During the 1920s, America was transfixed by the case of the brassy Queens housewife Ruth Snyder, who persuaded her lover, a mousy corset salesman named Judd Gray, to help murder her unwanted husband.
At the time, the case (which inspired the classic noir novel and film ‘Double Indemnity’) was seen as emblematic of the age, a symptom of the “anything goes” ethos and breakdown of traditional moral values that characterized the “Roaring Twenties”.
As it happened, however, a crime almost identical to the Snyder-Judd case occurred in America a full century earlier. Its perpetrators were a pair of illicit lovers, a flighty young female named Elsie Whipple and her lovesick patsy, Jesse Strang.
Born in poverty and raised “to hard labour,” Strang was a thirty-year-old drifter who — after deserting a wife and two children in Dutchess County, New York — led a footloose life out west before making his way to Albany in 1826. By then, he was going under the name Joseph Orton.
Severely nearsighted, he wore bifocal eyeglasses that endowed him with a learned appearance wildly at variance with his actual intelligence. Acquaintances called him “Doctor.”
It was in the early part of August 1826, just weeks after showing up in Albany, that he first set his myopic eyes on Elsie Whipple, disporting herself in a barroom. At his initial glimpse of the vivacious, golden-haired beauty, “the flame of lawless love” (as an early chronicler put it) was kindled in Jesse’s bosom.
Assuming from her free-and-easy behaviour that she was “a young, sprightly girl,” he remarked to a companion: “I would not mind passing a night in her chamber.” He was surprised to learn that Elsie was, in fact, a married woman, wed to one John D. Whipple, a well-to-do canal engineer nine years her senior. Still, his companion assured him, “he need not despair.” After all, many another wife married to an older husband had taken a young lover.
A few weeks later, by either chance or design, Jesse took a live-in job for $13 a month at the very place where Elsie and her husband boarded: Cherry Hill, the mansion owned by the Albany blueblood Philip Van Rensselaer, Elsie’s uncle by marriage.
For a time, “no particular intimacy took place” between the two future conspirators. Eventually, however, Elsie — undoubtedly perceiving Jesse’s barely suppressed hunger for her and his susceptibility to sexual manipulation — declared her passion for him, her unhappiness in her marriage, and her willingness to run off with him.
She had never believed that “there was such a thing” as true love, she informed him, “until it was awakened by the beauty of his eyes” — a quality evidently magnified by Jesse’s thick-lensed spectacles.
Elated, Jesse proposed that they elope at once and resettle in Ohio, where they could live under assumed names. He “would be as a husband to her,” he declared, “and take the best care of her that was in his power.” Elsie consented, though she insisted that they would need at least $1,200 (roughly $26,000 in today’s money) to establish a new life together.
She first suggested that Jesse “forge a check on the bank in Whipple’s name” for the requisite sum, a plan that Strang quickly vetoed since he could barely write. She then came up with another proposal. If her husband died, she stood to inherit more than enough money to make their dream come true. Unfortunately, John Whipple was in excellent health. The obvious solution, Elsie explained, was for Jesse to do away with her husband.
Though Jesse was not overburdened with moral scruples, he was shocked by the suggestion and adamantly refused. Elsie responded in the time-honoured way of her ilk — by casting aspersions on his manhood. Clearly, Jesse was not as “bold” as another of her suitors, a fellow who had offered to dispose of John Whipple “if she would consent to have him.” With his paramour threatening to withhold her favours from him and bestow them on another man, it was not long before the weak-willed Jesse relented.
Repairing to the nearest apothecary shop, Jesse purchased an ounce of powdered arsenic, explaining to the druggist that his house was overrun with rats. He then brought the poison home to Elsie, who stirred a heaping teaspoon into a steaming cup of tea. Before proceeding further, the “abominable pair” swore a solemn oath, pledging that, even if subjected to the most extreme forms of duress, they would never, under any circumstances, betray each other. Elsie then brought the poisoned tea out to her husband, who drained the cup. For some reason, however — either because the arsenic was defective or because John Whipple’s “constitution was uncommonly strong” — the dose had no effect.
