Hal Roth - November 2006
On April 12, 1902, Mrs. Ilda Collins of Laurel, Delaware was found brutally murdered in a stable on the farm where she lived with her husband and their two small children. Her skull had been repeatedly fractured by an iron bar and her throat cut from ear to ear with a hatchet. Two days later, immediately after he returned from his wife’s funeral, Elmer Collins was arrested for the crime.
Soon afterward, privately hired Pinkerton detectives produced a black man by the name of William Pratt, who, they contended, had confessed to the murder. But since Pratt had a strongly supported alibi and a Pinkerton detective had sat on his chest for several hours to gain his confession, Delaware authorities placed no credence in the testimony.
Meanwhile, Collins was released from jail on a writ of habeas corpus and disappeared until October, when he resurfaced and requested that he be tried immediately for his wife’s murder.
The trial of Elmer Collins began in Georgetown, Delaware on March 13, 1903 and continued through March 26. Chief Justice Lore and Associates Grubb and Pennewill presided. Charles D. Richards, father of the prosecutor, and ex-Attorney General White represented the defendant. Four special deputies were sworn in to preserve order among the throngs that daily crowded the small courtroom.
I have blended the coverage from several newspapers in presenting an overview of the proceedings.
“Very little was done on Monday except the drawing of the jury. The selecting of jurors was a tedious task. In all, sixty-five names were called, and then the panel was exhausted. Twenty men were challenged by the counsel for Collins and nine challenges were used by the Deputy Attorney General. Twenty-four jurors were excused by the court because their consciences would not permit them to send a man to death. Almost every man drawn said he had formed an opinion and nothing could change his views.
“It required twenty-five minutes to read the long indictment. Collins leaned upon the railing for support and looked steadily in the reading clerk’s face. He responded ‘Not guilty’ with a show of emotion. All during the afternoon Collins sat between two tipstaves, apparently not annoyed by the gaze upon him from all parts of the crowded room.
“The theory of the prosecution is that Mrs. Collins was killed on the night preceding the morning she was found in the stable and not that she was killed while her husband had the two small children in the field. To substantiate this, the state will try to prove that on this morning Collins dressed the two children, Hazel, aged five years, and Catharine, aged two years. The prosecution will show that it was the custom of the mother to dress the children.
“The State has not clearly pointed out what is to be shown as the motive. It is said, however, that it will attempt to show that Collins was tired of his wife and wanted to elope with a girl who has been summoned as a witness.
“‘The motive of a crime may sometimes be concealed, but in this case we believe we know the motive. We shall show that Elmer Collins was intimate with a young woman. He had planned to go away with her and told her that he would clear the way. Doubtless the murder was hastened by the poor wife’s jealousy. Doubtless there were quarrels, but the hideous fact remains.’
“Thus did Attorney General Ward end his presentation of the case of the State against Elmer Collins, accused of murdering his wife Ilda at Laurel last April 12. The words came as a surprise to the several hundred spectators who had been hoping for something new in the much-discussed mystery.
“Chief among the witnesses against Collins will be the young woman. She will be an unwilling witness against the prisoner, and her testimony will be the link in the chain of evidence against Collins.
“The prisoner showed his first evidence of emotion. His wife’s relatives, seated on a bench at one side of the courtroom, showed evident anger and whispered together. Every juror showed instant appreciation of the importance of the promise made by the state. This was the rest of Mr. Ward’s statement:
“‘The case against Elmer Collins is a charge of murder in the first degree. We must prove malice aforethought, a deep-seated malice. It may be urged that these facts be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That we must do. In every murder there are generally two kinds of evidence––direct and circumstantial. In this case the state expects to produce both kinds of evidence, and we believe the two will so fit as to leave no doubt in your mind that the prisoner is guilty of the crime as charged.’
“The woman referred to is May Rhodes. She sat in the second row of the benches back of the jury box and was the subject of much attention. She wore a white and black hat and a light coat.
“The defense claims there is evidence to show that the girl wrote the letter to herself, which she alleges she received from another girl, stating that Collins wanted to elope with her. The letter is not in evidence. According to the defense, the girl had a grievance against the Collins family.
“Evidence will also be produced in Collins’ behalf, tending to show that the Henrys, who live on an adjoining farm, have had a dispute with Collins over a piece of land.
