Hal Roth - February 2008
Old News from Delmarva:
Was Martin Beauchamp Murdered? Conclusion
Last month we learned of the sudden, agonizing death of Martin Beachamp on December 31, 1882. After conducting an autopsy, two physicians reported that he died from the effects of poison in his stomach.
During an appraisal of the deceased’s effects, a controversial suicide letter was discovered beneath a carpet in the Beachamp homestead, but community sentiment was strong that Mrs. Frances Belle Beachamp and neighbor James Ahearn were guilty of murdering the Caroline County farmer. The pair was eventually indicted and jailed in March 1883.
The trial of Mrs. Beachamp and James Ahearn began in Denton, Maryland on April 24, 1883. Transcriptions have been taken from pages of the Denton Journal.
FIRST DAY’S PROCEEDINGS
Col. Bryant said in his opening: “There were no eyes that witnessed this murder, but a hundred facts attest the fact.” He alluded to the day being the tenth anniversary of the marriage of the prisoner, since which time, from living at Concord, where wickedness was a pastime and crime a fascination, she had fallen. First, she had taken up with Carlisle, then with Ahearn. Bryant said he would show that Belle Beachamp and Ahearn acted in concert to destroy her husband.
Mr. Russum, for the defense, styled the opening of Mr. Bryant as the seething ebullitions of the mob. He claimed that the proposition of the State was irrelevant, and said that much of the intemperate language contained not a scintilla that could go before a jury.
The hot remarks of counsel on both sides created a sensation in the audience. At their conclusion the examination of witnesses for the State was begun.
Thomas L. Lewis, who lives not far from Beachamp’s house, was the first witness. He testified that he was sent for and went there on the morning of December 31st. He found Beachamp lying in bed, his wife sitting on the side of the bed. She gave him her place beside the dying man. Lewis’s further testimony was the same as at the coroner’s inquest and unimportant, until the prosecution sought to show concert of action by Mrs. Beachamp and Ahearn in hastily preparing the body of the dead man for burial. Lewis testified that Ahearn was measuring the body for a coffin twenty minutes after the man had breathed his last, but not in Mrs. Beachamp’s presence or at her insistence. This the court ruled as improper evidence. He further testified that when the holding of an inquest over the remains was mentioned, Mrs. Beachamp objected.
Several additional witnesses were summoned, including Drs. Latimer and Aiken of Baltimore.
Dr. John W. Hignutt was called for the State on Tuesday night. On December 31st he was summoned to Beachamp’s and, arriving there early in the afternoon, found a scene of great confusion and disorder about the house. The dead man was lying in bed with his clothes on. He was a few minutes examining the body, and then the widow came up to him and said she was afraid she would be accused of poisoning her husband. A jury inquest had been mentioned, but she was averse to such a proceeding, declaring that she had often heard Martin say that he never wanted to be cut up with the surgeon’s knife. She reiterated her fears to the doctor that the death would be laid to her, and finally the witness [Dr. Hignutt] told her that even if she did administer poison, it would be hard to prove if she would keep her tongue. The woman made no reply but stood out against the autopsy. She stated to the witness on Monday that she never saw any strychnine on the premises.
That day a coroner’s jury made an examination of the remains with Drs. Hignutt and Downes as surgeons. The stomach was removed and taken in charge by the latter. During the operation Mrs. Beachamp was very much excited and at times very nervous. Dr. Hignutt had been her physician for several years but had never known her to be so excited. During her convulsions, Ahearn held her hand and endeavored to calm her.
Dr. Hignutt’s cross-examination by Mr. M. S. Mutchler was minute as to the removal of the stomach and putting it into the glass jar, the questions being prompted by Prof. Aiken of Baltimore, who sat at the counselor’s side, but no fact of importance was presented to the jury.
Dr. Wm. H. Downes was then put on the stand and gave a clear statement as to his knowledge of the autopsy and removal of the stomach and conveying to Prof. Tonry. The doctors poured a pint of dark liquid out of the stomach, which looked like coffee. The stomach, with the exception of a slight patch of ecchymosis [discoloration from blood being diffused through tissue], was in a healthy condition.
Wednesday morning Dr. Downes continued his evidence, the courtroom being packed full of eager listeners. He explained to the jury as best he could the position in which he found Beachamp lying on the bed. He detailed the manner of taking the liver, stomach, kidneys and spleen to Prof. Tonry and showed that they were never out of his possession while in transit. His testimony was very clear and was not shaken by the cross-examination.
Tamsey Andrew was the first female witness for the state, and her evidence was important. She had known Belle Beachamp from childhood. When she went to the house Sunday morning, Belle said to her: “Mart is dead, but if he was poisoned, I didn’t do it.” The State closely questioned her about Mrs. Beachamp and Ahearn, trying to hurry the burial. The witness is a poor old lady who sews for a living.
Jno. W. Purt testified that Mrs. Beachamp met him at the door and said: “I’m afraid people will talk. If Mart was poisoned, I didn’t do it.”
