Saturday, March 9, 2013

"Murdered by a Maniac”
Guest Post by James Schmidt

I am pleased to welcome guest blogger, James M. Schmidt to Murder by Gaslight. James writes about the American Civil War is the author of several books, including Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom. An article of his was recently published in The New York Times for their “Disunion” series on the Civil War. James also blogs about the Civil War from a medical point of view at Civil War Medicine (and Writing).

Today James will be taking a break from the battlefield, but not from violence, as he relates a fascinating tale of murder in Connecticut from the 1850s:


Murdered by a Maniac

by James M. Schmidt
The epitaph on a headstone in Sperry Cemetery in Bethany, Connecticut, bears witness to a horrible crime committed on New Year’s Day 1856:

In Memory of
Ichabod Umberfield
who was murdered by a maniac
Jan’y 1, 1856

The grim prose is actually only a hint of a week’s worth of violence and madness that began on Christmas Eve 1855 and took three innocent lives.  It offers a trail of treasure in primary material and engaging stories for anyone who takes the time to investigate the tale.  It also crosses multiple subjects of interest to people who enjoy studying the 1800s: cults, Spiritualism, mental illness, journalism, court proceedings, incarceration, class distinctions, and much more.

Mr. Umberfield was murdered by Charles Sanford, who had also killed another man, Enoch Sperry, earlier that day.  News of the grisly killings was reported throughout the area and then across the country.  Typical was this notice in the Hartford Daily Courant on January 3, 1856:

Terrible Affair with a Maniac
Two Men Murdered!

The father of Hon. N. D. Sperry, Secretary of State, and a farmer, named Ichabod Umberfield, were cruelly and savagely killed by a lunatic named Charles Sanford, in the town of Woodbridge, on Tuesday… He seems to have accidently encountered Mr. Sperry, in his sleigh, about a half mile from the main road, on what is called the Shunpike, about 11 o'clock A. M.; to have made an assault on Mr. Sperry; dragged him from his sleigh … Mr. Sperry was struck first on the right temple with the head of the axe; then another blow just above the right ear, both of which produced fractures of the skull. He was then struck with the edge of the axe on the neck, the blow entering just under the chin, which it wounded and nearly severed his head from his body.

Sanford was apparently driven mad by the murder of a relative a week earlier, and that is an even more interesting story!

Sanford’s uncle, Justus Matthews, was a member of a small sect in New Haven, Connecticut, known as the “Wakemanites,” named after the leader, Mrs. Rhoda Wakeman.  As one newspaper report declared, the “Widow” Wakeman – then 70 years old – “pretends to be a Prophetess, possessed of miraculous powers, capable of raising the dead, and having been sent from Heaven as a ‘Messenger’ to the wicked in the world.”  A small band of disciples came to her house each Sunday to attend her meetings to “hear her peculiar stories, her views about the Bible and her experience in the spiritual world.”

[Mrs. Wakeman claimed to have been murdered by her husband some thirty years before, after which she was transported to Heaven, received directions to “preach the gospel…raise the dead [and] heal the sick,” and was then escorted back by angels to begin her mission.]

Mrs. Wakeman had been complaining that one of her followers – the doomed Justus Matthews – was bewitching her and that the the evil spirit must be expelled.  The “incantations of the whole party had been supplied for its removal at various times, and in various ways,” but to no avail.  On that fateful Christmas Eve, the widow declared that if Matthews was not killed, she would die, and “the world would be destroyed.”  If the witnesses are to be believed, even the hapless victim, local farmer Justus Matthews, “expressed a willingness to die if the evil spirit could not otherwise be driven from him, and the precious health and life of the ‘Messenger’ be secured.”

To that end, two of her followers – Samuel Sly and Thankful Hersey (a woman) – proceeded to beat the devil out of Matthews; literally. Sly admitted that while Hersey held the “possessed” man down, he “struck Mr. Matthews on the right temple with this stick [a branch of witch hazel]; he fell down and did not say a word; I struck him several times after he was down; I did this for fear he would cast his evil spirit on [the widow Wakeman]; I held up his head and cut his throat several times, and stabbed the fork into his breast several times.”

The murders were reported to the authorities quickly.  The entire band of followers was arrested.  In a trial held in April 1856, the defendants - Wakeman, Hersey, and Sly - were all found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Sanford was “was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, but a fatal attack of small-pox cheated the gallows.”

Apart from the grisly killings and bizarre backstory of the sect, which are interesting enough, this story has several other interesting angles.

In terms of research, it was the first time I had actually found (with the help of archivists at the Connecticut State Library) and read handwritten court documents in my historical research, and I found them fascinating.  The grand jury indictments carry a lot of legalese (advice: don’t start a drinking game over the word “aforesaid”…you’ll be smashed in just minutes) but also grim details of the murders, and one wonders how the good citizens absorbed the testimony.

The Wakemanite murder story was carried in newspapers across the land.  Indeed, such was the interest in the case that Horace Greeley’s famous New York Tribune detailed a reporter to the New Haven jail, and some of the most interesting information comes from these interviews published over the course of a month in the Tribune, and copied in other papers.  This is all the more interesting, since the trials didn’t occur until April 1856.  In one particularly creepy exchange, Mrs. Wakeman informed the reporter that he, too, was in danger of being possessed!

Finally, it’s interesting that Charles Sanford – who had an actual history of mental illness and being committed to institutions – received a death sentence.  One family historian has suggested that the reason might be that, “Charles [Sanford] had the misfortune to kill in Enoch Sperry an elderly man who was both well respected and the father of a politically powerful man.”


New York Daily Tribune – various – including issues from December 1855 – January 1856

New York Times – various – including issues from April 1856 and May 1879

Earl Wesley Fornell, The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).

Barbara J. Mathews, “Welles Descendant Was First Victim of The Maniacal Ax Murderer of Woodbridge, New Year's Day, 1856,” Wellesprings, April 2004.

Kathleen Schurman, “Sperry Cemetery: A Murder by a Madman Rocks Bethany and Woodbridge,” October 30, 2011, Bethwood Patch, [accessed 05 March 2013]

Connecticut State Library, Wakemanite Grand Jury Indictments


Unknown says:
March 27, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Great history and murder mystery and weird psychological court happenings. All the makings of a super story.

You cannot make up stuff like this.

Thanks for sharing.

Donna D.
Reno, NV

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