Looking Back

An illustration showing the Grafton County Court House, right, where Thomas Wier was tried in 1864.

On July 25, 1865, an item in The New England Farmer, a Boston newspaper, read, “Caleb M. Dyer, the well-known Enfield Shaker, was shot by a soldier named Thomas Wier on Saturday, and died on Tuesday morning. The difficulty related to some children that Wier had placed in the care of the Enfield Shakers. The tragic affair has caused great excitement. Wier has given himself into custody.”

The significant factors that led to this murder were rooted in the miseries that plagued Thomas Wier’s life in the early 1860s. Wier was a poor man who had struggled for years to support his family. In 1861 he lost two of his five daughters to sickness, and his wife Mahala had also become ill. After enlisting in the army to fight in the Civil War, he brought his two youngest daughters to live with the Shakers.

Wier was back at his home in Enfield by mid-1862, having been discharged from service due to chronic dysentery. He was reunited with Mahala, who was now in good health. He became consumed by anger when the Shakers would not return 12-year-old Sarah Weir and 10-year-old Ellen Weir. On one particular day, Saturday, July 18, 1863, Dyer refused to allow Wier to see his daughters, so Wier shot Dyer with the loaded revolver he had concealed in his clothing. Dyer died three days later.

The funeral for Dyer took place on Wednesday, July 22, 1863, in the Enfield Shaker village. Around 500 mourners attended the ceremony, temporarily doubling the community’s population. As the dedicated and upright head trustee of the Enfield Shakers, Dyer had been a popular figure with both the Shakers and the non-Shakers.

Wier spent a few days in jail in the town of Enfield before being transferred to the Grafton County jail in Haverhill, located about 34 miles north of Enfield. In October, he was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Dyer. As Wier could not afford to pay for his own defense, the court appointed lawyers to represent him. They knew it was nearly certain that their client would be convicted, so they decided that the best (if not only) defense would be for Wier to plead insanity.

The trial took place in the Grafton County courthouse in Haverhill beginning on April 11, 1864. The prosecution was first to present its case. Several Shakers testified that they had seen Wier in their village at the time of the murder, and a few of them related their eyewitness accounts of the shooting. The Shakers presented the indenture papers that Wier had signed in 1861 by which he had knowingly turned over custody of his daughters to the Shakers. The court accepted these as legally binding contracts. The Shakers also testified that Thomas and Mahala Wier had been permitted to visit their daughters on numerous occasions.

Wier’s legal team didn’t dispute the prosecution’s evidence but instead focused on convincing the jury that their client’s mind was “diseased,” and that he had not understood what he was doing when he killed Dyer. The legal team brought in three well-respected physicians as expert witnesses, who enlightened the jury as to the causes and manifestations of insanity. Two of the doctors were associated with the state’s insane asylum. The third was Dr. Dixi Corsby, a Dartmouth College professor who had worked with veterans who had experienced trauma in the Civil War which had negatively affected their mental stability.

Witnesses described Wier’s strange behavior patterns, extreme mood swings, alcoholism and fanatical hatred of Dyer. The jury also learned that Wier had been an avid follower of William Miller, a New York man who had preached that the end of the world would take place in 1843 or 1844. Many people, including some physicians, had questioned the sanity of the Millerites at the time.

The defense strategy failed. On April 26, 1864, the jury pronounced that Wier was guilty of murder in the first degree. The judge sentenced him to serve 366 days in the Grafton County jail and pronounced that, on the day following this incarceration, April 28, 1865, he was to be executed by hanging.

Next week: Will Thomas Wier be hung for his crime?

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter