Contributed by Adrian Elliot
[Editor's note: Please be advised that this story includes graphic descriptions of the crime scene.]
The morning of Thursday, January 17th, 1867 saw one of the fiercest storms in living memory strike Maine, fierce winds and feet of snow stopped all trains into and out of the state. By Saturday though, people were venturing out and conducting business as usual, and one Isaac Libbey, a shoemaker of West Auburn went to call on his neighbors, two elderly women, widow Susannah Kinsley, 64, and Polly Caswell, 67, to collect some work they had done for him. Approaching their humble home, Mr. Libbey noticed that there was no smoke rising from the chimney despite the biting cold, and no footprints marked the snow coming or going from the house. He futilely tried to raise a response by knocking on the door, but receiving none he walked about the house. With growing concern, he noticed the door to their shed was open, and filled with snow from the recent storm. Fearing some ill had befallen them, Mr. Libbey called on another neighbor, Otis Keith, to investigate further.
Together they entered the house and found the horrific remains of a double murder before them. The Lewiston Evening Journal described the scene thus:
“On the floor, lying across the door-stool of an open door leading into a small entry separating the sitting-room from a sleeping apartment, was stretched the lifeless body of Polly Caswell--her head and shoulders in the entry and her body and lower limbs in the sitting-room. The body was partially covered with a night dress, and on proceeding to take hold of it, it was found frozen stiffly, and giving evidence of having been in that condition for some days. A broken chair, covered with blood, lay near, affording evidence in itself that it had been used in aiding with the murder of Miss Caswell. Hardly has this terrible scene been realized before another still more terrible met their gaze.--In the bed in the small bed-room, about ten feet square, adjoining the sitting-room and connected with it by a door,--which was open--was the lifeless and ghastly body of the widow Kinsley, also frozen stiff, and lying with her night clothes on, in a pool of congealed blood. The bed-clothes were matted with blood, the quilt and feather tick torn, and feathers were scattered about...The body of Mrs. Kinsley was horribly cut and mangled. The jugular vein was severed by a deep gash on the side of the throat. There were also cuts on the left jaw bone and on the left forehead, a gash nearly six inches in length on the left leg, and severe bruises on the left shoulder, not to mention many minor cuts and bruises. The evidence was conclusive that a rape had been committed or attempted...Miss Caswell had received severe blows on her head and face (probably by the chair,) her skull was fractured, her left wrist broken, her wrist and left shoulder bruised. There was also a bruise over her right eye, a cut on her left arm above the elbow and a cut on the left knuckles. The immediate cause of her death was probably the fracture of the skull, although it is possible that this might only have produced insensibility and that freezing did the rest...A more horrible scene than was presented cannot be imagined. The bodies cut, bruised and mangled in almost every part, covered with blood, the hair dishevelled and bloody, the painful expressions of the countenances indicating even in death the fearful struggle for life, and then the bodies and limbs frozen stiff-all made up of a scene from which we recoiled.”
Coroner Hamlin of Lewiston arrived after midnight, and following interviews with the immediate neighbors, deduced that the murder was surely committed late the preceding Wednesday night just before the storm struck, as the women were last seen that afternoon, and the lack of tracks in the snow indicated they met their demise before the snow had fallen.
Clues were scant initially, and the motive unclear. Though the women were not wealthy, they had some money stashed away in their closet, which appeared to have been searched (but not discovered). The widow Susannah had an adult daughter, Emily, who was away from the house visiting friends during the murder. Initially some theorized that the murderer had to be a local, aware that the house was only occupied by two old women, and would thus make for a comparatively vulnerable target.
The first lead came from the man that discovered the bodies, Isaac Libbey. Upon reflection, Mr. Libbey recalled that at 2AM Thursday morning (near the supposed time of the crime), he awoke to find a man trying to force entry to his window. The man wore a dark coat and hat that obscured his visage, and upon confrontation, insisted he was only seeking shelter from the growing storm. Libbey turned him away only to find him trying to force entry to another window, from which he was chased away into the night. Constable Ricker of Lewiston immediately suspected this man and the murderer were one and the same. Ricker thusly focused his investigation on transients in the area, supposing that this man was likely without a home to shelter in during the storm.
