Saturday, March 11, 2023

Most Atrocious Murder.

On February 2, 1846, Francis Adolphus Muir went to the home of his friend Captain William Dandridge Epes. Muir and Epes were two of Dinwiddie County, Virginia's most prominent and respected men.  They had business to discuss; Muir held bonds amounting to $3,200 against Epes, the balance owed by Epes for a tract of land he bought from Muir. Muir was invited to stay for dinner when their business was concluded.

According to Mrs. Epes, her husband told Muir about a deer he had seen in the woods and asked Muir to accompany him when he went to kill it. Muir agreed, and the two men left together on horseback. Epes returned alone and told his wife that Muir had found it necessary to go to Brunswick and would not be staying for dinner. Muir was not seen again in life.

Muir disappearance was a surprise; he had not told his brother or any of his friends that he was going to Brunswick. Then, around February 11, his brother John received the following letter:

Petersburg, Feb. 4, 1846

Dear John,
I have arrived in this place and will give you a small sketch of the times. On my way here my horse threw me, sprained my wrist and got away from me, my hand is this time so painful that I am obliged to get a friend to write this letter for me. I hope my horse has returned either to your house or Peter’s—Fortunately for me a gentleman came along in a buggy and offered me a seat to town which I accepted, Capt. Epes has paid me every dollar due on his land &c. I have had an offer to go in business in this place. I shall leave immediately for the north where I shall remain for several weeks and see the prospect of laying in a stock of goods. I shall not be in your part of the country for several weeks, my love to all.

Your brother

F Adolphus Muir.

About February 27, John Muir received another letter from New York, dated February 12, and signed “F. Adolphus Muir.” He said his hand was still painful, and he planned to travel to Missouri to visit friends. Nothing further was heard from or about Adolphus Muir until early June when John Muir received a letter from a man named Junius P. Rollins informing him that a hat picked up floating in the Mississippi River had “F. Adolphus Muir, Dinwiddie, Va.” written underneath the leather lining. The letter implied that Muir had drowned.

Muir’s friends and family took out an advertisement in the Petersburg Intelligencer in July, asking if anyone could provide the following information:

1. With what gentleman F. Adolphus Muir traveled to Petersburg in a buggy after he was thrown from his horse last February.

2. What gentleman proposed to go into business with him in Petersburg in February.

3. What friend wrote the letter dated “Petersburg, February 4, 1846.”

4. What gentleman brought to Petersburg the letter dated New York, February 12, 1846

5. Whether any friends or acquaintances saw him in Petersburg around February 4.

6. Whether any gentleman living in Petersburg, Richmond, or any other part of Virginia knows such a man as Janius P. Rollins.

They did not get the answers they were looking for, but they did learn that Ross, one of Epes’s slaves who served as his carriage driver, had information on the murder. Under police questioning, Ross revealed that his master told him he accidentally shot Muir. He took Ross to the body and ordered him to bury it. Ross led police to the grave, about 500 feet from the house. The body was disinterred and recognized as that of F. Adolphus Muir. 

The police went to arrest Epes for the murder but found that he had already left for parts unknown. Friends and family of Muir offered a $500 reward for the apprehension of William Epes.

While Epes was at large, rumors began to spread that Muir was not his first murder victim. Epes benefitted financially when his mother-in-law suddenly took ill and died. Some believed he had poisoned her. Epes’s son died in a hunting accident, in similar circumstances to Muir’s death, and Epes took possession of property his son owned. Epes was also accused of murdering a hog drover and one of his servants.

After avoiding capture for a year and a half, Epes was arrested in Texas in March 1848 and brought back to Virginia. The following September, he was tried for murder.

Epes’s attorneys posited several alternative theories—maybe the body wasn’t actually F. Adolphus Muir’s, maybe he hadn’t died from gunshot wounds, maybe Ross killed him, maybe the death was accidental, or Epes shot him in self-defense. But when the case was given to the jury, they took only fifteen minutes to return a guilty verdict.

William Dandridge Epes was hanged on December 28, 1848. Before his execution he confessed to murdering Muir but denied murdering anyone else. He made the following statement on the gallows:

Gentlemen : It was not my object to have anything to say on the present occasion, but, as it may do good, I have determined to say something. I have been charged with many crimes. I have been charged with the murder of a hog drover; I have been charged with the murder of my mother-in-law; I have been charged with the murder of my son; and I have been charged with the murder of my own servant; but, gentlemen, all these charges are false—all false. Would to God I could say as much of that other charge; but of that I am guilty. I murdered Francis Adolphus Muir. I murdered him. He fell by my hand. I have regretted the act ever since it was committed; it has been before my eyes ever since. I have the gratification to state that I believe he is in heaven, and I trust I may meet him there. In his dying moments be said he hoped to meet me there. I hope I shall meet him and I believe I will meet him there, for I trust in God’s promises.

Gentlemen, I have seen better days, and many of you know it; but when the temper is aroused we know not what we may do. I hope that my fate may be a warning for you to shun my example. I leave this world at peace with all mankind. I feel that I am at peace with My God. I trust to meet you all in heaven.

Brunet, J.M.H., Trial of William Dandridge Epes (Petersburg: 1849.) 
“[Col Epes; Mr,” Charleston Courier, March 13, 1848.
“[Petersburg; Virginia; Mr,” Charleston Courier, March 14, 1848.
“Arrest the Murderer!,” Daily Richmond Enquirer., July 17, 1846.
“The Body of F. Adolphus Muir Found,” NEW-YORK OBSERVER., July 25, 1846.
“By Magnetic Telegraph,” Daily Evening Transcript, March 15, 1848.
“A Chapter Of Suspected Crimes,” Alexandria Gazette, August 27, 1846.
“Conviction of Epes,” Richmond enquirer., September 29, 1848.
“Epes, the Murderer Hung,” Daily Globe, December 27, 1848.
“Execution or William Dandridge Epes,” Daily National Tribune, December 28, 1848.
“Most Atrocious Murder,” Albany Argus, July 28, 1846.
“The Murder in Dinwiddie,” Alexandria gazette., July 22, 1846.
“Reward for Murderer,” American Republican and Baltimore daily clipper., July 20, 1846.
“Rumored Arrest Of Epes,” Alexandria Gazette, August 21, 1846.
“Strange and Mysterious Disapperaance and Probable Murder of F. Adolphus Muir,” Daily Richmond Enquirer., July 11, 1846.
“Trial of Epes,” Southern Patriot, September 28, 1848.

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