Saturday, November 14, 2020

A Theatrical Execution.

David J. Wood owned a thriving leather and shoe business in Dansville, New York, in the 1850s. He and his wife Rhoda were busy raising two children but found time to be active in church and civic events, always willing to donate their time and money to better the community. They were wealthy, prominent, and well-liked citizens of Dansville, living a perfect life—until the arrival of David’s brother Isaac.

Isaac L. Wood was 34 years old in 1854, when he left his home in New Jersey, hoping to start a new life with David’s help. Isaac was only eight years old when David left the family home in New Providence, New Jersey. The two brothers had not been close, but David was happy to give Isaac a helping hand, loaning him money to buy a small piece of land. Isaac began farming, making payments to his brother when he could. 

But Farming did not suit Isaac, and within a year, he gave it up and went to live in his brother’s house. He embarked on a career speculating in fruits, butter, eggs, and other produce. It was widely known in Dansville that David was still helping him out with loans and endorsements. 

In the spring of 1855, the household consisted of David and Rhoda Wood, their two children, their hired girl, Margaret Lynch, and David’s brother Isaac. That May, Mrs. Wood took the children to visit friends in New Jersey. Shortly after they left, David became violently ill, and after four or five days of vomiting and purging, he died in agony. The physicians who treated David were at a loss in determining the cause of the sickness but finally concluded that his disease was cholera morbus.

Rhoda Wood and the children returned to Dansville, arriving the day after David’s death, and she was appointed administratrix of her late husband’s estate. A few days after their return Mrs. Wood and the children were seized with the same symptoms that David had suffered; the children recovered, but Rhoda did not. Friends and relatives of the dead couple briefly suspected poisoning, but Rhoda was quickly buried, and suspicions died away.

Isaac became the guardian of the children and took over the administration of his brother’s estate. It was valued in the neighborhood of $40,000, but upon the final settlement, relatives were surprised to learn that very little was left for the children. A promissory note for $2,650 given by David Wood to Isaac Wood was discovered to be a forgery, prompting an investigation of David’s account books. An audit found that numerous entries had been clumsily altered in Isaac’s favor.

In the summer of 1858, Joseph J. Welch, the new owner of David Wood’s house, discovered a package in the barn containing three parcels of white powder. A chemical analysis determined that one contained pure arsenic, one a mixture of arsenic and magnesia, and the third was cream tartar. This discovery, together with the initial suspicions of poisoning and the financial irregularities, prompted an inquest into the death of Rhoda Wood.

Her body was disinterred, and the stomach was sent to Prof. Hadley, a distinguished chemist of Buffalo, New York. His analysis discovered arsenic in the stomach. David Wood was then disinterred, and Prof. Hadley found arsenic in his stomach as well. A coroner’s jury was summoned and after hearing testimony as to the good character of Margaret Lynch and reviewing the entries in David Wood’s account books, the jury concluded that Rhoda Wood came to her death by poison, administered by Isaac L. Wood. Coroner Caton issued a warrant for Wood’s arrest and deputized ex-sheriff, James Brewer, to serve it.

Isaac Wood had since married and moved away. After tracing Wood to New Jersey, Brewer learned that Wood had left that state after the sudden illness and death of his wife and child. Brewer finally caught up to Wood in Rantoul, Illinois, where he was hiding his wealth and working as a farm laborer. Without mentioning the murder charge, Brewer told him there was a problem settling his brother’s estate due to some forged papers. Wood agreed to return with Brewer and address the issue. By volunteering to return to Dansville, Wood eliminated the need for a lengthy extradition process to transfer him from Illinois to New York.

The trial of Isaac Wood for the murder of Rhoda Wood began on February 1, 1858. The evidence against him was largely circumstantial, and the defense argued that much of the evidence, such as the alleged financial fraud, was not relevant to the charge of murder. 

