Date: July 29, 1870
Location: New York, New York
Victim: Benjamin Nathan
Cause of Death: Blows to the Head
Accused: Washington Nathan, William Kelly, Billy Forester, Daniel Kelly
July 1870 was oppressively hot in New York City and the Nathan family was staying at their country home in Morristown, New Jersey. Benjamin Nathan, aged 56, came from a prominent Sephardic Jewish family and was a respected member of the New York Stock Exchange. He regularly commuted, that summer, from New Jersey to his Broad Street office and on occasion would spend the night at his townhouse on West Twenty-Third Street. Nathan and his two sons, Frederick, age 26, and Washington, age 22, surprised Mrs. Kelly, the housekeeper, when they arrived to spend the night on July 28. The house was in the process of being redecorated and the furniture was in disarray. The bedstead in Mr. Nathan’s room had been taken down so he had Mrs. Kelly make a temporary bed of mattresses on the floor of the small reception room leading to his office on the second floor. He had some work he wanted to do before bed. Nathan’s sons slept in their rooms on the third floor. Mrs. Kelly slept in the rear of the second floor and her son William slept on the fourth floor.
Officer John Mangam was put in charge of the crime scene. Officer Mangam, who had been walking the beat on Twenty-Third Street that night, said he had tried the front door of Nathan’s house, once at 1:30 and again at 4:30, as was his custom, and found it locked both times. There were no marks on the lock of the front door to indicate that it had been picked. Mangam later found that the basement door was unlocked—though there was no evidence that anyone entered through the basement, and it was suggested that the killer had unlocked it from the inside for misdirection. John Nies, a newsboy delivering papers that morning, found the front door open at 5:10 a.m. He also witnessed a man, “dressed as a mason,” pick up a scrap of paper that looked “like a check” from the steps of the Nathan’s house and walk away with it.
The inquest on the murder, which lasted nearly a month, appeared to be as much about exonerating Washington Nathan as determining the true killer. He provided a detailed, unabashed account of his whereabouts the night of July 28; he had drinks at the St. James Hotel on Fifth Avenue, read the paper at Delmonico’s, went back to the St. James for more drinks, then to a house on East Fourteenth Street, where he remained until nearly midnight with a prostitute named Clara Dale. Miss Dale corroborated his testimony in court. While the murder surely took place after Washington returned home, his doings prior to that time did not indicate a man intent on murder.
|Nathans at the Inquest|
- From the beginning, the police received hundreds of letters from people who claimed to have evidence in the case or had hunches that they knew were correct. None of these proved to be of any value.
- During the investigation of Billy Forester, George Ellis was questioned by Superintendent Jourdan. Afterwards he said this to one of the detectives:
“I’m not in this case, but I’ll tell you the man that killed Benjamin Nathan is killing Superintendent Jourdan. The chief knows who the murderer is, and the secret is taking him to the grave.”In fact Jourdan’s health had begun to fail shortly after the crime and he died of pleurisy on October 1, 1872. Any secrets he carried died with him.
- New York Police Inspector Thomas Byrnes (who did not work the Nathan case) writing in 1886 put much emphasis on John Irving’s confession.
- Former New York Police Chief George W. Walling (who also did not work the case) in his1887 autobiography, stated that he believed the killer was William Kelly, the son of the housekeeper. He believed that Kelly admitted his confederates into the house with a view of robbing the safe; in doing so they aroused Mr. Nathan, who engaged in a struggle which resulted in his death.
- Suspicion would continue to dog Washington Nathan throughout his life, though he was exonerated by the police. He continued his wayward lifestyle after his father’s death and in 1879 while paying a call on an actress at the Coleman House, he was shot in the neck by another woman; the bullet lodged in his jaw. A plan was conceived to learn the truth by interrogating Washington Nathan while under anesthesia during the operation to remove the bullet. The operation never took place. In 1884 Nathan married a Mrs. Arnett, a widowed opera singer (and a gentile) and took his bride to Europe. He died in Boulogne at age forty-four and never received his inheritance.
- Years later attorney Abraham Hummel implied that the killer was his client, Billy Forester, saying:
"I cannot speak fully without violating professional honor, for the man is a client of my office, but I can say this, that from what I learned from him Washington Nathan had no more to do with the killing of his father than I."
- In 1905, Will M. Clemens, a nephew of Mark Twain, wrote in a magazine article summarizing the crime and giving his thoughts on the murderer. He believed the killer was an intruder, someone known to Nathan and familiar with the house, who had hidden himself inside until early morning. He was not seeking money or jewelry, but documents from Nathan’s safe. When the old man caught him in the act the thief killed him to avoid identification. The thief then staged the scene to look like a burglary and left through the front door with the documents he sought. Clemens further stated that he knew who the murder was:
"The murderer still lives. Thirty-four years have doubtless changed neither his face, his manner nor his habit. His name? This is not the time nor place."Clemens never found the proper time and place and never revealed his suspect’s name in print.
- Writing in 1924, Edmund Pearson dismissed the notion that the case involved a document (“dear to the hearts of writers of melodrama”) and, finding no logical suspects, was content to leave the murder unsolved.