KC Courthouse, undated photo 1

If you are a fan of procedural cop shows, you are no doubt familiar with the character of the coroner or medical examiner. Since the days of “Quincy, M.E.,” we have grown to love the crusty and quirky personalities tasked with investigating the deaths of thousands of people in a given city.

Over the years, our TV coroners and medical examiners have changed. In today’s shows most of them seem to be black women. But no matter who is cast, on television they are invariably dedicated and brilliant doctors with a passion for finding the facts of a person’s death. They are immune to politics or profit, and serve only the law and the truth.

Well, back in 19th-century Brooklyn, things could be different. Our tale concerns the last mayor of Brooklyn, his administration and the two doctors who served as the last coroners of Brooklyn. (more…)

Murray, 783 St. Marks, postcard,

Inventor and business giant Thomas E. Murray died in 1929, just as the world was about to suffer through the Great Depression. He left his large family over $11 million, and a personal and company portfolio of over 1,100 patents. The story of his life, his family and his businesses can be found in Part One and Part Two of this story.

Following Murray’s death, his eldest son, Thomas Jr., became company president, and the work at the factory at 1250 Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights went on.

Thomas Jr. was a chip off the old block. He had inherited his father’s generosity and love of invention, and was a skilled inventor himself. He was an excellent businessman as well, even better than his father. In 1928, he was made a trustee of the Brevoort Savings Bank.

He was also a devout son of the Church, who like his father was sworn in as a Knight of St. Gregory, a singular honor bestowed on men of great faith. His home was down the street from Papa Murray’s house, at 800 St. Marks Avenue. For both Murrays, it was only a short walk up the street to get to work.


Murray, 1250 Atlantic Ave, R. Baird Remba 2

Brooklynite Thomas E. Murray was one of America’s greatest inventors. A colleague of Thomas Edison and the holder of 462 patents, Murray was responsible for developing much of the electrical technology we enjoy today. Electric signs? T.E. Murray. The dimmer switch? T.E. Murray. The designs for the power plants that bring us the power we take for granted? Yes, those were Murray, too. His base of operations was in Crown Heights, where he had his factory and his home. Part One of our story tells of his early days, his family, and his business ventures.

In the spring of 1920, Murray was given an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He must have been thrilled, since he’d been a working man supporting his family since the age of 10, and had never had the opportunity to attend high school, let along college. His success was a testament to hard work, self-improvement, and genius.

By this time, Murray was at the height of his success. His businesses were thriving, he was living in a mansion among fellow millionaires on the best block of St. Marks Avenue, and his many children were getting the educational opportunities he’d never had.

His eldest son, Thomas E. Murray Jr., graduated from Yale, and was also a mechanical wizard. He was being groomed to take over the companies after his father’s retirement or death. Another son, Joseph, also had the gift, and worked with his father. His daughters were doing well in marriage and family; the other boys were successful in school and work. He and his wife were on the boards of several charities, and gave generously of their time and money. (more…)

Murray, with Edison, temurray.com 1

As you travel east on Atlantic Avenue sometime, take a minute to notice the factory buildings on the south side of the street, between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. They are a bit hard to see, as one’s attention is distracted on the left by the rising elevation of the Long Island Railroad tracks as they come up out of the ground near Bedford Avenue.

Back in the 20th century, these buildings belonged to one of the greatest inventors in Brooklyn, a man named Thomas E. Murray.

Murray has the distinction of being the second most prolific holder of patents in the United States, surpassed only by Thomas Alva Edison, his friend and colleague. Yet most people have never heard of Murray, and fewer still know that these long factory buildings with rows of windows stretching along Atlantic Avenue were the headquarters for the Metropolitan Engineering Company, Murray’s company.

If you are a follower of the Southampton, Long Island, crowd, and the history of the rich and famous who have summered there for over a century, the Murray name may ring a bell. Murray’s extended family was part of the “Golden Clan,” wealthy Irish Catholics who helped build Southampton into THE posh summer village of the rich. That seems as far away from a gritty Brooklyn factory as one could get. We’ll get to that part of the story later. (more…)

Holy Cross Cemetery, Flatbush. Jim Henderson, Wiki 1

Pretty 16 year old housemaid Barbara Gronenthal was dead, and her boyfriend, James Walsh killed her. Now he was in jail, awaiting his murder trial. Would he end up like his older brother, sentenced to Sing Sing Prison, or, as we learned in the last chapter, would his fate also match his brother’s – death?

