A Murder in Queens

The above photograph was taken in early August of 1933.  The woman on the left is my father’s mother, Virginia.  She is posing with her friend Marian Cunningham. They are in Colorado.

That year, America was fully and firmly in the grip of the Great Depression.  Jobs and, by extension, money were very hard to come by.  Virginia’s husband was working in New Jersey and their only child, my father, was living with Virginia’s parents in Atlanta, and Virginia was in Colorado simply because that’s where her job was.  This situation was not uncommon in America in 1933.

While researching the company my grandmother worked for in Colorado, I stumbled across newspaper accounts of a sensational crime in New York City that Virginia and her husband and her parents would have undoubtably been following that August.  It was in all the papers.

The Scene of the Crime

A local Brooklyn newspaper describes the weather on Saturday August 5, 1933, as fair with temperatures in the mid 70s.  The weekend before it had been miserably hot in New York but a cooling trend had started midweek and that first weekend in August was perfect for outdoor activity.

Out on Long Island, around 5:30 in the afternoon, four men  went searching for wild cherries in a thicket in Queens.

They hadn’t been in the thicket very long before they came across a tan shoe sticking out of the ground.  The shoe was attached to a foot and the foot was attached to a guy in a gray suit who had been buried face down in a hole in the ground.

The victim’s hands were tied, he’d been hit on the head, shot twice in the back, and then buried in Bayside… In a thicket… In Queens.  Seriously, there used to be thickets in Queens… with cherries.

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By the next day, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle gave the story a front page, four column, above the fold headline with a picture of the crime scene.

Using today’s landmarks, as close as I can figure, the thicket where the body was found was just southeast of the present-day intersection of the Long Island Expressway and the Clearview Expressway… Not far from the Fresh Meadows Hooters, where, in 2012, that company got sued because one of their employees labeled an Asian couple “Chinx” on their take-out receipt.

In the article I read about the suit, the Hooters lawyer, obviously working hard to protect the company’s Brand Image, was very careful to point out that the racist insult didn’t come from an employee wearing one of Hooters’ skimpy, bosom-bearing outfits. He was doing every thing he could to make sure those girls could walk away from this ugly incident with their heads held high.  But I digress…

The writer of the 1939 Brooklyn Eagle story, grasping for lurid details, graphically describes the victim’s body as “bullet riddled”.  I hate to quibble because I am certainly no expert on the math of this sort of thing, however, when it comes to bullets and bodies,  I am pretty sure shot twice is at least a couple of rounds short of “riddled”.

The Victim

From papers found on the body, the deceased was quickly identified as 44-year-old railroad executive, Henry F. Sanborn.

Born in St. Paul, Minniesota in 1889, Henry’s family was the sort that almost anyone of that time would identify as socially prominent.

In 1892, three years after Henry was born, Benjamin Harrison, the President of the United States of America, nominated Henry’s father, Walter H. Sanborn, for a federal judgeship on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.   It took a little over a month for Congress to confirm the nomination…  Those were the days.  The elder Sanborn would serve the 8th Circuit Court with distiction for 32 years until his death in 1928.

Henry and his older brother grew up in privileged surroundings. Census records show that in 1910, Walter Sanborn’s household included two live-in domestic servants, a cook named Hettie and a housekeeper named Hilda.

In the first half of the 20th century, when leisure travel was beyond the means of most Americans, passenger ship manifests show Henry and his brother going on a voyage together while they were in college.

Henry attended Dartmouth, vacationed in Bermuda, became a well paid and respected executive for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, and ended up dead in a shallow, hastily dug  grave in Queens wearing what one Brooklyn newspaper described as a suit worth “no more than $25“.

Some truths are eternal.  Social prominence will not protect you from a bad end any more than it will protect you from snide journalists.

When Henry’s body was found August 5th, he had already been on the police radar.  The last time anyone saw him alive was a little over two weeks earlier on July 17th.  He told a co-worker a man was going to drive him to a meeting on Long Island and then left the office never to be seen alive again.

For reasons that are never adequately explained, even though Henry went missing on July 17th, his disappearance was not reported until the 24th of July.  At that time, the police questioned relatives and acquaintances but came up empty handed.

