Anatomy of a No-Body Murder Case
This was a prosecutor’s nightmare.
Jessica O’Grady’s made her last cell phone call to her friend Keri Peterson at 11:29 pm on May 10, 2006 in Omaha, Nebraska. The 19-year old was near her boyfriend’s home. At 11:48 pm, she called her boyfriend, and 45 minutes later texted Keri.
No one ever heard from Jessica again.
When Jessica didn’t return home to her roommates and pet cat, her friends consulted with each other and bombarded her cell phones with messages. Jessica never answered. Two days later, Jessica’s aunt checked in with Jessica’s mother, who had no explanation for the girl’s disappearance. Jessica’s uncle called the police. Concern mounted when she failed to show up for work, pick up her paycheck, and didn’t show for a softball game.
In the course of questioning all the people who’d recently been in contact with Jessica, the police paid a visit to the boyfriend. He allowed them to search his bedroom, and when the police flipped his mattress over, they found it drenched with damp blood. There was so much blood the police were certain someone had either died or was in critical medical condition. Luminol showed blood splatters around the room. Further examination showed the boyfriend had tried to cover them up with white paint. DNA testing later proved it was Jessica’s blood in the mattress and splattered around the room. And the boyfriend’s browsing history showed he was studying human arteries the day before Jessica disappeared.
The boyfriend, Chris Edwards, never admitted to doing anything to Jessica. He insisted the blood had a simple explanation: Jessica had her period. You can view a photo of the mattress by clicking here and scrolling down to March 28, 2008.
What do you think? Crime or natural causes?
But where was Jessica? Intensive search efforts failed to recover a body and Edwards remained tight-lipped. Identification of a murder weapon was uncertain.
The prosecutor had a tough decision to make. A no-body murder case is the hardest to prove. And the prosecutor has only one chance. The constitutional double jeopardy clause protects defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime, even if a body is found later. For that reason, many prosecutors prefer to wait for the discovery of a body.
Jessica’s case was once of those rare instances in which a prosecutor went forward with a no-body murder prosecution and secured a conviction. John Ferak’s recent book, Body of Proof, provides excellent background into Jessica’s case if you want to read more. The case became more complicated after the conviction because a detective was convicted of planting evidence in other cases.
Trying No-Body Murder Cases
I still remember learning about no-body murder cases in law school. The hard part is proving someone died without a body. A killing is an element of the crime of murder, and the best way to prove a killing is with a dead body. Without the body, there is always a chance the victim could turn up somewhere, alive.
Blood – lots of it – is the usual cornerstone of proof in a no-body murder case, our professor told us. You can couple that with expert medical testimony on how much blood loss would cause a death.
But how do you prove how much blood is in a mattress? Do you have to bore samples throughout the material to see how deep the material is saturated? In Jessica’s case, the defense tried pouring pig’s blood onto the same type of mattress to test how much blood the original mattress had, but getting the blood to saturate in the same pattern and to the same depth is an inexact science.
According to a new book on prosecuting no body murder cases, most evidence of the death fall into one or more of three categories: (1) forensic evidence, like blood loss, (2) a confession to a friend who snitches, and (3) confession to the police. And if it can pull together enough evidence, the prosecution often succeeds in obtaining a conviction. Prosecutor and author Ted DiBiase maintains a website listing 444 non-body murder trials in the USA as of June, 2015, and 80% of them were successful.
Abraham Lincoln Tried a No-Body Murder Case
Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt the most famous lawyer to have ever tried a no-body murder case. He and two other lawyers represented Archibald and William Taylor. They were charged with murdering another man.
Like Jessica, the victim had disappeared, and despite an intensive search, no body was found. The attorney general interrogated and plied the defendants’ brother for two days, who denied everything. But finally he gave in under pressure and said the defendants had confessed to the murder. He also offered a fourth category of evidence: eye witness testimony. He said he’d seen the defendants with a dead body. The prosecution thought it had an airtight case, even without a body.
But what Lincoln did next not only proved the pitfalls of any no-body murder case, it also showed the danger of an over-enthusiastic police interrogation leading to a false confession. Lincoln found the victim alive. A man named Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing the victim “in full life and proper person.” The victim suffered from amnesia and could not explain why he had left the defendants and disappeared. But dead he was not, and the judge dismissed the case.
