Hal Roth - February 2007
Old News from Delmarva:
The Trial of John R. Plater – Part 1
During the March 1872 term of the Talbot County Court in Easton, Maryland, an indictment was brought against John R. Plater for the murder of his wife, Eliza C. Plater. Because of intense publicity and public sentiment the case was removed to Cambridge, in Dorchester County, where Plater’s trial began in February 1873. Former Maryland Governor Philip Francis Thomas, a Talbot resident, and the Cambridge firm of Henry and Sullivane were retained as counsel for the defense. Maryland Attorney General A. K. Syester, assisted by attorney Howard M. Milbourne, led the prosecution.
The February 8, 1873 edition of the Denton Journal outlined the state’s case against Plater:
“Mr. Milbourne made the opening statement for the State. He said the State would show that the deceased came to her death at the hands of the accused by one of three ways: strangulation, suffocation, willful and felonious exposure to inclement weather at a critical condition of her health, or by an actual administration of poison. He said the State expected to prove that sometime in the year 1865 the defendant became acquainted with the accused in the State of Virginia; that she was young, with but little knowledge, while he was a man of mature years with social and educational advantages; that he won her affections and then sacrificed her innocence upon the altar of lusts; that he married her when her shame could no longer be concealed; that on the day after their marriage they went to Lynchburg, Va. and stopped at the house of a married sister of the deceased; that they remained there some time, when he went away, as he alleged, to seek employment; that he returned about New Year, 1866, to be present at the confinement of his wife; that he remained with her until the following March, when he went away again in search of employment, as he alleged; that he corresponded with her for a short time, and then she lost sight of him; that in May 1868 she learned that her husband was in Talbot County, Md., and that she induced Jackson, her brother-in-law, to go and see him, but that Plater refused to see him, and that Jackson had to return home without accomplishing anything; that being destitute of money and clothing, she (Mrs. Plater) apprenticed herself to a milliner and remained there until March 1871, when she started for Maryland; that when she reached her husband’s house, he met her with the insulting speech, ‘You d––d b––h, what did you come here for?’; that she entered the house and remained there until the following August; that she found him living in adultery with a negro woman named Rebecca Cornish, and that while the negro woman was there, Mrs. Plater had to occupy a room in the lower story, while her husband slept upstairs with his negro mistress; that his cruelty became so great that she had to apply to the law for protection, and on the advice of the State’s Attorney of Talbot County she returned to Lynchburg, Va.; that she remained in Lynchburg until she received a letter telling of her husband’s sickness, which created a desire to see him, and she left Virginia for Maryland, reaching Easton on Friday, the 1st of December; that on the following day she started on foot for her husband’s house, having no means to pay for a carriage; that when she reached the house, Plater met her and demanded to know why she had come; that she answered she properly belonged there and intended to stay; that he sent his precious mistress, Rebecca, over to a neighbor’s house, ordered the fire to be put out, fastened down the windows, secured the doors and went to Easton, leaving her sitting on the doorstep on that cold December day; that he returned about sunset, accompanied by Ross, a colored boy, and his overseer, a white man named Bryan; that they found Mrs. Plater had succeeded in entering the house; that he said to her, ‘You have got in again, have you?’ and she replied, ‘Yes, and I mean to stay. If you go away again and come back you will find me here.’ That he then ordered Ross and Bryan to bring the wagon and cart, and upon doing so, he ordered the fire put out, removed all the beds, bedding, light furniture and all the food that was in the house; that he drove to his overseer’s house and deposited the furniture &c; that Bryan and Ross then prepared to take the teams back to Plater’s barn, but Plater insisted on going with them; that when they returned, they all observed a light in the house; that Plater jumped from the wagon and directed them to go on to the barn, as he was going to the house; that after putting away their teams, Bryan and Ross went to the house and found Plater there in the dark, the fire having been extinguished; that a colored man named Warner was in conversation with Plater, having just come up before them; that Warner started over towards the house of a man named Williams; that Plater soon started after him and remained absent so long they went to look for him and found he had been to Williams’ and had a private interview with Rebecca Cornish; that as they were returning and had reached a fence on Plater’s farm, they were met by a small dog barking violently; that Bryan had a lantern and went in the direction the dog ca… [illegible] and said he was going to [illegible]; that Ross and Plater kept on and had not gone far before they saw the dead body of Mrs. Plater lying alongside the fence; that Bryan told Plater what he had seen, and Plater replied to let her lie there; that they then all went over to Bryan’s and that, returning next morning, they found the body of Mrs. Plater still lying in the same place where it had been seen the night before.”
Harrison Kirby was called by the prosecution and testified that he knew Mrs. Plater and had seen her body between some briars and a fence. The body was covered with snow, he reported, its hands clenched, one holding a handkerchief to the dead woman’s nose.
Susan Wilson testified that she dressed Mrs. Plater’s body for burial and observed bruises on the back of the corpse and about the left groin, as well as abrasions and cuts on the knees.
