Rebecca Stanton Murder
Rebecca Stanton died on February 18, 1858 after several weeks of a mysterious illness, in the midst of rumors she was poisoned for her money. The investigation and trial which followed were in some ways highly representative of the murder investigations and trials of the time, even though the characters involved and the circumstances surrounding it were not. Her case and the attendant investigation not only relate to what is known about Cleveland in the 1850's, but reaffirm what we know about murder investigations in the 1850's as well.
Rebecca Stanton was a young black woman who had lived a life not much different from that of her peers. Like many black individuals of her time she held down several different jobs at varying levels. In Cleveland during the 1850's 71.9% of the black workforce were employed as skilled workers, 12.5% were unskilled workers, 14.1% were semi-skilled, and a mere 3% of Cleveland's black workforce were considered Professional or Proprietor. What separated Rebecca from her peers was that she was bank account at Society for Savings Bank, a local bank founded by Samuel H. Mathers in 1849.
Rebecca Stanton was the sole beneficiary of her deceased father's estate. She had been left what was then considered a substantial amount of money for an African-American. Mr. Stanton had been one of the few fortunate blacks in Ohio able to acquire income by owning property. In 1850 there were a total of 33 black property owners amassing a total value of $31,090. By 1860 land ownership increased to 58 with a total value of $69,877. The fact that Rebecca continued to work enabled her to let the money sit virtually untouched in the bank. Many believed this was the motivating factor behind her death.
Julia Anne Jane Tilman knew the Stanton family for 10 years. She had cared for the second wife of Mr. Stanton, Rebecca's father, during her illness as well. So when it came time to care for Rebecca many thought she would be the perfect candidate.
Although Tilman was a close family friend she was considered to be Rebecca Stanton's aunt. This sense of respect still exists in the black community today. Tilman's serving as head of the household is yet another phenomenon that continues to exist in today's black family. But this has not always been the case and it was certainly an unusual occurrence during the 1850's. Most women married early and most families stayed together with males as the head. Contrary to popular stereotypes most black households in Cleveland were headed by males. In 1850 93.1% of households were headed by men. This unprecedented statistic dropped to 83% by 1860.
Tilman steadfastly stood behind her initial denial of poisoning Rebecca for her money. She wholeheartedly claimed that Rebecca had promised to leave her whatever remained in her savings account when she died in gratitude for her many years of commitment and service to the Stanton family. Nevertheless, Tilman was charged and held on $1,000 bail for poisoning Rebecca Stanton.
Rebecca Stanton was ill for several weeks, and under the care of Julia Tilman. As disclosed in depositions from the coroner's inquest, Rebecca Stanton believed herself to be poisoned and confided this belief to several of her friends during her illness. It is implied through this testimony that she was encouraged in this belief, or possibly even persuaded to believe she was poisoned, by her friend Mrs. Eliza Francisco, who testified she had a dream that Rebecca was being poisoned. The spiritualist movements and lingering superstitions of this time period would allow such testimony to be given in court. This is not to say that she was not poisoned. The fact that Rebecca's will was altered with the assistance of Mrs. Tilman, a will which, according to testimony given by those involved in the drafting and witnessing of it, was completely in favor of Mrs. Tilman and was not even read by Rebecca Stanton before being signed. The validity of this will was contested in June of the same year, overturned and then declared valid again in an appeal made by Mrs. Tilman.
The circumstances surrounding this possible murder do not fit into the usual demographic profile of murders at that time. Both the victim and the accused were black females, and the possible method was poisoning, which ranks very low on the scale of commonly used methods of murder. This case is quite unusual.
The newspaper coverage of this case was uneven. Prior to and during the coroner's inquest, the coverage was serious and meaningful. The case, the characters involved, and the investigation were discussed in both the Cleveland Weekly Plain Dealer and the Herald, during the week of the inquest (February 24, 1858). At the time of the actual trial and after the trial, the case was referred to as a "dark" one and dismissed as ridiculous and boring. Perhaps the details of this murder were not as interesting as the papers would have liked, or perhaps it was not taken seriously since blacks were involved.
When the case came to trial, there were approximately sixty witnesses subpoenaed to testify. Family members, intimate friends, lawyers, and physicians who cared for Rebecca Stanton throughout her illness were all summoned to give their account of the alleged crime. Many believed that Tilman was capable of poisoning Stanton while others supported her claims of integrity and cast a shadow of suspicion on other greedy family members.
