New York

The Macabre History of Central Park’s Waters

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The year 2017 has truly been a prolific time for bodies surfacing in the waters of Central Park. Two were recovered by authorities within days of each other in May — one was pulled from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir; another from Swan Lake. Two bodies is strange, so when the third corpse was hauled from the Conservancy Pond in June, it was unprecedented. 

Of the three, only one has been identified by police. Anthony McAfee, 36, was pulled from the lake after his body washed up on the shore on May 10. His ID was found in the pocket of his pants, and his body suffered no apparent signs of trauma. Authorities estimate he’d been in the water for no more than two weeks.

The park has been the site of numerous deaths over the years, but rarely do these unhappy victims wind up in the water itself. This is thanks in part to precautions taken by the city, like the eight-foot-tall fence surrounding the reservoir, originally implemented to protect New York’s drinking water from polluting elements, but serving the dual purpose of protecting people from themselves.

Rare as they are, deaths in Central Park are far from new. Here’s an exhaustive list of every documented case I could locate, stretching all the way back to 1884.

“The Body Found in the Reservoir” (February 27, 1884)

This fellow had been in the water for around a month at the time he was discovered, though the article the covered the death in the New York Times contends that “the face is in no way disfigured,” and that “any friend of the dead man would have no trouble in identifying it.” It was suspected at one point that the body belonged to Mr. Carl Sturz, but no, that was a false alarm.

“His Income Too Small: Oliver Perry Lewis Prefers Death to Poverty” (April 26, 1889)

Man, these early Times reporters could really set a scene:

“A young man with handsome features and soft, brown mustache, whose evening dress suit was covered with a dark top coat of fine material, and whose feet were incased in patent leather dancing shoes, walked up to the railing around the reservoir in Central Park yesterday morning at 10:30 o’clock, and, stopping for a moment, gazed over the placid waters. He then carefully removed the top coat, showing a buttonhole bouquet of roses in the lapel of his dress coat, and a light colored vest. Placing the coat as as well his [sic] black derby hat on the railing, he climbed upon the railing and, walking down to the water’s edge, stepped into the water.”

Imagine reading this stuff every day.

“Found in a Central Park Reservoir After Stern & Co.’s Failure” (October 25, 1894)

This unfortunate man’s death was buried under details about his failed business venture. The report points out that aside from the demise of his wholesale firm, Louis S. Stern had appeared to be in good spirits when he left the house, but his body was found in the Central Park Reservoir just a few hours later.

“Ignored Ethics of His Art: A Cook Committed Suicide in the City’s Drinking Water” (July 17, 1896)

“The man was apparently a German.”

“The Central Park Suicide: Mrs. Ethel Marie Reis the Woman Whose Body Was Found in the Reservoir” (May 12, 1897)

According to this story, Mrs. Ethel Marie Reis spent a lot of time with a mysterious man in his sixties known only as “the Professor.” This became a problem for the proprietor of the Brooklyn home in which Mrs. Reis lived, and eventually she said so, sending Mrs. Reis into such a spiral that she “moped in her room and refused to have a fire built.” That’s not to say that things with the Professor were great — apparently they quarreled quite a bit over their regular breakfasts at the Hotel St. George, so much so that Mrs. Reis frequently left her meal “untasted.” It was only a little while after the Professor was ordered away that Mrs. Reis’s body turned up in the reservoir.

Reporters for the Times were unable to determine the whereabouts of the Professor by press time, though they did say this about her funeral: “The dead woman, in her wildest and most emotional moments, could not have imagined a funeral as weird as hers really was.”

“Woman Dead in Reservoir: Body Supposed by Police to Be That of Suicide” (April 22, 1905)

The death of this woman earned only a few short inches in the Times when her body was found, just below the news of Mrs. Mackay running for the Roslyn School Board of Trustees.

“Woman Ends Life in Park Reservoir” (June 20, 1922)

This woman was seen pacing alongside the reservoir before jumping in, prompting a nearby police officer to jump in after her “without even stopping to remove his hat.” Unfortunately, she “sank at once.”

“Drowns Himself in Central Park: Man Had Spent Long Life Trying to Write Poetry and Plays, Says His Friend” (July 20, 1925)

“Almost penniless and convinced he was a victim of heart disease, although his doctor had assured him his heart was normal,” begins this entry, which details the death of Stephen R. Bernheimer, a once-wealthy man whose family lost its fortune during the Black Friday financial panic of 1873.

Despite that setback, Bernheimer still received a good education, but eschewed a life as a businessman in favor of becoming a writer, a venture that proved unsuccessful.

