Many of history’s most notorious murders were committed out of passion. What makes many of these crimes so intriguing is how many close to the crime find the murderer’s actions so uncharacteristic of them. Our NYC murder mystery experiences often use characters who have secrets and motivations which shock the audience because their personalities convey a much different persona. Behind every murder is a strong sense of emotion. Many believe there is no stronger emotion than love, which is generally a good thing. However, like any other feeling, love can easily blind us and can drive us to do all sorts of things outside our sensibilities, including murder.
A Promising Marriage
In 1857, 38-year-old Daniel McFarland married 19-year-old Abby Sage. McFarland was a prominent lawyer of the Madison bar in Wisconsin and Abby came from a wealthy New England family. At the time she worked as a school teacher and regularly wrote for a magazine. After their marriage they settled in Madison, Wisconsin. They had all the makings of what today we would consider a power couple.
The Beginning of the End
However, things began to take a turn for the worst when it was revealed their marriage was predicated on lies. Abby discovered her husband did not have a law practice and was not nearly as successful as he made himself out to be. They moved to New York where McFarland planned on pursuing a career. Abby eventually found herself footing the bill for most of their expenses. Their relationship further deteriorated due to McFarland’s drinking habits and violent temper. McFarland was able to make some money from land deals back in Wisconsin, but his drinking got in the way of many of his financial opportunities.
Despite being deeply in debt, Abby had talent which helped establish some financial stability for their family. She would participate at dramatic readings and eventually pursued a career as an actress and author. The McFarlands began to receive a steady income when her work was published. Unfortunately, Abby’s success only seemed to worsen her relationship with her husband. He became extremely jealous of his wife’s success and new friends. He regularly abused her, threatened to kill her, and pocketed most of her income.
They eventually moved to a boarding house in New York where they met their neighbor, Albert Richardson, a notable writer and editor for the New York Tribune. Richardson made a name for himself for his reporting on the Civil War. Abby knew Richardson through their mutual friend, Horace Greely, the owner of the New York Tribune. In 1867 McFarland returned home to find his wife with Richardson discussing their work outside his door. This threw McFarland into a jealous rage where he made threats of murder and suicide. Abby finally had enough and decided to leave her husband.
A New Flame
Abby and Albert grew fonder of each other over time. On the night of March 1867, Richardson and Abby were walking home after one of her performances when McFarland snuck behind them and shot Richardson in the thigh. He was arrested but managed to avoid any jailtime. A bitter legal battle for the custody of their children made the McFarlands relationship even worse. The courts ruled that Abby would have custody of one of their sons while McFarland would have custody of the other.
On November 25th, 1869, McFarland entered the office of the New York Tribune and shot Richardson. He succumbed to his injuries a week later, but not before his bedside wedding to Abby Sage on November 30th.
The Media Monster
The resulting trial and media coverage were very one sided, but not in the favor of Sage and Richardson. Editorials were published lambasting the two, calling them adulterers and criticized Richardson for coming between McFarland and his wife. Media coverage created a dialogue about the sanctity of marriage and the roles of husbands and wives. The public generally sided with McFarland, as they bought into the narrative that McFarland’s murder of Richardson was more morally righteous than Abby and Richardson’s “adulterous” behavior. The five-week trial was a media circus, drawing spectators from all over. The prosecution
focused on the abuse McFarland but his wife through while the defense highlighted their adulterous behavior. The jury found Daniel McFarland not guilty per reason of insanity.
The media coverage and public outrage ruined Abby’s reputation, so she could not advance her career much further. It even turned her own children against her. She was able to recount her side of the story in the New York Tribune, but it was too late to have an impact on the trial or public opinion. Having no voice to defend herself against the media machine which sealed her fate, her life after the trial is a story which seems all too familiar in the 21st Century.
Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!