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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Little Mary Mohrman.

In 1868, Mrs. Mohrman, a widowed mother, lived with her five daughters, on Orkney Street in Philadelphia. The youngest girl, Mary, was a favorite of everyone in the neighborhood. “Little Mary Mohrman,” as she was known by all, was described as “one of those sunny-haired, bright-eyed, sylvan-like children, whose innocence, one would think, could soften the hardest soul.” This sentiment would be tested and proven horribly false.

Date:  September 6, 1868

Location:   Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Victim:  Mary Mohrman

Cause of Death:  Strangulation

Accused:   John Hanlon

On the evening of Sunday, September 6, Mrs. Mohrman left her six-year-old daughter Mary in the care of her older sisters and went to church. Mary and her friend, Caroline Dinglacker, were playing on Carolines’s front steps, next to John Hanlon’s barber shop, when a strange man came up to them and asked if either of them knew how to get to Fifth and Dauphin Streets. Mary offered to show him, but her playmate was frightened and ran away. The last thing Caroline saw was the man taking Mary by the hand and leading her into an ally. 

When Mrs. Mohrman came home from church, the children told her they had not seen Mary since she went around the corner with the strange man. She alerted the neighbors and a search for Mary began, soon joined by city policemen and detectives. Two days later her body was found lying in a pond in a vacant lot some distance away. There were bruises on her arms, neck and wrists, and her underclothes were stained with blood. An autopsy revealed that strangulation was the cause of death, and that “her person had been grossly violated.” She had died on the same day she was taken.

Several men in the neighborhood were brought in, by police for questioning, but there was no evidence to hold any of them. No further clues developed, and a year later the case was still unsolved.
In November 1869, a man named Charles C. Harris, was arrested for trying to abduct a ten-year-old girl. He approached her as she was playing in the yard of the Tabernacle M. E. Church; she was frightened and tried to run away, but he grabbed her arm and dragged her behind the church, away from the street. The girl’s cries caught the attention of a nearby blacksmith, who ran to the scene and held Harris until the police arrived. Charles Harris was tried and convicted in Philadelphia, for assaulting a young girl. He was sentenced to four years at Moyamensing Prison.

The same man had been arrested in October for assaulting Mrs. Annie Bowers, who was walking down the street with her sixteen-year-old sister,  Clara Richie. He hit Mrs. Bowers on the head with a rock, nearly knocking her off her feet. At that time of his arrest for this crime, he gave his name as Charles Hanlon. The matter was settled by the Alderman, out of court.

Following his sentencing to Moyamensing, the police learned that Charles Harris, alias Charles Hanlon, was actually John Hanlon, owner of the barbershop next to the site where Mary Mohrman was abducted, and one of the early suspects in the case. They were convinced he was her killer.

At the time of the murder, John Hanlon was twenty-two years old, living on Fifth Street in Philadelphia, with his mother, sister and his new wife who was barely seventeen. He had learned to barber in the Army and opened a barbershop next to his home. Hanlon was not successful at his business and was not well-liked in the neighborhood. There had been allegations that he had taken improper liberties with little girls, and it was not hard for the neighbors to picture John Hanlon as Little Mary Mohrman’s killer.

Police detectives Smith, Tyron, and Taggert met with a Moyamensing prisoner named Michael Dunn
and asked if he would share a cell with John Hanlon and secretly report back to them all that Hanlon said to him. Dunn was an Englishman; a career criminal who had been transported to Australia for theft. When his sentenced was finished he came to America where he arrested for theft again. He agreed, and Hanlon was moved to Dunn’s cell.

Hanlon soon confided in Dunn, telling him several times, how he had murdered Mary Mohrman, who he described as a girl of thirteen or fourteen, not a six-years-old. He said he had previously tried to entice some of the young girls but was recognized, so he disguised himself with false whiskers and dark clothing. This time, he got Mary to go with him. He took her to his outhouse and raped her there. In some tellings the murder took place there as well, in others, he strangled her in the basement of his house, to keep her from crying. He kept the body in the basement until Tuesday morning, before dawn, when he carried the body to the vacant lot. He was afraid he may have been seen carrying the body, by a man named Charlie Mass.

This was enough for the detectives; they arrested John Hanlon for the murder of Mary Mohrman. Michale Dunn was subsequently pardoned for his crimes.

Trial: October 31, 1870

Empaneling the jury for Hanlon’s trial took a considerable amount of time because most of those summoned had already formed or expressed an opinion as to Hanlon’s guilt. The trial lasted eighteen days, and each day the courtroom was filled to capacity with spectators.

Chief among the dozens of witnesses were Micheal Dunn, who related Hanlon’s jailhouse “confession,” and Caroline Dinglacker, who told the circumstances of the abduction. Charlie Mass testified that he saw a man carrying a bundle, about four a.m. the day the body was found.

The defense challenged Michael Dunn’s testimony as hearsay and perjury, suborned by police detectives. They cross-examined nine-year-old Caroline Dinglacker for more than an hour, trying to catch her in contradictions between her current testimony and what she had previously told the coroner. The testimony of Charlie Mass was not corroboration, they said, because he did not recognize the man carrying the bundle, though he did know John Hanlon.

The jury deliberated for more than a day before returning a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder


John Hanlon’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial, but it was overruled. On December 11, before pronouncing sentence, the judge asked Hanlon if he had anything to say. Hanlon, while holding a Bible, railed against all the perjured witnesses who had testified against him, and Detectives Smith and Taggert, who paid for their testimony. He finished by saying, “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilt by perjury.” The he kissed the Bible.

Hanlon was sentenced to hang, but the execution did not take place until February 1871. He maintained his innocence until two weeks prior to the hanging, then sent for Detective Smith to apologize for what he had said at the sentencing and asked him to pass the apology on to Detective Taggert as well. While not actually admitting to the murder of Little Mary Mohrman, he had begun a course of rigorous physical penance. He gave up tobacco, strapped rough blankets next to his skin, wore no shoes and slept on the cold floor without covering. He fasted for seventeen days then lived on bread and water. His spiritual advisors, Fathers Barry, and Mooney, prepared Hanlon for death, and gave him absolution.

The hanging was held inside the walls of Moyamensing prison on February 1, 1871. Outside of prison officials, no one was present but the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the prisoner’s counsel, and members of the press. Hanlon had intended to die in silence, but on the scaffold he said, “To those who have ever injured me, or have done me any wrong, I forgive them, and ask God to forgive them. And all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever, or against whom I have had any ill-feeling, I ask their forgiveness and God to forgive me.”

His last words were “Jesus have mercy upon me! Holy Mary, pray for me! St. Joseph intercede!” As Hanlon uttered his last prayer, the Sheriff pulled the cord to spring the platform, and John Hanlon was soon dead.

Lawson, John Davidson. American State Trials. St. Louis: P.H. Thomas Law Book Co., 1915.
Life, Trial, Confession and Conviction of John Hanlon. Philadelphia: Barclay & Co., 1870.

"Execution of Hanlon." Sun 2 Feb 1871.
"Legal Intelligence." Philadelphia Inquirer 16 Nov 1870.
"The Barbarous Murder of a Little Girl." Public Ledger 10 Sep 1868.
"The Mary Mohrman Murder." Philadelphia Inquirer 18 Nov 1870.


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