Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Murders

Just a quick post to commemorate two Christmas murders that have been immortalzied in song:

Billy Lyons shot by "Stack" Lee Shelton on Christmas Night, 1895

Delia Green shot by Moses "Cooney" Houston on Christmas Eve 1900

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lizzie Borden's Confession

In a book called Piracy, Mutiny and Murder by Edward Rowe Snow, I came across a Lizzie Borden story I had not heard before. It concerns a written confession allegedly signed by Lizzie in 1897, four years after she was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. Though the confession was soon proven to be a hoax, in 1959, when his book was published, Mr. Snow was firmly convinced of the confession’s authenticity and tells an interesting tale of its origin.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Manhattan Well Mystery

On January 2, 1800, the body of Gulielma 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 Gulielma 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, December 4, 2010

Kissing Cousins

Lillian Madison’s relations with her immediate family in the 1880s were strained if not outright hostile. Her parents disapproved of her social life and kept her from the education she desired and as soon as she could, Lillian left their home in King William County, Virginia. She found comfort and support among her mother’s relatives but she also began a romantic relationship with her cousin, Thomas Cluverius, that would end in her ruin. When Lillian’s body, eight months pregnant, was found floating in Richmond’s Old Reservoir, Cousin Thomas was the prime suspect.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Murderous New York

Fourteen of the fifty two stories and book reviews at Murder by Gaslight concern murders that took place in the state of New York. That’s 27%--higher by far than any other state. Why so many 19th century murders in New York? One reason is very simple, by 1800 New York was the most populous state in the union and New York City was the largest city in America.

But it was more than just population; New York was very good at publicizing its murders. New York City’s “penny press” of the 1830s learned quickly that nothing sold newspapers like a good murder. The murders of Helen Jewett, and Samuel Adams received heavy press coverage in New York that was picked up by newspapers throughout America. “Yellow Journalism” at the end of the century had Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World competing with William Hearst’s New York Journal for lurid details of murder cases like those of Evelina Bliss and Domenico Cataldo.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Minister and the Mill Girl

In December 1832, the body of a young pregnant woman was found hanging at a Tiverton, Rhode Island farm. She was identified as Sarah Cornell a worker in a textile factory in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. Evidence implicated Methodist minister Ephraim Avery and the community was outraged that a man of the cloth had seduced and murdered an innocent mill girl. But Sarah Cornell was far from innocent and she had reasons hate Reverend Avery that had nothing to do with her pregnancy. Could Sarah Cornell have planted evidence against Avery before taking her own life? The story of the minister and the mill girl would put the town of Fall River at the center of a national controversy 60 years before Lizzie Borden would do the same. And the outcome would be just as inconclusive.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jack the Ripper: The Prime Suspect

Jack the Ripper: The Prime Suspect
by Michael Connor
What if Jack the Ripper wasn’t Prince Albert Edward, or Lewis Carroll, or Oscar Wilde’s lover or any of the dozen or so flamboyant, globe-trotting eccentrics usually named as suspects? What if he was just a local workman who fit the murders into his daily schedule? Someone like cart driver Charles Allen Lechmere, who was on the scene when the first body was discovered and who gave a false name at the inquest. Police in 1888 let him walk away, but in a modern murder investigation he would have been the prime suspect.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Killing of Bill The Butcher

Bill “The Butcher” Poole was a champion New York City pugilist in 1855—before the Marquess of Queensbury rules—when kicking, biting and eye-gouging were acceptable tactics and “fight to the death” was more than a metaphor.  It was also a time when a challenge was likely to be issued out of pure hatred for your opponent.  When John Morrissey, the Irish enforcer for Tammany Hall challenged Bill Poole of the the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” Party it promised to be the ultimate grudge match. But when the fighters turned to knives and guns, all pretext of sport was gone.  It would be Bill “The Butcher” Poole’s last fight.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Abby Borden Crime Scene

Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts has in interesting slide show of the Abby Borden crime scene as it was then and as it is now: Lizzie Borden Crime Scene. The entire house has been nicely restored and is now the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, MA. The murder is renacted there every August by the Pear Essential Players.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Bloody Benders

In the early 1870s the counties of Labette and Montgomery in Kansas were experiencing an alarming number of missing persons. The investigation passed several times through the cabin of the Benders, a family of German immigrants who ran a small grocery store and restaurant outside of Cherryvale, Kansas, but the Benders appeared completely innocent. When authorities found the cabin abandoned one day the picture changed. A closer look revealed nine murdered corpses, the handiwork of the Bloody Benders.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Devil on the Silver Screen

