In the Quiet of the Cabin: Part Two

“The iron-gray hair was deep-dyed with of blood. Even the walls and low ceiling of the little living room bore evidence of the tragedy in dull garnet blotches.”

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Taken about the same year as Jane Bowers’ murder, this photo shows the cabin home of the A. Melangton Wolfe family in Garfield, Frederick County, Maryland. The Bowers cabin may have appeared quite similar, based on descriptions in contemporary newspaper reports.

Continued from Part One.

On Saturday morning, 8 February, the temperatures were frigid. Henry Flook was up early, hauling wood. As he drove his team past Jane Bower’s cabin, Flook noted immediately that there was no smoke issuing from the chimney and no other sign of activity. By piecing together the newspaper accounts, it can be surmised that a concerned Flook returned at lunchtime with two other local men and found the cabin’s front door open a crack. After knocking and shouting raised no reply from within, the Sun reported that the trio entered and beheld “the ghastly sight of a human body cut into ragged pieces scattered on the floor before them.”

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Hagerstown Herald, Monday, 10 February, 1908.

The newspapers went on to print every salacious detail of the murder scene found by Flook and his companions. For example, from the Sun, “The little living room was bespattered with blood and chunks of flesh and bone all scattered in a heart-sickening disorder. From beneath a portion of the woman’s torso, the bloody handle of an axe protruded…. Surrounded by blood-soaked garments lay parts of her dismembered body. In a corner, Flook found the woman’s head, the jagged flesh of the neck telling how the murderer hacked and hacked in his apparent insane desire to sever it from the body. The iron-gray hair was deep-dyed with of blood. Even the walls and low ceiling of the little living room bore evidence of the tragedy in dull garnet blotches. Bits of bone and tatters of flesh were stuck to the window panes …. The mass of flesh and bones, chopped into little bits the size of a marble, presented a sickening sight [that] declared the murderer must have hacked at the body fully two hours before completing his fiendish work.”

After making the terrible discovery, the frightened men went straight to the authorities. The resulting investigation found that “there was little, if any, struggle on behalf of the victim. In the death chamber, there was an overturned chair that seemed to have fallen with the woman when she was struck and killed. In a puddle of coagulated blood was a leather purse containing a little money, showing that robbery was not the motive,” noted the Sun. The beds in the cabin had not been slept in and a wound 24-hour clock was still working on Saturday afternoon—both indicating that the killing occurred late Friday afternoon or evening.

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Here, a pause is needed to note that in America of that era, axe murders were not unusual—indeed, in late-19th and early 20th-Century newspapers, this type of violence is often mentioned as a crime category of its own. Arguably, the most famous axe murders occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892. Well known by every American child is “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” In this case, the skulls of both Andrew Borden and his wife Abbie were repeatedly bashed and chopped, presumably by their spinster daughter Elizabeth Andrew Borden, although she was later acquitted of all charges.

Almost as well known are the Villisca, Iowa, axe murders that took place 9 June, 1912. In this case, a midwestern family, the Moores, as well as two visiting neighborhood children, were killed by someone who hid in the home until all were asleep then bludgeoned them with the household’s axe. After the six children in the home were dead, the murderer returned to the master bedroom where he hacked at Josiah and Sarah More’s faces with the implement’s sharp edge.

There are many lesser-known examples. The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal reported on 1 April, 1896, that in West Point, Georgia, a prosperous planter, Upshaw Smith, was found dead near a neighbor’s home with his head crushed by an axe. The Huron (Michigan) Times Herald published on 7 November, 1901, under the headline “Houghton’s Horror,” that “Mrs. Belanger, aged 54, her daughter, aged 10, [were found] hacked to pieces in bed by an axe, while in another room, the husband lay on the floor with his throat cut and a telltale knife in his hand…. Insanity is believed to be the cause.” On 29 March, 1902, the Atlanta Constitution reported on a Saxton, Kentucky, murder in which a young woman was fatally “brained by an axe” in her chicken shed by an unknown assailant. Finally, the Topeka (Kansas) Daily Capital published a July 1907 account from Nucia, Michigan, of a farmer who “ran amok with an axe,” killing his wife, his invalid son, and father-in-law before being shot dead whilst he attacked a neighbor’s home.

