Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Washington Terrace, Part 1: Murders

This isn't a story about Manhattan real estate. It's a story about murder, money, and another murder. President Cleveland makes an appearance, and there is an exotic lagoon, a neighborhood amusement park, and an insanity case - all with ties to a little street in upper Manhattan.

We'll start with the street because that's where I started, before I knew anything about the murders. I didn't recognize the name, Washington Terrace, and I headed to the place to check it out. 

Washington Terrace

Washington Terrace is a privately-made road off the street grid in upper Manhattan. 

Washington Terrace today, 2017. Photo by PBM, used with permission.
A developer bought the land in the middle of a city block on West 186th Street and built row houses on the lots.

Washington Terrace run south from the middle of the block on 186th Street between Amsterdam and Audubon Avenues. The small street is not part of the regular Manhattan grid. Map detail from The New York Public Library Digital Collections

When Emma and George Dease lived on Washington Terrace in the early 1900s, they were described in the Emma’s hometown paper, Watkin’s Express, as living “in great style in a suburban home.”

Emma and George were among the first renters in the three-story buildings, advertised at $40/month rent and being close to the Amsterdam Avenue trolleys.

A housekeeper lived with Emma and George in 1900, and so did a teenager named Ella. Emma said Ella was her niece she adopted when the girl's father (Emma’s brother) died. 

From Small Town to Big City

Emma's brother, who lived in their hometown in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, was a troubled young man and threatened suicide on a few occasions. Frank once threw himself into a well - to discover the water came up only to his neck, and he survived. He intended to freeze himself to death on a cold winter night, but returned to the house after his feet got cold. And, in a more aggressive attempt, he slit his throat.

Frank died in 1887, at age 32, leaving behind a little daughter named Ella. Emma said she took in Ella and raised her as her own. 

Meanwhile, according to gossip near her hometown, Emma, as a young woman in her twenties, married a New York City banker several decades her senior by the name of Sclier, who passed away not long after the marriage. I can find no evidence for that marriage. In fact, I can’t find any banker named Sclier that fits the story, but I do find someone named E.G. Squier who may have crossed paths with Emma, though he never married her.

E.G. Squier.
Image in public domain.
Squier was a divorced man about forty years older than Emma, and among his many endeavors in life, he was once the charge d’affairs to Central America and was an expert on the Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t sailed off on a tangent here, trust me. 

Mosquito Coast expert Squier died in 1888, and that’s when Emma, along with little Ella, headed to Honduras. They went to the Mosquito Coast to be precise.

I don’t know where Emma got the idea – or the money – to go there, but perhaps she knew Squier in his final years and was inspired by his stories. 

Or maybe it was Charles Renton who was inspired by Squier. Emma and Ella moved to Honduras with Charles. He was a recent widower, a machinist, a naturalized U.S. citizen from England, and a man 20 years Emma's senior. Emma says they were married, and at this point, we might as well believe her.


Charles laid claim on 100 square miles of land on Brewer's Lagoon, now called Brus Laguna in Honduras, on the northern end of the Mosquito Coast. The coastal area was named after the local indigenous people, the Mosquito.

Emma, Ella, and Charles moved to Brewers Lagoon in Hondura. Google map 2017.

Though the place was very remote and sparsely populated, Emma and Charles had neighbors on the lagoon - the English, French, and American men involved with the Brewer's Lagoon Wood and Produce Company. It took a few years of being neighbors before Charles and the company men hated each other.

The story goes that the men from the company routinely trespassed on Charles’ land and he didn’t like it. The disagreement escalated into the company men tearing down Charles’ coconut trees, stealing his cattle, breaking his fences, and setting fires on his property. There weren’t many authorities in the area to appeal to, and the ones who were there were linked with the company. Charles was on his own in the battle.

And a battle it was. 

Eventually the feud turned into gunfire, and on March 15, 1894, Charles was shot clear through the torso during a volley with several men from the company. He didn’t die immediately from his wounds, but the men returned the next day to finish the job. After that, Charles was never seen alive again.

The villains took Emma and 8-year Ella across the lagoon and held them captive for a few days before ordering them to get to Nicaragua on their own. Some reports say that the leader of the company gang gave Emma money to make safe passage home, along with some clothes from her house before they burned the place down.


Once in the USA, Emma immediately alerted the State Department. The State Department took action and urged Honduras to investigate immediately.

The Hondurans did investigate, but at their own pace of “immediately,” and not much came of their efforts. The United States, in response, sent not one but two letters to Honduras to express that President Cleveland himself was not pleased, and the U.S. dispatched Commander Davis on the Navy cruiser U.S.S. Montgomery to Honduras with orders to conduct a thorough investigation of the case.

