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The Bludgeoning of Biddy Quinn: The first murder and execution in Lebanon County

Lebanon County Courthouse, after being destroyed by fire in 1908.


In 1826, the citizens of Lebanon were horrified to learn that a murder had taken place in their peaceful, idyllic community. In every household in every village throughout the county, the crime was discussed, and continued to be a fixture of local conversation for years afterward. Parents and preachers alike used the murder and the subsequent execution of the killer as a teaching device in order to illustrate the perils of intoxication and the evils of liquor.

Lebanon, then just a tiny town, was holding its Cherry Fair at the time. It was the 25th of May, and the streets were swarming with merry-makers of all ages. The men disappeared into the city's taverns to enjoy a drink, while the women and children ambled from merchant stand to merchant stand by the old market house sampling molasses candy, honey cakes, mint drops and other sweets.

While the residents of Lebanon were frolicking at the fair, about a mile west of town a very different scene was unfolding. In narrow ravine that would later become the basin of the Union Canal stood a shack known as Quinn's Shanty. This was the simple home of James Quinn and his wife Elizabeth, known to the locals as "Biddy Quinn".

In this shack the Quinns eked out a meager existence by selling grog. Normally, one could earn a respectable income by operating an ale house, but the Quinns had a habit of drinking up all of the profits. Records indicate that Biddy, on numerous occasions, liked to get herself "beastly drunk". James Quinn was no better.

When Biddy passed away, there was a feeling that her death wasn't the result of natural causes, and so, on May 27, Constable Zimmerman was sent to Quinn's Shanty to have a look around. When Zimmerman and his assistants arrived at the shanty, they discovered that Biddy's funeral was just about to begin. A physician was immediately summoned to examine the body before it could be laid to rest.

The physician noticed that Biddy's body was bruised from head to toe; he later testified that it was not possible to place a hand on any part of the deceased woman's body without encountering a bruise. Based on this evidence, the county coroner had empaneled a coroner's jury and it was ruled that Biddy had been the victim of foul play. James Quinn was charged with murder and placed into the Lebanon jail.

Upon further examination the coroner discovered six broken ribs and a broken breastbone. Removal of the skull revealed that Biddy's brain was covered in blood, indicating severe trauma.

On May 28 the body of Biddy Quinn was brought to town for burial in the Roman Catholic churchyard, with Reverend Carren delivering a touching speech in which he declared that the foul deed had been caused "by none other than strong drink".

James Quinn was arraigned before a grand jury in August. A true bill was declared and a date for the county's first murder trial was set. Because of the lack of witnesses the trial was put off until November.


The Quinn Murder Trial

Messrs. Klein and Forster were the attorneys for the prosecution, and Messrs. Weidman, Loring and Fisher represented the accused. After Klein gave his opening remarks a number of witnesses were called to testify.
One witness, Jonas Fortney, said that we was passing near Quinn's Shanty  between one and two o'clock on the opening day of the Cherry Fair when he heard a noise inside. He entered the shack and found Biddy Quinn lying on the floor with her husband standing over her with a shovel handle. "I saw him strike her but two times and when I spoke to him he stopped," declared Fortney. Mr. Quinn flung the shovel handle aside when the visitor entered the house. Biddy attempted to speak, but Quinn warned her not to say a word to Fortney. The visitor then lured Quinn outside to ask him if he had any horses to sell.

Elizabeth Carson, who was in town for the fair, said that she was passing by the shanty on her way home. Biddy Quinn invited her into the house. Her husband soon came home, in an angry and drunken state. He asked his wife if supper was ready. A short while later he grabbed a club and struck Biddy, telling her to go away. Quinn then disappeared to discuss business with a young man (presumably Fortney). Biddy sat down next to Ms. Carson, who felt her arm, noticing that it was visibly broken.

Carson and the young man left the shanty and stopped a short distance away from the house so that they could hear what was going on. Elizabeth Carson testified that she heard James Quinn shout at his wife, "By Jesus, I will blow out your brain!" They both heard a pistol being fired.

Ms. Carson had forgotten her neckerchief inside the shanty and the following day she and a man named Isaac Umberger went to retrieve it.  Isaac went inside to get the garmet, and when he brought it out Elizabeth noticed that it had blood on it.

Another witness was a local physician, Thomas Rogers. Rogers said that he was with Quinn on the 26th of May, because Quinn wanted him to come back to the shanty and look at his wife's arm. As the men were walking through the woods Quinn confided that his wife drank too much and he did not know what to do with her. "She stole his liquor and became beastly drunk," said Rogers. According to the witness, Quinn told him that Biddy had drunk herself full that morning and had fallen against the stove, breaking her arm.

When they got to the shanty Rogers examined Biddy's arm. He found it completely bruised and noticed her clothing was soiled with blood. He tied up the woman's arm and ordered her to rest in bed. On Saturday morning, Quinn against sent for Rogers, claiming that his wife was very sick. He arrived at the shanty later that evening, only to find that Biddy was already dead and being prepared for burial by some neighborhood women.

It took the jury less than an hour to find James Quinn guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Franks then passed sentence, ordering Quinn to death by hanging. Judge Franks declared:

"Anfter a long and impartial trial, in which your defense was conducted by three skilled, learned and worthy advocates, the jury has declared you a murderer of the first degree, and with your life you will have to pay for your breaking of the law of the land. You were proven to be the murderer of your wife, and from the evidence it is clear that you committed the bloody deed in so horrible and shameless manner that the case is scarcely without parallel; and now you stand here to receive the judgment of the law which will shorten your period of life, and hurl you from time into eternity. And let me assure you that the land demands this terrible punishment, it yet earnestly desires the salvation of your undying soul. You stand now laden down with a heavy debt, which, unless you are saved from the same, will press down your soul into everlasting destruction. I beseech you to prepare your soul for this judgment which stands before you in the presence of a living God. Upon His mercy only you can now cast yourself, and His forgiveness you can yet attain if you bring Him as an offering a penitent and, in truth, a contrite heart."

The judge continued:

"It only remains for me to pass sentence upon you. The sentence of the Court is that you be taken back to the prison of Lebanon County, from whence you came, and from there to the place of execution, there to be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!"

The sixty-year-old convict returned to jail. A week before he was to be executed his jailers discovered that Quinn had managed to dig a hole halfway through the wall; he was moved to a different cell and kept under closer watch.

The hanging of James Quinn on February 9, 1827 was an incredible spectacle. Lebanon was once again besieged by street vendors and out-of-town visitors; it was like the Cherry Fair had come early that year.
Ironically, the same vendors who sold sugary confections to children on the day Biddy Quinn was murdered set up booths and tables to sell candy to the curiosity-seekers who came to town to watch her killer hang.

One historian wrote:

"Many came long distances, arriving the night before, crowding the taverns the preceding evening, or sleeping in the wagons in which they had come... They proceeded the following day in gay procession to the place of execution. On the road to that place booths were erected for the sale of confectioneries, eatables, and intoxicants."

Nearly eight thousand gathered around Gallows Hill to watch the hanging. The military was dispatched to the scene to keep the crowds under control; four companies of cavalry and seven companies of infantry under the command of Coloner Doebler were on hand.

After saying farewell to his priest and the sheriff, he was hanged. To everyone's astonishment, the rope broke during the first attempt, causing Quinn to fall seven feet to the ground. He was badly injured in the process, but managed to maintain his composure. Seven minutes later the new rope was ready and he was once again dropped. This time the rope did not break and, as Judge Franks had promised, James Quinn was hurled from time into eternity.


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