Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Boss Butcher.

On December 11, 1879, neighbors searching the Harelson farm in Kerney, Nebraska, found the bodies of Mrs. Harelson and her three children inside a haystack. There was little question as to the murderer's identity. Stephen D. Richards, who had been living with the Harelsons for the previous two weeks, told them that Mrs. Harelson and the children had gone to join her husband, a fugitive from justice. The neighbors were searching because they did not believe him.

By the time the bodies were found, Richards had sold the farm and fled the state. Sheriff S.L. Martin of Hastings, Nebraska, obtained some letters Richards had written to a woman there saying that he planned to meet her in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. Richards took a circuitous route, and Martin tracked him to Omaha, Chicago, and other points. Martin nearly captured him in Chicago, but the press got wind of his arrival and published it in the newspaper, alerting Richards. He finally captured Richards as he was walking across a field in Mt. Pleasant in the company of two young women.

After his arrest, Richards confessed to murdering the Harelsons. He continued talking, and by his second day in jail, Richards, whom the Illustrated Police News dubbed “The Boss Butcher,” confessed to a total of nine murders. The Chicago Daily Tribune published his official confession:

I was born in Mt. Pleasant, Jefferson County, Ohio, and am a Quaker by birth and religion. I lived there with nothing eventful happening to me until three years ago when a desire to roam about took possession of me. I went West and have lived in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, and Nebraska. 

The first murder I committed was in Buffalo County, in the latter State, where I shot a man with whom I engaged in a quarrel. I afterward murdered another man in his own house, because he cursed me, beating his brains out with a hammer. I then went to Kearney. At that place there lived a Swede, a bachelor, on a farm by himself. He had plenty of money, and I went to live with him, and soon after which I poisoned him, but, as he did not die quick enough to suit me, I one night knocked his brains out with a club and took all his money.

This Mrs. Harelson, whom I murdered along with her three children, had a dissolute husband, and a short time ago, he went away and left her. I conceived the idea of murdering her and her children and then selling off everything she had and pocketing the proceeds. For this purpose, I told neighbors I was going to take Mrs. Harelson and her children to a neighboring town and for them to come over the next day and feed the stock. That night, I murdered them, hid their bodies under a haystack, and went away myself.

After two or three days, I returned and gave out that Mrs. Harelson had gone to join her husband and that I had bought everything she had. I accordingly sold out everything and, as I saw that I was suspected, left the place and came on Mt. Pleasant. It was on the 8th of December that I committed the murders.

Richards broke Mrs. Harelson’s jaw and smashed the back of her head with a smoothing iron. He dispatched the two oldest children the same way, then dashed the infant’s head against the floor.

Sheriffs Martin and Anderson of Kearney and Buffalo counties took him to Nebraska on December 24. They anticipated lynch mobs both in Ohio and Nebraska. As they waited for the train, Richards, in iron shackles and handcuffs, was heavily guarded. 

On the train, Richards maintained an attitude of cool indifference. When asked if he feared lynching, he said he would as soon die one way as another. He held his life of no account, and regarding those he killed, he said, “I placed others at about the same importance as hogs.”

As the train approached Kearney, the sheriffs heard that a large crowd had gathered at the depot. They feared a lynch mob but were also concerned about Richards's boast that the “secret society” he belonged to would be there to free him and take revenge on the lawmen.

They got off the train two miles east of Kearney and secured him in a wagon. Sheriff Anderson went to Kearney and addressed the crowd. He said that Sheriff Martin had taken him to Grand Island, and he would not be in Kearney until the following day. Martin had not taken him to Grand Island. After the crowd dispersed, he secretly took Richards to the Kearney jail.

The court issued three indictments against Richards for the murder of six people. He was tried on January 15, 1879, for the first-degree murder of Peter Anderson, the Swede he killed prior to the Harelsons. His plea was not guilty; he claimed he had killed Anderson in self-defense. The trial lasted two days, and after two hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty. The judge immediately sentenced him to hang on April 26.

As execution day approached, Richards lost his cool attitude. The Reading Daily Eagle reported, “Lately, he has cried like a child and cannot sleep or eat, being so thoroughly unmanned through fear that it is thought he will have to be carried to the gallows.”

The hanging was to be held privately inside a high enclosure, but a mob quickly tore down the fence, and at least 2,500 people witnessed the execution. Richards regained his composure on the gallows and made a short address saying his soul was going to God and his body to the undertaker. Then, after a prayer by his spiritual advisor, he asked the crowd to join him in singing, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” 

The trap was sprung, and fifteen minutes later, Stephen D. Richards was dead.

“An Outlaw,” New Haven Evening Register, December 24, 1878.
“The Boss Murderer,” Illustrated Police News, January 4, 1879.
“By Mail and Telegraph,” READING DAILY EAGLE, December 23, 1878.
“Convicted and Sentenced for Murder,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 17, 1879.
“A Cowardly Wretch,” READING DAILY EAGLE., April 26, 1879.
“Criminal News,” Chicago Daily Tribune., December 24, 1878.
“The Death Penalty,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, April 28, 1879.
“A Desperado in Jail,” New York Herald., December 29, 1878.
“He Killed Children as He Would Rabbits,” New York Herald, January 7, 1879.
“The Nebraska Fiend,” Chicago Daily News, April 25, 1879.
“News Article,” Cincinnati Daily Star., December 23, 1878.
“Richards, The Murderer,” Canton Daily Repository., December 27, 1878.
“Richards, the Wholesale Murderer, Streteched Hemp Yesterday,” Cheyenne daily leader. [volume], April 27, 1879.


Howard Brown says:
May 21, 2024 at 11:37 AM

Another of the virtually unknown mass murders in the Gaslight Era. You can bet your bottom dollar it would be fairly well-known today had it taken place on the East Coast. Nice find, Bob.

Robert Wilhelm says:
May 23, 2024 at 3:54 PM

It's hard to say. If there is a hanging, the crime is quickly forgotten. If there is an acquittal it lives much longer.

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