Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Vanderpool-Field Tragedy.

Though he was only twenty-one years old in 1869, Herbert Field had already faced death numerous times in a variety of exotic locations. Field had lived an adventurous life and seemed to attract danger, but he never encountered a danger he could not overcome until he settled down in Michigan to become a banker.

Date:  September 5, 1869

Location:   Manistee, Michigan

Victim: Herbert Field

Cause of Death:  Blows to the head

Accused:   George H. Vanderpool


Herbert Field was born in1848 in Lewiston, Maine. As a child he was saved from drowning on three separate occasions, was nearly killed when a rifle he was loading discharged prematurely, and was badly burned and nearly suffocated when his house caught fire. At age 13, during the Civil War, he left home and joined a Maine army regiment encamped in Virginia, then joined the crew of a transport ship carrying supplies to the Union army in New Orleans.

At age fifteen he sailed from Boston on the schooner John Tucker bound for South America. The men aboard the John Tucker were harshly treated and poorly fed and the ship was nearly destroyed in a storm. When Field left the ship at Cape Horn he was arrested and held for three weeks in a Valparaiso jail. After returning to the States, Field boarded an English ship bound for Liverpool and then on to Russia. In the Baltic Sea, the ship was wrecked near Riga. While he managing to survive the shipwreck, Field lost all of his clothing and a large amount of gold.

Herbert Field returned to the United States bent on settling down and entering the business world. He studied at the Commercial College in Auburn, New York, but unable to find a position upon graduation, Field took to the lecture circuit, speaking of his travels in South America.

While speaking in the town of Manistee, Michigan, Field met Miss Rachel Hill, a fifty-five year old woman who was quite interested in the lecture and offered to help Field obtain a better education. He accepted her offer and began living in Miss Hill’s house. She passed herself as Field’s aunt and this was accepted by the people of Manistee, though it was rumored that their relationship was much more intimate.

Around the same time, another young man arrived in Manistee. George Vanderpool, who had
experience in the lumber business, came with money borrowed from men in a neighboring town, intent on starting a bank. The bank opened in December 1868 and two months later Herbert Field, investing $7,000 given to him by Miss Hill, became a partner in the new enterprise.

The partners had complementary skills—Vanderpool was the better businessman, while Field was the more affable— and the firm of Vanderpool and Field did quite well. But by September 1869 all was not well between the partners. Vanderpool believed that Field was drawing money without accounting for it. He changed the combination of the safe and began taking the petty cash home with him at night. According to Vanderpool, Field wanted out of the partnership, either by buying Vanderpool’s share or by selling his own. Vanderpool did not want to sell so they decided to dissolve the partnership.

They drew up the necessary papers and on the morning of Sunday, September 5, 1869 their
signatures were witnessed by shopkeepers in stores abutting the bank. The following day Herbert Field could not be found in Manistee. Field had many friends in town and his absence was immediately noticed. Vanderpool speculated that Field had run away; gone off on another adventure. Field’s friends were skeptical, especially Miss Hill who knew that Field had left behind $2,000 of his own money.

After Field had been gone several days, the people of Manistee began to speculate that he had been the victim of foul play and suspicion fell upon his partner George Vanderpool. Though Field’s body had not been found and most believed that Vanderpool was incapable of murder, he was arrested on Wednesday, September 8, and held on suspicion. Meanwhile the sheriff offered rewards for information on the whereabouts of Herbert Fields—$50 if alive, and $300 for the body if dead. $300 was later raised to $500.

On September 17, a body was found on the shore of Lake Michigan, twenty-eight miles north of Manistee. The body was brought by steamer back to the town where it was positively identified as that of Herbert Field. He had not drowned; his skull had been crushed and his body had been tied to a weight before being thrown into the water. The line had broken setting the body free to be washed ashore.

Vanderpool’s behavior before his arrest was now examined more closely by the sheriff and prosecutors. He had been seen mopping the floor of his office the morning of his arrest, cleaning up what appeared to be a large amount of blood. A section had been cut out of the middle of the carpet and from the ashes in the stove, investigators could tell that it had been burned there. A pair of Vanderpool’s trousers had also been burned in the stove and witnesses remembered seeing Vanderpool wearing Field’s clothes on September 5. Witnesses also remembered sounds of a scuffle coming from the bank that morning.

The explanations that Vanderpool gave for these events were far from satisfying. The blood, he said, had come from a bloody nose. He had bled into the spittoon and had later filled the spittoon with water, preparing to clean it. The spittoon had been knocked over and the contents spilled on the floor, the water augmenting the size of the resulting blood stains. He had cut out the section of carpet because it was worn and dirty. He said that on September 5 he had a bad case of diarrhea and had soiled his pants so badly that he decided to burn them and wear a pair that Field had kept in the office. The sounds from the bank were made by Field playing with his dog.

