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A letter from NY Police Dept. Inspector Lewis to his superior, Commissioner Whitehal, dated Jan 19th 1887

by Christian Drake 

Posted: 20 June 2004
Word Count: 1460

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Tuesday, January 19th 1887 A.D.

For the attention of J.M. Whitehal, Commissioner of the Manhattan Island Police Force,

The last few days, sir, have been wrought with ungodly acts. You would doubtless have heard already of the matter to which I am referring, but – upon request of my superior – this letter should give you a more comprehensive account of my most recent investigation.
As I’m sure you are well aware, in all of Manhattan and, especially, the immigrant slums around the Five Points, there is an acutely high occurrence of grave larceny. Over the last two decades, with advances in medical science, the need for fresh, un-decayed corpses has soared. Physicians will pay astronomical prices for test subjects and ask very few questions of their origin. And so a new trade has arisen in New York; a vocation financed by the dead.
Down to business. One week ago, exactly, two recent Americans – an Irishman named Ferranyle and a Polish Jew named Nefarinski – were in the Hudson Necropolis defiling the grave of a Baxter Street carpenter, who had died three days previously. I know from research that a corpse of this age is very valuable to men of their trade. In due course Ferranyle and Nefarinski dragged his coffin out onto the grass and pried it open. To their dismay, the nature of the carpenter’s demise had left his body unsuitable for sale to a doctor (I shan’t enter into the details). Anyway, the two grave robbers were at a loss as to what they should do. It is well known, apparently, amongst men of their trade, that if you are unsuccessful in procuring a planned corpse then it is not worth trying your luck at finding another. Countless numbers of their kind have been caught in those circumstances. Therefore the two men merely walked back to their lodgings, in Chatham Street: a forty-five minute journey.
It was on this journey that en even more sinful crime was committed. At some stage, either when the two entered Pearl Street or the Five Points square (where the catholic mission is found) they paused when, amidst the usual crowds of whores, beggars, purse thieves, brigands and drunkards, they saw a most unorthodox sight – a small girl of about nine years. She was searching through some rubble, discernibly parentless at the time. Now I am sure that you appreciate, sir, that the sight of a presumably orphaned child is, indeed, not an odd thing in an area with such unfavourable notoriety as the Five Points.
However, it was not the mere fact that she was there, more so the nature of her apparel. It seems that she wore clothes that were not befitting to an average child in the Five Points or even most of Manhattan. The girl did not see the two grave robbers as they conversed in the dark shelter of a doorway. In short, at some stage, the two decided that they should abduct the girl, murder her and attempt to sell her off as an exhumed body. According to Ferranyle it was Nefarinski who suggested this yet Nefarinski’s statement contradicts this. Regardless of who first conceived the deed, both men took the young girl into an alley on Pearl Street and strangled her until she was dead. Then, without pause, they wrapped her in an old carpet (intended for the carpenter), to disguise what they bore, and headed for the doctor who had discreetly requested their services: Leonner Nausen, a recent American and a German Lutheran.
In his statement to my constables, Ferranyle, in cruder words than these, explained that the man had aspirations of recognition in the field of medicine that his origin and means would not allow. He was a simple immigrant doctor – bourgeois – but living amongst the slums of the Five Points in a finer-than-most house. The reasons for this, if there are any, are unknown to me. It may also interest you to know that Nausen had, previous to this night, had dealings with Ferranyle and Nefarinski twice before. Both times the two had provided.
I deem it would be more prudent for me, sir, to describe what occurred next in the words of our two grave robbers for, although their statements differ wildly in some areas, their accounts of the dealing with Nausen agree in almost respect. I now copy, from document to letter, Nefarinski’s version of events (his English was more educated). I have omitted slang, hesitation or irrelevant content.

