UNSOLVED: Mary Eckert

The man gave his card to Mrs. Crouth:

Robert Newcomb
Clifton Heights Broom Company

He was answering the sign in her window for a room to rent at 292 Walnut Street, across from the Cincinnati YMCA.

Mary Eckert Cincinnati Evening Post drawing

Mary Eckert
Cincinnati Evening Post drawing

The room, Newcomb said, was not for himself, but for his cousin, and gestured toward a young lady who stood nervously on the sidewalk, a suitcase at her feet. She had come from Dayton, where she worked as a cigar maker, and was relocating to Cincinnati.

The unsolved murder of 12-year-old Emma Littleman was still Cincinnati’s most talked-about mystery on that Thursday, July 19, 1894, and the whole city was wary of strangers, but Mrs. Crouth saw no reason to be suspicious.

“I took kindly to her,” the elderly woman said, “because she appeared to be in trouble.”

Mrs. Crouth gave her a room for the girl at the front of the house, a door right off the front door, and Newcomb gave Mrs. Crouth $2 for the first week’s rent. Mrs. Crouth never saw him again until after the girl was murdered.

The girl said she was from Illinois, that her father beat her and she had to leave home. She had been in Dayton, but work was slack there, so she came to Cincinnati to work in a candy shop. She said she knew someone who said he would give her a job.

The young lady’s name was Mary Eckert. She was 23 years old. Mrs. Crouth called her “Miss Eckert.” She didn’t know the girl was married.

The girl had one visitor that neighbors saw during her short stay on Walnut Street, a small boy who was there briefly on the following Monday. Mrs. Crouth guessed he was a relative. On Tuesday, Miss Eckert got a letter from Dayton, and later that afternoon a different boy, but not a messenger boy, brought a note for her that the old woman slipped under the door.

“She went out Tuesday evening dressed in white,” Mrs. Crouth said. “She returned about 11 o’clock. A young man was walking with her. He left her at the gate. I was sitting on the steps. She passed me by, went into her room and locked the door. That was the last time I saw of her alive.”

Catherine Allen, a woman who lived on the third floor of the Crouth house, said that at around 6:45 Wednesday morning, she went downstairs to get some milk. She saw the milkman standing in Miss Eckert’s inside door with the top of his can in his hand, apparently selling the young woman some milk. Allen heard her say, “Yes, I am a little late getting up this morning.”

Mrs. Allen then went past the door and out to the street and saw the milk wagon before the front door. She waited there for the milkman to return.

A rather heavy-set man wearing a black shirt stopped and talked to the milk man, then went into the house. She did not see him come back out.

The milkman, William Woefle, 190 West Court St., said that he’d been selling Eckert milk on several of the mornings she’d been at the house.

“When she first got milk, she asked me if I could not get her something to do,” he said. “She said she was out of work and was willing to do anything to earn a living. She told me that she was a cigar maker by trade, but had failed to find work and was willing to do housework or anything else. I saw that the woman was in trouble, and my heart kind of went out toward her. I told her that certainly I would let her know if anyone wanted a girl and I would look around and see if I could not find some work for her.

“I called on the house about 7 o’clock Wednesday morning. I first went around the side of the house and delivered some milk to one of my customers in the rear. When I came back, I noticed that the blind on the side window of the woman’s room was open, and I peeped in. I saw her lying curled up in bed. I then went around in front. The front door was unlocked and open. It was always open mornings.

“I went into the hallway, rapped on the door and said, ‘Milk.’ I rapped again, and then she said, ‘Wait a minute.’ In a few minutes she came to the door. She had on a blue wrapper. It came open at the neck and I saw she had slipped it over a night gown.”

“I am a little late getting up,” she told the milkman. “I am not feeling well today.”

“Do you want some milk?”

“Yes, but I haven’t any money,” she said.

“Well, that’s all right,” the friendly milkman said. “You can pay me when you have money or you don’t have to pay me at all. It’s all right.”

“I will take five cents worth, then,” she said, and he delivered it up in a pail.

“As I stood by the door,” Woefle told the newspapers, “I saw a man standing near the iron fence in front of the house looking at the front of the house, first at the windows and then at me. There was something terrible in his countenance. He looked ugly and his teeth seemed to be set as he stood glaring at the house. I said to myself, ‘There’s something the matter with that man. There is trouble in his eye.’ He had an ugly face and he looked ugly, as if he was meditating some crime.

