Moses Terwilliger: Criminally Insane In Ulster Co


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Auburn-State-Prison-NYSAThe Terwilliger farm was located near Bruynswick in the town of Shawangunk in Ulster County. It was there that Sarah Terwilliger age 87, widow of J.L. Terwilliger, lived with her son Moses, age 57. According to neighbors, the two argued frequently, and her son made threats that he intended to kill his mother. One thing was for sure, Sarah was not going to see her 88th birthday.

On the night of Saturday April 8, 1871, Moses waited for his mother to go to bed for the night. After being assured that his mother was in fact asleep her son made his way to her bedroom. Once in the bedroom, Moses watched his mother for a moment with the dim glow of an oil lamp illuminating the room. He put the oil lamp down, and before he knew it, one of his arms was wrapped tightly around the neck of his mother. Moses later recalled that the only words his mother managed to utter were, “don’t choke me.” Moses remembered that he responded, “I have tried to choke you twice before, and now is as a good a time as any.”

After making sure she was dead, Moses wrapped the body in blankets, picked up the body, and walked outside. He opened the door to the cellar and placed the lifeless body on the dirt floor. Moses returned to the house, blew out the light, and went to bed. He did not sleep much that night. Moses arose several times during the night to check on the body to make sure it had not moved. Early the next morning he made himself a big breakfast. After he finished eating he went to the cellar to check once more on the lifeless body. Satisfied that his mother was still dead; Moses walked off in the direction of the barn with copious amounts of hay and paper.

The New Paltz Independent proclaimed in April 1871, that Moses Snyder Terwilliger “always had a mania for burning things.” Several bales of hay spread about the barn was all it took. By 11:00, Sunday morning, the barn was fully engulfed. Embers from the structure floated on the wind igniting the roof of the Terwilliger’s stone house. Several people on their way to church saw the flames and rushed to render assistance.

According to the Pike County Press, David Gillespie ran up to the house to make sure everyone had gotten out. Gillespie, along with another man named Mr. Rose, pounded on the door. They were met by Moses, on the other side of the door, refusing to come out. The two men crashed through the door, and were quickly met with the loud thud of a club. Gillespie fell to the floor with a blow to the head that was almost fatal. Mr. Rose quickly subdued the attacker. Once restrained, with flames all around them, Rose asked where Sarah was in the house. Moses told Rose that she was dead in the cellar and he would be willing to show him the body.

The two men walked over to the cellar, but not before Moses attacked Rose. This time Moses was knocked out and subdued with the help of other individuals who had arrived by this time. Once restrained, Rose carried out the lifeless body of Sarah, just as the roof collapsed.

When the crowd had witnessed what Moses had done, not only to his mother, but to innocent Mr. Gillespie, “great excitement prevailed….And bad threats and mutterings were indulged.” The Terwilliger neighbors that assembled quickly became an angry lynch mob. Moses was carted off to the Ulster County Jail not only to be questioned, but for his own safety. He was seen by Dr. J.E. Keyser the jail doctor. Keyser saw that Moses had a dislocated arm and promptly chloroformed him. A more in depth examination found many lumps and bruises probably at the hands of the mob. The doctor was able to reset the arm. Keyser also noted that Terwilliger pleaded with him not to kill him with the chloroform.A grand jury was assembled and Moses was charged with murder and arson.

According to The New York Herald, this murder taking place in Ulster County, was no surprise. A journalist for the paper wrote that, “this scene had been enacted so frequently over that past year….In a catalogue already reeking in Ulster County.” A year earlier the same paper had proclaimed Ulster County, the “Ulcer County” of New York State.

Why Moses Snyder Terwilliger killed his mother was open to conjecture by some newspapers. Some, such as The Herald, believed that the son wanted the property and farm. Still others quoted neighbors that Moses was just plain insane and had threatened to kill his mother numerous times in the past. One neighbor stated that Moses had “acted strangely for the past eight years.” A New Paltz paper wrote, “that he burned down a neighbor’s line fence and would not repair it. He insisted that the government had dead rebels buried there.” Still others questioned how irresponsible it was to leave such a troubled person alone with Sarah Terwilliger. When Moses was asked why he killed his mother, he replied, that he was “bewitched.”

Moses Snyder Terwilliger was judged insane and was committed to the State Asylum for Insane Criminals at Auburn. This facility was on the grounds of the Auburn State Prison. According to the U.S. Federal Census Terwilliger was still committed as late as 1880. He died on January 16, 1890. His body was interred near that of his mother’s in the Bruynswick Rural Cemetery in the town of Shawangunk.

Photo: Auburn State Prison.

3 thoughts on “Moses Terwilliger: Criminally Insane In Ulster Co

  1. Kathleen Hulser

    Interesting to learn that Auburn also housed criminally insane. Do you know more about this? Were punishments for arson very severe in 1870s?

    Reply
  2. LARRY TERWILLIGER

    WELL I HAD AN UNCLE IN KERHONKSON NEW YORK WHO WAS A TERWILLIGER, AND AS MEAN AS A SNAKE TO HIS WIFE, IT WAS THE NATURE OF SOME TERWILLIGERS TO BE OVER THE TOP HOT HEADED, MY UNCLE WAS CARRIED AWAY A FEW TIMES IN A STRIGHT JACKET, DEVORCED MY AUNT, AND RE MARRIED, THAT MARRAGE DID NOT LAST ETHER, HE PASSED AWAY A FEW YEARS AGO IN A NURSING HOME, HE HAD TWO SIDES IN HIS PERSONALITY, SO NICE AT TIMES AND THEN AS QUICK AS A WINK WOULD TURN VIOLENT.

    Reply

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