Lincoln later published a short story about his no-body murder case, which might have made him the first true crime author in U.S. history. You can read his story here.
If you were sitting on a jury, what kind of evidence would convince you of a murder even if no body had been found?
Literature on point:
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)
Tad DiBiase, No-Body Homicide Cases (CRC Press, 2014)
John Ferak, Body of Proof: Tainted Evidence in the Murder of Jessica O’Grady? (Evergreen, CO: Wildblue Press, 2015)
Abraham Lincoln, The Trailor Murder Mystery (public domain)Read More
Many U.S. presidents came from a military background. Abraham Lincoln was no exception. His brief service as both a captain and a spy in the Black Hawk War was unusual. But it offered some training for his future political life. As far as I know, Lincoln was the only president who had worked in an official capacity as a spy.
How the Black Hawk War Interrupted Abraham Lincoln’s First Campaign
In early 1832, Lincoln announced his first candidacy ever – for the Illinois House of Representatives. His platform focused on river navigation, education, and limiting usury rates. But an Indian chief interrupted Lincoln’s campaign. When Black Hawk crossed into Northern Illinois in April 1832 to repossess tribal lands earlier ceded to the U.S., he sparked a brief conflict known as the Black Hawk War.
Lincoln was already a member of the state militia. Just two days after the Black Hawk War started, perhaps even before news of Black Hawk’s raid reached him, Lincoln attended the spring muster of the 31st Regiment. His company elected him captain. When Governor John Reynolds called up the militia to fight the Black Hawk War a few days later, Lincoln volunteered. He had three short tours of duty.
Lincoln’s Company Elected Him a Captain in the Black Hawk War
The recruits at New Salem formed a mounted company, and for the second time that month, Lincoln was elected captain. He didn’t want to run for captain, but friends grabbed him and pushed him forward. That victory, Lincoln later said, was “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”
Lincoln’s company never experienced combat. But twice it came across casualties. On May 15, his company found the scalped corpses of eleven soldiers at Stillman’s run. One week later, the company found mutilated bodies of women and children – also scalped. Lincoln had more burial work than combat work.
How Abraham Lincoln Saved an Indian in the Black Hawk War
In the company’s one encounter with an Indian, Lincoln opposed his own men. An old man entered the camp. He is thought to have been a Potawatomi, and the Potawatomi tried to remain neutral in the war. Lincoln’s men took the Indian for a spy and wanted to kill him. But he was carrying a note of safe passage signed by the Secretary of War. Lincoln jumped between his men and the Indian, saying, “Men, this must not be done – he must not be shot and killed by us.” When his company threatened to fight their own captain, Lincoln told it to choose its weapons. His men backed down. One of them later said Lincoln would do justice to all.
When Lincoln’s company was mustered out of service at the end of May, he immediately enlisted in another mounted company. The man who mustered him in was none other than Lt. Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln’s work consisted of scouting and burying more victims of an Indiana massacre at Galena.
Abraham Lincoln as a Spy
On June 20, Lincoln officially became a spy in the services of the United States government. He enlisted as a private in Dr. Jacob Early’s Independent Spy Company. His duties involved scouting and carrying messages. When a battle broke out at Kellogg’s Grove on June 25, the spy company was dispatched there the same day. It arrived at sunrise the next morning. Once again, the men in Lincoln’s company encountered victims of the Black Hawk War and buried them. Lincoln described the scene: “The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they law, heads towards us, on the ground, and every man had a round red spot on the top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque, and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over.”
Lincoln was discharged in July and returned home to continue campaigning for the state legislature. He lost the election, but would run again. In three short months he had made friends in the Black Hawk War who would support his future political career. He learned a little about leadership and his election as captain gave him a foretaste for politics.
What signs of the future president do you see in the captain, private, and spy?
Literature on point
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); quotes on pp. 67-69.
Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham LincolnRead More
No, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg jumping from the balcony after he shot Abraham Lincoln. He probably didn’t even hurt himself. At least not then.
New insights into the Lincoln assassination don’t necessarily require the discovery of documents hidden away in an attic. One researcher demolished the broken-leg-in-the-theater myth with a rather mundane tool: his computer. And his data analysis helped him sift out new facts about Booth’s plots as well.
Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, actually jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage to prove his point. But the heart of his 30-year-long research was his computer. It facilitated daily and hourly analysis of the events to a depth that no other researcher has accomplished before.
Michael W. Kauffman joins us for an interview about one of the greatest crimes of American history. And some of his answers might surprise you.
Ann Marie: One premise of your book is a new analysis of evidence with modern data analysis techniques. How did that provide new insights into the Lincoln assassination?
Michael Kauffman: The computer analysis made a world of difference in the way I thought of the assassination, and particularly in the way the plot developed. By keeping every event anchored to a particular time and place, I was able to get a much better idea of movements and connections among people. I learned to keep everything in context — not looking ahead or anywhere beyond a person’s field of vision at any given time. In this way, the conspiracy unfolded one day (and even one hour) at a time, just as it did in real life.
By selective filtering, I was able to find out who knew (or might know) what at any given time; what they couldn’t possibly know; and what previous events might have inspired or affected certain actions by Booth and the conspirators. In a second or two, I could sort out everything that happened, say, at the Surratt Tavern on a given day. I could also call up everything that happened there that involved a certain person or group of people. That’s how I found out that on March 18, when John Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hiding the weapons at the tavern, they were almost caught by Atzerodt’s brother, John, who happened to be there at the same time.
Looking back, I was never able to find any account of the plot that actually laid out the conspiracy’s development in detail. Nobody had ever noticed that Booth formed a plot with Arnold and O’Laughlen, then formed a second plot with Surratt and the others. The first two conspirators knew nothing about the rest of them until they all got together at Gautier’s. That’s one reason it was such an explosive meeting. And putting things in a larger context, we can also see how Booth’s ostensible plan to capture Lincoln near the Soldiers’ Home grew into something entirely different right around January 18th. That’s when he moved Arnold and O’Laughlen to another location and started scouting around Ford’s Theatre. It’s no coincidence that the government resumed its exchange of prisoners at about that date as well. Booth no longer had an excuse for capturing Lincoln, but he never stopped plotting.
Having a computer track events was an enormous help because it wouldn’t let me omit anything unless I made a conscious decision to do so. That forced me to give some thought to even the smallest details, and I learned a lot from that exercise.
How long have you been researching the Lincoln assassination?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Abraham Lincoln, but my thoughts really never turned to the assassination until John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. It was an electrifying event, and soon afterward I started to see comparisons with the death of Lincoln. That was fascinating, and I read as much as I could find on the topic from that point on. I visited the Lincoln Tomb in 1965 and was absolutely hooked. But probably the turning point was in November of 1969, when I read Jim Bishop’s book The Day Lincoln Was Shot. He laid out the story so clearly and vividly, I felt I knew everything there was to know about the topic. I was already compulsive about writing, and Bishop inspired me to try my hand at writing a full-scale book about the Lincoln assassination. I typed out a couple hundred pages, and was quite pleased with myself until I actually went back and read it from the beginning. It needed work, for sure, but I had become more interested in learning about the case than writing about it. I kept at it, and as soon as I turned 18, I moved to Washington to be near the sources. I assumed I could finish the book in about a year, but it actually took a bit longer than that; the publication date of American Brutus was 30 years to the day after my arrival in Washington.
The short answer: I got serious about research at the end of 1969, and have been at it ever since.
The body of one conspirator went missing for over 100 years. How did that come about? And how was it discovered again?
I’ve always felt that history revolves around the people who took part in it. It’s really all about people, and if we get to know the characters in the story, we can go a long way to understanding how and why they acted as they did. As any genealogist can tell you, gravesites are often the key to unlocking a wealth of information, and I’ve gone to extremes to find and visit the final resting places of all those who figure in this drama.
To that end, I made quite a few trips to Geneva, Florida in search of information about Lewis Powell. This little hamlet is not far from Orlando, and it’s where Rev. George C. Powell and his family settled after the assassination. A few of us (Betty Ownsbey among them) always wondered whether Powell might be buried there. His body had been moved a few times after his execution, and was no longer accounted for. But my trips to Florida turned up very little, and nobody in the family would even talk to me.
