On October 20, 1884, Ada Brown, a young widow with a seven year old child, shared a drink with two men who were likely her former lovers in a Hartford, Connecticut, apartment. One, Martin Harrison, began to argue with Brown about $10 he’d previously given her. The argument escalated and he brutally slashed her throat with a knife. The other man, George Gregory, then quickly stabbed Harrison in the throat. as the police arrived, seven year old Elena witnessed her mother die. Despite Harrison’s initial insistence that he was the innocent party and Gregory the murderer, the ensuing trial determined that Gregory was altogether innocent, and Harrison saw seven years in prison following a guilty verdict on the charge of manslaughter. An eager press followed the case, sensationalizing its details and eagerly noting that Brown was ‘depraved,’ and when Harrison in 1885 confessed to having murdered Ada Brown, the Hartford Courant labeled what happened a “crime of passion.”
Although the manslaughter charge of Ada Brown’s case may not be concretely understood, the various angles in which it can be perceived stem from the social class, gender roles, and criminal justice systems found in the 19th century.
Ada Brown was born as Frances Adelaide Kinney in Lee, Massachusetts, in 1854. Her father, William Kinney, worked as a spinner in the local mill and he and his wife, Adelaide Moore, had three children. Adelaide died when Ada was a child and by 1860, she was living with an aunt and uncle in Winchester, Connecticut. By 1880, she was married to William Brown and living with him, their daughter and a nephew in Hartford. Their daughter, Elena, was named after William’s former wife, and had been conceived well before her parents married. William had married twice and been widowed twice before he married Ada; he’d served in the Union army and was employed in Hartford as a painter, serving periodically on local professional organizations. He died May 1882 of phthisis, a form of tuberculosis. His death left Brown in a vulnerable, precarious position, one she may have been already familiar with when she became a mother out of wedlock.
Following the death of her husband, Brown had relationships with multiple men, including Harrison and Gregory. Newspaper coverage of the murder suggested that she had had a romantic relationship with Gregory before Harrison, though we don’t know the circumstances of that situation. We do know she worked for a while as Harrison’s housekeeper or maid, though we do not know if their romantic relationship came before or after that job.
George Gregory was born in 1855 and spent his whole life in Hartford. His father was a very well-respected owner of a block of city property and ran a fruit store on site. We have no idea what went wrong for Gregory; in 1877, he shot his wife in the head, a wound she survived (though she understandably moved far away).
Martin van Buren Harrison was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, in 1834. By the time he met Brown he’d had five wives, all of whom had died young. He’d also lost several children to various childhood ailments and often had to rely on the state to bury his family. One wife died of delirium tremens, which indicates that at least for part of Harrison’s family, drinking was a problem. When he murdered Brown he was working at the horse railroad company. He’d evidently lent or given Brown the ten dollars that were suddenly so dear to him.
In the 1880s, Hartford was a growing city. Between being a site of industrial might, the insurance capital of the country, and a landing spot for immigrants, she grew tremendously in the later decades of the 19th century. The need for cheap labor meant jobs for immigrants, who came, as in other New England cities, in large numbers; that influx sometimes made native-born Hartford residents concerned about their own job prospects but their worries did not curb new arrivals.
Immigrant populations were often crammed into tenement buildings that popped up in neighborhoods like Clay Arsenal, which was northwest of downtown; the goal of builders was to keep immigrants inside certain areas. Other poorer neighborhoods were a bit southeast of there, and that’s where we find Brown and Harrison on Sheldon Street. Wealthier neighborhoods were often a bit of a distance from poorer ones; the Asylum Avenue area as well as the Prospect Avenue area were quite wealthy and some distance from poverty and industry, as well as from the saloon cultures and perceptions of chaos those places had.
Hartford was part of the 19th century parks movement; municipal funds and donations from wealthy residents helped build parks and institutions across the city. Oftentimes the funds donated by the wealthy helped shape infrastructure to their own desires. The poor got relatively little in terms of city monies, and little in the way of social services existed outside of the poor house, work house and an orphanage or two.
