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The Death of Marshall Piggott (14 Nov 1884)

Marshall Piggott (1858-1884)

Chapter XXXVIII
THE LONG POINT MYSTERY
from Memoirs of a great detective: incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray (1904) compiled by Victor Speer

The lighthouse keeper on Long Point, on the north shore of Lake Erie, near Port Rowan, was sitting by the window one bitter cold morning in December 1884. The waves were pounding shoreward over a fringe of ice. The wind was howling in a gale, and not a sign of life was visible over the expanse of waters. The keeper idly swept the shoreline with his gaze, from horizon on the right to horizon on the left. He saw nothing but tumbling waters and icy rime. He poked the fire and resumed his seat. As he glanced out he saw a black object bobbing in the water it rose and fell and rolled as the waves beat in or receded it was coming shorewards. Thrice it was tossed up on the ice, and thrice it glided back and slid with a splash into the water. The fourth time the waters seemed to lift it up and toss it forward so that it lay a shapeless bundle on the shore.

The keeper of the light levelled his glasses on it, and instantly laid them aside, donned his cap and coat, and hurried out. He ran down the shore to where the object lay, and knelt beside it. The figure was that of a man. The body was wound with rope, and the limbs were rope-bound. The hands were tied. Dickinson, the light keeper, picked up the icy body and carried it to the lonely lighthouse. He judged it was a sailor from some vessel of the lakes, gone to a watery grave and cast ashore long after death. He made a rough box, cut away the ropes from the body, and buried it as it was, boots and all, on Long Point. He marked the grave of the unknown dead with a board; there was no clue to the man's identity. His features were the face of a stranger; he wore no hat, his clothing was unmarked. Snow soon hid the grave, and Dickinson forgot about it, save for an occasional wondering, as he sat by the fire in the long winter nights, whether the man had come to his death by fair means or foul; whether he had died in his bunk naturally or whether in the night he had been seized and bound and buried alive in the waters that may give up their dead but tell no tales of their tragedies. A paragraph in the newspapers some days later said simply that an unknown body had been washed ashore on Long Point and had been buried by the keeper of the lighthouse.

"Three months later," says Murray, "John Piggott, of Bay City, Michigan, communicated with the Government about this body. For months John Piggott had been searching for his brother Marshall Piggott. Marshall was a young farmer, twenty-nine years old, who lived in the township of Malahyde, county of Elgin, Ontario, about forty miles from Port Rowan. His father, before he died, gave him a small farm of about fifty acres on the shore of Lake Erie. Piggott married Sarah Beacham, a neighbouring farmer's daughter, and they settled on the little farm. They had no children. In the early part of 1884 Sarah died mysteriously, and one of the features of her death was a violent attack of retching. Marshall Piggott was not a bright man, but rather slow and simple minded. At ten o'clock on the morning of November 17th, 1884, a few months after his wife died, Marshall was seen going down the road toward the lake near his house. That was the last known of him. Some of the neighbours, when he failed to appear, thought he had gone on a visit to his brother John in Michigan. When John heard of it he began a search for his brother. He read the newspapers carefully for tidings of unknown dead, and when the Long Point burial was printed he saw it, and once more communicated with the Government. This was in March 1885, and on March 10th I went to St. Thomas and met John Piggott, and conferred with Judge Hughes.

"John Piggott and I then went by train to Aylmer and thence drove to Port Rowan, and then drove on the ice to Long Point. We had the body dug up and the coffin opened. The body was decomposed, but John Piggott identified it positively as the body of his brother Marshall Piggott. He identified the boots as a pair he had worn and had given to Marshall. He identified a peculiar mark on the big toe of the right foot, and he also identified the peculiar pigeon-breast. William Dickinson, the lighthouse keeper, said that the face, when he found the body, bore a strong resemblance to the face of John Piggott. He said John and the dead man looked alike. There was little face when we saw the body; the head had been smashed in and the chin broken. Satisfied that the body was that of Marshall Piggott we had it taken to Port Rowan and buried. On March 24th I drove the mother of Marshall Piggott from her home in Nilestown, county of Middlesex, to Port Rowan and had the body exhumed, and the mother identified the clothes and the body.

