In the tiny New Hampshire town of Brookfield in 1874, everyone thought Joseph Buzzell got away with murder. But any way you look at it today, he didn’t.
Buzzell, 38, was a farmer and stone mason in neighboring Wolfeboro, married with a daughter. People recalled him as tight with money, but reliable.
He had been forced into marriage when a young woman he was dating became pregnant and townspeople demanded the wedding. Most townspeople were pleased with the culmination of affairs – with one notable exception.
Susan Hanson was a young lady who lived in Brookfield as well. Susan, 34, had dated Buzzell for more than ten years. He had proposed marriage when she was just 19, but he had delayed until he found himself forced to marry another after a dalliance on the side. Susan sued Buzzell for breach of promise and was awaiting the start of the trial on November 2, 1874.
At ten past seven in the evening, Susan was seated at the dining table with her mother and brother in their rural Carroll County farmhouse. The trial for breach of promise was set to begin the next day. Without warning, the peace was shattered by a blast that knocked out the lamp in the Hanson dining room. When the lamp was relit, it revealed Susan dead on the floor. She had been shot from outside the house.
The search for suspects was not a long one. Buzzell was the obvious choice and he was arrested, but the case against him was short on evidence. His horse had shoes that were similar to tracks found on the road to Susan’s house, but so did many of the horses in the county.
He was seen travelling in the area at a time that might have allowed him to carry out the murder. But that was not unusual, and witnesses said he didn’t seem alarmed or agitated at all. He also had an alibi provided by two people: his wife and a hired hand, Charlie Cook. After a ten-day trial, a jury found him not guilty and Buzzell returned home.
The matter might have ended there, but within two years a fire destroyed the home of one of the men who testified against Buzzell. Then arson struck buildings owned by other witnesses. Lured from Boston by a $1,000 reward, two detectives, Solomon Cohen and John Conway, began poking around Brookfield.
Before long, the two detectives honed in on Charlie Cook, the hired hand who worked at Buzzell’s farm. Cook confessed to setting the fires. He also confessed to the murder of Susan Hanson. But all the crimes, he said, were ordered by Joseph Buzzell, who threatened to kill him if he did not shoot Susan Hanson.
“She meant to wrong me, but I don’t think she will,” Buzzell had said before laying out the murder plan to Cook. The two would go outside Hanson’s window and Cook would pull the trigger, Cook testified.
The arrest of Cook touched off a flurry of new outrage at Buzzell. Prosecutors were prevented from trying Buzzell again for the crime of murder, since a person couldn’t be tried for the same crime twice.
However, the state came up with another way to go after him. Buzzell was charged not with murder, but with being accessory to murder before the fact. Cook was known to all as a man of limited intelligence, but nevertheless his testimony was enough to convict Buzzell in 1878, nearly four years after the murder.
But the story didn’t end there. Shortly after leaving Brookfield, the two Boston detectives were themselves arrested. Cohen and Conway had framed a man for damaging a statue of Massachusetts governor John Andrew in Hingham in order to obtain the reward associated with that case.
And the two were putting in place a plan to derail a train in Canton, Mass. on the Boston-Providence Railroad. They planned to wreck the train, sending it off a bridge; rob the train station nearby and torch it for good measure. Then, they planned to offer to solve the crime for the railroad in exchange for a handsome reward, and find someone else they could force into confessing.
Under arrest, the detectives admitted they had bullied Charlie Cook for six days, telling him that if he confessed to the murder of Susan Hanson and implicated Joseph Buzzell, Cook would go free. Cook also swore out a new statement, testifying that he had fabricated the story of killing Susan Hanson. He knew nothing about it, he now said.
As this information became known in the winter of 1879, the clock was ticking. Buzzell was to be executed on July 10. His lawyers pursued every avenue, seeking first a new trial and secondly a commutation of the death sentence by both governor and legislature.
The public anticipated a new trial would be ordered, but the Supreme Court declined. The governor, likewise, refused commutation, and the legislature declined to take up the matter. At the time, Buzzell’s motive seemed too strong to question.
Buzzell maintained his innocence right up to the moment the sheriff, one of his old schoolmates, hanged him. Cook, meanwhile, would be sentenced to 30 years in prison.