“[Lizzie] came up and placed herself on my lap as usual and, after fondling her for some time, I made a solicitation. To my infinite astonishment, she melted down like wax. […] You would have done as I did, but what was my horror and heartsickness when I found the signs of her virginity wanting.”
- Nicholas Dukes, writing to Lizzie Nutt’s father on December 4, 1882.
“At 9:30pm, the indignation over the verdict is terrific and an excited crowd has just started toward the court house, where Dukes is in the charge of the sheriff. They carry a stuffed effigy of Dukes and of the twelve jurors. Violence is expected. At 9:45pm, the crowd reached the McClelland house a few doors from Dukes’ room. They have suspended his effigy across the street and are singing, ‘We will hang Dukes’ body on a sour apple tree’.”
- The York Daily, March 15, 1883.
Not all murder ballads come in the form of a song: this one’s constructed from glass, fabric and paper.
It’s a bottle, just over six inches tall and sealed with a sturdy cork. There’s an ornately knotted length of crimson string tied round the neck, draping down in a decorative loop over its front side. The glass is clear, the bottle flattened on its front and back with bulbous shoulders swelling out from a narrow base. Inside, there’s a forlorn-looking figure, walking along the road with his head cast down and a hobo’s stick-and-kerchief luggage over his left shoulder. Flanking him are the two scraps of paper which give us our only clues to this wanderer’s identity.
The smaller of these two scraps is written out by hand and signed by the bottle’s creator – a man named William Wiggins of Tipton in Pennsylvania. He dates his work too, telling us it was completed on March 30, 1883. “A foul seducer and murderer has been turned loose on the community of Uniontown, Pennsylvania,” the note reads. “He has with him his lawyer and perjured jurymen, but the mark of Cain is on him: ‘A fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth’.” The closing quote there’s from Chapter 4, Verse 12 of Genesis, giving God’s final words to Cain as he exiles him for the murder of his brother.
Turn the bottle round and there’s a list of Wiggins’ 12 “perjured jurymen”, clipped from an 1883 newspaper. They’re all men and each has his role in the community noted below his name: the miner Henry McIntyre, the farmer Elmer Cagey, the blacksmith Robert Acklin and so on. Oddly, though Wiggins lists all the jurors’ in such exhaustive detail, he makes no mention of the killer or victim’s names. Uniontown’s only 90 miles away from Wiggins’ Tipton home, so for him this was a very local affair. Completing his bottle just two weeks after the verdict it describes, he clearly assumed everyone would already know who the killer was and just what the case involved.
Objects like these are known as Whimsy Bottles, Puzzle Bottles or Patience Bottles. Like the ships in bottles we all know, they demand delicate, intricate construction be carried out inside the bottle itself and hence give the makers a showcase for their craft skills and expertise. I first got interested in them after seeing a few examples at the Tate Gallery’s 2014 British Folk Art Exhibition, which labelled its own display “God in a Bottle”. There were five bottles on show at the Tate altogether, three of which were built round a central crucifix filling most of the space inside.
“The range of objects depicted within these bottles is varied, though certain themes are recurrent,” the Tate’s catalogue explains. “Many of them are religious in nature (hence their name) and among these, most contain crucifix scenes. Crosses are generally augmented by a number of symbolic carvings. A rooster, a ladder, a long stick with a sponge on the end, hammer and nails, pincers, a skull, a shovel, a lantern and a Bible are among the items frequently included.” (1)
That immediately rang a bell with me, because I’d bought a very similar Mexican cross while visiting Houston back in 1992. Like the bottles the Tate described, my clay cross gives a sculptural account of Christ’s crucifixion: The hammer used to drive nails into his hands and feet, the rooster which crowed to mark Peter’s third denial, the vinegar-soaked sponge Roman soldiers used to mock Christ’s thirst and so on. For these objects’ makers – whether in Mexico or Pennsylvania – they added up to a vibrant narrative and a potent reminder of faith.
Back at home, I set about researching whimsy bottles online. They’d also been popular in the North of England, I discovered and one use for them had been to mark the death of a relative or close friend. The mourning relatives would construct a single straight-backed chair inside the bottle to represent the empty place at the family dining table their loved one had left behind.
Another strand of the bottles’ history led me to Carl Worner, a hobo who roamed Missouri and Illinois between 1900 and 1920. Worner would stop at saloons in every town, call for an empty bottle and few scraps of wood or fabric, then construct a painstaking bottle sculpture of the saloon’s interior which he’d trade with the landlord for a hot meal and few free drinks. Most interesting of all, though, was the William Wiggins murder bottle I’ve already described.
I stumbled across that one on a 1999 website created by Arthur Wiggins, one of William’s descendents. “As a child, I was always fascinated by those times when my father removed the bottle from my grandfather’s desk and let me hold it,” Arthur writes. “Then back away it went. Now that I am fully grown (71), I have an even deeper appreciation of the bottle. That fascination is enhanced by the fact that I discovered among my father’s things an original 1883 copy of The Uniontown Republican Standard telling […] of the happenings which led to the creation of the bottle.” (2)
Thankfully Arthur also included a full transcript of the paper’s story on his site, which was more than enough to get me started on my own research. Filling both the paper’s front and back pages in its March 15, 1883 edition, this tells how a young lawyer named Nicholas Dukes slept with a Uniontown girl called Lizzie Nutt, wrote a letter to Lizzie’s father informing him of this fact and then shot Captain Nutt dead when he demanded that Dukes marry the girl. The jury’s verdict that Dukes should walk free on grounds of self-defence, the URS announced, was one which “legalises seduction, throws a cloak around murder, sticks a dagger in the heart of every family and is a disgrace to the civilised world”. Uniontown’s citizens rallied round this call, threatening to lynch both Dukes and the jury that freed him.
It’s a great story, but one which wasn’t even close to concluding when that issue of the URS came out. By the time its ramifications had fully played out 12 years later, three more people had been shot and Nutt’s son was in prison.
Nicholas Lyman Dukes was in his early thirties when he first met the Pennsylvania beauty Lizzie Nutt at her family’s Uniontown home. Lizzie, then just 22, was the daughter of Captain Adam Nutt, a former Civil War soldier who’d fought for the Unionist side at both Fort Wagner and Morris Island. Now a banker, Nutt was known and respected throughout the county as a man who placed great importance on both his own and his family’s honour. His work with Pennsylvania’s Treasury Department in Harrisburg meant he was often away from home, however, leaving him little time to police his daughter’s social life.
Dukes at this time was a lawyer and aspiring politician. He’d graduated from Princeton in 1873, been called to the Fayette County bar three years later and now had a growing legal practice of his own. Although defeated in his 1878 bid to win the Democrats’ nomination as Fayette’s District Attorney, he was subsequently elected as the county’s representative in Pennsylvania’s legislature.
Evidently, he caught Lizzie’s eye, because at some point in 1881 or 1882, she invited him to join her and a couple of friends for an evening’s socialising at the Nutt family home. When he arrived, he found just two other guests present: a young man called AC Hagan and a Miss Breckenridge, who was related to one of Captain Nutt’s colleagues at the bank. By the standards expected of a respectable young woman at the time – when chaperones were thought obligatory - this was dangerously racy stuff. (3)
Dukes visited Lizzie several times in the coming months, often seeing her alone and by June 1882 he was writing letters to her protesting his love. His passion can be gauged by the fact that he signs off one of these letters with the phrase “Gaspingly yours”. Things soon went off the rails, though, leading Dukes to compose an anonymous letter to Nutt which he was seen dropping near the family’s house in October 1882 and which Lizzie later confirmed her father did receive. We don’t know exactly what that anonymous letter said, but it’s a safe bet that it raised many of the same doubts about Lizzie’s character which Dukes would set out in his notorious signed letter a few months later.
We know from Dukes’ background that he was an intelligent and educated young man – which makes his signed letter to Nutt all the more inexplicable. Dukes himself later admitted this letter had been “a most appalling blunder” on his part, calling his decision to write it “the personification of stupidity”. Whenever he looked back on the letter, he said, “I can scarcely resist the conclusion that I was labouring under temporary insanity”. It’s tough to argue with that, and the letter itself is worth considering in some detail. (4)
Dukes wrote the letter on a sheet of his law practice’s business stationery, dating it December 4, 1882 and adding a note that it should be read in private. “What I have to communicate concerns your daughter and will almost drive you to madness, because I know how you worship her,” he tells Captain Nutt. “Let come what may, the blow must fall and the sooner I take it, the better in order that the calamity may in some degree be averted.” (5)
He goes on to describe his first meeting with Lizzie and the social evening I mentioned above. “Lizzie said to Mr Hagan that she had something to tell him,” Dukes writes. “She told him to come into the next room and she would tell him. They shoved the sliding door back just far enough to pass through and went into that room and remained there in total darkness about half an hour. I was astonished, but thought her youth and inexperience palliating circumstances and excused her.”
A few weeks later, Dukes says, Lizzie invited him over to the house again, this time for a solo visit. He says she came to sit “very near” him and confided that she’d burnt her hand.
“I took hold of her hand in order to turn it into a position to see,” he writes. “She made no attempt to withdraw her hand, but let it rest in mine. I placed the other hand lightly upon it also and, just for fun, I made a feint as if to kiss her. I was utterly surprised when, instead of withdrawing her face from me, she absolutely advanced her face to meet me. Of course, such a reception flattered my vanity and I began to feel an interest in her. I went away and promised to call again soon.”
Two weeks later, he was back at the house again, this time seemingly unannounced. “As I was passing in front of the large window of the front porch (the shutters nor blinds were not up yet) I saw opposite the window upon a sofa Hagan with his arms about her,” Dukes claims. “I stood a moment and watched him fondle her with no objections from her. My dream was dispelled and I turned my head and walked home.”
If Dukes’ account is to be believed, he then made an effort to stay away for a while, but was tempted back by Lizzie’s notes asking why he never came to see her anymore. “I would then call and would be received in the utmost cordiality and treated with all appearance of preference,” he writes. “I felt flattered by her attentions and things ran on in this way for a year or such a matter, I making occasional calls.
“All this time there came a swarm of young men calling there, each thinking he had the preference. Hagan thought he was first and told me frequently how he fondled her. He showed me notes from her inviting him out. Then Frank Hellen told me she was mashed on him and showed me several very cute notes from her. He told me how she kissed him the night of a party there and how she squeezed his hand every time he passed her in the grand chain.
“Things went on in the same way and one evening while calling there I just thought I would set a trap for her. Mr Kennedy was calling there quite frequently and I had an idea that he was one of the preferreds […] I told her that I had come out one evening and heard voices in the parlour and as one of the shutters was just partially opened, I lifted myself up and looked in at the window and saw her and Kennedy on the sofa with his arms around her. She looked confused and said it was not true. I said it was no use to deny it because I saw it with my own eyes. She then said she never did it but once. I then told her it was not Kennedy I saw, but Frank Hellen. She says, ‘Well, I don’t care if you did’.
“The next time I called I determined to test her,” Dukes continues. “She came up and placed herself on my lap as usual and, after fondling her for some time, I made a solicitation. To my infinite astonishment and grief she melted down like wax. Oh, how I pitied her weakness. But where is there a man that could resist the temptation of such beauty and loveliness? You would have done as I did, but what was my horror and heart-sickness when I found the signs of her virginity wanting.
“I afterwards reproached her with it and she denied it. I told her it was no use; that I could not be deceived and that I should think all the more of her if she would tell the truth. After considerable bandying, she broke down in a flood of tears and said it was Jess Bogardus and went on to explain how she met him frequently through a Miss Donaldson; that she was young and did not know any better.”
Shortly after this encounter, Dukes reports, he was spying on Lizzie again – this time from a spot near the front door – when he saw her and a man called Nathaniel Frey kissing farewell after his (Frey’s) latest visit. “This same brute of a Frey was in Reis’ clothing store not long since and quite a number of other young men were present.” Dukes writes. “Lizzie happened to pass with another young lady and he remarked that Liz Nutt had the nicest leg in this town. Someone asked him how he knew. He says ‘By God, I have felt it from her heel to her hip’. I know two young men whom Frey told in confidence that he had all the favours he wanted from her on the floor of the parlour.
“This brings me to the point to which my foregoing remarks are preliminary and that is, unless precautions are duly used, she will become a mother. Just when I am unable to say. She don’t really know her condition, but she fears it. You can save her from open disgrace and none but you can. […] Captain, believe me when I say this is the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I know this letter seems like stabbing you in the back, but in my humble judgement it is the only means to save both her and you from shameful disgrace.”
Dukes wrote this letter on December 4, then carried it around with him for a week before finally posting it on December 11. The careful evasions which Victorian etiquette demanded when discussing sexual matters blunt the force of it for us today, but receiving it must have hit Nutt like a sledgehammer. To put ourselves in his shoes, we have to imagine a modern father checking his e-mail over breakfast and discovering this:
I’ve been shagging your daughter Lizzie and now she’s up the stick. Don’t expect me to take responsibility for the brat, though, because, let’s face it, it could be anybody’s. Half the blokes in town have had Lizzie. If I were you, I’d get the little slapper an abortion.
Nicholas Dukes. (6)
For a Victorian man of honour like Nutt, this was intolerable. On December 17, he fired back a scorching reply. “You write to me as if you considered me a shameless coward and even suggest for me the hideous office of the abortionist,” he says. “I shall convince you that I have the physical courage to espouse my daughter’s cause and defend the honour of myself and my family and, further, that I have the moral courage to rest secure in the approval of the community in which I live should this whole miserable affair become fully know to the world.” (5)
He dismisses Dukes’ letter as “the plea of a quibbler”, saying that – if Dukes had earlier discovered Lizzie was not a fit companion – then he should have stopped seeing her immediately. “You say that you have done as I would have done. In this you are a base liar. The daughter or wife of any friend or associate of mine would be safe under any circumstances in my charge. You have no right to suggest that I could possibly be a libertine or betray a weak, confiding girl. I have always held that when a man invades the sanctity of a home, he takes his life in his hands and under this code I shall act. It rests with you whether this affair ends in a legal farce or a tragedy.
