The Murdered, the Missing, and a Family Secret
Shocking tale of murder leads a journalist into complex family mystery.
Posted Aug 03, 2020
I first met Jana Marcus when I researched the vampire subculture in New York back in the 1990s. She arranged a blind date for me to an event in Manhattan. Later, as she documented the fan base for Anne Rice in her book, In the Shadow of the Vampire, we had an intriguing experience in New Orleans with a third-generation psychic named Maria Saganis. Now Marcus has published Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder to document her turn at amateur sleuthing. Her quest began with an incident involving a murdered relative and her family’s code of silence around it.
First, this intense and well-researched journey is highly readable. Marcus, a photojournalist and daughter of a playwright and a poet, is an evocative storyteller. She knows how to make people come alive on the page. In addition, she has some fine characters to work with. Her paternal grandmother, the enigmatic “Grandma Rae,” was one scary woman.
The mystery surrounds Marcus’ great uncle, Abe Babchick. One day, she found a news clipping in Grandma Rae’s secret drawer that described how Babchick had been shot to death in 1941, the victim of a gangland hit. The family soon received a threatening phone call that warned them not to look into it. “We’ll kill the whole family, starting with the children.” One of those kids was Marcus’ father. He survived, but here was his daughter now probing it, possibly alerting someone who’d been charged with keeping it under wraps.
And she wouldn’t find the process easy. To her credit, Marcus perseveres, whether she’s faced with a lack of documents or an abundance of them.
She tried asking Grandma Rae, Babchick’s sister, but this volatile woman who ran hot and cold toward her demanded that his name never be spoken. That door closed. Slammed, in fact. Other relatives acted like the guests at a Gatsby party, whispering about the rumors but yielding little. Undaunted, Marcus examined sources in the New York Public Library that dated back to those days. She discovered that this murder was no small family tragedy but an incident worth headlines in major papers. Babchick had been involved in illegal lottery gambling, making and losing fortunes regularly. Now she had to learn more. Reporters could take her only so far. It was time for the Big Guns.
The work became a co-project for father and daughter, a rare partnering of literary and imagistic minds to learn who Abe Babchick was and why he was snuffed. Marcus enlisted other relatives, reaping the rewards of a connected family, some of whom had different parts of the puzzle. She also explored municipal records and library archives. As she gradually brought her family history into the light, she learned about the Jewish mob in 1930s New York. Babchick was involved with a crime syndicate called Murder, Inc. Colorful and deadly. But the leads ran out.
Then came the psychic, Maria Saganis, from New Orleans. She offered to help, and her uncanny readings and apparent communication with spirits turned her into a central member of this cold case team. Another detail became a focus: Abe's brother, Frankie, had gone missing after his brief stint in prison for his part in the gambling operation. He seemed connected to what happened to Abe via a large sum of money, as was Grandma Rae. And some dirty cops. And attorneys.
Marcus was careful to withhold details from Saganis, as well as to corroborate what she envisioned. Still, the readings are striking. No matter how you might feel about mediums and psychics, it’s fun to read about this process as new leads turn up, and the team goes dashing off to discover the truth. Saganis admits she deals primarily in images and partial messages, and Marcus echoes my own frustration with psychics when she states, “Sometimes Maria’s messages needed to be deciphered, like a game of charades.” The ambiguity can be frustrating, tempting Marcus to think a seemingly factual report might be an altered part of the cover-up. Or, the psychic is wrong. Who knows? Still, Saganis seems to be surprisingly accurate about names, locations, items, and how the murder occurred – including how Babchick actually felt when shot.
Line of Blood is a unique type of cold-case-murder-mystery-genealogical adventure. Different people come in and out to help as Marcus hunts for a missing person, a missing satchel, missing money, and missing facts that could shed light on her family’s darkest secrets. She presents the narrative like a good suspense novel.
In the process of solving a murder, maybe two, Marcus helps to reshape her family’s identity. She moves from dusty library archives to the grittiness of autopsy reports, seeing Babchick’s blood on a toe tag and hearing from a pathologist on Babchick’s likely experience during the final seconds of his life. She learns about the extent of official corruption and the manner in which inconvenient people were snuffed. She enlists a retired detective, a videographer, and just about everyone she can find who had even the slightest connection to the mystery. And plenty of people offer help. It’s heartwarming to watch the younger generation pull together to figure it out. There’s even a twist at the end that makes you rethink some of these characters.
Given how long she worked on this, I asked Marcus what got her started.
“I'd always been interested in genealogy,” she said. “As a teenager, I was curious about my grandmother's generation and what their lives had been like in the ‘old country’ of Ukraine. Their passage to the new world at the turn of the twentieth century fascinated me, as did the idea of how they recreated themselves in the ‘new world.’ But, no one would talk about the past. That's a common thread with most immigrant families. Little did I know my grandmother's generation was upholding a code of silence.”
Line of Blood is not just a solid and satisfying tale of amateur sleuthing. It’s also a “how-to” primer for others who want to research their own family’s past, especially where there are secrets. “These days, I tell everyone to look into their family history," Marcus says. "it can take you on the most amazing adventures you have ever had.”
Marcus, J. (2020). Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder. 7 Angels Press.