Saturday, March 28, 2020

Love and Arsenic.

Elizabeth Ragan
As Arthur Ragan lay dying of a stomach ailment, in Piqua, Ohio, on April 3, 1855, his wife, Elizabeth took the physician aside and told him she believed her husband had poisoned himself. She said she thought the cream of tartar he had been taking for his stomach was actually arsenic. Mr. Ragan died that day, and a post-mortem examination proved his wife correct, he had died of arsenic poisoning. However, there were reasons to believe that Arthur Ragan had not committed suicide, and suspicion fell on Elizabeth as his murderer.

After Ragan’s death the postmaster of Colesville, Ohio, came forward with a highly incriminating letter. The previous December, the letter had, by mistake, been given to a man named Murray. When Murray read it and realized it was not for him, he returned it to the post office. The letter had been intended for James Mowrey, and the postmaster made sure it was delivered correctly, but the contents had been so disturbing that he first made a copy which he turned over to the police:

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Slaughter Ends a Wedding Feast.

Trinidad Romer was a wealthy, young Mexican living in Douglasville, Texas, a few miles southwest of Abilene. He was in love with the daughter Julius Larinski, a Polish settler, but her affections were fixed on another man. Miss Larinski was enamored with Nathan Sorowski, another Polish immigrant, who had little to offer other than his love.

Mr. Larinski preferred the wealthy Mexican and told Romer that if he could arrange to put Sorowski out of the way, he would give him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not long after this, Nathan Sorowski disappeared from Douglasville without a trace.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Revisiting the Goffle Road Murders.

This week’s guest post revisits the Goffle Road Murders posted here several years ago. Don Everett Smith Jr., who literally wrote the book on this crime (The Goffle Road Murders of Passaic County (History Press, 2011)), expands on the story of the murders and subsequent execution of the killer.

Don lives in Central Pennsylvania with his wife and cats and tortoise, Flash. He has published works at Tombstone Stories Publishing and comic books at Pinion Comics. Don also hosts his podcast "Conversations of the Strange" where he interviews horror and paranormal creators and icons. 

Revisiting the Goffle Road Murders 
By Don Everett Smith Jr.  


It was on June 4th, 2011 that “Murder by Gaslight” posted an article about the 1850 murders of John and Jane Van Winkle in, what is now, Hawthorne, New Jersey. The post was entitled, “Terrible Tragedy in New Jersey.” 

The blog posted the text of an article from The Republican Compiler from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which was dated January 28th, 1850.   

I had come across this same article when I researched a book about the Van Winkles entitled THE GOFFLE ROAD MURDERS OF PASSAIC COUNTY: THE 1850 VAN WINKLE KILLINGS. It was published in 2011 from The History Press (now part of Arcadia Publishing).

When I finished my research on the Van Winkle murders, I thought that I had found everything there was about the subject. 

In the following years, my wife and I moved out of New Jersey and into central Pennsylvania. I was able to pick up extra work as a freelance writer and I began writing articles about local Pennsylvania history. I discovered thanks to an increased interest in local history and genealogy (not just in Pennsylvania but all over), more and more newspapers and political records were uploaded to the internet. 

Curious to see what was out there regarding the Van Winkles, I did a simple search and found more information.  

I reached out to the kind people at “Murder by Gaslight” and they allowed me to put together an article which featured the new information I discovered. 


What is now Hawthorne was once part of a larger town called Manchester. John and Jane Van Winkle owned over 212 acres and Van Winkle served as a judge of the common pleas in Passaic County and a grist miller. 

It was just after 1 a.m., on January 9th, 1850, when the Van Winkles were in bed. Their former ranch hand, a Liverpool native named John Jonston crept into their sleeping quarters. 

He struck Mrs. Van Winkle in the face - twice - with a hatchet which awakened the Judge. He immediately leapt from the bed and struggled with Jonston. 

The attacker had a large knife and struck the older man in the stomach and ripped open his abdomen thus exposing his intestines.  

“Murder! Murder!” Van Winkle screamed as Jonston rushed out of the room. He ran up a flight of stairs and down a ladder. Upon hitting the ground he ran to what is now called Rock Road in Godwinville (today Glen Rock, New Jersey). He hoped to grab a train and head to New York City and anonymity. 

However, thanks to a light snowfall, a group of neighbors tracked his footprints and captured him.
Jonston “was taken in custody and tied at once” to prevent him from escaping. 

