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Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Brooklyn Murderess.

When William W. Place’s first wife died, he was anxious to remarry, looking for a mature woman who was a good housekeeper and most importantly could take care of his young daughter, Ida. In 1893, he hired a servant named Martha Savcoll, a widow from New Brunswick, New Jersey, to keep house at their Brooklyn home. He was happy with her work and she seemed to lavish a great deal of affection on Ida. Soon William was showing her more attention than would naturally be given to a hired servant, and in a month or two he was seen with her at the theater.

After a whirlwind courtship, despite objections from his relatives who thought she would bring him trouble, William married Martha Savcoll. Sure enough, not long after the marriage, Martha’s true nature came out; she had a quick temper and she often quarreled with other family members. She was annoyed that William had put the house in Ida’s name. She wanted her adopted son to live at the house and William objected. But the biggest difficulty was Martha’s jealousy of William's affection for his daughter. Ida played piano and loved to accompany her father who had a fine tenor voice. They also shared a passion for amateur photography. Martha resented the time they spent together and had been heard to say, “Ida and her father will be married someday, I suppose.”

As years went on Martha’s affection for Ida diminished until by 1898, with Ida 17-years-old, it had turned to open hostility. Martha had threatened to kill both William and Ida and her late-night fits of temper would drive them both from the house More than once they had to contact a physician to give her sedatives. 

On February 8, 1898, after William had left for work, neighbors heard loud arguing from the Place home. Around 9:00, their servant, Helen Talm, heard Ida screaming and ran upstairs. Martha sent her back down saying, “Never mind, we’ve only had a little quarrel.” Later that day, Martha fired Helen saying they are breaking up housekeeping unexpectedly and no longer needed her help.

The house remained quiet with all the curtains closed for the rest of the day. William returned from work at 6:30 and shortly after entering the door a neighbor saw him run from the house with blood streaming from his head. “My wife shot me,” said William, “She has shot me in the head and if I do not get the bullet out of my head I’ll die.”

It had not been a gunshot, he had been hit twice in the head with a hatchet. The attack had been so sudden and so jarring that he thought he had been shot. An ambulance was called and the police arrived and had to break into the house. They found Martha on the floor with broken gas lamps spewing gas into the room. She appeared to be unconscious but the doctor who resuscitated her believed that she was faking. 

Ida was found upstairs lying on her bed. She had been strangled to death. There appeared to have been a fierce struggle. Ida had used scissors to defend herself and Martha’s dress was ripped and slashed. Ida’s eyes were suffused and discolored as if Martha had attempted to gauge them. The doctor believed Ida had been dead since early that morning.  

Martha was taken to the hospital because of her apparent suicide attempt but was soon released into police custody. Detective Becker took her back to her home where Ida’s body still lay on the bed.

“Look at Ida,” he said, "and deny if you will that you killed her.”

Ida looked down and closed her eyes. Reportedly she said, “My God! I did it! Take me away! Take me away!”

But when she was taken to court and charged with homicide, felonious assault and attempted suicide she said, “I didn’t do anything of the kind.”

Martha’s trial began on July 5, 1898. Her defense was insanity. The trial lasted four days and she was easily convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. The verdict was appealed but the appeal failed and the verdict was upheld.

Martha Place was to be the first woman executed by the electric chair. The case generated considerable debate over whether this was an appropriate way to execute a woman and whether it was appropriate to execute a woman at all. A bill was introduced in the state legislature to make life imprisonment the maximum sentence for a woman convicted of first-degree murder. The bill failed. 

Women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to Martha’s defense saying she should not be executed because as a woman she had “no voice in the laws, no representation in the government” and she was “as helpless as cats or dogs in the hands of vivisectionists, outside the realm of justice and mercy.”

Governor Theodore Roosevelt was not swayed by this argument, but he did convene a committee of doctors to examine Martha Place and make sure she was sane enough to execute. The committee pronounced her sane and on March 20, 1899, Martha Place was executed at Sing Sing Prison; the first woman to be executed by electrocution.

Sources:
“Bill to Save Mrs. Place's Life,” New York Tribune, February 7, 1899.
“The Case Of Mrs Place,” New York Tribune, February 24, 1899.
“Masked In Court by Her Thick Veil,” New York American, February 23, 1898.
“Mrs. Place Almost Tells,” New-York daily tribune, February 9, 1898.
New York American, February 8, 1898.
“Mrs. Place Executed,” New York Tribune, March 21, 1899.
“Murder Due to Jealousy,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 8, 1898.
“No Sex In Crime,” Oregonian, March 21, 1899.
“On Trial Penalty; Her Life,” New York Evening Journal, July 5, 1898.
“A Red Path of Jealously,” Pawtucket Times, July 9, 1898.

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