Today we are starting a new series, I have spent quite a bit of time on this case because I wanted to answer this one simple question, was the torch slayer a serial killer? The basic definition of a Serial Killer is someone who commits a series of murders, often with no apparent motive and typically following a characteristic, predictable behavior pattern. Because of how things were handled, you probably never heard of the Torch Slayer, and if you had, you only knew of his one victim. But today, we are taking a deep dive into this crazy story.
This story first took place in February of 1928. A woman named Margaret Brown is getting ready to start a new chapter of her life. Little does she know, it’s the final chapter.
Hello everyone, and Welcome to was is officially known as season two of Forgotten True Crime. The Podcast where we investigate True Crime cases forgotten through time. We examine each crime independently of other people’s opinions. We search out prime sources through Police Records, Witness Statements, News Reports, and much more. Please subscribe to the Podcast so that you will be the first to know when we have new episodes. You can also check out our webpage at TrueCrime.Blog. There we post each story and some of the reports we gathered for each case. We have a Facebook and YouTube Page as well. You can find us under Forgotten True Crime.
Love can make a person do strange things. It blinds you to the obvious, like deceit, lies, and even… danger. Unfortunately for some, missing these warning signs can mean placing yourself in a perilous situation.
On February 21st, 1928. Enow Campbell was driving home in the early morning hours after a late evening out in Morristown, New Jersy with his Wife and Neighbor James Murdoch. Morristown was a nice and quiet community, so it was a surprise to everyone in that car when they saw something burning in the distance on the Morristown-Benardsville highway. Enow thought it might be one of the roadside stands that vendors set up and leave overnight. The flames were large enough that they thought it would be best to stop and see if they could assist in putting it out. It was near a gas station, and they didn’t want to think about the possibility it too caught fire.
As they approached, they discovered that the fire was behind a roadside stand and very close to the gas station. The fire appeared to be the ground, which was weird since fresh snow blanketed the city. Enow and James got out of the car, approached the fire, and were shocked to find that in the midding of the fire was actually a person engulfed in flames, not moving. Quickly, They tried to put the fire out, but nothing they did seemed to work. Finally, the two men started taking the snow and dousing the fire by covering the body. Now, Enow could smell gasoline and then realized that the person they found was soaked in it.
Just as James began saying that this was a horrible way for someone to die, the body of the chared person began to move and struggled to breathe. Both men realized that this poor person was still alive. It was then a police car pulled up.
Chief of Police Cavanaugh was alerted by a passerby about the fire. He was the first official to the scene, and the Chief approached the two men putting out the fire. They told him about what they had come across and that the person was still alive. Acting quickly, the three men brought the body to the police car and loaded it in the back seat. Enow got into his car to follow along, and James got in the back of the police car with the injured person. It was then he realized that the charred person was a woman.
They pulled back onto the road, and Enow drove as fast as he could on the ice-covered roads. The nearest hospital was not too far away, but to everyone’s horror, the woman again burst into flames that quickly spread over her clothes and body.
Chief Cavanaugh was forced to again pull over, and they pulled the woman out of the car. They once again put her out with snow, and when the flames were again extinguished, they put her back in the car. Now, James realized she didn’t seem to be breathing anymore.
When they reached the hospital, the staff tried to do what they could for the woman, but it was just too late. They pronounced her dead at 3AM, ending this woman’s final chapter in life but marking the beginning of a wild murder investigation.
The murder investigation was headed up by Chief Charles Cavanaugh and County Prosecutor Francis L Bergen. The unidentified woman’s body was now in the hand of Corner R.D. Totten. They first wanted to establish whether this woman had done this to herself or not. There was no mistaking what caused the fire. She was soaked in gasoline. The smell was potent. As Totten examined the body, he found nothing obvious that pointed out that she was injured before the fire. He also noted that she left her jewelry on, a 24 carrot watch. Her clothing was not cheap. She had a seal skin coat that looked like a custom order from a well-known furrier, Thomas Leous, but was marked “Louis from Buffalo” and not Leous Furrs.
The thing that looked very odd on the woman’s body was that it didn’t appear that she tried to put herself out or protect herself in any way. Even if you had done this on purpose, you would be in extreme pain and react. It looked like she didn’t move at all after the fire started. Her right arm was charred severely, along with her legs and the right side of her torso.
Thinking she had been drugged or something along those lines, Totten ordered that she have an autopsy done. He contacted the Somerville Hospital and set up an appointment with county physician George L. Mack in hopes that they could provide some answers.