“Members of the party remarked about the blood on his back, [Jonston] said he had been killing hogs, and the blood came from them as he carried them in from the place where they were killed. The blood was so fresh on his shirt that [a] woman squeezed it out upon her hand,” was said.

Jonston was brought back to the Judge’s homestead.

“Mr. Van Winkle, who was dying, looked on the man, while holding his bowels from falling through a ghastly wound in the abdomen, and had still strength enough left to say, ‘Yes, it was he’,” a newspaper recorded in the January 16th, 1850 edition of The Paterson Intelligencer.

Jonston denied it and was taken into custody by Passaic County Sheriff Nathaniel Lane, a tall man who had taken part in the Underground Railroad.  

Van Winkle would linger until about 6 p.m. that night when he passed from his injuries. Jane had died instantly of her wounds earlier that morning. 

The court appointed Socrates Tuttle to defend Jonston. With such damning evidence, Jonston was convicted and executed on April 30th, 1850. He had the dubious double honor of being the first murderer and the first man executed in Passaic County.    

A reporter from the Newark Daily Advertiser described Jonston’s last word in the May 1st, 1850 edition:
 “[T]he years 1830 and 1850 would be long remembered: that he arrived here from Liverpool in 1830, and that in regard to his present position he was not guilty of the crime for which he was about to suffer, but that he forgave all the world.”

Local newspaper sources described how after Lane “made final adjustments to the machine, he pulled the cap over Jonston’s face and placed the rope around his neck. “In less than a minute,” Lane threw the lever, “and the victim swung in the air.” Jonston “struggled...somewhat for a few minutes, raised himself up with a spasmodic, muscular action a few times, and [after] about five minutes…all signs of life left him.”

It was added that “after hanging for half an hour, he was ‘black about the hands as an African.’ Jonston’s coffin was brought to him, and ‘all that was left of Jonston, was gently lowered into his narrow bed’.”

As for the Van Winkle estate, the house, where the judge and his wife were murdered, still stands in the heart of Hawthorne, New Jersey. The exterior looks very much like it did back in the 1850s.
The part of the house where the Van Winkles lived was closed off. In fact, The New York Times recorded on Aug. 15, 1882 that it, “was locked and barred” for over 32 years. It went on to describe that “vines had grown so thickly around the doors and windows.” 

However, the more salacious aspect of the article mentioned that “no one seeming disposed to lease the valuable and beautiful property on account of the stories prevalent about its being the abode of unearthly visitants.”  


To give a complete picture of the execution, a writer for the New York Daily Herald described, in the May 1st, 1850 issue, that the “morning was clear and beautiful, the sun rising on the hills of Paterson in all its majesty, shedding its radiant beams of glory as it had often done before.”  

However the residents felt a “gloom manifest...intermixed with a kind of pleasing unsettled expectation that something desparate or terrible was about to take place” as “Dutch farmers were pouring into town from all quarters from many miles distant.”  

“Everybody appeared to be anxious to witness a man pay the extreme penalty of the law by the forfeiture of his life on the gallows,” the writer said.  

The report described that the “beaus and the belles were dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meetings.” 
The jail yard was surrounded by a 15 foot high fence, as well as members of the Jefferson Blues were on hand to help keep the peace as they made “quite an imposing appearance.”  The yard would hold an estimated 2,000 residents.  

In the center was the gruesome structure. When The Goffle Road Murders was written, I did not have access to the articles that gave a fuller description of the gallows themselves. 

“The gallows was made by two strong supports and a beam on the top, through the center of which was the rope and pulley. The weights being made to drop on the cutting a small rope, and, in reverse, the man goes up,” the writer described.  

What is interesting about this, is that it resembled the gallows built to execute Antoine LeBlanc in Morristown, New Jersey in 1833. 

This is technically called the “upright jerker” method of execution. Most gallows used a trapdoor method of the criminal dropping to his death. However, the upright jerk method involves a weight tied to a rope, fed up through a pulley system and tied to the noose connected around the neck of the condemned. 

When the weight drops, it jerks the criminal straight up. Ideally this method would break the neck of the criminal quickly.  

Thanks to a quick search online, and some direction by writer and historian Robert Damon Schneck, I was able to find this drawing here.  

However, due to the fuzziness of it, I have decided to reproduce it. 

It was mentioned in my book that there were crowds and jeers, but in this article, it described several women wanting to get a closer look at the gallows. However, Lane refused. 

