Early June marks the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest crime stories in the Adirondack region during the past century. The final days of the manhunt for Richard Matt and David Sweat played out in northern Franklin County, focusing mostly on Malone and the large forest south of the village. By coincidence, one of the biggest crime stories of the 1800s unfolded in the same area and shared some key components: murderers on the loose, a manhunt, and Dickinson Center. Both stories rocked a sparsely populated region, where little of consequence ever seemed to happen.
It began in the unlikeliest of locations—at Sunday church services in the schoolhouse at Thomasville, otherwise known as Dickinson Center (home to Joyce Mitchell). When the prayer session ended, folks dawdled and visited in the customary fashion. Among the attendees that day was 21-year-old James Madison Bickford, who mingled with friends in the school entry before stepping outside.
At that moment, two strangers were passing by on horseback, with each man leading a string of three other horses. Bickford took notice, and any residual glow from Sunday church services was extinguished, replaced by a plan he admittedly concocted on the spot—to follow the two men, murder them, and steal their money. About an hour later, he returned from his nearby home to attend the second church session, sitting piously at attention, but all the while fine-tuning a heartless plan of homicide.
After church, he asked a younger brother, Benton, to accompany him on horseback to a good fishing area east of the Bickford home. At a farm less than two miles away, he found 17-year-old Thomas Cook and asked him to ride along, purportedly to visit Cook’s father’s house to view some newborn calves. Down the road a bit, James sent his younger brother home and related his murderous plan to Cook, suggesting a partnership. By robbing the men, killing them, and stealing their horses, they could get away with it and improve their own financial situation. Thomas agreed.
Stopping at the Cook residence, they secured a gun, but apparently traveling in secrecy didn’t occur to them. Following the Port Kent and Hopkinton Turnpike for the rest of the day, they made a total of nine stops while interacting with other folks. Three times they unsuccessfully tried to borrow a second gun. They visited the home of Henry Meacham, who was married to Cook’s sister, and took supper at the Bentley House at Deer River, where they chatted with three men. During the conversation, Bickford asked if any horses had passed through recently, and if so, where they were headed. The answer was yes, two men with several horses were stopping overnight at Ladd’s place, near the beginning of the forest passage known as the 50 Mile Woods.
At about midnight, Bickford and Cook arrived at Ladd’s, where they drank water from the well, made certain the horses they were pursuing were in the barn, and plotted to waylay the two men. Entering the 50 Mile Woods at daybreak, they selected a sharp turn a few miles down the road as a good place to attack their targets (about ten miles southeast of where Richard Matt was killed). Only Bickford had a gun, but Thomas carried a hatchet. Together they finalized a plan: as the men slowed for the turn, James would hopefully shoot both of them with a single bullet. If it worked, Thomas was to grab the horses before they ran off. If only one man were shot, Thomas would use the hatchet to prevent the second man from leaving while James reloaded. But if necessary, Cook would use the hatchet to kill.
The men—Wright Van Tassell and John Secor, both from New Castle in Westchester County—arrived soon after, and a gunshot echoed through the woods as Secor suddenly fell from his mount. Any semblance to the boys’ plan ended there. The men had been riding about 15 feet apart, so they couldn’t be taken with one shot (which was of course a terrible plan to begin with). James began walking toward Van Tassell, who yelled, “What the devil do you mean in shooting like that,” or words to that effect. Bickford stepped off the road to reload, but Van Tassell reversed direction and escaped. Cook, having fallen in the woods, failed to stop him. Bickford then took a watch and pocketbook from Secor’s motionless form before they departed the scene. Heading west, they entered the woods and paralleled the road, at some point hiding the gun and hatchet beneath a log.
Arriving at what today is Route 30, they decided to head north for Malone and ride the train home, apparently oblivious to the trail of suspicion they had left all the way from Dickinson Center. Passing the site where Richard Matt was killed in 2015, they generally followed the path David Sweat had taken north to Malone.
Wright Van Tassel, meanwhile, had raced back to Ladd’s and reported the attack. Several men rushed to the site and found Secor’s body by the road. Without delay, a coroner’s inquest was held, which quickly determined that the prime suspects were James Bickford and Thomas Cook. Whether it was arrogance or imbecility, they had left a plethora of clues by making so many stops, visiting with so many people, and asking questions about the two men traveling with several horses.
