Sarah Norton – Murdered!
It was a terrible end for Sarah, a 76-yr-old widow. She lived alone in Indian Falls, Genesee County, NY. She had gone to bed early on that Friday night in early December, 1875. Between 9 and 10PM she heard a knocking at the door. It was Thomas Burton Quackenbush. From here there are somewhat differing accounts. One states that he asked directions and left. A short time later Sarah heard a noise in the wood shed attached to the house. She had a piece of beef hanging there and thought a cat may have been trying to get to it. When she went into the shed she was grabbed, beaten and raped. The other account was that when she opened the door he pushed his way in and attacked her. In both accounts he left saying he would return. Sarah, wearing only her night clothes, ran from the house and hid in the outhouse. Later she heard him return and search for her. Not finding her he left. Sarah then made her way to her nearest neighbor 3/4th of a mile away. She arrived at Mr. Washington Wards house at 5am, wet and thoroughly chilled from the winter western New York state weather. She told her neighbor the story of her attack. A doctor came and she was taken back to her house. She died on Monday morning, December 6. In the meanwhile, Quackenbush was arrested. The evidence against him was that he was drinking at the Indian Falls Hotel and had asked about Sarah Norton and whether she lived alone. He left the hotel a little past 9PM and didn’t arrive back at Mr. Mook’s farm, where he was a laborer, until after 2AM. His clothing was smeared with blood. He was a large, powerful man around 30 years of age. Evidence also suggested he was the same man who was a fugitive from a crime in Herkimer County. He eventually admitted to raping Sarah Norton but claimed he had no intention of committing murder. Quackenbush was tried in June of 1876 and found guilty of First Degree Murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He appealed to the governor of NY for clemency but on 8 August the governor declined to interfere in his sentence and on 11 August 1876 at 11AM he was hanged at the county jail in Batavia.
Sarah had been born in Connecticut around 1799. She later moved to Michigan where her daughter, Matilda was born. By 1850 she was living in Oakfield, Genesee County, NY, where she was listed as a servant in the Census. In 1870 she lived with her daughter and son-in-law but by 1876 she was living alone in Indian Falls.
Sarah was my 3rd great grandmother and I remember my great grandmother, Sarah Wiedrich telling me about this event. She was 7-yrs-old at the time of her grandmother’s death. In the 1960s we took her to the Holland Land Office museum. We told the curator about her grandmother and were asked to wait a few minutes. She brought out the rope that Quackenbush was hanged with. She wanted to hand it to my great grandmother but she was not having anything to do with it. More than 125 years after the death of Sarah Norton while I was visiting a friend in Batavia, NY I saw an advertisement about the hangings in Genesee County. It was for a display at that same Holland Land Office Museum. They had the gallows and rope that Quackenbush was hanged on and the admission ticket to the museum was a reproduction of the actual ticket to Quackenbush’s hanging.
1850, 1860, 1870 Federal Census
Oyer & Terminer Record Book,1871, p171/176, Holland Land Office, Batavia, NY
“The Progressive Batavian”, Batavia, NY, Dec. 10, 1875 and Aug. 18, 1876
“Republican Advocate”, Aug. 10, 1876 and Aug. 17, 1876