The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Caleb Fithian

The Murder of Caleb Fithian

Victim: Caleb P. Fithian (21)
Accused: Jacob W. Stiles (74)
Date of Incident: June 21, 1901
Offense: Murder
Verdict: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity
Sentence: Committed to the Trenton State Hospital for the Insane until such a time as he
                  shall have recovered sufficiently to prepare his defense

The first case of cold-blooded murder that occurred in Ocean County after the turn of the 20th century was rooted in a territorial struggle between the clam diggers of Parkertown and the oyster farmers of Tuckerton Borough, and was fueled by the insanity of an elderly man whose mental breakdown culminated in the death of a young clammer.  The victim was twenty-one year-old, Caleb Fithian, who had been out on the bay working his clam rake when he was suddenly shot from behind by seventy-four year-old, Jacob W. Stiles.  The murder of Fithian was a reminder to all just how serious the animosity had become between the baymen and the oyster farmers, and it also brought to light the consequences of mental illness left unchecked.

Clamming and oystering in the early years of the county were important commercial industries, but a major conflict had developed over the years between the two camps because the baymen, who harvested the bulk of their yield from the brackish waters of the mud flats, would all too often encroach on the staked-out oyster beds and pull up the oysters that had been seeded there.  The oystermen considered that an act of theft on the part of the clammers and contended that raking up their product was no different than picking produce from a commercial farmer’s land without his permission.  Conversely, the clammers accused the oystermen of “staking up more ground than they can plant,” which severely diminished the area upon which they could ply their trade.  Normally there would be some sort of redress, but proving their case in courts always seemed elude the oystermen, causing frustration and anger, and opening the door to threats, violent retribution, and eventually murder.

“Cale” Fithian was one such clammer who plied his trade out on the oyster beds despite the controversy that came with it.  He was a well-liked young man, popular around town and amongst his fellow baymen, but likely understood that his actions could bring trouble.

“Uncle Jake” Stiles was also well respected, having spent most of his life in Tuckerton area, moving away only once for a short time to Chincoteague, Virginia.  His wife, Marcia, had died in 1890, and his children had either died, or had left the home and married, leaving Stiles alone with his ever-growing mental illness.  The Stiles family was well-known in Tuckerton, their ancestors having moved there from Burlington County prior to the American Revolution, and many of them, including his father and a brother, had become reverends, a religious background that would figure significantly in the murder of Caleb Fithian.

Although he himself was not a minister, Jacob Stiles was a prominent member of the West Creek Methodist Episcopal Church, where he was considered a “conscientious and upright” man.  He would often be seen reading his Bible, participated in every church event that he could, and always honored the Sabbath by refusing to work on Sunday.  By 1901, however, Stiles love of his religion had become obsessive, as did his fanatical need to stop the clammers from encroaching on the oyster beds, so much so that he had taken to living out on the meadows where he could keep a better eye on the mud flats and protect his stakes and that of his fellow oystermen.

On the day of the murder, Stiles had been sailing around the bay in his sneakbox, a flat-bottomed sailboat invented locally for the expressed purpose of navigating the shallow mud flats of Barnegat Bay.  Before long, Stiles spotted Fithian in his garvey heading towards Stiles’s oyster bed.  Stiles immediately set sail in that direction and, reaching the flat just as Fithian was getting ready to drop his rake, he circled the garvey and came up behind the clammer about twenty feet away.  With his back towards the sneakbox, Fithian never saw Stiles bring up his double-barreled shotgun and was completely taken by surprise when the gun boomed and the lead shot hit him just under and back of his left armpit.  The wound forced his left arm to drop, but Fithian somehow managed to stay on his feet while holding on to the rake with his right arm.  Turning around supported by the rake, Fithian was able to see who his attacker was just before receiving another round in the face that “crumpled him up like a dead leaf,” and dropped him into the boat.  Completing his duty, Stiles reloaded his weapon and very calmly set sail for shore “as cool as though nothing had happened,” ignoring the shouts of the other clammers who had witnessed the shooting, yelling back to them that “no one should arrest” him.

Fithian had left the dozen or so other baymen just prior to sailing over to Stiles’s oyster bed, and as they were not very far away, they all heard the first shot and turned just in time to witness the second.  Two men closest to the scene, Isaac Horner and Harry Chamberlain Parker, immediately rowed over to Fithian and got there just in time to see him gasp his last breath as the blood gush from his wounds.  Realizing that their friend was dead, they covered the corpse with a sail cloth and headed back to shore with the body to telephone Prosecutor Brown.  Raising the rake into the boat before leaving they found that Fithian had died over three clams.

