23 January 2008

Mad Hermit of Higginsville

On the morning of November 11, 1940, Leslie Gethard of Newark was out hunting near the Woodfern section of Branchburg, just across the river from Hillsborough. As he passed by the Central Railroad of New Jersey tracks, he discovered the skull of a man in a gully near the tracks. The State Police were called to the scene, but before they arrived another party of hunters composed of Frank Nagy of Morristown and his two sons discovered the headless, decomposed body of a man 100 feet away. Nearby farmers quickly identified the body from clothing and possessions as that of fifty-four-year-old Joseph "Big Joe" Kazlouskas - wanted for murder since September.

11 November 1940 Home News

The story begins in April 1940 when Kazlouskas  - also sometimes spelled Kazeleski -  lost his Three Bridges farm to foreclosure. Apparently, he took to the woods of the Sourland Mountain and vicinity and subsisted for weeks by stealing milk from the doorsteps of houses in Three Bridges and Higginsville. After the house and outbuildings on his former farm were set ablaze in an act of arson, a warrant was issued for his arrest and a posse was formed.

20 September 1940 Courier News

One of the young men leading the posse was twenty-year-old Julius Norvich whose family lived on a farm adjoining Kazlouskas. Residents of Higginsville and Three Bridges were terrorized the entire summer by the "mad hermit" as the posse failed to locate their prey. On the evening of September 17, Norvich went out to the pasture to care for some horses and never returned. His pellet-riddled body was found the next day at the bottom of a cistern.

19 September 1940 Home News

Early the next morning, while the posse which had now grown to seventy-five men was combing the area, several shotgun blasts were fired through the windows of the Norvich home, narrowly missing still-sleeping family members.

22 September  1940 Philadelphia Inquirer

The killer was next heard from again on the evening of September 27 when the car of a Centerville man, Charles Smithana, was fired on as he pulled his car up to the Davis farm. Smithana fell flat on the seat just before the first shot was fired, then got out of the car and shouted "Halt, or I'll shoot you", dropping to the ground before a second blast. After reloading, Kazlouskas fired a third wild shot into the night and ran off toward Three Bridges.

28 September 1940 Home News

State Troopers searching the area the next morning heard two more shots. It is assumed that sometime not long after this, with the pressure of being on the run mounting, Kazlouskas decided to take his own life. A shotgun and a wooden crotch found near his body were enough for police to rule the killing a suicide. Apparently, Kazlouskas stood in the gully with the shotgun barrel resting in the crotch and pointed at his head.

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