Plattsburgh City Court
 
Peggy Facto - Murderess or Victim?* 
 
In the 186 years between 1639 and 1825, eleven women are known to have been put to death by hanging. Peggy Facto was one of them. In Daniel Hearn’s Legal Executions in New York State: A Comprehensive Reference 1639-1963, the entry related to her execution reads:

Peggy Facto, white. Murder.
This young woman disposed of her illegitimate baby but denied criminal intent to the last. Few details survive about this case. She was executed at Plattsburgh on March 18, 1825.

Based on new research by the author using source documents, a more detailed picture is now available. But still the pivotal question remains: was Peggy Facto a murderess, or was she the victim of society’s prejudices?

 
On September 5, 1824, a new-born infant was found dead in a wooded area of Beekmantown, in Clinton County, New York. A string was around its neck and much of its body had been consumed by fire. In October, the Grand Jury indicted Peggy Facto and Francis Labare with Murder and with Conspiracy and Abetting in the First Degree.   The People v. Peggy Facto

The Indictment charged that

Peggy Facto and Francis Labare . . . not having the fear of god before their eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil . . . as soon as the said infant was born with force and arms . . .being alive then and there being in the peace of god . . . feloniously, willfully and with malice aforethought did make an assault . . . and did take a certain string . . . of the bredth of one inch and of the length of two feet . . . and . . . so being fixed drawn and tied around the neck of the said child . . . did choak and strangle . . . and did cast throw and push into a certain place then and there situate wherein there was a great quantity of fire and . . . the said infant child by the fire was then and there burned to death and killed roasted and in part consumed . . . and there instantly died.

Trial was held before Circuit Court Judge Reuben H. Walworth of Saratoga Springs at the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Plattsburgh on January 19, 1825. The defendants were tried separately on the same day, with Peggy Facto being first. According to Judge Walworth’s trial notes, the People called a witness who knew Peggy Facto, saw her in August when she was “far gone in her pregnancy,” and after the child was found, saw evidence of the delivery. Another witness told of finding the child about 12 to 14 rods from Peggy Facto’s house, with a string tied around its neck, wrapped up in a linen cloth, burned, with the side of its head broken in. He and another man who saw the child where it was discovered stated they could not tell what sex it was, but that it appeared to be “full grown,” and there was hair on the head where not burned.

Mary Chandreau testified to Peggy Facto’s pregnancy, and to a conversation she said she had with the defendant in the jail. She said that Peggy Facto told her that she took a string from her gown to tie the child’s neck. Mrs. Chandreau asked the prisoner [Facto] “why she did not send for her & she said the one that was with her would not go for her.”

The verdict against Peggy Facto was guilty. In his later communication to the Governor, Judge Walworth said that “the testimony on the trial being so irresistible that the jury was out but a very short time. . . .” It appears that her trial was immediately followed the same day by that of her co-defendant, Francis Labare. The same witnesses testified again about Peggy Facto’s pregnancy, finding the dead child, and jailhouse conversation with Peggy Facto.

Peggy Facto, who did not testify in her own trial, was then sworn to testify in that of Francis Labare. According to Judge Walworth’s notes, she swore that

On the night of the delivery she asked [Labare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned . . . he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.

She added that Labare never had anything to do with her except one night. The notes next state that Francis Labare was sworn, but give nothing of his testimony.

The verdict regarding Francis Labare was Not Guilty.

When he sentenced Peggy Facto to death, Judge Walworth sounded ferocious. The full text of the sentencing was printed in the January 29, 1825 edition of the local newspaper, the Plattsburgh Republican. Key passages are quoted here.

It is with emotions and feelings the most painful, that I enter upon the discharge of the important duty which devolves upon the court, and which I am now compelled to perform. It is to pronounce the sentence of the law, which is to deprive a fellow mortal of existence, and send her to the bar of her Creator and her God to answer for the conduct of her past life and where her destiny must be fixed for eternity.

