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.
Tag Archive for unsolved
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.
In memory of Ringo. RIP, jerk.
The reappearance of Tommy, a 9-year-old orange tabby, on the front stoop of the home he shared with William and Margaret Patterson in El Paso, Texas, only exacerbated the mystery of what happened to his owners.
The couple had been absent (most people considered them missing under suspicious circumstances) for more than four months when an undernourished and bedraggled Tommy showed up at his house, strengthening the belief that something bad was going on.
William, 53, who went by the nickname “Pat,” and Margaret, 48, had owned the Patterson Photo Supply Company in El Paso for years and were established in the community. Because they had no children, friends said Margaret treated Tommy “like a mother loves a child.” When they saw that Tommy had not been boarded at the D.L. Cady Animal Hospital as was the Pattersons’ habit when they traveled, friends went to the sheriff’s office with their concerns.
Presented with the strange circumstances (there was much more than the return of a wandering cat), Sheriff Jimmie Hicks opened a missing persons file and assigned Deputy Sgt. John Frizzell to get to the bottom of the matter.
Unfortunately for Frizzell, the Pattersons did not leave one shred of evidence that they planned to leave town. In fact, the opposite was true. Almost everyone interviewed in the investigation said the Pattersons were clearly staying put for a while.
It is possible, even likely, that Tommy was present during the Pattersons’ final hours in their home before they vanished, seemingly into thin air. Unfortunately, whatever secrets Tommy knew he would not part with, so Frizzell was forced to deal only with the humans connected to the case.
“Every phase of the case discloses that they vanished by surprise,” Frizzell said later. “Surprise to themselves as well as to every person who knew them.”
That was in March 1957 and what happened to Pat and Margaret Patterson remains one of El Paso’s greatest mysteries.
An article in the November 12, 1957 home edition of the El Paso Herald-Post, by reporter Cliff Sherrill listed the questions that plagued authorities then and now:
Where are Mr. and Mrs. W. D. Patterson?
Why did they disappear like magic from their home at 3000 Piedmont Avenue the night of March 5?
Did they leave voluntarily? By ruse or trick? By compulsion, under threat of instant death if they didn’t go?
If they left voluntarily, what was the reason?
If they left by force or threat, who forced or threatened them?
And if they disappeared by force or threat, what was the motive of the person or persons guilty of the force or threat? Robbery? Extortion? A desire to keep the Pattersons from telling something they knew?
At first glance, the couple’s lifestyle gives no clue to the answers to those questions. But scratch a little deeper and the story gets odd.
The Pattersons spent a quiet night in their home with friends days before they disappeared. They invited Cecil Ward and his wife, who goes by the nickname “Mrs.,” over for dinner. Following the meal the men went out to the Patterson garage to apply a coat of acrylic to the wooden boat Patterson was building.
Questioned by police, Cecil Ward said Pat not only failed to mention a trip, they discussed plans for later in the week.
“He talked about what we would do on the boat the other nights during the week, and about plans for fishing and doing a lot of other things in the spring and summer,” the owner of the Ward Motor Clinic told investigators.
Mrs. Ward confirmed her husband’s account.
“Margaret never mentioned anything at all about plans for a trip,” she said.
The next day the couples saw each other in the afternoon.
“They drove by here (the Ward Motor Clinic) and talked to us,” Ward said. “They said nothing about plans to go away.”
When the Wards opened their place of business Wednesday, March 6, Patterson’s prized Cadillac was left parked in the driveway of the Ward garage. That day, Ward said, Doyle G. Kirkland, a manager of Duffy Photo Service in El Paso — a rival firm, but Patterson’s friend — came into the shop and directed Ward to service the Caddy and repair a broken horn ring on the steering wheel.
Then Kirkland said something that appeared on its face to be quite benign, but in light of what happened, is extremely suspicious. According to Ward, Kirkland said that he had helped Patterson work on the boat on the previous evening, adding that “the Pattersons were going on a little vacation.”
