Updated: May 14, 2020
In the early hours of Decoration Day, 1908, a car pulled up in front of Charles Thompson’s home. He was a well-off 37-year-old, the general manager of a clothing manufacturer, and he lived with his wife and twelve-year-old daughter in a house on what would have been the corner of Shore Road and 70th Street (if a house didn’t prevent the latter from reaching the former), described then as an “exclusive neighborhood.”
That Saturday May morning, however, despite the 5 a.m. hour, he wasn’t in bed—he was in the car, unconscious, with several other people who said they’d found him that way, nearby, in a gutter. Thompson was brought inside, then the car and its passengers “speeded away,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported, “and have not been seen since.”
Thompson was in bad shape: his skull had been fractured, and his brain was hemorrhaging. But his family didn’t realize the extent of the injuries. When he had not regained consciousness by Sunday, a doctor was summoned, who believed Thompson would be alright by Monday. When he wasn’t, Charles’s brother William demanded they bring in a specialist; that doctor insisted Thompson be brought to the hospital, as he couldn’t receive the care he needed at home. William called the police, requesting an ambulance.
The official investigation began. A newspaper started sniffing around.
The hospital transport arrived around 10 p.m., to take Thompson to the nearest hospital, Norwegian (a precursor to Lutheran, in what we now call the Sunset Park neighborhood). There, a four-person team began operating as quickly as possible—by 11 p.m. But “they say the patient came to the hospital too late to render the operation effective,” the Daily Times reported. Thompson was expected to die.
The Daily Times got the scoop on this exclusive story, but the Thompson family wasn’t talking to its reporter—they wouldn’t even say which clothing company Charles worked for. The article had more questions than answers: had he been robbed? Where had he been that night? Where had he been injured? How much time had passed between his injury and his arrival home? Who was in the car that dropped him off? How did they know where he lived?
It was a real murder mystery, and though the article didn’t offer many facts, it was keenly read by Bay Ridge residents, and one in particular—the man who worried he might have fractured Charles Thompson’s skull.
Arthur Wardell turned himself in the next day. The twenty-eight-year-old lived on Shore Road and 69th Street—he was Charles Thompson’s neighbor and friend. The Wardells were one of the oldest Bay Ridge families. They “came to America from England in 1690,” the Eagle once reported, just decades after the town of New Utrecht (which encompassed present-day Bay Ridge and several other neighborhoods) was founded.
Three brothers named Wardell thought of trying their fortunes in the land of which so many stories were told...One of the three stayed in New England, the other in New Jersey, but the third, Joseph, came to...Yellow Hook [or Bay Ridge, avant la lettre]. One of his daughters married into the Cropsey family, another pioneer group.
“The Wardells were among the early settlers of New Utrecht,” the Brooklyn Citizen reported, “and so many members of the family built houses at or near the Shore Road and Bay Ridge avenue that for many years the section has been known as Wardellville.”
Nearly all the men of the family were boat builders or fishermen. [In the 1830s] the Wardells of Bay Ridge supplied more fish to the New York markets than any other family of fishermen along the lower bay.
Lands held by the family have greatly increased in value by the growth of Brooklyn, and many of its members are wealthy.
A search of the newspaper record for “Wardell” and “Bay Ridge” turns up thousands of results, from one-time game wardens to local magistrates. They had been founding members of Christ Church, where the crème de la creme of nineteenth-century Bay Ridge society worshiped, occupying Pew No. 11 for decades. In the 1930s, when Fort Hamilton High School was being planned, the Wardells—like the Barkaloos and Van Brunts—were considered prominent enough by some locals to have the new educational institution named after them.
Many elder Wardells had died in the 1920s and ’30s, still in Bay Ridge if not all in Wardellville; there were people with the name Wardell here into the 1960s (of unknown relation), but a look at the white pages today finds no more living in or near 11220. Like other ancient Bay Ridge families—the Cortelyous, the Denyses—the Wardells moved or married away in the twentieth century, after having stuck around for centuries.
