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Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Night of Debauchery.

Little Murders

A Night of Debauchery.

In 1880, Mrs. Anna Hayes was the landlady of a house at 396 State Street in Chicago. The newspapers referred to it as a “house of ill-fame,” but it was not a brothel, it was a house of assignation, renting rooms to prostitutes. On Sunday, November 7, 1880, Eva Lloyd rented room 6 on the top floor; one week for $3.00. Eva did not have the money but she had a revolver worth $4.00, and Mrs. Hayes took that as security.

The following Tuesday night Eva Lloyd went out, and some time after midnight returned to the room with a strange woman. They were both extremely drunk. Ida Donegan, who was in the room next door, heard the stranger crying, then she began to scream and wail and Eva told her to shut up. Around three a.m. Eva knocked on Ida’s door and asked if she had any snuff. Ida said no and Eva went away.

Wednesday morning Eva Lloyd took some clothes to Mrs. Hayes. They were stained with blood and Eva told Mrs. Hayes she could wash them and give them to her daughter or throw them away. Then Eva went out and did not come back. On Thursday Mrs. Hayes checked the room to see if Eva had left anything and found that her trunk was still there, so she assumed Eva would be returning. 

On Saturday, Eva had still not returned. Two women came in to rent a room, and with the rest of the house fully rented Mrs. Hayes decided to rent them room 6 even though it was still rented to Eva. The two women went to the room, but found an overpowering stench emanating from the closet. They forced open the closet door and the decomposing body of a woman fell out. She was wearing nothing but a chemise, torn as if in a struggle. She had been killed by a blow to the back of her head, her face had been pounded as well and was bloated beyond recognition. It was assumed that the body was either Eva Lloyd or her strange friend but when it was first discovered it was impossible to tell which.

The body was identified as Dora Clarence, alias Marks, by Isaac Marks, the dead girl's “protector.” He identified the deceased by her features, feet, clothing, and mole on the left breast. She had previously been married and divorced; married name Coffey, maiden name Abell. Ada Abell, who had not seen her sister in five years, came to Chicago from Danbury IL and also positively identified Dora.

Eva Lloyd was not hard to find. She had been arrested for drunkenness and was being held in Bridewell, the Cook County prison. She was attractive, but looked somewhat boyish with black, close-cropped hair, and big dark eyes. Like Dora Clarence, Eva Lloyd was known by several different names. She was born Annie Miriam Mackey, in County Kerry, Ireland, and orphaned at a young age, she came to America with a neighboring family. By age fourteen she was on her own and had a baby who died soon after birth. In New York City she lived with a man named Handley and took his name though they were not married (Handley was an assumed name as well, he having deserted from the British Army).

She learned that Handley had been unfaithful, left him and traveled west. She went to Chicago and found work as a servant. There she took up with another young man, and he deserted her as well, six weeks prior to the murder. She became a prostitute then, and began to drink heavily. She cut off her hair “in a drunken freak” and would sometimes don man’s attire, earning her the nickname “Charley Lee.” It was also reported that she was a famous thief known as “Brooklyn Lil” but that proved to be untrue.

Now going by the name Annie Mackey, she admitted that she must have killed Dora but could not remember doing it. They had met Tuesday night on State Street and drank together in a saloon there until they were thrown out. They went back to Annie’s room with a bottle of gin and soon began quarreling. Dora had asked for snuff and became angry because Annie hadn’t any. Annie went out and got her some and for a while Dora was pacified. They quarreled again when Annie said she would take Dora’s man away from her. That was all that Annie remembered until the next morning when she found she was lying next to Dora’s corpse. She dragged the body into the closet, shut the door and locked it. Then she took clothes to Mrs. Hayes, and left. 

The trial of Annie Mackey began on February 11, 1881. All of the evidence was circumstantial but strong; the real question before the court was whether Annie Mackey intentionally murdered Dora Abell or whether the death had been accidental. The jury ruled the latter and Annie Mackey was acquitted.

Annie Mackey moved further west and the following May she was briefly in the news once more. Once again using the name Eva Lloyd, she was arrested for intoxication in Omaha, Nebraska.

"A Ghastly Mystery." Daily Inter Ocean 9 Nov 1880.
"A Horrible Murder in Chicago." Cincinnati Daily Gazette 10 Nov 1880.
"A Woman on Trial for Life Waiting in the Criminal Court Yesterday for the Commencement." Daily Inter Ocean. 11 Feb 1881.
"Annie Mackey." Daily Inter Ocean 26 Nov 1880.
"Dora Abell's Death Was Eva Lloyd (or Mackey) the Cause or was it Accidental." Daily Inter Ocean 12 Feb 1881.
"Dora Clarence." Daily Inter Ocean 11 Nov 1880.
"NIght of Debauchery." The National Police Gazette 27 Nov 1880.
"State News." Daily Illinois State Journal 14 May 1881.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Queen of the Demimonde.

Kate Townsend
In the years following the Civil War, Basin Street in New Orleans was the center of the most notorious red-light district in America, and the house at No. 40 Basin Street, run by Miss Kate Townsend, was the most elegant brothel in the country. When she was fatally stabbed in her bedroom in 1883, Kate Townsend’s death was mourned by sporting men from coast to coast, but, in accordance with Miss Kate’s wishes, no man was allowed to attend her funeral.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Another Murder in Cincinnati--“Hell’s Half Acre.”

