August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Quaint pictures and a grim story tell of prejudice and mob passion in upstate New York of the 1840’s
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.
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?”
He characterized the Auburn Negroes as “victims of unworthy prejudices which compel them to exist under circumstances where they are exposed to imbibe all the vices, without being able to become imbued with the virtues of those around them; who can wonder that they fall into crime?” John DePuy, Freeman’s brother-in-law, testified that white men had made this murderer what he was, “a brute beast; they don’t make anything else of any of our People but brute beasts; but when we violate their laws, then they want to punish us as if we were men.”
Another voice in the wilderness was that of ex-Governor Seward, then a private lawyer and Auburn’s most influential citizen. When no one would undertake the defense of Freeman he offered his services, thereby bringing the wrath of the entire village down upon him. Seward held the viewpoint, not yet generally accepted, that the insane were not responsible for their acts.
Judge Bowen Whiting announced on June 24 that there would be a preliminary jury trial to determine Freeman’s sanity. Seward and his law partners volunteered their gratuitous services and appeared for the prisoner. State Attorney General John Van Buren, son of Martin Van Buren, and the district attorney of Cayuga County represented the people. The trial lasted ten days and in spite of the tremendous evidence of Freeman’s insanity, the jurors brought in the verdict that the prisoner was “sufficiently sane in mind and memory, to distinguish between right and wrong.”
On July 10 Freeman went before a second jury, this time on trial for his life. Once again the best of authorities were presented by Seward in an attempt to persuade the jury that the murderer was completely insane.
The trial itself was a travesty, where every possible insult and calumny was heaped on Freeman and on his defense. Even Seward’s masterful summation, which was called the most impassioned that ever passed his lips, went almost unheard. On the twenty-third Freeman was quickly found guilty, and the following morning Judge Whiting sentenced him to be hanged on September 18.
Seward, continuing his valiant fight on behalf of Freeman, obtained a stay of execution. In October Mrs. Seward paid a visit to the jail with her husband. There she found Freeman with only a few feeble glimmerings of memory. “I was affected to tears by his helpless condition,” she wrote to her sister. “I pray God that he may be insensible to the inhumanity of his relentless keepers. He stood upon the cold stone floor with bare feet, a cot bedstead with nothing but the sacking underneath and a small filthy blanket to cover him.”
It was on February 11, 1847, that the State Supreme Court handed down a ruling reversing the judgment of the local court and ordering a new trial. In a letter written four days later, Seward called on Dr. Amariah Brigham, head of the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica to submit the names of “one hundred of the most intelligent physicians throughout the State of New York and abroad” who might give evidence. But no trial was ordered. Area newspapers continued to enmesh the case in local politics. They even accused all concerned of taking part in a Whig conspiracy to build up Seward.
To ailing, demented Freeman, languishing in his cell at the Cayuga County jail, his feet heavily ironed, all this meant nothing. For many weeks he had been failing and those who saw him were convinced that he had become a perfect idiot. He died on Saturday morning, August 21, 1847. A post-mortem examination was held and Dr. Brigham summed up the sad case of Bill Freeman in these few words: “I have very rarely found so extensive disease of the brain in those who have died after long continued insanity, as we found in this instance; and I believe there are few cases of chronic insanity recorded in books, in which were noticed more evident marks of disease.”
The great furor created by crazy Bill Freeman was in its time spread far and wide by the press, but certainly no reporting could have compared with the sense of immediacy and intimacy that came to those who saw the events dramatized in George Mastin’s paintings. The last of the series shows, with Hogarthian effectiveness, the hanging of Freeman which the court ordered and for which the community profoundly hoped. The death of Freeman not only forestalled his hanging, but it also vindicated William Seward. As time passed the people realized that the tragedy involved more than four needless murders.