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The Long-Demolished “Temple” of a Secret Society of Skull Cultists


146 67th Street was one of the most unusual houses ever built in Bay Ridge, at once Gothic, elfin and Eastern; it was wild and unique, incongruous with any other building in its vicinity.


That’s likely because it was built by an equally unusual man—Max Schroff, an architect who’d emigrated from Germany to Brooklyn in the nineteenth century. He and his wife had moved to Brooklyn around 1891, at which time they were living on Spencer Street, in Bedford–Stuyvesant, “soon to take possession of their new home in Bay Ridge,” the Brooklyn Citizen reported. (He may have been in New York City since at least 1882.)


The following year, 1892, the same paper called their Bay Ridge home, on 67th Street, “one of the finest residences in the town”—no small complement for a community known for its Shore Road and ridgetop mansions.

The house, known as Elf Mound, is situated on Sixty-seventh street, between First and Second avenues, Bay Ridge. This magnificent building is constructed upon the Hindoo style of architecture. It stands upon a mound about fifteen feet high, prettily terraced down to the street, thus obtaining for the house perfect privacy from the street below.

You can sense the writer found it hard to describe: sort of fantastical, old Europe storybook, yet decidedly Indian, as well. From the one photograph I was able to find, we can tell it was magnificently strange, but it was just one of several remarkable buildings in New York City for which Schroff was responsible.


Fine examples of his work, in different styles from his home, persist in the East Village (unlike some work in Midtown, such as 131–33 W. 38th Street, which was long-ago demolished). The most notable perhaps is 62 E. 4th Street, which features an external, two-story spiral staircase encased in steel mesh, leading from a recessed, columnated balcony.

There’s also 249½ E. 13th Street, a sculptor’s studio meant to resemble the sort of adapted-use stable many sculptors of the 1890s were moving into. It still bears the names of the artists for whom it was built: Karl Bitter and Giuseppe Moretti. They split after a year.

He’s also well remembered in Winston–Salem, North Carolina, for a building called Cedarhyrst, a Gothic stone mansion built for a Teutonophile. “The house now serves as the offices of the Moravian Church in America,” according to Catherine W. Bishir’s North Carolina Architecture.

In the late nineteenth century, however, he seemed to have been best known for submitting an admired design for the Grant Memorial in New York City. “Max Schroff’s design…is superb,” a Napa, California, paper reported in 1887.

The monument is to face the Hudson river, commanding a full view of the Palisades; is to be 200 feet in length, 75 in width, 100 in height from the lower terrace, and to cost $300,000. “Its approaches,” says the N. Y. Star, “will be by a slightly inclined driveway which reaches its highest point on the southeastern side of the building. Between the driveway and the monument, the drawing provides for flower beds of emblematic design.
“Upon entering the triumphal arch, which is the frontal of the structure, the mausoleum in the center of which rests the sarcophagus, is reached. By ascending five steps, the visitor enters the Hall of Trophies. In this department there will be ample room for the display of all trophies of the late war, which will be or may now comprise the collection made by the dead hero during his many campaigns and voyage[s] around the world.
“Opening from the Hall of Trophies is the Hall of Fame. In this room provision is made for 400 busts of illustrious Americans. Places will also be provided in this department for medallions and other evidences of deeds of fame.
“Leading from this chamber is a large reading room, well lighted and thoroughly ventilated, and immediately connected with fire-proof libraries capable of holding at least 50,000 volumes.
“Over the mausoleum rises in stern lines of pyramidal shape an elevation of fifty feet, the apex of which is crowned with the equestrian statue of General Grant.
“So elevated is the statue that it can be seen for long distances from New York and the Hudson.”

It was, in short, “a Greek temple,” popular enough at one point for an image of it to be used in early fundraising campaigns. But Schroff was not one of the architects consulted in the memorial’s second design-competition, and the Grant's Tomb commission ultimately went to John H. Duncan.


In 1892, Schroff built his wacky Bay Ridge house on 67th Street, between Sedgwick and Bergen places, just up the block from the Bliss family’s still-private Owl’s Head estate. At the time, those side streets each had a few homes on them, but Schroff’s only neighbor on 67th Street was the Boyce family, which lived about three hundred feet away on the corner of First Avenue (eventually Colonial Road). The Boyces would later be the first permanent owners of the grand hilltop mansion still standing on the corner of 84th and Ridge.

In 1904, the Boyces, still on 67th Street, threw a party for their son, his first visit since returning from his honeymoon. The Eagle listed the names of fifty-seven guests, representing the crème of Bay Ridge high society; it does not include their nearest neighbors, the Schroffs. Perhaps it was because they were out of town, or otherwise engaged. Perhaps it was because they weren’t high-profile enough to list, even though Schroff was a member of the influential Citizens Association of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton, a member of the committee (though not the executive committee) for the installation of the Dewey flagpole, still standing on Shore Road and about 80th Street, and a member of other high-profile citizens groups.


Perhaps it was because they hadn’t been invited.


The Boyces may have read an article in the Eagle just eight months earlier, in October 1903, about how Schroff was the “Faustus” (or secretary) of a secret society called the Cephalists, a phrenological skull cult whose members pledged to the fraternity to donate their bony domes after death. It was formed in 1891, with just thirteen members, but twelve years later its ranks had grown to more than 400,000 internationally, the group claimed. Schroff’s “luxuriously furnished” Bay Ridge house was its headquarters.

There are in Brooklyn fifty members of the society. They meet once every two weeks at Schroff’s house in a room where a number of skulls on back shelves grin down at them. According to [a] report, before entering this room through an iron gate, the members divest themselves of their outer garments and don black silk robes with the outlines of a human skeleton painted in white thereon. The members are free thinkers and one of their mottoes is: “We do not live for priest or pall.” They have a weird initiation song in which this motto is repeated.
…”A good many [of our members] die,” said Mr. Schroff. “There are 140 skulls within ten feet of me. They are all properly labeled and numbered and with each is a record of the owner’s achievements, together with a phrenological estimate of the skull. Only one of the original thirteen is dead. But we are all getting to be old fellows, and our headpieces must soon go onto the shelves with the others.
“We are not cranks. We believe that the head, the birthplace and repository of noble thoughts, should not be committed to the annihilating flames [of cremation], nor get to the worms in the grave. Therefore we preserve the skull. We are performing a great scientific service, for our phrenologists are enabled to compare the bumps upon skulls with the known attainments, peculiarities and attributes of the owner.”

The Cephalists (and Schroff) had first become a national news story in 1895, when a syndicated report told of a “grewsome order.” The witty lede: “The Cephalists is a secret society which is bound to get ahead.”

“Their meetings are held in a cavern somewhere near Bay Ridge, N.Y.,” the article reported ominously. This may have been an exaggerated reference to Schroff’s strange home. “The meetings of the society are held in an artificial cave, or subterranean chamber, at Bay Ridge,” the New York Journal reported in September 1896.

Schroff says that this cave is on Long Island [Brooklyn is a part of geographical Long Island], but that it is not “upon” his property. It is, however, asserted by other persons that this statement is a verbal ingenuity of Mr. Schroff, and that although the place of meeting is not situated “upon” his property, it is situated in his property, beneath its surface. There is a thick clump of trees not far from his house, and this little plantation is surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

The Brooklyn Eagle picked up the story around the time of the Journal article. One of its reporters apparently stumbled on the Cephalists in public. “In a well known suburban hostelry a few nights ago three rather unordinary looking men were seated at a table, on which were placed as many huge steins of beer,” the paper reported. (At the time, Bay Ridge was regarded as a suburban section of Brooklyn, and it had a popular German beer garden on Third Avenue near 61st Street, about a ten-minute walk from Schroff's house, that may be the setting of this article.)

They attracted a deal of attention by reason of their laughter, which was loud and frequent, as well as by the energies of the proprietor, who circulated among his other guests, and, at an opportune moment, whispered in their ears that the three were well worth watching.
“Why?” asked each guest, as the tip was given to him.
“Because,” said the Teutonic proprietor, “they are members of a society that cuts off your heads.”
The guests were disposed to treat this information lightly, but the seriousness of the proprietor and their respect for his credulity compelled them to be tolerant. In a little while they saw three steins tap the table lightly and go up to the lips of the trio, who said something in chorus and then quaffed the contents. They arose immediately from the table, one of them grasped a hand sachel [sic], and the trio prepared to make their departure. Mine host, who sat with a little party at the door, of whom a reporter happened to be one, detained them, introduced them and then requested them to drink. They were easily persuaded to be seated, and as they took their chairs, the man who carried the sachel immediately deposited it on the table. A black silk tassel fell from the handle. When the drinks were served mine host spoke up:
“What’s in the bag, doctor?” addressing the man who put it down.
“The head of one of our members who died day before yesterday,” came the reply as the doctor wiped his mouth after a draught from his stein of beer.
… “The flesh may disappear, but the skull, the name, the friendship and the respect due them never die. Those we do not know in life have their memories as carefully preserved as this man who died only day before yesterday.”
Here the doctor opened his bag and laid a skull on the table. The gathering, in the presence of death, now became really serious. Taking the skull in his hand, the doctor turned it over, and pointed out the fact that it was new. It had not been thoroughly dried, he said, but that part of the operation he was to complete that night.
While the doctor spoke mine host put his hand into the sachel and took from it some of the tools of the official decapitator. Their exhibition did not even provoke a laugh, although mine host made a feeble attempt at a grin.
“Where,” asked the newspaper man, “do you decapitate your subjects?”
“Anywhere, according to convenience,” replied the doctor. “This skull was taken off in the house of its owner.”
“But does not some member of the family of the deceased make objection?”
“What good is the objection? Do we not hold the deed to the head, and may not a man convey his person to another as he does his property?” came with sledge-like force from the doctor. Nobody was anxious to carry the argument further and the doctor resumed:
“Usually the family of a member is in sympathy with this religion of his, and they are only too willing to give us the head which we demand. They prefer to see it preserved than to have it rot in the earth. Tonight I will take three skulls from my retort [a chemist's industrial furnace] and prepare them, as I will this one here, for mounting.”
The doctor put the skull and decapitating implements back into his bag, said a pleasant “Good night” and left with his friends.

