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John William HUGHES





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Alcohol
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 9, 1865
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1833
Victim profile: Tamzen Parsons, 17 (his wife)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Cuyahoga County, Ohio, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on February 10, 1866

The fatal charm of Tamzen Parsons

When John Hughes woke up sometime before noon, a young woman was bending over him, loosening his cravat.

"Who are you?" he asked.
"Tamzen Parsons."
"Where am I?"

"In my father's house," the sixteen-year old Tamzen told him, and ventured a question of her own, "Doctor, why do you drink so much?"

The man at whom Tamzen gazed with evident interest was about five feet eleven inches tall, and his appearance is rapturously described by a contemporary pamphleteer: "He was the mold of form, and presented a physique which, in point of proportion and development, must needs command the admiration not only of underlings and invalids, but of those possessed of figures which hint the Apollo.

The head was large and fully developed, especially at the base. As inclination to baldness gave him an older appearance than was warranted by fact, but the hair he had was of a brown color and glossy, and dressed in the 'French twist mode.' He wore a becoming moustache and imperial."

John Hughes's eyes, however, could make him appear "venomous" to those less susceptible than Tamzen, and small wonder when one reads this contemporary description: "the right eye looked larger than the other, owing to the fact that it was once knocked so far out that it hung upon the cheek."

Shaking free of his stupor, Hughes embarked on a long tale of his domestic miseries, and the girl seemed sympathetic. In fact, the doctor later recalled, at the end of his recital she had laid her head on his bosom and declared: "I wish to God I were your wife." Perhaps he exaggerated the speed of his conquest or the initiative taken by the inexperienced girl.

There was no doubt, however, that in Tamzen Parsons Doctor Hughes, a restless wanderer across two continents, had finally found an attraction that promised to hold him fast one that was to take both young Tamzen and Hughes to the grave; she would die by his hand eight months hence, and he on the gallows a scant half year later.  

John William Hughes was born in 1833 on the Isle of Man. His father, who owned a large hereditary estate on the island, died when John was four, and the little boy soon found himself the center of a fierce legal battle between his mother and his guardian uncle for control of family property.

The victorious uncle sent John off to boarding school at age seven, and three years later moved him to the fashionable Glenview Academy. 

In his early teens, after several attempts to run away from his uncle's harsh regime, Hughes shipped on a merchantman bound for Calcutta, but the ship sprang a leak ten days out and was forced to return to port. The would-be sailor crept stealthily back to his mother, who nursed him when a bout of rheumatic fever made it impossible to return to the ship. When Hughes recovered, his uncle took him to his own house in Ramsey, on the Isle of Man, but could not hold him under tight rein.

Finally, the guardian recognized the youth's freedom by giving him an independent suite of rooms "furnished in princely style." John now had "his first taste of fashionable life . . . [he] kept a pony, had an unlimited supply of money, the income of half his estate, drank champagne, smoked cigars, indulged in wine and women, and every tradesman in Ramsey respected his frequent orders."

Alarmed at the young man's high living, his uncle urged him to prepare for a career in law, divinity or medicine. The stubborn nephew would not be dictated to in the choice of a profession and, despite his illstarred romance with the sea, elected to study navigation under the tutelage of a mathematician well known on the Isle of Man.

Soon, though, his interest in lessons flagged and he entered King William's College with the intention of preparing for the ministry. Before he could finish his training in theology, the operations of the college were shut down by an onslaught of cholera. Hughes, footloose once again, went back to Ramsey to resume his fast life. When the old quarrels with his guardian revived, John ran away to Liverpool and, at age twenty-seven, enlisted in the British Army. He was sent to the Crimea and, at the battle of Balaklava, was severely wounded in the left leg.

After he was mustered out of service, Hughes proved to be no luckier in love than in war. His "beautiful and accomplished" fiancee from the western part of the Isle of Man broke their engagement and he promptly sought downstairs revenge; he married the "Belle of Ramsey," a fisherman's daughter who was a servant in his house. Marriage briefly inspired a zeal for agriculture, and aided by his brother-in-law, he revolutionized the farm economy of his estate, increasing the livestock fourfold and employing modern equipment and a large force of laborers.

This new passion turned out to be as inconstant as those it had replaced, for John suddenly enrolled in the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, from which he graduated in 1857. His diploma, however, did not transform him instantly into a servant of the sick. Returning to the Isle of Man, he threw himself into new extravagances, which he financed by selling off his estate, a step he always bitterly regretted. A period of restless wandering followed.

In 1860 he came to America and travelled through Canada and the West with a young English nobleman. When they parted at Detroit, Hughes came to Cleveland to visit some Manx friends. He visited again without his family in the spring of 1861 and during this stay opened an office in Warrensville, where he drilled recruits for the Civil War.

