Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Martha Place, Stepmother from Hell, Bound for the Electric Chair - 1898

FULL TEXT: Mrs. Martha Place, the woman who killed her step-daughter and tried to kill her husband and herself on Monday in Brooklyn, made a partial confession yesterday. She acknowledged everything but the foot that she had murdered the girl. She said she threw acid in the girl’s face. She had to be confronted with the corpse of her victim before she would talk.

William W. Place, the husband, will recover. Only the outer wall of the skull was fractured in one place by the axe blows. The splinters of bone were removed and the operation of trephining successfully performed in the afternoon. Mrs. Place spent Monday night in St. John’s Hospital, Brooklyn. There the doctors found that there was little the matter with her; that she had not inhaled enough gas to stir the pulse of a baby.

Nevertheless she feigned unconsciousness until about 6 A. M. yesterday. She moaned and mumbled all night, calling for her husband.

“Where is Willie? Why don’t Willie come to me?” she cried.

All the time her husband was in the ward just above her, and the physicians did not know then whether the axe wounds would kill him or not.

~ Woman Taken from the Hospital. ~

At 8 o’clock A. M. Detective Becker told the woman to get ready to go to the Ralph Avenue Police Station. She kept on moaning and walked with eyes half closed to the trolley car in which she rode to the station-house.

There Capt. Ennis and the detectives spent an hour trying to get her to say something, but she kept up her wandering talk. Then the Captain told Policeman North to go to the Hancock street house and get the dead girl’s clothes and the blood-stained axe and bring them back to see if they would shock her into talking. This was done, but without result.

Then an open patrol wagon was called and Detectives Becker and Mitchell lifted the woman in and the driver was told to proceed to her home. Mrs. Place did not want to enter the house.

The detectives rushed her up the stoop. They had to wait there a moment, and the woman’s eyes wandered to the bell where the undertaker had fastened a long string of lilies, white roses and smilax. The woman started at this emblem of her crime.

~ Found the Body of the Victim. ~

Inside she was half lifted up the stairs and into the little back room where the body of the girl lay on the bed under a sheet. Becker stepped forward and pulled the sheet aside, disclosing the face of the once beautiful young girl.

The step-mother stopped back, turned her eyes upward and refused to look down.

“Why don’t you look at her and say why you killed her?” said Becker.

Mrs. Place did look down and said in a low voice:

“I didn’t kill her. I threw acid in her face. That was all. I don’t know anything about killing her.”

Without delay the detectives took her to the patrol-wagon and back to the station-house. There the matron talked with the woman and to her Mrs. Place said her husband would not allow her to have her boy and that it always worried her.

Then Captain Ennis and the detectives again took her in hand, and after questioning she made a partial confession.

~  Mrs. Place’s Story of the Tragedy. ~

“My husband and myself had a dispute yesterday morning before he went to business,” she said. “Ida had told him some stories about me. He asked me about them. I denied them, and we had a sharp talk. Finally he hit me in the face with his hand.

“When he had gone I went to Ida’s room. She was dressing. I asked her what she meant by telling such stories about me to her father. She answered me sharply. We talked and argued for some time, and finally I left the room slamming the door.

“I went into my room. Then I saw a bottle with acid in it. I don’t know what kind of acid it was. I poured the stuff into a cup, and again going to Ida’s room. I opened the door and threw the stuff into her face. Then I closed the door and did not go near her again.

“I spent most of the day attending to the household work. I went downstairs to the cellar to feed the furnace and saw the axe there. I expected that Mr. Place would blame me when he came home. When I went down in the cellar again I brought up the axe and kept it near me. I was afraid my husband would strike me.

~ Hacked Her Husband Twice. ~

“When I heard him come in I rushed toward him and struck him with the axe. When he ran toward the door I struck him again. Then I went upstairs and tried to kill myself.”

That is all she would say. At 1 o’clock P. M. she was taken down to Police Headquarters, where she was questioned by Deputy Chief MacKellan and Assistant District-Attorney Clark. A stenographer was on hand to take down her statement. Coroner Delai was also on hand. She practically reported what she had told Capt. Ennis a short time before.

