Murder Creek: The Sorry Case of Sadie McMullen

BY BUCK QUICKLEY

Down along the cold creek bed, the lanterns cast dim shadows against the steep, dark banks. It was a pitch-black night. The trees had dropped most of their leaves, and the branches reached out over the flowing water like bony fingers pointing in wild directions. The other men were several hours into the search already, and John Meahl peered desperately into the cold night air. The rocks along the bank, already slippery with moss from the long summer, were now slick as ice with a thick quilt of brown oak, rusty chestnut, and pale yellow maple leaves wet from the clear waters of Murder Creek. One misstep would mean a nasty tumble.

At various points up in the woods, Meahl could see the lanterns being carried by the other men—flashing at odd intervals as they climbed through clumps of white birch, or stopped to rest for a moment by a large boulder. It had already been a long week, and none of them, especially those who’d sat down for a beer at Simon Brown’s tavern earlier, had planned to be searching in the dark after two in the morning on a Friday night. This particular Friday being Halloween, besides.

Meahl had been working late that night at his job as a publisher, and was in the American Hotel in Akron when Mr. Stapleton and Mr. Wells returned with about 15 other men at one o’clock to rest and reconfigure their search for 10-year-old Ella May Connors and six-year-old Delia Brown, who hadn’t been seen since around 7:30 the night before.

The group headed up to Bruce Johnson’s store. Then some proceeded down the bank behind, toward the swirling waters below. Meahl, Leo Wells, and Will Flynn headed up to Jebb’s Bridge, the Akron Central Railroad span used by the Akron Cement Company. Lanterns in hand, they walked the tracks leading to the trestle, then along the top, as the glow between the thick ties created a dim strobe effect on the gurgling creek beneath them.

bridge

When they’d reached the other side, they descended the bank to continue their search. The dim light they carried danced over the rocks and reflected in sparkling circles among the chilly whorls. Then, by the concrete abutment at the base of the railroad bridge, they came upon a dreadful sight. Nine-year-old Ella (Nellie) May Connors was dead, lying on her back with her arm twisted at a crazy angle, facing the tracks some 55 feet above her.

John Meahl listened to the shouts echoing down the creekbed, as he moved further into the gloomy rocks and branches by the water’s edge. He steeled himself in the cold night air to come upon the lifeless body of the other missing girl, six-year-old Delia Brown, youngest daughter of Simon Brown, the tavernkeeper he’d come to know there in the Village of Akron.

In the darkness and distance, the shadows of men rushing about flooded the steep hillsides. Then, in a moment both horrific and miraculous, a shard of dappling light reflecting off the water from Meahl’s lantern flashed across the face of little Delia. Chilled to the bone, she summoned the strength to moan for the first time in hours. It was nearly three in the morning.

Meahl followed the sound and found her near the side of the creek, lying on her stomach, with her hand tucked under her—not far from where the other men had come to witness the death pose of nine-year-old Nellie May Connors. He shouted out his discovery. According to Meahl’s testimony, delivered during the official inquest conducted on November 3, 1890, at the Akron Town Hall, Mr. Bitterman arrived first and picked up bruised and bloodied little Delia in his arms. As they carried her toward safety, they heard her tired voice utter a comment that must have haunted them forever:

“Sarah was smart to throw us off of the bridge.”

Goodbye

A little after eight o’clock on Halloween night, 17-year-old Sarah (Sadie) McMullen came to the Browns’ house, where Simon’s 20-year-old sister Hannah met her at the door. An hour earlier, Sadie had taken Nellie May Connors and Hannah’s neice Delia on an errand up to Johnson’s Store to buy a pound of butter.

SADIE

It was later said that she pushed to the front of the store, put down a quarter for the butter, then left without waiting for it to be retrieved from the icebox, nor for her change. Now she was at the door, holding out her hand. “Goodbye, Hannah,” she said.

