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The Strange Case of the Poppy Seed Roll – Podcast #215

I lived in New York City until I was seven years old, at which point my parents picked up and moved to Thompsonville, NY, a rural location in the Catskill Mountains.

And that move also represented a big shift in my memory. I remember very little of my life in the city. It’s as if that abrupt change shut the door on my past experiences.

Yet, one thing that I do recall from those days living in the city was that my mom took my brother and me to see the Ringling Brothers circus in Manhattan. And for lunch, she took us to a Horn & Hardart Automat cafeteria somewhere in the big city.

A woman purchasing a bowl of soup at an Automat restaurant in 1955. (Library of Congress image.)

What distinguished the Automat from other restaurant chains was its unique food retrieval system, which is probably the reason why I remember it so well. Adorning the cafeteria walls were prominent signs like “Sandwiches,” “Pies,” “Bread & Rolls,” and more. Beneath these designations, a myriad of small compartments stretched endlessly, each equipped with a glass door allowing patrons to peer inside and select their desired food items.

Instructions on the wall of each Automat explained exactly how it all worked: “First drop your nickels in the slot. Then turn the knob. Glass door clicks open. Lift the door and help yourself.”

It was that simple.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I ventured into downtown Albany to attend a lecture at the New York State Library. Arriving ahead of schedule, I decided to ride the elevator up to the fourth floor. While many flock there to take a ride on the amazing indoor antique carousel there, my aim was different. I was there to snap a photo of a set of cubicles that had been removed from a defunct Automat. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the sign above the glass doors read “Bread and Rolls,” which, as you will soon learn, was a perfect fit for the Automat story that I am about to tell.

The preserved section of an Automat restaurant at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY.
The preserved section of an Automat restaurant at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY. (Author’s photo.)

At 9:15 AM on Wednesday, July 26, 1933, there was a report of an elderly woman collapsing on the mezzanine level of the Automat restaurant located on the southeast corner of 104th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. (The restaurant at 2710 Broadway closed in 1953 but the building still stands.)

Less than ten minutes after the call, an ambulance arrived at the scene. Without delay, rescuers swiftly secured the woman onto a stretcher. But just as they prepared to lift her, a man rushed over, reporting an unconscious man lying on the basement floor, not far from the bathroom door.

Tragically, the man was pronounced dead at the scene. The woman was rushed off to Knickerbocker Hospital on Convent Avenue, where she would die one hour later.

Having two people die at nearly the same time at a restaurant is quite unusual, but the most baffling part was that they both died in nearly the same way. Pending autopsies, both deaths were initially classified as epileptic fits, which suggested possible poisoning. But the question was how?

Diners at an unidentified Automat restaurant.
Diners at an unidentified Automat restaurant. (National Archives photo)

Could the food served at the restaurant have been tainted in some way? Alfred Harvey, the manager of the restaurant, insisted that neither had partaken in any of the restaurant’s food. However, he lacked concrete evidence to support his claim.

Was it possible that someone slipped some sort of poison into their drinks? If so, the police could be dealing with a case of double murder.

Did these know one another or were they complete strangers? Could this have been a case of double suicide or possibly a situation of one murdering the other, followed by a suicide?

Or maybe, just maybe, it was pure coincidence that the two died at nearly the same time with nearly identical symptoms.

Lots of questions, but the police had few answers.

The man was identified as 50-year-old Henry Jellinek, who emigrated to the United States from Austria in 1896. He lived at 605 West 150th Street in Upper Manhattan with his wife Edna and their 18-year-old son Harold, who was a student at New York University.

Henry had started his career as a helper in a garage and was able to save up enough money to open his own auto repair business, which was located at 794 10th Avenue. His partner in that business, Adolph Schwartz, said that Henry had called him within the hour before his death to let him know that he was going to “have a bite to eat and would be down to the office in a few minutes.”

1922 passport photo of Henry Jellinek.
1922 passport photo of Henry Jellinek.

Schwartz told police that Jellinek was happily married, showed no concerns about the business, and was generally in good health. In other words, there was no reason to suspect that he had committed suicide.

