Monday, April 25, 2011

Roxy Druse, Female Fiend or a Woman Wronged?

 Roxy Druse in her cell at the Herkimer County Jail

Roxy Druse was not just the only woman ever to be hung in Herkimer County. She was also, in the long history of the county’s murders up to 1885, the only person to suffer capital punishment.  In an era when a national mass media had only begun, her trial and death were the subject of sensationalized  attention  across the country in America’s first national newsmagazine, The Saturday Globe.

 Hops pickers in the 1880s.  Roxy met her husband 
while picking hops in Schoharie County,

Like so many of the murders that have attracted the public’s morbid attention in the subsequent 125 years, Roxy’s case was a domestic one. She was accused of killing her husband Bill with an axe and a revolver as the poor old farmer sat down one cold winter morning to enjoy his breakfast.  Even worse, she was said to have chopped up his body, burning some of it and feeding the remainder to the family’s pigs. And she was accused of coercing her teenage daughter Mary and her young nephew Frank to participate in both the murder and the dismemberment of the farmer’s body.  

 The old Herkimer County Jail, where Roxy and 
Mary Druse were held for two years

Although the  neighbors had noticed dark, foul-smelling smoke pouring from the chimney of the family’s isolated  farmhouse just before Christmas, 1884, folks over near Jordanville tended to mind their own business. Still, people did find it odd that Roxy had covered  the windows with newspaper and seemed  very nervous. About a month later, officials at the county seat in Herkimer  took notice of the unexplained disappearance of William Druse.  When county prosecutor A.B. Steele finally came out to speak with Roxy and the children, it didn’t take long for  him to make up his  mind about Roxy’s guilt.  She spent the next two years in the old limestone jail,  through  her trial and series of appeals, until the state’s itinerant hangman arrived in early 1887 with his portable gallows. Her daughter was given a life sentence, later commuted to ten years, and the twelve year old nephew and was set free in return for providing damning testimony against his aunt. Her son George, only ten at the time of the murder, was adjudged too feeble-minded to be of much help in either the murder or the trial.

 Artist's depiction of  Mary Druse being cross-examined

I have been familiar with Roxy’s story since childhood and long believed that her true story, was very different from the court’s judgment.  Old tales of  boyhood meetings between my grandfather and the Druses had been passed down in our family, preserving among us a sympathy for a woman once universally reviled and then quickly forgotten.  And a distrust of her prosecutors was also a family tradition.  “Let’s just say Roxy was a woman more sinned against than  sinning” was the most my father would say. And this, of course, suggested to my youthful imagination some deep and dark sexual secret which I was too young to understand.

 The Herkimer County Courthouse, where Roxy  Druse
was sentenced to death in  1885. 

A modern defense attorney would immediately consider the possibility of abuse in Roxy’s case. He  or she would seek evidence that  Mrs. Druse had acted out of fear for her own life. And the eager participation of  young Mary in her father’s murder would certainly  raise the question that he had been abusing her sexually.  (She allegedly threw a noose around his neck just as her mother gave Pa the first whack of the axe.) And young Frank’s willingness to fire three bullets into his uncle after the revolver misfired in Roxy’s hands raises the possibility that he, too, was being molested by the old farmer. But this trial was in 1885 when such questions were far too indecent to be asked in open court. Or perhaps even considered.

The courtroom where Roxy Druse was tried still has some features
from 1885, including the railing and entrance to judge's chamber

No one will ever really know if  Roxy Druse was the heartless murderess depicted in the newspapers of the 1880s, but I found proof of her innocence three years ago when a long forgotten  sheaf of papers came mysteriously into my hands. Some will doubt that this manuscript even exists, but the book that I subsequently wrote about Roxy Druse is presented as the  unpublished manuscript of a certain W.H.Tippetts. 

