Saturday, November 30, 2019

Judge Lynch in Pennsylvania.

Joseph Snyder murdering Jacob Geogle and wife - Judge Lynch metes out death to the scoundrel in a summary manner
Portraits: 1. Joseph Snyder - 2. Alice Geogle, whom Snyder attempted to rape.

In 1880, Jacob and Annie Geogle lived with their three children in the town of Santee’s Mills near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Jacob worked in an iron ore mine and to supplement his meager income, the Geogles took in a boarder—27-year-old Joseph Snyder, also a miner. Snyder became infatuated with the Geogels' oldest daughter Alice and expressed his desire to marry her but Alice was only 14-years-old and she did not return Joseph Snyder’s love. Her parents were appalled at the idea and would have thrown Snyder out but he owed them two months’ rent and they needed the money.

Snyder began sneaking into Alice’s room late at night and making improper advances that she had, so far, been able to fend off. When she told her parents of Snyder's behavior they were livid and on December 26 they confronted him. After a bitter argument, they told Snyder that when he got his next paycheck he must pay his board and leave.

That night after everyone was asleep, Snyder, wearing just a shirt, took an axe and quietly went into the room where Jacob and Annie were sleeping. Using the blunt end of the axe he smashed both of their skulls then with the sharp end began chopping, nearly severing Mrs. Geogle’s head. Then, according to a statement made later by District Attorney Anstett, he took hold of Mrs. Geogle and “…committed another crime so heinous in its character that I dare not mention it.”

With his hands still dripping blood, he went to Alice’s room. Alice’s younger sister Mary was in the room, along with two of their friends, the Young sisters who were spending the night. As Snyder tried to sexually assault Alice, the other girls screamed and shouted “murder.” Snyder got up and locked them all in a garret room. He changed his clothes and while the girls watched through a stovepipe hole, he burned his bloody shirt.

Snyder ran to the nearby farms of Robert Bader and Captain Ritter telling them that four burglars had broken into the house and murdered the Geogles. Though it was now about 4 a.m. a large crowd began to gather and as the neighbors went to see what had happened Snyder quietly slipped away.

By the time Detective Yohe arrived from Bethlehem, the girls had told the neighbors what had happened and the search for Snyder began. He had not gone far, Detective Yohe found him under the straw in Captain Ritter’s barn. Yohe put him in chains and took him back to the Geogles’ house. The crowd was calling for Snyder’s neck; they had no patience for the courtroom and no faith that their interests would be served. Not long before, a man named Laros who had poisoned an entire family was declared insane by a Northampton County jury, then escaped from the asylum. They were afraid the same would happen to Snyder.  

But Yohe kept the crowd at bay until the Coroner arrived at 9:00 to impanel a jury. They took Snyder to the room where the bodies still laying and Rev. Brendle of Bethlehem asked Snyder, “Did you do this dreadful thing?” He answered, “Yes, I did.” When asked why, he said quietly, “Ah, that is the question. Why?”

The crowd which had now grown to more than two hundred men did not care to hear the answer. They rushed in, pushing Yohe out of the way and threw a noose around Snyder’s neck. It was too late to stop them, but the Reverend implored them to pause and he said to Snyder, “They will make short work of you. Do you want to say a prayer?” Snyder replied, “No; I want to be hung. I never said but one prayer and that is enough.”

They dragged Snyder outside then threw the rope over the limb of a Chestnut tree. Fifty men pulled the rope to hoist Snyder off the ground, with another fifty trying to get a hold. When he was swinging, they tied the rope to a fence and let him hang for half an hour until they were sure he was dead.

Snyder was lying dead on the ground when District Attorney Anstett arrived and no one would say who was responsible. The matter became an embarrassment for Anstett; it was the first recorded lynching in Pennsylvania’s history and there were calls from politicians, judges, and newspapers to prosecute the mob. But Anstett knew the lynchers had not been criminals or troublemakers but honest miners and farmers—his own father had been among them. He also knew that if he tried to prosecute they would stand together again and the results might be even worse. Though he did issue twelve indictments against alleged ringleaders, there is no indication that anyone was ever arrested. 

Originally posted on August 23, 2014.


