Tuesday, September 1, 2015



     It happened in the country, about half a mile north and west of Hurricane Wisconsin.  Henry Keene was a farmer who rented out a small two story house on a hillside near his home.  He was also a justice of the peace. On the afternoon of September 21, 1885 Keene was working in his field when he saw his tenant walking toward him, holding his 3 year old daughter in his arms.  ““Henry, help me.  My wife has been shot” he said, “what shall I do?”  Keene told him to return to his wife, while he summoned a doctor.  He called to a neighbor, Lewis Gelbach who was in his field a short distance away.  After spreading the word and dispatching Dick Andrew to ride to Lancaster for the Sheriff, he walked to the house and viewed the gory scene.  On her back on the floor was the body of Olive Esther Libby Townsend (they called her Esther), her head resting in “a great pool of blood.” She was 21 years old.  Her husband, Mark Wheeler Townsend, age 32, said it was an accident.
     Mark Townsend was born in Cleveland Ohio and moved to Wisconsin as a child with his parents Lysander and Lydia Townsend.  They settled near Mount Hope, Wisconsin.  Though he had only three years of schooling, he was intelligent and educated himself to the point that he had taught at a number of country schools and was principle at Cassville for a year.  Before his wife's death he was planning to leave his family near relatives and go to Northern Indiana Normal School in Valparaiso, Indiana (now Valparaiso University), so that he could be officially certified to teach.  The birth of the couple’s second child, Charlie, on January 7, 1885, nine months before Olive's death complicated things.  Less than three months after his birth, baby Charlie was dead.  Rumors flew that Townsend had thrown the baby against a wall, leading to its death days later.  The child’s death was not investigated.
     About five years before his wife's death Mark Townsend had a legal dispute with his brother.  Shortly after Mark lost in court his brothers family sat down to dinner.  They all became Ill.  Suspecting poisoning, the table condiments were examined and strychnine was found in the sugar jar.  Mark had purchased that toxic poison a day earlier.  The matter was said to have been dropped for family reasons.
     As the afternoon of September 21st passed, Henry Keene and four other neighbors and their wives waited for the Sheriff and the doctor to arrive.  Edward Pollock, editor of The Teller, a Lancaster newspaper and Postmaster Burr rode out to the Townsend house.  Pollock wrote the story, complete with diagrams of the house and the location of the body.  A white sheet was thrown over Esther's body.  As evening approached the ladies of the neighborhood decided that the corpse should be moved, cleaned and prepared for burial.  Doctor Baxter from Lancaster finally arrived.  Using a probe to explore the wound he determined that there had been only one shot which entered the back of the skull halfway between the crown and the base, and a little to the right side.  The bullet had exited behind and slightly below the left eye.  Mr. Keene had found that bullet on the floor near Olive’s feet.
     Mark Townsend left to carry Bessie, his 3 year old daughter, the half mile to the home of Esther’s mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Joshua Fawcett.  He found them overcome with grief and unable to bring themselves to go and see the horror.  From that time on, Bessie was raised by her grandparents.  Since Keene was coroner and a justice, the men present decided to convene a coroner's inquest.  A jury with J. A. Coombs as foreman was assembled from those present:  W. W. Ward, Thomas Harper, John Pink, Joseph Snider and A. G. Bonham.  The events of the day were testified to by Keene, Gelbach, and Mark Townsend.  Townsend testified that he was standing behind his wife beside a cabinet cleaning his revolver with a cloth in anticipation of selling it.  He said he finished and still holding the barrel with the rag, he turned the cylinder while holding the hammer back so that he could bring it down between the cartridges.  The hammer slipped and the gun discharged, killing his young wife instantly.  He heard Bessie crying upstairs, ran to get her, and left the house for help.  The only evidence examined was the bullet and the rag which had powder residue on it.  With no further evidence or investigation the jury determined that she was killed by a bullet fired from her husband's pistol.  They further decided that the pistol had been accidentally discharged. 
     There was no further action taken, even though Keene, who had married the couple believed he had killed her intentionally.  Coombs believed as passionately that it was simply a tragic accident.  Editor Pollack wrote:  “There may be innocence, but it is disgusting innocence…a man who can be guilty of such an accident ought to be severely punished.  Such an accident is half as bad as intent… He is surely a great sufferer and we think shows it and possibly deserves more sympathy than we feel for him.” In a short time, Townsend was on his way to Valparaiso.  After attending the college, Townsend moved to Ritzville, Adams County in the State of Washington, a place he believed where no one would know him. 
