Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part account of a murder in Pittsfield. To read Part I, click here.
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 twenty-first century.
The Second Investigation
Chief Nicholson was troubled. The clues that seemed to lead away from the house had the oddest way of leading back to it. For example, they found a single shoe – a patent leather with a cloth top, the kind a gentleman would wear. When they contacted the maker whose name appeared on the insole, they learned Mr. Fosburgh Sr. purchased a pair exactly similar. The pants they found were an old pair of Bert’s. What did it mean?
A .44 caliber gun was recovered but the scientists said the bullet that killed Miss Fosburgh came from a .22. Why was that gun not found? Certainly the thieves could have carried it away but what did it mean that Robert Fosburgh Jr. purchased a .22 caliber handgun at Pierson’s Hardware store just weeks earlier?
Why were Patrolman Chapman, Dr. Schofield, and the Medical Examiner Dr. Paddock made to wait outside the house? Why was there, apparently, a 30-minute delay before the Fosburghs called the police? Why did little Bertha Sheldon leave the Fosburgh house on the morning of August 20 and refuse to talk to the police? Why couldn’t they find the burglars? Why was there no agreement about how many burglars there were? Beatrice saw none, Robert Sr. saw two, and Robert Jr., Bert, saw three burglars. Why did James never mention a break-in when he called the police station? Why, if they were thieves, didn’t they steal something? Certainly the Fosburgh men fought them off, but there were valuables in plain sight – jewels and cash — why didn’t they snatch and pocket something even as they ran away? Why indeed.
What if there were no burglars? What if there were only the inmates of the house. What if there were only two real facts: the stray shot and the dead girl? What if the rest – all the rest – was fabrication? What then would be the theory of the crime?
In January 1901, to the surprise of many and the satisfaction of a few, Nicholson arrested Bert — Robert Stuart Fosburgh Jr. — for the murder of his sister.
As the trial approached, there were 500 requests for seats from newspapers. In the courtroom, there are 25 seats assigned to the press. The competition for the remaining seats was spirited. The most active competitors were women.
Immediately, Bert proclaimed his innocence and never wavered; nor did his family. Robert Sr. was quoted as saying, “I will spend every cent I am worth to save my boy.”
The Fosburghs hired Detective Hazen, former Chief of the U.S. Secret Service, to prove that burglars did enter the Fosburgh house on the night of August 20, 1900.
There were supporters of Chief Nicholson and there were supporters of Bert Fosburgh. Supporters of Bert sniffed: there was insufficient evidence, and in arresting Bert, Nicholson acted rashly. Supporters of Nicholson said there were facts known only to him, facts he had concealed that made him confident of a conviction.
Every day reporters gathered downstairs in the Taproom at The Wendell Hotel. Local news hawks took the side entrance off West Street and went to enjoy the men’s club atmosphere and the good liqueur. They went to discuss the case, rehash the evidence, and choose up sides. In all the Berkshire taverns and around Berkshire dinner tables, the same argument was going on: guilty, not guilty.
Reporters from all over the United States and Europe registered at The Wendell. When bail was arranged, Bert left the jail and Amy Fosburgh left the sad house on Tyler Street. Together they took rooms at The Wendell.
The Unintended Consequence
With a nose for news and an instinct for newsmen’s hangouts, the out-of-town press all registered at The Wendell.
Built in 1898, The Wendell was on a scale and level of adornment never seen in Pittsfield, and evidently not appreciated. The builder, Samuel W. Bowerman, was only 23 years old. Six months after The Wendell was completed, Bowerman was out of business. The Wendell was leased to a management firm, but by 1900, it was not certain they could make a go of it. Then came the night of August 20, 1900: the investigation dragged on, and the trial did not take place until the summer of 1901. Through it all, The Wendell remained full and bustling. Reporters arrived in Pittsfield to cover the story and these city men appreciated the fancy digs.