“He looked at me so fixedly that I spoke to the lady and said, ‘Do you know that man?’ She looked out and said, drawing back, ‘Wh-why no! Why do you ask?’ ‘Well, he stared at me so funny I didn’t know but he had some business here.’ You know, I thought he might be her husband and was mad because I was talking to the woman.

“She asked me if I had found her any work, and I told her I had not but would see what I could do. She asked me to try and find something for her as she was willing to scrub or do anything honest. There was no doubt in my mind that she was anything but an honest woman. The fellow kept staring at me and I got nervous and went down the steps just as he stepped inside the gate. He walked up the steps and as I got into my wagon, I saw him enter the front door. The door of Mrs. Eckert’s room was still ajar.

“The man was heavy-set and broad shouldered,” the milkman said. “He had a mustache and, I think, a slouch hat. His face was an ugly one. He wore dark clothes and a black shirt. I am positive he wore a black shirt. I thought when I read the Enquirer today that maybe he was Newcomb. He was a large man like Newcomb, but it was not he. I could identify him if I saw him again.”

About 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mrs. Crouth answered the knock of a heavy-set man who asked, “Is there a young woman named Mary Eckert living here?”

“I told him there was and asked him why he wanted to see her, and if he was a relative,” Mrs. Crouth said later. “He said, in a hesitating way, ‘I am not a relative but she visits us and I want to see her.’ I saw that he was nervous.

“I tried the door. It was locked. I rapped and then turning to him asked, ‘Is it particular?’

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is very particular.’

“I unlocked the door and saw the woman lying on the floor. ‘Wait a moment,’ I said, ‘the lady appears to be sick.’ I stooped down and touched her hand and saw that she was dead.

“‘My God! She is dead!’ I cried, and as I said that, the man ran out of the house. He was heavy-set, not very tall and wore a soft hat. He disappeared so quickly I did not see which way he went. Mr. Crouth then went to Fifth and Walnut and found a policeman, and he told him to find the officer on the beat. My husband finally decided to go to the central police station.”

Crime Scene Cincinnati Post [printed upside down]

Crime Scene
Cincinnati Post
[printed upside down]

About 6:30 in the evening, E.L. Crouth, an old man with a straggling gray beard, walked slowly into Central Police Station and for a moment stood by the desk at which Sgt. Sam Corbin was busy writing.

“Well, what is it?” asked the sergeant.

“A woman has been found dead in a house on Walnut Street and I thought you would be the one to tell.”

“On Walnut Street?”

“Yes, on Walnut Street near Seventh. It is on the east side of the street, No. 292, just next to the saloon and nearly opposite the YMCA building. The house is brick and sits back in from the street.”

It wasn’t the right precinct, the sergeant told him, but he called the Hammond Street station and then called Coroner Lewis A. Querner, who was at home and went straight to the scene. Mrs. Crouth opened the door when he knocked, but then a woman with a towel around her head appeared and opened the door to a room on the south side of the house, a few steps from the front door.

When the side door was thrown open, Querner saw the body outstretched lying on her back on the floor. There was no doubt that the girl was murdered. Her head was toward the door and her feet were near the corner of a bureau. Her eyes were partially closed and glassy. She was wearing a nightgown and a figured wrapper, both ripped from the throat down.

About her neck was an old towel, tied very tightly. Her tongue protruded slightly from her mouth, her teeth biting into it.

Querner untied the towel. The throat was covered with indented red blotches where it had sunk into the flesh. It hid a stab wound, not quite a half inch wide, which could have been made by an ordinary pocket knife or possibly a stiletto. There wasn’t enough blood loss for the wound to be the cause of death. Strangulation, most likely.

Querner guessed the woman to be about 24 years old, but she would turn out to be 19. Her features were regular and she might have been a beautiful girl, he thought, if her skin had not been marred by the scars of smallpox. She was “well-developed and well-nourished,” the autopsy would say, standing 5 foot, 3 inches and weighing 125 pounds. She had dark red hair and blue eyes.

She looked to be dead about eight to 10 hours. There was no disorder in the room, no sign of a struggle. The bed had been slept in or lain upon, but there was no telling when. The dresser held a pail of partly curdled milk and a glass that had some milk in it. The coroner could find no blood on the floor, the washbowl or anywhere except the towel around her neck. The lower sash of each window by the washstand had been raised.

In the drawer of the work-stand was wine, bread and crackers. But there was nothing to give the slightest indication of who else might have been in that room, and there was no weapon to be seen.

