The newest episode of Scandalous Washington- Part 1 of a World War II trilogy- explores the murder of a young newlywed, Rose Abramowitz.
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Search for a Wartime Serial Killer– Rose’s Story:
The man dressed carefully. Even though the walk to work promised to be a wet and snowy mess, he wanted to look good. Appearance was important. The latest high waisted, full pleated fashions flattered his stocky frame. Women may not immediately notice a man of average height and build, but they took a second glance at a sharp dresser. He chose the green corduroy suit. It set off his eyes.
The man sensed another spell coming on. After each bout he prayed that they would go away, but God apparently was not taking requests. It had been almost six weeks since the burning desire last overwhelmed him. He regularly checked the papers for updates. The police never suspected him. Why would they? They were his friends.
He liked women. He needed women. Maybe he would see his girlfriend tonight. He decided to stop at the dry-cleaners to pick up some shirts on his way to work. Neither he nor the petite redheaded housewife a few blocks away knew this decision would lead killer and victim directly into each other’s paths.
The snow piled up that March day thanks to a late winter storm punishing the Atlantic seaboard from South Carolina to New England. It missed the anniversary of the infamous Blizzard of 1888 by three days, a fact much discussed in newspapers and over snow shovels. By Saturday morning, East Coast airports remained closed, one snowplow driver drowned when his rig slid off an icy road into the freezing river, the New Jersey Coast Guard rescued crew from a grounded Norwegian cargo ship, and the only people making progress down New York City’s Fifth Avenue wore cross-country skis. But despite almost a foot of snow in Washington, D.C., the federal government opened for business.
On the cusp of America’s entry into World War II, anticipation in the nation’s capital was palpable. Burgeoning New Deal programs and an aggressive defense build-up drew over a hundred thousand newcomers to the city within the last decade. D.C. pulsed with purpose. During the inaugural address ushering in his unprecedented third term, President Roosevelt declared, “In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy… We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still.” Public attention shifted from domestic recovery from the Great Depression to the “world crisis” and what it might mean for America. Much of that meaning would be determined in Washington.
That is, if the Senate ever brought the momentous Lend-Lease bill to a vote. For almost three weeks contentious debate stalled legislation that would authorize the U.S. to send aid to its allies. The House approved the measure in less than a week, and even its opponents in the senate knew it had more than enough support to easily pass. But they continued to deliberate– or stage a filibuster, even the majority leader was not technically sure which it was. But he did know he would push for a final vote that stormy day in March. Tempers could not hold out much longer and protests continued to erupt in the visitor gallery. A force of fifteen hundred men set out to clear the streets of snow, sleet and slush in round-the-clock shifts to keep Congress and other essential agencies operating.
The snow did not deter Rose Simons either. Make that Rose Abramowitz. It was still hard for her to get used to being Mrs. Barney Abramowitz. Today was their one month anniversary. Rose relished being married to her high school crush. After all, she waited over a decade for Barney. She worked as a secretary in an optometrist’s office while he finished college and law school and built a career in private practice. The last few years were the toughest. After Barney left Kansas City for Washington and a job with the government, he wrote faithfully but only came back to visit once a year. Still, Rose remained determinedly devoted to the man with whom she planned to spend the rest of her life.
Last December their relationship changed from slow and steady to rapid fire fast. Barney gave her an engagement ring just before New Year’s and on February first Rose’s family gathered and cheered as she and her mother boarded a train for D.C. The couple married a week later in front of a handful of family and friends at Rabbi Solomon’s cozy rowhouse in northwest Washington. The usually reserved young woman wrote postcards to friends and family filled with happy chatter about her wonderful new life.
On that Saturday morning, March 8th, Rose and Barney woke at 7 a.m. to share their usual breakfast of toast, jam, and coffee before he left for work at the Social Security Agency. They lived on Sixteenth Street, a major tree-lined thoroughfare, at the northern edge of Dupont Circle. The location allowed Barney an easy commute but the tiny efficiency apartment disappointed the newlyweds. Maintenance was a problem. The recently hired janitor, James Williams, agreed to paint, but the repair list seemed to grow longer each day.
The floors bothered Rose the most. A couple of Barney’s D.C. friends were coming over that night to meet her for the first time. She felt embarrassed about the streaky wax job and had no rugs to cover it up. The small efficiency apartment did not need much furniture. But in the last few weeks the couple shopped for and ordered some starter pieces being held for delivery until after the janitor finally finished the minor renovations. For now, the simple day bed, dresser and kitchen table left plenty of room for the growing pile of still unopened wedding gifts stacked against one wall. They talked about moving but finding another affordable apartment in the crowded city would take some time.
Maybe James could re-wax the floors before Barney came home this afternoon. Rose could use her mother’s advice. She missed her. Esther left soon after the wedding and decided to visit relatives on her return trip to Kansas City. Although Rose was twenty-nine, older than most first-time brides, she was still naïve about a lot of things. She never lived on her own so much of the house management was guesswork. And she had never been with a man. Barney was being very patient and loving with his “Rosie,” but they had yet to fully consummate their marriage. Something seemed wrong. She experienced great pain when they attempted intimacy. She made a doctor’s appointment for next week. Then, she hoped, their honeymoon could start.
