A Note to My Readers: Recently a fellow historian and Auburnian, Lydia Rosell and I were communicating about a photo that she had found on eBay several years ago. Lydia collects some intriguing items relating to Auburn, New York and Auburn Prison and posted on FaceBook that she hadn’t been able to find anything about the murder case involving the man in the photograph…”Philip Stine.” As any historical researcher knows that is like waving a red cape at a fierce bull and shouting “Toro”. Thus I was off to see what I could find. The first thing I did was consider a name variation. As soon as I made it “Philip Stein”, the story of a troublesome criminal life culminating in the murder of William Jones unfolded. I also found the tale of intrepid Police Officer Benjamin B. Roseboom and the capture and conviction of Philip Stein.
Winter weather was in full force in central New York and Auburnians had their homes secured against the blustering and chilling December winds and the inevitable snowfall. Sleighs had been readied with newly waxed runners and reins had been inspected and treated with saddle soap. The folks in central New York needed no lesson in being prepared to tackle Mother Nature. They just didn’t count on the likes of career criminal Philip Stein.
Stein hailed from Rochester, New York and though he committed many of his crimes in that general area, he held no prejudice for where or whom he victimized. He was an opportunist. His father, Peter, had been a shoemaker and his Uncle Philip was a grocer in Rochester in 1860 and young Philip and his siblings were surrounded by family in a section of Rochester filled with immigrant tradesmen with a strong work ethic. Philip’s father had died and his mother, Johanna, remarried to another “Prussian” immigrant. Stein’s older siblings were off on their own in 1870 and 14 year old Philip and his 12 year old sister Maggie were part of the newly blended household. His stepfather, Franz, was a grocer and Philip was an apprentice carpenter. All in all, it seemed that the young boy had a clear path to make a good life for himself.
Something went very wrong. At 19 years of age, Philip was an inmate at the Monroe County Penitentiary, married and declaring his trade as butcher in the 1875 New York State Census. His life of crime had clearly begun in earnest. Five years later in the 1880 Federal Census, Philip was a convict at Auburn Prison. Still married and still claiming his occupation as butcher, it seemed more likely that crime had become his true vocation. In New York State prison records, his crime at that time is recorded as receiving stolen goods.
In April of 1881 Philip was released from Auburn Prison and made his way back to his wife and child in Rochester. Within hours, he was in serious trouble again. The young Mrs. Stein had supported herself and their child during his incarceration and according to the authorities, had ‘an unblemished reputation”. Her errant husband begged for forgiveness and asked to let him stay with her. His promise of acquiring gainful employment went unmet and his young wife’s supporters advised her to be rid of him. She stood her ground and told him to leave immediately. Angry and resentful, Philip left. Feeling content that she once again had the peace of her own humble life, the young woman put her child to bed and settled down in her parlor which also served as her bedroom. At 10 PM her reverie was broken with the harsh report of a pistol. Two shots were fired,
“the balls passing through the window, burying themselves in the bedding”.
Alarmed, she dashed to the door in time to see Stein running away. Securing the young one, she ran to the nearby police headquarters and an arrest warrant for Stein was issued.
In February of 1882, Philip Stein was back in Monroe county jail awaiting transfer to Auburn Prison for the crime of Grand Larceny in the second degree. He was arrested in Rochester, tried and convicted and was due to be returned to Auburn Prison to serve out an eight year sentence. Once again his crime was outrageous and showed a disturbing state of mind. He had entered a barn in Parma, Monroe, New York where he killed twenty sheep, skinned them and sold the pelts for $26.50. Seems that his trade of butcher was indeed accurate. Within no time after being incarcerated, Stein had proved himself again handy with tools by jimmying a lock with a pen knife and escaping into the Monroe County countryside. On February 15th Stein jimmied open a lock to a dungeon cell and acting as the ringleader, along with his fellow convicts drilled a hole through a three foot thick wall. The dungeon cell led to a chicken coop in the jail yard where the convicts found a hand ladder and scaled the wall.
