It was early on a Monday evening when the police pulled over just off Sport Hill Road next to the Union Cemetery. There, in the overgrown wetlands, a confessed murderer claimed to have hidden the body of his victim. As the officers began their search, they quickly realized they were going to need a great deal of help.
Initially, they tried to walk into the marsh, and even removed their trousers as they ventured waist deep into the waters. With no solid footing and the light fading, men from the local Easton community were called to help. The detectives used the telephone at Ed Gillette’s store to summon more officers, ladders, ropes and flood lights from Bridgeport’s fire and police headquarters.
What a scene it must have been in Easton on the night of August 30, 1920 as spotlights beamed into the woodland just beneath the cemetery. Still predominantly a dirt road town with barely over 1,000 residents, there were few telephones and no street lights. The glow and commotion must have drawn concern from all the neighboring households. By 11 pm, a chain of men with their arms linked to brace themselves against the sinking mud found and retrieved a large green trunk. Crammed inside was the body of George E. Nott, the missing husband in a lover’s triangle that turned deadly. Wrapped in a bloodied comforter and curtains, several large stones had been placed inside the makeshift coffin; clearly the corpse was never meant to surface from below the murky waters.
The claim that bodies were buried in the wetlands adjacent to the Union Cemetery is a persistent rumor whispered about in our town, for which, there is apparently some truth. Referred to as “Dismal Swamp” in the 1920s, this little patch of wetlands played a gruesome part in a sensational Bridgeport murder case that caught the attention of our entire nation with newspapers far and wide reporting on the subsequent trials.
The victim, George, was a self-described professional gambler who worked at the Carleton Social Club in Bridgeport. He lived with his wife at 265 Judson Avenue with their two children, George Jr. and Ruth. Married since 1915, it was an unhappy relationship. Described by his wife Ethel as a liar, a cheat and an opium user, he had a domineering appearance and a reputation as a tough guy.
Ethel, an attractive and personable young woman, had hoped to salvage her marriage after years of abuse, but seems to have given up on George by 1919 when she began sneaking around with Elwood B. Wade. Ethel’s new lover was a 23 years old milkman who happened to have a wife and two young children of his own.
Despite their family commitments, Elwood and Ethel were commonly seen together and were rather careless about their trysts. Gossip in their Bridgeport neighborhood led to George confronting his rival and threatening his life. Elwood, a short and slight man, was greatly intimidated and he ran to the police to report George’s threatening statements. He was so panicked that he applied for a firearm permit, only to be denied with the recommendation that he stay away from a married woman.
On the morning of Sunday, August 29, 1920, George reportedly beat his wife for continuing to see her lover and in retribution, purportedly, a plan was concocted to frighten and beat George. With a fellow dairyman named John E. Johnston, Elwood snuck quietly into the Nott house armed with a gun and a lead pipe. Ethel, who unlocked the door for them, led her children away and instructed them to play the mechanical piano in the parlor.
It seems hard to fathom just how chaotic a scene it must have been in the following moments as the pianola filled the house with jazz music. The two milkmen had tried to sneak into George’s bedroom to catch him unaware, but George awoke and went after Elwood. John offered little help and fled in fear, leaving Elwood alone to face the angry husband in a brawl that carried both men tumbling down the staircase. Rather than running for help, Ethel was heard by neighbors screaming, “Keep him from hollering!” Elwood managed to shoot George three times and hit him repeatedly with a lead pipe. Ethel handed her lover a 14-inch kitchen knife saying, “Finish him off!” Stabbed 19 times, George was still moaning, but a final deadly blow to his head cracked his skull and ended his life. Who exactly held the pipe at that moment is unknown, but George’s blood was literally and figuratively on both their hands.
Hiding the dead body inside a steamer trunk, Elwood returned later in the evening with John to cart it away. He had heard of an area of quicksand just off Sport Hill Road in Easton, so they headed north in their milk truck. Along the way, they stole some fence posts and used them to roll the trunk across the muddy ground near the cemetery until they found a pool of water deep enough for it to sink. Elwood, perhaps thinking it would be the last time he would see the container, opened the lid, added the stones and pushed it in.
Neighbors were immediately suspicious of the loud music and noises coming from the house on that early Sunday morning, and grew more so when George was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the day. Concerned phone calls alerted the police who, after a quick search of the house, found a bullet hole lodged in a wall and blood on the bed. Less than a day later and after intense interrogation, Elwood, John and Ethel all confessed.
The young accomplice, John, who was initially charged with murder, cooperated with the prosecution and plead guilty to manslaughter receiving a year in prison. For Elwood and Ethel, however, the stakes were far more serious. Both were indicted for first-degree murder for which the only penalty at the time was death by hanging.
