0Bronx 1920s

Aunt Fannie’s Burglar

(Reading time 6.5 minutes)

It was Hot! Very Hot! Over 100 degrees Hot, especially on the fourth floor of a tenement walk-up apartment building in the Bronx.  The year, 1930 – before air conditioning or insulation – no electric fans, just paper fans with funeral home advertisements, supplied by St Mary’s Church.  The windows to the fire escape were wide open.  For circulation, the apartment door to the hallway was propped open with a chair.  This indeed, was one miserable day!  Anyone, who ever lived in a N.Y.C. Bronx walk-up, will get the picture.

Remember Molly Goldberg on the radio (in the thirties)?  Old timers will know what this means: “Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” echoing down the alley between the apartments, where wash lines on pulleys were strung from the fire escape railings across the alleys, to each juxtapositioned apartment.  This is where radio land’s inimitable Molly Goldberg dwelled, but so did my Irish Aunt Fannie.  Only ten years from Ireland she was, but with a Bronx accent that would have fooled St. Mary’s own parish priest himself, “Don’t you know?”

“No July was ever hotter”, claimed Fannie.  On the day of this story, lounging around the apartment in their slips, were my Aunt Fannie and her sister Maggie, who was visiting for a few days. She was looking for a job anywhere in the city, to do anything legal. Indeed, with an economy worse than what we have seen so far in this 2011.  She was sweating hot and desperate.  This was the depression, plus.

Every window was open for a breath of fresh air, but there was none to be had.  Apartment doors everywhere were open to the hallways for some semblance of cross ventilation. With the fire escape outside every window to every apartment, it was an open invitation to intruders.  They could easily crawl in at will, especially after dark and do their “thievin’ dirty work,” as Fannie called it.

It just so happened that in this period of the depression, a rapist and burglar had been paying uninvited surprise visits to lone lady residents, widows, spinsters and working girls living alone.  Most attacks were reported to the police, who always arrived on the scene after the deeds were committed.  With the 1930 crime forensic techniques, police rarely caught the perpetrators who moved from one district to another, after each of their performances.

On this particular night, Aunt Fannie had retired early, listening to the radio stories and shows. Senior citizens, who lived in the 30’s, will delightfully remember the radio shows before television.  Fannie’s sister, Maggie, chose to sleep on a blanket on the floor, which was a little cooler than a bed in the heat of that night.  The apartment door was now closed, but the single window to the fire escape was wide open.  Just as Fannie was dozing, she felt her night clothes being rearranged.  She awakened to see a silhouetted, huge man leaning over her bed. She started to scream. The intruder covered her mouth.  She struggled.  He over powered her every move.  My God, I’m going to be attacked, she thought.  He put his entire body weight upon her as she pushed his hands away from everywhere he groped her.  She would not stop struggling.  All of a sudden, he wielded a switchblade knife and positioned it as to stab her.  In that instant, a loud thud rang out from a crash to his head.  His big heavy body fell on top of Fannie, unconscious, out cold!  Sister Maggie, who had been un-noticed sleeping on the floor at the foot of the sofa, grabbed a heavy bookend from the end table and hit him with a super powerful blow, which stopped the attack.  In a few seconds, he revived and ran towards the window, where he stopped, probably to obscure his tracks. In that instant, half out the window he turned to flee down the fire escape.  With that, both Aunt Fannie and Maggie ran to the window and gave him a push.  He fell through the open window, onto the fire escape, over a railing, then four flights straight down, splat to his death.  Fannie and Maggie were terrified.  They came back in the apartment, closed and locked the window, pulled down the shade, and sat up all night, expecting the police to come any minute.  No one ever came.

In the morning, a neighbor saw the body and called the police.   When the officers arrived at the scene, it was obvious what happened.  The intruder still had the knife in his hand.  He was readily identified by the cops as the rapist and burglar they had been searching months to find.  They called the paddy wagon, (which they called it in those days).  Loading on the body they could be overheard saying to the driver.  We’ve been looking for this guy for over a year.  Now we find him here, dead, fallen from the fire escape.  A lady yelled from her window, “What happened?”  The policeman answered, “Some crazy burglar fell of the fire escape and killed himself.” That was the end of him, and that’s the end of this story.  Nobody ever bothered to question Aunt Fannie. It’s still Fannie and Maggie’s secret.