Saturday, October 30, 2010

Murder In Sylvania, Ohio

Book Review:

Murder In Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857
by Gaye E. Gindy

By the mid 1800s, murder reporting had become a staple of American journalism. Beginning with the “penny press” of the East Coast, graphic crime reporting rapidly spread west and publishers knew that nothing sold papers like a good murder story. In Murder in Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857, Gaye E. Gindy tells the story of the 1857 murder of Olive Ward using nothing but verbatim newspaper accounts and other documents available to the reader of the day. The story that emerges is so complete and detailed that no further commentary is necessary.

An early story in the Daily Toledo Blade compares the murder of Mrs. Ward to that of Dr. George Parkman in Boston eight years earlier, one of the first American murders to receive national attention. As in the Parkman case, the killer, Mrs. Ward’s husband Return J. M. Ward, attempts to dispose of the body by dismembering it and burning it in a stove. Olive Ward had unexpectedly disappeared earlier in the week. She had left her husband before; he did not get along with her children. Mr. Ward said she had left him again, this time for good. But Ward’s story did not remain consistent and neighbors’ suspicions led to a search of his house. When investigators found blood stains in his floor and what appeared to be human bones in the ashes of his stove, Return Ward was arrested for the murder of his wife.

As was common in the 19th century, the newspapers reported Ward’s trial in great detail, sometimes including word-for-word testimony. The case was problematic for both sides—the prosecution was faced with the challenge of proving murder without an identifiable corpse, and the defense was up against overwhelming circumstantial evidence. A series of medical experts gave testimony on the blood and bones, but forensic science was limited in 1857 and the doctors could not prove the blood was human and some were unwilling to say with certainty that the bones were human. In the end it was probably the testimony of neighbors about thick, strange smelling smoke coming from Ward’s house and their impressions Ward’s behavior before and after the murder that convinced the jury of his guilt.

After Ward’s conviction he issued a confession, published in the newspapers, saying he had killed his wife in self-defense after she attacked him and hit his head with a lamp. He had hoped this would help with his appeal and lessen the charge to manslaughter. It did not have the desired effect and Ward was sentenced to hang. Two months later, in June 1857, just prior to his execution, Ward confessed again, this time to first degree murder, not just to the murder of his wife Olive but to two other murders he committed in Ohio.

Accounts of the hanging of Return Ward are presented from several different sources and though the descriptions are very close, his dying speech was so incoherent –“the raving of an over excited and broken down mind.” said the Toledo Daily Blade –that there were some discrepancies. Return Ward’s last words were either “Oh my God, I am thine! Thou art mine!”; “Oh God, take me home, I am ready”; or “You might all shut your eyes when I go down—don’t laugh.”

Murder in Sylvania, Ohio also includes the complete text of a 32-page pamphlet published in 1857, entitled: The Triple Murderer – The Life and Confession of Return J. M. Ward. This, together with the newspaper accounts of the investigation and trial, and Ms. Gindy’s research notes, provides a comprehensive and unadorned collection of the facts surrounding this very old murder. It also provides the reader a rare opportunity to experience a murder story exactly “as told in 1857.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


We're looking forward to the new Lizzie Borden documentary Lizbeth: A Victorian Nightmare, filmed in Fall River, Massachusetts. It’s coming soon to PBS, check your local listings (also available on DVD: Lizbeth: A Victorian Nightmare.)

For more information and some stills from the program go to Lizze Borden: Warps and Wefts. And here is a link to the trailer: Lizbeth 30 sec PBS Promo.

Also ...

6:00 PM Halloween night the Discovery Channel will reprise Lizzie Borden, their documentary following modern homicide detectives as they investigate the Borden murders. It's worth watching.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Big Harpe and Little Harpe

Micajah and Wiley Harpe –known respectively as "Big" and "Little" Harpe—spread misery and terror through the western frontier in the 1790s.  They took what they wanted and recognized no law, leaving a trail of death and destruction through Kentucky and Tennessee.  More heinous than mere outlaws, the Harpes had declared war on humanity, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately; repaying frontier hospitality with arson and death.  The Harpes are considered by many to be the first recorded serial killers in American history.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Murder in Little Italy

Maria Barbella emigrated from Italy to New York City with her parents in 1892. By 1895 she was in love with Domenico Cateldo, another Italian immigrant, who had seduced Maria and promised to marry her. Maria continually pressed him to keep his promise but Domenico refused. Then one evening in a Little Italy saloon she could take it no longer; he refused again and she cut his throat with a straight razor. There was no question that she committed murder, but the jury at her trial would have to determine whether the murder was premeditated and whether Maria Barbella would be the first woman sentenced to die in New York’s newly installed electric chair.