In the following week, every transient in the area of Lewiston and Auburn was rounded up and questioned. Initially, some made for promising suspects. One Nathaniel Johnson, a vagrant of North Yarmouth was spotted in the area wearing clothes similar to those described by Mr. Libbey. He had a record for larceny and drunkenness, but was released after providing a corroborated alibi.
The victims’ funeral was held on the morning of Wednesday, January 23rd. The Reverend Snow’s speech called out to the guilty conscience of the murderer: “Though hand join in hand, God says, the wicked shall not go unpunished. The weight of this crime must rest on his soul and pursue him, both sleeping and waking. He can have no peace.”
That same morning saw the questioning of another two suspects, Luther Verrill, a thirty year old Irish man of Auburn, and Clifton Harris, a nineteen year old black man of Auburn. Apparently Verrill drew police attention to Harris, naming him as having made threats against the murdered women previously. Police questioned both, thought their manners unsuspicious, and released them having been satisfied of their innocence. The Lewiston Evening journal did not even see fit to print their names, merely describing them in passing as “an Irishman” and a “boyish negro”. These two were to be quickly forgotten, eclipsed by the appearance of a much more promising suspect.
A certain Frenchmen, hideous and all a mess with blood was spotted wandering West Minot the afternoon following the murders. Deputy Keene of Mechanic Falls tracked him by sleigh to New Gloucester, and secured his arrest after a chase and struggle on Thursday the 24th. The Lewiston Evening Journal described him with horror, relishing the very ugliness of his appearance, and took it for a sign of his wicked soul and guilt:
“The prisoner is a foreigner and gives conflicting accounts of himself. He is a most strange and brutal man, in appearance...He has a most beastly looking face, and a florid complexion. His eye is small and dark, and rolls uncomfortably in its socket, it being seemingly impossible for him to fix it on any point. His hair is dark and curly, and the top of his head is bald. His head is large, and his face is concealed among shaggy whiskers, and his mouth by a dirty moustache. He is evidently a powerful man, and has one of the most wicked eyes we have ever seen...His livid eyes wandered all over the cell, wildly and rolled in their socket like balls of fire. A more terrible-looking object in human shape we never saw before...His manner as well as his responses were strange and abstracted. He speaks with a growl and closes his teeth upon his words as though he would bite his words in two. Ugliness is the very expression of his manner as well as of his voice. You would say, this is the man who might ask the smallest motive for the wickedest deed.
It is impossible to get any satisfaction from him. He seems to know nothing; don’t know where his parents live; don’t know the name of anybody he has ever worked for; don’t know where he as been the past few weeks.”
This frightening, deranged man made the very picture of a Victorian fiend, and certainly captured the imagination of the public that came to view him at Auburn jail. Interestingly, the police called on Dr. Edgecomb of Auburn to determine if the soiling on his ragged clothes was blood: this test was performed by chewing the clothes and judging by taste; and indeed it was declared to be blood! This suspect’s contradictory answers even seemed to hint as his being the man that tried to gain entry to Isaac Libbey’s house the night of the murder.
But a mere three days later, Nathan Maxim of Buckfield arrived at Auburn, and identified the suspicious Frenchman as having spent the night of the murder at his farm in Buckfield, thereby proving his innocence.
Constable Ricker concluded that they had investigated every known transient in the area, and every one had an alibi. Additionally he concluded that since Isaac Libbey’s house was in the direction of Auburn (from the victim’s home), it was likely the perpetrator was in that city, and again the investigation turned towards local residents.
The investigation here stalled briefly for want of leads or suspects. But news of the crime was spreading nationwide. The Attorney General of New York even sent two of New York City’s most experienced detectives to aid with the case, including Detective Blake, famous for capturing the perpetrators of the great Adams Express train robbery in Connecticut in 1866.
