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A Victorian Murder in the Newtown, Easton, Redding Frontier
By Daniel Cruson- Forwarded to me by Dennis Paget

A decade ago one of my students embarked on an independent study project that she ultimately could not complete, but which unexpectedly yielded a rare view into a seamy episode of Newtown's history. She lived in a converted barn in Redding, on Stepney Road, near where the Easton, Redding and Newtown boundaries meet. The story she wanted to investigate involved a young man named Rudolf Stauffer who had once lived in the house for which her converted house had been the barn. Stauffer supposedly died in jail for having murdered one of his neighbors.

By the end of the semester my student had uncovered three versions of the story, each of which differed from the others in significant details. As often happens in local history research, she had run into a dead end before she had been able to establish much certainty in the case behind the following facts: The murder had been committed and Stauffer had been convicted of the crime. He had been sent jail where he died some time shortly before June 21, 1913, which is the date on his headstone in the Redding Ridge cemetery. The only other points all agreed on were that he was a recent German immigrant who had a fiery temper. Even such essential facts as the date of the murder and the name of the victim remained a mystery.

A lucky break that led to a partial solution to this mystery came through a remarkable coincidence. One afternoon, more than a year after the project had ended, I found myself in pleasant conversation with a former Redding town clerk on matters of local history completely unrelated to murder. At one point, the topic of conversation turned to some old issues of the Danbury Evening News published in the 1880's that had come in to possession of Judge Hjarmal Anderson, a retired Redding probate judge. In those papers the judge had found an account of a local murder which had excited him and thus led him to talk about it to anyone who would listen. Although the second hand account of this murder was short on details, it reminded me of the Stauffer case; and so, two days later, I found myself sitting in Judge Anderson's living room with a newspaper article in my hand. It contained the first of several chapters of a story that remains both bizarre and remarkably modern in tone.

It turns out that Stauffer was not Stauffer but Stoffel. Apparently his family later changed the name, probably as a result of the scandal. Rudolf Stoffel was, in fact, a recent German immigrant, having come to this country in 1873. He settled in the Palestine district of Newtown where he lived for a couple years before moving to his permanent home in Redding, which still stands on the north side of Stepney Road, just west of the intersection with Park Avenue.

Besides doing some light farming, Stoffel was a charcoal burner, an occupation near bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum. It involved spending a couple of weeks in the woods cutting about four cords of wood and stacking them carefully in a large mound measuring roughly 10 to 12 feet high. This mound was then covered over with dirt, leaving a small air hole at the bottom where the wood was set afire. The pile would then smolder for the next week, while Stoffel lived next to it, watching to make sure that flames did not erupt and turn the wood to ash rather than the more lucrative charcoal. Once the charcoal was ready, it was packed into bushel baskets and carted to Bridgeport by wagons. There is was sold to factories as fuel for their steam engines. Charcoal burning involved a great deal of labor for very little remuneration.

Early in June of 1888, a violent argument arose between Stoffel and a moderately wealthy farmer named Andrew W. Peck who lived on the eastern end of Town's End Road, which at that time ran between Eden Hill Road in Newtown and Poverty Hollow Road in Redding. The argument concerned Stoffel's dog, who had been caught wandering into Peck's pastures and harassing his cattle. The argument ended with Peck threatening to kill the dog if he caught him in his pasture again. A couple of days later the dog was back and Peck carried out his threat. This was followed a few days later by another altercation that erupted when Stoffel trespassed into Peck's pasture in search of some calves that had strayed there by mistake. Peck immediately rushed over and grabbed Stoffel by the throat, where upon Stoffel threw Peck to the ground and proceeded to beat him savagely. The fracas ended when Peck's housekeeper appeared on the scene brandishing a revolver. Stoffel retreated but not without harboring an intense fury that would play an important role in the events of the next morning.

