As Close to Crime: Family Annihilator


Dr. Arthur F. Woolsey, DDS
Central NJ Home News photo-
August 3, 1928

Forty-three years before John List became (perhaps arguably but I don’t think so) New Jersey’s most famous famous annihilator, there was Dr. Arthur Field Woolsey, DDS.

By choosing a career in dentistry, Arthur was following in the footsteps on his father, Walter Woolsey, DDS. These were big shoes to fill. Walter was successful, well-respected and even served as President of the New Jersey State Dental Society in 1907.

Arthur was 22-years-old when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Dental School in 1913. His first practice was in Orange, New Jersey. While not achieving the same success as his father, Arthur had served as President of the Union County Dental Association.

By1928, Arthur and his father were sharing office space at 1162 East Jersey Street in Elizabeth, NJ. [That location is now the home of the New Yorker Deli.]
Arthur, his wife Marguerite and their two young children enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Arthur belonged to several exclusive social and civic clubs; Marguerite was a fine hostess. They lived at 133 East 6th Street in Roselle, NJ.

Union County’s Chief of Detectives, John A. Galatian, would later describe their lifestyle as an attempt to “keep up with the Joneses.”

A failed attempt.

By August 1928, 37-year-old Arthur Woolsey was $17,000 in debt; that’s $254,889.65, in today’s money.

Arthur had a $9,000 mortgage on his home and $8,000 in other assorted but unspecified debts. He quite simply was living beyond his means.

It is believed that Arthur broke under the stress of his insurmountable debt and, after his father refused him a personal loan, Arthur reached a tipping point.

Dr. Walter Woolsey later denied knowledge of his son’s financial situation and made a public statement, through his attorney, that he was never approached for assistance. 

Asked to comment on his family’s tragedy, Walter observed, “My boy’s mind must have been affected.”

Chief Galatian felt differently and when he asked about Arthur Woolsey, Galatian told reporters that “the man’s actions so far appear normal – at least in the sense that he knows what he is doing.”

In anticipation of a possible insanity defense, Galatian told George Kenney of NY’s Daily News, “He appears as sane as you or I but we must have him examined to forestall any defense based on an insanity plea.”

Galatian described the 37-year-old Arthur Woolsey as a “Babbitt.”

The Miriam-Webster Dictionary provides this definition for that word – “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards”

This is a specific reference to a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis published in 1922 and it’s title character.

Arthur found his financial situation dire and in an attempt to spare his family “the embarrassment of poverty,” Arthur concocted a plan to kill his wife and two children then commit suicide. But just like John List would on November 9th 1971, Arthur lost his nerve when it came to taking his own life.

Arthur’s lengthy confession would make it difficult for the defense team to later claim temporary insanity. In particular, was the fact that Arthur had decided on this murder-suicide plan several weeks in advance. His confession was given freely and signed with a pen Marguerite had bought for him.

The Woolsey family –
Daily News photo – Aug. 3, 1928

On the morning of August 1, 1928, Arthur got an early start to the day. He was out of bed between 6 and 6:30AM. Arthur removed a .25 caliber Colt automatic pistol from his bureau drawer.

Now, it’s a fact that the exact sequence of events that morning differs from one newspaper to another but here is the version printed in the Asbury Park Press on August 2, 1928 and the one I believe is the most accurate as it closely matches what Arthur stated in his confession.

The first to die was Marguerite (35). His wife of 12 years was shot once in the head, twice in the chest. She had just gotten out of bed.

Their son Arthur, Jr (7) heard the violence and was just getting out of bed when his father shot him. The boy was shot once in the head.

The youngest of their children, Mary Elizabeth (4) was awake but still in bed when her father entered her room. She was shot once in the head.

Sadly, the end result is the same no matter which source you choose but the NY Daily News account changes the order of the deaths and would have the readers believe all three were asleep when killed.

This is the sequence of events as printed in the NY Daily News:

Dr. Woolsey shot his son, Arthur, Jr first, as the boy lay sleeping – once in the head.

Next to die was Marguerite. Also asleep, she was shot once in the head and twice in the chest.

Lastly, it was Mary Elizabeth’s turn. She likewise was shot once in the head by her father.

The Asbury Park Press goes a bit further with their forensics. According to their August 2, 1928 edition:

“Mrs. Woolsey was shot twice in the breast and once in the head. The daughter was shot thru the head and the boy thru the cheek. Physicians called by the police are said to have expressed the belief that the children may have lived several hours after they were shot.”

Five gunshots in all and the neighbors heard nothing that morning.

Arthur would spend the next 6 to 7 hours after the murders getting his affairs in order. Once again, newspaper accounts differ on the sequence of Arthur’s movements after killing his family but there is no doubt he did all of the following before calling police.

Arthur cleaned the blood from the bodies of his wife and children. Police would later find all three bodies side by side on Marguerite’s bed.

