Over a hundred years ago, Lowville and Watertown papers held readers’ attention with headlines such as “A Woman Murdered”, “Struck in the Head”, “Murderer Caught”, and “Fulton Chain Murder”. The murderer escaped from the scene, was caught by authorities and later jailed at Auburn State Prison. No, this murder did not occur at Big Moose Lake and the evidence did not point to Chester Gillette. And while this murder caused much excitement and newsprint, a movie never resulted.
On September 21, 1899, at about 10 in the evening, Horace Norton struck Nellie Widrick, supposedly his wife, with an axe on the Moose River Lock and Dam building’s porch and subsequently fled from the scene. What follows is their story.
The Crime Scene. In 1888, at a place on the north branch of the Moose River called Little Rapids that Nessmuk loved to run, Dwight Grant built a lock and dam that would allow a steamer, The Fawn, to bridge the rapids, enabling it to port near the Forge House in Fulton Chain (Thendara) originally run by the Arnolds. At this point, The Fawn discharged passengers and cargo picked up from the fabled Peg Leg Railroad built through the De Camp lands which terminated at Jones’ Camp, later called Minnehaha. After Dr. Webb’s line began in 1892, the railroad no longer ran and the ship was only used for brief excursions.
By 1899, W. S. deCamp still owned a building at the lock and dam which formerly housed the lockkeeper. It was formerly rented by a man named Wheeler (Wheeler Pond) and in January, 1899, was ransacked during a brawl between visiting lumbermen and guides which completely ruined the furniture, windows and doors. After shutting up the building for nine months, deCamp rented the house in September to Henry Bridgman who began a boarding house for the workers at his violin sounding board mill near Old Forge. One of the workers was Horace Norton aged 41, a carpenter, and another was his wife, Nellie Norton aged 58 but youthful in appearance, who cooked for Norton and six other boarders.
Horace Norton and Nellie Widrick. Most of the information about this couple came out in testimony by relatives during trial and reported in the papers.
Horace Norton, a native of Turin, worked primarily as a carpenter and laborer. His first wife died in 1883, leaving two children. Horace married again in Turin around 1887, which lasted about six years until she became insane. At the time of the murder, the wife and her sister were in the Ogdensburg asylum.
Norton worked for a Mrs. Clark from November 1893 to September the next year; Mrs. Clark also had “known” Horace for a year and half prior to that time. At the time of the murder in 1899, she lived alone with her daughter, running her farm a half mile from Turin. Horace lived most of his adult life in Glenfield where acquaintances claimed the worst to be said of him was that “he has a bad temper and is inclined to be treacherous”. He also was employed in Camden in his line of work where he met Nellie. The winter before the murder he was employed as a logger at Copper Lake to the west of Minnehaha. Also, Nellie did the cooking for the lumber camp.
Nellie Widrik was a resident of Camden. For a period of time, she lived with a Mr. Gibbins of McConnellsville and later as the wife of a Mr. Schoville in Camden and another by the name of Drumm.
Horace and Nellie formed a relationship and traveled together at Turin, Glenfield and Brantingham in the course of a year prior to the murder. Nellie’s mother thought they had married over the summer.
It was rumored that Horace had told Nellie that he had a large tract in the wilderness near Fulton Chain and they could live in a clearing, clear some more land, cultivate it, build a house and live together in some degree of wealth. They went to that area in the summer; she didn’t like it and returned to her home in Camden.
At the beginning of September, 1899, Horace returned to Camden. On one occasion he threatened to toss her from a bridge for cheating on him but a joint acquaintance appeared on the scence and convinced him not to believe all he hears. He subsequently convinced her to return to Fulton Chain on September 6, obtaining jobs with Mr. Bridgman’s boarding house as mill carpenter and boardinghouse cook. She was known to everyone as his wife.
The murder. In the days leading up to the murder, Horace repeatedly accused Nellie of being too cozy with one of the boarders. Upon telling boarders that Horace even threatened suicide, they did not take it serious. On the evening of September 22, they went on a boat ride on the Moose River, they quarreled and Horace threatened to drown himself. They returned to the house around 9 p.m. and quarreling continued. The boarders heard a heavy fall, went downstairs and viewed the scene. Expecting only that Horace had only struck her, they were dazed at the sight of Nellie laying apparently dead on her back with a deep axe wound crushing her skull and severing her right ear.
