murder

Convicted murderer Bernard Welch speaks with a reporter in Washington, March 29, 1981. Welch was convicted in the murder of Dr. Michael Halberstam of Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)

Running Down the Ghost Burglar

Dr. Michael Halberstam and his wife, Elliott, had planned to go to a movie after leaving their friends’ cocktail party, but they decided to make a quick stop back at home first. Michael parked the car and went inside the couple’s Palisades D.C. home to let out their two dogs, Iris and Jake. Elliot headed around back to meet the pups. It was about 8:45pm – well after dark in the late fall. Moments later, the doctor was staring down the barrel of snub-nosed revolver in his own kitchen.

The odd chain of events that came next would uncover one of the largest — and strangest — crime operations in Washington, D.C. area history.

Evening Star article from March 25, 1882.

The Disappearing Corpse of D.C.'s First Murderer

Washington was unprepared for its first murder trial in 1802. The trial took place in the Capitol building, for want of a court room, and the murderer was held in a temporary jail in an alley dwelling on 4 ½ street. All around it turned out to be a difficult event for the city, but let’s start at the beginning.

Patrick McGurk was an Irish immigrant who lived on F Street, between 12th NW and 13th NW. He worked as a bricklayer and had a serious drinking problem. As too often is the case, his wife suffered from his bad habit. In the summer of 1802, McGurk beat his wife so badly that she and their unborn twins died. After being convicted at trial, D.C.’s first murderer was sentenced to hanging.

That's when things started to get weird.

January 14, 1915 Washington Times ad about Leo Frank.

The Leo Frank Case

Have you ever heard of Leo Frank? His case, a lesser known piece of American history, had tremendous long-lasting impact on the nation -- leading to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and reviving the Ku Klux Klan. There’s also a Washington, D.C. connection.

In 1913, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man originally from New York, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed. After a month-long trial, with prejudice heavy in the air, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Due to the judge’s fear of mob violence, Frank and his family were not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

The Slasher in his mug shot. (Photo Source: Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

"Jack the Slasher" Terrorizes Washington

In the winter months of 1893-1894, D.C. area folks were plagued with fear of a mysterious man dubbed “Jack the Slasher.” Nicknamed after London’s infamous “Jack the Ripper” of 1888, this Jack silently entered homes at night and left just as stealthily as he came, leaving a violent mess behind him.  Police were perplexed, women and children terrified, and men poured money into the protection of their houses. But before you start thinking the worst, know that he wasn’t that kind of slasher. Rather than human flesh, the target of his knife was textiles. He cut up furniture, clothing, carpets and anything he could get his hands on, while taking little for himself. Why? Even after he was caught, no one was able to ascertain a real motive.

Jack’s robberies started in October of 1893 at the home of Nick Young, President of the National Baseball League, in Mount Pleasant. He entered by cutting the slats of the shutters and sliding through a back window while the house was sleeping. Young woke to his residence in chaos: “the bric-a-brac and furniture therein [were] almost completely destroyed… The walls and pictures were besmeared with mud, while chairs and carpets were cut with a keen knife.” When police were called to the scene of the crime, they were mystified, remarking they had never seen anything like it. And Jack was just beginning.

Sketch of Daniel Sickles shooting Philip Barton Key (Source: Historical Society of Washington)

Cold-Blooded Murder in Lafayette Square: The Sickles Tragedy of 1859

 

On the morning of February 27, 1859, Philip Barton Key was shot multiple times by the deranged Daniel E. Sickles in the middle of Lafayette Square. Sickles’ motive? …the discovery of an intimate affair between his wife and good friend.

Now Washington, D.C., has had its fair share of scandals, political pandemonium, and secret trysts over the years. But the Sickles tragedy provided a particularly scandalous dance between sex and politics even by Washington standards. After all, it’s not everyday that a Congressman commits cold-blooded murder in broad daylight on a city street.