the northwood murderer
“The Most Monstrous and Inhuman Criminal of Modern Times”
On June 18, 1865, the bodies of two children – Isabella and John Joyce – were discovered in a forest area known as Bussey’s Woods, near Roxbury, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Raped and savaged with dozens of knife wounds, poor Isabella had been slaughtered among the trees. John was found a short distance away, beaten and stabbed nearly a dozen times himself. The murders would have gone unsolved if the same killer did not strike again seven years later.
The serial killer (or “repeat killer” as such a monster was known then) was a man named Franklin Evans, and in the eyes of his contemporaries, he was “the most monstrous and inhuman criminal of modern times – or indeed of any time.” His crimes have been largely forgotten over the years, which is strange in itself given that they were brutal, bloody and targeted children, but his victims have not because, according to local lore, Isabella and John Joyce did not rest in peace.
On Monday, June 12, 1865, fifteen-year-old Isabella Joyce and her twelve-year-old brother, John – children of a recently widowed seamstress who lived in Lynn, Massachusetts – went to visit their grandmother in Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. At around 11:00 a.m., they asked for permission to go and explore a nearby wooded area called May’s Woods, which was popular locally as a picnic spot and recreation ground. After some initial reluctance, their grandmother agreed to let them go. She packed them a lunch, gave them ten cents each for trolley fare, and told them to return no later than 2:00 p.m. She never saw them alive again.
When the children did not return, their grandmother became frantic. For the next five days, search parties scoured the forest outside town. It wasn’t until Sunday, June 18, however, that two men, John Sawtelle and J.F. Jameson – while hiking In nearby Bussey’s Woods, not May’s Woods where the children said they planned to go – stumbled across the remains of the two missing children.
From the scene, it seemed clear that Isabella and her brother had been playing contentedly in the woods, creating little hillocks of moss and fashioning wreaths out of oak leaves and twigs, when they were unexpectedly attacked. The assailant – which the newspapers called a “fiend in human shape” – attacked the girl first, cutting her savagely with a knife, tearing off her undergarments and raping her. The coroner found twenty-seven stab wounds in her torso and another sixteen in her neck. The ground around her body was saturated with blood. She had apparently put up a desperate fight, grabbing the long blade of the knife and trying to wrest it from the attacker’s hands. The index finger of her right hand was completely severed and the rest of her fingers were mangled, bloody and hanging loosely by bits of skin. Her clothing was soaked in her blood and clumps of grass and dirt had been roughly shoved in her mouth to try and stifle her cries.
Apparently, poor John had stood paralyzed for a few moments in terror, watching the attack on his sister. When he finally turned to run, it was too late. He was found lying face down in the dirt, possibly having tripped over a tree root when he was attempting to escape. The killer had pounced on the boy’s back and stabbed him a half dozen times. The wounds were so deep that, in several instances, the blade had gone all the way through the young boy’s body and pierced the earth beneath him.
There were two houses within a few hundred yards of the murder scene, but the occupants were so used to hearing shouts, laughter and yells from the nearby picnic area that, as the newspapers noted, “They would not have paid any attention even if they heard screams on this occasion.”
The horrific savagery of the Joyce murders provoked a tremendous response throughout the state. From church pulpits, ministers pointed to the murders as a sign that the country was descending into a deplorable state of vice, immorality and crime. Rewards totaling more than $4,500 (more than $60,000 in today’s money) were offered by local residents, while an enormous manhunt was started for the “inhuman wretch” that was responsible for the outrage. Newspapers issued confident predictions that the perpetrator would be “speedily arrested” and “subjected to summary vengeance.” But, even though a number of likely suspects were interrogated in the wake of the murders, no serious suspects were found.
As months – then years – passed with no arrests in the case, it seemed that the murder of the Joyce children – which newspapers called “one of the most horrible and revolting crimes which has ever occurred in New England” – would remain forever unsolved.
