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Fannie Sprague Murder Still Unsolved

Fannie_sprage00HISTORY MATTERS

Some murder stories are told and told again. Others fade quickly from public memory. Why? It has been more than a century since this horrific crime in South Berwick, Maine. The murder is still unsolved. The story has never been told in full – until now. (Story and photos below)

 

The large barn in South Berwick, Maine where Fannie Sprague was murdered on May 1, 1900 is gone now. So is the nearby house where Fannie worked briefly as housekeeper to Samuel Locke. And so too, for the most part, is the memory of her short life and gruesome death.

The victim’s partly charred pregnant body was discovered under a heap of burning rubbish in an unused horse stall inside the barn. Her head had been crushed by a heavy blow and her jugular vein punctured. Blood pooled on the stable floor. Although her face was blackened by smoke, she was easily recognized. Had two local residents – FJ Knight and George Warren -- not seen the smoke and extinguished the fire, Fannie Sprague’s murder might have gone undiscovered. It remains unsolved.

Police at sea

Fannie_SpragueAccording to the Boston Globe, Maine police were "all at sea" in their initial attempts to find the killer. Although Locke made "certain admissions" about his relations with Mrs. Sprague, a widow, the Lewiston Morning Journal reported, investigators were satisfied that the elderly tenant was innocent of the crime. Locke had been cutting wood far from the dilapidated house at the time of the murder. His housekeeper Fannie had been "particularly anxious", he reported, for him to bring his dinner with him deep into the woods that day.

A number of local suspects were interviewed. Their shoes were compared to a plaster cast of a boot print found behind the barn – and all were dismissed. Stover Perkins, an Ogunquit fisherman who had been traveling to Dover reported seeing a tall man with a dark mustache nearby that day. Sprague’s three-year-old son said that "a tall critter" had called his mother into the barn that morning. When she did not return, the boy went off to play at a neighbor’s yard. Two Portsmouth fish peddlers seen in the neighborhood the day of the murder were tracked down, arrested, grilled, and released.

An intense search for suspects followed. The Lewiston paper reported that "the suspicions of the local officers shift from day to day." The farm was suddenly "a Mecca" for sightseers from miles around. But by the end of the week, the South Berwick sheriff admitted that he was facing "as blind a trail as he ever encountered."

Then on May 14 members of the coroner’s inquest group announced that they knew the killer to be "a citizen who stands high in the community." But the group could not reach consensus to officially charge any suspect.

After sharing the front page with news of the Boer War, Fannie Sprague’s murder was pushed aside by other Maine horrors. A schooner was wrecked off the coast. A woman died of an "unauthorized operation." A man was trampled to death by a steer in the doorway of his home. Four bodies with crushed skulls were discovered in a makeshift grave. Four armed bandits attempted robbing the South Berwick bank. An insane man tried to eat his own hands.

CONTINUED NEXT PAGE
Fannie Sprage murder trial


Site of Fannie Sprague Murder / SeacoastNH.com

Edwin Knight on trial for murder

A thrilling trial begins

Then on Christmas Eve, six months after the story had faded from the headlines, police arrested 42-year old Edwin H. Knight "without any excitement" in his South Berwick home. His lawyer George C. Yeaton was prominent in South Berwick. Yeaton had gained national attention decades before in 1873 as the prosecuting attorney in the infamous "Smuttynose Murder" trial. Louis Wagner, an impoverished Prussian immigrant, was found guilty of killing two women with an ax at the Isles of Shoals. Wagner was hanged two years later.

Edwin Knight, by contrast, was a prominent local figure in South Berwick. Married with six children, he had owned several sawmills, attended a Christian church, and was a former town selectman.

Knight’s trial opened on a gray February morning in 1901 at the courthouse in Saco, Maine. The accused – "flawlessly dressed and… perfectly cool" -- chatted with friends according to a Biddeford newspaper. After hearing the charges, he entered a plea of not guilty. Following jury selection, the two men who had discovered the body and extinguished the fire told their stories. The barn, they said, smelled like kerosene mixed burning flesh.

It is not clear from the trial reporting whether FJ Knight and Almeda Knight, the owners of the farmhouse, were related to one another. According to South Berwick cemetery records, FJ Knight had two wives – Alice and Aurilla. The other owner, Amelia Knight, was the sister of suspect Edwin Knight and lived with him and his family nearby.

Samuel Locke had been living in the old house rent-free for three years because the Knight’s $1,500 insurance policy required that the building be occupied. Miss Almeda Knight did not want Fannie Sprague living there, and insisted that Locke move her out.

Yeaton springs a trap

Samuel Locke, age 66, testified on day two that he had come home the weekend before the murder to find Edwin Knight in the kitchen with Fannie and her boy Freddie. Locke told Edwin that the owners of the house did not want Fannie living there with him. According to Locke, Edwin Knight said he would "fix up" the situation so that she and son Freddie could stay.

During cross examination Yeaton established that Locke, formerly of Dover and Rochester, had eight children of his own. Yeaton then produced a letter indicating that Locke had known Fannie Sprague for years before she became his housekeeper. Because the letter was "unfit" for publication in the newspaper, its precise content is unknown.

