The mysterious case of Ludwig Lee had many of the hallmarks of a sensational serial-killer murder mystery, the kind the mainstream media cannot resist.
City editors know the masses love to huddle around a good who-done-it, especially when the one it was done to is an innocent widow. Throw in a lurking fiend, dismembered body parts showing up in different locales, and clues leading authorities to the doorstep of the diabolical murderer, and you’ve got front-page news.
That’s just what Ludwig Lee delivered back in 1927, with sensational headlines nationwide emanating from Brooklyn and screaming bloody murder. Consider this headline from The Evening Independent in St. Petersburgh, Florida: “Torso Parts Clues in Double Murder – New York Has Dual Murder Mystery as Women’s Dismembered Bodies Are Found.”
If that wasn’t dramatic enough, the article opened with: “Woman’s Head Found.”
On the Saturday morning of July 9th, 1927, the dismembered legs of a woman were discovered by a New York City policeman on foot patrol in Battery Park, rotting in the summer heat. July 11th a package containing more decomposing body parts was found in a Brooklyn churchyard. Later that week, a torso was found concealed under a fire escape in a motion-picture theater, also in Brooklyn.
Yet the limbs were not adding up. As the days progressed, the public gasped with each article revealing more mysterious packages surfacing in and around Brooklyn, for not one, but now two female victims.
Curiously, the heads were missing.
The identity of the victims would not remain a mystery for long. Perceptive investigators noticed the packages were wrapped in a distinct brown paper. They traced that paper to a Brooklyn outlet of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company grocery store chain, known today more commonly as A&P.
Meanwhile, investigators ran down a missing person’s report filed in Brooklyn for a Mrs. Selma Bennett, wife of the local iceman and mother of four. Bennett was last seen entering a boarding house at 28 Prospect Place. Her husband, Alfred, reported her missing just days earlier, coinciding with the same time of time when the body parts began popping up around Brooklyn.
Police rushed to the boarding house, gaining access from Ludwig Lee, a 38-year-old Norwegian immigrant who said he did handiwork for the building’s owner.
Then, the plot thickened.
The Bennetts lived in an apartment house on Lincoln Place, located directly behind the boarding house. The Bennetts had sold the property earlier that year to a Ms. Sarah Elizabeth Brownell. Bennett’s son John told police he last saw his mother heading to the Brownell house to address Brownell’s complaints of a leak.
Upon closer investigation, the police learned no one had seen Brownell either in days.
When asked whether or not he had seen Brownell, Lee said she told him she was leaving the city to visit relatives far, far away.
Ludwig Lee was taken into custody, yet despite 12 hours of aggressive interrogation, he maintained his innocence. Lee protested that he had no motive for murder, as he was employed by the victim, and he even added a salacious twist. Ms. Brownell, Lee asserted, proposed marriage, though he declined.
Lee was arraigned on the murder charge, pled not guilty, and was held without bail. The theory was that Lee had robbed, then killed Brownell, and was dismembering the corpse when Bennett stumbled across the crime scene and had to be dealt with by the murderer.
In the basement of the boarding house, investigators uncovered fragments of bones and human tissue in ash cans, before finding Mrs. Bennett’s head, as well as a massive axe that had been cleaned recently.
Questioning tenants and neighbors, investigators came across Cristian Jensen, an employee of the nearby Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company location. Jensen informed investigators that he provided Lee with a quantity of the same distinct brown paper used to package up the body parts. In fact, a close look revealed Jensen’s own handwriting was found on some of the paper used in the crime.
Subsequently, in a particularly gruesome scene, the investigators are said to have pieced many of the body parts together on a table of the boarding house in an attempt to make identifications.
Police also found a savings book showing deposits totaling $4,000, all made out to Ludwig Lee.
When the investigators surprised Lee with Jensen and the brown paper evidence, he confessed. He admitted to killing Brownell, and then Bennett when she came across him in the basement trying to conceal the first crime.
“There was nothing to do but chop them into little pieces,” Lee told investigators, adding, “It was a lot of work, doing all the running around.”
During the trial, the case drew international attention due to charges of police brutality. Lee’s defense attorney claimed his client was violently beaten by Brooklyn coppers to extract a confession. A formal protest issued by the Consul General of Norway made its way to the desk of U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, who requested that then-New York State Governor Alfred Smith launch a formal investigation. A grand jury found that Lee had not been assaulted while in custody.
Based on his confession and the extensive physical evidence, Lee was convicted in a short trial in October 1928, and then sentenced the following month to die in the electric chair. The sentence was carried out shortly thereafter that Sing Sing.