Chief Desmond Discovers Murder

On February 10, 1897, 60-year-old William H. Stewart, a civil engineer, died in St. Louis City Hospital.  Stewart passed away from a morphine overdose.  St. Louis Police originally thought it was a case of suicide or accidental overdose.

Stewart lived with his son-in-law F.C. Bennett at 2634 Dickson Street.  Mr. Bennett categorically denied Mr. Stewart used drugs of any kind.  He also said Mr. Stewart had no reason to kill himself.  Mr. Bennett suspected murder based on Mr. Stewart’s missing jewelry consisting of a diamond ring, watch and chain.  Mr. Stewart was also carrying cash.


Artist rendering of St. Louis Chief of Detectives William Desmond from the Public Domain

St. Louis Police Captain Joyce doubted foul play was involved but St. Louis Chief of Detectives William Desmond was concerned about the missing property.  Desmond sent Detectives Badger and Freese to check the local pawn shops.  On February 16, 1897, the detectives found the jewelry in a pawn shop.

A local rooming house owner, Charles Griffo, was arrested for pawning the watch.  Detective O’Connell arrested a second man, Hiram Brooks, who admitted to pawning the missing ring for Griffo.  Police arrested Miranda Griffo, Charles’ wife, as an accomplice.

Chief Desmond sweated all three suspects over Stewart’s death.  Griffo and his wife told Desmond that Stewart was brought to their rooming house by two girls, Bertha Nixon and Lizzie Henry.  Nixon and Henry rented a room from the Griffos at 1203 Washington Avenue.

Nixon and Henry lured Mr. Stewart to the house to spike his drink with “knockout drops”.  After he fell asleep, they were going to rob him of his valuables.  While Henry was entertaining Stewart, Nixon slipped the drops into a drink she prepared for Stewart.  The concoction was too strong for Stewart, who quite breathing.

Not sure if Stewart was going to recover or die, the women summoned Charles Griffo.  He and Hiram Brooks carried Stewart to the rear of 1205 Washington Avenue, where they left him.  A St. Louis Police Officer found Stewart but he died at the St. Louis City Hospital.

Griffo and Brooks pawned the property for a split of the proceeds.  Lizzie Henry travelled to Toledo, Ohio to stay with family.  Bertha Nixon moved to another rooming house operated by the Griffos, who also moved their residence.  After Griffo and Brooks confessed, St. Louis Police arrested Bertha Nixon.

Chief Desmond sent a dispatch to Toledo Police, who arrested Henry.  After she was returned to St. Louis, Desmond interviewed both women.  Nixon and Henry both confessed to the murder but said it was accidental.  The knockout drops were only supposed to make Stewart lose consciousness.

During May 1897, Nixon and Henry were tried for murder in Judge Zachritz’s court room.  Zachritz told the jurors they could consider manslaughter if they thought Stewart was killed accidentally.  The jury did find them guilty of manslaughter.  Zachritz sentenced both to 2 years in prison for Stewart’s murder.

If Chief Desmond wouldn’t have sent the detectives to the pawn shops, the murder would never have been discovered.  Thanks to Chief Desmond’s instincts, a murder was discovered and solved.  The case brought closure for Mr. Stewart’s family.

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Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 6, 1897, p. 6, March 7, 1897, p. 6 and May 8, 1897, p. 2

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