Saturday, February 16, 2019

In Flagrante Delicto.

A little before 3 o’clock, the afternoon of September 9, 1886, a man rushed into the police station in Memphis, Tennessee and said, “I have just killed a man, and I want to give myself up.”

Captain Hackett took down the information and had the man locked up, then hurried to the address he had given to see for himself what had happened. In an upstairs room, he found a man lying on the floor, very nearly dead, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. “I am to blame,” the man moaned. He died soon after.

The confessed shooter was Henry H. Meyer, a fresco painter who lived in Memphis with his wife and two daughters. The victim was William B. Dunnavant, who owned a construction company. Both men were musicians—Meyer played the organ and Dunnavant played guitar—Dunnavant had often been to the Meyers’ house along with other musicians. That day he was there alone with Meyer’s wife.
Henry Meyer gave the police a detailed statement of the events leading up to the murder. He explained that his skills as a fresco painter were in high demand and he had been spending much time away from home, painting church walls in Nashville and Jackson, Tennessee. He said that he had never had any reason to suspect his wife of infidelity while he was away from home, but while in Nashville he received an anonymous letter saying that some young men had been in his house, taking liberties with his wife.

Meyer’s wife came to visit him when he was working in Jackson. Before she arrived, he received another letter, this one more specific. It said that she had been seen late at night in her bedroom drinking wine and allowing William Dunnavant to take all sorts of liberties with her. He told his wife about the letter when she arrived in Jackson, and she told him not to pay attention to any such reports.

But Meyer remained suspicious, and after she left, he wrote her a letter saying that he would not be returning to Memphis until the following Sunday. That Wednesday he took a train back to Memphis, arriving about 11:00 pm. He sneaked into his house and found a place to sleep, unobserved by his wife. 

The following day he hid inside a wardrobe in the parlor and waited. In the parlor was a sofa which could be opened out into a large bed. It was open when he saw his wife and William Dunnavant enter the room and sit on the edge of the bed. They chatted a bit then Dunnavant began to fondle Mrs. Meyer. She tried to push him away, then he got up and closed the door. He returned to the bed put his arms around Mrs. Meyer and began taking liberties with her. When he forced her backward on the bed, Henry Meyer couldn’t take any more. He jumped out of the wardrobe, drew a pistol and told Dunnavant to put up his hands.

Meyer told the police he had not intended to kill Dunnavant. In his formal statement he wrote what he had intended to say when he caught Dunnavant with is wife: 
"My home is disgraced by you. You took the honor away from it. Take it all, only give me enough money to pay the fare for my children to Cairo, and I’ll leave it all. If you want the wretched woman, take her. Keep my furniture, my organ, my pictures—everything, only let me take my children away from this town."
But he did not get a chance to say this to Dunnavant; instead of backing down when he saw the pistol Dunnavant rushed him. In the struggle that followed, the gun went off accidentally, and Dunnavant was shot. Meyer went directly to the police station and gave himself up.

Mrs. Meyer corroborated her husband’s statement and said he was justified in what he did. She said several times in the past Dunnavant had tried to take liberties with her, but she had resisted saying that they were both married, and it wasn’t right. “There are a good many about here who think because I am lively that I am a snap,” said Mrs. Meyer, “but they are mistaken.”

It seemed to be a clear-cut case; either the gun had gone off accidentally, or it was the justifiable act of a man who had caught the seducer of his wife in flagrante delicto—neither situation was likely to convince a Tennessee jury to convict. But the prosecution put a different interpretation on the facts. They said it was a conspiracy between Henry Meyer and his wife to lure William Dunnavant into a compromising position and blackmail him; when Dunnavant refused to pay, Meyer shot him in cold blood. The charge against Henry Meyer was first-degree murder.

The state called witnesses who claimed they saw Meyer and his wife together before the murder when Mrs. Meyer claimed she did not know her husband was in town. A witness testified that Carrie Meyer, the defendant’s 12-year-old daughter, had gone to Dunnavant’s shop on the day of the murder with a message that her mother wished Mr. Dunnavant to call. Experiments were performed which suggested that Meyer would not have been able to see the bed from inside the wardrobe.

The judge appeared to favor the prosecution. He did not allow Dunnavant’s dying words, “I am to blame” to be admitted as evidence “as many constructions could be put upon it,” and although he allowed Meyer to read his statement, he told the jury it could not be considered as evidence. 

In the end, the jury found Henry Meyer’s account to the murder more believable than the state’s, and he was acquitted. After his release, Meyer said he planned to take his daughters and move to Germany. It was not clear whether Mrs. Meyer would be joining them.


Sources:
“Caught,” The National Police Gazette, October 2, 1886.
“Damaging Testimony,” Memphis Daily Appeal, October 22, 1886.
“The Jury Charged,” Memphis Daily Appeal, October 26, 1886.
“The Meyer Murder Case,” Memphis Daily Appeal, October 24, 1886.
“Meyer Trial,” The Tennessean, October 24, 1886.
“Meyer Up for Murder,” Memphis Daily Appeal, October 21, 1886.
“News Article,” Maryville times, October 27, 1886.
“Not Guilty,” The Courier-Journal, October 27, 1886.
“Shot His Wife's Lover,” St Paul daily globe, September 10, 1886.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Cannibal of Austerlitz.

Simon Vandercook was a 55-year-old “eccentric wanderer” from Lansingburgh, New York, a fortune seeker who relatives said was always filled with “utopian schemes.” In 1882, he claimed he had discovered gold outside of Alford, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Berkshire County had several small iron mines, with Marble and other minerals found there as well so a gold discovery was not considered impossible. Vandercook purchased the land for his gold strike from Oscar Beckwith in exchange for shares in the company he formed to mine the gold.

If Vandercook had actually discovered gold, the mine was not producing enough to sustain fulltime operation, and he earned money by cutting trees on the property and selling lumber. Beckwith believed he had been swindled and threatened to sue Vandercook.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Ruttinger Mystery.

Samuel Mortin, who was employed to keep watch over six coasting schooners laid up for the winter just below Tottenville, Staten Island, New York, found the body of a man lying in the mud, half floating, next to one of the vessels on March 11, 1891. The man's arms were crossed behind his back tied together at the wrists and above the elbows with heavy packing twine. Mortin secured the body and went to tell the police.