Sadie was well known to the Browns. She had worked as a servant in the house during Mrs. Brown’s final illness, and remained on in that capacity for five or six weeks after her death—until it was decided that Hannah would begin to keep house and care for Delia. The relationship that had developed between Sadie and Delia was described as “maternal.”

Hannah asked where she was going. “Well, if you don’t want to shake hands, well, all right,” Sadie snapped, closing the door and walking off.

Hannah didn’t see the other girls, and walked out on the step to look for them. She saw nothing. Then she went inside to put on her hat and shawl. Worried, she went to her brother’s tavern to tell him of the situation. He responded with an unconcerned laugh. Akron was a safe little village. So provincial was it at the time that the governmental head, James E. Paxon, was referred to as village president. The term “mayor” was not adopted until 1928. A Justice Office did not exist until 1923.

Then, someone rushed in sounding the emergency—Sadie was in Murder Creek, and was drowning. Simon Brown hurried in the direction of the creek near his home, where she was said to have thrown herself off a narrow drive that crossed the water at a height of less than 10 feet. Brown ran through the darkness into the water, and with the help of another man named George Jones, got hold of her as she struggled with them, screaming, “Oh! Let me back! Let me back!”

They carried her in her heavy, soaked clothes, back to the house and placed her on the couch. Medical attendants were called, as frantic questions flew regarding the welfare of the children under her watch.

“What children?” Sadie replied.

“Where’s Delia?” Hannah demanded.

“Was she with me?” Sadie asked.

“Yes!”

“The last I seen of her was at Johnson’s store,” Sadie finally answered. She began to run her fingers through her tangled, jet-black hair. She then asked what had caused it to become wet.

Past is prologue

On January 6, 1873, Sarah (Sadie) McMullen had been born in Chicago without making it fully to term. This frail daughter of William F. McMullen and his young Irish-Canadian wife only survived the transition from her mother’s womb with much attention and care. The mother had given birth to a boy two years previously, who did not survive. More specifically, we learn in an 1891 essay written by Dr. William C. Krauss, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, that Sadie’s father is “possessed of a roving restless disposition, working at odd jobs now in Canada, then in Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, etc., wherever his inclination and wanderings carried him. He has devoted little or no time to his family, has always been stern and austere, and made his home one of misery, poverty and wretchedness.”

The essay is in part a reflection of the state of mental health care in the late 19th century. This was the era of eugenics, and the spotty science was used by some to argue for selective breeding in humans. A family tree is included, to illustrate that Sadie’s ancestors suffered a variety of afflictions: delusions, alcoholism, insanity, inflammation of the brain, mania, and spells. One relative, the chart says, is merely lightheaded, one idiotic, while another is labeled deranged.

When she was two, according to the essay,

“an incident occurred which fanned into flames the smoldering embers of her tainted heritage. On coming home from work one evening, the father discovered some rats behind a wire cupboard. He let in the dogs, and there ensued a scene better imagined than described. While at its height, Sadie, who was sleeping on a couch in the room, awoke, and fell instantly into a crying spell, then laughed, clapped her hands, and fell back upon the couch apparently in slumber. On trying to awaken her, ‘she had a fit,’ frothed at the mouth, straightened out, then threw her arms and limbs wildly about. During the night she had several such attacks, and on the following day many more.”

Sadie’s mother, according to Krauss’s essay, was “an irritable, quick-tempered, troublesome woman, with suicidal and homicidal tendencies.” Her weird death occurred when Sadie was three, shortly after the incident with the rats. “At the age of 23 years while crossing a piece of woods in Wisconsin, she saw a bear and ran thoroughly frightened to the nearest house. She died soon afterwards—on Halloween night, 1876—presumably from the shock.”