At the same time this occurred, the crowd began to get restless. It was reported that persons shouted, “Bring him out!” while another person shouted, “Let’s have it over - we want to see him up!”  

At 11 a.m., a shed that held over 150 people collapsed due to overload. 

“Luckily no bones were broken, (it was) only barked shins and scratched faces,” the article said. 
Before Jonston was led out, William E. Robinson, a correspondent for The New York Tribune spoke to Jonston. Under the pseudonym “Richelieu,” he described how “a few minutes before (Jonston) was led out I visited his cell.”  

“He was quite calm, and persisted in asserting his innocence,” Robinson said.   
Within the half hour, Jonston came out dressed “in a white muslin dress, in the Turkish costume; the bottom of the pantaloons, his sleeves and neck were tied with black ribbon.” 
All the other sources, as did the “Herald” writer, mentioned that his arms were strapped to his body with a leather belt.  

The Herald reporter was able to visit with Jonston the night before: 
“Our reporter visited the prisoner in his cell. The unfortunate and miserable creature was, at this time, dressed for execution; he appeared to be calm and collected, and walked backwards and forwards, holding in one hand a pocket handkerchief. He is a man of small stature, about 5 feet 5 inches, stout made, with rather a mild, smiling cast of countenance, dark hair and eyes, English expression, an Englishman by birth, aged 35 years.”

The reporter and Jonston “conversed freely.” 

“He said his parents were dead, and that he had a brother in England, but he did not wish him to know his fate; he said he was satisfied and pleased to leave this world, as he made his peace with his God,” the writer said.  

As Jonston stood on the gallows, Cornelius Van Winkle, “the son of the murdered man (and woman), placed himself, in order to watch every movement of the culprit.” Just pure speculation here, but “every movement” could mean “twitch” or “struggle”. 

Cornelius had hoped to “hear if (Jonston) made any confession, as it was expected he would at last, when under the gallows, confess his guilt.” 

It was just after 1 p.m. when prayers were said, Bible passages were read and Jonston made his final statement. 
“I have only to express a few words, gentlemen. April 30, 1850, will long be remembered. It is not my duty to say much. I have been judged guilty of the crime. I forgive the whole world; I have no fault to God. I know I must die and I die in faith and in hope to be forgiven of all the sins I have been guilty. I am innocent of this; and I have nothing to say that is my situation. I have made my peace with my God. I am innocent; I have no interest in saying so; I know I am going to die, therefore I have no interest,” Jonston said in a low tone. 

He continued. 
“All have behaved well and clever to me since I came here to this place. I am freely willing to part from this world; it is a pleasure to me in my situation. I cannot say anything more in my situation that I know of, and I hope, by the blessing of the Almighty, that my peace is made with him. I don’t wish my friends to know about it, but they will not believe it, without they hear it from someone who knows the circumstances. After my trial, I saw there was no hope. I am ready to die and meet my God. Amen.”

Allow for some facts to be restated - it was on Jan. 9th, 1850, tracks were left in the snow leading away from the Van Winkle homestead after the attack. The tracks were followed and they lead straight to Jonston at a train station in (what was) Godwinville. He had with him a shirt covered in blood. Remember that blood was so thick, a woman was able to ring it out like a dish cloth after washing a sink full of dinner dishes.  

It could only be imagined how poor Cornelius Van Winkle felt upon this condescending denial. Cornelius proved himself a man of restraint for not rushing the gallows at the “I forgive the whole world” and throttling the Liverpoolman himself.  

Apparently even the Reverend on scene didn’t believe Jonston either.  

“Rev. Mr. Hornblower most earnestly requested him to make a confession; that if he had any hope, he must confess his sins, and if he wished for salvation hereafter, he must not die with a lie on his lips,” the reporter said.  

Jonston again denied his part in the death of the Van Winkles.  

At this point Lane “adjusted the rope about (Jonston’s) neck; but upon endeavoring to attach it to the upper rope, (Lane) found it too short.”  

“Here an awful suspense took place, of near ten minutes, before a bench could be procured; and a deathlike silence pervaded the whole assemblage,” the writer said.  

The bench was placed on the platform “and the culprit stepped on it, making him of sufficient height.” The rope was adjusted, the white cap Jonston had on top of his head was placed upon his face. 

“The (previously mentioned small) rope cut, and, in an instant, the murderer was suspended in the air, by the neck, an awful spectacle and warning to all who take the life of a fellow being unlawfully,” as was recorded. “The culprit...gave several convulsive movements of the legs and body, and all was over.”  

