Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Maggie Hourigan Mystery.

Two children playing near their house in Greenwich, New York, the morning of Saturday, October 20, 1889, found a woman’s hat and jacket lying on a log and reported them to a group of men who were working on a road nearby. Reuben Stewart, Superintendent of Streets who was also President of the Village, thought the circumstances were suspicious and went down to take a look for himself. It was a secluded spot about halfway between two villages with a small pool of water near the road. Stewart found the owner of the hat and jacket floating face down in the pool.

The woman was soon identified as Maggie Hourigan. A hasty autopsy conducted by Dr. S. Walter Scott and several other physicians determined that she had drowned, and a coroner’s jury concluded that it had been suicide. 

No one who knew Maggie Hourigan believed that she had taken her own life. She was a healthy, attractive 19-year-old woman who worked as a servant for the family of Herbert Reynolds. Her employers described her as “competent, industrious, tidy, cheerful and an agreeable person to have in the house.”  Her habits and manners were exemplary; she was naturally timid and not known to have a boyfriend. Maggie’s friends said she was happy and lively when they were last together. She was a devout Catholic and her pastor, Father Fields spoke of her in glowing terms and did not think it possible that she had committed suicide.

District Attorney Hull, fearing that the autopsy had not been thorough enough, ordered a second autopsy. This time a different team of doctors found a wound on the side of her head that was made before death and was sufficient to produce death or at least unconsciousness. Dr. Montgomery Jones testified that he believed she was alive but unconscious when she entered the water, and the final direct cause of death was drowning. Two other doctors agreed that the wound was inflicted before death and she was either dead or unconscious when she entered the water. This time the coroner’s jury said they were unable to determine the means or causes of Maggie Hourigan’s death.

Maggie left the Reynolds’s house around 7:00 the night of October 19. She was to meet three of her friends, Ella and Bertha Obenauer, and Julia Nolan, in front of the Post Office; they were planning to spend the evening with Mrs. Sprague, the wife of the Postmaster. Mrs. Sprague was an excellent musician; the girls had spent Wednesday evening listening to her and were anxious to do it again. When Maggie didn’t show up at the Post Office, Julia and the Obenauer sisters called at the Reynolds’s looking for her, but no one knew where Maggie went.

Maggie’s body was found about a mile away from where she lived but in the opposite direction from the Post Office. Rumors were circulating surrounding the death – two strange men were seen in on a bridge near the pool where the body was found; a farmer said he heard men’s voices and the sound of a struggle nearby, but it was too dark to see; a man’s gold watch and chain were found in a stream near the pool. But there were no solid clues. The county offered a reward of $1,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Maggie Hourigan’s killer, and District Attorney Hull hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate.

After the second autopsy, an article in the New York Sun implied that Dr. Scott may have come to a false conclusion in the first autopsy because of a conflict of interest in the case. Dr. Scott’s name came up numerous times in the investigation that followed. In January 1890 it was reported that Dr. Scott made a statement admitting to knowing more about the death than he first revealed. He said that on the night of Maggie’s death, he was called by a man said to be Howard Bailey, to attend an injured girl. He found her in a field with three men who said she had fallen and struck her head. She appeared to be dead, and Dr. Scott told the men “they were in a bad scrape” and refused to advise them what to do.

Either the report of Dr. Scott’s admission was untrue, or it was not taken at face value because soon after, the police brought in a man named Edward Scully for questioning after he told a different story. While drunk, Scully told someone he had been sleeping in a barn near the bridge, and two men came in carrying Maggie’s body. They said they had been riding in a carriage when the driver thought he recognized Maggie walking down the road. He tried to snap his whip and give her a start, but the carriage lurched, and he hit her head with the butt of the whip. They sent for a doctor, but she was dead by the time he arrived. The men offered the doctor $500 to keep quiet. 

The police knew Scully by reputation and had reason to believe he knew about the murder. Though a young man, he had already served time for horse stealing and burglary. In custody, Scully denied any knowledge of the case. He said he may have spoken of the murder but never told the story that the police had heard. Scully was able to prove that he was not in Greenwich on the night of October 19.

About a month later, Scully and his father told the police that a man named Lawton Wilber had come to their house and talked about the murder. The police arrested Lawton Wilber on suspicion of murder, but he was not held. With little progress being made on the case, the Governor of New York offered another $1,000 reward for the capture of her killer.

The following July, an inmate at Dannemora Prison named Merrit Schuler claimed to have information on the murder. District Attorney Hull went to Dannemora to interview Schuler who was serving five years for forgery. He had been living near Greenwich at the time of the murder and had seen Dr. Scott pick up Maggie Hourigan in his carriage and drive away with her. Schuler said he would provide the whole story if he were granted a full pardon from the Governor. Hull said he was favorably impressed with the story and would swear Schuler in at the next session of the grand jury. However, it does not appear that he took Schuler up on his offer.

Allegations of his connection to the death of Maggie Hourigan had hurt Dr. Scott’s practice to such an extent that in May 1892 he sued the New York Sun for $20,000 damages for a libelous article in October 1889 regarding his autopsy. In the court case, Dr. Scott presented evidence form the coroner and other doctors that Maggie had, in fact, died of drowning as his autopsy concluded. District Attorney Hull, arguing in favor of the Sun, said that if he had not ordered a second autopsy, it would not be known that Maggie Hourigan was foully murdered.

The jury awarded Dr. Scott $10,000 damages. The Sun appealed the verdict, and in December 1893 a settlement was reached awarding Dr. Scott $6,000.

The true circumstances of Maggie Hourigan’s death remain a mystery.


“$1,000 Reward for a Murderer,” Waterbury evening Democrat, March 20, 1890.
“Another Scully Story,” The Post-Star, March 22, 1890.
Passaic Daily News, July 21, 1890.
“For Alleged Libel,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 14, 1892.
“For Maggie Hourigan's Murder,” New York Herald, February 5, 1890.
“Gets Ten Thousand Dollars,” Times, May 19, 1892.
“A Girl's Strange Death,” The Times, July 21, 1890.
“The Governor Offers a Reward,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 19, 1890.
“The Greenwich Mystery,” The Scranton Republican, February 7, 1890.
“The Hourigan Murder,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 21, 1890.
“The Hourigan Murder,” Buffalo Courier, February 7, 1890.
“The Hourigan Murder Mystery,” Erie Times-News, March 20, 1890.
“Hourigan's Assassin is Liberated,” New York Herald, July 20, 1890.
“Libel Suit Settled,” The Post-Star, December 5, 1893.
“Maggie Hourigan's Death,” Sun and New York Press, November 6, 1889.
“Maggie Hourigan's Murderer,” Waterbury evening Democrat, March 22, 1890.
“Poor Pretty Maggie!,” The National Police Gazette, November 30, 1889.
“A Mystery Cleared Up,” The Sun and the Erie County Independent, January 3, 1890.
“News Article,” Waterbury evening Democrat, October 21, 1889.
“Verdict Against the 'Sun',” Buffalo Morning Express, May 15, 1892.


Unknown says:
June 28, 2019 at 1:40 AM

God knows who did this evil deed and His verdict is unalterable...

Unknown says:
July 6, 2019 at 11:31 PM

Not sure we'll ever know who how she died. Hollis Palmers' book presents other speculations . . . . a true Victorian tragedy non-the-less.

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