In recent years, TV shows and movies featuring forensic pathologists and criminologists have become quite popular. Viewers watch in awe as these modern sleuths utilize the latest technology and scientific methods to identify and convict the bad guys. However, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the crime solving tools available to current day law enforcement agencies were inconceivable. Countless crimes that could be solved easily today, left the police baffled. Sadly, many criminals were never held accountable for their deeds and some even got away with murder. One such case occurred in the spring of 1901.
On March 27, 1901, ten-year-old Willie McCormick kissed his mother goodbye, put on his favorite cap, and left his Bronx home to join up with two of his older sisters. The girls had left moments earlier to start a five block walk to their local church. It was the Wednesday evening before Palm Sunday and the three youths had planned to attend a 7 o’clock benediction. The girls returned home at 8 o’clock and when questioned as to Willie’s whereabouts, they told their parents that he never arrived at the church service. Upon hearing the news, Willie’s mother became hysterical and fainted.
Mr. McCormick and several neighbors immediately began searching for the boy. Gertrude, Willie’s 12-year-old sister, ran to a nearby police station and told the desk sergeant that her brother was missing. The sergeant alerted his men to be on the look-out for the young lad.
By morning, the news of Willie’s disappearance made the front page of all the local newspapers. By late afternoon, conflicting stories about Willie’s fate were being printed. The New York Times fallaciously reported that the boy was being held for ransom. The New York World claimed to possess reliable information indicating that Willie had run away from home. And, The New York Sun ran a column stating that the boy was seen in the company of three gypsies on a train heading to Virginia. These unconfirmed and outright bogus stories sold plenty of newspapers, but they also caused the police to waste valuable time chasing false leads.
By Friday morning, letters containing ransom demands began arriving at the McCormick residence. Little Willie’s parents opened and carefully read every single one. Several letters contained graphic descriptions of what would be done to the boy if certain demands were not met. A few unscrupulous newspapers printed excerpts from the phony ransom notes. The public devoured the gory details and newspaper sales soared. Unfortunately, selling more newspapers did not help in the search for the missing boy.
Inspector Gannon of the New York City Police Department headed the investigation. He believed that Willie had run away from home. However, because Willie and some other neighborhood boys were seen harassing a group of immigrant bricklayers, the inspector brought in Detective Joseph Petrosino from the department’s “Italian Squad” to question the men. After interviewing the workers, Detective Petrosino discovered that Willie and his friends had snatched a fedora off the head of one of the older workers and that the hat was eventually tossed back to the old man, but not before it landed in a pile mud. Detective Petrosino assured Inspector Gannon that his fellow countrymen did not have any information as to the whereabouts of the missing boy.
Meanwhile, Reverend John Mullen, the pastor of the local Catholic Church offered a $10,000 reward for Willie’s safe return. In 1901, that was an enormous amount of money. Several other people offered rewards, including Oscar Willgerodt, a supposedly wealthy neighbor who offered $1,000 for the boy’s safe return. These and other monetary offers spawned thousands of false leads which overwhelmed the police and just about crippled the investigation.
Sadly, on the morning of May 15, 1901, seven weeks after Willie disappeared, two fishermen discovered the body of a young boy floating in Cromwell’s Creek. The brackish inlet which emptied into the Harlem river was less than three hundred yards from littlie Willie’s home. The boy’s body was slightly bloated, but luckily it had not been ravaged by the large population of eels and crabs that inhabited the creek. Willie’s family was notified of the heartbreaking discovery and his father rushed to the creek. Mr. McCormick had no problem identifying the body of his beloved son Willie.
The New York City politically appointed coroner who examined the body was Doctor John Riegelman. The doctor stated that there was no way of knowing how long the body had been in the water and that there was no way of knowing if the boy was dead before or after the body entered the water. Doctor Riegelman also asserted that it was impossible to tell if Willie drowned or died by some other means.
Based on the information from Doctor Riegelman and from his own investigation, Inspector Gannon arrogantly declared the boy’s death was due to accidental drowning and officially closed the case.
The community and Willie’s family were enraged. They felt that the investigation was poorly handled and did not accept the cause of death as an accidental drowning. Willie’s parents demanded a second autopsy, an act that was unheard of in 1901. Well, the McCormick family got their wish. The boy’s body was exhumed and Doctor Richard Rheimer, another physician in the Bronx Coroner’s office, performed a second autopsy. However, without giving a reason, the coroner’s office never made the results of that autopsy available to the family or the public.
The investigation into Willie’s disappearance in 1901 at the beginning of the twentieth century might seem like it was mishandled by today’s standards, but the police back then did not have much to work with. If there were no eye witnesses, and if the perpetrator did not drop a wallet or some other identifying article while fleeing—the crime usually went unsolved.
And, although Inspector Gannon closed the books on little Willie’s death in 1901, common sense tells a twenty-first-century armchair-detective that the case of the missing Bronx boy was never properly investigated. If we re-examine Willie’s disappearance and death, the often-touted claim that hindsight is 20/20 proves to be a very true statement.
Several basic police procedures that are taken for granted in present day investigations were ignored by the detectives in 1901. First of all, no one raised an eyebrow when Pastor John Mullen offered the large reward for the child’s safe return. And, no one examined his financial ability to pay such a generous reward. The same with Oscar Willgerodt, no one did a background investigation.
The passage of time has added some clues to the 1901 disappearance of Willie McCormick. Reverand John Mullen died in 1907 and his estate clearly showed that the he did not have the financial ability to pay a reward of ten thousand dollars for Willie’s safe return. Oscar Willgerodt, who acted and lived like a wealthy man, was virtually broke. Within a month of Willie’s burial, he sold his home, filed for bankruptcy, and moved to another State.
As for Mrs. McCormick becoming hysterical and fainting when she heard that her son had not met up with his sisters to attend the mid-week church service; she may have had a good reason to take the news in such a harsh manner. Her husband William had recently been released from a two-year prison term for an insurance fraud scheme that cost several investors their life savings. She believed that one of the swindled investors kidnapped and murdered her son in order to get revenge.
Fortunately, scientific advancements and cutting-edge technology have come a long way during the last hundred or so years. Scientist today can analyze just about any organic or inorganic compound on the planet. The information gained from examining hair, blood, fibers, chemicals, pollen and a whole array of other items are helping the police to solve crimes that would have stumped the police in the past. Ballistic testing, blood splatter experts, and DNA evidence have made getting away with murder less likely today than ever before.
But, even though the police in 1901 did not have all the fancy tools we have today, I’ve often wondered why no one asked; If Willie accidently fell into the creek, why was Willie’s favorite cap was found stuffed into the pocket of his overcoat and not floating somewhere else in Cromwell’s Creek?