The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Mary A. Darby (1902)

The Strangulation of the Belle of Tuckerton
by Steven J. Baeli
May 30, 2010

Victim: Mary A. Darby (57)
Charles Bennett (36), Alfonso W. Stiles (43) & George Rider
Date of Incident: December 25, 1902
Verdict: Acquitted
Sentence: None

In what the newspapers claimed was the fifth murder indictment in the county's fifty-three year history came the atrocious assault and strangulation on Christmas morning of Mary A. Darby, a widow who lived alone on Church Street in Tuckerton Borough.  The crime, while shocking, was not completely surprising to anyone in the community since Mrs. Darby had garnered a reputation around town as being free with the drink and loose with the men, quite a contrast from her early days when she was called the “Belle of Tuckerton.” 

Darby was last seen alive leaving her son’s house about 12:15 Christmas morning, having gone to celebrate with her daughter-in-law while her son was out to sea.  About forty-five minutes later, a man named Rowley Horner heard what sounded like a drunken brawl coming from his neighbor’s home, followed by a woman screaming, “Let me up!  Oh, let me up!”  Horner called his father about the disturbance who told him to dismiss the shouting, which had subsided by then, because there had been many such drunken carousals at the Darby house of late.  Horner listened for awhile longer, and hearing nothing more he went to bed.  There was no movement at the Darby house the next day with the exception of some relatives that had come by with some Christmas gifts, but when Darby failed to answer the locked door, they left without further investigation.  The neighbors, however, were suspicious of the situation and kept a watch all day until about five that evening when William F. Bragg and Robert Smith broke open a window and discovered her body “stripped nearly naked” and signs of a terrible struggle.

Coroner J. Clarence Cranmer was called in to examine the scene and quickly determined that Darby had been “criminally assaulted,” the term used in those days instead of the more salaciously-tinged term of “rape,” which conjured up the worst in people that the general community would rather not have believed to be true.  The victim’s body was examined by Dr. C.H. Conover and then released to undertaker, Joseph L. Smith, who held the body until the autopsy was performed the next day by Dr. Theophilus Townsend Price and Dr. John Lewis Lane, who confirmed that Darby had been raped before being strangled to death.

It did not take long before three suspects were taken into custody and questioned.  Initially, two men, George Rider and Alfonso “Smokey” Stiles, were arrested the same night that the body was discovered, but steadfastly maintained that they knew nothing about the crime.  Although authorities believed the pair, “knew more than they were willing to tell,” they freed Rider on his own recognizance. Stiles was considered  a material witness, and was also set free after his father, Captain Benjamin Stiles, paid his bail.  Captain Stiles was probably the nephew of Jacob W. Stiles, the man responsible for the murder of Caleb Fithian a year and a half before the death of Mary Darby.  The third suspect, Charles Bennett (see photo below), was kept under surveillance until Saturday afternoon, when he was arrested and secured in the county jail.  The pretense behind the arrests relied on reports that both men had been seen leaving Mrs. Darby’s place together on the evening of Christmas Eve.  Although Mr. Stiles was known to be a “frequent visitor” at her house on Church Street, Bennett claimed that he had never been there before.

A Coroner’s Inquest was empaneled, the jury consisting of Captain Thomas A. Mathis, foreman, Edward A. Horner, Jr., Anson J. Rider, fish and game warden, John H. Webb, Hudson Gaskill, and S.H. Hicks.  Over the course of testimony, Charles Bennett, clearly the main suspect, was described as being a “stoop-shouldered and slouchy” man nearly six-foot tall who was unmarried and living with his parents at Galetown, Tuckerton Borough.  It was also pointed out that he was “fond of cards and whiskey” and said to have run with a “tough crowd.”  Bennett denied having ever met Darby, but a key fitting her front door was found during a search of his home along with the woman’s handgun.  Mary Darby’s character was scrutinized as well, she being described as coming from “one of the best families along shore,” and as a young woman known to be in good social standing, but had recently garnered a bad reputation having entertained multiple men overnight where drunken brawling and sex would ensue.  While the evidence was clearly against Bennett, the Coroner’s jury was not completely convinced of his guilt and so ruled that Darby was indeed murdered, but “at the hands of persons unknown.”

Although the Coroner's Jury was not entirely convinced that there was enough evidence linking Bennett as Darby's murderer, they did suggest that he be held over to the April term for Grand Jury consideration. The general consensus of the public, however, did not seem to need more evidence, and believed that not only was Bennett guilty of murder, but also that he did not act alone.  Additionally, the reputation of Mary Darby, now so openly displayed for everyone to see, put any man who had ever been at her house in the precarious position of having to justify their reasons for being there, and likely set off more than a few arguments between spouses.

