The above headlined reached as far as Los Angeles, relating the hanging deaths of Cornelius Shew and James Eagan in Montrose, Pennsylvania, for the murder of Andrew J. Pepper, a wealthy Susquehanna County farmer, on January 9, 1900. The crime occurred the night of October 9, 1897, with both defendants claiming robbery as their motive and insisting that they didn’t intend to murder Mr. Pepper. Susie Graham, Eagan’s mistress, was also implicated by the two men as having taken part in the plot to rob the man, but accounts of the murder offer varying details, including who dealt the death blows to Mr. Pepper. Bringing them some notoriety, Shew and Eagan were the last two men executed in Montrose, and the following story takes many liberties with the details surrounding the crime. It is not meant as an historical account, but rather a piece of crime fiction, taking on the voice of Mr. Shew.
The Ghost of Cornelius Shew
It weren’t me, I told the judge, that damn Eagan hatched the plan, and I simply agreed to go along.The next thing I knew, Mr. Pepper is lying face down in the barn, blood pooling fast around his head where Eagan had hit him hard with the wiffletree found in the dirt on his way into the old barn.
From the beginning, I had told James, I don’t want to kill anybody. He snickered, and said, we won’t. But the money. There’s lots of it. The old fool is rich. And before long, Mr. Pepper is bleeding at my feet and James is stuffing his mouth with rags. At that point, I wanted to flee, but Eagan was now threatening me with the same that he’d done to Pepper, and he still had the wiffletree in his hands. I knew I’d have to make a run for it, because I had never wanted to kill Mr. Pepper. Egan said we’d tie him up and rob him, put a bag over his head so he couldn’t see our identities.
So as he started his search, I slipped my way toward the barn doors, then took off running down through the fields, cursing myself for ever getting mixed up with Eagan. Damn fool! I told myself, always wanting a quick fix for my money problems, and now we had a dead man on our hands. It wasn’t long later that Eagan left, too, having not found a single penny that he could take with him. He caught up with me, and we traveled atop some train cars for awhile until we split up.
It wasn’t long, though, before I was arrested, because Eagan’s girl had given our story to the police. And they caught me first, maybe because I’m just not as smart about these things, this being the first and last time I’d ever done something so bold and stupid. I told this all to the judge, hoping for some reprieve from the charges laid upon me by the court. I had only tied him up afterwards, for fear that I’d be Eagan’s next victim if I didn’t do what he told me.
The judge, he said, you’re just as culpable, Mr. Shew. Maybe, if there ever were a next time, you might think a little more before getting mixed up with people like Mr. Eagan. You made the choice to go along with him. I tried to tell him, I was homeless and poor, without any friends, but the judge looked at me like I myself had been holding the wiffletree that dealt the fatal blows upon Mr. Pepper. There wasn’t any difference in his mind, and I always thought the judges in Montrose were more kind than else places, but then I heard the words that would ring in my ears ever after: Hanged by the neck until dead! I almost fainted right there.
But I didn’t kill him! It was that blasted Eagan! Yet it meant nothing to Judge Searle. I was to be hanged, for murder, and even though the courts had even delayed the matter, the sentence stuck to me and Eagan, our execution date scheduled for January 9, 1900. There was nothing anyone could do. And as the days grew shorter and shorter, I felt the terrible sentence of death weigh heavy on my soul. The truth, at least as I saw it, did not damn me to that ghastly fate.
I know everyone says they’re innocent, but Eagan killed Mr. Pepper. Sure, I was there, but I didn’t hit him, I didn’t grab the wiffletree from the dirt, and I sure as hell only expected to rob the man rather than strike him a deadly blow right there in his own barn. It’s an awful way to die, almost as awful as Searle sentencing me to hang for this murder, and I promise Searle, and those that come after him, that I, myself, a ghost hereafter, will never allow another soul to be sent hitherward from the grounds of the Montrose gallows.