From Police Headquarters she was taken to the Gates Avenue Police Court and arraigned before Judge Worth a 2:30 o’clock, after a long wait in a private room.

Detective Baker made the forma charge against her of homicide by choking her stepdaughter and pouring acid in her face of assault in the first degree by attacking her husband with an ax and of attempting suicide by inhaling gas. The woman stood with bowed head be fore the Justice, her hands tightly clutching the brass railing project in from his desk and tilting backward at such an angle that it seemed she would topple over.

~ “No, No, No,” She Kept Repeating. ~

Two court officers stood on either side of her. They had to almost drag her into the room and then every few seconds they kept pushing her up to the railing. All the time the charge was being read she kept repeating in a high-pitched voice, but which could not be heard half a dozen feet away:

“No! no! no! I did not do that.”

As she had no counsel, Lawyer Knittie was assigned to her, and he waive examination. The hearing will be continued Feb. 15, at 2 P. M. From the court the woman was taken to the Raymond Street Jail where she was placed in a cell in the woman’s division. The Warden place a special guard at the cell door to prevent her from killing herself.

She reached the jail at 4 o’clock, an for five hours she walked up and down. She was very nervous.

At 4 P. M. Drs. Henderson and Moser under the direction of Coroner Delap, began the autopsy on the girl’s body in the Hancock street house. Dr. Moser is a pathologist. The autopsy was not finished until, after 6 P. M Then Coroner Delap made his report.

~ Girl Died from Suffocation. ~

“The girl undoubtedly came to her death by suffocation,” he said: “her eyes were burned with acid; what kind of acid we do not yet know. The doctors have taken with them certain portion of the stomach, which will be examine microscopically.

“The result of their examinations will be known on Thursday. We cannot yet tell If there is poison in the stomach The acid in the girl’s eyes burned them so that had she lived she would have been stone blind.

“The only wound on the body was found just above the left ear. We cannot tell whether it was caused by a blow or a fall. There was a clot of blood on the brain.”

Last night the undertaker took charge of the body. The funeral will take place to-morrow.

Theodore Place will confer to-day with his brother, father of the murdered girl, about the funeral.

~ Father Learns of Ida’s Death. ~

It was not intended to inform the unhappy man of his daughter’s terrible death, but a young friend of the family visited the hospital early yesterday morning and gave him some clippings from the morning papers. It was in this way the father learned of the death of his daughter.

The police had a long talk yesterday with Hulda Talm, the servant employed in the Place household. From what she said and their own investigations they believe Mrs. Place killed Ida between 8:30 and 9 o’clock, after a hard struggle.

Mrs. Place, they believe, began by scolding the girl while the latter was dressing. The girl replied sharply and in a fit of rage the step-mother got the acid, which is supposed to have been diluted vitriol, and dashed it in the girl’s eyes.

~ Police Theory of the Murder. ~

Then, to deaden the screams of the suffering girl, who was slight and an infant in strength to the muscular woman, he step-mother threw Ida on the bed, pulled a large pillow over the girl’s face and then knelt on it until Ida became still. The stillness was death.

Hulda Talm said yesterday she heard one scream from Ida’s room early in the day but supposed it was merely one of the usual quarrels between the laughter and stepmother.

Hulda said Mrs. Place kept her out if the house all day Monday on various errands, as told in yesterday’s World.

Edward Scheldecker, the young man engaged to marry Ida, remembered yesterday morning that the girl’s fox-terrier Trilby and four puppies were in the house. He went around to get them to care for them.

~ Police Say the Food Was Poisoned. ~

“I went down in the dining-room,” laid young Scholdecker to a World reporter, “and thinking the dogs were hungry started to give them some food from the table. The policemen then told me to look out, that I would kill the dogs.

“They said all the food on the table was poisoned and that all the food in the house had been fixed. It looks as if she had intended to kill all hands that way, but changed her mind.”

Ida Place’s girl chum was Gertrude Elebbard, daughter of Mrs. Anna M. Hobbard, of No. 268 Reid avenue. Gertrude Hcblxinl was engaged to marry Frederick Fahreivkarg, a private detective employed by the American Detective Association.

