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Friday, September 10, 2010

Antoine Le Blanc

American opportunity lured thousands of European immigrants to the New World in search of fortune. But opportunity was not enough for French immigrant, Antoine Le Blanc, who became a farm worker Morristown, New Jersey in 1833. After only two weeks on the job, Le Blanc realized that the fortune he sought would not be gained by hard work, it called for violent action. Le Blanc robbed and murdered his employers, the Sayre family, and their servant girl. He was quickly caught, speedily tried and executed at one of New Jersey’s largest public hangings. Hatred for Le Blanc was so strong that after his death his body was desecrated—his skin was made into wallets and other leather products, some of which still exist nearly 170 years later.

Date: May 11, 1833

Location:  Morristown, New Jersey

Victim: Samuel and Sarah Sayre, and their servant Phoebe

Cause of Death:  Clubbing

Accused:  Antoine Le Blanc

Synopsis:
Antoine Le Blanc came to America from the Moselle region of France leaving behind his sweetheart, a woman named Marie. They were in love but Marie’s parents rejected Le Blanc as too poor and low-bred. Le Blanc’s plan was to attain wealth in the New World and return to France a more acceptable suitor for Marie.


Within a few days of his arrival on April 26, 1833, Le Blanc was fortunate enough to find work at the farm of Samuel and Sarah Sayre. The Sayres were a prominent and well to do couple in their sixties, living with an African American servant named Phoebe, who may have been a slave. The Sayres needed help with the farm work; they had owned a young slave boy who ran off leaving them with no one to help with the spring planting.

The relationship was tense from the start; Le Blanc spoke no English and the Sayres spoke no French. In addition to communication problems, other workers on the farm complained of Le Blanc’s cigar smoking and poor personal hygiene. For Le Blanc, resentment grew when the job he thought would be simple gardening turned out to be strenuous farm work and the he would be working for room and board only.

The night of May 11, 1833, after drinking hard cider at a local tavern, Le Blanc returned to the farmhouse. He found Samuel Sayre upstairs shaving. Gesturing excitedly, Le Blanc motioned for Sayre to follow him to the stable. There he killed Sayre with a single blow the back of the head with a spade. He lured Sarah Sayre to the stable the same way. He knocked her down with the spade but she did not die right away. He hit her again with the spade, then as she pleaded for her life, Le Blanc kicked her to death with his boot.

Le Blanc buried the bodies under a pile of manure and went back into the farmhouse. He sneaked into Phoebe’s bedroom and murdered her in her sleep. Accounts differ on how he killed Phoebe; he may have clubbed her, split her skull with an axe, or rammed a pitchfork into her chest.

He then ransacked the place, prying open ever box and drawer in the house and loading everything of value—coins and silverware down to thimbles and toothbrushes— into pillowcases. He changed his bloody clothing for one of Samuel Sayre’s suites, stole a horse and fled.

The plan was to pawn the valuables in New York and board a ship to Germany before the bodies were discovered. However, in his haste, Le Blanc had not secured the pillowcases and stolen items began to fall out as he rode. The next morning a piece of the Sayre’s monogramed silver was found on the road. The bodies were discovered and Sheriff George Ludlow led a posse who followed the trail of booty to the Mosquito Tavern in the Hackensack Meadows. Le Blanc was arrested and taken back to Morristown.


Trial: August 13, 1833
Le Blanc confessed to the murders in jail. His trial in the Morris County Courthouse was brief and the jury deliberated for only twenty minutes before finding Le Blanc guilty of murder. The next day Judge Gabriel Ford sentenced Le Blanc to be hanged, and then...

“be delivered to Dr. Isaac Canfield, a surgeon, for dissection.”

Verdict:  Guilty of murder

Aftermath:
Twelve thousand people—more than five times the town’s population— came to witness the hanging of Antoine LeBlanc in the Morristown village green on September 6, 1833. Observers noted that many of the spectators were women. Morristown would be using a “modern” gallows, designed to jerk the prisoner upward, rather than drop through the floor as with a conventional gallows. When the weight was dropped, LeBlanc’s body jerked eight feet into the air. Two minutes later the body stopped twitching and LeBlanc was dead.


It was not uncommon for doctors to dissect the bodies of executed men to advance their knowledge of anatomy. Often the bodies were obtained illegally by grave robbers. Judge Ford’s order to deliver the body to Dr. Canfield may have just officially sanctioned what would have happened anyway.

What was unusual in Le Blanc's case were the experiments then done on his body. Princeton professor, Joseph Henry - one of America's foremost scientists - used an electric battery to test a theory linking electrical current to muscle contraction. Reportedly, Henry was able to cause LeBlanc’s limbs to tense, to make his eyes roll in their sockets, and to bring a slight grin to his lips.

When the professor was finished with his experiments, Le Blanc's ears were cut off and given away as souvenirs and  a plaster death mask was made of Le Blanc’s face. Then the skin was peeled off of his body and sent to the Atno Tannery where it was tanned and made into wallets, purses, lampshades, and book jackets—each one dated and signed by Sheriff Ludlow. One of these wallets currently belongs to the New Jersey Historical Society. Allegedly, others are held in private collections.



Resources:
Websites:
New Jersey Hall of Shame (Watch the video at  the bottom of the page.)

The Haunted Restaurant of Morristown

Books:

Blackwell, Jon. Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. New York: Rivergate Books, 2007.

Sayre family; lineage of Thomas Sayre, a founder of Southampton. Toronto: Nabu Press, 2010.


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