"...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 23, 2017

The Dead Woman and the Vanished Pears: The Mystery of Kathryn Scharn

Kathryn "Katie" Scharn had about as good a life as any working-class girl could hope for in early 20th century New York City. The 23-year-old had a steady job at a pencil factory, a decent apartment she shared with her 18-year-old brother Fred, many friends, and enough personal attractions to gather her many male admirers. A very ordinary existence, to be sure, but one far from unpleasant.

And then one day, her story stopped being ordinary, and turned as unpleasant as you can get.

August 19, 1900 started out very typically for Kathryn. It was her day off, so she spent the morning doing some household chores. After breakfast, she cleaned the house, stopped at her work to pick up wages, and then went shopping with her boss at the factory, Maggie Bird. She told Bird that she had a double-date that evening: she would be going out with Fred, his girlfriend Nettie Harris, and Kathryn's current beau, Lincoln Price. Kathryn commented that it was important to keep this date. She had stood up Price once before, which made him angry. As she planned to marry Price, she wanted to keep him in a good mood. That same morning, a special-delivery letter arrived for her, but unfortunately, we have no idea who sent it or what the letter said. Kathryn arrived home some time around three p.m. From then, we know little of her activities. Shortly before 7 p.m., neighbors saw her taking in some curtains that were hanging on her clothesline. She placed on her bed the lace shirtwaist she would wear on her date that night. Then she went down to the grocery store next door and bought three pears. A young man who worked there saw her pause outside the store, and take one of the pears out of the bag. She appeared about to eat it. The store's wagon driver also observed Kathryn reaching for the fruit.

About an hour later, a neighbor, Mrs. Carlsen, heard the Scharn's doorbell being repeatedly rung. Curious about why Kathryn did not answer the door, she went downstairs to investigate. She found two little girls, trying to deliver the Scharn laundry. Mrs. Carlsen took the basket and told the girls she'd give it to Kathryn the next morning.

Kathryn did not keep her double-date that night. Some time after midnight, Fred Scharn returned home, after having been out for most of the day. He was deeply puzzled about his sister's failure to join the scheduled outing. He was even more perturbed when he found their front door was unlocked. Kathryn was always careful to keep it locked. The apartment was completely dark, and eerily silent. When Fred went into her bedroom, he found her body lying across the bed. There was a dreadful wound on the back of her head.

When Fred realized Kathryn was dead, he went into a panic. Curiously, he did not immediately send for police. Instead, he ran to the house of the Scharn landlord, one Dr. A.H. Tyler. He was greeted by Tyler's housekeeper, Mrs. Lawler, who told the sobbing, hysterical youth that the doctor was out. When she learned of what Fred had found, she brought him to the police station.

Doctors determined Kathryn had been killed sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. She had been hit on the back of the head with a hammer normally kept under the kitchen sink. (It was found on her bedroom floor.) However, these blows had not killed her. She had been strangled to death. This level of ferocity suggested that this was not a murder committed by an ordinary burglar. Rather, she likely had been killed by someone she knew, someone who had, for whatever reason, a deep personal rage against the young woman. Kathryn was fully dressed, but her shirt was torn and her arms bruised and scratched. She clearly had fought violently for her life. Her purse was empty and several rings had been wrenched from her fingers. Her bureau drawers had been ransacked, but, oddly, Fred's belongings were untouched. Also oddly, a black mask was lying on the floor. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that no one in this crowded, flimsy tenement building reported having heard any unusual noises. Mrs. Carlsen, who lived directly below the Scharns, said that she could hear every footstep Fred or Kathryn made. Yet somehow, she heard nothing when her neighbor was beaten and strangled to death.

Elmira Star, August 20, 1900

Police Inspector Harley was given the task of finding Kathryn's killer. The officer took an instant dislike to Fred Scharn--something that was to affect the entire course of the investigation.

Harley intently questioned Fred about his activities for that day. Fred had spent the morning at his job in a printing house. Around noon, he came home for a few hours. From four-thirty until close to midnight, he was at the house of his girlfriend, Nettie Harris. Then he returned to his apartment and found Kathryn. Harley wasn't convinced. He was privately skeptical about Fred's alibi.

Harley also talked to Lincoln Price. Price said he had known Kathryn for four years, and they were engaged to be married. He had given her the rings (cheap ones, worth only a few dollars) that had been torn off her fingers. He said that on August 19, he was at his job at a downtown bank until one p.m. He went to a saloon, where he stayed until shortly before 7:30, when he left to meet Kathryn at the 166th Street El station. He hung around the station for some time, waiting, and when she failed to arrive, went back to the saloon. The bar owner corroborated his alibi. What Kathryn's fiance did not say--it was left to the newspapers to dig this up--Price's real name was "Louis Lincoln Eisenprice." Oh, and he had a wife and small child lurking in the background. Price had once been arrested for attempting to strangle his wife, but the charges had been dismissed.

