Erie County, Pennsylvania

History of Erie County, Pennsylvania 1884

by Samuel P. Bates, 

Submitted by Gaylene Kerr Banister


Chapter XX - Notable Events


As will be seen by the preceding chapters, few sections of Pennsylvania are as rich in historical episodes as Erie County. In addition to those already mentioned, the county has been the scene of numerous events of more than common interest.

The King of France
One of these was the visit of Louis Phillippe, future King of France, accompanied by his brother and a servant. They spent a day or two at Erie, in 1795, with Thomas Rees, sleeping and eating in his tent on the bank of the lake, near the mouth of Mill Creek.

In 1825, the county was honored by a visit from Lafayette, who was making a tour of the country whose independence he had periled his life and fortune to establish. He was accompanied by his son, a companion and a servant, on their way from New Orleans to New York. They reached Waterford, where they were hospitably received, on the evening of the 2d of June, and stayed there over night. A committee from Erie met them at Waterford, and the party left the latter place early on the morning of the 3d, by way of the turnpike. At Federal Hill, they were met by a body of military, who escorted the distinguished guest to the foot of State street, where they were greeted with a national salute and formally presented to the United States naval officers and other prominent citizens. From there a procession marched to the house of Capt. Daniel Dobbins, where Burgess Wallace welcomed Lafayette in the name of the borough. He was then taken to the residence of Judah Colt, who was chairman of the reception committee, and introduced to the ladies. Meanwhile, a public dinner had been in course of preparation, under the supervision of John Dickson, which was the grandest affair of the kind known up to that day in the incipient city. The tables, which had been erected on a bridge over the ravine on Second street, between State and French, were 170 feet long, elegantly adorned and covered with an awning made of the sails of the British vessels captured by Perry. After the dinner, toasts were offered, among them the following by the hero of the occasion:

"Erie -- A name which has a great share in American glory; may this town ever enjoy a proportionate share in American prosperity and happiness."

Lafayette and his party left at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 3d, and were accompanied by numerous citizens to Portland, at the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, N. Y., where he took the steamer Superior for Buffalo. Benj. Wallace was Chief Marshal of the procession which escorted the great Frenchman from Waterford, and Joseph M. Sterrett commanded the Erie Guards, who met him at Federal Hill.

Horace Greeley
Another incident of special interest was the brief residence of Horace Greeley in Erie, as an employe in the office of the Gazette. His parents settled in Wayne Township in 1826, and in the spring of 1830 Horace, who had remained in New England to finish his apprenticeship, came on foot to visit them, secured employment as above, and stopped in Erie until the summer of 1831. During most or all of the period of his stay, he boarded at the house of Judge Sterrett, then proprietor of the Gazette. He was tall, ungainly and unprepossessing, poorly and outlandishly dressed, careless of his appearance, and the boys and girls with whom he associated were disposed to make a good deal of a butt of him. In society matters, they undoubtedly had the advantage of the homely young printer; but when it came to literary and political discussions, he was superior to the best of them. He was very fond of talking politics, and was regarded as an oracle on subjects of that nature. He left Erie for New York in August, 1831, reaching there with only $10 in his purse. His father and mother died in Wayne Township, and some of his family are still residents of the county.

Presidential Visitors
Erie has been visited by no less than nine of the Presidents of the United States, viz.: Harrison, in 1813; Buchanan, in 1840; John Quincy Adams, in 1843; Taylor and Fillmore, in 1849; Lincoln, in 1861; Johnson and Grant, in 1866; and Garfield at various periods between 1860 and 1880; besides, two Presidential nominees, viz., Douglas, in 1860, and Greeley, in 1872. Harrison visited the place as General of the Western army, in company with Perry, after the battle of Lake Erie. They proceeded together to Buffalo.

The purpose of Buchanan's visit will be explained further on.

Ex-President John Quincy Adams reached Erie by steamer, and remained from 7 to 9 o'clock in the evening. He was welcomed by Hon. Thomas H. Sill, on behalf of the citizens, and the Wayne Grays and the three fire companies paraded in his honor.

