The shots with which twenty-five-year-old William Hoyer killed his wife Jennie and five-year-old daughter Sylvia were fired at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, but the events leading up to those murders wove through the spaces of Harlem. Rich evidence of this case survives because Hoyer was ultimately executed for the crime, one of ten black residents of Harlem to receive the death penalty in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
William and Jennie had been married for six years, the first five of which they spent living with his mother, half brother and stepfather at 564 Lenox Avenue. William’s inheritance from his father, a successful businessman in their native Danish West Indies, ensured that the relationship started in grand style, financing a lavish courtship and wedding. His own income was more modest; although he had learned to paint during a stint as a seaman, William worked primarily as a porter for a shirt company in downtown Manhattan. A year before Jennie left, the couple moved to two rooms of their own in an apartment in 158 West 129th Street. In the two rooms behind them lived another couple, the Reubens; the two women became friends, intimate enough that they left open the connecting doors between their homes. Their friendship, at least according to William, also introduced conflict into the Hoyer’s marriage.
On June 22, 1925, while William was at work, Jennie took their daughter Sylvia and joined the Reubens in relocating to a four room apartment on the fourth floor of 430 St Nicholas Avenue. No one questioned by the police and prosecutors offered any explanation for Jennie’s decision to leave her husband other than William himself. He blamed the influence of Mrs Reuben, and Jennie’s attendance at the Holy Utopia Spiritualist Church, which met in an apartment on the first floor of 208 West 134th Street. Although she had been married and had Sylvia baptized at St Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, according to William, Jennie had begun attending spiritualist services early in 1925, Concerned that she was out 4 nights a week, William claimed to have confronted Jennie, who told him that the church’s leader, the Reverend T. O. Johns was in love with her. A week later she moved out. Somehow William found her, and took custody of Sylvia, who he placed in his mother’s care. He himself had taken up residence with his wife’s cousin, for who he sometimes worked as a painter, at 222 West 139th Street. But ultimately he wanted to reestablish a household with Jennie. William offered different accounts of how he went about trying to do that. In one version he starting attending the Holy Utopia Church to meet with Jennie, enlisting the Rev. Johns to assist him. In the other, he regularly visited her new home. It is certain that on July 16th he approached the priest at St Mark’s seeking his aid in convincing Jennie to return, but the priest did not have time to speak to him.
That evening, William once again visited Jennie. But first he met a friend, Joseph Clarke, an elevator operator, at the West Indian Cricket Club to which they both belonged and asked for a gun so he could go hunting. They went together to an apartment in 117 West 138th St, to get a pistol Clarke had left there in the care of James Perry, with whom he had lodged for fourteen years. Hoyer then walked half a block east to Lenox Avenue, picked up his daughter from his mother’s apartment, and took her with him to see his wife.
Arriving at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, William found Jennie in the living room helping Mrs Leslie White remodel a dress; the Reubens were in the South, visiting a sick relative. The room was sparsely furnished, but comfortable: the sewing machine sat on a trunk, in front of which was a chair; on the opposite wall was a couch; a mantle on which stood glasses occupied much of the outside wall, next to which stood part of a bed; and a table occupied the wall that backed on to the public hallway and stairs. Leslie White was a neighbor, living with her husband and son in the two front rooms of the apartment. Soon after William arrived, Mrs White left to go to a shoemaker. He then made another effort to restore his marriage, but Jennie would not return to him. William’s response was to shoot both her and their daughter. Sylvia died instantly, Jennie several days later, living long enough to identify William as her assailant.
The rain was so heavy that night that Mrs White, sheltering at the foot of stairs, did not hear the shots, and so simply watched William leave. Upstairs in their rooms, her husband and son did hear what they thought were firecrackers, but on investigating discovered the woman and child on the floor of the apartment. By then William was on his way uptown, to the basement apartment of an aunt, on West 156th Street, beyond the boundaries of Harlem. Uncomfortable, he soon returned to the neighborhood, spending time on the roof of West 140th Street, before appearing at the door of a friend in 67 West 140th Street saying he had been drinking and needed a place to sleep. Sleep he did until that afternoon, when the friend and an acquaintance returned. Worried the men had learned of his crime, Hoyer again fled Harlem for his aunt’s apartment, but that night police, acting on a tip off, appeared to arrest him.
At his trial, William testified that the shootings had been accidental. After an argument, he claimed Jennie attacked him with a pair of scissors, and then, after the pistol fell out of his trousers, fought with him for the weapon, causing it to go off four times. The first and fourth shots hit Jennie, the third hit Sylvia, who William claimed was holding on to her mother. The medical evidence appeared to contradict this account, indicating that the girl was shot at point blank range, and would have died instantly, yet she was found on the opposite side of the room to where her parents had fought. The all white, all male jury deliberated for just over an hour, and, after seeking guidance from the judge about premeditation, convicted William. Four days later the judge sentenced him to death. The execution took place on August 19, 1926, with the New York Times reporting William Hoyer’s last words as, “I wouldn’t take ten years instead of execution, let alone consider serving a life sentence so I could be saved from the chair. I deserve to go, I ought to go, and I want to go.”
- Record on Appeal, People v William W. Hoyer, June 4, 1926 (NYS Archives)
- “Two Die in Chair; De Maio Goes First,” New York Times, August 20, 1926, 2
- “Child Used as Intercessor With Wife By Father Pleading For Renewal of Marital Relations, Is Killed By Shot,” New York Age, July 25, 1925, 1.