Kirkland was connected to another possibly innocuous act that later raised eyebrows.
Patterson had been using Ward’s electric sander and on Friday of the same week, the mechanic needed it back for a job. He called Patterson Photo Supply and asked that it be returned. He did not speak with Patterson. Later that day, Kirkland showed up with the sander. He had obviously been in the Patterson home some time earlier that week as Ward remembered leaving it in the Patterson garage. Ward did not say that he expected Patterson to deliver the sander, however, or that having Kirkland deliver it was unusual.
Comments made by Ward paint a picture of Patterson as a man who only liked the best in life — and when he got it was happy to let you know about it.
“If it wasn’t the best, he wouldn’t want it,” Ward said. “Sure, he was loud-mouthed and a braggart, but a pretty good guy. He lived it up, but I guess he was making up for all those years when he didn’t have anything.”
Patterson’s loud mouth got him into trouble on occasion. A month before he disappeared, Pat got drunk in a Juarez, Mexico “night club,” and when his waiter refused to serve the Mexican girl he was with because she worked at the “night club,” a fight started and Patterson found himself outmatched by the club’s bouncers. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt nor arrested. It turns out that the woman he was with, 20-year-old Estefana Arroyo Marfin, was his girlfriend.
Both Pat and Margaret were pretty much closed-mouth about their backgrounds, except to hint that each had a rough upbringing. Pat was a native of Chicago and worked as a carny, touring the country working the games and serving as a barker, jobs that easy to come by and hard to track. It is not surprising that with a pedigree like that, Pat would fall short of the expectations Margaret’s family had for a suitor.
Friends said Margaret never told them where she was born or even her birth date. They did not know how she and Pat met, or how long they had been married. They knew she had a brother somewhere, but that they were estranged.
“It seemed they told her she would have to choose between them and Pat,” said one friend. “She chose Pat.”
The couple moved to El Paso from Dallas around 1940, where they built up their business. During the war, Patterson sold nylon stockings smuggled from Mexico on the black market and made quite a nut for himself.
His father, Luther, testified in a court of inquiry and asserted that his son still had a little bit of carny in him:
“I always knew Pat and Margaret would take off like this some day, but I figured it to be four or five years away,” he testified. “They’re not dead; my boy has done things like this before. He made his living doing sleight-of-hand tricks.”
Although she later retracted the statement, Estefana Marfin told authorities that Patterson told her he may have to disappear soon and do it quickly.
The El Paso Herald reported that a few years later Luther Patterson said he suspected his son and daughter-in-law were dead.
Besides not boarding Tommy, other evidence was circumstantial proof that the Pattersons did not plan ahead to leave town:
- Expensive clothes, including a fur coat, were left with cleaners and a furrier, without instructions to store them
- Utilities including telephone, gas, and electricity were not disconnected
- Mail was not stopped and no change of address was given to the post office until 21 days after the disappearance, when the post office was told to deliver all mail to the photo supply store. There is no evidence that either of the Pattersons issued the change request. Newspaper delivery was unaffected
- Dishes from dinner the night before the vanishing were left unwashed in the kitchen sink
- The Pattersons had been planning to attend the spring National Photographers Association convention in Washington, DC, but did not show up at their hotel or attend the conference. The hotel could not locate any record of a cancellation, but the Pattersons never registered at the conference.
The best clue to the fate of the Pattersons came on March 15, when Herbert Roth, the Pattersons’ accountant, received a telegram with instructions on managing some of the couples assets and their business.
Roth was directed to act as business manager of the Patterson Photo Supply Company and directed to cancel the reservations for the Pattersons’ trip to D.C. He was told to hire a new manager for the store who would replace the missing owner, to sell a mobile home owned by the Pattersons and to use the proceeds to support the store.
The message also indicated that the Pattersons planned to be gone for some time: Roth was instructed to rent out the Patterson home for at least nine months.