Dr. Tyler had little to offer investigators. He shrugged that he knew nothing about the dead woman, "except that she was a quiet and orderly tenant who paid her rent." Newspaper reporters brought up the intriguing fact that four years earlier, a 12-year-old girl named Mamie Cunningham had been murdered in precisely the same way as Kathryn Scharn: hit with a hammer and then strangled. The murder remained unsolved. The two victims had one other thing in common: they were both tenants of Dr. Tyler's. This coincidence--if it was merely a coincidence--appears to have been unexplored by the police.

Harley was momentarily interested in one of Kathryn's workmates, Julia Lang. According to Price/Eisenprice, Lang and Kathryn had had a bitter quarrel over him. Did this factory girl have a secret side as a Mad Strangler? Well, no. Lang had an alibi, and vehemently denied Price's story. Lang asserted that she and Kathryn had been good friends, and had never quarreled, about Price or anything else. There seemed no reason not to believe her.

Harley delved into the dead woman's extensive love life, but that proved to cast little light on the increasingly baffling crime. Letters were found in her apartment from Price, bitterly scolding Kathryn for seeing other men. They also found notes to her from a Charles Yuling, but he had the proverbial cast-iron alibi. Sidney M. Rogers, whose photo was found on Kathryn's bureau? He wasn't even in New York at the time of the murder.

Harley gave up looking for other suspects, and cast his attention entirely on Fred, whom he had placed under arrest. Everyone who knew the Scharns stated that Fred had adored his sister, and the siblings had never been known to even quarrel. The Inspector took a cynical view of this testimony. His inability to find Kathryn's killer left him convinced that Fred had to be the culprit.

All he had to do was find some evidence to prove it.

When police found a three-dollar pawn ticket in Fred's possession, Harley immediately concluded that Fred had bludgeoned and strangled his sister for the sake of pawning the cheap rings she wore. When Harley confronted Fred with this accusation, the prisoner's lawyer objected, pointing out that there was "no record" to support such a monstrous charge. Harley snapped out a response that speaks eloquently of the quality of his investigation: "Record? What do you want with a record? Isn't every liar a thief?"

Harley was further encouraged to discover that Fred had lied about spending all the evening of the 19th at Nettie Harris' house. A witness spotted the couple a few blocks from her home at about 9:30 p.m., which Fred had to admit was the truth: he and Nettie had gone for a brief walk. Fred left Nettie's home at precisely 11:50 p.m. (Her stepfather recalled the time because that was when he went downstairs to wind the clock.) Harley did the math: It took 32 minutes by train and a five-minute walk to get from Nettie's to the Scharn apartment, and Fred had arrived home between 12:30 and 1 a.m. In short, Fred's movements during the time Kathryn was murdered were fully accounted for.

Even this did not stop Gotham's Inspector Javert from trying to hang the crime around Fred's neck. He dug more into Fred's background. He discovered that Fred had been fired from his previous job at a piano company. He had fraudulently padded the amount of work he supposedly did, in order to get extra wages. Harley also learned that Fred's pawn ticket was for a gold watch. This watch had been stolen from one of Fred's neighbors. The Inspector gleefully added burglary to the charges against Fred.

At this point, Harley decided that Kathryn had not died between 10 and 11. He now declared that, despite the medical evidence, she had really been murdered sometime around 4 p.m. Why? Because that was the only time that Fred could possibly have done the deed. And the neighbors who saw Kathryn taking down the curtains around 7? The clerk who sold her pears around that time? Harley waved away such trifles. Those witnesses, he declared, were all mistaken. Fred murdered his sister around 4 p.m., and Harley was damned if he was going to let a few inconvenient details spoil that narrative.

Kathryn's inquest was held on October 12. The D.A. laid out the case against Fred. The evidence indicated that the killer was very familiar with the layout of the apartment, even knowing where the hammer was stored. Kathryn had been paid earlier on that day, and money was still in her purse after her shopping trip. However, after her death, the purse was empty. Fred had money in his pocket when he was arrested, although he had not recently been paid at his job. Kathryn's belongings were ransacked, but Fred's were untouched. Fred had told lies about his whereabouts. Fred himself, on the advice of his attorney, refused to testify.

It was looking very bad for young Scharn. How Inspector Harley must have been gloating! But then, the proceedings were interrupted by an event straight out of the last act of a "Perry Mason" episode. During the recess, a 17-year-old girl named Ella Conroy approached Fred's lawyer. She wanted to testify. After hearing her story, he instantly agreed.

