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Unless you believed there was no such thing as a bad boy, you probably wanted teenager Harry Murch put away for a long, long time — perhaps forever.

His crime was horrendous and his circumstances — and those of his 12-year-old victim — were squalid and unfortunate, though not uncommon, particularly during the Depression.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 16, 1933
For more than six hours last night and early this morning, Queens detectives questioned Harry Murch, 15, about the killing of 12-year-old Willie Bender, and at 1:30 a.m. Harry confessed that he had done it, the police announced.

According to the confession, as the police told it, Murch tied the younger boy with a section of rope and stabbed him to death with a kitchen paring knife.

The body of the Bender boy was found yesterday afternoon in an unoccupied house at 5 Mauretania Avenue, in the Richmond Hill Circle section of Queens, a short distance from the Bender home at 6 Bergen Landing Road. The boy had been missing for more than two weeks since the afternoon of January 31.

Everett Nylund of 1846 East 26th Street, inspecting a row of houses in Richmond Hill Circle for the owners before making repairs on them, came upon the youngster’s body, the knife still in place and a piece of blue and white gingham in the dead boy’s mouth as a gag.

The gingham, which detectives traced to the Murch home on Lulu Avenue, in the same neighborhood, directed police attention on young Murch, and confession was finally obtained after John Miller, 10, of 10 Mauretania Avenue, also subjected to lengthy questioning, revealed that he saw William Bender stabbed to death by Harry Murch.

Murch looked Magistrate Peter Daly boldly in the face when he pleaded not guilty in magistrate’s court this afternoon. He asked for a hearing in a firm voice and the court fixed February 24 as the date for this.

The boy was unaffected when Mrs. Bender yelled in court:

“Take that murderer away before I take the law into my own hands. He killed my son.”

Police quieted her.

Murch will be kept under 24-hour police guard at the Jamaica Childen’s Shelter until the hearing.

Murch gives the appearance of a normal though slow-witted boy of his age — he is only a sixth grade pupil at Public School 124. He had something of a local reputation as a bully.

The killing, as the confession revealed, was the result of petty revenge — because the Bender youngster had once said that Murch struck a woman over the head with a monkey wrench.

Murch resented that story, the Miller boy told Inspector John J. Gallagher, in charge of Queens detectives, and had threatened to get even with Willie Bender. On the afternoon of January 31, Murch told the other two boys that he intended to rob a peanut vender, first tying up his victim. He knew exactly how he would tie him — and if the other two would come with him he’d show them how.

All three then went into the Mauretania Avenue house where the Bender boy offered to have the demonstration done on himself.

Then, after tying and gagging Bender, Murch drew out a knife, said, "Now take this!" and plunged the knife into the younger boy’s chest.

Seeing that, Johnny Miller ran home. He told the inspector that until last night he never told anyone about the stabbing for fear of what Murch might do to him.

Murch, it appeared from the confession, was the leader of a vaguely conceived “secret society,” whose members had taken the oath not to snitch — and Murch believed the Bender boy had snitched.

Murch had his supporters, including Dr. Louis Berg, a psychiatrist who worked at New York County Penitentiary and wrote text books on psychiatry as well as novels ("Prison Doctor" and "Prison Nurse").

Despite the ghastly nature of Murch's crime, Dr. Berg didn't see the point of sending the boy to prison. He pointed the finger of blame at society.

He wrote his opinions in a piece for the Hearst newspapers. The piece was published on May 15, a few days before the boy was to be sentenced. Here is part of it:

Society electrocutes its mistakes, or hides them out of sight for 20 years in Sing Sing. Young Murch will come out of jail thoroughly warped, as will all the thousands of those children the state trusts to be trained in the company of adult criminals.

Outside there is always a chance for a youth to mend. He may be adopted, or walk somewhere into a new world, where his entire outlook will be changed. But society locks this 16-year-old boy for decades in a vicious environment from which there is no chance for escape.

The system is illogical and stupid. It is not juvenile delinquency that is the problem, but the delinquency of society in preventing children from getting wayward.

 

Dr. Berg's view would become increasingly popular over the next 20 years, though today it is difficult to understand why, particularly as it might have applied to Harry Murch, who had parents who loved him, but simply didn't know how to handle him. The couple had another son, Charles, who was 19 at the time and had no criminal record.

(Five years later Charles Murch would be arrested for breaking into a vacant house. The young man was so embarrassed for his family that he gave police a phony name — Charles Bryan. Later he explained, "I don't want to give the name Murch more bad publicity." Once inside the vacant house Charles Murch and his companion didn't steal anything, though that may have been their intent. When the two young men appeared in court they received suspended sentences.

(One other thing: In 1934 Harry Murch's mother had another baby, her third son, Arthur.)

On May 19 Judge Thomas Downs, who obviously didn't buy into Dr. Berg's argument, sentenced Harry Murch to serve from 20 years to life in Sing Sing Prison for second-degree murder. Murch had been found guilty a week earlier by a jury in Long Island City.

Murch's attorney asked that the guilty verdict be set aside because his client had not yet turned 16 when the crime was committed. By law, the attorney argued, Murch could have been convicted only of manslaughter, first or second degree. (Murch was two months shy of his 16th birthday when the murder was committed, making him the youngest defendant ever convicted on a murder charge in Queens County.)

An appeal on behalf of Murch was denied two months later and he remained in Sing Sing for 20 years. In October, 1953, he was released from prison on parole.

He took a job as a butcher's assistant and remained out of trouble for three years. In 1956 he was arrested and convicted of molesting a seven-year-old girl. Police also said he was a suspect in the 1955 sex-slaying of a crippled 39-year-old woman.

The last I read of Murch was in connection with the molestation conviction and the possibility that because he was on parole at the time he might spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Murch died in 1986 at the age of 69. Since he is listed as dying in Queens, I'm guessing he was released from prison some time before that.

 

DR. LOUIS BERG was back in the news in 1942 when he made public some conclusions he had reached about the effects of daytime radio serials — better known today as soap operas.

Dr. Berg claimed some of his patients relapsed from listening to these programs so he decided to sample them himself, starting with two 15-minute serials, NBC's "The Right to Happiness" and "Woman in White" on CBS.

He monitored his own blood pressure, which increased during the 30 minutes, and felt this supported his earlier conclusion, reached without any direct knowledge of soap operas, that they were responsible for “tachycardia, arrhythmia, emotional instability and vertigo.”

Later he expanded his research and listened to 80 hours of radio soap operas, dividing that time among eight different shows.

"The state of anxiety they create is the very same over-anxiety which is the end of all enemy propaganda," he declared, "for it lays the groundwork for civilian panic in emergencies and saps the productive energies of the afflicted individuals in all their essential efforts.”

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