Walkabout: The Maid, the Murder, and Those Walsh Boys – A Brooklyn Tale, Part 3

Holy Cross Cemetery, Flatbush. Photo by Jim Henderson via Wikipedia

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

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.

Raymond St. Jail. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Raymond St. Jail. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Captain McLaughlin of the police department was sure that James had planned this murder, and was a cold, psychotic killer. He interviewed a worker who told him that James had asked where the heart was located in the body. James opened his shirt and had the man put his finger where the center of the heart was located.

James had also been asking his co-workers about the most painless way to die. Would it be a knife wound, a bullet or drowning? The men told him they had no idea, but figured that drowning would be the easiest way to go.

And most damning, a machine shop was located on the floor above the paint factory. Investigators found a machinist there who told them that James had come to him with his knife and wanted it sharpened. He said the knife was already razor sharp, but James wanted a sharper tip on his blade. The machinist obliged.

Famous murder weapons. Brooklyn Eagle, 1895

Famous murder weapons. Brooklyn Eagle, 1895

The police looked at James’ work station and found notes painted on the wall. They said, “We part to meet in heaven,” and “Goodbye forever.” Further questioning at Benjamin Moore revealed that James was not all that well-liked, and he was especially loathed by most of the girls who worked there, some of whom had been grossly insulted by him.

Captain McLaughlin and his detectives were also suspicious about the attempted suicide. They went to the scene and found that James didn’t drown that night in part because he was holding on to boards floating in the canal. All of the flailing around, splashing, and calling for help was premeditated theater, in their opinion, timed to coincide with the trolley car’s scheduled run past the Hamilton Avenue Bridge. They weren’t buying it.

They also weren’t buying the mood swings in the jail, or the loud wailings of loss and regret. In their opinion, James Walsh was a cold and calculated murderer who had gone to the Carlisle home with the sole intention of killing Barbara Gronenthal.

Barbara was murdered on January 3rd. The coroner’s inquest was two days later, the same day Barbara was laid to rest. The aforementioned testimony came out then. The Gronenthal family testified, as did the Carlisle family. So too did the trolley conductor, the pharmacist, and the police detectives who arrested him at the hospital.

During the inquest, James’ sister had been allowed to sit next to him. He spent the entire proceeding talking to her and ignoring the hearing, much to the horror and concern of his sister. At times, he was so loud that he had to be told to shut up. The coroner’s verdict was swift: James was to be held over for trial for the murder of Barbara Gronenthal. He seemed unconcerned, and was taken back to jail.

On March 23, 1881, the murder trial of James Walsh began. He was still 18 years old, with his 19th birthday coming up. His lawyer was going for an insanity defense, stating that James had been out of his mind at the time of the murder. He came from bad stock, his lawyer said, just look at his brother Buck, who had been sent away to prison for 20 years. His mother couldn’t handle the stress and drank. He was from Irishtown, one of the city’s worst areas.

His father had had epilepsy, and was prone to fits which made him unemployable, the lawyer continued. After several attempts to take his own life, James’ father had finally succeeded. His body was found in the Red Hook Channel at the mouth of the Gowanus. Investigators had determined that he had gone into the water near the Hamilton Avenue Bridge.

Gowanus Canal. Brooklyn Public Library

Gowanus Canal. Brooklyn Public Library

James’ sister testified that her brother suffered from the same melancholy that had overcome the father. He would often sit on his bed, with severe headaches, his body trembling under the pressure of an unknown force. He would sit and cry for hours, and often talked about suicide.

The anatomy lesson and the sharpened knife were for him, his lawyer said. He had intended to kill himself if Barbara didn’t love him anymore. Her death was an insane tragedy.

Furthermore, after the horrific act, he had been so taken with remorse and guilt that he had tried to end it all. He had gone to the Gowanus Canal location where his father had died years before. He would die there too. The lawyer argued that these were the actions of a young, foolish, and obviously insane young man.

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn Public Library

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn Public Library

The prosecution took the opposite approach. James Walsh was a cold, calculated criminal, like his brother. He was trouble at work, disrespected women, and was extremely jealous. When Barbara saw him for who he was, and rejected him, he had vowed to make her pay, the D.A. said. He had gone to the Carlisle house to kill her, and kill her he did, preparing his weapon, learning where to best strike, and how to get away.

According to the prosecution, James had planned the Gowanus “suicide attempt,” as he had planned everything else. Don’t believe the sob story about his family troubles, or the insane fit that had caused the murder, they told the jury. And please don’t believe that he intended to kill himself. He was guilty of murder and deserved to hang.

