In the fall of 1923, an out-of-work painter in New York City named Harry Freindlich took out a $1,000 life insurance policy on his 28-year-old wife Leah and then smothered her in bed.
It’s not a particularly notable homicide. It vanishes in the Prohibition-fueled era of spectacular crimes. But it’s a personal favorite. I discovered it while researching my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, and to me it’s a still compelling tragedy. But I see it also an almost perfect murder, one barely caught by some trace clues found in a scene carefully set to evoke accidental death.
Freindlich was desperate for money during that chilly fall of 1923, just desperate really: jobless, unable to pay the rent, scraping for food for his family of six, afraid of being out on the street. And their home was a bare step above living on the street anyway, a battered tenement on Manhattan’s lower East side. The paint was peeling off the walls; the floors were splintered. They’d been patching the appliances together with cardboard, glue, solder, anything.
It was these one of these cracked appliances that gave him the idea, – a gas light in the bedroom with a troublesome broken fitting that he had soldered back together more than once.
During the 1920s, many homes – especially those in tenements and in the poorer neighborhoods – had yet to be wired for electricity. The lights and the stove were fed by illuminating gas, another name for a mixture rich in carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane, and other gases which, far too often, leaked from poorly joined fittings and cheap fixtures.
In a single year, chief medical examiner Charles Norris had recorded 618 accidental carbon monoxide deaths. There were also 388 suicides, and three homicides, the most inventive of which involved a man killed by having a gas tube forced in his mouth until the carbon monoxide killed him. The killer than put the dead man into a water-filled bath tub and reported his death as an accidental drowning. Unfortunately for the murderer, an autopsy revealed a curious lack of water in his lungs and a chemical analysis of the dead man’s blood showed it saturated with the poisonous gas.
Freindlich’s plan followed those lines. He put a pillow over his wife’s face, pressing it tight until she quit breathing. He then tossed the pillow aside and wrenched apart the soldered light. When he heard the hiss of the gas, he fled the room, closing the door sharply behind him, leaving his dead wife lying beside the baby son she’d brought to bed with her.
As the police pieced it together, he then walked out of the apartment, not trying to save the baby or any of other children sleeping there. He planned a new life, apparently, and he wanted no claims left from the old one.
But that tossed-aside pillow had dropped right on top of the sleeping infant. The little boy abruptly woke and began crying, struggling to get free. The Freindlich’s oldest child, a ten-year-old boy, heard his baby brother wailing and ran in to see what was wrong. He tried to shake his mother awake. She didn’t respond no matter how hard he shook her.
Now sobbing, he grabbed the baby and ran to the apartment next door. The neighbor grabbed a candle and hurried to check the darkened apartment. When she saw the dead woman in the bed, she ran to the grocer’s place downstairs to call the police.
At first, it easily looked like just another accident, maybe a suicide. Leah had been a sweet woman, the neighbors told the police, but worn down, just tired out. Yet there was something about the neighbor’s story that started to bother the beat cops. If there was a lethal amount of illuminating gas in a room, it tended to ignite in the presence of fire.
That was due not only to the flammable carbon monoxide and methane but the of the highly explosive hydrogen. Apartments in the city blew up on a semi-regular basis when someone unwittingly struck a match in a gas filled room. Norris’s office kept a file full of pictures showing blackened walls and fragmented furniture.
If gas poisoning had killed Leah Freindlich, there should have been enough carbon monoxide to flash to fire when the Good Samaritan ran in with her candle.
Back at the Bellevue morgue, the pathologist was suffering from a similar sense of disbelief. The dead woman was sheet pale, all wrong for carbon monoxide poisoning. As the gas saturated the blood, the resulting chemical reaction tended to flush the skin pink. But Leah Freindlich showed none of that rosy coloring.
Before even beginning an autopsy, he drew blood samples from her body and asked the city’s acclaimed forensic chemist, Alexander Gettler, to run an analysis of the blood. The lab report confirmed everyone’s doubts: the blood was loaded with carbon dioxide, a typical result of forced suffocation. But there was no evidence of carbon monoxide. When the pathologist looked more closely at the body, hidden in the hair at the back of her neck, he found a black bruising of fingerprints where someone had pressed, desperately tight.
Freindlich broke into sobs when he was arrested, begged the police to take him to the roof so that he could throw himself off. He couldn’t have killed his wife, he said, no one could have wished her harm. He couldn’t go to jail; what would happen to his children?
He wanted his old life back.
(I’ve used a couple of evocative photographs from the wonderful Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side. I gave a talk there earlier this year and took a tour. There are also beautifully finished recreations of old tenement apartments there and I highly recommend a visit.)