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The Bennington Banner
July 21, 1881

(re-done by Frank Pulaski 7/8/1995)

The Killing of William O'Brien

EXCITEMENT IN BENNINGTON---DETAILS OF THE FIGHT---THE POST MORTEM EXAMINATION---ARREST OF THE MAN SUPPOSED TO HAVE DONE THE DEED---ETC.

William O'Brien

Early on Tuesday morning it was known here that in some sort of a fight at the west end of town William O'Brien of Searsburg had received injuries which had resulted fatally. The unfortunate man died about 7 o'clock after a night of unconsciousness, during which time he was well cared for at the Stark House. When his critical condition was known a messenger was dispatched for his wife, the messenger leaving here about 11 p.m., and returning Mrs. O'Brien reached the death bed of her husband at 6 o'clock Tuesday morning, a short time before death came. After the post mortem had been held, the body was taken to Searsburg for interment. Deceased was a man 48 years old and leaves a wife and several children, the latter grown up to man's estate. He had been a prominent man in his town, had represented it in the Vermont Legislature, had held various important town offices, first selectman, collector, etc., and was engaged in the lumber business. He was a partner in this with Mr. S. F. Harris of this village. The occasion of his visit to Hoosick Monday was on account of some lumber sold for George W. Knapp, as an accommodation to the latter, after being refused the bill of lumber by the other owners in the business. As we have the story the money for this lumber of Knapp's did not come and O'Brien and Knapp went down for it, O'Brien driving his own team. They both had drank liquor before leaving Bennington in the morning, and they chased John S. Lyman who had a spirited horse before a skeleton wagon half way to North Bennington, and by their shouting almost caused his horse to run away. O'Brien was driving a rather fast pair. What led to the fracas is best told by the substance of an interview with Officer Robinson, who, with Knapp, went down to the scene on Tuesday afternoon. They agree in saying that the exact location of the fracas is about four rods west of the cider mill of Mr. Brimmer, on the Hoosick road, and in this town, O'Brien, Knapp and Keefe had all been at Hoosick Falls, N. Y., but the two former had not met Keefe there. Keefe came to Hoosick Corners by what is called the river road, he crossed the long bridge and came on towards Bennington. O'Brien and Knapp came by what is called the hill road, to the corners, stopping at Babcock's Inn. They had something to drink there took their team and started for home. Keefe was then ahead---out of the Corners. O'Brien and Knapp came through Hoosick Village with their team on the run and O'Brien was shouting. They drove up to Keefe who started his horse into a run. Both teams, Keefe leading, overtook a young man named Sanford Rudd, who was riding a colt. Rudd heard the others coming and tried to get out of the way, but the colt shied into the road again. The thill of Keefe's wagon struck Rudd's colt, and then he [Keefe] took his whip saying to Rudd: "Shall I strike him and put him out of the way for you?" Rudd answered: "No, don't you strike my horse. I'll take care of him." Rudd then let the colt run to get away from the party, and turned into his father's yard, who lives near the John Armstrong place this side of Hoosac Corners. O'Brien run his team past Keefe at the Percey place this side of Hoosac. Both teams were then on the run, and were kept on the run until they came to the hill near Brimmer's cider mill. Then Knapp's hat blew off. O'Brien stopped his team and Knapp went back after his hat. During this time Keefe drove up alongside O'Brien's team, and struck severely with a whip, one of O'Briens horses. When Knapp rejoined O'Brien, the latter says: "This man," referring to Keefe, "has struck my horse, and I don't allow any man to do it." He then handed the lines to Knapp, jumped out of the wagon, saying: "I'll strike his horse," and in striking Keefe's horse, broke the whip. O'Brien then says to Keefe: "I want you to pay for this whip. It cost me one dollar and a half, and you are the cause of breaking it." Keefe says: "I did not break your whip, and I shan't pay for it." O'Brien then replied to Keefe: "If you will get out of your wagon I'll take the price of the whip out of your hide." Keefe led his horse back to the rear, some ten or fifteen feet, turning his horse around facing the west, and drove away some six or eight rods. O'Brien turned as if to follow Keefe , and said: "I'll be d---d if I'll follow up a coward to lick him," then turning back walked towards his own team a few feet. Turning around again O'Brien saw Keefe had turned around his wagon and was again approaching. O'Brien then walked to the west some forty feet and met Keefe. The latter stopped his team and got out of his wagon, took hold of O'Brien by the coat collar and jerked him on to the ground. Knapp says he didn't see Keefe kick O'Brien, the first time, but from the appearance of O'Brien he must have been kicked in the mouth and eye the first time. Knapp, who was with O'Brien's team, told them to stop their fighting and come on about their business. Keefe then let go of O'Brien, and the latter got up. O'Brien then clinched into Keefe, and was thrown down by the latter, and Knapp saw Keefe kick O'Brien the side, O'Brien calling out "George! George!" so loud that Charles Brimmer, who lives twenty rods from the road, heard the outcry. Knapp then calls back again saying not to kill the man. At this Keefe let go of O'Brien, entered his buggy and drove toward Bennington. O'Brien then boarded his wagon and drove along with Knapp towards Bennington. Although O'Brien was bleeding badly about the face, he did not complain about being hurt in the side, until this side of the Hubbell place, at the watering trough. There he said: "I have a terrible pain in my side, and am going to drive to Dr. Morgan's in Bennington as quick as I can. Morgan was not at home, so they drove to Dr. Bennett's who examined O'Brien and said there was one rib broken. After a plaster had been applied (O'Brien went) to M. E. Burgess's livery stable. In a short time, while there, O'Brien's side began to pain him greatly. Dr. Bennett was again called, and administered an injection of morphine into O'Brien's arm to quiet the pain. Dr. Bennett then instructed Knapp to get O'Brien to the hotel, and to bed as speedily as possible, which was done about 10 o'clock, p. m. William H. Keefe was found at Valentine's mill at work and was arrested about 11 o'clock Tuesday. He made no resistance. He was arraigned before Judge Thomas White, gave his age as twenty-six, and the complaint of Town Grand Juror Meacham read to him. He did not plead, but was placed in custody to await the justice inquiry, then in progress under the direction of the Selectmen. The examination of Keefe was set for Wednesday at 2 p. M., but was adjourned until that hour to-day. The Troy papers last evening contain this history of Keefe:


