Revealing Detective Magazine August 1942

The Clue of the Chain Letter Main StoryCaptain's Blog

Puzzled, a little frightened, the man paused on the threshold of the drug store and stared.

An attractive girl with dark hair was stalking toward him like a somnambulist from the direction of the laboratory in the rear of the pharmacy. Her face was a white mask of horror.

Abruptly, as if startled by the man’s presence, the girl pause. Then slowly, very slowly, her mouth opened and a long, rising, piercing scream tore from the depths of her soul.

Stunned, the man stood transfixed for a minute while several curious women pressed into the store and looked wonderingly from the man to the girl.

“What’s he doing to you girlie?” shrilled a buxom matrom belligerently.

The girl’s answer was a vacant stare.

The man said nothing. His eyes had fastened on the cash register behind the soda fountain. It was open. In two steps he was leaning over the fountain. The cash register had been cleaned out.

Wheeling, he strode toward the rear of the drug store. The others, strangely hushed now, followed hesitantly.

Then all stopped in stride. They were looking mutely at a stamp and money drawer of a postal substation near the entrance to the laboratory. Like the cash register, the postal drawer was yawning its emptiness.

“Robbed,” breathed the buxom matron and a little chill went through the group as they wondered where the druggist might be.

As if dreading to see what they feared they might, they eased their way cautiously into the laboratory. Then they gasped in unison and huddled together in sheer horror, fascinated and at the same time, repelled.

Sprawled on the floor in a widening pool of blood, lay the druggist, Frank Cohen. His face had been beaten into unrecognizable bloody pulp!

Of a sudden, the man tore his gaze away and went to the booth in one corner of the store and phoned the police.

“This man has been dead no longer than forty-five or fifty minutes,” Medical Examiner Howard Neail told a group of detectives ten minutes later significantly scanning the blood-stained walls and ceiling.

“It’s possible he has been dead only twenty minutes.”

Detective Captain Henry Flattery looked at his watch. It was three minutes past the noon hour. According to the doctor’s statement the druggist, cohen, had been murdered between approximately 11:15 and 11:45 a.m. The police had received the alarm at 11:53 a.m.

“The weapon?” said Flattery.

“A blunt instrument of some kind,” replied Dr. Neail. “A piece of pipe or something similar. “

“No bullet or knife wounds?”

Dr. Neail shook his head. “He was beaten to death. A brutal job. Fiendish.”

The officers stirred restlessly. They could conceive of a bandit knocking his victim unconscious. But for him to continue beating his victim after the latter had been rendered insensible—well, it wasn’t a plausible theory to the investigators; the evidence simply did not add up.

“Cohen must have known his murderer” said Captain Flattery musingly. “Or there was something more behind this than robbery.”

A woman! said a detective.

There was silence for a moment. The robbery could have been an afterthought. An impulse action to mislead the police.

Dr. Neail nodded slowly, his eyes significantly scanning the blood-stained walls and ceiling.

“An enraged woman could have don it,” he agreed. “Her flailing weapon could have flung blood around the room.”

Automatically, Captain Flattery’s eyes went once again around the laboratory. In their brief survey after their breathless arrival, he and the detectives under his command had been unable to find any trace of the murder weapon though it had been plain to them that Cohen had been taken by surprise and bludgeoned while he was copying a chain letter.

It was a dollar chain letter bearing five names; one of millions flooding the mails on this 24th day of May, 1935, as the craze spread over the country duping thousands into believing they had found an infallible get-rich-quick scheme.

This had indicated to the officers that Cohen had been attacked at that moment, but they were puzzled nevertheless. Puzzled because, seated at the typewriter, Cohen had a clear view of his entire store by glancing sideways.

Did it mean that Cohen had known and trusted his assailant? The absence of any sign of a struggle indicated as much. It indicated more. It indicated that Cohen had been stunned by the killer’s first blow, and that he had reeled from teh stool on which he had been sitting and had staggered across the room before collapsing on the floor.

But if the killer was a woman, what had been her motive? Jealousy?

