Search billions of records on


From the Green Valley News, Sunday September 12 2010, page A15

Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG

The Crime of Stephen Arnold

Newspapers have been a part of American life for nearly 300 years. A family researcher should always search local newspapers where ancestors lived. Interesting anecdotes and even solutions to many problems are buried in long forgotten news articles.

While writing my last column about Dr. Crippen, I recalled the murder trial of Stephen Arnold in which my ancestor Dr. Gaius Smith participated at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1805. The jury foreman was Elihu Phinney, the editor of the local newspaper, The Otsego Herald, who duly reported details of the trial.

Dr. Smith had moved from Vermont to Burlington, N.Y. in the winter of 1804 and was the first witness called to testify in Arnold's trial. Arnold had once studied medicine but was hired as schoolmaster in Burlington in 1797. He was accused of causing the death of six-year-old Betsey Van Amburgh, a niece adopted by him and his wife.

It seems Arnold had a short temper and also a bad day in the schoolhouse. On the evening of January 10 he wanted Betsey to spell the word "gig" but she was obstinate and kept saying "jig." To punish her, he got eight beech sticks and trimmed and hardened them in the fire. He took Betsey outside in the snow seven times, pulled up her dress and whipped her each time until she could no longer stand.

At the trial, Dr. Smith testified he was not acquainted with Betsey and never knew Stephen Arnold, " . . . till I saw him in January last." When called to the Arnold home on the afternoon of January 12 he found the child lying in Mrs. Arnold's lap, very sick. He was not allowed to examine her, but took her pulse and observed her hands were rough. Mrs. Arnold said the child had "a breaking out" and the doctor supposed she had worms. After some instructions concerning her he left.

Arnold called Dr. Smith to the house again the next morning saying, "I will tell you I have whipped it [Betsey] to death, and if you will go and cure it, and keep it a secret, I will give you half of my property - even all." Mrs. Arnold refused to let the doctor see Betsey until her husband said, " . . . it cannot be kept private." After examining her, Dr. Smith advised them to send for Doctor Day and Doctor Ross.

Arnold finally admitted the beatings to the doctors. It was too late for Betsey, who died on Monday night January 14. Dr. Smith testified he supposed the whipping caused Betsey's death as she was cut and mangled shockingly from her calves up to the middle of her back. Concurring with Dr. Smith, Dr. Ezra Day testified he believed Betsey could not have been cured even "had application been made in time."

Arnold was subsequently sentenced to death. Interestingly enough, Editor Phinney had a change of heart and began to campaign for Arnold's life to be spared. Late in July over 12,000 people turned out to celebrate Arnold's demise. The prisoner was led to the gallows, allowed to say a few last words, and received the noose around his neck.

At the last minute instead of tightening the rope, the sheriff pulled a paper received that morning from his pocket and read an order from the New York state legislature commuting the sentence. The editor's campaign had succeeded, and the disappointed crowd was dispersed. Arnold spent the rest of his life in prison. In his autobiography, published by Phinney, of course, he blamed the crime on a childhood ruined by "indulgent parents" and "the company of youths of corrupted morals." Some things never change.

Home Page
678 visitors since
14 September 2010
Page revised
29 September 2010
Valid XHTML 1.0