The People vs. Sadie McMullen

Based on the collected testimonies, including those of survivor Delia Brown, and 11-year-old Dan Flynn, who saw Sadie pulling the two girls up the sidewalk toward the bridge, murder charges would soon be placed against her. The morning after the events, Dr. Grant H. Simmonds, the physician who arrived at Brown’s house the night before testified that when he arrived, Sadie was very cold. They were rubbing her, and he administered stimulants. He spent half an hour talking to her, and asked as to the whereabouts of the other children. She again said she didn’t know.

He then firmly told her she knew where they were.

Sadie replied, “If you know so much about this you had better go find them.”

Simmonds reported that he had tested her by making the accusation with his fingers on her pulse, and noted the questions produced a little upward spike. (He didn’t consider it a result of the stimulants he’d administered, apparently.)

He was called back later when the other girls were finally discovered and brought to the house. His testimony included a description of the fatal injuries suffered by Nellie May, and he gave a detailed list of Delia’s cuts and bruises.

On Monday, November 3, 1890, nine witnesses, including Sadie, submitted their testimony regarding the events of the fateful night. Included on the list was Mrs. Eliza Connors, Nellie May’s mother, a widow.

Eliza testified that she was acquainted with Simon Brown, had been to his house occasionally, and that they had always been on good terms. Her ultimate opinion was that Sadie was “possessed of the Devil,” but did not think she would harm a child if in her right mind.

Under the circumstances, the calmness of Eliza’s response seems remarkable.

Quoting Krauss’s essay, the “ages and sex of the unfortunates as well as of the guilty one, and the circumstances surrounding the affair, created a sensation for many miles around.” Theories ranged from romantic involvement between Sadie and Simon Brown—real or perhaps only perceived from her point of view. Gossips also wondered if that may have been the case, but added that since both Eliza Connors and Simon Brown were single parents, maybe there was a romantic flame there that had burned the spurned Sadie. What better way to exact revenge upon them both than to take their children away forever?

The reality, of course, was more complex and troublesome.

A medico-legal case

It was learned that at the age of 12, Sadie embarked with her alcoholic father, younger sister, and half-brother on a journey east from Missouri in the spring of 1884. They traveled mainly on foot, and spent many nights outdoors with nothing to eat. Many times during the transit, she displayed what literature of the day described as “epileptoid seizures,” characterized by trance-like wanderings—after which she had no recollection of the episode. By the fall of 1884, they arrived in Akron, and Sadie became in charge of the household. It is unclear in what fashion her father contributed. Disagreements and fights were common between the two.

In Akron, her odd behavior continued. While in custody, Sadie described a time when she suddenly found herself picking cherries on a ladder far from home. Another time she returned home “scantily dressed,” with most of her clothing tucked under her arm, soaking wet. She couldn’t arrive at any explanation. Despite these times, people who knew her, knew her as basically nice. She was well liked. Nobody knew that sometimes, in bed, she could feel an episode coming on, and she would get up and walk around in fear. There was nowhere to turn for help.

Dr. Krauss’s report places some significance of the fact that she was 16 and a half when she first menstruated, and that her last period “occurred a few days prior to the homicide.” Again, the essay reveals the shortcomings of its age, but it does help to illustrate what a long, strange trip her journey to womanhood had been.

He loves me not

While it may not have been true that Simon Brown and Sadie were romantically involved, he did have a brother who was not married. It appears that this brother and Sadie were cordial, especially during the time that Sadie was employed as housekeeper at the Brown residence. It was noted in the essay, however, that no pledges had been given or received. Or put another way, in the context of the time: He never offered, so she never received any pledge from him.

When Hannah Brown took over running the Akron household, Sadie took a train to visit an aunt who lived in Buffalo, at 1324 Michigan Street. She remained there for a year. The two became very close. Later, her aunt would describe her as “cowardly, superstitious, easily frightened, and a firm believer in dreams and ghosts.”

Armed with her work experience with the Browns, Sadie—like many destitute Irish girls of the day—was able to gain work as a servant in one of the huge mansions on Delaware Avenue. While working at the mansion, she became involved with a coachman named Sweeney who was also employed there.

