Her Crime and its Expiation
By LOUIS RICHARDS, ESQ.
Situated at the distance of a few hundred yards from the Oley turnpike road, in Oley Township, Berks County, upon the border line of Exeter, there stands a large old stone mansion, which, at the beginning of the century, was the property of the Snyder family, long seated in that neighborhood. Its appearance indicates thrift and comfort, and the region is picturesque and attractive.
This ancient dwelling possesses a melancholy association with a tragedy which transpired upwards of ninety years ago and has deeply impressed itself in local history and tradition. Though often rehearsed, the narrative of the crime of Susanna Cox and its expiation is of enduring interest, both as a vivid memento of the times of its occurrence, and a pathetic instance of the stern administration of public justice which was the characteristic of a bygone period. The whole tone of the picture is somber, but its contemplation is humanizing.
There resided here, in the year 1809, the family of Mr. Jacob Geehr, who was married to Esther Snyder, both representatives of old and highly respectable county stock. With the Snyders and Geehrs there had lived for eleven years, in the capacity of a domestic, a girl named Susanna Cox, who, at the time of the lamentable event which fixed public attention upon her, was in the twenty-fourth year of her age. She was born in the lower part of the county, of very humble parentage, and was early put out to service. Entirely without education or the advantages of timely moral training, she possessed nothing to recommend her in her menial relation except a vigorous bodily frame, repossessing countenance and a cheerful and willing disposition. She behaved herself with at least outward propriety, kept closely at home, and, though not considered very bright or apt for work, attached to herself the family of Mr. Geehr by her tender and affectionate care of their three young children, all of whom were born during the period of her employment.
But, as events developed, the luckless girl, perhaps from the very simplicity of her disposition too easy a prey to the wiles of the designer, was led aside from the path of virtue, and confronted with the consequences of her error. Whilst it was observed that she had complained of some obscure indisposition, no one in the family appears to have been positively aware of her condition, or, marvelous as it would seem, knew the fact that, early upon the morning of the fourteenth day of February, 1809, she had, alone, in her own apartment, become a mother.
At about daybreak on the morning of the third day there after, the seventeenth of February, Mr. Geehr had occasion to go to an outbuilding a few yards from the house, to search for some old iron needed for certain repairs which were in progress on his farm. This structure, still standing, and bearing as the date of its erection the mark of 1767, is a small one story stone house, originally occupied as a dwelling. The basement was used as a wash house, the Monocacy creek flowing beside it. In a corner of the rear room upon the main floor was a closet, and underneath it a deep receptacle in the wall, usually filled with promiscuous rubbish. Drawing out its contents, Mr. Geehr came upon a parcel wrapped in a piece of an old coat, which, upon inspection, proved to be the dead body of a newly born, fully developed male infant, frozen stiff. The gruesome discovery, being communicated by him to the family, caused much consternation. Although the girl Susanna had been about the house as usual during the preceding days, suspicion was at once directed to her, and, upon being closely questioned upon the matter by the female members of the family, she admitted that the child was hers, and that she had placed it where it had been found, but said it had been born dead.
Deeming it proper that the affair should be judicially inquired into, Mr. Geehr, without particular inspection of the child’s body, replaced it in the wall, and sent his tenant farmer to Reading to summon the Coroner. Acting in the place of that official, who was sick, Peter Nagle, Esq., for a long period a Justice of the Peace of the town, came, late in the afternoon of the same day, accompanied by a young medical practitioner, Dr. John B. Otto. A jury from the neighborhood being impaneled, a surgical examination of the child’s body was made by the physician, as the result of which it was ascertained that the lower jaw had been broken, the tongue torn loose and thrust back, and strangulation evidently produced by a wad of tow or flax which had been forced into the throat
The girl being questioned anew by the Justice in private, adhered to her original story as given to the family. But, appearances leaving no doubt that the infant had been violently done away with, the finding of the inquest was that it had been murdered, and that the self-confessed mother was the perpetrator of the crime. Upon being informed of this result, and told that she would have to accompany the Justice upon his return to the town, the girl cried a little at first, but presently seemed quite willing to go, ate a comfortable supper prepared for her, and, after being warmly clothed for the journey, was conveyed to Reading and committed to prison for trial.
