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Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Boston Belfry Tragedy.

In the early 1870s, the city of Boston experienced a rash of gruesome murders. In October 1871, 18-year-old Kate Leehan was raped and murdered. A year later the dismembered body of Abijah Ellis was found floating in the Charles River. In 1874, Jesse Pomeroy killed two children and tortured several others. And, perhaps most disturbing to the people of Boston, a series of violent sexual assaults committed between 1871 and 1875 resulted in the deaths of two young women. These crimes remained unsolved until a Sunday in May 1875 when the body of five-year-old Mabel Young was found in the bell tower of the Warren Avenue Baptist church shortly after Thomas W. Piper, was seen leaping from the belfry.

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
When Sunday school classes at the Warren Avenue Baptist Church let out around 3:30, on May 23, 1875, Miss Augusta Hobbs was at the church to meet her five-year-old niece Mabel Young. Mabel stood by her aunt’s side as Miss Hobbs conversed for several minutes with Rev. Pentecost but when the conversation was over Mabel was nowhere to be found.

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
The Reverend Pentecost had caught Piper reading a racy adventure novel called Cord and Creese. The prosecutor at Piper’s trial would later say that the book’s publishers “ought to be sent to the House of Correction for the rest of their lives.” It was also discovered that Piper kept bottles of whiskey in his room and had one hidden in the pews at the church, laced with laudanum.

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.

Trials: December 11, 1875; January 31, 1876

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.

In 1920 the congregation of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church joined the First Baptist Church on Commonwealth Avenue and sold the church building on the corner of Warren and Canton Streets. In 1969 it was razed by the city and eventually replaced by Hayes Park. Today the small, but beautifully landscaped park includes an original sculpture called “West Canton Street Child” by former West Canton Street resident Kahil Gibran. Though not specifically intended as a memorial to Mabel Young, it is a fitting monument for the site of her death.

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


deMille, James.  Cord and Creese: A Novel (Classic Reprint) Harper & Bros.: New York, 1869.

Dempewolff, Robert F. Famous Old New England Murders: And Some That Are Infamous. Brattleboro: Stephen Daye Press, 1942

Piper, Thomas W., and J. M. W. Yerrinton. The Official Report of the Trial of Thomas W. Piper for the Murder of Mabel H. Young, in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, from Notes of Mr.J.M.W. Yerrinton . Boston: Wright & Potter, 1887.

Rogers, Alan. Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. Boston's South End (MA) (Then & Now) . Dover, N.H.: Arcadia, 1998.

Wilson, Colin, and Damon Wilson. A Plague of Murder : the rise and rise of serial killing in the modern age. London: Robinson, 1995.

"Piper's Punishment." National Aegis [Worcester] 27 May 1876.

"Piper's Threefold Confession." Boston Journal 8 May 1876.

"The Belfry Murder." Boston Daily Advertiser 25 May 1875.

"The Murder of Mabel H. Young." Boston Daily Advertiser 11 Dec. 1875.

"Two Executions." Boston Traveler 26 May 1876.

The Friends of Hayes Park: The History of Hayes Park


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