Andrew Satterfield and Wm. J. Williamson were next called, but their testimony was unimportant.
At night, Tilghman Waggaman was on the stand. He testified to seeing Mrs. Beachamp go in Ahearn’s store one evening. Shortly afterwards he saw the door shut and heard them talking. This was thought to be adultery, but the court ruled it inadmissible.
Geo. B. Jenkins was called by the State on Thursday morning, but nothing of any importance could be elicited from him.
G. W. Moore was called. His testimony showed him to be a busybody, and it seemed that little weight was given to it.
Wm. Lockerman saw Ahearn go to the house. They frequently passed through his place together.
Chance and an old woman, Lucinda Thornton, each testified that they had seen Ahearn wave his hat in the direction of Mrs. Beachamp’s house and saw a towel waved in response.
Edward W. Moore could not testify on account of unbelief in future rewards and punishments [sic]. A scene of great confusion ensued, and for a time the court was unable to proceed. The judge hammered away for order, and the bailiffs called out: “This is not Concord.”
Elisha M. Griffith saw Mrs. Beachamp go to Ahearn’s store at 4 or 5 o’clock on the evening before Martin Beachamp’s death. She was in there for a few moments only, reaching the store by coming across the fields.
Jas. R. Manship and Ebon Cephus, colored, each testified to finding the note at the appraisement of the deceased’s effects, purported to be written by Beachamp and pointing to suicide.
David Keener, of Baltimore, and Dr. W. M. Schaeffer, of Washington, handwriting experts, were shown the note alleged to be forged. They said the signature on the letter was not in the same handwriting as the body, and that it showed evidence of an attempt at imitation.
Wm. Beachamp, a brother of the dead man, was on the stand at night and testified that his brother could scarcely write his name.
Manship has a signature of the deceased, and an effort will be made to have it go to the jury for the purpose of making a comparison.
Almost all the evidence for the prosecution is before the jury, yet so far the State has failed to make out a case, and the trial must result in Mrs. Beachamp’s speedy acquittal if no more connecting testimony is given against her.
Detective Hancock’s testimony was not damaging in any way to the defense, and he was only on the stand a few minutes.
A number of other witnesses were on the stand, the most important evidence being that of Prof. Tonry, who made an analysis of Beachamp’s stomach. The defense let him go after a moderate cross-examination, apparently fearing to harm their case by too thorough probing. The State did not ask how much strychnine was found in the body or whether it was sufficient to produce death. On Friday night the prosecution in the Beachamp case created some sensation by announcing that but three or four more witnesses would be called for the State.
Homer Fleetwood, an adopted son of the deceased, gave the whole story of Beachamp’s death, but his testimony did not harm the prisoner.
Dr. Geo. W. Betson gave important evidence, overthrowing the efforts of the defense to set up the theory of death from apoplexy.
J. P. J. Hubbard, appraiser of the deceased’s property, testified that in taking inventory of the goods, a letter was found under the carpet, alleged to have been written by the deceased, which has been proven a forgery. The envelope was new looking, but it was alleged to have been there since his death in December last.
The State closed its direct evidence at noon on Saturday, the last witness being W. T. Hignutt. He testified as to laying out the body after death.
Thos. S. Latimer, Professor of Physiology in the Baltimore College of Physicians and Surgeons, was the first witness called for the defense, and in answer to an elaborate hypothetical question, he replied that in his opinion Beachamp’s death was not caused by poisoning. Through the unusual carelessness in handling the remains after death, the strychnine might have gotten into the parts analyzed. Cross-examination strengthened the testimony of the witness and the court adjourned.
The defense closed at 11 o’clock after offering evidence to prove that the prisoner was not at Ahearn’s store on the day before Beachamp died, evidence to disprove that the prisoner gave Ahearn the string with which to measure the body, and other evidence to disprove statements made by detectives.
Attorneys for the defense offered to submit the case without argument when the State closed its rebuttal testimony. Attorneys for the State would not agree to this proposition, and the arguments began.
The defense argued that the State’s evidence was entirely circumstantial and does not form a complete chain. They showed by their medical experts that Martin Beachamp did not die of poison and that, if the ante-mortem symptoms as testified to by witnesses for the State, and the appearance of the body and condition of the organs as testified to by the doctors who made the post-mortem examination are true, he could not have died from strychnine poisoning. Not content with this, they proved by Prof. Wm. A. Aiken, who testified that he had been teaching chemistry and toxicology for a period of 45 years, that the analysis made by Prof. Tonry was unreliable and insufficient.
Mrs. Wm. F. Liden, a sister-in-law of the prisoner, cleared up two points in the case. She testified that she was the one who told Mrs. Beachamp of the suspicion that her husband was poisoned and that she was suspected of the crime. She fixed the time of this conversation anterior to any of the conversations between the prisoner and the State’s witnesses, in which the prisoner spoke of poison and said that if Martin was poisoned, she didn’t do it. This witness also stated that she and not the prisoner gave the string to Ahearn with which to measure the corpse.
