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Fannie Sprague Murder Still Unsolved

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)

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