11:45 a.m. and they did not anticipate much trouble in ascertaining who those persons were.

Located at 94-32 Van Wyck Boulevard in Jamaica, Long Island, the pharmacy had catered to the needs of a sleepy neighborhood of small stores and middle class apartments; a neighborhood where life moved dully and where everyone was confident that he or she knew everything worth knowing about his or his neighbor’s lives., and where nothing could happen without attracting attention and causing comment.

The surmise of the officers proved correct. Within an hour, a squad combing the neighborhood under the direction of Lieutenant Edmund Moore ascertained that three persons — a girl, a youth and an elderly man — had been in the drug store betwen 11:15 a.m. and 11:48 a.m. when the attractive dark-haired girl had entered and found Cohen’s lifeless body.

The latter had identified herself as Aurora Aguilar, Mrs. Cohen’s maid. She said her mistress had sent her to the drug store for the druggist’s baby son, and that she had been shocked speechless on finding him slain.

“Did you see anyone in the store or store as the blond came out?”

“Did you recognize the blonde?”

“No, I mean I don’t know her personally. But I’ve seen her on the street two or three times. She must live in the neighborhood. She is a pretty little thing.

It was the buxom woman witness who told the officers about the bare-headed youth with a pug nose and sandy hair dashing away from the drug store.

“My apartment is upstairs above the drug store,” she said. “I was looking out the window, waiting for a phone call. I happened to glance down and I saw an uncouth looking young man hurry out of the drug store and jump into a dilapidated roadster. I didn’t think anything was wrong. Anyway, the phone call I was waiting for came then. Afterwards I came downstairs to do some shopping and I heard a girl scream in the drug store.”

“What time did you see this young man hurry out of the drug store?” Captain Flattery probed.

“Between 11:15 and 11:20 a.m.”

Checking the woman’s story, Captain Flattery phoned the person who, he said, had called her.

“Yes, it was about 11:20 a.m.” the answer came back. “I was a little late phoning. I was supposed to have phoned her at 11:15 a.m.”

The time element was narrowing. So were the suspicious of the police. It seemed particularly significant to the officers during the questioning that followed, that no one could identify either the youth who had been seend racing away from the drug store at 11;20 a.m. nor the blonde who had been loitering in the drug store between at least 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.

Were both the girl and the youth strangers in the neighborhood?

It remained for Charles Ellis, proprietor of the butcher shop around the corner from the drug store to give point to the conflicting mysteries baffling the police.

A huge, doleful looking man, Ellis had been one of Frank Cohen’s most intimate friends, it developed. He seemed dazed by the tragedy that had befallen the druggist and he answered questions in a hollow monotone seemingly unaware of the importance of the information he was disclosing to the police.

 

 

 

It was a dollar chain letter bearing five names; one of millions flooding the mails on this 24th day of May, 1935.

“It just doesn’t seem true,” he said dully. “Frank was in such fine health and good spirits when I saw him this morning.”

“What time was that?” queried Detective Al Dillhof, one of the officers detailed to question all merchants in the neighborhood.

“Going on 11:15,” Ellis replied. “I took a chain letter over to Frank’s drug store to have him copy it for me. I have no typewriter.”

Detective Dillhof started inwardly. Other officers, he knew, had been detailed to check the names on the chain letter in the hope that one of them would be able to supply a clue to murder. Now that possible lead was done with.

“Frank was waiting on an elderly man,” Ellis went on unwittingly supplying a new suspect. “I had to get back to my own store. I left the chain letter with him. He said he’d copy it as soon as he got a chance. His customer was still in the drug store when I left.”

“Do you know who the customer was?”

Ellis shook his head glomily. “Can’t say I ever saw him before. Must live near here, however. He had a heavy cane. He limped. Couldn’t have walked very far.”

“Maybe he had an auto,” Dillhof suggested.

“I didn’t see any autos parked anywhere on that street when I went over there. I remember noticing it when I stopped on the corner to talk a moment to one of my customers.”

Ellis gave his customer’s name — a married woman who lived a few doors from Ellis’s market.

