Waiting FOR A SIGN

The murder of a Fleet Street medium was sensational news in 1949. It remains a fascinating story a half-century later, but though many fellow spiritualists have tried, the victim still cannot be reached for comment

August 07, 1999|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

The Fleet Street spiritualist today remains as silent as the grave -- 50 years after she was strangled in one of the most bizarre murders of the century in Baltimore.

Her colleagues in spiritualism certainly expected her to speak up soon after she had shaken off the initial trauma of her murder. The transition takes a period of adjustment, they agreed. Fifteen to 30 days, they suggested. But Emma A. Kefalos has not yet named her killer and the case remains unsolved. Apparently, it's not from lack of trying.

"It takes a great deal of strength to get through from another world," Barbara Burns, a medium in whom Kefalos confided, told an Evening Sun reporter named Margaret Dempsey. (Dempsey, also known as Margaret McManus, became a writer and author of children's books. Her husband is sports announcer Jim McKay.)

"And Mrs. Kefalos was not a strong woman," said Burns, a member of the United Saints of America who had a doctorate awarded by a college of metaphysics.

Sister Grace P. Bauer, of the United Bible Spiritual Temple, agreed: "She isn't settled in spirit yet. It will take a little time."

Emma Kefalos was found dead in her rose-tinted, incense-scented Fleet Street apartment on Aug. 8, 1949. She had been trussed up hand and foot with seven feet of sash cord, beaten badly and strangled with the cord from an electric waffle iron.

A green "spirit" candle burned in the room. Potions, powders, philters and elixirs filled a closet in the small apartment, which was over a lunchroom where Fleet Street meets Boston Street. The building is still there. Her crystal ball was overturned nearby, unclouded by her death. Her cat, Mary, sat silently by her body.

"It was the full of the moon," neighbors said. They wondered if the cat had witnessed the murder.

Actually Kefalos was found dead at 5: 30 p.m. on a hot, muggy, Baltimore summer day by the man who ran the lunchroom downstairs. He had come up to pay his rent. Kefalos owned the building. She and her late husband, Gus, once ran the restaurant. That was before she found her psychic powers.

A half-dozen suspects

Police searching the apartment found $2,000 in cash and savings stamps, several valuable rings, and what was immediately dubbed a "voodoo death bottle," the paper-doll image of a man suspended head down in a small bottle. A man's name was written on the paper doll three times, backwards.

"She had a lot of trouble with her men friends," said the doctor of spiritualism Barbara Burns.

The spiritualist community split on whether the figure was meant to charm the man into falling in love or to cause his death. No matter, the man -- a Greek restaurant owner -- became an instant suspect. But he was immediately cleared. Ultimately police would question and reject a half-dozen suspects.

"Dozens of people engaged in communication with the dead" were reportedly rounded up and questioned at the Central and Eastern police districts in an effort to reconstruct the woman's life among the "mystic affairs of spiritualists."

Foreshadowings of harm plagued Kefalos, they said. The local grocer recalled that she told him that a burning image and a skull and cross bones had been left on her steps.

A spiritualist friend said Kefalos found the portent particularly distressing when "a black candle used in a seance was mysteriously snuffed out."

Detectives vowed to attend the numerous seances of the surprisingly lively -- if that is the word -- Baltimore spiritualist community as they "attempted to make contact with Mrs. Kefalos in the spirit world and learn from her the identity of her slayer."

The Kefalos murder became an instant media sensation. In those days of 10-inch television screens and 10-Star Finals that meant the Fleet Street spiritualist was a great newspaper story. In 1949, Baltimore had three very competitive papers -- The Sun, The Evening Sun and The News-Post -- and they ran yards of copy. The story was a cross between film noir and "The Front Page."

"It was a helluva mystery," says William F. Zorzi, a retired newsman. Then a News-Post reporter, he was pulled off the City Hall beat to cover the Fleet Street medium murder.

"There were a helluva lot of reporters on it, I'll tell you that," he says. "It was a great time."

Zorzi remembers finding $500 and the "voodoo hex bottle."

A truly remarkable group of reporters covered various aspects of the story over the years. Along with Dempsey and Zorzi, they've included Burke Davis, who walked into the Kefalos apartment behind the police and then came back to The Evening Sun to write a vivid and powerful story that still sounds fresh today.

Now 86, Davis has written 47 books, many dealing with Civil War history and biography, since leaving The Evening Sun in the 1950s. At least a dozen are in print. He tracked Kefalos' movements on the day of her murder virtually step by step.

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