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The McFarland/Richardson Murder Case
She was a famous New York City stage actress named Abby Sage. But after her ex-husband Daniel McFarland killed her lover, journalist Albert Richardson on November 25, 1869 at Richardson’s place of work at the New York Tribune, it was Sage’s lifestyle that was put on trail, not just McFarland.
Daniel McFarland was born in Ireland in 1820, but he emigrated to American with his parents when he was four-years-old. McFarland’s parents died when he was 12, leaving him an orphan. Determined to make something of himself in America, McFarland worked at hard labor in a harness shop, saving his money so that he could attend college. By the time he was 17, McFarland had saved enough cash he was able to attend the distinguish Ivy League university – Dartmouth. At Dartmouth, McFarland studied law and did extremely well. Upon graduation, McFarland passed the bar exam, but instead of practicing law, McFarland took a position at Brandywine College, teaching elocution — the skill of clear and expressive speech.
In 1853, McFarland traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he met a very beautiful 15-year-old girl named Abby Sage. Abby came from a poor but respectable family – her father was a weaver – but Abby was quite bright, and soon she became a teacher, as well as as a published writer. Four years after they had met, McFarland and Abey Sage married. She was just 19, and he was double her age.
Later Abby wrote in an affidavit concerning McFarland’s murder trial, “At the time of our marriage, Mr. McFarland represented to me that he had a flourishing law practice, brilliant political prospects, and property worth $30,000, but while on our bridal tour he was forced to borrow money in New York to enable us to proceed to Madison, Wisc., which was decided upon as our future home. We had resided in this town but a short time when he confessed that he had no law practice of any consequence, and that he had devoted himself solely to land speculation, some of which had resulted disastrously.”
In February 1858, the McFarlands moved to New York City. McFarland told Abby that in New York City, he had a better chance of selling $20,000 to $30,000 worth of property he owned in Wisconsin. However, McFarland sold nothing at first, and soon Abby had to pawn most of her jewelry to pay the rent. With the bills piling up and still no money coming in, McFarland figured it was better he went at it alone. As a result, McFarland sent Abby back to her father’s home in New Hampshire. In late 1858, McFarland was finally able to sell some of his Wisconsin properties. Soon after, he brought Abby back to New York and they settled in a rented cottage in Brooklyn. There their first son Percy was born in 1860, and a second son Daniel was born in 1864.
McFarland’s land-selling business went flat and he started drinking heavily. Abby later wrote, “At first Mr. McFarland professed for me the most extravagant and passionate devotion, but soon he began to drink heavily, and before we were married a year, his breath and body were steaming with vile liquor. I implored him to reform, but he cried out: ‘My brain is on fire and liquor makes me sleep.'”
At the start of the Civil War, the McFarlands briefly returned to Madison, Wisconsin. Soon McFarland realized, under the right circumstances and with some training, his beautiful, young wife would be the better earner of the two. To implement his plan, the McFarlands traveled back to New York City in order to school Abby to become an actress.
In New York City, Abby tired her hand at dramatic readings, and she discovered she had a talent for the stage. One thing led to another, and soon Abby was acting in several plays and making the tidy sum of $25 a week. Abby’s career advanced so quickly, soon she appeared opposite the great actor Edwin Booth in the Merchant of Venice (Edwin Booth was the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln). Abby also supplement her income by writing several articles about children and nature. She even penned a book of poetry entitled Percy’s Book of Rhymes after her son Percy.
Abby’s artistic achievements allowed her to increase her circle of friends. She became fast pals with newspaper magnate Horace Greeley, his sister Mrs. John Cleveland, and New York Tribune publisher Samuel Sinclair and his wife.
However, his wife’s successes did nothing to placate the wild nature of McFarland. He used his wife’s new friends and their connection to get himself a political appointment. Abby later said, “Through the influence of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, I procured a position for him (McFarland) with one of the Provost marshals.”