“Did Cohen have any enemies? Dillahof probed, “anyone at all who might wish him harm? Either a man or a woman?”

A puzzled look spread over Ellis’s heavy face. “Frank? Enemies? No, not Frank. Everyone loved him. I never saw him angry but once in my life.”

“When was that?”

“The other night, after I closed my market. I was on my way home — I live in St. Albans and I stopped in Frank’s store to get some stamps. A young pug-nosed kid came into the store and slapped a girl in the face who was sitting at the fountain. Frank started after the little punk but he ran out of the store. The girl ran after him and both of them got into an old Ford roadster.

The girl didn’t seem to mind getting slapped but it made Frank furious, especially as it happened in his store.”

“Did you recongize the girl or boy as residents of this neighborhood?”

“They don’t live around here,” Elllis said morosely Frank told me they came from South Jamaica. They had gotten into the habit of meeting in his store.”

“A wise looking little thing. A shapely figure. A blonde. She seemed to know what it’s all about.”

A blonde! An old roadster! A pug-nosed kid!

Were the blonde and the pug-nosed youth the couple seen in the drug store at different times during the half hour before Cohen’s body had been found? Or was it mere coincidence?

A score of detectives were dispatched by Captain Flattery to scour South Jamaica for the pug-nosed youth. A tawdry community inhabited mostly by negroes and white “home-reliefers.” South Jamaica was the haunt of several youths answering the suspect’s description and all of them had had brushes with the police at one time or another, the investigators knew.

It was a matter of which boy to pick up. The proprietor of a pool room fingered the hunted youth toward evening.

“You must mean Bill Boyle,” he told Detective Fred Morlock. “He’s the only one of the young toughs around here who has an auto — if you can call it that. It’s a roadster. He slapped it together in an auto junk yard a couple of weeks ago. He’s working there now.”

“Where does he live?”

“He used to live the third house down the street with his mother but I hear he blew home when he got a job in the junk yard. I think he’s living with some blonde now. I heard some of his pals wise-cracking with him in here the other night. They wanted him to shoot a game with them but he said he had to go home.”

Informed of the pool room proprietor’s story, Captain Flattery smiled grimly. Bill Boyle and several of his pals had been picked up two months before on suspicion of robbery, but had been freed for lack of evidence. On other occasions he had been suspected of purse-snatching.

A piece of pipe was just about the kind of weapon a youth of Bill Boyle’s character would use!

Every available detective in the country was summoned by Flattery and sent to join the others in searching South Jamaica for Bill Boyle.

Throughout the night the manhunt went on with officers drifting in and out of pool rooms, cigar stores and other hangouts of the community’s youngest toughs, but no lead to Bill Boyle’s whereabouts was found.

His mother said she hadn’t seen him in two weeks. His pals affected expressions designed to convey the impression of dumb innocence and said they hadn’t seen him all that day. And the owner of the junk yard said that he hadn’t seen Bill Boyle after he had finished work and had gone home.

But Bill Boyle’s “home” to the junk yard proprietor was the home of Boyle’s mother; he knew no other address for the youth and there the search for the youth stymied when he failed to show up for work the following morning, Saturday, May 25, 1935.

To the amazement of all the officers, a jaunty, freckled faced youth with sandy hair sauntered into Captain Flattery’s office in the afternoon.

“I’m Bill Boyle,” he said. “I got a tip you were looking for me. What’s it all about?”

“Where were you yesterday?” said Flattery quietly.

Boyle slumped into a chair and flicked a cigarette into the corner of the room.

“I was working an a junk yard where I got a job,” he said nonchalantly. “I was there all day except for a few minutes at lunch time. I ran up the road then in my crate to pick up my girlfriend and drive her home but I missed her.”

Detectives were dispatched by Captain Flattery to scour South Jamaica for the pug-nosed youth.

“Where were you supposed to meet her?”

“At that drug store where that wise guy got knocked off yesterday.”

Flattery eyed the youth narrowly and a heavy silence settled on the room as the detectives in the room edged nearer the boy. Bill Boyle turned languidly and surveyed them with a grin.

