Within 24 hours of the time that Margaret Thompson Lilliendahl of Hammonton, N.J., reported that her husband was murdered in a robbery gone bad, any sympathy the community had for the 42-year-old daughter of a wealthy Maryland family had disappeared.
According to Margaret, she and her 72-year-old husband, Dr. A. William Lilliendahl, were out for a drive on a hot 1927 mid-September day when a pair of black men jumped on the running board of her car and forced the pair to drive into the woods. There, she told police, the two robbers took the doctor’s wallet containing four $5 bills and watch and “muttering vile threats,” dragged her from the car and took her two rings, one containing a 3-carat diamond valued at $3,000. Then the men began to assault Margaret, tearing her clothes and beating her.
Dr. Lilliendahl became enraged, she claimed, and he began to fight back. Margaret heard a single gunshot and fainted. When she awoke, the doctor appeared dead and the assailants were gone.
Shrieking, Margaret ran down a rural road and attracted the attention of several farmers who returned with her to the scene of the crime. They found Dr. Lilliendahl dead, slumped over the seat of the coupe. He had been shot three times, with one of the bullets severing his jugular vein.
Margaret was taken to the nearby hospital and authorities gathered a posse to begin a massive manhunt, the likes of which had not been seen the area for some time.
That Dr. Lilliendahl might have been a target of desperate robbers was not outside the realm of possibility. He was a well-to-do former narcotics expert who had recently closed his New York practice after the federal government charged him with violating narcotics laws. He was being too lenient with his patients, many of who had sordid pasts, according to Margaret.
“Lots of times on our automobile rides we have been followed by desperate looking men,” she told police. “On several occasions the doctor hinted to me that his life had been threatened.”
For a brief time Margaret was an object of sympathy in the town until word began to spread that police had found (or not found as the case may be) some evidence that weakened an already anemic story.
First, police found only one set of footprints in the dirt around the car and they belonged to a woman, most likely Margaret. Next, a search of Margaret’s purse revealed four $5 bills. One of the bills was covered with blood, “a fact difficult to explain if they had been in her purse while her husband was slain,” County Prosecutor Cameron Hinkle said later.
Inside the glove compartment of the car, investigators found a map with an X marked on the spot where the slaying occurred.
A few yards from the car authorities found Dr. Lilliendahl’s empty wallet and the less-expensive of the two rings allegedly stolen during the botched hold-up. Tied to a tree not far from the murder scene was a small piece of cloth. It had been left there not long before the killing, said County Detective Frank Harrold.
Also nearby and perhaps most damning, police found a love letter addressed to “Peggy Anderson” that was signed by Willis Beach, a 57-year-old chicken farmer from nearby South Vineland.
It was no secret around Hammonton that the small, pasty Beach was a frequent visitor to the Lilliendahl home. It was also common knowledge that the Lilliendahl marriage was not a happy one. The couple’s 8-year-old son Alfred told police that his mother and father fought frequently.
Neighbors corroborated this fact and strengthened the police theory that there were no black men involved in the murder. One of the last public fights the two had involved a quarrel over the “close association” of Beach and Margaret. The town gossips added that they had seen Beach and Margaret driving in the vicinity of the crime. Some claimed to have seen the pair “embracing” in the car.
There was also a possible financial motive for the crime. Shortly before his death, Dr. Lilliendahl, displaying a handful of letters, told a friend that he had more than enough evidence to divorce his wife. A search of the family safe deposit box turned up a handwritten will where Dr. Lilliendahl left everything to his wife — provided they were still married. If the marriage was over, the estate was left in trust to Albert.
Four days after the murder, Margaret was arraigned as a material witness — which allowed the government to detain her. She immediately posted the $25,000 bond. Ten days later Beach was picked up as a material witness, and also posted bond.
In the brief time that they were in custody both Beach and Margaret admitted that they had been exchanging letters after they were confronted with evidence produced by the postmistress in Vineland.
Margaret had an innocent, if unbelievable explanation: “Mr. Beach and the doctor had disagreed over how to handle chickens. Mr. Beach was also concerned about the doctor’s health and he asked me to keep him informed by letter.”
When police announced that they had found three witnesses who saw a white man speeding away from the murder scene about the time the doctor died, and identified the man as Beach, authorities went to Beach’s farm to bring him in. But Beach was nowhere to be found.
“Mr. Beach is out of the state on my advice,” his lawyer Edison Hedges told reporters. “He will remain out of it until he is wanted by a court or grand jury.”
However, when the court demanded that Hedges produce his client to appear before a grand jury, the lawyer refused and was quickly indicted for obstruction of justice. At the same session, the grand jury charged Beach with aiding and abetting the murder of Dr. Lilliendahl.
