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Harry L. Hoffman

In March 1924, Maude C. Bauer was driving on Staten Island with her mother, Mrs. Piero, when they were forced off the road by a truck and skidded into the sand. Unable to move the car, Bauer went to find help. A man in a Ford sedan came along and offered to take her to a garage, and she accepted his ride. Shortly after 4:00 pm on the afternoon of March 25, 1924, Mrs. Bauer’s body was discovered by two boys on bicycles approximately a mile and a half from her stranded car. The area in which the body was found was nicknamed “Lover’s Lane.” She had been shot twice, once in the neck and once in the abdomen. The evidence suggested that rape had been contemplated, but never accomplished.

The first witness was a thirteen-year-old girl named Barbara Fahs. Fahs told the police that she had been walking along South Avenue when she saw a Ford car stop and a lady walking on the road got into the car. She told police that she heard the man say “Jump in, I'll drive you to the nearest garage and we can get a rope.” Fahs described the man who offered Mrs. Bauer a ride as being between the ages of thirty-five and forty, weighing about 160 pounds, wearing bone rimmed or tortoise shell glasses, a brown coat and hat, and driving a Ford sedan. Fahs also stated that the Ford car had two doors and slip seat covers of flowered chintz. Hoffman’s neighbors also told the police that at one point in time, his Ford sedan had had slipcovers over the seats.

The police followed multiple leads during the month of March 1924. At the end of the month, Detective McGann, one of the lead investigators on the Bauer murder case, heard that people in Port Richmond, New York, were talking about the resemblance of a motion picture operator to the description of the driver of the Ford sedan. The motion picture operator was Harry L. Hoffman. McGann summoned Hoffman to answer questions.

During the course of this initial questioning, Hoffman fabricated an alibi due to his fear that being Jewish and living on Staten Island would lead to the same fate as Leo Frank. Leo Frank was a Jewish man who was lynched in Georgia based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence. It later turned out, ten years after Mr. Frank was dead, that another man confessed to the crime. Hoffman feared a similar outcome based on the fact that the description of the accused matched him, he owned a .25 caliber gun, and he drove a Ford sedan. In order to avoid lynching or the death penalty, he told police the following facts: (1) March 25, 1924 was his day off and in the morning he took the ferry to Manhattan to visit his broker at W. E. Hutton; (2) in the afternoon, he returned to Staten Island and visited with his friend, Ray (Racey) Parker, in the projection room at the Liberty Theater from shortly after 3:00 pm until 5:00 pm; (3) after leaving the Liberty Theater, he had dinner with his wife; and (4) after dinner he played his trombone with his jazz band at a dance for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.

Shortly after the initial questioning of Hoffman, a retired police sergeant named Christenson, who was working at Abercrombie and Fitch, informed Captain Ernest L. Van Wagner that he had sent a holster for .25 caliber gun to an “L. Rothman” in Port Richmond. McGann was asked to follow up on the lead and during the course of his investigation, he learned that the parcel had been incorrectly addressed, and that a Harry L. Hoffman had picked up the package. Based on this new information, Hoffman’s house was searched for a .25 caliber gun, and Hoffman was again summoned for questioning.

During this second round of questioning on April 17, 1924, Hoffman initially told the police that he did not own a .25 caliber gun. He later admitted that he had such a gun because he was an honorary deputy sheriff. He said he had sent the gun to his brother for a Christmas gift. He said he had also intended to send his brother the holster, but when the newspapers began covering the murder, he had burned the holster instead.

While Hoffman was still at the police station, District Attorney Albert C. Pach summoned the witnesses who had seen “a dark complexioned man with tortoise shell glasses fleeing from Lover’s Lane.” The first witness was Barbara Fahs. Upon her first review of Hoffman, she told Captain Van Wagner and District Attorney Fach that Hoffman was not the man she had seen because the man that she had seen had eyes “starting from his head.” District Attorney Fach then showed Fahs a photo of Hoffman from the side, and Fahs said that she could then see that Hoffman was the man that she had seen pick up Mrs. Bauer. Hoffman was arrested.

