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On 85th Street, Mental Illness, Millionaires and Murder

Updated: Sep 5, 2019


Chester Duryea had lost it. On the eve of World War I, he was 43, separated from his wife for about a decade and living with his father, Brigadier General Hiram Duryea, at 120 85th Street. The detached, three-story cottage, no longer standing, was “one of the finest in the Bay Ridge section,” the New York Times reported, “an imposing frame building overlooking the Shore Road.” Though near Colonial Road, the house had no western neighbors for blocks that would impede its views of the waterfront and surrounding area—except the Crescent Athletic Club, of which Chester was a member.

The well-to-do Hiram was mostly retired, having made his fortune with his brothers as the head of the National Starch Company, which manufactured food and laundry products. He was still on the board of the American Woodworking Machinery Company, but he spent most of his energy by that time on a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans. He had achieved some fame during that conflict leading the Duryea Zouaves, a distinguished, colorfully uniformed regiment in the Union Army. He often held reunions for the men at his Bay Ridge home, the last on April 29, 1914, when two hundred former soldiers “spent a delightful evening with their old commander,” the Eagle reported.


The commander and his son were friends. “Intimate[s] of both said…that Chester had always been his father’s favorite,” the Brooklyn Times reported, “and that the two were more like chums than father and son.” On May 5, 1914, they were just days away from a planned trip together, to the general’s beloved, rustic Adirondacks retreat on Blue Mountain Lake, which he called Duryea Camp. They would fish; most importantly, they would get some rest, which Hiram believed his son desperately needed. Chester had been under strain: he was upset about losing a lawsuit over a patent, and he’d been toiling on a book, which was either about chemistry or marksmanship—his two great passions.

That evening, Hiram waited up for his son, as he usually did. Chester came home around 10pm. “Are you all right, father?” he called up. His father said yes and went to bed, and Chester went to the library to work on his book. The servants saw him pacing around the room, where police would later discover his books and papers strewn. He stomped around the house, seeming “excited and irritable.” No one had seen or heard an argument.


“As customary, before I went to bed I stopped in his room once or twice to see if he wanted a glass of water or something,” Chester later said. This was around midnight, maybe 1am.


At 1:50am, the help were awakened by shouting downstairs—from Chester, not Hiram. The women, who slept on the third floor, above Hiram’s bedroom, began dressing, but before they could get to the second floor they heard gunshots. The housekeeper, a Miss Lewis, “thought it must be burglars,” the Standard Union reported, “and she became so hysterical that she leaped out of the window of her room to the roof of the [general’s] sleeping porch.” Police found her there later, huddled up.


The servants found Hiram Duryea on the floor, with two or four bullet wounds in his body and three or five more bullet holes in the walls. He was bleeding. Chester paced, a Colt automatic and a large-calibre rifle in either hand. “It was evident there had been a struggle, as the chairs and a table in the room were overturned and books and papers were scattered about the floor,” the Standard Union reported.


Chester “offered no resistance when…the women servants disarmed him,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported. He paced in confused agitation for five minutes before he called the police himself.


“The house—a cottage—stands somewhat back from road,” the Eagle reported, “and as [Detective] Henne reached the door, Chester Duryea stood waiting for him.” He was in his pajamas, a bath robe over his shoulders, blood on his hands.

“What’s the trouble?” asked Henne. “I’ve been sent from the station to find out what’s wrong.”
“I have just shot my father,” replied Duryea in an impersonal sort of way. “Come with me.”
Chester Duryea preceded the detective up the stairs to the second floor, turning on the switch of the electric lights as he went. On the second floor he led the detective quietly to the rear and then turned on the lights there in his own room. The sleeping porch was dark, but in the light which streamed across the threshold from Chester’s room, Henne saw the general’s body lying on its side just outside the door. There were bullet holes in his neck and side. He had been sleeping on the lounge on the porch and had risen to go to the threshold when he was shot down.

Chester fired seven shots at his father, a full six from a .44 Colt automatic revolver, another from a high caliber rifle, which he only “ceased firing because [its] magazine…became jammed after the second shot, and refused to work,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported. “Any one of the shots which entered the body of Gen. Duryea would have been sufficient to kill him.”


Hiram was alive when the police arrived, but by the time the ambulance they called came, he had died.


“Why did you do this?” Henne asked.

“I received a message from Washington, telling me to do it,” Duryea responded calmly.

“Was it a message sent by mail?”

Duryea did not answer.

“Where are the guns?”

“I threw them down by the body.”


The automatic pistol was close to Hiram’s corpse. The rifle lay “just within the crook of the dead man’s arm,” the Eagle reported.


