Strolling under the sprawling catalpas and dense sycamore maples in Crocheron Park in Bayside, one might easily imagine oneself stepping back into an earlier and more innocent century. There are no markers to announce that 100 years ago — on Aug. 15, 1908, to be precise — the coast of Little Neck Bay witnessed one of the most brazen murders in New York’s history, and one that would have unexpectedly broad implications.
Murder at the Regatta
The brothers behind the crime were sons of Gen. Peter Conover Hains, the engineer whose achievements included draining the Tidal Basin in Washington. Peter Hains Jr., a 36-year-old captain stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, traveled the New York social circuit as one of the most handsome and promising young officers in the United States Army. His rakish and hard-living brother, Thornton Jenkins Hains, was a successful novelist of sea adventures, a contributor to Harper’s Magazine, and the self-styled heir to Conrad and Melville.
...the captain did what any self-respecting, red-blooded American husband of 1908 would have done when confronted with an unfaithful spouse: He and his brother took a taxi out to the lover’s yacht club in Bayside on the afternoon of its celebrated regatta and waved off the hundreds of society couples decked out in their summer finery. With Thornton standing guard, Peter Hains gunned down Annis as the editor climbed out of his sloop. Once Hains was certain that Annis was dead — eight shots point-blank did the trick — he sat on a bench and waited calmly for the police to arrive.
When the case came to trial in December 1909, in the Flushing Courthouse, the brothers’ defense rested on two unconventional psychiatric diagnoses. The first was “Dementia Americana” — also known as “the unwritten law” — said to derange American husbands just long enough for them to take revenge upon their wives’ lovers.
Despite the fact that this defense had no grounding in the penal code, Captain Hains believed he was on safe ground. Meanwhile, his brother, Thornton, offered an even more novel diagnosis — “dual insanity,” or folie à deux, in which one man’s temporary derangement becomes momentarily contagious.
An array of psychiatrists were paraded past jurors during months of testimony, each challenging the others’ qualifications. Finally, jurors convicted Captain Hains, despite his “Dementia Americana” claim, while acquitting Thornton for having suffered the madness vicariously.