His time of death was about 1:20 p.m. and he hung there until 2 p.m. 


It is discussed in The Goffle Road Murders what occurred with the remains of the judge and his wife and their estate. 

However, an interesting fact was discovered about relics associated with the Van Winkle murders. In an article in The Morning Call (of Paterson, New Jersey) dated May 4th, 1911, “curious visitors” were attracted to a “collection of horrors at (the) Prosecutor’s Offices.”  

“It is just becoming known that the court house has a chamber of horrors as gruesome as any of the subterranean compartments and pits described by Poe in his talks of mysterious murders,” a Call reporter said. “The store-room of everything that is likely to cause one to shudder with fear, forms part of the prosecutor’s headquarters in the county building.”  

The writer described a “cabinet with large glass doors (which exhibits) such things as hangman’s nooses, skulls of murdered people, shot guns, revolvers, knives which were used in slaying people, lock-picks, files, dark lanterns, baseball bats, stuffed clubs, forks, razors , and innumerable other implements used in battles for life and death.” 

It was said that all of this was “evidence of work done in the line of suppressing crime in Passaic county.”  

Counting Jonston, five men were hung for murder between 1850 and 1906. Eventually, death penalties were carried out in Trenton, New Jersey via electric chair. In the previously mentioned cabinet, photographs and the nooses used in the last four hangings were on display.  

 “Under the above exhibit is the knife used by (John Jonston), who paid the death penalty for the murder of Judge John Van Winkle and his wife,” the writer said.  

He added, “The knife which he (Jonston) used was given into the custody of William G. Gourley when he was prosecutor, by Nathaniel Lane, son of the late Sheriff Lane.”  

The rest of the article goes on to discuss other items related to crimes, killings and murder. 
Granted this article is almost 110 years old, it could only be speculated as to what has happened to the items mentioned here. In all candor, an opportunity has not availed itself as of now, to investigate the location or existence of the knife.  

However, this article is proof that with some patience and research some amazing things can be uncovered. I, for one, will remain positive.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Secession Murder Case.

Samuel Merritt and Cornelius Salmon were walking down Prince Street in New York City on May
31, 1861, and as they approached a lager beer saloon, Salmon suggested that they stop for a glass of beer. Merritt agreed, and they went into the saloon which was in the basement of a house owned by John Immen.  The owner’s son Edward was tending the bar and poured the men two glasses as they took seats at a table.

A little after 4:00, John M. Swain, who lived in the house above the saloon, stopped in for a drink, and Salmon invited him to join them at the table. They had a pleasant conversation until the subject of politics came up. 

The issue of the day was the secession of the southern states, and Swain was a strong supporter of the secessionists. Merritt, who staunchly supported the Union angrily disagreed. Swain said that the Union should be dissolved, and there should be two confederacies, one southern and one northern. The argument became heated, and Swain said he would like to have the American flag trampled upon. Merritt, who could take no more, said “United States or nothing” and demanded that Swain say it too. Swain refused.

There were only four men in the saloon at that time, and none of the witnesses could say for sure how it transpired, but Merritt had a pistol in his hand and fired a shot into Swain’s chest, killing him instantly. Merritt laid the pistol on the table, then he and Salmon left the saloon and went separate ways. 

The police were called the scene and got the story from Edward Immen. Patrolman Sullivan arrested Cornelius Salmon, and at about 6:45 that evening, Samuel Merritt went to the Eighth Precinct station and turned himself in. By that evening, a coroner’s jury determined that John M. Swain had come to his death by a pistol shot wound at the hands of Samuel H. Merritt. Merritt declared he was not guilty and said the pistol had belonged to Swain.

Merritt’s trial for murder began on January 28, 1862. There was no doubt that Merritt pulled the trigger, but the trial focused more on Swain’s seccessionist views. As the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “the only question to be determined by the jury is what amount of guilt attaches itself to a man who unintentionally kills a ‘traitor?’”

The jury found Samuel Merritt guilty of manslaughter in the third degree and recommended mercy. He was given the minimum sentence of two years in State Prison.

“Murder in the Eighth Ward,” World, June 1, 1861.
“The Murder of John M. Swain,” The New York Times, June 2, 1861.
“Murder of John Swain,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861.
“News Article,” Herald, January 30, 1862.
“Our New York Letter,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 1862.
“The Secession Murder Case,” Herald, January 29, 1862.
“Verdict in the Eighth Ward Murder,” World, June 3, 1861.