“This commonwealth is not big enough for both of us, under existing complications. […] On the 23rd at 8pm, you can see me quietly, peaceably at home. After that, if matters are not readjusted I shall precipitate a meeting. You can call this a threat or what you please.” (7)
Nutt is saying here that, if Dukes fails to make Lizzie an honest woman by marrying her (that’s the legal farce he mentions), then Nutt will damn well come round and shoot him dead (the tragedy). Nowhere in his letter does Nutt deny Dukes’ charges that Lizzie has been promiscuous, nor his claim that she’s now pregnant. Indeed, his proposals for a shotgun wedding suggest he accepts both these things are true. “I [have] showered on my poor daughter’s head a volley of curses without giving her a chance to say a word,” he adds. “For this I shall hold you personally responsible as well as for many days and nights of sleepless agony.”
Nutt also accuses Dukes of avoiding him, saying Dukes had known fell well that he (Nutt) would be at home on December 14th, 15th and 16th of December and so had deliberately avoided calling at the house on any of those days.
On December 19, Dukes replied with a letter saying he would rather die than marry a woman of Lizzie’s reputation. “You offer me the party spoken of or death,” he writes. “I choose the latter alternative. I cannot accept for my wife the toy of the town and thus become the butt of the town’s mocking derision. Death is far sweeter.
“I declare in all soberness that I doubt if I am the author of the present difficulty. If I were, I have committed no such heinous offence as you charge, because the girl is not what she ought to be. Had she been a chaste woman and I had seduced her, then your anathemas and proposed violence would have been perfectly justifiable. Had such, however, been the case, the present circumstances had not existed because she would have been my wife without controversy.
“It is not your daughter I refuse to marry. There is no reason why I would object to an alliance with a pure daughter of yours, but you insist that I shall marry a wanton woman simply because she is your daughter and has been unfortunate. The demand is unreasonable.”
Dukes goes on to say he quite agrees with Nutt’s assertion he should have quit Lizzie the minute he discovered she was no longer a virgin. He failed to do so, he claims, only because Lizzie became very frightened when she started missing her periods and he was merciful enough to try and comfort her. He then turns to the subject of Nutt’s threats:
“You affect horror at becoming an actor in a peccadillo and, at the same time, appoint yourself a murderer and an assassin,” Dukes writes. “Your letter would clear me if I should take your life on sight, but I don’t want your blood. I shall not harm you in any instance. You may murder me if you will. I shall not arm myself, but don’t lay to your conscience the flattering unction that the sentiment of the community will sustain you in your assassination. The woman is better known by the community than you know her and her name is scarcely ever mentioned without a sneer. Why don’t you go shoot Frey and Bogardus and Kennedy and all the tribe?
“I understand why you want a meeting with me, but I must decline the one proposed. I don’t care to walk into a death trap, but if you want to see me you can call upon me at my office at 8 o’clock, December 23, or at my room at the same hour, whichever you may indicate.”
Once again, it might be useful to imagine the brutal content of Dukes’ letter as a modern e-mail. In this case, his message to Lizzie’s father was as follows:
I’d rather die that marry your slag of a daughter. Everyone knows she’s the town bike and we’ve all been laughing about that behind your back for months. There’s barely a bloke in town she hasn’t shagged, so why do you assume I’m the one who knocked her up?
You’re a thug and I’d be quite entitled to shoot you down in self-defence. Any meeting we have will be on my terms, not yours.
Dukes posted this second letter on December 19 and then thought better of the assurance he’d given in its final paragraph. Next day, he called at Springer’s Hardware Store to enquire about buying a pistol.
Captain Nutt was working at the treasury in Harrisburg on Saturday December 23 – the day Dukes had proposed for their meeting – but returned to Uniontown next day determined to confront the man at last. That evening, at what must have been around 8pm, he went to the McClelland Hotel, where he met with his nephew Clark Breckenridge. Breckenridge was a cashier at People’s Bank in Uniontown, where Nutt worked when not busy with his treasury duties.
The two men walked over to the bank, where Nutt deposited $625 in hs family’s account – a sum worth over $14,000 today. As they prepared to leave the bank again, he asked Breckenridge to wait a moment. “I have some trouble on hand,” he said. “I have lately received two infamous letters from Nicholas Dukes, which I will show you. I want to see Dukes this morning and have an interview with him, as I return to Harrisburg tomorrow.” Nutt was well aware that this interview could turn deadly, and seems to have made the bank payment to ensure his wife and children were provided for if only Dukes survived. (8)
Breckenridge later testified that he’d glimpsed a pistol grip in Nutt’s pocket during this conversation, a point confirmed by the captain’s wife Charlotte, who said he’d routinely carried that revolver with him ever since taking a job at the bank. Whatever misgivings he might have felt, Breckenridge agreed to accompany his boss to the Jennings Hotel across the street, where Dukes had lived for the past eight years. He explained their errand to James Feather, the hotel owner’s son-in-law, who told its black porter Lewis Williams to take Breckenridge up to Dukes’ room on the second floor. Nutt followed them up the stairs.
Williams knocked on Dukes’ door, Dukes opened it in reply and Breckenridge explained that Captain Nutt wanted to speak with him. Dukes invited Nutt in, Nutt entered and Dukes closed the door behind him. Williams was heading downstairs again by this time, but Breckenridge stayed waiting outside the room. Feather came up to collect something from the room opposite Dukes’ and stopped there to exchange a few words with Breckenridge in the corridor. A moment later, they heard the sound of a violent struggle inside Dukes’ room.
“I heard someone cry ‘Murder’, but could not recognise the voice as it was somewhat smothered,” Breckenridge later testified. “Immediately after that, I heard Captain Nutt call ‘Clark! Clark!’ and I opened the door. They had scuffled for almost a minute before I went in. I could not say who cried ‘Murder’ but I recognised Nutt’s voice when he cried ‘Clark!’.
“I found the two men clinched in a bending position, with Dukes’ arm over Nutt. They were close by the bureau, between the foot of the bed and the wall. I jumped between them and separated them partly. Captain Nutt said, ‘Take hold of him!’ I got them separated and Nutt and I went to the mantelpiece. While standing with my back to the other parties, I heard a pistol shot. Nutt threw up his hands and fell.”
Feather and Williams, who’d both burst into the room a moment after Breckenridge, backed his account. As Breckenridge was pushing Nutt back towards the mantelpiece, Feather was shoving Dukes to the room’s opposite corner, trying to get as much distance between the two men as possible. “I saw Nutt and Dukes scuffling near the foot of the bed,” Feather said. “After we got them separated, I said to Dukes ‘What does this all mean?’ He said, ‘He came here to whip me!’ I said ‘Well, he can’t do it now.’ I think he repeated the remark and he was fumbling around in his clothes. He then pulled up his revolver and fired.”
“I was the last one to go into the room,” Williams added. “The two men were trying to throw each other down. Feather said to Dukes just before the shot, ‘You’ve made a hell of an ass of yourself’.” Dukes raised the gun in Nutt’s direction again, but Feather managed to wrestle it away from him.
All three witnesses were adamant that, although Nutt had made efforts to reach the pistol in his overcoat pocket immediately after the shot, he’d still not managed to pull it out when he died. “Dukes and Nutt were nine or ten feet apart when the shot was fired,” Breckenridge said. “Nutt, after they were separated, stood by the mantelpiece in an exhausted condition. He was not doing anything at the time he was shot.
“My best recollection is that his right arm was raised and resting on the mantel just at the [moment of the] shooting. He had no pistol in his hands when Dukes fired. He fell on his face a little to the left side, did not say anything when he fell. I saw that one of his eyes was out of the socket and he was bleeding freely. I held him in my arms and saw his hand and felt it going down toward his overcoat pocket. Nutt was left-handed.”
“Nutt was resting with his right hand on the mantelpiece and his left hand hanging down,” Williams confirmed. “I saw Nutt make two motions towards his pocket, after the shot, with his left hand.” And here’s Feather: “Nutt, at the time he was shot, was not doing anything. […] Nutt had no revolver in his hand at the time.”
After the shooting, Dukes left his pistol with James Feather, who also took charge of the gun Breckenridge had now removed from Nutt’s pocket. “Duke’s pistol had one shot fired out when I examined it and Nutt’s none,” Feather later recalled. Dukes had managed to get Nutt’s cane away from him at some point in the fight too, but handed this over to Mr Jennings, the hotel’s owner, when it became clear Nutt was no longer a threat.
He then calmly walked out if the room, announcing that he was heading over to Sheriff Hoover’s office to surrender himself into custody. Descending the hotel stairs, he had a brief conversation with the owner’s wife. “Oh Mr Dukes,” she asked. “Why did you do this?” He replied: “I am very sorry, Mrs Jennings, but I had to do it or he would have killed me.”
Mrs Jennings fetched a local doctor named JB Ewing to the room, who found Nutt still clinging to life on the bed where Breckenridge and Feather had laid him. He lasted for about 20 minutes after the shooting, during which time Ewing was able to establish that Dukes’ pistol ball had entered just below his left eye and lodged deeply in the brain. Ewing and his colleague Dr Smith Fuller also noted a wound on the top of Nutt’s head, marking the spot where Dukes had struck him a heavy blow during their fight. Dukes had not come out of the fight unmarked either, but had a vivid bruise on one arm where he’d tried to shield his own head from a blow by Nutt’s cane. Sheriff Hoover dutifully recorded this wound in the station records as he escorted Dukes to a cell. By 11pm, Nutt was dead and Dukes safe in custody. Now the real fun could begin.
Reporters fell on the prospect of a Nutt/Dukes trial with glee. “This town has rarely been so excited,” the Daily Alta California gasped. “Both men were of social prominence.” (9)
The same story then gives what amounts to a fight card profiling the two men, reminding readers of Dukes’ law practice, his previous good character and his reputation for hard work. “He is sober, industrious and stands high at the bar and in the community,” it sums up. Turning to Captain Nutt, it lays out his roles at the bank, the treasury and Pennsylvania’s historical society. “He was attached to his family with a devotion that is rarely equalled,” it says. “His eldest daughter [Lizzie], an accomplished young lady just blooming into womanhood, was the apple of her father’s eye. Upon her, he lavished care and money without stint.”
Details of the letters passing between Dukes and Nutt had evidently been leaked, allowing this same early report to tease the scandalous details which everyone knew must be fully revealed in court. No wonder the papers were drooling. On December 29, after the coroner’s inquest, Dukes was committed for trial. At that point it looked like the worst charge he might face would be manslaughter, so he was freed on bail of $12,000 to await his day in court. On the same day he was released, he made out his will, evidently fearing that – no matter what reassurances his lawyers offered – his trial might yet lead to the gallows.
The prosecution team handling Dukes’ case was headed by District Attorney Isaac Johnston, aided by two men called Playford and Boyd. Dukes hired the firm of Boyle and Mestrezat to handle his defence. Judge Alphonse Wilson would preside. Public sentiment against Dukes was already hardening in Uniontown, which may explain why the authorities decided to take a tough line and go for the most serious charge available: “wilful and malicious murder”. Dukes responded with a plea of not guilty on grounds of self-defence. He did not deny he’d shot Nutt, but maintained he’d done so only because the need to defend his own life left no other choice.
Jury selection consumed most of the trial’s first day on Saturday March 10, 1883. So contentious was this process that one side or the other rejected all but five of the first 57 candidates presented. Eventually a full jury was found, however, and the trial proper got under way on March 12.
Lawyers, family members and curious spectators flooded in to Uniontown’s courthouse. “Captain Nutt’s widow and her sister, Mrs B. Downs, walked in, clad in heavy mourning and amid profound silence, took their seats near Stephen R. Nutt [the captain’s brother],” the Uniontown Republican Standard reports. “Mrs Nutt scarcely moved after sitting down, save for the convulsions that were visible as she listened to the story of the murder of her husband. Dukes’ face lacked the composed expression of Saturday; it was flushed and betrayed uneasiness.”
The first witness called was Clark Breckenridge, who described the events of the fatal day just as I’ve set them out above. James Feather, Lewis Williams, Mrs and Mrs Jennings and the two doctors all added their own testimony, which confirmed Breckenridge’s account in every important respect. Everyone agreed that Captain Nutt had made no move for his own gun until after Dukes shot him – a point the prosecution was keen to emphasise as it challenged Dukes’ claim he had acted purely in self-defence.
Hoping to establish a degree of premeditation in the killing, the prosecution also called William Pickard, a clerk at ZB Springer’s Uniontown hardware store. Pickard testified that Dukes had bought the murder weapon there on December 21 – just three or four days after receiving Captain Nutt’s threats against him. Dukes, it seems, was already anticipating the December 23 meeting he’s proposed to Nutt and wanted to be prepared for it.
“He said he wanted a pistol that was good and sure,” Pickard told the court. “I showed him a double-action and two or three others, one a Smith & Wesson single-action and the other the American. They were all three of .32 calibre, perhaps one of .38.”
This distinction between a double-action and a single-action pistol is important. The hammer on a single-action pistol has to be cocked manually as a separate operation before the trigger is pulled, but a double action pistol does this automatically. One simple pull of the trigger with a double-action pistol and the bullet is speeding towards its target. Dukes, who seems to have had little experience with guns, wanted to be sure he wasn’t left fumbling with a single-shot pistol’s cocking hammer just when his life might depend on a speedy response.
Pickard found Dukes a different Smith & Wesson pistol to consider, this one a .32 calibre double-action model. “He then said he wanted a double-action: ‘something that was sure’,” Pickard reminded the court. “He also asked about the cartridges. I showed him a .32, a .38 and a .22 cartridge. He took the .22 and the .32 and went out, saying he would be back. He came back in ten or 15 minutes, looked at the revolver and purchased it.
“While examining it, he stood near the showcase in the front part of the store. A couple of customers came in and Dukes stepped around the end of the showcase, saying he didn’t wish everyone to know his business there. He walked to the back part of the store, where he stood looking into another case until the customers went out. He then returned to the front of the store and purchased the .32 calibre Smith & Wesson, double action.”
Judge Wilson had warned the prosecution team against quoting from Dukes’ letters in their opening statement, and the defence did its best to prevent them being accepted in evidence at all. They knew Dukes’ accusations against Lizzie – made to her father of all people – could only hurt their client’s case. When the prosecution presented the letters a second time, though, Wilson over-ruled all the defence’s objections and said they could be read aloud in full. Mrs Nutt, who’d already confirmed her husband had shown her both the letters, was led out of the courtroom to spare her the ordeal of hearing them again.
