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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 1 +
Date of murder: August 18, 1847
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1797
Victim profile: Her husband, John Runkle
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Troy, Rensselaer County, New York, USA
Status: Executed by hanging at Whitesboro on November 9, 1847

Life and Confession of Mary Runkle (7,2 Mb)


Cup of Affliction

If Mary Runkle was to be believed, she lived a life of sorrow, made all the worse by false accusations. Her “cup of affliction,” was filled with tragic deaths of three of her children and the suspicion that she was responsible. When her husband John died as well, under questionable circumstances, she lost the benefit of doubt and was forced to pay the price.

Date: August 18, 1847

Location: Oneida, New York

Victim: John Runkle

Cause of Death: Strangulation

Accused: Mary Runkle


Around 4:00 a.m. on the morning of August 19, 1847, 12-year-old Elizabeth Runkle frantically requested help from her neighbors in Oneida, New York, saying that her father, John Runkle, was having fits, and she believed he was dying. Messrs. Kirtland and Morgan dressed and quickly went to the Runkle house, but arrived to find that John Runkle had died. He was wearing in a clean white shirt, lying on the bed with his hands folded. His face was badly bruised.

Runkle’s 50-year-old wife, Mary, was bruised as well. She explained that John had been ill and earlier in the night was taken with fits, got out of bed and fell on the floor two or three times, which caused his injuries. Her own bruises were from blows received when trying to assist him. A closer examination of John’s body revealed that he was bruised on the elbows, hips, and knees as if he had been struggling on the floor. His mouth was injured, and three of his teeth had been knocked out. Mary said she waited so long to get help because John threatened to kill her if she sent for the neighbors.

On the floor of the bedroom were traces of blood that had been mopped up. A search of the house revealed a bundle of clothes, both men’s and women’s in a garret above the kitchen. They were moist and wet with blood and had tufts of male and female hair adhering to them.

After a post-mortem examination, the doctors concluded that there was no evidence that John could have died a natural death. None of the marks of violence was sufficient to have caused it except those on his throat, where the traces of a thumb and finger were evident. The coroner’s jury concluded that John Runkle’s death was due to violence occasioned to him by Mary Runkle, with the assistance of Elizabeth Runkle.

Mary Runkle was surprised and indignant that anyone would suspect that she murdered her husband, but as her history came to light it was clear that Mrs. Runkle was no stranger to crime and violence. During their years of marriage, the Runkles had relocated a number of times to escape suspicion of criminality. The first occurred in Root, New York, where Mary Runkle was accused of using a forged order to steal goods from a local merchant. While she was on trial for this offense, her husband stole two shawls from a public house. Both matters were resolved by settlement.

Not long after, a peddler passed through the area, selling goods on credit. He disappeared before he could make his collections. Authorities tracked the peddler as far as the Runkles’ house, but could find no further trace of him. Two young daughters of the Runkles went to school wearing new dresses, saying their mother had plenty of such cloth. Repeating this to their teacher fed a growing suspicion that the Runkles had murdered the peddler and stolen his merchandise. A few days later, the two daughters were found drowned in a shallow tub of water. Mrs. Runkle said that she had left them in the charge of her older son, but he did not supervise them. Soon after, the son died as well, of the measles, Mrs. Runkle said, but many suspected that she poisoned him. No charges were brought in any of these cases, but the Runkles felt it was best to leave town, and they moved to St. Johnsville, New York.

Mr. Runkle purchased a tavern in the nearby town of Manheim. They decided that they needed cushions to furnish their new house and tavern. Mrs. Runkle was arrested for stealing cushions from a local church. The matter was settled out of court, and the Runkles moved again, this time to the town of Floyd, New York.

In Floyd, the couple was suspected of burning a barn. They moved to Westmoreland where they were tried for perjury in a civil case. In Rome Mrs. Runkle was found guilty and fined for stealing two towels. At the time of her arrest for murdering her husband, Mary Runkle was under indictment in Oneida for stealing clothes off a neighbor’s clothesline.

Trial: September 16, 1847

The trial of Mary Runkle before the Oneida Court of Oyer and Terminer was a straightforward affair. The State outlined the facts and presented the conclusions of the coroner and Mary Runkle told her version of the story.

The case was given to the jury on September 21 and after deliberating for less than three hours, they returned with the trial’s only surprise. Most observers felt that Mrs. Runkle would, at worst, be found guilty of second-degree murder, but the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, a capital offense.

Verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder


In the period between her conviction and her execution, Mary Runkle published her story in an eight-page pamphlet entitled Life and Confession of Mary Runkle. “My cup of affliction being full,” she wrote, “drugged with the bitterest draught of gall, has led me to reflect that I soon must die…I endeavored to breathe out my grief to the unheeded winds, and shed in silent the bitter tears that have been coursing each other from my streaming eyes.”

But anyone expecting to read her confession to the murder of her husband, or to any of the other suspected murders, would be sorely disappointed. She stuck to her original stories—her husband died as a result of fits; her daughters died by accident when unsupervised; her son died of the measles; she knew nothing of the peddler’s death. She did confess to several petty thefts, but those crimes were committed, unwillingly, at the urging of her husband.

She probably published the pamphlet in an attempt to engender popular sympathy. Her attorneys had petitioned the governor to commute her sentence. The governor was not moved.

