Strange Times 73: "$265 Or You Die"

Today brings a single mad tale of loneliness, desperation, and New Jersey. Ease another shell into your shotgun for…

March 14, 1921

  • In Kansas, two representatives of the Nonpartisan League are kidnapped and forced to strip naked, slather themselves in tar, and roll in tall grass. 

  • In Lancashire, England, an all-women’s detective bureau is declared a great success.

  • Boston scientists announce the production of a “cowless milk” made from peanuts and oats.

  • Caruso’s condition continues to improve, say his physicians, who describe the progress of his disease as “satisfactory.”

  • The Weather: Unsettled today; rain tomorrow; fresh east winds.

This gripping narrative story about a bizarre outburst of violence in the backwoods of, uh, New Jersey is one of the best items to come across my desk in some time. I’ve spent all week daydreaming about how to adapt it into a play. As far as a title goes, I’m torn between “Suddenly Insane!” “$265 or You Die!” and “A Woman’s Nerve!” (All good plays have exclamation marks in the title.)

Thirty years ago Anthony M. Pecziulis, a Lithuanian, built himself a frame house in the No Man’s Land on the edge of the Kearny (N.J.) meadows. He then had been in this country ten years, leaving his wife behind him. When his handiwork was done Pecziulis found the dwelling too lonely for him and chose Andrew Verbitsky, a countryman who worked in a factory, to be his companion.

The household never altered. Pecziulis never sent for his wife. Verbitsky never married, and for half a lifetime the two lived in peace. The streets of Kearny gradually reached out toward the waste places and the one-story house became 234 Dover Terrace.

Verbitsky kept on working in factories, slowly accumulating a modest hoard of gold that one day was to take him back home that he might rest in his old age. 

Pecziulis never went into a factory. The printed cards he carried around announced him as carpenter and hunter. Mostly, he hunted. He began to shoot when a child’s rifle was taller than he. Rifle, pistol, shotgun were all one to him. He became a dead shot with anything that had a trigger. His carpenter’s tools fell into disuse and he subsisted by trapping muskrats and shooting wild birds.

Long before Pecziulis became, recently, 65 years old—just a year younger than his housemate—he had come to look much like all men of the open. Six feet four, gaunt, wiry, grizzled, with a weather-burnt, graying beard and wide-set, piercing eyes, he was an inoffensive man who got his way in a crowd. His neighbors found him slow and taciturn, law abiding and much given to minding his own business.

A few weeks ago, while they were dismantling Camp Merritt, Pecziulis decided he would like to extend his quarters. He picked out a wooden shack on the reservation and discovered that it would cost him $1,000 more than he possessed. He brooded a good deal about that.

A Tense Moment

Just before midnight Saturday night Pecziulis and Verbitsky sat chatting monosyllabically in that house where they had been at peace for thirty years. Pecziulis knocked out his pipe, wandered out of the kitchen, came back with catlike tread, shoved the muzzle of a shotgun at Verbitsky’s abdomen and said:

“You must give me a thousand dollars.”

Verbitsky took one glance at the set face, with one wildly lighted eye sighting steadily down the barrel, then shrank away, wriggled to the floor and raised his arms in supplication as he poured forth a plea for his life.

The barrel never wavered in the other man’s unshaking hands, except when now and then it shifted from one vital spot to another, and at last Verbitsky promised to produce every penny of his life’s savings if he might get up. Still covered over every inch of his way, Verbitsky ripped up a loose board in a corner of the room and counted out $735, which he stacked on the table.

Then he looked into the face he had known so long and that had changed so suddenly. Hope died as that unyielding glare confronted him, and once more the shotgun muzzle lifted toward his breast.

“Two hundred and sixty-five dollars or you die,” said Pecziulis.

The two were as alone as if they had been in some wilderness. There was no telephone, no neighbor within call. If only he could get to the outer darkness he might disappear in the unlighted waste and be safe.

“I loaned a man $500. I will get it for you if I may leave,” Verbitsky said. 

The other man wavered, then “Go,” he said.

Verbitsky opened the door, sprang down the stoop and was running for the gate when a glance behind just as he was blotted out in the darkness showed him the hunter silhouetted in the lighted doorway, the shotgun raised again.

“Take this that you may know I’ll kill you if you come not back,” said Pecziulis, and let drive into the shadows with both barrels.

Verbitsky was unscathed. He ran into town, but remembering the threat and the look of the man who made it, he did not go near the police. 

No one knows exactly what happened next. Perhaps Pecziulis heard a board creak, perhaps a dog barked. Early yesterday morning, neighbors, already made uneasy by the two unplaced shots, heard the roar of volley after volley from a shotgun, and saw flash after flash stab into the blackness from the stoop of the Lithuanians’ home.

