Was John Stone Chicago’s First Serial Killer? (podcast)

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Though we like to advertise HH Holmes as “America’s first serial killer,” it’s pretty well established that he wasn’t really even the first in Chicago. Thomas Neil Cream is known to have been operating in the city before Holmes arrived, and it’s always possible that there were others before them. Though most of the murders in early Chicago were just robberies gone wrong or cases in which a man got drunk and killed someone, the first man hanged in Chicago, John Stone, seems to fit the profile of what we now call a “Serial killer.”  He was hanged for the brutal murder of a woman named Lucretia Thompson in 1840, and denied to the last that he was guilty, but seems to have cheerfully acknowledged that he’d murdered other people before. 

Most of the data I had on Stone came from later reminisces by people who remembered the case in the 1890s, and a couple of contemporary accounts of his hanging (which reported nationally). These long-after-the-fact remarks are hardly enough to determine whether the man might have been a serial killer, but I recently pulled up some fairly detailed accounts of his trial from the Chicago Daily American, and these add a lot to what we know of the story. The American spent three days publishing reports of the trial, which suggests that it was a very big story, as the American barely reported on local news at the time; nearly all of the paper was devoted to praising the Whig party’s nominee for president, William Henry Harrison, and talking endless shit about Martin Van Buren and his supporters. 

John Stone an Irish born man in his early thirties, described in 1879 as “a very giant in size and physical development.” He was employed in “The Big Woods” (now Jefferson Park) by John Rodgers as a wood chopper and lived in Rodgers’ “shanty” in the woods. For housekeeping, Rodgers employed a neighbor, Mrs. Lucretia Thompson who was described in 1879 as “a woman of good character, but very masculine in appearance, and as brave as Molly Pitcher.”  On a sunday morning – likely March 29 – in 1840 she was heard “bellowing” for her cows, but didn’t come home that night. When her body was found two days later, it was realized that the “bellows” were probably the sound of her being murdered. Stone was the only suspect.

The Daily America’s masthead in 1840

Of the local papers published in the summer of 1840, only the Daily American is preserved on microfilm at the Harold Washington Library, though a few articles from the Tribune and the Democrat were reprinted in other papers that have now been digitized. The three days of trial reporting in the American was not exactly a transcript – more of a summary of what each witness said.  It certainly wasn’t complete; the trial went on for a total of eight days (after five days it was found that one of the jurors was a foreigner, and the trail was redone over the next three), and notably includes no direct quotes from Stone himself. But from their summary, I’ve tried to build an “oral history.” Quotes are generally not exact, but built from the way they were summarized into something more readable.

Here, then, is a bit of an oral history of John Stone’s murder of Lucretia Thompson.

Levi Thurston, a roommate of Stone: “I saw Stone having breakfast at Rodgers Sunday morning (March 29?, 1840), before he went off to do his chopping. From there I went to the Thompsons’ house with Rufus Clapp. I told Mrs. Thompson I was going up to Polander’s house; she said if I saw her cows she wished I would drive them home. 

Charles E. Peck, Juror (remembering in 1893): Three or four cows were kept; the were allowed to feed around in the woods in the vicinity of the camp. 

Thurston: After I left Polander’s and Mr. Owaska’s house I found the cows and drove them home, where a little girl began milking them. I heard Mrs. Thompson ‘hollowing’ for the cows.”

Both Thurston and Clapp saw a large fire burning in Rodgers’ house when they returned, and Thurston went to investigate:

Thurston: I went to Mr. Rodgers’ house and found a large bed of coals, and some of the logs of the shanty on fire.  I tried to put it out; while I was doing so Mr. Rodgers came home and swore at me for trying to burn up his house.

John Rodgers: I found Mr. Thurston at my house on Sunday morning. A large fire had been made in the house and had burnt the logs in the chimney. Mr. Thurston was engaged in putting it out. Stone came in shortly after with a gun, and said he had been or was going to hunt.

Thurston: Stone was now wearing different clothes than he had on at breakfast. 

The fire was from Stone burning the clothing he’d worn that morningStone would later claim he’d burned them because of lice, and even that Thurston had told him to burn them. Thurston denied this, and Rodgers said at this point in testimony that “Prisoner said there were no lice on his clothes.” 
Lucretia Thompson didn’t come home Sunday, and that night various parties began searching for her

Thurston: I told everyone the direction in which I’d heard her hollering at the beginning, but didn’t expect to find her there. 