In 1863 Hughes brought his wife and child to Cleveland, installing himself in a medical office on Public Square. By May, wanderlust had bitten him again, and leaving his family behind in Warrensville, he was off to Buffalo to join the Navy. However, before long he was a landlubber again and practicing medicine in Chicago. At last the urgings of his wife and family prevailed, and he returned to Warrensville, practicing his profession there and in Bedford until March 1864.

It was in Bedford that Hughes made the acquaintance of Thomas Parsons, through the latter's English cousin, Henry Parsons, but he did not at this time meet Thomas's daughter Tamzen. Before that fateful event Hughes was to answer one more siren song the call of war.

In March 1864 he enlisted in the 58th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was promoted to sergeant at Columbus on April 26. In June, after passing an examination, he was discharged from the 58th Regiment and was appointed Assistant Surgeon to the United States Colored Infantry. In the summer of 1864, President Lincoln authorized Surgeon Hughes to organize and administer the Marine Hospital at Vicksburg as a general hospital for black troops.

This chapter in his career was characteristically short; in November he resigned and returned to Cleveland, having heard that his son Bisset was ill. He nursed his son for a week until the boy was out of danger and then left, vowing never to return.

Hughes told Tamzen Parsons when he saw her sweet face for the first time the following month, that the home to which he had come back was not a pretty sight, that his wife was drunk and the household in disarray. Tamzen believed the doctor, particularly when he showed her what purported to be a decree of divorce. She eloped with Hughes to Pittsburgh on December 19 and they were married there on the following day.

The Parsons family dispatched Tamzen's brother-in-law, Joseph B. Haynes, in hot pursuit. He proceeded to the Pittsburgh mayor's office and, assisted by several policemen, located Tamzen in a room at the St. Clair Hotel, where she showed him her marriage license. The doctor was soon arrested in the hotel office and jailed on charges of bigamy and forgery. When brought before the mayor, Hughes delivered what had now become a well-rehearsed speech, declaring how he would never again live with his wife whom he had found "beastly drunk" on a number of occasions.

According to Haynes, Hughes tried to buy off the criminal charges by proposing to enlist in the army as a substitute and to give his bounty payment (Civil War draftees could pay another to take their place) to Tamzen. He also threatened that a continuation of the prosecution "would lead to unpleasant disclosures."

Convicted of bigamy, Hughes was sentenced to one year's imprisonment in the Pennsylvania penitentiary, but after five months the unceasing petitions of his wife secured a pardon from the governor. In June 1865 Hughes, back in Cleveland, opened a new office on Ontario Street, and under ambiguous circumstances his wife and child left for the Isle of Man. The doctor asserted that he had not sent his wife away and that she planned to return soon; a bystander observed Hughes parting affectionately with his wife at Union Station.

It appears, however, that, while in jail in Pittsburgh, Hughes had written to his agent in the Isle of Man to arrange passage for his wife. Imprisoned as he was, he might have been acting in his wife's best interest, rather than clearing the way for renewed pursuit of Tamzen Parson on his release. In fact, if the doctor is to be believed, he gave no thought to the Bedford charmer until one day when Charlotte Parsons of Warrensville, Tamzen's aunt, called at his medical office and told him that Tamzen was suffering from love and desire to see him.

From this point on Doctor Hughes, whose life had been marked by restlessness, lack of commitment and shifting interests, became the creature of obsession. On the night of July 24, he arrived unannounced at Tamzen's house and urged her to come away with him. A neighbor heard Tamzen decline, saying that Hughes had deceived her once and would not succeed at the same trick twice. When her father returned home to find him still on the premises, he ejected the hated intruder with difficulty, and on the following Saturday swore out a warrant against Hughes for breaking and entering.

Chagrined by this second hostile confrontation with the males of the Parsons family, Hughes scattered wild threats around the suburbs. On July 25, he asked Dr. Ben Wray of Warrensville whether he had a pistol. When Wray asked what use he had for a gun, Hughes said of Tamzen: "If that damned bitch doesn't stop calling herself Mrs. Hughes, I'll shoot her."

The next morning, while breakfasting at the Plank Road House in Warrensville, where he had spent the night, Hughes was given by Almeda Eddy what she thought would be surprising news; someone had fired at Tamzen and the bullet had passed through the girl's parasol. Hughes replied that, "It was a pity that it had not blown her brains out, and saved him the trouble some time." He drove on to Bedford, uttering still a third threat to Dr. Vial Salisbury that "he must hunt up Tamzen and kill her if she would not live with him."