President Taylor was on a journey up the lakes for recreation from the cares of office. He came by way of Waterford, where he was taken sick. On reaching Erie, he was too ill to proceed any further. He remained in the city some ten days, stopping with Dr. W. M. Woods, of the United States Navy, in a dwelling on the site of the rear portion of the German bank. Vice President Fillmore came up from Buffalo and met the President, remaining with him until the next day. On departing, the United States steamer Michigan undertook to fire a Vice President's salute, when the gun exploded, killing two men. Finding that his condition unfitted him for proceeding further, the President returned to Washington, where he died in less than a year. He was accompanied on the trip by Gov. Johnston, of Pennsylvania, Surgeon Ward and Col. Bliss of the United States Army. Gen. Reed tendered the President and the use of the steamer Niagara, the finest on the lake, to convey him to Buffalo, but he declined, and was carried on the Diamond, an ordinary small steamer. During his stay in Erie, all of the President's telegrams and messages passed through the hands of William S. Brown, Esq., who was Deputy Collector of the port. President Taylor is described as a plain, modest man, who avoided all ceremony and show.

Stephen A. Douglas stopped in Erie to speak in behalf of his own election. He delivered a speech in the West Park.

Lincoln passed through Erie on his way to Washington to be inaugurated. He made a few remarks from the balcony of the old depot. His remains were taken over the Lake Shore road in 1865.

Erie was one of the points favored with a speech by President Johnson in his famous "swing around the circle." He was attended by Gen. Grant and William H. Seward, the latter of whom also spoke.

Greeley made quite a lengthy address to his former townsmen, from an east window of the Union Depot, during the campaign of 1872.

Garfield, being a near neighbor, made frequent trips to Erie, both political and social. He spoke in the court house during the canvass of 1878, and spent a few minutes at the depot on his way to New York in 1880.

Of less famous visitors, the number is without limit. Every candidate for Governor since 1830 has thought it necessary to make a trip to the city, and many of the eminent political speakers of the country have favored its people with addresses. The most famous lecturers, actors and musicians in America since 1850 have nearly all appeared before Erie audiences.

An Exciting Campaign

Of the twenty-five Presidential campaigns in this country since the adoption of the constitution, that of 1840, when Harrison and Van Buren were the opposing candidates, was probably the most bitter and exciting. The feeling between the two parties was intense, and the meetings everywhere were characterized by a retaliatory spirit that has seldom if ever been exhibited in politics. At a conclave of the magnates of one party, it was agreed to hold a mass meeting in Erie on the 10th of September, the anniversary of Perry's victory. The other party, determined not to be excelled, and fearful that the prestige of the day might give their enemies an advantage, resolved to hold a convention of their side at the same time. This decision created the wildest indignation among their antagonists. The excitement ran up to fever heat. Both elements made the utmost exertion to get out their adherents. Runners and bills were sent all over the western counties of the State, as far down as Mercer County, as well as through Eastern Ohio and Western New York. For several days before the 10th, the roads leading to Erie were crowded with men, women and children, on foot, in wagons and on horseback, many carrying banners and all shouting themselves hoarse for their favorite candidates. On the eventful day, the town was crowded as it never had been before and probably never has been since. It was feared that collisions might occur between the embittered partisans, but the danger was fortunately averted by holding the conventions in different sections of the town. The Whig gathering assembled on a vacant lot on Second street between Holland and Mill Creek, and the Democratic in the West Park, about facing the Austin Block. James Buchanan, afterward President of the United States, was the chief speaker for the Democrats, and Francis Granger, of New York, subsequently appointed Postmaster General, presided over and was the leading figure of the Whig convention. Old citizens who were present -- and few people in the county remained away -- recall this assemblage as the most wonderful within their knowledge.

The Only Execution
Although numerous persons have been tried for murder, it is worthy of note that but one execution for that offense has ever taken place in the county. The history of the crime and the manner in which it was punished were described in the Erie Dispatch of June 15, 1882, extracts from which are given below:

"The transcript of Justice E. D. Gunnison revealed the fact that on the 23d of December, 1836, Henry Francisco was arrested for poisoning his wife Maria, to whom he had been married but three weeks, and the indictment, a peculiar instrument, sets forth that the grand jurors, upon their oath, say that on the night of the 22d of December, in the year of our Lord 1836, Henry Francisco, not having the fear of God before his eyes, and being moved and seduced by the devil, did advise and cause Maria Francisco to take drink and swallow down her body four ounces of laudanum, etc. The indictment was returned at the February sessions, 1837, and on November the 7th, of the same year, Francisco was put upon his trial for willful murder.