Little Murders
(From Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, November 12, 1858)

Another Murder in Cincinnati--
“Hell’s Half Acre.”
Between the hours of two and three o’clock yesterday morning, another man was brutally murdered in a low doggery, called the Toledo House, on the levee, between Walnut and Vine streets, a miserable quarter known as “Hell’s Half Acre,” one of the worst localities in the city. The name of the victim was Michael Burke, an Irishman, about twenty-one years old, a deck-hand on the river boats, and recently employed on the steamer Prairie Rose; and suspected murderer one James Burns, proprietor of the “Toledo, who has long been regarded, and is known to the police, as a vicious character, and has frequently been imprisoned for different misdemeanors.
Circumstances of the Murder.
The circumstances of the murder are enveloped in mystery, and the only light, beyond the fact of the crime itself, is thrown upon the case by the evidence before the Coroner’s jury. It appears that tow men lodging over the doggery were awakened, about two o’clock, by cries of “murder!” and throwing up the window they saw the body of deceased lying on the sidewalk and Burns concealing a knife in a wood-pile near by. B. then caught hold of the body and was about dragging it to the river, which, on account of its height, was but a few feet distant, to remove, no doubt, all traces of the crime, when they hallooed at him and accused him of the murder.
B. made no answer, but let go of the body, and entering the house, brought a bucket of water and poured it upon the corpse, and then dragged it with the assistance of his wife, into the house. A few minutes after B. re-appeared and walked toward Walnut street, when he met a man who asked him what was the matter and the meaning of those cries. B. said some person had been hurt at his house, and that he was going after a physician. Burns was not seen after this, but the weapon, a large butcher-knife, covered with blood, was found in the place where it had been hidden.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Kittery Crime.

Little Murders

The Kittery Crime.

Mary Barrows
Thomas Barrows was found dead in his home in Kittery, Maine, on November14, 1883.  He was lying in his bed with six bullet wounds in his arms, legs and head. His wife, Mary, told the coroner that Thomas had committed suicide. The coroner was faced with two immediate mysteries; if Thomas Barrows had committed suicide, why did he wound himself five times before firing the shot to the head that killed him? And how had he shot himself six times with the five barrel revolver found near the bed? Closer examination determined that three of the shots to his arms and legs were fired from a distance, one to his hip was close range, the shot to the head was also from close range but probably went through his hand first—explaining the six wounds, but essentially ruling out suicide. The coroner’s jury ruled the case murder, but lacking a motive, could not determine a suspect.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"She Died in Defense of Her Honor."

Tillie Smith
When the strangled body of Tillie Smith was found on the grounds of Centenary Collegiate Institute, where she worked as a domestic servant, the police of Hackettstown, New Jersey, began an extensive secret investigation. The absence of official information drove the press and public to create their own narrative of Tillie’s death. “She died in defense of her honor,” was public belief, and a monument was erected with this statement carved in stone. The press spun a web of circumstantial evidence around James Titus, janitor of the Institute, as the man who raped and murdered Tillie Smith. The public story soon became the official story, but there is a good possibility that none of it was true.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A New Year's Murder.

Amasa Sprague
The body of Amasa Sprague was found shot and beaten on the road between his factory and his mansion on New Year’s Day, 1844, and suspicion immediately fell on three members of Sragueville’s Irish community. Nicholas Gordon was known to hold a grudge against Amasa Sprague; John and William Gordon would do whatever their older brother asked, but it was a conspiracy theory based more on bigotry and class warfare than hard evidence. The arrest of three immigrants would strain the already tense relations between Rhode Island’s English and Irish communities and begin an official injustice that was not rectified until 2011.

 December 31, 1843
 Spragueville, Rhode Island
 Amasa Sprague
Cause of Death:
 Beating, Gunshot
 John,William, and Nicholas Gordon

Read the complete story, "Rhode Island Inequity," 
in the new book
The Bloody Century

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Maggie Estars

Little Murders:
From Defenders and Offenders:

Maggie Estars.

"Maggie Estars was the keeper of a low resort at Fort Worth, Texas, and was accused of the crime of killing a man of the same place by the name of A. T. Truett. Truett went to the woman’s place of business, and quarreled with her. He endeavored to escape through the front door, when the woman picked up a fire shovel, and just as he was going out of the door, hit him on the head with it, and from the effects of which he died."

Defenders and offenders. New York: D. Buchner & Co., 1888.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Horace Millen.

On April 22, 1874, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was found in a clambake pit on Savin Hill Beach in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It was the second murder committed by fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy.

This drawing, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on May 9, 1874, depicts an informal shrine to Horace Millen set up at the site of the murder by some Dorchester residents.

 Read the story of Jesse Pomeroy, "Boston Boy Fiend" in The Bloody Century.

The Bloody Century

Friday, December 12, 2014

Praise for The Bloody Century

Unlike other countries in the nineteenth century, the murder rate skyrocketed in the United States, and this wide statistical gap remains to this day. No one has chronicled the resulting tales of murder in nineteenth-century America as thoroughly as Robert Wilhelm has in his blog Murder By Gaslight, and in his book The Bloody Century he revisits the most compelling murder cases from this era. Wilhelm puts each murderer back on trial with a detailed investigation into the available evidence drawn from the newspapers, trial reports, and murder ballads that saturated the reading market. The result is an arresting portrait of the dark-side of American life, when the country became a “Homicidal Nation” and the intrigue of murderous deeds captivated the nation.
--- Anthony Vaver, Author of Early American Criminals and Bound with an Iron Chain

I've been a fan of Robert Wilhelm's "Murder by Gaslight" blog for years and I'm so pleased that readers are being treated to the very best of his posts in this interesting and entertaining collection.  There's something here for everyone - tragedy and comedy, open-and-shut cases and wrongful convictions, rich and poor, city and country, and more.  Readers will delight in the period engravings, the emphasis on how the cases influenced popular culture, and the extensive research that provides for further reading.  The Bloody Century is a welcome and lively companion to Judith Flanders' recent The Invention of Murder, with a decidedly American flavor.
--- James M. Schmidt, Author of Galveston and the Civil War and Notre Dame and the Civil War

The Bloody Century

By Robert Wilhelm

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Worst Woman on Earth.

