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.
The case of Domenico Galbo could also be entitled “How to Get Away with Murder (Maybe)” because while we cannot reach the legal threshold to declare that Galbo was a murderer, we all know he did it or was at least involved up to his eyeballs.
The problem is that we do not know to what extent he was involved; so even though we have a dead body that obviously got that way through nefarious acts, despite the fact that Galbo was known to want the victim dead, and eyewitness testimony that places him with the dead body in his wagon notwithstanding, Galbo’s second degree murder conviction was rightfully tossed by the New York Court of Appeals.
The Galbo case reveals an interesting Catch-22 in the criminal justice system that creates a very small loophole which a really smart criminal might be able to exploit. Bear in mind, because we are discussing this right now, chances are it has been closed.
The loophole centers around the problem of defining what is an accomplice to a crime, and determining at what point someone becomes an accomplice.
That’s a very general description and after reading the story of the strange murder Francesco Manzella in 1911, you still want to try it, go ahead. See if I care. I’ll write about it here.
The body of Francesco Manzella was found on October 30, 1911, at the bottom of a deep ravine along the Webster road near the city of Rochester. Manzella’s head and legs had been cut off, and his body forced into a barrel.
That the 35-year-old Manzella, a strong, athletic man, fought violently for his life is apparent from his injuries: The coroner described 22 wounds and bruises that bear witness to a vigorous resistance. A blow to the temple rendered Manzella unconscious, and then with a sharp knife the head had been severed. Whoever used the knife displayed a surgeon’s skill. The legs were cut off later, and again a surgeon’s skill was shown.
To say Manzella is not a sympathetic victim is an understatement. He was a blackmailer who had once served a term in prison for extortion. Manzella was known as a “blackhander,” someone who would send anonymous threatening notes to a victim demanding payment to avoid incurring the wrath of a non-existent secret society known among Italian immigrants as the Black Hand. This “organization” is sometimes thought of as a progenitor of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra — the Italian organized crime model that we’re all familiar with. In fact there was no such organization as the Black Hand: it was a scam. Blackhanders worked alone, victimizing gullible Italian peasants with the threat of physical violence coming from who knows where.
Manzella’s conviction for extortion was the result of an attempt to demand a payoff from a man described as a “Wheatland padrone” who lived on a small estate about 10 miles outside Rochester in 1908. In that crime Manzella poisoned the man’s dog and attempted to blow up his house with dynamite. For that he served 2 1/2 years of a 3-year bit. When he was released from Auburn in May 1911, Manzella, a Brooklyn resident, made his home in Rochester where he immediately went back to his old lifestyle of blackmail.
On Saturday, October 28, 1911, two days before the finding of his dead body, Manzella requested a loan of Guiseppe Galbo, but was repulsed. Joseph, as Guiseppe preferred to be called, operated a banana importing and marketing company with his brother, Domenico, who had lost both of his legs in an accident years before.
They had a store on the corner of Railroad street and the Public Market in Rochester; and in the rear was a barn where they kept their horses. Domenico was unmarried, and slept above the store. Joseph was married, and lived at the home of his father-in-law. They had some acquaintance with Manzella, who slept once, if not oftener, above the store with Domenico.
After his request for a “loan” was rejected, Manzella said he would get the money from Joseph’s father-in-law, Ollis. Later in the day he made the request of Ollis, and was told to come back in the evening. He was never seen again.
On Monday morning before dawn, the farmers driving with their burdens toward Rochester along the Webster road saw the Galbo wagon, drawn by a gray and a sorrel horse and with Domenico Galbo in the seat. It was going away from the city. In the rear there seemed to be a barrel covered with canvas. Some of the witnesses could describe the wagon and the horses only. Others had noticed the barrel. Others, though unacquainted with the driver, recalled his appearance. An hour or two later the same wagon with the same driver came back along the same road. Those who saw it then make no mention of a barrel. Two men identify the driver as Domenico. One of them jumped on the wagon and rode part of the way.
The facts in evidence also establish that by 8 a.m. on that morning the body of Manzella was at the bottom of the ravine. On Sunday, October 29, about 3 p.m., 18-year-old Frank Smith went to the ravine to set a trap for a skunk. There was no barrel and no body then. The next morning he went to the ravine, found the barrel and the dismembered body, and notified the police.
A trail of circumstantial evidence leads from the ravine to the Galbo store and by the afternoon of October 30, both Galbo brothers were in jail, arrested for the murder of Francesco Manzella.
A look at the evidence would certainly lead a rational person to believe the state’s case-in-chief, alleging that Domenico and Joseph Galbo were the killers.
