Cannonball

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First JEB Stuart strikes; then a triple murder near Round Top: Finale

Squibb 1860 censusThe 1860 Census of Warrington Township shows Quaker farmer George Squibb, his wife Mary, one of their daughters (Maria Jane) and their granddaughters Sarah Seifert and Mary Jane Myers (the daughters of Caroline Emma Squibb). The old Quaker couple and little Sarah became known in York County, PA as “The Murdered Family” as they were brutally slaughtered in June 1866.

To read this serial true crime story from the beginning, click here for Part 1.

William “Irish Bill” Donovan had been convicted, although his three-man team of lawyers had quickly filed a motion for a new trial. He continued to drop hints that Edward Boyle was the true killer, but he never offered any proof.

In January, York County Judge Robert J. Fisher tried Boyle, his father John, and Harrisburg resident John McGranigan for the triple murders. The jury found Edward Boyle and McGranigan not guilty on all three charges, as well as acquitting John Boyle on charges of killing George Squibb. His trial on the other two indictments was delayed until the next court session in April 1867.

At that time, John Boyle acquitted of the remaining two indictments. However, because of new evidence introduced at the elder Boyle’s trial, the Court ruled that William Donovan should receive a new trial, although he would still be held in custody.

MaishA special court was convened on October 1, 1867, to retry Donovan. Wickes and Zeigler returned as counsel, being augmented this time by a local hero of the Civil War, Levi Maish (shown above in this photo from the author’s collection).

Maish as the lieutenant colonel of the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry had suffered a gruesome wound in his right lung at the 1862 Battle of Antietam. He had survived, but still carried the lead Minie ball in his lung. After the regiment’s colonel Henry Zinn was killed at Fredericksburg, Maish assumed command. He suffered another serious wound to his hip at Chancellorsville and was mustered out of the Union army in May 1863. Blessed with pleasant manners and natural charisma, Maish was widely admired and he was a talented attorney and a two-term state representative.

The prosecution team was District Attorney John W. Bittenger and his assistants George W. McElroy (a former patient at the U.S. Army Hospital in York and a frequent contributor to its newspaper, The Cartridge Box) and H. R. Fisher.

york-county-courthouseThe sensational trial in York’s columned courthouse lasted 15 days and was packed each day with interested onlookers. Much was made of the many public threats Donovan had made against George Squibb seeking vengeance for the lawsuit over the dead cow. The strongest evidence, though circumstantial, against him was the bloody hatchet recovered on his property and his bloody pants. The bodies of the Squibbs had been exhumed and the hatchet compared with marks on the remains. The many one-and-a-qarter inch circular indentations on the Squibbs’ skulls readily matched the ball end of it, but Donovan claimed the hatchet belonged to John Boyle and denied having it in his possession on the Sunday of the murders. The prosecution electrified the audience by introducing old George Squibb’s skull and demonstrating how readily the hatchet matched the injuries.

On Tuesday, October 15, the trial ended and the jury went into deliberations at 1:30 p.m. It did not take long for them to agree on a verdict. Judge Fisher reconvened the court at 5:30, at which time the jury returned guilty verdicts on all three counts. Donovan received the solemn news without any apparent emotion. Once again he was remanded into custody to await sentencing in January 1868.

Sheriff Engles escorted Donovan into court a final time on Monday afternoon, January 13, shortly before 3:00 p.m. for the formal sentencing. Irish Bill stood before Judge Fisher, who asked, “Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed on you?” An emotional Donovan spiritedly protested his innocence and emphatically stated that he had never taken the life of anyone. He also once again denied any knowledge of the crime and did not implicate the Boyles. Fisher invoked the death penalty, noting that this plea of innocence was of no avail as he had twice been tried and convicted despite the able efforts of his defense teams. The time of his execution would be set by the governor of the commonwealth. Donovan would have time for repentance and preparation. After the sentencing, Donovan approached the bench, shook Fisher’s hand cordially, and said, “I will meet you in Heaven.”

In late February former Gettysburg artillery sergeant Abraham Rudisill, now a well known preacher in Harmony Grove, visited Donovan in his cell and gave him some religious reading material. He wrote in his diary that Donovan was to hang on March 31, 1868, the time set by Governor John W. Geary, a former Union general at the battle of Gettysburg.

The day before Donovan’s scheduled execution, he gave his jailer a lengthy story about the hatchet. He claimed that John Boyle had stopped by his house on the Saturday before the murder and asked to borrow a grubbing hoe for his son Edward because he wanted to plant some cabbage plants he had earlier picked up at the Squibb house. However, Donovan was plowing a field and planned to use the hoe himself later, so he asked his wife to lend Boyle the hatchet instead.

