One of the most notorious New York murder mysteries is that of Mary Ann Degnan. Characters in murder mysteries or crime dramas tend to have a secret past or alternate persona. This case is a prime example of this archetype as the victim was identified as several different people.
A Grizzly Discovery
On the morning of September 15th, 1885, a group of three young boys on Staten Island discovered a barrel under a damp carpet. As they went to investigate they encountered the shock of a lifetime. They discovered the barrel contained the body of a nude woman and immediately contacted the police.
News spread throughout the village and a large crowd gathered at the crime scene. The victim’s face was unrecognizable as the killer covered her face with quicklime after shattering her skull with a blunt object. The coroner determined she was 8 months pregnant at the time of her death and she died from internal hemorrhaging.
The following day a man named Louis Reige visited the coroner’s office to inquire about the body. He feared the woman was Ellen Murphy, a woman he was previously in a relationship with. Reige planned on marrying her, but left to take a job in Somerville, New Jersey, returning occasionally to see her. That August she told him she was pregnant and that she was due in two months. That was the last time he saw her. Because of these circumstances, Reige feared Ellen Murphy was the woman in the barrel. Reigie later identified the body to be Ellen Murphy.
Murphy’s landlady told police Murphy quit her job and planned on going to Ireland for a few months.
However, Reige wasn’t the only person to claim to know the victim. Several families of missing girls in the area claimed the body belonged to one of their family members. A man named George Hummel insisted the woman was his daughter, Annie, who he claimed was kidnapped that December. However, doctors were able to confirm the body was not Annie Hummel, as she broke her arm as a child, and the body showed no signs of a fractured arm.
The police were pursuing many different conflicting leads when a witness came forward with some compelling testimony. Gustave Keymer claimed he saw a man burying a barrel around the area. When confronting the man, he told him he was digging the hole to bury an animal.
A Compelling Lead
Police were able to trace the barrel and carpet to a man named Edward Reinhardt of Staten Island. He became the prime suspect when it was revealed it was well known that he and his wife often argued, and he had a violent temper. His wife’s name was Mary Ann Degnan, and when asked about his wife’s whereabouts shortly after her disappearance, Reinhardt claimed she went to Newark and never returned.
The Reinhardt’s landlady claimed Degnan told her that she was pregnant, and she feared for her safety because of her husband’s temper. After Degnan moved out, she was never seen again. Shortly after her departure, Reinhardt married his second wife, Pauline Ditmar.
The High Profile Trial
Police believed this was enough evidence to have Reinhardt arrested. Reinhardt was represented by prominent New York criminal defense lawyer William Howe, who was known for successfully helping several high profile accused murderers get acquitted. The defense argued that Reinhardt did indeed bury his wife’s body, but he was not responsible for her death. Reinhardt claimed Degnan died after returning from a botched abortion. He supposedly buried her in fear that he would be accused of murdering her. However, this argument did not convince the jury, and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
However, the story doesn’t end here. The judge ordered a writ of error after questions arose regarding the fairness of the trial. His attorney requested a new trial because Reinhardt identified Degnan’s body when the prosecution could not confirm it was her. Reinhardt was retried but was found guilty and sentenced to the same fate as his original trial. After two unsuccessful escape attempts Reinhardt was hanged for his crimes.
A Happy Ending?
The mystery of the disappearance of Ellen Murphy was also solved in in 1878 when she returned to New York alive with her child. Reige proposed and they were married shortly after.
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