Justice for Mrs. Loftus

Week 29: #52 Ancestors – Newsworthy

By Eilene Lyon

Newspaper articles feature prominently in my family history research, as I’ve amply demonstrated on this blog. There were the outrageous tales of Dr. William C. Ransom and Adoph Dills. The peek into the railroad career of Arthur L. Ransom. The sad ends of Clifford Cutting, postman; Jack P. Laird, bombardier; and Florence R. Jones, spinster.

Unfortunately, tragedy sells papers. Aside from the occasional wedding, anniversary, or sports results, so much of what I find turns out to be stories that I’m sure my ancestors probably wish would have died with them. So it goes. In this case, though, my ancestor didn’t cause the scandal.

In April 1910, my great-grandfather, Sterling P. Davis, got called to serve jury duty in Moscow, Idaho. It ended up being a sensation – the first time in Latah County history that a woman was put on trial for murder. Given the time, all the jurors were men, of course.

DavisSPWeddingCrop
Sterling P. Davis in 1905. (Family collection)

The county held Mrs. Laura E. Loftus on the charge of killing her 64-year-old husband, William Loftus, with a double-barreled shotgun on their ranch near Troy. Her 13-year-old son from a prior marriage was also held as a witness.

As the trial began, “Judge Steele issued instructions to the bailiff not to allow children under 18 years of age into the courtroom during the trial, and cautioned women spectators of the nature of the language they would hear in the trial.” Then the state called its first witness, Mrs. Loftus’s brother-in-law, Charles Hickman, to the stand.

 

“Oh, Bill, I did not intend to kill you.”

The facts of the case were not in dispute. The Loftus ranch had two houses about 200 feet apart. William Loftus and Hickman slept in one. Mrs. Loftus, with her two children and Hickman’s three motherless children, slept in the other and all the family took meals there.

The brief marriage between 34-year-old Laura and William Loftus could be called contentious. They argued regularly, using rough language. On the night of December 27, 1909, Loftus returned to the ranch after delivering a load of wood. He was clearly intoxicated and he and his wife got into an argument while he was tending to his team. Then he went into the house he shared with Hickman. Mrs. Loftus followed him and he put her out of the house.

Laura Etta Brooks
Laura Etta Brooks Stith Loftus Cochran. (Shared by MarianFox60 on Ancestry.com)

Enraged, she returned with the shotgun, and Hickman met her and pleaded with her not to use it. But she approached her husband, who was standing in the doorway and fired. The shot missed, so she aimed again and hit him squarely in the forehead, killing him instantly. “Witness Hickman said Mrs. Loftus then dropped the gun, ran to her husband and exclaimed, ‘Oh, Bill, I did not intend to kill you.’”

On the fourth day of the trial, Mrs. Loftus took the stand and gave her defense: temporary insanity. She detailed how her mother had been committed to an asylum when Laura was just 18. Other family members had also been institutionalized. She then claimed her husband had abused her the day she shot him.

After closing arguments, the jury took just four hours to return a verdict – a full acquittal.

Feature image: The Latah County Courthouse in 1910. (Latah County Courthouse [03], Ott Historical Photograph Collection, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library)

Sources:

“Troy Woman Kills Her Husband: Later Expresses Regret and Persuades Officer to Take Her to the Funeral.” Undated and unsourced news clipping shared by chold114 on Ancestry.com.

“Court Convenes April 11: Thirteen Criminal Cases on Calendar Before Judge Steele – Jurors Called for April 18.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), April 10, 1910, p. 18 – via newspapers.com.

“Try Woman for Murder: Laura E. Loftus, Is First Woman Tried on That Charge in Latah County.” Spokane Chronicle, April 19, 1910, p. 8 – via newspapers.com.

“Father of Three Pictures Sister with Shotgun Firing at Husband.” The Spokesman-Review, April 20, 1910, p. 5 – via newspapers.com.

“Laura E. Loftus Pleads Insanity.” Spokane Chronicle, April 21, 1910, p. 25 – via newspapers.com.

“Idaho Jury Frees Woman Who Admitted Killing Husband.” The Spokesman-Review, April 22, 1910, p. 5 – via newspapers.com.

 

29 thoughts on “Justice for Mrs. Loftus

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      1. I believe most of the story you read came from his testimony. He was the widower of Laura’s sister. Seemed he was more in a position to protect Mr from Mrs than vice versa. Certainly at the time of the murder she was in no imminent danger from her husband.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I was sure this was going to end in a conviction, given the clear premeditation, the second shot, the witness, and the fact that she was not in immediate danger so no self-defense. I don’t know how the insanity defense was treated back then, but somehow I do think there was more here than meets the eye, and the jury took pity on her.

    Wow, too bad you can’t ask your GGF some questions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It truly seems a miscarriage of justice. Laura was eventually institutionalized like her family members and that’s where she died in 1931 at age 56. It does seem mental illness was a family trait. Still doesn’t excuse such a killing in my book.

      Like

  2. A strange and curious case and verdict. I believe it was unusual for women back then to be convicted, maybe they viewed them as the inferior sex and more susceptible to emotions?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. It would be interesting to know what the town thought of Mr. Loftus. Perhaps he had a reputation for being intoxicated and obnoxious? There is a backstory here for sure. If he was disliked, perhaps that would explain the verdict?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It really was an astonishing verdict. I must try to find out what turned the tide with these jurors. My grandmother absolutely adored her father. He died much too young. Even my mother never met him.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The sensational stories are definitely the most interesting ones though! I hate to always go back to Little House (you probably think I have a sick obsession by now), but I do wonder if they were any relation to the Loftus family that owned the store in De Smet, given that extended families often moved out west together. Interesting case regardless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. I love the juicy ones. I wouldn’t have a clue about the Loftus family of De Smet. I didn’t really delve into William Loftus’s history. If I ever revive my research into the case, I’ll do that. Not exactly top-shelf priority.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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