If in the discharge of this most painful duty, which can ever devolve on those who are entrusted with the administration of human laws, I should in dwelling upon the enormity of the offenses which you have committed, and the unexampled wickedness of your past life, make use of strong language to show the aggravation of your guilt, and the depravity which you have exhibited; be assured it is not for the purpose of wounding your feelings, neither is it intended to oppress or afflict one on whom the righteous judgment of heaven is so heavily pressing. It is, if possible, to awaken you to a proper sense of your awful situation. It is, if possible, to reform you and prepare you to meet the ignominious death that awaits you. It is, that by contrition and repentance, you may be enabled to shun a punishment more dreadful than any which can be inflicted by human laws –– the eternal ruin of your guilty soul.

From the testimony given in your trial, there can be no doubt of your guilt, or of the aggravated circumstances attending the commission of the crime. There is every reason to believe you were immediately and directly concerned in the murder of your helpless infant, whom you were bound by the laws of society, and the ties of nature, to cherish and protect. Yes, there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.

Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt. In vain did you endeavour to consume your murdered infant in the fire. In vain did you secrete the body, and endeavour to obliterate all traces of your wretchedness and shame.

Miserable and infatuated mortal! You forgot the eye of your God was fixed upon you. The eye of that God who suffers not even a sparrow to fall without his notice, and to whom the light of the day and the darkness of the night are one and the same. . . .

Your crime with all its aggravations is now before you, and you are about to receive the sentence which is shortly to deprive you of life. . . . When again in the solitude of the prison, where you will be permitted to remain for a few short weeks, reflect upon all the circumstances of that horrid night when your infant was strangled by the hands of its mother. Reflect upon the situation of your husband whom your depravity has driven from your bed and from your bosom –– upon your aged parents whom your crimes will send to their graves in sorrow. Reflect upon the situation of your poor orphan children, in whom you have entailed disgrace and infamy, - and who are soon to be left friendless and unprotected, to the mercy of an unfeeling world. And when your feelings become softened by these reflections, let me again entreat you, before the curtain of life falls forever, and before the Judgment seat of your God, that you fly for mercy to the arms of a Saviour, and endeavour to seize upon the salvation of his cross.

Listen now to the awful sentence of the law which I am compelled thus to pronounce upon you. You are to be taken from hence to the prison from which you came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there on the 18th day of March next, between the hours of twelve at noon, and two o’clock in the afternoon, you are to be hanged by your neck until you are dead –– and your dead body is to be delivered to the president and members of the Medical Society for dissection. –– And may that God whose laws you have broken, and before whose throne you must then appear, have mercy on your soul.

According to the April 23, 1825 Plattsburgh Republican, “After conviction, a strong feeling prevailed in favor of having a pardon granted; and we were among the number who thought it desirable that the governor should commute her punishment.” The article also referred to strong criticism of the judge and jury, and the claim of newly discovered evidence, which the newspaper referred to as “probably some old woman’s story.”

Every death sentence imposed now is automatically reviewed by the Court of Appeals. But the Court of Appeals did not exist until 1847, and it appears that no appellate court reviewed Peggy Facto’s conviction and sentence. Instead, the trial judge made an “official report” of the case to Governor DeWitt Clinton. That report was dated January 24, 1825 and is referred to in the Governor’s letter denying clemency. The Governor quotes Judge Walworth as reporting to him that

I became satisfied that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.

On February 28, 1825, Gov. Clinton wrote to Peter Sailly, Esq. of Plattsburgh, acknowledging a February 13 letter from Judge Walworth which enclosed a petition signed by Sailly “and a number of respectable citizens soliciting a pardon for the said Peggy Facto either on condition of leaving the United States or otherwise. The petition states three grounds for the interposition of the Executive. Doubts with many

  1. as to the guilt of the convict.
  2. as to this being a case that requires a public example.
  3. as to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject.”

In his letter to Sailly, the Governor quotes Judge Walworth as reiterating in his February 13 letter that he has no doubt as to her guilt and that “her execution would have afforded an example beneficial to the community.” However, he now has “no hesitation in saying, after the feeling which has been produced, that the execution of this woman would be worse than useless . . . . I do therefore join with the petitioners in recommending a pardon for this unfortunate woman.”