The axe was a favored weapon because almost every family had one at hand. In a time of wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, the need for fuel was ongoing, as were the Sisyphean chores of farm management that often required the tool. One pivotal element in almost all axe murders was stressor-induced rage. We see it in the McPherson/Bowers case: the dismemberment of Jane’s body appears both disorganized and anger-retaliatory, despite that earlier visit Thomas made to Cool Hollow to sharpen his axe. The corpse’s destruction stopped when the killer’s adrenaline burned off. Afterward, possibly dazed and sliding into physical shock, he made the decision to vanish into the frigid night.

After interviewing neighbors about Jane Bowers, the lawmen settled upon Thomas as the killer and a manhunt began. By late Saturday afternoon, J. Francis Smith, Frederick County’s acting coroner, State’s Attorney Arthur D. Williard, Deputy Sheriff William E. Darner, Dr. Bradley Hoke of Myersville, and a jury made up of some of the leading men of the same, were assembled at the bloodsoaked cabin, holding an inquest. “There is only one room and an attic above, and because of the ghastly spectacle in the room nobody cared to stay inside, so the inquest was held on the porch,” reported the Hagerstown Morning Herald. Unsurprisingly, “The jury rendered a verdict that Mrs. Bowers came to her death at the hands of a party or parties unknown.”

John Caleb Leatherman, who served as inquest foreman, gave the Sun more ghastly detail, after having seen it firsthand. “[Leatherman said] it was practically impossible to tell from the [body] fragments whether the remains were those of a man or a woman, although pieces of clothing indicated the victim was a woman and a ring found on part of a finger was recognized by neighbors as belonging to Mrs. Bowers. Her shoes were chopped to pieces while on her feet, leaving bits of leather, blood, and bone to tell the story.”

Also according to the Sun, in the aftermath of the inquest, “While the manhunters were beating the mountain, the undertaker [Alvin Gladhill of Myersville] gathered the bits of the body and enclosed them in a modest coffin. Then came the village women, [who] tidied the house a bit, pulled down the blinds, closed the curtains, and departed.” The cabin was placed under the charge of Jane Bowers’ closest neighbor, Frederick Dusing, although, “neither he nor anyone living in the locality cares to go inside the house or even stay around on the outside.”

catclar29oct1908bowersinquest
Expenses for the Bowers inquest, published by the Catoctin Clarion, 29 October, 1908.

After the inquest, a reward of $100 was announced for anyone with information concerning McPherson’s whereabouts. Tips came in quickly. “Several reports were received in Myersville today to the effect that he had been seen in different sections of the mountains, but investigation proved the reports to be untrue,” noted the Sun.

On Sunday afternoon, only one day after her heinous murder was discovered, Jane’s butchered body was laid to rest at in the Pleasant Walk graveyard beside her late husband. The funeral expenses were paid by the county. Newspapers reported that the service, conducted by Rev. E. A. Stanton of the United Brethren’s Myersville Charge, was heavily attended despite the bitter cold and snow. Stupefied relations, horrified neighbors, and darkly curious strangers surrounded the wooden coffin as it was lowered into the freshly dug, winter-hardened earth. There was surely a frisson of excitement, too. After all, axe-murderer Thomas McPherson might loom up at any moment to continue his devilish work. (If children were present that day, they surely clung to their mothers’ skirts.) After the funeral, however, the Sun reported that many could not resist visiting the murder scene—the ghoulish killer’s reappearance be damned.

♦♦♦♦

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Baltimore Sun, 10 February, 1908.

Sunday night, after searching a radius ten miles out from the cabin, Sheriff George E. Myers and Deputy Darner returned to Frederick empty-handed. The cooperating Sheriff George W. Earnshaw of Washington County had also come up short after traveling to Mapleville where McPherson had relations with whom he might hide.

“Owing to the continuous stretch of mountain in the section and the cold weather, the search for McPherson has been conducted with difficulty. It is likely that he has been sheltered in a cabin in some unfrequented place,” opined the Sun.

On the morning of Tuesday the 11th, everything changed when John W. Rowe drove along the road to Smoketown (better known today as Mt. Lena) and spied something peculiar in the snow.

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“Hunted in every other section where he was supposed to have been, Tom McPherson wandered aimlessly, wildly, and like a beast at bay amid the wooded slopes of the great mountain, swept by the bitter winds of winter that searched the marrow of his bones. Hungry and without food, tired and without a resting place, he crept from cover to cover over the rocky ledges….”—Hagerstown Daily Mail, 14 February. 

