The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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First Murders

Ocean County's First Murders
by Steven J. Baeli
October 8, 2011

The Murder of Daniel Wainwright

The murder of James I. Wainwright in 1884 has often been cited as being the first homicide in Ocean County since it seceded from Monmouth County in 1850, and while that might be true in the category of first-degree murder, there were other incidents going back as far as 1792.

The first recorded case of murder was that of Daniel Wainwright, who was ambushed in Point Pleasant by the Bozie brothers while performing his duties as Monmouth County tax collector.  Ironically, the victim was the great-grand uncle of James Wainwright.  The story first surfaced during the sensationalized Wainwright murder trial in 1885, when Prosecutor Thomas Middleton received a letter from a relative of the victim informing him of Daniel Wainwright’s gruesome murder.

Wainwright had been going about his rounds collecting taxes and had been spotted by the Italian brothers, who had decided to relieve the collector the tax money.  Getting ahead of him, the Bozie’s laid in wait for their mark, and when Wainwright came by, they attacked and killed him.  In an effort to hide their deed, they staked the body down in a ditch along the road.

The method of the killing must have sent a chill down the spines of those who read that letter, for it closely mirrored the way in which James Wainwright was murdered and his body disposed of 92 years later.  As for the perpetrators of Daniel’s murder, they were quickly tracked down, but did not give themselves up so easily.  One brother, while trying to flee in a small boat, was shot and killed by his pursuers.  His brother, perhaps not as fortunate, was captured and brought to trial at Freehold, where he was convicted and hanged at the Monmouth County Courthouse at a public execution.

The Murder of Thomas Williams

The second known cold-blooded murder was that of fourteen year-old, Thomas Williams at the hands of twenty-six year-old, Peter Stout, which took place in 1802 in the Good Luck section of what is now Lacey Township.  Unlike the first Wainwright case, however, this story was well documented shortly after the murder took place, leaving us a grand record from which to draw accurate facts.

According to 19th century historian, Edwin Salter, Stout was considered to be a “half-witted, partially crazed man,” although general thought to be harmless by those residents of Lacey Township who knew him.  

The Williams boy had met Stout along the road and had called him an “eel head,” something the local children were wont to do whenever they saw the man, and it was that which set the man off on his murderous rant, causing him to raise a hatchet and hit the boy several times on the back of the neck and head.

Later in the day Williams' mother, wondering why her son had not returned home, went out looking for him, and found the boy laying in the road dead.  Soon the village was abuzz with the murder, everyone wondering who could have committed such a crime.

The body was soon laid out with the intention of finding the suspect by having each person touch the body.  Superstition of that time dictated that when a murderer touched his victim the wounds would “commence to bleed afresh,” and knowing this, Stout refused to go near the body thus making him the prime suspect in the murder.

Peter Stout was brought to Monmouth County courthouse where he was tried, convicted, and executed for the murder of Thomas Williams. 
The exact place of his burial is unknown, but a 1909 newspaper account stated that he was buried on the South side of Stout’s Creek, he being denied interment on consecrated ground because of his crime.  Thomas Williams was buried in Good Luck cemetery.

A pamphlet documenting the affair was published by Sherman and Mershon in 1803, calledAn Account of the Murder of Thomas Williams, the Apprehension and Conviction of Peter Stout, Who Committed the Murder: Together with the Sentence of the Court, the Confession of the Criminal, his Behaviour before and after Condemnation, and his Execution. 

There have been numerous accounts of the murder of Thomas Williams over the years, but the text, transcribed from an original copy of the pamphlet located at Rutgers Special Collections library, tells the in great detail.

You can read the full text of the pamphlet here

Murder of Unknown Man

The murder of Thomas Williams was the last to be recorded until the death of an unnamed person in 1852 in Goshen (now Cassville), Jackson Township, which we may consider to be the first homicide in Ocean County since it took place after 1850.  Not much was made of the homicide at the time, probably because it involved the two African-Americans in an era when racist attitudes were common across America, and when such killings were not thought of as being a serious offense.

