Fit as a fiddle and ready to hang: depression-era crooner was the ‘singing slayer’

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Louis Kenneth Neu, singing “I’m fit as a fiddle and ready to hang” in his prison cell. Courtesy the Feb. 2, 1935 Owensboro Messenger

He was happier at that moment than he had been in years.

The 28-year-old Neu had a handsome face, a pleasant voice and loved the ladies, but during those dark days of 1933, the New York nightclub acts he yearned for were simply unavailable. He even was unable to secure the master of ceremonies job at a Times Square Chinese Restaurant. The best he could do was eke out one-night stands in coffee shops and speakeasies in the darker parts of town.

Then, Saturday night September 7, while panhandling along 42nd Street, Neu struck up a conversation with an older man named Lawrence Shead. Shead was the manager of a string of theaters in Paterson, New Jersey, and said he might have a job for the dapper but impoverished younger performer.

Shead was well known in New Jersey theater circles after enjoying successful runs with the Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia and the Rivoli Theater in New York City. His cinema and office walls were covered with pictures of celebrities, including Edward G. Robinson. Many of them were autographed with personal messages that began “Dear Larry.”

After chatting, Neu told Shead he would appreciate a ride to his grandmother’s home in Brooklyn, but as they started Shead instead invited Neu back to his apartment, which was attached to the Garden Theater at 25 Church Street in Paterson. After picking up a pint of Applejack whiskey and a pint of Rye along the way, they arrived at about 11:00 p.m. The two men met up briefly with some theater attendees at the Garden, and Shead introduced Neu as “my friend from down south.” They then retired to Shead’s apartment.

Neu’s New Orleans confession described what happened next. “I was working on a jigsaw puzzle,” he confessed, “when [Shead] mixed the next drink, I saw him putting three in mine and one in his own,” indicating Shead was slipping Neu the 1930s equivalent of a roofie.

Neu quickly realized that Shead was a homosexual, and interested only in an affair when he threw his arms around Neu’s waist. Neu flipped out at Shead’s aggressive behavior — he knocked him down, grabbed him by the throat and bludgeoned him over the head with an electric clothes iron. He then presumably strangled him to death with the cord. Shead, however, was able to get up and make his way to the bedroom before he collapsed dead on his bed after Neu left.

According to detectives, neighbors heard an altercation in the apartment around 3:20 a.m., but paid little attention. Eighteen hours later someone again called police and when they arrived they were stunned at what they found.

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Paterson Evening Journal, Sept. 11, 1933

Shead was splayed out naked across his bed, his head badly bashed in. The walls, furniture and bed were splattered with blood. The apartment had been looted, and all of Shead’s clothes, shoes, socks, watch and wallet were missing, along with his car, a black and yellow Chevrolet with California plates.

Loaded with Shead’s expensive watch and $60 cash from his wallet, Neu then fled south in the dead man’s car, intending at first to go back to his home in Savannah. In Charlotte, North Carolina he changed his mind, ditched the car and caught a train to New Orleans to try his fortunes there.

Soon after arriving he seduced a married but frustrated French Quarter waitress named Eunice Hotte who lived with her husband Walter in the Roosevelt Hotel, and promised to take her to New York. “We’ll have a big time in the big town,” he promised.

After a week of fruitless job searching in New Orleans, however, Neu was almost out of Shead’s money, and Eunice was itching to get on the road to the riches of the Big Apple. Panicking and needing funds, Neu pawned Shead’s stolen watch and bought a blackjack with the proceeds. He later struck up a conversation with a traveling Nashville businessman named Sheffield Clark in the lobby of the Jung Hotel, imploring to him that he was down on his luck and needed some cash.

Clark refused the request and went upstairs to his room, but Neu later appeared uninvited at his door, again begging him for money to get him and his girlfriend out of town. Refusing Clark’s order to leave and reaching for the phone to call police, Neu grabbed him by the throat and beat him with the blackjack, killing him. Neu fumbled through Clark’s clothing, finding $49 and the ticket for his car. He got the car, picked up the excited and clueless Eunice and they started north.

Outside of Philadelphia the two picked up a so-called “chronic” 19-year-old hitchhiker named Harold Parks, who wore a navy uniform even though he admitted he was no longer in the service but found it easier to get rides when he wore it. As the three of them drove down Hudson Boulevard toward the Holland Tunnel, they were pulled over by a highway patrolman named Brady and three plainclothes officers, who were concerned both by seeing a uniformed sailor in the back seat and a paper license tag on the car that read “in transit.”