At 5:00 Friday morning, June 8, 1888, Peck arose and began his habitual pre-breakfast chores. As he opened his front door, a shotgun blast erupted from behind the stone wall that bounded Peck's front yard. According to the medical examiner who visited the scene of the crime that afternoon, Peck's body was "...Found in the doorway in a sitting position, the head against the open door. The right foot was inside the door and the left foot was outside with the hands lying on the thighs." An external examination of the body revealed that about 50 pieces of shot had struck Peck's body, mostly on the left side. Death was formally established as having been caused by a shotgun blast, the shot from which "...Produced a hemorrhage in the sac of the heart, completely filling the sac. One shot was also found in the stomach and two in the intestines.".

The shooting was reported by Jennie Alice Lockwood, Peck's housekeeper (or, as she later claimed, his wife). She had been in an adjoining room when she heard the shot and allegedly heard Peck cry out, "Alice, Alice, I am shot! Get up and go for help! Rudolf did it!".

When several neighbors told the authorities about the arguments between the two men, Stoffel became an immediate suspect and was subsequently arrested. Also linking Stoffel to the crime was a package of Yellow Jacket smoking tobacco found where the assailant had waited in ambush. This was determined to be the brand of tobacco that Stoffel frequently purchased at Henry Whitfield;s Redding Ridge market. A search of Stoffel's house produced another package of the same tobacco, and there was a hole in the left pocket of his coat through which the package of Yellow Jacket tobacco had apparently fallen at the crime scene. In addition, that same incriminating tobacco package bore black handprints of the type that could only have been made by the chronically dirty hands of a charcoal burner. Further incriminating the young German immigrant were fresh tracks leading from Peck's house and across the marsh to Stoffel's. According to the investigating officers, the tracks were identified by their shape and size as Stoffel's.

By Sunday night, Stoffel had been incarcerated in the "little lock up down below the Congregational Church". This building, which served as a town jail from 1876 until it burned shortly after 1905, was located at 8 West Street, where Paul Hart's house now stands. According to the testimony of John C. Gay, who was in charge of the jail at the time, the building was "...Built of wood, about 20 feet square, and standing one story high." It consisted of one large room with two cells in the back, or north side of the building. The walls consisted of "two thickness of matched pine boards with studding between them." Stoffel was securely locked into the eastern cell of with a large padlock.

By midnight, the officers guarding the structure grew weary and, convinced that Stoffel was safely locked away, left for the night. Stoffel immediately went to work hammering on the pine boards with a large eight by eight inch rock he had concealed in his clothes before being locked up. He succeeded in cracking through some of the pine boards, but not enough to escape. It was then that he put his skills as a charcoal burner to work. Using some matches he had somehow stolen from the main jail room while being processed, he set fire to the cracked boards, then smothered them with his mattress. By the time the officers returned the next morning, Stoffel had burned a hole through both the inner and outer partitions, large enough to crawl through. He was on the verge of doing so when the returning officers appeared and stopped him. The attempted escape did nothing to improve his subsequent defense efforts.

By Wednesday afternoon a preliminary trial was convened in the old town hall, which stood on the site of Edmond Town Hall in Newtown until 1929. Although the evidence was circumstantial, Justice Dayton concluded that it was sufficient for a trial. Stoffel was bound over to the Superior Court and transferred to a Bridgeport jail, which proved much more substantial than the Newtown facility.

Although he had been arrested and indicted, Stoffel was not the only suspect in this case. Early speculation was that Mary Peck, who claimed to be the divorced wife of Andrew Peck, may have been the murderess. She had a child whose father, she alleged, was Peck. She had a strong motive to get rid of Peck so that he child, should their marriage be proved valid, could inherit his estate estimated by the Probate Court at $6,620.83, a considerable sum in the 1880's. Mary Peck did not commit the murder, but she kept appearing in subsequent stories relating to the case so that by the end of Stoffel's trial, a much clearer picture of Andrew and Mary Peck emerged. The circumstances of their relationship makes a relatively mundane murder case truly bizarre.

Andrew Peck was born in Hattertown in 1834, but his father, who had three wives and was reputedly in constant trouble with women, was forced to move to Poultny, New York, because of an undisclosed "problem with a woman." He took his family, including Andrew, with him. It was there on December 9, 1855, that Andrew married Mary, only 16 at the time. Three years after the marriage, she became pregnant and bore a daughter, who later became Mrs. Metta Elizabeth Shuart. Even before the girl was born, however, Peck deserted his family and returned to Newtown. He and Mary were legally divorced in 1861. The notices of the impending divorce proceedings, however, were published in local newspapers; thus Mary, who was still in upstate New York, never saw them. Consequently, the court proceedings went against her by default, with Andrew gaining his divorce on the grounds that Mary had deserted him.

