Saturday, January 12, 2019

Who Shot Meierhoffer?

The Execution.
John and Margaret Meierhoffer had a small farm in West Orange, New Jersey, about seven miles from Newark. They had been married many years, had two sons—28-year-old Joseph and 14-year-old Theodore, who still lived at home—but by 1879, John and Margaret were not on friendly terms. They no longer slept together or had meals together; John slept in a small room in the barn and picked up his meals in the house when no one else was around.

Margaret said the fault was John’s; she called him “a fretful, hard-to-please man” who badly mistreated her. Others, though, said that 40-year-old Margaret, who was nearly six feet tall, had long ago subdued John who was ten years her senior, slightly built and in poor health. He found it easier just to avoid her. 

In September 1879, a man named Frank Lammens came to the farm and John gave him a job as a farm hand. Lammens was an immigrant from Holland in his 40s, an intelligent man, but was considered to be a professional tramp. John was soon dissatisfied with Lammens work and wanted him to leave but Margaret made sure that he stayed. 

John C. Pierson, a schoolteacher who boarded with the Meierhoffers, said that on the morning of October 9, he heard John Meierhoffer arguing with Lammens and heard John say, “Get out of my house, you loafer.” When Pierson returned after work, he could not find John and asked Margaret where he was. She pointed to the cellar stairs and said, “Dead.” Later on though, both Margaret and Frank said John had gone to Newark to buy a new suit of clothes.  She changed her tune again when Frank was out of earshot and told Pierson to fetch the constables.

The police arrived to find John Meierhoffer lying dead at the foot of the cellar stairs with a gunshot wound in his throat. Frank Lammens and Margaret Meierhoffer were found lying together in Margaret’s bed. Both were arrested for John Meierhoffer’s murder.

When Lammens was asked how he happened to be in Mrs. Meierhoffer’s bed when arrested, he gave a long rambling response which shined a bit more light on Margaret’s situation.

“Soon after I got on the place I noticed that Mr. Meierhoffer did not live or sleep with his wife. She kept a club for him, and he slept in the barn. I noticed that she had three lovers; one was a fat livery stable keeper form Newark, the other was a Frenchman, and the third was a man I had seen very little of before. Mrs. Meierhoffer was very attentive to me. When I saw her sleeping with different men, night after night, I asked if I could not occupy her room, as her husband was sleeping in the barn. Mrs. M. said ‘Yes, but don’t let the boy (Theodore) know it.’ I, therefore, got through the window and went to Mrs. M’s bed. I do not know anything about the shooting of that man.”
Mrs. Meierhoffer knew all about the shooting and told a different story about the sleeping arrangements. She said that on October 9, Lammens had secretly entered her chamber but she ordered him out. That morning John Meierhoffer came in with a box of potatoes, Lammens drew a pistol and fired; John fell dead and Lammens kicked the corpse down the cellar stairs. He told Margaret he would kill her too if she told on him. “Your mine,” he said, “and I will do with you as I like.” He got hold of a bag of John’s money and said, “That’s the nicest job I ever done; I didn’t do it for nothing.”

She said Lammens’s plan was to cut the head off the corpse and burn it then throw the body in the Passaic River. A number of people visited the farm that day; John provided eggs and produce to neighbors and the local grocer and they came to take delivery. Margaret made no attempt tell any of them of the murder, no one noticed anything wrong. She said Lammens held her in mortal dread, preventing her from telling anyone. She agreed to let him “occupy her couch” in order to disarm him before the police came.

In custody, each claimed complete innocence to the murder committed by the other. They were tried together in February 1880 but retained separate counsel—Margaret Meierhoffer was represented by a prestigious legal firm and Frank Lammes by a court-appointed public defender. They made no attempt at a unified defense, continuing to accuse each other of the murder, which made the prosecution’s work easier. The trial lasted four weeks, the closing arguments took four days, and the jury took seven hours to find them both guilty of first-degree murder.

When the verdict was read Lammens protested, claiming to be the victim of “a put up job.” Margaret Meierhoffer who had been calmly stoic throughout the trial burst into tears and as the officers led her away she cried, “I’m not guilty! I’m not guilty! Lammens did it! Lammens did it!”

The pair was sentenced to death but the execution day was delayed when a new witness was found who could testify that Lammens was not at the farmhouse the morning of the murder but on the highway some distance from the house. Lammens was granted a new trial but was found guilty once again. Margaret Meierhoffer was not granted a new trial but both she and Lammens appealed to the Court of Pardons; they were denied mercy there as well.

As execution day approached, each still maintained innocence imploring the other to confess. Both were good Catholics and it was hoped that before the execution the guilty party would confess for the sake of his or her immortal soul. Swearing his innocence, Lammens wanted to confront Margaret, saying, “Take me before that woman; that black devil.”

Joseph Meirhoffer visiting his mother in her cell said, “Mother if you are guilty, I would rather you would make a confession.”

 “My God!” she responded, “is it possible you think I am guilty.”

 “That settles it,” said Joseph.

In her last public statement Mrs. Meierhoffer said she knew if she was guilty and did not confess, she would be killing Lammens as well as her husband. “Yet,” she said, “all that I want to say is that I am not guilty. The statement I made to the officers the night of the murder is the same statement that I have always made. I could make no other statement and tell the truth. The circumstances attending the murder I could not help. I could not help being in my own house at the time and could not control Lammens."

Frank Lammens, in the most solemn manner possible, declared, “I know nothing about this murder more than I have already stated. I did not kill Meierhoffer. That woman once in my presence tried to poison her husband. She is the guilty one and knows I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge.”

New Jersey used the hanging method where a counterweight is dropped, shooting the condemned person upward, causing the neck to break. Only one person at a time could be executed and Margaret Meierhoffer would be first. The execution was scheduled for 10:00, on January 6, 1881, but Sheriff Van Rensalaer delayed the hanging in hopes that the governor would issue a reprieve. At 10:25 he could wait no longer and Margaret Meierhoffer was launched into eternity. An hour later Frank Lammens followed her.

“Dead Dead Dead,” The National Police Gazette, January 22, 1881.
“The Double Execution to Day ,” Trenton State Gazette, January 6, 1881, 2.
“Guilty of Murder,” New York Herald, February 14, 1880, 4.
“Into the Jaws of Death,” Boston Herald, January 6, 1881, 1.
“The Jersey Hangman,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 7, 1881, 2.
“Mercy Denied,” New York Herald, December 14, 1880, 10.
“Murder in West Orange,” The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, October 12, 1879.
“On Trial For Their Lives.,” New York Tribune, January 23, 1880.
“[New trial for Lammens],” Jersey Journal, July 20, 1880, 1.
“The Orange Murder,” Jersey Journal, October 13, 1879.
“A Scene in Court,” Jersey Journal, December 17, 1879.
“Who Killed Meierhoffer? ,” New York Herald, January 21, 1880, 10.
“Widow Meierhofer's Story,” New York Herald, January 24, 1880, 8.


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