Of all the early newspaper coverage of this story, my favorite headline was in The Salt Lake Tribune.  Printed in that paper’s August 6th Sunday edition, the day after Sanborn’s body was discovered, it reads, “BODY FOUND IN VERTICAL GRAVE SOLVES MYSTERY“.

It seems the good people who settled the area around the Great Salt Lake are an uncomplicated lot. The guy was missing, now he’s not missing. What’s for dinner?

This complete lack of curiosity about how the body got in the grave neatly explains two things.

1. The total absence in mainstream literature of a great detective from Utah

2. The Mormon religion

Seriously, if someone tells you the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and you don’t have any questions, you are going to love reading the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s independent news source since 1871.

The day Sanborn disappeared, he went to the bank and withdrew $2000. This was a lot of money in 1933.  That year you could buy a loaf of bread for 7 cents, the average rent for a house was $18 a month, and the average cost of a car was $600.  That’s not a used car, that’s $600 for a brand new car right off the showroom floor.  When was the last time you went walking around with enough cash in your pocket to buy three cars and still have almost a year’s rent left over?

When Henry’s body was discovered, the Bayside police went through his suit and found, $535 in cash, 4 stock certificates for a brewery in New Haven worth $100 each, and a check for $500.  The cops seemed pretty sure whatever the motive for his murder turned out to be, it wasn’t going to be robbery.

One other interesting detail that came out early in the investigation.  The suit jacket Sanborn was wearing when he was found didn’t have any bullet holes in it.  He apparently wasn’t wearing it when he was shot. Whoever did the deed put the jacket back on him before dumping him in the shallow grave.

The Blond Stenographer

Newspapers of the day invariable describe Henry Sanborn as “unattached”.  A little research show he had two previous marriages that ended in divorce but at the time of his death, he was single.

A relatively well off and well paid executive, Henry was living in a $27 a month room at the Railroad men’s YMCA at 224 East 47th Street in New York City.  If you think, as I did, a room at the Y just doesn’t sound like the kind of housing solution that many women would find seductive…  You could not be more wrong.

On Monday morning, August 7th, the citizens of Taylor, Texas woke up to this headline in the Taylor Daily Press.  “Women “Friends” Questioned in Mysterious Death of Sanborn, R.R. Official”.

As improbable as it seems, Henry Sanborn was engaged to a blond 27-year-old Wall Street stenographer from Norway.

Magnhild Almskaar came to the United States from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, arriving in the US on July 11, 1927 aboard a ship of Norwegian registry, the S.S. Terrier.

She got secretarial work in Chicago but six months after arriving, in January of 1928, she was in New York City, filing for citizenship and promising Thomas Macpherson, Deputy Clerk of the District Court of the United States Eastern District in Brooklyn, that she was “neither an anarchist, nor a polygamist, nor a believer in the practice of polygamy“.

I find a great comfort in the knowledge that the list of things America would not tolerate in a new citizen in 1928 was so short and weird. “Do you believe in getting rid of the government?… No? Great. Do you have more than one husband or believe you should be allowed to have more than one?… No? Great. You’re in… No, that’s all we’re worried about, maintaining the government and threesomes. Welcome aboard.”

After successfully passing the entrance quiz, there was a six year waiting period.   During that time she met, became engaged to, and lost Henry Sanborn.

Then, on February 13th, 1934 in the same District Court in Brookilyn, Magnhild swore before God to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty and particularly to Hakkon VII, King of Norway”.

Why King Hakkon had to be called out by name is a mystery. Abjuring allegiance to ANY prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty would seem to cover all the bases. Singling out the King of Norway is like God saying, “You shall have no other Gods before me… Particularly Baal. Seriously, I mean it, stay away from Baal”.

America is a great country but sometimes we can be a little petty.

British Citizens at the time had an even bigger commitment to make. They had to specifically renounce and abjure, “His Majesty George V, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India“.

You would think abandoning a leader with a title like that would give one pause but in the first half of the 20th Century, so many Britons were turning their backs on the Scepter’d Isle, US immigration officials couldn’t be bothered with typing in the King of England’s full title, they just had a stamp made up with the full title on it. BOOM… “Sign here… Welcome to America… Next”.

