Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Even before Mary Gordy’s body had been positively identified by her sister, virtually everyone directly connected with the case, as well as many more who were not, were certain that James M. Gordy was the murderer. The coroner’s jury[i], whose main purpose was to determine whether there was evidence sufficient to go to trial for Mary Gordy’s death, explicitly stated that her death was “at the hand of James M. Gordy.” The highly specific nature of the indictment – that Mary Gordy was killed by multiple blows from a blunt instrument — gave the defense its only possible means to achieve an acquittal.
The prosecution, on the other hand, assembled a mountain of circumstantial evidence that they would use in their case against Gordy.
From the beginning, investigators were sure that Mary Gordy had been murdered rather than accidentally drowned. There were multiple severe wounds on her head; the medical examiners, Dr. Robert B. Hopkins and Dr. Robert H. T. Wilson, both of Milton, concurred that any one of these wounds, all caused by a blunt instrument, could have caused her death. The absence of water in her lungs also indicated to them that she had died before being thrown into the water. Thus, from almost the very beginning investigators had ruled out the possibility of other suspects (or multiple suspects) and focused on gathering proof of Gordy’s guilt.
The first problem was identification of the body found on the Broadkill; the victim was unknown to anyone locally. State Detective Walter L. Witsil and Constable Lynch of Georgetown were the investigators, and they immediately caught two lucky breaks. Addresses on some packages sent to Georgetown in the care of James M. Gordy identified the sender as Mrs. Mary Lewis of New York City. As she was unknown in Milton, the investigators assumed that she must have been the victim found in the river. The packages also established the connection to Gordy himself. Even before the body was positively identified by Mary Gordy’s sister, Gordy’s fate was sealed.
The second clue came from the Harry Messick family, tenants on a farm owned by Gordy. They had received a letter from Gordy saying that he would be there on the evening of Wednesday, March 10, and would bring his wife with him. He arrived around 2:00 AM on Thursday morning, March 11, alone[ii]. The young son of the Messicks told some people, and word eventually got to Witsil and Lynch. The body was not positively identified until Mrs. Gordy’s sister, “Mme. Grunert” of Brooklyn, NY, arrived and confirmed it was that of her sister.
More clues came from witnesses who had seen Mr. and Mrs. Gordy on the train that arrived in Milford on the evening of March 10. Two employees of the railroad, a member of the Delaware General Assembly, and a paperboy all testified that Gordy and a woman fitting the description of Mary Gordy were on the train. The station agent at Milford also said he spoke to a woman sitting at the station after the train departed; she identified herself as the wife of James Gordy and asked the agent if she knew him. He later saw Gordy drive up with a hired carriage and take her away.
In their reconstruction of the murder, the investigators believe that Gordy rowed his wife some distance downriver from Vaughn’s Landing, killed her in a secluded spot with a blunt instrument, threw her body into the river, abandoned the rowboat, walked through the mud back to Vaughn’s landing, then drove the hired carriage back to the Messicks’ farm. Footprints in the mudflats were measured by detectives and found to be the same size as Gordy’s shoes. Finally, one of the tenants, Mrs. Messick, made reference to cleaning a pair of Gordy’s mud-spattered trousers on his return.
Within two days of the discovery of the body, Gordy was caught by Detective Witsil and Constable Lynch as he was trying to flee his mother’s home, where he had been hiding. It was then, before anyone said anything about why he was being arrested, that Gordy blurted out “I did not harm that woman!” He also maintained that he did not know the victim, until confronted with the evidence that they were married and that she had sent her household effects to him.
During his time on the stand, Dr. Hopkins added further details attesting to the brutality of the murder. He believed that the first blow was struck in the front of Mary Gordy’s head, and then the body thrown into the river. The victim may have begun to revive in the water, so the murderer struck three more blows to the back of the head with an oar, to finish her off. The absence of blood stains on her clothing, which would surely have been the result of the three blows to the back of the head, indicated to Hopkins that those blows were delivered when the body was in the water and the blood flow thus dispersed into the river.
The strategy of defense attorneys Charles M. Cullen and Charles F. Richards appears to have been to challenge the specifics of the indictment, which accused Gordy of having struck his wife multiple times with a blunt instrument, causing her death. If the jury could be made to doubt the prosecution’s contention that Mrs. Gordy was dead before she entered the water – and could have thus drowned – the jury would have had to acquit Gordy on the charge as stated. They did this by calling only one expert witness to refute Drs. Hopkins and Wilson (unsuccessfully as it turned out) on the question of drowning without water present in the lungs.
The trial of James M. Gordy on the charge of capital murder began on April 12, and a verdict of guilty was reached by the jury on April 15, on the first ballot. In an interview with a reporter, one of Gordy’s defense lawyers stated that Gordy’s only hope was a hung jury; the verdict of guilty was expected by almost everyone involved.
The sentence imposed was death by hanging; it was carried out on June 11, 1897. James M. Gordy maintained his innocence until the very end.
Was justice served?
With a near-hysterical environment in Sussex County[iii] and the nearly universal presumption of the guilt of the accused, it was impossible for Gordy to have been given a fair trial in the county, or for the court to impanel a truly impartial jury. Today, in the face of overwhelming prejudice against the accused, a defense attorney would almost certainly have moved for a change in venue. Whether that was possible in Sussex County in 1897 is not known to me; any legal scholar familiar with court procedures of that area is welcome to provide that information.
