I recently listened to Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson in Serial Killers recount the story of Pomeroy, who had nicknames such as “The Boy Torturer” and the “Red Devil.” At 14-years-old, Pomeroy killed two local children — a 10-year-old girl named Katie Curran and a 4-year-old boy named Horace Millen.
Pomeroy was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts to Thomas J. Pomeroy and Ruth Ann Snowman. He was the younger son, with an older brother named Charles Pomeroy, and his father was a veteran of the Civil War. Jesse’s father is mythologized to have been very abusive towards his mother and the entire family.
According to Dawn Keetley in Making a Monster: Jesse Pomeroy, Pomeroy, before being caught for his killings, tortured seven small boys in late 1871 and early 1872. He “whipped them, beat them with boards, stuck them with pins, and finally progressed to slashing with knives.” After being caught for tortures, he was forced to spend sixteen months in a reform school, but was later released for good behavior.
Keetley would say that despite all his crimes, Pomeroy never said why he did it, and refused to answer until his death, he just said “I don’t know” and sometimes denied his crimes completely, saying that “I didn’t do it.” Pomeroy would die in 1932 while in prison at 73.
What motivated Jesse Pomeroy and his crimes, exactly?
Pomeroy’s family and childhood
Someone who knew Pomeroy early in his life described him, in the words of Keetley, as a “sullen, taciturn boy who was always engrossed in dime novels.” He would usually stab the ground with a knife and was known by his mother as a “good boy” who was incapable of committing the brutal crimes that he was convicted of.
Despite being known for the crimes he committed, Pomeroy had a troubled family background. His family moved from Maine, where his mother, Ruth Ann Snowman, was born. His father, Thomas Pomeroy, grew up in Massachusetts to Jesse Sr. and his mother, also named Ruth. Yes, Thomas Pomeroy’s mother and wife had the same name.
But Thomas Pomeroy’s father, Jesse’s paternal grandfather, had a very unhappy marriage with Jesse’s grandmother. Jesse Sr. and Ruth had a divorce after he treated his wife very harshly and abused her. Jesse Sr. moved to New York to start a new life.
In that time, Thomas met Ruth Ann Snowman while he lived in Charlestown and she lived in Boston. On the marriage certificates, it said that he was 22, and she was 17. However, both of their death certificates are preceded by “abt.”, showing that they didn’t know their exact date of birth.
Thomas and Ruth would have their first child, Charles, born on November 6, 1858. Jesse would be born a year later on November 29, 1859. Thomas would be listed as a fireman on the birth records, but he may have worked multiple jobs. Then, Thomas fought in the Civil War and returned to be a fireman.
Jesse himself was bullied as a child, with what was described in his autobiography as an “evil eye.” His eye was damaged when he was an infant, and would be a source of humiliation for him. Locals and his family would describe his eye as a “white veil.”
According to Harold Schecter in Fiend: The Shocking Story of America’s Young Serial Killer, Jesse was repeatedly abused by Thomas. In one “savage argument” where Ruth finally got rid of her husband, Jesse ran away from home. Thomas “had tracked the boy down, dragged him home, then — after ordering him upstairs — stripped his clothes,” and it was not the first time it happened either.
“When he got older, Jesse Pomeroy was simply repeating the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father,” Keetley wrote of Schecter’s theory.
However, Keetley questions whether the assertion is actually true based on the evidence:
“The story that Pomeroy was abused as a child, which has no evidentiary grounding.”
It was, after all, the late 1800s and corporal punishment of children was routine, but Keetley notes that in Jesse Pomeroy’s own autobiography, he only states that he was beaten by two teachers and an uncle, although he never said that he was beaten by his father.
Jesse Pomeroy himself would say that in 1872, he was arrested and charged with brutally mutilating seven boys who all survived. Keetley would note that each torture increased in brutality as Pomeroy experimented with different and more violent methods of torture, from ropes and sticks to pins, and then finally to knives.
His victims seemed to have a pattern. For one, they were all younger and smaller than him. He also didn’t know them — which made it appear random. Keetley says that all his torture victims were male, and that, according to the testimony of the torture victims, Pomeroy danced and laughed during the tortures. He also cut holes under the eyes of his victims, very much injuring the eyes of smaller boys in the way his own eyes were injured.
“The increasing frequency and ferocity of Pomeroy’s attacks suggest that whatever compulsion drove him, he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep it under control,” Keetley wrote.
Pomeroy would then be found guilty of the tortures in 1872 and be sent to the State Reform School for Boys in Westborough Massachusetts.
