An artist rendering of Roxalana Druse that was done for a newspaper sometime after her execution in 1887.
On the morning of February 28, 1887, a crowd gathered in front of the Herkimer County Jail in Herkimer, New York to witness what would be Herkimer County’s first and only execution. The person scheduled to die by hanging that morning was Roxalana Druse, a forty-four year old woman charged with the first-degree murder of her husband, William Druse of the Town of Warren. The witnesses watched as Roxalana, escorted by her spiritual adviser, the Reverend Dr. George Powell, Sheriff Delavan Cook, and Undersheriff A.M. Rice walked to the gallows that were set up behind the jail.
Roxalana, or Roxy as she is known to local residents, originally hailed from Sangerfield who met her future husband, William Druse on a hop-picking trip. William, a farmer who was eighteen years her senior, married Roxy in 1864. They had two kids, a daughter named Mary and a son named George. Roxy later commented that the only time that her husband was considered a “decent man” was on their wedding day, for what followed after that was twenty years of abuse, pain, anguish and ultimately murder.
The Druse farm was located in the town of Warren near the town of Richfield Springs on the Herkimer/Otsego county line. This area had what was described as poor farmland. The family was in debt and not very highly thought of. William was reported to be an ill-tempered, abusive, eccentric and lazy individual whose ideas of “quality family time” included beating Roxy with a horsewhip; choking her; threatening to kill her; and chasing her with whatever object he could find as long as it could be used to kill someone.
On the morning of December 18, 1884, William Druse was reported to be yelling at Roxy for something and reportedly threatened her with an axe. She told the kids to get out quickly. Then a gunshot rang out. The kids next heard their mother call out to Frank Gates, who worked on the farm to shoot someone. He complied and finally the kids witnessed Roxy severing their father’s head with the same axe that he threatened her with.
What happened to the body next was and still is debated to this day. It was reported that Roxy attempted to burn the body in the parlor stove which emitted black smoke from the chimney which could be seen by neighbors in the surrounding areas. There was also an age-old myth that Roxy tried to feed her husband’s remains to the pigs outside but it was only a myth, for no testimony in her trial later on stated that there was any evidence that animals got a hold of the body.
For nearly three weeks as the holidays came and went, no one really noticed that anything was amiss at the Druse home. Roxy told curious neighbors that her husband was in New York City, until finally one of them found an axe in a mill pond just north of Richfield Springs. By the end of January 1885, the entire Druse family was in the county jail charged with first-degree murder.
Roxy’s trial began on September 24, 1885 and lasted only two weeks. Her defense attorney used the defense that Roxy killed her husband in self-defense, citing Roxy’s history of abuse at the hands of her husband. However, the prosecution’s case proved to be too strong and probably the evidence that condemned Roxy was the forensic evidence that included her husband’s bone fragments and a blood-stained floor board that was extracted from the house.
At midnight on October 3, Roxy Druse was convicted of first-degree murder and three days later was sentenced to hang. The original date of execution was set for November 25, but the appeals process put the execution on hold. Her daughter Mary pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison (only to be pardoned ten years later) and her son George was released into the custody of a legal guardian.
In addition to the appeals process, outcries from women’s rights groups and religious organizations across America helped to keep the execution on hold. The state legislature even debated about whether or not to pass a law that exempted women from facing the death penalty in capital murder cases. But in the end, the governor decided not to intervene and set Roxy’s execution date for February 28, 1887.
Finally on the proposed date, a mournful Roxy mounted the gallows that were imported to Herkimer from a nearby town as opposed to another myth that Roxy was in fact hung from a hook located in the back of the jail.
“Oh, dear!,” Roxy exclaimed sadly as the deputies put the black hood over her head.
After that, the trap door was sprung and Roxy fell through it. It took her fifteen minutes to strangle to death in what many would have called a “botched execution.” Towards the turn of the century, lawmakers debated about whether or not hanging was actually cruel and unusual punishment and looked for a more “humane” method of capital punishment. In many cases, Roxy’s execution more or less paved the way for the invention of the electric chair three years later.
While Roxy’s case may have been a landmark case mainly because it dealt with such issues as domestic violence, women’s rights and what constitutes as self-defense, the case was soon eclipsed in local and national popularity nearly twenty years later by Chester Gillette’s murder case in 1906. While Chester’s case went on to inspire the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser as well as the 1951 film A Place in the Sun and an opera, Roxy’s case faded into local legend.