- Historic Sites
Crazy Bill Had A Down Look
Quaint pictures and a grim story tell of prejudice and mob passion in upstate New York of the 1840’s
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
When Freeman was released from the Auburn State Prison on September 20, 1845, few people recognized him. For the next five and a half months Freeman earned what living he could by sawing wood, although few wanted to employ him. For his room, he helped his landlady, Mary Ann Newark, carry laundry up from the New Guinea section of Auburn to the village. At home he always sat and but seldom spoke. If he said anything, it was mostly about their not paying him at prison. He felt that since he had been put away without cause, he should have his full recompense for those five years of hard work. “There wouldn’t anybody pay me,” he kept brooding.
It wasn’t until March of the following year that Freeman decided to do something about this injustice. First, he visited the farm of Martha Godfrey whose stolen horse had sent him to prison. He ate a cake she put out for him, could bring himself to say nothing of his grievances. Later he stopped for five minutes at a home three miles south of Auburn, a well-kept frame farmhouse on the road which skirts the west shore of Owasco Lake. Here at John Van Nest’s he asked unsuccessfully for a job. Freeman next sought a warrant for the arrest of the man (or men—he couldn’t make himself clear) who had put him in jail. At the Auburn office of Magistrate Lyman Paine he flew into a passion when this demand was refused.
The dark storm brewing in his twisted mind became more oppressive. On Monday, March 9, Freeman purchased a knife. On March 12, Freeman said to himself, “I must begin my work,” the work of vengeance and requital. Reaching Owasco Lake, he took the shore road down to the west side. He paused at two or three places, but it wasn’t far enough out to begin.
The moon came up, shimmering on the recently fallen snow. It was cold. When Freeman reached the farmhouse of John G. Van Nest he decided that die time had come. Here was where he should begin his work.
Within the house, the Van Nest family was preparing for bed. It was almost 9:30 and a visiting neighbor had just left. The master of the house, 41-year-old John G. Van Nest, justice of the peace, supervisor and highly respected farmer, was warming himself in front of the stove in the back kitchen. His wife Sarah was about to step out the back door. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Phebe Wyckoff, had taken their oldest child Peter and retired to the north front bedroom. Helen Holmes, Mrs. Wyckoff’s great-niece and adopted daughter, had gone with young Julia Van Nest to their bedroom. Cornelius Van Arsdale, the new hired man, was already upstairs, and the youngest in the family, two-year-old George Washington Van Nest, was asleep in the sitting room.
Freeman walked around to the rear of the house. As he approached the door of the back kitchen, Mrs. Van Nest stepped out. He met her with a strong upward sweep of his knife, inflicting a single deep wound in her abdomen. Screaming, she ran to the front of the house, was let in, collapsed on a bed and died a few minutes later. Freeman immediately entered the back door, where he met Mr. Van Nest who died almost instantly, stabbed in the chest and the heart. The murderer then struck the sleeping two-year-old baby George with such ferocity that the knife passed completely through the body. He next attacked the hired man.
Through severely wounded in the breast, Van Arsdale dale managed to drive Freeman from the house. Out in the yard the murderer slashed at 70-year-old Mrs. Wyckoff, who had armed herself with a butcher knife and run outdoors. Badly wounded, she nevertheless managed to cut Freeman’s wrist so severely that, as he later said, “My hand was so hurt, I couldn’t kill any more.” Clad only in a flannel nightgown, the undaunted old lady fled across-field a quarter mile to the next neighbor south to spread the alarm. In the meantime, within the house, Van Arsdale stumbled to the parlor floor where he slumped against the wall while Julia Van Nest and Helen Holmes tried to comfort the dying Georgie. All reason gone, Freeman came back to the house, kicked at the door, peered in the window, and then was gone into the night. Two days later Mrs. Wyckoff died at Brooks’ farmhouse, bringing Freeman’s toll to four.
Within a matter of minutes after the massacre began, Freeman was on his way, riding Mrs. Wyckoff’s aged and uncertain horse down the road toward Auburn. The animal did not last long. Just the other side of the village it fell and Freeman stabbed the beast for hurting him. He stole another horse and continued the flight to Schroeppel, in the southern part of Oswego County, which he reached at two in the afternoon.
At Schroeppel he was arrested. On Saturday morning the prisoner was driven to the Van Nest home, where he was greeted by an excited, revengeful mob demanding that he be lynched.
By moving fast, however, the authorities were able to spirit Freeman away in a covered wagon. A terrible commotion followed him into the village of Auburn and as the wife of ex-Governor William H. Seward wrote in a letter to her sister, “I trust in the mercy of God that I shall never again be a witness to such an outburst of the spirit of vengeance as I saw while they were carrying the murderer past our door.”
The first voice of reason to be raised was that of a clergyman, Reverend John M. Austin of Auburn’s Universalist Church; while deploring the murders, his pity went out to the demented Negro and placed the blame on the indifference of the community to their colored population: “Is not society in some degree accountable for this sad catastrophe?”