Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Pajama Murder Case: S. S. Van Dine Encounters Appallin' True Crime (and in New Jersey, no less)

Below Tony Medawar explores a bizarre case of fiction colliding with fact which occurred in 1929, when S. S. Van Dine, creator of the bestselling Philo Vance detective series, as the newly-installed Police Commissioner of Bradley Beach, New Jersey had to confront a real life murder, the area's first--and a sordid and ugly one at that.  Instead of inspecting local bathing beauties Vance found he had to confront a bullet-riddled robbery victim.  It was not quite the thing the mystery writer was used to concoctin' in his gentlemanly fictional murder cases.--TPT

Police Commissioner Van Dine?
Willard Huntington Wright
The Hall-Mills Murder Case may have been S. S. Van Dine’s first ‘real’ murder investigation but three years later he faced an even more challenging case. During the 1920s Van Dine and his wife spent several summers at Bradley Beach, a small coastal resort borough in New Jersey that even today only has about 4,000 residents. This led, in 1929, to the appointment of Van Dine, now a bestselling detective novelist, as Police Commissioner at the police annual dinner that year. Reporting on the appointment, the Wilmington Journal said that one of the Commissioner’s chief duties would be "to inspect the bathing beauties and pass on the length and height of their suits. In accepting the appointment, Mr Van Dine assured the Mayor he would be neither short sighted nor narrow minded in the performance of this duty."

Journalists enjoyed themselves in speculation about what might happen next, including an anonymous reporter for the Reading Times who commented

Suppose it really happened that the body of a wealthy clubman was found in the library of his summer home with a jeweled dagger in his heart. Could a murder mystery writer actually solve the crime outside of fiction? We may soon find out. All that is needed for some wealthy clubman to get himself murdered at Bradley Beach, New Jersey.

the sort of "suspect" Van Dine hoped to interrogate
However, it was not long before the crime writer was confronted with true crime. In August 1929, George Danielson, a 67 year old messenger for the First National Bank in Bradley Beach, was shot dead in and robbed of the $7,000 payroll – equivalent to $100,000 – which he was taking to the pajama factory of Steiner & Sons in the nearby borough of Neptune City. The Springville Herald reported Van Dine’s announcement giving details of the killers and described their escape “presumably with a confederate or two, in a sedan later found abandoned. A Panama hat was discovered in the car as were two Pennsylvania plates.

Two factory workers described how they had seen
"two well-dressed young men, one with a small moustache, fire at the messenger. He dropped and as he did so the men snatched up the payroll and ran to the car. Van Dine...believed the bandits, after abandoning their car, might have mingled with the beach crowds, perhaps swimming. He requested a thorough search of all beach resorts and boardwalks in New Jersey” and, perhaps conscious that this was not what he had signed up for, offered to “withdraw from the post but Mayor Borden held him to his acceptance.

The Asbury Park Press reported Van Dine’s comment that the assailants were “inexperienced criminals or dope addicts” and noted that the new Police Commissioner was not exactly experienced. 

In an article for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Lemuel Parton--who had once shared rooms with Van Dine--reported the writer as saying that

Steiner & Son Factory
Neptune City, New Jersey
I see no reason for hoping that the methods I have suggested would be useful in solving a crime like this … in a gang crime like this, the police, with their records of known gangsters, their habitat and methods, may and should be quite capable of catching the gunmen. This may be classified with such crimes as the Diamond brothers shooting in Brooklyn, which the police quickly solved. These organization crimes do not fit into the methods of hypothesis and analysis under which European criminologists work, and which have suggested the operation of Philo Vance …

Personally, I strongly believe in the scientific European methods. Applied to a case like the Hall-Mills or Elwell murder 
[the case that provided the inspiration for Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, The Benson Murder Case], they are unquestionably the soundest and most effective which can be used. But, as I have said, I do not see that the theoretical criminologist can be of much use of running down these gang killings and premeditated hold-ups in which two or more men participate. It is in the individual or personal crime, such as the two I have mentioned, in which an expert criminologist can best function can best function. Organization crimes may best be left to routine police work, although I believe the American system should be aided by staffs of experts, capable of psychological analysis, such as those of Austria, Germany and France.

see Bradley Beach
Wright’s analysis was exactly correct and the crime was effectively solved within a week by Inspector John Coughlin, formerly of the New York Police Department – “assisted”, according to the Montana Standard, “only by a large, black impressive cigar, a large black, impressive derby and a large, black impressive pair of No. 10 shoes."

