When two peddlers raised the alarm in Windsor Locks, Conn. about trouble at John Billings tavern, no one was exactly surprised. But they didn’t expect the horror that came to be known as the Bull Run massacre.
On January 2, 1872, Jacob Neusbaum and Myer Stuckhardt, two German peddlers from Hartford, walked to East Granby and on to Windsor Locks to the area of town known as Bull Run. They headed to the house at Bull Run owned by John Billings. Stuckhardt had sold Billings two shirts and some lace, and Billings owed him 50 cents. He had come to collect.
As the peddlers approached the house at Bull Run, two men jumped out of a window and ran off to the woods. Neusbaum and Stuckhardt were startled. They tentatively approached the house. Stuckhardt dropped his peddler’s pack on the step and knocked on the door. He heard a faint voice. Unable to open the front door, they went to the rear.
Bull Run Massacre
What they saw inside shocked them. A woman lay on the floor in a pool of blood. Smoke poured from a study. And in another room, a second woman lay bloody on the floor. The house was a mess.
Neusbaum and Stuckhardt ran for help. They found two men working in a tobacco field nearby. The four men returned to the house, but for fear of getting blamed for the crimes they left and went for help.
Police rounded up several suspects and a picture of the day’s events began to emerge. The story of the Bull Run massacre made headlines in newspapers across the country.
Edward Loomis drove two men to the Bull Run house late in the morning of the murder. They had started drinking, and Loomis left. John Billings, owner of the house, had sat at a counter when one of the men struck him from behind with a rifle butt. Billings died from a blow to the head.
Julia Gowdy, a young prostitute who worked at the house, was struck down, her neck broken. Delia Billings, John’s “wife,” grabbed a knife and tried to attack the men. They, too, beat her to death, and slit her throat. The murderers stole what money they could find and sloshed kerosene on the floor of the study. They then set fire to the fuel and fled.
Delia Billings, however, probably roused herself and tried to put the fire out. She fell on it and smothered it.
The peddlers described the two men who fled. One wore a striped shirt, light pants and rubber boots. The other wore a light overcoat and rubber boots. But more importantly, Edward Loomis and another man named them: Mitchell Charest and David Scott, two Canadian woodsmen living in Agawam, Mass.
Initially the townspeople suspected the murders might have resulted from some unsavory business Billings got involved in. New Haven had reportedly run him out of town for running a brothel there, the Dew Drop Inn. Hartford had also run him out of the city. Billings had a long criminal record for robbery and brawling. When not running his brothel he was a highwayman.
In Windsor Locks, Billings had reestablished his brothel and tavern. Now, deep in the country, he could operate with impunity. For three years, a steady stream of coaches had carried customers to Bull Run and back deep into the night.
Newspapers reported that Delia Billings wasn’t actually John’s wife. She simply worked with him in his criminal enterprise. She was perhaps his common law wife, though some reported he had a wife who was alive and living elsewhere.
The attack was hardly the first case of trouble at the brothel. In 1871 a girl had died at there, a case of suicide. And in the fall before the murder, a man had been found poisoned under a tree at Bull Run. Police could prove no wrongdoing.
Finally, a Motive
Initially townspeople wondered if Charest and Scott had been taking some sort of revenge against Billings for the prior deaths. But they eventually came to suspect the motive for the crimes was simple robbery. John Billings, who was known as Tim, frequently visited Connecticut’s larger towns and cities. He had been negotiating to buy a larger brothel in New London before his death. Wherever he went he carried a lot of cash and freely spread it around. It was that cash, the police concluded, that had inspired the Bull Run massacre. When the murdered left the house, they had some money from Billings’ pockets, but they had left more than $700 in the house.
The town and state offered reward totaling $1,300 for the capture of Scott and Charest. Police from Hartford were engaged to track down the two woodsmen. For three months the two men successfully avoided capture, fleeing to the Midwest where they picked up occasional work. But in February the two men sent a letter to their mother that police intercepted. The two men talked about their plans to travel west to seek their fortune. They intended to go to Salt Lake City in Utah and join the Mormons.
But Charest and Scott never made it that far. In Van Wert, Ohio, police tracked them down in March of 1872, just two months after the murder. The men were returned to Connecticut and convicted of second degree murder. The townspeople bought and destroyed the property at Bull Run, the part of town now home to the Bradley International Airport.
In June of 1872, David Scott committed suicide at the prison in Wethersfield.
This story was updated in 2021.