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When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
 
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
 
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
 
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
 
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
 
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
 
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
 
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
 
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
 
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
 
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
 
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
 
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
 
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
 
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
 
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
 
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
 
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
 
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
 
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
 
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
 
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
 
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
 
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
 
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
 
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
 
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
 
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
 
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
 
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
 
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
 
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
 
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
 
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
 
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
 
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case


As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
 
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini. Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.” His older brother, Charles, had been profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
 
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.
 

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” or alcoholic.
 
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
 
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
 
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
 
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
 
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.


In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes. One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
 
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
 
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
 
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
 
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
 
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
 
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
 
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
 
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
 
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
 
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
 
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
 
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
 
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
 
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
 
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
 
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
 
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
 
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
 
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
 
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
 
For his act he was convicted and executed.
 
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
 
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.

The Mayor Pays His Debt

Samuel McCue

The citizens of Charlottesville harbored a love-hate relationship with their former mayor and municipal court judge J. Samuel McCue. While Sam did have friends and admirers, for the most part local feelings tended toward an intense and passionate dislike.
 
In 1904, Samuel McCue, 45, was a ruthlessly successful attorney in Virginia specializing in debt collection and domestic relations cases. He had been a powerful mayor for three terms and sat on the bench of the municipal court where he was known for his unyielding tough-on-crime stance.
 
Gossips around the courthouse were convinced that Sam had the largest loan portfolio of any member of the county bar association, but some clients suspected he was financing his sideline business with their money in the form of collected, but undeclared, debt payments. One published account reflected the commonly held belief that Sam’s professional duties provided him with a hold over some of the community’s leading citizens who might have over-extended themselves financially, legally or romantically.
 
Lesser known generally, but also a dangerous activity on his part, Sam was a philanderer.
 
Any of these actions makes accumulation of enemies almost a certainty.
 
After his execution, the Bluefield (Maryland) Daily Telegraph — perhaps the only newspaper in the area that did not support the verdict — speculated that Sam’s reputation had more than a little to do with his conviction.
 
“There was another thing that worked to his undoing. He was a man of overbearing disposition, and hated the poor and the humble with lofty disdain and frequently with insulting demeanor,” an editorial in the newspaper read. “When the first breath of suspicion came, these people fanned it into a flame.”
 
The Daily Telegraph did not comment on the fact that the jurors were brought in from various locations around the state — Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Warrenton and Richmond) and were unaffected by the local mood immediately after the crime.
 
In the end, Sam reaped the same kind of justice that he sowed after he killed his 42-year-old wife, Fanny, in a violent frenzy. For his crime he died on the gallows in February 1905.
 
At the turn of the 20th century, the McCue clan — Sam, along with his brothers Judge Edward O. McCue and Dr. Frank McCue and various kin created by decades of marriages among the elite — was among Albermarle County’s leading families.
 
“The McCues have always been prominent in Albermarle, exhibiting on all occasions positive and masterful dispositions in the conduct of their affairs,” according to The McCue Murder: Complete story of the crime and the famous trial published by reporters James H. Lindsay and John S. Patton shortly after the case reached its conclusion.
 
According to the book — a pamphlet, really — the McCue family fortune came from its large farming and cattle operation. Sam McCue was educated on the farm by a private tutor, later entering a prep school which led to a study of the law at nearby University of Virginia.
 
Sam maintained at best a gentleman’s C average until he left school to learn the law directly from those who practiced it, Lindsay and Patton wrote.

It is not likely that he took to books from a love of letters, but with the well-defined purpose to make use of his attainments as an asset in getting along in the world. The sparkling of the cadmean waters did not tempt him to deep and frequent draughts, and when he hung out his shingle as a young lawyer in 1884, his academic achievements and legal attainments were probably unattested by parchments.

Diplomas or not, Sam quickly established himself as an aggressive and skilled legal collections enforcer for local businesses. One client said “I turned over to him accounts I failed to collect, no matter how urgently I sought payment. Invariably, Sam McCue got the money.”
 
