In May 1827, a member of Albany’s elite was killed in his family’s Georgian mansion at Cherry Hill. The murder of John Whipple resulted in two sensational trials steeped in the issues of their time, and the last public hanging in Albany history. Historic Cherry Hill continues to mark the macabre anniversary, as WAMC’s Jesse King found out.
Education Coordinator Shawna Reilly and Historic Cherry Hill hosted annual Murder Tours at the scene of the crime.
“So this is the murder room," gestures Reilly. "It’s also the nursery, it’s where the children’s bedroom was in later years — so that shows you how much the family thought the house was haunted."
Reilly says the murder of John Whipple is layered in Albany history. In 1827, the Erie Canal was two years old, and just as the capital was overflowing with new ideas and people, Cherry Hill was bursting with Van Rennsalaers and extended family. Elsie Whipple was one of those relatives, boarding with her estranged husband, John, on the building’s second floor. And while the night of the crime centers on the mansion, Reilly says the murder really starts…at a bar.
“[Elsie] was flirting with the owner – and Jesse [Strang] took notice of her. He had come from Putnam County, he had abandoned his wife and children…and he got stuck here because his luggage was accidentally sent south," explains Reilly. "So while he’s waiting and hanging out, he goes to Bates Tavern, he sees Elsie, and he decides to get a job as a farmhand at Cherry Hill.”
Reilly says Jesse Strang and Elsie fell in love, and quickly decided to get rid of John. Strang would later claim Elsie repeatedly asked him to shoot her husband – and on the night of May 7, as John Whipple sat by his bedroom window discussing the estate with Abraham Van Rensselaer, Strang climbed onto a nearby shed and took the fatal shot. Reilly says Historic Cherry Hill has reenacted that shot every October for the past seven years.
“[Strang] shoots John just on his back, near his left shoulder. [Whipple] jumps up and yells ‘Oh Lord!’ and then he stumbles into the hallway and collapses at the top of the stairs," Reilly points to a tape outline of "John's" body laid out by the staircase for the Murder Tours. "Abraham immediately jumps up and is going to go outside, but the family doesn’t want him to, they’re afraid. So eventually they do go run into town and they fetch the coroner, and they have the coroner’s inquest where all the able-bodied men of the house sit around John Whipple’s body and try and figure out what happened.”
A guilt-ridden Strang struggled to participate in the inquest and was arrested two days later, with Elsie soon to follow. With 22 people crammed into Cherry Hill, Reilly says the pair’s affair was hardly a secret, and the evidence piled up. Elsie had Strang practice shooting through glass before the deed, and gave him socks to more quietly walk along the roof of the shed. In the weeks before the murder, the couple floated talk of dangerous “canal people” stalking the property, to provide cover. When the abolition of slavery finally came to New York that July, the family’s last slave and cook, Dinah Jackson, was able to testify at Strang’s trial.
“Jesse had asked [Jackson] if she would poison John Whipple, because that was their first plan – to poison him," notes Reilly. "And she said she wouldn’t do it. And then he kind of pretended that it was a joke.”
Elsie and Strang had made a pact to stick together, but when Strang confessed to the crime in an attempt to earn a lighter sentence, Reilly says Elsie let him take the fall. She admitted their affair, but denied any connection to the killing – and got off scot-free. Strang wasn’t as lucky: he got the death penalty. Reilly says it’s important to remember Elsie was an upper-class woman with support from the likes of Solomon Van Renssalaer, a politician and general in the War of 1812.
“He goes and makes a speech to the judge, in court, at Elsie’s trial, and says ‘You can’t possibly think that this woman was the mastermind of all of this,'" explains Reilly. "There’s definitely tones of ‘She’s just a woman, and clearly she couldn’t have manipulated this criminal.’ I would say that’s probably why she was acquitted.”
The number of women at Strang’s hanging appalled officials – as did the size of the crowd overall, which Reilly says ranged from 10,000-40,000 people gathered near the future site of the Empire State Plaza. Strang’s parents sold written copies of their son’s confession to cover their legal fees – and the overall distaste of the event contributed to it being the last public execution in Albany. Disgraced, Elsie moved to New York City, but Reilly says Dinah Jackson stayed at Cherry Hill.
“After she’s freed, people want to know why wouldn’t she have left," Reilly adds. "She was, we think, an unmarried woman. She was in her fifties – she might not have had a lot of other options.”
The murder of John Whipple is but a slice of Cherry Hill’s story. Five generations of Van Rennsalaers lived within its walls from 1787 to 1964. The Historic Cherry Hill Foundation maintains some 700,000 of the family’s belongings – one of the largest collections in the U.S. – and is nearing completion on a 10-year restoration to the home’s structural integrity. But this time of year, Reilly says the Whipple murder is a popular draw, and Strang’s story gives the museum a detailed window into 19th-century life.
“From Jesse’s confession, we know where everyone in the house was living. We know their daily routines. And we wouldn’t know that about this time period without that," Reilly notes. "Most people didn’t write diaries that were that detailed – they wrote that they polished the candlesticks or something, but we don’t have the daily occurrences.”
As it exits the spooky season, Historic Cherry Hill plans to resume its behind-the-scenes restoration tours soon. The museum expects to finish construction and start refurnishing the home in 2020.