Saturday, May 30, 2020

Miss Elizabeth Petty.

In 1893, Miss Elizabeth Petty lived alone in a three-story frame house in Newark, New Jersey. She was a reclusive sixty-five year old spinster, known for her eccentricities and believed to be worth a considerable fortune. Her father had been a prosperous sea captain who died when she was a young child. When her mother died in 1878, Miss Petty inherited the house along with railroad and bank bonds worth an estimated $30,000 - $40,000. Miss Petty had been a school teacher but she gradually went insane and had to retire when her students began making fun of her behavior.
Avoiding human contact as much as possible, Miss Petty had a profound dislike of other people. She did, however, like cats, and her house contained multitudes who roamed freely and ate wherever Miss Petty happened to leave food. She was also a hoarder, and all three floors of her house were filled with barrels, boxes and tin cans full of discarded pieces of hardware and other odds and ends picked up off the street. There were containers filled with pebbles and bottles filled with dirt. She never cleaned her house, her clothing or herself.

It was rumored that amid the mess and clutter, Miss Petty hid a large amount of cash. In 1891, two men broke into her house to see for themselves. The thieves assaulted Miss Petty and threw her down a flight of stairs where she lay unconscious until discovered by neighbors. Only a small amount of money was taken and, although she knew the names of men who robbed her she refused to divulge them.

The police did not investigate the robbery, but they did bring the condition of the house to the attention of the Health Board. Inspectors took charge of the house and, against Miss Petty’s wishes, gave it a thorough cleaning. The cleaners found gold, silver and bank notes stuffed away in every corner and crevice and coins scattered around the floor. There was also money on every step of  the staircase, which Miss Petty said she had placed there for the cats.

When this story became public, police feared that it was only a matter of time before she was robbed again, but Miss Petty was unconcerned. Mrs. Mary Struble, who had for many years lived near Miss Petty and was the only person Miss Petty ever invited into her house, echoed the fears of the police.

“Why don’t you get a revolver?” Mrs. Struble asked her, “You will be murdered some day.”

“Well what of it? I can only die once. I am not afraid.” Was Miss Petty’s reply.

Mrs. Struble’s words proved prophetic. On December 27, 1893, Harry Garrabrant who lived next door, heard the cats in Miss Petty’s house loudly wailing, and he sent his son William to investigate. William reported that the cellar door had been broken open; his father sent for a policeman. Inside the house they found a pool of blood and other signs of struggle near the lounge on the first floor where Miss Petty slept. They found her body on the second floor, she had been stabbed and strangled.

Miss Petty never slept at night, using that time to read—she had many books and subscribed to several daily newspapers. During the day, she slept on a lounge near the door to the cellar. She probably surprised the thieves when they entered. A fight ensued and the men overpowered her; they murdered her there, then carried the body upstairs.

It was well known that Miss Petty kept money in her stockings. The thieves rolled down the stockings and took the money. Beyond that it was impossible to tell how much was taken. The house was in the same condition it had been before the Health Board cleaned it two years earlier. Throughout the house were purses containing coins and bills, currency sewn between pieces of cloth, end even coins sewn into her cloth of her dress. All told, over a thousand dollars in coins and bills were found in the house, but the currency had to be thoroughly cleaned before the bank would accept it. Her bonds, also, were so filthy they had to be returned to the issuers for replacement.

At one time, Miss Petty had expressed a desire to leave her estate to her only friend, Mrs. Mary Struble, but it is unlikely that she ever put her wishes in writing. Miss Petty had two cousins in Newark (whom she hated) and one of their husbands was serving as executer. Two other cousins in Philadelphia expressed interest in the estate. But it turned out that Miss Petty’s fortune was far smaller than everyone believed and after all debts and expenses were paid, $1,783.87 remained for her heirs to divide.

Several suspects were investigated and at least two arrests were made but there was very little evidence and the police could not even determine, within two days, when the crime was committed. No one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Miss Elizabeth Petty.

Originally posted October 4, 2014.


"Charged with the Petty Murder." Bridgeton Evening News, 4 Jan 1894.
"Clews To The Murder." New York Tribune, 29 Dec 1893.
"May Find Miss Petty's Murderer." New York Times, 29 Dec 1893.
"Killed in Her Lonely Home." New York Times, 28 Dec 1893.
"Miss Petty's Murderer." Daily Inter Ocean, 30 Dec 1893.
"Murdered for her money." The National Police Gazette, 13 Jan 1894.
"Murdered For Her Money." New York Tribune, 28 Dec 1893.
"Murdered Recluse's Estate." Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Feb 1894.


Kate @Midnight Book Girl says:
October 5, 2014 at 8:28 AM

I wonder how much money went missing during the two cleaning processes.

Howard Brown says:
May 30, 2020 at 10:33 AM

Heck of a story, Robert....

Cyclone Louie says:
June 19, 2020 at 10:23 PM

What happened to the cats?!!!!

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