Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Savage Ruffian!

James Fennimore Cooper recalled a day in June 1806 when he joined the population of Cooperstown, New York, to witness an eclipse of the sun. The eclipse was not the only memorable sight he saw that day, a prisoner had been brought up from his windowless dungeon to view the event. The man “with haggard face and fettered arms…the very picture of utter misery,” was Stephen Arnold, convicted of beating to death his six-year-old adopted daughter Betsey Van Amburgh for mispronouncing a word.

Date:  January 10, 1805

Location:   Burlington, New York

Victim:  Betsey Van Amburgh

Cause of Death:  Beating

Accused:   Stephen Arnold

Stephen Arnold was the son of a wealthy Rhode Island farmer, but his family determined early on that Stephen did not have the temperament to manage a large farm. He did have an aptitude for scholarship, though, and he studied at a nearby academy. By the time he was eighteen he had joined the faculty of the school. He went to Massachusetts to learn medicine but after five months of intensive study, Arnold suffered what could probably be called a nervous breakdown and gave up his schooling.

After a couple of shiftless years Arnold went to stay with an uncle in the town of Burlington, in Otsego County, New York. Arnold became a teacher again; the area was still frontier country and the Yankee farmers who settled there welcomed a learned New Englander to educate their children. He was paid by the student and at its peak, Arnold’s school had 150 pupils. By 1803 Stephen Arnold had earned enough to buy several hundred acres of farmland.

Around 1800 he married a farmer’s daughter named Susannah Van Amburgh. Though they had no children of their own, the Arnold’s adopted Susannah’s niece Betsey Van Amburgh. In the winter months, Stephen would spend the day teaching his paying students then come home and tutor Betsey.

In 1805 Stephen Arnold was described as “about 34 years of age, sandy hair, a little bald, speaks through his nose, has something of a down look, shews his upper teeth when speaking, [and] is very abstemious to strong drink.” Teaching so many pupils who, in Arnold’s words “did not appear to be really civilized,” was taking a toll on his nerves. On January 10, 1805 after a day in which, Arnold would later say, “I was provoked even to madness, through the ill-behavior of my pupils,” He came home to teach Betsey.

Betsey Van Amburgh was described as a lively child, good natured and always dancing. She may have had a speech impediment that Arnold was trying to remedy, in any case on January 10 he was trying to have her correctly pronounce the word “gig” (a two-wheeled horse cart) and Betsey continually pronounced it as “jig.” Arnold thought that she was just being obstinate. He and his wife had previously punished Betsey by whipping her and observed that it had a positive effect. Believing he could whip the stubbornness out of Betsey he went outside and cut eight beechwood switches, each three feet long and the size of his little finger, and heated them over the fire to make the supple. He then took Betsey outside in the cold for her punishment.

He laid her over a post, raised her dress over her head, laying bare her backside from the ankles to the shoulders, then proceeded to whip her with a switch. When he thought she had learned her lesson, Arnold took Betsey back inside to try the word again. But once again she pronounced it “jig” and once again he took her out for a whipping. They went outside six times and each time Betsey came back in unable to pronounce the word. If Betsey screamed or cried out in pain during her punishment,  it was not heard inside the house or by any of the neighbors but on the sixth time out she was heard to say “Do uncle, let me thaw my feet for they are almost froze.”

The whippings had gone on for an hour with no success. When Betsey failed to pronounce the word correctly after her sixth whipping, Arnold completely lost control. He took her outside once again and beat her savagely for a half hour more. Betsey then pronounced the word correctly before becoming delirious with fever. She was taken to bed where she would pass in and out of consciousness.
When Betsey’s condition did not improve after two days the Arnolds send for a doctor. They explained the symptoms but not the cause and the doctor diagnosed her as having worms. On January 13 it became clear that Betsey was dying and Arnold went to Dr. Gaines Smith saying,
“I want to tell you something and can’t—I’m ruined. I will tell you – I have whipped it to death, and if you will go and cure it and keep it a secret, I will give you half my property, – even all.”
Mrs. Arnold did not want to show the doctor the wounds, but Stephen convinced her that it was their only hope. The doctor found cuts and bruises from her legs to the middle of her back, with the bruised parts appearing “black, withered, dead and sunk down.” Dr. Smith called in two other physicians, but there was nothing to be done. Betsey died the following day. Stephen Arnold was not there to witness her death, he had already fled to the woods and was bound for Pennsylvania.

