The Murder of William Musser

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Grave of William Musser

Walking among the stones of Howard Cemetery, I was not sure if I even had the correct cemetery. Sources vary on the burial location of the man I was searching for as the book from the genealogical society stated he was buried here, while newspapers from the time of his death record he was buried in nearby Schenk’s Cemetery. In the shadow of the nearby church, I finally found the tombstone and the years matched the birth and death years I had on hand. This was the grave of murder victim William Musser who was murdered in 1924.

Note: When doing the research, newspapers state he was buried in Schenk’s Cemetery, however he is buried in Howard Cemetery. While I’m not sure why there is a difference in the reported burial location, I have a couple guesses. 1) The newspapers reported it wrong. This is what I think happened. 2) When they moved Schenk’s Cemetery with the creation of Sayers Dam, he was reburied here instead of with the other reburials. I have never encountered any information that suggests any bodies were moved to other locations.

The story begins on the afternoon of July 20, 1924, when Centre County Sheriff Taylor received word a body had been discovered in Little Sugar Valley. Arriving at the scene, he discovered the cause of death was a bullet hole in the man’s head. Sheriff Taylor recognized the dead man as William Musser, who had been released from jail a couple days previously after serving a year in jail for bootlegging. Note: for some reason, the newspapers state he was murdered on July 19, but using the timeline presented a little later, there is no doubt the murder took place in the early morning hours of July 20.

Before he began his sentence for the bootlegging, William had deeded his property to his nephew, Harry. When William was released on July 12, he approached Harry to get his property back. To his disbelief, William discovered Harry had sold his property to a man named Smith who was currently occupying it. After confronting his nephew, William sought advice from a lawyer to take action against Harry to get his property back.

What happened between William and Harry over the next couple of days was not made clear, but there seems to have been a temporary truce. Between five and six in the afternoon of July 19, William and Harry left Brush Valley and traveled to Pine Grove Mills where they planned on purchasing some horses. Not finding any they liked, the two went to Pleasant Gap where they spent time at Noll’s Pool Hall. Shortly after midnight, the duo decided to go to Bellefonte to get sandwiches from Blackford’s Restaurant. The last definite sighting of William alive was around one in the morning of July 20 when he left the restaurant with the sandwiches.

When they left Bellefonte, they were joined by Herbert Heaton, who was driving the car. Heaton had been spotted in Noll’s Pool Room the same time the Mussers were there, but, according to witnesses, Heaton was not with the duo when they headed to Bellefonte. Note: Exactly when Heaton joined them is not clear. Some articles state he was with the Mussers from the time they left Brush Valley, while others state only Harry and William made the trip to Pine Grove Mills. This detail varies in the newspaper articles.

The group proceeded down Nittany Valley and at Nittany, turned towards Madisonburg. Their vehicle was spotted at 4:30 that morning driving through the narrows. William’s body was found later that afternoon.

When Sheriff Taylor arrived at the scene, he discovered that the shot to the head had not exited William’s skull and later examination of the body would yield another wound – this one was another bullet wound on the left side of the neck, near the shoulder. William’s body was first taken to Harry’s house. Getting no answer, Sheriff Taylor next took the body to the home of Jacob Musser, who also refused to accept the body. William was then taken to Howard and buried. Note: Jacob was William’s brother and Harry’s father.

Harry was immediately the prime suspect in the death of his uncle. After taking William’s body to Howard, Sheriff Taylor returned to Harry’s house wanting to speak to him, but Harry’s wife made a number of excuses about Harry not being there. Sheriff Taylor returned to Bellefonte, secured a warrant, and returned that night with it. This time, when he knocked on the door, the sheriff was greeted by Harry standing there in his underwear. Harry agreed to go with the sheriff to Bellefonte to answer some questions, but wanted to get dressed first. The moment he was away from the sheriff, Harry fled into the darkness in only his underwear.

After a brief search, Sheriff Taylor returned to Bellefonte. When the sheriff returned the next morning, he was greeted by Harry who went willingly with him to Bellefonte. Not having the murder weapon, Sheriff Taylor returned to the Musser farm and asked farmhand Seymore Stover if he knew where Harry’s gun was. At first Stover denied knowing anything about the gun but after some discussion, Stover went into the barn and returned with the murder weapon.

