Double Murder Mystery on the Mississippi: Part 1

On Christmas 1894, a neighbor in a riverfront settlement at the foot of Potomac Street in south St. Louis found twenty-seven-year-old Lizzie Leahy splattered in blood on her shantyboat bed. An assailant had bashed in the back of her skull with a hammer, apparently while she was asleep. Only a third of her skull remained intact. Miraculously, Lizzie was still alive when the neighbor summoned police. She held onto life for nearly a month in the City Hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness until her death on January 21, 1895. The finger of police suspicion at once pointed toward Thomas George Morton, the stage name of the actor with whom she cohabited in the shantyboat, but he had mysteriously vanished. Lizzie, as she struggled to answer police questions during periods of lucidity, emphatically denied that Morton was the one who bludgeoned her. But, if she knew the identity of her assailant, she did not reveal it to the police.

The last time James and Mary J. Pack saw their daughter Lizzie before she was bludgeoned, she and Thomas Morton were boarding the Spread Eagle in Alton for St. Louis. Photo ca. 1912

Lizzie, daughter of James P. and Mary J. Pack, of Alton, Illinois, married John Leahy in 1886 but separated from him around 1893 and moved to St. Louis. Before she met thirty-year-old Morton, whose real name was Thomas George Gilroy Jr., she acted in a traveling medicine show. Morton was born in Louisiana but moved with his family to Cincinnati, where he performed as an acrobat, singer, and dancer in concert halls in the 1880s. Before coming to St. Louis, he said goodbye to his mother, Alpha Gilroy, in Newport, Kentucky and set out as the head of a small traveling troupe in a horse and wagon with theatrical props. He also left behind a wife and two children. Due to a lack of patrons, he stopped holding performances by the time he reached St. Louis.

When Lizzie and Tom met, they fell in love, and she took him to meet her parents. Her father, a violin player, blacksmith, and former police officer, was the widely known leader of Pack’s Orchestra in Alton. During the visit, Lizzie and Tom promised her parents to get married as soon as she could get a divorce. Afterward, they boarded the steamer Spread Eagle for St. Louis. Lizzie chose to live on the Mississippi River, which held a mystical, romantic charm for her. So, she and Tom bought a houseboat, tied it up on the south end of Squatters’ Town on the levee between Potomac and Cherokee streets around the first of November, and began a new life together on the river’s edge. The new life ended in brutal horror less than two months later.

Thomas George Gilroy Jr and twin sister Marietta with their mother, Alpha L. Gilroy, who came to St. Louis, visited Lizzie Leahy in the hospital, and arranged for her son's remains to be shipped to Newport for burial. Photo ca. 1874 posted on Ancestry by Trisha Gilroy-Bomar.

Although Lizzie denied Tom was the assailant, officer Thomas Whalen did a stake-out of their shantyboat in case he returned. On December 29, he noticed that Morton’s small black and tan terrier kept running back and forth from the shantyboat to a spot about 150 feet away. A group of nearby men tried to run the dog off, but he trotted right back to the spot, sniffing and scratching at the soil. The terrier’s frantic behavior caught Whalen’s eye. Upon investigation, detectives noticed the soil at the spot was loose. They picked up shovels and began to dig. About four feet deep lay Morton’s corpse in a shallow, sandy pit on the river’s edge. The little terrier crouched by the corpse and howled and wailed. (TO BE CONTINUED)

Artist’s sketch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 30, 1894.

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