“During the reading, Dukes kept his gaze fixed steadily down to the floor,” the URS reports. “Judge Wilson turned his face away, looked pale and seemed with difficulty to refrain from tears. Fathers bowed their heads in tears and grief as they listened to the horrible sentiments written to a father about a daughter whom he loved and fairly idolised.”
Although the letters had no bearing on what had happened in Dukes’ room on the day of the shooting, they did succeed in making everyone thoroughly dislike Dukes. This feeling began in the courtroom, where Johnston ensured their every unsavoury detail was driven home, but soon spread through the whole town and beyond. Captain Nutt’s prediction that the community would take his side was more than borne out.
When the defence team’s turn came, they began by calling attention to any small discrepancies in Breckenridge, Feather and Williams’ testimony. On the crucial point of exactly when Captain Nutt had reached for his gun, they hoped to either drive a wedge between the three key witnesses’ accounts, or to exploit any minor differences in wording between their trial testimony and what they’d told the coroner.
When this approach made little headway, they began trying to smear the witnesses’ character, saying Breckenridge’s testimony could not be trusted because he was a relative of Captain Nutt’s, and suggesting Feather held some unspecified grudge against Dukes. They could produce no evidence of this supposed grudge, and Feather countered their charge by pointing out he’d actually voted for Dukes in the recent election for Fayette County’s legislature.
The defence stressed also that Nutt had been armed with a sturdy cane when he entered Dukes’ room and reminded the jury of what a heavy blow that cane had inflicted on their client’s arm. Sheriff Hoover was called, and testified that the bruise that blow left behind could still be plainly seen five days after Dukes gave himself up.
“Nutt went into Dukes’ room armed, on a Sunday morning, speaking to nobody as he walked in,” the defence team’s Mr RH Lindsey told the jury in his summing up. “As soon as he entered, a scuffle ensued. Who, in all reason, was the aggressor in this struggle? Evidently the invading party.”
Finally, Lindsey had no choice but to address the thorny issue of Dukes’ letters. He cautioned the jury against allowing themselves to be influenced by public prejudice against his client and then added: “I do not claim anything for Dukes because he has been honoured by his county with a seat in the legislature any more than if he were the lowliest citizen. I remind you that Mr Dukes’ letters have nothing to do with the making up of your verdict.”
Judge Wilson told the jury that they must decide whether Dukes was guilty of any crime and, if so, whether that crime was first degree murder, second degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. “There must be malice and a fully-framed purpose to kill in order for the offence to be murder,” he reminded them. The jury retired to consider its verdict at 4:30pm on March 14 and returned at about 8:00 o’clock that evening.
Public opinion was nearly unanimous that the verdict would be one of murder. With Dukes’ fate now about to be announced, the public gallery was full to bursting with a noisy and excited crowd of spectators. “When silence was partially restored, the jury filed in and the frivolous expression on some of their faces betokened the nature of their verdict,” New Castle’s Daily City News reports. “To the question of the clerk, Foreman McIntyre answered ‘Not guilty’.” A shocked silence in the gallery gave way to angry protests, which the DCN says “were with difficulty restrained by the officers”. (10)
“Dukes sat down with great composure,” its report continues. “Judge Wilson looked amazed at the announcement and said, ‘Gentlemen of the jury, I suppose the verdict that you have rendered is one that you thought you should render under your oaths, but it is one which gives dissatisfaction to the court, because we thought the evidence was sufficient to justify you in rendering a different verdict. If you have committed an error, it is one that we cannot avoid, but can only express our condemnation of it in this mild way. The prisoner is discharged.”
The court’s decision to free Dukes did not go down well. The spectators packing the public gallery sat in dumbfounded silence for a moment, then began hissing their disapproval. An angry mob followed the jurors from the courtroom into the snowstorm that was now raging outside, flinging curses at them all the way, and the jurors fled anxiously to whichever address each man thought would keep him safest. “They were compelled to seek cover among the jeers and howls of the excited populace,” the New York Times reports. (11)
“The jury seemed to be aware of the odium which they had heaped upon themselves and the county, for they skulked out and disappeared,” adds the URS. “Two of them got up in the vicinity of the McClelland house, where they found the crowd burning Dukes’ effigy and singing, ‘We’ll hang Lyman Dukes from a sour apple tree / Dukes will go down to Hades and the jury will meet him on the way’. This frightened the two jurors and they disappeared.”
The York Daily’s reporter gives a minute by-minute account of the evening’s events. “At 9:30pm, the indignation over the verdict is terrific,” he writes. “An excited crowd has just started toward the court house, where Dukes is in charge of the sheriff. They carry a stuffed effigy of Dukes and of the 12 jurors. Violence is expected. At 9:45pm, the crowd reached the McClelland house a few doors from Dukes’ room. They have suspended his effigy across the street and are singing, ‘We will hang Dukes’ body on a sour apple tree’.” (12)
Some jurors didn’t even make it home that night. Two stayed at Hall’s boarding house in Peter Street, where the URS tells us they took the precaution of sleeping fully clothed in case they had to flee again in the night. “In the morning, they tried to get someone to go up to the courthouse to draw their pay,” the paper says. “No set of men were ever so anxious to get out of a town which they had so disgraced. After drawing their pay on Thursday morning, they hastened to depart, being hooted at and some of them leaving by the back streets. They did not relish seeing the effigies of themselves and Duke adorning various telegraph poles.”
The next day, in Shoemakersville, 200 miles east of Uniontown, outraged citizens used old clothes stuffed with hay to make their own effigies of all 12 jurors, which they then strung up from a large tree next to the railroad track. No one on the passing trains could miss them. (13)
It’s not clear where Dukes holed up while all this was going on. Some accounts say he was held in protective custody in the courthouse cells, others that he made it back to his room at the Jennings Hotel and locked the door there firmly behind him. Hearing the mob had given him 24 hours to leave town, he fled at first light, traveling ten miles west to his mother’s house in German Township. This is the journey which William Wiggins depicts in his bottle sculpture, showing Dukes’ forlorn figure as he flees town. The list of jurors he added to the bottle was clipped from the URS’s March 15 trial report.
That same edition of the paper reports that, even on its first ballot, the jury had already dismissed any thought that Dukes was guilty of murder. The votes at that stage stood at two for the lighter charge of manslaughter and ten for outright acquittal. Boyle’s arguments that they should disregard Dukes’ letters and focus instead on his right to self-defence evidently won out.
The URS – whose R stood for Republican, remember – complained that the jury had been packed exclusively with Democrats and reminded its readers that was the party Dukes himself represented whenever he stood for office. “When the jury was empanelled last Saturday, the defence challenged off every Republican,” it said. “True, Republicans generally admitted they had formed an opinion on the matter, but many had not and were challenged solely for their politics. Thomas Searight, clerk of the court and an announced candidate for judge, exhibited a list of the jurors and drew attention to the fact that Dukes was to be tried by a jury solidly Democratic. Shameful boasts were even made by some that ‘we have the court and the jury and intend to use them’.”
Just in case there were any doubts where its own sympathies lay, the URS ran its report of the Dukes verdict under a nine-deck headline loaded with far more comment than fact:
On March 15, the morning after the verdict, a group of 27 lawyers presented a petition calling for the “infamous”, disgraceful” and “unfitting’ Dukes to be disbarred from practicing law. The judge gave him till May 10 to present his case against this happening. (14)
That evening, people flooded into Uniontown from all over Pennsylvania to attend what newspapers called an “indignation meeting” to express their disgust at the trial’s verdict. Many of Pennsylvania’s leading lawyers, doctors, ministers and businessmen were present. They packed into the town’s schoolhouse, where Dr Fuller, Uniontown’s oldest physician, gave a speech condemning Dukes and the jury in equally fierce terms. Falling into what was now the town’s accepted narrative, he expressed firm faith in Lizzie’s purity. There were several intemperate speeches from the floor echoing Fuller’s view. When the time came to pass resolutions, the meeting accused Dukes and his friends of tampering with the jury and made dark threats about lynch law replacing the courts when juries produced such perverse verdicts as this.
To understand why the rage at Dukes’ acquittal was so extreme – and so widely held – we must turn to the legal historian Professor Robert Ireland, who wrote about the case in a 1989 essay. He explains that most US Southerners of the Victorian era took a very particular view of sexual morality and of who should and should not be punished when a challenge to this morality produced violent revenge. He calls this assumption “the unwritten law” and attributes its rise to the fact that so many Americans were then moving from rural areas to embrace city life and the new factory or office jobs that made possible.
This change meant husbands were no longer working alongside their wives, that young single women were able to escape the chaperones their parents’ had imposed on them and that young men increasingly had the leisure time and the spare cash to pursue sexual conquests. Not surprisingly, all these innovations led to a good deal of nervousness about the era’s morals.
“In order to preserve the stability of society, to ensure the preservation of republican virtue and to retain control over female sexuality, 19th century Americans made women both the guardians and the models of middle-class morality,” Ireland writes. “That idea demanded absolute sexual probity on the part of all virtuous women, virginity before and fidelity during marriage. The women who departed from this standard by publicly contradicting the prevailing mores were condemned to a condition of eternal disgrace. If single, they would never have the opportunity of a respectable marriage, if married, they would be cast aside by their husbands; and, married or not, they would be shunned by polite society.” (15)
It followed that men in this society had an absolute duty to defend their female relatives’ purity and reputation. Where a woman’s purity was violated – as Lizzie’s appears to have been – her father or brother’s duty to confront and punish the man responsible was equally clear. To act in any other way would have been to chip away at the very cornerstone of Victorian morality, which meant juries were very reluctant to convict any man who attacked his sister or daughter’s seducer. Men like Dukes were demonised as libertines and even killing them was thought quite justifiable.
“Victorian Americans became so obsessed with the evils of libertinism that they embraced and probably even invented an unwritten law that forgave males who assassinated the despoilers of female sexual virtue,” Ireland expains. “In so doing, they […] seemed to take advantage of an already permissive doctrine of legal insanity that served well the interests of outraged male avengers of female sexual dishonour. A corollary of the unwritten law sometimes forgave those males who assassinated would-be libertines who had merely defamed the sexual honour of a woman.”
What this meant in practice was that, confronted with a man accused of murdering his sister or daughter’s seducer, the jury would conveniently decide he must have been suffering from temporary insanity at the time and acquit him on those grounds. His sanity now safely returned, the defendant could not be sent to an asylum either. For most people, the correct practical result would then have been achieved – the libertine was dead and the righteous avenger set free.
Dukes’ case doesn’t quite fit that model, because there it was the avenger who ended up dead. Clearly, though, very few people in Uniontown would have thought Captain Nutt did anything wrong by attacking Dukes in his room or even by coming armed to kill him. For them, Dukes was unquestionably the villain in this whole affair and Captain Nutt had acted in an exemplary way. The unwritten law dictated that Dukes deserved to die for his treatment of Lizzie – whether you assumed that treatment to include impregnating her or not - and the fact that he’d gone on to kill the heroic Captain Nutt just made that verdict all the more plain. Instead, the jury had chosen to let him walk – and that’s when the lynch mob started to gather.
Even at his mother’s house, Dukes was still within the bounds of Fayette County and far too close to Uniontown to rest easy. Seeing his life was in danger from the mob, his friends persuaded him to write his own detailed account of the fight with Nutt. Even if this account wound up being published posthumously, they argued, it would at least give Dukes a chance to get his side of the story across.
According to Dukes, Nutt had burst uninvited into his room on the fatal night. Here’s his own description of what followed:
“[Captain Nutt] did not lift his eyes to mine, but hissed through his teeth, ‘I want to see you’ and rushed upon me instantly with his cane upraised. I instinctively threw down my head and threw up my arm and the blow fell severely diagonally across the arm. I at once grappled with him and caught the cane.
“We struggled for a few moments about the foot of the bed, and I wrestled the cane away from him and attempted to strike him down with it. He then threw himself against me but the blow had no effect. We were struggling once more and had scuffled over into the corner, back of the bed by the window. I now knew that I was his superior in physical strength and could have drawn my pistol and shot him in the struggle, the pistol being self-acting, but I did not want to kill him.
“I concluded, as I was physically his superior, to do nothing but keep him from hurting me and I cried ‘Murder, Murder, Murder’ with the full force of my lungs, in order to bring someone to the rescue. As soon as this alarm was given, Captain Nutt called ‘Clark! Clark! Clark!’ in a much lower tone of voice than that employed by me.
“This call from his nephew, who had accompanied him there, coupled with the threat in his letter of an avenger, filled me with terror and desperation. I instantly threw myself on the cane with all my power, and it was mine. He sprang away from me, back toward the mantel, to avoid another stroke from the cane, and as he went he thrust his right hand into his overcoat pocket and attempted to draw his pistol. It seemed to be entangled.
“I shall never forget the murderous look in his eyes. The awful moment had come. It was he or I. In the twinkling of an eye, my pistol was drawn from my hip pocket, my right foot and arm advanced, the trigger pressed – a flash and Captain Nutt sank down among the wardrobe. My position threw my back toward the door. As Captain Nutt sank down, I heard a confusion behind me.”
In Dukes’ account, it was only then that Breckenridge, Feather and Williams entered the room. “The statement that Mr Breckenridge or anyone else separated us is positively incorrect,” he claims. “I did not know of the presence of any other person in that room other than Captain Nutt and myself when the shot was fired. Captain Nutt was positively not leaning on the mantel when he was shot, His arm was akimbo, his hand clutching his pistol.”
In this letter, Dukes also denies statements at the trial that he’d struggled to resist Feather’s attempts to take his gun. On the contrary, he says, he’d surrendered both the gun and the cane voluntarily and then immediately walked to the sheriff’s office to give himself up. “My mind was in a whirlwind of confusion, but I felt I had been driven to the desperate act for self-preservation and I would submit myself to the law,” he writes.
“No man with a shadow of fairness can resist the conclusion that Captain Nutt came to my room on the morning of 24th of December to take my life and that he would have done so had not my dexterity prevented such a result. This conclusion established, then my legal defence is perfect and the attack on the jury is unjust and malicious. […] I was on trial for the killing of Captain Nutt, not for writing letters.”
Let’s pause here for a second to consider the difficult question of whether Dukes’ accusations against Lizzie were true.
If we believe the account in his first letter, Lizzie had had full sex with at least one man other than himself, and began fearing she was pregnant when she missed a period at some point in what seems to have been the autumn of 1882. “Unless precautions are duly used, she will become a mother,” Dukes writes in his December 4 letter that year. “Just when I am unable to say.”
