January 10, 1879: The Hanging of Benjamin Hunter Jan 11, 2014 3:50:28 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Jan 11, 2014 3:50:28 GMT -5
The Hanging of Benjamin Hunter
On Friday, January 10, 1879, convicted murderer Benjamin Hunter was carried – not led – to the gallows. Some said his apparent weakness was the result of a loss of blood from his attempted suicide a week earlier. Others insisted it was because he had been plied with so much brandy that by the appointed hour, he was dead drunk.
The hanging was to be accomplished by a new method adopted by the state of New Jersey wherein, instead of falling through a trapdoor, the condemned man would be lifted upward when a counterweight was dropped. Hunter’s execution was botched, to say the least. One eyewitness later wrote:
“There was no scaffold. He was hanged in the corridor of the Court House, with a rope reaching up into the Court House over a pulley and to a weight in the cellar below. He was hanged at a cross-like arrangement, made by two corridors populated by men from some of whom the Sheriff demanded ten dollars apiece, and Eli Morgan, Deputy Sheriff to Sheriff Daubman, was to cut a little rope that held a stronger rope that controlled a three-hundred pound weight that was intended to hoist up the murderer into the air. The narrator was within two feet of Hunter when he was hanged. The rope was so long that it failed of its purpose and stretched, and the man went up in the air for but a few feet then tumbled down like a bunch of wet rags. Then Eli Morgan grabbed the rope and hauled him up hand over hand and held him there until he was throttled to death.”
It was at least 14 minutes before Hunter finally strangled to death.
Hunter was executed for the murder of John M. Armstrong, a Philadelphia music publisher. On the night of January 23, 1878, Armstrong was found lying on the ground with a serious head wound, not far from the home of Ford W. Davis in Camden, New Jersey. Nearby were a hammer and hatchet, both bearing the initials F.W.D. The wounded man was transported across the Delaware River to his home in Pennsylvania for treatment.
Because Davis lived in the immediate vicinity, the hammer and hatchet bore his initials, and Armstrong owed him money, he was the primary suspect. But it turned out Armstrong owned Benjamin F. Hunter a much larger sum – $12,000.00 – and Hunter had purchased a policy of insurance for more than twice the amount owed on Armstrong’s life.
Hunter was among the first to be contacted by the Armstrong family that John Armstrong was badly injured and he quickly made his way to the Armstrong home, where, in the guise of helping the injured man, suspiciously rearranged the bandages on Armstrong’s head, reopening the wound in the process. Nevertheless, when Armstrong died of his injuries, it was Davis who was arrested and charged with his murder.
Some days later, a young man named Thomas Graham sat drowning his sorrows in a Philadelphia saloon. Laden with guilt, Graham began talking about the Armstrong murder and made statements incriminating enough that he, too, was arrested. While in jail, Graham made a full confession, claiming he was employed by Benjamin Hunter, who owned a hardware business, and his boss offered him $500.00 (a considerable sum in 1878) to kill John Armstrong. Graham, who was in need of money at the time, agreed. According to Graham, he and Hunter planned and set the date of the murder with Hunter making arrangements to be in Virginia at the time the killing would take place. But when Hunter returned to Philadelphia, he discovered Armstrong was still very much alive, Graham’s nerve having failed him.
Undaunted, Hunter came up with a more detailed plan. He gave Graham a hammer which bore the initials F.W.D., then had him mail a postcard, purporting to be from Davis, to Armstrong, requesting that Armstrong meet him in Camden. Graham was to attack and kill Armstrong with the hammer, then leave it behind to frame Davis. Graham lost his nerve again, but this time, he lied to Hunter and claimed Armstrong had never shown up.
Still undeterred, Hunter persuaded Armstrong to accompany him on the ferry from Philadelphia to Camden. Graham, armed with the hammer and a hatchet (also initialed F.W.D.) provided by Hunter, followed them, concealing himself in a different section of the ferry. In Camden, Hunter and Armstrong boarded a streetcar and Graham followed on foot. Hunter and his companion got off the car at Vine Street and when Graham arrived, Armstrong gave him the “go ahead” signal and quickly departed. Graham hit Armstrong with the hammer, but once again, his nerve failed him and he was unable to finish the job. He threw down both hammer and hatchet and ran back to the ferry. Hunter, lurking nearby, took up the hatchet and attacked Armstrong himself, striking his victim on the head. He left the seriously-injured Armstrong on the road.
After Thomas Graham told his story to the police, Ford Davis was released and Benjamin Hunter was arrested and charged with murder. He pled not guilty and defense counsel asserted there was no evidence Hunter was in Camden the night Armstrong was attacked and numerous witnesses testified to Hunter’s good character. The defense also challenged the indictment on grounds that Armstrong died in Philadelphia and Hunter could not be prosecuted in New Jersey when the actual death occurred in Pennsylvania.
During trial, it was revealed that Hunter had loaned Armstrong a total of $12,000.00 and to insure his loan, persuaded Armstrong to agree to a life insurance policy naming him [Hunter] beneficiary. The total payout on the policy was $26,000.00 (more than $600,000.00 in today’s currency). Additionally, Thomas Graham had turned state’s evidence and it was his eyewitness testimony that tightened the noose around Hunter’s neck. The trial lasted 23 days and at the end, the jury, with almost no deliberation, found Hunter guilty of first degree murder.
Hunter’s attorneys appealed his conviction, citing New Jersey’s lack of jurisdiction, but the appeal was denied and the date of execution set. Without hope, Benjamin Hunter confessed. The amount of money he had loaned Armstrong had been so large he had been losing sleep worrying about it, he said. Additionally, Armstrong appeared to be using the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle rather than improving his failing business. Hunter’s only hope of retrieving his money was Armstrong’s death.
Though he wasn’t allowed a knife or fork in his cell and was forced to eat with a spoon, Hunter managed to tear away the top of a tin cup and a week before he was scheduled to die, used the sharp edge to cut into his leg. Because he cut himself underneath his blanket, guards did not notice until he passed out from loss of blood. Doctors estimated he lost about a pint-and-a-half (which would not have accounted for his “weakness” the day of execution). He said he attempted to take his own life to save his family and himself the indignity of hanging.
Following his execution, Hunter’s brother attempted to collect on Armstrong’s insurance policy, agreeing to give the money to Armstrong’s survivors. The company refused to pay and Armstrong’s wife (administrator of his estate), sued the company. The court sided with the insurance company and the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the verdict was overturned. The court determined if the policy had been taken out by Hunter as part of the crime of murder, then the company did not have to pay, but if the policy was solely to ensure payment of the loan in the case of Armstrong’s natural demise, then the money must be paid.
The false accusation and imprisonment of the first suspect, Ford Davis, totally prostrated the man and shortly thereafter – partly out of consideration for his innocent sufferings – Davis was appointed crier of the Camden Courts, a position he held for many years.
Sources: American State Trials by John Davison Lawson; The New Jersey Law Journal, Volumes 4-5; and Murder by Gaslight.