Jeremiah Stanford, neighbor: I saw Stone about twelve o’clock Sunday; he said it was no use to look for Mrs. Thompson, for if she was dead the hogs would have eaten her up. 

Rodgers: Stone asked Thurston if he believed it was a murder. Stone said he thought so himself, and that he would have given $50 if it had not happened. 

Stephen Owaska, neighbor: I saw Stone Monday and asked if he’d seen my horses. He directed me in the wrong direction, away from his chopping site.

Joseph Markle, neighbor: I saw Stone Monday and told him that Mrs. Thompson was lost. Stone appeared unconcerned and asked if he could borrow a hat or cap; he had lost his while chopping. Later he found it near the chopping site.

Henry Souleyneighbor:  I looked for Mrs. Thompson throughout Sunday evening, and then again on Monday. It was only on Tuesday, early in the evening, that we began to search the area where she’d been heard. After we’d search for some time, I saw something white. I also saw a drove of hogs, and in going up to drive the hogs away I first saw the body.

Souley: “She was lying on her face – there was a small hole on her back near her neck, and a large one near it. There was a sheet she used as a shawl – I threw it over the body and called to the rest in company that I had found the body. I was joined by 8-10 men.”

Murdock McDonald: I was within 6 or 8 rods of Souley when he found the body. Saw the deceased laying with her face on the ground, as (if) it were thrust down. On her back were some blows; they looked as if made by a club. I picked up two clubs (sticks) from the ground; one club had a bunch of hair half as big as a hen’s egg on it. 

Standford: The skull was broken in and the hogs had eaten out the brain.
John Stone was chopping wood right nearby, within sight of the drove of hogs. 

McDonald: Mr. Thurston called Stone over; I watched him to see if he would show more expression than the rest. He came within a rod of the body said “Oh! My god! Is that Mrs. Thompson?”

This quote was affirmed by several witnesses. A fire was built nearby, as the light was dying, and Stone sat on a log near the body. Some witnesses added other things Stone had said at the time. 

John Chapman, neighbor: He said “Boys, don’t be scar’t, this is a horrid site.”

Josiah Blodget: Stone said it was a deplorable site, but said “Boys, if any of you want supper, come in.” He said he would watch the body while the rest would go to supper. I had never seen him before

Several tracks were found in the dim light, as well as a couple of clubs, one of which had a clump of hair attached to it. Suspicion seems to have fallen on Stone at once. 

Samuel Stickney: I saw Stone sitting on the log beside the body. He said he thought she was not murdered, and said “Who could have had a heart hard enough to do it?” He appeared absent minded. I left the scene to go to Polander’s to have a coffin made.

Samuel Cove: I was at the body when Stone came up. He said that the clubs might have fallen from the trees and killed her, and the hogs might have pulled her to the place where she was. 

McDonald: “Stone said that her skull did not look as if it had been broken with a club. After about ten minutes I began to talk about the tracks. There was a track like a square toed boot; Stone said if it was a square toed boot it was not his, as he had got round toed shoes on. 

William Boyd: I saw several tracks, and measured the impression of the foot with a stick. The length of the imprint corresponded to the length of Stone’s foot. 

Markle: Stone told me he would not like to sit on the jury because he could not bring a verdict of murder. I found a red shirt sleeve. 

Mr. Kibbly: I saw Stone after dark when the body was found. I told him he was the person suspected of this murder, and I had come with the others to detain him until proper officers came. I also told him that a little girl saw him commit the murder. Stone said “Why did not the little girl tell while they were searching for her?” 

No other mention of a little girl witnessing the murder was ever made. It’s also worth noting that Stone, apparently assuming the hogs would eat the body before it could be found, made no attempt whatever to dispose of the body.

Henry Rhines, one of three local men deputized by the constable to make arrests: I first heard of the murder on Tuesday about dark at Mr. Blodget’s house; I started (to the Big Woods) the same night and arrested Stone. I viewed the body and ordered it brought to Mr. Thompson’s house. I found the skull broken in and blows upon her neck and head, evidently done with a club.

Dr. Proctor:  ” The condition of the body was such as rendered it difficult to determine whether it might not be supposed she was first shot, but I probed the wounds on the back, the large as well as the small one.. and could discover nothing which could lead me to suppose either of them  were gunshot wounds.”

