1920: Lee Monroe Betterton, three strikes and you’re out 1644: Joost Schouten, LGBT VOC VIP

1917: “John Nelson”, mystery man

July 10th, 2013 Headsman


(Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, Dec. 31, 1916)

On this date in 1917, someone was electrocuted in Rockview, Pennsylvania.

“John Nelson”, the cipher alias by which authorities were eventually content to call him, was 5′ 8″ tall and 165 pounds, and looked like an African-American. (“Nelson” himself said that neither white men nor black were of his race.) Papers put this about quizzically because he was also utterly steadfast in refusing to identify himself or his background.

He eventually allowed that he came from Canton, Ohio (but who knows if that’s true). “He reads Shakespeare and seeks high grade newspapers and magazines,” ran news-of-the-weird wire copy all around the country. He boasts “long hair which bears the appearance of having been done up in kids to give a ‘Sis Hopkins’* effect” as well as “long gray whiskers, sideburns and a heavy mustache.” He looked maybe 60 years old.

Anyone?

Aw, heck.


The Scranton Times sent 5,000 of these postcards around the country hoping to scare up information about their mysterious murderer.

Tips poured in from all over — but nothing definitive. An upstate New York sheriff reported discharging a guy named John Nelson from jail a couple of years before. A woman in Butte, Montana recognized the picture and thought it might be her vanished father. The prisoner also resembled a missionary from Ohio and a bank president from Richmond, Va., also both missing; a Scranton woman thought he maybe used to be her gardener. (All but the last of these indefinite tips via Cheryl Kashuba’s two-part series on this case in the March 17 and March 24, 2013, issues of the Scranton Times-Tribune.)

Although nobody could figure out who he was, everyone was pretty sure what he’d done.

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1915, he’d trudged into Mill City, a Wyoming County township outside of Scranton, and made an unexplained sudden attack on three men lolling about a barbershop porch.

According to those three men’s story — and they’re all we have to work with since Nelson kept mum on this, too — a little white boy running down the darkened street bumped into the mystery pedestrian. At that, “Nelson” suddenly produced a knife and charged at the trio of nearby men, bellowing “White people in a tank town like this can’t run over me!”

J.M. Sickler, a prosperous local farmer, bravely intercepted the attacker before he reached Judge Robert Westlake, and suffered mortal stab wounds for his trouble. The attacker fled, but other locals roused by the commotion overpowered him as he escaped; Sickler lived long enough to give a deathbed positive identification.

Of course, it wasn’t really “positive” — that’s the whole point. And “John Nelson”, whoever he might have been, kept his nose in his Shakespeare and his lips enigmatically sealed on the crime and its causes; on his background and biography; on everything whatsoever. “I just wouldn’t care to talk about that,” he would reply when questioned, or similar versions of that polite deflection.

He kept his queer peace all the way to the electric chair.

* Maybe Mr. “Nelson” was just taking Sis Hopkins’ good advice: “There ain’t no sense in doin’ nothin’ for nobody what won’t do nothin’ for you.” As Nelson blithely put it (and who could contradict him?) any name at all would do for his circumstances.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Known But To God,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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3 Responses to “1917: “John Nelson”, mystery man”

  1. 1
    Ken Hill Says:

    I wonder if this case had been the inspiration for the play “The Valiant,” which appeared in 1926. In 1929, the play was made into a film.The film is memorable chiefly for being the first in which Paul Muni appeared. Like the “John Nelson” case, “The Valiant” centers around the execution of a mysterious murderer, who dies without revealing his identity. “John Nelson” read Shakespeare. The condemned killer in “The Valiant” quotes Julius Caesar “The valiant never taste of death but once.”

  2. 2
    Headsman Says:

    What an intriguing connection. Thank you, Ken.

  3. 3
    Viv Szabo Says:

    Just came across your site today (which is brilliant) & I don’t know why, but I was really struck with the mystery of this man. Maybe it’s because he looks so solemnly dignified in his photo. I know what he did wasn’t dignified – who knows, maybe he snapped, and then knowing his fate was sealed, decided to leave this world without his true identity being marred by that one moment in time. I was also taken by the fact that I’d never heard of this mystery man. One of my favorite interwebs time-wasters is reading about unsolved mysteries, crimes, etc. And when I tried googling for more info – there was barely a thing about this “John Nelson”.
    I have a hunch that he might actually be from Ohio because his initial story was “Peter Jackson from Canton, Ohio”. Then, in front of the Magistrate, he said he was from “McKinleyville, Ohio”, which doesn’t exist. When the Magistrate asked the name of the town again, he said “Well, you probably don’t understand. Just mark down my residence as Canton, Ohio.” President McKinley lived in Canton & is buried there. (this was info I read from Cheryl Kashuba’s 2 part series).
    So, he already brought up Ohio several times, and Canton, too. Going off of that, I went with the two witnesses who believed he was J.E.H. Camp, a preacher from Ohio who spent 8 years as a missionary in India as the most plausible. Believe it or not, I found a site that has records of Christian Missionaries in India in the 1800’s. (not sure if you like links in comments here, so if you’d like the link, just let me know). There were a handful from Ohio who maybe, sorta could have fit this man’s apparent age. BUT, here’s the one I suspect could possibly be John Nelson (I copied & pasted – so all typos/misspellings are from the original ledger written in the late 1800’s):

    “MCHENRY, ALBERT DKAVES. B. Feb. 21, 18 JQ, in Tusc.ara.was- Co.
    Ohio, U.S.A. Licensed to preach in 1871 while attending Mount Un-
    ion Col. M. July 27,1873. A. Oct. 20 r 1873. 0. at Lucknow, Jan. 11,.
    1874, by Bishop Harris. S. Moradabad, 1874 : Bijnour, 1875 ;
    Shahjchanpore, 1876, Bijnour, 1877-80. H. to America in 1881. Ad…
    Rlayfield, Cuyalioija Co., Ohio, U. S. A.”

    I think “Dkaves” as the middle name is a misspelling, but I can’t think of what it might be. More importantly, this person was born in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, which is abuts the county in which Canton, Ohio is. It’s unfortunate that the last two digits of the birth date are typos. But, I figure with the average age people graduated from college in the 19th century being 18 (a figure I admit I saw just on University of Pennsylvania’s website – got too lazy to look up more statistics), I think that would put this Albert McHenry’s date of birth around 1853. That would put him in his early 60’s when the murder occurred.
    Something else I think is important: he attended Mount Union College, which did admit African-American students, which would go along with how well-spoken, well-read, and well-educated John Nelson was.
    He arrived in India in 1873 and returned to America in 1881 – the same amount of years the Ohio witnesses said that the preacher from Ohio was a missionary in India. I don’t know what the misspelled word “Rlayfield” stands for, but I’m pretty sure “Cuyalioija” is supposed to be Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
    Lastly, the two Ohio witnesses said that J.E.H. Camp lived in Ohio for about 30 years. If he returned from India in 1881, the math stills works so far as his staying in Ohio for 3 decades before moving on to other states. I know J.E.H. Camp is nothing at all like the name Albert McHenry, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine he had no problem using different names in different places.
    Sorry for the long comment. I don’t normally play armchair detective and who knows who this man really was – it just really struck me for some reason & I ended up spending a lazy afternoon trying to find anything out at all, even though there will never be definitive proof of his identity.

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