A New York City Haunting

It was a bitterly cold day in January 1921 and one of those dark winter days when the smog from the East River Power Plant had Manhattan island wrapped in a blanket of gloom by the middle of the afternoon. A dismal rain fell from the sky, mixed with cold sleet, making all of those who had business on the streets both wet and miserable.

It was from this dank weather that two homeless men entered an old house at the corner of Amsterdam and 116th, seeking refuge against the chill. They broke in through a basement window in the rear and found the place to be empty and abandoned. It as not uncommon to find such houses in this part of the city. The Harlem of 1921 was already an urban blight, although only a few years separated these once fine homes from the mansions and townhouses of upper crust New York in those days . Much to the concern of the New York City Police Department, many of the formerly splendid mansions on Amsterdam Avenue had been closed up over the years, providing ample hiding places for the homeless and the criminal element alike. The Roget Mansion, which the two winos entered in January 1921, was just such a place.

Finally, ducking in out of the rain and cold, the two men searched for a warm and comfortable place to spend the night. They were greatly annoyed though to find that the basement, while at least dry, reeked of some ungodly stench. The foul odor was nearly overwhelming and it seemed to be coming from a back corner of the cellar. The men looked around, expecting to find a dead cat or rodent that could be easily removed, but the basement seemed to be empty. Then, one of the them spotted the old steamer trunk that had been nestled into the shadows in the corner. As one of the men grew closer to it, the stench grew stronger. This trunk was apparently the source of the horrible smell.

He fiddled with the lock on the trunk and found that it was open. He carefully lifted the lid and as he did so, his scream and the sounds of his revulsion brought his friend over to his side. A rush of even fouler air swept over them both and only by clutching their tattered sleeves to their faces could they stop the overwhelming urge to vomit. They looked down into the trunk once more and saw what appeared to be a woman in the advanced stages of decay.

Fearing that they might somehow be blamed, the men ran from the old house, clambering back through the broken basement window. A few blocks away though, one of the men apparently had an attack of conscience and decided that to inform the police of what they had found. They managed to use a telephone in a local drug store and they called the 125th Street station house to report what they had seen. Before their names could be demanded of them, they hung up the phone and left the store. And vanished into the gloom of the New York afternoon.

The Roget Mansion was built at the corner of Amsterdam and 116th Street in the middle 1880’s, a time of great prosperity for New York City and for Harlem. The house was constructed by Augustin Roget, who made his fortune selling meat to the Union Army during the Civil War. During the war, Roget was plagued by rumors and scandal as there were claims that much of the meat that he sold was rotten by the time that it reached the troops at the front line. Some even claimed that it was rotten before it ever left the packing house and Roget was accused of marking up inferior cuts of beef to profit off the war. The charges never stuck though and thanks to Roget’s government contracts, he managed to amass a sizable fortune.

He would not be completely immune to disaster though. In 1904, Roget was a stockholder in the shipping line that owned the General Slocum, a pleasure ship that burned at the docks and several hundred lives. After an investigation revealed the decaying condition of the steamer, Roget was accused of negligence and New York society was scandalized. Rather than face prosecution, Roget went up to the attic of his mansion, placed a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Roget’s wife, Merriam, continued to live on in the house. Shunned by her former society friends, she became a recluse and rarely ever ventured outside. Neighbors claimed that she would occasionally be seen at the attic window, peering out, a burning candle in her hand. Eventually, she lost her grip on her sanity and she was taken away to a mental institution, where she later died.

The great old house was boarded up during the Great War and left to decay. By this time, the neighborhood had fallen into a state of disrepair and many of the mansions here had been left to the elements and to those who sought shelter in them against the weather, loneliness and despair.

It was in this state that the police officers from the 125th Street Station found the house when they answered an anonymous call about it in January 1921. The men forced open the front door and went down into the basement, where voices on the telephone had informed them that they would find the body of a young woman. A familiar stench of death greeted the veteran officers and they quickly discovered the steamer trunk. The young woman, or what remained of her, had been bound with wire and her neck had been crushed. The body had been scrubbed with lye and she had a number of broken bones, indicating that she had been badly beaten before she died. The killer had also stripped the girl and had cut her clothing to shreds, removing all of the labels that might have made identification easier. The detectives who arrived on the scene could only estimate her age to be around 28 and while she seemed to have no visible scars or markings, she did have bright red hair. The medical examiner estimated that she had been dead for about two months when she was discovered. A few warm days in early January had quickened the decay of the corpse but she had likely been killed in November.