Some 20 years after the divorce decree (that she knew nothing about) was granted, Mary found out that Andrew was living in the southwestern area of Newtown. She had learned of his whereabouts from a letter sent to her by Andrew's brother-in-law. The reason for this letter, which was dated 1882, is not clear, but it created a round of letters between Andrew and his former wife. Finally, he sent Mary some money and invited her to join him, which she accepted. The divorced couple lived together on Town's End Road for two years under stormy circumstances until 1885 when she left him and returned to Rochester where she had lived before learning of Andrew's whereabouts. Six months later, Mary was back in Connecticut; but at least twice more she took off to New York, returning to Andrew each time within a few months. These New York trips are shrouded in mystery. Later newspaper accounts claim she was running a "house of ill repute" in Rochester before coming to Newtown the first time. Her frequent return trips to Rochester may have been connected with her former profession, or perhaps she was simply eager to get away from Andrew for a while.

When Mary returned for the last time in August of 1887, Andrew was living with Jennie Alice Lockwood, a former nurse at Bridgeport Hospital. Mary stayed with the couple for several days, but soon found the situation intolerable. She had her things moved to Albert Platt's house, located about a mile west of the Peck homestead. There she was described as "living in criminal intimacy" with Platt at the time of Andrew's murder. Oddly, Mark Peck was the first person Jennie Lockwood contacted after she realized Andrew Peck had been killed.

Jennie Alice Lockwood's relationship with Peck, and her role in the events of June 8, became clear only after several months of newspaper articles had revealed the latest aspects of the case. Initially, Jennie staunchly maintained that she and Peck had been married a few months before his death, and that he had written a will leaving his estate to her. Not surprisingly, neither a marriage certificate nor a will was ever found. A subsequent local news item reveals that Lockwood's testimony concerning Peck's last words was hopelessly unreliable. One witness, William Gilbert, testified in court that Jennie was under the influence of morphine at the time, a substance to which she was addicted. In fact, according to one source, police officers found "84 bottles that contained the drug in her bedroom, beside a large number of empty bottles." Gilbert further testified that she could not possibly have been aroused from her sleep when the fatal shot was fired.

An interesting footnote to Jennie Lockwood was added by Judge Anderson. He remembered her from when he was a child, not long after the turn of the century. According to him, she would appear in Redding and stay for six months or so and then disappear, only to reappear somewhat later for another "visit," staying at a different house, with a different man. The judge was too young to fully understand the situation, but he remembered the disapproving whispers of his parents and other adults in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Rudolf Stoffel languished in his Bridgeport jail cell. Since he did not have enough money to post bail, he was forced to stay there through the following winter. Finally, by March of 1889, the trial was ready to begin. The press corps, including the eager reporter from The Newtown Bee, gathered at the Fairfield County Court House in Bridgeport to cover this sensational trial, which began on March 13, 1889. Compared to the personalities and bizarre nature of the crime, the trial was actually rather dull. A parade of 30 witnesses was produced by the prosecution and defense, consisting mostly of neighbors who had known either Peck or Stoffel, knew about their arguments, or had been at the crime scene on the day of the murder. Other witnesses gave detailed accounts of Stoffel's arrest, the events subsequent to that arrest, and the search for further clues at his house. Evidence was given on the Yellow Jacket tobacco package and a mysterious vial of powder that had been discovered near the rock wall behind which the murderer had fired the fatal shot. All witnesses agreed that these items had been covered by soot-blackened handprints and smelled of charcoal. Much testimony was also devoted to the footprints found in front of Peck's house, leading across the oat field toward Stoffel's property. Detailed comparisons were made with Stoffels' boots, and endless questions were asked regarding his movements over the previous two or three days to determine if the footprints could have been made by him well before the murder.