Elwood’s trial began on Dec. 30 and his lawyer, William H. Conley, tried to portray him as a soft-minded youth who was led astray by a seductress. Former school teachers and medical personal were brought in to testify about his inability to learn and his mental instability. They even suggested that since his maternal grandfather suffered a nervous condition, the family must have a predisposition to psychological troubles. Combined with Elwood’s weakened intellect, surely they argued, he was hypnotized by Ethel.
Thousands of spectators lined up to see the accused and hear first hand the details of the case. Frenzied crowds pushed into the courthouse daily and their efforts to get in were rewarded with some pretty theatrical behavior. Elwood, enjoying the attention and knowing that his trial was the biggest show in town, was always well-groomed and dressed; he showed no signs of worry or concern. He made a routine of enjoyed a cigar and took every opportunity to whisper to, touch and at one point, even kiss Ethel right in the middle of the courthouse in front of everyone, including his wife.
In contrast to Elwood’s calm, almost jovial demeanor, Elwood’s wife and his mistress, Ethel, were often seen sobbing and frequently fainting. Both women had to be carried either in or out of the court and taken to the hospital at various times adding to the heightened drama.
Despite the pressing crowds and emotion, Elwood remained calm even at the trial’s conclusion when he was sentenced to death. Politely thanking the judge, he left the room with a smile. After unsuccessful appeals, he faced the gallows on May 20 in the same manner he attended court. Smiling and resolute, he carried a dozen roses that were delivered to him from the Bridgeport dairymen on the day of his execution. His lasts words were simply, “Goodbye Everyone.”
While public sympathy was often for Elwood, particularly at his funeral, one of the largest public processions in Bridgeport history, it seemed less so for Ethel. Damning testimonies at Elwood’s hearing had portrayed her as a woman of loose morals who manipulated an impressionable youth. By the time her trial commenced on May 25, her appearance added to the public’s disdain for her. Confined to the county jail for over nine months, she had lost over 30 pounds and had an ashen gray complexion. Her gaunt appearance was accentuated by her black widow’s clothing, leading many in the press to refer to her as “the Vampire.”
Her defense attorney, Robert DeForest, tried to claim Elwood alone was responsible for the killing and Ethel was a battered wife led astray by the young man’s actions. Her trial provided the public with just as much spectacle as Elwood’s. As the coroner gave a graphic description of George’s death, the foul smelling trunk that was submerged in the Easton swamp was carried into to the courtroom and opened for display along with the murder weapons. Ethel sobbed and cried out at the sight of these objects.
Behind the scenes of the her trial was the very serious concern that the jury and the public would not want to see a woman hung. The prosecutor, Homer Cummings, who would later serve as Attorney General for the country, was clear that he did not see in the evidence any difference between Elwood and Ethel in culpability. He believed that she should receive the same punishment if the court found her guilty. Anyone who was either opposed to the death penalty or adverse to condemning a woman to this fate was excused from serving on the jury.
Women did hang for their crimes in the United States, but it was certainly not a common occurrence. Further, no female had faced a noose in Connecticut since 1786. From the press reports on her hearings though, one would assume her death was almost certain until a rather strange twist presented new evidence.
Among the personal possessions returned to Elwood’s widow and family was a packet of 46 explicit love letters on pink stationary. Written by Ethel while she and her lover were both in jail, the contents offered proof that she was far more complicit in the crime than she admitted. Brought to the prosecutor’s office by Elwood’s mother, the family was certain this evidence would vindicate her son and send Ethel to the gallows. Cummings had all the letters copied to distribute in court so the jurors could read along as the documents were presented. When Ethel’s lawyer learned of this new evidence, he convinced her to change her plea to guilty. Presenting this to Judge Maltbie, DeForest hoped for a lesser charge of second-degree murder with the penalty of life in prison.
Maltbie, who was greatly respected and would go on to be a Chief Justice of Connecticut’s Superior Court, carefully considered the changed plea and decided to accept it. His reasoning was that he was not certain Ethel would survive much more of a trial with her failing health and inability to eat. Not wanting to commit a woman to death himself, he was also impressed by the difficulty the court had in selecting jurors for the trial, noting he found it “remarkable that so many representative citizens should be opposed to capital punishment.”
A man of carefully measured words, Maltbie was deeply disgusted at the prospect of the newly revealed letters being read aloud in his court. He described them as ”filth, in black and white,” and one gets the sense that he was very aware of how the newspapers were spreading the salacious details of this tragic case-for the betterment of no one. Ironically, it seems, Ethel’s life was saved from the hangman’s noose in the end, not by her own innocence, but by evidence of her guilt.