Most everyone in the city knew Henry Reed, and where he lived with his sister Blanche in “a squallid, trash-filled house” on an unaccepted street off of Holden Street.
On the night of August 6, 1897, an unknown party bludgeoned both Reeds to death in their home, in what would become one of the most scandal-tinged homicide cases in North Adams history.
They were found with skulls crushed in a pool of their own blood the following day. The weapon, a large wooden carpenter’s hammer, was found at the scene.
Robbery was early on considered a potential motive- though no apparent sign of anything missing was detected, Mr. Reed, an eccentric pawn broker, money lender and slumlord of some means, had closed that day on a farm purchased for $1300. It was believed, but never proven ,that Reed, who had a penchant for displaying his large leather wallet full of bills to people, may have had a large sum of cash in the house at the time of the murder.
Robbery was considered a leading motive, then; revenge remained a close second consideration, especially in light of the malicious nature of the killings, each slain with repeated strokes of the hammer.
Press coverage of the Reeds in the wake of their death was not particularly kind, basking in criticisms of some of Reed’s more blighted rental properties and the overall disarray of the home he shared with his sister. Henry Reed was thoroughly known in town, a complicated personality who had made both friends and enemies in his diverse business dealings.
“His property was of a kind in real estate, farms, etc, that would at times embarrass him as well as his tenants, by expenses of various kind – in fact his life was of such a nature as to make a man unstable, nervous, and cause him troubles of all kinds,” wrote one friend in a letter to his defense. “Still with all of those thousands whom he has dealt I doubt if one can find very many to whom he has not shown leniency and favors and kindness.”
Deputy Sherriff John Moloney was the primary officer leading the investigation, in conjunction with Police Chief Charles Kendall, and with aid from longtime State Detective Moses Homer Pease, of Lee, whose reputation for “always getting his man” was the stuff of local legend at the time.
Sifting through a mix of witness testimony, conjecture, and other assorted input throughout an inquest that week, certain facts of the case were established.
The crime was thought to have occurred about midnight. It was thought that the Reed’s might have been expecting a visitor; the doors of the house and stable were found open, and someone is said to have put his horse in the stable at about 11 that night. At about 1 A.M., a carriage with its top down pulled by a dark gray house was seen pulling out of the lane.
One early suspect was Horace Lanfair of Clarksburg, who had originally been set to meet with Henry Reed that night about the sale of a horse. According to Lanfair and a second witness, Herbert Haskins, the meeting had been postponed to the next day.
Reed was still expecting company that night, however, and had said so to his sister in the presence of a neighbor, Mrs. Crosier.
Lanfair was a frequent visitor to the Reeds who stabled his horse there whenever in North Adams, though he was not liked by Blanche Reed, who had told friends he frightened her when he drank.
A search of Lanfair’s house at first seemed decisive, when clothes with what appeared to be blood stains were found, but a chemist found the spots were not blood, and a further witness seemed to corroborate Lanfair’s story about the horse sale.
Pease continued to believe Lanfair to be the perpetrator, but other investigators disagreed, and the case moved on. More than 100 witnesses were interviewed amidst the inquest, and rumors circled for weeks as detectives were seen in nearby towns investigating leads they were increasingly reluctant to speak about.
Into early 1898, promises continued from local police that a crack in the case was just around the corner. That corner kept moving further away, though, and within a few months there was acknowledgment that the case had ground to a stand still.
“If money had been taken or some of the personal property in the house stolen, then the investigators could hope to detect something in some one’s possession that would lead to a clearing up of the mystery,” said the Transcript that Spring, “But after months of almost uninterrupted work investigating the Reed’s affairs, it has not been shown that anything was taken by the murderer, and nothing has been disclosed to help make a chain out of the vast amount of irrelevant material gathered.”
Over the next three years, though, a series of self-inflicted deaths by people involved in the case would add an additional layer of murkiness to the double homicide… and leave a lasting impression that some kind of cover up may have taken place.
“Rumors of the day were that it was someone in the police department,” wrote historian Gerard Chapman in the Berkshire Eagle years later.
In late February of 1898, Moloney was in Windsor and Savoy, said to have been investigating leads in connection with the Reed case. Two days later, on March 1, he rented a room at the Mansion House ostensibly to rest and recover, as he had been in pain from a recent back injury. On Wednesday, March 2, he apparently waited until the late night train passed to cover the noise, and shot himself to death through the heart.
Friends and family were shocked by the unexpected act, something considered completely out of character for the gregarious, popular local man. While it was known he had been feeling poorly from his injury, it was not considered serious.
“It is known that Mr. Moloney had received a number of letters threatening his life, on account of his activity in hunting down the murderer, but he had not considered them worth notice,” said the Transcript, noting he had confidently told a friend a week before “You will find some day the name of the murderer in the papers.”
A letter left by Moloney addressed to the City Solicitor was never released to the public, media requests denied on grounds of personal privacy.
Two years later, another city police officer involved in the investigation, William P. Reagan, also took his own life.
Reagan’s suicide came equally suddenly, just three weeks before his 29th birthday; all seemed normal as he had dinner with his wife on November 21, 1900, then Reagan went downtown to run some errands. He returned two hours later, finding his wife in bed but not yet asleep. He kissed her, then went into the other room, and shot himself in the head.
Just under a year later, on November 10, 1901, Horace Lanfair committed suicide in a Pittsfield apartment.
In the end, Lanfair had outlasted Detective Pease by about 8 months. Pease died from natural causes, a combination of bronchitis and pneumonia, on March 10, still believing Lanfair to be the culprit. But given the unexplained suicides of not one but two local officers involved in the case, room remains for speculation that there may yet be more to this case than has ever come to light.
By the 1920s, the Reed house and even the short dead end lane where it stood were gone, and the secrets of that grisly August night, perhaps gone with them.