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The Slaying of Sylvester Carr

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 10/4/19

It was Saturday night, the third of October in 1874, and the hamlet of Purvis was in a festive mood.

Sylvester Carr, a popular local bartender was getting married the next day and his many …

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The Slaying of Sylvester Carr


It was Saturday night, the third of October in 1874, and the hamlet of Purvis was in a festive mood.

Sylvester Carr, a popular local bartender was getting married the next day and his many friends were celebrating at the saloon attached to the Purvis Hotel. Carr was a big, boisterous man, who had enlisted in the 56thRegiment in the early years of the Civil War, a fact of which he was so proud he was commonly known simply as “Vet” Carr. He rarely spoke of the fact that he had in fact deserted his company and never saw action. This circumstance notwithstanding, he was well-liked around town, and because of his impending nuptials the saloon was extra busy that night.

One of the revelers was a local laborer named Mark Brown (sometimes reported as Matt or Martin Brown), a native of England, who had come to the area a few years before to work in the timber industry. He was an industrious worker when sober, which was hardly ever, and nasty and quarrelsome when drunk, which was often. He lived with his wife and three year old child not far from the hotel in Purvis.

On this particular night, Brown was on a spree, having spent most of the day in the bar, drinking and running up a substantial tab. Finally, about eight o'clock in the evening, Carr, the bartender, decided that Brown had had enough. Carr refused the Englishman another drink, at least until he had paid his bill. Brown argued, and threatened the bartender. Carr finally grabbed Brown, wrestled him to the floor, choked him, and threw him out into the street. But the evening was still young.

About an hour later, an enraged Brown returned, and although it is not clear whether he re-entered the tavern or in some way encouraged Carr to join him in the street, he drew a pistol, and before anyone realized what was happening, fired one shot into the bartender's head, killing him instantly. Brown was immediately subdued, and held for the authorities. Sullivan County Sheriff Ben Winner was notified, and he arrested Brown, transported him to Monticello, and lodged him in the County Jail.

As the month of October drew to a close, a grand jury was convened, with Albert M. Fulton, a prominent Monticello businessman, as foreman. District Attorney Alpheus Potts presented the facts of the case, and Brown was indicted on a first degree murder charge. Monticello lawyer Arthur C. Butts, the county's most respected criminal defense attorney at the time, represented Brown at the October term of Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. A trial date was set for the following June.

By all accounts, Butts, who also served as Special County Judge and Surrogate during a distinguished career, waged a masterful defense.

The Republican Watchman newspaper called his final summation “an able, eloquent, and highly credible effort” that “merited the high compliment it received from the presiding Judge.”

“It was one of the most brilliant battles of the seventies,” recalled Edward F. Curley in his book, “Old Monticello.” There was no argument that Brown had fired the shot that killed Carr; Butts instead attempted to prove advanced insanity. Newly elected district attorney John F. Anderson, assisted in the prosecution by Benjamin Reynolds, was able to convince the jury that Brown was fully aware of his actions at the time of the shooting, and a guilty verdict was announced by foreman James L. Jordan, a Monticello farmer. Judge A.M. Osborn sentenced Brown to be hanged in the court house or court yard on the 9th of July “between the hours of 10 and 2 o'clock.”

Butts unsuccessfully appealed the sentence, and eventually went to Albany to seek a reprieve from Governor Tilden, but to no avail.

“This news was carried to the prisoner Thursday night,” the New York Times reported. “Having felt no hope of a different result, he received it unmoved.”

As the date for his execution drew nearer, Brown, who had been counseled throughout his stay in jail by the various members of Monticello's clergy, found religion. He denounced liquor as the root cause of his crime, and advocated temperance for all.

“The execution took place in the jail yard at Monticello at 11:30,” the Times reported on July 10, 1875. “Judge Butts remained in the cell with Brown all the previous night. The prisoner smoked several cigars, but did not close his eyes in sleep. He maintained the most complete control over his feelings, showing not the least sign of faltering. He did not lose this remarkable control of himself to the last. On the scaffold, he said that he did not remember the shooting, and hoped to be forgiven for it. His father was a drunkard, he said, and died in an inebriate asylum in England. After the cap was put on his head, he made a brief prayer, and then the drop fell.”

Newspaper accounts reported that Mark Brown lived for some 11 minutes after the drop fell, “and struggled but little.”

Between 35 and 50 people witnessed the hanging, and quite a number of townspeople came by to see the body after it was cut down. They had been alerted to the prisoner's demise by a unique contrivance rigged up by the sheriff. The Times reported that Winner had attached a small rope to the drop weight of the scaffold, connecting it to the clapper of the court house bell.

“When the drop fell, this rope broke, and a solemn toll announced to the people that Mark Brown was dead.”

Brown was buried in the old Monticello cemetery next to the grave of Noah Bigelow, who had been hanged on July 15, 1869.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. E-mail him at jocnway52@hotmail.com.


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