Hal Roth - October 2006
While browsing through a copy of the Denton Journal dated October 11, 1902, I came across the following mention of a murder near Laurel, Delaware: “Shortly before court opened in Georgetown Monday, Elmer Collins, the suspected husband in the Laurel murder case, who disappeared after being released on habeas corpus proceedings, walked into the office of his counsel, former Attorney General White, and appeared to be anxious to be placed on trial.”
I discovered the earliest mention of the murder case in the April 14, 1902 issue of The Post Standard in Syracuse, New York, under the headline “WOMAN IS MURDERED FOR THIRTY DOLLARS.”
“LAUREL, De., April 13.––The worst crime ever committed in this county was the killing of Mrs. Elmer Collins at her home near this place yesterday morning.
“Mrs. Collins was left by her husband at the house to attend to the setting of some eggs while he went to work in a distant field, she promising to join him shortly after. This was at 6:30 o’clock. At 8:00, when she had not arrived, he returned home and found her lying on her face in a pool of blood in a stable.
“He hastened to the home of his father and stated that his wife had been killed by a horse. Investigation proved, however, that she had been foully murdered. Her throat was cut from ear to ear and there were five wounds on the back of her head, every one crushing her skull. Both her eyes were black and swollen and her nose broken, besides a bad bruise on her forehead.
“When the stable was searched, a long iron bar and hatchet were found, both covered with her blood and hair. At first it was thought she had been assaulted, but a thorough investigation by Dr. Joseph W. Hitch dispelled that theory.
“Mrs. Collins had $30 in the pocket of her dress, which her husband had told her to take in the field with her, fearing it would be stolen from the house in their absence. The pocket was torn from her dress, which substantiates the belief that robbery was the object of the murder.
“After killing his victim, the murderer wiped his bloodstained hands on the walls of the stable and left his fingerprints on the door and upon the fence where he jumped over. He was tracked by a posse to a nearby woods, where the trail was lost, but the search is still continued, it being the belief that he is in hiding there until he can get away under the cover of darkness.
“If he is captured, a lynching bee will follow, as the searching party has sworn to avenge the murder.
“Mrs. Collins was a very pretty and popular woman, and the marks upon her face and conditions in the stable show signs of a fierce struggle.”
The next report I discovered had appeared the following day in Maine’s Daily Kennebec Journal.
“Laurel, Del., April 13.––Elmer Collins was arrested tonight, charged with the murder of his wife Elda, who was found Saturday morning in the stable of their farm with her skull crushed and throat cut. Mrs. Collins’ funeral took place today, and the husband was taken into custody immediately after the wife was buried. He was taken to the Georgetown Jail, and it is believed that his attorney, former Attorney General White, will institute habeas corpus proceedings to secure his release. The detectives say that they arrested Collins mainly on the suspicion of his clothes and a few conflicting circumstances. The shirt that Collins wore when he says he found his wife dead in the stable was examined by the detectives today, and they found blood on the wristband. Collins claims that the blood got there while in the act of picking up his wife’s body.”
The Denton Journal began its coverage of the murder on April 19, 1902.
“A Murder in Sussex: Sussex County has another murder case. Elmer Collins is in Georgetown Jail charged with a most horrible crime. Here are the circumstances as first given by the papers: Saturday morning Mr. Collins, taking his two little daughters to the field with him, left the mother, a comely young woman and an acknowledged belle of the neighborhood before her marriage five years ago, in the kitchen doing housework. When he returned to the house a little later and could not find his wife, a search was made and her mutilated remains were found in the stable. The poor woman had been beaten to death with an iron club and her throat cut from ear to ear. Her clothing was also torn and gave rise to the suspicion that she had been criminally assaulted and then murdered, but such was not the case. The crime has startled Sussex County and bids fair to outrival the famous Gordy murder. The coroner’s jury rendered a verdict Sunday afternoon that Mrs. Collins came to her death from severe injuries inflicted by a person unknown.
“Detective Francis arrested Collins on Monday night for the murder of his wife. When Collins returned home from the funeral, Officer Francis with Detective Ratledge was about the premises. When Collins was informed he was under arrest, he was bewildered. He was taken to Georgetown Jail about ten o’clock. Robert C. White has been engaged as his counsel. There is not much evidence against Collins as yet, but the officers believe they were warranted in making the arrest.”
Then this brief note followed on April 26:
“There was great excitement in Georgetown, Del., on Friday of last week. Habeas corpus proceedings were instituted to secure the release of Elmer Collins, who was arrested on Monday before, charged with the murder of his wife. The court decided to release Collins on the nominal bail of five hundred dollars. After Collins’ release, the father of his dead wife met him and the two men left the courtroom arm-in-arm weeping.”
Several days later, on May 3, 1902, the Denton Journal offered this headline and story: “ANOTHER SUSPECT CONFESSES THE AWFUL CRIME: A Pinkerton detective was at Laurel on Friday of last week, says a dispatch. He is said to have a record of William Pratt, the Maryland negro now in jail, whom he charges with the brutal murder of Mrs. Ilda Collins for the $30 she had saved during the winter from her butter and eggs. Pratt’s record is said to be one of crime. He has been in several Maryland jails and was also imprisoned in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He cannot give a satisfactory account of himself about the time Mrs. Collins was killed, but claims to have been in Denton Jail. He says he got blood on his coat in a fight with his brother just after leaving jail. The private detectives claim to have sufficient evidence to convict him. The state officials, however, say the negro was in no way connected with the Collins murder. They continue to accumulate evidence against the accused husband, Elmer Collins, who is shadowed constantly.