Arthur made himself breakfast. [No details on what he ate, much to my disappointment because I live for the minutia.] 

Neighbors recalled seeing Arthur outside of his house around noon. This might have been when he left the house briefly to purchase some cigars at the neighborhood tobacco shop.

“I seldom smoke more than two a day, but I chew many more than that,” Arthur reportedly claimed.

Upon his return, Arthur sat down to write four letters (three to Roselle, NJ residents and one to an individual in New Hampshire) and he supposedly smoked a few cigars.

The letters were later examined by a team of alienists. One letter was Arthur’s confession of his crimes and his wish that the bodies of his wife and children be cremated.

The three other letters were personal in nature and I suppose had no bearing on the case. I’m assuming this to be true because the content of those missives and the names of their intended recipients were not made public.

At some point that morning Arthur “lost his nerve” and was unable to commit suicide.

At 1PM, Arthur placed a phone call to the Roselle Police Headquarters. He asked Chief Burt Avery to stop by when he had a chance because “I’ve just murdered my wife and two children.”

photo from the NY Daily News – Aug 2, 1928

Arthur was calm and composed when Chief Avery and two uniformed officers arrived. Arthur asked Avery if he had a cigar before escorting them to the bodies.

When Arthur Woolsey was taken into custody he told the police “I’ve never felt better in my life.”

It was as if great burden had been lifted.

No further motive, other than the one given by Arthur, could be found.

Arthur’s 10 page confession was made available to the press and this is what was printed in the Times Union (a Brooklyn, NY newspaper) on August 2, 1928:

“It has been running through my mind for several months just to do something of this sort; that is, to relieve my wife and children from any embarrassment, the reason of my financial difficulties. The only way out, as I looked at it, was to take their lives.

Dr. Woolsey then states that he worked all day Tuesday in his office, went home at 6:30 PM and spent that night with his family. The confession continued:

“I could not sleep much during the night, and this morning I got up at 6:30 o’clock and my wife got up at the same time. The idea came to me to kill my wife and children. While my wife was standing near the bed I went to the bureau and got my revolver and shot my wife, she dying almost instantly.

“I then picked her up and placed her on the bed. When I fired the shots that killed my wife, my son, Arthur, was awakened in another room, and commenced to get out of his bed. I then shot him. He died immediately, and then I shot my little girl both of them dying immediately.

“The little girl was in bed in a room adjoining the boy’s room.

“I then went downstairs and prepared breakfast for myself, after which I went upstairs and wiped up some blood on the floor, and also washed off the bodies of my wife and chilren.

“I then stayed around the house until 1 o’clock this afternoon, when I called up police headquarters in Roselle and notified them of what I had done.”

“I have never had any trouble with my wife,” the confession continues, “and she has always been true to me and the only reason I took her life was to relieve her of any embarrassment by reason of my financial difficulties.

“We have always lived happily together.”

Two days later, on August 4, 1928, The Morning Post (a Camden, NJ newspaper) printed these portions of his confession:

“Dr. Woolsey (the elder) has made a wonderful success of himself financially, but as a father of his children, no.

“My family is upstairs, quiet, and I am waiting for the constable to come to repossess my car. Even now I can realize fully just what I have done or what I shall do. I loved my wife and children so much. I cannot make myself leave them. Perhaps the only spark of manhood left me will come out in my next action. 

“I have tried to do all I could to make them happy and get them healthy. Now I have everything mortgaged to the limit and not a cent of my own except that which is due me in the office.” 

Chief John A. Gallatian and Dr. Arthur Woolsey –
Public Opinion, August 4, 1928

This appeared in Time magazine’s August 13, 1928 edition:

“Being a good dentist evidently is no longer the thing. The man who commercializes dentistry is the successful businessman.”

A young dentist, Dr. Arthur Woolsey, of Elizabeth, N. J., in despair, wrote that on his own stationery last week. And he wrote this: “I have everything mortgaged to the limit and not a thing of my own except that which is due me at the office. If that had come in when it was due this could have been avoided. My only message to the dentists with whom I have worked is to work for cash only; credit will only bring trouble.”

Funeral arrangements for Marguerite, Arthur, Jr and Mary Elizabeth were handled by Dr. Walter Woolsey.

On August 4, 1928, their bodies were buried at the Fairview Cemetery located in Westfield, NJ.

Findagrave image uploaded by Gloria

[For folks interested in such things, Fairview Cemetery is the also the final resting place of Whitney Houston and her daughter Bobbie Kristina Brown.]

Findagrave image uploaded
by Lori Concannon
Findagrave image uploaded
by Lori Concannon

Arthur’s trial was set for December 3, 1928.

Although it was Arthur’s intention to plead “not guilty,” he changed his mind and entered a plea of “non vult” to three charges of first degree murder.