While Roxy and Mary languished in the county jail, the young journalist Tippetts came from Syracuse to interview the pair. W.H. Tippetts  in his own time expressed in print no sympathy for the murderess, characterizing her as a “female fiend.” Her daughter Mary he saw as the listless pawn of an evil mother. Capitalizing on the frenzied public appetite for details of this murder, and wishing to place the Druse murder in the context of many such gory occurrences in the rural county, Tippetts quickly produced a small volume entitled Herkimer County Murders, which was soon out of print. And Tippetts himself vanished after this one appearance in history.

 The mansion of Dr. Suiter, whose forensic testimony
helped to convict Roxy. The property was left in his will 
to the Herkimer County Historical Society

I first saw a copy of Tippets’ one published book many decades ago when I accompanied my father to the historical society’s museum in Herkimer, across from the old  jail and courthouse.  Only many years later, while sifting through some musty documents in nearby Little Falls,  did I suddenly find the proof I had long sought! There in my own hands  was a faded manuscript covered with a tiny, almost indecipherable script.  The apparently unsympathetic journalist was, in fact, Roxy’s most ardent, and almost her only, defender as the entire county clamored for her death.  And Eliza Ward, wife of the Middleville murderer Dr. Richter and sometime inmate of the Utica Insane Asylum, about whom Tippetts wrote with apparent disinterest, was his lover!

 The State Lunatic Asylum in Utica. Roxy's lawyers sought to
have her sanity evaluated, but their appeals were rejected.

At last, the truth was revealed.  Roxy was the most loving of mothers. In an age when  words such as incest and child rape could not be spoken aloud, she took the only course of action possible to her.  But Tippetts? He was another story, and a deeply unsettling one at that.

 Or perhaps there is no long-lost manuscript. Perhaps I invented an entire historical novel simply to prove the innocence of a woman who could never tell the world of how a mother’s love made her commit the most unthinkable and unnatural of crimes in the history of Herkimer County. Some readers might even call me a liar for claiming that this is a true story. But as Kurt Vonnegut once said, writers are champion liars, aren't they?

It will be up to the reader to judge the veracity of Tippetts’ tale, and of mine.

The true story of Roxy Druse is available at $19.95 in print and $9.95 as a download. The volume also contains the complete text of Tippetts' The Murders of Herkimer County, the only work which  published in his lifetime  (A preview of selected chapters from the book can be read at this site.)

Roxy Druse & The Murders of Herkimer County is also available for $2.99 on Kindle in other digital formats at Smashwords.

Roxy Druse was executed in the courtyard behind
the Herkimer County Jail on February 28, 1887

 Sources and suggestions for further reading:

The Herkimer County Historical Society maintains extensive files on the Druse case, as well as on the even more notorious case of Chester Gillette, who was executed for the murder of Grace Brown in 1908. The Society also owns the old jail which is occasionally opened for public visits. It is a grim place and after Roxy’s death her spirit was said to haunt its dark corridors.

The Little Falls Historical Society holds a vast scrapbook collection compiled by my grandfather,  which includes numerous articles on the Druse case.

The Murder by Gaslight blog has a recent description of the Druse case. 

The March 2011 newsletter of the Marshall Historical Society in Deansboro, NY featured an article on Roxy Druse, containing interesting details of Roxy’s early life before she went to work in Schoharie County as a hops picker and her fateful meeting there with William Druse. Her personality and intelligence as described in this article correspond to Tippett’s purported manuscript.

The author of  The Forgotten Central New York Murder Case maintains  that the botched nature of Roxy's hanging led to the invention of the electric as a more "humane" method for taking a life. That instrument made its debut at the state prison in Auburn, NY in 1889, and Chester Gillette was one of its most famous occupants. Gillette was tried at Herkimer for the murder of Grace Brown  and held in the same jail occupied by Roxy a few years earlier.

A search of the New York Times archive under Roxalana Druse will yield several articles from the period of the trial.

The New York State Library has a comprehensive collection of local newspapers from the years of the trail and  appeals.The case attracted many opponents of capital punishment.