Shooting Louis

Shooting Louis

Last night I called on Alice Martin, the girl I am to marry. I stayed at her home, No. 622 East Thirteenth street, until midnight. Then I went to a restaurant at Twelfth street and Third avenue for something to eat. Later I went to Meiser’s saloon, in Thirteenth street, between avenue B and C. Then I started for home.

— Statement of Louis Betsch, The Evening World (New York City), January 18, 1905

NYPD officer Anthony Muldoon was on his beat on the lower east side of Manhattan when he noticed two men loitering suspiciously in front of a house on Sixteenth Street. The time was about 2:45 in the morning. The men noticed Muldoon and ran off. Just moments later he heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the front of a nearby shoe store and a man stepped from the shadows of the doorway of the store.

“I told him to halt,” Muldoon told his captain, “and he ran. I followed, but he was fleeter than I. I drew my pistol and yelled that I would shoot. I fired above his head, but he continued to run. Just at this time I slipped on the ice in the street and fell and my revolver discharged accidently. The man fell in his tracks with a bullet in his back.”

Officers in the NYPD were first issued guns in 1895 by an order from Teddy Roosevelt after he became the New York City Police Commissioner. Prior to that time officers used their personal guns on the job. Standardizing the firearms carried by policemen was part of Roosevelt’s push to clean up the department.

The man Muldoon shot was Louis Betsch, a 23-year-old self-described “boilermaker.” He was taken to nearby Bellevue Hospital. There he made a statement under oath to the New York City Coroner proclaiming his innocence in any wrongdoing. The other men Muldoon saw near the shoe store were never located.


Bellevue Hospital circa 1898, collection of the Wellcome Library

Louis lived in a rented room on Ninth Avenue and took his meals with his widowed mother and younger siblings at their apartment on Tenth Avenue. His mother, Lizzie, a German immigrant, told police her son was always “sober and steady.” She admitted that he’d been out of work for some time, but things, she said, were looking up for her oldest child, who told her that he’d recently found a job in an umbrella factory.

Alice Martin, Louis’s fiancé, was a 19-year-old button maker who told police she hadn’t seen Louis that evening. Alice lived with her Austrian immigrant parents and siblings in a tenement on East Thirteenth Street. She told the police that she’d been to a music lesson after dinner and after the lesson ended, around 9 p.m., she’d returned home and gone directly to bed. Her mother backed up her story.

“It’s absolutely untrue that Louis called on me last night,” said Miss Martin. “I have all the confidence in the world in him, but if he tells of having been with me last night he is hiding something.”

One thing Louis was hiding was that he’d been arrested for burglary on July 1, 1902. His arrest card, complete with photos, measurements and his description was in the NYPD’s vast rogues’ gallery collection. (“LB — RB” was tattooed on his left arm. Tattoos were considered to be a sign of inherent criminality, in addition to being a way to identify someone, so the police always took note of them.) Evidently no one figured out that Louis had a criminal record.

Louis Betsch_back_marked

Officer Muldoon was a 35-year-old Irishman who’d been on the force at least eight years. He’d received a medal for bravery the previous year after jumping into the icy East River in January to rescue a man from drowning. With his record it wasn’t a hard call for his boss, Captain Hussey, to declare the shooting accidental on the morning after the event. He told Muldoon to return to his post.

Gunshot wounds were often fatal in the years before reliable anesthesia, universal sterile technique, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Louis died of his injuries at the hospital later that day.

Featured photos: mugshots of Louis Betsch, NYPD Bertillon card, July 1, 1902. Collection of the author.