The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The mystery of the disappearance of Raimonde Von Maluski, 3 years old, believed to have been kidnapped a week ago near his Washington Heights home, continued unsolved yesterday. Seventy detectives under Acting Lieutenant Edwin England continued the hunt, searching again through High Bridge and Fort George Parks and canvassing Houses.

The New York Times, April 6, 1925

SonnyRaimonde Von Maluski III, known as “Sonny,” was last seen on the sidewalk near his family’s apartment building on West 178th Street. The day, Sunday, March 29, 1925, was clear but far from warm, with an afternoon high of about 45 degrees. The small boy was outside on his own, apparently watching a Salvation Army prayer meeting and parade that took place in the street. Washington Heights, where the Von Maluski family lived, is in the narrow northern strip of Manhattan bordered by the Hudson River to the west and the Harlem River on the east.

By sometime on Sunday evening Sonny’s parents, Raimonde and Alice, realized that their three-year-old was gone so they alerted the police. Despite a massive search of the area, which included dragging a nearby City reservoir and the Harlem River, the child was nowhere to be found.

Initially the police theorized that Sonny had been kidnapped for ransom because the building where his family lived was home to some fairly affluent people. However Sonny’s family lived in the basement — his father was the building superintendent. With three young children — 5-year-old Gertrude and baby Robert — in addition to Sonny, there was no money to pay a ransom. In fact the family also had a lodger. Harold Jones, aged 25, worked as a handy man for Raimonde and lived with the family in their cramped apartment.

Mary Jones newsOne day into the search for Sonny, Harold suggested that his 40-year-old estranged wife, Austrian-born Mary Jones, might have been responsible for the boy’s disappearance. He said Mary had become mentally unbalanced the previous year when their baby died shortly after it was born. Harold claimed that Mary held a grudge against Sonny’s father because Raimonde informed the police that she’d stolen something from the building. During a visit to Harold, Raimonde had thrown Mary out of the apartment house due to a display of what Harold described as “disorderly conduct.” Harold claimed Mary was a bigamist, with two prior marriages but no divorces from her previous husbands.

The police arrested Mary, who lived alone in a flat on 3rd Avenue in the East Village. She insisted that she knew nothing about the child’s disappearance but the police charged her with kidnapping Sonny.

HaroldHarold told the police that he believed his wife contacted a man named Alexander Albert and offered him $100 to knock off Raimonde. Alexander was questioned and told police that the information was true but he’d declined the offer. Harold named several other “Bowery stew bums” (homeless alcoholics) he believed Mary tried to bribe to harm Raimonde. Police located the men but could find no evidence of a plot so they were released.

Sonny wasn’t mentioned as a target of Mary’s revenge.

At Mary’s grand jury hearing a ten-year-old girl identified her as the woman she’d seen in a cab that followed Sonny during the parade. However a woman who’d also been nearby failed to identify Mary. A cab driver named William Mahon testified that he’d picked up a woman he identified as Mary, along with a young boy who matched Sonny’s description, near the Von Maluski’s building on the evening the boy went missing. He said the boy was crying. He testified that he’d driven them over a bridge and dropped them off near a vacant lot in the Bronx.

Sonny’s mother, Alice, testified that she and Mary argued about why Harold had moved into her family’s apartment. Alice said that Mary told her she thought Harold moved in so he could carry on an affair with another woman. Alice also admitted that Mary had offered her children toys when she’d visited their apartment, but Alice hadn’t allowed the children to accept them.

The grand jury indicted Mary for the kidnapping of Sonny Von Maluski.

The prosecution witnesses at the trial consisted of cab driver Mahon and another cab driver. The second driver claimed a woman approached him several weeks before Sonny’s disappearance and offered him money to “get a sick child away from a dopehead mother and a drunken father.” He refused the offer but he identified the woman as Mary. A man described as a “volunteer witness” (apparently he wasn’t called by the prosecution but he was allowed to testify) said he’d been in a cab behind the Mahon cab and had gotten a good look at the woman and child who got in the cab. He swore that the woman was Mary.

Mary displayed no emotion throughout her short trial and was the sole witness in her own defense. She admitted she’d been married three times but insisted she wasn’t a bigamist. On that Sunday she had lunch with friends at the restaurant below her apartment, then attended services at nearby St. Ann’s Church. After church she said she went home and took a nap until 9 p.m. Then she woke up but decided it was too late to go out again, so she got undressed and went to bed.

The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding Mary guilty of kidnapping. At her sentencing the judge stated, “I believe you are utterly bad. I believe you killed that child.” He sentenced her to 20 to 40 years in Auburn Prison. He demanded Mary tell the court where the child’s body was hidden. In reply, Mary said, “Why don’t the Von Maluskis tell the truth?”

