Charles B. Phelps was ninety-years-old and lived in a farmhouse one mile south of West Shelby, New York with his housekeeper, Margaret Wolcott. Across the road in a tenant house lived Charles F. Stielow, a mentally slow farmhand from Germany who resided there with his wife, two children, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law, Nelson Green.
At five in the morning on March 22, 1915, Charlie walked out his front door to find, on his doorstep, the housekeeper, Mrs. Wolcott. Clad in her nightgown, she lay bloodied and dead in the snow. Stielow ran across the street to Mr. Phelps's house and found him unconscious on the floor. The almost hysterical farmhand rounded up several neighbors who fetched Sheriff Bartlett of Albion to the scene. Mr. Phelps was rushed to a hospital in Medina, New York but he died a few hours later without regaining consciousness.
Sheriff Bartlett found the contents of the bureau drawers in Mr. Phelps's bedroom strewn about and all of his money gone. Both victims had been shot by .22 caliber bullets.
A coroner's inquest was held on March 26, 1915. The key witnesses were Charlie Stielow and his brother-in-law who testified that on the night of the murder they heard cries coming from across the street. They got up and looked out the door but didn't see or hear anything suspicious so they went back to bed. Both men denied owning a gun.
The local authorities decided to hire a private detective out of Buffalo, New York named George Newton. Shortly after taking over the investigation, Newton discovered that Charlie Stielow owned a .22 caliber revolver. On the strength of that discovery and the fact that he had lied, Charlie was arrested on April 21, 1915. In an effort to determine if this was the murder weapon, Newton brought a man into the case named Dr. Albert Hamilton.
Hamilton was a former concoctor of patent medicines from Auburn, New York who masqueraded as a criminalist. After awarding himself a phony medical degree, he began advertising himself as an expert in the fields of chemistry, microscopy, handwriting, toxicology, bloodstains, causes of death, embalming, anatomy, and firearms identification. With less than a high school education and absolutely no experience as a scientist, Hamilton was a complete and shameless charlatan.
Hamilton examined the four bullets taken from the two victims as well as the .22 caliber revolver and declared, without test-firing Stielow's gun, that it had fired the bullets that had killed Mr. Phelps and his housekeeper. On April 23, while being questioned in the county jail by Newton and three police officers, Stielow was said to have confessed to the murders. He refused, however, to sign a written version of his confession.
Stielow was indicted of First Degree Murder and brought to trial before Justice Cuthbert W. Pound of Buffalo on July 11, 1915. The prosecution led off with its so-called firearms expert, Albert Hamilton, who swore that he had found nine bumps inside the muzzle end of the barrel to Stielow’s revolver. These “projections” as he called them, had made nine corresponding scratches on the four bullets taken from the bodies. Hamilton told the jury that no other gun could have fired these bullets. The prosecutor asked Hamilton if the jury members could see these scratches for themselves to which he replied, “No, I can tell because I am a highly technical man. I can see what the jury cannot see.”1
Stielow's defense attorney, David A. White, argued that Stielow's confession had been coerced and was therefore not admissible. Judge Pound ruled against the defense, admitting the testimony of Newton and the police officers who had interrogated Stielow. After eight days of testimony, the case went to the jury who found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Stielow to electrocution. The New York Supreme Court, in a per curiam decision on February 22, 1916, upheld the conviction. Charlie was sent to Sing Sing Prison where he awaited his execution on death row. He was scheduled to die on September 5, 1916.
During his incarceration at Sing Sing, several people familiar with the case became convinced that Charlie was innocent. Numerous lawyers took up his case and on the eve of his scheduled execution the Governor of New York granted Charlie a stay of execution.
In September of 1916, an itinerant peddler named Erwin King and an ex-con named Clarence O'Connell confessed to killing Mr. Phelps and his housekeeper during a burglary. Both men retracted their confessions shortly after making them, claiming that the police had beaten them. As a result, Stielow's motion for a new trial was denied. He was rescheduled to die on December 11, 1916.
Governor Whitman had been following the case closely and a week before Charlie was to die, he commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, stating that he believed Stielow innocent of the murders. The Governor next requested and received from the state legislature, a special appropriation of $25,000 for a reinvestigation of the case. The Governor asked George H. Band, a former district attorney from Syracuse, New York, to spearhead the inquiry. Mr. Bond hired Charles E. Waite, an employee in the New York State Attorney General's Office, to assist him. Waite's job was to analyze the firearms evidence in the case, particularly Albert Hamilton's claim that Stielow's revolver had fired the fatal bullets.
Waite took Stielow's revolver and the four bullets to Captain Henry Jones, the firearms expert at the New York City Police Department. Jones looked over the gun and announced that it hadn't been fired in three or four years. Captain Jones then fired several rounds through the obsolete weapon into cotton batting. Jones compared the murder bullets with the ones just fired through Stielow's barrel and could see with his naked eye that they were dissimilar. The bullets taken from the victims' bodies were smooth while the ones retrieved from the cotton batting were gouged and gnawed. To make certain of their findings, Captain Jones and Waite took the two sets of bullets to Max Poser, a noted expert in microscopy who examined them under his microscope and declared Stielow's gun couldn't have been the murder weapon.
Governor Whitman received Waite's report and was certain beyond a doubt that Charlie Stielow had been wrongly convicted. Because of this belief, the Governor commuted Stielow's sentence and ordered him immediately released from prison. A few months later, one of the men who had confessed to the murders earlier, confessed again and was convicted. Having served over two years on death row, Charlie Stielow was never compensated by the state for his false imprisonment.2
The Stielow Case is important in the history of firearms identification because it led to Waite's interest in the field. Before his death seven years later, Charles Waite would establish himself as the father of modern firearms identification
1. Waite, Charles E., “Firearms Identification,” The Detective (October, 1927). Reprinted in Dilworth, Donald (ed), Silent Witness (Gaithersburg, MD: International Chiefs of Police, 1977.
2. The account of the Charlie Stielow Case is based upon the following books: Borchard, Edwin M., Convicting the Innocent (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1933) pp. 241-52: Block, Eugene B., The Vindicators, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963) pp. 203-20; and Robinson, Henry Morton, Science Versus Crime (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935) pp. 72-8.