Otis Keith of West Auburn approached the eminent New York detectives Blake and Laughton, newly arrived on the scene, with his own suspicions. He informed them that the earlier suspected (and dismissed) Clifton Harris was a boarder in his house, and he had noticed blood on his boots after the murder. Deputy Keene brought in Harris for questioning on February 2nd. Harris initially kept cool and seemed unshaken by the situation, but was unable to explain the blood on his boots, or damage to his coat. Detectives Laughton and Blake had researched the man, and pressed him on an earlier charge against him from the prior year, of trying to sneak through a window into the bedroom of two young ladies. He confessed to that when questioned (despite having been acquitted), and now having caught him in a deception, the detectives pushed further. His alibi for the night of the murder was that “he came that evening to Auburn with a sleigh, and called to see several negro girls living in this city, gave several of them sleigh rides through our streets, and was generally very gay” before returning to Mr. Keith’s house around 10 o’clock. The detectives had tracked down one of the girls alleged to have been with Harris that night, and she told a slightly different story: that he had left in a hurry slightly before 10, saying that he had “an appointment to go somewhere.” Confronted with these various suspicions, Harris broke down.
“Finally the subject of the prisoner’s situation, his bloody boots &c., was referred to and water flowed over his eyes and rolled down over his cheeks. This was the first sign of being moved…The County Attorney said: ‘Well, Mr. Detective, things are growing worse and worse for him. This man must be held.’ The Detective asked for a confession, but no response. Finally, the two gentlemen put on their coats as though about to leave, when the prisoner, much affected, broke out:-- ‘I’ll tell all about it.’”
His first confession suggested that the motive was pecuniary, and he implicated the aforementioned Luther Verrill as his accomplice. Verrill was similarly arrested immediately, but made no confession and denied any knowledge of the crime.
To confirm his story, the police brought to visit him the girl that had earlier recounted her evening with Harris the night of the murder. While she met with Harris the detectives concealed themselves in an adjacent room and listened in on their conversation. Harris told his story to her in much the same manner as he had to the police. Harris claimed that Verrill approached him on the day of the murder with the plan to attack the women, stealing the money they kept in the house. Harris claimed that he did not even go to the house armed, and that only Verrill had armed himself, perhaps in anticipation of murder. Harris further claimed that while he merely searched the house for money, and beat Miss Caswell with the chair, Verrill committed the more gruesome murder and rape.
Over the course of the next nine months, Harris’ story wavered back and forth, contradictory and incoherent, sometimes Verrill was completely innocent and uninvolved, at other times he was the main instigator. His story remained the sole evidence implicating Verrill. A characteristic interview with Harris’ after his conviction was printed in the July 30th Lewiston Evening Journal:
“Now, Harris, you have said he was there and you have said he wasn’t there--how are we to know when you tell the truth?
When I first told he was there I told the truth.
Now tell the whole truth. You never told it all-what have you to gain by lying now? If he was there, say so; if he was not there say so, and tell the whole story.
Last summer I and Verrill were working together and we talked over about going to Mrs. Kinsley’s to get money. Verrill said there was a young girl there, too--We never got started till that Wednesday night.
Now keep nothing back-tell the whole truth.
Well, if you want the whole truth, I suppose the real truth of it is that the night after Thanksgiving at the dance at West Auburn we were both there-Verrill and I-and Verrill mentioned it. I told him some night when I felt like it I would come up and let him know...So Tuesday night, as I said before, I came up to the shop and told him we would go Wednesday night…[Wednesday] I fell in with some of the boys, got a drinking and forgot my promise. The girl says I told her I had an engagement which I had, with Verrill.
What did Verrill say when you met him in the jail last night?
He said if I would put him out of it, it would satisfy the public. I went on to talk about the murder, but he didn’t seem to care to talk about it.
Has Verrill ever broached the murder to you since you have been in jail, prior to last night?
Only once, that was just after I accused him in the jail. Mr. Bicknell stepped down to let some one out of the jail and left us alone a moment, when Verrill said:--’You are a d----d fool for owning it; you might as well have kept it all yourself.’”
Verrill and Harris were then interviewed together, in an extremely curious but riveting scene:
“On being told that he was telling all sorts of stories, Verrill smiled and only told the truth when he said, ‘Cliff is a queer fellow.’