Once pulled over, they looked over the luggage then wrote down the vehicle ID number, noticing that it perfectly matched the number recently broadcast by New Orleans police after the discovery of Clark’s body. After mumbling contradictory explanations for using the paper sign, Neu and his two companions were placed under arrest and taken to police headquarters, where he and Parks were placed in separate cells and Hotte in the women’s prison.

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Smile for the camera

At the station Neu began a rambling confession, speaking nonchalantly as if nothing at all was wrong. He freely admitted to killing Shead in Paterson when the theater manager attempted to grab him. “I killed him,” Neu reportedly said. “This is his suit I’m wearing now.” He spoke freely of his altercation with Sheffield Clark in New Orleans and how he killed him when he tried to call the police. He also admitted that he had a wife and family in Key West, Florida, and that he had advanced syphilis from the numerous one-night stands he enjoyed.

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Neu and his wife Cecilia performing after arrested for stealing a car, 1933. Courtesy Findagrave.com

Police also discovered that in early 1933, Neu and his wife, the former Cecile Davis, were caught stealing a car yet managed to perform an impromptu street song and dance for the arresting officers. They apparently separated just before the murders, and it is unknown if Cecile had any knowledge of them.

After his arraignment on September 21, Neu admitted a great weight had been lifted, and he was relieved to have told the whole story. “If I’d gone on, I might have killed somebody else,” he claimed. Later that day a report from New Orleans stated that a bellboy at the DeSoto Hotel found clothing bearing the name “Sheffield Clark Sr.” in the room Neu occupied.

After the confession, Captain Brady reported Neu was without a doubt “the most cold-blooded killer I ever saw.” Days later Neu was extradited back to Louisiana at the request of Clark’s son, Sheffield Clark Jr., to stand trial.

Newspapers tracked down Neu’s father, Louis C. Neu Jr., who attested to his son’s unbalanced mental state and confirmed that in 1927 the 17-year-old had been admitted to the Georgia State Mental Asylum at Milledgeville and stayed at least two years there. “He is unquestionably mentally unsound,” the elder Neu told the Monroe News-Star. “They advised me in Milledgeville that he had been cured but I have been very much in doubt of this on several occasions. His inability to control his temper is one of the evidences of his insanity.”

Eunice Hotte was also interviewed by the Associated Press of her relationship with Neu. She claimed to have met him 8 months earlier through a mutual acquaintance, a man named Rosco Stevens. “He told me he had trouble with a fellow in New York, and gone to a man’s apartment, had been drinking and had an argument then a fight. On Friday he asked me to come to New York. He said his wife died and he was free. He promised to help me get a divorce.”

(Neu’s wife Cecile did not die; she divorced him after he was charged in the murders, in 1934.)

“Monday [Neu] waved me off a bus and said ‘this is my new car, how do you like it?’” Hotte continued. “I got my things and we started to New York.” Both Hotte and Parks told police they had no clue Neu had killed two people.

On December 12 in New Orleans a “jaunty and unperturbed” Neu left his cell for his trial. He pointed to his shoes and claimed to reporters he had taken them from Clark, adding also that his suit had belonged to Shead in Paterson. “I feel as cool as a cucumber!” he proclaimed, “Look at my hand!”

He held it up to reporters without a quiver.

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Associated Press clipping card

At his trial the defense argued syphilitic insanity, which was known to affect temper and rational processes, but to no avail. Neu was found guilty of first-degree murder of Sheffield Clark and sentenced to death by hanging. As he was led out of the courtroom he belted out “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.”

Awaiting his execution Neu was prayerful but also weirdly, almost inappropriately upbeat, claiming he was “prepared to go.” He joked with the doctors and Priests who visited him, telling them he was not a crooner, but a singer. In January 1935 he converted to Catholicism.

On February 1, 1935, the “nattily attired” Neu, with his slicked-back black hair “almost glowing,” this so-called “singing slayer” kept up his mirthful spirit, seemingly unaware of the finality of what was about to happen. In his death cell forty-five minutes before he was to be executed, he broke out singing “Love in Bloom:”

“Blue night and you, alone with me

My heart has never known such ecstasy

Am I on earth, am I in heaven …?”

“By the way,” he told the prison physician just before he was taken to the gallows, “I am much in the same position as the parachute jumper, you know. It is not the falling that one fears, it is the sudden stop.” As he marched across the narrow hallway from the death cell to the chamber he joked with his Priest, Father McNamara. He also received a last-minute telegram from his father that simply stated “God be with you till we meet again.”

After Neu’s impromptu gallows performance, and promptly at 12:05 p.m., Hangman Henry Meyer pulled the heavy iron lever that dropped the trap door.

Nineteen minutes later Louis Kenneth Neu, the “singing slayer,” was declared dead. He was buried in the Louisiana State Prison Cemetery at Angola.

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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Written by

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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