Date: April 8, 1886
Location: Hackettstown, New Jersey
Victim: Matilda “Tillie” Smith
Cause of Death: Strangulation
Accused: James J. Titus
Mr. J.G. White was walking through a field near the Centenary Collegiate Institute, run by the Methodist Episcopal Church, in Hackettstown, New Jersey, on April 9, 1886, when his dog discovered the body of a young woman lying on her back, legs crossed, with one arm by her side and the other outstretched. Bruises in the shape of a man’s hands could be seen on her throat, and a bruise on her forehead indicated that she had been struck by a weapon or a stone. The condition of her clothing suggested that there had been a struggle, but the ground around the body had not been disturbed. The clothing was covered with dust and it appeared that the girl had been assaulted and murdered in a barn or a shed, then dragged or carried to the field. White immediately recognized the dead woman as Tillie Smith, a servant employed by the Institute.
|James J. Titus|
The case was appealed, but the verdict held, and James Titus was brought to court for sentencing on January 24, 1887. Before reading the sentence, the court asked if Titus had anything to say. He said that he regretted being unfit, both mentally and physically, to testify in his own behalf.
“They tried me in absence,” He said, “and falsely convicted me of a crime of which I declare here and now, in the presence of this court and my countrymen who hear me that I am not guilty.The judge, of course, did not spare his feelings with brevity, but rehashed the crime and implored Titus to confess. He had no hope of escaping the gallows, but with penitence he may be forgiven by that “All Merciful Judge.” Then he sentenced James Titus to hang on April 14, 1887.
And I most humbly ask the court to spare my feelings by sentencing me in as few words as possible, as nothing the court can say about the crime of which I am convicted can apply to me, as I solemnly repeat I am not guilty of it.”
- When the body was found, the morning of April 9, the coroner and two doctors declared that Tillie had died six or seven hours earlier, certainly not before midnight. Her death certificate reads April 9. Due to the known movements of Tillie Smith and James Titus, the prosecution absolutely fixed the time of death as between 10:15 and 10:30 the night before.
- For reasons of privacy and proximity to the body, Stewart’s barn was first believed to be the murder site. Instead the prosecution claimed that the murder occurred in the Institute’s basement and that Titus carried a body heavier than his own, 400 yards through the Institute grounds where he could have been seen by anyone looking out the window.
- While there was evidence of sexual intercourse, the doctors found no indication that it was forced, or that Tillie had been a virgin prior to that night. The allegation of rape was central to the prosecution’s case.
- The amount of semen found in the body, the evidence of struggle, and opinions regarding Tillie’s strength had first led the doctors and detectives to believe the murder had been committed by two men.
- Tillie’s ex-boyfriend Frank Weedy and his friend Jesse Baggot crossed paths with Tillie that night but were never considered as suspects.
- Peter Mead was apparently the only person Titus had regular conversations with. The night of the murder they conversed for 20 minutes and Mead recalled nothing but the lewd comments Titus made about Tillie. Without context it is impossible to tell if the comments were serious or just inappropriate jokes.
- Mead began taking notes on Titus’s conversations and movements after the reward was announced. Though he claimed he was not motivated by the reward, he formally applied for it after Titus’s conviction.
- The prosecution claimed to have reports of “bad conduct” by Titus toward other female members of the staff, but they brought no evidence that Titus had been anything but the upstanding, family man he appeared to be.
- James Titus adamantly professed innocence up to the day of his confession. After the confession that saved his life was issued, Titus never again spoke publically about the murder.
|Tillie Smith's Monument|