Rufus Johnson

Lecture Review – “Sherlock Holmes of America” by Marisa Bozarth

Museum Curator of Burlington County Marisa Bozarth clued local history buffs in to the life of a real Sherlock Holmes. Ms Bozarth discussed some of the famous and infamous cases of Ellis H. Parker; Burlington County’s first Chief of Detectives. The lecture occurred at the Moorestown Library on January 16, 2019. The Historical Society of Moorestown presented it as part of its New Jersey History Speaks series.

Ellis Parker’s early years gave little indication he’d pursue a career in law enforcement. A proficient fiddler, he’d planned on working as a musician. His pursuit of that endeavor provided an unusual segue to a lifetime of crime fighting.

Needing transportation to a gig, he borrowed his father’s horse and carriage. Following the show, someone absconded with it. It also contained his fiddle. Wanting to retrieve the source of his livelihood, and to avoid his father’s anger, Parker searched for the missing items himself. Upon finding them, he informed the police.

Horse thievery was a common crime in late nineteenth century America. The novice Parker’s ability to solve such a case impressed the officers. They offered him a job.

Thus, in 1891, Parker began work for the Ocean and Burlington Counties Detecting and Pursuing Association. When the organization divided in 1894, he became the first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County. Parker held the post for over forty years. While in that role he solved 288 out of the 300 crimes he investigated.

In a bizarre ironic twist, the legendary crime fighter’s career ended when he became a criminal himself. Chief Parker spent the final days of his life in federal prison. What happened?

Ms. Bozarth described Parker’s technique. He possessed a profound understanding of how to talk to people. He applied a pragmatic approach to his questioning technique. The lone witness to the 1906 murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allison was a little girl. During the interrogation he gave her pieces of candy every time she answered a question.

At times Parker would “weave lies” to get information. He used this tactic when he interrogated George Small and Rufus Johnson during the Allison investigation. During his questioning he told them that each had accused the other of committing the crime. Both men reacted to this by blaming the other one. The information obtained during the interviews provided Parker with enough evidence to convict both men.

Parker possessed strong powers of observation. They aided him in solving the 1911 Firebug Case. A series of barn fires plagued Burlington County. Authorities suspected arson as the motive. Parker determined that the perpetrator’s true goal wasn’t burning, but robbery.

At the scene of one crime he observed that a fence rail had been removed. He also noticed hoof prints leading in opposite directions from where the barn stood. From these inspections he deduced that the criminal brought an old horse to the barn, stole a more robust animal then burned the barn (and his original animal) to cover up the crime.

The Chief’s attention to detail helped solve the David Paul murder case of 1920. Upon its discovery the body was wet. Parker noticed that the water in a nearby creek looked “different.” A lab’s analysis revealed that it contained tannic acid; a by-product from a tannery upstream. That chemical worked as a preservative. From this revelation, Parker determined that the killer committed the crime days before investigators originally believed. From this new information, they apprehended the perpetrator.

Ms. Bozarth portrayed Parker as a bit of a psychiatrist. He also knew how to read emotions. While investigating the murder of seven year-old Moorestonian Matilda Russo he applied this ability brilliantly. The suspect’s wife informed him that the man (Lewis Lively) left on a trip. She didn’t know when he’d return. The woman had also recently cleaned the bedroom floor. All the other rooms in the house appeared “lived in.” From her conduct Parker deduced she knew her husband committed the crime.

Parker received news that Lewis had moved to Canada. The Chief devised a ruse to lure him back to the US. He had Mrs. Lively imprisoned. Almost a century before the term “fake news” entered the American lexicon; Parker planted a false story in newspapers throughout the East Coast. It reported that she had been arrested for the killing. The trick worked. Believing no one suspected him of the murder, Lewis returned to New Jersey. He was arrested and convicted of the crime.

So with such extraordinary success as a law enforcement officer, just how did Parker become a criminal? As one can tell from the cases mentioned, the Chief wasn’t averse to using dubious methods to gain convictions. They crossed into illegal during his investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Ms. Bozarth’s discussion of Parker’s involvement in this case could’ve made for a lecture of its own. In essence, Parker became convinced that Bruno Hauptmann didn’t murder the Lindbergh baby. He believed that a man named Paul Wendel committed the crime. To extract a confession Parker “deputized” three thugs to abduct and torture Wendel until he admitted it.