We learn from Omnimystery News: Leonardo DiCaprio Acquires Film Rights to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Devil in the White City, of course, is the bestselling non-fiction book about serial killer H. H. Holmes and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

DiCaprio’s involvement means a big budget but that has never been a guarantee of success. We are hopeful that the right director and screenwriter will save this excellent book from the dismal treatment Hollywood gives most bestsellers. But Leonardo DiCaprio (who Kate Winslet described as  “A big girl’s blouse.”) as H.H. Holmes? Dubious.

What do you think?

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)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Murder and Mayhem in St. Lawrence County

Book Review:

Murder and Mayhem in St. Lawrence County
by Cheri L. Farnsworth

New York State in the 19th century was a model of enterprise and progress. Manhattan was rapidly becoming the cultural capital of America and the Erie Canal was bringing commerce and prosperity west of the Hudson. But St. Lawrence County, between the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River, remained as it had always been, an isolated collection of roughshod farm communities. In Cheri L. Farnsworth’s new book Murder & Mayhem in St. Lawrence County, it is also a dark and dangerous place filled with sensational crimes and deranged killers.

The book contains twelve intriguing stories, true murder cases from New York’s North Country in the years between 1816 and 1917. In method and motive the killings mirror what was happening throughout America—from premeditated poisoning for inheritance to impulsive axe murder during robbery. And of course, there were shootings, stabbings and slashings out of jealousy and passion.

Especially striking is the number of murders involving lovers, spouses and immediate family members. James Eldridge poisoned his fiancé; Frank Conroy slashed his wife; John Hall shot his brother-in-law; the list goes on. There are stories of senseless violence as well; including a man who shot three people while “seized by an urgent sexual frenzy.” Adding drama to the collection is the fact that in one case the wrong man may have been executed and in two others the murderer was never found.

Murder and Mayhem in St. Lawrence County is well-researched, drawing from trial transcripts and other primary sources. Excerpts from local newspapers of the time and an abundance of illustrations and photographs (many from the author’s own collection) add authenticity to the descriptions and provide the reader with a true sense of the setting and characters of each story. True crime reporting can be an effective tool for exploring the everyday history of a place and time. Murder and Mayhem in St. Lawrence County illuminates the dark side of northern New York’s early days.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Tanyard Murder

In 1874, a feud within Cincinnati’s German community would lead to the brutal murder and illegal cremation of Herman Schilling, a worker at H. Frieberg’s tanyard. Andreas Egner wanted revenge for catching Shilling in bed with his 15-year-old daughter. But Shilling had other enemies as well and his killer could just as easily been George Rufer who believed Shilling had cost him his job at the tannery. The murder of Herman Shilling—one of the most gruesome in Cincinnati’s history—would also serve as a stepping stone for an aspiring young reporter on his way to international literary renown.

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.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Lambeth Poisoner

Between October 1891 and April 1892 a series of murders in London racked the city with a terror reminiscent of the fear surrounding Jack the Ripper’s murders, just three years earlier. Once again the victims were prostitutes but this time the method was poisoning. The killer was captured and identified as Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who had already been convicted of murder by strychnine in the United States. In fact, if he had not been released early from Chicago’s Joliet Prison, four young London women would have been spared excruciating death.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Virtual Dime Museum

The Glass Bridge
The story of the 1891 murder of Frieda Borchinsky and her five year old son Isaac. And of a haunted Brooklyn tenement.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Man of Two Lives.

Edward H. Rulloff was considered by many to be a genius, a man of great intellect, ahead of his time, ready to revolutionize the study of philology. And just as many thought him a fraud and a conman. He was well versed in medicine, law, and language and an educator respected by his students. He was also a thief and a swindler who had trouble leaving a city without a run-in with the law. When an 1870 burglary in Binghamton, New York went bad, leaving three men dead, the public would face the paradox of the “Man of Two Lives.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Fatal Bowl of Soup

Book Review:

Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York
by James D. Livingston

Newspaper accounts of New York City murders had always been sensational, grabbing the attention of nineteenth century readers far beyond the city limits. The 1896 murder of Evelina Bliss, related in the new book Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York by James D. Livingston, is among Manhattan’s most spectacular. The bizarre circumstances surrounding Evelina’s death sparked a circulation war among New York’s newspapers, and found an audience across America.

