Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Almost Perfect Murder

by Deborah Blum

In the fall of 1923, an out-of-work painter named Harry Freindlich took out a $1,000 life insurance policy on his wife Leah and then smothered her in bed.

He also, rather ingeniously, set the scene to look like an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He was caught, thanks to some extremely smart chemical detective work by New York City's fledgling forensic science department.

I came across this case while researching my recent book The Poisoner's Handbook, and it has always struck me as a pitch-perfect example of why chemistry is so essential in criminal investigations. We're accustomed to forensic detective work now but during the 1920s, it was more of an interesting idea than a reality. The Freindlich murder was one of those cases that helped convince a skeptical police force that science could actually help them.

Freindlich was desperate for money at the time. He was just desperate really, jobless and unable to pay the rent, much less provide food for his family. Their home was a bare step above living on the street anyway, a battered tenement on Manhattan’s lower East side. The paint was peeling off the walls; the floors were splintered. They’d been patching the appliances together with cardboard, glue, solder, anything. It was these one of these cracked appliances that gave him the idea--a gas light in the bedroom with a troublesome broken fitting that he had soldered back together more than once.

On an early October morning, Freindlich put a pillow over his wife’s face, pressing it tight until she quit breathing. He then tossed the pillow aside and wrenched apart the soldered light. When he heard the hiss of the gas, he hurriedly left the room, closing the door sharply behind him, leaving his dead wife lying beside the baby son she’d brought to bed with her. As the police pieced it together, he then walked out of the apartment, not trying to save the baby or any of other children sleeping there.

The tossed-aside pillow had dropped right on top of the sleeping infant. The little boy abruptly woke and began crying, struggling to get free. The Freindlich’s oldest child, a ten-year-old boy, heard his baby brother wailing and ran in to see what was wrong. He tried to shake his mother awake, but she didn’t respond no matter how hard he shook her. Now sobbing, he grabbed the baby and ran to the apartment next door. The neighbor grabbed a candle and hurried to check the darkened apartment. When she saw the dead woman in the bed, she ran to the grocer’s place downstairs to call the police.

At first, it easily looked like just another accident, maybe a suicide. Leah had been a sweet woman, the neighbors told the police, but worn down, just tired out. Yet there was something about the neighbor’s story that started to bother the beat cops. If there was a lethal amount of carbon monoxide in a room, it almost always ignited in the presence of fire. Apartments in the city blew up on a semi-regular basis when someone unwittingly struck a match in a gas filled room. The city medical examiner, Charles Norris, kept a file full of pictures showing blackened walls and fragmented furniture.

If gas poisoning had killed Leah Freindlich, there should have been enough carbon monoxide to flash to fire when the Good Samaritan ran in with her candle.

Back at the morgue, the pathologist was suffering from a similar sense of disbelief. The dead woman was sheet pale, all wrong for carbon monoxide poisoning, which tended to flush the skin pink. Before beginning an autopsy, he drew blood samples from her body and asked for a quick analysis from the laboratory of Alexander Gettler, the department's newly hired forensic chemist.

The lab report confirmed everyone’s doubts: The blood was loaded with carbon dioxide. This is actually a classic symptom of suffocation. We normally inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. If someone is being smothered by a pillow, the lungs can't exhale the gas and it instead backs up in the bloodstream. So Gettler's analysis strongly suggested deliberate suffocation.

Equally important, he found no evidence of carbon monoxide saturation of the blood, nothing to suggest that she had been breathing that notably poisonous gas. The pathologist looked more closely at the body, and hidden in the hair at the back of her neck he found a black bruising of fingerprints where someone had pressed, desperately tight.

Freindlich broke into sobs when he was arrested, begging the police to take him to the roof so that he could throw himself off. He couldn’t have killed his wife, he said. No one could have wished her harm. He couldn’t go to jail; what would happen to his children? He wanted his old life back. He wished he'd never come up with this evil scheme.

And, he undoubtedly wished that New York City had never hired that first forensic chemist.

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