A quiet farmhouse,
set back from the highway,
home to a nice family.
If you ever stayed up late, reading
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,
feeling more and more jumpy,
you’ll recognize the setting.
This is an article about murders that really happened in Kent County, Maryland, back in the 1800’s. While I was going to college in the area, I ran across a mention of the trials in an old Baltimore newspaper, and tried to read every newspaper account I could find. It was quite a story.
Despite the lurid title, this is not pulp fiction. But here’s a Disclaimer. This is a recounting based entirely on period newspapers – – reportage that’s full of inconsistencies, conjecture, and perhaps outright invention. I’m informed by a local historian, that the errors I’ve included (both the old ones, and my own), are far too many to list, but I enjoyed reading through these old columns, and hope you will, too. This is not a fact-checked history, but rather a fireside tale, a mash-up of sometimes grisly, but somehow entertaining, newspaper reports. So you can enjoy the story, as related by the papers of the day, and take it with a grain of salt, or if you’d prefer an accurate, dry bones history…you’ll have to go elsewhere.
A few miles northeast of Chestertown, is the little town of Galena, formerly “George Town Cross Roads”. And just south of town is the Moody Farm.
The Maryland State Archive did an historic site assessment, which told us that the farm was originally part of two tracts called “Hangman’s End” and “Hangman’s Folly.”
Appropriate names, as it turned out.
Robert Moody bought the land in 1768. He was apparently a hard worker and successful. The Archive noted “In his earliest land transactions, Moody is referred to as a farmer, but prior to his death in 1815…he is referred to as a gentleman.”
After farming for thirty years, Moody put up a brick house, and for some reason, it was built facing away from the road, and maybe that’s relevant to the story also.
From the description in the archive’s file, it sounds like it was a nice house. The mantels had a “course of gouge-carved flutes and swags” and I guess it’s the rare person who doesn’t appreciate a few flutes and swags around the place.
You can still see some pictures online from 2008 articles, when the house was knocked down – apparently being on an Inventory of Historic Places doesn’t mean much in Kent County.
The local paper had interviewed someone who’d visited the house, with the wonderful name of Paul W. T. Pippin. Mr. Pippin happened to be an architect of note, who was born in Chestertown, and graduated from Washington College. He was related to the former residents, and commented that a house from that era “…had to have some importance to have paneled rooms.” 
Mr. Pippin also recalled there were bullets still lodged in the paneling.
The colonial-era Moody house and farm were later owned by William Cosden, and it came to be better-known as the “Cosden Murder Farm”.
On February 27, 1851, Cosden, his wife, his sister, and his sister-in-law were shot, stabbed, and killed.
A servant (a black slave rented to the Cosdens by a local deputy sheriff) was also shot twice, but survived.
Cosden’s sister was 17 years old, and his sister-in-law was ill and bedridden. Mrs. Cosden’s 14-year-old brother was also in the house, but managed to escape.
The “Cosden Family Massacre” was bound to create a sensation in Kent County, but when I ran across the incident, reading the old newspapers of the time, I realized the story ran in papers all over the U.S.. There was plenty of juicy “human-interest” stuff: a quadruple slaying, the randomness of the attack, the gory details of the crime scene, the possible rape of the women, a number of mistaken arrests, the trial…
and finally the executions, which involved four hangings for three men.
The Penny Dreadful
I’ve seen commentators advising us that the internet has given us an exaggerated fear of crime, because it instantly broadcasts every incident, in every penny-ante town. But by 1851, the “penny press,” (the cheap newspapers which were hugely popular with the middle class, because they literally cost one cent) had already been “sensationalizing” the news for twenty years, and anything weird or horrible was sure to be passed along from paper to paper.
So Step 1, in the 1830’s, was hooking up a steam engine to the press, to crank out thousands of papers, instead of hand-printing them for rich folks.
Step 2, was dropping the price from six cents, to one cent.
Step 3, in the 1850’s, was the Magnetic Telegraph.
early Morse telegraph
“How They Brought the Good News from Ghent…”
I think in part, this crime became a national story, because initially it was “telegraphic news”, a crime story relayed to out-of-town papers by telegraph wires that had just been strung, up and down the eastern seaboard.
In 1851, people had grown up in a world where news often trickled in weeks later. The classic example being the Battle of New Orleans, our biggest victory of the War of 1812, fought after a peace treaty had already been signed, fifteen days before.
News of the treaty, signed in Ghent, Belgium on Christmas Eve, had to cross the Atlantic by sailing ship, and didn’t arrive in Washington until February 11th.
But the Cosden murders happened in a new era, and people all over the country began reading about it in mere days, instead of weeks or months. 
