A Sad Case Of Mistaken Identity: How a chance meeting and a runaway imagination led to tragedy

Sad caseOriginally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – May, 2010

By Jim Ignasher

Perhaps if Daniel Atcherson had left for his home in Greenville five minutes sooner, or five minutes later, this story would have ended differently, but he didn’t.  He left at just the right time to set into motion a tragic series of events.  It was August 20, 1873, the night was hot, the air was thick, and under those conditions tempers can rise like the mercury in a thermometer.  Before the night was over, someone close to him would be dead.      

Atcherson was a recent immigrant to America, having brought his wife and three young sons to the United States just the year before.  He eventually settled in Greenville where he found work in a local mill.  The family took up residence in a building referred to as “The Long House”, an apartment house owned by the Greenville Woolen Company located on Putnam Pike near the intersection of West Greenville Road.  The building was so named due to its unusual shape; it was literally a “long house” built specifically to house mill workers.   

The apartments inside were small, separated by thin walls that left much to be desired in terms of privacy. 

Caleb Williams and his wife lived in the apartment next to the Atchersons’, along with their 18 year-old son, Caleb, Jr., and a pretty daughter in her early twenties.

August 30 was a Saturday, and Mr. Atcherson took the opportunity to rent a horse and buggy and go to Cumberland to visit the site of a new mill in Ashton.  He kissed his wife goodbye, and told her he would return around 5 p.m. that evening.  Five o’clock came and went, and there was no sign of Mr. Atcherson.  By ten o’clock that night he still had not returned, and Mrs. Atcherson grew concerned. She wasn’t worried that her husband had met with an accident, or that he had been the victim of foul play.  Her anxiety grew from the belief that her husband might be involved in an affair with the Williams’ daughter. 

One can only speculate as to the thoughts that went through her mind.  Had her husband taken the Williams girl to Cumberland with him?  Was he planning to take a job in Ashton and leave her for the “other woman”?  

Her rising temper seemed to feed off the stifling air in the tiny apartment.       

She began pacing the floor when she suddenly heard a woman’s laughter coming from the Williams apartment.  As she stopped to listen, she could detect a man’s voice, followed by more laughter. Before long, she convinced herself it was her husband carrying on with the Williams girl, and with rage building inside her, she stormed to the next apartment and began pounding on the door demanding to be let in.   

The Williams family was home, but Mr. Williams refused to open the door.  He tried to tell his irate neighbor that her husband was not there, but she would hear none of it.  The fact that he refused to open the door to let her see for herself only supported her suspicions and added to her fury.  Sure that Williams was lying, she began threatening his life, which only further convinced him that opening the door would not be to his best interest.   

When she realized that her threats were useless, she left to obtain an axe from her apartment, and returned to attack her neighbor’s door with renewed vigor.  It only took a few whacks to break it open allowing her to force her way inside. In the meantime, Caleb Jr. had armed himself with a pistol, and when Mrs. Atcherson burst in welding the axe he confronted her.  He no doubt saw rage in her eyes and was likely afraid for himself and his family. 

As she raised the axe he fired, but the round reportedly had little effect.  When she came at him again he fired a second time killing her instantly.      

While the acrid smell of gun smoke still hung in the air, Caleb and his father dragged the body of Mrs. Atcherson back to her apartment, and for some unknown reason they nailed the door shut as if they needed to prevent her from rising from the dead and getting out of the room.  (Where the Atcherson children were during this ordeal is not recorded.)  

At some point afterward, Caleb walked to Greenville center and reported the incident to two men, one of whom sought out Hiram Mann, Smithfield’s Town Sergeant, and chief law enforcement officer. When they broke into the Atcherson apartment they found Mrs. Atcherson lying on the floor in bloodstained clothing.         

An autopsy was performed the following day, and a coroner’s inquest was held a few days later.  The jury heard testimony from Doctor Elmer B. Eddy who determined that the fatal bullet had ruptured the aortic artery causing internal bleeding and, “almost instant death.”

Despite the fact that Mrs. Atcherson had been armed with an axe, and had forced her way into the apartment, the coroner’s jury determined that Caleb had not acted in self-defense!  Mrs. Atcherson was reported to be a small, middle aged, woman weighing about 90 pounds, and it was felt that Caleb, being larger and stronger, should have been able to disarm her without resorting to lethal force.  Caleb was arraigned before Trial Justice Emor H. Mowry where he pled guilty to killing Mrs. Atcherson, and was bound over for trial in October.  The final disposition of the case was not recorded, but there were certainly arguments that could be made in his defense. Therefore, the possibility exists that he was exonerated.     

Authorities were unable to locate Mr. Atcherson on the night of the shooting, but one thing was for sure, he was not in the Williams apartment.  He was found the following morning fast asleep in his rented carriage in front of a home on Putnam Pike with the horse feeding on some grass along the roadside.  Upon being awakened, he related how on his way home the pervious evening he happened to meet three friends walking along the roadway and offered them a ride.  But the road was dusty, and the journey long, so they had decided to partake in some libation and entertainment at a friendly tavern before continuing on their way. They left the tavern around 8 p.m., and resumed their trek towards Greenville when they got into an accident and damaged the buggy.  Their trip was further delayed as they made some makeshift repairs before continuing on. Everyone made it home safely except for Mr. Atcherson who was found sleeping in the carriage. 

One newspaper, echoing the prohibition movement sentiments of the era, blamed the whole incident on the evils of rum, but others could argue that chance played more of a role. Five minutes one way or the other could have made all the difference.      





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