The confession followed an all-night grilling. Justice in America 1921

Note: This story was deeply disturbing for me to write. Not only because of the seeming failures of the Justice Department but because I am afraid the United States Navy participated in a horrendous miscarriage of justice in the persecution of one of its sailors. I encourage you to look at the story and see it for what it represented about race, justice and the Navy in 1921. 

The confession followed an all-night grilling.

Today’s entry into the history vault revealed a savage and brutal killing of a much loved nurse that worked at the naval Academy Hospital. The story has its beginning on January 14, 1921. Harriet M. Kavanaugh was a pretty Irish girl who had immigrated to America and volunteered to serve as a nurse. She met an untimely death as a result of a blunt force trauma to her head under mysterious circumstances. She was unconscious after the attack and died the next day at the very hospital she was working at.

Initial reports indicated a well-known Caucasian suspect with a history of drinking and temper filled eruptions. He had been seen by several eye witnesses and was under investigation by the authorities.

Later, the police narrowed the suspects down to two men. One was an employee at the Academy and the other was a Negro Deserter who was later apprehended by Baltimore police and questioned. The method of his questioning included giving him the “third degree”. But the truth as it unravels also shows a horrendous failing of the Navy and Justice Department in a rush to close the case.

Henry Brown was arrested on January 16th, the day after Nurse Kavanaugh passed away.


Colored Deserter From Navy Arrested in Annapolis Crime.
Baltimore, Jan. I8.—
United States Naval Academy authorities have caused the arrest in this city of Henry A. Brown, colored, a deserter from the navy, In connection with the murder Friday night of Miss Harriet Kavanaugh, a nurse at the Navy Hospital, Annapolis.
Brown has been absent without leave from the training ship Cumberland at Annapolis for thirty days.
He admits having been a patient at the Academy hospital nearly a year ago, but denies he ever saw Miss Kavanaugh. Government agents allege that Brown was seen skulking near the scene of the murder a short time before the crime. The prisoner maintains he had not been out of Baltimore for nearly a month. When arrested he was still attired in a navy uniform. He was a mess attendant.

The Cambridge Maryland Daily Banner, January 18, 1921

Deserter Admits Killing Woman With Motive of Robbery.

ANNAPOLIS. Jan. 19, 1921

Henry A. Brown, Negro navy deserter, confessed today that he murdered Miss
Harriet M. Kavanaugh. Naval Academy Hospital nurse, whose battered body was discovered In the Academy grounds late Friday night. Robbery was the sole motive, he said and he had attempted no other.

The confession followed an all-night grilling. Brown was arrested in Baltimore Sunday night on a technical charge of desertion. He had been absent from the Academy where he had been employed as a mess attendant, since December 12. He had all but convinced the authorities that he had not been in Annapolis on the night of the murder. But yesterday his alibi was broken down, and the investigators became convinced he was guilty.

Negro Breaks Down.

Questioned throughout the night and all morning, the Negro broke down at 1 o’clock this afternoon and told the complete story. Afterwards, when the confession had been put in writing, he signed it in the presence of his counsel.
Brown’s statement was that he had followed Miss Kavanaugh through the northern, or Oklahoma, gate of the Academy, and got ahead of her by cutting across the parade grounds. On the way, he stated he picked up a piece of pipe from under the grandstand and crossed the bridge ahead of the nurse. Getting behind a big tree, he waited for her to approach and then struck her on the head. Brown said that he struck her a second time, as he feared she had recognized him.

Grabs Handbag.

Brown said he took the nurses handbag and opened it as he ran finding a purse and a silver pencil. Crossing the Academy Bridge and then skirting the seawall, he escaped by getting around the end of the Academy wall, and from that point to the County Bridge. On his way. Brown said, he became panic stricken and threw the purse and pencil away, together with the $8.00 he had taken from the nurse. He stayed in Annapolis all Saturday, and left for Baltimore early Saturday morning.

Brown is 19 years old, about five feet and nine inches in height, and slender in build. He is from Texas. He had a very bad record in the service. He will probably be tried in the United States District Court of Baltimore.

This is where the story gets really interesting.

The Navy had Brown in custody and returned him to the brig.

While there, he was subjected to what amounts to torture at the hands of his fellow sailors.

All under the watchful eyes of the Navy and Justice Departments. The goal was to get him to confess.

January 22 Near Mutiny at Academy

Washington Times newspaper

Methods Used by Stool-Pigeons Against Brown Arouse Training Ship Sailors.
ANNAPOLIS, Md., Jan. 22.-

Bitter feeling against Harry Green, colored ship’s barber because of his part in the “third degree” given Henry A. Brown, negro deserter and confessed slayer of Harriet M. Kavanaugh, Naval Academy Hospital, nearly precipitated a mutiny aboard the USS Cumberland, training ship for mess attendants and stewards yesterday morning.

Used as a Stool Pigeon
Green, an alleged “stool-pigeon” for agents of the Department of Justice who were sent here to unravel the murder, which was a mystery for four days, had been placed in a cell with Brown in the brig on board the U.S.S. Cumberland on Tuesday having been told that he was under arrest for failure to arrest Brown as a “deserter from the navy.” Green was told that Brown was responsible for his arrest and that “it was up to him to make Brown explain what he was doing In Annapolis on Friday night at the hour Miss Kavanaugh was slain.”

When Green was placed in the cell with Brown he accused the latter of having got him “Into trouble” and is alleged to have unmercifully beaten and maltreated the suspect for the benefit of the Department of Justice agents, who had rigged up a dictograph to overhear just what transpired between the two negroes in the “brig” cell. Two other negroes followed Green, each questioning Brown as to his movements on Friday night.


That Green maltreated Brown was admitted by agents of the Department of Justice, who declared after Brown confessed that “we left him practically on the verge of making a confession when the Baltimore detectives took charge of him.”

