True Crime Bay Ridge: The Shell-Shocked Killer on Marine Avenue

360 Marine Avenue, Bay Ridge
360 Marine Avenue, 1935. Via New York Times

Patrick Murray heard the dog barking, which wasn’t right. He worked as a train conductor for Brooklyn Manhattan Transit and had come home from his shift close to 4am on April 1, 1935; he lived on the second floor of a house at 360 Marine Avenue, above an elderly woman, Nora Kelly, who usually unleashed her “soft-eyed crossbred collie” about 10pm each night and let the dog into the cellar. But there was Brownie in the backyard, “straining at the rope that bound him to the fence,” the Eagle reported, filling “the raw night air with lamentations,” as the Times put it.

“When the feeble rays from Murray’s flashlight were trained on the kennel, the rope was already frayed and Brownie was leaping against the noose in frenzied efforts to get loose,” the Times added. “He was quivering as Murray untied him.”

The dog virtually dragged the conductor around to the front door, scratching the gravel walk in frantic attempts to make better speed. His paws rasped on the little stoop as he left Murray into the dark hallway, toward the cellar stairs…

Brownie’s body palpitated as he threw himself against the cellar door. He scratched at it…At the foot of the stairs Murray recoiled in horror. The golden glow of his little flashlight etched the black-clad figure of [his landlady, Kelly, a] gray-haired woman hanging limply from one of the rafters ten feet away, with her white face staring toward the ceiling. Behind her, where the weak light failed, deeper darkness.

Brownie whimpered and leaped at the figure, apparently mystified by the unresponsiveness of his mistress. His bushy tail drooped, he went flat on his stomach as he lay there, whining….Murray wheeled, the cellar went completely dark as he hurried upstairs, but the dog kept its vigil in the blackness.

1905 map of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
1905 map, detail. Marine Avenue at far right, No. 360 noted. From the New York Public Library

Murray called the police from a coffee shop, nearby on Fourth Avenue, and they arrived within minutes. They cut down Kelly’s body, as Murray held back the frantic dog, then moved on, to the apartment upstairs. “On the [kitchen] table they saw a platter of meatballs and onions, part of a loaf of raisin bread, a half-finished glass of milk and two coffee cups, one full, one empty except for dregs,” the Times reported. Kelly’s worn, black-leather purse was also on the table, with just a few house keys and her rosaries—no money. The kitchen faced the backyard; like the cellar, it was hardly in disarray, nor was the adjoining dining room. “As [detectives] stepped across the threshold of the [front] parlor, their traveled across old papered walls with a few old pictures, a few simple but much worn chairs and tables and then traveled across a worn flowered carpet,” the Times continued.

In front of a green cretonne-covered sofa that is backed against the dining room wall, facing out toward the porch, lay [Kelly’s granddaughter] Florence McVey. She was on her back and her head was tilted to one side. Sightless eyes were fixed on the ceiling. She, like her grandmother, was fully dressed except for her shoes.

Wearing a brown skirt, silk stockings and a gray V-neck sweater, she looked like she’d died in her sleep; there were no visible bruises. An early theory was that maybe Kelly, 68, had hanged herself, and McVey, 18, found the body and had a heart attack, staggering upstairs to die.

Kelly didn’t have many visitors to her home near the corner of Fourth Avenue, which no longer stands. She’d raised three girls, between 11 and 14, since the youngest, twins, were babies; their mother—one of Kelly’s daughters—had died in childbirth. A few months earlier, their father, Thomas McFarland, had fought with Kelly, taken his daughters and moved out.

Nora Kelly and Florence McVey
Nora Kelly with the three McFarland children. McVey in inset. Via Brooklyn Eagle

The old lady was, though, often visited by her granddaughter McVey, on Thursdays and every other Sunday. The girl was described in the newspapers as “a vivacious girl” with “beautiful chestnut hair.” She was a graduate of nearby St. Patrick’s parochial school and had done two years at the all-girls Bay Ridge High School (at Fourth Avenue and 67th Street) before dropping out to start working, landing a job as a domestic for a family with two daughters in a house near the northeast corner of Fort Hamilton Parkway and 90th Street. She “was quiet, shy and reserved,” her boss told the Times. “She stayed in nights, had no beaux and was devoted to her grandmother. Whenever she got time off she would spend it at home with her grandmother.”

