Hal Roth - November 2008

The Gordy Murder


Hal Roth

   The following brief notice appeared in the March 20, 1897 edition of the Denton Journal. Apparently the type had been set and the paper was ready for press when additional information was presented to the editor, which he added in brackets.


   The dead body of a white woman was found in Broadkiln River, about two miles below Milton, Thursday evening about 6 o’clock. The back part of the skull was crushed in and every appearance indicated that murder had been committed. In an old boat close by were found hairpins and other portions of female apparel. The body was nicely dressed and of refined appearance, but no one has been able to identify it, and the woman was evidently a stranger in these parts. [James M. Gordy, of Sussex County, has been arrested for the murder of this woman, who, it is alleged, was his wife, to whom he was recently married in New York City.]

   Wilmington, March 20. – R. C. White, attorney general of Delaware, who has been in charge of the collection of evidence against James M. Gordy, accused of the murder of his bride at Georgetown, compares Gordy to H. H. Holmes and says that his (Gordy’s) crimes have been even more atrocious than those fastened upon the murderer Holmes. Mr. White expects to prove that Gordy was instrumental in the deaths of his first wife and his father, as well as the murder of his bride a few days ago. An insatiable greed for money is given as the incentive to the crimes.
    At Georgetown last night the coroner’s jury in the Gordy case rendered the following verdict: “That Mrs. Mary Gordy, alias Mary Lewis, of New York, came to her death from wounds upon the head inflicted by some blunt instrument in the hands of James M. Gordy, with felonious intent.”

   H. H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May 1896 for the murder of a man, his thirty-fourth known victim, a U. S. murder record at the time.

   Laurel, Del., March 23. – James M. Gordy, who has been held on the verdict of the coroner’s jury for the murder of his wife at Milton last week, is said to be feigning insanity. The attorney general has arranged to have expert physicians examine Gordy in a few days.

   Georgetown, Del., April 7. – James M. Gordy, who is being held in the county jail for the murder of his wife on the 11th of last month, will be tried next Monday.

   Georgetown, Del., April 13. – The trial of James M. Gordy was begun here today.
    Long before the judges arrived in town the courthouse corridors were packed so thickly with people that it was a task for the officers to open a passageway wide enough to admit those entitled to enter. Admission to the courtroom was by ticket.
    Chief Justice Lore and Judges Charles T. Cullen and David T. Marvel were upon the bench. Of the 56 men summoned on the special jury panel, 51 were called before the twelfth juror was accepted and sworn.
    After the jury had been chosen, a recess was taken. When the court reconvened, John C. Hazzard of Milton, a surveyor, was called and submitted a map of Broadkiln River from Milton Bridge to Vaughn’s Landing.
    Rev. William W. Moir, assistant rector of the Church of the Holy Communion, New York City, then took the stand. He swore he married James M. Gordy and Estella M. Lewis at the church on February 25 last. He positively identified Gordy as the man and also identified pictures of Estella Mary Lewis as those of the woman he had married to Gordy.
    Mrs. Blanche Goeletz, sister of the dead woman, was the next witness. She swore that the body was that of her sister and identified the diamond ring taken from Gordy as one owned by the dead woman. She also identified the silk bag and curling irons found in Gordy’s room the day after the murder and every article of furniture at the freight depot here, which was shipped to James M. Gordy from New York two days before the murder. The witness was visibly affected during the cross examination, but her story was not shaken.
    Miss Dubrick of Brooklyn, a cousin of the dead woman, corroborated Mrs. Goeletz’s story.
    John Robinson, a fisherman, told how he and his partner had found the body and towed it to Milton, 800 yards away. The feet of the corpse were stuck in the mud a foot or more, and they had to raise the body before they could tow it up the creek.

   Georgetown, Del., April 14. – At the opening of the afternoon session of James M. Gordy’s trial for the murder of his wife, the State rested its case. The defense immediately called Dr. Caleb R. Layton, who testified concerning the reports of drowning cases by the Royal Humane Society of London. This was the only evidence produced by the defense. The defense will attempt to show that the woman was drowned. The case will go to the jury probably tomorrow. The opinion is general that if the verdict be one of guilty, sentence of death will be immediately pronounced.

