Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Strange Story of the McDonald/Harger Family

K.D. and Maria McDonald Harger family ca. 1912.
The grave of Benjamin Fowler McDonald in Mount Avon Cemetery doesn't particularly stand out from those surrounding it. The New Jersey native and descendant of the Axford family was born in 1825 and came to Michigan in pioneer days, like many young men of his generation, where he farmed in Avon Township and reared his children. Nothing odd there either, unless you know that through the descendants of Benjamin F. McDonald, Rochester is linked in a way to a bizarre and grisly murder story that played out in New York City in 1945.

McDonald's daughter, Maria, was born in Avon Township in 1861.  She attended the University of Michigan and was graduated with the class of 1887. Two years later, in Rochester, she married a young lawyer from West Bloomfield Township named K.D. Harger. The newly-married Hargers relocated to Riverside, California, where K.D. Harger served as postmaster and as an officer of a title and abstract company, and Maria Harger taught school.  Two sons, Donald and Solon Burt, were born to the Hargers in California.

The younger son, known as Burt, showed an aptitude for ballet and other forms of dance at an early age. He began winning dance competitions in his youth. As an adult, he relocated to New York City, where he achieved relative fame as an adagio dancer, partnering at first with Helen Howell and later with Charlotte Maye. While he was fairly well known in the ballrooms of New York City during the 1930s and early 1940s, Harger became the talk of the town in August 1945 when he mysteriously vanished without a trace at the age of 39.

Harger was reported missing initially by his dancing partner, Charlotte Maye, when he failed to appear for a planned performance at the Biltmore Hotel on August 19.  A police investigation turned up no leads for three days, until a dismembered torso washed up on a Queens beach and a few days after that, an arm and a leg were fished out of the Hudson River. A postmortem identified the remains as those of Burt Harger, and determined that death had been likely been caused by hammer blows. At this point, Harger's name was screaming from lurid headlines across the country, as newspapers carried stories about what they were calling the "Torso Murder Case."

Various clues led police back to the apartment that Harger had shared with a roommate, Walter H. Dahl, Jr.  Under interrogation, Dahl admitted that he had killed Harger with a hammer during an argument, then dismembered the body in the bathtub of the apartment, before packaging the remains in several towels.  Dahl then carried his gruesome bundles, one at a time, aboard the Staten Island and Weehawken ferries, where he dropped them over the rail.

Dahl was charged with murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, where he died three years later.  His motive, according to later memoirs of those who investigated the case, was jealousy, as he and Harger were said to have been lovers who quarreled bitterly after Harger had abruptly announced his engagement to a woman.  The Burt Harger story didn't end there, however.  The next tenant in the apartment where Harger's murder had taken place was a young playwright named Ken Parker. Fascinated by the case, Parker penned a play about the murder entitled Four Flights Up (later retitled There's Always A Murder) which had modest success in off-Broadway venues.

In an interesting side note, the cremated remains of K.D. Harger, Maria McDonald Harger and S. Burt Harger are all inurned in the Cathedral Mausoleum of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (originally called Hollywood Memorial Park) in Los Angeles.  This cemetery was founded in 1899, and later sold off part of its property to Paramount Studios, which now abut the cemetery on one side. The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the many show business personalities buried there.

The photo shown here is from the local history collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library. Seen from left to right are: Phoebe Burt McDonald Parker (mother of Maria McDonald Harger), Donald Harger, K.D. Harger, Maria McDonald Harger, and S. Burt Harger.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story. I was familiar with K.D. but had no information on his son Solon Burt.