Rare Book Monthly
Book Catalogue Reviews - April - 2008 Issue
Murder Most Foul and Other Books of Law from the Lawbook Exchange
By Michael Stillman
Catalogue 54 of Law and Legal History has been issued by The Lawbook Exchange. It offers a combination of antiquarian legal texts, constitutional documents, and more entertaining works, such as accounts of horrible murder trials. For those of a serious legal mind, and those of a non-serious, Nancy Grace legal entertainment one, there is something here for you. Forgive me for focusing more on the Nancy Grace material, but we are here to entertain, and as television has established, what could be more entertaining than a gruesome murder? So, here we go.
The Trial of Charles M. Jefferds for Murder, at New York, December 1861, covered the murder of two respectable citizens. "No occurrence has ever caused greater horror in the city of New York," it says in what is probably a bit of hyperbole. On June 30, 1860, John Walton, a wealthy businessman, was gunned down on the streets of New York. His assailant fled, pursued by a group of public-minded citizens. The fastest of these was John Matthews, who almost caught up. When he was within six feet of the assailant, the latter whirled around and shot Matthews, killing him too. Jefferds was a logical suspect. He was Walton's stepson, and Walton and Jefferds' mother were in the process of an acrimonious split. He was arrested and put on trial for Walton's murder, proclaimed his innocence, and was acquitted. However, there were no other suspects, and police were convinced Jefferds was the killer. So they sent an undercover agent, to whom Jefferds was said to have confessed his guilt. With that and some other later developed evidence, Jefferds was again put on trial, this time for the killing of Matthews. Twice was not a charm for Jefferds, who was convicted in the second trial, sentenced to death, but murdered in prison before making it to the gallows. Item 80. Priced at $150.
That was the pleasant murder story. Here is the gruesome one: Fairburn's Third Edition of the Trial of John Holloway and Owen Haggerty for the Wilful Murder of Mr. Steele...and of Elizabeth Godfrey for Stabbing Rd. Prince in the Eye....to which is added a Circumstantial Account of the Dreadful Accident which happened at the Place of Execution... This case was a disaster in many ways. Holloway and Haggerty had been convicted of the murder of Steele for his money primarily on the testimony of a scofflaw who was promised a pardon for his testimony. The result was much public doubt as to their guilt. Godfrey, a prostitute who killed customer Richard Prince, was an afterthought except that she was taken to be hanged the same day. The doubt over Holloway and Haggerty's guilt drew a huge crowd to the gallows, reportedly some 40,000. It turned into a mob scene, with numerous spectators being crushed or suffocated by the crowd. Forty people not sent to the gallows also perished that day. Meanwhile, the hangman apparently panicked and did not properly hang Ms. Godfrey, who was still kicking at the end of her rope a half hour later. This happy story from old London town was published in 1807. $1,250.