Seldom if ever before were efforts put forth by lawyers at the Caroline bar equal to those for and against Mrs. Beachamp. Charles H. Gibson opened the argument for the State and spoke for about eight hours. Mr. Gibson is well known at the bar as a forcible and eloquent speaker, ranking among the first lawyers of the State. His argument in the Beachamp trial is considered the greatest effort of his life. He reviewed the case from beginning to end with masterly skill and made the most possible out of every important point.
M. S. Mutchler opened the argument for the defense and spoke not quite two hours, closing with an eloquent appeal to the jury, and when he took his seat, the prisoner and her friends, several of the jurymen and many of the audience were in tears. He appealed to the jury to make the only reparation she could ever obtain for the unutterable wrong that had been done her, by returning a verdict of not guilty.
P. W. Downes followed with an off-hand review of the case, which occupied the attention of the jury about the same length of time. His was a forcible speech of a sort that has great weight with a jury.
Mr. Russum attributed the rumors with which Mrs. Beachamp’s name has been connected to idle gossip and said that the witness Moore, who had helped to circulate the reports, was the personification of Uriah Heep. [The reference is not to the popular British band, of course, but to one of the villains in David Copperfield (1850), a novel by Charles Dickens.]
At 10:30 the court gave the case to the jury, and the crowd hung about the doors of the courthouse, anxiously awaiting the verdict. The jury had been out three hours when they came into court for an explanation of the instructions. Juror Massey asked if they could find a verdict of murder in the second degree. Judge Wickes answered by reading from the Act of Assembly that the jury had the power to bring in any one of four verdicts: guilty of murder in the first degree, not guilty, guilty of murder in the second degree and guilty of manslaughter and not guilty of murder. “It is but proper to state however,” he remarked, “that the code classes murder by poisoning always in the first degree.”
The jury had evidently misunderstood the instructions of the court when they first retired, and they had come to a deadlock on the question of conviction in the second degree. Several favored a verdict of this grade, and had the jury not been further enlightened, an improper verdict would probably have been rendered. The fact of the jury’s delay in acquitting the prisoner caused her counsel to get uneasy. They thought something was wrong and had guessed what it was. The situation was alarming to everybody in the courtroom excepting the widow. She sat entirely tranquil. After the jury went up the second time, they were expected to return in a very few minutes, and soon they did file back into the box. Mrs. Beachamp appeared pale but perfectly calm under these trying moments of suspense. At the call of “Frances Belle Beachamp, hold up your right hand,” she responded promptly, and when she rose, the foreman of the jury pronounced the verdict of “not guilty.”
When the verdict was rendered, the courthouse and a space of 30 yards in front of it were literally packed with a breathless audience. Everybody seemed certain of the outcome, and yet the suspense was painful. Judge Wickes admonished the crowd that no demonstrations of approval or disapproval would be tolerated and that any offender would be committed to jail. The silence was so profound that the slightest whisper anywhere in the room could have been heard.
The prisoner sat down, and a few tears trickled down her face, once so beautiful but now pale and worn. Her friends and counsel, who had fought so hard for her life, quietly gathered around her and tendered their congratulations in broken accents. Mr. Russum moved for her discharge. The court granted the motion, and her lady friends, who had been so devoted in their attentions, assisted the weeping lady from the courthouse.
Mrs. Beachamp went home with her brother, Mr. Wm. F. Liden. Very few persons attended court who did not observe with admiration the very kind and sympathizing attention paid Mrs. Beachamp during the trial by her brother and sisters. Mrs. William F. Liden, a lady of much intelligence and fine appearance, took great interest in all the proceedings and seemed untiring in her devotion to Mrs. Beachamp.
Judge Wickes took occasion to say that he seldom made any comment on the verdict of a jury, but that on this occasion it was due that the court should bear testimony to the faithful and exemplary manner in which they discharged their duty, and he assured them that their verdict would not only receive the approval of their own consciences but deserve and receive the approval of their fellow citizens. The jury was then discharged with the thanks of the court.
The case of the State against James Ahearn was immediately called, and counsel for the defense announced that they were ready for trial. Mr. Ahearn was brought into court, looking somewhat pale from his imprisonment, immediately arraigned and pleaded not guilty. He elected to be tried by the court. The State submitted the case without evidence, and in five minutes a verdict of not guilty was recorded and the prisoner was discharged.
The last mention of the Beachamp case that I was able to find appeared in January 1884:
Mrs. Frances B. Beachamp’s suit against Caroline County has been struck from the docket of the United States Circuit Court of Baltimore. Mr. George Russum, counsel for Mrs. Beachamp, some months ago entered a suit against the county for damages and costs growing out of her trial. Counsel for the commissioners, Gen’l Bradley T. Johnson, filed a demurrer, which was sustained, ending the litigation.
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