The facts of the murder are straightforward. The afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice Livingston Fleming ordered a pail of clam chowder and a piece of lemon meringue pie from the Colonial Hotel where she and her children lived. She had her 10-year-old daughter Grace deliver the meal to her mother, Evelina Bliss, who lived a few blocks away. Somewhere between the kitchen of the Colonial Hotel and Evelina’s lips the chowder had acquired enough arsenic to kill her several times over. Mary Alice stood to gain financially by her mother’s death; she was arrested for murder soon after.

While matricide by chowder is interesting in itself, the fact that Mary Alice was a Livingston, one of New York’s oldest and most prominent families – well represented in “Mrs. Astor’s 400” – made the story front page news. Mary Alice had never married; a judge awarded her the right to use the name Fleming in a breach of promise suit against Henry Fleming, father of her first child. She was the mother of three illegitimate children (all with different fathers) and at the time of the murder was pregnant with a fourth who would be born in New York’s Tombs prison. The murder of Evelina Bliss and the loose morals of her daughter provided fodder for the burgeoning “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Then, as now, nothing sold papers like scandals of the rich and famous.

The real drama in a case like this takes place in the courtroom and the trial of Mary Alice Fleming was considered one of the most sensational in New York’s history. Author James D. Livingston distills salient moments from a trial that lasted six weeks and pulls important testimony from a transcript that averaged 250 pages of stenographer’s notes a day. Livingston provides enough background information on the witnesses and attorneys to express the nuance behind the testimony. His aside on the effects and history of arsenic is fascinating and welcome information, contrasting the dry and prolonged chemical testimony in the trial itself, which literally put at least one juror to sleep. And he deftly maintains suspense as to the trial’s outcome until the verdict is read.

Arsenic and Clam Chowder is a great read, not just for murder buffs, but for anyone interested in the vibrant years that ended the 19th Century—a time that seems distant and foreign, yet somehow quite familiar. It also raises serious questions on the legal concept of “reasonable doubt”, and answers them with intelligence and candor. But fans of clam chowder beware; you may be less inclined to order your favorite soup after reading of Evelina’s demise.

Some aditional notes from Murder by Gaslight:
As distinctive as it was, the murder of Evelina Bliss is not the only case of poisoned soup at Murder by Gaslight. In 1831, Dr. William Chapman was poisoned by an arsenic laden bowl of chicken soup. It too was delivered to him by a 10-year-old girl. We may need to add a new category for soup murders.

Also, MBG has always tried to seek out and share any murder ballads associated with our posts. We have learned that James Livingston has rewritten the lyrics to "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" to fit the murder of Evelina Bliss. It has been recorded by the History Singers and here is a link:
Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's Chowder?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who was the first American serial killer?

Crime history 101: Who was the first American serial killer?

I’ve never understood the appeal of serial killers. Sure, there is the shock value of an individual taking remorseless pleasure in unspeakable acts. But shock value is not enough; a murder without a motive just isn't a story.

Though I am not a fan of serial killers, I am a fan of historical accuracy and apparently so is Dan Norder, Crime Historian for His post, Crime history 101: Who was the first American serial killer?, provides a sampling (admittedly incomplete) of American serial killers in reverse chronological order.

Though he lists Jack the Ripper as a possible American serial killer, like me Norder does not think any of the arguments asserting this are convincing. And his list easily debunks the myth that H. H. Holmes (1890s) was America’s first serial killer.

So, who was America’s first serial killer? Norder likes the Harpe brothers (1799).  Until something earlier turns up, so does Murder by Gaslight.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jesse Pomeroy - "Boston Boy Fiend"

On December 22, 1871, four-year-old Billy Paine was found hanging by his wrists, half-naked, from the roof beam of a tumbledown privy on Powder Horn Hill in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His back was covered with welts from a whipping. Over the next nine months seven more children, none older than 8, were found tied and brutally tortured in Chelsea and South Boston. The assaults became increasingly vicious and in 1874 resulted in the deaths of a four-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. When the killer was proven to be fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy, Massachusetts had to face two tough questions: could someone so brutal be considered sane? and if so, did the state have the will to execute the “boy fiend?”

