Tenants Harbour, Maine is a quaint little seafaring village along the coast east of Muscongus Bay. But in 1877, it would become the scene of one of New England's most famous and mysterious murders.
In October 1877, Captain Luther Meservey boarded his schooner, the Bickmore, for a four-month long sea voyage. Used to spending long periods alone, his wife settled into her usual routine when her husband was at sea.
On December 22, 1877, Mrs Meservey was seen by several neighbours en route to the post office. A five minute walk from her cottage. When she arrived at the post office she was informed that her neighbour, Mark Wall, had already collected the mail, this was not an unusual occurrence. She was also seen walking back to her cottage but did not stop at her neighbour's to pick up the mail.
The next morning, Mark Wall sent his son around to the Meservey cottage with their mail. When he arrived he noticed that the curtains were drawn. He also received no reply when he knocked on the front door and assumed that she had gone out. In fact none of her neighbours seemed curious about Sarah's mysterious disappearance.
What is surprising in such a small community, no one voiced any concern when Sarah Meservey failed to take part in any of the Christmas activities and her mail was piling up at the post office.
Finally after 38 days Captain Albion Meservey, cousin to Luther Meservey, brought the matter of her absence to the attention of First Selectman Whitney Long. The men went to the Meservey cottage and entered through an unlocked rear window. They noticed at once that something was terribly wrong. The cottage was freezing and had appeared to have been ransacked. As they searched the rooms the whereabouts of Sarah Meservey was quickly solved. When they entered the large bedroom amidst broken furniture and glass they found her body wrapped tightly in a quilt.
They surmised that she had been killed not shortly after returning from the post office since she was still wearing her coat and overshoes. She had been strangled with her white woolen scarf and her arms were tied behind her head with a cord tied in seaman's knots.
The men also discovered several distinct matches - long and slim- in the kitchen and bedrooms. Also in the kitchen, Capt. Albion found a crumpled hand-written note. On one side was written the date , "Monday Eveny 24". And on the other side, " i cam as A Woman She was out and i wait till She Came back not for mony but i kiled her"
On February 16, 1877, Captain Luther Meservey returned home to the news that his wife had been murdered and little progress had been made towards solving the crime.
Three days later, Mrs Levi Hart, whose husband, Capt Nathan Hart, had been helping Sheriff A. T. Low with the investigation, received an anonymous letter dated February 10 and postmarked February 16. The letter had been mailed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sheriff Low deduced that the letter had actually come from Tenants Harbor and that some one had actually managed to route the letter to make it appear it had come from Philadelphia. The letter warned her to tell her husband "to be careful how he conducted things about Tenants Harbor" and went on to warn "tell them it is no use trying to catch this chap for he will not be caught".
After obtaining the letter, Sheriff Low asked four men, including Capt Hart, to submit a handwriting sample. They were asked to write the phrase, "i kiled her".
On March 8, 1877, Captain Nathan Hart was placed under arrest based on the assumption that his handwriting matched that of the murderer. Also in evidence were the distinctive matches found at the Meservey cottage. Matches that only one resident of Tenants Harbor possessed, Nathan Hart.
Leading handwriting expert of the day, Professor Alvin R. Dunton was asked to examine a ship's log book, alleged to belong to the accused, along with the note and letter. He concluded that all three documents had been written by the same hand. It was because of his testimony that the Grand Jury handed down an indictment against Hart for the murder of Sarah Meservey.
Hart went on trial in Rockland, Maine on October 1, 1878. The prosecutor, L. M. Staples claimed he had no alibi for December 22nd when authorities believe the murder actually occurred. He also claimed that since Hart had an ironclad alibi for the 24th he snuck back in the cottage and plated a note with numerous grammatical errors and dated the 24th in order to throw off the police. He produced a witness who claimed that Hart had made improper advances towards Sarah and had been repulsed.
Professor Dunton took the stand and dropped a bombshell. Even though he still claimed that the ship's log, the note from the crime scene and the letter had been written by the same hand, they had not been written by Capt Hart. In fact the ship's log did not even belong to Capt Hart. It belonged to and had been written by Capt Luther Meservey's cousin, Capt Albion Hart. Before presenting his startling discovery in court he had the findings verified by other handwriting experts.
Unfortunately his testimony was negated when Capt Hart took the stand to face his accusers. When he opened his mouth he literally talked himself into a conviction. Not only was he forced to admit that he had no alibi for the 22nd, he went on to testify that he had dreamed that Sarah had been murdered and the conditions of the inside of the cottage.
After only two hours deliberation the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. Hart was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On October 9, 1883, Capt Nathan Hart died after spending five years of his life sentence. His supporters, which included Professor Dunton, swore that an innocent man had been imprisoned and that the police and prosecutor were more interested in obtaining a conviction that finding the true culprit.
To this day no effort has ever been made to prove or disprove his innocence.