March 25, 1887
Rahway, New Jersey
An unidentified woman is found murdered
The woman, described as in her early 20s with brown hair and blue eyes, and was dressed in good quality clothing and fur. Her body was found by four brothers who immediately reported the discovery to authorities.
The body was frozen to the ground in a puddle of blood almost three inches deep. Her throat had been slashed in two places, nearly ear-to-ear, both her hands were lacerated, and her face was bruised. Due to the presence of the victim’s jewelry and expensive clothing, police ruled out robbery as a possible motive.
Along with various personal items, a basket of eggs was found at the scene, as was a satchel containing a rubber eraser bearing the name “Timothy Byrnes” and a hairbrush initialed “T.B.” on the back. Footprints in the mud suggested the victim and her male attacker had come from opposite directions, and the killer fled to a marketplace where police lost the trail amongst the other footprints.
In an attempt to identify the woman, her embalmed corpse was set on display at the mortuary. Approximately 1500 viewed the body, but no one seemed to know who the victim was. After the time for viewing ended, the woman was placed in a casket with a silver plate attach engraved “Died March 25, 1887/Cruelly Slain/A Woman and a Stranger/Aged Twenty-Five Years old,” and eventually buried in the local cemetery.
Police investigated Timothy Byrnes, finding a man by that name had been inquiring about incubators from a local farm; the basket of eggs was thought to be his. Byrnes could not be located, however, and the lead went cold. Another suspect by the name of Robert Bowman claimed to have done “something horrible in New Jersey,” though when he was questioned by police his confession was found to be fraudulent.
One of those who viewed the body, a Mr. Watson, believed the victim was his wife Lillian Snavely-Watson. He produced a recent picture of his wife which was “almost an exact facsimile” of the victim. Days before the murder, Lillian had been on a train between Chicago and Pittsburgh when the train wrecked. Several died in the wreck, and Lilian could not be found; it was “feared she had either been killed or had become insane and wandered away.” Eventually, Lillian was found alive and well in Omaha. Her husband, however, disappeared before he could be arrested for bigamy and petty swindling.
The case was quickly believed to be unsolvable by many newspapers, with the New York Times being particularly critical of the level of investigation, reporting the detectives “present a lamentable spectacle of blundering imbecility.”
The victim and her murderer remain unidentified.
Unknown Woman. Fimd a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6287679/unknown_woman
Sweeney, Gary. “The Unknown Victorian Woman Murder of 1887.” The Line Up. March 28, 2018. Accessed: March 25, 2019. https://the-line-up.com/victorian-woman
“An Insolvable Mystery.” The New York Times. April 11, 1887
“Watson’s Missing Bride.” The Indianapolis Journal. April 4, 1887
“The Rathway Murder.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, New York]. April 3, 1887
“Darkness Made Deeper.” The New York Times. March 30, 1887