If you are at all familiar with this blog, you can guess which scenario we will be discussing.
One of the loneliest spots in this lonely village was the house of Captain Luther Meservey and his wife Sarah. They lived at the far end of town, surrounded largely by open spaces. There were only two other homes in the area, and they were in no close proximity. Especially at night, it would not have been a desirable residence for anyone with sensitive nerves and an active imagination.
Sarah Meservey seems to have had neither of those qualities. The thirty-seven year-old was, from what little we know of her, a practical, capable sort well able to fall back on her own resources. She took her mariner husband's frequent long absences with equanimity. When Luther went out to sea in October of 1877, leaving his wife to face a winter alone, (the couple was childless,) there is no reason to think either faced the prospect with any particular trepidation.
Sarah's quiet life went on as usual until December 22. On that day, a neighbor woman came by her home for a short visit. That evening, Sarah walked to the village post office to collect her mail. A young girl named Clara Wall accompanied her for part of this errand.
This seemingly inconsequential act earned little Clara her own footnote role in Tenants Harbor history. Because, as it turned out, she was the last person known for sure to see Sarah Meservey alive.
After picking up her letters, Mrs. Meservey simply vanished from sight. For days, then weeks, no one in Tenants saw any sign of her. What is even stranger is the fact that no one in the village seemed to find this at all odd. There is no record of anyone expressing the slightest concern, or even curiosity, about her whereabouts. This tiny, cocooned village had one of its members--a woman well-known to all, and who made regular public appearances--suddenly drop out of sight without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. For every student of this murder, that indifference is one of the most baffling aspects of what would prove to be an unusually weird case.
It was not until January 29 that questions began to be raised about Sarah Meservey's long absence. Albion Meservey, a cousin of Sarah's husband, went to visit the local burgomaster, Whitney Long. Albion confided to him that no one had heard anything from Mrs. Meservey for quite some time, and, well, perhaps some kind of investigation should be made.
The two men, accompanied by another Tenants resident named Frederick Hart, went to Sarah's house. The shades were drawn, and the place was ominously cold and silent. All the doors were locked, but they found a back window that could be pried open. We do not know what the men might have expected to find when they climbed into the house, but the result of their search probably exceeded even their worst fears. Nothing unusual was found until they entered a spare bedroom. That room was covered in bloodstains. The furniture was disordered. And lying on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, was the dead body of Sarah Meservey.
Her death had been a particularly violent one. Her body was covered in bruises and wounds, suggesting a desperate struggle. Her arms had been pulled behind her head and tied together with a fishing line. Then she was strangled with her own scarf. She was fully dressed and still wore her walking boots, indicating that she was assaulted immediately after her return from the post office three days before Christmas. Blood was also found around the kitchen door and in the sink, indicating that the killer had washed his/her hands there.
Found near Mrs. Meservey's body was a semi-literate note. It read, "i cam as A Womn She was out and i [waited] till she Come back, not for Mony but i kiled her." Nearby were some used matches. They were of a type not used by the Meserveys. Investigators also found a crumpled, bloody paper collar, presumably torn off the killer during the struggle. Even though nothing appeared to be missing from the house, the working hypothesis was that Sarah had interrupted a burglar, who then overpowered and killed her. The note was presumably left as a clumsy red herring.
Nearly three weeks after Sarah's body was discovered, her husband came ashore from his voyage and returned to Tenants Harbor, completely ignorant of the tragedy that had taken place during his absence. He and his wife had been a devoted couple, and when the captain learned the gruesome news, he was devastated. He had no idea who might have done such a brutal deed.
On February 19, one of the Meservey's neighbors, Mrs. Levi Hart, received a very strange letter, as poorly written as the note left by Sarah's body. It was postmarked in Philadelphia. The letter read: "i thought i would drop you A line to tell your husband to be careful how he conducted things about Tenants Harbor cause if he dont he and a good many others of the men will get A ounce ball put threw them for tell them that it is no use trying to catch this chap for he will not be caught--so be careful who you take up in st George you shall hear from me again in three months." It was signed, "D.M." Enquiries failed to reveal who might have sent the note.
Local gossip, evidently based on private reasons unknown to us, quickly fixated on one man as the likely killer of Sarah Meservey. On March 8, he was arrested. The accused was another sea captain, Nathan F. Hart, who was Sarah's nearest neighbor. Hart was described as a "pretty hard character," but other than that vague description, it is hard to say why so many were so willing to believe he was a murderer. A self-described "handwriting expert," a penmanship teacher named Alvin R. Dunton, believed items Hart had written in a log book matched the handwriting of the anonymous messages. Hart was known to use the same type of matches found near Sarah's body. Flimsy though this evidence sounds, it was enough for a Grand Jury to order that Hart stand trial for murder.