Arthur Wardell first appears in the newspaper record in 1907, when he did his own stint in Norwegian Hospital: he had been riding a horse on Third Avenue when it was spooked by a passing trolley and threw him off. He was treated for a dislocated shoulder and discharged but readmitted a week later, with pneumonia and a fractured rib. He was, at the time, a porter at a saloon on the corner of Bay Ridge and Third avenues.
This was likely a watering hole on the northwest corner, known as Pope’s Tavern or, later, Parker’s Hotel. It literally had a watering hole out front—a well with a wooden pump handle. The tavern was “a rallying place for many an old-time farmer, who crooked his elbow there,” local historian Robert Ryder recalled in the 1940s, “and the pump in front of the place was used to provide water for horses in the days of the buggy and two-seater.”
Also out front was a prominent flagpole, topped with a gold eagle, that made it the local spot to celebrate America’s centennial, in 1876—festivities that were still fondly remembered locally decades later. People had traveled miles to attend, whether on foot, by horse or carriage.
The old building was torn down in the 1920s, during Bay Ridge’s inexorable march from the rural pastoral to the suburban modern. Local developer and future congressman Patrick J. Carley replaced it with an apartment building, which is still there, and a ground-floor storefront that for many years housed a bar called Ye Olde Pump Inn, a tribute to the corner’s history and its well. (That bar’s fifteen minutes of fame came in 1984, when campaigning presidential candidate Gary Hart visited and had a beer.)
In 1908, having turned himself in, Arthur Wardell told the police what had happened: “he and several companions were walking along Shore Road early Saturday morning, on their way home, when Thompson, who had apparently been drinking, approached them,” the Brooklyn Times reported. “Thompson, Wardell says, made an effort to strike him, and he, throwing up his hands to ward off the blow, accidentally upset Thompson[‘s balance]. He fell to the sidewalk," which is how he might have sustained his injuries.
It sounded like a case of self-defense, but Wardell was arrested and charged with felonious assault. Not everyone believed his story.
Chief among the skeptics was the Brooklyn Eagle, which ran several articles tinged with anti-Wardell sentiment, using the Thompson family as its source. The first was published June 5, 1908, with the provocative headline “Did Wardell Threaten to ‘Get’ Thompson?,” in which more of the story began to take shape. The paper alleged that Thompson had stopped at a saloon on Third Avenue to gamble at cards, “incautiously” showing off his end-of-month commissions, somewhere between $100 and $200 [likely the equivalent of thousands of dollars, adjusted for inflation, although reliable calculations can’t be made for years preceding 1913].
Soon Thompson accused Wardell, who was there, of stealing $50, which Wardell denied; he “retorted by saying that he would ‘get’ Thompson for making such a charge,” the Eagle reported. When Thompson left, with boxes of candy under his arm for his wife and children, Wardell followed after, the paper alleged, then returned a short while later, saying, “I got that fellow, and I don’t care whether he lives or not.” According to the Eagle, Wardell didn’t give himself up—he was wanted by police and finally captured, and he would be “prosecuted vigorously by [Thompson’s] relatives.” After all, Wardell had been “hanging about the [saloon] for months past, apparently doing no work and having no means of visible support.”
This isn't what actually happened, just the scuttlebut of the victim’s understandably furious family, but the Eagle did clear up one point—it was the police who had found Thompson unconscious and brought him home. “He was found by Patrolman Somerville,” the paper reported, “who recognized him and, with the assistance of a [fellow] officer, put Thompson on a milk wagon and brought him home.”
On June 11, Wardell was tried—or, at least, there was a preliminary hearing. One witness was Edward Charles Keegan, who lived on Sedgwick Place. “He met Thompson in a saloon at Third Avenue and Sixty-seventh street shortly before midnight that night,” the Eagle reported, “and they remained there drinking until 2 o’clock in the morning and then left.”
He said Thompson was intoxicated, but that he himself was not. They went to another saloon, at Third avenue and [Sixty-ninth] street, could not get in, and while leaving, Thompson fell. Keegan picked him up, assisted him and offered to take him home, but the offer was declined, as Thompson said he was able to get home alone. He left him within a short distance of his home. Most of the time before he left him, said Keegan, he help[ed] Thompson along by the arm.
