Monday, October 3, 2011

1920s Child Murders Unsolved in New Jersey

Kluxen woods
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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.


~ENVISAGE~ said...

What ever happened to Kluxen? Did he go on to live a long life? Did more murders continue? Very sad that those young girls suffered such brutality, with no justice for them by prosecuting the actual perpatrator!

Robert A. Waters said...

The last thing I could find out about Kluxen was in 1924. I, too, was interested in his later life and unsuccessfully looked up several sources trying to find out. I don't know if there were other girls who were murdered later. The ones I wrote about were killed during that stretch between 1921 and 1923.

~ENVISAGE~ said...

Wow- it is pretty amazing how the public continued to ostracize that man- nice that someone took him in under his wing to care for him- and still, to think those girls suffered with no further closure is the worst part! Thanks for the reply! Love reading your blogs! love writing in mine too! It is a great creative escape!

LibraryBlogger said...

Francis Kluxen Sayre died in 1971 in San Francisco, according to this genealogy link:

Love this blog, and looking forward to the upcoming book!

Robert A. Waters said...

Thanks. Great info. I see he served in the Marine Corps.

DanMaxx said...

My backyard is actually where we think the scene of the crime happened. When we moved into our home in 2004 weird things started to happen and one day in 2010 it dawned on me to research the murder - I had heard about it since it's part of the town's history and lore. My research in one afternoon led me straight to the library to read the Madison Eagle from 1921 and my hunch was confirmed -- my backyard was the scene of the crime. We held a meditation on October 6, 2010 (89 years after her death and her 100th birthday year) to help Janette pass on and since then we've not had real strange things happen. May she rest in piece. The picture you have on the site is not the site of Kluxen woods, btw.

DanMaxx said...

Kluxen actually served time in San Quentin - I belive it was for murder. He changed his name to Monell Sayre in his later years. Monell Sayre was the gentleman who adopted him after his trial in an effort to rehabilitate him. There was something obviously wrong with Kluxen mentally througout his life.

Jeanne Cornele said...

For the record her name is Janette not Janet and Kluxens' family were not poor

Jeanne Cornele said...

Just for the record her name was Janette not Janet and Kluxens' family was not poor

Kluxen said...

This is crazy. I am a Kluxen and I have relatives from Madison. There was once a Kluxen winery in Madison. I checked out a genealogy that was posted on facebook, and although there are many Francis Kluxen's, none died in 1971.

Natalie said...

My great aunt was friends with Janette Lawrence. She told me about the murder many times and was convinced that the girl's uncle had done it. He later ended up in a mental institution, according to her. There are some discrepancies on Kluxen's death, probably due to the name change after his adoption. This story has been eating me up for years! Janette is buried not far from where I now live.

Natalie said...

My Great-Aunt was a friend of Janette's and she told me about her murder many times over the years. She was convinced that the murdered was actually Janette's uncle, who later wound up in a mental institute. THere seem to be some discrepancies with Kluxen's death. Maybe it is due to the name change after his adoption? Ironically, I now live quite near to the cemetery that Janette is buried in. Her story has haunted me for years!

Sar said...

I was doing some genealogy research and found that I am related to Francis Kluxen. I was very interested in the story and did further research into his life.

After he was adopted by Sayre they moved to the Princeton area to escape the persecution from the townspeople. At some point the two of them had a huge falling out, and Francis joined the Army. He was stationed out on the west coast while he was enlisted.

It was there that he got himself into some trouble. He was arrested after he robbed and attacked two men with a meat cleaver.

Then he shot and killed a night guard, and was arrested for that as well. The jury ruled that he killed the man in self defense and he never served time.

He finally served time for burglary in the 30's with a scheme he had going with his girlfriend.

Eventually he gets married and has a daughter (if memory serves she was not his biological daughter)

He died April 25, 1971 in San Fran, Ca

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

I grew up across the street from the Kluxen Winery on Fairview Avenue in Madison. The lore on the story we always heard growing up was that the young girl was a family babysitter for the Kluxen's and was walking home though the woods. The Kluxen woods surrounding the property including a vineyard. Kluxens had a winery for over 100 years that was operational until 1973. They were not poor, and it was said that the child that may have committed the murder suffered from mental disease and was sent away following. Anyway, I lived there...that is the story we were told. I knew Mr. Herman Kluxen. He was kind and generous. Showed me around the winery as a little girl. Always let me play in the woods. One of my favorite places. Tracy Badcock

Unknown said...

Are there any pictures of the people involved in this tragic event. We are researching and are trying to make a picture board of the events and people involved.

Unknown said...

does anyone have access to pictures of the persons involved in this murder. We are trying to make a picture board and collect facts for a class project.