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Reinvestigating Troy’s Hudson River Scandal of the 1850s

The prime suspect in a double-murder was the descendant of a 17th-century witch-trial judge.

In 1853 a great scandal broke like a wave over the City of Troy. For more than two years—from early summer ’53 until late summer ‘55—this murky flood threatened VIPs in the proud industrial city and canal-era trade hub. The affair of the 1850s would reach beyond Troy as well, to nearby Albany, and then beyond both state and nation to become something of an international incident.

The whole business started with a shocking double murder: the poisoning deaths of two Irish immigrants in a waterfront bar of Troy’s 10th Ward. Even more shocking, the prime suspect, the victims’ drinking companion, was found to be the mistress of an important Democratic politician, John Cotton Mather, also part-owner of a Troy bank and collateral descendant of the 17th century witch-trial judge Cotton Mather.

From the start, everyone involved with the case agreed that the black-haired, blue-eyed accused, known as “Mrs. Henrietta Robinson,” was living under a false name. Emma Willard, founder of the city’s elite “Troy Female Seminary”, wrote to newspapers to deny Robinson was a former pupil by the name of “Wood”, one of four Canadian sisters who had attended the Seminary in the 1830s and 1840s. At about the time of Willard’s denial, Robinson began wearing a heavy veil over her face, even within her jail cell, and her trial was repeatedly postponed.

From this point on, the question of the woman’s guilt or innocence in the apparently motiveless poisonings took a back seat to the identity issue. Thus her conviction, more than a year after the two deaths, did little to quiet the “Affair of the Veiled Murderess”.  The glamorous convict, dressed in form-fitting black silk gowns, remained in Troy’s Ferry Street  Jail receiving eminent visitors—clergy, newspapermen, Seminary alumnae, then-celebrated feminist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, – and on occasion Mr. William Wood, brother of the Canadian Misses Wood (three of whom were at different times suggested as candidates for Robinson’s true identity).

The furor didn’t begin to die down until August of 1855 when Robinson, after winning a commutation of her death sentence, finally left Troy for Sing Sing. Over her long life in three New York State prisons, both New York and out-of-state papers re-visited her case from time to time. No wonder. It is a case with so many intriguing elements. A crime no one can explain – committed or possibly not committed – by a beautiful woman connected to at least one powerful man, who at the time of the murders was facing serious legal problems of his own. Mather was then a month away from formal indictment on “corruption” charges arising from his position as a New York State Canal Commissioner.

And, if indeed Robinson was Miss Charlotte Wood (Wood Daughter No. 3), as suggested in a sensational 1855 book (David Wilson, Henrietta Robinson), she also had links with the British aristocracy through Charlotte’s husband, Sir William Francis Augustus Eliott, as well as probable links to the British royal family through her father, Robert Wood, a reputed illegitimate son of Edward Duke of Kent (whose only legitimate child was Queen Victoria).

What a stew of scandal and goings-on! Was Robinson actually a murderess, or had the political assault on Mather somehow taken the form of a false accusation against a woman connected to him? Also, was Robinson truly a wealthy and educated Wood daughter and, maybe, half-niece to Queen Victoria—with this situation then evoking an elaborate cover-up on the part of her family and (possibly) their immensely powerful crowned relation?

As someone who can’t resist reading headlines of the Star, Globe and National Enquirer, I was naturally drawn to this story. I came upon it by chance, while researching a completely different topic (Troy’s Gilbert & Eaton Car Company) in 1855 issues of the Troy Daily Times. The interesting thing is, I read the newspaper pieces in the upstairs reading room of the Troy Public Library on Second Street. This library is located only footsteps away from the old Troy Female Seminary buildings, now part of Sage College, on the opposite side of Second, and also just footsteps away from the Rensselaer County Courthouse on the corner of Second and Congress Streets where Robinson’s trial took place and where papers relating to her case are still stored. The courthouse has been rebuilt since Robinson’s day, but retains the same basic style and orientation, with broad stone steps and massive columns fronting on Second.

In addition, between the Troy Public Library and the courthouse sits the old Second Street Presbyterian Church (now deconsecrated and used as a court annex), which John Cotton Mather once attended and which expelled him in 1854. And, paces south of the library and on the same side of Second, Mather’s boardinghouse stood in the 1850s, just across an east-west-running pedestrian way, which then formed a true street, Ferry Street.
My research journey drew me to another beautiful Second Street building, the Rensselaer County Historical Society’s Hart-Cluett Mansion, a half-block north of Congress, which preserves the original look and feel of an early 19th century townhouse, while also accommodating modern lecture-rooms and a library. There, a rare edition of David Wilson’s 1855 book on Robinson truly kicked off my own investigation; it contains the sole existing image of Mather in his prime, plus a wealth of glued-in news clippings on his political career.