The police “do not believe [this] fall was of sufficient force to have caused the fracture of the skull,” Home Talk later reported, though others would disagree.
William Johnson, who lived near Shore Road, testified he saw Thompson and Wardell on 69th street “early in the morning,” presumably not long after Keegan had left Thompson on his own. Johnson “saw Wardell hit Thompson and Thompson fall,” the Eagle reported. “He saw Wardell make two ineffectual attempts to pick Thompson up and then go away.”
He further claims that Wardell said: “Gee! I can’t lift him,” and that Wardell told him that Thompson had accused him, Wardell, of stealing $50, which was not true.
Around 4 a.m., Patrolman Somerville found Thompson and brought him home.
The surgeon at Norwegian Hospital testified that Thompson had a large black and blue behind his left ear, and that the left side of his face and body were paralyzed. He had not regained consciousness since coming to the hospital, only at best entering occasional states of semiconsciousness.
Wardell was represented by Thomas C. Whitlock, a former state senator and long-time Democratic-party operative, suggesting the family’s influence. After the prosecution presented its case, Whitlock asked that Wardell be released, on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The judge denied it.
Wardell was, however, released on bail, pending further investigation. Authorities were, I expect, waiting to see if Thompson would wake up—whether he would be able to testify, or if the charge against Wardell would be upgraded to homicide.
It would be the latter.
On Saturday, July 4, 1908, Charles Inde Betou Thompson died of his injuries—a development covered even by the New York Times, which up to then had left the case to the Brooklyn papers. (“He was found in an unconscious condition on the morning of Decoration Day”—the precursor to Memorial Day—“and died on the Fourth of July,” the Eagle explained.) Wardell was rearrested, this time on more serious charges of murder.
The service wasn’t likely attended by any of the Wardellvillians, as the Thompsons were feeling unmerciful. “[Arthur] Wardell insists that Thompson met his death entirely through accident,” Home Talk reported, but Thompson’s brothers, William and Pontius, “are determined that he shall be prosecuted to the extreme limit….They would not permit the friendship that existed between [their] brother and the prisoner to influence them.”
On July 5, Arthur was arraigned. “I am not guilty of murder!” he reportedly shouted. The judge postponed the hearing until Thursday, and “Wardell, much broken in spirit, was taken back to the One Hundred and Seventy-first Precinct police station, at Eighty-sixth street and Fifth avenue,” Home Talk reported. This time, he would not be given bail.
On July 9, the case was heard before a coroner’s jury, which as best as I can tell was to determine officially the cause of death. The same major witnesses as had testified at the previous hearing were heard from again during two hours of testimony; the most significant new detail was that the assault had happened, and the unconscious Thompson had been found, near First Avenue (now Colonial Road) and Bay Ridge Avenue, not Shore Road.
The jury ruled that Wardell had struck the blow that killed Thompson, and the case would now go to a grand jury. The ruling was not, necessarily, as damning as it might sound. “There had been a wide difference of opinion among the jurymen on the question of [Wardell’s] guilt,” Home Talk reported weeks later. “The majority at one time wished to bring a verdict of not guilty, but several others thought it would be better to find a verdict of guilty and then let the Grand Jury sift the matter to the very bottom.”
And sift it did.
Though four daily papers had been covering the case for months, only the weekly South Brooklyn Home Talk reported the grand jury’s findings at the end of July 1908, in a lengthy and definitive account of what exactly had transpired in the early morning hours of Decoration Day.
Charles Edward Keegan, of 173 Sedgwick Place,...testified that on the evening of the 29th of May he wandered into Dempsey’s saloon [on 67th Street and Third Avenue]. There he met Thompson. There were quite a few others in the place. All hands were drinking. Keegan said that that evening he had gone to the saloon to dress himself up preparatory to going to a special function at the Nautilus Boat Club in Bath Beach. But he never reached the boat club that evening. He and Thompson got talking, and they had quite a few drinks. He said it was just about 2 o’clock in the morning when they left the saloon. Thompson said he was going home, and Keegan decided that he, too, would wander to the old fireside.
