On the evening of June 27, 1892, in a St. John’s Street boarding house in South Troy, New York, 66-year-old Thomas Jones was nearing the end of a three-day bender. He was fond of drawing a .32-caliber pistol and showing it off, something Jones had done repeatedly that day, much to the alarm of others. He hadn’t been on the job for several days at the Burden iron works, and had argued repeatedly with a coworker and co-resident of the boarding house, 22-year-old William Wesson, even offering to fight him in a duel. It was dismissed as nothing more than the ramblings of an old, annoying drunk.
Wesson, an Englishman who had been in the country for only nine months, was eating in the kitchen with Jones, a native of Wales who had emigrated nearly thirty years earlier. Edgy banter was exchanged between the two, with Jones boasting of his great marksmanship, and Wesson teasing him about it. There seemed no cause for alarm when Jones suddenly left the room and went upstairs, perhaps planning to sleep it off.
But he returned moments later, stood behind Wesson, aimed his pistol upward just below the man’s left ear, and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing him where he sat. The boarding-house owner (William Gettings) and others came running, only to find Wesson slumped onto the table, food hanging from his mouth and blood pouring from his head. Jones stood over him, gun in hand, before calmly taking a seat.
A doctor was summoned, but Wesson was already dead before he arrived. When police reached the scene and approached Jones, he offered no resistance, saying only, “I’m glad I done it.”
An on-the-spot investigation determined that Thomas Jones was considered a troublemaker when sober, and much more so when he had been drinking, which was often. Shortly before the shooting, he was observed as quite intoxicated by several witnesses who had seen him enter the boarding house. The victim, who had just returned from work, was in an upbeat mood, planning a night on the town after an early supper. But now he was gone, his final meal interrupted by a bullet to the skull.
At his arraignment in November, a plea of guilty was accepted from Jones without determining whether he had an attorney. That error in court procedure was corrected at a second hearing in January 1893, when Jones appeared with counsel, who righted the wrong, reversing the plea to not guilty on behalf of his client. Jury selection took three hours, after which the trial began.
On the witness stand for the prosecution, Emily Gettings, boarding-house landlady, said that whenever Jones possessed money, he spent it on liquor, and that “he was always cranky, whether sober or drunk.” Her husband, William, who was absent at the time of the murder, described a recent incident where Jones bragged about his shooting capabilities, and Wesson replied that the old man couldn’t hit the side of a barn. The argument escalated until Jones challenged Wesson to a duel, and the younger man accepted. According to Gettings, Jones finished with, “Then we’ll go out Monday morning and shoot at each other at so many paces and see who is the best shot.” He had also seen Jones threaten Wesson on other occasions.
John Southall, 70, another boarding-house resident, testified that Wesson’s accordion playing and his habit of whistling irritated Jones, who argued often with the younger man. A neighbor, Emma Potts, described rushing into the Gettings house upon hearing the gunshot. She encountered Jones, who said he had shot Wesson, wasn’t sorry for doing so, and should have done it before. That information was provided to the arresting officer, Pendergast, who swore in court that the murder weapon was found in Jones’s pocket. On the way to the station, when Pendergast told him Wesson was dead, Jones reportedly replied, “I shot to kill.”
Two physicians testified that the bullet penetrated Wesson’s spinal cord, and that “the wound was discolored and charred,” indicating the muzzle had been held very near the skin.
Thomas Jones also took the stand to tell his version of what happened.
“I am in my 67th year, and was born in Devonshire, North Wales. I came to this country in 1865, and have lived in Troy ever since, except two visits to the old country. My wife died 30 years ago, and of my seven children, I have heard nothing in several years. I had boarded with Mrs. Gettings for four or five years and slept with Mr. Southall. I knew William Wesson, and what words we may have had were more in the way of a joke than in anger.
“Monday, June 27, I did not work, Burden’s mills not starting until the next day. I went up-street that day and had several drinks. About six o’clock, I went back home and went into the kitchen. Wesson was sitting in my chair at the table, eating supper. I asked him what he was doing in my chair, and he told me that I was an old fool. ‘You ought to be in your grave,’ said he. Then I don’t remember anything else that happened. I did not intend to shoot William Wesson, and I do not remember any of the circumstances of my arrest, and did not realize what I was in jail for until July 3, when a man read it to me in a newspaper. I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t known before what I was there for, and I was ashamed to ask.
“When I was a miner in Llewellyn, Wales, I was imprisoned in a mine for two days. In the accident my head was hurt, and I have the scar yet. Since I came to this country, my face was filled with powder by a gun exploding. A week or two before June 27, I was sick, being overcome by the heat [sunstroke].”
Under severe cross-examination, Jones maintained that he had no memory of anything after speaking to Wesson in the kitchen.
Next week, the conclusion. This story was excerpted from the author’s 2017 book, Dannemora’s Death House: The Crimes and Fates of 41 Killers Sentenced to Die in Clinton Prison’s Electric Chair.
Photos: Headline, Albany Times-Union (1892); Headline, Troy Daily Times (1893)