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Episode 49 - "Roxana Druse"

Death Dames Podcast

Release Date: 01/15/2020

Episode 49 – Roxana Druse

  • Today is a special day, because we’re hopping in the time machine back to the turn of the century in America, for a good old fashioned historical murder! It’s been some time since we really dug deep into the dark history of this country, and I was super interested in this case as I did more research into it, as it has everything. It’s a tale of murder, of dark family secrets, town gossip, and finally, an execution which was screwed up so badly that it completely changed the way the death penalty was handled in the entire state. This is the story of Roxana Druse, a middle aged woman who, after decades of abuse from her husband, snapped and killed him, with the help of her whole family. Roxana, also known as Roxy, and also known as Roxalana, was the last woman to be hanged in New York State, and the shit job that was done during her hanging, which we’ll get into later, was a major part in New York State’s replacement of the gallows with the far more humane and “user friendly” execution method; the electric chair. Now, before we get into the story, I want to thank listener Marion Dunk for the recommendation on this topic! And you may say, hey, Dunk, that last name sounds familiar! Well that’s because this topic recommendation comes courtesy of Lila’s Mom herself! Thanks Momma Dunk! And also, I want to try to get through our backlog of listener recommended topics, so if you have a story or topic you want us to do an episode on, please reach out to us on social media, or by emailing us at DeathDamesPodcast@gmail.com! But with that, let’s get into the marriage, and abrupt end to the marriage, of Roxy and William Druse.

  • Now, we’re talking mid 1800's at the point of the couple’s marriage, so unfortunately, little is known about the pair before their blessed union. We do know that prior to her marriage, Roxy lived and worked in New Hartford, New York, where she was employed at a Mill. She was a perfectly normal girl, with no history of violence that was ever reported, at least. As for her husband William, well I know less about him. However, at the time the couple was married, Roxy was in her late teens, and William was around 20 years older than her, in his late 30's, early 40's. I do wish I had exact timelines for these things, but this was around 1860, so they didn’t have a Facebook I could look up. The newly married couple moved from New Hartford, NY, to a small, dirty, yellow farmhouse in Herkimer, NY, where the pair intended to work the farm to make a living together. The pair soon grew pregnant, and their first daughter Mary, was born around 1865. To follow Mary was born a son, named George, born 9 years after Mary. There was also another child born of Roxy and William, but the child died around 1872. At the time of the child’s death, the people of Herkimer were suspicious, and rumors began to circulate that Mrs. Druse had had something to do with the tragedy. However, no investigation was launched into the death, so life resumed as normal for the family. Now, unfortunately, normal life for the Druse family was anything but normal, as tensions were constantly on high in the home. William was known throughout town for being a lazy farmer, and was considered useless by many, as he gave up fairly quickly on properly tending to their land, which therefore meant that the family barely made enough money to scrape by. It was also well known that William was a violent man, who would often scream and abuse his family when his short fuse would blow, and that Roxy and William were always at odds with one another. Neighbors would constantly complain of the couple, who would get into screaming matches at all hours of the day and night. And as for Roxy, despite the fact that William was pretty disinterested in making a comfortable living for the family, she was not allowed to leave the farmhouse to seek work, as William had purposely chosen to keep his wife in the farmhouse, rarely letting her leave for trips to see family, or to do the shopping. He wanted her kept locked in their home, at his beck and call. This, as we have seen before, is a telltale mark of an abuser, and it was well known that William was frequently verbally and physically abusive to his wife. Looking for more help on the farm, however, Roxy was able to convince William to hire on a nephew, Frank Gates, to work on the farm in exchange for room and board. Frank agreed, and thus one more family member was crammed into the small farmhouse.

    [Pictured: Roxana Druse. Photo Credit: murderpedia.org]

  • By 1884, tensions had risen to catastrophic levels. Roxy, at this point a tired old woman of 37, had grown exhausted by her marriage of around 20 years to the violent William, who was, at this point, 60 years old. They lived in the home with their daughter Mary, who was 18 or 19 (different sources say different things), their son George, who was 10, and their nephew Frank, who was 14. And by December of 1884, William would disappear completely from the house. By December 16th, people around town began to notice that William was missing from his usual spots at the local bar. It didn’t take long for a theory to form, but ironically, people of the town who had noticed Williams disappearance were worried that William had actually gone mad and murdered his whole family, and then skipped town. They were close, of course. But not quite right. By the 18th, concerned citizens made their way to the old townhouse, hoping to find out what had happened to the Druse family. When there, the visitors were greeted by the sight of thick black smoke billowing from the chimney, and a horrible, acrid smell, like that of charred meat. The odor was stifling, and the people visiting the home had to cover their faces to breath. The door to the house was locked, which, at the time, was extremely odd. When they tried to peek into the windows for any sign of life, they were startled to see that all the windows of the house had been completely covered with newspaper, making any line of sight within the home completely impossible. Rumors began to spread, and it didn’t take long for Roxy herself to show up in town, acting as if nothing was amiss. Roxy, when asked about her husband’s disappearance, simply shrugged it off, saying that William had simply unexpectedly left to visit her brother in New York City, who worked as a grocer. He had needed some help, and apparently, William, the lazy asshole who didn’t even like to work on his own land, had volunteered to help out. Roxy also claimed that she had even sent out several telegraphs to find out when he would be coming home, but never heard back from him. People began to put pressure on the police, suggesting that something had happened to William, and that Roxy had done it. Whenever Roxy heard whispers of the murder of her husband, she would apparently go into a wild rage, and tell who ever had spread the rumor that she would sue them for slander, and that she would sue anyone who repeated the story that she had killed her husband. Super normal reaction, there, Rox. Smooth.

  • Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for police, receiving tips and concerns from multiple citizens and neighbors, began to take notice of William’s disappearance. In fact, the neighbors on either side of the Druse home, Charles Pett to the west and the Eckler family to the east, had both begun their own investigations. The two families firmly believed that William had met with foul play, and were the first to notice the black smoke on the 18th. Both Mr. Eckler and Charles Pett decided that the answer would lie with the children. Naturally, this is before we had those silly things like rights for children, so the two grown men, over the course of several days, interrogated the children of the house, but specifically, Frank, the 14 year old nephew of Roxy, who was, they believed, the weakest link in the family. Eventually, Frank, afraid of the pressure he was receiving, cracked, and told Pett and Eckler that he was ready to tell his story. The police were called, and District Attorney A.B Steele arrived, ready to put the squeeze to a 14 year old boy, placed Frank under arrest.

  • And this is around the point where I start to have doubts about literally everything. Frank was placed under police arrest, and was aggressively questioned by police. Now, I’m going to say this again. Frank was 14. He was living away from his parents, away from siblings, friends, he was living with an abusive family member in a small town where he didn’t really know anyone. And now he was under arrest, and being questioned by police about his Uncle’s murder. And after several hours of intense questioning, Frank told a story. So we’re going to do something a little different than usual. When I was looking through my research, I found Frank’s actual words recorded in his confession, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m going to read his words directly. This was the story that Frank told police about the murder of William Druse.

  • “My name is Frank Gates.  I live in Warren.  I have lived for the past five or six weeks with my aunt Mrs. William Druse.  I did chores for my board and went to school. My uncle was killed the Thursday before Christmas.  I helped to kill him and depose of the remains.  Last summer my aunt wanted to hire me to shoot Uncle William.  She said she would give me a good many dollars for doing it.  I told her I would not do it.  There was nothing more said then, but this winter my aunt and Uncle Bill had a good many words. On Thursday before Christmas in the morning, Uncle Bill asked me to get up and build the fire.  I did so.  Aunt Roxy and Mary, her daughter, got up.  Uncle Bill went and did the chores.  I asked if I should help him, and he said 'No.'  He said he would rather do them himself.  When he came into his breakfast he sat down to the table.  I had nearly finished mine.  My aunt told me to hurry up.  I asked her what she wanted.  She then told me and George to go out of doors, but not to go far from the house. I heard a noise three or four times.  Then she called us.  She had a revolver.  She handed it to me and told me to shoot Uncle Bill or she would shoot me.  She put the revolver up to my nose when she said this.  I then fired at Uncle William.  He was sitting in a chair or on the floor.  I was so excited I could not say which.  Then she took the revolver and fired at him until the revolver was empty. Then she took the axe and pounded him on the head.  Uncle Bill said 'Oh Roxy, don't.' She then chopped his head off and sent me and George upstairs after a straw tick which was filled. She dragged him onto the tick and told me I should help drag him into the parlor... She built up a hot fire in both stoves, and then had me watch at the north window and Mary watch at the south window.  Then she took a block and a board into the parlor and chopped him up, and then put the pieces in the fire.  She told me to crowd the kitchen stove with shingles. Next day all I saw of him was a large bone.  Mary had that and put it in the other stove.  It had flesh on each end.  Next morning she took up the ashes from the stoves, put some in a bag and some in a tin box.  She told me to hitch up the horse, as she was going to my father's... I took the ashes and threw them on the ground.  We then went to father's, and I was taken sick and had to stay home a few days... When we were on our way back she threw the ax into the pond as we passed over the bridge.  There was a newspaper wrapped around the ax... She said I must do it or I would be sorry."

