1836: Abraham Prescott, homicidal somnabulist

Add comment January 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1836, Abraham Prescott was hanged in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

His crime was sensational at the time; the trial record can be viewed here. The slaying was horrifying in and of itself, and there was the added element of betrayal: Prescott had turned on the people who had treated him like kin.

A gentleman farmer, Chauncey Cochran, had taken Abraham Prescott in during his mid-teens and given him a place to stay on his farm in Pembroke, New Hampshire. In return, Prescott worked for Cochran on the farm.

This relationship continued amicably for three years, and Abraham grew very close to Chauncey and his wife, Sally. They trusted him and treated him like a son.

Our story begins on January 6, 1833, three years to the day before Prescott swung. During the early morning hours, Prescott took an ax and struck Chauncey and Sally in the head as they slept. Either he didn’t mean to kill them or he didn’t know how to aim, because he delivered glancing blows that merely caused considerable bruising and bleeding.

Abraham told them he’d been sleepwalking, and he hadn’t even realized he’d attacked his master and mistress until he saw Chauncey rising up from the bed, covered in blood. He wasn’t the first person on these pages to use the sleepwalking defense, but Abraham’s wild story actually worked — that time, anyway.

Perhaps the Cochrans were blinded by their affection for their employee. Perhaps they simply had no common sense. In any case, they accepted Prescott’s explanation and didn’t summon the police or even dismiss him. After he axed them both in bed. Most bosses would probably consider that a one-strike offense.

A report of this “unhappy and and almost unheard-of occurrence of somnambulism” was actually published in the New Hampshire Patriot several days later. Even after subsequent events cast the incident in a very sinister light, Chauncey still referred to it as “the accident.”

Several months passed and Prescott behaved normally, diligently working on the farm and causing no trouble. Then, on June 23, Sally asked him to go with her on a berry-picking expedition.

They set off together, and several hours later he came home alone and visibly agitated.

When asked what was wrong, Abraham said he’d been bothered by a toothache and lay down against a tree to rest. He evidently fell asleep, and when he woke up Sally was lying prone. Abraham had been sleepwalking again, and had clubbed her with a three-foot wooden stake, and he thought he’d killed her.

This time Chauncey didn’t give Prescott the benefit of doubt. The eighteen-year-old found himself jailed and charged with capital murder.

Abraham Prescott’s lawyer went for the insanity defense, focusing on his culpability rather than his actions. Prescott was not terribly bright and may have actually been developmentally disabled. Various witnesses testified that there was mental illness in his family. Abraham’s mother said he’d had hydrocephalus as an infant and had sleepwalked frequently during his childhood. Several doctors testified about somnambulism and insanity, and how the defendant could be a good example of both, although they were all speaking theoretically as none of them had examined him.

(Fun fact: one of the expert witnesses was George Parkman, who was himself the victim of a homicide sixteen years later and is featured elsewhere on these pages.)

The prosecution had a much easier time of it: they had a very good case that Prescott had murdered his mistress deliberately. His attempt to conceal her body suggested he knew the wrongfulness of his actions. He was under the impression that he stood to inherit everything if the Cochrans died (since they said he was “like family”).

Vis-à-vis the sleepwalking, Abraham’s own statements contradicted each other. When questioned right after his arrest, he had provided a much more straightforward account of what happened, one that didn’t involve somnambulism: Abraham said that while he and Sally were picking berries, he had done or said something “improper” to her and she threatened to tell her husband. He killed her because he was afraid he would be sent to prison if Chauncey found out about it.

(Prescott subsequently retracted that statement and went back to the sleepwalking story.)

Even after conviction, however, questions remained. Several reprieves were issued while the state tried to figure out whether or not he was crazy and, if so, how crazy. He copped a retrial because the first jury that convicted him had been improperly exposed to the popular belief in Prescott’s guilt by virtue of being barracked at a local pub. The sentencing judge at his last trial remarked on the court’s meticulous solicitation of “the most experienced witnesses, in our own and neighboring States, to throw upon the secret operations and sudden derangements of the mind, and all the evidence which the highest records of the history of man could furnish.”

Prescott spent in all two years awaiting execution, a very long time in those days. In the end, however, the law decided that Prescott knew what he was doing that day in the strawberry patch, and he had to die.

We will never know for sure why he killed Sally Cochran. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Abraham Prescott was a very troubled young man.

A large crowd braved a snowstorm to watch him die.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New Hampshire,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics

2 comments August 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.

The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”

Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.

Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.

A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.

Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,

You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.

“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)

Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.

Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.

In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.

Talk about donor recognition.

While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.

At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.

And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.

According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”

* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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