Essentially, he was not contesting the charges against him.

Arthur received a life sentence for murdering Marguerite, to be served at the state prison in Trenton, NJ.

Oddly, Justice Kalisch opted to suspend sentence when it came to the murder of Arthur’s two children.

According to The Pittsburgh Press,
“This, it was pointed out, would be an
effective barrier to possible efforts to
obtain Woolsey’s release on parole.”

Newspapers describe Dr. Woolsey as listening with little interest then quietly saying, “Well, it’s all over.” Arthur cast a glance in the direction of his parents and his brother before being lead out of the courtroom.

The Courier News photo, 1928

Despite the life sentence, Arthur continually applied for parole.

His name was submitted then rejected in April 1937, in September 1937 and again in August 1939.

Finally and surprisingly, on December 5, 1941, Arthur Woolsey, now 50-years-old, was granted parole. He had served 13 years.

Dr. Woolsey was one of 46 inmates granted parole that day and one of ten parolees who had been imprisoned for murder. So much for Justice Kalisch’s intentions.

Arthur’s version of the crime, as related to the Clemency Court, and reported in the Paterson Morning Call newspaper on December 6, 1941, was that he had killed his family in “a period of temporary insanity. He first blackjacked his wife and then shot her and the children.”

[On June 9, 2020, I submitted an Open Public Records Act request for access to Arthur’s parole records but was advised on June 24, 2020, by Dina I. Rogers, Esq., Records Custodian of  New Jersey State Parole Board, that “the State Parole Board has no parole records regarding Arthur Woolsey. Due to the age of the conviction/sentence, I am unable to even locate Arthur Woolsey in the State Parole Board’s electronic database.”]

In 1944, Arthur, then 53-year-old, married for a second time.

Dr. Woolsey’s new bride, Myra Keith Robertson (47), was a widow, so they had that in common. Myra’s husband of 19 years, Alexander Robertson, had died on June 19, 1943 at the age of 58.

Arthur and Myra lived on the sprawling grounds of (the now shuttered) Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Trenton, NJ where Arthur was employed as a dentist.

Marlboro State Hospital grounds

An example of the staff housing.
Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital – Doctors Row. Photo from

In December 1949, several New Jersey newspapers reported that Dr. Arthur F. Woolsey was seeking “a pardon or commutation of sentence.”

 Seven years after being paroled, it wasn’t enough that Arthur had his freedom and was making a new life for himself.

[In my OPRA request, I asked for access to Arthur’s 1949 Application for Pardon or Commutation of Sentence. I had hoped to see what the motivation for his request was but I was advised that “this part of your request is denied as records relating to executive clemency are deemed confidential and are exempt from disclosure pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-9, Executive Order #9 (1963), Executive Order #21 (2002) and Executive Order #26 (2002).”]

Newspaper accounts from the time, indicate that Dr. Woolsey enjoyed several vacations on the west coast, including trips to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina (1943), the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado (1946), the Flathead National Forest-Sun River in Montana (1947), Pettit Lake in Idaho (1948) as well as the Grand Canyon (1952) and Hawaii (1955).

In October 1956, Dr. Woolsey, then 65-years-old, decided his camping days were behind him and donated his gear to Marlboro’s Boy Scout Troop 86.

Myra died on Feb 10, 1958, at home, following a long illness. Arthur inherited half of her estate and the other 50% was shared by her 2 two nieces and a nephew. In addition to some specific pieces of jewelry being left to her sister and niece Ellen, Myra’s will also bequeathed $100 to her brother “for the sole purpose of having a good party.” Myra was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, NJ beside her first husband.

Dec 4, 1952 clipping –
Dr. Arthur Woolsey is seen at the extreme left

In April 1960, Arthur, now 69-years-old, married for third time, in Pinellas, Florida.

His new bride was Elizabeth Powers, 57-years-old. She likewise had two former spouses but had divorced each of them. Elizabeth also had three grown children from her first marriage.

The Sept 7, 1961 edition of The Freehold Transcript and Monmouth Inquirer printed a list of Monmouth County voters and amongst the names I find Arthur F. and Elizabeth Woolsey with their address as “Station Hospital, Marlboro.” All this tells us is that Arthur was still working and living on Hospital grounds with wife number three.

I don’t know when Arthur retired from dentistry but he and Elizabeth eventually relocated to North Carolina where Arthur died on May 3, 1976 at the Haywood County Hospital. Cause of death was heart failure. He was 85-years-old.

Elizabeth died 19 years later, at the age of 92. They are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Franklin, N.C. It’s curious that Arthur’s headstone has a typo. Surely there was sufficient time between their two deaths to have that fixed.

Dr. Arthur Woolsey’s headstone at Woodlawn Cemetery in Macon, NC – findagrave photo uploaded by Gail R. Anderson


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