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In Our Waters – Bound By The Barrel

Jonathan H. Baldwin walked slowly over his own well-trodden path along the wooden deck of the Cunard Dock jutting out upon the waters of the Hudson River. His round now complete, he reflected upon the date as he sat down on his chair at the foot of the dock. It was Friday, April 13th, 1850. He reached up, smoothed his beard and chuckled to himself. Would it be possible, he pondered, to determine how many times he had made his rounds after all of these years as a watchman? The idea quickly escaped his thoughts as he sat down and reached for a copy of the daily newspaper. Better to explore the news than to try and recall upon the past, he decided, as he unfurled the sheets. Though the newspaper contained stories of note, his gaze noticed something bobbing in the water ten or so feet from the dock. His curiosity piqued, he stood up, instinctively folded the newspaper and walked closer to the protruding object. He walked slowly to the end of the dock and the folded up newspaper suddenly fell from his clutches. He subconsciously reached up and stroked his beard. “Is that a pair of feet?”

With the recent murders aboard the sloops E.A. Johnson and Spray resonating in his thoughts, Baldwin immediately thought it might be the body of one of the missing men. He quickly retraced his steps along the dock and called upon his partner who was stationed at another location at the York Street, Jersey City facility. Soon after, Baldwin stood alongside Peter Peterson. The two men decided to investigate. Securing a line around one of the feet, the two men began pulling in on the line. A body, the two men agreed, should not be so difficult to pull in. Something must be anchoring it to the muddy bottom. The watchmen secured the line to a nearby cleat and summoned the authorities to the scene.
Coroner Morris and the two watchmen looked out upon the two feet undulating from the surface of the calm waters. There was only one way to try and solve the mysterious situation. Utilizing the already fastened line, the three men proceeded to pull the body to the deck. With brute strength, the men were successful in landing the body onto the wooden pier. The body would not prove to be that of one of the murdered men from the E.A. Johnson or the Spray. This was the body of a nude woman, clothed only in a portion of an embroidered linen chemise and a partial stocking of cloth on one of her legs. The grotesque discovery of the woman’s mouth, bound tightly with line tied with a timber hitch, had forced her lifeless tongue outward. The body had been anchored to the muddy river bed by a heavy barrel of pitch. The three men cut the body free from the barrel and placed it carefully into the coroner’s nearby wagon. Little did the three men know that they would forever be tied to the mystery of the Jersey City girl.
The body was transported to an undertaker, Mr. Hope, so that it could be examined. Dr. Quidor, a Jersey City physician, was summoned to examine the corpse. “This,” Dr. Quidor remarked to one of the undertaker’s aides as he began his review of the lifeless woman, “was no boating accident.” He quickly surmised that the woman’s left collar bone was dislocated and there was extravasated blood in the throat. The physician could tell by the quizzical look on the aide’s face that he was unfamiliar with the medical term. Dr. Quidor stopped his investigation and clarified. “It means that there is clear indication that blood has leaked from the vessels into the tissues.” Dr. Quidor paused and then continued. “But,” as he took into consideration the line that had been wrapped securely about the body’s neck, “I cannot, with absolute certainty, determine whether or not the extravasated blood has been caused by the physical act of strangulation or if it is the result of the line.” Dr. Quidor continued the examination. He noted that there was extensive bruising on the corpse’s left breast and on the right side of the stomach. The woman appeared to be of English descent, roughly five feet in height, and was thickly set. She had raven black hair and she was missing two teeth – the right eye tooth and her left molar. Based on his assessment of the body’s decomposition, Dr. Quidor speculated that the body had been in the water for approximately ten days.