There was the added inducement that the alleged murderer was in residence at The Wendell. Once the trial started, every day, the accused and the press walked together from The Wendell, across Park Square, to the gleaming white courthouse.
An unintended result of the Fosburgh murder was that it saved the Wendell Hotel. Odd but true: a murder saved a Pittsfield landmark from financial ruin.
Every day the procession came across Park Square; every day would-be spectators mobbed the courthouse. Some got seats but many more were disappointed. Every day as many as one hundred people were left standing outside as the proceedings were gaveled to order by Judge Stevens.
On July 18, 1901, eleven months almost to the day after May Fosburgh’s tragic death, the trial began.
As District Attorney John C. Hammond rose to his feet, one could hear the proverbial pin drop. Now they would learn how the prosecution believed the young woman died and how they intended to prove it. Everyone expected sensational revelations; the hidden truth revealed; production of the smoking gun.
First Hammond sought to dismantle every element of the story told by the family. He pointed out every incidence where the forensic evidence contradicted their assertions. For example, allegedly the shot was fired from the bedroom into the hall as the burglar and Fosburgh Sr. fought, but the forensic evidence indicated the shot was fired at close range. The time of death was not, according to the evidence, shortly after 1 a.m. as the family reported. Time of death, in the opinion of the Medical Examiner, was earlier. Evidence showed that the murder weapon was exactly similar to the one that Bert purchased. The mother had a bruise mark on her face; the daughter-in-law wore a ripped garment as did May. Chairs and lamps were disarranged and broken. The evidence told of a fight and one that spread, engaging more space and more family members than reported.
Hammond was relentless in detailing every instance where family members contradicted one another or themselves. For example, Beatrice told Dr. Paddock and Captain White early in the morning of August 20th that she did not see burglars. Not only did that contradict testimony of her father and brother but it contradicted later statements she made when she said she saw men in masks made of pillow cases. Similarly, Robert testified that his own gun was taken from him to shoot May while the father said he took a gun from the burglar who in a struggle recovered it and with it shot May.
Methodically, Hammond dismantled their tale of burglars. Only then did he begin to build his story. He presented 40 witnesses to support his version of the truth. For example neighbors Mr. Plumb and Mr. Shepherdson who saw no fleeing men in the vicinity, and Miss Chaplin who thought she heard an argument but much earlier than 1 a.m.
A picture began to emerge. It was just this: Bert had a bad temper. He and his father fought. The quarrel was violent; it escalated, and drew in the women. May attempted to separate the men as Bert’s gun in Bert’s hand went off. May was hit at close range, and died. The family bound together after the death, invented a story of burglars and planted evidence to support that story.
The prosecution does not contend that the death was intended, Hammond told the jury, but the manner in which it happened was so reckless and rash, the attempt to cover up the truth so deplorable that the Commonwealth could not accept it as an accident and was charging criminal homicide.
The defense had an answer for everything. Beatrice denied, on the night of the tragedy, that she ever told anyone she saw no burglars. In fact, she recalls clearly that she spoke to no one. The father never bought a shoe in New York City. If he had a similar pair, well, what of it? His son Bert indeed bought a gun at Pierson’s. Bert bought it at his behest to protect the payroll if necessary. The burglars took it away from Bert, shot May and fled with the gun in hand. If he said something different on the night of the tragedy, he must be forgiven. He was in shock and he was grieving the loss of his daughter.
Fosburgh Sr. went on. His son James was dispatched to call the police immediately after waking and had no opportunity to see the burglars before they fled or to hear the other family members’ stories so he was not in a position to mention a break-in to the police.
Mr. Sheldon testified that his daughter saw nothing and knew nothing. He deemed her too young to be involved in such a sordid business. She left the house immediately because he demanded it. She never spoke to the police because he forbade it.
On it went for eight days. At the end of that time the jury was excused for the day, and Judge Stevens called the lawyers into chambers. Something was afoot.
Next week: Part Three: The Verdict and the Aftermath