   New York Times: Georgetown, Del., April 15. – James M. Gordy was tonight convicted of murder in the first degree for killing his wife, Mrs. Mary Estelle Lewis of New York, by throwing her into the Broadkiln Creek on March 11.
    The result of the trial was never in doubt, as the evidence against Gordy was overwhelming, while his defense was based on the testimony of only one witness, a physician who swore to a knowledge of many cases of drowning where water had not been found in the lungs after death. This was to prove that the woman had not been killed by blows on the head inflicted by Gordy, as alleged in the indictment.
    The jury retired at 5:39 o’clock this afternoon, after listening throughout the day to the arguments of counsel. Charles M. Cullen and Charles F. Richards, Gordy’s lawyers, addressed the jury in the morning, and Attorney General White occupied the afternoon. Then followed the charge of the Court, and the case went to the jury. They brought in their verdict at 7:28 o’clock tonight: “guilty in manner and form as he stands indicted.” The finding is generally approved, indignation against the prisoner running so high that yesterday it was feared an attempt to lynch him would be made.
    Gordy was much moved by the verdict.
    Mrs. James M. Gordy lived until March 10 at 2613 Eighth Avenue, this city. She was known there until a few days before as Mrs. M. Lewis, the widow of an ink manufacturer. She then told some friends that she had married Gordy, a planter and horse breeder living in Delaware. A medium-sized man with a drooping mustache accompanied her when she left the Eighth Avenue house March 10. He proved to be J. M. Gordy. Mrs. Gordy disposed of the business left by her former husband and her household effects and went with Gordy in all confidence.
    Her body was found in the mud of Broadkiln Creek, near Milton, a little town nine miles from Georgetown, the next day. There were three wounds in the head, any one of which would have caused death. A boat that had been stolen further up the creek  was found adrift near the body. In the boat were some hairpins and near it a broken oar. The scene of the murder was a secluded spot, hidden from observation by trees and clumps of bushes.
    Suspicion fell upon Gordy, and the officers went to his farm, near Milton, only to find that he had fled. He was finally captured at his mother’s home in Sussex County and taken to Georgetown Jail.
    When Gordy was arrested, he turned to the officers and said: “I didn’t hurt that woman.” He had not been told why he was arrested. In Gordy’s pockets were found a woman’s pocketbook containing $300 and a diamond ring. The feeling was very high among his neighbors in Delaware.

   Cumberland, Md., April 16, 1897. – The speedy conviction of Gordy in Delaware is an excellent manner for doing away with lynch law. When the people are satisfied the courts will do justice speedily, they will be willing to abstain from interference.

   Georgetown, Del., April 24. – Chief Justice Lore passed sentence upon James M. Gordy, the wife-murderer, on Saturday last. The Justice asked him if he had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon him.
    Gordy answered firmly: “I am not guilty.”
   “Anything else?” asked the Justice.
   “As God is my witness,” said Gordy, “I am not guilty.” Then, in a clear voice, as his piercing black eyes looked straight into those of the Judge, he added: “You may kill my body, but you cannot kill my soul.”
   The Judge then pronounced the sentence, fixing the date of the hanging at June 11.
    Gordy had many adventures before he met the unfortunate New York lady, who married him. He met Miss Emma Scates, in Baltimore, and became engaged after a few weeks of ardent devotion. She had property, and he knew it. He advised her to sell it – at cash sale – but she failed to do so, and he left the city.
    In one of his letters to her he closes with these lines:
“Roses are red and violets blue,
Cherries are sweet, and so are you.”
On the back of the letter was written:
“The sea is deep, the ocean blue,
If you love me, I’ll love you.”

    I am not the only girl he has fooled,” said Miss Scates. “I have a letter from a girl at Federalsburg, which he gave me. In it she tells him how sorry she was that she failed to keep an engagement with him at Seaford. I may go down to Georgetown before he is hung.”
    Miss Scates is thirty-five years old and closely resembles the woman whom Gordy murdered.

   Georgetown, Del., May 1. – James M. Gordy, the convicted murderer of his wife, was visited yesterday by Rev. B. F. Collins of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Rev. J. H. Ewell, a Methodist Protestant minister, to whom he made the following statement: “I am innocent of the crime with which I am charged and for which I am sentenced to die. Fourteen years ago I joined the Methodist church near Gumboro, near which place I was born. On the day on which I am to hang I will tell a complete history of my life.” Gordy then went on to say that he desired certain hymns to be sung, and that in the future he would designate his pallbearers and the place where he desired to be buried. He requested that the sermon over his body be preached by Rev. A. Green, pastor of the New Methodist Church.

