On this date in 1868, Joseph Brown hanged in Hudson, N.Y..
He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.
On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.
These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.
However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.
The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.
Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)
En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.
To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.
“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.
But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.
At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.