Love Thy Neighbor
Love Thy Neighbor
The McAffee Affair
June 20, 1824
John McAffee was born in Huntington County, Pennsylvania on June 20, 1804. Orphaned at the age of four, he was taken in by his uncle who tried to raise him with kindness and understanding. But McAffee was a strong-willed boy with a tendency to brood. Chaffing from constantly being told what to do, the young man ran away at the age of fourteen.
Although there is no record as to how John survived the next few years, it must be remembered that in those times it wasn’t hard for a boy of that age to find a job, child labor laws being pretty much nonexistent. What is known is that John spent his teens wandering from city to city, taking work when and where he could.
Then things changed. At the age of nineteen he met, and soon married, Dolly Fox of Pennsylvania. Hankering to move on, John convinced his bride that they should try their luck in the newly opened territory, then known as the "Northwest". They took a liking to the Dayton area and settled in Madison Township. It was here that the couple soon had a little girl, born on January 28, 1823. McAffee's urge to roam seemed to have calmed and he was finally content.
Within a year, however, several incidents occurred that caused John to again become discouraged with his life. Dolly was ill much of the time and prone to having "fits". It was also at this time that he fell in love with another woman. Although raised to "love thy neighbor", the commandment hadn’t taken into account Hetty Shoup, who resided with a family in the home next door to the McAffees. He became smitten with Hetty and she encouraged the young man’s attentions. It wasn’t long before the two began having an affair.
J. Warner, a fellow worker, knew about McAffee's unhappiness at home and his affair with Hetty. Warner began trying to convince his friend to leave Dolly. John McAffee would later confess that Hetty "also wanted me to leave my wife, and did not consequently give me much peace." This went on for months. Not wanting to desert a sick wife with a baby, yet unwilling to let Hetty go, John began drowning his guilt with drink, which made him even more miserable.
On June 19, 1824 John spent a particularly grueling evening with Hetty, Warner, and even Warner’s wife, trying to coax him into leaving Dolly for good. He finally broke down, and agreed to do so.
The following afternoon, John came home from town with some "medicine" for his wife to drink. Unfortunately for her, the medicine was in fact opium, a deadly poison. Although she fell asleep almost immediately, the drug didn’t work as quickly as McAffee had hoped. In desperation, he seized his wife by the throat and strangled her to death.
As soon as the act was finished, John panicked. He ran from the house and hid in the woods, all thoughts of being with Hetty scattering. It was not until the next morning that Dolly’s brother discovered her body, with the baby sleeping peacefully by her side.
Dayton’s citizens were not accustomed to this type of violence. A posse was organized and the woods surrounding the city were searched for traces of McAffee. The crime became the topic of the day, and with each retelling of the tale the cry for vengeance grew stronger.
Murderers seldom seem to be of great intelligence, and John proved no exception. After managing to elude his searchers for two day, McAffee decided to go to Warner’s house, to see if there was any news of his wife’s death. Much to his surprise, an armed band of men who were patrolling the area saw and captured him. As it was late in the day, John was taken to the nearby town of Liberty to spend the night, with the thought of transferring him to Dayton the following morning.
The details are fuzzy, but somehow McAffee managed to escape during the night. He made his way to Miamisburg, swam across the Miami River, then high-tailed it out of the county.
The weeks turned into months, and it looked as though John had vanished forever. Then, one day during the last week of October, 1824 he decided to return to Dayton and try and get back the baby girl he had left behind.
When he arrived in Dayton, John again made his way to Warner’s house, where he spent the night. A neighbor happened over, spied McAffee there and returned about half an hour later with fifty armed men.
John was again taken to Liberty. He would later claim that, not wanting to risk his escaping a second time, the men got him drunk, to the point that "I knew nothing hardly until they were locking me up" in a jail cell in Dayton the next morning.
John’s first day of trial before a jury was on February 24, 1825, with Judge Joseph H. Crane presiding. Henry Bacon served as prosecuting attorney. If McAffee had a defense attorney, which one would assume he did, the name has been lost with the passage of time.
The trial lasted four days. John stated that after his escape from Liberty he had made his way to West Virginia on foot. There he worked in a coal mine until he could no longer control his desire to return for his baby daughter. John also confessed his guilt of the crime, but he blamed his downfall on Hetty Shoup.
On February 28, after only five hours of deliberation, the jury found McAffee guilty of poisoning his wife with opium. Judge Crane read the sentence out loud in court.
The Court adjudge and sentence that you, John McAffee, be taken from hence to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence on the 28th day of March instant, between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and five in the afternoon to the place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck and throat, till your body be dead, dead, dead, and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul.
