The Lykens Triple Axe Murder of 1932
The quiet borough of Lykens in upper Dauphin County was thrust into the spotlight in 1932 when Barney Godleski, an out-of-work miner, slaughtered three of his four children in a drunken rage, in the basement of his home on the 600 block of East Main Street.
On the morning of July 14, 1932, ten-year-old Helen Godleski awoke with visions of a nightmare inside her head. The night before, she thought she had heard the screams of her sister, Lillian, who slept in the same bed, and her father's reassuring voice, "Lillian bumped her head and hurt herself, but she'll be alright." Helen wasn't sure if that had actually happened, or if she had only dreamt that it had happened, but in the morning, daylight revealed that her sister Lillian's pillow was splotched with blood, and Lillian was nowhere to be seen.
Helen followed the bloody trail down the stairs. In the kitchen she found her father holding a rag to his throat. It would have been obvious to anyone, except maybe a ten-year-old child, that Barney Godleski had attempted to slit his own throat. Desperate to keep his daughter from asking questions, he ordered to go to the store for matches. "Hurry, I want to smoke," he said.
When Helen returned, her father had another request. He wanted Helen to find James Heldt, the undertaker, and bring him to the Godleski house. Helen obeyed, and when the undertaker arrived, Godleski told the undertaker that he had murdered three of his children with an axe. Heldt appeared skeptical, until Godleski said, "Go into the cellar and see for yourself."
The Crime Scene
Heldt had no desire to go down to the cellar, and he immediately summoned Justice of the Peace James Golden and Chief of Police C.J. Witmer, who arrived at the home and found Barney Godleski sitting calmly at the kitchen table, holding the axe and butcher knife he had used to commit the ghastly crime. He admitted to killing his children, but refused to provide an explanation.
Chief Witmer, accompanied by Undertaker Heldt, James Golden, deputy coroner George Wren, and former justice of the peace J.A. Barrett, discovered one of the bodies on the floor near a drain, and the other two bodies stuffed into the woodbin. These were the bodies of Paul Godleski, age 8, Lillian, age 6, and Alberta, age 4. Paul's body was the most mangled; his head had been almost completely cut off.
"It was a terrible sight," said Heldt the following day. "I have seen horrible sights, but never anything like this. When the little girl came to my office about 9 o'clock yesterday morning and told me that her father wanted to see me, I didn't have the least idea what he wanted. I hadn't heard of any deaths in the family, so I was a little surprised to have him call me."
One can only imagine what the undertaker must have thought after Helen came to see him. The Godleskis were known to be a happy family, and Barney a model citizen who never drank liquor or got into trouble. It was widely gossiped, however, that Barney's wife, Lucille, had once spent time in a sanitarium battling drug addiction, and it was generally known around Lykens that little Lillian Godleski had undergone a surgical procedure at the hospital in Ashland just a few weeks earlier. Otherwise, as far as anyone knew, the Godleskis were a healthy, happy clan.
Godleski handed over the weapons to Chief Witmer and was taken into custody. Later that morning he was given a preliminary hearing at the office of Justice of the Peace Golden and transported to the Dauphin County Jail. Helen, the sole surviving child, was placed into the care of a neighbor. Meanwhile, Lucille Godleski was in Mount Carmel, unaware that anything was amiss. She had left Lykens to begin work as a waitress in a restaurant, lodging at the Marble Hotel under her the name of Lucy Sincavage. Sincavage was the maiden name of Barney's mother.
Barney Godleski's Confession
While in jail, Godleski was questioned for three hours by County Detective John H. Yontz. He freely admitted his guilt, but steadfastly refused to provide a motive. He said he wanted to make a statement to District Attorney Carl B. Shelley, and once inside the district attorney's office, he began to talk freely about what he had done.
According to Godleski, on the night of the murders, he had gone to a bar in Williamstown for a drink and had goten into a quarrel that left him in a bitter mood. He returned home around midnight. The four children were sleeping in their beds. He sat at the kitchen table, brooding over domestic troubles. He had been out of work for months, and his wife of twelve years had left him on Tuesday to find work in Mount Carmel, where she had grown up.
