Unsolved Victorian Murders: Benjamin Nathan

Well, you certainly liked my last blog post on Unsolved Victorian Murders. Tales of killings in the 19th century that resulted in no conviction. The murderer got away with their foul deed leaving the police scratching their heads. Trawling contemporary newspapers and police records has yielded some more murder cases where the killer got away. So, let’s do some more Victorian true crime! In this blog post, I want to focus on the fascinating murder of top New York multi-millionaire Benjamin Nathan in 1870.

An unbelievably vicious slaying that revealed class and ethnic tensions in the city as well as the corruption bubbling under the surface.


Benjamin Nathan (1813-1870) was a private banker with immense wealth bludgeoned to death in his New York mansion on July 29, 1870. Most of the time, he stayed at his country house in Morristown, New Jersey, but business in Manhattan had delayed him that day and so he decided to stop over in the city. But his mansion was a total mess. It was being refitted by painters and decorators, most of them Irish, for the autumn season of social events.

Still, Benjamin needed some sleep. So the servants placed some mattresses on the floor in a room next to his “den”, a space in the mansion that was for his exclusive use. About midnight, his son Frederick, “Fred”, arrived home and the two chatted for a while. Then about half an hour later, another son called Washington, or “Wash”, turned up but he went straight to his room.

In the small hours of the morning, a terrible storm broke over New York with very vivid lightning and the rain falling in torrents. At about 6am, Fred Nathan ran into the street grabbing a police officer by the arm and telling him that his father had been murdered. Sure enough, Benjamin was lying on his back in a small sea of blood. The injuries were horrific leaving Benjamin “marred and mutilated out of semblance”.

The dead man’s safe was open with the key still in the lock. It was not a combination safe. A drawer from the safe lay nearby emptied of its contents. A tin box full of confidential papers had not been opened. Nothing else in the house was disturbed apart from the safe.

Benjamin had been dead for about three hours with marks on his body indicating about a dozen blows with a blunt instrument. Suspicion fell initially on Washington “Wash” Nathan who was the first to see his father dead. The carpet on which his father lay was so drenched in blood that it soaked Wash’s feet as he entered the room.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

An upstanding member of New York’s Jewish community

A report in The American Israelite newspaper described the victim as “one of the most prominent, wealthy, public spirited, and best loved of our Jewish citizens”. Benjamin had amassed a fortune on Wall Street and then given up work. “In his home, he was lavish to excess, surrounding himself and his family with every comfort and luxury money could procure” while not spending much on himself.

He founded the Mount Sinai Hospital and was its President. The Nathan family were Sephardic Jews who worshipped at the Portuguese synagogue in New York, founded back in 1654 when the city was still under Dutch rule and called New Amsterdam. Many Jews had escaped the Inquisition in Portugal centuries before, fleeing to Amsterdam, then London, and some like the Nathans going on to the New World.

They regarded themselves as socially superior to the more newly arrived Jews from eastern Europe and Russia. So, Benjamin Nathan was both an active member of New York’s Jewish community but also involved in non-Jewish elite establishments like the Union Club and the St. Nicholas Society – comprising New Yorkers who could trace their ancestry back to the city’s original Dutch era inhabitants. Benjamin was also a vice-president of the New York Stock Exchange, which his father, Seixas Nathan, had helped to found.

But now – he was dead.

The Housekeeper’s evidence on the murder of her boss, Benjamin Nathan

At the inquest, the housekeeper – Ann Kelly – said she had retired to bed at about 10.15pm having delivered to Benjamin a pitcher of ice water as he was taking off his shoes and preparing for bed. Kelly used an ice pick to break the ice. The gas lights were already turned down in his room. He was using light from the corridor to guide himself. Kelly slept in a room on the same floor as Benjamin and heard nobody arrive during the night. The house, she said, was securely fastened. But then early the next morning, there was the cry of ‘murder!’ from Fred Nathan.

The housekeeper had a son, William, who did odd jobs around the mansion. He had worked in a foundry before the American Civil War but then done military service and been wounded in the leg. Since the end of the war, he hadn’t worked except for helping his mother in her daily chores. Kelly and her son were Roman Catholics, the newspapers noted, while the Nathans were pillars of the New York Jewish community.

During the night, Kelly was awoken by the thunder and at one point thought she heard the sound of something falling over. But she assumed it was a noise from the street.

After the murder, Fred’s shirt and underwear were sent off to be cleaned by one of the servants even though there were spots of blood. But this was assumed to be from Fred holding his father’s head after discovering the body. Washington’s shirts were not sent because they had no blood on them.

Washington Nathan takes the stand

Wash Nathan had been to the synagogue, then visited his aunt, and joined friends later at Delmonico’s beef steak restaurant. He arrived at the mansion around 12.30am, pausing at his father’s door as he mounted the stairs, observing that Benjamin was asleep. The next morning he got up at 5.45am. His brother Fred was already awake. Wash then checked on his father and found him dead. He screamed murder and Fred came down to see what the commotion was about. Confusingly, he claimed to be the brother who ran into the street shouting for help.

At the door, Wash found an “iron dog” from a fireplace, picked it up, and handed it to the police officer who arrived. Wash also locked his father’s safe and handed the keys to Fred. Wash normally slept until 8am or 8.30am but that day was up early. Why? He claimed it was because that day was the anniversary of his grandfather’s death “which it is a custom of us to observe”. Wash said his relationship with his father was very friendly and when he needed money, it was always given to him. “He has reproved me for some of my habits of life; his manner was kind and gentle”.

