by A. Hyatt Verrill
Author of “The Astounding Discoveries of Doctor Mentiroso,” etc.
The Discovery of Columbus
HENRY COLUMBUS, khaki clad, his ebon face gray with ashes and dust, and driver of one of those two-wheeled abominations maintained by the municipality of New York for the reception of rubbish and the dispersal of dust over passengers, was industriously emptying the ash cans on the north side of West 85th Street.
It was a charming spring morning, and Henry, well content with the world and himself, was whistling cheerily while he worked. As he rolled the battered iron container to the curb, and raising them, dumped their contents into his vehicle, he glanced at the miscellaneous odds and ends that poured from them, ever on the watch for some discarded but still serviceable article which he might salvage.
Farther down the street, and working east from Amsterdam Avenue on the opposite side of the thoroughfare, was Tony Celentano with his wagon. Like Henry, the Italian was also on the alert for chance treasure-trove among the rubbish.
As the dusky namesake of the famous discoverer reached the group of cans before a block of brownstone front houses, he noticed that one of the receptacles was filled to overflowing with a bulging, patched, burlap bag.
Whatever the contents were they were heavy, and wondering vaguely what the can contained, Henry heaved it over the edge of his cart. The bag, however, was tightly jammed into the can, and, in order to dislodge it, he was forced to clamber onto the half-filled wagon. Grumbling a bit at the extra labor involved, he grasped the sacking with a huge black paw and tugged at the bundle.
“Must be some folks’ dawg must be daid,” he muttered to himself, as he noticed the peculiar yielding, limp character of the thing. “Must ‘a been some pup,” he continued. “Spec’ he one of dem perlice dawgs mos’ likely.”
Exerting more strength, Henry yanked the bundle, and the old burlap ripped open. The next instant the quiet street echoed to a blood-curdling screech, as the negro leaped from the wagon, and wildly rolling eyes, dashed westward at breakneck speed, yelling as he ran.
Had it not been for Celentano, Henry might be running yet. The Italian, startled at this fellow worker’s scream, and seeing his mad dash, sprang across the street and seized Henry’s flying coattails. Together the two rolled head over heels, Henry struggling to free himself and continue on his way ; the Italian as intent on holding him and learning the cause of his fright.
Although the hour was early, the negro’s screams had aroused the neighborhood, and boudoir-capped feminine, and tousel-haired masculine heads were appearing at the windows throughout the block. Two yellow and three checker taxis were already racing for the scene of uproar, and milk wagon drivers and other early wayfarers were running from all directions towards the struggling men. Last of all–and most remarkable for having been in the neighborhood when wanted–came a panting policeman.
As the latter pushed his way through the group that had gathered about the negro and the Italian, Henry caught sight of the blue uniform and found his voice at last.
“Lordy!” he gasped. “Lord A’might! T’ank de Lord you’s come! Boss, dey’s a daid man up yander in mah cart!”
Instinctively, at the words, every head was turned, and everyone gazed half fearfully toward the wagon, which still stood where Henry had abandoned it in his flight.
“Whatcha givin’ us?” demanded the officer. “Come along here and show me watcha hollerin’ about.”
But Henry demurred. “No, sir, Boss,” he exclaimed fairly shaking with terror. “Ah ain’ gwine near dat cart. No, sir, dey’s a sack in a can wha’s got a daid man inside. No sir, Boss. Ah ain’t aimin’ to go meddlin’ with no daid folks.”
But with the officer grasping his collar, Henry, despite his protests, was dragged unceremoniously towards the cart, with the crowd following and Tony bringing up the rear.
Still skeptical, the officer stepped on the wheel hub and peered over the vehicle’s side. Lying among the rubbish was the battered can, and where the rotten sacking had been torn apart, a human head was exposed.
“The smoke’s right!” ejaculated the policeman. Then, turning to Celentano, “Here, you Wop, hustle around to the box and send in a call for a couple a men. Tell ’em there’s a murder up here.”
By the time the other officers had arrived on the scene, the usually quiet street was in an uproar, a dense crowd filled it from Central Park West to Amsterdam Avenue. A hasty examination of the gruesome find was made, and the sack, which contained the body of a well dressed man, was removed from the wagon and taken to the police station much to Henry’s relief. But he vowed vociferously that he would gather no more rubbish cans with possible cadavers within, and an extra driver had to be sent for to drive the cart on its rounds and complete the collection of containers.
That a murder had been committed seemed evident. The dead man’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, and an ugly gash just below the collar-bone showed how he had met his end. Naturally, therefore, the police immediately conducted an examination of the premises in front of which Henry had made his discovery, and of the occupants thereof. But equally as naturally, without results. The houses, once the residences of well-to-do citizens, had been converted into furnished apartments and were occupied by tenants whose respectability and good standing could not be questioned. Not one, and for that matter not a resident of the entire street, could be found on whom the police could cast suspicion, though why the police should have imagined that a murderer or murderess would place the body of a victim under his or her own window was as great a problem as the crime itself.
And the mystery of the crime very rapidly deepened and became more and more involved. Even the dead man’s identity was unknown. No one who in the least resembled the body had been reported missing. There was no mark or clue that would throw light on the matter. The sack which had contained the dead man was so old and had been patched and mended so often that it was hopeless to endeavor to trace it. Not a soul in the street could remember ever having seen the murdered man, and the police were forced to admit at last–as they might just as well have done in the beginning–that the body had been brought from a distance and dumped into the ash can.
That such an easy and safe means of disposal of a corpse had never before been adopted by murderers was rather astonishing, and the very simplicity of the unique method of getting rid of the body made it the more baffling. At any time during the night, a motor car might have driven through the street and might have drawn in to the curb without arousing the least attention or suspicion. And, with equal ease, the body might have been carried from the car across the few feet of intervening sidewalk and dumped into an empty ash can. The street, during the night, was unfrequented and not too well lighted, and by waiting for a favorable opportunity, the criminal or criminals might easily have stepped from the car, dropped the sack with its contents into the container, and continued on their way as though nothing unusual had happened. Even had pedestrians been near, there would have been little chance that the murderer would have been noticed. The cans stood in heavy shadows between the high front steps of the houses, and no passer-by would have thought it unusual to see a car parked before a house or to see a man entering or emerging from the area-way under the front steps.
Indeed, residents of the block agreed that a number of cars had been through the street during the night preceding Henry’s discovery, and that several of them had been drawn up in front of the houses where the body had been found.
In fact, by checking up, the police found that there had scarcely been an hour during the night when cars or taxis had not been in the street ; but not one of these had attracted enough attention to cause the observers to note the license numbers, the body types, the colors or the makes of the cars.
For a time the murder mystery filled the papers. A thousand and one theories and suggestions were advanced. A score of people identified the body, only to be proven wrong as the supposed victims were duly accounted for. Then the whole affair lost its news interest and the public forgot it.
Alpheus Hyatt Verill. “The Psychological Solution,” Amazing Stories, vol 2, no 10, Jan. 1928, pp. 946-957, pp. 971.