The Woodhaven Beat: A Tale of Murder in Woodhaven, Part 1

By Ed Wendell

On a frigid night in February 1921, Professor Wilfred Phineas Kotkov got off the train at Boyd Avenue (88th Street) and cut across the empty lot at the corner of Benedict (87th Street) and Liberty to get to his home where he lived with his wife and two children.

Loitering beneath the station steps, four young men lay in wait with robbery and mayhem in their minds, waiting for someone who appeared prosperous enough to rob. When the professor crossed their path, they drifted behind and followed him across the dark, empty lot.

The young toughs attacked from behind and the 36-year-old professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan was no match for them. Blow after blow rained down on the fallen man’s head.

When they emptied his pockets, they found that Kotkov had just a few coins and had to settle for his horn-rimmed glasses, fountain pen and gold watch before fleeing.

When police arrived at the scene, they found Kotkov lying face down in the snow, a bloody iron bedpost at his side. He was rushed to Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica where he lay in a coma.

The four young men had been spotted fleeing the scene and witnesses pointed out 2 of them loitering nearby. Police quickly apprehended Peter Nunziata and Joseph Alfano of Brooklyn and dragged them to the precinct.

The two men quickly confessed and gave up the rest of their gang, Frank Cassesso of Brooklyn and Alphonso “The Turk” Verona of Woodhaven. When Professor Kotkov died, the assault and robbery charges were upgraded to murder.

There were immediate calls for swift justice; newspaper editorials called for the ultimate retribution – the electric chair. And the wheels of justice were indeed swift.

A headline in a February 1921 edition of The Leader-Observer breaks the news that Professor Wilfred Phineas Kotkov had died from injuries sustained in a brutal attack by four young men.

Within a week, indictments were handed down and by the first week of April, just over 5 weeks after the attack, the trial of Peter Nunziata began. The 17-year-old was the youngest of the four attackers and a cool customer in court, often seen yawning during testimony.

A witness told how she watched from her kitchen window as the young men chased Professor Kotkov down and beat him. The Professor’s widow told the jury about the dreams of a happy life that had been shattered; she fainted in court when shown her late husband’s glasses and fountain pen, which had been a gift from her on his last birthday.

Nunziata’s legal defense was a vigorous one. His lawyer, Edward Reilly (who would later defend Bruno Hauptmann), declared that it was Verona of Woodhaven who killed Dr. Kotkov. He also claimed that Verona induced his client to go out on this fatal errand by intoxicating him with liquor.

When it seemed that this argument was not persuading the jury, Reilly shifted gears and claimed that his client’s confession was beaten out of him by the police and that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Professor Wilfred Phineas Kotkov, 36-year-old professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, was on his way home to his wife and 2 children when he crossed paths with four young men with robbery and mayhem in their minds.

“The detectives bungled this case, jumped to conclusions and then presented their facts to the District Attorney,” Reilly said in his summation, “It is your duty to acquit this defendant.”

But this failed to persuade the jury as they deliberated for less than an hour before coming back with a verdict of guilty. Nunziata sat unmoved as the verdict was read and as the judge explained to the young man that he would soon face death in the electric chair.

The judge set the date of execution as June 5th, about 6 weeks away. The attack, the investigation, the indictment, the trial, the deliberation and the sentencing all took place within a 105-day window. The public demanded swift justice, and they received it.

Peter Nunziata was the youngest person ever sentenced to death in New York and he received the sentence without flinching. He was escorted out of the courtroom to a car waiting to drive him to death row in Sing Sing, where “Old Sparky” was waiting.

Next week we will find out what happened to Peter Nunziata and the other defendants in the trial of the murder of Professor Wilfred Kotkov of Woodhaven.

PS Some of you may have noticed that Professor Kotkov’s home and the site of the attack are in Ozone Park. But keep in mind that in those days, that was still considered Woodhaven.

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