~ Mr. Place Wanted a Divorce. ~

Several months ago Mr. Place hired Fahrenkarg, according to Miss Hebbard’s statement to a World reporter to shadow Mrs. Place and if possible obtain evidence on which he could begin divorce proceedings.

For a long time Fahrenkarg followed Mrs. Place every time she went out. He followed her to Newark when she went to visit her son, and to New Brunswick when she visited her brother. He obtained no evidence.

Mrs. Hebbard and Ida had arranged to be married at the same time and place. Late on Monday night young Scheidecker visited Miss Hebbard.

“There will be no double wedding now. Ida is dead.”

That was the way the girl learned of her friend’s death.

Theodore Place, brother of the injured man, said yesterday that he believed his sister-in-law was crazy from drink when she committed the crime. He said she had the most fearful temper that he ever saw in any human being.

Mrs. Place used to ride a bicycle; so did Ida; but they seldom rode out together.

~ Crowds Around the House. ~

That part of Brooklyn in the vicinity of Hancock street was on the tiptoe of curiosity all day yesterday. There were seldom less than 500 people about the house.

After school hours hundreds of boys and girls collected: there were women in fine clothes, some of them wheeling infants in carriages and others carrying babies in their arms or attended by nurse girls.

In hunting for the motive of the strange crime, the police and relatives agree that it was simply the ignorant jealousy of Mrs. Place. She was a house-servant when Mr. Place married.

The husband is a quiet, scholarly man, fond of pleasures of which his second wife knew nothing. He likes books, is fond of music and is a clever musician in an amateur way; he is interested in photography and has a fancy for dabbling in many of the sciences. Ida was like her father.

The two brothers of Mr. Place. Theodore and Charles, who lived in the immediate neighborhood. could not tolerate Mrs. Place. They and their families ostracized her.

~ Blamed Husband, Then the Girl. ~

Mrs. Place blamed her husband first, and when Ida began to grow into womanhood, she blamed her. She saw the girl gradually usurp her place in the household. The little house at No. 598 Hancock street was in Ida’s name.

But the great obstacle to happiness in the household was the refusal of the husband to allow his wife to bring to the home a son by her first husband. This boy is now fourteen years old. He was christened Ross Savacool.

When he was three years old his mother and father separated. The father went West, and it is supposed to be still living. After the separation the mother was left in poor circumstances. She could not support the child and arranged for its adoption by William B. Aschenbach, a wealthy harness manufacturer on South Orange avenue, Vallsburg, near Newark. They changed the name of the boy to William J. Aschenbach, jr., for a son they had just lost.

~ Had the Temper of a Tigress. ~

Every time Mr. Place refused his wife shelter for her son she would lose control of her temper, and the real tigress in her would come to the surface. She would yell and screech at the top of her voice and threaten the father and daughter with violence.

More than once Ida had to leave the house and stop with friends to escape the frenzied outbreaks of the stepmother. For months the woman knew that her life would end in some fearful tragedy.

As long ago as September last she made preparations by writing a letter to her niece, Grace Garretson, in New Brunswick, N. J.. and arranging for the payment of $200 to her son Ross.

This letter was only mailed Monday after Ida was dead. Other letters were mailed at the same time to her brother, Peter Garretson, a baggage-master on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Her New Jersey friends declare that Mrs. Place was injured some twenty years ago by being thrown out of a carriage and striking on her head. They say she always asserted that she suffered from pains in her head. The defense for her crime will certainly be insanity.

~ Clever at Simulating Insanity ~

The Brooklyn police said yesterday she was a clever actress at simulating insanity; that she posed as demented from the hour of the discovery of her crime until confronted with the distorted body of her step-daughter.

Mrs. Place is about 6 feet 7 Inches in height. She is not stout, but looks hard and muscular. She weighs about 150 or 160 pounds. Her hands are large and bony.

Her face Is not pleasant. She is forty-eight years old. Her hair is scant and thin. It is a colorless brown, streaked with gray. Yesterday it was rolled up in a tiny knot at the back of her head. Her face is seamed with lines. She looks like a woman who has spent most of life fretting and worrying.

