The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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3 Mysterious Deaths

Three Mysterious Deaths
by Steven J. Baeli
January 30, 2012
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A Mummified Mystery
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1938 Map of Manchester Township

One of the most horrifying discoveries of murder to take place in Ocean County was that of a mummified infant found 1896 during a house reconstruction in Manchester Township.

As the workers took down the old roof, they discovered the body tucked into the highest reaches of the rafters, a piece of cloth tied around the baby’s neck in an apparent strangulation.

It was speculated that the heat that had accumulated in the peak of the house had mummified the remains, drying it out over a period of some years, and that it may never have been found if Theodore Howland, the owner of the house, had not decided to build a second story.

The horrified carpenters called Corner E.J. Wirth, who immediately impaneled a Coroner’s Jury to investigate the case.

Dr. Frank Brouwer performed an autopsy on the body, and later testified that “the child had been born alive and afterward killed, probably by strangulation, as when it was found there was a stout piece of cloth of some kind tied around its neck.”  The doctor also established that the mummified state of the body “would necessitate in all probability a number of years.”

The jury was not able to prove who might have killed the infant, but an article in the New Jersey Courier alluded to what it called “ugly rumors of years ago [now] believed by many to solve mysteries that baffled neighborhood gossips at that time,” pointing out that there had been some suspicion of foul play some years before that had never amounted to anything more than rumors.

The person in question suspected of the baby’s death had been dead for several years by the time the body had been found, leaving the authorities no choice but to “let the matter rest, especially as no proof aside from mere suspicion can be found.”

The child’s remains were buried at Riverside Cemetery, and no other mention was ever made of the incident.
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The Tale of the Unknown Sailor
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1878 Map of Lavallette

While hundreds of bodies of victims of the sea had made their way to the beaches of Ocean County, most were determined to have died as a result drowning after falling overboard or going down on a sinking ship.

In this case, as the following New Jersey Courier article dated August 24, 1905 tells us, the unfortunate man may have been the subject of murder.

The body of an unknown man was washed ashore at Lavallette last Saturday morning.  Dr. White, a Philadelphia physician, who is a summer visitor at Lavallette, discovered the body.  It was well up on the beach when found, and had evidently come ashore at high tide.  Coroner J. Frederick Conover of Point Pleasant was called and took charge of the body.  After an autopsy it was declared that there was evidence that the man might have been murdered and thrown from a passing ship.  There were lacerations and deep bruises on the head, which probably caused death.  Perhaps they had been made by blows from some blunt instrument or perhaps by his head hitting against something.

The dead man was but partly robed.  He had on only a shirt, undershirt and shoes and stockings.  In his cuffs were plain gold links.  His general appearance, soft white hands and the fine quality of what clothes he wore showed the strange victim to have been a man of culture.  The body has come from north of Lavallette, as there has been a strong current in a southerly direction for more than a week.  The body, the Coroner says, had been in the water about town days.  The dead man is about 60 years old, weighs about 185 pounds and is five feet seven inches in height.  His hair and mustache are iron gray, and he has two prominent front teeth in the upper jaw.

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The Mysterious Death of Elvin McKelvey
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Ridgley, aged 7 years, Elvin about aged 1 year, and Gertrude McKelvey aged 13 years
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Rarely do premature deaths go unsolved, but the death of nine-year old, Richmond Elvin McKelvey, found dead on November 29, 1919, still remains a mystery.


The incident happened within sight of the home of his parent’s, Susan and Charles McKelvey, in Pleasant Plains, a small village slightly north of the Village of Toms River.  The victim’s father was a farmer who also engaged in fishing and oystering, and who was also at that time of his son’s death the vice president of the Dover Township Board of Education.

The family was well-liked and generally respected throughout the community with no known enemies that might have perpetuated such a violent crime on little “Elvin.”

Elvin McKelvey was a small boy who, to look at him, might have come straight out of a Mark Twain novel, living the simple life of a country lad who could always be seen with is little brown dog at his side.  The two were inseparable best friends in the deepest American tradition of “a boy and his dog.”

Fifteen-year old Ridgley McKelvey never seemed to mind when his little brother Elvin and the dog tagged along with him.  Indeed, he felt a sense of pride in looking after the boy.

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1872 Map of White Oak Bottom

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On the day of the tragedy, Ridgley had set out at nine in the morning to go duck hunting out on Cornelius Johnson’s cranberry bog, his brother and dog in tow.

He later explained that he had come home for lunch just after the noon hour and was surprised to find that Elvin had not returned home yet since the boy had started back a half-hour before him.

According to Ridgley, they had gone out to the bogs and he shot at some ducks, but he missed them and they flew off.  Shortly after, the noon whistle blew and Elvin headed back home for lunch while Ridgley stayed back in hopes of scaring up some more fowl.  He said he watched as the boy and the dog ran across the field, turned his attention back to hunting for about another thirty minutes, then picked up his spent shells and went home.

He did not go through the field, but had taken another trail instead.

Charles McKelvey had come home about noon and had sat down to eat with his wife and their daughter, Gertrude.  Not seeing the boys anywhere, they started without them.  Just as they were sitting down they heard a gunshot.  Charles looked up at the clock and saw that it read 12:10.

Gertrude had been “sickly and nervous” about the boys not being home on time, and after hearing the blast she exclaimed, “Maybe that gun shot Elvin!”

