A brutal murder on 23rd Street rocks Manhattan

By all accounts, life in 19th century New York had been good to Benjamin Nathan.

A spectacularly rich stockbroker known to wear diamond studs on his dress shirts, Nathan was born in Manhattan in 1813.

In the 1850s, he became vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and as a member of the Union Club was one of the few Jewish residents embraced by New York’s business elite.

He used his wealth to support various charities and build himself, his wife, and his eight kids an elegant brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street (above). His four-story house was across from the Fifth Avenue Hotel (below in 1886) in one of the post–Civil War city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

So who murdered him in his brownstone on the night of July 29, 1870, bashing his skull repeatedly with an iron bar and leaving blood splattered on the walls and floor?

Nathan’s brutal murder rocked the city, and the details are particularly gruesome. His body was discovered first by his 22-year-old son, Washington Nathan, who like his father and older brother, Frederick Nathan, 26, was staying at the house while the rest of the family was summering at their New Jersey estate.

At 6 a.m., “Patrick McGuvin, a janitor at the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, was hosing down the sidewalk outside the hotel when Washington Nathan burst screaming from the brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street,” wrote Josh Nathan-Kazis (a descendant of Benjamin Nathan) in Tablet magazine.

McGuvin thought Washington was drunk, but then Frederick came onto the stoop screaming too. Both brothers had their father’s blood on their clothes.

When police arrived, they noted that Nathan’s body was found on the second floor (illustration above), and that “Mr. Nathan’s watch, and diamond studs had been stolen, the safe key taken from his clothes, the safe unlocked and some of the contents scattered on the bed,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the next day.

“There were indications that a terrible struggle had taken place at the office door,” stated the Eagle. The working theory was that Nathan—who was last seen by his son Washington at about midnight—had interrupted a burglary.

But questions lingered, and they focused on Washington. “[Washington Nathan] was an intemperate man who frequently fought with his father over his ‘habits of life’—drinking, whoring and reckless spending,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“His character made him the likely killer, and the press noted that he did not exhibit the same level of emotion as his brother Frederick.”

Both brothers had tight alibis. Frederick had gone to Brooklyn to visit a female friend on Carroll Street, then ate a late supper on 21st Street before coming back to the brownstone around midnight, wrote Nathan-Kazis.

Washington spent his time at several Gilded Age hot spots. “Between 7:30 p.m. and 12:20 a.m., Washington claimed to have visited the bar at the St. James Hotel three times, read a magazine at Delmonico’s, visited the Fifth Avenue Hotel, taken in an open-air concert at Madison Square Park, and spent nearly three hours at a brothel.”

After an inquest, however, both brothers were cleared—as was a live-in housekeeper and her adult son, who lived on an army pension and did odd jobs for the Nathans.

In the end, no one was indicted. The police believed he was murdered by professional thieves, even though the value of the items taken was small and it seemed odd to burglarize a house when Nathan was home, rather than on one of the days he was at his summer estate.

It’s been 147 years since Nathan was bludgeoned to death. As Murder by Gaslight put it, quoting infamous NYPD detective Thomas Byrnes: “The Nathan case is, ‘the most celebrated and certainly the most mysterious murder that has ever been perpetrated in New York City.'”

For more on the crimes and tragedies that rocked the Gilded Age city, read The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Tablet; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 30, 1870; fourth image: Murder by Gaslight; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NY Times; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: Murder by Gaslight]

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10 Responses to “A brutal murder on 23rd Street rocks Manhattan”

  1. Zoe Says:

    This is so sad. Especially w/ eight children. God bless his relative — you wrote of here — for remembering him. Memory eternal.

    To digress a bit — if that’s alright — I’m very curious why his brownstone is almost black. Soot? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a building this dark. Also is that a chain link fence at the rooftop? It’s an odd looking building — like out of a fairytale!

    Speaking of fairytales; notice the pile of matresses — like in ‘The Princess & the Pea’ — in the ‘scene of the crime’ sketch. This had to be artistic license. Apparently the sketch artist imagined that this extremely wealthy gentleman financier did not have a proper bed & slept on a mountain of matresses?

  2. Zoe Says:

    I just went to your first link here Ephemeral (re. the building address) which lead to your post on Edith Wharton’s house/now a Starbucks.

    Does that mean that it’s the same house? Or only the same address? So the Wharton’s lived in it after this family? Or at this address? Did she write anything about it?

  3. luluhulu Says:

    Zoe—Pretty sure the black you see is actually the kind of netting that’s put over entire buildings when some sort of construction or remodeling is going on underneath. I think it protects the street below from being inundated with dust, asbestos, falling stones etc.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Hi Zoe, the Whartons lived in the house next door to Mr. Nathan, at least in the 1860s. That gives you an idea of how exclusive the brownstones were at this stretch of 23rd Street. Young Edith Wharton grew up in luxury, and through the Gilded Age Madison Square was the center of hotels, restaurants, theater, and exclusive clubs.

    I wish I had more room to explain the mattresses. One of the sources I used said that the house was being refurnished, and since Mr. Nathan was only there for one night, his housekeeper piled several mattresses on top of one another to form a makeshift bed for him on the second floor, not in his regular bedroom.

    • Zoe Says:

      Lol — so interesting about the mattresses Ephemeral. (My apologies to the police artist or newspaper illustrator who apparently did the sketch very accurately). I wonder if Edith Wharton was friends w/ any of the eight children next door.

  5. chas Says:

    A very “loose” investigation at best. seems pretty likely a family member was involved. Who knows, with Tammany Hall having it’s hand out money may have decided the outcome instead of justice. It was the early days of NYPD but still….

    • Zoe Says:

      So you don’t believe the alibis Chas? (I tried to read the other links earlier in case there was more evidence; but my phone was misbehaving).

      I read re. the Lizzie Borden case; people did not want to believe that well bred upper middle class people were capable of fratricide; as it cast aspersions on the whole in group. Especially young ‘ladies’; but I imagine this may have been true for young ‘gentlemen’ as well. (Inside the scare quotes here the words can be replaced w/ ‘pale person of European extraction’).

      Btw please don’t sit on my jury if I’m arrested!

  6. chas Says:

    Zoe…a good investigation goes well beyond listening to someone’s alibi and moving on…I guess I didn’t read all the facts you apparently have, but from this little snippet here there was more needed than what was done. Trust me…(btw…you could only hope for 12 like me :))

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