"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Killer Coroner and the Pesky Peacock

The moral of this week's post is: Never give gifts of peacocks. Also, don't get into quarrels with coroners. They are far too comfortable around dead bodies.

All this will soon become clear to you.

The central figure in our little cautionary tale is Dr. Hugh McCullough, coroner for Jefferson County, Kentucky. He lived with his wife Hattie and young son in what was--thanks to them--about to become one of the bloodiest neighborhoods in Louisville. Living across the street from them was the family of William and Perrina Owen.

The two couples had been friends for some years. The McCulloughs had even gifted the Owens with a peacock, and you can't get much more neighborly than that. Sadly, this suburban bliss ended in a big way on September 17, 1900.

On that fateful day, Mr. and Mrs. Owen got into a very noisy argument--so noisy that Hattie McCullough could follow every angry word. She snorted that Mr. Owen should beat his wife's face "into a jelly" and send her to an asylum. As it happened, the Owens' daughter Julia was passing by the McCullough house at that very moment. She overheard this remark, and couldn't wait to pass it on to her mother.

The good news is, this caused Perrina to forget about her anger towards her husband. The bad news is that she transferred her wrath to Mrs. McCullough. She marched over to her neighbor's and got into a flaming war of words with Hattie, after which she stalked back home. Things might have calmed down after this, if young Julia hadn't gone running to her mother again, this time with the complaint that Mrs. McCullough had called her a "damned strumpet." Perrina went dashing back to the McCullough home, and the whole exchange of insults was resumed.

Later that day, after he had learned what had happened, Hugh McCullough went over to the Owens and urged the two women to kiss and make up. Perrina responded to this peace offering with, "Yes, I will let it drop. It wouldn't do me any good to bring you into court, for you haven't got anything anyhow."

Without saying a word, McCullough turned on his heel and stalked off.

All was quiet, if not exactly peaceful, until September 24. The resumption in active hostilities was triggered by the Owen peacock. In the words of Mrs. Owen, "Two men who were in the employ of Mrs. McCullough came into my yard with a lighted lantern looking for a peafowl which the McCulloughs had given me some weeks ago, but which had made its escape some time yesterday afternoon. Not liking to have strange men walking around the yard after dark I ordered them off the place. The men left and a short time after Mrs. McCullough come to her front gate and demanded to know why I ordered them away." The two women got into yet another screaming match. Perrina Owens then turned to drowning out Mrs. McCullough's insults by singing the popular ballad "Ben Bolt" at the top of her lungs. Anyone who has ever heard the song will not be surprised that Hattie reacted by grabbing her revolver and firing a round of shots at the Owens home.

Mrs. McCullough then phoned her husband at his workplace with a demand that he hurry home and get in on the action. When he arrived, his lady handed him a gun.

At this point, the most rational thing Coroner McCullough could have done was flee town and never look back. Instead, he went over to the Owen house and snapped at Perrina, "Damn you, you will have to stop this trouble with my wife."

What happened next remains uncertain. Both warring parties gave widely varying and equally unreliable accounts. All we know for certain is that when Perrina's 21-year-old son George joined in the argument, the coroner wound up shooting him dead. The Owen family dog, a Newfoundland named Nell, was also fatally shot when--according to Hugh--the animal tried to attack him.

When the police came to arrest Dr. McCullough, the coroner made the only sensible remark attributed to anyone in this story: "Well, boys, it looks like I'm in trouble."

That night, the doctor gave an interview from his jail cell to a "Courier-Journal" reporter. McCullough claimed that he had only acted in self-defense. George Owen, he stated, had tried to attack him with a knife. McCullough went on to say that for years, the Owen family had been "terrorizing" the entire neighborhood. "They have always been obnoxious. The mother pried into the affairs of the neighbors and trouble often resulted. About two weeks ago they began their attacks on my wife and myself. They irritated us in every conceivable manner. It finally became unbearable and last week I reported them to the police." He added, "While I greatly regret the affair, yet it was thrust upon me, and I only acted as I should have done."

At the preliminary hearing, a policeman named Maurice Dooling testified that the morning after the murder, he found a knife near where George Owen had been standing when he was shot. Julia Owen, however, stated that she had seen Dooling himself plant the knife on the scene. Perrina Owen maintained that her son did not even own a knife.

The defendant gave his version of the tragedy. He declared that he went to the Owen house, not to commit murder, but to attempt another peace mission. When he arrived there, Mrs. Owen greeted him with "You [expletive deleted in all published reports,] get off my premises." Then McCullough heard George ordering the Newfoundland to attack him. "I saw the dog and Owen advancing and, as God is my judge, he had a knife in his hand. I shot the man first and then the dog. The dog weighed about 170 pounds. I shot because I believed my life was in danger."

McCullough added that a boarder at his home, Katie Hogan, had told him some days before that George was threatening to kill him. Hogan corroborated this claim. She also asserted that when the coroner went to the Owen house, he was not carrying a gun in his hand. She went on to say that "When he reached Mrs. Owen's house, I heard her call him a vile name and soon afterward her son stepped around a bush. I saw him draw his knife. He sicked the dog on Dr. McCullough and said, 'Now I have got you!' Then Dr. McCullough fired. I certainly saw the knife."

