During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last Fall, I found myself exploring/documenting some of the roadside oddities, morbid monuments, and unusual historic markers in and around New England- not only because I personally found them fascinating- but because it was a great way to get out of my apartment for some fresh air while still safely socially distancing from others in locations that were rarely packed with people.
In October, when I am always in full “spooky season” mode- I made it a point to locate and talk about some of the more grisly things that have happened here in the Northeast- because there have been a LOT. And now, with October of 2021 underway- I thought I’d keep up that tradition by doing another scary series, kicking things off by talking about the Kneeland “Maids”- a potential case of mistaken identity that turned deadly in 1855.
On March 8, 1855- elderly sisters Miriam Kneeland (85) and Sarah Phinney (75) were found by a concerned neighbor, dead within their family home in Gardner, Massachusetts- having been bludgeoned to death by a chair leg as they were seemingly preparing to go to bed the previous evening/night. It was unclear if the murders had been the result of a robbery gone awry- as the sisters did not have much money and relied on the kindness of their community to survive day-to-day- and therefore there didn’t appear to be anything missing when the scene was investigated.
To give you an idea of how well-liked Miriam and Sarah were, a $500 reward was quickly offered to anyone who could provide information leading to the apprehension of the murderer- a CRAZY amount of cash by 1855 standards.
A handyman, George Stacy, who occasionally worked for the sisters- was arrested days later while preparing to board a train to Vermont. A diabetic and known to be prone to nosebleeds, Stacy was considered the only suspect due to being seen with blood on his clothes following the murders. Although he had an alibi for the night in question and the evidence was purely circumstantial, Stacy was still tried after spending months in jail- and was ultimately acquitted by a jury of his peers- making the murder of the Kneeland Sisters a cold case that has stumped locals for over 150 years.
Of course, people have their theories. Rumor has it a nephew of the sisters admitted to murdering them when on his own deathbed, confessing to having killed his aunts when they denied his request for money- but given that everyone in the community knew how destitute they were- I’m skeptical of the validity of this version of events.
Another theory is that the sisters were murdered in a case of mistaken identity during an attempted burglary- as two completely different sisters that lived close to the Kneeland Maids were known to be more wealthy.
Miriam and Sarah are buried next to their father behind the First Congregational Church in Gardner. Given their financial difficulties during the end of their lives, they did not have the money for a headstone- and so the residents and neighbors of their town who cared for the sisters all chipped in for a marker which briefly references the murder.
The faded marker was tipped over when I came across it, which brings a whole new level of depressing to this still unsolved crime. I’m hoping it can be restored- along with quite a few other damaged headstones I came across while walking through the cemetery.
And if you’d like to see more artifacts from the crime, the Gardner Historical Museum (which was closed while I was in the area)– have one of the reward posters and a blood-spattered nightstand retrieved from the sisters’ home following the crime and investigation.
You know, if you’re into that sort of thing…