James H. Pierce
James Pierce was born January 1864 in Chester, Delaware Co, Pennsylvania. Like his brothers he grew up along the Delaware river, learning to fish and hunt with his father.
Chester Times: 26 March 1883
A Good Haul
James Pierce, son of Captain Pierce, caught a five pound shad, a big rock fish and two mammose on Saturday. He was down the bay last week and brought home thirty-five pairs of ducks as trophies of his trip.
In 1886 James married Margaret Moore Simpson. She was born May 1866. On James and Maggie’s application for marriage license the following information was reported:
James H. Pierce age 22 years, residence 35 Graham St. Chester, occupation is fisherman. Parent's names are James F. Pierce and Edna Pierce.
Maggie Simpson, age 21 years, residence Upland Borough, Delaware Co. Parents names Howard Simpson and Mary Simpson.
1889-90 Chester City Directory: James H. Pierce was living at 112 Penn St. in Chester. The address is significant as a Mrs. S. Pierce living at Penn Street in Chester was named as a witness on James’ mother’s arrest warrant. There is no record of a woman living at the Penn Street address with the first initial of “S”.
1900 Census: Delaware County, Chester City, Pa.
Enumerated June 1, 1900, district 148
James Pierce, HOH, born Jan 1864, 36 years old, married 14 years, fisherman
Maggie Pierce, wife, born May 1866, age 34, married 14 years
Edna Pierce, daughter, born Aug 1889, age 10, at school
Charlie Pierce, son, born April 1891, age 9, at school
Helen Pierce, daughter, born Sept 1893, age 6, at school
All born in Pennsylvania. They rent their home.
James is also enumerated on the 1900 census in Media and listed as a prisoner at the Delaware County jail. January 2, 1900 a warrant for James’ arrest was issued by Mayor D.W. Jefferis. Police officers O’Toole and Leary arrived at 35 Graham Street to arrest James.
“Jim,” said Officer O’Toole, “we want you to go along with us to City Hall. We have a warrant for your arrest.”
“Alright,” said Pierce. “I’ll go along with you right away.”
Pierce did not appear to be at all surprised to receive the visit of the officers. In fact, his demeanor indicated that he anticipated such a move. The two officers placed James in a cell. His arrest was made quietly and it was an hour or more before it became generally known. When news leaked out it spread like wildfire, and crowds began to gather about City Hall. The Pierce brothers had quite a bit of support from their neighbors and fellow fishermen.
James was to be charged later in the disappearance of Chester millionaire George Eyre. His brother Amos was also arrested and taken to the Delaware County prison in Media. You can read the news transcripts in chronological order and come up with different conclusions regarding the innocence or guilt of the Pierce brothers. There are several incidences and circumstances involving the Eyre murder trial that seem odd.
Prior to the arrest, James had broken into the Alpha boat club and stolen a skiff belonging to Bonsall Ladomus. This was the reason the police had arrived to arrest him. The circumstances when James was arrested and his demeanor state he was not overly concerned. As the newspaper states, he seemed to be expecting the officers to come by his father's home. His calmness suggests he was concerned about the theft of the boat, however, while stealing is obviously a serious crime...he wasn't exhibiting the panic of man that committed a murder.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2, 1900:
“The Inquirer has already told how, early last Wednesday morning, the skiff, stripped of everything was found floating in the river near the boathouse. It had evidently been put afloat at the Consumers’ Ice Company’s wharf but a short time before being recovered. The boat was stolen a few days before the disappearance of George Eyre, and the opinion prevails that the party or parties who took the skiff, realized that they might be charged with the more serious crime of murder….”
Here is an important statement in this article, aside from the suppositions and ambiguous terms “evidently” “opinion prevails” “might be” and “possibly,” that is important. Within the same paragraph of this news article is the following:
“However, there is no evidence so far as the police authorities will admit, that the robbers of the boathouse were guilty in the murder of George Eyre and the arrest of Jim Pierce is simply on the charge of forcible entry and the stealing of Ladomus boat.”
For a very condensed history of the events it is known that James and Amos went gunning with George Eyre on a regular basis. George was a friend of the Pierce family and often gave the family clothing. The day George Eyre disappeared it was reported that he was scheduled to go gunning for ducks with James.
George’s body was found washed up near Raccoon Island close to New Jersey. Part of the back of his head was blown off by a shotgun and pieces of shot were still embedded in his head. His hands and feet were tied in a manner that the newspaper suggested were skilled fishermen knots. His boat was never recovered.
James had a lady friend named Mary Cowan. She contacted the police and stated James had confessed to her that he had killed Eyre. According to Mary Cowan, Amos Pierce helped tie the body up and they dumped it far out in the Delaware river.
The newspapers refer to Mary Cowan as James "sweetheart" and printed sensational headlines regarding Mary’s testimony. Whether it was true what Cowan stated, or whether she was a woman scorned will never be known. Perhaps James wouldn't leave his wife for her. Another factor which police considered when weighing Mary’s statements was revenge. Mary helped "other parties" in having James' mother arrested for slander just a few months prior to the murder charge. Police questioned whether she was coming forward with information on James because of revenge.
By April, the prosecutions star “witness,” Mary Cowan, is in jail in New Castle for disorderly conduct. Reading through the many news articles there are several that state when questioned where James took her shopping, Cowan could not recall the names of the streets and was very vague. This was strange as she had grown up in Wilmington and the city was familiar to her. There are many inconsistencies with Cowan’s statements and accusations.