The jury agreed. They found James Walsh guilty of first degree murder and the judge sentenced him to death. He was to be taken back to the Raymond Street Jail, and on May 20th, 1881, he would be taken out into the courtyard to the gallows and hanged. His mother collapsed in the courtroom. His lawyer immediately filed an appeal.

A judge granted a writ of error and a stay of execution until that appeal could be heard. The error, the judge found, was in denying James an epilepsy defense. It had been determined that Buck also had epilepsy, it therefore ran in the family. Epilepsy was a brain disease; it was possible that it had affected James’s thinking or his judgement. That needed to be determined before hanging a man. He was entitled to a new trial.

The case went to the General Session in September of 1881. Both sides argued their case. In December, two of the three judges upheld the guilty verdict. The case went on to the Court of Appeals, and on April 11, 1882, the court upheld the verdict, as well. James Walsh was scheduled to die on June 23rd.

On May 6, 1882, an Eagle reporter went to Raymond Street to interview several people being held there for murder. James was one of them. He told the reporter that he was most worried about his sister and mother. He said his sister sat on the stoop thinking that every fair-haired young man that walked by was her brother. His mother was also inconsolable.

James also spoke of Barbara. He said that a day didn’t go by that he didn’t think of her. He had found God in prison, and he prayed for Barbara and his family every day. He was very sorry, but he still didn’t know what had really happened, he had no memory of the murder, and he must have been totally insane. He knew he was soon going to die.

But he didn’t. He got another stay. The day after his scheduled execution date, the Brooklyn Eagle editorialized about the case. When was it going to end, they asked? How many stays and appeals should the courts undergo before someone faces justice? How many times should the courts believe every guilty man who comes to court with the Bible clutched to his breast?

Walsh claimed to have insane spells. He hadn’t had any since he went to jail. “He was not sentenced to death for carrying his catechism or burying money in the dirt. He was convicted of murder and to save his neck must establish the fact that he was insane when he butchered his girlfriend.” The article went on to summarize that James was not going to get his sentence commuted, and it was cruel to keep him thinking that he might.

The courts agreed. On July 21, 1882, without a lot of fanfare or publicity, James Walsh was taken out of his cell at the Raymond Street Jail, walked up the steps of the gallows, a rope was put around his neck, and the 20 year old was sent to his Maker. The newspapers didn’t send a reporter, or even print a story. There is no record of a funeral or burial place.

Raymond Street Jail gallows. Correctionhistory.org

Raymond Street Jail gallows. Correctionhistory.org

He had a younger brother named Dennis, who was 10 when Buck went to jail and 14 when James was executed. Dennis, not surprisingly, didn’t turn out well either. In 1883, he got into his first scrape with the law. He was employed at a coal company. On March 14th, he had accompanied another employee to deliver a ton of coal to a customer. The driver was given a $10 bill to pay for the delivery. He told Dennis to go get change. Dennis took the money and never came back.

By 1891, Dennis was well known by the authorities. He had been in jail numerous times, and the penitentiary once. The last time he had been locked up in Raymond Street, he had tried to commit suicide by throwing himself from the third tier of the jail to the floor below. He was badly injured, but he survived. This time, the papers reported, he was in jail for ten days for loitering. Those Walsh boys were nothing but trouble, it seemed. What did you expect?

On May 8th, 1893, the State of New York executed one Carlisle Harris for the murder of his wife. He died in “Old Sparky” at Sing Sing Prison. When she heard the news, Catherine Walsh Duffy, the mother of the Walsh boys, went into convulsions. Great effort was taken to restore her, but to no avail. She stopped breathing and died.

Catherine had not had an easy time. Her two sons were dead, and the third was either in jail, or soon would be again. She had also been arrested several times for public intoxication. No one was surprised that she drank. Who wouldn’t?

Every time she read in the papers or heard about an execution, her eyes would roll back and she would go into convulsions. Over the years, the fits had been getting longer and more serious. This time, a stranger named Carlisle Harris had paid for more than one victim.

Catherine’s wake in Irishtowwn was large, but orderly. Many people were morbid curiosity seekers who wanted to see the mother of the infamous Walsh boys. The captain of her precinct was worried that something might happen, and sent two officers over to watch the crowd. Nothing happened. Poor Catherine Duffy’s soul slipped away, hopefully to a better place than this earth had been for her.

Holy Cross Cemetery photo by Jim Henderson for Wikimedia.

Irishtown, 1883, where the Walsh boys grew up. Artistswithoutwalls.com

Irishtown, 1883, where the Walsh boys grew up. Artistswithoutwalls.com

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