BY TONY KRUKOWSKI
As we stand on the threshold of another bone chilling winter, I thought it would be the perfect time to tell the tale of a grisly murder on Grosse Ile on the cold and foggy night of Dec. 14, 1923. According to newspaper accounts, the victim was one Thomas Brennan, who was found dead, his head crushed in, lying in a marsh on the north end of the Island.
Isaac Peabody of the Grosse Ile Police found Brennan’s car along the shoulder of Bridge Road. Upon inspecting the car, he found bloodstains in the car’s interior, a blood-stained hammer and automobile crank, and in the brush nearby, a bloody glove and hat. With the help of Justice of the Peace, Thomas Holland, Peabody found Brennan’s body a couple of hours later.
This murder had an overabundance of motives and possible suspects. Thomas Brennan was reputed to be a bootlegger who was on the outs with some local hijackers. He was a known womanizer whose past was littered with dozens of conquests and the accompanying baggage, notably jealous husbands and boyfriends. He was known to be a heavy drinker and a gambler with a quick temper who had a problem staying out of trouble. It was somewhat of a miracle that he had lived to the age of 35.
Over about a five-month period, the police detectives investigating the murder questioned and/or arrested a large number of suspects depending on which motive for murder seemed to be in vogue at the time. Initially, the police thought the murder was connected with a rum running and bootlegging operation that had gone bad. His common law wife, a Mrs. Hammond, told the police that she heard he was “handling liquor – running it to Chicago.”
Soon, however, police began to suspect Mrs. Hammond; Brennan’s former landlady and “confidant,” Mrs. Ella Connors; and a male neighbor, Mr. John Hoey, with whom Brennan had recently quarreled, with conspiring to murder him. The theory being presented at that time was that Brennan was hammered to death by Hoey while one of the women looked on, and his body transported to a clump of bushes in the Island marsh.
Several days later a third woman entered the scene — Brennan’s former wife, Florence Brennan, whom he had divorced two years earlier. She told the police that Brennan was the black sheep of a wealthy Middleton, Pa. family. She described her ex-husband as a man who consistently and persistently had affairs with other women and who had an ungovernable and pugnacious temper.
Very soon, the case against Hammond, Connors, and Hoey began to fall apart. A bridge toll taker, Samuel Hanford, reported that a man matching Brennan’s description had crossed the bridge in a vehicle with another man and woman. When a short time later the vehicle re-crossed the bridge heading back to the mainland, there were only a man and woman in the car. When the toll taker was not able to identify Connors and Hoey as the people he saw, the police decided that Mrs. Connors and Mr. Hoey had nothing to do with the murder and released them.
Likewise, both a bus driver and a street car driver reported that during the night of Dec. 14 they had picked up a man and woman who were noticeably intoxicated. The bus driver also told the police that the man appeared to have bloody smears on his hands and face. When they were asked if Mrs. Hammond fit the description of the woman they transported, neither was able to make a positive identification, and Mrs. Hammond was subsequently released. The police were now looking for new suspects.
The police turned their attention to a theory that Brennan may have been killed over a gambling quarrel. He was said to have visited Grosse Ile frequently and to have played in gambling games conducted on the extreme southern end of the Island.
They also searched a cottage on the Island where Brennan purportedly staged numerous parties. They found nothing but a brown glove bearing the initials ‘R.H.M.” They were also assured by two sisters, Misses Nellie and Katherine Broadhead, who lived near the cottage that they witnessed no suspicious activities.
This is where the case took another sharp turn. Mrs. Hammond decided to supply the police with new information. She told them that Brennan had forced her into “white slavery” to support them. She named several men to corroborate her story and also told of many women with whom Brennan was intimate. She likewise gave police the names of various blind pig operators and rum runners whom Brennan knew.
Then things got even stranger. The husband that Mrs. Hammond had left to run away with Brennan decided to take her back. He explained that he had heard of the murder and realized that he had never stopped loving her. He was eager to forgive her and start over. Mrs. Hammond, in turn, hoped that Mr. Hammond had gotten over his drinking problem that caused her to run away with Brennan in the first place. In the end, the reunion did not happen as she claimed to love someone else.
In successive weeks, the police questioned a Mrs. Ruth Rubenstein whose name appeared in Brennan’s bank book, a Goldie Claypool who claimed to have witnessed a fight between Brennan and another man over a woman, an Andrew Nelson who was living with Miss Claypool at the time, and Thomas and Alice Patterson who were purportedly in a love triangle with Brennan. None of these leads ultimately bore fruit.
The story ended with Mrs. Hammond attempting suicide in April 1924 by taking poison. The police officer who rushed to the scene claimed that in a stupor she admitted to the murder of Brennan. However, at the hospital Mrs. Hammond denied making that statement and professed that Brennan was the only man that she had ever loved. The trail apparently went cold after that as this was the last entry in the newspaper about the case.
So, after hearing this tale of sex, jealousies, illegal liquor, gambling, and murder amid a multitude of “red herrings,” what do you think? In Grosse Ile’s own version of the Clue game, who killed Thomas Brennan, in his own car, near the Grosse Ile toll bridge, on a foggy December night, with a hammer or crank — and for what reason?