If that pregnancy was real and if it had been allowed to run its full course, then Lizzie would have been about six months gone by the time she granted the New York Times an interview in March 1883. And yet the reporter describes her figure at that meeting as “slender and graceful”. Turning to rumours of her pregnancy, he adds: “Her physical condition as indicated by Dukes in his letters is false beyond a doubt”. It’s fair to conclude then, I think, that whatever Lizzie’s condition when Dukes wrote his infamous letter, she certainly wasn’t pregnant in March 1883.
That leaves us with several possibilities:
1) Dukes lied about Lizzie ever having been pregnant in the first place.
I’m happy to dismiss this, as it’s impossible to imagine any motive Dukes could have had for doing so. Why would any young man of that era tell his girl’s father she was pregnant if he knew that wasn’t true?
2) Lizzie lied to Dukes when she told him she was pregnant and he repeated that lie in good faith.
Lizzie seems to have had a mischievous streak, so perhaps winding Dukes up in this way was her idea of fun? It may even have been her way of nudging him a little closer to marriage. What’s harder to explain is why she’d allow the pretence to persist so long he’d feel driven to alert Captain Nutt.
3) The missed period was a false alarm, but Lizzie for some reason never passed this news on to Dukes.
Women of Lizzie’s age and class had very little sex education in the 1880s, so it is possible that she was simply mistaken when she concluded she was pregnant. But why wouldn’t she have set Dukes straight when she realised the emergency was over?
4) Nature intervened and Lizzie’s pregnancy never went to full term for that reason.
Even today, around 20% of pregnancies naturally miscarry in the first 20 weeks. The rate would surely have been higher in Lizzie’s day.
5) Lizzie deliberately brought the pregnancy to an end by medical means, perhaps with the help of her mother.
By 1880, most abortions were illegal in the US, but of course they continued nonetheless. American doctors in the 1890s estimated there were then two million such operations carried out in the US every year. Home remedies were available too, in the form of the abortifacient pills discretely advertised in the Victorian press. Lizzie may have taken this option to preserve her good name and her prospects of a respectable marriage. If so, the family’s money would at least have spared her the horrors of a back street procedure. (16)
6) Lizzie actually fell pregnant a little earlier than I’m assuming and had already given birth by the time of the NYT interview.
Dukes’ letter gives no specific dates for any of his meetings with Lizzie, which means we can’t rule out the idea that she’d fallen pregnant as early as April or May 1882. That makes it just about possible that she could have secretly given birth in February 1883, given the baby away immediately and regained her figure in time for the NYT interview. For that to be true, though, we’d have to believe Dukes waited six months before alerting Captain Nutt to his daughter’s condition – and why would he do that? A secret birth and secret adoption would also have been very complicated to arrange and even harder to prevent people gossiping about when the family was under such close scrutiny. There’s no sign of an unexplained child appearing anywhere in the Nutt family at this time, so Occam’s razor dictates this theory can be dismissed.
For my money, items four and five on the above list are those which strain credulity the least. The fact is, though, that we’ll never know for sure, so feel free to make your own choice.
Now let’s move on to the question not of Lizzie’s pregnancy, but of her supposed promiscuity. It’s interesting that Captain Nutt never denies Dukes’ charges against his daughter when replying to that infamous letter. Indeed, he makes it very clear that Dukes’ only honourable way out of this situation is to marry Lizzie. We shouldn’t assume from that that he’d confirmed Lizzie was pregnant, though.
In the Victorian age, merely losing her virginity was enough to bar any single girl from finding a respectable marriage, and to make that girl’s father insist on a shotgun wedding. The letter’s suggestion that Lizzie was already the object of salacious gossip among Uniontown’s young men made matters even worse. Pretty clearly, nothing she’d told her father when he questioned her about the letter’s allegations had been able to put his mind at ease. Dukes’ assertion is that it was Bogardus who took Lizzie’s virginity, not him, but perhaps Captain Nutt was just too angry at the letter to bother with such fine distinctions.
The other young men of Uniontown who Dukes mentions in his letter were quick to spring to Lizzie’s defence – though perhaps only because they wanted to save their own skins. Frey, Kennedy, Hagan and Bogardus all issued statements to the newspapers describing Lizzie as the most modest and chaste young lady any gentleman could wish to meet. Anything less than that, and they may have found their own effigies dangling from the town’s telegraph poles.
Lizzie herself denied all Duke’s charges too. “There is not a word of truth in any of Mr Dukes’ letters,” she told the NYT. ‘What induced him to write them, I cannot imagine, unless his object was to manufacture an excuse for breaking our engagement. […] Everyone has been deceived by him and I most of all. We had been engaged several months. He was a constant visitor here and was cordially received by the whole family. I did not suspect that he wanted the engagement broken. Why didn’t he tell me?”
It’s a good question – but here’s an even better one. If all Dukes wanted to do was end the engagement, then why try to do so by writing her father such an extraordinary letter? Surely he’d have been able to see that, far from extricating himself from an unwanted engagement, a letter like that could only land him deeper in the mire? (17, 18)
“Then he wrote those vile letters to father,” Lizzie continues in her interview. “All the world knows the rest. I would rather have died than that this misery and disgrace should have fallen on my mother and her family. But indeed, sir, I am innocent of each and every charge brought against me.”
I’m a little sceptical about Lizzie’s protestations here. My guess is that she was really an adventurous and somewhat mischievous young woman who sometimes went a little further with her admirers than polite society would then have condoned. The fact that Captain Nutt was so often away in Harrisburg probably made these liaisons a little easier for Lizzie to arrange. There are several hints in the press coverage that he treated Lizzie with great indulgence, which suggests that - like most daughters – she had no difficulty in twisting dear old dad round her little finger.
If Lizzie had admitted any part of Dukes’ accusations, she would have disgraced her family and scuppered her own marriage prospects. The newspapers had already decided that the way to maximise this story’s impact was to paint Dukes as a foul traducer of innocent womanhood, and this narrative demanded they present Lizzie in the most saintly light imaginable. That was the story people wanted to believe, which helps to explain why the initially rather stand-offish families of Uniontown society rushed to invite Lizzie round for tea after the trial’s conclusion. By issuing these invitations, they signalled that they were happy to welcome her back into their ranks and rally round the consensus tale the newspapers had already adopted. Anyone stepping out of line to offer a more critical view of Lizzie’s behaviour risked falling foul of the mob.
Dukes never disavowed the contents of his December 4 letter, but he did come to regret writing it. “I foolishly thought I was doing Captain Nutt a cruel kindness and taking a stand for the preservation of my own honour,’ he said after the trial. “Since this occurred, I have concluded that honour is a delusion and a mockery. My enemies teach that the whole matter was a deep-laid scheme: that I deliberately ruined the daughter and then killed him. What motive could I have for such a scheme?
“When I wrote that first letter to Capt. Nutt I committed a most appalling blunder. It was the personification of stupidity and the remorse of a lifetime will be inadequate expiation for the error. When I look back upon it in the light of developments, I can scarcely resist the conclusion that I was labouring under temporary insanity.”
One day in 1908, a hobo named Carl Worner walked into Maier’s Saloon on Shenandoah Avenue in St Louis and offered to make the owner a whimsy bottle in return for a hot meal and a couple of free drinks.
“He would ramble from bar to bar, calling for a large bottle, cigar boxes, scrap wood a hairpin and glue,” says Missouri State History’s Andrew Wanko. “From these, he would produce a vibrant miniature scene in a bottle in exchange for food and drink at the bar.” (19, 20)
The bottle sculpture Worner produced that day depicts the interior of a typical saloon. It shows the owner and his black waiter serving three customers who are standing at the bar, each with a drink in his hand. In the foreground, Worner’s added a couple of tall, spiky shrubs and a barrel of Klausmann beer. Above the whole scene, there’s a carefully lettered “Saloon” sign and some decorative woodwork, topped by two crossed American flags.
Klausmann Beer was a real brand, brewed in the nearby St Louis neighbourhood of Carondelet and presumably on sale at Maier’s. Wanko guesses it won its place in the bottle either because it happened to be the saloon’s top seller, or perhaps simply because Worner liked it more than any of the other beers on offer there. (21)
“This saloon in a bottle has a personal connection for me, even though I’ve never seen the saloon owner or met the man who spent a full day working his art into shape for a salty cut of meat and a few beers,” Wanko wrote in 2014. “Maier’s saloon was located at 3200 Shenandoah in the present day Tower Grove East neighbourhood. The building still houses a bar, Van Goghz, [where] I watched the Cardinals win the 2011 World Series.”
The waiter in this bottle is the only black person Worner seems to have included in any of his bottle sculptures. He’s carrying a large sliced ham, a common part of the cheap (or even free) lunches which many saloons then supplied for anyone buying a drink. “St Louis reputedly had some of the best saloon lunches of any city in the country,” Wanko’s MHS colleague Anne Woodhouse wrote in a 1999 article. “The sliced ham was probably a frequent lunch offering at the Maier saloon, perhaps on alternate days with Christine Maier’s noodle soup. Both these dishes are salty and would have encouraged the sale and consumption of beer to wash down the meal.” (22)
“Carl Worner would never have considered himself a historian, but in a way that’s what he was,” the folk art expert Allan Katz told me. “His depiction of various bars and commercial establishments are most likely extremely accurate and become a snapshot of these neighbourhood bars and saloons. His bottle sculptures capture the spirit of an itinerant artist. They were created at a very romantic time in history, when America was swelling with a new immigrant population and reflect how these immigrants were changing the American cultural landscape.” (23)
We have many other examples of Worner’s whimsy bottles, most of which he produced for various bars in the Midwest between 1900 and 1920. His nomadic life took him to Chicago (where he produced bottles for saloons owned by John Neubauer, Frank Bolit and Sven Mellin), Granite City (the HC Meyer Saloon) and – as we know – St Louis (Maier’s Saloon, Henry Eiler’s Saloon, Frank Behren’s Saloon). He seems to have spent most of time in Illinois and Missouri, though we also have two bottles produced in Newark, New Jersey, for saloons there owned by men named Salzman and Rummel.
“His only request was for a cigar box and an empty bottle,” Illinois’ The Living Museum magazine says of the Granite City bottle. “He cut pieces from the cigar box, coloured them and glued them in place with a long hat pin. The saloon-in-a-bottle was presented to Meyer in exchange for a few free drinks.” Unlike ships in bottles, which are built outside the bottle and simply have their masts’ raised inside, Worner constructed his whole sculpture inside the bottle, using that long hat pin to reach any area he needed to work. (24)
“His works are generally much more complex, colourful and capable of being researched [than other bottle art pieces],” Katz told me. “When I first came upon a Carl Worner bottle, my reaction was, ‘This is a fairly complex piece and there must be more to discover’. Before long, you see another and know that it was made by the same person. Both collectors and historians are intrigued by being able to piece together the storyline of a person’s life by reviewing their body of work.”
Most of Worner’s bottles are now owned by private collectors. In a 2010 PBS episode of The Antiques Roadshow, one guest presented Katz with a Worner bottle which her father –in-law had won in a Chicago saloon’s card game at some point in the 1930s. This bottle combined Worner’s typical saloon scene with an old German folk tale called “Die Sieben Schwaben” (The Seven Swabians). Katz put its value at $3,000 to $4,000. “Worner’s bottles fit perfectly into the Folk Art marketplace,” he told me. Holding a piece of wood in your hand and carving it is a timeless folk tradition that has existed in every culture in the world. (ix)
Bythe end of March, Dukes was back in Uniontown and once again living at the Jennings Hotel. He refused to leave even when some delegates from the town’s indignation meeting called round to demand he packed his bags. Determined to ride out the town’s remaining bad feeling against him, Dukes began carrying a gun everywhere he went, telling friends he would not hesitate to kill anyone who attacked him. One threat worried him more than any other. “Although many in the area had expressed their belief that Dukes should be lynched, the only man whom he said he feared was James Nutt, the twenty-year-old son of Adam Nutt,” Ireland writes. (26)
Dukes was not the only one who thought James Nutt might try to avenge his father. Charlotte Nutt was concerned enough to press her son to promise he would never do such a thing, but James refused to give her any such assurance. He was angry about his father’s death and constantly brooding on the town’s vengeful expectations. Surely a dutiful son in these circumstances was honour-bound to make Dukes pay for his father’s slaying in blood? And yet, here the killer was, blithely walking the streets of Uniontown where James could hardly avoid encountering him every day. (27)
According to the Quebec Daily Telegraph, James returned home to his mother in a foul mood one day in June. “I can’t stand this, “ he told her. “I met Dukes on the street today and he laughed in my face.” From that day on, the paper adds, Mrs Nutt feared the worst – and a few days later, all her fears were realised. On June 13, 1883, James was walking along the street in Uniontown with Al Miner, the local newspaper’s court reporter. Dukes’ appeal hearing against his likely disbarment from practicing law was then just two days away, and that’s evidently what he had on his mind. (28)
“Dukes, seeing them coming, walked out and in a very offensive way called out to Miner, ‘Have you got all the testimony written out in the case against me?’,” the New York Times reports. “Nutt stood with his head bowed while Dukes insolently called up a feature of the legal proceedings that bore directly upon the murder of his father and the attempted degradation of his sister. […] The youth seemed in deep thought all the way home as he and Miner walked along. It was after these repeated insults, together with a growing belief that Dukes would still be permitted to disgrace the profession to which he belonged and also to insult the general sentiment of the community by his presence, that the fatal resolve took possession of him.” (29)
After the Dukes trial, Clark Breckenridge had given James the Colt .32 revolver Captain Nutt carried on the day he died. Returning home, James placed a target board against the carriage house wall, then moved a few yards away and began firing rounds into it from his father’s gun. Two of his uncles joined this target practice, one of whom was heard urging him not to fail in the task he planned.
James then returned to Uniontown and concealed himself in the shadows of a wrecked storefront, just opposite the corner of Main Street and Pittsburgh Street, where Uniontown’s Post Office stood. His chosen spot was an old drugstore, the front of which had been torn off as part of redevelopment plans. James seems to have arrived there about 7:00 o’clock in the evening and to have known that Dukes generally called at the Post Office to collect his mail around that time.