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Prophet Matthias

From the outside, Mount Zion, near Sing Sing, New York, looked like any other well-ordered farmhouse in the summer of 1834. Inside, however, the residents of Mount Zion had little in common with their neighbors. They were a diverse group—from former slaves to prosperous businessmen—devotedly following The Prophet Mathias, self-proclaimed Spirit of Truth. Mathias ran the farm as an Old Testament patriarchy, controlling all aspects of his followers’ lives, from diet to sex partners. But did he also control whether they lived or died?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lizzie Borden: Girl Detective

Lizzie Borden: Girl Detective

Finally someone qualified to solve the Whitechapel murders.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Great Sheedy Murder Case.

The evening of January 11, 1891, John Sheedy stepped out of the front door of his Lincoln, Nebraska home and was attacked by a man charging from the shadows. Sheedy was struck three times in the side of the head with a leather-covered steel cane. A powerful but controversial man, John Sheedy owned an illegal gambling casino and had enemies on both sides of the law. But when it was learned that the assailant may have been paid by Sheedy’s wife who delivered the death blow herself by poisoning his coffee, the unfolding tale of adultery, miscegenation, conspiracy, extortion, and murder threatened to undermine the social decorum and moral order of Lincoln.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Rash of Murders

There has been a rash of 19th Century American murder postings around the web recently.  Here is a samplng:

from Ephemeral New York
Grisly murders rock 19th century Staten Island

from History and Women
The Murder of Helen Jewett
(more on Helen Jewett)

from Nobody Move!
This Day in Crime History July 2 1881 - The Assassination of James A. Garfield
This Day in Crime History July 8 1898 - The murder of "Soapy" Smith

from The Bowery Boys
First officer Down: Highbinder riots at St Peter's Church

from JTR Forums
1885 Austin Texas Murders

from Clews
Before H.H. Holmes, there was...Harry Hayward
(more in Harry Hayward and H.H. Holmes)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Richardson-McFarland Tragedy

On the afternoon of November 25, 1869 Daniel McFarland walked into the office of the New York Tribune and there shot and killed Albert Richardson, a Tribune editor. Richardson had planned to marry Daniel McFarland’s ex-wife, Abby Sage McFarland. The facts of the murder were irrefutable, but the trial that followed focused instead on the behavior of Abby McFarland. Was her adultery an attack on the sanctity of marriage that drove Daniel McFarland to murderous insanity? Or had she been justified in leaving a drunken, abusive husband, running to the safety of another man’s arms?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Poor Ellen Smith.

The morning of July 21, 1892, the body of Ellen Smith was found behind the Zinzendorf Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been shot through the heart. The story of Ellen Smith’s murder is a classic tale of seduction and betrayal. A beautiful but innocent young woman strays from the path of righteousness for a faithless lover who soon becomes her killer. It is the stuff of Victorian cautionary literature and mountain murder ballads.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Clan-na-Gael and the Murder of Dr. Cronin.

Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin was a prominent Chicago physician and a member of Clan-na-Gael an American political organization formed to promote Irish independence from British rule. Clan-na-Gael was very effective at raising large sums of money for the cause, but the money was administered in secret by three members of the Executive Board led by Chicago lawyer Alexander Sullivan. When Dr. Cronin criticized the board’s secrecy and accused them of embezzling funds he was denounced as a traitor and a British spy. When his accusations persisted, Sullivan marked him for death and on May 4, 1889 Dr. Cronin disappeared.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

False Witness - The Lucy Pollard Murder

The brutal axe murder of Lucy Jane Pollard occurred in broad daylight, just outside her home in Lunenburg County, Virginia on June 14, 1895. Within four days the constable had arrested four suspects— three women and a man, all African American. By July 20 all four had been convicted of first degree murder. But as it became increasingly obvious that the male suspect had lied in all four trials, the fight to save the women became all-out war, pitting white against black, city against country, and simple truth against Southern honor.

Date: June 14, 1895

Location: Lunenburg County, Virginia

Victim: Lucy Jane Pollard

Cause of Death: Blows from an axe

Accused: Mary Abernathy, Mary Barnes, Pokey Barnes, William Henry "Solomon" Marable


Edward Pollard married Lucy Jane Fowlkes in 1882; he was 60 and she was 44. He had been married twice before, each time to his financial betterment and by the time his second wife died Edward was a successful tobacco farmer with substantial land holdings. His marriage to Lucy Jane, from a planter family, augmented Edward’s social standing.