Coughlin quickly identified a woman who had been working at the Steiner factory up until three days before the robbery, Rose Goldberg, and arrested her on suspicion of being an accomplice to the crime; she appears to have escaped jail, presumably for having assisted with the arrests of the actual perpetrators. Following her arrest, Coughlin arrested Robert Tully, who allegedly had driven the sedan.  Tully confessed and at his trial in 1930 he was spared execution, upon a jury recommendation of mercy, after his mother cited his war record and alleged that he had been suffering from what today would be termed post-traumatic stress disorder.

A week after the murder, while Tully and Goldberg were under arrest, Edward Baxter, a shipping clerk at the Steiner plant, turned himself in and took the police to the end of a nearby trolley line where he had buried his share of the loot.  Baxter was jailed for three years.

The next arrested was Tully’s brother, whose car Tully had been driving; he was released without charge. Then, after a shoot-out in West 196th Street, New York, Coughlin and another officer arrested Frank McBrien, leader of the infamous "Jersey Kid's Gang."  McBrien was found guilty of the murder of George Danielson and two other robberies, one of which had also ended in murder.  He was electrocuted in July 1930.

A fourth member of the gang was named as Francis ‘Lefty’ Long.  He was jailed in 1930 after being captured during a failed attempt to rob a bank. The fifth and final member of the gang, James Sargent alias ‘California Eddie’ Stewart, was be arrested until the following year, by which time he had committed another robbery and another murder.
In 1937, ‘Lefty’ Long was released from prison and finally charged with the murder of George Danielson. He was sentenced to 16 to 32 years penal servitude.  A few months later, having threatened during the trial to kill himself if sent back to jail, Long hanged himself with a blanket in his solitary confinement cell. Later in 1938, five years after a failed escape attempt, Tully also attempted suicide, failing, however, in that attempt too.

Reporting on what they called the “Pajama Murder Case”, echoing the titles of Van Dine’s mysteries by referring back to the factory whose payroll had been robbed, the Montana Standard ridiculed “Steamship Van Dine … Van Dyke whiskers and all”, praising Coughlin and suggesting that in Van Dine’s next detective story, he shouldn’t “be so hard on Sergeant Heath, his fictional character who is a big flat foot from the homicide bureau.

Other newspapers were equally mischievous, with the Lincoln Journal Star trumpeting that Coughlin had succeeded where “the redoubtable Philo Vance of fiction fame” had failed. All a little harsh given the accuracy of Van Dine’s analysis of the crime and the fact that almost the first thing established about it was that the murder was not in fact in the writer’s jurisdiction as it had taken place in the nearby township of Neptune City rather than Bradley Beach.

None of this deterred the Minneapolis Star Tribune from commenting that Wright’s “embarrassment, as he faced the reproachful glances of his own omniscient Mr Vance, must have been singularly acute.


Note: For more detail on the Neptune City Murder, see Ari Sims blog


  1. Thanks for the post. Interesting to see that criminology doesn’t quite apply to these kinds of gang shootings. I’d hoped to see how Van Dine would fare against a less impersonal, more psychologically motivated murder case

    On another note, I have Christianna Brand’s Spotted Cat collection, edited by you (Tony). Appreciate the research that went into the introduction—always nice to learn more about your favorite authors.
    Do you think there’s any chance that a Brand manuscript like Chinese Puzzle or Cat Among the Pigeons will get published? I don’t know if they’ve been pitched to a publisher before. Shame for those unpublished stories by such a talented author to be sitting collecting dust

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I am pleased to confirm that Crippen and Landru are planning to publish a new collection of Christianna Brand's stories. Entitled 'The Dead Hold Fast and Other Stories' the intention is that this will include the title piece, a novella featuring Brand's series detective Inspector Charlesworth and around a dozen other stories. There aren't any plans at the moment to publish 'The Chinese Puzzle' and 'Cat among the Pigeons' is unfinished.


  2. Too bad about the manuscripts, but great news about the new collection! Looking forward to it—definitely a day one buy from me