SALEM, N.J., Dec. 2. — The hanging of Howard Sullivan, the negro, which took place at the county jail this morning, was the closing act of a tragedy that has never been equaled in Salem and rarely in any other county in the State of New-Jersey. Ella Watson, on the night of Aug. 18, while proceeding to her home over a lonely road near Yorktown, a thrifty little village, nine miles north of this place, was waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered, and her body concealed in some bushes near by, where it was discovered a few days later.
For a time the murder was enveloped in mystery, but the vigilance of two or three detectives, among them a colored man, who exhibited remarkable skill in working up the case, soon unraveled it, and Sullivan was charged with the murder.
He had not been long in jail before a confession was wormed from him,* and when placed on trial before a Supreme Court and three lay Judges, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. Sullivan stood the prison life bravely, and not once did he display the slightest emotion.
Sullivan did not go to bed until after midnight last night. A great part of the time he spent in singing and praying, and when not engaged in this he was conversing with his death-watchers.
Confined in a cell on the third floor, the one he formerly occupied, and from which he attempted to escape, is a colored woman named Sallie Fisher, convicted of the larceny of a watch chain, and sentenced to imprisonment in the county jail for 90 days. Nearly all last night she prayed and wept aloud for Sullivan. Her voice could be heard for a long distance from the jail, and her cries were piteous in the extreme. Sullivan’s mother called to see him and remained with him for some time. The scene between them was an affecting one.
The morning opened clear and pleasant, and Sullivan arose at exactly 7:05 A.M., when he was awakened by the Warden. He left his breakfast untouched, saying he would eat “after a while.” When asked if he wished to make any statement for the public, he said: “There is nothing more that I care to say about the case. I have got no complaint at all to make about my trial or my treatment. I have had all I want to eat and Sheriff Kelty and ex-Sheriff Coles have been very kind to me. I hope to go to a better world, and I believe my sins will be forgiven.”
Sullivan added that he had slept quite as well as usual during the night. After making this statement he ate the breakfast that had been prepared for him. His manner was calm, and when talking to his companions he was almost cheerful.
At 9 o’clock the gallows was tested and found to be in good working order. A few minutes later the condemned man’s fater and mother called to see him, and while they were with him in the cell all others, except his spiritual adviser, were excluded. The father is a bright, honest looking man, 65 years of age, though his appearance does not indicate it.
The meeting between Sullivan and his father and mother, together with the Rev. Richard Miles, Pastor of the Mount Pisgah Methodist Episcopal (colored) Church, of this city, one of his spiritual advisers, was a quiet one. They all sat around a stove in an outer room and chatted pleasantly for a few minutes. Sullivan said to his parents: “If you cry I will want to cry, but if you control yourselves I will.” This was all he said regarding his feelings.
While his family were still with him the Rev. William S. Zane, Pastor of the Walnut-Street Church, and the Rev. W.V. Louderbough, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, called on him and uttered a few consoling words. They have been regular visitors for some time, but took no part in the execution. The Rev. Wilson Peterson, Pastor of the African Church of Bushtown, also called while Sullivan’s parents were with him, and before taking their final leave all joined in singing “Take the Name of Jesus with you.”
Finally, the prisoner’s sisters entered the jail, and his parting with them was distressing.
His sister Emeline fell in a fainting fit and had to be carried out. This sight proved too much for his mother’s nerves, and, weeping and wailing, she was led into another room. When Emeline was taken to the street, on her way to the railroad station, she again fell in a fainting fit, and was actually dragged to the train. Mrs. Sullivan kept up long enough to reach the house of a friend, where she remained until her departure for Yorktown at noon.
After Sullivan’s cell was cleared of all except his spiritual adviser a final prayer in the jail was offered by the Rev. Mr. Peterson, after which, at 10:20 A.M., Sheriff Kelty, in the presence of Prosecutor Slape, read the death warrant. Sullivan was the coolest man in the party.
At 11:18 the jury appointed by the court filed down stairs to the basement and thence to the yard.
Sullivan, preceded by the two spiritual advisers, and accompanied by his friend, ex-Sheriff Coles, followed immediately after. He was dressed in a neat-fitting black diagonal suit, and wore black cloth gloves.
At the scaffold the Rev. Mr. Miles offered a prayer. Then the prisoner’s ankles were pinioned and his hands were fastened behind him with handcuffs
Ex-Sheriff Coles asked him if he desired to say anything, and he replied: “I hope the Lord will bless you all, and I hope to meet you all in heaven. Good-bye. When I fall from here I will fall into the arms of Jesus. It is a warning for all. It is very sad for my mother, my father, for Mr. Kelty, and for every one, but it is not sad for me. It is a marriage ceremony with me, and I want to be there in time for the feast with all those good men that have gone before me. I want all you gentlemen who have sons to take heed and learn them. Good-bye all.”
As the black cap was being adjusted Sullivan bade his friend Coles good-bye. There was just the slightest tremor in his voice as he spoke.
At exactly 11:29 the drop fell. There was a twitching of the body for a minute, and then it hung withut motion. In three minutes Sullivan was pronounced dead; his neck had been broken. The body was allowed to hang for half an hour, when it was cut down and placed in the coffin. It was buried at Bushtown in the afternoon.
* By a Pinkerton detective infiltrated into his cell for the purpose. According to the Chicago Tribune report of the trial, relating that detective’s gloss on Sullivan’s alleged jailhouse confession,
Sullivan said he sneaked up behind Ella Watson unperceived and struck her three or four terrible blows with a cane had had picked up in the woods. She fell to the ground, and, grasping the prostrate form, he dragged it across the road into the bushes, where he attempted to commit a dastardly assault upon the dying girl. She resisted his attempts, but he accomplished his design. Then the girl raised her head and exclaimed, “O, I know you!” “Then,” said Sullivan, “I clutched her by the throat and choked her with all my might. That killed her. I didn’t stop choking her until a shudder ran through her and I knew she was dead.”
