First JEB Stuart strikes; then a triple murder near Round Top: Part 3
On the morning of Monday, June 18, 1866, George Snelbaker needed an auger for some chores. The 24-year-old man lived near his namesake grandfather, George S. Squibb, off of Rosstown Road in northwestern York County, Pennsylvania, in rural Warrington Township. He knew his grandfather had an auger, so he decided to borrow it.
Arriving at his grandparents’ modest homestead about 10:00 a.m., Snelbaker spotted a figure lying on the front porch. In anguish he rushed forward to find his grandfather prostrated face down in a pool of coagulated blood. He had suffered multiple severe injuries to his head and body, and was almost unrecognizable. Old George Squibb was still alive, but just barely. The Quaker farmer was insensible and unresponsive.
Inside the one-story house lay his wife Mary Squibb, also in desperate condition. She had been horribly beaten and was also insensible. Nearby in the kitchen lay the body of 11-year-old Sarah Emma Seifert (named as Emma Jane Seifert in some accounts), already cold to the touch. She too had been stabbed, beaten, and bruised. The back of the little girl’s head had been crushed; she must have died almost immediately from the traumatic injury which was initially believed to have been caused by some sort of heavy hammer. However, no probable weapon was found discarded on the premises.
George raced home and fetched his parents, and soon they and several neighbors had assembled at the house. It was a gory, ugly scene.
All of the victims were shoeless, indicating that the assaults had likely taken place the previous evening shortly before bedtime. Mr. Squibb had removed his hat, coat, shoes, and stockings which were found laying next to his arm-chair where he was accustomed to placing them in the evenings. His wife had also removed her shoes and stockings, and the little girl had only taken off one shoe and sock before the killers arrived. Because of the differing weapons used and the apparent suddenness of the attack which precluded anyone from sounding the alarm, it was clear that more than one perpetrator was involved in the slayings.
The last people to see the Squibbs hale and hearty had been their brother-in-law Harvey Bell, who was married to Mary’s sister. He had departed about 4:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon before the thunderstorm hit.
Someone sounded the alarm (many remote farmers used horns to sound the call for help) and neighbors came over to lend assistance. The focus was on helping Mrs. Squibb, who had suffered three wounds on the right side of the head, one of which produced a slight fracture of her skull. She was carried into her bed and made as comfortable as possible as medical help was summoned. It appeared her blunt force trauma may have been caused by a “slungshot” (a maritime tool with a heavy round ball attached to a cord; it was a favorite weapon of criminals and street gangs in the 19th century) or perhaps a billy club. Upon arriving, the attending physician, Dr. William P. Nebinger of Lewisberry, entertained little hope of her recovery. Nebinger was no stranger to significant trauma, having recently served in the Civil War as the assistant surgeon of the 56th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Outside on the porch, inspection of the dying George Squibb revealed no less than 14 separate cuts or wounds. Most of the injuries were to the right side of his head, with four wound penetrating his skull to his brain. Three of them were centered in his temple. From the location of the wounds, it was immediately evident that his killer had been left handed, and some observers suggested that the murder weapon was a morticing chisel. Squibb apparently had put up quite a fight for his life. He lingered throughout the day, never regaining consciousness, and he would expire about 12:30 a.m. Monday night.
Newpapers across the region soon trumpeted the murders, assuming that Mrs. Squibb would soon join her husband and granddaughter in death. However, she was a tough old lady and was still alive even as the lurid headlines said otherwise.
Almost immediately speculation arose as to who might have committed the heinous crime. Everyone knew old George had money, and that was the likely motive. A search of the property revealed stashes of cash amounting to some $350. Upon arriving, Maria Snelbaker, the married daughter, estimated that her father had $700 to $800 secreted in various locations. The prevailing theory was that the Squibbs had been brutally assaulted for their money and the thieves had in their haste only discovered a pocketbook containing $200 in a locked bureau drawer and perhaps one or two other small caches.
