Saturday, September 26, 2020

Getting Away With Murder.

American justice is largely fair and impartial, but it is not perfect; sometimes mistakes are made. It is always disturbing when an innocent person is unjustly punished, but it is far more common for a guilty party to be set free. When the crime in question is murder, this result can be equally disturbing.

In the nineteenth century (as now) accused murderers were tried in the court of public opinion before ever entering a court of law, and sometimes the verdicts did not agree. Whether through prejudice, money and influence, legal maneuvering, or simply lack of evidence a defendant is set free when the community “knows” he is guilty. Here are a few notable defendants who, very likely, got away with murder:


Richard Robinson

Helen Jewett, a high-end New York City prostitute was murdered in her bed by an axe wielding killer. Though it was fairly clear that Helen was murdered her ex-lover Richard Robinson, the jury found him not guilty. The judged was prejudiced against the testimony of prostitutes, and it was rumored that Robinson bribed at least one juror.

Minnie Wallace Walkup

James Reeves Walkup died of arsenic poisoning less than a year after his marriage to sixteen-year-old Minnie Wallace. Minnie was tried for his murder but her charm and beauty drove witnesses to perjury and jurymen to acquittal. Her second husband died under similar circumstances.

Jimmie Malley, Walter Malley, Blanche Douglas

Jenny Cramer was almost certainly raped by Jimmie Malley then murdered by him with the help of his cousin Walter and Walter’s girlfriend Blanch Douglas. Walter’s father, Edward Malley, the richest man in New Haven, Connecticut, paid for the defense that won their acquittal.

Ned Stokes

Ned Stokes, with premeditation, shot Jim Fisk in the Grand Central Hotel. Any question of his guilt disappeared when Fisk, on his deathbed, identified Stokes as the shooter. But stokes had political connections and after three trials was found guilty of manslaughter and served only six years.

Daniel Edgar Sickles

Dan Sickles shot his wife’s lover, Phillip Barton Key, in front of eye witnesses. Sickles did not deny the murder, but his attorney argued that his wife’s infidelity had driven Sickles temporarily insane. Sickles was set free in the first successful use of the temporary insanity plea in America.

Albert J. Tirrell

Albert Tiirell was acquitted for the charge of murdering Maria Bickford on the grounds that he was sleepwalking at the time and not responsible for his actions. While the “sleepwalking defense” never caught on as a legal ploy, in 1849 it was enough to free Albert Tirrell.

Lizzie Borden

Most people today believe that Lizzie Borden killed her father and stepmother in a vicious daylight axe murder. But in 1893 there was not enough evidence to convict her, and given the same evidence, she would probably be acquitted today as well. Either way, someone got away with murdering Andrew and Abby Borden.

 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Hauling the Supposed Remains of Goss from the Fire.

 

William Udderzook and Winfield Goss conspired to defraud four insurance companies in 1873, by putting a cadaver in Goss’s workshop, setting the building on fire, and claiming the burned corpse was Goss. The plan went awry when Udderzook, fearing Goss would spill the beans, stabbed his partner to death.

Read the full story here: He Knew Too Much.



The Udderzook mystery! (Philadelphia: Barclay & Co, 1873.)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Horrible Murder in Twelfth Street.


Mrs. Sarah Shancks owned a high-end millenary concern—“a fancy thread and needle store”—at 22 East 12th Street.  At around 10:00 AM, the morning of December 7, 1860, Susan Ferguson, who worked as a seamstress for Mrs. Shanks, entered the store but could not find her employer. She went to the back room where Mrs. Shanks resided and found her lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Her throat had been slashed, and she was surrounded by broken glass and crockery. Susan ran out of the store to alert the police.

The police and coroner examined the crime scene and determined that Mrs. Shanks was probably killed by a blow to the head that fractured her skull. Her face had been battered, her nose broken, and on the left side of her face, a deep gash ran from the cheek to the jaw. Her throat had probably been slashed after death and the cut, from ear to ear, was so deep she was nearly decapitated. Investigators found several possible weapons nearby, a small fire shovel bent and covered with blood, an axe head without a handle, and a kitchen knife. Around the body were shattered fragments of a heavy stone water pitcher and shards of glass from broken bottles. 


Marks on the linen where the killer had wiped his hands were so saturated with blood that he must have cut his hands in the attack. The box where Mrs. Shancks kept her money had been emptied of all but a single nickel; the box was covered with blood.