Time moved on and for the most part, the murders were sadly forgotten. But in the early summer of 1872, seven years after Isabella and John Joyce had been brutally slain, a new string of events was set into motion when Franklin Evans came to board with his elderly sister, Mrs. Deborah Day, at her farmhouse in Northwood, New Hampshire.
Evans, a gaunt and grizzled sixty-four-year-old ne’er do well, had led a shiftless existence for most of his adult life. A contemporary writer later said of him, “He belonged to that numerous class of deadbeats that are always broke.” Wandering the New England countryside, he survived by sponging off his adult children, “borrowing” small amounts of money from relatives and acquaintances and blatantly seeking handouts from strangers.
What little honest money he made came from supplying a Manchester physician, Dr. F.W. Hanson, with healing roots and herbs that he scrounged up in the forest. His vagabond life had given the old man a deep knowledge of the land and “his reputation for obtaining medicinal products of the woods and fields was unsurpassed.” Even in this line of work, though, Evans could not keep from betraying his lazy and dishonest nature. Claiming that he himself was a “botanical physician,” he peddled worthless cures to rural families.
He also passed himself off as an itinerant preacher. Taking advantage of the religious fervor of the era, he joined the Second Advent Society, declared that he was a minister of the Gospel and managed to raise a little money from his brethren to support himself while on his sacred mission. The religious society naturally took offense, however, when he was arrested for consorting with prostitutes. And this incident wasn’t his only brush with the law. At various times, he was charged with petty theft, attempting to pass crudely forged $10 bills and – most seriously – scheming to defraud the Traveler’s Insurance Company of Boston of $1,500.
If these crimes were the worst of his transgressions, Evans would have been nothing more than a small-time scoundrel, a snake oil salesman and a con artist. But as the country would eventually learn –much to its horror --- he was something far worse: a creature so depraved that, to the people of his time, his crimes seemed the work of a supernatural evil – “too horrible,” as one newspaper stated, “for anything in human form to have perpetrated.”
There were four people living at his sister’s farm when Evans showed up there that summer: Mrs. Day and her husband, Sylvester; their widowed daughter, Susan Lovering, and Susan’s daughter, Georgiana. This poor young woman – Evans’ grand-niece – immediately became the object of the depraved old man’s lust. Within days of his arrival, he began trying to seduce the girl. When she repulsed his advances, he concocted a diabolical scheme. It was, as one account stated, “A deeply laid plan designed for no other purpose than to lure his victim into his lecherous grasp.”
Near the Day farmhouse was a deep forest, the largest tract of woodland in the county, covering an area of more than two thousand acres. Late on Monday, October 21, 1872, after being away from the farm for most of the day, Evans returned to his sister’s home, explaining that he had been off in the forest setting snares for partridges. The following morning, he invited his niece to accompany him into the woods to see if he had caught anything. For reasons unknown, she agreed. The traps turned out to be empty, but he showed Georgiana how they worked – little hoops concealed inside the hedges, designed to snag birds by the throat as they scrambled through the foliage. Georgiana was intrigued by the snares, never suspecting that their purpose was actually to trap her.
Early Friday morning, October 25, Evans asked the young woman for a favor. He had agreed to take care of some chores for a neighbor, a farmer named Daniel Hill, and would be gone all day. He asked Georgiana if she would mind going into the woods and check the partridge traps for him. Surely he must have caught something by now. She was reluctant at first, but allowed herself to be persuaded. Evans left soon afterward, presumably for Hill’s farm several miles away. A short time later, Georgiana stuck a comb into her thick brown hair to hold it in place, threw on a shawl and disappeared into the forest.
When Georgiana failed to return by lunchtime, her grandfather went to look for her. Unable to find any sign of her, he came back home and told her mother, who immediately became alarmed. The two of them hurried back into the woods. As they frantically made their way along the forest paths, shouting girl’s name, they spotted her shawl on a tree branch. A short distance away, they discovered her comb, broken in half, with strands of her hair still tangled in its teeth. The earth all around had been trampled with footprints – one made by a man’s boots, the other by a girl’s shoes – evidence, Sylvester Day would later testify, of a “squabble.” Terrified now, Day and his daughter pushed deeper into the trees, but found no other signs of the missing girl.