When two bodies were found in a hayloft on Paul Halliday’s farm in the town of Mukakating, in New York’s Catskill Mountains, his young Gypsy wife, Lizzie, became the prime suspect in their murders. It was not the first time Lizzie Halliday was accused of murder and it would not be the last. In court she would tear her clothes and babble incoherently; in captivity she was a danger to herself and everyone around her. Though she exhibited all the signs of a woman who was violently insane, many believed that Lizzie was merely a gifted actress. But no one disagreed when the press crowned Lizzie Halliday, “Worst woman on earth.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Slayback Homicide.

Little Murders:

The Slayback Homicide.

Alonzo W. Slayback and John A. Cockrell were two of the most respected men in St. Louis; Slayback was a prominent attorney and politician, and Cockerell the managing editor of the Post-Dispatch. Both were members of the Elks Club and reportedly had been amiable, if not close friends. But hey had their differences, Slayback had been a colonel in the Confederate army and Cockrell a Union colonel under General Sherman, and in the fall of 1882 they took opposite sides in a local election. Slayback’s law partner, James Broadhead was running for congress and the Post-Dispatch was publishing editorials against Broadhead and Slayback, one of which called Col. Slayback a coward.

The night of September 30, 1882, Alonzo Slayback was at the Elks Club, loudly railing against the Post-Dispatch and calling James Cockrell a blackmailer. Cockrell overheard the remarks and later that evening he got Slayback alone in the library-room to ask what he meant by the charges. According to Cockrell, the two had words and Slayback said to him, “I tell you that if the Post-Dispatch ever attacks me or assails my character, I will go to your office and kill you.” Cockrell explained the he, personally, had never written a line against Slayback and “entertained only friendly feelings for him.” Slayback cooled down, and after further conversation they shook hands, went into another room and drank together, then parted cordially.

But Col. Slayback was still angry, and at a political meeting said that he intended to denounce the Post-Dispatch from the stump during the congressional campaign. In response, the Post-Dispatch published the contents of a letter that was damaging to Slayback’s reputation.

A little after five pm on October 13, Col. Slayback went to the office of the Post-Dispatch to confront Cockrell. Slayback and his associate, Mr. Clopton, entered Cockrell’s office accompanied by Mr. McGuffin and Mr. Cole of the Post-Dispatch. Exactly what happened next is uncertain. Mr. Clopton said that Slayback had gone, unarmed, to the office, intending to slap Cockrell’s face and demand an apology. As Slayback was hanging up his coat, Cockrell grabbed a pistol from his desk and fired at Slayback, killing him.

Cockrell told a different story. Slayback entered the office and said, “Well I am here.” Seeing the pistol on Cockrell’s desk he said, “Is that for me?” Cockrell said it wasn’t but grabbed it from the desk as Slayback drew his own revolver. Cockrell fired when Slayback cocked his pistol and pointed it at Cockrell’s chest. In one telling of the story, Cockrell would have been killed if Mr. McGuffin hadn’t interposed his thumb between the hammer and the cap of Slayback’s pistol. McGuffin later produced the pistol, a pearl handled, British bulldog revolver, at the inquest, but Clopton denied that it was Slayback’s, and maintained that they had gone to the office unarmed.

John Cockrell was arrested for second-degree murder and released on $10,000 bail. Col. Slayback’s funereal was the largest seen in St. Louis to date, with thousands of people in the procession which included one hundred and forty-two carriages and about fifty buggies. There was a massive outpouring of sympathy for Slayback’s family and the affair prompted several editorials against the prevalence of handguns in American society.

When the grand jury met the following month, murder charges against John Cockrell were dropped and the matter ended.


"Mourning Multitude ." Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 16 Oct 1882.
"Murder at St. Louis." Daily Illinois State Journal 14 Oct 1882.
"Murder in the Sanctum." The National Police Gazette 28 Oct 1882.
"The Slayback Murder." Daily Illinois State Register 26 Nov 1882.
"The St. Louis Homicide." New York Herald 19 Oct 1882.
"St. Louis Tragedy." Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 15 Oct 1882.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Now Available! The Bloody Century

New book...


Buy it Now! at Amazon.

A murderous atmosphere pervaded nineteenth century America unlike anything seen before or since. Lurid murder stories dominated newspaper headlines, and as if responding to the need for sensational copy, Americans everywhere began to see murder as a solution to their problems. The Bloody Century retells their stories -- some still famous, some long buried, all endlessly fascinating.
The Bloody Century is a collection of true stories of ordinary Americans, driven by desperation, greed, jealousy or an irrational bloodlust, to take the life of someone around them. The book includes facts, motives, circumstances and outcomes, narrating fifty of the most intriguing murder cases of nineteenth century America. Richly illustrated with scenes and portraits originally published at the time of the murders, and including songs and poems written to commemorate the crimes, The Bloody Century invokes a fitting atmosphere for Victorian homicide. 
The days of America’s distant past, the time of gaslights and horse drawn carriages, are often viewed as quaint and sentimental, but a closer look reveals passions, fears, and motives that are timeless and universal, and a population inured to violence, capable of monstrous acts. A visit to The Bloody Century may well give us insight into our own.

"I've been a fan of Robert Wilhelm's "Murder by Gaslight" blog for years and I'm so pleased that readers are being treated to the very best of his posts in this interesting and entertaining collection.  There's something here for everyone - tragedy and comedy, open-and-shut cases and wrongful convictions, rich and poor, city and country, and more.  Readers will delight in the period engravings, the emphasis on how the cases influenced popular culture, and the extensive research that provides for further reading.  The Bloody Century is a welcome and lively companion to Judith Flanders' recent  The Invention of Murder, with a decidedly American flavor."
--- James M. Schmidt, Author of Galveston and the Civil War and Notre Dame and the Civil War

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Murder or Suicide?