That trial was not long deferred. An indictment against Susanna Cox for willful murder was found by the grand jury at the April Term of the Oyer and Terminer following, and upon Friday, April 7th, the next to the last day of the session, she was arraigned before the Court, then presided over by the Honorable John Spayd, and pleaded not guilty. The prosecution on the part of the State was conducted by the Deputy Attorney-General, Samuel D. Franks, Esq., and the prisoner was defended by three of the leading practitioners of the local bar, Marks John Biddle, Charles Evans and Frederick Smith, Esqs.
According to the notes of trial taken by Mr. Biddle, the facts developed were as have already been stated. Substantially no testimony was adduced on the part of the defense, Dr. John C. Baum, the family physician of Mr. Geehr, being called and stating that he had prescribed for the accused the preceding autumn for some unusual aliment, without discovering its cause, and that she had also reiterated to him the day after her commitment to prison her previous assertion that the child had been born dead, giving as her reason for the concealment of its birth that she feared she would lose her place if the fact were discovered.
The prisoner’s cause was ably and forcibly presented to the Court and jury by her learned counsel, who urged in her favor the lack of positive proof of the commission by her of the offence charged, the existence of a reasonable doubt of her guilt, and the hazard of a conviction upon mere circumstantial evidence. The confession of the accused that the child was hers having been given in evidence by the State, that confession, it was contended, must be received in its entirety, coupled as it was with her assertion that it had been born dead. Her previous character, moreover, had been shown to be good, and no person naturally virtuous, it was argued, sinks at once to crime which shocks humanity.
What stronger plea in the law could, under the circumstances, have been made in behalf of the hapless girl? What greater indication of the public concern for her life than these voluntary efforts by such an array of distinguished counsel? But, divesting the ease of all considerations of sentiment, it would be doing violence to impartial judgment to assert that the verdict of guilty of willful and premeditated murder, which was rendered by the jury after about four hours deliberation, was not fairly warranted under the law and the facts.
Upon the following morning, in the speedy course of justice, the prisoner was again brought to the bar of the Court and sentenced to pay the penalty of death which the law affixed to her crime. In choking accents the deeply affected Judge pronounced the solemn words which consigned the unhappy girl to her awful doom. A multitude of people, as great as could crowd within the walls of the old provincial court house where the trial had taken place, listened to those words with no less profound emotion. The condemned, herself, bowed her head and wept convulsively, still, however, maintaining her innocence.
The popular sympathy for the unfortunate girl was now enlisted in an effort to secure at the least a commutation of the sentence at the hands of the Executive. The Governor of the State, Simon Snyder, was petitioned to spare the life which the law had declared to be forfeited to its demands. Whilst the prisoner’s guilt could no longer be judicially questioned, it was urged that justice could be satisfied without the shedding of her blood.
The hanging of a woman was then, as it continues to be, repugnant to the people of Pennsylvania. Yet there had been numerous instances of it in the history of both the Colonial and State governments, and before the law there could be no just discrimination in the punishment of deliberate murder founded upon distinction of sex in the perpetrator. Two women had previously been executed in Berks County for the crime of murdering their illegitimate offspring. Elizabeth Graul, convicted at the November Term of Oyer and Terminer of 1758, and Catharine Krebs, convicted at the November Term of 1767, were hanged at Reading the former on March 10, 1759, and the latter on December 19, 1767. No facts regarding these remote cases have been transmitted. At that period the sanguinary code of 1718 was still in force, under which no less than twelve distinct offences were punishable by death. By the same statute the mere concealment of the death of her illegitimate child by the mother was made presumptive evidence to convict her of murder, unless she could make proof by at least one witness that the child was born dead. This harsh feature of the ancient law, together with the penalty of capital punishment for all offences other than murder of the first degree, was finally removed by the Act of 1794, which also required, with respect to illegitimates, independent affirmative proof of the fact of the killing by the mother as essential to a conviction, and punished the concealment of the death by imprisonment at hard labor, which remains the law at this day. Between the organization of the State government under the Constitution of 1790, and the year 1809, five women, three of them colored, convicted in other counties, also paid the death penalty, the offences being, in nearly every instance, the murder of illegitimates. A young woman named Sarah Keating was tried in the Oyer and Terminer of Berks County before Supreme Court Justices Shippen and Brackenridge, in October, 1804, for concealing the death of her illegitimate child, and acquitted; the grand jury having previously ignored a count in the indictment charging her with its murder. Since 1809 there has occurred but a single instance of the execution of a woman in Pennsylvania that of Catharine Miller, who was hanged in the county of Lycoming, together with her paramour, in February, 1881, for the murder of her aged husband.