John Rowe, a stonemason, was a near neighbor of Jane Bowers. What took him out on that cold morn is unknown, but whatever the task was, he did not complete it. The Morning Herald reported that about one mile from Smoketown and just on the near side of the fenced-off trolley line, Rowe saw a man’s body amidst the whiteness. “He at once concluded that the man was McPherson for whom the officers and citizens were searching. He believed that the man was dead and yet felt afraid of him, and for this reason, he did not go up to the body.”

Instead, Rowe sped toward Smoketown. Synchronistically, near Linwood Station, he came across William Powell and Frank McPherson, the nephew of Thomas McPherson. Rowe told the men what he had seen and that he thought the corpse was the murderer’s. Powell and McPherson immediately headed toward the body whilst Rowe hurried to John Renner’s store to use the telephone. By 1:30 a.m., a justice and constable were on their way to Smoketown by trolley.

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Hagerstown Morning Herald, 12 February, 1908.

Meanwhile, Powell and Frank McPherson looked over the frozen man, who was “lying on his back with his coat doubled under his head and one leg lying on a tree stump. His features were distorted,” which led Frank McPherson to think this was not his uncle, noted the Morning Herald.

However, the body was positively identified as McPherson by a Mr. Shoop, who owned the land on which the corpse was found and with whom McPherson had lived for several years. Shoop told the Herald, “McPherson’s trouser legs were covered with blood and hanging to his clothes in front were pieces of flesh, presumably from his murdered sister.”

The Daily Mail described the scene thus, “Stained with the blood that had once leaped through the veins of the one who had given him shelter and a home … [with] his feet resting on a stump about a foot high and his glassy eyes, sunken in their sockets, upturned to the sunny sky, Tom McPherson lay, his body rigid with cold. There he had perished alone and unwept, probably in the stillness of the night, the wind singing his requiem as his soul floated away to judgment.”

The newspaper continued its morbid rhapsodizing, “Curious eyes gazed upon the shrunken, disease-racked form that lay stiff in the snow. He was clad in a full suit of underclothing and an old suit. Under his coat, he wore a blouse. Nothing was found in the pockets save an old purse containing fifteen cents, a cigar check, collar button and two old, worn pay envelopes of the trolley company bearing his name…. The only mark found upon him was a slight abrasion on the nose, indicating that he had injured himself in falling. His face was a bluish color, owing to exposure, and covered with at least a week’s growth of beard. His cheeks were hollow and his form bore the marks of emaciation. McPherson had been in bad health for some time and greatly reduced in flesh.”

In addition, reported the Mail, “The legs of his trousers were smeared and spotted with red stains, while both of his wrists … were bloody. Spots of blood and particles of flesh were also found on his coat, but there were no stains on his shoes, which is accounted for by him tramping through the snow. The bloodstains had soaked through his outer clothing and were plainly marked on his undergarments.”

The  Herald noted, “He evidently followed the public road down the mountain and across the railway track. Shortly after crossing the trolley line, he left the road and walked a short distance…. Footprints in the snow showed that he circled about a stump and finally fell or lay down at the point where he was found.”

An outdoor inquest was hastily assembled around the corpse by the Washington County constable and a justice. They officially concluded the cause of death was hypothermia. Despite this, several newspapers reported that Thomas may have killed himself. For example, the Chambersburg (Pennsylvania) Public Opinion published on the 12th, “It is the opinion of many persons that McPherson took poison and then lay down on the mountain to die.”

McPherson’s body was taken to an empty house in Smoketown owned by W. S. Lum to be made ready for burial by Boonsboro undertakers Bringing & Bast. On Wednesday the 12th, the coffin was moved by trolley to either the South Mountain or Myersville stop, where it was loaded into a hearse that set off for Pleasant Walk, as it had been decided that Thomas would be buried beside his sister. Some church members, the Public Opinion noted on 15 February, were not best pleased to have the murderer interred in their church’s hallowed ground, but the burial took place anyway. At the funeral, the Shepherdstown (West Virginia) Register reported that parishioners—possibly spitefully—sang the hymn “No Room in Heaven.”

How sad it would be, if when thou didst call,
All hopeless and unforgiven,
The angel that stands at the beautiful gate,
Should answer, No room in heaven.

Sad, sad, sad would it be!
No room in heaven for thee!
No room, no room,
No room in heaven for thee!
No room, no room,
No room in heaven for thee!

Hagerstown’s Daily Mail was kinder. Of McPherson’s freshly found corpse, it opined, “He was beyond the grasp or revenge of the law. Death had cheated the rope of a possible victim, and it was probably better so.” Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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