On September 18, the coroner’s jury indicted George Vanderpool for the murder of Herbert Field

Trials: 1. December 21, 1869, 2. October 23, 1870, 3. August 8, 1871
The courtroom was filled to capacity on December 21, 1869, opening day of the trial, as more than five hundred people came to get a look at the accused murderer. A quick look was all they got because after pleading “not guilty" Venderpool was removed from the courtroom and the trial was continued until the next term due to the absence of some material witnesses for the defense.

The trial commenced again on February 1, 1870. The prosecution presented all of the now familiar circumstantial evidence against Vanderpool along with testimony from medical experts that the wounds on Field’s head were consistent with the blunt end of a hatchet kept in the bank office.

The defense countered with the explanations Vanderpool had previously given, along with the assertion that had he murdered Field, Vanderpool would have immediately cleaned his office and not waited until the following Wednesday. The prosecution asserted that there was too much blood to be accounted for by the spittoon story; the defense said there was not enough blood in the office if Field was killed there by a blow the head. But most importantly, several witnesses testified that they had seen Herbert Field alive at 2:00 the afternoon of September 5. All of George Vanderpool’s time was accounted for that afternoon so if Felid was alive at 2:00 he could not have been murdered by Vanderpool.

The testimony took thirteen days, closing arguments lasted six days. Then Vanderpool himself spoke directly to the jury for three hours, asserting his innocence. The jury deliberated for six hours then returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. George Vanderpool was sentenced to life in solitary confinement at Jackson Prison.

As Vanderpool was beginning his sentence, there was a growing sentiment in Michigan that he had not received an impartial trial in Manistee. Money was raised to meet the expenses of seeking a new trial, and a new trial was secured, with the venue changed to Kalamazoo. This trial was called “a battle of giants” because attorneys on both sides included some of the greatest lawyers in Michigan.

The second trial followed much the same lines as the first, with the additional assertion by the defense—including a minute-by-minute breakdown—that even if the murder had been committed the morning of September 5, Vanderpool would not have had time to dispose of the body and return home by the time witnesses saw him there. The trial ended in a hung jury—nine for conviction, three for acquittal.

Vanderpool’s third trail, in August 1871, was held in Barry Michigan. The most dramatic feature of this trial was the appearance of Herbert Field’s mother who, on the first day, confronted a man she thought was George Vanderpool and exclaimed,
“Where is my son; where is Herbert Field? Oh, wretched man!”
This time the defense challenged the identification of the body, claiming it was not conclusively proven to be that of Herbert Field. They also introduced evidence of a strange man in a rowboat rescued in Lake Michigan near the Manistee River around the time of Field’s disappearance. He was carrying a large sum of money and later fled to Canada. The defense speculated that he could have been the murderer.

This time the jury deliberated for six hours and returned a verdict of not guilty.

Verdicts: 1. Guilty of first degree murder, 2. Hung jury, 3. Not guilty.


As Vanderpool’s attorneys were entering a carriage to take them to the train depot, Herbert Field’s mother stepped up and exclaimed:
“The blood of my son is in Michigan, and will yet be avenged upon Vanderpool and his defenders! You will have your share of the punishment, and I shall meet you at the judgment!”

After leaving prison George Vanderpool did not return to banking. He tried his hand on the lecture circuit for a time, but found less interest in his case than he anticipated. Following that he did his best to escape the notoriety of the Michigan murder by working as a traveling salesman for an Ohio shoe company.

Donovan, Joseph Wesley. Modern jury trials and advocates containing condensed cases, with sketches and speeches of American advocates : the art of winning cases and manner of counsel described : with notes and rules of practice. New York: G.A. Jennings Co., 1881.

Vanderpool, George. History of the trial of George Vanderpool for the murder of Herbert Field, including a brief sketch of the life of both parties, the judge and attorneys in the case. Detroit: Printed by the Tunis Steam Print. Co., 1870.
"Personal Points." Cincinnati Daily Times 22 Oct. 1872.
"The Northwest." Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago] 25 Apr. 1874: 2.
"The Vanderpool-Field Tragedy." Plain Dealer [Cleveland ] 19 Nov. 1870.


Brett says:
February 1, 2024 at 1:58 PM

Interesting case. My 2nd g-grandfather was the Appellate Judge in the second trial - Charles Richards Brown.

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