It was about 18 years later, in early 1993, that I got a call from Stuart Speaker, a former park ranger from Ford’s Theatre. Stuart was then working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, and had just found a skull with an accession card that identified it as the cranium of a white male, Mr. P____ who was “hung” at Washington on July 7, 1865 for attempting to kill Secretary Seward.
Of course, I paid a visit the next morning, and stood face to face with Powell himself. There was no question in my mind about the identity. Powell had a strikingly asymmetrical jawline, having broken his jaw as a child, and the skull really did look like the man in the photos.
I still had the names and addresses of people in Florida, and I wasted no time in calling Lorraine Yarborough Whiting, the caretaker of the cemetery. She had been quite kind to me on my visits, and I knew that she was well acquainted with me and with the Powell relatives. I got a call back from the relatives in a matter of minutes.
The Smithsonian wanted to verify the identity, so they sent the skull to the FBI Lab, and I supplied them with ten different photos of Powell to help the process. When the results were in, the family wrote and requested that the remains be returned to them for burial. To my surprise, the Smithsonian initially refused. Months went by, and they put forth all kinds of arguments for keeping the skull right where it was, but ultimately they sent it by Fed Ex to Powell’s next of kin, a great grand-niece.
You even participated Lewis Powell’s reburial….
[Lewis Powell’s great grand-niece] called and asked if I would come down for a service at the cemetery on July 7th. My wife and I were expecting a baby within two weeks, so the event was postponed until our daughter was old enough to travel. Finally, on November 11, the family got together with a few friends and heard a nice eulogy by Betty Ownsbey as Louis Powell was buried next to his mother. There were no uniforms, no Confederate flags, and no references to any of the horrors of April, 1865. It was quite dignified.
We never really figured out why the skull ended up at the Smithsonian. It was turned over to them by Alfred H. Gawler, a clerk at the Army Medical Museum. Apparently the museum had acquired it sometime after Powell’s last known resting place, Graceland Cemetery, was disbanded in the 1870s and 1880s. The body had been moved there from Holmead Cemetery when the latter was developed just a few years earlier. Notices had been put in the paper, but apparently the Powells didn’t often read the Washington Star at their home in Florida, so they never claimed the remains when the rest of Holmead’s residents were evicted. (The Washington Hilton occupies the site of the cemetery today.) And Powell wouldn’t have been at Holmead in the first place if not for a public-spirited person or group who agreed to pay for burial there when the Washington Arsenal — site of the execution and first burial — was demolished in 1869. But records are sketchy and they sometimes contradict one another. We only know where Powell’s skull ended up. And what about the rest of him? It’s anybody’s guess. It might have been decomposed too badly to recover, and then again, the Medical Museum may have taken only what they had room to store. I don’t know.
The by-product of this was the discovery of new information from the Powell family, who shared their family treasures with Betty and me.
Your book makes a good argument that the story about Booth breaking his leg when he jumped from the balcony onto the stage at the theater is a myth. How did he really break his leg?
It’s never easy being the one to tear down a good story, and the Revenge of Old Glory was one of those cherished bits of folklore that really doesn’t want to die.
I gave tours of the Booth Escape Route for 30 years or so, and on one of those tours someone asked when the authorities first learned that Booth had broken his leg. I couldn’t say for certain, but I promised to get an answer. Surely, I thought, the people in the audience at Ford’s knew the assassin had hurt himself. He limped across the stage, and by some accounts, barely got out ahead of the pursuers. At least that’s how the story usually went. But as I mulled it over, it occurred to me that in all the notices that went out in the first week after the shooting, I never saw any reference to a possible injury. Everyone was desperate to catch Booth, and the government had published minutely detailed descriptions of him in the papers as well as circulars and handbills. There was no mention of a broken leg, or even a sprain.
Going back to the database, I was struck by the complete lack of evidence about a leg injury. Eyewitnesses said that Booth ran, darted, glided, bounded or hurried across the stage — but he didn’t limp. As he mounted his horse, left foot in the stirrup, the animal pulled out from under him, and it took a tremendous amount of strength and dexterity — all balanced on that one leg — to gain control and ride off. Maybe he was still too pumped up to notice the pain, but it was quite a while before he reached the Navy Yard Bridge, and the sergeant there saw no sign of agitation or agony. He let Booth cross.
