The Incredible Tale of a 1909 Fight to the Death Inside a Moving Elevator

An account from the paper of record of a fatal fight that raged as the elevator flew up and down the shaft
027534pv.jpgNot the actual elevator in which this story took place, but you can use your imagination from here (Library of Congress)

On a Friday in late March in 1909, perhaps on a day much like today, a Mrs. Jennie Hunger noticed that some valuables -- two watches, two chains, and a necklace -- had gone missing from the apartment where she was employed as a housekeeper at 615 Fifth Avenue, New York.

After she reported the incident, the building's manager sought the aid of a Pinkerton detective, Joseph Paresi, to help apprehend the thief, suspected to be the building's elevator man, Charles Johnson.

A few days later, Paresi staked out the apartment and waited. Soon, the thief entered. From a hospital bed, he later recounted the incident to a New York Times reporter:

He went from one part of the apartment to another for fully five minutes, then he came back into the hall and almost stumbled over me.

Then I concluded that it was time to put him under arrest, so I shouted to him to throw up his hands. As I did so I could see that he had complied with my orders, and he told me that I had the goods on him, and would submit to arrest. Without placing my revolver back in my pocket, I told him to accompany me to the Superintendent's office. He started to the rear of the flat.

Hold on there, I said. Where are you going? He told me he was going to the elevator. Then I went with him, but it was not the same elevator on which I had gone up to the apartment. He was meek enough then, and did not show the slightest sign of fight. We went into the elevator and he pulled the rope and we started down.

That's when things took a dramatic turn:

We had only gone down three floors before he made a desperate break at me. With one arm he grabbed me around the neck, while with the other he made a grab for the pistol, which I was holding with my right hand. We grappled, and the elevator shot downstairs at its full speed with both of us struggling for possession of the revolver.

When the elevator got to about the second or third floor I had almost lost my strength when the revolved exploded and off went my left forefinger. This sudden shock seemed to give me strength and I managed to get possession of the revolver again, it having dropped to the floor in the struggle. As I stooped to reach the gun, Johnson grabbed the elevator rope and the elevator shot to the roof again. Then he grabbed me and the gun went off again and again.

I don't know where that shot went, but I remember that as the elevator reached the top Johnson still had the controlling rope in one hand and was fighting me with the other, for he reversed the machine and down it shot full speed. We grappled again and again, and then there were two more shots from the gun, and Johnson dropped crouching in the corner of the elevator.

According to The Times's report at the time, police said that Paresi's story was corroborated by the physical evidence, though it's easy to imagine Paresi stretching the telling a bit as he lay in bed recovering.

The story falls to us from a time when elevator operators had a particular knowledge of a building's rhythms -- who was in, who was out. During the early period of elevator use, the machines were inexact, and it took a specific skill to get the chambers to stop perfectly at the right floor, not in-between. Elevator operators did that, managed the stop requests for efficiency, and, in some complex cases, communicated with a building's central dispatcher. 

Over time, these tasks got automated, and the job of elevator operator became obsolete. But for that brief moment, an operator would have had an unusual understanding of a building's inner life, and could have used that information (as was the case here) to gain access to its contents when an apartment was empty. The story of the fight in a moving elevator is mostly just a wild tale of a theft gone terribly, terribly awry. But it tells something else too: In the case of elevators, mechanization actually increased people's privacy. Without human operators and their prying eyes and ears, an automated elevator has no knowledge, no memories. Their inhabitants and patterns are invisible to them, despite recent attempts to begin capturing real-time data about elevator operations.

The entire account of the incident, along with The Times's racially loaded headline ("KILLED BY DETECTIVE IN RACING ELEVATOR/Thief Trapped in Fifth Avenue Apartments Battles with Captor to Get His Pistol/SLEUTH'S FINGER SHOT OFF/Joseph Paresi of the Pinkertons Caught Negro Elevator Man Robbing Arthur Kemp's Apartments.") can be found in The Times's archive by those with access.



H/t Nate DiMeo

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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