Citizens of Montgomery County, fortunately, do not experience the crime waves that plague larger cities. Occasionally, we hear about the drug busts and traffic infractions in the news, but very rarely is there anything more felonious such as murder. However, residents back in 1870 were deluged with reports of the murder that took place in a St. Johnsville hotel.
Thomas E. Burdick, a lawyer, schoolteacher and principal of the St. Johnsville Union Free School, was shot and killed in the barroom of Nathan Briggs’ Franklin House hotel on a night of festivities and celebration. After reading the Declaration of Independence at a July 4th commemoration, Burdick and his family attended a dance held in the ballroom of the Franklin House, now the site of the United States Post Office. Little did Burdick know that he would never return home.
Testimony from various witnesses indicates that numerous visitors patronized the establishment that night. Among those patrons was one Charles Eacker.
Born in 1822 in the Town of Palatine, Eacker’s life lacked any kind of stability. His father died in a State Prison while Eacker was a young boy, and he left home at an early age. First wife, Phelina Green, died in 1846 after only four years of marriage. Eacker had a restless spirit, moving around the county nomadically. By 1870, he was living in St. Johnsville, married a second time with two children – a boy and a girl.
Eacker had an affinity for alcohol and gambling – a lethal combination, especially in this case. In 1866, he allegedly made a bet with John Frey concerning the outcome of a lawsuit. Thomas Burdick, the victim, held the stakes in this bet. Upon reports of a hung jury, Eacker demanded his money back. Frey, claiming that Eacker lay a wager that a decision would be reached, authorized Burdick to give the stakes to the Overseer of the Poor, thereby enraging Eacker. His subsequent threats, however, did not frighten Burdick. It should be noted here that Eacker’s hatred of the victim was carried over from the previous generation when his father was sent to prison based upon evidence from Burdick’s father.
On the night of the shooting, Burdick entered the barroom seeking refreshment for his thirsty daughter. Witnesses testified that no argument between the victim and an imbibing Eacker preceded the shots. Constable Loren Wilson saw the flash and smoke come from the western end of the bar where Charles Eacker was standing. From his hands, Wilson immediately seized the revolver. After exclaiming, “Boys I’m shot,” Burdick headed toward the door leading to the hallway, was taken to a room upstairs where he died at 10 o’clock the next morning at the age of 50.
Held in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the trial opened April 5, 1871 with H. Baker and McIntyre Fraser as the prosecuting attorneys. H.B. Cushney and W.L. VanDenburg defended Eacker. Wilson testified that, upon questioning the suspect as to a motive for the shooting, Eacker replied “he ought to have been shot five or six years ago.” This testimony was stricken from the record on the grounds that the defendant was only in custody of the witness at the time.
According to the trial transcript, Eacker did not testify on his own behalf. Having been found guilty of Murder in the 1st Degree, he was sentenced to hang on May 26, 1871 between the hours of 10 o’clock in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. A newspaper article, written at the time of the trial, indicated that Eacker could have gotten a lesser charge by pleading insanity as that disease was hereditary in the Eacker family – a brother committed suicide and a sister suffered a “mental aberration.”
Eacker’s own attempts at suicide immediately after the trial were thwarted when he tried to throw himself over the banister on the stairs leading to his cell, only to have slightly injured his head. On another occasion, Eacker’s attempt to overdose on opium was detected by prison officials.
His professions of innocence continued throughout his stay in Fonda. Although expressing some remorse toward Burdick and his family for this situation they were in, Eacker continued to exhibit his vindictive behavior by allegedly telling his son “that he must be a good boy and try to do right but if anybody does injury, get even with them.”
Eacker remained stoic until moments before the execution when he refused to have a bag over his head in order to let his spirit fly up like a butterfly. Ironically, reports by the Amsterdam Evening Recorder noted that just after the rope swung Eacker up, a butterfly appeared on his chest, having an eerie effect upon the audience.
Thomas Burdick left a widow, Felicia, and at least two daughters. After her husband’s death, Felicia Burdick removed with her daughters from their home in Ephratah to Amsterdam where she taught school at the Amsterdam Academy at the top of Wall Street. Mrs. Burdick died in Chicago in 1889 at the age of 59.
The fate of Eacker’s family after his execution is unknown. Attempts to locate them in census records bore no result.
Charles Eacker was the second man to be hanged in Montgomery County. Coincidentally, the first man, by the name of Fox, also committed murder in St. Johnsville on July 4th 1842. There must be something about that date – but that would be another story!