It was not until Booth reached the Surratt Tavern that he really shows signs of having injured himself. From that point on, he would tell many people that his horse tripped and rolled over on him, breaking his leg. He never gave any other explanation, but finding himself accused of a cowardly act, he wrote a brief rebuttal in his pocket diary. This was a grossly exaggerated account of the shooting and escape, and almost everything in it has been dismissed out of hand. The only exception is the phrase “in jumping broke my leg.” This has been taken to mean that he broke his leg while jumping out of the box. I suppose that’s what Booth wanted people to think.
In the course of their investigation, authorities gathered statements from many people who had encountered Booth and David Herold in their flight. They paid little attention to the details, and even less where the getaway horses were concerned. But a few things stood out, and they’ve never been contradicted. First, Booth had rented a small bay mare with a very spirited disposition. A few people called attention to her high-strung qualities during the afternoon of April 14th, and Booth always dismissed concerns with a boast about his fine horsemanship. He rode that horse out of Baptist Alley that night, and six hours later, he arrived at Dr. Mudd’s on a different horse. Booth had switched horses with Herold, whose rented mount happened to be noted for its gentleness and ease in the saddle. When Mudd’s farmhands were asked to describe Herold’s horse, they said that it was lame. It had apparently tripped and rolled on its left side, and its shoulder was swollen. The horse limped.
Booth didn’t often tell the truth, but in the case of the broken leg, he seems to have gotten as close as he ever did. He undoubtedly pushed his horse a good deal, and at some point in the darkeness, the horse stumbled and rolled on its side. Booth’s fibula had snapped sideways just a couple of inches above the ankle. It is one of the most common equestrian injuries, but one that has never been associated with a jump from a high place.
As part of your research, you jumped from the balcony to the stage in the reconstructed Ford’s theater. What was that like? Did you hurt yourself?
I actually jumped from a 14-foot ladder on the stage, and it really was no big deal. I’ve spoken with a few actors who actually did make the same jump, and they also reported it was nothing to write home about. The only exception was Jack Lemmon, who made the leap (from a studio replica of the box) on live TV in 1955. Lemmon told me that it “hurt like hell,” but was only sprained.
You tell the sad story of Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, the two people sitting with the Lincolns in the balcony that fateful night. What happened to them after they married and moved to Germany?
The story of Henry and Clara is one of the most tragic episodes connected with the assassination. Henry retired from the army in 1867 and he married Clara the following day (if I remember correctly). They moved into a house on Jackson Place, across from the White House, and eventually had three children.
Henry had a restless spirit — perhaps boredom had set in, but just as likely, he was tormented by his memories of the assassination. At some point he and Clara decided to get away for a while, and they moved to Hannover, Germany. There, on the night of December 23rd, Henry went into a strange fit and Clara (who had seen this sort of thing before) yelled for their nanny to lock the children in their room. They heard screams and a gunshot, and after a period of silence, the nanny opened the door and found Henry and Clara in a heap on the floor. Clara was dead from a gunshot wound, and Henry was badly injured with a self-inflicted knife wound. It was as though he had re-enacted the assassination in some bizarre way.
Henry was taken to an asylum in the village of Hildesheim, where he lived out his days. He died in 1911.
As I always say, the list of Booth’s victims included many people, not just Lincoln and Seward. In the 1970s I contacted a granddaughter of Henry and Clara, and she brought out some family treasures to show me. There were many reminders of those two tragedies, and it occurred to me that their lives came to be defined by what happened in Ford’s Theatre. They could never escape the feeling that they had survived, and that sense of guilt proved too much for Henry to bear. When I contacted Mrs. Hartley, she told me that nobody had ever asked about her grandparents, and she wasn’t even sure of what she might have from them. I couldn’t help thinking that for many years, nobody had dared to bring it up. It was just too unpleasant.
Has anyone ever researched the Rathbone case based on the German archives?
In the early 1990s I gave a bus tour and mentioned the fate of Major Rathbone. A woman on the bus was excited to hear it. She had grown up in Hildesheim, and her mother still lived there. Her mother enthusiastically dug out some old records and newspaper articles, and she translated them for me. Subsequently, much has been written about the Rathbones — most notably, a fine book called Worst Seat in the House, by Caleb Jenner Stephens. And, by the way, I can always recommend a work of fiction on the topic. I think that Thomas Mallon’s novel Henry and Clara is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.
