On this date in 1860, William Fee became the only person ever executed in Wayne County, New York.
Fee’s alleged victim is not distinguished by a name, at least not one known to Fee’s prosecutors. The anonymous woman turned up dead September 26, 1859 on Wayne County’s old Montezuma Turnpike. She had been strangled, the coroner said — and ravished.
Though she was a stranger, the victim had been seen in the area inquiring about employment. Fee and another man named Muldoon had been observed following her the day previous, and that “following” was cast in a sinister light by their now-unknown whereabouts. Both men were laborers working on an enlargement of the Erie Canal around Lyons, N.Y.
Fee was eventually arrested in New York City; Muldoon, in Scranton, Pa. We’ll return to Muldoon later.
Fee and his ill-favored “Hibernian countenance” stood trial from January 30 to February 3, 1860. “Seats were at a premium in the court room and in the gallery behind the curtains there was a crowd of ladies, listening breathlessly to the testimony,” ran a retrospective from 1913. “During the noon hour, seats were bargained for and sold at 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.”
And though he maintained a superficial calm when the jury returned a guilty verdict against him — “Damn tough, but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it” — William Fee broke down sobbing when the judge finally sentenced him.
The kid came from a working-class family and had a scrappy reputation. It wasn’t clear as he approached execution that he was handling it with the gravity expected for the occasion by right-thinking gentlemen. Then there was the worry for his eternal salvation: born of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents, he was essentially irreligious and indifferent to a parade of ministers who called upon his cell. (Fee accepted the ministrations of a couple of Catholic priests in his very last hours.)
While clerics kneaded the hard clay of Fee’s soul, municipal officials took a chisel to logistics. Since this was the first (and last) hanging in these parts, the equipment had to be obtained on loan: they borrowed the upward-jerking gallows recently used to execute Ira Stout in upstate New York.*
The gallows was erected in one of the small halls of the jail … four upright posts twelve feet high and five feet apart. Across the top was an oak timber projecting two feet or more beyond the frame. At the front end, above where the prisoner was to stand was a grooved wheel or pully; and another was inserted in the timber over the centre of the frame. The main rope ran over these rollers, one end falling in front, to which the halter was attached, the other dropping to the centre of the gallows frame, where heavy weights were attached. These weights, in all 254 pounds, were suspended by a small cord passing through the main timber above and over it to a pin. The weights had a fall of perhaps eight feet. When the cord was severed by a blow of the axe, the weights fell and jerked the main rope running over the grooved wheels. In order that there should be no failure, Sheriff Snedaker had the gallows put up in the court house and fully tested before removing it to the jail. (New York Herald, April 3, 1860)
Fee came to this device still asserting his innocence, but also asserting that Muldoon wasn’t involved. Don’t worry if those seem a bit at odds; the execution party was confused enough to require clarification, too. Cut him some slack: those 254 pounds of weights weren’t going to cut him any.
The hanging went off without difficulty and, whether influenced by Fee’s parting attempt at exoneration or otherwise, Muldoon was never ultimately brought to trial. The evidence against him being unsatisfactory, he was released some months later.
On this date in 1825, a woman named Peggy Facto was hung on Plattsburgh, N.Y.‘s Broad Street Arsenal Lot.
Facto — or “Facteau,” which variant recalls the French influence here on the shores of Lake Champlain — started her way to the gallows the previous autumn when some neighborhood dogs unearthed the remains of a human infant. It had been partially burned in a fireplace, and when found it still had fast about its throat the cord used to choke it to death. (Plus, of course, the dogs had done their own damage.)
This hideous discovery led back to our day’s principal character, the local mother of two [living] children whose husband had abandoned her due to her affair with a guy named Francis LaBare. Both Peggy and Francis were indicted for “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil” to murder their inconvenient bastard immediately after birth.
They faced separate trials for the crime, just hours apart on January 19, 1825, on very similar evidence. Witnesses established the discovery of the body, and an acquaintance named Mary Chandreau testified that she had seen Peggy Facto in an obvious late stage of pregnancy that August. This woman also visited Peggy Facto in jail before trial, and testified that Peggy admitted to having taken a string from one of her gowns to furnish the strangulation-cord.
