On this date in 1841, Peter Robinson hanged for a New Jersey murder. Little could he have imagined that he was on his way to the literary canon.
A wealthy merchant and banker named Abraham Suydam had disappeared, and suspicion quickly settled on Robinson — one of his debtors, who suddenly seemed to be a little bit flush with cash and a timepiece too rich for his station in life.
Robinson was arrested and examined before the Mayor of New Brunswick, and from his confused manner and contradictory statements, it was determined that his house should be searched. Accordingly the Mayor, accompanied by several constables, and a number of citizens, proceeded to Robinson’s house for the purpose of searching it. Every room, nook and corner in the upper stories of the house were searched, but without success. At last one of the constables proposed to adjourn to the cellar and see what could be discovered there. This proposition caused the greatest trepidation on the part of Robinson, who strongly remonstrated against it.
He stated that if the floor of his cellar was removed, it would endanger the safety of the building, and there was no telling what would be the consequences. This only made the party feel the more convinced of Robinson’s guilt, and they immediately commenced operations removing the plank of the cellar. A few boards and the earth underneath only had been removed, when the dead body of the unfortunate Mr. Suydam, to the astonishment of all present, was found. His skull was found to be dreadfully fractured, and his head was horribly disfigured by the marks of blows which had been inflicted on it. From the state of his body, it is supposed that he was murdered eight or nine days ago. (New York Commercial Advertiser (Dec. 15, 1840.)
It is commonly thought — thought there does not appear to be any direct evidence for it — that this nationally infamous body-under-the-floorboards murder helped to inspire Edgar Allan Poe‘s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”.*
Published in January 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart” features a young man who murders an old man, stashes his body under the floor, then pleasantly dissipates the suspicions of the police until a sensation of the victim’s heart noisily throbbing overwhelms him into a confession:
Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! —
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Poe’s nameless character denies a motive for the crime, attributing it only to the victim’s “eye” — a mythologizing device which has surely aided the story’s longevity.
Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! — yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But if Robinson was the source material, the occult power of the old man’s “eye” was nothing but the oldest motive in the world: plain old luchre.
In 1839, Robinson had borrowed $400 from Abraham Suydam to buy a lot and begin construction of a home upon it, but soon found himself (to use a familiar but anachronistic parlance) underwater.
“Every one to whom I owed a few dollars was after me to sue or get me to give my furniture for the debt,” Robinson recounted in a tearful confession 48 hours before his hanging. (We excerpt it here from the April 17, 1841 Baltimore Sun.) “I did so; I did all that I could; I was driven nearly crazy by these debts … I let them take my furniture until there was scarcely any thing left in the house; and I was ashamed to let any one come into it to see how very poor we really was, and how bad off.”
The harrying of creditors and the passion of the crime seem to have left the murderer’s mind awash in dollars and cents.
Even facing a far more considerable penalty than bankruptcy, Robinson’s confession is obsessed with the winnowing margins of his former debts; scarcely a paragraph elapses without citation of a meticulous mental ledger-book. Robinson recalled the bills incurred to construct his home (“I bought about $250 worth of lumber … The mason work was done for me by Mr. Chessman; for this I was to pay Mr. C. $210. I paid him $110 in cash, and gave him a mortgage for $100 … I had bought some sash frames for my house of a man, and they came to $22.25″ …). He dwelt on his negotiations with Suydam and complained of the lender’s tightfistedness; he recalled the precise value of what he was able to steal from Suydam’s body (“$10 in money, not a cent more … [in] his pantaloons pockets … only two shillings and a penknife”) and the expenses incurred to evade justice (he offered his brother $50 to burn his house down for the insurance, then took a bath unloading Suydam’s gold watch — it “was worth double what I got for it”); yet even so, he was still a little proud of his diligence assailing his debt, in contrast with “Thorne who bought a lot close by mine” and with whom “Mr. Suydam got out of patience.” The killer even had the brass to pat himself on the back for not destroying the papers Suydam had on him: thus, “the relations of Suydam, and his friends, can’t say that they lose any money by the murder.”
At this time I took up a mallet, which I had placed in the basement ready to knock him over with. I then went into the front basement, Mr. Suydam in front of me. I followed behind with the mallet in my hand, he not noticing the same. My intention then was to murder him in the front basement — but my heart failed me. We then went up stairs again in the back room, I carrying the mallet against the palm of my hand. We stood by the fire talking about the house. He was there nearly fifteen minutes. I stated that my wife staid a long time.
