Cherry Hill, the stately mansion overlooking the Hudson River near Albany, New York, was already forty years old in 1827 when it sheltered a vibrant household of 17 people. They were aristocrats mostly, scions of the Van Rensselaer and Lansing families. And there was John Whipple, the young upstart who had married Elsie Lansing, the erratic niece of Catherine Van Rensselaer. At least five servants, including itinerant workman, Jesse Strang, were living in the basement rooms. Domestic tranquility at Cherry Hill would be disrupted forever when Elsie and Jesse failed to observe the distinction between upstairs and downstairs.
Date: May 7, 1827
Location: Albany, New York
Victim: John Whipple
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: Jesse Strang alias Joseph Orton
Elsie Whipple had a reputation for being hysterical and undisciplined. Her father had died when she was very young and Elsie was raised and pampered by a mother and grandmother who had the same characteristics. At age 14 she eloped with John Whipple who lived next door. He was nine years her senior. Elsie’s grandfather, Captain Abraham Lansing, was livid. He had given her father money and property that had now passed to Elsie and would be controlled by John Whipple. Captain Lansing viewed Whipple as a fortune hunter and went to court trying to get his gifts back but lost. Lansing died before there was any reconciliation but the rest of the family eventually warmed to John Whipple; he was a shrewd businessman and grew his wife’s inheritance into a small fortune.
Living in one of the basement rooms of Cherry Hill was a workman who went by the name of Joseph Orton—called “Doctor” by the rest of the household because he wore glasses and knew how to read and write. He did farm work, chopped wood, tended the stable and made general repairs to the house. His real name was Jesse Strang and he had a wife and four children in Fishkill, New York whom he deserted 1825. He moved to Sandusky, Ohio then in the spring of 1826 to Western New York where Jesse Strang faked his own death. He then became Joseph Orton.
Strang first saw Elsie Whipple when he was working at a tavern near Albany owned by Otis Bates. She came into the tavern with Philip P. Van Rensselaer’s daughter Maria. The girls got a little bit rowdy and Elsie, who Sprang described as “sprightly, playful and giddy” caught his eye. That night he commented to Bates’s son that he would like to sleep with her.
Soon after, Strang went to work at Cherry Hill and his amorous feelings for Elsie continued to grow. He would see her often and they would sometimes talk, but he had no indication that she was interested in him. Then one day Elsie told Strang to write her a letter and tell her his feelings. Strang was perplexed. He knew Elsie was married and did not want trouble, but he did not want to pass up the opportunity. The original letter he wrote and delivered to her was destroyed but this is how he reconstructed it ten months later:
Dear Elsie,Half an hour after receiving the letter, Elsie handed Strang her response. She did not mince words— “My motive is out of pure love for you” she said. Several times in the letter she expressed her love for Strang and ended the letter with:
I have seriesly considered on it as you requested of me yesterday and I have concluded two compose a few lines two You and I thought that it was not my duty two right very freely not nowing Your object perhaps it is two get sum of my righting two show two your husband as you ar a marid woman, and If that is your intenshin It is my whish fore you two let me know it fore it is a thing that I skorn two make a disturbance between you and your husband but If on the outher hand It is out of pure offections I should be quite hapy for two have the information in your hand riting and I hope that you will not tak any offen in my manner of riting two you as we ar pirfict strangers two each other, but hop that those few lines may find free exceptan with you and after I find out your motive I can right mour freely on the subject and as for my offections thay are quite favorable I shall expact an answer from you If that is you motive, sow I remain your well whisher, Joseph Orton.
“I remain your true and affectionate lover until death separates us.”This began a series of daily love letters between the two, delivered by servants or the Van Rensselaer children. Their desire for each other was heightened by fact that it was next to impossible to be alone together with so many people in the house. However they did occasionally find the opportunity for, in Srang’s words, “criminal intercourse.”
In their correspondence Elsie expressed her willingness to flee with Strang. He was agreeable to this but said they would need $1200 to get established somewhere else. Elsie had a fortune worth much more than $1200 but by the laws of the time it all belonged to her husband; she could not touch any of it while he was alive. Eventually they decided that the only way they could leave together was to murder John Whipple. They made a pledge that neither would inform on the other, and if one were caught, the other would confess and they would hang together.
In the spring of 1827 they began to take action. First they tried poison—Sprang bought some arsenic in Albany and Elsie put it in a tonic that her husband took every day. She did not give him enough and though it gave him stomach cramps, the poison did not kill him. Next they thought of using a hit man. Strang believed he could hire a man in Montreal for $300, but they did not have the money. Finally they decided that Strang would have to shoot Whipple himself. Elsie suggested he use one of her husband’s dueling pistols but Strang preferred rifles and bought a $25 flintlock.
They began to spread rumors that there were men out to kill Whipple over a business matter. Sprang said he had seen strange men lurking around the house. He and Elsie tested the rifle to see how much kick it had and whether it would be accurate when fired through glass. They planned to shoot through the window of the Whipple’s room.
Strang jumped off the shed and ran to a ravine behind the house where he buried the rifle. He put his coat and boots back on and returned to the house where he learned that John Whipple had been shot and killed. Strang was sent into town to fetch the coroner. When he returned he was sworn in as a member of the coroner’s jury.
The next morning the jury convened and, though a member of the jury, Strang also gave testimony. He spoke vehemently about prowlers he had seen outside the night before. But Strang had overplayed his hand and his zeal to place the blame on the prowlers made the coroner suspicious. The following afternoon Strang was arrested for murder. Two weeks later Elsie Whipple was arrested as well.
Trials: Jesse Strang - July 25, 1827
Elsie Whipple - July 30, 1827