Combing through newspaper archives and crime files from the past are a frequent source of inspiration to me. If an interesting article or crime comes along, I am ready, armed with Google, Wikipedia, plus an arsenal of every available academic and news database NYU has to offer. I attack the case and investigate with gusto, like a hard drinking private eye whose been framed up for his partner’s murder. Unfortunately, sometimes even the vast array of research tools at my disposal are not enough to uncover the answers to questions raised by what materials are available, and cases that may have closed over a hundred years ago, remain open in my mind. This story is based entirely on contemporary newspaper accounts – the only sources I’ve been able to find as of this writing…
On the night of July 22, 1911, Adolph Stern was working in the front of his uncle’s jewelry store at 189 6th Ave, on the corner of 13th St. At approximately 9:30 PM, a red taxi cab pulled up to the northeast corner of the intersection across from the store. As two elevated trains approached the section of track overhead, two men got out of the car and rushed across the street to the store’s display window. Using the passing trains to cover the noise, one of the men smashed the window and grabbed a tray of diamond rings while the other man stood watch near the door of the store.
Stern was not far from the window and heard the crash. He rushed out the door to the sidewalk, where he was promptly shot in the chest by the man standing guard. Stern’s uncle, Jacob Jacoby, rushed from the back room just in time to see Stern fall backwards through the threshold of the store. By the time Jacoby reached the door, the assailants were already back in the red taxi, speeding west down 13th street and his nephew was dead. The entire crime had taken all of 60 seconds. It soon became known as the Taxicab Murder.
Because the daring robbery took place on a heavily trafficked, well-lit corner, in full view of dozens of potential witnesses, at first police had difficulty deciding whether it was committed by the most idiotic of amateurs or the most cunning of professional criminals. However, after the initial investigation turned up few clues and fewer leads, they realized the “Taxicab Murder” had been part of a well-planned and carefully calculated robbery.
While many people were around, few actually witnessed the shooting. Those who did, described the man who pulled the trigger as short, about 5 foot 6 inches, and wearing dark clothes, but couldn’t give any more than these meager details.
Despite putting every available man on the case – a full 350 detectives – police had no luck in bringing in a solid lead until a few months later in September, when 17-year-old Beatrice Wolfe and her uncle, Sam Webberman came forward with information. Over the summer, Ms. Wolfe had made the acquaintance of a chauffeur and part-time street-tuff named William Demarest at a picnic. Perhaps trying to impress her, he revealed that a friend of his had done the shooting in the “taxicab murder mystery.” Less than impressed by this information, Ms. Wolfe told her uncle, who then brought her to the police.
Demarest claimed the shooter to be Martin Garvey, a 24-year-old porter, who lived on Leroy St. and had a 1907 conviction for grand larceny. He was short and stocky with a swarthy face and peculiar protuberant eyes that seemed to “pop” out of his head. He was a member of the Neighbors’ Sons Club, a fraternal organization that was centered in Greenwich Village and held some influence in 9th Ward politics. It was also the local club most known by police for shooting up the clubhouses of rival groups.
The eyewitnesses who had given the initial descriptions of the shooter all immediately identified Garvey as the man who pulled the trigger, suddenly remembering his creepy pop-eyes. One witness, a Civil War veteran said, “I could never forget the face of the man who killed Stern. Those protruding eyes will ever be in my memory.” Another stated, “I’d know him anywhere. I never could forget those eyes nor how they looked when his revolver was discharged and Stern fell.”
What makes these identifications strange and somewhat suspect, is the fact that none of the witnesses had included mention of this distinguishing pop-eyed characteristic in their initial descriptions that were made public at the time of the crime. Whether or not this early omission was noticed by anyone is not recorded in any of the newspaper accounts. Did they simply forget to mention it or did they just not get a very good look at the shooter’s face?
The case for the defense was flimsy at best. Garvey initially claimed he couldn’t remember his whereabouts on the night in question and that he first learned about the murder by reading about it in the papers. His alibi at the trial however, which was corroborated by a half dozen members of the Neighbors’ Sons Club, was that he was at Nolan’s Saloon on the corner of Bleecker and Bank St. and that they all learned about the murder just an hour after it happened when two men entered the bar talking about the crime.
Several witnesses called by the defense were known criminals pulled up from the Tombs to testify, including one who claimed that on the night of the murder, he ran into a pal of his, Dick Bell, a notorious crook, wearing five giant diamond rings. After this revelation, the witness tried to really send it home, claiming, that when he saw Bell, he was very “excited and his eyes bulged out of his head.”
The defense even tried to pull what, in legal circles, is known as “the old switcheroo.” On the day eyewitnesses took the stand to identify Garvey on the record, Garvey’s brother, a dead ringer, right down to the popping bug-eyes, sat in the defendant’s seat beside the prison guard, while Garvey sat on the other side of him with the defense counsel. Apparently attempting to confuse the witnesses, the fraternal doppelgangers even dressed alike, going so far as to be wearing identical lavender neckties. The ruse did not succeed however, and each of the five eyewitnesses brought to the stand was able to identify the correct Garvey brother.
Despite this, and the poorly cobbled together alibi, on the day the case was to go to jury, the defense counsel made a motion for dismissal, based on the grounds of reasonable doubt, claiming the alibi had not been disproved. In a move that shocked the prosecution, the judge actually agreed, stating, “It is a rule of mine, seldom broken, not to take into my hands the rendering of a verdict. I am not disposed to take from the jury its right to a full consideration of the evidence in these serious cases. But in this instance I am inclined to grant the motion of the defense. The evidence submitted in this court has certainly failed to remove the question of a reasonable doubt, and I therefore direct the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.” Garvey was thus acquitted of the crime and walked from the courthouse a free man. Several jurors came forward afterwards and said they would have found him guilty, had the judge not intervened. To date, no one has been convicted for the murder of Adolph Stern.
Had the prosecution really failed to remove reasonable doubt, even with five eyewitnesses of good character individually identifying Garvey? Or were Garvey’s 9th Ward political connections powerful enough to influence the judge? Conversely, had the eyewitnesses really just “forgotten” to mention the most obvious and identifiable characteristic of Martin Garvey or were police so certain that they had found “their man” they were willing to exert influence over witnesses in order to ensure a conviction?
Tammany influence was still strong at the turn of the century and police corruption was certainly not unheard of. It is tempting to make inferences based on both the available evidence and that which is tantalizingly beyond our reach. However, most circumstantial evidence does not hold up in court.
Resources like newspaper articles frequently raise questions that they are not able to answer, but they also drive us to dig deeper to find them elsewhere. Frequently these questions come as a result of contemporary societal norms that seem a strange context of events through our retrospective. Recorded events are facts, or at least they are supposed to be. The ways we view and interpret them are not. And while facts will always remain unchanged, our context and interpretation of them are in constant flux, influenced by the age in which we live. What seems to us to be corruption and intrigue may indeed have been a par for the course open and shut case in its own day. The questions we ask may come as a result of our present context, but the answers may remain hidden, even with the advantage of hindsight – and a well-stocked arsenal of academic search engines.