  • From this point in his confession, Frank went on to implicate everyone else in the house, claiming that 18 year old Mary was present when William was first shot by Roxy, and that Mary actually held him in place with a rope while Roxy shot him. Of George, Frank claimed that the 10 year old boy seemed completely unaffected by the violent crime which took place, and that, while Roxy dismembered the corpse of her husband, George gleefully sat in an adjacent room, playing checkers. He also began to escalate the story with each retelling, soon claiming that Roxy boiled the body and fed the flesh to their pigs, and that the head was cooked in the oven. There was no outright mention of cannibalism, but it was heavily implied. But this story was definitely enough for police to move forward with a case against Roxy, so the whole family was arrested, including George and Mary. Using Frank’s confession, police attempted to find proof of the crime, and to find the remains of William Druse. Police did eventually find a frozen lump of bone and ash. It consisted of about 18 to 20 tony pieces of bone, two knee caps, and the upper end of the left tibia. Although it was not much, the coroner seemed sure enough that it was human. Of course, this is before DNA, but the coroner was sure that it was William. Near the remains, the paper wrapped ax was also found where Frank claimed he had thrown it. At this point, the case was heating up. The police set up an inquest on January 17th, to find out exactly what had happened, in Roxana’s words.

  • At the official inquest, police brought in several neighbors and local friends of the family to testify about the black smoke, about the tumultuous relationship between the couple. Some mentioned that after William’s disappearance, they went to visit the Druse home and noticed that all the wooden surfaces in the kitchen had been repainted recently. Frank was again put on the stand and he repeated his elaborate story. When George was placed on the stand, however, he had something a little different to say. George did say that most of what Frank had said was true, but he had omitted one detail that was crucially important. Frank’s father, Roxana’s brother, was also there. According to George, his uncle, Charley Gates, was actually the one who originally handed the revolver to Roxy, and that the murder was all his idea. After everyone else had spoken, the main event was sworn in. Roxana Druse sat on the stand.

  • Now, once Roxy was in custody, she was not particularly interested in being involved in the entire process. When she was questioned, she answered honestly, however, but when asked if anyone was present at the time of her husband’s death, Roxy replied that yes, there were two others there. Frank Gates, and his father, Charles. Once stating this, Roxy refused to give any additional information, afraid of incriminating her children in error. She did, however, say that it was Charles, who had fired several shots into William’s body, while she did as well. And that he was the mastermind behind the murder. Also, she stated that Gates was there throughout the whole process of disposing of the corpse, and that he helped with the burning process as well. When asked about her marriage, Roxy explained that her husband was not a good man. In fact, she specifically stated that the only time in their marriage that William treated her kindly was on their wedding day. Almost immediately into the marriage, his darkness began to show. When asked what would happen if she was found guilty, Roxy flippantly responded that whether she was sentenced to life in prison or hanging, she would never have to live with the abuse from William Druse again. When she was placed in her jail cell, she said, quote, “Well, I hope I may be able to procure tonight what I have not had before in two years, a good night’s rest.”

  • The official trial of Roxana Druse began on September 24th, 1885, and would go on to last two weeks. Not much changed from the formal inquest, other than the fact that some of the kitchen floorboards had been pried up and they were coated with blood. Roxy never took the stand herself, but her defense team attempted to claim that she had taken her husband’s life in self dense, after two long decades of abuse. Regardless, with the evidence placed forward by Frank, and the brutality of the murder and disposal of the body that he had described, their defense had no chance. Roxana was found guilty of murder in the first degree when the Jury agreed unanimously. The courtroom was filled with visitors from all over New York, desperate to see the outcome of one of the most vicious crimes perpetrated by a woman in many years. Roxana, when she heard the finding of guilty, grew pale but showed no emotion. However Mary, upon hearing her mother’s fate, began to weep loudly and openly. The judge stated that, due to the fact that she had caused her husband’s death, in front of his children, the way she had dismembered his remains, the jury had been shocked and appalled by her acts. They seemed most upset, ironically, by the inclusion of George, her 10 year old son. She was then brought in several days later to learn her sentence. The judge asked her to rise while he stated that she will be hung by the neck until dead. She was to be executed on November 24th, 1885, just a few weeks after her sentencing. Roxana again showed no emotion when she learned of her fate, but when she was removed from the courtroom, she burst into tears, covering her face while her body shook with sobs. No woman had been executed in this area of New York for over 40 years, so everyone was in shock that Roxana would be executed.