Soon McFarland became jealous of Abby’s new friends, and his drinking increased exponentially. McFarland kept the money Abby made from her acting and writing, and spent it all on booze. McFarland started opening Abby’s private mail, and if he didn’t like what he read, he would threaten to kill Abby and himself.
“By this time he had become a demon,” Abby said. “He would rise in bed, tear the bed clothing into shreds and threaten to kill me. When he became exhausted, he would tearfully beg my pardon and go to sleep.”
One time McFarland became so enraged, he struck Abby in the face, so hard, it caused her to stumble backwards. From that point on, their relationship changed dramatically.
“There was a look in his eyes that made him burst into a paroxysm of tears and to beg wildly that I should forgive him,” Abby said. “But from that moment, I could never tell him that I loved him or forgave him, because it would not have been the truth.”
In January 1867, the McFarlands moved into a boarding house at 72 Amity Street in New York City. Soon after, Albert Deane Richardson, who was in his mid-thirties at the time, moved into the same boarding house. Richardson was already known to Abby, since they had met at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair. Richardson had an orange-colored beard and hazel eyes, and was considered to be a very distinguished-looking individual of the highest character.
Richardson, born in Massachusetts, was one of the most famous reporters of his time. He was well known for his writings as a war correspondent for the New York Tribune during the Civil War, and he also spent time acting as a spy for the North. In 1862, Richardson was captured by the South at Vicksburg, and he spent a year and a half in two separate Confederate prisons. In December 1863, while imprisoned in Salisbury, North Carolina, Richardson and another war correspondent escaped from prison and traveled four hundred miles on foot, until they reached the Union Lines in Knoxville. At the time of his imprisonment, Richardson had a wife and four children. When he returned home, he discovered his wife and infant daughter had died. Richardson assumed the support and care for the three other children, which at the time of his death, were thirteen, ten and six.
Back at his desk at the New York Tribune, Richardson capitalized on his Civil War heroics by writing about his escape. The title of his newspaper article was “Out of the Jaws of Death and Out of the Mouth of Hell.” It was considered one of the finest pieces of journalism that came out of Civil War era. Richardson expanded this article into a book, and combined with his other writings, Richardson had transformed himself from a war prisoner into a wealthy man. So much so, Richardson bought shares in the New York Tribune, making himself a minority owner of the newspaper.
At the time he moved into the same boarding house as the McFarlands, Richardson was now an editor/writer for the New York Tribune. (Editor’s note: I was a sports columnist for the reincarnation of the New York Tribune in the 1980’s.) Richardson used his room at 72 Amity Street as an office, as well as a place to sleep. On his staff at 72 Amity Street, Richardson employed a stenographer, an artist, and a messenger boy to deliver his work to the New York Tribune offices downtown on Park Row.
On February 19, 1867, McFarland returned to the boarding house and his found his wife standing outside Richardson’s door. Abby claimed Richardson and her were discussing one of his articles, but McFarland would have none of that.
Abby later wrote, “When we entered our apartment, my husband flew into a rage and insisted that an improper intimacy existed between Mr. Richardson and I.”
McFarland immediately went on a three-day bender, where he again threatened Abby’s life and said he would commit suicide. Finally on February 21, Abby left McFarland for good. She grabbed her two children, and took up residence with Mr. And Mrs. Samuel Sinclair.
At the Sinclairs, Abby summoned her father, who now lived in Massachusetts, and apprised him of the situation. It was agreed upon that McFarland should be invited to the Sinclair residence, and in the presence of the Sinclairs and her father, Abby told McFarland that their marriage was over.
That same evening Richardson called at the Sinclair residence. Richardson offered Abby his condolences and said he would do anything he could do to help her in her time of need. Then as he was leaving, Abby followed him out to the hallway.
With tears in her eyes she said: “You have been very kind to me. I cannot repay you.”
Referring to Abby’s two children, Richardson said, “How do you feel about facing the world with two babies?”
