On a bitter cold Sunday morning in December of 1880, Jacob Gerhardt struck his sister-in-law over the head with a crowbar, crushing her skull and setting the stage for one of the most sensational murder trials in Sullivan County history.
The proceedings, held at a special term of the Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court beginning on June 13, 1881, featured District Attorney James I. Curtis and former D.A. John F. Anderson for the prosecution and Monticello law partners Arthur C. Butts and Joseph Merritt and former county judge Timothy Bush for the defense. People came from far and wide to view each day of the trial, and major newspapers from New York City, as well as the local weeklies, reported on the case.
Jacob Gerhardt had gone to live with his sister-in-law, Mena Gerhardt, in order to help her work her farm following the death of his brother, Adam. Jacob had fallen in love with Mena, who was pretty and wealthy, and had repeatedly asked her to marry him. If she would agree, he told her, he would immediately divorce his own wife so they could be together. Apparently, she was not interested in the proposition, and numerous arguments followed.
Jacob Gerhardt was charged with brutally murdering Mena with the blow from the crowbar, but the prosecution also contended that in addition to that forceful blow, he calmly picked up a nearby rock and repeatedly struck his sister-in-law’s head until it was “jelly,” all because Mrs. Gerhardt had spurned his advances, finally telling him she had plans to be married to someone else in the very near future.
Prosecutors presented an abundance of evidence, including the crowbar, a bloody rock, the blood-stained shirt Jacob Gerhardt was wearing at the time of the incident, and a number of witnesses who testified that he had admitted the murder.
The defense contended that Mrs. Gerhardt had attacked Jacob with a pitchfork that morning, striking him “several blows on the face and head until finally he seized a crowbar and struck her with it, causing almost instant death.” The defense produced two prominent local doctors, Frederick A. McWilliams and Alfred E. Gillespie, who both testified that just a single blow had resulted in the injuries to the deceased woman. Mena Gerhardt’s body had even been exhumed for examination in an attempt to determine that point. Gerhardt’s mother had been called to the stand to attest to her son’s character, and the defendant himself had spent two hours in tearful testimony, outlining the series of events leading up to the fateful day. He was not cross-examined.
At 9 am on Saturday morning, June 18, word came down that the jury had reached a verdict after deliberating through the night, and the Monticello court room swelled with curious spectators and reporters anxious for a suitable ending to their stories.
“Gerhardt came in with two officers, and looked very haggard and weak,” the New York Times reported the next day. “After much delay, the jury rendered a verdict of murder in the second degree. This verdict caused great dissatisfaction and excitement. Judge A.M. Osborne made an address to the prisoner and jury, drawing tears to every eye. Gerhardt was then sentenced to confinement for life in Clinton State Prison at hard labor. After sentence, Gerhardt bade all the jurymen, judges, lawyers, and reporters adieu, and was taken to his cell, where he had a final interview with his relatives. His parting with his aged mother was heartrending. He will be taken to prison Monday morning by Sheriff Hill and Jailer Evans.”
Gerhardt was a model prisoner at Clinton for nearly nineteen years, and was not forgotten by the people of Sullivan County. Through these efforts, the case was brought to the attention of New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who, on May 3, 1900, commuted the life sentence to eighteen years, ten months and seven days, actual time served.
“The facts, as reported by the district attorney, fully sustain him in the view that the conviction ought not to have been for a higher grade of homicide than manslaughter in the first degree,” the Governor noted in his commutation decree. “The killing, the result of a sudden quarrel, was committed in the heat of passion and without any real purpose to effect death. Until the commission of the crime, Gerhardt had always borne a good character, and his conduct during his long imprisonment has been exemplary. He has now served a longer term than the maximum penalty for manslaughter and commutation of his sentence is recommended by the district attorney who procured the conviction, by his associate counsel, by the county judge, who was a member of the trial court, by the present county judge, and by other leading citizens of Sullivan County.”
Despite the fortuitous turn of events the governor’s intervention provided him, however, there was not to be a happy ending for Jacob Gerhardt. Spared once from spending his life in prison, he was unable to remain a free man.
On July 11, 1901, just over a year after his unexpected release from Clinton, Gerhardt, then sixty-nine years old, was returned to prison. Convicted of burning down his sister’s barn, he was sentenced to twenty-six years in Dannemora.
Photo: New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who commuted Jacob Gerhardt’s life sentence on May 3, 1900.