Those who were pursued by McCue cursed his name and sang a ditty that summarized their feelings: “Maunfra, maunfra, what’ll I do/To keep out o’ the hands of Sam McCue.
 
The attorney entered politics and was elected alderman in 1888, serving in that position until 1894. His first run for the mayoralty resulted in a third-place finish but Sam’s second try was successful. After he defeated the incumbent who had trounced him previously rumors of Sam’s stranglehold over some of the town fathers began to surface.
 
He served two terms as mayor and Sam’s draconian presence on the municipal bench drove the citizens to change the city charter. They established a city police court with an elected judge and stripped the mayor of all judicial duties.
 
Despite being the sole cause of its creation, Sam chose to seek the newly created judgeship rather than a third term as mayor. In that race Sam faced off against his brother who, to the surprise of no one but the now ex-mayor, beat him handily.
 
Based on the character sketch of Judge Edward McCue in The McCue Murder, it is easy to see why voters chose Edward over Sam:
 
“Samuel McCue had been a hard man,” wrote one contemporary reporter summarizing Sam’s murder case. “He had sent scores to jail, and had seldom tempered justice with clemency. Many who were the recipients of his justice insisted that the quality of his mercy was badly strained.”
 
Regarding Edward, the authors had high praise.
 
“It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a better administrator of justice in any petty court than Justice McCue,” said the authors. “Even the people whom he convicts love him for his moderation and just findings.”
 
In 1902 Sam was reelected to the mayor’s office. When Fannie was killed, he had just retired from that position to concentrate on his private practice and his position as deacon of the local Presbyterian church.

The Crime

Fannie McCueThe crime that put the noose around Sam’s neck began after he and Fannie returned home from a Sunday night service at the Presbyterian Church where Sam was a deacon.
 
“The McCues were a church-going people,” a retrospective on the crime published the day after the ex-mayor’s execution the Harrisburg (Virginia) Daily News reported. “Deacon McCue invariably sat well to the front in the sacred auditorium, and Mrs. McCue, always looking trim, sat primly at his side.”
 
Later, witness after witness would recount how the McCues appeared to be quarreling and did not, as was their custom, walk to their pew together. Sam explained this away as a red herring caused by an ill-timed bathroom break on his part.
 
Following the service the husband and his wife of nearly 20 years walked home together in silence.
 
“Mrs. McCue’s manner, as afterward testified to in court, appeared depressed and preoccupied, failing to observe or respond to the greetings of friends who they passed on the way,” the The Daily News told its readers.
 
It was only a few minutes after the couple entered their home and closed the door that Dr. Frank McCue came running to the house clutching his medical bag and a pistol. Charlottesville beat cop Daniel C. Grady was close behind him. Something was very wrong behind the doors of the mansion on Park Street.
 
There were plenty of people strolling down the exclusive thoroughfare where the McCues lived, and many, alerted by the hubbub, turned from walkers to gawkers.
 
“In a few minutes a piece of news — startling, horrifying news — spread with the rapidity with which bad news alone seems to travel,” according to one contemporary report. “Crowds hurried to the McCue home to learn the worst, and how it had happened.”
 
The worst was the brutal murder of Fannie McCue; how it had happened was proven in court to have been at the hands of ex-Mayor Sam McCue. The “why” — motive — was disagreement over Sam’s infidelities.
 
Exactly what transpired in the upstairs of the McCue home on September 4, 1904, that led to Fannie’s death is unclear; Sam gave a number of statements that were variations on a theme, but with enough differences regarding important details that make deconstructing the events connected to the crime difficult.
 
Other witnesses gave strong statements that incriminated the ex-mayor but later recanted them on the stand.
 
Sam’s testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest was the only version of events he gave under oath. It is not too lengthy, the relevant parts are included here, and — as Sam admitted later in the shadow of the noose — is a complete fabrication.
 
