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Edward Earl was impatient to be hung

Like many 19th Century murderers, Edward Earl satisfied the public’s thirst for the macabre by publishing his confession, profits to go for the welfare of his daughter. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

When I’m asked why there haven’t been more old-time murder stories lately, I’ve replied truthfully that we’ve already visited so many, the list of those remaining is getting slimmer. Yet the story of Hamilton County murderer Edward Earl is certainly unusual: He is the only murderer I’ve ever encountered who was in a hurry to get his execution over with.

The Aug. 25, 1881 Gloversville Standard related most of what was known about this mysterious man, exact name undetermined, who called himself Edward Earl, lived in Sageville, now Lake Pleasant, and brutally murdered his unfaithful wife with a stolen tannery scraper on a wintery morning in 1881 as she was about to water a horse.

“In 1857, a young man who gave the name of Edward Earl and said he came from the south made an appearance in the Town of Benson, Hamilton County. He was a blacksmith and was given a cordial welcome in his new home. It was soon noticed, however, that his habits were dissipated, but being an excellent mechanic, little attention was paid to this. On January 18th, 1868, he married Mary Burgess of the Town of Hope. Earl and his wife did not appear to live happily together, although they did have three children, one of whom survived, but there was no serious difficulty until 1877, when he came home unexpectedly and found his wife and one George Brown, a logger, under circumstances permitting no doubt she was an adulterous wife. Their life together after this was a stormy one and after one particularly serious encounter, Earl was sentenced to 3 and ½ years in Dannamora.”

With Earl at least temporarily removed, Mary Burgess Earl and George Brown set up housekeeping, living happily in sin and Sageville, at least until Edward Earl could return, and return he did.

On Feb. 19th, 1881, Mary Earl’s body was discovered by paramour Brown lying in snow in front of the barn behind his house. At about the same moment, Edward Earl calmly knocked on the door of Sageville Constable George Platt, confessed his crime to the shocked officer, and asked to be placed in custody.

The Gloversville Standard described the murder weapon as, “a murderous looking instrument with a blade more than a foot in length.”

Earl was taken to the Johnstown Jail and in June was indicted for murder in the first degree. Earl was returned to Hamilton County for trial, and probably due to the remoteness of Sageville, only one reporter attended the proceedings.

The Rochester Union & Advertiser, under the headline, “Where Is Sageville?” complimented the Utica Herald for being the only newspaper sending a reporter to cover Earl’s trial, and it also informed readers, “Sageville consists of four dwellings, one store, a hotel, the court house, jail and county clerk’s office. There is not one lawyer in Hamilton County, and but one doctor. Only three prisoners have been in jail there in three years, and today the jailer, honest John Rourke, is going to hunt deer, and according to the Herald’s reporter, he will not be obliged to lose sight of his jail to do so.”

Edward Earl’s attitude toward both his crime and his fate were unusual to say the least. When the sentence of death by hanging was announced at the conclusion of his trial, Earl thanked everyone involved, stated he thought the verdict was fair and the only logical one the jury could have rendered, but he also claimed he didn’t see himself actually guilty of murder. When asked why by the judge, he replied, “I believe when a man is compelled to do an act like that to wipe out some disgrace or injury he has received, he ought not to survive the blow, and for that reason I opposed my counsel and offered to plead guilty, but was not allowed to. I could have saved all this trouble if they would have permitted it. I look upon death as the greatest blessing that could overtake me.”

In the following days, Earl wrote a series of good-bye letters to various friends. One very revealing missive was quoted in the Oct. 20, 1881 Weekly Saratogian. Earl stated in part, “I feel elated in the prospect of soon becoming an inhabitant of another world, though I must say I don’t admire the route I’m compelled to take to get there. I have an engagement with death and shall meet him with a smile that will make him turn away, thinking I’m not the one sent for. As to my upcoming performance, I have not the ‘hang’ of it yet: it may be the death of me in fact.”

Earl wasn’t kidding about accepting his fate, and probably hadn’t been since knocking on Constable Pratt’s door. The morning of his execution, Earl was even impatient with Hamilton County Sheriff Mitchell. “He made frequent inquiries as to the cause of the delay, and Sheriff Mitchell commenced his preparations one hour earlier than intended to please Earl.”

Earl’s last words were, “If any of you boys ever meet my little girl, please give her at least one kind word — it may do her good and won’t cost you anything.”

The Utica Herald reporter agreed, concluding, “Those great brawny-fisted lumbermen will speak many kind words to little June Earl; she and they may both be the better for it.”

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