Detectives took the items that may help identify the woman and began getting the word out about what happened. The first step was to alert the local news of the incident. The report itself may provide identification quicker than their own legwork. The second thing they did was they had officers in Buffalo, New York, visit Thomas Leous, who created the sealskin coat. They hoped he could shed some light on the woman’s identity by describing the tailored coat and the woman.
Thomas Leous welcomed the officers but could provide little information on who the woman may be. He had sold several coats like it, and the vague description of the woman was no help. But, Thomas had a well-organized list of clients who lived in the area. He gave the officers the names of his clients who lived in New Jersey in hopes that one of them might be able to identify the woman.
Chief Charles Cavanaugh and County Prosecutor Francis L Bergen searched for clues at the crime scene. Although this was a horrible thing that had happened, they did not know if she was murdered or if this was something she had done to herself. The Chief knew the corners theory that she was probably not conscious when she was set on fire, but now they were looking for hard evidence of that.
Near where she was found, there was a small gas station. That station had been closed at the time, and there was no way she would have been able to get gas from the pump. There was nothing around like matches, a lighter, or a container to hold gas in the area. But, what they did find were tire tracks leading up to the spot where she had been left. It looked like someone had simply pulled behind the building, pulled the woman out of a car, and then set her on fire.
Over the next 24 hours, police began to run down leads, look for witnesses and continue to identify the poor woman. As all of this was happening, the newspapers ran the story as front-page news. It was through these news articles that they received their first big tip, possible identification.
Miss Mary Brown, who resided in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was worried about her Aunt Margaret Brown. She was supposed to be going on a trip, but she had dropped all contact with the family after she had lunch with her sister-in-law.
The woman that Aunt Margaret worked for had called and asked if they had heard from Margaret. When Mary told her that she had not, the employer told Mary about a woman found dead in the paper. How the description reminded her of Margaret.
All of this worried Mary, but the thing that worried her the most was that she knew that Margaret was carrying around quite a bit of money. When she had lunch with her sister-in-law, Margaret said that she had just withdrawn nine thousand from her bank account. Which, in 1928, was the equivalent of having over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
So Mary Brown phoned the police and talked to Detective Fred Roff. They went over identifying marks that were known to have been on Margaret Brown, and one such mark was a surgery scar she had on her torso. Detective Roff checked the body; sure enough, there was a surgery scar just as described.
The Detective described the clothing that the victim had on. Each article was confirmed to have been something Margaret had owned. So the Detective asked Mary if she would come down to the station and make a formal identification, even though they were pretty sure who the woman was now. She agreed to come down the next day by police escort.
Before hanging up, Detective Roff asked what it was that Margaret did for a living. Mary told the Detective that she was a woman of means. She had money but wanted to work for something to do with her life. She had obtained a job as a governess and was working for the Gillespie family. She had been employed with them for nine months.
Detectives discovered that the Gillespie’s, who Margaret worked for, were wealthy. They lived in New York on Park Avenue. Working as a governess for them meant receiving many perks of living wealthy. When interviewed, Mr. and Mrs. stated that Margaret liked going to Central Park in her free time. They believed that she had met someone and was planning on going away with him soon. From what Margaret told the family, she planned to go to California soon.
All of this was news to the Detectives. They had heard from the family that she was planning on going to Florida, but not California. The day prior, Margaret had left their employment under excellent terms to pursue a life of her own. So the Detectives asked about the amount of money Margaret had on her when she left their employment, and they told the Detective that they were not quite sure. Mrs. Gillespie knew she had little to travel with but was unsure of the amount. He told her they believed she had eight thousand on her at the time of her death, and the Gillespie’s seemed generally shocked that she was carrying around that much money. She then told the Detectives that she had talked about a man who came to see her, he was believed to be a Doctor and his name was Huff or Hoff.
Detectives were also told that when Margaret Brown left her employment, she took with her a trunk, something that was not with her now. She had received mail several times at her place of employment, and as far as they knew, she never threw away those letters or burned them, which was a common practice at this time.
As the news broke that named Margaret Brown was the probable victim, reports began to filter in about Margaret and what may have happened to her. While she lived in New York and in the employment of the Gillespie’s, Margaret was seen several times talking to a man around central park. He was described as a little younger, and he seemed quite taken with Margaret. But because of her private nature, no one knew his name, and they only had vague descriptions of him and of the car that he drove. What they were able to piece together was that he drove a blue sedan. A blue sedan was also reported to have been seen in the area the night of the fire.
With little to go on, Detectives returned to search for the blue sedan or a Doctor Huff. The next day, a letter arrived at the police station through the morning post. The clerk believed that it was just an ordinary letter and opened it. Two one thousand dollar bonds fell out onto the desk, along with a full confession letter. The letter read…
“I am writing you this letter and sending you these bonds of Miss Brown, knowing you will take care of them before anyone else gets them. I am very remorseful. I had been drinking.”
