A horrific crime occurred August 29, 1886, at around 3am in the Middle Village section of Newtown. There was no doubt about the man’s death being a murder. Bernard Singer, who ran a small dairy and served as a milkman for Ridgewood, had been found bloodied and dead inside the bedroom that he shared with his wife, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth told the constable that her husband had come home intoxicated at 10pm which resulted in some cross words being exchanged, but did not blossom into a full-blown argument. They decided to retire for the evening. A noise awakened her at 4am. She found Bernard kneeling next to the bed. When she spoke to him, he did not answer. She shook him and at that point it was obvious that he was dead. Elizabeth screamed in horror, which woke their four children who had been asleep in another room. The children accompanied their mother to the home of the constable to report the crime.

The evidence
When the constable responded to the scene, he determined based on Bernard’s body temperature and rigid condition that he had been dead for several hours. He had obviously been beaten over the head. With Elizabeth’s story not lining up with the clues, she was arrested for his murder. She declared her innocence and claimed that Bernard must have been killed by intruders.

The plot thickened. When the body was examined by the town coroner, it was found that while Bernard most definitely had been clubbed to death, he also had suffered five stab wounds. A deputy constable produced a bloody knife that he claimed was recovered from the crime scene but which he had kept under wraps. Mrs. Singer denied ever owning such a weapon.

The witnesses
Two material witnesses emerged during the investigation. One was the couple’s eldest son, John, age 14. While his younger siblings were sent to reside at St. Joseph’s Home, the teen was remanded to the Long Island City jail as a witness. His story was that his parents had argued over his mother not stirring the milk, but that he hadn’t heard any disturbance in the house that night.

The other witness was neighbor Joseph Viox. His home was directly across the road from the Singers. He said that he heard a noise in the Singer home and went to investigate it. He was met at the gate by Elizabeth who told him that Bernard had been murdered in his sleep and that $18 was stolen. Viox noted that three watchdogs on the property had remained silent while this invasion was allegedly happening.

The proceedings
Elizabeth was brought before a judge and told him that she had been awakened by two men who were killing her husband. When asked for a description of the men, she could not provide one. She was remanded to jail. During her confinement, she told a reporter that she believed she and the children had been chloroformed.

While she and John were in jail and her other children were wards of the township, the farm lay abandoned. There was a $500 mortgage on the property which went unpaid, and two Brooklyn cattle dealers were arrested for removing items worth $1400 from the land as repayment. On top of that, an inspector from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was called in and “found the place in an indescribable condition of filth, swarming with vermin and looking as if soap and water had not touched it in years.” The Society made the barn habitable for 4 cows which also had a mortgage on them, while 14 were removed from the property.

After an inquest which found no direct link between Elizabeth and the murder, Mrs. Singer was accompanied back to the house so she could take some clothing back to the jail. The District Attorney and Coroner did not like the sound of this and met the officer and Elizabeth at the door as they were heading back with the bundle of clothing. The DA ordered the bundle untied and discovered a bloody apron which was then seized as evidence. John explained that it must have “fallen into the blood.”

The indictment
A grand jury returned an indictment against Elizabeth Singer, but the DA and press knew that the case against her was weak. Elizabeth was arraigned and pled not guilty.

During the trial, the coroner testified that Bernard Singer’s cause of death was a broken neck. He had also been beaten about the head by a crowbar which had been found by John near the front gate of the property. John testified that he didn’t see it the first time he went out but saw it during his second trip out to the gate and that his mother had been out there between visits.

There is no doubt that with professional detectives and modern evidence gathering techniques, this case would have been resolved in a much different manner. While the NYPD was founded in 1845, Newtown and the rest of Queens did not become part of NYC until 1898. The county was mostly farmland and was patrolled by constables. The constable was an elected position and deputy constables were appointed by the incumbent. There was no formal police training. 1886 also predates the lifting of crime scene fingerprints. And of course, there was no DNA technology back then.

The verdict
Although Mrs. Singer’s story had dramatically changed several times, the DA was only able to build a circumstantial case against her, and the jury voted in December 1886 to acquit her in the murder of her husband. They likely also questioned whether it was possible that a woman could inflict that type of damage on a man’s body. Bernard had been in debt to some ruthless people so an intruder attack could not be ruled out. Could their son John have been the culprit with his mother covering for him? Possibly, although we will never know.

While searching for trial mentions, an 1884 article was discovered which mentioned that Elizabeth Singer had filed for divorce, a rare occurrence for the time. It’s unknown whether she changed her mind or was denied the divorce, and we can only speculate what would have become of poor Bernard had the separation taken place.