Pennsylvania’s First Murder
On March 3rd, 1692, the body of an unknown person was found near the mouth of the Neshaminy Creek. When the coroner examined the body, he determined that the victim had been “willfully murthered” about six weeks earlier.
Suspicion fell on Swedish ferryman Derrick Jonson (alias Clawson) when large blood stains were found in his house. The court record states:
upon a due examination of things it appeared that a Considerable Quanty of blood on the wall and on the bed of one Derrick Jonson als Clawson about the Supposed time that the above murthered person lost his life was discovered & the Said Derrick refused to give any account of how the Said blood Came there
He was arrested and imprisoned by the sheriff. During the interrogation, Jonson claimed that the blood came from a man that he’d hired to thresh grain for him three years earlier, and that he’d shown the blood to various people since then, “fully as much as it was.” This story is doubtful. When the coroner examined the blood at Jonson’s house, he reported that “it had run in Several Streames down the boords on the wall which Streames Continued untill they went behind the planks that lay on the ground floore.” Regardless of the circumstances, the person that lost that much blood surely died.
When his wife Brighta was interrogated, she claimed, “the blood Seen on the wall was discovered between day and sun rising & that there was a Sheete hanged on the out Side of the bed in a manner of a Curtaine & that there was no blood on the bed.” She also claimed that she hadn’t put fresh straw in the bed since the previous year, implying that if someone was murdered in the bed there would be blood in the straw.
Jonson plead not guilty, but after a year of imprisonment without trial the court convicted Jonson of the murder. While the case was circumstantial, it seems clear that someone was killed in that bed, and that Jonson destroyed evidence by replacing the straw and attempted to conceal the stains by hanging a sheet over the bed. He was hanged on July 9th, 1693, making him the first criminal executed by the government of Pennsylvania. There wouldn’t be another execution in Bucks County for 40 years.
If the murder case doesn’t make Jonson seem scary enough, it might help to picture him decapitating wolves. At the time there was a bounty of wolves, and the standard practice was to deliver their heads as evidence that you’d killed one. In 1688, Jonson (under the alias Derrick Clawson), filed a complaint that “he delivered to Arthur Cook & James Harrison 3 wolves two of them bitches & one dog,” and that he hadn’t received the full bounty. In this case the court ruled in his favor.