Murder in Muncy Creek
By William Bailey and Peggy Bailey
Special Publications Inc. (2011)
Reviewed by Maureen Rowland
This is a true account of the 1836 trial and execution of John Earls for the murder of his wife by poisoning. The incident took place in a small Pennsylvania town. The book consists of a series of historical documents, including summaries of the trial testimony of all the witnesses. This made it a difficult read. It does not flow like a novel and the language is cumbersome.
That being said, it is a fascinating look at the early American criminal justice system. The authors, descendants of John Earls, meticulously researched the subject matter and collected all possible source material to include in the book. The story itself has some sex appeal. Catherine, the wife of John Earls, had just delivered their seventh child when she became violently ill. Several witnesses testified to the abuse Mrs. Earls suffered at the hands of her husband. He was having a rather public extramarital affair with a younger woman. The evidence was purely circumstantial. The defense suggested that it was actually Earls’ mother that poisoned his wife or, alternatively, that Catherine Earls committed suicide because she had discovered her husband’s affair.
Some of the elements of the book are of particular interest to the criminal defense lawyer.
The forensic investigation was very sophisticated given the obvious limits of the technology available at the time. An extensive post-mortem examination was conducted on the disinterred body of Catherine Earls. This was rare for the time period in light of the social and religious mores surrounding respect for the dead. The very notion of a forensic examination was yet to be “invented.” Yet in this case the authorities went to a great deal of trouble to prove that Catherine Earls died of arsenic poisoning. For example, after examining the contents of the stomach in Muncy, the contents were sent to Philadelphia for further examination. And, based on the summaries of the cross-examination of the experts, the defense lawyers appeared to be well versed in the science.
The trial proceeded in much the same fashion as it would today. The witness testimony was recorded only as a summary so the authors did not have the advantage of reviewing the actual testimony in question-answer format. This casts some doubt on the accuracy of what is presented as a summary of the testimony. The recorder of the testimony would naturally put his own spin on it. Despite that limitation, the trial testimony is very detailed.
The entire trial is presented in the book: reading of the indictment, jury selection, opening remarks, closing arguments, objections, motions, arguments of counsel, and the court’s rulings. While this appeals to the lawyer, I am not sure it would be very interesting to the layperson. There are no footnotes or explanations of the meaning or significance of the legal maneuverings. Similarly, the very technical testimony of the various experts may not appeal to the average reader without some explanation.
The appeal process is fully set out, including letters of the parties to the governor regarding a pardon. The appeals were made in the form of a letter rather than by way of brief. The full appellate opinion consists of a few paragraphs. It took a mere three months between the trial and the execution — hardly enough time for an adequate post-trial assessment of due process. This was the first execution in the county and one would think before taking such drastic measures for the first time greater safeguards would be in place!
Overall, Murder in Muncy Creek is an interesting study, not only of early American jurisprudence, but of forensic science as well. It was a significant case at the time because of the use of expert testimony to prove the poisoning and also because it was the first capital case in the county. Readers should be prepared to decipher the archaic legalese and Old English language, but after they get past that, they will see that in 175 years things really have not changed that much.