The barrel that contained Manzella’s body was a wine barrel with iron hoops; in the Galbo store four barrels of the same kind were found by the police. Stuck on the barrel in the ravine was a fragment of a printed card from the Blandi wine distributorship in Pittsburg. Five barrels of Blandi’s wine were sold in March, 1910, to Joseph Galbo. The waybill and receipt produced by the railroad company establish its delivery. Five barrels reached the Galbo store; four were still there after the body was discovered.
Near the body in the ravine was a printed time card. The cards had been printed for the McCabe Electrical Company. Desks from that firm were sold to the Capon-Sullivan Company, which occupied a store owned by Joseph Galbo. Less than a week before the murder, a member of the Capon-Sullivan Company found the time cards and threw them into the Galbo yard.
Near the barrel in the ravine there was a part of a burlap sack, which had once been filled with chicken feed. It was stained with blood, and had doubtless been used to cover the top of the barrel. It was stamped with the label of the Dickinson Company of Chicago. It bore the tag of “Lathrop’s Pet Shop.” Six bags of the same kind, with the same label, were found in the Galbo store, and there was another in the Galbo wagon. A fortnight before the murder, Joseph Galbo bought from nine to twelve sacks of chicken feed from the Clark Douglass Company, which bought them from “Lathrop’s Pet Shop.”
Near the burlap sack were also parts of a rope. Rope of the same material and weight was suspended from hooks, and carried bunches of bananas in the Galbo store. The rope from two hooks was missing.
The tailboard of the wagon showed traces of white paint. White paint was found on the fence which ran along the Webster road at the top of the ravine.
Discolored shavings of wood were found in the barrel, and other shavings, apparently discolored in the same way, were found in the Galbo barn. A chemist showed that all the shavings had been colored by the same dye. In the stall of the barn there were breaks in the cement which indicated a recent excavation of a size suitable for a grave. But nothing else that even remotely suggested guilt was found either in the barn or in the store.
The police took possession at once; they ransacked the buildings from top to bottom, tore the woodwork open and searched in every nook for traces of blood and for implements of crime. Nothing was found. A detective was then stationed in a nearby cell to listen to the brothers’ talk.
Domenico said: “They are looking for the driver of the wagon.”
“You drove the wagon,” said Joseph.
“I know I did,” said Domenico.
Galbo did what a good defendant should do and adopted the “nothing/everything defense:” Admit nothing; deny everything.
He denied that he had driven a wagon along Webster Road on the morning of October 30. He often went along that road with his burden of bananas, he said, but he did not go that day. Instead, he drove to Fairport, in a different direction. He did not leave the barn till about 6 a.m., and when he left, he did not take the gray horse along as it was sick and could not go.
But a witness for the state who worked in the Galbo barn said that he reached there before 6 a.m., and that Domenico and the gray horse were gone.
Both men were under arrest within thirty-six hours of the murder; neither showed a scratch or a blood stain. The state tried to connect Domenico with the murder by evidence that he attempted to secrete the body.
A jury agreed with the state and Domenico was convicted of second-degree murder. He appealed, arguing that the state had not proved its case.
The New York Court of Appeals reviewed the case, and in 1916 admitted what everyone knew: Domenico Galbo was intimately connected to the murder of Francesco Manzella, but just what that connection was, no one could say. What the court had to say was that Domenico was not guilty of murder.
“The jury found him guilty of murder in the second degree, and to reach that verdict must have found that his narrative was false. The credibility of witnesses is not for our consideration except where the judgment is of death,” wrote Justice Benjamin Cardozo for a unanimous court, pointing out that it was not the place of the appeals court to pass judgment on whether or not the jury should have believed the state’s case.
The State of New York argued that the acts of possession and concealment prove that Domenico was a murderer. Not so fast, wrote Cardozo.
They do, we think, beyond question justify the inference that in some way and at some stage he became connected with this crime. But the question remains, in what way and at what stage? Was he a principal, and if so, did he himself commit the offense, or aid and abet its commission, or counsel or induce another to commit it? Was he, on the other hand, an accessory after the fact, aiding the offender to avoid arrest or punishment? Principals in the first and second degree at common law, and accessories before the fact, are classed alike as principals today. Accessories after the fact are classed simply as accessories. Which of these degrees of guilt attaches to the defendant?
Making the leap that possession of a dead body in such circumstances — even one that exhibits the signs of criminal activity like Manzella’s — indicates the person is a principal in a murder is a step too far, Cardozo points out.
It is the law that recent and exclusive possession of the fruits of crime, if unexplained or falsely explained, will justify the inference that the possessor is the criminal. That rule has most frequently been applied in cases of burglary and larceny and receiving stolen goods; but it is not unknown in cases of murder. The highwayman kills his victim; the purpose of the murder is robbery; the same inference that identifies the robber identifies the murderer. Possession of the dead body — the subject of the crime itself — has much the same significance as possession of jewels or money or other fruits of crime. If there is any distinction, it is one chiefly of degree.