Humanity was a marked trait in the character of Governor Snyder. That he regarded capital punishment with disfavor is evidenced by his remarks upon the subject in his annual message to the Legislature in December, 1809, suggesting the expediency of its abolition as a matter proper for their consideration. The signing of death warrants he referred to in the same connection as the most painful duty devolving upon the Executive. But the policy of the law with respect to the due protection of human life was firmly settled, and there was at that day, moreover, less disposition to interfere with the solemn verdict of a jury than there is at this. Nor had modern theories as to individual responsibility for crime materially affected ancient ideas of public justice. The particular crime of which Susanna Cox had been convicted was no uncommon offence, and it was especially ill fated for her cause before the Governor that, in the beginning of May, 1809, while the petition in her behalf was still in his hands, a girl named Mary Meloy was arrested upon the like charge at Lancaster, then the seat of the State government. The circumstances were of unusual atrocity, and whilst the defendant was subsequently acquitted, she was at the time of her apprehension believed to be guilty.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Governor’s decision was adverse to the pending application. A brief official record remaining in the Executive department at Harrisburg states, under date of May 9, 1809, that, “The Governor this day took into consideration the case of Susanna Cox, now under sentence of death for murder in the first degree, confined in the jail of the County of Berks, of which crime she was convicted at the last Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery held in the said county – and thereupon a warrant under the Great Seal of the State, and signed by the Governor, was issued to the Sheriff of the County of Berks, George Marx, Esq., commanding him to execute the sentence of the said Court upon her, the said Susanna Cox, on Saturday, the tenth day of June next, between the hours of ten and two of the clock of the said day, at the usual place of execution. The said warrant was immediately transmitted to the said Sheriff of the said County of Berks, with instructions to communicate the same to the prisoner forthwith.”
This action sealed the fate of the unhappy girl; from it there could be no appeal. When the purport of the warrant was made known to her, and she realized that all hope for her h ad gone, she broke down completely, freely confessed her guilt, and began her preparations for the ordeal of the fatal day, then but one month distant.
Following the English custom, the execution of criminals in public was then, as it had been from the beginning, the practice in this State. It was not until the passage of the Act of April 10, 1834, that executions were required to be conducted within the prison enclosures, the number of officials to be in attendance thereat limited, and the presence of minors excluded. At almost every county seat there was anciently a “Gallows Hill”. This, at Reading, was the tract upon the county grounds at the foot of Mount Penn, now included within the territory acquired by the city and occupied as a public park. A portion of it, comprising between fifty and sixty acres, was purchased by the county from the Penns in the year 1800, at the instance of the Commissioners, for the especial purpose, the reason assigned for acquiring the additional ground being that the concourse of spectators at public executions was usually so great that the property of private individuals was necessarily trespassed upon.