Kelly had raised McVey, too. The girl’s father disappeared when she was nine-months-old, and her mother, another of Kelly’s daughters, gave her up. “I didn’t have any money,” the mother told the Eagle, “so I thought Florence would be better off with my own mother.”

Florence McVey
Florence McVey. Via New York Times

She was wrong. An autopsy revealed McVey had been smothered, either by a pillow or a hand. Investigators then rushed the old woman’s body, which had been sitting at the local precinct, to the morgue, and an autopsy found her lungs had collapsed, possibly following a powerful blow, maybe around 6 p.m., and then she was strung up, possibly to confuse investigators. Both had been raped, if I’m reading correctly between the lines.

This was murder, and the house was a crime scene. Police began questioning relatives and neighbors, including everyone in the huge apartment building across the street, but no one had heard anything—not even Murray’s wife and child and dog, who were sleeping upstairs but roused by the commotion.

Nora Kelly and Florence McVey headline
Brooklynn Daily Eagle, April 1, 1935

“While police and reporters came and went, Brownie, the collie, was still howling in the cellar,” the Eagle reported. “He was put in his doghouse and kept there until the A.S.P.C.A. wagon arrived.

“He fought violently against the attempt to take him away but was overpowered by sheer strength.”

Brownie the collie
Brownie, Nora Kelly’s faithful collie. Via New York Times, which reported that “many requests have been received by the S.P.C.A for Brownie,” who then maybe got adopted?

It didn’t take long for detectives to find the killer. Kelly had a friend, Eleanor Myers, who lived about half a mile away, at 142 Gatling Place. She’d walked over to Kelly’s home Sunday evening, toward 9pm. According to the Eagle:

Florence McVey house
Kelly’s home at 360 Marine Avenue, ca. 1939–41. Via department of records

She knocked on the door, and, receiving no answer, turned the knob and put her weight against the door. She could only open the door a few inches, she said, because a chair was backed up against it. As she turned to leave, she [later] testified, [a man] came to the door and stepped into the hallway.

“Is Mrs. Kelly home?” she testified she asked…

“I guess she’s at church,” she said his answer was. They stood in the hallway chatting for a few moments.

“Is Florrie home?” she said she asked.

“No. I’m waiting for her myself to come home…”

Myers had seen this man at Kelly’s home several times before—he was Thomas McFarland, 38, Kelly’s son-in-law, father of the three girls Kelly had raised for almost a dozen years before recently quarreling with him. What that had been about, no one was quite sure.

Thomas McFarland
Thomas McFarland, via New York Times

McFarland was taken into custody at 5pm Monday, less than 24 hours after the murders, as he left his job in Long Island City, at Paragon Paint and Varnish, 546 46th Avenue. He was fingerprinted, then interrogated for four hours at the Fort Hamilton police station. (While a patrolman then delivered McFarland’s fingerprints to headquarters in Manhattan, he encountered a man on the steps with a gun, which the gunman pressed to his own temple, “determined to die to gratify his curiosity about life beyond the grave.” The patrolman disarmed him.)

McFarland denied he’d even been at Kelly’s house, but there was blood on his clothing. (He “wore a soft gray hat, gray suit, blue overcoat and soiled blue shirt with blue and white necktie,” the Times reported.) He finally, calmly confessed, around 10pm. There was “absolutely no reason at all, no motive” for the killing, he told his questioner. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Mostly because, he said, he was very drunk.

Thomas McFarland Interrogated
Via Brooklyn Eagle

McFarland had dinner with his three daughters at about 3pm that Sunday. He had met their mother in 1917, when he moved from his hometown, Mobile, Alabama, to be stationed as a private at Fort Hancock, New Jersey, on Sandy Hook. That year, they were married at St. Patrick’s church in Bay Ridge, on Fourth Avenue at 95th Street, near Kelly’s home, where McVey had gone to school. Seven years later, the young wife would be dead.