"Crime for Crime." New York Herald 28 Dec 1880: 4.
"Horrible Double Murder in Bethlehem Township." Bethlehem Daily Times 27 Dec 1880: 0.
"Joseph Snyder's Lynching." Cincinnati Daily Gazette 30 Dec 1880: 2.
"Judge Lynch in Pennsylvania." The National Police Gazette 8 Jan 1881.
"Retribution--Double Murder and Lynching." Jackson Citizen Patriot 29 Dec 1880: 2.
"Snyder's Swing." Daily Inter Ocean 28 Dec 1880: 2.
"The Easton Lynching." New York Herald 29 Dec 1880: 4.
"The Geogle Murder." Bethlehem Daily Times 30 Dec 1880: 0.
"The Pennsylvania Horror." The National Police Gazette 15 Jan 1881.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Murder of Dr. Burdell.

Fictional dime novel detective Old King Brady solves the Bond Street Mystery!

Read the true story of Dr. Burdell's murder:
Songs about the Burdell murder by The Saugerties Bard:

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Medford Mystery.

Scene of the Debbins murder
Walter R. Debbins was shot twice in the back, in broad daylight, on Highland Street in Medford, Massachusetts, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 27, 1897. Though no one saw the murder or heard the gunshots, there was enough traffic on Highland Street that afternoon for the police to precisely pinpoint the time of the shooting to between 1:00 and 1:05. But that was all they could pinpoint; everything else about the crime was shrouded in mystery that grew more dense with each new revelation.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Assassination of Captain Watkins

This week we present a guest post by Kyle Dalton; the story of a Civil War era murder by a probable Lincoln assassination conspirator. Kyle Dalton is a public historian and museum professional currently employed at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He writes and maintains the website British Tars: 1740-1790, exploring the lives of common sailors through primary sources. This post was largely researched and composed for Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland, where Kyle was employed as the Public Programs Administrator.

Assassination of Captain Watkins
By Kyle Dalton

Captain Thomas Watkins, closeup, 
(The Horse Soldier collection)
In 1861 most white residents of the South River in Maryland were pro-slavery if not outright secessionists. In the presidential election of 1860, only three people in all of Anne Arundel County voted for Abraham Lincoln. The county was narrowly won by a slim margin of twenty-four votes by Stephen Bell and his Constitutional Unionist Party, which sought to avoid the issue of slavery. Voters for Bell’s optimistic neglect of the issue were closely trailed by Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and his virulently pro-slavery stance. We do not know for sure who made up the three voters who publicly declared their support for Abraham Lincoln, but it is quite possible that two of them were Dr. Benjamin Watkins and his son Thomas.

Even after the outbreak of war, the Watkins family were outspoken about their unionist sympathies. In a later congressional report, it was said “that at the commencement of the rebellion, Thomas H. Watkins…became at once an active supporter of the Union, when so to declare himself was visited was to be visited by the obloquy and contempt of a large majority of his friends and associates in the county.” His father, Dr. Benjamin Watkins, was elected to attend the Union State Convention in 1864, where the delegates voted their support for the North’s war effort. Thomas went further than words. He enlisted in and recruited for the cavalry contingent of the Purnell Legion, a unit of pro-Union Maryland cavalry, artillery, and infantry companies. Watkins mustered in as a Captain, commanding Company B, on September 20, 1861.

In declaring his loyalty to the Union, Watkins set himself apart from his South River neighbors. By enlisting, he proved he was willing to kill and die for the Union. After the introduction of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863, Watkins served alongside men of color, including enslaved and free black men from the South River. He reinforced, intentionally or not, his support for destroying the institution of slavery and arming the men his neighbors held in bondage. It is not difficult to imagine that he was despised by the whites of the South River.

The same year his father attended the unionist convention, General Grant’s Army of the Potomac besieged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. Both sides settled into trench warfare. Among Union forces was the Purnell Legion. Captain Watkins and his cavalry troopers were dismounted and armed as infantry to fill the earthworks. Watkins and his loyal Marylanders took part in continuous assaults on the Confederate lines. He could probably have guessed that his neighbors from the South River were among the Confederate lines.

At the Battle of Globe Tavern, General Grant sought to cut railroad links between Petersburg and the outside world. The V Corps, including Captain Watkins, was ordered to seize and destroy the line. The Confederates launched a heavy assault against the Union forces. In the melee, Captain Watkins took a bullet through the scalp.

Watkins was evacuated to Philadelphia on the steamer Augusta with several other wounded Maryland officers, where he was treated at McClellan Hospital. A largely recuperated Captain Watkins returned to the South River that Fall where he was ordered back to active duty by General E.B. Tyler in late August or early September 1864. 

General Tyler’s orders state Watkins was “to arrest certain returned confederate soldiers.” Among those Watkins was ordered to take into custody was the notorious Confederate spy and guerilla John H. Boyle. 