Chester toured the house with detectives, showing them his laboratory; “he had been a chemist,” the paper continued, “and was at work on a process for extracting glucose from corn to make starch under a new system.” He also proudly showed off his shooting range in the basement, and his arsenal—three high-powered rifles and four revolvers, plus thirty boxes of ammunition. “He was a crack shot,” his cousin Louis said later. “There is a big fire arms manufacturing firm which always sent him a specimen of the latest weapon it had manufactured, and Chester had a large collection of these. He was always interested in high-power rifles and revolvers, and he used to show them to me and discuss their fine points.”

He was arrested without incident and brought to the district attorney’s office, where he gave a rambling statement, then to police headquarters on Poplar Street.

“I don’t know why I shot my father,” he said. “It was an impulse which came over me. If my father was here now he could explain it. He and I understood each other perfectly. I received a message from Washington, which told me to kill him.”
“Had you and he quarreled?”
“Oh, no, we were on the best of terms. Only yesterday I kissed him for the first time in three years.” Duryea declared that he had intended to kill himself but after he had shot his father he realized that he had gone far enough. The rest of his talk followed a rambling, incoherent channel.

The newspapers contradict each other as to his ramblings. The Daily Times reported that Chester said, at the house, “I’m justified in what I’ve done. It was right that I should do it. There he is. We had a little quarrel. I’m justified.” Later, in custody, he added, “Father struck me a few years ago, and I was afraid he might kill me. I thought father was going to make a rush at me, so I fired.”

Then Duryea became incoherent once more, and changed the subject to one of burglars. “I was afraid of burglars,” he mumbled. “No burglars ever came to our house, and I can’t understand why. Father often said to me, ‘Chester, if there are any burglars, we will have to depend upon you,’ so I was waiting for them. I was afraid there were burglars in father’s room last night, so I went up there and shot. I can shoot just as well with my left hand as with my right, so I shot with both hands. It was all right.”

Almost twenty-five years earlier, the Duryeas had been subject to an attempted robbery while living in Garden City, when Chester was about eighteen and his brother Harry about fifteen. “Just before the midnight hour, Col. Hiram Duryea observed from his chamber a shadow dancing in the moonlight on the lawn,” The World reported.

After rousing and arming his two sons…he pursued the shadow with sanguinary intent, finally locating the author of said [shadow] within his kitchen. With a loaded revolver in his right hand Col. Duryea is reported to have turned the knob of the kitchen door with his left. The door failing to respond, there being a healthy burglar behind it, Col. Duryea is next reported to have placed his shoulder against the untoward door, smashing it like so much glass, the burglar only escaping from this wreck to secure an excellent view of the muzzle of the Colonel’s revolver. Until then, the Colonel is said to have cherished strong views on the subject of the disposition of burglars, his personal notion being that shooting was too good for them. But...the good Colonel’s heart is described as having been moved, so he did not shoot this burglar, who had a friend on the outside, but tapped him on the ear with the butt of his weapon, and then sat upon him, while his two little boys met and conquered the other burglar, who had come in from the outside to aid his companions in distress. After all this had been done the neighbors and police were reported to have appeared on the scene just in time to sing songs of praise to the bravery of the Colonel and his sons.

You could almost imagine the fogminded Chester acting this scene out again, in 1914, as if in a dream, as he entered his father’s room and shot him.


After police interrogated Chester, they placed him in a cell. “It was necessary to place a policeman inside the cell to prevent him from injuring himself,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported.

He butted his head against the side of the cell, and cut his fists by pounding against the bars while demanding he be set at liberty. A second officer remained close by the cell, so that he might aid the policeman inside if necessary.
 

The Duryeas were Huguenots, who originally spelled their name Durie; they could trace their New World, New Amsterdam line to the seventeenth century. Distant relatives had likely long been in Bay Ridge and New Utrecht; an Abraham Duryea lived on Shore Road in 1804, and probably another Abraham Duryea, a descendant, owned land from at least 1852 to at least 1886, in what’s now Borough Park; he lived at the intersection of 49th Street and Old New Utrecht Road, where today there’s a grassy corner yard with two gnarled old trees. (More than a mile away, a modest side street between 66th and 67th streets, New Utrecht and Sixteenth avenues, is called Duryea Court.) But Hiram was born in Manhasset, on the north shore of Long Island, in 1834. His mother was a descendant of the notable Wright family of Oyster Bay, about ten miles east.

Chester had “the reputation of being one of the best liked and most welcomed men in New York society,” the Eagle reported. Before he’d graduated from Columbia, he’d met and been engaged to Nina Larré Smith, daughter of Franklin Waldo Smith, a wealthy man in the hardware business in Boston, who counted among his several homes a mansion on Beacon Hill. They were married on June 1, 1898, at Trinity Church, a wedding attended by numerous dukes, duchesses, lords, ladies, princes and princesses. “All society was saying that it was a fine match,” the Eagle reported. “Soon after the wedding, however, reports came out that the two were not living happily.”