The alarm went out to the Rochester officials who knew Stein on sight after dealing with him for over a decade. Disguising himself by shaving his mustache and wearing civilian clothes, he prowled Rochester to find shelter and perhaps seeking another crime opportunity. As he walked down Front Street, a vigilant sheriff spied him and arrested him on the spot. The sheriff questioned Stein to determine the details of his escape and his evasion, but Stein refused to cooperate. Still mum, Stein was taken to Auburn Prison and placed in a cell with a lock that offered no chance of tinkering. His reputation in central New York was becoming infamous as he was dubbed “The Sheep Killer”.
Stein did not serve the full eight years of his sentence and that sealed the fate of William Jones of Erie, Pennsylvania. State Prison records for Auburn Prison report that Stein’s sentence was commuted for good behavior and he was released on August 15, 1887. This time Stein did not return to the Rochester area and he would surely be under the watchful eye of Auburn police. He went instead to Erie, Pennsylvania.
William Jones was the proprietor of the St. Cloud hotel in Erie. In November of 1877 he had taken Stein in out of pity and gave him shelter from the bitter cold and provided him a warm meal and board. Stein was allowed to stay for a few days. A desperate man, Stein rewarded Jones’ generosity in a most heinous gesture. On December 1st, as Jones sat alone in the hotel with Stein, Jones drew him a beer and went about his evening routine. Stein crushed the top of Jones’ head with a blunt object described as an ice pick or a mallet or a bung starter. Jones lingered for the month of December and finally died of his injuries on December 31st.
“While Jones lay quivering in his life blood, Stein took a wallet containing $60 from Jones’ pocket and turning out the lights fled to Auburn.”
Once again the Rochester and Auburn police departments were on notice to watch out for Stein. A $250 reward was offered and the citizens were unnerved after learning of the nature of the crime. Stein had graduated from a thief to a murderer. Stein was accustomed to evasion and kept a low profile and yet he returned to Auburn where his face was well-known. He learned that the police were actively pursuing him in Auburn and began to make his way into the countryside. He would not make it out of the city. “an old prison official”, spotted Stein on Dill Street and alerted the Auburn police. The entire force was mobilized, but they could not seem to catch up with Stein. Days later, he was spotted on North Street and Officer Roseboom answered the call. He secured a horse and buggy and pursued Stein as he attempted to flee on Grant Avenue. Brandishing a gun, Roseboom commanded Stein to stop. Knowing he couldn’t outrun a buggy on foot, Stein turned and drew his knife. Staring down the barrel of Roseboom’s gun, Stein threw down the knife and a bottle of sulphuric ether and surrendered. He had been on the run for eleven days.
Auburn police officer Benjamin B. Roseboom and police reporter Charlie Rattigan and Erie, Pennsylvania Detective J. P. Sullivan and Captain Grant had their hands full transporting Stein. Despite Stein’s calm demeanor, he was shackled hand and foot as they were acutely aware of his wiliness and his earlier escape. They also had to worry about the enraged citizens of Erie. When the Lake Shore train reached Westfield, Chautauqua, New York on December 17, 1887 a telegram from Erie District Attorney Baker was given to Captain Sullivan. Throngs awaited the arrival of the train and along with a steady snow, shouts and curses filled the air. A plan was formulated to take Stein to another part of the train and disembark away from the mob. They no sooner had stepped down onto the remote platform than a shout went up.
“Hang him to that post!”
Stein was tossed into the waiting carriage arranged by D. A. Baker and the men were off to the Erie jail at a tear. The mob had been in full pursuit and as many as 25 people reached the carriage, but it had a good start and soon the enraged citizens were left behind and the lawmen and the suspect were on their way unencumbered.
Though the circumstantial evidence of his culpability was powerful, Stein maintained his innocence throughout his arrest and trial. Appearing in Erie court in May of 1888, Stein was dressed neatly in black and his previously shaven mustache had been grown back. He was cool and confident and represented by two of the best defense lawyers that money could buy. Stein’s brother-in-law, Phillip Christman, a well-to-do butcher and grocer from Rochester, footed the bill. Christman had married Stein’s sister, Maggie. When pressed by an Erie reporter about Stein’s case, Christman stated that he believed Stein to be too cowardly to commit such a crime and that his forte was stealing. He also stated that Stein had never attempted to hurt anyone. Mr. Christman clearly hadn’t considered the incident when Stein attempted to shoot Mrs. Stein.