Early and Later Life

Keefe was born in Cahoes, in that portion of the city bearing the euphonious appellation of Skunks' hollow. He is one of those anomalies of human nature, a thoroughly bad offshoot of a respectable family. His escapades have been numerous, and the police records of his native city show that he has been under arrest at least twelve times, twice for larceny and the remainder for various offenses, principally for being drunk and disorderly. He has never been imprisoned, as his fines have been paid by friends; the last one, a fine of $50, being paid by subscription. He is a tall, muscular man, six feet two inches high, and weighs about 175 pounds. Keefe always had an idea that on account of his size and strength he would be a success as a fighter. It was about three years ago that he had a prize fight on Van Schaick Island with the notorious "Curley" Bowes. A large number witnessed the fight and Keefe was accorded "a fair show" but in the end he was soundly thrashed by his smaller antagonist.

To show the heartlessness of the man it is only necessary to instance that about two years ago while on a spree Keefe went to Schenectady and telegraphed to his wife that he had drowned himself. Keefe has never done anything to support his wife and two children, although he might have done so comfortably. Some of the old members of the Cahoes police force, when told of the crime that Keefe had committed, remarked that they had always expected it, as they considered him a very dangerous man when under the influence of liquor. The family of Keefe feel the situation keenly, although they hope that it will be shown that the plea of self defense is a good one.

There is a story of the arrest of John Healy of North Bennington, by the New York authorities for being accessory, but there is a mistake of some sort about this--all our information tending to corroborate the account above given. Before the inquiry was begun Doctors Morgan, Bennett and Potter made an examination of the body of O'Brien.