Nina Larré Smith filed for separation (the early-twentieth-century equivalent of a divorce), alleging cruelty, before their fourth anniversary. It was a scandal, landing on the front page of the New York Times on January 15, 1902. Because of the social standing of both parties, lawyers hoped the details of the separation could be spared from the papers.


But the trial in February 1903 was public—and covered daily in the Eagle, even when there was little to report. After the murder, papers would suggest ominously that he had been a cruel husband, and there are several troubling incidents from the trial reporting, including one in which he beat his pillow and another in which he pushed her out of their bedroom and barred her from it for days.

Other times, though, the coverage reads like the script for a 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy—with him as Cary Grant and her as Irene Dunne. One central incident involved a bowl of punch for a party, in Sioux City, around the turn of the century.


“I had friends at the house,” Mrs. Duryea testified, “and Mr. Duryea made a scene and refused to make punch. He broke into the sittingroom later and remarked to my friends that he supposed that I was telling more lies about him. He made things very disagreeable. He also said that I had the face of a criminal.”


“At the time of the trouble with the punch,” Mr. Duryea’s lawyer asked him the next day, “did you invite the guests?”


“I did not,” Chester testified. “I would have made the punch if I had not had business matters to attend to. I told my wife that, but she insisted that I should make it. She threatened to tell the guests, and did so, and I told them that my wife was showing ill breeding in bringing up matters in that way.”


“What did she say after the guests left?”


“That they had told her that I had treated her disgracefully. She named them, and when I spoke to her about her behavior she told me I was a liar and threatened to expose and ruin my family. She also said that all Duryeas came from the gutter.”


The next day, on cross-examination, Mrs. Duryea’s lawyer asked, “Did you ever tell your wife to go to h—?” (The Eagle would not print such a word as “hell.”)

“I did,” replied Duryea, unabashed.
“What,” yelled [the lawyer], “you actually told your little wife to go to h—?”
“I may have done so under provocation.”
“What was the provocation?”
“I don’t remember,” replied Mr. Duryea. “But she told me to go to h—l a number of times.”
At this reply, Mrs. Duryea was visibly affected. She pursed her lips and exclaimed, “Oh!” She then turned to her mother and whispered the accusation that her husband had made. The old woman smiled derisively.
“Give us the particular occasion when your wife told you to go to h—l?” asked [the lawyer].
“Well, it was on the night of the punch episode.”
…”Liar,” “knave,” “fool” and “slob” were some of the other names that Duryea admitted, under…questioning, he had applied to his wife.

“Duryea says that he may have called his wife a ‘slob,’ a ‘liar,’ an ‘idiot,’ and a ‘watering cart,’” the Eagle had reported days earlier, “but if so, it was only under great provocation.”


Another time in Sioux City, in 1899, Mrs. Duryea was unpacking a box with a bellboy. Chester came in and angrily waited for the bellboy to leave. Then Chester said, “Your familiarity with those around you is disgusting. You would elope with our own butler.”


“This made me very angry,” Mrs. Duryea testified, “and I said to him, ‘There are somethings that even you cannot say to me….You must apologize to me for that remark.’ Later he said he’d be ——— if he would apologize.” (Presumably the word is damned.)


A Manhattan judge issued a separation on May 27, 1903. Nina Larré Smith took Chester, Jr., and moved to Paris, where she seemed often to live for the rest of her life. She became a successful author and playwright, publishing as Nina Larrey Duryea, and was also praised for her work as a nurse during World War I. She died in 1951, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Chester, Jr., seemed to have lived out his adult life in Tahiti, in self-exiled obscurity.

Regardless of how comical some of the divorce proceedings might read today, Chester didn’t take the verdict well. He soon after moved in with his father, in an apartment building at 80 Madison Avenue, where “he did little else than brood over the fact that he was forced to pay alimony to his wife”—$45 a week, reduced in 1906 to $30, because Nina Larré Smith was already a wealthy woman, the Eagle reported.


In June 1909, a nurse called an ambulance to 80 Madison Avenue at two o’clock in the morning, asking for a “crazy man” to be brought to Bellevue. That was Chester, who the nurse said was suffering hallucinations “to such an extent he might suddenly become uncontrollable,” the Brooklyn Times later reported.

The ambulance surgeon talked to young Duryea and was assured that it was a case of blackmail. He convinced the doctor he was sane, and the doctor refused to have anything to do with the case. The nurse then abandoned his patient, saying that while young Duryea might appear sane to the doctor, he was likely to do serious harm at any minute.

Duryea said he had “broken down from overwork,” as a chemist for the family starch concern. “Louis Duryea, [a] cousin, said…he thought Chester had become insane through too close an application to his experiments in chemistry,” the Eagle reported.