Whoever the writer of those mysterious messages may have been, he kept up his sinister correspondence after Hart was put in prison. On May 17, another Tenants resident named Mahala Sweetland was the recipient of yet another letter, this one sent from Providence, R.I. It was the longest and creepiest of them all. As a classic exercise in psychopathology, it is worth repeating in full:
Take time and read this before you give it up.
Sarah Meservey murder
Mrs. Sweetland. As you ar a woman that i knew would stand reading this letter i used to live in St. George once and knew a good many people--i haven't been there much for 20 years but i had a reason to visit there last winter as as you no doubt [illegible] I intended to wright to Chas sums or deacon long levi Hart of some of them men that I never liked but as i wanted all to know the truth i thought you would be a good one for that. i shall wright more this time than i did before as i think it will be my last or at least for 10 ys— and as a man of my word i will wright another as the last one dicnt satisfy the people—i think this will satisfy them that they haven’t got the man with in there reach that did the deed —and i am going to tell them some of what i have done and of what i am going to do—i am 1 of the hardest hearted of human men of the human white race living and if god lets me live 10 years longer i will be satisfied to die then—i am a man from 25 to 75 years old once i was a good man when i had a father and a mother but they have both been taken from me one was murdered and the other almOst the same it turned my prays for that i was used to praying for i had good Christian folks but it turned my prays to revengefull ones so i started out went to sea and from then ilearned to swear, steal and to kill—i have been Capt and Mate and i have done some ofl hard things but i am bout done goine to sea now ——all i want is revenge on people that has harmed me and is going to i dont blame people for wanting to get me if they can but they have got to work don’t forget that friends—now i will will tell you why i happened a longe St George last winter— long time Ago I was stopping in St. G. and iwcnt with S. Meservey a little and not knowing muteh A bout her i tried some of my natrouls Cappers on her and the result was a slap in the face and told to get or she would take the shirt bosom from me and i got but i told her that she would see the time that i would do as i liked and that is why I have waited this only to see if she had ever told any body A thing A bout it but i think i am pretty safe on that part And you gave me good time to make every other thing safe by letting her lay in the house so long ——i went to the house to fulfill my promise to get her money to kill her and set the house on fire but i had more work to do than iexpected—was in a schooner at the time i happened there in some part of [illegible] At dusk and at 7 o’clock i met her face to face in her Cook room and before she had time to scream i give her a gentel tap on the starboard brow and she fell to the floor senseless i tied her hand and legs picked her, up and laid her on the bed in the room you found her—then i lit the lamp turned it low locked the door put the Curtains down to kill the light and inafew minets she came to her cencis i asked her if she remembered me and remembered what i once wanted and she fetched a scream and i cought her by the throat but she schreamed so hard that i had to strike her in the head again and then she fainted then i laid her as i wanted to and accomplished my desire She had on double clothing and with some trouble i buttoned them up up again she soon came to a gain and then what little blood and swolcn face she had she count scream but could whisper She asked me for some water the first thing and i found her some water bathed her face cleared her throat so she could talk quite plain but she was pretty smart for she was feeling me on her strength i then asked her for her money and she said i will give you all will you let me live and of course I told her yes She told me where it was where no persons would think of looking it was in a place in the house that was fastened up so that it had to be opened with an ax So i left her on the bed to go find the place all as she had explained it to me but let me say threw my carelessness i left her on the bed with her hands tied before her and while looking after something to pry open the place for there wasent an ax or any other tool in the house i herd a noise up in the cook room i went up her loose and out standing up tring to open the door i will say here she must chawed the line in too and had more strength than i suposed she could have but i caught her dragged her back into the room shut the door and there is where the squabble commenced i undertook to tie her again but she was to strong She fought like a tiger she would Break the cod line as fast as i would get it on her hands then we was in the dark and i would keep her under me of course she would take to screaming and if all the people hant been deaf or bout dead they would have herd her 1-2 mile iwonld then threaten to shoot her if she didn’t stop but she seemed to know my mind for i didn’t entend to kill her till i got the money so that didnt scare her eny and i had to haul all the clothes of the bed to pile over her head to kill her voice for i never saw sutch a voice in my life but I counkqued her at last but I dont think I should if in a noughts the things that came of that had happened to be her cloud i tried to choke her with the cod line but i count for as fast as i would get it round her neck she would get her hands between her neck and line and break it and i count make her give up eny how