A Cautionary Tale For The Holiday Tightwad

12/23/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2011
  • David Lohr Senior Crime Reporter, The Huffington Post

It certainly is nifty to be thrifty with the holidays upon us. After all, today's penny pinching could result in tomorrow's bountiful celebration.

There is, however, a need to be vigilant when it comes to being a tightwad. No, this is not the opening to a retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." This is a real-life tale that is as suitable today as it was when it occurred nearly 80 years ago.

This story involves two strangers: one, a man of few means, who sought to escape his impoverished life; the other, a woman who had the means to live life comfortably, but denied herself all its amenities.

These two vastly different people had few things in common in life, but a strange twist of fate forever linked them in death.

A one-time popular stop in New York was the Horn and Hardart, a nickel-in-the-slot cafeteria. It was there on one fine day in 1933 that a female guest stopped in during the mid-morning rush but was apparently in no particular hurry to leave. It soon became painfully obvious to those around her that something was seriously wrong. The woman, or as the papers of the time period referred to her -- the "dowdy old dame" -- had grabbed her chest and fallen over backwards in her chair.

When a doctor from Knickerbocker Hospital arrived on the scene, he found the woman to be deathly ill. As he ordered her into an ambulance, a man came running over, alerting him that another patron was lying on the ground in front of the basement restroom.

When the doctor examined the man, he found him to be too far gone and the man died just minutes later. The woman did not fare much better and was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Investigators were presented with a mystery worthy of their fictional counterpart, Sherlock Holmes. How had these two people died? Were they connected? Was this a double homicide or was there some other explanation?

Authorities were able to identify both of the victims. The man was Harry Jellinek, a 50-year-old automotive mechanic from Manhattan. The woman was Lillian Rosenfeld, a 43-year-old woman who lived on West 104th Street.

Jellinek was a down-and-out businessman who had borrowed $150 from the bank when the Great Depression hit and was unable to pay it back. As a result, he was facing the foreclosure of his home and business. He had a wife and an 18-year-old son who was attending college.

Rosenfeld, whom writer Billy Rose described in the Charleston, S.C. News and Courier as a "harmless old bat," was known as a bum who would scavenge through garbage bins for food. Local residents told police she was always begging for food and complaining she was poor.

Both of the victims had been seen eating seeded rolls at the automat, but other than that similarity, it seemed clear to detectives that neither of the two victims knew each other or had anything in common. They took into account Jellinek's money woes and then conducted a search of Rosenfeld's $7-per-month basement apartment. It was there that they stumbled upon something interesting.

Rosenfeld, as it turned out, was far from penniless. She had, in fact, inherited $15,000 when her father died some years prior and still had much of the money in her bank account, along with more than $40,000 in investments -- quite a hefty sum for the time period. Why she chose to live the life of a pauper and sleep on a broken bed with no mattress was anyone's guess.

"[She was] a chiseler," an unidentified law enforcement officer told The New Yorker. "Probably hasn't spent a penny on food in 10 years -- any penny but that seven bucks a month."

When the coroner completed the autopsies on Jellinek and Rosenfeld, he was surprised to discover that both of them had died from cyanide poisoning. Using this information, investigators were able to locate a chemist who claimed he had sold Jellinek $3 in cyanide on the day of the deaths. Obviously, detectives had to wonder if Jellinek was a killer who had taken a life before claiming his own, but that scenario didn't sit right with detectives, so they decided to return to the crime scene.

When investigators interviewed employees of the automat, they discovered that Rosenfeld would regularly frequent the outdoor cafeteria and swoop down on any meals that were left unfinished or unattended.

Piecing the puzzle together, investigators surmised that Jellinek, fed up with his financial problems, had decided to end his own life by sprinkling the cyanide he had purchased on his seeded bread roll. Unable to finish it before becoming violently ill, he left the roll on the table and ran down to the restroom, where he was later found.

Detectives further surmised that Rosenfeld had seen Jellinek leave his half-eaten roll on the table, and the delicacy proved to be too tempting for her to resist. She sat down and finished it, unknowingly ingesting the poison herself.

Temptation, as is often the case, proved to be a devil in disguise.

So, while there is no shame in being frugal, you should take special care that your penchant for a tight fist does not shuffle off this mortal coil sooner than intended.

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