Monday, September 25, 2017

Murdered in Midstream

With the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918, thousands of wounded Americans could finally ship home for medical treatment, free from the threat of German U-Boats.  As a result, the Army was desperate for hospital space, and entered into an agreement with Richmond College (today known as the University of Richmond).  The professors, staff and students left their new facilities in the far West End of Richmond and returned to the buildings of their old campus, near what is now Virginia Commonwealth University.  In their place, the dormitories and classrooms of the new campus on the wooded tract at the far western end of Grove Avenue would be occupied by doctors, nurses, and hundreds of recovering soldiers.

Westhampton Hospital, now the Westhampton campus of the University of Richmond, ca. 1918.  This photo shows soldiers and an ambulance pulled up to North Court. From “A Gem of a College: The History of Westhampton College 1914-1989” by Claire Millhiser Rosenbaum, 1989.

Among the staff of what was called Westhampton Hospital was Dr. Wilmer Amos Hadley (1882-1921), a specialist in anesthesia gasses and sedatives.  Hadley was born in Kansas, but his home was in Texas, where his parents raised him in the Quaker faith.  Known as an excellent surgeon and anesthesiologist, Hadley would prove to be as completely amoral in his behavior as he was talented in the surgery.  The Quaker doctor’s otherwise pristine trail would eventually lead him to a rural crossroad in western Richmond.  There, at that wooded intersection, Hadley chose the path that eventually brought him inexorably back to Richmond, and to the electric chair.

Dr. Amos Hadley, 1882-1921.  A talented surgeon and anesthesiologist, sociopath and murderer. (author’s collection)


Hadley met a Susan Tinsley and they were married soon afterward in October 1913.  She was twelve years older than her husband, prompting rumors that he had married for money, and although she was talented singer, devoted and beautiful, she came with no fortune.  With Dr. Hadley assignment to Westhampton Hospital, the couple rented an apartment at 2225 West Grace Street, where Mrs. Hadley would routinely said goodbye to her husband in the mornings from the front porch.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch later recounted the sad details of Sue Hadley’s life, noting “Mrs. Hadley is described by Richmond friends as having been about thirty-five years old and exceedingly attractive.  She appeared to be intensely in love with her husband, often dwelling on his arduous duties which kept them apart so much.”   She also mentioned in letters to her sister how proud she was of her husband’s work, but Dr. Hadley’s faithful wife chafed at what he told her were strict regulations keeping family of staff off the hospital grounds.

Susan Tinsley Hadley, (1870-1918).  Devoted to her husband, she became the victim of a heartless murder in his hands.  (author’s collection)

This was actually a ploy to keep his girlfriend and his wife from ever encountering each other.  Wilmer Hadley was in love with a nurse at the hospital and had proposed to her, telling Gladys Mercer that his wife had gone to California and died there.  In fact, Hadley’s whole life became a collection of ham-handed lies about the status of his wife, who was actually wiling away her days on Grace Street.  He told his sister-in-law that Sue had died in Puerto Rico, and told his own mother that he was widowed after Sue died in Richmond of influenza.  Hadley later explained his wife’s absence to their landlady with a story that she ran into some friends and spontaneously decided on a motoring trip with them to Pittsburgh.

For late November, the 24th was a mild day with the high temperature almost 50 degrees under partly cloudy skies.  Dr. Hadley proposed a rare treat for his wife which surely delighted her: dinner out.  They went to the Country Club of Virginia, a location as close as she was ever going to get to Westhampton Hospital - but not far from the river, either.  After eating, they engaged a car to ostensibly take them to a home on the south side of the James, across the Westham Bridge.  They rode down the hill on Cary Street Road from the intersection with Three Chopt until the car became stuck, perhaps in the low land where the River Road Shopping Center stands today.  The couple got out and continued walking west along what is now Westham Station Road.

Sue Hadley must have been thrilled to have this time with her husband.  Perhaps she chatted about upcoming Thanksgiving plans.  Maybe as they walked along under the trees and beside what is now called the James River and Kanawha Canal they talked about going to New York for Christmas, something Sue had mentioned to her landlady.  Maybe she saw this outing as a sign of her husband’s affection returning - but what could his thoughts have been?  He had planned for this moment for some time, and the choice of the Country Club for dinner was not made on a whim.  In his pocket the doctor carried a bottle of whisky that was drugged with chloroform.  In fact, when the question of premeditation was introduced at Hadley’s trial years later, it was discovered he had actually proposed to Nurse Mercer fully a month before this stroll on the 24th. Sue Hadley’s days were numbered for some time.

The crossroads: a hundred years ago two people strolled up to this intersection in Richmond’s West End.  The direction taken at this corner would doom both of them.

What is known from the subsequent trial testimony is, that after walking a short distance they reached the modern intersection of Old Bridge Lane and Westham Station Road.  This was truly the crossroads for both of them. To the right, up Old Bridge Lane, was the hospital, and lights and warmth, and the rational thoughts of duty.  To the left was first a bridge over the canal, some woods in the floodplain, and then only the broad James River moving under the Westham Bridge. The road to the left also led to madness, to betrayal, and to murder. 

