Hal Roth - May 2009


Old News from Delmarva:

Justice in the Fast Lane


Hal Roth

   As a nation we have generally attempted to balance an individual’s right to a speedy trial and society’s yearning for prompt justice with an array of checks to ensure that fairness is also served. In recent years, however, an increasing trend toward caution has slowed our system, some feel, to a snail’s pace. If an execution is ordered today for a capital offense and actually administered, the process may consume twenty years or more, sometimes even when the convicted felon has no interest in appeals.
    Historically, “justice” really has been speedy. Celia Bush was brutally murdered on April 7, 1884, and her killer was executed on August 1 of the same year. In the intervening hundred and fifteen days an investigation of the crime took place; the murderer was arrested; a trial was conducted; an appeal was filed, considered and won; the prisoner was retried; the governor reviewed the case and issued a death warrant while a scaffold was borrowed from a neighboring county and re-erected. And for the nineteenth century this was not unusually swift.

   Cambridge, Md., May 6 – The trial of Frederick alias “Bug” Cephas, colored, for the murder of Mrs. Celia Murphy, better known by her maiden name of Celia Bush, near Williamsburg, Dorchester County, on the 7th of April last, was commenced here this morning before Judges Wilson and Goldsborough. The courtroom was crowded, and great interest was manifested, many ladies being present. State’s Attorney Daniel M. Henry, Jr., conducted the prosecution, and Messrs. Milbourne and Hayward, Sr., assisted by Daniel M. Henry, appeared for the defense. About an hour was consumed in obtaining the jury.
    State’s Attorney Henry made a brief opening statement, in which he characterized the murder as one of the wickedest and most atrocious crimes that had ever been committed in Dorchester County. The evidence would show that an innocent old woman, who enjoyed the respect and confidence of all who knew her, had been brutally beaten and murdered; her house had been robbed, and it was evident that the only motive for the murder was the hellish lust for money. Mr. Henry described the nature of the crime and the wounds inflicted and expressed his belief that the evidence in his possession was ample to secure the conviction of the prisoner.
    Mr. S. T. Milbourne replied for the defense. He agreed with Mr. Henry that the crime was one of the most horrible on record, but the jury must be thoroughly satisfied of the prisoner’s guilt before convicting him. The accused was poor and friendless and had no one to look to for sympathy and help. His only reliance was in the impartiality of the jury.
    W. Grason Smith was the first witness called. He testified to having seen Miss Bush, as Mrs. Murphy was called in the neighborhood, on Monday, April 7, between ten and eleven o’clock, and to having assisted in the search which resulted in the discovery of her body on the following Thursday. He described the condition of Miss Bush’s house, which had been broken into and robbed, and the appearance of Miss Bush’s body when found. Mr. Smith also identified pieces of the sapling from which the fatal bludgeon is supposed to have been cut, as having been found near the scene of the murder.
    Charles Spry, colored, the first person to discover Miss Bush was missing, described the condition of things at Miss Bush’s house on the day the murder was discovered. Theophilus A. Mowbray identified the bludgeon stained with blood, which was found about two hundred yards from where Miss Bush’s body was discovered. It was lying, he said, in the direct line of flight through the woods from the scene of the murder to Cephas’s house. Both Mr. Mowbray and W. Ormson Smith testified that Fred Cephas, on seeing them on the Saturday following the murder, quickened his pace and struck off into the woods. Mrs. W. Grayson Smith testified that Miss Celia Bush was at her house April 7, about half past ten in the morning.
    Lizzie Jenkins, colored, who lived with Cephas, was examined. The main points of her testimony were that Cephas and Sam McGlotten, a neighbor, had had a conversation in her presence some time during the winter as to whether Miss Bush had any money in her house; that there was a spot of blood on Cephas’s pantaloons after his return home Monday; that he seemed moody and apprehensive that day and subsequently, and that he brought home a lot of soap, which she identified, together with a piece of muslin in which it was wrapped. The soap was shown to the jury by the State’s Attorney and compared with pieces similar in size and weight which had been taken from Miss Bush’s house. Lizzie was subjected to a rigid cross-examination by Messrs. Henry and Milbourne, but adhered closely to her original statements.
    Cornelius Murphy, the divorced husband of Miss Bush, states that he was at least twenty miles away from the scene of the murder when it is supposed to have occurred, and that, notwithstanding the bad relations which existed between himself and his former wife, no one can regret more than he does her untimely and horrible fate. Her conduct in refusing to refund him money he had paid for her, he ascribed to a great extent to the advice of others, which, he says, possessed an influence over her inimical to himself. He claims to have advanced her altogether more than one thousand dollars. It is thought by lawyers here that he will be able to secure a share in the property.
    The court held a session in the evening. A. L. Richardson corroborated previous testimony as to Cephas’s sudden disappearance in the woods on the day of his arrest and the nature of the investigations made by the State’s Attorney at Cephas’s house. Elijah Milbourn and Frank Cannon, who lived near Cephas, testified to having seen him leave his house about eleven o’clock on the morning of April 7 and go in the direction of the woods, which led to Miss Bush’s premises.
    At this point the prisoner was suddenly taken sick and had to be removed from the courtroom. He had born up well all day and occasionally laughed at amusing passages in the evidence. Dr. Thomas B. Steele examined him and pronounced his sickness to be from indigestion and caused in part by the intense heat. When he had recovered somewhat, the trial was resumed. Joseph B. Corkran testified that he saw Cephas about sundown, April 7. He had engaged to work for him (Corkran) that day. When he asked Cephas why he had not come, he said he had had business to attend to; he had been over to Preston and to Nicholas Wright’s, where he had bought a hog. He (Corkran) asked him to show him the hog, and he then said he had not brought it home.
    At the close of Mr. Corkran’s evidence Cephas was again taken sick, and court was adjourned until nine o’clock tomorrow morning. The prisoner is very sick tonight, but his condition is not regarded as serious. It was thought by some that he might have taken poison, but Dr. Steele said he could discover no evidence of his having done so.

