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The Pursuit of William Brooks

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 5/8/20

In May of 1869, the community of Barryville, then prosperous and populated thanks to the Delaware and Hudson Canal running through it, was terrorized by reports of an escaped murderer hiding in the …

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The Pursuit of William Brooks

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In May of 1869, the community of Barryville, then prosperous and populated thanks to the Delaware and Hudson Canal running through it, was terrorized by reports of an escaped murderer hiding in the woods and stealing food from local residences in order to survive.

The vigilance of locals in the region had been aroused when convicted murderer William Brooks escaped from prison in Stroudsburg, PA, where he was awaiting execution, and was spotted hopping on a canal boat near Port Jervis. That vigilance was heightened considerably when David Johnston of Barryville reported that Brooks had broken into his home.

The story actually begins in September of 1868, when two men, later identified as 23-year old Scottish immigrant William Brooks and 20-year old Charles Orme who was born in Ireland, robbed and killed Theodore Brodhead and seriously wounded his brother Thomas, the proprietors of the Brainerd House hotel in the Delaware Water Gap.

The two men were apprehended a short time after the crime and jailed in Stroudsburg.

“There was great trouble to prevent them from being lynched by the incensed citizens,” the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin reported in its September 28, 1868 edition. “The sheriff and his men saved their lives with great difficulty.”

Brooks and Orme were convicted of the murder, and sentenced to be hanged, but they did not wait around for the sentence to be carried out. They both escaped, but Orme was recaptured. By the spring of 1869, much of the area around Stroudsburg was on high alert looking for Brooks, whose description and picture were distributed wherever possible.

“He is about five feet seven inches in height, slim build, light sandy complexion, brown hair, grayish blue eyes, two scars on his neck,” the Port Jervis Evening Gazette reported on May 6, 1869. “His dress…is a blue blouse, Kentucky jean pants and vest, and a slouch hat.”

Brooks was actually seen and recaptured near Port Jervis on May 5, 1869, but managed to escape again after just a few hours while being transported by his captors.

“Yesterday, however, Brooks was captured, but he again made his escape, by a most daring and desperate piece of strategy, and is again at large, although the avengers of blood are after him in hot and close pursuit,” the Evening Gazette reported.

The paper also noted that a Pond Eddy merchant named Tibbetts had reported seeing a man he claimed was Brooks passing through the hamlet “on a light boat bound up the canal” heading toward Barryville.

Brooks was still at large on May 20, when the Evening Gazette reported that “the dwelling house of Mr. David Johnston at Barryville was entered by a burglar who stole a lot of provisions from the cellar. The next morning Mr. Johnston and a neighbor started out to hunt for the thief. About a mile out they found a man and a boy—strangers to them, and rough looking customers—cooking some provisions over a fire built in a piece of woods on the side of the road. The food they were cooking had a suspicious resemblance to that stolen from Mr. Johnston's cellar.”

Apparently, the pair of strangers vanished by the time Johnston returned with authorities to arrest them, but the description he furnished led them to believe the man was Brooks.

“All suspicious strangers seen thereabouts are now scrutinized with watchful eyes, and many innocent persons are held to answer for the sins of Brooks on account of some real or fancied resemblance to him.”

Despite the opinion of the newspaper that it was unlikely that Brooks had remained in the area, reports of sightings of the murderer continued to filter in to authorities, and the Evening Gazette did a follow up article on May 22.

“The excitement attending the pursuit of Brooks is unallayed, but rather gathers renewed interest from the reports, some of them apparently reliable, that he is still lurking in the woods of Sullivan and Pike counties, and he has recently been seen and identified by several persons, who, however, failed to capture him, either because they were not aware of his identity or were afraid to attempt his arrest, it being understood that he is armed with a pistol and perhaps other weapons. It is believed that he is hiding in the woods somewhere in the vicinity of the old battle-ground near Lackawaxen.”

There were numerous other locals who reported seeing Brooks, including N.B. Johnston of Barryville, who did not immediately recognize the man, but claimed in retrospect that it was unmistakably Brooks.

Brooks had still not been recaptured when the Evening Gazette reported in its June 29, 1869 edition that his erstwhile partner, Orme, had attempted to escape, but had been recaptured. Orme, the paper noted, was feigning insanity while in prison.

Nearly a year later, on May 12, 1870, the Evening Gazette reported that a man believed to be Brooks had been seen on a train in Newark, New jersey and was believed headed toward New York City, where authorities were on the lookout for him. And on September 8, 1870, the paper reported that a man thought to be Brooks had been arrested in Hancock and sent to Port Jervis, where he was subsequently released.

“Owing to his having two sound hands, whereas Brooks is minus a finger, it was impossible to identify him as the murderer and he was left to go on his way.”

Residents along the Delaware River remained on edge as sightings continued for the next several months, and it wasn't until October of 1871, when William Brooks was arrested near Newburgh and positively identified, that life returned to normal.

John Conway is the Sullivan County historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com and ask how to purchase his new book, “In Further Retrospect.”

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