Saturday, January 3, 2015

"She Died in Defense of Her Honor."

Tillie Smith
When the strangled body of Tillie Smith was found on the grounds of Centenary Collegiate Institute, where she worked as a domestic servant, the police of Hackettstown, New Jersey, began an extensive secret investigation. The absence of official information drove the press and public to create their own narrative of Tillie’s death. “She died in defense of her honor,” was public belief, and a monument was erected with this statement carved in stone. The press spun a web of circumstantial evidence around James Titus, janitor of the Institute, as the man who raped and murdered Tillie Smith. The public story soon became the official story, but there is a good possibility that none of it was true.

Date:  April 8, 1886

Location:   Hackettstown, New Jersey

Victim:  Matilda “Tillie” Smith

Cause of Death:  Strangulation

Accused:  James J. Titus


Mr. J.G. White was walking through a field near the Centenary Collegiate Institute, run by the Methodist Episcopal Church, in Hackettstown, New Jersey, on April 9, 1886, when his dog discovered the body of a young woman lying on her back, legs crossed, with one arm by her side and the other outstretched. Bruises in the shape of a man’s hands could be seen on her throat, and a bruise on her forehead indicated that she had been struck by a weapon or a stone. The condition of her clothing suggested that there had been a struggle, but the ground around the body had not been disturbed. The clothing was covered with dust and it appeared that the girl had been assaulted and murdered in a barn or a shed, then dragged or carried to the field. White immediately recognized the dead woman as Tillie Smith, a servant employed by the Institute.

James J. Titus
Matilda Smith—better known as Tillie—had been living and working at the Institute for only a few months, and was still adjusting to their rules. The Institute had a strict 10 pm curfew for the female servants; no one would be allowed admittance after curfew without written permission from the matron. The night of April 8, Tillie had plans to see a show with some friends—The Fitzpatrick Merry-Makers at Shield’s Hall—and was unlikely to return before curfew. She had no intention of asking permission from the matron, since she had been refused the last time she asked. Instead she asked James Titus, the janitor, if he would help her return through the basement after curfew. Twenty-nine-year-old James Titus had worked at the Institute for eleven years and knew the regulations well; he told her to ask the matron.  Tillie said she would rather stay out all night than ask the matron’s permission. Titus later said he believed she was joking and thought no more about it.
Tillie went out that night and met her friends, Mary and Agnes Wright, and Annie Van Syckle. At the show, the girls made the acquaintance of two out-of-town salesmen—Harry Harring, who sold fancy handkerchiefs and Charles Munnich, a shoe salesman. After the show, the Wright sisters went home leaving Annie and Tillie with the two salesmen. Also on the street near the theatre, were Frank Weedy and Jesse Baggot. Weedy was a former boyfriend of Tillie’s and she stopped to talk with him briefly, before walking away accompanied by Charles Munnich.
By the time they reached the Institute it was ten minutes after ten o’clock and Tillie commented that it was after curfew and she would have to enter the Institute through the laundry room. Munnich offered to pay for a room if she would accompany him to the American House. Tillie declined the offer and walked alone toward the Institute. It was the last time she was seen alive.
Dr. J.S. Cook, who performed the post-mortem examination, found that Tillie had died of strangulation and that she, “…had been outraged by more than one person while she was in her death struggle.” From the dust on the clothing, it was believed that the assault took place in Stewart’s barn not far from where the body was found. There were no drag marks, and it was first thought that two men had carried her to the spot where the body was found. Harring and Munnich were the obvious suspects and they were arrested and held for several days.  However both men were seen drinking in the taproom of the American Hotel at eleven o’clock and would not have had time to commit the murder.
Authorities were under pressure from the people of Hackettstown, demanding justice for Tillie Smith, and from New York City newspapers who criticized the ineffective investigation. The town offered a reward of $1,000 for information on the murder and they hired Pinkerton detectives who continued the investigation in utmost secrecy.
With no hard news to report, the newspapers undertook campaigns and investigations of their own. Tillie’s family could not afford a funeral and Tillie was buried by the county in their Potter’s Field. The New York World decried the shameful fact that Tillie had been buried in a pauper’s grave and began soliciting contributions for a memorial, “a monument to virtue,” to commemorate Tillie’s Smith’s death in defense of her honor. The New York press also began to focus on James Titus, the janitor who had seen Tillie before she went out. They insinuated that Titus may have had an unsavory background and that the dust on Tillie’s clothing could have easily come from the basement where Titus tended the furnace.
The detectives came to the same conclusion, aided by information from Peter Mead, a seminary student at the Institution who worked part time as a janitor there. He worked with Titus and allegedly the two were friends, though the men were of very different character. Titus was a quiet man with very few friends outside of his family and Mead was pompous and self-righteous, referring to himself as Reverend, though still only a student. Mead claimed he had been with Titus in the basement the night of April 8, and that Titus had made some lewd remarks about Tillie Smith. According to Mead, Titus had said that Tillie Smith was “the kind of girl one could have a racket with if he wanted.” Mead was going to go back and study but Titus told him to wait because “Tillie Smith is coming in late, she will be alone, and then we can pump her.”
James Titus was arrested at his home on April 29, and charged with rape and murder. He had expected the arrest and his cousin, attorney George Titus was with him at the time.

