In a case that exemplifies the ways in which race shaped both opportunities and perceptions, Marcus Newman, a light-skinned Black man, robbed and assaulted James L. McCullough, chief clerk of Railway Mail Service, on February 26, 1921. McCullough died hours later. The robbery netted $30,000 in bonds and other negotiable securities.
The murder occurred in the Pennsylvania Station railyard. Newman, 27, was a railroad employee – his ability to pass as white had allowed him to rise to the position of brakeman, a position not available to Black employees – who was familiar with the mail delivery schedule. He and his wife, Esther (Gilbert), were also prominent within the vibrant local Black community, frequently mentioned in the social pages.
Investigators believed the murder was an inside job, but had no suspects.
Immediately following the murder, Newman fled to Philadelphia. Four days later, one of the stolen bonds was negotiated there. By June, almost all of the bonds had been negotiated in Philadelphia and New York City. Reports to police identified the man selling the bonds as Samuel Kaufman, who was described as Jewish in appearance.
Meanwhile, Newman continued to live the lifestyle that the stolen bonds allowed, reportedly telling his unsuspecting wife that he had been successful in gambling.
Newman was finally arrested in Philadelphia on March 25, 1922, more than a year after the killing, when he tried to dispose of two of the last remaining bonds from the robbery. He was armed when captured.
His arrest was delayed because the police, who had identified Newman as a suspect after receiving reports of his unaccountably lavish spending, were looking for a Black man.
Indicted both on federal mail robbery charges and state murder charges, Newman’s murder trial was scheduled first. At trial, the case against Newman was strong, though circumstantial. It was based on his employment at the Pennsylvania Railroad and his close knowledge of its movements of cargo, his possession of the bonds, and his lavish spending. Under questioning, Newman admitted selling the bonds, but denied any knowledge of the robbery or the murder.
Newman was convicted of first-degree murder on October 13, 1922. His motion for a new trial was rejected and he was sentenced to death on November 24, 1922.
After his appeal, which raised a series of technical points, was rejected (Commonwealth v. Newman, 276 Pa. 534, 1923) and his clemency request was denied, Marcus Newman made a full confession. He was executed at Rockview Penitentiary on July 2, 1923. He is buried in Washington, D.C., where he had been born and raised.
Esther Gilbert Newman Williams died in Detroit in 1941 at age 47.