Jesse Pomeroy

"I Wanted To See How She Would Act!"

Juvenile killers (particularly children who murder other children) are a separate breed from the run-of-the-mill killer.  Their motives are often informed by immaturity (a famous New Zealand case, the Parker-Hulme murder case in the mid 20th Century, saw two lesbian  narcissistic female “chums” murder the mother of one of the duo).Jesse Harding Pomeroy (circa 1874)Credit: Boston Globe

Many times blame may be laid at the doorstep of bad parenting or a poor home environment (poverty, lack of education, etc.).  Motive isn’t important – what is important is that a murderer (versus someone who kills accidentally) makes a conscious decision, even if that decision is reached in a nanosecond’s worth of brain activity, to commit the act. 

Rarely in the history of murder has it been shown that a child murderer was actually mentally incompetent when committing a murder.  The cunning Jesse Pomeroy, America’s first notorious child murderer, was no exception to that; he was never found incompetent, and he was the youngest person convicted of first-degree murder in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Odds Against?
Occasionally, the deck is stacked against someone from birth, but in this case the environment was not to blame. 
The child killer, later known in the press as “The Boy Fiend”, was born Jesse Harding Pomeroy in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on November 29, 1859.  Jesse’s parents were Thomas J. and Ruth Ann Pomeroy. The father worked in a market in downtown Boston, and his mother became a respectable dress-maker.  Jesse was the younger of the family’s two children.  His brother, Charles, was two years Jesse’s senior. 

Jesse’s community standing was probably better than most (both parents employed, a solid home). He had the misfortune, however, of being physically different from his peers.  He was large for his age, and ungainly.  He had an occluded right eye (noted by historians and the press of the time as a “milky” eye).  He was reported to have a harelip, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by photographs and contemporary illustrations.  His mouth is unusually compressed, and the corners do not seem completely developed; this is what may look like a harelip.  His intelligence was reportedly on the lower end of the spectrum.  If Jesse Pomeroy was not so bright he was cunning.  He was also a malignant, sadistic sociopath.

Bully Boy
As far back as age 10 Jesse was a bully.  In 1871, when he was 12 years old, he began methodically torturing, for his own pleasure, younger boys in Chelsea, Massachusetts (slightly out of his own neighborhood).  He enticed younger boys to remote lots and fields, and then after tying them up systematically tortured them.  He beat his victims, and in a few cases permanently maimed them with knife slashes and by knocking out their teeth. There was no motive for these crimes except his own nature demanded it.  Because Pomeroy (despite his unique appearance) was not known in the area, the victims (who all survived) could give no help to police, and no arrests were made. 

The Pomeroy family made a move to South Boston in 1872.  Jesse’s attacks on local boys increased during this time.  He specifically targeted boys younger and weaker than he, ranging from the ages of seven to eleven years old.  According to a later news report (from the New York Times, April 24, 1874), Pomeroy had “stripped, gagged, tied to a telegraph pole, whipped and cut with a knife in the head” one of his young victims.

Pomeroy's assaults escalated and, because of his unique characteristics (mostly the “milky” eye), was finally positively identified and arrested.  His case went before a local juvenile court judge. Pomeroy was found guilty of the torture crimes.  He was sentenced to the Lyman School for Boys at Westborough, Massachusetts, until he turned 18. The Boston Globe reported on the proceedings (in part): “It is generally concluded that the boy is mentally deficient.” [This statement would later prove false.]  He did not serve all of his time, however.  He was paroled when he was 14 (in 1874).  He returned to his mother’s dressmaker shop where he helped out.  Charles, his brother, sold newspapers.  

Search for a Fiend
In March 1874, Katie Rita Curran, a ten-year-old South Boston girl, disappeared.  She was headed on an errand to Ruth Ann Pomeroy’s dress shop. Because of Jesse Pomeroy’s record of juvenile sexually motivated assaults on boys, police searched the Pomeroy premises after the girl failed to return home.  They found nothing.  

