Friday, January 18, 2019

The Murdered Coachman.

As the family of Joseph Blair of Montclair, New Jersey, dined on June 26, 1879, their houseguest, Miss Rebeca Draper, remarked that she had seen two men in the Blairs’ wagon the previous day. The men went into a saloon and when they came out, they drove away furiously, the driver whipping the horses at least a dozen times.  Joseph was not happy to hear this and after dinner decided to go out to the stable and have a talk with his coachman, John Armstrong.

What happened next was seen or heard by several witnesses and there were some discrepancies in their stories, but all agreed that Blair and Armstrong had an argument in the stable which grew increasingly belligerent with John Armstrong using language unprintable by the newspapers. This is Joseph Blair’s version of what was said in the stable:
“I went about half way down the passage, in the rear of the barn and said, ‘John, what way did you come home last night?’ John replied, ‘I came by the road.’
“‘By what road, John?’
“‘It’s none of your damned business so that I got here,’ he replied.
“‘The reason why I ask you is that the wagon was seen, last evening in front of a beer saloon and I don’t wish my wagon to be seen standing at a saloon.’
“‘God damn the ______, can’t a man have a drink if he wants to without the _____spying after him?’
“He then swore that Montclair was the God damnedest place he had ever been in; John then said, ‘Pay me my money and let me go;’ I said, ‘I will pay you if you will go away at once;’ he replied he would go as soon as he got ready, and no God damned ____ like me could make him go.’” 
“About this time my wife came to the stable door. She said, ‘Oh! John don’t swear so!’
“John said, ‘You damned slut, if you were a lady you would not be here.’ I told John he must not swear that way in the presence of my wife, and John swore that if I came into the stable, he would blow my brains out.”
Blair returned to the house and the cook, Ophelia Dyer, said to him, “Oh, Mr. Blair, don’t get out of patience with that man.”

“Ophelia, shut your jaw,” he replied, “I’m running this business. When a man tells me he will shoot, I can be the first to shoot.”

He went back into the stable with a revolver in his pocket and demanded that Armstrong return his keys. After some more words, Armstrong went up the stairs that led to his room above the stable and Blair followed him. The two were alone together and a few minutes later two gunshots were heard from the upstairs room. Blair came downstairs and said he had shot Armstrong. “As sure as there is a Heaven above,” he said, “if I had not shot that man, he would have shot me.” Armstrong died in the hospital a few hours later.

An inquest was held on July 2, and after hearing the witnesses’ testimony the coroner’s jury was torn between justifiable homicide and manslaughter. In the end, they charged Joseph Blair with manslaughter.

The light charge did not sit well with John Armstrong’s peers who felt that Blair should have been charged with first-degree murder. A few days later, placards were posted around Essex County, New Jersey:
Workingmen, rally!
Workingmen’s meeting, corner of Fourth street and Harrison avenue, East Newark, on Tuesday evening, July 22, at eight o’clock. Enter your protest against the murder of John Armstrong! Raise your voice in the interest of justice! Down with the arrogant scoundrels who shoot the workingman down. Eminent speakers will address the meeting.
The New York Herald called the rally, “One of the most ridiculous meetings ever held in New Jersey…arranged wholly by communists and greenback demagogues,” but at least 2,000 workingmen attended. The men expressed their anger with calls of “lynch him” and “string him up” but the goal of the meeting was to raise funds to hire an attorney to represent their interests and assist the prosecution of Joseph Blair.

John P. Stockton.
It does not appear that the attorney was ever hired, but the movement may have had an impact on the prosecution of Blair. When the case went to trial in October, the charge had been raised to first-degree murder and the prosecution team was led by New Jersey Attorney General, John P. Stockton.

There was no question that Joseph Blair shot John Armstrong, at issue would be what actually took place in the upstairs room and whether Blair went to the stable armed, intending to kill Armstrong. Blair claimed he did not fire until he saw Armstrong reaching for a pistol that was on the shelf. He fired the second shot at close range as he was trying to wrest the pistol from Armstrong’s hand. The prosecution said that if this were the case, there would be powder burns on Armstrong’s clothing and body which were not found by the coroner. Peter Edward Rosselot, the gardener, testified that Blair came downstairs holding both revolvers, but other testimony implied that Blair went back up later to retrieve the second gun.

The most damning testimony against Blair came from Ophelia Dyer who stated that Blair told her he intended to shoot first. Her testimony lost credibility when it came out in court that she and her father had visited Hall Blair, Joseph’s brother, and proposed that for $500 she would leave the country and not testify. Hall Blair had refused the proposition but told the story on the witness stand.

Joseph Blair’s trial lasted seventeen days with three days of impassioned closing arguments for and against conviction his conviction of first-degree murder. But those who had wished to see Blair punished for the murder should probably have stuck to the charge of manslaughter. Blair was found not guilty and would pay no penalty for killing John Armstrong.

“[Coachman; Mr. Blair; Mr. Joseph; Armstrong; Heaven],” New York Tribune, June 30, 1879.
“The Blair Trial,” National Police Gazette, October 25, 1879.
“Denouncing Joseph A Blair,” New York Tribune, July 23, 1879.
“For Killing His Coachman.,” New York Herald, October 9, 1879.
“Indictment of Blair,” Jersey Journal, September 13, 1879.
“Inquest Trial,” Cleveland Leader, July 4, 1879.
“Investigating a Tragedy,” Sun and New York press, July 3, 1879.
“Jersey Demagogues,” New York Herald, July 23, 1879.
“The Montclair Homicide,” New York Herald, July 20, 1879.
“The Montclair Tragedy.,” New York Herald, October 7, 1879.
“The Montclair Tragedy,” New York Tribune, October 17, 1879.
“The Murdered Coachman,” New York Herald, October 14, 1879.
“An Unwise Demonstration,” New York Herald, July 21, 1879.
“Verdict Of Manslaughter,” New York Tribune, July 4, 1879.


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