WHO IS THE HEBREW GIRL MURDERER OF EAST NEW YORK?
CSI 1870s-style — the tabloid sensation of Pesach Rubenstein, America's first Jewish slasher
BY EDDY PORTNOY
Her head was thrown back, the arms were raised above the body, as though in the last moments of her life the girl was desperately defending herself, and the lower part of the face and neck were disfigured with gashes. A deep gash four inches long was in her right cheek; her neck was cut from the lobe of the left ear to the center of the throat, and there was another gaping wound in the right side of the neck. The blood had so dyed the skin that it was not possible to tell whether she was white or an octoroon.
The body lay in a furrow between the rows of corn stubble, and all the ground about it for several feet that was not covered by snow was red with blood, the deepest stain being closest to the body. The corpse was frozen, and the wound in the face and the wrinkles of the garments were filled with snow.
It was a frigid December morning in 1875 when a farmhand discovered a frozen corpse that had been lying at the edge of a cornfield for a number of days in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The police were called, but they were stumped by the find. No one had been reported missing. Once the body was brought back to the precinct and word spread, locals thronged to the police station to see who it was; over the course of a Tuesday afternoon, 2,000 people filed past the disfigured corpse, but no one recognized the girl. This could mean only one thing: she came from across the river — from Manhattan.
Pesach Rubenstein was a typical Jewish immigrant fleeing oppression and poverty in Russian-ruled Poland. Arriving in 1873 in his late twenties and following his parents and siblings, who had come earlier, he worked as a peddler and itinerant jewelry salesman, saving enough money to bring his wife over from the Old Country, which was not uncommon at that time. His entire family lived together in an apartment on Bayard Street, and Rubenstein, who was fervently religious, went to pray every day in the shul across the road.
The Rubenstein clan was a hardworking bunch of peddlers, and they had made enough money to hire a relative named Sara Alexander to work as a housemaid. Rubenstein became particularly close with the girl, who nursed him back to health when he was weakened by consumption. The two were seen out together frequently, but no one thought too much of it; Alexander and Rubenstein knew each other from the Old Country and were related as well: her father was his great uncle.
Girl gone missing
The police informed Alexander’s brother John, and while he ran to the morgue to identify her, two detectives were dispatched from Brooklyn to the Rubenstein home on Bayard Street to begin their investigation. The detectives were particularly interested in Pesach Rubenstein. His close relationship with the victim was well known, but he had also acted strangely when he had learned Alexander was missing. He told his family that he had dreamed she had been abducted by “loafers” and murdered in a field ten miles from the city. They thought it odd that Rubenstein had suddenly developed the skills of a psychic medium, deeming it unusual behavior, even by his standards.
They arrived at the morgue just as the coroner finished examining the battered corpse. According to a report in the New York Democrat, the wounds inflicted on Alexander were done by a person “possessed of demonic fury,” and when
Even though the police already knew about Rubenstein’s strange “dream,” they still couldn’t quite figure out a motive for the slashing, until the coroner’s report brought a crucial new piece of evidence to light: the victim was five months pregnant. The police also inspected Rubenstein’s clothing and found drops of what looked like blood on his jacket and even on his fringed undershirt. As well, he had mud and vegetation on his boots that resembled the mud on Alexander’s knees. The police immediately arrested Pesach Rubenstein for the murder of Sara Alexander. He claimed he was innocent — the evidence, after all, was entirely circumstantial — but for Gilded Age New York City cops, there was enough to make an arrest and set up one of the trials of the century.
Rubenstein pleaded not guilty, and his family stood firmly behind him. Compounding matters was the small number of rabble-rousers who insisted that the whole thing was a setup and that Rubenstein had been framed only because he was a Jew. There were, in fact, no Jews on the jury; the one that had shown up in the crowd had been excused — the prosecution team didn’t want any extra help from local tribesmen.
The Rubenstein family’s initial position was that Pesach could not possibly have committed the murder, because he had been in shul on Bayard Street while the crime was being committed in East New York, but that idea was shelved after it became apparent that the Rubensteins couldn’t line up their witnesses, so the family defaulted to plan B. The family had attended a wedding that Sunday afternoon, followed by a game of cards at home. According to this story, Rubenstein had retired to bed at 7:00 pm. The only problem with this image of a family idyll was that it contradicted courtroom testimony that Rubenstein came home at 9:00 pm that night, went up to his room, and proceeded to run around the room “howling, screaming, crying, muttering, and moaning like a maniac, thrusting himself upon the bed and jumping out again, and keeping up this infernal noise almost the whole night.”
