The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Pasadena Murder-Suicide

The Murder of Harriet Hannah Chattin
by Steven J. Baeli
April 5. 2011

Victim: Katherine and Julian Tomaszewski & Harriet Hannah Chattin (12)
Accused: Gildo Plazziano
Date of Incident: 1915 & October 4, 1917
Offense: Murder-Suicide
Verdict: None
Sentence: Suspect died before being arrest

The following is a strange and disturbing story that involved two murder scenes and three victims, the first being the killing of a husband and wife in what was believed to be a robbery, and the second a murder-suicide that followed the probable sexual assault of a twelve-year-old girl.  Both homicide scenes ended in arson to cover up the crimes.

All three murders took place in Pasadena, an area of Ocean County that has been largely reclaimed by nature.  This particular region was located in Union Township, which later became Barnegat, Ocean, and Lacey Townships.  The area was known for its rich underlayment of clay, which gave birth to an economically sound brick and terra cotta industry started by Lewis Neill & Company in the mid-1800s, dubbed locally as the Union Clay Works.  Two other kilns later sprung up in the area, one being the Townsend Clay Manufacturing Company in Wheatland, and another south of it, called the Brooks-Brae Brick Plant where the death of Harriet Hannah Chattin took place.

By 1917, the Brooks-Brae plant had ceased operations, but its owners had employed Gildo Plazziano, an Austrian hired as a watchman to protect the machinery that was still being stored in the various wooden buildings around the property, in one of which Plazziano had set up house.  Although the watchman had been around the plant for several years, most of the locals considered him a stranger and an odd sort they tended to avoid whenever possible, especially since he was suspected of killing a married couple and burning down their house to hide the crime two years prior to Chattin’s murder.

The New Jersey Courier had reported that a husband and wife going by the name of Smith had “perished when flames destroyed their isolated dwelling…September 14, [1915].  The caretaker’s real names were Julian (63) and Katherine (61) Tomaszewski reportedly from Philadelphia.

On the day of the first incident, smoke from the fire that had risen above the thick wooded area was spotted by some local farmers and cranberry workers in the early morning hours, but by the time they got to the flames, the shack had burned to the ground and the Tomaszewskis were “burned beyond recognition.”  The couple's daughter, Alice Smith, was contacted in Philadelphia and told of the sad news, after which she immediately came to the scene.  Locals who were familiar with the Tomaszewskis had said that “there was something mysterious” about them that just did not sit right, an assumption that probably began after it was discovered that Smith was not their real name.

Coroner Owen B. Shuts and Prosecutor Harry Ellsworth Newman conducted an investigation and initially determined that the fire had started in the chimney, sending smoke into the house and asphyxiating the victims, but public concern forced them to reconsider their decision.  Apparently the people in the area believed that the Tomaszewskis were murdered for money and the house burned down to cover the deed.  As the fire had effectively destroyed any evidence of murder, however, the Coroner could draw no definitive conclusions and labeled it as accidental.  Plazziano was never mentioned in the investigation, but two years later his evil act put things into perspective and gave some validity to the theory that the Tomaszewskis had been murdered.

Despite the forewarning of danger where Plazziano was concerned, Mrs. Chattin had allowed her daughter to frequent his shack against the wishes of her husband, Samuel.  He had warned his wife not to let twelve-year-old Hannah be alone with the man, but the woman naively saw “no harm with a child of those years,” and dismissed the attentions of the Austrian, who had “[thought] so much of the little girl.”

On the day of the murder, Hannah informed her mother that she would be over at Plazziano’s house and left out at seven in the morning to help him with some wallpaper hanging.  When the girl did not return by noon, her parents became worried and set out to find her.  Seeing smoke coming from the area of the brick plant, Samuel Chattin and his son immediately headed over and found the watchman’s building aflame.  Braving the danger, they looked into a window and there saw Gildo Plazziano and Hannah Chattin laying together on the bed, but by that time the fire had engulfed the entire building causing the roof to cave in, stopping any effort to save the girl.

Seeing the smoke from nearby Chatsworth, local residents, George Bozarth and Charles Hathaway, went up to see what was going on, and once there tried to help the Chattins get the two bodies out with rakes and sticks, but they were beaten back from the heat of the flames.  The men did manage to pull the cot nearer to the window, but in their excitement wound up turning it over, which caused the bodies to tumble to the floor.  Before long the main plant caught fire as well and at the end of the day the entire complex was nothing but a smoldering ruin.  When it was finally safe to search the ruins, what was left of the victims was recovered, but the fire had burned so hotly that it had incinerated most the tiny girl’s body, leaving only her torso and part of her head.

When it was finally safe to search the ruins, what was left of the victims was recovered, but the fire had burned so hotly that it had incinerated most the tiny girl’s body, leaving only her torso and part of her head.  The next afternoon Sheriff Brown, Coroner Brouwer, and Prosecutor Plumer came down and inspected the scene of the fire, which had not yet fully burned out, arriving just as the bodies were being removed from Plazziano’s shack.  Coroner Frank A. Brouwer, who had himself been the subject of a trial for the murder of his wife in 1905, examined the remains and issued burial permits.  It is assumed that Hannah Chattin was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, as the article reported that her burial would take place in Tuckerton, but there was no mention of where Plazziano was buried, although it is possible his grave was dug somewhere on the plant property.

Inside the shack was found four rolls of charred wallpaper, which corroborated Hannah Chattin’s reason for being there, and on a table several bags of candy that was assumed to have been purchased specifically for the girl by Plazziano on a trip Philadelphia.  The general consensus throughout the community was that Plazziano had given in to his “base desires” and had sex with the little girl, and realizing what he had done, killed her, set the shack on fire, and then laid down next to her before killing himself.

Plazziano had seemed to find himself often in the sights of the law, when in an unrelated matter he had been arrested and convicted of selling moonshine out of his shack three years he killed Hannah Chattin.  The $200 he was fined apparently did nothing to dissuade him, as a couple dozen quarts of whiskey were found at the scene of the crime.  While that may have nothing to do with the murders, any law enforcement officer will tell you that such a disregard for the law goes to a criminal lack of credibility.  It should also be pointed out that he didn't quite fit in with the locals in the area who thought him to be “queer,” and tended to keep their distance from him.

We can never be sure exactly what caused Plazziano to kill the girl, but we can reasonable assume that he was guilty of that crime based on his own suicide and the placement of the bodies on the bed.  As was the case in the Tomaszewski fire, the condition of the charred bodies eliminated any forensic evidence available at that time that may have made clear the facts of a murder-suicide, but when we figure in Plazziano’s criminal history, his strange and hermit-like behavior, and the fact that both crime scenes were set on fire, it is safe to assume that he was guilty of all three murders.

The death of Harriet Hannah Chattin was the first known such sexual assault and murder of a child in Ocean County, but would unfortunately not be the last as seen in the cases of Keven Hammond in 1978, and Eddie Werner in 1997.

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