Dr. Anderson, the attending physician at the coroner’s inquest, was unable to attend the trial and submitted an affidavit, which was admitted by consent of the State. In substance, the doctor’s report contradicted Wilson’s testimony, denying there were any marks of violence on the body of the deceased. The doctor claimed to have found a bottle of chloroform and a paper containing remnants of strychnine, and that Mrs. Plater, in his opinion, died of poison administered by her own hand.
Dr. Earle, of Easton, had also made a postmortem examination of Mrs. Plater’s body and testified that in his opinion death ensued from a non-natural cause, possibly suffocation. Doctors Baily and Steele concurred with Earle’s opinion.
John Cox offered the information that Rebecca Cornish, Plater’s mistress, was always dressed better than Mrs. Plater.
Mrs. Charles Bryan told the court that Plater had informed her that her husband need not fear arrest, that if anybody killed Mrs. Plater, he himself had done it.
Statements offered by William B. McCarthy were startling and damaging to the accused. He testified that Plater spoke harshly to the deceased before her death, and that he later heard Bryan, Plater’s overseer, say to Plater: “You promised me one thousand dollars for swearing to a lie for you, and if you do not pay me, I will tell the truth next time.”
Plater retorted, “If you do, I will fix you like I fixed her,” to which Bryan replied, “You cannot; you have no muff [sic] now.”
At that point in the confrontation, Plater allegedly drew a pistol, threatening Bryan, and McCarthy interfered. Both Plater and Bryan, McCarthy said, were intoxicated.
Ex-Governor Thomas then testified. “Last Thursday William B. McCarthy called me aside from the courtroom and asked, ‘Can’t you get me away from here? If I stay, I will convict Plater.’
“I replied, ‘What in the devil do you know about Plater’s guilt?’
“McCarthy responded that he had heard Plater say to his overseer that he (Plater) choked the deceased to death, and Rebecca Cornish held her feet while he did it. He also said that he had been ‘seized up’ the night before and was compelled to come. I told him he was not a witness for the defense and I had no means of getting him off. I made no advances to the witness. His statement was wholly voluntary.”
Alexis Pascault was then called to the stand. “I saw McCarthy the day Mr. Henry and Mr. Thomas requested me to go and see him. I had a conversation with him at Rea’s Hotel. He told me he would prove that he had heard Plater say to Bryan that he (Plater) had killed the deceased while Rebecca Cornish held her feet. McCarthy did not say that Rebecca Cornish could prove the fact but that he had overheard a conversation in which such a statement was made by Plater.”
Under cross-examination Syester asked, “You were told to go and see this party and see what he had to swear to?”
“I was sent to see what he had to say, not what he was going to swear to.”
“Who told you to go after this witness?”
“Mr. Henry and Governor Thomas.”
“You took him away from other people, did you? Why?”
“Because I thought he would tell me what he told Mr. Thomas.”
“Tell me your motive in taking this man aside.”
“I had my reasons for taking him aside. [The words “A sensation” were entered in brackets at this point in the transcript.] The first thing I said to Mr. McCarthy was a question about my brother’s funeral.”
“When did he die?”
“Why did you not go to the funeral?”
“Because I was summoned here.”
“Mr. Pascault, did you not say to Mr. John Cox that you didn’t go because you could make too much money by living men to run after dead ones?”
After considerable hesitancy the witness agreed that he had made the remark.
Syester continued his cross-examination: “Did you ask McCarthy what he was going to prove?”
“He commenced to tell me he wanted to get away without telling me what he was to swear to.”
“What did you mean by your remark that you could make too much from living men to run after dead ones?”
“I meant that I was buying up the attendance papers from witnesses and was making something in that way.”
“Are you in the habit of going to the courts for the purpose of buying up attendance papers?”
“Did you offer McCarthy money to leave Cambridge before this case should come up?”
At this point McCarthy was recalled to the stand, but he was not in the courtroom.
Syester continued to examine Pascault, inferring that he had talked about the case on many occasions, often in the presence of witnesses summoned for the trial and with the view of influencing their testimony to the advantage of the defendant.
Pascault responded: “I did not advise McCarthy, counsel him or offer to aid him to get away. I have never been furnished with money to offer McCarthy.”
Under cross-examination, Thomas asked: “Did you not know indirectly, before you had this conversation with McCarthy, that it would be useless to offer the latter money?”
The State objected to the question and the objection was sustained, after which Mr. Pascault said, “I have expressed my opinion on the subject of the trial but have never endeavored to influence anyone. I have heard witnesses talk about it, as I have done. I have entered into no arrangement with anyone connected with the defense to be paid for any services I may render Plater on this trial.”
Attorney General Syester said, “You say you have heard witnesses talk about this trial. Mention some of them.”
When Pascault was unable to do so, Syester concluded, to scattered laughter in the courtroom: “You may retire, sir.”