James Walsh sat in Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail alone and friendless. His mother, Catherine Duffy, came to visit him once, and left shortly thereafter, weeping bitterly. The guards told reporters that James would be calm and quiet in his cell, and then suddenly rage and throw himself at the bars. He also liked the prison food, which in their estimation proved he was insane.

An autopsy was conducted before Barbara was returned to her family for burial. It determined that the four inch knife had been plunged into her heart up to the hilt, killing her in minutes. She never had a chance. Her funeral took place on January 6, 1881. Only her mother, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, and a few family friends followed the funeral procession to Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. The Carlisle family was not there.

Investigators went to talk to anyone who knew James Walsh. They visited his job and found out a lot of information that was not positive for James’ case. His supervisor said that James had been a fine worker until about a year ago, when his brother Buck had been arrested for the home invasion robbery. After that, James had started to pick fights with management and with fellow workers.

The day James killed Barbara he had suddenly taken off from work in the afternoon, and never came back. That was it for his supervisor, who told other workers that if James came back the next day, he was going to be fired. (more…)

Gowanus Canal, 1905, BPL

This is the story of two poor families in Brooklyn and a terrible crime. In the first episode, we met one of the ne’er-do-well Walsh boys and his sweetheart, 16-year-old Barbara Gronenthal, who worked as a maid for a well-off family in Bedford in 1881.

Barbara was eager to please her employer, the Carlisle family. They lived in a four story Neo-Grec brownstone on a quiet block filled with similar houses, part of the great building frenzy that had overtaken Brooklyn.

Like many upper middle-class families, they had at least one live-in servant, as well as help like Barbara and the cook, who were day workers.

Barbara lived in Brooklyn too, but not in a fine brownstone. (more…)

Walsh, 502 Willoughby, GS, PS

Everyone who knew the Walsh boys knew they would come to a bad end.

Brooklyn in the 1880s was a lot like today, with expensive neighborhoods and wealthy people, and those who served them. If you were poor, uneducated or an immigrant, sometimes you had to do unpleasant jobs to survive. In 1880, there was no social safety net.

The alternative was starving or becoming a criminal. For some people it was just more satisfying to simply take what others had worked for. That’s certainly what Frank “Buck” Walsh believed.

The four Walsh children came from a poor family. Their father had not been right in the head since he fell down and cracked his skull when the eldest, Frank, was a child. Their mother, Catherine, had to struggle to make ends meet, taking in washing and odd jobs to feed her children and husband, who could only work sporadically.

The family lived in a tenement in what is now Dumbo, one of the poorest areas in the city. Catherine often drank too much, and was unable to keep track of what her three boys were doing. Fortunately, her only daughter turned out alright, got married, and was a help to her parents. But no one could stop the boys from getting into trouble. (more…)

Ward Bakery, Wardbakingcompany.com 1

The Ward Bakery Company was founded in 1849, in a small bakery on Broome Street, in Manhattan. Eighty years later, the company was the largest commercial bakery in America, serving most of the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.

The company boasted in all of their advertising that no human hand ever touched their signature Tip Top bread as it made its way from bags of ingredients down to the finished wrapped and sealed product. It was all automated, even in 1911, when their Bronx and Brooklyn factories opened for business.

The details of the Ward family and their baking history can be found in Part One and Part Two. Robert and George Ward, the grandsons of the company founder had taken the company well beyond James Ward’s wildest dreams. (more…)

Wards Bakery, ballpark, 1915 Baseball Magazine 1

The Ward Bakery Company was one of Brooklyn’s largest commercial bakers, operating at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1911, their huge new gleaming white factory on Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue began producing the first of millions of loaves of bread that would roll down their assembly line.