He told me that he would go out and take a wall, and return again. He started to go, and I followed, until he got just through the doorway of the back room, which is within three or four feet of the back door, in the entry. I then knocked him down on his knees with the mallet, by striking him n the back of his head, through his hat. He undertook to rise, when I struck him again on the head, and he fell over, and laid still and senseless. I then supposed he was dead, and laid the mallet down; I then went and turned the button of the front door, which all this time was unfastened; and I went down into the front basement. I then went to work and began to dig a small hole; after I had been digging for two minutes, I thought I would not leave the body up stairs; so I went up stairs to bring him down. I saw him on his hands and knees, with his face and hands all bloody. He cried out, “Oh! Peter!” once or twice. Had he begged for his life then, I believe I should have let him off; but I did not want to drag him down stairs alive, and I didn’t want to see him linger there in misery; so I seized the mallet, and again struck him on the head, which knocked him perfectly dead, as I supposed. …
I discovered a chain hanging out of his pocket, and drew from it his gold watch, and put it in my own pocket. I then dug the hole larger, and in throwing out the dirt I threw about half a load of it on his body and head, which completely covered it. He then groaned a little, but I shuddered to hear him, and so I got out and stood upon the dirt and on his head to smother him! He then groaned so hard that I got off from him and struck him with the edge of the spade upon the head, which sunk completely to the brain, and which killed him instantly! …
I now felt as if my heart was completely black, and I was so hardened and callous, and yet so cool and deliberate, that I could have murdered many more. I could, without flinching or hesitating, have killed twenty men if they had come on me one by one.
I don’t believe that I was over a half hour doing the whole exercises of the whole thing! For I had a kind of knack of doing work somehow that others hadn’t. And why, sir, I’ve took hold of floor plank before now, and done forty-five of them in one day, that is, planed and ploughed and grooved them; whereas from sixteen to eighteen is a day’s work for some men.**
As if to complete the American Gothic quality of the crime, Robinson fell through the rope on the first attempt to hang him, then painfully strangled to death on the second try.
* Poe took up a very similar theme — the criminal psychology of a domestic murder concealed by subterranean immurement — later that year in “The Black Cat” (published in August 1843).
** His last wish in this confession: “whatever you do, don’t let the doctors get hold of me and make medicine of me.”
Peter Stout hanged on this date at the courthouse of Monmouth, New Jersey for axing 14-year-old Thomas Williams to death when the youth, “the unhappy victim of my barbarity, had given me some abusive language.”
Moved to remorse by a post-arrest religious conversion, Stout pleaded guilty knowing it would incur a sure death sentence and admitted all. Oddly, he successfully prevailed upon the sheriff to leave his hands unbound for the hanging — promising with more confidence than a man might be thought to have in his strangulation spasms that he would not lay them upon the rope.
And according to the pamphlet here attached, Stout did fulfill this stoic pledge: “the shock [of the drop] was so great that he raised his right hand within two or three inches of the rope, as though to seize it, but apparently recollecting himself, took it down … closed it with the other, and thus left this world, it is hoped, for a better.”
The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.
Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.
She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.
In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.
Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.
Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.
The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.
On this date in 1774, Peter Galwin and John Taylor were hanged together in Burlington in New Jersey.
Galwin was the principal of a small school in Northampton Township with a hankering for prepubescent children. According to court documents, Galwin raped or attempted to rape four young girls on four separate occasions in July and August 1774: Ann Prosser, Hope Reeves, Sarah Deacon and Ann Jones, all of them “infants under the age of ten years.”
The assault caused “great damage” to Ann Jones in particular. Whether or not the victims were his students is not known.
The crimes of John Taylor, alias John Philip Snyder, were still more exotic.
An itinerant farmhand, he allegedly stole money, “two items of female intimate apparel” and other items from his employer, a widow named Orpha Emlay, on August 13, 1774. She suspected him of the theft but lacked proof, so she decided to spy on him.
She wound up getting more than just an eyeful on the afternoon of October 2, 1774. It was then that the wary woman peeked into her barn and saw Taylor committing an act of gross indecency with a cow. Appalled, Emlay presumably let out a shriek because Taylor heard her. The naked pervert chased her down while brandishing a knife and a hammer. He smashed Emlay’s skull and slit her throat from ear to ear.