Trial: September 28, 1886
For the trial, James Titus replaced his cousin with the more experienced J.G. Shipman who immediately challenged the indictment on technical ground. The challenge was overruled.

The case against Titus was entirely circumstantial. The prosecution called sixty witnesses to testify on every aspect of the case but only the testimony of the fifty-first witness, Peter Mead, was really damning. He told of the conversation in the basement the night of the murder and he had taken copious notes of Titus’s movements and conversations after the body had been discovered. In his cross-examination, Shipman tried throw him off by painting Mead as a Judas, who feigned friendship with Titus while betraying him to the detectives in hope of gaining the reward. But Mead did not break.
Titus Collapses
The defense contended that Titus had been in ill-health the night of April 8, and would not have been capable of committing murder or carrying the body outside. They brought testimony to prove that Tillie Smith was not as pure as she was made out to be. Four doctors testified that she had not been a virgin prior to the murder. Several young men testified to seeing Tillie inside a well-known Hackettstown brothel; one claimed he had shared a bed with her.
James Titus had been sick and mentally distressed throughout his trial. At one point he collapsed and had to be carried out of the courtroom. He chose not to testify, and this was viewed to be incriminating.
In the end, the jury could not get past the testimony of Peter Mead and found James Titus guilty of first-degree murder.

Verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder

The case was appealed, but the verdict held, and James Titus was brought to court for sentencing on January 24, 1887. Before reading the sentence, the court asked if Titus had anything to say. He said that he regretted being unfit, both mentally and physically, to testify in his own behalf.
“They tried me in absence,” He said, “and falsely convicted me of a crime of which I declare here and now, in the presence of this court and my countrymen who hear me that I am not guilty.

And I most humbly ask the court to spare my feelings by sentencing me in as few words as possible, as nothing the court can say about the crime of which I am convicted can apply to me, as I solemnly repeat I am not guilty of it.”
The judge, of course, did not spare his feelings with brevity, but rehashed the crime and implored Titus to confess. He had no hope of escaping the gallows, but with penitence he may be forgiven by that “All Merciful Judge.” Then he sentenced James Titus to hang on April 14, 1887.