Fithian’s body laid out on the Parkertown landing in the hot June sun for hours before the prosecutor and the coroner could arrive, and it was not long before word of the murder spread “as if by magic.”  It was said that nearly every bayman came off the water and joined the dozens of men, woman and children who had arrived in wagons, on bicycles and on foot to witness the body of the murdered man.  Eventually, Constable Charles Cox arrived on the scene and began to question witnesses.  Before going after Stiles, however, he called on Job Edwards, the local undertaker, and had the body taken to Ben Fithian’s house, the father of the victim.  Doing so was not an uncommon practice in those days as funerals were still generally held in the home of the deceased.  Fithian’s father then gave the body over to Theophilus Townsend Price and John Lewis Lane, both doctors hailing from Tuckerton.  The men examined the body after stripping it of its clothes, which they gave to Constable Cox, and found gunshot wounds in the front and left side of the face and under back part of the left armpit.  They determined that first wound to the armpit was not immediately fatal, although potentially so, and that it was the second shot, which was scattered about the face, that killed Fithian.  The pellets from the second round knocked the victim’s two front teeth out and also hit the left eye.  Other shot from the same round penetrated the skull, traveling three or four inches into the brain and delivering the fatal blow.

In the meantime, the townspeople’s mood had gone from shock to anger, and as they began to discuss the murder, some talked about finding Stiles and lynching him, but the mob did not act on that threat.  Fithian’s mother became so distraught that she had to be put to bed, and his father grabbed his gun and swore to “shoot the man had who killed his son.”  Stiles was located by Tuckerton Borough Marshal George Grant as he was walking into town to surrender himself to authorities.  Grant brought the suspect to Squire Steelman where, after officially surrendering, Stiles asked to be to be allowed to change his clothes.  Steelman had Grant drop the old man off at Stiles’s son’s house, where he changed into a “decent suit of Sunday black” and then waited for Constable Cox to come and pick him up.  Cox nervously drove Stiles through the village in an open wagon heading north to Toms River after Justice of the Peace Richard A. Wood ordered that the prisoner be committed to the county jail.  Along the way they met Prosecutor Brown, when Stiles calmly said to him, “Well, Mr. Brown, they are taking me where they send transgressors.”

For the rest of the 30 mile route to Toms River, people lined the streets and watched Stiles go by with morbid curiosity, which did not seem to faze the suspect in the least.  Soon after beginning the trip, however, an eerie event occurred that was described by the papers as some sort of an omen.  Cox’s wagon at some point crossed paths with the wagon that was carrying the box that Fithian was to be buried in.  Just as they began to pass, the horses on Cox’s wagon shied away from the casket cart and bolted, nearly spilling the constable and his charge onto the ground.  Luckily, Cox was able to gain control of the horses, but the incident only added to his already nervous state of mind.

Prosecutor Brown, having taken the train down to Barnegat with Coroner Moses L. Johnson and former Sheriff John Hagaman, had secured a wagon and completed his trip to Tuckerton after meeting with the prisoner along the way.  He then empanelled a Coroner’s Jury consisting of Clarence A. Seaman, forman, Micajah M. Willits, J.S. Seaman, Charles S. Shinn, John W. Holman, and Theodore B. Cranmer, whose job it would be to determine the cause of death, and to identify the culpability of Stiles, if any, which would in turn establish the need for a Grand Jury.  The panel first viewed the body and all agreed to meet for a Coroner’s Inquest the following Monday, June 24, 1901, which was to be held at the West Creek Hotel.  The witness list included Harry Parker, Kelly Parker, Isaac Horner, John Cranmer, Charles Parker, Emory Parker, Darnell Parker, John L. Parker, and Joshua Parker, all of Parkertown, James Brown of Tuckerton, and Harry Chamberlain Parker, and Asa Parker.  All of the witnesses told the same story and implicated Stiles as the murderer.  For as many men were sworn, the inquest lasted only an hour at which time the jurors brought back a verdict charging Jacob Stiles with “willfully and feloniously killing and murdering Caleb Fithian.”

Fithian’s funeral was held the same day as the inquest at the West Creek Methodist Episcopal Church at two o’clock that afternoon, and his body was laid to rest in the churchyard across the street.  It did not go unnoticed that both the clammers and the oystermen from the area all came to show their respect.