"Who killed him? The question presented itself the moment I saw the crushed skull and the lighthouse keeper told me of the way the body was bound with rope, and the way the hands and limbs were tied. It was not suicide. The rope and the wounds settled that; no man could have tied himself in such a manner. I asked the mother when she first heard of her son going away. She said that the day after Marshall disappeared in November, Havelock Smith, a young man, twenty-eight years old, who lived with his widowed mother on her farm, near the farm of Marshall Piggott, and whose family was respected highly and prominent in the country, had appeared at the house and said he wanted to see her alone. Her son, young William Piggott, was with her that day, making ready to go to Oregon to live. William stepped outside, and Havelock Smith then showed her a note for $1,300 made to him, ostensibly by Marshall Piggott. Havelock Smith told her, said the mother, that Marshall had given him the note the day before in exchange for $1,300, and Marshall had said he was going away. The note was dated the day Marshall disappeared. When asked where he got the money to lend to Marshall Havelock Smith said he borrowed it from Richard Chute. Mrs. Piggott said she would have to find her son, Marshall, before she could do anything about the note. She called her son young William, and told him to go to Marshall's place and look after it. I saw William. He told me he had driven back from Nilestown to Marshall's with Havelock Smith, and on the way Havelock asked William to help him get the money. The story about borrowing the money from Richard Chute I found untrue.

"I went to Marshall's place, and I looked Havelock Smith over. Then I visited the neighbours one by one. I learned from Walter Chute and from Mrs. John Hankenson that on the day Marshall disappeared Havelock Smith went to Piggott's house about half-past nine o'clock in the morning. Smith and Piggott were seen later walking away in a south-easterly direction, toward Smith's farm. That was the last seen of Piggott alive. I learned that about four o'clock that afternoon Smith was seen by Walter Chute and his son, Ensley Chute. Smith had been seen first going toward a gully about half a mile from Piggott's house, and he was seen later coming back from the gully. This gully led to the lake, and was secluded. Walter Chute spoke to Smith on his way back; Smith's trousers were wet, as if he had been in the water. A shot had been fired while Smith was in the gully. Smith told Chute he had shot at a grey fox and missed it.

"I learned that on the Sunday before Piggott disappeared Smith went to Port Royal, six miles away, and hired a row boat, and took it to his own gully and left it there the day Piggott disappeared.

"I began a search for the weapon. I learned that some years before part of an old steamer had drifted ashore, and in the wreckage were some iron grate bars, each weighing about one hundred pounds. Walter Chute had found these bars. He had a maple sugar bush near the gully, and for arches in his sugar-boiling furnaces he used some of these grate bars. Shortly after Piggott disappeared Chute was in his maple grove and he missed one of these bars.

"The theory of the prosecution was that Piggott had been inveigled to the gully to help launch the boat, that while launching the boat he was struck with a heavy, blunt instrument, which smashed his skull and drove his head down so that the chin was broken on the gunwale of the boat, that the iron bar was taken out in the boat, and tied to the body which was dropped in deep water. After the body was in the water some time it wanted to rise. The motion of the water, washing the body to and fro, cut the rope, the body rose and drifted forty miles to Long Point, near Port Rowan, where the lighthouse keeper found and buried it. This theory was upheld by the wounds on the head, the skull being smashed and the chin fractured. The shot heard by the Chutes was believed by the prosecution to be a blind to account for Smith's presence in that vicinity, as if hunting for a grey fox. The rope was not a new rope. I searched the country for miles around, but could get no trace of where it was obtained. It was not an uncommon kind of rope.

"We got a tug and dragged the lake in the vicinity. We found the bar, and a piece of rope, and Piggott's hat. The hat was anchored to a stone. I learned also that after Piggott disappeared, Smith went to Buffalo, and on his return he said he had heard from Piggott while in Buffalo.

"Havelock Smith was arrested on Tuesday, March 24th. Arthur Belford, a friend of Smith, also was arrested, but later was discharged. The preliminary investigation was quite lengthy. Smith was remanded for trial. Young William Piggott had gone to Oregon to live, and I went out to Portland, and brought him back on April 28th, and he gave evidence against Smith.

