Crime And Justice In Sullivan County

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arthur c butts(1)Jacob Gerhardt was a quiet Cochecton Center farmer who was quick to help his neighbors until a fateful day in December of 1880, when his life changed forever over a case of unrequited love.

Gerhardt worked in the fields every day to support his wife, while his brother Adam and his wife, Mena farmed nearby. When Adam Gerhardt died suddenly in 1879, Jacob went to live with Mena, “to work her farm on shares.”

“Jacob fell in love with his pretty and wealthy sister-in-law, and finally asked her to marry him, stating that if she would consent to marry him, he would immediately get a divorce from his wife and then marry her,” the New York Times reported in its June 12, 1881 edition. “She refused him, and after that they had frequent quarrels.”

One such quarrel, in late November of 1880, was so violent that Mena Gerhardt decided to have her brother-in-law arrested for assault, only to have her neighbors change her mind. About a week later, the two quarreled again, this time even more violently.

“On Sunday morning, December 5, 1880, Mrs. Gerhardt went to the barn to feed her cows, and Jacob followed her thither,” the Times reported. “He again asked her to marry him, she refused, he insisted, and finally she told him that she was to be married on the following Wednesday to a wealthy Binghamton gentleman named Braning.”

At that point, according to official police reports, Jacob Gerhardt became enraged at the thought of Mena marrying another man, grabbed a crowbar and smashed her over the head with it, crushing her skull and “causing almost instant death.” Then, according to the case against him, Gerhardt, “with a coolness simply horrible, procured a club, with which to beat the dead woman’s head to a jelly.”

Mena Gerhardt’s body was discovered by her young son, who ran to his uncle’s nearby home, and summoned Adam Bishop [although reported in the papers as Bishop, this might have been Adam Bishoff], “who found Mrs. Gerhardt lying in a pool of blood, her brains spattered over the stones and fence.”

Jacob Gerhardt was arrested nearly right away. He did not deny the crime, though he maintained that he had killed his sister-in-law in self-defense, she having attacked him with a pitchfork.

The brutal killing resulted in an intriguing murder trial that stirred more fervor in the county than virtually any other case in local history.

The Gerhardt trial was conducted in a special term of Oyer and Terminer Court in Monticello, and featured some of the county’s most prominent legal minds. Judge A.M. Osborne of the New York State Supreme Court presided, along with Justices Mall and Hawkes. Sullivan County District Attorney James I. Curtis, and former D.A. John Anderson prosecuted, while renowned defense attorney Arthur C. Butts and his partner Joseph Merritt, assisted by former County Judge Timothy Bush, represented the defendant.

The trial was originally slated to begin in May of 1881, and spectators from far and wide journeyed to Monticello to view the spectacle, packing hotels and eating establishments. Arthur C. Butts, one of the most capable and shrewd defense lawyers in the annals of county history, managed to get the proceedings delayed, citing the intensity of the emotion running against his client, and it wasn’t until a month later that the case was actually called. Although speculation had long been that Butts would present a defense based on insanity – one of his specialties – he instead decided to try to prove Gerhardt’s self-defense contention.

The prosecution paraded a long line of impressive witnesses before the court, including Adam Bishop (or Bishoff), who testified where he had found the body, and in what condition, Joseph Nearing, who testified he had often heard the couple quarrel and fight, and Mrs. Jacob Morse, John Keesler, John Robisch, and William Bischoff, all of whom testified that Gerhardt had admitted the murder “and expressed a desire at the time to be hanged.”

Drs. S.A. Kemp and William W. Appley provided particularly damaging testimony, agreeing that Mrs. Gerhardt’s skull had been fractured in several places and that “the wounds could not have been caused by a single blow, but by repeated strokes with a heavy weapon. A large rock was entered into evidence, as well.

“Great excitement prevailed when the daughter, 11 years old, of the murdered woman was called to the stand,” the Times reported on June 16. “The little girl testified that Gerhardt told her that her mother had gone away, and then he left the house and fled to Callicoon.”

When the defense had its turn, they presented testimony from local doctors Frederick A. McWilliams and Alfred E. Gillespie that flatly contradicted that of the prosecution’s medical experts. McWilliams and Gillespie both contended that a single blow was most likely responsible for the fatal fractures. Jacob Gerhardt also took the stand, testifying on his own behalf.

“A buzz of excitement was caused by the prisoner taking the stand, and in a few minutes the court room was so jammed with spectators that officers were stationed to prevent anyone from entering the building,” the Times noted on June 18. Gerhardt spent two hours in the witness chair, and was not cross examined. The defense rested following his appearance.

After closing arguments by Butts for the defense and Anderson for the prosecution, Judge Osborne charged the jury and they retired for deliberations around 8 p.m.

The verdict and the aftermath of the Gerhardt trial next week.

Photo: Renowned Monticello attorney Arthur C. Butts led the defense for farmer Jacob Gerhardt.

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  1. Pingback: Murder In Western Sullivan County (Part II) | The New York History Blog

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