Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Crime of Passion

In June 1831 Joel Clough moved into a boarding house in Bordentown, New Jersey and soon fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, a young widow named Mary Hamilton. He made his affections known to Mary and began giving her gifts and writing her letters. Joel thought Mary had returned his affection and at one point believed she had agreed to marry him. When it became apparent that she was seeing other men, he asked her again. She refused and he stabbed her in the chest eleven times. Joel Clough did not deny that he had murdered her, but he would contend that his passion for Mary Hamilton had driven him insane.

Date:  April 6, 1833

Location:   Bordentown, New Jersey
Victim:  Mrs. Mary W. Hamilton

Cause of Death:  Stabbing

Accused:   Joel Clough


Joel Clough was a 27-year-old mechanical contractor when he moved into the boarding house run by Elizabeth Longstreth in Bordentown, New Jersey. He was considered intelligent and successful by his business associates and all who know him considered Clough a mild and pleasant man.

Also living in the boarding house was Mrs. Longtstreth’s daughter, Mrs. Mary W. Hamilton, a widow with a young daughter. Joel Clough became enamored of Mrs. Hamilton and ardently desired to marry her. According to Clough, she had not discouraged his advances and after initial hesitation had agreed to be his wife. Others, including her mother, claimed that Mary paid no particular attention and was angry when she received letters from him. Clough had given her an album purchased in Philadelphia and had given her his gold watch. But she soon stopped accepting his gifts and began seeing other men. Clough, believing he and Mary were still engaged, would visit them and ask their intention toward her. In the spring of 1833—either at Mary’s request, or out of jalousie and disappointment—Joel Clough settled his account with Mrs. Longstreth and moved out of the boarding house.

Travelling with a business associate, James Wallace, Clough went to Albany, then to New York City. On the trip Wallace noticed a dramatic change in Clough’s personality; his behavior was erratic and be began to drink heavily. Joel Clough was to have control of a contract that Wallace was working on but Clough’s intemperance and unsteadiness convinced him to abandon the plan. He left Clough on the dock in New York City and went to pursue his business in Burlington. He returned two days later to find Clough in the custody of a police officer. Clough had met a girl in a theater and hired a carriage to take her home. When she jilted him he stole her jewels and was arrested while trying to leave the city.

Joel Clough returned to Mrs. Longstreth’s boarding house on April 4, 1833, noticeably pale and depressed. It is not clear exactly what else happened in New York City, but Clough returned in disgrace, with his reputation and money gone. He told Mary Hamilton about his condition. In Clough’s words:
She expressed regret and offered me all the money she had and her watch. This I refused: but told her if she would honor her engagement, we might yet be happy. Her reply was “What, marry you in your reduced circumstances?”
After breakfast on April 6, Clough returned to his room greatly depressed. In his statement at his trial Clough claimed that Mary came into his room as he was in the act of taking his own life with laudanum. When she put her hand on his shoulder to stop him, he pulled a dirk—a long-bladed dagger— from his pocket and plunged it into her left breast. He stabbed her ten more times, piercing her heart and lungs, then dropped the knife and collapsed onto his bed.

No one actually witnessed the murder but a number of the boarders heard the scream and saw Mary outside the room. With slight variations in testimony all agreed that her last words were essentially what the judge recounted:

“Oh! Mother, mother, I screamed and screamed, and you did not come, and Clough has killed me because I would not marry him. I could not mother, I could not, you know; I must die, I must die!”
Moments later Mary Hamilton was dead.

Joel Clough was given an emetic to purge him of the laudanum. He calmly accompanied the sheriff to jail.

Trial: June 1833
Joel Clough’s trial for the murder of Mrs. Mary W. Hamilton was held in Mount Holly, New Jersey before Chief Justice Joseph C. Hornblower, and four associate judges. Mary Hamilton’s mother and sisters testified to the events of April 6, 1833, as did a number of boarders at Mrs. Longstreth’s house. They also testified that Mary did not encourage Joel Clough’s advances and never promised to marry him.

Mary Hamilton’s bloody garments were exhibited to the court. The sight of the clothes, especially her corset, pierced with holes and stiffened with blood seemed to overwhelm everyone in the courtroom. When this was followed by a physician’s description of how the stabbing had broken her ribs and riddled her heart and lungs, the trial had to be briefly suspended while everyone regained their composure.

The defense argued that Clough was innocent due to insanity. He had no recollection of actually stabbing Mary Hamilton, the woman he loved. Several witnesses testified that Clough was a changed man following his trip to New York, including James Wallace who told what he know about the drinking and debauchery that took place there.

The jury deliberated for two hours then returned a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of murder

Joel Clough was sentenced to be hanged on July 26, 1833. He was kept in a room on the third floor of the prison in Mouth Holly, New Jersey, until it was discovered that he had tried to cut through the wall of the room. He then was placed in a cell in the dungeon of the prison. After two weeks in the dungeon Clough complained that it was extremely uncomfortable and unfit for the reception of ministers and friends who came to visit. The sheriff agreed to allow him back to his original room but he would be put in irons.

On the morning of July 21, the jailers found that Clough had escaped. He had separated the chain from his ankle and forced himself through a narrow passage between the bar of the window and the wall—the window casing had been burned by a candle he had been allowed for writing at night. He fashioned a rope of pieces of blanket and lowered himself to the ground.

Handbills were passed out offering a reward of $100 for Clough’s capture. Around 11:00 that night he was captured near the Delaware River, about seven miles from Mount Holly.

Clough was once again housed in the dungeon where he continued to receive visits from clergymen worried about his soul. Before his execution Clough became an Episcopalian. He was baptized and given the Lord’s Supper by Bishop Doane.

At 2:00 PM on July 26, 1833, Joel Clough was “launched into eternity.” After hanging for 30 minutes, his body was cut down and placed in a plain mahogany coffin and buried in the grounds of the prison.

Clough, Joel. The authentic confession of Joel Clough,: The murderer of Mrs. Mary W. Hamilton. With an extract of a letter to his mother. Chief Justice Hornblowers charge ... by order of the Sheriff of Burlington County. Philadelphia [Pa.: By order of the Sheriff of Burlington County, 1833.

Confessions, Trials, and Biographical Sketches of the Most Cold Blooded Murderers, Who Have Been Executed in This Country from Its First Settlement Down to the Present Time .... Boston: William H. Hill, 1843.

Lawson, John Davison. American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials Which Have Taken Place in the United States from the Beginning of Our Government to the Present Day, Volume 1. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1914.

Halttunen, Karen. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.


Post a Comment