Little Murders
(From Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, November 12, 1878)

Murder or Suicide?
The Mystery of the Dead Body Found in the Woods Still Unsolved.
The case of Joseph Straka, whose dead body was found in the woods, is still unraveled. Indeed, the mystery surrounding it seems to deepen. The post mortem examination was made yesterday by Professor Holliday and that revealed nothing definite.

The Coroner was to have held an inquest to-day but has postponed it until to-morrow because he cannot yet find the solution of the problem but hopes to by further investigation.

All sorts of theories have been made up, both for murder and suicide, but there is nothing to fasten to. The belief that Straka was murdered seems to be gaining ground but the difficulty in the way of that theory is to find a motive.

The idea that he committed suicide is strengthened by the fact that crystals of phosphorus were found in his throat at the autopsy. The stomach of the man was this morning given over to Coroner Isom and he still has possession of it and its contents at noon. It will be analyzed, as it has been suggested that he might have taken inwardly a poison.

The position of the body when found—with one foot across the other, one arm by the side and especially the hat well set on the head—encourage the supposition that the man was killed and carried to where he was found.

On the contrary some remarks he made before leaving his boarding house on Friday about his head feeling badly and the fact that he left money to pay a bill are taken by some that he was preparing to kill himself.

On Saturday evening, when he visited his sister, nothing unusual was notice about him. No thought was entertained by his sister or her husband that he contemplated suicide.

The position of the body, resting on a knoll and in a sort of gully, tends to show that the wound was not self-inflicted, as well as the character of the wound itself.

But it is probably useless to speculate at present upon the case. There are matters not proper to publish at this time which would go to corroborate both the theory of murder and the theory of suicide. We observe that our contemporaries are industriously giving to the public all sorts of probable and improbable stuff. At this time we can only say that both the Coroner and the Chief of Police, who are operating in concert, have strong hope that to-morrow will solve the mystery. The entire detective force and some of the police force are detailed on special duty in connection with this strange case.

Detectives Holzworth, Reeves, Hulligan and Dienst this morning again visited the spot where the body was found and after a careful search they found the pistol which is supposed to have been used. It is an old style but probably newly purchased single-barrel pistol. It was found partly submerged in water and leaves, the handle sticking up and lay about fifty feet from where the body was found. This finding of the pistol is construed as additional evidence of sucide, as it is thought that the man in falling might have thrown up his arm and loosed the pistol and thrown it away. The cuts (as if by a razor) on the coat do not go through the coat lining and may have been hastily made to divert suspicion of murder. There are a great many strange circumstances surrounding this case which it would do no good to make public at this time.

(From Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, November 13, 1878)

The Mysterious Killing.
The Probabilities of Suicide.
Further Developments by the Coroner’s Inquest and Otherwise Which are Take as Proof That Joseph Straka Killed Himself.
The Coroner and the police have a about come to the conclusion that Joseph Straka committed suicide. Coroner Isom this morning mad a thorough examination of Straka’s room at his boarding house on St. Clair street but found no trace of anything which pointed to suicide.

Yesterday afternoon Frank Straka, brother of the deceased, and V. Jedlieka, whose wife’s brother is the husband of Joseph Straka’s sister, testified before the Coroner. Their testimony threw no light on the mystery. The deceased was seen by them as late as Saturday evening, nothing unusual was noticed about him and when he left them he promised to see them again soon.

The stomach of the dead man was examined yesterday afternoon and found to contain phosphorus in such quantity as to be extremely offensive to the smell and to emit considerable light in a dark room. This phosphorus adds another element to the mystery. Near the body was found a pint flask which was supposed to have contained powder and whisky, but is now thought may have held a solution of phosphorus. The phosphorus found in the stomach was in a crude state, as the Coroner expresses is, and it may be that the ends of matches were taken for the poison. The Coroner states that enough phosphorus was found in the stomach “to run a match factory.”

That phosphorus would produce death is certain but it would be slow in its effect and create violent pains and vomiting. The body exhibited no condition which would indicate that the phosphorous had begun to work and therefor it is believe that the shot was fired very soon after the phosphorus was swallowed.

The finding of the pistol does not furnish convincing proof of suicide, because it was found at such a distance and in such a direction as to make it highly improbable that the man could have thrown it there himself. Beside the body lay in a thick bush and not far from a log which lay higher than the corpse, which circumstances are conclusive that he could not fall and throw the pistol fifty feet away. The wound was of such a nature that on the moment when it was inflicted the man must have died (if he was not already dead) and the theory of “reflex action” of muscles hurling a pistol fifty feet is ridiculous.

No motive for suicide has been discovered nor any motive for murder. Everything so far advanced is simple theory. In order to reconcile with the suicide theory the distance of the pistol when found from the corpse it is thought that the pistol may have originally lain by the man’s side and that some man discovering the body and coveting the pistol had kept the pistol, saying nothing about the body, until the search for a weapon became so earnest that he thought the best thing for his own safety was to throw the pistol somewhere near where the body lay. It is believed improbable that the hundreds of people who scoured the vicinity of the body on Sunday could have overlooked the butt of a new pistol sticking two inches above the leaves in the ditch within fifty feet of where the body lay.

A piece of an illustrated paper was found in Straka’s pocket and in the wound in his side was found a wad which, since straightened out and cleaned, proves to be a piece of the same paper as was in his pocket. Indeed, it is not difficult to match the pieces found in the wound and in the picket. One piece found in the pocket has part of the heading of an editorial on Sumner, showing the letters “SUM” while the wad taken form the wound has the letters “NER” to finish out the heading. It requires but a superficial examination to show that the wad paper and the piece in the pocket belonged together. This is perhaps the most conclusive evidence of suicide.