~ Eyes That Evade Inspection. ~

Her eyes are a cold gray and do not look squarely at a person talking to her. Her nose is thin, straight and with wide nostrils. Her lips arc thin and bloodless and are held tightly against the teeth.

The forehead is low and narrow. The chin is full at the sides and tapers almost to a point in front. Her cheekbones stick out and her jaws are square.

Altogether her face is a strange one. To those who knew her crime and saw her for the first time yesterday it was an appropriate face; one that seemed capable of exquisite cruelty, but not brutality, like that of Mrs. Nack’s [another infamous murderess of the time]. Detective Becker, who was with her constantly from the time of her arrest Monday night until she was locked up in Raymond Street Jail at 4 P. M. yesterday, said last night:

“She has a cruel face, a cruel heart and she is a great actress.”

~ New Brunswick Was Shocked. ~

The news of the crime of Mattie Garretson Place caused intense surprise in New Brunswick, N. J., where she lived for many years and where she is well known. Her youthful victim, too, had many acquaintances In New Brunswick. Ida Place spent all last summer in New Brunswick as the guest of the family of Hendricks Vliet, a wealthy clothing dealer. She was a beautiful and daring bicyclist, and always over her short, crisp curls she wore a military fatigue cap.

Mrs. Place was the daughter of Isaac V. M. Garretson, a farmer, who owned a place near Millstone, about six miles from New Brunswick. She went to New Brunswick to live after her father had given up farming. About fifteen years ago she and her sister, now dead, conducted a dressmaking business in New Brunswick.

Mattie married a man named Savacool at Newark. One child was them – a boy whom they named Ross. Four years after marriage they separated. Then the woman went to Asbury Park to live. She did dressmaking for a time and later became housekeeper for William M. Place, then living at Asbury Park. Subsequently she went to his home at Brooklyn.

~ Mrs. Place’s Brother Overcome. ~

All of Mrs. Place’s family are dead with the exception of one brother, Peter Garretson, who lives at No. 318 Seaman street, New Brunswick. He was almost overcome with the shock of the news that his sister was in such trouble. he said:

“When I reached Jersey City this morning I tried to go over to Brooklyn to see Mattie, but I couldn’t get up the sand. There isn’t the slightest doubt that she was insane. All these stories that she was jealous of Ida must be wrong. Why, she loved that little girl.

“Ever since she was forced to let her boy Ross go among strangers she has worried and fretted over that. She was wonderfully attached to him. I think that brooding over her future to get the boy turned her brain, which was none too strong on account of a carriage accident.”

Before checking her trunk to her brother Mrs. Place wrote several letters. Garretson received these letters in the morning mall. There were two letters, one of which contained several notes written in pencil, on the back leaves torn from a blank-hook.

The other envelope contained similar enclosures, also the key of the trunk, the check for the trunk, a ticket from Brooklyn to New York purchased on Feb. 7, on which the trunk had been checked, and $25.

~ Sent Her Money to Her Brother. ~

There were six notes in all, two addressed to her niece, Grace Garretson and the rest to her brother. In addition to the letters she sent two bankbooks, one No. 103,086, on the Howard Savings Institution of Newark, showing deposits of $1.074.08, and the other No. 312,312 on the Brooklyn Savings Bank, showing deposits of $213.83.

[She was thought to have] some intention of killing herself, if not the rest of her family, for some time. One letter that bears date of Sept. 20, 1897, and is addressed to Grace Garreton, is as follows:

“Dear Grace Garretson: If anything should happen to me please take $200 for yourself and keep the rest for my on Ross when he comes of age and he to use it for a good purpose. Hoping you will favor my request. I remain – “MATTIE M. PLACE, “598 Hancock street.”

This letter is written on a piece of legal cap. It is written in ink. But crawled across the bottom in pencil in a tremulous hand, as if the writer were laboring under great mental agitation, were the words: “Now is the time. Get our papa to attend to this.”

All of the other letters are similar in tenor.

Capt. Ennis, of the Ralph Avenue Station, who telegraphed to the New Brunswick police to have Mrs. Place’s trunk sent back to him, received word late last night that this could not be one just yet because of objections lade by the railroad company, which refused to give it up until its ownership is settled.