Jellinek’s sister, whose name remained undisclosed in the newspapers, told a reporter, “My brother wouldn’t do such a thing. He has a boy that he loves, a fine wife, and a splendid home, and there is no reason for his doing that. If they say he was a suicide, we will hire a lawyer and thresh the whole thing out.”

The deceased woman was identified as 51-year-old Lillian Rosenfeld, although it was later learned that her legal last name was Rosenfelt. Lillian was familiar to both employees and regular customers at the Automat, as she often visited the establishment in search of food. Manager Harvey informed the police that he had thrown her out of the restaurant on multiple occasions because she was stealing food from patrons.

The graves of Henry and Edna Jellinek at Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook, NJ
The graves of Henry and Edna Jellinek at Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook, NJ. (Find-a-Grave image.)

While most believed that Lillian was homeless, she was not. She lived alone in a basement apartment within a brownstone at 119 West 104th Street, a mere two blocks away from the Automat. According to Bernard Docherty, janitor of the building, people there knew her as Lillian Fields. His predecessor had discovered Lillian sleeping in the hallway three years earlier. Taking pity on the penniless woman, he obtained permission for Lillian to sleep in that dingy basement apartment. Eventually, she agreed to pay $7 per month ($165 today) so that she could stay there permanently.

The initial information gathered by investigators revealed that the victims were complete strangers to one another. They had dined on opposite ends of the restaurant, with no observed interaction between them. Given the stark differences in their lifestyles, it seemed improbable that they had any prior contact.

Acting Lieutenant of Detectives Charles Flood confirmed this: “We have been unable to find a single person who saw Jellinek on the restaurant balcony, where the Rosenfeld woman collapsed.”

Colorized 1942 image of the Automat restaurant at 2710 Broadway in Manhattan.
Colorized 1942 image of the Automat restaurant at 2710 Broadway in Manhattan. The building looks nearly identical today. (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Autopsies were immediately performed on both bodies. No signs of food were found in Jellinek’s stomach, but there were small black specks that were identified as poppy seeds. Similar seeds were found in Lillian’s stomach. Moreover, a chunk of a poppy seed roll was found obstructing her throat. Chemical analyses further revealed lethal levels of cyanide in both stomachs. The concentration of poison in Henry’s stomach was estimated to be three to four times greater than that found in Lillian’s.

It was clear that both had been poisoned, but how and why? And who consumed it first? And just how did it end up killing two people who had never met one another?

Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Norris was equally perplexed. “I don’t know what to think of it.” He immediately ordered an analysis of food samples from the restaurant, but nothing dangerous was discovered.

Henry Jellinek's World War I draft registration card.
Henry Jellinek’s World War I draft registration card.

Further investigation revealed that Henry Jellinek’s business had been having financial trouble, something that his partner Adolph Schwartz had been unaware of. Business at the garage hadn’t been going well, so Jellinek took out a loan for $150 (approximately $3,600 today). Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but this was during the depths of the Great Depression. Henry had no way of raising the money and missed his July 1st payment date. As a result, the bank threatened him with foreclosure. It was also learned that Jellinek had been in poor health for several weeks.

Investigators also discovered that one week before his death, Jellinek had gone to a local drugstore and purchased $3 (around $70 today) worth of cyanide powder. How he was able to convince the druggist to make this sale was never determined.

Following a thorough examination of all evidence, investigators concluded that Henry Jellinek entered the Automat on that fateful Wednesday morning intending to take his own life. He walked over to the brass and glass section with the “Bread” sign above it, inserted a nickel, and purchased a plate containing two poppy seed rolls. He then calmly sat down at a table, pressed a hole into the top of one of the rolls, and then sprinkled some of the cyanide powder on top. He ate half of that roll and knowing that the end was near, walked to the restroom in the basement, where he ultimately collapsed and died.

1924 passport application photo of Henry Jellinek.
1924 passport application photo. Henry Jellinek is on the left. While unidentified on the document, this most likely is a family photo with his wife Edna and son Harold.

So, that explains one-half of the mystery, but we are still left with the question of how Lillian Rosenfelt fits into this.

