In the Shadow of Gotham
While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer,
nothing is more
difficult than to understand him.
Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dobson, New York
Tuesday, November 7, 1905
he scream that pierced the dull yellow November sky was preternaturally high-pitched. Its sound carried effortlessly, echoing through a neighborhood of Queen Anne Victorians into the barren woods beyond, fading only as it descended toward the Hudson River. Those who heard the sound mistook it for that of an animalperhaps the call of a screech owl, maybe the shrill cry of a loon. No one believed it to be human.
I did not hear it myself. I can only describe it as others did, after the fact.
But memory can be an odd thing. The description of that inhuman sound, relayed countless times, took root in my mind. It played upon my imagination, creating an impression so vivid it came to seem authentic. I know all too well that memory sometimes refuses to let die what we most want to forget. But now, I also know that memory can create something that never really existed. That is why this particular scream haunts me as surely as though I had been present, then and there, to hear it with my own ears. And I cannot mistake its origin: I know it is Sarah Wingate's dying cry, sounded just before her brutal murder.
News of her death came as the oversized grandfather clock in our office chimed five o'clock. My boss, Joe Healy, never one to stay a minute late, was putting on his coat, ready to leave for the day.
"You'll lock up when you're done?" Joe tucked his scarf around his neck.
I was at my desk finishing the paperwork for an arrest I'd made that morning.
Thomas Jones had shown up for work at the Conduit and Cable factory with a hot temper and liquor in his belly, an unhappy combination that led him to sucker punch his foreman.
"Of course," I said, turning over the final page in the file. "Only Tuesday and our third assault this week." I blotted my pen before I signed and dated the report. "At this rate, the local paper will proclaim it an epidemic and we'll have the women's temperance union on our doorstep. Though I'd say it was lucky the assailant in each case was drunk. Men who can't see straight rarely land a solid punch."
We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps clattering up the short flight of stairs that led to our office at 27 Main Street. I stiffened with a flash of foreboding, for no one ever rushed toward our headquarters. After all, the sort of serious crime that might lead anyone to need a police officer in a hurry tended to circumvent the sleepy village of Dobson, New York, at the turn of the century.
Charlie Muncie, the young man who served as village secretary and had taken charge of the building's sole telephone downstairs, brought a terse message from Dr. Cyrus Fields. He needed our immediate assistance at the Wingate home.
"Mrs. Wingate's home on Summit Lane?" Joe asked, frowning in puzzlement.
There was only one Wingate family in town but I understood why Joe was perplexed. The Wingate home was in the estate section of town, and Dr. Fields was not the preferred doctor of Dobson's wealthier residents. One of several local physicians who served in rotation at the county morgue, he also treated the blue-collar factory workers in neighborhoods along the waterfront. He partnered closely with us on calls involving domestic disputes or drunken brawls since, if the altercation were in progress, we could intervene more effectively than the portly but diminutive doctor. The affluent classes of Dobson preferred Dr. Adam Whittier, who catered to their whims with absolute discretion. While rumor had it their homes were not immune to violent disputes, they tended to handle such matters behind a wall of secrecy. The police, certainly, were never involved.
"Did Cyrus say what's happened?" Joe asked. A stout man in his early sixties with bushy white hair and a normally pleasant, ruddy face, today he glared at the young man as though it were his fault Joe's dinner would get cold.
"He says there's been murder done." Charlie whispered the words as though he were frightened to utter them.
In an instant, I recalled the reason why. His mother had worked for Mrs. Wingate as a housekeeper for years.
He would have practically grown up in the Wingate household. In fact, the one time I had met the elderly Mrs. Wingate, she had come by the village offices to vouch for Charlie's character and recommend him for the secretarial job he now held.
"Who's been murdered?" Joe's voice thundered more loudly than he must have intended.
"The doctor said it was a young lady. A visiting relative. But he gave no details." Charlie's face blanched. For a moment, I worried he might faint.
"He told you nothing more because your mother is fine. Not to worry." I patted his shoulder and tried to smile reassuringly. I knew Charlie was eighteen already, but right now, he seemed little more than a boy. "And not a word to anyone, okay? Not yet."
He whispered his agreement as I grabbed my coat and worn leather satchel. Joe and I then sprinted to the corner of Main and Broadway, where we hailed one of the waiting calashes that hovered near the trolley stop. It was not far to the Wingate house. However, it was situated at the top of a steep hilland we were in a hurry.
