Saturday, May 1, 2021

James E. Eldredge.

James E. Eldredge
James E. Eldredge left his home in Canton, New York in the spring of 1856. He returned six months later with a new name and a duplicitous personality to match. All those around him soon learned to distrust anything the young man said—all except his fiancé, Sarah Jane Gould. She remained trusting to the end, when Eldredge poisoned Sarah Jane to pursue her younger sister.

Date:  May 30, 1857

Location:   Louisville, New York

Victim:  Sarah Jane Gould

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:   James E. Eldredge

James E. Eldredge was born in the town of Canton, in St. Lawrence County, New York, in 1836. When he was twenty years old, his father uprooted the family to emigrate from New York to Iowa. James decided to join them and in the spring of 1856 traveled with his family to their new home. Iowa however, did not suit James and by the end of that summer he was back in St. Lawrence County. For some reason, never fully explained, he was now going by the name Edwin Aldrich.

He settled in the town of Louisville, New York, and under the name Edwin Aldrich, obtained a position as a teacher in a district school. During the winter, he met and began courting a young woman named Sarah Jane Gould. Born Sarah Jane Loughery, she was a 24-year-old widow who had married a man named Gould in 1850, who tragically died two years later. Since then Sarah Jane, along with her younger sister, Helen, had been living with the family of their uncle, Danforth Britton. The Brittons owned a store and tavern and took in boarders. At the end of the school year, Edwin Aldrich took a room there as well, to be close to Sarah Jane.

Sarah Jane was intelligent and quite attractive with a lively and cheerful temperament. Aldrich was slender with a fair complexion, blue eyes, light hair and an aquiline nose. He dressed neatly and presented an easy and genteel appearance. Aldrich had a good job, and he told Sarah Jane (and anyone else who would listen) that he owned 600 acres of land in Iowa and was expecting his father to send him $1,500. Sarah Jane fell in love with the young school teacher and in April they announced their engagement to be married.

Though he had given his blessing, Danforth Britton was not as taken with Edwin Aldrich as his niece was. Aldrich was behind on his rent and had run up a large tab at the store and tavern. Britton did not believe his boarder’s tall tales of land and cash in Iowa. He was preparing to evict Aldrich if he did not pay up soon.

Toward the end of May, Sarah Jane developed a slight cough and began taking a patent medicine called Dr. Rogers’s Compound Syrup of Liverwort Tar and Canchalagua. On Tuesday, May 26, she complained that her medicine had made her sick; she began vomiting, and suffered from diarrhea. The vomiting continued all day and when she complained of excruciating pain, the family sent for a doctor who treated her for stomach irritation.

For the next four days, Aldrich stayed by Sarah Jane’s bedside as the pain and vomiting continued. Then on Saturday, she happily announced that the pain had subsided, and she thought she was cured. But it was an illusion, in fact, her body had stopped fighting. Later that day she became delirious; she died that afternoon.

Sarah Jane Gould was buried the following Monday, and no one grieved more intensely or more publicly than Edwin Aldrich. He took every opportunity to commiserate with Sarah Jane’s sister, Helen; they wept together and comforted each other.

Ad for Dr. Rogers' Syrup.
But the whole affair smelled fishy to the Brittons who thought Aldrich’s grief was as phony as his Iowa land holdings. The previous April, Mrs. Britton was surprised to see a package labeled “arsenic,” complete with death head and crossed bones, in Aldrich’s carpetbag. When she looked again after Sarah Jane’s death, the package was gone. She and her husband examined the bottle of Dr. Rogers’s syrup and saw a white sediment at the bottom. Mr. Britton took the bottle to a Dr. Sherman in Ogdensburg who verified that it contained arsenic. He then called on the county coroner and requested an investigation.

The coroner summoned a jury and ordered the body exhumed. An examination of the exhumed corpse could not immediately determine the cause of death, so they removed her stomach and other organs for further study. They were, however, able to determine that Sarah Jane was six to eight weeks pregnant at the time of her death.

As the investigation proceeded, Edwin Aldrich realized that he was suspected of murdering Sarah Jane. He then took arsenic himself, attempting to take his own life, but he took too much and vomited up the poison before it could do any damage. After he had recovered, Aldrich was arrested for murder.

Trial: December 10, 1857

By the time of his trial the following December, the authorities had determined the defendant’s real name, and he was tried as James E. Eldredge. Though the evidence was circumstantial, the case against him was very strong. The prosecutor outlined a fifteen point chain of evidence which could be summarized simply—a chemical analysis of the removed organs determined that Sarah Jane had died from the effects of arsenic; Eldredge had arsenic in his possession before the murder and did not after; he was constantly by her side and had, by his own admission, given her medicine, he had ample opportunity to poison her; his attempted suicide was admission of guilt.

Though not required to provide a motive, the prosecution asserted that Eldredge had seduced Sarah Jane into “an improper and illicit intercourse” and “being gratified and satiated passion being succeeded, as it naturally is, by coldness, indifference and disgust” he murdered her to remove an obstacle to his next conquest, her sister Helen.

The defense challenged the basic premise of the charge while admitting that Eldredge had arsenic and that he had tried to commit suicide with arsenic, they claimed that there was no proof that Sarah Jane Gould died of arsenic poisoning. The symptoms were not specific enough for the doctors to call the death poisoning and on first examination, the doctors examining the exhumed body could not determine the cause of death. The scientific examination of the organs was not conclusive enough for a court of law. The removed organs were put in a common slop pail, painted on the inside with white lead paint which often contains arsenic, and the cover was secured only by a common bow knot, and the pail left in a room accessible to anyone. The contents could have easily been tampered with before examination.

The jury retired to deliberate at half past noon; at 7:00 the returned to the courtroom with a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of murder


On February 11, 1858, James E. Eldredge was hanged in the town of his birth, Canton, New York, County Seat of St. Lawrence County. He never admitted his guilt.

Originally posted April 9, 2016.

The Trial for Murder of James E. Eldredge. Ogdensburgh: HitchCock, Tilloston & Stilwell's Steam Presses, 1857.

"A Widow Murdered by a School Teacher." Boston Herald 22 Jun 1857.
"A Young Man convicted of the Deliberate Murder of a Girl whom he had Ruined." New Albany Daily Ledger 11 Jan 1858.
"Items: Or Crumbs for all kinds of Chickens." Plattsburgh Republican 2 Jan 1858.
"James E.  Eldridge." Daily National Intelligencer 16 Feb 1858.
"Poisoning Case in St. Lawrence County." Boston Traveler 6 Jan 1858.


LadyMohan says:
April 10, 2016 at 1:55 AM

Fascinating story! But I'd love to see more about murders in Philadelphia..

LadyMohan says:
April 10, 2016 at 1:55 AM

Fascinating story! But I'd love to see more about murders in Philadelphia..

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