Detective Sergts. Peter B. Bradley and Harry M. Hammersla of Baltimore, obtained the confession from Brown after he had been subjected to the “third degree” by the Federal agents.

Learning that Green had been practically responsible for the confession made by Brown that he had slain Miss Kavanaugh, other negro mess attendants aboard the U. S. S. Cumberland, made open threats of violence against the negro barber.

Others of the crew, however, were bitter toward Brown, declaring that his crime had put all members of the crew under suspicion for more than four days-until Wednesday – when he confessed killing Miss Kavanaugh.

The disorder, which threatened to assume the proportions of a mutiny, was checked by Lieut. R. R. Smith, executive officer of the ship, who had Brown spirited from aboard the training ship Reina Mercedes to Baltimore in an ambulance. Lieutenant Smith gave warning to the friends of Brown who had threatened Green, and he declared today that with Brown out of Annapolis he felt the disturbance would be at an end.


The Navy Department, it was learned, had feared some overt act against Brown by some of the offended enlisted men aboard the vessel and ordered Lieut. Smith to remove the negro to the Baltimore city jail.

When reaching Baltimore, Brown was placed in the custody of United States Marshal W. W. Stockham and later he was arraigned before Commissioner J. Frank Supplee. Jr., who held him for the action of the Federal grand jury which will convene this afternoon.

Commissioner Supplee denied the request of A. C. Jenkins, head of the Baltimore bureau of the Department of Justice, to permit the negro to plead guilty to the killing of the Naval Academy Hospital nurse. The commissioner declared that Brown had right to advice of counsel as to how he would plead.  Brown probably will be tried the latter part of next week in the United States court In Baltimore, with Judge Rose presiding.

By March 28, the lack of evidence and the conflicting facts were put aside. The trial began based solely on the coerced confession


(By the Associated Press.)

BALTIMORE. MD Mar. 28—Henry A. Brown, a negro deserter from the Navy, was placed on trial before Judge Rose and a jury in the United States Court here today for the murder of Miss Harriet Kavanaugh, a nurse at the Naval Academy Annapolis, on January 14.

Miss Kavanaugh was beaten to death with a piece of iron pipe within 100 yards of the hospital. Brown confessed according to the police, assigning robbery as the motive for the crime. Later he repudiated his confession.

The trial only took five days.


Judge Rose in United States District Court at Baltimore Pronounces Sentence upon Former Mess Attendant Who Slew Miss Harriet M. Kavanaugh

Unless a higher tribunal steps in there will take place in Baltimore on .June 2 the first hanging in Federal jurisdiction within the recollection of Judge Rose and other officials of the United States District Court. Late yesterday Judge Rose sentenced Henry A. Brown, Negro sailor, to death for the murder on January 14 last of Miss Harriet M Kavanaugh. Naval Academy Hospital nurse, on the grounds of the naval academy here.

The sentence was passed following the overruling of a motion for a new trial, which was argued by Attorney August W Schnepfe, counsel for Brown, and Assistant District Attorney George K. Kieffner for the government. As he stood a few minutes later, with hand upraised, to hear his fate, the negro declined to make any statement when given the opportunity.

Judge Rose declared that he had been tried fairly and by counsel who had done everything in his behalf that any lawyer or group of lawyers could have done.

Court Passes Sentence

The unfortunate fact seems to be proved that you are a person whose desires and impulses are so uncontrolled that when you needed some money you thought you could get It by killing someone, said the court. When he pronounced the fatal words which meant hanging by the neck until dead. Judge Rose concluded:

 “And may God in His infinite mercy extend it to your soul.”

Brown was led from the courtroom and afterwards was taken to the city jail handcuffed to Assistant United States Marshal Frank Matthews. The execution will take place in the Baltimore city jail under the supervision of United-States Marshall William H. Stockham.

The last murder trial In the United States Court before that of Brown was in 1903 and the penalty of life Imprisonment was imposed upon recommendation of the jury which rendered the verdict. There was no such recommendation in the Brown case and Judge Rose had no alternative, although he did not want it understood that he would have acted otherwise than the jury.

Expects to appeal case

In 1889 what was known as the Navassa Islands murder cases were tried in the Federal Court in Baltimore. There were two or more convictions of murder in the first degree, but it was said yesterday that the death sentences were later commuted.

Attorney Schnepfe said he expected to take Brown’s case to the United States Court of Appeals, directing his efforts against the admission into evidence of thee confessions said to have been made by Brown.

Brown, a deserter from the Navy was in need of money to get to Baltimore, according to the testimony, and lay in waiting on the naval cemetery grounds for somebody whom he might rob. The nurse appeared along the walk and was struck down with a piece of iron pipe. She had been at the Naval Academy about three years and claimed Buffalo, NY as her home.

Evening capital and Maryland gazette. April 02, 1921


The scheduled June execution was delayed while the case was appealed. Unsuccessfully.

Brown, Henry, black, male, Navy deserter, robbery-murder

Death by Hanging September 1, 1921     Maryland        

There were 139 executions by hanging or electrocution nationwide in 1921.

76 of those were men of color.

A judge and jury in 1921 decided that Henry A. Brown was guilty and sentenced him to death. As far as I know, none of them are still alive today to have a conversation.

But after researching this story, I have more questions than I have answers.

The chilling words seem to match many “confessions” of the time. He broke under pressure.


2 thoughts on “The confession followed an all-night grilling. Justice in America 1921

  1. It was a different time. That is not to excuse the behavior of the Navy, but it was a time that we didn’t live in. I am damn glad those times have passed.

  2. Inexcusable for any time period. Unfortunately, as children of Adam, we all have a bent toward such and it will only be when the King reigns in Jerusalem that such will end forever. Maranatha!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s