Part of an ongoing, irregular series of historical articles called True Crime: Bay Ridge.
In 1928, Eugenia Muspratt, named after the wife of Napoleon III, was found dead of a heart attack in the cellar of her Shore Road home. After that, her sister Victoria never ventured below stairs. “Upstairs,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported a few years later, “she lives in what might be called squalor. The ten-room house is festooned with cobwebs. There is no plumbing, no water, no heat and only the light of a lantern.”
“I am not a pauper,” Victoria told the paper, “and I cannot bear to miss the glorious sunsets, the moonlight which traces a path of silver on the water in front of my windows and, most of all, the home that was my father’s.”
John Muspratt was born in Liverpool, made a fortune in New Orleans, and settled in Bay Ridge in the mid 1840s—to invest in real estate and make even more money. He owned a yacht, named for Victoria, which he moored at the foot of 71st Street. After he died, in 1880, he left his daughters the house at 7059 Shore Road—two houses, actually! There was a smaller one in back of the one fronting Shore Road, where Victoria had been born. The family lot extended almost all the way to Narrows Avenue.
The back house was described, like the main house, as “a weatherstained frame house tall and boxlike in a severe architectural style,” or “architecturally like a matchbox on end, [making] an eerie figure in the night.” Muspratt rented it out for $5 (which, adjusted for inflation, is almost $90 today) to a spinster named Miss Hannigan, or possibly Rattigan. The front house, by the 1930s, had a “leaky mansard roof [rising] behind a row of scraggly lilac bushes, about twenty-five feet back from Brooklyn’s [S]hore [R]oad”—it was a classic neighborhood haunted house, the kind boys dared each other to go near when they weren’t throwing rocks through its windows from a safe distance. And its inhabitant, Victoria, whom some weren’t sure even really existed, was a classic eccentric: she was 4-foot-10; she had rheumatism in one leg, and high blood pressure, but she still hobbled up to Our Lady of Angels for mass every morning she could muster it.
She’d owned land onto which they later built Poly Prep, but sold it—or maybe she lost it by not paying taxes, or maybe her heirs inherited it; the stories differed. She liked to watch the boats in the Narrows and could name every one. She said she could tell what the next day’s weather would be like by the way the sun set over Staten Island. Goats once pastured on her lawn. “At the northwest corner of the house, rising squarely above the roof, is a tower,” the Eagle reported. “It is designed much after the fashion of London Tower. Inside is a winding stairway. At the top is one bedroom.”
She dressed eccentrically, in old clothes, and used old furniture, but owned no bed; she slept in an armchair by a window. She was a hoarder, among whose possessions in 1934 was a season pass for Coney Island from 1890. She harassed local beat cops; she once approached one, asked for pencil and paper, looked at his shield, noted its number, and said, “I’m going to report you. You laughed at me.” The policeman found the piece of paper among her things after she’d died.
She also used a crutch ever since she’d been discovered with a fractured leg and lacerations to her scalp in front of 7211 Shore Road one Saturday evening, unable to recall how she got them when detectives interviewed her in her Kings County Hospital bed. That mysterious accident was a brief sensation in late 1920s Bay Ridge—police later considered it an automobile accident—titillating newspaper readers with headlines such as “Mystery shrouds hermit found injured in roadway.” Many at the time knew little of her, or even that she lived in the house—that she was still alive!
She notoriously rejected a $175,000 offer for her house—approximately $2.75 million today—which helped fuel speculation that she had money hidden away. So did the story of Richard Muhlmeyer, a bus driver who once helped Victoria put out a fire (several of which damaged the house in its final years); he stopped by several times thereafter to check in on her, and at Christmastime, 1931, she stopped him as he passed and pressed an envelope into his hand—which contained $25 (almost $400, adjusted for inflation). The Eagle reported:
The bus driver was so surprised that he went to a druggist friend and asked if it was real. When he told the druggist who had given it to him the former said:
“She could have given you $100,000 [$1.5 million, adjusted for inflation] and never missed it.”
But she didn’t have any secret fortune; she was just a generous old woman who rejected the offers for her house so she could die where she’d always lived. “Although Shore Road property is being bought up with amazing rapidity for apartment house sites, the little old lady holds fast to her own,” the Eagle reported. “And will, she says, with fervor, to her dying day.”
That day didn’t arrive on the heels of natural causes. “Miss Muspratt…lived in fear of…an attack,” the Eagle reported, “because of neighborhood rumors that she hoarded a fortune in her squalid surroundings.” A neighbor said Victoria was “especially worried because her voice had become so feeble and she would not be able to be heard if she tried to shout for help.”
Just before Christmas in 1934, a few months after the paper reported the house was being fixed up a little, the 72-year-old Victoria was found dead in her “tumble-down, refuse-littered shack,” her crutches beside her, her body on the floor near the chair where she slept; her throat had been slashed, according to initial reports, or maybe not; police later surmised that two axes found in the cellar, where her sister Eugenia had died, had been used to crush her skull, underneath which were found 13 old gold coins.
Investigators were greeted at the house with “the musty odor of clothing of the hoop-skirt vintage, newspapers and magazines more than a century old,” the Eagle reported, “and antique furnishings piled helter skelter among dust and cobwebs…Rats scurried about. Maps of the old towns of Fort Hamilton and New Utrecht were turned up.”
“Every room of the house of death was crammed with curios,” the AP reported; “seventy-five year old magazine yellow newspapers, creaky furniture, a wheezy organ or two; even a letter once carried by pony express.” A 100-piece set of china, made in London in the 1830s, was found “ornate and complete…covered with dust on an upper floor, to which Miss Muspratt’s crippled condition had denied her access since 1928.
“Like the house, the surrounding grassless plot was covered with debris.”
The day after Christmas, hundreds of people during the day were found loitering near the old mansion, “looking curiously at the dilapidated house with its bare windows and weatherbeaten walls. Passing autos slowed down to a crawling speed as the occupants filled their eyes with the scene of mysterious death of the aged woman.”
Most believed the motive had been robbery; a set of keys Victoria wore around her neck, for various closets and strongboxes, were missing. But one neighbor said Miss Muspratt would often come to dine at her house, because she didn’t have enough to eat; she would borrow change to drop in the collection at church, because she didn’t have any. Two bankbooks found in the crumbling house did show some savings—$2,343 (almost $42,000, adjusted for inflation) at Brooklyn Savings Bank and $41 at Dime.
Police had a few suspects. Because of the coins found under her head, a man who worked at a newsstand at 77th and Third, who had tried to sell an old gold coin to an acquaintance following the murder, was twice taken in for questioning—and twice released. A man who had chopped firewood for fuel for Miss Muspratt several times was sought for questioning.
Police also entertained the idea that a tramp had beaten her to death “after a squabble which might have followed her refusal to give him as large a handout as he demanded,” the Eagle reported. Such a tramp had been spotted in “the exclusive Shore Road residential area last week.” He was described as “a prowler whose shabby garb and shifty eyes made him conspicuous.”
The police tried to connect a man who admitted to robbing houses in Bay Ridge and Flatbush to the murder, but it didn’t stick; a few years later, it was considered unsolved, which presumably it has remained.
Even the house itself had no money; though someone had once offered $200,000 for it, the Muspratt estate sold it at auction in 1936 for $18,150, to Gordon W. Fraser of Livingston Street. Muspratt, it’s said, had wanted to donate the land to Our Lady of Angels, though this was apparently not in her will. The land, however, did eventually wind up in the hands of the Catholic Church—today, it forms a small part of the plot on which Xaverian High School sits, just around the corner from Barkaloo Cemetery.