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The Methodist church and manse at Strong, Maine. Image courtesy Strong Historical Society

CONNECTIONS: America’s first serial killer

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By Tuesday, Feb 6, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 1

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

This is not a Berkshire story; it is a New England story. It is not a pretty story, but it is the story of firsts. Americans mark firsts presumably to learn from them. For Lawrence Doyle’s sake, for the sake of little Lura Libby, her parents and for all the witnesses struck dumb in horror, one hopes so.

On a Sunday morning, Sept. 14, 1862, the 9-year-old daughter of Isaac and Susan Libby left for church. Lura Vellie Libby never returned. The Methodist church was a mile and a half from Lura’s home. Sunday-school class preceded the 10 a.m. religious service and an afternoon service followed. Because she planned to stay for the afternoon worship service, Lura took a lunch – two pieces of gingerbread and an apple. The service was at 1 p.m. and yet, by 4 p.m., Lura had not returned.

Isaac and Susan went to fetch her. That is when the panic rose and the alarm was sounded. The minister had not seen the child at all that day nor had anyone else. Elsewhere the Civil War was raging but in Strong, Maine, the child’s disappearance was the all-consuming news.

The Strong, Maine, railroad station in 1908. Image courtesy Strong Historical Society

Every able-bodied citizen searched long into that Sunday night. The following day they gathered again. They searched fields, pastures and woods. Ironically, they found the child’s body in a shallow grave not 100 rods (1,650 feet) from her front door. The body was stripped, ravaged, mutilated and treated unspeakably. It was found under a thin, hastily contrived covering of dirt and leaves. They say that, from that day, they called the spot where Lura was found “Murder Field.”

The whole town buried the girl and swore to find the perpetrator of the dastardly deed. The inscription on her tomb read: “Lura V. daughter of Isaac & Susan Libby Died by the hand of an assassin, Sept. 14, 1862, aged 9y 4m 24d Though we weep she returns not.”

Suspicion fell on the handyman. His name was Lawrence Doyle. He was approximately 30 years old, born in Brunswick, Maine. He was reported to be illiterate and dim but kindly and a willing worker. Doyle, who lived and worked on the Libby farm, had no alibi. He said he was taking care of sheep in a pasture far from the Libby house. He walked to the pasture by an unusual route to avoid being seen and criticized for traveling on the Sabbath. Both his explanation of his whereabouts and his behavior were described as suspicious.

What evidence existed was circumstantial. Witnesses said he grew pale and was very nervous when the body was discovered. He volunteered that he saw another body of a child buried in the same way in another town. Someone recalled that Doyle asked Mr. Libby if he would be walking to church with Lura, and that was considered “the most damning evidence.” On mounting gossip and no real evidence, Doyle was deemed the most likely suspect and arrested.

Charles Forster’s Toothpick Mill in Strong, Maine, circa 1900. Image courtesy Strong Historical Society

The first trial in November 1863 ended in a hung jury. Rumor had it that a majority of jurors thought him guilty and so it was decided to retry him. Fair or unfair, Doyle waited for the second trial in jail. In April 1864, the second trial commenced and a first in America was about to take place.

For a poor, illiterate and reputedly reviled man, Doyle had quite a defense team. They were E. F. Pillsbury, Joseph Lindscott and Oliver Currier. These formidable defense attorneys asserted their client’s innocence and their intention to correct the injustice of his being accused. They decided to try a new rule for the first time. They put Lawrence Doyle on the stand to testify on his own behalf.

Prior to that moment, under common law, a party to a suit was disqualified from testifying at trial based on the belief that the testimony of an “interested” witness would be self-serving and false. Doyle’s day in court is marked in the history books. That first example of the accused testifying led to the current statute that begins “Every person of sufficient understanding, including a party, may testify in any action or proceeding, civil or criminal.” Yet it did Doyle no good.

Doyle was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. Simply put, the jury did not believe him. Perhaps it was because it was the first time. In all the years prior, the accused was barred from testifying because it was assumed he would lie. The rule changed but the perception did not.

Franklin B. Evans from ‘The Northwood Murderer’ at www.murderbygaslight.com

Doyle died in prison two years later, asserting his innocence to the end as did his lawyers. One year after the verdict in the Doyle trial, the bodies of two children, Isabella and John Joyce, were found in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was naked, her body brutalized and thinly covered in a shallow grave. The boy was a few feet away, stabbed to death. It appeared he either tried to stop the attack or tried to escape and died in the attempt. The perpetrator was not found; no connection was made to Lura Libby.

In 1872, the first man in America to assert his innocence under oath was dead. That year another man was arrested for killing a young girl in Northwood, New Hampshire. The girl was stripped and brutalized, her lifeless body left in a shallow grave. His name was Franklin B. Evans.

They described him as a “gaunt and grizzled sixty-four year old ne’er do well.” He traveled New England on foot from Maine to Massachusetts to New Hampshire picking up what he could where he could. In the first days of his incarceration, he denied everything. He fell for the simplest trick.

The sheriff told Evans that he would come to no harm if he told the truth. Evans started to talk. He admitted to seven murders, including the child in Northwood for which he was arrested and the Joyce children in Massachusetts eight years earlier. He launched on a tale of murders of children going back to 1850 when, abruptly, he stopped. His last sentence was: “I have confessed. If the people don’t believe it I can’t help it.”

Who said what, raised an eyebrow or made a noise? We don’t know, but that was it. Evans spoke no more. Evans was hanged in 1873. He never admitted to Lura Libby’s murder and probably stopped short of admitting many others.

If you search for “the first American serial killer,” you might stumble upon H. H. Holmes. However, Holmes was a year old when Lura Libby was murdered, and 3 years old when the Joyce children were murdered. The first serial killer was Franklin B. Evans, unrepentant as he admitted to seven murders and smug when he stopped and took knowledge of the rest to the grave. How many? Even estimating one murder a year beginning in 1850, that would be more than 20 children.


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