In the autumn of 1882, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Nicholas L. Dukes learned that his fiancée, Lizzie Nutt, had been intimate with other men. An honorable man would have confronted his betrothed and ended their engagement face-to-face. Dukes chose to break the engagement in a letter written to Lizzie’s father, Civil War hero and Cashier of the Pennsylvania State Treasury, Captain A. C. Nutt. The resulting conflict was so divisive and violent that it would take two murders and two controversial trial verdicts to restore honor to Uniontown.
Date: December 24, 1882, June 13, 1883
Victim: Captain A. C. Nutt, Nicholas L. Dukes
Cause of Death: Shooting
Accused: Nicholas L. Dukes, James Nutt
|Nicholas L. Dukes|
“Her sweet, musical voice, her red lips, her white teeth, her pretty face and winning smile are fascinating. Add to this her musical talent and you have a woman who would be an ornament to grace any home.”
But Dukes was still worried about Lizzie’s reputation and went to see her, determined to test whether Lizzie’s character was a loose as the slander would suggest.
“She came up and placed herself on my lap as usual, and after fondling her for some time I made a solicitation. To my infinite astonishment and grief she melted down like wax. Oh how I pitied her weakness. But where is there a man that could not resist the temptation of such beauty and loveliness…But what was my horror and heartsickness when I found signs of her virginity wanting.”According to Dukes, he confronted Lizzie and she admitted to losing her virginity to a man named Jesse Bogardus. Dukes then decided to end the engagement but…
“… immediately thereafter (pardon) her monthly sickness failed to appear, and she was alarmed.”Instead he asked Lizzie to give him the engagement ring because he meant to replace it with a better one. And instead of breaking the engagement, in early December Dukes sent a letter to A. C. Nutt, explaining that his daughter was promiscuous and probably pregnant. Dukes stressed that he was not the daughter’s seducer, and, using proper Victorian innuendo, implied that abortion would be the best course for all involved.
|Captain A. C. Nutt|
“You mistake the temper of the man with whom you have to deal. You write to me as if you considered me a shameless coward and even suggest to me the hideous office of the abortionist. I shall convince you that I have the moral courage to espouse my daughter’s cause, and defend the honor of myself and family, and further, that I have the moral courage to rest secure in the approval of the community in which I live, should this whole miserable affair become fully known to the world. It rests with you whether this affair ends in a legal farce or a tragedy. This Commonwealth is not big enough for both of us under existing conditions.”Captain Nutt requested that Dukes visit him at his home on December 23 to discuss the matter face-to-face.
Dukes sent another letter to Nutt, this one even more explicit in condemning Lizzie’s character:
“I cannot accept for a wife the toy of the town, and thus become the butt of the town’s mocking derision. Death is far sweeter…The woman is better known by the community than you know her, and her name is scarcely mentioned without a sneer. Why don’t you go and shoot Fry and Bogardus and Kennedy and all the tribe? You want her reputation veneered at my sole expense.”
Dukes refused to meet Nutt at his home, fearing that he would walk into a “death-trap,” instead he requested Nutt come to him and talk.
On December 24, 1882, Captain Nutt, accompanied by his nephew, F. C. Breckenridge, and a Mr. James Feather, went to see Nicholas Dukes at the Jennings Hotel in downtown Uniontown where Dukes was living at the time. The other men waited outside as Nutt went into Dukes’s room alone. They heard sounds of a scuffle from inside the room, then a muffled cry of “murder.” Breckenridge and Feather rushed in and separated the men. Nutt, completely exhausted, was leaning against the mantelpiece when Dukes pulled a revolver from his overcoat and shot Captain Nutt, killing him.
Dukes willingly surrendered to the police. Angry mobs, bent on lynching, gathered in Uniontown as the news of the shooting spread, and jail was the safest place for the killer.
The murder of Captain Nutt became a national story and the trial drew crowds from all across the country. The prosecution argued that the murder was premeditated and sought a verdict of first degree murder. Dukes pleaded self-defense, claiming that he did not reach for his pistol until he saw Captain Nutt reach for his.