But Rose didn’t have time to think about that today. She had to straighten up and prepare for company. What would Barney’s friends think about her when they saw the grungy apartment? As Rose stood in the narrow pullman kitchen washing and drying the breakfast dishes, she determined to find the janitor.
Rose knew several of her neighbors, but she saw none of them on this snowy weekend morning. Madge Davis lived on Rose’s floor. Their kitchen windows faced each other directly across an airshaft that separated the two wings of the four-story building. The friends often waved as they each prepared dinner. Madge had the day off from Western Union and was puttering around her apartment listening to the radio. Her roommate worked as a Government Girl, the cutsey name given to women employed at federal agencies, so Madge enjoyed her rare morning home alone.
Hugh Stephens lived with his parents in the apartment directly under Rose and Barney. The lanky, handsome Central High School senior was spending the start of his weekend like a typical teen– buried under the covers sleeping. He would graduate in a few months. Not yet old enough to qualify for the newly enacted peacetime draft, he could enjoy these last lazy weekends before moving on to the next phase of his life.
The corridors remained empty and quiet as Rose searched them. No sign of the janitor. Maybe he was outside handling clean up from the storm. She pushed open the side door of the building and got hit with a blast of frigid air. Rose shivered under her thin housedress. She recently bought it in hopes of fitting in with the more sophisticated styles young women wore in the nation’s capital. The red and black flowered print was bolder than her usual outfits but she liked the way it complemented her red hair. It was her most distinguishing feature.
Rose took a tentative step outside and looked up and down T Street for James. She didn’t see him anywhere. She did, however, notice a nice looking man walking by. She impulsively called out to him.
“Mister, are you working?”
Curious, the man stopped to answer, “Yes ma’am. I have to be at work at 11 o’clock.”
He looked dapper, respectable. She noticed a smart green corduroy suit peaking out from his overcoat. So Rose ventured, “I don’t know where the janitor is. I can’t find him. I want some things moved. Would you mind coming up for a few minutes and move some things for me?”
As the prospective handyman followed her up the stairs to the second floor, Rose explained that she needed some of her boxes rearranged and the floors waxed. She was also having problems with the plumbing in the bathroom and she would show him that, too. It would be a great help if he could get all of that done before her husband came home. The man admitted he might not have time to do the work that morning, but he was happy to take a look around the apartment.
With each step they climbed, he caught a glimpse of the silky pink slip Rose wore under her printed housedress.
Barney left work around 1pm into a steady drizzle of sleet and rain. He tucked his checkered scarf into his thick coat and pulled the black fedora further down on his head for the messy trip home. Once there, Barney turned the doorknob to his apartment but found it locked. Last year the so-called “beady eyes” bandit, who attacked and robbed several women in the area, was captured in the building. He was glad Rose remembered to lock it.
He reached for his key and then realized he had given it to the janitor to work on home repairs if they were out. He knocked. No answer.
Chances were good that Rose went upstairs to visit with Anita Hodes. Barney met Anita and her husband Jerry before marrying Rose; when he shared a different apartment in the building with two roommates. Anita and Rose hit it off at once. But Anita had not seen Rose all day. She thought Rose might have gone to the grocery store. They were expecting guests, weren’t they?
As Barney went back downstairs, he ran into James. The janitor gave Barney the key and asked if he could come along to get a can of paint he left behind.
Barney reached into the bathroom directly across from the front door and handed James the bucket of paint. The janitor headed up to Anita’s. She’d been calling him all morning and he promised to paint once he finished with snow removal.
The apartment formed an elongated U shape with the two sides of the letter connected at its base by the bathroom. As Barney stepped more fully into the space, he caught sight of the daybed. Rose was laying on her side, one hand delicately resting on her chest and the other beside her. Her house slippers were neatly placed at the foot of the bed as if she lined them up before taking a nap. Barney gently shook his wife to wake her up. She felt cold.
Anita rushed to answer the pounding at her door. Barney burst in “white as a sheet.”
“My God, Rosie is sick,” he sputtered. “She is cold and blue. Call an ambulance.”
Anita made the call and hurried downstairs to see Rose.
“We went into the apartment and she was lying on the bed. It never entered my head she could be dead,” Anita said later. “I told him to close the window and put a coat over her, because she might be cold. Then I told him to feel her pulse. He grabbed her hand. ‘No, her pulse,’ I said. He felt her pulse and then just shook his head. And that’s all there was to it.”
At 1:55 p.m. on the one-month anniversary of her wedding, Rose Simons Abramowitz was pronounced dead by the responding doctor from Emergency Hospital. At 2:30 p.m. D.C. Coroner A. Magruder MacDonald cited manual strangulation as the initial cause of death. After a cursory examination, he determined Rose was also violently raped.
A few miles away in the bathroom of California Kitchens restaurant at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, Jarvis Theodore Roosevelt Catoe carefully removed his overcoat and green corduroy trousers to wash the traces of Rose’s blood off of his body.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: THE MURDER OF GOVERNMENT GIRL JESSE STRIEFF