“Baby-Killer” McHale: The Mass Murderer You’ve Never Heard Of
Content warnings: mentions of murder, violence, and substance abuse.
How much attention must we dedicate to a crime with nameless, faceless victims? How much empathy do those victims deserve when their stories are brief, simple, and otherwise completely ordinary? Are survivors entitled to sympathy when their lives appear to be entirely unaffected by their ordeal, aside from the burden of bearing grief so great that we simply cannot imagine it?
The untold story of John McHale begs to invoke these impossible questions. It’s a story that has evaded notice for nearly a century, confined to fewer than 500 words over three months in a few syndicated local newspapers. Perhaps it’s because his story was overshadowed by the national fixation on John Dillinger, whose run from the law captivated readers for months and whose crimes overshadowed nearly all others. Perhaps it’s because the country was in the throes of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, with millions of Americans living in slums and struggling to survive. Or perhaps it’s because the story simply died out, fizzled and drifted away, buried under more exciting headlines and more relatable surnames, laid to rest in an unmarked grave with no attribution or acknowledgement, much like McHale and his victims.
Between 1820 and 1930, as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America, consisting of over 30% of all immigrants to the States. Fleeing famine and seeking better opportunities, these immigrants often found themselves destitute and confined to Irish-only housing. Rampant disease and anti-Irish sentiment were just some of the consequences they faced for pursuing a better life. Scottish immigrants fared only slightly better, and only if they brought with them marketable skills and a Protestant upbringing. Despite persisting stereotypes that the Irish were an unruly, drunken bunch, America’s early 20th-century temperance movement and subsequent Prohibition Act increased the rate of alcohol-related crimes and deaths far higher than those occurring in Ireland during the same time period. A proliferation of organized crime was borne out of the temperance movement, as well as further economic hardship from the loss of alcohol-based tax revenue. Distilling kits remained legal, however, so some people confined their consumption to their homes to avoid arrest and instead created home-brewed concoctions out of anything that would ferment. By the time Prohibition was ended, the rate of alcoholism in the United States was higher than when it began.
At Bellevue Hospital in New York City, alcohol-related admissions rose from 2,091 in 1920 to 7,649 in 1934. Public health leaders believed that addiction stemmed from “psychopathy” — in other words, that only morally corrupt people would seek out self-medication in the form of substance abuse. These sentiments, as well as the crushing sensation of hopelessness that often accompanied lower-class squalor, contributed to individuals’ insistence upon hiding their drinking behavior out of shame and lack of available resources. Contributing to self-medication was trauma and depression caused by poor living conditions for the mostly indigent immigrant population. Although such nuance wasn’t understood at the time, some immigrants manifested their mental illness through religious extremism as a means to cope with the constant stress of poverty and the pressure to assimilate. Among these individuals was John McHale.
McHale and his wife Margaret Nevin immigrated to America in 1921 and 1925, respectively. They were married on September 12, 1927 when McHale was 25 and Nevin was 31. Sometime in late 1933, McHale was temporarily housed at Bellevue Hospital for “psychopathy” stemming from his substance abuse, but was discharged a few months later and landed a construction job through the Civil Works Administration program. Described as a “religious maniac,” McHale was often found in local churches, staunchly declaring his love for God and encouraging others to do the same. It is believed that Nevin’s less-fanatical views on religion contributed to some distress within their marriage. McHale held a reputation as a loud, violent man, and was frequently seen quarreling with his wife in public. One neighbor described witnessing McHale hitting Nevin “across the face with a length of clothesline and she struck him in the mouth,” causing McHale to bleed. Despite their apparent marital issues, the couple bore four daughters: Anna, the eldest; followed by Margaret, Helen, and Agnes, who was only 18 months old in March 1934.
It was a blustery evening that followed an otherwise agreeable, sunny Saturday. McHale had been drinking heavily despite his recent release from a psychiatric facility, and was eager to attend a St. Patrick’s Day dance that night. Nevin declined, reasoning that no one would be around to watch the children if the pair were to go out. The neighbors were treated to the sounds of another knock-down-blow-out fight between the two, culminating with McHale eating his dinner in silence before leaving the house alone around 7:30pm. Nevin left shortly thereafter to get some fresh air and retrieve milk for her daughters. The trip to the store and back was only supposed to take 15 minutes, but she was delayed by a long line of revelers picking up last-minute crudite and various instruments of celebration.
Within the span of the half-hour that Nevin was gone, McHale returned home, retrieved a two-pound carpenter’s hammer from his work bag, and systematically bludgeoned each of his children to death. First was baby Agnes, then 4-year-old Helen, 5-year-old Margaret, and 6-year-old Anna, who appeared to have attempted to stop her father from his rampage. Hatless, coatless, winded, and red-faced from exertion, McHale stumbled out of his home and pushed his passing neighbor out of the way. He staggered downtown, still reeking of alcohol, and spent the night in a Chatham Square mission near Chinatown. In the morning he changed his clothes, purchased some overalls, and returned to Newark where he had received his first CWA job. He obtained additional CWA contracts along the East Coast and Midwest, spending time in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany, but never staying longer than it took to earn enough money for transportation elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Nevin returned home to a scene beyond comprehension. The youngest children, Helen and Agnes, were unresponsive in their blood-soaked cribs. Anna and Margaret were found hugging each other on a bed, unconscious and hemorrhaging blood, but clinging to life. Nevin fainted at the sight, and woke up at her cousin Dennis Canney’s apartment to learn that Helen had died on impact. Canney declined to notify his shock-stricken cousin of the other girls’ deaths, believing her to be in too fragile a state to handle the news. Three days later, Nevin was led into a small, candlelit chapel to identify her daughters’ bodies. Their heads had been covered with white hats to cover the scars left by their father, and they each held a small crucifix in their hands. They lay in tiny white caskets gifted by a pastor who learned of the tragedy and sought to spare the slain toddlers from a potter’s field burial. On a cold day at St. Raymond’s Cemetery, compassionate detectives, neighbors, and a priest held Margaret Nevin back as she wept over her daughters’ pale, broken bodies. Amidst the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, Nevin kissed Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Agnes for the last time, wailing, “Oh John, why did you do it? Bury me too! Why didn’t he kill me too?”
