Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Walton-Matthews Tragedy.

John Walton was walking home from work with his cousin Richard Pascall down 18th Street in New York City at 11:30 the night of June 30, 1860. Walton owned a distillery on 18th Street and a store on 25th Street. At the time, Walton and Pascal shared a room over the store. At 3rd Avenue, they noticed a man leaning against a tree in the shadows but paid little attention as they walked past him. A few seconds later, the man darted up behind Walton and shot him in the head.

The shooter ran down 3rd Avenue, and Pascall followed, raising the alarm, shouting, “murder!” Several men heard the call and joined the chase. At the front of the pack was John W. Matthews, a well-known railroad contractor. Matthews was closing in as they neared 16th Street. The killer turned, drew his pistol, and fired, hitting Matthews in the chest. In the confusion that followed, the killer dropped the pistol and made his escape. 

The men lifted Matthews and carried him to a nearby drugstore, but he died in their arms before he reached it. Walton was still breathing and was taken to Bellevue Hospital, but he died at 8:30 the next morning.

None of the witnesses recognized the shooter, but Pascall was convinced it was John Walton’s stepson, Charles Jefferds. About a year earlier, Walton’s wife died, leaving him with two daughters. About six months later, Walton married a widow named Ellen M. Russell. She told him she had been married twice before, but both of her husbands were dead. She had two sons from the first marriage, Charles and Edwin Jefferds, aged 22 and 19, respectively. She had one son, Frank Russell, 12, from her second marriage. She also said she had adopted her sister’s four-month-old daughter. After the wedding, they all lived together in a house on 23rd Street.

Ellen Russell was an attractive woman; Walton believed her to be a fine, upstanding person. This opinion would soon change. He “observed transactions of a suspicious character on the part of his wife” and decided to make some inquiries. He learned that at least one of her former marriages had ended in divorce, and the husband was still living. Additionally, she had a third husband, a Mr. Morrison, between Jeffers and Russell, who was living in Ohio, and it was doubtful that they ever had a legal separation. Walton also learned that the four-month-old was not the daughter of Ellen’s sister but her own illegitimate offspring.

The New York Atlas called Mrs. Walton “a woman fond of money, luxury and intrigue.” Comparing her to Emma Cunningham, who murdered Dr. Harvey Burdell three years earlier, they called her “…one of those smart, intriguing adventurers of the Mrs. Cunningham school, who are constantly laying in wait to trap wealthy middle-aged bachelors and widowers.”

Soon after the marriage, Mrs. Walton’s eldest son, Charles Jefferds, began misbehaving. He drank heavily and brought unsavory people back to the house. Walton objected, scolding both mother and son. This only made them angrier, and several times Charles threatened Walton’s life.

After several months of this, Walton decided the marriage was over and resolved that they separate. He rented a smaller house on 23rd Street for Ellen and her children, and he moved into the room over the store. He rented the big house to someone else. This angered Ellen and her sons even more since the separation would mean the end of Walton’s wealth. Charles and Edwin continued to harass Walton. On one occasion, Charles showed Walton a pistol which he said he had bought to shoot him. At another time, Walton suddenly took sick and believed he had been poisoned. He changed his will, leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughters, to make it less likely that he would be murdered for his money.

The double murder created quite a sensation in New York City. The mayor offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer. Walton’s estate added another $1,000 to the reward. The police began a manhunt for Charles Jefferds. Jefferds, who fled to Long Island, learned they were looking for him and decided it was safer to turn himself in. The Monday after the murder, Jefferds surrendered to the police but declared his innocence.

The coroner began an inquest into the murders. Among the many witnesses were Richard Pascall, who positively identified the pistol found at the scene as the one Charles Jefferds had used to threaten Walton, and Ellen Walton, who testified that there was no animosity between her son and her husband. The inquest lasted two weeks, and although there was little evidence against Jefferds, he was charged with first-degree murder.

The prosecution was reluctant to bring the case to trial because of the lack of evidence. After an eight-month delay, ignoring two regular terms of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Jefferds's attorney moved, unsuccessfully, for his client’s release. The trial for the murder of John Walton finally began on June 10, 1861, and lasted about a month. Though nearly everyone believed that Jefferds was guilty, the evidence against him was so thin that no one was surprised that the jury found him not guilty.

After being free for six months, Jefferds began to get cocky. At an impromptu meeting in the 25th Street store with John Walton’s brother, William, Jefferds said, “Do you know who I am? I am Charles Jefferds, the man who murdered your brother, and I can shoot you as quick as I shot him.”