Every story about the Sanborn murder that mentions Magnhild, describes her as a 27-year-old blond. Her immigration papers contradict this claim.

According to her application for citizenship, she was born in 1900. That means, at the time her fiancé was killed, she was 33… and so was her roommate, her twin sister, Marit Almskaar. That’s right, I said “her twin sister“. Cue the ominous musical sting.

Marit Almskaar spoke four languages and worked as a translator.   She and Magnhild lived at 147 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn and, much to my chagrin,  beyond the fact that the press occasionally identified Magnhild as the translator, no weird twin thing ever developed.

A note on Magnhild’s residence… A writer in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described where she lived as a “…drab little furnished room… where she formerly entertained her wealthy suitor“.   Ouch.  That had to hurt a little.

Anyway, let’s get back to Sanborn’s women “friends” mentioned in the Taylor Daily Press.

It is interesting to note that in this particular article in the Daily Press there is no mention that Sanborn was shot to death.  It’s all about his women “friends”. For the people of Taylor, Texas it probably goes without saying that if you’ve got a body and more than one woman and you have to put quotes around the word, friends, there are going to be bullets involved.

One of the women, of course, was Magnhild and Bayside detectives immediately brought her in for questioning.  However they also brought in another blond who is often mentioned in the newspapers but never identified.

It seems that when the police searched Henry’s room at the YMCA, they found six pictures of a woman who wasn’t Magnhild Almskaar… six naked pictures.  Ok, cue the ominous musical sting again.

Looking at how the editors of different publications handled this salacious find in 1933 reveals an innocence that is long gone.

Almost every story mentions the mysterious blond and they all mention she appeared in photographs found in Sanborn’s room but not all of them mention she was naked in the photographs. In 1933, not only would no newspaper ever consider printing those naked pictures, a lot of them didn’t even want to use the word “naked” for fear of putting the thought of an unclothed woman in their readers’ heads.  Today, if we subjected those editors to ten minutes of the internet, their brains would melt.

In Piqua, Ohio, The Piqua Daily Call wanted to tell the whole sordid story but ever mindful of their readers’ delicate sensibilities, the editors attempted to have it both ways by falling back on high school French.  They described the naughty items as “photographs au naturelle“.  Classy.

No matter how the pictures were handled by the press, in the long run, they came to nothing.  After questioning the unidentified and obviously uninhibited 30-year-old blond several times, investigators were confident she knew nothing about the crime.

It is unclear whether the mystery woman provided the information or it came from somewhere else, but, around that same time, it was revealed that Henry Sanborn was a dedicated nudist.

Forget the ominous musical sting… The nudism angle didn’t go anywhere either.

The Guy I Like for the Crime

The murder of Henry F. Sanborn was never solved.  His body was found August 5, 1933 and by the end of that month, the story had all but disappeared from the papers.

However, there was one loose end that took a while to tie down.

Along with the four stock certificates for the New Haven brewery found on Sanborn’s body, detectives also found the receipt for their purchase.  It bore the name of 28-year-old Bancroft Mitchell. Bancroft was President of Bancroft Mitchell & Co., investment counsel of 122 East 42nd Street, Manhattan.

Mitchell’s pedigree was remarkably similar to Sanborn’s. Their father’s were both noted lawyers, both sons attended Ivy League schools, both boys grew up with live-in servants, and in 1929, President Calvin Coolidge named Bancroft’s father, William D. Mitchell, Attorney General of the United States of America.

The elder Mitchell also lived and practiced law in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He and Henry Sanborn’s father would have been well known to one another.

After finding the stock receipt on Sanborn’s body, Bayside detectives were eager to talk with Bancroft Mitchell.

They quickly discovered that was going to be no easy matter.  Bancroft and his wife had sailed for Europe days after Henry Sanborn disappeared.

While we await Bancroft’s return, a little historical context will shed some light on the New Haven brewery deal.

Prohibition had been in effect since 1920 and by 1933 America was sick to death of it.  The 21st Amendment  to the United State Constitution, which would repeal Prohibition, was steadily moving towards ratification.  One can imagine Bancroft Mitchell telling Henry Sanborn that owning a piece of a brewery when the Noble Experiment came to an end was the dictionary definition of a “sure thing”.

