(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)
When Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo, his conviction seemed highly unlikely. There appeared to be no direct link between Williams and Gallo. There was no absolute proof that Gallo had been murdered, or even that he was dead. But in this case, circumstantial evidence, rather than increasing doubt, actually succeeded in dispelling doubt, bringing investigators closer to the truth and drawing the noose ever tighter around Alfred Williams’s neck.
John Gallo was a young Italian immigrant who worked on a farm in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He was industrious and popular with the other workers, but kept to himself and very seldom left the farm. Gallo lived alone in a small shack in the rear of the farm. In the early hours of July 28, 1897, the shack caught fire and burned with flames so high they could be seen in neighboring towns. The shack was leveled, leaving nothing but ashes and the charred remains of a body, so badly burned that it could not be identified.
The body was so charred that it took two examinations to verify that it was, in fact, the body of a human. The head and neck were gone, both arms and both legs had been completely consumed, bone and all, by the fire. The spinal column remained with some back muscle attached; the heart, liver, kidneys, and bladders remained, but were badly burned. Everything else was completely gone. The medical examiner could state that the body was that of an adult human being, but nothing more.
With the destruction so complete, it appeared to investigators that nothing could be learned to explain what had happened that night. But as the investigation progressed, details began to emerge, like an image developing on a photographic plate. The fact that there was too little information became a clue in itself, and soon investigators were able to compile a list of facts that pointed to foul play:
The body had been destroyed to a greater extent than would be expected from a fire in such a small building.
The deceased had not been burned in bed. The bedsprings had survived the blaze but the body was found several feet away.
The victim had not been dressed. Some buckles, metal buttons, a few coins and the clasp of a pocketbook were found by the side of the bedsprings, none were found near the body.
The body lay in the doorway between rooms with the head back in the room toward the bed, not falling forward as a person naturally would if trying to escape from a burning room.
A kerosene-oil can, which was usually kept near the stove, was found in the middle of the floor
next to the body.
It was believed that the victim had been murdered before the fire started. His body was doused with kerosene and ignited, which would account for the severe damage to the body. The flame then quickly spread to the rest of the house.
John Gallo had earned $1.50 a day at Phillips’s farm and was paid monthly, always in five dollar bills. He spent very little and at the time of his death, it was suspected that he had around one hundred dollars earned on the farm. It was also well known that Gallo always carried three twenty dollar gold pieces that he had earned on a construction job prior to coming to the farm. No trace of the gold pieces or any melted gold were found.
Another crime had allegedly been committed near Lynnfield in the early morning of July 28. That afternoon, Alfred C. Williams reported that he had been held up near his rooming house in Wakefield. He had been unable to sleep and went outside to smoke a cigar. As he stood with one foot on the rail fence by the road, someone struck him on the head from behind. He turned to fight back, striking his assailant on the nose causing it to bleed. He was knocked unconscious, robbed of his watch and a small amount of money, and then thrown down the banks of Wakefield Pond.
He told his story to the police, showing them bruises on his neck and face from the fight, and bloodstains on his clothing from the assailant’s nose. The officers were skeptical of his story and held Williams for questioning. Unlike most holdups, Williams apparently had more money in his possession after the crime than he did before. On July 27, Williams had not had enough money to buy a meal or even pay a five-cent streetcar fare. The morning of July 28, he paid his back board bill and made some purchases. The police found seventy-five dollars, in five dollar bills, on his person.
The police learned that Williams had previously worked as a laborer on Phillips farm and knew the habits of the deceased. They searched Williams’s room and under the carpet, they found two twenty dollar gold pieces. When Williams was told where they found the coins he responded, “I know, I put them there.” They also found a bloodstained coat and vest in his room. Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo.
At the trial, the prosecution presented a case against Williams that was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. While there was nothing to directly link Williams to the fire, his familiarity with Gallo’s habits, his possession of money — including gold pieces — the day after the fire, the bloody clothing, and Williams’s inconsistent stories, taken all together were incriminating.
The defense challenged the very core of the evidence. There was no proof that the body found in the ashes was John Gallo’s; it could not be proven that a murder was committed or that the fire was not started accidentally; there was no proof that Alfred Williams was anywhere near the fire that night. But Williams was sticking to the story that he was held up on the night of July 28, so his alibi was also a matter of circumstantial evidence, and no one seemed willing to believe it. The jury deliberated for six hours before returning a verdict of guilty, first degree murder.
Alfred C. Williams was hanged in the yard of Salem jail on October 7, 1898. It was not a public hanging; the sheriff issued a few invitations, but only for the purpose of providing legal witnesses. Williams’s arms and legs were bound and his head was covered as he stood on the gallows. At 10:01 a.m. the trap was sprung and Williams dropped six feet, one inch. His neck was broken and he died within seconds. Williams professed innocence to the end.
Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.