Next in the mysterious events is a woman named Myrtle Sheetz. Miss Sheetz was a close friend of Mary Cowan and Miss Alice Dawson. Miss Sheetz also came forward and gave damaging statements regarding James and his possession of a ring and watch that looked like it may have belonged to George Eyre which she had seen in the possession of Alice Dawson. Shortly after this, in early February in Wilmington, Myrtle Sheetz attempted suicide. Police wondered if was related to the accusations against James and Amos. It was stated that Myrtle lived in Chester prior to moving to Delaware and was an intimate friend of Mary Cowan.
Next, Myrtle Sheetz' relative, Pete Sheetz (I'm not making the names up!) was a man who supposedly found part of George Eyre's boat or a paddle. He was in the courtroom watching as the judge decided on bail for James. He was reported as standing on a chair for a better view of the arraignment .
The Sheetz name continues to weave in and out of this story. Standing next to James, it was reported as flanking him in support, was his brother George and Eddie Sheetz. Eddie was a fellow fisherman and good friend. He stood up for James. Just four years later Eddie and another fisherman went missing and their boat turned up but no sign of them. Maybe that is a coincidence as well but with sister Myrtle trying to take her life after offering damaging evidence against James and then Eddie disappears...they are certainly strange coincidences.
James’ parents, his wife Maggie and his sister Annie were faithful and regular visitors at the Media jail. Their support never wavered and they proclaimed the brothers’ innocence without doubt. Accusations and some unfounded statements blazed across the newspaper headlines. This most likely made James feel there would be no recovery of his reputation.
Whether it was too much scandal for James to bear or whether it was true guilt, James Pierce hanged himself on June 11, 1900 with the twine he was given to make nets and while away the time in his cell. Another prisoner in a cell near James reported that James said he did not feel well the night before. By morning he was hanging yet still alive. All efforts to save him failed and he died shortly after his condition was discovered in the morning.
Among the letters in James' cell were the following:
"Mr. Fields, Please give this to my wife. Please write it off to this card and give it to my dear loving wife. Good-bye all. My god! Please do not worry over me. I am going to heaven with the angels. God bless you all. I know that it is hard on you. Please do not worry over me, God bless you. Good-bye all. I never killed George. I am innocent. Don't know nothing about it. I can't stand the pain, it broke my heart. Good-bye Maggie. God bless you all. God bless my children. They told me they were going to hang me and it broke my heart. Please God take care of my wife and children, my father, mother, sisters and brothers. God forgive me."
Another note: May God forgive me. I am innocent and my heart is broke. To think that I have to die for somebody else! Good-bye. God bless you Pinney. You don't know nothing about it, you are innocent. Because we were gunning that night, that is why we got blamed for it. I picked that boat up on December 12 and you never seen it. I put that boat in the ice house myself and I did not rob that boat house. And I think if they try the party who had the fuss over his boat they will get the right one. I heard him say he would get square with him one day."
Another Note: "My dear Maggie. For you were good to me, God bless you. I hope you the best of luck and please take care of my poor children. Goodbye all."
A newspaper article dated June 23, 1905 reported a finding of a rusted, hammerless, double barreled gun in the Delaware river near Raccoon creek. It started a rumor that it was the gun belonging to George Eyre. Eyre’s body had been found in January 1900 near where the gun was fished out of the water. Police examined the gun and despite the declaration of an Alpha Boat Club member that the weapon belonged to Eyre, it was revealed that it was not the same.
“Eyre had two guns, Nos. 8 and 10 with hammers while this is a No. 12 hammerless,” stated Detective Berry.
“It is alleged at the time of Pierce’s arrest that he pawned the weapon in Philadelphia. Had the gun been found during the time the case was being aired in court and entirely different aspect might have been placed on it. The skiff in which Eyre went gunning on the river has never been found and it is said search for it will be renewed in the vicinity of the place where this gun was found.”
At this writing it is unknown if the skiff was ever found.
Newspapers have the power to convict a person before they are tried when suppositions are made in print. This has happened in the past and certainly occurs today with the rush to be first to report an event. That being said, here are my theories:
James may well have killed George Eyre but it is my humble opinion that IF he did, it was an accidental shooting and he panicked to dispose of the body. A fisherman of low income causes the death of a millionaire. Who would believe that was an accident. I'll bet that may have gone through James mind if that was the scenario.
Another theory is the Pierce brothers had absolutely nothing to do with George Eyre’s death. True, James was guilty of infidelity and theft, however, nothing in the history of the reported friendship of the Pierce brothers and Eyre suggested there was anything but friendship between the men. Statements from neighbors and family made it clear they enjoyed gunning and fishing together.
A few people mentioned that Eyre was a benefactor in giving the family clothing and other goods. Surely if the motive for the friendship was only monetary gain, Eyre would be worth more to the men alive than dead. Hopefully more information can be uncovered to settle the unsolved murder. If James was innocent he deserves to be exonerated …even though it’s 108 years too late.
Children of JAMES PIERCE and MARGARET SIMPSON are:
EDNA PIERCE, b. August 1889
CHARLES FORWOOD PIERCE, b. October 17, 1889; d. November 10, 1967, Cape May, New Jersey; m. SARAH MILES; b. January 14, 1893, Chester County, Pa; d. December 14, 1960, Cape May, New Jersey.
HELEN PIERCE, b. September 1893.