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Famous Sullivan County murder trials

John Conway
Posted 5/5/23

Few Sullivan County residents have ever attained the success of Arthur C. Butts of Monticello– lawyer, assemblyman, judge, and published author– and yet there are only a handful of locals …

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Famous Sullivan County murder trials


Few Sullivan County residents have ever attained the success of Arthur C. Butts of Monticello– lawyer, assemblyman, judge, and published author– and yet there are only a handful of locals who today even recognize his name. Fewer still could relate even the barest of facts about his life.

Arthur C. Butts was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan in 1848, and attended New York City public schools before enrolling at the Delaware Literary Academy at Franklin, in Delaware County. Following his education, he served in the active law office of the popular Henry R. Low in Monticello. Low, who served in the New York State Senate, was an able mentor, and Butts was admitted to the bar in 1869. Almost from the beginning, he excelled as a defense attorney, and eventually took part in some of the county’s most high profile cases, including the murder trial of lumberman Mark Brown of Purvis in 1875 and that of farmer Jacob Gerhardt of Cochecton Center in 1881. 

Butts lost both of those famous trials, although by most accounts he presented admirable defenses. He did not argue the facts of the case in the Mark Brown trial, choosing to defend his client as being temporarily insane, instead.

Brown had been accused in the shooting death of Sylvester Carr, a popular bartender at Purvis, following a fight between the two. Multiple witnesses testified to seeing the shooting, so the facts of the case were not in dispute. Despite Butts’ brilliance, Brown was convicted, and was eventually hanged in the Sullivan County Courthouse.

The Gerhardt trial was quite a different matter. Jacob Gerhardt was a quiet and respected western Sullivan County farmer who was accused of brutally killing his sister-in-law in a fit of jealous rage over a case of unrequited love.

The Gerhardt trial was conducted in a special term of Oyer and Terminer Court in Monticello, and featured some of the county’s most prominent legal minds. Judge A.M. Osborne of the New York State Supreme Court presided, along with Justices Mall and Hawkes. Sullivan County District Attorney James I. Curtis, and former D.A. John Anderson prosecuted, while Butts and his partner Joseph Merritt, assisted by former county judge Timothy Bush, represented the defendant.

Prosecutors presented an abundance of evidence, including a crowbar they maintained was the murder weapon, a bloody rock, the blood-stained shirt Jacob Gerhardt was wearing at the time of the incident, and a number of witnesses who testified that he had admitted to the murder.

The defense contended that Mrs. Gerhardt had attacked Jacob with a pitchfork that morning, striking him “several blows on the face and head until finally he seized a crowbar and struck her with it, causing almost instant death.” The defense produced two prominent local doctors, Frederick A. McWilliams and Alfred E. Gillespie, who both testified that just a single blow had resulted in the injuries to the deceased woman. Mena Gerhardt’s body had even been exhumed for examination in an attempt to determine that point. Gerhardt’s mother had been called to the stand to attest to her son’s character, and the defendant himself had spent two hours in tearful testimony, outlining the series of events leading up to the fateful day. He was not cross-examined.

At 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, June 18, word came down that the jury had reached a verdict after deliberating through the night, and the Monticello courtroom swelled with curious spectators and reporters anxious for a suitable ending to their stories.

“Gerhardt came in with two officers, and looked very haggard and weak,” the New York Times reported the next day. “After much delay, the jury rendered a verdict of murder in the second degree. This verdict caused great dissatisfaction and excitement. Judge A.M. Osborne made an address to the prisoner and jury, drawing tears to every eye. Gerhardt was then sentenced to confinement for life in Clinton State Prison at hard labor. After sentence, Gerhardt bade all the jurymen, judges, lawyers, and reporters adieu, and was taken to his cell, where he had a final interview with his relatives. His parting with his aged mother was heartrending. He will be taken to prison Monday morning by Sheriff Hill and Jailer Evans.”

Of course, the aftermath of the Gerhardt trial is almost as good a story as that of the trial itself, as the convicted man did not live out the rest of his life without incident.

The rest of the Jacob Gerhardt story, as well as more about Arthur C. Butts, the Mark Brown case, and other sensational murder trials will all be covered in a presentation by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, at the Western Sullivan Public Library in Jeffersonville on Wednesday, May 10.

The program, “Famous Sullivan County Murder Trials,” starts at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Contact the Jeffersonville branch of the Western Sullivan Public Library for more information and to register.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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