Detectives Elder and Young, assigned to the case in Jersey City, New Jersey, had little to go on in the initial stages of their investigation. Countless onlookers looked upon the corpse but no one offered information as to her identity. At the initial inquest, one man reported an incident during the early morning hours of either March 26th or 27th. He had been drawn to his window due to the incessant screaming of a woman from the cobbled street below. He gazed upon the scene and observed four or five persons walking along the street. The female screamed out, “I’m stabbed…he’ll kill me.” One of the men retorted loudly, “No, go along with him…he’ll not hurt you.” She cried in vain screaming, “No, no, he’ll kill me.” The witness offered no assistance to the woman fearing, he reported at the inquest, of his own safety. The group, he continued, was walking along Hudson Street toward the York street pier. The testimony intrigued the detectives but little came of the information as the man could not provide any details of the men’s or the woman’s appearance due to the early morning observation. The investigators decided to return to the scene of the crime to see if they could find any additional evidence or clues. Coroner Gaffney, aiding Coroner Morris, employed the assistance of several boatmen to try and drag the riverbed for any other evidence. Despite the difficulties, the men discovered the barrel to which the body had been secured but nothing else. It had been hoped that the rest of the woman’s clothes could be found which might provide some shred of evidence as to her identity. Dr. Quidor, in a hope to provide closure to the case, decided it best to sever the head from the remains and place it in a large jar filled with an alcohol solution in an effort to preserve it for identification. With the rest of the body interned, the head became a source of curiosity by countless onlookers and gawkers.
In late April, Charles Richardson appeared at Dr. Quidor’s office and requested to view the mysterious nameless head. Based on published reports he explained to the doctor, he was resolved that it must be his estranged wife Ada Richardson. The young man then quickly added that he had not seen his wife in over two years. As Dr. Quidor went to retrieve the jar bound head, Mr. Richardson noted nervously that there was one difference though in his wife’s appearance that he related to the doctor. Though newspapers had reported that both earlobes had been damaged, one of the earlobes, Mr. Richardson reported, had scarred over. The tears in the earlobes, he continued, had been the result of his wife’s insistence on wearing heavy earrings. As the jar was placed on the table, Mr. Richardson slumped into a nearby chair holding his hands over his mouth in horror. He took another look and then asked Dr. Quidor to take it away. He had seen enough. It was most certainly the head of his estranged wife.
Once able to recover from the shock of the sight, Dr. Quidor continued to question him regarding his wife and her specific physical attributes. Mr. Richardson was able to relate that there were several physical features on her body that might assist in the investigation. His wife had a scar on the right groin from an abscess, a peculiarly large and thick toe nail on the large toe of her right foot and severe bunions on both sets of her toes. With this new information, Dr. Quidor, Detectives Elder and Young, Mr. Richardson and several grave diggers converged on the recently buried body. Upon exhumation, Dr. Quidor believed he had an exact match based on the details provided by Mr. Richardson.
The detectives, with newly acquired information, continued on their investigation and began to track Mrs. Richardson’s activities since she had become estranged from her husband two years hence. It was quickly ascertained that Mrs. Richardson had resided temporarily at the St. Denis Hotel, the St. Julian Hotel, and most recently at the Lafarge House. On January 12, 1860, she had booked passage aboard the Cahawba, a side-wheel steamer, bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. The detectives also learned that all of Mrs. Richardson’s hotel bills had been paid in full by a gentleman from a prominent and well-to-do family. Details continued to emerge from the depths of depravity. According to certain circles, Mrs. Richardson had been extorting payments from the gentlemen caller over the course of the two years and had amounted to roughly twenty-thousand dollars. The man conveyed to the detectives that he had been forced, based on his position in the community, to continue to fund her so that she would keep mum on the illicit and intimate details of their relationship. Detectives called upon the proprietor, bartender and the book-keeper of the Lafarge Hotel to examine the head. All agreed that the head was none other than Mrs. Richardson but they added that she had signed the ledger under the name Mrs. Newton.