Probably after this incident, Duryea was in June 1909 a voluntary patient at the Long Island Home for the Insane, run by Dr. Arthur Wilsey. Duryea was having “delusions about persecutions he was suffering and other hallucinations.” This was probably not his only stay in a facility. He received a diagnosis of dementia praecox (Latin for “precocious dementia”), an obsolete name for what, more or less, we now call schizophrenia.

Treatments at the time were ineffective. The German psychiatrist Emily Kræpelin, who was the illness’ foremost early researcher, “advised no special form of treatment other than the standard procedures used for all inpatients, regardless of diagnosis,” Richard Noll writes in American Madness: “prolonged baths in heated tubs during periods of excitability, some sort of structured activity to keep them active and distracted from their condition, entertainment diversions, a healthy diet, and, only if absolutely needed, sedative drugs or physical restraints…American alienists tended to rely heavily on sedative drugs as a form of chemical restraint to keep order in overcrowded institutions.” Later treatments included hormone injections, often fatal, and abdominal surgery (and daily colon cleansings), also often fatal. It’s unclear what, if any, treatments Chester may have received in the decade between his separation from his wife and the murder of his father.


In 1910, Hiram still lived in the apartment at 80 Madison Avenue, with three servants, according to the census. (Chester does not appear on it.) The Bay Ridge house was built sometime between 1905 and 1912 (as it does not appear on this map but does appear on this one), when Chester moved there with his father. (The general’s wife, Laura Duryea, died on April 11, 1912.) The family probably kept the Madison Avenue apartment and used the Bay Ridge home during warmer weather. The servants there said Chester “has been brooding and growing more dangerous every day,” the Eagle reported. At the time of the murder, in 1914, one of Chester’s doctors said he had been “suffering from paranoia at least ten years, and possibly fifteen or twenty years.”


“I think [Chester] is demented,” cousin Louis said at a hearing after the murder. “His condition has been the subject of conversation in the family.

Louis Duryea told an Eagle representative that in his opinion Chester Duryea ought never to have been permitted to roam at large. “He is undoubtedly crazy,” he said. “The queer part of it is that he is a big-hearted man who has always been kind to his father and has the reputation of being unwilling to harm a fly.”
 

Hiram may not have been easy to live with, either. While celebrated as a soldier and businessman, he may also have been a difficult human being. When his daughter-in-law was exploring divorce, he wrote her a letter “in which he threatened most serious consequences to her if she persisted in exposing the family to scandal,” the Times reported.


“We did not control the father of the defendant [Chester],” a lawyer said. “This letter was written without the defendant’s consent, and against his protest.”


As a lieutenant general, “He was a strict disciplinarian,” according to Find A Grave; “one soldier described him as a ‘petty tyrant.’”


“General Duryea…was well known as being stern and demanding of his subordinates,” according to the history of Duryea Camp, now called The Hedges, on its website. “During the winters while he was in New York City, he wrote monthly letters to his foreman complaining of the slowness and apparent laziness of the local workers. These workers were not lazy when Duryea was [around] because he drove them hard. Not one stone or log could be put in place without his approval. A worker, who grew weary of Duryea’s meticulous demands, cut a stone on his own and put it in place without first receiving approval. The Colonel discovered the errant stone and made the mason remove it and replace it with one of his specifications. The mason cut the new stone then promptly threw it into the lake….Duryea fired the man on the spot.” 


It’s not impossible to believe that his relationship with his unwell and unraveling son might have at times been strained.

 

Hiram’s funeral was on May 7, 1914. At 11am, “two automobile carriages and a hearse were driven to the carriage entrance of the Duryea mansion,” the Eagle reported, “and in a few minutes the funeral procession was on its way to Woodlawn Cemetery,” in the Bronx, “where interment was made.”


Chester was in the prison ward of Bellevue, confined to his bed, where he kept busy by reading newspapers and magazines. “The hospital authorities say that he is a model prisoner,” the paper continued, “and that he has not shown the least tendency to violence.” He did not attend court that morning; a hearing was set for a week later, at which Duryea, still in Bellevue, was indicted, and a pair of alienists were assigned to determine his competency, as well as whether he could be arraigned.


In early June, the two psychiatrists submitted a report, stating that Chester “was mentally incompetent, unable to confer with his lawyers, and unable to stand trial,” the Eagle reported. With a nurse and a doctor, Chester was present for the hearing, at which the doctors testified he was a “hopeless paranoiac.” “A heavy growth of beard gave him a rather unkempt appearance, although he was neatly dressed in a dark suit,” the Eagle reported.

