The Strange Death of David Moskowitz: Murder or Autoerotic Asphyxiation?

On March 31, 1953, the body of a young newspaper photographer named David Moskowitz was discovered inside the bedroom of his Sunbury apartment. He was found with his hands and feet tied behind his back and dressed in women's clothes. A bottle of chloroform was found near the body. Whether his demise was the result of an incomprehensible murder or an impossibly bizarre suicide, the death of 22-year-old David Moskowitz remains one of Northumberland County's strangest unsolved mysteries.

"The body of our murdered son was found in his home at 1045 Susquehanna Avenue, Sunbury, on the evening of March 31, 1953. Someone must have seen the murderers enter or leave the house. If you have a conscience and believe in God, please come forth and let the proper authorities or ourselves know what you saw."

This was the desperate plea of Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Moskowitz, who were in New York City when the death of their son occurred. Obviously the grieving parents would not entertain the possibility that David had taken his own life, but their remark about "murderers" indicates that they believed more than one person was responsible. And yet, after a six year investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies, not a single arrest was ever made in the case.

The Finding of the Body

It was Tuesday evening when Clifford Yohn received a phone call from Mr. and Mrs. Moskowitz. Yohn, who was 27 at the time, lived in a second floor apartment above David, and the young photographer's parents, who were in New York celebrating Passover, became worried when they had not heard from their son. Abraham Moskowitz, who worked as a guard at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, telephoned Yohn, asking him to go downstairs to check on David. It was Clifford Yohn who discovered the body, sprawled across the bed. He immediately called the police.

Officers Richard Wheeler and Warren Thoma of the State Police barracks in Shamokin were assigned to the case, along with the Sunbury city police officers H.C. Gass, James Inkrote and William Hassinger. They stated that David had been bound in women's stockings with a gag in his mouth. They found no signs of struggle and no signs of burglary or forced entry.

Was it possible that David had adorned himself in women's clothing and tied nylon stockings around his own hands and feet in some sort of perverse self-pleasure session? Was it possible that he had soaked a rag with chloroform prior to binding himself, intentionally drugging himself?

Surely this would explain why there had been no signs of a struggle or a forced entry. However, the coroner was convinced that David's death had been murder, plain and simple.

On April 1, Northumberland County coroner Sidney Kallaway declared that Moskowitz "definitely was the victim of a homicide". Meanwhile, an autopsy was being performed at the Dornsife Funeral Home. The autopsy showed that the young man had died from asphyxiation. Mrs. Moskowitz identified the clothes her son had been wearing as her own.

Since the victim's father was a guard at a federal prison, the logical explanation was that David's murder had been motivated by revenge. Northeastern Penitentiary was home to some of America's most prolific mobsters and gang members, and it was easy to imagine a disgruntled mafia boss ordering a hit on Abraham's son to teach the prison guard a lesson.

A Secret Fetish?

But, then again, it was also possible that law enforcement in rural Pennsylvania had never heard about autoerotic asphyxiation, much less dealt with a case involving it.

The practice of autoerotic asphyxiation has been documented since the  17th century, when witnesses at public hangings noticed that male victims often developed an erection which sometimes resulted in ejaculation. When the carotid arteries on the side of the neck are compressed, the sudden loss of oxygen to the brain induces a semi-hallucinogenic state known as hypoxia. This, in turn, often produces feelings of pleasure. The intensity of the pleasure is further increased when orgasms are brought into the equation.

Of course, accidental death occasionally occurs.

There are numerous famous examples of autoerotic fatalities; INXS frontman Michael Hutchence died from asphyxiation in 1997, and actor David Carradine met his death in a similar fashion in 2009. British politician Stephen Milligan's death in 1994 was also ruled a case of autoerotic asphyxiation. Although the practice goes back centuries, it was virtually unknown until the 1990s, when Hustler Magazine began publishing articles about it. While strangulation is the most common method used to induce hypoxia, various chemicals-- such as chloroform-- have also been used.

So what are the odds that a small town newspaper photographer and part-time grocery store clerk from central Pennsylvania knew about autoerotic asphyxiation back in 1953?

Curiosity And Chloroform

Police believed that the answer to Moskowitz's death could be obtained from the empty bottle of chloroform found next to the body. Officers conducted a systematic check of all drug stores in the vicinity, and discovered that the ony recent purchase of chloroform had been made in October of 1952 by a woman from Sunbury. Police checked with the woman, only to find that the bottle she had purchased was still in her possession.

Stumped by the lack of clues, the authorities called in George Fink, a veteran State Police detective from Harrisburg. Meanwhile, in keeping with the Jewish custom of burying the dead within twenty-four hours, David Moskowitz was laid to rest at the Jewish Cemetery in Northumberland.

The following week started with a startling announcement. On Monday, April 6, Coroner Kallaway announced that no trace of chloroform was found in Moskowitz's body. Because the autopsy indicated that death had taken place about 48 hours before the body was discovered by Clifford Yohn, the coroner theorized that the chloroform could have "dissipated" from the corpse.

But that didn't explain the gag that was in David's mouth, which also showed no traces of chloroform.
State Trooper Richard Wheeler was able to offer a glimpse of hope, however. He told reporters that David Moskowitz had been seen before his death riding in a black car. Authorities were trying their hardest to track down the driver.

A Mother Turns Bitter

Unfortunately, they were never able to do so. Weeks stretched into months, spring gave way to summer, and police had exhausted all possible leads. And as fall gave way to winter, David's parents had become so frustrated that they issued a bizarre, bitter statement to the public. The appeal, entitled "A New Year's Message to the Murderers of Our Son, David" reads:

"You will go out to enjoy what you think will be a happy new year for you, but as there is a God and if you have a conscience, your so-called enjoyment will be but a bitter weight upon your so-called heart.

"Our son, who never harmed anyone but always tried to do good for his fellow man, will lie in his grave and his soul will be in Heaven looking down upon your rotten, depraved bodies as you go on your rounds of so-called pleasures.

"Do you think that people will keep your secret forever? Don't you know that their consciences will make them reveal who they are? Can people in the know carry such a load on their minds forever? We want to extend our wishes for as happy a new year as we will have, to the murderers and those who know who committed the crime of murdering our son. 

"Let us all join in prayers to God in the churches and temples of our different faiths thatthe perpetrators of this heinous crime be brought to justice. Let us not forget the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life."

In spite of the lack of evidence, Mr. and Mrs. Moskowitz insisted that David had been murdered in cold blood and beseeched the police to continue their investigation. In a last ditch effort to find a clue, or perhaps to appease Mrs. Moskowitz, State Police Lieutenant Foreman Ramer administered a lie detector test in January of 1955 to an unidentified "person of interest". Although reports do not provide the name of this alleged suspect, contemporary descriptions indicate that it was, in all likelihood, Clifford Yohn. Whoever this suspect might have been, the test showed that the person who took the test was innocent.

Based upon the years of fruitless investigation and the lack of clues, motives and suspects, it seems that the person who most likely killed David Moskowitz was David Moskowitz, who apparently succumbed to his own perversions in a manner that would have been unthinkable to the residents of the Susquehanna Valley at the time.

Shamokin News-Dispatch, April 1, 1953.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, April 2, 1953.
Williamsport Sun-Gazette, April 6, 1953.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 22, 1953.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 29, 1953.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 29, 1954.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, April 1, 1959.

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