Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Day Lynch Mobs Roamed the Streets of the Big Apple

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Child’s rape and murder brings out primal instincts
by Robert A. Waters

The corpse looked like a rag doll splayed across a filthy bed. On the floor were pyramids of empty beer cans, hundreds of cigarette butts, rotting pizzas, a child’s purple snowsuit, underpants, and shoes.

It was February 22, 1961, and the frigid streets outside were teeming with blue-suited cops. They were searching for hazel-eyed, golden-haired Edith Kiecorius. The Chelsea section of Manhattan from which she’d vanished seemed to consist of endless rows of tenements. Cops trudged down dark corridors, knocking on door after door of the depressing $8.00-a-week rooms. One had a locked steel door. It was on the second floor of a row house at 307 West Twentieth Street. Police officers periodically rapped on the door, but no one answered.

Police cruisers and “sound trucks” with microphones crept up and down the streets blaring descriptions of the missing girl. Helicopters flew low over roof-tops and police dragged the nearby Hudson River. A special team searched cellars of every apartment and business in the area.

A few hours before, Edith had been playing outside, just two blocks away from where her now-lifeless body lay. Manuel Duclet, her uncle, had watched as she skipped and hopped along the sidewalk. After a while, he stepped across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes. When he came back, Edith was gone.

One day passed, then two, then three as the media ratcheted up its coverage to a fever pitch. Where was the little girl they called “Googie?” Had she been snatched by a mother who wanted a child? Had she wandered away and been lost? Or had something more sinister befallen the child?

Her mother, a widow, could barely speak through her grief, although she made one poignant statement to the press: “Only a mother can understand the way I feel...” She couldn’t finish her thoughts without bursting into a torrent of tears. Edith’s uncle was said to be in shock.

On the fourth day, a tenant told police of a suspicious character who lived in one of the apartments on 307 West Twentieth Street. Officers crashed down the steel door and rushed into a nightmare.

Interviewing the landlord and the tenant, investigators learned that a man named Fred J. Thompson had rented the room. He was a short, toothless derelict with red hair and a British accent. He’d left his room shortly after Edith disappeared and hadn’t returned.

When the police commissioner informed Edith’s mother that they'd found the child's body, she began screaming.

Fred J. Thompson had a minor arrest record and police quickly obtained his fingerprints. They matched the prints found on the beer cans in the room where they’d found the girl. Police now began a manhunt unlike anything ever seen in New York City.

Newspapers reported the suspect’s name and published a bio of sorts. It was reported that Thompson was indeed from England and had abandoned his family fifteen years before. He’d migrated to America where he worked menial jobs, none of which lasted for more than a few days. As soon as he had enough money to go on a drinking spree, he would abandon his employers much like he abandoned his family. A photograph of Fred J. Thompson headlined every newspaper in the northeast.

When it was learned that Edith had been raped and savagely beaten from head-to-toe, a primal shock stunned New Yorkers. Vengeance hung in the air like poison.

One week after the girl vanished, a man applied for a job at a chicken farm in Manchester Township, New Jersey. Max Pesko, the farmer who hired the stranger, recognized him as the wanted man even though he called himself “John Andrews.” After consulting a newspaper photograph to make sure, Pesko called police. Soon Thompson was in custody.

He quickly confessed. “It was the worst crime I’ve ever heard of,” he told cops. “And I committed it.” He stated that he saw the girl playing alone and approached her. Smiling at her, he said, "I have a little girl like you, but she's sick at home. Would you like to come and visit her?" Once he got Edith into his room, he said, he couldn’t control himself.

A March 1 article in the Red Bank (NJ) Register, described lynch mobs forming in Manhattan. It read: “Thompson spent last night in a cell at the Beach Street police station, far from the scene of the crime, where he was booked on a homicide charge. He was taken there by police to ‘avoid trouble’ after a surging, chanting crowd of about 500 appeared at the West 20th Street station near the murder scene. ‘We want the murderer,’ [they shouted]. ‘Hang him like an animal. Hang him.’”

On that same day, little Edith Kiecorius was laid to rest at the St. Rose of Lima Church. A spokesman for the congregation told the press that “in the eyes of the church she is equivalent to an angel, being an innocent child.”

At trial, Fred J. Thompson received the death penalty. A year later, however, he was committed to a mental institution.

9 comments:

Liz said...

This is the first time I've ever heard of this case. Was Thompson ever convicted? I can't find much about him online.

Robert A. Waters said...

He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. However, about one year later, he was sent to a mental institution. As far as I know, he was never executed. I got my information from newspaperarchive.com.

Liz said...

I wonder if he just passed away in the institution. It's hard to find any news on this story. Great job on the article.

John L said...

Yes, I remember this story all too well. I was 9 years old at the time. The newspapers, the television, the radio and people on the street were rattled. My mother was visibly upset about this as this was something unheard of at the time and she just could not accept such a tragedy. The good of this was my mother was an effective communicator and instilled in me and my sister to be tuned into people, especially strangers. She was amazing in that at our young age we knew how to "read people" and understand their possible motives and always, always to be alert and suspicious and to avoid them and never let them get close to you. My sister had cerebral palsy and could not run quickly. We were extremely close as she was 3 years my senior. She was very protective of me and was always wary of strangers. If any stranger came remotely close to us she would scream so loudly they would run from us. Her voice was so powerful you can hear her for blocks and in those days neighbors would run out to the street or look out their windows to see what's "going on". If they saw something, they not only said something, they did something. Not like today, too much apathy. The Fred Thompson story and Edith Kiecorius was unheard of in 1961. Remember these were "safe times". Nothing like this ever happens! There were pictures of Edith posted all over the city and in the newspapers and on the front pages. Once Thompson was apprehended his pictures were front page news and people were outraged. I remember this as if it were yesterday. Probably because it was such a terrible tragedy and that everyone and I mean everyone was frightened by this and you can see this everywhere in the city and it was pervasive to the point of obsession. Although I was only 9 years of age then, I will never ever forget this sad story and that young baby girl brutally murdered senselessly! It's something I cannot comprehend and never will.

Robert A. Waters said...

John L., Thanks for your first-hand account.

Liz said...

Mr. John - I agree there is too much apathy in our country & communities today. It's remarkable to hear your first-hand account of the story. Thank you!

dennis a. said...

Fred thompson,
I remember this story quite well, all the nyc newspapers ran with it in the daily's,back then we had about 8 different newspapers here in nyc. I was 9 years old when it happened. I also remember the coney island wax museum had a wax figure on display in 1962 & the years following ,showing fred thompson sitting in glass enclosed small room, he was shown sitting at a old wood desk, his fist was clenched and he had a three thousand mile stare in his eyes,, very scary for a ten year old kid to see, he had red stripped pajama's on *It was very impressive to see ! it looked so real and life - like !! This skell and his worthless balls should have received the death penalty & been executed.....i wonder how many years he lived in the system?. it was a heart wrenching terrible story....that poor mother what she went thru just knowing how her daughter suffered and was murdered,,,,,,,,.tragic thing to live with,,,,,,.

Darleen Addis said...

I remember this well and I was only 5 at the time. He was caught about a mile up the road from where we lived in NJ. Even though he was captured I was so scared he was going to escape jail and get me. What a fright. I never forgot his name or what he looked like from the papers.

Dennis Alestra said...

Edith Kiecorius (1956 - 1961) - Find A Grave Memorial

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