Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jesse Pomeroy - "Boston Boy Fiend"

On December 22, 1871, four-year-old Billy Paine was found hanging by his wrists, half-naked, from the roof beam of a tumbledown privy on Powder Horn Hill in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His back was covered with welts from a whipping. Over the next nine months seven more children, none older than 8, were found tied and brutally tortured in Chelsea and South Boston. The assaults became increasingly vicious and in 1874 resulted in the deaths of a four-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. When the killer was proven to be fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy, Massachusetts had to face two tough questions: could someone so brutal be considered sane? and if so, did the state have the will to execute the “boy fiend?”

Date: March 18, 1874 and April 22, 1874

Location:  Boston, Massachusetts

Victim: Katie Curran and Horace Millen

Cause of Death:  Stabbing

Accused:  Jesse Harding Pomeroy


The Boy with the Marble Eye
Jesse Pomeroy did not have an easy time as a young boy. From infancy his right eye had been covered over with a white film—some said due to cataracts, others blamed a virulent infection or reaction to a smallpox vaccination. It left him with an appearance that many people found revolting and made him the object of ridicule among older boys. Jesse’s own father, Thomas Pomeroy, could barely stand to look at him. When angry at his son, Thomas would flog Jesse’s bare back with his belt. After one such beating Jesse’s mother, Ruth Ann Pomeroy, drove her husband out of the house with a kitchen knife and he never returned.

Jesse was an intelligent boy, if somewhat anti-social. He would not join the other boys in baseball games or other athletic pursuits, but he was fond of playing “scouts and Indians” where he would invariably be an Indian and devise elaborate imaginary tortures for captive scouts. Jesse had always been a problem for his mother. She knew he stole money from her and was always playing hooky from school. And she knew he had a vicious streak; years earlier she had come home from work one day to find the heads twisted off her pet canaries.

The Devil
The Pomeroys were living in Chelsea, a suburb of Boston, when young Billy Paine was found beaten in the Powder Horn Hill outhouse. Billy was unable to describe his attacker, but no one suspected that the assailant was a child himself. On February 21, 1872 seven-year-old Tracy Hayden had been lured to the same abandoned outhouse by “a big boy with brown hair.” He was tied, stripped naked, and whipped across the back. The boy hit him in the face with a board, breaking his nose and knocking out two teeth. Then he threatened to cut off Tracy’s penis. A third victim, Robert Maier, age eight, was taken to the same outhouse on May 20, and given similar treatment.

Over the next few weeks, Chelsea police questioned hundreds of boys but made no arrests. A rumor began to circulate that the attacker was a young man with fiery red hair, pale skin, arched eyebrows and a pointy chin with a wispy red beard. In their communal fear, they had described the devil. After seven-year-old Johnny Balch was stripped and flogged on July 22, the press named the assailant “the boy torturer” and a $500 reward was offered for his capture.

South Boston
While all of the parents in Chelsea were worried for the safety of their children, Ruth Ann Pomeroy worried for a different reason—she feared the attacker might be her own child. Ruth Ann decided it would be a good time to leave Chelsea. She moved her family to South Boston, and opened a dress shop.

The assaults moved to South Boston as well, becomiong increasingly frequent and increasingly brutal. On August 17, seven-year-old George Pratt was abducted and was not just flogged, this time the abductor stuck a needle in his arm and his groin, and bit chunks of flesh from his face and buttocks. On September 5, the assailant began using a knife, stabbing six-year-old Harry Austin under the arms and between the shoulder blades, and he attempted, unsuccessfully, to cut off his penis. Less than a week later he used a knife on six-year-old Joseph Kennedy, then threw salt water on the wounds. Six days later, wielding two knives, he slashed five-year-old Robert Gould’s scalp and threatened to kill him, but was interrupted by some approaching railroad workers.

Robert Gould, the eighth victim, was the first to give a useful description of his attacker. He said it was “a big bad boy with a funny eye.” When asked about the eye, Robert said it was like a “milky,” the children’s name for a milk-white marble.

The police wanted Robert Gould to go to local schools and identify his attackers from the boys sitting in class, but Robert's scalp had required stitches and his parents would not let him leave the house. They took Joseph Kennedy instead, and though he was taken to Jesse Pomeroy’s class, he was unable to identify his attacker.

That day, after school, for reasons Jesse was never able to explain, he went to the police station. Seeing Joseph Kennedy there, he quickly turned and left the station, but a policeman followed him out and brought him back. Now, looking closer, young Joseph saw the white eye and identified Jesse as his torturer. Jesse was held in a cell overnight and was persuaded to confess. The next day all of the victims identified him as their attacker. Jesse, then 12 years old, was sentenced to the reformatory, “for the term of his minority” – a period of six years.