On the day after the murder he asked his little son to cut some poles, so he retrieved the hatchet and started sharpening it. He noticed some strange gore on it and asked his son if he had cut the head off of a turkey on Sunday. Because he had heard that the Squibbs had been murdered and because the boy had previously lost another hatchet, young William needed to be very careful with this one. A neighborhood couple, the Duttons, stopped by and Donovan went out to a field with them for some time. Upon returning to his house, he noticed John Boyle engaged on conversation with his wife. When the Duttons and Boyle left soon afterward, Donovan asked his wife what they had been discussing. Ann Donovan replied that Boyle had come to fetch the hatchet because the remaining members of the Squibb family were surely going to search for it. However, no one knew where William Jr. had placed it.

It was the first time Donovan had told this story. He had not introduced it during either of his trials. Now, it was far too late.

The execution would take place inside the jail’s walled courtyard, and the gallows would be six feet shorter than the walls so no one could see the spectacle from the street. A reporter visiting him noted, “It is surprising how quiet and indifferent the prisoner appears. He is not apparently concerned about the terrible doom which is very soon to meet… he still protests his innocence, and grasps at every little ray of hope,” muttering occasionally about “that hatchet.” Donovan added that God has not yet said the word for his execution. According to the reporter, Irish Bill “eats quite heartily and sleeps soundly. He very politely welcomes his acquaintances who call to see him.” Not convinced of the Irishman’s guilt, the reporter closed his story by stating, “Mystery seems to thicken around in this scene, as it approaches its fearful climax.”

On the morning of March 31, nearly two years after the triple murders, William Donovan paid the ultimate price for his years of threatening George Squibb, coupled with the circumstantial evidence of the gore-flecked hatchet and the bloody pants. He was calm on the scaffold, but was praying fervently.

His last words were, “You are hanging an innocent man.”

The trapdoor opened, hurtling Irish Bill into eternity.

Squibb field

EPILOGUE

In late July, the sheriff of Northumberland County, Pa., sent a letter to authorities in York County. A man committed to prison at Sunbury for larceny had asserted to a fellow inmate that he and Donovan were the murderers of the Squibb family and that he himself had killed the little girl. He first told the sheriff that his name was George Mowery from Harrisburg, but at the time of the murder and trial he went by the alias of Edward Boyle. The sheriff had come to find out that Boyle’s true name was Christian K. Spade based upon markings on the prisoner’s body and garments. Mowery/Boyle/Spade boasted that he had been too smart, and had too many friends for the people of York County. York officials started an investigation, but because Boyle had been found innocent in a court of law, they could do nothing.

Later in 1868 John M. Squibb filed a damage claim on behalf of his late father to ask the commonwealth of Pennsylvania for $150 for the price of the gray mare taken back in June 1863 by Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalrymen. Although the three state commissioners approved the claim, Squibb never got a dime. All the border claims were never paid because of political infighting and later budget cuts.

Squibb damage claim

The Squibbs’ unmarried daughter, Caroline Emma, took ownership of her parent’s farmhouse. When she died in September 1878 at the age of 58, she left some household furnishings to her remaining daughter, Mary Jane Myers. The 87-acre farm and other properties were to be sold and all of the money given to Mary Jane “to make her comfortable.” However, because of the thin, unproductive soil, the dilapidated condition of the house and building, and the triple murders at the site, no one had wanted to buy it. The executor of the estate tried to rent it, but because it was the scene of the Squibb murder, people had an apprehension of evil associated with the place. He deducted from Myers’ payments the cost of repairing the broken down hog pen and sowing clover seed, as well as for auditors’ fees and other miscellaneous items. Finally in 1882, Myers sued to recover the full amount of her money. The judge gave her partial payment in September 1883. The executor eventually found a buyer, and the property on Stone Jug Road passed into other hands. All of the buildings would later be torn down and new ones erected by later owners.

The Squibb murder story passed into the forgotten recesses of York County history.

Sources:

Information for this series of six blog posts on “The Murdered Family” came from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, York Pennsylvanian, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Stroudsburg Jeffersonian, Gettysburg Republican Compiler, Lancaster Intelligencer, Lancaster Examiner and Herald, Waynesboro Village Record, New York Herald, Adams Star & Sentinel, York Gazette, Harrisburg Telegraph, York Legal Record (Vol. IV, No. 30), the diary of Abraham Rudisill, the York County Civil War Border Claims, and Warrington Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Bulletin II, Warrington Meeting Chapter Daughters of the American Colonists, 1951.