The fruits of crime are themselves objects of desire; the possessor, at least presumably, has them because he wishes to enjoy them. But the possessor of the dead body wishes only to be rid of it. Its possession is thus associated more readily than that of money or jewels with the notion of concealment and thus with the form of guilt that attaches distinctively to the accessory after the fact.
Only half of the problem, however, has been solved when guilty possession fixes the identity of the offender. There remains the question of the nature of his offense.
Sometimes facts actually cloud the picture, Cardozo wrote.
“Is the guilty possessor the thief, or is he a receiver of stolen goods? Judges have said that if nothing more is shown, we may take him to be the thief,” he said. “But as soon as evidence is offered that the theft was committed by some one else, the inference changes, and he becomes a receiver of stolen goods. Sometimes the circumstances may make it proper for a jury to say which inference is the true one.”
The problem is a hard one. To solve it we must steadily bear in mind that the inference of guilt to be drawn from possession is never one of law. It is an inference of fact. Other facts may neutralize it, or repel it, or render it so remote or tenuous or uncertain that in a given case we should reject it. The man who secretes a body and lies about it, may be found in most cases to be concealing his own crime, and, therefore, to be the murderer. That is so because personal guilt, unless the circumstances point to some other connection, is the reasonable inference. We are not to assume without evidence that some one else is implicated. He who conceals the crime may be taken to be the perpetrator.
But how, if he proves an alibi? Are we then at liberty to infer that even if he did not commit the murder himself, he incited some one to do it, and thus, in spite of his proved absence, hold him as a principal? A is seen to shoot B, but C later has the body, and will not telle how he came by it. The law must say whether his silence is to condemn him as principal or as accessory.
If alibi can prevent the prosecution from moving forward, what about the natural ability of the suspect?
In this case a legless man is charged with killing a stronger, able-bodied ex-convict. The murder followed a fierce fight in which Manzella was beaten and wounded. It seems certain that the wounds were inflicted and the head severed as parts of a single combat.
There is no way, Cardozo argued, that Domenico Galbo could have accomplished the crime based on the evidence presented, and thus the conviction must be quashed.
“We cannot with reason say that the cripple did these things,” he said. “Least of all can we say that he was able to do them and escape without a scratch or a blood stain.”
When a court finds that something is impossible — for example, a legless man killing a stronger man without suffering any injury or getting blood on himself — it does not mean impossible in the strictest sense, but so nearly impossible that a jury ought not to believe it: beyond a reasonable doubt. But as soon as we concede that Domenico did not kill Manzella, we lose ourselves in mystery when we attempt to measure the degree of his connection with the crime.
“The guilty possessor of the body, though he did not use the weapon, may still have aided and abetted; but unless there are tokens that several joined in the affray, the likelihood of his presence is no greater than the likelihood of his absence,” Cardozo said. “He may still be an accessory; whether before the fact or after is the problem. If the circumstances make one inference just as reasonable as the other, we must give the defendant the benefit of the conclusion that would mitigate his guilt.”
We have no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the actual perpetrator was assisted by any one. We have nothing to tell us when or where the crime occurred. We have no sign that it was committed in the defendant’s presence. He may have known of it in advance, and planned or encouraged it. He may have learned of it later, and attempted to shield the criminal. The trial judge told the jury that the burden was on the People to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, though he did not kill with his own hand, was nonetheless a principal; he must have become connected with the crime while Manzella was yet alive. If all that he did was to help the murderer to escape, he was not a principal, but an accessory, and the jury under the charge were then required to acquit him. The charge is sound, but it propounded to the jury a problem incapable of reasoned solution.
In these circumstances we cannot see that the jury had any chart or compass by which to guide their judgment. A conviction upon circumstantial evidence is not to be sustained unless the circumstances are inconsistent with innocence. We may multiply inferences at times, but in multiplying them, we must not refine and rarefy them beyond measure.
A body is hidden. The evidence forbids the inference that the hider is the slayer. That inference excluded, something more must be shown, some probability of time or place or circumstance, before the concealment of the body can be said to prove anything more than concealment of a crime. Small things may turn the scale. But something there must be.
We are thus led to the conclusion that the defendant was not proved to be a principal in the commission of this crime. He ought to have been indicted, and might then have been convicted, as an accessory.
The People charge in the indictment that the brother, Joseph, was one of the murderers. Like the defendant, he did not show a scratch or a blood stain. If the crime was his work, the defendant had a strong motive for concealment. If it was another’s work, the mystery is deepened.
We know that Manzella had led a life of crime in which bitter enmities must have been aroused; and we cannot say how the defendant was connected with the man or men by whom those enmities were avenged. In connecting him as a principal, conjecture has filled the gaps left open by the evidence, and the presumption of innocence has yielded to a presumption of guilt.
There is no record of whether or not Domenico Galbo was retried, nor is there any indication of what happened to Joseph Galbo.