itried—i told her once if she didnt stop her nois that i would stab her to the hart and if she had eny thing to say or to leve behind she had better say it She told me where there was some more money if i Would let her live She said it was luther's money and where it was but if i only got what she told she had i would leve until he had and she called me by name and says kiss luther for me and lay me on my bed in the room next to the road so i told her i would send him a kiss that i took from her bloody lips So tell him here is the kiss (*) but to lay her on the bed that she desired to be laid on I count for she was gaining strength all the time and i knew that she would scream so they would hear her eny body that past by—but if one 6 or 12 had come to helped her i should have showed them good play before they would have captured me for I had what i knocked her down with —1 ounce ball , shooter 2—7 shorts pistols and a dirk knife but it was getting late and i had to be getting a board so not to rais suspicion where i was gone to for i expected to hear from my works by the next day so she was growing stronger all the time so i got hold of her cloud and concluded to choke her to deth instid of stabbing her i had to stop her nois but i was as long as 1-2 hour before i could get it round her neck and then i didnt get it altogether round her neck but i got it so at last that i got a couple of turns a round her neck and arms and i got one square pull and one square knought a gain you bet and she didnt breathe more than two times and i got up i had no matches nor could i find eny and i was a nasty mess my coat vest and shirts was soked in blood by her hands hanging around me and my pants was wet threw to my skin draws and all —and i had cut my overshoes all to peaces on a looking glass that was setting i one part of the room and ihad lost my gloves and hat but it was 11 o’clock and i had to be going i got up felt around the room for bout 10 minutes then i went out washed myself some and took the stick from of the top of the cookroom window went out and got as fast as i could get with out hat gloves or Eny thing but before the next morning i had got all washed up burnt up my bloody clothes got the buttons sunk them in 18 fathoms of water and had 3 hours good sound sleep but i expected to hear it out cry of my work and that i why i left that not saying that i went there as a woman for i thought that you mite think that it was the rawley woman the old lady but things went on smoothly nothing was mistrusted of me doing eny thing for i looked out and not let her scratch or bite me and i never lost a teaspoon ful of blood and i never see so much blood come from eny body in my life and and i have put the dirk knife to more than 1 persons hart i should think there was a large buckett ful and all from her hed from 1 scar on the starboard brow and the rest out of her mouth and noes—well as soon as we got in i left as i herd nothing of the a fair and i got for St George as soon as i could get there after my hat and money i stopped one night to make sure nothing had been suspected and the 15 night from the time i first entered i went to the house at 11 o’clock went into the barn and got the ax and pried the window open it was sweled down hard i went in lit the lamp that i set on the table and went into the room where she was found my things went down and got my $1100.00 that was nicely packed in a little box went back where she was give her a kick in the ribs and told her i had got all i wanted of her and if she wanted eny thing more i was ready to give it to her i gave her a sweet smile and left her went out of the window Concluded not to burn the house and what other little money there was in the house—the first i herd of her being found or to find out mutch was to Bristol abroad of the schooner levie hart that a jones fellow told me all he knew about it the next i herd they had 2 or 3 boys up for trial well let me tell you if a pretty large boy had undertaken to done what i did you would have found him, where you found her if she aint taken care of him and came and told you her self for i would rather take my chance with levi hart or Steve hart open handed than to fight one like her again but i guess i wont tell you eny thing more about her unless you want to know very bad and if you do offer a handsome reward and i will tell you and i will get the money and you will never find me dont forget that fools if the State County or town has got millions of $ to spend on my case let them start for i am willing to die after i fixe a dozen or so as i want and intend to—livie hart for one in less than 1826-1-4 days this is his destiny i shall be in St George -—if i can i shall steal his horse and gig and if i cant i can furnish one my self i have been in Philadelphia i have been in New York in portland Boston and other places where there has been St Georgers—and found out what the people intend to do with me—i shall tie him heels upward so his bed will smell dust drive at a moderate rate once round the squair hitch the horse to a tree leave him for somebody to find in the morning and to those who wants to out me in peaces i shall find them out and cut their tongue out and let them live as long as they will and so i say to all the folks in St George who helps and beleves Condemns a innocent person for i know when you have the rong one for i personally and god only knows who did that deed of murder do there is Capt John bickmores property i long to get to work there and i went up to the New house and had a mind to set it on fire but i thought it would be insured on so they wont lose much but dont forget they have a maiden daughter and a good many others that some of these days will