The Murder of Mandy Stephens

In the early 1820s William Corder learned that his sometime-lover, Maria Marten, a young lady with decidedly loose morals, was pregnant with a child she claimed was his. Corder considered Maria to be from a lower class and marriage to a promiscuous farm girl with several illegitimate children already was out of the question for him. One night, Corder lured Maria to a country barn near her farm, killed her, and buried her beneath the floor of the barn.
 
Because the barn turned red in the evening as it reflected the setting sun, Maria’s killing became known as “The Red Barn Murder.”
 
See how the story originally played in the Newgate Calendar

William Corder shoots Maria Marten

William Corder shoots Maria Marten in the Red Barn. From The Newgate Calendar.

For his crime, Corder was hanged in 1828. The murder was romanticized in the penny dreadfuls of the day, ballads, and numerous stage plays that are still summer-stock perennials. Okay, that last bit is an overstatement, but they should be, if only for the reason that Maria’s mother dreamed her daughter would be found in the Red Barn and compelled searchers to dig there. Or so the story goes.
 
About 75 years later, the public was fascinated by the trial of handsome Chester Gillette for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Grace Brown on a lake in upstate New York. Gillette was executed in New York in 1908 for murdering his lover when the possibility of an engagement to another, richer woman appeared.
 
Both Corder and Gillette live on because their cold-blooded murders of their pregnant paramours stir something in the public’s collective unconscious although their crimes are more notorious because of both men came from wealthy families and were considered quite a catch.
 
Wealth is probably the reason no one seems to care about the case of Arthur Tillman, who less than a decade after the notorious Gillette case, was convicted of murdering his pregnant girlfriend, Amanda Stephens in March 1913. Unlike Corder and Gillette, Tillman was dirt poor and lived far from the bright lights of the city. Tillman and Mandy were lovers who grew up together in rural Logan County, Arkansas. There is no dispute that they frequently engaged in lovemaking — Tillman admitted this on the stand during his trial.
 
Like Corder did to Maria Marten, the 22-year-old Tillman lured Mandy, 19, to a rural pine thicket where their trysts usually took place. Evidence introduced at his trial proved that Tillman knew Mandy was pregnant at the time. He had visited a local doctor in Delaware Township, told the physician that Mandy was bearing his child, and asked for “some kind of medicine or remedy that would destroy the unborn child.”
 
After the doctor told him there was no such remedy, Tillman mailed a letter to Mandy which stated that he was willing to marry her. His letter, the State alleged, was in response to a previous post from Mandy demanding that Tillman do the honorable thing and marry her.
 
Like Maria Marten, Mandy Stephens was not the virtuous young innocent that plays well in pulp fiction. Mandy had been bedded by a number of young men in the rural community and had previously given birth to another man’s child.
 
Nevertheless, she was convinced that her pregnancy resulted from her relationship with Tillman and she pressed Tillman to marry her. After receiving Mandy’s ultimatum, Tillman sent a brief response.
 
“Meet me at the old place,” Tillman’s note read, “and we will fix this up.”
 
Witnesses saw Tillman meet Mandy on a dirt road leading to the pine thicket and in less than an hour, a friend of Tillman’s stopped to talk to him as he walked out of the woods alone. Tillman told his friend that he met Mandy in the woods for another tryst.
 
After meeting with her, Tillman attempted to retrieve his letter to her from the post office, but was rebuffed by the postmaster. The letter would arrive in the Stephens family’s mailbox the next day, March 11, 1913.
 
But Amanda Stephens was not there to receive it. She had been murdered the day before and her body was lying at the bottom of an abandoned well not far from the Tillman farm.
 
On the evening of March 10, Tillman told his parents that he had to go into town to buy a tablet of paper for his school studies. When he approached the store, he told police that he noticed it was closed and returned home by an indirect route.
 
The store owner, however, told authorities that he was still in the store and would have waited on Tillman if he had shown up. It was shortly after Tillman was seen in the vicinity of the store that the shopkeeper noticed that his telephone was out of order. Investigating, he found that the telephone line had been cut near the store and some of the wire was missing.
 
During their meeting in the Pines, Tillman shot Mandy in the head with a .22-caliber rifle, killing her. He hid her body near the well until he had an opportunity to cover up his crime. Using the telephone wire he stole from the store, he tied a large rock to Mandy’s neck and threw her corpse down into the well. Then he took some of the rocks that made up the wall of the well and threw them down to cover her body. He replaced the planks that covered the well and went home.
 
Predicting that Mandy’s father, G.B. Stephens, was about to swear out a complaint against him for the crime of seduction, Tillman fled to nearby Knoxville, Arkansas, across the county line where his uncle lived. He spent most of his time there with his family, but other witnesses were produced who swore he had visited other lady friends in Knoxville.
 
Tillman was quickly arrested on the seduction charge, but even then police were loathe to make arrests on such charges. Not knowing that they were dealing with a murderer, deputies allowed Tillman to escape. He headed first to Memphis, Tennessee, but shortly afterward, returned to Delaware Township.
 
Although Mandy had told some friends that she was going to leave the area, her father filed a missing persons report and the search began.
 
Perhaps it was because he had read the note from Tillman to his daughter, G.B. Stephens told some searchers that they should concentrate their activities near the Tillman property. He also allegedly made some other statements that were quite likely to imply guilt.
 
She would be found, he said “with a bullet hole in her head and a rock tied around her neck, and in a well near Tillman’s.”
 
The witnesses who would testify to this however, were members of the Tillman clan who were also willing to swear that Tillman had been home all night the evening of the murder.
 
Tillman would eventually lead authorities to the well, although not on purpose. The day he returned from Memphis, he stopped by the property where the well was located. Unbeknownst to him, a husband and wife had taken up residence in the farm house there and observed Tillman on his knees peering into the well.
 
They reported this strange behavior to authorities, who sent a man down into the well and found Mandy’s body.
 
Tillman was quickly arrested and explained that he was looking in the well because he noticed the cover had been disturbed and he was making sure none of his father’s stock had fallen in.
 
The eyewitness testimony that put Tillman with Mandy on the afternoon of her murder, his own admission that he and Mandy were lovers, and Tillman’s statement that put him in the area where the telephone cord was taken helped seal his fate. That circumstantial evidence was deemed sufficient for the jury to establish that he had the opportunity to kill Mandy.
 
When the prosecutors established that the .22-caliber rifle that killed her was owned by the Tillmans, they gave the jury adequate proof that Tillman had the means to carry out the crime.
 
Mandy’s pregnancy was, of course, sufficient motive.
 
Tillman was convicted of the murder of Mandy Stephens and was hanged in 1914.