Secret 'no one was supposed to know' Murder: A woman curious about her long- dead grandmother made a stunning discovery -- the young mother was slain, perhaps by a jealous beau.

March 01, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Carolyn Murphy began a simple quest to find out what happened to her grandmother.

In doing so, she uncovered a deep family secret that has startled her father in Mississippi and torn open a tumultuous past -- which includes a 7-decade-old murder in the heart of Baltimore's Highlandtown.

Murphy had no idea her grandmother, Marie Mason, had been shot in the head at age 25 until two months ago, when she obtained a long-lost 1921 certificate that listed the death as a homicide.

Her 79-year-old father, Lawrence Mason Jr., who was 3 years old when his mother died, didn't know either. All he remembers of his early childhood is being raised by relatives and running away from a Towson orphanage when he was 14.

Now living a comfortable life in Biloxi with his wife of 55 years, the still-active watchmaker wants to forget Baltimore. While his daughter wants to learn more of her heritage, he most definitely does not.

"I wasn't supposed to know," said Mason, an intensely private man for whom any blemish on the family name is heartbreaking. "I wish I wouldn't have found out at all."

But for Murphy, the case has only raised more questions. In December, she flew to Baltimore from her Florida home and visited the murder site -- a long-defunct Highlandtown train station -- and laid silk orchids on her grandmother's unmarked grave at Oak Lawn Cemetery on Eastern Avenue.

'Peace of mind'

She has no regrets about her discovery, which is not only the murder but disturbing details of her grandmother's life.

"It has given me peace of mind," said Murphy. "I'm the type of person who likes to close the loop. Ever since I was little, I had asked my father what happened to his mom."

Murphy wants to know what happened to the suspect, Frank Settimio, who was 28 when a grand jury indicted him on murder charges days after the shooting July 29, 1921. He was never caught and, if still alive, would be 104 years old.

Learning her grandmother's death was a homicide, Murphy called Baltimore police. Former homicide Detective Donald Worden, now a department consultant, located a possible relative of the suspect, a retired insurance agent in Anne Arundel County. But Peter Settimio, 68, who was born in Highlandtown, said he has never heard of a Frank Settimio.

"It's quite possible he is a relative," Settimio said, adding that he has been unsuccessful in locating any family members. "This is unreal."

Worden said they believe the suspect is dead and have closed a case they didn't know existed until Murphy called.

Rumors that Marie Mason died a suspicious death persisted for decades within the close ranks of the Mason family, most of whom never left Mississippi. The few who knew the truth apparently took the secret to their graves.

"I was always asking my daddy when growing up, 'Tell me about your momma,' " recalled Murphy, who lives in Niceville, Fla. "He didn't even know what she looked like."

Few details to go on

Finding information wasn't easy. Relying on her father's memory -- he recalled that his mother's name was Marie and that he grew up in Baltimore -- she obtained the death certificate, which took the state archives several months to find.

Details of what happened are sketchy. Detectives found the indictment and Sun clippings about the case. The one-page indictment is more legalese than informative, and the short newspaper articles delve little into the troubled characters involved.

What is clear is that Marie Mason and her husband, Lawrence W. Mason Sr., had problems. They argued over their three children; she once was charged with giving her husband "a thrashing" -- as court documents described it -- on East Baltimore Street.

Another time, Lawrence, described as a slight man, had Marie, described as a large woman, arrested on Calvert and Fayette streets after she threatened to beat him. She was fined $1.

In early 1921, Lawrence -- who lived on South Seventh Street, now Grundy Street -- filed for divorce and was awarded custody of Lawrence Jr. and one of his siblings. Marie moved to a house on Frederick Avenue, and was seen repeatedly meeting Frank Settimio at the railroad station.

Frank, who used several aliases, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a track-walker and had patrolled the section from Colgate to Orangeville for 14 years. He carried a holstered pistol for protection. The train, powered by a steam locomotive, carried passengers the 11 miles between Sparrows Point and Penn Station.

A neighbor told police Frank threatened to kill Marie several times. She told The Sun that Frank complained that Marie took "all the money he had, and when he was penniless, she left him for another man."

The two were seen talking behind the platform -- near Lombard and Haven streets -- the night of the slaying. Witnesses told police they heard one pistol shot and saw a man run down the tracks and disappear into the darkness.

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