18 October 2012

Annie Beekman, Strangled. Part Two

The home of Jacob Johnson, Hillsborough, NJ, Sunday, September 15, 1895.  Annie Beekman, a twenty-three-year-old former Hillsborough resident visiting the area for the first time in two years lies in the backroom of Jacob Johnson's modest cabin on the Elmendorf estate.  She is dead.

16 September 1895 New York Herald

In the front room are Johnson and his wife, along with the Somerset County Prosecutor, Constable Moore, and railroad flagman Joseph Gorman.  It was Gorman who alerted authorities that he could positively identify the dark-skinned black man and lighter-skinned woman who he saw crossing the tracks of the South Branch Railroad near the Raritan River late the previous evening - and that is what he has just done.

16 September 1895 New York Telegram

Annie Beekman's body was discovered by local laborer Peter Dow earlier that same morning.  It was obvious as he approached the body lying in a wooded area between the wagon road and the river that the woman was dead - and that she had been murdered. Her bodice was torn, corset wire ripped out, and finger marks were about her throat.  Coroner Brady, one of the first officials at the scene, ordered the body be taken to the nearest house, that of Jacob Johnson - a laborer employed on the estate of James B. Duke, and a preacher of some renown in the local black community.

Despite the failure of Coroner Brady to adequately secure the crime scene - evidence including footprints was trampled by curiosity seekers - it was obvious that the murder had taken place on the road, and the body had been dragged into the woods.  An empty purse lying nearby pegged the motive as robbery.

Somerset County Courthouse, 1891

The prosecutor confronted Johnson: hadn't he been seen all over Somerville the previous evening with the deceased, drinking in at least two different establishments?  How could he answer the accusation of Joe Gorman, who saw him and the deceased together not far from the site of the murder after 10 pm last evening?

Johnson insisted that he left Annie Beekman alive in the company of two white men at around 10 pm, and immediately returned home.  Johnson's son later admitted in court that his parents had argued that night upon Johnson's return, his mother demanding an explanation as to why he had been out all evening with Annie, instead of home with his family.

19 September 1895 New York Herald

Overwhelming circumstantial evidence which placed Johnson at the scene of the crime with motive and opportunity was enough for a grand jury and eventually a trial jury conviction.  He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Johnson went to the gallows in Somerville on May 5, 1897.  In an ironic twist, he was cut from the scaffold after seven minutes but was not yet dead. As doctors felt for a pulse and listened for a heartbeat, the noose, still tight about his neck, continued to do its work.  A few minutes later, he was pronounced dead - cause of death: strangulation.

17 October 2012

Annie Beekman, Strangled, Part One

Somerset County Fairgrounds, Somerville NJ, Thursday, September 12, 1895.  Jacob Johnson hadn't seen young Annie Beekman in more than two years.  Some people said that she was dead or hospitalized - others, that she had married a much older man and was living in Newark.  In any event, she was there at the Somerset County Fair, standing at his peanut and soda-water stand.  By the end of the week, Johnson would be in the Somerset County Jail, accused of her murder.

Somerset County Fairgrounds, Somerville, NJ - 1891

Annie Beekman had indeed been living in Newark.  She told Johnson that she had returned to Somerset County to visit her brother in Hillsborough and to collect $45 that was being held in trust for her by Calvin Corle of Neshanic.  Annie and her brother, both of biracial descent, had been bound by their mother to Neshanic farmer Edward Horner.  Upon reaching the age of maturity, each was given $50.  Her brother had taken the full amount directly, but Annie withdrew just $5, leaving the rest with Corle.

The Elmendorf House on the Duke Estate, 2018

Jacob Johnson worked as a laborer on the estate of James B. Duke.  He lived with his wife, son, and daughter in a cabin on the Elmendorf property near the banks of the Raritan River, not far from the tracks of the South Branch Railroad.  He was well-liked and admired, especially in the black community around Hillsborough, where he was well known as a preacher with a particularly strong religious fervor.

Johnson suggested that Annie stay with them while she was visiting in the area.  She spent the day Friday visiting with her mother, and upon returning that evening, asked Johnson to accompany her on Saturday to Neshanic in order to recover her money from Mr. Corle.  She explained that she did not feel comfortable traveling alone with such a large sum.

Somerville Train Station - 1891

On Saturday afternoon, they boarded the train at the Roycefield Depot near Johnson's home for the short trip to Neshanic.  Annie received $45 from Mr. Corle, which she placed in a small purse and tucked into the bosom of her corset.  On the return trip, she suggested to Johnson that they get off the train at Somerville, and celebrate with a drink.

