Roxalana Druse: The Forgotten Central New York Murder Case

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.

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Empire Diner- World’s Largest Omelet!

On July 10, 2010 as part of the General Herkimer Days’ celebration in Herkimer, the people at Crazy Otto’s Empire Diner attempted to set the record for the world’s largest omelet. I just happened to be on hand for this particular event. So did they succeed? Well watch the video and find out.

Internet’s Out Again

I am writing this post from the Basloe Library because of the fact that the Internet at my house has been disconnected as of yesterday and it won’t be back up until at least Tuesday because of the Fourth of July weekend.

This actually comes on the heels of a tornado that came through Herkimer Monday afternoon while I was asleep. It happened on the other side of Herkimer about two blocks or so from my house. It mainly affected a one-mile area from West German Street right up to where Lowe’s is on the outskirts of Herkimer. I saw photos on WKTV.com that included sheds blown around the parking lot and plants destroyed. Despite that, there were no injuries and the damage in the hit areas were minor. Thankfully, the town itself, including the area where I live were unaffected by the tornado. But once again, I missed out on yet another video opportunity that could have made into this week’s episode of TAOB.

First the earthquake last week, now the tornado this week. What next? A hurricane?

And speaking of TAOB, since my Internet is down for the weekend, I am going to try to get the new episode up tomorrow afternoon. Even without the Internet, I can still edit videos. It’s just that I have to burn the finished video to a CD before I even attempt to upload it to the Internet. I have done it before last year when I lost Internet. And I just finished cleaning out space on a CD that I can add a video to. Hopefully, the upload to YouTube will go smoothly.

So anyway, it looks like I’ve been forced to take a little vacation from the Internet for the weekend. But like I said, I will be back at the library tomorrow and hopefully, I will have Episode 21 of TAOB up here for you to enjoy this Fourth of July weekend. All I can tell you about this week’s episode is… there will be fireworks. Yes, folks. Tonight Herkimer has its annual Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular and I have to leave for work a little earlier tonight so I can get some footage to include in tomorrow’s episode.

A Historic Flood

The Herkimer County Historical Society’s new exhibit on the 1910 Herkimer Flood.

As you may have guessed by now, I have decided to take yet another week off from producing another episode of my web series this week because once again, I believe in quality and it’s like some advice I got from a recent YouTube video from AngryAussie: “If you don’t have anything to say or do when you are getting ready to do a video, don’t do the video.” It’s clearly good advice. Plus I have a set rule regarding the series that each video I do for the series has to be no less than five minutes long, but again since I am not a YouTube partner, it still can’t be over ten minutes. That’s a rule I still think YouTube should change since not everyone uploads copyrighted content.

So for this week, I am going to do a little blog that might end up being a little history lesson about the history of the village of Herkimer in light of the fact that this past Wednesday, the Historical Society unveiled their latest exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the great Herkimer Flood of 1910 that left one person dead and about a million dollars (by 1910 figures) in property damage.

It all started February 28, 1910 after the area had a fairly decent winter and the weather had started to melt some of the ice and snow. That combined with a heavy rain caused ice to jam up the West Canada Creek, causing water from there to flood into a Hydraulic Canal that existed in Herkimer at that time and was the source of the town’s power. As a result, the water overflowed from the canal into the town.

Many of the streets as well as the railroad tracks were buried under two to three feet of water which made the streets impassable except by boat or canoe. Basements of houses were buried under 6 to 7 feet of water. Many homes were destroyed. Businesses were flooded and the local newspaper, the Herkimer Telegram was shut down. The electric trolleys were shut down and replaced with horses. And as I said before, only one person was killed after being hit by a flying piece of ice while railroad workers were trying to use dynamite to blow up a huge chunk of ice that was blocking the railroad tracks.

A 1910 photo of a horse-drawn trolley that operated during the Herkimer flood.

The flood also attracted curious people from all around, even though the crowds that came for the flood were not as big as the crowds that came to Herkimer for Chester Gillette’s murder trial four years earlier in which the crowds contained people from as far as New York City. One man even made money by conducting tours of a house that was tipped on its side by the flood.

All in all, this is one of the big examples of how a community came together and overcame a natural disaster which is to date, the worst natural disaster ever to affect the village of Herkimer. The flood only lasted for five days and by March 5, the flood waters started to recede. Only 200 houses survived the flood and many of those houses are still here to this day. Of course Herkimer and its surrounding areas would go on to have many more floods, the most recent one being in Dolgeville four years ago. However none of them were as bad as the one in 1910.

And this centennial commemoration could not have come at a better time especially when another major disaster is affecting the country and of course I am talking about the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

Ironically, when I was going to a presentation on this at the Historical Society Wednesday night, it was starting to pour outside and I was caught in it. However, luckily I was right at the Historical Society when the rain really started coming down. Thankfully, there was no flooding.

So there you go. Another historic event that happened in Herkimer brought to you courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Blackcatloner.