JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I've heard a rumor that history repeats itself. So, why don't you see if you find anything familiar in what happened after the James Franklin tied up in her home port of Bridgeport, Connecticut on Thursday, the 12th of July, 1878. The single masted schooner was a half century old already, 51 feet long and 18 feet wide, and built it seems to put the lie to the romance of the age of sail. She was a working ship, a hard lifetime of utilitarian cargo recorded in her thirty tons of chipped paint, rusted cleats, and patched gunwales. Her master (they dare not call him a captain) was the meager 23 year old Frank E. Bassett, a short young man whose alcohol tanned life was stretched taut over the forty miles between the docks of New York's treacherous East River, through the Hellsgate, up Long Island Sound to the mouth of the Pequonnock River, and back again - and again and again. The Franklin and her master and her crew were of value only so long as they were less expensive than a steam ship, and the owners invested in them accordingly.
Once the cargo had been unloaded and the crew paid their meager $40 for the month's work, Bassett invited crewman “Stuttering Jack” Rufus,  “a well-meaning fellow”,  to share a drink with him and his regular passenger, his common law wife, Lorena Alexander- a hard faced woman in her forties. And as the three comrades walked to Lorena's rooms at William and East Washington Avenues, in Bridgeport's East Side neighborhood, Jack was probably expecting little more than enough whiskey to dull his misery. He got that, certainly. But after clambering through the broken fence surrounding the abandoned Brewster carriage factory, he also received something far more mercenary.
Two months later Frank Bassett was arrested for the theft of a wallet containing $65 dollars in cash ($1,400 today). Desperate to make bail, Frank sold all the furniture from the Brewster factory apartment. A week later when Lorena returned from a trip and found her home stripped, she was infuriated. And being a woman driven by her passions, she was determined to get even. She told the police she knew something about Frank Barrett which would “put him where he belonged.” She said Frank had killed a poor simpleton named Stuttering Jack, for the cash to be made selling his corpse.
Lorena said that on the night of the 12th, she was in the bedroom “attending to some sewing” when Frank ordered her to come out. Stuttering Jack was passed out on the sofa and Frank ordered her to fetch a bottle of chloroform from the mantle. She says she cried out, “Oh Frank, what are you going to do with that? What are you about?” He replied, "Shut up, you act cowardly and child-like.” Lorena said she tried to run, but the domineering Frank Bassett ordered her to stay and help clean up the mess.
To validate her story Lorena lead them to the roads north of Shelton, Connecticut, and to a ravine near the new Ousatonic Water Company canal. In its shadowed recesses they found a barrel containing Stuttering Jack's body. They then traveled 8 miles to New Haven and spoke to Dr. Leonard Sanford, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the Yale College of Medicine. He confirmed that on Friday the 13th Lorena had offered him a body for sale. Dr. Sanford explained he required a valid death certificate, and Lorena responded by pleading, cursing and even wailing, begging for at least $5 to cover the cost of renting a horse and wagon -  until finally the doctor had her escorted off the premises. But he did not call the police. And then, finally, the police confronted Frank Bassett with Lorena's story. And Frank told his own.
Frank said that on the nigf July 12th, 1878, he was in the other room reading the paper when Lorena entered and announced “she had got him fixed, and I says what. She says I have chloroformed him. She called me out of the room, and I told her she had done wrong. She said, "Never mind, Frank, we can got $25 for the body." Then she got the barrel, and I helped to put him in,.” Frank admitted, “In the morning I hired a team, and we both went to New Haven to see Dr. Sanford. After we got there the Doctor would not receive the body and we started for home.” And, “on the way we dumped the barrel in the woods where it was found.” To validate his version of events Frank lead police to the chicken coop behind the Brewster factory, beneath which he had buried the dead man's coat and shoes.