Hughes was infuriated when he was arrested for housebreaking on the complaint made by Tamzen's father, and the protracted negotiations of his friend Henry Parsons to have the charges dropped enraged him further. Although this emissary was ultimately successful, the price was high; Hughes had to agree not to continue his harassment of Tamzen.

It was a bargain that the obsessed doctor was incapable of keeping for long. Between eight and nine o'clock on the evening of August 8, 1865, Hughes and his friend Oscar Russell, who kept the Ontario Street Saloon, hailed a carriage on Bank Street (now West Sixth Street).

They asked the driver Ori Carr, whom they knew by his nickname "Bug," the fare to Bedford. Satisfied with his quote of $10, they ordered him to pick them up at the doctor's office. There the two friends entered the carriage and instructed Bug to drive to several houses where they unsuccessfully attempted to pick up women to accompany them for an overnight trip to the suburbs.

The carriage moved on to Newburgh, Hughes giving Bug directions while drinking from a flask. Stopping at the Cataract House in Newburgh, Hughes and Russell had a beer and engaged rooms for the night, arranging to return later. Back they piled into the carriage, Hughes ordering Bug to push on to Bedford as Russell promptly fell asleep.

At Bedford they pulled up at the Franklin House where, changing their earlier plans, they decided to spend the night; they asked to be called at seven in the morning.

When they were wakened Hughes and Russell returned to their drinking, both before and after breakfast, and then reentered their carriage. Initially Hughes told Bug to drive onto the Cleveland road but stopped him almost immediately and ordered him to turn to Bedford.

Stopping at Tamzen's street, Hughes asked a boy from the Krums' house across the way to find out whether she was home; the little messenger quickly returned with the word that the girl and her mother had gone to pick blackberries. Soon Tamzen's father came out of the house where, despite his recent trespass, Hughes was permitted to remain for about a half hour. The doctor then returned to the carriage which drove on towards the Plank Road House.

On the way they came upon Tamzen and Mrs. Parsons walking along the road with berry pails in their hands. Hughes called to Tamzen, but Mrs. Parsons motioned him away. He got out of the carriage and succeeded in talking to Tamzen for only a few minutes before a neighbor stopped his wagon to drive the women home.

Hughes, frustrated, ordered Bug Carr to continue his drive to the Plank Road House and, arriving there, he and Russell resumed their drinking at a grocery across the street. When he was back in the carriage, Hughes was undecided on his route. He spoke first of going to Rocky River by way of the Twelve Mile Lock where he had a debt to collect. But the image of Tamzen's face rose up again, blinding him to any other purpose. The carriage rolled back to the Parsons' street where Hughes learned that the family had gone to Bedford Village to have him arrested.

The stage for the final encounter was set. Hughes told Bug to drive as fast as he could for Bedford. In the village he saw Tamzen leaving the house of his old antagonist Joseph Haynes (whom rumor suggested she had intended to marry) and walking towards the home of William Christian.

Chasing her up Columbus Street, he called for her to stop. She cried out her refusal and rushed through the gate opened by the Christians' son Matthew, but it was too late. Before she could reach the front door, Hughes caught hold of her and fired at close range. The bullet glanced off her head, and she screamed. Hughes fired again, and she dropped dead.

Meanwhile, Oscar Russell had been drinking solo in the barroom of the Fountain House. When he emerged, the was startled to see Hughes dashing around the corner, keeping a pursuing crowd at bay with his revolver. The doctor joined Russell at the carriage, ordered him to get in, and, pointing the gun at Bug Carr, told him to drive off.

When they reached the woods, Hughes got out, asked Russell for some money, and made off in the direction of the railroad tracks. He was closely followed, however, and was soon discovered, "in a little ditch, covered by an oak bush just large enough for a man to hide under." To his captors, he said: "Gentlemen, you can do what you please with me hang me up to the first pole if you choose. I came out here with that intention, and I've done it."

While in jail awaiting trial at the November session of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Hughes did not spend his time "in pitiful brooding upon his fate and unavailing pinings over his lot." Instead, he turned to poetry, penning a fulsome tribute to his adopted city:

Whose public buildings, churches,
schools are classed
Equal in architecture unsurpassed
By any place in homes for pretty lots
Palatial mansions grand, with cozy
In shaded streets from Kinsman to St. Clair
Ohio City Wilson to the Square,
The avenue, the suburbs round to Bank,
We find abodes suited to each rank;
While style and fashion, etiquette, bon
Are set to Euclid's rules.
They can't
be wrong!
Ability and talent, beauty, where

To Cleveland's sons and daughters can
Associations learn'd, unceasing lend
Instructive aid to literature to bend
Its youth to purity of mind and heart
And will, from which they never
should depart.