Rhines: I compared the hair found on the club with that of the deceased and found them alike. 

Stone seems to have been kept in custody in the woods that night – while the partially devoured body of Lurcretia Thompson was kept in her husband’s house. 

Just to keep the mood a bit light – they also took a break from bashing Martin Van Buren to drop a sweet ice cream pun.

John K. Boyer, Coroner: I saw the body Wednesday morning at the house of Mr. Thompson, then went to examine the grounds. I found evident marks of a scuffle, and paced to where the body was found; it was 94 paces away. I saw the imprint of a foot, knee and elbow in the earth. I saw one of Mrs. Thompson’s shoes that had been found in a puddle, and piece of a flannel shirt sleeve that was found near it. I found a dickey (shirt front) in the bottom of a barrel. A spot was on the breast of it. I called a jury, who brought in a verdict of murder, then returned to town and called at the jail. 

Rodgers: I had seen the dickey before. It was Stone’s. 

Rhines: In the morning I brought the Stone to town. He asked me on the way if a man could be hung for murder if no one saw him do it; I answered “certainly not.” He asked me what could have induced a man to murder this woman; I told him it must have been in attempt to have intercourse with her.  

Peter Hasley, neighbor: I know Stone. I have heard him say he would be damned if he would not have intercourse with Mrs. Thompson.

If there was any evidence of sexual assault against Mrs. Thompson at the trail, it was not noted in the reports, though Hasley’s comment in the trial suggests that it was considered a motive. It’s difficult not to compare Stone’s behavior on the ride to HH Holmes, who offered to hypnotize the officer who escorted him from Boston to Philadelphia after his arrest. 

Rhines: On the way,Stone told me “You are a pretty clever fellow, but I could get away from you.” I said “If you try it, I’ll shoot you.” I brought him directly to the prison, and Stone said if he’d known where he was being taken, he wouldn’t have been brought alive.”

Rhines: I asked Stone what was done with the flannel shirt; he said he had burnt it up. When I asked what he’d done with the pantaloons, he said he burnt them because they were lousy (infected with lice). 

Boyer:   I examined the prisoner naked; found some blood on his ear and a bruise on his arm. Stone was shown the piece of flannel shirt; said that was part of his shirt, and he supposed he had torn it off when he had burned up his shirt.  He said there was no blood on his pantaloons when he burned them up.

Rhines: I told Stone ‘It looks all right for you, except for you burning your clothes.’ Stone said he agreed, but added ‘You could not prove there was any blood on them.’ 

Mary Lill confirmed that the flannel sleeves were ones she had added to one of Stone’s shirts. 

Charles E. Peck, Juror (remembering in 1893): “Another strong point against him was the finding of a ‘dickie’ or shirt front in a barrel which belonged to (Stone). When asked why he had not burned this “dickie” he unwittingly said ‘Because there was no blood on it.’ That indiscreet and thoughtless answer probably cost him his life.” 

Stone’s accidental admission is not in the 1840 reports, but no direct quote of his is, and Peck’s memory of the trial mostly lines up with the known details. Even more than fifty years on, he remembered all the names of the jurors. Among them was “Long John” Wentworth, the future mayor, who at the time was editor of the Chicago Democrat. Wentworth tried to sue the rival Chicago American for slandering him while he was on the jury. Even in a case not connected to politics, the American couldn’t let it go without bringing up a reason to rip on Van Buren supporters. 

Stone was convicted of murder on May 8, and was sentenced to hang the next day. He was informed at the time that Drs. Levi Boone and Charles Volney Dyer had applied for his body, to whom it would be given for dissection.  Naturally, local papers began trying to dig into Stone’s past, and wondered, particularly, about his religious views. As an Irishman, he was generally assumed to be Catholic, and rumors swirled that local catholics were plotting to free him. A supposed “confession” appeared in the Democrat (reprinted in other papers):

CHICAGO DEMOCRAT:  “We… feel authorized in making the following statement, as the confession  of Stone to a gentelman of unquestionable integrity in this city: He is not and never has been a Catholic, but was brought up an Episcopalian and is now a universalist, and thinks he shall die such. He had no idea of killing Mrs. Thompson until she threatened to expose him. Upon its being suggested to him that the club under her shoulder was the one he used, and the one that made a scar on his arm, Stone replied “you seem to understand it.” He was one of McNab’s crew who burnt the Caroline; has once been under the sentence of death in Canada and escaped the day  he was to be executed. From some things dropped incidentally on different occasions, we infer that his Canadian sentence was for a rape…. from another source, we learn that a brother of his recently called upon him and, when he asked him if he was guilty, he equivocated by stating that there was no use in injuring his feelings any further, that he had got to be hanged any way, and that he was willing to be, but the hardest part of his sentence was that his body was to be given over to the doctors for dissection after death! He little thinks that his body will be as destitute of feelings then as his soul seems to be now.”

