When I was a boy in the 1960s and ’70s, I had free run of an emptied-out Adirondack village, a ghost town in Hamilton County named Hope Falls, whose rough-and-tumble boom times had passed decades before. The sawmills and tanneries were long gone, leaving behind a one-room schoolhouse, a tiny cemetery and a few homes.
My grandparents, who had lived in Gloversville, bought the remnants of much of the little village during the Depression. They spent years building a modest stone house where I spent many weekends, hazy summer weeks, and snowy Christmases that forged ties to the Adirondacks that I still carry today. My grandfather died before I was born, but Gram stepped in as a surrogate mother after my own mom passed when I was five—teaching me how to snowshoe, cut hay and drive an old tractor.
Those ties have weakened over time, but I went searching for the ghosts of Hope Falls while unboxing some old books last year in my Maryland basement, particularly the tale of Edward Earl, hanged in 1881 for stabbing his spouse through the heart.
I had vague memories of the story of Edward and Mary Earl. It’s long been a part of Adirondack lore, chock-full of grisly, dramatic details, Hollywood-worthy court drama, and secrets buried in the Hope Falls Cemetery. The murder weapon, a fearsome tannery knife, found its way to the Adirondack Experience, in Blue Mountain Lake.
Researching a killer hadn’t been my plan. I had only recently quit journalism in disillusionment after the January 6th Capitol riot, which I experienced firsthand as an Associated Press reporter in the Capitol itself. I’d intended to learn the stories of the families that lived on Gram’s 19-acre plot, which had once housed a post office, a tannery complex and several houses. (An abrupt change in technology derailed the Adirondack leather industry, which for decades had relied on spruce bark to soften hides for shoes and gloves.) Instead, I became obsessed with the case of Earl, a mysterious figure with piercing eyes whose imprisonment, trial and hanging in Sageville (now Lake Pleasant) made for great newspaper fodder at the time and was amply told in the 1965 The History of Hamilton County by Ted Aber and Stella King, an out-of-print book I unearthed in my basement.
Hamilton County towns like Hope, Benson and Wells lacked the lakes that attracted well-heeled downstaters to other parts of the Adirondacks. So settlers took to trapping, farming, logging and tanning hides, the latter being a particularly dirty and grueling business. The arrival of a railroad line to Northville created an industrial boom that most affected Hope Falls, which hugged East Stony Creek, home to the Smith & Resseguie tannery that employed Edward Earl as a blacksmith.
Unlike Griffin, another area ghost town, few pictures exist of Hope Falls in its industrial prime. I swam in a pool in East Stony Creek that formed just below a sawmill site that dated to the 1840s, and my great-aunt owned the old schoolhouse, which had a brief run as an antique shop. Still, Hope Falls had all but perished. “It was as though it had never happened,” wrote Aber and King.
But if ghost towns harbor ghosts, they could be found in the old graveyard, where both murderer and murder victim are buried in unmarked graves, along with two of their children. Kids in Hope Falls often died young in those days. I frequently visited the tidy graveyard tucked in behind the old schoolhouse, which is now part of a home. The graves of Mary and Edward Earl, according to Aber and King, are in the back, near the stone wall.
To better understand what had happened to the Earls in Hope Falls I had tools that the authors of the Hamilton County volume lacked: searchable, digital newspaper archives. Intriguing details poured forth, some believable, some less so. I also purchased a 15-page account of the case from the rare books collection at the Library of Congress, a pamphlet assembled by Edward’s allies with the receipts dedicated to the Earls’ orphaned daughter, June.
Most notably, I discovered Edward Earl was probably a man named Charles Donahue, a Civil War soldier whose family had ties to Watervliet, then known as Port Schuyler. Such was the confident verdict of the Troy Times newspaper, citing a convict who did time with Earl at Dannemora prison.
Earl’s fellow inmate, Daniel Johnson, was from Port Schuyler and told the paper he recognized Earl “beyond doubt as Charles Donahue.” Earl had been imprisoned for three and one-half years for assaulting Mary—on false testimony, he claimed—and had been released three months before committing the murder, filled with hatred and a thirst for revenge.
The Troy reporter confronted Earl’s widowed mother, Mrs. Thomas Donahue, with the information, and emerged convinced that the woman was withholding the truth about her son and feared her secret had been discovered. Civil War records cite a “Charles Donohue” that is spelled with two “Os,” who served in the 22nd Infantry Regiment out of Troy.
Still, as reporters like to say, there were more questions than answers. Some of Earl’s allies, for instance, claimed his mother died when he was eight years old and that he was destined for the Naval Academy in Annapolis before running off as a teen.
The super-short version of the Earl saga starts with a mysterious, privileged childhood in Virginia or perhaps Delaware, skips quickly over his troubled years in the town of Benson in the late 1850s, and takes note of the likely stint on the Union side in the Civil War. He used at least two other pseudonyms and admitted to his friends that he had done many bad things—deeds apparently best addressed by running and hiding.