After waiting for a C&O coal train to pass, the pair walked by the last possible safe haven, Westham Station, where a few lights indicated somebody was on duty.  They passed the little train station and continued on under the trees until reaching the elevated approach to the Westham Bridge.  Beside the bridge abutment Hadley had stationed a boat, and a man nearby later testified how he assisted the lady into the boat with the distinctively uniformed Hadley, who took the oars. 

There were only two witnesses to what happened next.  One, Sue Hadley, would be dead within minutes, and the horrible details of that boat ride only endured a couple more years before being forever burnt away by electricity arcing through Wilmer Hadley.  We do know that Hadley persuaded his wife to drink some of the drugged whisky, and when she became partly conscious, he used wire to tightly tie weights to her.  When she was found, her gloves had been torn, as though someone had ripped the rings from her fingers - did that rough treatment revive her?  Later, and with some difficulty, the county coroner was able to determine the woman in the river’s eyes had been blue.  Did Sue Hadley’s blue eyes flutter open to helplessly watch her husband, his face grim with determination, as he wired weights to her?  Did those same blue eyes look up at the darkening November sky one last time before her beloved husband rolled Sue Hadley over the edge of the boat and into the water?  …And then it didn’t matter - she was gone in the dark, vanishing into the river that closed around her sinking form, and then moved relentlessly on.

Hadley rowed back to shore and returned to their apartment, telling his landlady that Sue was having “a bully time” with her Pittsburgh friends. He got an empty suitcase and packed her things in it, but Mrs. Clark noticed he threw out all Sue Hadley’s toiletries, combs, and cosmetics.  Seemingly subconsciously determined to carelessly display his guilt in this way across the city, Hadley later went to a Broad Street jewelers and had the diamond removed from a woman’s engagement ring and reset in a man’s ring.  The doctor secured leave from his hospital, called at his apartment one more time and picked up his suitcases - and vanished.

On December 30, 1918, as a momentous year drew to a close, a trapper named Peter Miles found the body of a woman tangled in the roots of a tree on the north bank of the James River, slightly above the Westham Bridge. It was tightly tied at the waist with heavy wire, certainly indicating foul play. As there was also no identification on the body, it was difficult to determine who the badly decomposed and frozen corpse had been.  It was transported to Nelson Funeral Home at 4603 National Cemetery Road in Fulton for autopsy, where a hammer had to be used to break the ice and frozen leaves off the corpse. After several misidentifications, the body of Susan Hadley was finally recognized by her sister from Cincinnati. The identification was made after examination of the dental work and a distinctive bridge on the front teeth. After the body was released by the police, the grieving sister took her sister Susan’s body back to Cincinnati where she is buried in an unmarked grave in Spring Grove Cemetery. Nothing was heard of her husband, Dr. Hadley.

It would be almost two years before Hadley was seen again in Richmond, and this time not as a respected physician but instead on trial for his life. Pursued relentlessly by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Hadley was alerted that the authorities were about to descend on his parent’s home in Friendswood, Texas where he was residing and he left just before they arrived. Someone in Washington stole Hadley’s military records that might help to identify the fugitive doctor. Despite Hadley’s in-laws spending a large amount of money with the Pinkerton Agency to look for him, months and years went by without any news of the murderer other than occasional sightings.


Hadley after his capture in New Mexico in September, 1921, and his return to Richmond in the hands of the police.  He never left town again. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The Pinkerton detectives prevailed in September, 1921, when Hadley was finally found on a remote ranch in New Mexico, living in a camouflaged dugout house on the edge of the Painted Desert and calling himself Arthur Westwood. When he was arrested, Hadley had grown a foot-long beard, was described as “ministerial” in his appearance, and deeply tanned.  He told the few locals he had contact with in that desolate part of the state that he was a former soldier, recovering from tuberculous. “Mr. Westwood” generally avoided people and always carried a rifle with him wherever he went. 

Henrico County Sheriff Sydnor and Commonwealth’s Attorney W. W. Beverly boarded a train in Richmond on the night of September 1, 1921 for the long ride to Colorado, where the fugitive was being held. Five days later J. W. Erb, head of the Richmond Pinkertons office received a terse telegram from their Denver office regarding Hadley: “Full Confession Secured. Also admits killing Dr. Griffin. They leave today.”  In his confession, Hadley claimed to have shot a man named Dr. Griffin shortly after he rolled his devoted wife into the James River. Dr. Griffin, he maintained, was paying too much attention to his wife and Hadley took offense. This embellishment of the murder was composed to confuse the matter and introduce a possible defense of jealous rage. The whole “Dr. Griffin” story was dismissed by the prosecution as a smokescreen to avoid the electric chair or as the foundation of an insanity plea, and no trace of “Dr. Griffin’s” existence was ever discovered.  Sydney and Beverly returned to Richmond with Hadley on September 9th and put him in the old Henrico Jail, which still stands at 22nd and Main Streets.

