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Writing History & Mysteries

When I'm not delving into historical research, I'm planning a character's demise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Did you honestly think I would pick any other word? This one is a bit long. It is an 1816 case of murder I researched.


By Cindy Amrhein, Asst. Wyoming County Historian

letterIn 1873 General Linus W. Thayer gave a speech at the Pioneer Picnic recounting notable points in Wyoming County, NY history. During his oration he told the story of Dr. Abel Watkins who, in 1816, murdered his wife and a Mr. Perry in the town of Middlebury. According to Thayer, Watkins who was accused of the crime, protested to the plan of exhuming the bodies and committed suicide by “hanging himself to a tree near his house”. The General went on to tell the crowd gathered at the annual picnic that, “This occurrence is impressed so indelibly upon my memory that it seems that I remember it.” Since Thayer was only five years old at the time it raises the question— how much first hand knowledge would a child have had to such an event?

1149From that day forward the story of Wyoming County’s first murder has been retold and reprinted in many different forms with added bits of conjecture such as the stomachs of the exhumed bodies being fed to dogs to see if they would die and thereby prove that the good doctor had prescribed his victims arsenic. Would a community of moral and religious minded folks really allow such desecration upon the human body to allow parts of it to be fed to dogs? I hardly think so. As to the suicide— it has been said in some versions that the doctor hung himself on a bush. The General, if you notice, said Watkins hung himself to a tree not from a tree.

With so much  mystery still surrounding the alleged crimes, County Historian Doris Bannister and I, set out to see if there was any factual basis to the story. If so, did Dr. Watkins commit murder and suicide or was he himself a victim of foul play? At this point we did not even know the victims first names. Considering the time frame we weren’t too hopeful in finding documentation to still exist. As it turns out, a case of murder back then was just as big a headline as it is today.  Many newspapers reporting on the crime used a more artistic license in their telling of the tale. Not only was the incident printed locally, newspapers throughout the New England States down to West Virginia and as far west as Kentucky covered the story.  Originally printed in a Warsaw, NY newspaper, the Green Mountain Farmer in Vermont reprinted the following abridged account on the 29th of April, 1816.


Warsaw (Gen. N.Y.) April 8. About three weeks since, the wife of Doct. Abel Watkins, of Middlebury, Genesee county, died of supposed fever; on which Watkins induced a neighbor, an intimate friend of his, named Perry, to move his family into the house, and take care of his children.  Mr. Perry was soon taken ill, and though another physician was called, soon died. Mr. Perry & Mrs. Watkins being attended with similar symptoms, together with an appearance of familiarity between Watkins and Perry’s wife, soon created suspicions that both the deceased had been poisoned. It was found that among the medicines Perry had purchased, were some arsenic and nux vomica. Suspicions increased, and the bodies were taken up and examined by 14 physicians, who reported that their deaths were occasioned by poison. Soon after Watkins learnt this report, he retired to the woods fifteen or twenty rods from his house, and was, when found, dead, being suspended by a handkerchief to a small bush, his legs, part of his body, and his hands on the ground. Yesterday Mrs. Perry was taken into custody for examination — The two families had resided in this quarter about a year, during the latter part of which, two children have died out of each.

With our crime now verified, it was time to put on our detective caps and track down the facts of the case.  Middlebury was still part of Genesee County in 1816, so any court documents would be found among their records—if any survived. Fortunately, we were able to come up with the inquest file as well as several receipts that were submitted to the county for reimbursement by the doctors who attend the inquest. Documentation from Genesee County, combined with several newspaper articles, and information from our own collection at the Wyoming County Historian’s office, we finally had enough evidence to present a more accurate account of the Middlebury murders.

1265It was spring of 1816. The close of the war in February the previous year had brought an influx of new settlers to the Genesee Country. The population of Middlebury was now over 900 people. Dr. Abel Watkins, his wife Polly, and their children had come to Middlebury in June of 1815 from Hinesdale, MA. They were accompanied by their close friends Eli and Catherine Perry and their children. Census records prior to 1850 did not list people by their individual names, but rather in age groups by household. A census of 1814 taken by the Holland Land Company shows that of 154 heads of families in the town of Middlebury, 102 of them were renting a tenement. A check of the land records in Genesee County confirmed that neither Eli Perry nor Abel Watkins owned land in their own right in Middlebury and were most likely living with relatives or had land contracts through the Holland Land Company. This was not unusual for that time frame.

Because Eli was here such a short time and died soon after his arrival, it is difficult to verify his lineage. It is possible he was related in some way to one of the other Perry families of Middlebury. The Perry family has a long history on the Warsaw-Wyoming Road between Fox Road and Wyoming Village in the area where the alleged crimes were committed. The doctor also had connections. Abel Watkins married Polly Whitney in 1804 in Hinesdale (then called Peru), MA. Polly’s two sisters also married prominent Middlebury settlers. Lois married Arvin Fisk and Priscilla married Comfort Curtis.

