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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.

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