Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Dunham Murder.

William H. Dunham owned a roadhouse on Washington Avenue, in Belleville, New Jersey, that catered to the roughest citizens of that town and was a noted stopping spot for sporting men and fast women from Newark and Passaic. He owned a second roadhouse—referred to as the “upper house”—near Nutley which had an even worse reputation. Dunham own reputation was not so good either; he was a short, stoutly built, ill-tempered man of 38, who was ready to fight at the slightest provocation, especially when drunk. 

He was drinking heavily the night of Wednesday, December 23, 1891, and was in a particularly ugly mood. The usual bartender, William MacMahon, was taking the night off and Dunham ’s wife, known as “Diamond Kate” was to tend bar and she was late. Kate had been working at the upper house all day and Dunham took her late arrival as an excuse for a quarrel. She was too fond of the men at the upper house, he said, naming one man in particular. Kate told him that the man had not been there and appealed to Patrick Phelan, the hostler who had driven her, to support her story.

Phalen told Dunham he was wrong, and Dunham turned his rage on Phalen, calling him a damned liar. The argument turned to blows and the two men fought until Dunham pulled a pistol. Two cardplayers at a table nearby, Whaley Brown and William Kennedy, jumped up and disarmed Dunham and dragged him to a chair in the kitchen. Kennedy returned to the game and Brown stayed behind to talk Dunham out of his bloodthirsty sentiments. Brown told him that some sleep would do him good. Dunham agreed and decided to take a nap where he sat. 

Brown had barely entered the passageway to the barroom when he heard a pistol shot and the sound of breaking glass. He went back to find Dunham sitting with his head fallen forward on his chest and blood spurting from a wound behind his left ear. Dunham was already dead. A broken window behind him showed that the shot had been fired from outside. 

The police arrived soon after and arrested everyone in the bar. When Mrs. Dunham learned what had happened, she went into hysterics and did not recover until the following day. 

It would not be easy determining who had killed William Dunham, he had accumulated numerous enemies in the various stages of his life. At one time he was an honest button maker living in Newark with his wife, Rachel, and their child but he gave them up hang out at low saloons with loose women. He deserted his wife and child to live with Nettie Aarons, who owned a dive in Newark; Dunham worked there as her bouncer. In 1887, Nettie Aarons died and Dunham calmly appropriated her money and valuables and opened a saloon of his own.

Around 1890 he met a pretty blonde named Catherine Heinzer, aka “Diamond Kate,” and three weeks later they were married. She did not know that Dunham was already married until Rachel Dunham showed up and had him arrested for bigamy. For $500 she agreed to drop the case and apply for a divorce.

Though happy to be rid of Rachel, Dunham did not exactly cherish his new wife. He treated Kate shamefully; he beat her, tore her clothes, and pawned her jewelry. He was insanely jealous and accused her of cheating while at the same time he was seeing other women. On the day of the murder, he had a drunken tryst with a “beautiful young woman of questionable character” named Blanche Curran. 

Patrick Phelan was the first suspect in the murder since he and Dunham had been fighting just moments before. It was first thought that Dunham was killed with his own pistol, a five-shot 32-caliber revolver with one chamber empty, found behind the bar. Detectives determined that the gun hand not been recently fired and the bullet that killed Dunham was a 38-caliber. Patrick Phelan could not have been the killer because he had not left the bar between the fight and the murder. Phelan was released along with everyone else arrested that night. 

County Prosecutor, Elvin Crane, told reporters that he was satisfied that Mrs. Dunham and Patrick Phelan were not involved in the crime. But he said he had found a man who had given him a valuable clue related to Dunham’s past life and confidently asserted, “I will have the murderer in custody in a few hours at most.”

Apparently, the clue did not pay off. Two days later Prosecutor Crane and his men joined the mourners at William Dunham’s funeral and as soon as the coffin was in the ground, they arrested five people—Mrs. Dunham, one other woman, and three men. They were questioned separately for three hours then all five were released. It appeared to be a last-ditch effort by investigators who had run into stone walls on every phase of the case.

In early January, Prosecutor Crane admitted that his schedule would not allow him to continue the investigation and handed the case off to the Newark police. Though Bellevue was outside their jurisdiction, Police Superintendent William Brown agreed to take up the investigation.

On January 13, the Newark Police arrested a man named George M. Fuller who was Dunham’s rival for the affections of Blanche Curran. Fuller reportedly said he had uncovered a conspiracy between Blanch Curran and William Dunham to put Mrs. Dunham into an insane asylum so Blanche could take her place. Fuller took Blanche for a buggy ride the day of the murder and insisted that she not go and live with Dunham. He left town when he learned the police were looking for him; they caught up with him in Little Falls, New Jersey and arrested him there.

Fuller was intensely questioned for more than three weeks before the Newark Police announced that they were convinced that he was not guilty.  They kept Fuller in jail just in case.  However, the police also announced that they were “confident that they would have the real murderer in custody in a few days.” 

On February 10, Inspector Thomas Byrnes, head of the Detective Bureau of the New York City Police announced that he and his men would be investigating the Dunham murder and “they expect to have the murderer in custody within forty-eight hours.” 

George Fuller was released after he was able to prove conclusively that he had been sleeping in Brooklyn the night of the murder. The New York police announced that they were searching for a man named Patrick Byrnes (no relation to the Inspector) who had recently moved in with Kate Dunham. He had allegedly called at the side door of the roadhouse the night Dunham was shot. Since the murder, Mrs. Dunham had sold the roadhouse in Belleville and was living with Byrnes in the Nutley roadhouse. Byrnes fled when he learned he was a suspect; Mrs. Dunham remained under surveillance. 

Patrick Byrnes was never arrested, and the case turned cold. The Dunham murder all but disappeared from the newspapers, mentioned only when the discussion turned to unpunished New Jersey crimes.

“After Dunham's Slayer,” Evening world, February 10, 1892.
“Arrested at her Husband's Grave,” Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1891.
“Belleville's Murder Mystery,” The Evening World, December 26, 1891.
“Detectives on the Dunham Murder Case,” Sun and New York press, January 2, 1892.
“The Dunham Murder,” The New York Times, January 1, 1892.
“The Dunham Murder,” Jersey City news, January 13, 1892.
“Dunham Shot From Behind,” The Sun, December 25, 1891.
“Dunham's Slayer Captured,” The Evening World, January 13, 1892.
“Five Arrests for Murder,” The Sun, December 28, 1891.
“Landlord Dunham's Murder,” The Sun, February 7, 1892.
“Looking for a New Suspect,” The Evening World, February 12, 1892.
“Mrs. Dunham's Story of it,” Sun and New York press, January 1, 1892.
“A Newark Tragedy,” Goshen Times, January 21, 1892.
“The Prisoner Proves His Innocence,” New York Tribune, February 14, 1892.
“The Shipping Clerk Murder,” The Sun, May 2, 1892.
“Suspected of Killing Dunham,” Middletown Daily Argus, February 13, 1892.
“Two Clews to the Belleville Murder,” New-York Tribune, December 26, 1891.


Unknown says:
June 9, 2019 at 4:06 PM

Live by the Sword, die by the Sword...

Graham Clayton says:
June 20, 2019 at 10:16 PM

Sounds like there were plenty of candidates for who wanted Dunham dead!

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August 16, 2019 at 2:46 AM

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