Murder of Hiram Sawtelle: A Cain and Abel Story

Hiram Sawtelle and Isaac Sawtelle were the sons Hiram F. Sawtelle. The elder Hiram was born in 1812, a year or so after Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Marie Louise, gave birth to Napoleon II. The elder Hiram became a carpenter and because he whistled “Yankee Doodle” and carried a shoe over his shoulder his behavior attracted a lot of attention and resulted in him being dubbed “Yankee Doodle” Sawtelle. As a carpenter he also made a fortune and when he died, he left this wealth to his loving wife.

Hiram Sawtelle - his father

“Yankee Doodle” Sawtelle. Author’s collection.

As to his children, the younger Hiram grew into a responsible, reliable man who married and had a nice family. The younger Hiram also began running a fruit store in Roxbury, Massachusetts left by his father. Moreover, because he was so responsible, his mother entrusted management of her inheritance to him.

Isaac was unfortunately unlike his brother. He had in fact been sent to prison in 1876. He had been found guilty in three cases of assault and rape. He was sentenced to thirty years and he would have served out his sentence if his friends had not convinced prison officials in December 1889 that he should be set free because he was rehabilitated.*

Hiram Sawtelle

Hiram Sawtelle. Author’s collection.

When released Isaac returned to Boston to live with his mother and brother Hiram. Isaac then learned the property and money their mother inherited was being managed by Hiram and he was extremely unhappy. He desperately wanted control of his mother’s inheritance. Therefore, it was probably no surprise that a dispute soon broke out between the two brothers and “bad blood” developed resulting in what newspapers would cite as a “Cain and Abel” story.

Isaac soon became willing to do whatever it took to gain control of his mother’s property. He had a friend whom he met in prison named Charles Lewis Blood, who promised that he would help Isaac get control of his mother’s estate. Isaac did not care that Blood was a con artist and self-styled physician who operated out of Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Moreover, Isaac knew that Blood’s cons included promoting useless patent medicines and selling “oxygenized air” to cure catarrh, scrofula, consumption, and respiratory tract diseases.

Charles L. Blood. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Isaac claimed that Blood told him that for $500.00 he would devise a plan to get Hiram to sign papers giving control of his mother’s estate to Isaac. Supposedly, Blood’s plan also involved a third man, a former convict who was only known by the name of Jack. The plan consisted of Jack and Blood abducting Hiram’s daughter, luring Hiram to a secluded spot near Springvale, Maine, and forcing Hiram to sign over the property. No one was supposed to get hurt but it appeared something went wrong because according to The Topeka Daily Capital at the time:

“On Saturday, Feb. 1 [1890] Isaac told Mrs. Hiram Sawtelle that Hiram had given him permission to take her little daughter, 7 years old, to Manchester, N.H. and that his mother was to go also. On the following Tuesday Hiram received a dispatch from Rochester announcing that the little girl was very ill, and the next day Mrs. Sawtelle was called. Hiram Sawtelle started [for Manchester] and has not since been seen alive, though Mrs. Sawtelle did not go at all, Isaac having telegraphed that the child was better. On Thursday Isaac returned with his mother and the child [and there was no Hiram].”[1]  

Isaac told Mrs. Sawtelle that he had not seen or had heard anything from his brother. A few days later when Hiram Sawtelle still had not appeared Isaac supposedly went in search of him. In the meantime, Mrs. Sawtelle learned some startling news from her daughter.

“[According to] little Marion Sawtelle … her uncle had forced her to take some ‘black medicine’ which made her sick, and during the night he gave her some pills, but she threw them under the bed. The next morning her uncle asked her if she had taken them and being afraid of him she declared that she had.”[2]

Mrs. Sawtelle was extremely concerned. With her husband missing and information that Isaac had given her daughter some mysterious medications, she concluded that Isaac had murdered her husband. Moreover, when Isaac returned from his search for Hiram on Sunday, he refused to answer questions and soon left the house. Mrs. Sawtelle therefore reported her suspicions about Isaac to police telling them that she believed he had killed her husband.

With Hiram missing police began conducting an investigation. Their search soon extended well beyond the borders of New Hampshire. In addition, because they believed Isaac was somehow involved in Hiram’s disappearance, they began trying to locate him. Some ten days after Hiram Sawtelle disappeared, on 14 February, a report was published in a Fredericksburg newspaper called The Free Lance:

“The body of Hiram Sawtelle was found at 1:25pm in the woods near Lebanon, Me. It had been decapitated and the head has not yet been discovered. When found the body was projecting from a poorly made grave and had a bullet in the heart. It was feet uppermost not three yards from where Officer Shields found the paper that was wrapped around the ax. The body was naked with the exception of the feet, which had on a pair of socks. Beside it was a lot of clotted blood, where the arms and head had been cut off.”[3]

Hiram Sawtelle - site where body discovered

Site where Hiram Sawtelle’s body was discovered. Author’s collection.

Soon after Hiram’s body was found Isaac was captured in Rochester, New Hampshire. At the time of his arrest, he was found in possession of two train tickets to Montreal. Conjecture was that the second ticket was for Blood. Therefore, Blood’s picture was circulated in Boston newspapers.