“Don’t get excited, boys,” he said with exaggerated casualness. “I didn’t kill the lug. But I ain’t sorry, either, that he got his. He made a bum out of me in front of my girl the other night. He chased me out of the drug store.”

The fog of suspicion enveloping the youth was dissipating in the strong light of his astonishing frankness. It vanished almost entirely when his blonde girl friend was picked up and confronted by the elderly woman who had seen a blonde emerge from the drug store a minute before the druggist had been found slain.

“Oh, no, not that girl,” the elderly woman said haughtily. “The blonde girl I saw was very refined looking.”

A swift search of Bill Boyle’s quarters failed to unearth any bloodstained clothing or anything, blood-stained or othersies, that could have been the lethal weapon.

“What’s the matter with you coppers anyway?” Boyle said irritably. “Can’t you see I’ve been leveling since I met up with my girl friend?

There appeared to be much in what the youth said. Coincidence, apparently, had directed unjust suspicion toward him.

Captain Flattery said heavily: “Who was in the drug store when you went in there yesterday?”

“I didn’t go to the drug store,” Bill Boyle said flatly, almost defiantly. “I simply looked inside. I didn’t see my girl friend so I scrammed. I hadn’t expected to make it in time to pick her up anyway. And I wasn’t going to hang around there and have that lug come out and take a poke at me.”

Queried separately, both Bill and his blonde girl friend said that they had been using the drug store as a meeting place when she worked. She wa employed part time in a beauty parlor a few blocks distant, and she had not wanted Bill to pick up her up in the front of the beauty parlor lest her employer get gist to her clandeste mode of life.

Almost reluctantly, Captain Flattery conceded by his next question that Boyle was in the clear.

“Who did you see in the drug store?” he asked.

“Nobody,” Boyle answered quickly. “That lug — the druggist — must have been in the rear of his store. No one was in there.”

Flattery whistled noiselessly. Had the druggist been slain before Boyle looked into the pharmacy? A picture of the elderly customer with a heavy cane came to Flattery’s mind.  The customer seen by the butcher, Ellis. Had the can been the lethal weapon?

But what earthly motive could the elderly customer have had? Surely not robbery. A checkup had shown that the two cash drawers had yielded less than fifty dollars to the murderer. Furthermore the sheer bestiality of the crime did not jibe with a simple robbery theory.

The story she told blasted the case wide open and virtually ended the search for the elderly customer. Informed of the purpose of the officer’s visit, the girl, Mildred Bailey, a sixteen-year-old high school student, frankly admitted that she had been in the drug store between 11:25 a.m. and 11:46 a.m.

“I was going away for the weekend with my mother and father,” she said. “I had to make some phone calls and ask Mr. Cohen to cash a check for my mother. I waited as long as I could but Mr. Cohen never came out from the rear of his store though. I called him several times. Then I left. I decided afterwards that he must have been out on an urgent call delivering medicine. It wasn’t until I looked at a paper out on the Island this morning that I learned he had been held up and killed. I was dumbfounded. I’ve been wondering ever since whether he was dead while I was in the store. We got home only a few minutes ago and I haven’t had time to inquire.”

The girl’s parents quickly corroborated her story and proceeded to bombard Detective Morelock with questions. Had the robbers been caught? Why had they killed Mr. Cohen? Had Mr. Cohen been dead when their daughter walked into the drug store? The newspapers they said, had been vague as to the exact time of the crime.

Morelock stroked his face thoughtfully as he parried the questions. He, too, was wondering whether Cohen had been dead when ingenuous looking, blonde Mildred walked into the pharmacy.

“Did you see anything amiss when you were in the store?” Morelock queried.

Mildred looked at him blankly.  “Amiss? Not that I know of.”

“Did you notice the cash register and the money drawer in the postal sub-station? Did you observe anything pecurliar about them?”

“Not that I remember,” Mildred said slowly, “But I don’t recall having noticed them at all.”