The condemned man seemed undisturbed by the sentence. As one witness to the scene said "In all the court he alone was unmoved; not a muscle or nerve in his countenance changed."
The early date of execution was partly due to the court believing that the feelings against John were so strong a lynching mob might form. The rubble stone jail, which had replaced the old log jail in 1813, also had a couple of flaws. Though the cells were double-lined with heavy oak plank driven full of nails, everyone remembered the time that four prisoners had escaped by cutting a hole in the floor, tunneling under the wall, then up through the sidewalk. It was also noted that people on the sidewalk could look through the barred windows, which were about two feet square, into the lower front cell. Although there was little worry that anyone would help McAffee escape, it was feared that someone might get the idea to shoot through the open bars and exact their own quick justice.
Cabinet-maker William Boyer was offered $15 by the county to build a cherry wood coffin with a muslin lining. At the time coffins were made on demand. The community would soon have made its indignation felt if any undertaker would have dared make a coffin on general principles and kept it on hand. The day before his execution, John stood rather indifferently to be measured by Boyer, and even jested about the proceedings. But when Boyer returned with the coffin the next day and deposited it in the cell with McAffee, the prisoner broke down completely.
On the day of execution, Sheriff George C. Davis had a crude scaffold erected in what was at that time the edge of town, where Robert Boulevard and West Third Street would later intersect.
Never before had anyone in the city been sentenced to hang, nor had anything ever aroused so much anger in the populace. Being the last week of March, the roads leading into Dayton were over six inches deep in mud, yet thousands trudged through it to see the event. Some came from as far as twenty miles away, an all-night journey at the time.
There were only two bridges in the city in 1825. One crossed the Mad River near what is now Taylor Street; the other crossed the Miami River on the site of the present Dayton View Bridge. That year the Miami River had been raised by the spring waters to a rather high stage. Thousands of people from out of town were unhappy to find that they had to pay a toll to cross the bridge. But, since the Miami was too risky to cross due to the high waters, the people "filled up the baskets with their little ferriages in silver, and the toll jingled" according to one witness. Those who traveled on the roads south of Wolf Creek found that they could not get across that river to the Dayton View Bridge, and had to pay to be ferried over at the foot of Third Street by a couple of young men who owned a skiff.
John was taken from the jail and seated in a carriage, attended by the Reverend Father John A. Hill, a Catholic priest who had been up twice before from Cincinnati to visit the prisoner. Reverend Hill had been called upon to tend to McAffee’s spiritual needs, as Dayton had no resident Catholic priest at the time. Captain Conrad Wolf’s Rifle Company and Captain Timothy Squier’s Dayton Troop of Horses were ordered out as guards to keep the crowd in check.
As John passed by, the crowd saw that he was wearing a rolled up white hood on top of his head and that his coffin was in plain sight on the wagon he rode in. From time to time the march to the scaffold was impeded by the surging multitude along West Third Street. When the procession finally reached its destination the soldiers cleared their way through the crowd to form a human shield around the scaffold.
After climbing the scaffold John plaintively called out to the crowd, asking if Hetty was there. She was, but declined to call back to him.
One witness to the scene later stated that people who saw Hetty there wondered why McAffee had been so taken with her.
She watched the whole live long day, but never showed a sign of feeling, not even a look or word. She even jested and bantered. I looked at her again and again. She was chunky, fatty and had not a sign of the least beauty about her.
The execution occurred shortly after 3 pm and was held in the open, within view of the crowd that had gathered. Reverend Hill stood by to give what comfort he could to the prisoner.
Sheriff Davis directed John toward the rope. The rope was so high that the Sheriff was forced to stand on a chair to adjust it around McAffee’s head, and even then the prisoner had to stretch out his neck a good deal in order for the noose to fit correctly.
The hood was drawn over John’s head. The trap door was released and, as McAffee dropped through the floor, a shudder ran through the crowd. Unfortunately, the condemned man, being a healthy twenty-one year old, took some time to die, his body "showing a strong vitality in its struggle." Both men and women swooned at the sight. Finally, the body ceased to quiver. After a time the rope was loosened and John was lowered into the coffin, which had been conveniently placed under the scaffold. The head fell upon its pillow of wood shavings and the noose rope was tucked in by his side in the coffin.
Although John made no confession on the scaffold, he had supposedly written one in his cell while awaiting his death, in rhyme, no less. Although later it was claimed by some that McAffee did not write the confession, others believed that the condemned man had written it in order to put his soul to rest.
Such confessions were not unusual in the early 1800’s. Condemned men were told that, in order to face God with a clear conscience, they should repent their sins in a speech given on the gallows. Sometimes, if the prisoner proved uncooperative or too illiterate to be of much help, it wasn’t beyond the clergy to write the ‘confession’ themselves. Although this practice might have been somewhat fraudulent, the possibility of losing the chance to teach a moral lesson could not be passed by. Invariably the confessions spoke of how the failure to attend church and the breaking one or more of the ten commandments would always lead to a life of crime.
