Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Old Priest

Our Lady of Victory Church

After Father Albinger died, the housekeeper discovered the will and the key in a creaky old desk in the rectory attic.  The city fathers scratched their heads at what was revealed.  If the old priest had accumulated so much property and money, why did he dress in threadbare garments and beg for food?

And how had Father Albinger, who presided for 25 years over a Roman Catholic Church in an undistinguished suburb of New York City, come to possess so many worldly goods?   

The mysterious priest departed from this earth on April 21, 1898, the first day of the Spanish-American War.  He died in Germany, from whence he had emigrated to the U.S. during the 1850s.  

After the housekeeper found the will, one of several documents tied up with a faded ribbon, she walked carefully down two flights of stairs in the dusty house, holding tightly to the banister.  She showed the will to a member of the parish, who told everyone in town, and almost instantaneously the County Treasurer came to call.  His name was T. Ellwood Carpenter and, having founded his own bank just a few years earlier, he knew all about assets.

 Home of T. Ellwood Carpenter, who investigated
Father Albinger's bequest

According to Carpenter, who opened the deposit boxes, Albinger left 25 purses, each containing 1,000 marks, and $10,000 in securities.  Carpenter also discovered that the priest owned several houses in New York and New Jersey.  He estimated that the estate was worth well over $100,000. 

Equally surprising, Albinger named one of his former altar boys as the sole legatee and executor.  However, no one in town could recall this person, Nicholas Lauer.

Nicholas grew up in far northern New York State, near Lake Ontario.  He was the son of a grocer whose family, like Albinger’s, emigrated from Prussia.  It is likely that the boy worked with Father Albinger at the time of the Civil War when the priest was in his mid-20s.  German communities flourished upstate and Father Albinger had the good fortune to serve as a pastor there before he hit the bigtime down near New York City.    

Now three decades later, here came the will.  Father Albinger’s sisters, who lived in Germany, refused to accept it.  In 1900 they contested the will in the county’s Surrogate’s Court. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the law still regarded expert witnesses with skepticism. Judge Silkman, who presided over the Albinger case, acknowledged that he was dubious about expert testimony.  Nonetheless, he would base his opinion on the reports of two men well-known in the field of handwriting and ink analysis.

David Nunes Carvhalo,
handwriting expert
William J. Kinsley and David Nunes Carvalho were contemporaries and competitors.  Kinsley made his reputation in financial fraud.  Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, played an important part in the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal fraught with virulent anti-Semitism, which roiled France between 1894 and 1906.  Working long-distance from the U.S., David proved the forgery of a document, purportedly written by Captain Dreyfus, which was used as evidence to convict him.  

The Albinger matter also came down to forgery.  The priest’s signature didn’t match writing samples and there were suspicious erasures over the signatures of the witnesses, who happened to be Nicholas Lauer’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. 
  
It also puzzled the judge that the will, executed in 1897 in a restaurant at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village, occupied the lower half of a sheet of paper, the top having been sheared off.   

St. Denis Hotel, New York City, around 1890

Both Kinsley and Carvalho declared the Albinger will to be a forgery and Judge Silkman refused to probate it. 

A few years passed.  Then suddenly, lo and behold!  A second will by Father Albinger appeared in the basement of the dead priest’s former church.  This will, which was accepted and probated, divided the estate among the priest’s sisters, two parishioners, a sexton, the church – and Nicholas Lauer.

“Lauer is said to be the only man whom Father Albinger ever received in friendship,” a reporter wrote in a New York Times story.

On one hand, there is the dimly lit attic, its small windows looking down to the busy street.  On the other hand, there is the musty basement with dark corners and a cold stone floor.

And in the space between them, plenty of secrets.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, talk about unearthing a novel. I, for one, think there was a thing between Albinger and young Mr. Lauer. There is so much hidden gay history. This strikes me as a very likely explanation for such largesse. (Though the accumulation of it in the first place seems rather a mystery. Embezzlement from the passed basket every Sunday?)

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