Morelock signed wearily. The time of the murder was still as much a mystery as ever, and now there was only one suspect left — the elderly customer that the butcher Ellis had seen in the drug store. The limping customer with a heavy cane!

The murderer plainly had been intent on seeing that the druggist was dead.

Why?

Did the blonde who had been in the drug store for fifteen minutes hold the key to the mystery? Who was she? The only clue was the elderly woman’s statement that she had seen the elusive blonde on neighborhood streets before.

Throughout the rest of that day and night and the following day, Sunday, and Sunday night the hunt for the mysterious blonde and the elderly customer was pressed by the authorities. It was a gruelling, methodical search with more than fifty detectives participating. House by house, they questioned all the residents in the neighborhood with the search getting farther and farther away from the drug store.

Abruptly, unexpectedly, the blonde was found late Sunday evening by Detective Morelock who had been detailed to recheck apartments where the officers had not found anyone home.

There was no direct evidence, but the detectives knew how to make the guilty conscience of a murderer work for justice.

 

“Did you see anyone in that drug store at any time while you were there?” Morelock persisted.

“I was all alone,” Mildred said, puzzled. “No one came in. The only person I saw was Mr. Ellis, the butcher. He was just leaving when I entered the drug store.”

Astounded, Morelock stared at the girl. Patently Ellis had either lied to the authorities or he had told them only part of the truth.  If his story about seeing an elderly customer was true then he obviously had returended to the store after the customer had left because Mildred had not entered the pharmacy until 11:25 a.m. more than ten minutes later than Ellis had insisted he had been in the store!

More damning, Bill Boyle had looked into the drug store at 11:20 a.m. and had noticed no one. Had Ellis been in the rear of the pharmacy at that moment beating the life out of his friend, Cohen? If so, why? Had the chain letter something to do with it?

“An inquiry into Ellis’s financial status and his background is clearly indicated,” commented Captain Flattery dryly when informed of Mildred Bailey’s story. “He may not be as prosperous as he looks.”

Ellis wasn’t. Flattery confirmed this early the following morning. A wholesale butcher a half mile from Ellis’s meat market, admitted that Ellis owed him a large sum of money when Flattery called on him.

“Ellis surprised me last Friday,” the wholesaler went on blandly, unaware that the quiries concering Ellis were being made in connection with a murder and that he had just named the day of the murder. “He came in here between 11:30 and noon and made a paymenet on his note. It surprised me bcause his purchase from us have been mostly on a sale-to-sale basis during the last month or two and I did not think he was making any money. I was under the impression that things had been going pretty badly for him.”

Lost in thought, Captain Flattery walked slowly back to the drug store. If pressed for money, Ellis might have attempted to rob his friend surreptitiously, and on being detected might have felt impelled to kill the druggist to prevent his shame becoming known to others.

But it was a thin theory, particularly thin because blonde Mildred Bailey had not noticed a weapon of any kind in Ellis’s hands when she saw him come out of the drug store and she had not observed any stains that looked like fresh blood on Ellis’s white apron.

Moreover, a re-check of the neighborhood had failed to unearth anyone to confirm Mildred Bailey’s statement as to the time—11:25 a.m.—when she saw Ellis come out of the drug store. Even the woman whom Ellis had spoken to when he was on his way to the pharmacy with the chain letter, had been unable to designate the exact time.

It was possible that Mildred Bailey had been mistaken in her judgement of time. Captain Flattery decided, and all at once it seemed foolish to him that a businessman would lumber through a street with a white apron on him and thus attract attention to himself if he were bent on committing a crime.

Captain Flattery modified his decision, however, when he arrived at the drugstore.

Detective Dillhof told him: “Say, that butcher, Ellis, has been acting screwy this morning. He’s button-holed a half dozen of the boys and asked them if they had found any clue to the robbery. Keeps saying he wats the murderers of his friend caught. But he’s action more like a nervous old hen. I think he has something on his conscience. He knows something even if he didn’t commit the murder himself.”

