An Original Article by Faith W. Eckler
"MURDER MOST DIABOLICAL AND ATROCIOUS"
So the crime which took place on the night of February 23, 1850 was described by the Mohawk Courier. It was dark and cold. The snow lay ten or twelve inches deep on the ground as a young man, about 25 years of age, trudged down the road from Newport. He was about 5'9" tall and was warmly dressed for the weather in a black broadcloth coat with outside pockets, dark blue cassimere pants, a worsted vest of mouse-colored background striped or plaided with white and blue, a linen shirt, and yellow buckskin drawers. In his pocket was a blue handkerchief with white spots, and around his waist he wore a money belt.
The young man was a peddler, and he carried with him a pack, now nearly empty, and a tin box. He was on his way to Utica to replenish his stock. He was accompanied by another man who wore a cloth or plush cap and a light-colored coat. The two had been traveling together for quite a distance when the second man apparently convinced the peddler to take a shortcut to another road from Newport through the fields of farmer James Van Vleck of Schuyler. A third man who was passing through the neighborhood at about 9:00 PM heard sounds of a struggle proceeding from a nearby haystack, about one mile from the road. He heard a plea for mercy answered by the cry, "There, damn you; you've got enough." Supposing that a fight was in progress, he didn't stop to investigate, not wanting to get involved.
The body of the peddler was discovered six days later on March 1 in a lot near Knapp's tavern, about five miles from Utica. It was a grisly scene. The corpse had sustained four stab wounds - two in the neck nearly severing the head, one in the breast and another in the abdomen. Great quantities of blood had melted the snow down to the ground around the body. There was no sign of the peddler's pack or tin box. His boots and hat were also missing. His pockets had been turned inside out, and the only money found on his body was two cents.
The murder immediately became a sensation in this peaceable area where such crimes were virtually non-existent, and the investigation was exhaustively reported in the local newspapers. Coroner Dygert removed the body to Frankfort, and an attempt was begun to establish the peddler's identify. The only clue was the initials "E.K." found on articles of the victim's clothing. Several citizens, upon seeing the body, expressed a very confident belief that it was that of Mr. Angel of Newport, but this proved not to be the case. William H. Pratt of Deerfield testified at the inquest that the murdered man had recently called at his house in the company of another man, and that he believed him to be a German Jew. Regarding his companion, Pratt testified that he asked for a drink, but the peddler, not being a drinking man, asked instead for a cigar.
Within a few days a committee of Jews from Utica requested the body for burial. Just as they were making plans for the interment, a German arrived in Frankfort who recognized the deceased as a man he had slept with (at an inn?) some days earlier at Sprakers. He added that the man had two brothers living at Fultonville, Montgomery County. It was not until March 21 that the Utica Daily Gazette announced that the victim's name was Kline.
Meanwhile, the authorities had found a suspect. The Herkimer Democrat of March 8 reported:
"The murderer is supposed, from many suspicious circumstances, to be one John Allen who lives about 3/4 mile from the place where the horrid crime was perpetrated. Allen was but recently married in Schuyler where he was but slightly known. He left his home on Sunday [March 2?] and has recently been traced to this place [Herkimer] where he took the cars and went east. He is also a peddler and had a pack with him. He can be easily identified, having a fellon [sic - an inflammation] over one of his eyes [as a result of which, it was reported, he frequently kept his cap well down on his forehead.] He was considered a suspicious character by his neighbors. Deputy Sheriff James Folts is in pursuit of him, accompanied by Mr. Strauss of Frankfort. They started 24 hours behind him."
The Utica Daily Observer provided more details:
"Deputy Sheriff Folts of Frankfort, accompanied by a German peddler of jewelry named Levinger, is in full and close pursuit of the man named Allen whom, it is said, they have strong reason to suspect committed the recent murder in Schuyler. We learn that Allen resided in the Town of Deerfield and has conducted himself very strangely since the murder. It was said that he was present at the inquest but refused to look at the body and soon left; that he had been seen with a small peddler's box like the one carried by the deceased; that he had lately been quite restless, staying away from his home, and, lastly, that he called at the Rail Road office in Herkimer to purchase a ticket for Little Falls, and while doing so, exhibited to the R.R. agent a number of gold pieces, eagles, doubloons, &c, inquiring their value. Allen is known as a poor man."
Allen was quickly apprehended, and by March 11 he was lodged in the Herkimer County jail awaiting a hearing. On the 13th he was taken from the jail to Frankfort to view the corpse. It was reported in the Observer that he
"displayed the most marked indifference, lifting the head of the deceased in several positions to get a full view of the gaping wounds. It is said the he exhibited anger and swore a little at some of the questions being asked. One thing is certain, if he is the murderer he is a man of surpassing nerve."
The hearing began on Friday, March 15 at the Court House in Herkimer before Judges McCauley, Rasbach and Putnam. The courthouse was crowded with spectators and witnesses. The body was present, as well. George A. Judd, District Attorney, appeared for the people; Samuel & Robert Earl for the prisoner. He was identified as an Irishman who had lived in England for a long time. He was 29 years of age, had served in the British army for seven years, and had been married in England, although it was rumored that his wife was dead. Warner D. Cane told the court that he had first seen the prisoner about six weeks previously when he had married him to Purdy Ann Gilbert, a widow. He believed that Allen lived in St. Johnsville where he worked on a farm for about eight months, and that he had immigrated from England about eighteen months before the incident. William Pratt testified that he knew Allen and that he was not the man who had accompanied the peddler to his house.