But they had not gone far, he said, when they decided to get another drink. He said they steered toward Parker’s hotel, in Bay Ridge Avenue [at Third Avenue]. They found that the place was closed. While they were going up the stoop he said that Thompson stumbled and fell, landing in the gutter. There are only about two or three steps to the stoop. Keegan said that he was pretty sure that when Thompson struck the ground he landed on his shoulder. He said he did not think his head struck the pavement. He added that immediately after the fall that Thompson became very quiet and uncommunicative, which physicians said, under the circumstances, would be a symptom of a concussion of the brain. They tried to get into a few other places and failed. Keegan thereupon left him at the corner of Third and Bay Ridge avenues and proceeded to his home.
...Charles E. Dempsey, of 467 Fifty-fifth street, the proprietor of the saloon, testified that Thompson and Keegan were in his saloon and that they left together. He said that Wardell was not in the place that evening.
...Irving J. Kidney, of Sixty-eighth street and First avenue,...said he had spent the evening with Wardell in Parker’s Hotel. In the early part of the morning he started to walk home with Wardell. When they reached the corner of First and Bay Ridge avenues they met Thompson. Thompson, he said, seemed to be under the influence of liquor. He testified that Thompson approached Wardell and himself and accused either one of them of stealing fifty dollars from him. Kidney said he thought the man was crazy. He had never met him before. He said he was in a hurry and walked away to get to his home. He left Wardell and Thompson arguing about the fifty dollars on the corner.
William Johnson, of Sixty-ninth street and First avenue [probably on the northeast corner, where Petzinger’s is today], said that he saw Wardell strike Thompson. He said he appeared just at the moment Kidney left. He heard Thompson and Wardell talking about the money. Presently he saw Wardell strike Thompson on the mouth. He said Thompson fell backwards from the force of the blow. His head, though, did not strike the ground. He declared Thompson fell into a clump of bushes. Wardell tried to pick him up, but couldn’t, and left. Johnson said he walked away with Wardell.
Shortly afterwards Policeman Thomas F. Somerville...found Thompson. At that time, he testified Thompson was not lying in the bush but on the sidewalk, and had three boxes of candy under his head as a sort of pillow. Somerville also found twenty-four dollars in money on the sidewalk. He testified that he believed Thompson to be drunk. He said he knew him and decided to take him home. He added that he did not wish to lock him up because it was Decoration Day and he knew him to be a law-abiding gentleman. So he blew his whistle for assistance and Policeman Charles Herschaft...responded. At that moment Christian W. Lind, of 28 Fifty-second street, a driver for a milk concern, drove up. The policeman asked him to carry Thompson and themselves to Thompson’s home and he agreed. Both officers testified that they heard no noise in the neighborhood preceding the finding of Thompson.
...After much stress was laid by the lawyer for Wardell on the fact that Thompson had fallen down the stairs at Parker’s, he contended that if Thompson had sustained his fracture of the skull it was there. He pointed out that when Wardell struck Thompson the latter fell backwards into a bush. He stated that it would have been impossible for him to have received a break in the skull by falling on such a soft article.
The grand jury agreed. Without evidence that Wardell was directly responsible, it cleared him of all culpability for the death.
The grand jury ruling, however, hadn’t solved the case. How, exactly, had Thompson suffered the fatal blow? The fact that Thompson was found with his head on his candy like a pillow suggests someone else had come upon him between when Wardell left and Policeman Somerville arrived, even if the cops hadn’t heard anyone. Could he have fallen out of the bush and landed on the flagstone on his head? Or could someone else have attacked him? The Eagle, ever the Thompson-family partisans, thought the latter.
In November, the paper ran a long list of crimes that had occurred in Brooklyn that year, including the assault on Thompson, who it reported was “attacked by thugs and injured so severely that he died. Police did not clear up the mystery.”
It was the last time the papers would report on the case.
