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Saturday, July 7, 2018

15 Corning Street.

The strangulation of Alice Brown in her room at 15 Corning Street in Boston’s South End dominated the front page of the city’s daily newspapers in the autumn of 1897. It was a sensational crime which seemed custom made for the “yellow journalism” of the era, with a mysterious victim, a colorful cast of witnesses, no clear suspect but several possibilities. The Globe, the Herald, the Post, the Journal and other Boston dailies, aggressively followed clues and gathered background hoping to scoop each other and the police in their vivid reporting of the crime. In the end, they may have been too aggressive, adding more confusion than clarity.

Alice Brown, age 25, was found dead in her room, by another resident of the lodging house, the morning of November 4, 1897. The medical examiner performed an autopsy on the body and quickly determined that Brown had been strangled, there were seven finger marks on her throat including cuts made by fingernails. The police brought in three residents of the house for questioning, Edward Hurd, the proprietor of the house; and two men who shared a basement room, John T. Stowell, and Thomas Hughes. They were examined and released.

Very little was known about Alice Brown, who had moved to the lodging house just two weeks before, and the search for her identity would become nearly as frantic as the search for her killer. Alice was known to keep late hours and was seen in the company of several different men. She had an ardent lover, over 60-years-old, who visited night after night pleading her to marry him; she always refused. Around 11:30 the night of the murder she was seen sitting on the front steps with another man who no one recognized. They spoke in earnest tones for about half an hour before he left. 

The person who seemed to know her best at 15 Corning Street, was William Leavitt, a blind man, known as “Blind Billy” who sold song streets on the street on Tremont Row. Leavitt told police that he had been awake smoking in his room above Alice Brown’s around 3:00 am the morning of the murder. His door was ajar and he could hear Alice in the hallway talking to a man whose voice he did not recognize. It was a long conversation; the man was trying to persuade Alice to marry him. Leavitt heard her say:

“No, I wouldn’t marry the best man that ever lived.”

He asked again, and she said emphatically, “No.” 

“Well, I suppose I might as well go then,” he said.

“Yes,” Alice replied.

Leavitt said he knew Alice’s lover and said he was not the man she was talking to. It was believed that Alice was murdered sometime between 3:00 and 6:00.

A magazine found in Alice Brown’s room had the name Alice O’Brien scribbled on the cover. Alice O’Brien had previously lodged at 15 Corning; when she was located at her new address, she said that Brown was somewhat reticent about her past but had told her that she grew up in a small town near Concord, New Hampshire. Her mother had died when she was 15 and within a year she ran away, leaving the farm for the city where she hoped for a career on the stage. In Boston, she had been visited by lovers from her girlhood home. 

She had left New Hampshire with another girl, Hattie Belmont, who had been her childhood friend. Alice a brunette and Hattie a blonde, were the belles of the town. Romantic novels gave them the notion to run away and they drifted between New York and Boston, working as shop girls but looking forward to a life on the stage. According to the Boston Globe, “The rouge on their cheeks told only too plainly after a while what sort of life they were living.”

Alice Brown and Hattie Belmont had been roommates at 15 Corning until Alice received a message that Hattie had been arrested and charged with undue intimacy with a married man. None of this information proved useful to the police; they were unable to find Alice Brown’s family in New Hampshire. Another resident of 15 Corning had seen letters postmarked Amherst, Massachusetts addressed to Alice Brown and believed that was her home. Someone in Gloucester believed she had been in that city under the name Redmond and had been committed to an insane asylum. 

The night of the murder, two people living on Ohio street, across from the backside of 15 Corning reported hearing a muffled scream between 4:00 and 5:00. One woman who lived at 15 Corning also heard a scream but no one else in the house did; the discrepancy made the police suspect that some of the residents were covering for the killer. There was no sign of forced entry and the only way in the front door was with a latchkey—Alice Brown’s latchkey was missing. The newspapers said the mystery was deeper than ever.

On November 6, a man from Lynn Massachusetts who was visiting Boston with his wife reported that he had overheard a loud conversation on Tremont Row. He heard a blind song vendor say:

“She can’t try that on me—she can’t try that on me! I’ll fix her!”

He was speaking with another man whose description matched that of James McMillan, the 62-year-old suiter of Alice Brown. The police scoured the city for McMillan and found him in Haymarket Square at about 1:30 the next morning. McMillan was known to be an admirer of Alice Brown, in fact, it was said that his “mad infatuation” had caused her to leave her old residence and move to Corning St, with the hope that he would never find her again. 

McMillan lived on Tremont Street with a woman named Sadie Hart, an intimate friend of Alice Brown. McMillan told police that he and Hart had gone to Corning Street to call on Alice and ask her to join them for supper, but she was not there when they arrived. He said he had known Alice for about ten years by the name of Redmond. Alice did stop at his house the night of the murder but left before 10:00. Both McMillan and Leavitt denied that the Tremont conversation ever happened.

The same day several other witnesses came forward and the newspapers printed all of their stories. A man claimed that he saw Alice Brown at about midnight on the night of the murder, dining with a man at a café, and she left with the man. At Corning Street, a strange man came with a message for Alice Dewey, room 3. The landlady, Mrs. Hurd, told him there had been three Alices in the house, but none named Dewey, and the one living in room 3 was dead. He said he had a message from Harris Gladwin, a waiter at the Parker House but when the stranger realized he was in the murder house he left without giving any more information. The Parker House denied ever having an employee named Harris Gladwin.