While this evidence was sufficient to condemn Peggy Facto upon mere minutes of juror deliberation, the same case against Francis LaBare resulted in an acquittal. The mother, who did not testify at her own trial, did take the stand at LaBare’s trial, claiming (according to the notes of the judge), that immediately after she delivered the child, Facto
asked [LaBare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned … he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.
It’s difficult to account, on the face of it, for the wildly differential outcomes of these trials; the all-male juries might have something to do with it.
At any rate, while LaBare walked, judge Reuben Walworth* pronounced Facto’s fate with enough fury for two … and a distinct disbelief in Facto’s attempt to blame LaBare:
there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.
Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt.
Facto’s only “appeal” after her half-day trial was the clemency consideration of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a petition that ended up garnering a great deal of popular support, on three stated grounds:
As to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject
Even Judge Walworth ultimately supported this appeal, despite his confidence “that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.”
The governor disagreed, arguing that the sort of enlightened people who signed on to death penalty appeals were out of touch with the rank terror necessary to keep the criminal orders cowed.**
So on March 18, 1825, an enormous crowd (fretfully many of them women) summoned from all the nearby towns slogged through spring-muddied roads to be duly cowed by the execution of the infanticide. The condemned, visibly terrified, barely made it through her death-ritual without fainting away, but she managed to re-assert her innocence from the gallows. (Some of the firsthand newspapering is here.)
After execution, Peggy Facto’s remains were turned over to the Medical Society for dissection. “A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen,” one woman later recollected in her memoirs. “Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors.”
** “Their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved … if terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.” For more on the evolution of the idea of “exemplary deterrence” as the death penalty’s raison d’etre, see Paul Friedland.
On this date in 1708, the slave “Indian Sam” and an unnamed black woman were put to death for the murder of a prominent Queens landowner named William Hallet. The woman was burned; the apparent principal of the plot was hung in gibbets with a blade or spike positioned to torment him as he twisted … a terrible landmark for what Graham Russell Hodges calls the “closing vise of slavery.”
(Two additional accomplices were also hanged later, and several other slaves questioned whose ultimate fate was unknown.)
New York had greatly curtailed Africans’ liberties with its 1706 “Code Noir”, and the growing conflict would soon give birth to a bloody slave revolt.
But grievances were settled, too, at the rough and ready level of private violence. One witness recounted (pdf) the scene.
William Hallet junior who labored at a place called Hellgate his wife and five children in a quarter of an hour were all murdered by one Indian slave whom he had up for 4 years. There was a negro woman Slave in the house who was to him in counseling him in this bloody matter. Both he and his wife have gone at Justice Hattely house with some others … about seven at night [Hallet and his wife] returned home and went to bed … The slaves were watching their opportunity for they had to do it that night, and the house being something dark, [Indian Sam] came into the house and had a[n] axe laid behind the door and seeing his Master asleep took the axe and struck him first with the edge and then with the back of it. The first shook awakened his wife who was abed in the same room and she called murder, thereupon he struck her with the back of an axe on the head. There was one child lying in a box about 7 or 8 years of age. Those he murdered with the back of an axe and then drags the Young Child out from its murdered mother and Struck it on the head. The mother of the murdered child was also big with child.
… I have nothing new to acquaint you with, only that a most barbarous murder has been committed upon the Family of one Hallet by an Indian Man Slave, and a Negro Woman, who have murder’d their Master, Mistress and five Children; The Slaves were taken, and I immediately issued a special commission for the Tryal of them, which was done, and the man sentenced to be hanged, and the Woman burnt, and they have been executed; They Discovered two other Negros their accomplices who have been tryed, condemned & Executed.
Later that year, New York passed another law imposing potentially tortuous executions (“pains of Death in such manner and with such Circumstances as the aggravation and Enormity of their Crime in the Judgement of the Justices … shall merit and require”) for slave conspiracies.
Hallet was the descendant of one of New York’s prominent early grandees whose name long remained prominent, which would lead us to suppose that the restaurant calledWilliam Hallet in nearby present-day Astoria is not altogether coincidental.
On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.
Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”
She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.
Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.
I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.
Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.