Date: April 26, 1895

Location:  New York, New York

Victim:  Domenico Cataldo

Cause of Death:  Slashing

Accused:  Maria Barbella


Maria Barbella was 24 years old when she and her family left the town of Farrandina and settled in New York’s Little Italy. They were among the 247,000 Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1892. Maria found a job as a seamstress and going to and from work she would pass by a shoeshine stand operated by Domenico Cataldo. Soon they began to talk and he told her of his plans to find a girl to marry and to open a barbershop. Before long he would walk her home from work but never all the way—Maria wanted to keep their association a secret from her parents for fear they would disapprove.

Maria’s parents eventually did find out and demanded that she bring Cataldo home to meet them. Cataldo kept finding excuses for not meeting Maria’s parents until finally her father forbade her to see him anymore. Maria obeyed her father’s command for a time, but by 1895 Cataldo was actively pursuing her again, and she relented.

One evening Cataldo gave Maria a drink that was probably drugged, then took her to his room and had sex with her while she was unconscious. Now disgraced, Maria was ashamed to go home to her parents. Cataldo promised to marry her but first found an apartment where they could live together. Though Maria would constantly demand that Cataldo honor his promise and marry her, he continued to refuse.

While living with Maria, Domenico Cataldo was seeing other women. On April 20, he told Maria he would never marry her. He had other plans. Maria later testified that he told her:
“I’ll find you a young man willing to marry you. I’ll tell him you’re a widow. I’ll buy you a black dress. You’ll marry him because I want you to. Then I’ll come to visit you while he’s at work.”

Maria also learned that Cataldo already had a wife and children in Italy and planned to return to them.

On April 26, 1895, New York was in the midst of an historic heat wave. The day before, at 3:30 in the afternoon, the temperature had jumped from 52 degrees 90 degrees. Maria and Cataldo were arguing when Maria’s mother, Filomena, came to the door as she had several times before to plead with Cataldo to marry her daughter. He pushed her aside and ran downstairs to the street and then to Mancuso’s bar, two doors down. He was playing cards when Maria came in ten minutes later. She asked him again to marry her and Cataldo shouted:
“Only pigs marry.”
Maria put her hand on his shoulder and as he tried to push her away, Maria slashed his throat with a straight razor. Clutching his throat, Domenico ran into the street and gushing blood ran through a crowd of horrified bystanders. Then he fell to the sidewalk and died.

Maria went home and changed out of her bloody clothes, but it did not take the police long to find her. When they arrested her she said in broken English:

“Me take his blood so he no take mine. Say me pig marry.”
The police took her to New York’s Tombs prison.

The prosecution in the trial of Maria Barbella presented a case accusing her of premeditated murder. They claimed she had taken the razor with her that day expressly to cut Dominico Cataldo’s throat. But the strongest force working against Maria was her inability to speak English. As she told her impassioned tale, a court appointed translator poorly translated her words in a dull monotone that seem intended to bore rather than inform the jury. Maria’s lawyers offered a less than compelling defense and she found no comfort from Judge Goeff who told the jury:
"Your verdict must be an example of justice. A jury must not concern itself with mercy. The law does not distinguish between the sexes. The fragility of the female sex is sometimes involved to excuse savage crimes. We cannot publicly proclaim a woman not guilty of killing a man solely because this man has proposed marriage and then changed his mind!"
The jury deliberated for 45 minutes then found Maria Barbella guilty of first degree murder.

Maria was sent to Sing Sing prison, near Albany, where she would be only woman prisoner, and the first female prisoner on death row. She would also be the first woman to be executed by the prison’s newly installed electric chair.

The electric chair had been introduced in New York in 1889 as a more humane and efficient method of execution than hanging. The first electric chair execution in Buffalo in 1890 would belie both of those assertions. The condemned man, William Kemmler was given 2000 volts of electricity for 11 seconds. Smoke rose from his head and the room smelled of burnt flesh. Kemmler appeared to be dead, but on close examination he was found to have a small wound pulsing blood and he was struggling to breathe. The jolt had not killed him. The electricity was turned on again, this time for over a minute, until executioners were sure he was dead.

Saving Maria Barbella from the electric chair became a cause célèbre. Many people felt she had not gotten a fair trial, others felt it was wrong to execute a woman, and some were against the death penalty in all cases. Governor Morton was petitioned to pardon Maria, but he would not decide until her appeal had ended.

Maria’s most prominent supporter was Cora Slocomb, an American woman who had married Count Detalmo di Brazza and now lived in Italy. She had followed the case from the beginning and had returned to America to help Maria. Countess di Brazza visited Maria in prison and made sure she had competent attorneys for her appeal.

After eleven months in prison, Maria Barbella’s appeal succeeded and she was granted a new trial. She would spend another seven month in jail before it started.