. . . And suddenly, the deaths in the reservoir stop. This is almost certainly thanks to the installation of a taller fence in 1926, since the original was “sufficient to prevent anyone from accidentally falling into the reservoir, but did not prevent self-destruction,” as a Times story from that year put it. “Few months pass that police of the Arsenal Station in the park are not called upon to make a report of death by drowning in the reservoir.” As such, a ten-foot-tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire was installed somewhat controversially, but it was effective.

Unfortunately, there remain plenty of other, less protected bodies of water in the park, all of which have borne witness to a variety of other tragedies.

In 1984, the body of an unidentified woman in her fifties was found behind the boathouse at the park’s Conservatory Water, according to the Times. She was fully clothed, and while her body was free of apparent gunshot or knife wounds, she did have a plastic bag stuffed in her mouth. The boathouse had been burglarized the evening before, and three small fires had been set inside. Members of the Central Park Model Yacht Club were trying to determine how the burglars had entered the building when they came across the body.

In 1995, the Daily News reported that a “stunned jogger watched an unidentified man neatly fold his clothes, climb the ten-foot fence that surrounds the reservoir, and dive in.” A police sergeant told the paper that the man swam around 150 yards before diving under the water. He never reappeared. It took four NYPD and four FDNY divers to eventually locate his body, which was resting on the reservoir’s bottom roughly 30 feet below the surface.

Two years later, in 1997, another body would be dredged from the reservoir, this one heavily publicized thanks to the bizarre circumstances of how it wound up there.

Daphne Abdela and Christopher Vasquez were both 15 when they brutally murdered 44-year-old real estate broker Michael McMorrow, stabbing him dozens of times before disemboweling him and hurling his body into the lake. Abdela, the city’s newspapers seemed delighted to report, was a grungy, aggressive teen with rich parents who had taken to drinking beer in the park with a ragtag group of other outcasts. Vasquez, who was from a working-class family, was diagnosed early in life with agoraphobia, and tended to be reticent around other kids. The connection the two shared was a mystery to their friends, who often found Abdela’s boisterousness obnoxious and Vasquez’s guarded nature creepy.

One night, their regular park revelries led them to cross paths with McMorrow, whom Abdela recognized from her time in rehab. What happened next is somewhat unclear, though by the teens’ own accounts, a confrontation occurred after McMorrow kissed the much younger Abdela in the park’s gazebo, sending Vasquez into a jealous rage that led him to attack McMorrow with a knife. Abdela told authorities that she joined in the assault, kicking McMorrow’s feet out from under him. His mangled body was pulled from the reservoir by authorities a short time later, and both Abdela and Vasquez were convicted of manslaughter and served six years in jail.

In 1998, the body of a man who was believed to have committed suicide was found floating in the reservoir, the Daily News reported. The outlet, which did not identify the man, said that his shoes were spotted on the jogging path around the corner from the reservoir. Police took this to mean that the man had removed his shoes, climbed the reservoir’s chain link fence, and “accidentally fell in or committed suicide.”

In 2002, the body of a schizophrenic woman named Rosemary Murray was found floating in the park’s Harlem Meer. According to Newsday, “her frail body was pulled from the waters” by a parks department worker who “mistook the homeless woman for garbage.” Newsday claimed to be the only outlet to report the woman’s death at the time, and later expanded upon it in a longer feature exploring the sad tale of her life and, eventually, death.

A good student with a talent for art, Murray was once on track to lead a happy life. She was engaged to be married and was enjoying her first glimmers of success as an artist, having won a grant from the parks department to exhibit her paintings in their offices and other locations around the city.

While Murray had long exhibited signs of schizophrenia, it wasn’t until she was an adult that the illness really took hold. Her downfall, her mother told Newsday, seemed all but unavoidable. As the power of the voices in her head grew, Murray left her job as an art therapist and broke off her engagement.

“She couldn’t handle the responsibility of being married,” her mother said. “And she said she could never have any children because she didn’t want her kids to have what she did. She just kept hearing voices inside her head. They would tell her to do things or talk to each other.”

Murray’s condition continued to deteriorate. Her parents attempted to register her in an outpatient clinic, but she often skipped her therapy sessions. Before long she was homeless, having one day packed up her things and thrown them in the trash before simply walking out of her apartment and never returning. Her parents saw her only intermittently before her death, and neither they nor the police suspect foul play. Her mother posits that Murray had simply bent toward the Meer’s water for a drink and fallen in.

“She used to drink water from the curb because that’s what the voices in her head told her to do,” her mother said. “That’s how powerful the voices were.”

In 2014, the body of 22-year-old Aronno Haque, who had gone missing while visiting family in the city, was found in the park’s lake by the NYPD’s scuba team. A bag of his things was found near the lake’s shores, and his death was ruled a suicide.

In 2015, 27-year-old Taiquan Collier jumped into the park’s reservoir one September afternoon. First responders arrived at the scene and pulled him from the water, but he could not be saved.

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