The night of April 26, 1871, while stepping off a Manhattan horse-car, Avery Putnam was struck from behind and killed by William Foster wielding an iron car-hook. This cowardly and unprovoked attack outraged the people of New York but before its ultimate resolution, outrage over “The Car-Hook Tragedy” would be overshadowed by a bitter public debate on the morality of the death penalty, and allegations of threat and bribery to prevent Foster’s execution.
Date: April 26, 1871
Victim: Avery D. Putnam
Cause of Death: Blows to the head
Accused: William Foster
As they passed the corner of Twenty-ninth and Broadway, Putnam drew Jenny’s attention to the clock on the front of the Gilsey House hotel. To get a better look, Jenny stooped to look through the glass in the door at the front of the car. The motion caught the attention of the driver, on the other side of the door, who nudged the arm of the man standing next to him. The other man turned around, pressed his face against the glass and smirked at Jenny in an insulting manner.
“Say,” Foster said, “how far are you going up?”
When he got no reply he repeated it twice more, then said, “Well, I’m going as far as you and before you get out I’ll give you hell.”
The incident was reported to the police, and late that night the driver and conductor of the horse-car were arrested. Reluctantly, they revealed that the killer was William Foster. At 3:00 am, Foster was arrested and taken to the Tombs prison to await trial.
The prosecution offered evidence that the murder, though unprovoked, was premeditated. Foster lived on Twenty-Second Street, but had stayed on the car well past his stop. He had asked the driver if he had the car-hook four blocks before they reached Forty-Sixth Street. When the driver tried to stop him, Foster turned and threatened the driver before chasing after Putnam.
The case was given to the jury on May 25, the following morning they returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder, but with a recommendation to mercy.
Verdict: Guilty, first degree murder
July 14, 1871 was the day set for William Foster’s execution, but two appeals pushed the hanging into 1872. Both appeals failed and Foster was rescheduled to hang in March 4, 1872.
As the date of the execution approached, public sympathy for Foster began to increase. Clergymen of all faiths and denominations were speaking out against capital punishment from the pulpit and in the press. New York Governor, John A. Dix, received letters and petitions from all over the country begging him to pardon Foster. Seven members of the jury that convicted Foster petitioned Dix to pardon him, saying they had only agreed to the guilty verdict when the recommendation for mercy was added.
But the sympathy for Foster was not universal; many in New York and elsewhere were anxious to see him hang. Mainstream newspapers printed just as many letters in support of execution as opposed. More than a dozen merchants of Pearl Street, where Avery Putnam had his business, petitioned the governor to uphold the sentence.
There were also allegations that Foster’s family and influential friends were using bribery and threats to win support for a pardon. Madam Duval said she had been approached three times by people seeking her support in winning a pardon for Foster. One said it would be to her advantage if Foster was saved, there would be a great deal of money in for her. Another one said to her:
“But supposing there was money for you in this thing; or, putting it in another form, supposing this man is hanged: he has friends large in political and money influence. The well-being of yourself and your daughters may be endangered for the next twenty years.”
Mrs. Ellen L. Putnam, wife of the murdered man—who had successfully sued the streetcar line for $5,000—wrote a letter to Governor Dix recommending a commutation of Foster’s sentence. William L. Allen, husband of a cousin of Mrs. Putnam, claimed she did so in exchange for money from the friends of William Foster. He said they first offered to pay for her son’s education. Allen told her to demand cash instead, to ask for $25,000 and accept no less than $15,000, and to sign nothing until the money is in her hand.
Governor Dix finally granted Foster a two week reprieve, and crowds gathered at the door of the Tombs trying to find out what it meant. Many believed that Foster’s supporters had been successful and the hanging would not take place, but the governor had not been convinced by their arguments. On Friday, March 21, 1873, in front of a crowd of 300 people, William Foster was hanged in the yard of the Tombs.