On this date in 1791, a man named William Jones hanged in Newark, N.J.
Jones cut an apologetic figure at his public execution, and a confession he signed off in the hours before was widely reprinted in New England newspapers. (This transcription is from the Boston Independent Chronicle of May 26, 1791.)
Knowing that without repentance there can be no salvation, and without a sincere confession of our public transgressions, there can be no true repentance, therefore I would give glory to God, exonerate and ease my own wretched mind; and as far as possible, afford that satisfaction to the public, by confessing my crimes, that others may take warning by my awful but just end, and be preserved from such horrid iniquities. This is the only reparation I can make to society, for the evil I have done, for which I am righteously, in the midst of my days, cut off from among men.
I confess I have been exceedingly wicked from my youth. I have been habitually addicted to Sabbath breaking, swearing, keeping evil company, gaming, drinking to excess; and when in liquor, passionate and quarrelsome, and have indulged myself to a high degree in other base and horrid abominations.
But the crime for which I am now to die, I would, with the greatest exactness relate. — I solemnly declare, I never intended to kill Mr. Shotwell, nor had I, at any time, as far as I know, murderous intentions in my heart against him, yet, I was the unfortunate man, that, to gratify my wicked passions, was the occasion of his death. I had long had a spite against Shotwell, because I looked upon it, that he & another man had injured me much, and were the cause of my being obliged to settle a civil prosecution, commenced against me, greatly to my wrong. Therefore I had often said, I would whip, beat or flog Shotwell, but as I never had a thought in my heart to murder him; as a dying man, I never said, I would kill him.
On the evening of Friday the 1st day of April, about or a little after sun down, I saw Samuel Shotwell pass my mother’s house driving cattle or a pair of oxen. In sometime, afterwards, I arose, went out into the road, and followed after him. I met Letts and stopped and talked with him for some minutes perhaps six or eight; then we parted and I followed after Shotwell. I crossed the fence in order to cut off a crook in the road and re-crossed the fence into the road still behind him. About three quarters of a mile from where I had seen Letts, I overtook Shotwell, and, without speaking a word to him, or he to me, I knocked him down with my fist, and there kicked him in the face and head, having on a pair of strong heavy shoes. I then passed the fence into the field opposite to where Shotwell lay. In a short time I saw him rise and go on the road, and I went along in the field. I had thoughts of going to a certain house, at no great distance before us, but before I came to the house, I altered my purpose, and so passed the fence into the road before Shotwell and going back along the way, I presently met him. I knocked him down again with my first, and again kicked him, and left him, and went on the road home. After sitting by the fire a little while, I went to bed, but was very uneasy lest I had beat Shotwell too much.
With regard to the club, of which much was said in the course of my trial, I never had it in my hand, nor did I ever see it, till the next day at the Coroner’s inquest. It was not the weapon I made use of nor had I any weapon whatsoever; but by knocking down Shotwell and kicking him in the manner related, I was the unhappy cause of his death.
I leave this testimony and confession, that my awful conduct may be a warning to others, that they by my dreadful fate, may be admonished to refrain from evil company, and from allowing themselves in drunkenness, wrath, malice or intemperate passions. My wickedness has brought me to this just and awful doom. May all others hear and fear!
A sad end for Messrs. Jones and Shotwell both; readers of the 21st century as well as the 18th ought to hear and fear.
But to the end of this awful but uncomplicated tragedy, we have this curious broadsheet published later in 1791.
What to make of this artifact?
One notices at first blush that as the document was printed in broadsheet form, it was presumably intended for the enrichment of its publisher … and we might suppose treacherous albeit not unpassable footing on the route from anyone actually party to such an occult missive in real life to a hustler harvesting gawkers’ pennies on the incredible secret. Indeed, it would be a profoundly ill turn for Jones or his correspondent, for no better reason than a gloat, to expose the physician of his deliverance to the sanctions that might attend unmasking. If this pamphlet’s remarkable claims were recapitulated in any other media at the time, I have not been able to locate it.
Even presuming that we have a sensational forgery, our bulletin does have something to say to us yet, and not only about the evergreen human fascination with surviving an execution.
This is a document from the Enlightenment, an interval where the vaunting progress of human ingenuity designed even to steal a march from the reaper himself by reviving the drowned or reanimating the dead.
Hangings weresurvivedsometimes — not commonly, but often enough that the phenomenon was familiar and occasionally the enterprising condemned even schemed to accomplish it intentionally. Such a scenario necessarily inspired artists, whose fabulisms would only have reflected the fancies of their audiences. The scaffold was already being given over routinely as the portal to spiritual escape for the penitent knave crushed by his sin … why not the escapism of the flesh, too?
Maybe our broadsheet publishers took inspiration from the fantastic story a couple of years prior of a different man living through his hanging in Massachusetts. Though that earlier tale was perhaps more overtly crafted for moral instruction, the particulars of the harrowing procedure are much the same: the assistance of an obligingly altruistic doctor, the agonizing pain of resuscitation, and the convenient vanishing into unverifiable distant anonymity. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne would allude via a minor character in The Blithesdale Romance to the legend that an English banker executed in the 1820s had duped the hangman — and not unlike our William Johnson, Hawthorne judged that living phantom and his stolen years “a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, … [who] seemed to leave no vacancy.”
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.”