Though the defense now had an eyewitness who said Domenico Cataldo reached for a pistol before he was killed, they decided on a more risky plea than self-defense. They claimed that Maria was not guilty because she was having an epileptic seizure when she killed Domenico. Unlike the more common insanity defense, the epilepsy defense had only been successful four times and never in the United States. Her lawyer’s introduced evidence of mental problems in Maria’s background and in several generations of Maria’s family. While making sure the jury also heard the self-defense evidence, they contended that Domenico’s statement, “Only pigs marry.” had triggered an epileptic seizure in Maria. Maria, now fluent in English told her story without an interpreter. She now claimed she had no memory of killing her lover.

After listening to a battle of experts on the topic of epilepsy, the jury retired. This time, after forty minutes of deliberation, they found Maria Barbella not guilty.

Less than a year after her release from prison Maria Barbella married Francesco Paulo Bruno, a man who had come from her village in Italy. After that she disappeared from public life.


Pucci, Idanna. The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th-Century Crime of Passion. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.

Maria Barbella

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Axe Murder

Though not unknown today, axe murder was far more common in the 19th century. Axes had dozens of uses around a farm, from chopping wood to killing chickens; even in urban settings a small axe would likely be close at hand for fireplaces and wood stoves. It was a weapon of convenience—easy availability of an axe turned robbery into murder and fits of rage into bloody tragedy. There were cases of premeditated axe murder as well. Whoever killed Andrew and Abby Borden with an axe almost certainly planned ahead. And Richard Robinson – regardless of what the jury said—brought an axe with him to murder Helen Jewett.

So here, in chronological order, is our far from comprehensive list of axe murders:

The Ballad of Frankie Silver - 1831
Helen Jewett - The Girl in Green - 1836
The Smutttynose Murders - 1873
Bloody Woolfolk - 1887
Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...Or Did She? - 1892
False Witness - The Lucy Pollard Murder - 1895

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Legend of Lavinia Fisher

The legend of Lavinia Fisher has been told and retold since her execution in Charleston, South Carolina in 1820 and with each telling it has grown more extravagant and further from the truth. Today tourist pamphlets and web sites will earnestly tell you that Lavinia was America’s first female serial killer when, in fact, there is no hard evidence that she ever killed anyone. We do know that she was a violent and unrepentant outlaw, but she earned her fame by being a tough woman with a bad attitude in a town known for its genteel southern belles.

Date: February 1819

Location:  Charleston, South Carolina

Victim: ?

Cause of Death:  ?

Accused:  Lavinia Fisher


The Legend

The legend of Lavinia Fisher will vary from teller to teller but the gist of the story told for the last 120 years goes something like this. John and Lavinia Fisher owned an inn, the Six Mile House, on a lonely road outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The building was well maintained and was a welcome sight to weary travelers, but it was rumored that sometimes guests checked in and did not check out. One night a fur trader named John Peoples stopped at the inn and was warmly greeted by the Fishers. The beautiful Lavinia Fisher was especially friendly. Peoples thought the Fishers were being a little too friendly and, suspicious of their intentions, he went to bed early.

People’s suspicions grew and he could not sleep. He decided not to lie in the bed but to sit in the corner facing the door so he could see if anyone came in to attack him. His suspicions were confirmed when a trapdoor sprung, dropping the bed into the cellar where John Fisher was waiting with an axe. Peoples escaped and hurried back to Charleston to tell the authorities. John and Lavinia were arrested and their property searched. The human remains were found, including many bodies in a lime pit in the cellar under the trap door. The Fishers were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

The unrepentant, Lavinia Fisher went to the gallows in 1820 wearing her wedding dress. John Fisher pinned all the blame on his wife, but he was hanged along with her. Lavinia’s ghost now haunts the Old Jail on Magazine Street in Charleston as well as the Unitarian Cemetary.

The Truth
At Murder by Gaslight we love a good legend, but we love the truth even more. Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820 but the crime was highway robbery— a capital offense at the time—not murder. She was a member of a large gang of highwaymen who operated out of two houses in the Backcountry outside of Charleston, the Five Mile House and the Six Mile House. It is not clear whether or not the Six Mile House was a hotel, but it did serve as hideout for a number of outlaws.

Wagon trade in and out of Charleston was a profitable business and an important part of the city’s economy. In 1819 trade was disrupted by a gang of highwaymen stopping wagons on the road and stealing goods and money. Since the victims were unable to identify their assailants the authorities were powerless to act. A group of Charleston citizens decided to take matters into their own hands and if necessary invoke “Lynch Law.” According to the Charleston News and Courier:

A gang of desperados have for some time past occupied certain houses in the vicinity of Ashley Ferry; practicing every deception upon the unwary and frequently committing robberies upon defenseless travelers. As they could not be identified, and thereby brought to punishment, it was determined, by a number of citizens, to break them up, and they accordingly proceeded, in a cavalcade, on Thursday afternoon, to the spot, having previously obtained permission of the owners of some small houses, to which these desperados resorted, to proceed against the premises in such manner as circumstances might require.
The cavalcade proceeded first to the Five Mile House where they gave the occupants fifteen minutes to vacate the premises before they burned it to the ground. At the Six Mile House they evicted the occupants and left a man named Dave Ross behind to guard it. Believing their work was finished, the cavalcade returned to Charleston.