Attention focused on the two strangers who had been lurking in the neighborhood prior to the thunderstorm. Perhaps they were the killers, but no one knew their identities. Stories circulated as far south as York about a man matching the rough description of one of the strangers; residents had seen him pass through Weigelstown early Monday morning. However, he was not under arrest and the police had no idea of his current whereabouts. He was described as “a rough customer, desperate-looking, and a fit accomplice for such bloody work.” Finding him became a priority.
In the meantime, people gathered at the Squibb farm recalled the litany of threats made by Irish Bill Donovan, and soon he fell under suspicion. On Tuesday, June 19, the county coroner held an inquest at the Squibb home. One of the jurymen mentioned several names of persons in the area to Mary and asked her to squeeze his hand if one was the killer. During her more lucid moments, she repeatedly squeezed at the mention of William Donovan. Interestingly, folks began to realize that he had not responded to the alarm call on Monday morning, nor had he come over this day as well. He also failed to appear after several neighbors were sent to fetch him. Suspicion grew.
When his place was searched, two vital pieces of circumstantial evidence emerged. One of the neighbors noted that Donovan’s pants had several spots which appeared to be blood, to which the Irishman gave differing explanations. Perhaps more alarming was the discovery of a hatchet tucked inside a log in his stable. It had been freshly honed, but still exhibited flecks of blood. Donovan immediately denied having it in his possession on the Sunday night of the murders of George Squibb and little Emma. It would later be sent to a chemist in Baltimore to confirm the presence of blood.
Early that Tuesday evening, Irish Bill was taken against his will across Dare’s Hill to the coroner at the Squibb house, who subjected the suspect to an intense interrogation before remanding him to the sheriff for incarceration. Much was made of the fact that he was left-handed.
Photo of Emma Seifert’s gravestone (taken by “Road to Wellsville” and posted on Find-a-Grave on 9/30/14). Note that although reported to be the Squibb’s granddaughter in the media, neither of the daughters married anyone named Seifert.
On Wednesday morning, a large crowd had gathered in the cemetery of the Warrington Friend Meeting House as little Emma and her grandfather were laid to rest in mid-morning According to news accounts, it “was attended by a vest concourse of the citizens of the neighborhood, among whom the most intense excitement prevails in consequence of the brutal murder that has been perpetrated in their midst.” The entire crowd followed the coffins to their burial spots. Another reporter deemed the ensuing ceremonies as “exceedingly solemn and impressive.”
Meanwhile, efforts were being made to contact Miss Caroline E. Squibb, the unmarried daughter, who was last known to have been living with a Mrs. Street on F Street down in Washington. However, she had recently moved and had not left a forwarding address so notices were placed in the Washington newspapers to help discover her current whereabouts. As such, she missed the funeral of her father and Emma.
Mary Squibb, despite her fractured skull, was still stubbornly clinging to life. Because of her extreme weakness she could not speak intelligibly. However, she was now conscious and cognizant, and could recognize her friends and acquaintances when they approached her bedside. When questioned by the coroner’s jury, she repeated squeezing her hand at the mention of William Donovan’s name. When asked about the number of attackers, she squeezed the juryman’s hand twice.
Many speculated that Donovan indeed was the mastermind and one of the actual killers, but others doubted it. A reporter would label him as “an ill-tempered, desperate character” and “the terror of the neighborhood, particularly when under the influence of alcohol, which is often the case.” Although the evidence was circumstantial and Irish Bill denied being present, the coroner’s jury determined that he should stand trial at the August session of the York County Court. He would be held in custody in York until then.
Meanwhile, the search continued in earnest for the two mysterious strangers, as well as for anyone else who possibly may have been involved. Stories emerged that one of the strangers had spent Saturday night at Donovan’s house, and his description soon was being circulated throughout the region.
Dr. Nebinger now entertained slight hopes that Mrs. Squibb might recover, despite the trauma she had suffered to her nervous system. Reporters speculated that if she did manager to recover, she would certainly be able to identify the attackers. Even better, there was a chance she could be in good enough shape to testify to convict Donovan and his accomplice, or exonerate them entirely.
Alas, it was not to be.
Her condition soon deteriorated and on June 25, a week after the assault, Mary Bell Squibb breathed her last. She was buried beside her husband in the Warrington Friends cemetery.
Now, it was a triple homicide.
To be continued in Part 4…