Sunday, June 2, 2013

Excuse Me, But Is That An Original Antoine le Blanc?

American History is full of weird events. The relationship between some wallets and Antoine le Blanc is one of those historical oddities. Some times when writing I notice myself sticking to events that take place in my own home state, New Jersey and wondering, how could people have forgotten about this. In this case though, I still can not see how this piece of history is forgotten due to... well, due to every aspect of it. It involves murder, mystery, technology and some wallets. So how does this all link together? Sit back, and be prepared to be shocked, entertained and maybe even disgusted.

America during the 19th century was the land of opportunity, well at least from the outside looking in. Millions of immigrants flooded to the shores of America in search of a new life that would ultimately lead to champagne and caviar dreams. One such person was a Frenchman by the name of Antoine le Blanc. He arrived in April of 1833. The reason for him coming to the states? Love...and of course money. See back home, le Blanc had a sweetheart Marie. Unfortunate for him, Marie's parents felt le Blanc wasn't good enough for their daughter, so he set sail for the U.S. with the goal of making mountains of cash in order to wed his dream girl. Only after 3 days in New York City, le Blanc was contracted to work on Samuel Sayres' farm in Morristown, New Jersey. this is were our story takes a turn for the worse not just for le Blanc, but the Sayres family as well.

The Sayres were desperate for work. They were an older couple, with no sons, a few other workers and a young teenage slave girl to work their lands. The work on the farm would be hard work, much harder than le Blanc was interested in doing. le Blanc was not the ideal worker either. He tended to shy away from the strenuous labor that was 1830s farm labor. He spoke almost no English and the Sayres and other workers spoke no French. There was also the complaints about his habits, cigar smoking, lack of showering, you know, typical complaints about the French. Needless to say all this began to add up and the tension between le Blanc and the Sayres was so thick, well you could cut it with a knife.

So on the night of May 11, 1833 le Blanc was in the local tavern really pounding down the hard cider. Sometime during his binge drinking he had the idea to kill the Sayres. He returned to the farm and proceeded to kill Samuel Sayres and his wife Sarah, in the barn, with a shovel and then buried their bodies in a pile of manure. He then kill their slave Phoebe, in her room, with a club, pitchfork or axe the accounts all seem to vary. After the murders, le Blanc then stole everything of value in the Sayre home that wasn't nailed down. He changed into one of his victims suits and rode off into the night heading to New York Harbor. His plan was to pawn the stolen goods, pocket some cash and head back to France to his waiting Marie. However, le Blanc didn't secure the stolen goods very well and left a trail of valuables to the area were he was staying, which was followed by Sheriff George Ludlow and his posse. le Blanc was then caught at the Mosquito Tavern (a very happening 19th century Tavern) in Hackensack Meadows, present day Jersey City. There le Blanc was taken into custody and returned to Morristown for trial.

The case was pretty cut and dry. le Blanc confessed to the murders, the jury took only 20 minutes to convict and Judge Gabriel Ford ordered the hanging. Pretty standard stuff if you ask me. Yet there is a twist, after le Blanc's sentence was carried out his body was to be given to science by order of the court. Looking back it really just saved some time and paperwork. Most bodies given to science were stolen from graves, so Judge Ford just cut out the illegalities that would follow the execution. On a side not almost 12,000 people went to watch the execution, 5 times the population of Morristown at the time, and most were women. The reason, well le Blanc was going to be executed in a new style of gallows, one where the sentenced is jerked upward instead of dropped below. But back to the story, and yes there is still more...but what can be left?

So as le Blanc's body was removed from the gallows it made its way to Princeton University. There the body was used to test the effect of electrical current on the human body. It was a success as the notes of Dr. Joseph Henry marks that le Blanc's limbs would tense, eyes would move and there is even a not about le Blanc's face muscles tensing up causing him to grin. Ok, so  aside from creepy post death experiments, how could this get worse? Well, after the experiment le Blanc's ears were cutoff and taken as souvenirs (gross). Also, as customary than a death mask was made. And then it got weird...well weirder. For some reason le Blanc's skin was peeled off his body and sent to a local tannery. Once there the skin was turned into book jackets, lampshades, even a purse and of course a few wallets. As if this isn't odd enough, each item was signed and dated by Sheriff George Ludlow. The New Jersey Historical Society still has on of these le Blanc wallets and it is believed that there are several still out there in private collections.

And if your interested or ever in the Morristown are you can visit several sights involved with the le Blanc murder and trial. First, the Sayre farmhouse is still there at 83 South Street, Morristown, NJ. Second, you can visit the village green where the execution took place...if your into that kinda stuff. Also you can visit the Morris County Court House were the trail took place located at Washington & Court Street and if you play your cards right maybe, just maybe you can see the gallows that le Blanc was hung on, as they are kept in the courthouse attic. And if your really interested head over to the New Jersey Historical Society located at 52 Park Place, in beautiful city of Newark. And remember, if you get lucky enough to see the wallet ask to see the back were Sheriff George Ludlow wrote..."Thou Shalt Do No Murder." Thanks for the tip Sheriff.