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He got away with murder

west with knife and fire background / West: Findagrave / other imaes royalty free clipart

He was a Delawarean by birth, a white man of education and refinement, well heeled and well connected. He thought he could get away with the idea.

After completing degrees in both law and medicine at Dickinson College in 1868, 25 year old Isaac C. West returned to his native Dover and took work as an assistant teacher at a private prep school run by the Methodist Episcopal Church. The pay wasn’t to his liking, though, and he bragged to friends that a Milford prep school had dangled $1,200 a year in front of him, and that he would surely get rich from that salary. He never moved to Milford. 

By 1872 Isaac West had hatched the idea of starting a museum of curiosities, and had acquired a mummified human arm and other pieces of jetsam and flotsam for this latest project. All sat in boxes in his house. 

That same year West opened a medical storefront in Dover, offering a gaseous treatment that he claimed cured tuberculosis. “The real purpose of the gas, it seems, was its inhalation for its wonderful exhilarating effects, it being nothing more than nitrous oxide gas disguised with a color,” snorted the New York Herald at West’s trial.

West’s grandiosity was by now getting him into financial trouble. He needed cash, and quickly. In the summer of 1872 he took out a $25,000 life insurance policy payable to his new wife Mary. The townsfolk knew he dealt with gasses that were highly flammable. What if, one day, his medical storefront exploded and killed him, causing a fire that burned down the building? That would be believable, wouldn’t it? He could plan a rendezvous point with Mary far from Dover, and meet her once she had collected the insurance money.

The problem was he needed a person to be the dead body found after the explosion. And so, in the early fall of 1872, he hired a poor itinerant worker, a black man by the name of Peter “Cooch” Turner, to be an assistant. Turner was single, and apparently had no immediate family in the area. First problem solved.

Ah, but the authorities would find body parts after the ‘explosion,’ and realize they were looking at a black body, not a white one. West decided he would have to skin Turner’s body, and remove head, hands and feet in order for the discovered body parts to pass as white. Then he’d bury those telltale body parts far from the scene.

Nitrous Oxide, 19the century. Wikimedia
Nitrous Oxide, 19the century. Wikimedia

West got as far as killing Turner in November, skinning the body, removing the head, and burying it in his planned spot. But after the murder he’d gone to a local hardware store and purchased gunpowder and a large auger to drill holes, and that raised the suspicions of the shopkeeper. West’s plan was to drill holes in the floor, put the gunpowder beneath, light a fire on the top floor, and have fuses to the gunpowder just at the opening of the holes. By the time the whole place blew, the gunpowder wouldn’t leave an obvious trace. 

Police starting poking around. West had removed Turner’s skin, hands and feet, but had not had time to bury them. Knowing he was hours, if not minutes, away from being caught, he threw everything into a large duffel bag, started the fire on the second floor, and grabbed a train headed towards Salisbury, MD. 

Fire authorities were able to contain the blaze before it reached the first floor. Police found the mangled body, the holes, the gunpowder, and realized they were looking at a “put up job” (i.e. a staged event). The search for a murderer began.

West got as far as Salisbury, but because of his nervous, shifty gaze and the odd smell of his stained, moist duffel bag, was easily apprehended. He confessed to killing Turner, and was returned for trial to Dover. 

Through family connections, West retained only the best as his lawyer: ex-Delaware senator Willard Saulsbury. The trial caused a sensation and was followed nationwide.  It “brought out many ladies and spinsters of high degree, and many dowagers of blooded ancestry that Dover and its environs boast,” noted the NY Herald correspondent sent to cover the proceedings. 

And the Wilmington Daily Commercial observed the presence of Anna E. Dickinson, her mother and brother, who “occupied seats to the left of the Judges during the trial.” These were Dickinsons descended from Revolutionary War hero John Dickinson, and benefactors of Dickinson College.

The trial dragged on for a full week, but the eloquent and highly regard Saulsbury managed to convince the jury that while yes, West had technically murdered Turner, it was in self defense. He was acquitted on June 10, 1873.

The howls of protest rose immediately everywhere outside of Dover.

Said a letter to the editor in The Daily Gazette [Wilmington] of June 11: “If Cooch Turner had been a white man and Isaac C. West a negro there would have been no difficulty about conviction for so terrible a crime.”

Kent County Jail, 19th century building. Public Domain
Kent County Jail, 19th century building. Public Domain

“The only conclusion that can be arrived at,” cried the Philadelphia Enquirer that same day, “is that the hawbucks of Delaware, the passionate advocates of the tortures of the whipping post and pillory, do not regard it as a crime for a white man–especially a white man of good social postion—to kill a negro.”

And the Baltimore Sun: “Justice, which is popularly supposed never to sleep, was slumbering this time, or rather, its accredited representatives were in the arms of Morpheus.”

Isaac West still stood trial later that year for the arson connected with the case, potentially a capital crime if lives were lost as a result. Since Turner was already dead at the time West set his storefront aflame, West was instead only given 2 years in prison and fined $500. His wife Mary left him.

When Isaac West was released, his reputation was so damaged that he fled to Dallas, TX to begin a new life. He was able to establish a more traditional medical practice by 1890, he married a Willie Boales there in 1900, and remained a free man till his death in 1913, aged 71.

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