Strang tried again, this time buying arsenic from a different druggist. Again, however, Whipple, who seemed weirdly immune to the poison, imbibed a dose with no ill effects.
Apparently assuming that someone else might have better luck, Jesse next approached the family cook, a female slave named Dinah Jackson, and offered her $500 to poison Whipple. In stark contrast to Strang — regarded by dint of his colour as her social and moral superior — Washington stoutly refused. “I won’t sell my soul to hell for all the world,” she declared. Several other efforts to hire paid assassins came to nothing.
In the meantime, Jesse and Elsie continued their adulterous affair, sometimes slipping off to an inn in a neighbouring town and putting up for the night under the guise of husband and wife. It was during one of these assignations that Elsie proposed a new plan. Her husband was about to undertake a trip to Vermont and had to be at the stagecoach depot early Monday morning. Her idea was that Jesse waylay Whipple on his way into town and “shoot him or take an axe or club and knock out his brains.”
When Jesse convinced her that such an ambush was too risky, Elsie came up with yet another scheme: that Strang steals one of Mr Whipple’s pistols and, from a vantage point outside the house, shoot her husband through his bedroom window as he sat at his table.
Jesse objected that he had never fired a pistol in his life and was “as likely to kill another member of the family as the one intended.” He thought, however, he might be able to do the job with a “two-barreled rifle.” With $20 provided by Elsie, he embarked on a shopping trip to Albany. Finding that a double-barreled weapon was beyond his means, however, he purchased a rifle instead.
Back home, Jesse spent some time perfecting his marksmanship in the woods. Elsie — worried that her husband’s window might deflect the bullet — provided him with several panes of glass for his target practice. She promised to leave her husband’s window curtains open on a fateful night, so that Jesse would have an unobstructed shot. On the day before the planned assassination, they sealed their unholy compact with a final bout of adulterous sex in a hayloft.
The following evening, Monday, May 7, 1826, at around 9:00 p.m., Jesse climbed to a spot atop a shed not far from John Whipple’s second-floor bedroom. Through the window, he could see his target seated at his desk. Carefully aiming at a spot just under Whipple’s arm, he pulled the trigger, firing the rifle — as he later confessed — “with as much composure as if I had shot at a deer.”
“Oh Lord!” cried Whipple, and tumbled from the chair, dead. After disposing of his rifle deep in the woods and “readjusting his clothes,” Jesse strode to the main road and returned to his lodging, pretending that he had just gotten back from a trip to Albany. Informed that Mr Whipple had been shot, he hurried up to the room where his victim was lying. At his first glimpse of the blood-soaked corpse, he turned so deathly pale that his reaction would later be taken as “the first symptom of guilt.”
As he and Elsie had prearranged, Jesse informed the authorities that he had recently seen a pair of canal workers prowling near the house and believed that these roughnecks — supposedly disgruntled employees of Whipple’s — might be the culprits. It was not long, however, before Jesse’s alibi fell apart and his affair with Elsie was uncovered. Both were promptly arrested.
For a while, Jesse stoutly maintained his innocence. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, however — including the testimony of the gunsmith who had sold him the murder weapon — he finally broke down and confessed. Despite their solemn pledge of mutual loyalty, Jesse immediately tried to pin the blame on Elsie, insisting that she had masterminded the crime and offering to testify against her in exchange for a pardon. Rebuffed by the district attorney, Jesse stood trial in July 1847. The jury took fifteen minutes to find him guilty and sentence him to hang.
Three days later, Elsie went on trial. In an age that perceived women as the “tender sex,” incapable of cold-blooded murder, Elsie, for all her “weak, frivolous, and wanton” behaviour, was widely and sympathetically viewed as a susceptible young female who had been led astray by an “artful and designing villain.” The jury acquitted her without leaving their seats.