At the trial no defense was offered, but rather the attorneys battered the court with procedural sparring. Objections flew at every point. They tried to get the jury dismissed on the grounds that it was drawn for the second Monday of the term instead of the first which would have considerably delayed the case. The judge denied the motion and the jury, consisting of eleven farmers and one ‘city’ man, was seated. The prosecution team of District Attorney A. Elverton Sisson and his predecessor, Cassius Leland Baker and Captain J. P. Sullivan worked the arrest and trial so as no fault would bring about a verdict of not guilty. A precise prosecution strategy was in place.
The prosecution swore in between forty and fifty witnesses and their testimonies solidly refuted Stein’s statement at his arrest. Jones’ leather wallet Stein had stolen was produced as evidence. It had been found along the tracks where Stein was spotted fleeing. The circumstantial evidence mounted and confident that they had made their case, the prosecution rested. At the close of the trial, the defense pulled their trump card. Laying claim on a common law case tried fifty years earlier, they demanded to open AND close the argument phase of the trial. The prosecution’s hands were tied and the defense proceeded with their strategy. Observers thought the defense might be able to sway the jury for an acquittal. Baker, however, had a compelling close and was a deft and eloquent speaker. With the advantage of giving the final argument of the case, defense attorney and ex-Congressman Samuel Myron Brainerd held the floor handily. Brainerd had also served a three year term as District Attorney for Erie county before his stint in Congress. It was a battle of wits and experience between the three men who served the same office.
Thanking the jury, the judge sent them off to deliberate the case.
After five hours of deliberation, the verdict was pronounced. Guilty of second degree murder punishable by imprisonment for life. Trial attendees and reporters noted that Stein’s escape from a verdict of first degree murder was a direct result of that defense strategy. A defiant Stein demanded a new trial.
Officer Roseboom and Rattigan of Auburn and Chief Detective Hayden of Rochester left that night after staying in Erie for the duration of the trial having been the guests of the county of Erie.
It appears that Stein’s demand for a new trial went unmet and Stein was imprisoned in Pennsylvania to serve out his life sentence. No trace of him appears in later official records or newspaper accounts. Stein’s infamy came and went as he served his time in Erie, Pennsylvania prison. Christman returned to Rochester to run his market and raise his family.
Twenty-two years later, a Rochester lawman, Chief Hayden, remembered Philip Stein.
In 1888 Hayden received a telegram from Erie, Pa., which read: “Wanted for assault and attempt to kill, an American, 28 or 30, five feet, ten inches, 165 pounds. Evidently American. Had one weak and watery eye.”
“That’s Philip Stein, “Hayden said to Chief Cleary and Captain McCormick. “The fellow who was convicted awhile ago of stealing sheep from a Parma farmer, and has been out of Auburn only a short time.”
Philip Stein never left the thoughts of Roseboom and Rattigan either. When 70 year old Roseboom was interviewed in 1915 in his cozy home at 3 Sumner Street in Auburn, New York, the journalist wrote
Pointing out the window toward Lansing Street, he mused: “Right back of that house I took a murderer, a fellow named Stein, way back in 1887. And he’s sworn revenge on me and Charlie Rattigan, a police reporter at that time, whose testimony down in Pennsylvania sent the man up for a dozen years. But Charlie and I are here yet.”
Author’s Note: The mystery remains…Philip Stein was given a life sentence and Roseboom mentions a dozen years. Since I fail to find Stein after his incarceration…did he die before 1900 in a Pennsylvania prison while in his mid thirties? Seems unlikely that in light of his crime, Stein would have been released. But then Officer Roseboom’s light-hearted comment seems to tell us that Philip Stein is safely tucked away. Dead or alive. And no threat to Roseboom, Rattigan or the citizenry of Auburn, New York.
Author, Writer and Genealogical Researcher
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