[“Accused Murderess Faces Her Victim. - Mrs. Martha Place Confesses that She Threw Acid in Ida’s Face.” The World (New York, N.Y.), Feb. 9, 1898, p. 5; image from other source: ]

Martha Place was executed on March 20, 1899 at Sing Sing. She was the first woman to die by means of electric chair.


FULL TEXT: “It's pride, rank pride and haughtiness of soul; I think the Romans call it stoicism.” – Joseph Addison.

IN her cell Martha M. Place sobbed aloud. It was as if the string of a violin had snapped.

"You have keyed your strength up too high,” said the matron, "now weep."

For the matron has not the resentment against criminals that ordinary persons have, and she has the ability to be kind even to a woman who was villainous. The matron of the Raymond Street jail is not afraid to be thought ridiculous.

Martha M. Place wept. Those who had seen her at court, tall, straight, lithe, graceful, with eyes reflecting heaven instead of the blood-stained pillow slip in front of them, did not recognize her in her cell yesterday.

There she knelt beside her cot, limp, useless, her face on the bedclothes, her iron hands frail as broken lilies. Three women who had watched her in the night were seated about her. Other persons could see her. She cared no longer; she had ceased to pose.

She is to be the second woman doomed to death by electricity imprisoned in Sing Sing. The first was Maria Barberi, who is alive in liberty. Martha M. Place is to occupy her room.

Since Martha M. Place does not believe in the life that is in things, the walls of her room at Sing Sing are not to speak to her. They encouraged Maria Barberi whose mind was not complex.

Martha M. Place is not naive; therefore, she has no imagination. She has no imagination; therefore she has no philosophy. In the Raymond street jail she could think that she was in an inn, and Hope shone at the window. The foreman of the Jury, in saying "Guilty," blew Hope out.

She is in intense darkness. Something irreparable has occurred. The missionaries, who call on her often, have not her confidence, but they are sure that remorse has not yet begun to feed on her like a caterpillar on an oak.

~ She is Still Proud. ~

She has too much pride, still, to believe herself criminal.  Pride is the first of the seven capital sins, since it was Satan's. Martha M. Place may continue to think for a while that the condemnation of her life in the County Court of Brooklyn, last Friday, was unjust.

Ida Place was the most pathetic of victims. Eighteen years of age and beautiful, she appears groping on her bed with her little hands for a pillow to rest her head. Her eyes are blinded by burning acid. She is like a child searching in the dark for its cradle. Her stepmother suffocates her with the pillow.

Pride alone prevented Martha M. Place om shuddering at the sight of the blood lined pillow slip. If she had shuddered perhaps she would have provoked leniency, it "Pryde will have a fall; for pryde goeth before and shame commeth after," said old John Heywood.

Martha M. Place’s other capital sin was anger. Before the age of reason in children, which old people sot at seven years, Martha M. Garrettson and her younger sister were playing jackstones in the drawing room near the fire.

The younger child cheated once. "If you cheat again I'll burn your head," said Martha. The child cheated again, laughingly, and had to be rescued from the angry hands of Martha, holding her head at the fire.

Ten years later Martha M. Garretson, graceful, lithe, was reading a composition that she had written. The graduating class listened in the pleasantly satirical way that graduating classes have.

She the was impatient, irritable, easily vexed, friends pretended to smile at a pathetic rase, her enemies laughed, the teacher seemed amused. Martha M. Garretson threw an inkstand at the teacher's head. She was not graduated that year, or ever.

Her first husband, Savacoll, deserted her, which is unpardonable; but she slapped his face at the least provocation. As a dressmaker at Newark, going from family to family with her patterns and her needle case, Martha M. Savacoll had to be reserved.

~ Her Temper Still Her Master. ~

She learned how to suppress impatient exclamations before they reached her lips. It was a delight to see her, always quiet, having only pleasant words to utter, and hands to do all the alterations in her work that one wished.

One day, however, she tore into shreds the evening gown in pale blue silk ornamented with Valenciennes lace of a popular woman in fashionable society, and her friends refused thereafter to give work to Martha A. Savacoll.

