Boston in the late 19th century. (Courtesy: New York Public Library)
Boston in the late 19th century. (Courtesy: New York Public Library)

On July 23, 1885, law enforcement in Boston faced quite the unsolved and grisly murder mystery. The Boston Globe reported that part of a woman’s body was found in the Charles River:

The janitor of a club house on the Charles River picked out of the water, late in the afternoon of July 23, 1885, a large potato sack.

The bag contained the head and a portion of the trunk of what had been a very large and comely woman.

An axe had evidently been used in the dismemberment of the corpse, and the remains had been in the water several days.

On the shoulders and breast of the body were several bruises, and death was decided to have been caused by strangulation.

The woman’s mutilated corpse purportedly contained bruises and had been cut into four sections. Her head and legs had been separated from the rest of her body. According to The New York Times, passengers on a ferry boat later spotted one of the missing legs floating “near the East Boston slip.”

Boston police looked for clues with the unsolved murder mystery. The fact that the body had been so brutally dismembered made it difficult to discover the truth of what happened to the woman.

At first, the victim was believed to be a woman named Nellie Halsey. Then another identification came as Rose C. Gilbert, whose father-in-law happened to be a butcher. A number of suspects were mentioned in newspapers, as were several clues.

The Charles River runs for many miles inland all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean. Old newspapers seemed to indicate that the body parts were recovered in Boston, rather than inland.

The unsolved murder mystery likely shocked Boston residents and scared its citizens, with there being a frightening murderer living amongst them.

From The New York Times on July 25, 1885, which printed a story from the previous day:

A Charles River Mystery

A Woman Strangled, Cut in Pieces, and Thrown in the River

Boston, July 24. — Shortly before 10 o’clock this morning the harbor police found a sack floating in the Charles River, not far from the place where a body was found last evening. The sack contained the trunk of a woman’s body. The head and legs were gone, and what remained in the bag resembled one found with a woman’s body in it yesterday. It had been carefully sewed up, and there was a piece of Brussels carpet inside it.

The police at first would not believe that there had been a murder, but claimed that this body as well as the one found yesterday were used by medical students, who afterward sewed them up and threw them into the river, partly to get rid of them, and partly to create a sensation. An autopsy, however, showed this theory to be entirely wrong, and proved conclusively that the parts in the two bags belonged to one body, that of a woman who had been strangled, and then cut in pieces, after death, with an axe or some other rough instrument.

Detective Wentworth thinks the body is that of Nellie Halsey, who had been a worker in cheap restaurants around the wharves, and who was in the habit of going onboard vessels while drunk. Wentworth advances the theory that she may have boarded a vessel and there met her death at the hands of a sailor or sailors, while intoxicated. He states that the woman was very violent and quarrelsome.

This was only the beginning of the story. The mystery was documented in old newspapers for nearly 18 months. It ended up being considered to be “unsolved.” However, a number of clues and suspects made this case unique and quite bizarre.

Next up: In Part 2, I present the developments that followed the initial discovery of the body.

Bonus Content

On the same page in coverage from The Boston Globe (via Newspapers.com), I noticed a story titled, “Dropped as a Mystery.”

That story began, “In less than a year two peculiarly atrocious murders have occurred in Massachusetts, and in each case the murderer has gone unwhipped of justice.”

The Boston Globe published this article on page 4 of its newspaper on May 16, 1892.

“[On] the night of Sept. 1, last year, or early on the morning of Sept. 2, David Bellanger was murdered in Lowell. he was a Canadian Frenchman, well past middle life, who was a dealer in remnants, and kept a little store in Odd Fellows’ block on Merrimac St. He was lame and nervous and sensitive and irritable, but it was not known that he had any bitter enemies.”

The article continued, “But the story is yet familiar how he was found in his shop with a number of frightful gashes in his head that had been inflicted by terrible blows with a cleaver; how the case speedily was recognized as one of impenetrable mystery and soon dropped.”

The same newspaper page also published the story of the murder of a Chinese man named Ding Chong.

The Boston Globe also published this article on page 4 of its newspaper.

According to the article, Chong kept a laundry at 585 Shawmut Avenue in Boston. On July 18, 1886, an unidentified young woman found his body at the laundry. The article mentioned Chong’s death as a brutal decapitation, likely with an axe. The article concluded by noting, “The murder was supposed to have been committed by an unknown [Chinese man] who had been seen in the vicinity the night before, but no arrests were ever made.”

Note: Jordan Liles added this bonus content on June 21, 2024.

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