Sunday, November 8, 2009

Murder Most Foul and Unnatural - Part II

In my entry for November 4 related a possible case of a murder in Bovina in the early 19th century. The result of a coroner's jury, convened in late April 1821, was the arrest and jailing of Cornelius McDonald and his sister Jane Post for the murder of their father John McDonald three years earlier. During the inquest, they had accused each other of having committed the crime. The case caused a stir not just in the local press but in papers around the United States. Cornelius and Jane were excoriated for committing an abominable crime.

The case did not show up in the newspapers again until early August when there was a major development. In late July, Cornelius confessed that he lied about his sister having killed their father. Since Cornelius' evidence accusing his sister was recanted, Jane was released from jail. And while Jane did accuse Cornelius of the crime, she provided no direct eye-witness evidence of the fact. The grand jury came back without an indictment for murder. There simply wasn’t enough evidence. Cornelius was convicted of perjury, however, and sentenced to three years and one day in prison.

At least one newspaper expressed the following:

"Whatever might have been his guilt is best known to himself and his God: the testimony, however, was insufficient to convict him of the murder. We cannot but rejoice for the honour of the County, that we are relieved from the truly melancholy task of recording the ignominious exit from this world of a fellow creature upon the gallows. Innocence frequently pays the last debt of nature upon the gibbet. In this case, though his guilt had been ever so black, what a spectacle would it have been to the contemplative mind – with what horror would the feeling heart be filled, to witness a fellow mortal (but to say a son) launched into eternity with the indelible print of Murder stampt upon the catalogue of his sins with the blood of a father!

"We hope that all ruling Providence will see fit to send forth the conciliatory decree of his Divine will, to check the progress of crime of every description with which our country is at this time cursed, and which every day’s Herald adds to the list."

The rest of the story of the McDonald family can only be speculated. The last record related to the case was when Cornelius was hauled off to prison in New York City – probably Newgate (Sing Sing had not been built yet). A couple of pages away from Cornelius’s indictment, on file at the Delaware County Clerk's office, is that of Barber Stafford. Stafford was hauled off to the same prison for robbery. At some point, Stafford and McDonald became brothers in law when Jane married Stafford. It would appear that Jane must have visited her brother and maybe met Barber while in prison.

The names of Jane Stafford and Cornelius McDonald occasionally show up in various records, but whether or not they are the same ones accused of their father’s death is not completely clear. Jane is easier to identify in the records. A Barber Stafford shows up in Roxbury in the 1840 census records and the ages of the household correspond with Barber, his wife Jane and their son Barber, Jr. There’s also another teenager in the house – maybe a daughter. Barber, Jane and Barber, Jr. show up in Gilboa in the 1850 census and are back in Roxbury in 1860. Jane does not show up in the 1870 census, but whether she was missed, had moved or was dead is not clear. She apparently is buried in Bovina at the old RP cemetery but no death date is available.

It likely is that her son Barber Stafford was one of those convicted during the anti-rent war shooting of Osman Steele in 1845. It was reported that because of his youth, he was not imprisoned. Jane already had a son from her first marriage to Robert Post, also named Robert. This son likely was born around the time of the death of John McDonald. And it appears that this son stayed in Bovina – there’s a Robert Post living up on Cape Horn Road in the 1850s, 60s and 70s.

Cornelius is harder to trace. There’s a Cornelius McDonald in Middletown in Delaware County in 1830, with what appears to be a wife and five children. In 1860, a Cornelius McDonald is living in Roxbury with his son John and his family. This Cornelius died of fits on June 11, 1863, age 68. This likely is the same Cornelius – the age and circumstances seem to fit, including the fact that he had a son named for his father.

So did Cornelius do it? Did he kill his father? All the evidence is circumstantial, but you can make a pretty decent case it was Cornelius. His testimony is inconsistent. If Jane pushed her father down the stairs and broke his neck, then how was it that he was then able to go to bed and get up in the night to ‘make water’ the night of his death? And why did he lie about his sister’s role in their father’s death, unless it was to point the finger away from himself? But the grand jury ultimately did not feel it could bring down an indictment for murder. The fact that they went after Cornelius for perjury maybe was seen as a way to at least punish him a little.

Other questions that come up include where did this crime happen and where is John McDonald buried? Unfortunately, I have not found the answer to either. My main evidence that the crime even happened in Bovina is the fact that the coroner's inquest took place in Bovina. It seems likely that it would happen where the crime took place. And while Bovina has very detailed information on its burials (see the cemetery listing on the Delaware County Genealogy website at the McDonald family does not show up.

So this crime that put Bovina in the papers around the country probably can never be proven as such. But it makes an interesting tale to tell.


  1. Fascinating...Jane Stafford is buried in the Nichols Cemetary off Cape Horn Road, near the grave of Robert Post (1819-1886). I think the Post and Nichols families were related. Where on Cape Horn was the Post residence?

  2. Check out this 1869 map of Bovina at
    You'll see a R. Post, not right on Cape Horn Road, but on a road off that road, west and south a bit. I don't know if there still is a house there.