The Strange Disappearance -- and Reappearance -- of Mary Grote of Pelham in 1884: Part I
With uncharacteristic understatement, The Daily Brooklyn Eagle of October 11, 1884 reported that:
"The hamlet of Bartow, on the Sound, near New Rochelle, is excited over the mysterious disappearance of Mary Grote, a young woman employed as a domestic in the family of Mr. May, a well to do farmer, living in that neighborhood. She disappeared on Thursday from the grounds near the house, where she had gone to gather apples. It is feared that she has been murdered by tramps, who infest the country in that vicinity." Current Events, The Daily Brooklyn Eagle, Oct. 11, 1884, p. 6.
Saying that the little hamlet of Bartow-on-the-Sound, a hamlet of Pelham, was "excited" over the matter was putting it mildly. The entire Town was up in arms. There was no Village Government to provide police protection at the time. "Tramps" did, in fact, infest the area. So much so that residents of Pelham Manor had formed the "Pelham Manor Protective Club" -- a vigilance committee -- in late 1881 to take matters into their own hands. The "Club" offered rewards for the arrest and conviction of tramps and, in effect, played the role of a local citizen police force. Mary Grote's "disappearance" led local residents to fear the worst -- that the buxom young beauty with dark hair and ruddy cheeks had been abducted and murdered.
Farmer Francis May, Employer of Mary Grote
Well-to-do farmer Francis May owned a farm in the area of Bartow-on-the-Sound. In July, 1884, Farmer May "engaged as a servant a German girl, about 20 years of age, who arrived from Germany" only two years before with her sister, Annie, who was employed as a servant girl in a wealthy home on Thirteenth Street in New York City. Her name was Mary Grote. See A Victim of the Tramps -- Strange Disappearance of a Young Woman -- Thought To Be A Prisoner Or To Have Been Murdered -- Searching Parties Scouring the Woods, N.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 1884, p. 1.
Mary Grote's parents were well-to-do themselves. They lived in the north of Germany and reportedly had protested vigorously when Mary announced her intention to emigrate to America. Mary, according to one report, was "a handsome, fresh-faced girl, always ready for a laugh and almost always laughing". Id. Once she was engaged as a servant by Farmer May and his family, she threw herself into her work and "seldom went away from the farm and seemed contented in the May family, where she was a great favorite, and was looked upon more as one of them than as a servant." Id.
The Strange Disappearance of Mary Grote and the Search for Her
According to the New York Times, on Friday, October 9 (not Thursday, October 8 as reported by The Daily Brooklyn Eagle) Mary went to the apple orchard about three-quarters of a mile from Farmer May's farm house and across the track of the Harlem River branch of the New Haven Railroad with Ben, a son of Farmer May, and a farm hand named George. At about noon, all three of them returned to the farm house with a load of apples. After dining together, according to one report:
"Mary washed a couple of soup plates to assist Mrs. May, and left, as all supposed for the orchard which is reached on foot by a short cut across the track and through the woods. She was last seen at the spring, a short distance from the house. When the boys reached the orchard by a roundabout wagon road, Mary was not there. It was thought that she had gone for chestnuts, but when the boys returned to the house at dusk, with their fragrant load, she was not there. The household became alarmed, and a search was instituted. It was kept up until midnight, only to be resumed this morning [October 10, the date of the report published on October 11]. Not a trace of the girl had been discovered up to dark to-night, when the effort was suspended until to-morrow." Id.
Further investigation revealed that railroad workers saw the young girl cross the railroad tracks at about 2:00 on Friday afternoon and that when she left the house she was dressed in a blue calico dress with a white flower design on it. She took nothing with her including her shawl and her bonnet. Id. Everyone feared the worst. As one report put it:
"She probably went up from the railroad track along the edge of a deep . . . wood [in] search of a favorite chestnut tree, when she was overpowered and dragged into the brush or wood. A stone wall runs along by the big chestnut. On searching about that this afternoon some freshly opened burs were found on the wall, and a stained stone which had been used to open them. Some think that Mary was sitting on this wall, when she was approached from behind and assaulted. She was a strong, buxom girl, and if given a fair chance would have made it lively for the toughest tramp. A son of Mr. May found in the edge of a meadow not far from the chestnut tree and close to the wood a piece of blood-stained red felt. It was no part of Mary's clothing, said Mrs. May, when it was shown her. . . . The inference was at once drawn that it was this bloody piece of cloth which had been used to stifle the poor girl's cries for help." Id.
