I enjoy scouring the web for old press photos from the 1930s FBI. Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s insistence that his special agents not speak with reporters, E.J. Connelley frequently found himself on the front pages of newspapers across the country. He worked some of the Bureau’s most famous cases, so admittedly he had a hard time staying out of the spotlight.
This week I found a picture of Connelley during the Alice Parsons kidnapping case in 1937. He’s pictured crouched over a map, beside two other men (one the chief of police) in Stony Brook, New York. A gaggle of reporters stand behind them, one with notepad and pencil at the ready to jot down anything the men might say about developments in the case. The photographer must have caught them off guard, probably saying something to get their attention, given the annoyed looks on Connelley and Chief Ridges faces.
The Parsons case was one the strangest Connelley investigated in the 1930s. It was not the typical kidnapping that the FBI investigated – no gang members or hoodlums snatching someone just for quick cash. It resembled something more out of Sherlock Holmes canon and ended with all pretense of a kidnapping dropped for suspicion of a calculated murder.
The alleged facts were this: the 38 year old Alice Parsons lived on Long Island with her oil millionaire husband William Parsons.They lived in a sprawling estate called Long Meadow Farm with their house keeper, a Russian immigrant named Anna Kuprinova. On the morning of June 10th, a middle-aged couple arrived and asked Alice to show them a family estate for sale at Huntington. She left in their car around 11:45am. The housekeeper was the last person to see her alive – and importantly, the only one to provide this story of her departure (more on Kuprianova in a minute). When her husband returned home that evening, Alice still not had come back from her trip. The police were notified and an investigation started of a possible kidnapping.
Early the next morning, police discovered a note in the back of Alice’s car reading:
“Will Parsons: I have your wife for $25,000 ransom. I calculate that you could get that money in 24 hours. I have no place to keep her longer. Meet bus terminal Jamaica 9 p. m. Bring money in box. My man will call you by name and you go with him. He will take you to your wife, but mind, any cop aboard you’ll pay and she will never speak again.” (New York Daily News, June 11, 1937)
By 7:30am, the FBI was given authorization to take control of the case under the Lindbergh law. Bloodhounds were called on to search the Parsons’ 11-acre estate, to no avail. By 6:15pm Thursday June 11, William Parsons said he would not keep a scheduled rendezvous with the kidnappers set to occur at 9pm due to the publicity surrounding her disappearance. This should have stood out as an alarming clue.
By 1937, Connelley had investigated a number of the nation’s highest profile kidnapping cases. The ransom note always gave away more information than the kidnapper intended and this was no different. The language reeked of an educated person trying, at times, to sound uneducated. Only a wealthy man would write “my man will meet you,” someone accustomed to having hired help do menial tasks. And only a loved one would write “she will never speak again” – why not outright say she will be dead? Because they could not bring themselves to think or write those words? And the salutation “Will” implied a familiarity with Parsons. A handwriting expert from the Bureau reviewed the handwritten ransom note and stated it contained “foreign characteristics, possibly Russian” but did not elaborate on what those characteristics were. When they took a sample of Anna Kuprianova’s handwriting, however, it did not match the ransom note.
One June 13th the Cincinnati Enquirer led with the Associated Press headline “Connelley’s On Job!”
The will-o-wisp of the G-Men Inspector Earl J. Connelley of Cincinnati waited tonight for the word that will send him on he hunt he likes best – the trail of a fugitive kidnaper.
Connelley probably bristled at being called a will-o-wisp. The AP went on to describe him as “A fast traveler, a silent tireless worker… mustachioed well-attired federal agent…” Another newspaper said that Connelley disappointed in his appearance, “very mild and rather small – not nearly as much like a G-Man.” In the clipped newspaper article that Connelley kept in his records, he highlighted this passage and wrote in the margin “Ha!”
He arrived and continue the search of the property for clues, which were in short supply. The estate was searched by hundreds of people. The land was heavily thicketed with “poison ivy, vicious briars, and a hot sun” (New York Herald Tribune, June 18, 1937). Nothing turned up. Why had the ransom note been placed in Alice’s car if the kidnapper knew she was not going to use the car? Why was there no evidence a middle-aged couple wanted to see the estate for sale? Questions piled up like cards in a deck.
Inconsistencies sprung up in Kuprianova’s account. Road workers three-quarters of a mile from the Parsons house said they saw her in a car with another woman around 10 am on the day of the alleged kidnapping. The postmaster of Stony Brook said she saw Mrs. Parsons in a car with another woman around 1pm.
A bottle of chloroform was reported to have gone missing from the Parsons home. This unvalidated fact begs the question – why did they keep such a chemical in their home? Also, it was revealed that Alice Parsons had rewritten her will in the last 30 days, leaving money to her husband, Anna Kuprianova and her 5- year old son.
Attention of course turned to the housekeeper, Anna Kuprianova. Due to an illness Alice Parsons had suffered in 1931, the family had hired Kuprianova to assist with household duties. The Russian immigrant came recommended by Alice’s sister. Rumor was she was an attractive younger woman which of course fueled wild speculation. Being the last person to see Alice and recently being written into her will gave her motive. But there was no evidence of wrongdoing, including finding Alice Parsons alive or dead.
Connelley showed his typical tight-lipped demeanor with reporters. In one article titled “G-Man Like Clam on L.I. Kidnaping” he almost toyed with the reporters, something he took a pleasure in doing. Here are some excerpts of the Q&A the newspaper published:
Q: Have you made contact with the kidnaper?
A: No comment.
Q: Do you still think it is a kidnaping?
A: I haven’t said what it is.
Q: Do you intend to question Mrs. Kupryanova again?”
A: You’re presuming that we did question her and I won’t comment.
Q: Is it true that a diary was found in the Parson’s home that has thrown some light n the crime?
A: No comment.
Q: (By a persistent newspaper man) But, Inspector, we know that a diary was found, can’t you tell us whose it was?”
A: You will first have to establish to my satisfaction that a diary was found. Then I shall probably refuse to answer because I am not permitted to discuss anything that may be in evidence.”
The article ended with: “Mr. Connelley bowed politely and said that he would be happy to grant the press another interview later in the day.”
Almost a year later, political pressure rose on the Suffolk County District Attorney and he in turn started to play politics. He told reporters how he met with Connelley, pounded his table with a clenched fist, and said “If there was a murder committed in my county I’m entitled to all the records in the case.” In Connelley’s records, he underlined in red some of the more dramatic newspaper passages (this was usually his way of disputing something). Heading off a political battle, Connelley held a five hour meeting with the District Attorney. After the meeting, Connelley told reporters,”There is no reason to believe that a Federal statute has been violated in this case. The FBI is not taking any further action at this time because of a curtailment of our budget and personnel, but we are willing to cooperate with the Suffolk authorities to the fullest extent.”
The Parsons case is still unsolved to this day and has inspired some belated crime-fighting crowdsourcing on Reddit and other threads (though the same speculation was happening in 1937 and later). Kuprianva seems to be the clear suspect, whether or not in collusion with William Parsons, but Connelley’s team wasn’t able to find enough evidence to support prosecuting a case against either of them. If she was innocent, she didn’t do enough to clear her name in the days following the alleged kidnapping. In the court of public opinion, it seemed clear, but Connelley was frustrated in ever getting a resolution to the case.
While Alice Parsons body was never found and she was legally pronounced dead in 1946, William Parsons and Anna Kuprianova married in 1940. The case could fill an entire book and may someday. I’d love to take a look at the FBI’s internal case file and see what was happening behind the scenes with Connelley and his team on this one.