Morse telegraph. LOC
Hot Off The Press
The murders occurred on a Thursday night, and were reported in Horace Greeley’s newspaper (the largest in NYC) the following Monday, in the column “By Telegraph to the New-York Tribune”. Similar “Telegraph Dispatches” ran in papers in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (“Fiendish Murder of a Family” in the Wilkes-Barre Star of the North). The story then spread to papers in at least nine other states, and I’m guessing it was published in the other states, too, if I continued searching. Newspapers as far away as New Orleans followed the arrests, trial, and hangings.
The news coverage brought what was probably the Chestertown’s biggest crowd of the century. Steamboat companies brought in execution excursionists, and contributed to the seven or eight thousand spectators that flooded into Chestertown, controlled by hundreds of militiamen and cavalry.
I know that unlike the uncultured masses of the 19th century, the modern reader does not want to wallow in lurid sensationalism, but if you’ve stuck with me through the telegraph thing, you deserve the basic story, as it was related in the newspapers.
The four men convicted of the crime had been hanging around the Blackbird Forest. There’s still a state forest in Delaware called that — 5400 acres, just a remnant of the huge woods which stretched from bay to bay, across Kent and New Castle counties.
Before the railroad came through a few years later, the area was still only lightly settled.
For unknown reasons, the men settled on this particular farm for a robbery, perhaps because the house faced away from the road. At their trial, the men claimed they were simply looking for “pillage” or “plunder”, but they showed up like a NRA convention, armed with a musket, a double-barreled pistol, and three double-barreled guns. Apparently they didn’t find much to steal; four people were killed, and another maimed, for a few rings and earrings.
Tea and a Massacre
If the murderers had planned on a robbery, they might have knocked on the door, and stuck a pistol in the homeowner’s ribs. But it began when one of the men saw Cosden sitting in front of his fire, and simply shot him through the window. They then broke down a door, and shot and stabbed his 17-year-old sister. His wife, also shot and stabbed, tried to escape, but only made it as far as the yard. When the men realized the farmer and his wife were not yet dead, they were again attacked, but Cosden somehow survived long enough to describe the assailants.
Mrs. Cosden’s sister, Miss Webster, had been ill and bed-ridden for two weeks, and was shot where she lay; the bedding was charred by the blasts. Rings and earrings were taken from the women. The papers reported that “it was the opinion…of the doctors who examined the bodies…that a rape had been attempted on both of them, either before or after they were shot,” although this did not seem to be brought up at the trial, so it may have been a reporter’s invention.
The servant, a slave owned by Deputy Sheriff Edwin Crouch, was shot in the kitchen, but ran off and survived, although she was left with only one functioning arm. Amazingly enough, Mr. Congden and his sister-in-law lived long enough to describe the attack to their neighbors. Mrs. Congden’s 14-year-old brother was also visiting, and escaped to give the alarm to the neighbors.
Papers all over the country began following the story. Part of the reaction may have been due to the randomness and lack of personal motive. Cosden was described as “a most worthy and industrious, and highly respectable young farmer” and “a most excellent citizen, harmless and inoffensive.” The family was “living in peace and quiet, unsuspecting harm from any one”
(quotations from The Gallipolis Journal (Ohio, 3/13/51) and The Lancaster Gazette (Pennsylvania 3/13/51)
Hundreds attended the funerals. The constabulary and mounted patrols began beating the bushes, and the Chestertown jail began to fill up, and some suspects had to be sent to Elkton. Some of the dragnet enthusiasm may have been due to the reward: $1000 offered by the Governor, and talk of another $2000-$3000 from the citizens of Kent County. (The Daily Crescent, New Orleans, 3/12/51)
A man found in the woods making a brush shelter was arrested first, who had “a knife and a dirk, both with bloody handles, whilst there was also blood on his clothing…” (The Lancaster Gazette 3/13/51) In March, the New York Daily Tribune (3/7/51) announced more suspects: James Roberts, a traveling clock-mender, who had been at the house the day before, and William Shelton, a mill worker.
Roberts, supposedly identified by Miss Webster on her deathbed, was nonetheless released when he provided an alibi, and was immediately arrested again on a different charge “so as to have him at hand if further testimony should connect him with the transaction” (The Athens Post, Athen, TN 3/14/51)
Mrs. Cosden’s uncle, William W. Webster, who had quarreled with his niece and her husband in the past, arrived at the house for the funeral, did not appear to be sufficiently sad, and was promptly arrested.
For weeks, the papers reported suspect after suspect swept up in the manhunt in the surrounding area, then as far as Philadelphia. A “Henry D. Webster” was apparently arrested in Baltimore simply because he was from the area and was thought to be a relative.