Thanks so much, Mr. Kauffman, for your comments and all the work that went into your fascinating book.
Which part of Michael Kauffman’s research surprised you the most?
Abraham Lincoln picked up his pen not only to scratch out the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. He also wrote poetry and true crime.
His one true crime short story, published in the Quincy Whig in April 1846, is based on a case he handled as a defense attorney. Lincoln’s client never paid him for getting him off on a murder charge, so Lincoln found another way to make money off the case. This story has a delightful twist at the end you’re not likely to forget. Since the story is now in the public domain, I’ve reproduced it for you below.
Lincoln’s true crime story is all the more relevant in 2014 because the author of a letter found in the walls of Lincoln’s Springfield home was identified this year. In 1987, during renovations of the house, a damaged, half-eaten letter to Lincoln was found in a mouse nest in the walls. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum announced in January that Andrew Johnston, editor of the Quincy Whig, wrote it on March 10, 1846. It was Johnston’s nephew, George Pickett, who led the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
In the mystery letter, Johnston addressed Lincoln’s poetry, not his true crime story. Lincoln had written Johnston on February 24, 1846 to say he was working on a poem, so the timing fits. Lincoln submitted “My Childhood Home” in April, 1846, the same month his true crime story appeared. Johnston published “My Childhood Home” in 1847.
A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder by Abraham Lincoln
(also known as The Trailor Murder Mystery)
In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring, and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business–a Mr. Myers. Henry, a year or two older, was a man of like retiring and industrious habits; had a family, and resided with it on a farm, at Clary’s Grove, about twenty miles distant from Springfield in a northwesterly direction.
—William, still older, and with similar habits, resided on a farm in Warren county, distant from Springfield something more than a hundred miles in the same North-westerly direction. He was a widower, with several children.
In the neighborhood of William’s residence, there was, and had been for several years, a man by the name of Fisher, who was somewhat above the age of fifty; had no family, and no settled home; but who boarded and lodged a while here and a while there, with persons for whom he did little jobs of work. His habits were remarkably economical, so that an impression got about that he had accumulated a considerable amount of money.In the latter part of May, in the year mentioned, William formed the purpose of visiting his brothers at Clary’s Grove and Springfield; and Fisher, at the time having his temporary residence at his house, resolved to accompany him. They set out together in a buggy with a single horse. On Sunday evening they reached Henry’s residence, and staid over night. On Monday morning, being the first Monday of June, they started on to Springfield, Henry accompanying them on horseback. They reached town about noon, met Archibald, went with him to his boarding house, and there took up their lodgings for the time they should remain.
After dinner, the three Trailors and Fisher left the boarding house in company, for the avowed purpose of spending the evening together in looking about the town. At supper, the Trailers had all returned, but Fisher was missing, and some inquiry was made about him. After supper, the Trailers went out professedly in search of him. One by one they returned, the last coming in after late tea time, and each stating that he had been unable to discover anything of Fisher.
The next day, both before and after breakfast, they went professedly in search again, and returned at noon, still unsuccessful. Dinner again being had, William and Henry expressed a determination to give up the search, and start for their homes. This was remonstrated against by some of the boarders about the house, on the ground that Fisher was somewhere in the vicinity, and would be left without any conveyance, as he and William had come in the same buggy. The remonstrance was disregarded, and they departed for their homes respectively.
Up to this time, the knowledge of Fisher’s mysterious disappearance had spread very little beyond the few boarders at Myers’, and excited no considerable interest. After the lapse of three or four days, Henry returned to Springfield, for the ostensible purpose of makings further search for Fisher. Procuring some of the boarders, he, together with them and Archibald, spent another day in ineffectual search, when it was again abandoned, and he returned home.
No general interest was yet excited.
