The True Story Behind Only Murders In the Building



The True Story Behind Only Murders In the Building

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Cassondra Feltus
We bet you didn't know "Only Murders In the Building" had true crime inspiration. For this video, we'll be looking at how the storied history of iconic New York apartments may have influenced the creators of Hulu's comedy-mystery series. Our countdown includes the Belnord, the Ansonia, the Black Sox scandal, and more!

The True Crime Inspiration Behind Only Murders In the Building

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re discussing The True Crime Inspiration Behind Only Murders in the Building.

For this video, we’ll be looking at how the storied history of iconic New York apartments may have influenced the creators of Hulu’s comedy-mystery series.

Would you live in the Arconia? Let us know in the comments.

The Belnord

While the interior shots for “Only Murders Left in the Building” were filmed on a soundstage, the building’s exterior is actually the Belnord at 225 West 86th in New York City’s Upper West Side. The 13-story landmark building also features the amazing interior courtyard used in the series, one of the biggest in the city.

The Belnord may not be home to gruesome murders, but it has stirred up some controversy in its many years. Its former owner, Lillian Seril, became known as one of New York’s worst landlords, refusing to make repairs or allow tenants to replace broken appliances! This eventually led to the longest rent strike in NYC history, beginning in 1978 and lasting 16 years.

But as pointed out by Vanity Fair, the fictional Arconia’s name is awfully similar to another well-known building, one with a scandalous history. It could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly a fascinating story …

The Ansonia

In 1899, William Earl Dodge Stokes, heir to the Phelps-Dodge copper fortune, began building the residential hotel of his dreams, which he envisioned as a self-sustaining Utopia. Though he employed French architect Paul E. DuBoy, Stokes listed himself as “architect-in-chief.” The Ansonia officially opened on April 19, 1904. The massive structure occupied a full city block on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Street. Stokes initially wanted it to be over 20 stories, but when he saw the view at 17 stories, he decided that that height was enough.

Stokes had the Ansonia decked out with the luxury amenities, including an onsite barbershop, tailor, bank, restaurants, Turkish baths, shops, and the world’s largest indoor pool. But perhaps the strangest feature was the rooftop farm that held hundreds of chickens, several ducks, about six goats and a small bear. In addition, the lobby fountain was home to live seals! In his own apartment, Stokes kept four geese and a pig as personal pets. In 1907, the Department of Health shut down the “farm in the sky.” Nonetheless, Stokes continued to hide animals in the hotel.

William Earl Dodge Stokes

Before building the Ansonia, a 42-year-old Stokes saw a photo of heiress Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta, two decades his junior, and within months of meeting, the two were married on January 4, 1895. Together they had one child, William Earle Dodge Stokes Jr., whom they nicknamed Weddie. After years of unhappy marriage, which de Acosta also reported was violent, the two divorced in 1900.

In 1907, Stokes was sued by Lucy Randolph for child support. She claimed that they met at the Ansonia but after she became pregnant, he stopped communicating with her. It was found that he did once send her regular payments but the case was ultimately dismissed.

In February 1911, Stokes married his second wife, 24-year-old Helen Blanche Ellwood. But that didn’t seem to have stopped him from having affairs. In June, Stokes was shot three times by Lillian Graham, a 22-year-old vaudeville showgirl, along with her friend Ethel Conrad. Stokes claimed that the women tried to blackmail him with personal letters he’d written to Graham and shot him when he wouldn’t pay up. Graham and Conrad, however, claimed that he demanded the letters, and when Graham said she hadn’t kept them, he choked her, prompting Conrad to shoot him. They were found not guilty.

Deaths at the Ansonia

During the 1911 trial of Lillian Graham and Ethel Conrad, it was brought up that Graham’s sister warned her that Stokes murdered racketeer Al Adams, aka “The Policy King.” Adams moved into the Ansonia right after serving time at Sing Sing. He lived in the building for about two years until October 1906, when he was found dead from a bullet wound. It was officially determined that he took his own life, possibly due to major financial losses and poor health. But rumors circulated that Stokes killed him due to unpaid debt. Graham’s sister even claimed to have seen Stokes acting suspiciously around the time.

Coroner Julius Harburger also believed Adams could have been murdered. During the inquest, he had a heated exchange with Stokes, and in court, he tried to establish the motive of an unpaid debt. However, in a bizarre turn of events, the Coroner ultimately stated that based on evidence it did appear to be a fatal self-inflicted wound. Stokes and the Coroner reportedly shook hands and left the court laughing.

Al Adams is far from the only person to perish at the Ansonia. Over the decades, guests and longtime residents have met their end in various tragedies. In 1908, J. Nelson Veit shot his mother and himself over a secret marriage to a woman who lived in an apartment nearby. Two years later, successful clothing manufacturer Winfred S. Klee took his own life after reportedly suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1912, a teenage boy died after falling down an elevator shaft from the sixteenth floor. He was reportedly a runaway whose pockets were filled with stolen brass fittings. And two years after that, guests witnessed a woman jump out of the window of her 8th floor apartment to her death.

In May 1970, 27-year-old voice teacher Eric Tcherkezian was killed in his apartment. It wasn’t until 1982 that serial killer Bruce Alan Davis was thought to be the one who strangled Tcherkezian, after confessing he murdered someone in the Ansonia in the 1970s. Though Davis confessed to several slayings and his credibility was questionable, a Manhattan detective said he provided information only the killer would know.

The Black Sox Scandal

In addition to the many deaths in the Ansonia’s history, there were endless scandals, and not just the ones involving William Earl Dodge Stokes.

The Ansonia attracted artists, socialites, musicians, and athletes. Notable residents include professional boxer Jack Dempsey, Chicago White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil, and the legendary Babe Ruth. On September 21, 1919, Chicago White Sox players allegedly gathered at Gandil’s apartment to go over a plan to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein put up the money, and each player stood to receive about $10,000. The White Sox’s poor playing was suspicious and rumors spread about the game being fixed. Rothstein bet against the White Sox, though without any evidence he was involved, he was never charged. A grand jury found the players innocent, though they received lifetime bans from baseball.

Bathhouses, Swingers, & Ghosts

On May 18, 1926, Stokes passed away from lobar pneumonia, leaving the Ansonia to his son. Stokes Jr. let the hotel fall into disrepair, and in 1945, he sold it to Samuel Broxmeyer. The new landlord’s financial issues led to bankruptcy, and Broxmeyer went to prison. Sign maker Jacob Starr purchased the Ansonia but it only continued to decline. Plus, he discovered that the building had no certificate of occupancy, meaning the Ansonia had operated illegally for some time.

In 1968 to 1976, Starr rented the basement swimming pool and Turkish baths to Steve Ostrow, a former opera singer. Ostrow established the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse that aspired to capture "the glory of ancient Rome". Bette Midler got her start there performing in the cabaret lounge with Barry Manilow, earning her the name “Bathhouse Betty.” After the Continental Baths closed, Larry Levenson opened Plato’s Retreat, one of the world’s most famous sex clubs. It operated in the Ansonia until 1980 when the club relocated.

Also during the 1970s, the Ansonia attracted more psychics and spiritualists. Most notably, Dr. Clifford Bias held services in the chapel and sometimes summoned up the dead, or at least, tried to. For years, people have reported ghostly sightings at the Ansonia, beginning way back in 1903 when residents believed there was a ghost cat roaming the building. No, seriously. It’s turned out to be an actual cat, which they named Thomas!