Querner found three letters among her effects. One was addressed to Jacob Eckert, 718 North Webster Street, Dayton. It was sealed, ready to be mailed, and dated July 22, the Saturday prior.

“Dear Husband: I will endeavor to write you a few lines to let you know that I reached Cincinnati safe. But I haven’t got my work yet. But I think I will get work tomorrow if nothing happens. I was at Newport this afternoon and I had a real nice time. I took in the museum last night. If I don’t get work tomorrow or the day after I am going to Denver, Colo. Perhaps I can get work there. I don’t have to work if I don’t want to. What would I have done to come here with $1? What can a person do with that? It’s a good thing that a person has got a friend. I will tell you one thing, Jake, a friend in need is a friend indeed. When I got in Cincinnati I was about to cry to think that I did not have a friend in this wide world. But then I thought again, Jake. If you don’t think anything, why should I think anything. But always remember me as your true, loving wife, and I will do the same by you. But Jake, not changing the subject, if you had the least bit of love for me you would not let me go away from you to go to a place like this by myself. Jake ain’t got a heart at all. If you thought anything of me you would give up your home for me. But, Jake, I see into it all. Your folks run me down to the lowest. Your father has got to know that I disgraced his family. Just come down to Court and Vine streets. People there know what he is. I suppose he wants you to be by me as he is by your mother. When they were in Cincinnati they were in sporting houses and every kind of places [sic] of that kind of amusement. I was eating my supper Saturday when a broommaker came in the restaurant, and he sat down at the same table that I was. He said to me: Hain’t you a stranger here, and I said, yes, sir. He say, where did you come from. I said from Dayton, and he say he knew some broom makers there. Then I ask him who did he know. He said he knowed your father. I told him I lived near by your shop. This fellow is a fine-looking man and he said your father was a lady’s man and that’s the way he blows so much money. He said he wants to be so refined in Dayton. But let him come down to the corner of Court and Vine streets in Cincinnati, where he generally rooms when in the city. I told him that I knew him by seeing him but wasn’t personally acquainted with him. If that is true he has got no room to talk. He had better keep his tongue off me, he might be brought to time; and for you, Jake, if you thought anything of me you would never let your folks run me down. But, Jake, I think we will never meet again. Think of me what you may, but for God’s sake don’t think I will go to destruction. Because I think too much of myself for that Jake you are the same principle as your father, and if you had any money there’s where it would go. Jake I am your wife, do you treat me as one, no you don’t. I am innocent like your poor mother is. Poor soul, if she only knew this, it would break her poor heart. She often said to me if I thought Adam would do anything like that she would choke the woman, that is if he ever caught her.”

The second letter was from her husband, dated July 23.

“Dear Wife: I received your kind and loving letter, and was glad to hear from you. Pet, don’t go away with that man. You don’t know what he may do when he gets you out there. I will tell you what to do if you want to stay there and work or if you want to come back and work till [sic] I get you out of the old man’s debt, and we will go housekeeping again. But whatever you do, don’t go away with that man. Pet, I will promise you today right when we go to housekeeping again. Don’t think I am fooling. I got down to hard work Monday and made $2. I think I can pay the old man what I owe him. You do what I tell you, and you won’t lose anything by it. Well, Pet, if you think I do not care for you just because I did not go to the depot with you you think wrong. He gave me hell for staying out all night. He didn’t know where I was. So, Pet, do your best down there or come back to Dayton and I will have steady work now and we get along all right. Pet, don’t think hard of me because I didn’t take you to the depot. Pet, you are always in my mind, I think of no one but you all day I don’t know where to go since my pet is gone. Pet, you said to get your tools and what else– I could not make out that other thing. From your darling husband. Good-by, Pet: one sweet kiss. Ancer [sic] at once. Pet, please don’t go with him. Good-by darling.”

That night, a Cincinnati Enquirer correspondent went to the home of saloon-keeper and broom maker Adam Eckert on North Webster Street in Dayton and awakened his son Jacob Eckert from his sleep to break the news of the death of his wife. His surprise and grief–“he cried like a child and acted like a mad man”–were enough to convince the reporter that he was guiltless. His alibi seemed strong enough as well: He’d been at work in his father’s broom factory all day in Dayton, over 50 miles away.

Eckert, 22, and Mary Wallace, 19, were married the previous December, but their union was not a happy one. Eckert tried to please her, his friends and family said, but Mary was inclined to run to saloon dances and court the acquaintance of other men. They had separated about six weeks before her death.