Here, during the Colonial period, numerous malefactors were sent to their final account, and here also, subsequent to Independence there were hanged, in October, 1792, a negro, Samuel Pope, otherwise Samuel Peeves, for rape; in January, 1798, Benjamin Bailey, for the murder of a peddler on the Broad Mountain, within the then limits of Berks County; in June, 1809, the girl Susanna Cox, and in January, 1813, John Schildt, the parricide and demoniac. Public executions were deemed great popular object lessons in law and morals, and were commonly attended with religious exercises, including, in some instances, addresses to the multitude by the reverend clergy. But experience proved the benefits of such occasions to be a more than doubtful sequence. Murders continued to be as freely committed as before, and the scenes attending hangings were frequently degrading and disgraceful. The presence of the military was always required to prevent outbreak or possible rescue. Had the execution of criminals continued much longer to be thus conducted, it is extremely probable that capital punishment in this State would long since have been abolished. A change in public sentiment in this regard, as evidenced by repeated remonstrance’s to the Legislature, brought about the passage of the Act of 1834.
The fact that the girl Susanna Cox must so shortly die for the offence which she had now freely confessed, rendered her an object not only of renewed public sympathy, but of great public curiosity as well. Large numbers of people were admitted to the jail where she was, and talked with entire freedom to her upon her unfortunate situation. This jail was the old two-story stone building, still standing, at the corner of Fifth and Washington streets, erected in 1770, a quaint surviving specimen of the rude prisons of Colonial times. The Sheriff with his family resided within it, occupying a considerable portion of its available space. Its limited accommodations were frequently over-taxed; no adequate provision existed for the complete separation of the sexes, and communication with the prisoners from the outside was no very difficult matter. In the beginning of the century, as it is said, a license to sell liquors in the public part of the building had actually been granted to the son of a former Sheriff. Insolvent debtors, many of them of a highly respectable class, were brought into close contact with the lowest and most dissolute characters. At that period jails were regarded as houses of detention merely, rather than as reformatory institutions, prison discipline was necessarily lax, and the utmost vigilance of even a well-disposed Sheriff could not prevent many of the evils which gave to them the character of nurseries of vice rather than schools of virtue.
During her incarceration the youthful prisoner was treated with the utmost leniency, assisted in the Sheriff’s family and was a guest at his table. Her behavior was childlike, gentle and decorous. In the last month of her life she had many tender ministrants to both her temporal and spiritual needs. The Rev. Philip Reinhold Pauli, the venerable pastor of the Reformed Church of Reading, who visited her frequently as her spiritual adviser and comforter, found her extremely penitent, and submissive in an extraordinary degree to her impending fate. Upon the day before her execution he administered to her in the presence of the Sheriff’s family the Holy Communion, and prayed long and earnestly with her for her soul’s salvation. At the same time there was completed for her by friendly female hands the white dress, trimmed with wide black ribbons, in which she was to walk forth to her doom, and which was to be her garment in death as well.
The tenth of June was clear but oppressively warm. The town was crowded, and the public excitement, though subdued, intense. The two weekly newspapers of that date, the German Adler and the English Advertiser, give but meager accounts of its memorable incidents. The contents of country newspapers of the period were made up largely of advertisements. In their news departments the principal subjects of attention were foreign affairs, particularly wars and rumors of wars among the European powers. Local happenings in a town of between three and four thousand inhabitants were presumed to be known to all, and the journalistic allusions to them were brief and paragraphic, merely.
On the eighteenth of May previous, Sheriff Marx had issued the proclamation customary on such occasions, notifying the justices of the peace, the coroner, constables and all other civil officers within the county of Berks, “that they and every of them be in the Borough of Reading on Saturday, the tenth day of June next, at nine o’clock in the morning of the said day, then and there to assist the Sheriff of the county aforesaid in keeping the peace and good order at the execution of a certain Susanna Cox, now confined in the common jail of said county, who is to be executed on said day at the usual place of execution” concluding with the well-worn formula of: “God Save the Commonwealth!”
