Argyle Heights Crime Blotter, 1905-1912

Early Chronicles of West South Midwood Part 4:

Crime In Olde West South Midwood
by Joe Enright
As the 20th century dawned, our neighborhood was a wooded area, untouched except for two surface railroad lines. The land in fact was still owned by one of the original Dutch families who had settled southeastern Brooklyn in the 17th century. Its population remained at zero until 1905 when hundreds of wood frame houses, erected by John Corbin and T. B. Ackerson over the previous two years, were all sold. With people there follows crime. So here is a tour of the police blotter in those early days when West Midwood was considered to be the area west of Coney Island Avenue and our neighborhood was more commonly known as the westerly portion of the South Midwood land tract that extended from Flatbush to Coney Island Avenues and from Foster Avenue to the Manhattan Beach Railroad tracks - now the sunken freight line cut. Since Midwood was considered by the Dutch to be the area below Prospect Park (essentially what became Lefferts Gardens and Victorian Flatbush), our area was south of that Midwood. And we were therefore known as West South Midwood. Get it? Good, now let's get sensational! 
Ocean Parkway at the turn of the 20th Century. Horse drawn vehicles on the main roadway (left), then bicyclists (center), and equestrians (right).
A 1906 railroad map showing the intersection of the Brighton and LIRR Manhattan Beach excursion lines just south of Avenue H. Note that Avenue J was then known as  Manhattan Terrace while Avenue M was known as South Greenfield (as opposed to Greenfield, which is now known as Parkville).
 On Sunday morning, March 24, 1907, around 6:00am, the maid at 686 Rugby Road, a home then owned by Frank E. Miller, let the family dog, Boots, out for a morning romp in the yard. Boots was a bull terrier then valued at $100 ($2,500 in today's moolah). Only three months earlier, he had his right foreleg amputated after being run over by an ash-hauling truck on Coney Island Avenue (AUTHOR's NOTE: Since most buildings were heated by coal, and coal left a residue of ashes that soon piled up, ash-hauling trucks were a common sight in the Winter; as a youngster, one of my chores was shoveling ashes into pails and carting them from the cellar of our house out to the curb). Now, within ten minutes of his departure that early Spring morning, Boots was heard whimpering at the back door. The maid let him in, whereupon Boots limped up to the second floor library, laid down on his cushion and promptly rolled over and died. The owner, suspecting poison, looked around outside and found meat balls scattered on the front lawn.

Brooklyn neighborhoods south of Prospect Park were just then experiencing a wave of dog poisonings. Three weeks earlier, an estimated ten dogs had been poisoned to the East in Vanderveer Park by eating meat balls laced with strychnine that had been scattered in yards. Only a couple of those dogs survived, saved by a veterinarian, Dr. Alfred Bollinger, who lived near the corner of Flatbush & Snyder Avenues. Then, the day before Boots went toes up, an artist living on Ocean Avenue near Beverly Road reported his Boston bull terrier had died after eating meat on a lawn. Dr. Bollinger determined it was strychnine again.

So when Frank Miller found those meat balls in his front yard, he rallied the citizenry: lawns, yards and streets were scoured on Rugby, Glenwood and Argyle Roads. Over a dozen meatballs were found scattered about. They were collected and handed over to police at the Parkville Station – later called the 70 Precinct as we shall see below. Plainclothes investigators were assigned and began prowling the neighborhood.
Alas, that very same evening a valuable fox terrier belonging to George M. Smith, who operated a 770 watt amateur radio station out of his home at 1312 Glenwood Road, rushed through the opening in Smith's back door, keeled over and died. Scraps of meat were found on the back porch.
Brooklyn Eagle calls West South Midwood "Parkville" in its 1907 coverage of the dog poisoning caper. The press would have found Argyle Heights a much more memorable name.

On Monday morning a patrol wagon collected the dead dogs from the Millers and the Smiths and brought them to Dr. Bollinger for examination. But when he saw Boots, Frank Miller's crippled dog, he remembered him from the amputation he had performed in December and how friendly the dog had been. Overcome with sadness, the Vet was unable to continue. He did later find that the poison contained in the meat was not strychnine, but hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, extremely poisonous liquid.

George Smith, two years after the loss of his dog, put his home up for sale.
Police theorized it was either a “vengeful neighbor upset with dogs” or criminals planning a burglary-palooza in the area. In any event, no arrests were ever made and there was only one additional poisoning reported in the years that followed, but is it was newsworthy: Four Springs later, on April 7, 1911, the Parkville Station's beloved police dog, Jim, a yellow hairless Airedale terrier imported from Belgium, was poisoned while on night patrol with his handler, police officer Patrick Scally. Apparently, the officer had let Jim patrol a block on his own while Scally chatted with residents. The Brooklyn Eagle reported: “In a short time he came back to Scally, but not trotting. The dog seemed to be dragging himself. As he reached Scally's feet, Jim looked up at him, gave a piteous groan and fell over dead. It is Scally's theory that a crook lurking in the shadows handed the dog a piece of poisoned meat.” Jim's exploits were well documented since his arrival in Victorian Flatbush in 1907, nabbing a drug store burglar on Beverly Road and stopping a runaway horse and carriage on Coney Island Avenue. 
1910 Brooklyn Eagle photo of the 70 Precinct's dog-handling officers. Jim is on the far left with Police Officer Patrick Scally.
 The public outcry and police vows to catch Jim's murderer may have put an end to this wave of terror against man's best friends since no further news reports of dog poisonings could be found. Were these incidents to become grist for the TV police drama mill, Dr. Bollinger would be the likely suspect. He'd be played by John Malkovitch, gone nuts after too much exposure to hydrogen cyanide over the years...

