“How long will peaceable people consent to being shot down, clubbed, or choked to death is a question not much longer to remain unanswered.” The New Paltz Independent of March 1873, continued, “if the present plan of uncertain and dilatory punishment is continued, quick death will overtake the murderer by summary process.” This was an obvious reference to vigilante justice.
Ulster County, more specifically New Paltz, had, had enough of what it perceived as an escalation in grisly murders. The populace read in dismay as each murder was more violent and sensational than the one before it. The latest was the ax killing of Daniel A. Hasbrouck, by Levi Bodine. Prior to this murder, Ulster County read with horror about the roadside murderer.
“A loafing, shifting vagabond, too worthless to work…” is how The Monticello Watchman described forty-two year old Jeremiah Smith. He was a native of Neversink in Sullivan County when he met Sophia Tompkins who hailed from Olive in neighboring Ulster County. She had four children 5, 9, 12, with a daughter already grown and married. All her children were from a previous marriage. When Smith met Tompkins she was the widow of Private Jacob Hornbeck. Private Hornbeck had enlisted in the 143rd Regiment, Company C, in Sullivan County during the Civil War. Her husband was killed in 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Smith, a farmer, was about 6’ tall with a light complexion. Those who knew him believed he slept with 2 loaded pistols and an axe in case anyone tried to give him trouble. He trusted no one, not even his prervious wife, who, according The New York Times, was locked in a room at night while Smith slept. His neighbors described him as “very intemperate in his habits.” Tompkins and Smith were wed in September 1867. Tompkin’s family was doubtful that her new husband could be of any benefit. Some believed he was only after her late husband’s military pension which she had been collecting since his death. In addition, she also collected a pension for the three children who were still minors.
Wurtsborough Sullivan County Atlas, F.W. Beers-Library of Congress
The family eventually ended up near 3 miles west of Wurtsboro in late 1867 on the road to Monticello. It was here that the new Mrs. Smith put down $125 with the intent to buy a place to live. The money according to newspapers came from her late husband’s pension as well as a bounty paid to her husband.
On Saturday November 14, 1868, Smith left home to rent a wagon and a horse from the Mansion House Livery. When he returned, about 1:00 pm, he greeted his wife. He explained to her that he had rented a horse and wagon to take her to Olive. His wife’s eldest daughter, he explained, had been in a terrible accident. Smith continued that she had been thrown from a wagon, and could die.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith climbed into the wagon, and made the journey towards Olive making one stop in Ellenville. It was at the stable of E.D. Terwilliger. The couple continued their journey in the evening. However, the couple never arrived at their destination. Police later determined that they only got as far as Accord.
As the wagon approached Accord, Smith pulled out one of the pistols he kept with him when he slept. He fired a shot point blank range at his wife, followed by a second shot. She tumbled out of the wagon. Smith stopped the wagon, hopped out, and found a rock. He proceeded to pound his wife’s head until he was sure she was dead. Smith buried her in a shallow grave on the side of the road, and then turned the wagon around. As he neared home he saw a local boy walking along the road. He asked the boy to take his horse and wagon back to where he had rented it. His only comment to the boy was that the horse gave out, and could not continue the trip. He explained that he sent his wife on to Olive with a passerby. It was Sunday, November 15. Smith walked back home where his wife’s three children waited. He arrived Monday, November 16 leaving the next day with the children after cleaning out the house of everything but a small trunk.
When the horse and wagon arrived, the owner of the stable found a pillow, according to The New York Times, covered in blood. Citizens became suspicious at this point and went to the Smith house. After repeatedly knocking, they forced the door. What they found was an empty house with only a trunk belonging to Mrs. Smith. Later when they located her body the dress she was wearing at the time of the murder, would match fabric in the trunk.
Smith took the children with the intention of going fleeing towards Otisville. Newspapers reported that he stayed one night there. Some believed he was on his way to Newburgh, one paper stated, when a local resident felt something was amiss and alerted authorities.
Authorities retraced the route taken by Smith with his wife. In a shallow grave they found the remains of Smith’s murdered wife. District Attorney Wesbrook, Coroner Bogardus, a police officer, and the late woman’s daughter as well as husband were summoned to the scene. They positively identified the body.
A 1,000 dollar was offered for the capture of Jerimiah Smith. Sam Gumaer, a hotel keeper in Wurtsboro, hoped to make his fortune. He followed the trail until it went cold. The last time anyone saw Smith would be on November 24, heading towards Port Jervis. He resurfaced briefly abandoning the children with a local charity.
Frustrated, the reward was increased to $3,000. A break in the case finally came in December 1868. A thief was picked up by police in Kingston, and reported having known Smith. H believed that Smith was still in a jail out west. in Clyde, OhioThe New York Herald reported the following year, that Smith, committed a robbery in order to “get incarcerated in an out of the way jail.” Smith wanted to avoid being convicted for the death of his wife. What jail he was being in housed in, was never mentioned. It was described as off the beaten path.
Jeremiah Smith was never brought to justice. As late as February 11, 1870, Detective Harrison of Ohio, had traced Smith to Clyde, Ohio with the help of Sam Gumaer. Harrison felt that Porter Smith had travelled to Ohio to help Jeremiah, and he felt that Gumaer should question a Peter Smith of Hasbrouck. Once again, the trail went cold. Some believe after serving his time, Jeremiah Smith moved to California where he died.