By: Douglas Overfield∼MRC Board Member∼
J

ackson Pepper, a wealthy Rush township farmer, was brutally murdered in his own barn in the darkness of an 1897 October night.  The broadcast of this dreadful event quickly spread like wildfire throughout Montrose and the surrounding communities. Two men, James Eagan and Cornelius Shew, were tried and executed by public hanging in the gallows of the Susquehanna County Jail in Montrose on January 09,1900.  

Eagen and Shew had escaped arrest until January of 1898, when information was provided by Miss Susie Graham, a daughter of George Graham, a longtime resident of Rush.  Susie was also a former chatelaine (woman in charge of the household) of the accused James Eagan.

The two met in 1896 when Mr. Eagan was employed by the D & H Railroad in Binghamton, NY. Although they never married, Susie and Eagen set up house together for about a year and a half before relocating to George Graham’s residence in Rush. It was there that Eagan learned of a wealthy farmer up the road named A. Jackson Pepper.

The couple then moved to Susquehanna, Pennsylvania where Eagan became acquainted with Cornelius Shew, a native of Gibson, PA  and a man thought to be both homeless and friendless.

According to trial witnesses, Eagan had previously engaged others to join him in an attempt to rob Jackson Pepper, but it was Shew who finally agreed to it. With the assistance of Susie Graham, plans were laid out to go to Rush, overpower Pepper and secure a large amount of money, thought to be hidden somewhere in the house.

Traveling afoot from Susquehanna, the pair arrived at Pepper’s home, waited until dark and crept into the barn where the old man was doing chores. They struck a heavy blow across his head with a piece of an old wiffletree, bound his legs and hands and after an intense struggle thrust a handkerchief down his throat. Without financial reward, the two perpetrators quickly fled the scene and vanished.

After hearing suspicious noises, neighbors hurried to the scene and found Pepper. They summoned both the district attorney and the acting county coroner who pronounced Pepper dead.

Eagan and Shew fled both on foot and rode atop freight trains to various locations in New York, then split up.  In the meantime, Eagan married a woman other than Susie Graham. 

When Susie heard the news of Eagan’s marriage, it seems she was motivated to share his location. Court records show her desire for revenge, along with the county commissioners’ $1000.00 reward offer for the assailant’s capture, prompted Susie to report the men’s whereabouts to law enforcement.

Shew was captured first, brought to Montrose and turned over to Sheriff Deuel. Gossip was quickly afloat in the municipality and the district attorney knew that they needed to move quickly for the apprehension of James Eagan.  Under the pretense, not of murder, but of a deceptive story of stealing Susie Graham’s household goods, Eagan was served papers. He readily agreed to travel to Montrose, thinking he would be easily cleared of the simple theft charge. 

Upon his arrival at the Susquehanna County Jail, Eagan was served a warrant for the arrest of murder before J.S. Courtright, Justice of the Peace.

The hearings for the two men were waived and the case was scheduled to go before the March grand jury.  District Attorney Ainey had the hearty cooperation and support of commissioners Tingley, Harrington and Haire throughout the investigation and it was noted that without them, the solution of the crime might never have been accomplished.

Selden Munger, the principal witness, testified Shew had confessed to him that Eagan had killed Mr. Pepper and Shew helped to tie up the body.  This was enough to inculpate both in the murder equally and no further testimony was deemed necessary.

After a lengthy trial, before Judge Searle, the two doomed men were found guilty of murder In the first degree and told ”may God have mercy on your soul.”  By order of the judge, the men were to be moved to the place of execution within the walls or yard of said jail and to be “hanged by the neck until dead.”

Eagan stood his sentence well and drank a glass of water while Shew claimed he was not guilty of murder in the first degree and took no part in the crime.  He was informed by the judge that he had the benefit of every doubt and was again sentenced to be hanged.  The men were quickly led out of court to the jail where few words were exchanged between the two.

The first execution date was set for May 18, 1899, but the governor respited the date for the Board of Pardons to have further time to consider their cases.  Their sentence was not overturned and they were executed on January 9, 1900.

After attending court throughout the trial, Susie Graham was also arrested and charged with conspiracy to rob.  

Research material for this article was acquired from the Susquehanna County Historical Society, Journal of Genealogy and Local History Volume 29; and permission to print was granted by the Susquehanna County Historical Society.