Twice, Boyle was captured as a spy and once was held in the Old Capital Prison for five months awaiting execution. It is unclear if he was pardoned or escaped, but regardless he was unrepentant. Boyle served under General George H. Steuart at Gettysburg, even earning a commendation in his fellow Marylander’s official report: “I am greatly indebted for valuable assistance rendered, and of whose gallant bearing I cannot too highly make mention.” Steuart was the son of a major South River landowner, and the only Marylander to rise to General Lee’s staff. 

Captain Watkins' pistol, 
(The Horse Soldier Collection)
By the time Boyle made his way back to the South River in late 1864, he was a mere horse thief operating under the thin veil of the Confederate cause to justify his crimes. General Tyler ordered Captain Watkins to apprehend Boyle. Watkins might have been assisted by local detectives who had captured Boyle in 1863 at his mother’s house in Marlboro. However Watkins went about it, Boyle chose to take the fight to the Union officer’s front steps. Boldly stealing a horse and saddle from Dr. Benjamin Watkins’ home, where Thomas himself was staying for his recovery, Boyle fled to Prince George’s County. Captain Watkins tracked him to the front of a store, where “some angry words ensued, [Boyle] took a pistol and fired at the Captain, the load taking effect in the horse.” Watkins overcame Boyle and bound his wrists. 

Sometime afterward, Boyle slipped his bonds and attacked Watkins, nearly killing him with a blow to the head. Watkins was carried to his father’s home for recovery. Though he made a clean escape, Boyle pursued a vendetta against the prominent Unionist, “and made frequent threats that he would kill him, Watkins, at the earliest opportunity.” 

Captain Watkins' pistol, detail of butt, 
(The Horse Soldier Collection)
While stewing over his hatred of Watkins, Boyle became entangled with John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators in their designs on Abraham Lincoln that would ultimately culminate in the assassination of the president. In his confession, George Atzerodt named Boyle as one of the conspirators, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg in the wake of the assassination believed that Boyle was one of the conspirators. Part of Dr. Mudd’s defense was his “fears of the vengeance of that desperado.” Perhaps Boyle acted as muscle for Booth’s gang, or maybe he only dabbled with joining in the initial plot to kidnap Lincoln but drifted away to pursue Watkins. We will probably never know, but we can say that Boyle was a dangerous man and Watkins would pay with his life for crossing him.

Sources on what exactly happened are confused. Only days after the murder, a reporter for The Alexandria Gazette insisted Watkins “while at supper, at his residence on South River, [was] shot through the head by a man supposed to be John Boyle.” A later congressional inquiry stated that “Boyle stealthily approached, and knocking at the front door, it was opened by Captain Watkins, whereupon the said Boyle drew a revolver, and, without giving any warning, chance, or show for life, foully and brutally shot down and murdered in cold blood the said Captain Watkins.” This version of events may have come from The Marlboro Gazette, which a reporter in The Baltimore Sun disagreed with strongly: “The assassin did not knock at the front door as stated but entered by an entry door which had been left unfastened, and took Captain Watkins unawares, who was sitting before the fire reading a paper” after supper. All sources agree that Boyle was joined by a gang, and The Baltimore Sun stated the gang fired at both a doctor who had come to check on Watkins’ four-month-old child, and Watkins’ wife or sister before making their escape.

Whatever the case, Boyle had committed cold blooded murder against an unarmed man in the presence of his family for revenge. The state was in an uproar. Governor Bradford offered a thousand-dollar reward for Boyle’s capture, and placed advertisements in newspapers throughout the area calling “for the apprehension and delivery to the jail of this county the said John Boyle.” He was captured in Frederick (coincidentally on the day Lincoln died) and kept under a tight military guard. This was the fifth time that Boyle was captured by Union authorities during the war, and this time they were certain he would not escape. His fellow gang members were never identified or apprehended. 

Though convicted and held for a few years in prison, Watkins’ murderer was pardoned by Governor William Pinkney Whyte for “war-related activities.” In announcing his 1872 pardon, The Baltimore Sun noted Boyle was banned from ever entering Anne Arundel County, and “that Boyle is not expected to live a great while, and his friends intend to move him to Florida.” We might assume from the Sun’s reporting that Boyle was ill, but he was healthy enough to take a job as a detective for the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad. He also continued his nefarious ways and was brought up “on a charge of passing counterfeit money.” Boyle would not “live a great while,” but it was not natural causes that would end it. 