William Walton asked Jefferds for the details of the murder, assuring him that he had been acquitted and could not be tried again. Police Detective Moore, who was also present, confirmed that Jefferds could not be retried. Jefferds told them that he had gone out that night specifically to kill Walton. It was after Walton had a quarrel with his mother, and she offered Jefferds $2,000 to kill her husband.

They were correct in telling Jefferds he could not be retried for Walton’s murder, but Jefferds had forgotten that he was also charged with murdering John Matthews. The new confession was enough for the district attorney to take that case to court.

The trial for the murder of John Matthews began on December 18, 1861. This time the testimony of William Walton and Detective Moore was enough to convince a jury. Jefferds was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

The law at the time stated that Jefferd had to serve one year in prison before he could be executed, and after that, the date would be set by the governor. During that time, his attorney tried unsuccessfully to appeal the verdict. But as of May 1868, more than six years later, Jefferds was still on death row at Sing Sing Prison.

On May 15, 1868, Charles Jefferds was found dead in the stable loft of the prison. He had five axe wounds on his body, any one of which could have been fatal. Jefferds had been unwell the day before and was allowed to skip dinner and do some light work at the stable instead. He had been reading a book in the hayloft when he was attacked.

Two inmates who had been chopping wood in the work yard, Thomas Burns and George Whittington, were charged with the murder. Burns and Jefferds had been enemies because Burns had caught Jefferds in the commission of what was called “a beastly crime” and “an infamous crime against nature” and reported it to other inmates. The following December, Burns was found not guilty, and charges were dropped against Whittington.

In February 1869, the New York World published a long article saying that a detective using the pseudonym “Jefferson Jinks” had spoken with Jefferds before his arrest. He claimed that, after a few drinks, Jeffereds declared that he had murdered Dr. Harvey Burdell three years before and provided intricate details of the crime. 

The murder of Dr. Burdell had caused a sensation in New York and was one of the first great murder cases to be followed nationwide. The World article was reprinted or summarized in newspapers throughout America. However, Jefferds’s confession, if he made it at all, was not likely to be true. The matter was soon forgotten. 

“Accidents and Offences,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 21, 1864.
“An Atrocious Double Murder,” BOSTON HERALD., July 2, 1860.
“Another Chapter in Metropolitan Crime,” New York herald., July 2, 1860.
“Conviction of Charles M. Jefferds,” NEW-YORK OBSERVER., January 2, 1862.
“The Eighteenth Ward Murders,” New-York Daily Tribune., July 4, 1860.
“From New York,” Sun, March 9, 1863.
“Horrible Tragedy,” Commercial Advertiser, July 2, 1860.
“Investigation of the Murder in Sing Sing Prison,” New-York Tribune., May 18, 1868.
“Jefferds Gone to State Prison,” New York dispatch. [volume], May 8, 1864.
“The Jefferds Murder,” World, May 25, 1868.
“Mayor's Office, New York, July,” Evening Post, July 13, 1860.
“Murder in Sing Sing State Prison,” Evening Post., May 15, 1868.
“News Article,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 6, 1868.
“Supreme Court,” Journal of Commerce, jr., November 8, 1862.
“Trial of Charles M. Jefferds,” World, July 11, 1861.
“Verdict in the Walton Matthews Murder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 1860.
“The Walton and Matthews Tragedy,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, July 14, 1860.
“The Walton Tragedy,” NEW YORK ATLAS., July 8, 1860.
“The Walton-Mathews Murder,” New York herald., February 24, 1861.
“The Walton-Mathews Murder,” New York Herald, July 12, 1861.
“The Walton-Mathews Murder,” Evening Post, April 8, 1864.
“The Walton-Mathew's Murder,” Evening Post., December 19, 1861.
“Will Of The Late John Walton,” Boston Courier, July 9, 1860.


VC64 says:
October 31, 2022 at 4:12 PM

This case was the first chapter in "New York Murders," a classic collection of cases spanning the years 1860 -- 1940, published in 1944 and edited by Ted Collins. Each chapter had a different author, all of them well-known mystery writers at the time, with some repetition. The chapter on this case was written by Kurt Steel, a pseudonym for NYU professor Rudolf Kagey.
I would urge the writer of this excellent blog to write about another case from that book, the truly tragic, mysterious, and unsolved murder of Kathryn Scharn, a 23-year-old factory worker killed in her apartment on Second Avenue near 37th Street in Manhattan on the evening of August 18, 1900. Her devoted brother Fred was absurdly accused by the police of being the killer, until a Perry Mason-like revelation in coroner's court that absolved him. Lawrence Treat, one of the founders of the police procedural genre, wrote a fine and even moving account of it in the book. I believe that 1900 just makes it under the door as belonging to the gaslight period.

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