At once, the story shifted away from the horror of the community’s filicide and towards that of a hysterical, sobbing woman with a maniacal husband, and a broken family that was too poor to afford a proper burial for their dead children. In the sparse newspaper blurbs that followed, Nevin and her daughter’s last names were frequently misspelled or forgone completely.
Police believed McHale to be already dead, as is often the case in familicide, but searched all of his usual haunts: bars, churches, and every hospital in town. Three weeks after the funeral, a body was discovered in the waters of Westchester Creek. The body appeared to have been in the water since around the time of the murders, and it matched McHale’s description: 170 pounds, just under 6 feet tall, wearing similar clothing to what he was last seen wearing before he disappeared. Nevin, simultaneously praying for emotional restitution and closure, was called to the morgue to make an identification. When she couldn’t positively identify the deceased as her husband, the body remained unclaimed, and she returned to Canney’s house as the search continued across five states and countless cities.
Just before midnight on May 28, 1934, Canney awoke to the ringing of his doorbell. In the dimly-lit hallway of the apartment building, he could just barely make out the silhouette of a tall man in overalls asking for a Margaret Nevin.
Canney cried, “So it’s you?” before swinging at John McHale and landing a powerful blow to his face which knocked him out instantly. After calling the police, Canney sat on top of McHale’s body and waited for authorities to arrive. His wife rushed down to the street and shouted to a passing police radio car, “We’ve got McHale, the baby killer!”
McHale was easily overpowered by the authorities, but spewed unintelligible nonsense as they booked him. He admitted to attacking his children, but claimed, “my kids are not dead. They’re alive, but they’re buried.” He claimed that he returned to the Bronx in hopes of seeing his wife, but the District Attorney believed that he only sought to subject Nevin to the same fate as his children. The DA ordered that McHale be kept under guard at Bellevue Psychopathic Hospital, where he remained a ward of the state, deemed unfit to stand trial.
McHale was later housed at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where he is thought to have received experimental treatments such as electric and insulin shock therapy. Although his specific course of treatment is unknown, the hospital was also notorious for other extreme therapies like hypnosis and lobotomies. By the time of his imprisonment, over 30% of all inmates at Matteawan were immigrants. Poor record-keeping and lack of nearby kin led to McHale dying in obscurity with no official death certificate. He is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere within Fishkill Correctional Facility Cemetery.
Nevin was naturalized in 1935, and records do not appear to reflect that she had any more children or ever remarried. Neither she nor Canney appear in the 1940 census, suggesting that they may have returned to Ireland to be with their remaining family. Bolstering this theory is Irish death records that report the death of a Margaret McHale in 1968, who succumbed to heart and lung-related illness at the age of 72. She was likely buried in a pauper’s grave, an ocean away from her children’s final resting place.
It would be unjust to imply that social justice begets forgiveness or understanding. Oftentimes tragedy is a consequence of a perfect storm: a complex web of intermingling factors including social class, political climate, unrecognized mental illness, and governmental or administrative complacency. Psychological profiles of family annihilators suggest that most killers are able to hide their psychopathic tendencies, and by all accounts appear to be wealthy, highly-educated, respectable people. Perhaps that’s why McHale’s story has scarcely been told: witnesses and readers could simply write off his crimes as a product of the man failing to become a respected member of society, cannon fodder for the American Dream. A fanatical, raging alcoholic — particularly an immigrant — can be pigeonholed into the category of “insane” rather easily and without much protest from his family who, if they’re even alive, are unlikely to learn of his fate until weeks or months after the fact. John McHale and his legacy rests now the same way he died: alone, penniless, invisible, and nearly untraceable.
The tragedy that befell the McHale household isn’t so easily contained in the category of true crime. The most famous stories contain compelling elements like a beautiful middle-class family, or twists and turns that uncover secrets and lies. The McHale murders, and each member of the forsaken family, had little to offer in the way of drama and glamour. The children’s deaths were senseless. There was no motive, no confession, no secret mistress, no shocked friends who never could’ve seen it coming. Perhaps, then, Margaret Nevin and her extended family’s quiet disappearance from the public eye is by design. After all, if your trauma fades into obscurity behind walls of text reserved for the rich, how traumatized could you really be? If no one is around to miss you when you’re gone, did you ever really exist? If no one mourns your loss, was anything lost at all?
Author’s note: this story was compiled from a combination of public records, government archives, and newspaper articles. Due to the nature of record-keeping during the relevant time period, some information may be inaccurate or unsubstantiated. I took great care to adhere as closely to the truth as the available sources would allow me. The language included in this story such as “alcoholic,” “psychopathic,” and “insane” are reflective of the actual news coverage and journalistic verbiage of the time. In repeating these sentiments, I do not intend to condone them. Sources can be found below.
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