McFarland and his girls now lived in Williamsburg, at 236 Humboldt Street, a presumable slum, as the building was torn down within a year for a public-housing project—the Ten Eyck Houses, now the Williamsburg Houses. During dinner, McFarland drank a beer, and a glass of sherry, he later said. Then he left for Kelly’s; he stopped at a saloon, where he drank five glasses of beer.

Then he got on the subway and presumably exited at the 95th Street station, opened just a decade earlier, and walked the rest of the way, arriving at the Marine Avenue home at dusk—close to the time of the murders, according to investigators, though McFarland said he’d killed them hours later, around 8pm.

Site of Nora Kelly's home
The present-day site of Nora Kelly’s home. At the time, there would have been no bridge. Via Google

He’d brought a bottle of sherry with him, and he drank several glasses of it at Kelly’s home. The old woman finally told him to “stop drinking,” he said later, “and making a hog of myself.” Kelly and McFarland were in the kitchen—McVey was lying on a couch in the parlor, two rooms away—when the fight escalated. Kelly lifted a chair, to strike him, and he killed her. He wasn’t quite sure of the details. “Everything went black before me,” he said. But he must have struck her, hard, in the chest; he likely strangled her as well. Then McVey, his niece, came into the kitchen. “See what you’ve done!” she said.

“There was a knife on the kitchen table,” McFarland said. “I was afraid the girl was making for that knife. I knew that she knew what I had done, so I grabbed her and choked her until she was unconscious. I carried her back to the living room. She was senseless then.”

He left her there, returned to the kitchen, picked up Kelly and carried her down to the cellar. He’d noticed the telephone wire in the cellar in the past, when going down there to clear away ashes. But he didn’t remember, he said, stringing Kelly up, so he could never explain why he’d done it.

“I didn’t have anything in mind” when he’d visited the house that evening, he told his interrogators. “I was just going for a visit. I certainly meant no harm to Florence, only I suddenly realized I had to get her out of the way because she was a witness.”

Florence McVey
Florence McVey. Via Historical Crime Detective

“I got my hat and coat,” he finished, “left the house about 9 o’clock and was home again by 10 o’clock.”

As he told his story in the Fort Hamilton Station, his daughters—Marion, 14, and Anna and Edith, 11—sat nearby, in another room. “He told the story [of the murder] with no show of emotion,” the Eagle reported, “and his outward calm was only broken when he learned that his three daughters were waiting.” The Times described his reaction: “a wince of something akin to pain flashed across his sharp features and he shook his dark mop of hair in a hopeless gesture.” The girls had been brought to the Children’s Society Shelter, on Schermerhorn Street, awaiting a decision by children’s court. The three were now officially “neglected children.”

McFarland, meanwhile, “was taken to the scene of the crime after his confession to re-enact it,” the Eagle reported. That took less than an hour.

“Then he was locked up.”

There are huge holes in McFarland’s story, as it was printed in the press. The word “rape” rarely appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in the mid 1930s, and almost never in a hard-news story. This was true of newspapers in general; the industry’s preferred euphemisms at the time were “criminal attack” or “criminal assault.” “Consequently, we were obliged to write such fatuous sentences as ‘He kicked her down the stairs and beat her with a stick but he did not criminally attack her,’” journalist Jack Smith once explained in the LA Times.

Prosecutors planned to charge McFarland with what was called “felony murder,” meaning that the killings happened during the perpetration of another crime—the rape. “Both women were criminally attacked before they were killed,” the Eagle explained (or rather, didn’t). It had reported almost the same thing in the second paragraph of the very first story about the case: “Both [women] had been criminally assaulted before being attacked.” So did the New York Times: “Both women were criminally attacked before their death, according to findings of physicians.”

Front Page Detective, a popular true-crime magazine later adapted into a television show, ran an article about the case in its December 1936 issue, calling McFarland “Brooklyn’s Lust Killer.”

