Date: May 23, 1875
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Victim: Mabel H. Young
Cause of Death: Blows to the head
Accused: Thomas W. Piper
|Warren Avenue Baptist Church|
While Miss Hobbs and some other women of the church were searching for Mabel they heard an agonized cry coming from the church belfry. Three men broke down a locked door and rushed up the stairs into the tower. At the first landing they saw a fresh puddle of blood and under a loose floorboard found a bloodstained cricket bat. They hurried up to the next level and pushed open a heavy trapdoor. Dozens of pigeons flew out of the way as the men entered the belfry and found Mabel Young lying on the floor. Her skull was crushed and her hair and clothes were covered with blood but she was still alive. The men carried her down from the belfry and, though she never regained consciousness, Mabel managed to live until 8:00 the following evening.
A young boy outside the church had seen a man leap from the belfry and run away. When Chief of Police Savage heard of the attack he had a good idea who that man was. Savage lived not far from the Warren Avenue Baptist Church and he knew that sexton of the church had been a suspect in a similar murder a year and a half earlier. On December 5, 1873, near Dorchester, a man heard a noise in the bushes and when he investigated a cloaked figure jumped from the bushes and ran away. He had interrupted the rape of a woman who was later identified a domestic servant named Bridget Landregan. Her skull had been crushed and she was naked from the waist down. Nearby was a bloody “bat-like” club. A few hours later the rapist accomplished his goal with the assault and rape of Minnie Sullivan. Though she survived the attack, Miss Sullivan could give no description of her attacker. The police were able to trace the club to a shop where Thomas W. Piper was working, but they did not have enough evidence to arrest him.
Not long after this Piper was hired as sexton of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church on the recommendation of his brother, a member of the church who was studying for the ministry. Even without knowing his suspicious past, members of the church had reason to be wary of their new sexton. The twenty-six-year-old Piper was described as melancholy but quiet and agreeable until the sixteen-year-old daughter of a minister met him in the vestry one Sunday evening. It was not revealed what he proposed to her but she hurried home to tell her parents “she thought he was a very bad man indeed, and was afraid of him.”
|Illustration from Cord and Creese|
Thomas Piper was already in police custody when Mabel Young died. At least three more little girls came forward to say that Piper had tried to lure them into the belfry, offering to show them the pigeons. The cricket bat, used on church outings, was usually kept in the sexton’s room. Piper had deliberately brought it out in preparation for the crime.
While Piper was being questioned in police custody, Assistant Deputy Chief of Police John Hamm told him “it would go better if you confessed. He then brought Reverend George Pentecost into Piper’s cell and Piper apparently complied, making some incriminating statements to his spiritual advisor.
When the prosecution tried to enter the confession as evidence, Piper’s attorney vehemently objected saying that Pentecost had deliberately brought Pentecost to encourage Piper to confess. The judges sitting on the trial first ruled for the defense, but the prosecutor argued that he was not offering the testimony as evidence of a confession but to show the defendant’s “consciousness of guilt.” On this fine point of law, the testimony was allowed. Nonetheless, Piper’s first trial ended in a hung jury.
In his second trial, prosecutors entered evidence of the “evil literature” that Piper enjoyed reading. This seemed to be enough to sway the jury to convict Thomas Piper of first degree murder.
Verdicts: Hung jury; Guilty of murder
Throughout his trials, Thomas Piper maintained that he was innocent of the murder of Mabel Young, however on May 7, 1876 he sent for his attorney and confessed to the crime. In addition, he confessed to the murder of Bridget Landregan and the attack on Minnie Sullivan. He also confessed to the murder of Mary Tynam, a crime for which he had not been a suspect. Mary Tynam was a prostitute and Piper had spent the night with her. In the morning he smashed her head with the blunt end of an axe so he could get his money back. He told the police where they could find the murder weapon.
Thomas W. Piper was hanged on May 26, 1876 inside Suffolk County Jail in front of a crowd of four hundred people. Tickets to the hanging had been selling for as much as $50. Outside the jail another thousand people waited for the announcement of Piper’s death. At 10:35 the sheriff said to the hushed crowd “I proceed to execute the sentence of the law, and may God in His infinite mercy have pity on his soul.” The trap was sprung, Piper fell eight feet and died instantly.
|This is one of 50 stories featured
in the new book
The Bloody Century