Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Another early American murder mystery

These events happened quite a while ago, in 1841 to be precise. It is still an interesting and unsolved mystery. We only know about it at all from the recollections of a young lawyer who represented one of the defendants. There is a kicker at the end, too.

Three brothers, William, Henry and Archibald Trailor lived in the burgeoning Midwest in or near a small town of about 3500 citizens. Archibald was the youngest of them, a bachelor of excellent reputation about 30 years old, and lived in the town itself. He made his living as a carpenter along with partner and fellow boarder, Myers. Archibald’s brother Henry, was a couple of years older than him, was a farmer who lived with his family about 20 miles outside town, and who also enjoyed a solid reputation. A few years older still was William, who lived furthest away from where these events occurred, perhaps a hundred miles or so. His wife had passed on and he was raising his children himself, enjoying the same reputation for character as his brothers.

William had a neighbor, whose name was Archibald Fisher and who had no family and no real home, moving from lodging to lodging. He was, however, not poor. He was well known to be “economical” and many believed that he had squirreled away a large sum in savings.

Sometime in May of that year, William decided to go visit his brothers. Fisher, who was lodging at William’s farm at the time, decided to go with him. By horse and buggy they first traveled to Henry’s home, and the next morning with Henry on horseback, they continued into town where they met up with Archibald. They all stayed at Archibald’s lodging.

After lunch, the four gentlemen went out on the town to look around. Sometime later the Trailors returned separately, but Fisher did not come back with them. His disappearance was well noted by other lodgers and the Trailors went back out to look for him. They all returned without any sign of Fisher. The next day they again searched for him, starting out before they had breakfast and again afterwards. After lunch, William and Henry decided to leave for their homes without Fisher, despite the complaints of Archibald’s fellow boarders that Fisher would have no way to get back himself.

A few days later, Henry returned to continue the search for Fisher. Archibald and some of the boarders joined him. It was fruitless and Henry left again. Few in town even knew that anyone, much less Fisher, was even missing. That was about to change. Soon after William arrived home, his local postmaster wrote to the Springfield postmaster and advised him that William had arrived home alone bragging that Fisher was dead and had left him $1500 (keep in mind, its 1841; $1500 goes a long way). William’s behavior was suspicious and the postmaster wanted to find out exactly what had happened.

This set the small city into an uproar. The state attorney general happened to reside there and he and the mayor spearheaded a search. Many seekers walked abreast to try and cover every square inch of ground. Refuse pits, basements and even freshly dug graves for dogs were all looked into in order to find an expected murder victim.

After searching a full day or more, officers were sent off to arrest not only William but also Henry. Archibald was well known in the capital, and it was not suspected that he might have something to do with a murder. While the unsettling search continued, rumors arose about William and Henry spending Fishers money. Soon Henry was arrested and zealously interrogated for days. He denied his guilt, again and again.

But finally, he cracked. He still insisted that he was innocent, but now said that the William together with Archibald had murdered Fisher. He himself had been unaware of it until just before he and William were set to leave, when his brothers confessed to him their evil deed. When Henry and William supposedly left town they actually met just outside town inside a thicket of trees. The two murderous brothers went deeper inside the wood, leaving Henry as a sentinel, and came back with a body that Henry thought looked like Fisher. They put him inside the buggy and left Henry there, heading in the direction of a pond. They returned shortly thereafter saying they had put him in a safe place. After that they parted.

Naturally, Archibald was immediately arrested. Given the anger the murder had aroused, being locked up probably saved his life. A search of the wood was made, and signs of a struggle found. They then found a trail which led directly to the buggy tracks. At the pond they could see where the buggy had backed up to the water’s edge. The evidence all matched Henry’s story.

They now attacked the pond by the hundreds, searching every inch of it. With no good result, they then cut down a dam and allowed much of the water to be drawn off. Still, they could not find Fisher.

At about this time the officer charged with bringing in William arrived with his prisoner in tow. That’s when things got really strange. Along with the two expected arrivals was a third person, one Dr. Gilmore. The doctor had caught up with the officer and William on the road, chasing after them to advise the officer that Fisher was in fact at the doctor’s own home. He expected William to be freed immediately.

Not surprisingly, the officer determined that he could not trust Gilmore and he returned with William anyway, and with the doctor too. Once in town, Dr. Gilmore restated that Fisher was his house. Naturally, Henry was confronted with his fact. He steadfastly maintained that his story was true. Once that was learned by the populous, they quickly concluded that Dr. Gilmore was merely an accomplice of the killers.

A legal examination before two judges began on the Friday following William’s return. Both he and Archibald were charged with murder. Although the law at the time required a body, Henry’s testimony to having seen Fisher dead would suffice.

Henry was called to the stand and maintained his story. A “respectable lady” who knew Archibald testified that she had seen him enter the woods just where Henry later described with someone she now believed was his brother William and also a man who fit Fisher’s description. Only William and Archibald came out a few hours later. Other witnesses also testified that they saw the brothers enter the woods at the time Henry and William were supposed to be leaving, just as Henry had described. Still others testified that William and Archibald had been passing gold pieces since the disappearance. The location of the buggy tracks and the signs of struggle in the wood were also brought in. The prosecution rested.

The defense called Dr. Gilmore. He lived a few miles from William. While out one morning, he heard that William was arrested for Fisher’s murder. But when he returned home he found Fisher himself there in a weakened condition. Fisher could not explain what had happened to him. At that point Dr. Gilmore left Fisher to recuperate and chased down the officer who had arrested William. Dr. Gilmore had known Fisher for years and knew him to sometimes become deranged due to a head injury he suffered in his youth.

Dr. Gilmore was apparently very persuasive, because despite Henry’s adamant testimony that his own brothers were murders, and Archibald and William making no explanation at all, the court discharged the defendants. The large crowd was in general agreement.

On Monday, Archibald’s partner Myers arrived in town and brought Fisher with him. The alleged victim seemed perfectly fine. Myers had set out for Gilmore’s home to prove that Fisher was still alive. Still, the mystery was never satisfactorily explained. There was the testimony of the witnesses, including that of Henry, who would never speak of the matter again. William and Henry both died young men within two years, also giving no explanation. Fisher either didn’t want to or could not recall.

But Fisher’s sudden appearance is not the kicker I promised you at the beginning of this post. And I have played a little unfairly too. The gentleman who has wrote down this story five years after it occurred, in 1846, was a well known lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, where this strange event occurred. If that is not enough of a hint for some of you, he was later the sixteenth and some think the greatest president of the United States. He is also the American writer I most admire, although this was not one of his greatest productions. It was, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.

William was represented by Lincoln in the matter but never paid him. When William died, Lincoln sued his estate. Lincoln himself could not provide a rational explanation to explain this mystery either, but did express his satisfaction that Fisher had been found by Dr. Gilmore, without which occurrence, Archibald and William would have surely been convicted, and perhaps even executed.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .