History Matters: 1919 multiple murders in Laurel

For the Laurel Leader

Alice Allen had been gone for more than a few hours and her husband, Bradley, was starting to worry. Alice had walked next door to ask her friend, Annie Sloates, to help her husband keep an eye on her children while she was in Minnesota visiting relatives. She had a train ticket out of Laurel for the next day, Easter Sunday, April 20, 1919. But it was nearly 11 p.m. k and dark outside. Sloates' boardinghouse was barely a mile away and Alice should have returned by now.

Using lanterns, Bradley Allen and three of his sons took the well-worn path to the boardinghouse to find Alice. As they approached the small house, they saw in the lanterns' dim light someone lying face down in the doorway. It was Sloates, shot in the back.

In a panic, Allen told the boys to wait outside while he went to investigate. When he entered, he came upon the dead body of Thomas Smythe, one of his farm workers who lived in the boardinghouse. Smythe was sitting upright on a couch with a tobacco pipe in one hand, an unlit match in the other, and a bullet hole above his heart. There was no one else in the house.

With the panic and dread for his wife's fate rising, Allen and his sons decided to double-back over the path home. Maybe they missed something in the darkness.

Settling in Laurel

Family historian Kathy Baldwin, who lives in Oregon, and other descendants of Bradley and Alice Allen provided me with a great deal of information for this story. The Allen family settled in the Oak Crest and Mistletoe Springs area, which currently includes Laurel Square Apartments, Briarwood Lane and Fox Rest Apartments and is adjacent to the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad headquarters. Back then it was almost all farms. A map of the area from 1919 shows that a few streets in the present Oak Crest neighborhood off Route 1 were in place, such as Mulberry Street and Locust Grove Drive.

Bordered by Washington Boulevard (Route 1), Contee Road and old Laurel-Bowie Road (Route 197), the triangle of land that made up Oak Crest/Mistletoe Springs was split up the middle by the railroad tracks, just as it is today. The railroad tracks were a heavily used path to Laurel for residents of the farming community.

Bradley Allen's parents relocated to Laurel from Minnesota, and Bradley and Alice followed soon after. But tragedy struck when Bradley Allen's father was gored to death by a bull on the Laurel farm in 1905, requiring Allen to take over on his own. By then, the couple had four children, all boys, between the ages of 6 and 3. The youngest, Bradley Jr., was born in the Laurel train depot in 1902 as soon as Alice arrived from Minnesota.

Within the next few years, Allen branched out from the farm and started a brick business. He mined a clay bank from an area that is now Claxton Drive off Contee Road, and transported it to his brick factory off Muirkirk Road.

"He employed large numbers of men in the Laurel and Contee area," Baldwin said. "Businesses and homes were being built in large numbers using bricks, making them a much-needed item. Bradley's business was booming."

So was his family. The couple had five more children, all girls, by 1915, bringing the total to nine.

Smythe had been employed by Allen for years, working both at the farm and at the brick factory. According to the Washington Herald, "Smythe's reputation is that of an inoffensive, harmless little Cockney Englishman. He was employed for odd jobs through the vicinity. He was a gardener, farmer, furnace man and all-around handy man." Newspaper accounts portray Smythe as well-liked around Laurel.

Joseph Englehart had been another Allen employee. He lived in his sister's boardinghouse next door to the Allen farm, along with Smythe. His sister was Annie Sloates. Unlike his friend Smythe, Englehart was well-known to the Laurel community. According to the Washington Times, "Englehart was a staunch believer in the occult. He also labored under the delusion that his divorced wife, Mrs. J.L. Ray of Jessups, Md., had cast a 'spell' over him."

Allen had fired Englehart more than once for drinking on the job, but Englehart's brother, Charles, who managed the clay bank for Allen and was, by all newspaper accounts, the exact opposite of his brother, always convinced Allen to give him another chance. According to Baldwin, Alice Allen told her husband that she didn't want Englehart around their children at all.

The Times interviewed Charles Englehart, who recounted that Saturday morning, April 19. He and his brother boarded a train in Laurel and travelled to Baltimore, where Joseph Englehart "had a séance with a Baltimore medium" and drank whiskey all day. According to the Times, "So strangely did Englehart act on the train that his brother ventured to tell him that he believed his mind was unbalanced. 'Joe,' said the brother, 'I believe you are going insane.'"