Before they could telephone to police headquarters Motorcycle Patrolman William Patridge was bounding into the yard and up the pathway. The front door slammed in his face. The policeman demanded admission, and Pecziulis inquired the identity of his visitor.…

The poilceman crouched under the wooden door, holding his cap to the glass panel above and illuminating the metal device on it with his flash lamp.

“I believe,” said Pecziulis in that same wooden voice, and fired twice, shattering the glass and raining shot all about the policeman.

Policeman Summons Aid

Patridge leaped off the stoop. He wriggled through the yard, climbed the fence and telephoned headquarters to send fire engines and the riot squad. While he was gone Pecziulis volleyed again and again into the pitch blackness of the moonless night. He had retreated indoors once more by the time Patridge returned with Robert Patterson, another motorcycle man, and two other patrolmen who had run from nearby posts.

These two crept to the rear of the house, while Patridge and Patterson, their weapons drawn, manoeuvred vainly for a sight of their quarry form the front. Pecziulis must have been crouching on the floor, for they caught no glimpse of him until suddenly the front door was swung open and he was upon them, this time with a repeating shotgun, from which he pumped shell after shell at the two policemen.

Partridge sprawled on the scraggly lawn with some twenty-five shot buried in his head, face, neck and left arm, his body seared where other shots ripped through his clothing, and the badge over his heart pitted in a dozen places. Most of the shot that struck Patterson lodged under his right eye. He dropped near his companion.

All Kearny, alarmed by the staccato thunder, came tumbling out. Trailing the two fire engines that went rumbling through Devon Terrace was a crowd of men and boys, some half-clad, many armed with pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives.

The police ordered them back as the two engines deployed before the house, set their motors going and flooded the scene with their searchlights. Every man in the police department had been mobilized and the best shots on the force stalked from door to windows and back, as searchlights pierced the interior where Pecziulis had “doused” the lights. Each time they aimed they discovered that the object of their imminent fire was not a man and desisted. 

Arrived With Riot Guns

Chief Oliver Welter sent one of his men to a call box to summon ambulances to take Patridge an Patterson to the West Hudson Hospital. Then he ordered eight of the fifteen men he had armed with .48-calibre Winchester repeating riot guns to mount one engine and seven to take places on the other. One engine stayed in front of the house, the other was run around to the rear, where a hose was hooked up to the fire hydrant. The fifteen men knelt in the shelter of the apparatus; the remainder of the force, with drawn pistols, flung themselves prone at points of vantage and all held their fire by order of the chief, who feared the possibility of his divided force firing into each other.

Welter went into the front yard and demanded that Pecziulis surrender. He was answered with another burst of fire through the broken panel. While he was debating whether to rake the house with a cross-fire of bullets or to rush in an attacking party under cover of a stream from a fire house, Frank Witter, a nearby storekeeper, said he had known Pecziulis for twenty years and felt sure he could calm the man.

Walking boldly toward the door, Witter called out: 

“This is your friend, Witter; can I come in?”

The shotgun belched again and Witter fell, his chin, neck and arms pierced in a dozen places.

For a time after that things were at a standstill. The Chief wanted to take his man alive; he was reluctant to sacrifice any of his men, and the advisability of a long siege was under debate when Mrs. Mary Lulus, a neighbor, volunteered to repeat Witter’s attempt to quiet the Lithuanian. The men feared she would be killed and begged her not to try. She insisted.

Walking calmly into the yard, she called: “This is Mrs. Lulus. Will you shoot me if I come to you?”

“Come in,” said the even voice inside.

A Woman’s Nerve

With every policeman’s finger taut on the trigger, and the crowd watching breathlessly, Mrs. Lulus walked up on the path, mounted the stoop in the full glare of the fire engine’s searchlight, swung open the door and crossed the threshold. Three policemen had squirmed across the yard and stood huddled together on the edge of the stoop, out of view from within. As Mrs. Lulus entered they burst in after her and seized Pecziulis. He offered no resistance.

Two men had robbed him of $371 and his gold watch and he feared they were returning, he said, when they asked him to explain his little reign of terror. Long after they had lodged him in the Kearny police station, the police believed him, but at last they found Verbitsky and heard another story. Even then Verbitsky said it would mean death to him to file a complaint against his companion. So the police made the complaint on which a Recorder held Pecziulis in $500 bail on the charge of assault with intent to kill, and Verbitsky will only be a witness against him.

Pecziulis was taken to the county jail in Jersey City last night, and there doctors will examine him. 

A police party went to the isolated cottage yesterday afternoon. They found three or four $20 gold pieces scattered about the yard and will search today for more which they believe Pecziulis buried, perhaps in a dozen places, after Verbitsky left.

Inside the house they found a huge safe belonging to Pecziulis. It was crammed full of papers, all seemingly valueless. Hidden among them were two $1 bills.

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