Today, Polly Bodine’s name is lost to history. But on Christmas night of 1843, she was accused of murdering her sister-in-law and infant niece in ways so heinous that the great showman P.T. Barnum, proclaimed her “The Witch of Staten Island.” Even Edgar Allan Poe weighed in on the female fiend, fearing she’d escape justice. He was right. Polly was tried three times, finally acquitted, and disappeared into anonymity—and legend—until her death fifty years later.
Her story is just one of a dozen horrific murders unearthed by historian Patricia M. Salmon in this fascinating peek into the gruesome history of the New York borough. Among the other headline-making cases: The Baby Farm Murders, The Jazz Age Kiss Slayer, The Body in the Barrel, and more. These turn-of-the century tabloid tales of serial killers and psychopaths, love gone wrong, cold-blooded revenge, and unsolved mysteries are still the stuff of nightmares.
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THE BODY IN THE BARREL
Gentlemen of the jury, we design to show to this Court and to yourselves that that man, Edward Reinhardt, who sits before you is a bigamist with a pure girl and the murderer of the one to whom he was lawfully married and whose body we will show was the one buried in such a horrible manner by the lonely lake up on the hills of this island.
— Prosecution statement at the murder trial of Edward Reinhardt, May 1879
There was no doubt that Edward Reinhardt had cruelly buried his wife, Annie, in a barrel at Silver Lake. She might even have been alive at the time. He admitted burying her, but ambiguity had swirled around the case ever since the body was discovered by three boys tending cattle on Sunday, September 15, 1878. The road to convicting Edward Reinhardt would be winding at best and mysterious at most.
When the body was found, Louis Reige immediately assumed it was Ellen Murphy, a woman he was unlawfully intimate with and who had gone missing. Reige headed right to the authorities with this information and was at once brought to the Richmond County Poor House at Sea View to identify the decomposing remains. As he viewed the pitiful body on the grass of the Potter's Field Cemetery, Reige burst into tears, threw himself beside it and wept convulsively. The woman was so decomposed that only her teeth and hair were recognizable. Physicians believed malpractice (abortion) had been committed, which at this time was unmentionable in polite discussion. As a result, the woman was thought to have died from internal hemorrhaging. Reige insisted that he loved Ellen Murphy and had promised marriage once he found suitable employment. He firmly believed she was the deceased woman. The teeth matched. All who knew Ellen were aware that she did not have an unsound tooth in her head — just like the corpse on view. There was one problem though: the hair color did not correspond. Ellen's was light brown, while the deceased had dark brown hair. This mattered little at the time since Dr. William Walser stated that clothes found around the body were saturated with chloride of lime, also known as chloroform. Its presence would turn hair darker. Horrifically, the chemical-laden cloth was believed to have been placed with the body to keep the victim unconscious in case she was not dead and woke up inside the barrel. Another mixture, quick lime, had been lathered on the face to burn away the victim's features and render her unrecognizable. Not only was there an adult female body in the barrel, but there was also a self-aborted fetus. Walser acknowledged that the deceased might have died in childbirth.
Those who knew Ellen Murphy were divided. Some thought she was at a local hospital or that she had perhaps returned to Ireland in order to hide until she gave birth. Others claimed that the last time they saw Ellen, she was making her way to Manhattan for an abortion. According to Reige, she had discussed this alternative one month after discovering her pregnancy, but a doctor informed her that she needed to be four or five months along before the procedure could be performed. Rumor had it that a female abortionist, living not three hundred yards from the site where the body was recovered, was involved. Thus, she became an immediate suspect. But the case took a different turn when Gustave Keymer, rumored to be a very eccentric elderly man, came forward. While gathering watercress at Silver Lake about six weeks prior to the body's discovery, Keymer encountered a man digging a hole at the lake. When asked why he was digging, the man replied that he was burying a New Foundland dog owned by the Cisco family. It was in the barrel on the wheelbarrow he had brought with him. Keymer informed the man that if he buried the dog there, the stench would be a nuisance. As such, the man moved farther down into the ravine and recommenced his labor. This was the exact location where the body was found.