As a rule, African-Americans were rarely mentioned in Ocean County newspapers until the late 1800s, and when they were, the content was generally negative, either reporting on a crime, or telling of the misfortunate social ills that often plagued the “colored colonies” that were common in that time.  It is likely then that because the people involved in the murder were African-American, pre-Civil War attitudes about blacks would have rendered the event un-newsworthy, even for those slaves living in the north who had been freed before the war.

Another Unknown

The second and equally ambiguous death in Ocean County was that of a man known only as “Miller,” whose demise in 1853 in Brick Township was surrounded by “many suspicious circumstances,” according to the Emblem.

Whether Miller’s death was a homicide or not is not clear, although when his body was found sometime in the winter months face-down in the brush with, “black marks about the head and face,” rumors of murder abounded, especially after it was reported that “the affair was hushed up at the time, and the body buried.”

The report went on to say that it was probable that there would be an arrest of one or more people in the matter, but the paper refused to add any other details, “as it might defeat the ends of justice.”  Unfortunately, the story was not followed up on, and no other articles appeared in Emblem, that being the only newspaper in the county at that time.

Was it murder?

On January 26, 1854, the Emblem reported on the death a month before of a man named John Bodine, whose “map of intemperate habits…had been for some time past at work in the adjoining township of Union.”  While a resident of Ocean County, his death took place in Burlington County after a night of drinking heavily in an illegal drinking “den” owned by a man named Rinear, where, “he was plied with liquor till he became helplessly drunk, when, his money having all disappeared, he was conveyed to the barn.  The night was excessively cold, and his feet, legs and hands became so frozen that they subsequently burst open and he died.”

The case came at the beginning of the early Prohibition movement, and was revealed in an anonymous letter to the Emblem as a means of pointing out the evils of alcohol use, where those who plied its trade preyed on those who had fallen to its dark charms.  The letter questioned the law in this case, stating that there seemed to be no legal recourse in which to bring Miller’s killers to justice, although today our legal system may have charged those who left the drunken man in the freezing weather to die with depraved indifference at the very least, or perhaps even manslaughter or murder.

The Mysterious Death of Debby Platt

Debby Platt was the owner of Platt’s Tavern, sometimes known as Hilliard Tavern, she having purchased the property about 1839.  Like many inns of the day, Platt’s Tavern, located in what is now Whiting in Manchester Township, served food and ale to its patrons, while also providing rooms for the travel weary, and a stagecoach service where they could put up their horses and wagons for the night, and when the sun went down, the tavern turned into an entertainment paradise where one could hear some of the best music around.

The tavern maintained a good reputation under her ownership, an unusual occupation for a woman of that era, but by 1875 she had had enough of the life of a barkeep and sold the property.

The new owners kept the tavern for a time, but one night it mysteriously burned to the ground.  A short time later, Platt’s small cabin in the woods was also destroyed by fire.  When at last the the flames died out, the remnants of the hovel were searched, and there in the ashes was the horribly burned body of Debby Platt.

Almost immediately rumors and stories of murder began to take root, the most common of which claiming that Platt was killed because she had a lot of money from the sale of her tavern stowed away somewhere in the house, and that some unsavory character had taken notice of it.  There was never any evidence to support such a claim, although it was rumored that a dying man from Whiting had confessed that it was he who had murdered Debby Platt for her money, and had torched the place to cover up the crime.

Unfortunately, a story without verification amounts to little more than folklore, so without proper historical documentation we will never truly know the circumstances surrounding Miss Platt’s death, but her story lives on nonetheless, and is given here in honor of her memory as an early pioneer of Ocean County.

The Pharmacist’s Wife

One of the most obscure and equally brutal murders to take place in Ocean County was that of Amelia Porter, whose husband physically held her down and forced an abortion upon her.  Charles Porter was a druggist in Bricksburg (now Lakewood), who apparently wanted no more children to encumber his life and as such, “compelled [his wife to] submit to brute force, in order to have the operation performed.”

The affair was considered so heinous that the editor of the New Jersey Courier refused to print any of the details of the case.  In 1906, however, a mariticidal trial against Dr. Frank Brouwer evoked the Porter case in an article that summed up the events of 1875 so succinctly that it was worth republishing here as a means of relating the full impact of the murder:

“A Doctor Tried for Killing his Wife Back in 1875 - The Brouwer case recalls to the old timer a bit of now ancient history, that the younger generation probably never heard of – and that is the trial of another physician on a charge of wife murder in the Ocean county courts. If there is anything in history repeating itself, this should be comforting to the friends of the indicted man now in jail, for this accused man in 1875 was acquitted.

