On March 19, 1897, the well-dressed corpse of a woman was found in the Broadkill River, near Vaughn’s Landing, by Milton residents John Robinson and William Magee. One account told of them finding the body upright, head and shoulders above the water, feet planted firmly in the mud, eyes staring vacantly. Another account said that the body was upright, but only the top of the head was visible above the water. The subsequent investigation, the rapid arrest of the suspected murderer, and the trial that followed infuriated Sussex County citizens, who gathered in a mob of hundreds to lynch the suspect at the Georgetown jail; only a greatly reinforced police presence prevented the mob from achieving what they had come for. The story of this case was reported by newspapers from Delaware to California.
I am writing, of course, about the murder of Mary Lewis Gordy in 1897. She was a New York City woman newly wed to Georgetown resident James M. Gordy. Gordy was presumed guilty of her murder almost immediately after the body was identified, and that presumption of guilt would result in a swift trial, conviction, and execution.
This is a tale that is often retold in print, being as fascinating and lurid today as it was then. In the present retelling of the story, compiled from many newspaper reports of the day, there is also the opportunity to bring to light the roles of some of Milton’s leading citizens in the investigation and the trial.
This post, the first of two, will present the background of the victim and perpetrator, and a reconstruction of the murder.
Mary Estella Grunert, originally from Milwaukee, married Major Robert M. Lewis, Civil War pensioner and chemist, in 1893 and settled in New York City. The Major was twenty years older than his bride, and Mary’s father refused to accept the marriage.
Lewis developed a new process for the production of red ink at low cost, which proved highly successful with banks, lawyers and insurance companies. He died suddenly in November of 1896, leaving the business to his widow. Sometime soon after her husband’s death, Mary Lewis placed an ad looking for a buyer for her late husband’s red ink manufacturing process. It is at this point fate brought her in contact with James M. Gordy, who responded to the advertisement and offered to buy the process. Within a matter of weeks, on February 25, 1897, Mary Lewis married James M. Gordy, and agreed to move with him to his Delaware farm.
As the Queen Anne Railroad had not completed their extension of track through Ellendale and Milton until later that year, Mr. and Mrs. Gordy arrived in Milford by train on March 10, 1897 at 7:00 PM, with the intention of taking a carriage to Mr. Gordy’s farm. By the end of that evening, Mary Gordy was dead.
Once the victim was identified and her status as Gordy’s wife established, suspicion immediately fell on her husband. Milton townspeople believed the 30-year-old James Gordy was responsible for the deaths of both his father, Peter Benton Gordy, and his first wife, Sarah Pennewill. Both died in 1895; the cause of death for Peter B. Gordy was given as “blood vessel broake” (sic), while Sarah Pennewill Gordy’s death was caused by “spasms.” Certain words in Victorian medical terminology are euphemisms for “cause unknown.” “Spasms” and “brain fever” are two examples of such euphemisms, often appearing on death certificates or death notices in newspapers. Given the crude state of coroners’ inquests in the 1890’s, when they were performed at all, there was no way of knowing whether the broken blood vessel or the spasms were triggered by some sort of poison, but it would appear that the people of Sussex County had already decided that such was the case. It was thus quite easy for them to conclude that any sudden death of a person associated with James M. Gordy was perpetrated by him.
Oddly enough, no newspaper article stated the name of Gordy’s first wife, nor the fact that at the time of her death they had two very young children, Elmer and Adolphus. The children were in all likelihood taken in by their grandmother, Rebecca Collins Gordy, while their father took his repertory of con games and scams on the road. Newspaper reports tell of at least two instances where Gordy bought farm property, insured the buildings on it, and then collected the insurance when the buildings mysteriously burned down. Alleged insurance fraud is small potatoes when compared with a scam that he ran for several years in Maryland: collecting a fee for teaching students how to use a process he developed for converting a photograph into a crayon drawing. There was, naturally, the promise of a lucrative business upon course completion. The business only made money for Gordy, however.
The manner in which Mary Lewis Gordy met her end was reconstructed based on the accumulation of circumstantial evidence and interviews conducted by investigators. There were no eyewitnesses, and there was no physical evidence in the modern meaning of the term that would have placed the killer at the scene of the murder. Even if there had been, the forensic science needed to analyze it and draw conclusions would not be available for another hundred years.
Based on the medical examiners’ findings and the narrative of several witnesses interviewed by investigators, it was believed that James Gordy drove his wife up to Vaughn’s Landing on the Broadkill River, induced her to come into a small boat which he rowed to a secluded spot, then struck her head several times, most likely with an oar, but possibly with a hammer as well. He then dumped the lifeless body into the river and left the scene. His movements afterwards were to dispose of his dead wife’s belongings and evade capture.
Critical to the outcome of the trial that followed Gordy’s arrest was the presumption of guilt, publicly stated by the prosecution and the majority of Sussex County citizens. The verdict was, in many people’s minds, a foregone conclusion.
Next post: gathering the evidence, the prosecution’s case, the defense, the verdict, and the sentencing.