Until recently, Patricia Kelly Smith had never heard of Edith Gibeau Melber and her son George.
One hundred years ago this month, just about everyone in Schenectady knew about the Melbers and their tragic story.
Edith Melber was 23 in 1911, a widow with a 5-year-old boy. She was described as a pretty young woman in the newspapers, “jaunty and self-possessed,” someone who dressed well in public.
There didn’t seem to be much room in her life for Georgie, who lived in children’s homes and with relatives. Edith decided against motherhood on Jan. 6, 1911 — the day she murdered the child.
“The only way I discovered this was I was on [website] Ancestry.com last year,” said Smith, a former assistant principal and social worker in the Guilderland school district. “During my search, I made a connection with a cousin who lives in Schenectady County that I had never met before.”
The cousin knew about the family tragedy.
“I knew Melber was an old family name, that was it,” said Smith, who lives in Argyle, Washington County. “This was a total shock to find this. I think I was just astounded an event like this could have happened in the family and not been passed down. Maybe because of the tragedy, people didn’t talk about it anymore.”
Newspapers covered the case in detail. On Saturday, Jan. 14, 1911, the day Edith’s arrest made front page news, the Schenectady Gazette carried four stories about the incident. The New York Times also covered the story. The Melber case occurred during a time when sensational — often lurid — stories made print. “G.E. Employee Ends His Life With a Bullet,” read the headline of one Gazette story published during the winter of 1911. “Cut To Pieces By D&H Train” read another.
Smith learned some things about Edith.
“She was a very disturbed woman,” she said. “There are a lot of accounts of her erratic behavior. She came from a very difficult background and she just wasn’t able to cope with taking care of a child.”
The story unfolds
Here are the facts of the case, assembled from stories used in the Gazette, New York Times and details from the 1911 City Directory.
Edith married George Melber in 1905. The husband worked as a machinist at the General Electric Co., but his time was running out. After the newlyweds’ baby George was born, Melber died shortly afterward in 1906.
Edith had funds from George’s insurance policy. She and little George moved to Syracuse, where Edith had relatives.
By the late spring of 1909, mother and child were back in the Capital Region. George’s new home had become St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Troy.
Edith needed a job and landed a housekeeping position.
In September of 1909, the young mother moved her son into the Schenectady Children’s Home on State Street, in the 1200 block. She promised to pay the boy’s room and board, but never did. Edith’s father-in-law, also named George Melber, said he gave Edith funds for George’s support.
Family relations were strained.
“Although attractive and cordial to others, her attitude toward her husband’s family was cold and reserved,” the Gazette reported. “They knew little or nothing of her past.”
Edith had had very little to do with the family of little George’s great uncle, musician Charles F. Smith. The Smiths became part of the drama in the middle of December in 1910, when Edith came to the Smith household on Lincoln Avenue and asked if Charles and his wife, Margaret, would take care of her son.
Fitting in quite well
Charles was more than willing. He liked little George, and offered to adopt him. He would let the boy keep his name; Edith would still be his mother.
Edith refused the deal. But she left the boy with the Smiths, with the understanding she would find another institutional home for him.
“While a member of the Smith household, little George made himself a general favorite,” the Gazette reported. “He was a pretty child and was very popular among his playmates. Mrs. Smith took a motherly interest in him and they determined to induce Mrs. Melber to let them adopt the child.”
(Patricia Kelly Smith said Charles and Margaret were her paternal great-grandparents. “Along with the tragedy of Georgie, they had also lost three grandchildren within a couple of years, who would have been my aunts and uncle had they lived,” she said. “Their oldest son was my maternal grandfather, William H. Smith. He was a Schenectady County 7th Ward supervisor in the 1920s.”)
By the time George was spending time with the Smiths, Edith was working again. She had been hired as a maid for the Chester Bartlett family at 206 Glenwood Blvd. She had told some people she was George’s guardian or godmother, and George made a couple of appearances at the home.
The Bartletts also connected with the 5-year-old. They gave him a white “Buster Brown” suit on Christmas Eve.
