What exactly happened to Maxwell C. Byers, president of the Western Maryland Railway, who was gunned down in a spectacular noontime murder on Sept. 23, 1930, in his fifth-floor office in the Standard Oil Building on St. Paul Place? His murder, nearly eight decades later, still haunts his family.
"It's unbelievable. It's like his entire family was placed under a gag order," said a grandson, Dr. Robert Maxwell Byers, 72, a retired Houston surgeon, who is determined to get to the bottom of the case.
"We begged my father, who was 23 and a medical student at the time, and who later became a public health officer for Cecil County, and his four brothers for years to tell us what they knew. None of them would ever talk about it," Byers said.
His grandmother, Janet M. Byers, who had married Maxwell Byers when he was an up-and-coming railroad executive in 1906, was equally closelipped.
In her autobiography, her grandson said, she refers to the killing only as her "great sorrow."
"There is nothing more than that," said Byers, who was raised in Catonsville, Hyattsville and Elkton, where he graduated from high school in 1955. He earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland.
Byers was one of the nation's youngest railroad executives when he came to Baltimore to head the Western Maryland in 1918.
On an Indian summer afternoon, Patrolman Walter P. Kohler, who was standing at the corner of Calvert and Franklin streets, heard shots coming from the open windows of the Standard Oil Building.
Racing into the lobby and past stunned office workers, the police officer finally reached Byers' office. He had to break open the locked office door.
Inside, lying on his back near the door with his hands over his head, was the dead railroad president.
About 10 feet away, and barely clinging to life, was Dudley G. Gray, 61, the railroad's vice president of traffic, with two .32-caliber pistols lying at his side, according to newspaper accounts.
Actually, according to the grandson, the second pistol wasn't discovered on Gray's body until he was taken to the hospital.
Charles Belt, another railroad executive, raced to Gray's side and asked what had happened. In a barely audible voice, he replied: "It's obvious, isn't it?"
Shot twice in the left chest, Gray was semiconscious when wheeled into nearby Mercy Hospital. A priest gave him last rites.
So grave was his condition that "hospital surgeons could not remove his clothes to probe for the bullets in his chest," reported The Evening Sun. Gray died five hours later.
What exactly transpired in Byers' office between the two men, who had known each other since working together earlier on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad? The newspaper headlines reflect the mystery:
"MOTIVE REMAINS HIDDEN AS GRAY DIES WITHOUT THROWING LIGHT ON ACT. Two Had No Serious Differences, Despite Disputes Over Railway Policies, Say Executives - No Witnesses to Tragedy" reported The Sun.
Otto Reinhardt, who was acting coroner of the Central Police District, said he was unable to learn a motive for the slaying.
In interviews with reporters, he said he thought Gray was unbalanced mentally and "what brought that condition about is something else and will remain a mystery. ... I have given my verdict that Mr. Gray murdered Mr. Byers and then committed suicide."
After her husband's death, his widow moved from their home at 606 Frederick Road in Catonsville, to 3 Fairfield Drive, also in Catonsville, where she lived with two of her unmarried sons until her death in 1968.
Last December, Richard M. Byers, the sole surviving son of Maxwell and Janet Byers who had lived in the Fairfield Drive home, died - and suddenly, a family secret that had lain dormant for 78 years took a curious turn.
Katherine M. Campbell, a granddaughter who lives in North East, was in the attic of her uncle's home examining his effects when she pulled a book off a shelf.
"Behind it was a .38-caliber, five-shot Smith & Wesson revolver with a nickel finish in a clip-on holster that would have gone on a belt," Byers said. "The most interesting thing was that it had been deliberately disabled so it couldn't function. You couldn't pull the trigger or revolve the chamber, yet whoever disabled the gun didn't leave a mark on it."
Byers is almost certain the gun was his grandfather's. It was known that he carried a pistol for protection in the wake of the labor strikes that swept the Western Maryland and other railroads in the 1920s.
"Maxwell always walked in the railroad yards on Sundays and told his sons not to worry when they accompanied him because he had a pistol and could defend himself," Byers said.
"We think it was his and was at the murder scene. We know that Mr. Belt picked up a gun at the murder scene and put it back in Maxwell's desk. Was this the gun?" Byers asked.