On April 9th a committee was appointed among the men who had been involved in the investigation. They issued an affidavit, much like a modern day press release, to set the story straight. The signers on the affidavit were Samuel Webster, a Middlebury Baptist Minister; Dr. Chaunecy L. Sheldon, and Daniel Knapp, both from Warsaw; along with Russell Abel and Miles Clark. Their first hand version of the events, along with court documents now reveals a more accurate version of the story.

0422Around the middle of March of 1816, Dr. Abel Watkins wife Polly took ill. She was pregnant at the time of her illness and gave birth to a still born child. Shortly after this Polly Watkins herself died. The doctor was now left alone with four children to take care of. He turned to his friend Eli Perry and asked his family to move into his house together with him. Between the date of their arrival to Middlebury in June the previous year each family had already lost two children.

On the night of March 29th, Eli Perry became sick, to what the good doctor attributed to cholera morbus. Watkins began treating Eli for his illness but two days later Eli was no better and the doctor was giving him up for dead. Dr. Sheldon from Warsaw was called in for an opinion and attended to him all day until 9 o’clock at night. Eli’s symptoms appeared to be subsiding and with some improvements seen in his health, Dr. Sheldon went home. Dr. Watkins attended to the patient the rest of the night but by the following morning, Eli Perry was dead.

Suspicion was immediately aroused by the towns people as Eli Perry’s condition the night before had seemed much better. With the doctor’s wife recently dying of unknown causes and now Mr. Perry, the citizens were wondering if Dr. Abel Watkin’s feelings toward Catherine Perry was more then just friendship. With the symptoms of both Polly Watkins and Eli Perry being so similar, gossip was spreading that they had been poisoned by Doctor Watkins. It was suggested to Dr. Watkins that he should ask the bodies to be dug up and examined by a jury of physicians to prove him innocent of any wrong doing. The doctor admitted he had bought arsenic from Dr. Spaulding for a man whose name he could not remember nor where the man lived. The man never showed up for the arsenic, claimed Abel Watkins, so he gave it a neighbors dog—although the newspaper article notes the dog did not die. (This is obviously where the rumor of the stomachs being fed to a dog comes from.)
On Friday, April 5th, a “Council of Examination” was held, along with 14 physicians. Rev. Samuel Webster was in charge of handling the arrangements and billed the county $14.00 for reimbursement of supplies. Samuel Webster took the doctors to the graveyard to raise the bodies of Eli Perry and Polly Watkins. Eli Perry’s stomach was removed and taken to a nearby house for examination. The doctors concluded through their observations that some mineral substance greatly corroded his stomach and the group of physicians suspected arsenic poisoning. After several chemical experiments they were certain. Samuel Webster’s bill confirms that some form of testing was done. Samuel charged fifty-cents for “two foul killed in the operation of experiments”.

By the documented dates and times indicated, the doctors must have worked into the night. About 3:00 A.M. Dr. Watkins was informed of their findings. Before the autopsy of Polly Watkins began, the alarm was sounded that Abel had disappeared. At sunrise on Saturday the 6th a search was commenced and his body was found about 15 rods (247 feet) from his house. Abel Watkins was dead. He was found suspended by a 50¢ silk handkerchief around his neck that was tied to a small sapling or bush about 2″ thick. His legs, part of his body and his hands were on the ground. The doctors presumed it was suicide. Horace Gibbs, Genesee County Coroner, was immediately sent for.

Mrs. Watkins body was then examined by the physicians. It was concluded that she was murdered as well by the now deceased Watkins by “mineral and vegetable poison”. The newly widowed Catherine Perry was taken into custody as an accessory to the murders and her statement taken by Daniel Knapp of Warsaw at a fee of $2.00. By other receipts submitted to the county we know almost all of the doctors that attended: Samuel Spaulding, of Bethany; Robert Seaver and Anson Root, of Middlebury; Jacob Nevins, Jabez Ward and Daniel White, of Perry; and Chaunecy L. Sheldon of Warsaw. Also in attendance was Miles Clark, Ephirum Brown Jr., and Charles Rumsey. The doctors spent two to three days holding the inquest and examining the bodies over the weekend at a rate of $3.00 a day. The physicians remained in Middlebury over Saturday night. Rev. Samuel Webster arranged supper for nine people that night, most likely the out of town doctors, at the expense of twenty-five cents each. Webster’s bill to the county also listed an expense for the care of the horses, 17 sheaves of oats at a cost of 70¢.
0288According to the affidavit, inquest verdict, and the bill of Horace Gibbs, the inquisition on the death of Abel Watkins was held on Sunday, April 7th. Breakfast was put on the county tab for 16 men at the cost of $4.00; as well as for having to keep 16 horses on hay for an extra 24 hours. Summons were drawn for the jury as well as five witnesses. James Sprague served as the foreman on the jury along with twenty-three other Genesee County men. Written in the wording of the day the jury concluded that Abel Watkins, “Not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the Devil … feloniously, voluntarily, and with his malice afore thought, himself killed, strangled, and murdered against the peace and dignity of the good people of the State of New York.” In other words, Abel Watkins committed suicide.

