Friday, August 24, 2018
The Tragic Story
of Agnes Birdseye
Someone strolling along the western edge of the Branchville Cemetery would come upon the gravestones of the Birdseye family. They might smile at the name and say, “Frozen food!”
But no, these are different Birdseyes. And the gravestone of the first Birdseye who was buried there — a woman who shot her lover and killed herself — is mysteriously missing.
Agnes Elizabeth Birdseye was born in 1900 in New York City, a daughter of middle-class parents. Her father, Lewis, was an accountant who became secretary to the head of the New York Police Department and later was a superintendent of hospitals in the city.
In the 1910s, the Birdseyes bought a summer home at 70 Peaceable Street in Georgetown, a short distance east of the Branchville train station. They became members of the Georgetown Congregational Church and as a teenager, Agnes sang in its choir.
It appears that Mrs. Lewis and her children were living on Peaceable Street full-time by 1920 and Elizabeth, Agnes’s younger sister, graduated from the Gilbert and Bennett School (now a cultural center) in 1923.
Agnes Birdseye’s strange story began a year later when the 24-year-old nurse went to work for Dr. Milton Thomashefsky, an ear, nose and throat specialist with a practice near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A Columbia graduate, Thomashefsky was described in newspaper accounts as “dashing” and a “Don Juan,” the bachelor son of Yiddish theater celebrities Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.
It appears a romance eventually blossomed, at least in Agnes’s mind. Friends said she called the doctor “Mickey” and he called her “Boo Boo.” They went out to dinner together, to parties, and the theater.
But according to Thomashefsky’s later testimony, there had never been any more to their relationship than friendship. He “conceded her infatuation for him, but added he had always told her it was hopeless,” he is quoted in a Brooklyn newspaper as telling investigators.
However the doctor may have felt, it seemed clear Agnes was in love with him. And when one day in the early August of 1931, she discovered a letter from another woman in one of his coat pockets, she reportedly became enraged with jealousy.
The letter was from Norma Jean Bernstein, a 24-year-old camp counselor whom the doctor had met upstate the previous summer and with whom he became friends. “Dear, darling Mickey,” the letter began; it ended, “Oh, did I remember to tell you, dear, darling Mickey, that I miss you so much?”
Dr. Thomashefsky later maintained that this relationship was also only friendship, not a romance.
On Monday, Aug. 10, Birdseye snuck into Thomashefsky’s apartment while he slept and chloroformed him. Then, according to one account, she “performed a mutilating operation on him.” Other reports say only that she cut him three times with a knife.
She also left a note, saying “Harry, we have settled our account with you. A.C.” Police theorized that since the doctor had a brother named Harry, the note was meant to suggest the stabbing was a case of mistaken identity, diverting any suspicions that she was the culprit.
It didn’t work. On Wednesday, Aug. 12, at his office, Thomashefsky confronted Birdseye about the attack.
“She confessed to cutting me and went down on her knees to beg forgiveness,” the doctor later told investigators. “I refused to forgive her and told her I was through with her.”
Just then, the doorbell rang. As Thomashefsky turned and went to answer it, Birdseye ran to her nearby desk, grabbed a revolver from a drawer and fired a single shot at his back. The bullet smashed his spine.
She then shot herself in the abdomen and the head. She died instantly from the head wound.
Thomashefsky lay on the floor a short distance from her body and, he said later, became suicidal himself.
“I knew I had been shot in the spine,” he told Brooklyn District Attorney William F.X. Geoghan. “I knew I was paralyzed.”
“I crawled to where the revolver was and broke it open to see how many bullets were left. I wanted to finish the job.”
He found only three shells and all had been fired.
Thomashefsky then called Birdseye’s father, Lewis. “I told him to come right over, that something terrible had happened,” he said.
Meanwhile, Philip Pines, who had been knocking at the locked office door to meet the doctor for a dinner engagement, heard the shots. Pines had been acting as a bodyguard for the Thomashefsky since Monday’s knife attack.
With the help of building staff, Pines broke into the office, found the two gunshot victims, and called for help.
Thomashefsky was taken to the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn — the institution where Agnes’s father was superintendent.
After investigating the scene and interviewing the doctor, police reported they believed the case was one of “attempted murder and suicide.”
Lewis Birdseye refused to believe her daughter could have committed the crime and killed herself.
“Agnes did not do this,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ll get to the bottom of it despite Dr. Thomashefsky’s story.”
He theorized that a third party had shot the two. “In support of his theory [he] pointed out that several chairs had been overturned as though in a struggle,” The New York Times reported. “The authorities tried vainly to convince him of the correctness of their theory.”
There were other puzzling details and reports. Engagement and wedding rings were found in Birdseye’s purse, but authorities never explained how they may have been related to the shootings. There were reports that Birdseye and Thomashefsky had quarreled, and that Agnes had a black eye.
Dr. Thomashefsky underwent months of treatments before being sent home from the hospital. Confined to a wheelchair, he never practiced again, and instead lived with his mother in an apartment at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, where he died five years after the shooting. His death at age 39 was reported to have been due to complications from the gunshot injury.
He is said to have spent his last years writing plays and movie scripts. None was ever produced.
“Titian-haired Agnes Birdseye” was buried Saturday, Aug. 15, “in the little cemetery in Branchville,” the Norwalk Hour said. “Few spectators gathered to watch the final services for the young girl who was formerly a member of the choir of the Georgetown Congregational Church.”
Agnes Birdseye’s gravestone, giving only her name and the years of her birth and death, was
It has since vanished. Instead, there are monuments for her parents, Lewis, who died in 1942, and Florence, 1949, along with her brother, Lewis Jr., who died in 1958.
Also buried in the Birdseye plot is Dr. Archibald Abernethy, a native of Canada, who was a physician at the Norwich State Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Around 1930, he married Agnes’s sister, Elizabeth, probably a nurse at the same facility, and died two years later — less than a year after Agnes’s death. (His wife is not in Branchville, however; she later married Peter Thornton and moved to Florida where she died in 1980.)
What happened to the gravestone of Agnes Birdseye? Perhaps it was removed by members of the family who grew to be embarrassed by her tragic end. More likely the family removed it because they didn’t want sensation-seeking members of the public ghoulishly gawking at her gravesite.
However, it may even have been stolen by a souvenir seeker after the story resurfaced in newspapers across the country in 1936 when Milton Thomashefsky died.
A year after his daughter’s tragic death, and perhaps as a result of it, Lewis Birdseye left the world of hospital administration to become a social worker with the St. John’s Guild, a charitable organization sponsored by the Episcopal Church that focused on helping underprivileged children.
He became widely known among the poor in New York City when he managed the guild’s Floating Hospital, a ship that mixed recreation with medical assistance. Thousands of city children in the summer took trips on the vessel, getting exposure to fresh air and the sea, and in the process receivings checkups and screenings from physicians and nurses on board. At the same time staff members would instruct parents in good child-rearing practices.
The Floating Hospital is still in operation today.
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