The defense provided over a dozen witnesses who could “prove” that Rubenstein didn’t do it. Eyewitness testimony, mostly given by family members and friends, placed Rubenstein in various places — in synagogue, on Hester Street, or in shops on Maiden Lane — during the time the murder was to have occurred. A few of Rubenstein’s brothers tried to pin the murder on a local shoemaker named Nathan Levy, who had been seen “frequently” with Alexander, but Levy had a solid alibi. Rubenstein’s attorneys tried to discredit witnesses for the prosecution who said they had seen Rubenstein and Alexander on the way to East New York. They even got one eyewitness’s brother to tell the court he was “loose a screw.” They focused on the circumstantial nature of the evidence — that he could have picked up mud and blood on his boots shopping for fish at Fulton Market and that anyone who had stabbed someone in the throat would be drenched in blood, not just spotted.
Rubenstein’s supporters stopped at nothing. One anonymous do-gooder attempted a smear campaign against the victim, sending two letters to the Brooklyn chief of police indicating that Sara Alexander was in the employ of not one but two houses of ill repute. Members of Rubenstein’s family apparently cased their own neighborhood for locals who would swear that Rubenstein was either at their house at the time of the murder or in the Emil Jacob synagogue. One of these was Jacob Apt, a ritual slaughterer with a reputation as somewhat of a village idiot. Apt testified that he was with Rubenstein on the Broadway streetcar that continued on to East New York. The problem was that, upon cross-examination, it was discovered that Apt never took the Broadway car to work.
Medical evidence was then introduced in an attempt to prove Rubenstein was suffering from a tubercular cocktail of infectious disease that rendered him physically incapable of committing the deadly crime. His doctor was called to testify about the exact nature of his consumption and the way he bled constantly from his lungs, but this compelling evidence was undone by Rubenstein himself when it was noted that the spittoon provided to him by the court remained astonishingly empty throughout the trial. In fact, for most of the twelve-day ordeal, Rubenstein barely moved at all, sitting stock-still. He was variously described by the press as “repulsive” — “pale, haggard, idiotic, corpse-like and filthy,” with a “sallow, death-like face” that was the image of “utter despair.” The only time he moved a muscle was when he collapsed in the courtroom. One of his sisters ran over and poured ice water on his face, bringing him to. She tried to feed him an apple, but he was too weak to bite into it. She then informed the press that her brother was weak because he ate no meat in prison, but, she added, he happened to be very fond of herring.
Despite their creativity, all of Rubenstein’s ruses and alibis fell flat. His fate was sealed by passengers and conductors, all of whom fingered him as having been on a train to East New York with the victim on the night of her death. Making matters worse, the murder weapon was a rare brand of “segar knife” sold only by a particular Division Street manufacturer whose distinctive trademark was to use three rivets instead of the more common two. On the witness stand, the manufacturer’s twelve-year-old daughter clearly recalled selling the knife to Rubenstein, who wanted it so badly he didn’t care that it wasn’t finished. It was never made clear why Rubenstein, who wasn’t involved in cigar manufacturing, needed such a knife.
That knife, caked with Sara Alexander’s dried blood and bits of flesh, was found in the corn stalks near her body. The fact that Rubenstein’s boots were spackled with mud and vegetation matching the East New York cornfield, as well as a “blood-like substance,” did not help his case. His boots also matched the blood-soaked boot prints in the cornfield. In a period that lacked DNA testing or even fingerprinting, the Brooklyn police managed to build a case on circumstantial evidence that would convince the jurors to convict him. In fact, the jury took only about an hour to do it.
With the words, “And now, Pesach Rubenstein, listen to the sentence, which is that you be taken to the jail from whence you came, and that on Friday, the 24th day of March next, between the hours of 9 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul,” Rubenstein was sentenced to hang. In a last dramatic attempt to demonstrate his innocence, Rubenstein stood trembling before the court and unwound his foot-long ritual side curls to prove that it was impossible for him to have murdered the girl, for his payot kept him from committing sin. With the curly locks spilling over his shoulders, he said, “That is my witness that I never had my hand on any woman — never touched a woman, and that time will find out that I am innocent and the jury have made a mistake.” The display fell on deaf ears. He was led out of the court amid the howling sobs of his relatives and remanded to cell No. 2 in the Raymond Street Jail.
