|John M. Armstrong|
Date: January 23, 1878
Location: Camden, New Jersey
Victim: John M. Armstrong
Cause of Death: Blows from a hammer and an axe
Accused: Benjamin F. Hunter
|Benjamin F. Hunter|
Some days later a young man named Thomas Graham was drowning his sorrows in a Philadelphia saloon. Laden with guilt, Graham made statements about the Armstrong murder that were incriminating enough to have him arrested. In jail, Graham made a full confession. He was an employee at Benjamin Hunter’s hardware concern and his boss had offered him $500 to kill John Armstrong. Graham was in need of money and readily agreed.
Graham hit Armstrong once with the hammer, but lost heart before he was able to finish the job. He threw the hatchet away and ran back to the ferry. Hunter grabbed the hatchet and attacked Armstrong himself, striking his victim on the head. He left Armstrong severely wounded, with a fractured skull.
After Thomas Graham told this tory to the police, Ford Davis was released and Benjamin Hunter was arrested for murder.
Trial: June 10, 1878
Benjamin Hunter pled not guilty to the murder of John Armstrong. The defense asserted that there was no evidence that Hunter was in Camden that night. They also provided numerous witnesses that testified to Hunter’s good character. And they challenged the indictment on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, the murder could not be prosecuted in New Jersey.
It came out in court that Hunter had loaned Armstrong a total of $12,000 and to insure his loan Hunter had persuaded Armstrong to agree to a life insurance policy with Hunter as beneficiary. The amount of the policy was $26,000.
Thomas Graham had turned state’s evidence and it was his eye-witness testimony which tightened the noose around Hunter’s neck. The trial lasted 23 days and at the end the jury, with almost no deliberation, found Hunter guilty.
Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder
Hunter’s attorneys appealed the verdict on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, Hunter could not be convicted of murder in Camden, New Jersey. The appeal was denied and Hunter was sentenced to hang on January 10, 1879.
With all hope gone, Benjamin Hunter confessed. The amount of money he had loaned Armstrong had been so large that he had been losing sleep worrying about it. Armstrong appeared to be using the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle rather than improving his failing business. Hunter’s only hope of retrieving his money was Armstrong’s death.
A week before the execution, Hunter attempted suicide, trying to spare his family and himself the indignity of a hanging. He was not allowed a knife or fork when eating, but he was able to tear away the top of a tin cup and used sharp edge to cut into his leg. Under a blanket he was able to cut an artery without the knowledge of the jailers on his deathwatch, and he had lost a pint and a half of blood before passing out and alerting them. He was saved from death and the execution went on as scheduled.
Antoine La Blanc, among others – in which, rather than falling through a trap, the condemned man is pulled upward when a counterweight is dropped. Hunter’s execution was horribly botched as this eye-witness account attests:
“There was no scaffold. He was hanged in the corridor of the Court House, with a rope reaching up into the Court House over a pulley and to a weight in the cellar below. He was hanged at a cross-like arrangement, made by two corridors populated by men from some of whom the Sheriff demanded ten dollars apiece, and Eli Morgan, Deputy Sheriff to Sheriff Daubman, was to cut a little rope that held a stronger rope that controlled a three-hundred pound weight that was intended to hoist up the murderer into the air. The narrator was within two feet of Hunter when he was hanged. The rope was so long that it failed of its purpose and stretched, and the man went up in the air for but a few feet then tumbled down like a bunch of wet rags. Then Eli Morgan grabbed the rope and hauled him up hand over hand and held him there until he was throttled to death.”It took Hunter at least fourteen minutes to die of strangulation.
Benjamin Hunter’s brother tried to collect on the life insurance policy and agreed to give the money to the Armstrong family. The insurance company refused to pay and Armstrong’s wife and administratrix of his estate, sued the company. The court sided with the insurance company saying they did not need to pay. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who overturned the verdict and called for a new trial. If the insurance company could prove that the policy had been taken out by Hunter as part of the crime of murder, then policy need not be paid, if there was no fraud, then the money must be paid.
The false accusation and imprisonment of the first suspect, Ford Davis, had completely prostrated him. Shortly afterwards, partly out of consideration for his innocent sufferings, Davis was appointed crier of the Camden Courts, and he held that position for many years.