Mary Runkle was executed on November 9, 1847, with a mode of hanging—new at the time— which would be used throughout New York State for most of the nineteenth century. Rather than falling through a trapdoor, the prisoner is yanked upward when a counterweight is dropped. Mary Runkle sat on a chair in a room inside the Whitesboro Jail, with the noose around her neck, the rope passed up through a hole in the ceiling. A few minutes after noon, the sheriff asked Mary if she had anything to say. She made no reply. Then—“The bell rang! The cord was cut! And she was landed into eternity!”



Jones, Pomory. Annals and Recollections of Oneida County. Rome: Author, 1851.
Runkle, Mary. Life and Confession of Mary Runkle . Troy: J. C. Kneeland and Co., 1847.


"Execution of Mary Runkle." Age 19 Nov 1847.
"Mary Runkle." Cabinet 16 Nov 1847.
"Murder in Utica." Albany Evening Journal 27 Aug 1847.
"New Mode Of Hanging." Alexandria Gazette 15 Nov 1847.
"Supposed Murder Case at Utica." Cabinet 31 Aug 1847.
"Trial Of Mary Runkle." Commercial Advertiser 21 Sep 1847.


Mary Runkle

Late in August 1847, a man by the name of John Runkle, who lived in West Street in Troy, New York, was found dead in his house. His body was severely mangled and his wife Mary Runkle also bore marks of violence on her body.

A coroner's inquest was held and in due course it renderez a verdict that Runkle's death was the result of a beating inflicted on him by Mary and by his 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Both were arrested.

Those three people constituted the entire Runkle household and had lived in Troy for only a few months. Prior to that time they lived for several years in the community of Westmoreland. Originally, they hailed from Montgomery County, where they were, said a journalist, "respectably connected".

Reportedly, while they were not intemperate, their character while they lived in Montgomery County was "an unenviable one".

Reports connected them with the disappearance of a peddler. Two of their children had made suspicious remarks with respect to the peddler and soon afterwards they were both found drowned under such circumstances that the coroner's jury in that case declared the two children came to their deaths by the agency of person or persons unknown.

During the latter part of their residence in Westmoreland they were engaged in much litigation. All three surviving family members were under recognizance to appear at the next recorder's court, on a charge of larceny in regard to  allegedly stealing clothes from their neighbors.

Runkle was described as feeble man, having been in declining health for some time. His wife and daughter's account of his demise was John was taken by a fit in the night; he got out of bed and fell down on the floor two or three times, thus sustaining the injuries that appeared on his person.

As well, Mary claimed the marks on her body were sustained while she tried to assist her flailing and thrashing husband during his fits.

In the morning of the day of John's death Elizabeth was sent to the neighbors for help. When they arrived they found Runkle laid out on the bed, dead and cold. There were traces of blood on the floor, which had been mopped up. When the house was searched a bundle was found concealed in the attic, containing shirts of the three, all soiled with blood.

Accounts by the wife and daughter as to the change of clothing and the hiding of the soiled garments were conflicting and contradicted by the facts.

The verdict of the coroner's jury was as follows: "That the said John Runkle came to his death in consequence of violence occasioned to him by Mary Runkle, in the presence of Elizabeth Runkle, and with the assistence of the said Elizabeth".

At the time of her execution Mary was about 50 years old, having been born in Root, Montgomery County. She was married to her husband in her native town, claiming she became jealous of him about a year after the marriage.

From that point forward a "continued series of difficulties has occurred between them," observed a news account. Mary acknowledged that she obtained goods by forgery about 10 years after her marriage and said that was her first crime.

Some time later a peddler passed through the area where she lived, selling goods on a credit of four to five weeks. When he failed to return at the expected time to make his collections a search was launched. He was traced as far as the Runkle house but then no trace of him could be found.

At school her children spoke about their new dresses, atating their mother had plenty of such cloth. Having repeated those remarks to the schoolteacher in their mother's presence, the two children were soon after found drowned in a tub that held only a few inches of water. While rumors swept the area that Runkle murdered all three, Mary always denied the allegations.

Other crimes and charges were laid at her feet over the years, some of which she admitted. One of the latter was the robbing of a church.

On the day of her execution as estimed 1,000 people gathered in the streets of Whitesboro and around the courthouse although the execution was private, limited to the number required by law to be present.

The gallows was erected in a room over the jailer's office and included a hole in the floor through which a rope with a noose was passed down to the victim seated in a chair in the jailer's office.

Sometime before her execution she was said to have made a confession to the undersheriff and to a medical doctor. At a few minutes after noon on November 9, 1847, "she was taken into a room where some dozen people were present, and seated upon a chair, more dead than alive," said journalist.

"From a hole above her head came a cord, which was attached to a beam in a room above. She was oisted out of existence making no more resistance than would have been made by a sack of meal".

As she was positioned for death, a reporter observed, "What a sight! A woman - a mother - a wife, charged with a number of murders, dressed in preparation for her execution, her arms bound down, seated under the instrument of death, silent and fixed, with but a few minutes of existence left. And no a motion visible... The bell rang - the cord was cut - and she was launched into eternity. Not a word -not a motion but a little heaving of the breast... Thus ended the earthly fate of Mary Runkle."

Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840-1899 by Kerry Segrave



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