It begins with the couple in their bedroom, preparing for bed.

I picked up a paper, reading the last Council proceedings, and I think Mrs. McCue was undressing in the meantime and talking about the affair. She laid her clothes on a chair. I had gone over to my chiffonier and took my coat off and my collar and negligee shirt.
I was standing at my buffet and I noticed some figure moving toward me. I think I rushed over towards the gun which stands in the corner — we keep it there — and that is all I remember. I think I must have been unconscious after that. He and I had a scuffle. I am pretty positive he was a white man, a kind of dirty white man. I think his beard was out a little.
…I could not say which door he came through, for my back must have been to the door. It seems to me I heard a sound, when he came in, some sound of a click like. I do not know how long after this sound before he came in.
I do not know if he had anything in his hand, but possibly he did.

mccue home mapDr. McCue testified at the inquest and his brother’s trial about what he found when he reached his brother’s home. He said he received a call from his brother about 9:15 p.m.
 
“Come down here,” the doctor remembers his brother saying. “Someone has knocked me senseless and I think has murdered Fannie.”
 
When Dr. McCue got to the scene, he found that Sam was “dazed and could not give a good account of himself.”
 
“Arriving, I found the front door ajar and went directly upstairs,” he testified at trial. “I saw my brother’s wound when I got to the hall, blood was dripping to his undershirt. One hand was pressed to his head.”
 
Dr. McCue said his brother was incapable of providing any assistance due to his head wound.
 
Entering the second floor, Dr. McCue said he smelled the odor of burnt gunpowder and heard the sound of running water from the bathroom.
 
The bathroom was dark; he turned up a gas burner and in the flickering light he saw Fannie McCue dressed in a nightgown, bent backward over the tub. Her head was submerged. The running water had washed away most of the blood from Fannie’s body and diluted some of the blood stains on her gown, but there was a great deal of blood ringing the tub. A bloody baseball bat lay on the floor of the bathroom.

Wounds, Fatal and Otherwise

Dr. McCue was quickly joined by two other physicians, Charles S. Venable and Emmett Early, who removed Fannie’s body from the tub and carried it to her bedroom. Venable and Early examined the dead woman’s wounds. It was clear that the struggle had been violent.
 
The lace at the collar of her nightgown was torn away. Her right ear had been struck with a blunt instrument — presumably the bat — hard enough that it split her outer ear in half. She suffered a small laceration on her nose, which Venable said had bled profusely. One of her fingernails was bent nearly at a 90-degree angle, evidence Fannie fought with her killer.
 
The doctors agreed that at least one wound was inflicted post-mortem.
 
“The third wound was a small transverse wound on the back of the head, but it gave out little blood,” Venable said in testimony confirmed by Early. “I concluded that that wound happened afterwards. I believe it would be produced by falling with her head back and hitting the bath tub.”
 
But neither the head wound nor submersion in the tub was the cause of death. That came from a shotgun fired at close range.
 
“There were powder marks right in the wound; it was black,” Venable testified at trial. “Leather wadding was taken from the spinal column.”
 
The examination revealed the shot had gone downward and front to back, the pellets destroying several ribs, which in turn stopped them from passing completely through her body.
 
“There was a great deal of disorganized blood in the cavity,” Venable said. “We turned the corpse over, which caused blood to pour out.”
 
The consensus among physicians was that Fannie could not have been shot and been able to get to the tub afterwards.
 
“Death from a gunshot wound like Mrs. McCue would result almost instantaneously,” Early testified. “The person would drop in his tracks after receiving such an injury.”
 
Dr. McCue was the only one of four physicians who testified about a wound on Sam’s cheek who said he saw it bleeding. His story, however, changed from the inquest to the trial with Dr. McCue increasing the severity of the wounds. At the inquest Dr. McCue referred to the wound on his brother’s cheek as bleeding. At trial, however, he testified that he “saw his nose was bleeding. Blood was oozing from his nose; I saw it. After any injury to the head we often look for bleeding from the nose. It is one of the symptoms we carefully observe.”
 
