"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Impossible Death of Isidore Fink

The “locked room murder” is a favorite among mystery writers. Of course, they always provide a solution in the last chapter. Real life, however, is not only stranger than fiction, it is much more disobliging. Not even the cleverest detective novelist can explain how 30-year-old Isidore Fink died.

Fink owned a small laundry in New York City. As was often the case among small businessmen of the day, he lived in his workplace. On the night of March 9, 1929, he retired to his quarters after a seemingly uneventful day. At about 10:30, a neighbor, Mrs. Locklan Smith, heard sounds of a scuffle and quickly summoned a nearby policeman. Patrolman Kattenbane found all the doors to Fink’s quarters were locked from the inside. The windows were nailed shut—also from the inside. Even if the windows were broken, they were too small for an adult to squeeze through. The policeman found an open transom window above the door and boosted a small, thin boy high enough to crawl through the little opening and unlock a door.

They found Fink lying on the floor, dead from three gunshot wounds, one of which was in his left wrist, which was powder-marked. The immediate assumption was that his death must have been a suicide.

But where was the gun?

Nothing was missing from the premises, including money in Fink's pockets and the cash drawer, which seemed to rule out robbery. The only fingerprints found in the room were Fink’s. His gas iron was still on and resting on the ironing board. It had not had time to scorch the cloth. Customers of Fink's said that for the past year, they had been greatly inconvenienced because of his insistence on keeping his door locked and admitting only people he recognized. Fink had no enemies, they explained, but he was terrified of robbery--not an unnatural fear in that neighborhood. The laundryman appeared to have been killed by a ghost.

Fink’s death was so uniquely, inexplicably peculiar that even the most wild-eyed theorists admitted defeat. The best the authorities could do by way of a solution was that an extremely thin gymnast had somehow, without attracting any attention, crawled through the tiny transom, shot Fink for reasons unknown, and fled through the same route, scorning the more plebeian method of simply unlocking the front door.

People were so desperate to find a solution to Fink’s shooting that they suggested the killer somehow managed to fire at the laundryman through the transom. Unfortunately for that theory, Fink’s powder burns indicated he had been shot at very close range. Fink's death remains, as the city's Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney said, an "insoluble mystery."

Charles Fort, everyone’s favorite go-to guy for weird phenomena, offered in his book “Wild Talents” a characteristically darkly whimsical scenario for Fink’s death. For all we know, it may be the closest anyone has come to the truth of what happened that night:

“The story of Isidor Fink is a story of a fear that preceded a murder. It could be that Fink's was a specific fear, of somebody whom he had harmed, and not a general fear of the hold-ups that, at the time, were so prevalent in New York City. According to Police Commissioner Mulrooney, it was impossible, in terms of ordinary human experience, to explain this closed-room murder--

Or Isidor Fink, at work in his laundry--and his mind upon somebody whom he had injured--and that his fears of revenge were picturing an assassination of which he was the victim--that his physical body was seized upon by his own picturization of himself, as shot by an enemy.”

One of our greatest dangers lies in our power to manifest our deepest fears.


  1. The strangest thing that I find about this crime is not the locked-room aspect of it - if someone wanted got figure out a way of doing that, they probably could - but the speed of the escape. How could a killer have gotten away in the time it took for an iron not to burn cloth? And, in respect to the locked-room, if the killer was not someone who would be suspected, why would someone go to the trouble too escape from a locked room? If the killer thought he would be suspected, a locked room wouldn't keep him free of that suspicion. Another strange crime. And I like the sub-title under the headline: shot to "dead".

    1. The secret isn't who he was trying to keep out, but who he was trying to keep in.

  2. That is strange! Wonder what really happened?
    The Greenockian

  3. An interesting locked room mystery but far from an unsolvable one. Here are some possible explanations:
    1. It was suicide - The boy removed the gun before opening the door for the police.
    2. It was murder - The killer simply locked the door from the outside using a piece of string to turn the key/bolt, then removed the string.
    3. It was suicide - Fink shot himself with a gun connected to a rope leading through the open window, and had an accomplice remove the weapon & rope from outside the door prior to the police arriving.
    4. It was murder - Fink was shot through the open window. The powder burns on his hands were from another source.
    5. It was murder - The police man was in on it and only pretended the door was locked. A similar explanation - the police records were falsified.

    There are quite a few other explanations, but I guess we'll never know! If you're interested in this kind of thing I run a site dedicated to locked room mysteries - www.TheLockedRoom.com

    1. Or Fink opened the door, was shot by someone in the doorway, slammed the door, bolted it and died.

  4. murderer is still in the room hidden and when opened door the killer escaped or is still in the room with blanket over him perhaps pretending to be statue or something else bundled in cltohes or body was moved there speedily then small child crawled thru to get out with help
    instead of asking boy when they saw him they asked him to open it
    now killers are laughing at cops

  5. I'm interested to know if there were actual bullets found in him. As he was ironing at the time of his death, could the iron have overheated somehow, building with pressure and steam, and causing a small projectile/s to fly out of the iron at great speed. Since one entry wound is in the wrist/hand, this hand could have been holding the iron; the other two entry wounds in the chest, one of which could be caused by the same projectile as the wrist, caused by Fink leaning forward over the iron as one might do

  6. Two facts I find strange is why would a police man send a young boy into a potentially dangerous situation if it did happen as quickly as they say. They should have suspected the killer be still inside unless they knew he wasn't. Secondly i do not think the police would have degraded they're reputation by fabricating this story. So majorly this leads me to believe the first officers entering the crime scene probably should have been looked into.

    1. That makes total sense with letting a kid go into a dangerous situation. Curious if there was an area a person could have been hiding. Been dressed as a cop and left when they scene got crowded.

  7. This is most reasonable explanation I’ve seen. Makes sense that he would have screamed from the pain, which his neighbor heard, and there were no gunshots, which the neighbor didn’t hear. If she heard a scream seems she would have heard gunfire.
    I’d like to know more about what a gas iron is and how it was made. Safety wasn’t a big concern in early 20th century either.


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