At the close of the hearing, Dr. Arthur Wilsey, one of the alienists who testified, went up to Duryea and spoke to him. Duryea made no answer and paid no attention to the hand that was extended in greeting, but turned his head slightly and stared vacantly in front of him. When Dr. Wilsey stepped aside, Duryea slowly turned his head and watched his departure from the courtroom.
…Dr. [Thurston H.] Dexter testified that during his examination of Duryea at Bellevue during the past month the latter had told him that lots of people with messages had tried to visit him and that sometimes they had difficulty in giving him the messages. The voices with the messages, Duryea said, were sometimes spoken but at other times were psychic.
“Did you have any communication with your father?” Dr. Dexter asked…
“Yes,” Duryea replied, “it seemed at different times as though he communicated with me but it was all hazy.”
Duryea told Dr. Dexter that he received messages from his father through an old man in a bed across the ward at Bellevue from him and one of the messages was that his father’s life was in great danger and could be saved by $10 [almost $260, adjusted for inflation]. Asked if it seemed as though he could save his father’s life by sacrificing his own, Duryea replied:
“That’s what I did.”
He also said it seemed as if he could see his mother at the foot of his bed and could reach her by diving down toward the end and that he could reach her by killing himself. Asked as to the strength of the voices that spoke to him on the night of his father’s death, Duryea said:
“It seemed as though I was lost spiritually in every way that night. The voices sounded like general warfare: it seemed like the end of the world.” To Dr. Wilsey he said, when asked about the death of his father:
“My God, I didn’t do it. That was the power, the influence over which I had no control.”
 

On June 9, 1914, Chester Duryea was taken to Matteawan State Hospital, open since 1892 outside Beacon. These days, its old buildings are either used by Fishkill Correctional Facility or in ruin. “The hospital was intended to house patients deemed too chronically dangerous for civilian institutions such as Hudson River State Hospital, and too ill for a prison such as Sing Sing State Prison,” according to the website Hudson Valley Ruins. “Some of the more notable inmates who served time here include George Metesky, the ‘Mad Bomber,’ Harry Thaw, the man who shot and killed architect Stanford White, and Izola Ware Curry, a woman who stabbed Martin Luther King, Jr. while he signed books at a department store in Harlem, New York, in 1958.”

“Until the 1950s and thorazine, doctors prescribed the program of ‘moral treatment’ developed in the early 1800s,” the website Correction History explains in its history of Fishkill.

It consisted of kind and gentle treatment in a stress-free, highly routine environment. Patients who were capable were assigned to a work program (often called "occupational therapy"): cooking, maintenance, farming and making baskets, rugs, clothing and bedsheets.
Patients were given outdoor exercise in the courtyards twice daily and motion pictures were shown weekly. Radios and phonographs were available on the wards. Patients played softball, tennis, bowling, tennis, handball, shuffleboard, volleyball, chess, checkers, cards, gymnastics, ping pong and quoits (similar to horseshoes but with iron rings). At Christmas and other special occasions, there were teas for the women, smokes for the men and “vaudeville entertainments” staged by patients and staff.

Chester didn’t exactly thrive there, though. “On June 13, four days after he arrived at the hospital, Duryea refused to eat, and after twenty minutes of conversation with him the only reason I could get for his action was that it is not necessary to eat,” a doctor later testified.

Since then we have had to resort to artificial means to feed him, which is now done by means of a tube. At various times he has refused to dress himself and has become rebellious when anybody has tried to assist him. He constantly assumes uncomfortable positions and maintains them for long periods of time.

Chester was set to inherit almost a third of a million dollars [more than $8.6 million, adjusted for inflation], his share of Hiram’s estate, which he would share with two siblings. As a matter of common law since 1889, people in New York State couldn’t profit from their crimes, but it was not enforced in this case. For starters, legally, he had not been convicted of a crime; “his commitment as insane under the criminal code in no way affects his property or civil rights,” the Eagle explained. Secondly, his family did not contest it, as they appear to have been generally supportive and understanding that Chester was ill. “His share will be devoted to his maintenance [at Matteawan],” the Eagle supposed, “and that of his wife and child”—the weekly alimony and child support. Chester was declared by a jury to be unfit to manage his person or his property—“incompetent by virtue of insanity, which is manifested by his hallucinations and homicidal mania.”

 

The Duryea family seemed cursed. Chester’s cousin Walter, the son of Hiram’s brother Edgar, broke his neck in 1899 at Glen Cove, either when he dove into shallow water or slipped on a staircase and fell into three feet of baywater and hit bottom, twisting his shoulder and neck. He lived, however, for almost twelve more years, becoming a media sensation. (An experimental but successful surgery restored some feeling in his body and improved his breathing and digestion, though he had to use a wheelchair.) He grew a substantial inheritance into a hefty fortune, and when he died, he left his nurse $50,000 plus his Montclair, NJ, estate, worth almost $1 million; in comparison, he left his sister $10,000, and the Nassau Hospital $100,000.