As James took up position, Dukes was chatting amiably to some friends outside the Jennings Hotel. At about 7:10pm, he said his goodbyes and set off to walk the single block to the Post Office, a route which would take him straight past the derelict drugstore. Dukes was dressed in a dark suit and hat, with a high-collared shirt and a black cravat, swinging his jaunty rattan cane as he walked. Here’s the NYT’s account of what happened next:
“When Dukes reached the spot, or got a little beyond where he stood, Nutt opened fire on him and shot twice in quick succession, the balls striking Dukes in the back, immediately behind the heart. Dukes started on a dead run and was pursued by Nutt who fired three more shots at the fleeing murderer.
“One of these took effect in the back, only about two inches from the first two, another simply went through Dukes’ coat without wounding him and the fifth and last struck his left ankle as he was going up the Post Office steps. There were two steps to go up into the office and when Dukes reached the top one, he fell forward on his face.
“There was an immense crowd of people standing around on the outside of the office and they ran in every direction for fear of being shot. The fifth ball only grazed [Dukes’] left ankle and glanced off and went through some lock boxes.
“A number of persons rushed up the steps when Dukes did. At the same time, Policeman Pegg ran up and caught Nutt, who made no resistance whatsoever, but said to the officer, ‘Here, you take this,’ as he gave him his revolver. Pegg said to him, ‘You have done a bad piece of work’. To which Nutt replied, ‘Yes, but I could not help it’.” (30)
Pegg arrested Nutt there and then, placing him in the town jail under Sheriff Hoover’s supervision. By the time Hoover turned the key, crowds were already gathering round Dukes’ body. “People rushed to the scene of the shooting by hundreds,” the NYT reports. “It was all that a dozen men could do to keep the immense crowd from the body. There were one or two cries of ‘Stand back and give him air’ and many shouted: ‘He needs no air. Let him die, he got what he deserved’. […] The universal feeling is that James Nutt did perfectly right.”
Amid all this chaos, a man called Lingo tried to speak to Dukes as he lay on the ground, but got no more than a few weak gasps in reply. Within a minute of the last bullet striking him, Dukes was dead. Eyewitnesses said they’d seen him turn round when the first shot was fired and stare James straight in the face for a second before breaking into his run. Another mentioned how ashen Dukes’ face had looked when he’d glimpsed it fleeing past. As soon as some semblance of calm was restored, Dukes’ body was taken back to the Jennings Hotel, where he was laid out in the same room where Captain Nutt had died just six months earlier.
The same unwritten law which had wanted to see Dukes hanged for Captain Nutt’s killing now demanded that James Nutt must escape punishment for murdering Dukes. “Several leading newspapers declared that Nutt had shot Dukes ‘down like a dog’ and accompanying stories joyfully proclaimed widespread public approval,” Ireland points out. “Editorials throughout the country cheered the death of a ‘monster’, a ‘moral leper’ and a ‘miserable wretch’, arguing that James Nutt had properly invoked the unwritten law.”
Lizzie Nutt was quick to applaud her brother’s actions too, saying she’d have done the same thing herself if given half a chance. One newspaper reported that she, like James, had been practicing her marksmanship at the family farm for several months and that it was revenge against Dukes which both siblings had in mind.
Southern newspapers, which had long ago grown sick of Yankees lecturing them about Dixie’s brutal jurisprudence, were quick to crow about the embarrassment this case was creating for their northern neighbours. The Atlanta Constitution said Dukes’ acquittal had been the most “complete failure of justice” in US history adding that, if Captain Nutt had been a Southern gentleman, he would have killed Dukes straight away and hence saved his son the trouble. The Louisville Courier-Journal declared that any Southern jury would have convicted Dukes without a second thought, again bringing the matter to a speedy end.
Even the stately New York Times accepted that attacking Dukes was the only honourable choice James had been left with. “It is because all men share and almost all men justify this feeling and consider the duty it imposes more urgent than even the duty of being a law-abiding citizen that Nutt is not in the slightest danger of losing his life or even his liberty,” the paper said in its June 15 editorial. “There is no ignoring the plain fact that public sentiment will acquit him and no ignoring the equally plain fact that, before the law, he is guilty of a crime punishable with death.”
However predictable the outcome might seem, still the full procedure of the law had to be gone through. Doctors examining Dukes’ body found four bullet holes in the back of his coat, all gathered on the left-hand side, together with some corresponding holes in the back of his waistcoat. He had a short knife, designed for stabbing rather than slashing, hanging from one of his trouser buttons and the revolver he’d used to kill Captain Nutt in his right hip pocket. Neither weapon had helped him at all when the attack finally came.
The coroner’s inquest, which began next day, found that only three of James’s five bullets had entered Dukes’ body, all targeted closely at his heart. One bullet had fractured a rib and another had moved past his backbone to puncture a lung and then lodge in his heart’s right ventricle. The NYT invited its readers to admire James’s marksmanship, noting with approval that he’d placed the three entry wounds so closely that a ring no more than four inches in diameter would cover them.
Although the three bullets in Dukes’ body were safely recovered, the remaining two could not be found. Most likely, they were scooped up by souvenir hunters. Word of the killing had got round all the surrounding hamlets by now, bringing many curious rural visitors into Uniontown, where they soaked up every detail from the inquest and eagerly questioned the town’s residents.
The inquest concluded with a verdict that Dukes had come to his death “from wounds received from a revolver fired in the hands of James Nutt”, which meant a criminal trial could not be avoided. Messages supporting James and offering funds to help pay for his defence were soon flooding in from all over the US, including one from Pittsburgh announcing that a public subscription had been set up there to raise cash. Playford and Boyd, the two lawyers who’d worked to prosecute Dukes back in March, visited James in his cell at Uniontown jail, where he signed them up to organise his defence team.
As we’ve already seen from Ireland’s essay, the usual tactic in cases like this was for the defence to argue their client had been suffering from temporary insanity when the trigger was pulled and hence could not be held responsible for his actions. A June 16 story in True Republican suggests Peabody and Boyd were already keen to prepare the ground for an insanity defence. Whether the TR story came directly from their briefing or simply from the paper’s own desire to help ensure James’s acquittal, I don’t know, but its message was clear enough.
“He is an industrious lad manually but not mentally,” the paper says of James. “His tastes, unlike his father’s, are not intellectual. He disliked to go to school because study involved mental activity, which was distasteful to him. When at work on his father’s farm he was contented. He character is so sluggish that by many he is considered weak-minded.”
No-one reading that could fail to reach the desired conclusion: here was a good-hearted simpleton of a lad who had acted out of the best motives. Yes, he had killed a man, but surely someone so lacking in mental capacity could not be expected to face the gallows? Dukes had richly deserved his violent end, so let’s just find a way of letting James go free and moving on with our lives.
The NYT was more sceptical, admitting that James may not be the brightest member of the Nutt family, but adding he was “by no means slow-witted”. There was no doubt, though, that most people were firmly on the TR’s side in this affair and quite glad to see the back of Dukes. Just a few days after the killing, a Uniontown band set itself up directly opposite the Post Office where Dukes had died and played a concert there. Asked if they’d intended this event as a celebration of his death, the band’s director insisted its time and location were purely coincidental.
Even at his own funeral, Dukes was reviled. The two fraternal orders he’d belonged to refused to have anything to do with his burial, as did the Fayette County bar. All three of those organisations would normally have sent representatives to a member’s funeral, but in Dukes’ case, they resolutely turned their backs.
The burial took place on June 16 at Churchill Cemetery, near his mother’s home in German Township. Estimates of the crowd there range from 300 to 500, but everyone agrees that most of these people had never even met Dukes. The service was held with an open casket and most had come simply because they wanted to gawp at a notorious killer’s corpse.
Among the few Uniontown people attending were Sheriff Hooper and his father-in-law John Messmore. Austria Struble, Dukes’ mother, was there too, perhaps with her new husband Asbury and a couple of Dukes’ half-sisters. The whole family had accompanied his body on its journey from Uniontown to German Township a couple of days earlier, so my guess is they’d all have have been there to support Austria at the funeral as well.
“The Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows boycotted the ceremony, even though Dukes had been a member of their orders and was, by their ritual, entitled to their official mourning and to the attendance of their membership,” Ireland writes. “Likewise, the Fayette County Bar declined to consider a routine resolution of condolence and appreciation.” (31)
When Dukes’ will was read, he was found to have left $2,000 to a Miss Mary Beeson, said to be his fiancé. The rest of his estate went to his mother.
Nutt’s trial was originally scheduled to take place in Uniontown at the end of September 1883, but had to be postponed because of Clark Breckenridge’s poor health. It was Breckenridge, of course, who’d accompanied Captain Nutt to Dukes’ room on the day he was shot and who’d given important testimony for the prosecution in that trial. He was also James Nutt’s cousin and looked set to be a key witness in the young man’s defence – so key a witness, in fact, that it was evidently felt the trial couldn’t go ahead without him.
A new trial date was set for the beginning of December, but this fell by the wayside when James’s defence lawyers argued it would be impossible to find him a fair jury in Uniontown. The judge accepted this point, delaying the trial for six weeks further to allow for a change of venue to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County.
A few weeks before the twice-rescheduled trial was due to begin, Breckenridge received a threatening letter at the People’s Bank branch where he worked. The letter – which was signed only “Goggles” – seems to have come from a friend of Dukes. It said that, although Dukes himself was dead, his avengers remained alive and that they would have Breckenridge’s blood if he helped James escape justice. It referred sarcastically to the Nutt family as “the paupers out on the lane” and seemed to resent the cash so many people had contributed to help fund James’s defence.
“Let Lizzie Nutt sell her piano and the paupers move out of the brick house and then they wouldn’t have to beg for money to defend that devil Jim that is in jail,” the letter said. It added that the rope to hang James Nutt had already been prepared, and asked Breckenridge how he’d feel with bullets rattling through his old bones. Finally, there was a promise that the letter’s writer would be there watching in the courtroom if Breckenridge dared give testimony – the implication being that sudden violence would follow.
Next day, Colonel Ewing Brownfield, the bank’s president, found a similar note slipped beneath the front door of his home. This one, which carried no signature at all, read: “Be on your guard. Clerk Breckenridge will be shot down at his desk. This is your first and last warning. Again, be on your guard. This is not the town for his home.” Now it was one of Dukes’ accusers, not the man himself, who was being told to pack his bags and get out of Uniontown for good.
The clear intention of both these notes was to intimidate Breckenridge to the point where he’d withdraw from the trial. Reporting this attempt, the New York Times hinted heavily that it knew who was responsible. “Suspicions are resting on a young man here,” the paper’s Uniontown correspondent declared, “and the evidence, though circumstantial, is strong.” Nothing more was said about this individual – or, at least, nothing I’ve been able to find – and his identity remains a mystery.
On January 13, 1884, the day before the trial began, James was visited in jail by a couple of doctors called Ayres and Wiley, who he spoke with quite freely. What he didn’t know was that these two worked for Dixmont Insane Asylum and had been hired by the prosecution team to argue he was mentally capable. James’s own lawyers were unconcerned by the ruse, saying they had “evidence supporting the theory of emotional insanity and other testimony which would be so strong as to render a conviction impossible”. And so the battle lines were drawn: a prosecution set on showing James was sane enough to hang and a defence determined to convince the jury otherwise.
By 8:00 o’clock next morning the courthouse building’s steps were already packed with people keen to get a seat in the public gallery. “At 9:00 o’clock, doorkeeper Clark McElwaine opened the door and forced the head of the crowd back to the floor and the tail into the courtyard,” the NYT reports. “Captain Hain was detailed to guard that part and prevent an advance. ‘We do not propose to admit any but respectable persons,’ was the doorkeeper’s remark as he put up a barrier at the foot of the stairs.” (32)
We get another glimpse of the chaos outside the courtroom in an anonymous account of the trial published by Philadelphia’s Barclay & Co in 1886. “Before eight o’clock the dark, tortuous passageways leading up to the courtroom were thronged with a crowd of men, who beat against the bolted doors in the vain hope of attracting attention and obtaining admission to the chamber,” it tells us. Outside the courtroom, Philadelphia’s Fifth Avenue was crowded with hawkers selling penny dreadful pamphlets recounting all the case’s most sensational details. They found plenty of takers. (33)
The prosecution team was headed by DF Patterson, Allegheny County’s District Attorney, with help from two men named Johnson and Boyle. Playford took charge of the defence, aided by Major Brown and Marshall Swartzwelder. These six lawyers and the case’s panel of three judges – Stowe, Kirkpatrick and Over - took their seats in the courtroom a few minutes before 10:00am, when the day’s business was due to begin. James entered with his guard ten minutes later, wearing a brown suit with a wing collar and a black tie, and was seated next to his counsel. “He displayed no excitement or nervousness, save an occasional twitching at the corners of his mouth,” the Barclay pamphlet says. “As he took his seat, he glanced calmly around.”
Meanwhile, McElwaine and his men were busy thinning out the crowd of would-be spectators, picking out only the businessmen and professionals among them who they thought could be relied upon to behave. Those who passed this test were allowed into the courtroom at 10:20, instantly filling it to capacity. Only the lucky few secured a seat, leaving everyone else to pack the surrounding floor space and watch the trial while standing. Among this crowd were prominent lawyers and doctors from all over the US, who’d come to Pittsburgh specially to watch James’s trial and consider its implications for their own clients.
Right from the start, newspapers were keen to stress what a high-class audience the event was pulling in, with even ladies “of the highest social circle” spotted in attendance. “Members of the bar, businessmen, ministers, city and county officials and half a dozen ladies comprised the throng,” Barclay says of the first day’s proceedings. “Twice, the crowd pressed so closely around the long table where the counsel in the case were seated that the crier forced them back.” (34)
Somewhere along the line, James’s team had persuaded the Indiana senator Daniel Voorhees to take an interest in the case, knowing his formidable skills as a courtroom orator could prove decisive. Voorhees had won himself a national reputation when defending a soldier called John Cook in 1859 and served in the US Senate since 1877. He didn’t turn up for the first day of the trial, but the prospect of hearing him speak later in the proceedings was another big draw for spectators.
The trial’s first task was jury selection, which proved tortuous enough to consume the whole of the opening day. One aspect or another of the Dukes-Nutt affair had filled front pages throughout America for over a year now, particularly in Pennsylvania, and hardly anyone could claim not to have formed an opinion about it. Lawyers from each side of the case set about questioning each potential juror in turn, determined to weed out anyone they felt would disadvantage their case.
