1878: Joseph LaPage, murderer of Josie Langmaid

Add comment March 15th, 2014 Headsman

Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.

The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)

The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.

“As I pull out of the driveway of the school, leaving my daughter behind, the monument is a visible reminder of how quickly our lives can change,” one commenter mused in a detailed post on the excellent true-crime blog Murder By Gaslight.

All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.

And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.

This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly every other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.

Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.

LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.

And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.

Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.

However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.

To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.

Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)

LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that

[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.

* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.

** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Hampshire,Notable Sleuthing,Rape,USA

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1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner

5 comments April 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.

John Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil War.

But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**

Only with a painstaking siege was the imposing medieval fortress of Pembroke reduced. Poyer, his superior Rowland Laugharne, and Rice Powell were hauled to London and condemned to death.†

In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.

Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.

Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡

Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.

* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)

** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.

† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.

‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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