At the Massachusetts House of Reformation, in Westborough, Jesse quickly adapted. He stayed away from the older boys who taunted him, as they always had, and the younger boys, who knew why he was there, steered clear of Jesse. Knowing that good behavior was the only way to leave the reformatory early, he did his work, applied himself to studies, and even informed on his fellow inmates. Outside, Ruth Ann continually pressed for her son’s release until on January 24, 1874, less than seventeen months after his arrest, Jesse Pomeroy was set free on probation.

The morning March 18, 1874, 10-year-old Katie Curran left her home to buy a notebook for school and never returned. She was last seen entering Mrs. Pomeroy’s store. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Jesse’s history and the Corrans feared the worst. At the police station Captain Dyer assured Mrs. Curran that Jesse could not be involved—he had been completely rehabilitated, besides he was only known to attack little boys. Katie’s father was a Catholic and, reflecting the attitudes of the time, local rumors said he sent her to a convent without telling her mother.

On April 22, 1874, 4-year-old Horace Millen disappeared. Several people that day had seen a little boy accompanied by an older boy heading towards McCay’s wharf. That afternoon, in a clambake pit on Savin Hill Beach, Horace Millen’s half-naked corpse was found. He had been stabbed six times in the chest, his head was nearly severed and he was partially castrated.

When Boston’s Chief of Police, Edward Hartwell Savage, heard of the murder his first thought was of Jesse Pomeroy, but he believed Pomeroy was still safely at the reformatory. When his men told him that Jesse was out on probation, Savage ordered his immediate arrest. On the beach the police found footprints left by the two boys and were able to make plaster casts of the larger ones. They matched Jesse’s shoes perfectly. Jesse was questioned and confronted with the evidence, but refused to confess. Finally they took him to the funeral parlor to view the body and he broke down. He admitted he killed Horace, that something made him do it. He was sorry and wanted to leave. He told the policemen:
“Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”
The notoriety was terrible for Mrs. Pomeroy’s dress business and she was forced to close her shop and work out of her house. The building was taken over by Nash’s grocery store and while workmen were doing renovations they experienced a terrible odor coming from the basement. The source was the decaying body of Katie Curran found under an ash heap. She was identified by her clothing, and though badly decomposed, police could tell she had been stabbed and mutilated.

Mrs. Pomeroy and her other son, Charles, were arrested for murder. Jesse was told this and questioned aggressively about Katie Curran and he finally confessed to the murder. Later he would claim he confessed only to save his mother but was not really guilty. He would also recant his confession to Horace Millen's murder.

Trial: December 8, 1874
The trial of Jesse Pomeroy for the murder of Horace Millen lasted four days. The prosecution introduced testimony of those who had found the body and those who saw Horace with a bigger boy that day. Some could identify Jesse in court as that boy. Their strongest evidence was the confession Jesse had made at the time of his arrest.

The defense argued that Jesse was innocent by reason of insanity. They called Jesse’s victims, some still seriously disfigured from the attacks, to prove the insanity of his actions. They also introduced testimony from physicians and alienists who believed that Jesse was insane. The prosecution had their own experts who concluded that Jesse knew right from wrong and acted anyway.

The jury deliberated less than five hours and returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. Though Massachusetts law required mandatory execution for first degree murder, the jury recommended the sentence be commuted to life in prison. That issue would not be resolved for another year and nine months.

Verdict:  Guilty of first degree murder

The debate raged locally and nationally - in the press, in public opinion, and among lawyers and politicians - whether justice and public safety could only be accommodated by the hanging of Jesse Pomeroy or whether it was immoral to hang a boy who was only fourteen at the time of his crime. The matter was settled in August 1876 when the Massachusetts Executive Council decided to commute the sentence to solitary confinement for the rest of Jesse Pomeroy’s life.

Jesse Pomeroy was 16-years old when he entered Charlestown State Prison. Except for a brief period in the 1880s when the prison was being renovated, he spent the next 53 years there, 41 of those years in solitary confinement. Only one prisoner in American history was in solitary confinement longer – Robert Stroud “the Birdman of Alcatraz”—and only by one year.

Though he had attempted to escape many times, Jesse would never leave prison. In 1929, old and infirm, he was transferred to the state prison farm at Bridgewater where he could be better cared for. He died there on September 29, 1932, two months before his seventy-third birthday.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century


Schechter, Harold.Fiend: The Shocking True Story Of Americas Youngest Serial Killer. New York: Pocket, 2000.

