According to Google Maps, it would take about four hours to walk from New Hope, Pa. to the heart of the Sourland Mountain in Hunterdon County - probably longer if you attempted the trek after dark. Neither the distance nor the rough terrain were enough to deter Benjamin Peterson, who set out from his New Hope home on the evening of May 29, 1878, armed with a musket loaded with broken nails, and a determination to kill Peter Nixon - and his own wife.
|New York Evening Telegram, September 5, 1878|
About seven months earlier, Peterson's nineteen-year-old daughter Lucinda went to live with Nixon as his housekeeper. Some time later that winter, Peterson's wife decided to make a visit to the mountain to visit her daughter - she didn't return.
As winter turned to spring, Peterson was bothered by stories of his wife's past infidelities, and was justifiably suspicious of this new arrangement. Thoughts of revenge began to fill his mind. With his nerve bolstered and senses deadened by booze, the cuckolded husband wrote his intentions in a letter, slid it into a pocket, and began his journey.
He arrived at the cabin around 2 am. To Nixon's cries of "who's there?" Peterson answered "a friend, come down and open the door and you will see".
When Nixon opened the door, Peterson pressed the gun's muzzle at Nixon's temple and pulled the trigger. According to The New York Times, the ammunition "went through the left side of Nixon's forehead and came out at the top of the head, carrying pieces of the skull and brain with it."
Wakened by the gunshot, Lucinda escaped by way of a bedroom window, while the terrified Mrs. Peterson hid under the bid. When her husband discovered her hiding place, she jumped out and attempted to run past him. Peterson, having reloaded, fired, grazing her cheek. Thinking that he had delivered a mortal wound, he pulled out a knife, declaring, "wife, let us die together", before slashing at his windpipe in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Before Peterson's first court appearance in October, newspapers from Philadelphia to New York jumped on the sensational story, being sure to point out that both Nixon and Peterson were "negroes" or "colored", and that the Sourland Mountain region was awash in lawlessness. Here is how The New York Times began an October 14, 1878 story about the upcoming trial:
The Sowerland Mountain, a range of hills eight miles from here [Flemington], has long been a terror to the surrounding country on account of the dangerous character of the inhabitants.
Despite having found Peterson's letters detailing his murderous intentions, and the long walk from New Hope to Nixon's door, the jury concluded that there was still the possibility that this had been a crime of passion, and not a premeditated murder - narrowly sparing Peterson from the death penalty. Instead he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years hard labor in the state prison.