The two of them ran home, alerting the neighbors as they went. Throughout the weekend, all day on Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of people scoured the woods, but found nothing. By then, however, suspicion had fallen on Franklin Evans. The authorities checked with Daniel Hill and found that Evans’ story didn’t hold up. He had not asked him to help with chores that day. In fact, he hadn’t seen him for more than a week. Another witness, a young man named James Pender, testified that he had seen Evans cross into the forest at around 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning, just a half hour before Georgiana had disappeared into those same woods.
County Sheriff Henry Drew grilled Evans but the old man could offer no convincing account of his whereabouts on the day that his grand-niece went missing. He was promptly taken into custody. Inside Evans’ pockets, Drew later stated, he found “a wallet, money, obscene books, a bottle of liquor, and a common bone-handled knife with two blades, blood-stained and keen as a razor.”
Even after he was arrested, Evans denied knowing anything about what had happened to Georgiana. But when Drew assured him that “no harm would come to him if he confessed,” Evans changed his story. Georgiana, he insisted, was alive and well. He had arranged to have her “carried away by a man from Kingston,” a farmer named Webster who wanted her for his bride and was willing to pay for her.
Although Sheriff Drew was skeptical, he immediately started for Kingston, where he quickly confirmed the story was a “base falsehood.” Back at the jailhouse, he continued to badger Evans, plying him with liquor and even telling him that he would help him escape to Canada if he told him the truth. Finally, on October 31, six days after the girl’s disappearance, the old man gave in. Evans told the sheriff he would accompany him to the place where the body had been left. Through the dark forest they silently made their way along, over rocks and logs and along narrow trails. Then, in a clearing at one of the deepest points of the woods, Evans took the sheriff and an assembled group of deputies to a spot underneath the roots of an upturned tree. He pointed a shaking finger at a pile of dried leaves and quietly murmured, “There she is.” The sheriff gently brushed away the leaves and by the dim light of his lantern, he saw the pale face and mangled remains of Georgiana Lovering.
Two townsmen who were at the scene, Eben J. Parsley and Alonzo Tuttle, had brought the local physician, Dr. Caleb Hanson, with them. Gaping in shock at the body of the naked, savaged girl, Parsley couldn’t help by speak. He demanded of Evans, “How did you come to do such a bloody deed?”
The old man shrugged as he replied, “I suppose the evil one got the upper hand of me.”
Dr. Hanson bent down to examine the dead girl. A glance at her face, with its bulging eyes, swollen and protruding tongue, and dark bruises at her throat, told him that she had been strangled. Her body had been hideously mutilated. Evans later confessed that he had raped her corpse and then had torn open her belly with his bone-handled knife to get to her uterus. He had also excised her vulva, which he carried away with him and hid under a rock. When a stunned Sheriff Drew asked him why he had committed such butchery, the old man calmly replied that he did it “to gain some knowledge of the human system that might be of use to me as a doctor.”
As he was dragging the man back to jail, Drew had one more question for him: “What did you set those snares for, Frank?”
Evans answered with a self-satisfied smirk: “I set them to catch the girl – and I catched her.”
Franklin Evans’ trial opened on February 3, 1873, but it was a perfunctory affair. The outcome was a foregone conclusion to everyone involved, including the defendant. Only one dramatic moment occurred during its three-day duration. Early on the morning of Tuesday, February 5, while his guard was off fetching him a glass of water, Evans took one of his suspenders, tied it around his neck, attached the other end to a clothes hook on the wall of his cell and tried to hang himself. Just then, the newspapers reported, the guard returned, “seized Evans and disengaged him from the hook.”
Most observers believed that the man’s half-hearted suicide attempt was nothing more than a ploy to set up an insanity defense. If that was the case, the effort failed. He was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to hang on February 17, 1874. For “his unnamable and incredible crimes, he will be swung like a dog,” celebrated one local newspaper, which went on to recommend that those wishing to attend the hanging should make “early application in order to secure ‘reserved seats,’ which will be scarce.”