Sadly, the case was just another murder for the overworked police department of the time and despite some amount of effort on the part of the detectives who were assigned to it, it quickly went nowhere. All efforts failed and months went by before a letter arrived from a priest in Boston who was searching for news of his missing sister, Mary LaClaire. The letter stated that she had gone to New York in early November to do some Christmas shopping and had simply disappeared.

A check of the hotels and the railway station revealed that she had checked a bad at Grand Central Station on November 5. When detectives opened the bag, they found that it contained a bundle of letters that had been tied with a blue ribbon. They were signed by someone named Charles and were postmarked from the main post office in Manhattan. One letter contained a photograph of an attractive, red-haired young woman and it was signed “to Charles with Love, from Mary”. The letters told a familiar story of a promise of marriage from an already married man. Mary LaClaire had obviously come to the city in the hopes that Charles would finally leave his wife for her. Unfortunately though, he never got the chance - she disappeared without a trace.

The police were sure that they had finally identified the murdered woman who was found in the Roget Mansion’s basement and now, thanks to the letters, they had a suspect in her death as well. Several policemen immediately went to the home of the man identified in the letters, only to discover a middle-aged clerk with a wife and three children. He had met Mary when he was in Boston for business and had gotten involved with her. He never planned to leave his wife though and he swore that Mary had never contacted him when she arrived in the city. The detectives grilled the man for hours and after carefully checking his alibi, were forced to admit that he was not involved in the murder. The best lead they had in the case had just played itself out.

But then the detectives began to discover some questionable information about the young woman who had been killed. It seemed that Mary LaClaire was not her real name at all. It was simply a name that she used when writing to various men that she found listed in lonely hearts club columns. She would make contact with them and then travel to New York to carry on affairs with them in her hotel. She had apparently made several of these trips to the city, and had met with a number of different men, but this time, she apparently met with the wrong one!

The investigators now had dozens of new leads to follow and they began tracking down the men that Mary had written to. They also investigated her husband, who lived in Boston and had no idea that his wife was involved in sordid encounters with other men. One by one, the police were able to clear the suspects and as time passed, less and less time was spent on this cold case. As other murders took precedent over the death of Mary LaClaire, her files began to be shuffled to the side and were eventually forgotten. It’s likely that the case would have never been solved at all if not for the ghosts!

According to those who still lived in the neighborhood, the Roget house had become haunted in recent months. On a number of occasions, the police had been called to investigate the ghastly screams and eerie lights that had been heard and seen in the house. On one occasion, a man peering into one of the dirty windows claimed to see the dim figure of a woman, suspended by her wrists from the ceiling. She was naked and bloody and appeared to be in tremendous pain. The man was even more frightened when the figure abruptly vanished. News of these strange events quickly spread and somehow, the rumors managed to reach a quiet priest in Boston who was intimately acquainted with the Roget Mansion and its horrors.

In August of that same year, a spirit medium named Julia Murray became involved in the Mary LaClaire case. Julia was a New York medium who had recently had some success in finding some missing children and her name had appeared in the newspapers. Soon after, she was contacted by a Boston priest who had been the brother of the murdered girl. He asked her to look into the case. He enclosed a check to her for $100 and asked that she bring his sister’s killer to justice, so that her spirit could rest in peace.

Julia then visited the local precinct house and asked permission to enter the Roget Mansion, which was still technically a crime scene. The detectives laughed when she explained who she was and why she wanted to go there but they agreed that as long as she did not cause any problems or withhold any evidence, then she was welcome to look into the case. By this point, it was no longer been investigated by the authorities and had been officially listed as “unsolved.”

On Wednesday, August 10, Julia entered the decrepit and decaying mansion. She noted the presence of a number of disturbed spirits and later wrote that “I could have spit in any direction and hit a spirit. The place was infested with them.” She also felt that the house lacked the impression of a crime scene because she believed the murder had occurred somewhere else. However, she planned to set up her camera to see if she could capture the likeness of the killer, or his victim, on the film. She had a 1915 Kodak Autographic camera that she used during her investigations, which took a glass plate and mounted on a mahogany tripod. She did not use any flash powder because she believed that the “spirits provide their own light.”

