Jefferson County, located in New York’s beautiful North Country, has a dark and violent past. During the long winter months, it was not the cold that was feared, but the killers. In 1828, Henry Evans committed a crime so brutal that the location in Brownsville is still called Slaughter Hill. A real-life Little Red Riding Hood, eleven-year-old Sarah Conklin met someone far worse than a wolf on her way home from school in 1875. And in 1908, Mary Farmer, a beautiful young mother hacked her neighbor to death and was sent to the electric chair. Author Cheri L. Farnsworth has compiled the stories of the most notorious criminal minds of Jefferson County’s early history.
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THE AXE MURDERS ON SLAUGHTER HILL
On a late winter's eve in 1828, during "an act of savage brutality," as the Watertown Herald later called it, Henry Evans hacked Joshua Rogers and Henry Dimond nearly to death and seriously injured Joshua's brother, identified as Nathaniel in one source and Wilbur in another. (I refer to him as Wilbur, the name used in my earliest source.) The carnage took place on Perch River Road, County Road 54, between Brownville and the Village of Perch River, northwest of Watertown, in an old log house that was allegedly being leased to Wilbur Rogers and subleased to Henry Evans at the time. (Either that or the "brute in the shape of a human being," as the Herald described him, "moved his family into [the] unoccupied log house without the authority of the owner.") Regardless of how Evans came to live there, Wilbur and Joshua Rogers decided it was time for him to leave. But their mother and other brother, Benjamin, thought it was wrong to evict him. After all, he may have had a temper; he certainly liked his booze, but so did they; and he had a young wife and small children to provide for. Their arguments fell on deaf ears.
On April 16, Wilbur hatched a plan and made Joshua and Dimond his willing accomplices. After a hard day's work splitting fence rails and drinking enough to build up their courage, they decided "without any legal formality to eject Evans from the house." Benjamin Rogers, the good brother, stated for the defense that, the night before the murders, Wilbur said he intended to take Joshua and Dimond with him to evict Evans. So Benjamin found Evans and gave him a heads-up to lock his doors and be prepared for the troublesome trio to show up. He couldn't have imagined how far Evans would take it. Right on schedule, as forewarned, Joshua and company showed up at Evans's door at dusk the next day and knocked; when Evans asked, "Who's there?" they refused to answer — not that it mattered. Evans knew who it was. He had been expecting them. What he hadn't expected was for them to break down his door and come barreling into the cabin, threatening him and his horrified family.
Newspaper accounts say that Evans told Dimond to get out and close the door, that it was his house, not theirs. Twice he told them to leave. Instead, they proceeded toward him menacingly, and when they were about to remove him by force, according to the Herald, "Evans seized his axe from under the bed and struck [Wilbur] Rogers, making a severe gash on his shoulder." The tables had turned. As the stunned men scrambled to escape, Evans "gave Joshua Rogers a blow in the neck, and he threw the axe at Henry Dimond, inflicting a mortal gash from which he died in ten days." Joshua died the next day. Wilbur, the mastermind of the ill-conceived plot, lived a number of years, according to one source (a different source says that he, too, died in the scuffle). That was the day "Slaughter Hill" was born.
Word travels fast in a town so small, and Evans must have thought he acted appropriately to protect himself and his family, for he never even attempted to flee the scene. He was quickly arrested, locked up in the county jail, indicted by the grand jury for murder in the first degree and tried in the old stone courthouse before Judge Nathan Williams on June 23, 1828. Robert Lansing, the district attorney, was assisted by John Clark; Evans was defended by Micha Sterling, Isaac H. Bronson and James Rathbun. Evans's reputation had preceded him. It took the jury only thirty minutes to reach a solid verdict: guilty.
According to a Watertown Herald article of May 16, 1908, called "Hanging of Evans":
The vicious temper and abandoned character of Evans, who, whether drunk or sober, had been the terror of the neighborhood in which he lived, outweighed the extenuating circumstances of the case; and the jury, after a half hour's deliberation, returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. He treated his wife and children with great brutality. He once, to punish a child, held its finger before a blazing fire until the ends were blistered.