On April 23, 1874, Pomeroy tortured and brutally murdered a small boy in a marsh in Dorchester Bay. The little boy had last been seen leaving his own home to buy candy. The next day (April 24, 1874) the mutilated body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered.  He had multiple stab wounds and slashes, and a stab wound (tellingly) to his right eye.  Millen’s genitals had also been stabbed. 

Even though there was no direct evidence linking him to these crimes police immediately suspected Pomeroy because of his reputation as a child sadist.
Boston police work at the time of this case was stellar for its day.  Footprints uncovered at the crime scene upon the immediate investigation indicated the following: “The tracks showed plainly that Pomeroy jumped off the wharf into the soft clay, and then took his little victim down, lending assistance by a swing of the arms. The boots of the murdered boy exactly fitted the smaller prints and corresponded precisely with the plaster casts taken from the prints.”  [The cited New York Times article made no mention of the plaster-cast footprints but did state that dirt on Pomeroy's boots matched the unusual color of the mud at the wharf where the prints were found].

Millen’s body was made available and, later that day, Pomeroy was taken to the coroner's office to see it.  He then confessed (without counsel being present), adding the detail that he had wiped blood from his knife by dipping it in the mud.  When asked why he had killed Millen, he replied “I couldn’t help it.”

In July of the same year (four months after her disappearance) Pomeroy confessed to killing Katie Curran.  He had been working alone in his mother’s shop when Curran came in.  He had coaxed her into the basement of his mother's dress shop, cut her throat, and then buried her under an ash heap.  The girl’s body had been haphazardly and carelessly covered up.  Pomeroy, when confronted for this killing, and asked for a reason, said, “I wanted to see how she would act.”

Jesse Tried by Jury
The case was bound over for trial.  It was heard over a two-day period, December 9 and December 10, 1874, in Suffolk County, Boston.  The Attorney General initially lobbied for a first degree murder charge, but in his closing arguments requested a jury verdict of “murder with extreme atrocity” instead.  This charge, in Massachusetts law, is technically first-degree murder; the only difference is it doesn’t require proof of pre-meditation (a critical element of first-degree murder). 

On December 10, 1874, after a jury’s quick deliberation, Pomeroy was found guilty of the two torture murders.  They recommended mercy in sentencing, however, because of Pomeroy’s youth.  His lawyer filed two exceptions; these were overruled in February 1875, and Pomeroy was sentenced to death by hanging.
Governor William Gaston was supposed to then sign Pomeroy’s death warrant and produce an execution date.  He flatly refused to do either – he did not want to send the boy to his death.  Pomeroy’s lawyer latched onto this reticence and lobbied before the Governor’s Council for a commutation of Pomeroy’s death sentence. Over the next 18 months, the Council debated the issue on three separate occasions.  In three votes on the commutation issue for Pomeroy the first two votes upheld his execution, but Governor Gaston still refused to sign a death warrant for the boy.  Finally, in August 1876, they took a third vote, anonymously.  Pomeroy's sentence was commuted to life in prison, with the provision it be served in solitary confinement. On the evening of September 7, 1876, Pomeroy went to the State Prison at Charlestown. 

He then began a life of solitary confinement.  He was 16 years and 9 months old upon entering the prison system.

Charlestown State Prison (circa 1840)


Solitary Suffering?
Solitary confinement for Pomeroy was not the image one generally conjures of “The Hole”.  In effect he had a cell to himself, and that was the extent of his later suffering.  The most severe time of his incarceration was in the first decade when he was locked in a very small, mostly dark cell.  It was damp and rat-infested but conditions in the prison later improved.  He had a personal library amassed over his years of incarceration and was eventually able to control the heat in his cell.  He did not have to work as other prisoners did and, as he was physically lazy (corroborated by guards and other inmates), solitary suited him just fine. 

Jesse Pomeroy (early 20th Century)Pomeroy was not a model prisoner.  He expressed no remorse for the murders of the two children, and he maintained he was wrongfully incarcerated his entire life.   Pomeroy spent most of his time hatching escape plans.  He made tools (such as chisels, knives, and picks) from metal pried off various objects or from finding things in the exercise yard (on rare occasions when he was let out).  His prison records show disciplinary action for escape attempts every year of his imprisonment, sometimes several times a year.  His attempts ranged from the rudimentary (scraping holes in his wall or otherwise trying to dig out) to the more adventurous.  Once, Pomeroy managed to break a gas line in his cell.  He intended to ignite the gas, blowing a hole in his cell wall through which he could escape.  The gas filled his cell; upon ignition it blew Pomeroy, senseless and burned, into the wall instead.  A guard discovered him knocked out in his cell.

