Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Thayer Brothers

The year 1825 was a momentous one for Buffalo, New York. The Erie Canal opened, connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, a celebration honoring the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution was held in Buffalo, and the city held its first and only public hanging. At least 20,000 witnesses gathered in Niagara Square to watch thee brothers—Nelson, Israel, and Isaac Thayer—hang from the same gallows.

Date:  December 15, 1824

Location:   Boston, New York

Victim:  John Love

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused:   Nelson, Israel, and Isaac Thayer

The Thayer brothers had a bad reputation in Buffalo even before they were accused of murder. They would haul lumber from their farms in Boston, New York—south of Buffalo—in a wagon pulled by two oxen, one named God Almighty and the other, Jesus Christ. The Thayers were profane and violent, heading straight for the tavern once their business was transacted.

In Boston they owned a large amount of farm land. Nelson and Israel Jr. were married and lived in separate houses with their wives; Isaac lived with his father, Israel Sr. The land was good and they raised enough to support themselves, but they were known to be “indolent and dissipated,” neglecting farm work for shooting matches and visits to the tavern. They soon found themselves in debt to their neighbors to the extent that they were being threatened with law suits and imprisonment.

In October 1824 a man named John Love came to Boston and rented a room from Nelson Thayer. Love was a money lender, who would buy grain futures from the local farmers.  He would loan them money using the promise of bushels of wheat as collateral; after the harvest the farmer would repay the debt or Love would take delivery of the wheat. Before long the Thayers were so deeply in debt to Love that they were in danger of losing their property to him.

The Thayer brothers decided that their only hope was to murder John Love and they planned the crime for weeks. On December 15, 1824, Israel Jr. was preparing to butcher his hogs. He sent his wife and a boy who was living at his house to visit a neighbor and on some pretext invited John Love to spend the night. Love was sitting by the fire talking with Nelson when Isaac came to the window and from outside shot Love in the head with a rifle. The shot did not kill him so Nelson finished him off with several blows from a meat axe.

Nelson and Israel dragged the body outside and hid it by the house while they finished cutting up the hogs.  They brought some meat from the butchered hogs into the house and laid it on the chair where Love had been sitting—this would explain blood stains on the chair. Isaac left and Nelson and Israel took the body to a brook in a ravine in the woods about 30 rods form Israel’s house. They had intended to dig a deep grave but struck rock very soon, so they just covered the body over with dirt.

The brothers immediately took possession of Love’s cash and the disposed of the notes Love had on them. Then they tried to collect the debts Love had on others. Finding that they would need power of attorney to collect the debts, they forged this document and claimed that Love had gone to Canada leaving them in charge of his business.

By February the people had become suspicious of the Thayers’ story and began a search for John Love’s body.  It was not hard to find; Love’s grave had been so shallow that his toes were sticking out of the ground and visible from a footpath nearby.  On February 23, 1825 the body was spotted by F. T. Jones; it was dug up and taken to the schoolhouse where a coroner’s inquest was held. The body was positively identified as John Love, and two doctors determined that he had been shot in the head and struck several times with an axe. The three Thayer brothers and their father, Israel Thayer Sr. were arrested for murder and taken to jail in Buffalo.

Trial: April 21, 1825, April 23, 1825

Charges were dropped against Israel Sr. and two trials were held for the brothers. Isaac and Israel Jr. were tried together first, then Nelson was tried.

The case against Isaac and Israel was circumstantial but compelling. Witnesses saw Love with the Thayer’s on December 15, the day the hogs were slaughtered, but did not see him any time after. Several neighbors recalled hearing a gunshot on the night of December 15. The body was buried near Israel’s house and the brothers had attempted to profit by Love’s absence.

Israel and Isaac’s defense team, led by Thomas C. Love (no relation to the deceased) attempted to challenge the facts and the conclusions drawn by them, cautioning the jury against convicting innocent men on circumstantial evidence.  But the jury was not swayed by Love and after deliberating half an hour, returned a verdict of guilty.

Nelson’s trial was held on April 23 and was essentially the same as his brothers’.  At 11:00 that night, after deliberating for only a few minutes returned a guilty verdict.

All three Thayer brothers were sentenced to hang.

Verdict: Guilty


Before their hanging the Thayers made a full confession, confirming the presumptions made by the prosecution.   When asked why they did it Nelson explained that through small loans at high interest Love had obtained nearly all of their property. With the threat of debtors’ prison hanging over them they decided murder was the only solution. Nelson added:
“I thought I might as well run the risk of being hung as to lose my property and go to prison too”
The Eire Canal would soon make Buffalo a large industrial and shipping center, but in 1825 Buffalo was a frontier village with a population of just 2,000 people. Though Buffalo itself was small, the execution of the Thayer brothers in Niagara Square in the center of town drew a crowd of 20,000 – 30,000 witnesses. The Thayers were led into the square wearing white caps and shrouds, preceded by a cart carrying three coffins. As they walked, surrounded by soldiers,  a band played a slow and plaintive air. At 2:00 PM on June 17, 1825 Israel, Isaac, and Nelson Thayer were “launched into eternity” together, hanging from the same gallows.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
Books & Magazines:
Lawson, John Davison. American state trials;  a collection of the important and interesting criminal trials which have taken place in the United States from the beginning of our government to the present day.. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1914.

Severance, Frank H. Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society. Buffalo, N.Y.: Buffalo Historical Society, 1907.

Cutrona, Sue , and Amy  Vilz. "Hanging of the Thayer Brothers - 1825 Featured at Downtown Library." The Buffalo Downtoner May 2010: 5.

The Mournful and Pathetic Ballad on the Murder of John Love


Anonymous says:
January 25, 2012 at 2:53 PM


Anonymous says:
August 10, 2012 at 3:32 PM

42.679046,-78.786502 John Love's burial site.

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