Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

More on the Unsolved Murder of Pelham Manor Policeman John McGuire in 1918

In the early morning darkness on Tuesday, May 7, 1918, members of the Pelham Manor Police Department were still abuzz over an attempted burglary and brutal assault earlier in the night at the home of wealthy cigar manufacturer Herman Rokohl who lived at 255 Corona Avenue.  At 4:00 a.m. that morning, there was a shift change.  

Pelham Manor Patrolman John McGuire, one of the oldest members of the department and a large and powerful man, had just finished the shift.  He waited at Four Corners for the Pelham trolley.  He could hear it clattering along Pelhamdale Avenue headed toward Four Corners.  In the darkness ahead, Patrolman McGuire saw the trolley stop near Witherbee Avenue.  A shadowy figure climbed aboard.  

Given the attempted burglary earlier that night, McGuire decided to identify the person who had just climbed aboard the trolley.  As the trolley approached, the unarmed officer stopped it and climbed aboard.

"Which passenger got on last?" asked McGuire of the trolley motorman.  The motorman pointed to a passenger in a corner at the rear of the trolley.  

Patrolman McGuire approached the passenger and said:  "We want to ask you some questions. You'll have to get off here with me." Patrolman McGuire reportedly linked his arm with that of the passenger and the pair moved to the front of the car.

Patrolman McGuire reached the steps of the car first and started down them. As he did, the suspect pulled a pistol, shoved it into McGuire's back and emptied the revolver.  Patrolman McGuire died instantly. In the confusion, the despicable and cowardly murderer fled.  There were military men from Fort Slocum on the trolley who gave chase, but the murderer escaped.  Patrolman McGuire left behind a wife and two sons, one of whom was serving in the U.S. Navy at the time.

Within a few hours, New Rochelle police arrested John Brennan of Oak Street, New Rochelle as the suspected burglar who assaulted Herman Rokohl earlier in the day.  Brennan, it was thought, could not have been the murderer of Patrolman McGuire, however.  He was a white man.  The suspect who shot and killed Patrolman McGuire purportedly was a black man, although later evidence suggested otherwise.  Though Brennan was held without bail and hauled before a Westchester County Grand Jury for the burglary, the murder suspect apparently was still at large.  

One of the military men who witnessed the murder was Fred Mostert, a member of the Medical Corps stationed at Fort Slocum.  About two weeks after the murder, on Friday, May 17, 1918, Mostert was in New York City and saw a black man on the street whom he believed was the murderer.  He alerted New York City police who arrested the man, John Surgeon Barton, who was charged with murder.    

Barton was a chauffeur for a local judge, Hon. Mark M. Schlesinger.  The Judge hired a number of detectives and "set his office force in Wall Street to work" in an effort to investigate the matter and exonerate his chauffeur.  Even before the matter was presented to a grand jury, Judge Schlesinger was able to establish Barton's innocence.  The charges were dropped and Barton was released from jail.  One of the reasons Barton was released was that evidence had emerged that the murderer may not have been a black man as first believed but instead was "a man who had used a tanning process to color his face and hands for the purpose of operating in dark houses."

Patrolman McGuire was the first of Pelham Manor's Finest to die in the line of duty.  The dastardly murder was never solved.  Nearly one hundred years later, the identity of the murderer remains an enduring Pelham history mystery.

Pelham Manor Police Department in 1910.  Patrolman John McGuire
is Fourth From the Left, Standing.  Caption Reads: "R.H. Marks, Chief
of Police (sitting) Left to Right -- John J. Flanagan, George Booth,
Joseph Colgan, John McGuire, A.D. Savage, Phil. Gargan, James Butler."
Source:  Pelham Manor Police Dept., The Pelham Sun [Pelham, NY],
May 21, 1910, Vol. I, No. 7, cols. 4-6.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

*          *          *          *          *

I have written before about the murder of Patrolman John McGuire.  See Wed., Aug. 09, 2006:  The Saddest Day in the History of Pelham Manor's "Toonerville Trolley."  For the text of newspaper reports related to Patrolman McGuire's murder, see below.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.  


John McGuire, one of the oldest members of the Pelham Manor Police Force, was shot and killed yesterday morning while trying to arrest a negro, whom he believed to be implicated in the recent burglaries at Pelham Manor and Pelham Heights.  Herman Rokohl, a wealthy cigar manufacturer, was badly beaten with the butt of a revolver by a burglar who had entered his home.

Several hours after Mr. Rokohl had reported the attack on him Lieutenant McGowan of the New Rochelle police force arrested a young white man, who gave his name as John Brennen of New Rochelle, and who was later identified by Mr. Rokohl as the burglar who had attacked him.  Brenna, the police think, was a member of the gang which invaded the Pelhams, which include at least four men, and divided their operations.

