Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Insanity Dodge.

Insanity was seldom a popular defense to murder -- while defense attorneys used terms like temporary insanity, transitory frenzy, and monomania, to the press and the public it was “the insanity dodge.” The first successful use in America of temporary insanity as murder defense was the trial of Dan Sickles for the 1859 murder of Phillip Barton Key. Sickles appeared perfectly sane at his trial but claimed that his wife’s infidelity had temporarily made him unable to tell right from wrong. 

Here are a few cases using the insanity dodge with varying degrees of success:

Dan Sickles's Temporary Insanity.
1859 - First successful use of the temporary insanity plea in America.
The Worst Woman on Earth.
Lizzie Halliday unsuccessfully pled insanity for the murder of her husband and two servants in 1893. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair but the governor commuted her sentence and sent her to an insane asylum. There she murdered her nurse.
Crazy John Daley.
John Daley, known as “Crazy John," pled insanity for the axe murder of his wife in 1883 and was easily acquitted. “Daley became a homicidal maniac through a frenzy of religious excitement.” Said the press.

Shot by a Jealous Husband.
When Daniel Monahan shot his wife for adultery in 1886, the public viewed the murder as justified. He was acquitted on the grounds of insanity and the verdict was well received.

Transitory Frenzy.
Charles Henry was obsessed with actress Effie Moore. She led him on for a few weeks, but when he learned she was already married he shot her. He pled not guilty by reason of “transitory frenzy”; to everyone’s surprise, the verdict was not guilty.
A Contract with the Devil.
Joseph E. Kelley murdered Joseph Stikney during an 1897 bank robbery. He pled guilty but during sentencing medical experts described him as “A high-grade imbecile” “about 8 or 9 years old, mentally and morally.” Their diagnoses saved him from the gallows but he was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Veiled Murderess!

Despite the judge’s admonitions, Henrietta Robinson covered her face with a black veil as she stood trial for murder. Everything about the defendant was a mystery—her motive for murder, her behavior before and after the crime, and even her true identity. It was well known that “Henrietta Robinson” was an assumed name, but who she really was has never been determined.

Read the full story here: The Veiled Murderess.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Michigan Double Murder.

A very anxious and excited man arrived at the jail in Ann Arbor, Michigan, around midnight, October 22, 1871. He told the jailer he was unwell and wanted to sleep in the jail that night. The jailor decided it was in everyone’s best interest to give him what he wanted. As he locked the cell door, the man burst out crying but would not say why. The following morning the jailor released him. 

The man, Henry Wagner, went to see his brother August and declared that he thought he had murdered his wife. “I don’t know what I have been doing,” he said, “I don’t know whether she will live or not.” They went to the police and gave Officer Leonard the key to Wagner’s house so he could check on the wife’s condition. 

Wagner’s wife, Henrietta, ran a fancy store with her partner Mary Miley. Henry, Henrietta, and Henrietta’s 3-year-old son Oscar lived in the back room of the store. What Officer Leonard saw when he opened the door to their room nearly froze his blood. Mrs. Wagner lay on her side in her nightdress; her head was a mass of pounded flesh and bone. Around her, spatters of blood and clots of bloody gore covered the walls and nightclothes. Nearby laid a bloody hatchet—she had been beaten with the blunt end. After several minutes, the officer heard a slight rustling in the bed. He pulled back the covers to find little Oscar covered with blood; his head had been smashed, but he was still alive. Leonard notified the coroner and arrested Henry Wagner. Oscar died a few hours later.

The Wagners had come to Ann Arbor from Germany about three years earlier. At the time, they were unmarried; Henrietta was the ex-wife of Henry’s older brother, Oscar’s father, who was still living in Germany. Henry and Henrietta married the previous July, but at times it was an unhappy marriage—they would have serious arguments, sometimes ending in violence. Despite the fighting, Henry declared he had always loved his wife very dearly. 

24-year-old Henry Wagner related what had occurred the night of the murder to a reporter who visited him in jail:

“For the past two or three days, we lived most happily; she never seemed to love me so much. Last night she went to bed, I don’t know what time. I said to her good night and went to the bed to kiss her when she spit in my face and kicked me, saying, go away, you are a crazy man, and I can’t live with a crazy man. I said to her, give me my money, and I will go. She said nothing to this. I then went and got the money and started to leave, when she jumped up and said, ‘I will cut you in pieces before you go with that money.’ That made me very angry, and I took the hatchet from the wood-box and went toward her, she jumped at me and called me a dog, and told me to leave the house. I kept brandishing the hatchet to frighten her. She and the child both cried fire and murder, and as she clutched me by the throat, I hit her accidentally. She fell right down and said, “Oh my,” and groaned. When I saw what I had done, that she was hurt so she could never get well, I thought I would put an end to her life and struck her several times. After this, I remember nothing. I seemed to see my wife before my eyes all the time. I don’t remember striking the boy at all. I remember putting out the light and locking the door. I went out in the street, but I could not go anywhere I did not see my wife just as I struck her, lying before my eyes. I came down to the jail, but I could not sleep or eat. I don’t know what I shall do.”

At the inquest the following day, August Wagner testified that the trouble between Henry and Henrietta was due to the child. Henrietta had been the prostitute of their older brother in Germany. They had several children together, and he called her his wife, but they were never married. He believed that Henry was Oscar’s father, but Henry did not acknowledge this.