“It is generally concluded that the boy is mentally deficient.” —a Boston Globe wrote.
Pomeroy would later leave reform school early for good behavior. He was paroled in February of 1874 to live with his mother and brother in South Boston again, helping his mother run the dressmaking shop while his brother sold newspapers.
In July 1874, a 10-year-old girl named Katie Curran’s body was discovered. She had been missing since March, and the immediate suspect was Jesse Pomeroy. The community was frantic in looking for Curran and Pomeroy’s name surfaced all over the newspapers.
On March 18, 1874, Curran vanished in the morning, and rumor around town was that her disappearance had something to do with the different religious affiliations of her parents since her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant. One witness said she disappeared into a carriage.
It was where and when Curran’s body was found that made authorities suspect Pomeroy for her murder. Jesse Pomeroy had just been arrested for the murder of a 4-year-old boy, Horace Millen, and her body was discovered at the old store of the Pomeroy family.
Pomeroy had murdered Millen in April of 1874. Jesse Pomeroy claimed to have been looking for his father at the market, but he was stabbing Millen to death. According to Keetley, descriptions of Millen’s corpse was an eye “partially removed from its socket” and his general inhumane treatment. He had about eight shallow cuts to his chest.
Pomeroy was immediately the first suspect, and once questioned and pressed by Officer James R. Wood as to what made him torture the little boys before. Pomeroy said that he didn’t know, and then Wood asked: “might not you have killed that little boy yesterday and not known it?”
Jesse Pomeroy said: “I don’t know, I might. I guess I did.”
He was later taken to see Millen’s body, and then Pomeroy expressed significant amount of remorse as he trembled “like a leaf,” according to Keetley. Pomeroy started crying and then Wood asked him if he killed Millen, and Pomeroy said yes — twice. He would later deny that he confessed numerous times.
Pomeroy later confessed to murdering Curran. He said that Curran came to the store early on March 18 to buy some papers, and then he told her that he had some down the stairs. Heled her down the cellar, and then confessed the following:
“[I] put my left arm about her neck, my hand over her mouth, and with my knife cut her throat, holding my knife in my right hand. I then dragged her to behind the water-closet, laying her head furthermost up the place, and put some stones and some ashes on the body.”
As to why he did it, Pomeroy said:
“I don’t know why I did it; I couldn’t help doing it.”
At his trial, many commentators would speculate as to what was wrong with him — if he had demonic spirits or whether he was pure evil. Others equated him with an animal. His case quickly became a fixture of the community.
His defense lawyers argued the insanity defense. Jesse Pomeroy’s mother, Ruth Pomeroy, would stick by him and testify that he had a “violent attack of sickness, which almost reduced him to a skeleton.” but the jury would not buy into the defense.
In the case Commonwealth v. Pomeroy, the jury pronounced Pomeroy guilty of first-degree murder and gave a recommendation for mercy. He was sentenced to death by hanging.
In the summer of 1875, Jesse Pomeroy would write his 70 page autobiography over two July installments in the Boston Sunday Times.
In 1876, Massachusetts Governor, William Gaston, commuted his sentence, after delaying signing the death warrant for over a year. The Massachusetts Governor’s Council has previously voted twice to maintain the death penalty, but Gaston refused to sign it until they voted a third time to commute it.
Pomeroy would be transferred to Suffolk County Jail at 16 years old and began his life in solitary confinement. He would spend the next 53 years in confinement, trying to escape multiple times and teaching himself multiple languages. He recanted his confessions and would deny the tortures or murders until his death. In 1929, he was transferred to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane because of old age.
He died on September 29, 1932. Even today, Pomeroy is the youngest person in Massachusetts history to be convicted of first-degree murder.
(1) Keetley, Dawn. Making a Monster: Jesse Pomeroy, the Boy Murderer of 1870s Boston. University of Massachusetts Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv346v5w. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.
(2) Schechter, Harold. Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer. Gallery Books, 2000.
(3) Pomeroy, Jesse. Selections From the Writings of Jesse Harding Pomeroy. Kobek.com Klassic Reprint, 2000.
(4) “Massachusetts’ Youngest Murderer Of The 1st Degree.” Hysteria, 3 Jan. 2016, https://hystoria.ca/2015/12/13/massachusetts-youngest-murderer-of-the-1st-degree/
Photo of Jesse Pomeroy — Wikipedia Commons
Originally published at CrimeBeat on August 23, 2020.