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.