Pomeroy, Jesse Harding. Autobiography of Jesse H. Pomeroy,  J.A. Cummings & Co, 1875

Duke, Thomas Samuel, Celebrated criminal cases of America, San Francisco, The James H. Barry company, 1910


Anonymous says:
January 7, 2011 at 4:25 PM


Anonymous says:
January 23, 2011 at 4:10 PM

what a sick little chelsea boy

Anonymous says:
May 8, 2011 at 7:44 PM

thats crazy! wow wow wow!

Anonymous says:
January 13, 2012 at 4:48 AM

That was so so crazy man burn in hell boy...even though you are already dead but burn in hell..see no god...

Caroline says:
February 11, 2012 at 4:06 PM

This just proves to me that (at least in many cases) evil is born, not made.

Anonymous says:
February 19, 2012 at 3:27 PM

wow i think the parents should have taken some responsibilty, the kid was clearly brutalised by his father and his mother allowed it to happen, the kid needed to feel powerful and exert his anger and betrayal, his own protection, bad start and bad end for all involved. Good story though.

Anonymous says:
March 22, 2012 at 4:28 PM

who wrote that article?

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 23, 2012 at 11:56 AM

Who's asking?

Anonymous says:
June 17, 2012 at 4:55 AM

Stupid little bastard

Unknown says:
June 19, 2012 at 4:34 PM

I agree with the ops comments. The father abused and hated him and the mother covered up for him. It was a tragedy all around.

Unknown says:
June 19, 2012 at 4:35 PM

By the way, great site!

Robert Wilhelm says:
June 20, 2012 at 12:07 PM

Thank you Mary Claire, I appreciate it. ;)

Anonymous says:
June 29, 2012 at 3:34 PM

I have know of this man for some time - just came upon this site.

I am curious if he accomplished anything while in prison; writings, paintings, etc.?

Susan SAger

dallas says:
July 16, 2012 at 11:07 PM

Great story I'm using this site from now on

Unknown says:
April 17, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Born evil. Bad brains. Bad genes. But beatings affect the limbic system in the brain. No limbic system=psychopath. PTSD happens, too. It changes the child. Hell, even Henry VII changed his whole personality after that horse landed on him. Oxygen denied his brain, and after that he was a monster. Spare the rod needs to happen, because the brain is not developed yet. I feel like I am stating the obvious, but with all the stories of child abuse, apparently not. Let's just hope his soul gets recycled...on some other planet.

BostonRob says:
October 31, 2014 at 5:45 PM

Do we know the address of the Millen or Curran homes?

Unknown says:
July 5, 2015 at 5:17 PM

Your link to the TruTV article is defunct.

Robert Wilhelm says:
July 5, 2015 at 11:04 PM

No great loss.

Queenie says:
September 18, 2017 at 9:55 PM

He has a resemblance to Robbie Williams.

HeyItsMe says:
April 21, 2018 at 5:31 PM

You don't think being brutally beaten by his father and constantly bullied by his peers had any effect on his mind? If he had been born into a loving home and had someone look out for him as a child he may not have turned into a very angry sadistic killer. I'm not making excuses for what he did - he was indeed very evil - but in this case I do not believe he was born evil.

HeyItsMe says:
April 21, 2018 at 5:33 PM

I don't believe he was born evil. Horrific treatment - mostly happening in his own home turned him evil.

HeyItsMe says:
April 21, 2018 at 5:34 PM

I was just about to say that!! It's uncanny isn't it?

WorkingForFreedom says:
May 31, 2018 at 1:42 PM

You may find them in the census.

Anonymous says:
February 3, 2021 at 10:38 AM

Heeft jesse pomeroy aleen 2 jongens vermoord of meer graag reaktie hoeveel jesse er vermoord heeft

Anonymous says:
February 3, 2021 at 10:39 AM

Nou hij lijkt totaal niet op robin williams sorry hoor

Anonymous says:
February 3, 2021 at 10:40 AM

Sorry ik dacht dat je robin williams bedoeld3 ja inderdaad hij heeftcwel iets weg van robbiecwilliams echt bizar

Unknown says:
March 16, 2021 at 2:05 PM

Haha Unknown!! I too was going to say he reminds me of Robbie Williams!

But what a character and what he achieved despite being in solitary for 41 years :(

1) Taught himself 3 languages that apparently he spoke almost fluently;
2) Wrote two books aged just 14 (which are actually quite readable in a funny sort of way);
3) Showed incredible spirit and determination to escape to the point of earning respect from the wardens, especially his ability to repeatedly smuggle implements into his cell to affect escape; on one occasion he smuggled a drill in, and on one occasion almost succeeded in blowing up his cell by burrowing into the wall and deliberately damaging a gas pipe!

Sorry, but despite what he did I kind of feel for this boy.

Ty Cumbie says:
January 29, 2022 at 4:58 AM

Could you share your source for the woodcut portrait of Pomeroy?

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