Better off without him
On Thursday, Jan. 5, 1911, Edith took George from the Smith home. She planned to once again enroll her son in the Children’s Home, but officials at the home wanted payment in advance. They knew Edith’s history when it came to paying bills.
Edith and George went to her employers, the Bartletts, and stayed overnight. They were on the move the next day, Friday, Jan. 6. That’s when the story took a sinister turn.
Edith had apparently decided she was better off without George. Mother and child took a trolley car toward Albany. They got off in a rural section and began walking.
Edith had given George a bag of chocolate drops, and had earlier purchased a small amount of carbolic acid. Also known as phenol, carbolic acid is corrosive to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, and often was mentioned in suicide stories of the era.
When mother and child were in a vacant lot near the outskirts of Albany, the youngster said he was thirsty. Edith gave him a few sips of carbolic acid, which proved fatal. She left him in the tall weeds of the field.
The woman returned to Glenwood Boulevard during the evening. She had a boyfriend, Howard Kirk, 20, of 803 Lincoln Ave., a draftsman at General Electric, and the couple talked at the Bartlett home until about 10 p.m. They saw each other the next three days.
George’s frozen body was found by rabbit hunter Harry Sprankland on Wednesday, Jan. 11. Cops didn’t know the boy’s name. They knew only that he had been dead for several days. And was wearing a white “Buster Brown” suit.
Edith, perhaps feeling the heat, decided to leave town on Thursday, Jan. 12. She told Kirk she had received word her aunt was dying.
The couple said farewell at the Schenectady train station, where Edith bought a ticket for an early afternoon train west. “I kissed her goodbye and she said, ‘I may never see you again,’ ” Kirk later told reporters.
Edith’s run did not last long. Schenectady police had visited the Children’s Home and had a picture of the dead boy. A matron at the home said it looked like the “Melville” child, who had a relative named Charles F. Smith. Charles and George Melber, the boy’s grandfather made a positive identification on Friday, Jan. 13. The search was on for Edith.
A triple decker headline in the Schenectady Gazette’s edition on Saturday, Jan. 14, told the story. “Mrs. George Melber of Schenectady, Captured in Rochester, Tells Police She Murdered Her Son Near Albany.”
Rochester police had arrested Edith as she walked into the baggage room of the New York Central Railroad depot. At first, she claimed she was Ada James of Troy. Further questioning led to hysterics. “Charged with my boy’s murder?” Edith exclaimed. “To God’s face I declare my innocence.”
She later confessed. And she tried to explain her actions — she could not find a place for George to live.
“I was desperate,” Edith told Rochester authorities. “I didn’t know what to do. I then thought I would get rid of him, and go as far away as I could, so far that I would never see his father’s people again or ever hear of them.”
George’s afternoon service began Monday, Jan. 16 in the “undertaking rooms” of Gleason and Bernardi on Jay Street. Mourners then gathered at St. Joseph’s Church for the 2 p.m. funeral. Burial was in St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
Large crowd at court
Edith’s trial began in Albany County on Monday, March 6, 1911. Like the case, the courtroom proceedings featured sensations. After court recessed on Wednesday, March 8, more than 1,000 people assembled in front of City Hall.
“When Mrs. Melber appeared at the doorway, every neck was craned forward and each person pushed against the one ahead,” the Gazette reported. “Men, women and children were pushed about and crushed, and it required the united efforts of six patrolmen to force a passageway for Mrs. Melber.”
On Thursday, March 16, a 12-man jury found Edith guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to a prison term of 20 years to life.
Edith’s attorney, George M. Palmer, expressed worry for his client’s future.
“Don’t be surprised to hear that Edith has committed suicide,” he said after the verdict had been announced. “Don’t (sic) that show, gentlemen of the jury, the condition of the mind of this poor woman?”
Edith began serving her sentence at the Auburn Prison for Women. She never finished the term. According to a 1916 clipping from the New York Times, Edith manufactured a makeshift rope from a bedsheet and hanged herself on March 4 of that year.