In the meantime, Rubenstein allegedly offered a cell mate $2,000 to help him escape; the offer was apparently turned down. Less than a few weeks into his stay at the notoriously filthy and vermin-filled jail, he began to refuse to bathe. His next-door neighbor, a happy-go-lucky murderer named Andreas Fuchs who was in for beheading a man and stuffing his heart and liver down a coal chute, offered to take Rubenstein out for a lager if he’d clean himself up.
Rubenstein spent nearly all of his waking hours in a hysterical bob and weave of prayer, shuckling for up to four hours straight. When he wasn’t praying, he spent his time curled up on the dank floor of his cell. He also frequently refused food, maintaining a starvation diet. The administrators of the Raymond Street Jail officially refrained from intervening, saying that they did not want to offend his religious sensibilities, but the reality was, they thought he was out of his mind and so left him to his own devices, even when he stopped eating completely.
There were still those among Rubenstein’s family and their supporters who were convinced that he was innocent, their belief based on the conviction that an Orthodox Jew could never have been involved in such a gruesome murder. His family tried numerous times to petition for a reprieve, and the court did agree to review the case, granting a stay of execution in mid-March. This was the one bright spot in Rubenstein’s stay in prison; to celebrate the possibility of a new trial, he cooked some eggs and herring and made himself a giant fruit salad.
Inexplicably, however, his hopes did not remain high, and he quickly returned to his previous routine. After a few weeks of crazed praying and fasting in a filthy, dank, airless jail cell, Rubenstein was perilously close to death. In an apparent last-ditch attempt to save his own life and/or make an open-casket funeral more palatable, he put in a request for a doctor and a haircut. The prison doctor prescribed tincture of iron and cough medicine, both of which Rubenstein refused to take. When the barber arrived, Rubenstein asked only that he trim the giant, matted dreadlock that had grown on top of his filthy head.
On May 8, Rubenstein allegedly made a deathbed confession to Fuchs, his neighbor in the next cell, but by the next morning, Rubenstein was too weak to eat even a piece of dry bread. Lying on his wooden pallet, his breathing became labored, and he began to groan. Eventually a deputy arrived and told two guards to prop him up. As they did, Rubenstein began twitching violently, foam pouring out of his mouth. He expired a few minutes later, after which the prison doctor showed up to officially pronounce him dead.
The authorities argued over who was to blame for the prisoner’s premature death. Jail officials claimed they didn’t want to offend Rubenstein’s religious sensibilities by preventing him from following his crazed starvation-shuckling diet. The coroner said that if the prisoner had lived in clean quarters and had been fed decent food, he would have survived to attend his own hanging. Whatever the cause, with his passing, Rubenstein denied the legal system the chance to hang him from his neck until he was dead.
From a historical perspective, there are two points to note. First, it is hard to overemphasize how long the story stayed in the national consciousness. Simply put, Americans loved the case. Pesach Rubenstein, religious fanatic and killer of a pregnant woman, was considered a national weirdo. Multiple sensationally illustrated pamphlets were printed, and one entrepreneurial publisher even printed the entire courtroom transcript as a book — something that was only done for the most high-profile of trials. No Jew in America had made the papers in the way Pesach Rubenstein had. In fact, it’s more than likely that the stark engravings of Rubenstein putting on tefillin in prison and unfurling his payot in court were the first images most Americans had ever seen of such things. Second, the episode was not good for the general perception of Jews in America, which is likely why the Jewish community chose to ignore it. But what’s worse is that historians also chose to ignore this first major interface between Jews, the justice system, and the press in America. Maybe you can’t blame them. After all, who would want to write about a shameful popular murder trial when much more compelling and controversial episodes in Jewish life — like Felix Adler’s founding of the Society for Ethical Culture — garnered much more attention from Jews themselves?
In the end, murder never really caught on as a form of conflict resolution among the Jews. Instead, they seem to prefer feigned outrage, flailing arms, and raised voices to a “segar knife” in the throat. &