Accompanied by the high sheriff of Rockingham County, J.W. Odlin, Evans was transported by train to the state prison at Concord. A crowd of more than eight hundred people gathered at the station to get a glimpse of him. One newspaper stated that they were “excited to a remarkable pitch of feeling.” This frenzied fascination was not entirely based on Evans’ notoriety as the killer of Georgiana Lovering. By then, he had confessed to other crimes as well – atrocities that marked him as one of the most appalling killers of the era.
Evans began his murderous career nearly fifteen years earlier, when he was visiting Derry, New Hampshire. Passing by the home of a family named Mills, he peeped in a window and spotted a little girl, approximately five years of age, playing on the floor. There were no adults nearby. Possessed by the urge to “procure a body for surgical purposes,” he snuck into the house, snatched the child, then took her off into the woods and strangled her. When he stripped off her clothing, though, he discovered that “one hip and part of her spine were deformed.” Filled with revulsion, he abandoned his plans to “examine her” – the name he gave to postmortem rape and sexual mutilation – and buried the corpse under a rotten tree stump.
Three years later, while in Augusta, Maine, he snatched a fourteen-year-old girl named Anna Sibley on her way to school. Carrying her deep into the woods, he raped her, cut her throat, and then hid her corpse under a pile of leaves. In May 1872, just weeks before arriving at his sister’s home in Northwood, Evans raped and murdered a woman whose body was found in the woods near Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
His most sensational confession, though, was that he had killed little John and Isabella Joyce in Lynn, Massachusetts. While some of the law officers involved in the case were skeptical of his claim, and through Evans himself retracted it shortly before his death, the similarities between the Lovering murder and the murders in Bussey’s woods convinced most lawmen that the crimes had indeed been perpetrated by the same person. Headlines around the country spread the news that the eight-year-old Joyce murder mystery had finally been solved.
Franklin Evans spent the last night of his life quietly, falling asleep around midnight with the Rev. Church of Providence, Rhode Island at his side. Around 5:30 a.m., he ate a hearty breakfast and drank a cup of tea. When Church asked him if he had any last-minute statements to make, he replied, “I have confessed everything. If the people don’t believe it, I can’t help it.”
A large, excited crowd gathered outside the prison walls as the hour of execution drew near. At 10:50 a.m., they were admitted into the building, where the gallows had been set up in the corridor between the guardroom and the cells. Within minutes, every available space was packed with spectators, some of them standing on the stairways leading up to the cells, others crowding around the scaffold.
At 11:00 a.m., Evans, dressed in a black suit, was led through the crowd by the prison warden. He climbed the scaffold on his own and muttered something under his breath as his arms and legs were tied. He appeared “quite calm and possessed,” although the people who were standing closest to the gallows later reported that his knees were trembling. The noose was adjusted around his neck and a black hood was pulled over his head. After reading the death warrant, Sheriff Odlin placed his foot on the spring that controlled the drop and – at exactly 11:06 a.m. on Tuesday, February 17, 1874 – the elderly serial killer was “launched into eternity.”
He dangled in the air, slowly strangling, for nearly twenty minutes before his heart stopped beating and the attending physician declared him dead. Ironically, since he claimed that his murders were committed so that he could gain anatomical knowledge to “aid him as a doctor,” his corpse was donated to the Dartmouth Medical College so that it could be dissected by the students there.
This was not quite the end of the story, at least in regards to the murders of the Joyce children. A few years after Franklin Evans went to the gallows for the murder of Georgina Lovering, a ghost story came to be connected to the murders of the children in Bussey’s Woods. The murders had a tremendous effect on the local community. As one local resident wrote in 1878, “Of the many dark deeds of blood which have disgraced this age few have been fraught with more harrowing details than the one enacted right here.”
