Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Despite her heartache, Abby's life of accomplishment continues
July 29. 2013 6:22PM
The murder trial of Daniel McFarland, who shot journalist Albert D. Richardson in cold blood on November 25, 1869, went on for over five long weeks. The press reported every word, and every seat in the courtroom was filled. Large crowds gathered on the steps of the courthouse, hoping to spot Abby Richardson, the former wife of the accused and the deathbed bride of the deceased, but she did not arrive. She stayed in New Jersey at the late Richardson's home, where she and her mother took care of her three new stepchildren.
The defense attorneys called dozens of witnesses who described the symptoms of Daniel McFarland's alleged insanity. He would sleep only two or three hours a night, and would wander the streets of New York until he was picked up by police and brought home. He was always agitated and in tears, and would pour out his troubles to anyone who would listen. He was obsessed that Richardson had stolen Abby from him, and was convinced she would return.
He was fixated with the thought of getting his younger child Danny back. Abby had custody of him, and he was staying with her parents in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He fretted that his older boy, Percy, who was living with him, would be snatched away. He sought help from several doctors and attorneys, who could do little to help.
Public sympathy was on the side of Daniel McFarland. He was the faithful husband wronged. His attorneys painted Abby as "utterly shameless," and that "…she is now too eminent, too refined, too intellectual, too beautiful, and too popular for her humble lot…" They called Richardson a "diabolical lying serpent."
They showed that the two had been friends before Abby left McFarland, and claimed that they had engaged in adultery soon after the separation. They brought in prominent doctors who pronounced that Richardson had an inherited mental weakness, and that he had been driven to insanity by his utter despair, and had lost control over his actions.
At the time of the shooting McFarland believed that Richardson and Abby were already married, and that they planned to move to California. The thought of this happening had been too much for him to bear.On May 10, 1870, the 12-man jury heard the prosecution's final rebuttal and at 3:02 p.m. retired to the jury room to deliberate. Everyone else stayed in the courtroom, anxious to hear the verdict. Gas lights were lit as the sky outside turned black.
A violent thunder storm erupted that some took as a message from God. The jury returned at 4:50 p.m., and the foreman read the words, "Not guilty." McFarland was warmly congratulated by his jubilant supporters. The New York Times later reported, "Everyone was wild with excitement and women and men were not ashamed to shed tears…"
During the trial, Abby was encouraged by her circle of friends, which included some of the most respected members of New York society. She published a vivid and shocking newspaper account of her marriage to McFarland. Abby's honesty, intelligence and obvious love for her sons won her many admirers. Among those who could see through the travesty of the McFarland trial was famous author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who wrote, "Anyone who watched the proceedings closely in the McFarland-Richardson mockery will believe that the insanity plea was a rather far-fetched compliment to pay the prisoner, inasmuch as one must first have brains before he can go crazy…"
Abby Sage Richardson, who had received her education in the public schools of Manchester, N.H., went on to a successful career as an author, writing and editing several interesting books on literary topics, as well as an illustrated history of the United States for young readers. She gave dramatic readings and wrote play scripts, including the stage version of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper."
She died in 1900, at the age of 63, from pneumonia while on a trip to Rome. Her younger brother William Sage, also an author, died shortly afterwards in New York, apparently from a broken heart at the loss of his dear sister. Abby and William's ashes are buried side-by-side in the Sage family plot in the Valley Cemetery in Manchester.
Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Joseph Kidder and his diary.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.