How the 1910 Murder of a New Jersey Child and Accusation of an Innocent Black Man Shattered a Small Town

The tale is the subject of Alex Tresniowski’s recent book, “The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP.”

The New Jersey shore town of Asbury Park seemed like an idyllic place in the early years of the 20th century. But that image was shattered in 1910 when a 10-year-old girl named Marie Smith went missing. Several days later, her body was found, and authorities tried to pin the crime on a Black man named Tom Williams.

The tale is the subject of Alex Tresniowski’s recent book, “The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP.”

According to Tresniowski, the missing girl’s name was Marie Smith. “She was a schoolgirl who left for school at 8:00 AM one morning in the winter and never made it back home. And there was a five-day manhunt for her with no clues, no sign of her until her body turned up in the woods, battered, abused,” he explains.

Immediately after the incident, a Black handyman in town, Tom Williams, was rounded up and arrested for the crime. “There was no proof. There was nothing else. There was just a suspicion that he was the murderer. A white mob stormed the jail and tried to pull him out and lynch him.”

That year, over 60 lynchings were reported in the United States. So long as he was a suspect, Tom Williams’ life was in danger.

The prosecutor in Asbury Park, John Applegate, was convinced that Williams was the killer. “There were a couple of town officials who weren't," Tresniowski said. "So they privately and secretly hired a New York detective named Raymond Schindler to come to Asbury Park and conduct a clandestine investigation and try to find another suspect and try to get to the truth.”

While investigating, Schindler identified another suspect, a white man who had reportedly approached Marie Smith a few days before her disappearance, Tresniowski said.

So he used some unconventional tactics to get some answers. “He used an investigator to go undercover and rope his suspect in. Befriend him. Gain his trust. And it was a day-to-day process, and it took weeks and months. And I've asked the law enforcement officers today if this kind of operation would ever fly. The answer is no.”

Schindler had several elaborate plans to smoke out a confession, Tresniowski said. 

“Ray Schindler is a fan of all of Shakespeare's works. He believes that in Shakespeare's plays, characters revealed themselves through their actions, through their thoughts, which we hear through their language. And that's what he wants to do with criminals," he said. "So he actually uses a scene from Hamlet involving a ghost to scare his suspect into a confession.

“And he rents out a movie theater, and he shows a particular movie that is intended to scare his suspect and haunt him and get him to confess," he continued. "And he tries a lot of things like that along the way, which are very unconventional. Ultimately, he begins to wear his suspect down.”

Schindler also took cues from the popular fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and got more creative. He decided to channel the Conan Doyle story, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” where townspeople were terrified of a mysterious dog, and tried to use that to smoke at his suspect.

Tresniowski said, “He put an officer in the bushes outside his suspect's house and told them to throw a rock at a doghouse every hour on the hour after midnight to stir the junkyard dog out of his home and bark and unnerve the suspect who lived in the house. And he did this for seven days, and sure enough, he would see the bedroom light come on. He would see the suspect pacing.”

Meanwhile, as this was happening, Tom Williams sat in jail at risk of being lynched.

“It was the fact that if a Black man committed a crime against a white woman or a white girl, they were almost automatically found guilty of the crime simply because of a prevailing view that Black men could be savages and had to be controlled in order to be tolerated,” Tresniowski said.” And this was one of those cases where the guilt just fell on Tom Williams like a hammer before anybody investigated anything.”

Fortunately for Williams, he got some help from a newly formed organization: the NAACP. And this case was only the third legal case ever handled by them. This was an organization that had just been founded a year earlier, was in its infancy, didn't have much money,” Tresniowski said. “And it was one of the cases where they first found their footing.”

Ultimately, through his investigation, he found the actual perpetrator. Spoilers of the book won’t be given, but it wasn’t Tom Williams. And after the case, Williams disappeared. Still, his case mattered because it was one less Black man lynched.

Afterward, Raymond Schindler became one of the most famous detectives of the 20th century. “This investigation is considered one of the finest pieces of detective work in the history of law enforcement,” Tresniowski said.

“Policing and investigating can be a means of providing the community with justice, with safety, with peace in the way that the investigative officers react with the town,” he added. “It's about getting the police force to work with the community and actually be a dispenser of justice. And that's a very modern idea that we're still grappling with 110 years later. How do we make that work in America today?”

After finishing his book, Tresniowski found a way to honor Marie Smith.

“I went to the cemetery where Marie Smith is buried. It's the Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush, Brooklyn. And I looked for her gravesite again. And this time, I left a little stone on her site. It was a little marble plaque that said, ‘Marie is the flower,’ which is something one of her relatives said about her at one point.

“And it was a good feeling to leave something there to mark her existence," Tresniowski said. "And it's important, I think, that we look that way at history. That these were lives that were lived and mattered, and have something to say to us today.”

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