Date: August 18, 1847
Location: Oneida, New York
Victim: John Runkle
Cause of Death: Strangulation
Accused: Mary Runkle
Runkle’s 50-year-old wife, Mary, was bruised as well. She explained that John had been ill and earlier in the night was taken with fits, got out of bed and fell on the floor two or three times, which caused his injuries. Her own bruises were from blows received when trying to assist him. A closer examination of John’s body revealed that he was bruised on the elbows, hips, and knees as if he had been struggling on the floor. His mouth was injured, and three of his teeth had been knocked out. Mary said she waited so long to get help because John threatened to kill her if she sent for the neighbors.
On the floor of the bedroom were traces of blood that had been mopped up. A search of the house revealed a bundle of clothes, both men’s and women’s in a garret above the kitchen. They were moist and wet with blood and had tufts of male and female hair adhering to them.
After a post-mortem examination, the doctors concluded that there was no evidence that John could have died a natural death. None of the marks of violence was sufficient to have caused it except those on his throat, where the traces of a thumb and finger were evident. The coroner’s jury concluded that John Runkle’s death was due to violence occasioned to him by Mary Runkle, with the assistance of Elizabeth Runkle.
Not long after, a peddler passed through the area, selling goods on credit. He disappeared before he could make his collections. Authorities tracked the peddler as far as the Runkles’ house, but could find no further trace of him. Two young daughters of the Runkles went to school wearing new dresses, saying their mother had plenty of such cloth. Repeating this to their teacher fed a growing suspicion that the Runlkes had murdered the peddler and stolen his merchandise. A few days later, the two daughters were found drowned in a shallow tub of water. Mrs. Runkle said that she had left them in the charge of her older son, but he did not supervise them. Soon after, the son died as well, of the measles, Mrs. Runkle said, but many suspected that she poisoned him. No charges were brought in any of these cases, but the Runkles felt it was best to leave town, and they moved to St. Johnsville, New York.
Mr. Runkle purchased a tavern in the nearby town of Manheim. They decided that they needed cushions to furnish their new house and tavern. Mrs. Runkle was arrested for stealing cushions from a local church. The matter was settled out of court, and the Runkles moved again, this time to the town of Floyd, New York.
In Floyd, the couple was suspected of burning a barn. They moved to Westmoreland where they were tried for perjury in a civil case. In Rome Mrs. Runkle was found guilty and fined for stealing two towels. At the time of her arrest for murdering her husband, Mary Runkle was under indictment in Oneida for stealing clothes off a neighbor’s clothesline.
Verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder
She probably published the pamphlet in an attempt to engender popular sympathy. Her attorneys had petitioned the governor to commute her sentence. The governor was not moved.
Mary Runkle was executed on November 9, 1847, with a mode of hanging—new at the time— which would be used throughout New York State for most of the nineteenth century. Rather than falling through a trapdoor, the prisoner is yanked upward when a counterweight is dropped. Mary Runkle sat on a chair in a room inside the Whitesboro Jail, with the noose around her neck, the rope passed up through a hole in the ceiling. A few minutes after noon, the sheriff asked Mary if she had anything to say. She made no reply. Then—“The bell rang! The cord was cut! And she was landed into eternity!”