With a possible motive, detectives continued to investigate the macabre case. It was clearly murder they agreed and now they knew the identity of the mysterious woman pulled from the shallows off of the Cunard Pier. A few days later though, the detectives realized they had been dead wrong – Ada Richardson was found alive. She reported that she had returned from New Orleans and was perfectly well. In addition, she noted to the detectives and then to the press, that she took umbrage with talk of her “fast woman” lifestyle. Detectives wanted to ensure that they were in fact dealing with Mrs. Ada Richardson. The called upon Mr. Richardson and at the sight of his wife in the station house he noted it “would not have been greater had he seen her raised from the dead.” Next to confirm her identity was her wealthy, though still anonymous to the press, gentleman caller. Mrs. Richardson became “hysterical” at the sight of her former paramour as he slinked back into the shadows of anonymity to avoid backlash from his wife, his children and his upper-crust societal circles. Mrs. Richardson explained to the detectives that the reason she had returned was to save her lover’s life. The rebuke had been taken hard by Mrs. Richardson. The affair partially exposed, his love and or lust for the woman had clearly vanished. Mrs. Richardson, as quickly as she had appeared in the dailies, retreated from further scrutiny and ridicule. Meanwhile, sitting in his gas-lit office, Dr. Quidor took note of the most recent developments, shook his head and reached for his pen. He made an additional notation in the case file – identity – Jane Doe.
In early May, an elderly woman from Boston, Massachusetts knocked on Dr. Quidor’s door requesting the opportunity to view the preserved head of the Jersey City girl. Mrs. Margaret Curley sadly explained that her daughter had been missing for five weeks. Her daughter, she continued, had been staying at a boarding house at No. 111 Chrystie Street but had not written or contacted her mother since her arrival. After viewing the alcohol-soaked head, the mother was stricken with grief at the ghastly gaze. Her daughter, to whom she had held upon her bosom for so many years, was the mysterious Jersey City girl. Dr. Quidor notified the two detectives on the case. Following up on the information, Detectives Elder and Young were flummoxed once again when they found Ms. Winifred Curley in a hospital bed at Bellevue Hospital recovering from an illness. The detectives retrieved the sickened, albeit alive, daughter and took her to her mother. Once again, Dr. Quidor rolled his eyes and annotated his case file. The mysterious woman remained known simply as Jane Doe.
To this day, the identity of the lifeless corpse that was found in the murky waters at the foot of the York Street Pier on Friday, April 13th, 1860 remains unknown. Sadly, her case remains unsolved and there is little chance that her identity and the identity of her murderer or murderers will ever be known due to the passage of time. Recalling the case, it is interesting to think that as the investigation continued throughout those several months of the spring and early summer of 1860, it was clear that someone who lurked in the shadows of the streets of Jersey City knew the circumstances of the young woman’s final moments and went to their grave with the secret of what happened to her before she was gagged and gruesomely bound to a barrel and tossed from the York Street pier with no regard for her life in our waters.
Source Listing:
Crapsey, Edward. The Nether Side of New York; or The Vice, Crime and Poverty of the Great Metropolis. Sheldon & Company. New York, 1872.
Frank Leslies Illustrated Journal.
“The Jersey City Mystery,” April 28, 1860.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“Mistaken Identification,” May 15, 1860.
“New York City News – Arrived in Town,” May 17, 1860.
“New York City News,” May 21, 1860.
“New York City News,” May 22, 1860.
The Cape-Vincent Gazette.
“Untitled,” May 24, 1860.
The Evening Post.
“The Jersey City Murder and the Pretended Mrs. Richardson,” May 28, 1860.
The New York Reformer.
“Mystery More Mysterious,” May 31, 1860.
The New York Times.
“Mysterious Affair,” April 16, 1860.
“The Jersey City Murder,” April 20, 1860.
“Jersey City – the Late Mysterious Murder,” April 21, 1860.
“Jersey City – The Mysterious Murder,” April 23, 1860.
“New Jersey – A New Identification,” April 28, 1860.
“New Jersey – Identification of the Body of the Murdered Woman,” May 1, 1860.
“New Jersey – The Mysterious Murder of a Female – Mrs. Richardson Further Identified,” May 3, 1860. “Sale of Government Steamers,” June 3, 1865.
The Rockland County Journal.
“The Jersey City Murder,” May 26, 1860.