Conroy worked as a cashier in the grocery store next door to the Scharns. Although she and Kathryn did not know each other, Conroy had often seen her around the neighborhood, so had no problem recognizing her. Conroy told the court that on the evening of the murder, Kathryn came into the grocery and purchased three pears. "They were three for five and she walked over to the cash register and paid me a nickel." The time, she said firmly, was ten minutes to seven. Conroy explained that she had not come forward before because "I didn't think it was necessary, and I didn't want the notoriety." But now, she realized, "Fred Scharn needs me."

And that was that. All of Harley's dearest hopes for a nice clean frame-up were dashed. The coroner's jury wasted little time in reaching a verdict that Kathryn Scharn had been murdered "By person or persons unknown."

There the matter has rested ever since. Kathryn's murder remains unsolved, and is now long forgotten. What makes this particularly frustrating is that I believe this mystery would have been eminently "solvable," given a competent inquiry. The victim was almost certainly killed by someone she knew, and for motives that probably stemmed from jealousy or personal spite. If Harley had only let go of his fixation on Fred Scharn, and focused on following the clues wherever they may have taken him, he probably would have found the guilty party. For instance, I would like to know more about Dr. Tyler. As Kathryn's landlord, he had a key to her apartment, which could explain why Fred found the door unlocked. Contemporary newspapers reported gossip that his relationship with Kathryn was rather closer than he wished to let on. He was not at his home at the time of the murder, and as far as I can tell, his movements that night are unknown. (He told reporters that his whereabouts on August 19 were none of anybody's business.) It is hard to overlook the eerily similar murder of Mamie Cunningham. And, of course, there is the strange fact that after finding his sister's body, Fred instinctively sought out, not the police, but the landlord.

Then there is the married "fiance," Mr. Price/Eisenprice. He too had a key to the Scharn apartment. He was deeply jealous of the other men in Kathryn's life and he had a history of physical violence. The only corroboration for Price's alibi was the owner of the saloon he visited, but the man could conceivably have been mistaken or deliberately lying. Newspaper reports described Kathryn as having a "double life" where she frequented what they quaintly called "low establishments." This suggests that there may have been other men in her life who never even surfaced in this generally lackluster and inept investigation.

What also bothers me are those damned pears. You see, even though two people had seen Kathryn reaching into her bag, evidently about to eat the fruit, her autopsy showed that no trace of the pears was found in her stomach. It was speculated that she had run into someone she knew in the street--her killer, perhaps?--which interrupted her before she could eat.

But if that was the case, what became of the pears? The Scharn apartment and garbage can had been searched, without finding a trace of them. Those three pears vanished as thoroughly and mysteriously as the man or woman who killed Kathryn Scharn.


  1. Clearly the pears killed her out of fear of being eaten. There were three of them so they had a numerical advantage. I expect one distracted her while the other two attacked.

    1. A couple of people on Twitter had the same theory!

  2. Just on the evidence given, I find Dr Tyler highly suspicious. He would not only be in a position to kill Miss Scharn and the little girl, but he would be the best person to ensure Mrs Carlsen heard - or said she heard - nothing of the murder. Perhaps some blackmail was exercised, or a promise of free rent was offered...

    I certainly would not have retained Harley on the police force if I had been his superior.

  3. Okay, someone help me out here. I thought she was double dating with Fred that night, yet he was at his fiancee's home all evening?

    1. That was never explained, as far as I can tell. My assumption is that Kathryn was supposed to meet them there, and then they all would go out?

  4. This really tragic case was systematically examined by mystery writer Lawrence treat in a chapter in the multi-author work "New York Murders" in 1944. Its a kind of Mr. Goodbar murder three quarters of a century before, except there is no evidence Katie was sexually active. All of the 1900 newspapers refer to her "double life," whereas Treat just says that she interacted with many admirers -- shows how mores changed in those 40+ years. I have no doubt she was killed by one of them who she told that she didn't want to see him anymore -- a real sociopath, obviously. Treat examines Eisenprice's and Fred Scharn's alibis and finds them ironclad. I have always believed that it was the person who sent her the special delivery letter; that was a big thing in 1900 -- who would send one to a factory girl ? Inspector Harley, who Treat points out would have been the "czar" of the murder case under the procedure of the age (later things evolved so that no one person had such control) refused to answer repeated queries made by reporters about the special delivery letter. Was he shielding someone, say someone who was wealthy or had political connections (This was the heyday of tammany Hall)? Treat states, regarding those days of rampant police corruption, "Inspectors of the era had flexible consciences, not nonexistent one" -- he feels that the murder of a young woman could not be palmed off with a bribe. I don't know. Poor Katie !


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