As rumors swirled, search parties found rudely-made huts in the thick woods "made of bark, saplings, and brush, which, it was apparent, were the homes of one or more tramps." Id. Tramps seen in New Rochelle and surrounding areas came under immediate suspicion, although in most instances they scurried away before they could be arrested. The New York Times noted that local residents issued "threats of summary punishment on one and all" tramps found in the area and that "[o]ne thing is certain -- it will be unsafe for any tramps to make themselves conspicuous here". Id.
A Friend of Mary's Sister "Complicates" Things
Mary's sister, Annie Grote, worked in a home located on Thirteenth Street in New York City with another domestic who was her "intimate friend". That girl was named Carrie Hartmann. Carrie Hartmann reportedly had emigrated to New York with Mary and Annie Grote.
Carrie stepped forward with a story that tended "to complicate the case". Relating this story, one report noted:
"Last Spring Mary, who has so mysteriously disappeared, was employed in this city as a nurse. [Her] friend says that in Central Park, where she went several times a week, she was often approached by a stylishly dressed young man. After a time she paid some attention to him, and they became quite intimate. Miss Carrie thinks this intimacy was continued after Mary went to the home of Mr. May. At any rate, she wrote Miss Hartmann that the young man was stopping at the Windsor. Unfortunately this letter was destroyed and the young man's name is not known. Yesterday Miss Hartmann visited a number of her friends -- friends of Mary as well -- in Seventy-first and Seventy-second streets. She found that the same young man who had pursued Mary in the Spring had been there just before to ask if any tidings of Mary had been received or if her whereabouts were known. From this she thought that Mary must have decided to meet him somewhere. But on learning that the girl had disappeared, leaving all her clothes behind her, she fell to weeping, and concluded that her friend had been murdered." Id.
Search parties continued their efforts to find the girl on Sunday, October 11. Indeed, Robert Bartow (the owner of the Bartow-Pell Mansion and estate), instructed five men employed on his farm in the area to join the search, bringing the total number of searchers to 56. According to one account: "Brush heaps were overturned, fallen trees were lifted, hollow trunks were explored, stone heaps were overthrown and stone walls razed." At one point, searchers made an interesting discovery:
"After they had been scrambling over rocks for an hour they were brought to a halt by a great ledge of rocks. There was a narrow opening ten feet from the ground, over which hung a tattered silk handkerchief attached to a hickory pole. The stones leading to the opening were well worn. The party had evidently run upon the home of the tramps. Squeezing themselves through the aperture, the party found themselves in a large cave. The rocky floor was strewn with old papers and straw. There was rough sleeping accommodation for a hundred men, and the place was alive with vermin. 'I've found it,' shouted a constable of the town. This is what I've been looking for. Break this up and we'll break up the tramps stopping in this town. Those little shanties are no good. This is the headquarters.' There was an iron skillet, a pot, and a tin coffee can in the cave beside a rude fireplace. In descending from the opening a passage through the bushes was readily discerned. Following it the whole searching party of ten, after a three minutes' walk, found themselves between Bartow and Pelham Manor and on the track of the Harlem Branch of the New-Haven Road. 'I am perfectly satisfied,' said a Justice of the town who came down the track to see what had been unearthed, 'that you have found the rendezvous of tramps, starting from New-York, on their first night out. And, if God lets me live until next week, I'll break up this den if I have to burn the whole section over."
Tune in on Monday for the end of the saga and learn of the exceedingly strange reappearance of Mary Grote and the impact that her reappearance had on Farmer Francis May of Pelham and his family.