On February 12, 1950, Buffalo socialite Marion Little Frisbee* was discovered in a frozen ditch in a suburb 12 miles outside the city, a .32-20 rifle bullet through her left temple.
Within 24 hours, a 19-year-old Native American** youth named Harley LaMarr had been caught at a boarding-house and copped to the crime.
While the coroner did report an “attempt at criminal assault,” the motive for Frisbee’s abduction/murder had been robbery. Harley LaMarr needed money because his mother, Amelia Palwodzinski, had had a fight with her second husband the month before. In the course of that fight, she planted a butcher’s knife in the man’s chest.
As Amelia went off to serve a 30-year stretch for manslaughter, she made her boy Harley promise to give the victim a decent burial. Harley had no money: he did have a .32-20. He took it to a tony part of town and waited for an opportunity.
Marion Frisbee’s purse netted him about $6. He didn’t bother taking her diamond ring because, he said, he just wanted cash for the funeral. Harley insisted the gun went off by accident: the jury in a four-day trial that April didn’t buy it.
The day before Harley LaMarr’s electrocution at Sing Sing on January 11, 1951, the Empire State’s prison officers brought his mother from Bedford Hills a few miles down the road to death row for one last goodbye with her tragically dutiful son.
The youth met with his mother for 20 minutes after authorities brought her from Bedford Hills.
They spoke together in low tones. The woman took a long last look at her son and walked away from the visiting cage dry-eyed.
“Thank you for coming, ma,” the youth called after her. (Source (pdf))
On this date in 1858, youthful delinquent James Rodgers was hanged in New York City.
The 19-year-old Irish immigrant Rodgers, according to the New York Herald‘s Nov. 13 post-hanging review, was one of a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells “well known to the police of the Sixteenth precinct as loungers about the corners.”
Corner-loungers evidently share behavioral DNA with the common high school meathead, for Rodgers (drunk on rum) precipitated his trouble by carrying “his arms a-kimbo, so that one elbow hit [John] Swanston violently as he went by him.” Swanston, a respectable burgher returning from market with his wife, didn’t take kindly to this territory-marking, and exchanged words with Rodgers until the punk terminated the conversation by planting a knife between Swanston’s ribs. The unfortunate gentleman, perhaps second-guessing his decision to make such a big deal over the elbow, expired painfully in the street as witnesses rushed to the scene.
If the Herald is to be believed, a concerted clemency push (including author Caroline Kirkland, who called personally on Gov. John King) went begging owing to a general public outcry against corner-lounging Irish hoodlums and their a-kimbo elbows.
Even though Rodgers was hanged in private in the Tombs, New Yorkers strained the roofs of nearby buildings (and ten to fifty cents per head) just to get a glimpse of him being walked to the gallows with the rope picturesquely around his neck and whatever else they could peep over the walls.
Reportedly contrite (he slept on the stone floor of his cell and ate bread and water by way of self-mortification), prayerful, handsome, and at the gallows unflinching, the youthful Rodgers died game … and also harrowingly.
The Tombs was already by this point employing a gallows that jerked the condemned upward rather than dropping him through a trap: the idea was that this method would humanely kill the wretch on the first strike of the knot.
That was not the case for James Rodgers.
By the time the executioners axed through the rope restraining the counterbalance and the fall of a 250-pound lead weight yanked Rodgers into the air, the noose’s knot had slipped to the nape of the culprit’s neck where it would fail to deliver a lethal fracture. The killer twisted and fought horribly for some eight minutes as he strangled to death, even freeing his right hand from its restraint and with it tearing at his heart. “Sickening to behold,” reported the New York Times.
So, that was James Rodgers. Like many murderers of the time, and especially those who could be constructed as sympathetic people led astray by drink, the man got himself a hanging ballad, “The Lamentation of James Rodgers.”
Come all you tender Christians,
I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention
To those few lines I have here:
For the murder of Mr. Swanston
I am condemned to die,
On the twelfth day of November
Upon the gallows high.
My name is James Rodgers
The same I ne’er denied,
Which leaves my aged parents
In sorrow for to cry,
It’s little ever they thought
All in my youth and bloom,
I came into New York
For to meet my fatal doom.
Come all you tender Christians
Wherever you may be
And likewise pay attention
To these few lines from me.