Eight years later and a thousand miles from Maryland, an unknown vigilante ambushed Boyle in Tougaloo, Mississippi. The manner of his murder seems to echo the assassination of Captain Watkins. A Maryland newspaper reported that he “was assassinated by some unknown parties…at his home.” In a letter to the editor of a Mississippi newspaper, it was said: “Mr. J. H. Boyle, while sitting with his family, at eight o’clock in the evening, was fired upon by a concealed assassin.” It was speculated at the time that Boyle’s violent death was “just retribution” the assassination of Watkins. 

Only one arrest was made for the crime: an African American man named Henry Barnes, who was brought before a Grand Jury. A reporter for The Weekly Clarion speculated that Barnes and Boyle were part of a gang who “had planned to throw the south-bound passenger train from the track, and during the confusion likely to follow, to rob the passengers, and also the depot house…and that Boyle having lost courage before the time for action arrived, was killed by his co-conspirators.” There was “no convincing evidence against” Barnes, and the charges were dropped. It would have been surprising indeed if the former Confederate spy and potential Lincoln assassination conspirator joined with a black man for train robbing deep in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, and given the ease with which innocent black men were routinely convicted in that area and time, the evidence must have been weak indeed.

Whether Boyle was tracked down and killed in revenge for the assassination of Captain Watkins, or by fellow criminals for his cowardice, we will probably never know. Authorities were not terribly interested in investigating. The famous detective Allan Pinkerton refused to take the case and said Boyle was "one of the worst men he ever knew...He regards his death as a good riddance.” One Tougaloo citizen complained, “no attention was paid to it, and the man [Boyle] was placed in the ground without having the coroner investigate the murder, or the Sheriff making any effort to ferret out the parties who did the cowardly deed.” 

Several newspapers in Maryland and DC shared the same assessment of Boyle’s comeuppance and its implied connection with Watkins’ assassination: “The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine.”

The Alexandria Gazette, January 22, 1863, page 1; March 28, 1865, page 3.

The Baltimore Sun, “The Election Returns,” November 10, 1860, page 2; January 23, 1863, page 1; “Union County Convention,” February 18. 1864, page 1; August 27, 1864, page 2; “Serious Injury of Captain Watkins,” September 15, 1864, page 4; November 27, 1864, page 4; March 30, 1865, page 1; “The Murder of Captain T. H. Watkins,” April 1, 1865, page 1; “Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun,” April 19, 1865, page 4; May 1, 1871, page 4; July 3, 1880, page 3.

The Cecil Whig, “Patriotic,” June 11, 1864, page 2.

The Comet, June 26, 1880, page 2 and 3.

The Detroit Free Press, January 25, 1863, page 1, January 28, 1863, page 3.

Photographs courtesy of The Horse Soldier.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Tenth Anniversary!

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Murder by Gaslight! The first posts dropped on November 2, 2009, and every week since then I have added at least one new post related to murder in 19th century America.

Here are the top 10 most popular posts, since 2009, based on average pageviews per day:

1 The Meeks Family Murder
2 The Legend of Lavinia Fisher
3 The Killing of Bill The Butcher
4 The Notorious Patty Cannon.
5 Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...Or Did She?
6 Jesse Pomeroy - "Boston Boy Fiend"
7 19th Century Serial Killers.
8 H. H. Holmes - "I was born with the devil in me."
9 Big Harpe and Little Harpe
10 The Bloody Benders
It is probably not surprising that the list is dominated by serial killers whom the public find endlessly fascinating. The rest are sensational multiple murders and a gangland slaying. The only exception is Lavinia Fisher who, contrary to her nasty reputation, never killed anyone.

It is interesting that the most popular post of the last ten years is “The Meeks Family Murder” posted in 2011. Compared to the rest it is a relatively unknown case, but a good story with a somewhat happy ending.

What’s Next?

I plan to continue posting 19th century murders when I find stories that interest me (the supply is virtually endless). Going forward, I will also be reposting existing stories. Murder by Gaslight has more than 500 posts and most have not seen the light of day in years. They deserve another look. Murder by Gaslight will also be featuring guest posts from other bloggers and authors with stories relating to murder in 19th century America.

Murder by Gaslight will also be the platform for projects outside the blog—a book-length murder story, a mystery novel, some serial fiction, a podcast experiment, and other possibilities. Keep watching.

I want to thank everyone who has followed Murder by Gaslight through the years. A special thank you to those who have left glowing comments on the blog and on Facebook; they been very gratifying and encouraging.  For the past ten years, I have kept outside advertisements off the site and I will continue to do so (you’re welcome). If you would like to support the blog, I have books available at Amazon: 

Robert Wilhelm