Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sudden Death, Foul Suspicions.

Maria Hendrickson
Sudden death seemed to be John Hendrickson’s constant companion. When his six-week-old baby died suddenly, it was viewed as a tragedy. When his father-in-law died suddenly in a farm accident it raised a few eyebrows. But when his healthy teenaged wife died suddenly with symptoms of poisoning, foul suspicions ran wild.

Date:  March 6, 1853

Location:   Bethlehem, New York

Victim:  Maria Hendrickson

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:   John Hendrickson, Jr.

In the autumn of 1850, 19-year-old John Hendrickson, Jr. was courting 17-year-old Maria Van Dusen in the town of Clarksville in Albany County, New York. Maria was a well-educated and accomplished young woman; she was amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate, and hopelessly in love with John Hendrickson. Her parents, Lawrence and Mary Van Dusen, were opposed to the relationship. Hendrickson had a bad reputation, he was known for his rowdy conduct and was leading a life of idleness. Lawrence Van Dusen, who had recently retired from the lucrative position of Albany County Clerk, and possessed considerable wealth, believed that Hendrickson was courting his daughter to gain financial advantage.

In spite of her parent’s objections, Maria Van Dusen married John Hendrickson, Jr. on January 1, 1851. After the wedding, the couple took up residence at Maria’s parents' house, occasionally visiting John’s father who lived in Bethlehem, some four miles away. Matters passed tolerably until the following summer when her parents' fears became reality. Hendrickson was caught committing a “gross assault” upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville. Lawrence Van Dusen forced Hendrickson to leave his home.

John Hendrickson, Jr.
Hendrickson left Clarksville and traveled to Corning, where he began a relationship with a young woman named Maria Schoonmaker whom he had met at a public house in Bethlehem. They exchanged rings and he gave her a daguerreotype of himself. After making a promise of marriage, Hendrickson seduced her. But when she pressed him to make good on his promise he left Corning and returned to Clarksville.

He begged forgiveness from the Van Dusens, who knew nothing of his affair with Miss Schoonmaker, and they let him back in, primarily because, in his absence, their daughter had given birth to his child. Not long after Hendrickson’s return the six-week-old baby died suddenly and unexpectedly. The three had been sleeping in the same bed with Hendrickson in the middle between his wife and his child. When they awoke the baby was not breathing.

In the midst of this tragedy, Maria discovered that John had brought back with him a “loathsome disease” which he had quickly passed on to her. The disease was not only the source of great bodily affliction but also of intense mortification and shame to Maria. Her father became incensed at John’s behavior and in January 1852 he banished his son-in-law once more. John moved back to his father’s house. He would occasionally visit Maria at her parents’ home and she would sometimes stay with him at his father’s.

Not long after Hendrickson’s exile from the Van Dusen home, Lawrence Van Dusen was found dead in his barn, apparently killed by one of his horses. While Hendrickson was not accused of killing Van Dusen at the time, neighbors would later express a strong suspicion that Hendrickson murdered his father-in-law. Van Dusen’s fortune was willed to his wife, then upon her death to be divided, half going to his son, Lawrence, and half going to his two daughters, Susannah and Maria.

Relations between husband and wife deteriorated rapidly. In addition to what had already transpired Maria accused John of stealing her possessions, gambling, and even trying to poison her with bad medicine. When she found a note from Maria Schoonmaker which made reference to their upcoming marriage, Maria was livid. Although she and John remained married and even shared the same bed, he had no hope of forgiveness and she made it absolutely clear that whatever her share of her father’s fortune would be, John would never receive any of it.

In March of 1853, Maria was staying with John at his father’s house; they were sleeping in a small attic room. Around 2 a.m. on March 6, John awoke to find Maria lying dead beside him. He aroused his father who went for help. Neighbors came to the house and tried to help but it was too late.

Dr. John Swinburne (in 1888)
The sudden death of someone who had been perfectly healthy aroused the suspicions of the neighbors. They sent for Coroner Smith who arrived accompanied by the sheriff and Dr. John Swinburne who was active in criminal investigations (such as the murder of Priscilla Budge in 1859) and would later become mayor of Albany. Dr. Swinburne immediately noticed Maria’s unusually pallid skin and bluish lips. He performed a post-mortem operation, assisted by the coroner and another doctor. The condition of the stomach and other organs led them to suspect that she died from poison.
The organs were sent to a Dr. Salisbury, a physician, and chemist, for analysis. The tests he performed indicated the presence of aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, or blue rocket. When the sheriff discovered that John Hendrickson had purchased tincture of aconite from a local druggist earlier that week, he obtained a warrant for Hendrickson’s arrest. After Maria Hendrickson’s funeral, John Hendrickson was arrested and taken to jail.