Ward’s was at the vanguard of a new kind of commercial baking. Gone were the bakers hand kneading their dough and shaping their loaves. Ward’s perfect loaves of bread were never touched by human hands.

As told in Part One, automated machines guided the baking process from the measuring of the flour until the packaging of the finished product. The customer’s hand that opened the package and lifted out that fresh loaf, ready to be sliced, was the first human hand on each loaf. Their advertising proudly proclaimed this, a guarantee of pristine freshness.

The new plant and all of Ward’s activities were the brainchild of the Ward family. The company had been started by James Ward in 1849, in a little bakery shop in Manhattan. James’ son Hugh, and his sons Robert and George had taken the company first to Pittsburgh, and then in 1910, back to New York.

In the years between, they had grown the company and were among the largest commercial bakers in a territory covering the market from Chicago to Boston, New York and Pittsburgh.

The new plant in Brooklyn had a twin in the Bronx, built at the same time. Both plants produced Tip Top Bread, the company’s signature loaf. These two factories produced all of the Ward’s bread sold in the metropolitan area. (more…)

Ward Bakery, Ad for opening, BE, 1911. 2

Many fortunes have been made by providing the public with the basic products of life. One doesn’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Take bread, for instance. For centuries, people have made their own bread. But for almost as long, there have been bakers who would do it for them. No one ever turned away a good baker.

For the busy urban household, bread making was time consuming, even for servants. If you’ve ever made bread, you know you have to set the yeast, mix the ingredients, let the bread rise several times, beat it and knead it to create gluten, and then let it rise again before actually baking. Or you could go to the baker and buy it.

The baker would also be able to make different kinds of bread, perhaps rolls, too, and even pastries. A baker and his bakery was an important part of the community. Interestingly, for centuries in Europe and America, the baker has generally been a man.

In 1849, a baker named James Ward and his son Hugh opened a one-oven bakery on Broome Street in Manhattan. A few years later, in 1852, Hugh and his wife Eliza welcomed young Robert into the world. (more…)

Yale Law School. SSPellen 1

This is the story of wealth, hurt feelings and stubbornness in a Brooklyn family, and the greed that surrounded the entire affair. In Part One, we met the Brasher family, millionaire residents of Park Slope. Widowed Mrs. Brasher did not like her only daughter Louise’s choice of husbands, and cut Louise and her daughter out of her large will.

Part Two is the story of the trial to break the will. At the end, Louise Bain lost, and unless the decision could be overturned by the Appellate Court, Louise and her family would never see a cent of her parents’ money.

When the case went to the jury in 1920, they pondered long and hard, pouring over the lengthy will, plus the four codicils, and days of testimony. At last they thought they had found a Solomon-like solution. Hidden deep in the original will was a bequest for Louise, after all. She was left a trust fund of $50,000 out of the $1,200,000 estate.

The jury voted to give that to her, plus $10,000 for attorney’s fees, and a $10,000 bequest already in the will for her son, William Clayton. They decided after 12 hours of deliberation to throw out the codicils which would have left Mrs. Louise Bain with nothing.

But when they made the announcement in court, they inadvertently set in motion a clause in the will that totally disinherited Mrs. Bain. The clause stipulated that she would get nothing if she contested the will. How they all missed that is inexplicable, but now Mrs. Bain could not legally receive any money.

The jury was devastated. (more…)

119 Henry St. Bain story, SB, PS

In Part One of our story, we met Louise Bain, who was disinherited by her wealthy Park Slope mother, Martha Brasher. In this installment, which takes place in 1920, the daughter tries to overturn her mother’s will.

Mrs. Bain sued, trying to break the will. She and her attorneys argued that her mother was not in her right mind when she cut her out of the will. They also argued that Mrs. Brasher’s lawyers had too much influence, as they were executors and beneficiaries. 

The Church Charity Fund, which received half the estate, teamed up with the lawyers for the executors to prove Martha Brasher sane, Louise Bain a horrible daughter, and the will valid.

All sides put forth a good case for their points. The trial lasted a week before the jury received the case. After long deliberation, they returned with a verdict upholding the will. Mrs. Bain lost. Then the story takes a strange turn. (more…)