Every city, of course, has its drawbacks, and Hughes bemoaned the "gilded signs, the blazing lamps" of Cleveland's taverns that lured the honest working man to his ruin. Yet the doctor could not bring himself to condemn strong spirits as an evil in themselves; he was not about to wield the prohibitionist's axe. No, he declared, it was not so much liquor that had undone him but the propensity of the bartenders to adulterate their drinks. Despite his worrisome prospects, the doctor could not help sighing over the golden days of the past when

The old folks' ale was made from malt and hops,
Their rum was the essence of the sugar crops.

At trial the defense, with no hope of denying the killing, contended that Dr. Hughes did not act out of free will; he was blinded by temporary insanity arising from his frustrated passion for Tamzen Parsons, and by an alcoholic haze due to heavy drinking immediately before the crime. Defense council called several witnesses to testify to Hughes's frequent intoxication and his wild conduct when drunk.

Perhaps the strongest testimony to this effect came from J.D. Keegan, a druggist who had known Hughes since the spring of 1862. He told the jury that liquor made the doctor "very reckless, and he seemed to have no regard for his character and to be indifferent as to what he might do while in that condition. When drunk he seemed utterly demented and senseless."

Oscar Russell, who had accompanied Hughes in the carouses that ended with the killing, swore that Hughes and he had downed the gargantuan total of twenty-five ales at the grocery opposite the Plank Road House. However, before he left the stand, he provided a key piece of evidence in support of the prosecution's claim of premeditation. Russell had praised as "a nice shooter" a pistol he had seen in the doctor's office before they set out on their wild ride into the country, and the defendant had replied: "Yes, I'll put it in my pocket."

The defense also attempted to show that Hughes suffered from a hereditary predisposition to violent insanity. Dr. Cubban, a Manxman, swore that the Hughes' grandmother Jane Kenwitch committed suicide about a year after her husband's death, having suffered five or six fits before actually taking her life. Other members of the grandmother's family were insane and one or two had also committed suicide.

In their final arguments, Hughes's counsel also invoked the madness of love. In lawyer L.E. Knight's words, Hughes was "subject to a wild infatuation in affairs of love, but he is not the first or only one who has become the deluded victim of infatuation." Other unfortunate men who sprang to Knight's imaginative mind were Paris of ancient Troy, Marc Antony, Henry VIII, and Peter the Hermit whose zeal ignited the Crusades.

Judge Coffinberry gave the jury painstaking instructions on the legal relationship of insanity, intoxication, and criminal responsibility. When the mind had become diseased by a habit of intemperance and thereby lost the power to distinguish between right and wrong or to comprehend the nature of the criminal act, a defendant was no more subject to punishment than if his insanity had been due to natural causes. If, however, a crime was committed in a frenzy by a drunken man who was not insane when sober, the drunkenness and temporary insanity it might have induced were not a complete defense to the crime.

These general rules, however, were insufficient to provide a full elucidation of all the issues that the jury might be called on to resolve. Even though intoxication was not an absolute defense to murder, the jury might consider whether Hughes was so drunk at the time of the shooting as to be incapable of any of the mental elements of murder premeditation, deliberation, intent to kill.

Then, if the jury had addressed all these legal considerations, it must resolve a final question: had the defendant formed a purpose to kill Tamzen Parsons while sane or sober, and then "got drunk to brace his nerves and harden his mind for the act of killing?" If so, regardless of his state of mind at the moment of the shooting, Hughes's intoxication neither excused nor mitigated the crime of murder in the first degree.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Hughes gave no sign of emotion, and his composure did not abandon him when he read a long statement before sentencing on December 30, 1865. Although placing heavy blame on the "vice" of drinking that had been his downfall, he accepted the death penalty. His main purpose was to deny the prosecution's charges that he had premeditated Tamzen's death and had relentlessly pursued a heart that was closed to him after the revelation of his bigamy.

When he was released from prison and his wife left for the Isle of Man, he told the court, he had no thought of Tamzen Parsons until he had received a letter from her "reproaching [him] for [his] neglect of her, and asking [him] to see her, since there was no obstacle in the way." Her family had interfered with the renewal of their ties, and when Hughes thought she was playing him false with another man, he did not know what "dreadful determination" might have entered his mind. His worst fault, he claimed, was that he loved Tamzen too well.

Hughes was condemned to die on February 10, 1866. The gallows, which had last been used to hang James Parks eleven years earlier for the 1853 murder of William Beatson at Cuyahoga Falls, was "brought from its long retirement amid county lumber in Akron," and was erected in the northeast corridor of the Cuyahoga County jail. When the trap fell on schedule, John Hughes became only the second Cleveland murderer to be hanged since the founding of the city, and his life of fitful stops and starts came to a final halt.

Collected Essays of Albert Borowitz



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