Trial: June 13, 1853

John Hendrickson’s murder trial in the Court of Oyer and Terminer was thorough and intensive. District Attorney Andrew Colvin made it clear to the jury that prosecuting any poisoning case relies on circumstantial evidence and this case would be no exception. He would present three classes of evidence:  moral evidence, medical evidence, and chemical evidence.

The moral evidence consisted of witnesses who could describe the incidents that made up the story of the rocky relationship between John and Maria Hendrickson. The conclusion would be John Hendrickson’s realization that all of his assumptions about the material benefits he would reap by staying with Maria were wrong. He was a thoroughly abandoned, unprincipled and profligate young man; without industry, and consequently ready to perpetrate any crime which may contribute to the gratification of his passions, or eliminate anything that stands in the way of his interest.

The medical evidence was the condition of the body when discovered and the condition of internal organs when observed in the post-mortem examination. The chemical evidence consisted of the chemical tests performed on the internal organs and their contents. Testimony on these two classes of evidence was given by an army of physicians and scientists and accounted for most of the ten days of prosecution testimony.

The defense challenged the circumstantial evidence, including the assertion that Maria Hendrickson had died of poison. Hendrickson’s attorneys said that the medical and chemical experts were young and inexperienced; they were not objective and were over-zealous advocates for the prosecution. The defense brought in their own team of experts who testified for four days.

After six days of closing arguments, the case was given to the jury. They deliberated for a full day then returned a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of murder

Immediately after the verdict was read the judge harshly condemned Hendrickson then read his sentence. John Hendrickson was to be hanged on the 26th of August 1854.

But Hendrickson’s attorneys filed a writ of error with the state Supreme Court hoping to get a new trial. The hanging was postponed pending the outcome of this case. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict, but at the time, Hendrickson could then take the case to the Court of Appeals. On April 4, 1854, the Court of Appeals upheld the verdict and sent the case back to the Supreme Court. With no more options available, John Hendrickson was sentenced to hang on May 5, 1854.

The execution was held inside the prison in Albany and was witnessed by the sheriff, the jurors who convicted him, clergymen, reporters and city officials. The city militia was stationed outside the prison to control the crowds who had come to witness the hanging but were denied admission.

Hendrickson spent the morning in his cell talking with the Reverend Dr. Kennedy of the Dutch Reform Church then was brought out to the gallows. When asked if he had any last words, John Hendrickson said, “All I have to say I have said to Rev. Dr. Kennedy, and he will make it public.”

At half past eleven, the trap was sprung and Hendrickson fell. He could be heard to cry out, “Oh! Oh!” but he died with scarcely a struggle.

After the hanging, Rev. Kennedy made this statement, “The unfortunate young man persisted in declarations of his innocence to the last moment that we were together in the cell. This I authorize you to make public.”

Barnes, David M, Trial of John Hendrickson, Jr (Albany: David M Barnes And W. S. Revnor, 1853).
“Execution of John Hendrickson, Jr.,” Albany Evening Journal, May 5, 1854.
“Execution of John Hendrickson Jun., for the Murder of His Wife,” Weekly Herald, May 6, 1854.
“General News Summary,” Springfield Republican, January 3, 1854.
“Hendrickson, the Murderer,” Portland Advertiser, April 18, 1854.
“Sudden Death - Foul Suspicions - Coroner's Inquest,” Cabinet, March 15, 1853.
“Trial Of John Hendrickson, Jr., for the Alleged Murder of his Wife by Poisoning. Court,” Albany Evening Journal, June 23, 1853.
“Trial Of John Hendrickson, Jr., for the Alleged Murder of his Wife by Poisoning. Court,” Albany Evening Journal, June 16, 1853.
“Trial of John Hendrickson, Jr., for the Alleged Murder of his Wife by Poisoning. Court,” Albany Evening Journal
, June 21, 1853.


Mike Manners says:
July 14, 2018 at 6:36 AM

Poor Maria. I hope she found solace in the next life. What a despicable creature she married. He has been burning in torment for 160 years now.

Unknown says:
June 11, 2019 at 8:36 PM

Wow it has been a hundred and sixty years that's crazy life back then must have been so rough well it ain't much better here! But I love history

nedakasarova says:
March 9, 2024 at 3:02 PM

I always look forward to reading these stories on Saturday.

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