“It was learned on Monday that Pratt had made a full confession of the murder of Mrs. Collins, and that he is the same William Pratt, alias Downes, who some weeks ago was sent to Denton Jail from the House of Correction, where he served a term for carrying concealed weapons. At the House of Correction he was pronounced insane. He was kept in Denton jail some time and released to the care of a Delaware relative. While in Denton Jail he was at times very violent and had to be heavily ironed. Had he not been fettered, he would, no doubt, have broken out of the flimsy old cell in which he was confined. The prisoner was sent to the House of Correction by Justice Daffin of American Corner.
“Constable Johnson, who made the arrest, found his prisoner at most times entirely rational and obedient. He had burned an out-building belonging to Mr. Levin Poole, but the magistrate could not adjudicate such a case, and in order to rid the community of a dangerous and irresponsible character, Pratt was sent to the House of Correction, where he served his term.
“He had a previous record here. He was tried in the Caroline court in October, 1900 for stealing a bicycle belonging to Mr. J. R. Hughes, Greensboro, convicted and sent to the penitentiary for eighteen months. He stated while here that his real name was William Pratt, but when he stole the wheel, he thought it best to change his name.
“Constable Johnson said he thought Pratt might be always depended upon to confess his crimes, for the prisoner had recited to him the whole record of his evil doings. The officer, therefore, gave credence to his confession about the murder of the unfortunate Mrs. Collins. In that confession Pratt says he was sleeping in the carriage house at the Collins farm on the night before the murder. He awoke in time to hear Collins tell Mrs. Collins to bring $30 and some tomato seed to a field as soon as she had finished her household work and had set a hen. Pratt says he was seized with a desire to get the $30. He waited until Mrs. Collins went to the carriage house, when, he says, he struck her with an iron bar and afterward cut her throat. He then took the money and went toward a small creek near the house. Fearing discovery, he took off his shirt, which had blood upon it, and buried the garment and the money.
“Pratt was taken Sunday to the scene of his crime, he volunteering to go and try to find the spot where he had buried the money. Upon the arrival of the party at the farm, which included Sheriff Hart and Detectives Dimaio and Butler, Pratt went directly to the carriage house, where he showed the party how he had been sleeping in the carriage, and how, upon being awakened, he had heard Elmer Collins tell Mrs. Collins to bring the money with her. He saw an iron bar lying upon the floor, he says, with which he crept up behind her and struck her. Seeing a hatchet, he stuck her three times in the forehead with the blade and cut her throat from ear to ear. He then went into the woods and buried the money, but he was so excited he could not remember the spot.
“Pratt was taken to Laurel about 6 o’clock and was given a hearing before Magistrate Hearn. James Collins, father of the murdered woman, made affidavit charging him with the crime. The father was so wrought up that he could scarcely be kept away from the negro in the magistrate’s office. It required the combined efforts of several of his friends to keep him from jumping upon the prisoner. The excitement was at fever heat, the crowd extending almost two squares around the magistrate’s office.
“Many people doubt Pratt’s guilt, though confessed. He is regarded by many as crazy, and that the confession is simply the fancy of a disordered brain.
“It is reported on the best authority that Detective Dimaio, assistant superintendent of the Philadelphia Pinkerton Detective Agency, sat on the stomach of Pratt for three hours Sunday in his cell in Georgetown jail, until he finally, after having the life almost crushed out of him, acknowledged the crime.
“Pratt is without a doubt an imbecile and will not answer the same question twice in the same manner. And that he was almost scared to death was evident from his actions. In one instance, in particular, when he was before Magistrate Hearn, he showed signs of the ordeal through which he had passed. When the magistrate asked him where he was on the day of the murder, he promptly answered: ‘I was in Dover.’ At this the detective, whose hand was handcuffed to that of the prisoner, gave his arm an awful wrench and cried: ‘What’s that? You were in the place we carried you this afternoon.’
“The negro’s face was contorted with pain, and he meekly bowed his assent. This is the way the confession was wrung from the unfortunate darkey, who will answer almost any question in the affirmative if it is put at him strongly, not knowing the consequences.
“At the farm on Sunday, several times while he was being led around by the detectives he exclaimed: ‘I never was at this place before in my life, and I did not kill the poor woman.’
“These and several other things connected with the scene have made those who believe in Collins’ guilt even stronger in their convictions, and they sympathize with the poor unfortunate negro, who has no counsel and not enough sense to tell a straight story.
“State Detective Ratledge, who arrived here yesterday afternoon, said: ‘We don’t put any faith in the arrest of Pratt. We have our proof, some of which will surprise many when it is divulged at the proper time. We had anticipated his arrest and were prepared for it. It has no real bearing upon the case. We looked into it before the others had and know what we are doing.”
Further investigation on the part of Delaware detectives uncovered witnesses who placed Pratt in Smyrna, Delaware at the time of the murder, and Justice Z. Potter Steele wrote a letter to Sussex County Sheriff Hart, explaining that the blood on Pratt’s shirt was the result of a cut he suffered from the wire on a broom handle while he was incarcerated in the Denton Jail.
Meanwhile, Elmer Collins had disappeared.
For five months, until the announcement that Collins had resurfaced, his wife’s murder was only casually mentioned in newspaper reports of Pratt’s continuing mental problems and behavior, both in and out of several institutions.
The trial of Elmer Collins, which began in Georgetown, Delaware on March 13, 1903 and continued through March 26, will be covered in the next issue of Tidewater Times.
You can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org