   Cambridge, Md., May 7 – The trial of Frederick alias “Bug” Cephas, colored, for the murder of Celia Bush Murphy ended this morning in the conviction of the prisoner. State’s Attorney Daniel M. Henry, Jr., closed for the State shortly before eleven o’clock. He spoke for nearly two hours with great force and displayed marked skill and ingenuity in dovetailing the evidence, which was almost entirely circumstantial. The jury remained out just half an hour when they re-entered the courtroom. The question having been propounded as to whether they had agreed, the foreman, Lewis Thomas, replied that they had decided upon a verdict of guilty as charged in the indictment. The jury took only one ballot and was unanimous from the start in favor of conviction.   Mr. S. T. Milbourne, of counsel for the prisoner, gave notice that the defense would ask for a new trial. It is understood the application will be based upon the alleged insufficiency of the evidence to convict.
    As soon as the verdict was announced, the prisoner was removed from the courtroom and taken back to jail. He exhibited remarkable self-control, though evidently deeply agitated. His appearance throughout the trial has been forlorn and pitiable. His clothing is in tatters, and his face, though occasionally betraying signs of amazement or interest, usually wears a look of utter dejection and hopelessness.
    After the decision of the jury was rendered, the court took a recess, during which one of the counsels for the defense stated to the correspondent that a flaw had been discovered in the verdict. The jury, he said, in reading the verdict should have specified the degree of the crime, whether murder in the first or second degree, but the foreman had simply returned a verdict of guilty of murder as indicated. The defense, he added, would move for an arrest of judgment on the ground that the verdict was not found in accordance with law. Should this point be (illegible) the court may decide that the verdict was in effect a mistrial, and that a new trial shall be had, or it may set aside the verdict and, on the ground that a man’s life cannot be put in jeopardy twice for the same offense, may discharge the prisoner. The defense has four days in which to prepare their application in writing for an arrest of judgment.