Thus, Evans was sentenced to be hanged on August 22, 1828. It would be the first such execution in Jefferson County. The gallows was erected on the high ground on the north side of the river on a vacant lot at the corner of LeRay and West Main Streets in Watertown. An estimated ten to fifteen thousand people came from around the county to witness the execution, traveling in loaded lumber wagons in the days before carriages. They blanketed the south side of the river to catch a glimpse of the doomed man and the gallows from afar. According to the Register of August 28, 1828, a weekly paper published in Watertown in 1828, "at 9 o'clock, a guard of infantry and cavalry was stationed around the gallows where the crowd had already begun to collect, and at 2 the culprit was escorted thither from the jail," walking with a firm step that belied his trepidation.
The Herald elaborated, saying:
The condemned man was led upon the platform by the sheriff with his wrists jeweled with hand cuffs. The Rev. Jedadiah Burchard, a young man who became noted as the most eloquent pulpit orator in the County, performed the duty of Chaplain. After which the culprit asked that the assembled crowd join in singing the well-known and popular song, a great favorite, for his benefit: A rose tree in full bearing, hath sweet flowers fair to see, one rose beyond comparing, for its beauty attracted me. The Chaplain led in the plaintive tune and was joined by more than 1,000 voices. At the conclusion of the services, the block cap was placed upon his head and the noose adjusted about his neck, as he stood upon the fatal drop which was held in place by a rope.
Because Evans seemed as if he might faint while the noose was being adjusted, the constables at either side of him steadied him. In his farewell speech, Evans said: "What I have done, I have done in defense of myself and family," according to the Herald. And he truly believed that. He then "urged the sheriff to hasten the execution, exclaiming, 'For Jesus' sake, do let me down.'" The sheriff, Henry Hale Coffeen, severed the cord with one blow, and the body fell three feet, breaking Evans's neck. Still, his body writhed for an agonizingly long ten minutes after the drop fell, according to the Herald, which added, "The dead body was taken to Brownville by some friends and a grave was dug in the cemetery; but objections being made to his burial, a grave was dug outside the corporate limits which called forth further objections."
Those objections were due to reports that Evans was roaming at night as a vampire seeking revenge after a few short days of being interred there. Superstition was alive and well in early nineteenth-century Jefferson County. (A vampire, by one common definition, is a blood- sucking ghost.) The panicked community saw fit to have Evans's friends dig up the body again and move it to an undisclosed location even farther from the village. The Herald then reported, "The corpse was finally taken three or four miles from the village by night and buried in an unmarked grave that has never been found to this day."CHAPTER 2
MAN BELOW THE ICE: THE WENHAM MURDER
GREAT BEND, 1873
On Tuesday morning, January 7, 1873, a frozen body was found under the ice in Deerlick Creek, about two miles from Great Bend and twelve miles from Watertown. Traces of blood and suspicious footprints dotted the roadside in front of the farm of Samuel Fulton and marked an ominous trail leading to the gruesome find. George Ware was first to stumble upon blood droplets in the snow while walking down the road that morning. He asked neighbors Tabar Clark, Mr. Fulton and Fulton's son to help him track the footprints, which led the men to a clump of willows. There, beneath the ice, was a lifeless, face-down body of an adult male. "The men turned the body on its side to look at the face and let it back again, where it remained until the arrival of the Coroner, about half past five in the afternoon," according to the Cape Vincent Eagle. Finding the body again, however, proved a daunting task due to a blinding snowstorm that filled in the creek with snow that afternoon. When the body was finally located by the men, who were then accompanied by Coroner Lewis and Constable N.H. Merrill, the dead man was taken first to Fulton's home and then later removed to Watertown. There, a postmortem examination was held by Dr. Johnson of Watertown and Dr. Ferguson of Carthage.
