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Friday, June 5, 2020

Murder Most Vile (Part III)

THE STONE CRIES MURDERED.  Despite speculation that Piermont's Alma Emerson's death may have
been an accident, there is still suspicions that she was murdered in 1875 by Moses Sawyer.  After  two
trials in Plymouth, Sawyer was freed. ( Courtesy photo Valley News)

ORFORD'S UNSOLVED MURDERS.  In November, 1922, John and Charles Davis were bludgeoned to death
at their home in Orford.  Despite an extensive investigation, authorities were never able to fine anyone responsible for their deaths.  (Courtesy Orford Historical Society)
Journal Opinion, May 27, 2020

“This is a chapter we would most 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    

 Little’s introduction to his chapter on two local murders begins each of the three columns covering untimely local deaths prior to 1923. The first two parts were published in March and April and are posted at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. As with the first two, the following stories involve local homicides.  

What makes these cases different from those covered previously is that either no one was found guilty of the crime or that there was not actually a crime committed. Sources for the column are locally printed and online histories and newspaper archives.

There were two incidents that involved children. In July 1843, The Caledonian carried the story of a “serious and fatal occurrence” in Topsham.

 An 8-year old boy was following two older lads on a hunting excursion. The older ones told the youngster to go back, and when he refused, one of them deliberately aim his gun and fired. “The whole charge entered the breast of the small boy, causing his death.” The article reported, “It is said the lad who commuted the act made no denial or excuse whatever.”

The following March, The Vermont Watchman reported “The story of a murder in Topsham is put to rest. After a long examination, the person implicated has been discharged.” As there was no other incident in Topsham at that time, we can assume this referred to the boy who committed the act the previous year.

In October 1914, the bodies of two boys were found in West Fairlee. They were Gordon Bell, age 11, and Harold Whitney, age 12. The two boys had been missing since the previous day. A search party was led to the bodies in a nearby field by the barking of their dog. The bodies were found side by side with Whitney’s arm resting on Bell’s body. Both had been shot in the left breast. A revolver, taken from a local barn, was found nearby.  This “puzzling tragedy” was never solved. Was this a murder-suicide, and if so, which boy was the perpetrator? There was no gunshot residue testing at the time, and no further investigation was undertaken.

As the prosecution in a criminal case has to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there have been homicides in which the accused, and only suspect, was found not guilty.  Where there was an actual murder these “cold cases” remain unsolved. 

An 1860 quarrel over debt led to the murder of Vanness Wyatt of Warren. The other party in the quarrel was James Williams. Fearing a physical confrontation with Wyatt, Williams had armed himself.  On July 27, the two confronted each other. Wyatt was shot and Williams was arrested.

 The following January, his trial was held in Plymouth. Witnesses from the deeply divided village were called to testify. After deliberation, the jury deadlocked, although they apparently agreed it was not a case of murder. The case was continued for a year before it was dropped.

Quarrel also led to the death of Joseph Eggleston on June 1, 1896. Eggleston and John Evans were returning separately from the Wells River Creamery. Evans stopped to talk with two men working roadside.  Eggleston came along and demanded he move out of the road.

 The St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported, “There had been trouble between the men. The wife of Eggleston, a women of violent passions, had her full share of it.” That trouble erupted that day into a “sad affair” with verbal threats, a battle of horsewhips and finally a hand-to-hand “real fisticuffs.”  Eggleston was thrown to the ground.  Injured, he was taken to a neighboring house, but died upon arrival.

It was first thought he had been kicked to death, but an autopsy indicated he had died of a heart attack, perhaps “frightened to death.”  Evans turned himself in and was incarcerated in Chelsea.  After the testimony of two doctors, the grand jury did not bring charges against Evans. The newspaper account concluded, “This whole unfortunate affair seems to be a case of accidental discharge of violent temper.”   

In January 1906, George Baird shot and killed Samuel Howe of Benton. Baird and his wife had recently moved to a remote section of Haverhill. Baird told the authorities that Howe came to the house late at night and “upon being refused admittance broke in a window and threatened to kill him.” Baird picked up a revolver and shot Howe through the window.

At an inquest in Woodsville, Blaird was charged with the death. In June, Blaird’s week-long trial was held in Plymouth. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Baird’s lawyer, Robert Simonds, was “warmly praised by the Manchester and Boston papers for his defense.” 

The demise of Newbury’s Orville Gibson in 1957 was not the first time the issues of suicide vs murder have been raised locally. In September 1900, Burns Nelson was found dead in Wells River.  Nelson had recently sold his failing grocery store and had gone drinking with Charles Bostock. They had gone to Nelson’s father’s house to spend the night. But later that night Nelson was found in his bedroom, dead from a gunshot to the head.

Bostock was arrested and charged with manslaughter. At trial in Chelsea in June 1901, Bostock testified that Nelson had gotten out a shotgun that Bostock had wanted to purchase.  He went on to say that he had left the bedroom, but, upon hearing a gunshot, returned and found Nelson dead.  The prosecution argued Bostock must have fired the gun after introducing evidence that the gun was a distance away from the body. The defense claimed the gun was defective and could discharge if dropped or hit.

