Mrs. Druse murdered her husband, William Druse, in their home in Warren, New York, a small town of 1,143 that lies just 17 miles north of the Baseball Hall of Fame town of Cooperstown. Or did she? Reports vary in the details.
Books on the murder are available from Amazon:
Last Woman Hanged: Roxalana Druse by James M. Greiner
Roxy Druse and the Murders of Herkimer County by Michael Cooney. In regard to this book, you will want to refer to the blog post Roxy Druse, Female Fiend or Woman Wronged? which claims this book is the TRUE story.
In December 1884, William Druse was murdered, dismembered and burned in the kitchen stove and his ashes and bones were dumped in a swamp. His wife was sentenced to die by hanging.
Her death was protested many who opposed hanging women. Women’s rights groups called the trial unfair because she did not have the same rights as her jur and there was a good chance she was not guilty of a hanging offense.
Mr. Druse lived in the dingy farmhouse with his wife Roxalana (known as Roxy), his 19-year-old daughter, Mary, his 10-year-old son George, and his 14-year-old nephew Frank Gates.
At the age of 60, Druse was eighteen years older than his wife. Neighbors considered him to be lazy, mean tempered and abusive. He was also a man who treated his farm animals cruelly.
William and Roxalana Druse had been married for twenty years during which time William had kept his wife isolated and subjected her to verbal and physical abuse. It was common knowledge that they had not slept in the same room for ten years. William, George, and Frank worked on the farm in exchange for room and board and slept upstairs. Roxy and Mary slept downstairs in the parlor.
The New York Times reported that Mrs. Druse and her daughter were “utterly heartless and their morality is of the lowest character” and added that they both impressed everyone who came in contact with them that they were liars and both possessed a “spirit of vanity.” The Times also reported that Mrs. Druse was illiterate and “of a low order of intelligence.”
Additionally, the Times stated that when daughter Mary was 16 years old men began visiting the Druse house and William went to bed early, but laughter and “clinking glasses” would awaken him and when he complained, his wife and daughter became angry. According to the paper, neighbors often talked about the “nightly orgies in which (William) took no part.”
On December 18, 1884 neighbors investigated when they smelled a dense, black, foul smelling smoke coming from the chimney. They found the door locked and the windows covered with newspaper. No one answered the door when they knocked, but neighbors knew someone was in the house. Their fear was that William had murdered his family and fled.
Soon after, Mrs. Druse and the children were seen alive but Mr. Druse was missing When asked about her husband, she said he had gone to New York City. Neighbors didn’t believe it, especially because of the foul smelling smoke they had experienced.
Neighbors began to suspect that Mr. Druse had been murdered and rumors began circulating which resulted in an official inquiry. Under questioning by the district attorney 14-year-old nephew Frank Gates admitted the he had participated in the murder of William Druse and implicated the rest of the family. Roxy Druse, Mary Druse and George Druse were all arrested for murder.
Stories differ as to the exact details, but in one version Frank Gates described how Mr. and Mrs. Druse had been arguing during breakfast over a grocery bill. She sent the two boys out of the room then came up behind William Druse and fired a revolver into the back of his neck. Mary had a rope around her father’s neck and pulled him to the floor and her mother fired two more shots.
Druse was still alive and she was having trouble with the pistol. She called Frank back into the room and threatening to kill him, too, ordered him to finish off his uncle. Frank emptied the pistol into his uncle, but he still was not dead.
Mrs. Druse then took an ax and struck her husband on the head. Mr. Druse was still alive and pleaded with his wife not to hit him with the ax. Ignoring his pleas, a second blow killed him and she then proceeded to severe the head and throw it into the kitchen stove.
Mrs. Druse sent Frank and George out to get a sharper ax and while they went into another room to play checkers while Mrs. Druse, using the ax, a razor, a knife, a board and a chopping block, dismembered the body, chopped it into little pieces and burned them in the stove. She made he nephew saw the bloody handle off of the ax and burned it also. The next day, she and her nephew took the ashes to a swamp about half a mile from the house and dumped them.
Supposedly Frank Gates spilled his guts to neighbors under their questioning. As a result, under official questioning and as a result of his confession, the coroner was able to find the ax head and the ashes. The ashes contained 18-20 pieces of bone and because it was late December, the body parts were frozen into a solid mass. There was enough for the coroner to determine the remains were human.
At the inquest in January, neighbors testified to the black smoke from the Druse’s chimney and some testified that Mr. and Mrs. Druse frequently fought.
Ten-year-old George Druse told a similar story of the murder that Frank had told except there was a strange difference. He claimed his uncle Charley Gates, Frank’s father, was there as well and had handed his mother the revolver.
Mrs. Druse refused to testify, but after the inquest she claimed that Charles Gates had in fact been there. She had also made the same claim at the time of her arrest and claimed the Charles had fired several shots from his own revolver. She claimed they would find two different types of bullets in the body. That wasn’t possible though because they had been destroyed in the kitchen stove.
Roxalana Druse was charged with murdering her husband. Mary Druse, George Druse, and Frank Gates were charged with giving comfort, aid and abetting to Raxalana and were jailed in the county seat of Herkimer, New York.
Roxalana Druse’s trial lasted two weeks and Mrs. Druse did not testify but her attorneys tried to claim that she had acted in self-defense, citing years of threats and abuse. In the end, it was the testimony of Frank Gates that resulted in her being found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang.
After a lengthy appeals process Roxalana Druse was sentenced to hang on February 28, 1887. The case aroused much public opinion both for and against her execution. One man offered to go to the gallows himself in her place while another offered $10 if he could act as executioner. Souvenir hunters tried to get items of her clothing—shoes, buttons, hairpins, shoestrings.
Women’s rights groups were opposed to her hanging, saying an all-male jury did not constitute a jury of her peers. Also, since she did not have the right to vote, her status in society was the same as a minor’s and as such she should not be put to death. In spite of many petitions for clemency, the New York governor would not change the sentence.
The day before her execution Mrs. Druse made a confession to her spiritual adviser in which she said that her brother-in-law Charles Gates convinced her to commit the murder and provided her with the revolver. She said the she had fired the first shot, but Charles fired the next three from the window and that it was him who took the body and burned it.
On February 28, Mrs. Druse was hanged in front of twenty-five witnesses, though hundreds stood in the cold outside the prison. She was hung using a “modern” method.
Rather than falling through a trapdoor, she was jerked upwards four feet into the air by a 213 pound counterweight, but the force wasn’t enough to break her neck and she dangled at the end of the rope for the fifteen minutes it took her to strangle to death.
It was her botched execution was instrumental in replacing the gallows with the more humane electric chair.
Some reports say that during the trial, Mary Druse admitted to assisting in the murder, and was sentenced to life in the penitentiary and that some years later she committed suicide. Other reports are that she was pardoned after ten years and claimed that her mother had never told the whole story.
Both the New York Times and The Rockland County Journal of 29 June 1895 reported that the she was pardoned.