There was a clear demographic difference between the witnesses called at the coroner's inquest in terms of race and occupation. Nearly all of the white witnesses called to testify were professionals such as physicians, lawyers, and coroners. A large portion of the remaining testimony came from black uneducated individuals from Cleveland who had spoken with Stanton throughout her illness. The fact that these witnesses were uneducated was due in part to laws that disallowed them from receiving a formal public education. It wasn't until the 1840's that black children attended public schools. In 1850, for the first time, the federal census enumerated public school attendance and only 51 black children attended public schools in Cuyahoga County. In1850, of the 151 black children who lived with their parents, 34% of them were enrolled in public schools. Ten years later, the number of black students had barely changed -- 152 were enrolled, 39% of all black children in the county.
The consequences of being born too early to reap the benefits of formal education left many of these witnesses searching for jobs not on the professional level, but on the competitive skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled levels. For example, several of the black witnesses worked as carpenters, white washers, and domestics. Nevertheless, by the 1860's those fortunate and ambitious enough to work as professionals, worked in service industries with a large number of the proprietors working as barbers -- a profession which seems to have dominated by blacks.
The physicians had varying explanations about Stanton's illness. They disagreed on everything from when her illness began to the cause of her demise. During the inquest, attorneys for Mrs. Tilman ordered their own examination of Stanton's body, and in her defense claimed that Rebecca died from complications caused by a botched abortion. This claim was refuted in a letter to the editor by the coroner, Charles Hartmann, who declared that there was no physical evidence of a pregnancy or abortion.
Autopsies during the 19th century were much less accurate and thorough than they are today. Coroners in the mid 1800's were elected officials with no qualifications of any sort. The mere fact that they passed the obligation of performing autopsies to physicians proved that they were not qualified to do any kind of medical examinations. The coroners held inquests with juries packed with members selected by the coroners themselves. Diagnoses and conclusions as to the cause of death were often wrong which led to the suspicion of bribery or helping out a friend. During the 1850's, when coroners did the work themselves, the investigations were poor and detailed records were insufficient. These meager records usually consisted of a card with a name and possibly a cause of death. But the coroner in this case, Charles Hartmann, did attempt to get Miss Stanton's body and organs thoroughly examined and reviewed.
The extensiveness of the coroner's investigation is indicative of the economic prosperity and growth of Cleveland at this time. The canal had already been completed and had been contributing to the economic growth of Cleveland for more than a decade. Only a city which was prosperous could have afforded such an investigation, one which involved several medical doctors and a local professor of chemistry.
The location of this case fits into the picture which historians provide of black life in Cleveland. During the 1850's and 60's most blacks lived in racially mixed areas throughout Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. Unlike today, there were no specifically black neighborhoods. Hence, the area was divided into several integrated wards. However, Demming comments that in 1850, "Ward 1 continued to have the largest number of Negro residents with the inclusion in its borders of several nascent black enclaves. The most dense concentration of blacks within the city was in a two block radius south of Prospect St. and east of Ontario St. Ten blacks lived on two small streets, High Steet - the site of Rebecca Stanton's death- and Miami Street; and two back alleys, Miami and Middle."
By 1860, Cleveland had grown to 43,571 people or 56% of the county. The black population increased to 953 or 2.2% of the city's residents, while comprising 91% of the county's 1, 044 blacks. During this decade, most blacks lived on Cleveland's east side with the bulk located in contiguous wards 1, 4, and 6.
The disposition of this case is quite interesting. After several days of testimony and packed courtrooms, the presiding judge decided to dismiss the case, having decided that the evidence was insufficient to proceed. Several factors may have led to the dismissal of this case. The nature of this case was technically complicated. Poison is meant to be untraceable. Rebecca Stanton had been ill at other times during the year previous to her death, and her death may have been the natural outcome of these illnesses. On the other hand, these illnesses may simply have acted as a cover for the poisoning. While the physicians who performed the autopsies and the chemist who examined Miss Stanton's stomach did the best they could, their tools were limited to say the least. The very cause of Miss Stanton's death is a mystery.
Another factor in this dismissal may be race. This would seem strange, though, after devoting so much time to the case through the inquest and trial. The attitude taken by the newspapers is patently racist, however, the change in tone of the articles before and after the trial is puzzling. Taken in the context of the of the national picture, however, it would seem natural that at the very least, lip service would be given to this case. This was the time of the growing abolitionist movement, and although the coverage provided by the papers is racist, it might have been politically unwise to ignore this case, given Miss Stanton's position as a property owner and woman of independent economic standing.
While the death of Rebecca Stanton is not a tabloid saga of blood and violence, it permits us to examine the African-American community as it existed in the 1850s.