    [Pictured: Roxy in her cell Photo Credit: murderpedia.org]

  • After the trial of Roxana Druse, the family was not done yet. Mary Druse, the daughter of Roxy and William, was found guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced to life in prison. George and Frank were both released, and as for Charles Gates, he was never arrested for his involvement, despite the fact that Mary, George, and Roxy all stated he was present. His involvement was never investigated. Many people of New York and beyond were not happy with how this trial had gone, and there was an influx of pleas and requests from women’s rights activists, and clergymen from all of the country. The requests were to either push the execution of Roxana, or, more likely to remove the sentence of execution and instead give her life in prison, due to the circumstances of the murder. Many claimed that, since she had been a long time sufferer of domestic abuse, that it was unfair to condemn her to death. Also, there was the fact that her jury consisted of exclusively male jurors, therefore she had not been tried by a jury of her peers, as is required by law. Her execution date was eventually pushed until February 28th, 1887, and the local government even considered changing the laws regarding capital punishment in special cases, such as when the accused was a victim of abuse, as in this case, but regardless, after a lengthy appeal process, the Governor in charge of her case refused to alter her sentence, and instead, stated that he would see her hang for her crime.

    [Pictured: Recreation of a news article. Photo Credit: UnknownMisandry.blogspot.com]

  • The day before her execution, Roxana Druse made a confession to her spiritual adviser, a man named Dr. Powell. During this confession, she told him, once more, that Charles Gates was the one responsible for William Druses’ death, and that he was present and aided her in the murder. She confessed to having shot William once, and then claimed that Charles took his own gun out shot three times into William’s body. She did confess to chopping up his body, but that Charles had been the one to burn it. She also requested a chance to clear her daughter’s name, so Roxy wrote an affidavit which stated that Mary Druse had nothing to do with the murder or disposition of his body. She stayed up late the night before, but eventually slept only a few hours before waking up with a scream. She was calmed down by the staff, and then, instead of sleeping, Roxy spent the time writing letters, thanking the sheriff for his family’s kindness, requesting her body be sent to the pastor for her burial. She wrote farewell letters to her children. She then laid down for a bit more sleep until she was collected from her cell at nine o clock in the morning. Dr. Powell returned to walk with her to the gallows, and the two of them followed Sheriff Cook and Under Sheriff Rice from the jail to the gallows. Roxana was dressed in all black. It was an extremely cold morning, so the sheriff’s wife lent Roxana a shawl to drape over her shoulders. In front of a crowd of twenty five, Roxana stood firm until her eyes caught the noose, and her body gave an involuntary tremor. She began to cry when she knelt down below the rope, and entered a prayer with Dr. Powell. Roxana tightly clutched a bouquet in her hand, given to her by her daughter Mary, who she never got to say goodbye to. When asked her final words, Roxana said that she wanted to thank all who were kind to her during her trial and her time in prison, and that she forgive those who spoke against her. The noose was wrapped around her neck, and Roxana began to scream and cry when the black hood was placed over her face. At 11:48 am the trap sprung. Her neck did not break, due to a major mess up by the creators of the gallows. There was not enough weight in the counterweight used to accurately snap her neck. Her body shook and convulsed for several minutes, until it grew still. Roxana Druse took fifteen minutes until she was confirmed dead by strangulation. Her body was left on the noose a total of twenty six minutes, until she was cut down. Her body was placed in a rosewood coffin, and her remains were taken to the Oak Hill cemetery.

    [Pictured: Artist rendition of the execution of Roxy Druse. Photo Credit: murderpedia.org]

  • Now, this is rough for sure, but there was some good which came from this. Due to her deathbed confession, Roxana had assisted in getting her daughter, Mary, cleared of all charges. Mary was pardoned of her relation to the murder of her father, and she was released after serving 10 years of her life sentence. She was taken in by a friend of the family, a woman named Mrs. Sherman, who had been a major player in getting Mary pardoned of the crime. While in prison, Mary had been a model prisoner, and had helped to fix up the garden in the woman’s prison. One other beneficial thing which came from Roxana’s death was that, due to the way that her execution was botched, she would be the last woman hanged in New York State. Her execution was instrumental in replacing the use of the gallows in New York with the much more “humane” execution method of the electric chair. Also, there was an introduction of the Hadley Bill in the NY State Assembly, which suggested that capital punishment for women found guilty of first degree murder should be abolished, as, at the time, women were unable to vote or serve on a jury, therefore it was unconstitutional to have them receive capital punishment. Despite all this, however, the case of Roxana Druse has been a controversial one for decades, and many believe that an innocent woman was hanged that cold February day in 1887. The fact that Charles Gates was never investigated for his connection in the murder showed that there was a lack of interest in finding additional information pertaining to this crime, and that the testimony of a terrified 14 year old was used as the main source of evidence in this case, which ended up solidifying a woman’s execution, showed the police at the time took the statement of a teenager boy as carrying more weight than that of two grown women. Regardless of your thoughts on this, however, one thing we do know is that even in death, Roxana still has left her mark on the world, literally. It is said that, in the cell she had lived prior to her death, the ghost of Roxana Druse haunts the halls, moaning and murmuring, the black cap still over her face.

Sources for the Story Portion: 

Research Topic - The Telegraph

Article for Bitch Banter