After the war, Edward Earl came north to Hope Falls, where he fell for Mary Burgess, a 17-year-old “uneducated mentally and morally”—but blessed with “red cheeks, ruby lips, elastic step and healthy appearance,” according to the pamphlet printed by Edward’s allies. The couple married in 1868, but things quickly became rocky, with Edward displaying a penchant for whiskey and Mary purportedly finding at least two lovers.
The latter affair was with a lumberman named George Brown, who hired and housed the unhappy couple at his farm near Bakertown, a remote spot near Wilcox Lake by the Warren County line. A huge fight erupted after Edward discovered their affair. Mary’s testimony on assault charges was enough to send her husband to Dannemora Prison.
Edward’s version, sympathetically told by newsmen following the case, was that Mary had admitted she lied in telling the story, but Edward didn’t help his case by turning up drunk at his trial in Johnstown. He immediately vowed revenge, and the misery of prison only fueled his hate. After his release, he hid on several occasions in George Brown’s barn, set in the rear of the property where Brown and Mary were living. Watching his daughter, June, sled in the snow is said to have offered moments of relief, but Edward remained determined. On the morning of February 19, 1881, as Mary came to feed the horses, he attacked her with a large, razor-sharp tannery knife used to scrape the flesh from hides.
Edward gave an elaborate confession, describing the murder as a crime of passion after Mary first promised custody of June to him. But when Mary called out to George, Edward said, he went mad. “I was no longer human; I was a demon, fearing nothing, knowing nothing, incapable of thought or reason—wild,” he wrote.
According to a reporter given access to court transcripts, Earl “plunged into her left side, cutting the heart in twain, severing a rib, and coming out the back, producing instant death.”
He walked miles in the snow along East Stony Creek, and passed the graveyard where he and Mary would soon lie in death together. He gave himself up to a local constable, George Platt. He was easily convicted in August and, according to all, welcomed the death penalty, which was slated for October 14, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The Earl tragedy happened during a time when newspaper stories were written in vivid detail, with plenty of resources devoted to the grisly crimes of the day. Hangings were major news events, told in unsparing detail, and often featuring huge crowds. The 1878 hanging of Sam Steenburgh, “a reprobate negro,” in Fonda, south of Johnstown, was attended by an estimated 18,000 people, with chartered trains coming from both east and west and roofs with views of the gallows sagging under the weight of thousands of voyeurs.
Earl’s execution was the opposite, according to the Utica Herald’s John J. Flanagan, the only journalist present for it. The Utica paper was also the only one to send a reporter to Earl’s brief trial in August 1881. Remarkably, the timing of Earl’s hanging was moved up by an hour to help Flanagan make his deadline. The newsman witnessed more than two dozen hangings in his career, and was a barrel-chested, mustachioed figure who commanded respect and had access to significant resources. After the hurried-up execution, Flanagan hastened his way to Northville, then chartered a train from there to Fonda, where he dictated an initial account, and then went on to Utica in time to file a full dispatch for the next morning’s paper.
Earl was only 5’7″ and perhaps 150 pounds but was said to be capable of extraordinary violence. But in jail, Flanagan assured, “Earl behaved excellently and gave no trouble” extending favors to his captors and friends—even taking “a particular fancy” to Mrs. Henry Schuyler, who lived in the jailhouse.
The first task on the morning of Edward’s death was for him to sign papers transferring guardianship of his precious daughter, June, over to the district attorney of Hamilton County, Thomas Rhodes. But Edward steadfastly refused to reveal his real name, telling Flanagan “those who should know it have all the requisite knowledge in their possession now.” Later, he placed a picture of little June next to his heart.
Edward also received Miss Harris and Miss Brownell, daughters of local officials and friends of his from Hope, who left in tears. He cried briefly as well and took 10 minutes to reflect before calling upon the sheriff to get matters into gear. “Where is Sheriff Pat?” he said. “I am all ready.”
On the scaffold, Edward briefly knelt to pray with Reverend Benson Monroe. As he rose, he asked the small assemblage to be kind to little June. “If any of you boys ever meet my little girl please give her at least one kind word—it may do her good and it won’t cost you anything,” Edward said, with a catch in his voice. “Sheriff, I am ready. Goodbye, all.”
The latch was sprung at 11:35 a.m. on Friday, October 14, 1881. The savage murderer was quickly unconscious and death came in nine minutes. Not more than 200 people were in Sageville, Flanagan said, and only a very few were inside the tiny enclosure. The hanging, according to the experienced newsman who had witnessed so many, “was carried out in an orderly, quiet and respectable manner.”
The story’s finale carries its own intrigue. A Utica newspaper cited a local attorney who claimed that he heard on a trip to the North Country that Edward Earl’s body had been stolen from its grave in Hope Falls.
Earl took other secrets to his grave. His own lawyer, Robert P. Anibal, was mystified about Earl’s early life. Titillating rumors of an uncle who served in President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet remain unproven. And the truth about his parents—their origins and wealth—and the bad acts he committed as a young man may never be known. They remain buried with all the other ghosts of Hope Falls.
Andrew Taylor is a retired Capitol Hill reporter for the Associated Press.