Murder in Wilton Center!

For those who may be unfamiliar with it, the Wilton Town History, written in 1888 by Abiel Abbot Livermore and Sewell Putnam, is a fascinating, detailed chronicle of the early days of our town.  It covers a wide range of topics, as a quick perusal of the Table of Contents will show – there are chapters titled Topography, Flora and Fauna, Early Settlers, The Revolutionary War, Mail Routes, Schools, Roads and Bridges, Pauperism and Insanity – and many, many more. 

One of the more intriguing sections, however, is the one devoted to Crime and Punishment (a chapter heading no doubt inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novel, which was first published in English in 1885). It briefly reviews the types of offenses common in colonial days and the punishments meted out for them; mentions instances in town of horse thievery, petty burglary, and even grave robbing.  But the one that certainly catches your attention (and is called out by the authors themselves as “the greatest shock ever given to the public morals and the honorable repute of the town”), was the murder of Ida Lovejoy by her husband, Elwin Willis Major, a crime that resulted in two trials of the accused; the first of which resulted in a hung jury, and the second in a conviction that sent Major to the gallows.

Elwin MajorElwin Major was born in Goffstown N.H., moving with his family for a time to Vermont.  He eventually returned to New Hampshire as a young man, worked for a time in Manchester, and subsequently moved out west to Iowa.  Sometime later he returned to N.H. yet again, and eventually found his way to Wilton, where he worked in Peter Putnam’s (formerly the Killiam and Emerson) mill and cabinet factory, located in the Intervale. 

Before long he had changed jobs again, this time coming to work on the farm of Moses Lovejoy.  During all this time Major was considered quite a disreputable character in town; in a Farmer’s Cabinet article from December 30th, 1874, written just after Major’s arrest for the murder of his wife, the paper noted that “Major has an unenviable reputation at Wilton, being accused of burning buildings [the mill of his former employer, Peter Putnam], breaking the windows of the Baptist Church, stealing the contribution money, tearing up the Bible, etc.”

Moses Lovejoy had four daughters.  The two oldest were Lucy and Abbie; Abbie died in 1875 at the age of 30, and Lucy died in 1876 at 35.  His two younger daughters were Ida (born November 13th, 1856) and Ella (full name, according to the Town History, Susan Ella; born January 26th 1850).  In that same Farmer’s Cabinet article from 1874, it was written that “Mr. Lovejoy had two daughters, both young and pretty girls, aged 13 and 19 respectively.  In the course of time both were in trouble and the elder one died very suddenly and mysteriously [at her death in 1870 it was suspected that Ella was pregnant], and Major married the younger [in 1869, when she was 13 years old, according to the Wilton Town History], since which time they have had four children, and Mrs. Major was about to give birth to another, when her mysterious death took place. She was 18 years, 1 month and 7 days of age.”  Furthermore, Major was “suspected of having caused the death of two of his children, who died very suddenly.” 

Wilton Center circa 1880After the marriage they lived with the family in the Lovejoy house in Wilton Center (which still stands on Isaac Frye Highway, next to what was then the Oliver Boynton House, now the site of the house built by David Gregg ca. 1909).   Ida Lovejoy Major was suddenly taken ill on December 20th, 1874,  and died later that same day.  Family members, neighbors, friends and especially the doctor who attended to her all felt that there was something troubling about her death, especially given Major’s reputation for violence, so the Selectmen ordered an investigation. 

A coroner’s inquest was called, Ida was exhumed and tests were run on her by doctors in Nashua, who found no traces of foul play.  Her stomach and its contents were then sent off to a laboratory in Boston, and Major was arrested and held in jail in Nashua pending the outcome of the tests.  Further examination found that traces of strychnine were determined to be present, and Major was formally charged with the murder of his wife.  During the trial, the body of Ella Lovejoy was also exhumed and tests were made to determine the exact cause of her “mysterious” death;  despite the intervening years her body was reasonably intact, and once again it was determined that there was strychnine in her stomach. In addition, she was also found to have been pregnant, as many had suspected, at the time of her death.

Major’s first trial, in September of 1875, lasted for 12 days; while a great deal of evidence pointed to him as his wife’s murderer, it was all mostly circumstantial.  In the course of the testimony it was revealed that Major had made inquiries to doctors in Nashua about procuring an abortion for someone whom he claimed was his cousin, but who was, in fact, a Miss Sarah Howard, who was alleged to have been made pregnant by Major while he was working for her father, Lewis, at a mill in West Wilton.  The prosecution claimed that Miss Howard’s pregnancy was a precipitating factor in the decision by Major to murder his wife; because none of the doctors in Nashua would agree to the procedure, it was believed that Major murdered Ida to basically get her out of the way so he could be free to marry Miss Howard.  After a long deliberation, the jury remained split and no verdict was reached.  A second trial was held in December of that same year, and this time, after only four days of testimony, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang in January of 1877.

EWM gravestoneDuring the time between his conviction and his execution date, attempts were made by several of his friends to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, but to no avail.  Major was executed by hanging at the prison in Concord on January 5th, 1877.  He continued to protest his innocence up until the last moment of his life. 

He is buried in South Yard cemetery in Wilton, under a small, unremarkable stone, which reads, simply, “Father;” at the base of th
e stone (and now all but obscured by grass and soil), are his initials – E.W.M.EWM gravestone

For coverage  of the trial in the Nashua Daily Telegraph on September 18, 1875, click here.

Click here for the first article about the murder in the Farmers' Cabinet on December 30, 1874.

Note: picture of Major above is from the Illustrated Police News, January 13, 1877.

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