Focus on History: Woman acquitted in Fort Johnson man’s death


William H. Marshall, Jr., 27, died after he was shot twice in the head at his home in Fort Johnson around suppertime on Wednesday, March 12, 1919.

The shots came from Marshall’s revolver held by Nellie Bostwick Dery, a woman in her thirties who had been living with Marshall for two years. Marshall was separated from his wife and children who lived in Oneida County.

After the shots were fired, Bostwick Dery telephoned William Marshall Sr., the victim’s father, saying, “come over right away. Something awful has happened.”

The badly wounded man had worked in Amsterdam knitting mills but recently joined his father in the garden business.

When the father arrived he found his son sitting in a chair, bleeding profusely. The elder Marshall called Dr. Richard Canna and police.

Bostwick Dery had become hysterical and was tranquilized with a shot from a hypodermic syringe when the doctor arrived. She was taken to Amsterdam City Hospital.

Bostwick Dery, born in Perth, was the daughter of Robert and Ada Bostwick. She married William Dery of Amsterdam in 1902. The couple had a daughter named Mildred. Nellie and William separated in 1917.

Marshall was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital where he died 15 minutes after being admitted. He never regained consciousness.

The Fort Johnson shooting was front-page news in the Amsterdam Recorder the next day. The case went to trial at Fonda’s county court in July.

District Attorney Newton Herrick argued that Marshall’s death was a homicide, with the motive being that Bostwick Dery had become jealous of attentions Marshall was giving to another woman.

The defendant stated that if Marshall had been unfaithful to her, she did not know it.

Her version of the reason for the shooting was that she and Marshall had been annoyed by rats on an ash pile in the backyard. She took Marshall’s revolver to him that night so he would either shoot a rat she had just seen or show her how to use the weapon herself.

She carried the gun in her right hand and had a comb in her left hand as she wanted to comb Marshall’s unkempt hair. In her effort to give him the gun, she said she accidentally discharged the weapon not once but twice.

Defense attorney A. Howard Burtch said Marshall was, “A big good natured fellow, rough in his manners, rough in his play. [He and Bostwick Dery] were frequent attendees at the vaudeville and burlesque shows in Amsterdam. They were always together and always happy up to the time of the accident.”

The trial resulted in a deadlocked jury. Five jurors were for conviction on second degree murder, one was for manslaughter and six were for acquittal.

In a second trial in April 1920, there was difficulty getting enough jurors, as many men did not want to serve on a jury deciding the fate of a female murder defendant. Women were not common on juries until the second half of the twentieth century.

In the second trial, Bostwick Dery was found not guilty. She made a scene after the verdict in her impassioned expressions of thanks to the jury men who hurriedly left the court house.

A month or two after the second trial Bostwick Dery married Raymond Van O’Linda of Amsterdam. But by 1925 she reportedly married a Mohawk Carpet Mill employee, Wallace Smalley. Wallace was an instructor in the card room, important in carpet design. Nellie became a dressmaker.

The Smalleys lived on Devendorf Street in Amsterdam. Nellie died in 1958 and was buried at Hagaman Cemetery. Wallace died two years later.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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