Once we were seated, I glanced over at Joe, the "chief" of our two-man force. Tight lines framed his mouth as he drew his oversized black wool coat closer to him in a futile attempt to ward off the icy gusts of wind from the Hudson River that buffeted the carriage.
"When did you last see a murder case in Dobson?" I asked. My voice was quiet so the driver would not hear.
"Why? You're worried I'm not up to it?" He bristled and gave me a withering look that I did not take personally. My hiring five months ago had been the mayor's doing, part of his plan to modernize Dobson's police resources by adding a younger man with newer methods. I was thirty years old and a seasoned veteran of the New York City Police Department's Bureau of Detectives, specifically the 7th precinct. But Joe had been Dobson's sole police officer ever since the police department was first created. After twenty-seven years on his own, he did not welcome the addition of a new partner, believing I was the replacement who would force him into retirement. His dark suspicions often strained our relationship.
It was several minutes before he spoke again, and when he did, his answer was grudging.
"In the winter of '93, a farmer was shot dead," he said. "We never solved it." He shrugged. "But we also had no more trouble of that sort. Always figured the culprit was someone from the man's past with a personal score to settle."
Then he looked at me sharply. "I'm sure you've seen your share of murder cases in the city. But maybe I should ask if you're sure you're up to it? You look a bit out of sorts."
I searched Joe's expression, looking for some indication that he knew more of my recent past than I had thought. But there was no sign. His question had reflected his own concerns; he had not expected it to hit a particular mark.
I swallowed hard before I said, "I'm fine," with more confidence than I actually felt. It was true that I had a weak stomach, especially for certain kinds of cases, and I feared this would prove to be one of them.
What Joe did not know was that I had come here this past May in search of a quieter existence with fewer reminders of Hannah, a victim of last year's General Slocum steamship tragedy. I was not alone in my grief; nearly every family in my Lower East Side neighborhood had lost someone that awful dayJune 15, 1904. For almost a full year following Hannah's death, she haunted me, particularly in cases where other young women met tragic, violent ends. I had planned to marry Hannah and build a life with herbut I had no desire to live with a ghost. That was why this job in Dobson, a small town seventeen miles north of the city, had seemed just the right opportunity: I might grieve quietly and rid myself of unwanted nightmares in a place where murders and violent deaths were not to be expected.
But still they came...and this one would test whether my rusty skillsand my weak stomachwere up to the task.
Behind us, the cragged cliffs of the Palisades loomed large over the Hudson River, colored in the faded oranges and yellows of late fall. The character of the neighborhood changed with each passing block; "hill and mill" was how the local townspeople described the division between the row houses and apartment flats nearer the riverbank and the imposing estates situated at the top of the village's rising landscape. Church's Corner marked the dividing line, an intersection with three churchesall Catholic, each distinguished solely by ethnicity, with one church for the Italians, one for the Irish, and still another for the Polish.
As the hills became even steeper, the homes became noticeably more capacious and ornate, some characterized by elegant stonework, others by latticed wood trim and dentil molding. The Wingate house was one of the statelier of these homes, situated on a particularly large expanse of land. It was a magnificent stone Victorian with a pink and gray mansard roof and an angular wraparound porch. On past occasions when I had visited this neighborhood, I had admired its majestic lawn and gardens. Today, it scarcely resembled the place I remembered, for the scene surrounding the house was one of complete chaos.
Dr. Fields was certainly inside, for Henry, the son he was grooming to take over his practice, was keeping several agitated neighbors off the Wingate porch. Two small white terriers were leashed to a stake in the middle of the lawn; they protested their restraints with ear-piercing yaps. And Mrs. Wingate herself, now approaching eighty years old, was seated on a straight-backed wooden chair in their midst. She looked cold, despite the fact that someone had brought her a warm wrap to protect her from the evening's increasing chill. She repeated a series of questions to no one in particular in an anxious, petulant voice.
"Why can't I go inside my own home?" "Won't anyone tell me what sort of accident there's been?" And most frequently of all, "Where's Abby?"
Joe and I rushed past all the confusion, hurrying toward the main porch and front door, where Henry acknowledged us with a brief, grave nod. Inside the entry hall, we found Dr. Fields organizing his equipment. Cyrus Fields was a short, middle-aged man who seemed to have boundless energy and a remarkable enthusiasm for each case he encountered. His wide face usually held a jovial expression, even when tending to the dead or dying. But today he appeared unsettled. Heavy lines marked his forehead and his full head of salt and pepper hair was uncharacteristically mussed.