The one piece of crucial evidence still missing, however, was the murder weapon. Stoffel admitted he owned a gun, but he swore that it had been in the possession of a neighbor, James Tyler, for some time and therefore could not be the murder weapon. This was confirmed by Tyler. Rumors of a second gun arose, but a thorough search of Stoffel's house and the land between his house and Peck's could produce no such weapon.

Such was the state of the case when it went to the jury on Friday, March 21. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jurors announced they were deadlocked. Because the trial had already cost the public about $5,000, the judge ordered the jury to try again, but by noon on the following day, the situation was deemed hopeless. One jury member from Weston voted adamantly for murder in the first degree. Two others (from Trumbull and Weston) insisted on a verdict of murder in the second degree. The other nine jurors, who remained unconvinced by the circumstantial evidence, agreed there was a reasonable doubt and so held out for acquittal. The jury was dismissed and Stoffel returned to jail to await retrial. The general feeling among the public was that Stoffel was not guilty. He himself, along with his lawyer, felt confident that, because the majority of jurors voted for acquittal, he would be set free by the next jury. Stoffel, in fact, felt so confident of his impending release that he made a fatal mistake.

It so happened that the prison in which Stoffel was being held was badly overcrowded. As a result, each cell contained two prisoners. Stoffel's cellmate was a young German named Carl Meyer, who had been charged with manslaughter. Stoffel quickly took the new man into his confidence and told him the story of the murder, confessing everything. He even told Meyer where he had hidden the murder weapon. He urged Meyer, should he manage to get out of prison, to see "the old woman" (by which he mean his wife) and "fix" the gun.

Upon his release, Meyer wasted no time in making the short trip to Redding, where he was welcomed by Stoffel's wife, Mary. Shortly after the murder, she had located the gun where her husband had hastily hidden it, abut 12 feet off the path that ran between the houses of the murdered man and his murderer. She then hid the murder weapon deep in the woods where it could not be found by the search parties. With Meyer's help she procured the gun and they proceeded to dismantle it. The stock was burned and the lock and other metal parts were buried in the basement. The barrel was buried 18 inches deep in her garden and cabbages were planted over it to hide the freshly dug soil.

After finishing his term, Meyer's partner in crime, one William Stetson, joined him in Redding and stayed in the area through that summer. A few months later, perhaps feeling some qualms of conscience, the two men returned to Bridgeport and confided in Reverend William Ritzmann, pastor of the German Baptist Church. He advised them to tell the Newtown authorities what they knew, but the two men decided they had enough of American Law and left town to settle somewhere in Long Island. Reverend Ritzmann contacted the authorities himself and the witnesses were tracked down. After hearing the full story from them, the authorities returned to the Stoffel's home, apprising his wife of the situation and requesting the gun parts that she and Meyer's had "fixed." Realizing the story was out, Mary Stoffel confessed that her husband had, in fact, murdered Peck. She then disinterred the gun barrel and retrieved the other parts.

At this point, James Tyler, the neighbor who lived just across the border in Easton, revealed that he had been in contact with Stoffel shortly after the murder had occurred. Afraid that Stoffel would be acquitted and come after him, Tyler was reluctant to testify at first, but when he learned that confessions had been obtained from Stoffel's cellmate and Mary Stoffel, Tyler proceeded to tell what he knew concerning the immediate aftermath of the murder. At about 6:00 in the morning, a half hour after Peck was shot, Stoffel had asked Tyler to help him hoe his potatoes. Stoffel claimed he was sick and feared he was going to die. Tyler refused, claiming he was sick, too. Their negotiation continued, with ever-increasing amounts of money offered and Stoffel growing increasingly agitated. In the words of the officials as they took down Tyler's testimony:

"Almost every five minutes, Rudolf would nervously ask what time it was. When I asked about the latest quarrel with Peck. He replied, 'Yes. He locked up my cattle and I would have thumped him, only that woman of his was back of a big rock with a pistol.'

"Peck threatened to break the Dutchman's head," said Tyler.

"Vell, he no break dis Dutchman;s head," Rudolf answered savagely.

"Why no?"

"Oh, you'll find out when the officers come down about 3 o'clock"

"Peck may come with them"

"No he won't!"

"But why not?"

