This is a chapter we would gladly omit, but we should not be deemed a faithful historian if we did not write it.” William Little, The History of Warren, New Hampshire, 1870
I am using Little’s introduction to his chapter “A Brief Account of Two Murders” for each of the three columns on local untimely death prior to the 1920s. Part one of this series was published last month and is posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. As with those in the earlier column, most of the following cases involve proven criminal actions.
The information for the series is taken from local histories, online sources and newspaper archives.
When compared to modern day, the era covered by these articles had relatively few murders. While New Hampshire and Vermont are currently considered two of the safest states, they reported 21 and 10 murders respectively in 2018. New Hampshire’s Attorney General’s Office receives reports on 40-80 deaths annually. Many of these are eventually ruled accidents or suicides. Over the past decade the number of homicides in New Hampshire has ranged from 15 to 32.
Alcohol plays a role in violent crime. In Nov 1859, The Caledonian reported the murder of Mrs. Frank Wright of Woodsville. The family had moved from Bradford the previous summer and 30-year old Frank Wright worked as a shoemaker.
On Nov 25, Wright, after drinking rum, attacked his family in the home with a butcher knife. His sister Mrs. George Campbell was cut on the back. She fled seeking help. Wright then turned on his pregnant wife, stabbing her through the heart. Wright was arrested and held in the Haverhill jail.
The newspaper reported that “He acknowledged both the deed and the intent of committing it.” He claimed he was either “drunk or crazy.” It went on to say that folks were not surprised as “Wright has always borne the worse reputation, and had more than once threated murder.” A considerable amount of arsenic, perhaps secured for that purpose, was found at his home.
On April 1, before the court at Haverhill, Wright pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to 30 days of solitary confinement and 30 years imprisonment at hard labor in the state prison. The editor of The Lancaster Republican wondered why it was not capital punishment.
On April 28, 1905, Richard Harvey, a 35-year old farm hand from South Ryegate killed Perley Hartson of Hardwick on Central Street in Woodsville. Both had been drinking. Harvey met Hartson on the street and attacked him without provocation. They apparently did not know each other. Hartson was knocked down, striking his head on the curbing. Harvey started to run toward the nearby bridge but was pursued and arrested.
Hartson was taken to the Cottage Hospital where he died of a skull fracture. Harvey was charged with manslaughter by a grand jury meeting at Plymouth. A Randolph newspaper reported that Harvey had been previously charged with stealing in Bethel, but escaped authorities. That report concluded “Harvey was considered the most dangerous character in the vicinity.”
Before the court, Harvey claimed he remembered nothing. He pleaded guilty to the charge and was given a sentence of eight to ten years at the state prison.
Marital infidelity can also be a cause for murder. On Sept 9, 1842, Adaline Comings of Bath was found dead in her bedroom. Around her neck was her own handkerchief, tied in a “halter knot.” The other end of the handkerchief was tied to the bed causing her strangulation.
Her husband William admitted that his wife knew he had been unfaithful to her and was depressed. The couple had suffered financial hardships and had actually separated for a while. The inquest ruled that Adeline Comings had committed suicide.
People in a small town are often aware of others’ personal lives and it is unlikely that an individual could commit a crime like this and not become a suspect. William could not find employment and his former lover indicated their affair was over. He left town and moved to New York. On Feb 21, 1843 he was arrested and returned to New Hampshire for trial.
A grand jury meeting in Plymouth indicted Comings of beating and strangling his wife. The trial jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree. An appeal was unsuccessful and, in 1844, he was sentenced to be hanged. However, at this time the continuance of the death penalty was in question, with a bill to abolish it stuck in legislative committee. The sentence was delayed and, in 1853, after being in prison for nine years Comings was pardoned.
The killing of Orrin Steere of Lisbon in 1888 has the elements of alcohol and family discord. On April 18, Steere, his wife Jennie and his brother-in-law Louis Williams had gone to Lisbon village to drink. Upon returning to their home, a quarrel ensued. Orrin was described as an “intemperate man and had a bad reputation generally.” The family was said to bear “a hard name.”
Later that night, Steere was found shot to death. His discharged double-barreled gun was found next to his body. Williams and Jennie Steere were taken into custody, jailed in Haverhill and indicted for first degree murder.
At trial in November, Williams testified that Steere had been shot by someone outside the house. Jennie and a young man who was there at the time collaborated this testimony. The two were acquitted by the jury. Many of those present believed they were guilty, but the evidence was purely circumstantial. As with others found “not guilty”, but still guilty in public opinion, they found “life decidedly uncomfortable” in their community.
Marital infidelity played a part in what one 1916 newspapers call “one of the most atrocious murders ever committed in Vermont.” It was the April 22nd death of Joseph Felch of Topsham. His body was found in his sugarhouse the next morning with a bullet hole through the temple. Not satisfied with a suicide theory, the authorities’ investigation led them to the victim’s wife Anna Felch and their hired man Otis Williams.
