Homicide is always shocking to a community, even in those areas where killing is a common occurrence, but for those that lived in rural Ocean County in its early years, such an act generally was unspeakable, especially when it was committed upon a child. The murder of Andrew J. Tilton was one such incident, and what made it even more disturbing was that the murderer was a child himself.
On November 24, 1908, in the Silverton section of Dover Township (now Toms River Township), a mentally disturbed boy named William Steigert, only fifteen at the time, randomly shot sixteen year old Andrew Tilton in the back. “Willie,” as he was known around town, would likely be diagnosed with some form of mental retardation, although it is difficult to pinpoint his exact condition being so far removed from the crime.
1889 map showing White Oak Bottom & Silverton
Physically the news accounts described him as being “undersized [for his age with] projecting ears, the open mouth and all the stigmata of the degenerate in his appearance.” Another account said that Willie had the “face, form and actions of a degenerate, almost to the point of idiocy,” and still another declaring him to be a “half-witted boy, if not a total idiot,” and in one case simply referred to as “defective.” Further evidence of his condition came when Willie was informed that he had killed Andrew Tilton and the boy gave no reaction at all, never even “moving a muscle in his face…or showed the slightest concern” for what he had done. Nor did the boy seem to care at all that he was being charged with murder, or that he was facing death in the electric chair.
When asked questions the boy would generally say yes to everything without any thought as to why he answered that way. At other times he just “grunted like an animal, spoke very rapidly, and had a defect in his speech, and very little memory.” It was clear to everyone who met the boy that he was not of sound mind, and that it was unlikely that the full force of the law would apply to him.
The Steigert family was of German descent, having moved down to Ocean County from Jersey City three or four years before to White Oak Grove, an extinct village once located just above Riverside Cemetery on modern-day Old Freehold Road. The family’s reputation was not the best, they being considered “[un]desirable citizens,” due largely to a history of chicken stealing and other such theft-like activity. Their lack of mores may explain how a boy of such mental devoid came to be in the possession of a .22 caliber Winchester rifle, something that no one with any commonsense would believe to be a children’s toy.
As the facts in the case were revealed, it was discovered that his father, Louis, had given him the gun, and that since that time, travelling on the Freehold road had become a dangerous endeavor because Willie would randomly shoot the weapon without concern for what it hit. Students who attended the nearby Gowdy School complained that they were afraid to go to class because they had to pass by Willie and his gun, which he would often fire indiscriminately in their direction. Additionally, Willie was observed on several occasions chasing girls around while shouting “insulting” remarks at them in what was believed to be a sexual manner. Ironically, no one ever officially stepped forward to file a complaint about the boy’s behavior and as a result, an innocent young man was killed.
Andrew J. Tilton was a sixteen-year old boy whose character exceeded that of men ten years his senior. He was well-known throughout the upper part of the county because he helped his father, Jackson Tilton, peddle fish from a wagon. His part in the family business was integral because Jackson was severely lame and could not readily get in and out of the wagon.
White Oak Bottom School with teacher & students circa 1889
On the day of the murder, the Tiltons were in White Oak Bottom near the Gowdy school house and stopped along their route at the Steigert house. Andrew got out of the wagon and walked around to the side door where he encountered Willie outside with his rifle, who threatened to shoot him. Mrs. Steigert came out and walked back to the wagon with Andrew during which time told him, “Oh, Willie wouldn’t shoot you. He wouldn’t shoot anybody.”
Deciding it would be prudent to get away from Willie, Andrew climbed into the wagon, and sitting on top of the fish box he prodded the horses forward. The team had not gone more than ten feet a shot rang out, hitting the boy in the back, a hole through the curtain hanging behind him. Andrew yelled, “I’m shot, Pop, I’m shot! He’s shot me!”
Looking down, Jackson Tilton saw blood running from his son’s hip. Jackson immediately took the reins and headed for the M.F. Rhoades house nearby, where a small hole was found in the boy’s back just to the left of the backbone in the fleshy part of the hip. In addition to the gunshot wound, Andrew complained of pain in his abdomen, leading the men to believe that his internal organs had been compromised. This was later confirmed at autopsy when it was discovered that the bullet had ricocheted up into the small intestines perforating them in five places and causing internal bleeding.
It was not lost on those who had witnessed the boy’s condition that if he had been sitting lower in the wagon instead of up on the fish box that Andrew would likely have been shot in the head and probably killed instantly, but the boy was still alive and hope remained.