   Cambridge, Md., May 11 – The court rendered its decision Saturday night on the motion of an arrest of judgment and new trial in the case of Fred alias “Bug” Cephas, colored, convicted of the murder of Miss Celia Bush. The court holds that the informality in the verdict invalidated the trial and orders a new trial. It is stated that new evidence has been discovered, which still further establishes the prisoner’s guilt.

   Cephas’s second trail began in Cambridge on June 10, and news reports noted that the prisoner presented a more genteel appearance than he had at his first trial, wearing a new suit furnished by Dorchester County. Testimony again demonstrated that Cephas could not account for his whereabouts at the time of Celia Bush’s murder, that he had been observed near the scene and returned home with a bloodstain on his clothing.
    John Pearson, who had been ill during the first trial, presented new evidence for the prosecution by testifying that Cephas had come to him in February wanting to purchase a pig. Pearson informed Cephas that Celia Bush had approached him about buying pigs and that he didn’t know if he would have any available. “She’s got plenty of money,” Cephas observed. “Whenever I’ve worked for her, she would go to a little black box and get all she wanted. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t knocked her in the head.  She lives all alone, and it would never be found out.” Cephas then quizzed Pearson about the roads traveled by Bush.
    Arguments in the second trial were concluded late on June 11, and the jury promptly returned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”
    On the morning of June 12, Judge Irving sentenced Cephas to death by hanging, and the prisoner was returned to his jail cell, where he sobbed bitterly and declined to be interviewed by reporters.
    On June 25, Maryland Governor McLane signed Cephas’s death warrant.

   Cambridge, Md., June 29 – Susan McGlotten, the colored girl for whom Fred Cephas has evinced such desire to see during his incarceration, was brought to Cambridge at an early hour on Saturday morning by Mr. Joseph Corkran. She is about fourteen years of age, well grown and neat in appearance. She was taken to the jail and carried to the cell window, where Cephas sat on his cot, and a long and affecting interview took place between them. Several times their dusky lips met through the bars of the cell window, and the girl wept freely when the interview was over. She stated that she and Fred had been warm friends, and that she came in response to his request to say goodbye; that Fred had imparted no secrets to her in regard to the murder, but talked of his execution and conveyed final messages to other friends by her.
    In a letter written [to McGlotten] at his dictation shortly after his arrest, Cephas remarked that he was well, but “would like it much better if I were where I was some time ago, burning brush, and you waved a hand of fellowship to me. You will see clearly in these few lines,” he added, “that I am about to be betrayed by the little nigger.”
    The “little nigger” referred to was Lizzie Jenkins, who had lived with him for several years, and whose testimony proved so important at the trial. In the same letter he says: “Remember that ring you have of mine. Please, if I never see you again, keep it as long as you live for the sake of one that thinks a great deal of you. The handkerchief that I got from you I will keep to remember you until I see you again, if I should live to get out of bondage.”
    After the interview was over, Cephas was brought from his cell into the sheriff’s office and made a full confession in writing. He freely exonerated all others to whom slight suspicion may have attached. He stated that he had made up his mind to confess because he did not want to die with a lie on his lips. He wanted now to prepare for another world. He stated further that he had had a fair trial and that the verdict was just; that he had no hope of pardon, and that he did not desire it.

   Cambridge, Md., July 19 – Sheriff Melvin went over to Easton on Wednesday and secured the use of the Talbot County gallows for the execution of Bug Cephas. Cephas is as happy as if he had all the years Methusalem [sic] in store. Several gentlemen called on him Tuesday, and he cordially invited them to be present at his hanging. On his cell door is a notice asking visitors to pay five cents toward removing his body to Williamsburg after he is dead. This is a sly piece of humbuggery. Instead of saving the money for the purpose stated, he spends it for ice cream and other delicacies of the season. He is getting fat rapidly, and his appetite is enormous.