The sole bit of excitement in this dreary procedure came a little after noon, when two stylish young ladies entered the court with a soldierly male escort. They stayed just long enough to pass a bouquet of flowers to the court crier, asking him to present it to James at the defence table. The crier did so and James thanked the ladies with a smile and a small bow. Judge Stowe reacted angrily, leaning forward to rap his gavel on the desk and glare at the departing women. “There must be no more of that,” he declared. “If I observe any person bringing bouquets into court, I shall certainly have them committed.” There was a buzz of surprise round the spectators at this remark, which subsided only when the crier gave a stern shout for order.
And still the jury selection ground on. Only ten jurors from the original panel of 60 were found acceptable by both sides, so Judge Stowe declared a recess and sent Sheriff McCain out to round up 30 more candidates from the courthouse building and the surrounding streets. Fifteen members of this new panel were also rejected before the jury’s twelfth seat could at last be filled. The dozen eventually selected were all men, all but one of them married, with jobs ranging from labourer and coal merchant to tax collector, druggist and engineer. It was not discovered until some time later that one of the jurors selected, a carpet dealer named Charles Grassel, had served in the army with Captain Nutt, where the two men became close friends.
“The jury consists of 11 Republicans and one Democrat,” The NYT told its readers. “At Uniontown, the case assumed a political complexion, Democrats generally sustaining Dukes while Republicans sympathised with Nutt. While it is entirely too early to anticipate the verdict, it may be stated that Nutt’s friends are satisfied with the jury and confidently predict an acquittal. […] The defence will be insanity in some form and a great deal of expert testimony on that subject will be taken.” It was this aspect of the case which prompted my favourite newspaper headline of the whole affair: “WAS YOUNG NUTT INSANE?” asked the NYT. (35)
Day two began with the court once again packed full. Lizzie Nutt and her mother were there now, both clad in the full panoply of Victorian grief. “Mrs Nutt and her mother were dressed in deep mourning and heavily veiled,” says Barclay. “Through the gauze face-covering, however, two sad faces were dimly visible, and during a part of the time, Miss Lizzie was seen quietly crying.” Captain Nutt had been dead for just over a year at this point, by which time it would have been thought acceptable for both women to have discarded some parts of their mourning clothes, such as the veils or caps. The fact that Lizzie and her mother elected to wear full mourning dress in court suggests they were well aware of the theatrical effect this would have in helping win extra sympathy for James.
There was a brief repeat of the previous day’s disorder when the large crowd of prosecution witnesses waiting outside the courtroom took matters into their own hands, bustling past the guards to take places inside even before they’d been called. Once this was sorted out, Johnson got up to begin setting out the prosecution’s evidence. He reminded the jury of the gravity their duty demanded and that the facts of the case were not in dispute. Everyone accepted that James had shot Dukes dead, but only the jury could decide whether he should be held responsible, Johnson said.
He then called a string of witnesses who’d been present when Dukes was shot, assembling from their testimony an account much like the one I’ve given above. The most significant of these was Frank Pegg, the policeman who’d arrested Nutt on the day. When he repeated his testimony about James’s words just after the shooting – “I couldn’t help it” – the defence lawyers could hardly believe their luck. They’d planned to call Pegg as one of their own witnesses, precisely so he could underline this point. If James had been helpless to stop himself killing Dukes – as Pegg’s testimony seemed to confirm – then what was that but the emotional insanity they’d built their whole case around?
“The prosecution has shown the existence of emotional insanity, or an uncontrollable desire to kill, which will be the line of defence,” the NYT’s coverage points out. “It is said by lawyers who are not connected with the case that this was almost a fatal blunder.”
Pressing on, Johnson called John Messmore, a nine-year-old boy who’d been playing with friends at the Nutts’ house a few hours before Dukes was killed. While there, he’d watched James Nutt’s target practice with a board propped against the carriage house wall. James’s Uncle Stephen was there too, the lad testified, alongside another man he didn’t recognise. Each of the trio had shot at the board four or five times, he said. “After they got through shooting, Jim went into the house and his Uncle Steve went home,” John testified. “Uncle Steve told James not to fail. He said it just before he left.”
Other witnesses confirmed they’d heard shooting on the Nutts’ property that day. As Johnson had hoped, all this testimony helped to show premeditation on James’s part and hence to undermine the defence’s emotional insanity plea. Whether this would be enough to undo the damage he’d already done by calling Pegg was another matter.
Rising for the defence, Playford told the jury they faced a very stark choice: they must either hang James Nutt or let him go. This was a canny move on his part, as Playford knew perfectly well that even those members of the jury who were least sympathetic to James would balk at the prospect of seeing him executed. “[Playford’s speech] was very affecting and wrought the audience up to a high state of emotion,” the NYT reports. “Many were in tears. The prisoner, with his hand covering his face, tried to conceal his display of feeling, but succeeded poorly. Mrs Nutt and her daughter wrestled with themselves in a vain effort toward self-control, and sobs among some of the female spectators showed that they were similarly affected.” (36)
Playford then called a number of friendly witnesses to try and lessen the impact of John Messmore’s testimony by arguing that target practice was a regular amusement at the Nutts’ farm. James Wells, the other man who’d been present at the carriage house session, said he had no idea what Stephen Nutt had meant by reminding his nephew not to fail - but felt sure the remark had no relevance to Dukes whatsoever. Stephen’s own explanation was that he’d been reminding James how important it was to treat the family’s crops for potato bugs.
There followed a string of witnesses for the defence, each of whom seemed to have a lower opinion of James’s mental faculties than the last. First up was Dr Fuller, the family’s physician, who said his long acquaintance with James had convinced him the boy was “an imbecile” and likely to act unpredictably when faced with any insult. James’ mother endorsed both these points. Documents were then produced showing he had two uncles and an aunt who had all been declared lunatics by the courts.
Four more doctors followed, each in their turn agreeing that James had been temporarily insane at the moment he killed Dukes. What went through James’s mind as he listened to this testimony is hard to imagine. Even though the tactic looked like his best chance of escaping punishment, it can’t have been much fun sitting there for days on end while a parade of doctors, relatives and friends declared how stupid he was. Even his old schoolmates, who Johnson called to say he’d never seemed of unsound mind back then, rather spoilt the effect by adding that they’d always thought him “dull and peculiar”.
As the trial’s first week drew towards its close, Major Brown announced the defence’s intention to read Dukes’ original letters to Captain Nutt into the court record. By doing this, he hoped to remind the jury what intolerable pressure James had been under and to convince them that Dukes richly deserved his violent death.
When Mrs Nutt and Lizzie realised the letters were about to be read aloud, they rose with their other female relatives and filed slowly out of the courtroom. Judge Stowe said he thought it best that all the ladies in the public gallery should withdraw too and they reluctantly complied. “It was curious to witness the manifestations of disappointment in some and curiosity in others,” notes the NYT. “Some well-dressed women seemed inclined for a time to remain, but better judgement prevailed and gradually, one by one, the bonnets and sealskin sacques filed out of the courtroom.” (37)
James was also allowed to leave the court while the letters were read, the idea being to spare him the distress of having to hear their contents all over again. Playford, who’d been a close friend of Captain Nutt, took the task of reading the letters on himself. As he read, his voice sometimes cracked with the emotion such painful memories produced. “He stood before the jury with those letters in his hand, trying to save his dead friend’s son from the penitentiary and, perhaps, from the gibbet,” Barclay says. “Judge Stowe and even the counsel for the prosecution felt the mysterious influence of the reading.”
When the letters were finished, James was led back into the court, now shivering and with what Barclay calls “a countenance indicative of great suffering”. His composure continued to ebb and flow as the trial progressed, with reporters noting that he often seemed calm and clear-eyed on one day, but nervous and exhausted the next.
Friday January 18 brought another blow for the prosecution. In attempting to rebut one of the points a defence witness had made, Patterson asked Judge Stowe for permission to introduce evidence that James had announced an intention of killing Dukes the moment he heard of his father’s death. Stowe ruled against this on procedural grounds, saying evidence like that should have been raised as part of the prosecution’s original presentation, not pulled out of the hat at this late stage.
The defence pressed this advantage home by suggesting to the judge that the trial be wrapped up on Monday, with that day’s seven hour session split equally between the two sides’ closing statements. Patterson objected, knowing it was his case that would suffer most from this accelerated schedule, but his efforts seemed lukewarm at best. Prosecuting James had been an uphill battle from the moment the trial started and now Patterson seemed to lose whatever heart remained. Judge Stowe agreed to the defence’s suggestion and announced that Monday would be the trial’s final day.
The two sides spent that weekend preparing their speeches for the trial’s climax. Johnson and Patterson would handle matters for the prosecution, while the defence fielded Major Brown and Senator Voorhees. This was an age of great courtroom oratory and everyone knew these men’s rhetorical skills would carry just as much weight as the underlying evidence.
The first of the day’s four addresses was given by Johnson, speaking for the prosecution. These are just a few brief extracts of what he told the jury:
“It is not the policy of the law to search for revenge, but it is the law that when one commits a murder, he shall forfeit his life for the offence. It is the sole barrier between cold-blooded murder and the victim.”
“The day that Dukes was shot, the prisoner and his two uncles were practicing with pistols and, when Stephen Nutt rode away, he said to James Nutt ‘Be sure and don’t fail’. […] Not two hours after the shooting, James Nutt in jail told the jailer that ‘it had to be done’. Why? Because Stephen Nutt told him to be sure and not fail. If Mrs Nutt’s testimony that the poor boy there had not a sound intellect is true, then why did she and why did his father allow him to carry a pistol, as was done from the time he was five years old? That mother ought to be ashamed of herself.”
“Here you have the facts that the father had been killed, the daughter insulted and Dukes acquitted. Is there any astonishment, then, that Stephen Nutt should practice pistol shooting with James Nutt? No, gentlemen, there was no need of insanity. There was impetus enough.”
Although everyone listened attentively to Johnson’s address, it was clear the public gallery was not with him. His comments about James’s mother produced an audible hiss of disapproval among the spectators and reporters spotted curled lips and smiles of derision throughout the crowd as he spoke.
The defence team’s Major Brown was next up. It was the style of public speakers in those days to lay it on pretty thick and Brown did not disappoint. Here’s a taste of his oratory:
“James was always a home boy. His teacher said that he was a good boy. He was not crazy, but was weak mentally. When he came home from Rochester in answer to a telegram and found his father dead, with his face blackened and crushed by the hand of an assassin, his mother in bed hovering between life and death, his reason tottered and his mental control gave way to a wounded mind – to influences beyond all mortal mind.”
“His mind was shattered and at last, in one delirious effort, he struck down the author of his woes and cast off the burden that had placed an iron band around his brain. His words, ‘I could not help it. It had to be done,’ tell us it was a control far beyond his arm that directed his hand in the deed he did.”
This was good stuff and it got a much warmer response than Johnson had received. “When Major Brown began to speak, he at once became the idol of the woman portion of the audience and as soon as possible they were in tears,” Barclay tells us. “One woman even went so far as to sink from her seat to her knees, while the expression of her face and the motion of her lips showed that she was in prayer.”
The court’s noon recess came just after Brown’s speech ended, giving everyone a chance to compose themselves and grab something to eat. With two more show-stopping speeches to come, plus the judge’s summing up, no-one was going to risk losing their spot in the gallery. Many spectators had thought of this and come equipped with elaborate packed lunches, which they now started to lay out on their laps. Others sent out to nearby restaurants to have food delivered. “For a time, the courtroom presented more the appearance of an indoor picnic ground than a temple of justice,” the NYT notes. (38)
Senator Voorhees rose to speak straight after lunch. In an impressive display of cheek, he told the jury that their duty to release James was so manifestly clear that barely a word was needed from him – and then proceeded to speak for over 90 minutes without interruption. Once again, a couple of extracts will have to content us here:
“Not in 200 years has a father, son or brother been convicted for doing what that boy has done. Never, since the reign of Charles I, has the man who took the honour of his family in his own hands and avenged it had the bonds of the law laid upon him. Honour is the same to everybody everywhere and the destruction of a home is a like calamity to its people and ourselves. I stand, therefore, upon common law when I say there is no criminal here. I stand, too, upon Scriptural law.”
“Find him guilty and there would a wail go up that would drown the thunder of the heavens. Erect a gallows to hang him and the women of this country would rescue him. For the men, no-one expects him to be convicted. All nature cries out against it.”
It was a masterful speech, and Voorhees carried the rapt spectators with him every step of the way. At one point, he declared that his own advice to James would have been to “take a shot-gun, wait until you see [Dukes] on the street and shoot him down”. This prompted a sad shake of the head from Judge Stowes, but hearty cheers among the spectators. “When the Senator closed, there was a general rush for his hand,” says Barclay. “Judge Kirkpatrick, who is noted for his severity, came down off the bench and, with tears in his eyes, thanked Mr Voorhees for what he had said. It was a long time before order was restored.” (39)
“Follow that!” Patterson might have thought to himself, knowing it was now his turn to speak and that he carried with him the prosecution’s last chance of securing a win. He began by acknowledging the defence’s “skilled generalship” in putting James’s case – perhaps a way of suggesting they’d been trying to bamboozle the jury – but insisted on returning to the core facts. Where Brown and Voorhees had given speeches full of high rhetoric, Patterson relied on a much plainer, sober style.
“No one can deny the fact that Nutt is charged with murder and that he, without immediate provocation, shot down a human being on the street. We do not consider that there was any delusion in the shooting of Dukes by Nutt. The latter’s mind was worked up by the real facts and provocations. There was no delusion and therefore he was not in an insane condition of mind when he perpetrated the act.”
“If Captain Nutt had not invaded Dukes’ room on that Sunday morning to intimidate him into marrying his daughter, but had burned the letters, there would have been no tragedy. It was Captain Nutt’s own rash act that has made his daughter’s name known throughout the world. The prisoner’s remark to Sheriff Hoover that he was prepared for the act [of shooting Dukes] and did it was that of a sane man. If that is madness, it is most methodical madness. James Nutt is not entitled to any sympathy. You are to try this case under the law and evidence.”