She came to Brooklyn to take for a short time the place – as housekeeper in William W. Place's home – of a friend. The friend had been engaged and could not come to her work as soon as she exposed. Her substitute was privileged to retain the place if she wished.

As a housekeeper Martha A. Savacoll was excellent. She had made of order and cleanliness a cult. A widower, Mr. Place, had acquired habits of a bachelor. He would not take care to drop in the tray always the ashes of his cigarette. He spent minutes and minutes every day in searching for his slippers. He was not careful about the gas, the ice and other things that make paupers of millionaires.

Mr. Place's house became as bright, as neat, as orderly as a page of engraved music. The housekeeper was too exacting in cleanliness, perhaps, but that was a housekeeper's duty. If Mr. Place complained of her exquisite direction of his household his brothers said: "Oh, weep at once, because you are too lucky."

She was always affable. Her eyes were radiant, her speech was sweet and clear as crystal. Miss Ida Place said that she was charming, and Mr. Place fell in love with her. Three months after her arrival as housekeeper for Mr. Place she was Mr. Place’s wife.

His brothers objected: Brothers object always to alliances like that. But Mr. Place said that the Garretsons were equivalent to the Places in social station. Mrs. Place said they were superior to the Places. The Garretsons were wealthy and old residents of New Jersey.

Conservative, they would not give to Martha M. Place a fortune, but she, her husband and her stepdaughter were welcome at New Brunswick, at Somerville, at East Millstone, in the most charming farms of the State.

~ Her Strict Rules for Ida. ~

Mrs. Place had, because of her ancestry, views about the education of girls, and Mr. Place saw only good fortune in her application of them to his daughter. They were unbearable to Miss Ida Place. She complained that they were too strict. Mrs. Place complained that she was not obedient.

Mr. Place's relatives ceased to come to his house, he liberated his daughter from the tutelage of his wife. Then the war that conflicting temperaments may bring into a house began to rage.

Mrs. Places had tried to make of her stepdaughter an excellent housekeeper and Miss Place disdained the accomplishment. Mr. Place had favored his daughter. His wife was grieved.

Her jealousy was rivalry. She derived from it audacity. Instead of dreaming over it, of making of her torment a poem full of cruel images, she tried to regain her husband by disputing with him.

One evening the dispute made Mrs. Place violent. She leaped at her husband like a tigress. To restrain her, he had to grasp her arms with all the force that he could muster. Then he knew Mrs. Place in anger.

She had suppressed for a year, painfully, the expression of her natural temperament. There was no necessity for dissembling now. At regular intervals she gave a free rein to what she called herself her tantrums. They were not long and they did not seem dangerous.

Miss Ida Place provoked them usually. Her disputes with her stepmother were the theme of gossip in the neighborhood. There were two masters in Mr. Place's home. It became evident that Mrs. Place would not dethrone her stepdaughter.

To Mrs. Place the best evidence of her inferiority in the rivalry came when Mr. P_Lace confiscated her monthly allowance. She guarded that zealously. It amounted to $20. She received it in the afternoon of the last day in the month. In time to place it in her bank. In four years she spent not a cent of her monthly allowance.

The crime that she committed on February 7 is to be explained by the theory that her anger, being greater, lasted longer than ever. Mr. Place had no reason to be extremely watchful, because there was no indication in her that she might become criminal. An adjuster of fire losses, he is an expert at reading character. Martha M. Place was not frightful to him.

[“Martha Place Weeps But Is Not Penitent. - As a Child She Nearly Killed a Little Playmate. - Her Fits Of Passion. - Threw an Inkpot at Her Teacher When at College. - Tore A Gown To Shreds. - Ruled Her Stepdaughter with an Iron Rod Till the Girl Rebelled. - Her First Husband Left Her. - Now, as a Result of Pride and Anger, She Weeps at Her Cot, a Murderer Waiting to Be Condemned to Death.” New York Journal (N.Y.), Jul. 10, 1898, p.?]

























SEE: “Acid Queens: Women Who Throw Acid” for a collection of synopses of similar cases.


For more Violence by Women cases involving axes and hatchets, see: Give ‘Em the Axe



For more examples, see Step-Mothers from Hell.


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