In 1895 Edward Pollard was 73 years old and had become a bit cantankerous, constantly involved in disputes with his neighbors over property and right of way. He had also become a money lender. It was well known in Lunenburg County the Pollards kept large amounts of cash in their house.

The afternoon of June 14, 1895, Edward came in from the field and found his wife’s body lying on the ground just outside the backdoor of the house. Her head had been gashed by several blows from a meat axe that the Pollards kept outside the house. The motive had been robbery; more than $800 in cash had been taken from the house, along with some of Lucy’s dresses and bed linen.

The Constable, the Justice of the Peace, and a private citizen named Cass Gregory began the investigation, questioning neighbors and farmhands well into the night.  Mary Abernathy, a black farmhand and tenant of the Pollards had been the last person to see Lucy alive. Twenty four hours after the murder, Mary Abernathy was arrested. Pokey Barnes, also black, was arrested next. She was a neighbor of the Pollards and was seen near the Pollard’s house that day. By the end of the second day four more black women were arrested, including Pokey Barnes’s mother, Mary Barnes.

The authorities were looking for one more suspect, William Henry Marable, a black sawmill hand, who went by the name Solomon. In Chase City, Virginia, not far from the murder scene, Solomon Marable had paid a fifty cent restaurant tab with a twenty dollar bill—equivalent to using a hundred dollar bill today to buy breakfast. The waitress noticed that he had another twenty as well. Marable became a murder suspect and was arrested on Tuesday, June 18.

Solomon Marable claimed he saw Mary Barnes, Pokey Barnes, and Mary Abernathy the day of the murder and they told him “they had something good in store.” Later he saw Pokey Barnes and Mary Abernathy with their clothes and hands covered in blood. Mary Abernathy gave him $20 and told him to say nothing about it. He did not learn about the murder until the following day. The three women Solomon mentioned—referred to as the Lunenburg Women—were held, the rest were released. Lynching was a very real threat to the prisoners and it was felt they would not be safe in the Lunenburg jail. They were taken, under heavy guard to Petersburg, more than a day’s ride away.

Trials: July 1895
            March 1896

The prisoners were returned to Lunenburg jail on July 11 escorted by two companies of the state militia who would remain in to keep order in the village of Lunenburg until all four were tried. The trials were held in quick succession starting with Solomon Marable’s on July 13. Virginia at the time had no formal system of public defenders and though the judge tried to get Marable a lawyer, no one was willing to take the case. Solomon Marable sat alone, acting in his own defense.

The evidence against him was circumstantial, but Marable damned himself when he said on the stand that he held Mrs. Pollard’s hands while Pokey Barnes hit her with a stick and Mary Abernathy hit her with the axe. The jury deliberated for nine minutes then returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree.

The Lunenburg Women were also tried without the benefit of counsel. With no legal knowledge they could do little but tell their story and throw themselves on the mercy of the court. Only Pokey Barnes was able to mount a significant defense—she was able to provide a believable alibi. But all three were found guilty. May Abernathy and Pokey Barnes were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to hang, Mary Barnes, to the prosecutors dismay, was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

Solomon Marable testified at all of the trials but his story changed each time he told it. In his original story he said he had no knowledge of the murder but at his trial he said he had been directly involved. At the trial of Mary Abernathy he claimed she had told him a week before the murder that the three women were planning to rob and kill Mrs. Pollard. At Pokey Barnes trial he dropped a new bombshell claiming that a white man had forced him at gunpoint to help him kill Mrs. Pollard. The man then asked if Solomon knew anyone in the area and Marable said Pokey Barnes, Mary Barnes and Mary Abernathy. The white man told him to blame them for the murder. When Solomon was challenged by the prosecution, Solomon Marable sat silent for nearly ten minutes then said “Mary Abernathy got possession of the money.”

By now the case was famous throughout Virginia; the Richmond press had followed it closely, and the state militiamen brought home stories of Solomon Marable’s erratic testimony. At this point the cause of the Lunenburg Women was taken up by John R. Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet a prominent African American weekly newspaper. The Richmond Planet, with the help of contributions from its readers and from citizens and civic groups, both black and white, from all over Virginia, was able to mount an appeal on behalf of Solomon Marable and the women. They hired an impressive team of attorneys led by former Congressman George Douglas Wise.