While in jail, Harry sent two letters which would be used against him in the trial. The first was to his wife and in it Harry states he is mad because Heaton had turned him in. The second letter was to Stover and in this one Harry wanted Stover to testify that Heaton had threatened to kill them both if they revealed Heaton was William’s killer.

With the evidence at hand, Harry went to trial for his uncle’s murder.

When Herbert Heaton took the stand, he testified that Harry had planned this murder and at one point offered Heaton money to kill his uncle. Heaton’s version of events was he was driving the car and when they got to a place near Shower’s Hunting Camp, near present-day Camp Krisland, both of the Mussers told him to stop the car. Harry and William got out and walked into the woods. According to Heaton, he fell asleep and was awakened when Harry got back into the car. Heaton had never heard the shots that claimed William’s life.

When Harry took the stand in his defense, he offered a slightly different version of what happened. He claimed when they got to Shower’s Hunting Camp, it was Heaton who took William into the woods and shot him. When Heaton came back, he threatened to kill Harry if he revealed the truth.

Note: In the initial reports of William’s murder, the Democratic Watchman states that William was also badly beaten and a club was discovered nearby. After this report, it is never mentioned again and was not included in the testimony the newspaper presented. All other newspaper articles only talk about the shooting – my guess is the fascination with the murder itself, rather than the beating leading up to the shooting, was what sold newspapers, so that was what they focused on.

The letters were the items that sealed Harry’s guilt. When asked about them, Harry claimed while in waiting trial, he was given alcohol by prison officials who then forced him to write the letters.

The trial came to an end and the jury was sent out to deliberate. The Democratic Watchman reported what should have been a simple task turned out to be one of the strangest jury decisions in history. The jury went into deliberations at 2:40 in the afternoon and at 10:25 stated they had reached a decision. The jury announced they found Harry “guilty and recommended to the mercy of the court.”

Judge Quigley was irate and stated the court could not accept this decision. The jury had not specified the degree and could not attach any recommendations to their decision. Judge Quigley sent them back into deliberations and at 10:41 the jury returned and rendered its second decision of the night. Harry was “guilty of murder in the first degree and recommended to the mercy of the court.” Judge Quigley refused to accept the decision because it was not in due form and the jury was not allowed to place any recommendations to their decision and he sent them back out. For the second time in less than an hour, Harry had heard his fate announced. Most in the courtroom thought the jury would leave, remove the recommendation of mercy and be back in minutes – Harry would be given the death penalty for the murder of his uncle.

At 12:35 in the morning of September 30, 1924, the jury once again shuffled into the courtroom with their verdict. The jury, rather than removing the recommendation of mercy, found Harry guilty of murder in the second degree because murder in the first did not carry any clemency.

If Judge Quigley was angry and upset before, he was furious at the jury now. He addressed them, saying he was disgusted in their decision because they had already found Harry guilty of first degree murder and upon learning there would be no mercy, changed their verdict to murder of a lesser degree. After lecturing them on why they should have never changed their verdict – in front of Harry – Judge Quigley informed the jury the verdict was “a miscarriage of justice.”

Turning his attention to Harry, he informed him “he was the luckiest man” because the “jury fails in the performance of its rightful duty.” Harry was given a thousand dollar fine and sentenced to “the western penitentiary for not less than ten years and no more than twenty years.”

Monday afternoon, the case against Herbert Heaton began. Heaton was also facing murder and manslaughter charges. He was found “not guilty” after an hour and a half of deliberation by the jury.

Seymore Stover, who had hidden Musser’s gun in the barn, was not brought to trial. Before the court, he was given “a fatherly lecture” and put on two years of probation and was turned over to the custody of his father.

I paused to reflect on why Harry wanted his uncle dead. The obvious motive for William’s murder appears to have come out of an argument about Harry selling his uncle’s property. However, the Democratic Watchman puts forth another possible angle. They suggest the murder may have been due to bootlegging, because it “did not stop in that section when William Musser was arrested.” The newspapers stopped short of actually accusing Harry of bootlegging activities, but the inference is there.

After paying my respects I headed back to the vehicle, leaving William resting in the church’s shadow.

Note: every quote in the trial came from the Democratic Watchman.

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