It was made clear, however, that the Darby name was well-respected throughout the county and in some cases around the country, due largely to Mary’s deceased husband, Captain Alfred Darby, Sr., and her two sons, Orlando and Alfred Darby, Jr., who also followed the water.  Orlando, who owned a schooner, and Alfred, who worked as his mate, were out to sea the night of the killing, but the boys were notified of their mother’s death the moment the schooner docked in New York.  Upon hearing the news they immediately contacted their sister, Dora Posey, who lived in Washington, D.C., and returned home.  All three children attended the funeral service at their mother’s house on Church Street and afterward followed the body down the street to Greenwood Cemetery where the body was laid to rest.

The Grand Jury handed down an indictment accusing Bennett of the murder and a trial date was set for May 18, 1903, but as was often the case with such important trials, it was postponed until mid-September.  Judge Bennett VanSyckel presided, who assigned Edmund Wilson of Red Bank to defend Bennett.  Ocean County Prosecutor Brown was in charge of the case and had smartly hired Isaac Carmichael to assist him.  The trial was quite a spectacle from jury selection through the court testimony phase, and all the while Charles Bennett sat unfazed as witness after witness pummeled his already scant credibility.

The most important physical evidence introduced by the State was the door key and stolen pistol, but it also produced some burned matches found on the floor of the house that matched a used pack found at the Bennett home.  It also produced a gold pin, a safety pin, a ball of cotton, and a bloody handkerchief all said to have belonged to Darby, but found in Bennett's possession.  The handkerchief, sometimes called a rag during testimony, had holes from the safety pin that matched holes found in Darby’s clothes.  It was suggested that the handkerchief and the cotton ball was pinned to her blouse as a backing to protect the victim’s skin from the pin.

The defense claimed that the handkerchief belonged to Bennett’s mother, who suffered from bloody sores on her legs and had used it as a bandage securing it with a safety pin.  They further contended that Mrs. Bennett had inadvertently given her son the bloodied handkerchief instead of a clean one that he had asked her for.  As for the key, Bennett claimed his brother had given it to him in Atlantic City, and that it was a latchkey common to many locks.  It was also suggested that the lock on Darby’s door may have been tampered with by the prosecution in order to make the key work.  The issue of the pistol was less easily explained away and caused Bennett to recant his previous testimony that he got the pistol in Atlantic City.  Darby’s gun had very specific defects that identified it as belonging to the victim as pointed out by several witnesses.  Once on the stand, Bennett realized his dilemma and, again contridicting his story, explained that he had spotted the gun on a table by the door and put it in his pocket on the way out.  He further claimed that he took it as a joke and had planned on returning it later, but that the murder had prevented him from doing so.

Although Bennett had appeared calm throughout most of the proceedings, he became uneasy when Stiles was called to the stand and watched him intently as he related the events of the day.  Stiles testified that he had run into Bennett outside of a hotel where they drank a half pint of whiskey.  While imbibing, they saw Mrs. Darby pass by and words transpired between them that evidently led to an invitation.  Stiles later took Bennett to Darby’s house sometime between 6 and 7 o’clock that evening, bringing with them a half pint of rye and blackberry wine, from which the three drank together.  At some point Darby took Bennett into another room and whispered something to him.  Stiles did not know what was said until they left when Bennett told him that Darby took forty cents from him and told him to come back later.  Stiles then left Bennett at a hotel and went home for supper, later going over to George Headley's and Thomas Chattin's houses for the night. 

Realizing that they needed to trump Stiles’s testimony, the defense put Bennett on the stand where he told his own story that basically mirrored Stiles’s, but was softened in certain areas.  Prior to going to the Darby house he confirmed that he did meet with Stiles and with him drank three half pints of whiskey and a bottle of grape wine and then had another twenty or twenty-five beers at the hotel bar.  Once leaving the bar they headed over to Darby’s house, but he denied that he went back there after they left and instead went home and fell asleep, a fact that his father corroborated earlier in the day.  Bennett said that he originally denied being there at all because he did not want to disgrace his parents in an attempt to explain why he had changed his story.   Bennett was found to have cuts and scratches on his hands, a fact that the State claimed he received from the murder, but the defendant explained that he was a woodcutter and would normally have such afflictions. 

In a last ditch effort to save their client, defense claimed in their closing argument that Bennett was not physically able to kill Darby because the man only weighed 150 pounds and could not possibly have “throttled” her.  Once the defense rested, Judge VanSyckel gave instructions to the jury that shockingly seemed to favor Bennett, something that he did during the Wainwright trial, and sent them off to decide the defendant’s fate.  Much to the surprise of everyone, the jury came back after taking only one vote and returned a verdict of not guilty, suggesting that the evidence in the case was simply too circumstantial to prove Bennett’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The acquittal of Charles Bennett in the face of what many considered to be very strong evidence did not sit well with the public-at-large as most people believed that Bennett had without a doubt killed Mary Darby.  Whether Bennett actually murdered Mary Darby is subject to debate, but he was certainly a strong suspect in the case.

In one last ironic twist, a heavy gale hit the area on the day the verdict was cast, a storm that was said to have been the worst September gale ever experienced in memory, leaving the superstitious among them to wonder if Mary Darby had made her discontent known.

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