The family

The following year Mary wrote to the Von Maluskis from her prison cell and promised to tell them what she knew about Sonny’s disappearance if they would visit her. The couple had given up hope of finding Sonny alive, but they went to Auburn hoping to discover the location of his body. However all Mary told them was that she believed he was alive and living near East 51st Street in Manhattan. Prison officials noted that Mary frequently rambled and seemed to be losing her grip on reality.

In 1927 a woman in Hagerstown, Maryland reported to the police that a year or so earlier she’d taken in an abandoned young boy. She heard about the Von Maluski case and wondered if her boy might be Sonny. The woman and the Von Maluskis exchanged photos and descriptions and Raimonde visited in person. Sonny had a large burn scar on his chest, but the Maryland boy didn’t have a scar and he didn’t recognize Raimonde. It was decided that the boy wasn’t Sonny.

Harold Jones moved to Mills House #3 on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan by 1930. The Mills hotels (there were three in NYC) offered spartan accommodations for working men. Harold is listed on the 1930 census as a 29-year-old unmarried man who worked odd jobs for a living. Harold’s whereabouts after 1930 could not be determined.

Alice gave birth to a daughter, Adele, in 1926. By 1939 Alice either died or she and Raimonde divorced, because he married 32-year-old Enid Whitney in May of that year. The following year the couple had a little boy they named Frederick.

Mary was moved to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Dutchess County, New York, by 1940. During the 1940s, Matteawan inmates were subjected to electric and insulin shock treatments. The facility also housed more than three times the number of people it had been built to hold. Mary’s date and place of death are currently unknown, but my research into her later life is ongoing.

Alive or dead, Sonny Von Maluski was never found.

Featured photo: news photo of Mary Jones at her grand jury hearing, April 1925. Collection of the author.

Soldier Boy

Soldier Boy

MARYSVILLE, Nov. 9. — Barney McQuaid was to-day sentenced to five years, and Thomas Mays to ten years, in San Quentin for highway robbery committed near Sicard Flat on October 27. McQuaid and Mays are deserters from the Presidio and were attired in infantry uniform at the time of their apprehension.

The San Francisco Call, November 10, 1900

Tom Mays_marked

Two young soldiers, Hugh Bernard “Barney” McQuaid, age 19, and Tom Mays, age 22, carried out a robbery near a desolate area in Yuba County, California. The men were deserters from a military base in San Francisco, and it’s likely that they were training for service in the Spanish-American War when they left their army posts and headed north.

Barney and Tom in stripes

San Quentin mugbook, California State Archives.

Prior to joining the army, Barney had a few skirmishes with law enforcement back in his hometown of Minneapolis, mostly for being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. Barney had a tendency to use foul language and become violent when crossed. On one occasion he fought a policeman who was trying to arrest him with such intensity that several officers had to be called to assist. It’s likely his family figured that a stint in the army would straighten out the troubled young man.

During his incarceration at San Quentin, Barney suffered from mental illness so severe that the guards at one of the harshest prisons in America were unable to control him, so he was transferred to a California asylum, the Mendocino State Hospital. His condition was described as “improved” when he was released from the hospital.

Though his prison record stated he was discharged on June 10, 1904, Barney was actually sent home to his family in Minneapolis in September 1903. It may have seemed like a blessing to his parents, who had already put five of their eleven children into an early grave. Barney’s father, John, was a policeman and officials trusted him to keep his son away from the temptations of crime. It was hoped that the comforts family life would help Barney regain his sanity.

It didn’t take long for Barney’s parents and sisters to realize they weren’t equipped to deal with his illness. In early December he was admitted to the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. His condition was described as “Demented and Vicious.” His medical record lists the “alleged cause” of his insanity as “degeneracy” (possibly he had a history of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness) but there’s no doubt he experienced violent outbursts and was a danger to others. According to the hospital notes, he’d been ill since the age of 17, so he was mentally unstable when he enlisted in the army in 1900.

He is strong and robust. He is quiet and sullen, pugnacious at times. Says he is a soldier boy and must not be kept in the hospital.

— St. Peter Hospital patient notes for Barney McQuaid

Measuring just over 5’, 9” tall and weighing 195 lbs., 22-year-old Barney was a powerfully built man. Three weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, he escaped. Two months later he was captured and returned to the institution.

Barney never left St. Peter’s again. Eleven years later he suffered a stroke and died on September 23, 1914. He was 33 years old.

Featured photo: Barney McQuaid’s mugshot, from a glass negative, taken on the day of his arrest in Marysville, California. Collection of the author.

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

bertha-liebbeke-notorious-pickpocket-in-il-ks-ia-mo-and-ne-fainting-bertha-stumbled-into-men-fainted-and-robbed-them2

Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.