The physician in question, Charles Porter, lived in Bricksburg, and his wife died under suspicious circumstances in the summer of 1874. He was arraigned on April 6, 1875, and plead not guilty. The present county Judge, A.C. Martin, with William H. Vredenourgh of Freehold, was his counsel, and the trial was set for the following Tuesday, lasting four days.

Thomas W. Middleton was Prosecutor of the Pleas at that time, having been appointed in 1872; and I.W. Carmichael was associated with him in the trial of the case. Porter was not indicted for murder for but malpractice.

Court news or any kind of news in those days got scant attention in weekly papers, unless it was news from a good ways off.  Local news never seemed to be appreciated by the might quill-driving editors of that period. The account of Porter’s arraignment took up nine lines in the Courier.  The next issue, in still small space, said the trial was in progress.  The issue of April 22 told of his acquittal, in an eight line item.  Not one of these items was deemed worthy of a headline.  It said that the trial cost $1500, the evidence was unfit to print, and the editor (George M. Joy) expressed the opinion that he was ‘Glad the dirty case was settled at last.’

After the death of Mrs. Porter, an autopsy was held, and her husband disappeared.  He was afterward located in Kansas City, and the late Emanuel H. Wilkes went west after him with extradition papers and brought him here for trial.  Porter was a brother-in-law of Rev. Mr. Taylor, the Episcopal rector at Toms River in those days.  After his acquittal he married a Miss Beatty, a member of one of the leading families of this village.  The late Judge Edward Scudder presided at the trial; and Clayton Robbins was Sheriff at the time of the trial.”

The social outrage expressed in the original news reporting of the case focused mostly on the moral aspects of abortion, and less on the killing of Mrs. Porter, while Dr. Porter was only charged with performing an illegal operation.

The largely Protestant contingent of the county focused on the religious repercussions of killing the unborn, and while the spiritually guided rarely felt the need to look to other religions for moral guidance, the Porter case forced them to look outside their mores to the Jewish community where, it was said that, “child murder is unknown among that proscribed race.”

Unfortunately, Amelia Porter would not be the last woman in Ocean County to die at the hands of an inept doctor attempting to perform an abortion, but her death would be the last homicide to be reported in the county for the next ten years, when Ida Grant shared the same fate at the hands of Dr. Charles Woodward of New Egypt, just three months before James Wainwright was slain on his way to work in Toms River.

A History of Homicide

Ocean County, like any other place in the modern world, has not been immune to murder, especially since the rise of street gangs over the past decade or so.  Not counting manslaughter or death-by-auto cases, there have been over 500 homicides in the county since 1792, including the execution of Lakewood police officer, Christopher Matlosz, who was shot to death by an alleged gang member in January of this year.  As tragic as his death was, he is the only law enforcement officer known to have been murdered in the line of duty in the history of the county, and considering the spike in criminal offenses over the decades, that is quite an amazing statistic.

Lakewood Police Officer Christopher Matlosz

The causes of homicidal death in Ocean County range from abductions, armed robberies, and altercations gone awry, to sexual assault, arson, mercy killings, and premeditated murder, all of which run parallel statistically to other areas of the United States for the most part.

To date, there have been approximately 20 mob hits, 9 gang-related slayings, 51 incidents of murder-suicide, 23 murders of wives by their husbands, 16 murders of husbands by their wives, 25 killings of parents by their children, and at least 33 deaths of children at the hands of their parents, including that of Christopher Drexler in 1997, whose mother was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for the strangulation of her newborn son at her high school prom in Monmouth County.

Every place has its dark side, and Ocean County is no exception, and the more our county grows and moves towards urbanization, the more we will see the unfortunate side-effects of that growth.  Since the murder of James Wainwright, the first truly sensationalized case of homicide in the county, the floodgates have been opened, as evidenced by the murder of Eliza Brown in Jackson Township just days after the conclusion of Wainwright trial.

But that’s a story for another time.

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