You could almost recognize something sympathetic in McFarland, from the general outline of the published account. Many men don’t like their mothers-in-law; the two had been fighting lately, young children were involved. Obviously he meant no harm to the niece, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Right?

Except, when McFarland said, “I carried her back to the living room. She was senseless then,” the elided conclusion of that sentence must be, “and then I raped her as she died,” suffocating her when he was finished. Then he went back to the kitchen and must have raped his former mother-in-law as she lay dead in her own kitchen, before dragging her raped and murdered corpse downstairs to the basement.

When you put it like that, McFarland was no common killer with a shred of recognizable humanity—he was a monster.

Kelly and McVey’s bodies were taken to the home of Helen Stiers, at 471 40th Street—Kelly’s daughter and McVey’s mother. The murder had been on Sunday evening; the burial was Friday morning, April 5, at St. John’s Cemetery, in Middle Village, Queens, following a requiem mass at St. John’s, where years before McFarland had been married to Kelly’s daughter. (Kelly and McVey were to be buried in the same grave; according to the cemetery’s website, there’s a Florence Mc Vey buried there, as well as three Nora Kellys, but none of the internment dates are April 5, 1935, and they’re all in different parts of the cemetery.)

A funeral procession left Stiers’s home, led by a police car; eight officers were on hand to keep order among the 200 people who’d assembled.

The motorcade reached St. Patrick’s. “As the two caskets were being carried into the church,” the Eagle reported, “a collie, resembling Mrs. Kelly’s dog that first brought police to the Kelly home after the murder, twice tried to run into the edifice.”

But Brownie wasn’t allowed at mass.

Brownie the collie
Brownie, Nora Kelly’s collie. Via Brooklyn Eagle

McFarland was a sensation at his arraignment; elevator girls deserted their cars to get a look at him. He appeared before a judge “with his eyes averted and two red spots burning high on the cheeks of his pale, bristle-covered face,” the Times reported. A clerk asked him how he pleaded to the charge of killing Kelly. He “hung his head and rolled his eyes upward in a fixed stare,” the Times continued. “The prisoner’s throat muscles flexed and his lips seemed to form the word ‘guilty,’ but he made no audible sound…Judge Taylor broke the silence. ‘Not guilty,’ he said, and McFarland repeated the words in a low tone.”

These were capital offenses, to which he couldn’t plead guilty even if he’d wanted to.

McFarland’s lawyers later hoped to save him from the electric chair through a temporary-insanity defense. One of his attorneys, the president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, called McFarland a “raving maniac,” following a meeting at the Raymond Street Jail, where he was being held. “He refused to talk to me,” the lawyer said, “except to continually complain of feeling dizzy. He refused to sit down because he said it made him dizzy and he repeatedly asked to be let out.” McFarland in fact was soon removed from the jail to Kings County Hospital.

When McFarland finally went on trial in January 1936, it was with a three-day beard. He “sat at the counsel table, staring vacantly down at the table top,” the Eagle reported. “During all of the session he rarely changed his posture. His hands folded in his lap, his eyes glazed, McFarland, wearing the same gray suit [that] he was arrested in, didn’t even look up when [the ADA]  called him a conscienceless killer.”

He remained this way through the trial. A week into his trial, the Eagle reported McFarland “never has once shifted his position at the counsel table. Rocklike and immobile, he sits, head bowed, never moving, his hands clasped in his lap. He shaves only every three days.”

His lawyer said that first day he “had no intention of denying either the crime or its heinousness,” the Eagle continued. “He even stressed its revolting character in an effort to show, as he said, that no sane man could have committed it…[the lawyer said] McFarland was insane at the time of the slaying, was before, and still is.”

Thomas McFarland
Thomas McFarland. Via Brooklyn Eagle

A consulting psychiatrist agreed. This defense doctor said McFarland suffered from “equivalent epilepsy, a condition in which the normal processes of rational thinking [are] arrested, as the physical faculties are during ordinary physical epilepsy,” the Eagle reported. His lawyers said he was shell-shocked from serving in what we now call World War I; “he was the sole survivor of the crew of a tank shattered by a German shell,” the Eagle reported. Alienists, as psychiatrists were then known, for the prosecution testified that he was sane.