      Ritzville was a new town, established in 1880 by the Northern Pacific Railroad.  A new school had been established and Townsend quickly began teaching, taking at the same time two pieces of Government land to give farming a try.  He met Mary Watson, daughter of a prosperous area family. They were soon married. They had two children.  From early in the marriage Townsend began to abuse her.  He moved her to a rural home and refused to let her leave or to receive visits from family or friends.  She went to her parents home and filed for divorce.  Townsend made threats, but a divorce was granted giving Mary custody and allowing Townsend the right to visit the children at reasonable times if he would act like a gentleman.  Townsend’s threats escalated against her family.  He threatened to use dynamite to kill them. 
     The Watson family engaged the services of a lawyer after Mary read a letter sent to Mark pleading with him to send money for support of the child he had left with Esther’s parents.  The family attorney, J. H. Hartman, having heard that Townsend may have poisoned his family, advised Mary not to allow the children to eat any items of food he might bring them.  Not long afterward Townsend came to the Watson home demanding to see his children.  He offered them candy which Mary refused.  He flew into a rage and a fight ensued with the Watson brothers.  Mary ran for the revolver and Townsend was forced to leave. As a result, he filed assault charges against them.  Because of the rumors about his past in Wisconsin, the family engaged attorney Hartman to travel to Wisconsin and investigate.  That is where he learned of the suspicious death of his first wife, and the second child.   He interviewed numbers of people and returned to Washington State with additional evidence that he thought could result in a homicide conviction.  Hartman felt that Townsend must be tricked into admitting that the shooting was no accident but that he intended to murder Esther. A plan was hatched and an unusual ally was enlisted.  
     Townsend's prestige had risen in Adams County to the point that he was serving as assistant superintendent of schools.  He was given the assignment of testing prospective teachers and certifying those found competent.  Current teachers were also required to take and pass the exam.  One of these was an attractive young woman named Musette Woods, and Townsend was infatuated with her.  He had been pursuing her, as she said “making love” to her, which in those days meant wooing and courting.  The Watson family and attorney Hartman were able to enroll her as an agent to get Townsend to talk. 
     Musette was able to arrange a meeting with Townsend one evening at a school office.   Her landlord, also a Watson ally listened at the window while she told Townsend that she must know of his past life if their relationship was to continue.  He told her of his first wife, the shooting, and called it unfortunate but “justified.”  With this witnessed statement the authorities in Grant County Wisconsin obtained a warrant for his arrest.  Grant County Undersheriff McGonigal was dispatched to Washington. He went first to Olympia to get an extradition order signed and then to Ritzville.  When he got off the train in Ritzville he inquired after Townsend and was directed to a man who had disembarked from the same train.  McGonigal arrested him right there and hustled him back onto the eastbound train.  McGonigal advised Townsend of the charges against him.
     Attorney Hartman, Henry Keene (who had moved from Wisconsin to Seattle), and Musette Woods got on the train for Wisconsin.  Townsend was put on trial. The trial lasted for weeks.  At the termination of testimony, Judge Clementson gave the jury the option of three verdicts:  Murder, fourth degree manslaughter, or innocence.  The jury convicted him of fourth degree manslaughter and recommended the maximum term of imprisonment for that verdict.  Accordingly Townsend was sent to the state prison at Waupun for two years plus one day in solitary.  Many thought he deserved the harsher sentence, but did he really “get away” with murder? 
     After he served his time, Townsend went back to Adams County Washington and returned to farming.  He did not teach.  He was married again to Emaline Spencer, and farmed for the rest of his life, which was not many years.  He developed an unspecified degenerative disease and died on December 29, 1906 at the age of 53.  He is buried in the Michigan Prairie Cemetery in Adams County, Washington.  It is an overgrown, forsaken place by appearances.  So ended the life of a man who, had he moral fiber to match his intelligence might have amounted to something in this world.  As it was, he left pain and sorrow.  He and his generation are all gone to the great judge who has all the evidence