She answered, “It looks hard for a woman, but I am sure I can get on better without that man than with him.”
Before leaving, Richards told Abby, “I wish you to remember, that any responsibility you choose to give me in any possible future, I shall be glad to take.”
Two days later, Richardson asked Abby to marry him, telling her that he wanted to give her his motherless children for her to care for as she would her own.
Abby later said, “It was absolutely impossible for me not to love him.”
On the night of March 13, 1867, Richardson met Abby at the theater where she had just finished a performance. Just as they turned a corner, McFarland rushed up behind them and fired three shots; one of which pierced Richardson’s thigh. It was a superficial wound and Richardson was not badly hurt. McFarland was arrested by the police, but due to some inexplicable courthouse dealings, McFarland somehow managed to escape jail time.
When it was obvious to McFarland that his wife was lost to him forever, he decided to sue to get custody of both their children. The courts came to a split decision, whereby Abby would get custody of Daniel, and McFarland — custody of Percy. In April 1868, Abby attempted to see her son Percy, but she was denied doing so by McFarland, who flew into a rage and threatened to hit her. At this point, Abby had no choice but to file for divorce.
In the state of New York, the only grounds for divorce was adultery. So in July of 1868, Abby decided to go to Indiana for her divorce, where the grounds for divorce was more extensive. Those grounds included drunkenness, extreme cruelty, and failure to support a wife. Abby stayed in Indiana for 16 months until her divorce from McFarland was final. Then Abby traveled to her family’s home in Massachusetts, and Richardson met her there to spend Thanksgiving Day 1869 with her and her family.
On November 25, 1869, at 5:15 p.m., McFarland walked into the Park Row offices of the New York Tribune. He hid quietly in a corner for about 15 minutes until he saw Richardson enter though the side entrance on Spruce Street. While Richardson was reading his mail at the counter, McFarland rushed up to him and fired several shots. Richardson was hit three times, but he was still able to walk up two flights of stairs to the editorial office, where he flung himself on the couch, mortally wounded with a bullet in the chest. When the medics arrived, Richardson was carried across City Hall to the Astor House, and laid down on a bed in room 115.
At 10 p.m., McFarland was arrested in room 31 of the Westmoreland Hotel, on the corner of Seventeenth Street and Fourth Avenue. The arresting officer, Captain A. J. Allaire, told McFarland he was under arrested for the shooting of Richardson. At first, McFarland said he was innocent of the charges. Then he shockingly said, “It must have been me.”
Captain Allaire took McFarland into custody and brought him to the Astor House, room 115. After Captain Allaire asked Richardson if the man in front of him had been his attacker, Richardson rose his head off the pillow weakly and said, “That is the man!’
Abby Sage was immediately summoned to New York City. As soon as she arrived, at Richardson’s request, arrangements were made by Horace Greeley so that the Abby and Richardson could be married at Richardson’s deathbed. The marriage ceremony was performed by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and the Rev. O.B. Frothingham. Three days later on December 2, Richardson took his last breath, leaving Abby Richardson a widow.
Before McFarland’s trial, his defense attorney John Graham told the New York press that Abby Sage’s intentions towards Mr. Richardson were anything but honorable. Graham said, “This tender and touching marriage was a horrible and disgraceful ceremony to get the property of a dying man, and that tended to hasten his demise.”
At first, Richardson’s fellow New York City journalists defended the honor of Richardson, and they began delving into McFarland’s life, trying to find anything that would discredit McFarland. The New York Tribune wrote that McFarland was in “the habit of opium eating to for the purpose of drowning his sorrows.”
However, the New York Sun went on a campaign to discredit both Abby and Richardson. In an editorial entitled “A Public Outrage on Religion and Decency” The Sun accused Richardson of luring Abby away from her loving husband. The Sun even dredged up a quote from McFarland’s brother who said, “Abby went reading just to get a chance to paint her face, pass for beauty, and get in with that free-love tribe at Sam Sinclair’s.”