On Saturday, October 25, 1890, Sadie returned to Akron to attend a Catholic fair. Sweeney neglected to write her.

She composed a note to her aunt in Buffalo, written from Akron on October 29, which reads, in part: “I don’t care if I never hear from him. I won’t look at him when I come back. He will find that I ain’t as soft as I look. I hate the paddy’s anyway.” The failed liaison must have made for some ripping yarns within the walls of the Buffalo Club, once Sadie’s notoriety spread.

On Halloween, Nellie May Connors was invited to spend the day at the Brown’s with Sadie, Hannah, and Delia, singing songs and playing all the sorts of parlor games that were popular among girls of the day. They had a splendid time until later, when Sadie received a letter at the post office while out walking with Hannah.

She did not share the contents with her companion. The letter came from the servant of her former employer in Buffalo, accusing her of stealing diamonds and other valuables from the mansion. She tried to contain the great mix of emotions building inside her, but Hannah saw through and asked what was the matter.

“Oh, nothing.” Sadie replied.

The final straw

She returned briefly to her home on Brooklyn Street and composed the following letter to her aunt:

Oct. 31, 1890

DEAR AUNTY:

When you get this I will be far from earth, I am sick and tired of living and as I told you my last hope is come at last—I am thankful to die, people rebuke me for things that I am not guilty of and as I have no one to love me, I can go in peace, as my heart I leave in Akron with the one I always spoke to you of, as he seems to not care for me. I know it is a sin to put an end to myself, but I am not the only one, my brain is longing for the end, now if I only had my little brother to take with me I would be happy. If I had died when I was young how thankful I would have been, but as it is, I must die as it is, so tell my sister that I love her as much as ever, but could not stay with her. I hope you will see to them as I know you will and when I am dead I will come to you and explain, but do not fear me I will not hurt you and the man I loved will know me as a frequent visitor. Oh dear, if it was only over how thankful I would be. I think I will take some one with me so I will close my last letter on earth, hoping God will do justice with me, as he does with everybody, so when you get this you will know that I am no more, you will find my body in the basin in Buffalo, please bury me in Akron as I will be near my loved one so good bye—from Sadie, your no more niece.

Later, during questioning, she had no recollection of this, and denied writing or mailing the suicide note. The handwriting did not look like hers, all jerky and jagged.

She returned to the Browns’ house, and embarked with Nellie May and Delia on the fatal errand for a pound of butter that would keep the quiet village of Akron awake through the night and into All Saints’ Day. Sleepless nights were common for some time after.

There is no record of any apology from the anonymous mistress of the mansion on Delaware Avenue, when the diamonds and other “stolen” valuables were soon discovered safely within one of the many opulent rooms there. The blame was still placed on Sadie, who must have misplaced them while suffering one of her forgetful spells.

An epileptoid state

Only two months previous to Sadie’s crime, New York State had introduced the electric chair as the preferred means of taking a life in capital cases with the gruesome execution of William Kemmler in Auburn prison. Kemmler’s defense had been based on the premise of alcoholic insanity—a shaky notion to prove since it’s the victim’s own hand that lifts the drink to his lips. And on the face of it, the innocence of a bearded man who bludgeons his wife to death with the back of a hatchet has always been a tough sell to a jury. Still, Kemmler’s case went all the way to the US Supreme Court before failing to be overruled.

On the surface, Sadie’s case was different not only in that she was only five-foot-four, 100 pounds, and 17 years old—but also that she had a long history of nervous episodes that had been seemingly triggered by factors beyond her control.

Members of the medical community stepped in, recognizing it as an important case. After the trial, members of the Buffalo Medical and Surgical Association welcomed Dr. Krauss to read his paper, entitled “The People vs. Sadie McMullen—A Medico-Legal Case,” on June 9, 1891. Dr. Hayd said, “…the paper suggested the possibility that many of our criminals (were) in an epileptoid state when they committed crimes.” Dr. Grosvenor “enumerated many conditions which can be attributed to alcoholism in the ancestors,” and felt that, “if chronic inebriates were cared for by the state, transmission of such tendencies might be prevented.”

