Sunday, July 28, 2013

Murdered At Cherry Hill

The weathered marble monument isn't particularly distinctive from a distance.  It's darkened to deep gray by the elements and the style - loosely patterned on ancient Hebrew altars - can be found repeated several times throughout the Cemetery.  Take a closer look, though, and the inscription reveals a name connected to one of Albany's most famous crimes.

John Whipple Born at Sunderland, Vermont August 11, 1793.  Father Was An Officer In The Revolutionary War.

The date of his death is not given with the longer description on the back, but his name is repeated on the front with the following dates:  1793-1827

 The newspapers - both local and beyond - carried the following description of his death.

One of the most horrible instances of deliberate assassination that we have ever been called upon to record, was committed in the vicinity of Albany...the victim, John Whipple, who whilst writing in a back room in the second-story of his dwelling-house on Cherry Hill, a mile below the city, between 9 and 10 o'clock last night, was fired at through the sash, with a pistol.  The ball passed through and shattered a pane of glass, entered the body of Mr. Whipple through the blade bone of his left shoulder, cut one of the principal arteries of the heart, and lodged in the right lobe of the lungs....When he was shot, he rose from his seat, exclaimed, 'My God! what was that!" and made for the door at the head of the stairs, descended a step or two, fell, and instantly expired.  The wife of Mr. W. had been in the room but a moment before, and the next time she saw her husband he was a lifeless corpse!  Her feelings may easier by imagined than described.

His wife, of course, was Elsie Lansing Whipple, and before long, she and her lover, a handyman named Jesse Strang, were implicated in the murder of John Whipple and the subsequent trial became front page news across the country.

Elsie was a Van Rensselaer on her mother's side.  Her father, Abraham A. Lansing, was successful businessman who could afford to own eleven slaves.  Her father died while Elsie was quite young and, at the age of fourteen, Elsie (who was described as a pampered and difficult girl) eloped with John Whipple.  He was a neighbor and nine years her senior.  Her family initially disapproved of the match, believing Whipple was only after Elsie's money.  However, Whipple proved to be a sensible guardian of her inheritance and greatly increased it through a good combination of business skill and wise investment.  After his death, the newspapers described John Whipple as "in the prime of life, industrious, enterprising, and fair in all his transactions...a valuable and intelligent citizen." 

John and Elsie Whipple had one son, Abraham, born in 1821.

Elsie, however, caught the eye of a man named Joe Orton. Elsie met him at a nearby tavern where he worked.  Not long after, he moved to the Cherry Hill estate as a handyman and the pair eventually became lovers.  First came the daily exchange of passionate letters, followed by trysts.  They wanted to run away together, but lacked the funds to do so.  Elsie's money belonged, under the law, to her husband.  As for her lover, his name wasn't really Joe Orton.  He was Jesse Strang, a man who'd abandoned his wife and children in Fishkill, moved first to Ohio and then back to western New York where he faked his death before coming to Albany.

Divorce was unthinkable.  Aside from the social scandal it would cause, it would leave Elsie penniless.  The lovers decided murder was their best option.  John Whipple's death would leave Elsie single and rich.  Elsie first tried to poison him with arsenic, but the dose was too low.  John was sickened, but survived. 

Elsie offered to give Jesse one of her husband's own pistols to commit the deed, but Jesse declined and bought a flintlock.  The pair then spread rumors than unknown enemies were out to kill John over a business matter and claimed to see prowlers around the estate.  Then, on the night of May 7, 1827, Jessie climbed onto a shed at the rear of the Cherry Hill mansion and fired the fatal shot through the closed window.

Elsie and Jesse planned to elope to Montreal, but at the coroner's hearing, Jesse's over-enthusiastic testimony about prowlers raised suspicions.  Just two days after the murder, he was arrested.  Two weeks later, Elsie was also arrested.

The trial shocked the city.  It attracted such great crowds that it had to be moved from the courthouse to the Assembly Chamber at the State Capitol.  The sordid mix of sex, money, respected family names, and murder was a great draw and, when Jesse was convicted and executed for the murder of John Whipple, his hanging attracted nearly a crowd of nearly forty thousand (a spectacle that lead city officials to end the practice of public hangings in Albany).  Elsie stood trial separately.  The judge refused to let Jess testify and the jury acquitted her without even rising from their seats.  Albany was not prepared to condemn a woman with ties to some of its most prominent families, regardless of the evidence.  Little is known about Elsie's later life. After the murder of her husband and the hanging of her lover, Elsie married Nathaniel Freeman in Brunswick, New Jersey.  She died in 1832.

John Whipple, murdered at Cherry Hill, was buried in the Episcopal lot at the State Street Burying Grounds.  His entry in the Common Council's inventory of burials makes note that he was "murdered at Cherry Hill."  When the graves were removed forty years later, John was not transferred to the Church Grounds, but privately reburied in this North Ridge lot purchased by his son, Abraham Lansing Whipple.  Abraham and his wife, Hannah, are also buried here.

Cherry Hill, the mansion at Albany's southern edge, made news again in the past week.  The site was faced with the possibility of closure, but generous donations prevented the loss of one of Albany's finest historic treasures.  In a city that has lost much of its early history, the Cherry Hill mansion is marvelously intact and contains generations of family possessions. See the Times Union stories for more details:

Albany Mansion May Be History
Donors Keep Cherry Hill From Closing
Support is still needed and donations can be made at Cherry Hill's site:

Historic Cherry Hill


  1. My hope is that someone will make a movie about this , the story has everything.

    1. @Colin Dermody: I agree, this would make a great film. Any producers reading this?

  2. Replies
    1. Probably somewhere downstate. His family supposedly claimed the body for burial. I've heard two different stories - either Peekskill or Poughkeepsie.