On Harris’ appearance he took a seat on Verrill’s cot, while the latter sat at the head of the cot, leaning against the wall. Harris had one of his ears ornamented with cherries and wore a jaunty and independent air, turning his eyes in a very scrutinizing way to Verrill occasionally and seemingly debating what phase of the story it was best to stick to this time. Verrill looked at him with entire calmness and broke the silence: ‘Well, Cliff, how do you feel about this matter today?’
Harris: About as usual.
Verrill: Well it’s a short story to tell, and it won’t take you but a few minutes to tell it; and you will feel enough better for taking now to tell us about it.
Harris said nothing, but swinging his feet nervously and twirling the cherries in his fingers, he looked at first at Verrill with a queer smirk on his face which indicated-anything you please-then at gentlemen present, then down at the floor, till after a few moments he looked up Verrill and said:
‘What do you want me to go back to the first of it?’-When someone interrupted-’Yes, go back as far as you please.’
Who was it? [Harris looked at Verrill and without replying to the question, said:] Well, you can discharge Mr. Verrill.
But you testified that he was there, in Court and swore to it?
Well you swore on your oath that he was there; when did you tell the truth?
I told the truth in Court.
What do you say now he wasn’t there for-to please people?
As much as anything. Because if people won’t believe the truth let them believe a lie.
What, then are we to believe?
Was it correct that Verrill was there?
It was. He was there.
But now you say Verrill had no hatchet, while in Court you said he had a hatchet?
I saw no hatchet, is what is true.
But you said in Court that Verrill used the knife?
Verrill did not use the knife?
Then you change your story-that Verill did not strike either of the women, that he did not commit the rape, that he had no hatchet?
Ultimately, Harris’ story changed so frequently, even from one sentence to the next, that sufficient reason could not be found to convict Verrill, and he was acquitted. Harris, for his part, was executed, hanged at Thomaston prison on March 12th, 1869 in one of the last uses of the death penalty in Maine. His execution was recounted in the Evening Journal, as the final chapter in this horrific story:
“No man ever died more bravely or better commended himself as a penitent murderer, by a more willing death. Harris died hard; his contortions were painful to witness. Weighing but about 125 pounds, the weight of his body was insufficient to break his neck, when the drop fell, and strangulation ensued...The measure of his bearing is best found in the unanimity of all who witnessed it, that they were most favorably impressed with both the negro’s penitence and sincerity. It was the general feeling, if Verrill is innocent he is a very fortunate man, if he is guilty, Harris is better off than he.”
As an interesting note to end on: a modern reader may be suspicious that some degree of racial prejudice played a role Harris’ conviction, and surprisingly (to me), the Evening Journal even commented on this concern with some advice to the people of Maine:
“Let no one so far forget his duty to himself and to society as to endeavor to prejudice (as we fear some have done) the case of either of the prisoners on account of any political reason. One of the prisoners may be for instance a democrat and the other a colored man, yet that fact has nothing to do with their alleged crime, and ought not and will not in decent men’s minds prejudice either of them, or affect other democrats or colored men. It is unfortunately the case that wicked men are found in all races, all ranks and conditions of society, in all organization and parties; but that fact affects not such race or condition, or organization, and the moment there arises any reason to suspect any have been wrong doers, no one is more interested in ferreting out the truth than others of this very race, class or organization. Let therefore this case give no one an excuse to cast reflections upon colored men as such, or democrats as such, because it chances that persons connected with one or the other class are held to answer on the charge of committing a heinous crime. Let all citizens simply look upon the accused as men, and do all in their power to bring out the real facts and mete out due justice to the prisoners.”
In fact, the Evening Journal seemed far more concerned with the fact that Clifton Harris had served in the Confederate Army than with his race. They even (somewhat ironically) commented: “The negro prisoner stated that he was in the rebel army during the war. He certainly, then, has had a schooling that would fit him for anything bad.”
The murdered women, Polly Caswell and Susannah Kinsley (along with her husband and daughter) are buried in together, with one monument in Brookvale Cemetery in West Auburn. I have been unable to identify the precise location of their house, I think it is perhaps no longer standing.