For the murder of James A. Garfield
I am condemned to die
On the thirtieth day of June
Upon the scaffold high.
My name is Charles Guiteau
My name I’ll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I’d be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.
Here’s the Garfield version … as the guilt-ridden young tough James Rodgers is not much remembered on YouTube.
Rather than just break the thing off,* he arranged — so the jury found, though Videto always denied it — to kill the poor woman. (Literally poor. Her last husband had left her, abandoning her penniless.)
Videto contrived a whole scenario where the colored man was lurking around his house … the red-colored man, in this case. Scary Indians.
Claiming to be spooked by encounters with mysterious native prowlers, Videto armed himself up; sure enough, one night soon, an Indian shot into his bedroom and started a firefight. The perennially discarded Fanny Mosley was killed in the crossfire.
For the apparent calculation that went into this cover story, Videto was awfully careless about the details. As rudimentary as crime scene forensics were in 1825, it was still self-evident that the glass in the window had been shot outward, not inward; and, that the ball causing Mosley’s fatal wound had likewise originated from within the house, not without. And come to think of it, the “Indian footprints” outside that window looked an awful lot like Videto’s own. And nobody else had ever seen these Indian stalkers Videto was on about — not that night, nor in his buildup of the preceding days.
The evidence might be circumstantial, but those were a whole lot of circumstances. The jury took 15 minutes to convict him, although Videto maintained his innocence to the last — even waving a written declaration of such to the onlookers after the trap fell, while he was strangling to death.
After a large concourse of people had assembled which was estimated at six or eight thousand, [Videto] was then taken from his place of confinement and conducted by the sherif and guard of seven independent companies to the place of his execution. Then, with 2 assistants, he ascended the gallows, where a discourse was delivered by Elder [Nathaniel] Culver from Luke 13th 23, in which he pointed out to him awful situation and then he protested his innocence of the crime alledged against him and likewise stated that he was no way accessory. Then after giveing a parting hand to each one of his attendants and to a Brother, which was all the relation of his present, his hands were then bound; the rope about his neck was then fastened, and the moment was at hand. The fatal stud was then nock-d out, and now, do not you see him in your imagination hung & strangling. O twas a solemn sight, but the laws must be put in execution.
Although he protested his innocence, it (is) generally believed that he was guilty but protested innocence on account of the conexions. Thus it is that we see man snached from the hand of existence by the Executioner, thus we may justly say “the wicked do not live out half their days.” He (had) a long trial and without doubt an impartial one. But we are frail mortals all hastening to our Mother, ____our joys are like the morning dew before the morning sun. They pass we know not where and we are led to reflection:
Mortals behold the hour glass.
And leave your wordly care
It shows how swift our minutes pass
And bids us all for death prepare.
** As a Vermont Vilas, we suppose that this writer was probably related to politician Levi Baker Vilas and to his (future, at this point) son, eventual U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior William Freeman Vilas.
On this date in Sing Sing Prison in New York, Italian-American Anna Antonio was electrocuted for murder.
She’d been convicted of hiring two hit men, Sam Ferraci and Vincent Saetta, to kill her husband Salvatore for his $5,000 in life insurance. The dirty deed was done at Easter in 1933: Salvatore’s body turned up beside a country road, full of holes. He’d been shot five times and stabbed fifteen times.
When Saetta and Ferraci were picked up, they implicated Anna. All three conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. They spent sixteen months on death row, where Anna was the sole female inmate, attended by three matrons.
As chronicled in Geoffrey Abbott’s book Amazing Stories of Female Executions, Anna had been originally scheduled to die with Ferraci and Saetta at 11:00 p.m. on June 28. The executioner, Robert G. Elliott, arrived, set everything up and waited … and waited … and waited …
No one appeared.
It wasn’t until 1:15 a.m. that he was told to just go home: no one would die tonight.
Just ten minutes before eleven on that night, Saetta had had a talk with the prison warden, unburdened himself and signed an affidavit. He admitted he and Ferraci had killed Salvatore, but he said the motive was a $75 drug debt. He swore Anna had had no part in the crime.