pay the det all the det they owe for all i want to get is three more men like my self or like what you think hart is for if he can do what you suppose he has done for i herd he went into the house and looked at her and helped take her out of the house in the middle of a crowd—if he can do that he is one of the men i want for i could do that as easy as i can wink i herd if they got the wright man they was a going to put him in the toom with her i could have staid there one month and come out fat—So i say to all that they better make up to that man all that he loses and more to give him as good a schooner as you have got—for the rong you have done to him—And to you Mrs Sweatland for your daughter’s safety show this letter to his wife before you give it up—then Copy it if you want to and send this to head qrs—for i sepose they will want to preserve it for a while the last time i was in philadelphia i stood as near the man that offered 500 and 1000 dollars reward for knowledge of that letter—that i could have put my knife to his hart without stepping once but l dient want as little a sum as that nor him as long as he doesnt try to harm me —-and for sending that letter to philadelphia and to a man i think that knows for his interest not mine has and will hold his tongue but i will tell you as a man of my i dient send it from St George and i would give you this in short hand or enything if i had thought that you could have found it out—for i thought that you would make as bad mistake as the expert did when he pronounced my writing som body’s else he would find some difference between this and the other and my log books if he could see them i live in the state of New York if you would like to know and i have had some of as smart ditectives on my truck as there was in New York City and had them along side of me and talked of the affair and bit my lips till the blood come from them to keep from laughing at the prospect of getting me—well i have been three hours wrighting to you and more i will mail it this day and the present hour— So i say in closing dont forget that i am a man of my word i sepose you would like for me to give you a little course wrighting in let you know that i wrought the other so i will wright levi hart.
Was this letter genuinely written by Sarah Meservey's killer? Or was it written by an ally of Nathan Hart, in an effort to give him an alibi? Whichever may have been the truth, it is certainly one of the most chilling messages associated with a murder case.
Nathan Hart stood trial in October 1878. A reporter in the courtroom was not impressed with the defendant, describing him as "wearing a smirk that gives [his lips] a crafty, treacherous cast that is not prepossessing." Hart calmly, stubbornly continued to insist on his innocence. His demeanor was "calm and cheerful all the time."
The prosecution's case could be summarized thusly: Mrs. Meservey's killer was skilled at tying maritime knots, and Hart was a sailor. His proximity to Sarah's house gave him the opportunity to know when she was absent. He attempted to rob her, and when she surprised him by her unexpectedly early arrival, Hart felt he had no choice but to kill her. He had no alibi for the night of the murder. He showed evidence of knowing certain details about the murder before they were publicly revealed. Before the body was found, Hart told friends he had dreamed that Sarah Meservey was strangled to death--surely a guilty conscience manifesting itself. A brother of the dead woman recalled that on the day Sarah's body was discovered, Nathan Hart told him that he, Nathan, had known "she was in there dead, all the time." The State presented several handwriting experts who asserted the anonymous letters were in the defendant's hand. Hart, they argued, wrote these letters and arranged to have them posted in various cities in an attempt to draw suspicion away from himself. A Warren Hart testified that a few months before the murder, he was "joking about women" with the defendant and his wife. Mrs. Hart jocularly mentioned an occasion when Sarah Meservey had slapped Nathan's face and pulled out his shirt bosom--presumably when he became a bit too frisky with her.
In response, the defense asserted that the handwriting "experts" were simply all wet. Their client did not write the letters. The various statements attributed to him could hardly be called proof of guilt. Hart's wife and stepdaughter testified that Nathan had been at home all day December 22. A Mr. Whitehouse stated that he saw the defendant at his house around 8:30 of the fatal night.
Alvin Dunton, who had testified for the State at the Grand Jury, now did an about-face by appearing as a defense witness. After studying all the relevant documents, he now believed that Albion Meservey had written the letters. Dunton's appearance on the stand was the unquestioned dramatic high point of the trial. A local newspaper described with unmistakable delight how "Witness here swooped down from the stand on the jury, and inundated them with a stream of eloquence concerning his theories. The sum of all was that Albion K. Meservey wrote the brown-paper note, the Philadelphia letter, and the first five pages in the Log Book No. 1. Witness bobbed from the Judge to the jury like a sewing-machine shuttle, his tongue meanwhile going with a speed that would have left even Miss Pulsifer's [a local court stenographer] facile pen behind, we fancy, had an attempt been made to report him. While Mr. Dunton was thus disporting himself, the audience relapsed into social enjoyment, and the courtroom was like an evening party...Finally, Mr. Montgomery told counsel for State to cross-examine. But witness said he hadn't got through with his testimony..."