The next morning, two men from the outlaw gang broke into the house and assaulted Dave Ross, driving him outside where he was surrounded by a gang of nine or ten men and one woman, the beautiful Lavinia Fisher. Ross looked to Lavinia for help, but she choked him and shoved his head through a window. Two hours later, John Peoples was heading out of Charleston in his wagon and stopped near the Six Mile House to water his horse. He was accosted by the gang, including Lavinia Fisher. They stole about forty dollars from him.

Peoples returned to Charleston and this time he was able to tell the authorities the identities of his attackers. He did not know all of their names but he had…
“just cause to believe that among them was William Hayward, John Fisher and his wife Lavinia Fisher, Joseph Roberts, and John Andrews.”
This, along with Dave Ross’s story, forced the authorities to act. Sheriff’s deputy Colonel Nathanial Green Cleary got a bench warrant from Judge Charles Jones Colcock and set out for Six Mile House. John and Lavinia Fisher, along with several members of the gang, gave up without a fight and were taken to jail in Charleston. Over the next several days many other gang members were arrested. John Peoples identified them as the group who robbed him. John and Lavinia Fisher were charged with highway robbery—a hanging offense at the time. While they were awaiting trial, a grave containing the remains of two human bodies, was found about 200 yards from Six Mile House. They were believed to be the bodies of a white man and a black woman, dead for at least two years. With so many people in and out of Six Mile House during that time, it was impossible to identify their killers and no one was ever charged with their murder. Only two bodies, no more, were found at Six Mile House.

Trial: May 1819

The Fishers pleaded not guilty to the charge of highway robber, but the jury thought otherwise.

Verdict:  Guilty of highway robbery.

John and Lavinia planned to appeal their conviction to the Constitutional Court and while they awaited the hearing they were kept in the Charleston jail. Because they were a married couple, John and Lavinia were kept in the debtors’ quarters in the upper part of the jail rather than the heavily guarded lower floor. On September 13 they attempted to escape through a hole they made under the window of the cell. John went first down a rope made of blankets but it broke before he reached the ground. He could have escaped alone but chose to stay behind with Lavinia.

Their motion for a retrial was rejected by the Constitutional Court and the Fishers could do nothing now but wait for execution. The Reverend Richard Furman would visit them often to help them make peace with their maker. He appeared to make some headway with John, but Lavinia was more likely to curse than pray.

On February 4, 1820 they were taken to a gallows erected on Meeting Street just outside the city limits of Charleston. Each was wearing a loose-fitting white robe over their clothes, possibly the source of the “wedding dress” myth. It was a public execution and everyone, including the fine ladies of Charleston, came out to see Lavinia Fisher hang.

John mounted the gallows peacefully but Lavinia had to be physically dragged to the platform where she beseeched the crowd to help her. According to one historian:
“She stamped in rage and swore with all the vehemence of her amazing vocabulary, calling down damnation on a governor who would let a woman swing. The crowd stood shocked into silence, while she cut short one curse with another and ended with a volley of shrieks.”
When Lavinia was quiet Reverend Furman read a letter from John Fisher in which he thanked the reverend for “explaining the mysteries of our Holy Religion.” John then told the crowd he was innocent and blamed Colonel Cleary for coaching the witness who accused him.

The legend of Lavinia Fisher had probably already started but her (true) last words to the crowd at her hanging guaranteed her immortality:
“If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me—I’ll carry it.”
Written stories of Lavinia Fisher are usually accompanied by a painting—at the top of this post— alleged to be a portrait of Lavinia. It begs the question, when did she pose for it? During her life as a highwayman in the squalor of Six Mile House, or in the year she spent in Charleston jail?

The Fishers were burried in a potter's field, not the Untiterian Cementery Lavinia supposedly haunts.

Lavinia Fisher is included in Murder by Gaslight because of her legend as a murderess. In fact, it is unlikely that she ever murdered anyone.

It is likely that somewhere along the line the legend of Lavinia Fisher became confused with the true and well-documented crimes of the “Bloody” Bender Family, in Kansas, 1870s.
Hendrix, Pat. Murder And Mayhem in the Holy City. Seattle: History Press, 2006.

Petro, Pamela. Sitting Up With the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South. 1 ed. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2002.

Gravesite (from Findagrave)