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In Our Waters – Million Dollar Murder?

Charles Hammell reached over and tugged on the jacket sleeve of his friend as they walked along the beach in Ventnor, NJ in the morning hours of February 13th, 1910. “What the hell is that?” he asked as he pointed toward the ocean and the dark shadow that appeared partially submerged in the shallows. “I don’t know,” his friend replied as he looked at the frigid frothy foam of the storm swept seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Hammell paused as he squinted to take a more focused look. “I guess there is only one way to find out,” he replied. The hard packed and snow-swept strands crackled ominously under the treads of their work boots as they walked toward the ocean. As they neared the unknown mass bobbing softly in the seas, their worst thoughts were quickly realized. It was the lifeless body of a young woman. Despite the frigid temperatures of the water, the men tread into the surf line and carefully pulled the corpse free from the freezing fingers of Davy Jones’ icy clutches. The woman, who appeared in her early twenties, had a frightful look cast upon her frozen face.
Three days later, on February 16th, 1910, Atlantic City Police Department Detectives James Malseed and Robert Miller finished their briefing with the local authorities in Petersburg, Virginia. The manhunt by the detectives from Atlantic City, New Jersey, had spanned several states and included several missteps and errant arrests. The search for the suspects however was about to come to a close. Circling the boarding house, Detectives Malseed and Miller were confident that the two suspects were holed up and unsuspecting of their presence. Detective Malseed gave the local sheriff and his deputies the nod. The door of the boarding house was breached and the men stormed up the stairs to the room.

As the door flung open, the two men arose startled from their bed. “Put your hand’s up,” Detective Malseed ordered as he leveled his service revolver at the two men. Pajama clad, the two men raised their hands above their heads. “You are both under arrest,” Detective Miller explained. “For what?” one of the men stammered from his abruptly interrupted slumber. “For the murder of Ms. Jane Adams,” Detective Miller dryly added.

On the same day, in the windswept tombstone filled cemetery in Pleasantville, New Jersey, Mrs. Adams, her husband, her youngest daughter Alice, and her young son stood solemnly at the foot of the freshly dug gravesite. The words of Reverend Sydney Goodman, the pastor of the Men’s Church, fell upon deaf ears and were lost in the coldness of the air and the frigidity of the occasion. Their daughter and sister were dead. No words or comfort could be provided no matter how reverent and revered the offerings. Aged twenty, Jane Adams, a shop girl in Atlantic City, had gone out on Friday, February 4th, 1910 for a night of frivolity, fun, and to watch a movie at the Million Dollar Pier. Jane and her younger sister Alice had been escorted by William and Orvis Seyler. When Jane had not returned home that evening, Mrs. Adams called up William at his home. William indicated to Mrs. Adams that he had no idea where her daughter was and was unsure why she hadn’t returned to her home. Her other daughter Alice had returned home indicating that her sister had been with him on the pier. Mrs. Adams had a premonition that foul play had been involved. When her eldest daughter failed to return home by the following morning, Mrs. Adams called upon the Atlantic City Police Department for assistance. She was convinced that William Seyler had murdered her daughter. Detectives rounded up employees of the Million Dollar Pier and canvassed the length of the wooden edifice for clues. Chief of Detectives, Captain Richard Whalen, while walking along the length of the pier had noticed some blood along the wooden rail. The piece of wood with the blood stains was carefully removed as evidence. The authorities still needed more information to make an arrest.
Once the body had been pulled from the water and positively identified as Jane Adams, Captain Whalen ordered two of his detectives to find the two Seyler brothers and bring them back to Atlantic City to be questioned. Speculation had swirled to their whereabouts. What had been ascertained is that William Seyler had not been seen by his wife or his two children since the night of Jane Adams’ disappearance. He had allegedly been seen visiting with his elder parents at their home on Centennial Avenue on Saturday, February 5th, 1910. Word had also been received that he had left Atlantic City on Saturday, February 5th only to return on the following day to see if any had news had surfaced regarding Ms. Adams. Allegedly, when he had heard that Jane’s mother had been accusing him of murder, he and his brother left the seaside resort for places unknown. The detectives set out to bring the fugitives to justice.
After waiving their rights to extradition proceedings, the brothers were escorted aboard a northward bound train. They were shackled together and kept under the watchful eyes of the detectives. Neither man offered any answers to the questions posed by either of the officers of the law or the journalists that wanted more information about the macabre murder. As the train neared Atlantic City, a throng of nearly a thousand curious onlookers gathered at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Train Station hoping to catch a glimpse of the murderer and his brother as the train arrived on the evening of February 18th, 1910. The manacled men were escorted through the crowd to the city’s jail. Seyler, the court of public opinion believed, had murdered in cold blood, the young woman after a quarrel at the end of the oceanfront Million Dollar Pier on the evening of February 4, 1910. Hurried into separate interrogation rooms in the Atlantic City Police Station, William Seyler and his brother Orvis, had a lot to explain.