It was quickly becoming clear that Alvin Dunton was what every truly great murder case needs: a colorful crank.
Nathan Hart himself then took the stand. He reiterated that he had been at home all the evening Sarah Meservey was murdered. He stated that his dream about Mrs. Meservey had taken place after her body was discovered. He denied that he had urged that her house be searched. He did not write the anonymous letters, and he did not know who had. He had nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs. Meservey's death.
On paper, at least, the evidence both for and against the defendant's guilt appears irritatingly skimpy. However, this did not prevent the jury from returning a verdict of "Guilty of murder in the first degree." The judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. Hart maintained his stoic demeanor until that night, when it came time to transport him to the State Prison. He then collapsed into tears, moaning, "Neighbors, don't think of me as a murderer."
From a legal standpoint--not to mention in the opinion of most onlookers, apparently--the case was satisfactorily closed. However, there was one man, at least, who had only begun to fight. Alvin Dunton launched what was to be a remarkable battle as Nathan Hart's Caped Crusader, his champion, his knight in shining armor.
Two weeks after Hart's conviction, Dunton fired the first shot in his campaign. He wrote a letter to the "Camden Herald," making his case that Albion Meservey, not the convicted man, had written the anonymous letters. He had, Dunton asserted, been "deceived" into telling the Grand Jury that the missives were sent by Hart. He claimed the log book that had been used to compare the handwriting of Hart with the letters had been deliberately tampered with. Dunton stated that he had been tricked into believing certain items in the log book had been written by Hart, when they really were the work of Albion Meservey.
That same newspaper carried a rebuttal by Albion Meservey. While he naturally vigorously denied Dunton's charges against him, he also stated that he believed Nathan Hart was innocent. Albion and his wife followed this up by bringing a libel suit against Dunton. In fact, the inability of anyone on this earth or above it to shut the mouth of Alvin Dunton meant that Albion rather got into the habit of suing the Professor of Penmanship. Meservey was awarded not one, but two judgments against Dunton in 1879. The following year, the two adversaries again met in court, due to the Professor's insistence on telling the world that Meservey was the real killer. Dunton's defense was simply to say that what is true could not be libelous. This jury also found for the plaintiff. However, it does not seem that Meservey was ever able to collect any of the financial judgments made against his adversary.
Dunton was, if nothing else, a fighter. His legal defeats merely inspired him to put his case against Albion Meservey into a book. His "The True Story of the Hart-Meservey Murder Trial"--all three hundred pages of it--was self-published in 1882. Dunton painted a picture of a grand conspiracy that makes the various theories about the JFK assassination look like so much child's play. In Dunton's mind, virtually everyone in New England--from Clara Wall to the jurors to the judge to the prosecution's handwriting experts were banded together in a deliberate attempt to frame poor, innocent Nathan Hart for a crime committed by the dastardly Albion Meservey. Dunton showered personal insults on virtually everyone connected with the case. Lines such as "Sly Merrill, do you know where you were when all the anonymous letters were mailed?" and "Staples [the County Attorney,] do you know any sin in the catalogue of crimes that you are not guilty of?" filled the pages. One juror was described as "a stool-pigeon, a courthouse bummer, a priest, quack and pettifogger all combined in one." He even made disparaging remarks about the personal character of the murder victim, Sarah Meservey.
As crime historian Edmund Pearson remarked bemusedly, "I wonder if anyone ever succeeded in comprising so much actionable matter between one pair of covers." It is now an extremely rare book, for the simple reason that, as the "St. Paul Globe" noted in 1901, "For twenty years certain parties have been engaged so sedulously in destroying the books that it is scarcely ever that one is turned up."
Alvin Dunton, however, was fated to be one of the untold millions who spend great energy on causes that were doomed to fail. Five years into his sentence, Hart died of "malignant jaundice," aged only fifty-four. Among the mourners at his funeral were both Alvin Dunton and Albion Meservey.
Garrulous crackpot though he may have been, could Dunton have been on the right track? Was Nathan Hart, as he and his wife never ceased to assert, innocent of all wrongdoing? Or, did Hart kill Sarah Meservey, with someone close to him--possibly Albion Meservey--writing the anonymous letters in an effort to exculpate him? Or was Hart, as the jury in his case ruled, the man responsible for both the murder and the letters?
We will never know for sure.