This would be the family’s last tragedy with a silver lining. Around 3pm on Wednesday, July 27, 1921, Chester’s only brother, Harry, arrived at his suite of offices on the eighteenth floor of the old Equitable Trust Building, on Madison and E. 45th, about a fifteen minute walk from his home at 144 E. 55th Street. His secretary saw him return from Abercrombie and Fitch, then a sporting-goods dealer, with a Colt revolver. (Chester had used a Colt in the murder of their father.) She “understood that he had bought the gun to use on a hunting trip to the Adirondacks next week,” the Eagle reported—to Duryea Camp, no doubt, where Chester had expected to travel before the crime.


“If you’re going to play with that gun,” the secretary told him, “I’m going into the next room.”

A few minutes later she was startled by the sound of a shot. Entering the office she found the body, slipped forward in a swivel chair that had been pushed back from the desk. On the floor by the chair lay the revolver.
While the medical examiner and the police reported the death as suicide, Mr. Duryea’s family maintain that it was accidental.

He was 46.


Cousin Louis Duryea, who had played the public face of the family following Hiram’s murder, again emerged to say that Harry’s business was sound, and the gun was for the trip to the Adirondacks. “He always carried one with him on these trips,” Louis told the Eagle, “as he has had trouble with highwaymen.” The family would never concede that he had taken his own life.


On August 24, 1924, cousin Louis took his life by shooting himself at the Masonic Home in Utica, where he’d been living for about a year. He was remembered chiefly as “one of the greatest amateur live bird trapshooters ever produced in the United States,” the Eagle reported. “He shot under the name of L. T. Davenport and held the world’s…record for one-hand shooting. On Jan. 7, 1896, at Woodlawn Park, L.I., he dropped 47 birds out of 50 flown.”


In between Harry and Louis’s suicides, another cousin of Chester and Harry’s, Maj. Frank Duryea, 49, also took his life, by shooting himself in the temple in his quarters at the Presidio, in San Francisco, where he was stationed. His accounts seemed to have been in order, and his widow could offer no explanation for the suicide. His son, Wright, had been “made a physical wreck by shrapnel wounds” in World War I, the Eagle reported—one more sad story in a recent family history full of them.


“Why?” the Eagle wondered. Its best theory was that Hiram had “lost an interest in life when the Corn Products Company took over the Glen Cove starch works” and that “this relaxation from the connection with a big enterprise may have affected his sons and his nephew.” But that sounds ridiculous.


“There is no real evidence of insanity or of mental defectiveness in this family,” the paper added—except of course there was. A less hallucinatory form of Chester’s mental illness may have plagued the Duryea genetic line. “Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness,” according to the Mayo Clinic.


Or they may just have been one of the unluckiest families in America.


If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- 8255. (Via Slate)

 

In 1923, the family sold the land around Hiram’s house—257 feet on 84th Street, heading west toward Colonial Road, plus the east side of Colonial, from 84th to 85th streets. They likely had debts to payoff: for example, the old housekeeper, Miss Lewis, who’d been found huddled on the roof the night of the murder, had sued the estate for $25,000 [almost $350,000, adjusted for inflation] that she said Hiram had promised her.


In 1906, she had been hired as a housekeeper for Chester. They’d met in Cardinal, Canada, where she’d lived and he’d had business interests. “She continued with him until 1910,” the Eagle reported, “during which time she charged that she had to suffer many indignities at the hands of [Chester] Duryea, who, she testified, consumed large quantities of whisky.”

He frequently pointed a revolver at her and threatened to shoot her, she said. In 1910 Chester Duryea came to New York City to live with his father. In March of that year she alleged the General [Hiram] came to Ogdensburg, N.Y. [on the St. Lawrence River, where it forms the border with Canada, about 25 miles west of Potsdam], where she was living with a sister, and persuaded her again to enter the employ of the family. She alleged that the General then made a contract with her that if she would come to his home and take care of himself and Chester during their lifetime[s], he would agree to pay her $40 a month and provide her keep for her life. She said she accepted the proposal.

She won in 1921, though the sum was likely reduced.


It wasn’t just Lewis who sued. Williard Mackintosh, Hiram’s private secretary, sued in May 1915 for almost $17,000 [more than $425,000, adjusted for inflation]. A lawyer sued Chester in 1916 for services rendered following the murder.

In 1926, the Hiram Duryea Estate sold the old house. A map from 1929 shows Hiram’s cottage in its old place, now with many more homes all around it, but a tax-archives photo from 1940 shows another house at that address, the one that’s still there today (after many alterations); the old Duryea house must have been torn down sometime in the 1930s, erasing any physical reminder of the tragedy that had unfolded within.