The public in general needed no formal invitation. Says the Advertiser issued on the morning of the tenth: “This day the execution of Susanna Cox takes place. Eleven o’clock is appointed to start from the gaol for the Commons. Report says that from ten to fifteen thousand people are expected; some coming from fifty miles distance.” Again, in its issue of the seventeenth, it was stated that, “Never did Reading behold so numerous a collection of people. The taverns were all crowded the preceding evening, and all night wagons loaded with people from the country were passing through the streets, some coming upwards of seventy miles to see this truly unfortunate girl terminating her worldly existence. The number of spectators on the ground upon the hill exceeded twenty thousand.” “The arrivals,” said the Adler, “were by wagons, on horseback and on foot, and continued in constantly increasing proportions throughout the night and down to the moment of the execution. The weather was extremely hot, and owing to the crowd many of the people were in danger of suffocation.”
“At a little after eleven o’clock,” states the Advertiser, in quaintly describing the final scene, “the mournful procession moved from the gaol. The unfortunate girl, with a wonderful serenity, intermixed with a smile on her countenance, walked straight up to the awful place of execution on the Commons, at the foot of the hill, supported and comforted by two reverend ministers, kneeled down as soon as she arrived, and committed her last fervent prayer to an Almighty God and Redeemer, to whom she had during her confinement (after the death warrant being read to her) most earnestly supplicated for mercy and forgiveness of sins and transgression with whom she had made her peace, and from whom she was assured she had received the comfort of His mercy and grace. She shortly after ascended the scaffold, willingly surrendering a body of sins for the satisfaction of the offended laws of the country, when she was launched into eternity without a struggle! The greatest decency was upheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of sympathy were seen flowing spontaneously from the almost numberless crowd of spectators.”
“It was indeed,” concludes the account, “a day of sorrow.” It might in truth have been added that it was the saddest day that Reading had ever seen. Viewed through the mists of more than ninety years, the bosom heaves and the eye moistens as imagination pictures the incidents of that summer’s morning of expiation as they have been described by many eye-witnesses, all now long since passed away.
A troop of infantry under Captain Lutz headed the procession, marching to the funeral notes of fife and drum, the church bells the meanwhile tolling, next followed the officials, the wagon containing the coffin, and immediately behind it the central figure in the afflicting drama, toward whom all eyes were strained, leaning upon the arm of her aged spiritual attendant, the Reverend Mr. Pauli. As the ruddy, black-eyed, black-haired young woman walked resolutely up Penn Street, followed by the closely pressing throng, many heartfelt farewells and benedictions were addressed to her by the deeply affected spectators. The multitude now saw in her not the self-confessed criminal, wearing upon her breast the scarlet letter of her own infamy, but the transformed penitent, about to ascend to the arms of her Maker and Redeemer. Whence the smile that illumined her features? Was it because she already felt the burden lifted, and had she indeed a veiled assurance of the peace that was to come?
Once, only, there was a halt for a few moments while a cup of water was procured from a pump along the highway to slake her burning thirst. Arrived at length at the place of execution, the procession entered the hollow square in which the military had been arranged about the scaffold. Pressing solidly up to the ranks, and at a great distance beyond, was a compact mass of humanity, men, women, youths, and even little children clinging closely to the garments of their elders.
An earnest prayer was offered by the Reverend Mr. Pauli, after which there was sung an old German hymn of the Seventeenth Century, which had been committed to memory by the girl while in prison – a composition of penitence and resignation, the initial verse of which was:
I, wretched creature, sinner poor,
Stand here before thy sight
Oh God! show mercy in this hour,
Judge not with vengeful might.
Take pity Lord, thou pitying God,
Upon my desperate plight
The simple but painfully impressive service closed, the white-robed supplicant, with bowed head, calm and composed throughout, undismayed, apparently, in the presence of the King of Terrors. The wagon containing the coffin stood directly underneath the rude instrument of death, two tall, upright pieces, with a crossbeam from which the fatal rope depended. The girl, when bidden, resolutely ascended the vehicle and stood upon the coffin, which had been placed across as a sort of platform. The unknown hireling in mask who performed the office of executioner now covered the head of the condemned and adjusted the noose about her neck. At a signal the wagon was driven from below, and there hung the girl in her death agonies before the gaze of the awestricken multitude in her hand a white handkerchief tightly clutched A simultaneous cry of horror at the awful spectacle arose throughout the overwrought throng. It was dreadful to see; it is distressing to relate!
