Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Hunter-Armstrong Tragedy

John M. Armstrong
The night of January 23, 1878, a man was found on the ground with a serious head wound not far from the home of Ford W. Davis in Camden, New Jersey. Near the wounded man, a hammer and a hatchet were found, each marked with the initials F. W. D. The man was identified as  Philadelphia music publisher John M. Armstrong, and when it was learned that he owed Ford W. Davis a sizeable amount of money, Davis was arrested. But Armstrong also owed $12,000 to Benjamin F. Hunter, who had insured Armstrong’s life for more than double that amount.

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
John Armstrong was seriously wounded but still alive when he was found on the ground in Camden, New Jersey, He was taken to his home in Philadelphia, across the Delaware River, to be treated for head wounds. Benjamin Hunter was among the first to be contacted by the Armstrong family after John was brought home. In the guise of helping, Hunter suspiciously removed the bandages on Armstrong’s head, reopening the wound. But when Armstrong died, it was Ford Davis who was charged with his murder.

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.

Thomas Graham
They made a plan and set a date for the murder, and then Hunter made arrangements to be in Virginia that day. But Hunter returned to Philadelphia to find Armstrong still alive—Graham’s nerve had failed him. Undaunted, Hunter came up with a more detailed plan to murder Armstrong.  He gave Graham a hammer, which bore the initials F. W. D., then had Graham mail a postcard to Armstrong, purporting to be from Ford Davis, asking Armstrong to meet him in Camden, New Jersey. Graham was to kill Armstrong with the hammer and then leave it behind to frame Davis. Graham lost his nerve again, but this time, he lied and said Armstrong never showed up.

Hunter still wanted Armstrong dead and decided not to leave anything to chance. He met Armstrong face to face and persuaded him to accompany him on the ferry from Philadelphia to Camden. Graham, armed with the hammer and a hatchet that Hunter had given him, also initialed F.W.D., followed after them, riding in a different section of the boat. In Camden, they took a streetcar, and Graham followed on foot. They got off the car on Vine Street, and then Hunter left Armstrong and gave Graham the signal.

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 story 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 that 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 improve 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 a 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.

It was reported that Hunter, due to weakness from the loss of blood and fear of death, had to be carried to the gallows, though some claimed he had been given brandy and was dead drunk when carried in. The hanging was to be done using a method adopted by the state of New Jersey—used in the case of 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, which 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 afterward, partly out of consideration for his innocent sufferings, Davis was appointed crier of the Camden Courts, and he held that position for many years.


Hunter, Benjamin F., and Thomas Graham. Hunter-Armstrong tragedy the great trial : conviction of Benj. F. Hunter for the murder of John M. Armstrong.. Philadelphia: Barclay, 1878. 

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. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1921.

Seen & heard by Megargee, Volume 4, Part 1. Philadelphia: Louis N. Megarcee, 1904.

The Medico-legal journal ... New York: Medico legal journal, 1886.


Bob Stewart says:
April 20, 2013 at 12:47 PM

Great story.

As I side note, even if Hunter had been found innocent, I don't think he would have been able to collect more than the $12,000. There's a doctrine called "insurable interest" that stipulates you can't insure something for more than your potential loss. Otherwise people would do things like insure a mood ring for $10,000 and then lose it. ;-)

I've been writing mysteries where the protagonist is an insurance investigator, so I've had to bone up on a lot of this sort of thing.

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