Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Locked Room Mysteries In Real Life: Isodore Fink

The last article on locked room mysteries in real life (available here) detailed a sinister real life crime that closely resembled a fictional story written almost two decades earlier. This post centres around the opposite case - a number of mystery writers attempting to create a rational explanation for a true unsolved crime.

Police Commissioner Mulrooney.
Source: Pinterest
The case in question is the murder of Isodore Fink, a Polish immigrant who ran a laundry in New York in the early 20th century. Fink died on 9th March 1929 in circumstances the NYC Police Commissioner called an “insoluble mystery”. The case inspired both William March and Ben Hecht to write the fictional short stories "The Bird House" and "The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman".

Isodore Fink was somewhat of a loner, having no friends or close contacts to speak of. Known as a recluse by the neighbours, he was also extremely security concious and had gone to great lengths to secure his apartment with bars over the windows and bolts across the door. Despite his precautions, he was shot in his home in a murder that has remained unsolved to this day.

Source: StrangeCompany
The details of the crime were as follows: Fink had returned home after running several laundry deliveries (he operated his laundry business from the same apartment), and put a hot iron on the gas stove. Soon thereafter, a neighbour heard screams and possibly the sound of blows (but no gunshots), and alerted a passing policeman. Finding the doors and windows firmly sealed, the officer noticed a transom window above the door and lifted a small child through it, who proceeded to unlock the door from the inside.

Stepping inside, the policeman saw Fink's body in the centre of the room. He had been shot three times - twice in the chest, and once in the left wrist (the wrist wound had powder burns, suggesting it was a defensive wound as he tried to stop his assailant). He would have died instantly. There was no sign of a disturbance in the apartment, and nothing had been taken. The only fingerprints found were Fink's. The police ruled out the possibility of suicide due to the nature of the wounds and the fact that no gun was found in the vicinity of the crime.

(Spoilers below)

The Bird House

In his short story "The Bird House", William March used an identical scenario to set up his impossible crime plot, though changed the victim's name to Emmanuel Vogel. Adding a little fictional back-story to the victim, but staying faithful to the facts of the case, March proposed a novel solution to the mystery. In his story, the killer shoots Vogel and finds himself trapped inside the apartment, a growing crowd forming outside after the neighbour heard the disturbance. Unable to escape, the murderer decides to flatten himself against the wall by the door.

When the door is opened, the killer manoeuvres a foot into the entrance, being pushed forward by the eager crowd. The police notice the body and force the crowd back, the killer escaping into anonymity. While this would account for the locked room, the theory does have a few fundamental flaws. Firstly, it assumes the crowd were pushing to get into the room, which is unlikely considering a) the police would be treating it as a crime scene, and b) there could potentially be an armed criminal in the room. It also would not account for the small boy, who certainly would have noticed an armed killer standing right next to the door as he was unlocking it from the inside...

The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman

In Ben Hecht's take on the story, the situation remains the same but instead of the victim's wrist being shot his hand has been removed entirely. Fabricating a more fanciful motive for the murder (Hecht suggests the victim was a Russian czar in hiding, and his hand was removed to hide a recognisable tattoo), the solution rests on the victim being shot from outside his apartment, then shutting the door and sealing the room before collapsing.

While this is potentially more believable than March's resolution, it also stands at odds with the nature of the wounds. The coroner's report confirmed that Fink would have died instantly, and therefore been unable to seal himself in the room prior to perishing.

Other Theories

The police originally speculated that Fink was shot through the transom window, though the powder burns on his wrist would be impossible through this method. This could potentially be combined with Hecht's explanation, with the victim fighting with an assailant outside the apartment, receiving a non-fatal wound in his hand in the commotion, then sealing the door and being shot through the opening. The logistics of this solution render it quite unlikely.

Could a transom window hold the key?

The final possibility was that Fink was killed by an assassin able to enter and exit through the transom window. Given the size of the opening, this would mean the killer was particularly acrobatic and no larger than a small child. Again, the solution was deemed unlikely.

My upcoming novel The Locked Room aso features Fink's case in one of the stories, so look out for one more possible solution that has not been listed above!

Given the age of the crime it's unlikely that there will ever be an accepted explanation for Fink's death, but that makes authors' attempts to piece together the riddle no less fascinating. More examples of life imitating impossible crime fiction can be found here.

William March's The Bird House is available as part of the Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries anthology from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman by Ben Hecht can be found as part of Stories for Men on Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

Do you have any theories on how Fink may have died? Or thoughts on any of the suggestions above? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. has anyone ever considered the killer wore gloves and simply locked the door behind him as he left... hoping to stall discovery of the body and allow him type to escape. thats what i would do...

    1. I know, right? The door locked from the inside. However, many doors will still close if locked. Only a deadbolt bars this.

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  3. Film director here. I'm pretty sure I know how Fink was murdered and it's obvious if I'm correct: but I won't discuss it here. Instead I intend to fictionalize the Fink killing in an upcoming episode of Movieopolis and depict young Martin Scorsese solving the case. Hint: it involves a piece of furniture inside the room and Fink's own past and one of his specific peculiar obsessions, which you actually just mentioned in this very article. Hint two: a lighted match, at least so far in my writing the script, provides the poker tell that for Scorsese gives it away.

    Surely you know by now how I'm proposing Fink was murdered. :)

  4. I just question whether those key Did Finks was in her pocket??


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  8. The transom make it more easily to conclude,cause things are quite easy to put,I have two theory,first the murderer is the neighbour and we could easily put the key anywhere in room even in Fink's pocket by simple strings or also in lock with help of certain tools,the second theory is a bit irrational but if only I would know the premise of crime scene,so my second theory is that fink body is supplied inside by transom and with help of ropes.

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