What followed was a battle in the press where most of the New York City dailies opined that it was Richardson and Abby who were immoral, and that McFarland did the honorable thing in killing the man who had stolen his wife away from him.
McFarland’s trial commenced on April 4, 1820. Since she knew her husband’s defense lawyer was on a mission to disgrace and discredit her, Abby stood away from the trial. Yet Graham sought to secure sympathy from the jury towards his client by having McFarland’s son Percy sitting next to him during the trial.
In his opening argument, Graham implored the jury to understand the mental anguish his client had been forced to endure. Graham said, “So sensitive and tender was the defendant’s mental organization that he was incapable of grappling with and bearing the deep sorrows and misfortune that awaited him. His speculations were disastrous and that the seeds of dissatisfaction first began to be sown.”
Then Graham got to the main thrust of his defense, when he attacked the virtue and honor of Abby. “When she first met my client, she was but a poor factory girl. Yet on one occasion she told my client, ‘All I need to make me an elegant lady and popular with the elite of New York is money.'”
Then Graham told the jury that the turning point in his client’s life came on February 21, 1867, when McFarland arrived home at 3 p.m. and saw his wife exiting Richardson’s room.
“This beautiful woman was completely corrupted,” Graham said. “She had placed before her as temptations the honors of the stage and the society of great men. She was then too elegant and too popular for her humble lot, and the demon that placed her before all these temptations for which she must pay the price with her soul was Richardson”
Graham pointed out the boiling point for his client had been reached one day when McFarland went to the office of the New York Tribune. There he was given a letter by an office boy that was addressed to “Mrs. McFarland.” The boy had mistakenly thought the letter was addressed to “Mr. McFarland.”
Graham told the jury, “My client opened the letter, peruses it and finds it is a love letter written by Richardson, who was in Boston, to Mrs. McFarland. In this letter, Richardson openly claims his intentions to marry this woman if she can obtain a divorce from Mr. McFarland.”
During the trial, the prosecutors, led by former judge and then-congressman Noah Davis, concentrated on how McFarland, during his marriage, had mistreated his wife, and on occasions beat her. To back up these claims, the prosecution called in Abby’s relatives and friends, including a man of great clout – Horace Greeley.
However, Greeley was no fan of the corrupt Democratic machine Tammany Hall, whom Greeley excoriated many times in his newspaper. As payback, Tammany Hall used their considerable influence, before and during the trial, to discredit Greeley, and Abby.
At his final summation to the jury which took two days, Graham tried to sway the jury into thinking his client was just the victim of unbearable consequences.
“The evidence proves the insanity under which the defendant was laboring at the time of the shooting,” Graham said. “This was a condition of mind superinduced by the agony he endured at the thought of the loss of his home, his wife, and his children.”
The jury bought Graham’s incredible defense like a mark buys into a three-card-monte game. On May 10, it took them only one hour and fifty-five minutes to return a verdict of not-guilty on the grounds of insanity.
Although she was deeply despondent, after the trial, Abby Sage Richardson steadfastly remained in New York City. She became a successful author and playwright, and was well received in both the literary and social communities. She also edited and published a book of Richardson’s unpublished work.
Abby also kept her promise to the dying Richardson that she would raise his three children as her own. She also raised her son Daniel, whose name was changed to Willie (not to be associated with his father Daniel McFarland). Abby’s other son Percy left McFarland and returned to his mother. He changed his surname from McFarland to his mother’s maiden name of Sage.
On December 5, 1900, Abby Sage Richardson died in Rome of pneumonia.
Daniel McFarland traveled out west in 1880. He was last heard from in Colorado, and there is no recorded account of his death. However, according to historian Edmund Pearson, “It did not take him long to drink himself to death.”
Albert Richardson was buried in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts. Prominently displayed in Franklin is a monument to Richardson’s heroics in the Civil War. The inscription on the monument reads: “Many give thee thanks who never knew thy face, so, then, farewell, kind heart and true.”
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