Isaac Wilson Carmichael, counsel for the defense, was hired by Stiles’s son, Elias, but not before the accused had related his guilt to anyone and everyone that would listen.  Authorities cautioned to him that anything he said could be used against him, but that did not hinder the man at all.  The rumor mill was in full swing as well, as people began to relate stories of their own concerning the old man, stories that Carmichael planned to use as a basis of a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity during the trial.  Among the town talk was that Stiles had become “very queer” in his old age and was often referred to as “cracked” or “crazy.” The newspapers also reminded the public that one of Stiles’s daughters had died in an insane asylum, and that one of his brothers had once suffered from temporary insanity.  Carmichael, an experienced jurist who defended Elson Rockwell in the Wainwright murder trial, knew that such talk could only work to his client’s advantage, and that even if he could not prove that the man was completely insane, he could at least show that he was a “mono-maniac” on the rights of oyster farmers, who believed that they had the right to protect their property.  During his ranting confessions, Stiles had solidified that sentiment by claiming that it was “his duty” to shoot and kill Fithian, and that he was justified in doing so.  He reminded everyone that his “mind was as clear and his head as level as any man’s.”

After freely admitting that he went out for the expressed purpose of killing Fithian because oyster planters had no protection from the clammers, he said that he took the second shot to make sure the job was done right.  “I am a man who doesn’t go into a thing until I’m sure that I am right, and when I start, I finish it. When I saw that the first barrel did not kill him at once, I thought perhaps it would only cripple him, and I didn’t want to leave him a cripple, I shot to kill, and so I gave him the second barrel.”  It was at this point that his preoccupation with religion began to show, gaving the murder a premeditated slant as Stiles remarked that he had “prayed about it for a long time before he fired the fatal shot,” meaning that he had obsessed over idea for quite awhile.  He later told a psychiatrist that he had “done his duty to God,” reminding the doctor of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God had justifiably punished those people, and that he, being a man of God, “had the right to do as God had done.”  When asked if he understood the consequences of his act, he told the doctor that he would “meet him in Heaven.”

Over the course of testimony it was made clear that Stiles had been getting increasingly out of control the older he got, and he showed his temper to just about everyone that he came in contact with, especially the clammers, who some said were run off by Stiles with his gun.  One clammer testified that just days before the shooting occurred he was approached by Stiles, who raised his shotgun up at the man.  The clammer asked him, “if you were to kill me, what would happen to you?”  To which Stiles replied, “They’d hang me, I suppose, but I ain’t got much longer to live anyway.”  While in jail the prisoner became even more irrational where he constantly paced the cell, some assuming that the small space did not sit well with a man who had spent most of his life on the open meadows.

The murder indictment came down as expected on Tuesday, September 3, 1901, at which time Carmichael and his co-counsel, former judge, William T. Hoffman of Englishtown, requested that a competency hearing be held to determine whether their client was able to assist in his own defense.  Judge VanSyckel, who had presided over the Wainwright trial, agreed with the defense, and set the hearing date for September 13, 1901.  At the hearing, two expert witnesses testified as to Stiles’s competency, one for the State, and one for the defense, but both men came to the same conclusion: that Stiles was indeed insane.

At one point Sheriff Adam W. Downey was directed to bring Stiles to the stand when it was noticed that the old man’s physical condition had drastically changed since his first day of incarceration.  Most noticeable was his “trembling palsy and shrill voice,” and that his actions resembled that of a child or a “senile imbecile.”  After a short questioning, VanSyckel ruled Stiles was legally incompetent to stand trial and committed him to the Trenton State Hospital for the Insane, “until such a time as he shall have recovered sufficiently to prepare his defense.”  That day never came, as Caleb Stiles died in the hospital in 1907 at the age of 81 years.

In an ironic twist to the story, Fithian’s father drowned on December 8, 1901 after leaving his home at Parkertown in a sneakbox.  His vessel was found adrift with the sail still hoisted and his hat, mittens and a bottle of whiskey inside.  It was assumed that Ben had fallen from his boat in a drunken stupor while trying to break his way through the ice, and that once in the frigid waters, he was pulled down by his heavy clothes and rubber hip boots.  His body was found a few days later by Al Stratton on the flats off of Shelter Cove with both eyes “out of the head,” and the face “somewhat cut up,” all thought to be caused by floating ice.  By the time Coroner Hagaman had made his way down to West Creek, the body had already been buried, which raised some controversy over who was legally allowed to issue a burial permit.  Additionally, Fithian’s friends demanded a Coroner’s inquest because it appeared that the body had been robbed of $16 known to be in his pockets and a watch and chain.  They did not make a claim of foul play, but they did want to know who stole the items.  Two weeks later the watch and thirteen of the sixteen dollars were secretly returned to Mrs. Fithian.

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