Since it's the dog days of summer, I thought we could revisit one of our earliest blogs. Ok, I'm super busy and our curator in on vacation, so we're running a repeat.
In 1875, Blasius Pistorius, a German priest on a visit to his brother in Norristown, was arrested for the murder of Isaac Jaquette. The trial caused great excitement in the county and was prominently featured in local newspapers. The Historical Society of Montgomery County holds the complete transcripts of Pistorius’s two trials. His trial was the first in the county to use a court stenographer.
The dispute between the two men involved Jaquette allowing his cattle to graze on Pistorius’s brother’s land (John Pistorius was also tried for murder, but he was not present at the time of the shooting and so was acquitted). On July 24, 1875, when a boy working for Jaquette, Henry Muloch, allowed the cattle to cross over to the Pistorius farm, Blasius Pistorius came out with a pistol and threatened to shoot the cattle if they were not removed. Muloch ran for Jaquette, who picked up two stones and threatened Pistorius with them. The two men exchanged some more threats before Jaquette lunged for the pistol. The pistol fired, killing Jacquette.
Pistorius’s lawyers argued that their client acted in self-defense and that Jaquette chose to undertake the risk of the gun firing when he attempted to take it from Pistorius. Nevertheless, the priest was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Since he was a subject of the German Empire, the German consulate stepped in, and his sentenced was change to life imprisonment. Pistorius died in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1888.
This week I was working on the diaries of Judge Harold G. Knight, who sat on the bench here in Montgomery County and for two decades was president of the Montgomery County courts. Knight kept diaries for most of his life. Our collection covers the years 1893 to 1962. The diaries have many enclosures, items such as programs, letters, and newspaper clippings, that have been paperclipped to the relevant dates in the diaries.
One of the enclosures I came across concerned a murder trial that Judge Knight presided over in 1930. On July 4, 1930, Antoinette McCarris shot Joseph Lee in the back with a shot gun killing him. The earliest report in the Norristown Times-Herald (July 5, 1930) described Mrs. McCarris as a “pretty brunette.” It also described her as married to Joseph Lee, but that turned out not to be the case.
Three years earlier, McCarris had left her husband in Virginia and run off with Lee, a former sailor, bringing her two children with her. They eventually settled on a small farm in Worcester, and both were 26 at the time of the killing. The police believed she murdered Lee out of jealously. Lee had shown interest in a younger woman, Bernice Doyle of Kensington. McCarris claimed the shooting was an accident that occurred when she fired off the shot gun to celebrate the 4th.
Given that several people had heard McCarris threaten to kill Lee on several occasions, the District Attorney, Frank X. Renninger, brought her up on charges of first degree murder and sought the death penalty.
The trial started on November 17th. It was Judge Knight’s first murder case. He wrote in his diary that day, “I confess it worries me considerably.” The first day was jury selection. The judge writes that one man declared he had a conscientious objection to capital punishment. “In about one case in twenty these were sincere in the other cases they were pure exhibitors of moral cowardice,” the judge writes.
The next day, two boys, Thomas Hicks, 14, and his brother James, 12, testified for the prosecution. Their father owned the farm Lee and McCarris were renting. Both boys reported that the couple had been fighting over Lee’s interest in Doyle. James claimed to have seen the shooting and demonstrated how McCarris pointed the shotgun at the kitchen door. The Commonwealth called a total of 25 witnesses before resting its case. Then Antoinette McCarris took the stand in her own defense.
“It was the most dramatic and tense hours I have ever seen in a court room,” Judge Knight wrote. He described McCarris as “young [and] frail.” He points out that she was married and a mother at only 15. “She made a deep impression on the just and I am beginning to have some doubts myself as to whether she actually intended to kill the man for whom she left her husband and family three years ago.”
According to the newspaper reports, McCarris denied both threatening to kill Lee and that the couple ever argued about Doyle. Under cross examination, however, she admitted to being jealous of the younger, blond Doyle. McCarris always stuck to her defense that the shooting was an accident. She said she loaded and cocked the gun in the house with the intention of firing it off in the yard.
The jurors, six men and six women, deliberated the case for two hours before returning to the courtroom. The Times-Herald described McCarris as being in a daze when the foreman announced the verdict “not guilty.”
Having no place to go after the trial, she returned to jail, while her lawyer, Edward F. Kane, made arrangements for her to return to Virginia to stay with relatives.
Judge Knight noted in his diary that the verdict was popular. He also wrote that she was acquitted “despite the powerful evidence produced by the Commonwealth and the inherent weakness of her own story.” He goes on, “It was just one of those cases where a pitiful and appealing woman was the defendant, accused of shooting the man she had left her home for and whom she feared had grown tired of her. The just looked upon her deed as justified and decided the case on their view of its moralities and not the law.”
Dr. Ceasare Lombroso in the 19th Century was a noted criminal anthropologist and was known as the father of modern criminology. Although many of his theories have since been discredited, at the turn of the 20th Century his “criminal classifications” were well regarded. In 1902, one John Motsko of Pottstown, PA was classified in one of Lombroso’s categories as an “instinctive or born criminal type.”
A wanted poster was issued by Detective John J. O’Connor for Mr. Motsko for the murder of George Miller at their place of employment, the Stanley G. Flagg Co. in Pottstown on November 4, 1902. The wanted poster authorized a $250 reward for his arrest. The result was evidently effective because on December 10, 1902, Mr. Motsko was taken into custody by Detective O'Conner.
Mr. Motsko was held for a hearing where he was described as showing “no emotion” and reportedly acknowledged striking the victim with the shovel. The victim, Mr. Miller, age 22, died a few hours after. According to the Pennsburg Town and Country, the men had quarreled several times over tools. It was during this period of being held for court that the Lombroso classification was applied. The defendant, Mr. Motsko, was held for trial in March 1903, according to the Wilkes-Barre Sunday Leader.
In closing, it seems that although we have our social, electronic, and mass media methods, our communities of yesteryear had their share of effective measures well over 100 years ago that got the job done as well.
By Michael Green
By Michael Green
From the original indictment in HSMC's collection.
The holiday season can be a time of much joy, happiness, and good cheer. It can also be a time of sadness and tragedy. The latter seems to be the case in the matter of Daniel Boyle and Peter Betson of Upper Merion Township. On the evening of Saturday, December 24, 1825, Christmas Eve, Peter Betson lost his life to violent blow inflicted by Daniel Boyle. This citation is according to the Wednesday, December 28, 1825 issue of the Norristown Herald newspaper.
Records discovered in the Historical Society of Montgomery County reveal the actual indictment for murder file with the Montgomery County Court. Both the newspapers article and indictment reveal that the two men were highly intoxicated. Further, they report that Mr. Boyle struck Mr. Betson with a large stick or club over a dispute of some sort. The recorded testimony of witnesses reveals the individuals knew one another locked in a moment of heated argument resulting in a tragic loss of life, much as it happens today some one hundred ninety years later.
A jury of Mr. Boyle’s peers on August 23, 1826 found him not guilty. The verdict is documented in the records of the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts.
As a final post script, during the 1700 and 1800’s the Norristown Jail/Montgomery County Prison house defendants indicted and held on charges such as the foregoing. In 1851, the structure which still stands in Norristown was constructed. It is believed that it stands on the same grounds of the original jail. In September, 1986, the Montgomery County jail was closed in this Norristown location and the new facility was opened. Again, the more things change, the more they remain the same.