Coming to the porch, the boarders had seen Horace run across the lock into the woods. Law authorities, lumbermen and guides joined the chase and Horace was still on the run when the murder appeared in the papers, alarming the population.
The Chase and Capture. After the murder, Horace ran down Webb’s tracks to Onekio, a stop just north of the Minnehaha station, opposite the Okara lakes and a name not now appearing on area maps except for rail buffs. He then took the old Moose River road through the woods, and slept at a barn near Fowlersville Friday night, September 22. On Saturday, he dug potatoes from a field, made a fire and roasted them for dinner. The next day he broke into a vacant home, taking two loaves of bread. He slept in different barns on Sunday and Monday nights and on Tuesday, arrived at the home of his former employer and acquaintance, the unmarried Mrs. Clark.
He asked her for food and received some bread. Mrs. Clark had heard of the murder, knew him as the suspect and was expected to be afraid. Apparently, she thought he then left. He continued to steal milk and took apples from her orchards. After noticing milk missing from her cans for the next few nights, not thinking it was Norton, she notified authorities that he had been in the neighborhood. The sheriff and a deputized tinsmith arrived on the scene Saturday night and lay in wait for the next two nights.
On Sunday night they witnessed a man step up on the milk platform to the can with a dipper about to drink and the sheriff came up from behind, saying “I want you, Norton”. At this point, the Lowville paper describes it best.
“Then the fun commenced. Norton, with his heavy dipper rapped Munson (the sheriff) a heavy blow over the head and made an attempt to get away. He jumped from the platform, but Munson held to his clothing. Nickerson (the deputy)took a hand and together the two made an effort to make Norton a prisoner. Norton was infuriated. He had the strength of a wild man, and for several minutes he successfully fought the combined strength of Munson and Nickerson. Munson succeeded in hitting him a blow over the head with a loaded billy (club), and knocked him to the ground, but he jumped up immediately and made the struggle more fierce. Then he snatched the handcuffs, a heavy pair, away from the officer and made a vicious attempt to hit Munson over the head. First he had Munson by the throat and then he had Nickerson. They fought over the distance of at least a rod, until finally Norton was backed up against the house, and then against the kitchen door of Mrs. Clark’s residence. The door pushed in and Norton fell to the floor. At this time Munson had an iron grip on his throat and Norton begged that he let up. The prisoner was subdued.”
Nickerson, with his gun in his right hand, had hold of Norton’s right hand and the gun went off, going through Norton’s clothing and grazing his breast bone and ribs. He was later treated and imprisoned until trial. During questioning, Norton said he saw the two men looking in the barn where he was hiding, but didn’t think they were looking for him.
The Trial and Sentence. Horace always claimed innocence, no one witnessing the murder. He didn’t help his case by being on the run for nine days. Letters were introduced from him which convinced Nellie to return to the Fulton Chain and he made the arrangements with Mr. Bridgman. When captured, Horace claimed knowing nothing of the murder and that he intended to leave that night, drawing his final pay. He said Nellie said she would kill herself if he left, but that he quarreled more and told her to go ahead. He thought she would and hid himself so it wouldn’t be blamed on him.
At the trial, character witnesses testified on his behalf, the murder weapon was shown to have blood and Nellie’s hair on it, and Nellie’s former husband testified he was in the Fulton Chain area at the time. Horace never knew of that affair. He continued to claim she didn’t want to go with him and she was fine when he left her at the spot her body lay lifeless. Also, Mrs. Clark contradicted testimony claiming she set her lamps so that they wouldn’t illuminate the milk cans.
Horace Norton was pronounced guilty of murder in the second degree by a jury which deliberated for ten hours. Premeditation could not be proved. Horace was sentenced to life imprisonment to be served at Auburn prison.
Some closing thoughts. The Lowville and Watertown papers carried the murder, capture and trial as major events. The Lowville paper expressed concerns that this was the most expensive trial in Herkimer County’s history even though the couple were residents for only 17 days. Was it jealousy and did Horace want to return to a relationship with an unmarried woman of property, Mrs. Clark, who now had a daughter? Why did Mrs. Clark wait a few days before informing authorities that Norton was in the area? Though Norton said he saw Munson and Nickerson in the barn, why did he think they were not looking for him? And why didn’t her lamp shine on the milk cans?
Photo: The house Nellie was murdered in (courtesy Goodsell Museum).