In an earlier conversation with a prison clerk, Saetta had said he and his partner in crime had only said Anna was involved because they thought this would save their own lives: “They’ll never send me to the hot seat. Not while there’s a dame in the case. In New York they don’t like to send a woman to the chair and they can’t send me and not her.”
The governor, Herbert Henry Lehman, thought it prudent to issue a 24-hour stay for all three of the condemned in order to investigate this new evidence. Anna Antonio fainted with relief at hearing the news.
Twenty-four hours later, she was again facing the chair. Again, Executioner Elliott showed up at Sing Sing, and again he was turned away: the stay had been extended by a week.
At the end of the week, a further stay was granted; the state was still mulling over what to do.
Meanwhile, the suspense was, pun intended, killing Mrs. Antonio. Abbott records:
At that stage the state of the condemned women can hardly be imagined; suffice it to say that her wardresses reported their prisoner’s condition alternated between bouts of hysteria and collapsing into a semi-coma. Eventually the decision was issued that all executions would take place on 9 August and all hopes were dashed.
She had weighed 100 pounds on June 28, but in the interim she stopped eating and dropped fifteen pounds in six weeks: she was probably among the smallest people to ever sit in the electric chair.* At one point she cried in anguish, “I have already died enough for a million men!” The Crime Library provides a detailed account of her execution.
On the last day of her life (which, horribly enough, was also her daughter’s birthday), Anna told the prison warden she was innocent. She reminded the warden that her late husband had been a drug dealer and said if she had wanted him dead, she could have just killed him with one of the guns that were lying around the house.
She did, however, admit that prior to the murder, Ferraci and Saetta had told her they intended to kill Salvatore. She said she had chosen not to try to prevent it because she was afraid for herself and her three children. Anna didn’t particularly care much for Salvatore anyway; he was violent and abusive.
Anna spent the day of August 9 playing with her children. She may have been expecting yet another reprieve; when she was told the execution was definitely on this time, she seemed stunned.
When asked about a last meal, she said simply, “I want nothing.”
She walked calmly into the death chamber at 11:12 p.m. and was pronounced dead four minutes later. Ferraci came after her, and Saetta was last.
* Even 14-year-old George Stinney, who was too small for the electrocution mask, weighed in at 90 pounds.
On this date in 1852, a white woman and a black man — no connection between them — were hanged on an upward-jerking gallows in Poughkeepsie, New York.
31-year-old (though she looked 22, said smitten newsmen) Ann Hoag was a foundling who’d been raised by an adoptive family, then married a local farmer in a union that featured at least five children, financial loss, and a good deal of unhappiness. The sequence of causation among those mutually convivial characteristics is left for the reader’s imagination. Eventually — the New York Times (July 31, 1852) is most piquant on this — succumbing to the thrall of a younger lover, “the ill-starred woman plunged into misery and degradation, renounced virtue, reputation, husband, and children, until at last she murdered her husband” with arsenic and eloped with her paramour to Bridgeport.
Luckily for Ann, her brief summer of carnal liberty sufficed to quicken her belly, with the result that her delicate condition bought her a few extra months of life. On April 18, 1852, she gave birth to a baby daughter, and sealed her own fate.
A most interesting scene occurred in the separation of the child from the unhappy mother, which none but a mother’s heart can conceive. It appeared as if the last prop of life, the very cords of the heart were being severed, when, with the most endearing caresses, amid tears and sobs, the mother looked for the last time on that innocent babe, which sine its birth had unconsciously shared her solitude and been her solace. As it passed forever from her sight, she exclaimed — “Now let them execute me — I have nothing to live for — one by one they have dragged my children from me.” (Albany Journal, Aug. 5, 1852)
Although the faithless wife left a 70-page statement implicating her lover William Somers, that gentleman was acquitted in October of 1852 on a charge of accessory to murder.
Jonas Williams, Ann Hoag’s partner upon the gallows, was much less the sighed-over. Williams committed a “fiendish outrage” upon his 11-year-old stepdaughter, killing her.
On this date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.
Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.
Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.
By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.
Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.
Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.
In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.
Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.
Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.
In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.
After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”
The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.
But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.
Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.
The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.
She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.
Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.
Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.
He was the only one.
A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.
The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.
Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.
To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)
By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.
In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.
While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.
On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.
Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.