On April 16, 1816 life was beginning to get back to some semblance of normal. Arvil Fisk and Comfort Curtis, the brother-in-laws to Abel Watkins, posted a $1000.00 bond to be the administrators to Dr. Watkins estate. No will or other documents were found in Abel Watkin’s file in Genesee County Surrogate’s Court. Since Abel did not own any real property (land) this would not be unusual. This might have been done as a formality because Abel still had four minor children living and if any property was discovered, it would belong to them. A check of the guardianship papers in Surrogate’s Court shows that Comfort Curtis posted bonds of $500.00 a piece to become the guardian of the four remaining Watkin’s children: Mariam, Henry, Abel Jr. and Polly. By today’s value it would be the equivalent of over $8000 a piece—quite a hefty sum.

The horrors of that weekend in Middlebury was finally over. However, despite all that we uncovered in our own investigation, we are still left with the question—did Abel Watkins really commit these unspeakable acts of murder, then kill himself?

In the times we live in of CSI type television programing we have come to except these procedures as part of a normal murder investigation, but in 1816 these events so close together must have been ghastly. We know as well that the stomachs that had been removed were reburied in a tin basin. People ultimately came to the conclusion that Abel Watkins had also killed the four children that died soon after the Perry’s and Watkin’s had come to Middlebury. We might assume by Samuel Webster’s list of expenses that the four quarts of whiskey were used to preserve the stomachs or they may have been needed after all was said and done.

Despite our diligent search no records were found as to the testimony of the five witnesses nor the statement given by Catherine Perry. We do know that a court of inquiry was called against Mrs. Perry on Monday, April 8th, to which she was “honorably acquitted to the satisfaction of the people who attended her examination.”

When researching any event in local history, one must look at what else was going on in order to get a better picture of the world our ancestors were living in. Along with any large migration of people came disease, often in epidemic form. Smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, and even diarrhea could devastate a community in highly populated areas. In looking at our cemetery records of known burials for Middlebury we discovered some interesting statistics. There were six deaths in 1814, twenty-two in 1815, eight recorded burials plus our seven victims here for a total of fifteen in 1816, and seven in 1817. Over half the deaths in 1816 were children under eleven years old— a good indication that something else may have been effecting the community other than a villain at large.
According to newspaper articles at the time, much like after WWI, there was an influenza epidemic that was reported from February of 1815 to May of 1816. 

0235It became so problematic that in July of 1815 the New York City Board of Health issued regulations to quarantine any ships from foreign ports, or ships with forty passengers or more until they were cleared by the Health Officer for death or illness on board during passage.  Some newspapers reported that people were leaving their towns and traveling further west to get away from an epidemic. The problem with this it would seem is already infected people were carrying the illnesses with them to where ever they went. Medical care at the time was itself a risk when the cure was often as deadly as the disease itself. Cocaine, mercury, and opium, were normal ingredients in medicine. Blood letting and rubbing the skin with turpentine were common treatments. The doctors themselves often spread a disease either by contact or through unsterilized  medical equipment.
If Doctor Watkins really did intentionally do it, as obviously people thought, the residents of Middlebury could rationalize his reasons for taking his own life. If however the four children, Polly Watkins and Eli Perry all died of some epidemic-like illness it is possible in his duties as a doctor he unintentionally help spread it.  If Abel knew he was innocent of purposeful murder, one may ask then—why would he kill himself? It is possible he felt he would be found guilty anyway, and would rather suffer the same fate by his own hand rather than someone else’s—or maybe—he was the one that was murdered by someone who thought he was guilty and took the law into their own hands. It should be remembered the strange position in which he was found. It seems an almost impossible feat, and only Abel Watkins knew the real answer.
On May 24, 1816 an article appeared in the Zansville Express out of Ohio. It was reported that a Major James Brown recently died of the prevalent epidemic, sometimes called influenza or the “cold plague.” The circumstances were referred to as being so remarkable that the newspaper felt some notice should be taken of it. John Brown, the Major’s brother, was the first to become sick. Major James had gone to take care of him during his illness, but alas, John soon died. After his death James’s went to attended to his brother John’s estate, and upon his return found out that his other brother, Jesse, had become ill as well. James stayed by his brother until Jesse died three days later. On his way home from their funeral James took ill himself and died a short time later, followed by his brother Jesse’s wife, and his brother John’s son. Within two months Mrs. James Brown and the elder Mr. Brown, father of the three sons, would also pass from this world. No foul play was ever suspected.

Originally printed in Historical Wyoming, Vol. 54, No#2, Fall 2007, a quarterly publication by the Wyoming County Historian’s Office.

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  1. Visiting for A to Z. Hi!! *waves*

    I'm definitely going to save this link on my permanent A to Z page and revisit his post later.

    Also, checking our your Twitter account. I'm @Sourcererblog.

    best of luck with the second half!

  2. I like your simple commenting format. This is quite an interesting post, and good to know people are still looking for the answers to many mysteries, even two hundred years later.


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