The burning of the Caroline, a Canadian rebel ship torched by British loyalists, had been a major news story a few years before. The confession seems to have held up in parts, but many others were disputed – particularly by the American.

.CHICAGO AMERICANA more shameless paragraph seldom adorns the columns of even THAT polluted print…(that Stone has confessed) is unfounded, except in rumor, and that rumor (was) concocted and fostered by the Loco Foro (Democratic) organ…. He was convicted under the name of John Standish of being an accomplice in the robbery and murder of a Government Officer. He was retained as states’ evidence – run away into the state of new york- was convicted of stealing horses and wagon, and was sent to Auburn State Prison under the name of John Dan. The charges that he had been in prison in Canada for a rape, and was one of McNab’s men that burnt the Steamboat Caroline, Stone denies, and there is no proof of their truth. 

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: (1840 issue reprinted in other papers at the time): ” “It may be well to state that when the Caroline was burned, Stone was confined in the Auburbn, NY state prison, and therefore could not have been one of the crew of desperadoes who committed that outrage.”

Rev R.W. Patterson (remembering in 1893): “As he was understood to be a Roman Catholic, at least by training, I did not at first deem it my duty to visit him in the prison. Subsequently Philo Carpenter, then an elder in the First Presbyterian Church, having publishing something in regard to Stone’s religious opinions which was disputed (the Democrat article?) urged me to vist the man and ascertain his religious views.  Accordingly I called at the prison and was admitted. I found Stone sitting on the floor, but not appearing unusually dejected. He told me as I know remember it, that he was an Irishman, that he came here from Canada, and that he was not guilty of the muder for which whe had been convicted, although, as he added, he had committed other murders before he came here.  As to his religious opinions he only said that he had no fear of death because he believed that a merciful God would make all his week and sinful creatures perfectly holy and happy at the end of the present life.” 

Stone was hanged on July 10. He was escorted to the place of execution on the dunes – approximately Cermak and Prairie today. The 2500+ crowd would have spilled about to the site of the new DePaul center; papers lamented how many women and children were present, but insisted that most were not Chicagoans.  A noose was prepared by George White, the town crier who features in several early Chicago tales (and whose eventual whereabouts are unknown).  The guard included Captain David Hunter, who was a son-in-law of John Kinzie. 

CHICAGO AMERICAN: (On the scaffold) Stone stated…that he was never in the house of Mrs. Thompson, and did not see her the day on which she was murdered. He had also stated that two individuals were engaged in the murder, but on being asked if he knew them, he replied, in substance, that if he did, he would swing before their blood should be on him….. His views on the subject of religions…were in accordance with the scriptures – and though at the last he exhibited apparently a dogged indifference and obscurity in his religious views, and died, as is generally believed, with a falsehood on his lips, think there is no foundation for saying that he died a universalist. Though he persisted in the declaration of his innocence of the crime for which he was hung, he yet acknowledged that he had committed crimes enough for which he deserved to suffer death, and could not dispute the justice of his punishment. He also intimated that accounts from the East would probably make new and serious developments in his character and history.  Stone has aged parents (who live in the east).  He lived with his parents until he was 21. He intimated that the examples set him at home were far from being what they should have been, and that after leaving his parents, for some time he was better than he had been before. 

The hanging was done in an orderly fashion, by all accounts, and the body was delivered to Drs. Boone and Dyer. By some later accounts the gallows were stolen by George W. Green. Juror “Long John” Wentworth became a congressman and later the mayor; he was one of the best known Chicagoans of the 19th century. Captain Hunter became a general during the Civil War. Dr. Levi Boone became mayor as a member of the “Know Nothing” party in the 1850s, and Dr. Charles V. Dyer was often referred to as “the president of the underground railroad.” Henry Rhines, on the other hand, is generally remembered for using his power to arrest black men he suspected were fugitive slaves; he died in 1852.

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