 In support of a suicide theory, it was claimed that Nelson was in debt and despondent. Even Nelson’s father testified that he thought Nelson had shot himself.  The jury initially voted 6 to 6 for manslaughter, but as the evidence was all circumstantial, eventually brought a verdict of not guilty. It was concluded by the press that the deceased had been “killed by Woodsville whiskey.”

There are murders in which no suspect was identified. One example arose from a riot between Irish railroad workers in Newbury in September 1847. The disturbance was between men from the Irish counties of Cork and Connaught and was over the availability of work on the unfinished railroad.
Railroad overseer Michael Kelly and a deputy sheriff arrived at the Irish workers’ shanties and attempted to arrest Patrick Gallagher, a leader in the row. A group of Gallagher’s friends surrounded them and Kelly was shot dead. The deputy barely escaped with his life.  Gallagher and several others fled before reinforcement could arrive.

Despite an offer of a $500 reward, none of the “inmates of the shanties” provided information.  Later, one of the men being held identified Michael Welch as the person who caused the death of Kelly. A court hearing was held in Wells River in January 1848, and some of the rioters were sent to the state prison.  As the actual shooter was never determined, no one was found guilty of murder. 

In Piermont’s Cedar Grove cemetery a headstone stands with the inscription “Was Murdered.” This is the grave of Alma Emerson, who on January 22, 1875 was killed with a blast from a shotgun as she sat sewing in her home on River Road. A double-barrel shotgun was found nearby. The Bradford Opinion carried a graphic description of the murder scene and reported “that hundreds flocked to the scene of the tragedy.” 

Moses Sawyer, a visitor to the home from Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with the murder.  The victim’s husband, John Emerson, was never considered a suspect.

Sawyer’s trial was held in Plymouth in July. The court house was filled to capacity. Sawyer testified that he had heard talk of lynching him. His counsel indicated there was no possible motive for the crime.

 As the jury could not come to a unanimous decision a second trial was held in February 1876. That jury deliberated for 20 hours and voted five for conviction and seven for acquittal.  Sawyer was freed under $12,000 bail. No further action was taken against him.

Because of the interest in this “Piermont tragedy,” the Bradford Opinion printed 500 extra copies of its weekly and carried a full description of the trials.  After the trials were over, it was suggested the death might have been a tragic accident caused by the gun falling over and discharging. The lonely grave marker still cries out “Murdered.”

The last murder to be covered in this series was a double murder. In November 1922, the bodies of brothers John and Charles Davis were found at their Orfordville home. 

Both had been killed by blunt force from an ax several days earlier. They had been employed as lumbermen and were known to carry considerable sums of money on their persons. They had reported that their home had been broken into earlier. 

The investigation team included the High Sheriff along with a prominent Boston detective and a fingerprint expert from Dover, NH, The Selectmen of Orford offered a reward of $500.  Robbery was considered the main motive although Charles’ body had not been robbed. Some other money may have been missing, but other potentially valuable items were left. A theory of possible revenge was short lived.

The bloody ax was found concealed in the nearby woodshed, but no clear fingerprints were produced. Investigators tried unsuccessfully to locate two young men seen recently with the two brothers. Evidence seem to indicate that the murders had been carried out by someone familiar with the brothers’ home and habits.

Within the month, Orford was further shocked when two other men associated with the local lumber industry committed suicide.

On Nov. 15, lumberman Earl Hubbard committed suicide at an Orford lumber camp.  On Dec. 8, lumber merchant Frederick Bedell took poison and then shot himself in the head.  Both were clear cases of suicide. Hubbard had left a suicide note that read “I am tired of life. Something ails my head.”

 While speculators wanted to create a connection between these suicides and the Davis murders, there as none found.  The Davis murders remained unsolved. 

The crimes covered by this series brings one characteristic into sharp focus. That is the male dominance of the criminal system. Not only were most of the defendants men, so were the law enforcement personnel, the judges, lawyers and jurors. Women were thought to be too emotionally vulnerable for involvement in such affairs.

 The inclusion of women in the judicial system was tied to the women suffrage movement. While the first woman to become a lawyer in Vermont was in 1902, it was not until 1929 that the first female lawyer independently tried a murder case. In the 1940s women were first allowed to serve on juries in New Hampshire and Vermont. The first female trial judge was appointed in 1965 in Vermont and in 1970 in New Hampshire. Women still make up a significant minority of law enforcement officers at the local and state levels.

It seems reasonable for readers of this series to ask the question, “What about murders in Bradford?” Bradford was one of the largest communities in the area during this time and there were undoubted motives for murder during the period. But I found none.

Had I found one, to paraphrase William Little, I should not be deemed a faithful historian if I had avoided writing about it.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Murder Most Vile (Part II)

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..