Good as it was, Patterson’s speech got a very hostile reaction from the partisan crowd looking on. Some spectators simply walked out of the courtroom to register their protest at the line he was taking. Hissing in the gallery reached its peak when Patterson hinted that Dukes’ charges against Lizzie may have been true all along. At that moment, Barclay, says, “Miss Nutt leant her head on her mother’s shoulder and appeared to be unconscious for a time”.
Judge Stowe called a recess as soon as Patterson sat down, announcing that the court would assemble again at 6:45 that evening to hear his summing up. The crowd hunkered down to wait out another break and eat whatever food they had left from lunch.
Stowe began his summing up shortly before 7:00pm. “Murder is where one of sound mind takes the life of a fellow being with malice aforethought,” he reminded the jury. “He who takes the life of another with sufficient time to reason is guilty of murder in the first degree. You have a right to return a verdict of murder in the first or second degree, or of manslaughter.” He then went on to define exactly what would be needed to satisfy a verdict of manslaughter in this case, stressing the point in a way which convinced many he believed this could be the only satisfactory verdict.
“The conclusion I arrive at is this,” Stowe continued. “In order to acquit the prisoner, the jury must find from the evidence that he was subject to a power greater than his will. For my part, I have little faith in that insanity which shows itself for a moment and then flies away, leaving no trace behind. […] You have the evidence of expert witnesses, which must be valued as the jury may see fit, for they are usually selected with a view to their ability to give favourable testimony, and very often for hire.”
“If you acquit, you must state that you do so on the ground of insanity. If Nutt has been shown by fair weight of testimony to have been irresponsible, he should be acquitted. If, by a fair weight of testimony, he has been shown to have been sane, he should be convicted in some degree of crime. The commonwealth does not demand an acquittal any more than a conviction, but she does demand a just verdict.”
James nervously turned from the judge to the jury and back again throughout this address, trying to gauge how deeply Stowe’s words were taking root. The defence team did their best to reassure both him and his mother that all would be well in the end. Only the jury’s opinion mattered now and, at 7:50pm, they retired to the consulting room to consider their decision.
“Bets were freely made that they would be back in ten minutes with a verdict of ‘not guilty’,” Barclay tells us. “The prisoner and his friends chatted gaily with each other and the ladies and gentlemen who came to tender their congratulations. Judge Stowe left the bench and gossiped about political affairs with Senator Voorhees. But the jury did not return in ten minutes, nor in half an hour and the less sanguine friends of Nutt began to wonder whether there was any possibility of a disagreement.”
Judge Stowe visited the jury room at 8:30pm and was told no verdict could be agreed on that night. He sent everyone home to get a good night’s sleep. As the guards led James back to his cell, Mrs Nutt slipped her arm round his neck and gave him a tearful kiss. Lizzie was doing her best to cheer him up, but her buoyant manner belied the family’s growing nervousness. “Nutt’s friends are fearful that the slowness of the jury in arriving at a verdict bodes no good for the prisoner,” next morning’s NYT announced.
We know now that the jury’s first ballot that evening showed nine votes finding James not guilty (six of which did so on grounds of insanity) and three finding him guilty. Three more ballots were needed to resolve this spilt, with the jury finally reaching agreement at 7:00 on Tuesday morning. Three hours later, when they filed into the courtroom to give their verdict, the whole building and the surrounding streets were packed with people anxious to hear the news. Told to stand for the jury’s decision, James half-collapsed and had to be held up by a court official.
The jurors’ foreman was a farmer named Thomas Graham. Their verdict, he announced, was: “Not guilty, on account of insanity at the time the act was committed”. The effect of this announcement was like releasing the lid on a pressure cooker. “A wild cheer began right under the bench and swept back over the crowd, down the corridors and out into the street, where it was caught up by hundreds of voices and repeated again and again,” says the NYT. (40)
Judge Stowe managed, with some difficulty, to restore order in the courtroom and then reminded everyone that James wasn’t a free man just yet. The verdict established that he’d been insane at the moment he killed Dukes, but the question now was whether that insanity had safely passed. If not, James might present a continuing danger to the community and it would be Stowe’s duty to see he was confined to an asylum. There were shocked gasps in the crowd as Stowe sent James back for another night in jail, saying he’d hear testimony from medical experts tomorrow morning. “If they decide it is safe for the public welfare for James Nutt to be placed at liberty, I will then discharge him,” the judge added.
Next morning’s NYT carried a powerful editorial about the trial. It was Voorhees’ emotive appeal to the jury’s atavistic notion of family honour which swung the case, it argued, not any genuine belief about James’s mental state when he pulled the trigger. “The theory of emotional insanity deceives nobody,” the paper declared. “Probably, not one of the jurors in the case accepted it in good faith. […] That this is a miscarriage of justice, no reasonable man will deny. It is an ingenious evasion of all kinds of law. It sanctions taking into one’s own hands the avenging of private wrongs.”
None of this much seemed to bother the crowds waiting outside the courtroom on Wednesday morning as Stowe consulted with a panel of four doctors, who all said James now presented no danger to the public. Stowe told him he was free to go, and James headed for Major Brown’s office where his mother and sister were waiting.
“On the way he was tendered a perfect ovation,” says the NYT. “Hundred of people followed in front of and behind him. Old men patted him on the back, women crowded around him and children pushed and shoved to get a look at the boy made famous by the great trial. The scene at Major Brown’s office was very affecting. His mother and sister wept bitterly as they threw their arms around him and the joy they expressed seemed to know no bounds. A number of the jurors who sat in judgement were admitted and shook his hand warmly, one remarking: ‘Jimmy, if they do anything to you in Fayette, send them down and we will see to them’. By this time, the crowd outside was so large that it was found necessary to call officers to clear the streets.” (41)
Even now, the affair wasn’t over. Ten years after Stowe reluctantly set him free, James found himself back in court on another murder charge – and this time the consequences would be far harder to escape.
Although we have relatively little information about Worner’s life, we can sketch in a rough outline. One of his earliest bottles, a crucifixion scene, is signed “Chas. Warner, Hanau am Main”, linking him to a German town on the Main river near Frankfurt. Hanau’s thought to be his birthplace, with further evidence of German ancestry provided by the fact that he sometimes spelt “Karl” with a German “K” rather than the more common American “C” and would often add an umlaut over the “o” in his surname.
Leonhardt and Christine Maiers, the St Louis saloon owners I mentioned earlier, were themselves German immigrants to the US and it was their grand-daughter who gave that bottle to Missouri State History’s museum. Judging by the other saloon owners’ names listed above (such as Neubauer and Rummel), Worner would often choose German-owned taverns to ply his trade.
We know for sure he’d reached America by 1893, because we have a signed and dated bottle he made that year at the World’s Fair in Chicago (also known as the Columbian Exhibition). A local butcher visiting the fair presented Worner with an empty bottle and had him construct a meat market scene inside. Also surviving is another Worner crucifixion scene, made in a pharmacy bottle from a drugstore in Norwalk, Connecticut, which dates from the first half of the 1890s.
Worner signed many of his bottles and dated about a quarter of those that survive, which allows us to trace his progress round America from around 1900 to 1920. “He made bottles for saloons and businesses in the St Louis area, all around Chicago, north central Illinois, a town around the Erie Canal around Buffalo NY, Havre-le-Grace MD, Reading and Wilkes-Barre PA and Newark NJ,” says the collector Susan Jones. “Almost all these places are near the coast, rivers or canals. (42)
“The greatest number of his bottles have been found to come from Chicago and northern Illinois, including two which make reference to the coal industry. Illinois coal country is connected both to the Great Lakes by river from Chicago and to the Mississippi by canal to Molene. The early Connecticut bottle may suggest that he came first to the east coast, worked around New York for a few years and then went to Chicago to work building or servicing the Columbian Exhibition. If he had a drinking problem, it could explain why he had only transient jobs and frequented so many saloons.”
This outline of Worner’s life places his work squarely in the tradition of those “God-in-a-Bottle” exhibits I saw at the Tate in London. Its own English bottles, the show’s catalogue points out, sprang from communities “working in construction or mining” and “most contain crucifixion scenes”. The handful of bottles Worner made containing intricate models of carriage clocks fit this same craft background. “The tradition of making models of all types in bottles seems to have begun in Europe in the early 18th century and has its roots in the German and East European folk-art tradition,” the Tate catalogue adds. Who better to continue it, then, than a German immigrant to the New World?
In some cases, Worner would tack a tiny poem to the wall of the bar scene he’d just completed, rendering it in either German or Swedish depending on the nationality of the particular saloon’s owner. I’ve seen various translations of these, but the core sentiment always remains the same. The German version’s “Wer nicht liebt bier, wein, weib und gesang / Bleibt ein narr sein leben lang”, for example, translates into English as: “Whoever loves not beer, wine, women and song / Remains but a fool for his whole life long”. Worner himself might have added tobacco to the list, as those who met him often note that he enjoyed a good cigar. (43)
He took a good deal of pride in the quality of his work, describing himself in at least one signature as “the master whittler”. Like any craftsman, he was constantly refining his skills and finding new ways to keep himself interested in the task at hand. By 1912, he’d started building little tricks into his bottle scenes, often adding a “basement” which revealed its secrets only after very careful examination. In the case of the Granite City bottle, for example, he carved his usual bar scene with the saloon keeper and a couple of customers, but added a sign which read “Find the Missing Man”.
This sign was perched atop a coffin-shaped box beneath the bar’s floorboards. Though the box itself was clearly visible from every angle, the figure inside could be glimpsed only through the missing panel at one end. Anyone who picked up the bottle with his right hand automatically blocked the one angle from which the missing man could be seen. “The hobo who made the relic instructed our father to hand the bottle to the person examining it so that the person would pick up the bottle with his right hand,” Meyer’s son William told The Living Museum in 1995. “The outcome was a long search with little success.”
The basements which Worner added to Frank Bolit and Sven Mellin’s Chicago bottles conceal secrets of their own. Each has a flight of stairs leading down from the bar scene to a basement privy, the interior of which can be viewed only from the back of the bottle. When displayed with its rear safely against the wall, the bottle ensured decency was preserved, but any drinker spinning it round was able to chortle at Worner’s hidden figures relieving themselves. Bolit’s example shows a gents-only lavatory, with one man standing at a urinal and another sitting on the toilet nearby. Mellin’s facilities are divided into a Gents and Ladies, both occupied, again with one figure standing and one sitting.
Worner himself listed New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Honolulu among the many stops on his travels. There’s no doubt he roamed round America a good deal – probably travelling by water - and that he described himself as a hobo on at least one occasion in 1912 or 1913. Most likely, he also had spells of working throughout his time in America, moving on again whenever his wanderlust took hold. As he got older, though, the appeal of this nomadic life seemed to fade.
He retained a fixed address in St Louis long enough to appear on the city directory there between 1916 and 1918, where he’s listed as “Charles J Warner” at a house just five blocks from Henry Eiler’s Saloon on Easton Avenue. He later made Eiler a bottle sculpture of the joint. No job is listed against his name in St Louis, however. By the 1920s – when Prohibition must have been making the pickings from saloon bottles pretty thin – he was signing bottles with not only his name, but also a permanent address at 205 South Desplaines Street in Chicago. I like to think he was able to settle down to a quiet retirement there.
Shortly after the trial, James’s family sent him to live in Brown County, Kansas, where they’d found him work managing a Nutt family farm near Horton. In 1893, he married a Kentucky woman who he met through a Lonely Hearts ad, and became a father. (44)
Two of the staff James had working for him at the Kansas farmhouse were Jesse Payton and his wife. We know Mrs Payton worked in the house itself, suggesting that her main duties were cooking and housekeeping. At some point in 1893 – the same year James got wed – the Paytons abruptly quit their jobs to rent a farm of their own about eight miles away in Atchison County’s Grasshopper Township. The only clue we have to why they left is a later newspaper report saying relations between them and James had “become strained”. Until that point, the Paytons had got on well with their employer and considered him a friend. (45)
It was also in 1893 that James’s neighbours started to notice he was behaving oddly. He’d started drinking very heavily, carried a pistol with him everywhere he went and always seemed ready to start a fight. He’d proven himself pretty incompetent in running the farm and managed to load himself up with a great deal of debt.
Sometime in the last few days of January 1895, his mother sent him $150 and he immediately used that money to go out on an epic drinking binge. A few days into this bender, he called at the home of a local newspaper editor called Smith, whose paper, the Horton Headlight, had recently published an article raking up James’s role in the whole Dukes-Nutt affair. James told Smith he hadn’t thought much of that article and threatened to kill him for it. It took Smith two hours to talk James out of this plan and persuade him to leave the house.
Instead of going home to sleep it off, James kept right on drinking. On February 4, 1895, he turned up unannounced at the Paytons’ farmhouse and stumbled inside. Jesse Payton, as James may have known, was away all that winter cutting ice on Bean Lake in Missouri. His wife was home though, protected only by her five children and a farm worker called Leonard Colman, who was chopping wood outside when James arrived. Mrs Payton was then 28 and James about five years older.
“Nutt, who had been on a week’s spree, was in no pleasant mood and gruffly ordered Mrs Payton to get him some supper,” the Wichita Daily Eagle reports. “Mrs Payton complied, though more through fear than because she cared to and, scenting trouble, she quietly got the children from the room.”
Mrs Payton could see how drunk James was and knew that he’d have a gun on him. No doubt, she was hoping that, if she gave him the food he wanted and let him eat, she would then be able to persuade him to leave quietly and bring this whole intrusion to an end. What else could she do? James belonged to a rich, powerful family and the Paytons were just poor farmers. Their nearest neighbours were half a mile away, so it was no use hoping for help there.
As he ate, James became increasingly abusive, swearing at Mrs Payton in a way she’d never heard him do before. She had her youngest baby in her arms now, trying to quieten the frightened child as James continued his drunken rant. That’s when he announced he wanted to stay the night. Still hoping to pacify him, Mrs Payton said he could share a room upstairs with one of the farm’s hired hands. “What’s the matter with my sleeping with you?” James replied.
Mrs Payton told him he was being insulting and must stop talking that way or she would call Colman inside. James finally backed off a little, saying he’d been too hasty and offering Mrs Payton money if she’d only keep their conversation to herself. Perhaps he feared that word of his drunken advances would get back to his wife. But Mrs Payton refused the bribe, saying she might not tell Colman, but she would certainly tell her husband the minute he returned home in the spring.
