Friday, March 29, 2019

The Mysteries of Mary Tobin.

Mary E. Tobin.

Thomas W. Armour, janitor of the Clifton Boat Club, Clifton, Staten Island, on May 12, 1889, found the body of a young woman washed up on the rocks near the club. She was about 30-years-old, five feet five inches tall, with a light complexion and a plump figure. She wore a gold ring with stones in a cat’s eye setting and several pieces of black jet jewelry. The only other object found on the body was an Episcopal prayer book. The body was fully clothed, and Coroner Hughes found nothing to indicate foul play. Decomposition had set in, and the coroner determined that the body had been in the water about eight days.

Though badly decomposed, friends and relations identified the body as that of Mary E. Tobin, who had been living for the previous two years in West New Brighton on Staten Island. She had been the office assistant of Dr. S.A. Robinson but had resigned on April 13 and was last seen in West New Brighten two days later.

Mary had planned to visit her family in Franklin, Pennsylvania, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, after first stopping to visit a friend, Mrs. McKenna in Brooklyn. She packed her belongings in two trunks and sent one to Franklin and the other to Brooklyn. Mary left on April 15 but never arrived at either destination.

 After visiting her family in Pennsylvania, Mary planned to return to Staten Island to marry and set up housekeeping. It was well-known that Mary was to be wed in July, but none of her acquaintances on Staten Island seemed to know the identity of her fiancé—some said he was a resident of West New Brighton, others said he was a Wall Street broker. 

Mary Tobin had been a teacher in Franklin before taking a job as nurse to a cousin of Dr. Robinson. In 1887, Dr. Robinson’s office assistant left him so, on his cousin’s recommendation he hired Mary. She handled his bookkeeping and also took care of his aging father. Mary boarded with the Robinson family which included Dr. Robinson, his father, and his 19-year-old son Rush. Dr. Robinson found her knowledge of business and bookkeeping somewhat lacking but kept Mary on to take care of his father.

When Mary first arrived in West New Brighton, she joined the Trinity Methodist Church and became an active member attending faithfully. But, according to Dr. Robinson, after reading some articles in the North American Review, “she became a rank infidel and deserted Methodism entirely.” Now an avid atheist, Mary was ready to argue with anyone on the subject of religion. But in early 1888 she made a complete reversal and became a High Church Episcopalian, joining St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, and was just as committed to her new religion as she had been to atheism.

With no marks of violence on her body, the coroner and police first ruled out murder but considered the possibility that Mary had committed suicide. Perhaps her wedding plans had fallen through, and she was so distraught she decided to end her life. Those who knew Mary believed that this was impossible; she was not the kind of person who killed herself. Besides, she was excited about seeing her family again and happy with the prospect of married life.

Rev. Mortimer of St. Mary’s Church agreed that Mary would not kill herself, saying she was “a cool, level-headed girl and not likely to do anything in a hurry.” She had consulted him about joining the Episcopal Sisters and moving to their convent in Fishkill, which he believed was not consistent with someone contemplating suicide, but also cast doubts on her plan to marry.

The coroner and police were able to follow Mary Tobin’s movements on April 15 for most of the day. She went first to Dr. Robinson’s to say goodbye to the family and to pick up her pay. There was some disagreement over how much she was owed and reportedly she was not happy with the outcome. She agreed to finish the job of transferring the doctor’s patients into his new address book, which he wrapped in brown paper and self-addressed before handing it to her.

She went to visit Dr. William Bryan next. Dr. Bryan was Dr. Robinson’s assistant when Mary first went to work for him. The medical men had a falling out, and Dr. Bryan resigned, leaving Robinson so angry he filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to prevent Bryan from practicing medicine. Mary had remained close with Dr. Bryan, and on April 15, after talking with Mary for twenty minutes or so he walked her to the train depot. The train to Long Island City was not due to leave for another half hour, but Dr. Bryan could not wait with her. He had a call to make in Willow Brook.

Mary did not remain at the depot, she took a hack driven by a man named Wilson and went around West New Brighton to make final visits to her other friends in town. She told them all she was going to see her family and would return to get married. It does not appear that she ever returned to the depot; no one remembers her buying a ticket or boarding the train.

Mary’s friends knew that she always wore a little chamois purse on a ribbon around her neck to hold her money and other personal objects including a card with her name and address in case of emergency. In addition to whatever money she obtained from Dr. Robinson, the purse would contain $45 she had recently received by mail from her brother. The purse was not found on her body. It could not have been removed after the body was discovered because her dress was tightly buttoned, and the body had become so bloated that the coroner had to cut her clothes to remove them. Many now speculated that thieves may have killed Mary for her money. 

The coroner was still publicly stating his belief that her death was suicide or accidental. She may have tried to walk across the railroad trestle to Snug Harbor, lost her footing and fallen into the harbor; or maybe she had fallen off the ferryboat to New York. The coroner kept the results of the autopsy secret, but reporters learned that some of Mary’s internal organs had been sent to the University of New York for chemical analysis, implying that she may have been poisoned prior to drowning. Coroner Gorman, of the town of Southfield on Staten Island, who was not officially working on the case was privately investigating Mary’s death. His source told him that she died from the effects of carbolic acid; her body was thrown in the water in the vicinity of Red Hook. He refused to name his source but predicted “startling revelations” at the inquest.