Another doctor who examined Sam the day after the murder said the wound was not serious.
 
“I have most frequently seen it on football players who have been scraped on the ground,” said Venable. “I don’t think the wound on McCue’s face was such a one as would indicate an injury sufficient to cause unconsciousness.”
 
The fourth doctor who saw Sam at the crime scene gave a much different account of the wound.
 
“I saw what seemed to be a scratch on Mr. McCue’s right cheek bone,” said Dr. Hugh T. Nelson. “The wound seemed to be very slight. It was like a child had scraped his knee on the ground.”
 
He soundly rejected Dr. McCue’s belief that it was an assailant carrying a sand-filled cosh who killed Fannie and rendered Sam unconscious. Unlike Dr. McCue, Nelson had seen injuries caused by blackjacks.
 
“A blow on the cheek to have produced unconsciousness would have produced discoloration and a ‘puffing up,'” he said. “Unless done with the fist, it would almost certainly have fractured the jaw bone. It probably would have caused some vomiting and would have a tendency to make the pulse slow.”
 
Sam failed to exhibit any symptoms of a closed-head injury in the time following the murder.

A Possible Fall Guy?

While the doctors were examining Fanny’s corpse, Officer Grady was searching the house for evidence. What he saw did not provide much support for Sam McCue’s version of events.
 
Grady found no signs of a struggle in any room, and no evidence of a crime anywhere except in the bathroom. A blood-stained baseball bat was on the floor near the corpse, and McCue’s shotgun, a Winchester pump, was found outside the bathroom door, an empty shell with No. 6 birdshot still chambered.
 
Briefly burglary was considered the motive, but that was quickly discarded. Nothing was taken from the home, it was early in the evening on a Sunday and was still light out. Only the most foolhardy thief would have committed a break-in under those circumstances.
 
One scenario that did interest investigators was the chance that one of the ex-mayor’s many enemies came to collect a debt of his own. In short order two witnesses came forward with information that around the time of the murder a white man ran up to the home occupied by Judge Edward McCue and knocked violently on the front door. The man waited about 30 seconds then ran across the street to Sam’s house.
 
“The few minutes which elapsed between this incident and the announcement of the crime at Sam McCue’s may have been sufficient for the accomplishment of the tragedy,” reported the Daily News.
 
Although never conclusively shown, the state’s theory is that the witnesses saw another concerned citizen alerting Judge McCue to the events across the street. No one ever identified the man or came forward to acknowledge the act.
 
Owing to his position on the bench and his brother’s time as judge, Edward McCue theorized that someone who previously appeared in dock came to settle accounts.Edward theorized that the man — Leslie Marshall — planned to eliminate the two McCue brothers “in one grand performance.”
 
“(The judge) had in mind a man whom he and his brother had caused to be punished more than once for misdemeanors, and it was understood that this man was very resentful toward them,” read the article in the Daily News. “His brother’s description of the man who assaulted him fitted this one as well as any other.”
 
Marshall recently appeared before Judge McCue and was punished for public drunkenness. The crime not only resulted in a fine, but because Marshall violated an order “to be on good behavior” handed down by Sam McCue when he was municipal court judge, Marshall forfeited a bond.
 
Beyond his ill feelings toward the McCue brothers, Marshall had a strong reason to hate the ex-mayor with a vengeance: Sam McCue was not only the divorce lawyer for Marshall’s wife 22-year-old Hattie, Sam and his client were lovers. But it would have been nigh impossible for Leslie Marshall to have a better alibi for the time of Fannie’s murder: He was in church with his mother.
 
“Well for him that he had an alibi so easily and perfectly established,” an anonymous wire service reporter wrote. “If he had been arrested and brought to Charlottesville charged with the murder of Mrs. McCue he would have been in grave danger, even if he had not been lynched.”
 
Marshall struck back against his accusers by sharing his own theory of the crime — or at least his potential involvement in it.
 