Ridgley returned home a short time after the gunshot was heard, and realizing that Elvin was not around, started back out to search for him, but his father made him stay and eat his lunch first.  Immediately after, the teen hopped on his bike and went out to find his brother, stopping first at the Applegate farm where Elvin sometimes stopped to talk to the workers there who were constructing a building.  There he found Charlie Tilton, who said that they hadn’t seen the boy.
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McKelvey Homestead in White Oak Bottom

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Moving on, Ridgley headed back to where they had been gunning on what is now Church Road, and just as he passed the Old Freehold Road intersection near the White Oak Bottom schoolhouse he spotted the dog sitting along the edge of the meadow on the northeast side of the McKelvey farm.  He called the dog but it would not come, so he went over to see what was going on and there to his horror he saw his brother lying dead under a tree with the top of his head blown off.


Ridgley turned and ran home, and through his tears told his father that, “Elvin’s shot!”

Charles and Ridgley immediately went back to where Elvin lay and noticed that the top of his skull, brains, and a pool of blood were not near the body, but were instead out in the field about twelve feet away.  This disturbing bit of evidence made it clear that someone had picked the boy up and moved him under the tree after shooting him.  Additionally, the boy’s arms and legs were straight out and his coat was bunched up under his arms as if he had been picked up and dragged to the spot.  The only other evidence on the scene was a book of matches, a half-smoked cigarette, and a red Remington twelve gauge shotgun shell.

The only witness to the killing besides the shooter turned out to be the little brown dog, which had refused to leave the boy’s side.

Coroner David O. Parker was called in to inspect the body, but Sheriff Brown and Prosecutor Plumer were for some reason not immediately informed that a shooting had taken place in their jurisdiction.  By the time they did get word, the crime scene had been completely contaminated by curious people who had come out to see the gruesome remains of Elvin McKelvey.  As a result, any evidence that might have pointed to the culprit was destroyed by them tracking through it, and in addition, someone had taken it upon themselves to bury the boy’s hat with the top part of his skull somewhere in the field.

Despite the contamination of the evidence, the authorities concluded that the shooting was an accident because no one could bring themselves to believe that a nine-year old would be the target of cold-blooded murder.

The immediate assumption was that Ridgley had accidentally shot his brother, but he was easily ruled out based on several facts that he gave at the Coroner’s Inquest, the most compelling of which being that the boy had used blue shells in his shotgun, not red as was found at the scene.

Additionally, there was no trace of blood evidence found on the boy’s clothes, and since the shot was made from about six feet away, blowback from the shot would have sprayed the killer, and even if it didn’t, it would have been impossible to avoid a blood transfer when the body was picked up and moved.  Emotionally, Ridgley showed no signs of being upset when he first came home, something that would have been unlikely if he had shot his little brother, accidentally or otherwise.

At the inquest, Ridgley testified in a “quiet, manly, natural [and] intelligent manner,” despite knowing full well that he was a potential suspect.  Over 100 people attended the hearing, and by the time Ridgley had finished his testimony, no one in the room believed that he had shot his brother, but of course, the question still remained: Who killed Elvin McKelvey?

Although the crime scene had been severely compromised, the coroner was able to assess the position of the skull, which aligned with the direction of the blood splatter in an elongated stream, meaning that Elvin had been facing forward when he was shot, and that he had seen the face of the person that killed him.  Because of the position of the shooter, there was little chance that a hunter mistook the boy for game.

So who killed Elvin and why?

The case harkened back to the death of Andrew Tilton ten years before not far from where Elvin’s body was found, although that was a clear case of homicide, but by 1919 there had been several accidental shootings where the gunner was not charged with a crime, so why would someone not come forward if they had shot the boy?  Was the culprit perhaps drunk, or simply afraid that he would be charged with murder?  Did another child with a gun happen by and for some reason shoot the boy, or was it more malicious, where someone just decided to randomly kill Elvin for kicks?

In the end, neither the Coroner’s Jury nor a Grand Jury could find evidence of who might have shot young Richmond Elvin McKelvey, and no one ever came forward to admit to the crime, making his death one of the first unsolved cases in Ocean County history.
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Elvin McKelvey is interred at Riverside Cemetery, Toms River
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Postscript
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On the day that this story was published in the Riverside Signal, the family of Ridgley McKelvey contacted editor, Erik Weber, telling him that they had read the story and knew immediately that the Rigdley in the story was their father, and Gertrude was their aunt who they knew very well, and that Elvin would have been their uncle had he lived.

Rigdley's daughters, Jean and Roberta, and granddaughter, Dawn, then informed Mr. Weber that they were in possession of several family documents and photos, including those used in this story, and 20 diaries written by Gertrude McKelvey from 1918 to 1938. 

The diary collection has been digitized for prosperity, and from it was discovered that Gertrude never wrote directly about her brother's death.  Her last entry was on Thanksgiving a few days before the shooting, and she did not resume making diary entries until the next year, leaving only this cryptic thought about Elvin's demise:

"This is the saddest New Year we have ever had.  After all our great trial and sorrow there seems to be nothing but sadness and gloom" - Gertrude McKelvey, January 1, 1920

Gertrude McKelvey never married, and died at the age of 86 in 1983 having never once expressed her feelings about Elvin after he died beyond the above transcript.

Ridgley McKelvey went on to have three children, and he was a successful businessman well-known throughout Ocean County, and like his sister, Gertrude, he never spoke about his brother's death either.
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