Detective Dienst reports to-day the result of his tracing of Straka from Friday until Sunday. On Friday night Straka was at a saloon at the corner of Forest and Warren streets form eight o’clock until midnight. Then he went to his brother-in-law’s house on Forest street, where he remained over night. Saturday morning he went to a saloon at No. 1501 Forest street. The people who saw him there say that although he was usually cheerful he was downhearted upon this occasion, and made the remark that a person is better off under ground than on top of it At the same place he made the remark, “To-morrow you will hear of some trouble,” which is now considered as significant. When asked what kind of trouble he replied in an evasive way that it would be trouble with the temperance people. On Saturday evening at five o’clock Straka went to a saloon at No. 76 Broadway, and asked for the Germania, supposedly a newspaper. After remaining there for about five minutes he went to a friend’s house at No. 1490 Forest street. When he left there he went in the direction of the Atlantic & Great Western Railway track and from that time all trace of him is lost.

It is said that on Friday night when he stopped at his brother-in-law’s house he made a remark about a person being better off under ground than above it and that he asked permission to sleep in the attic, where there is no bed. This request was refused him, and how it is thought that if it had been granted he would have killed himself there.

The Coroner has not finished taking testimony and perhaps will not be through with that work to-day. The Chief of Police will make some experiments with the piston to ascertain if when loaded to the muzzle and held against some object it would fly off as found.

It is now stated that some friends of Straka, a Bohemian and his wife, testify that they saw the pistol found near his body in his passion the day before he killed himself.

Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, November 12, 1878
Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, November 13, 1878

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Murdered his Mother.

Little Murders:
Murdered his Mother.
National Police Gazette, Feb. 2, 1889
Elmer Sharkey, still wearing his night clothes, ran to his neighbor’s house, the morning of Saturday, January 11, 1889, calling for help. His house had been broken into and his mother had been murdered in her bed. Elmer, distraught over the death of his widowed mother, Caroline Sharkey, persuaded county officials in Eaton, Ohio, to offer a reward of $1,000 for the apprehension of her killer.

As soon as the reward was announced, Herman Hughes, a well-known young man of Eaton, had himself appointed special officer, and put Elmer Sharkey under arrest for the murder. Sharkey denied the charge and remained stolid until after his mother’s funeral the following Monday, when he finally broke down. Hughes had a talk with him after the funeral and Sharkey confessed to killing his mother, though he had not remembered the details until after her burial.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Bloody Century.

October 2014 marked the fifth anniversary of weekly posts on Murder by Gaslight (and last week marked our 1,000,000th pageview) to celebrate we are pleased to announce the forthcoming release of a new book, The Bloody Century, by Robert Wilhelm. The book contains fifty true stories of murder compiled and refined from the posts on Murder by Gaslight and represents the best of the first five years or the blog.

The Bloody Century— it may seem arbitrary to label the nineteenth as America’s “bloody century” when all of her centuries have seen a fair amount of blood, but a murderous atmosphere pervaded nineteenth century America unlike any before or since. For the most part, these are not stories of hardened criminals for whom murder was a way of life, the killers were ordinary Americans, of every class and occupation, who had concluded that their lot in life could be improved by the death of someone in their circle.
It was an era of second chances; while some traveled west to start a new life, others looked for their second chance through violence. Harvard professor John White Webster thought he could relieve his debts by killing his creditor. Frankie Silver and Roxalana Druse murdered their husbands to escape abuse, while Henry Green and Adolph Luetgert got rid of their inconvenient wives. Jealousy drove Daniel McFarland to murder his rival, and Laura Fair to murder her lover. Greed drove the Knapp brothers to plot the murder of their rich uncle.
Then there were the murders committed for no reason at all. While still in his early teens Jesse Pomeroy tortured and killed two young children and could not explain why. Thomas Piper murdered two young women before senselessly killing a five-year-old girl in a church belfry. Theo Durrant, who also did his dirty work in a church belfry, murdered and mutilated two young women from the Christian Endeavor Society which he led. Lydia Sherman and Sarah Jane Robinson poisoned their husbands and children in murder sprees that went on for years. And of course, the infamous H. H. Holmes systematically tortured and killed an estimated 230 men, women, and children.   
The Bloody Century tells all their stories, sticking closely to the facts, but with a nod to the rumors as well. The book is profusely illustrated with portraits and murder scenes from nineteenth century pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, and it includes ballad lyrics, poems and verses composed at the time of the murders.
The days of our distant past, the time of gaslights and horse drawn carriages, are often viewed as quaint and sentimental, but a closer look reveals passions, fears, and motives that are timeless and universal, and a population inured to violence, capable of monstrous acts. A visit to the bloody century may well give us insight into our own.
The Bloody Century will be available some time in the coming month. If you would like more information or advance notice of the books release, please email

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Guest Blogger: ExecutedToday

It is always a pleasure to present a guest post from our friends at who have just competed their seventh year of daily execution reports.   Here is the story of Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh who killed at least one husband and was hanged while sitting in her rocking chair, originally posted on

1846: Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, in her rocking chair

Originally posted January 24th, 2013  by Headsman

On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”

She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.

The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.

Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.

I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.

Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


The most fascinating murder cases of the 19th Century are the ones that remain unsolved. Their stories have inspired writers and criminologists and seem to bring out the amateur sleuth in everyone. Every new theory brings a new round of debate but leads us no closer to resolution. Here are the Murder by Gaslight cases that will remain forever unsolved:

Mary Rogers

The body of New York cigar store clerk, Mary Rogers, was found strangled on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River. Police were at a loss but the newspapers published several theories, with multiple suspects, none of which proved true. This unsolved murder was the inspiration for  Edgar Allan Poe's classic detective story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget."

Amasa Sprague

When Rhode Island industrialist, Amasa Sprague was found shot and beaten to death on New Year’s day, 1844, police suspected the Gordon brothers, Irish immigrants with a grudge against Sprague, and John Gordon was executed for the crime. It has since been proven that John Gordon was innocent and he was posthumously pardoned in 2011. Who really killed Amasa Sprague remains a mystery.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Professor Strunk.

