The Whittlesey Affair
Judge Samuel Whittlesey (b. 10 Feb 1763 in New Haven, CT) came to Watertown
from New York City, about 1807, and took up the practice of law. In 1811, he was appointed as the district attorney for the State of New York, but in 1813, he was discharged in favor of Amos Benedict, who had preceded Whittlesey in that office. As a consolation, Whittlesey was appointed brigade-paymaster for the Militia along with Perley Keyes
. In spring 1818*, Whittlesey was sent to New York City, accompanied by his wife, Sarah (nee Van Deursen) to obtain money for the militia payroll. He arrived at the Mechanics Bank and collected $30,000 in one, two, three, five, and ten dollar bills, with which he started to return.
At Schenectady, Sarah informed him that they had been robbed of $8700. Now Mrs. Whittlesey has been described as a calculating and vicious woman who led poor Samuel into trouble repeatedly. Earlier in the year, she had taken in Gershom Tuttle, Sr., for the treatment of sickness. He soon died in Mrs. Whittlesey's care, under suspicious circumstances. Seems Mr. Tuttle had money, but on his death, none could be found. It was said that Mrs. Whittlesey suddenly had money to lend. Some suspected her of poisoning Mr. Tuttle, but on the other hand, he was 79 at the time of his death.
After the alleged robbery, Mrs. Whittlesey discouraged her husband from reporting the crime immediately, noting that they would surely be suspected, and suggested instead they take steps to recover the money. Short of recovery, she gradually convinced her husband to keep all of the money and claim the entire sum was stolen. After all, who would believe that only part of the money was stolen? Having been duped by his wife, poor Samuel went about the task of crafting the lie. After arriving home, Samuel announced that the pay would be distributed as soon as the papers and payroll had been prepared. He even went so far as to craft a second trip, making sure that as many people saw the money as possible on his departure. On arriving at Billings' Tavern to conduct the pay, at Trenton, NY, he opened his suitcases to reveal that the money had been stolen! He then created a very convincing scene of well-affected sorrow instantly dispatching messengers in quest of the thief and offering a $2000 reward for his capture and the return of the money.
As his wife had rehearsed with him, Mr. Whittlesey was interrogated about the robbery. Among the interrogators was Jason Fairbanks, a local tanner, who examined the suitcases, noting that these supposed slashes in the leather had been previously mended. At the end of the interrogation, he and several others were convinced that something was not right with the Whittlesey's story. They immediately began staking out the Whittleseys, hoping to overhear them discussing the crime. Jason Fairbanks and Perley Keyes
went so far as to listen outside the bedchamber window. They could get no clear confession. In a true CSI fashion, Fairbanks then made a trip to NYC to get a description of the original bags, and to see the bundles that the bank disbursed. He showed, with blocks of wood, that the slashes in the Whittlesey's bags were too small to get the bundles through. It was also learned that Mrs. Whittlesey had been shopping while in Albany, spending far more than her means suggested. Meanwhile the eavesdropping continued with positive results. Though the location of the money was not known, the real culprits were revealed.
As goods were being boxed up for another apparent move (seems the Whittlesey's were accustomed to frequent moves), a plan was formed to confront them and force a confession. They needed to get Mr. Whittlesey alone. They discussed threatening him with mutilation or torture, but they feared causing him to bleed to death. So they settled on drowning him, even going so far as experimenting on themselves and consulting the local doctor how long a human could remain submerged without actually drowning! The plan was hatched, and put into effect.
On the morning of July 7, 1818*, Mr. Keyes
went to "repair the fence." Meanwhile, Mr. Fairbanks called on Mr. Whittlesey and convinced him to come with him to his partner, Mr. Keyes
, to resolve the outstanding issues of the case. They took him behind the shed, so to speak, and accused him of robbery. He of course denied the accusation, at which point Mr. Keyes
grabbed him and threw his head into the spring behind the house. Withdrawing him at the prescribed time, they interrogated him again but he maintained his innocence. The second plunge was held for upwards of two minutes before letting him up, but this time he wasn't breathing! After some slapping, he spit up and began to breath again. He again denied involvement. Mr. Keyes
gave him one more chance. Not satisfied, in he went again. This time, Mr. Fairbanks took charge and dragged Mr. Whittlesey in up to his neck. Fairbanks and Keyes then discussed how they would handle disposing of his body. The ruse worked, and Mr. Whittlesey exclaimed "I'll tell you all I know about it!" The money, he said, was hidden under the hearth in his house, or quilted into his wife's petticoat.
A mob formed, headed for the Whittlesey home on Court Street
. When Mrs. Whittlesey saw them approach, she ran for the sanctity of her bed chamber, but she would find no sanctity among this crowd. They found the stash under the hearth. Then they proceeded to Mrs. Whittlesey. They knocked once, then they beat down the door, bursting into her chamber to search for the money. Behold, between the straw and feather bed, they found a quilted garment bearing the initials of Col. Tuttle fitted with two sets of buttons for either Whittlesey to wear. The money was separated into bundles, intended for each of the Whittlesey children, along with a note, placing blame for the whole scheme upon her husband!
When the money was counted, Mr. Whittlesey was astonished to find that he had indeed been robbed of the initial $8700, by his own wife
. The Whittleseys were placed under guarded house arrest for the crime. Under a moment of heated argument between them, the guard stepped out, and Mrs. Whittlesey used the chance to escape. Running down the street toward the cemetery
behind Trinity Church
on Court Street, she paused by the grave of a son, and fell backward. She then revived herself, and continued on, rushing down to the river
where she threw herself in. Her body was later found floating near the Court Street bridge
. The point where she jumped was thereafter called Whittlesey Point. Mr. Whittlesey was later absolved of responsibility for the crime.
Note: The dates of this story are in conflict. Genealogists place Sarah Whittlesey's death in April, 1814. Gershom Tuttle died 5 Jan 1818. Hough simply references July 7, but makes the distinction that the event took place "after the war." Someone here is wrong, but we have nothing to corroborate the date as yet.
Notorious Jefferson County Crime