Crime spree preceded 1879 hanging

05/16/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:20 AM

Barry Saunders reported on the hanging of the “Chapel Hill Burglars” on May 16, 1879. The N&O’s predecessor, The Observer, reported the havoc the band had brought on the citizens of Chapel Hill.

These indolent, foolish and reckless desperadoes pay the highest penalty known to the law. They laughed at it and scorned it, violated it and evaded it, until their bold contempt of it wrought their destruction. The impunity with which they repeated their robberies and housebreakings shocked the whole State. Detectives, watchful citizens, outraged kinsmen of women whose chastity had been threatened, the vigilant fear of timid women all failed to get a clue to the perpetrators of crimes that begat sleepless nights and days of weary anxiety. The authorities of the University invoked the strained powers of the law to relieve the villagers from the siege of terror; the municipal authorities spent money and time and labor to discover and punish the violators of its dignity and peace, and higher powers were alive to the necessity of protecting the "first village of the State;" but it was left to the cunning band of treachery to work the downfall of a dangerous and terrible conspiracy.

Alfonso Davis, the Captain of the gang, was born in the village, and had grown up under the sound of the old college bell. Though of humble parentage, his opportunities gave him association with the young students that had come from all parts of the State and the South to attend lectures at the University. These opportunities could have worked him out a weight of real good; but they seem only to have increased his capacity for wickedness. Of pleasing but rather familiar address he has forced his way along in the world with some degree of success. After a jaunt to the West he became on his return to the State a clerk at the Boyden House in Salisbury. He led a fast life there, and left that moral town at the solicitation of the short sharp bark of a derringer, carrying with him the ruin of a fair young woman and the happiness of her people. He then came to Raleigh, where he was for a while a hotel clerk at the National and afterwords at the Yarborough House. Since his return to Chapel Hill he has led a life of indolence, waste and drunken violence. ...

Henry A. Andrews, born in the village, of plain and ignorant folk, eager in the pursuit of gross pleasures, idle in the affairs of life and fertile only in producing the evil suggested by a more active and daring spirit when it brought him "loot" and kept him aloof from danger. ... He quit the road as a Jehu driving the mails from Durham to the University to take to it as a clumsy and brutal Claude Duval.

He and Davis were bounden to each other under fearful oaths, and made a brace of as dangerous villains as any lovely village can hatch out in a century. They agreed to be faithful to each other in all crimes and in all dangers. They plotted robberies and rapes with the careless coolness of veteran thieves. They determined to make Chapel Hill howl. The farmers returning from Raleigh with their cotton and produce money were to pay them a tribute, and the houses of the innocent villagers were to be pillaged for their lust and luxuries. But two conspirators were a scant force, and they cast about and sought them out other two rogues, whom they found so ripe for robbery that they dropped at the first shaking.

Louis Carlton owed money on his house and wanted it in his purse. So he "tumbled to the racket" of the bare suggestion. He is without character. Having toyed with the misdemeanors, he got an appetite for substantial crime and listened with an eager credulity to the easy methods of money-getting which Davis, the financier, had at his tongue's end. During the period of time covered by these burglaries the wife of Louis died at the breakfast table. A post mortem examination revealed what is uncommon in stomachs, even of women, ground glass and poison. A few days after this bereavement Louis took to himself a wife, the mother-in-law of Albert Atwater, the fourth man in the villainy, who completed the quartette of cut-throats.

The last acquisition was the worst. It was he who destroyed them....

The ensuing crime spree or 1877 and 1878 included breaking into the homes of young women, widows, and "ministers of the gospel."

"Anxiety turned to fear, and fear frozen into terror sat over every hearthstone."

They soon learned that Mrs. Martha Herndon had received $1,000 and they set on a plan to relieve her of it, breaking into her house.

"Mrs. Herndon screamed for help. The neighbors were aroused. Davis struck her a heavy blow from behind with an axe which he had picked up in the yard and she fell senseless. The neighbors hurried to her assistance, and the burglars foiled and frightened fled. For days Mrs. Herndon lay in the shadow of death, but her fine constitution gave her power to triumph over the terrible shock."

Atwater, being questioned in an unrelated case, decided to turn in his compatriots.

When confronted with the State's witness Andrews was great alarmed, and gave way to hopeless and nervous cowardice. Carlton was surprised and stupefied, but Davis swore like the army in Flanders and outshone his usual impertinence and effrontery.

A preliminary examination was had and Davis, Andrews and Carlton were committed to Hillsboro jail without bail, and Atwater was committed as a witness for the State. At the October Term, 1878, of Orange Superior Court, bills of indictment for burglary were found against Davis, Andrews and Carlton.... They were put on trial for burglary of the house of Mrs. Martha L. Herndon, who, with Atwater, was the principal witness for the State. A conviction was obtained without any difficulty: the defence attempting to prove an alibi in which they utterly failed. A motion was made for a new trial because one of the jurors who sat upon the case was an Atheist. The Supreme Court over-ruled this exception and the prisoners were sentenced to be hanged on the 2d of May, 1879. When they were brought before the court and asked what they had to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon them, Davis replied that he was innocent, that he had a fair trial, but that the witnesses against him had not told the truth. Carlton said nothing. Andrews went into a dead faint again. When told that they would not be granted any mercy, Carlton remarked "that he had not had any hope since they were first arrested."

A respite until to day was granted by the Governor because the condemned men represented that they had been led to believe that they would not be hanged, and therefore had not made the proper preparation for death.

All hope has been abandoned now of a respite or commutation. The Governor has examined the case very carefully. He has listened to every petition and weighed every suggestion, but he sees no reason why the law should not take its course. It will, and the thousands whose sickening curiosity will make them hover round about the three dead wretches dangling at mid-day in mid air, will look upon a sorry sight. Let us hope that they may hand as banners before the eyes of all who would rob their neighbors while they sleep. The Observer 5/16/1879

The following day, The Observer ran this account of the execution.

A mixed crowd of 10,000 people was collected from Orange and the adjoining counties to witness the death scene in the tragedy that closed yesterday afternoon at Hillsboro. Appeal after appeal of the most touching character has been made to Governor Jarvis, but he has remained in a firm belief that the jury and the Judge and the approbation of a community were not to be set aside unless it was in an extreme case.

Just one more short week was what the prisoners prayed the Chief Executive to grant them, but at 11 o'clock a telegram was received refusing to postpone the fatal hour.

The Orange Guard, as a Sheriff's posse, formed and marched to the gallows field, a half mile distant, with the prisoners under guard. the ministers in attendance and Andrews' sister went in company with the doomed men. the vast multitude followed, eagerly curious.

On arriving at the gallows the prisoners, officers, ministers and the faithful sister of Andrews stepped upon the scaffold.

Davis and Andrews, to the great disappointment of the crowd, made no sign of confession, remained stout in their denial of the crimes, and proclaimed and protested their innocence.

They had a paper read by the Sheriff denying their complicity in the robbery, and expressing a hope of salvation.

Louis Carlton spoke fifty minutes. He denied his guilt and said that he was going straight to Jesus.

The minister preached, prayed and sang a hymn. The prisoners shook hands with their friends. The black cap drew a veil of darkness over their eyes forever and at 2:25 p. m. they dropped out of life. The Observer 5/17/1879

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