The Kneeland Murders – by Carla Charter

The mystery of who killed the Kneeland Maids still echos through Gardner’s history, the only reminder of that night on display at the Gardner Museum, containing the Wanted poster and a table, which legend holds was in the woman’s bedroom and has blood stains from the night they were murdered…

The Kneeland Murders

   March 7, 1855 was probably much like any other day in the little village of Gardner, Massachusetts.  With the town revolving around Heywood Brothers Furniture, every was about their daily work.  Little did anyone know that the tale of the discovery made late that afternoon would live on in the town for decades.

  All seemed quiet on the 7th until Levi Ball went to collect his milk from the Kneeland Maids.  The two elderly sisters, Miriam Kneeland and Sarah Phinney, were well known locally, they were descendents of one of the town’s founders, Timothy Kneeland.  Many people bought milk from them and the ladies did knitting for their neighbors as well.

  When Ball visited that night, he expected to pick up his milk and maybe share a conversation with the ladies.  What he didn’t expect was to find their home engulfed in darkness and his knock at the front door unanswered.   Ball left their porch and walked toward the barn, thinking maybe they were busy caring for their cows.  Once inside it was clear the animals had not been cared for that day either.  Ball, sensing something was wrong walked back to his wagon, intent on driving to a neighbors house to see if maybe one of the sisters was ill.  On his way back he noted a window in the sisters house which was broken.

   After arriving at  Daniel Smith’s home and realizing the sisters were not there either, he and several others returned again to the house.  Approaching the broken window one man  lifted a lantern and looked inside. Before them lay a crime scene, the two sisters both having been murdered.  The weapon used was a chairpost,.Word spread fast in the small village about the murders with crowds gathering quickly and dispersed by selectmen and the sheriff just as quickly.

 Selectmen held their meeting at the Lyceum that night, many were in attendance, including one, George Stacy.  The town fathers posted a $500 reward that night for information leading to the capture of the person who had murdered the Kneeland maids.

   Meanwhile a person described only as the Frenchman in historical records, who happened to be walking by the house at the time of the discovery was questioned but quickly found to have an alibi, supported by his landlady and was released.   Over the next several days the talk was of nothing but the murders in town.

  More than once though, suspicions about Stacy surfaced.  After a race to the train station by the sheriff and several other town officials he was arrested on Friday, right before leaving on the train, according to him, to visit his brother in Burlington.

  The evidence against Stacy was substantial.  He had been unemployed the previous winter, yet somehow on the day of the discovery of the murders, was able to pay off an old Livery bill, ride to Fitchburg about an hour a way, purchase new violin strings and get a haircut.  According to Stacy, the money used, all change, was money his mother had given him.

   When Stacy was arrested he was wearing three sets of clothes, some stained with blood.  However it was well known that Stacy, was prone to bloody noses and headaches.  According to him he had had a bloody nose the morning of the capture.

   Then there was the fact that he had been arrested while preparing to leave town.  A fact that Stacy had attributed to the fact that he was leaving to visit his brother in Burlington.  However when the men arrived to arrest Stacy, it was reported that he asked them “Is this about those murders?”

   The Sunday after the arrest, a funeral was held for the ladies at the Congregational Church with a second service at the Meeting House to accommodate the overflow crowd.  Many attended and after everyone was seated, George Stacy was ushered in and placed in the first row directly in front of the ladies coffins with the chair post also in view.  Stacy still remained stolid throughout the service.

    At Stacy’s first trial held in Gardner the evidence was reviewed and it was decided that there was enough evidence to send Stacy to the Worcester County Jail to await a grand jury trial.

  One month later with While Stacy locked in the Worcester jail  speculation about the murders was fueled further when a fire burned the Kneeland homestead to the ground.

  Throughout several more trials leading to the final Grand Jury trial the following December, Stacy maintained his innocence and indeed the Grand Jury found him not guilty of the murder of the Kneeland’s.  Thus to this day the mystery of the Kneelands remains unsolved.

  A second letter, discovered during genealogical research, did surface in the 1990’s , pointing the finger at a nephew of the Kneelands as the culprit.  However with no name and not much to go on, this letter too remains unsubstantiated.  So the mystery of who killed the Kneeland Maids still echos through Gardner’s history, the only reminder of that night on display at the Gardner Museum, containing the Wanted poster and a table, which legend holds was in the woman’s bedroom and has blood stains from the night they were murdered.

  Know of a real life New England mystery? Carla Charter can be contacted at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net.