What Jellinek was unaware of was that Lillian, who had come to the restaurant in search of food, was seated at a balcony table watching the patrons below to identify those who left uneaten portions of their meals behind. When she spotted Henry Jellinek stand up and leave his table, Lillian swooped in like a hawk to snatch the rolls that he had left on his plate. She carefully placed the untouched roll — the one without the poison on it — into a paper bag she had with her. Lillian then consumed the remaining half of the poisoned roll, sealing her fate.

As the expression goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. In the harsh economic climate of 1933, Lillian Rosenfelt, like so many others, had no choice but to steal the table scraps left behind by patrons of the Automat. And that cost Lillian her life.

Advertisement for the Henry Jellinek Co
Advertisement for the Henry Jellinek Co. that appeared on page 148 of the December 30, 1915 issue of Automotive Industries.

But did it have to?

It turns out that Lillian had enough money to purchase her own poppy seed rolls at the Automat. And I’m not talking chump change here. She had more than just a single nickel. A lot more.

When Lillian’s body was first found lying on the Automat floor, Detective Frank Walsh searched through her clothing to see if he could find some sort of identification. He was surprised to find a Metropolitan Savings Bank book that showed a balance of $4,000. Adjusted for inflation, Lillian had approximately $96,000 sitting in that account.

Also, among her possessions, the police found an address for her cousin Abraham Mannheimer, who operated a business at 369 Seventh Avenue. He was the one who led investigators to Lillian’s basement apartment.

Once the officers got inside, they were shocked by what they found. Lillian had been living in appalling conditions. Her furniture consisted of a bed frame without a mattress, a couch thought to have been scavenged from a vacant lot, and a broken armchair.

Construction of the Automat restaurant at the corner of Broadway and 104th Street in Manhattan in 1930.
Construction of the Automat restaurant at the corner of Broadway and 104th Street in Manhattan. (1930 – New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

The June 1946 issue of Coronet magazine described her apartment as follows: “In her filthy magpie’s nest on 104th Street were thousands of cardboard boxes stuffed with oddments and crawling bugs. Peanut shells, gum and candy from the subway, bits of string, bits of paper, pieces of wood and coal, broken pens and pencils, old hats, single shoes, newspapers by the hundred gross, parts of sheets and blankets, old catalogues, broken furniture, and five old bankbooks.”

Summary: Lots of worthless junk that Lillian had picked up on the street.

But what about those five old bankbooks briefly mentioned? One of them contained a slip of paper that said, “In case of accident to Lillian Fields please notify Delia Rosenfeld of 38 West 126th Street.”

And that’s exactly what the police did. Delia was Lillian’s sister, though they had been estranged for years. Their relationship soured following the passing of their father, Simon S. Rosenfeld, in 1923. Essentially, their father, a prosperous real estate entrepreneur, bequeathed each daughter $15,000, which is approximately $273,000 today. Afterward, Lillian accused Delia of being “too extravagant” and the two cut off ties with one another.

Despite the widespread belief that Lillian had nothing and needed to scrounge for scraps of food, the reality was quite the opposite. When her estate was finalized a year later, it totaled $62,430.29. Factoring in inflation, Lillian’s assets surpassed $1.43 million. While such wealth would be substantial in any era, envision its impact during the Great Depression. And ponder this thought: Consider how Henry Jellinek’s fate might have been altered had he possessed even a fraction of that fortune—just $150. Both Lillian and him may have gone on to live much longer lives.

Grave of Lillian Rosenfelt at the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery.
Grave of Lillian Rosenfelt at the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery. (Find-a-Grave image)

I’ll throw in one final factoid that I discovered while researching this story: When Mrs. Annie Stein died on July 24, 1921, her will set up a $10,000 ($172,300 today) trust fund for her two nieces, Delia and Lillian Rosenfelt. But there was a catch: the sisters needed to remain unmarried. As long as they remained single, the two would split any interest earned. But as soon as one of the sisters married or died, the other received the $10,000 principal. While there is no documentary evidence, it is safe to assume that Delia became the beneficiary of this trust fund. She was unmarried when she died in 1965, and is buried in the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery, as are Lillian and their parents.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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4 months ago

A case could be made for manslaughter as a case could be made leaving the poison roll was reckless


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