"...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, September 25, 2023

Dead in the Water: The Strange Murder of Benjamin Collings

As I have mentioned before, some mighty strange things happen at sea.  As the following story will show, that includes some mighty strange murders.

Benjamin Collings was the son of a wealthy New York physician, who augmented the family fortune by making a bundle as a stockbroker, then being shrewd--or lucky--enough to get out of the stock market the year before the crash.  He was one of the relatively few people who avoided having their lifestyles seriously impacted by the Great Depression.  He and his wife Lillian and young daughter Barbara spent most of their summers on their 30-foot cabin cruiser, the “Penguin.”  They lived quietly on the Penguin, with few visitors.  This suited Benjamin perfectly, as it allowed him to pursue his love for marine engineering.

Lillian and Barbara Collings, "New York Daily News," November 14, 2004, via Newspapers.com

September 10, 1931 was a clear, starlit night on Long Island Sound.  Around 2:30 a.m., one N.L. Noteman was hosting a fishing party aboard his boat, the “Valentine.”  Off Lloyd’s Point Light, Noteman saw a 30-foot cabin cruiser drifting aimlessly with no lights.  When hailing the oddly ghostly craft received no response, Noteman decided to board.

As the Valentine pulled alongside the vessel--which Noteman saw was named “Penguin”--two members of the fishing party thought they saw someone thrashing in the water about 50 yards away.  They also thought they heard a muffled cry.  However, when they reached the spot, they saw nothing but dark, calm water.  The Valentine returned to the Penguin, and Noteman and another man climbed aboard.

“Captain?” Noteman called out into the darkness.

A little girl’s sleepy voice replied, “I’m not the captain.  I’m Barbara.”

Noteman lit a match for light, but quickly extinguished it when the girl said reprovingly, “Daddy says never light a match in the cabin.”  Barbara turned on the lights.

The five-year-old girl was all alone on the ship.  The men saw that the floor aft of the cabin was covered with glass from a smashed milk bottle and spots of what appeared to be blood.  The anchor rope was severed, and the anchor was gone.  The men took the child aboard the Valentine and asked where her father was.

Barbara said placidly that he had gone swimming--with all his clothes on!

The men did not like the sound of that.  “Where is your mother?”

“She’s gone swimming, too,” Barbara replied.  She then casually said something about a sick man being aboard the boat the night before.  The girl, obviously unconcerned about her parents’ absence, started chatting cheerily with the fishing party.

The men really did not like the sound of all this.  It was decided to take the Penguin in tow and get the child to the police ASAP.

A short time after Noteman boarded the Penguin, Captain Harold Howard was setting off in his boat near Oyster Bay, when he heard someone crying for help.  He found a young, attractive woman crying and shouting hysterically from a small motorboat (named the “Bo-Peep”) that was about 25 yards from shore.  She turned out to be 28-year-old Lillian Collings.  Howard brought her to the nearest police station as well, where she told a tale straight out of some particularly lurid pirate movie.

Lillian explained that the night before, she put Barbara to bed and went above to sit on the deck with her husband.  Around 10:30, she too retired for the night, leaving her husband to stargaze.  A few moments later, she heard two strange male voices telling Benjamin that they had a wounded man in their canoe.  They asked Collings to take them to a hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Collings responded that he could not help them--the Penguin had no running lights, so he never operated it after dark.

The men offered Collings $100 if he would make the trip.  “Ridiculous!” Benjamin snapped.  “I can’t do it.”

Lillian said that the two men then somehow boarded the yacht.  She started to go on deck, but Benjamin ordered her to stay below.  She heard the engines start, and the Penguin began moving.  After a short while, it stopped.

“This isn’t Norwalk,” she heard Benjamin say.  “It’s Stamford.”

She heard sounds of a scuffle and breaking glass, followed by Benjamin yelling, “They’re tying me up!  They’re going to put me overboard!”

Lillian ran on deck just as the two strangers--whom she described as an older, white-haired man with a big nose and a slim blond youth of about 17--dumped her husband overboard.  She dashed back into the cabin, grabbed an inflated mattress, and threw it towards Benjamin. 