The verdict

The trial of Sadie McMullen was short, lasting March 5-7, 1891. What follow is an article from the Jamestown Evening Journal, dated March 9, 1891.

Not Guilty of Murder is the Finding of the Jury in the Case of Sadie McMULLEN, on trial for the murder of little Mamie Connors, after being out forty minutes brought in a verdict of not guilty, basing their verdict upon the ground that the woman was insane when she committed the act and that she is still of unsound mind.

When the verdict was announced a loud burst of applause came from all parts of the room. Some cheered and others clapped their hands in wild joy. In vain the judge called for order and commanded the officers to arrest those who were cheering.

Then another scene of a more touching nature was enacted. The girl prisoner sprang to her feet and burst into sobs that could have been heard all over the building. Her relatives all rushed to her side and in one swaying group their loud sobs were mingled in a chorus of joy.

Attorney HAYES cried like a child, and many jurors were in tears. It was a moment of intense excitement.

As soon as order had been restored, Judge LEWIS said: ‘Gentlemen of the jury you have certainly taken an exceedingly humane view of the case. You have said practically that she is subject to epileptic seizures and was unconscience of what she did. You practically say that she is insane and is consequently a dangerous person to be at large. The law, therefore, compels me to confine this person to an insane asylum until she recovers. I shall order that she be confined to the Buffalo state asylum until she is fully restored. If her counsel has anything to say upon the subject I will now hear him.’

Attorney HAYES said there was little to say except that he was willing and thankful that she should be in an institution of that kind where she would get the care she needed.

Cured

Sadie spent the next year and a half at the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane on Elmwood and Forest, in the shadow of the H. H. Richardson towers. Details of her treatment are hard to come by, although her case was viewed as a “harvestfield for investigation” for those who believed in the hereditary transmission of vices. She certainly became as much a specimen as a patient.

richardson

Proponents of eugenics would eventually sway a large section of the psychiatric community, and the general public, that sterilization of insane inmates was an appropriate way to cure society’s ills. The practice continued well into the twentieth century. No records show this happened to Sadie, but her case, and cases like hers, helped form the twisted argument.

She was released on August 19, 1893, according to a brief New York Times article that replayed the highlights of the murder before concluding that Buffalo State Asylum Superintendent (J.B.) Andrews “says that she is now perfectly sane.”

Rumors persist as to the details of Sadie’s life after her rehabilitation. Some theories have placed her in Kansas, or further west, in California, after her release. As yet, there is no conclusive evidince available to complete a sketch of her troubled life’s arc.

Thanks to Cynthia Van Ness at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, as well as to Nicole Colello at the UB Libraries Annex, for their help in researching this article. Special thanks to Mark Saglian, for his last-minute input, and photos of Sadie and the railroad bridge. She was Saglian’s second great-aunt.

  • Mark Saglian

    A quick update on this story. I came across an 1898 article published in Attica (Dr. Krauss’ hometown) where he argued against allowing “degenerates” to get married. Dr. Krauss mentions Sadie’s case (though he doesn’t mention her by name) and says that she immediately married after her discharge from the Buffalo State Hospital. His argument in the article was that New York State laws on marriage were too lax and that “degeneracy” will invariably be passed on to the children of any such union. I have not yet been able to locate marriage records, though a 1926 retrospective article on the origin of the name of Murder Creek contends that she married “the lawyer who helped secure her release” (Everand Hayes). Census records don’t appear to support this as Hayes is seen residing with his family until his relocation to NYC in 1906 and then his subsequent death in California in 1911 (where he relocated for health reasons). It’s been a frustrating journey for me personally as her patient records, housed at the NYS Archives – which likely contain a discharge summary detailing her plans at release – are permanently sealed even for descendants.

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