The detectives, under the orders of Chief Detective Whalen, wanted answers. The detectives explained that there were witnesses which could place William Seyler on the end of the Million Dollar Pier with the murdered woman. As William nervously smoked cigarettes, he explained that he knew the woman but had no recall as to what had happened. The interrogation continued well into the night. The detectives wanted a confession. As heavy blue smoke filled the stuffy interrogation room, it was obvious that solid answers were not forthcoming from either suspect. The questioning continued well into the night and into the early hours of February 19th. Meanwhile, attempts to see her husband and the father of her two young children went unanswered. Mrs. Seyler would have to wait to see her husband.
On February 19th, 1910, Woodruff, Chief of the Atlantic City Police Department, informed the press that progress had been made in the interrogations. While a full confession had not been pulled from William Seyler, it was clear that some “admissions” had been made by the two brothers. It was clear to the detectives that Orvis, the younger brother, had only been a witness to the alleged crime. To gather more information and under the unknowing guise of the press, Orvis Seyler was quietly ushered to the Million Dollar Pier with the detectives. Walking along the pier, Orvis pointed out all that he recalled. He and Alice, he explained, had been standing outside on the pier when they called to William and Jane. They had asked the young pair to follow them to the Ballroom. It was too cold, Orvis explained, to be outside in the frigid February weather. William and Jane replied that they were going to take a walk instead. William “playfully” held onto Jane’s arm and Jane offered “He won’t let me.” At the moment, the good natured play-fighting seemed natural and not foreboding of foul play to Orvis and Alice. The younger pair decided to leave them alone on the darkened and cold pier. It would be the last time Orvis or Alice saw Jane alive. While Orvis finished his recollections, word quickly passed of their presence. A throng quickly swelled around the scene as uniformed officers kept curiosity seekers at bay. When the detectives had finished at the scene, Orvis was escorted to Arkansas Avenue where the detectives and Orvis were whisked away by a taxi back to the city’s jail.
Under mounting pressure, William Seyler finally offered his version of what occurred. “We had some words,” he began explaining, “and Janey backed up against the rail and fell backward into the ocean. I tried to save her, but she sank like a stone, and her body must have gone under the pier before I could get down the ladder to grab her.” Seyler explained that he and Ms. Adams had been friends for several years. The quarrel, he continued, had been nothing serious. “She backed away while we were talking, and before I had time to realize she was in danger, she struck against the rail, fell over backward, struck the platform, and then bounced into the ocean. I ran to the ladder that goes down near the fish nets to pull her out, but I never saw her again after she struck the water.” The detectives continued to question William. “Why didn’t you report it to the police?” Seyler slumped lower in the chair. “I know I should have gone to the Chief and told him about it, but I lost my nerve. I couldn’t even tell Mrs. Adams the truth when she came to my house that night. I told my brother the next morning, and we decided to go away. It was a big mistake we made, and we realize now that it would have been better for us if we had stayed.”
While Seyler had provided his sequence of events and more importantly, his level of direct involvement, the authorities moved forward with the inquest the following evening. Prior to the inquest, like his brother before him, William Seyler was escorted back to the scene of the alleged murder to show the detectives where he claimed she had fallen over the rail. It was the exact same spot where Detective Whalen had found blood on the railing. Several hours later, at the inquest, Coroner Souder testified that it appeared that Ms. Adams had been “struck a severe blow which had caused a hemorrhage in the left side of the brain and had caused death.” He continued his testimony indicating that her “left eyelid had been pierced by some sharp instrument” and that she was found with chewing gum in her mouth. To no one’s surprise, William Seyler was ordered held without bail for a grand jury trial. His brother Orvis was held on bail of two thousand dollars as an accessory to the crime.
Nearly three months later, on May 23, 1910, everyone rose to their feet as Judge Trenchard entered the courtroom in the Atlantic County Courthouse in Mays Landing, New Jersey. With a stiff rap of his gavel, Judge Trenchard ordered everyone to be seated. Sitting aside William Seyler was his court-appointed defense attorney, Edmund C. Gaskill. While the court of public opinion may have already cast their judgment on William Seyler, it was Gaskill’s responsibility to prove to the court that the State’s evidence was not enough to counter Seyler’s admission of nothing more than a tragic and fatal accident. Prosecutor Goldenberg doubted Seyler’s innocence. His task was to hold Seyler accountable for the murder of Jane Adams.
In his opening statement, Prosecutor Goldenberg summarized that the young woman found in the shallows of Ventnor had died defending her honor against a brute of a man amidst a terrible gale on the wooden deck of the Million Dollar Pier. Testifying on behalf of the prosecution was Dr. Emery Marvel, an Atlantic City physician who had examined the body post mortem. Dr. Marvel explained at length that the wound on Jane Adams’ eye had been caused prior to entering into the water. The “injury” as he continued his testimony, “could not have been received in falling from the pier to the fish landing.” Instead, Dr. Marvel explained, it appeared that the injury had occurred from the strike of a fist. Dr. Lewis Souder, the county coroner who completed the autopsy concurred with Dr. Marvel indicating that Adams’ wound had been inflicted prior to her fall into the Atlantic Ocean. Also testifying on the first day of the trial was Jane’s father, Charles, and her younger sister, Alice.