It was discovered that Anna and Otis “were on friendly terms” and conspired to get rid of Joseph. They had planned that Williams would divorce his wife, leaving them free to relocate to Meredith, NH. It was determined that the victim had been shot through a small crevice in the outside wall and that the rifle found near the body was Williams’.
While being held in the Chelsea jail, Williams gave separate confessions to two private detectives acting as inmates. He said that Anna had tried to poison her husband prior to asking him to shoot Joseph. He added that Anna had asked him to bring his rifle to the farm and that she was the actual shooter.
After Anna was arrested, the grand jury indicted both on first degree murder. Separate trials were scheduled. Williams’ trial was held during two of the hottest weeks in July. Despite that, the Orange County courtroom was filled to overflow capacity daily. In addition to the known details, the prosecution brought out the fact that Anna was “in a delicate position” with Otis’ child.
The jury found Williams guilty of second degree murder because, while not actually shooting the victim, “he had known the facts of the crime.” He was given a sentence of life imprisonment.
Anna Felch’s trial was not held until June 1917. She had been held in the jail across the road from the Orange County court house and during that time her infant daughter was born.
As with Williams’ trial, impaneling a jury was difficult because of the widespread publicity and interest. The prosecution introduced witnesses that testified to Anna’s apparent lack of grief over the death of her husband. Otis took the stand to testify to their relationship and plans. Anna took the stand in her own defense and was “emphatic in repudiating” the charges against her.
After only four hours of deliberation, the all-male jury returned a verdict of not guilty. A “wave of revulsion” in both the lawyers for the state and the community at large, led the prosecution to appeal the verdict to the Vermont Supreme Court. Anna was remanded to jail awaiting that appeal.
This was the first time that a case had come to the Supreme Court following the acquittal of a defendant in a murder trial. The Court ordered a retrial. It was later determined that such a trial would constitute double jeopardy and, that further, the Supreme Court had acted beyond its jurisdiction.
The debate continued both in the courts and in the Vermont Legislature during which time Anna had remarried and had a second child born in jail. In June 1919, Anna was released, a free woman. Otis Williams was granted a parole in 1924 and in 1946 he received a full pardon from Governor Mortimer Proctor.
An individual who commits murder while mentally deranged creates a problem for the judicial system. Although the policy for dealing with the insane differed between the two states, individuals who were determined to
be insane were not always held criminally liable.
State mental asylums that opened in Vermont in 1836 and in New Hampshire in 1840 provided assistance for those individuals who were mentally ill and violent. This led to a decline in both spousal and family murders. It is generally true that juries are reluctant to accept a plea of insanity. What follows are two cases in which mental illness played a role.
On Feb 19, 1880, Aaron Ferin attacked and killed another aged pauper at Corinth’s poor farm. Newspaper reports described the following: Just after breakfast, Ferin asked where the sharp ax was. After sharpening it further, “He, by a stealthy movement, advanced upon William Terrill, 79, killing him with a single blow.” By the time the farm overseer arrived, Ferin was found on his bed having cut himself and bled to death.
At the farm Ferin had often talked of visions or dreams about murder and death. He thought he was insane and that the overseer’s wife was paying more attention to Terrill than to himself.
On Sept 30, 1904, Laura Wilkins of Wentworth was found dead in bed, her head crushed with an axe. Her husband William Henry Wilkins was missing. The selectmen offered a $200 reward. On Oct 4, Wilkins turned himself in, stating that he was tired of wandering around the nearby forest, surviving on berries. He believed that he “must just as well face the music now as at any time,” but repeatedly stated the murder was justified.
Wilkins was held in jail in Woodsville until brought before the county court at Lebanon the following November. At that time, he was sentenced to the state prison for an indefinite period after the government accepted a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The presiding judge explained the sentence was not a punishment, but rather a way to keep the public safe.
Each of the above cases turned on its special circumstances. Added to the actual events are questions about guilt and punishment as well as the role of law enforcement and the courts.
Murder has an impact on the individuals directly involved and on the community at large. Murder disrupts the community, often dividing it into factions. Some of the cases mentioned above were covered by the press in great detail and sometimes the coverage was “intense and lurid.” As in the case of Frank Almy, mentioned in the previous column, the public was so inflamed that 1,000 armed men joined in the search for the accused and called for his lynching.
That coverage, as well as community gossip, draws people to the crime scene and to the trial. In 1880, the death of William Terrill at Corinth’s poor farm brought the following reaction: “There was great excitement in Corinth and adjoining towns and hundreds flocked to the scene of the tragedy during the day and the next forenoon.”
This is the same morbid interest that brought so many thousands to watch public hangings in Haverhill, Portsmouth and Burlington before that practice was halted in both states.
Part three of this series will be published in May and will involves cases of homicide in which no one was found guilty or in which it was determined that no crime had actually been committed..