Beach surfaced on October 6, explaining his absence with a story that also defied belief:
I got up early and started out for Atlantic City to see my lawyer. I didn’t find Mr. Hedges in his office, so I drove along to May’s Landing but he wasn’t in his office there either. Then noticed that the exhaust pipe in my car was leaking, so I drove to a garage and left the car there. I then went to a nice little place where I had plenty to eat and drink, but I was mighty lonesome. My lawyer did not tell me to disappear.
It came out later that the “nice little place” was in Baltimore.
Also on October 6, the grand jury handed up two true bills charging the lovers with murder.
The trial began in November 1927. One of the stars of the event was someone who had almost nothing to do with the case: Little Alfred Lilliendahl was in attendance almost every day and was allowed to wander around the courtroom at times.
An eight-year-old boy is a witness here to the grim tragedy of his mother’s trial for the murder of his father, but it’s just a holiday from school to him.
To Albert Lilliendahl, innocent of the circumstances surrounding the killing of his aged father, Dr. A William Lilliendahl, last September 15, the tense atmosphere of the crowded court room In which Mrs. Margaret Thompson Lilliendahl, and her admirer, Willis Beach, are on trial for murder in the first degree, means nothing.
With the child’s consciousness of being a cynosure for all eyes, Albert naively played with pennies and pencils while Jersey justice, moving with traditional rapidity piled up the accusing evidence of ten witnesses against his mother and his mother’s friend.
Albert sat by his mother, a black clad but brightly smiling figure while Prosecutor Hinkle and attorneys for the defendants mustered a jury of five women and seven men.
It was a strictly circumstantial case, but it was quite solid:
Besides the witnesses who placed Beach near the scene, the X-marked map, the $5 bills, the town gossips, and the love letters, the prosecution produced much more for the jury to ponder.
Caroline Tamberlain, postmistress at South Vineland, testified that Beach told her he was “going to get the doctor if he did not quit hounding” him. Tamberlain also said that Beach claimed he was the father of Albert.
The state tried to prove a negative by calling a number of witnesses who said they had never seen Margaret with a 3-carat diamond ring.
The strongest witness was Samuel Bark, described as a “drawling Texan,” testified that Beach confessed the murder to him in Baltimore after trying to beg money from him. Bark testified that Beach wanted the money because he was in “an awful jam.” When Bark asked him what he meant, Beach admitted killing Dr. Lilliendahl.
“I asked him how he got in such a fix,” Bark told the court. “He said he got in a racket with the old man and shot him.”
Bark was the only witness who could provide insight into how the crime went down.
“Beach said when he got to the place where the Lilliendahls were, the old man started to raise hell,” he said. “Then, Beach told me, he shot him and ran back to his car. When he got there he shouted ‘yoo hoo’ to let Mrs. Lilliendahl know he was safely away and that she could spread the alarm.”
Bark added that Beach didn’t say anything about a romantic motive for the murder.
“He said the trouble began over money he had loaned Dr. Lilliendahl, and also that the doctor ordered him out of the house.”
Bark closed the state’s case against Beach and the defense was only able to rebut it by claiming Bark wanted to blackmail Beach for $500, and producing three witnesses who swore they saw Beach 25 miles away eating lunch at the time of the murder.
Beach took the stand, denied ever seeing Bark or confessing to a crime that he was innocent of. There was no affair between him and Margaret, he testified adding that his problems with Dr. Lilliendahl stemmed from how to cure sick fowl. At no point did Beach look at Margaret, journalists reported.
Margaret also took the stand and testified for two boring hours, providing the frustrated press with no juicy details for their afternoon stories.
The biggest shock of the case was caused by the jury which deliberated for 23 hours before delivering a verdict that defied explanation. The jury convicted the pair of voluntary manslaughter. The verdict was a compromise, one said later, because jurors had stood 9-3 for acquittal.
Judge Luther A. Campbell sentenced them both to 10 years in prison — the maximum penalty allowed by law. From the bench he assailed the jury.
“Why they brought in that verdict of manslaughter, I don’t know,” he said. “The crime was beyond question murder. They were being tried for first degree murder. And since the jury believed them guilty of a criminal homicide, I would not be justified in less than the maximum sentence.”
Reporters wrote that Beach and Margaret “laughed and chatted” all the way to the state prison at Trenton.
“We won’t be here long,” Beach reportedly said.
It was long enough. On October 12, 1930 — a little over 3 years from the time of the murder, Beach died of a heart attack at the prison farm near Bordenton. Margaret didn’t last much longer: Seven years into her sentence and near death, she received a mercy parole.