Look , I’m starting this blog because I need some help and I don’t know what else to do.
Understand that the passing of a relative always makes me think about my family stories and how much history could be lost. This was especially true for me when my grandparents died within such a short time of each other — within six months, an entire generation of my family was gone. I often try to recall the stories told around their dinner tables and wonder if I asked enough questions?
I wanted to try and hold on to some sort of connection to them, so when my parents — elderly in their own way — started to go through the possessions still in the old house, I gladly volunteered to help them sort through everything.
Now, almost everyday, a new box arrives on my doorstep, filled with old memories. Shoeboxes of pictures, files of old papers, carefully wrapped knick-knacks; much of it, useless — why did they keep 30 years of tax returns? But then one day, the trunk arrived.
THE Saratoga steamer trunk that I have coveted since I was a little girl running through my great-grandfather’s wine cellar. I wanted to enjoy this one, so I slowly and carefully unpacked each item and dreamt of all the places this trunk must have traveled and all the stories it could tell. I even found a false panel, as I was dragging it up the stairs. What I found in there has led me down a dark road. Either these are secrets my great-grandfather kept from everyone or he never knew… that’s what I hope.
These pictures document some of what I found. So, you see the shoes, shoe covers, gloves, a photo album, women’s gloves and lots of newspapers. In that secret compartment that dropped open as I dragged the trunk, I found a tin wrapped up with a leather strap. Inside, jewelry, looked like some pretty serious stuff: three broaches, a gorgeous bracelet, a pearl ring, plus, a pair of huge diamond earrings.
Hidden tightly behind the false panel was a tied pile of hand-written papers with dated entries from 1895! Man, this was getting seriously exciting! I thought I was going to start reading my great grandfather’s words but it turned out to be from Joseph Scafe, my Uncle Joe or at least, that’s what everyone called him.
My great-grandfather, Albert Quinn, immigrated through Ellis Island with his sister, Mary and her husband, Robert Scafe, in 1866. At first, when they arrived in New York, brother and sister went their separate ways. She had a growing family and my great-granddad needed to find work. Most of my family ended up settling in Philadelphia and New Jersey, while, his sister, stayed in New York for most of her life. She had at least 3 daughters and 2 sons. I’m sure they all have their own stories to tell but it was the strangest son that we all used to hear about. He was an ice factory worker by day and bellhop by night. We mostly heard that he was big, strong and kind of scary. He looked like my great-grandfather, so everybody remembered him as special. Everyone in the family referred to him as Uncle Joe, even if he wasn’t your uncle. My older brother remembers him milling around at a couple of the family reunions.
Anyway, I found out that this steamer trunk had been passed from my great-grandfather’s sister to him, after her family split apart. It was really my Uncle Joe’s secret that was hidden in this trunk. I remembered that Uncle Joe’s family was mostly women, he did have three sisters; so I stopped questioning that the trunk seemed to be full female things. It’s when I began to read the pages of his journal that things just didn’t feel right.
At first, this was a complete thrill because I loved my great-grandfather so much; he was such a good man and an accomplished artist. I hoped his nephew might have inherited some of his talent and that maybe I would find some sketches. My heart would race with each page just to see the dates from 1895… After a while though, I wondered if I was seeing things clearly. Was I so excited, that I was reading between the lines or was he documenting something sinister? I decided to write down every date and name he mentioned. The name Alice Walsh came up and there were a bunch of newspaper articles about her murders in between his entries. What started giving me chills was, the deeper I read into the journal, the more I realized that much of his focus was not only about women but that he compared them to his mother or sisters, more than would seem normal, even for the 19th century. I calmed myself by thinking that maybe he was just a budding investigator and found crime an intriguing mental exercise…? But, his thoughts always appeared to be more elaborate than the police reports. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, he wrote on April 22 1895: (his spelling was strange but this sums it up)
“They found her.” “The police are asking questions at the hotel.” “Her feet were small, like Mother.”
It was so creepy to read those words, I got the chills, as though I could feel him writing…I had to stop reading at night! His handwriting was especially beautiful and expressive; he must have inherited something of my great-grandfather’s skill. The real connections came when I read the newspaper clippings. Sometimes, he would mention the woman by name, “Alice would not look at me tonight.”
Why would he have these papers so carefully tucked away? Did he have to be intimately involved? Could he have loved these women? Did he hate them?
After gathering all the specifics: names, dates, and newspaper clippings, I began to search for other articles in connection with the victims, I searched for court case documents on those dates. Have you ever tried to access the archives in the New York City Police Department? I’m still trying, but everything I’ve uncovered so far, looks like my Uncle Joe was connected, involved and had intimate knowledge of a least four murdered women between 1895 and 1897. What should I do with all of this stuff? Can somebody help me out? I’m not sure what to look for but I’m going to try and piece this whole thing together.