Was there an appeals process for capital murder convictions in 1897? One line in a newspaper suggests that using the words “if no new trial is granted.” There was enormous pressure from Governor Tunnell and many others in the state to bring in the guilty verdict quickly and proceed with the execution, even if a new trial was almost certainly warranted because of the hostile and prejudicial environment of the first. Given the defense was resigned to a guilty verdict, it would appear to me that no one in the state had the appetite to go up against popular pressure and agitate for a new trial.
So, was justice served? From a distance of 120 years, with factual inconsistencies in press reports and a vastly different attitude then as to the rights of the accused, I can only provide a personal opinion that is not based on legal expertise (reading John Grisham novels and watching “Suits” on television does not count as legal training). The accused may have been guilty; the circumstantial evidence and his own bumbling attempts to deny his guilt are compelling enough. However, the judicial process was absolutely subverted in the popular hysteria for swift justice and punishment.
I invite anyone with first-hand knowledge of how the prosecution of criminal cases is conducted to comment and help the readers of this blog understand a little better how the Gordy case could have been tried differently.
The trial was over, the sentence was carried out, but James M. Gordy’s name remained in the news for several years in connection with the disposition of his property, questions of title to land transactions in the years before his first wife died, assertions that his former house and farmstead were haunted, and superstitious avoidance of the Broadkill River, especially near the site where Mary Gordy’s body was found.
The most important Milton figures in the trial were the medical examiners Dr. Robert B. Hopkins and Dr. Robert H. T. Wilson. Dr. Hopkins went on to practice medicine in Milton until his death in 1942, was very civic-minded and highly respected in Milton and by the Delaware medical community. His name appears in the Delaware press many times throughout his life, and always in a positive light.
Dr. Robert H. T. Wilson was a more difficult character to comprehend. He practiced medicine in Milton for decades, as did his colleague Dr. Hopkins, but most of his press mentions are in connection with minor mishaps as well as serious accusations. The Wilmington News Journal of August 27, 1908 reports that on a trip to Philadelphia, Dr. Wilson was given “knockout drops” to render him unconscious, then robbed. The Wilmington Evening Journal of Sep 28, 1915 reports that Dr. Wilson’s driver’s license was revoked for DUI. Much more serious allegations of performing an “illegal operation” (abortion) and causing the death of the woman involved were made against him, on May 1st and 2nd, 1929. The case went to trial and he was acquitted on the strength of the testimony on his behalf by six Sussex County physicians. Just as serious was an allegation by a Federal narcotics agent that Dr. Wilson sold narcotics illegally, for which he was arrested. He failed to raise bail immediately and was confined to the workhouse until the money was obtained. The formal indictment accused him of selling 34 hypodermics of a morphine derivative to a woman who was not his patient, and not recording the sale. There is no record in the press of the outcome of this trial; Dr. Wilson died in October of 1935.
There are a few mentions of State Detective Walter L. Witsil in the press, starting with his involvement in the 1892 Katy Duggan murder case in Wilmington that remained unsolved. By 1910, Walter L. Witsil had become a private detective.
Gordy Trial and aftermath
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1897, pages 1 and 10
Baltimore Sun, March 16, 1897, page 7
Philadelphia Times, March 19, 1897, page 1
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 19, 1897, page 1
Harrison Daily Independent, March 19, 1897, page 2
Wilmington Morning News, April 14, 1897, page 1
Harrison Daily Independent, April 15, 1897, page 1
New York Times, April 16, 1897, page 3
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 1897, page 1
Wilmington Morning News, Nov 18, 1898 – 5
Wilmington Evening Journal, Feb 24, 1899, Page 3
Wilmington Morning News, April 30, 1910, page 5
Wilmington Morning News, December 26, 1976, page 18
Dr. Robert H. T. Wilson
Wilmington Evening Journal, Mar 19, 1900 – Page 6
Wilmington News Journal, Aug 27, 1908 – Page 7
Wilmington Morning News, Aug 28, 1908 – Page 6
Wilmington Evening Journal, Sep 28, 1915 – Page 16
Wilmington News Journal, May 2, 1929 – Page 1
Wilmington Morning News, May 2, 1929 – Page 1
Wilmington Evening Journal, May 2, 1929 – Page 8
Wilmington Evening Journal, Feb 11, 1930 – Page 36
Wilmington News Journal, Jun 30, 1934 – Page 10
Wilmington News Journal, Jul 9, 1934 – Page 13
Wilmington Morning News, Jul 10, 1934 – Page 5
Wilmington News Journal, Oct 26, 1935 – Page 4
[i] Similar to a grand jury, a coroner’s jury reviews evidence to determine whether a death is homicide and there is sufficient detail to go to trial. This form of pre-trial investigation has been disappearing from use. The coroner’s jury in the Gordy case included prominent Miltonians John B. Welch, Captain Charles H. Atkins, Captain John F. Fisher, Captain Henry Hudson, and James Ponder, son of the former governor of Delaware.
[ii] There are contradictory accounts as to what time Gordy arrived at his tenants’ home, but all agree that he was alone.
[iii] On the second day of the trial, nearly 3000 people tried to force their way into the Georgetown courtroom where it was being held.