Prof. Ira G. Strunk
In 1885, Professor Ira G. Strunk was a model citizen of New Albany, Indiana. He was the Principal of the New Albany Business College, a member of the Episcopal Church, and a happily married man with two young daughters. His wife Myra sang in the church choir, under the direction of Strunk’s friend, Charles V. Hoover. But behind Strunk’s back, the relationship of Myra and Charles went far beyond choir practice. Although the affair was common knowledge in New Albany, Ira Strunk was oblivious until he, quite literally, read about it in the newspaper. A small item in the gossip column of the local paper rocked Strunk’s world and set him on a course that could only end in murder.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fanaticism and Murder.

Little Murders
(From Centinel of Freedom (originally published in The Troy Times), May 10, 1859)

Fanaticism and Murder.

The Quiet Sabbath was broken in upon yesterday by the commission of a horrid murder, in the town of Sandlake, about fourteen miles from Troy, of a daughter by her father and only surviving parent, a man about 60 years of age named John Belding. The scene of the homicide is about four miles East of Sliter’s tavern, and near the steam saw mill on Sandlake road. The parties lived in a little house, in which the father earned a livelihood for himself and daughter by following the trade of a shoemaker. The daughter’s name as Christina. She is about nineteen years of age, and is described by the neighbors as a quiet and well-behaved girl. She had been unwell for some time, and, it is said, had been under the care of a female doctress residing in Berlin, in this county, named Weaver. Her mind, it appears, was somewhat affected, but whether from religious excitement or from some other cause, we are unable to say. She labored under the impression that the devil had possessed her, and used to pray very frequently for deliverance from his grasp. A day or two before he murder, the old man and daughter went over to the house of David Horton who resided opposite the Beldings, when Christina said she had taken medicine of Mrs. Weaver, and it made her feel as if “the devil was in her, and she would scratch him off; but that she had thrown the medicine away, and drove the devil away too.” The old man had not done much work recently, as it affected the  girl’s head, and it is supposed that in consequence of his care of her, want of sleep, &c., his own mind had become temporarily affected, and while under the delusion that “Dena,” as he calls her, was the devil, he killed her.

The account which Belding gives of the affair is, that he saw the devil lying on the bed and he struck it in the face. The girl, it appears, was lying down in the back room. Belding followed her from that room to the front room, in which the murder was committed with a shoemaker’s hammer. Her skull was completely smashed to pieces. Portions of the hair were scattered about the room, and pieces of the skull were lying over the floor. Her face too was considerably bruised and disfigured, but no marks of violence were discovered on the other parts of her body. Belding says he thought she was the devil—that she appeared to him to be four times as large as “Dena”—and from his previous and subsequent conduct there can scarcely be a doubt that the old man imagines he had a fight with the devil, or he he expresses it, with “three devils, and he had all he could do to kill them.” They lived alone in the house.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Miss Elizabeth Petty.

In 1893, Miss Elizabeth Petty lived alone in a three-story frame house in Newark, New Jersey. She was a reclusive sixty-five year old spinster, known for her eccentricities and believed to be worth a considerable fortune. Her father had been a prosperous sea captain who died when she was a young child. When her mother died in 1878, Miss Petty inherited the house along with railroad and bank bonds worth an estimated $30,000 - $40,000. Miss Petty had been a school teacher but she gradually went insane and had to retire when her students began making fun of her behavior.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

More Scenes from the Burdell Murder.

The 1857 stabbing of Dr. Harvey Burdell, one of New York City’s most sensational murders, occurred just in time to save Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from bankruptcy. The weekly paper featured lurid illustrations from the murder in several issues and sold enough copies to keep the paper afloat.

Murder by Gaslight has already posted the story of the Burdell murder (The Bond Street Tragedy) as well as a collection of illustrations from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (Scenes form the Burdell Murder). This set of illustrations portrays the murder itself, as theorized by the post-mortem physicians. The paper came out shortly after the lengthy inquest which indicted Emma Cunningham and John Eckel for the murder of Harvey Burdell. In the pictures the assassin is depicted as a man but he does not resemble John Eckel.

Scene No.1. The assassin approached from behind as Burdell sat at his writing desk. He stabbed over Burdell’s right shoulder and plunged the dagger into his chest, leaving a considerable amount of blood on the floor near the chair.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Long Island Murders.

A series of violent home invasions in and around Brookville, Long Island in November 1883 and the  months that followed left two people dead and four more seriously injured. The normally serene farming community was thrown into a state of confusion with at least a dozen false arrests, two perjured eye-witnesses, a false confession, lynch mobs, a jail break, and for a time, two independent and equally valid lines of inquiry that could not be reconciled.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Fatal Jealousy.

Little Murders 
Deidrich Steffens, a bottler of lager beer, was making a delivery on Park Avenue in Brooklyn, the afternoon of April 17, 1883, when he was called to by John Cordes, a wholesale grocery dealer. Cordes was standing in front of the grocery store of Steffens’s friend, Diedrich Mahnken, and as Steffens crossed the street, Mahnken emerged from his store brandishing a “British bull dog” revolver. Without a word Mahnken fired five shots into Deidrich Steffens—four to the head, one to the chest.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love, Lust and Murder.

Little Murders
(From The New York Herald, March 29, 1871)

Love, Lust and Murder.

Mysterious Affair Near Chillicothe, Ohio—Murder or Suicide—Sad Ending of a Disgraceful Liaison.

