So, a couple years ago, not too long after I arrived in Berks County, I was asked to review a new book on Susanna Cox. While I had only been in Berks County, probably a year, I had heard all the stories and after reading the book, went to the primary resources, most of which were in the HJL (none of the Collection Names or resources at this facility were properly cited, they actually were not referenced at all…a BIG pet peeve of mine) and knew a good deal about the history. One does not need to grow up with an area’s history to make an informed decision. Being an outsider, apparently did not make me a trustworthy source when it came to this review and the author’s took offense. What interested me most about the book was the discussion on the evolution of criminal investigation, forensic pathology and criminal prosecution and not the Susanna Cox story, which was the same story told to me by researchers, volunteers and Louis Richards, Susanna’s first biographer. Unfortunately for Susanna, everything mentioned in the book was either too new or came later and was of no help to her case, nor do I think it would have made a difference in the outcome.
Regardless, the Susanna Cox case has followed me over the past 3 years, and not that I find it overtly fascinating, we just keep finding references to it in little ways. The following was found by accident. My assistant Lisa brought a book to my attention, while she was getting ready to relabel and re-shelve it because it had just been re-inventoried. This Genealogy is full of little “histories” that I hope to blog more about, but for now…here is a new version of the Susanna Cox History. (spellings and grammar are kept to how the original author wrote it…or I tried to. Grammar was not important in 1886)
1776-1876 Centennial Book of Reminiscences, Traditions, Recollections, Habits, Manners, and Customs, and of what I Know of the Older TImes. Written Expressly for the Van Reed Family. J Van Reed, 1876.
pp.118-122 “What I know of Olden Times Execution of Susanna Cox
Of what I know, and heard tell of Hanging. The first case I recollect of, and of which I shall give a condensed account was Susanna Cox. A girl of 17 years of age who resided for 5 years in the family of Jacob Gehr, a farmer in Oley Township was delivered in the spring of the year 1809 of an illegitimate child, the body of which was found by Mr. Gehr wrapped in an old coat, and concealed in a hole under a closet in a room over the washhouse. A corners inquest examined the body, and found the under jaw broken, and a piece of twisted tow stuffed in its throat. The jury had made out that the child was born alive, which the girl however denied, she was tried before Judge Spayed, and convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be Hung. She subsequently made a full confession of her guilt. Her execution took place on the 10 of June the same year 1809. Never (I am told) such a numerous collection of People took place before. Every body, it seamed symphacited [sympathized] with the unfortunate girl, and all with one accord, declared that Mr. Gehr should be hung, beside her, for reason to be presumed.
[I should note here that in the Broadsides and the two known histories on Susanna Cox, mentioned a “Mr. M” as the father of Susanna’s child and everyone assumed that Mr. M was a Mertz. However, in random discussions when reading the latest history, I thought, like most people might today, the only person she would have had constant contact with would be Mr. Gehr. J. Van Reed is the first account to accuse Susanna’s employer/Master as the child’s father. I wonder how right he could be? It is still listed as a Berks Mystery today!]
