"...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, November 13, 2017

Murder in Euclid Heights




William Lowe Rice was, on the surface at least, a classic American success story. The 47-year-old attorney and housing developer rose out of obscurity to become powerful, socially prominent, and one of the richest men in Cleveland, Ohio. His specialty was in "readjusting" the finances of failing businesses. His remarkable success in saving companies from extinction earned him massive fees. After he refinanced the John Hartness Brown Building, he even wound up with a controlling interest in the project. By 1910, he had acquired a magnificent estate in posh Euclid Heights, a beautiful wife, and four charming daughters. He was respected, but not loved--Rice was a notorious skinflint who, it was whispered, had not been entirely scrupulous about how he acquired his wealth. Still, there were no signs that anyone might have hated Rice enough to see him dead.

But someone did.

August 4, 1910, found Rice temporarily living alone. His wife, Elise, and their daughters were visiting the family's vacation home in Massachusetts. The day progressed normally for Rice. He spent most of the day at his downtown law office. After work, he played golf at his club. He had a good game, which pleased him enormously. After the match, he showered and had dinner with a few friends, who later described him as having been "in the best of spirits."

The Rice mansion


At about 10:30 pm Rice left the club to walk home, which was about 500 yards away. He never made it. Around ten minutes later, when he was only several hundred feet from the back of his property, someone came out of the darkness and shot him several times.

Earl Davis, a bellboy at Rice's club, heard the gunshots, as well as the sound of footsteps running along the building's west side. He went outside to see what was going on, where he saw a patrolman, C.L. Wahl, who had also heard the shots and was coming to investigate. Davis told him about the footsteps, which sent Wahl off in pursuit. He soon caught up to the source of these running steps, a man who was heading toward a streetcar stop. The man seemed nonchalant, commenting only, "You're a pretty good runner, Officer." Wahl saw no sign that his quarry was at all troubled to see him, and since, at that time, he was unaware a crime had been committed, he let the man go on his way.

Just before 11 pm, a Dr. W.H. Phillips and some friends were driving near the club when they spotted something deeply startling: a bloody body lying by the side of the road, so badly wounded that they assumed he had been hit by a car. When they stopped to examine the man, they found he was still alive, but unconscious and obviously in grave condition.

As they were loading the victim into their car, they were joined by someone who had just gotten off a nearby streetcar. Seeing the commotion, he came by to see what was going on. The man was John Hartness Brown. He was a neighbor of Rice's, but he could hardly have been called a friend--in fact, it was said that he held a strong grudge against Rice for taking control of his building. Oddly, although Brown asked what had happened, and offered assistance, he showed no sign of recognizing the injured man.

Phillips and his friends rushed to the hospital, but it was futile: Rice died before they even got there.

When the body was examined at the morgue, it was found that this was no accident victim. He had been shot twice in the face. Before being shot, Rice had also suffered several deep cuts to his hands and arms, and had evidently been bludgeoned so badly that he may have been unconscious at the time he was shot. Rice had been a tall, athletic man, and it was clear that he had put up a fierce fight against his assailant.

News of this seemingly senseless murder turned Rice's normally quiet, luxurious neighborhood upside down. His fellow millionaires all quaked in fear, wondering if they had a maniac running loose in their midst. A large reward was offered for any information about the crime, and a large flock of police and private detectives were assigned to track down the killer. And it all did no good whatsoever. Although any number of increasingly lurid rumors sprang up about who had slaughtered Rice, and why, solid leads in the case were bafflingly absent.

The initial assumption was that Rice was the victim of street robbers, who killed him when he put up a fight. However, this theory was easily shown to be ridiculous. For one thing, it was an astonishingly public murder. He was killed on a normally populous avenue, next to a line where streetcars passed by every ten minutes or so, and in front of a row of occupied homes--surely not a preferred place for footpads to lurk. Most importantly, when found, he was still wearing three gold rings, a diamond collar stud, gold cuff links, and carrying over $100 in cash. Whoever killed Rice had other motives than mere robbery.

The murder had all the hallmarks of a revenge killing, (particularly when the interesting fact emerged that for some weeks before his death, Rice had been sleeping with two loaded guns under his bed.) However, although investigators soon learned that very many people disliked Rice, and most of his nearest and dearest did not seem particularly surprised he had met a violent end, they could not find anyone who had what seemed like sufficiently strong motive, means, and opportunity to do such a savage deed.

The Rice mystery made its first true headlong leap into The Weird when on the morning after the murder, a bag of dead chickens was found near the crime scene. This led to speculation that the dead man had run into a gang of chicken thieves, who killed him in order to make a clean getaway.

Although "death by chicken thief" has a pleasantly bizarre ring to it, County Prosecutor John Cline thought otherwise. Virtually from the beginning of the investigation, he had only one suspect: Lowe's neighbor and former business partner John Hartness Brown. Cline was convinced Brown was Rice's murderer.

Now his only problem was to prove it.

Unfortunately for Cline, Brown had an alibi. He claimed he had spent the evening of the murder visiting friends in another part of town, and did not arrive in the area of the murder until nearly 11:30 pm, when he returned to his neighborhood via streetcar. Try as Cline might, he was unable to break this alibi. He was also faced with the inconvenient fact that no trace of blood was seen on Brown, which would be nearly impossible if he had committed such a savage crime. Also, while Brown had reason to resent Rice for his brutal business practices, so did a great many others.

One would be tempted to entirely discount Brown as the murderer, except for one very peculiar detail: Soon after Rice's body was brought to the morgue, the attendant received a phone call from Brown, asking if Mr. Rice's body was there. The attendant testified that he had not volunteered Rice's name--Brown had been the first to mention the identity of the dead man. So why, when Brown saw Dr. Phillips and his party with the body, did he act like the victim was a stranger to him? (It is conceivable Brown hired a hit man, but no evidence for that ever surfaced.)

The investigation into Rice's murder gradually came to a sputtering, inconclusive end. There is an anecdote that says it all about this strangely baffling case. In the 1950s, an attorney asked a couple of elderly lawyers who had known Rice what they thought about the murder. They both nodded sagely and said, "Everyone knew who did it."

These men each named a different person as the killer.

3 comments:

  1. "Oddly, although Brown asked what had happened, and offered assistance, he showed no sign of recognizing the injured man."

    Not too odd as Rice had been shot twice in the face and it was night. I see no reason why he couldn't have learned Rice's identity before his morgue call as Rice's absence must have been noticed.

    I wonder if the bag of dead chickens was the murder instrument.

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  2. The strangest fact to me is the multiplicity of weapons that must have been involved in the murder. Rice was shot, cut up and bludgeoned. It seems unlikely that one man would carry such a variety of weapons - and have time to use them. I ould suggest more than one person, perhaps both men the elderly lawyers mentioned in the 1950s. As for Brown initially not recognising Rice, I can understand it if Rice had been shot twice in the face. Even 'clean' wounds would have left his visage a mask of blood. It's possible then that someone immaterial to the story saw the victim as Rice, rumour spread, and Brown made the telephone call - though it must have been startlingly soon for such a call to have been made.

    But I like the bag of dead chickens. My theory is that it was dropped by a chicken thief who knew that people would assume Rice had been killed by a chicken thief. People always do.

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    Replies
    1. This is just my "gut instinct" talking, but I wonder if Rice's murder was done by a "hit man," commissioned by some person--or people--of some importance. From what I've read, the investigation seems to have been remarkably lackadaisical, and the case disappeared from the newspapers surprisingly quickly. It was as if the authorities didn't really want to delve into the mystery too much, because it would involve local VIPs.

      Just my guess.

      Delete

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