   Georgetown, Del., May 24. – A sensation was created here when it became rumored that Mr. Cullen, the chief attorney for the defense in the Gordy case, had in his possession a letter which stated that the writer and a companion had plotted the murder of Mrs. Lewis, for whose death James M. Gordy is to hang on June 11. The story comes from Gordy’s cell, and he says he has been assured that his attorney has the letter, and that the case is to be investigated.

   Georgetown, Del., June 10. – Armed guards are patrolling the streets of Georgetown tonight to keep lawless characters away from the jail. There are many rumors of trouble, but none is expected tomorrow, when James M. Gordy will be hanged.
    One rumor is to the effect that threats have been made to kill John Andre, the negro warden, when Gordy is hanged. Andre killed his wife in 1875 and was sentenced to life imprisonment, but he was pardoned four years ago and has since been employed at the jail. The sheriff has sent his family away from the jail.

   Georgetown, Del., June 11. – James M. Gordy was hanged at 10:26 this morning for the murder of his wife. He died game and protested his innocence to the last. Gordy on the scaffold reviewed the evidence on which he had been convicted, pointed out what he considered the inconsistencies therein and suggested a connivance of his sister-in-law with the detectives to secure his conviction.

   The story should end at this point, but Gordy’s property remained in the news for several years to come.

   Milton, Del., November 14, 1898. – Considerable excitement prevails about the dwelling, near Milton, Sussex County, formerly occupied by James M. Gordy, who was hanged near Georgetown June 11, 1897 for murdering his wife.
    The people of the neighborhood declare that the place is haunted, and John P. Morris, who has been living there, has offered his farming utensils for sale and will move away, saying that it is not safe for his wife and children to be on the farm unless he is with them.
    Mr. Morris says that on a recent night he was pursued by a white dog that was almost as large as a horse. After he entered the house he heard a queer noise on the roof, and on investigating saw a four-legged man on the roof dancing a jig. Later he heard a noise as of a falling tree and the four-legged man disappeared. All sorts of noises and white objects are seen about the home, and Mr. Morris’ family has been terrorized by these fears.
    Farmers are going for miles around to investigate.