Mary’s alleged fiancé was a person of interest in her death, but his identity remained unknown. She had never been seen in public with any man but Dr. Robinson or his son, Rush. Some in West New Brighton believed that her betrothed was Rush Robinson and that the Robinsons were connected to her death. One New York Herald reporter said,
“Staten Islanders wag their heads and look very knowing when Dr. Robinson’s name is mentioned in connection with Miss Tobin’s untimely end. He is not at all popular in the village where he lives. He seems anxious to get all the notoriety he can out of the case. A resident of West Brighton who knew Miss Tobin intimately told me that there is no doubt whatever that Dr. Robinson disliked her very much.”
 Dr. Robinson claimed to know who Mary was planning to wed. He said he was a Wall Street man but refused to give his name. Dr. Bryan was also mentioned as Mary’s affianced husband, but he would not comment on the matter.

The behavior of Mary Tobin’s family was viewed as somewhat strange. They were notified of her death, and they responded that they would arrive soon. Mary’s brother sent a telegram to the coroner requesting that no one else be allowed to view Mary’s remains. Her father, N. P. Tobin, telegraphed Dr. Robinson asking for two or three affidavits to serve as identification of the body for the insurance company. But as of May 16, no one from her family had arrived to make burial arrangements, and the coroner was ready to bury the body in the county burying grounds.

The mystery continued to deepen. On April 20, a messenger delivered the address book to Dr. Robinson. It was still wrapped in brown paper as it had been when he gave it to Mary; it had not been opened. On April 29, Mary had been seen in West New Brighton— two weeks after she reportedly disappeared. Mrs. Horace Hillyer who recognized Mary from the Methodist Church saw her walking on the sidewalk accompanied by a woman and a little girl. The story was later corroborated by Mrs. W. J. Hasbrouck who had also seen Mary on April 29. The date was memorable because there had been a naval parade in St. George that day. If true, this made the timing more consistent with the coroner’s assertion that the body was in the water for 8 or 9 days. 

The coroner’s inquest which began on May 16 resolved some of these mysteries. Dr. Henry P. Loomis, of the University of New York, testified that there was no trace of poison found in Mary’s organs. Dr. Feeny, who performed the autopsy, had not suspected poisoning but had the organs tested to be thorough. Dr. Loomis also testified that there were no signs that an abortion was performed.

Mary’s family had not come to claim her body because her brother Daniel had misread the coroner’s telegram and thought she had died in Clifton, South Carolina. He traveled there before the family discovered the mistake. 

In his testimony, Dr. Robinson said that he believed Mary’s betrothed was a man named Neefus. Dr. Bryan testified to the events of April 15 and explained that Mary had left the address book in his office and, not wanting Dr. Robinson to know, he had it delivered to him anonymously. After replying questions from the jury, and just before the coroner read over his testimony, Bryan added, almost as an afterthought, “Before you go any further, I want to say that I was engaged to be married to Miss Tobin.” 

Dr. Bryan’s revelation made him a suspect in Mary’s death and set the rumor mills churning in West New Brighton. It was said that Bryan had lately become engaged to Fanny Warburton, a young professional nurse, and had broken his engagement to Mary Tobin on April 15, leaving her despondent. Dr. Bryan’s trip to Willow Brook had taken considerably longer than normal, leaving him half an hour of unaccounted time in which he could have killed Mary. But Miss Warburton denied any relationship other than professional with Dr. Bryan, and Bryan’s trip to Willow Brook was long because the roads had been bad and he had made two stops before his destination. 

The coroner’s jury came to no conclusion as to the cause of Mary Tobin’s death, and the case remained open. Mary’s family took her body to Franklin, Pennsylvania where she was laid to rest. Her funeral was attended by several hundred former companions, and her many floral tributes included a pillow of rosebuds from her former pupils. 

That June Dr. Bryan traveled to Franklin, Pennsylvania to visit the Tobin family. In Mary’s trunk, they found the chamois purse that Mary usually wore around her neck. In it was a small photograph of Dr. Bryan.

Mary Tobin cabinet card, Black, Franklin, PA.

“Coroner and Polcie Baffled,” Evening world, May 21, 1889.
“Dead Among the Rocks,” Sun and New York press, May 14, 1889.
“Deeper Mystery,” Evening world, May 14, 1889.
“Dr Bryan's Betrothed,” New York Herald, May 20, 1889.
“Dr. Bryan and Miss Tobin,” Sun and New York press, May 21, 1889.
“Looks Less Like Murder,” New York Herald, May 17, 1889.
“The Mary Tobin Mystery,” Pittsburg Dispatch, June 8, 1889.
“Mary Tobin's Death,” Erie Times-News, May 17, 1889.
“Mary Tobin's Death,” New York Herald, May 29, 1889.
“Miss Mary Tobin's Death,” Evening journal, May 16, 1889.
“Miss Tobin's Death,” Pittsburg Dispatch, May 19, 1889.
“Miss Tobin's Death Still a Mystery,” New York Tribune, May 15, 1889.
“Miss Tobin's Mysterious Death,” Sun and New York press, May 20, 1889.
“More of a Mystery,” Pittsburg Dispatch, May 15, 1889.
“The Mystery Does Not Clear,” New York Tribune, May 17, 1889.
“Dr. Bryan's Alibi,” Pittsburg Dispatch, May 22, 1889.
“Said to be Mary Tobin,” Evening world, May 13, 1889.
“The Staten Island Mystery,” Sun and New York press, May 19, 1889.
“Staten Island's Mystery,” Sun and New York press, May 15, 1889.
“Still a Dark Mystery,” Pittsburg Dispatch, May 17, 1889.
“That Franklin Girl,” Erie Times-News, May 16, 1889.
“Waves Give up a Woman's Corpse,” New York Herald, May 13, 1889.
“What Became of Her Money?,” New York Herald, May 16, 1889.


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