There at long last, oh patient reader, is the murder for which I must unjustly pay the price of my earthly life. It was, I know, a long road to travel, but if its ending were to make any sense, it was necessary for me to relate the entire journey—every step contributed to the next, and the outcome was the result of so many bad decisions. If I had just said farewell to Mirabile at the gate walked into Mr. Bennet's house with Jack I would not have been anywhere near Reverend Travis. If I had not joined the Patriot Hunters, I would not have been carrying the pistol used to kill him. Had I stayed in Saratoga instead of traveling with Jack; had I not taken the words of the Poughkeepsie Seer to heart; had I never climbed atop the barrels in Salem to see the beautiful singer that day in April, the gallows would not be my fate.
But it was not only my own decisions that led to this end; had my fortunes not been linked to those of Jack Horne, I would have had any number of safe havens along the way. If she had not engineered my escape from the Oneida Community, I would have remained there, secure and satisfied. Had she not “rescued” me from the Eastern Star, I would be happily on my way to Maui. Then again, if she had not pulled me from the canal boat, I would have traveled Rochester with Mirabile and Reverend Travis anyway and perhaps my night in the murder room was inevitable. As I parse the events of my journey ever more thinly, they seem at once to be tightly connected yet utterly random. Was I, in fact, damned at birth and following an inevitable path to execution, or was I, as Jack so often said, just a will-o-the-wisp, blowing whichever way the wind took me?
I had much time to ponder these questions as I sat in the Monroe County Jail awaiting my trial. That night in the backroom of the Healing Tabernacle, I had tried to follow Jack’s farewell advice and leave the scene quickly, but I was still profoundly shaken by the night’s events and the import of all I had seen and heard. I was slow to rise from the bed and awkward in putting on my clothes. But outside the shot had been heard by the neighbors who raised the alarm, and those who responded were not slow by any means. As I stood holding the pistol, trying to decide if it was better to take it along or leave it behind, two policemen burst into the room. Believing that they had caught me in the act, they arrested me on the spot for murder.
As they took me out of the church, a man on each arm, a crowd began to gather outside. I can’t say how popular Reverend Travis’s ministry was before his death, but as word spread of his murder, support for his cause became overwhelming. The crowd grew in size and in anger until it reached such a fervor that had any of them chosen to defy the authority of the policemen who held me, a riot would have ensued, and I would have been hanged that night from a Rochester streetlamp.
A coroner’s inquest was held the following day. The main points of evidence were the facts that Reverend Travis had died of a gunshot wound and that I was discovered by police standing over the body holding a pistol. Witnesses had seen a woman and a man running from the church after the shot was fired, and although I tried to explain that they had seen the true killer and a witness who could testify to that, it was concluded that the woman was the Reverend’s daughter, fleeing for her life, and the man was my accomplice. The congregation knew that Reverend Travis always carried his valuables in a black bag; since that bag was missing, it was, no doubt, in the hands of my accomplice. Robbery was declared the motive, and I was bound for trial.
Public sentiment continued against me. Whatever the citizens of Rochester may have thought of Reverend Travis’s peculiar theology just days before, they were now wholeheartedly behind him. The coldblooded murder of a clergyman would not be tolerated in their city.
I had given my true name upon my arrest; there seemed little point now in trying to hide my identity. But when the newspapers learned my name, they began asking questions about my past. Was I the same Jonathan Pratt accused of robbery along the Erie Canal that spring? Was I also the Reverend Jonathan Travis, wanted in Albany for those same crimes, as well as passing counterfeit bank notes? In choosing that alias, had I not shown a connection, if not a blood relation, to the deceased? What was my relation to George Ridley, also accused of canal robbery, who was sent to the Oneida Community to be reformed, but repaid that kindness with escape? The pistol had “Patriot Hunters” carved in the handle; had I been armed, by that now disreputable organization, to assassinate the Reverend?
And it did not stop in Rochester. News of the murder was telegraphed around the country and newspapers everywhere followed it with interest. New York City’s papers sent representatives to Rochester, to determine if I was, in fact, the same Jonathan Pratt who allegedly murdered Eamon “Slasher” Dugan, a leader of the Five Points gang, the Dead Rabbits. I had become so notorious I would not have been surprised to hear that the Saugerties Bard had written a song about me.
The one friend I had in Rochester was old Mr. Bennet and he was a good man to have on my side. He came to visit me in jail and asked me point blank if I was guilty of murder. I told him no.
He looked at me closely for a moment then, with a sigh, said, “I believe you, Jonathan, and I will do what I can to help. “Is Jack the “man” seen leaving the church?”
I told him she was. He said that while we were out that evening, a young woman had come to his house looking for me. She had seen my name in a newspaper story about the steamboat disaster. He told her I would be back later and she waited outside.
“You went with her, Jonathan? I thought Jack was your girl.”
“It has always been a complicated relationship.”
I had no idea why Jack followed me that night. No doubt she knew that I could not be trusted alone with Mirabile and wanted to catch me in the act. After everything she had seen that night I had no hope over ever seeing Jack again.
“Well, I can’t hide my knowledge of you, Jonathan,” Mr. Bennet said. “They already know you slept at my house. I won’t lie, but I won’t volunteer anything that I am not directly asked.”
Mr. Bennet also made sure I had representation when I went to court. A Mr. Abrams came to see in jail. He was not interested in whether I was guilty or innocent, but wanted to hear the details of my story. I told the truth, but when I said that I had been in bed with the dead man’s wife and that the whole affair had been witnessed by my partner, Jack, who was a girl who dressed as a boy, he told me never to tell it that way again. We would keep it simple. I was there at the request of the dead man’s daughter who took my pistol and shot her father. If a man also fled from the church, he was not connected to me.
My trial commenced soon after; the case was heard by the Honorable Judge Buchan of Monroe County. As Mr. Bennet said he would, when he was questioned by District Attorney Bishop, he testified that I had stayed at his home and he knew I was carrying a pistol. Yes, he said, Jack Horne was accompanying me, but he said nothing about Jack being a girl. When the district attorney implied that Jack was the accomplice who fled the church that night, Mr. Abrams objected and was sustained by Judge Buchan.
Mr. Abrams would have many more opportunities to object during that trial. Since Mr. Bennet was the only person in Rochester who knew me or knew anything about the case, the prosecution went far afield to bring in many of the witnesses mentioned in the newspaper. There were Patriot Hunters, Oneida Community members, even some women’s rights ladies had something to say. Mr. Abernathy of the Shakers testified that not only was I a canal pirate but I had personally swindled him out of several hundred dollars. In each case, Mr. Abrams would object to the testimony as irrelevant or as hearsay, and more often than not the judge would sustain him, but to my mind, after the words had left their lips, the damage was done. This jury would not disregard anything.
For my own good, Mr. Abrams kept me off the witness stand. He argued that the evidence against me was entirely circumstantial and that those who fled the scene must be found and questioned before a fair judgment can be reached. But in the end, the image of me standing over the murdered man holding a pistol was sufficient to render a verdict. I was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to hang on September 30.
In the days that followed there was some movement to seek a new trial over some technicality or other, but the Court of Appeals made it quickly and emphatically clear that they had no intention of hearing the case. The verdict would stand.
And so, dear reader, that brings us to the present moment. I have written all night and now, what is left of my candle can be extinguished, as the dawn provides sufficient light for me to finish. The rising of the sun means that my execution is imminent. I have declined both a last meal and a prayer session with a spiritual advisor. The footsteps I hear can only be the sheriff and his men, coming to take me from this cell for the last time and walk me outside to the gallows.
I only hope that justice in the next world is not so cold.