Charles A. Bryan was then called to the stand: “I recollect of no conversation held with Mr. Plater in Easton with reference to the death of Mrs. Plater. To the best of my knowledge and belief I do not think I ever held a conversation with Plater such as was detailed by William B. McCarthy. I have never been offered money to swear for or against Mr. Plater.”
Under cross-examination, however, Bryan admitted that he was drunk at the time and could not say with certainty whether the conversation reported by McCarthy had occurred or not.
Alexis Pascault was recalled and further testified: “I was at the farm of Plater the Sunday of Mrs. Plater’s death. My attention was called to some effects of Mrs. Plater’s: a satchel and a bonnet or hat. I searched the satchel and found a pair of gumshoes, a comb, a brush and three letters.” Two of the letters had been written by Emma Hughes and one by Pascault.
Counsel for the defense proposed to enter the letters in evidence to show that Mrs. Plater had been kept informed of Mr. Plater’s feelings against her, and that she came to Easton on her own account and not because of misrepresentations about her husband’s health. The State objected that the communications were impertinent to the issue, and their objection was upheld.
Syester then argued that the letter encouraging Mrs. Plater to return to Maryland and signed “Sarah Brice” had actually been written by Plater. Mrs. Plater was pregnant, the prosecutor contended, and it was Plater’s intention to kill her before an heir to his property could be born.
Further examination of Pascault resulted in testimony that he had reached Plater’s about 2:00 o’clock on the afternoon after Mrs. Plater’s body had first been observed. A bottle was lying two feet from Mrs. Plater’s head and arms, and there were scattered pieces of yellow paper about a half-inch square. When put together, the word “strychnia” was legible on them.
“Mrs. Plater’s pocketbook was taken from her pocket and given to me. It contained seven dollars,” Pascault testified.
“What became of the money?” Syester asked.
“I gave Mr. Wright six dollars for services rendered Mrs. Plater and the remainder to Mr. Mason.”
When Syester remarked, “You acted as sort of executor of this lady,” laughter broke out in the courtroom.
John Mason, the undertaker who buried Mrs. Plater, testified that he saw a chloroform bottle and scattered papers with the word “strychnia” written on them lying near her body, and he corroborated Susan Wilson’s testimony that there were bruises resembling kicks on the body. He further reported that an agent of Plater paid the funeral expenses, and the only other person present at Mrs. Plater’s burial was the gravedigger.
Dawson, a druggist from Easton, recalled having sold chloroform to a woman he did not know on December 1, 1871, but never sold strychnine to that person or in an envelope like the one found near the body. He and other druggists and clerks in Easton testified they had never sold strychnine or chloroform to Plater or to any agent of his.
Catherine Williams appeared on behalf of the defense and told the court that Rebecca Cornish came to her house on the afternoon of the murder and remained there until after she gave birth to her child the following Tuesday. Plater, she claimed, was at her house when night fell that Saturday and was lame from a sore leg.
Alfred Jump and Mary Griffin claimed the deceased had expressed suicidal intentions if she could not live with Plater, and E. Law Rogers, Plater’s brother-in-law, testified that Mrs. Plater had actually threatened to kill herself.
Alexis Pascault was again recalled to the stand. “When Mrs. Plater left in June 1871,” he offered, “I furnished her the necessary means.”
Syester objected, citing the testimony as irrelevant: “I suppose the object is to show that Mr. Pascault is a very kind-hearted gentleman, and that we admit.”
“We desire to show that Mr. Plater soon after assumed the debt and paid it,” replied Governor Thomas.
The judge agreed with Syester that he saw no relevancy to the testimony.
“If it is any gratification to the witness and his friends, the counsel, to hear it,” said Syester, “I will say that I am delighted with Mr. Pascault since I have come to know him.”
“Probably the admiration is mutual,” retorted Thomas.
“We may as well organize ourselves into a mutual admiration society,” commented Syester, “as sit here and do nothing.”
Court was then adjourned for the day, and the defense closed its case the following morning, February 10, at 11:00 a.m.
The State then produced a second affidavit from Dr. Anderson, declaring that he had only suggested poison as the cause of death in his first testimony. His supposition was predicated upon the expectation that poison would be found. Since it was not, the doctor agreed that death resulted from some other cause.
The State next called Dr. Aiken, a Baltimore physician, in rebuttal to the defense claim that Mrs. Plater poisoned herself. Aiken testified that he had made an analysis of the contents of Mrs. Plater’s stomach and found no traces of strychnine or chloroform.
Drs. Earle and Bayley also testified that death was not caused by either of the chemicals named and that there was no trace of strychnine on the papers found near the body. It was concluded that the papers were placed there on the morning after the alleged homicide.
Rebecca Cornish and several other prominent witnesses had moved away from the area and were unavailable to testify.
Next month: the impassioned plea for conviction by Maryland Attorney General A. K. Syester and the jury’s verdict.
You can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org