It would be up to the jury to decide which side to believe. It retired on February 5, 1936—without its foreman, who’d asked to be excused to help tend to his two sick brothers—and within two hours returned a guilty verdict, convicting McFarland of the first-degree murder of Florence McVey. (Kelly’s murder wasn’t prosecuted.) The mandatory sentence was death in the electric chair, although McFarland wouldn’t be formally sentenced for a few more days. The Eagle reported:

As he heard the verdict yesterday the 38-year-old widower, father of three children, did not emerge from the apparent stupefaction which has characterized his behavior all through the trial…As if in a dream, the World War veteran, whom a war buddy on the witness stand pictured as hero, heard the verdict rendered. Silent and dazed, he then was led forward by two attendants to the bar to answer routine questions.

To the stock questions of when he was born and where, did he drink any intoxicating liquors, are his parents alive, the defendant’s only reply was:

“I don’t know.”

Thomas McFarland Brooklyn murderer
Thomas McFarland in custody. Historical Crime Detective

McFarland was formally sentenced to die for McVey’s murder on February 11, 1936, five days after the verdict was issued. He “heard the death sentence with the same dazed expression which he wore when the jury’s verdict was returned,” the Eagle reported. As he’d been led to the courtroom, he saw his eldest daughter, Miriam, now 15, sitting in an office. The last time he’d seen her had probably been when she testified for him in his trial. Front Page Detective described that scene:

The defense was that he had been shell-shocked in the war, and [young Marian McFarland] testified that he often was dizzy and “excited over nothing,” that on many occasions he had got out of bed and gone out in the middle of the night. “When I would tell him about it the next day, he would say that he did not remember,” she said.

The defendant kept his head bowed and stared at the floor all the time his daughter was on the stand. When she was excused, she stepped down and walked to his side.

“Daddy, please, daddy—look at me!” But he did not look up, and the girl was led out.

Now he asked to have a word with her. His guards cautioned him not to mention the almost certain death sentence he was about to face. But he did anyway. “They can’t do that!” Marian screamed. “They can’t do that!”

McFarland tried to arrange to have his World War bonus paid to his daughter. Before he was sentenced, he had obtained the application; he did his best to fill it out, and handed it over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who had taken charge of the children; the society’s superintendent said he’d complete it.

McFarland left for Sing Sing with five other prisoners and three deputy sheriffs from Grand Central Station. “Before leaving Brooklyn,” the Eagle reported, “he was taken to police headquarters to be photographed. His necktie was taken from him. The only personal possession McFarland took to the death house with him was a group photograph of his three children.”

Thomas McFarland
McFarland on his way to Sing Sing. Via Brooklyn Eagle

The execution was set for March 16, but appeals were filed, forestalling it. Not for long, however. The Appeals Court upheld the conviction on July 8, and McFarland died in the electric chair about six weeks later, on August 20, 1936, at the age of 39, following a steak lunch around noon and a final supper of roast chicken. Then the prison chaplain “accompanied him from his cell down the corridor to the execution chamber. McFarland’s lips moved in prayer, but his words were not audible,” the Eagle reported. He “uttered no word when he was led into the death chamber at 11:03pm. He was pronounced dead four minutes later.”

On his last day, the prisoner told a reporter he was “all right and fit for anything.” He had received no personal visitors. The warden had said McFarland could see his daughters one last time, “but McFarland was reluctant to bring them to the death-house,” the Eagle reported. He had last seen them three months ago, when they’d visited him at Sing Sing.

“I’m not worrying so much about myself,” he told a reporter hours before he died. “It’s my three young girls I’m upset about.”

Like Hey Ridge on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Buy the book True Crime Bay Ridge, on Amazon or from the Bookmark Shoppe

One thought on “True Crime Bay Ridge: The Shell-Shocked Killer on Marine Avenue

Comments are closed.