Understandably, public outrage against both offenders ran high in the community. Hearn notes that guards had to “prevent enraged onlookers from tearing both men apart before they reached the gallows.”
On this date in 1833, Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.
A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.
After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.
Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.
The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.
And then, it really gets creepy.
LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.
When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.
Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.
On July 18 in Northampton Township, the three men, with their faces painted, burst into the house of Joseph Burr. By “threats of violence” they convinced Burr’s wife to give up her keys to the locked cabinets and made off with the following:
1 silver sauceboat
8 silver tablespoons
9 silver teaspoons
A sum of money
A considerable quantity of shirts, aprons, caps and handkerchiefs
A great parcel of “wearing apparel made in the manner of people called Quakers”
They also took three valuable horses from Burr’s stable and rode off on them.
Burr and his wife told the authorities they knew the robbers were Irish because “they all had the brogue upon their tongues,” and it turned out three Irish laborers had gone missing from a farm near Mount Holly.
The thieves’ trail was discovered and a posse caught them red-handed, as it were, riding the stolen horses and carrying the stolen goods.
Justice acted quickly and Fagan, Grimes and Johnson were executed a mere six weeks after their crime. The Burlington County Treasury compensated the jailer his expenses in feeding the three men for 39 days.
On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.
His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.
On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.
Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.
So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.
Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.
So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.
He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.
Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.
It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.
The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:
Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”
On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.
In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)
Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.
If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.
(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)
So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.
Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.
Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*
Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.
In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …
her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …
Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. Thy open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.
and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.
Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.
When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.
“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.
* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.
** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.
May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”
Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?
On Friday the 17th Instant at Morris Town in East New Jersey, was executed, David Reynolds, a Native of Ireland, about 32 years of age, for counterfeiting the money Bills of Credit of that Colony. He arrived there about ten Years ago, and chiefly followed the farming business, till getting acquainted with one Rosecrans (executed some time ago for the like Crime, but without declaring his Accomplices) he was by him led into the Scheme of making and passing counterfeit Money; after the Execution of Rosecrans, Reynolds accidentally met with Capt. Richardson (of Philadelphia, who is fled) and getting acquainted with each other’s Characters, was by him introduced to Ford, Haynes, Cooper, Budd, King, and the rest of the Gang. Ford the Principal, termed by the Rest, the Treasurer of the three Provinces, had counterfeited the Money Bills of New York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania, in so Masterly a manner as not to be distinguished from the true Bills without the nicest Inspection, and also several of the Gold and Silver Coins current in the British Colonies: and in passing these, Reynolds and the Rest of the Accomplices continued, till Ford and King were apprehended and imprisoned in Morris County Gaol, from whence they soon made their escape, as mentioned in the Papers.
Paper currency of colonial New Jersey.
One of the Gang being convicted of aiding them in their Escape and other high Misdemeanors, to mitigate the Punishment, made some Confessions tending to the Discovery of the Rest, which alarmed another, who made an ample confession of the whole, in Consequence of which Reynolds, Haynes, Cooper, and Budd, were tried, confessed their Guilt, and were condemned to be hanged. Their Execution was ordered to be on the 17th Instant; before that Time, Budd and Haynes were respited for a Month, but Reynolds and Cooper were ordered to prepare for Execution at the Time appointed. A few Minutes before the Time, Cooper confessed himself privy to the Robbery of the Treasury at Amboy, and that he received Three Hundred Pounds of the Money; on which he was also respited till he should make further Discoveries. Reynolds was therefore ordered for Execution alone, at which he seemed much affected and burst into Tears, but thro’ the Assistance of a Minister who attended him, he grew Calm, and resigned to his Fate. His Behaviour during his Confinement and after his Sentence, was penitent and submissive; he shewed a proper Sensibility of his unhappy Situation, and earnestly exhorted his Companions in Guilt, to a sincere Repentance. On the fatal Day, he took an affecting Leave of them; and they all discovered the most lively Expressions of that Distress to which their Crimes and Follies had reduced them, which drew Tears from the Eyes of the Spectators. At the Place of Execution, Reynolds sung and prayed very earnestly, and in a short but pathetic Speech, warned the People to avoid the Vices that had undone him, and earnestly requested them not to reflect on his innocent Wife and helpless Infants.