The Northwood Murderer
It has long been my belief that the first, at least documented, American serial killer was H.H. Holmes. This is a belief held by many. Throughout my recent research I have found many cases that I, and apparently many people, had not heard of. It is interesting how certain cases stay in the memory and eye of people while others, that are often more gruesome, are lost to history. In the end it may simply come down to wording. The word "serial killer." This "phrase" did not come into true prominence until around the 1980's with cases such as Ted Bundy. Holmes was not likely called a "serial killer" at the time but a "repeat killer." His crimes were so enormous and have been written about over the years that he probably inherited the title. However, repeat killers were nothing new, not even by 1893. The case of Franklin Evans, aka "The Northwood Murderer" is just such case. No, he seemingly did not kill as many people as H.H. Holmes but his crimes none the less qualify him for the category of serial killer, nearly twenty-five years prior. Today we know that serial killer generally just simply do not stop killing. If they have it generally means they are in jail or have died. In Evans' case there seems to be gaps of years in which he did not kill, at least on the surface. The idea of this is unlikely. It is more likely that there were many more crimes that he simply did not confess to and simply were not attributed to him. It is also likely that the first crimes that we know he committed, were not actually his first. Serial killers tend to start young in life with their crimes and when Evans' was finally caught in 1872 he was already in his sixties and the first crime we know about occurred just seven years prior. He was not exactly a smart man who necessarily hid his crimes well so I am sure over the preceding years crimes were found and either the crime was attributed to something else, it went unsolved or someone else was punished. Prior to his capture for murder, Evans had been arrested for petty crimes such as, "consorting" with a prostitute, petty theft, and insurance fraud.
So let's start at the end... with his last crime. Evans' last crime was the murder of his great-niece Georgianna Lovering. Georgianna was the granddaughter of Evans' sister Deborah Day and her husband Sylvester. Evans' had moved to Northwood New Hampshire with the Day's in 1872. Deborah's widowed daughter, Susan Lovering, Georgianna's mother, also lived with them. It was reported (possibly speculated) that Evans' immediately was infatuated with the pre-teen girl and tried to seduce her. Keep in mind she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen (reports differ) and he was sixty-four.
On October 25, 1872 Georgianna went missing. A few days prior Evans had taken her out into the nearby woods and had showed her how to work snares that he had put out supposedly for partridges. On this day Evans told her that he was going to help a neighbor that day and asked if she would check the snares. When she did not return by lunch time her mother and grandfather went looking for her. They came across an area in which they found some of her items and the earth was moved in a way in which it appeared there had been a struggle but they did not find Georgianna. Over the next weekend hundreds of people searched for her.
Suspicion quickly fell on Evans. Authorities had checked with the neighbor who Evans had used as an alibi. The neighbor said not only had he not asked Evans for help, as Evans had told people, but he had not seen him. Later another witness stated he saw Evans enter the woods about a half an hour before Georgianna. He was quickly taken into custody. On his body he had a bone handled knife with two blades and there appeared to be blood on it. Playing devils advocate here I am going to point out that Evans was known for wandering in the woods. The only real success he had had in life was determining herbs and roots that were used for medical purpose that he sold to doctors. One can also assume that he had often found at least "small game" and had killed them. So in a period of time in which not only could one conclusively determine if something that looked like blood actually was, there was and still is not a way to simply look at blood and determine it to be human or animal.
We are also still talking about a time in which suspects were promptly arrested and were often badgered, tricked and sometimes beaten into confessions. After being arrested Evans was told that if he confessed no harm would come to him (obviously a lie). At this point he told the Sheriff that Georgianna was alive and that he had all but sold her to a farmer named "Webster" from the nearby town of Kingston to be his bride. This was looked into but was quickly found to be untrue. Next the Sheriff decided to attempt to bribe Evans, giving him liquor and telling him he would help him escape to Canada if he confessed. On October 31st Evans said he would lead them to Georgianna's body.
When her body was found where Evans had hidden it, not only had the young girl been strangled but her body had been mutilated. Her stomach had been cut to get to her uterus. Evans also confessed to raping the corpse. When as about the mutilation, Evans claimed that that he was a doctor (something he had claimed many times after he learned about herbs and roots)and that he and done this for his "research" and examination purposes.
His trial began February 3, 1873 and last three days. Just prior to the third day of trial he was left in his cell for just a few minutes and when the guard returned he found Evans hanging in his cell. Most believe Evans knew the guard would not be gone long enough for him to die and that the attempt was simply for show in order to use insanity as a defense. The jury deliberated for ten minutes, returning with a verdict of guilty of murder in the 1st degree. He was sentenced to die at the gallows on February 17, 1874. His body was donated to Dartmouth Medical College. In a previous blog I had discussed that the fact that the condemned man's body was donated to the local college for dissection was almost a continued punishment. I do not feel the same in this case, in fact, just the opposite. For Evans, who was fascinated with all things medical it was almost a reward.
After his trial, while he was being transported to his new prison, Evans started confessing to prior crimes. He confessed that just prior to arriving in Northwood he had murdered a woman in Fitchbury, Massachusetts; he confessed to murdering 14 year old Anna Sibly in Maine and to the kidnapping and murder of a girl around 5 years old. The biggest crime he confessed to however had occurred seven years prior and had terrified a community.
On June 12, 1865 fifteen year old Isabella Joyce and her twelve year old brother, John were visiting with their grandmother near Roxbury, Massachusetts, when they asked to go explore a nearby area called "Mary's Woods." It was a local picnic and recreation place. When they had not returned by 2pm, the designated time for their return, the searches began. Five days later their bodies were found. Isabella had been raped, beaten and stabbed dozens of times. It was evident she had struggled as one of her fingers was completely cut off while the others were barely attached as if she had grabbed the knife to ward off the attack. She also had grass and dirt in her mouth as if to muffle her screams.
It is theorized that she was attacked first and that it is likely that John stood for a bit in shock and that when Evans went toward him John finally began to run but must have tripped as he was also stabbed several times but from the back. Some of these wounds were so deep they went all the way through to the earth!
Massive rewards were offered and huge manhunts began but no one was ever charged in the crime. It likely never would have been had Evans not confessed.