Hadley went on trial on October 25, 1921. One of the saddest moments in the testimony was when Rollin Eppes recalled hauling wood the day of the murder and his wagon was stopped by a Chesapeake and Ohio train rolling through Westham crossing. He saw Hadley (“the man in the Army uniform”) and his wife standing side by side, waiting for the train to go by. In court, Eppes recalled a tender gesture by Sue Hadley.  Standing by her husband, she unconsciously put her arm through his as they stood there: drawing close to her husband to who she was so devoted, and close to her sworn protector who would murder her within the hour.
The bridge over the canal: Rollin Eppes saw Dr. and Mrs. Hadley standing at the far end of this bridge, waiting for a train to pass, and noticed her hook her arm in his.

Hadley faced a wall this kind of damning evidence, including the Denver confession which he later recanted. Despite that, the judge allowed Hadley’s confession to be entered into evidence and it was read aloud in the courtroom. Gladys Mercer, the nurse from Westhampton Hospital, hadn’t heard from Hadley since a warrant was issued for his arrest.  She testified as to her relationship with Dr. Hadley, and produced a watch he had given her for Christmas, 1918. It was engraved, “Gladys, may all the coming years be as bright as this Christmas Day,” but inside the case were also the initials of the original owner, Hadley’s murdered wife.  Various other witnesses painted a picture of Hadley as being both a talented and admired physician as well as a completely amoral and manipulative killer. “Ex-Army Surgeon Displays Scant Interest in Examination of Witnesses” was a headline in one Richmond newspaper, commenting on Hadley’s apathy when faced with his friends, associates, his former lover and his mother in front of him in the courtroom.

The main item of the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 27, 1921, was the headline the Confederate Veterans had chosen Richmond for their next convention. Below that was the news that Hadley had been convicted of the murder of his wife and was sentenced to death. Hadley maintained his fixed composure throughout the trial that never wavered, never cracked. Even the sight of his aged mother weeping piteously as she testified to her son’s good character did not move Hadley. “The courtroom was packed when the jury returned with a verdict of ‘guilty of murder - in the first degree - as charged in the inditement,’” wrote the Times-Dispatch, but, “…the coolest man who heard this verdict was the man on trial for his life - Dr. Hadley.”

Hadley was executed at 8:00 AM on December 10, 1921, in the Virginia State Penitentiary that once stood on Spring Street.  He made no statement and walked unflinchingly to take his seat in the electric chair: a death as cold and devoid of emotion as the heartless murder of his wife years before. Later that day his body was sent to L. T. Christian funeral home at Boulevard and Park Avenue, and a Richmond newspaper noted Hadley was expected to be returned to Texas for burial. 

That apparently was not the case. Instead, Hadley found a spot among the thousands in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. He is buried in a plot by himself, his small grave marker oddly marked with only his initials. The stone itself is a trapezoid which appears to just be just sitting on the ground. The inscription, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” seems almost like a toss-away line and a banal addition in the face of the glaringly truncated identification.  Amid the richly marked tombs of thousands of Richmonders, the granite obelisks and marble mausoleums, Haley’s solitary plot looks like the tomb of a murderer and its cheap marker like it was deliberately inscribed to first dim and then forever lose the memory of the man in the grave.

The grave marker of Wilmer Amos Hadley in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.  All alone in a plot, his grave stone is oddly marked only with his initials and dates.

Perhaps that intersection of Old Westham Road and Old Bridge Lane is where the tiny echoes from the lost lives of the philandering doctor and his hapless wife can best be heard.  Standing there now, you have to wonder about Hadley’s mindset when he reached the same spot. He was familiar with the area and knew the implication of the crossroad as he and his wife neared it.  Was Hadley sweating in his wool uniform, dreading the arrival at what he knew was surely the crossroads of his life, or did he feel only the icy determination and grim purposefulness of the sociopath? 

There beside the little bridge over the canal, you can almost see the gentleman in his Army trench coat and the lady in the tan raincoat. They stand there as they wait, unable to talk to each other over the sound of the passing coal train. Perhaps you will watch for that tiny, crystalline moment when Sue Hadley slid her arm in her husband’s, recorded and now recalled a century after it took place. Now, it can be seen clearly as the embodiment of the relationship between these two doomed people: a warm and trusting gesture returned with quiet deceit and implacable malevolence. 

Theirs is a story told in that instant, an instant nevertheless that still reverberates through Richmond history. It is an instant that, even now, after a hundred years, we can still only marvel at such an incredibly heartless betrayal. Nor do the decades dim the feeling of overwhelming pity for the cruelly deceived victim, murdered in midstream on the James.

-- Selden. 

1 comment:

Amblus said...

What a story! Thanks so much for sharing.