"The jury which tried him was composed of the following well-known citizens of this county: Richard Stillwell, David Matthews, Cyrus Sherwood, John S. Barnes, George W. Walker, Benjamin Avery, Jr., John B. Jones, Dr. G. Webber, Matthew Lytle, James Stewart, James Dickson.

"The evidence was in the main circumstantial, but after a patient trial the jury agreed upon a verdict at 1 o'clock during the night, and on the 11th of November, 1837, Judge Shippen sent for Francisco and pronounced the dread sentence of the law, viz., that he be taken from that court room to the jail, and from thence to the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead, and God, in His infinite goodness, have mercy on his soul, etc.

"The closing scene in the criminal's life was an awful one compared with modern executions when the victim is jerked into eternity with the utmost dispatch immediately after his arrival upon the scaffold. Sheriff Andrew Scott pinioned Francisco's arms in his cell, and a procession made up as follows started with solemn tread for the fatal spot in the jail yard. First came the Deputy Attorney General from Harrisburg, with Dr. Johns, the jail physician, then Sheriff Scott and three deputies, followed by the jury that convicted the culprit. Next came the prisoner, supported by the Rev. Mr. Lyon, of the First Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Mr. Glover, of the Episcopal Church. Three guards brought up the rear. The above were the only witnesses to the execution, but a large crowd was out on the street waiting for a chance to see the corpse after being cut down.

"Upon reaching the gallows, Francisco was placed beneath the beam and over the drop, and Mr. Scott proceeded to strap his legs. The condemned conducted himself with great firmness, betraying no sign of fear for his fate, and when the preliminaries were adjusted a final leave-taking scene occurred. The prisoner shook hands with his jailers and spiritual advisers, and with the jury. To his waiting executioner, he was profuse in expressions of gratitude for kind and humane treatment, and it is stated that while pouring out his thanks he said he should never forget the Sheriff's kindness as long as he lived. The farewell being over, he closed his lips forever to mortal man, and henceforth addressed his Maker only. The Sheriff slipped the noose over his head and pulled down the cap that was to spare the witnesses the horrible sight of his distorted features while undergoing strangulation. All was silent as the grave as the neighboring clock chimed quarter after two. The drop was to fall at 2:30. Rev. Mr. Lyon knelt down and offered a most impressive prayer, and when he arose Sheriff Scott, according to the usage of those days, told the poor wretch how many minutes he had to live, and adjured him to make good use of them in petitioning for mercy at the Throne of Grace. Francisco bowed his bag-covered head and from beneath the cap came muffled words of prayer. He stopped occasionally as though to think of what else to ask of God, and at each halt in his prayers the Sheriff's voice solemnly informed him of the number of minutes left. To the witnesses, the suspense was awful, and a shudder ran through them when Francisco's time had dwindled into seconds. Then it was that the wretched man's tongue was loosened. With the diminution of his lease of life came an increased flow of passionate words to the Giver of mercy. He seemed to be terribly anxious to say all he had to say in the given time and as the seconds flew on his volubility was such that he could not be understood. In the middle of his passionate prayer the bolt was drawn, the drop fell and Francisco's body lunged down the trap, and after three minutes of violent contortions it hung motionless at the end of the rope. So ended the only execution in this county. It occurred on the 9th of March, 1838.

"In thirty-five minutes, the body was cut down and inclosed in a neat coffin, which was screwed down in jail, but such was the great curiosity to see the body that those charged with the burial had to unscrew the coffin twice. The body was interred at the corner of Seventh and Myrtle streets, on the property now owned by Superintendent H. S. Jones."

Indictments for Murder
The Erie Dispatch of July 21, 1883, gave the following list of persons who have been indicted in the county for the crime of murder during the period between 1820 and 1883:

1821 -- The first trial for murder that was ever held in Erie county place in the year 1821. On that occasion, James McKee was put upon trial for the murder of John Sivers, in what is now Summit Township. The trial took place in the old court house, and the prisoner being convicted, was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary, where he died.

