When Today's Tribeca Was the Site of a Most Sensational Murder

The New York Evening Journal’s front page headline on the day that the defense began its plea for Nan Patterson’s freedom.

Nov. 15, 2017

As the hansom cab proceeding down West Broadway reached Franklin Street around 8:30 a.m. on June 4, 1904, a muffled shot seemed to come from it. When the cab came to a halt, a passerby noticed that a man and a woman were inside—but the man lay slumped across his companion’s lap.

The woman told the driver to go to a drugstore, where the druggist directed them to the nearby “Hudson Hospital”—probably the New York Hospital’s House of Relief at Hudson and Jay streets. There the man was pronounced dead of a gunshot wound.

What ensued was one of the most sensational murder trials of the time, one that held New Yorkers spellbound for a year and provided constant delights to the tabloid press. For the man was the nationally known gambler and bookmaker Francis Thomas “Caesar” Young, and his companion was a 21-year-old showgirl—but not just any showgirl. She was Nan Patterson, a member of the famed Floradora Sextet, who were the toast of the town. Specially picked as chorus girls for a musical show called Floradora, they were all exactly five feet four inches tall, weighed just 130 pounds and personified the ultimate in feminine beauty. On stage they danced demurely while male choristers sang, “Tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?” Twirling their parasols the girls replied, “There are a few, kind sir, and pretty girls and proper too.” New York went wild over them.

Young had met Nan some time in 1903 and, though both were married, immediately commenced an affair with her, showering her with presents and money and living openly with her. While remaining married, he paid for her divorce.

They were on their way, it turned out, to a pier on the Hudson River, where Caesar was to embark with his wife for Europe, ostensibly to force him to break off with Nan. Mrs. Young was not to be trifled with: she controlled his bank account. Caesar had picked up Nan in the cab uptown that morning in order to tell her once and for all that their affair was over. She, in turn, was determined, indeed desperate, not to lose him. As they rumbled downtown, their conversation must have been spirited, to say the least.

But just what had happened at the climactic moment? A revolver was subsequently found—in Young’s pocket, of all places. On the way to the hospital, a policeman testified, Nan had appeared distraught, and had sobbed, “Oh Caesar, Caesar, what have you done!”

Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? New York’s district attorney, William Travers Jerome, entertained no doubts on the matter, and on June 13 he had Nan indicted for murder in the first degree. She had killed him, the prosecution said, in a fit of rage because he had forsaken her. Patterson claimed it was suicide.

The case against her seemed strong. The revolver had been traced to a pawnshop where it had allegedly been sold the day before the shooting to a couple who met the description of Nan’s sister Julia and her husband Morgan Smith. Had they purchased it for Nan’s use? To make matters worse, the Smiths on June 10 suddenly left the city and could not be found.

Were they fleeing to avoid having to testify in court?

Despite their absence, Nan’s trial got underway on November 15, 1904, with Assistant District Attorney William Rand acting as prosecutor. Nan’s chief defense lawyer was Abraham Levy, who one commentator called “the most adroit and zestful practitioner of the criminal law in this country.” Testimony was taken, none of it very consequential, but then one of the jurors suffered a stroke and a mistrial was declared (evidently there were no alternates in those days). A second trial began on December 5 and this time went to completion—but the jury deadlocked, resulting once again in a mistrial.

The third and final trial began on April 18, 1905. Interest in the case remained high: each day the street in front of the courthouse was packed with people attempting to gain admittance.

In the interim months, Julia and Morgan Smith were located in Toronto, had fled that city but had been arrested in Cincinnati and brought back to New York.

The key question now was whether the pawnbroker would be able to identify them in court as purchasers of the revolver.

Before he was called, however, two matters were covered. First, the course of the bullet was established: it had entered Young’s body just below the left shoulder and taken a downward path, lodging in his spine. This did not seem to implicate Nan, but it made the possibility of suicide unlikely. Second, a coroner testified that he had found powder marks on Young’s fingers but not on Nan’s. What did this mean?

At last the pawnbroker was called to the stand, and the Smiths were asked to come to the railing. Everyone tensed. Rand asked the man if he could positively say that this was the couple who had bought the handgun.

The pawnbroker—who wore glasses with thick lenses—hesitated, then replied firmly. “No, sir, I cannot.”

Several times Rand repeated the question, but the man would not be swayed. The spectators in the courtroom stared in disbelief. It was a key moment. The prosecution’s case had been dealt a severe blow.

After Levy and Rand had delivered their final summations and the judge had issued his instructions, the jury retired. Many hours later they reported they could not come to an agreement. The judge sent them back, but at 2:40 a.m. they still had not produced a verdict. This time the judge dismissed them. The trial was over. Nan fainted; she would not go to jail. A few days later District Attorney Jerome announced that he would not try her again. So Nan Patterson went free and led the rest of her life in obscurity.

The question remains: What did happened?

Norman Levy, the son of Defense Attorney Levy, wrote a book about the trial at the end of which he offered his own hunch. It was neither murder nor suicide, he said. The Smiths had indeed bought the gun, and Nan carried it—loaded—in the cab. She had no intention of shooting Young. Instead she announced that she would shoot herself if he did not call off his plans to leave her. She brandished the weapon, Young grabbed for it, and it went off, killing him.


The theory makes sense, but only Nan Patterson knew whether it was so, and she never let on.

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of The Tribeca Trib.