"Before you wrote that letter," Yeaton demanded, "had you not been criminally intimate with Fannie Sprague?"

"I had not," Locke insisted.

Here Yeaton sprung his trap. The state’s own key witness, he said indicating Locke, and not his client, was the likely father of Fannie’s unborn child. Further, Yeaton said, only Locke had a motive for murder. He was angry at Edwin Knight and his wife because the Knights had been responsible for sending Locke’s daughter to reform school. Locke insisted that he had no idea that Knight had testified against his daughter, but confirmed that she was in reform school.

FANNIE SPRAGUE MURDER (Continued next page)


They found Fannie Sprague Body   SeacoastNH.com

Dramatic Maine Murder Trial

The noose tightens

By the third day of the trial spectators carrying box lunches filled the courthouse gallery as a parade of witnesses, including Fannie’s brother, sister, and father, were called to testify. They established that Fannie had worked briefly at Edwin Knight’s house in November of 1899, five or six months before the murder. A coroner reported that the victim was five to six months pregnant at her death.

State attorney general Seidman then began to tighten his case. He argued that pieces of a wooden cart owned by Knight had been used to bludgeon the victim and that the accused then attempted to hide and repair the cart. The defendant’s knife was introduced as the second murder weapon. Witnesses agreed that Knight had been seen in the vicinity just prior to the murder. His rubber boots matched the plaster cast. And there were damning blood spots visible on his clothes later that day, and the pockets on his clothes were crudely patched to disguise other blood stains. Knight had known the victim for at least 10 years according to witnesses.

Knight turned pale, according to the Biddeford Daily Times, when Fannie’s nervous four-year old son Freddie testified on day four.

"What happens to boys who tell wrong stories?" the prosecuting attorney asked Freddie, whose tiny frame barely showed above the witness rail.

"God punishes them," Freddie replied.

"If anyone tells lies, what will happen?" Attorney Yeaton then asked the boy.

"God won’t let them go to heaven," Freddie said.

Freddie Sprague testified that Edwin Knight had gone into the barn wit his mother on the day of her murder. The state even implied that Freddie was Knight’s illegitimate child. But George Yeaton made a plea to the jury that the boy was too young and had "too little intelligence" to testify. Besides, Yeaton suggested, the boy had obviously been coached and his answers memorized.

Witness Samuel Locke  SeacoastNH.com

VERDICT OF FANNIE SPRAGUE MURDER TRIAL (next page)


FJ Knight House in South Berwick / SeacoastNH.com

Murder at the F.J. Knight Farm

The knight verdict

Even during the darkest hours of his trial, Edwin Knight openly told reporters that he expected to be acquitted. He did not believe, Knight told all who asked, that God would allow an innocent man to be convicted. Louis Wagner had made identical statements after the Smuttynose Island murders right up until his final moments on the gallows in 1875.

As the trial entered its second week, Yeaton opened his surprise defense by putting his client on the stand first. Knight offered a meticulous defense and attempted to cast suspicion back onto Samuel Locke. The rubber boot tracks, Knight admitted, were his. The blood stains on his clothes came from shoeing a horse, he said. When the prosecutor asked point blank whether he had killed Fannie Sprague, Knight said emphatically and loudly for all to hear, "No sir, I did not."

Knight’s sister Almeda testified that the blood on her brother’s knife was fish blood from breakfast the morning of the murder, and that she had washed the knife clean. Knight’s wife appeared on the stand in the eighth day of the trial to confirm her husband’s whereabouts on the day of the murder. She had patched his clothes and she had asked Fannie to work at their house, she said. Most of her comments at trial, the prosecutor pointed out, conflicted with her original statements at the coroner’s inquest six months earlier.

Yeaton produced a host of witnesses to sully the character of Samuel Locke and praise the character of Edwin Knight. The defendant had so many friends and relatives in South Berwick, the prosecutor claimed, that even an investigator for the state admitted to being a "dear dear friend" of Knight. Each lawyer took an entire day to sum up. Yeaton insisted that his client had no motive to harm Fannie Sprague, and that no direct evidence linked his client to the crime. Attorney general Seidman said that Knight’s real victim was not Fannie, but her unborn child whose identity Knight wanted to conceal from the world. The judge spent Saturday morning February 16 instructing the jury, reviewing the evidence, and defining legal terms.

The jury began its deliberation at 12:34 pm that Saturday. They returned a verdict of "Not Guilty" at 3:40 pm that same afternoon. "Never has there been such a demonstration at the Saco courtroom," the Biddeford Daily Journal reported. The courtroom exploded into shouts, whistles and cheers that drowned out the judge’s gavel. The verdict came so quickly that it made the late edition of many New England daily newspapers. Edwin Knight and his family were able to catch the evening train home. Edwin Knight opened a South Berwick boarding house called Lake View Farm. He died in 1931.

 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears on alternate Mondays in the Portsmouth Herald and exclusively online here at SeacoastNH.com. He is currently working on two books (one for children) on privateers in the War of 1812 to be published next year.

 

 

 

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