Godleski said that the trouble had begun four years earlier, when his wife discovered that he was having an affair. "Since that time she has been extremely jealous," he said, and during every argument since then, his wife made constant reference to his indiscretion. He and his wife had taken their daughter, Lillian, to the Fountain Springs Hospital on June 18 for an operation, and on June 30 Lucille began looking for work to help out with the medical expenses. She had told her husband that she would take the children once she was able to find a job.
Godleski stated that on Tuesday afternoon, July 12, a man who lived across the street, John Lubold, took him to Williamstown to see a former neighbor by the name of Wrobel, who he found at a local tavern. The men drank and talked, and although Godleski refused to reveal what he had been told by Wrobel, by the time he returned home he had made up his mind to kill his children and then take his own life. He began with Paul, taking him out bed and killing him in the basement with a butcher knife. Then he came back for Alberta. After killing two of his children, Godleski fell asleep for two hours. When he woke up at daybreak, he murdered Lillian, and attempted to dispose of the bodies by hacking them to pieces with an axe. However, after lopping off his son's head, he lost his nerve. He added that he had no intention of killing Helen. Finally, he attempted to take his own life with the butcher knife. "I decided to take the coward's way out, then I changed my mind," Godleski told the district attorney. "I'll take my medicine."
So why was Helen's life spared?
"Daddy didn't kill me because he liked me," bragged ten-year-old Helen to police officers. "I kept house for daddy since mother left us and daddy often said that I was a good little mother and that he was proud of me." Helen told authorities that on Tuesday afternoon her father said that he had to go out of town on business, and instructed her not to wait up for him. "He told me to put Alberta, Lillian and Paul to bed and go to bed myself."
"Lillian and I sleep together in daddy's room and Paul and Alberta sleep in another room," the young girl explained. "Some time during the night I believe I was dreaming about someone crying. I woke up and found Lillian was mumbling about something and daddy was standing beside her. I couldn't understand what she was saying. It sounded like she was gargling. I asked daddy what had happened. He said Lillian bumped her head on the bedpost... I didn't think anything was wrong and I went back to sleep."
Helen said that, after arriving at the undertaker's shop, Mr. Heldt told her to wait there until he came back. When Helt returned, he told Helen that her father had killed her siblings, and that he had been taken into police custody. "I love my daddy and I hope that nothing happens to him," said Helen to the police officers, who then instructed them to feed him well. She even gave them a list of the foods that he liked to eat.
Mother Learns of the Awful Tragedy
"I have been expecting it for more than a year," said Lucille Godleski, after learning of the tragic news. She had been located eating lunch at a restaurant in Mount Carmel, by a messenger who managed to lure her back to Lykens under the pretense that one of her daughters had fallen ill. Only after checking into a hotel in Lykens was she told about what had happened to her children.
"I feared that Barney was insane for several years, that is why I left. The trouble started several years ago when I was sent to a hospital in Toledo, Ohio, as a drug addict. I was there for seven months until I was cured, and when I returned home I found another woman in the house."
Lucille claimed that she had been trying to find a home for her children for more than a year, and had tried to get her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sienkiewicz, to adopt them. "I knew sometime he would harm them," she said. "My father objected so they stayed at home. Now I have only one. I hope they hang Barney for killing my children. He has it coming to him. He treated me cruelly for several years. He chased me from my home and children, and now he has killed them."
While public sentiment was firmly on Lucille's side, there are many parts of her story that don't seem to add up. For instance, if she was so certain that Barney was insane, and if he had been as abusive and cruel as she had claimed, then how could she in good conscience abandon all four of her children? Those who knew Godleski best vouched for his character; his former employer called him a "model employee", and friends labeled him a "devoted father" and an "ideal husband" who never touched alcohol. So who knew the real Barney, and who knew the real Lucille? If walls could speak, the Godleski home might be able to answer these questions.