McGann then questioned the employees at the Liberty Theater where Hoffman allegedly was at the time of the murder. None of the employees had seen Hoffman that afternoon, although Ray (Racey) Parker still insisted that Hoffman had been with him in the booth between four and five pm that afternoon. McGann then questioned employees at the Palace Theater where Hoffman was employed. There he learned that after March 25, Hoffman had discarded some articles of clothing and stopped wearing his tortoise shell glasses outside of the theater. He also changed his brown hat to a gray one. One of the employees, William Whittet, a reel boy at the Palace Theater, discredited Hoffman’s statement that he had never been on the lane off of South Avenue where the murder took place. Whittet told the police that a few days before the murder, Hoffman had asked him if he knew of any lonely roads where Hoffman could take a girl. Harry Edkins, another reel boy, told police that he had been riding with Hoffman along South Avenue and that they passed “Lover’s Lane.” Edkins also claimed that Hoffman told him that he was under suspicion for the murder of Mrs. Bauer, that he was going to get a haircut and “then l surely will be railroaded.'”

The police also inspected Hoffman’s Ford and found a small hole that might have been made by a bullet. However, when the police showed the Ford to Charles Longsides, the owner of a gas station at which a driver of a two-door Ford sedan had stopped for oil on the afternoon of the murder, he could not identify the car as being the one he had seen. Likewise, Nicholas Perricone, a proprietor at a store in Mariners Harbor at which a man in a brown hat and coat and driving a Ford had stopped for cigarettes around 4:45 pm on the afternoon of the murder, could not identify the Ford or Hoffman as being the person he had seen.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence came from a woman named Catherine Campbell. She claimed that Hoffman had tried to attack her one night back in October. She identified Hoffman as her attacker, although Hoffman insisted that he had never seen the woman before. Charges were never filed against Hoffman for this alleged attack.

District Attorney Fach questioned Racey Parker again regarding Hoffman’s alibi. Parker maintained his story that Hoffman had spent the afternoon with him. The District Attorney had Parker arrested as a material witness and held on $25,000 bail. Shortly before Parker was to be transferred to “the Tombs” in Manhattan, he told the police that “the story I’ve been telling you is a lie.” Parker then told the police and the district attorney that he and Hoffman had concocted the story in the event that Hoffman was arrested.

District Attorney Fach also questioned Hoffman’s brother, Albert Hoffman, about the gun. Albert Hoffman told him that the gun had been sent to him by his brother, along with a cleaning brush and a note. The note said to keep the gun in a safe place and if he were to hear of Hoffman being in trouble, to give the gun to Hoffman’s attorney.

Other pieces of circumstantial evidence included the following: ( l) Hoffman stopped wearing his tortoise shell glasses and switched to gold-rimmed glasses; and (2) George McCabe, a broker who worked at W. E. Hutton and Company, had no recollection of Hoffman having visited his office at any time on the day of the murder as Hoffman had claimed as part of his alibi. Hoffman was charged with murder and indicted on April 25, 1924.

Hoffman’s first trial began on May 13, 1924, before Judge J. Harry Tiernan. During trial, the State called over 150 witnesses. Barbara Fahs identified Hoffman as the man she had seen pick up Mrs. Bauer. Mrs. Piero, the mother of Mrs. Bauer, could not say whether Hoffman was the man who had passed them in his car and stopped and picked up her daughter.

The ballistics experts testified next. Dr. Frank Whittier, an expert in microscopic photography, testified that Hoffman’s gun discharged the shells found near Mrs. Bauer’s body. On cross­ examination, however, Dr. Whittier admitted that he had only examined fifteen pistols in his life, four of which were Colt automatics, and that he never fired a single bullet from Hoffman’s gun. The next ballistics expert, Sergeant Harry F. Butts, took the stand as the Police Department expert. He limited his testimony to saying that the death bullet was fired by a .25 Colt automatic based on the groove marks on the slug. He did not testify regarding which Colt pistol fired the fatal slug, although he did admit that he did not find the particular deep marks which appeared on the death bullet on any of the test bullets that he fired from Hoffman’s gun. Experts for the defense testified that the scratches on the death bullet were caused by corrosion in the metal of the gun and there were no such corrosions in Hoffman’s gun.