In American juris prudences first application of the “Lindbergh Law”, a jury convicted Parker of kidnapping. The first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County’s history spent the remainder of his life in prison; quite an ignominious end for the Sherlock Holmes of America.

Aristotle once noted: “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” That observation would aptly apply to Chief Parker. Although a movement to pardon him has existed for some time, his conduct during the Lindbergh investigation raises some serious questions about his methods. Several of Parker’s cases resulted in suspects receiving the death penalty. One has to hope his behavior during the Lindbergh case an aberration.

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Burlington County (New Jersey) Murders and Executions 1832 – 1906

A love of violence plagues American society. Our kids watch rough sports like Football and Hockey. Then they play video games that make the Wild West look like something out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Thinking about this made me long for the idyllic days where we didn’t have these vicious past times. I longed for a time in our recent past when parents and children could pack up a picnic basket. Together they could go on a family outing and watch the county hang somebody. This past mischief night at the Moorestown Library, local historian Marissa Bozarth allowed me to relive this halcyon era. She delivered a lecture on Burlington County (New Jersey) murders and executions that took place between 1832 and 1906.

Who would’ve thought people executed by the county could be so remarkable? On March 23, 1860 Philip Lynch met the hangman’s noose for the murder of George Coulter. Mr. Lynch’s behavior upon hearing the jury’s verdict was, well, not good. Following the pronouncement, he told the judge, prosecutor and sheriff that he would return from the grave to haunt them. (No evidence suggests that he ever did.)

While reassuring that Mr. Lynch believed in life after death, history would recall his reputation better had he followed the example of freed slave Eliza Freeman. In 1832, she earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person executed by Burlington County. When she murdered her husband, she showed no remorse. Her last words, however, displayed a much more respectable demeanor. She warned those who attended her execution against the dangers of alcohol. (Remember that. You’ll be reading about it again.) Then she prayed for her prison caretakers, all of the 3,000 – 5,000 people who attended her hanging as well as for her fellow African-Americans. Incidentally, the number of spectators fell well short of the 10,000 who watched Wesley Warner’s execution on 9/6/1894.

As only first degree murderers faced execution, Mr. Warner argued he committed second degree murder. Why did he murder Lizzie Peak? In essence, he claimed he didn’t kill her: his drunkenness did. The prosecutor convinced the jury that he “got drunk on purpose.” In an unusual occurrence for the 1890s, Warner appealed his sentence six times. They didn’t help. Fortunately, this didn’t drive him to drink.

Without comparison, I found Joel Clough the most intriguing person to meet the hangman’s noose in Burlington County. As difficult as this will be for readers to believe, he attended Ms. Freeman’s execution. Apparently, it impressed him so much that he decided to make the transition from audience member to participant. Following a tumultuous relationship with Mary Hamilton and an even harsher one with the bottle, Clough decided to permanently end his dealings with Ms. Hamilton on April 5, 1833. He returned a dagger she gave him as a gift by plunging it into her chest eight times. Following his arrest, he became the first person to ever escape from Mount Holly Prison. Cough didn’t excel at getting away from things. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide at one point, too.

During his trial, Clough tried to prove “temporary insanity” at the time of the murder. He even brought in experts on mental illness; something very unusual in the 1830s. In addition, he blamed his upbringing for leading him to kill. The jury didn’t agree. The county executed him on 7/26/33. For reasons that mystify me, he personally put on the hood and placed the rope around his neck.

The American spirit of innovation applied to some of these executions. Instead of having a door drop, the county used a 364 pound weight attached to a rope and cross beam on Philip Lynch. In 1907 the State of New Jersey took over the role of executing prisoners. In 1906, the county knew this would be its last time and decided to make it memorable. Deputies tied Rufus Johnson and George Small back-to-back and hanged them for the murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allinson.

In his play, Justice, John Galsworthy had a prison guard utter the prescient observation: “If it wasn’t for women and alcohol, this place would be empty.” The same observation could be made for many of the executions that took place in Burlington County between 1832 and 1906. The fascination with violence stood out more, though. The number of people who attended these executions in person boggles the mind. With that in mind, the voyeuristic violence in our society makes our era seem like the idyllic one.