“He did not hesitate to charge that there was a conspiracy in which (his) wife was involved to connect him with the crime — and that the conspiracy antedated the murder by at least two days,” read a wire story in the Burlington (Iowa) Evening Gazette
 
Hattie MarshallHattie Marshall filed for divorce in August and moved from the family home in Earleysville, a town about 10 miles from Charlottesville, where she took up residence.
 
Speaking to reporters who smelled a story, Leslie Marshall said two days before the crime Hattie sent him a “long gossipy and affectionate letter” urging him to come to her on Monday morning — the morning after the murder.
 
“I wish you could arrange it so you could come to town Monday,” she wrote. “I will give you money to pay your way to Proffitt’s (the railway station closest to Earleysville). If you could come early Monday morning and go back Monday eve, that would be the very thing.”
 
Despite his hopes that Hattie wanted to reconcile, Marshall was unable to make it to Charlottesville on Monday, appearing there on Tuesday. He was disappointed by the reception.
 
A wire story that received play across the country, reported that “his wife received him coldly, he said, and refused to make up.” According to the article, when Marshall questioned his soon-to-be ex-wife why she summoned him, her response was chilling.
 
“Her reply was that for a few hours after the murder he was under suspicion and she wanted him to come clear himself. ‘How was it, then, that you wrote to me before the crime?’ was his next question, the answer to which was not reported.”
 
It should be noted that the Marshalls were involved in a most-contentious child custody issue, with Leslie attempting to get custody of two of the couple’s three children. To the youngest he denied paternity and wanted nothing to do with it. Once the investigation zeroed-in on Sam McCue, the theory that there was any kind of murder plot involving Marshall as the fall-guy was not pursued.
 
Hattie strongly repudiated any improper relationship with her divorce lawyer, although evidence introduced at his trial indicated they had a rendezvous in Washington, D.C., over Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the murder. It was apparently the second time Fannie confronted her husband over this particular infidelity. The first was shortly before her murder when she said she “found him locked in with another woman, and when he came to the door he looked ‘sheepish,'” was how her brother recalled the incident.
 
Letters Hattie sent to Sam while he was awaiting trial show that their relationship was intimate, but there was never any indication she was a participant in the crime.
 
When the evidence failed to support the revenge theory, Sam McCue became the primary suspect.
 
He was arrested for the crime the day after his wife’s funeral. Sam’s brother recused himself from the bench when the police applied for the arrest warrant, so he would not have to sign it.

A Perfect Hell

For those in the McCue inner circle — particularly those from Fannie’s family — the crime almost came as no surprise given the terrible state of the marriage.
 
Sam McCue, much of the testimony at the murder trial revealed, was as tough on his wife as he was on debtors. One witness called for the defense admitted on cross-examination that Sam McCue recently told him his domestic life was not a happy one.
 
“‘My life here on Earth for the past four or five years has been a perfect hell,'” quoted lawyer John S. White, who had worked with Sam McCue on legal issues. White recalled Sam said Fannie was “the most jealous woman I had ever known.”
 
Her brother, Ernest Crawford, also an attorney, boarded at the McCue home between 1899 and 1901 and testified that “It was the most unhappy couple I ever saw.”
 
“The quarrels were always about other women,” he testified. “I never saw him kick or strike her, but have heard him curse her in the most violent manner repeatedly.”
 
Willie McCue, 17, one of the four McCue children, reportedly said his parents fought viciously. To police investigators and before the Coroner’s jury, Willie not only confirmed what his parents fought, but said near-homicidal violence had occurred in his presence.
 
“For the past three or four years it has been a perfect hell on earth,” Willie said. “My father and mother lived like cats and dogs.”
 
Willie told Detective Alfred Baldwin that he recently had to protect his mother from an enraged Sam who was chasing her with a pistol. He said that his father threatened his life when he became involved.
 
N.R. Martin, a jailer, testified to to a conversation he overheard between Willie and his father about the event.
 