Some have asserted that the hangman completed his function with an act of brutality by jerking the ankles of the victim to hasten her death. Others said – and this appears the more probable – that he merely stooped to adjust her low shoes which were likely to fall off her feet in the struggle. Be this as it may, he was marked for vengeance, and subsequently, while proceeding from the scene of his invidious duty, was set upon at the corner of Penn and Sixth (then Prince) streets, by one of the town fighters of the day, Andrew McCoy by name, and beaten unmercifully, his silver hire money rolling from his pockets into the highway. Recovering himself as best he could, he made a hasty retreat across the river, away from the town and its excited populace forever.
After being suspended for seventeen minutes, the now inanimate form was lowered, and having been submitted to a bleeding at the hands of the physicians present, to assure the fact of death, was placed in the coffin and delivered to the relatives. Susanna had a sister Barbara, married to one Peter Katzenmoyer, who lived in the suburb of Hampden. To his house the body was conveyed, and upon the night of the following day buried in an open field upon his land, a heap of stones being piled above the turf to conceal the location. For successive days and nights the lonely grave was watched to prevent the remains from finding their way to a dissecting table a disposition which the poor girl had, while in prison, especially requested her relatives to guard against. The spot is indicated as upon the sloping ground, several hundred yards to the westward of the present Hampden reservoir, and near where Thirteenth and Marion streets, when opened, will join.
A small pamphlet, printed in English and German, entitled: “The Last Words and Dying Confession of Susanna Cox,” issued by the newspapers of Reading, was offered for sale to the public immediately after the execution. The Confession was prepared for the condemned girl, and signed with her mark in the presence of Peter Nagle and Sheriff Marx on the eighth of June, 1809, two days previously. Copies of it are now very rare, but its contents are meager and devoid of special interest. After reciting a few facts regarding her life and crime, it proceeds to express her gratitude to the Sheriff, to the gaoler, Daniel Kerper, the clergy and to all who had rendered her kind offices while in prison, and closes with sentiments of penitence, and an admonition to all, especially the young, to take warning by her example. A “Traveler Lied,” or Sorrow Song, in the German, by some now unknown author, containing thirty-two verses of the doggerel description, reciting the whole mournful story, was published simultaneously with the Confession, and proved so popular that copies of it continued to be reprinted and sold to within a very recent period. It has been memorized and sung by hundreds who have wept over the fate of the subject of the verses, is still preserved in many households, and is to be found in some instances pressed between the leaves of the family Bible.
Within a little more than a month after the execution of the unfortunate girl whom it had fallen to his sad duty to condemn, Judge Spayd, deeply moved by the event, resigned his office and returned to the practice of the law. The melancholy tragedy made a profound and lasting impression upon all who knew or heard of it, and its traditions, interwoven with some fictitious details, have been transmitted through the successive generations to the present The criminal annals of the State present few narratives of more pathetic interest That the obscure girl was greater in her death, so far as fame is concerned, than if her life, though of the longest, had been devoted to the practice of virtue, is a true, though perhaps grotesque commentary upon her history.
The docket of the court of Oyer and Terminer of Berks County for the April Term of 1809, contains, in the case of “Respublica versus Susanna Cox,” but the usual brief and formal entries of the charge, the arraignment, the plea, the names of the jury, the verdict and the sentence. Such records are not in their tenor suggestive of appeals to the sympathies or the imagination. But appended to the terse official memoranda in this case is found the following note, in parentheses, in the hand-writing of Mr. Franks, the counsel for the prosecution:
“On the 10th June A.D. 1809, the prisoner was executed, previous to which she confessed the murder and died penitent, Peace to her soul!”
After the lapse of ninety years, let us echo the sentiment of the kindly lawyer of a bygone time, and reverently respond:
“To her soul be peace!”
This article originates from a paper read before the Historical Society of Berks County, PA.
March 13, 1900
By Louis Richards, Esq.