Jesse Pomeroy (circa 1917)When not physically trying to escape, Pomeroy spent time using the legal system to effect his release.  He became fairly well-versed in the law.  He spent hours reading law books and creating requests for documents from the courts.  An added bonus (for the self-centered Pomeroy) was that his repeated escape attempts kept him in the limelight. He loved media attention every time he was caught trying to escape.  He also bragged about each escapade as he described to reporters how he did it.Jesse Pomeroy (early 20th Century)(53621)

Pomeroy spent 41 years in solitary confinement, the second-longest term of any American prisoner.  In 1917 (after his only human contacts were his keepers and the occasional newsman), Pomeroy was transferred to the general prison population.  He resisted this, claiming he didn’t want a mere transfer but a full pardon instead.  This was just a ploy; he wanted to stay in solitary.  After three months of wrangling he was moved to general population.  

Jesse Pomeroy (early 20th Century)(53622)This actually represented a severe change in lifestyle for him.  He was no longer able to control the temperature in his environment, nor could he keep up his personal library.  Furthermore, he had to work, but he was such a nuisance about it (purposefully annoying the guards, breaking work-detail rules, etc.) that guards absolved him of any further labor.  Pomeroy preferred this; the guards were likewise spared the negative publicity of having to constantly discipline the “poor man” who’d been in solitary for so long.  Pomeroy eventually threw in the towel and adapted to the new life.  He even appeared in a minstrel show at the prison.

In 1929 (elderly and in bad health) he was transferred out of Charlestown State Prison to Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane (the same facility that would later house Albert DeSalvo, the man – probably erroneously – convicted of being the notorious Boston Strangler).  

Pomeroy died of heart disease in Bridgewater on September 29, 1932.  He was 72 years old.  He had spent 59 years in prison, 41 of these years in solitary. He never repented, he never expressed remorse, and he lived his life in prison as a true narcissist.  He was the center of attention for many years and that’s how he liked it. 

No Pity
Pomeroy’s mental state was called into question early in his murder trial.  Although termed what people today might call “slow” he was not deranged.  He was examined by psychologists of the day, called “alienists”.  Their conclusions about Pomeroy were read before the Health Department of the Social Science Association and the Suffolk District Medical Society, Boston, on December 16 and December 18, 1875. The alienists’ avenues of inquiry were based on these rather quaint criteria:

“(1) Delusional insanity; (2) Insanity from masturbation; (3) Epileptiform insanity; (4) Moral insanity; and (5) Moral imbecility”

He was determined not delusional, and he was cunning enough (displaying normal intelligence) to attempt concealment of Curran’s body, a sure sign of someone who is not mentally incompetent.  He knew his crimes were wrong and he tried to hide them.  The alienists concluded, after examining Pomeroy:

“The idea that Pomeroy may be suffering from delusional insanity has now been quite generally abandoned. No delusions have been found, and a person of his limited intelligence could not have concealed them had they existed.”

Another alienist observed Pomeroy was physically and intellectually average, and he was able to decide the difference between right and wrong when presented hypothetical scenarios to evaluate.  However, another alienist wrote, “He evinces no pity for the boys tortured or for the victims of his homicide, and no remorse or sorrow for his acts.”

Although the alienists’ terminology differs from today’s jargon, in summary they did not find Pomeroy mentally ill or unbalanced in his mental health.  They found instead what today is called a sadist and a malignant narcissist whose whole world revolved around him without regard for others. 

Insane? No.  “Evil”?  Perhaps.  Simply an all-around psychopath?  Absolutely.  Jesse Pomeroy’s 59 years in prison were not enough to erase his memory from the criminal landscape, though – he remains the youngest person sentenced to death in Massachusetts history, and his extended incarceration in solitary is likewise a record of endurance.


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