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In this Place: February 3, 2016

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Cold Case Investigation
by Trish Adams

In the run up to Valentine’s Day, I was going to share some tales of love gone wrong — a topic reported in lurid detail in the early part of the 20th century until the 1920s or so, when a respect for personal privacy or the perceptions of newsworthiness shifted on such matters—except for suicides, which remained front page fodder for decades longer. Instead I stumbled on a tragic case that was just too incredible not to share. You will no doubt —as I did—scratch your head in dumbfoundment that anyone, let alone a coroner, doctor or law enforcement officer, could have considered this a suicide for more than two seconds. And that led me to some amateur sleuthing, asking hypothetical questions to those testifying, and wondering also what was possibly (deliberately) left out of the reporting. I invite you to pose your own questions and reach your own conclusions, then to see what I came up with at the end. I have deleted some of the repetitions in the reporting but have tried to maintain the inconsistencies.

January 28, 1910

Young Girl Suicide

Miss Bessie Wheeler of Davenport committed suicide last Sunday after noon by shooting herself six times with a pistol that she had purchased in Oneonta a few days before.

The conditions which led to the taking of her life having become known, sorrow and sympathy for the over-confiding girl have become stronger than ever, and the cause of her trouble, whoever he may be, is execrated for his lack of manhood and cowardice in forsaking her at such a time.

Brought to the very verge of childbirth, none but one in so great grief can imagine the torture of mind and body the young girl suffered, before a final resolve was reached to end it all by death. And then the revolver shots and so many of them, ere the mark was reached. Let the mantle of charity cover her, and let her fall be a warning to all young people to avoid forbidden paths.

February 4, 1910

Was Young Girls’s Death Murder or Suicide?

Hearing behind closed doors

Readers will recall a story last week to the effect that Miss Bessie Wheeler had committed suicide on the eve of becoming a mother.

Later developments seem to indicate that she was murdered and it is claimed that the revolver had been reloaded once and that eight shots had been fired. The Stamford Mirror tells the story as follows:

Bessie Wheeler had been employed at the Neer hone for about five years, being at an early age compelled to earn her own living. The writer talked with several of the best people in Davenport and all stated that the girl’s character was of the best as far as they had ever heard. For the past several years she had kept company with Charles Terrell and they have been together much since childhood. Terrell is the son of Wellington Neer’s eldest daughter, Maggie.

The day of the tragedy three or four girl friends of the girl visited her at the Neer home. They all had a good time, and about 4 p.m. she complained of a headache and Mrs. Neer told her to lie down. She accordingly went to her room and that was the last seen of her alive. Mrs. Neer went up to call her about six o’clock and found her lying on her back dead. Dr. Craig, the coroner was called. He looked the body over and it was prepared for burial. Her mother insisted on the body being brought to her own home which was done the next day and it was here that Drs. Scott and Craig held the autopsy. They found that she would have become a mother within 24 hours. Up to this time nothing was known of her unfortunate condition. The people of tha village demanded that an investigation be held and the District Attorney was at once notified.

Hamilton Hewitt is now at Mattice’s hotel conducting a [private] hearing.

There were eight bullet holes in her chest, one in her arm, and three through the heart. There is one bullet hole in the bedstead which must have been fired by someone standing. Both hands were covered with blood but no blood on the revolver handle. The weapon was a 22 calibre H. & R. revolver, double action, model 1906. The revolver was near her right hand. Although no tangible evidence has been yet disclosed, the motive is very plain. There were eleven empty shells found in the room, six in the revolver and five in a box on dresser. Just above the left breast were six holes within a radius of one and one-half inches. One loaded shell was found in the revolver, which proved that the gun had been reloaded during the shooting. This is the strangest part of the whole matter.

February 11, 1906

Bessie Wheeler Probably Died by Her Own Hand

There is little or no truth in the report that was sent out from Utica and printed in many of the Sunday newspapers...that Bessie Wheeler . . . was murdered. The case is entirely in the hards of Coroner T. L. Craig of Davenport and District attorney Neish of Delaware county. After two days examination last week the investigation was adjourned and it may never reach the grand jury.

While the evidence disclosed at the investigation will not be given to the public, it is stated with some authority that Dr. Scott, the coroner’s physician who conducted the autopsy, and Dr. H. A. Gates of Delhi, who was called, did not agree upon the possibility that Miss Wheeler fired all the shots, including the three which took effect in her heart. . . . Dr. Gates testified that, in his judgment, it is possible that the girl fired all the shots. The fact that she was about to become a mother and with no one but herself to face the world, might have made her desperate so that she possessed strength beyond a woman in a normal condition and was more determined to make a certainty of death.

There is a well substantiated story about the village of Davenport that both Charles Terrell and Miss Wheeler attended a dance a week before her death, and that she asked him if he intended to accompany her home, to which he replied in the negative and that she then informed him that she would end his days if he did not. No confirmation could be obtained that this was admitted by Terrell.