He looked up, and when he recognized us, his relief was palpable.
"Thank god you're here," he sputtered. "In all my years, I've never seen anything quite like it...I just can't imagine why...or what kind of person..." And the normally garrulous doctor trailed off for lack of words.
"It's all right," I said calmly. "Why don't you take us to her?"
"Of course. Where are my gloves?" He didn't mean ordinary winter gloves, but rather the cotton examination gloves he used for each new patient. They were behind him, on top of the black bag he had set on the floor. "Oh yes, here they are. Come then. We're headed upstairs."
We followed him as he began to ascend the giant staircase that swirled up in a half-circle overlooking the entry hall.
"Is anyone else in the house?" I asked, adding, "We saw Mrs. Wingate outside."
"Yes, and her maid should be with her," he said. "Her niece, Miss Abigail, is resting in the library. I didn't want them to overhear us, or worse yet, disturb anything. No one has touched anything. I know that's always your preference even with our, ah, less serious cases." He fumbled before he found the words that would do.
We continued to climb. The stairs creaked under the weight of our steps, despite the plush carpet runner designed to cushion the wood. Upon reaching the first landing, I detected an unmistakable odorthe sickly-sweet smell of blood. I cleared my throat before commencing the next set of stairs. But death's odor is a singular one that, once detected, manages to pervade all the senses. With each step, my awareness of itand my revulsion to itgrew more intense. I could taste it, feel it, almost see it by the time we reached the top.
I had to pause for a moment. I gripped the banister, fighting to suppress the wave of nausea that welled up, threatening to overwhelm me.
Dr. Fields pointed toward the bedroom immediately on our right, facing south toward the street.
We followed with hesitant, slow footsteps.
When he reached the door, he stepped aside, allowing me to enter first.
I took two steps inside before I haltedfor there she was.
I stared woodenly, at once repulsed and transfixed by the scene of ghastly carnage before me. The victim lay propped against the bed, her body precisely positioned, hands folded together in a demure pose. Her head had been so badly battered that I no longer recognized the features of her face. Splattered on the blue toile wallpaper nearest the bedpost, intermingled with red blood, was a gray substance I knew to be brain. I swallowed hard, again fighting the sensation of nausea that threatened to resurface.
"What is her name?" I asked.
"Sarah Wingate. She has been visiting since Friday," the doctor said softly. His voice was even, but the beads of sweat on his forehead and the way he averted his eyes from the figure by the bed belied his apparent composure.
"And she is a relative of Mrs. Wingate's?"
"Yes. Her niece."
To refocus my wits, I forced myself to survey the undisturbed portions of the room. It was apparent it had been decorated in a tasteful and pleasing stylea fine dark blue and red oriental carpet complemented a pale blue bedspread and curtains, and two delicate Chinese vases adorned matching mahogany tables at either side of the bed. It was an atmosphere that suggested wealth and privilege. Yet today, it was nearly impossible to see past this senseless display of violence. I drew closer to the swath of blood on the wallpaper. Not yet dry, I noted as I came close enough to touch one stain, which indicated her death had occurred within the last few hours.
I breathed deeply through my mouth, vowing not to be sick. Such a response to the sight and smell of blood was a liability in my profession, and I never failed to be frustrated with my body's visceral response. The hollow pit in my stomach was a familiar physical reaction, though it had been nearly six months since I was last summoned to a murder scene. That was in May, just before I left the city. There, I'd seen more than my share of the squalor and crime endemic to my native Lower East Side, not to mention the official indifference to it. Yet my stomach had never gotten used to it. Once again I forcibly willed my nausea to subside.
The doctor and Joe had already begun talking about the case. "When I arrived, her face was covered by that blue cloth," Dr. Fields said as he pointed toward a crumpled, blood-stained material that lay atop the bed. "I removed it so I could check her identity."
"Is that cloth from her dress?" Joe asked curiously, walking a wide perimeter around the body to get a better look.
It took a moment for the meaning of his question to register, but I soon understood. The killer had slashed the victim's dress in haphazard strokes from the bodice down, and the bloodstained cloth was of the same material.
"How old was she?" I asked.
