Suicide by Person or Persons Unknown

The Feely Family

The universe teaches us that most often the simplest explanation is the correct one. It does not always work out that way, but more often than not it does.
 
This philosophy, commonly known as Occam’s Razor, can be seen in murder investigations where detectives start by looking at those closest to the victim and working their way out in an ever-widening net.
 
So in 1936, when Pittsburgh police announced that the deaths of Eleanore Feely and her two young children came about as the result of a murder-suicide, most rational people who looked at the evidence scratched their heads in wonder at this official explanation.
 
On July 20, 1936 — the day after the Max Schmeling/Joe Louis fight where the German knocked down the Brown Bomber — another story featured just as prominently on a number of front pages: the discovery of Eleanore, 30, and her two children, Robert, 5, and Janice, 3, violently slain in the children’s playroom in their first-floor apartment. All had been attacked with an ice pick, but the actual cause of death in each murder was strangulation. The Feelys’ landlord discovered the family slain in their locked 7-room apartment, which was undisturbed.
 
Eleanore’s husband and the father of the children, Martin Feely, a professor of phys ed at the University of Pittsburgh, was at a boy’s summer camp in New Jersey about 320 miles away at the time and was quickly cleared of any involvement. Eleanore and the children were scheduled to join him in a few days.
 
The two children each suffered a stab wound to the left temple and were strangled, apparently with a tourniquet that was still wrapped around Eleanore’s neck. The killer had used a hammer to twist the tourniquet around her throat. A single thumbprint from what was assumed to be a man based on its size was found on the hammer, but there were no other fingerprints.
 
Eleanore also suffered a stab wound to her left temple but also had ice pick-inflicted wounds to her chest. There were no signs of sexual assault or robbery, which pushed police to look at other scenarios. The one they chose — and the semi-official explanation on the books to this day — was that Eleanore killed her children and then took her own life.
 
Detectives theorized that Eleanore, “nervous and distraught after nursing the boy through a serious attack of scarlet fever, strangled her two children with a rope, stabbed them with an ice pick, stabbed herself by throwing her body against the ice pick which she held handle first against the wall, and then strangled herself,” according to Lead Detective Samuel E. Wheeler.
 
“I have talked with physicians who claim it is perfectly possible for Mrs. Feely to have killed the children and herself,” Wheeler said.
 
There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that it is incredible and far-fetched. Regular readers of the Register know that truth is stranger than fiction, so we cannot discount the police theory out of hand. Detectives were presented with what was essentially a locked-room mystery without any visible clues and it appears that they gave up trying to solve the puzzle without expending much effort.
 
We must also content ourselves with the description of the crime scene that was featured in the press. There were no descriptions of any kind of blood spatter which might have led the cops to believe the murder-suicide angle was correct. In addition, no mention was made of any fingerprints on the ice pick. However, reporters were quick to point out the thumbprint on the hammer (which was later determined to have come from an investigator), so it is likely that neither Eleanore’s prints nor anyone else’s were on the pick.
 
As an example of how silly the police theory is, consider that Eleanore was right-handed, so it is not plausible that she would attempt to kill herself with an ice pick using her weaker hand. It is easy to accomplish, but a person who has just stabbed and strangled two children would be pretty much operating on autopilot in some sort of psychotic break, so it would be muscle memory, not calculated thought, that would determine how wounds were inflicted. A right-handed person will use their right hand in such a situation. The police theory also never explained how Eleanore managed to wipe her prints off the hammer after she was dead. On the other hand, the integrity of the crime scene appears to have been compromised considering that an investigator’s print was the only one found on the hammer.
 
We will not even discuss the absurd theory that she held the ice pick against the wall and ran into it several times before giving up and strangling herself.
 
Not surprisingly there were strong differences of opinion about Eleanore’s mental state. Her husband and other members of the family were adamant that Eleanore was of completely sound mind and would never even consider hurting her children or herself. They described her as “cultured and intellectual, a brilliant student in school at Springfield, Mass.,” where she met her future husband.
 
“I don’t know what the cause could have been,” said her grief-stricken husband. “But I’m sure she didn’t do it herself. I am positively convinced my family was murdered and I intend to push the investigation.”
 
Martin also stated that the hammer and ice pick were not his.
 
Pressed by the family, Mayor William N. McNair told Eleanore’s brothers, Robert and Richard Buckley, that the case “would not be dropped until a definite solution is found.”
 
Eleanore’s kin were not alone in thinking the official explanation was a crock. An investigator for the Coroner’s Office was convinced that someone else was responsible.
 
“John Artz, special coroner’s investigator, stuck doggedly to his theory that the three were victims of a cold-blooded killer who left no clues,” wrote the New Castle (Penn.) News.
 
“I don’t care what the police say,” he told reporters, “Someone — some ghoul — killed this mother and her children.”
 
During a 3-day coroner’s inquest in November 1936 the conflicting theories were aired before a jury, which rejected the murder-suicide theory in favor of criminal homicide by person or persons unknown.
 
This was little more than a moral victory for the survivors, as a coroner’s jury, like the grand jury, does not try cases. Essentially the jury’s verdict states who died, what manner of death (i.e., accident, suicide, homicide, natural, unknown.), when it happened, and where the death occurred. A finding of homicide by a coroner’s jury can lead to an investigation, but the police and prosecutor are not bound by the verdict and are free to pursue or not pursue an investigation. Usually this is seen when the jury returns a manner of death of unknown or when the facts in possession clearly indicate a mistake by the jury.
 
The Pittsburgh police grudgingly reopened the investigation, but with the head of detectives still convinced that Eleanore killed her children and herself, it was an investigation in name only. To them, the case was de facto solved.
 
In 1937, saying he was disgusted with the Pittsburgh police and hopeless of ever solving the case, Martin Feely quit his job at Pitt and moved back to Massachusetts.
 
The case remains open or closed depending on your point of view.