Despite this urging, Gov. Clinton denied the petition for clemency. He addressed each of the three reasons, disposing of the first two by stating that “The representation of the Judge and the facts of the case clearly establish the guilt of the convict and the frequency of the horrible crime of infanticide evinces the necessity of penal influence.” He noted that “some enlightened and benevolent men disbelieve in the justice, and many doubt the expediency, of the punishment of death.” He agreed that it should be inflicted only “in flagrant cases.” However, he suggested that those who signed the clemency petition may well be wrong in questioning the efficacy of the example of execution, “[a]s their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved and abandoned and they cannot realize in their own sentiments the motives that predominate with that of the community. If terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.”

He concluded that “[i]f a pardon were granted in this case, it would be a virtual declaration of the impunity of infanticide.”

On March 18, 1825, the death sentence was carried out.

At a few moments past twelve the prisoner was brought from the jail in a state of feebleness which required the assistance of the officers, by whom she was placed in the vehicle prepared for the purpose –– when the procession moved on, formed by the Light Infantry company under the command of captain Sailly, and the Rifle Company commanded by lieut Couch –– the whole under the command of captain Baily. A crowd preceded and followed the cavalcade on foot and in waggons –– the latter class were a great part females of various ages from the decrepitude of the grandmother, down to the rosy cheek’d maiden in her teens, all eager to witness the rare show, in which the death of a human being was to afford food for their curiosity. Many of these had come from a distance, in spite of the badness of the roads, which could scarcely be worse.

When the prisoner arrived at the gallows which was plated in a field west of the meeting house, she was taken from the waggon and placed upon the scaffold by her attendants –– to whose honor it may be said –– that not one of them could refrain from tears . . . .

[After joining the Monsigneur in prayer] she declared she was innocent of the crime for which she was to suffer –– and then she forgave all her enemies. She was then lifted up by one of the officers, who was about to proceed to the performance of his duty, that on her uttering a faint scream excited either by terror or hysterical affection, he allowed her to be seated for a moment, when she become composed, and signified her readiness, upon which she was raised, and the cord adjusted, during which she again declared herself innocent, and prayed for the forgiveness of her enemies, and while in the utterance of these words, the bolt was pulled, and the platform dropped, and with scarcely a convulsive motion, her soul was consigned to the land of spirits.

The crowd was orderly and quiet, and no fighting or disturbance took place among the lower order until late in the day.

Once her body was cut down, the crowd dispersed, many of the people making for local taverns and an afternoon of late-winter talk of the hanging and murder. A group from Grande Isle, [Vermont] who walked across a frozen Lake Champlain to witness the execution, had to take boats back because the warm weather broke up the lake's ice. Meanwhile, the woman's body was turned over to the local medical society for dissection.

A women who later wrote her recollections commented that "A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen. Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors."

Author's Note

Locating records from this case has been a challenge. The Indictment was found in a cardboard box filled with old indictments in the basement of the Clinton County Government Center, but there were no other records from the trial. The Educator at the Kent-Delord House Museum had a typed reproduction of Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s letter denying clemency, but not a copy of the original. Eventually the author found a handwritten draft of the letter with Gov. Clinton’s papers held at Columbia University. The clemency petition has not been located. It may be with some petitions from that time period that are in the custody of the Executive Office at the Board of Parole. After extensive searching, the State Archives found Judge Walworth’s trial notes. Many issues of the Plattsburgh and Malone newspapers are on microfilm at Plattsburgh State University, but none could be found which described the discovery of the body, the arrest and charging of Peggy Facto and Francis Labare, nor any information about them, nor any articles about the clemency petition and controversy over the sentence, except the April article quoted above. For the full text of the Indictment, Judge’s sentencing remarks, Gov. Clinton’s letter, and newspaper articles.

 

1. Governor DeWitt Clinton’s letter is at Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, DeWitt Clinton Papers, Letterbooks of DeWitt Clinton 1825, Microfilm Reel 6, Special Collections Library, Call Number X978 C-61, Stack 14.

2. Judge Walworth’s trial notes are in the New York State Archives, J3011 Transcripts of testimony in Circuit Courts and Courts of Oyer and Terminer, Box 3-Clinton County- January 1825.

3. The Indictment is in stored records at the Clinton County Government Center.

4. All newspaper articles are in the Periodical Microfilm Collection at Plattsburgh State University Feinberg Library.

 
*This article was published by The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York in the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of the Society Newsletter.
 

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