Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Bitter Fruit of a Jest.

Elvira Houghton, a dressmaker in Southbridge, Massachusetts, hired a carriage and driver to take her to her mother’s funeral in the summer of 1847. The driver, 27-year-old Milton Streeter, was instantly infatuated with Elvira. They had a pleasant conversation and when they returned to Southbridge Milton asked if he could see her again and Elvira said yes.

Also 27-years-old, Elvira feared she was approaching “that delicate and dreaded period, when, having out-maidened all her early associates, she would remain alone a withered remnant of the past.” Her fear may have clouded her judgment; After a whirlwind courtship of one month, she and Milton Streeter were married.

It did not take the couple long to realize that they had very little in common. Elvira liked to wear fashionable clothes and attend balls and parties, Milton was a man of dissolute habits who would rather drink and play nine-pins. He was also not very bright. As the Boston Herald would say, “Streeter is a man of a low order of intellect and almost entirely governed by animal passions.” He brought this trait to the marriage in the form of extreme jealousy.

The young men of Southbridge knew about Streeter’s jealousy and would play “jokes” on him, trying to rile him up by implying that  they were intimate with his wife. Sometimes they would give him half a dollar to give to Elvira as payment for unspecified services. The worst of them was a man named Bacon who had come from out of town. He learned of Streeter’s jealousy and did everything he could to insinuate that he was in “unlawful communication” with Elvira.

Streeter began neglecting his occupation to spent time watching Bacon and his wife, and although he found no evidence of unfaithfulness, he was convinced the two were intimate. When he could take it no more, he threatened Elvira with a razor and demanded that she confess. She did not confess, instead, she filed a complaint with the Justice of the Peace saying that she considered her life endangered by any further cohabitation with Streeter.   The justice ordered the couple to separate and put Streeter under  $100 bond to keep the peace.

To pay his bond, Streeter sold his share of the household furnishings to his sister’s husband, Joseph Janes. On October 23, 1848, Streeter and Janes loaded the goods into a wagon and hauled it to Janes’ house. When they had unloaded the wagon, Streeter said that he had left his shirts had to go back to his old apartment to get them. Janes took him back to the house and waited outside. He heard Streeter ask his wife where the shirts were and she said they were upstairs in the basket then he heard her go up the stairs. A few minutes later Janes heard a scream and rushed up the stairs to find Elvira Streeter coming downstairs bleeding profusely from her throat. He took hold of her and led her to a neighbor’s door. As Janes and the neighbor were helping Elvira out of the house they saw that Streeter was also bleeding, he had slashed his own throat. By the time a doctor arrived Elvira was dead. Streeter’s wound was not as serious, he was stitched up and taken to jail.

Milton Streeter’s defense at his trial the following June, was insanity. The testimony revealed a history of mental problems beginning when Streeter was two-years-old. When his mother wasn’t looking he fell off his chair into an open fire; one side of his head was severely burned, laying bare the skull. During childhood, he was subject to severe fits which cause the impairment of his mental faculties, which had always been considered below standard. The murder, said his attorneys, had no motive and was probably committed in a state of frenzy occasioned by jealousy and aggravated by the reprehensible conduct of some young men in his neighborhood playing jokes on him.

The jury was reluctant to convict Streeter of a capital crime, but at the time there were not degrees of murder, he was either guilty or not guilty. After nine hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of murder but accompanied the verdict with a unanimous recommendation for mercy. The judge sentenced Milton Streeter to hang but left the date of the execution to the discretion of the governor. The newspapers put the heaviest blame on the irresponsible pranksters of Southbridge. The New York Commercial Advertiser said, “These rude and remorseless Jokers have now the satisfaction of knowing that their fine sport has been purchased by the death of one human being at the hands of a murderer, and is yet to be farther paid for by the death of another on the scaffold.”

In December 1849, the Governor of Massachusetts accepted the unanimous decision of the Committee on Pardons, and commuted Milton Streeter’s sentence from death to life at hard labor in the State Prison.

Originally posted April 21, 2018.

“The Bitter Fruit Of A Jest,” New London Democrat, January 5, 1850.
“Commutation Of Sentence,” Salem Register, December 20, 1849.
“Convicted,” Spectator, June 21, 1849.
“Horrible Murder,” Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, November 4, 1848.
“Milton W Streeter the Murderer,” Boston Herald, June 18, 1849.
“The Mischief Of A Jest,” Commercial Advertiser, June 22, 1849.
“Murder and Attempted Suicide at Southbridge,” Christian Citizen, October 28, 1848.
“Streeter's Trial for Murder,” Boston Herald, June 18, 1849
Tingley, H. F., Incidents in the life of Milton W. Streeter  (Pawtucket: H. F. Tingley, 1850).
“Tragedy in Worcester,” Boston Herald, June 16, 1849.
“Trial of Milton W. Streeter,” Boston Herald, June 15, 1849.
“Wonderful Escape,” Commercial Advertiser, June 19, 1849.


Unknown says:
April 22, 2018 at 12:37 AM

Here's hoping that Milton Streeter lived a very long and insufferable existence at the State Prison and died a broken and decrepit old man alone in his prison cell...

Mike Manners says:
July 14, 2018 at 6:02 AM

Those jokers hopefully got some serious Karma payback...

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