Additional testimony was provided by patrolman Matthew McCormick, who had been on Victory Boulevard about a mile from where the murder had been committed. He testified that he was on his way home thumbing a ride when a Ford sedan approached at about twenty miles per hour. The Ford did not stop, but McCormick testified that he obtained a good look at the driver and the driver was Hoffman.

The final two witnesses were Harry Edkins and Hoffman himself. During Edkin’s testimony, he repudiated his prior statement that Hoffman told him he was being railroaded for murder. During Hoffman's testimony, the first thing he did was to change his story of where he was during the hour of the shooting. He admitted that the Liberty Theater story was a lie, and that he had gone instead to a Chinese restaurant and then returned home. During the time of the shooting, Hoffman explained that he had been on a ferry on his way home.

On May 29, 1924, the jury found Hoffman guilty of murder in the second degree. Hoffman had escaped the death penalty, but was sentenced to twenty years to life imprisonment. It took three years for Hoffman’s appeal to be heard. On February 4, 1927, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, determined that the verdict was contrary to the charge in the indictment and ordered a new trial. The indictment had charged that “without a design to effect death, while engaged in an attempt to commit a felony, a rape in the first degree upon the person of Maude C. Bauer, Harry Hoffman did willfully slay her.” The Court of Appeals found that there is no second degree murder when committed as charged in the indictment because second degree murder requires the desire to effect death as a necessary element of the crime.

District Attorney Fach appealed this decision and while the appeal was pending, Presiding Justice Jaycox, who had written the appellate opinion, was killed in an automobile accident. The judgment of the lower court was affirmed, without a written opinion, by the Court of Appeals of New York on May 31, 1927.

Hoffman’s second trial began on March 5, 1928. When Hoffman’s attorney, Leonard Snitkin, rose to address the jury on March 26, he collapsed from a heart attack. The court adjourned for one week. After one day of further testimony, Snitkin again collapsed. The court declared a mistrial.

When Snitkin recovered, he asked for a change of venue.  Due to the difficulty in impaneling juries in Staten Island due to bias and the court’s belief that Hoffman could not obtain a fair trial on Staten Island because of press comment on the case, the case was transferred to Kings County, New York. The third trial began on November 7, 1928, before Justice Callaghan. On November 27, 1928, a hung jury resulted.

The fourth and final trial began on May 6 1929, before Justice Burt J. Humphrey of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Hoffman’s attorney, Snitkin, had died after the third trial and was replaced by Samuel S. Liebowitz, a noted New York criminal lawyer. Liebowitz’s effective cross-examination ripped the State’s case to pieces. From Captain Van Wagner, he secured an admission that the police had nothing to link Hoffman’s car to the crime except that it was a two­door Ford sedan. Likewise, Barbara Fahs admitted that at the time she had seen the driver of the Ford, she was standing at the back of the car. Her identification of Hoffman was based on a photograph showing a full view of his face, whereas she could only see the side view of the driver’s face. Liebowitz also got testimony that Fahs could not remember the address of her former home, the number of one of the schools she had attended, the date of the first trial, a description of the detective who questioned her or how far she was from the auto when she saw Mrs. Bauer enter it. Each of the factors demonstrated that Fahs’ memory was not as reliable as suggested.

Liebowitz was able to get Patrolman McCormick to admit that it took him until April 25 – thirty days after the date of the murder – to identify Hoffman as the man he had seen driving the Ford. In fact, the identification was made after reward money was offered and after District Attorney Fach had told McCormick to go to the police station and make the identification. In addition to the questioning, Liebowitz also did his own investigation. He found a day on which the weather conditions were identical to those on March 25, and he stood at the exact time in the exact spot on Victory Boulevard where McCormick claimed he had been standing when he saw Hoffman driving the Ford sedan from the direction of Lover's Lane (i.e., east.) Liebowitz confirmed that the sun hit the windshield of every car that came from the east, and that when the sun hit the glass, it was deflected to such an extent that no one could tell whether the driver of an oncoming car was a man or a woman, black or white, or any other features. In addition, given the limited traffic on Victory Boulevard, it was highly unlikely that any driver would have been going as slow as twenty miles per hour, as McCormick contended.

