John Ten Eyck
JV’s subject today is John Ten Eyck, a black farm laborer who was blamed in for their murder shortly thereafter. Today we ask: Was he the real murderer or just an easy scapegoat the authorities pinned the crimes on? Episode based heavily on “Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires” by Andrew Amelinckx.
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This week, during our Berkshire/Western Massachusetts Crime Miniseries, we’re going wayyy way back because some of my favorite True crime deep dives, involving people of color, are not actually recent, they are super old. I want to give a shout out to Andrew Amelinckx, as most of this information came from his book: “Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires.” It’s an interesting read to say the least, and insanely informative. I daresay we’ll be coming back to it in later episodes.
I don’t know how many of you have wondered this, but imagine: what was your hometown like from 100-200 years ago? Who was there, what was the fashion? What was the economy like? Was everyone rich? Was everyone poor? Did the street you live on right now even exist back then? What family names might you recognize in the area? One crucial question though, that I’m suspecting you probably didn’t ask about your area, especially if you live in the North, is this: before slavery was abolished throughout America, where were the slave-owners in your town? Where are the graves of the enslaved men and women? And when slavery was abolished, what happened to the black population?
My hometown’s history with race and slavery is… well, it’s complicated, as most northerners would tell you. We know for a FACT that there were slave owners here, because we actually celebrate and recognize Elizabeth Freeman, who.. Well, you can listen to that entire episode. We are the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois, but we’re also the kind of place that would rather have named our elementary school “Muddy Brook” than “Du Bois Elementary”. Yeah, seriously. Don’t know if you could hear my eyes rolling there, but trust me, they rolled HARD just now. The Berkshires are in general known for being fucking gorgeous and having a quaint “rural charm”. So, it took people by surprise when, in the late fall of 1877, there was a double murder of an elderly couple on Thanksgiving Day at their farm near Sheffield. Our subject today, is John Ten Eyck, the black farm laborer who was blamed for their murder shortly thereafter. But was he the real murderer or just an easy scapegoat the authorities pinned the crimes on?
On the evening of Nov. 29, 1877, just after 5 p.m., as a light snow began falling, Ten Eyck stopped 15-year-old John Carey Jr., on the road that led to the farm. Carey worked for David Stillman and his wife, Sarah, doing farm chores, including milking the cows. Ten Eyck inquired whether the Stillmans sold butter and if they had any guests that night. The boy told him that they did indeed sell butter, but was unaware if they had any company that evening. Ten Eyck thanked him for the information and headed south towards the Stillmans’ farm.
Carey was the last to see the elderly couple alive, besides the killer, obviously. He was also the person who found their bodies the next morning. The scene he found was “bloody beyond comprehension”. One newspaper would describe the crime as “one of the most brutal human butcheries ever committed in New England.” While this could totally have been hyperbolic AF, it wasn’t necessarily wholly off the mark. It was real bad, y’all.
That morning, Carey went to the farm and began doing his chores in the barn without going inside the home. He fetched the milking pail and milked the cows as usual. Carey hauled the milk to the house. Inside, David Stillman sat on the couch in which Carey had last seen him, but something was terribly… TERRIBLY wrong. The man was dressed as he had been the previous day, but his outfit was now drenched in blood from a massive head wound. There was blood smears leading to the cellar and a bloody handprint on the wall. Sarah Stillman was found in the cellar and had also been killed by axe blows to the head. Yikes.
It didn’t take long for the investigation to focus on John Circumstantial evidence began to mount, helped along by John’s reputation as a drinker and petty thief. But John didn’t have a history of violent crime. In fact, his criminal record was honestly… real tiny, bordering on non-existant. Still though, the authorities didn’t bother with any other suspects, despite the fact that there were a large number of vagrants just trapsing through the whole ass area and completely could have been responsible for the brutal murders. Why, just a year before the double homicide, a presumably white itinerant worker had attacked an elderly couple at their rural farm in Otis, Massachusetts. Coincidentally, that couple… well, the husband had been severely beaten, and the wife was dead. She died of axe wounds, much like the Stillman’s.
When John was arrested, he was surprised AF to learn he was accused of killing the Stillmans. An angry mob of more than 200 people waited for the prisoner to arrive at the jail, prepared to lynch the fuck outta him. For those of you who don’t remember, lynching is when you hang someone from a tree until they die, and lynching black people was one of the Klan’s favorite pastimes. Anyway, the police and sheriff’s deputies kept the crowd at bay and John was safely brought inside.
While he sat in Pittsfield jail, John began to write down his life story. John was born in Lenox, Massachusetts around 1832. He was the son of a local woman, Orrilla Mariah Fletcher, and William Henry Ten Eyck, a former slave from New York, who had escaped to Massachusetts. John grew up in foster care and the old couple who looked after him and his brother were barely given enough to properly take care of the children. John wrote that “Old Berkshire, my birthplace, makes the most limited provision for the poor than any other place I lived. No other county could match injustice and oppression of the poor.” When he turned 15, he said, “lol F- School” and he became a full-time farm hand.
The trial in Pittsfield began on May 15, 1878 and lasted four days. The lead defense attorney, Herbert Joyner, told the jury that this was a “double tragedy” in that the police and public, based on skimpy circumstantial evidence, immediately blamed John for the crime instead of following up on other leads and potential suspects. Right now, I’m thinking of how furious my friends Jessa and Nick from Getting Off are about that, as Defense Attorneys.
The all white jury, because bitch you knew they would be all-white, spent only like 5 minutes deciding John’s guilt. As soon as they were in the jury room they took a poll and were like, “oh, yeah, gurl, we alllllll think the negro did it”. However, because appearances are everything, they waited for a little over an hour before coming back with the verdicts. Before being sentenced, John stood before the judge and told him he was innocent.
“They are the facts and as I also told the jury nothing but the truth in any form, that is all I have to say, sir.” He was promptly sentenced to death by hanging, to take place 3 months later.
At 10:45 a.m., August 16, 1878, John was escorted to the scaffold and as 250 people looked on, John firmly and deliberately made his way up the stairs and stood on the trap door. The Rev. Samuel Harrison, a black minister who had served with the famed Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, gave the man a final prayer. John refused to give a speech, but I imagine he was cussing them all out in his head. A black cap was placed over his head, followed by the noose. The executioner pulled the lever and John dropped, dying almost instantly.
This next part is going to infuriate the fuck out of you, my dear listeners. His body was sent to his family in Blandford, Massachusetts, for burial, but in a final indignity to a man whose whole life had been filled with them, his father-in-law exhibited John’s body at 10 cents a head outside a train station and made $350, before finally putting Ten Eyck’s remains to rest. That is… That’s just fucking gross. But that’s also not that uncommon. They did it to Lincoln’s body too, but they didn’t charge for that. In fact when you think about it, we actually do charge people to look at dead bodies all the time. When’s the last time you went to a history museum and saw a mummy? There is one in the Berkshire Museum, which I find to be completely and utterly reprehensible.
What do you make of this? I personally truly don’t think he did it. I’ll put a poll on my twitter page when this episode goes live. Weigh in on what you think there.
As always listeners, be well, keep your hand at the level of your eyes, and above all else… Stay safe out there.