Confusion & Confession
In April, the papers began indicating there had been a confession, and some claimed the women’s uncle had admitted his guilt.
But finally, Uncle William Webster was cleared when Thomas Drummond, a woodcutter, confessed his involvement, and turned state’s evidence, naming the other gang members: Nicholas Murphy, Joseph Shelton, Stephen Shaw, and Abraham Taylor. (Evansville Daily Journal 4/23/51) Drummond claimed that Taylor, a former convict, recruited him to go out robbing, telling him that Maryland owed him $7,000 for 7 years’ unjust imprisonment. [The Daily Crescent New Orleans, 4/30/51]
A couple from Blackbird (the hamlet within the forest) testified that their boarder, Stephen Shaw, had come home drunk and confessed to them. Shaw also escaped the noose by confessing and naming the others.
Despite all the yards of newspaper coverage, no one seemed to know much about these men. One history mentions the forest as a refuge for Irish immigrants – was Murphy a desperate refugee from the Great Famine? There seems to have been a long-time tavern in Blackbird run by a family named Murphy, that predated the potato famine years. Were any of the men disturbed veterans of the Mexican-American War?
Three Men. Four Hangings
Eventually three of the men (Nicholas Murphy, Joseph Shelton, and Abraham Taylor) were convicted. Dressed in shrouds, with black caps on their heads, they were taken in a wagon from the Chestertown jail to a scaffold a mile out of town. There, in front of an audience of seven or eight thousand (“but not a white lady near,” according to one newspaper account), and hundreds of militiamen, they were hanged.
Following addresses by clergymen, the attorneys “took an affectionate farewell of their clients”, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle account. ““I shall send this lock of hair to your mother,” said one of the lawyers; another handed a ten dollar note to a friend, to be given to the wife of one of the murderers.
(I’m assuming the lawyer was reprimanded by the bar association — giving ten dollar rebates when you lose a capital case would set a bad precedent.)
Famous Last Words. Or not.
The convicted men continued frantic “protestations of innocence” until the nooses were around their necks. Two continued to pray, and just before the trap boards dropped, Murphy was heard to utter his last words, “I am going safely home”.
This declaration turned out to be premature, and not his last words. Murphy had an hour more to live.
Shelton and Taylor appeared to die instantly, but Murphy slipped out of his noose and fell eight-to-twelve feet to the ground, still alive, “to a universal thrill of horror,” according to one account. The rulebook apparently required that the bodies be left to hang to make sure they were dead, so Murphy watched the other two men swing for 27 minutes, while he continued to protest his innocence, and refused to confess to the crimes. He asked for a glass of water, but was unable to swallow due to his damaged neck.
He was eventually hanged again, although he “seemed to die much harder than the others, the muscular motion of the body lasting for some minutes”. The authorities apparently reckoned they’d leave him hanging for a full hour, just to be sure he was dead this time.
So the steamboat excursionists enjoyed a good show.
Epilogue – Party Like It’s 1893
Chestertown wouldn’t see any more hangings for over forty years. But in 1893, the town did its best to make up for lost time. Newspapers as far away as Scotland and Ireland reported “The death sentence has been carried out in something very like wholesale fashion in Chestertown, Maryland”.
Chestertown prepared to out-do the Cosden executions, with a special gallows built for eight simultaneous hangings. The eight had been convicted of murdering a Dr. J. H. Hill, on April 25, 1892. When the governor commuted the sentences of four of the men, all under the age of seventeen (to life in prison), this extreme liberality aroused the ire of the victim’s widow and many locals, amidst talk of burning the jail. A New York paper reported that only a heavy snowstorm had prevented a lynch mob from forming.
On the 13th of January, 1893, the remaining four men were hanged simultaneously: Moses Brown, Charles Brooks, Fletcher Williams, Frisby Comegys. Ministers were not allowed to attend them, but the weather had improved enough for a drunken crowd to gather at the jail, and some obtained tickets to stand at the scaffold. The horrified reporter from The Sun (NYC) described drunken spectators, laughing and swearing at the foot of the gallows.
A particularly ugly incident. So maybe I’ll explore it in more depth at a later time.
OK – Déjà Vu– One More Epilogue, Then It’s Really Done
George Town Cross-Roads. People have just finished tea. A figure outside the house fires a bullet through the window, and somebody dies.
Continuing to read back in time, through the old newspapers at the Library of Congress, I was floored to find a murder scenario in the same tiny locale, with some similarities to the Cosden case. The town is now called Galena, which is some kind of lead ore – – was there lead in the drinking water? Too many Kent County first cousins marrying?
So, in 1840 in George Town Cross Roads, there were two men and a woman.