 

On January 9, 1940, a few months after the murder’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Chester Duryea, now 69, “soft-spoken and gray-haired,” filed a writ of habeas corpus, asking to be released from the state hospital. He testified for four hours to the Supreme Court at White Plains. “His memory was ‘cloudy’ as to the details of the killing itself,” the Eagle reported. “He had been mentally ill in the first years at Matteawan but…his mind began to clear in 1922, and…he had been feeling increasingly normal since 1932. He said he was now sane and had been since 1936, and wished to stand trial for the killing of his father.”

(He originally stated he’d been sane since 1934, at which point an assistant attorney general produced a letter by Duryea from January that year. It was an invoice to FDR, the New York governor, Matteawan officials and others, charging $2,000,000 a day times three for consulting services. “The letter was signed by Duryea and the signature was followed by the titles, ‘Major General God, Ph.D., C. Ph.D., owner-expert, consultant, author, manufacturer,’” the Eagle reported. The judge asked Duryea when his mind entirely cleared. “In about 1936,” he answered, “when I stopped the folly of saying ‘Major General God.’” He later blamed this habit on the doctors at Matteawan.)


Later, “Duryea reiterated that his mental recovery was ‘a gradual process,’” the Eagle reported. “’Nobody helped me,’ [he said.] ‘It was only by a great effort on my own part that I fought my way out of the darkness.’”


Chester had never been convicted of a crime; he had been institutionalized and the indictment set aside. If he were released now, however, the district attorney pledged he would be arrested and returned to Brooklyn to stand trial, as though the last quarter century hadn’t happened.


Chester shared his memories of the murder:

“I undressed in my bedroom and went out on to my sleeping porch. I was standing alongside my bed in the dark when a figure rushed out onto the porch. I shouted, ‘Father, is that you?’ There was no answer. The figure rushed back into my bedroom. After about 45 seconds the figure returned and rushed at me. He tussled with me.
“The next thing I remember was seeing the figure on the floor at my feet. I thought it might be my father. It was then, I think, that I suffered a great mental shock. I remember going to a phone in the second-floor library and calling police headquarters. I told them: ‘Something is going on here that I don’t understand. I won’t make another move until you get here.’
“I really don’t know what happened. I was mentally ill. I believe the evidence, but out of my own consciousness, I can’t say that I killed my father.”

On March 9, 1940, a judge declared Chester sane and ordered him to stand trial in Brooklyn for his father’s murder. A jury could still acquit him by reason of insanity at the time of the crime; the state could then still return him to a mental hospital, if it deemed him a threat to public safety or himself.


“Clerks in [District Attorney and future mayor William O’Dwyer’s] office dug the dusty indictment from the files where it was placed shortly after the defendant was adjudged insane many years ago,” the Eagle reported, but “members of the prosecutor’s staff said they anticipated another long delay before the case is—if it is—actually brought to trial.”


The DA wasn’t ready for this. He had no case ready to present. Witnesses had died or disappeared. Of those who hadn’t, many had forgotten the details of what they’d seen and heard. Anyway, the defendant was of advanced age. He had been locked up a long time.


Officials then discovered the guns were missing from the property clerk’s office in Manhattan, adding “a further complication to the difficulties of…O’Dwyer in patching up the holes eaten into the case by the passage of time,” the Eagle reported. (Around 1930, all the police evidence in the five boroughs was consolidated in Manhattan, at which time the guns could have been lost or misfiled. Also, however, the Brooklyn property clerk in 1919 had been tried and convicted of stealing evidence of value.)

Chester headed back to Brooklyn, reaching Grand Central around 4pm on Wednesday, March 13. He chatted with reporters in White Plains before catching his train, and was reportedly amiable and in good health. Of his time in White Plains, he told reporters, “We ate in a place where they give you a tray and put food on it. I think they call it a cafeteria.” He stumbled over the word. “They didn’t have those in New York when I was there.”

 

From Grand Central, a sheriff drove him to the Raymond Street Jail, in Fort Greene. “As he was crossing the Manhattan Bridge,” the Eagle reported, “Duryea suddenly leaned forward, pointed over to his right and shouted in an excited tone.”

“Why, there’s the Brooklyn Bridge. I remember when it was being built. I was in a tug when it opened and we had a celebration of all sorts.” Duryea laughed. “Sort of makes you feel young again,” said the 69-year-old man who will try to gain a new lease on life.
“I don’t feel the least bit bewildered,” he said, as the automobile raced along Flatbush Avenue Extension, past the Paramount Theater. “There are so many automobiles these days and they go so fast. But I don’t think I’d want to get back to the horse era. I think I’d rather become accustomed to the automobile era.”

He “gazed with obvious wonder at the downtown skyscrapers,” the Eagle added later, “most of which were not in existence at the time he was put behind bars, but he made no comment.”


