Murder and Mayhem in the Family Tree

This may seem like a strange topic to post so close to the holidays, but it deals with some information that I have just recently found. It was on my mind, so I decided to post it now rather than later.

For the most part my ancestors and their relatives led very normal, ordinary lives. Most of them were law-abiding, upstanding citizens. Not to say they were perfect. Naturally, there were some scandalous behaviors and skeletons in the closets. There were children who were born (or at least conceived) out-of-wedlock. There was also the 2x great uncle who died of exposure when he fell down drunk coming home late one cold winter night and was not found until morning! Tragic, but not criminal.

Every once and a while, however, I actually do come across someone in my extended family tree who finds themselves on the wrong side of the law. My latest discovery happened just a few days ago. I was looking through an online newspaper collection for obituaries from the late 1940’s when a headline about a murder arrest caught my eye. I was pretty sure the person being arrested was in my database, and sure enough he was. He was my Dad’s second cousin!

I immediately stopped the obituary search and looked for more articles regarding the murder. The case was more like a soap opera plot than real-life: A presumably happily married man with a young child has a long-term affair with a beautiful divorcee. After a weekend away with buddies on a hunting trip, the man goes to visit the divorcee late Sunday night. He lets himself into her apartment with his key and finds her dead in the bedroom. Panicked, he rushes out of the apartment, leaving the door unlocked (and maybe slightly ajar), tosses the keys into the river, goes home and tells no one. The next day he tries to go to work as usual, but he is too upset and comes home at noon and confesses to his wife about the affair and the dead body.

In the meantime neighbors alert the police and the body is discovered. Apparently the affair was not a really well-kept secret since it didn’t take long for the police to track the man down for questioning. Forensics in the 1940’s not being what it is today, there was a discrepancy among the doctor who examined the body and funeral director as to the time of death. Turns out the last time the divorcee was seen was Friday night, leading some to believe that’s when she was murdered. This was also consistent with the opinion of the funeral director based on the decomposition of the body. In this case, the man has an air-tight alibi since he was on his hunting trip. But the doctor, who is relatively inexperienced with corpses, thinks the murder could have occurred within a few hours of the discovery of the body on Monday morning – which naturally leads the authorities to suspect the man killed her on his Sunday night visit.

As you can well imagine, the police and district attorney wanted to solve the case quickly. Thanks to the doctor’s testimony regarding time of death and the perceived guilty behavior of the man (not reporting the murder, throwing away his keys and originally lying about even having keys) they think they have the killer. They bring him to trial and the man is convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten to twenty years. Despite this, he has some ardent supporters and even the tone of the newspaper articles seems sympathetic toward him. Subsequent articles show the case was appealed, but lost in a split decision. Shortly thereafter, however, the sentence was reviewed by the Board of Pardons and the sentence commuted.  I believe he served about 3 or 4 years of the original sentence. To the best of my knowledge, he and his wife reconciled.

The whole thing has gotten me to wonder if my father knew this man was his cousin back when the drama was unfolding. (My father passed away many years ago, so I can’t ask him.) Although they were second cousins, there was a big age difference between the man and my father, with the man being about fifteen years older than my Dad. The man’s father would have been my grandfather’s first cousin. There was about a ten year age difference between them. I have to think they knew each other even if they weren’t close. They did after-all live in the same town. I wonder what my Dad and Grandfather were thinking back then. Did they support the cousin? Were they too ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge him? It’s all just very strange and just goes to show that you never know what’s lurking in your family tree!

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