A Hundred Years of Murder-Suicides
Children Lost to Violence Then and Now
Let me tell you a story about two little girls, 9-year-old Georgetta Von Buhren and her big sister, 12-year-old Marie. Their story recently came to light when a modern-day treasure hunter named Chelsey Brown bought a mysterious photograph in a vintage New York store and decided to find out the story behind the picture. It turned out to be a true- crime tale.
Georgetta and Marie lived with their dad, 35-year-old George, in a modest apartment in Brooklyn. It was a relatively uncommon living situation-a dad raising his two daughters-but one the girls had resigned themselves to since their parents were estranged.
Their father was angry all the time. He hated their mother. He’d called her all sorts of nasty names. They didn’t understand them but had heard people murmur words like “floozy” and “hussy” under their breath. Georgetta and Marie just pretended they couldn’t hear.
For a time, they had a stepmother of sorts, 30-year-old Susan Royce. She and George started dating right after his separated, but that relationship also ended. Father told them it was their mother’s fault Miss Royce left; something about New York divorce laws and him being unfairly treated. Maybe that was true, but the girls thought their dad’s temper also had something to do with it.
Plus, they never had the money for anything because their dad was always looking for a new job. Why, they wondered, didn’t he just keep the old ones?
Their dad was crazy about Susan, and when it ended, he fell apart. Things were getting worse. I imagine Georgetta and Marie hugging their Raggedy Ann dolls extra tight and hoping things would get better. Thankfully they had each other.
And that is how they died-together. George Von Buhren poisoned his two daughters, attempted to poison his ex-girlfriend, Susan Royce, and ended his life the same way. Except for some period details, this story could have been written yesterday. It was May 8, 1929.
Time After Time
They didn’t use the term “murder- suicide” back then. We have no idea how common it was historically. We aren’t even sure how common it is today; there is no national database that specifically tracks murder-suicides.
Since 2013, the Violence Policy Center has attempted to fill in the gaps. Their research has found that there are approximately 11 murder-suicides in the U.S. every week, claiming more than 1,300 lives yearly. Of these, 65% involve an intimate partner, and 95% of victims are women.
We don’t know how many of these victims were children. But we can make an educated guess. In the first half of 2019, for instance, 51 out of 340 murder-homicide victims were under age 18. That parses out to a little more than 14%. Using this as a baseline would mean that 18,135 children and teens have died by murder-suicide since Marie and Georgetta’s 1929 deaths.
Those Who Don’t Learn From History…
In 1929, media coverage of George Von Buhren’s violence focused on the suicide note Von Buhren left behind. It pointed the finger at the New York divorce court; “I may state,” read the message left on the kitchen counter, “that if the divorce laws of this state were different, this may not have happened. Why a man must remain married to a confessed unfaithful wife with no recourse to a court of law is beyond me.”
Von Buhren alleged that his life (as well as the lives of those he took) would have had a happy ending if he had been allowed to divorce his errant wife and marry Miss Royce. However, while still blaming outside forces for his actions, even he admits that his behavior before his relationship breakup had been problematic:
“The aggravation made me nervous, miserable, and quick-tempered, and, being so, I was frequently out of work. And I would say things to Susan that would hurt her. Finally, she left us, but God knows I love her more than life itself. I have tried to get her to come back to us but have not succeeded. So have decided to end it for all four of us.”
Royce, who managed to survive her murder attempt, described Von Burhen’s behavior in starker terms. “I was terribly afraid of George. He threatened time and again to take my life,” she told a local newspaper after the tragedy. “He begged me, again and again, to come back to him and said as he had so often before, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t.’”
Lest you think Von Buhren suddenly reached the end of his rope and “snapped,” let me set the record straight: Weeks before he committed murder-suicide, he bought a cemetery plot for the entire family.
The Bottom Line
Many of the details of this tragic story are lost to history. But others are surprisingly familiar-an angry, depressed parent who is bitter about his life circumstances, down on his luck financially, and unwilling to accept the loss of an intimate relationship. A person whose former partner was terrified of him and who repeatedly threatened to kill her and his children.
Originally published at https://joniejohnstonpsyd.substack.com on June 28, 2022.