The defense tried to have the letters between Dukes and Nutt withheld as evidence, saying that they were irrelevant to the case, but the judge allowed them. After the letters were read in court, the defense claimed that, when viewed in the proper light, the letters were an act of friendship toward Captain Nutt.
In his closing argument Dukes’s attorney spoke for three hours, arguing for self-defense. The prosecuting attorney spoke for two hours then the case was given to the jury. Sentiment throughout the town was overwhelmingly against Dukes and no one expected a verdict of less than first degree murder. Just before 8 o’clock on March 14, a bell was rung at the courthouse announcing that the jury had returned. The courtroom was packed and crowds outside swarmed around the courthouse to hear the verdict. To everyone’s astonishment, the verdict was “not guilty.”
Even the judge was amazed by the verdict:
“Gentlemen of the jury, I suppose the verdict is one that you thought you should render under your oaths; but it is one that gives dissatisfaction to the Court, because we thought the evidence sufficient to justify a different verdict. If you have committed an error, it is one that we cannot avoid, but can only express our condemnation of it in this mild way. The prisoner is dismissed.”
Verdict: Not guilty
That night on the streets of Uniontown there were frenzied threats to lynch Dukes and take vengeance on the jury. Though Dukes was kept safely inside, a chanting crowd hanged him in effigy.
Lizzie Nutt had not been pregnant. She denied all of the allegations that Dukes made in his letters. Jesse Bogardus issued a sworn affidavit saying that he had not seen Lizzie Nutt in seven years, had never had “criminal relations” with her, and had no reason to believe her to be anything but a virtuous young girl. Two other men mentioned in the letters issued similar affidavits. It later came out that Dukes had been engaged to two other women in addition to Lizzie Nutt.
Telegrams arrived in Uniontown from elected officials, newspaper editors and concerned citizens denouncing the jury’s verdict. A committee of prominent Uniontown citizens was formed to issue a document of resolutions condemning Dukes and the verdict. Dukes was disbarred and resigned from his seat in the state legislature to avoid expulsion.
A policeman ran to the scene and arrested James Nutt who put up no resistance. “You have done a bad piece of work,” said the policeman. “Yes; but I could not help it.” Nutt replied.
Trial: January 14, 1884
This time public sentiment in Uniontown was overwhelmingly in favor of the defendant. So much so that it was impossible to find an impartial jury there and the venue of the trial was changed to Pittsburg. Even there, excitement was so great that huge crowds of people gathered around the courthouse hoping to gain admission. Pamphlets giving the history of the Dukes-Nutt tragedy, complete with woodcut illustrations, were sold by book agents outside the courthouse. Inside, the judge had to admonish spectators for bringing bouquets of flowers to the defense table.
The prosecution argued for premeditated murder. James Nutt had been seen target shooting with a pistol the afternoon of the murder. The defense team, led by Daniel W. Voorhees—a sitting U. S. Senator from Indiana who had volunteered his services, pro bono—pleaded not guilty by reason of emotional insanity.
The crowd listened in silence to Senator Voorhees’s closing statement. When he boldly declared that he would advise any young man in James Nutt’s circumstances to use a shotgun instead of a revolver, they cheered heartily. Following the Senator’s oration, the judge came down from the bench and, with tears in his eyes, thanked him.
The jury retired at 7:50 that night and most spectators thought there would be a verdict before eight o’clock. The following morning the jury returned the verdict, “Not guilty, on account of insanity at the time the act was committed.”
Verdict: Not guilty
This time the not guilty verdict was loudly cheered. James Nutt was held for one more day so that he could be examined by a committee to determine his present mental condition. The following day James Nutt was released and, amid great rejoicing, returned to his home in Uniontown.
Two years later James Nutt was arrested again for attempted murder. He had moved to Kansas and was living on a farm. He shot two people, and at his trial he once again tried the insanity defense. It did not work in Kansas and Nutt received a lengthy prison sentence.