M. Schroff’s name appears in this article on a reprinted membership form but nowhere else, although it’s quite possible he is the “doctor.”

The Cephalists again were popularized following a large illustrated feature in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch on October 11, 1903, then picked up in papers around the country. However, this was also the last mention of the Cephalists, who, though once claiming membership in the hundreds of thousands, never again found popular mention. Today, the group is forgotten, obscured and basically un-Googleable.

 

The secret society claimed its roots in Ancient Egypt. (The nineteenth century had been a flourishing period of Western Egyptology.) Schroff, in fact, said he had conceived of the group when, as a student at the University of Stuttgart, he explored in the Nile with other students in 1865, a Buffalo paper reported in 1903.

Among the party was Homer Clarke, a young American, son of former Gov. Clarke of Ohio [Ohio had no Governor Clarke in the nineteenth century], who sickened under the fierce sun of the desert and fell dead from the back of his camel. The body was temporarily buried in the sands. The party continued its exploration to the third cataract, and returning, exhumed the body. It was found impossible to transport the remains, still Mr. Schroff was unwilling to permit his friend’s remains to rest in the sands.
“I pondered a long time,” says Mr. Schroff. “I had always believed that the seat of dignity in man rested in the skull. So I decapitated my friend and took the head home with me. At first I intended sending it to his father, but friends restrained me, representing that it might be considered ghastly. Finally I had it prepared and brought to this country. There it is.”
Mr. Schroff nodded to a polished skull above his head, resting upon the top of his desk. The grinning relic held a long French briarwood pipe between the teeth.
“Yes, Homer, old boy,” continued the secretary, addressing the skull, “we have been companions for many years, and when I go my headpiece will join you.”
 

Schroff was eccentric, and he could be insolent as well—or, as a headline in the Brooklyn Times put it in April 1898, “Schroff was Saucy.” The case regarded a house under construction on Shore Road and 75th Street, owned by John C. Bergen; Schroff was architect. During an inspection, a building inspector “reported several violations to the building laws,” the paper reported.

[The inspector] had been ordered out of the building by Mr. Bergen, who used indecent language to him and threatened to brain him with a scantling [or, piece of lumber].
…When the complaints of violation were first made by the inspector, a letter was sent to Mr. Schroff…asking him to call at the Department of Buildings. This letter brought in reply the following communication from Schroff:
“DEAR SIR: Inasmuch as the beams in question have been satisfactorily arranged to suit the department and myself, I hold it quite superfluous to make any more comments, or waste time about trifles unwarranted in a case where the unusual mode of construction on my part has caused so much headache to the department and to the superlative genius of the district inspector. It is sorrowful to behold….The department may sleep peacefully and set conscience at rest, as I invariably superintend my own works personally, and always do construct far superior to the rules of the department for my own satisfaction and that of my clients….should any whimsical change be required (unless it be too silly), you will always find me ready to comply, more from a desire to keep peace in the family, than from a naive supposition that correction was necessary….”
When Schroff was called this morning he admitted writing the letter but could offer no explanation of it, other than he thought he knew his business.

His attitude and strange behavior may have made him a target of neighborhood youths. In 1910, the Schroffs’ once secluded home was suddenly much more crowded—a long line of rowhouses on Senator Street hemmed it in from behind, and another starting right next door extended up toward Ridge Boulevard.

On February 19 or 26, 1910, “Mrs. Schroff was arranging some furniture in the tower room of her home,” the Brooklyn Standard reported.

A bullet whizzed past her and went out a window, breaking two panes of glass. She looked in the direction whence the shot came and saw, she asserts, [16-year-old Frederick] Price, gun in hand, on the roof of his house [four doors down, at 154 67th Street].
In a basket displayed in court was a collection of old locks, stones, pieces of tin and weeds, which Mr. Schroff asserted had been thrown into his yard by Price, who he said was a nuisance in the neighborhood. All the allegations were denied by Price and his father.