The 19th century also featured a newspaper boom, and Hartford, like most every town in America, had a newspaper of some kind. Many of those papers were “yellow journalism”: sensationalist presses that blew a lot of stories out of proportion for sales. Hartford had a pair of newspapers: the Hartford Times and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published paper in the US. Headlines and text about the Brown murder indicate how even the Courant participated in sensationalizing stories, rejoicing in the idea that a murder in the city was exciting and likely to attract extensive attention: at one point it even predicted that the Brown case could become a “celebrated murder.”
The Courant’s reporting often gloried in the “depraved” status of the murder victim, Ada Brown, whom they branded from the start as a “fallen woman.” “Fallen women” were women who had had sex outside of marriage and whose reputations were destroyed as a consequence. Once a woman ‘fell’ there was no return. Men did not face the same standard and in contrast, were expected to have had some sexual experiences before marriage. This double standard is part of a common 19th century pattern in which women were expected to be chaste and family-oriented. It’s unclear whether Brown “fell” because of her child before marriage or her affairs afterward, but neither likely helped. We also know her family declined to respond to news of her death, and we don’t know if her “fallen” status may have been part of why.
In contrast to feminine culture of relative domesticity and subservience, masculine cultures in the late 19th century were shifting from gentlemanly with some emotional availability to strong and stoic. Perceiving threats by rising numbers of immigrants to their jobs and culture, many (white) men saw strength as a key weapon against potential change: masculine culture emphasized both physical strength and dominance over others. In the murder, Gregory and Harrison were both trying to show dominance over each other and over Brown.
Men had a greater opportunity for education, even as it wasn’t entirely common yet across America. Poorer folks had less education, generally, given the labor demands on children’s time. Attendance wasn’t great among less wealthy kids and school had few standards for days or content. Wealthier people could afford more days in school as well as private education, which often set their sons up for better jobs than the poor could often aspire to. Girls were largely left out of these concerns altogether, since girls of higher socio economic status were expected just to marry and have children, anyway. In all likelihood, the figures in the Brown case had some education but may not have had much.
Saloons often followed the expansion of manual labor and were one of the few ways immigrant men in particular could socialize after work. Saloons often were a cornerstone of local economies and served as recreational space in poorer neighborhoods; the only institutions more common were grocery stores. That said, saloons were oftentimes the target of temperance organizations who saw its abundance of alcohol as a neighborhood blight and a destroyer of families. Americans drank a lot of alcohol in the late 19th century; 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol was average. Men drank more than women, as it was much more socially acceptable for them to visit saloons. We know that the figures in our story engaged in some drinking the night of Brown’s death, and we know that at least some of their families had been destroyed by it. Alcohol was a constant presence.
After Brown’s death, the ensuing trial indicates some level of complexity and chaos. For one thing, the jury had to determine whether Harrison’s claims that Gregory was the murderer were accurate (they weren’t) and if Gregory should be punished for stabbing Harrison in the neck (he was charged with assault with intent to kill but wasn’t found guilty). Harrison ultimately pled guilty to manslaughter and served seven years.
The court system put a lot of sentencing authority in the hands of judges, whereas now the US often has minimum sentences that dictate the limits of judicial authority. That said, we do not know why the charge –initially murder–was reduced to manslaughter, and we don’t know what determined the judge’s choice of 7 years imprisonment. The woeful conditions of Connecticut prisons may or may not have been a part of that decision. The New York Times did comment, however, that Harrison’s charge and sentence was a “miscarriage of justice” and thus was out of place for its time.
Young Elena was a primary victim in her mother’s passing. Now parentless, she went to the Hartford Orphan Asylum for several months before she was adopted in 1885 by Thomas and Katherine Killian. She married, she divorced on grounds of ‘intolerable cruelty’ and married again. She has one child and family history suggests the trauma of her childhood stayed with her.
There were many factors that played into the murder of Ada Brown and its outcome. From sexism to poverty, municipal structures to the press, Brown’s unfortunate passing was inevitably marked by when and where it happened. Studying her death provides insight into the late 19th century city, and a window into the intersecting cultures of the country at large.
By the class of HIST 228