1824 -- The second trial for a capital offence was that of Benjamin Laws for the murder of Fuller, at North East, in 1824. The trial took place in the academy, the court being held there until the new court house was rebuilt. Laws was convicted and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment in the penitentiary.

1828 -- Polly Reuby, charged with the murder of her illegitimate child, was brought to trial in the court house that stood on the park, and was acquitted after a protracted trial. A man named Griffin was tried at the same court, charged with the murder of William Crosby. He was also acquitted.

1835 -- At the November sessions of this year, an indictment for murder was found against Hugh Young for the cruel and bloody murder at Waterford of John DeCamp. The murdered man was beaten to death with a bludgeon. His assassins fled, and were never heard of afterward. In this year, also, Ransom Eastwood, of Venango, was shot dead, and John Eastwood, of the same township, was charged with his murder. The accused had a long trial, and was acquitted.

1836 -- For the savage murder of Griffin Johnson, in Mill Creek Township, Ebenezer Eldridge was arraigned on the capital charge, and was convicted as indicted. He escaped the gallows, and was sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

1837 -- The Francisco murder trial was held this year.

1850 -- Thirteen years elapsed before another Erie citizen was put upon trial for his life. John B. Large and Erastus Johnson were charged with the murder of a young boy. They were convicted and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. In the same year, Thomas Porter was acquitted of the murder of Asphad Porter, killed with a stone.

1852 -- Two years afterward, Samuel Stone, of Fairview, was indicted for the murder of Rachael Hammond. Stone was sentenced to two years and eight days in the penitentiary.

1854 -- William W. Warner was arraigned for killing an illegitimate child. He was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, and was sent to an asylum.

1855 -- Ezra Starr and Charles B. Cooper were arraigned for murder, but the case was nol prossed and they were discharged.

1856 -- The Hayt murder, well remembered, was the judicial sensation of this year. Walter Hayt was convicted of murdering his niece, and was sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

1857 - John Masters and Joe McBride were indicted for the murder of Dennis Sullivan. Masters was acquitted and McBride was never found.

1858 -- In Mill Creek Township, Joseph Botonelli, keeper of a little hotel above the almshouse, was shot dead by George H. Rerdell, who, being convicted, was sentenced to six years in the penitentiary.

In this same year, Jacob Faust was tried for the murder of Capt. Matthew Densmore down at the dock. Faust was convicted and sentenced to eleven years and nine months in the penitentiary.

1859 -- Charles Fisk, of Waterford, was arraigned for shooting John Fenno through the heart. He got two years and five days in the penitentiary.

1860 -- Mallisa Sprague was indicted for the murder of her child, but the jury found her not guilty.

1862 -- Daniel Cummings was tried for the murder of Johanna Cummings, and was sent to the penitentiary for eleven years and three months.

1863 -- There were three murder trials in this year. Nathaniel Cotterell, of Waterford, was charged with the killing of William Burt, and was acquitted. Mary Quinn was tried and acquitted of the murder of Patrick Cutler, killed with a brick, and Peter Carrier, for the murder of William Thompson, was sent to the penitentiary for ten years.

1865 -- Erastus Stafford was stabbed to death, and Jacob A. Tanner was tried for the murder. He got four years. In the same year, William Greer was shot dead in front of a North East drug store. An indictment for murder was found against one Dr. Lucius Mott, but he was never found.

1866 -- Mary Mulholland was charged with the murder of her illegitimate child, and Michael Corcoran with the murder of Dennis Twohy. The grand jury threw out both bills.

1872 -- The murder of Hugh Donnelly by James Nevills, resulted in a verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity.

1874 -- Fred Cooper and Jane R. Cooper were tried for the murder of Caroline Cook. Both were honorably acquitted. In the following Quarter Sessions, Charles J. Cowden was tried for the murder of Jane Cowden, and was acquitted.

1876 -- George C. Adams was indicted for the killing of William H. Clemens. The case was nol prossed.

1880 -- Philip Schwingle was charged with the murder of his brother Charles, and was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.

1883 -- Mary Jane and Samuel Young were accused of the murder of their brother. They were held for trial, but the grand jury ignored the bill.

Bibliography: Samuel P. Bates, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, (Warner, Beers & Co.: Chicago, 1884), Part II, Chapter XX, pp. 333-340.



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