Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sometimes It’s the Little Things: The Titterton Case

The Titterton case is interesting for several reasons. One, it took place in 1936 New York and demonstrates the abilities of forensic science and the tenacity of law enforcement at that time; and although the mystery had its twists and turns, it was a little thing that paid off.

The Victim
This case is about a fairly wealthy woman named Nancy Titterton. Ms. Titteron, 33 at the time, was an author of great promise. Her husband, Lewis Titterton, was an executive at the National Broadcasting Company and they lived at Beekman Place, a neighborhood comprised of New York artists and intellectuals. A devoted couple, they were married for seven years and part of a small circle of friends who were also interested in the arts—but Nancy had a propensity for shyness, so they were circumspect about socializing.

The Crime Scene
When police found Nancy Titterton, she was lying face down in an empty bath, naked except for a pair of silk stockings and her pajama top was knotted around her throat. There had been a sexual attack and ripped underclothes littered the floor. Two furniture men—Theodore Kruger and Johnny Fiorenza—who were delivering a renovated love seat, found the front door of the apartment open at four o’clock on Good Friday afternoon.

It was determined she had opened the door to her killer and let him into the apartment, an important clue. This baffling, fairly high-profile case would show the muster of police on follow-thru and demonstrate a pretty impressive arsenal of scientific and forensic aids. You have to remember that this was predicated by the famous Edmond Locard, a great criminologist who is known for an important forensic principle: ‘Every contact leaves a trace,’ meaning, the criminal leaves something of himself at the crime scene and also takes something away with him. The investigators were using silver nitrate to raise fingerprints on fabric, studying fibers under a microscope, and conducting blood groupings from seminal fluid in this era.

Assistant Chief Inspector John A. Lyons surveyed the crime scene and was hopeful of finding evidence. And one thing came to light immediately. When they lifted Nancy Titterton’s body from the tub, a 13-inch cord that had been cut with a sharp knife was discovered. The victim also had abrasions on her wrists indicating that her hands were bound before she was raped. The perpetrator, thinking he was smart, had cut her hands free when she lay face downward in the bath, and took the cord with him. In his haste however, he overlooked a short piece that had slipped under the body. Lyons set his men to checking every manufacturer in the immediate New York area for the source.

Other Potential Clues
There was mud on the carpet mixed with lint, but it was thought to have been brought into the apartment by the two delivery men. A small dash of green paint appeared on the bedding but the building was in the process of being painted, and a check of the painters lead nowhere—they were all cleared. A audio clue came from the maid downstairs who claimed she heard a woman’s voice call: ‘Dudley, oh Dudley!’ The building janitor was named Dudley Mings and although police could not verify an alibi, his apartment was searched and he was revealed to be a man of good character.

The Scenario
The cord search was labored but they did build a kind of scenario: The killer entered 22 Beekman Place through the front door, either by ringing the bell or manipulating a defective lock. They believed he was known to the victim. He clamped a hand over her mouth and jammed it with a piece of cloth. He tied her hands with the rope he brought with him, and carried her to the bedroom where he removed her blouse and skirt, threw her down on the bed and tore off her brassiere and panties. Then the attack. After the rape, he knotted a pajama jacket around her throat (and a red blouse), took her into the bathroom, cut the cord from her wrists and turned on the shower. He hurried out, leaving the door open behind him.

This was a planned crime as he had brought materials with him. He wiped his fingerprints off the knife used to cut things, and the police thought he must have blocked her breathing with fabric and used the shower to revive her. They suspected he was a spurned lover or someone who had an emotional interest, but queries with Nancy’s friends indicated she was not the type to engage in an affair. 

The Break
The break in the case came from the crime laboratory. The toxicologist, Dr. Alexander O. Gettler, found a piece of white hair on the bedclothes. It was less than a half inch long, stiffer than human hair, and when viewed under a microscope revealed it was horsehair, the type used to stuff furniture. In fact, it matched the love seat, delivered on the day of the murder. Lyons liked the furniture men for an interview at the very least. Both claimed to have not entered the bedroom. And since they had been together in the apartment until the police arrived, police surmised that one of them must have come to the apartment earlier in the day. It was found that Kruger had been in his upholstery shop, and he noted for police that his assistant was out until after lunch because he had to report to his parole officer in the morning. But Kruger stood by the young man's side and claimed Fiorenza had turned over a new leaf—his crime was basically taking a car—and he claimed that he was a good boy. Lyons wasn’t so sure.

Fiorenza Rap Sheet
Fiorenza’s record was checked: four times for theft, two years in Elmira for stealing, and a psychiatrist there had reported him an "emotional fellow." Also, Fiorenza had also been to Titterton’s apartment two previous times, and even though each time he visited it was with his employer, Nancy would have known and trusted him.

The Key
Finally, the results of the canvassing for the cord information came in. It was discovered to be a piece of venetian blind cord manufactured by Hanover Cordage and the wholesaler sold a roll to Theodore Kruger’s upholstery shop! When Fiorenza was confronted with the evidence, he confessed. He admitted to having become infatuated with the attractive authoress and he thought he needed to possess her. You know the result.

The jury arrived at a guilty verdict fairly fast and Johnny Fiorenza went to the electric chair in Sing Sing. Betrayed by a horsehair.

Photo's From Flickr Authors: New York Public Library; xavi talleda; Old Shoe Woman

See an original newsreel here.  

1 comment:

A Voice of Sanity said...

"When Fiorenza was confronted with the evidence, he confessed."

I wonder how he was 'persuaded' and how reliable his confession was?