Murder in Kluxen woods
by Robert A. Waters
On October 6, 1921, in the northeastern United States, the bloody murder of twelve-year-old Janet Lawrence supplanted the World Series as the lead headline of the day. (The Yankees, with an injured Babe Ruth, had won the first two games but would eventually fall to John McGraw’s New York Giants.)
An International News Service article described the murder of the Madison, New Jersey schoolgirl: “A state-wide alarm was sounded today for the maniacal slayer of little 12-year-old Janet Lawrence, whose body, pierced by 25 stab wounds, was found in Kluxen woods, near here. [She] was found lying in a pool of blood. Her heart had been pierced and her throat slashed by the unknown slayer. After school hours, Janet frequently took a walk in the woods.”
In the jargon of the day, newspapers reported that the child had been “criminally assaulted.” Lieutenant W. J. Ryan of the Madison Police Department stated that in addition to the stab wounds, a handkerchief had been tightened around Janet's neck and her hands and feet were tied. The victim’s face, neck, arms, and body had been slashed with what police believed was a pocketknife. Ryan informed the press that investigators believed “a greenhouse worker was responsible for the murder” because the rope used to tie the knots was the type of hemp used in tying rose-bushes.
It was indeed a heinous crime, but police seemed lost in their efforts to apprehend the killer. Having no real suspects, investigators took a shotgun approach and began arresting anyone who may have been close to the scene as well as those who had no connection to the case at all.
First there was Francis Kluxen, 14, who admitted that he had been target shooting in the woods at the same time Janet was murdered. However, he stated that he’d been far away from where the girl’s body was found and had heard nothing. There was no blood on his clothing, and no rope was found in his possession. He did have a Boy Scout pocket knife, but there was no blood on it. The county prosecutor quickly released the boy, citing a lack of evidence. In an unusual indictment of the police department, the jurist accused investigators of arresting Kluxen simply because he was the only person known to be in the area at the time.
Police released a statement saying that they were looking for a “wild, roughly dressed” man seen near the site of the murder. Frank Felice fit the profile and was arrested. He was homeless, squatting in a hut near Glenridge, New Jersey. A neighbor told police that based on the description, he looked like the suspect. There was no other evidence against the “wild man” and he, too, was quickly released.
A reward of $1,000 was offered by the Madison town council for the arrest and conviction of Janet Lawrence’s killer.
Frank Ruke, described as a “ragged wanderer,” was the next in line to be arrested. He’d been seen walking near Kluxen’s woods and acting “suspicious.” He refused to speak to detectives, so in an effort to get him to talk, investigators took the vagabond to the scene of the crime. As he was led into the woods, Ruke fought against the cops. News reports stated that “the officers tried to induce the man to look at the spot [where Janet was murdered], but he struggled and turned his face away.” He screamed for the police to kill him, and was lucky they didn’t. He was eventually released for lack of evidence.
On October 27, headlines sounded an alarm: there had been another crime against a child. United Press reported that “the mysterious disappearance of Stella Ostrosky, six years old, Thursday, led to fresh reports about a New Jersey wild man who is suspected of carrying off children. Stella vanished during recess at the country school she attends near Fresh Pond last Tuesday. Her disappearance came at a time when the mysterious murder of little Janet Lawrence in Kluxen woods near Madison, where she was hacked with a knife, was still unsolved: and where the people of Westwood were hunting a wild-looking man who attacked a young woman there and cut off her hair. Investigators believe all these crimes may have been committed by the same man.
“One man is in jail as a result of the epidemic of crimes against women and children. He is Louis Lively, negro, accused of murdering a little girl at East Moorestown, N. J. But the latest hair clipping and the disappearance of Stella occurred after Lively was locked up.”
The Madison police arrested Frank Jancarak after a former co-worker told investigators that he’d confessed to the murder of Janet Lawrence. (The former employee had been fired from his job at a greenhouse managed by Frank’s brother and was likely seeking revenge.) Even though there was no other corroboration of Jancarak's guilt, the case actually went to trial. He was acquitted. Members of the jury told reporters that there was no evidence against him except his co-worker’s dubious claim that he’d confessed.
One year after the murder, Madison police re-arrested Francis Kluxen. This time they weren’t going to back down. The teenager's trial lasted a full week. Kluxen took the stand and gave the jury a minute-by-minute account of his whereabouts on the day Janet was killed. After a short deliberation, the young man was acquitted. Once again, jurors told reporters that the state had presented no evidence against Kluxen.
Madison police had already convicted Kluxen in the media and when he was found not guilty, the town exploded in anger. Investigators were furious and threatened to have him tried again. They were stymied only when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a new trial would be unconstitutional.
After his release, Kluxen was subjected to horrific abuse. In one instance, four men in a passing car fired several shots at him. He could go nowhere without his neighbors taunting him. The local police not only would not protect the teen, they added to his misery by continuing their media attacks on him.
Kluxen's parents were poor, and his plight caught the attention of a millionaire banker named Monell Sayre. Originally from Madison, Sayre, a bachelor, had taken an interest in the case from the beginning. As he watched the boy's persecution, the kindly businessman felt the need to do something. He invited Kluxen to stay in his mansion for a few days. The bachelor and the beleaguered teen got along so well that those days turned into weeks, then months. Still, Kluxen’s troubles didn’t end.
When Sayre took the teen to the Episcopal church that he attended near his home in Convent Station, they were both sent packing. Sayre was told that he could come back, but not with the “killer.” Townspeople threatened Kluxen so that he became a prisoner inside Sayre’s mansion. Sayre, enraged, publicly declared that he would adopt the boy and leave his inheritance to him. He told the press: “On account of four attempts to assassinate the boy within two weeks of his acquittal, I deemed it my Christian duty to take him to live with me.”
Two years later, with the Janet Lawrence case still unsolved, another girl was murdered. Bricksboro high school student Emma Dickson, 15, was stabbed to death and hidden in a patch of woods near Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. A farmer who lived nearby was arrested after Emma’s father told authorities that the man had invited her to take a ride with him. But he was quickly released and the case went unsolved for several months. Then, in a stunning sequence of events, her father, Thompson Dickson, was arrested. Tried for the murder of his own daughter, Dickson was acquitted.
The Madison Police Department had attempted to railroad several innocent men for the murder of Janet Lawrence. Had either Francis Kluxen or Frank Jankara been convicted, the case would have gone down in the books as having been "solved." History would have been written differently, and, as it often is, it would have been wrong.
Francis Kluxen was adopted by Monell Sayre. The old man was able to provide a luxurious, if lonely, life for the once-poor farm boy.