It Matches the Bedspread: Kneeland Maids Murder Artifacts

July 9, 2016 — I walked into the local history museum of Gardener, Massachusetts, with my wife and my six- and two-year-old daughters. The red-brick, two-story building at 28 Pearl Street was built in 1886 as a library. Now, in the museum phase of its life, it’s only open for three hours, five days a week, so we had to time it just right. Inside, it was completely empty of visitors. We were met by a woman who told us about the extremely low admission cost and then said, “We have some interesting things for the kids. There’s a big dollhouse downstairs, and an old school bell that each of them can ring, too. Only once each, though, please.”

“Um,” I said, looking at the tops of my girls’ heads instead of into her eyes. “We’re actually here to see the blood-spattered table from that 160-year-old murder of the two octogenarian sisters.”

That’s exactly how it happened, except that the last statement went through my head instead of my lips. Out loud, I thanked her, gave her the money for admission, and then patiently looked at the array of small-town historical artifacts on the main floor, my eyes rotating wildly as I looked around for the bloody crime scene object that I was really there for.

On March 7, 1855, Miriam Kneeland and her widowed sister Sarah Phinney were tucked in for the night. They were 85 and 75 years old, respectively, both children of the 18th century. A local history book from 1878 called them “humble and exemplary Christians.” Nobody else lived with them in the house.

But that ended up meaning that nobody else died with them in the house, either.

The two women known collectively as the Kneeland Maids were found the next day bludgeoned to death in their beds. The murder weapon was a chair leg.

Being murdered by a piece of furniture in Gardner, Massachusetts, comes with baggage. The city calls itself “Chair City” because of its long history of furniture-making. En route to the museum, we passed a 20-foot-tall chair with the name and nickname of the city painted in gold on the rungs of its back. The legs of the massive chair were not so much objects to bludgeon with as objects to joust with.

Chillingly, the messy, violent crime was never solved. Even after a $500 reward was posted.

But there was a suspect.

George Stacey worked in a chair factory. He was found wearing bloody clothes. He apparently once asked a co-worker if he thought a chair leg could brain a dog. He was arrested, but acquitted by a grand jury. See, just about everybody in Gardner worked in a chair factory. Stacey was also prone nose-bleeds, so blood was basically an accessory for him. As to the strange query, I assume he wasn’t the first furniture factory worker to brandish a chair leg.

Back at the Gardner Museum, I didn’t find the table on the main floor, so we headed downstairs. There we found the afore-promised doll house, ancient-looking and only for display, and let the kids ring the old iron school bell. But I didn’t see the table, so we hung out there just long enough to not let on that I was tearing through their museum looking for morbid stuff.

Finally, we went to the second floor, passing the woman at her desk on the main floor. As I ascended the steps, I was preparing myself for having to ask her if the table was still on display, which I assumed she would translate as, “Those poor kids, having to put up with such a creepy father.”

Most of the room on the top floor was set up for meetings and events. Rows of chairs faced a podium. But ringing the walls of the room were more exhibit cases full of small-town-attic stuff.

I saw it immediately, slotted unobtrusively between another large dollhouse and an antique radiator.

The table was small, fragile-looking, and painted bluish-gray.

Pressed flat against the center of the table by a plate of glass was an ancient square of paper covered in an old-fashioned script that was difficult to read. A placard on the table that told the story of the murder of Miriam and Sarah translated the card, which identified the table as having stood near the head of the bed where the Kneeland Maids were bludgeoned to death. The exact quote was, “This table stood at the head of their bed and was spattered with their life blood.”

Beside that placard was the facsimile of a wanted poster for the killer. It illustrated a shadowy man with a club-sized chair leg looming over a bed. Below the ominous image were a couple of cows and the signature of a woman, complete with a small caricature of herself holding a big fountain pen. I assume it was the signature of the wanted poster artist. The strange design of the wanted poster was explained by a few words at the bottom: The Kneeland Maids, Gardner’s First Murder Victims. Wanted posters take practice. And apparently some pride.

But all that stuff I took in a few minutes after finding the table. The first thing I did was squint in close at its painted surface, looking for stains. And there definitely were some: drops of old reddish-brown fluid. Maybe 160-year-old blood. Maybe 40-year-old coffee stains. I’d need Dexter to do a splatter pattern analysis to know for sure. But if legend had it right, this was the only surviving witness to the horrific crime.

After we found the table, there was no longer any reason to continue the ruse. We left the museum immediately to check out on the other Kneeland Maids site. It wasn’t the crime scene itself. An arsonist burned the house down a mere month after the murder, seemingly clearing Stacey further as he was under arrest at the time. In fact, some say a nephew of the two women gave a deathbed confession to the murders. This contradicts another theory, that the poverty-stricken sisters were mistaken for a pair of wealthy ones who lived down the road.

Unsolved mysteries, man.

We headed around the corner to the graveyard of the First Congregational Church, where the Kneeland Maids share a headstone that their fellow and more fortunate townsfolk purchased for them. At the bottom of the stone, after their names, it says, “Who were found murdered in their home Mar. 7, 1855.”

Since I visited that table and those graves, I’m consistently tormented by the idea that you can live that long and still die that way. Also the strange fact that you can be remembered forever for your murder no matter how obscure your life. Either way, today I drink to the Kneeland Maids of Gardner, Massachusetts. Tomorrow I drink because alcoholism and a world full of horror.

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