Crazy Bill Had A Down Look


It was a great event in the upstate New York villages of the Finger Lakes country, during the late 1840’s, when George J. Mastin came to town with his “Unparalleled Exhibition of Oil Paintings.” First there appeared broadsides on barn doors and in tavern barrooms describing the fourteen huge paintings (8 x 10 feet, most of them) and promising a religious and historical lecture by Mr. Mastin explaining the paintings; there would also be clog dancing by the Erin Twin Brothers, comic songs and a demonstration of phrenological reading.

A day or so after the broadsides were posted came the show and its impresario. The paintings, done on bedticking and rolled up in a long, stout wooden box, were transported from town to town in a farm wagon and carefully hung in the sheds of the local tavern, or in the ballroom, if it were big enough. The show was always at night when twenty flickering candles added movement and excitement to the crude but vivid and forceful work of the unknown artists. Sometimes Mastin would take out his violin and fiddle for dancing. Fiddling and phrenology, lecturing on history and religion, were his pastimes; by trade a tailor, he was later to be a country storekeeper and farmer. He lived a long life over in Genoa and Sempronius, from 1814 to 1910, and seems to have enjoyed himself all the way.

A man could understand without any difficulty the pictures that George Mastin had hired some good sign or carriage painters to do for him. When he lectured before each picture, it all seemed very moving and very real. Five of the canvases were scenes right out of the Bible. Then there were five exciting pictures from American history. But the great drawing card was the series of four which depicted in horrifying, bloody detail the murder of the spectators’ own good neighbor, John G. Van Nest, his wife, his baby son, and mother-in-law—all four of them brutally stabbed to death in a few minutes by that crazy colored fellow, Bill Freeman, in their home just south of Auburn.

From mid-March, 1846, to the summer of 1847 the Van Nest murders were a favorite topic of conversation in those parts. They raised a lot of questions. For example, how could you tell if a man was crazy? And if he was crazy and committed a murder, was that any reason not to hang him? And why would a man like ex-Governor William H. Seward, one of the leading lawyers in the state, of his own accord and for no fee, defend this villain?

Bill Freeman was born in the small upstate New York village of Auburn in September, 1823, and all the cards were stacked against him from the beginning. His father, who died insane, was a freed slave; his mother, part Negro, part Indian, a heavy drinker. One uncle became a wandering lunatic and an aunt died early and mud. Despite the fact that Auburn was to become a station of the Underground Railroad and the home of its most famous conductor, Harriet Tubman, it was also a community which long retained strong Copper-head sympathies. The colored population was completely isolated, without any benefits from cultural in fluences and deprived of the privileges of church and school.

When he reached the age of seven young Bill was put out to work as a servant boy. He was remembered from this time as being not much different from any other boy—lively, smart and active. At times he was lazy, trying to avoid work, and occasionally he ran away. He laughed, played, was good-natured and “talked like other folks.”

During those difficult, formative years Freeman came under no good influences. Three times he was arrested for minor offenses, first when he broke open a peddler’s cart in front of the Bank Coffee House. A short while later he fled via canalboat after stealing some of Jonas Underwood’s chickens, was quickly apprehended and brought back.

In the spring of 1840, the Widow Godfrey of Sennett Township, five miles north of Auburn, lost a horse. Young Bill Freeman, then in his middle teens, was suspected and arrested, but freed after examination by a local magistrate. Some weeks later the Godfrey horse turned up in Chemung County where it had been sold by another Auburn Negro, Jack Furman. Furman, who knew of Freeman’s previous arrest, immediately accused the youth. On Furman’s testimony, Bill Freeman was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

From September, 1840, to the same month five years later Freeman was locked up at the State Prison in Auburn. During the first year of his imprisonment. Keeper James E. Tyler ordered Freeman Hogged for not doing his full quota of work. Instead of complying with Tyler’s order to strip, Freeman attacked the keeper who took a piece of basswood board a half-inch thick and struck the prisoner over the head, splitting the plank. This was followed by a heavy flogging.

From this point on, Freeman’s mood darkened and a serious deafness developed (a post-mortem was to disclose a diseased temporal bone and a broken eardrum). “It was as though the stones of my ears dropp’d down,” he stated, “as if the sound went down my throat.” Orders had to be given several times before he would understand and seldom did he hold up his head and look a man in the face. “Crazy Bill,” the keepers commented, “always had a down look.”

His sense of betrayal, bitterness and loneliness added to the misunderstanding of others. The foreman of the dye house considered Freeman “a being of very low, degraded intellect, hardly above a brute, and I treated him so.” Whenever Freeman would cry that the floggings hurt him so he couldn’t sleep, they would lay the cat on his back with added force.