Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Murder of Minnie Bartlett and a Case of Swift Justice

In June, 1921, Long Island was gripped by the sensational story of a grizzly murder committed in West Hempstead. The victim was Minnie S. Bartlett, a wealthy 60 year-old widow whose late husband made his fortune as an oil merchant in NYC. Mrs. Bartlett was also a member of the Seabury family, a very old and prominent family on Long Island. The picture above comes from the Hempstead Public Library photo collection and shows Mrs. Bartlett's lovely 15 room Victorian home as it appeared in 1905, the scene of the crime (Mrs. Bartlett is at the far right on the front porch). The house was located at 2 Hempstead Ave, on the south side of the street, near the corner of the intersection with Hempstead Tpke. Below is a picture of the site as it looks today (albeit taken from the other side of Hempstead Ave - to give perspective of the building that currently occupies the property).

When Mrs. Bartlett's body was discovered by her sister Rebecca Seabury on the afternoon of June 22nd, an enormous manhunt for the killer was touched off. The initial search focused on the area behind the Bartlett home. At that time, that area was yet heavily wooded (before the Hempstead Country Club laid out its golf course) and would have provided good cover for someone who wished to hide out. Ironically, Mrs. Bartlett had put her home up for sale because she feared living alone in such a big house in a part of town that was considered secluded in 1921. When nothing turned up by the next day, the dragnet expanded to the entire area of Hempstead Reservoir. Over 150 detectives, firemen and boy scouts joined the search. The Town of Hempstead put up a $1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the killer. Even Long Island's upper-class, socialite women took up the cause. Mrs. Morgan Belmont, a breeder of show dogs, donated hounds to join the hunt and offered her own monetary reward. For three days, detectives had nothing but fruitless leads to go on.

Then, on the morning of Saturday, June 25th, a man walked up to a police officer claiming his brother-in-law, a 36 year-old Polish day laborer named Lawrence Kubel, had committed the crime. Police then quickly arrested Kubel at his home and took him to police headquarters where he confessed to killing Mrs. Bartlett. Kubel had posed as a man who was interested in purchasing Bartlett's house and after the widow let Kubel into her home, he demanded $500 in cash. When the lady refused, he bludgeoned her to death - a senseless, cold blooded murder, brazenly carried out in broad daylight.

The case progressed at a speed that would be utterly unimaginable today. A grand jury was convened the following week and handed down an indictment of 1st degree murder against Kubel. A judge and jury were then selected and a trial date was set the week after that, on July 7th. The trial at the court house in Mineola was in itself a sensational event as hundreds of spectators crammed the court room to witness the proceedings (though the prosecutor persuaded all the women to leave to spare them from listening to the gory evidence). The trial lasted all of eight hours and the jury deliberated for a mere 11 minutes before they returned a guilty verdict. It would be the speediest verdict for a murder trial in Nassau County history. The following Tuesday, less than three weeks after the crime was committed, the judge sentenced Kubel to death, and shipped him off to Sing Sing where he would await his ultimate fate.

While at Sing Sing, Kubel twice tried to commit suicide by hanging himself by his bedsheet. On January 31st, 1922, the New York State Court of Appeals (which included future Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo) affirmed the conviction of Kubel and his date of execution was set for March 23. On March 22, Governor Nathan Lewis Miller, himself a proponent of the death penalty, refused to issue a stay of execution despite Kubel's bizarre behavior at Sing Sing that possibly suggested he was insane.

The next day, an eerily cheerful Kubel went to the barber for a haircut and a shave, listened to some music from a phonograph placed outside his cell, spoke to his wife for about an hour, and ate a hearty supper. Then he spent some time with Catholic priests before he was strapped to an electric chair at 11:03pm. Nine minutes later, (87 years ago yesterday from when I posted this blog) he was pronounced dead, the final chapter in West Hempstead's most notorious murder case.

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