Isabella and John Joyce vanished on June 12, 1865 but were not found until the following Sunday, when their bodies were accidentally discovered by hikers in Bussey’s Woods. The woods were part of an old four-hundred-acre farm, located on both sides of Bussey Street, that was given by Benjamin Bussey to Harvard College for the horticultural institute. In time, one hundred and twenty acres of the farm and woods would become the Arnold Arboretum with the Bussey Institute on one side. The Joyce children had sought the high ground of the woods for their picnic.
Isabella had been raped and stabbed repeatedly and her brother was found a quarter-mile away by Bussey Brook in a condition that sickened the was-hardened Civil War veterans who saw the body. It was surmised that just before noon, he had left his sister, fallen, and finally been attacked by his sister’s murderer.
The children were brought back to Lynn for burial. The funerals became the scene of public sorrow, especially since they occurred just two months after the assassination of President Lincoln. Rewards were offered by the authorities and seven suspects were interrogated and released. Visitors to the girl’s murder site raised a memorial cairn. In the process, any further clues were obliterated, although what could have been discovered during those days of primitive forensics remains unknown. For the protection of the public, a police beat was established in the Bussey Woods.
Then, thirteen years later, the story took another bizarre turn.
THE GHOSTS OF BUSSEY'S WOODS
“The details of our area’s terrible atrocity and barbarity fueled a feeling of unprecedented horror,” wrote an author of a book about the murders, published in Boston in 1878. The book asked how a crime so terrible could ever have happened, “In a section as civilized, a community so guarded, a population so abundant, in the marginal outline of a great city.”
The book’s author was Henry Johnson Brent, founder and editor of the New York City magazine, Knickerbocker, which was widely enjoyed from 1833 through the Civil War. In June 1865, he happened to be staying with friends who lived within a few hundred yards of the murders. He wrote his book, “Was It A Ghost?” to focus attention again on the twin murders that had gone unsolved for more than a decade.
Brent himself had immediately become a suspect in the case when a boy told police that he had often seen a man of Brent’s description in the Bussey’s Woods with a knife and gun. Fortunately for Brent, he was an artist, whose palette knife and target-shooting practice was known in the neighborhood. He was also acquainted with members of the police force. The police quickly dismissed him as a suspect.
By the end of June 1865, the search for the killer had grown cold. A week or so later, in a bizarre personal twist, Brent saw the ghost of a man on the far side of his host’s property between Bussey and Motley Woods. Brent truly felt that the event was something beyond his ability to reconcile by the usual rules of explanation and that it deserved publication.
He had gone down to meet his host returning from Boston via Forest Hills, only to learn later that he had returned home via Centre Street at 10:00 p.m. Brent revisited the site where he spotted the apparition at 9:00 p.m., within half an hour of the event, but nothing more was seen nor found. Initially, Brent connected the apparition with his host, whom he feared might have met with some kind of misfortune, but during this second visit, which included a walk to the rock where Isabella Joyce had been murdered, Brent suddenly connected it with the murders.
He took his story to a perplexed police chief, who urged him to publish it. The chief asked whether Brent recognized the ghost. Could it have been the children’s recently deceased father? Was the spirit perhaps a witness to the murders?
H.J. Brent detailed his encounter with the spirit in chapter ten of his book. An abridged version of it appears below:
Upon a still and clear night I went out of the cottage, and, taking two dogs with me, strolled down through the stable yard and past the garden, until I came to the brow of the hill that formed the apex of my friend’s grasslands. The brow of the hill was flat all about me and at the base ran off into a meadow, the opposite side of which was overlooked by the Bussey Woods.
From where I stood, several pines rose out of the even surface of the forest, marking (as with an uplifted hand spread out) the place where the girl’s murder had been done. On my left was Motley’s Woods, drawing up with its intense shadows close to the dividing wall. From the wall to where I stood all was clear and distinct, save where the shadows fell over the ground.
The wall and the wood on my left ran down to that corner at Bussey Creek, which was only a short distance (about 50 feet) from the spot where the boy had fallen. Some 250 yards away and close to the corner just mentioned was a clump of trees, and then straight before me without an intervening object, the dark wood gloomed over the rock of the girl’s death. My purpose was simply to take the cooling air from the winnowing trees.
