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.
Frank, or Buck as everyone called him, was the oldest of the three. Starting when he was a teenager in the 1870s, he was well-known in several Brooklyn precincts. He had first been arrested for assault and battery in 1876. That adventure cost him two months in the Raymond Street Jail.
In July of 1877, he was arrested again, this time for robbing a Fulton Street liquor store. That misadventure landed him a two and a half year sentence in the penitentiary.
On the 18th of August, 1880, he was once more under arrest. This time, as he stood in the precinct house, handcuffed to a police officer, he was in much bigger trouble. The police had to go to Boston to get him, and they weren’t happy.
The police wanted Buck for a robbery of the William Tigney house, at 155 Henry Street, in the Heights. Mr. and Mrs. Tigney had been home when a tall, slender, well-dressed and good looking young man walked into their house and told them he would “blow their brains out” if they didn’t give him what he wanted.
He was accompanied by another man, and both were in their stocking feet. The Tigneys gave them money and jewelry. They climbed out the back windows of the house and fled through the back yards and onto the street, where they disappeared into the crowds.
Buck may have been rakishly daring, but he was no genius. He and his co-robber had taken their shoes off before entering the Tigney house, presumably in an attempt to sneak in. They both left their shoes neatly by the door. When they escaped from the house, they had never returned for them.
Buck’s shoes had a special custom patch and repair, and like Cinderella, it didn’t take the police all that long to find out who made that unique repair, and who’s stocking feet those shoes would fit into. The shoemaker had declared, “I fixed those shoes for Buck Walsh.”
Buck had already headed for Boston. Unfortunately, he got into a fist fight there, got a black eye and bruises, and came to the attention of the Boston police. He and others were arrested, and he gave them his real name. The Boston police thought the name was familiar, looked at a telegram from Brooklyn, and sent a telegram of their own.
When the case came to trial, only two weeks later, the damning shoes were produced. They fit Buck’s feet to a T. The cobbler who made them testified to that fact that he had repaired the shoe for Buck.
Buck was also identified by the Tigney’s, and by several other witnesses as being the man who broke in, robbed the couple, and was seen fleeing down the street. The jury was not out very long on this one.
Buck was sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing. His sentence began in the fall of 1880. He left his parents, sister and two brothers behind. He was 24 years old. His younger brother James was 18, and his youngest brother Dennis was 10.
A few months later, on January 15th, 1881, a group of convicts, including Buck Walsh, tried to escape from Sing Sing by crossing over the frozen Hudson River. Buck was well across the ice when a guard took aim at the back of the fleeing prisoner and fired his rifle. The bullet went through Buck’s neck, killing him instantly. He fell dead onto the ice.
Backtracking a bit, back in Brooklyn, James Walsh was still living with his long suffering mother. His father had either died, or Catherine had left him, because by 1880, she was Mrs. Catherine Duffy. Her new husband was a laborer. The family had moved to a flat on Navy Street.
James was 19 in 1881. He had a steady job working for the Benjamin Moore paint company, and had not been in any real trouble with the law. His mother said he was a serious lad, and always came home by 10 at night, and was never out with the ruffians of his neighborhood.
No one knows where James met Barbara Gronenthal. He was a tall, handsome young man, as charming as his older brother. Barbara was 16 to his 19 years. She lived with her mother, also named Barbara, at 20 Wallabout Street, not all that far away from his own home. Perhaps he saw her in the street.
James started calling on the pretty girl, bringing her small presents, and flattering her mother with complements. Mrs. Gronenthal liked him up to a point; he was polite, handsome, and had a steady job. James would come to their home and sit and talk to Barbara, always in her mother’s presence.
He wooed Barbara for several months, during the course of which he met her entire extended family. They noticed that while James was nice and polite, he was also extremely suspicious and jealous of Barbara whenever she wasn’t in his sight.
One time, Barbara had gone to visit her older sister and her husband. She ended up staying overnight. James had come over, and when he found out she wasn’t coming home, he flew into a jealous rage, wondering if something was going on with Barbara and her brother-in-law. The family started to worry, and were not all that pleased with his constant attention. They wanted the relationship to end.
He took her to a dance, and wanted to take her to another dance around Christmas 1880. But Mrs. Gronenthal said no. Barbara had told her that she really didn’t like James all that much after they had gone to the dance, as he had been very jealous when anyone came near her.
But James had come by the house on New Year’s Eve and spent the evening with the family. Barbara had just gotten a job as a house maid with a family that lived on Willoughby Avenue in Bedford, near Nostrand Avenue. The next day, he accompanied her to work, saw her into the house, and then left.
He came over for several days afterward, but Barbara was often at work. He sometime stayed at the Gronenthal house, falling asleep on the couch, waiting for Barbara. On one of his trips to the house, he gave her a ring, and announced his formal intentions. Barbara accepted the ring, but was not as overjoyed as he had hoped.
Something wasn’t right. The girl who was the love of James’ life was pulling away from him. He went to work, troubled.
Co-workers later testified that as he worked in the paint plant, he began asking them about how to best kill someone. He told them that he had heard that there were ways to stab someone with a sharp knife in such a way that they would not cry out, and would be dead in an instant.
He was only curious, he told them, but he was also seen taking his personal knife out and sharpening it, over and over, honing it until the blade was sharp enough to split hairs.
Barbara worked for the family of James Carlisle. He owned a printing company in Manhattan. The family lived at 502 Willoughby Avenue, between Nostrand and Marcy Avenues, in a Neo-Grec style brownstone that was less than 10 years old. The Carlisles may have been the first owners of the house.
When they moved in, the block was still being developed, and not all of the lots had been built on. Still, it was a classic brownstone block, promising to be quite handsome, and guaranteed by the developers to be quiet and peaceful.
Barbara had started her new job in the middle of December. Her duties were to attend the table at dinner, serve food and clear the table as the family dined. She also helped in the kitchen, aiding the cook in cleaning up, and being generally helpful. Even though she had only been with the family for two weeks, as the New Year dawned, she was well-liked by the family.
On the evening of January 3rd, 1881, the Carlisles had just finished dinner. Mr. Carlisle and his son were relaxing at the table with their cigars, and the ladies had gone upstairs. The lower doorbell rang, and Barbara went to answer it. James Walsh stood outside. The Carlisle’s daughter saw them from the parlor window. They stepped out into the yard in front of the lower gate and had a very short conversation.
James was agitated, and the two spoke briefly, and then Barbara pulled away, and went back into the house. She was visibly upset, but went back to her duties. James had been left outside in the cold. Barbara had not been wearing his ring, James had noticed, and had been angrier than she had ever seen him. She wished he would just leave and go home.
But James had other ideas.
Top photo: 502 Willoughby Avenue. Greg Snodgrass for PropertyShark