"The trial of Havelock Smith began on Tuesday, November 24th, 1885, at St. Thomas. Chief Justice Armour presided. It became a famous case. John Idington, of Stratford, prosecuted for the Crown, assisted by Donald Guthrie, of Guelph, and County Attorney James Coyne, now registrar of the county of Elgin. Colin McDougal, James Robertson, and Edward Meredith defended Smith. The prosecution swore 108 witnesses. The defence swore a large number. The defence maintained that the body found by Dickinson, the lighthouse keeper, was not the body of Piggott. A Dr. McLay had obtained an order from the coroner, and had exhumed the body, and said that no one could tell whether it was the body of a white person or black person, man or woman. Aaron Dolby testified that Dr. McLay told Mrs. Dolby there was no doubt it was Piggott's body. The defence also put in an alibi with Smith's mother as the chief witness. An excerpt from the report of the charge of Chief Justice Armour to the jury will give a good idea of the trend of the testimony. The Chief justice said, in part:

"'The prisoner (Smith) had a motive and interest in removing Marshall Piggott. Had any other person an interest or motive? if you believe that the body is that of Marshall Piggot and the note is a forgery, which could not be realised on except by the removal of the maker, then does not the evidence point conclusively to the prisoner as the perpetrator of the crimes? Why did the prisoner make so many untrue statements? What was the object of prisoner's visit to Buffalo? He told several people he had received a letter from Marshall at Buffalo. Why wasn't the letter produced? Wasn't the whole thing a blind to throw suspicion off himself? Who was it had the opportunity to kill Marshall, who had the motive, and who had the object? If you have reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the prisoner, then it is your duty to acquit him. But this doubt must be a reasonable one, gentlemen. If, after sifting the evidence thoroughly, and eliminating all that you believe to be false, you think that the evidence is equally divided as to the guilt or the innocence of the prisoner, then it is your duty to acquit him. But, if on the other hand, the facts and circumstances advanced by the Crown and the deductions to be drawn therefrom are, in your opinion, sufficiently strong to prove to you that Marshall Piggott met his death at the hands of an assassin, and that the prisoner was an active or passive participant in encompassing his death, then it is equally your duty to fearlessly and manfully record your verdict of guilty. You may now retire.'

"The jury deadlocked. It stood five for conviction and seven for acquittal, and could not agree.

"The second trial was set for May 1886. The defence was not ready, and the trial went over until September 1886, before Judge O'Connor, at St. Thomas. The case was fought out again. In selecting the jury for this second trial I objected strongly to certain jurors, but the Crown attorneys overruled me. They said they were satisfied the jurors were all right. They thought the defence would object to some of them. I said the defence would not object, and it then would be too late for the Crown. The panel was almost exhausted, and, against my urgent advice, they accepted two of these jurors. The result showed the jurors I objected to were the mainstay in holding out for a disagreement. The jury at this second trial stood seven for conviction and five for acquittal. The prisoner was released on $8,000 bonds. I advised a third trial, as there was no question in my mind as to who did it. Smith had a number of influential friends. His brothers, Harvey and William, were highly esteemed. William was a member of the County Council. At both trials there was great sympathy for Havelock Smith's family and relatives.

"In this case the Chief justice said to the jury: 'The only certainty that human affairs permits of is a high degree of probability. You are not expected to have direct evidence of a crime. If such were the law, ninety-nine out of one hundred guilty men would go unpunished. Criminals seek secrecy for their crimes. If a witness comes forward and says he saw a man kill another by a blow, or in any other way, there is always the possibility that he may be telling an untruth, and there must always be corroborative evidence of a circumstantial character.' The Chief Justice's charge, in the report, also contains the sentence: 'Circumstantial evidence is the best kind of evidence!'

"I read a lot of praise of the circumstantial case of the Crown against Havelock Smith. My mind is undimmed by a doubt on this case. Smith, the last I heard, still was around in that vicinity, and Marshall Piggott lies buried not far away."

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