Post Mortem

Found that the tenth and eleventh ribs were broken entirely off near the middle of the cerroe, about 4 1/2 inches from the spine on a straight line, 6 1/2 inches on a curve, (long piece 6 1/2 inches, the short one 3 inches), left lung congested extending through both lobes. The lower lobe of the left lung was lacerated near the base, about even with the tenth rib. There was a blood-clot in the left ventricle of the heart; contused wound at lower point of sternum. There was a contusion of the lips and laceration of the alveolar process. There was a contused wound over the left eye and on the left side of the nose. Left eye and lips completely discolored, and there was a slight-discoloration under the right eye.

The examination develops nothing new . From the testimony of M. E. Burgess is gathered what O'Brien said of the affair. We copy a part:

WHAT O'BRIEN SAID

He said, I wish you would take care of that team. I asked what is the matter with Bill. He said, the d--m fool, has been down to Hoosick, got into a fight, and got all knocked to pieces. O'Brien walked in the barn alone. As he walked upon the platform he said , "How are you Merritt?" and he put out his right hand and shook hands with me. I said, "Hello, Bill, are you getting your name up as a fighter?" He said, "Yes, but I got the worst of it this time." He spoke in a joking manner, and said, "Is my team all right?" I went to supper, and then went back to the barn about 8 o'clock. O'Brien was lying on the lower bunk in the office. He was halloing nearly every breath he drew, saying: "Why don't you do something for me? I am in a good deal of pain." I then spoke to one of my men and told him to go after Dr. Bennett, and give him something to ease him. Some one said that they had sent after Dr. Bennett. You could hear him hallo ten rods easy. Dr. Bennett came, and O'Brien said what have you been doing to me. I am in such awful pain; you had better give me something to ease me. The doctor took hold and felt of his pulse, and said have you been spitting any blood? No. I have not been spitting any blood, said O'Brien. The doctor called for a teaspoon, a cup and some water.

Then followed the injection of morphine.

The money affairs are thought to be all right not withstanding stories to the contrary. It is known that of the amount of the bill of Knapp's lumber sold to one Allen, a balance of $138, was collected by O'Brien on Monday on the trip. Mrs. O'Brien was paid this amount by Knapp after the death of O'Brien. Mrs. O'Brien is the daughter of David Crosier of Searsburg , one of the most prominent men the town has ever known. Keefe has a wife and two small children. O'Brien is not what is called a drunkard, but of late has had an occasional spree. Probably all three were intoxicated and the whole affair is one of the most suggestive temperance lessons this town has had for some time. O'Brien and Keefe were strangers and never saw each other before.

The inquiry will probably be concluded this evening. The examination of Keefe was postponed again until tomorrow morning. The funeral of Mr. O'Brien was held from his late home in Searsburg yesterday afternoon, a large concourse of his friends and neighbors attending, and which shows the respect and esteem in which he was held in the neighborhood which he lived. Keefe retains a discreet reticence since his arrest. Before the arrest and before he knew of the probable results of the row, he talked freely with his fellow operatives in the mill and said that he had "been in a row the day before, and had to lick a man, and had done it harder than he meant to, " and other words to the same effect. We understand that the story of Keefe told did not differ materially from that of the other parties, but of course these admissions will not count in evidence. To show our people how the matter is looked at in the State of New York we copy these remarks of the Troy Press upon one point: "There is a disposition among some people at Bennington to treat the matter as merely a drunken row and that O'Brien was the aggressor. Even if he had been it would not justify such brutal treatment. But Keefe admits he got out to fight O'Brien because O'Brien challenged him. That of course destroys the plea of self-defense, according to Judge Wheeler is, that permission is not given to continue to pound after the assailant is overpowered. That the one assailed must desist at a point when danger ceases. Applied to this case, the kick which broke the ribs of O'Brien was not given when the body was in an upright position but when down, because the post mortem showed the bone broken squarely off, not slantingly as must have been the case if O'Brien was standing or stopping.