Dr. J. Edgar Todd was called, but not able to find the bullet, he ordered the patient be brought into town where the doctor could be assisted with surgery. Mr. Rhoades drove the boy to the doctor’s office, where all were met by Dr. Ralph R. Jones, but his attempts to retrieve the bullet failed as well.
Andrew Tilton died twenty hours later at four a.m. on Wednesday morning, during which time Willie Steigert had been arrested and brought to jail where he was questioned about the shooting. Steigert at first denied shooting Tilton, claiming that he had let Tilton shoot a can with his gun and that the bullet had ricocheted and shot him in the back, a rather incredible story for a boy who was devoid of any capable mental capacity. Willie then gave another story in which he said that Tilton had cursed and hit him when he came to the door, making him feel “mad and bad,” and that when Tilton left Willie got his gun and shot the victim while he was in the wagon. Willie tended to stick to the latter admission throughout the course of the case, leading some to believe that there was some truth in the story, but considering the character of Andrew Tilton, it was unlikely that he would have ill-treated a boy he knew to be mentally unfit.
On December 8th a Grand Jury indicted Steigert for murder at which the entire was incident was recounted by all the witnesses. Two days later the boy sat at his arraignment during which he “gazed about with a look of almost absolute blankness, and paid no attention whatsoever to the words of the Prosecutor until the end was reached and [Steigert] was asked: ‘How do you plead – guilty or not guilty?’” to which the boy replied, “Guilty” with no change in the expression of his face. The judge, however, realizing the situation, entered a plea of not guilty for the boy. A trial date was set for January 11, 1909 and the boy was returned to jail, where he would remain without bail for the duration of his time in custody.
At a later hearing, Steigert’s mental status was put into question, his lawyer easily showing that the boy was not responsible for his actions based on his psychological defect. The judge readily agreed and determined that the defendant was mentally incapable of consulting with his council and committed him to the Trenton State Hospital for the Insane “until such a time as he shall have recovered sufficiently to be able to help prepare his defense.” Officially, Steigert was considered “unsafe because of his propensities to be at large,” due to the fact that he suffered from a form of dementia or insanity, thus it was in the best interest of the society-at-large to incarcerate the boy in the asylum.
As a point of reference it turned out that Willie was not the only one in the family that suffered from a mental defect. Apparently, his older brother, who was about twice Willie’s age, had also been declared insane at some point, leaving everyone to wonder how his parents, who by that time could have easily identify the symptoms of mental illness, could have allowed their son to travel about with a dangerous firearm unchecked.
A mental incarceration today would generally be subsidized by the State, but in 1909 it fell to the family to pay for an inmate’s board, and as such the Steigerts were brought to the stand to testify about their financial status. At the hearing, they disclosed that they had purchased their current farm property for $3000, half of which was mortgaged, and that they also owned a house in Jersey City assessed at $2500, which carried a $1400 mortgage. Additionally, they had $200 left over from the recent sale of another property, prompting the judge to rule that their son be committed as a non-indigent inmate and that his board was to be paid by his parents.
Shortly after the hearings were settled, the Steigerts traded their Toms River property to the J.P. Morgan Company for a house in New York City and moved away for good. Willie Steigert was taken to the asylum in Trenton on January 15th in his usual, non-responsive way, except that he asked the sheriff who was escorting him if the asylum would be as fun as it was in jail.
More than a decade went by before it was learned what became of Willie, who by 1922 was considered a trustee and entrusted to leave the asylum’s grounds on accompanied excursions into town, but on July 28th of that year he left on a day pass with his mother, Lizzie, and together they disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
The gravemarker of Andrew Tilton located in the Silverton Methodist Cemetery
Andrew J. Tilton was buried at the Silverton Cemetery, and his funeral would be remembered for many years to come as one of the saddest in the history of the village. Many people from “the whole of the countryside” came to pay their respects to a boy, who had at sixteen years of age, had stood by his father’s side and helped him earn a living because his father was unable to do so himself. In a show of support and love, a monument was erected in the burial ground paid for by the Silverton Lodge No. 42, the Knights of Pythias Ellsworth Council No. 120, and the Jr. O.U.A.M.
Personal character and dedication to family meant a lot to the people of Ocean County in that time because they realized that a lack of it often brought with it a hard life, and sometimes, as in the case of the Steigert family, tragedy that affected the entire community. The people of Silverton had pinned strong hopes on Andrew knowing that his character could only benefit their community and the world, but sadly that was not to be.