“You know what Crawford said about my drawing a pistol on your mother is not true,” Sam said.
 
“Yes it is,” Martin recalls Willie as responding. “You know she ran and got in my bed and asked me to defend her.”
 
Willie made his claims in sworn testimony, as well as in repeated interviews with police, conversations with relatives on both sides of the family and in multiple letters to his maternal aunt, and was considered so reliable that he was included on the prosecution’s list of witnesses.
 
In a letter to his maternal aunt Willie described his position.

Aunt Sallie, I am fighting one of the greatest battles now. I am among all my father’s people, and they, of course, wonder why I took such a step in this case, but I am going to do what I think is right…I will never be in worse trouble than this. I cannot sleep, and when I go to bed and wake up with the same trouble, I feel as though I cannot stand it.

On the stand during his father’s trial, however, Willie recanted what he could and denied what he couldn’t. When confronted with claims of other witnesses that he talked of the bad state of affairs between his parents, Willie simply said over and over: “No. I deny it emphatically.”
 
“Verily, it was a case of the quick or the dead! And the quick was the winner,” according to a report the day after Willie’s trial testimony. The writer waxed eloquently about his motivation for changing his story.

Mayhap the memory of the unhappy woman, upon whose grave the flowers hardly yet have withered, still touch the heart of the son, who was wildly hysterical on the night she perished by an assassin’s hand. And mayhap he will never forget the wretched but tender little woman who one ran to him, then a mere stripling, for protection from her husband. But the living are even stronger than the dead; the present from the absent. Not ten feet from the witness chair where young William sat gleamed the metallic blue eyes of his father, boring into the very heart of the son like an augur of steel. Those cold blue eyes have subdued others. Yesterday they subdued young William McCue.

Because Willie was considered a hostile witness, the prosecution was allowed to impeach his testimony.
 
“On 14 important matters he was been contradicted by independent witnesses. I do not count the detectives,” said Col. Micah Woods, one of the prosecution team in his summation. Woods accused the McCue clan of exerting undue influence on the boy.
 
“He perhaps was told that his father was standing on the scaffold near the trap door, and that if he were to repeat what he told…he would spring the trap and would send his father to his death,” Woods orated. “I think that what he may have done in this case should provoke sorrow and pity rather than abuse and vituperation.”

Witnesses Tell What They Know

But the prosecution had other witnesses who could and would share what they saw and heard on the night of the murder.
 
The first witness was coachman Charles A. Skinner, who was employed by a neighbor of the McCues and whose room was close enough to their house to hear crying and screaming around the time of Fannie’s murder.
 
Skinner said the screaming went on for several minutes until he heard a single gunshot. Watching from his window that overlooked the McCues’, Skinner saw Dr. McCue and Officer Grady arrive on the scene.
 
More important to the prosecution’s case was the testimony of 17-year-old John Perry, a houseboy in the McCue home. On the night of the murder Perry, whose room was adjacent to the bathroom, testified that he heard Fannie being beaten, and fleeing to the bathroom, begging for her life until the fatal shot was fired. On the stand, like Willie McCue, Perry was loathe to convict his boss. He changed his testimony between the inquest and the trial, backing away from his earlier statements that Fanny had been begging Sam not to kill her.
 
At the trial, Perry denied telling detectives that he heard Fannie from the bathroom say, “Oh, Sam, Sam, don’t kill me. I am going to die anyhow.”
 
Instead, Perry claimed he told the police she said: “Sam, Sam, he is killing me!”
 
Although Perry could hear the assault, he was powerless to help — the servants’ quarters door to the second floor of the house was always locked. The servants were expected to use the back stairs which led to the kitchen.
 
The prosecution explained away the servant’s recantation by positing that Perry, was a black man concerned for his position with the McCues, and so denied he ever implicated his employer.
 
The prosecutors introduced a written statement from Willie McCue drafted the morning after the murder — before Willie had a change of heart — where Perry provided a more detailed version of events.