Mrs. Shancks had been a widow for nearly twenty years and until recently, she had a companion living in the store with her. In the days before the murder, she had been ill and incapacitated, and neighbors were cooking meals for her. Elizabeth McMann, daughter of a neighbor, brought her breakfast at around 8:20 and was the last person to see Mrs. Shancks alive.

At one point, the store had been quite lucrative, and Mrs. Shancks had been well off, but she had lost much of her money on bad investments. She had also been swindled by someone to whom she was engaged to be married. “The lady bears an unblemished reputation,” said the New York Tribune, “but seems to have lent a too willing ear to obsequious flatteries.”

She was engaged to be married at the time of the murder, to a Mr. Chambers. Chambers was briefly a person of interest in the investigation, as was Charles Hardy, a dealer who sold Mrs. Shancks’s embroidery, and an unnamed young carpenter who had done work on the store and continued to hang around to the annoyance of Mrs. Shancks. The police determined that robbery was the sole motive, and they had no clear suspects.

On December 11, a young man named Alfred Buchanan was arrested in the town of Susquehanna, about 300 miles west of New York City. Buchanan had gone to stay with Theodore Springstein, brother of a friend. Springstein welcomed Buchanan into his house but could not help but notice a bandage on the man’s hand covering bloody wounds. That, together with the young man’s agitated appearance, aroused Springstein’s suspicions, and he took the information the Justice of the Peace. 

Buchanan was arrested, and Captain Caffrey of the New York Police traveled to Susquehanna to bring him back. In the city, Buchanan was identified as the “young carpenter” who had been bothering Mrs. Shancks. 

At first, Buchanan denied any knowledge of Mrs. Shancks or her murder. He subsequently admitted he knew her but denied that he killed her, saying his hand was wounded in a fight at a Bowery saloon. A man there had called him a son of a bitch and during the brawl that followed Buchanan drew a knife cutting his hand. Buchanan was unable to give he man’s name or the name of the saloon.

The city police force was criticized in print for allowing the murder of such a violent crime to flee the city. The New York Tribune asserted that Buchanan’s arrest was entirely due to newspaper coverage. The New York Atlas claimed that the police were indifferent to murder cases unless a reward was involved. “The escape was a disgrace to the detective police force in this city,” said the Atlas, “and shows beyond question that that branch of our police department is worse than useless.”

19-year-old Alfred Buchanan was tall and slim with a sinister expression on a face that resembled a bulldog’s. He had a long history of mental illness, having been subject to fits for several years. He behaved erratically, and as symptoms of insanity increased, his parents arranged to have him committed to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. After about four months at the asylum he was pronounced cured and released. Following his return, he was arrested several times for petty theft and arson.

Alfred Buchanan was indicted for the murder of Sarah Shanck, and he pled not guilty. Before he could be tried, Buchanan was examined by a jury who pronounced him insane. He was committed to a state lunatic asylum.



Sources:

“The Appalling Murder in Twelfth Street,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 22, 1860.
“Arrest of the Murderer of Mrs,” Albany Evening Journal, December 11, 1860.
“Court of Oyer and Terminer,” New York Herald, December 23, 1860.
“Horrible Murder in Twelfth Street,” New York Herald, December 8, 1860.
“Murder in New York,” Boston Post, December 10, 1860.
“Mysterious Murder a Woman Butchered in Broad-Day No Clue to the Murderer,” New York Tribune, December 8, 1860.
“News Article,” Herald, December 13, 1860.
“News Article,” World, January 28, 1861.
“The Tewlfth Street Murder,” New-York Atlas, December 16, 1860.
“The Twelfth Street Murder,” New York Herald, December 12, 1860.
“The Twelfth Street Tragedy,” New York Herald, December 11, 1860.
“The Twelfth Street Tragedy,” New York Herald, December 14, 1860.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Bitter Fruit of a Jest.

Elvira Houghton, a dressmaker in Southbridge, Massachusetts, hired a carriage and driver to take her to her mother’s funeral in the summer of 1847. The driver, 27-year-old Milton Streeter, was instantly infatuated with Elvira. They had a pleasant conversation and when they returned to Southbridge Milton asked if he could see her again and Elvira said yes.

Also 27-years-old, Elvira feared she was approaching “that delicate and dreaded period, when, having out-maidened all her early associates, she would remain alone a withered remnant of the past.” Her fear may have clouded her judgment; After a whirlwind courtship of one month, she and Milton Streeter were married.