Flattery considered Dillhof’s report silently. It was important. No doubt about that. But if Ellis had something on his conscience, how could they make him spill it? Ordinary methods would not do. Ellis already had manifested unusual shrewdness if he was protecting someone he knew to be guilty.

“Well, if he has something on his conscience we’ll soon find out,” Captain Flattery said finally. “We’ll give his fears something to feed and grow fat upon. When they get big enough he’ll blow apart. “He paused, and added: “No great harm will be done if we’re on the wrong track. We’ll take it easy and watch how things develop.”

To the delight of the officers Ellis broke out in a rash of nervous actions the following morning.

After opening his meat market, Ellis lumbered hurriedly to the corner to get a view of what was going on in front of the drug store, and twice he attempted to intercept officers and speak to them only to be sharply rebuffed; and it did not seem to occur to him that there was an unusual number of officers dashing back and forth about the neighborhood in a manner that was much too obvious for police work.

Throughout the morning Ellis spent more time watching the movements of the officers than he devoted to his business. Twice his clerk had to come out on the sidewalk and call to him to come and help wait on the customers and on both occasions he was seen making awkward inquiries of his mystified customers who did not know that suspicion had been directed at him.

Abruptly at one o’clock, all the officers vanished from the street, and for ten minutes thereafter Ellis stared out the window of his store, bewildered and uncertain. Then, cautiously he stepped from his market and started for the corner to see what was going on in front of the drug store, and at that moment Captain Flattery turned to Detective Dillhof sitting beside him behind the rear door of the grocery store and said: “O.K. Let’s go.”

Striding out of their hiding place, the two officers bore down on Ellis with grim faces and cold piercing eyes. Ellis blanched and stopped in his tracks. Whirling like a frightened elephant, he waddled back into his market, retreating to its deepest recesses.

Without changing their expressions Flattery and Dillhof began to pace up and down in front, staring ominously into the market when no customers were inside, and gazing straight ahead like two idling men when customers entered.

After an hour of this, Ellis summoned enough courage to again carry out his part of the pretense that he himself was not under suspicion and he began to wait on customers again.  But as the afternoon wore on the harassed man became more and more nervous and when finally he cut himself twice, he stood there gazing into space for a long time and he seemed slowly to cave in. His shoulders slumped, his hands dropped lifelessly to his side and his head drooped resignedly.

Then, dismissing his clerk, he plodded slowly around his market putting everything in order and the two officers watching him from the curb knew that they had won.

A minute later, like an old man, Ellis came out of the market and locked the door and walked wearily toward them his head bowed.

Without a word, he climbed into a squad are that glided up at the signal of one of the officers. An hour later, in Jamaica Police headquarters he confessed the crime to District Attorney Charles Sullivan.

“I was in desperate need of money when I took the chain letter to Frank,” he said. “That’s why I asked Frank to coy it. I thought it might bring me a lot of money. But an elderly man came in while Frank was copying the letter. He wanted some stamps. And when Frank pulled out the money drawer I saw a big roll of bills. I thought I could snitch the money without Frank knowing I was doing it. There was no bell on the drawer to attract his attention. When he went back to copying the chain letter, I got the drawer open quietly but just then Frank turned to say something and saw me with the money in my hand. He sprang at me. I picked up a large pestle on the laboratory counter and hit him. He fell down. I was afraid he’d come to and tell everybody. I hit him again and again. Then I cleaned out the postal drawer and the cash register and wrapped the pestle up in a piece of paper and carried out of the store under my arm so no one could see it. I smashed it up into powder and burned it in the cellar. I burned up my apron, too. Some of Frank’s blood splashed on it. I didn’t think anyone would suspect me and I was sure I got away with it until Captain Flattery brought the young girl around to face me. I knew then that he was suspicious. Then the officers went around getting evidence against me all morning and I knew it was all up.

Nine months later, Ellis pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree. On February 25, 1936, he was sentenced by Judge Charles Colden in the Queens County Court to serve twenty-five years to life in State prison.

NOTE: The names Mildred Bailey and Bill Boyle as used in this story are fictitious to protect the identities of innocent persons.