Turning now from canines to humans, on the last day of May in 1912, at 12 Waldorf Court, Detectives Geisler and Coutant arrested a teenager from Coney Island, Agnes Madison (no relation to Ashley). Agnes had just walked into the house to retrieve her work clothes which in her haste she had left behind the day before when she stole two rings, then valued at over $220 – serious coinage back then. The owner of 12 Waldorf Court, May Lewis, had detected the disappearance of her jewelry soon after Madison's departure and confided her suspicions about a possible theft to police at the Parkville Station.

Looking out from a deck on Waldorf Court in 21st Century Argyle Heights.
If crime mapping software had existed in those days, the police might have noticed that 12 Waldorf Court was a “hot spot” since James R. Fairley also lived there. Fairley, a school teacher, had been arrested on November 3, 1908, when he attempted to vote, daring to claim a home address that did not exist. When pinched, Fairley argued that 12 Waldorf Court didn't appear on the out-dated 1904 maps the police were using because the house wasn't built until 1905. Ignoring the possibility that Fairley had graduated from election fraud to grand theft, the focus remained on The Maid and a plan was hatched by the Parkville detectives, who instructed Mrs. Lewis to call them when Agnes arrived for work. But the next morning Agnes called Mrs. Lewis to announce she was quitting because the work was just too darn hard. Mrs. Lewis sounded sympathetic and urged the young woman to retrieve her work clothes since she might need them in the future. When she did, the detectives pounced.

And there the story would have ended as just another unremarkable case of grand larceny were it not for the fact that Agnes Madison was on probation for an earlier theft when she was nabbed. Accordingly, police notified her probation officer, Myra Hughes, who worked out of the Coney Island magistrate's courthouse. It seems before arriving at Madison's arraignment on Snyder Avenue, probation officer Hughes visited 12 Waldorf Court and asked Mrs. Lewis if she could take a look around. Then when 19 year old Agnes was led in to the Flatbush courtroom to hear the charges, officer Hughes loudly claimed that (just like school teacher Fairley), her young charge had been railroaded by the police! Hughes told the judge that she had recovered the two missing rings from a hair rat used by Mrs. Lewis. How fortuitous! An alternate hypothesis suggests itself as one reads these news accounts of long ago: perhaps the rings had been recovered from the teenager's Coney Island home by the overly-helpful probation officer. In any event, the fantastical claim did not work and the accused was held for Grand Jury action.

How The Brooklyn Eagle covered the 12 Waldorf Court caper.
PO Hughes found herself in hot water a few years later when her Probation Department boss claimed she had falsified records and perpetrated other corrupt acts. An investigation was launched but the chief magistrate in Coney Island had become very, very friendly with the feisty Myra Hughes (wink, wink, nod, nod, if you catch my drift) and he managed to get himself appointed as arbiter of the charges. The result was complete exoneration of the probation officer, who then went on to serve 20 years as "the Angel of Coney Island", the phrase Brooklyn Eagle reporters used to describe her in a number of stories she generated, most of them tinged with controversy. I see Lady Gaga playing her in the bio-pic and let's make it a musical so she can sing Marvin Gaye's “Can I Get A Witness”.

The Parkville Station”

The 70 Precinct house on Lawrence Avenue which opened in 1910.

The 70th Precinct at 154 Lawrence Avenue has an interesting history. Prior to its opening in August 1910, the police used an inn located at the corner of Foster Avenue & Ocean Parkway. The inn was meant to be a temporary abode when it was first occupied in 1903, since it was estimated the new structure on Lawrence would be ready within a year. But red tape and cost over-runs plagued the construction. Sound familiar? 

The Tunison Road House Circa 1870  - this was the first home for the police that patrolled the area (Source: Brooklyn Eagle).

The police station serving this area prior to 1903 was a building with a stable at the northwest corner of Coney Island and Foster Avenues which police had come to feel was haunted. It had formerly been the Tunison Hotel but the owner, suffering financial woes since Ocean Parkway had siphoned off the coach traffic that generated most of his business, killed himself. 
Map showing the intersection of Foster and Coney Island Avenues, with the Tunison Hotel shown in the lower left corner.

In May of 1896 the hotel was converted to house 28 policemen. Back then, policemen would sleep many nights a week at their assigned station, so a hotel was not a bad choice. Unfortunately, apparitions of the deceased Mr. Tunison and other ghosts led to an exodus to the inn on Ocean Parkway where the “Waiting for Lawrence” years began. Much like the years which commenced in 1997 when proposals for a new 70th Precinct house were first floated. Unfortunately, a new facility won't become a reality for a few more years per the City's Capital Projects process.

Recommended Further Reading
* For a wonderful retrospective on Parkville by a new resident, see
* For an excellent recap of the building of the Lawrence Avenue precinct house, see
* For more on Snyder Avenue's Flatbush Town Hall which also housed a police precinct and a Magistrate's Court, see
* For those interested in Greenfield and South Greenfield, see

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