Over the course of a number of years, Julia collected a number of photographs during her travels that contained both clear and fogged apparitions that were purported to be ghosts. This case was no exception. The photographic plate that she obtained showed a shadowy man who was standing near a staircase. Julia noted in her journal that he was the spirit of a man who had taken his own life. She attempted to make contact with him but he torment was too great and she gave up. Whoever the man was (Augustin Roget? Julia did not know the history of the house during her visit), she did not believe that he was the killer of Mary LaClaire. However, she was able to obtain information from impressions that had been left behind in the house by the killer. Her notes include references to “a name like Berwyn or Baldwin” and a sickness that she believed was syphilis. In addition, she believed that a doctor had been supplying the man with drugs.

Julia tried two times to obtain photographs of the spirits who were present, still searching for that of Mary LaClaire and her killer. But each time that she set up the tripod, she reported that a cold wind came and blew it down. The room where she was standing became so cold that the lens of the camera fogged over, making it inoperable. This was especially amazing considering that it was a hot August day! Finally, she was able to get off one shot and then she grabbed her equipment and made a hasty retreat from the house. The finished plate showed the man that Julia believed had committed suicide in the house. Her camera had gotten her no closer to capturing the killer, but she had obtained amazing evidence that the house was haunted!

A few days later, Julia sent the impressions that she had collected in the house to the Boston priest and to the New York City police. She stressed that while there were many spirits in the house, the girl had been murdered elsewhere and the killer remained alive. Julia gave all of this information to the police and it was carefully filed away - only to come to light again a few months later!

In October 1921, the records of a Long Island doctor who was arrested for selling drugs mentioned a man named Stanley Baldwin whom he had been treating for an advanced case of syphilis. Questioned about this, the doctor admitted that the man had come to him the November before with severe lye burns on his hands. The address where Baldwin lived was a building in Long Island city. A search of the apartment revealed not only several bottles of lye but a cardboard box that contained lengths of wire, a crude whip with ball bearings on the ends and a sketch pad that contained drawings of a naked woman who was bound at her wrists. The search was quickly on for this new suspect!

Within days, a wallet belonging to a Stanley Baldwin of Long Island City was found on the stern of the Weehawken Ferry. Investigators speculated that he had jumped over the side and had drowned in the waters of the North River. His body was never recovered but the police now saw the murder of Mary LaClaire as finally solved.

The final news story about Mary’s murder applauded the “excellent police work” by New York’s finest, but made no mention of Julia Murray. The detectives and the newspaper reporters surmised that in his twisted mind, Baldwin had associated Mary’s red hair with the woman who had infected him with syphilis and he had taken out his revenge on her. It was thought that he had lured Mary to wherever he had killed her and had tortured and murdered her, then dumped her body in the basement of the Roget Mansion. The killer was now dead, they stated, and could do no further damage.

But were they right? At the time of her investigation of the house, Julia Murray stated that she believed the killer was still alive. She never changed her mind about that either, even after reading of when he allegedly went over the side of the ferry into the North River. And perhaps she was right - for according to sources, a number of murders occurred in upstate New York and in western New Jersey in 1923, 1925 and 1928. All of the murders bore a close resemblance to the murder of Mary LaClaire and none of them were ever solved. Was Stanley Baldwin still carrying out his fiendish revenge on innocent women? No proof was ever discovered to say either way.

The Roget Mansion burned down in 1932. The New York World newspaper reported in a July 12 story that two firemen swore that, after breaking open a door on the second floor, they saw a ghastly figure through the flames. They believed that it had been a red-haired woman who was hanging from the ceiling by her wrists and she screamed just moments before the firefighters were driven from the room by a collapsing roof. No body was ever discovered in the rubble and ashes from the fire.

So, who did haunt the old Roget Mansion? Was it Augustin Roget? Was he the spirit that Julia had captured with her camera and was he the man she believed had taken his own life? Or could the spectral image have been that of Stanley Baldwin? Could her camera have seen an impression of evil that had been left behind in the house - and could her senses have picked up a foreshadowing of the future when Baldwin would take his own life? And if Baldwin did die, then who committed the copycat murders in later years?

Although it has long been forgotten, the mysteries of the Roget mansion continue to live on!

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© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.