A phone call earlier this week from a researcher reminded me of one of the more sordid episodes in county history.
On May 18, 1875, Mary Ann Whitby was beaten to death. A farm hand on her brother-in-law’s farm in Upper Providence named Thomas Curley later confessed to the crime.
Curley was about eighteen when he murdered Mary Ann “Mollie” Whitby. He had lived in an orphanage from the age of seven to the age of nine due to his mother’s inability to care for him. He left the orphanage at nine at his own request and wandered from farm to farm in eastern Pennsylvania. His employers never seemed very happy with his work.
The day of the murder, Curley was alone on the farm with Whitby, as his employer, Samuel Weikel had traveled with his wife and child to Norristown for the day (somewhat ironically, Weikel had been called for jury duty). Curley ate the dinner Whitby prepared for him around noon, then went back out into fields until 5 o’clock when he returned to the house. He then ran to a neighboring farm to tell them that he had found Miss Whitby badly beaten. He also claimed that while he had been eating his dinner, a tramp came to the door asking for money and Whitby sent him away saying, “you can not get what I have not about me.”
At first, the local people who gathered at the news of the murder did not suspect Curley. A man they thought might be the tramp was even detained in Norristown, but Curley said he was not the man.
The Courthouse as it appeared in 1870
Curley was tried at the Montgomery County Courthouse. He claimed he was innocent, but a neighbor testified that Curley had changed his hat when he went home for dinner. We have the transcript of his trial in our collection, and the prosecutor spent a lot of time on the hat and boots witnesses had seen Curley wearing in the morning. Several people noticed blood stains on both. Two doctors testified that Whitby’s wounds had been caused by an ax, and Weikel’s ax with a dark red stain on it was produced in the courtroom.
Curley’s lawyers brought to the stand other poeple who had seen a tramp that day in Upper Providence and two witnesses who found a bloody shirt by the side of the road in Chester County.
But, the jury didn’t buy the tramp story and Curley was convicted. His lawyers tired to get the conviction thrown out by claiming several jury members had been reading accounts of the trial in the newspaper. This attempt failed. On March 11, 1876, Curley was condemned to death.
According to the pamphlet about his crime, Curley faced his execution stoically. His attorneys encouraged him to confess in the hopes that it would lead the judge to mitigate his sentence.
I did strike that girl…I took and got a porter bottle and (smiling) filled it three times from this wine cask, and drank it. I felt kind o’ queer. I then went to dinner, I saw that Mollie [Mary Ann Whitby] watched me a little, I guess I must to have felt it a little. I eat [sic] my dinner and went back to the barn. I told Mollie, I was going back to Hoyer’s to plant corn. I went into the entry and up the stops and drank some more wine. I then saw a new grubbing hoe handled standing on the sill, in the entry near the winecask, I took it up and went to the house in the out kitchen and the door was open. Mollie was in, I said, Mollie I am going to strike you. She said, no you won’t, Thomas, and I up and struck her over the head with the grubbing hoe handle. She fell and never spoke a word.
When asked why he had done it, he said he didn’t know and repeated, “I felt quite queer.”
The confession worked on the jurors who signed a petition to commute his sentence, but the Board of Pardons decided not to stop the execution. He was hanged at Montgomery County Prison on September 10, 1877.
There’s an interesting footnote to Curley’s execution. We have in our collection a letter from N. A. Pennypacker to Samuel F. Jarrett, Esq., asking for admittance to the hanging. The letter is very faded (I tried to touch it up to make it more readable). He writes, “Mine, I assure you is not a morbid curiosity to witness the death of a human being, but being deeply interested in my profession I desire to see death in all its phases.” It’s possible that this letter is from Nathan A. Pennypacker, who was a doctor in Chester County during this time. We don’t know if he got in to see the hanging.