"Oh, never mind! Have a drink of cider brandy."

Rudolf then fell back on the bed and repeated: "Oh, I am so sick! Put your ear down here and I'll tell you why Peck won't come down"

Then, with scarcely a pause, he uttered this oath: "Because I shot him...I got where he could not see he and when he came out I let a drive at him. You ought to have seen him jump when the shot struck and stung him. He jumped like a grasshopper."

With Tyler's testimony, Stoffel lost all chance of escaping justice and his lawyer finally convinced him to confess. Soon the rest of the story emerged. Rudolf had resolved to kill Peck long before the actual murder and had stalked him on several occasions. One night, a short time before the murder, Stoffel took his gun and pistol and set out to waylay Peck. Just as the neighbor appeared, however, Stoffel's hired hand happened by, forcing Rudolf to defer his plans.

On the day before the murder, Stoffel had taken a load of charcoal to Bridgeport to sell. As was his habit, he stopped at several saloons on his way home and had several drinks in each. At every stop he repeated his quarrel with Peck to anyone who would listen, and to many who wouldn't. At each telling, the story became more impassioned, until the last man with whom he spoke heard him say with a savage force, "I shoot him!"

After arriving home close to midnight, Stoffel turned out the horses and armed himself with is gun, a pistol and a knife. He then proceeded to Peck's house and hid behind the front wall. There he waiting in a drunken stupor from 12:00 until 5:30 in the morning. Although drunk, his brain was clear enough to fill Peck with 50 pieces of buckshot, then watch his victim dance in the throes of death.

This confession is almost the last chapter in a murder case that took 18 months before a conviction was obtained, and it has taken most of the last 15 years to rediscover and piece it back together. On October 12, 1889, Stoffel appeared before Judge Prentice of the Superior Court in Bridgeport and pleaded guilty to one count of second degree murder. For this he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Wethersfield State prison, a sentence that only ended with his death in 1913.

The case, however, continued to appear in the local newspapers off and on for the next two years. Peck's estate remained in contention, and every time the Probate Court tried to close it, the press would recap the murder and speculate about who had the latest claim to Peck's money. The estate moved toward a final settlement in January of 1890. Mary Peck had just suffered a stroke and could not appear at the probate hearing, but evidence was supplied to proved that Metta E. Shuart nee Peck was born on March 15, 1859, at the Yates County Poor House and was the child of Andrew and Mary Peck. Metta bounced around between various foster homes until her early 20's. She finally met her father in Jersey City during one of the periods when he and her mother were living together in Newtown, and he invited Metta to come live with them. This arrangement lasted several weeks but ultimately failed because she refused to marry a man that her father had picked out for her. She returned to Rochester where she met and married Milton Shuart in 1886, just two years before her father was murdered. The remainder of Peck's estate, which was now worth $4,000, was finally awarded to Mrs. Shuart in December of 1891, almost two years after her mother first tried to establish her as the legitimate heir.

In light of the events of 1888, it is obvious that the southwest corner of Newtown was truly a local frontier area. It was farthest away from the moral scrutiny of the town authorities not only of Newtown, but also Easton and Redding, and therefore its denizens were pretty much left alone. Because of this, men and women of dubious character gravitated to the area and were left alone unless or until a crime was committed which was of such a heinous nature that it could not be ignored. Such was the case when Stoffel buried his anger in Peck in the form of 50 pieces of buckshot.

As for Andrew Peck, the town was probably better off with his death. One contemporary newspaper describing him as follows: "Peck has been for years a notorious character, being in fact regarded by his country acquaintances as a sort of moral outlaw. He was never married, but had one or more dissolute females living with him as his wife. Notwithstanding his generally bad reputation, he was an energetic farmer and a shrewd and thrifty businessman. Being possessed of a contentious and overbearing disposition, a sharp tongue and few scruples of any kind, it is not strange that he was continuously embroiled in petty quarrels with his neighbors." It was also not strange that Peck would kill an offending dog or, when confronted by an equally contentious and hot tempered German immigrant, be shot and killed himself.


A special thank you to Dennis Paget for forwarding me this information. The Paget's own the Stoffel homestead and have done a wonderful job restoring it.

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