There was more spectacularly confusing testimony about this alleged knife. George's uncle, John Oyler, claimed that he searched the scene shortly after the murder, and found no knife. The two policemen who arrested McCullough stated that George indeed had had a knife, but they conceded they had been unable to find it. More witnesses from the Owen camp testified that George never carried a knife in his life.

The testimony all boiled down to a "They said/They said" situation, with both sides facing serious credibility issues. In the end, the jury sided with the prosecution sufficiently to order that McCullough stand trial for murder.

It was a busy time indeed for the McCullough family. In addition to the murder indictment, the coroner was also being charged with extorting money from local undertakers. On October 24, his wife was indicted for shooting at Mrs. Owen. Just for good measure, the eyewitness testimony claiming he planted the knife got Maurice Dooling charged with being an accessory after the fact.

The trial began on November 21. It essentially followed the same lines as the preliminary hearing, although in his opening remarks, the defense attorney managed to sneak in the interesting information that George Owen had once attacked his own father with a club, and that at the time of his death he was under a peace bond.

Several of the victim's friends took the stand. They testified that on the fatal night, they were lounging around with George outside a local saloon. They saw McCullough speeding by in his buggy, and they instantly suspected there would be trouble. George told them he was going home to defend his mother. One of George's friends, John Hawes, stated that he heard Mrs. Owen tell Dr. McCullough to get out of her yard. George said something that was inaudible to Hawes. McCullough responded with "What in the hell have you got to do with it?" The next thing Hawes heard was a gunshot. He claimed McCullough told bystanders, "If you don't shut up, I'll kill a couple more." This damning testimony was somewhat blunted when the defense was able to prove that Hawes was nearly deaf.

Perhaps the most surprising witness was Fred Krause, another friend of the dead man's. He proved to be a gift for the defense. He testified that contrary to what the prosecution was arguing, George did indeed sic his Newfoundland on the defendant. He added that McCullough had backed up several steps before firing his gun. (Confirmation for this last detail came from a doctor, who testified that George had no powder burns on his body, suggesting that the doctor was trying to retreat when he fired.) Unfortunately, no witness for either side was able to clear up the enduring riddle of whether George was holding a knife or not.

McCullough made a good witness for himself, coming off as "self-contained" and seemingly honest. He denied that his wife had given him a gun. His story was that he had gone to the Owen house in an entirely pacific spirit, only to be met with abuse from the fearsome Mrs. Owen. As he started to leave, he was confronted by George, who addressed him with unprintable words and ordered the dog to attack. When he saw that George was holding a knife, he knew that "my life was in danger." When the dog sprang at him, he felt he had no choice but to shoot.

With so much conflicting evidence, the character witnesses took on unusual importance. This also was to the defendant's advantage. While a parade of witnesses were willing to praise McCullough's good reputation, the dead man had fewer supporters. In fact, many were quite happy to declare that George Owen had been nothing less than a neighborhood menace.

After deliberating for half-an-hour, the jury returned a verdict of "Not Guilty." Dr. McCullough happily returned to his job. (The charge that he had solicited kickbacks from undertakers seems to have been dropped.) Fortunately, he appears to have provided no further corpses for his mortuary. Presumably, the charges against his wife and Officer Dooling were dismissed as well.

And before you ask, what became of the peacock is not recorded.

[Note: There was a characteristically weird sequel to this case. In 1904, William Owen, who had become a hopeless alcoholic, committed suicide by drinking whisky he had laced with carbolic acid.

Or did he? A Mrs. Joseph Stabb told the police that immediately after William died, the newly-minted widow told her, "Mrs. Stabb, I fixed that up for him and he got it--I am glad of it." When asked to clarify this startling remark, Perrina responded, "I mean that I put carbolic acid in whisky for him and he got it; that's what I mean." Investigation turned up the interesting fact that on the night William was poisoned, his wife had sent their son Rem to the druggist to buy carbolic acid. It was also learned that William was hated by his entire family, he had been heavily insured, and Mrs. Owen was to receive his army pension after his death.

Perrina Owen was arrested for murder. She changed her story. Instead of asserting that her husband killed himself, she now claimed that she had put the poison in the whisky to use as a household cleaner, and William drank it by accident.

Fortunately for Perrina, when Mrs. Stabb was put under oath, she also told a different tale. She denied that Mrs. Owen had boasted of murdering her husband. Instead, Perrina had merely said that she had put carbolic acid into the whisky to kill bedbugs, but she wouldn't mind if her worthless husband drank it as well. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, that was exactly what he did.

Mrs. Stabb's altered testimony led the judge to dismiss the charges against Mrs. Owen, and, like her old enemy Hugh McCullough, she was set free to go on her merry way.

One can only comment that old Louisville must have been a paradise for the homicidally-inclined.]


  1. That sounds like a couple of streets I've lived on.
    Apart from the peacock.

  2. And that is why cats are preferrable to peacocks.

  3. Never mind Ben Bolt, the noise a peacock makes could drive you to murder...

  4. I'm starting to feel sorry for Owen. No wonder he drank.


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