Commercial Hotel, Somerville, NJ - 1891

They went first to the Commercial Hotel, where Annie bought them a couple of rounds of beer.  She then suggested Cawley's restaurant, where they dined on sandwiches and wine - Annie carefully removing her purse, paying the bill, and returning it safely to its hiding place.

Cawley's Restaurant, Somerville, NJ - 1891

Johnson later told police that Annie had wanted to continue drinking, but he begged off, on the account of the lateness of the evening - it was already close to 10 pm.  Johnson claimed that before he left Annie near the Somerville Station, he saw her with two white men, one tall, one short and that she had gone off with them.
That's not the story told by Joseph Gorman, a railroad flagman working near the Somerville Depot that Saturday evening.  Gorman told police that he clearly saw the pair cross the tracks in the vicinity of Bridge Street, and head towards the Raritan River.

11 October 2012

Elmer Clawson, Boy Murderer, Part Two

May 12, 1897, 7 o'clock.  Elmer Clawson, 19, sits down to his final meal - steak, coffee, cake, and strawberries.  His stomach is queasy, and he picks at the strawberries.  He is just three hours away from becoming not only the youngest person ever to be executed in Somerset County but also the first white man to go to the gallows in that place in over a century.

Just one week earlier, the only other death row inmate in the Somerset County jail - black Methodist minister Jacob Johnson - was hung by the neck for eight minutes, then cut down still alive while the doctor waited another eight minutes for him to expire.  Several weeks earlier, Johnson, convicted of robbing and killing Annie Beekman, had foiled Clawson's escape attempt by telling the guard that Clawson had hidden an iron bar in his mattress straw, and had been fashioning a key out of a piece of metal from the leg of the iron bed frame.

The Old Somerset County Courthouse complex, circa 1905.
The executions took place in the basement of the jail.

No doubt  Clawson was desperate.  Convicted of killing Pluckemin farmer Harry Hodgetts on August 29 of the previous year, all appeals were exhausted and entreaties by leading Somerset County residents to commute the boy's sentence because of his age were unsuccessful.  On the witness stand, Clawson freely admitted that he had discharged his pistol three times, striking his former employer twice in the chest before fleeing on his bicycle.  In fact, Clawson had admitted his crime from the start - even going so far as to tell his family on his way out that fateful morning, that he was going out to kill Harry Hodgetts.

12 May 1897 New York Evening Telegram

It was this bizarre behavior, and the subsequent testimony of Clawson family members as to the family's history of mental illness, that caused defense attorneys to be hopeful of an acquittal, or at least a sentence of life imprisonment.  Jurors heard from six mental health experts.  Unsurprisingly, the three put on by the prosecutor pronounced Clawson perfectly sane.

After breakfast, Clawson - dressed in black jacket, white shirt, and black tie - had a final meeting with his attorney, and is reported to have said, "I would rather go to state prison for life, but am not afraid and will go through it all right."

12 May 1897 Courier News

At precisely 10 o'clock, Sheriff Wyckoff, accompanied by Hangman Van Hise, retrieved the prisoner - Van Hise slipping behind Clawson and tying his hands while Wyckoff proceeded with final instructions.  They walked to the basement gallows.  Clawson stood on the spot inscribed by a chalk mark on the floor while Van Hise adjusted the silken rope about his neck and lowered the hood over his face.  The execution, including nineteen minutes in the noose, was completed by 10:26.

10 October 2012

Elmer Clawson, Boy Murderer, Part One

August 29, 1896.  Farmer Harry Hodgetts of Pluckemin, an Englishman who emigrated to America in 1885, had just finished breakfast with his wife and three small daughters and was heading outside to begin his day's work at his 64-acre farm on what today is Route 206.  He was met unexpectedly by eighteen-year-old Elmer Clawson, a lad who had worked for him the previous season, but who he hadn't seen in over a year.

Elmer Clawson, before his execution in 1897

Clawson set his bicycle down by the road and strode up to meet Hodgetts by the door of his home.  Clawson asked for work, and when Hodgetts refused, Clawson demanded to be paid wages that Hodgetts had withheld the previous year - an amount equal to what Hodgetts suspected the boy had been skimming from produce sales to local merchants.

Harry Hodgetts
(Photo Courtesy of Amy Bell Johnson)

When Hodgetts again rebuffed the youth, Clawson drew a pistol and fired three times - two of the shots hitting the farmer in the chest.

As Clawson sped away on his bike, the Powelsons, who occupied the neighboring farm and had heard the gunshots, arrived on the scene in time to hear the last words of the victim - "Be quick". They immediately took to their farm wagons and their own bicycles and followed the track of Clawson's tire clearly visible on the dusty Bedminster Township roads.