I was sad to leave the 19th-century ambience of Second Street, especially lovely in spring with its many trees and Emma Willard’s larger-than-life bronze statue looming amid the branches and leaf buds of the Sage campus yard (“Congress Park” in the 1850s).

Willard, too, played an important part in Henrietta Robinson’s drama, so her presence on this particular block of Second struck me as very apt. But Henrietta Robinson had lived for at least one year, 1851, in Albany. And it was necessary to follow her there, to the Albany Hall of Records, and then to follow Mather through a range of materials in the New York State Library, and after this, to chase after the Wood family and their relations via Canadian and European documents available at the Latter-Day Saints’ Family History Center of Latham. I owe all these institutions a debt of thanks, but the charm and interest of working on Second Street was obviously missing at their modern facilities.

Actually, I did go back to Second Street at the very end of my struggle with the manuscript that finally became The Affair of the Veiled Murderess: An AntebellumScandal and Mystery. Suffering from a “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem with some of the evidence, I benefited from discussions with RCHS Curator Stacy Draper  In keeping with my past experience in Troy, these conversations had a slightly out-of-time quality to them. We talked about the personalities and careers of the “players” in the affair, as though all of them might be passing by that very moment outside the fine stone facade and iron railings of the Hart-Cluett home.

It should be said here that almost all my early ideas about the affair of the Veiled Murderess turned out to be wrong. Robinson did commit the murders and for a gritty, lowdown reason that accorded well with the scene of the crime. A deeply sociopathic woman, she had probably killed before—in Albany. And rather than orchestrating an elaborate cover-up, Wood family members seem to have functioned as scapegoats in another, far closer-to-home cover-up. I found the true story (in my view) within the world of Troy and Albany politics and also, partly, within the antebellum dramas of emigration-immigration and women’s rights (or lack of rights). This grittier story is really more intriguing—more fantastic even—than the tale of “rich girl gone wrong” which shocked so many  for so long throughout the Capital Region.

The Affair of the Veiled Murderess: An Antebellum Scandal and Mystery (SUNY Press, March 2011) may be ordered directly from In 1853 a great scandal broke like a wave over the City of Troy. For more than two years—from early summer ’53 until late summer ‘55—this murky flood threatened VIPs in the proud industrial city and canal-era trade hub. The affair of the 1850s would reach beyond Troy as well, to nearby Albany, and then beyond both state and nation to become something of an international incident.

The whole business started with a shocking double murder: the poisoning deaths of two Irish immigrants in a waterfront bar of Troy’s 10th Ward. Even more shocking, the prime suspect, the victims’ drinking companion, was found to be the mistress of an important Democratic politician, John Cotton Mather, also part-owner of a Troy bank and collateral descendant of the 17th century witch-trial judge Cotton Mather.

From the start, everyone involved with the case agreed that the black-haired, blue-eyed accused, known as “Mrs. Henrietta Robinson,” was living under a false name. Emma Willard, founder of the city’s elite “Troy Female Seminary”, wrote to newspapers to deny Robinson was a former pupil by the name of “Wood”, one of four Canadian sisters who had attended the Seminary in the 1830s and 1840s. At about the time of Willard’s denial, Robinson began wearing a heavy veil over her face, even within her jail cell, and her trial was repeatedly postponed.

From this point on, the question of the woman’s guilt or innocence in the apparently motiveless poisonings took a back seat to the identity issue. Thus her conviction, more than a year after the two deaths, did little to quiet the “Affair of the Veiled Murderess”.  The glamorous convict, dressed in form-fitting black silk gowns, remained in Troy’s Ferry Street  Jail receiving eminent visitors—clergy, newspapermen, Seminary alumnae, then-celebrated feminist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, – and on occasion Mr. William Wood, brother of the Canadian Misses Wood (three of whom were at different times suggested as candidates for Robinson’s true identity).

The furor didn’t begin to die down until August of 1855 when Robinson, after winning a commutation of her death sentence, finally left Troy for Sing Sing. Over her long life in three New York State prisons, both New York and out-of-state papers re-visited her case from time to time. No wonder. It is a case with so many intriguing elements. A crime no one can explain – committed or possibly not committed – by a beautiful woman connected to at least one powerful man, who at the time of the murders was facing serious legal problems of his own. Mather was then a month away from formal indictment on “corruption” charges arising from his position as a New York State Canal Commissioner.