After hearing nine days of testimony and deliberating for seven hours, the jury reported that they did not have a unanimous verdict and did not think they would ever have one. One report said the jury stood eight for conviction, four for acquittal. Another report said it was eleven to one, and the lone holdout, Moses Long, opposed capital punishment and would not vote guilty under any circumstances.

Isaac Wood’s second trial began on May 3, 1858, and this time three days were consumed empaneling a jury. After ten days of testimony, this jury returned a verdict of guilty after two and a half hours of deliberation. He was sentenced to hang on June 25.

Woods attorneys appealed the verdict on the same grounds they brought up in their defense, that testimony regarding financial fraud and the death of David Wood should have been excluded in a trial of the murder of Rhoda Wood. The appeal was denied. They petitioned Governor King, who granted a temporary reprieve while he reviewed the testimony. Governor King found no problems with the evidence, and the hanging was rescheduled for July 9.

Wood continued to profess his innocence. He found religion in prison while awaiting execution and expressed faith in his own justification before the “tribunal of eternity.” Public opinion was strongly against Wood, and as long as he refused to confess, no one believed his religious zeal was genuine.

Several newspapers described Wood’s hanging as a “theatrical execution.” It was held in a narrow enclosure attached to the jail in Genesee, New York, before 60 witnesses. Outside the jail, a crowd of 500 spectators waited to hear of his death. Order was maintained by two military companies, one from Dansville and one from Genesee, and a band was also present. At 3:00, the condemned man was brought to the gallows by two Deputy Sheriffs accompanied by three men of the cloth. A deputy loudly informed Wood that he had but twenty minutes to live and that he was at liberty to speak if he chose to. Wood chose to  speak.

“Here I am, condemned by the laws of my country to die,” Wood began, “in a few moments to end my life, and I shall pass away into another world. This world may look upon me as it pleases; but blessed be God, this is not my abiding place.”

Wood continued in this manner, with much repetition, until the Sheriff interrupted him to read the death sentence. Then Wood knelt as Reverend Birchmore of the Episcopal Church read the text Wood had selected, and Reverend Brown offered a prayer. The Deputy then announced that twelve minutes remained for Wood to live.

Wood began speaking again and ended by saying, “Take this body; it is nothing but a lump of clay. God knows that I am innocent, but you can’t know it. It is between myself and God. In three minutes, I shall be free from my persecutors. I bid you all farewell forever. Blessed be God, I can die anywhere and at any time.”

Wood was executed with the “upright jerker” method of hanging, in which a counterweight was dropped, jerking the condemned man up to break his neck. As his arms were pinioned with a silk handkerchief, Wood repeated several times, “Oh, Jesus, receive my spirit,” adding, “Let me die as easy as you can.”

The Sheriff directed Wood to sit in a chair and he adjusted the noose around Wood’s neck. When the noose was in place, the Sheriff stepped back to spring the trap and drop the weight. Isaac Wood was launched four feet into the air then fell the length of the rope. His neck was broken, but his pulse continued to beat for seven or eight minutes. After half an hour, the attending physicians declared him dead. 

As the trap was sprung, the band outside played a solemn dirge.


Sources: 
“The Dansville Poisoning Case--Arrest of Isaac L Wood,” Albany Evening Journal, September 8, 1857.
“Execution of Isaac L Wood, at Geneseo,” Albany Evening Journal, July 12, 1858.
“Last Evening's Telegraph Report,” Buffalo Commercial, July 10, 1858.
Isaac L. Wood, The Dansville poisoning case (Dansville: George A. Sanders, 1858.) 
“News Article,” Daily True American, September 15, 1857.
“The Poisoning Case,” Buffalo Morning Express, September 8, 1857.
“Shocking Murder by Poison,” Daily Illinois State Register, September 8, 1857.
“A Singular Case,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 1858.
“Theatrical Execution,” Commercial Advertiser, July 14, 1858.
“Trial and Conviction of Isaac L Wood,” Commercial Advertiser, May 20, 1858.

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