July 12, 2012
Late on a sweltering Saturday night, the parents of a twelve-year-old South Bronx girl hurried in panic to the Tremont Division police station to report their daughter missing. That afternoon, they said, she’d gone to confession at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church on Webster Ave. and 171st Street, telling her family she’d meet them later at the ballfield in nearby Crotona Park, where local teams were playing. She did not show up; maybe, they thought, she’d gone straight home. Towards dusk, they returned to their apartment on Third Ave. near 172nd Street, but found it empty. Bewildered, her parents knocked on the doors of neighbors and friends, but turned up nothing. They went back to the big, wooded park — perhaps she’d gone there and got lost — but as they walked the trails in the dark, calling out her name, they were assaulted by a gang of thugs and fled in fear.
"We don’t know where else to turn," they told the precinct captain. "Could you please help us?" "I have no one to send out," he replied. "Go and look for your own child."
She was found early the next morning, in a vacant lot on Third Avenue near her home. She was barely alive, her naked body riddled with stab wounds. Neighbors rushed her to the hospital, but it was impossible to save her; the knife had pierced her lung and heart.
The girl’s name was Julia Connors. That Saturday night was July 7. The year was 1912.
The South Bronx of that time was a rough-and-tumble place, densely populated, with wave after wave of immigrants jostling for space — not unlike what it is today. First came the Germans in the mid-nineteenth century, then the Irish, then the Jews, all seeking to escape the reeking tenements of lower Manhattan for a better life in the Bronx. Last to arrive before World War I were Italians fleeing famine in Sicily. Into this ethnic patchwork Julia Connors was born in 1900.
Just a few doors from the Connors’ home, police found the site of the murder — a vacant apartment on an upper floor. The bathtub was awash in blood; the girl’s rumpled clothing lay nearby. A bloody trail led to a dumbwaiter, into which the perpetrator had stuffed the mangled girl and lowered her to the ground floor sometime before dawn. He carried her to an empty lot across the street, covered her with a blanket, and vanished into the night.
At her funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victory on July 9 — with the church and the street packed with parishioners, friends, curiosity-seekers, reporters, photographers, and police — the priest, Rev. Thomas Kelly, sternly warned all parents that "children are not safe in the parks and streets and nickelettes of this vicinity," and cautioned them never to allow their children to walk the neighborhood unchaperoned.
The "nickelettes" — the most recent name for the movie-houses that were springing up all over the city — were the particular target of Father Kelly’s wrath, "the source of the worst iniquity. In spite of the warnings parents may receive, they continue to allow their children to go to these places."
Curiously, on the night before the funeral, the proprietors of one nickelette set up their operation in the very lot where Julia’s body was found. A New York newspaper covering the story, the Evening World, did not mention what movies were shown, only that "the following announcement was repeatedly flashed last night upon the screen ...: ‘Anybody in this audience who knows any facts which might lead to the apprehension of the murderer of Julia Connors will kindly call at the box office without delay.’"
Many people called at the box office. Among them was a Mrs. Cohen, who told a World reporter that she’d recently confronted a man who had offered money to her eight-year-old daughter: "He spoke with a foreign accent, I would say he was a German and not an Italian." Another was Anna Levinson, described by the paper as "a good-looking girl of sixteen years," who said that "an elderly man with a mustache ... ran after me, and catching my skirt, tried to drag me down on the sidewalk. ... His eyes were big and wide, I judged him to be an Italian."
The police took all these stories lightly, except for one. Florence Molz, a schoolmate of Julia’s, told police that she had seen Julia walking in the park the day of her murder with "a foreigner with dark whiskers." Two local men were immediately arrested, and Florence positively identified one of them. When that news hit the press, mayhem erupted all over the Bronx. As David J. Krajicek, who wrote about the murder two years ago in the New York Daily News, describes it: "No unshaven man with an accent was safe in the Bronx. An Italian immigrant was beaten by a mob .... Another was nearly lynched .... An Armenian sleeping in Crotona Park became a suspect, police said, ‘because he had whiskers and no home.’"
After two days of questioning, little Frances broke down and admitted she had made everything up. "The child proved herself a prodigy in deceit," reported the World, having "led the detectives on a merry chase." The suspects she’d fingered were immediately freed.
After many fruitless leads, police finally tracked down the culprit, Nathan Swartz, age 24, whose parents lived in the apartment adjoining the scene of the crime and had hurriedly moved away. On July 18, 1912, he was found in a flophouse on the Lower East Side, dead, with newspaper clippings of the murder scattered about the room. A rambling suicide note, written in the margins of the clippings, read in part: "I am guilty and I am insane. It was caused by the beautiful makeup of women. I am sorry I done it, but I get crazy, as I often do and you can’t blame me or anyone.... I was born with a weak will and power only for love."
The tale of Julia Connors so resembles the ones people in the South Bronx see almost daily on the news and may even have experienced personally that it could have happened on July 7, 2012. Murder, gang violence, racism, and the indifference of law enforcement are no strangers to this place.