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  • Writer's pictureKathryn McMaster

Who Lives By the Axe: True Crime Story

The amassing of sufficient funds with which to purchase a return passage to his native Oslo eventually became an obsession with stumpy, hard-faced, black-haired Ludvig Halvorsen Lee, caretaker of a solid brownstone Brooklyn rooming house.

It led him, on July 4, 1927, to murder his employer, 76-year-old Mrs. Sara Elizabeth Brownwell, one-time seamstress who had become a rooming house proprietor when the gray film cataracts dimmed her vision. After slaying the defenseless woman with an axe, he dissected her body with gruesome precision, and hid the pieces.

Black and white portrait image of Ludvig Halvorsen Lee criminal and murder
Ludvig Halvorsen Lee

And then, Lee murdered a second woman in much the same fashion as he had the first, and disposed of the body in the same way. She was Mrs. Alfred Bennett, formerly owner of the brownstone house, who had come to pay Mrs. Brownwell a friendly call. Lee killed her because he feared her suspicions would be aroused if she failed to find his aged employer at home.

But two women cannot vanish suddenly and completely without suspicions being aroused and questions asked. Their strange disappearance was reported to the police and detectives commenced a search for them.

They questioned, of course, but their questions and the answers to them threw no light on the strange case. The bull-necked caretaker replied to their interrogations in a manner which indicated he would be one of the last persons in the world to contemplate murder.

There was no plausible explanation for the disappearance of the two women and apparently no clues as to what had befallen the. Numerous such cases are annually entered upon the records of the Bureau of Missing Persons. They vanish and that is all that is ever learned regarding them, although the authorities make every human effort to fathom the mystery of their disappearance.

But no such ‘unsolved’ notation was destined to be listed against the Brownwell-Bennett case, for, in Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan Island, several miles from the solid brownstone house where Lee had wielded the murder axe, a white wing came upon a blood-soaked paper bundle. In it were pieces of two human legs.

Even before the Medical Examiner had time to determine whether they were pieces of a woman’s legs, instinct told the police that they had found the gruesome answer to what had happened to the two missing women.

But who had murdered them? They still had not the slightest idea.

To find the answer to the riddle of the horribly hacked pieces of limb, they began another methodical and painstaking search for clues in the neighborhood of the brownstone dwelling.

And then, on a Sunday morning, while the church bells were ringing, they stumbled on a chemical link which started an amazing chain of events that ended with Lee in the electric chair.

On the floor of a dark, foul-smelling cellar close by the East River, detectives were attracted to several pools of water. The water had seeped into the cellar during the recent rain. It had a dark, oily look. Bending over, a detective wet a fingertip and touched it to his lips. “Lye!” he announced significantly. At Police Headquarters, analysis of samples of the water proved the detective correct.

What proved of even more significance, however, was a brown paper bag with figures penciled on it that totaled up to $2.04, which was picked up in one corner of the dark cellar. On the chance that this slender clue might lead them to the murderer, the police commenced making the rounds of nearby shops. In a chain store, a clerk recognized his own figures and recalled that the customer who had made purchases totaling that amount had bought ten cans of lye a few days before. More important still, he was able to furnish an accurate description of the customer.

Lee was arrested immediately, but with black eyes protruding weirdly from beneath his bushy eyebrows, he maintained his innocence even up to the time he was strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing several months later.

Ludwig H. Lee being escorted from the court house 1927
Ludwig H. Lee being escorted from the court house.

But the jury before whom he was tried had no doubt that he had left the limbs of his victims in Battery Park, and buried the rest of the bodies in the foul-smelling cellar, covering them with lye to hasten their decomposition.

By James W. Booth

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