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Mountain Home Magazine

Elmira's First Cain

Henry Gardner was a Union deserter. He had already run away from the Twelfth Regiment, New York, and his name had made the papers for it. The Utica Morning Herald of October 12, 1863, listed the resident of Oneida County in a group of twenty men whose desertion from Fort DeKalb, Virginia, a Union camp along the Potomac, was fair warning. Captain Hulser wrote the paper:

“In what better way (providing the Marshals do their duty) can I assist in reducing the Copperhead vote at home, at the coming election, than by publishing the following list of “deserters” from my company, who undoubtedly will, if permitted to remain at home, vote the Copperhead ticket. Besides, Uncle Samuel wants more help the coming Winter, down at the Rip Raps, a fine healthy place to work, where they can get in out of the draft.”

Gardner hadn’t made it far when he was apprehended by the marshals and pressed back into service. The continuing war and need for men in Union blue had its priority, and Gardner was sent to Elmira to guard the Union’s growing rebel prison population. In March of 1865 there came a wild rumor in the camp that something dreadful had been found in the woods that abutted the Sly farmland on the plank road to the Pennsylvania border.

Jeremiah Wager and Alexander Thomas, two guards from Camp Pickaways housing the Nineteenth Veterans Reserve Corps, had made a gruesome discovery. The partially decayed body of an old man had been found with a rusted musket nearby, and his skull had been beaten in. It was obvious the body had lain in the woods for the winter months. His pockets had been turned inside out in a clear case of theft.

The war was reaching its apex in spring of 1865 and the board of inquiry dealing with the murder was swift to act: they found that Gardner was the murderer, having made so lavish a show of sudden wealth and goods at the turn of the year. Witnesses to his boasting and frequent ash of watches and a gold ring included his tentmates and others who recollected Gardner’s sudden wealth.

Gardner was convicted of the murder on April 9, 1866, a full year after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and sentenced to death by hanging. While others of his wartime company left Elmira for home, Gardner remained behind in the Elmira jail. He appealed, lost, and appealed again on some hasty aspects of the original hearing—and lost once more.

It was Friday, March 1, 1867, by the time Gardner faced the gallows, an unexpectedly fine, warm, late winter day. There had been such a buildup of excitement in the newspapers to the city’s first public execution that it became a social event unlike any the city had seen. Three hundred tickets had been issued to a viewing gallery flanking the gallows, and the execution became an impromptu civic picnic.

Gardner made a full confession of the crime the night before. Calmly, coolly, he related the fact that he had been witness to Mulock receiving his pay at the Sly farm and had resolved to murder him. The brutality of Gardner’s attack was made only worse by his lack of remorse: it was simply a robbery with the intent to leave a man dead. The morning of his execution the Elmira Advertiser referred to the convicted as “Elmira’s first Cain.”

When the death day came for the blue devil it was only the beginning of his end. At 1:40 in the afternoon the prisoner mounted the gallows stairs without hesitation. Sheri E.H. Howell asked Gardner if he desired to speak to those present, whereupon the prisoner in a low voice said: “Now my dear friends, if there are any among you who have been addicted to drinking liquor or to have bad associates, I beg of you to keep from them for they will surely be the ruination of any man. In your behalf I ask you all to take my advice, live to be good Christians and come to Christ and live honest and fair lives.” He turned to Sheri Howell and said, “Now, hurry.” The sheriff’s final words to Gardner were a cordial “good-bye.”

The noose was then adjusted and the condemned man’s arms and legs pinioned. Prayer was offered for his soul by his spiritual advisor, immediately after which the drop fell. The snap of the rope immediately parted two strands of the three twists of hemp where it was fastened to the beam, and the other stretched sufficiently to let Gardner’s feet almost touch the ground.

It was wretched to watch. The condemned did not die but struggled furiously with his neck at an obtuse angle, while the crowd craned for a better view of Gardner scrambling to touch earth. Now a woman in the crowd fainted. There was complete pause in the jail yard, as no one knew exactly what to do. The coroner stepped forward, tentatively, and listened to the hanging man’s chest. He jumped back when he heard Gardner’s heart still had a distant beat.

Then a deputy stepped up and hoisted Gardner off the ground with his arms wrapped around the man’s waist while Sheri Howell spliced a new strand to the hanging rope at the crosspiece. There Gardner hung suspended on the gallows for fully thirty minutes until the medical examiner pronounced him, finally, expired, not of a hanging’s broken neck but of strangulation. When the examiner lifted the condemned man’s hood his face was purple and his extended tongue was black. Then he was the undertaker’s to deal with.

Upon the realization that his end was coming, Gardner had struck a secret deal with an Elmira physician, Dr. P.H. Flood, himself a Union veteran, to use his body for medical experimentation. The doctor was unwilling to claim the body in public view for fear it would justly raise unanswerable questions. Flood entered the cemetery long after nightfall and uncovered the new grave. Then he moved Gardner’s lifeless form to his office on Water Street via a back alley and at 3 a.m., by gaslight, drained the body of its blood and began dissecting the corpse—heart, liver, lungs, eyes, brain—until Gardner was nothing but torn bits of knifed and desiccated pale flesh. He filled Gardner with embalming fluid until it leaked out of him onto the dissecting table. 

Then he wrapped up what was left in mummy fashion and propped the dead man in a display case in his own upstairs apartments. Flood quietly enjoyed the dead man’s company without discovery for many years, even through the period when the doctor was convicted of financial fraud and then, in a surprising twist of his own fortunes much different than that of his deceased roommate, when Flood was made mayor of Elmira in 1872.

When the doctor died, his son, Henry, considered reburying the corpse but thought the spectacle of a second, more public interment at this late date might be too much for the sensibilities of a newly refined community like Elmira. Mark Twain was spending his summers there after marrying Olivia Langdon in Elmira in 1870, Harriet Beecher Stowe often visited her brother, the Reverend Thomas Beecher, at Park Church, and the city played host to other luminaries for whom revisiting the Gardner history would have been a scandal.

Topping all other considerations in 1884, Henry Flood himself was now mayor of Elmira.

So, the son unwrapped the body and used the skeleton for display in his father’s old doctor’s office there on Water Street. When the windows to the office were open in summertime, young boys dared each other to reach through the window and unknowingly touch the body of someone who had been Elmira’s first Cain.

By the 1890s the “affair of the blue devil” had pretty much been forgotten when Henry Flood quietly removed the skeleton to a barn. Eventually Gardner—looking much the worse for his travels—was found by a group of boys on a Halloween lark who took him “walking” for a distance until they tired of carrying him. The next morning his bones were discovered in a pile at a brewery on East Water Street, where the boys had used him as a prop for a bonfire.

The Elmira Advertiser reported that a brief investigation revealed the identity of the person thought perhaps to be a murder victim was Henry Gardner, to the astonishment of the police. There were some old timers who had been witness to the botched hanging, though they had no idea why Gardner’s bones were not six feet below in Woodlawn Cemetery. Henry Flood, to his extremely delayed credit, then revealed the skeleton’s entire post-mortem history for the police record. The murderer’s bones were at last placed in a box and taken to the city incinerator, where Henry E. Gardner was finally beyond the designs of God or man.

Not to be outdone by the Flood family’s gruesome history concerning the deceased, a second physician, who had been in charge of preparing the body of Gardner’s victim, Amasa Mulock, for burial in 1864, came forward with his own keepsake of the grisly crime: William C. Wey had detached the old wood-chopper’s head and kept the smashed skull on his desk. 

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