Considerable testimony centered around the pack which Allen had been carrying when he was apprehended. Was it the same as that of the peddler? Some witnesses said that it was larger; others said smaller. Michael Gaffney of Utica, a dealer in peddlers' goods, said that he had viewed the pack at the Herkimer County jail and that it contained items he recognized from his store. Furthermore, Gaffney did not remember selling Allen the earrings found in the prisoner's pack. Edward Manning, Gaffney's clerk, said that the accused had visited the store recently making a number of purchases. He flashed a roll of bills containing several of $2 and at least two or three of $5. He appeared agitated, Manning testified, and kept chewing tobacco and spitting it out.
Doctor Paul Devendorf described the scene when Allen was brought to see the corpse. Devendorf asked Allen to lay his hand upon the body, and he did so. He asked him if he saw any wounds that would produce death. Allen said he saw two. The doctor then asked him if he could see any others. The prisoner seized the hair of the peddler's head and said he saw another wound on the neck. The doctor pressed him to look still further, and Allen then lifted up the head and pointed to the gash on the back of the peddler's neck. He remarked that it was a shocking affair. Doctor Devendorf asked Allen how he happened to look at those particular places. The prisoner replied that he had heard about the crime, but could not remember who had told him.
Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from Abraham Conklin of Newport, for it put Allen at the scene of the murder on the day in question. Conklin said that he had had a conversation with Allen about the murder. Allen insisted that he could prove himself innocent. He alleged that he and an Englishman named Heath had come from Utica on the afternoon of the murder and had started across Van Vleck's field well before sunset. According to Allen, they came to a gulf where Heath stopped, but Allen proceeded on to his home, arriving about sunset. Conklin informed him that Mrs. Allen had reported that her husband never came home that night. According to Conklin this news seemed to agitate the accused, but he continued to assert that he could prove he was at Van Vleck's before sunset. Apparently he was never asked to do so, and several witnesses testified that they knew of no Englishman named Heath.
The hearing concluded on Saturday afternoon, March 16, and Allen was committed for trial at the next sitting of the circuit court to be held at Herkimer in early April. At that time he was arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Little new evidence was presented that had not been disclosed at the preliminary hearing, save that two men from Montgomery County (the victim's brothers?) testified that Allen had been seen the previous February with a very large dirk knife. The newspapers reported that Allen had appeared very much composed throughout his arraignment and continued to assert his innocence.
Allen languished in the Herkimer County jail until September 4 when he came up for trial before Judge Philo Gridley of Utica, justice of the Supreme Court of the Fifth District; Ezra Graves, county judge; and David Humphrey and Morgan S. Churchill, justices of the sessions. Once again, District Attorney Judd presented the prosecution case, assisted by Hiram Nolton, Esq. of Little Falls. Thirty-nine witnesses were called, but no solid new evidence was produced. The entire people's case appeared to be based on circumstantial evidence and speculation. The prosecution rested at 5:00 PM on September 5.
Allen was again represented by Samuel and Robert Earl of Utica, as well as Volney Owen of Mohawk. The defense rose to call its one and only witness, Deputy Sheriff Howard, who testified to the finding of a pair of gloves concealed in the home of a man at Deerfield who had been arrested for stealing horses. These gloves bore the same initials as those found on the clothes of the murdered peddler. Here the defense rested.
The Utica Daily Observer reported the verdict:
"After commending the vigilance of the people's counsel, Col. Judd, than whom there is probably not a more thorough and indefatigable District Attorney in the whole state, the court expressed a unanimous decision that the prosecution had failed to criminally connect the prisoner with the crime for which he was arraigned, and the jury agreeing, John Allen was at once acquitted and discharged from custody.
"The prisoner who had maintained great composure during the trial, burst into tears when the decision of the court was pronounced, and appeared deeply affected. At this moment a little incident occurred worth adding. One of the spectators on the back seats [elsewhere described as tall and rough-looking] who had hitherto attracted no attention, and with a voice suffocated by his feelings, asked the court if he could say a word. After a moment's hesitation, the court said he might, when, with a heart overflowing with sympathy for his comrade and a professional pride at his acquittal, he exclaimed, 'I've known this man sixteen years; he served with me in the army; I know that he has always borne good character.' The interesting moment at which this statement was volunteered, the simplicity and directness of the language and the earnest emotion with which it was delivered sent a shrill [sic] through the whole house, and constituted a stronger vindication of the general character of the accused than would volumes of deliberate eulogy. All seemed satisfied that the trial had resulted in the acquittal of the prisoner."
The newspaper accounts do not give the name of the horse thief, nor do they relate whether he (or anyone else) was subsequently indicted for the peddler's murder. The following item from the Utica Gazette of August 24, 1850 is, however, intriguing. Under the headline "Horse Thief Caught," it was reported, "Officers Deming and Hess arrested James P. Stickney near Deerfield Corners last Thursday on a charge of having stolen a horse and wagon in New Hampshire on the 13th inst." Was it at Stickney's house that the gloves were found? Was he the actual culprit, or did John Allen get away with murder?
Benton, Nathaniel S., A History of Herkimer County; Albany, J. Munsell, 1856; p. 291f
Many thanks to Faith Eckler for contributing her original research into this 155-year-old murder case! Do you have any information passed down through your family about this long-cold case? Can you shed any light on the fate of John Allen, his wife Purdy Ann Gilbert, or the Kline brothers of Fultonville? Do you recognize anyone mentioned? If you do, please contact Faith.