Liebowitz established that Whittet, the reel boy, had been convicted of grand larceny and had never mentioned his story of Hoffman looking for a lonely road until after he had been convicted of nocturnal spying and applied for probation. Harry Edkins, the other reel boy, then testified that the District Attorney had beaten him with a ruler when Edkins refused to change his story about Hoffman’s glasses. During this fourth trial, Edkins further testified that a cop had beaten him when he refused to give testimony unfavorable to Hoffman. On cross-examination by Fach, Edkins stuck to his story that he did not remember driving by Lover’s Lane with Hoffman.

Liebowitz also called a surprise witness, Mrs. Angelina Laurino, who lived in Linoleumville, near the crime scene. She testified that on the afternoon in question, a man who fit the description of the alleged killer called on her. He was a collector for a dry-goods store, and when she could not pay him the money owed on some curtains, he went away. Strangely, the man never returned to collect the money owed, and Liebowitz had successfully planted the idea that a man other than Hoffman might have committed the crime. In addition to this mystery man, Liebowitz also planted the seed in the jury’s mind that Horatio J. Sharrett, a local politician, may have played a role in the murder, or at a minimum, that the police and the district attorney did not investigate him as closely as they should have. Not only was Sharrett seen near Lover's Lane on the day of the murder, but District Attorney Fach was a close, personal friend of Sharrett. Such insinuations forced Fach to call Sharrett to the stand. Liebowitz was able to establish that Sharrett was good friends with Fach for over twenty years, and that he had been near the scene of the crime on the date in question in a Model T Ford sedan.

With respect to the ballistics related evidence, Liebowitz called three experts. First was Captain William A. Jones, official firearms expert for the New York Police Department for thirty-two years. Second was Merton Robinson, a ballistics engineer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Finally, was Albert Foster, general manager of the Colt Company, which had made the gun in question. Captain Jones testified that he had fired fifty bullets from Hoffman’s gun. Liebowitz set up two microscopes to allow each juror to compare for himself the bullets fired from Hoffman’s gun and the two bullets found near Mrs. Bauer’s body. It was obvious that the two shells had entirely different markings. Liebowitz’s two technical experts merely corroborated what the jurors had seen for themselves. Robinson further testified that the bullet that had killed Mrs. Bauer was fired from a gun that had a rough or rusty barrel. The test bullets fired from Hoffman’s gun did not have any well-defined scratches or rust marks. Finally, although the State contended that Hoffman had cleaned his gun with a wire brush after using it to kill Mrs. Bauer, Liebowitz produced a chemical analysis of the brush that confirmed that it had never been used.

Liebowitz finally called Hoffman to the stand. Liebowitz allowed Hoffman to testify freely regarding his fears of being lynched, the alibi that he manufactured in order to save himself, and that spending five years in prison was sufficient punishment for the lie he had told. Liebowitz then handed Hoffman the .25 caliber gun and demonstrated that Hoffman, who was left-handed, would have had great difficulty shooting the gun due to its right-handed safety. Hoffman testified that he had never fired the gun. In addition, Liebowitz offered evidence that someone who was right-handed had killed Mrs. Bauer.

On May 22, 1929, Hoffman was acquitted and released immediately. During the course of these four trials, Hoffman’s wife divorced him, one of his daughters was sent to an orphan asylum, one of his lawyers had died, and Hoffman had become a mere shadow of his former 190 pound self. It should be noted that at the last trial, the State was reported to have offered Hoffman a plea of second-degree manslaughter, which Hoffman turned down because he was innocent. A sentence on the charge of second-degree manslaughter would have been very short and with the five years that Hoffman had already served, he most likely would have completely fulfilled the sentence.

After being acquitted, Hoffman took back his children, faded away with some money supplied by the motion picture operators union, and was never heard from again. The State did not pay Hoffman any restitution.

 – Researched by M. Elizabeth Day

Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1924
Sentence:20 years to life
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct