Saturday, October 31, 2020

Two Shots, a Shriek.

“A dark, mean little bedroom, a woman, half-undressed, dirty and pale, and blear-eyed from long excesses, a male companion, leaning over her with a revolver at her head, two shots, a shriek, an ugly hole under the ear, and the vice and crime of Boston had added another murder to its long score.” The Boston Herald’s vivid description of the murder of Josephine Brown on Christmas Eve, 1891, served to underscore her sad and dismal life. Married and divorced by age twenty, Josephine’s family blamed her for the failed marriage and turned her away. Left to fend for herself, Josephine Brown spent the next twenty years as a prostitute.

Joe, as she was known on the street, had been working in a brothel run by Mrs. Mary Ann Fisher on Pitt Street, in Boston’s West End. The house had recently closed down with the arrest of Mrs. Fisher, and Joe was working as a street walker. The demise of Mrs. Fisher’s house meant more than the loss of shelter, it left Joe without protection from the potential violence of her profession, and without anyone to keep her away from whiskey, which, when she was left on her own, became Joe’s consuming passion.

The afternoon of her murder Joe had been seen on the street with her alleged killer, 26-year-old Roger Scannel. There had been a scuffle when another man tried to take Joe away from him, and when Scannel pulled a revolver from his pocket, she hurried him into a cab and managed to separate the two men. Later that night she and Scannel checked into the Sudbury House, a cheap lodging house for those with nowhere else to sleep and a house of assignation for prostitutes and their clients. They brought along a dinner of fried oysters and a full bottle of whiskey.

A little past one a.m. the night clerk at the Sudbury House, Mr. Allen, heard two gunshots, then a shriek, coming from upstairs and went to investigate. The occupant of room 14 met him in the hall and told him the shots had come from no. 16, the room across form his. Allen got a chair and stood on it to peek through the transom. He saw a man, partially dressed, lying across the bed, pointing his pistol at the door in a threatening manner, as if he expected someone to break in at any moment. Allen did not see the woman’s body.

He ran to find a policeman. Not knowing that a murder had been committed, Allen told Officer Coolidge that there had been a disturbance at the Sudbury House. Coolidge told him it was not serious enough for him to leave his beat. Allen left to find another policeman and it was at least forty-five minutes before the officers arrived at the Sudbury House and broke down the door of room 16. Inside they found Josephine Brown lying on the bed, half-dressed, in a pool of blood. Next to the bed was an empty whiskey bottle. The killer had left through the window and climbed the fire escape to the Adeline House on Court Street, and was long gone.

The man had signed the hotel register as R. T. Scannel of Lawrence, Massachusetts. At first, the police believed that this had to be a phony name but followed up anyway. In Lawrence, they found a number of R. Scannels but one, Roger Scannel, had a minor police record, mostly drunkenness, and other alcohol-related charges. Scannel had left his job at a textile mill to tend bar at an unlicensed saloon. His sister, who had not seen Roger in some time, refused to believe that he was a killer, but when shown a copy of his signature, she swooned. Her brother had murdered Josephine Brown.

There was no apparent motive for the murder and the police speculated that Joe had been working with a confederate to run a panel game on Scannel—the confederate would steal Scannel’s wallet while he and Joe were having sex. It was known that Scannel had sold some property and was carrying at least $500. If this were the case, the police hoped he would see that he had a good defense and turn himself in. They were not so lucky.

Four years later the murder of Josephine Brown was still an open case. The Boston Daily Globe printed his picture in hope that someone would recognize him and provide the police with information. This did not happen and it appears that Roger Scannel was never caught.

Originally posted July 30, 2016.

"A Blot of Ink." Boston Daily Globe 16 May 1892.
"A Deliberate Fiend." Boston Post 25 Dec 1891.
"Bullet in Her Brain." Boston Herald 24 Dec 1891.
"Clue to the Boston Murder." Worcester Daily Spy 26 Dec 1891.
"Done in Wrath." Boston Daily Globe 24 Dec 1891.
"Foul Murder." Boston Journal 24 Dec 1891.
"Four Uncaught." Boston Daily Globe 16 Dec 1895
"Might have got Scannel." Boston Daily Globe 28 Dec 1891.


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