“The most revolting and horrible murder ever committed in Orange County.” These are the words used by George Ronk, chief of police in Walden, to described the death of Jack Grace, whose mutilated, decomposing body was found in the village’s Twentieth Century Club on September 11, 1912. He was only 28 years old. The primary suspect in his brutal murder was his own brother, Antone William Grace, known in Walden as Bill Grace.
It is interesting to note that the Grace brothers were from Fall River, Massachusetts — the same town where the famous Lizzie Borden murder trial had occurred in the 1890s. The similarity between the two events is intriguing. In both cases, family members were charged with violently killing their own kin. Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet; Bill Grace was accused of killing his brother with a meat cleaver. Borden’s case received a huge amount of national media attention, becoming a cause célèbre. While Lizzie’s gender made that case sensational, the Grace case — which involved scandalous circumstances including fratricide and bigamy — has been all but forgotten. But in many ways, the Grace murder trial was to Walden what the Lizzie Borden case had been to Fall River.
Fannie Andrews (left), the Walden women Bill Grace hoped to make his third wife; right, murder victim Jack Grace
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In 1912, Walden was thriving. The Wallkill River, which runs right through the center of the village, provided a readily available source of power, so it was a natural place for early industrial development. A blue-collar community, the town had a strong manufacturing base, and it was where Jack and Bill Grace decided to settle down in 1910. By most accounts, they were friendly with each other and spent a lot of time together. They were working class men and had become well-known in the community during the two years they had been around.
But Bill Grace was also something of a cad: He abandoned his first wife with their three children, married a second woman, left her while she was pregnant with their child, and stole her family’s money to make his escape. He then used this money to help finance a new life for himself in Walden that included, incredibly, a third wife, a local girl named Fannie Andrews (whom he married within days of the crime). The theory of the case was that Jack Grace (who, interestingly enough, was also a bigamist) was going to tell Fannie about Bill’s other marriages. So Bill stopped that from happening by murdering his brother, then robbed him in order to fund a fancy honeymoon for himself and his new bride.
Above, a cleaver similar to the one thought to have killed Jack Grace; the Twentieth Century Club (below), where the murder took place, was located in the building on the right
The police involved in the case speculated that Jack and his murderer had sat up talking on Saturday night, September 7, in the clubroom of the Twentieth Century Club. His murderer had apparently waited for Jack to fall asleep; he then grabbed a meat cleaver used by the club members to cut kindling wood, crept up on the sleeping man and, with a strong blow, nearly split his head in two. Jack was then robbed of $320, two diamond rings, and a diamond pin. His lifeless body was subsequently dragged to a back room at the club, where he was laid out on the floor. A couch was placed on top of the body in order to hide it. This caused Jack’s features to become distorted as if he had been flattened.
The most damning evidence against Bill presented at the trail was found in his shaving mug. During the investigation, Chief Ronk discovered two diamond rings and a diamond pin hidden under a piece of soap in the mug, which itself had been spotted in the suitcase that Bill used on his honeymoon. Bill claimed that Jack had given him the rings and pin for safekeeping; after hearing about the murder, he hid them, fearing that having them would implicate him in the crime. The prosecution also argued that Jack was killed sometime in the wee hours of Sunday morning, September 8; bystanders on Main Street said they heard noises coming from the Twentieth Century Club at 6:10 a.m that morning. Bill was then seen leaving the club at 6:45 a.m.
Bill insisted that he was innocent. He maintained that the last time he saw his brother he was with a man named Connelly, who did not have the best reputation. Jimmy O’Connell (or Connelly), better known as “Kid,” was a wrestler of considerable fame in Orange County. Jack also had made a name for himself as a wrestler; the two were known to be acquainted with each other. “A weak spot in the defense was the failure to bring out more enlightenment on the subject of the man ‘Connelly’ who, according to Bill Grace, was the last person seen with Jack. There has been an impression that he was a mythical personage, but plenty of evidence can be secured to show that he was a real man,” wrote the Newburgh Daily News (one of several local newpapers that reported daily on the case).
Lizzie Borden was found not guilty, but Bill Grace was not so lucky. He was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his brother. His trial was completed in two days; it took the jury less than an hour to find Bill guilty, even though the entire case was based on circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to death by electrocution.
Grace filed an appeal, but it was unsuccessful. In a last-ditch attempt to save his life, he made a plea for clemency to Governor William Sulzer; it was denied. (The only New York governor ever to be impeached, Sulzer was in the midst of those proceedings at the time Grace made his plea, and may have been somewhat preoccupied.) Truly out of luck, Bill Grace was again sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
On August 4, 1913, Grace entered Sing Sing’s death chamber at 5:53 p.m. Five minutes later, he was pronounced dead. The murder of Jack Grace had been avenged in accordance with the laws of the state.
The Grace Murder Case, copyright 2010 by Lisa Melville. Published at $12.95 by Sisu Books, P.O. Box 421, Sparrowbush, NY 12780 (www.sisubooks.com). Also available from www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com