The Suicide of Barney Godleski
Barney and Lucille were just teenagers when they met. He was from Shamokin, she was from Mount Carmel. When he accepted a position in the coal mines of Williamstown, their future seemed bright. The young couple bought a home in Lykens, made many friends, and were soon blessed with four bright, beautiful children. By all accounts, the ballad of Barney and Lucille Godleski should have been a Coal Region success story. But, somewhere along the way, things went horribly wrong. Twelve years later, Barney Godleski, now 31 years of age, had traded his spacious home on East Main Street for a cramped cell on F-tier of the Dauphin County Prison. He would die inside this very cell.
Shortly after five o'clock on the morning of July 22, 1932, the body of Barney Godleski was found hanging in his cell after a prison guard was alerted to a noise that sounded like a "death struggle" on the uppermost tier, Tier F. The guard raced to the cell, lit a match, and discovered the body dangling from the steel bars, with a noose made from the sleeves of a blue shirt. The warden and the prison's night watchman cut down the body and the coroner, Howard Milliken, was notified.
"We've been expecting it," said one of the inmates who was interviewed by a Harrisburg newspaper. "He didn't want to live." Only a week earlier, Godleski had attempted to hang himself with a belt, but his attempt failed after the belt broke. The coroner, after examining Godleski's body, said that his head was heavily bruised, and speculated that Godleski had attempted to kill himself during the night by ramming his head into the steel bars of his cell. When that failed, he used his shirt to hang himself.
"Barney had taken off his shirt," said Edward Albright, the guard who discovered the body. "One sleeve he tied around his neck, the other around the bars at the rear of his cell."
According to prison staff and inmates, Godleski had been exhibiting bizarre behavior ever since his arrival. He refused to speak to anyone unless his back was turned, and he refused to sleep on his cot, preferring the cold cement floor. "He told us he was afraid he'd fall off and hurt himself," explained one of the prison officials.
Ironically, it was Lucille Godleski who made the funeral arrangements. Her anger had given way to pity. "I thought this would happen," was the only thing she said, when asked about the suicide of the man she had wanted to see hang only a week earlier. She ordered the body taken to the home of her father, Frank Sienkiewicz, who was now living in Dornsife. The funeral was held the following morning at St. Anthony's Church in Brady (Coal Township) and his body was laid to rest at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Trevorton, alongside the graves of the very children he had murdered.
The Aftermath of the Murders
It's fair to say that the deaths of the Godleski children put tremendous strain on the families involved. Just one month after the funerals of her husband and three of her children, Lucille Godleski was arrested for disorderly conduct, thrown in jail, and fined five dollars after causing a scene in Harrisburg. According to Paul Mowery, who was a bookkeeper for the Keystone Broadcasting Company, Lucille had shown up at the radio station offices at the Governor Hotel, insisting that she had been offered a contract to appear on the station and talk about the murders. When Mowery told her that he was not aware of such a contract, she became "indignant and boisterous", and when police arrived she began shouting profanities, and claimed that prison officials had cheated her out of her "right" to kill Barney Godleski.
In February of the following year, Lucille's father suffered a stroke while a patient at a hospital in Philadelphia, where he had gone to receive treatment from a lingering illness. Frank Sienkiewicz, who worked for many years as a miner in Shamokin, was only 56 at the time of his death. Lucille's mother, Stanislawa (Stella) Sienkiewicz, passed away in March of 1934 at the age of 53. They are also buried at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Trevorton. Four months after Stella's death, a son named Henry was fatally injured in an explosion at the Alaska Colliery near Mount Carmel.
Unfortunately, there are no records (at least that I could find), describing whatever became of Lucille and Helen. An obituary for Stella Sienkiewicz states that she had a daughter, Lucy Gladeskie, who lived in New York at the time of her death in 1934. Did she marry a man named Gladeskie, or was this simply a newspaper misspelling of Godleski? If she did go to New York, did she take her lone surviving daughter with her? If anyone out there knows the answer to these questions, I would love to find out how their story ends.
Harrisburg Evening News, July 13, 1932.
Kane Republican, July 13, 1932.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 14, 1932.
Harrisburg Evening News, July 14, 1932.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 22, 1932.
Shamokin News Dispatch, July 23, 1932.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 25, 1932.
Harrisburg Evening News, Aug. 26, 1932.
Shamokin Daily News, Feb. 3, 1932.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 17, 1934.