Beheaded in the Jailhouse, 1872


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“Horrible Homicide!” the August 15th, 1872 edition of the Titusville Morning Herald screamed from page three. “A man had his head chopped off in the Corry Lock-Up. The Slayer an insane man!” Comforting words to read while sipping your morning tea, no?

Before August 8th, 1872, James Nevins (incorrectly listed in the story as “Nevels”) was a simple railroad employee working on the construction of the Dunkirk and Warren Railroad. His coworkers claimed they saw “no signs of insanity until…[they] noticed something so singular in his conversation that it became a subject of remark. He talked about persons who were going to kill him, and said that the world was coming to an end.” Then, out of the blue, Nevins threatened that he would kill Hugh Donnelly’s wife, the family with which he was boarding. His companions decided that he was going insane as a result of heatstroke and Mr. Donnelly would accompany him to Titusville to consult a physician.


Unfortunately, Nevins and Donnelly started for Titusville too late in the evening. They stopped in Corry for the night, as the 6:05 train to Titusville already left. Donnelly intended to stay overnight at the house of his relative Peter Burns, but a woman there became ill and Donnelly felt it best to stay elsewhere. At 11:00 that night, Donnelly and Nevins went to the jailhouse where they could stay the night for free. At 2:00 in the morning another man, George McDonald, joined them there as he too needed somewhere to stay. Mr. McDonald had no idea what horrors he would witness that night.

Nevins described the crimes he committed to a Herald reporter: “Sometimes I do not think what I am doing. I found an axe in the room. I do not know whether this man was asleep or not. He was lying on the sofa when I first struck him. We had no words during the evening, and no words of any consequence during the night. After I hit him the first blow I heard him complain. I hit him on the head first. I think I struck him on the side of the head. He was lying with his head towards the door, and his hands raised towards his head. I think the back of his head was towards the wall. I didn’t strike him heavy at first. He complained then, and made fight, and got up on his feet.


He had the axe some of the time, but did not strike me much with it. I might have knocked him down two or three times with my hand. I do not know whether I knocked him down with the axe or my hands. I know I gave him two or three blows with the axe…I have no family. I did not know at the time what I was doing. I hit him with the axe, but I don’t know what it was for. I could not say whether I hit him with the head or back of the axe first. I hit him a good many times. I wished to go to the hospital. I have a cold and my bones are all sore.”

Witness, George McDonald also gave an account of the murder and how he was able to survive: “I fell asleep, and when I awoke I saw the man who is dead trying to ward off the blows, and this fellow here hit him on the head. They had loud talk before I went to sleep, but I didn’t pay any attention to what they were saying…When I woke up the other man was lying down and this man was hitting him. The man that is dead called on me for help. He said ‘Will you come and help me? Don’t see a man killed!’ I rushed out and saw this man with the axe in his hand and the blood. I got excited and ran back into the cell and got under the bed. I thought if he came in there I could get hold of his feet and knock him down.

I saw the head before the cell, and this man said ‘I’ll send you where he has gone.’ He was looking all this time at me…He finally laid the axe down and I rushed out and picked it up, and threw it out of the window. I then picked up a shovel I saw, and defended myself as well as I could until the officers came. He made for the door, and I hit him on the head…I saw the man before his head was off and afterwards.”

Though George McDonald was not mighty with courage, he survived a night in a locked jailhouse with a murderer, and for that he should be acknowledged. Although, I don’t know if Mr. Donnelly would quite agree.

My main question after reading all of this testimony was, why in the world did a man in a jailhouse (albeit not a criminal at the time) have access to an ax?! The turnkey, or jailer, answered this question. He described Nevins as looking like “a lion, perfectly wild” when he went to investigate the scene. He explained,”When people come to stay over night we let them have the run of the alley-way. But we never leave prisoners out of the hall. In one corner of the alley-way is a box in which I have a shovel, coal and an axe. The axe he had is the one that was in this box.” The turnkey, a Mr. John Armstrong, locked the murderer in with the murder weapon without ever knowing he was sealing Mr. Donnelly’s fate.

The trial of James Nevins was seemingly expedited and occurred immediately after the grisly scene was found. The jury found that “Hugh Donnelly came to his death by an axe at the hands of James [Nevins], who severed the head from the body, and that he did it willfully, maliciously , and with malice aforethought.”

Investigating Insanity
Insanity “expert” – sarcastic quotes intended

Now, don’t get me wrong. What Nevins did was repulsive and horrific. However, and I leave this with a big however, I in no way think that he had malice aforethought. This phrase, for all intents and purposes, means that Nevins premeditated and consciously committed the murder of Donnelly. This phrase is akin to first degree murder in our current justice system. To claim that a man who for a week prior was acting odd and “going insane” consciously committed murder does not make sense.

Studies in mental health in 1872 were nowhere near where they are today. BUT, even with a lack of understanding of brain chemistry, common sense should always rule the day; this judgment does not carry any common sense at all.

After the residents of Corry found out what happened at the jail, hundreds of people swarmed the area trying to get a peek at the crime scene. They later followed Nevins as he was taken away to Erie for a mental examination.

Later, Hugh Donnelly’s family came to Corry to somberly collect his remains. The paper described Donnelly as a “hard-working man, who was much beloved by his friends. He volunteered to accompany [Nevins] to Titusville simply out of pure friendship and sympathy for the unfortunate man.” He left behind a wife and four children. His murder was undoubtedly an immense and heartbreaking loss to his family and community.

Through this unfortunate event, which occurred 144 years ago this August, it can be seen that though time passes, human nature is essentially the same. We pine for lives lost. Sometimes we have the courage to act, and sometimes we cower under our beds in fear. Crowds are attracted to the grisly, and especially to murder. Rubbernecking is not a new concept. Mentally ill persons who commit crimes should not be held to the same standard as people with healthy brains – this is true both historically and today. We can learn a great deal from our past if we only take the time to live inside it for a while.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about the OC&T railroad, Corry, Titusville, or local/Pennsylvania crimes and murders, we have a large collection of materials for you here at Benson Memorial Library. Author recommendation: The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Gaeber.

Make sure to check back in two weeks for another installment of our “Life & Death in the Oil Region” series. Who knows what untimely deaths will come to light…


One thought on “Beheaded in the Jailhouse, 1872

  1. Pingback: “A Horrible Cutting Affair,” 1874 | Benson Memorial Library

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