A manhunt utilizing lawmen and citizens began. It was discovered that their quarry had stopped for dinner at a man’s house and, unbelievably, failed to concoct a story, instead telling him the truth—that they were headed for Malone to take the train. Just before sunset, two men were seen running into the woods south of the village. Guards were stationed on roads nearby, and in the morning, men swarmed into the woods. But just like in 2015, when the anticipated capture of Sweat near Matt’s death scene met with disappointment, searchers swept the woods and found no evidence of the fugitives.
Bickford and Cook had somehow eluded their pursuers and veered eight miles northeast to Burke. Approaching the train station there early in the morning, they encountered a friend of Bickford’s. After a brief conversation that apparently included a warning, James jumped a fence and headed away from the depot. But exit points from the area had been placed under surveillance, which paid off. As Cook continued walking, he was arrested by officers in wait. Seeing this, Bickford broke into a run, stopped briefly, and then ran again, but was chased down—roughly six miles from where David Sweat was captured in similar fashion. At around noon, bells were rung in Malone and a cannon was fired, the accepted signal in those days to begin or end a search.
Where Bickford had briefly stopped running, officers found poorly hidden booty—Secor’s watch, and his pocketbook containing $374. Had James kept running, escape was at least possible, but pausing to hide crucial evidence allowed his easy capture, and provided proof that he was the killer they sought.
Six weeks after the crime was committed, Bickford’s trial on murder charges began, with Cook’s to follow at the conclusion. The evidence was overwhelming, including testimony from witnesses the boys had visited while pursuing their victims. Bickford’s father took the stand in his defense, offering some fairly cringeworthy explanations for his son having been near the murder scene and possessing so much money. A reporter described the father as “contradictory and evasive” during cross-examination, and no one bought his story, including the jury, which reached a guilty verdict. Next came Cook, who attempted to plead guilty. But for capital charges, the court required a trial, which handed Thomas the same fate. Both were sentenced to hang on September 22, just over three months after the murder.
Because Cook was younger, of less-than-average intelligence, didn’t actually harm anyone, and had been recruited by Bickford, several residents signed a petition seeking clemency for him. Accompanying the petition was a statement made by Bickford to the county sheriff, asserting that Cook knew nothing about the shooting in advance, and also wasn’t responsible for the robbery.
James later denied making the statement, apparently leaving his accomplice to fend for himself. However, the sheriff, who had recorded the statement, stood by it despite Bickford’s retraction.
After extended counseling from a local reverend, James became immersed in religion while preparing for death. Whether intentionally used as a tactic or not, that practice often aided the legal system in certifying the truth, for spiritual advisors maintained that in order to attain a satisfactory afterlife, criminals must unburden themselves of all sinful secrets; in other words, risk burning in hell, or confess.
A month prior to his execution date, Bickford did just that, preparing a full confession and answering a series of questions about the crime. He stipulated that none of it could be revealed until after his death, which came on the scheduled date in Malone’s jail yard, and was succinctly described by an unnamed reporter. “… the sheriff directed his arms to be tied, the cap drawn over his face, and the rope adjusted, which being done, the cord was severed, and James M. Bickford was launched into eternity. His struggles were unusually protracted from the fact that the spinal column or neck was not broken.”
Cook was not executed, having won clemency from the governor. Instead, he was consigned to Clinton Prison in Dannemora, where he remained for about 14 years. The circumstances of his fate are not entirely clear except that within a decade of his release, he was dead. Cook had reportedly moved to Pennsylvania, where both he and his wife died when a “torpedo” exploded beneath their bed. (Torpedos were powerful explosive devices lowered into oil wells and detonated, fracturing the strata and dramatically increasing a well’s output. After dominating the industry, that type of fracking was eventually replaced with a different method widely familiar today—hydraulic fracking.)
It was never determined whether Cook’s death was murder, suicide, or accidental. His sister, mentioned earlier in this story as the wife of Henry Meacham, had also met a violent end back when Thomas was in prison. In 1865, after she and Henry split over her infidelity, Meacham murdered her and committed suicide in the house where she was living.
Photo: David Sweat and Richard Matt (NYS Police, 2015); New York Tribune headline (June 1853)