“(Ferranyle) had the girl over his shoulder and we both walked around the back of Dr. Nausen’s house. (At this point he was asked to give a description of the doctor). He was small, slight with dark, thinning hair and round spectacles. Nausen always wore a brown leather apron – stained with blood. (he continued). The doctor answered the door cautiously and hurriedly waved us in, peering to the left and right of the door to see that no one watched. As always, the man’s house seemed colder even than outside. He insisted that we removed our shoes before we entered his surgery. We did so, without resistance, not wanting to offend our chief source of income. Nausen led the way along the dark green corridor to his surgery-room, in silence, and then held the door open for us as we still carried the corpse. The doctor quietly closed the door behind him.
‘Any trouble?’ he asked quickly. I looked nervously at (Ferranyle) (he again referred to his partner using an indiscernible word) and then I answered in a slow voice,
‘No. As straightforward as can be hoped.’
‘Good,’ he relaxed a little. Nausen then instructed me to lay the body on the table in the centre of the room. I did so and then, as usual, the doctor told us both to wash our hands in the basin at the opposite end of the room to the door. While we did this he unravelled the carpet. (Ferranyle) grinned at me as though we’d got away with it. That was when Nausen spoke again.
‘This is not from a grave.’ I gulped.
‘What makes you say that?’ (Ferranyle) asked carefully.
‘I know it isn’t…because it…she…is my daughter.’"

My investigations have led me to believe that the German’s daughter, his only relation in America, had crept out of the house to explore the streets, which, according to a neighbour, her father never permitted her to visit. What happened next is somewhat unclear. As best as I can tell, Nausen, in an act of furious passion at what the two had done, lunged with a foot-long surgeon’s knife at the nearer of the grave robbers, who happened to be Nefarinski. A deep cut was made in his right forearm – halfway to severing it – before Ferranyle overpowered the doctor and the two (they both, again, contradicted each other over who actually committed the deed, but I believe it is most likely to be Ferranyle as Nefarinski was injured) killed Nausen with the knife in question.
There was then an approximate ten minute pause where the grave robbers deliberated over how to dispose of the bodies. After ruling out burial they agreed upon dumping, one by one, father and daughter, in a Hudson slipway nearby. The girl was taken first. It was on their second trip, carrying Nausen, that two local constables saw them and, wary of grave thievery in the area, approached Ferranyle and Nefarinski and discovered the body of the doctor.
The two were arrested and confessed to the murder of Nausen and the defiling of the carpenter’s grave. When the girl’s body was found, it took some mild persuasion for the two to confess to her murder as well. If it so interests you, I merely promised them more lenient sentences. However, this was nullified in court when each man chose to blame the other. They both face the rope, Ferranyle in two days, Nefarinski once his arm has healed.
However, through contacts I know that the community of grave larcenists are aware of the now infamous Ferranyle and Nefarinskis’ actions. It appears that no one before in their trade had considered murder as a means of providing the freshest of corpses. And, despite the two’s unsuccessfulness in doing so, it is generally accepted amongst men of their trade that it was in extreme and unlikely circumstances that their failure came about. I fear, sir, that grave robbers across the city, out of shear desperation, will tread the path laid down by these two. If that does become a reality then Manhattan will become, instead of the great portal into the New World, a frightening and terrible place,

yours faithfully,

Ins. Thomas Lewis
NY Metropolitan Constabulary

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Comments by other Members

SamMorris at 12:04 on 22 June 2004  Report this post
Hi Christian,

Welcome to WW. This is a very engrossing but very dark tale. There is a genuine sense of unease and depravity as the details of this disturbing incident are described. I thought using a letter to portray the narrative worked well as a device to present a lot of facts in an short but effective way. The only point that I personally thought about using a letter format was that this made the piece feel like a small part of a much larger whole. Is there more to come? I would be interested to read if there was, even if I might have to make sure I have not just eaten!

All the best with this or anything else you are working on.


Jumbo at 18:25 on 24 June 2004  Report this post

Hello, and welcome to WW.

This is nice piece of writing - and you've managed to catch and convey the sense and feeling of how life in Manhattan might well have been at the time.

Like Sam, I found the letter to be an intriguing, and innovative, way to present your story, but I think the whole piece works very well.

There were a couple of times when I was pulled out of the narrative: uneccesary commas do it to me (sorry), and I was also surprised at the A.D. after the date at the start of the letter. Was that the custom at the time? I don't know.

But a great story that engaged the reader (me) and held me there to the end.

I hope we will be reading more of your work.

All the best


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