Those habits included drunkenness and time spent with prostitutes. As the finger of suspicion pointed at him, Wash confessed that part of the evening had been spent in a brothel. Doing exactly what his father disapproved of. There was also a report in the days that followed claiming Wash had talked about marrying a Christian girl but his father had threatened to disinherit him if he chose a wife outside the Jewish faith.

Frederick Nathan takes the stand

On the night of the murder, Fred had been to the synagogue with his father and then gone to Brooklyn to visit a friend taking the 8pm boat from the foot of South Street. He then returned on the 11pm boat arriving back to the mansion at 12.15pm, which he saw on the Fifth Avenue Hotel clock. This was an era before smartphones, and even the widespread use of wrist watches, when people used public clocks to know what time it was. Fred went upstairs and as he passed his father’s room, the old man shouted: “Who is that?” Fred responded: “It is I, sir.”

They talked for a while in darkness – as the light was not on in Benjamin’s room. Then Fred went off to sleep. He rose early and found his brother still dozing at 6.10am the next morning. He realised that soon Wash would have to get up to attend a synagogue service for the death of their…grandmother. Now, one newspaper had Wash saying it was the grandfather being commemorated while Fred said grandmother. Maybe they died at the same time. Maybe the newspapers got a detail wrong.

Fred confirmed that Wash found his father’s body, lying on its back, hands raised and semi-clenched. Leaving the room, he ran into William Kelly a few minutes later carrying his shoes in his hand. Fred told young Kelly his father had been killed. The young war veteran said nothing and just stared back. William’s movements around the house became a subject of intense questioning and whether he had handled the victim’s pocketbook or got into the safe.

The treatment of William Kelly

The housekeeper’s son was easy to view as a suspect. A taciturn fellow of few words who was more likely to have robbed his employer and even murdered him than Benjamin Nathan’s sons. The police certainly thought so as they roughed William up, treating him very differently to Fred and Wash, who were interviewed with utmost civility.

This attempt to bully a confession out of the more vulnerable William enraged one newspaper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. On August 12, 1870, it ran the damning headline: Is the Nathan Inquest an Intentional or Unintentional Farce? “We characterise this inquest as either an imbecile or a corrupt proceeding”. The Nathan brothers were questioned in such a way that there was no suggestion of being suspected of killing their father. Whereas no such mercy was extended to William.

Worse, the newspaper fumed, Nathan was still being treated with kid gloves even though he had now confessed to being with a prostitute earlier that evening. Mrs Kelly, in contrast, was being treated like a common criminal: “An old woman, who works with her hands and in a private house for a precarious living, is at least to be treated equally as well as a plump prostitute clothed up on with splendid shame and coining her charms into money”.

Witnesses from a rich background were pampered by the inquiry while those from a poor background were tortured – wrote The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Worse, because the murder happened in a mansion and not a poor person’s house, evidence had been blatantly destroyed.

So, for example, Fred’s clothing being sent away to be cleaned. It emerged, astonishingly, that the police had Fred’s bloodstained nightshirt at one point but then sent it back to Kelly the housekeeper. On the day of the victim’s funeral, a police officer suddenly thought: gee, maybe we should have held on to that evidence. Detectives went back to the mansion and asked for Fred’s clothes only to find that Kelly had sent them off to be washed.

The labourers give their evidence

Richard King, a labourer, had been working on the mansion and was usually admitted via a basement door by Kelly the housekeeper or her war-wounded son, William. However, King had managed – on a couple of occasions – to gain admission by putting his hand through the grating on the door and moving the latch on the inside. And going through two doors in a similar manner, gained entrance to the mansion. So, it was not quite as secure as Kelly made out.

Morris Williams was a “boss mason” asked to comment on the iron dog picked up by Wash Nathan by the front door and possibly a murder weapon. He had seen a similar iron implement behind a stable door about a year before. But he would not swear that it was the same as the one now before the inquiry. In truth, with so much building work going on at the time of the murder, there were plenty of blunt instruments lying around.

Michael McEwan was a plumber also engaged on the mansion’s refurbishment. An impatient Benjamin had told him the work needed to be speeded up. Many of the labourers were Irish immigrants, grateful for the work. McEwan gave the impression that there was no one person in overall control of the work – a project manager – so on one day, he saw an individual in the mansion that nobody else seemed to know. The workers were normally admitted by Kelly’s son who then spent most of the day reading a newspaper by a window.

Washington Nathan protected from on high?

In 2013, an article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper suggested that the investigation into Wash Nathan was impeded by the victim’s brother-in-law Albert Cardozo who was a judge in the New York Supreme Court. He was also part of the highly corrupt Tammany Hall machine that ran the city’s politics. And his family, as the surname suggests, were Sephardic Jews of Portuguese origin. He had married Benjamin’s sister Rebecca and lived just a few streets down from the Nathan family mansion.

Wash Nathan inherited what was due to him and moved to Europe. He complained bitterly at being a suspect and his health declined as he spent his fortune on alcohol and a dissolute life. Wash died walking along the beach in Boulogne in 1892.

The murder of Benjamin Nathan was never solved.

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