Phrenology, the theory that a person’s character is determined by the size and shape of his head, was quite popular in America during the 1850s. A phrenological analysis of Reuben Dunbar in 1851 found him to be excessive in Destructiveness, Combativeness, Aqusitiveness, Secretiveness and Firmness, while being deficient in Self-esteem and Philoprogenitiveness. He had “an unfortunate organization” in which his moral faculties were not sufficiently large to balance his animal propensities. While the phrenologist professed scientific objectivity in the analysis of Dunbar’s head, she may have been somewhat influenced the fact that, at the time, Reuben Dunbar was charged with murdering his two young stepbrothers to protect his inheritance.
Date: November 23, 1850
Location: Westerlo, New York
Victim: David and Stephen Lester
Cause of Death: Strangling and clubbing
Accused: Reuben Dunbar
Reuben Dunbar was twenty-one years old in 1850. His wife was expecting their first child and Reuben was worried about his family’s financial security. Reuben’s mother owned some property that he had hoped would be his on her death, but Mrs. Dunbar, a widow, had remarried, and all of her property transferred to her new husband, David Lester. Lester was raising his two nephews, Stephen, age 8, and David, age 10—sons of his dead brother. The two boys would inherit the bulk of the property that Reuben Dunbar felt should go to him.
On November 23, 1850, David Lester traveled from his home in Westrlo, New York, to spend the day in the town of Stephensville. He left Reuben in charge of young Stephen and David. When David Lester returned from his trip the boys were missing. Reuben said the boys had wanted to pick butternuts or go fishing but he had advised against it, but he did not know where they were.
The following day they still had not returned and the men of Westrlo began a search of the surrounding woods. During the search, Reuben made some unusual statements. Before there was any talk of foul play he said:
“If they were men, people might think they had money, and had been murdered for money; but any one might know that they had no money, and what man under heaven would murder those innocent children?”During the search, when one of the men said, "Boys, look in the trees as well as the on the ground and around the trees."
Rueben responded, "There is no use looking in the trees; such boys as them won't be found there."
David Lester was found dead, hanging by a rope from a tree limb. The body of his brother Stephen was found not far away. He had been clubbed to death.
Though there was no way to directly connect Ruben Dunbar to the deaths, his conflicting stories, suspicious behavior and known animosity towards is two brothers made him the prime suspect. Ruben Dunbar was arrested for the murders of David and Stephen Lester.
Trial: January 31, 1751
The trial of Reuben Dunbar lasted twelve days and was quite a sensation in the city of Albany, where it was held. Two indictments were filed against Reuben—he would be tried first for the murder of Stephen Lester, and the state was prepared to try him again for the murder of David should their first prosecution fail.
The defense stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence against Dunbar and begged the jury to have sympathy for the prisoner’s wife and his mother. But District Attorney H. A. Hammond made a powerful plea for conviction, and spoke so eloquently that the text of his closing argument was published several times as an example of excellent legal oratory. The jury deliberated for two hours before returning a verdict of guilty. After the verdict was read, Reuben Dunbar made this statement in court:
All I have to say is that I am not guilty of the charge brought against me. I hope those who have testified against me will, when they return to their firesides, look over the testimony and see whether they have given my words, or words which they have made up themselves. I am about bidding a final farewell to all I hold dear on earth. I shall leave this world in conscious innocence, relying for mercy upon that Being whom I have long professed to serve. I hope, my dying friends, that you will look well to your situation, as this is the last opportunity I shall have to speak to you this side of the spirit world, I hope you will prepare to meet me where we are all hastening.Verdict: Guilty of murder
Reuben Dunbar continued to assert his innocence until shortly before his execution on January 31, 1851, at the Howard Street Jail in Albany, New York. At the last minute, when he could see there was no hope of executive clemency, Dunbar was persuaded by his spiritual advisor, the Reverend Dr. Beecher, of the Baptist Church, to confess to both murders.
Before he was even convicted, a pamphlet entitled Phrenological Character of Reuben Dunbar, With a Short Treatise on The Casuses and Prevention of Crime, by Mrs. Margaret Thompson was published in Albany. Mrs. Thompson explained Dunbar’s character flaws, based on the sizes of various regions of his head:
If the prisoner has committed the crime with which he is charged, his large Destructiveness, Combativeness, Acquisitiveness, Secretiveness and Firmness, with small Philoprogenitiveness, have been the cause. The size of these organs, as combined with other faculties, especially if perverted, indicate an unfortunate organization; one in which the animal propensities govern, because the moral faculties are not sufficiently large to balance and control them.