The former lover of Hattie Belmont, Alice Brown’s most intimate friend, said that Hattie’s name was really Alice Ward and the two Alices became friends when they were inmates of the same reformatory. Both were pretty girls, he said, but wayward. He believed they had left Boston for New Bedford but police could find no trace there of Hattie Belmont, Alice Ward or Alice Brown.

A man from Amherst, Massachusetts, came forward to say he believed the dead girl was his sister-in-law, Mary Retherham. She had lived in Amherst but had been was sent to a state reformatory. He would travel to Boston to identify the body. 

The Boston Globe discovered that the man who overheard the conversation on Tremont Row was not a visitor from Lynn but was John Hy. Kerrison, a reporter for a rival newspaper. Police said they trusted him and agreed to withhold his identity, but they also said that their reasons for arresting McMillan had nothing to do with the alleged conversation. The following day McMillan was released. Police investigations now focused on the unknown man who was seen leaving the South End restaurant with Alice Brown around midnight the night of the murder. The Boston Herald made the truest statement yet, “It is expected that developments today will go a long way toward clearing the mystery, or else it will be darker than ever.” 

What happened next surprised everybody. The police arrested “Blind Billy” Leavitt for the murder of Alice Brown. Jack Whalen, a resident of 15 Corning, came forward with another story of the night of the murder. His room was directly above that of Alice Brown and could hear nearly everything that transpired in the room below as well as on his own floor. He was awake that night and around 3:00 heard a noise coming from Leavitt’s room. He opened his door and looked out into the hallway and saw Leavitt, going down the stairs and through the hall toward Alice Brown’s room. All was quiet, then he heard the muffled scream of a woman. Immediately after, Whalen saw the blind man coming up the stairs and heading for his room.

The police had been suspicious of Leavitt from the beginning. He was a little too eager to furnish them with information and he seemed obsessed with the case, talking incessantly of it and continually furnishing them with new information. Some of his stories were contradictory. Alice O’Brien had said that Leavitt was among the men who would not leave Alice Brown alone. He made bold statements and entered her room uninvited. After driving Leavitt from her room Alice Brown told Alice O’Brien that Leavitt was “a bad man.”

Leavitt’s record in New York and other cities bore this out; he had traveled extensively before coming to Boston and had served time at Blackwell Island for petty offenses. It was said that he was not as blind as he let on and had excellent hearing. Leavitt consorted with thieves and fallen women and it was reported that he had previously spied for the police or anyone who would pay him.

The same day as Leavitt’s arrest, the body of Alice Brown was positively identified as Mary Alice Ruderhan, by Mrs. Lucy S. Brown of Cambridgeport who had employed her as a domestic servant. When she had seen the name “Mary Retherham” in the newspaper she decided to see if the dead girl could be her former servant. Mary had said little about her past but told Mrs. Brown, she had come from Rindge Center, New Hampshire where she still had a brother living. Mrs. Brown remembered Mary as a pleasant, trustworthy girl, but the family’s attitude toward her changed after they caught her smoking cigarettes in her room. She moved out soon after, and Mrs. Brown said she had stolen a gold watch when she left. She also took their last name when she moved into Corning Street.

William “Blind Billy” Leavitt took his arraignment as a joke. He declined counsel and waived examination but was still intent on explaining the situation. “I suppose I have to go through it. I might as well stand the pressure as anybody else. The statement is against me on account of the newspapers.” He was still talking as he was led out of the courtroom.

Pending the grand jury hearing Leavitt was held without bail. Seven fellow lodgers of 15 Corning Street, witnesses in the case, were also held on $500 bail, which none of them could raise.

Leavitt was well represented when he appeared before the grand jury. His attorney stressed that he had no motive for killing Mary Alice Ruderhan. While it was true that she repelled his advances, there was no evidence that he was strongly jealous. The marks on her neck were made by someone with long fingernails and Leavitt bit his to the quick. Most importantly, the only witness against him was Jack Whalen, whose nickname at 15 Corning was “Happy Jack” because his “mental force was said to be not of the strongest.”

The grand jury concluded that there was not enough evidence to indict William Leavitt. No one else was ever charged with the murder of Mary Alice Ruderhan, aka Alice Brown and the case is sometimes cited as one of Boston’s unsolved mysteries. 

Sources:

“'Blind Bill' Free,” Globe, December 11, 1897.
“Alice Ruderhan's Career,” Post, November 14, 1897.
“Boy Lovers,” Globe, November 6, 1897.
“Crime Bared,” Globe, November 9, 1897.
“Foul Murder,” Globe, November 5, 1897.
“Is Believed,” Globe, November 8, 1897.
“Is Leavitt the Murderer?,” Boston Daily Advertiser, November 15, 1897.
“Leavitt Defense,” Post, November 12, 1897.
“Leavitt In Court,” Boston Herald, November 10, 1897.
“McMillan Found,” Globe, November 7, 1897.
“Murdered Alice Brown,” Post, November 6, 1897.
“A Mystery ,” Boston Daily Advertiser, November 6, 1897.
“Perhaps Murder,” Boston Journal, November 4, 1897.
“Scenes at 15 Corning St.,” Globe, November 6, 1897.
“Unavenged Women Victims of Unsolved New England Murder Mysteries,” Post, October 3, 1905.
“Who Killed These Men and Women?,” Post, October 17, 1909.

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