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Murder and the Masterpiece: Did an Artwork Solve a Decades-old NYC Crime?

collection_images-Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Collection’ & the Case of the Four Boys

Andrew Scott Cooper writes: Murderous deeds have inspired artists like Caravaggio, Jacques-Louis David and Paul Cézanne to produce some of their best-known works. But has there ever been a case of an artwork helping solve a real-life murder mystery?

In their confession statements, the four boys admitted to a litany of other offenses and unsolved crimes that had panicked their neighborhood over the summer: punching and kicking to death a second man, Reinhold Ulrickson, on a Brooklyn street corner 10 days earlier; pouring gasoline over a third man and setting him alight; horsewhipping two young women in rauschenberg_talla public park late at night; and assaulting numerous others who had the misfortune to encounter them. Prosecutors expressed shock and bewilderment.

[Check out Andrew Scott Cooper’s book  “The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East” at Amazon]

“I can’t understand what would make boys do such terrible things,” said the Kings County District Attorney. “They apparently had no reason except the thrill they got.

Robert Rauschenberg

”Sixty years ago this month, on August 16, 1954, four Jewish teenagers dubbed the Kill-for-Thrills gang were accused of slaying black factory worker Willard Menter under the Williamsburg Bridge. According to police accounts, Brooklyn youths Jack Koslow, 18, Melvin Mittman, 17, Jerome Lieberman, 17, and Robert Trachtenberg, 15, confessed to beating and kicking their victim, burning his feet with lit cigarettes, and then dragging him to the end of South Fifth Street where he was beaten again to the point of unconsciousness, thrown in the river and left to drown.

The so-called “Nights of Horror” crime spree and the story of four good boys gone bad shattered the complacency of an American summer. Overnight, Koslow, Mr. Mittman, Lieberman and Trachtenberg earned notoriety as the human face of juvenile delinquency. Articles on the boys and their exploits appeared in mainstream news publications like Time, Newsweek, Look and The New York Times, which splashed the case on its front page. So great was the media frenzy that by the end of the year Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper suggested the boys were the inspiration for James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

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The sensational murder was front-page news.

Everyone had an opinion on what made the boys do it, with nationally renowned psychiatrists blaming the explosion of violence on the boys’ sexual demons. “These boys appear to me to be bound together in a kinship of pathological dedications,” declared Dr. Robert Hoffman. “They are probably homosexual … [They] should be eliminated from society.”

Prosecutors assured the public that the case against the boys was watertight, although charges were dismissed against the two youngest defendants mid-trial. However, jurors found Jack Koslow and Melvin Mittman guilty of first-degree murder, and in January 1955 they were sentenced to life in prison with hard labor.

Yet questions lingered about the boys and their “crimes.” Their trial had taken place in an atmosphere of hysteria. They had not testified in their own defense, and prosecutors had presented no evidence to support the allegations of torture and homosexuality. The boys had been publicly accused of not one but two murders, yet charges were never brought against them in the death of Reinhold Ulrickson…(read more)

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 Andrew Scott Cooper is the author of “The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East” and is currently writing a new book on the fall of the Shah of Iran. The New York Times, The Economist and Washington Post have published articles on his investigative research.

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One Comment on “Murder and the Masterpiece: Did an Artwork Solve a Decades-old NYC Crime?”

  1. […] By Pundit from another Planet Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Collection’ and the Case of the Four Boys Andrew Scott Cooper writes: Murderous deeds have inspired artists like Caravaggio, Jacques-Louis David and Paul Cézanne to produce some of their best-known works. But has there ever been a case of an artwork helping solve a real-life murder mystery? In their confession statements, the four boys admitted to […] Like this? Read more and get your own subscription at […]


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