“I met Miss Brown in Buffalo and then again in Newark at 4:15 on Monday and reached New York at 7:15 and met Miss Brown. I had two bottles of wine, and we both drank some.
“I drove out to Lovers Lane, where there was a large car parked. I drove around until the car had gone, and then I pulled up there. I tried to take advantage of her, but she refused. I hit her on the head, and she fell. Thinking I had killed her, I took gasoline from my car and poured it over it, lighting it, and then drove away.”
“I drove through Bernardsville, where I threw the rest of the stuff in the river as this was all the money she had, and I drove around and slept in the car the rest of the night.”
“I drove to Newark the next morning, where I am in hiding. I have a good car and new tires, and I am signing out, god knows where, to hell, I suppose. By the time you get this letter, I shall have a good start on you. I am going to go until my money gives out, and then when I am caught, I have something with me to end it all before they can do anything.”
The clerk rushed the letter to the Detectives; this might contain a clue that they need to break this case.
Some of the detectives on the case thought this letter was not written by someone who was well educated. But as they interviewed those who knew the victim, they were told that Margaret was seeing a Doctor from New York. Although not many knew his name, except for one friend and fellow governess, Miss Elizabeth Emily Miller. Miss Miller not only knew the name of the Doctor that Margaret was seeing, but she had seen him in passing and knew what he looked like.
Miss Miller told the Detectives that the man they were looking for was Dr. Louis Clement. He resided and practiced in New York, and he met Margaret through personals in the paper. They had fallen in love, and they planned on getting married. This was interesting to the police because this is something they did not publish in the confession letter; they held it back, so it was not common knowledge.
In the letter, the killer explains that he and Margaret Brown were to be married. But on the night of the murder, she had told him she no longer wished to marry. He tried to convince her otherwise, but she refused to change her mind. That is what caused him to snap, ultimately leading to the murder.
Now, this information came just days after the murder. Keep in mind that this is days after not having any actual solid leads, and this is front-page news across the country. So when Officers and Detectives got the name of the person they thought might have caused the murder, they let part of that information leak.
Detectives in New Jersey contacted Officers in New York and informed them of the information they had received. New York officials began to quickly look for Dr. Clement. The first place they checked was his home. But when they arrived, they found that not only was Dr. Clement not living there, but he had been thrown out by his wife. Dr. Clement was married.
Detectives sat down with Mrs. Theresa Flower Van Norden, the Doctor’s wife, and explained the situation. She and Dr. Clement had married after 6 months of dating. After they married, the Doctor decided to steal a diamond broach worth over six hundred dollars. After he stole it, she had not seen him since. When the Detectives told her why they were looking for her husband, she told them they had the wrong guy. He was a thief, not a killer. But she did tell them where she believed he could be found. He may be staying at one of several hotels downtown, but she didn’t know what he was doing for work.
Despite what they were told, Detectives in New York stationed themselves in local hotels and areas where they were told that Dr. Clement frequented. They also let it slip to the press that they were on the verge of catching the killer. Officers said they were watching the killer and waiting to make their move. The truth was that they were where they only believed he would be, Officers didn’t know where the Doctor was, and as each hour went by, they started feeling the weight of their statements returning to haunt them.
This frustrated officers from both New Jersey and New York. Many didn’t believe that they should have given such a statement to the press and that it created this false sense of security in the general public. The fact was that if Dr. Clement was the killer and wanted to kill again, no one was watching him to stop him. Furthermore, they were also going off of one person’s statement that he was indeed the person who was seeing Margaret.
Despite their frustrations, On Feb 24th, 1928, Detectives in New Jersey started telling the press that the killer was a drug fiend. They based this on the information that he had stolen the diamond broach from his wife. Their thinking was that he would only do that because he wanted to sell it or trade it for drugs. They also let it be known that when the killer was caught, everyone would be shocked when they found out who the individual was.
In my opinion, this was a careless tactic, but it was the type of thing you might expect between two state police forces who were not working well with each other. In New Jersey and New York, this free-flowing information was always making its way to the press. Officers and Detectives commonly fed them information because those news articles sometimes helped solve the crime or find the killer. The Newspapers may have been offering rewards for information as well, so there might have been money to be made by passing out information. Everyone wanted the scoop first.