In the time between the sentencing and the scheduled hanging petitions were circulated to have Titus’s sentenced commuted to life in prison, citing his ill-health at the time of the trial and the circumstantial nature of the case. The petitions were signed by a number of prominent citizens of Hackettstown, including eleven members of the jury that convicted Titus.
The commutation was granted, but it was not due to the petition. Titus issued an affidavit confessing to the murder. He admitted to being “unduly intimate” with Tillie Smith from the time she entered the Institute. The night of the murder he let her in at about 10:30 and they had consensual sex in the basement. Afterwards she told him she thought she was pregnant and if so she threatened to expose him as the father. They argued, and in anger he strangled her, killing Tillie without meaning to.
The confession landed a bombshell in Hackettstown. Money was still being raised for the Tillie Smith memorial, but if the confession were true and the sex consensual, it was hard to maintain that she was defending her honor. Many who had signed petitions calling for a pardon due to the circumstantial nature of the conviction, and now found themselves in the awkward position of defending a confessed murderer, changed their positions and called for Titus’s execution. The sentiment on the street was for the state to release Titus and let the people handle his hanging.
It is quite possible that Titus was innocent of the murder, and falsely confessed as a last resort to save his life. In his book, In Defense of Her Honor: The Tillie Smith Murder Case, Denis Sullivan expresses a number of reasons to doubt both the allegations of the prosecution against James Titus and the sincerity of Titus’s confession:
  • When the body was found, the morning of April 9, the coroner and two doctors declared that Tillie had died six or seven hours earlier, certainly not before midnight. Her death certificate reads April 9. Due to the known movements of Tillie Smith and James Titus, the prosecution absolutely fixed the time of death as between 10:15 and 10:30 the night before.
  • For reasons of privacy and proximity to the body, Stewart’s barn was first believed to be the murder site. Instead the prosecution claimed that the murder occurred in the Institute’s basement and that Titus carried a body heavier than his own, 400 yards through the Institute grounds where he could have been seen by anyone looking out the window.
  • While there was evidence of sexual intercourse, the doctors found no indication that it was forced, or that Tillie had been a virgin prior to that night. The allegation of rape was central to the prosecution’s case.
  • The amount of semen found in the body, the evidence of struggle, and opinions regarding Tillie’s strength had first led the doctors and detectives to believe the murder had been committed by two men.
  • Tillie’s ex-boyfriend Frank Weedy and his friend Jesse Baggot crossed paths with Tillie that night but were never considered as suspects.
  • Peter Mead was apparently the only person Titus had regular conversations with. The night of the murder they conversed for 20 minutes and Mead recalled nothing but the lewd comments Titus made about Tillie. Without context it is impossible to tell if the comments were serious or just inappropriate jokes.
  • Mead began taking notes on Titus’s conversations and movements after the reward was announced. Though he claimed he was not motivated by the reward, he formally applied for it after Titus’s conviction.
  • The prosecution claimed to have reports of “bad conduct” by Titus toward other female members of the staff, but they brought no evidence that Titus had been anything but the upstanding, family man he appeared to be.
  • James Titus adamantly professed innocence up to the day of his confession. After the confession that saved his life was issued, Titus never again spoke publically about the murder.

Tillie Smith's Monument
Had James Titus made his confession before the trial he would have been charged with second degree murder and received a twenty year sentenced rather than life. As it happened, Titus served just short of nineteen years before being paroled in 1904. Passions had since died down and he went back to Hackettstown and lived quietly with his daughter.

Tillie Smith’s monument was unveiled in November 1887, before a crowd of 600. It stands over Tillie’s grave in Hackettstown’s Union Commentary, and boldly proclaims that “She Died in Defense of her Honor.”

"Hackettstown Excited." New York Herald 4 May 1886.
"Is He Weakening." The National Police Gazette 16 Oct 1886.
"James Titus Paroled by Pardon Board.." Philadelphia Inquirer 28 Dec 1904.
"The Janitor Arrested." Trenton Evening Times 29 Apr 1886.
"Janitor Titus Convicted.." Trenton Evening Times 16 Oct 1886.
"Janitor Titus Grows Haggard." New York Herald 26 Apr 1886.
"Janitor Titus' Trial." Trenton Evening Times 29 Sep 1886.
"Murder Of A Young Girl." Trenton Evening Times 10 Apr 1886.
"Not A Friend Left.." Trenton Evening Times 25 Mar 1887.
"Testimony Of Student Mead." New York Tribune 7 Oct 1886.
"Titus Not to Hang." Philadelphia Inquirer 23 Mar 1887.
Sullivan, Denis. In Defense of Her Honor. Flemington: D. H. Moreau Books, 2000.
Find A Grave: Tillie Smith.


Unknown says:
January 15, 2016 at 6:10 PM

Wouldn't the autopsy have determined if she was pregnant?

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