And, if indeed Robinson was Miss Charlotte Wood (Wood Daughter No. 3), as suggested in a sensational 1855 book (David Wilson, Henrietta Robinson), she also had links with the British aristocracy through Charlotte’s husband, Sir William Francis Augustus Eliott, as well as probable links to the British royal family through her father, Robert Wood, a reputed illegitimate son of Edward Duke of Kent (whose only legitimate child was Queen Victoria).

What a stew of scandal and goings-on! Was Robinson actually a murderess, or had the political assault on Mather somehow taken the form of a false accusation against a woman connected to him? Also, was Robinson truly a wealthy and educated Wood daughter and, maybe, half-niece to Queen Victoria—with this situation then evoking an elaborate cover-up on the part of her family and (possibly) their immensely powerful crowned relation?

As someone who can’t resist reading headlines of the Star, Globe and National Enquirer, I was naturally drawn to this story. I came upon it by chance, while researching a completely different topic (Troy’s Gilbert & Eaton Car Company) in 1855 issues of the Troy Daily Times. The interesting thing is, I read the newspaper pieces in the upstairs reading room of the Troy Public Library on Second Street. This library is located only footsteps away from the old Troy Female Seminary buildings, now part of Sage College, on the opposite side of Second, and also just footsteps away from the Rensselaer County Courthouse on the corner of Second and Congress Streets where Robinson’s trial took place and where papers relating to her case are still stored. The courthouse has been rebuilt since Robinson’s day, but retains the same basic style and orientation, with broad stone steps and massive columns fronting on Second.

In addition, between the Troy Public Library and the courthouse sits the old Second Street Presbyterian Church (now deconsecrated and used as a court annex), which John Cotton Mather once attended and which expelled him in 1854. And, paces south of the library and on the same side of Second, Mather’s boardinghouse stood in the 1850s, just across an east-west-running pedestrian way, which then formed a true street, Ferry Street.
My research journey drew me to another beautiful Second Street building, the Rensselaer County Historical Society’s Hart-Cluett Mansion, a half-block north of Congress, which preserves the original look and feel of an early 19th century townhouse, while also accommodating modern lecture-rooms and a library. There, a rare edition of David Wilson’s 1855 book on Robinson truly kicked off my own investigation; it contains the sole existing image of Mather in his prime, plus a wealth of glued-in news clippings on his political career.

I was sad to leave the 19th-century ambience of Second Street, especially lovely in spring with its many trees and Emma Willard’s larger-than-life bronze statue looming amid the branches and leaf buds of the Sage campus yard (“Congress Park” in the 1850s).

Willard, too, played an important part in Henrietta Robinson’s drama, so her presence on this particular block of Second struck me as very apt. But Henrietta Robinson had lived for at least one year, 1851, in Albany. And it was necessary to follow her there, to the Albany Hall of Records, and then to follow Mather through a range of materials in the New York State Library, and after this, to chase after the Wood family and their relations via Canadian and European documents available at the Latter-Day Saints’ Family History Center of Latham. I owe all these institutions a debt of thanks, but the charm and interest of working on Second Street was obviously missing at their modern facilities.

Actually, I did go back to Second Street at the very end of my struggle with the manuscript that finally became The Affair of the Veiled Murderess: An AntebellumScandal and Mystery. Suffering from a “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem with some of the evidence, I benefited from discussions with RCHS Curator Stacy Draper  In keeping with my past experience in Troy, these conversations had a slightly out-of-time quality to them. We talked about the personalities and careers of the “players” in the affair, as though all of them might be passing by that very moment outside the fine stone facade and iron railings of the Hart-Cluett home.

It should be said here that almost all my early ideas about the affair of the Veiled Murderess turned out to be wrong. Robinson did commit the murders and for a gritty, lowdown reason that accorded well with the scene of the crime. A deeply sociopathic woman, she had probably killed before—in Albany. And rather than orchestrating an elaborate cover-up, Wood family members seem to have functioned as scapegoats in another, far closer-to-home cover-up. I found the true story (in my view) within the world of Troy and Albany politics and also, partly, within the antebellum dramas of emigration-immigration and women’s rights (or lack of rights). This grittier story is really more intriguing—more fantastic even—than the tale of “rich girl gone wrong” which shocked so many for so long throughout the Capital Region.

The Affair of the Veiled Murderess: An Antebellum Scandal and Mystery (SUNY Press, March 2011) may be ordered directly from www.sunypress.edu or from www.amazon.com.

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