It began with a coroner's inquest into eight deaths at a home for the elderly near Yonkers, New York. What emerged was a bizarre tale of madness and murder that, while largely forgotten today, is still fascinating to explore.
New York Coroner James P. Dunn, launched his investigation largely on the testimony of a former porter at the home named Frederick Mors. It was Mors who had barged into the office of District Attorney Charles Perkins in February 1915 and insisted that the recent deaths at the German Odd Fellows Home were all the result of poisoning. Though Mors' story was taken seriously at first, Perkins reconsidered on learning that the porter had recently been fired for laziness. Based on his bizarre antics and the incredible nature of his story, Mors was quietly placed in the psychopathic wing at Bellevue Hospital for observation.
On learning about the alarmingly high number of patients deaths that had occurred during the previous few months, not to mention Mors' claim, the coroner soon concluded that something odd was going on at the Odd Fellows Home. The home, which housed around 250 orphans and over one hundred men and women, had been a typical enough facility for that era until the first deaths began in late 1914. By the time Dunn launched his investigation, the death toll had risen to eight, all of whom had been listed as dying of natural causes. During the investigation that followed, the coroner quickly turned up a number of irregularities, including the fact that the physician who had signed the death certificates had never even seen most of the patients in question. He also discovered that the person in charge of the medications cabinet used at the home was a fourteen year old girl. When the first autopsies determined the patients had died from arsenic poisoning, Dunn arranged for the superintendent of the home, Adam Bangert, to be locked up at a local jail while another two orderlies were ordered held as witnesses.
One of these orderlies admitted that he had smelled chloroform in the room of of the victims, an elderly patient named Henry Haendel, but was warned off by Bangert to leave the patient alone. "He was my boss, so I left," he told Dunn. Even as the coroner made arrangements to exhume all of the bodies of recently deceased patients, he announced to the press that the recent deaths were all murders. "There was a plot to get rid of the oldest, the most senile, those that were most in the way and caused the most trouble," he said in a public statement. "In each instance I believe that a rag soaked with chloroform was held over the face of the victim. Each was found dead in the morning and was generally supposed to have died during the night of natural causes, without medical attention." While Adam Bangert seemed the most obvious suspect at first, attention quickly turned to Frederick Mors himself.
A native of Austria-Hungary, Mors had arrived in the United States in the summer of 1914 and quickly found work tending to the patients at the home. By all accounts, he was highly eccentric and showed signs of grandiose delusions about his own role at the home. Fascinated by medical procedures, he would often visit other hospitals and arranged to see surgical operations where possible. He also learned all that he could about different medications and their effects on the human body. Not only did he wear a white coat with a stethoscope, but he insisted that the elderly patients address him as "Herr Doktor" (despite having no medical credentials to speak of). While the younger patients thought he was entertaining, the elderly patients lived in fear because of his abusive manner towards them. Even though he had already been fired, police and the District Attorney's office decided to question him further about the deaths.
As for Mors, he was obviously enjoying the attention he was getting and promptly confessed to all of the killings. As he told the Assistant District Attorney in his confession, the patients were "so old, they were a nuisance." Though he admitted to using arsenic for the first murders, he switched to chloroform which was much easier to obtain. He showed absolutely no sign of shame or guilt and insisted that he had killed them to put them out of their misery. "They passed away as children fall asleep and their suffering ended for all of time," Mors said in his confession. "A little chloroform administered while they slept and the sting of death was removed." With one of his victims, he reported sitting at his bedside smoking a cigarette and waiting for the chloroform to take effect. With another victim, he had to usher her husband out of the room to ensure there were no witnesses when he administered the chloroform.
The investigation into Frederick Mors' confession became a legal nightmare as police officers from three different counties wrestled over jurisdiction. All of the children in the home, including the fourteen-year-old staff member, were removed by the local Children's society and James Dunn came under fire since Adam Bangert was still in jail over his suspected role over the deaths. In the meantime, Frederick Mors was thoroughly enjoying all the attention he was receiving and gleefully re-enacted his murders for the benefit of the medical doctors who were assessing him. Police even took him back to the Home so he could show them exactly where he obtained the poison he used to kill his victims. Newspapers also continued to publish every lurid detail they could dig up, including the various allegations of abuse and neglect that had been occurring at the home, whether or not Mors was directly involved.
While all of this was going on, authorities received a letter from a man in Germany claiming to be Frederick Mors' father. According to the letter,Mors' real name was Carl Frederick Menarik and his father described him as being prone to odd behaviour even before leaving his native country. This included a suicide attempt. Based on his entering the United States under an assumed name, not to mention the question of what was to be done about Mors/Menarik, attempts were made to have him deported. Finally, after months of deliberation, Mors was simply transferred to the Hudson State River Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Since the only real evidence against Mors was his own confession, he never stood trial and was ordered confined pending deportation back to Austria-Hungary. As for the German Odd Fellows Home, it managed to remain open despite a name change (with no word of what happened to Adam Bangert and the others implicated). As for the investigation into the deaths at the home, that was left largely at a standstill.
And there the saga might have remained except that Frederick Mors managed to escape the hospital on May 12, 1916. Though police in surrounding towns were alerted to remain vigilant, there was remarkably little fuss at the idea of an escaped suspected murderer on the loose. As World War I continued in Europe and with calls for the United States to become involved, there were suddenly more important concerns.
As for Frederick Mors, nothing more was ever heard of him. Until...