The telegram came into the Western Union office in Dallas via pay phone in an area near Love Field, possibly indicating that the couple was flying out of the area. However, the sender of the telegram was listed as “W.H. Patterson.” His middle name was Durrell. The mistake might have been made by the Western Union agent, of course.
The manager Patterson wanted hired to oversee the operation in his absence was Doyle Kirkland, who was the self-admitted last person to see them alive. No evidence other than conspicuous behavior linked Kirkland or anyone else to the crime. He disappeared from the police radar after he moved from El Paso in the 1960s.
In 1960 Sheriff Bob Bailey went to a resort town outside Mexico City, tracking down a rumor that the couple was seen there. He found some hotel workers who identified photographs of the Pattersons as a couple who stayed at the hotel for several months in 1957. However, there was no record of the Pattersons registering at the hotel and from there the case, for the most part, went cold until the mid-1980s, according to the El Paso Times when a witness came forward claiming to have seen blood and other signs of violence in the Patterson garage.
Freddie Bonilla, former El Paso homicide dick who is now a private eye, said that an illegal immigrant named Reynaldo Nangaray, the caretaker of the Pattersons’ home, made an official statement that he not only saw blood, but that there was part of a person’s scalp on the propeller of Pat’s boat. Further, writes Sam Stall in Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Minivans, Nangaray witnessed one of the Pattersons’ friends putting bloody sheets from the house into a car.
Bonilla said Nangaray was afraid to come forward because he was an illegal immigrant at that time. Unfortunately, Nangaray died in a car accident two years after speaking with the cops.
“Nangaray told us he found blood in the garage and a piece of human scalp on the propeller of Patterson’s boat,” Bonilla told the El Paso Times. “He found a pair of jeans with a Rolex watch that belonged to Patterson, and said he also saw one of Patterson’s (associates) remove bloody sheets from the home and put them inside the trunk of a car. He did not talk to police sooner because he was an illegal immigrant at the time, but when he came to see us, he was a U.S. citizen.”
As for theories of what happened, it’s a you-pick-’em:
- They were kidnapped and killed
- He killed her and fled
- She killed him and fled
- They were spies and returned home
Alien Abduction Tommy killed them both
Item 4 might seem a bit far-fetched until one looks at Pat Patterson’s behavior. He got his start in El Paso as a “street photographer,” taking pictures of everyone and everything and was reportedly seen around nearby Fort Bliss with his camera on a regular basis.
In 2009, El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego said the espionage theory was valid.
“I think they were spies,” he told the Times in a retrospective. “The way they got up and just walked away and left everything behind. The Russians, or whoever sent them, probably told them to drop everything and go back. Some people said they had seen Patterson take photographs of Fort Bliss and of military shipments on the trains that came here.”
The Times did not report if Samaniego was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but reporter Diana Washington Valdez did take the next step of checking with the FBI to see if the couple was ever under investigation for espionage. The SAC for El Paso at the time said the Pattersons were not in any records going back that far.
There are many people in El Paso who think that the Pattersons never left the home. At one time, Sheriff Bob Bailey said, it was believed that the couple was buried on the property somewhere, but nothing was ever uncovered.
That prompted people to believe the place was haunted by the spirits of Pat and Margaret Patterson, which only caused problems for the police.
“When I was a city patrolman, the house on Piedmont was in my district,” Samaniego told the Times. “I would get a hundred calls … all these kids would stop by the house because they thought the house was haunted, and they would scare this poor old lady who (once) lived there.”
On March 27, 1964, the Pattersons were officially declared dead. The Patterson mystery is regularly reviewed by the city and county cold case squads.
What happened to Tommy the cat is also a mystery. When he reappeared at his home, the persons renting the place took him to the Cady Animal Hospital where his trail goes cold. No one has reported seeing the ghostly apparition of a cat around the old Patterson house.