“I had a periodical desire to poison human beings and in killing them in this manner, I derive a certain mental satisfaction. When this mania seizes me, I want to kill the nearest person to me.” –excerpt from “Texas Jim” Baker’s murder confession.
On the morning of December 27, 1928 New York Police responded to an emergency call at the Guggenheim Brothers metallurgical laboratory on 202nd Street and Tenth Avenue.
Arriving at the scene investigators discovered that a lab worker had been murdered and two truck drivers had narrowly escaped death.
Police would later learn that Henry S. Gaw, 29, of 163 West 84th Street, an assistant in the lab, had been forced to drink cyanide before his death.
The prime suspect was a former submarine crewman named “Texas Jim” Baker.
Baker, a former Guggenheim employee who had stopped working in the lab just three weeks before Gaw was hired, was a colorful and well-known figure in this industrial section of uptown Manhattan. He was known for his signature stunt, the almost superhuman ability to tear phonebooks in half. He also had two distinctive tattoos, a dagger and a snake.
Baker’s former captives, who were delivering a load of nerve gas to the lab, explained to the police that they had walked in on the scene after Gaw had been murdered.
They were promptly bound and gagged at gunpoint.
Both were very grateful that their lives had been spared.
Police reported that the perpetrator had made off with twenty dollars cash, taken from a safe, and $1,000 worth of platinum.
Just hours later an all-points-bulletin was issued for Baker. A search of his nearby apartment uncovered enough poison to kill thousands of others.
But Baker had vanished.
At one point police speculated that he might have fled to Berlin.
More than a year after the murder in uptown Manhattan police in Detroit received a tip that the 25-year-old New York fugitive was living on a farm fifteen miles west of the city.
As luck would have it NYPD Detective Thomas A. Smith was in town on an unrelated police matter and volunteered to head over to the farm with Detroit police.
Baker was arrested without incident.
After being taken to police headquarters Baker boastfully confessed to a globetrotting murder spree that would shock the seasoned investigators.
“I was born in Warren, Ohio, and went to grade school there,” Baker began. “I left home when I was 16 years old. I learned the steam fitting trade and got a job on an ocean freighter.”
Baker quickly turned to his macabre fascination with poison.
“I was always interested in poisons and usually carried some around with me. In 1924, I was in Houston, Texas,” Baker continued. “I happened into a sailors’ restaurant and sat down beside a man. He had a cup of coffee in front of him. While he was looking away, I had a sudden impulse to put some poison in the coffee. He died almost at once. I learned afterward that his name was Honeycutt.”
The detectives scribbled away in their notepads as Baker described his compulsion to kill without any discernable motive.
“I used to get impulses to poison people, no one in particular, but just anyone who happened to be near me; don’t know why I did it, except that I liked to watch the effects of different kinds of poison. It gave me a funny sort of sensation.” Baker explained.
Baker then walked the detectives through some of his alleged murders. The body count was staggering.
“I poisoned a man in Hamburg, Germany, in the Spring of 1926, and a Hindu in Bombay in 1927,” Baker began.
He was just getting warmed up.
“Shortly after that I sailed from Bayonne, N.J., for Venezuela on an oil boat called the Gulfport. I put some poison in the coffee one day and the whole crew got sick. Three of them died.”
“In the Spring of 1928 I was in Iloilo, in the Philippines. I poisoned a man in a restaurant there.”
“Later in 1928,” Baker continued, returning to the murder for which he was under arrest, “I got a job as an assistant chemist at the Guggenheim Laboratory in New York. I expected to get a chance to go to South America with the company. I didn’t, so I quit in November.”
Baker then described returning to the lab just two days after Christmas.
“I went to the laboratory after midnight,” Baker stated. “ There was a new night watchman there, but he let me in. He was drinking some coffee and I put some poison in it when he wasn’t looking. He drank it. I stayed there until he was dead.”
Baker would leave behind two witnesses, Elmer Mayhew and Chester Macaulay.
“When I started to leave two truck drivers came to the laboratory,” Baker recalled. “I was going to kill them, but one said he had a wife and some small children, so I took their money and left.”
From there Baker told the cops he drifted around a bit.
“I shot a farmer in Ohio,” he claimed.
“In the Spring I came to Detroit and got a job on the farm,” Baker said as he concluded his gruesome tale.
Return to Justice
Baker was quickly extradited to New York where detectives were skeptical of Baker’s confessed death toll.
Following up on the details of the confession detectives concluded that most of Baker’s claims were simply untrue. Aside from the New York murder only two other killings could be confirmed; those of Walter Awe, a railroad detective on January 20, 1929 and Otis South, a taxi driver, ten days later. Both killings occurred in the Detroit area.
Soon after news of his sensational confession made the headlines his mother stepped forward to let the world know that her son had been kicked in the head by a horse as a child. Baker, his mother related, had acted “queerly” ever since.
“Baker,” the police concluded, was “a morbid egotist, a braggart and a liar, groping in a mental haze bordering on insanity.” (New York Times, February 23, 1930)
Nevertheless, police had Baker dead to rights regarding the murder of Henry Gaw in the New York Laboratory. The Detroit murders could be prosecuted back in Michigan should the New York murder case fall apart.
After being declared “medically and morally insane, but legally sane” by two noted alienists the state of New York sought the electric chair for the alleged murder of Henry Gaw.
In May of 1930 confessed killer “Texas Jim” Baker surprised everyone and pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree murder relating to the death of Henry Gaw.
Baker flashed a broad grin as the court accepted his plea. He was then sentenced to forty years to life in prison to be served at Sing-Sing.