The U.S.S. Montgomery was dispatched to Honduras as part of the Renton murder investigation.
Image in public domain.
By the time Commander Davis arrived at Brewer's Lagoon, some of the accused murderers had disappeared, and one key witness had been found drowned nearby. Still, Commander Davis was able to conclude that murder and abduction did occur as Emma said it did, and the U.S. once again urged Honduras to take action.

And this time they did. Five men were found guilty of crimes in the case, but the jury did not consider a murder charge because Charles’ body was never found. Witnesses in the investigation stage said his body was dropped piece by piece into the lagoon. Others said his body was thrown into the fire that was set to burn down Charles’ house. Some locals claimed his body, at least his head and torso, were buried. But, at trial, there were no witnesses to murder, no body, no charges of murder, and no conviction for that crime. 

And, at the time of the five men's guilty verdicts, four men had already escaped. 

Honduras considered the case closed.

The Claim

But Emma didn’t consider the case closed. She pressed on and made a monetary claim against the government of Honduras. 

Honduras replied that a government is not responsible for crimes committed by its citizens, and the crimes weren’t even committed by its citizens anyway but by English, French, and American citizens. 

And, there was the delicate issue that Emma might not have been Charles' wife and legal heir, and, thus, had no right to make a monetary claim.

There were a couple of small details, though, that made a big difference. Emma said that when the men abducted her, they held her and little Ella in a house owned by a government official. The official, she said, knowingly looked the other way - at minimum - and his inaction while on duty made the government liable. And, her case stated, governments must actively and competently investigate crimes committed in their territory, which Honduras failed to do.

Emma won the case. 

It took several years, but Honduras agreed to pay Emma about $30,000* (worth over $800,000 today) with a lesser amount of about $4,000 to little Ella. Though, by the time the monthly installments commenced, Ella wasn’t a little girl anymore. And, she never received the full payment.

New York

Emma had legal help in NYC with her claim. She liked the help so much that she married her lawyer and became Mrs. George Dease. The couple, along with Emma’s niece Ella and a housekeeper, moved into their newly-built home on Washington Terrace to live "in great style."

Emma appeared on society pages of newspapers, including a mention of her trip to Washington D.C. to attend a Daughters of the American Revolution conference. Emma was into genealogy. 

DAR congress, 1908. Emma attend the congress in 1907.
Source: Daughters of the American Revolution..

She returned home to New York City from the genealogy conference on April 24, 1907, and one week later, her husband George died of complications from an illness. His obituary mentioned his widow, but no mention was made of Ella.

Ella was, perhaps, troubled like her father Frank who made many attempts at suicide and died as a young man, as you will recall. Ella witnessed the violent death of her step-father and suffered an abduction on the Mosquito Coast, and it’s understandable that tragedy could have affected her mental health. She was said to have fits and outbursts. Maybe she was simply a young woman with a mind of her own and who didn’t get along with her aunt Emma - not everyone thought Ella was a problem. 

Ella's lawyer was quoted in The New York Times: 
"Miss Renton as an attractive girl, she wrote clear business letters and there was nothing apparently wrong with her mental faculties."

But, Emma's lawyer stated Ella
"is of weak mind, and on information she is unclean, untruthful, and there is no hope of her ever becoming any different."
Whatever version was the truth, there was turmoil in the house and Emma wanted it resolved soon as Ella was about to turn 21 and gain control of the money she received from Honduras. Emma petitioned the court to declare her niece Ella insane and to commit her to an institution.

Ella had no intention of being institutionalized. 

On May 17, 1907, ten days after she turned 21, Ella left the house on Washington Terrace. She boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Ross, acquaintances of her aunt. And instead of heading to court to be examined by alienists (the term used for psychiatrists in those days), Ella headed up the street to Fort George.

Fort George was an amusement park on the edge of upper Manhattan bordering the Harlem River, and who can blame a young person set free from strict control wanting to enjoy her freedom. Ella had served in her aunt's household on Washington Terrace, according to her lawyer in The New York Times, as "a household drudge."

Fort George Amusement House, Amsterdam and 190th Street. Seidman Photo Studio, 1908.
From Museum of the City of New York Digital Collection

Unlike the Arrowhead Inn just a mile or so away on the Hudson River that catered to the elite of Manhattan, Fort George had a bit of a seedy reputation. Ella was spotted there on several occasions with men that her aunt Emma did not approve of. Yet, other than asking the courts to commit Ella to an institution, Emma didn’t keep an eye out for Ella that spring. Instead, Emma left the city, as was her routine in the summer, entrusting the insanity case to her lawyer and entrusting Emma’s shelter to the Rosses.