Mary Miley testified that Henry was very jealous of Henrietta and the trouble between them began about two weeks after their wedding. Mary said he had willed Henrietta all his property, including money still in Germany. A written contract giving her all his money, some $3,000, was found in Henry’s pocket, torn in two.

The newspapers speculated correctly that Henry Wagner would try “the insanity dodge” at his trial the following March. Friends, coworkers, and clergymen testified that Henry always seemed excited and uneasy, speaking in a disconnected manner, frequently disparaging his wife’s character. August Wagner said that the family always considered him of unsound mind.

The defense had no professional witnesses to give medical testimony as to the state of Henry Wagner’s mind, but the prosecution did. Professor Palmer, a specialist in insanity, visited Wagner in jail several times and conversed with him. He testified that Wagner did not show any signs of insanity or anything to indicate homicidal impulse. Drs. Lewitt and Kapp also examined Wagner and agreed that he was perfectly sane.

The jury deliberated for two hours then found Henry Wagner guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in solitary confinement and hard labor.

“Ann Arbor,” Detroit Free Press, March 14, 1872.
“Conclusion of the Wagner Murder Case,” Detroit Free Press, March 16, 1872.
“The Double Murder At Ann Arbor,” Jackson Citizen Patriot, October 24, 1871.
“Minor Telegrams,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 24, 1871.
“Murder of a Wife and Child,” Illustrated Police News, December 21, 1871.
“A Startling Murder,” Vermont Union, November 3, 1871.
“The Trial of Henry Wagner,” Michigan Argus, March 22, 1872.
“The Trial of Wagner,” Michigan Argus, March 15, 1872.
“The Wagner Murder,” Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1872.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

“Thus She Passed Away.”

In 1872 George Wheeler met and married May Tillson in Boston. He made a home for May and her younger sister Della, first in New York, then in California. Along the way, George fell in love with young Della and when she planned to marry someone else he was faced with a dilemma: he could not marry her himself and he could not bear to see her wed to another. The solution he chose pleased no one.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

A Great Burly, Broad-Shouldered Bully.

Billy Wieners was the night watchman and bouncer for the saloon in the Theatre Comique in St. Louis. He was a large man—“a great burly, broad-shouldered bully,” said the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. In January 1877, he was under bond for attempting to kill his wife.

He was also quite fond of whiskey. He was drunk on the night of January 29 when he was working as a bouncer at the saloon. He overheard the assistant barkeeper, A.V. Lawrence, make disparaging remarks about Wieners’s wife to the Head Barkeeper. Wieners responded, drawing his revolver and threatening to kill Lawrence.

A.V. Lawrence, alias Lawrence Mack, was known as a quiet, inoffensive young man, a short man of slight build. He was no match for Billy Wieners. A bystander stepped in to separate them, and Wieners agreed to go home. But before Wieners left, the altercation renewed, and Wieners struck Lawrence in the face with his fist. Lawrence picked up a soda bottle to hurl at Wieners, but before he could throw it, Wieners drew two pistols and fired one, hitting Lawrence in the neck. He died almost instantly. 

Wieners was quickly arrested, and the following October, he was tried for first-degree murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang on December 14. As the judge pronounced the sentence, Wieners smiled pleasantly and seemed unconcerned, but later, he told reporters he would starve or kill himself before he would meet death on the scaffold. After five months of incarceration, Wieners had already lost 70 pounds.

Wieners received a stay of execution while his lawyer appealed the verdict before the Missouri Supreme Court. They alleged that the judge in Wieners’s trial did not instruct the jury regarding murder in the second degree. At issue was whether Wieners acted with premeditation and malice aforethought in killing Lawrence. Wieners’s attorney argued that he had acted in the heat of passion and should not be charged with first-degree murder. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict. They summed up their lengthy ruling by saying, “We have carefully examined the record to find evidence tending to mitigate the offense of which the defendant was guilty but have failed to discover a circumstance to indicate it was other than deliberate murder.”

The hanging was rescheduled for February 1878. As Billy Weiners awaited his punishment, his sister Annie worked to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. She circulated a petition and met personally with Governor Phelps. While support for commutation was growing, the Governor would not commit himself.

Billy Wieners was hanged at 8:30 AM on February 1, 1878, in the jail yard in St. Louis in front of a small group of spectators, mostly reporters and attorneys. Wieners made a brief speech in which he admitted to killing Lawrence, but not in cold blood. He said he was crazed with liquor, and he warned all men against whiskey and bad associations.

“Brutal Murder at St. Louis,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, January 30, 1877.
“Deliberate Murder,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 30, 1877.
“Execution of Wieners at St. Louis,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 2, 1878.
“Jottings By Telegraph,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 14, 1878.
“Missouri,” Rock Island Argus, February 1, 1878.
“Murder,” Illustrated Police News, February 17, 1877.
“Murderer Sentenced,” Arkansas Gazette, October 31, 1877.
“News Of the Day,” Alexandria Gazette, January 30, 1877.
“A Second Stay,” Chicago Daily News, December 15, 1877.
“Sentence of Death,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 31, 1877.
“Telegraphic Notes,” Milan Exchange, February 8, 1877.
“Wieners Must Hang,” State journal, January 18, 1878.