He paused before offering his opinion. "I'd say she was in her mid-twenties. And, judging from the blood stains, her body temperature, and the fact that rigor mortis has not yet set in, I'd guess she has not been dead longtwo hours, maybe three at most." He sighed and wiped his brow with a knotted handkerchief. "I've lived in this town for thirty years. That I should live to witness something like this..." He shook his head.
"Were the others home at the time? Did anyone hear anything?" I asked, drawing his attention back to details and descriptions. It was the doctor's analytical skills that this victim required now, not his empathy.
"You'll want to speak with Miss Abigail, Mrs. Wingate's other niece. She's the one who found her cousin's body." Dr. Fields mopped his brow. "She told her aunt to call me before she fainted. No one else is aware of the murder. We still haven't told them. At this point, it's probably best if you do so." His voice was soft as he added, "It has been quite an ordeal for Miss Abigail. I for one can understand how difficult it is to walk into this room unprepared."
But of course no one could ever be prepared for violence such as this. As I tried to refocus on the important details of the crime scene, one inconsistency stood out. The victim had a deep throat wound and multiple slashes on her upper arms, in addition to the battery done to her head. Yet there was not a single mark apparent on her hands or forearms. I knelt down next to her to check more closely. But nothere was nothing. Had she even tried to resist? It would have been a natural instinct to raise her hands to protect her face from the crushing blows. And I did not think she had been restrained, for in that case, her wrists would show signs of bruising or chafing.
The only rational explanationone the autopsy could confirmwas that she had been incapacitated first, perhaps by a blow to the head. In that case, my picture of her assailant changed entirely. What sort of person would beat and slash a woman who was certainly unconscious, possibly dead? There was no fight in that; only brutal savagery. Was her killer so filled with anger that he had lost all control? Or had he been deranged by blood lust? Just as I had an instinctive visceral repulsion to it, I knew others experienced a strange attraction to it. They enjoyed its sight and smell, as may have been the case here, where Sarah's cumulative injuries were more than was necessary to kill.
I got up and circled to her left, where I noticed something else so odd I could not believe it had escaped my attention earlier. Part of her hair had been cut andhad it been removed
? I searched the room quickly to ascertain it was not placed elsewhere, but it was not to be found. I took out my notebook and made careful notes of what I observed: Sarah's long blond hair had originally been pulled back in two neat braids; however, the braid by her right ear had been cut off at the level of her ear lobe. I examined the shaft of hair nearest the cut and observed that while the exterior of the braid was encrusted with blood, the inner part was clean, which suggested her hair had been removed post-mortem. I had seen cases before where bizarre acts were done to a corpse as a message or sign, but the missing braid defied explanation.
Fortunately I had remembered to grab the camera as we left. I breathed deeply and began to take slow, certain photos. What my mind could not grasp now, I would revisit later, when the black-and-white of the film had muted the red blood that covered the room and overwhelmed my senses. I only hoped the record would not be marred by the slight shaking of my hands. As always, that shaking was made worse by the aching pain in my right arm, which had intensified with the first cold chill of autumn. Its dull throbbing these past eighteen months was an ever-present reminder of Hannah's death. Or perhaps more accurately, it was a reminder of the incompetent doctor who had botched my treatment after I was broadsided by falling timber from the collapsing deck of the Slocum
. As if I needed anything more to remind me of that horrible day.
From every angle, and varied distances, I photographed the victim and the scene surrounding her. At my insistence, we had acquired a fine Kodak. Even though Joe had seen little practical justification in this expense, he had reluctantly allowed me to outfit the department with what I considered to be an essential tool for recording forensic evidence. While at the Detective Bureau in the city, I had become fascinated with the latest technology, especially cameras and basic fingerprinting equipmentthough, admittedly the latter remained controversial and was not yet accepted by the courts. But earlier this year, London had sent two murderers to the gallows after gaining convictions based on fingerprint evidence alone. And our prison system in New York already used fingerprints to identify inmates. So I expected it would be only a matter of time before fingerprint evidence made its way into New York's courtrooms. Perhaps it would even be evidence I had collected.
Joe remained skeptical that Dobson had any use for all this equipment, but after the mayor supported my request, Joe had acquiesced. No doubt he feared his refusal would give the mayor additional ammunition to force him into the retirement he so dreaded. He waited patiently until I had finished photographing the crime scene; then he and Dr. Fields examined the body while I began dusting for latent prints.