Eckert said that he saw his wife last Thursday when she was arranging to go to Cincinnati with the hope of getting a job in a candy kitchen there. He said that he had written her daily since her departure, and had intended to go to Cincinnati to see her on Sunday. He said that his father had promised to assist them and that he intended to live with her again. He said that in his letters he begged her not to see her former suitor again, a cook who lived in a hotel in Cincinnati last winter. Eckert did not know the man, and only knew him as “Vess.”

The correspondent went with Eckert to the home of the elderly Mr. and Mrs. John Wallace to tell them about the death of their daughter.

After the body had been removed to the morgue, Robert Newcomb called there saying that he might be able to identify the body.

He gave the face one glance and said, “Yes, that is Mary Eckert. Her husband is Jacob Eckert, a broom maker in Dayton.”

The policemen on duty took him to see Coroner Querner.

1894 post newcome

Robert Newcome (Newcomb) Cincinnati Evening Post

At first, the man acted contrary, but once the coroner got him talking, he could have gone all night.

He said that Mary Eckert came to his house on Friday and told him that she had left her husband and had come to the city to get work. He said he helped her to get a room and gave her some money.

He admitted telling Mrs. Crouth that she was his cousin although she wasn’t, but they were like family because he worked for her father.

Coroner Querner locked him up until he could investigate.

Querner went back to Mrs. Crouth, who said she had sent Newcomb to the morgue after he had come there. Because the Crouths were so feeble, Querner took Mary Pettibone, a woman who worked at the house, back to police headquarters to see if she could identify Newcomb as the man who had been there just before the murder was discovered. It was not him.

However, Police Sgt. Messerschmitt recognized Newcomb as a man who had gotten into considerable trouble about three years ago. Newcomb had gotten into a fight with a man and cut him almost to pieces, then fled to St. Louis. When Newcomb got back to town, he was arrested for the assault, but the victim had recovered and could not be found, so charges were dismissed. Messerschmitt also said that Newcomb and his brother mugged an employee of the Sohn Brewery and almost beat him to death.

Newcomb denied the sergeant’s claims, said it was a case of mistaken identity, but he did not deny being the same Robert Newcomb who had come by the nickname “The Terre Haute Mystery.” It seems he was on his way to work on Pearl Street and suddenly vanished. Friends got police interested and the rivers were dragged, sewers search and the countryside scoured, only to find no trace of him. One day soon after, a stranger in town was held up and murdered on the street. His picture was in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Newcomb’s brother saw it, and went to Terre Haute and identified the man as his brother Robert Newcomb. The body was interred in Terre Haute, everyone believing it was Bob Newcomb. But months later, he turned up in Cincinnati very much alive. [The newspaper accounts give no further details on either of these tales and I’ve yet to find any prior articles to support either.-roj]

At some point, Newcomb had gone to work for the Eckert’s broom factory in Dayton and became acquainted with Eckert’s son Jake and introduced him to a girl who lived in the same boarding house. Mary Wallace had just come from Illinois and worked at a cigar factory. She was just 18 at the time and Jake just over 21, so Adam Eckert did not approve of the marriage. They lived on their own for a while, until his father’s shop closed and he could no longer support the two of them. She went to a boarding house and he went back to his parents. They began to drift apart and would only see each other a couple times a week, if that. She met a man who said he would give her a job in a candy shop, so she came to Cincinnati on the train.

Further searches of the girl’s room turned up several drafts of the letter she had written and never mailed to Jake. Some of the letters were in sealed envelopes but ripped in two, as if she changed her mind at the last minute and re-wrote the letter, copying some things from her earlier drafts word-for-word.

But she omitted some things, such as how bad she had the blues on the train ride down, and how she got to Cincinnati without a plan and was wondering what to do when she spotted Vess in front of the depot. She said that Vess gave her the money for the room and that he took her to the museum. She may have changed her mind about evoking Vess because it was a lie. Newcomb continued to claim that he gave her the money and set her up at the Crouth’s.

The autopsy on Mary Eckert’s body confirmed the cause of death as strangulation, the knife wound not fatal, but also revealed a contusion near the right eye, probably caused by a blow from a fist. There were several fingernail scratches on her neck, probably made by the dead woman herself as she struggled to tear off the towel clutching her throat. There were other stray scratches, including one on her abdomen that may have happened when her clothing had been ripped.

