Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Murder Most Foul and Unnatural - Part I

In the small hours of January 21, 1818, Mrs. Henrietta McNaught was awakened by someone pounding on the door of her home in what later became the Town of Bovina. There she found Cornelius McDonald, the son of her neighbors Mr. and Mrs. John McDonald, standing on her doorstep with the news that his father had died. He asked if she would come over. So she did, guided by a candle carried by Cornelius. When she arrived, she found a clean and dry house with a good fire – and the body of John McDonald lying in the middle of the bed.

The neighbors didn’t think much of the McDonald family. They quarreled often and the old man freely complained to anyone who would listen about how badly he was treated at home. He would go to neighbor’s homes to get a decent meal, claiming that he was being starved. Once, he ate so heartily at a neighbor’s to make up for the lack of food at home that he got sick. A visitor to the McDonald home during breakfast noted that the old man was outdoors and when he came in to ask for something to eat, he was given a piece of bread about the size of two fingers and told to go away, since he had already had breakfast. John McDonald also complained that his daughter Jane misused him and that he was scared of Cornelius. He claimed that Cornelius knocked him down and once held him so close to the fire he thought he would burn up. So when the old man did die, it started a run of gossip.

The gossip did not abate during the lying in and funeral. Several of the neighbors noted the odd angle of the John McDonald’s neck. One neighbor later testified that “the men nearly all withdrew from the house to consult relative to the funeral.” There was some debate about going through with the burial but they finally concluded to carry it out, trusting that at some point justice would prevail. Jane later reported that her brother Cornelius became quite nervous at this withdrawal of the men.

So the funeral took place and John McDonald was buried – but he did not rest in peace. Over the next three years, the surviving family members continued to quarrel and exchange accusations. It appears that much of it came to a head when their sister Lydia died in 1820. This led to accusations between Jane and Neal concerning the death of their father.

Exactly what triggered the coroner’s inquest is not clear, but obviously there was enough information to order the exhumation of the body of John McDonald in April 1821. And while McDonald was buried in Delhi, he was dug up in Bovina, the town having been created a little over two years after his death. His body was brought to the Bovina home of William Neish on April 27, 1821 where a corner's jury was convened. The report of the jury stated that "The body [was] laying on his back the head inclined on the left side. The membranes nearly decayed and a quantity of bloody matter about half way from his head to his shoulders attached to the neck bones. The other part of the Body (we suppose) as used as other persons which has been buried as long as the J. McDonald has been.

The result of the examination of John McDonald’s body bore out the comments about the odd angle of the head. The jury concluded that his neck had been broken before he died. It then adjourned until the next morning, meeting at Thomas Landon, Jr’s house in Lake Delaware. Over the next two days, testimony was taken relative to the death of John McDonald.

A number of the neighbors testified. Many of them reported the quarrels in the McDonald family and noted the odd angle of John McDonald’s neck at the funeral. None of them mentioned having witnessed any specific threats made by either Neal or Jane to their father, though the father had told neighbors he was scared of them.

Lewis Halstead reported a conversation with Mrs. McDonald in which she told him that when she was awaken by a noise the night John McDonald died that she found Cornelius outdoors walking and found the old man dead on the hearth. Halstead also testified that Mrs. McDonald said that she believed Cornelius had thrown his father down the stairs during the night, then carried him back upstairs to bed.

Cornelius and his mother and sister had differing viewpoints of the old man’s situation from that of the neighbors. And they also differed widely from each other in what happened. At times, the testimony almost reads as the transcript of a family argument happening right in court.

McDonald’s daughter, Jane Post, felt the family was taking good care of her father, but she did testify that her father was afraid Neal would kill him. She also claimed that Neal expressed a desire to have the “old man out of the way.” He had said that if his father worked as hard as he ate, he might be worth something. Jane also testified, though, that she never heard her brother directly threaten their father. And though she thought her brother had killed their father, having said so to her mother the day her father died, Jane never produced direct evidence of having seen her brother attack her father.

She did testify, however, that “I have heard Neal tell my mother that she should say nothing about breaking his neck and likewise has told me that he would thrash me if I should say anything about it.” She went on to say that “Cornelius has threatened my life and to wash his hands in my hearts blood” if she said anything.

Cornelius had a different story and testified not only that his sister had done the deed but that he saw her do it through an 8-inch crack in the floor. He claimed that his sister and father had quarreled that evening and that he saw her push him down the stairs or down a ladder. Neal said he carried his father upstairs. But according to Neal’s testimony, his father was well enough to request a bed by the hearth and wanted help later in the night to go to the bathroom.

Cornelius claimed the night his father died that the old man was not feeling well and after being put to bed got up and asked for a bed by the hearth. During the night he needed help to go out and ‘make water.’ Neal said later that night that he heard his father make a heavy breathing noise and so he asked ‘Dadda are you asleep.’ That’s when he thought he might be dead.

Jane and Cornelius’s mother, Christian, says she heard some kind of noise where her husband was sleeping and called up to her son, who was sleeping with his father that night, to find out if everything was all right. Cornelius called down that he thought his father was dead. She testified that she never saw Neal use any violence against his father other than to keep his father off him.

So the three family members in the house the night John McDonald died had conflicting stories. Jane reported that her mother thought Neal had done the deed, but Mrs. McDonald denied this. She also denied having said that she wanted her son back to face the gallows. When Jane was asked by the court why Cornelius was testifying against her she responded “I do not know, I supposed he wants to clear himself.”

After all the testimony, the jury decided that there was enough evidence of foul play, stating "[T]hat one Cornelius McDonald late of the town of Delhi but now of Ulster County … having the fear of God before his eyes and being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force in and upon the body of the said John McDonald then and there being in the peace of God and the said people feloniously, violently and of his malice aforethought made an assault and that the aforesaid Cornelius McDonald with his hands or by some other violent means did dislocate the neck of said John McDonald of which said dislocation the said John McDonald then and there instantly died, and so the said Cornelius McDonald then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said John McDonald against the peace of the people of said State and their dignity.

The jurors went on to say “Jane Post of Colchester in the County of Delaware spinster was feloniously present at the time of the felony and murder aforesaid and was an accessory to the felony and murder aforesaid in manner aforesaid against the peace of the people of the said State and their dignity.”

Both Cornelius and Jane were carted off to jail in Delhi. The story of this alleged parricide was published in the Delaware Gazette in Delhi. It then appeared in numerous newspapers in places such as New York City; Saratoga; Pittsfield, MA; Woodstock, VT; Maine and even in Baltimore.

So what happened to Cornelius and Jane? Did they swing from the gallows, go to the hoosegow, or beat the rap? Stay tuned to this blog for the concluding installment of this story.

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