   Milton, Del., November 16, 1898. – Tales of spooks and haunted places are plentiful just now in and around this Delaware town, and there are many persons, especially among the colored folk of Milton, who dare not venture out after dark.
    The centre of weird interest is the old home of James M. Gordy, who was hanged at Georgetown on June 11, 1897 for the murder of his wife. The house where Gordy lived, and where a previous wife died under suspicion of having been poisoned by him for her life insurance, is about six miles from Milton, on the road to Georgetown. It is a small frame house, painted yellow, and stands close to the road. The associations of the place with Gordy and his crimes have gained it the reputation of being haunted.
    The present occupant, Mr. John P. Morris, yesterday sold his farming utensils and is preparing to move with his family. Mr. Morris gives a graphic account of some of his experiences in the Gordy home since last Christmas.
   “I came here nearly a year ago,” Mr. Morris began, “and thought the place was all right, although Herbert Machett, who had lived here just before, said he had seen queer sights at times. I never believed in ghosts and never was afraid of them, but some of the things I have heard in this house would make anyone change his mind.”
    Mr. Morris was interrupted by his uncle, Mr. John B. Morris, a white-bearded old man, said to be a heavy sleeper and skeptical about ghosts. “John, you just think you heard things,” said the uncle, “but you never heard anything but my old dog scratching on the porch.”
   “I didn’t hear your dog,” said John. “My wife and daughter heard the noises, too, and will tell you so.”
    Mr. Hiram Waters, a neighboring farmer, said as he stroked his chin whiskers and gazed into the fire: “John told me about these happenings in the house a long time ago, and John isn’t the kind of a man to go around telling them if they never took place.”
    The younger Morris resumed his story. “It is only lately that we have felt that this place is haunted,” he said. “My wife has been sick, and she and I and all the rest of the family have heard sounds that could not have been made by men. About six months ago they began and have been going on ever since.
   “One night before any of us had gone to bed, and while we were in the sitting room, we heard a loud thump in the dining room and next a clattering and smashing of dishes, just as though the table had been thrown over on its top. My son and I ran into the room quickly, but we found the table in the middle of the room as usual, and every dish in its place. There wasn’t a thing out of place in the room.”
    Uncle John broke in again to say that the noise was most probably caused by a horse kicking in the stable, but Mr. Waters said he had heard the former tenant tell of the same things.
    The younger Morris, without noticing these interruptions, continued: “Many times I have seen doors to the different rooms fly open after we have shut them, and have several times had a door that I had just locked unlock and open without being touched.  Of course these things scared us, but as they didn’t hurt anybody, we got used to them.
   “Last Thursday night everybody had gone to bed, and it was about midnight when I woke up, and for some time listened to a slight noise on the roof. Suddenly there was a terrible knock on the roof near the back of the house, and some heavy body came rolling and tumbling down the roof and dropped from the ledge to the back porch roof. I heard distinctly the timbers and posts crash and the porch go down, but when I got to the window and looked out, the porch was all right, and there was nothing unusual to be seen or heard.
   “I have heard footsteps just before midnight running around the dining room, but I never was able to see anything, although I have tried until I was tired.”
    A daughter corroborated Mr. Morris’ statements concerning the noises, and said that she had often heard them and was too frightened to find out what they were.
    Uncle John said: “It is all stuff and nonsense, and it can’t be. Nothing heavy could have fallen on the porch roof or it would have broken it. I have slept in the house by myself and never heard a sound, except some tree branches falling on the roof. The footsteps running about the house were just as likely as not due to a rat, and John was too sleepy to know the difference.”
    Mr. Morris and his family stoutly deny this, and say it is well enough for people to talk who don’t hear these sounds, but if they did hear them, they would change their minds.
    Such stories have sent a quaky feeling through the community, and the road to the old Gordy home is not traveled at night.
    Other stories and superstitions are cropping out. The Milton Creek, out of which the body of the second Mrs. Gordy was taken, and in whose waters have been found no fewer than nine human bodies in as many years, is looked upon with awe by men who formerly penetrated its every nook and corner and fished there day and night. Colored fishermen refuse to go on the same side of the creek from which Mrs. Gordy’s body was taken, and have marked the exact spot with red rags stuck on poles, that can be seen some distance away. In consequence, it is stated by Mrs. James Jester, of Milton, that there is a scarcity of shad, which are plentiful in the creek, but are not being fished for with the zeal of former years. “The colored people won’t go near the place,” Mrs. Jester said, “and are missing lots of good fishing.”
   “I believe all this talk of ghosts is breeding more superstitions,” Mrs. Jester continued, “I had a lady visitor today who insisted on going out the back door of my house because she had come in that way. She believes firmly that if she comes in one door and goes out another, she will leave bad luck in the house.
   “I know another woman who thinks it terrible if any sort of mark is made on the ground in front of her house while she is out.”
    Thomas Nillet, an elderly colored man, claims to have seen the body of Mrs. Gordy in the creek one day last week, stuck in the mud, just as it was when she was found.
    Besides Gordy’s old home, there are a number of other places which have lately been branded as “haunted,” two of them being along the road to Gordy’s and both vacant.
    One of the most startling fancies now abroad in the town is that Gordy is still alive, and was never really hanged. Mr. James Jester said that two days ago he met a man who told him he had just seen Gordy in the woods. Among the negroes the belief is prevalent that a “plaster of paris” man was hung in Gordy’s place, or that the sheriff, in adjusting Gordy’s noose, fixed it so as not to injure him, or that after Gordy was taken down from the scaffold his body was given to friends, who brought him to life and hustled him out of the country. There are other and more contradictory stories believed by the negroes and by some whites, too, about the fate of Gordy.

   In February 1899 the three Gordy children decided to sell the property, which included a hundred acres and the house, but they were unable to give a clear title because the original deed had been lost. A bill to make the title good was passed by the Delaware House, and the property was put up for auction on December 22. A newspaper account reports that a large crowd was “afraid to bid,” and the property was sold to Attorney General White and Executor Purnell for $75.

   If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.