It was also during this time that the police were starting to run down every lead that they had come their way. They were desperate to get this solved and would take any information that they could get. A man in New Jersey near where the murder took place had committed suicide, which caused the authorities to investigate if he was the killer or not. In the confession letter, the killer threatened to end things before he got caught. But when they looked into the man’s life, they knew he had nothing to do with it.
On May 1st, just 8 days after the murder, the Detectives decided to take the suspect’s name to the news media. They had lost his trail, and after days of trying to find him, they were running out of leads fast. The fact of the matter was that they were spending all of their time looking for this one person. They were not sure if he had anything to do with this murder or not. But the more time they spent running down this one lead, the more they got tunnel vision and lost sight of all other possible leads. So by the end of the day, the name Dr. Louis Clement was plastered on the front of every major newspaper in the northeast united states.
When the nation read about Dr. Clement, information about him started to spill into the media about his personal life and dealings in the past. Nothing painted him in a positive light. He once swindled two women out of thousands of dollars when he promised them that he was developing a new type of fuel, something that was going to change the world. They invested in his idea. He took their money and ran.
As the days went on, the police and public continued searching for the Doctor. He was reported to have been spotted all over the country and was instantly everywhere and nowhere. Detectives continued to zero in on the Dr. as their primary suspect. They took the written confession letter and compared it to other known letters that Dr. Clement had written. It was the opinion of the detectives that the two letters were written by the same person. This was damming evidence and was the first thing, physically, that they possessed that linked the Doctor to the killer.
On Mar 5th, a new letter arrived at the police station. This one was addressed by Dr. Louis Clement. The letter was mailed two days earlier, on Saturday, Mar 3rd. The letter says that he has been making no effort to avoid the police and that he would have visited police headquarters but for the fact that he is penniless and cannot afford to retain anyone to represent him or protect his interest. He went on to state that he had no car and didn’t know how to drive if he had one. The Doctor went on to explain that on Sunday, Feb 20th, he had dinner with friends here in the city and if the authorities have not found the address of this friend precious to the receipt of this letter, I shall be glad to furnish his name and address. He stated that he could provide proof that he had not been out of New York since Thanksgiving Day in 1927.
If the contents of this letter were true, it would mean that the Doctor had fallen on hard times and had nothing to do with the murder in the first place. This would mean that they had been searching for this single person with no other suspect in sight for weeks, and if he was not the killer, then they had gone down a road where there was really no coming back from.
On Mar 6th, a man walked into a New York City police station and told the clerk that he wanted to speak to whoever was in charge. The clerk asked who the man was, and he told him that he would not give up his idenity to anyone, except to whoever was in charge. So the clerk went and retrieved the department chief, who too asked the man for his name. He stated that he was Dr. Clement, the man they were looking for. At once, the Chief brought Dr. Clement into an interrogation room, and they started questioning him about his possible involvement in the murder.
The questioning went on for hours and hours. Dr. Clement was steadfast in his stance that he had nothing to do with the murder and that he didn’t know the victim. Dr. Clement worked in a restaurant in New York on the day in question. He worked late and was not only seen by his coworkers but by the many customers as well. The distance from his work to the murder scene was just too far. There was no way the Doctor could have been at both places.
Miss Elizabeth Emily Miller was shown a photo of Dr. Clement and how he looked now, and at once, she dismissed it. Miss Miller said that there was no way this was the person that Margaret was seeing and was not the person she saw her with. The person she saw said he was Dr. Clement, but obviously, he was not telling the truth.
Dr. Clement was arrested, but not for murder. He was charged for the diamond broach he stole from his wife. She valued it at $600.00, but Dr. Clement said it was worth much less than that.
Because there was little else followed up on, all other leads came up cold. Because of her private nature, Margaret didn’t give much insight into her private life and made it very hard for anyone to identify who the man she was seeing was. There were reports that he was younger or older than she was. Many of the reports stated that he was a thin man. But I am not blaming the victim in any way for her death. I’m just saying that it made things hard for the investigation.
Its not uncommon for police in this era to get tunnel vision and to ignore everything except for one lead. This is something that Detectives and Police train to prevent in today’s world. But in this case, this was a perfect storm that offset the investigation no matter what. It was odd to police that the Doctor had seemingly disappeared when they were looking for him. They didn’t take into account that he was just another person who had fallen on hard times and was trying to make ends meet.
As the days and weeks went by, the news of Margaret Brown and in the investigation into her death went to the wayside. New investigations that had not gone cold ended up taking presentence, and her murder was little mentioned in the paper again… until that is… another murder took place.
On what is almost the first anniversary of Margaret Brown’s murder, another practically identical murder occurred. A woman is killed and burned in the snow. This time, police are hot on his trail. Will the killer get away with it again?