In July of 1933, Sanford bought four shares of stock in the Weibel Brewery in New Haven, Ct.  Prohibition was repealed December 5th, 1933.  By April 1936, the Weibel Brewery was bankrupt.  When it comes to investing, beware of guys selling “sure things”.

In October of 1933, Bancroft returned from his European vacation and was finally questioned by the police.  Apparently satisfied with his answers, the police sent him on his way, and newspapers never mentioned Henry Sanborn again.  The same thing cannot be said of Bancroft Mitchell.

According to the LA Times of October 16, 1951, the previous day “Bancroft Mitchell, 45,… and his wife, Levina, 27, were jailed on charges of disturbing the peace after mauling one another on a Westwood street“.

The trouble started around 4:30am at 10845 Lindbrook Street. Near the UCLA campus, today, that is the address of the Italian Express restaurant. “We build goodwill with good food“.

Given their motto, I can’t help but think, had the restaurant been there and open in 1933, the following might never have happened.

Just before dawn, while the Mitchells were sitting in their convertible in front of the future pizza emporium, they began arguing about which hotel they should stay at.  The argument grew heated and eventually they began pummeling one another.  A concerned janitor intervened so the couple moved their car down the street to a nearby gas station where they could continue the fight uninterrupted.  At some point, Levina exited the car and barricaded herself in a telephone booth.  Bancroft forced his way into the booth and began hitting his wife with the telephone handset.  The police arrived during this part of the melee and somehow one of the officers got struck by an oil can wielded by Mrs. Mitchell.

Another publication reports almost the same story adding a couple of enlightening details.  Sometime during their trip to Los Angeles, there was a minor car accident for which they were still attempting to properly assign blame.  At the same time, the couple was also in a dispute over the possession of a $1000 bill.  Apparently Levina had it and said it was hers and Bancroft wanted it and said it was his.  Seriously, if you add finding a hotel… without Yelp… to an accident and a thousand dollar bill… Well, jail seems almost inevitable.

Arrested, the couple requested a jury trial, threw down $100 each for bail, and skipped town.

A month later they were back in the news when the LA Times reported that the Mitchells failed to appear for their court date.  The couple’s lawyer showed up to ask for a contiuance because his clients were in New York “on important business“.  Unimpressed, the judge revoked their bail and issued warrants for their arrest.

I haven’t been able to find anything else about that particular incident but it doesn’t really matter.  By  the very next year, Bancroft Mitchell had much, much bigger problems.

It all blew up in November of 1952 when papers all over the country reported that Bancroft Mitchell, son of former Attorney General, William D. Mitchell, had been ordered to appear on 8 counts of grand theft.  He was being accused of offering forged stock certificates to obtain $54,000 in loans from Los Angeles Banks, including Bank of America.

In January of 1953, Bancroft was convicted and sentenced to two to twenty years in San Quentin.  He didn’t serve the whole term.

Just six years later, in 1959, newspapers report Bancroft is being sent back to jail for “transporting a $12500 check, obtained by fraud, from New York to San Diego“.

Before sentencing he told the judge he was finally resolved to make something of himself. The newspaper goes on to report the twice divorced, now 54-year-old Mitchell had used the funds to take “a Latin American tour with a 28-year-old divorcee he had met in Las Vegas“.

Four years later, in 1963, Bancroft is out of jail once again and once again back in court.  This time pleading guilty to stealing $71000 through “false and fraudulent representations of common stock“.   Apparently his resolution to make something of himself just meant stealing larger amounts of money.

The trail and the story dies here.

In the end, maybe Bancroft Mitchell was a good guy in 1933 when he sold Henry Sanborn stock in a brewery in New Haven and sometime after that his life went to hell… Or maybe his life was always a little hellish… Or maybe… It was the twin sister.

 

 

 

Author: Tom Parks

After 35 years of stand-up comedy and acting, I have retired to play golf and write for the sheer pleasure of it. With no schedules to keep, I am left with an abundance of time to follow both interests and distractions wherever they lead me. Life is pretty swell.

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