The newspapers were electrified. The New York World insisted “nothing like it ever happened here before or elsewhere...” The Hartford Courant headlined, “A Horrible Murder Discovered”, and the Boston Globe called it “A Shocking Example of Human Depravity”. The coroners' jury investigation garnered so much press coverage that Bridgeport brought in State's Attorney James Harvey Olmstead. His family name was engraved on the “Founders Monument” in Hartford, and he was a powerful member of the Democratic party. In fact his cousin, George F. Olmstead, was one of the owners of the James Franklin. James Harvey Olmstead proved his worth when he decided to charge both Bassett and Alexander with murder, but to try them separately. It meant their “he said, she said” defenses would work for the prosecution
As usual, as the trial approached the story got more complicated. It was revealed that the victim's name was not actually “Stuttering Jack”, or even John Rufus, although he answered to either. Legally he was Jack Weinbecker, and well known as a “simpleton”, who “belonged to a low, miserable, drunken class”, and he had a police record as a thief. But then, so did Frank Bassett.. Frank's mother explained to one reporter (as she would testify under oath) that little Frank – he weighed only 125 pounds – was also an alcoholic and “slow”. Frank had also been been arrested several times, once for assault on Lorena. But it was upon Lorena that the press focused most of their vitriol..
Lorena had been raised in Manhattan's Bowery, a lower east side neighborhood filled with brothels, opium dens, gay and lesbian bars, “German beer gardens, pawn shops and flophouse”. Still, she claimed she was a pious Christian, until “Men... turned her away from the Lord.” As usual the press was fascinated with her attire, describing her black silk dress accented with a flower pattern and a crown like hat of black velvet, editorializing “The woman’s personal appearance suggests natural shrewdness.” According to the New York Times, “ In 1872 she was living in East Houston-street...as Lena E. Coyne, and was employed at Harry Hill's (as a barmaid)...Among her effects is the outfit of a fortune-teller and astrologer.” Lorena admitted having been married three times, but the press uncovered at least three other co-habitations. She had a daughter who was only a few months younger than her co-defendant Frank Bassett, and during Frank's trial, one reporter noted, she was more engrossed in her two year old daughter playing on her lap, than in the testimony .
Frank's defense was described by the New York Times as, “he was so completely under the influence of Mrs. Alexander that she controlled him about as she pleased.” The jailer, the aptly named Wakeman W. Wells, told the jury, “"I was particular to ask him who chloroformed the man, and he said that Mrs. Alexander did ". Then the paper added, "The father of the prisoner, George Bassett, a man with straight hair, copper-colored complexion, and the features of an Indian, testified that his son...had never been very bright since an attack of scarlet fever when he was 4 years old” This defense was only a partially successful. Frank Bassett was convicted of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to life. At her trial in October, Lorena claimed Frank had conceived the entire plot, and had robbed Jack's body of $5.75. The jury did not believe her, and she received an identical sentence to his.
Both prisoners were sent to separate wings of Wethersfield Prison, just south of Hartford. On entering the prison their heads were shaved before they were confined to individual 3 ½ by seven foot cells, which were unheated, and had no water or toilets. Thankfully the inmates were required to work six days a week, marching in lockstep each way to and from the work yard. But no prisoner was allowed to speak at any time, except if being questioned by a guard. Suicides were common, usually by hanging, but there are records during this time of numerous prisoners cutting their own throats, and at least one man who lay on his bed, emptied his kerosene lamp on himself, and set himself on fire. Lorena endured this hellhole for six years, before being transferred to the State Insane Asylum at Middletown, where she died early November of 1878. No cause of death was given, nor is it explained what happened to her body. But it was also common for the bodies of prisoners to be provided to the Yale School of Medicine for dissection. Surely Lorena's demise was more horrible than Stuttering Jack's.
Frank did not die in prison, physically. According to the Hartford Courant, “At first Bassett was employed in the prison shop. When his mind began to slip from him, he was given employment as a runner and as a sweeper.” But, according to the story published on the fiftieth anniversary of the murder, “Friendless and feeble, the old prisoner spent the day in idleness, an inmate of the insane ward of the institution....playing in far-off lands and imagining strange journeyings which he describes to whoever will listen.”
The Courant also recorded Frank's death in 1937. “-The longest prison confinement in the state's history ended Friday when Frank Bassett, 82, died at Norwich State Hospital.... He is believed not to have any relatives. Years ago a woman in Chicago made arrangements with an undertaker...to care for his body.”
And if you can't find a similar story in today's headlines, I don't think you are paying attention.
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