A special reporter from Chillicothe, Ohio, to-night brings intelligence of a the preliminary examination of John S. Blackburn, charged with the murder of Mary Jane Lovell in Ross county, last week. The case is one of the most mysterious and dramatic on record. Blackburn took the young woman riding along a lonely country road terminating at a ford where two streams merge and then go brawling among wild forbidding cliffs. Here, in a lonely glen, so unfrequented even by domestic animals that the ground was covered with a dense undergrowth of hardy shrubs, Blackburn stated that the girl swallowed poison and flung away the bottle, and by incessant importunity made his kinsman go and seek her dead body. It was found, an inquest held and a post-mortem made, but the actual cause of death remains undetected, as the stomach and its contents were sent to this city for analysis. The evidence to-day clearly proved the criminal intimacy, and disclosed a sickening correspondence, in which Blackburn gave unbridled expression to the most consuming lust. He makes appointments with the girl and stimulates her to promptness with glowing descriptions of their mutual pleasure and hints at rich presents as her reward. These promises are not made good, for she asks for money and nowhere acknowledges receiving any.

The popular construction of the case was that the pair went to the glen, eight miles away from home, to take poison together through sheer despair; but it now turns out that the girl never manifested the least unhappiness; on the contrary she was in high spirits when last seen alive, and was in excellent health. Blackburn will undoubtedly be committed to jail to-morrow for the murder of the girl. In court he wears a downcast, stolid look and is evidently suffering intensely, mentally and physically. What give the case intense interest her is the fact that Blackburn is a brother to Major C. H. Blackburn, ex-Prosecuting Attorney of Hamilton county and at one time very popular in this city.


"Love, Lust and Murder." New York Herald 29 Mar 1871

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Murder among the Shantyboats.

Colonies of shantyboats around cities the on the banks of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers provided cheap housing for low income workers and unemployed transients. Shantyboats were just what the name suggests, handmade one-room shacks floating in the river. The colonies were densely populated, the boats were crowded, and they were often the homes of unsavory characters—conditions ripe for violence and murder.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Judge Lynch in Pennsylvania.

Little Murders 

Joseph Snyder murdering Jacob Geogle and wife - Judge Lynch meets out death to the scoundrel in a summary manner
Portraits: 1. Joseph Snyder - 2. Alice Geogle, whom Snyder attempted to rape.

In 1880, Jacob and Annie Geogle lived with their three children in the town of Santee’s Mills near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Jacob worked as a miner in an iron ore mine and to supplement his meager income, the Geogles took in a boarder—27-year-old Joseph Snyder, also a miner. Snyder became infatuated with the Geogle’s oldest daughter Alice and expressed his desire to marry her but Alice was only 14-years-old and she did not return Joseph Snyder’s love. Her parents were appalled at the idea and would have thrown Snyder out but he owed them two months’ rent and they needed the money.

Snyder began sneaking into Alice’s room late at night and making improper advances that she had, so far, been able to fend off. When she told her parents of Snyder's behavior they were livid and on December 26 they confronted him. After a bitter argument they told Snyder that when he got his next paycheck he must pay his board and leave.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inartistic Murder.

Inartistic Murder.
A marked difference between science and art, that has escaped the attention of writers upon intellectual development as manifested in human handiwork, is that while science is all embracing, art confines itself largely to trivialities. Science is continually announcing endeavors and successes so vast that the ordinary eye needs to be about as far distant as the moon in order to take them in, whereas art is often satisfied with efforts so tiny and vague that only the feeblest mind can see anything in them. We have artistic door knobs, fire shovels and spittoons in bewildering abundance, but he who yearns to see art reach forth in a grandly sympathetic way and supplement human action in the greater phases of live must take it out in yearning. For instance, there is murder. No one will deny that taking of human life is a deed of momentous import to the killer and the killed; yet what has modern art done for murder? Nothing, except to make sickening and inaccurate pictures of an occasional sanguinary taking off. After twenty-five centuries of art development there is no absolutely new method of slaughter except that of shooting, and of two murders reported yesterday one was committed with a bedpost and the other with a poker! To the truly artistic mind many sightly substitutes for these commonplace weapons suggest themselves. The persons whose lives were doomed might have been killed with equal success and almost as much celerity by being compelled to stare at blue china, or listen to certain musical compositions, or try to make themselves comfortable in artistic chairs, or be confined in a room decorated entirely of Japanese fans, but these means are not at the command of every one. Art will not have done its duty by murder until it has devised tasteful and cheap appliances with which to help a man out of the world. An aesthetic flatiron, or a decorative bootjack, or a gracefully turned club with a tasteful obituary suggestion engraved upon it in early English letter might be made cheap enough to be within the means of the poorest, and any public spirited rumseller should be willing to have within reach of his customers an antique dagger with “Hark, from the Tombs!” etched upon its blade. Let art awake to a sense of its responsibilities to the more important departments of human effort.

"Inartistic Murder." New York Herald 4 Jan 1882.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Courthouse Riots.

When William Berner was tried in 1884 for the cold-blooded murder of his boss, William Kirk, the people of Cincinnati expected a hanging. When the verdict returned was only manslaughter, the city was outraged. It was the last straw, breaching the limits of tolerance after years of political corruption, driving an angry populace into the streets for three days of violence that took fifty-four lives and left public buildings in rubble -- an uprising known as The Courthouse Riots.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Fearful Fratricide.

Little Murders
The Rogers family were early settlers in Blue Lick Springs, Kentucky, having fought a bloody battle with Indians to secure their homestead. They never lost their frontier zeal for violence as a tool for solving problems, even for family disputes which, apparently, were frequent and quite intense. In the 1880s, Willis Rogers had eight children, five boys and three girls. In the heat of an argument, Willis’s brother shot and killed one of the boys. To make amends, the brother willed his entire estate to Willis. He died soon after leaving Willis Rogers a very wealthy man.

When Willis died in 1883 he left the fortune to his sons Samuel and Robert, for some reason disinheriting his other two surviving sons, William and Thomas. William, who was an attorney in St. Louis, and Thomas, who was a farmer of “high standing,” had no intention of taking the matter lying down and made plans to contest the will. On September 27, they met at the old Rogers’s mansion on Indian Creek, with their brother Samuel, president of the Farmer’s Bank in Carlisle, and executor of the will, along with several other attorneys.