“The defense will contend that Mrs. Collins was murdered by William Waite, alias Pratt, a demented colored man who is now in Farnhurst [Mental Institution]. He was arrested for the crime by a detective employed by Collins’ relatives and made several confessions, all of which he afterward denied.
“Frank R. Carswell and William D. Carswell explained a plot of the ground and buildings on the Collins farm.
“George W. Henry and his two daughters testified to Collins coming to their home, which was nearby, early in the morning and telling them that his wife had been murdered. They went to the house and saw the corpse. The blood on the head was dry, they thought. The body was carried in the house by neighbors, among whom were John Henry and Joseph Kenney, who also testified to the appearance of the body.
“Henry said the blood was dry, and Kenney declared he had stuck his finger in a deep wound in the throat, and when he withdrew it, there was no blood on the finger. The testimony and the rigid cross-examination centered around the point of how long Mrs. Collins had been dead. The court refused to allow John Henry, who had been an undertaker many years ago, to testify how long he thought the woman had been dead when he saw the body.
“Mary Henry, a young girl and the daughter of George Henry, said: ‘I was in the hall of my house when Elmer Collins came there. Earlier in the morning I thought I saw him running from the stable to the house. This was something after 5 o’clock. I do not think he wore a hat. It was between 8 and 9 o’clock when he came to our house. His children were with him. Someone was crying or moaning.’
“The defense tried to show that some of the witnesses for the State were animated by ill feeling against the prisoner, but such testimony was not allowed.
“Collins’ pretty little daughters, too young to know the peril of their father, were in the courtroom among the spectators. They think their father has been away working. There was an immense crowd in the courtroom.
“There was a dramatic recital of the scenes and incidents surrounding the finding of the body of the murdered Mrs. Collins, as related by Rev. Mr. McCready, who visited the Collins place shortly after the tragedy. He told of his remarks to the prisoner, after expressing his sympathy, that the assailant had first struck her with his fists, and that the man who did the deed was doubtless in the building then, and said the prisoner became restive.
“Cadmus Phillips said he had found a board in Collins’ corncrib on which was smeared blood over a space about the size of a man’s hand. The bloody board was produced. Mrs. Collins was not found in the corncrib, but in the horse stable, and the corncrib was found locked.
“On the day after the murder, Phillips was with detective Francis and Collins, and Francis was eagerly asking questions. ‘I don’t propose to answer questions you ask me,’ Collins said to Francis.
“Walking over toward Phillips’ carriage, Collins said: ‘Mr. Phillips, if they arrest me for this, it will ruin me,’
“In answer to Attorney General Ward’s question: ‘Had you or anybody else said anything to Collins about arresting him?’ the witness replied, ‘Not a word had been said about it.’
“Phillips recited what Collins had told him about the things that had happened on the morning of the murder––how he had requested his wife to follow him to the tomato field, and that as she had not done it, he had returned and found her dead. The heavy iron bar was introduced, and a torn dress skirt and a bloodstained hatchet were identified.
“State Detective Ratledge was also on the stand. On the morning of the murder, Ratledge demanded that the corncrib be unlocked, and someone got Collins’ keys for him. He entered and saw imprints of blood, apparently from the palm of a man’s hand. Underneath a pile of corn he found a key, which, when tried in all the locks, finally fit that of the henhouse, where Collins had declared that he had first worked that morning.
“The detective said that he had endeavored to have Collins assist him when the Waite clue was being traced, but he refused and would answer no questions.
“Sensational testimony was given by Henry Niblett, aged 83, of Sharptown, Maryland, who has known Collins for a long time. He testified that about three months after the death of Mrs. Collins, he was passing the Collins farm and stopped at the pump for a drink, and that while there he heard a noise in the carriage house. Upon investigation, he said, he heard Collins’ voice. He was praying, but all that he could distinctly hear was: ‘Lord, Thou knowest that I killed my wife. I cannot hide it from Thine all-seeing eye.’ Collins soon afterward came out of the barn, he said, and left. He did not speak to Niblett, who hastened away.
“Garland Fitzgerald, another friend of Collins, viewed the remains of the wife on the day of the funeral. As he was leaving the house, he said Collins was close behind him, and he (Fitzgerald) heard him mutter: ‘Well, this is the worst day’s work that I ever did.’
“The star witness was May Rhodes, the ‘other woman.’ During the past year, she said, she had lived three–quarters of a mile from the Collins home. ‘I have known him for 15 years,’ she said. ‘I went to school with him. I have been acquainted with him since he has been married. I met him several times during the year before his wife’s death. I have received letters from him. The first was written December 1, 1901. He asked me if I would be surprised to receive a letter from him. I said, ‘No.’ I did not think he meant it.’