They also discovered that Mary Eckert was two months pregnant.

The police set out to find this man Vess, whose name would turn out to be Sylvester Jennings.

According to her husband, who had come to Cincinnati on Thursday to claim the body, Vess used to keep company with Mary before she married Jake, but she rejected him. He kept turning up, however, at times when she would be out walking by herself.

“He offered her money and anything she wanted if she would go with him,” Jake said. “He wanted to take her to Denver.”

He did not think his wife had been intimate with him, however. Still, Jake swore that he see justice done if it took his whole life.

“I am going to take the first train for Dayton and run this man Vess down,” he said. “I will find out all about him and have him arrested if he is in Dayton. The murder of Mary shall be avenged!”

Mary’s mother said that Jennings was also a cook in Dayton for different hotels over the past eight years. When Mary was 17 years old, Jennings gave her a gold watch, which she later threw in his face when he insulted her. When she and Jennings were involved, he would sometimes walk her home in the evenings but never went in the house. Mrs. Wallace said that she frequently heard her daughter refer to Vess, even after she was married, joking with Jake that if he did not treat her right, Vess would take her back. She didn’t know much else about Vess, but guessed that he was married and came from Chicago. Mary did say once that Vess threatened to kill her if she married anyone else.

Mrs. Wallace said that her daughter didn’t know anyone in Cincinnati except that she got a letter from a man named Joseph Jessup whom she had met at the Woodsdale Island Park, where he had a candy stand, and struck up a flirtation. He wrote to tell her he could give her a job in his candy kitchen with good wages if she wanted to come to Cincinnati. She used that as her excuse to get out of town.

Vess Jenkins had been employed at the Beckel House as a cook the previous winter, and according to employees there, he matched the description of the stranger lurking in front of the Crouth house on Wednesday morning as described by the milkman and the description of the man who came to the house later that evening and ran away when the body was discovered: Tall, heavyset, dark mustache. People at the Beckel House knew him as Johnson, knew him to be “dark and taciturn.” When he left, he told the head cook that Johnson wasn’t really his name, but that he had been in some trouble and changed it.

Cooks at the Gibson House, another hotel where Jennings had worked two years prior, gave an almost opposite description, however. Jennings was not especially tall, they said, maybe about 5 foot 10. Although he was a medium heavy set, his shoulders were broad and stooped. And he was by no means dark and swarthy. In fact, he rather looked “like a consumptive,” with saffron colored skin as though he were jaundiced. He had thin brown hair and a light red mustache. He has a scar on one of his thumbs. In spite of his sickly appearance, the cooks said, Jennings was a dressy man and was not of a quarrelsome disposition. The cooks at the Beckel House, they said, were probably talking about someone else, someone actually named Johnson.

Police eliminated Vess Jennings quick enough. He wasn’t even in town. A telegraph from the hotel where he worked and a letter that his mother provided, postmarked from St. Louis on the day of Mary Eckert’s murder, was enough to clear Sylvester Jennings. So suspicion turned back onto Bob Newcomb, but by the end of the week, his alibi held up, too.

By Saturday, a desperate coroner and police squad began positing the theory that it might have been a woman who killed Mary Eckert. The thought was based on the fact that the wound in the neck was from a small knife that “suggests one of those little daggers, such as can be seen in almost any pawnshop window and such as many women carry,” the coroner said.

Since Mary Eckert told the milkman that she wasn’t feeling too well, the she was not likely in any position to struggle for her life, so it would have been easy for a woman to slip into the room.

Police had few other leads. Several people, after reading accounts of the murder and investigation in the newspaper called police reports of a couple they thought was Mary Eckert and Robert Newcomb begging for meals and shelter earlier that week, but it could not have been them.

Another theory, that the murder was the work of some itinerant doctor or tradesman, would emerge when a similar murder would take place in Denver, Colo., Jacksonville, Fla., or Norfolk, Va. Indeed, more than one subsequent report attributed the case to the “Denver Strangler,” who killed at least three women in that city beginning later in 1894.

The case would remain unsolved, the strange ugly man at the front gate never identified.

Note: In some reports, Robert Newcomb was spelled Robert Newcome. I settled on using the most common spelling. Likewise, the spelling of the victim’s name was variously Ekert, Ekhart, Eckhard, and several other ways. I chose “Eckert” partly because it was the most commonly used in the news reports, but is also a common Cincinnati name. -roj…



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A Two-Dollar Terror #2
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