As they took depositions for the lawsuit, tempers were on edge and the tension in the room was palpable. During a wordy exchange, Samuel believed that one of his brothers had moved to draw a weapon, so he drew his own revolver and fired a shot. It was reported that William and Thomas then pulled out their pistols and began firing. As the lawyers hurriedly left the room, Samuel’s son entered with his gun drawn, and “… all blazed away until smoke made it impossible to do creditable work.”

When the smoke cleared, Samuel emerged unscathed but William and Thomas were fatally wounded—William shot in the right knee and abdomen, and Thomas in the left arm and right temple.  On his arrest, Samuel maintained that his brothers had drawn on him first, but the attorneys present claimed that Samuel, who had emptied his pistol, was the only man to fire. It is safe to say that Robert Rogers, the brother who had not attended the meeting, was the only man to benefit from this negotiation.


"[Kentucky; Blue Lick Springs; Willis Rogert; Willis]." Springfield Republican 2 Oct 1883: 4.
"A Fearful Fratricidal Crime ." Jackson Citizen Patriot 28 Sep 1883: 1.
"Cold Lead as a Surragate." National Police Gazette 20 Oct 1883

Saturday, July 26, 2014

John Greenwell.

Little Murders:
From Defenders and Offenders:

John Greenwell.

"Crook, burglar, and finally murderer, is the man who was ultimately convicted of the murder of Lyman S. Weeks of Brooklyn, N.Y., into whose house he had broken with the intention of robbery, on the evening of March 13, 1887. Weeks hearing noises below, descended to the dining room and was immediately shot and killed by Greenwell, who had as accomplice his pal named Dutch Miller, who was also arrested."

Defenders and offenders. New York: D. Buchner & Co., 1888.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Shrewd Rascal.

Samuel Smith and his wife Emma appeared to the world as a happy and affectionate young couple. She was pretty and vivacious with a dazzling wardrobe and he energetic, with a winning personality. But beneath the surface was a hidden turmoil that did not come to light until Emma was found dead in their apartment, her head blown apart by a shotgun blast, with Samuel nowhere to be found.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The “Rough on Rats” Murder.

Little Murders
(From The Kalamazoo Gazette, February 20, 1884)

The “Rough on Rats” Murder.

A Woman Found Guilty of Murder in the First Degree—Her Husband Awaiting Trial.

Muskegon, Mich., Feb. 19—The Jury in the case of Mrs. Korun Larson, after being out eighteen hours, brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree.. She poisoned John Guild on the first of August last with “Rough on Rats.” Her husband awaits trial on the same charge. She was remanded for sentence until March 3.

The Larsons lived on a farm owned by Guild, who was a single man, sixty years of age. In 1883 he deeded the farm to Mrs. Larson on condition that she should furnish a home during life. On the first of August in that year Guild died suddenly, and the contents of his stomach being analyzed, ten and a half grains of arsenic was found. During the trial a neighbor of the Larsons testified to having purchased a package of “Rough on Rats” for Mrs. Larson, a few days before the death of Guild. It was also shown that the Larsons paid a number of bills that they owed and had considerable money after Guild’s death, and that not a dollar of several hundred that Guild was known to have in his possession a day or two previous to his death could be found by his friends.


"The "Rough On Rats" Murder." Kalamazoo Gazette 20 Feb 1884: 1.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


On January 2, 1800, the body of Guliema Sands was found in the Manhattan Well, not far from her boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, New York City. There were two contradictory schools of thought among those who knew Guliema Sands—those who remembered her as melancholy and suicidal, and those remembered her as happy and cheerful, especially so on the night she disappeared when she revealed that she was to marry Levi Weeks. When Levi Weeks was arrested for murder everyone in the city would take a side. The trial of Levi Weeks was the first of New York City’s sensational murder cases, the first American murder trial to be transcribed, and the first defense council “dream team.” Levi Weeks was represented in court by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mariticide and Uxoricide.

In the years before divorce was common, mariticide—the murder of one’s husband, and uxoricide—the murder of one’s wife, were often seen as the only way out of an abusive or loveless marriage, especially of one was interested in retaining the spouse’s fortune. Here is Murder by Gaslight’s list of mariticides and uxoricides:

Elsie Whipple

Elsie Whipple wanted to run off with her servant, Jesse Strang, but all of her money was controlled by her husband John. She persuaded Jesse to shoot him.

Reverend Henry Budge

Priscilla Budge was constantly fighting with her husband, Reverend Henry Budge. When she was found in bed with her throat cut, the Reverend became the prime suspect.


George Swearingen

George Swearingen murdered his wife Mary by pushing her off a horse. He wanted to marry his mistress, Rachel Cunningham.


Mary Sheedy

To end her tumultuous marriage, Mary Sheedy enlisted the help of her hair dresser, “Monday” McFarland to murder her husband John.

Lydia Sherman

Lydia Sherman poisoned three husbands (and several other family members) primarily for financial gain.

Minnie Wallace Walkup

Minnie Wallace was sixteen years old when she married forty-eight year old James Walkup. A month later he died of arsenic poisoning. Her second husband died the same way.

Emma Cunningham

Emma Cunningham may or may not have been married to Dr. Harvey Burdell and she may or may not have strangled and stabbed him to death.

Lucretia Chapman

Lucretia Chapman conspired with her Latin lover Lino Mina to murder her husband William.

Henry Green

Henry Green was infatuated with Mary Ann Wyatt and they married in haste. But when Henry’s mother did not approve he poisoned his new bride.

Frankie Silver

After enduring years of abuse, Frankie Silver snapped and took an axe to her husband Charlie.