The morning of December 11, 1859, eleven-year-old Priscilla Budge carried a cup of tea to her mother’s bedroom. There she found her mother dead, lying on the bed with her throat cut. Mrs. Budge was known to be mentally unstable and her husband, the Reverend Henry Budge, immediately declared that his wife’s death must have been suicide. The coroner’s jury agreed and Mrs. Budge was soon buried—a quick conclusion to an unpleasant event. But as it turned out, it was not the conclusion, just the opening argument of a debate that would go on for years.
Date: December 10, 1859
Victim: Priscilla Budge
Cause of Death: Slashing
Accused: Reverend Henry Budge
In 1849, Reverend Budge and his wife Pricilla came to America from England with their three year old son, Henry Junior. In 1859 they were living in Lyons Falls, New York, with six children, ranging in age from two to thirteen. Though she had help from her eleven-year-old daughter, also named Pricilla, Mrs. Budge appeared to be breaking under the strain of raising six children. The children would later testify that their parents were constantly arguing, and Mrs. Budge would berate her husband for coming home late and spending too much time away from the family.
Mrs. Budge had grown up in a wealthy family in England, but was disowned by her father after she married. She had never really adjusted to her lot as the wife of a poor preacher in a strange country. By 1859 Mr. and Mrs. Budge no longer slept in the same bedroom. In addition to constantly fighting with her husband, Mrs. Budge was prone to fits of “derangement.”
On December 10, Mrs. Budge wrote a letter to her sister in England and gave it to, Emma Gould, a neighbor girl, to mail. Young Pricilla Budge was not sure what was in the letter but had gleaned enough from hearing her mother read it aloud, to know that “it was not right.” She went to Emma and asked her for the letter. When Emma refused she told her father and he went to talk with Emma. Rev. Budge persuaded her to give him the letter and told her “that his troubles had been as they were for eleven years, and that he would not endure it six hours, were it not for his children.”
The next morning Mrs. Budge was found in her bedroom with her throat slashed. Mr. Budge never went into the bedroom himself but relied on the neighbors to describe the scene. He said it must be suicide and told them to look for the weapon. They found a straight razor lying near her hand.
A coroner’s jury was convened and Mrs. Budge’s body was examined. The court ruled “death by suicide” and Mrs. Budge was quickly buried.
Having been underground through a cold winter, there was very little decomposition in the corpse. The body was examined by a team of physicians led by Dr. John Swinburne who would later be Mayor of Albany and a United States Congressman from New York. What they found appeared to contradict the notion that Mrs. Budge cut her own throat.
|Dr. John Swinburne (in 1888)|
Trial: August 1861
The prosecution called witnesses, including Budge’s own children, to testify to the ongoing marital difficulties between Mr. and Mrs. Budge. The defense countered with witnesses who testified to Mrs. Budge’s insanity. But the bulk of the testimony consisted of detailed medical opinions as to whether or not Mrs. Budge was alive when her throat was cut, and whether anyone else could have cut her throat. The medical testimony went on for weeks until during the testimony of Professor Valentine Mott of New York, Budge’s attorney moved that the charges against his client be dropped. Judge Allen ruled that, while the circumstances made a strong case for judicial investigation, the defense had shown qualifying circumstances such as how the fluid might have gotten into the lungs without asphyxia. He added:
“It is not for me to say that the case shall close: there are circumstances that might be forcibly urged to the jury; but it strikes me, that, as the case stands, it is only a balance of probabilities, in which it would be unsafe to convict; and in view of the fact that these doubts have arisen, the prisoner is entitled to the benefit of them, and should be released.”The case was abruptly sent to the jury pro forma, and by the direction of the judge the prisoner was acquitted.
Verdict: Not guilty:
According to a biography of Dr. Swinburne:
“When the case was so abruptly brought to a close, Dr. Mott, who had been interrupted, it was said, turning to Judge Allen remarked sotto voce, ‘I would like to explain.’—‘It is too late now,’ said the judge.—‘But I do not believe that poor woman ever killed herself,’ said the doctor.—‘Neither do I,’ replied his honor."But, though the verdict could not be altered, the case was effectively tried one more time. Following his acquittal, Budge sued Caleb Lyon for libel because the verses he had written charged Rev. Budge with murdering his wife, having criminal intercourse with other women, and other charges which held him up to ridicule and injured his good name. Budge wanted $20,000 in damages.
Caleb Lyon wanted to prove that he had good reason to think that Budge killed his wife, so the libel case ended up being a replay of Budge’s murder trial. Many of the same witnesses were called Dr. John Swinburne handled the medical testimony, with additional evidence that was not included in the first trial due to the Judge Allen’s abrupt ruling. Lyon was found guilty of libel, but only fined a nominal $100 damages.
The trial also gave Swinburne the opportunity to publish a book, A Review of the Case, The People Agt. Henry Budge, Indicted for the murder of his wife Pricilla Budge, which included evidence from both trials. Swinburne never believed that the probabilities of the case were equally balanced and did not hesitate to assert that Reverend Budge had gotten away with murder. The book was well reasoned with detailed illustrations, including the following which show four possible positions of the killer, refuting the defense’s claim that, due to the position of the body and the arrangement of the room, no one but Mrs. Budge herself could have cut her throat: