Maternal

The Tragic Story of Betsey Bolt

James Bolt was born about 1804 in New York State. I believe his father, David Bolt, was the brother of my 4x great-grandmother, Hannah. James married Elizabeth “Betsey” Utter in the late 1820s in New York. In the 1830 census, James and Betsey were living in Andes, Delaware County, New York. Their daughter Louisa was born about 1830, and another daughter Polly was born about 1832. Their son Stephen was born about 1838, and another son Benjamin was born about 1840. Their last child Merritt was born in 1843, about 10 months before Betsey’s (spoiler alert!) disappearance in May 1844.

The April 1848 issue of the Journal of Insanity contains transcripts from John Johnson’s November 1845 trial for Betsey’s murder. So that is where I’m getting much of the following information. The main witness against Johnson, Ann Burdick, had been a patient in a psychiatric hospital and her questionable mental health was a roadblock to the validity of her testimony. In fact, this trial was “one of the first instances of expert testimony in the United States that could be regarded as falling under the general umbrella of forensic psychology or psychiatry” (Huss, M. T. Forensic Psychology. Wiley, 2008. p. 50).

According to James Bolt’s testimony, he and his family had been living in Greene, Chenango County in southern New York since about 1838.

Spafford, H. G. (1813) State of New-York for Spafford’s gazetteer
. [Albany: H.C. Southwick]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2011587198/.

In early April 1844, James moved his family to a farm belonging to John Johnson in Triangle, Broome County, NY about 10 miles west of Greene. James described his relationship with his wife during his cross-examination: “I had no difficulty with my wife, lived as happily together as men in general so, not any difficulty between me and my wife except that she wanted to go back to Delaware County where we moved from…”. His family had been acquainted with Johnson for about 9 years by that time. On the day of the move, three men, Nyrum Johnson (John’s son), Frederick Burger, and Harvey Hammond (Ann Burdick’s brother-in-law), moved all the household goods, while James and his oldest son, Stephen, went on foot, driving their animals ahead of them. Louisa, the oldest daughter, rode with Nyrum Johnson. Betsey and her baby Merritt rode in a wagon with John Johnson. Johnson passed James about four miles from Greene and beat all the wagons to the new house. By the time James approached the house, Nyrum and Harvey had already dropped their loads off and were heading away and Johnson had already been there and gone, dropping off Betsey and the baby.

When James arrived, he noticed that his wife was quiet and “cast down,” complaining of pain in her arms, unable to comb her hair. Betsey’s daughter Louisa testified that she overheard a conversation between her mother and Johnson later in which he asked if Betsey had told her husband anything. She said she hadn’t but should, and then he threatened her. Eventually Betsey did tell James what had happened when she arrived with Johnson at the house on moving day. She said that when they got there, Johson caught her and threw her on the floor, put the end of a buffalo skin in her mouth, and raped her. Johnson told her if she ever told her husband about it, “he would destroy her.”

James called a doctor to examine Betsey because she was so ill. Dr. William Purple, a physician in Greene, examined Betsey on May 7, 1844 and found her “weak and feeble…unable to discover any physical cause of her illness. She was agitated and disturbed, exhibited much anxiety, pulse weak and rather quick, nerves weak and irritable.” She said she couldn’t sleep and had no appetite. Purple prescribed “cathartics and anodynes.” James confronted Johnson after Betsey told him what had happened. Johnson said that James “would stand no chance” if he reported Johnson. Then Johnson admitted he had done wrong and would settle it with James with land or money, that James just had to name the price. James refused.

On Sunday, May 12, 1844, Betsey “had been deranged during the day and evening.” James had been locking the front door every night, but that night could not find the key. He brought in a barrel of milk to block the door instead. He left a fire burning all night. Most of the family slept in the main room where the door was. Betsey tried to leave the house once, but James stopped her and put her back in bed. Later she got up, checked the children, and “got her pipe and sat down by the fire and went to smoking.” James watched her awhile, but fell asleep. He woke up to the sound of the door latch. The door was left open and both pairs of Betsey’s shoes were left. She had been wearing a dark calico dress and stockings, but no shoes or bonnet. James went out to find Betsey, checking the well and around the house and garden. He then headed towards the woods. James and Louisa both testified that Betsey had been trying to run away to the woods all day. Neighbors joined in the search, and James afterward made some trips to “places where a deranged woman had been seen rambling about,” but none of them turned out to be Betsey. She had disappeared without a trace.

Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, May 14, 1846, page 2

A neighbor, Vincent Van Arsdale, testified that he saw Johnson in a corn field at the end of June, 1844. Johnson was thrusting a stick into the ground and warned Vincent to keep a good lookout because he thought James Bolt had killed his wife and hidden her on the farm. Vincent told Johnson that he didn’t believe that Bolt killed Betsey. Two men, Fitch and Decker, testified that they had seen Johnson the day Betsey disappeared. He had been passing through Greene in a one-horse wagon and a man wearing a cloak partially covering his face was with him. Another neighbor, Allen Jeffers, said he heard a one-horse wagon going east slowly at 1 AM on the night Betsey disappeared.

A woman named Ann Augusta Burdick testified that in August 1845, she had been washing clothes at a spring near her mother, Amy Baxter’s, house. John Johnson and Mrs. Baxter were in the house, and when Ann tried to go in, the doors were locked. From outside, she overheard Johnson and Baxter talking: Johnson was asking her if “she could get rid of Mrs. Johnson as well as he did of Mrs. Bolt.” Ann then went to another door, opened a window and reached in to unlock the door. She saw Johnson and her mother on the bed. Johnson grabbed Ann’s arms and asked if she had heard him and if she would tell what she heard. Ann said she wouldn’t.

A couple of weeks later, Ann was at her mother’s house and Johnson arrived, asking if her mother was there, but she wasn’t. Ann’s husband came by and Johnson told her to hide in the other room. Mr. Burdick left and Johnson led Ann to the kitchen and tied her hands and then tied her to the bedpost. He tied a bonnet around her eyes so she couldn’t see. Johnson brought in a bag of bones and emptied it on the hearth. He told Ann to put them on the fire, but she fainted instead. When she awoke, the bones were burning. Johnson then took them out of the fire, laid them on the hearth, gave Ann an axe while he held another axe, and told her to pound the bones. Ann fainted again and woke up when he threw some water in her face. Johnson put the bones back on the fire and threatened to kill Ann if she told anyone. He said he would “serve [her] as he had Mrs. Bolt’s bones.” Ann described the bones and the bag, saying she saw what looked like a human head among the bones, but that she had never seen a human skeleton before. She also testified that the bones were purple before they went on the fire and white afterward.

Later when Ann returned home, two people grabbed her in her room. She claimed that one of them was wearing a dress and, after they left when she yelled, she found her mother’s cape on the floor. The next evening after she fell asleep, two men gagged and blind-folded her, and carried her out of the house. They tried to force her to drink something out of a vial, but she knocked it away. They carried her to a swamp and threatened her with a knife. They rolled her face down into a brook, put a couple of logs on top of her, and stood on top of them. She claimed one of the men said he had done enough for $5 and the other said “he had not got his pay for carrying Mrs. Bolt off yet.” Other witnesses later described searching for Ann in the swamp and finding her nearly dead in 3 – 4 inches of water, her hands tied and still gagged.

Johnson’s lawyer then cross-examined Ann about hysterical fits she had had in the past, trying to dismiss her testimony. Ann’s mother, Amy Baxter, testified for the defense and refuted Ann’s testimony, saying that the conversation with Johnson never happened and that she had never been on a bed with him. She described a fit Ann had in which she said she had visited heaven. Dr. Amariah Brigham, head of the so-called lunatic asylum at Utica, testified that Ann had been taken to the asylum on October 24, 1845. He described her symptoms and those of other “hysterical and nervous women.” The defense rested after Brigham said that hysterical persons’ testimonies “should be received with caution. They often say things in that state which they do not recollect when sane.” The jury returned a verdict of not guilty after deliberating for only 30 minutes.

The editor of the Journal of Insanity summed it up this way: “…Nothing has occurred since the trial…to throw light upon the mysterious circumstances of the affair. That a woman in a deranged state of mind disappeared as stated, several years since and has not since been found–and that another woman disappeared from her home in the day-time, and was found imbedded in a brook in a swamp, with her hands bound and a gag in her mouth and nearly dead, are facts.  How these occurrences were produced, we leave for others and for time to explain.”

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