It was the habit of my host, who did business in Boston, of leaving the train at Forest Hills Station at 9 o’clock as a general thing and keeping to South Street until he got to the bottom of the hill near to where the brook crosses the road. He would then enter the lowlands at the outskirts of Bussey Woods and thence follow the path and up the hillside covered by Motley’s Woods, keeping close to the wall until he reached the point of the wall near which I was standing, pass over it and be home.
Knowing that my host was irregular as to his hours of return home at night, I was not surprised when I saw a figure lean over the wall for an instant within about 20 feet of me, pause a moment, and then cross over to the side on which I was. Seeing that he stopped, I spoke aloud these words, “Hello, Dan, is that you?”
Though I could discover the figure and recognize its movements, there was too great a shade thrown over the wall to enable me to distinguish a face so familiar to me. To my appeal there was no reply, and then in an instant the impression came upon me that if it really was my friend, he was testing my nerves. Up to this moment I never had a thought apart from him.
While I stood perfectly motionless, waiting for some recognition of my appeal, the figure advanced slowly in a direct line from the wall, leaving the shadow, and stopped before me and not 20 feet away from me. I saw at once that it was somebody I had never seen before. When in the light without even a weed to obstruct my vision, as soon as he stopped, I called, “Speak or I will fire!”
It was at this period that I observed especially the behavior of the dogs. Up to this time they had been quiet, lying on the grass, but now they both got up, and I felt on each side of me the pressure of their bodies. They were evidently frightened, and I saw that they were looking with every symptom of terror at the figure that stood so near us without a motion.
The figure never once turned its head directly toward me but seemed to fix its look eastward over where the pine-trees broke the clear horizon on the murder-hill. This inert pose was preserved but for a moment, for as quick as the flash of gunpowder it wheeled as upon a pivot and, making one movement as of a man commencing to step out toward the wall, was gone!
To my vision it never crossed the space between where it had stood and the outline of the shade thrown by the trees upon the ground. One step after turning was all I saw, and then it vanished. What I saw I relate exactly as it happened. Can I describe this figure you will ask?
It looked like painted air. There was no elaborate appearance, indeed I could not make out the fashion of the garment. I was more occupied in the effort to recognize a human being in the figure that was before me. He looked dark grey from head to foot. Body he had, legs, arms, and a head, but the face I could not distinctly see, as he turned it from me.
Brent published his book long after interest had died in the case and it is believed that many local residents never accepted Franklin Evans claims that he had killed the Joyce children, despite the similarities to his other crimes. Brent hoped that his book would stir up a renewed investigation and would goad the murderer, if still alive, into remorse and confession. The ghost story is the centerpiece of his book, and rightly so, given the title.
Many local residents must have had theories about the murders. Brent, believing the murderer was still alive, did not state his complete details. The change of the picnic from May’s Woods – where the children told their grandmother they were going -- to the more secluded Bussey’s Woods prompted a suspicion that the children were accompanied by someone they knew. The coins their grandmother had given the children to ride the streetcar were found lying near the girl’s body. Someone else had apparently paid their fare.
Brent’s book alternates between a detailed description of the double murder and an argument for the existence of ghosts. He even noted the results of séances that had recently occurred in which letters were read that were alleged to be written by the murdered girl and her father. A communication purportedly from the boy also was circulated. Though unacquainted with Spiritualism, Brent felt that he had to include these reports with his ghostly account. Brent maintained a terrible feeling of guilt over the fact that he had been in Bussey’s Woods painting and target shooting on the day that the murders took place and yet had seen nothing.
Unfortunately, his unorthodox look at the murders – weaving together the crime and the ghost stories – drew scorn from many contemporary reviewers. One of them wrote, “We are disposed to consider this a very unsubstantial pretext for making a book. What good it accomplishes, what end it serves, it is impossible to discover. It does not help the identification of the murderer. It throws no light on the supernatural speculations so prevalent these days. The curious public will probably hang with fresh interest on the horrible details of the crime. But no one, as far as we can see, will be benefited by its perusal.”