In September, less than two months after her son had been cleared by the grand jury, Arthur’s mother, Emma Ann Wardell, died suddenly at her Shore Road home in Wardellville. She’d been born in 1845, according to her brief obituary in the Eagle, in what was then still Yellow Hook. (Her maiden name was Palmer, though I can’t find such a family on maps from 1852 or 1859.) Her husband, Arthur’s father, James Henry Wardell, lived until 1927. He was buried with his wife, in Green-Wood Cemetery, in a section with at least twenty-seven other Wardells, who had been buried there since 1860. It’s minutes from Charles Thompson’s grave, just a short stroll down Mistletoe Path.
A few months after Emma died, just after Christmas 1908, Dempsey’s saloon was destroyed by a fire. In 1902, he had formed The Charles E. Dempsey Association, a social club with a hundred members whose headquarters was in the bottom floor of an apartment building on the northwest corner of 67th Street and Third Avenue. Six years later, around 1 a.m. on December 28, 1908, a beat cop discovered smoke billowing from the saloon and summoned help.
Firefighters arrived. One was on the roof when part of it collapsed, sending him crashing down to the third floor; two of his comrades leaped after him, dragged him to a window, summoned a ladder from the men below, and got him down it and to a hospital; still, he was expected to die, as was another who had collapsed fighting the fire. Three more were seriously hurt when they charged in, thinking families that had already escaped were still trapped inside; again, fellow firefighters dragged them to safety.
“Handicapped as they were by the injuries which a number of their comrades sustained, the firemen fought bravely and succeeded in preventing the flames from communicating to adjoining property,” the Brooklyn Times reported. “The dwelling, however, was completely destroyed. The police were unable to learn how the blaze started. Dempsey said that there was no ignitable material in his saloon when it was closed. The damage is placed at several thousand dollars.”
It’s unclear what happened to Arthur Wardell. A man by that name died on July 4, 1941, thirty-three years to the day after Charles Thompson. He left behind a wife, Mary, and a son, Arthur, Jr. Services were held at a funeral-parlor chapel, on Lefferts Place, in Crown Heights. An Arthur Wardell “of Old Shore Road” is mentioned briefly in the Eagle in 1954; perhaps this is Arthur, Jr., who grew up with his father in the old family stomping grounds before they moved on.
Most of the Wardells had. It seems the last Wardell in Wardellville was Anna E. Wardell, a 92-year-old spinster who died in July 1938. “One more link with the historic past of old Bay Ridge was broken,” Eagle columnist Margaret Mara wrote.
She was the daughter of Jacob Wardell, a boatman and fisherman who moored his fishing sloops in the basin in front of the house, [near] 69th St., which was the old family homestead….[His father, also Jacob] was a boat builder and a house builder, and it was he who built the boat basin that occupied the shore front [near] the foot of 69th St. He was known as Boss Wardell….
The interior of the house has remained unaltered through the years, and kerosene lamps are still the only means of illumination. Wide floorboards and old wainscoting, antique furniture and many fine heirlooms of the Wardell family distinguish the old house in the fast-changing surroundings on Shore Road, where luxuriously appointed apartment houses now encroach on the old landmarks.
She was survived by a few nieces and nephews, one of whom was likely Arthur, as well as one first cousin, Winant Wardell, who lived at 216 83rd Street, a handsome home, in the fashionable Dowling Park district, later subsumed by the hideous Ridgefield Towers. His children lived closer to Shore Road, in the even more fashionable Crescent Hill section.
Anna lived in 6921 Shore Road, the house directly in line with 70th Street; it was surely the presence of the prominent Wardell family’s home here that prevented the street from ever being cut through all the way to Shore Road. It still dead-ends, though the Wardell home was replaced in the mid-to-late 1970s by 6925 Shore Road, a squat and unglamorous condo building.
But if that house had belonged to the Wardells, then Charles Thompson probably lived next door, in what’s now 7001 Shore Road, the last free-standing frame house from 68th to 76th streets, which has been there since at least the 1890s. Thompson may have died young, the victim of an accident or an assault, but the house he inhabited outlived Dempsey’s saloon, Parker’s Hotel and even Wardellville itself, razed and replaced with apartment buildings decades ago.