Elihu Phinney, publisher of the Otsego Herald took an interest in the case. Under the headline “A Savage Ruffian!” he told the story of Betsey’s death and announced a $200 reward, offered by the county, for the capture of Stephen Arnold. The story was picked up by nearly every newspaper in America.

A man named Thomas Cahoon of neighboring Chenango County decide to seek the reward. He tracked Arnold to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and found him in a tavern. When Cahoon approached him, Arnold took out a pistol and attempted to shoot himself in the head. Before he could pull the trigger someone knocked his arm and the shot went up, just grazing Arnold’s head. Arnold was taken to jail in Pittsburgh and Cahoon claimed the reward.

Arnold was brought back to Burlington and put into the county jail. A grand jury, with Elihu Phinney as its foreman, indicted Stephen Arnold for the murder of Betsey Van Amburgh. Though they heard testimony that Susannah Arnold had abetted the beating and had attempted to hide the wounds, she was not incited; Stephen Arnold was held solely responsible.

Trial: June 6, 1805

Stephen Arnold was tried before the Otsego County Court of Oyer and Terminer in Cooperstown, New York. Interest in the case was so high that the courtroom could only accommodate half of those who desired to attend. The trial did not last long, there were only six witnesses, all testifying for the prosecution. There was no question that Stephen Arnold had killed Betsey Van Amburgh, what was at issue was whether his excessive punishment had criminally exceeded the parental right of corporal punishment. The prosecution said:
“Such an outrageous correction as this can never be allowed by law.”
The defense countered that the death was an accident, provoked because
“the child persisted in its perverseness, when it could and had pronounced the word right.”
The jury deliberated for two hours before returning a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of murder

Stephen Arnold was sentenced to be hanged on July 19, 1805. In the six weeks between the end of the trial and the scheduled hanging, Arnold received a multitude of visitors, including clergymen and other prominent citizens. As they viewed the contrite and sorrowful prisoner, shackled to the floor of his windowless stone dungeon, in nearly every case, anger gave way to pity and then to sympathy for the pathetic man’s plight.

A petition was started to ask the governor for clemency in the case. Leading the drive was Elihu Phinney who had been foreman of the jury who indicted Arnold, and whose newspaper, the Otsego Herald had forcefully condemned him. Phinney had done an about-face, his sympathies now sided with the prisoner—the “Savage Ruffian” had become “the unhappy Arnold.” Two thousand residents of Otsego County signed the petition, two hundred of them from Burlington.

As impressive as those numbers sound, it became clear that public sentiment was still against Arnold when at least 12,000 people from all across New York State came to Cooperstown on July 19 to witness Stephen Arnold's hanging. The event promised to be instructive as well as entertaining, with prayer and  sermons on the wages of sin, so the spectators brought along their children.

It would be the first execution in Otsego County and Sheriff Solomon Martin was determined to do it right, including all the required pomp and pageantry. At noon the sheriff on horseback, led a procession from the jailhouse to the gallows outside of town. Behind the sheriff were “The Reverend Clergy and other gentlemen,” then a band playing funeral dirges, followed by a wagon bearing the prisoner seated on his coffin. Bringing up the rear were two companies of state militia with muskets and bayonets.

