Murder Trial, Wonder Dog Are February 1937 Notables
GGet into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you’re likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper’s name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to February 1937!
In February the Queens flu epidemic was almost over. (On January 9, the Star—Journal had reported that there had been 15 deaths in the borough from flu or pneumonia in a 24-hour period.) The newspaper’s readers were still following a story from the previous month, however--the murder of a Jackson Heights woman. Mary Harriet Case had been found strangled and beaten to death in the bathtub of her apartment at 37-06 80th St. the previous evening. The victim was discovered by her husband, Frank Case, who told police that he became alarmed and returned home when a telephone call to his home went unanswered. A hammer, a pair of bloodstained trousers, and Mrs. Case’s vanity case and handbag were found at the bottom of the incinerator shaft of the building.
By the following day, the police had a suspect in custody, one Major Green, a young African-American porter in the building. A former resident of Long Island City, Green was then living in Harlem. He had never gotten beyond the second-grade, but was described by many who know him as quiet, hard-working and obliging. On January 14, the headline in the Star—Journal read, "Green Confesses to Tub Murder of Mrs. Case—‘I Did It, I Don’t Know Why.’" A full account of Green’s "confession" presumably supplied by the police, was printed in several newspapers. Robbery was assumed to have been the motive. At his arraignment the following day Green told authorities that he had been assaulted by detectives. He seemed also to have been deprived of sleep, the newspaper reporting that after he was placed in a cell, "the suspected slayer got his first sleep in several days." There was no mention of Green having had any access to a lawyer until he was assigned a counsel on January 15.
As Green was led from the Queens County Court to the county Jail across the street, a waiting mob erupted. "‘Lynch him!’ That cry, which strikes terror to the heart of the Southern Negro, started a near-riotous demonstration by more than 200 women in Court Square, Long Island City, last evening," the Star—Journal reported. "Swinging umbrellas, pocketbooks, and other improvised weapons and screaming curses, the women milled and surged in an effort to get at Major Green. Quick action by detectives, however, saved their charge from possible serious harm. Never before, in the memory of veterans attached to the courthouse, has such a demonstration been held. ‘If this was the South you wouldn’t hold him long!’ came from one woman. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, protecting him!’ hollered another."
On January 22, Green’s counsel entered a plea with the court that his client’s mental state prevented him from assisting in his own defense. However, the trial went ahead beginning February 8, the judge having admonished jurors that they must deliberate the case on its own merits with no consideration of the defendant’s race. On February 11, the Star—Journal reported on a surprise witness called by the prosecution, Detective John Roberts of a Harlem precinct. Roberts testified that he had been Green’s cellmate in the Queens County Jail for 26 hours and that within a few minutes Green had started to boast of his killing of Mrs. Case. According to Roberts, Green said "A dispute came up between me and her. She wanted me to put vinegar in the water to wash the windows to keep them from freezing." However, Roberts also testified that although the quarrel was unpremeditated, Green was carrying a hammer concealed under his coat when he entered the apartment in Jackson Heights,. Despite this inconsistency in his testimony, the defense was unable to break Roberts down in cross-examination.
In his summary, defense attorney Richard J. Barry pleaded with the jury to save his client from the electric chair. "‘Green did kill Mrs. Mary Harriet Case,’ the defense attorney shouted. ‘But he never killed her with premeditation and deliberation, and he is not guilty of first-degree murder.’ The defense rested its case with startling suddenness without calling Major Green to the witness stand." In his summary, Barry said, "Here is a poor, wretched individual, thrown under the chariot of race prejudice with some of the people of this county asking for his blood without benefit of trial. Some say there is no race distinction. There is still a distinction. I wish for the sake of this defendant to get that distinction out of your mind."
Despite his lawyer’s eloquent pleas, Major Green was convicted. On the jury deliberations, the Star—Journal reported "The first-degree murder conviction of the former Long Island City man, exactly one month after he bludgeoned and strangled the beautiful and cultured Mrs. Mary Harriet Case in her Jackson Heights apartment was the speediest in the history of Queens. Although the jury was out for three hours, the Star has learned that only one ballot was required to seal the defendant’s doom. The jurors discussed the case for an hour and a half, had dinner between 6.30 and 8 p.m., and did not take a vote for 15 minutes after they had returned. The remaining 18 minutes was spent waiting for the courtroom to be made ready for the verdict." After he heard the verdict Green was so distressed that a sheriff tried to cheer him with the reminder that he might win on appeal. "‘No,’ croaked Green in a funereal voice, ‘you’ll never see me again. It’s the hot seat for me’." Major Green died in the electric chair at Sing Sing in August 1937.
The Star—Journal had reported that a lie detector was used on Major Green during his interrogation by police, although such evidence was not admissible in court. In February 1937 one of the pioneers of the lie detector, criminologist Dr. Orlando F. Scott, was also in the news. During his study of human and animal brains, a remarkable canine, whose intellect was described as "being superior to that of a bright twelve-year-old child," was discovered and a star was born. Snoozer the collie, known as "The Ideal Dog," was then the highest paid animal actor in the world. "His last picture was ‘The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.’ He has an uncanny ability to perform arithmetic problems in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division while blindfolded and using numbers and problems furnished by his audience." The Ideal Dog was appearing at movie theaters in Queens to promote his latest film and was enthusiastically welcomed, especially by children.
That’s the way it was in February 1937.
Compiled by Clare Doyle, Librarian, Greater Astoria Historical Society.
For more information, contact the Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.