On the second day of the trial, Elizabeth Seyler saw her father and cried out “Daddy!” As the young girl ran to her father and sat down on his lap, Judge Trenchard ordered the young girl taken back to her mother who was seated in the courtroom. The young girl could not be consoled and Mrs. Seyler and her daughter were removed. The Chief of the Atlantic City Police, Malcolm Woodruff, Chief of Detectives Whalen, and Detectives Malseed and Miller all provided testimony including a statement allegedly made by Orvis when the men were initially arrested in Petersburg, Virginia. According to the detectives, Orvis had stated that on the night of the alleged murder, William was having trouble sleeping. When Orvis asked him what was the matter, William replied that he had seen Jane Adams fall off the pier and that he had been unable to rescue her. Defense Attorney Gaskill objected to the validity of the statements but was overruled by Judge Trenchard. The prosecution rested its case.
Defense Attorney Gaskill explained in his opening statement that the death of Jane Adams had not been caused by his client but was the result of an accident. Opening testimony was provided by an electrician who was employed at the Million Dollar Pier regarding the effectiveness of the lamps along the pier at night. He had indicated that several of the lamps, because of the gale-force winds had not been illuminated and had not provided the normal level of lighting along the length of the pier. Next to testify were Seyler’s younger brother Jasper and a boarder that both indicated that William was at the family homestead by eight o’clock that evening and seemed fine. William’s parents also testified on his behalf with William’s father Peter confirming that he had been home by eight o’clock and that the two men had a drink or two together. Again, all testified that William seemed perfectly okay. Orvis also countered the testimony of the detectives stating that his brother had made no such statement to him and nor him to the police. While little was in question as to William’s whereabouts on the night in question, Defense Attorney Gaskill had to successfully counter or at least plant a seed of doubt with the jurors regarding the injuries to Ms. Adams. Dr. E.A. Riley, also a physician in Atlantic City, argued that the injury could have easily happened during the fall or if the body had struck a piling on the pier or an object in the water. The last to testify on the second day of the trial was Mrs. Seyler. She testified that her husband had left the house a little after seven o’clock on Friday night and had returned roughly an hour later. He did not feel well on Saturday morning but had recovered by Sunday. That day, he kissed his wife and children goodbye and indicated that he was going to look for work in Longport, New Jersey.
On the third day of the trial, William Seyler was called to the stand to testify. Quickly, it was ascertained that his initial statements given at police headquarters were different than his final testimony. Despite the contradictory statements, the prosecution made no attempts to seek perjury allegations. “It was very cold,” he began, “and I had no overcoat, so I suggested that we go back to the warm hall. Alice and Orvis, however, said they wanted to walk around the pier, and Jane would not return without them. So we stood waiting for the couple near the wave motor. I finally suggested to Jane that we go back into the hall to wait for the two, but she would not go. I started in and had gone only a short distance when I heard her call ‘Alice’ three times in a natural voice. I thought it was a shame to leave her alone out there and went back. When I reached the wave motor she was not to be seen, nor have I seen her since, so help me Almighty God. I walked around the exhibition hall to see if she was there, but could not see anything, so I supposed she had given me the slip and joined the others and went off the pier. I reached home shortly after 8 o’clock.”
Seyler was also questioned regarding the statements made by the authorities regarding his alleged admission of guilt. “They tried to force me to make statements at the Atlantic City jail. A detective gave me drugged cigarettes and they made me sick after I smoked them. I told the police I would admit being on the pier on the night Jane Adams disappeared but did not know how she met her death. I said I would stick to that and I do now. I never said I saw her fall overboard. When I went with the police to the pier, I pointed out the place where I stood when I last saw, but I never said that was where I saw her fall off. That was what the detective said and it was wrong.” While the prosecution refuted Seyler’s statements about harsh treatment and drugged cigarettes, the statements were permitted by the court. The defense rested its case with Seyler’s testimony.
After several hours of summations by both counselors, the jury foreman, William McClurg and his fellow jurors received directions from the judge as to how to proceed with their deliberations. Five hours later, at ten o’clock that evening, the foreman was ordered to rise and report to the court the jury’s findings. McClurg cleared his throat and announced, “Not guilty.” The courtroom erupted into a cacophony of applause and sighs. Justice Trenchard rapped his gavel to maintain order. Seyler shook hands with his counselor and once the case was formally adjourned, he shook hands with the members of the jury. William Seyler was a free man. And while William Seyler sat aboard the late train to the city of his home, the train passed by the Pleasantville Cemetery where the body of Ms. Jane Adams was entombed for eternity, her body discovered months earlier along the frozen sands of Ventnor after her untimely and mysterious death in our waters.