"...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, February 29, 2016

Death at Niagara Falls

Vintage image of Luna Island

Niagara Falls resident Van Rensselaer Pearson was an emotionally troubled man, one who was perhaps even going mad. His afflicted mental state certainly led to his death. But was this death murder or suicide?

For some time, Pearson’s erratic and sometimes abusive behavior had been causing his family an increasing amount of worry, particularly after he acquired a pistol and wrote out what was in effect a will, instructing his wife how to manage his property after his death. His loved ones finally decided they must persuade him to enter a local mental institution. But in his strange, uncooperative frame of mind, how was this to be done?

On the evening of April 9, 1884, Pearson’s brother-in-law, Thomas Vedder, volunteered to discuss the issue with him. He decided to take Pearson out on a buggy ride which would give them some needed privacy. The two men rode out…and never returned.

A search party found Pearson in a local area called Luna Island, near the America Falls, dead from two bullets to his head. The weapon was not found. Also missing was Vedder, although his outer clothes were found, neatly arranged in a pile, at the brink of the Falls.

Vedder’s whereabouts remained unknown until two months later, when his body was found at the base of the Bridal Veil Falls, where presumably the current had taken it from Luna Island. No gunshot wounds were found on his body.

How did these two men meet their deaths? Pearson’s son Martin theorized that his father, enraged over the idea that he should be institutionalized, killed Vedder, perhaps by strangling, removed his clothes, and threw him into the Falls. He then shot himself, after which the gun followed Vedder into the river.

Or did the two men quarrel violently, causing Vedder to shoot Pearson in self-defense? And then, overcome by horror of what he had done, did he disrobe and hurl himself into the water?

Or was there a third party involved? Vedder was a rich man—his estate amounted to some $200,000 in 1884 dollars. Did one of his heirs take advantage of the situation by killing Vedder and the only witness to the deed?

Vedder’s clothes are hard to fit into any scenario. Vedder was described as a very methodical, business-like man, but it still seems odd that before jumping to his death—which, if he had killed Pearson, would have been an act of impulse following an unexpected tragedy--he would take the trouble to undress and tidily arrange his clothing. It makes even less sense that he was murdered, by Pearson or someone else. Why would the killer go to all the trouble of undressing the corpse before hurling it over the Falls, especially if he was only going to leave the clothes behind?

The gun used to kill Pearson is another problem. Vedder’s own gun was left at his home, and Pearson’s gun had been taken away from him two or three days earlier, due to his troubling behavior. Where did the murder weapon come from, and where did it go?

The men who first found Pearson’s body testified at the inquest that there were no signs of a struggle, or any signs of footprints leading to the water’s edge, although one mentioned footprints leading away from the scene. If so, this would tend to explode the popular theory of altercation/murder/suicide.

Some of the contemporary newspapers stated that a folded paper was found in Vedder’s coat, but its contents were never publicly disclosed. If it provided any clue to the tragedy, the authorities kept it to themselves.

As one newspaper commented after Vedder’s body was discovered, “There is still a mystery about the affair which will never be cleared up.”

How right they were.


  1. Pearson may have forced Vedder at gunpoint to jump, and then shot himself afterward, but that theory has no more evidence than the others.

  2. The clothing is interesting. If one of the men wanted to disappear, could he have planned to stage his own death, by putting his clothing on the body of the other man? How positive were the identifications of the bodies? One was shot in the head twice, and the other had been in the water for two months. And the footprints suggest a possible third man at the scene. All we really know (based on the description as provided here), is that two men died and another man may have walked away from the scene, wearing who-knows-what clothing that may or may not have been his own. Without crime scene photographs or knowing the characters of the men involved, there are all kinds of ways to imagine this scenario.

    1. That's a good point about the assurance of the bodies' identification.

    2. From what I can tell from the old newspaper reports, there was no question about these being the bodies of the two men. Pearson's face was still clearly recognizable, and although Vedder had been in the water such a long time, his body was described as "somewhat decomposed" but still presenting a "natural appearance." (The river was very icy at that time of year, which presumably helped preserve the body somewhat.)

    3. This is why I am no good at classic mystery stories. Now I have no idea whodunnit. :)

  3. Unless the first shot only hit, say, jaw (and missed every part of the brain), it would be pretty hard to shoot yourself in the head twice.


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