A blog that looks back to the "good old days" of crime, corruption and catastrophe.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Austerlitz Cannibal

Oscar F. Beckwith, alleged cannibal, was executed for the gruesome murder of Simon Vandercook. He spent his last days in the Columbia County, N.Y. Jail. The sheriff of Columbia County, Henry Hanor, tracked Beckwith down three years after his escape

Oscar Beckwith sat in the Columbia County Jail in Hudson, N.Y. eating his last supper. He ate sparsely of the roast beef, ham and potatoes on his plate and sipped at his tea.

In 16 hours the 78-year-old would be swinging at the end of a rope for the murder of Simon Vandercook. The gruesome details of the killing and charges of cannibalism by some made the case a sensation as did Beckwith’s escape from the law, eventual capture in Canada and evasion of the death penalty for three years.

It seems that the New York City papers were responsible for leveling the accusations of Beckwith consuming human flesh, with the New York Times describing him in an 1887 article as a “murderer and cannibal,” but giving no further background of the case.

There were no reports in the local papers that leveled those charges at Beckwith and no testimony in the initial November 1885 trial indicating cannibalism.

What was found in the small cabin in Austerlitz, N.Y. on Jan. 11, 1882 were the partially burned body parts of Vandercook, along with other pieces of flesh, described as “meat” that had been cut into “stove-length” pieces by one witness, stacked up in the back room of the shanty, along with a hanging basket containing Vandercook’s innards. Two “greasy” axes, one with hair on it, were also found, as was the victim’s clothing.

What wasn’t found was Beckwith. He had fled into Massachusetts, eventually finding his way to Canada, where he was living under the assumed name of Charles White. He was apparently living an exceedingly sparse existence, based on a letter he tried to send to his daughter in which he asks her to send $5 for a pair of false teeth and laments his impoverished state.

The sheriff of Columbia County, Henry Hanor, tracked Beckwith down three years after his escape, apprehending him “a few hundred miles from civilization,” according to a Hudson reporter, in the Parry Sound district, east of Georgian Bay, in the Province of Toronto, Canada,

A March 18, 1885 article in the Amsterdam Daily Democrat described Beckwith’s return to Hudson by train, saying that he was heavily guarded and had a chain around his leg, “which makes him very despondent.” But not so despondent that he didn’t speak with journalists, claiming self-defense for the killing and telling them that Vandercook had tried to poison him before attacking him with a wooden stick. Beckwith would reiterate this story when he took the stand at his first trial in November 1885.

According to him, he met Vandercook in 1878 and told him about a silver and gold mine he had been working on land owned by a man named Woodruff. Beckwith believed the man would sell the land for $500 and tried to convince Vandercook to go in with him, offering him a two-thirds interest in the mine for $1,000. Instead, alleged Beckwith, Vandercook swindled him, incorporating a mining company in Kingston and cutting him out of the deal. Beckwith said he was too poor to pursue a lawsuit.

It was at that time that Beckwith built the cabin on the side of the mountain where the mine was located and where, on Jan. 10, 1882, the fateful meeting with Vandercook took place.

Beckwith testified that Vandercook forced his way into his cabin and a fight ensued, apparently helped along when he called Vandercook a “dirty whoremaster.”

“He hit me in the forehead,” recalled Beckwith, “made my nose bleed and knocked me down.”
They struggled, he testified, Vandercook grabbing a piece of wood and threatening to kill him before beginning to choke Beckwith. It was then that Beckwith grabbed a butcher knife and stabbed Vandercook.

Beckwith later testified that he slit Vandercook’s throat from ear to ear, pulled out his tongue and put an ax through his head. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to die.

Beckwith’s court appointed attorney, L. F. Longley, described as “indefatigable” by the Hudson Daily Evening Register, took the case through two trials and before the state Supreme Court and Appeals Court twice each. Beckwith was sentenced to death five times, but couldn’t escape the noose on the sixth go round. After Gov. David Hill denied him executive clemency it was only a matter of time. And now that time was upon him.

It was March 1, 1888 and Beckwith was waiting for Sheriff Felts, who had since replaced Hanor, to come read him his death sentence. The night before he had gone to bed just after 9 p.m. and slept soundly, snoring “unpardonably,” according to one local reporter. Another reported that “perfect quiet presided about the jail and not a whisper was heard for several hours in any part of the building, except that of the reporters at work in adjoining rooms.”

Beckwith woke briefly at 4 a.m., then returned to bed until “the morning light shone through the grated window of his window on the south side of his cell” looking, to the journalist, as if he was “feeling refreshed from an excellent rest that no man under the sentence of death, save (Beckwith), could have passed through.” When asked, Beckwith replied that he slept well because he was “used to trouble.”

After waking he dictated a letter to his daughter who was then at the Homeopathic Hospital in Albany, telling her that he had been sentenced to death by a “parcel of Free Mason’s skulls,” but not to worry, since he had read in the Bible that “blood shall be up to the bridle rings” and that he believed Europe would soon be at war. Beckwith talked a lot about the Masons on his final day on Earth, telling one deputy that his death “would be a death blow to Free Masonry and all secret societies.”

Around 9:30 a.m. Rev. Smith of St. Mary’s Parish came and performed the ordinance of Baptism. At 10 a.m. the death sentence was read and Beckwith responded by again proclaiming his innocence. His hands were tied, the noose slipped around his neck and the black hood placed on his head, but not pulled down. The procession left the jail and walked the short distance to the 90 by 90 foot temporary building just outside, a “rude structure” in the words of a Hudson Daily Evening Register reporter, where the hanging was to take place. The scaffold, “an unassuming piece of mechanism…as uninviting as it was unassuming,” wrote the Register’s reporter, had been put up by Joseph Atkinson, the executioner, who had come from Brooklyn to perform the deed. It was 14 feet high, with a crossbar 16 feet in length and was “suitable for hanging three people at the same time.” When the execution took place a hidden weight, weighing 380 pounds, would drop, sending the condemned up in the air, as opposed to other devices in which the floor would drop, sending the person hurtling downwards.

The rope was of Italian hemp and the noose was the same one, pointed out the reporter, used to hang Danny Driscoll. Driscoll was the co-leader of the New York City gang the Whyos who was hanged Jan. 23, 1888 for killing Breezy Garrity, a prostitute, during a gunfight between Driscoll and Five Points Gang member Johnny McCarthy.

On the morning of the hanging a massive crowd had gathered outside the jail in Hudson, held back by local militia. Every nearby tree and telegraph pole was covered in children hoping to get a glimpse of the famed murderer. Inside the structure a number of local dignitaries and press gathered to watch Beckwith hang.

The condemned wore a black suit and was clean shaven. His step did not waiver. On the scaffold he kissed a proffered crucifix and mumbled “Jesus have mercy on me, have mercy on me.” A minute later, reported the Register, an executioner “sent the soul of Oscar Beckwith to its maker and his body bouncing into the air.”

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