Although it was drawn 40 years after the incidents,
this 1935 map of the bridle paths and byways of the
Somerset Hills is useful to locate the scenes of the murder and chase.

By the time the pursuers reached Far Hills four miles away, their numbers had grown to include more men on bicycles, wagons, and buggies.  

The Far Hills train station circa 1890s

At the Far Hills train station, Clawson overheard the station agent repeating a phone message that included his description, and regaining his bicycle made a mad dash for Bedminster.

New York Times, 30 August 1896

The closing vigilantes forced Clawson to ditch his bike and take to the underbrush at the side of the road, but the posse cajoled him out of his hiding place.  Word of Hodgetts death having reached the mob, they considered lynching him on the spot.  Only Constable Thomas Moore, riding up through the crowd at a full gallop, dissuaded the men from committing an act that would surely leave a black mark on Somerset County.

more tomorrow....

05 October 2012

Clement Clawson "Capitalist", Part Three

Imagine you had a wicked stepmother who so opposed your romantic relationship with a former employee that she secretly changed her will, adding a provision that would deny you your father's inheritance - a small fortune that you had acquired in your father's name through your own toil - should your liaison ever culminate in marriage.  Sounds like the plot of a Jennifer Aniston comedy, or with a few songs thrown in, a Disney film.

19 May 1903 New York Herald

In actuality, this was the real-life drama of prolific inventor and entrepreneur Clement C. Clawson, Sr.

Clement Clawson, Sr.

Beginning in North Carolina in the 1870s, and eventually moving to Newark, NJ, Henry T. Clawson and his son Clement built an enormously successful business based on the younger Clawson's invention of the coin-operated vending machine, or "coin-in-the-slot" machine as it was originally named.  These highly profitable machines were the first of their kind, and very desirable to tavern and store owners who placed them on their counters and practically minted money.

Clawson Penny Drop Fortune Teller

The machines typically cost less than five dollars to produce at the Newark factory owned by Henry.  Machines were then purchased at a set price by the Clawson Slot Machine Company controlled by Clement, thereby guaranteeing Henry any amount of profit they wished.  And there was no shortage of profits, as machines could either be leased, put into stores with the take being split between the Clawsons and the store owner, or ultimately sold outright for around $65.

Despite the complex business arrangement, Henry Clawson always acknowledged that the business would be nothing without his son's genius and that upon his death, anything in his name would be left to his son.  Somewhere along the line Henry Clawson had a change of heart, and at the reading of his will in 1897, it was found that he had instead left everything to his second wife, Aurelia.  A justifiably upset Clement was able to exact a compromise with his stepmother - in exchange for not contesting his father's will, she would agree to make a will leaving everything to her stepson upon her death.

It didn't take long for Aurelia Clawson to have second thoughts.  When Clement's wife died in 1900, Aurelia suspected that Clement had taken up with Ella Hood, a young woman who had lived with the Clawsons and was employed as their child's nanny.  It is unknown exactly what the widow Clawson's objection was to this relationship, but her feelings were so strong that she made a new will on July 17, 1900, adding the provision that all of the property previously promised to Clement by first his father, and later herself, would be forfeit were he to live with or marry Ella Hood.

The Flagtown house purchased by Clement Clawson before 1900 as a country home,
which later became his full-time residence when he married his second wife Ella Hood in 1901.
Photo from 8 March 1991 Courier News

No doubt this would have caused quite a dilemma for Clement had he known of it!  In the event, he indeed did marry Miss Hood in February 1901, moving permanently to Flagtown, and becoming estranged from his stepmother who remained in the Newark house with her grandniece Aurelia Lee.

Clawson Machine Shop 2008

In the months before her death in February 1902, relations between stepmother and stepson improved somewhat, with Clement often visiting Aurelia in Newark.  How shocked he must have been upon her death to find out that he had once again been cheated out of what was rightfully his, the entire estate going to Aurelia's grandniece and other of her relatives.

19 May 1903 New York Herald


This time Clawson went to court.  The Clawsons and their two young sons - Clement, born 1902, and Robert, born 1903 waited for more than two years for the case to be decided.  Finally, on June 28, 1904, the Court of Chancery of New Jersey ruled in their favor, awarding them everything that Henry Clawson had originally promised Clement before his death, valued at around $50,000.

16 July 1904 Raleigh Morning Post

In subsequent years, Clement Clawson, Sr. moved the entire operations of the Clawson Machine Company to Flagtown, building Hillsborough's first modern factory, and establishing a lasting legacy in our town.

Might make a good movie someday!