The older man then grabbed her and pulled her up on deck.  He gave her a pair of men’s tennis shoes to wear, and threw her into the canoe with them.  Lillian pleaded to bring Barbara along, but the men ignored her and paddled off.

At one point, Lillian said, the older man tried to have “abnormal relations” with her, but she was able to fight him off.  A while after that, the younger man exited the canoe when they were in about 3 feet of water and waded off to shore.  When Lillian was alone with the white-haired man, he again tried to force himself on her, but this time she was too exhausted to resist.  Just before dawn, he put her into the Bo-Peep and disappeared.

It was, of course, all very weird stuff, and the cops weren’t buying it.  For one thing, they found that the Penguin had been equipped with a .32 automatic and a Bowie knife.  Why didn’t Benjamin or his wife go for these weapons?  And why did Lillian, who was a good swimmer, stay on the Bo-Peep instead of wading to shore?  And why would these alleged miscreants attack and drown Benjamin, anyway?  What did they gain from this heinous deed?

A week after Benjamin disappeared from the Penguin, at least one part of Lillian’s story was verified, when her husband’s corpse, bound hand and foot, washed up on a Long Island beach.  Collings had suffered eight severe blows to the head, two hard enough to crack his skull.  However, the autopsy found that he died from drowning.

"Lancaster New Era," September 16, 1931

Suffolk County District Attorney Alexander Blue remained convinced that Lillian was telling a pack of lies.  However, when no less than 11 police interrogations--one lasting 13 hours--failed to shake her story in the slightest, Blue had no choice but to drop her as a suspect.

But if Lillian Collings did not murder her husband, who did?  That, detectives soon learned, was the tough part.  The few possible clues that trickled in were almost laughably flimsy.  A water-logged note was found in the sea.  The only legible lines read, “The Penguin murder…I took May home…Sing Sing…Lena came out…Sold without profit.”

This was about as helpful as you would think.

Police heard a rumor that Benjamin had impregnated an Italian farm girl who underwent an abortion at the hands of a “notorious criminal surgery ring.”  According to this tale, her family murdered Collings in revenge.  A colorful story, but one without a shred of evidence to back it up.  Lillian was shown a parade of all the area’s “usual suspects” but she failed to identify any of them.  A $2,500 reward found no takers.  Eventually, detectives were forced to give up, and Benjamin Collings’ murder drifted into that purgatory known as “the cold case file.”


  1. Lillian Collings's story could be essentially true but, as you pointed out, what would have been the motive for the murder? If the killers had intended specifically to kill Collings, why keep his wife alive? At least the police were suspicious - highly suspicious - even if it got them nowhere.

    1. I think what puzzled me the most is Barbara's weird nonchalance. If everything had happened as Lillian claimed, it must have caused a lot of disturbing noises that you'd think would have terrified the child. And then to be left alone on the boat after your parents go "swimming" in the middle of the night? And she's found as cheerful and perky as can be?

    2. I guess as she got older, she never had any more to add?

    3. Not as far as I know. Both she and Lillian seem to have disappeared into obscurity. I'd really like to know what, in her later years, Barbara thought had happened to her father.

    4. If strangers had forced their way onto the boat then the child would surely have heard the struggle and been alarmed by it. She was also old enough to know that it wasn't normal for people to go swimming while fully dressed or for her parents to just leave the boat like that. Her behaviour only makes sense if she had been told that it was all a game and that she should play along, and that makes Mrs Collings the only plausible suspect.

      It's also hard to believe that Mr Collings would have taken the time to provide such a clear and precise description of what was happening to him while fighting for his life.

      But the absurd story, the smashed milk bottle, and the obvious risks of attempting murder in such a confined space with a potential witness nearby, do make me wonder if Mrs Collings struck her husband with the bottle in a moment of rage, rather than any of it being premeditated.

    5. My thoughts precisely. I really wish I knew what sort of relationship the couple had at the time of his death. And how Mrs. Collings liked being stuck on a boat every summer while her husband played amateur scientist.


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