“‘Do you remember what you and he talked about?’ was asked.
“‘I don’t remember. When I got the letter, I put it under the carpet in my room. It remained there until Mrs. Collins’ death. He said in the letter that he was my friend and not to get offended.
“‘Between Christmas and New Years I got another letter. I met him by appointment between the first and second letter on the road between the schoolhouse and Portsville. The second letter was put under the carpet. After Mrs. Collins’ death I burned it. In the second letter he said he enjoyed my company. He said if nothing got in the way, he thought he could love me. He asked me to meet him down in the branch near a tree in a valley. I met him, and we sat down and talked, and he tried to make love with me. He put his arm around me and kissed me.
“‘I received a third letter about the last of February. I met him three times after the second letter. He told me he did not love his wife, that he only loved two, and I was one. He said he preferred me. He told me that he and his wife were having trouble. He said he did not see any pleasure and would not stay with her. He said he married her because of the way he was treated at home. The third letter I hid with the others and destroyed it in the same way. In the third letter he said he was going to make a way quicker and clearer.
“‘I received a fourth letter about a week or ten days before Mrs. Collins was murdered. I had met him at the branch again. He said he had the plans all fixed. If he got in trouble, he had enough friends to protect him. He said he did not care anything for his wife. He told me if he could not get rid of her one way, he could another, and said he would put her under six feet of earth. In the fourth letter he said he was going to live a happy life the balance of his days. If I should not go, he could get another woman. Collins wanted to know if I did not want to take a stroll through the world. He told me to be ready when he sent me word again.’
“The last witness for the state was Harrison Wrotten, who testified that he was passing the Collins home on the night before the murder and heard quarrelling and the remark in a man’s voice: ‘I will kill you before this and morning.’
“William W. Culver, witness for the defense, told of a visit to the Collins’ farm the day after the murder. He said, ‘I went all over the farm. I tried the corncrib door. It slid open. There were about 50 baskets of corn there.’
“This evidence was in contradiction to that of four witnesses for the state, who had said that the corncrib was kept locked all day Sunday after the murder.
“Mrs. Martha Benson’s evidence was that, to the best of her knowledge, Garland Fitzgerald had never been in the Collins house the day after the murder, that she had been there all day. On cross-examination she said she could not be sure whether or not anyone came in the front door.
“Maud Collins testified that she had been about the house all day Sunday and Monday and had not seen Mr. Fitzgerald. Rose Collins testified to the same effect. These last two witnesses are sisters of the murdered woman.”
I am puzzled as to why Ilda’s sisters’ names were Collins or why they would be testifying for the defense, unless the reporter’s statement is incorrect and they were the sisters of Elmer Collins.
“Elmer Collins, the prisoner, was called to the stand. He was shown the long iron bolt with which the State says Mrs. Collins was beaten to death. He was asked by his counsel, Mr. White, ‘Do you recognize this bolt?’
“‘Where did you get it?’
“‘From my wife’s father. I drove it into the ground to tie cows to. It laid around the door of the carriage house, and I last remember seeing it about two weeks before the murder. I had another bolt like that.’
“The hatchet with which Mrs. Collins’ throat is believed to have been cut was shown to Collins. He said: ‘That is my hatchet. I had no regular place to keep it. I can’t remember where I used it last.’
“Collins was not cross-examined.
“The next witness was David O. Moore, state senator. He testified: ‘I have known Elmer Collins for more than 20 years. His general reputation for peace and order is good.’
“The defense then rested.
“J. Edward Bailey of Delmar was called by the State in rebuttal and said Henry Niblett, whose reputation for truth was attacked by the defense, was a man of veracity. Bailey said he would believe him on his oath.
“Jacob Morris, a Portsville sailor, said Mrs. Mary E. Smith, a witness for the defense, said to him about a month after the murder: ‘Why not pick up some sorry nigger or sorry white man and let Elmer go. There are plenty of them.’”
On March 25, at 10:37 p.m., after deliberating for nearly four hours, the jury returned a verdict of acquittal.
Collins left the courthouse in the company of Rev. W. H. S. Williams. “Only the grace of God has brought me through this ordeal,” he said. “I trusted in Him, and He has been my great help.”
You can reach Hal Roth at email@example.com