After they arrived at the gallows, the Reverend Mr. Williams of Springfield Center, led the gathering in prayer, Reverend Isaac Lewis of Cooperstown delivered a sermon and Elder Ebenezer Vining of Winfield offered a prayer of forgiveness. Stephen Arnold was given the opportunity to address the crowd. He urged the people to improve by his fatal example and place strict guard upon their passions. The noose was placed around Arnold’s neck. Elihu Phinney described what happened next:
“The thousands of spectators were waiting in silent and gloomy suspense for the fatal catastrophe, when the sheriff, after a few concise and pertinent remarks to the prisoner, produced a letter from his Excellency Governor Morgan Lewis containing directions for “A Respite of the Execution” until further orders—the prisoner swooned, the countenances of the vast concourse assumed a different expression and the whole scene changed.”

Phinney reported that the crowd “dispersed without any tumultuous conduct,” but George Peck, another observer, saw a different scene:
“Wild excitement followed. Arnold fell as if he had been shot through the heart. Women shrieked; some of them wept aloud; some feinted; men raged and swore. The criminal was so detested for his cruelty that his escape from execution provoked a storm of fury. So indignant were the people that some rough fellows captured a dog, named him ‘Arnold,’ and hung him on the gallows which had failed to do justice to his namesake.”

Earlier in the week, Jacob Ford of Cooperstown had taken the petition to Governor Lewis, but the governor proved hard to track down. When he was finally found, visiting the home of a friend, Governor Lewis was sympathetic, but being away from his office could only order a temporary stay of execution. Ford managed to make it back to Cooperstown on the morning of the hanging. Sheriff Martin, fearing a riot, decided to give the crowd all of the show except the climax. Though he has been criticized for it, the sheriff probably made the right decision.

Stephen Arnold remained in Ostego County’s dank dungeon, still under sentence of death, until March 1807 when the state legislature commuted his sentence to life in prison. He was transferred to Newgate Prison in New York City where he would at least be able to see the sun through his cell window.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

Arnold, Stephen. The trial of Stephen Arnold for the murder of Betsey Van Amburgh, a child six years of age: before the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Goal Delivery, for the county of Otsego, at the court house in Cooperstown, June 4th, 1805. Hartford: Printed by Lincoln & Gleason, 1806. 

Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute. Through a glass darkly: reflections on personal identity in early America. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 

Cooper, James Fennimore "The Eclipse." Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature Sep. 1869: 352. 

Jones, Louis C.. "The Crime and Punishment Stephen Arnold." New York History July 1966: 248. 

Phinney, Elihu. "A Savage Ruffian!." Otsego Herald [Cooperstown] 31 Jan. 1805.


Undine says:
July 13, 2013 at 10:51 AM

I can't say I'm overwhelmed with sympathy for the guy.

Unknown says:
July 1, 2014 at 3:39 AM

Undine, you have to realize it was a much different time 200 years ago. Different crimes and punishments. While today we frown upon beating a child for any reason, 200 years ago it was allowed. Especially if it was thought the child deserved it.

Becky D. says:
July 21, 2014 at 7:18 AM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky D. says:
July 21, 2014 at 7:19 AM

I find it interesting that the poor girl was referred to as "it" both by the accused and in quotes from the papers. Was this common for the time?

Barry Lynn says:
July 14, 2018 at 6:33 PM

Bring back public hanging. I am sick and tired of our "Hug a Thug" culture. We allow these animals to rape and kill at will and in the end they get 3 hots and a cot for Life.

Equality Evermore says:
June 29, 2021 at 7:44 AM

Amazing how these superior bred aristocrats cannot handle everything handed to them on a silver platter.

Had Stephen Arnold been a poor man's son, he would've swung from a noose even in the early 1800s. Does anyone realize how brutal of a beating actually kills a person. My third grade teacher beat me 100 times with a huge wooden paddle. I survived. It was obviously not acceptable to beat a child to death in 1805.

Equality Evermore says:
June 29, 2021 at 7:54 AM

I think we know how much this man's students dreaded him.

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