The case, while believed by many to have been a murder, has many very puzzling features and, from all the evidence thus far brought to light, the probability of securing a conviction of any one seems very remote.

It has been ascertained that the cartridges were purchased at the store of the Townsend company. The inquiry has apparently narrowed down as to the question of who bought the revolver. If it was bought by Miss Wheeler the inquiry will be dropped, but if it was bought by a man an indictment will follow.

The opinion is gaining ground in Davenport that the unfortunate young woman committed suicide. Many there who have been upholding the murder theory have changed their minds and believe that the girl came to her death by her own hands.

The mother of Chas. Terrell who had been much in the company of Miss Wheeler for the last two years received the following letter from the young woman a day or two before her death:

Friend Maggie:

Just a line. Can I come over to your house and have a talk with you? You said Sunday you would like to know what the trouble between Chas. and I was about, so Maggie I want you to know all about it. If I come I am going to tell you the whole thing from beginning to the end if Chas. don’t tell you.

Now Maggie I know you and Edna feel hard towards me but when you know the truth you will feel different about it. It seems hard to think I have drove Chas. away from his Grandpa and Grandma [her employers]. I cannot see what has caused it, but when we all learn the truth it will be better for us both. I have thought I would come over and talk with you and then I thought tat you had so much sewing on hand that maybe I better write to you and see if you would like to have me come.

Now will you please drop me a line and tell me if you want to come, I know I have done some wrong things but one ever thinks until it is too late, so I think if we have a talk together it will be better so please drop me a line of let me know someway.


February 18, 1910

Bessie Wheeler Suicide

It is impossible to state at this writing whether or not anything has been done by the Grand Jury, now in session, towards clearing up the mystery surround ing the famous Bessie Wheeler case.

Thus far little has been secured to support the suspicion of murder, other than the fact that six bullets entered the left breast and the course of the bullets indicates that the revolver must have been held squarely in front of the body.

Since the coroner commenced the examination, he has been puzzled to find a satisfactory explanation of who purchased the revolver that Besse Wheeler had in her possession when she returned from a visit in Oneonta about January 5. Mr. Townsend admitted that he sold the revolver and cartridges to a woman who appeared to be over 30 years of age. His best remembrance is that she was dark complexioned and about 5 ½ feet tall. She did not appear nervous, asking to look at revolvers and purchasing one of the cheap grades..

During the time that he was in Davenport, Mr. Townsend was taken to the home of Mrs. Adna Badeau, the mother of Charles Terrell. Mr. Townsend declared that she does not resemble the woman who bought the revolver. Sorry but this story has so many holes even by 1910 standards that some deeper case of community denial must be afoot. To wit: who could possibly believe that eight (or was it 11?) shots were fired unheard by anyone else in the household? Those blasts would have led immediately to a rush to the source and discovery of the body, most likely before the shooter could leave the scene. Why was the body prepared for burial before the autopsy, on which her mother apparently insisted? Why would a girl who had erstwhile been on intimate terms with her boy- friend’s mother write a pleading and repetitive letter asking to visit to reveal a portentous secret? Surely she would simply have gone to see her. The letter itself (from which I have edited some repetitions) strains credulity in both content and tone. Why was the hearing held in private? Inquests are typically public. I think we all can take for granted that no one could truly believe anyone, let alone a young woman nine months pregnant, could stand erect while firing six shots into her body: the force of the gunshot, never mind the catastrophic injury, would have knocked her down. Blood on her hands but not on the revolver? And the gun was reloaded?! Also why would purchase of the revolver by Bessie (for which there is no proof and, in fact, considerable doubt from Townsend’s testimony) necessarily close the case? She may have purchased it being suicidal without having the nerve to carry out the deed herself. My conclusion is that Bessie Wheeler was murdered by someone in the Neer family, probably Charles Terrell, who could have been nearly as terrified and desperate as she. The lovers might have made a suicide pact that he did not fulfill (firearms are not a common method of suicide for women, but they overwhelmingly are for men.) But the number of shots fired speaks to a crime of intense rage and passion, not calculated desperation. If the crime and murderer were discovered when it happen- ed, the family may have closed ranks around him or her, with the tacit consent of the public officials involved. Clearly the Neer family had a far greater social standing than an impoverished domestic, and since Bessie was dead, there may have been an almost unconscious unwillingness to destroy another life to avenge her. Such wide- scale community denial is not only possible, it can also take root and find affirmation in the community media outlets sworn to investigate and report the truth. As far as I can discover, no indictments were ever made. What are your conclusions? Have some sleuthing insights or theories to share? You can send them to our Mailbag or email me at graphics@catskillmountain news.com. Or go hunt up some cold cases of your own at nys historicnewspapers.org/middle town!

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