The Baby in the Suitcase

The Baby in the Suitcase

It started with the discovery of the bruised and battered corpse of a baby boy in an old dress suitcase. The suitcase turned up on October 1, 1907 in the backyard of a home in Prospect Hill, a well-to-do neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.

A police investigation led to a tenement rooming house on Benefit Street, more than half a mile from where the suitcase and its grisly contents were found. It was the home of Mabel Brown, age 36. Mabel told the police that her sister, Sarah McDonald, had lived in the house until recently, but had left for Worcester, Massachusetts. Mabel said Sarah hoped to find work there in a carpet factory.

Mabel identified the baby as Eddie McDonald, the eleven-month-old child of Sarah. She told police the baby was a “heavy and strong child, with pretty, light, curly hair and good form.”

The police searched Sarah’s room. According to The Boston Globe, the room “presented a shocking scene and the stench in the place was all but unbearable.” Evidence in the room led the police to the theory that after Eddie was killed, his body was hidden inside a feather bed cut for that purpose. Later it was moved to a closet, and then to a trunk, before it was finally put in the suitcase.

Mabel admitted to police that the suitcase had previously belonged to her mother. She denied any knowledge of the boy’s death and said she’d been out at the theater on the night of September 30, 1907, when the body, hidden in the suitcase was removed from the house. She also insisted she hadn’t noticed the foul smell coming from the room. Mabel admitted to the police that in the past she’d been a prisoner at the state prison in Cranston, Rhode Island, for “keeping a nuisance.” (What kind of nuisance wasn’t spelled out, but it was likely either a saloon or a brothel.

The police went to the home of another sister, Maggie Brown, in Worcester, Massachusetts. They found a woman there who claimed to be named Irene Clark. She denied ever having been to Providence and said she’d lived in Worcester for two years, during which time she worked for the Massachusetts Corset Company. But when police questioned her further she was unable to tell them the names of any businesses in Worcester and she didn’t know the name of the landlady at the boarding house where she claimed to live. Convinced she was Sarah McDonald, they arrested her and took her to Providence.

At the Providence jail she admitted the baby boy was hers, but she denied he’d been murdered. She said he died of natural causes and she’d kept the body for a week, unsure of what to do with it. Ultimately she decided to put it in her mother’s old suitcase, carry it more than half a mile north in a rainstorm, where she left it in a yard behind a house.

Sarah Heagney_back_marked

The back of Sarah Heagney’s criminal identification card.

According to the medical examiner, Eddie’s injuries showed that someone had beaten him to death “in a rage.” Sarah was charged with the baby’s murder.

Sarah pointed the finger at Patrick Edward McDonald; the man she claimed was her husband. He gave himself up to authorities. The police found no evidence that he was involved in the boy’s death and they let him go. Further investigation revealed that the couple was not actually married. Sarah’s surname was her maiden name — Heagney. Born in 1885 in Rhode Island, she was the 22-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, Frank Heagney and his wife, Sarah Kane Heagney.

Oaklawn

The Oaklawn School for Girl in an undated photo.

In 1900, when she was 15, Sarah was a resident of the Oaklawn School For Girls, a juvenile reformatory in Cranston, Rhode Island. Oaklawn was located in a walled complex with other state institutions including the state prison, an insane asylum and a workhouse for the homeless.

The Providence police wondered why Sarah hadn’t simply disposed of Eddie’s body in the Providence River, less than a quarter mile west of her boarding house. Why did she carry the suitcase, which likely weighed close to 20 pounds, more than twice as far and leave it the backyard of Charles H. Jefferds?

By 1907 Jefferds, age 52, had been a widower for almost ten years. He was a well to do “provisions dealer” — a wholesaler merchant selling to grocery stores and markets. He had an adult daughter, Geneva, who lived with him, and three sons: Lawrence, Charles Jr. and Chester. The family was wealthy enough that during the early twentieth century they always had one or two female servants living with them.

There was no mention in the news of Sarah having worked for the Jefferds family, but according to the back of her arrest card she had worked as a maid. If she worked for the family and become pregnant by Charles Jefferds or one of his sons, it might explain why she went to the trouble of taking her baby’s body to their property and leaving it there. Girls and women who worked as servants were sometimes viewed by the men who employed them as fair game for sex, consensual or not.