I took out my kit containing the two kinds of fine powder that would make invisible prints appear: black and gray. I used the gray powder on dark surfaces, and the black powder on light ones. Print after print appeared, most smudged and partial, but a few were complete, with each finger ridge delineated. I photographed them all, drawing as near as my lens would allow. I stayed clear of Dr. Fields, though I knew his initial exam would not take long. The bulk of his work would be done at the morgue.
"Will you be performing the autopsy?" I asked.
"I expect to. While it's not my turn in the rotation schedule, I suspect they will honor my request given the circumstances."
To my relief, Joe announced he would go downstairs to break the news to Mrs. Wingate, who remained unaware of Sarah's death.
"We'd better call in help on this one," he said, explaining he planned to call our neighboring police department in Yonkers for additional resources.
"Do you want to telephone Mayor Fuller as well? He will want to hear about this," I said.
He scowled. "No. He'd only bother us with useless questions that we've got no answers for."
I shrugged. "It's your decision."
But the repercussions would affect us both. The mayor and Joe intensely disliked one another, and I had come to understand why. When problems arose, Joe was practical-minded in his approach to tackling them; he had little patience for the mayor's preoccupation with political expediency. For his part, the mayor had long ago lost patience for what he viewed as Joe's frequent insubordination.
We discussed how the Wingates might retrieve some personal items from the house for their immediate needs this evening, for I did not want them walking past this bedroomcertainly not until we had finished a thorough examination, and the more gruesome signs of death had been scrubbed away. Joe pointed to the area at the opposite end of the hall by the guest bath. "There's a back stairwell off the kitchen that takes them up over there," he said. "I expect the family uses it more regularly anyway, since it links these bedrooms with the kitchen."
"Good. Then let's cordon off this room and the front stairway; we can examine it again tomorrow, in first morning's light."
We were lucky to have light at all this evening. The Wingates had been among the first families in the area to install electric lighting in their home, but each individual light was placed so sporadically as to offer little real advantage over the ever-growing darkness. Still, I continued my work until well past seven o'clock.
After the county coroner's wagon arrived, and Dr. Fields removed Sarah's body, I finished my examination of the room in haste, for the blood splatters on the walls and bed were almost as unsettling as her corpse itself. Her possessions were spare, typical of a visiting guest. Opening the small wardrobe, I discovered three shirtwaists, each plain with large cuffs. They were next to two dark-colored skirts and a pair of boots that buttoned up the side. There was a modern Hammond typewriter at the desk, next to which was a notebook. On its cover, Sarah Wingate had written her name, as well as a titleThe Riemann Hypothesis. Inside, line after line was filled with mathematical symbols and equations that resembled mere gibberish.
At the nightstand by the bed, there were two books: The Ambassadors
. At the bottom of the stack was last month's serialized installment of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
as well as the September issue of Harper's
. Sarah appeared to share popular literary tastes. Ten dollars was shoved into the back of a drawer, as was a pamphlet entitled Common Sense for Women's Suffrage
I checked between the pages of each book, in each drawer, and even in the pockets of each piece of clothing hanging in the closet. But I found no letters, diary, or notesin short, no personal item that connected Sarah with anyone, much less the person who had wanted to kill her.
I went on to explore the first floor of the house, checking whether anything appeared to be amiss. In the kitchen, I lingered a few moments; amidst the odors of mulled spices and baked fruit, I could almost forget the stench of death that seemed to cling so tenaciously to my skin and clothes. I was so preoccupied with my thoughts that I was startled to hear Joe's voice calling me, insistent and loud.
"Ziele!" His voice echoed through the back hallway. "We need you over here. You've got to take a look at this."
I followed the sound of his voice to a rear exit near the back porch, where I became aware once again of the coroner's wagon as it rumbled over the cobblestones of the Wingate drive, departing for the county morgue. Through the door, I saw a full moon gleaming in the stark November sky. A number of glowing lights bounced up and down in the yard; they were lanterns carried by our neighboring police reinforcements, who had recently arrived and were searching the grounds outside the house.
Joe met my gaze, and I noticed how his lined features reflected the grim events we had endured this day. With a flash of foreboding, I had the unsettling sensation that we were being drawn into an even more complicated case than I'd originally thoughtone that would draw upon our every power of deduction to unravel.
© Stefanie Pintoff