Max Schroff died at his home December 19, 1922, months after the house had been put up for sale, described as a “1-family frame house, detached, ground, 40x100, all improvements, 8 rooms, bargain,” giving no hint of its unusual appearance. Later in the year it was described simply as a “detached gothic house.”


A small obituary ran in the Brooklyn Standard, remembering Schroff as a German-born architect who left behind a widow, Louise, and apparently no children (or skulls). He was cremated under the supervision of local funeral director George Herbst at Fresh Pond in Middle Village, Queens, where he was interred. It’s unclear what happened to Louise afterward, except she probably moved away.


Amazingly, the obit makes no mention of what happened to his skull.

 

The house was bought by the Willberg family, which was living there by 1924. They sound like a much more normal family—14-year-old Victor was a boy scout; his father, Onni, was a wallpaper manufacturer. In 1931, Mr. and Mrs. Onni Willberg celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary at the St. George Hotel, in Brooklyn Heights, with twenty guests, including Victor and his two sisters, "Corrine" and Emma.


The Willbergs were so much less peculiar than the Schroffs that they stop appearing in the newspapers after that. Onni Willberg died in 1958 and was cremated, his ashes interred at Green-Wood, joined by his wife, née Thyra Johanson, in 1963. The house stayed in the family: Victor and perhaps his sister Karen (maybe pronounced KAHR-en, in the Scandinavian way, and thus mistaken earlier by reporters for "Corrine"?) sold it to a developer on May 6, 1986. Victor died in 2005, at 95, in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, near where he'd lived with a niece.


By the time the Willbergs sold, local kids called 146 67th Street a haunted house, some even choosing to cross the street to avoid it, according to Bay Ridgers surveyed on Facebook. “My older brothers and sisters would hold me up so I could look through the garage windows,” one wrote. “I remember there being a vintage car inside. I always thought I might see a ghost or a skeleton!” Little did she know the place was once stocked with scores of skulls! “We use to call it the Norman Bates house,” wrote another. Another said she’d been inside once, and there was a bowling alley.


“I remember it from walking to church at St. Andrew” in the 1980s, wrote another. “I remember wondering how someone decided to build it so high, and then I thought it must have views over the park to the waterfront from its upper windows. Sadly, it fell into ruins.”

The tax photo from 1983–88 focuses on the front stoop and door, overgrown with bushes and trees. To the west, the house was bordered by a large empty lot, also photographed by the department of records in the 1980s, and it looks like a forest, with tall old trees growing densely together, spilling out into the sidewalk.

67th Street and Sedgwick Place
The rest of the old Schroff property, ca. 1985. From the department of records

“When my wife and I would walk…past that house we would always be amazed at its beauty even though is was a neglected wreck,” former Bay Ridge Historical Society president Jack La Torre tells me. “The area where the garages were was taken over by nature. No garages, just trees and scrub. Walking past there on a hot day would render cool air from that patch of forest. Neighborhood lore spoke about the antique cars in the garages but I never saw them, and the garage was long gone when I first saw the house.”


The house was torn down finally, around 1991. “I bought one of the attached houses just up the block in late 1991,” says a neighbor.

I remember the week I moved they were tearing down the house. An old-timer on the block told me it was left idle because it was part of the estate of the family who owned Drake snack company. I have no idea if that’s true. But I know sometime before that, homeless people were occasionally sleeping in the garage, and johns were bringing prostitutes from Third Avenue and parking there because the trees and the vacant land next to the house made it seem isolated.

(Another popular rumor, which doesn’t seem to be true, was that the house was connected to the Bliss family or the Bliss estate. This was expressed to me by a friend who grew up across the street as well as a few strangers on Facebook.)

A November 1992 survey indicates the land was vacant, now divided into seven lots, owned by the Coal Yard Realty Corp., of 3707 Fifteenth Avenue, to whom the Willbergs had sold. The “premises are known as and by the street address: Vacant Land – 67th Street, Brooklyn, New York.” The company built seven hideous condos on the old Schroff land around 1994, when a certificate of occupancy was issued by the new department of buildings to the new 146 67th Street, the first in the line of ugly new buildings.

Condos in Bay Ridge
The condos now on the old Schroff–Willberg land. The house would have been at the far left. Via Google

It was the last of them to sell, according to an ad placed in the Daily News in January 1995. The “1 Family All Brick Triplex…Full or 1/2 Bath on Each Flr.” finally sold in July of that year and remains owned by the same man almost twenty years later.


Presumably, he has a much smaller collection of skulls than Max Schroff did.


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


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