On September 20, 1878, George Hommell of Saugerties, New York, accompanied by a Reverend Mr. Lichtenberg, came to Staten Island to view the body. Hommell believed the remains might be those of his missing daughter Annie. The body was exhumed. Even though the features were practically obliterated, he declared it to be his daughter, as he believed the teeth and hair corresponded to Annie's. They returned to Saugerties to secure Annie's betrayer. The accused was Moses Schoenfeldt, a wealthy, married man whom Annie worked for. According to her father, appearances indicated that Schoenfeldt was on familiar terms with his daughter. Said to be pregnant, she disappeared during December 1877. Several anonymous letters received by the family stated that Annie was in New York City. In August, a letter arrived announcing that she was dead. The people of Saugerties believed that Schoenfeldt was responsible.
Moses Schoenfeldt and his wife arrived in Staten Island on September 21. Accompanied by their lawyer, the three promptly made their way to the Potter's Field Cemetery to analyze the dead woman's hair sample. Schoenfeldt emphatically stated that it did not belong to Annie Hommell. In fact, the deceased had hair that was almost two and a half feet long! After meeting with Coroner Dempsey, the couple departed, with Schoenfeldt greatly troubled about his predicament. His wife was broken down. Further complicating identification was the arrival of numerous anonymous letters declaring the woman to be someone other than Annie Hommell or Ellen Murphy. In addition, correspondence arrived claiming that Ellen Murphy was alive and well. The mystery plagued Staten Island police.
On September 26, attorney Peter Cantine and Dr. Erasmus Chipman arrived at the Poor House to have the body exhumed. Hired by George Hommell, they wanted to ascertain whether the right arm of the cadaver had ever been fractured, as Annie's had been at the age of seven. According to one local paper of the time:
Three able-bodied paupers were set to work to open the newly made grave in the wretched cemetery on the hillside, and in about half an hour, a rude deal box was brought to the surface. It was roughly hauled from the deep pit in which it had been deposited, the lid was loosened with a hatchet, and the offensive contents were once again disclosed to view. Simultaneously with the opening of the box, a horrible smell of putrefying flesh pervaded the little wooded graveyard. The first thing done by the Doctors was to cut off both arms close to the shoulder-blade and to boil them in an out-building attached to the Poor-house, for the purpose of facilitating the work of removing the flesh from the bones. An insane pauper, who was detailed by Overseer McCormack to superintend the boiling of the arms, completed the preliminary at nightfall and served them up to the doctors with a grin of ghastly satisfaction. A critical examination failed to disclose the remotest sign of a fracture or dislocation ... the anatomy of both arms were perfect.
The woman was not Annie Hommell.
Still, there was no sign of Ellen Murphy. By early October, no fewer than thirty missing women would be reported after the public heard of the body in the barrel at Silver Lake.
On October 3, 1878, Coroner Dempsey, accompanied by Gustave Keymer, went to Manhattan to locate the mysterious barrel burier. On a previous search, Keymer had pointed a suspect out, but police declined to arrest him. The same man was found once more. His name was Edward Reinhardt, and he acknowledged living on Staten Island until the previous July. While living on the island, he ran a candy store on Gore Street (now Broad Street) in Stapleton. Reinhardt emphatically denied burying a barrel at Silver Lake or ever meeting Keymer. Furthermore, Reinhardt said that he had married Pauline Dittmar seven months earlier. Reinhardt was informed by Dempsey that he must appear at the next jury sitting relative to the dead woman found in the barrel at Silver Lake on Staten Island.
Coroner Dempsey was soon visited by Charles Herborn, publisher of the German-language newspaper Der Deutsche Zeitung, on October 6. Under oath, Herborn stated that Edward Reinhardt was a tenant in his house and that he had a wife in the family way. Owing to Reinhardt's actions, Herborn believed he did away with her. With that, Reinhardt was arrested. In front of the judge, Reinhardt insisted that he was unmarried while living on Staten Island and that he had married Pauline Dittmar after moving to Manhattan on July 13. While on Staten Island, he claimed to live with a girl named Mary Ann Keegan, whom he stated was very much alive and living in Manhattan. Furthermore, he would produce her at any given time in order to prove that she was not the woman in the barrel. He confirmed that Keegan was expecting while he lived with her. Stating that he often pushed wheelbarrows, he argued that only once had he pushed a barrow to Silver Lake and that it was only to pick up a load of wood. Reinhardt claimed that Mary Ann Keegan left him on the morning of July 20 because he refused to marry her.