His arraignment lasted one minute, and he was remanded without bail to the jail.

 

Three months later, Chester's lawyer complained that his client was “rotting in Raymond St. Jail.” He wanted bail, or he wanted the prosecution to move forward, but the legal limbo was unacceptable. By the end of the month, a judge agreed, refusing to dismiss the indictment but allowing Chester to be released on $10,000 bail [more than $180,000, adjusted for inflation]. He would remain at a sanitarium in Amityville, Loudon–Knickberbocker Hall, until the trial began.


He left the Raymond Street Jail by its long front staircase. “I feel most encouraged,” he told reporters. “I walked out the front door for the first time in 26 years. This is my first free day in 26 years.”


But as he waited for his trial, Chester had money issues. A lawyer and three doctors who they said had aided Chester in his release from Matteawan submitted a bill for $47,000, almost half of Chester’s remaining $100,000 estate [almost $1.8 million, adjusted for inflation]. He was paying $80 a week to stay at Louden–Knickerbocker, and he was paying $5,000 a year in alimony [almost $90,000, adjusted for inflation] and a $2,500 annual allowance to his son, which the custodians of his estate asked a judge reduce.

“Mrs. [Nina Larré Smith] Duryea sat quietly in the front of the court while her attorney…pleaded earnestly,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported:

“Will Your Honor please have her in mind when he is considering the claims of the lawyers? All she has in the world is her allowance from this estate. So far as the son, Chester Jr., is concerned, he lives practically the life of a hermit. The tragedy of his father killing his grandfather, although he was an infant at that time, has left a deep mark, and he is loath to return to this country. He is single, 40, and he has not worked, and in his present abode he could still live if his allowance should be cut in half.”

The judge reserved his decision, remarking, “There may be nothing left of the estate when the lawyers get done with it.”

 

The judge told the prosecution it would need to bring its case by November 1940—at which time alienists testified that Chester was sane—but he extended the deadline when the state made clear it would appeal the original decision to release Chester from Matteawan. In June 1941, New York State Attorney General John J. Bennett finally asked the appellate court to do just that and return Chester to the state hospital. (Bennett may have been a descendant of very old Bay Ridge families of that name; he died in 1967 after a heart attack at his home at 9707 Fourth Avenue.) This was apparently the state’s last gambit. But less than a month later, the court refused, upholding the original decision, 4–1, without issuing an opinion. Duryea was legally sane enough to stand trial.


But the Brooklyn district attorney didn’t have a case, and Duryea’s lawyer asked for the indictment to be dismissed. The district attorney’s office didn’t oppose. “We cannot try this man,” an assistant DA said. “But it is up to you, your Honor, to take the responsibility of deciding whether he shall go free.”


“I will take that responsibility,” the judge said.


On July 24, 1941, the indictment was dismissed. “For the first time in 27 years,” the Eagle reported, “Chester B. Duryea today was free to go where he pleased, when he pleased.” On November 25, 1941, he regained control of his estate, which had previously been administered by a committee. He halved his wife’s alimony and cut off his son’s allowance.

He now had not only his freedom but also the means to enjoy it—which he intended apparently to do in private. “Chester Duryea from that time on was an obscure figure,” the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported. He was said to have taken up photography. “He lived at a hotel in Flushing, Queens, very quietly, giving no trouble. ‘I am not making plans any more. What is there to plan for?’ he once said.”

 

On Monday, August 16, 1948, less than a month after the seventh anniversary of Chester’s release, a man “was found lying unconscious on the steps of the Bay Shore railroad station” on the south shore of Long Island, the Eagle reported, “an eye blackened and a cut on his head. Hospital authorities said an examination showed a large amount of alcohol in his system.” He was brought to South Side Hospital, where he died.


It was Chester Duryea, 77, the “gray-haired former chemist” described “as a modern Rip Van Winkle when released from an insane asylum 26 years after the slaying” of his father.

“How did he die and why?” the Philadelphia Inquirer asked in September.

Hospital attendants found that he had been suffering from a bronchial condition, but ruled that out as a cause of death. Nor, in their opinion, would a sizable amount of alcohol found in his system have been fatal. They were less sure about the effect of a cut on his head and a badly blackened eye.
Had the tall, thin, white-haired man been attacked and slain? But he had been living in almost complete isolation with no friends, few acquaintances, troubling no one. Who, then, would have been the assailant? Not a robber, because he carried only a little cash, invited no attention from thieves. Someone out of his past who had waited long to settle an old score? Perhaps.
Or did his heart merely stop beating, because the circle was complete—the hours all numbered?

Read more Bay Ridge crime stories in the book True Crime Bay Ridge and more about the history of the neighborhood in How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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