On the Friday, week after Fisher’s disappearance, the Postmaster at Springfield received a letter from the Postmaster nearest William’s residence, in Warren county, stating that William had returned home without Fisher, and was saying, rather boastfully, that Fisher was dead, and had willed him his money, and that he had got about fifteen hundred dollars by it. The letter further stated that William’s story and conduct seemed strange, and desired the Postmaster at Springfield to ascertain and write what was the truth in the matter.The Postmaster at Springfield made the letter public, and at once, excitement became universal and intense. Springfield, at that time, had a population of about 3,500, with a city organization. The Attorney General of the State resided there. A purpose was forthwith formed to ferret out the mystery, in putting which into execution, the Mayor of the city and the Attorney General took the lead. To make search for, and, if possible, find the body of the man supposed to be murdered, was resolved on as the first step.
In pursuance of this, men were formed into large parties, and marched abreast, in all directions, so as to let no inch of ground in the vicinity remain unsearched. Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh, or tolerably fresh graves in the graveyard, were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disintered, where, in some instances, they had been buried by their partial masters.
This search, as has appeared, commenced on Friday. It continued until Saturday afternoon without success, when it was determined to despatch officers to arrest William and Henry, at their residences, respectively. The officers started on Sunday morning, meanwhile, the search for the body was continued, and rumors got afloat of the Trailors having passed, at different times and places, several gold pieces, which were readily supposed to have belonged to Fisher.
On Monday, the officers sent for Henry, having arrested him, arrived with him. The Mayor and Attorney Gen’l took charge of him, and set their wits to work to elicit a discovery from him. He denied, and denied, and persisted in denying. They still plied him in every conceivable way, till Wednesday, when, protesting his own innocence, he stated that his brothers, William and Archibald, had murdered Fisher; that they had killed him, without his (Henry’s) knowledge at the time, and made a temporary concealment of his body; that, immediately preceding his and William’s departure from Springfield for home, on Tuesday, the day after Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald communicated the fact to him, and engaged his assistance in making a permanent concealment of the body; that, at the time he and William left professedly for home, they did not take the road directly, but, meandering their way through the streets, entered the woods at the North West of the city, two or three hundred yards to the right of where the road they should have travelled, entered them; that, penetrating the woods some few hundred yards, they halted and Archibald came a somewhat different route, on foot, and joined them; that William and Archibald then stationed him (Henry) on an old and disused road that ran nearby, as a sentinel, to give warning of the approach of any intruder; that William and Archibald then removed the buggy to the edge of a dense brush thicket, about forty yards distant from his (Henry’s) position, where, leaving the buggy, they entered the thicket, and in a few minutes returned with the body, and placed it in the buggy; that from his station he could and did distinctly see that the object placed in the buggy was a dead man, of the general appearance and size of Fisher; that William and Archibald then moved off with the buggy in the direction of Hickox’s mill pond, and after an absence of half an hour, returned, saying they had put him in a safe place; that Archibald then left for town, and he and William found their way to the road, and made for their homes.
At this disclosure, all lingering credulity was broken down, and excitement rose to an almost inconceivable height. Up to this time the well-known character of Archibald had repelled and put down all suspicions as to him. Till then, those who were ready to swear that a murder had been committed, were almost as confident that Archibald had had no part in it. But now, he was seized and thrown into jail; and indeed, his personal security rendered it by no means objectionable to him.
And now came the search for the brush thicket, and the search of the mill pond. The thicket was found, and the buggy tracks at the point indicated. At a point within the thicket, the signs of a struggle were discovered, and a trail from thence to the buggy track was traced. In attempting to follow the track of the buggy from the thicket, it was found to proceed in the direction of the mill pond, but could not be traced all the way. At the pond, however, it was found that a buggy had been backed down to, and partially into the water’s edge.
Search was now to be made in the pond; and it was made in every imaginable way. Hundreds and hundreds were engaged in raking, fishing, and draining. After much fruitless effort in this way, on Thursday morning the mill dam was cut down, and the water of the pond partially drawn off, and the same processes of search again gone through with.
About noon of this day, the officer sent for William, returned having him in custody; and a man calling himself Dr. Gilmore, came in company with them. It seems that the officer arrested William at his own house, early in the day on Tuesday, and started to Springfield with him; that after dark awhile, they reached Lewiston, in Fulton county, where they stopped for the night; that late in the night this Dr. Gilmore arrived, stating that Fisher was alive at his house, and that he had followed on to give the information, so that William might be released without further trouble; that the officer, distrusting Dr. Gilmore, refused to release William, but brought him on to Springfield, and the Dr. accompanied them.