The Hanging was as aforesaid numerously attended. The taverns where all crowded the preceeding eavning, and all night wagons loaded with people from the country were passing through the streets, some comeing upwards of 70 Miles, (Executions then were yet Public) to see this unfortunate girl terminating her Earthly existance. The Execution took place on what then was called Gallows-Hill. from a calculation made by the space taken up by the spectators the number of people present must have been 25,000. A little after 11 o’clock the mornful prosession moved from the Prisson (which then stood at the NE Corner of Washington and Sixth Streed Reading). The unfortunate girl with a firm step and a smile on her countenance walked steight up to the awful place of Execution on the Commens at the foot of the hill supported and comforted by two Ministers of the Gospel. After a small and appropriate Prayer for the wrong she had done had been delivered by her, she then ascended the scoffold and after the death – Warrant had been read to her. She again most ernestly supplicated for Mercy, and for forgiveness of Sin and transgressions &c and biding a last farewell to all around her in a pitiful and solmen manner after which the cart on which she stood was drawn from under her. She was lunched into eternity without a struggle. The greatest decency was ubheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of symphathy were seen flowing very freely from the almost numberless croud of spectators. It was indeed a day of SORROW from an eye witness. (yet living but guile an old man) to the above execution. I have repeatitly obtained the following perticulars, the Girl
as a good looking girl; with black eyes and hair and red cheeks. She appeared to have manifested a wonderful degree of resignation, in regard of her fate. On the eavening before the Execution she was visited in Prison by an old lady to whome she showed the Shroud that had been made for her. The poor girl said “This is too long for me I can’t walk well in it tomorrow. I beleave I will put a tuck in it.” Dressed in her garment of death, She walked up Penn Street from the Jail to the hill, behind the cart which contained her coffin and was supported on each side by a clergyman. The day was very hot and the sun in full meredian, in passing a Pump which stood on Penn Street below Seventh on the site no No 635. She asked for a drink of water to drink the Sheriff stopped the cart, and brought her a pint measure of fresh water, which she drank. The Gallows Erected on the side of the Hill at the head of Penn Street which consisted principally of two upright and cross pieces, in the middle of which the rope was tied. Susanna mounted the cart and when the rope had been adjusted and the cap drawn over her eyes the cart was drivin from under her, and she was Suspended for some 10 minutes. She contracted her Shoulders and gave signs of life. The Hangman seeing this, took hold of her feet, and gave her body a jerk, one of her slippers comeing off fell to the ground which created one continuous moan through the croud at the limited time her body was taken down and a couble of physiscians bled her freely and jabbed her all over to restore life if possible but it was found that her neck had been broken by the Hangmans jerk. The entire concourse of the spectators where effected to tears by the heart = ending specticle Indignation was loudly expressed against the Hangman, Who was a German, and a stranger in the place. Who was hired by Sheriff Marks to perform the duty of hanging. Towards Eavning this JACK KELCH came down (Gallowhill now Fifth) Street from the jail and was observed some Bully of the Town who was standing on the S.E corner of Sixth and Penn Street who went across the street to where Jamesons Cloathing Store now is and procured a Cow – Skin caught the hangman and flayed him so desperately that the blood ran down his legs. Twenty silver 1/2 dollars the blood-money he had obtained for hes serveses as poor Susanna’s Executioner, dropped out of his pocket, which when he had picked up, he made off down Sixth Street as fast as he could, crased [crossed] over the Lancaster Ferry and was never heard off again in this neighborhood. The body of Poor Susanna was givin to her friends and buried in the vicinity of Hampdon.
Follow-up. The Susanna Cox story is (or was) taught to every child in school and is reenacted three times a day at the Kutztown Folk Festival. Her’s is a story that Berks County wants remembered. Some facts, they choose to forget. For instance, the rope, made for the hanging, was too short. So, while everyone remembers that Susanna was standing on the cart that carried her coffin, they forget that she was actually standing on top of her coffin in the cart, so they could get the rope to reach her neck. Susanna was buried on a farm belonging to her brother-in-law, somewhere around the vicinity of Albright College. She was in an unmarked grave, because her sister did not want her body disturbed. It is believed that road crews working in the Hampden Heights area a few years ago, came across an unmarked grave and found the body of a female. It was removed to a site unknown. Everyone speculated that it was Susanna. Susanna Cox goes done in Pennsylvania History as being the last woman hung publicly in the Commonwealth. Not something I would like to be known for. Some historians say she didn’t do it, others say she did. Was Mr. Gehr the father or Mr. Mertz? And who is Mr. Mertz? For better or worse, the story of Susanna Cox sparks interest in her story and almost compels you to seek out more information.
I will share more from J Van Reed’s diary a little later. It is one of the better “finds” found in the library. I will also try and gather some information on him as well.
Written by former BHC Archivist, Kim Brown.