It was in October of 1887 that itinerant laborer Abel John Allen was arrested for the brutal murder of Ursula Ulrich in Jeffersonville, NY. Nine months later he became the last man ever hanged in Sullivan County.
His murder of the widow Ulrich notwithstanding, the man known as Sailor Jack was a complicated fellow who packed a lot of living into his 34 years. He spent his time in the Sullivan County jail – awaiting first his trial and then his execution – writing about forgiveness, redemption, and having a “right heart.” Those writings reveal a world traveler, an astute observer of the passing parade, a philosopher.
According to his own account, Allen was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England in 1854. He writes of a mother, a father, a sister and a brother.
“After I was six years of age, my grandmother took me as a love child to live with her in the city of London, England,” Allen wrote in June of 1888, about a month before his death. “I remained with her till I was ten years old, then I thought I was man enough to earn my own living, so I ventured to try and get my own living, and run away from my grandmother and went to sea in a ship called the Boscowean bound for the Cape of Good Hope.”
After thirteen months at sea, the young Allen returned to London briefly, taking a job on a fishing boat. Bored with the monotony of that work after eight months, he joined up with the crew of a barge called the Zephyr and set out for Australia. He worked on the Zephyr, traveling the world from Australia to Norway, until it was rammed by another ship and sunk in the English channel. Just 15 at the time, Allen was the only crew member willing to give up his seat in the lifeboat to a young lady passenger, and had to swim the five miles to shore to save himself.
Allen later joined the British Navy and fought in two wars. In between, he managed to find the time to marry and to father two children. Unable to adapt to life on dry land, he was soon back at sea, and eventually landed in New York on June 5, 1887.
“On the 8th of June, I went to Mr. Ross and got work to come to Jeffersonville and there I was at Jeffersonville four months,” he wrote.
On a Saturday morning, October 8, 1887, Allen, employed at a local sawmill, borrowed a shotgun from a co-worker, claiming he was going to hunt birds. Prosecutors later said he used the gun to rob and murder Mrs. Ulrich, a wealthy widow who lived nearby.
“Mrs. Ursula Ulrich, an aged and highly respected widow, living alone, was found dead in the kitchen of her farmhouse about noon yesterday,” the New York Times reported. “She had been murdered, the crime having been perpetrated probably soon after eight o’clock Saturday night, at which time she was last seen alive by a neighbor. Appearances indicated that as she opened her kitchen door in response to the murderer’s knock she was shot down and then the house was ransacked from garret to cellar, evidently for purpose of plunder.
“The crime was first discovered by her son, who is married and lives about 100 rods distant from his mother’s place, in making his usual Sunday call, and opening the kitchen door, he was horrified to find his mother lying dead in a pool of blood. He gave an alarm and the whole neighborhood turned out in search of the murderer.
“Suspicion was immediately directed to a young Englishman named Abel Allen, who had recently come into the neighborhood and had worked in a sawmill nearby. He was out hunting birds Saturday, and was seen late that evening with his gun in hand in the vicinity of the woman’s house.”
Allen went on trial in Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court on May 29, 1888. Judge Alton B. Parker, who would run against Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1904, presided over the case, which took just a few days to complete. On June 8, 1888, Judge Parker sentenced Allen to be hanged on Friday, July 20, “between the hours of 10 and 3 o’clock,” and the sentence was carried out without fanfare.
“Abel John Allen, commonly known as ‘Sailor Jack,’ was hanged here today for the murder of the aged widow Ulrich on October 8, 1887,” the New York Times reported the next day.
“The condemned man showed wonderful nerve and composure to the last. He passed the early part of last night in singing and in jesting with his watchers. Allen took his place firmly under the noose and then addressed the spectators, saying that he had no confession to make, as he was drunk on the day of the murder and had no recollection of the crime. He warned his hearers against rum drinking.”
The entire incident was an eerie reminder of the hanging of Mark Brown at the courthouse almost exactly thirteen years before. Brown, also a native of England, had been put to death in July, 1875 for the October, 1874 murder at Purvis, NY of Sylvester Carr, a bartender who had refused to serve him. Brown also claimed no recollection of the murder, had found religion in jail, denounced drinking as the cause of his crime, and had remained steady and calm until the very end. Allen and Brown are buried side by side in the old Monticello cemetery.
Abel Allen left behind at least two volumes of writing in his own hand, including this final wish: “May the Lord bless you all that reads this. Good bye all, good bye. Good bye and God bless you all. Jack Allen.”
Photos: Above, the New York Times announcement of the verdict; and below, Sullivan County’s second Courthouse (1845 – 1909), where Sailor Jack Allen was convicted of murder and hanged for his crime.