I said “John, I want you to tell me just what you heard.” The first thing he said was “You know last night I was afraid to tell those gentlemen on Mr. McCue. I heard him slap her first because I got up and put my head out the window. Then it sounded like he was hitting her and thumping. Then I head him choke her and heard her like she was strangled. She said, “Sam, you out not to treat me like this. I promise not to do it again.”

The only physical evidence indicating that Sam had been involved in any crime was his wet shirt that bore signs of diluted blood on the cuffs. The blood was perhaps the most important clue because Sam claimed from the beginning that he had not seen Fanny after he regained consciousness. Sam never touched Fannie’s corpse or the bathtub, in fact, he never went into that room during the post-crime investigation. Thus, blood could only have gotten there because Sam was the killer, the prosecution argued.
 
The shirt was taken by Dr. McCue and placed in the laundry. It was rescued before it was washed, and Dr. McCue denied that he was trying to hide it.
 
A baseball bat covered in blood was assumed to be the weapon that Sam used to beat his wife to the point where her ear was nearly severed. There was some testimony that the day following the murder Fannie’s throat showed signs of strangulation, but there was no proof that the marks on her neck were put there by the killer — the discoloration may have been caused by her submersion in water or were simply signs of decomposition. On the other hand, strangulation marks on her neck could account for the wet, bloody cuffs on Sam’s shirt.
 
Some of the most interesting rhetoric was reserved for the summation of lead defense attorney John L. Lee, who compared Fannie McCue’s murder to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Gentlemen, what was the most important event in all the history of the world? Was it not the scene enacted upon Calvary, when Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, gave up his life for humanity…I trust that you will receive what I saw with reverence for this Holy Book upon which you have already taken your oath. The life and liberty of a man is at stake, and only in this crisis do I venture to use the inspired words to save him.
Now, gentlemen of the jury, are you prepared to say that the main fact of the crucifixion did not occur because four different accounts of it, written by the saints themselves, differ — and differ radically?

His eloquence in trying to make McCue into a martyr was unsuccessful. After enough time to make it look like they were seriously deliberating, jurors convicted Sam McCue for the murder of his wife. He was sentenced to hang.
 
After the sentencing was over and the jury had been dismissed, one juror approached Sam and extended his hand.
 
“You have done me a great injustice,” Sam said.
 
“That rested with you,” said John A. Traylor of Richmond. “I did my duty as I saw it.”

A Debt is Settled

After two unsuccessful appeals and fruitless request for clemency from an old political comrade, McCue resolved himself to his fate. He became quite religious and eventually confessed to his crime. Publicly, Sam’s confession sought to put the blame on some unnamed “evil power” for the crime and and he denied that anyone else was involved.
 
Three of his ministers released a statement that McCue “did not wish to leave this world with suspicion resting on any human being but himself. That he alone was responsible for the deed, impelled by an evil power beyond his control; and that he recognized that his sentence was just.”
 
Privately, Sam confessed that he and Fannie started arguing after his return from Washington and that she had picked up again while they were changing for bed.
 
Enraged, he struck Fanny in the face and she responded in kind, giving him a slight raspberry on the cheek. They began fighting violently. She picked up the baseball bat which she brought into the house for protection. He wrestled it from her and began beating her with it. She fled to the bathroom where she had been running water for her bath. Sam followed her, exchanging the bat for his shotgun.
 
As Fanny knelt on the bathroom floor and pleaded for mercy, Sam pointed the shotgun at his wife and pulled the trigger. The force of the shot pushed her back into the tub. He did not address the issue, but the theory is that Sam’s shirt got wet and covered with blood as he attempted to strangle or drown her before using the shotgun. He then attempted to cover up the crime with a burglary claim, later changed to a killing motivated by revenge.
 
At dawn on February 10, 1905, a calm and composed ex-Mayor Sam McCue ascended the gallows and paid his debt to society in full.