On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 10, 1911, schoolmates Joey Josephs and Gordon Pitton were playing together along Ridge Road in Lackawanna when a middle-aged stranger approached them.
The well-dressed man chatted briefly with the two boys and offered to buy them both candy – an offer that 7-year-old Joey enthusiastically accepted. Joey hurried to purchase some sweets from a nearby store, then promptly rejoined his friend and their generous new acquaintance.
Having earned the boys’ trust with treats, the man took Joey by the hand and encouraged Gordon to head home alone. Gordon obeyed the candy man and took off, leaving Joey behind with the mysterious and seemingly charitable stranger.
Gordon was the last person to see Joey alive; he had unknowingly abandoned his friend with 48-year-old J. Frank Hickey, a child abuser and murderer who had already taken the lives of at least two other innocent people.
Moments after parting ways with Gordon, Hickey took Joey into an outhouse behind a nearby saloon, where he strangled the boy into unconsciousness and sexually abused him. Hickey then choked Joey again until he died, and disposed of his body in the refuse vault beneath the outhouse, where it would remain for over a year.
Hickey spent the next 12 months taunting both the Lackawanna Police Department and Joey’s grief-stricken parents with 11 disturbing postcards and letters detailing his deviant crimes, forever earning himself the moniker “The Postcard Killer.”
The first sinister postcard arrived for Chief Roy Gilson of the Lackawanna Police Department just three weeks into the investigation of Joey’s disappearance. Written anonymously and mailed from Buffalo, its contents included graphic intel on where the boy’s body could be found. Published in The Buffalo Evening News on Nov. 16, 1912, the letter read:
“Joseph Joseph will be found in the bottom of water closet with three seats, back of the saloon near Doyles, on Ridge Road. A drunk-crazed brain done the deed, and remorse and sorrow for the parents is bringing results which will soon come to an end. The demon whiskey will then have one more victim, making four in all. Drag the closet with three seats.”
In his 2006 biography of Hickey, "The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey," Dr. Vance McLaughlin describes how Lackawanna Police went to investigate the “pool of slime” beneath the outhouse but found no trace of a body within.
Police disregarded the letter as a prank, until similar messages continued to arrive over the next 12 months.
Hickey – writing anonymously or under pseudonyms – mailed postcards and letters to both the authorities and to Joey’s heartsick parents, industrious Syrian immigrants George and Myra Josephs.
All of the letters provided glimpses into the tormented mind and bloody actions of their sender. Hickey wrote about his struggle to resist the bottle, as well as his uncontrollable urge to abuse and murder young boys, a compulsion Hickey believed was aroused in him by the “demon whiskey.” He wrote often about his unbearable guilt and desire to turn himself in, but these claims seemed disingenuous to the letters’ recipients, who had yet to learn Hickey’s true identity.
In several letters, Hickey also revealed in repulsive detail how he sexually abused Joey before strangling the boy to death.
In one letter to the Josephs – postmarked in Boston on Nov. 11, 1912, and published in the Rochester Democrat six days later – Hickey wrote:
“I killed your boy, Joey, because I abused him first and then I strangled him. He died very quiet, just stuck his tongue out and never moved. He is the first kid I killed that never fought. He just laid down and died ... and when he was quiet, I took him up and cast him down in that outhouse. I am also the murderer of 12 more kids. Just wait til Wednesday, Nov. 13th, when I shall come to your store. Catch me if you can.”
Hickey never materialized that day in Mr. Josephs’ Ridge Road clothing shop as promised, but investigators were nevertheless hot on his trail, thanks in part to letter in which Hickey alluded to another murder he’d committed: the Central Park slaying of 11- year-old Jacob Kruck, a newsboy Hickey had also choked to death a decade earlier.
The Schenectady Gazette reported Nov. 20, 1912, that Hickey had been arrested in a Buffalo bar in 1902 after he drunkenly bragged about killing Kruck.
Once Hickey sobered up, however, he denied having any knowledge of the crime – beyond what he’d read in the paper – and was released by authorities due to lack of evidence.
On Nov. 16, 1912 – the same day authorities finally located the badly decomposed remains of Joey Joseph in the outhouse pit behind Doyle’s Saloon – Lackawanna Police allowed several of the Postcard Killer’s notes to be photographed and published in an exclusive front-page article for the Buffalo Evening News. Before long, one of Hickey’s former employers in Lackawanna came forward with a letter written by Hickey. The scrawl matched the postcards perfectly.
According to a Nov. 20, 1912, report by the Buffalo Express, Hickey was working as a foreman at a Lackawanna steel mill in October 1911 and had missed work on the day of Joey’s murder. Something of a wanderer, Hickey had spent his adult life working odd jobs and living in various homes and boarding houses in Western New York, New York City, New Jersey and his native Massachusetts, never staying in one place for too long. The lifestyle was conducive to his compulsion to kill innocent young strangers.
The information connecting Hickey to the 1902 murder of young Kruck – along with the matching handwriting samples – were enough to convince authorities that Hickey was their man.
Hickey was arrested on Nov. 20, 1912, and charged with first-degree murder for the slaying of Joey. His arrest took place in Whitings, N.J., at an Inebriate Asylum where he sometimes went in an attempt to sober up. The Buffalo Express commented that day how Hickey, a “well spoken and well dressed” man, talked freely of his innocence at first, but later hired a lawyer and “shut up,” before being extradited to Buffalo to stand trial.
After a few days in custody spent denying the crime, Hickey changed course and confessed not only to the murders of Joey and Kruck, but also to poisoning a man in his hometown of Lowell, Mass., when he was 18. He also confessed to several other attempts to abuse and murder young boys – a compulsion he claimed to hold no control over – the New York Tribune reported on Nov. 30, 1912.
Hickey’s December trial was a speedy one. After days of testimony from handwriting experts, psychiatrists and doctors, two jurors refused to declare the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, based on his presumed insanity. Hickey was instead found guilty of murder in the second degree and on Dec. 23, 1912, he was sentenced to life in Auburn State Prison as opposed to the electric chair. The News quoted Hickey that day as saying: “I ought to be electrocuted. ... I do murder and forget all about it in five minutes.”
Hickey lived out the rest of his days in Auburn State Prison, where he died in May 1922.
Joey was laid to rest on Nov. 18, 1912. The Buffalo Courier reported that day how the City of Lackawanna was put on hold for the funeral: Businesses shut down for the morning and school was canceled, while thousands of people lined the streets to see the boy’s white hearse make its way through town to Holy Cross Cemetery, where Monseigneur Nelson Baker presided over Joey’s burial.
As Baker read the funeral rites over Joey’s grave, a man made his way through the crowd, asking to be heard. The priest allowed it, and in the Josephs’ native Syrian language, the man tearfully remarked that “when the child was born, he was bathed in holy oil,” but “when his body was placed in the vault by the murderer, it was filthy ground unfit for a beautiful little boy.”
Story topics: forgotten crimes