The Richmond Times, a mainstream daily, also took up the cause, saying that these women…

“have had no trial, and if they are to be judicially murdered under the present program, the life of none of us is safe.”
The Richmond Dispatch took the opposite point of view coming perilously close to advocating lynching the prisoners to protect family and property.

The first hurdle for the new defense lawyers was finding grounds for appeal. The defendants, all acting as their own attorneys, had neglected to file exceptions that would be grounds for appeal –an act that would be second nature to a losing attorney. Wise and his team, examining the record, found something they could work with. When a court adjourned in midtrial the judge was required to charge a sworn officer to keep the jury together and to keep them away from outsiders. And the judge’s charge had to be part of the written record. This was not done in any of the cases.

The citizens Lunenburg took the appeal as a grievous insult. They were appalled that anyone could accuse a Lunenburg trial of being anything less than fair and they hired their own team of attorneys including future governor of Virginia, William Hodges Mann. Mann realized that the opposition had a strong case and tried to file a nunc pro tunc order—literally “now for then”—to add language to the record that should have been there all along. The order was denied and the appeals court granted each defendant a new trial.

The defense attorneys moved for a change of venue which was granted. Mary Barnes refused the new trial, fearing her next verdict would be worse than ten years in prison, but the rest would be retried in the town and Farmville in Prince Edward County. Solomon Marable’s case was heard first and after two days of testimony and eighteen minutes of deliberation he was again found guilty of first degree murder. Mary Abernathy’s case was harder fought and her trial lasted longer than all four of the original trials put together, but in the end the jury deliberated only five minutes before returning a verdict of guilty of first degree murder.

The trial of Pokey Barnes appeared to be following the same course but after the prosecution rested, Prince Edward County prosecutor Asa Watkins spoke for the first time. Up to this point Watkins had yielded the prosecution to William Mann and the Lunenburg team but now he was taking back control. He had listened to prosecution’s evidence…

“And now that all the evidence in the possession of the Commonwealth has been given in, I cannot believe that it is sufficient to justify the jury brining in a verdict of guilty. I have reached this conclusion without consultation with anyone.”
Watkins filed a nolle prosequi motion, dropping the charges. The motion was allowed and Pokey was released.

Mary Abernathy’s new verdict was appealed and the appeal succeeded allowing her another trial. This time the commonwealth dropped the charges and Mary Abernathy was free.

Mary Barnes was then pardoned by Virginia Governor Charles T. O’Ferrall based on the unreliability of Solomon Marable’s testimony, saying:

“The life or liberty of a citizen, however humble, is too sacred in the eyes of civilized man to be taken upon the testimony alone of a self-convicted perjurer and murderer…Every mandate of justice and dictate of conscience require that the prisoner be restored to her liberty.
Verdict: First trials: Solomon Marable, Mary Abernathy, Pokey Barnes-Guilty of first degree murder
              Second trials: Solomon Marable - Guilty of first degree murder
                                   Mary Abernathy - Guilty of first degree - reversed on appeal
                                   Pokey Barnes - nolle prosequi

Solomon Marable, now seriously worried about the afterlife was converted to Catholicism by Father Weblers, a white priest who headed Richmond’s only black Catholic church. He had also refined his “white man” story, and now said it was David Thompson, a storekeeper in the town of Finneywood, who had involved him at gunpoint in the murder that Thompson committed. But Thompson had an alibi; he was with four other businessmen who would testify to that. Unlike his earlier stories, Marable stuck with this one over multiple tellings and was still telling it on the day of his execution.

Solomon Marable was hanged inside the Prince Edward County jail on the morning of July 3, 1896. He had converted back to Baptist, partially because Father Weblers did not believe his “white man story” and pressured him to confess. Solomon stuck to his story to the end.

The story Solomon Marable first told, implicating the women, was repeated at least eight times and was different each time he told it. The second story, where a white man forced him to help with the murder, was told and recorded nine times, each time the same. It has been theorized that Marable was confused about the identity of the white man and that the killer had actually been Herbert Thompson, David Thompson’s brother. Both of the Thompsons were deeply in debt and had a motive for the robbery. Herbert Thompson had a history of violence and, if Marable’s story was true, he  may have been white man who had forced Solomon Marable, at gunpoint, to assist in the murder.

There is little question that Solomon Marable was at least an accessory in the murder of Lucy Pollard, but it was never determined who actually killed her. The stolen money was never recovered.



Lebsock, Suzanne. A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

Trotti, Michael Ayers. The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2008