You already see where this is going.
One man was named Wroth (as in, “the Sheriff of Nottingham waxed wroth…”), so you would expect him to be the perpetrator, but he was the victim.
Edgar Newnam was visiting and fell for a local lady named Lavinia Piner. (I know, how could anyone resist a girl with a name like that.)
“Intercourse tended to increase the passion of love which had been slumbering in his bosom…” says the account in the Baltimore Sun.
Speaking as a professional etymologist (well, anyway, I once drove through Intercourse, PA and read the sign), I hasten to clarify for Lavinia’s sake, that in 1840, intercourse just meant “fellowship” or “social interaction”.
But sadly, Lavinia did not fall for Edgar.
And Edgar believed that Lavinia liked James Wroth.
And Edgar was unhappy about this.
And, even more sadly, Edgar grew homicidally angry about this.
And so, Edgar waxed Wroth.
(Sorry, had to say it)
It wasn’t until the trial, that the newspaper brought out the fact that Edgar and James were cousins.
I think in Kent County, it was just assumed.
So on the night in question, after tea, Edgar pretended to go to bed.
Instead, he went out to the barn and got a gun. He then apparently chickened out, went to his room, which he shared with another visitor, and had a few drinks. Edgar then said to his roommate “Now I will try again”.
I have a tiny bit of Dutch ancestry and refuse to use the phrase “Dutch courage,” so let’s just say, as they do in the South, he “liquored up.”
He went back outside the house, looked in the parlor, and saw that his cousin was still sitting with the family. Edgar shot through the window “and literally blowed the head of the unfortunate victim to atoms – the brains were scattered all over the room, and those who were sitting
The Sun really knew how to write up a murder, even if they were a little hazy on grammar.
Edgar immediately confessed and demanded to be arrested, but soon sobered up and got himself a Philadelphia lawyer. They attempted to plead insanity, but that didn’t play in Kent County, and he was convicted of 2nd degree murder, and got 18 years.
So, faithful reader, what have we learned from all this?
Well, in Kent County:
> When you’re done with your tea, for God’s sake, go straight to bed.
> Stay away from girls named Lavinia
> Curtains or venetian blinds are a real priority
— The End —
 [The Star Democrat “Cosden Murder House Demolished” 11/2/2008 — by Kevin Hemstock Special from The Kent News]
 The Battle of New Orleans was typical of a screwed-up war — a colorful Hollywood victory, with hillbilly riflemen, Choctaws, slaves, Cajun pirate cannoneers, and crusty army Regulars, all uniting under Old Hickory (the guy with the Mount Rushmore forehead on the twenty dollar bill) to whip the redcoats.
And then they find out the war was already over.
When the British realized their crushing defeat at New Orleans was after the peace treaty was already signed, they argued that the Napoleonic Code does not allow for sudden-death overtime, but since we didn’t ratify the treaty until February, it definitely counts as a U.S. victory. And supposedly, the British had secret orders to continue to capture New Orleans, regardless of any peace treaty.
The British commander, General Pakenham (Wellington’s brother-in-law), got the job because his predecessor, General Ross, had gotten killed in Maryland, trying to capture Baltimore.
After the battle, Pakenham’s body was shipped home in a barrel of rum. My question: what happened to the rum after he got home? It is an historical impossibility that the Royal Navy dumped out an entire barrel of rum. They were also famous for giving limes to their sailors, so was this how daiquiris were invented? To disguise a funky…aftertaste? Haven’t tracked down this theory yet, but to this day, some people in England say “tap the admiral” to mean, sneak a drink, based on a similar theory, when Admiral Lord Nelson’s body was shipped home in a barrel of spirits, after he was killed at Trafalgar.)
 E-mail: The Treaty of Six Nations
I was struck by the national attention the Cosden Massacre received, and realized the telegraph’s contribution. I was also surprised to see a “Treaty of Six Nations” mentioned in articles about telegraphs, because I’d been researching the Iroquois Confederacy (“The Six Nations”) and knew nothing about this treaty.
Eight years before the murders, Congress gave Samuel Morse $30,000 to build a test telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.. (And yes, Samuel Morse was of course honored with membership in the American Philosophical Society, my employer this summer.)
By 1851, there were dozens and dozens of telegraph companies, stringing competing lines from city to city, and already reaching to New Orleans. In a few more years, they would lay down a cable across the Atlantic Ocean, and a few years after that, across the continent. The so-called “Treaty of Six Nations” was simply a deal between telegraph competitors, realizing they would profit from “cooperating” (“collusion” is such an ugly word), and beginning the process that lead to the Western Union monopoly. Newspapers began running columns with items hot off the wires.