York County Woman Sent to Eastern Penitentiary
One of the most awesome, and chilling, buildings I have ever visited is the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It was opened in 1829 and closed in 1971.
After over 20 years in limbo it opened as a museum with guided tours in the mid-1990s. As funds are available, more and more of its vast expanse is being maintained and restored.
Click here for Eastern State Penitentiary web site with extensive history and tour information.
During much of the prison’s history, each inmate was kept in solitary confinement, not as an extraordinary punishment, but with the idea that the time alone would give the prisoner time to reflect on their crime and become pentitent.
Being in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, York County criminals who were convicted of any major crimes were sent to Eastern. The records of the Penitentiary are part of the collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives. A friend shared some information from those records, which led to my York Sunday News column, repeated below, on the tragedy of a young York County woman led astray.
The Queen of Jacobus: A Tragedy
A clipping recently found among the records of the Eastern State Penitentiary at the Pennsylvania State Archives brought to light a classic tragedy played out in York County. The clipping, published in the Philadelphia North American newspaper, is datelined “York, Pa., February 28, . It tells of the recent death, in the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, of Catherine Ness, and the burial of “Queen Kate” in her home village of Jacobus.
The article states that she was so pretty and popular that her friends did not even desert her after she was sentenced to the penitentiary. They allegedly sent her many gifts to grace her cell.
What was this beautiful 23-year-old doing in prison? She was serving a three year and nine month sentence for shooting her lover, a married contractor twenty years older than Kate. The shooting occurred on October 28, 1901, and the York newspapers published lurid, detailed accounts the next day. The local papers also gave full accounts of Kate’s trial, which was conducted January 10, and 11, 2002. The stories given by both Ness and Epley, her victim, had changed a good bit by the time of the trial.
Although she was from Jacobus, also known as Paradise, Kate had moved to York sometime before. According to the Dispatch, she was “popularly known as ‘Susquehanna Sue’ or ‘Miss Paradise.'” Mr. Epley came to the boarding house in which she lived on Queen Street that evening. They got into an argument in the back yard of the house, and he told her he was going back to his wife and children. She pulled out a gun that he had previously given her, allegedly because she wanted to safeguard the jewelry he had also given to her. Epley unloaded the gun and threw it into the bushes. They went into the house, and Epley either left the house and came back or went to another room. Kate went out and retrieved the gun.
A short time later Epley started to leave again and Kate fired four shots at his groin area, wounding him three times. He went out the door, followed by Kate. They burst into the office of Dr. Butz on Market Street, Kate supposedly hysterically proclaiming that she shouldn’t have shot him because she loved the very ground he trod on. The doctor sent him by ambulance to the hospital, accompanied by Kate and Police Sergeant Horn, who had also been summoned.
Chief of Police White and Sergeant Horn took Kate to jail. On the way she confessed that she had planned to kill Epley, because she thought he was seeing another woman, and then kill herself, because she didn’t want to live without him. A letter, addressed to her parents that the police found at her boarding house seemed to back up this up.
A little over two months later the case went to trail in an overflowing court room. The defendant appeared “resplendent in a raglan coat and a big picture hat.” After two days of trail Kate was found guilty of aggravated assault and battery and carrying concealed deadly weapons. During sentencing “Judge Bittenger told her that the jury had taken a merciful view of her crime and acquitted her of the most serious charge–assault with intent to kill–although the evidence was clear and convincing to establish her guilt.”
What had changed since Kate confessed to the police? Both her story and Epley’s story. The new version was that he reloaded the gun after she brought it back into the house and that she didn’t see him do the reloading. After they got into another fight and he struck her she pointed the gun at him without knowing it was loaded. She also said that she was joking when she had previously said she would “shoot Epley if things went wrong with them,” as others testified.
Judge Bittinger was not pleased. He gave Kate the maximum sentence for the two counts for which she was found guilty. He also issued a warning to Epley, who had recovered and gone back to his family. In the meantime Epley had assaulted his wife while intoxicated. The Judge warned that if Epley again assaulted his wife or failed to support his family, he would be brought up on charges of adultery and assault and battery. This warning must have taken hold, since Epley’s wife was still living with him when he died 28 years later.
“Queen Kate/Miss Paradise/Susquehanna Sue” didn’t fare as well. Although not forgotten by friends and family, Kate reportedly didn’t have a strong enough constitution to survive life in the penitentiary. She was either a victim of pneumonia or consumption (tuberculosis) and died after serving a year of her sentence. A tragic end to a melodramatic, but true, story.
For more on York County crime and prisons, click the links below.
Early York jail break.
Escape from York Jail window.
Escape through the walls of new jail.
Fire alarms prisoners.
Plaque stolen from York County prison.
High cost of crime.
Weapons taken off York streets.
Jewel thief arrested.
More police needed.
Crooks chased by cops on trolley.
Wrong bullets save Yorkers.
Thieves steel court house spouting.
Arson caused major York fire.
Red Lion, Dallastown safes cracked.
York mayor sides with assulted wife.