   Cambridge, Md., July 30 – The preparations for the execution on Friday next of Bug Cephas for the murder of Mrs. Celia Bush-Murphy are nearly completed. The scaffold is erected immediately in the rear of the courthouse and is enclosed by a high board fence about thirty feet square.
    Since the erection of the scaffold, a constant stream of colored people have visited and gazed with awe upon it. A large crowd of colored excursionists arrived from Baltimore and swarmed around the gallows and jail. Cephas was permitted to speak to them. He introduced himself as Fred Cephas, the murderer of Mrs. Bush, and stated that he was ready to die. He also advised them to take warning at his fate and never let old Satan get the better of them. Some of the hearers were much affected and gave vent to their feelings by loud groans.
    Cephas is visited daily by the colored preachers of Cambridge and professes readiness to die. He received the rite of baptism this morning. Correspondents visited him in his cell shortly after the ceremony and found him in excellent spirits.
    He sleeps well, has a keen appetite and has grown stout. One of his first remarks during the interview was, “Boss, you paper printers ought to bring a fellow some cigars.”
    Cephas’s manner indicates that he is flattered by the notoriety he has attained. At his request he was carried to the scaffold this afternoon and inspected the trap and the entire structure slowly and without betraying the least nervousness. He remarked that he was much obliged to the people for the pains they were taking and expressed himself as well pleased with the arrangements. On his return to jail he remarked to his fellow prisoners: “Well, boys, I’ve been over and seen her, and she’s solid.”

   Cambridge, Md., Aug. 1 – Fred Cephas was executed in Cambridge today. At half-past four o’clock this morning he arose, lit a cigar and paced his cell, singing a familiar hymn. He also ate a hearty breakfast.
    At twelve o’clock Cephas emerged from the side entrance of the jail. The sheriff and guards walked in the lead. Cephas and his colored spiritual advisors followed with a strong guard in the rear. The march was from the jail to the entrance of and through the courthouse to a high window with the sash removed, through which the sheriff, Cephas and his spiritual advisers passed by steps to the gallows, singing “Jesus Lover of My Soul.” Cephas joined lustily in the singing and walked firmly and boldly upon the gallows.
    Upon reaching the scaffold, Rev. Mr. Young delivered an appropriate prayer, during which the slightest muscular twitch about Cephas’s mouth was noticed. At the end of the prayer he responded firmly, “Amen.”
    Cephas was then asked if he had anything to say. He advanced a pace on the platform and said: “I am the man that killed Mrs. Bush. I am the one that committed the crime. I did it. There is another word I wish to say: Mr. Richardson, the deputy sheriff, has not treated me right, but I forgive him for it. Gentlemen, I am ready to go. Beware of old Satan and don’t let him get the better of you. He fooled me, but I have overcome him now.”
    The prisoner recognized in the crowd within the enclosure many who have visited him, and calling them by name he bade them goodbye, and then he said: “I have nothing more to say.” The ministers shook him by the hand and walked from the platform, followed by the sheriff.
    Almost precisely at ten minutes past twelve o’clock the rope was chopped, the platform swung down on its hinges, and the body shot through the trap with great velocity. Except swaying, the body remained motionless, evidently paralyzed by the shock. In the descent the cap flew off, revealing the face, which was upturned, the eyes protruding and glaring. The fall was about five feet, and Cephas’s weight about one hundred and eighty pounds. Several minutes later there was some muscular contraction, and then the body remained motionless. After four and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and after fourteen minutes Drs. B. W. Goldsborough and N. Comegys pronounced him dead. At 12:45 o’clock the body was lowered into the coffin.
    Major Stanley, an uncle of Cephas, and Levin Cannon, living in the neighborhood of Cephas, took charge of the corpse, and it will be buried on Saturday near Crotcher’s Ferry on the land formerly belonging to Jacob Wilson, where Cephas’s father lies buried.
    Large crowds congregated around the jail, and many fruitless demands were made for tickets to witness the execution. Several catchpenny stands were erected on the public square, which attracted the curious.

   For a list of books by Hal Roth’s, write to nanbk@dmv.com.