Mrs. Herborn swore on the stand that Reinhardt moved in on about April 15, 1878, and that the woman who came to live with him shortly thereafter called Reinhardt her husband. The woman told Mrs. Herborn that Reinhardt treated her badly and that she feared him. Mrs. Herborn described the wife as being low-spirited and weepy. Eventually, the wife became so distraught that she pleaded with Mrs. Herborn to help her. Mrs. Herborn declared that she "often heard the woman upbraid Reinhardt for ruining her," with him responding that "he was tired of her; that she was a burden to him." Mrs. Herborn never saw the woman after the evening of July 19, but the following morning, she heard Reinhardt in the yard yelling up to the window for Annie to get up in order to visit her mother. Mrs. Herborn never heard a reply. Shortly thereafter, Reinhardt announced to Mrs. Herborn that the woman had left for her mother's. As he prepared to move from the premises, Reinhardt told Mrs. Herborn that he had a barrel of crockery to deliver to his sister's house. The barrel was covered by a piece of carpet, under which was coarse sacking that turned out to be a malt bag marked with the company name of Nuedlinger and Schmidtt. The only Staten Island brewery to use malt from this firm was the Rubsam and Horrmann Atlantic Brewery. It was located no more than a half mile from the Herborn property. The barrel, carpet and sacking were wound twice around by a cord. It was a heavy delivery to move — so heavy, in fact, that the wheelbarrow broke under its weight and Reinhardt had to borrow another. He did, and he was soon observed heading up the Richmond Road (now Van Duzer Street). According to Mrs. Herborn, after the errand, Reinhardt returned relaxed and joyful. Mr. Herborn recalled that he heard sawing on the evening of July 19 and that on the following morning, he found a sawn-off section of barrel in the yard of his house. The barrel Reinhardt pushed would soon be traced to the Bechtel Brewery, which was visible from the windows of Herborn's house.
Police searched for Mary Ann Keegan at the Manhattan addresses provided by Reinhardt. No such person was found. When questioned by reporters, Reinhardt's sister, Mrs. Lawrence Ketner, said she knew no Mary Ann Keegan. The only woman she knew who lived with Reinhardt was Annie Degnan. Most importantly, Reinhardt had not delivered a barrel of crockery to her residence on July 20, 1878. Mrs. Ketner also stated that in late August, she thought to visit her brother at his Broome Street, Manhattan residence. When she arrived, a woman answered the door who claimed to be Reinhardt's wife, to which Mrs. Ketner replied, "No, you are not," as Mrs. Ketner knew her brother's wife to be Annie Degnan.
Sometime before October 8, Staten Island police discovered that an Annie Degnan was reported missing by her Newark, New Jersey family. Police soon realized that the description of the body discovered at Silver Lake bore a striking resemblance to Annie. Indeed, it was also reported that Degnan was the wife of Edward Reinhardt. They had been married at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Newark on November 24, 1877. Police also unearthed the fact that Reinhardt had spent a year and a half in the New Jersey State Prison for stealing $2,000 worth of furs from his former employer, Coney & Stewart. After release, he worked at a celluloid factory. It wasn't long before he was back to his old habits and was again imprisoned for stealing.
Around the third week of September 1878, Edward Reinhardt visited Annie Degnan's mother to borrow money, something he did quite often. He told Mrs. Degnan that Annie was expecting a child and that they needed some cash to help them along. When asked by Mrs. Degnan how Annie was, Reinhardt replied, "Tip top."
