Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Charcoal Pit Tragedy.

Little Murders
North Madison, Connecticut, was rural and sparsely populated in the 1880s. The land was rough and rocky and the soil hard to cultivate; charcoal manufacturing was the chief occupation of people living there. Among those eking out a living, farming and making charcoal in North Madison, was the Johnson family. The parents long dead, two brothers and two sisters lived together in a long low white house about a mile from the turnpike.  Though all were verging on, or well past, forty years of age none had ever married. The sisters kept house, while the older brother, Edgar worked the farm, and the younger brother Eldridge tended a charcoal pit, down the hill about 40 rods from the house. 

Charcoal pits require frequent monitoring, and Eldridge Johnson would often spend the night in a small shack built next to the pit. The night of December 2, Eldridge left the house at 10:00 bound for the pit, but when he did not return for breakfast the next morning the family became concerned. Edgar went down to the pit and found his brother stretched out on the smoldering, sod-covered heap of charcoal. His skull had been fractured, his body was bruised and his lower limbs badly burned. The ground around the pit showed signs of a struggle. Eldridge’s axe and lantern were missing along with $41 he was known to have had in his pocket.

The local justice of the peace began an investigation, and two days later the Coroner Bollman and Deputy Sheriff Hull arrived at the scene. No jury was convened or formal testimony taken, but the men listed to all of the local gossip. Suspicion first turned to a neighbor of the Johnsons’ a charcoal burner named William Downings. “He is considered a scapegrace,” said the New Haven Register, “because of his drinking habits, his craving for money, his indolence and his general worthlessness to himself, his family or to the community.” A search of Downing’s house turned up no bloody clothing and no trace of the missing articles. 

Popular suspicion pointed to a different suspect. Twenty-seven year old John Whipper had lived at the Johnson house for six years, helping at the farm and the charcoal pit. It was well known that the whole Johnson family had a certain dread of Whipper. The previous spring, Alice Johnson, the younger of the two sisters was assaulted by a man in disguise who attempted to rape her. Whipper was believed to be the guilty party, but Alice would not file a complaint. It turned out that she and Whipper were romantically involved and hoped to be married. The brothers strongly disapproved, and after a number of recent quarrels John Whipper was dismissed and sent from the house.

Whipper owned no property, but had set up a charcoal pit on someone else’s land and he went to live in the shack near his pit. As Whipper began to look like the guilty man, a number of people came forward claiming that Whipper had threatened to kill Eldridge Johnson. Meanwhile, Coroner Bollman hired a Pinkerton detective from New York, and a more thorough search of Downings house uncovered some bloodstained clothing and a five dollar bill with a spot of blood was traced to Downings. These were sent to a chemist to determine whether or not the blood was human. The prevailing theory was that John Whipper had killed Eldridge Johnson with the help of William Downings.

But the evidence was all circumstantial and no arrests were made. As the winter dragged on, it seemed that the unsolved murder of Eldridge Johnson would join those of Mary Stannard, Jennie Cramer, and Rose Ambler, as examples of Connecticut’s inadequate police system.

When the weather cleared, the residents of North Madison began their own investigation. Whipper had sold his charcoal pit and moved to the neighboring town of Guilford. In June an amateur investigator found Eldridge Johnson’s long-missing lantern, near the spot where Whipper claimed he slept the night of the murder. This find motivated the sheriff to intensify his investigation. A mill pond across from Whipper’s shack was drained until the bottom lay bare, and there he found Johnson’s missing axe. John Whipper was arrested on the fourth of July and indicted for the murder of Eldridge Johnson.

The trial of John Whipper began on February 3, 1885, and although the courthouse was filled to capacity, what the spectators saw was far from engrossing. Beyond the description of the body, and the discoveries of the lantern and axe, testimony consisted of anecdotal evidence of at least forty North Madison residents relating circumstances tending to incriminate Whipper. The defense attorney tried to liven things up, now and then, by asking them questions about fishing trips and euchre games, but in the words of the New Haven Register, “Never did a murder trial drag along so drearily and uninterestingly as this.”  

In the end, the testimony was not enough for the jury and John Whipper was acquitted. As predicted, the murder of Eldridge Johnson joined the list of unsolved Connecticut homicides.

"A Mystery in Madison Eldridge Johnson's Death." New Haven Register 4 Dec 1883.
"A Sheriff's Discovery." New Haven Register 5 Jul 1884.
"A Verdict of Not Guilty Rendered." Patriot 13 Feb 1885.
"Detectives and Criminal Law." New Haven Register 14 Dec 1883.
"Have Two Murder Cases." New Haven Register 8 Oct 1884.
"Indicted as Murderers." New Haven Register 14 Oct 1884.
"Mr.  Bollmann's $5 Bill." New Haven Register 8 Dec 1883.
"North Madison Alive." New Haven Register 21 Jan 1884.
"The Charcoal Pit Tragedy." National Police Gazette 22 Dec 1883.
"The Coal-Pit Tragedy." Wheeling Register 3 Jan 1884.
"The Jurymen Wake up." New Haven Register 6 Feb 1885.
"The State of Mysteries." Boston Herald 8 Dec 1883.
"Whipper is Made Happy." New Haven Register 10 Feb 1885.


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