Mr. Rokohl, who is 74 years old, though badly battered by the other burglar, was able to tell a complete story of the visit of the intruder to his home.  His sister, Mrs. Fredericks Wedemeier, was asleep on the second floor, when she was suddenly awakened by a flashlight.  She screamed and the burglar ran out into the hall, where he ran into Mr. Rokohl put up a plucky fight, and wrestled about the hallway for some time, but the burglar drew his revolver and pounded his victim over the head.  Though badly hurt Mr. Rokohl kept up the battle until he was knocked down. Then the burglar ran downstairs and out the kitchen door."

Source:  BURGLARY SUSPECT KILLS OLD POLICEMAN, N.Y. Times, May 8 1918, p. 22, col. 2 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).  

Empties Revolver Into Unarmed Captor and Escapes. . . .

From The Inquirer Bureau.

NEW YORK, May 7.  -- John McGuire, a policeman attached to the Pelham Manor Police Department was shot and killed early today by an escaping negro burglar at the corner of Pelhamdale avenue, near the high school.

The negro had attempted to rob the home of Herman Roaohl [sic] at 255 Corona avenue, Pelham Heights.  Roaohl was awakened by a noise and encountered the negro in the act of rifling a bureau.  In the ensuing struggle the burglar hit him on the head with a blackjack and rushed from the house.

Policeman McGuire was attracted by the screams and chased the negro, who jumped on a passing trolley car.  McGuire, though unarmed leaped after him and dragged him to the street.

The negro suddenly pulled a revolver and fired five shots, one of which lodged in the policeman's abdomen.  He was rushed to the New Rochelle Hospital, where he died half an hour later.  The negro escaped."

Source:  NEGRO BURGLAR KILLS POLICEMAN -- Empties Revolver Into Unarmed Captor and Escapes, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 8, 1918, p. 9, col. 1 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).  

Pelham Manor Burglar Suspect Escapes Pursuers.

No trace has been found of the negro who shot and killed Policeman John McGuire of the Pelham Manor police force early yesterday at Pelhamdale and Willard avenues [sic].  

McGuire picked up the negro as a suspicious character, who might have knowledge of recent burglaries in the Pelham Manor district.  The policeman, unarmed, left a trolley car to take the negro to the police station.  The negro fired five shots at the policeman and made his escape into the woods nearby, eluding a number of soldiers, who pursued him.  

A few hours before, Herman Rokohl, a wealthy cigar manufacturer, living in Pelham Manor, was viciously attacked by a burglar, who had broken into his home.

McGuire is survived by his wife and two sons.  One of the sons is in the United States Navy."  

Source:  NEGRO KILLS POLICEMAN -- Pelham Manor Burglar Suspect Escapes Pursuers, New York Herald, May 8, 1918, p. 14, col. 6 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).  See also NEGRO KILLS POLICEMAN -- Pelham Manor Burglar Suspect Escapes Pursuers, The Sun [NY, NY], May 8, 1918, p. 14, col. 6 (same text).  


Held For Grand Jury.

John Brennan, of Oak street, New Rochelle, who was arrested in New Rochelle early on Tuesday morning, May 7, following an attempted robbery at 255 Corona avenue, Pelham Heights, in which Herman Rokohl, age 74 years, the occupant of the house was assaulted, was arraigned for examination before Justice of the Peace George Lambert Monday evening at the town hall on this village.  The state presented its side of the cast through Assistant District Attorney Ferris.  Brennan was represented by Attorney Moran.  Coroner Stella was present, to gain information and he later stated that he was convinced that Brennan in no way was involved in the murder of John McGuire, the Pelham Manor policeman who was shot several hours after the burglary.  The defense waived examination and Justice Lambert held him without bail for the action of the Westchester county grand jury."

Source:  HAPPENINGS IN NORTH PELHAM . . . Held for Grand Jury, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], May 17, 1918, p. 9, col. 1.  

"North Pelham . . . 

Holding Suspect.

Spurgeon [sic] P. Barton, the colored chauffeur suspect who was arrested in New York last Friday evening by detectives from the fourth branch office after he had been identified in the street by Fred Mostert, of the medical corps stationed at Fort Slocum as the man who shot Patrolman John McGuire of this village, a member of the Pelham Manor police department, is being held at the county jail to await the action of Coroner Stella who will hold an inquest soon.  District Attorney Davis and the coroner have been in conference on this case but no announcement of their plans has been made public."

Source:  North Pelham . . . Holding Suspect, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], May 22, 1918, p. 7, col. 4.  

"North Pelham
Charged With Murder, His Innocence Is Established.