On reaching Springfield, the Dr. re-asserted that Fisher was alive, and at his house. At this, the multitude for a time, were utterly confounded. Gilmore’s story was communicated to Henry Trailor, who without faltering, reaffirmed his own story about Fisher’s murder. Henry’s adherence to his own story was communicated to the crowd, and at once the idea started, and became nearly, if not quite universal, that Gilmore was a confederate of the Trailors, and had invented the tale he was telling, to secure their release and escape.
Excitement was again at its zenith.
About three o’clock the same evening, Myers, Archibald’s partner, started with a two-horse carriage, for the purpose of ascertaining whether Fisher was alive, as stated by Gilmore, and if so, of bringing him back to Springfield with him.
On Friday a legal examination was gone into before two Justices, on the charge of murder against William and Archibald. Henry was introduced as a witness by the prosecution, and on oath re-affirmed his statements, as heretofore detailed, and at the end of which he bore a thorough and rigid cross-examination without faltering or exposure. The prosecution also proved, by a respectable lady, that on the Monday evening of Fisher’s disappearance, she saw Archibald, whom she well knew, and another man whom she did not then know, but whom she believed at the time of testifying to be William, (then present,) and still another, answering the description of Fisher, all enter the timber at the North West of town, (the point indicated by Henry,) and after one or two hours, saw William and Archibald return without Fisher.
Several other witnesses testified, that on Tuesday, at the time William and Henry professedly gave up the search for Fishers body, and started for home, they did not take the road directly, but did go into the woods, as stated by Henry. By others, also, it was proved, that since Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald had passed rather an unusual number of gold pieces. The statements heretofore made about the thicket, the signs of a struggle, the buggy tracks, &c., were fully proven by numerous witnesses.
At this the prosecution rested.
Dr. Gilmore was then introduced by the defendants. He stated that he resided in Warren county, about seven miles distant from William’s residence; that on the morning of William’s arrest, he was out from home, and heard of the arrest, and of its being on a charge of the murder of Fisher; that on returning to his own house, he found Fisher there; that Fisher was in very feeble health, and could give no rational account as to where he had been during his absence; that he (Gilmore) then started in pursuit of the officer, as before stated; and that he should have taken Fisher with him, only that the state of his health did not permit. Gilmore also stated that he had known Fisher for several years, and that he had understood he was subject to temporary derangement of mind, owing to an injury about his head received in early life.
There was about Dr. Gilmore so much of the air and manner of truth, that his statement prevailed in the minds of the audience and of the court, and the Trailors were discharged, although they attempted no explanation of the circumstances proven by the other witnesses.
On the next Monday, Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing him the now famed Fisher, in full life and proper person.
Thus ended this strange affair and while it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred. Much of the matter remains in mystery to this day. The going into the woods with Fisher, and returning without him, by the Trailers; their going into the woods at the same place the next day, after they professed to have given up the search; the signs of a struggle in the thicket, the buggy tracks at the edge of it; and the location of the thicket, and the signs about it, corresponding precisely with Henry’s story, are circumstances that have never been explained. William and Archibald have both died since—William in less than a year, and Archibald in about two years after the supposed murder. Henry is still living, but never speaks of the subject.
It is not the object of the writer of this to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly, have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive. It seems he had wandered away in mental derangement, and, had he died in this condition, and his body been found in the vicinity, it is difficult to conceive what could have saved the Trailors from the consequence of having murdered him. Or, if he had died, and his body never found, the case against them would have been quite as bad, for, although it is a principle of law that a conviction for murder shall not be had, unless the body of the deceased be discovered, it is to be remembered, that Henry testified that he saw Fisher’s dead body.
Would you feel comfortable having Abraham Lincoln as your defense attorney?
Literature on point:
Jennifer Tapley, Lincoln’s mystery letter written by Quincy Whig editor in 1846, http://www.wgem.com/story/24356487/2014/01/03/lincolns-mystery-letter-written-by-quincy-whig-editor-in-1846
Library of Congress Virtual Programs & Services, Lincoln as Poet, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/prespoetry/al.html
Mike Henry, What They Didn’t Teach You in American History Class (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield 2014)Read More