Two Dover, New Hampshire hoteliers saw the picture and recognized him. One these hoteliers claimed that around the time of the murder Blood had appeared with two bundles, one in wrapping paper that appeared to contain clothes, and another covered in newspaper that appeared to be “about the size of a man’s head.”[4] However, despite this information police never questioned Blood about Hiram’s disappearance and he was never arrested.

Determining where the murder occurred would become a significant issue because if Hiram died in New Hampshire a death penalty could be enforced whereas in Maine no such penalty existed. To resolve the issue as to where the murder occurred an inquest was held in York County, Maine. The jury ultimately determined that circumstantial evidence pointed to the murder having taken place in New Hampshire and later it was further shown that that the murder indeed happened in that state and that it had occurred between Rochester and East Rochester at a barn owned by Jed Morrill.

By April, as Isaac was awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy and the murder of his brother, a statement was released by his attorney. In the statement Isaac confessed that he had plotted to intimidate his brother into signing over his mother’s property to him. He also insisted that he had not planned or been involved in any way with the murder of his brother. In fact, he claimed that Hiram had been led away on the pretense of taking him to see Marion by Jack and suggested that it was Jack and Blood who killed his brother.

Many people did not believe Isaac’s allegations that implicated Blood and the mysterious convict named Jack. The Central City Courier expanded on this stating:

“The alleged confession of Isaac Sawtelle is universally discredited … and it is generally though the story is a fabrication and that if Sawtelle is the author of it he has constructed it to explain evidence against him in the most favorable light and to make it appear that the murder was committed in Maine so that he may escape the gallows.”[5]

Isaac also insisted that he had no idea his brother was murdered until he received an unexpected letter from Blood. According to Isaac, Blood’s letter stated, “Your brother had to be put out of the way. Let each look out for himself.”[6] The Mansfield Advertiser also noted:

“[Isaac] Sawtelle said he had had Dr. Blood’s own handwriting for the proof that Hiram was killed in a struggle, during which more than intended violence was used by either he or ‘Jack’ to prevent Hiram from gaining his liberty. ‘The conspiracy,’ he said, ‘was planned by Blood, assented to by him, directly furthered by his companion, and indirectly by a friend in Lowell.”[7]

Isaac also gave a motivate for Blood to have murdered his brother. According to Isaac, Blood owed Hiram a considerable sum of money and implied that he had killed Hiram to avoid paying this debt. However, Mrs. Sawtelle did not believe Isaac’s story. She also denied that Blood had ever had any dealings with her husband, although she did acknowledge that Blood was a frequent guest of Isaac’s.

To most people it did seem plausible that Blood might have murdered Henry Sawtelle. Blood was known among law enforcement as being a notorious untrustworthy person. In fact, newspapers reported on his bad character mentioning similar things such as what was reported by Chicago’s Inter Ocean newspaper on 19 February 1890:

“Dr. Charles L. Blood, alias Dr. C.H. Lewis, alias half a dozen other names, and for whom police are now anxiously looking as an alleged accomplice in the Sawtelle murder, has a National reputation for crooked work … and has been aptly termed by a police authority, ‘the silkiest and slipperiest confidence man in the business.’

Blood is now about 56 years of age, erect in carriage, quick in motion, with small sparkling eyes and a plausible manner calculated to win those inexperienced in reading human nature. … He claims to have been the sons of a Dr. Louis Blood … though people who knew him many years ago deny that his father was ever a doctor.”[8]

By the time Isaac’s trial began, he had a whole new story about his brother’s disappearance and murder. In his new version he confessed that he shot and killed his brother. He also maintained that Blood was only involved in the preparation of the legal documents that Isaac wanted Hiram to sign. Therefore, it was probably not surprising that Isaac’s trial for first degree murder did not go well for him. Besides the confession and facts that pointed to Isaac being the murderer, jurors had been sequestered since the 16th of December. On Christmas Day 1890 the judge called jurors together to reach a verdict in the case. Their deliberations lasted no more than two hours with their verdict being “guilty” and Isaac being sentenced to be hanged.

After the verdict Isaac immediately recanted. He insisted that he had not killed his brother. However, he then once again confessed to murdering his brother, Hiram Sawtelle. This time he also drew police officers a map of where his brother’s head could be located, and the Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported on its discovery:

“The head of Hiram Sawtelle has been found at the point indicted by Isaac … A mound of earth was found covered with a pile of brush. Upon digging into the mound a roll of underclothing was found. Wrapped in a linen shirt and fragments of an undershirt was found a human skull. No trace of the features remain. An examination of the skull showed a hole back of the left ear, apparently made by a bullet. The skull is in possession of Lawyer Edgerly, and will be produced at the hearing to corroborate Isaac Sawtelle’s claim that the murder was done in Maine.”[9]

Despite admitting to the murder, Isaac was doing everything he could to delay or reverse his execution. He had hoped that his death sentence would be overturned if the murder happened in Maine. He may have also thought that providing additional information about his brother’s murder and drawing a map of where he could be found would help him get him a new trial. The San Francisco Call printed in 1891 what Isaac alleged happened this time:

“I met my brother Hiram … on February 5, 1890, at Rochester, when he got off the train. I told him his daughter Marion was sick. I didn’t say where Marion was, but told him she was out of town. I got a team … and went from there to Wallace’s hardware-store, where I got a spade, pick and shovel, and asked if they would take back the tools if they were not used. They said they would. I did up the tools and put them in the back of the wagon. …

I asked Hiram if it was not better to sell the land and pay up the mortgage, so as to have an income from the house on Dudley street, rented in Boston. He said he would like to have an income. … I said, ‘I have got some papers here that I want you to sign.’ I took the papers from my pocket and said: ‘You may sign those or take that,’ pulling out a revolver and pointing it at him. He then jumped from the wagon and I after him. He fell down and said; ‘Don’t Isaac, don’t.’ I said: ‘No, Hiram, I wont; do as I want you to and I wont hurt you.’ He held my hand in which the revolver was until I promised not to hurt him. Then I stepped away and he got up. I then said: ‘I came here not to do you any harm. I want some property from mother.’ He then began to walk toward the shanty, and after going some twenty feet broke into a run. I started after him and called several times, ‘’Hiram! Hiram! stop, or I will fire!’ As he kept on running I fired. He ran a little way and fell. I then ran up to and shook him, but he said nothing.

I then thought of the horse, and, after securing it, came back to where Hiram lay, and he did not speak. I then put the pistol to my head to kill myself and said: ‘Good-by, Hiram, I’m going to shoot.’ Immediately I said: ‘My God! There is my poor old mother, I must live for her.’

I lowered the pistol, and, as I thought Hiram was moving, I fired three more shots into his body to put him out of pain. I then took hold of the boots and dragged the body about 100 years and began digging a grave. I hurried up and took off his clothing. The grave I dug was not large enough, and I took the hatchet and chopped off his head and arms. … I intended to have buried the head with the body. I put the arms on top of the body. I was frightened by the light of the moon, otherwise, I should have dug the grave long enough to take the body without mutilating it. … I took it and put it in the bag with his shirt around it, put the bag in the team, and finally drove into the woods and buried the head under some birch trees. I dug a hole, took the head out of the bag, and, as I buried it said, ‘Good-by Hiram.’

I threw the lamp, ax, and shovel into the river as I crossed from Maine back to Rochester, took Hiram’s clothing to my boarding-house and went to bed. … I threw the clothing and revolver from a ferry-boat into the harbor. His clothing was bloody, also my own. I brought the revolver in Boston the day I went to Rochester. I didn’t buy the revolver for any particular purpose. I intended to use it upon Hiram if necessary, but I never expected it would come to that. … I would not have killed him if he had not run. He was a truthful, honest man, and I believed if he said he would do anything he would do it; therefore I felt that if he signed the papers everything would be all right.

Dr. Blood told me in Boston… to get him [Hiram] down in Maine to sign the papers relating to mine and his real estate business. … Dr. Blood told me what to write … [The] idea was to get him to sign the papers so as to clear up the attachment and injunction and leave the property in my name. I knew that if he signed them there in the woods he would never say anything about what took place between us.

Dr. Blood gave a me a plan of the woods and the vacant shanty in Maine and I went over there from Rochester on Tuesday to locate them. Dr. Blood said it would be just the way to go up to Rochester and take mother and Marion with me and send for Hiram. He also spoke about the vacant house. I never made up my mind to kill him, for I knew if I got him into the shanty and put my back to the door he would sign the papers without my killing him.”[10]

Neither the new confession nor the map got Isaac a new trial for the murder of his brother Hiram Sawtelle. In fact, it was expected that his execution would happen in January 1892 as scheduled. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Isaac escaped hanging. It happened ten days before his execution date when on Christmas Eve he suffered a stroke. Every attempt was made by officials to save him, but he died the following day on 26 December 1891. Rumors circulated that he had taken opium hoping to cheat death, but an autopsy proved that he had indeed died from apoplexy.

*According to the Chicago “Inter-Ocean” Isaac would not have been released if the legislature had passed a bill requiring petitions for pardons to be published in two or more papers four weeks prior to any pardon going into effect. That was because police could then be consulted, and when necessary they could demonstrate good reasons why a criminal might be refused released.


  • [1] The Topeka Daily Capital, “An American Tragedy,” February 26, 1890, p. 6.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Free Lance, “Foully Put to Death,” February 18, 1890, p. 2.
  • [4] Chicago Tribune, “Developments in the Sawtelle Case,” February 18, 1890, p. 8.
  • [5] Central City Courier, “Discredit the Story,” April 24, 1890, p. 6.
  • [6] The Times, “Sawtelle Confesses,” April 14, 1890, p. 1.
  • [7] Mansfield Advertiser, “Sawtelle Confesses,” April 16, 1890, p. 2.
  • [8] The Inter Ocean, “The Man of Ominous Name,” February 19, 1890, p. 1.
  • [9] Logansport Pharos-Tribune, “Sawtelle’s Head Found,” December 8, 1891, p. 1.
  • [10] San Francisco Call, “The Crime of Cain,” December 17, 1891, p. 2.

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