Saturday, July 11, 2009

Black Sheep Sunday: Memories of Sally Hamilton's Murder

The blue stars indicate the locations that Lent's testimony placed he and Sickler in their flight south.
August, 1813, in the town of Athens, on the west shore of the Hudson River, Greene County, Sally Hamilton disappeared.
Sally, the popular twenty year old daughter of Samuel Hamilton, Esq., had walked approximately one half mile to visit either her sister or a neighbor for the afternoon (accounts vary).  Sally left around 8 o'clock to return home.  She walked with some friends until only 20 rods from her house (about 330 feet), but never reached safety.  After she was missed, the whole town searched for her with great anxiety until two or three days later, when her body was found under a bridge in a creek. In his memoir, Remininscences of Catskill, Local Sketches, James D. Pinckney wrote that the creek has been known as "Murders Creek" ever since.
In an 1854 newspaper item from the Times and Journal, Oswego, NY, Sally's body was described as mutilated with a broken skull, "but a medical examination proved that the murder was but a sequel to outrage."  The implication of a sexual component to the crime, if not the very motive, cannot be dismissed.
In both Pinckney's account and the newspaper item, several citizens near the Hamiltons' house and near the creek, approximately one quarter mile away, reported hearing screaming that night, but the sounds weren't taken seriously and therefore no action was taken.
Mr. Pinckney remembers that several arrests were made, but a man called Kavanaugh was tried.  He was acquitted and "drummed out of town, probably as a punishment for his ill-looks, for he had the most villainous countenance I have ever seen."  The newspaper item differs on this point: two years later, Patrick Cavanagh confessed to Sally's murder.  However, during his trial, he proved himself to be "insane" with no knowledge of the crime.
Several years later, a U. S. soldier named Sickler was indicted for the murder based on the testimony of his comrade-in-arms, a Mr. Lent.  Lent described a chain of events in detail.
* Lent, Sickler, and two other soldiers deserted from Greenbush barracks, not far from Albany on the east shore of the Hudson River.  (Neither account mentions what became of the purported un-named companions.)
* The men stole a small boat and thereby reached the western shore of the Hudson.
* According to Lent, he and Sickler traveled on foot where, at one point, they passed a village where general military exercises were in progress.
* It was after this that the pair reached Athens.  Lent testified that Sickler was the one who seized Sally Hamilton and abused her. Apparently, when she screamed for help, she was killed and her body dragged to a bridge. They pried up a board and threw her body into the water.
* After the murder, the men arrived at Catskill, NY where they spent two nights in a barn before boarding a sloop bound for New York City.
Pinckney wrote in his memoir that the prosecution corroborated Lent's testimony in every detail.  
* Testimony from the owners stated that a small boat was stolen from the eastern shore of the Hudson on the night of the desertion.
* A Militia exercise had taken place in Coxsackie, NY on the day Lent claimed.
* Employees of William Brandow of Catskill testified that they saw the two men creeping from the barn before daybreak.
* Curtiss Graham of Catskill, standing in a doorway in town, saw two men resembling the prisoner and the witness hurrying down Main Street.
* Capt. Van Loan testified to two "rough-looking characters" boarding his boat in Catskill as described by Lent.
The result of all this testimony, however, was negated by that of U. S. Military Officers from Greenbush barracks.  According to the testimony of the Officers, both Lent and Sickler were present at 9 o'clock PM the night Sally was murdered and present again in the morning at reveille.  Due to this testimony, Sickler was acquitted of the murder and released.  Lent, though, was convicted of perjury and sentenced for two years at New York State Prison.
Pinckney recalled that both the judge in the case, Wm. W. Van Ness, and the defending attorney, Elisha Williams, believed Lent and Sickler to be guilty of the crime, though he doesn't say how he knew this.
There are problems with both the memoir and the newspaper accounts of this story.  Even though he had the help of friends and relatives, Mr. Pinckney was recalling the events after a distance of about fifty years.  The same is true with the newspaper item from the Times and Journal; after a local woman disappeared, the events of Sally Hamilton's abduction and death forty years before were recalled.
However, it seems that the case may have been solved after all.  Pinckney's friend, and Sally's brother-in-law, Judge Nichols, stated that some years before the memoir was written, Sickler made a full death-bed confession of his role in the murder.  How the Judge came to know of this confession isn't mentioned.
Even more telling, however, is the wrtiting of W. A. Coffey. An ex-convict, Coffey, in his 1823 book, Inside out, or an interior view of the New York State Prison, by one who knows, wrote about his experiences while incarcerated.
After a conviction for forgery, Coffey was sent to prison and thrown, horrified and frightened, into a cell with eleven other convicts.  One of his cell-mates was Lent, who continued to claim his innocence for perjury.  Coffey wrote, "...I beheld myself the secluded companion...and the bed-fellow of a murderer, who had testified to his own guilt;...priding himself on his innocence, although that very innocence, if proved, made him deserving of a gibbet."

Inside Out; Or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison: Together with Biographical Sketches of the Lives of Several of the Convicts
W. A. Coffey
Harvard University
J. Costigan, 1823
Reminiscences of Catskill. Local sketches
James D. Pinckney
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Library
Catskill, N.Y: J.B. Hall, 1868
Times and Journal
Oswego, NY
27 Dec 1854
[page number illegible], col 1


  1. Edited. I have to try to stop writing these blogs in the middle of the night! Julia

  2. Great job!!! Love the old history