in the pool of water, is a subject which causes difference of opinion between the authorities and the relatives of the dead man. 

Coroner H. M. Edmonds after making a thorough search of the locality, declared it to be his positive opinion that the man was drowned. Mrs. Stark, the aged mother of the dead man, and Peter Stark, his brother, are inclined to think there was foul play. 

Coroner Edmonds is so confident that murder had not been committed that he decided that an inquest was unnecessary.  

"I don't see how my son could have drowned in so little water, " said Mrs. Stark.  "He never drank to excess and he was strong and healthy and perfectly able to take care of himself. He never kept money about him, yet it is possible that someone might have thought he did. He sold some property last week and also sold a house to his brother-in-law, Robert Behring. This may have led to the belief that he carried money around with him."

"I think that my brother's death should at least be given the benefit of a thorough investigation" said Peter Stark. "It is improbable that he would have drowned in a puddle of water."

Coroner Edmonds said, "There is no doubt that the man simply lost his way in crossing the field and fell into the water and drowned. I have learned that he was much influenced by a little drinking, some of his friends say that several glasses of beer would intoxicate him. After looking over the ground thoroughly I am certain that an inquest is unnecessary."

Monkiewicz, the saloonkeeper, said Stark entered the saloon unaccompanied and that he left alone.  "He only drank one glass of beer here," he said. "He appeared sober and there was no one about here whom I would have suspected of following him." 

The ground surrounding the place where the body was found was gone over carefully by a score of interested persons. The field is a wide one filled with marshy grass and pools of water. 

The action of Chief O'Day in detailing an officer to conduct a special investigation assures that the police department will probe the case to the bottom if there is any possibility of finding the guilty parties who may have committed the crimes of robbery and murder or if it may be found that it was all an accident as is believed by some.

Stark's remains were embalmed and removed to his late home last night. The funeral will take place from St. Francis' Church, Sunday afternoon at 2 o'clock.

...So was he murdered or did he die by accident in an unusual and unfortunate situation?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Mysterious Death of a Civil War Veteran.

"The Mysterious Death of John Stark"

The following curious headline made the front page of the Tonawanda Evening News on March 27, 1902:
Wealthy South Sider Thought to have been Held up and FOULLY DEALT WITH! Last Night...
Body Carried Some Distance and Thrown into Ditch.
Spot Where Body Was Found in a Lonely Unfrequented Locality near the Eastern Lumber Company's Mill.
Remains Were Discovered by Chance This Morning by Boys Who Were Frog Hunting.
Last Seen About 8:30 Last Night.
Was Unmarried and Leaves Two Sisters and a Brother.

John Stark, a veteran of the Civil War, was found dead in a field near the foot of Stark Street about 9 o'clock this morning and there is every indication that he was foully murdered.  It is thought that he was held up on his way home last night and after being made the victim of a cowardly attack his body was carried to the lonely, out of the way spot, where it was found by boys who were frog hunting.  There is a bruise on the back of the dead man's neck just at the base of the brain. The bruise has all the appearances of having been caused by a blunt instrument and is serious enough to have caused instant death.

The dead man was 58 years of age. He left his home on Hanover Street where he lived with his mother about 7:30 last evening. He said that he was going up-town to buy some tobacco and would return shortly. His mother thought it very strange that her son did not return last night, as he had never been known to remain over-night before, and this morning she initiated a search of the barn and other out buildings. No trace of the missing man was found until some boys reported that he was lying in a ditch as above related. The body was face downward and was partially hidden by rushes and brush as though a hasty attempt had been made to conceal it.

Stark recently sold valuable property and was reported to be worth about $30,000. His assailants no doubt thought he carried part of his wealth on his person and robbery was probably the motive for the dark deed.  Coroner Edmonds was at once notified and took charge of the remains which are now at Hamp's undertaking rooms. Seventy-six cents was found in the dead man's clothes. 

The spot where the body was found is at night-time a dark and unfrequented locality. It is several hundred feed [feet sic] from the nearest street and the Lehigh Valley railroad runs between it and Hanover Street. If Stark fell into the ditch, as some think, it is impossible to account for his presence near the spot. There is nothing nearby which might have caused the wound on the back of his neck by his falling and striking upon it. 

Stark was unmarried and leaves besides his mother, two sisters, Mrs. Robert ----[Name withheld for privacy] of Niagara Street and Mrs. Frank ----- of G------- Street, also a brother, Peter Stark of Hanover Street.

Stark was last seen alive about 8:30 last night when he bought a glass of beer in the saloon of Victor Monkrewicz on Fillmore Avenue.  $5.65 which had been paid to Stark on Tuesday cannot be found and it is thought that his assailants secured it.

This contemporary drawing, I imagine, is roughly how a reader of this article at the time may have fearfully pictured the crime as it happened. {Extra credit if you know what is really a picture of-- some clues have been removed}:

This story runs continuously every day in the Tonawanda Evening News until the mystery of his death is solved. I imagine that residents of the town of Tonawanda were terrified by the thought of an unknown assailant or group of ruffians, out to bludgeon wealthy townspeople to death in the night and raid their lifeless corpses for gold and silver. They were probably staying indoors and locking their windows at night, or sleeping with rifles under their beds.  

The result of the police investigation over the following week paints a very different picture of what happened to this unfortunate man.  Want to find out the truth? Follow my journal for updates as the mystery unfolds!