John Surgeon Barton, the negro charged with murder on May 7, of Patrolman John McGuire, of the Pelham Manor police department, has been released from the county jail, where he was being detained to await action of the grand jury.

Barton was arrested in New York city, after he is said to have been identified as the murderer by a soldier from Fort Slocum, who was a passenger on a trolley car going to New Rochelle on the morning of the shooting.  Barton had been employed as a chauffeur by Judge Mark M. Schlesinger, who to Barton's defense, employed a number of detectives and set his office force in Wall street at work on the matter.  He succeeded in being able to establish the innocence of Barton, and consequently the negro was free within fewer than 60 days, and even before his case reached the grand jury.  When arrested, Barton was without money and almost friendless and too poor to employ counsel to aid him in the matter of an immediate investigation of the police testimony.  It was reported prior to Barton's arrest that the real murderer was not a negro, but a man who had used a tanning process to color his face and hands for the purpose of operating in dark houses."

Source:  North Pelham -- NEGRO IS EXONERATE -- Charged With Murder, His Innocence Is Established, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jul. 9, 1918, p. 3, col. 3.  

"Westchester Today!
Pelham Manor Police:  Slaying on Trolley

Pelham Manor Police cover an area of 1.3 square miles and protect a population of 6,114.

The job is a bit tougher than one might gather from those small statistics because of the community's proximity to the more populated New York City and New Rochelle and because three main highways -- the Hutchinson River Parkway, Boston Post Road and the New England Thruway-- not only make Pelham Manor a convenient place to live but also make it a target for marauders and other trouble makers.

Police Chief Joseph Lyon points to two recent bank crimes and the quick apprehension of suspects to illustrate the work of his department.  A man was arrested for the holdup of the Boston Post Road branch of the People's Savings Bank of New Rochelle in Pelham Manor last fall.  There was also a seizure of a 'disturbed' man who threatened personnel of the Manor branch of the First National Bank of Mount Vernon with what later proved to be a water pistol.  

In addition to the chief, Pelham Manor has a lieutenant, five sergeants, 17 patrolmen and six crossing guards.  The department has four radio-equipped police cars with oxygen units, first aid kits, flares, and blankets.  A 15-state teletype alarm system keeps the men abreast of the latest happenings of interest to police.  Bank alarms link directly to headquarters.

There is a pistol range off Shore Road where the police teams practice.  

The department was not always so well-manned and equipped.  In the early days, one man was the force and he had to be content with riding a 'fast' bicycle or hopping a ride on Pelham Manor's 'Toonerville Trolley' to overtake a thief or to apprehend one making his getaway on the trolley.

Pelham Manor's first policemen were James O'Brien and Joseph Colgan, appointed in 1903.  The salary was $30 a month, unlike the salary of the town constables who served on a fee basis.  In 1904 the village fathers appointed Town Constable Raphael H. Marks as chief of police.  Colgan continued to serve under him as sergeant.

Chief Marks had the distinction of being the first 'moonlighter,' being appointed in 1903 as chief of Pelham Village's force and serving both departments simultaneously.  The Pelham Manor department began to grow.  He continued as head of Pelham Manor force until 1919, having resigned in 1910 as chief of Pelham Village.

Philip Gargan, the next chief rose from the ranks.  He fought with the Fighting 69th during World War I and returned from the Army and became chief.

Sgt. Michael Grady succeed Gargan and he was succeeded in turn by James McCaffrey, who was appointed Nov. 8, 1937 and who retired Aug. 31, 1959.  Provisional Chief Charles Baisley next directed the affairs of the department until his retirement Dec. 31, 1961.  Chief Lyon then succeeded him.

The village's worst crime, one which is still unsolved, is recalled by Retired Chief McCaffrey.  About 4 a.m. one day in 1917 [sic; should be 1918], several men were going off duty.  As they were waiting for the trolley, they saw it stop at Witherbee Avenue and pick up a passenger.  Recalling that there had been an earlier report from a resident on Witherbee Avenue [sic] reporting a burglar in the house, police got on the trolley and Patrolman John McGuire stopped it, asking the motorman:  'Which passenger got on last?'  The motorman pointed toward a passenger in the rear corner.

'We want to ask you some questions,' Patrolman McGuire said to the passenger.  'You'll have to get off here with me.'  He linked his arm in the passenger's and they made their way to the front door.  Patrolman McGuire was a big, powerful man and it may have led to overconfidence on his part.  As McGuire preceded the suspect down the trolley steps, the suspect pulled out a gun and shot McGuire in the back, killing him instantly.  The suspect fled."

Source:   Westchester Today!  -- Pelham Manor Police:  Slaying on Trolley, Herald Statesman [Yonkers, NY], Mar. 13, 1963, p. 52, cols. 1-4.  

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