The Rosses did not approve of Ella spending time at Fort George any more than Emma did. After a few weeks of boarding her, Mrs. Ross wanted Ella to leave, and Mr. Ross sent some kids in the neighborhood to find Ella at Fort George and tell her to pick up her truck from the apartment.

Ella didn’t pick up the trunk. She didn’t show up at her court date for the insanity hearing either. Nobody reported her missing, however.

Lost, then Found

Nobody looked for Ella while she was missing, but somebody did find her.

On the morning of July 30, 1907, a police officer on East 90th Street noticed a pair of women’s shoes on the top step of stairs leading to a basement apartment. 

When he looked closer, he spotted blood on the steps and a heap of clothes at the bottom of the landing. It wasn’t a heap of clothes tossed down the stairs, but a young woman who had been murdered and mutilated.

The body was found on East 90th Street, in an areaway of an apartment building.
Detail of map from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

She had no identification on her. The police released a description of her clothing – cheap and common. She wore a brown shirtwaist, dark skirt, shoes of the type that were found in any inexpensive shoe shop in the city, and tan stockings. Her hands showed evidence that she toiled at physical work, and her stomach had been empty for a couple of days. She was assumed to be a waif.

The day the news hit the papers, a businessman from Harlem reported a possible lead. He was certain he saw the same girl the day previous to the murder, alive but in a heap on the ground at 129th Street and Broadway. The businessman saw a man come out of a house who then retreated back into the house when he saw the businessman watching him. 

Note: North is to the right on this map. The circle at 129th and Broadway shows where the witness saw the victim on the ground the day before she was killed. Note the yellow building on the left inside the circle. The witness spotted a man acting suspicious at that building.  Detail of map from New York City Public Library Digital Collection

Based on the tip from the witness, police interrogated the watchman of the house. He admitted Ella was with him the day before the murder, but said she left alive. No direct evidence could link him to the crime and he was released.

Days passed and news coverage continued, and the neighbors where Ella was boarding told Mr. Ross that they thought the victim might be Ella. Mr. and Mrs. Ross went to the morgue, and they were able to identify her. 

When Emma learned Ella's fate, the aunt thought the murderers were the old gang from Honduras. She speculated they were, perhaps, being forced to pay back Honduras for the claim money, and they murdered Ella to avoid the payment. She said the gang must have forced Ella, who wore only the best and most fashionable clothes, into common clothes to cover her identity. Her story made little sense, but that’s what Emma said.

Whoever committed the vicious crime got away with it. The case of Ella's murder was never solved.

The Past and the Future

Emma remained out of town and did not attend Ella's burial. 

A few weeks later, Emma incorporated a new organization she founded called Daughters of America, with herself as director. The purpose of her genealogy group was for membership to be “pure” with strict rules about who was eligible to join. 

Membership required both parents to be born in the United States, at least one grandparent born here, and at least one-great grandparent who was not only born here but also who was "prominent and respectable," according to Medina Daily Journal. "She said pure blooded American women feel the need of a society of their own."

With that attitude, it must have been exciting for her when she met Mr. Washington, her next husband. Washington is certainly a name that goes along with American prominence and respectability. Her new husband had a son named George, which means Emma was the step-mother to George Washington. Too bad, however, that her husband, named Alfred, was himself born in England. Still, I’m guessing that Emma Washington enjoyed her new surname.

Emma and Alfred Washington didn't live on Washington Terrace after their marriage, but in this apartment building on West 164th Street:

The apartment building where Emma and Alfred Washington lived on W 164th Street,
as seen in 2016 (on garbage pick-up day). Map from Google.

Emma and Alfred's neighbors in the building, Carl and Walborg, would later move to Washington Terrace themselves, to that little street off the grid where Emma had once lived in suburban style. Carl and Walborg had a son, and he will be the topic of the next post in this mini-series on Washington Terrace in upper Manhattan. (Please subscribe to the blog or follow History Underfoot on Facebook or Twitter to get notices of new posts.)


*It's unclear how much the actual payment from Honduras to Emma was. A government document states it was $78,000, but it's possible that two offspring from Charles Renton's first marriage received a portion. I chose $30,000 in consideration that it was a shared payout and as an estimate based on other reports of what Emma received.


  1. Loving this!! Can't wait for the next chapter...Bon

  2. Thanks, Bon! It's been a surprise to discover the stories of tihs place.


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