The Jefferson County Journal said:
A post mortem examination revealed some wounds about the head, probably made by a club which rendered the victim insensible, when, after robbing him, the murderer carried him to the creek and threw him in. Mr. Fulton and daughter testified to seeing a cutter with two men in it go by the house and stop by the roadside, where the traces of blood were found, and remain there about one-half hour. This was just after dark Monday night, and the cutter soon afterwards came back and went towards Carthage. The pockets of the murdered man had evidently been rifled, for nothing of value was found in them; but inside of the undershirt, in a small pocket, was found an envelope addressed to Charles Wenham, Carthage, N.Y., care Wm. Davenport, containing $100, and in the vest pocket was found a letter, in the same hand writing as that on the envelope, which read as follows:
"Pinckney, N.Y., Dec. 24, 1872
Dear Charley: — I want to see you in the worst way. I had a letter from a friend of mine in Cleveland, Ohio. He wants me to go up there. He owns some street cars in the city. Wants me to go and be a conductor and says that if I have a friend to take him along. He will pay $35 a month. Now, I want you to come and see me before you hire with William Davenport. Be sure and see me first. Do not tell any person about this, as I do not want any person to know where I am going. Try and come up to-morrow or some night this week.
I wish you a merry Christmas."
Thus, the authorities had their first clue to the identity of both the victim and his killer, and robbery appeared to be the motive. While $125 was missing, the $100 the victim had sewn into his undershirt to keep it secure was somehow overlooked by his killer or killers. The body was identified as that of Charles Wenham, a twenty-three-year-old who had come to this country from England only a year before in search of employment opportunities. His family remained in England. The killer was believed to be Charles Sutherland, a Canadian whose family was said to be reputable and wealthy. The twenty-two-year-old shouldn't have been hurting for money. He had become acquainted with the victim when Wenham was hired by William Dryden, a relative of Sutherland's, for whom both young men had worked at one time. The two always seemed to be "on the best of terms," according to the Jefferson County Journal, which added that Sutherland "always bore a good character and was engaged to be married soon."
From the facts that could be gathered, on January 6, 1873, Sutherland and Wenham left Copenhagen via a horse and cutter belonging to Sutherland's employer (farmer Henry E. Bushnell of Pinckney) en route to Carthage. Wenham had planned to "take the cars that evening on his way to California." He seemed eager to move to the much-milder southern California, and it was no secret to Sutherland that Wenham had been saving money for the move. On the morning Wenham was to set out for California, it is believed that Sutherland offered to drive him to Watertown to catch the train. The two then left Carthage and headed toward Great Bend on the Martin Street road — and Wenham was never seen alive again. About 6:00 p.m., the horse and cutter paused for nearly a half hour at the place where the murder allegedly occurred, according to witnesses later questioned. Because the young men had last been seen together at that location, and Wenham obviously had never left the spot, Sutherland was the prime — and only — suspect at the time. Further investigation revealed that, on the evening of the murder around 8:00 p.m., Sutherland returned to the Lewis House alone, got a room and retired to bed. The next morning, he was seen breaking open Wenham's chest in the sitting room of the house and transferring its contents — clothes, a watch and a chain — to his own new trunk. Then he returned to Bushnell's farm in Pinckney.