At that, James’s volatile mood flipped from pleading back to anger, and he pulled a revolver from his coat. He fired a single shot into Mrs Payton’s left shoulder, sending her tumbling to the floor with the baby still in her arms. Hearing the gunshot, Colman came bursting into the house, still brandishing his axe. James shot him down – three bullets this time – then moved over to Mrs Payton and fired another shot straight into the back of her head. The bullet shattered her jaw as it exited. James then tried to stamp on the squirming baby, but was tackled by Colman who’d somehow struggled back to his feet.
One bullet had a cut a furrow into Colman’s chest, just above the heart, another had grazed across his forehead and the third gone into his arm – but still he managed to fight on. Finally, he struck James a heavy blow with on the head with the flat of his axe’s blade, stunning him just long enough for Colman to overpower him completely. He tied James securely to a chair and then ran to Mrs Payton’s neighbours to raise the alarm.
James was arrested and taken to Atchison jail, where he was found to be badly bruised in the head where the axe had hit him, but otherwise uninjured. Mrs Payton and Leonard Colman were taken for medical treatment, but it was thought that only Colman would live. If Mrs Payton died, as everyone was sure she would, James knew that meant he must face another murder charge.
He spent his first night in Atchison jail pacing back and forth in his cell, saying again and again, “My God, what possessed me to do it?’. He also begged his guard not to tell Mrs Nutt about her son’s arrest because “she has had enough trouble already”. Clearly, someone in the family heard about it, though, because by February 8, thoughts were already turning to James’s legal defence.
That day’s Brown County World reports that James had been visited in his cell by “friends in Everest who have called to render him assistance”. Everest is a Brown County town only six miles from Horton and the suggestion seems to be that these friends were beginning to plan how James could escape punishment. “They say he is crazy,” BCW explains. “That was the plea made when he killed Dukes.”
Colman recovered fairly quickly, but Mrs Payton’s life was still in the balance. Some newspapers were so keen to see James convicted of murder this time that they seemed almost impatient at her for delaying matters. “MRS PAYTON WILL DIE,” screamed a determined BCW headline on Feb 22. By the beginning of March, however, it began to look like Mrs Payton might live after all. She was able to give her own account of the crucial night’s events, and that description made James more unpopular than ever.
The case’s first court hearing came on March 4, 1895, when James was charged with shooting Colman. It was still unclear what charge might eventually be brought regarding Mrs Payton’s injuries, so she was kept out of it for now. James wept as he listened to Colman’s testimony. There was a large but orderly crowd there to watch, including James’s wife, baby and father-in-law. The examination ended with him being bound over to the district court for a future trial, his bail being set at $10,000 (worth over $250,000 today). When no bail bond could be furnished for that sum, he was returned to Atchison County jail. James cried again in the carriage taking him back to his cell, but whether those tears indicated remorse or self-pity we can only guess.
Mrs Payton’s recovery continued well and hopes of charging James with murder had to be dropped. Instead, he faced two charges of attempted murder, each of which carried a maximum prison term of ten years. The trial began in early May at Atchison. Mrs Payton gave her evidence on May 10, leaving James looking “pale and careworn” by the end of her testimony. Although he denied the charges against him, he would say nothing about why he’d acted as he did at the Paytons’ home. For the Atchison Globe, however, his motivation was never in doubt – emboldened by his release after the Dukes killing, James had decided he was now above the law. Couple that with a yearning for his former fame, the paper argued and what more explanation did you need?
“Old lawyers say that, when a man engages in a shooting and gets the best of it, he is apt to engage in another,” the AG’s leader declared. “Nutt was made a hero because of his shooting of [Dukes] in Pennsylvania, who had killed his father. Wherever he went, he was referred to by the papers as a prominent man. As a result, he longed to attain more prominence. He constantly carried a pistol after his arrival in the west and was always looking for a fight. He took to drinking, as killers usually do, and finally he developed a beautiful frenzy which resulted in his shooting a woman and a man and trying to stamp a baby into the floor. Men seem to be crazy for notoriety; some of them will do anything, even to shooting women and kicking babies, to attain it.” (47)
Back in the courtroom, the defence team continued with its established strategy. Its line of argument was neatly summed up by a mocking headline in May 12’s Wichita Daily Eagle: “Defence of Hereditary Insanity Is Set Up and the Accused Has the Satisfaction of Hearing His Ancestors Called Simpletons and Himself the Prize Idiot of the Lot.”
James must have felt a distinct sense of déjà vu as, once again, he was forced to listen as his nearest and dearest described what a cretin he was. “Mrs Charlotte Nutt and Joseph Nutt, mother and brother of the prisoner, dwelt upon [his] dullness, his lack of business qualifications, his poor judgement and his deficient mental capacity,” says the Leavenworth Times. “His wife testified of Nutt’s restlessness at night and said he often complained of pains in the head.” (48)
The Nutt family’s mental health was brought before the court as well, with one of James’s aunts said to now be so weak-minded that she needed a 24-hour guardian to keep her safe. The prosecution countered by calling a handful of James’s Kansas neighbours to testify that he’d always seemed sane enough to them.
What James’s lawyers had forgotten was that the tactic which saved his life in 1884 only worked when the jury was seeking an excuse to free the prisoner anyway. This time, the unwritten law which had once saved James actually argued for his conviction. No lawyer could spin his attack on Mrs Payton as anything but the brutal, unprovoked assault it was. Far from a bid to defend his family honour, this shooting had sprung from his own crude assault on a married woman’s virtue. Crazy or not, he’d get no courtroom bouquets for that.
The jurors retired to consider their verdict on the evening of Thursday, May 16 and came back just a few minutes later. James was guilty on two counts of attempted murder, they announced. He was sentenced to 15 years at Kansas State Penitentiary in Leavenworth. In the opinion of Brown County World, many Atchison folk would have much preferred to see James hang. “Atchison is so near Missouri that, like Missourians, people there enjoy a hanging”, the paper adds. (49)
As things worked out, James served little more than half the full 15-year term. His September 1903 parole was the work of Kansas State Governor Willis Bailey, acting on a petition from what the Leavenworth Times called “a large number of the influential citizens of Atchison County”. (50)
Bailey’s predecessor William Stanley had made two attempts to parole James during his own term, and perhaps its no coincidence that both these Governors were Republicans. Right from the beginning of this affair, Republicans had lined up behind the Nutt family and Democrats against them. With the GoP in control at the Kansas statehouse, the family’s powerful friends were well-placed to rescue James from his own follies yet again. The lesson for any would-be murderer, I suppose, is that it never hurts to have friends in high places.
Sources & Footnotes
1) Tate catalogue: British Folk Art, 2014.
2) 1883 Whimsy Bottle, by Arthur Wiggins I made several attempts to contact Mr Wiggins in the hopes of interviewing him for this piece, but never got a reply.
3) As late as 1922, Emily Post, America’s leading etiquette guru, remained convinced a chaperone was essential for any parents with a daughter to worry about. She writes: “Even though she has a father, unless he devotes his entire time to her, she must also have a resident chaperone to protect her reputation until she is married or old enough to protect it herself – which is not until she has reached a fairly advanced age of perhaps 30 years or over if she is alone, or 26 or so if she lives in her father’s house and behaves with irreproachable circumspection.”
4) These quotes are taken from an account Dukes wrote after his trial. It was reproduced in the New York Times of August 10, 1883.
5) The Uniontown Republican Standard published the full text of Dukes’ letters to Captain Nutt (and his replies) in its March 15, 1883 edition.
6) The only remotely comparable modern communication I can think of is Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s 2008 call to the 78-year-old Andrew Sachs gloatingly informing him that Brand had slept with Sachs’ grand-daughter. As if that weren’t oafish enough, they then broadcast their calls on Brand’s radio show.
7) Pennsylvania was (and remains) a commonwealth rather than a state.
8) Trial of James Nutt for the Killing of NL Dukes, by Edward Donnelly (Stevenson & Foster, 1884). This book gives long extracts from the transcripts taken at both the first two trials.
9) Daily Alta California, January 5, 1883.
10) Daily City News, March 15, 1883.
11) New York Times, March 16, 1883.
12) These lyrics, sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body, were adapted from an American Civil War song targeting Confederate states president Jefferson Davis. In their version, Unionist troops swore to “hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree”. Dukes’ trial came less than 20 years after the Civil War ended, so the song would still have been fresh in people’s memories.
13) Several papers reported that, just two days after fleeing Uniontown, the juror Jacob Amalong was attacked in his home town of Belle Vernon, about 20 miles to the north. The initial story was that Amalong had been beaten almost to death, but Belle Vernon’s authorities denied this. There had been great deal of indignation against him in the town, they said, but no actual violence.
14) In the event, Dukes never was disbarred from practicing law. The Pennsylvania bar kept kicking this difficult issue into the long grass until Dukes’ unexpected death solved it for them. There was also the wider question of whether he should be allowed to take up the Fayette County seat he’d already won in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. One local judge suggested that, if Dukes ever had the nerve to present himself at the state capital in Harrisburg, a party of citizens should meet him straight off the train and drive him out of town again. Dukes himself solved this one on March 26, 1883, when he wrote to the House speaker saying he would decline to take up the seat. Speaker John Faunce gratefully accepted this suggestion, declaring the seat vacant and a special election was called to find Fayette County a new representative.
15) Popular Justice in Pennsylvania: The Nutt-Dukes Tragedy, by Professor Robert Ireland (Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography, July 1989 edition).
16) Statistics sourced from http://feminist.com. Confirmed by British NHS sources.
17) Three months after the trial, the New York Times, claimed Dukes had been engaged to two other women in Uniontown at the same time he was engaged to Lizzie. “This may have been the motive which induced him to take the steps which he did to rid himself of Lizzie Nutt”, the paper says. Again, I don’t buy it: even in those circumstances, how could Dukes have thought the pregnancy letter would achieve anything but to make matters worse?
18) A rival theory, also covered by the NYT, claims that Dukes wanted to end the engagement because he’d heard Captain Nutt had mortgaged the family’s property and he feared that marrying Lizzie would lead to that debt falling on him. Even if that’s true, though, how could he imagine that the pregnancy letter would extricate him?
19) Wanko’s quotes are taken from Missouri History Museum’s History Happens Here blog: http://www.historyhappenshere.org/archives/7557.
20) Worner’s habit reminds me of the grizzled middle-aged men claiming to be Vietnam vets who seemed to haunt every US neighbourhood bar I ventured into back in the 1990s. They all had one of these guys, who would offer to make you a sculpture of a Huey helicopter or an M16 rifle using the pliers and copper wire they kept in their pocket. All they asked in return was that you buy them a beer or two.
21) Klausmann beer was one of the most popular beers in St Louis at the time of Worner’s visit, but – like many other American breweries – the business collapsed when Prohibition came along in 1920.
22) Woodhouse’s quotes are taken from her article Saloon In A Bottle, published in Seeking St Louis (Gateway Heritage, 1999).
23) Author interview, conducted by e-mail in July 2016. Mr Katz can be reached at Allan Katz Americana in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
24) The Living Museum magazine volume 57, number 3 (Illinois State Museum, 1995).
25) Die Sieben Schwaben means The Seven Men From Swabia (which is a region of southwest Germany). This folk-tale, collected by the Grimms, features seven simpletons who indulge in all sorts of ridiculously foolish behaviour. In his usual playful style, Worner shows only six figures in the bar, concealing the last one in its basement. “Wo ist der siebte gente?” his bottle asks – Where is the seventh gent? You can watch the PBS segment here.
26) In April 1883, Dunkirk’s Evening Observer published a story claiming Captain Nutt’s 15-year-old daughter Anna had staged her own bid for revenge against Dukes by throwing a cobblestone at him in the street.
27) The New York Times went so far as to compare James to Hamlet, who berates himself in Shakespeare’s play for failing to promptly revenge his father’s murder and his mother’s disgrace at the killer’s hands. Substitute “sister” for “mother” in many of Hamlet’s most self-critical speeches, the paper points out, and they describe James’s plight precisely.
28) Quebec Daily Telegraph, June 13, 1883.
29) New York Times, June 17, 1883.
30) New York Times, June 14, 1883.
31) The contrast with Captain Nutt’s grand funeral could hardly have been starker. Donnelly calls it “one of the most imposing demonstations of the kind ever seen in Fayette County,” saying the mourners included “many of the most prominent men in the State”.
32) New York Times, January 15, 1884.
33) Lizzie Nutt’s Sad Experience, by an anonymous author (Barclay & Co, 1886). This pamphlet provided most of the vintage drawings I’ve used here.
34) The crier was a court official whose duties included swearing in the witnesses and helping to keep procedural order.
35) New York Times, January 16, 1884.
36) New York Times, January 17, 1884.
37) New York Times, January 19, 1884.
38) New York Times, January 22, 1884.
39) Voorhees later claimed he’d had “hundreds” of telegrams congratulating him on this speech, including one from Queen Victoria. He was known to sometimes stretch the truth in his more excitable speeches, however, so I think we must take his claim about the queen with a pinch of salt.
40) New York Times, January 23, 1884.
41) New York Times, January 24, 1884.
42) Carl Worner: Folk Artist Extraordinaire, published on Susan Jones’ Folk Art In Bottles site: http://sdjones.net/FolkArt/worner.html. The same site’s Scenes & Buildings page has photographs of many of the Worner bottles discussed here.
43) An alternative translation of the poem (this one from Swedish) gives it as: “He who loves not wine, song and wife / Must stay a dimwit the rest of his life”.
44) Lizzie Nutt went on to marry a travelling salesman called Samuel Krepps, who sold caps and gloves for the Chicago firm Bush Simmons. The couple wed in December 1891 and lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, where they had three children. Lizzie died in 1936, aged about 75.
45) Wichita Daily Eagle, February 8, 1895.
46) Brown County World, February 8, 1895.
47) This Atchison Globe leader was quoted in the Brown County World story above. I don’t know which issue of the Globe they took it from.
48) Leavenworth Times, May 15, 1895.
49) Brown County World, May 17, 1895. Missouri was plagued by vigilante groups in the 19th century, including not only the Ku Klux Klan but also the Slickers, the Regulators and the Sons of Honour. Often, these groups hanged their victims and escaped any legal sanction for doing so. See Connie Sue Yen’s MSU graduate thesis here for more details.
50) Leavenworth Times, September 11, 1903.