Here’s how Harry Hayward tells the story of the best night of his life.
During the 1880s he lived in New Orleans, a fine place for a rootless cad to indulge his taste in gambling, women, and drink.
Hayward went to a ball and met a pretty young woman. The two got along famously. About an hour into the night, he spotted an even prettier woman and introduced himself. Around midnight he found a third. There came a fourth, and then a fifth, whom he finally claimed as his prize.
“I was very fickle at that time, as I am, and continue to be,” he later confessed.
Hayward’s tale highlights his charm, his nighttime stamina, his womanizing, his narcissism. Most telling of all: He makes no mention of what he said to the women he cast aside, or what became of them. In Harry Hayward’s mind, his was the only story worth telling.
It is told anew in The Infamous Harry Hayward, a disturbing history by Wisconsin-Madison professor Shawn Francis Peters, which the University of Minnesota press will publish in April.
The privileged son of a Twin Cities real estate mogul, Hayward bounced around the country and put his father’s fortune to shallow ends. A card player, he liked to start his night with at least $1,000 ($25,000 in today’s dollars) in his pocket, and would often double it or lose it all by sunrise.
By the 1890s, he was living in a downtown Minneapolis building owned by his father, and at night sought thrills in the shadows of a booming city. The burgeoning milling and shipping hub had tripled in population over the previous decade, to 165,000.
It was in this building he met Claus Blixt, a thrice-married second-generation Swede who made a meager living minding the furnace. The building also housed Catherine “Kittie” Ging, a pretty young dressmaker.
Hayward loaned Ging $10,000 in counterfeit money, convinced her he was in love, and told her to take out two life insurance policies with Hayward as beneficiary. Then Hayward hired Blixt to kill her. He threatened to turn in the triggerman for an earlier arson (also Hayward’s idea) or have Blixt’s wife killed if he didn’t go through with it.
On a December night in 1894, Hayward gave Blixt some whiskey and a gun, instructing him to pick up Ging in a horse-drawn buggy. Hayward told Ging he would rendezvous with her near Lake Calhoun for a carriage ride after Blixt dropped her off.
As skaters scratched circles on the lake, Blixt put the revolver behind her ear and fired. He dropped her in the street and sped away.
Hayward returned to his building that night to find it crawling with cops. He volunteered that police would probably suspect him, given his social and financial involvement. Instead, he floated ideas about others who might want her dead.
But Hayward’s reputation as a scoundrel preceded him, and no less than the mayor of Minneapolis, William Eustis, summoned him to his office for an interrogation. Eustis agreed that Hayward’s alibi—he’d been seen by dozens of people at the theater that night—was perfect. Too perfect. But he had no evidence.
Then a letter arrived at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. A local attorney wrote that prior to Ging’s death, Adry Hayward, older brother to Harry, came to his office “very greatly excited.” Harry was going to get Claus Blixt to kill the woman to collect her insurance, Adry told the lawyer, asking if he could somehow stop it.
Both Blixt and Hayward’s brother testified in a sensational trial. On the stand, Harry tried to pin the whole scheme on his upstanding brother. Jurors weren’t buying. Harry was sentenced to hang, while Blixt received a life sentence.
Using trial testimony, secondhand accounts, and Hayward’s own confession, Peters’ book shades in the crime’s background. It grows darker still.
Harry Hayward viewed people as objects to be bent to his will, and plotted to kill or have killed “dozens” of people. This included his father, his brother, a newsman whose paper covered Hayward’s trial, and countless “unpleasant women” he’d encountered.
He’d found murder beneficial on three occasions. Once, he lured a young woman to the Sierra Madre Mountains, ostensibly for an engagement, only to shoot her and take her life savings. He shot a New Jersey gambler to steal the man’s $2,000 winnings, and he beat a Chinese immigrant to death for no obvious reason one night in New York City.
He coldly told of the end of Kittie Ging, how he’d “impressed [Blixt] until he thought I was the Omnipotent,” and that he’d wanted Ging snuffed out for reasons of “hatred and the insurance.”
Newspapers dismissed Hayward’s confession to other murders as the fanciful ramblings of a con man. To this day, no one can explain the con. What did a condemned man stand to gain by inventing new victims?
Hayward’s plots continued behind bars. He acted out a false conversion to a visiting Catholic priest. He plotted the murder of Adry, hoping to make it look like the suicide of a guilty man. From death row, he filed for the insurance claims on Kittie Ging’s life. (Both companies denied him.)
Medical and legal experts of the era marveled. What drove a man to act like this? Hayward “loved darkness more than light” and was “to all appearances, a man without a soul,” said Hennepin County prosecutor Frank Nye.
Hayward once compared himself to Mephistopheles, the devil’s agent on earth, who convinces Faust to receive magical powers in exchange for his soul. Hayward would have made that deal in an instant. It’s easy to undervalue the soul if you don’t have one.
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