It was rumored that John was secretly buried in Nathan Robert’s woods in Wayne Township on Old Troy Pike.
For years after McAffee’s death it was said that every time a band of musicians or marching men passed along Third Street at night, his ghost was sure to appear, and always move off west down Third Street.
His ghost was still being seen a half-century later, according to a report in the Dayton Daily Journal in 1884. One night in the early spring of that year Sheriff Charles Freeman arrived at the jail after a long ride in the country. As he stepped into the boiler room to warm himself Freeman came upon Jake Fath, a worker at the jail, who was "all tore up" and as pale as a sheet. As soon as he could gather his wits about him, Jake told the Sheriff that he had seen a ghost and wouldn’t work there another night for all the money in the county.
It seems that Jake had been out to see someone, then was making his way back to the jail. When he reached the southwest corner of the Old Court House he bumped up against "a tall, clammy thing" that rattled its bones and chains and, pointing its long fingers toward the river bridge, beckoned Fath to follow.
"But," said Jake to the Sheriff, "you bet your sweet life I didn’t. I lit out for this boiler house."
The Sheriff claimed it was John McAffee’s ghost who had been confined in the old jail that stood where the southwest corner of the Old Court House is now located. Freeman was sure that John had been pointing to the spot where he was hanged for the murder of his wife.
A SERIOUS WARNING TO YOUNG MEN
Or, the Life and Confession of John M’Affee
Draw near young men and learn from me
My sad and mournful history:
And may you ne’er forgetful be
Of all this day, I tell to thee.
Before I reached my fifth year,
My father and my mother dear,
Were both laid in the silent grave
By Him who them their being gave.
No more a mother’s voice I heard;
No more a mother’s love I shar’d;
No more was I a father’s joy;
I was a helpless orphan boy.
But Providence, the orphan’s friend,
A kind relief did quickly send,
And snatched from want and penury,
Poor little orphan M’Affee.
Beneath my uncle’s friendly roof,
From want and danger far aloof,
Nine years I was most kindly rear’d,
And oft his advice I heard.
But I was thoughtless, young and gay,
And often broke the Sabbath day;
In wickedness I took delight,
And often did what was not right.
And when my uncle would me chide,
I’d turn from him dissatisfied,
And join again my wickedness,
And Satan serve with eagerness.
But at length arrived the fatal day,
When from my home I ran away.
And to my sorrow since in life,
I took unto myself a wife.
But she was kind and good to me,
As any woman need to be,
And now alive would be, no doubt,
Had I ne’er seen Miss Hetty Shoup.
Ah, well I mind the very day
When Hetty stole my heart away.
‘Twas love for her controlled my will,
And caused me my wife to kill.
‘Twas one pleasant summer’s night,
And all was still, the stars shone bright,
My wife lying in her bed,
When I approached her and said:
"Dear wife, here’s medicine I bought,
Which for you this day I bro’t.
My dear, I know it will cure you
Of the vile fits - pray take it. do."
She gave to me a tender look,
And in her mouth the poison took.
Then by her baby on the bed,
Down to her last, long sleep she laid.
But fearing that she was not dead,
My hands upon her throat I laid,
And there such deep impression made,
Her soul soon from her body fled.
Then was my heart filled full of woe,
I cried, "Ah, wither shall I go-
How shall I quit this mournful place,
The world again how shall I face?
I’d freely give up all my store,
If I’d a thousand pounds or more,
If I could bring again to life,
My dear, my darling, murdered wife."
Her body’s now beneath the sod,
Her soul I hope is with its God-
And soon into eternity
My guilty soul will also be.
Young men, young men, be warned by me,
And shun all evil company;
Walk in the ways of righteousness,
And God your soul will surely bless.
The minute now is drawing nigh,
When from this world my soul shall fly,
To meet Jehovah at his bar,
And there my final sentence hear.
Dear friends, I bid you all adieu,
No more on earth I shall see you,
But on Heaven’s bright and flow’ry plain,
I hope we all shall meet again.
March 28, 1825
Unlike it’s author, McAffee’s Confession is alive and well. Also known as The Poisoned Wife and Young McAfee on the Gallows, the poem has become a popular ballad that is still sung today. Folklore singer Mike Seeger recorded it in 1964, as did Sandy and Jeanie Darlington in 1966. As of 2003, Ann and Phil Case began offering their version, titled McAfee’s Confession, on their album Why Should We Be Lonely? McAffee’s tale of death and woe continues to live on in legend.
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