With strong evidence now pointing the finger at Sutherland, Chief of Police Guest, Deputy Sheriff Budd and Constables Hubbard and Irvin set out to locate the young man late in the evening of Friday, January 10, 1873. But due to a snowstorm, "the roads were drifted full, and the party were 21/2 hours in going 61/2 miles," according to the Jefferson County Journal. There were no snowplows or road crews working to clear the way in those days. Finally, around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, about ten miles from the crime scene, they arrived at John Dryden's farmhouse and found that Dryden had "sent for and got Sutherland"; the young man was in bed. Dryden woke him up and told him to go downstairs where the officers informed him that he was going to go to Carthage with them. Sutherland denied involvement in the murder, as expected, but was unable to explain where he got the $91 that was found in his possession. He was handcuffed and put in the sleigh. But shortly after starting for Carthage, Sutherland became ill and complained of feeling warm and needed his muffler loosened. They thought he was merely "sick with fear" until he went into convulsions, at which point they realized he must have ingested poison. He barely had time to deny the latest accusation before taking his last breath. There was nothing the lawmen could do to revive him, so the solemn journey continued in the storm, and the men arrived at their destination with their lifeless cargo two hours later. Dr. Peden examined the deceased and confirmed that he had, indeed, succumbed to strychnine poisoning; a bottle containing the potent poison that was found in his pocket corroborated that finding. He purchased the bottle on January 2 — four days before the murder — at John Raymond & Sons in Copenhagen, proving the likelihood that the crime was premeditated. Apparently, the authorities surmised, Sutherland swallowed the poison just after the officers arrived at Dryden's farm, when he went upstairs alone under the guise of needing to change his clothes and gather his belongings. The Jefferson County Journal said, "The summary way in which the guilty man took his own life has saved the county some thousands of dollars' expense and added another awful crime to the already-blood-stained soul of the murderer."
In a Watertown Times article dated January 12, 1873, District Attorney Williams said, "We have the murderer, but he has cheated the gallows. Probably no one else was connected to the murder." Four days later, the Cape Vincent Eagle reported, "The Coroner's inquiry shows some evidence of a third person in the transaction, as an accomplice of Sutherland; but there is nothing definite upon which to found such a belief." A bit later, it said, "Sutherland undoubtedly had an accomplice, but nothing is known as to whom it was."
Enter Hiram Smith.
A year after the murder, Smith apparently made some comments incriminating himself, while under the influence of a substantial amount alcohol, to Hiram Ingram and grocery store owner O.S. Prindle. The men said Smith bragged about having been an accomplice to the crime. Drunk or not, those careless words sealed his fate. One of Jefferson County's most sensational murder trials followed. The indictment charged that both Smith and Sutherland schemed to get Wenham to go for a ride with them with the money they knew he had before leaving the North Country. It further said that they laced some liquor with strychnine to try to poison him, but it didn't work, because the liquor "acted as an antidote," according to prosecutors. When Wenham fought back, they beat him with a large club, cracking his skull and shoved his body under the ice of the creek. Defense attorneys N. Whiting and L.H. Brown couldn't save Smith.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Judge O'Brien ordered Smith hanged by the neck until dead. To the jury, it was a cut and dry case. To the public, there was plenty of room for doubt. According to a column called the Grumbler's Pen in the June 6, 1908 edition of the Watertown Herald:
Smith was in company with the two men the day of the murder; and to make himself brave enough to enter the band Prindle outlined, told of his having a hand in the murder, describing the scene as it had already been pictured in the daily newspapers, telling where a bloody scarf might be found tucked up under the timbers of the bridge. The conflicting testimony of the people along the road as to whether there were two or three men in the cutter going toward the Bend; whether one or two returned; the finding of the scarf, which Smith had hid after his first interview with Prindle, as was claimed; and Smith's story to Prindle with a hidden witness present, were told in court, discussed by the people, and there are many who will never believe that Hiram Smith was guilty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Jefferson County"
Copyright © 2011 Cheri L. Farnsworth.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Axe Murders on Slaughter Hill: Brownville, 1828,
2. Man Below the Ice: The Wenham Murder: Great Bend, 1873,
3. Dying to Be Good: Antwerp, 1873,
4. The Brutal Slaying of Little Sarah Conklin: Rutland, 1875,
5. George Powell's Problem with Women: Sterlingville, 1876,
6. The Spineless Shooting of Mary Ward: LeRay, 1893,
7. The Mary Crouch-Mary Daly Double Homicide: Sackets Harbor, 1897,
8. The Suspicious Passing of Mary Ockwood: Henderson, 1897,
9. The Gruesome "Watertown Trunk Murder": Hounsfield, 1908,
10. The Burlingame Murder-Suicide: Chaumont, 1922,
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