For her part, the second Mrs. Reinhardt, Pauline Dittmar, explained to authorities that she and Reinhardt had been married on July 13. On July 20, furniture was delivered to and housekeeping began at Broome Street. In addition, Reinhardt brought two shawls and a unique ring of gold with two hearts held in chased fretwork for his bride. Annie's mother and younger brother examined Reinhardt's gifts and had no trouble identifying the items as having belonged to Annie Degnan. Owing to his proliferation of wives, Edward Reinhardt was now being referred to as the "Dandy Dutchman." No matter, Pauline Dittmar proclaimed that she would stand by her husband until he confessed to the murder of Annie Degnan, something she knew would never happen since he was "too kind" to do such a thing. Hearing that he was subjected to awful prison fare, she announced her departure for Staten Island to cook and bring him his meals. It was her belief that Annie Degnan was alive and remaining concealed to cause great trouble for Edward Reinhardt. Her husband agreed, stating that Degnan only wanted to annoy him. At this point, all concurred on one thing: even if Reinhardt refused to admit it, he was, in the least, a bigamist.
At the coroner's inquest on October 9, 1878, Rosanna Degnan positively identified the sample of hair removed from the Silver Lake barrel body as belonging to her daughter Annie. When the prisoner was brought before her, she shouted, "You vagabond, you have murdered my child!" As an overflow crowd viewed the proceedings, Annie's aunt, Ellen Fallon, testified that the shawl found on the deceased had been made by her own hand. She identified the unusual stitch that she herself had designed. Fallon concurred that the length of hair presented came from the head of Annie Degnan, proclaiming that Annie had a splendid head of hair almost two feet long that she would twist and roll around her head. Ellen Fallon also reported that Annie told her of Reinhardt's response to her delicate condition — to get rid of the consequences. Annie told her aunt she was sorry to have married Reinhardt.
Under oath, Pauline Dittmar soon testified that shortly after the Degnan inquest began, Reinhardt left with a section of loose Brussels carpet that had been in their apartment. He carried it in a basket. When asked if he had been gone long enough to throw it in the river, she responded in the affirmative, and she replied "yes" when asked if he returned with an empty basket. It turned out that the carpet was very similar to what had covered the barrel on the wheelbarrow.
Mrs. Herborn recounted how she found Annie with a bloodied mouth and chemise the week before Reinhardt moved. Annie acknowledged it was Reinhardt's doing.
Held in the Richmond County Jail, Reinhardt kept busy — so busy, in fact, that one of his jail keepers discovered that the prisoner had removed the nails and iron that secured his bunk to the wall so that he could expose it. Because the cell next to Reinhardt's was unoccupied, the jailers believed he was going to break through the wall, remove the window grate and then escape. Weighing four or five pounds, authorities considered that the iron might also be used as a weapon against the guards. It was also discovered that Pauline Dittmar and the prisoner were chatting through a corridor window where Reinhardt was allowed to walk for exercise. Apparently, Pauline climbed onto a barrel outside the window for their clandestine conversations. Pauline had not yet learned to avoid barrels where Edward Reinhardt was concerned.
The accused killer went on trial for the murder of his wife, Annie Degnan Reinhardt, on May 21, 1879. Newspapers called it "the most sensational of the many mysteries that have occurred on Staten Island within the past few years" and noted that it "excited the widest interest." Well-known attorney Max Hubner defended Reinhardt, while Richmond County District Attorney John Croak prosecuted for the people. Held at the Richmond County Courthouse in the village of the same name, the twenty-two-year-old Dandy Dutchman wore a Prince Albert coat, closely buttoned; a Piccadilly collar; and cuffs that extended far below the coat sleeves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem on Staten Island"
Copyright © 2013 Patricia M. Salmon.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Body in the Barrel,
2. Dead Among the Rocks,
3. A Wicked Love,
4. The Great Tottenville Mystery,
5. The Staten Island Terror,
6. Revenge Renews Our Happy Love in Heaven Forever,
7. Three Bullets for the Bootlegger,
8. Life for the Murderer, Death for Complicity,
9. The Baby Farm Murder,
10. The Kiss Slayer,
11. The Movie Projectionist Murderer?,
12. That Most Wicked and Wretched Woman,
About the Author,