The 1870 murder trial that transfixed New York

abbysagemurderbygaslight2Adultery, a jilted husband, an abused wife, a deathbed marriage—the 1870 murder trial of New-York Tribune writer Albert Richardson had it all.

The story begins in 1857, when Abby Sage, a 19-year-old actress, married Daniel McFarland, who claimed he was a wealthy lawyer.

Turns out he wasn’t a lawyer, nor was he wealthy. Instead, he was an alcoholic prone to violence.

abbysagealbertrichardsonWhile Sage earned success as a playwright and on stage opposite Edwin Booth at the Winter Garden Theatre, McFarland would drink, go into violent rages and threaten homicide or suicide, then promise he’d clean up his act and find a steady job.

Things changed, however, in 1867, when the couple and their two young sons moved into a boarding house at 86 Amity Street—today’s West Third Street.

There, Sage met another boarder, a widower named Albert Richardson. At the time, he was a writer for the New-York Tribune and had made a name for himself in literary circles. During the Civil War he served the Union as a spy, was captured by the Confederacy and then escaped a prison in North Carolina.

abbysagedeathbedmurderbygaslightSage and Richardson became friendly and began spending days together, working on their writing. When McFarland found out, he went into an angry spiral, threatening murder and suicide again.

Finally, Sage left him—and soon her friendship with Richardson turned romantic.

McFarland was enraged. Sage began divorce proceedings, and McFarland attempted to get custody of their sons.

Desperate to be free of her violent estranged husband so she could be with the man she loved, Sage temporarily moved to Indiana, where divorce was allowed for extreme cruelty and drunkenness. In fall 1869, 16 months later, she came back East, believing that her marriage was legally over.

abbysagetrialcourtroom

Her ex-husband, however, made good on his murderous threat. On November 25, McFarland entered the Tribune office on Spruce and Nassau Streets, pulled out a pistol, and shot Richardson, mortally wounding him.

abbysagebrooklyneaglearticleapril51870Richardson was taken to the posh Astor House Hotel, where he lingered for a week. In that time, while McFarland was in the Tombs, he and Sage arranged to be married—by famous Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

There was never any question that McFarland killed Richardson. But to get McFarland off the hook for his crime, defense lawyers had to shift the spotlight from the shooting to Sage and Richardson’s relationship, which began while Sage was technically still married.

“The prosecution focused on the misery of the McFarland marriage, with Abby’s relatives and friends, including Horace Greeley [owner of the New-York Tribune, who knew Sage as well from her literary endeavors], giving testimony,” according to 19th century crime website Murder By Gaslight.

abbysageastorhouse1874“The defense changed the focus to the adulterous relationship between Abby and Albert Richardson. An intercepted letter from Albert to Abby, coupled with Daniel McFarland’s family history of mental instability, allegedly triggered the insanity in McFarland that led to the shooting.”

“The trial lasted five weeks. The jury deliberated for an hour and fifty-five minutes and found Daniel McFarland not guilty.”

[Top image: Murder by Gaslight; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Murder by Gaslight; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1870; sixth image: Astor House Hotel, 1874, NYPL]

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7 Responses to “The 1870 murder trial that transfixed New York”

  1. Tom B Says:

    That type of defense would not hold up in court now! Or would it?

  2. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    I don’t know what to say other than thank you for this. I am mad game to write a book about the case, and will see if it’s been done already. I wonder if any of the individuals are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery…

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    There’s so much I had to leave out for space too: Horace Greeley, Tammany Hall, and more. It’s a really juicy story.

  4. wendy Says:

    I remember the old Astor Hotel in Times Square, but where was the “Astor House Hotel”?

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Astor House was on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets. Built in 1836, it was the city’s first real luxury hotel, where presidents and VIPs stayed. It lasted until about the 1910s.

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