RI State Prison

The Rhode Island State Prison in an undated photo.

After she was arrested the press lost interest in Sarah and didn’t report on the outcome of the case. By 1910, according to the US Census, she was one of 16 female inmates at the state prison in Cranston. It may be that she was sent to prison as a punishment for the murder of her child.

The census enumerators in 1910 were tasked with asking how many children a woman had given birth to. That column in Sarah’s listing on the census form was left blank. There is no record of her after the 1910 census.

The Crazed Mother

The Crazed Mother

Leo Harp, passing the home of Mrs. Johanna Healey Bacher in 138 Railroad Avenue, Greenwich, Conn., late Sunday night on his way home, found an insurance policy and a sheet of paper on the sidewalk in front of the house. The policy was covered with blood stains and on the back of it had been written with a lead pencil: “I am going to kill myself and the children.” On the sheet of paper was written: “Give this to one of the cops or to Mr. Talbot.”

— New York Herald, March 28, 1922

Johanna Healey was born in Ireland in 1891 and came to America when she was seven years old. Her family settled in New York City, where her father, James, found work as a longshoreman. By 1910 the Healey family — James, his wife, Margaret, and their six surviving children out of eight — lived in a crowded tenement at 39 Bedford Street in the West Village. Johanna and her older sister, Nettie, worked in a factory to supplement that family’s income. The family also took in a female boarder to help pay the bills.

Johanna moved Greenwich, Connecticut, after she was hired to work as a maid for a family there. She met a house carpenter in Greenwich, Henry Jacob Bacher, who was born in 1889 in New York to German immigrant parents. Henry occasionally boxed under the moniker “Kid Onion” and he was fond of playing craps.

Henry was married when he met Johanna, but in November 1915 he got a divorce from his wife so that he and Johanna could get married. Their marriage occurred on December 3, 1915, in Westchester, New York.

The couple moved into an apartment owned by Henry’s mother in Greenwich. Their first child, Margaret, was born in 1917. The following year another daughter, Johanna, was born. Henry Jr. came along in 1921.

Johanna healey bacher photos - Newspapers.com

The Bachers had marital problems. By the time their son was born, Henry was involved with an 18-year-old girl and she was pregnant with his child. Henry told Johanna he wanted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. (Apparently she was the cruel one.)

To get her to agree to the divorce Henry threatened to take the children from Johanna and she couldn’t bear the thought of that. She went out and bought rat poison with the intention of killing the children and possibly herself.

Greenwich wasn’t a big city like New York. Word of people’s problems got around. Andrew Talbot, the chief of the Greenwich police, got wind of the fact that Johanna was distraught over her husband’s divorce suit. He’d also heard rumors that she might try something desperate. He brought her and the children into the station where she admitted she’d bought rat poison to use on the kids rather than letting Henry take them from her. Andrew made her hand over the poison and promise she wouldn’t do anything crazy. He vowed to give her any assistance she needed and asked her to check back with him in a few days. He gave each child a box of candy before they left the station.

On the night of March 27, 1922, Johanna was overcome with grief. She wrote a suicide note on Henry’s life insurance policy and took a butcher knife into the bedroom where the children were sleeping. She cut each child’s throat and stabbed each one a few times to make sure they were dead. She staggered to the window and threw the policy out. Then she went into the kitchen, tore her rosary apart and fatally cut her own throat.

Later that night Leo Harp found the bloody insurance policy on the sidewalk and took it to the police. The police went to the Bacher home where they discovered the bodies of the mother and her children.

Henry J. Bacher may be insane - Newspapers.comHenry was out gambling in Stamford when his children were murdered. Upon being told what had happened he “went violently insane.” He was taken into police custody while the murders were investigated and later he was released. Physicians expressed concern that his insanity might be permanent.

Five months after the murders Police Chief Talbot felt ill at work and went home. He died of a stoke a few hours later. He’d been on the police force for 15 years.

Henry recovered his sanity and married his girlfriend Dorothy. They had five children by the time the federal census was taken in 1940.

Some authors have described Johanna as a serial killer, but she doesn’t fit the definition. She was an unstable, desperate woman who was driven to a heinous act after being abandoned by her husband. She had to live in a society that expected women to stay home with children but gave them no support to do so without a partner.

Featured photo: Johanna Healey Bacher, Daily News (New York) photo, March 28, 1922.