When the Englehart brothers returned to Laurel on the 2 p.m. train, Joseph carried two quarts of whiskey and a revolver he bought in Baltimore.

"The hardest part was looking at her"

Allen and his sons walked about 200 yards on the path when Allen's son, William, 17, spotted something at the edge of the woods. It was Alice Allen's body, shot in the ear.

Allen left his three teenage sons to watch over the body of their mother while he went to get help in Laurel. Years later, Bradley Allen Jr. told his granddaughter, Kathy Baldwin, about that terrifying ordeal, saying "the hardest part was looking at her" so he covered the body with his coat "so they didn't have to look at her face."

Allen returned with Dr. Thomas Baldwin, Laurel's coroner, as well as a posse led by Laurel Chief of Police R. Lee Nichols. As described in The Washington Post, "All during the night a search was conducted by county officials and neighbors. About 5 o'clock Sunday morning they heard the report of a pistol in the dense woods, and after an investigation of four hours found Englehart lying on the top of a hill in a thicket of the woods in an unconscious condition with a bullet wound in his right temple." The Post surmised that Englehart had "sent a bullet crashing through his brain."

Englehart had been hiding all that time about 60 yards from Alice Allen's body, guarded by her sons. Bradley Allen Jr. told Baldwin that he "still got shivers" when he realizes how close Englehart was to him and his brothers all night. "I don't know why he didn't kill us," he said.

Englehart was taken to a Baltimore hospital, where he died several hours later without regaining consciousness. Exactly what happened will never be known, but Englehart was considered the main suspect as soon as Allen got help. As the Times put it, "Just what happened after Englehart returned to his home probably never will be unfolded as the lips of all his victims are sealed in death."

At daylight, investigators found evidence of a struggle where Alice Allen's body was found. They also found something odd — a photo of Englehart in Allen's apron pocket.

Word spread quickly through Laurel of the horror in Oak Crest. As described in the Baltimore Sun, "On foot, on motorcycles and by automobile hundreds of persons visited the scene of the dual killing in the Sloates' home and scores followed the path from the house … to the place in the woods where the body of Mrs. Allen was found and where the dying form of the alleged murderer was recovered."

Baldwin, the coroner, told the Times that "There is no doubt that Joe Englehart killed his sister, Mrs. Sloates, Mrs. Allen, and Smythe." But why? Not having any eyewitnesses to the shootings prompted the newspapers to speculate on Englehart's motive.

One theory simply blamed his drunkenness and mental illness. The Laurel Leader claimed that he "was crazed from heavy drinking shortly before committing the crimes." The Post speculated that "Englehart, in a drunken rage and without any known incentive, is thought to have shot and killed his intimate friend, Smythe, who had boarded with him for years, and then turned the weapon on his sister, who was fleeing from the house."

The other theory forwarded by some papers claimed that Englehart was in love with Alice. "Apparently obsessed by jealousy and rage," according to the Baltimore American, he "ran amuck and with a revolver slew his sister, a boarder, and Mrs. Alice Allen, with whom he seemed infatuated." The Sun claimed that "he ended his life after killing a woman with whom he was believed to have been in love."

There may be some truth to the second theory, since she had his photo in her pocket. The only way Englehart could have pressed that photo on her was if she was in the house before the shooting started. Maybe her rejection started the whole thing. Maybe Smythe tried to talk sense to him. Shooting Smythe and his sister first would have given Allen a chance to run, but Englehart caught up to her on the path and, after a struggle, shot her.

A family 'ruined'

When Josephn Englehart died, Baldwin quotes Allen as saying, "This man has ruined our family forever and cannot be forgiven." Allen's drinking became a problem and he eventually had to turn over the farm to two of his sons. Some of his nine children were sent away to be raised by relatives; others fled Laurel as soon as they were old enough. Eventually, some were reunited in Laurel, but the damage was done.

Among those who remained in Laurel, daughter Eva owned and operated the Vogue Dress Shop, first on Main Street and later in the Laurel Shopping Center. In the 1920s, another daughter, Julia, opened the first beauty shop in Laurel.

Perhaps Alice Allen is still trying to call for help. In 1983, Country magazine had an article about the ghosts that frequented the area around Oaklands Mansion, very near where the Allen farm was.

"Back in the woods to the east, a bloodcurdling scream arises regularly. About 60 years ago a neighbor … met her death in that dark woods at the hands of an unidentified murderer."

Richard Friend contributed to this story. Information was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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